I love Barbara Stanwyck. When I started watching movies when I was younger I never saw many of her films, and so was unaware of her talents. Growing up my favorite actresses were more along the lines of Katherine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn. While I still like both actresses, my tastes have grown more towards Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, and Lauren Bacall. But I think that if I had to name my favorite actress it would be Barbara Stanwyck. She is such a tremendous talent and, from what I have read, a truly professional and hardworking actress. There is an honesty that comes from Barbara Stanwyck in her movies, an honesty that I think comes from her as a person. This honesty has never seemed more immediate or apparent than in CLASH BY NIGHT directed by Fritz Lang.
In seaside Monterey, Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) has returned home after spending the last ten years in the big city. Upon her arrival she takes a moment, and a drink, in the local bar where she runs into Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas). Jerry is a local fisherman who lives with his elderly father (Silvio Minciotti) and his Uncle Vince (J. Carrol Naish). Jerry is thrilled to see Mae, remembering her from his younger days, but Mae fails to recognize him and leaves to find her brother. Mae’s brother Joe (Keith Andes) works alongside Jerry on the fishing boats and is returning home with his girlfriend, Peggy (Marilyn Monroe), who works at the local cannery. Joe is less than pleased to find Mae waiting for him and questions her reasons for returning. Mae is quite upfront with Joe in admitting she made a mistake, and reveals that she was involved with a married man who died and left her some money in his will. His wife and children contested the will and left Mae with nothing, so unhappy and alone she felt there was nothing left but to return to her home. After hearing Mae’s story, Joe softens a bit and Peggy helps Mae unpack. While putting clothes away, Peggy confides to Mae that she is envious of her experiences in the big city and yearns for more excitement. Peggy admits she wants to be like Mae and never let any man tell her what to do.
Weeks go by and Mae barely leaves the house. At the docks, Jerry asks Joe about her availability and Joe encourages Jerry to ask Mae out for a date. Jerry does and to his great excitement, Mae agrees. The night of their first date arrives and Jerry is eagerly getting ready when Uncle Vince comes home with an armful of beer for himself and Jerry’s father to share. Uncle Vince advises Jerry to be careful, that women are like horses and sometimes you need to use the whip on them, all of which Jerry ignores before leaving for his date. After picking Mae up at her house, the two go to see a movie at the local theater where Jerry’s friend Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan) works as a projectionist. Once the movie is over, Jerry takes Mae to meet Earl introducing him as his best friend. Mae is initially attracted to Earl but soon comes to reconsider this attraction when he launches into a misogynistic tirade about his wife, who works as a burlesque dancer. She notes that Earl hates women and Earl does not deny it. Mae becomes sharp and dismissive of Earl and eventually asks Jerry to take her home.
Sometime later, during a night boat ride, Jerry broaches the subject of marriage which Mae gently rebuffs. She tells Jerry that she wouldn’t make a good wife for him and that he should find someone else who is more of the “wife type”. Several nights later, Jerry and Mae are out a beachside bar when Uncle Vince tells Jerry that his father is getting drunk at the counter. Jerry hurries off to stop him, leaving Mae and Earl alone. The two begin talking and it soon becomes clear that while they each find each other attractive, there are deeper forces working against them. Earl again launches into a rant against his wife, further cementing his attitudes against women. Mae has her own feelings about men, having little time for those who would act more like boys than men. Not wanting to be a nursemaid for her man, desiring instead a man who makes he feel confident and alive, Mae says that she could bear anything if she truly felt love for a man again. Earl, somewhat drunk at this point, tries to forcibly kiss Mae causing her to slap him. Jerry returns and Mae angrily asks him to walk her home, leaving Earl alone at the table. Once they reach her door Mae tells Jerry that if he still wants to marry her, she would try her best be a good wife to him and to not hurt him. The two are soon married and at the wedding reception Earl insists on kissing the bride. Mae resists and Earl storms off angrily into the night.
Several months later, Mae and Jerry are living happily together with their newborn daughter named Gloria. The only one who isn’t happy is Uncle Vince, who has been ousted from the house by Mae, and he complains to Jerry. Uncle Vince says that Mae is too controlling and that Jerry has become henpecked, but Jerry denies this and sends Uncle Vince away. That night, at Jerry’s invitation, Earl comes to call. When he arrives at the house, the now divorced Earl is visibly drunk and soon passes out. Jerry carries him inside to sleep it off and that is where Earl revives the next morning, after Jerry has left for work. Mae is alone in the kitchen, feeling more conflicted than ever with the arrival of Earl. Her request for a goodbye kiss from Jerry has not seemed to settle any feelings for her, and she swallows her sobs as she hears Earl stirring. Earl questions Mae as to the status of her relationship with Jerry. Mae denies that anything is wrong but Earl senses that Mae has given up her hopes for excitement and surrendered to a quiet life with Jerry. He seizes a chance and forcibly kisses her which Mae resists. They are interrupted by the arrival of Peggy, who happily shows off her new engagement ring. Mae offers to take the baby and go into town with her, but Peggy can’t wait and hurries out. Earl and Mae left alone again finally succumb to their desires and kiss passionately, beginning an affair. Sometime later Jerry finds out that his father has gotten into a fight at the bar and rushes over to retrieve him. Once home, Jerry begs his father to tell him why he was fighting but he gets no reply. Uncle Vince however, is more than happy to reveal that the entire town has been gossiping about Mae and Earl and his father was defending the family name. Jerry refuses to believe this and drives Uncle Vince from the house. But doubts soon creep in, especially as Mae and Earl have gone out to the fair together. Jerry searches their bedroom and soon finds two brand new nightgowns, and a bottle of perfume. At that moment Earl and Mae return and Jerry goes to confront them.
This was Marilyn Monroe’s first starring role and once again it is an example of what a talented actress she might have been given the chance. Made prior to GENTLEMAN PREFER BLONDES and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, long before THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, this is before Marilyn was Marilyn. The baby doll voice isn’t quite there and the vapidness is gone. Instead there is an earnest attempt by a young actress to make an impression in a serious dramatic role. Marilyn Monroe was known for being difficult on set, prompted by her severe insecurity in herself, often missing lines or needing retakes. The one person in all Hollywood who never complained, the one who was always kind to her, was Barbara Stanwyck
Barbara Stanwyck came to this film having just gone through the emotional devastation of divorcing her husband, Robert Taylor. Taylor, who was the love of her life, was said to have had numerous affairs during their life together and there were rumors of affairs on Stanwyck’s end as well but these are unsubstantiated. Another possible cause of the breakup was the fact that Robert Taylor had made attempts at creating a life outside of Hollywood, a goal that Barbara Stanwyck did not share. In spite of her emotional distress, she remained professional throughout the filming but I can’t help but think that part of the emotional impact her performance has in this film comes from her personal experiences. There is a weariness and sadness in Mae that feels real, and looking at Barbara Stanwyck’s face you can see the truth behind the acting. In some ways this script must have mirrored aspects of her own life and marriage, the hurts and slights suffered by both Mae and Jerry familiar and painful. The journey of Mae, seeking to decide what is more important in life and love, whether it is better to have a life that is full of excitement and personal fulfillment or to have a life of quiet moments and caring for something bigger than oneself, must have seemed very close to Barbara’s desire to have a life in Hollywood versus the desires of her husband.
This film is a true character study of men, women, and the slowly shifting roles in the world. What is the role of a men and a woman in a relationship or marriage? What happens to those roles when women assert more independence? How does a man relate to a woman who acts more liberated? What do women want from men and what do men want from women? Mae wanted independence but wants a man who not only supports her and boosts her up, but also is strong and confident and doesn’t need her to mother him. She is initially happy with Jerry but soon becomes restless, and finds herself annoyed by his laid-back manner. In Earl she finds a man who is exciting but one who has a dislike of women, a distrust of their motives and games. I’m not certain if I believe that Earl is truly in love with Mae or if he simply lusts after her and enjoys to attention and power of the relationship. There is a scene where Earl says, in almost a throw-away line, that he needs to be wanted and needed and I think that has more to do with his affair with Mae than actual emotional connection. Earl and Mae are two people who have been hurt and who are fulfilling their selfish and personal desires. The challenge to Mae is the decision she must face when confronted with the affair. What matters more in that moment, her own happiness or the happiness of the other people in her life? What is important and what is worth losing?