I was first introduced to the zany Mrs. Winterbourne by a good friend of mine. We giggled over the ridiculous plot, the fun overacting of Ricki Lake, the suaveness of Brendan Fraser – all of the things that make Mrs. Winterbourne its fabulous self. It’s an entertaining, lighthearted, and strange movie. It’s fun to see Ricki Lake and Brendan Fraser in full 90s getup attempting to set up a plot about unwed mothers, literal train wrecks, domestic abuse, and murder into a screwball comedy.
Years later, I would search Netflix for “noir” and scroll through a list of noir films. No Man of Her Own caught my eye, a 1950 film starring the ever-moody and beautifully tense Barbara Stanwyck. It was somewhere around the train accident that I started to experience a strange sense of déjà vu. Sure enough, the desperate pregnant woman wakes up panicked and decidedly un-pregnant at a hospital, only to find herself misidentified as a dead man’s wife.
What, I thought to myself, is going on here? Could Mrs. Winterbourne be a remake?!
No, it turns out, it’s not.
Mrs. Winterbourne and No Man of Her Own are both based on the same book, I Married a Dead Man, written by Cornell Woolrich and published in 1948. This book is firmly described as a drama, appropriate for a story dealing with mistaken identity, blackmail, and murder. No Man of Her Own definitely sticks more closely to the original spirit of Woolrich’s novel. [Full disclosure: I haven’t read the novel]
The broad details of the movie are, of course, the same. An unmarried pregnant woman is rejected by the baby’s father. She takes a one-way train away from a nasty ex-boyfriend and meets a charming, rich couple. The female half of the couple is also pregnant, leading to bonding between our protagonist and the other lady. The charming couple is killed in a terrible train accident, but our protagonist survives and is mis-identified as the other woman . She gives birth in the hospital while in a coma, and wakes to find that it has been arranged for her and the baby to be taken in by the family of the dead couple. She and the baby are welcomed into the family’s home as their daughter-in-law, where she meets the brother of the dead man. As she commits to living a stolen life and she and her “brother-in-law” fall in love, the baby’s real father finds her and starts to blackmail her, leading to a third-act murder mystery.
Despite the broad plot points (and a few smaller similarities, like the maid’s double-bun hairstyle), No Man of Her Own does several important things very differently. First of all, No Man is firmly a drama. The atmosphere is one of tension and anxiety, brought beautifully to screen by Stanwyck. The chemistry between Stanwyck and John Lund is much more natural and less showy than the relationship between Fraser and Lake, which is one of my main complaints about Mrs. Winterbourne. The focus on the film is much less about blooming relationships and personal growth. I’m sorry to report that there is no tango scene. No Man of Her Own is a much darker movie, which is appropriate for the content of the plot. The pacing is tight and fast, and feels shorter than the hour and 38 minute run time. There aren’t any scenes that leave you wondering what the hell the director was thinking (I’m looking at you, “On the Sunny Side of the Street”).
The differences that I found the most interesting are some of the more subtle ones. Helen isn’t happy about the baby, but never has the option to consider keeping the pregnancy or not. It is a given that she will have the baby as an unwed mother. She also makes the conscious decision to masquerade as Mrs. Harkness much earlier on, before she leaves the hospital, instead of being browbeaten into by others. Bill isn’t played as a stiff necked prat, but as a charming sweetheart who calls easily befriends Stanwyck’s Helen. No Man of Her Own focuses less on the blooming relationship between the protagonist and her ersatz brother-in-law, and is much less interested in the personal growth of the characters. There is less interest in the class difference between Helen and her adoptive family as well, and though she is invested in the luxury of her new life, she is portrayed as polished and classy, running up and down the stairs for the baby’s bottle in heels and speaking in the same beautiful Mid-Atlantic accent as everyone else. Helen’s potential giveaways are about her knowledge of Hugh, her dead “husband”, not her inability to eat dinner without blurting out crude words in a Joisey accent.
There are a few things that Mrs. Winterbourne does better. Shirley MacLaine’s portrayal of Grace Winterbourne is really lovely, and shifts the heart of the movie to her character in a way that makes sense in the plot as the protagonists in both movies are motivated to protect Bill’s mother from life-threatening stress. I think that Mrs. Winterbourne does a better job of showing the confusion and heartache of a family that has just lost a loved member. Grace Winterbourne’s reaction of attempting to drown Connie and the baby in gifts and kindness is portrayed much more strongly and Bill Winterbourne’s suspicion and coldness make sense as reactions to a death in the family. Mrs. Winterbourne’s Steve, portrayed by Loren Dean, is so perfectly scummy and dramatically sociopathic that he makes Lyle Bettger’s slick and cold Steve look bland. The charm of Miguel Sandoval as the sassy and wise Paco is missing from No Man of Her Own, and Helen is left to her own devices to figure out a course of action.
No Man of Her Own and Mrs. Winterbourne are on opposite ends of the genre spectrum – noir drama and screwball comedy. Even so, I think that a comparison can be made between the two movies. No Man of Her Own is very watchable, and an interesting entry in the noir genre because of its female protagonist. Stanwyck’s Helen is much more self-determined than Lake’s Connie, taking action for herself and bringing more agency to the screen. No Man comes across as more comprehensible and cohesive, while Mrs. Winterbourne sometimes leaves the audience incredulous. Honestly, it’s a better movie than Mrs. Winterbourne, though I concede that it’s less entertaining. No Man might be a more difficult sell for modern audiences as well, and I have to admit that I’m a noir enthusiast to begin with. Mrs. Winterbourne would probably be my pick for a movie night (and . . . it was, for the Swampflix crew) because of its humor. It’s interesting to see two such completely different takes on the same plot, and I hope that you get the chance to compare the two for yourself sometime.