Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990), one of Hollywood’s most respected leading ladies. Known for her snarky and cigarette-filled performances, many of Stanwyck’s Pre-Code films have become notorious for their delightful disinterest in adhering to the provisions of the 1930 Production Code. Surprisingly, we’d only featured one Stanwyck film here before, Night Nurse (1931). So far in this survey of her work, we have covered Ladies Of Leisure (1930), Illicit (1931), Ten Cents A Dance (1931), The Miracle Woman (1931), Forbidden (1932), Shopworn (1932), So Big! (1932), The Purchase Price (1932), The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1933), Ladies They Talk About (1933), and Baby Face (1933). Today…
Ever In My Heart (1933)
During World War I, a woman suspects her husband of being a German spy. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Otto Kruger, Ralph Bellamy, Ruth Donnelly, and Laura Hope Crews. Screenplay by Bertram Milhauser. Story by Beulah Marie Dix and Bertram Milhauser. Directed by Archie Mayo.
“Mary Archer expects to marry her cousin Jeff when he comes home from studying in Europe in 1909, but when she meets his German friend, Hugo Wilbrandt, she falls hopelessly in love. Despite her family’s opposition, the two are married and Hugo takes a position as a college professor. They are extremely happy and grow closer with the birth of a baby boy, after which, Hugo proudly becomes a United States citizen. When the war breaks out, however, Hugo is snubbed by the community and dismissed from his position because of anti-German sentiment. After their child dies, some neighborhood kids stone the boy’s dachshund nearly to death, and Hugo, taking pity on his beloved pet, fires a bullet into the dog. When Mary’s grandmother offers Hugo a job in the family mill if he will change his Germanic name, he refuses, saying he is not ashamed of it.
“After Mary becomes ill, Hugo sends her to live with her family and leaves for Germany, saying he will return. However, Mary later gets a letter in which Hugo writes, “They let me be a citizen, but they won’t let me be an American,” and announces that he is going to fight for his people. Mary divorces Hugo and plans to marry Jeff, who joins the army and is sent to France. Mary follows him and goes to work in a canteen. There, she sees Hugo dressed as an American soldier and learns from Jeff that a German spy is in the area. That night, Hugo meets Mary in her room and she realizes that she is still deeply in love with him. Certain that he is the spy, she must choose between her own feelings and her duty to her country. He spends the night with her, and as dawn breaks, she poisons their wine and they die together.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Although this period Pre-Code (which, because of its setting doesn’t get to be as sexually provocative as we would typically anticipate) is nothing more than a weepy soaper, it also stands as a fascinating work of history. Set mostly in America during the early days of WWI, the film contends with the unspoken anti-German sentiments that quickly swept through the country, which, for the most part, sided with the Allied forces. There’s a lot of great drama wrung from this beat, including a nasty scene in which neighborhood kids stone the principal couple’s deceased son’s dog and leave it for dead. But I find the picture more intriguing when put in the context of when it was made. While Hollywood (and most of America) began to realize the horrific folly of the Great War, the slant that the film takes — in which the Germans are victim to undeserved evil — sheds light onto the public’s collective relations with the German people, who were about to experience the rise of Nazism. Obviously in less than a decade after 1933, a picture like this could never have been produced. Thus, although set in the ’10s, it’s undoubtedly a ’30s picture.
The soapier elements of the story become more prominent in the last half, when our heroine’s German American husband decides to join Germany’s cause (which eliminates our sympathy for him because of his turn on Stanwyck, and rejects the theme with which it seems poised to explore), and she decides to divorce him and go off with Jeff, who’s fighting for the Americans in French. No brilliant performance by Stanwyck — and her turn here illustrates a depth of emotional feeling heretofore unseen — can bring real merit from the histrionic hijinks with which the story is determined to proceed. Thus, the picture ends up being worth far less than the sum of its thought-provoking and otherwise well-executed parts. But it’s far from your typical Stanwyck Pre-Code, so I recommend it to film scholars (particularly those who situate cinema in the context of history) and my fellow Stanwyck worshippers.
Come back next Friday for another Stanwyck Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment!