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September 19, 2005

Barbara Stanwyck Double Feature

Lady of Burlesque
Willam A. Wellman - 1943
Roan Group DVD

Forty Guns
Samuel Fuller - 1957
Twentieth Century Fox Region 1 DVD

When I first became aware of Barbara Stanwyck, it was when she was starring in The Big Valley. Eventually I learned that she use to be a movie star, but it wasn't until I started seriously watching films in New York that her name meant anything to me. I had seen her in Meet John Doe on television, but my first favorite film was Bitter Tea of General Yen, from one of William K. Everson's screening from his private stash of 16mm classics. Inspired by fellow blogger, Girish, who posted his discussion about Ms. Stanwyck a few weeks ago, I added a couple of her films to be Netflix list.

Based on Gypsy Rose Lee's ghost-written mystery, Lady of Burlesque is a mildly entertaining look at burlesque performers on and off stage. Considering that the Hays Code was still very much in effect, the film is forced to cheat the audience. Between strippers with way too much clothing and cleaned up comic routines, the police raid that takes place looks totally unnecessary. I realize this is the kind of film that requires a certain type of suspension of disbelief but I have always found the presentation of "adult" venues in so-called family entertainment awkward. Conversely, by the time the film makers could be less coy about burlesque, as in The Night They Raided Minsky's, the Gypsy Rose Lee era of entertainment was killed by the more liberated Hollywood.

Stanwyck portrays the Lee type character, Dixie Daisy, the star of S.B. Foss's burlesque house. Dixie is seen fighting off the advances of comic Biff Brannigan, as well as some of the women who are jealous of Dixie's stardom. We see Stanwyck doing a little bump and grind, as well as show off her legs, but we also see lots of reaction shots from various men. A couple of the strippers are murdered, with garter belts around their necks. The tough talking Stanwyck virtually takes over the investigation. The biggest mystery is that with overdressed strippers and unfunny comics, how Lady of Burlesque was ever popular.

On a personal level, I did enjoy seeing Pinky Lee in the cast. Back when I was very, very young, I would occassionally watch Pinky Lee's Saturday morning children's show on television back in the Fifties. The frenetic Pinky Lee was the prototype for Pee Wee Herman in his dress and mannerisms. He's hardly a laugh riot in Lady of Burlesque, but his presence in the film was cause for a nostalgic smile.

A bigger reason to smile is that Forty Guns is finally on DVD. This is one of those films that absolutely needs to be seen in the wide screen version. Fuller has several shots which were composed using the full parameters of CinemaScope. The beginning of the film shows Stanwyck's "dragoons" riding around both sides of Barry Sullivan's wagon. Another shot is an extreme close-up of Sullivan's eyes. For some reason, Twentieth Century Fox chose to make this a double sided disc with a full screen version on one side. The only reason to bother watching a full screen version of Forty Guns is to show people how much is missing when a film is made taking full advantage of the wide screen.

While I am glad that Fox finally released a U.S. DVD version of Forty Guns, I wish someone had been smart enough to have Fuller do a commentary track. Anyone who has seen Fuller in person, like I have, or read his interviews or his autobiography, knows that he was a great raconteur. One of Fuller's frequent stories was that Marilyn Monroe wanted the part of Jessica Drummond, the "woman with a whip".

It's hard to imagine Monroe speaking with the authority that came easily for Stanwyck. Forty Guns was one of three films Stanwyck made in 1957. At 50 she managed to stretch her career as a romantic lead longer than many of her peers. She did look great in her black shirt and tight black jeans. One can believe Stanwyck leading a personal army and having men humiliate themselves for her. Maybe this is coincidence, but Jessica Drummond is shown living in a very big house, in a very big valley.

The real star of any film by Sam Fuller is always Sam Fuller. His visual audacity is on display with two point of view shots. Fuller has several out of focus shots to convey the blindness of Hank Worden. There is also the famous shot through the rifle barrel when Gene Barry sets his sights on Eve Brent. When Barry is shot on his wedding day, cuts immediately from Brent in wedding white to widow black. While the happy ending was studio mandated, Fuller seems to have filmed his script without much interference. When conversing with Sullivan, Stanwyck asks, "Can I feel it?", and Sullivan replies, "It might go off in your face." This film could well be titled Freudian Guns.

Posted by peter at September 19, 2005 02:15 PM


I'm a huge Fuller nut, and "Forty Guns" is a dear fave of mine. It simply needs to be seen to be believed.
The rifle barrel shot was wonderfully "homaged" by Godard in "Breathless", only it was a rolled-up newspaper (New York Herald Tribune, probably, given Seberg's occupation).

Posted by: girish at September 20, 2005 09:46 AM

Although many Stanwyck officiendos claim that Forty Guns is not worthy of it's star, [frequently comparing it negatively to The Furies] I am a great fan of the film, if only for the memorable opening scene. It's been almost 35 years since I first watched, on a small b&w tv, those 3 men sitting in their wagon in wide-eyed amazed silence as Jessica Drummond's 40 hired guns thundered by. Yet, decades later it remains for me the embodiment of the strength of the characters that Barbara Stanwyck brought to the screen. Great cinema, perhaps not; great cinematography, perhaps it has it's moments; classic tough broad Stanwyck - oh yeah! and that despite the truly pathetic, had-to-end-this-way-to-please-the-censors conclusion.

Posted by: Gwen at November 12, 2005 06:06 PM