Close, but no big star. That’s what I’ve always felt when I come across Hollywood actor George Brent, the kind of actor I happen upon merely because he happens to be in something or opposite someone I care to see. Capable, certainly. Likable, perhaps; but Brent is lacking in the charisma, the je ne sais quoi that turns mere mortals into icons. There he was again, last night, at the close of a particularly quiet day (another one without telephone or internet here at our cottage). His dashing entrance notwithstanding (a rescuer on skis), I cannot say that I watched him. I sort of look past him, usually at the women with whom he had the fortune to be paired.
In My Reputation (1943; released in 1946), the woman in question is Barbara Stanwyck. Now, there’s a gal I don’t usually overlook; and in My Reputation she is particularly lovely. Perhaps, a little too lovely to be the questionable woman the title suggests her to be. I was reminded of Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?, a novel that tends to make readers go “What’s to forgive?” After all, Stanwyck’s character is a widow, not a bigamist. I don’t suppose the Shakespearean Instruct My Sorrows, the title of the novel on which this romance is based, sounded enticing enough.
What saves My Reputation are those minor players that make a major impression in the few minutes they are allotted on the screen; they are supporting in the truest sense of the word. There’s Eve Arden, for instance, in the kind of role she filled in Mildred Pierce; her confidence and wit are always welcome. She often seems to be on her way to a party of her own and you wish she could have handed you an invitation; instead, she picks up her gift and dashes off. Cecil Cunningham walks on memorably, and Esther Dale is comfortingly efficient as the maid. And then there is Lucile Watson.
What a woman! In her expressions of disdain and her haughty delivery, Canadian-born Watson (1879-1962) bears a strong resemblance to Patricia Routledge, best known to television viewers as Hyacinth Bucket (of Keeping Up Appearances). And yet, as Stanwyck’s mother she remains formidable both in her dignity and her indignity, rather than appearing ludicrous in her pretensions. Just look how she rebuffs the impertinent Brent, how she makes Stanwyck squirm in the above scene. It isn’t her stare alone that compels you to take notice. Hers is a voice made for lectures on etiquette and the uses of conventions. A voice that insists on being heard and heeded. A voice for radio.
Unfortunately, radio adaptations of Hollywood films like My Reputation had no use for supporting players, most of whom were replaced by repertoire players like Janet Scott, who was heard in Watson’s part in this Lux Radio Theater production from 21 April 1947. Even when, in this Screen Guild production of Watch on the Rhine (10 January 1944), Watson was given a rare chance to share the microphone with the film’s stars, Bette Davis and Paul Lukas, the script was so severely condensed that her supporting role was reduced to a mere walk-on.
Far more interesting are Watson’s personal recollections in this tribute to Ethel Barrymore on Biography in Sound; having played opposite and observed Barrymore on the stage, Watson remarked that she “learned an important lesson in acting”:
When thousands came nightly to be thrilled by her magnetic voice, I was watching something else: the way she listened to the speeches of her fellow players. And I thank her now for any knowledge I have of what is perhaps the highest art of an actor: the art of beautiful listening.
My Reputation makes plain just how well Watson had learned this lesson; at the same time, the supporting actress claims the center of the stage, defying us to ignore her. More than the leading lady herself, Watson, as Mrs. Kimball, makes you understand Stanwyck’s character: a repressed woman struggling to let go; not to let herself go, exactly, but to let go of the past when forced to confront an uncertain future after the death of her husband. It is Watson’s performance that explains the pressures and strictures this blameless woman has always been up against. After all, Mrs. Kimball does not simply try to save her daughter’s reputation—she defined it.