Fashion aside, Hollywood movies from the 1930s often feel more modern than those from the ’40s and ’50s, because they depict a world that doesn’t seem that far removed from our own, at least in terms of what people talk about and the way they talk about it. Barbara Stanwyck was especially good at playing people who could travel through time and fit right in, thanks to a wit and worldliness that made her characters come off like flesh-and-blood folks, not types. In the 1937 medical melodrama Internes Can’t Take Money—the first film in the Dr. Kildare series—Stanwyck plays a destitute woman scouring the underworld to find her missing daughter, while Joel McCrea plays a doctor-in-training who takes an interest in her crisis. Unlike later Kildare films, Internes mainly focuses on Stanwyck, and no wonder: While everyone else in the movie is tossing around large stacks of cash as though their value is strictly theoretical, Stanwyck swallows her pride and shoots looks at people to let them know that her whole life could be transformed if only some of that money landed in her purse. She plays the real need beneath the dramatic contrivance—and that need isn’t tied to any particular decade.
Internes Can’t Take Money is the only ’30s movie among the six in the Barbara Stanwyck Collection DVD box set, though she carries the era’s relatability with her in the years that follow. In the underrated 1942 history-play The Great Man’s Lady (directed by William Wellman, one of Stanwyck’s most sympathetic collaborators), she plays a pioneer woman who facilitates the political career of arrogant boob Joel McCrea over the course of half a century, because she believes in his causes even more than he does. In the daffy 1946 slapstick comedy The Bride Wore Boots, Stanwyck plays a horse-crazy blue-blood trying to win a war of wills with her equine-averse academic husband Robert Cummings. And in the hyperbolic drama The Lady Gambles, Stanwyck gets hooked on gambling when she visits Las Vegas with husband Robert Preston. The Great Man’s Lady is the Stanwyck movie from this era most ripe for rediscovery; its inventive lighting effects, tragicomic tone, and sly cynicism about the foundations of history recall Citizen Kane, albeit on a far more modest scale. Both The Bride Wore Boots and The Lady Gambles are too corny by half—though the latter has high camp appeal as it warns about the seductive lure of the casino—but Stanwyck finds moments to let in a little naturalism, whether she’s flopping around on the floor with her kids in the former or coming up with lies so convincing that she herself believes them in the latter.
The Barbara Stanwyck Collection also contains the two movies Stanwyck made with ’50s melodrama-master Douglas Sirk: 1953’s All I Desire, in which she plays an early-20th-century burlesque performer who causes a stir when she returns to her hometown, and 1956’s There’s Always Tomorrow, in which she plays a spinster fashion designer who flirts with her married ex-boss Fred MacMurray. Sirk was just coming into his own around the time of All I Desire, and though the story is ostensibly about how Stanwyck’s children learn that their mother isn’t the absent saint they’ve built her up to be, it’s also about the hypocrisy of small towns, and how they can force well-meaning people into scandalous behavior. Sirk was in more overt indictment mode by the time he got to There’s Always Tomorrow, to the extent that the movie gets awfully heavy-handed in blasting the way MacMurray’s family refuses to let him have a moment of joy or pleasure all his own. But Sirk sneaks in a more stinging bit of social comment via Stanwyck, by showing how even her kindly temptress bosses MacMurray around just as much as any of the other women in his life. It’s a perfect role for Stanwyck, one of the rare leading ladies from Hollywood’s golden age who could make a big show of standing by her man while hissing “You idiot!” under her breath.
Key features: None. (Also, There’s Always Tomorrow is a fuzzy full-screen transfer of a widescreen film, which is still watchable, but far from ideal.)
Grades: Internes Can’t Take Money: B+; The Great Man’s Lady: A-; The Bride Wore Boots: C-; The Lady Gambles: C+; All I Desire: A-; There’s Always Tomorrow: A-