As the saying goes, “Behind every great man stands a greater woman.” According to The Great Man’s Lady, behind every great man stands a Hannah Hoyt. She’s the quintessential “greater woman.”
The film’s opening titles read: “Meeting Hannah Hoyt, the great man’s lady, would not be so important if there were only one Hannah Hoyt; but, fortunately, the miracle of a Hannah Hoyt happens again and again, from generation to generation of American womanhood. Not only behind great men, but behind the ordinary guy — you will see a Hannah Hoyt. In her own small way, she will be helping, pointing the road ahead, encouraging her man to reach his own pinnacle of success.”
We’ve seen countless stories about the great men, but William Wellman’s 1942 film aims to finally tell the other side of the story. At 100 years of age, Hannah is interviewed by a young biographer and reflects on her life as the wife of legendary pioneer Ethan Hoyt. The Great Man’s Lady was written for the screen by W. L. River, from an original story by Adela Rogers St. Johns and Seena Owen, and a short story by Vina Delmar.
This film appears in The Barbara Stanwyck Collection from the Universal Backlot Series. The DVD set includes a few facts about each film; it is noted that to prepare for her scenes as an elderly woman, Stanwyck visited retirement homes and observed the behavior/mannerisms of elderly women.
Stanwyck doesn’t spend the entire film in age-transforming makeup, but her research for that part of the character was successful, contributing to yet another fantastic Stanwyck performance. The makeup used to transform her into an elderly woman is pretty well-done, and she’s very convincing throughout the decades of her character’s life. As an older Hannah, her voice is quieter than usual and slightly raspy, her movements slow and stiff. As young Hannah in the earliest stages of her romance with Ethan, she’s bright-eyed and excitable.
The character of Hannah is a great one. She’s incredibly strong, with a great sense of determination to make the dream of “Hoyt City” come true and the ability to adapt to any change that comes her way.
As for the film on the whole, it has a few issues that will stick out to the modern viewer. In her youth, Stanwyck’s character is cared for by an outspoken “mammy” — a role not much different than that played by Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind. There’s also quite a bit of talk about the “evil” tribes that will be faced by pioneers as the country expands Westward.
Despite these unnecessary stereotypes, the film is for the most part a wonderful watch. The chemistry between Stanwyck and her leading man, Joel McCrea, is great. They’re adorable and fun to watch together during the happiest times of their lives, and heartbreaking to watch when problems turn their lives upside down. The affection and genuine caring between their characters is so obvious that the couple is very easy to root for, even when the complications of life threaten to tear them apart for good.
A fine (and emotionally-effective) script, a bittersweet romance, and nice cinematography add to the appeal of The Great Man’s Lady, but the film’s strongest asset is “the great man’s lady” herself: Barbara Stanwyck in the strongly-performed and well-crafted character of Hannah Hoyt. The score: 4/5