This is a really nice Barbara Stanwyck sampler with average prints designed for those looking for a bargain. The plus side is that it contains two great films and a very fun murder mystery which balances out the two dramas. "Meet John Doe" and "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" are the meat here, while "Lady of Burlesque" makes for a sweet dessert.
Though it's gotten a bad rap over the years as one of Stanwyck's minor efforts, "Lady of Burlesque" is terrific fun for fans. Based on a story by Gypsy Rose Lee and helmed by William Wellman, the mystery set in the now forgotten world of burlesque is as much fun as sneaking a cookie from grandma's cookie jar. Stanwyck has a ball as the soft-hearted stripper, Dixie Daisy. Wellman teases with the setting but there's more mystery here than skin.
Michael O'Shea as Bitt Brannigan and Iris Adrian as Dixie's pal Gee Gee offer fine support in a mystery which keeps you on your toes. James Gunn's script keeps it moving along at a nice clip and provides some nice banter. The print isn't great but if you just want to see it and aren't too fussy it'll do.
Screenwriter Robert Riskin and director Frank Capra got more serious than usual in the underappreciated "Meet John Doe." Barbara Stanwyck is reporter Ann Mitchell, desperate to keep her job when her paper is gobbled up by D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold). With two young girls and a mother (Spring Byington) to support, she throws a monkey wrench at editor James Gleason by pretending she has received a letter from a "John Doe" who, because of the injustice in the world, the state of civilization, and the downtrodden, plans to kill himself at Christmas.
A groundswell of support for John Doe gets Ann her job back, but now she and boss Connell (Gleason) must find a "John Doe." In walks Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a hungry baseball player with a bad wing. He and his pal, Colonel (Walter Brennan), are just hungry enough to play along. Colonel has reservations from the get-go, however, afraid that Long John will become a helot--a guy with a bank account.
Long John just wants to earn enough to get the arm he injured pitching a 19 inning game fixed by Bonesetter Brown, but his shy affection for Ann keeps him around long enough to make a radio speech Ann culls from words in her father's diary. His speach spreads the John Doe movement all across the country, but the crusty Colonel sees the train wreck coming and takes off.
Clubs start up everywhere, only the "little" people allowed to join. People start treating their neighbors with kindness, showing the spirit of Christmas on a day-to-day basis. D.B. Norton, however, has political aspirations, and sees a way to twist the movement to fit his ambitions. It is Henry Connell who clues in Long John on what is about to happen, letting the air out of his balloon and shattering his smitten image of Ann, with her chestnut hair and great legs. What follows, as the country discovers John Doe was a fake, will lead Long John to a rooftop overlooking the city on a snowy Christmas night.
Stanwyck is wonderful here, as Ann slowly comes to realize she has found a man like her father but may have helped to destroy him. Cooper is memorable as Long John Willoughby, a shy ball player who realizes he has come to stand for more than he ever could have on the pitching mound. Brennan is his usual great character, looking out for Long John as much as he can.
There are some warm and sentimental moments between Cooper's Long John and Stanwyck's Ann mixed in with the social drama, and some charm as well. Cooper's scene with Ann's mom, whose help he needs to ask her daughter to marry him, has a sweetness to it that is long gone from today's films. And the baseball scene in a hotel room, when they play pretend ball, is a classic, as is Capra's film.
"The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" is about as twisted as it gets. It's pouring rain as this dark noir melodrama opens, and after the night is over, it will always be raining for Martha Ivers. Lewis Milestone directed this tale of a life-long guilt that has festered until misplaced suspicion destroys one person and puts another out of her misery. There are good performances from a great cast, none better than Lizabeth Scott's as a girl down on her luck and hoping against the odds for something good to happen. She is the outside element to three lives bound together since childhood by a crime that has haunted two of them into adulthood.
This is a strange noir in many respects, mostly due to Milestone allowing the moviegoer to see the story in chronological order, rather than using flashbacks. It creates sympathy for the twisted Martha Ivers, because we know how one selfish moment of hatred in her youth set her on a coarse she can not change. It has been raining inside her ever since, and it just keeps coming. At the same time, however, we are rooting for the vulnerable Scott, hoping she'll be the victor in a battle she's not sure she can win.
It is nearly two decades later, and the adult Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) has an accident just outside of Iverstown. It brings back memories of when he was a brash kid, and the girl who now controls both Walter (Kirk Douglass) and the town. He meets the lovely Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott) on his first night there and helps her out a bit. She is fresh from jail, and though Sam is a WWII veteran, his past is nothing to sneeze at either. There is something beginning between them but fate may decide Toni's future as a past Sam was no part of intrudes on the present.
Barbara Stanwyck is the adult Martha, married to the weaker of the boys from her youth, Walter. But you can tell she always wished it had been Sam who'd stayed that night so long ago. Even though they think he's there to blackmail them, she can't help but throw herself at him, even though she is too far gone on the inside for anything like real love. She does this right in front of her weak husband Walter, who may be more courageous in the end than Martha. Martha has it over on Walter because he loves her, but he is a constant reminder of the past for her. What they have together is a sick and twisted version of the real thing.
The relationship of Sam and Walter sort of mirrors their childhood but Heflin starts to feel sick about it and begins to like Walter, especially when he finally understands why they are so scared he'll tell something he didn't even know about. It's one thing to kill someone, but quite another to let someone else hang for it. All the while Toni has little moments with Sam, hoping it's enough to make him care, and blow Iverstown forever.
Even at the bitter end, there is that moment when you see in Martha's eyes, ever so briefly, that little girl again, and feel sympathy. Douglass is very good in his first screen role and Stanwyck's portrayel of the sad and sick Martha Ivers can stand proudly with any she played in the 1940's. Though her screen time is less by comparison, it is Scott who steals this film, however, as Toni is easily the most memorable character. Even when she isn't around, we are thinking about her plight, wondering where she's at and what will happen to her.
Heflin is solid as always and this is one of the great neglected noirs of the 1940's. You might want to sandwich the pleasant murder mystery between the two dramas to appreciate just how great Stanwyck was, and not get drama overload. Three terrific performances from Barbara Stanwyck.