As cinephiles we’re aware of two truths: actors in biopics won’t look like their respective subjects and movies based on novels don’t often please fans of the book. This latter aphorism is truer if you’re dealing with the classic era. In 1923 author Willa Cather published A Lost Lady, a loving tribute to the end of colonialism wrapped up in the story of one woman’s search for love and independence. When Hollywood came calling to adapt it a decade later it came right as the Production Code had come into effect and fans of Cather’s novel knew as sure as they saw the PCA seal of approval that much of the text would be eradicated. To say A Lost Lady is a loose adaptation of Cather’s novel is like saying gravel is soft, and this could be pushed to the side if the film’s excision of the novel itself didn’t leave it looking like any number of maudlin romantic studio dramas. A Lost Lady is lost, indeed!
I’ve read Cather’s novel a few times – I took many a “Lost Generation” class where it was required reading – and while I haven’t read it in years I immediately knew this adaptation wasn’t interested in following Cather’s original story. The unnamed Mrs. Forrester in the novel is replaced with Barbara Stanwyck’s Marian Ormsby, a socialite about to be married only to have her fiance gunned down before her eyes. In shock, she’s taken to the mountains at the behest of Dr. Forrester (a pre-WIzard of Oz Frank Morgan), who finds himself “interested” in Marian. As Marian recuperates, Dr. Forrester attempts to convince her they should be married, and while Marian doesn’t love him she agrees because of his kindness. Eventually she meets the dashing Frank Ellinger (Ricardo Cortez), leaving Marian torn between her husband and her second chance at love.
Now, again, this isn’t Cather’s text. The original Lost Lady follows a young man named Niel who falls in love with Mrs. Forrester, or at least his conception of her. She’s married to the older Mr. Forrester – himself a strapping man of nature – but their relationship is one of mutual respect, not love. Eventually Niel discovers Mrs. Forrester is flawed – shocker! – after finding out she’s taken a lover. Her husband dies, she lets a new lover take over the farm the couple owned and eventually Niel learns a harsh lesson about people. Oh, and this is all supposed to be a metaphor for the loss of colonialism and the advent of the Industrial Revolution. The book’s a tough sell; the studio probably assumed audiences wouldn’t be interested in an extended allegory on the one hand, and a heroine whose infidelity is common knowledge wouldn’t work in the era of the Code. What to do? Throw out the text!
There are elements of this incarnation of A Lost Lady that work. The script is from Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola who penned Stanwyck’s pre-Code drama Baby Face (1933). And, in fact, Baby Face is this film’s smuttier cousin. Marian Ormsby’s advantageous marriage and her love triangle are tamer iterations of her character’s plight in Baby Face. Even the film’s climax, with Forrester’s heart attack compelling Marian to realize she truly loves him, plays like the end of Baby Face. (Although where Baby Face’s ending was tacked on to appease censors, this seems like a planned turn of events.) Barbara Stanwyck’s projects post-Baby Face aren’t often the best, but she’s swathed in some incredible gowns and gives an affecting performance. The script might not sell the relationship between Marian and Dr. Forrester, but Stanwyck makes it work. Her and Frank Morgan have a tender relationship despite their gaping age difference. Stanwyck is left to sell nearly all the romances, which come and go like the wind. Lyle Talbot shows up for two scenes, one an introduction to Marian and the next his reveal that he’s leaving town due to his staggering love for her. How this happened in all of thirty seconds is a mystery. The arrival of Ricardo Cortez gives the feature a brief romantic anchor, and Cortez is solid at playing good-looking men despite his lack of charisma.
Willa Cather died in 1947 and based off her disappointment with this feature she added an addendum to her will that no movie, radio or stage play could adapt her works. It’s unfortunate because Cather’s books are vital and underrated tomes worth reading. A Lost Lady doesn’t work as a Cather adaptation, but as a film spotlighting why Barbara Stanwyck was an icon, it works 100%.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.