Thursday, February 3, 2011
The Dark at the Top of the Stairs
Thanks to Kate Gabrielle over at Silents and Talkies, I was able to finally see this movie. It doesn’t seem to play on TV much, and I don’t think it’s out on video or DVD. Maybe some of our readers can fill in the blanks on that info.
The film, set in the early 1920s, resonates today with problems of technology eliminating jobs, and the strain on marriage caused by the struggle for money, a lack of communication, and a lack of satisfying sex. But mostly money.
There are a few elements that make this quiet film, based on William Inge’s stage play, quite compelling. One is the serendipitous fact that Robert Preston had just come off Broadway in another hit, “The Music Man”, and was slated to star in the film version. Preston’s indifferent career really took off after the “The Music Man” a role which he was offered apparently only because just about everybody else turned it down. It proved to be his making.
Because of his enormous success in that musical, which today we know continued with the film version, this other traveling salesman character he plays in “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs”, sandwiched between “Music Man” gigs, makes his role as Rubin Flood, downsized harness salesman, seem like a Bizarro World version of the larger than life scamp, Harold Hill. It is impossible not to compare them when watching this movie.
We might also consider that this movie made in 1960, a time when the “greatest generation” of film stars were losing job opportunities due to their regrettable habit of aging, gives us a chance to see experienced actors and actresses in meaty roles. Had the movie been set in 1960 and not 1920s, would they have still seemed appropriate (marketable) for their roles by the producers? One might wonder if since these stars were leftovers from the Golden Age of Hollywood, did that make them seem old-timey automatically?
The plot seems episodic, and drifts in focus from one set of characters to another. Directed by Delbert Mann, there is a feeling about the cinematography and the pacing of the film that evokes a made-for-TV movie from the 1970s. We have a few outdoor shots, including our establishing shot of the turn-of-the century house with its big porch and gingerbread on the gables, though the paint is peeling here and there enough to keep us from assuming right off that we’re entering an idyllic world. Most of the scenes are interiors, maintaining the atmosphere of stage drama.
Robert Preston begins the film eager to head out on the road again, and Dorothy McGuire laments his frequent absences, clings to her shy daughter and her younger son, bullied by the other boys, in a stifling and over-protective manner, and complains about Preston controlling the purse strings in the family with a purse that doesn’t have much money in it. Shortly, Mr. Preston will learn he is fired, and all the petty annoyances of his life come crashing down on him like great big monsters.
The sad and depressing episode spurs him to trying again for a job, any job, and he humiliates himself by asking an old farmer friend to let him be a farmhand. The man tries to let Preston down easy, but must be frank that he’s too long in the tooth for that kind of heavy labor.
Unfortunately, at the country club dance, we see, and Shirley Knight learns, what he has known all along: that he will never fit in for one reason or another. For tonight, it is because a society matron has decided that a boy named Samuel David Golden is Jewish and therefore does not belong in a restricted country club. He is more than humiliated; his romance and his daydream about fitting in are destroyed.
The film ends with an astonished, and sobered, Robert Preston getting a job as a traveling salesman for the oil corporation, selling drilling equipment about which he knows nothing. But, as he tells the smug young interviewer, he knows how to sell, how to talk to the common people hereabouts. The manager, an older man with enough experience about life to know about such things, decides that Mr. Preston talks horse sense. The job is his.
Becoming employed again does wonders for his marriage, but this is not a film of entirely happy endings. Other troubled lives we’ve seen are still unresolved, and Shirley Knight will carry the memory of a sad boy with her to whatever relationships she has in the future.
Robert Preston remarks with humble satisfaction about his new employment and starting over in his 40s in a new economy driven by new technology, “Now I’m a stranger in the land I was born in…but, I’m doing the best I can.”
A lot of us know the feeling.