24 July 2020 | dglink
Terrific Stanwyck and Charming McCrea in Predictable Story
Saddled with an uninspiring title, "The Great Man's Lady" is less than the sum of its parts. Hoyt City unveils an equine statue of its founder, Ethan Hoyt, which unleashes a bevy of news reporters intent on delving into his life and the mystery of why he returned to die in the home of a local woman, Hannah Semple. While most of the reporters are dismissed, a young biographer manages to win the trust of the elderly Hannah, who proceeds to tell her about Ethan Hoyt in a series of flashbacks. However, Hannah's tale is a routine story of ambition, risk, and tragedy that led to wealth and high political office; a successful man and the woman who aided his rise. Unfortunately, a near-century in the life of a remarkable woman is impossible to squeeze into a 90-minute running time, and decades are omitted between flashbacks; the episodic film has several unseen characters and unexplained events.
Aided by aging make-up that is remarkably convincing for the period, Barbara Stanwyck plays Hannah Semple from a flirtatious 16-year old to the 109-year-old woman who recalls her life for the biographer. Her tour-de-force performance is the film's prime asset, and Stanwyck has some fine, if occasionally sudsy, moments. In the fifth of their six co-starring features, Joel McCrea as the great man, Ethan Hoyt, plays well opposite Stanwyck, although his role is far less demanding than hers and rests on his considerable charm. Beyond Hoyt's rise to prominence, a romantic triangle is also central to the story, and Brian Donlevy, who often played the villain, is gambler Steely Edwards; Donlevy's part, a heavy with a heart, does demonstrate genuine affection for Hannah and respect for Hoyt.
Nearly equal in importance to Stanwyck and McCrea, the third star of the film is cinematographer William C. Mellor, whose shadowy black and white photography is often stunning. Capturing the actors in silhouettes or darkly garbed against light backgrounds, several shots could be framed and hung in a gallery. Mellor also photographs the leads and even extras in sharply delineated close-ups that rival the best studio portraits. The talented cameraman subsequently earned Academy Awards for "A Place in the Sun" and "The Diary of Anne Frank," among other nominations and accolades in his long distinguished career.
Well directed by veteran William Wellman, "The Great Man's Lady" is a predictable story of an important self-made man, who owes much of his success to the woman behind him. However, without Stanwyck's captivating performance, McCrea's charisma, and Mellor's rich cinematography, the film would barely merit attention.