Jessica Drummond, a young widow living in suburban Chicago, confronts life alone with her two young sons until, on a skiing trip to Lake Tahoe, she meets an attractive army major, Scott Landis. Jessica pursues a relationship with him, contrary to the wishes of her friends and her mother. The small community of Lake Forest where she lives is alarmed as they don’t approve of Major Landis, and feel that Jessica hasn’t spent enough time in mourning for her recently deceased husband. Jessica must decide how she will live her life, and whether she cares more about her happiness or her reputation.
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“The whole town is talking ...”
“My Reputation” is a romantic melodrama about a woman desperately trying to break free from the narrow strictures of her conventional upper middle class background. It was based on a novel by Clare Jaynes entitled, “Instruct My Sorrow”, was adapted for the screen by another woman, Catherine Turney and became a powerful vehicle for one of the great female stars of the era, Barbara Stanwyck. Although Stanwyck was well known for her earthy, wise cracking roles in “Ball of Fire” (1941) or “The Lady Eve” (1941), for example, or for her dangerous femme fatale in “Double Indemnity” (1944), she was able to explore a quieter, more vulnerable aspect of her talent as Jessica Drummond. What’s notable about her portrayal of this emotionally fragile woman is that Stanwyck never descends into displaying mere weakness or maudlin sentimentality. There is an honesty and a freshness to her work here that is a hallmark of Barbara Stanwyck at her best.
Stanwyck is surrounded by a solid cast of studio stock players, most eminently Lucile Watson as her emotionally demanding mother who is obsessed with appearances. Eve Arden, who made a career out of playing the heroine’s best friend in many movies, plays Ginna, the one friend who sympathizes with Jessica throughout her ordeal. George Brent, as the love interest, the marriage shy army major, is in reliable form here. Brent was not an actor of great range, but he fulfilled the role of romantic suitor many times at Warner Brothers opposite their other great female star, Bette Davis. You can see why both directors and stars like Davis and Stanwyck wanted him for this kind of film. He was a good actor, but rather bland, and there was never any fear of his overshadowing the leading lady.
What’s interesting about this film now, apart from simply enjoying a mid-40s studio made “chick flick”, is the evidence it offers of an emerging realization by writers, in this case two women, of the dramatic possibilities to be found in the lives of fairly ordinary wives and mothers. These were women who were not queens or movie stars, not heiresses or courtesans. They were the women who made up the majority of the movie going audience and an interest in their stories would continue to provide Hollywood with a rich fount of material particularly in the work of Douglas Sirk in the 1950s (e.g. “All That Heaven Allows” 1955), through to Paul Mazursky’s “An Unmarried Woman” (1978) and in a much lighter vein, right up to TVs “Desperate Housewives”. None of this is to say that “My Reputation” was ahead of its time, however. It very much hews to the conventions of ‘40s films even as it is attempting to address the issue of rigid social conformity. The romance between Major Landis and Jessica must end in a marriage proposal, for example, even though the logic of his character and Jessica’s attraction to him has been that he resists conventional notions of happily ever after. The film is a typically melodramatic version of this genre. Nonetheless, amidst the histrionics, the glamorous Edith Head gowns and James Wong Howe’s elegant star lighting, the underlying fears and concerns of women who have been raised to be entirely defined by their marriages manage to seep through the film’s glossy surface. At one point Ginna (Eve Arden) says to Jessica:
“It just makes me sick the way you’ve let everyone manage you all your life. You’ve got to start being yourself for a change. Circumstances have altered your whole life. You’re no longer Mrs. Paul Drummond. You’re Jessica Drummond.”
Jessica herself pleads, “I’ve never had much chance to express me.”
It’s not hard to see why this film was popular in the immediate post World War II period. A lot of women were facing widowhood alone. It is a skillfully directed women’s picture which is still enjoyable today.