As part of the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by The Girl with the White Parasol
When I found out that Rachel from The Girl With the White Parasol was hosting a Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, I chomped at the bit to participate. I love Stanny, pure and simple. She not only changed the way women demonstrated their power in the film, but she’s also gutsy, gorgeous, and persuasive in a very unconventional way.
Barbara Stanwyck, unlike some of her other vice-ridden murderous roles, plays Sally Morton an archetypal woman in peril, although not as individuated as ‘hysterical’ or pathetic like Leona Stevenson in Anatole Litvak’s Sorry, Wrong Number 1948.
Stanny brought a unique kind of dynamism to the Suspense & Noir landscape. She’s got a face bred with burning spirit and animal coolness, that exudes a subtle psychology ferocious independence, and dramatic intelligence.
The Stanwyck role was originally performed by Elisabeth Bergner in Martin Vale’s stage play. A suspense-thriller that fits within the realm of noir with Gothic tinges of horror. Humphrey Bogart appeared in the classic horror film The Return of Doctor X 1939. Bogart plays the subdued, yet sinister malefactor Geoffrey Carroll. He’s a cynical, eccentric, and alienated artist. Stanny plays Sally the woman he kills his first wife for, poisoning her with glasses of milk just like in Hitch’s Suspicion 1941.
The Two Mrs. Carrolls is also the second pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Alexis Smith, who plays Cecily Latham the ‘other woman.’ She first acted opposite Bogie in Conflict 1945 where he played Richard Mason pursuing his wife’s sister Alexis Smith’s Evelyn Turner.
Produced by Mark Hellinger for Jack Warner and directed by Peter Godfrey (Cry Wolf 1947 also starring Stanny & The Woman in White 1948) The Two Mrs.Carrolls is a woman in peril, female victim story à la Hitchcock.
Stanwyck’s role diverges from some of her more famous female villains, the noir femme fatale who embodies the unacceptable archetype of the sexually aggressive woman. In this film she plays the more marginalized ‘good woman’ who is worthy of being a wife and often the victim, contrasted by the lustful and conniving Cecily (Alexis Smith) who embodies treachery and a freely expressed sexuality.
The film co-stars Nigel Bruce as Dr. Tuttle, Isobel Elsom (Ladies in Retirement 1941, Monsieur Verdoux 1947) as Mrs. Latham Patrick O’Moore as Charles Pennington (Penny), Ann Carter as Beatrice Carroll, Anita Bolster (The Lost Weekend, Scarlet Street 1945) as Christine the maid, and Barry Bernard as the blackmailing chemist Horace Blagdon. There’s a welter of melodramatic music by Franz Waxman, plenty of Gothic shadows by cinematographer J.Peverell Marley (Hound of the Baskervilles 1939, House of Wax 1953) & gorgeous fashions by Edith Head.
Made in 1945 Warner Bros. most likely held back the release of this film as it was very close to Bogart’s role in Conflict that same year. Bogart the quintessential scruffy cigarette smoking everyman equipped with a trench coat fedora and gritty sneer is very capable of playing complex characters with a disturbed pathology of inner turmoil. I think of his role as the controlling and ill-tempered script writer Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place 1950, or Captain Queeg in The Cain Mutiny 1954.
In The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Bogart is cast as Geoffrey Carroll a Bluebeardesque psychotic who first feels driven to paint his muse, the object of his desire, only to feel compelled to destroy her once he’s done exalting her essence using poisoned milk as his method of murder. He is not unlike Vincent Price’s anachronism of a Hudson Valley nobleman driven by an insane need for an heir in Dragonwyck 1946, in an extension of the Bluebeard mythos as he kills his wives who are incapable of giving him, sons.
Certain Noir films are the manifestation of psychosis, emerging in the form of the ‘mad artist’ most notably Edgar Ulmer’s Bluebeard 1944. Franchot Tone was the obsessively deranged sculptor in Phantom Lady 1944, and Architect Michael Redgrave in Fritz Lang’s incredible depiction of noir psychosis in The Secret Beyond the Door 1947 which had suggestive imagery of a dream-like atmosphere with its overt Freudian fairy tale patterns tied to psychoanalytical interpretations of childhood trauma and sexual significance. Joan Bennett refers to her own ability to purge these ‘repressed poisons’ because she is so chatty and exorcizes her demons by talking too much.
Peter Godfrey’s The Two Mrs. Carrolls and Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door 1948 are ideal examples of a leading man portraying creativity and obsessiveness driven to madness. In the former Barbara Stanwyck plays Sally Morton who has a whirlwind romance with painter Geoffrey Carroll (Humphrey Bogart) only to learn that he is actually married to an invalid wife. Though Carroll is desperate to possess Sally as he claims she has ‘saved’ him so that he can now paint again. Before they had met, his work suffered. When Sally finds out that Geoffrey is married she flees their romantic sojourn leaving Carroll in a cave showing dismay and turbulence on his face. Carroll goes to London and sees a chemist, signing a fictitious name. After several glasses of milk, the first Mrs. Carroll is dead, and Sally becomes the second Mrs. Carroll.
Sally becomes his new ‘subject,’ a replacement as the artist’s inspiration and love object. But once the wealthy and decadent tigress Cecily Latham (she wears animal print) aggressively pursues him to paint her and become her lover, Sally’s fate is sealed. Carroll transfers his fixation to his new object, Cecily Latham, played by the gorgeous Alexis Smith (I saw her on Broadway in the 70s. She won a Tony award for her performance in the hit Broadway musical Follies… what a treat!)
The film is an odd and edgy thriller that opens in a pastoral setting in Scotland where Sally and Geoffrey are having a quaint picnic by the lake, while Geoffrey sits upon a rock and sketches her. The initial loveliness and serene atmosphere sets out to misdirect us as a place much like Eden. The couple we learn have been dating for two weeks. Everything bares the most ordinary of appearances, as Geoffrey and Sally’s budding romance seems filled with a lighthearted joyfulness in alliance with the surrounding paradisal scenery.
McGregor tells him he’s caught a fish, and Geoffrey yells to him, “Well from this distance that takes real talent. Throw that whale back, the way I feel today I don’t want even a fish to be unhappy!”
Geoffrey Carroll tells Sally, “Two weeks of the only real happiness I’ve ever known… I love you Sally, I love you.” As soon as Geoffrey utters these words and the couple embraces, the sky begins to well up with uneasy clouds. Accompanied by old man McGregor who has the typified Scottish accent warning them of the rough weather brewing.
As the opening serenity is quickly broken by the foreboding torrential rainstorm, this symbol of strife and disturbance oppresses the joy and becomes a metaphor as the film ends with a similar rainstorm that besets Sally’s world.
This will inevitably turn into a nightmarish landscape for Sally but the serene local diverts us from the darkness to come, as we soon discover that Carroll is a disturbed artist who constantly needs fresh female inspiration in order for his art and sexual gratification to thrive. His art depends on it, and he is willing to kill the women he once desired to sustain himself.
The couple seeks refuge from the rain in a nearby cave. As Geoffrey goes to get his fishing gear and picnic basket from McGregor, Sally remains behind holding his jacket. As she calls after him, a letter falls out of her pocket. She picks up the small white envelope and is horrified to see it is addressed to Mrs. Carroll. The extraordinary range of emotions Stanwyck is capable of reflecting within a single frame is cogent and palpable, as she shifts from content glances to an interior that aches. Her eyes glimmer with a crushed spirit. Franz Waxman’s dramatic score confronts the moment as Sally is framed by the dark outline of the cave.
Once Geoffrey returns to the cave he finds Sally suddenly unyielding and in emotional distress.
Sally breaks down and flees the cover of the cave crying ‘No… no’ Not wanting to hear Geoffrey’s excuses she runs out into the pouring rain.
He gives a tortured look as symbolic bars of rain obfuscate his figure. As Waxman’s music acts like a buzz saw in his twisted psyche he looks down at the letter lying at his muddied feet he grips his head.
The scene switches to Blagdon (Barry Bernard) the cash chemist sealing up a package with wax. He’s an unsavory character with a scar that gives him an added edge of sleaziness. Bladgon hands Geoffrey the register, “You’ll have to sign for this sir.” Blogdan answers the phone, he’s lost a bet on the horses.
Geoffrey Carroll returns home to his London flat where he greets his daughter Beatrice. He takes the little white package from the chemist and puts it in his pocket. Geoffrey asks how her mother is doing, and she tells him about the same.
He says, “What are you talking about, well of course she’ll live. What do you mean?”
“Don’t get excited father. We both want her to live because we love her so much. That doesn’t mean she will live does it?”
A bell rings, it is time for Mrs. Carroll’s milk. Beatrice goes into the kitchen to prepare the hot white liquid for her mother. Geoffrey enters the room and takes the saucepan and glass from his daughter pouring the milk himself. Standing outside the bedroom door, holding the glass of warm milk a queer look sploshes over his face like waves of disequilibrium. He suddenly tells Bea that starting tomorrow she’ll be going away to school.
Two years later, Sally now the second Mrs.Carroll and Geoffrey are living in Ashton in Sally’s Gothic manor house inherited from her father.
Charles Pennington (Patrick O’Moore) or Penny is greeted at the door by Christine (Anita Bolster) the housemaid. As he waits for Sally, he studies the painting of the first Mrs. Carroll, not noticing Beatrice sitting in the armchair. She tells him the painting is tremendous.
Ann Carter as Carroll’s precocious daughter Bea figures prominently in the film as sort of the lens in which the conscience of the story reveals its moral code. Ann Carter exudes a mature seriousness reminiscent of Curse of the Cat People 1944 with her otherworldly air. She possesses a no-nonsense touch to the mixed-up morality she’s surrounded by that contributes to the pervasive despair and instability.
Barbara Stanwyck looks stunning as she enters the room. Sally tells Bea she needn’t leave, that Penny is a dear old friend. Bea tells her they’ve already met, and he’s ‘nice, quite nice.’ Penny asks how old she is ’45 or 50?’ “She does give that impression, but she’s sweet.”
Penny is kind and obviously still very much in love with Sally. In a very evolved and civil manner, he hasn’t forgiven her for running out on him. She feels terrible about it and says she should have given him some words. But when she met Geoffrey, when he came back it was as if nothing else mattered. He tells her that all a disappointed suitor needs do is look at her. He asks if she’s as happy as she looks. Sally tells him “he’s good to me.” “He better be. Purely out of morbid curiosity, I should like to meet him.”
She tells him that Geoffrey is working upstairs in his studio and that she’ll call on him. Penny tells her that he’s not the only visitor. Mrs. Latham and her daughter Cecily are expected any minute. They’re friends and clients of his.
Sally runs up the staircase excited about her guests, she addresses the vinegary Christine.
Waxman’s dynamically turbulent score breaks the witty moment, as Geoffrey paces his studio. Throwing down his paintbrush and grabbing the canvas, he begins to rub the oil with turpentine wiping away what he has painted with hostility.