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The Hard Way, a rarely seen gem from Ida Lupino
, October 18, 2009
THE HARD WAY (1943) Starring Ida Lupino, Joan Leslie, Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson.
This film starts off almost like a typical "film noir" classic. A despondent, immaculately dressed Lupino is walking by the pier late at night. She removes her expensive white fur coat...lays it gently across one of the pilings...and jumps into the ocean. A homeless man sees her jump and calls the police to try and save her. We then see in flashback..the events that lead to this grim decision.
Lupino plays the worn out wife of a poor blue collar slob, both working themselves slowly to death in a small industrial town with a sky so full of black smoke that you can barely see the sun. Joan Leslie plays Lupinos young sister, just graduated from high school. Lupino is devoted to her sister and tries to steer her clear of all the mistakes that Lupino has already made, trying to make sure she has a better life. Leslie is a perky kid with dreams of being on the stage, a diamond in the rough. One night, while watching a traveling vaudeville show, she happens to meet one of the acts...Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson. Morgan and Carson are a singing/dance act... two guys that don't seem all that talented, but enjoy the life. During their four day stop over, Morgan and Carson happen to see Joan Leslie in a diner, entertaining her friends by mocking Morgan and Carsons act. Both men see that she's talented and Carson and Leslie take a shine to each other. Morgan warns his friend not to get involved with "the locals". But in spite of the warning...Carson falls for Leslie.
Lupino sees an opportunity for Leslie through Carson and encourages a marriage between the two. Soon, Lupino has left her husband and is off with Leslie and the vaudevillians. Before long, Lupino manipulates the two men into adding Leslie into their act. Not long after that, Leslie, with Lupino behind her, starts to become a rising star, leaving Morgan and Carson in their wake. As time goes on, Lupino goes to ever greater lengths, to see her kid sister become an even bigger star. But higher on the ladder she gets, the more burned out and love starved Leslie becomes.
This was a great movie. While it looks as though the film will make Lupino out to be the quintessential "evil" stage mother (or in this case, older sister) the film avoids this obvious cliché, thanks to a wonderful screenplay that leaves plenty of wiggle room for Lupino to give her character some nuance. She is so incredibly good in the role that she rises above such pigeonholing. There is no doubt that Lupino does live vicariously through her sister. However, she is also very loving, devoted and protective of her. What could have ended up as one dimensional, evil manipulation by Lupino, actually comes off as Lupino simply being a very smart, savvy and a very ambitious woman. This gives Lupino even greater complexity as she weighs the right and wrong of her actions (and there is some wrong, no doubt) against what she thinks is best for her sister. When we finally see the inevitable confrontation between Lupino and Leslie, neither comes away without stain even though the film forces Lupino to bare the brunt. Even the victims of Lupinos manipulations seem hypocritical when Lupino confronts them with their own imperfections. Having watched a lot of Lupino films recently, both obscure and the more well known, I have to say that, in my opinion..this is her greatest role.
Yes...even better than High Sierra.
She is more complex, more subtle, more polished, more real than I have ever seen her before. It amazes me that she didn't even get an oscar nomination for this. Everyone turns in solid performances, including Joan Leslie whom I always thought rather limited and certainly didn't think she could pull off a role like this. The film is also visually stunning, beautifully shot by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe.
The story is also interesting in that it is loosely based on the life of Ginger Rogers, her first husband and Gingers mother. Even though the Hollywood community of the day knew it was based on "someone in Hollywood", it didn't come out until years later when director Vincent Sherman spilled the beans (one has to wonder if Rogers knew who it was about, as she was offered the Leslie role and turned it down) While not a musical per se, there is plenty of great music in this from Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer. Not just a great Lupino film, but a great film period. I highly recommend it to all.
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