THE HARD WAY (Vincent Sherman, 1942)

Hollywood has always found Hollywood a fascinating subject, but the possibility of scandal, even lawsuits (as unlikely as these were in studio days), have sometimes made it necessary to treat its home stories at a remove, or at a number of removes. When this occurred, Hollywood found itself in a funny bind, because at the same time it was proprietarily covering its backside, it still wanted audiences to know what it was out and about doing. It’s patently clear, for instance, that The Star (Stuart Heisler, 1952), starring Bette Davis in a ferocious performance, is really about her contemporary, Joan Crawford, but Crawford disguised as a has-been, which in fact Crawford had been a couple of times, though in reality not on this occasion (that year, both Davis, for this film, and Crawford, for Sudden Fear, were nominated for Oscars). How do we know then that the film is meant to be about Crawford? Davis’s “acting” amounts to a shameless impersonation of Crawford, whose surrogate, Margaret Hayes, intones to her daughter, played by Natalie Wood, “Once you’re a star you don’t stop being a star”—the Crawfordian credo. Indeed, Davis took the part only because she hated Joan Crawford, who represented to her “Hollywood glamorpuss” instead of “serious actress,” and with whose onetime spouse, Franchot Tone, during the marriage and her own in the mid-1930s she had had an affair. (Despite her myriad objections to Hollywood, it’s Hollywood-logic that made Davis hate Crawford for being married to the husband she herself wanted.) In any case, her appetite for skewering Crawford by way of The Star, which financially flopped, cost her dearly, because to take up this vengeful (but peripherally worthwhile) project she turned down the rich role of Alma in Come Back, Little Sheba—her worst career move, she would later call it. As for Crawford, any response from her means she would have had to admit, to herself and others, that the vain, sexually exaggerated, washed-out actress that Davis beautifully (and very humanely) plays in any way resembled her. Moreover, she was used to looking the other way, since her directors, such as Vincent Sherman with Harriet Craig (1950), often slipped details from Crawford’s own life and behavior into her films. Footnote: Sherman, while married, had affairs with both Davis and Crawford (and Rita Hayworth, too, I might add).

A decade earlier, Sherman directed The Hard Way, a divertingly disguised rendering of a famous Hollywood “couple,” stage-mother Lela Rogers and daughter Ginger. The film is at simultaneous pains to let you know who it’s really about and to “hide” the fact to avoid controversy. One can only imagine what the team, on the verge of divorce ever since Ginger Rogers had won the best actress Oscar the year before (for Kitty Foyle), thought of this pilfering of their family dynamic. After her daughter’s brush-off, though, Lela eventually occupied herself with hunting down communists in Hollywood, thus (along with Adolphe Menjou) creating the atmospherics that in time led studios to launch the Hollywood blacklist, and inspiring her daughter to “turn in” Dalton Trumbo, who had written the film that won her the Oscar. Some forty years later, Rogers sued Federico Fellini over the title of his film Ginger and Fred (1985); the settlement bankrupt him. But The Hard Way proved devious; it hid well everything it also revealed to establish the “real” identities of its two lead female characters. For one thing, mother and daughter Rogers appear in the film as older and younger sister. Also, they have been shifted from the southern United States to the industrial northeast. Their sights are not on Hollywood but on Broadway (where Rogers stopped long enough for Girl Crazy, in 1930, en route to Warner Bros., the studio now producing The Hard Way). (And the title of the girl’s first stage hit in the film? Boy Crazy.) At the same time, the younger sister’s name is Katherine—as was Ginger’s: Virginia Katherine McMath. Katherine sings, dances and acts, all the while relentlessly encouraged and pushed ahead by her ambitious, motherly big sister. The film even makes two outright references to Ginger Rogers, thus finding a way to hint the connection to audiences while denying the connection by saying that the girl is like Ginger Rogers, hence, not Ginger Rogers. After Katherine does an impromptu song-and-dance in a joint, a traveling vaudevillian, who will end up marrying her, says to his partner, “Doesn’t she remind you of Ginger Rogers?” Well, no, actually, because the girl doesn’t dance or sing nearly as well as Ginger; but we get the biographical message. We’re savvy.

The Hard Way is Sherman’s best film, a gritty little black-and-white nugget of coal that begins in Green Hill, Pennsylvania—Pittsburgh rechristened. (Apparently the studio worried that the city might also sue.) The excellent script—signed by Daniel Fuchs and Peter Viertel once, unhappy with the direction in which they had taken it, Irwin Shaw had had his name removed from the credits—structures the narrative as the post-suicidal recollection of Helen Chernen, the Lela Rogers-character, in the final seconds of her life. This extensive flashback, launched by Helen’s voiceover, is thus given illimitable depth; the whole film will transpire in an instant of time, much as does Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet (1930), as indicated by the collapsing of a single building that frames the Cocteau film’s fantastic excursion.

Against powerful images of smoke-belching steel factory towers in a bleak, dingy, quite hopeless industrial environment—the cinematographer, here at his best, is James Wong Howe—Helen recalls with trenchant bitterness: “Green Hill: There were hills all right, but there was nothing green about it.” The implication is clear: Nothing could grow in this place; she herself wasn’t able to, as her economically determined, joyless marriage to a laborer bears out, and neither would her kid sister be able to. Her life, Helen feels, was already as good as over, but not her Katie’s; her sister’s life is worth sacrificing for. Thus when Runkle and Collins bring their third-rate act—a little singing, a few moves, some comic patter—to Green Hill, and Albert Runkle takes a shine to Katie, Helen grabs at this chance to get out of the town that has become like a dungeon to herself and her sister. Behind Paul Collins’s back, she sees that Katie and Albert marry, she accompanies the act, now including Katie, on the road, and she schemes to split the act to her sister’s advantage. She pushes Katie professionally, to the top, to Broadway stardom, incurring Albert’s pathetic suicide along the way and her own, once an unappreciative Katie negates the value of her sacrifices. After she dies, one cop says to another, noting the expensive dress Helen was wearing when she drowned herself, “That’s the trouble with these society dames: They have it too easy.” The last gasp of this splendid film constitutes perhaps the finest instance of dramatic irony in American movies.

Goodness knows, Lela Rogers never took her own life and was never so heartbreakingly sympathetic as Helen Chernen’s grasping, pushing schemer—a character a lesser artist than Sherman would have made a villain. For Sherman, as he himself has explained, the key to perceiving Helen’s humanity is the spurned love she feels for Paul Collins. Paul despises her for what she does to his partner and their act; his rejection, ironically, only intensifies Helen’s dedication to Katie’s career, which in turn generates greater disasters. Ultimately, the film surveys the wreckage of American working-class dreams.

Ida Lupino’s performance as Helen, for which the New York Film Critics Circle named her 1943’s best actress, is an emotionally spectacular achievement, a bleeding portrait of a determined, pitiable woman who sacrifices more than she possesses to ensure her sister’s (it turns out) empty success—this, the projection of her own emptiness, the option, that is, that America affords her, to “live” through someone else’s accomplishments. Lupino’s realism, certified by a complete lack of makeup in the Green Hill portion, transforms the material. What could have been a dank soap opera achieves a Dreiserian grandeur and particularity of sociopolitical analysis. One can hardly believe that such a film emerged from a major studio during the Second World War. Shaw should not have balked so; but how could he know that the team of Sherman and Lupino would burrow so deep in America’s bag of torn and soiled linen? Surely, whatever the tinkering done to his script, Shaw’s analytical viewpoint has left its impression on the film.

Alas, little of the other acting in the film measures up. Dennis Morgan as Paul, Jack Carson as Albert, and especially Joan Leslie as Katie are all superficial. However, Gladys George is terrific as Lily Emery, whom Helen gets drunk in order to sabotage her comeback audition for the stage role that Katie will get. Briefly, George (playing a character whose weakness for alcohol echoed her own) is as shattering as Lupino is throughout, ironically positing in the scene where Helen is only pretending to be Lily’s friend and champion the extent to which the American drive for success pits against one another people who really ought to be friends and helpmates.

For all its wit and all its Oscars, that’s the humane reflection I find lacking in the Broadway scheming in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), whose value as art and as entertainment owes far more to Bette Davis’s glorious acting than to the film’s allegedly perfect script.

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One thought on “THE HARD WAY (Vincent Sherman, 1942)

  1. Dear Dennis,
    Vincent Sherman is/was my father! Thank you for your insightful and kind-spirited comments about his movie THE HARD WAY. I’ve got a lovely story for you about its re-discovery at the Telluride Festival. If you’d like, I can send you a DVD of Vincent’s telling the story (which I compiled for his tribute at the American Cinematheque). If “yes,” please send me your mailing address.
    Best,
    Eric Sherman

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