Monday, July 22, 2013

A Clash of Passion - Barbara Stanwyck in "Clash by Night"

The Girl With the White Parasol blog is hosting a Barbara Stanwyck blogathon and nearly fifty bloggers have contributed posts about Ms. Stanwyck's films and her career. A testament to her continuing popularity. Barbara Stanwyck is a wonderful actress and my family and I enjoy watching her films whenever we can. One of my favorite films starring Miss Stanwyck is Fritz Lang's 1952 drama "Clash by Night". It is this film that I have chosen to highlight for the blogathon. 

Based on a 1941 play written by the great playwright/screenwriter Clifford Odets, the title was derived from an 1851 poem by Matthew Arnold entitled "Dover Beach" to describe a place "...where ignorant armies clash by night."

Miss Stanwyck plays Mae Doyle, a bitter, lonely woman who returns to her childhood home in Monterey, California after a ten year absence.

PEGGY: "I'm real glad you came back home Mae...Are you?"

MAE: "Am I what?"

PEGGY: "Glad you're home?"

MAE: "Home is where you come when you run out of places". ( Then Mae dumps her cigarette into her coffee cup. )

Within a short time, Mae finds herself torn between two men: Jerry, a kind-hearted fisherman ( played by Paul Douglas ) and Earl ( Robert Ryan ), a married man who works at the local cinema.

MAE: "You don't like women, do you?"

EARL: "Take any six of 'em, my wife included, and throw 'em up in the air. The one that sticks to the ceiling, I like....Here's to Jeremiah, whose heart's in the right place".

JERRY: "I can't drink to myself Earl".

EARL: "Well, let's drink to me. My heart's in the wrong place."

Mae and Earl are similar in nature and they are attracted to each other. You can feel the fiery passion burning between them whenever they are together.

EARL: "Jerry's the salt of the Earth but he's not the right seasoning for you."

MAE: "What kind of seasoning do I need?"

EARL: "You're like me. A dash of Tabasco and the meat tastes flat."

Though this may be the case, Mae marries Jerry and their wedding is a wonderful day to remember with great merriment, friendship and good food! My favorite quote at the wedding was said by Jerry's father:

JERRY'S FATHER: God...he made enough fish for everybody, vero?


JERRY'S FATHER: And he made enough wine for everybody, vero?


JERRY'S GUESTS: And he made enough love for everybody, eh? So fish, wine, love for everybody...Salut!

Within one year's time, Jerry and Mae welcome an adorable baby daughter and Earl obtains a divorce from his estranged wife. Though Mae has tried to be a good wife and mother, deep down she had a yearning for a man full of passion and adventure, qualities embodied by Earl. Despite her outward distaste for Earl, inwardly she finds herself strangely drawn towards him. She tries to control her feelings but, unfortunately, she fails and she and Earl embark on an affair.

Before long, Jerry finds out about his wife's affair and he is, understandably, devastated. The lives of three people hang in the balance: Will Mae take her daughter and leave Jerry and run away with Earl? Or will she decide to stay and make a new and better life with Jerry?

Barbara Stanwyck gives a superb performance as Mae by bringing deep emotions to the character. Mae is a lost soul. She doesn't know who she really is or what she really wants in life. At times, she can appear serene on the surface but a great storm is raging on deep down inside of her just waiting to come out. Mae is afraid of responsibility and she is constantly trying to run away from it. She is a selfish woman but it is not until her relationship with Earl becomes complicated that she realizes that her needs cannot always come first. There are other people, who are very dear to Mae, that she must now consider.

Joan Crawford was lined up to play Mae in the film version and I wonder what the film would have been like with her in the part, but I am very glad that Barbara Stanwyck made this part her own. She brings life to Clifford Odets's engrossing play and I consider it one of her finest film performances. 

"Clash by Night" features captivating performances by Barbara, Paul Douglas and Robert Ryan. A young and charming Marilyn Monroe is wonderful as Mae's friend Peggy. This was the first time in Marilyn's film career that her name appeared before the title in the credits. Keith Andes is well-cast as Mae's tough younger brother Joe.

Clifford Odets is a masterful writer having written such highly-acclaimed plays like: "Golden Boy", "The Big Knife" and "The Country Girl" among others. "Clash by Night" had 49 performances at the Belasco Theater in New York City from late 1941 until early 1942 with a star-studded cast which included: Tallulah Bankhead and Lee J. Cobb as Mae and Jerry Wilenski; Robert Ryan as Mae's brother Joe; Joseph Schildkraut as Earl Pfeiffer; and Seth Arnold and Ralph Chambers.

Screenplay writer Alfred Hayes helped bring Mr. Odets's play to the screen with great skill. It is filled with clever snappy dialogue. Some phrases hurt while others are smart and honest. Each character is able to say so much using a few well chosen words.

Fritz Lang is a highly-respected director of the silent era ( like 1927's "Metropolis")  and he is famous for such noir film classics like: "Ministry of Fear" ( 1944 ), "The Blue Gardenia" ( 1953 ) and "The Big Heat" ( 1953 ). In "Clash by Night", he captures the lives of three individuals caught in a love triangle which brings pain to all parties concerned. It was always Mr. Lang's goal to be able to visually tell a rich story on the silver screen. As he once told director/screenwriter Peter Bogdanovich, if he could watch his film with the sound turned off and be able to make sense of what was taking place onscreen, then he knew he had done a good job and Mr. Lang does that splendidly in "Clash by Night"! One need not listen to the sound to understand what the characters are going through in this tension-filled drama.

When the film was released in American movie theaters in June 1952, critics were not impressed by the picture but most agreed that Barbara Stanwyck did a fabulous job tackling the role of the emotionally-wrought Mae Doyle.

I like "Clash by Night" because it makes me sad, it makes me laugh and it makes me want to analyze my own life. What are my priorities in life? Am I doing my duty? Could I put aside my selfishness in order to make a better life for my loved ones?

"Clash by Night" teaches us about life's priorities and how important it is to push aside fear and face responsibility the best way we can. Maybe we'll never be perfect at it, but it is important that we give it our best effort.

Written by Diana Metzinger


  1. I love how this blogathon is introducing me to so many movies I want to see now! And this is definitely one I want to see, thanks to your great review. I've been doing a bit of mulling over my own priorities lately, so that aspect of this movie sounds like it might really resonate with me. I'll have to try to find it. Thanks!

    1. Thank you for your nice message! My sister and I are glad that our blog is helping to introduce you to classic movies you want to watch! That is the goal of our blog and it makes us happy that it is doing what we set out to do. "Clash by Night" is a great film and we hope you will be able to find it soon. We're sure you will enjoy it as much as we do!

  2. I really do feel like the "clash" between Robert Ryan and Barbara Stanwyck is one of the most memorable in Stanwyck's career since Ryan was one of the rare male costars who could match her blow for blow in a film. All three of the leads do strong work and some of the Odets dialogue is wonderfully strange and colorful ("Jerry's the salt of the earth but he's not the right seasoning for you"). It's not top work for either Odets or Lang. There's too much back-and-forthing in the final part of the movie, with characters choosing one way and then another. But I like your assessment of the film's essential message, that changes can be made and that we're strong enough to do it. Even if the movie is often classed as film noir, it's not really as fatalistic or cold as that genre usually is. Thanks for a great entry in the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon!

    1. Thank you for your comment regarding "Clash by Night". You are right that Clifford Odets's dialogue is colorful. He manages to pack a punch with each sentence. I haven't read the play, itself, though I would like to very much. Though some people think this film is a "noir", Peter Bogdanovich doesn't consider it to be a "noir" either. Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan are a great team and I especially like the romantic tension going on between them which they display in this film. They do a marvelous job and it is a pleasure to see these two amazing stars in action.