In the entertainment industry, a place that is filled with many notable names, who were prolific at their craft, William Wellman shone for his creative directorial efforts in films of almost every genre. With a career spanning since the silent era of cinema, Wellman had started off as an actor and worked his way up the ladder to director and became fruitfully productive for his work in the crime, adventure and action productions.
In Hollywood, the land of the main premise of stars with distinguished talents, William Wellman considered Barbara Stanwyck to be the greatest of the breed of actresses he’s worked with. Stanwyck who showcased the most versatility out of all her contemporaries was the perfect match for William Wellman, the prolific director that had a special knack for all things adventure, action and crime. With her extreme flexibility and diverse body of work, Stanwyck had appeared in films of every genre, and highly excelled in westerns, which is something that Wellman with his passion for wide open space looked favorably upon.
William Wellman commenced his five film collaboration with Barbara Stanwyck in 1931, when they made “Night Nurse” together. By the time they appeared in their forth film, the western drama “The Great Man’s Lady” in 1942, Stanwyck’s astuteness in her special technique had reached a higher zenith, but even though how much Wellman admired Stanwyck for her ingenious flair, their partnership ended after “The Lady Of Burlesque” in 1943.
“The Great Man’s Lady” shares many similarities to Wellman’s previous film “So Big”, which also starred Stanwyck. Both productions are western’s, but they have entirely different story lines, and Wellman took on a new method of approach in the latter.
The film was written for the screen by W. L. River, and adapted from Vina Delmar’s short story titled “The Human Side”, and stars Joel McCrea opposite Barbara Stanwyck.
The films opening title: “Meeting Hannah Hoyt, the great man’s lady, would not be so important if there were only one Hannah Hoyt; but, fortunately, the miracle of a Hannah Hoyt happens again and again, from generation to generation of American womanhood. Not only behind great men, but behind the ordinary guy — you will see a Hannah Hoyt. In her own small way, she will be helping, pointing the road ahead, encouraging her man to reach his own pinnacle of success.”
The film is told in flashbacks, and mainly follows the life of Hannah Sempler ( Barbara Stanwyck ) the wife of the great man, Ethan Hoyt ( Joel McCrea ). When young biographer, played by Katherine Steven’s approaches 100 year old Hannah about interviewing her for her proposed book, at first she refuses, but once witnessing that her rejection has made the girl upset, she starts reminiscing back at her past, beginning in 1848, when Hannah was a young girl living in a stuffy Philadelphia home with romantic feelings for Ethan Hoyt.
From the moment Ethan first laid eyes on Hannah, he was captivated by her long flowing dark hair, sparkling eyes that is proliferated with a twinkling glow and accompanied with a warm vivacious smile. Displaying extreme infatuations for one another, the couple marry, and Hannah begins a life of hardship and adversity while trying to encourage Ethan to achieve his goals.
For her role as Hannah Sempler, Barbara Stanwyck endured many hours of homework. To prepare for her scenes as an elderly woman, Stanwyck visited several nursing homes, observing the behavior and mannerisms of the aged, while maintaining an amiable relationship with the elderly people. After completing her time at the retirement homes, Stanwyck was able to demonstrate on screen the common qualities and the myriad of different moods displayed by old people.
Continuing on with the usual Stanwyck and Wellman tradition, Barbara Stanwyck portrays a character that endures plenty of misfortune and faces exigent situations, but no matter how many times life gets her down, Stanwyck with her strong willed nature can’t be defeated, and continues to remain determined. It’s Hannah Sempler’s dedication and persistence to her husband that makes his desideratum of creating Hoyt City come true. At the start, Ethan bears uncertainty that leads to failure, but through Hannah, who encouraged him to retain his confidence, he was able to succeed.
Barbara Stanwyck as usual never fails to disappoint. She was the greatest actress to ever grace the silver screen, and with her immaculate presence and acting expertise, she pioneered her way through every film she made by always delivering a commendable performance. Her role as Hannah Sempler proves that Stanwyck was more than just an actress. Here she spotlights mountains of emotion as Sempler travels through the years. At first Hannah Sempler is just a young girl with a scintillating personality who is being cared for by her outspoken mammy, Delilah, played by Etta McDaniel, in a role that resembles Hattie McDaniel’s character in “Gone With The Wind”. Next, Sempler is married and is living a rather cheap life compared to what she had back in Philadelphia. She now appears dowdy and rather worn out, but as the film progresses, Stanwyck dresses in exquisite clothing even though she is experiencing formidable times.
Stanwyck’s research in the nursing homes were well spent. In her scenes as the 100 year old Hannah Sempler, she is able to perfect that raspy voice that a lot of elderly people inherit, as well as demonstrating the exact eccentricities and mannerisms of aged people. Her movements and mobility are also well executed, that you would swear that it’s a normal old woman playing Hannah instead of Barbara Stanwyck, but the most exceptional aspect of these scenes is the makeup that was used to transform her into a 100 year old woman, who is facing the concluding chapter of her life.
As for Joel McCrea, he is excellent in the six vehicles he’s appeared in with Barbara Stanwyck, but this would have to be my favorite. The chemistry between the two are undeniable. Even though he is absent for the most part of Hannah’s life, he still loves her, and expresses his gratitude to her for all she has done. These scenes are not only convincing, they are very moving, especially the scene where Hoyt returns to Hannah in 1906 to pass away peacefully in the bed.
Apart from the solid performances from the leading cast, the film is abounded with an impeccable script, superb cinematography, and an avalanche of melancholy and heartbreak.
“The Great Man’s Lady” is a rather underrated film, and definitely deserves more recognition. Not only is it well crafted and filled with many poignant and touching moments, it features Barbara Stanwyck, who sheds auroral dew to an already intriguing production.
Katharine Stevens, director Sam Wood’s daughter, has the same name as Barbara Stanwyck’s mother, albeit a different spelling.
One of over 700 Paramount productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by Universal ever since.
Hannah Sempler: “Spring never comes again, Ethan. Perhaps in the Indian Summer we’ll meet once more.”
Hannah Sempler: “Men were different in those days. Men like Ethan. A drink in one hand and luck in the other.”
Hannah Sempler: “[said to statue] Forever, Ethan. No one can change it… forever.”
Barbara Stanwyck: Born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16th, 1907 in Brooklyn, New York. Died: January 20th, 1990 in Santa Monica, California. Aged 82.
Joel McCrea: Born Joel Albert McCrea on November 5th, 1905 in South Pasadena, California. Died: October 20th, 1990 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 84.