10 October 2017

Stanwyck and Morgan Triumph Over Tepid Material in A Lost Lady


Stanwyck as Marian, the Lady of the title

A Lost Lady is an interesting failure, if only because expectations for it were so high. It is based on an award-winning novel by the great American author Willa Cather; some critics even consider it her best. But the very act of transferring the impressionistic book to the screen is problematic. Stripping the novel of its dramatic natural setting, descriptive language, and nuance, and, as a film must, reducing the story to chronological fact, lost much of what made the novel special. The sensitive young man who is in love with the main character, and whose viewpoint defines the novel, is reduced to a very minor role, and his observations go unheard. And while in the book these events took place several decades earlier, the film seems to be set in the 1930's, although there's no awareness of contemporary events or the modern world. The characters are obviously rich, but nobody says anything about it. This leaves the plot floating disconcertingly in time. Perhaps the high expectations were unrealistic in the first place; this kind of writing is practically impossible to turn into a film.
Marian's fiancee is murdered before her eyes

Be that as it may, this movie has value, particularly in two fine lead performances from Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Morgan. Morgan was one of Hollywood's greatest artists; he was an actor of almost incredible versatility, able to give a perfectly judged performance in any genre, from romance to comedy to drama to outright tragedy, suiting his characterization to the tone of the film. Unfortunately, it's all too easy to take him for granted; sometimes it seems like he was everywhere, always. Of course, he is best known as the Wizard of Oz (as well as Professor Marvell, the gatekeeper, the cabbie, and all the other characters he played in that classic). Stanwyck was at the beginning of her great career, and her artistry was compelling in film after film.

In this story, Morgan is Dan Forrester, one of four men who love the heroine, Marian, played by Stanwyck. Though not really right for the part -- for one thing, she's too  young -- she gives a lovely, deeply felt performance, making her character complex, thoughtful, and unflinchingly self-aware.
Dan tries to bring her back to life

The narrative is quite straightforward: a woman, Marian (Barbara Stanwyck), is very much in love with her fiancee (Philip Reed), and is shattered when she finds that he has been having an affair with a married woman at the moment when the betrayed husband shoots and kills him right in front of her. Distraught and embittered, she retreats from everyone, and her family persuades her to visit a Rocky Mountain resort in the hopes of regaining her spirits. She remains despondent, however, until she meets another visitor to the area, Dan Forrester (Morgan), a very successful, middle-aged attorney. Slowly he coaxes her out of her shell, and they become very close. He falls in love with her and asks her to marry him. Morgan shows us that Dan is patient, loving, and deeply kind; he does not idealize Marian, although he really adores her. Telling him frankly that she is not in love with him, and that she feels she will never fall in love again, she accepts.
Happy days for Marian and Dan

They are very happy in a quiet way for a few years, until one day a young man, Frank Ellinger (Ricardo Cortez), has to make an emergency landing in their garden with his private plane. He is instantly attracted to Marian, and to her dismay, she finds herself attracted to him, too. Just at this point Dan has to leave town on a business trip. Marian, half-reluctantly, begins to go out with Frank and falls for him. Frank tries to convince her to leave Dan and go away with him; he has no time for her regrets, saying that their feelings are more important than any other commitments. To him, honesty justifies selfishness; if he wants to do something, he thinks it must be the right thing to do. Unfortunately the part of Frank is seriously underwritten; he seems like a generic dashing stranger, with no particular personality. This is no fault of Ricardo Cortez, who was perfectly capable of nuanced performances; he was given little to work with.
The dashing Frank causes confusion

Marian resolves to be honest with Dan, and tells him how she feels. But the next day he is scheduled to begin a strenuous case in court, and he has a heart attack. After this, Marian is conscience-stricken, and decides to stay with Dan until he recovers. But now Dan is despondent and doesn't respond to her affectionate care. Eventually Marian sees a notice in the newspaper that Frank is marrying another woman. She realizes that Dan is the only one who has been straight with her. She  and Dan reconcile, and she tells him she loves him. (This is not how the book ends, by the way.)
Marian is honest with Dan

This is rather unsatisfying as drama; the story is well-paced, and moves right along, but otherwise the directing is nothing special. The script, beyond a few speeches about honesty in relationships, fails entirely to capture them physical  surroundings, which are so important to the book, are not used with particular effectiveness. In other hands, Marian, with her predilection for handsome, lying weasels, could seem rather silly; but Stanwyck makes her devotion to facing her feelings honestly seem brave rather than self-indulgent. Morgan is the personification of constancy; he loves her however vacillating she seems. Their sensitive and intelligent acting is what makes this film special.