EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE (1949)
It’s always such a pleasure to come across a black and white movie I haven’t seen. “East Side, West Side” is one of them.
The cast itself is enough reason for watching. Barbara Stanwyck, James Mason, Van Heflin, Ava Gardner (looking absolutely stunning), Cyd Charisse, Nancy Reagan, Gale Sondergaard, William Conrad, and William Frawley among other faces familiar from later television programs.
The music is by Miklos Rozsa, cinematorgraphy by Charles Rosher.
The costumes are by Helen Rose.
When I was a teenager, Pamela Mason, James Mason’s wife, was making the rounds of the shows like Merv Griffin, talking openly about what a skunk and womanizer James Mason was. While talk like this is now commonplace, it was mildly shocking in the 1960s and highly entertaining. From what Pamela Mason said the role James Mason played in this film was tailor made for him.
Not only is he a womanizer, he whines to Stanwyck that he’s an “addict” who can’t control himself. Evidently, the appeal of addiction as an explanation of cruelty didn’t start with the rehabilitation industry in the 1970s.
Married to Barbara Syanwyck, Mason has an affair with Ava Gardner. Mason goes back to Stanwyck (and she forgives him) but he just can’t stay away from Ava (who could?). Stanwyck finally realizes that a man like Van Heflin is much better for her than a jerk like Mason, but not without a struggle.
In the final scene, Stanwyck has walked out (we presume to go to Heflin) and Mason stands staring at himself in the mirror. I couldn’t help wondering how much Mason (the actor) realized he was staring at himself rather than the character he was playing. In the final shot, we see Mason from behind. He is alone, leaning against the patio door jamb, staring off over the East River.
If Pamela had been there, she would have probably encouraged him to jump.
Stanwyck and Heflin are great together. This was the last of three movies they made together. The others are: “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946) and B.F.’s Daughter (1948).
Stanwyck and Heflin have a chemistry that’s nice to watch. It’s more about friendship than sex. That’s perfect for the roles they play in this film. Ella Smith in “Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck,” describes them as “an excellent screen team” and “extremely natural together.”
Also discussing Stanwyck's work in East Side, Smith says that it is “particularly subtle, playing a quiet character who keeps her emotions in check. There is nothing showy or flamboyant about what she does, but she manages to convey her inner turmoil.” As Smith writes, "She has a way of holding tears or strong emotion back - and then letting her voice break on the last word of a line.....The technique is a standard one, but difficult to do; unless it is supported by real emotion it will not convince."
Stanwyck looks great in the dresses designed by Helen Rose, but nobody can wear clothes like Ava Gardner. I can’t imagine facing a more threatening “other woman.”
Gardner had already made her breakout film “The Killers” with Burt Lancaster by the time this film was made, but she was still not a leading lady. She held her own, however, against Stanwyck.
The one scene they have together is electric and it is a pleasure to watch the two of them circling around each other.
Stanwyck in their scene, plays so well the woman with inner strength. Her confidence in her jerk of a husband says more about her than about him. Even though she is completely deluded by his charm and his promises, you never lose respect for her.
Gardner plays a wonderful, ruthless other woman, ready to fight to the death for a man she knows is just as unprincipled as she is. She even tells him how weak he is and delights in manipulating him. But, when Stanwyck delivers her final speech to Gardner, you also can see just the right touch of vulnerability, doubt in the icy Gardner. As I said, it’s just beautiful to watch the two of them.
This is another scene in which you wonder how much of the drama was based on real feelings. Gardner and Stanwyck’s husband Robert Taylor, had engaged in a torrid affair when they worked together on Gardner’s previous movie “The Bribe (1949). It’s not known whether Stanwyck new about the affair or not, but Stanwyck doesn’t strike me as a woman who misses much. She and Taylor divorced the following year.
Mason, at this time, was a big star in England. He came to Hollywood, but refused to sign a contract with a studio fearing he would be typecast. He was uncomfortable attempting an American accent in this film and was criticized for his voice in this picture. There is a scene between him and Stanwyck in which he says something like: You convinced me to read poetry and I convinced you to watch sports. It’s jarring because you can’t imagine James Mason drinking beer at a sports arena. But, by and large, he pulls it off. I would have cut this particular dialogue, though.
And evidently, Mason wasn’t the only one uncomfortable on the set. Cyd Charisse was playing her first straight dramatic role. She plays the woman in love with (and eventually dumped by) Van Heflin.
Gale Sondergaard was only 50 when she played the part of Stanwick’s mother in this film. Stanwyck was 42. This was the last role Sondergaard played in a film for 20 years. She refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was blacklisted along with her husband, producer-director Herbert Biberman.
Bill Frawley (of I Love Lucy fame) plays the bartender. Frawley became impossible to cast in films because of alcohol problems. Lucy, however, believed in him and stood up for him to cast him in her long-running series. She was a good egg, Lucy. Too bad about her own jerk of a husband.
This is a clever script written by Isobel Lennart and like so many good films of the era, it was based on a novel (by Marcia Davenport).
Of course, the bad girl, Ava Gardner, has to be killed, but both Stanwyck and her husband are suspects. It is here that the detective expertise (recently used in the war) of Van Heflin comes into play to save them both and prove Heflin a good guy.
There’s a wonderful scene where Heflin suddenly starts acting like a drunk to trap the real killer, an enormous blond model played by Berverly Michaels. Heflin and Michaels get into a slugging match (that’s right I said a slugging match, a slugging in the face match) in the front seat of a car. In the film, Heflin wins and knocks Michaels out, but if it was real life, I would bet on the blond.
According to IMDB, Greer Garson, Fred MacMuray and Claudette Colbert were considered for the leads.