Based on an unpublished story by Erich Maria Remarque, 1947’s The Other Love is a Barbara Stanwyck film that up until this Olive Films Blu-ray release was very hard to come by, so fans will no doubt be thankful.
So good in the “women’s pictures” typical of the time, unfortunately not even Stanwyck can find her footing in this tonally uncertain production which barely plays as the bittersweet romance intended by the filmmakers, littered as it is with psychological horror red herrings.
The first release from the then-new indie outfit Enterprise Productions (founded by MGM founder Marcus Loew’s son David), seemingly made its first and biggest mistake in putting one-eyed genre maverick Andre de Toth at the helm. The tough, violently unsentimental director of House of Wax and hardboiled noirs like Pitfall shows himself to be entirely unsuited to this type of material for which Douglas Sirk would have been the natural choice. Sirk’s own There’s Always Tomorrow with Stanwyck is esteemed by many (including this writer) as the single best women’s picture of all time, but The Other Love wouldn’t even make the list.
Karen Duncan’s (Stanwyck) career as a famous concert pianist is cut short when she’s committed to a sanitarium in Switzerland after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. The disease is never mentioned by name, and the silence of her doctor Anthony Stanton (David Niven) initially implicates him as being in cahoots with the manager/mentor who sent her there, more concerned with getting Karen back on stage than her health.
From the moment Karen enters Dr Stanton’s care, something about this clinic in the mountains and the people who staff it feels sinister. Upon her arrival, a daily standing order of orchids to Karen’s room is revealed to be from a man who died months ago, to a woman who died the day before in Karen’s bed. As Karen slowly finds herself smitten with her doctor, so too it turns out, is every woman on Stanton’s watch. When Celestine (Joan Lorring), Karen’s next door neighbour points out that Stanton’s charm is divided equally among the female patients (“ten drops with every meal”), it’s hard not to picture him poisoning their food with a pipette.
Later, when Karen dares question his recommended recovery method, Stanton tells her she has no free will any more and that he will make all her decisions for her, just as if he were prescribing a mild sedative. Stanton’s mutual attraction is supposed to be a violation of ethics in the name of love, but every one of his amorous declarations have a ring of covetous menace. Not talking with any truthfulness about the seriousness of Karen’s condition, Stanton gives his patient hopes for tomorrow only so he might selfishly keep her the way he wants her to be in her final days.
Against doctor’s orders, Karen goes off the reservation, only to return later through a back entrance and find two orderlies carting off another body. Connect this with one of the nurses whose bedside manner sounds like barely veiled threats, and it all starts to come together like a paranoid psychodrama in which the patients are being bumped off one by one, and Karen is said to be going crazy by all those around her, the only one who knows the awful truth. More Rosemary’s Baby or Repulsion than Dark Victory, there’s no need for tissues during this supposed tearjerker, which even contains a scene of attempted rape.
In Separate Tables, David Niven won an Oscar for his moving portrayal a creep who was only comfortable around women in the dark. In The Other Love, the actor just seems thoroughly creeped out by his character, quietly doing his best to lend what dignity he can. Richard Conte’s playboy racecar driver Paul Clermont doesn’t come off much better. Treating Karen as another accessory of his decadent lifestyle, he’s like a Bond villain whose been practicing his pick-up lines; his best (“I love you – the words took nine tenths of a second to say, yet there are years in them”) only bettered by Karen’s response (“I can’t face an unknown future with an un-powdered nose”).
Both of her lovers seem to fall in line with the men in Karen’s life, namely Bach, Brahms and Beethoven, and are just as demanding. When Paul whisks Karen off to Monte Carlo to booze and gamble the rest of her life away, Stanton gets jealous and tries to keep her there. Telling Paul that a proposed trip to Egypt would kill her is not something done out of love, but desperation to have her for himself. Karen’s eventual decision not to risk her life for love and return to the clinic is only because she has no idea what love is. That other love of the title is all she’s ever known from the tender age of sixteen, when it’s implied that her much older manager/mentor kissed her at the piano and has kept her ever since.
The film’s false advertising sets up a choice between two types of love, when in fact both suitors are only out to possess Karen as she has been before. The final scene of Karen now married to Dr Stanton and playing house to the romantic swell of Miklos Rozsa’s score is a Stockholm syndrome picture postcard, suggesting that in the end, de Toth knew exactly what he was making, even if none of his collaborators and very few members of the audience were on the same page.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on July 29, 2014