Monday, July 26, 2010

The Hard Way (1943): Forgotten Gem

The Hard Way could be a description of actress Ida Lupino’s career. Called by some a “poor man’s Bette Davis (a moniker shared by Susan Hayward), Lupino was a star in her own right, possessing a very distinctive style and consistently giving top notch performances. However, attaining her major success at Warner Brothers in the early and mid 1940’s, she was sometimes required to take some of Davis’ cast off roles, Bette being the queen of the Warner’s lot during this period. One such Davis hand-me-down was the meaty lead character of Helen Chernen in The Hard Way (1943), which Lupino deftly handled. She gave a tour de force portrayal and gained much acclaim including the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress of 1943.

Helen Chernen is a woman living in near poverty in a lifeless, stifling, dirty coal mining town. Trapped in a loveless marriage to boot, her only ray of hope is her teen-aged sister, Katie (Joan Leslie). Helen sees an opportunity for the moderately talented Katie, when the youngster catches the eye of a traveling vaudevillian, Albert Runkel (Jack Carson), who is passing through the shabby little burg with his show biz partner, Paul Collins (Dennis Morgan). The elder sister pushes for their marriage, then slowly integrates Katie into the Runkel/Collins act until bigger fish come along to fry. Katie becomes a huge success leaving the lovelorn Albert behind, but success via her sister Helen, she finds, isn’t so sweet when you go about it the hard way, or should I say the wrong way.

The film, written by famed playwright and author Irving Shaw, is reportedly based loosely on the early life of actress Ginger Rogers, specifically her relationships with her stage mother Lela and her first husband, vaudeville performer Jack Pepper. The movie even makes reference to Rogers by name and when the character of Katie makes big in her first Broadway show, the production is called “Boy Crazy” (as opposed to Ginger’s first successful foray, “Girl Crazy”).

Ida Lupino is superb as Helen. Underrated and often overlooked in the annals of Hollywood history, the actress displays in The Hard Way, as well as other films, an inner toughness and resolve, to get her way, whatever the cost. She is not alone in contributing a fine performance however, with the entire cast turning in solid work. Jack Carson gives perhaps his finest dramatic display as the good hearted but ill-treated Albert. He and Dennis Morgan would co-star in several other Warners features, but none so artistically successful as this. Not to say this is high art. It is basically what was known at the time as a “woman’s picture” with hints of film noir, very similar in many ways to Mildred Pierce, also produced at Warner Brothers two years later. In fact, producer Jerry Wald used the opening sequence of Ida Lupino dressed to the nines and jumping into the bay as the basis for the opening in Pierce.

Aside from Miss Lupino, the two second lady roles went to the afore mentioned Miss Leslie and veteran actress Gladys George, who was a staple at Warners and other studios in bedraggled dame roles or the moll with the heart of gold. Gladys’ characters had lived a lot of life and seen a lot of sadness. Her role here, as a has-been stage actress who drowns her sorrows in a bottle of whatever is at hand, is no different. Joan Leslie is the only proverbial fly in the ointment in The Hard Way. Not that she doesn’t do an adequate job, but one finds it extremely hard to believe that, as Katherine Blaine, she is a great shining beacon on the New York stage. Her Katherine can be downright lackluster at times, especially beside the scenery chewing Lupino! However, with the help of make up guru Perc Westmore and gowns and get-ups by designer Orry-Kelly, she goes from small town gum chewer to sophisticated stage star quite smoothly, and considering her youth (Leslie was only seventeen at the time of filming), she keeps her head above water with the stalwart Warner Brothers stock company. The entire ensemble is really good, but Ida Lupino is the one you can’t take your eyes off, and shouldn’t, as you might find a knife in your back.

Want to know more?
Here are some recommendations regarding the article above:
Ida Lupino: A Biography by William Donati

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  1. Thank you Rupert,

    Ida Lupino was magnificent I agree. I have trouble watching this movie as wonderful and Ms Lupino is I find the sister totally unbelievable and the men rather insipid, but yet I do watch it.

  2. Thank you, Rupert, for profiling this film. I'm a big Ida Lupino fan and though this may not be her best vehicle, I always enjoy her performances.

  3. Love that you profiled this movie and Ida Lupino. She may have gotten "hand-me-down's" but she made the best of them. There's a wonderful vulnerability in Lupino's acting that Bette couldn't convey as convincingly. Plus, Ida later gained a different kind of respect as a director.

  4. Thanks to all your excellent comments on it. I liked your post. Keep posting interesting matters here. Keep up the good work.


  5. I've never seen this one. My favorite Ida Lupino performance was in They Drive by Night. I also really like her in On Dangerous Ground.

  6. This sounds very interesting - I just recently saw Lupino's excellent performance in 'The Light That Failed' and am keen to see more of her work.

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  9. This is a FANTASTIC movie -- and it also has a few of those wonderful montages that Warner Bros did so well at the time. Thanks for shedding a little more light on it.



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