‘The Strange Woman’ Makes Clear, You Can’t Always Want What You Get

[14 May 2014]

By Michael Barrett

How is Jenny strange? She’s presented from the first—when she tries to drown a playmate and then “saves” him—as a scheming amoral Jezebel who thinks only about her ambitions and appetites. On the other hand, after the lovely transition in the same’s water’s reflection to the grown-up Jenny (Hedy Lamarr), she’s always helping and defending the poor and helpless, especially women, and it’s not merely for the sake of reputation.

As the poor child of a drunken abusive father (though she seems to enjoy being whipped by him!) and a mother who ran away with another man, her impulses include a sense of justice towards those who suffer unfairly as well as the desire to manipulate her way into fortune and love, so that every selfish action is balanced by a selfless one.

The people around her, too, are models of ambiguity, from the greedy town fathers to the three men who fall for her wiles. There’s her first husband, grasping merchant Gene Lockhart, who goes about securing her as his property just as duplicitously as she ensnares him. Then there’s the wishy-washy rabbit of a stepson (Louis Hayward, darting his eyes helplessly), the same one she tried to drown as a child. “Why are you always so frightened?” she asks him, just as we’re pretty fed up with him too. It’s probably because he’s read the script, or else a James M. Cain novel.

At the 50-minute mark comes the more square-shouldered foreman (George Sanders) who’s courting Jenny’s kind-hearted “friend” (Hillary Brooke in a role that would have suited Olivia de Havilland). One wonders what Otto Preminger might have done with all this ambiguity in a torrid historical setting based on a bestselling novel about a strumpet, and one knows the answer to that question if one has seen Forever Amber, which was made the following year.

Fresh from the Hollywood hair and make-up room with her drawn eyebrows and rouged lips (in 19th Century Bangor, Maine), Hedy Lamarr gives an excellent performance with the barest trace of her accent. It’s not a “realistic” portrayal, of course, but a heightened one of the kind that involves tilting her head in one direction and cocking a lash in the other as she gazes minx-like into the middle distance, her sights on the next improvisation toward a restless goal. Lamarr knew a good vehicle when she saw it, and she co-produced this picture.

Herb Meadow’s adaptation of Ben Ames Williams’ novel features good dialogue and strong incident and pace. This is transparently treading the territory claimed by Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara (from a novel by Margaret Mitchell) and Bette Davis’ Jezebel (from a novel by Pamela Frankau) with an evil dash of Gene Tierney in the previous year’s Leave Her to Heaven (from a novel by this very same Ben Ames Williams).

These stories seduce the reader or viewer with the spectacle of a strong woman who dares to see the world as it is and tells unmentionable truths in her climb to the top, and it’s for all these transgressions that she must be punished. Whether in 1946 Hollywood or in Maine of the previous century, Jenny is strangest and most disturbing for letting rip with such speeches as: “Every time I say something honest about men and women, you say ‘Jenny!’ Why does a proper lady have to be embarrassed about plain talk? It isn’t honest, and it makes for old maids.”

The difference is that Jenny is genuinely stricken by conscience and a desire to resolve her libido with a super-ego. For all her guile, she’s unsophisticated enough to tremble before a fire-and-brimstone preacher—even though she recognizes that he’s no better than anyone else. She fires up at social hypocrisy, and it’s not always clear whether her carefully phrased interpretations of reality are designed to fool others as much as herself. When she reinterprets her childhood “drowning” as “saving,” does she really believe it? With what epiphany does she declare “I can never hold on to happiness”? She has incrementally learned to dread achieving what she aims for.

Produced by Hunt Stromberg for uncredited co-producers Lamarr and Jack Chertok, this film is one of precious few movies where director Edgar Ulmer had any kind of budget. He makes use of it not only in his cast but in Lucien Andriot’s swiveling camera moves, in the careful and sometimes expressionist lighting, and in the rich, convincing sets by Nicolai Remisoff, a designer for the Chicago Grand Opera.

IMDB claims, without citing a source, that Douglas Sirk directed the childhood sequence, and it claims further than the child actress who plays Jenny is the same actress directed by Sirk in the same year’s A Scandal in Paris. We’d love to believe this tidbit, but we don’t. There’s no corroboration in serious references like John Wakeman’s World Film Directors or Ephraim Katz’s Film Encyclopedia, and the TCM website quotes sources stating that the child was Ulmer’s own daughter Arianne, who was interviewed by Tom Weaver. Surely she’d have mentioned if she’d been directed by someone else, especially someone famous, and why would that have happened?

Variable copies have circulated in the public domain forever. This print claims the film for Astor Pictures, which means it’s a reissue print acquired after its independent release through United Artists. I’ve seen the picture twice, once in a theatre (well, projected on a wall), and can attest it’s never looked better. This advertised “HD restoration from 35mm film elements” from Film Chest Media hasn’t worked a complete miracle, since there’s visible damage on the print throughout, but never have the image and sound offered such clarity to help us appreciate the craft of it. This is important, as seeing the craft is what seduces us to feel the art.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/181475-the-strange-woman/