Fri 19 Feb 2010
STELLA. 20th Century-Fox, 1950. Ann Sheridan, Victor Mature, Leif Erickson, David Wayne, Randy Stuart, Marion Marshall, Frank Fontaine, Evelyn Varden. Based on the novel Family Skeleton (Doubleday Crime Club, 1949) by Doris Miles Disney. Screenwriter & director: Claude Binyon.
If there is a noir film that’s also an out-and-out comedy, not a black comedy, this one might be it. Or at least it would if it had more than the 20% noirish elements to it than I’d gauge that this one has.
Stella, as played by Ann Sheridan, is the center of the film, and if my 20% figure is right, she accounts for 95% of it. She’s Stella Bevans, in this one, the hard-working secretary of a real estate and insurance agent in an unnamed seashore community. By default, or so it seems, she’s also the “all but” fiancée of her boss, a rather uninspired if not inept fellow by the name of Fred Anderson Jr. (Leif Erickson).
Stella is also the main means of support for the rest of her family, her mother, two sisters, and the respective husbands of the latter (David Wayne and Frank Fontaine), two gentlemen who work only during the summer season, then spend the other nine months on unemployment insurance.
So Stella’s world-weary and disillusioned, and prone to fighting off her boss as he chases her around her desk after hours. Literally. Entering at precisely that moment is Jeff DeMarco (Victor Mature), an investigator from the home office, who’s been assigned to check up on Fred.
The new man in town is attracted, she’s not and she makes no bones about resisting his advances. All of which has nothing to do with the story, which really is about Uncle Joe, Stella’s mother’s no-good brother-in-law, who was killed in an accident, but fearing they wouldn’t be believed, Stella’s family, unbeknownst to her, buries him and claims he’s off on another of his binges.
And no matter how she turns, Stella finds herself getting deeper and deeper into supporting their story, the passing of time making it more and more difficult to tell the truth.
Where does the humor come in? As more and more dead bodies are found, Stella’s two brothers-in-law keep claiming them to be Uncle Joe, who as it also turns out, had a $10,000 life insurance policy, with double indemnity kicking in in case of accidental death.
I laughed out loud at least a couple of times, alone in a room by myself, and that almost never happens.
But stuck with Fred, unable to act on her growing attraction to Jeff, and fed up with the antics of her family, Stella finds nothing to smile about, a heroine in a tidal wave that’s slowly taking her further and further out to sea.
David Wayne’s knack for comedy I had not realized before, what with his wild schemes to collect the money (actually due them), he later to become Inspector Queen to Jim Hutton’s TV EQ. The other brother-in-law (Frank Fontaine) is the dopier one, but thankfully not as dopey later on as Crazy Guggenheim on The Jackie Gleason Show.
But it is the charmingly disillusioned-with-life Stella, played by the richly deep-voiced Ann Sheridan who’s the star here. Victor Mature is her co-star, but even he diminishes in star power whenever he’s in the same room with her.