The concept of the stage mother is one which has enjoyed great on-screen success, especially during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Scheming stage mothers provide juicy roles for actresses of a certain age; they can dramatically push, wheedle, and threaten their progeny to the top of their profession, until the inevitable discovery of the mother`s selfishness by the exhausted child, a discovery usually prompted by the daughter`s desire to marry some upstanding young man who believes in the girl`s right to “have her own life.“ And many of these staple plot devices are found in the 1951 film Hard, Fast and Beautiful, a black-and-white drama starring Claire Trevor as the ambitious mother of a very pretty and accomplished tennis-playing daughter (Sally Forrest).
The picture opens in a sunny little California town, as young Florence Farley (Forrest) meets a fellow high-school graduate, Gordon McKay (Robert Clarke), who is smitten with her good looks and her matching skills at tennis. He invites her to the country club, much to the delight of her socially ambitious mother Milly Farley (Claire Trevor). Through Florence`s success in the club tennis matches, she comes to the attention of an amateur-tennis trainer, a smooth operator who meets a willing accomplice in Milly; together the two concoct a scheme to gain wealth through the girl`s continued success in tennis championships, despite the fact that amateur tennis players cannot be financially compensated or endorsed for their work. They conceal their mercenary plot from Florence, who is struggling to balance her flourishing career with her plans to marry Gordon (which mean quitting tennis) and her enforced absence from her loving father (Kenneth Patterson) as she travels around the country with her mother and trainer to play important matches.
One of the film`s chief claims to fame is the fact that it was directed by pioneering female director Ida Lupino, who first achieved success as a top-ranking actress in the 1940s in Warner Brothers films (perhaps wishing to follow in Hitchcock`s footsteps, she and Robert Ryan make an unexpected cameo appearance in the film as spectators at one of the tennis matches). Interestingly enough, Lupino herself gave one of the most memorable performances in the pantheon of stage mothers in the 1943 melodrama The Hard Way, albeit as an older sister rather than a mother. In that film, Lupino portrays a character who is determined that her little sister will become a great theatrical star and is absolutely ruthless in her quest to make that dream a reality.
There are a good deal of similarities between that earlier picture and this one–it is highly possible that Lupino carried over some of her thoughts on playing the role into her direction of this film. Chief among these similarities are a perhaps sympathetic view (at least to some degree) of the scheming female, and the scheming female`s use of her own youth and beauty to further her protegee`s career. Unlike many stage mother sagas, in which the older woman is of matronly age and appearance, Hard, Fast and Beautiful gives us, in Claire Trevor`s Milly Farley, a woman who still young enough and attractive enough to make success both easier to achieve and sweeter to taste.
Early in the film we learn that Milly married at 17; her daughter has recently graduated from high school, so this places Milly at around 36 years of age. And Claire Trevor is no stranger to the art of glamor; indeed, her clothes (and hats) sometimes threaten to eclipse her daughter`s. And this new, stylish life is what she wants, of course; from the beginning of the picture, Milly sees her marriage as stifling, a bad decision which she took too early and which has prevented her from getting the things she desires.
A cleverly blocked scene early on in the film shows the emotional gulf between husband and wife. The couple are seen in their bedroom, as Milly paints her nails at her dressing table. Later, her poor husband tentatively stretches out his hand to touch hers (extended, claw-like, to let the nails dry), but quickly pulls it back, obviously recalling previous unpleasant occasions when he interfered with the sacred processes of drying polish. If ever an essay is written on the significance of nail polish as a symbol of decaying or flawed romantic relationships in film, this scene should be one of the main exhibits.
The problem with the film`s central premise–yet perhaps what gives it the most depth–is that the story is, to some extent, unfair. Although Milly is pushy and opportunistic, her punishment ultimately seems disproportionate to her sins. In the first place, her wishes for her daughter do not seem terribly wrong at all (although her methods are another matter entirely). It is true that the girl is very young for marriage, and her relatively sheltered life seems to have given her little opportunity for comparing her chosen husband (himself quite youthful) with other choices. The absolute certainty of the young that their current romantic interest is also their destined spouse is an age-old problem, and given Milly`s own regret at her early marriage, one would think that her daughter would be grateful that she is given a chance to explore other possibilities, or at least a chance to make sure that she would be making the right choice. It`s terrible that Florence is being used for her mother`s ends, but she would be wiser to recognize the root of the problem than merely to rage at the consequences.
Additionally, Florence undergoes a rapid shift after she ends her engagement, briefly becoming as unpleasant and cynical as she once was bright and sweet. This change is ominous, suggesting that she has inherited more than her beauty from her mother. She and her mother have reversed roles; now it is Florence who is bitter and discontented. Yet attributing her sudden transformation to her shattered dreams is too easy an answer; early on we see that she herself is not above using her talent to make a little money, and her sudden switch from sweet ingenue to a clever, sarcastic star fully aware of her power makes one wonder if she isn`t destined to replay her mother`s mistakes herself, despite her loudly declared contempt for Milly.
Still, the film is unusual largely because of its apparent refusal to let the “good“ characters remain good. Milly is finally rejected by both her husband and her daughter, and subtly becomes the focus of the audience`s sympathy; true, she has been a scheming and dishonest trickster, but her ultimate loneliness is still moving, perhaps because her ambitions are so easily perceived as normal by the spectator. The movie is about the American Dream of wealth, fame, and success–and how a mother can vicariously experience them through her child. But what the audience will realize is that Florence not only is allowed to gain and bathe in that wealth, fame, and success through her mother`s efforts, but is also permitted to relinquish those glories in order to pursue another other part of the American Dream–marriage, parenthood, domesticity, and personal integrity. Her cavalier abandonment of her mother at the picture`s end is as unfair as it is convenient–although she has tasted the fruits of success, she refuses to acknowledge that she has been at all complicit in their slightly illegal harvesting. Once more we have the suggestion of a role reversal or change, the mother and daughter as the two sides of a single coin, two phases of a certain kind of woman.
Although very interesting, this film is by no means perfect; indeed, a better film would have explored the situation and its ramifications in more depth and detail. Mr. Farley`s principles and paternal love are somewhat diluted by his passivity during most of the film; it`s always a bad sign if a character has to develop a heart condition to validate his moral convictions. The romance between Florence and her boyfriend is rather unappealing, leading us to side more with Milly than perhaps we ought, and while we are led to suspect that there is more than meets the eye in Milly`s relationship with her daughter`s trainer, this is never confirmed. Combined, these things can cause one to weigh certain elements of the picture either too heavily or too lightly, to bad effect; either we side too much with the mother or we are not sufficiently aware of her true depravity. A richer film would have elaborated on the moral ambiguity that does exist in the picture while being less didactic about the stance the audience should take in regards to its characters, giving a steadier voice to these intriguing, whispered indications that all is not as straightforward as connoisseurs of the stage-mother picture might think.