1940s · 1947 · classic film · favorite actresses · women in film

On the edge: Susan Hayward in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947)

There’s a moment in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman when Angie (Susan Hayward) glares at her reflection, so consumed with guilt and self loathing that her gaze is piercing enough to shatter the glass. The mirror never breaks though. Angie just gazes stonily at the sodden woman looking back at her. It’s her, not the mirror, that eventually shatters.

Susan Hayward’s acting is often characterized as “over the top.” Most people think she lacked subtlety. Watch her in Deadline at Dawn (1946), Ada (1961), or I Thank a Fool (1963). She was able to rein it in on occasion. But I don’t have a problem with her more screechy performances. Those are the ones that I enjoy the most. From what I’ve seen, she typically played catty/scheming/unsympathetic women early on in her career, like in Girls on Probation (1938, practically a walk on role but still important), Adam Had Four Sons (1941) I Married a Witch (1942), and The Hairy Ape (1944). But the character type she’s most associated with is the battered woman with lots of fight left in her. She received her first Oscar nomination playing this type in Smash-Up, a film loosely based on the life of Bing Crosby’s first wife, Dixie Lee.

Comparisons were drawn between this film and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945), since both tackled alcoholism and its ravaging effects.

Angie Evans is a popular nightclub singer who drinks to steady her nerves. She’s madly in love with Ken (Lee Bowman), a struggling songwriter. When the two are married, Angie gives up her career and becomes a full time mother to daughter Angel. While Angie retreats from the spotlight, it sheds its beam on Ken. His newfound success should be cause for celebration, but it just further intensifies Angie’s insecurities. Alcohol is there to numb the bevy of feelings overwhelming her.

Angie’s addiction is like slow torture. It wrings the life out of this magnetic woman until she’s nothing more than a hollow shell. She can’t even summon the will to seek help. She neglects her child. But Ken, so absorbed in his new celebrity, neglects his suffering wife too. She disgusts him. And it seems as if he has no need for her. Martha Gray (Marsha Hunt) is his capable secretary, and Angie grows suspicious about their relationship.

Marsha Hunt (still alive at 98!) was so pretty. In this film she reminds me a little of a fox with her thin, sharp features and sneering mouth.

Martha’s cool poise starkly contrasts with Angie’s self destructive bent. Martha emanates a smug quality of strength. This is a woman who doesn’t suffer from weakness and if she does, it’s carefully concealed. She regards Angie with thinly veiled contempt. Angie sees through it of course. Her feelings towards Martha lay right on the surface. She even attacks Martha at one point, submerged in alcohol soaked fury.

One thing most notable about this film besides Susan’s performance is the cinematography by Stanley Cortez. He also worked on one of my all time favorite films, The Night of the Hunter (1955). The nightmarish shots in that film helped to create an atmosphere of enchanted terror. In Smash-Up, the glaring lights and grim shadows pull us deep into Angie’s turmoil. We even witness the bleary confines of her mind; distorted images and shapes swim before her as she spends a restless night in bed. Cortez described this technique:

“We had a scene in which the heroine is lying in bed and mumbling. She’s having a nightmare, and I went to my doctor to ask him what happens in a person’s mind when he is drunk. He told me about the flashing of lights across the brain, and I had lights actually inside the lens. I conducted a kind of symphony of light over her.” (source)


Typically, the happy ending wraps everything up nicely. There’s nothing wrong with some much deserved peace for our beleaguered heroine, but it’s almost insincere.
A much more weepy melodrama than The Lost Weekend to be sure, Smash-Up is still worth watching. Susan Hayward paints a vivid portrait of turmoil in all its shades. Angie is miserable to watch but she never becomes a caricature. The battered women that Susan embodied fought their demons publicly. These women never shuffled off to the sides to suffer quietly. Even as Angie teeters on the precipice, she claws her way back from the edge. This is not a woman to be pitied.

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