Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Battlin’ Babs From Brooklyn Conquers the West!

When feisty Barbara Stanwyck’s hard-as-nails, incredibly successful businesswoman is blinded by love for the first time in her hardscrabble life, her selfish and immature younger brother takes the opportunity to ruin her empire.

Sounds kind of modern, right?

Well, it’s as close to a “Douglas Sirk” film that Sam Fuller would ever come to: 1957’s Forty Guns.

But since it’s Stanwyck and Fuller, it’s practically perfect.

[Forty Guns (1957; Samuel Fuller) has been screened as part of The Girl With the White Parasol’s Barbara Stanwyck blogathon .
Thank you for inviting me!]

First off, Fuller’s films are always entertaining, always brilliant: muscular, tight dialog from characters that’ve seen the dark side of life. Ferocious action that defines “in your face,” and everybody snarls. Sam Fuller’s movies kick ass and take names, and everyone who loves emotional, energetic films needs to read Fuller’s autobiography.

Right off the top of my head, my Fab Fuller Five are:
Pickup on South Street
Underworld U.S.A.
The Steel Helmet
The Naked Kiss
(tie) Fixed Bayonets/Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street

Fuller’s always stuck to a crime-war-western nexus of genre, and while Run of the Arrow and The Baron of Arizona have disappointed me (except for respective lead perfs by polar-opposite hams Rod Steiger and Vincent Price), his last theatrical western is probably his best.

Written, produced and directed by “Samuel Fuller,” and originally titled “Woman With a Whip”—meow!—like all his films, Forty Guns is sui generis, with almost too many themes dumped into the mix—but this time, cowpokes, Fuller’s an excellent chef, and creates a mighty satisfying stew!

And his flicks look good, too: Fuller uses Cinemascope well, and DP Joseph Biroc supplies some excellent, crisp B&W photography, with lots of complicated tracking shots.

From TCM’s excellent article:
“The film begins with a breathtaking sequence of Stanwyck leading her band of forty gunmen on horseback, galloping across the Cinemascope screen, surrounding, then passing a buckboard that carries three men who sit, silently astonished, watching. Fuller fills the wide screen with that dynamic opening and never lets up after that. Stanwyck plays Jessica Drummond, the steely landowner who rules Tombstone, Arizona, but cannot tame her hotheaded younger brother. The men in the buckboard are Griff Bonnell, a former gunfighter turned federal agent, in town to arrest a fugitive who is one of Jessica's guns, and his two younger brothers. An attraction flares between Jessica and Bonnell, even as they are caught up in the violence and lawlessness of the times in the Arizona territory.”

Touching on ideas like the rapidly encroaching obsolescence of the gunfighter; with doppelganger parallels between the two youngest brothers (one good, one evil, both reckless), the two couples falling in love, and the two strong-willed blondes featured (Jessica, and the gunsmith’s sassy daughter/assistant); the film for the most part wisely concentrates on Stanwyck’s whip-slinging cattle queen.

Fuller’s got a terse slang he makes his characters speak with (Babs: “If you can’t handle a horse without spurs, you have no business riding!”), that would crush any except the old-school pros he packs his cast with, like his star and Dean Jagger’s excellent lovelorn sheriff. Fuller fans will recognize many familiar faces from his films, and they all do a good job.

Although she’s not on-screen as much as you might think, Barbara Stanwyck’s personality infuses every frame of Forty Guns. She is a formidable presence, occupying characters’ thoughts and conversations even when she’s not on screen.

Stanwyck doesn’t have to act—or else her persona fits perfectly into Fuller’s hard-boiled worldview. She’s surrounded by studs (literally!), none of whom can measure up to her. Heck, Stanwyck even did her own stunts, including being dragged by a runaway horse! She’s a tough gal whose heart is melted by an even tougher guy.

The studio wouldn’t allow Fuller to kill Stanwyck; but in fact, the way she grovels at the end is kind of pathetic: like a whipped dog almost. (Which is kind of annoying: fierce Babs turned into a doormat—sigh.)

It’s a tragedy—this magnificent woman brought down—but at least by an equal.
Barry Sullivan’s Griff Bonnell is a cousin to Leone’s infallible gunmen (Lee Van Cleef, by the looks), although in Fuller’s hands a tad more loquacious.

In addition to some sage wisdom to his kid brother about a gunman’s place in a rapidly “modernizing” society, Sullivan has some delicious banter with Stanwyck: It’s wonderful seeing adults being so salacious!

Babs (about Barry Sullivan’s pistol): “Can I feel it?”
He replies in the negative, and she says, “Just curious.”
“It might go off in your face,” he says.
She replies, “I’ll take a chance.”
And then he gives it to her!
The pistol, that is.

Later they fool around in a barn during a tornado.

Freud’s ghost must love Sam Fuller movies.

ANOTHER Babs Movie Screened!!!!

The original Babs S. from Brooklyn, the actress was born Ruby Stevens—which sounds more like a stage-name to me than “Barbara Stanwyck.”

Barbara Stanwyck—such a high-falootin’ name bolted on to such a brassy dame could only mean one thing: a fall from grace.

I caught up with another Stanwyck film, the Pre-Code classic,
Baby Face (1933; Alfred E. Green; written by Gene Markey & Kathryn Scola, from a story by Mark Canfield)

Radiating total star power, the young actress effortlessly holds the screen with Zen amorality as Lily, a speakeasy owner’s daughter, who climbs, climbs, climbs that ladder using brains and especially her sex appeal. This is a classic flick, with tons of implied and explicit naughtiness.

Hard-as-nails Lily has been influenced (by a second party) to the philosophies of Nietzsche! “Use men to get the things you want!” roars her mentor, an old Kraut cobbler. And knowing that Ms. S. would eventually grow into a fan of Ayn Rand, you can't help but wonder if there are some parallels between Lily and Babs...

The script is effortless, and Stanwyck is a sassymouth tornado, spewing innuendo—but the good kind, really zesty and honest, not Mae West-style bad puns.
“Why don’t we sit down and talk this thing over?” Stanwyck purrs to yet another conquest. Oh yeah…

Never, Ms. Stanwyck, never!
Even pre-code morality wouldn’t allow Lily “to get away,” but how she gets redeemed is so well done—she isn’t punished, but maybe has to tighten her belt.
And the audience loves Babs even more for her sacrifices—this ending really is her “getting away”!

Great visual metaphors abound in Baby Face, with special-effects shots of the exterior of an office building implying Lily’s climb up the corporate ladder; and the close-ups of Stanwyck are breathtaking—you can’t tell me the director of photography wasn’t in love with her!
My favorite cinematographic moment is a close-up of Lily (when she finds some dead bodies) printed in reverse to increase the weirdness and hyper-reality.

A lust firestorm, Baby Face has hints of oral sex, a possible interracial lesbian relationship between Lily and her maid, suicides, a businessman and his son-in-law sharing a mistress, the list is endless, and Lily/Babs is unrepentant for the most part—no wonder the Production Code creeps hated this movie!
A must-see!


  1. Forty Guns is terrific.especially that scene at the end with the shoot-out. But I agree the final scene was weak.
    I 'm sure Barbara must have loved doing this film.
    Barry Sullivan did well too.
    Of course the opening scene of the film is iconic and unforgettable.
    Thanks for your review.

  2. "Forty Guns" is indeed a dandy! Loved your line about Freud's ghost. Good stuff.

  3. You've outdid yourself on this one, Ivan. It's a great review of a film I really enjoy, too. Forty Guns just hits you right away with that bold, funny, in-your-face Fuller style. And I love it. I notice that you included that wonderful bit of sexual banter between Sullivan and Stanwyck, but you left out my second favorite bit of inuendo. The scene where Stanwyck's brother kisses the hot gunsmith and says, "I've never kissed a gunsmith before." And she responds with, "Any recoil?"

    I do like Stanwyck and Sullivan together. They have a nice, relaxed chemistry. They're believable as two experienced, cynical people who've gotten used to being the smartest person in the room. I wish Stanwyck's character had gotten a better ending. If they'd even just ended with, "Maybe I'll see you again," or something bittersweet but instead, we have to have her running after Sullivan like a lovesick girl.

    And hey, you snuck in Baby Face for dessert! Sort of a nice double feature now that I think of it.

  4. That's another great thing about this woman - she fit into a western like a glove. Can you imagine Davis or Garbo in a western? But I do disagree when you said she didn't have to act - she was acting, she just made it look so damned natural. Great post!

  5. Oh gosh, this sounds like a film not to be missed. How did I miss it? A WESTERN that got knocks from the Production Code?? Super! Stanwyck looked like she sprang out from the sagebrush of the west and she really was her best in that genre.

  6. Haven't seen either of these, but you make them both sound great - will hope to put that right soon! Judy

  7. Get out! She did her own stunts?! Is there anything she couldn't do?

    Thanks for reviewing this film. I'd never heard of it before, but now I'll be keeping an eye out.

  8. Hey everyone, thank you for your kind words; I really appreciate it!

    Aubyn, that gunsmith's daughter was sassy! (And then sad...) But I wanted to try and concentrate on the Fab Ms. S.

    Flick Chick: You're right, of course!

    My life's been kee-ray-zee lately, but I'll be visiting y'all's posts soon--can't wait to see what you've written!

  9. Wasn't familiar with the films of Samuel Fuller, but based upon your write-up, it looks like I'll have to fix that.

    The themes in "Forty Guns", with the decline of the wild west way of life, sound kinda Peckinpah-esque, perhaps substituting innuendo for Peckinpah's trademark violence.

    It also looks like it'll be interesting to see Stanwyck and Eve Brent play atypically strong western women.

    Thanks for the tip. I'll have to check this one out.

  10. Barbara could do any genre, and her westerns are great. Recently I watched another western with her made also in 1957, Trooper Hook, and liked a lot.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)