For the Ladies – The Hard Way (1943)

The Hard Way PosterHeterosexual romance often takes center stage in movies targeted to the ladies, but can also take a back seat to a more central female relationship. Portrayals of friendship are an important part of the women’s picture, but so are depictions of rivalry and duplicity. Add the complicated relationships of sisters, and you have a mix of love and jealousy that can tear apart even the closest siblings. In The Hard Way, sisters Helen (Ida Lupino) and Katie (Joan Leslie) love each other dearly, but cannot help destroying each other in their quest for a better life.

The girls start out in Green Hill, an industrial city where grime and soot are a way of life. Helen married early, and has come to regret her decision to settle down with working stiff Sam. He’s a good guy, but rough, and as hard as he works, they don’t seem to have much. They’ve taken in Helen’s sister Katie, and money is so tight they cannot afford to get her a new dress for graduation. Helen warns her sister not to make the same mistakes she did, but is powerless to change her own life, let alone Katie’s. Katie shares Helen’s wish to make something more of their lives, and this desire is reinforced when she meets the vaudeville comedy team of Albert Runkel (Jack Carson) and Paul Collins (Dennis Morgan). Katie and Albert fall for each other, and rather than discouraging the relationship, Helen sees Albert as a way to get her sister out of town. She helps them get married and then leaves with them, intending to watch over her sister’s new career.

And watch over her sister she does. She convinces Albert and Paul to include Katie in their act, and eventually manages to get Paul to leave. Whenever any opportunity arises to move her sister ahead, she takes it; there is nothing Helen won’t do to make Katie a success. Helen views Albert as a meal ticket, and when the time comes, she creates an opportunity where her sister can perform in a New York show without him. Albert encourages Katie to strike out on her own, because he erroneously believes that he can keep her affections; he has no idea Helen has been scheming against him and soon he will be nothing but a nuisance to his successful wife. His career goes on a downward spiral, and he kills himself rather than trade on the name of a woman who he thinks no longer loves him. Katie becomes more and more unhappy, carousing and drinking too much, and Helen has a hard time getting her to focus on the career that supports them both. Paul Collins reenters the scene, and the feelings both women have for him complicate their relationship even further.

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This is one of my favorite Ida Lupino movies, and she shines here as the hard-loving Helen. While this is a really good movie, wonderfully directed by Vincent Sherman, it is very much about the perils of ambition for women. Helen is almost a caricature of the ruthless, ambitious stage mother. She will sleep with whatever man needs sleeping with in order to get Katie a break. At one point, when a man trying to make an assignation with her asks “Aren’t we good friends?”, she replies, “You know I’m my only good friend.” She lies, uses people, and destroys a man’s life to escape the grinding poverty of her early life, and while she says she does it all for Katie, it’s obvious that she’s working hard to protect herself, as well. She cannot see that she is using Katie just as hard as she uses everyone else, and she pays a heavy price in the end for her lack of self-awareness.

Katie is none too innocent in all of this. Helen may be the one with the Machiavellian plans, but little sister sure doesn’t ask very many questions. She lets Helen maneuver her away from Albert, and when Paul confronts her about her faithlessness, she doesn’t have much to say. She seizes the opportunities as they come and never really pauses to consider how all of it came about. It’s not until Helen steers her away from Paul—he makes the mistake of forcing her to choose between him or appearing in a play her sister is producing—that she rebels at all. She gives up her stage ambitions to marry him, and because she is willing to take her happiness from a man rather than her career, she is suitably rewarded. Her ambition was fine in the end, because she was willing to give it up for marriage, the only suitable focus for a woman’s drive.

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Both sisters are desperate to leave their crappy town, and then later their sordid lives, but the movie only gives them two ways to accomplish it: total ruthlessness or self-abnegation in marriage. Neither one is allowed to find fulfillment in a career. Nor are they allowed to seek true companionship or comfort in each other. There are no real friendships between women here. The sisters use each other to get ahead in the world, and they use other women in the same manner. There is a great scene when Katie has a bit part in a play and Helen sees an opportunity to get her a bigger role. An older chanteuse, Lily, has only one song in the production and is insecure about her fading appeal. Helen meets up with her over lunch, gets her drunk, and watches as Lily completely botches the rehearsal. As soon as Lily is kicked off the show, Helen is right there to suggest her sister as the replacement.

As enjoyable as this movie is—and I feel it deserves to be much more well-known—it is pretty bleak. Women who stray outside the home and marriage are soundly punished, and there is no support system of other women to prop them up during the hard times. For all the women’s pictures that slyly subverted the notions of a woman’s role during the mid-twentieth century, there are just as many that strove to reinforce the status quo. The Hard Way works wonderfully on a surface level as a show-business melodrama, but it is also an interesting artifact from a time when a woman’s desire to make more of her life was viewed as a dangerous thing.

Availability: The Hard Way is available for purchase as part of the Warner Brothers Archive Collection and plays every now and then on Turner Classic Movies.


Adelaide enjoys watching all kinds of movies, but is never going to see Titanic unless there is a sizable amount of money involved.

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