Watching 1939: Stronger Than Desire (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: 
Stronger Than Desire (1939)

Release date: 
June 30, 1939

Cast: 
Virginia Bruce, Walter Pidgeon, Lee Bowman, Ann Dvorak, Ilka Chase, Ann E. Todd (billed as Ann Todd), Rita Johnson, Richard Lane, Paul Stanton, Ferike Boros, Barbara Bedford (uncredited), Tom Neal (uncredited),

Studio: 
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director: 
Leslie Fenton

Plot:
Elizabeth Flagg (Bruce) is the wife of successful lawyer Tyler Flagg (Pidgeon). Tyler stays busy with his cases and Elizabeth gets bored. To pass the time, she is courted by Michael McLain (Bowman). On the eve of traveling to Europe with her family, Michael blackmails Elizabeth for letters she wrote him. She shoots him, but Michael’s wife Eva (Dvorak) is accused of killing her husband.

1939 Notes:
• Also in 1939, Virginia Bruce and Walter Pidgeon starred together in Society Lawyer (1939). Both films were produced by John W. Considine Jr.
• Director Leslie Fenton started directing full-length feature films in 1939. This was his second film released in 1939 and one of three that he directed that year.
• One of two films Ann Dvorak starred in 1939.
• Ann E. Todd was billed as Ann Todd. This is one of seven films she starred in 1939.
• Rita Johnson was in seven films released in 1939.
• The only film Ilka Chase starred in 1939, and it was her first film since 1936. Chase was at MGM to reprise her stage role of Sylvia Fowler in the screen version of “The Women.” When the role went to Rosalind Russell instead, Chase was cast in this film.
• Walter Pidgeon was in four films released in 1939.
• Virginia Bruce was in three films in 1939. “Stronger Than Desire” was Bruce’s last film under contract with MGM.

Virginia Bruce and Ilka Chase in “Stronger than Desire.”

Other trivia: 
• Version of Evelyn Prentice (1934), which was based on a novel by W.E. Woodward.
• Robert Montgomery was originally set to star in the film, but was replaced by Walter Pidgeon, according to the book Virginia Bruce: Under My Skin by Scott O’Brien.
• Ann Dvorak was directed by her husband in this film, Leslie Fenton. Dvorak and Fenton were married from 1932 to 1946. This was the first time Fenton had directed Dvorak, according to the book Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel by Christina Rice

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Remakes often are pale in comparison to the original film. But that isn’t the case with the film “Stronger Than Desire” (1939).

The W.E. Woodward novel was first adapted for film in 1934 with “Evelyn Prentiss” starring Myrna Loy, William Powell and Rosalind Russell in Russell’s first ever film role.

Unlike most Loy and Powell films, “Evelyn Prentiss” is not a comedic romp. It has an air of depression and darkness.

But “Stronger Than Desire” (1939) is different. While certainly not a comedy, “Stronger Than Desire” has more energy. Walter Pidgeon is upbeat and oblivious that his wife is suffering from loneliness. Virginia Bruce plays the suffering wife in an understated manner and doesn’t overact.

Ann Dvorak, as the woman accused of killing her husband, is terrific. Her tears on the witness stand are heartbreaking. She suffers through the entire film as the wife of a louse. I would argue that she may steal the show in this film. Dvorak also looks gorgeous in this film. Lee Bowman is deliciously despicable, and you have no sympathy for him.

An interesting character is Bruce’s friend, Jo Brennan, performed by stage star Ilka Chase. The role is pleasant but thankless for an actress of the caliber of Chase. However, this isn’t the role Chase came to Hollywood to take. She hoped to star in the character she originated in the stage version of “The Women,” but it went to Rosalind Russell instead.

“Stronger Than Desire” isn’t the greatest film of 1939, but it’s exciting and entertaining. Hold tight for a plot twist at the end.

Cast photo of “Stronger Than Desire”

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2 thoughts on “Watching 1939: Stronger Than Desire (1939)

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