The Hard Way
Generally considered to be Ida Lupino’s best role, and one that Bette Davis passed on, and later regretted. It is also said to have been inspired by Ginger Rogers’ mother, but I wonder. It’s true that Lela Rogers was deeply involved in Ginger’s career, but nothing I’ve read makes her out to be the scheming, back-stabbing stage mother (actually, big sister, they changed that so Ginger and Lela wouldn’t see themselves in the picture) portrayed here. In fact, Lela seems to have been liked and respected. Maybe there’s more info in a tell-all books somewhere, but I don’t really care. I’ve never been much interested in Hollywood dish and dirt. Just repeating what Robert Osborne said before the movie started.
Ida is married to a loser in some forsaken hole of a steel or coal town, with her little sister, Joan Leslie. Both of them are desperate to get out. Then the third-rate Vaudeville song and dance team of Runkel and Collins (Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan) blow through town and see little sis performing impromptu in a malt shoppe. Poor sap Jack falls hard for her, and the next thing we know all four are on the road, with Joan dancing around as the team sings their lame songs. But Ida has her eyes on bigger prizes. It is a shock to her when Joan marries Jack, but she makes it work. She schemes, she betrays, she gets an alcoholic has-been ex-star drunk so she loses a part that’s just right for little sis, she does everything in her power to get Joan an audition with the movers and shakers. Soon she is offered a big part, and Jack agrees they should break up the act so she can have her shot.
And she goes right to the top, while Jack and Dennis are getting booted from worse and worse toilets around the country. In full-blown sap mode, Jack barges into Joan’s opening night party and makes an ass of himself. He goes home and blows his brains out. I’m surprised it didn’t take him three or four tries to hit his brain. He must have been a good shot.
Dennis has been onto Ida all the time, and he’s bitter, but he really doesn’t have any moral leg to stand on. He seduces and abandons a new girl in every podunk whistlestop. And Joan really did love the dope; she just loved her career more. But Jack’s suicide sends her off the rails into depression and alcoholism. Her career is very much in jeopardy.
Then she hies herself off to Saratoga where Dennis has formed a new band and is quite successful. Sparks fly, Dennis reveals he has always been in love with her, they decide to get married … and guess who shows up? And guess who convinces Joan she has to open this new play in New York? And guess who won’t marry Joan unless she basically gives up her career for him?
Nobody to really like here. Ida is a nightmare of control. Joan is too easily controllable, and really liked being in the limelight more than anything else. Dennis is a cad who seeks to control Joan as her husband just like big sister did. Joan has a nervous breakdown on stage, everything falls apart, and we end up where we began, with Ida throwing herself off a pier, being saved, and telling her story in flashback. Which was the idea of Jack Warner, who didn’t want her to appear unglamorous, a dingy housewife in a crappy town, right from the first shot. So you can be sure she’s dressed to the nines, coifed and made up when she steps off that pier.