Warner Bros. publicity once declared “of all the dramatic triumphs…this one is the greatest!” Hyperbole aside, Curtis Bernhardt’s My Reputation (1946) remains an elegant melodrama immeasurably aided by James Wong Howe’s lush cinematography and a stellar central performance from Barbara Stanwyck. In retrospect, the premise has slightly dated. But the acting throughout is so good, the situations realized with a lyrical ambiance in this stylization of Clare Jayne’s 1942 novel, Instruct My Sorrows – a decidedly soppy romance reconstituted by screenwriter, Catherine Tunney into an even more syrupy women’s picture – so ripe with conviction, that for the most part the story rises above its rank sentiment to become an engaging three hanky potboiler.
Personally, I’ve always had an affinity for the classic ‘women’s picture’, although I’ve also never quite understood why they should be labeled as such. True enough, the stories depicted are about women, arguably geared to satisfy the taste of the average female moviegoer with a decidedly feminine perspective. But men – including yours truly – continue to enjoy these movies as well, if for other reasons – chiefly for their strong female leads and the dramatic sumptuousness in their visuals (that can make even a super market or suburban front lawn appear as the height of chic good taste). Even if men cannot see themselves as the protagonist then they can nevertheless empathize with the characters as written, perhaps drawing out character traits found in their own mother’s, sisters, spouses and/or mates. In short, the ‘women’s picture’ has something for everyone.
My Reputation is blessed in its casting of Barbara Stanwyck, the hardworking, perennially sought after consummate professional, always capable of inhabiting her characters with a staunch sincerity, clear-eyed wit and tender heart. Watching Stanwyck perform, whatever her material, one gets the intangible sensation that something deeper, more complex, is going on behind the eyes, perhaps within Stanwyck’s own psyche, drawing on its inner thoughts and perhaps even demons to present the audience with so much more than just dialogue as written. Throughout her career, Stanwyck was to play many a virtuous and/or déclassé madam, matriarch and femme fatale, but always with some endlessly fascinating subtext. In My Reputation she is virtuous - mostly - and troubled – occasionally, a contradiction in pent up emotions, straddling the chasm between widow/mother and lover reborn, despite the looming small mindedness of her gossip driven contemporaries. Stanwyck’s performance runs the gamut from fragile sadness to sassy elation and the actress is more than up for the challenge.
At 94 min. screenwriter Catherine Tunney has a lot of ground to cover. But like most Warner product from this vintage her screenplay is a minor miracle of concision, never seeming rushed or lacking for something intelligent to say. The story moves like gangbusters, from Lake Forrest to Lake Tahoe, then Chicago and finally back again – all of it realized on the Warner back lot with romanticized aplomb. Naturally, some of the sets are rehashes from other movies. The façade of the Drummond home is actually the gambling joint in The Big Sleep, as example, while the train depot dates back to Casablanca and Now Voyager. And there are flashes of décor reminiscent from Christmas In Connecticut and Humoresque – both shot around the same time. Still, James Wong Howe’s moody deep focus cinematography makes everything seem fresh and new. Cobbled together from its vast storehouse of goodies to keep their production costs down, the fictional world in My Reputation clings together with a faintly magical, yet forlorn allure.
In its most finite understanding, My Reputation is about ‘reputation’ itself; how it is cultivated, fostered, but can ultimately be dismantled by petty minds eager for something to react to disapprovingly, despite nothing tangible to be disapproved of. The film’s subtext acknowledges the proverbial ‘double standard’ between men and women – the latter held to a more stringent standard of moral integrity. Our heroine, Jessica Drummond is imbued with self-awareness and determination, qualities destined to place her in conflict with this status quo, under chronic myopic scrutiny from even her own ‘traditionalist’ mother and microscopic dissection by her fair-weather friends. For a time Jessica makes a half-hearted attempt to live her life within this narrow framework designed without her own intensions in mind. It is an act of forced contrition, however, stifling at best and crippling to her own moral sensibilities, arguably much finer and more discreetly sincere.
Our story begins in Lake Forrest, a fashionable suburban enclave. It is the day after Paul Drummond’s funeral; a presumably young man cut down in his prime by an untimely – undisclosed – and very long illness. In that ever affluent never-never land by Hollywood’s design to which seemingly all American families of the 1940s used to belonged, we are first introduced to the hired help, particularly the Drummond’s devoted housemaid, Anna (Esther Dale). The mistress/now widow of the house, Jessica (Barbara Stanwyck) awakens to learn that the family’s solicitor, Frank Everett (Warner Anderson) is waiting for her downstairs. After briefly going over the books of Paul’s estate it becomes rather obvious that Frank is carrying a torch for Jess.
Curiously, Frank’s restrained romantic overtures do not incur the ire of Mrs. Mary Kimball (Lucille Watson); Jessica’s stoic mother and model of austere propriety. In fact, Mrs. Kimball is most eager for her daughter to re-establish a stable two parent home life for Paul’s sons, Keith (Bobby Cooper) and Kim (Scotty Beckett). More disparaging to Mrs. Kimball is Jess’s refusal to wear black for an undisclosed period of mourning. She is also unimpressed when Jess allows the boys to attend a ballgame two days after Paul’s funeral. Mrs. Kimball has worn the shroud with pride ever since the death of her husband. But Jess will have none of it – at least for the moment.
Very shortly we are introduced Riette Van Orman (Leona Maricle), presumably a very close friend, but whose own husband, George (Jerome Cowan) is a notorious womanizer about to make his move on Jess. Riette attempts to share some salacious tidbits with Jess about a mutual friend, Phyllis (Marjorie Hoshelle) who - recently divorced – has wasted no time playing the field. The inference is, of course, that Jess will do the same, if only to provide more grist for the gossip mill. But Jess’ is more devoted to Paul’s memory than anyone suspects, even more faithful still to ensuring her boys have a normal, uncomplicated life.
Jess repeatedly sacrifices her own needs. In moments where having her children nearer might have been a greater comfort to her, Jess instead allows them their freedom. After planning a picnic for Kim and Keith the day before they are to head off to school Jess gives in to Riette’s daughter, Gretchen (Ann Todd) who invites both boys to a house party of their peers instead. The children gone, the house empty, Jess succumbs to a crippling bout of anxiety. She is taken to task by some kindly advice from her one true friend, Ginna Abbott (Eve Arden) who encourages Jess to break free from her mother’s stifling control, as well as the insincerity of Riette and her ensemble sycophants.
As it turns out, a getaway to California and later Lake Tahoe with Ginna and her husband Cary (John Ridgley) is just what the doctor ordered. After cracking her ski on the slopes and getting lost in the forest, Jess accidentally meets dashing Maj. Scott Landis (George Brent). Landis is a man of the world, a gentleman with a wayward penchant for beautiful women who is immediately attracted to Jess. Still, he cannot abide her queer sexual frigidity – toying with it in a somewhat condescending fashion while flirtatiously plying his romantic craft into a rather awkward, and marginally screwball, seduction.
Back at Ginna and Cary’s lodge the Major makes his first valiant, if slightly ignoble attempts to get to know Jess better. She spurns his more amorous advances, prompting him to declare, “We’re both adults…well…aren’t you?” Over the course of the next week Landis makes further overtures. Although Jess is undeniably attracted to him, her inner sense of propriety will not allow for anything more than a cordial understanding between them. Returning to Lake Forrest with a renewed outlook on life, Jess once again finds herself slipping into old routines, working for the Red Cross and spending her nights quietly at home with Anna. Thus, when Frank comes to call he finds Jess most receptive and eager to talk with an old friend. A phone call from Ginna at one of the more fashionable nightclubs in Chicago alerts Jess to the fact that Landis is in town. Encouraging Frank to take her to the club, Jess is somewhat disappointed when Landis arrives with another woman on his arm.
Nevertheless, the spark that began between them in Tahoe is rekindled. A few days later Landis telephones, inviting Jess up to his apartment before dinner. Hurrying to their rendezvous, Jess’ joy is intruded upon by busybody Stella Thompson (Cecil Cunningham) who wastes no time spreading rumors about the new man in Jess’ life. These inevitably reach Mrs. Kimball’s ear, incurring her disdain and contempt. Over the Christmas holidays Landis and Jess see quite a lot of each other. Thus, at a New Year’s Eve party at Riette’s house Kim and Keith hear some rather unseemly stories about their mother. The boy’s defend Jess, but when they promptly return home they discover she has already decided to meet Landis in New York before he is shipped off to war. Disillusioned as to where their mother’s loyalties lay the boys run away to Mrs. Kimball’s – forcing Jess to intervene and set the record straight.
She tells them how painful it was to watch their father’s slow decline, reliving the moment when she suspected her entire reason for being had ceased to exist, and how, with Landis’ help she rediscovered a reason to look forward to the promise of a brighter tomorrow. Realizing that just because their mother has found a new love does not mean she has forgotten their late father or, in fact, stopped loving them, Keith and Kim finally come to appreciate the sacrifices Jess has made for them. Taking the boys home, Jess rushes to the station where she has promised to run away with Landis. Instead she explains the reasons why she must remain in Lake Forrest; a confession that only makes Landis realize how much he truly loves her. Making plans to reunite after the war is over, the lovers’ part at the station, their future uncertain, but Jess’ integrity as a mother ensured.
My Reputation is hardly Warner’s finest melodrama. It is, however, very solid second tier, yielding superior craftsmanship in virtually all departments. Stanwyck delivers a finely wrought and very credible performance. The supporting cast is a veritable who’s who of beloved contract players, most of whom are given short shrift in mere cameos subservient to the central narrative. As example, one pines to see more of the tart-mouthed/clear eyed/brass tacks of Eve Arden or even kindhearted/if ever so slightly crotchety homespun ruminations afforded Esther Dale. But no, once these characters are briefly introduced in the film they are just as easily cast aside as the romance between Stanwyck’s reluctant widow and Brent’s wily Major kicks into high gear.
That’s a genuine shame because this celluloid amour between lamb and wolf is not entirely successful or – at times - even convincing. If the film has a flaw it remains the casting of George Brent as the gadabout lady’s man magically transformed into affectionate suitor. Brent, a consummate actor who augmented many a Warner potboiler with impeccable sincerity, is working against type herein. Brent had played the scallywag before – Buck Cantrell opposite Bette Davis’s fiery Julie in Jezebel (1938). But he’s middle-aged here and ever so slightly on the paunchy side – hardly the stud one might suspect of being frequented by many lady friends. The part is really screaming for an Errol Flynn, or Clark Gable – even a James Mason in his prime to be convincing.
Problematic too is the moment when Jess – having had quite enough of Riette and her gossips– decides to crash the New Year’s Eve house party with Landis on her arm. This scene is meant to illustrate that moment of revelation for our protagonist. Jess has finally decided by herself - for herself - that a reputation, even one impugned without cause, is a commodity a woman in love cannot afford. Yet, she makes no such assertion to Landis – the presumed object of her affections, instead using him as a prop to justify their relationship for her motley pack of fair weather friends. Within this confrontation we wait with baited breath for Jess to infer to Riette what a lascivious scamp her own husband is – George having pawed at Jess on a car trip back to Forrest Lake earlier in the film. But this moment never materializes, and in the end an unrepentant Riette seems even less convinced by Jess’ protestations. They become the simpering and frosty words of a martyr rather than the defiant admonishment to give Jess her satisfaction.
But My Reputation still works as melodrama, primarily because most of the performances are just that good. When all else fails – or at least falters - Anton Grot’s art direction and Max Steiner’s lushly sentimental score are beyond reproach and cleverly mask most of the flaws in the story. For these reasons, and many more best left for the viewer to explore, My Reputation remains a sumptuously clever, yet strangely warm-hearted, viewing experience. Hollywood doesn’t make movies like this anymore and it’s easy to see why. The intensity capable of conveying a myriad of human emotions to elevate such narratives beyond mere treacle is simply lacking in today’s roster of female talent. The likes of Barbara Stanwyck were rare – even in her own day. Today, they quite simply do not exist – a sad indictment indeed.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is occasionally impressive. My Reputation’s picture elements infrequently suffer from inconsistencies. Within a single scene it’s possible to view a long shot in perfect register, then a medium shot looking very grainy, followed by a perfectly crisp two shot, then a very soft, faded and blurry close-up and so on. Overall, the B&W image is very clean with minimal age related artifacts to distract. Tonality is gorgeous and contrast bang on. The remastered mono audio sounds great. Extras include a series of short subjects from the same vintage, a cartoon, newsreel and trailers. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)