The Archivist #107: A Salute to Stanwyck [THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS and CRY WOLF]

Closing out the month with this dark tribute to the first lady of film noir

We folks here at The Archivist (mainly me) couldn’t let July comes to a close without a yearly tribute to the great Barbara Stanwyck, born on this month in 1907. The grande dame of noir (whose talents helped propel the genre), Stanwyck also proved she could sail through comedy, melodrama and period pieces with her unique brand of acting. From Frank Capra’s leading lady, to the matriarch on The Big Valley, Stanwyck was a first class actress who never settled for delivering anything but her best.“Put me in the last fifteen minutes of a picture and I don’t care what happened before,” she reportedly once said. “I don’t even care if I was in the rest of the damned thing; I’ll take it in those fifteen minutes.” She was right. Take any film bearing Stanwyck’s name and you’ll see a fire that was in full force. Whether it was a Christmas movie or a William Castle effort, sharing the screen with William Holden, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda, or Elvis Presley, Stanwyck was always Stanwyck.

But it’s the noirs we remember her for. We remember Stanwyck greeting Fred McMurray from atop the stairs in Double Indemnity, manipulating love and murder in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and clinging to the telephone with terror in Sorry, Wrong Number. The genre was hers; and because it was, in this edition of The Archivist, we’re looking at a pair of Stanwyck’s noir titles which may not be regarded as classics, yet still spectacularly show what she brought to the table.

In The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Stanwyck plays Sally, a single woman who has suddenly found herself falling in love with handsome artist Geoffrey (Humphrey Bogart) on a fishing trip to Scotland. The only problem is that Geoffrey is married to an invalid, which turns Sally off the minute she finds out. Cut to two years later, Geoffrey’s first wife has passed away and he and Sally are now enjoying married life together. However, the appearance of entrancing next door neighbor Cecily (Alexis Smith), and Geoffrey’s increasingly odd behavior leads Sally to ask herself the question: Just how did she become the second Mrs. Carroll?

The only pairing between Bogart and Stanwyck is sadly not as revered as it should be, mainly thanks to the miscasting of the male lead. Bogart can’t help but feel a little out of place as a tortured artist trying to suppress his decidedly darker tendencies. Still, “bad” Bogart is still pretty damned good, echoing the Jay Presson Allen quote: “They’re not stars for nothing, you know.” When Bogart falters, Stanwyck steps in to save the day, or at least the scene. The actress manages both sides of winning romance and overwhelming paranoia when it comes to her character. Sally may not be one of her best remembered roles, but as a character she contains the great conflict of loving the man who might end her life. It’s the kind of emotional struggle audiences came to know the actress for. Stanwyck allegedly took on The Two Mrs. Carrolls out of boredom from waiting for her then-husband, actor Robert Taylor, to return home from WWII. You’d never be able to tell as the actress gives her all, especially in the tense cat-and-mouse chase that makes up the finale. As a movie, this 1947 title hits all the right beats from the love triangle, to the quirky side characters, to an underlying sinister feel that never lets up. It may have been a dry run for the following year’s Sorry, Wrong Number (one of the actress’s defining roles), but The Two Mrs. Carrolls is still first class Stanwyck.

Also released in 1947, Cry Wolf teams Stanwyck with another legendary leading man, Errol Flynn. The actor plays the head of a wealthy family whose black sheep member has just died. Although the “mourning” period is still in full swing, in comes Sandra Demerest (Stanwyck), a stranger who promptly announces to Flynn’s Uncle Mark that she is actually the dearly departed’s widow. While Mark reluctantly allows her to stay until proof can be established, Sandra begins hearing strange noises in the middle of the night. Those, coupled with everyone’s strange behavior and the secret laboratory no one but Mark is allowed in, makes Sandra grow fearful for her life.

Cry Wolf is an odd beast of a film; a melodrama with a tinge of horror and two game stars. Both Stanwyck and Flynn are fully committed in this tale of a warped family and the woman who finds herself in the middle of a bizarre tale. There’s great subtlety and well-delivered eerieness to the secrets and suspense that lurk beneath the exterior Uncle Mark and his kin shakily try to present, which Sandra can only ignore for so long. Another example of the classic Stanwyck character, Sandra is independent, inquisitive and most of all, unafraid of finding out the truth of what happened to her husband. This is a movie that has a great pace and atmosphere (the stately manor and closed off laboratory are well-utilized) and while a heartbreaking moment takes the fun away momentarily, the film’s final twist makes the whole affair worth it. There is a slight bit of a B-movie feel to Cry Wolf, mainly due to some of the theatrics the movie uses to instigate its scares. For some, the movie represents the two stars at the less-celebrated parts of their careers. Flynn’s popularity had greatly waned by this time and the Stanwyck’s roles started to pale in comparison to those she played in previous decade. Still, Flynn has a ball with the ambiguity of his character and watching him have some quality scene time with Stanwyck is enough to make you wish they had been able to collaborate more beyond this lone entry.

The Two Mrs. Carrolls and Cry Wolf are available on DVD from Warner Archive.

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