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Women's History March: The Great Man's Lady (1941)

We celebrate Women's History Month with four films featuring strong female protagonists.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: This is the story of Hannah Hoyt Sempler, a spirited and adventurous woman who falls in love with a young pioneer, Ethan Hoyt, against the approval of her father and goes with him to attempt to build a city in the uninhabited (by white people anyway…) west. The story is told in flashback as a young woman (KT Stevens) interviews Hannah (Barbara Stanwyck) hoping to gain some insight on the history of fictional Hoyt City.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Hannah is an enigma holed up in a sprawling old-fashioned home unchanged since the Civil War era with skyscrapers and symbols of modernity boxing it in. She is representative of the past, a thing of beauty that has survived the many storms.

RB: Stanwyck is perfect in the role of a strong woman unafraid of venturing into unknown worlds and having the strength to save her husband from financial ruin multiple times. It’s astounding that this is one of five films that reached theaters in 1941 that she starred in, a banner year in anyone’s career, but especially when films like The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe and Ball of Fire are concerned.

SG: Stanwyck went through two weeks of screen tests to get the old age makeup right for this film. Her portrayal of a woman who goes from 16 to 100+ is impressive. I've never considered Stanwyck to be pixie-like, but she bounces around and flirts in her youthful scenes in a way that stands out. Alternately, she stoops and shuffles like an old woman, speaking slowly, but never takes it too far to feel like a gimmick. Hollywood magazine called this, "One of Barbara Stanwyck's best roles to date... Miss Stanwyck's makeup is remarkable."

RB: Joel McCrea is teamed with her again as love interest Ethan Hoyt. Just last week I watched them together in Internes Can’t Take Money (1937) which I thought they were good in. In this film however, I feel that the real chemistry happens between Stanwyck and Brian Donlevy as Steely Edwards, a gambler who befriends Hannah and Ethan and is not-so secretly in love with Hannah. I frankly found Hoyt to be a bit of an impulsive dope, and I found myself hoping that she’d spend more time with Steely instead.

"Where are you going?" "Downstairs." "You can't!" "Why not?" "He's down there!" "That's why I'm going."

SG: I agree that Steely and Hannah are the noble characters and therefore seem to be a better match, but sometimes opposites attract. This was Donlevy's first film under his new contract at Paramount and he makes a good impression.

Although I think the topic could have been fleshed out more fully, and if this story had been made today it would no doubt have been a sweeping 3 hour epic, the film embodies the idea that behind every great man is an even greater woman. In the earl y 1800s, a woman had very little opportunity to make her mark on the world outside of bearing children. Going out west provided more freedom, also with more danger, but expectations were still highly restrictive. However, one way that a woman could use her influence was through her husband, and if he was an influential member of the community, so then was his wife. The story doesn't paint Hannah to be manipulative or coy. Instead, it presents her to be noble, intelligent, resourceful and moral. I find that to be remarkable.

RB: The film is directed by William Wellman, who spent pretty much the entire year working with McCrea (he also directed him in Reaching for the Sun). Wellman always directs well, and this is no exception. They work well together.

SG: Wellman didn't feel this film was important enough to mention in his memoir. His work is reliably decent, with lots of interesting visuals. Stanwyck biographer Dan Callahan felt he followed the script too literally and didn't allow for emotional beats to make the story resonate with audiences. The New York Times reviewer said, "Embarrassing moments are kept to a minimum due largely to the restraining hand of William Wellman, who does his best by a poor script."

The script writers were women: Adela Rogers St. Johns and former silent film actress Seena Owens. Their feminine perspective did not live up to the expectations of The New York Post's reviewer, who said, "Definitely on the heavy side; lacking in virile action (for a saga of the early West) and not too much on humor."

RB: Others in the cast include perennial favorites like Thurston Hall and Lloyd Corrigan. If you’re like me, you always enjoy seeing Corrigan in films and his appearance here perks up proceedings that I frankly found a bit hard to get through.

SG: I also spotted a woman who seemed oddly familiar playing the "mammy" in the early scenes. It's Etta McDaniel, sister to Hattie.

RB: While George Khatar of the Casion theater in Nova Scotia found the film to be “a complete flop,” most other exhibitors had good luck with it, even the Florida State Prison where AW Bates reported that this was “one of the outstanding pictures and was well received.” (This is not the sort of film that I would think would play well in a prison, but I’m not sure why Bates would lie about it.) “The ladies loved this; exceptionally entertaining but poor business,” reported Thomas Li Lorenzo of the New Paltz Theatre. “Most voted it Stanwyck’s best. A good one for any location,” came the word from the Legion Theatre, but Otto W Chapek at the New Annex Theatre felt that this was a “good picture, but would not draw them in."

Film critic Evelyn Hart didn’t think much of the film upon its release feeling that the appeal of the film purely falls on the presence of Stanwyck. “It’s amazing that the picture holds one’s attention with so many weaknesses discernible, but perhaps this is due chiefly to Miss Stanwyck’s performance.” I am fond of the cast of this film and had high hopes as I sat down to view the movie, but I admit that I found myself feeling that the proceedings were pretty mediocre. It’s a competent and well-made film that just didn’t move me at all. Two and a half stars.

SG: During the filming, Stanwyck was thrown from her horse and stepped on. Her back was injured, but she escaped any permanent damage. She was a competent horsewoman and she and Robert Taylor had horses on their ranch where they rode regularly. If she was in any pain, she used it in her performance. Her endurance through tragedy and rejection shines and even in her old age, her love for Hoyt shines through to the end. Photoplay's reviewer said, "The unveiling of the story will bring tears to sympathetic eyes." I was entertained throughout the film, though the relationship and the reason for Hannah's loyalty could have been illustrated better. Three stars.

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