I watched The Hard Way, a 1943 Warner Bros. showbiz saga, for the first time recently. Starring Ida Lupino, the Vincent Sherman-directed drama is a surprisingly tough film for Hollywood’s golden era. Perhaps that hardness is why it's not as well remembered as Mildred Pierce or other “women's pictures.”
|De-glamourized WB dolls Lupino and Leslie plotting their way out of poverty.|
The opening flashback scenes are gritty and authentic. “Greenhill” is a stand-in for every USA Midwestern industrial town. No MGM version of poor folk at working class WB in The Hard Way. As sisters Helen and Katie, Ida Lupino and Joan Leslie are make-up free and dressed-down dowdy in the film’s early scenes. Helen’s harried husband Jack is a decent man, burnt out as a miner, with no patience for their dreams of better things. Guess how long he’s in the picture?
Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan, teamed for the first time here, are travelling entertainers Albert Runkel and Paul Collins. Carson’s Albert comes off nearly as green as starry-eyed Katie, while Morgan’s Paul is the slick-talking player. Albert is taken both by Katie both professionally and personally; Collins does not want any souvenirs from their tour stops. This time, however, the easy-going Runkel prevails. Katie, with older sis Helen as manager, joins their act. And that’s when The Hard Way truly earns its title.
The film’s framing of the successful but suicidal woman's tale, told in flashback, was later lifted by Mildred Pierce. The older woman, who projects her ambitions onto the younger woman, is also echoed in Pierce. The Hard Way, based on a short story by Irwin Shaw, came out the same year as the James M. Cain novel, Mildred Pierce.
|Ida Lupino is fierce as Helen, the working class woman who claws her way up.|
WB queen bee Bette Davis turned down the role of Helen, which she later regretted. As Lupino was a decade younger than Davis, this was better casting, since Bette was 17 years older than Joan Leslie. If the roles were mother-daughter, Davis or especially, Joan Crawford, would have been great as the grasping Helen. Storywise, it might have made sense if they had, since it was rumored that the characters were based on Ginger Rogers and her legendarily scary stage mother, Lela. Ida Lupino and Joan Leslie were well-suited for the roles. Both came from theatrical families, so they were familiar with stage life. Lupino’s family had roots in theatre that dated back centuries. Leslie, starting as a child, was part of a vaudeville sister act. Joan sang, danced, did impersonations, and even played the accordion.
As the ruthless stage sister, Ida Lupino is just as no-holds-barred as Bette Davis at her best. But during the war years, the Academy Awards seemed to prefer uplift. Much was made of the fact that Lupino got a New York Film Critics Circle award but no Oscar nomination. Considering that perennial WB nominee Davis didn’t make the cut that year for her hits, Old Acquaintance or Watch on the Rhine, Lupino should have been a shoo-in. However, that year's Oscars lauded Jennifer Jones, Greer Garson, and Ingrid Bergman, all starring in glossy uplift: The Song of Bernadette, Madame Curie, and For Whom the Bells Toll. Joan Fontaine and Jennifer Jones, both in their mid-20s, played dreamy-eyed 14-year-olds in Bernadette and The Constant Nymph. (Jean Arthur’s comedic The More the Merrier was the fifth nominee). No room for Ida's gritty, unsentimental performance in this group!
|Joan Leslie was only 17 when she played Katie, from schoolgirl to great star.|
Usually ingénues who played sweet in Hollywood’s golden age were gooey. Joan Leslie is warm and sympathetic, a dramatic contrast to Ida’ Lupino’s lone wolf sister. Noteworthy too, in these showbiz sagas, a starlet is usually played by a well-established star. I recently commented on this, in the various A Star is Born remakes, where the rising stars Gaynor, Garland, Streisand, and Lady Gaga are already in their early 30s. Watching teenager Joan Leslie blossom into a star is striking, especially as Leslie starts going all Lindsay Lohan, rebelling against Lupino’s controlling character.
The Hard Way also features one of Jack Carson's great dramatic performances. In his serious roles, Carson had a laughing on the outside, crying on the inside quality. In The Hard Way, Mildred Pierce, 1954’s A Star is Born, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Tarnished Angels, Carson is both funny and sad. Carson’s suicide scene, after his character is given the brush-off by his now-bride Leslie, is both genuinely shocking and moving.
|The climb to the top leaves a few casualties along the way. L: Dennis Morgan.|
As the ladies man turned one-woman man, this is one of Dennis Morgan's better acting efforts. Harboring a secret crush on Katie, Paul gradually becomes more vocal in his feelings toward her, and in his disdain for hell-on-wheels Helen. One of The Hard Way’s most striking scenes is when Lupino’s Helen lets down her guard and admits her own attraction to Morgan’s Paul. He sarcastically flings his standard pick-up line at her, causing hard-bitten Helen to revert to her stone-cold self.
|Gladys George is great as the boozy star egged on by Lupino.|
Gladys George has a great cameo as washed up stage star Lily Emery. George has only a few scenes, but she runs the gamut as the drunken diva mowed over by Helen, who offers up starlet sister Katie in her place.
Though The Hard Way has a following for Lupino’s performance, I've noticed certain critics and film fans still knock this movie. Specifically, the criticism is directed at the hardness of Lupino’s character/performance and Joan Leslie's perceived lack of talent.
I think Lupino is fantastic in The Hard Way, but this criticism may tie in with my question: Why didn’t Ida Lupino become a bigger star? She seemed lovely, charismatic, talented, intense, and more. But was Lupino a little too real, rather than larger than life, like Crawford and Davis? Was Lupino to Davis akin to Robert Mitchum when compared to Bogart? Excellent, yet earthbound, rather than mythic? Lupino had Davis’ intensity, but perhaps needed a few hits playing sympathetic roles, like Bette’s Now Voyager and The Great Lie. And Ida’s hard-boiled persona didn’t get the redeeming soft side that Crawford’s hard-edged characters usually did. The Hard Way is like Mildred Pierce, but without the mother love gloss.
|Lupino as Helen, when she becomes successful as starmaker.|
I think Ida’s second best status to Bette couldn’t have helped matters. The big problem perhaps was that Jack Warner seldom did well by his actors. Bette became the studio’s top female star—and film fans know what a battle Davis pitched to get good roles. Also, top star Barbara Stanwyck had a part-time contract with Warner Bros. Then, along came Joan Crawford, making a comeback from MGM. So, popular leading ladies Lupino, Olivia de Havilland, Jane Wyman, and Ann Sheridan were first up for the leftovers. And WB mostly wasted the next tier of younger actresses like Eleanor Parker, Alexis Smith, Lauren Bacall, Patricia Neal, Janis Paige, Dorothy Malone, etc.
So, here’s my shout-out for Joan Leslie, an actress I only knew by name until recently. Detractors of The Hard Way have labeled Leslie as a no-talent. Well, she ain't Judy Garland, but she's a decent musical performer and her acting is just fine. What armchair internet critics don’t realize is that one, Leslie was only 17 here, and second, Joan actually was a popular vaudeville performer. What seems corny today was entertaining back in the day. Think of the more typical musical stars of the time—Ginger Rogers, Eleanor Powell, Ruby Keeler, etc. Or even great Broadway legends like Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, or Carol Channing. They were hugely popular, but not versatile talents. (Yes, I know I’m opening a can of worms here!) What I found most striking about Leslie’s Katie was her vulnerable, appealing performance, with hints of steeliness as she soars to stardom.
|Joan Leslie, as Katie, achieving her dreams of stardom.|
Off-screen, Joan Leslie showed some steel, too. Leslie was the third actress to sue Jack Warner in a contract dispute. Bette Davis famously sued Warner Bros. in 1936 to get out of her contract—over bad roles. Davis lost the battle, but won the war, finally getting great parts. Olivia de Havilland sued Warner Bros. in 1944, for having suspensions from turning down roles added on to her contract. Olivia won, and though she didn’t work for two years, soon won two Oscars as an independent actress. Joan Leslie also won her suit with Warner, citing that she was a minor when she signed her contract. However, despite her popularity, her status as a starlet instantly ended. Like Olivia, Leslie claimed Warner blackballed her with other studios. Not unlikely, since Jack Warner was notoriously petty. Yet another popular starlet, Teresa Wright, more trained and versatile, and seven years older, found her expiration date as ingénue was also1946. Wright’s star swiftly diminished after The Best Years of Our Lives.
Looking back at Leslie’s film credits, it’s easy to see why Joan was getting fed up with WB. Joan Leslie started off with such films as High Sierra with Bogart, Sergeant York with Gary Cooper, Yankee Doodle Dandy with Cagney, followed by The Sky’s The Limit with Fred Astaire, The Hard Way with Ida Lupino, and The Male Animal with Olivia de Havilland and Henry Fonda. But by 1946, she was stuck playing characters in frothy comedies with names like Judy Jones and Sally Sawyer. Still in ‘46’s Two Guys from Milwaukee, teamed with Hard Way co-stars Morgan and Carson, Leslie’s appeal was still intact.
When writing movie reviews, I am often reminded of how often film stars, particularly from the golden era, seldom got happy endings off-screen. Well, Joan Leslie did. In 1950, Leslie married a doctor, and had twin daughters. She became a full-time wife and mother, and a part-time actress. Joan enjoyed a 50 year marriage and was proud of her daughters, who became college instructors. Joan Leslie lived to be 90, passing away in 2015.
|Jack Carson, who only has eyes for Leslie. Lupino keeps an eye on Carson!|
Vincent Sherman, whose tour of duty as a Warner Bros. director included wrangling Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, considered The Hard Way his most personal work. Sherman felt the story, on the toll that climbing the ladder of fame takes, was a cautionary tale. Viewers of The Hard Way find it either strong stuff or a bitter pill—I think it’s a great example of studio era filmmaking, with both style and substance.
|Heaven help the mister, who gets between these sisters!|