After the disappointing Annie Oakley, I yearned for something good. Thankfully, I found it with director Mervyn LeRoy A-list melodrama, East Side, West Side. In my review of Oakley I complained about Barbara’s agency and accomplishments being negated for love of a man. Screenwriter Isobel Lennart takes the typical “woman’s picture,” infusing it with emotion and genuine discussion regarding infidelity, female companionship, and other adult elements often removed in the heady rush of boy meets girl. An unnecessary murder plot threatens the authenticity but the A-list cast keep things engaging.
Jessie and Brandon Bourne (Stanwyck and James Mason) are bouncing back after a marital shake-up. Bran, however, finds his marriage in for another rough patch when his past mistress, Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner) comes back, intent on taking him from Jessie, once and for all. Jessie tries to remain stoic, and finds her own faithfulness tested when she meets cop/writer Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin).
Women’s pictures, especially regarding philandering husbands, generally fell towards blaming the female for the man’s indiscretions. Not every film followed this formula, but usually a woman’s independence, stubbornness, etc comes back to bite her in the end. East Side, West Side plays the blame game on those who deserve it – specifically Bran and Isabel – but takes the time towards elaborating on the various relationships at play. We meet Jessie and Bran in the throes of a rekindled love that’s suffered some serious trauma. Bran continuously proclaims his love for Jessie, but maintains that his desire for Isabel is that of a drunk unable to resist alcohol, leaving Jessie to come to the painful realization that Bran is the one lying and controlling the relationship.
Lennart’s script smartly takes the high road for what could have turned into a scummy melodrama. Bran and Jessie’s relationship is best summed up through Bran’s action. Jessie has given him a second chance, yet Bran refuses to reduce himself to just one “flower” in the garden. Despite his claims of never seeing Isabel again, Isabel calls him out, telling him no one forced him to come see her. There’s responsibility placed at the feet of the one responsible, without resorting to crazy shaming tactics, although Isabel’s death at the end plays like divine punishment (or, in this case, the Hays Code). Stanwyck, for her part, never blames herself or questions what she could be doing differently, finding something in Isabel that she can take to heart. When Jessie has dinner with Mark, the tension rises when Bran arrives, as if she should be ashamed, caught in a lie. Instead, Jessie doesn’t apologize and calls Bran out for his actions. All of these moments are not only well-scripted, but genuine and logical.
There’s also some meaty roles for women without devolving into stereotype or girl-on-girl violence. Cyd Charisse, in a non-dancing role, plays a character similar to her role in Tension. Her Rosa Senta’s the nice girl, chastising Bran for hitting on her, appropriately telling him, “If I were your wife, I’d cut your heart out.” Wow, and that’s just what she says to a stranger! Cyd’s the neutral moral compass for the characters, but she gets in several moments of heart. Jessie and her have a heart-to-heart about being friends, and when Mark confesses his love for Jessie, Rosa doesn’t get jealous or upset. She realizes that she loves the idealized, little girl crush she’s had on Mark and that, gasp, she doesn’t really know him. Unwilling to throw away a potential friendship for a man she’s not even sure she loves, it is a bit of a disservice that Rosa disappears before the end. There’s also a brilliant moment between Jessie and her friend Helen (Nancy Reagan…yep, that one) wherein Helen asks Jessie about her marital woes. Jessie gets defensive, leaving Helen to explain that, in female relationships, when a woman asks another about her problems it’s seen as prying, a means of obtaining gossip; however, if she doesn’t ask, she wouldn’t be much of a friend. These cleverly scripted moments add such naturalness to the movie. Too often in movies with female ensemble casts there is a level of cattiness, an us vs. them mentality, which isn’t here.
Even the big confrontation between Jessie and Isabel, which we’ve wanted all movie, doesn’t turn into a brawl a la Paulette Goddard and Rosalind Russell in The Women. Speaking of The Women, I found East Side, West Side to be The Women, if its claws were cleverly hidden. Isabel Lorrison – I don’t want to assume, but is this an intentional call to our screenwriter? – as played by Ava Gardner, is fierce! Gardner, herself having a fling with Stanwyck paramour Robert Taylor at the time, conjures up images of Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford in The Women), if she had motivation. The two characters are lower-class, but Isabel tells her life story to Jessie, a life filled with harsh reality compared to Jessie’s idyllic, wealthy existence. It doesn’t absolve Isabel of her sins, but confronts the titled east side/west side distinctions regarding class and gender. And, no offense to Crawford, Gardner is 100 times more domineering, telling Jessie she can have her husband back when Isabel’s “done with him.” She makes no bones about her villainy, but coupled with Bran’s obvious complicity, makes her just another victim of his scheming.
If anything, the movie emphasizes, time and again, that A) everyone has affairs, whether intentional or not, physical or not, and B) continual male dissatisfaction prevents women from uniting with each other, forcing them to constantly compete for male affection. We clearly witness this with the Jessie/Bran/Isabel triangle, but also, more sneakily, with Rosa, Jessie and Mark. Jessie and Mark’s affair never becomes physical, but their relationship is palpable and evident to Rosa. Mark, despite his respect and admiration for Rosa, doesn’t tell her about his feelings for Jessie until she calls him out on it, putting Mark under the spotlight. These moments firmly give women the agency in the situation, but also mention that it’s up to them to remain rational where men’s whims are concerned.
Suffice it to say, I thoroughly enjoyed East Side, West Side. It retains the basic melodramatic tenets, but the dazzling script gives us human characters and real interaction and room for discussion.
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