Monday, January 25, 2010

Easy to be 'Hard'

In putting together my recent countdown of favorite 1940s actresses, I realized that I needed to familiarize myself with more films of several leading ladies, including Ida Lupino.

So I recently watch 1943's "The Hard Way," a film that won Lupino the New York Film Critics' prize for best actress, although she was passed over for an Oscar nomination. Time has not been kind to this film, although it remains intriguing and Lupino worth seeing.

Lupino plays Helen, who has settled into married life that lacks passion, direction -- and money. She works hard but channels her energies into little sis Katie (Joan Leslie). After her high school graduation, Katie takes in a traveling show featuring Albert (Jack Carson) and Paul (Dennis Morgan). Katie announces her desire to go into show business, and a charmed Albert believes the untrained girl can do it.

Helen suspiciously considers the second-rate talent of Albert and Paul beneath Katie. But Helen realizes that by helping Katie fulfill her dreams, she can find a purpose herself. So she leaves her husband, goes on the road with Albert, Paul and Katie, and begins guiding her sister's career. Even when Albert and Katie marry, Helen sees this as a minor speed bump on their way to fame and fortune.

According to Turner Classic Movies, the inspiration for Helen and Katie are real-life mother and daughter Lela and Ginger Rogers. Lupino (above left with Leslie), at this time a contract player at Warner Brothers, took the role after Bette Davis turned it down. In fact, Lupino reportedly called herself a "poor man's Bette Davis."

I think she's selling herself short. Unfortunately, "The Hard Way's" script doesn't do her any favors. Or perhaps times have changed so much that Helen doesn't seem so harsh, considering how much power women now have when compared to the 1940s. This type of ambition is more acceptable today. Or, in comparison to such stage/screen mothers like Mama Rose in "Gypsy," Helen may not be all that bad.

The film is hurt by having most of Helen's nasty work occur off-screen. People constantly talk about what she did, but the audience doesn't see all that much of it. We catch glimpses here and there. One of the best scenes is between Helen and Lily Emery (a wonderful Gladys George in this small role). Lily is a drunk, past-her-prime stage diva, and Helen manages to convince a boozing, unaware Lily to leaving her current production, thus paving the way for Katie's big break. Outside of rare scenes like this, when Helen negotiates a tough deal for Katie or tries to get younger sis to act more responsibly, it comes off more as Helen being tough and responsible rather than a monster.

I also didn't like the ending -- and I rarely discuss in detail endings. Let's just say the story is framed by Helen being found in the river and carted off to a hospital, where she tells her story in flashback. It's a clunky device here and doesn't work. One other minor point: There are times when Lupino is decked out as Helen. It plays into Helen living through her sister, and yet Lupino is too lovely -- the old-school Hollywood glamour should be almost garish, over the top, or darker for Helen rather than having her look like she stepped into another story altogether.

OK, I'll stop complaining. I did like Lupino, despite the script's shortcomings, as a fiery, unforgiving Helen. Leslie works best in the first half of the film, giving Katie a vivaciousness that works. Unfortunately, in the second half, Leslie can't quite carry off her character's change and darker moments.

Two of the best parts of the film are Carson and Morgan. I'm used to seeing Carson as the wiseguy and Morgan as the good guy, and here it's reversed. Carson is a wide-eyed dreamer who can't see what's going on while cynical Morgan catches on to Lupino right away. The two character actors are great together.

"The Hard Way" entertains but doesn't have the impact it once had. Still, Lupino makes it look easy. I'm looking forward to watching more of her films, hopeful that better scripts will allow her to shine even more.

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