What it’s about:
My Reputation tells the story of a young widow, played by Barbara Stanwyck, who faces censure from her mother, her children, and pretty much the entire town when she meets a dashing Army captain and unexpectedly falls in love again.
What I liked about it:
The best thing about the theme of forbidden love is that it reminds us that another theme, the theme of conformity and rebellion, isn’t just for teenagers. Jess, a woman in her early thirties, becomes a widow when her husband dies following an extended illness. Though she has always conformed, Jess is nevertheless reminded early and often of what constitutes propriety for a woman in her situation and of what kind of treatment she can expect should she dare venture outside the bounds of acceptable behavior. As it turns out, she is tempted to do precisely that when she falls for Major Scott Landis, and Army officer she meets while vacationing at Lake Tahoe.
For Jess, widow-hood is a zero-sum game. She may be stuck navigating a cultural mine field while at the same time struggling with feelings of grief, loneliness, and despair, but for the men in her life, Jess’ new status simply marks her as a target of opportunity. For her mother, it offers a fresh chance to swoop in and take control, and, worst of all, for her children, when Jess tries to carve out a spot in her life for Major Landis, it only highlights the space that used to be occupied by their father. It’s a tough situation to be in, even by today’s standards. It’s uplifting then, and perhaps slightly subversive for a film made in 1941, how Jess is able not only to survive but to begin to self-actualize.
The turning point of the film occurs a little more than half way through. Having been seen–gasp–entering Major Landis’ apartment, she becomes the talk of the town and risks being ostracized, much as her friend Phyllis has been, for practicing her Philistine ways. Rather than back down, Jess tells her mother to go stuff it so far as wearing black goes and announces her intention to “give those old biddies something to gossip about.” Unfortunately for her, it’s not that easy, and by film’s end, she still comes up short of “happily ever after.” Major Landis must depart for New York en route to a deployment overseas. Having originally planned to go with him, Jess explains that her boys just wouldn’t understand. Instead, he agrees to return someday, and she agrees to wait for him. In terms of the scene itself, it’s about as Hollywood and ending as it gets, and will surely please fans of classic melodrama. Melancholy music plays as they frantically searches for each other. She finds him just as the train is about to depart, and they embrace and stare longingly after one another as the train slowly departs from the station.
Wait a minute, you might be thinking. What’s subversive about that? Seems pretty conventional. After all, rightly or wrongly, at the end of the day, Jess has done what is expected of her, sublimating her own needs to the needs of others. She doesn’t go riding off into the sunset with Blackjack Davey, and when her mother reminds her that “conventions were established because there was need for them,” she doesn’t argue. Nevertheless, it’s clear that whether Major Landis returns or not, Jess isn’t the same woman. She has found her voice, and not just the angry voice that’s ready to give the local biddies something to talk about. When she speaks to her boys about why she wanted to go with Major Landis to New York in the first place, she explains her own needs, calmly, cogently, and resolutely, in a manner that’s honest, true, and indicative of a woman who is fully self-aware. They may not understand yet, but she does. She is, in short, a complete contrast to the Jess from earlier in the film who is afraid because she no longer has anyone in her life to define herself through and who laments, “women on the loose can be such a mess.” This Jess isn’t a mess; she is radiant and confident and beautiful, a sentiment echoed by the oddly charming end of the film.
Speaking of radiant and confident and beautiful, Barbara Stanwyck was never more beautiful than she is in this movie. She’s absolutely breathtaking, and the supporting cast is stellar. Eve Arden and Lucile Watson, especially, are superb.