Friday, June 21, 2013

Ever in My Heart (Warner Bros., 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was one I had recorded recently off TCM as part of a run of “B” movies but one that proved unexpectedly interesting: Ever in My Heart, a 1933 Warner Bros. vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck with surprisingly sensitive and atmospheric direction by the usually hacky Archie Mayo and a marvelous script by Bertram Millhauser and Beulah Marie Dix. (Millhauser is the writer Sherlock Holmes buffs love to hate — he wrote most of the Universal Holmes films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce and was largely responsible for the campy treatment of Bruce’s Dr. Watson and the anti-canonical overplotting of the later films in the series — but he’s in excellent form here.) The story opens in 1909 (note that date!) in Archerville, a smallish town dominated by the Archer family — we get an opening shot of a war memorial listing the Archervillians who gave their lives in the service of the U.S. and most of the people listed are named Archer — and we meet Mary Archer (Barbara Stanwyck) along with her grandmother (Laura Hope Crews), her brother Sam (Frank Albertson) and quite a few Archer relatives who all live in the big Archer mansion. They’re anxiously awaiting the return of Mary’s second cousin, Jeff Archer (Ralph Bellamy), whom Mary dated and was planning to marry before he went off for several years to live and study in Germany. Jeff indeed arrives, but he brings with him a German friend, Hugo Wilbrandt (Otto Kruger, surprisingly good-looking and restrained in his acting style, and fully credible as a romantic lead instead of the villain he usually played later).

Mary and Hugo instantly fall in love with each other — he courts her by playing a German song on the Archers’ family piano and singing it (in a quite credible though strictly amateur voice), and teaches her the words (which give the film its title) — and she marries Hugo instead of Jeff, much to her family’s consternation. For the next five years things seem to go swimmingly for the Wilbrandts — they have a son, Tommy (Ronnie Crosby), and get a dachshund dog; they also settle in the college town of Rossmore and Hugo gets a job as a college professor and becomes a naturalized U.S. citizen — until World War I breaks out. Even before the U.S. formally enters the war, a wave of anti-German propaganda sweeps the American newspapers and the Wilbrandts find themselves ostracized. Hugo is fired from their professorship, their son Tommy dies, and in an especially cruel plot twist a gang of the local kids beats up the family dog because it’s a German breed, and Hugo has to take out a gun and shoot the poor animal to put it out of its misery. When Mary asks why her husband didn’t report this to the police, Hugo says that not only wouldn’t they believe him, but as a German carrying a gun he’d probably have been arrested himself. After the U.S.S. Lusitania is sunk Mary finds herself rejected even by her own family — her brother angrily tells her his best friend was killed on the Lusitania — and though Mary arranges for them to move to Archerville where her family will arrange a job for him, Hugo angrily rejects the condition attached that he change his name to something Anglo-sounding.

Instead, Hugo leaves Mary and leaves behind a letter which ends with the statement that he’s going to go to Europe and “fight for my country.” Jeff, Mary’s second cousin and the person she was expected to marry all along, volunteers for the Army, and Mary herself signs up for the WAC’s or whatever it was called in World War I, arranging to be stationed in the same camp as he, where she runs the canteen. Two older women come to be volunteers and, convinced by the hysterical propaganda that if the Germans capture them they’ll suffer the “fate worse than death,” they bring along a gun and two poison pills just in case. Mary relieves them of these items because the regulations are that women volunteers are not supposed to carry anything lethal. Then Mary learns from Jeff that there’s a spy in the American ranks who’s already found out details of upcoming troop movements and, if he’s not caught, will relay this information to the Germans. Mary spots Hugo in a U.S. uniform in the ranks and is torn between still loving him and deducing that he’s the German spy. She arranges for them to spend one last night together — and, this being a so-called “pre-Code” movie, there’s no doubt that they actually have sex — and that night, as he waits for dawn when he’s supposed to go to the German lines and give his report, instead of getting out the confiscated gun and shooting him with it (which is what both Charles and I were expecting), she gets out the poison pills, puts one in each wine glass as she pours for both of them, and commits joint murder-suicide in an amazingly powerful ending that no doubt consciously evokes Romeo and Juliet — only instead of two feuding families, Hugo and Mary have been separated and ultimately forced to die by two feuding countries.

Ever in My Heart is a quite remarkable movie — and not just because Barbara Stanwyck, who I have become convinced over the years is the greatest film actor of either (or any) gender and any era, is the star; and not just because she is superb in this film, understating scenes just about anyone else at the time would have used as excuses to chew the scenery and at the same time coming through when she needs to for the genuinely big moments. Its conflicts between love and family, love and social position, and love and country, ring true even today — indeed, one could readily imagine a modern-day remake in which the heroine’s husband is an Iraqi-American, they marry in the mid-1990’s and 9/11 serves the plot function of the Lusitania sinking, as the ostracism, vicious social prejudice and insane government discrimination against Arab-American and Muslim-American men (remember the so-called “special registration” program, instituted just three months after 9/11, when all documented male U.S. immigrants from a list of 31 countries, all but one of which — North Korea — were either Arab or majority Muslim, were forced to turn themselves in for special government scrutiny, indicating that though it didn’t turn into a prelude to internment the mentality that had led to the internment of German-Americans in World War I and Japanese-Americans in World War II was alive and well) slowly radicalizes him and leads him to go to Iraq to fight for the Resistance.

Within the framework of a standard-issue tearjerker Ever in My Heart makes some quite stinging social comments about prejudice and the way war heightens the fear of the “Other,” whoever the “enemy” de jour happens to be; also about scapegoating and how easily otherwise decent people succumb to it and break up family connections and long-standing friendships because the person they’ve lived alongside of, broken bread with and even shared a bed with is now part of an “enemy” they’ve been told to fear and hate. It’s a story premise so powerful that even people like Bertram Millhauser and Archie Mayo, who usually savored every opportunity the material they were working with gave them for over-the-top melodrama, restrained their usual (bad) instincts and created a film that moves precisely because it’s subtle — indeed, one suspects Millhauser picked the murder-suicide by poison ending instead of having Mary shoot Hugo precisely because it was more subtle and genuinely tragic than the more melodramatic and more superficially “exciting” ending of having the good girl shoot the bad guy. As it stands, we leave this film feeling for two people literally destroyed by circumstances beyond their control, facing their fates with a kind of awestruck resignation rare in the movies then and even rarer now (indeed, it reminded me of the similarly intense joint suicide of the characters at the end of William Dieterle’s 1928 German silent Sex in Chains). Ever in My Heart is a film that really deserves to be better known, and Stanwyck’s performance is so luminous I suspect (as I have with other movies in which Archie Mayo directed her) Mayo copied Frank Capra’s trick of working with Stanwyck: dispensing with master shots and shooting the all-important star close-ups of her first, thereby capturing her performance of each scene when it was at its freshest and most intense.