Thursday, June 7, 2007

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) - Part 2

In this film, I especially get a kick out of the police desk sergeant trying to amuse a temporarily lost baby who is waiting for her mother to pick her up at the station, while he is on the phone trying to calm Leona. It is a nice touch that the fretful child he gently pacifies, dressed to go bye-bye in her crisp white dress and bonnet, is played by an African-American infant.

The biggest difference in the radio and film versions is in the actresses who played the invalid woman and how they played her. In the radio version, Agnes Moorehead was so very fine as the lead, that she was asked to repeat her performance on radio several more times. It was a role with which she became identified. Just as Miss Stanwyck saw the need to film the scenes in sequence to build up the momentum of hysteria, Miss Moorehead, too, was said to have requested to play the role sitting down at a table to support herself (unusual on radio, where actors stood before mics) because she felt utterly exhausted by the end of the show.

Moorehead’s invalid woman was more fragile than Stanwyck’s, more whining and irritable, and perhaps therefore more comic. There is something we can all identify with when her frustration with the impersonal telephone operators grows and she calls them stupid and fights with them. We’ve all had that experience of being blown off by an unhelpful customer service rep and wished we could reach down into the phone receiver and choke them.

As good as Stanwyck was as Leona, it is unfortunate that Miss Moorehead did not get her chance to play the character on film. It would have been a slightly different Leona, but she would have undoubtedly been terrific. However, there was a rule in Hollywood about character actresses not being allowed to play leads, and Moorehead, despite her familiarity with the character and fame at playing it, would never have been allowed to take the lead role in a major film.

Likewise, it was Hollywood’s rule that the female protagonist in a film was not allowed to be murdered, unless the audience felt she somehow deserved it. A female could die a tragic death due to some mystery disease, and lounge languidly in the arms of the hero as she gave a farewell speech, but not be senselessly murdered. Murder was too sordid to be allowed to happen to nice people, especially if they were the lead in the movie on which a lot of the studio’s money was riding. Leona had to be changed from just an irritable invalid to a really nasty person.

So, Stanwyck’s Leona was given the background in the flashback scenes of being a schemer and a boyfriend stealer, a spoiled rich daddy’s girl, and someone who wasn’t really an invalid at all, just a manipulative hypochondriac. Miss Stanwyck’s challenge then was to make us care that she was marked for murder, despite all that. We did care, because Stanwyck is reduced before our eyes from a willful, bossy shrew to a helpless, bewildered woman, all alone, crazed with panic, yet a victim of her own flaws as much as her scheming husband’s greed. Mostly we care because the thought of being helpless in bed while a killer walks up your stairs, and you see his shadow, and your only defense is the telephone, still moves us.

That's all for this week. See you Monday.

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Sorry, Wrong Number [DVD](1948) DVD

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