Review: William A. Wellman’s “The Great Man’s Lady,” Starring Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea

Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck in
Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck in "The Great Man's Lady"

The Great Man’s Lady starts with a compelling idea from a short story by Viña Delmar: an elderly woman recounts her life supporting a beloved senator, and how without her, the man never would have amounted to anything. But as scripted by W.L. River, the film absolutely drowns in sentiment, never managing to satisfactorily explore the few characters it follows.

Paramount reunited the stars of Union Pacific for the film, Barbara Stanwyck playing the Lady, and Joel McCrea her Great Man—Hannah and Ethan Hoyt, respectively. Hoyt sweeps Hannah off her feet in Philadelphia in 1848 with his dreams of building a new city out west, but she quickly discovers that despite all his charms, he barely has a clue. Case in point: they make plans to use their last hundred dollars to go to California and pan for gold, but moments later, Hoyt goes off and blows it all gambling. Hannah is forced to go herself and win it back from the same gambler (Brian Donlevy, also from Union Pacific). With Hannah constantly cleaning up Hoyt’s messes, one expects the film to eventually condemn him as unworthy of all his later praise, and raise her up as the true brilliant mind of the Hoyts. Instead, the film opts for tragedy, its second half becoming a vastly inferior melodrama.

Even worse is the bookended structure of the film. A Stanwyck caked in old-age makeup plays Hannah at nearly a hundred years old, telling her story to a young biographer (Katharine Stevens). The extensive makeup, by Charles Gemora, may be impressive for the time, but Stanwyck’s voice and movements are all wrong—a blight on an otherwise exceptional performance. She commands the screen, as usual, and in a smaller more performance-driven film than Union Pacific, McCrea is no match for her.

Barbara Stanwyck in a gown designed by Edith Head
Barbara Stanwyck in a gorgeous gown designed by Edith Head

Working under director William A. Wellman, the film does contain some exceptional craftsmanship. Edith Head’s gowns for Stanwyck were gorgeous as usual, while cinematographer William C. Mellor had a rare chance to show what he was capable of. Paramount underutilized him early in his career, but The Great Man’s Lady showcased the same exceptional ability that won him two Oscars in the fifties working with director George Stevens. The music by Victor Young is one clear weak spot, a completely overbearing score that only hurts scenes in dire need of help.

“It broke my heart,” Stanwyck said of the film’s failure.1 She was proud of her work, but Paramount could tell the movie overall was lousy. They shelved it for almost a year, and watching The Great Man’s Lady Today, it’s frankly hard to blame them.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

For More on The Great Man’s Lady

Read the review in The New York Times

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Axel Madsen, Stanwyck (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 200.