The final film of Barbara Stanwyck week is one I had previously experienced part of. Having previously watched half of My Reputation, the latter half, I was intrigued by a human exploration of women’s roles once they enter widowhood. Much like East Side, West Side, My Reputation benefits from a female screenwriter, Catherine Turney, who turns a melodramatic romance into a thoughtful exploration of reputation, gender, and love.
Jessica Drummond’s (Stanwyck) husband has passed after a long illness. While visiting Lake Tahoe to relax, she meets Major Scott Landis (George Brent). As much as she tries to hide her feelings, she and Landis fall in love. Unfortunately, Jessica’s mother and friends all believe she’s throwing away her good name in light of this new paramour.
Be prepared for a lot of comparisons to East Side, West Side, as both feature Stanwyck playing a woman of substance due to a great script that captures feminine conundrums of the era. Jessica’s husband has suffered two years with an unnamed illness. She’s spent two years of her life watching a man she loves, a man she’s been married to for decades (producing two pre-teen boys), deteriorate and die. You feel the slight twinge of guilt that Jessica is still alive, let alone planning her life without her husband. The script makes the point that women no longer need to mourn their husbands for a lifetime like Jessica’s mother (Lucile Watson) who wears black daily despite her husband dying 25 years ago. Jessica’s husband, via letter, has already given his blessing that she should move on, and the audience couldn’t possibly believe a woman like Stanwyck would give up on life, no matter how special the guy is.
We’re never led to believe Jessica had issues with her husband. In fact, their marriage comes off as incredibly happy. So when she meets Scott, she isn’t looking for anything more than mild friendship, and she does everything to resist his advances. George Brent was often paired up with Bette Davis, but he smolders opposite Stanwyck. Watch the way he’s constantly touching her, and her response to it all. These two are definitely eager to get up close and personal with each other!
This is Stanwyck’s film, more so than the last one. Compare this to Annie Oakley where, despite her single status, she undermines her accomplishments for men. Here, she understands there are other factors to worry about besides her love. She cares about what her children think of her more than anyone else, leading to a very realistic scene of her explaining her loneliness to them. It’s a moment that struck me; as a child of divorce, it’s often hard to remember your parents were once people with individual dreams and thoughts, one of which was finding love. However, more than anything else, her boys find it difficult to realize she doesn’t “belong” to her husband anymore, if she ever did in the first place.
This idea of male ownership creates interesting discussions in the film. Jessica’s mother thinks her daughter should never find love and be perpetually sad; Jessica’s friends believe she’s acting too happy in the wake of her husband’s death (and god forbid she divorced him, as one friend points out about another woman obtaining a divorce). The film reminds audiences that, in 1943, women weren’t the property of their husbands and could find ways of creating individual happiness, and that they should be encouraged to do so. Even in 2015, the concept of feminine reputation plays out in a myriad of ways. Refusing to be a victim, Stanwyck transforms the character from a cowardly mommy’s girl into a woman desperate for love, both the love of a man and her children.
Filmed in 1943, My Reputation wasn’t released until 1946, leaving the tone in flux. Filmed during the height of WWII, there’s an underlying vein of suspense between Jessica and Scott’s romance, unrelated to her friends and family’s objections. It might not matter what they say if he’s sent back overseas and dies! Unfortunately, by the time the film hit theaters the war was over, so while their separation is sad, it isn’t exactly life-threatening. There’s also a big patriotic send-off at the end that comes off out-of-place. It never diminished my enjoyment, but emphasizes how release dates can significantly alter how one consumes a film.
My Reputation takes a typical tearjerker and elaborates on feminine identity in the post-war era. Barbara Stanwyck, again, transforms a shy little girl into woman, and George Brent plays the love interest with respect and passion.
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