Classic Film of the Week #7: To Please a Lady (1950)

When I began this series, I really did intend for it to be classic film of the week, not Clark Gable film of the week! But once again, his filmography has made up most of my classic viewing over the last few days, and this film in particular stood out to me as a real under-seen and underrated gem, a rather simple action-romance picture that is wonderfully elevated by its casting of two of the most legendary talents to come out of Hollywood, Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck.

Directed by Clarence Brown and featuring Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck, To Please a Lady tells the story of Mike Brannan (Clark Gable), former war hero turned reckless race-car driver, and Regina Forbes (Barbara Stanwyck), a reporter who makes a business out of exposing the dirty side of notable public figures. When she catches wind that Mike Brannan has been getting into some trouble on the racetrack, she comes down to the races to see for herself, and becomes a first-hand witness to the second incident of Mike causing the death of another driver by not giving him room to avoid a wrecked car in their oncoming path. Regina's article on the incident successfully halts Mike's career for a time, but as he begins his comeback, the two find themselves strangely drawn to each other. Yet, Regina still can't shake the fact that Mike caused the deaths of two men and claims to have no remorse. Will the pair find forgiveness and happiness together, or is their union destined for wreckage just like Mike's race-cars?

As noted earlier, there's nothing particularly special about this movie's plot: it follows the same story beats as dozens of other 40s/50s Hollywood romances. What makes it special is the reunion of Barbara Stanwyck and Clark Gable, who hadn't been in a film together since 1931's Nigh Nurse. Gable's role in that film is small, and he plays the villain, but he and Stanwyck had notable chemistry even as enemies, and I was curious to see how it would play out in a more conventional romance. As tt turns out, they're just as explosive as lovers as they were as enemies. Their union is of the will-they-won't-they variety, and while the nature of this film assures "they will" before the opening credits roll, it's still fun seeing how they reach that point. Barbara Stanwyck is particularly wonderful as the hard-edged writer: she's mostly remembered now for her film noir roles, but I'm partial to her performances in romances. She's the kind of person who would have chemistry with a toaster--no matter who her leading man is, she always conveys her character's love for him so convincingly. To Please a Lady is no exception, and her clear attraction to Gable's daredevil even while she's scheming to get him thrown out of the races is fun to see. There is one rather uncomfortable moment where Gable slaps Stanwyck's face right before their first kiss, dampening an otherwise well-earned romantic moment, but I was able to overlook it as a kind of amusing callback to Night Nurse, where Gable memorably slaps Stanwyck in a much more sinister context.

For a lot of people, the big draw of this film is apparently not the romance at all, but rather the extended action sequences that see Gable hurtling around the track, swerving around wrecks and pile-ups as he goes. Apparently much of the footage shown in the film is footage of real races, including the climax, which shows the actual 1950 Indianapolis 500 race. Personally, I'm no big racing fan, so the melodrama of the film is definitely more my speed; however, I could appreciate the significance of having this moment in racing history actually be filmed and preserved in a Hollywood picture. It's a true melding of the cinema and real life, with the footage carefully arranged to fit the narrative of the film. This effort becomes especially interesting when compared to modern-day Hollywood, where filmmakers rarely, if ever, shoot authentic footage of anything--it's much easier and cheaper to make an artificial recreation. However, the authenticity of these sequences adds a real sense of energy and tension to the film, and the shots inserted into them that feature Gable's face aren't half-bad--not terribly convincing, of course, but the special effects are good enough not to break suspension of disbelief. I was especially impressed by a close-up of Gable that has a close-up of another driver playing on a screen right behind him; it's actually quite effective at giving the sense of two cars going toe-to-toe.

Getting back to Stanwyck, this film features one of my new favorite romantic scenes--why is it so many of my favorites include Barbara Stanwyck?--and I admit my main reason for highlighting this film in particular is so I can talk about this lovely moment. Regina calls Mike up the night before his big race to invite him over, but she's having trouble reaching him; unbeknownst to her, the butler has just let him in. But before the butler can announce him, he picks up the hallway phone and pretends to have just gotten on the line she was trying to reach him at. And so, in a wonderfully framed long take, we see Mike in the hallway on the phone, just out of sight of Regina, who he--and we--can see reflected in a big round mirror hanging on the wall in front of him. For several minutes, we get a surprisingly risque, pre-Code style scene of her kind of rolling around on a divan, purring about what she's wearing and what she would do if he was there right now--turn down the lights, get warmed by the fire, get him to light her cigarette, hold his hands in hers. Eventually the whole thing becomes too much for Gable and he hangs up, sneaks up behind her, and kisses her. He then proceeds to act out her whole little fantasy, complete with narration in that cute, exited tone of his. It's such a sexy, beautiful scene, the kind that elevates an average film into something wonderful. The ending, as well, is quite notable: despite the conflict their respective careers have created in their relationship, the film ends by affirming their love for each other, while also confirming that neither one is going to give up their chosen profession. In an era where so many characters--mostly female, but sometimes male too--had to give up their careers to be "respectable" and settle down with someone, this ending stands out as something really refreshing.

To Please a Lady is a romantic, action-packed little star vehicle that I didn't expect to love--I was particularly unimpressed with the rather horrifying rendition of Gable on the original poster--however, there's enough here that made it a film well worth watching. I think fans of Stanwyck, Gable, car racing, and old Hollywood romance will all find something to appreciate here, and if you fall into one of those categories, this film comes recommended. This film can be found on DVD, and as a showing on TCM.


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