In preparation for the Supporting Actress Smackdown’s return, I remain immersed in all things 1952 (the upcoming Smackdown target year). In this case, a ‘52 film hardly anyone ever talks about.
“My Man and I” is an odd kettle of fish. It touches on hot button issues like racism, violence and alcoholism. But it’s served up by early 50’s MGM – a studio forever tripping over its starched petticoats, keen as mustard to meet the Hayes Code more than half-way. So the script’s full of pussy-footing , seasoned with regular dollops of wave-that-flag. It’s also patly condescending in its endorsement of ethnic stereotypes as a source of sideline comic relief and sentimentality. And, of course, Metro being Metro, the whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle’s overlit like mad. But it’s got a strong director, William Wellman – a guy with a reputation for being tough on actors. Was this the case here? Who knows? But his four principals all deliver admirably in fairly unpromising circumstances.
Ricardo Montalban’s not the first name that comes to mind when you think of great acting. And he’s got an almost impossible part here. The character’s basically a Mexican-born Pollyanna, eternally beaming about his new U.S. citizenship papers, brandishing a letter from the White House, delivering unsolicited civics lesson at the drop of a hat. And yet – against all odds - he kind of makes it work. Of course, he’s got that insistently appealing voice. But what Montalban radiates (beyond impressive looks and gentlemanly sex appeal) is a kind of good-natured serenity. Pre-“Star Trek “, wrath was generally not part of his thing. In “My Man and I”, Montalban savours dubious dialogue as if he really believes it. Lines that would’ve defeated a more accomplished but less intrinsically sunny actor. Sincerity really does count for a lot. Plus he never seemed to convey arrogance, the stock in trade of Metro’s other Latin Lover, Fernando Lamas . Not to say that didn’t have its appeal. But Montalban generally gave off nice guy vibes , politely spiced with Latin aptitud. One reason both fit comfortably into early 50’s Metro was that each had talents that could be plugged into the studio’s (then peaking) movie musical cycle. Montalban danced superbly (he partnered Cyd Charisse several times); Lamas was a fine singer. But Montalban probably benefited most from the Metro association because occasionally he was able to wangle a solid dramatic vehicle. Like “Border Incident” and “Mystery Street”, both atypically gritty for MGM and both pretty darn good.
The script of “My Man and I” isn’t anywhere near the quality of those two, mainly following, as it does, the implausible romance between Montalban and Shelley Winters. She’s a depressed, down-market lush (when we first meet her she can’t scare up two bucks to pay her bar bill) and a terminal bellyacher. Never afraid to look like ten miles of bad road, Shelley dives right in, no looking back. Of course, this kind of role’s right up her alley. But she never gives the impression of just going through the motions. Sloppy, whiny, playing sick as a dog in parts of the film, she’s nothing if not invested. Ready at all times to slosh a bucket or two of noirish suds all over the proceedings. I like it.
On the basis of versatility and ubiquity in the 50’s, Wendell Corey might easily be called a utility player. But that phrase sells him short. He was a genuine artist, with a seamless knack for fleshing out roles, supplying depth and recognizable humanity. Often beyond anything in the script. And that applied to whatever role he was handed – genial neighbour, callous villain or anything in between. Just watch him as a disturbed man stalking Rhonda Fleming through a mid-50’s nightscape in “The Killer is Loose”. It’s a portrayal so unhinged, so genuinely loopy, you’d swear at moments he’d come completely unmoored. Yet it’s his performance that really gives “The Killer is Loose” what claim it has to being bona fide art. Corey’s brand of professional honesty often made him the focal point of audience interest and /or sympathy no matter where his name was in the billing. Time and time again, he refused point blank to disappear into the woodwork in vehicles custom- created to showcase leading ladies like Crawford, Stanwyck, Margaret Sullavan or Loretta Young. I remember how sensational Corey was in 1948’s “The Accused”. As a matter of fact, it still makes me grumpy when I remember that it was Robert Cummings, not Corey, that Loretta Young wound up with at the end of that picture. But don’t get me started on Robert Cummings, a performer always at sea in drama - and forever compounding the offense by being so smugly, infuriatingly unaware of the fact.
Anyway, Corey lends his welcome presence to “My Man and I”, teamed here with veteran Claire Trevor. These two are nothing if not pro’s. Virtually never bad. Wellman gets them to go the extra mile, too – if not, in these circumstances, to greatness – at least to a serious level of excellence. They’re cast as a hard-bitten couple here (I think the script says married 17 years). Eking out a living as none too industrious tenant farmers on a barren lot that looks like Tobacco Road ,California branch. These two have spent most of that time sniping at each other – and getting pretty good at it.
Corey: “ I could use some help around here”.
Trevor: “Doing what? Drinking beer?”
Corey: “Why don’t you go make a bed?”