The Hard Way, Another Way

Now, what’s wrong with this picture? This is what I thought last night when I screened the Vincent Sherman-directed melodrama The Hard Way (1943). From the title credits, showing those diamonds and pearls, it seemed obvious what it takes to get rich in the fashion suggested by the title. The image is, however, somewhat misleading. While hardly an abject failure, The Hard Way somehow seemed too soft. It is essentially a draft for Mildred Pierce, or might have been.

A woman struggling and scheming behind the scenes so that a younger one may have the new dress, the big break, the easy life—but not the same man—does call Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth to mind; and, indeed, those two would have faired much better in this glossy, showy vehicle than the rather too young Lupino and the too plain Joan Leslie. I kept hoping that, instead of pushing her sister onto the boards, Lupino’s Helen Chernen would finally push her off them and take the lead herself. Who, I ask, would pick Leslie over Lupino, unless, perhaps, for a cow-milking contest?

Nor did I buy Jack Carson (who also co-starred in the aforementioned Mildred Pierce) as a suicide; robust and none too philosophical, his Albert Runkel struck me as too much of a trouper to call it quits in that way. The only player to be cast perfectly in The Hard Way is Gladys George as the washed-up, boozy Lily Emery (pictured opposite Lupino above, in what to me is the film’s most effective scene) . George brought to the show the sort of pathos an old-fashioned backstage backstabbing melodrama requires.

As I thought of a new set of stars for the film, I once again availed myself of the theater of the mind, being that radio dramatizations routinely recast plays made famous on stage and screen (as previously discussed here). The Lux Radio Theater version, presented on 20 March 1944, offers this alternative group of players: Miriam Hopkins as Helen, Anne Baxter as her younger sister, Katie, Franchot Tone as the man loved by both, and Chester Morris as the hapless Runkel.

Host Cecil B. DeMille sets the scene with the kind of intimacy for which Lux was famous. It truly brought the stars home:

The Hard Way is a drama of tempestuous emotion. We’ll go backstage, into the life of the theater, behind the scenes of glamour, to discover what one woman’s ambition can do to those she loves. There’s always a fascination for me in a story of the theater. All my life has been spent there. From the time I was six or seven years old and hung around backstage, watching my father and David Belasco at the business of staging plays.

The strident, temperamental Ms. Hopkins, well remembered by many Lux listeners from her most recent success opposite Bette Davis in Old Acquaintance (the 2007 Broadway revival of which I reviewed here) brings to the role of Helen what the brainier, more sophisticated Lupino withheld. It is convenient to observe in hindsight that the scheming big sister backstage, fighting for the kind of parts she could never get, was more ideally suited to Hopkins, whose career as a leading lady was pretty much over. Hopkins would not make another movie for half a decade, and take either supporting roles or appear in B-picture thereafter. Still, Hopkins has the kind of intensity that, in the close-up medium of film, can appear shrill and overbearing, but that works well on the stage, where she starred during those days in plays like The Skin of Our Teeth (1943) and The Perfect Marriage (1944). True, Ms. Lupino comes from an old theatrical family; but in The Hard Way, her performance seems rather too understated for the kind of histrionics fit for that toothsome stew of the sensational and the sentimental, the kind of potboiler once known as a woman’s picture.

Not that the Lux production is flawless. Its major fault lies in the narration. No longer is it Helen who recalls past sins after having so desperately attempted to drown them; instead, the teller of tales is Mr. DeMille, the omniscient director, who sets the scene for the ladies to inhabit (until the next commercial break, that is). Of course, anyone hoping to rework the established structure of a slick, commercial program like Lux would, like Helen Chernen, try and fail The Hard Way.

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