Well, April is just flying by, isn’t it? How was everyone’s Spring Break and Easter? Ours was low-key–we cleaned house and had a lot of R&R. Very chill, and very fabulous. We also watched a ton of movies, one of the most memorable being the 1943 melodrama, The Hard Way.
The film starred Joan Leslie as Katie Blaine and Ida Lupino as Helen Chandler, Katie’s older, married sister. The ladies lived in the steel town of Green Hill, and things seemed very dead-end and prosaic. That all changed one night when Katie went to see a vaudeville show with a date, where she was entranced by the performances, especially a song-and-dance duo, Albert Runkel and Paul Collins. As luck would have it, the duo, played by Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan, happened to stop in for a bite at a diner, where they see Katie hamming it up for her friends to a player piano. Although her performance was considerably less than polished, Albert took a liking to Katie and escorted her home. Helen thought Albert was a masher and became absolutely furious. By morning, though, she had changed her mind, and wheedled Albert into marrying Katie, thus adding “& Company” to Runkel and Collins. While Albert was over the moon about this new development, Paul was suspicious and hinted as such to Helen, who cattily informed him that she was coming with them on the road.
Not surprisingly, small-time vaudeville quickly got old for Helen, who talked Katie up into a spot on a Broadway chorus, and on it went until she was a musical comedy star. Katie was thrilled with her success at first, and she became quite a diva. Meanwhile, Albert and Paul soldiered on in vaudeville, and Albert took to looking glumly at Katie’s picture on magazine covers. When he finally came to to see her at a party to convince her to come back on the circuit with him, Katie sent Albert away with a flea in his ear.
Naturally, the story gets darker before it gets lighter. Katie did eventually balk at her stardom and at Helen’s micromanagement of every part of her life, and it doesn’t take long for the worm to turn. The Hard Way almost reminded me of Now, Voyager because I was rooting for Katie to be happy and to break out of the cage Helen had built around her. Catharsis becomes like air in the film, and when it does hit, everyone breathes as deeply as possible. That’s one of the things that makes The Hard Way such an enjoyable film, even if it isn’t exactly light viewing.
That’s not to say it’s a complete downer, either–there’s plenty to explore. I’ve always liked Joan Leslie, and it’s fun to see her playing a character somewhat closer to her real age. Her early film career always had her opposite actors like Gary Cooper or James Cagney who were at least a decade older, and Leslie obviously had to play older as a result. I felt like The Hard Way gave her room to grow in terms of character. Speaking of characters, the movie is sprinkled liberally with familiar Warner Bros. faces, such as Gladys George and Faye Emerson. Spotting character actors and contract players can be almost a game when watching classic movies. As for the music, it leans mediocre, but it’s not a musical in the true sense anyway, so I don’t think Warner Bros. was trying to win any awards in that regard. Oh, and is anyone a Gilmore Girls fan? In that case, the exteriors in The Hard Way will look familiar. I’m talking really familiar. Remember the tree Rory and Dean made out under in “There’s the Rub”?
The Hard Way deserves to be called a melodrama in every sense. Lupino’s Helen is larger than life in that the viewer feels her presence in every scene even if she’s not physically there. Honestly, she almost makes Darth Vader look warm and cuddly (I’m expecting Star Wars fans to emphatically disagree with that). Ida Lupino had a real gift for injecting the roles that she chose with such ominous intensity. Joan Leslie was no small talent either, seeing that she was able to be an effective counterpoint to Lupino’s formidable evil sister. The Hard Way isn’t in the same league as, say, 42nd Street or The Maltese Falcon, but it’s still worth a look. Or two. Or three.