Monday, December 29, 2008

The Woman in Red (Warners, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was one I hurriedly dug out of the backlog: The Woman in Red, a Warners (in “First National” drag) melodrama from 1935 directed by Robert Florey (a more interesting “name” than one usually got with these things, though only an occasional oblique angle gave away that this was something more than the typical competent Warners’ hack) starring Barbara Stanwyck as a woman named Shelby Barrett, who tours the country riding in horse shows for pay. She meets up with Gene Raymond as Johnny Wyatt, a poor relation to a wealthy and influential upstate New York family who also tours the country riding in horse shows, though he does it without being paid just for the exposure and free housing and food.

The two fall in love and thereby run afoul of Nicko Nicholas (Genevieve Tobin in one of her usual bitch roles) — yes, that’s right; not only is there a woman named “Shelby” in this film, there’s also a woman named “Nicko” — in any case, Nicko has relationships with both the lovebirds, given that she was Wyatt’s lover before Shelby came into his life and she’s also Shelby’s employer. So she fires both of them and, with Wyatt’s family unwilling to help, they’re reduced to opening a small corner of the Wyatt estate as a boarding and training stable for the Wyatt family neighbors who need some place to leave their horses when they take the months-long vacations typical of movie rich people.

To get working capital to fix up the stable and open it, Shelby — without consulting her husband — contacts another suitor, Eugene Fairchild (John Eldredge) — an ex-working class parvenu who’s trying, now that he has money, to buy his way into the circle of snobby rich people represented by the Wyatts and their class. Eugene gives her a loan of $9,000 to open the stable and he talks her into taking a cruise on his yacht, where catastrophe strikes: the only other guests are a straight couple whose female member, Olga (Dorothy Tree), falls overboard in a drunken accident and drowns. Since Olga was also a former flame of Fairchild’s — it’s hard to tell the lovers in this film without a scorecard — he’s assumed to have murdered her, and he goes on trial.

The prosecutor is a lawyer named Foxall, played by none other than Dracula’s nemesis Edward Van Sloan (billed as “Ed” for some reason). Shelby is the mysterious “woman in red” whose testimony could conceivably exonerate Fairchild, but she refuses to come forward because that will ruin her reputation and her chances for business success and personal happiness with her husband. Eventually, though Shelby breaks down (as only Barbara Stanwyck could break down!) and testifies, and though Foxall attempts to impeach her testimony by saying she’s doing it for love of Fairchild, the Wyatts pull together and decide to drop the charges and save the family’s face after Johnny (falsely) says he knew all along Fairchild was loaning money to his and his wife’s business. She walks out of the courtroom sure that she’s lost her husband, but he turns out to be in the car that pulls up for her and at the end they’re proclaiming their love a “closed corporation” (a line Charles particularly liked, as I imagined he would when I was cueing this disc).

The Woman in Red gives Stanwyck two big emotional scenes, both towards the end; otherwise her flame is at a low simmer, but she’s still the only reason to bother with this film; based on a 1932 novel called North Shore by Wallace Irwin, it’s a pretty typical Depression-era you-may-think-the-rich-have-it-better-than-you-but-they-really-don’t effort and only the sincerity of Stanwyck and Raymond in the leads makes it work.