Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Walking Dead (1936)

For Halloween tomorrow, we have a look at a rather unusual monster movie. “The Walking Dead” (1936) is a unique combination of hard-boiled gangster movie and the kind of campy film where the creature escapes from the lab. It is also a look at the sacredness of both life and death against the cold reality of profane daily corruption. Not the usual stuff of monster flicks, but Warner Bros., that bastion of gangster films and socially conscious films, could turn even a movie with the lurid title of “The Walking Dead” on its axis and make it into something more.

Boris Karloff stars as an ex-con, a gentle musician, who is set up by a mob out to murder a judge. They pin the crime on the innocent Karloff. Ricardo Cortez suavely plays the head of this mob gang. Edmund Gwenn, complete with professorial Van Dyke beard and trim moustache, pince-nez glasses and wing collar, plays the scientist who brings Karloff back to life after he has been executed in the electric chair.

Oh, yeah. You didn’t think you were going to see a Warner Bros. gangster flick without an electric chair, did you? The film actually starts off as a gangster movie with all the types, screaming headlines and a gunman named “Trigger.” Unless you happened to be Roy Rogers’ horse, if you were named “Trigger” you were going to grow up to be a hired gun.

Then poor Mr. Karloff is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and we have the mournful march to the chair accompanied by his favorite piece of music on the cello, because it reminds him of heaven. We have the waiting for the last minute reprieve from the governor, the prayers read in Latin (not by a priest, by a man in suit?) as he walks the last mile, and the inevitable, popcorn-selling dimming of the lights when the switch is thrown.

After this point is when it becomes a monster movie.

His body is taken by scientist Edmund Gwenn to be brought back to life. I believe this is not the usual procedure our criminal justice system, but would the Warner Bros. lie to us?

A complication has ensued. Mr. Gwenn’s two young lovebird lab assistants saw the crime and can testify to Karloff’s innocence. But not until the 11th hour do they confess this because for months and months all during the trial they did not want to get involved. Now suddenly they feel bad. One of the most edge-on-your-seat moments in the film is when the governor’s office, armed with this new information, calls to cancel the execution, and two uniformed guards at the prison do not answer the phone in time because they are discussing baseball. The audience is thrown into a frenzy of anxiety because we know the ringing phone will save Karloff’s life, and the cop who moves to answer it keeps stopping to continue their conversation about baseball. It’s a wet your pants moment.

But, Karloff has a second chance at life in the hands of kindly but science-obsessed Mr. Gwenn. We have the standard lab scene of bubbling test tubes, coils and an exam table that rocks up and down when the switch is thrown. Why being shaken like a cocktail will induce a dead person back to life has not yet been proven by The New England Journal of Medicine, but this seems to be a common feature in movies where a dead body is brought back to life. I particularly like that the x-ray or fluoroscope of his body shows a skeleton and a beating heart shaped somewhat like a valentine heart. Now, that’s just cute.

And of course, we have the standard line by the scientist….ready? All together now…

“He’s alive!”

But Gwenn does not shriek it with the wild abandon that Colin Clive does in “Frankenstein” (1931). It’s more like a whisper of quiet satisfaction.

There are similarities to the Frankenstein monster in the revived Boris Karloff, with a slow, lumbering gait, a shock of white through his dark prison haircut, an empty, hollow expression and a rather monotone voice. But this “monster” plays the piano. Karloff portrays him with a sweet, sad poignancy as a man caught between two worlds, the world of the living and the world of the hereafter.

Gwenn probes Karloff’s conscious for information on the great beyond, especially since Karloff is suddenly able to pick out the men who framed him, though he had no knowledge of it before his execution. One by one, he visits these men, as if stalking them, not to revenge himself, but to ask them why they did what they did, to confront their consciences. Each of them dies in freak accidents.

It is probably a nod to the Code that the studio attempts to wrench this lurid, campy tale into a moral tapestry of good and evil. As Karloff tells Gwenn, “Leave the dead to their maker. The Lord our God is a jealous God.” It’s a bit self-conscious, and Gwenn repeats the line at the end of the film, as if to say he has learned his lesson, and will only work on cures for dry skin from now on.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film seems to have some early moody film noir traits, such as the shot of the judge in the courtroom through the desk lamp of the clerk, and the shot of the cellist downward from the slowly revolving blades of a ceiling fan in the prison, and a few floor-to-ceiling shots of crime scenes.

Boris Karloff, for his part, gets to actually act in this movie, which he did really not get to do in the more splashy, more famous “Frankenstein.” A touching performance in many respects, this man with the distinguished speaking voice and the gentle manner would have been fascinating in more than just horror films. In a studio system where actors were pegged as types, he tried his best, when he could, to get beyond that. I think he does here, even with this lightweight script.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Betty Boop's Hallowe'en Party (1933)

Getting ready for Halloween, here’s a glimpse of the weird and wonderful world of Max Fleischer and the never-a-dull-moment in the life of Betty Boop. This is “Betty Boop’s Hallowe’en Party” (1933), directed by Dave Fleischer and featuring the voice of Mae Questal as Betty. Note the NRA “We Do Our Part” at the beginning.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Gaslight (1944)

Gaslight (1944) is the third and final entry in our brief series on films where the setting of the house drives the action. The Spiral Staircase (1945), Dragonwyck (1946) and Gaslighwere produced in three consecutive years in the middle 1940s, and all three films were set in the middle 19th through the turn of the 20th centuries. Perhaps the war made the middle 1940s an opportune to time to look far back at a supposedly more peaceful time. Yet the stories were all tales of suspense, and the setting of the house in each was paramount for establishing and maintaining that suspense. A much more unsettling home front.

Gaslight comes first among the three for the year in which it was filmed, but for the time frame in which it was set, it falls between Dragonwyck and The Spiral StaircaseUnlike the other two films, it takes us out of America and plunks us down in the foggy streets of London.

Ingrid Bergman won the Academy Award for her striking and many-layered performance, and Charles Boyer’s performance as her manipulative husband was one of his very best. M. Boyer was a highly regarded actor in his day and much sought after, but as time passed, he seems to have become known more for impersonations of his accent than his talent. Very few radio comedians did not poke fun at him, and even Pepé Le Pew was based on his Gallic inflection. Today, Boyer is perhaps underrated, or at least overlooked. One look at this film would show that he deserves better.

Even if one is not a fan of suspense films, this movie should be watched just for Bergman’s and Boyer’s meticulous and exceptional acting. They were supported very well by Dame May Whitty as the busybody neighbor; Joseph Cotten as the gentleman police inspector; Barbara Everest as the housekeeper Elizabeth; and Angela Lansbury in her first screen role as a flirtatious and impertinent parlor maid, also nominated for the Academy Award.

Directed by George Cukor, the film is a stunning achievement in all things necessary in a suspense film: cinematography, pacing, atmosphere, and acting. The costumes should also be noted as something really splendid. The attention to detail makes this film a treat. It is not, however, always easy to watch. The mental torture and emotional anguish suffered by Ingrid Bergman as she experiences a steady decline into a nervous breakdown is heartbreaking.

The house in this story is a typical London style townhouse, attached to a row of identical other townhouses in a quiet square. This is a home of many floors, of long imposing stairs, and rooms stuffed with bric-a-brac. And gaslight. We are constantly reminded of the movie’s title with actors framed in shots with the gaslight wavering like a bright flower from a wall sconce, dangling above their heads in neat jets from elegant chandeliers, and standing guard outside in the dark, damp night from a single lamppost.

The house was owned by Miss Bergman’s aunt, a famous operatic and concert singer who was murdered here. The murderer was never caught. Bergman, a child in the house at the time, was taken away to Italy, where as a young woman, she meets and marries Charles Boyer, a Continental composer who brings her back to her aunt’s house, which was left to Bergman in her aunt’s will.

At first she does not wish to return to the place of such an unpleasant memory, but her husband describes his dream house and she realizes she already owns such a piece of real estate. “That house comes to me in my dreams sometimes, a house of horror.”

But her love for her new husband is such that “I found peace in loving you. I could even face that house with you… You shall have your dream. You shall have your house in a square.” She sacrifices her discomfort to present her aunt’s home to him as the gift of a loving bride.

Soon after the blissful days of their honeymoon, the dashing husband becomes overly protective, then overly possessive. At first we may suspect he is the typical Victorian lord and master asserting his privileges, but over the course of many scenes the audience comes to realize that M. Boyer is cleverly playing his young wife like a violin, alternately coddling her and then heaping upon her cruel emotional abuse. He chides her for forgetfulness, accuses her of losing objects, making her doubt her memory, then doubt her sanity. He forbids her to have visitors. Though he seems unbalanced at times, we eventually come to realize he is fiendishly controlled and knows exactly what he is doing, that he has a sinister purpose.

But it is not all tension and terror displayed by Bergman. There are scenes of tenderness and warmth, such as the “morning after” scene with her new husband, a mixture of serene comfort, complete trust, and sweet passion on a light-filled patio. There is the scene where Cotten gives her an old souvenir of her aunt, a missing glove, and we are given Bergman’s expression of wonder and amusement, dissolving into sudden aching sorrow for all that has been lost.

Then there is the terrific final showdown with her husband, where she shows yet another side. She can play many emotions at once. Her performance in this film is one of the best by anybody on film in that era.

The house, the home of her innocent childhood before the ghastly murder of her aunt, changes with the emotional changes in Bergman and Boyer. A warm and elegant home with a little more coal thrown on the fire by a sexily brooding Angela Lansbury, the house soon becomes a prison to Bergman, and then a kind of torture chamber.

When her husband leaves the house nightly to go to his private studio to compose music, Miss Bergman pleads for him to stay, “I’m frightened of the house. I’m frightened of myself, too.”

Part of the reason is the gaslight. Boyer does not really compose music in the evenings; he enters the attic from another way and searches for lost treasure he suspects is hidden among her murdered aunt’s possessions which are stored there. He does not realize that when he turns the gaslight on in this boarded up, upper level of the house, that it decreases the amount of gas in the pipes throughout the rest of the house. Therefore, the gaslight in the chandelier of Bergman’s room dims every night, and she thinks she is having an hallucination. She thinks she hears footsteps above her. She fearfully takes it as another symptom of her growing madness.

But when police inspector Cotten arrives to investigate the cold case of her aunt’s murder, he notices the gaslight dimming, too, and thereby solves more than one mystery in the house. The dimming gaslight, though frightening to Bergman, is ironically the clue which saves her. It is both a source of fear and of hope.

And then, of course, the film has famously left us with the word to “gaslight” someone, which is to fool and manipulate someone for some evil purpose.

We have the poignant strains in several scenes of Thomas Moore’s “The Last Rose of Summer” which adds a lovely innocent contrast to the grim psychological suspense of the film. We are told it had been used by Bergman’s famous singer aunt in her concerts as her last encore. It is played once on the piano in a gentler earlier scene by M. Boyer, and then later on by street vendors hawking their wares with organ grinders, as if the last rose of summer, the last bit of loveliness in our lives is thereafter only to be found outside of the house, beyond Bergman’s, and our, grasp.

The house begins as the scene of murder, becomes the rehabilitated gift of a bride to her husband, becomes a prison, a torture chamber, and then the scene of a showdown, where the house is finally set free from the unpleasant experiences of the people who live and have lived there. In its redemption, it becomes nothing more than a just a house. Almost as if it as been exorcised, it is set free of the gloom, but there were no demons here that were not human.

The final scene shows Mr. Cotten and Miss Bergman on the topmost window balcony, standing against the Mansard roof, literally on top of the house, commanding what is perhaps an impressive view of the little world below. Commanding, and no longer being subjugated by the claustrophobic world within.

Interestingly, all three films featured damsels in distress, in the setting of their homes. In that era where the word “housewife” was more commonly used than it is today to describe a woman who did not work outside of the home, these films seem to make use of the irony that the home is meant to be a place of safety and refuge, particularly for women who are, or used to be, carried over the threshold. The most successful suspense films exploit our most cherished images of safety and comfort.


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.  Her new book, a collection of posts from this blog - Hollywood Fights Fascism - is available here on Amazon.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Dame May Whitty

Dame May Whitty was one of those old school, old guard character actresses without whom the Hollywood movie machine could ever do without. Born in England just after the American Civil War ended in 1865, she started life on the boards at 17 years old in London in the 1880s, just about the time period covered by “Gaslight” (1944) which will be subject of Thursday’s blog.

One wonders what Dame May thought as she worked on the set of that movie. A set of real-looking, but fake props and manufactured furniture, and walls that were only flats, she was the most genuine article in the film, someone who had actually walked the misty streets of London under the dim glow of gaslight.

She had performed in only a few silent films in the UK, but toured the US and performed on Broadway, hitting Hollywood in the 1930s just in time for sound film and just in time for her 70s. Playing dowagers, nannies, inquisitive busybodies and stern matriarchs, Dame May Whitty was granted her knighthood for charity hospital work during World War I, and the grand moniker fit her. When she died in 1948, she was still working.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Dragonwyck (1946)

“Dragonwyck” (1946) is a fine example of gothic suspense, beautifully filmed. Another in our series this month of movies where the setting of a house drives the story, Dragonwyck of the title is a manor on the Hudson River of upstate New York in the days of the great Dutch landowners or “patroons.”

Set in 1844, at the height of the land reform battles wherein sharecropping farmers were demanding entitlement to their farms, Vincent Price plays the patroon of the Dragonwyck estate. He is a haughty autocrat unwilling to bend an inch in the life of hereditary privilege he has known. Gene Tierney plays a Yankee girl from Connecticut who is brought to Dragonwyck as a companion and teacher to Mr. Price’s young daughter, and finds herself captured under the spell of elegant living among the rich. But it comes at a price, for Dragonwyck is a place of secrets, and family curses, and restless spirits, and murder.

The mansion in this film does more than just provide a setting for the story; it serves to represent the proud heritage of its owner, Vincent Price, and the source of his haughtiness, his self-superiority. It is the brick and mortar personification of the man himself. Even his tower room, where he seeks privacy and solace, the highest room in a great mansion on a hill, places him physically above everybody else.

Price plays his cultured, arrogant autocrat with an irresistible mixture of charm and implacable stubbornness. Probably another actor might not bring the same multi-layered characterization to the role, and might play the patroon as only conceited or stomping about with one-dimensional meanness. But Price brings a fascinating appealing nuance to the role, and seduces the audience as much as he does Gene Tierney. It is his film.

Mr. Price as master of Dragonwyck, the sole ruler of this minor kingdom, controls with almost god-like power the lives of his tenants who must remove their hats before him and pay tribute.

He is self-satisfied, and stands before his ornamented windows admiring the requisite “dark and stormy” night outside, “There is no thunder in the world like the thunder of the Catskills. The lightning seems to set the mountains on fire and they roar back.” The only source of his displeasure is his gluttonous, neglected wife, who has given him a sweet daughter, but whose being female makes her useless to him. His wife can bear him no more children, not the son he desires for the sole purpose of inheriting Dragonwyck. Enter Gene Tierney.

The gothic premise of an innocent young girl brought to an imposing mansion where evil may lurk had been a device used by writers for nearly a couple of hundred years. It was already so popular at the turn of the 19th century that Jane Austen parodied it in her novel “Northanger Abbey” (1803), and was just as successful for Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” (1847).

The difference here is we have an American story, and though the mansion and the Dutch heritage of its patroon does give the setting an “Old World” feel, nevertheless this is a film that explores the entirely American story of antebellum land controversy in the state of New York, where patrician landowners manipulated the peasant class which worked their lands, and consolidated power against the urban businessmen and the first rush of the rabble of immigrants. The Roosevelts were part of this Dutch wealthy elite, but their 20th century progressive programs would have made their ancestors, like the character played by Vincent Price, blanch.

Walter Huston steals scenes as the crusty Yankee farmer father of Gene Tierney, who prays aloud that the Lord will deliver them “from hankering after fleshpots,” and Anne Revere brings her customary authentic hardscrabble mother role as his wife. Jessica Tandy has a small, but scene-stealing role as the sprightly, steadfast and comical Irish maid devoted to Gene Tierney. Spring Byington has one of the most interesting roles of her career as the housekeeper of Dragonwyck. She plays the role with a slightly off-center brittleness, punctuated by a nervous giggle and somewhat crazed demeanor. She appears unstable, perhaps dangerously so.

She notices things and speaks aloud what she should not, remarking to a newly-arrived Tierney, “You like the feel of silk sheets against your young body. And one day you’ll wish with all your heart you’d never come to Dragonwyck.” It is prophetic, for Miss Tierney matures from a flighty young girl to a sadder but wiser woman through tragedy.

We have class wars, a lesson in regional American history of the 1840s, murder by oleander, drug addiction, and a ball sequence. You can’t beat that for stacking the deck.

Unlike many costume dramas of Hollywood’s heyday where the depiction of certain historical eras seems like somebody’s wild guess, this film actually portrays the 1840s in hair styles, costume, furniture, and props with admirable accuracy. I take exception with only one minor point, the line where Gene Tierney, dismayed at being rebuffed by the wealthy young ladies at the ball who represent the Dutch landowning families, laments, “I’m not from the top of the Hudson. I’m from the Connecticut River bottom.” Her hometown Greenwich, Connecticut is not located on the Connecticut River.

(Come to think of it, Katharine Hepburn lived on the Connecticut River bottom at Fenwick, so it must not have been such a bad address.)

Here, like “The Spiral Staircase”, (see post here) an outside character in the form of the local doctor provides a lifeline to the heroine, a hero upon whom she can depend for a sane point of view, who represents a brighter, kinder reality beyond the walls of this sinister place. Just as in “Staircase”, the doctor does not actually save the young lady; she must save herself. But we imagine that they will be together when the dust settles.

The mansion, we are told, is haunted by the ghost of a tragic ancestor, and we see how both Price and his daughter fall under the spell of this restless spirit, but the real horror of the story comes not from the supernatural, but from Price’s own actions, and his inability to adapt in a changing world that is ever encroaching upon his cocoon of Dragonwyck. Two terrific close-ups of Vincent Price are the scene where he gazes into the bassinette of his newborn son, like a greedy man looking upon a stash of gold he has found, awestruck that he has it, but somehow anxious that someone might take it away from him.

The second is at the end of the film when he notes with prideful satisfaction that the tenants before him are removing their hats, and he assumes it is because of their respect for his position as patroon. He never faces the truth. The gothic film ends with an inspired note of irony.

I’d love to hear from anyone who’s read the novel on which the film was based.

Here is an interesting series of clips of photos and production stills from “Dragonwyck” as posted on YouTube. Accompanied by Enya’s “Tempus Vernum”, it drips gothic intrigue.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Columbus Day Cartoons

Columbus Day, a product of late 19th century America and promoted with statues and celebrations by Italian-American organizations since that time, has experienced a curious evolution through the years.

First an ethnic festival, then a holiday intended to promote American cohesiveness, later on the man Columbus and the holiday both derided and protested against for the more ghastly aspects of colonization that Columbus has come to represent.

Today in New England it’s the prime foliage weekend, so it’s become synonymous with apple picking, leaf-peeping and pumpkin buying. And perhaps tags sales. Neither ethnic pride nor celebrating circumnavigation are so much a part of the picture.

But back when American history was taught as part fact and part myth (Washington and that cherry tree incident being only one of the colorful and utterly false tales we learned), the myth was enhanced by mirth. Here are two cartoons which use Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World not as a history lesson, but as fodder for sight gags.

Here is “Kristopher Kolumbus, Jr.” (1939), a black and white cartoon with Porky Pig in the Columbus role. Directed by Robert Clampett, the action is zany. His famous gag of throwing the baseball around the earth to prove the earth is round, and it’s returning to him with luggage stickers from all over the world, was so simple and nutty, that it was used again in another parody of the Columbus tale with Bugs Bunny.

“Hare We Go” (1951), directed by Robert McKimson, features Bugs as the mascot on board Columbus’ ship. Queen Isabella is depicted as something like Mae West, and Mel Blanc must have had a ball voicing the emotional, irascible Christopher Columbus. Annoyed that he must prove to the Queen that the world is round to get money for his voyage, he angrily shouts, “Ravioli! Alla time prove! Prove, schmoov! She’s a round!”

Bugs’ problem is avoiding being killed by the crew, who all think he is bad luck. One of the more clever gags is when Bugs holds up a postcard of the New York City skyline in front of a spyglass to show they are close to land. We see that Bugs Bunny has actually discovered America and Columbus only took the credit. Now, that’s a myth I can somehow believe.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Spiral Staircase ( 1945)

“The Spiral Staircase” (1945) gives us a suspense story with the archetypal “dark and stormy night”. Many suspense films since have taken a leaf out of the book of director Robert Siodmak and especially cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and used the devices they did, which now may seem almost cliché. Here every shadow and sinister nuance is fresh, and new, and like nothing that ever came before.

Dorothy McGuire is a servant in a New England household in the early 1900s, headed by a feisty invalid matriarch played by Ethel Barrymore. Miss Barrymore lives with her grown son, Gordon Oliver, and stepson, played by George Brent.

The film opens in a curtained-off room of a small village hotel where a silent movie is being shown. The determined matronly pianist grimly follows the action on screen with musical accompaniment. The camera pans to a rapt audience, no one more rapt than Dorothy McGuire, who is clearly deeply involved in the silent movie, clutching her hanky and suffering agonies with the heroine.

The camera leaves the audience and pans to an upstairs room in the hotel. A woman is spied upon from the dark recesses of her closet by a figure unseen except for the menacing gaze of one frightening eye. Next we see the woman as a victim from the perspective of this hidden killer. We still hear the accompanist’s piano rumbling ominous chords from the floor below. When the killer strangles the girl, the movie below concludes, and it is “the end” indeed.

We discover this is one of a string of murders, and that the victims are all young women with various afflictions.

When Miss McGuire walks back in the darkness to the enormous Victorian home where she works as a maid, the wind and rain kick up, and she hears the sound of footsteps following her. This, and when she fumbles with her house key and drops it in the mud are only two instances where suspense rises, even if nothing is really wrong. The idea of imminent danger is kept moving briskly along, like kids kicking a can down the street. We are continually tricked. There are even comic moments which continue the suspense, such as when the family cook played with humorous brandy-swilling buffoonery by sly Elsa Lanchester, tumbles in the dim hall. At first we are led to believe she may have been attacked, as Lanchester accuses with an outraged, “It was him!”

We see she has only tripped over the ever-recumbent bulldog, Carlton.

Another instance is at the entrance of Lanchester’s husband, handyman Rhys Williams, who enters from the storm suddenly when a door is opened for a guest to leave, and he is unexpectedly standing there on the porch, rain soaked and sinister-looking. Apparently, it is only another false alarm, this time. Maybe.

Williams later comforts McGuire during a cozy visit in the kitchen that being murdered is as rare as winning the lottery. “It’s never me. It’s never you. It’s always somebody else.” The director cleverly plays us between scenes where something could happen but doesn’t, and scenes where something happens before we realize the danger. Maybe it’s the lottery and maybe it’s more like roulette.

Dorothy McGuire’s character is repeatedly warned by others to be careful, as she is labeled, perhaps by them more than by herself, to be a prime candidate for the killer’s next victim, because the killer targets handicapped young women. McGuire is mute, the victim of past emotional trauma, rather than from a physical impairment. Her muteness makes the opening scene watching the silent movie especially poignant, where the pantomime on screen foreshadows McGuire’s world of pantomime to communicate.

The local young doctor, played by Kent Smith wants to help her recover her speech and pushes her to help herself, to get her to replay the trauma that left her mute, but she cannot face painful memories.

McGuire has a special, even occasionally playful, relationship with Ethel Barrymore, who prefers McGuire’s ministrations rather than the severe and much put upon nurse, played by Sara Allgood. Bullying Barrymore’s room is cluttered with hunting trophies. The feisty widow was a crack shot in her day, and she repeatedly warns McGuire to leave the house for her own safety, or else stay with her and sleep in her room, even at one point urging McGuire to hide under Miss Barrymore’s bed. As sick as this old lady with the frequent spells is, she feels quite capable of defending a much younger, stronger woman. We see that Miss McGuire, and her muteness, inspires protective feelings in most people, but apparent disgust in a killer who murders young women with imperfections.

Miss Barrymore’s concern is made greater, as we eventually come to realize, because she believes the killer is not only lurking in the neighborhood, but is actually in the house. We are given several broad hints that her charmingly insolent, gallivanting son Gordon Oliver has dubious morals and weaknesses that may include murder. He confesses that he likes to see women cry.

Stepson Mr. Brent, a workaholic professor, who keeps his secretary Rhonda Fleming busy typing on a clunky old typewriter the size of a Buick, seems to share his stepmother’s suspicions. At this point, with as many red herrings as suspicions, the foreshadowing warns us to be wary of everybody, from the pistol-packing constable to the pistol-packing Miss Barrymore, to Carlton the recumbent bulldog. As George Brent tells McGuire, “Don’t trust anyone.”

Central to the story is the house. The excellent ensemble cast seems to give us a tour of the house, breaking up into pairs for hushed discussions, and impatient lovers’ rendezvous, and bitter arguments in various different rooms, always interrupted at a scene’s climax by unwanted intruders.

A magnificent set, it has many levels and the camera follows McGuire, taking us the audience from room to room, almost like the eye of the killer. The spiral staircase of the title is an iron circular stairway, ugly utilitarian back stairs meant for servants, quite unlike the imposing staircase with the carved wooden banister in the front hall. The spiral staircase leads from the main floor of the house down to the kitchen, and then continues down to a lower cellar level, which is very creepy. People lose their candles down there and get lost in the dark.

Even just the hollow plunking sound of the actors ascending and descending the iron steps echoing in the bare, unadorned stairwell is evocative, as lonely and creepy a sound as the wind and rain outside.

The house is heavily ornamented with Victorian drapery, dark wainscoting, parquet wood floors, elaborate gaslight sconces, elegant chandeliers and miles of carpeting. The walls stretching to high ceilings close in on us with busy wallpaper and dour portraits. Dramatic for its overwhelming sense of a grand age in decline, it is as if the house represents the moral decay of the dwindling dysfunctional family limping along into the decadent present.

We see an interesting contrast in the daydream McGuire imagines of her wedding to the young doctor, which occurs, of course, in the house, the central place to the story. In her daydream sequence the house seems alive again, swarming with guests, and vibrant, lighter, and there are baskets of flowers festooning every corner. One might imagine this is how the house appeared in earlier times, before the old widow lost her husband and her enthusiasm for life, before her son and stepson became the kind of weak men she despises.

A large full-length mirror on the landing of the front stairs gives Dorothy McGuire an opportunity to appraise herself, to see herself as others see her. She silently moves her lips, works her jaw in a pose to see how she would look if she spoke as effortlessly as others do, all the people she envies for their eloquence. Suddenly we are aware through a subtle shift in the camera perspective that she is being watched. In another instant, it is apparent to us that it is the killer who is watching her, that we are looking over the killer’s shoulder, who is looking over hers. So smoothly do these moments of tension occur that they are upon us before we realize.

The last half hour of the film is the most suspenseful. The killer is loose in house and aggressively stalks her. The constable shows up unexpectedly but leaves before she can alert him. Her desperate attempts to attract his attention from an upper floor window bring the film to a dramatic crescendo, and when her last hope for aid is gone, we see there is nothing to stop the killer from getting her.

Now she charges all through the house, upstairs and downstairs, like an Olympic sprinter. The final showdown happens on the spiral staircase, and we learn that neither the mute Miss McGuire, nor the invalid Miss Barrymore, is as helpless as they seem.

Dorothy McGuire does recover her voice, first with a scream, and then with a choking call for help on that new-fangled telephone box. How nice for her that she gets to talk to an operator who is a real person, and not a recorded voice message telling her to press certain buttons for more options. That always makes me want to murder somebody.

An interesting version of this film was produced on radio by Screen Director’s Playhouse with Dorothy McGuire reprising her role. Of course, since this was radio, a mute actress will not do, so McGuire was allowed to speak the private thoughts of her character. This actually worked out pretty well, giving us deeper knowledge of her feelings and her past. The childhood trauma that left her mute was also devastatingly dramatized, and with radio word-pictures we are allowed to imagine an horrific scene fully played out. Her trauma is only briefly discussed in the film.

Also added to the radio version was the Bible passage from the Song of Solomon which McGuire’s character relates to the exquisite beauty of speech and how being able to speak to the doctor, whom she loves, would allow her to express not only her desire for him, but convey her deep wish to be desired, and not just pitied.

“My beloved spoke and said unto me
Arise my love, my fair one
And come away with me.
For lo, the winter is past
The rain is over and gone…
… let me hear thy voice,
for sweet is thy voice….”

This is not included in the film. The radio version also reminds us of the irony that an actress with such a lovely speaking voice is playing a mute.

We don’t get quite as much insight into McGuire’s psyche in the film as we do in the radio version, despite her engaging movie portrayal of the mute young woman. We do get that beautiful house, though. You can’t duplicate Musuraca’s cinematography, and that nightmare labyrinth house, on radio. It is one of those instances where the house becomes like another character in the movie.

Have a listen here for the Screen Director’s Playhouse version of “The Spiral Staircase”.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Now Playing - "The Uninvited" (1944)

Here’s an ad for “The Uninvited” (1944), featuring a haunted house with Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, and Gail Russell. The ad is evocative of the film’s eeriness, and there is always some lurid undercurrent when telling, or advertising, a ghost story.

It seems that of equal importance to the ghost in a ghost story is the house that’s being haunted. You never hear about haunted convenience stores or hair salons. Home is where the haunt is. This month we’ll have a look at a few suspense films where the house becomes not just the setting for the story, but a catalyst for the action.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Hollywood Sets the Trend

Hollywood reflecting the fashion of its day or inspiring the fashion of its day is rather like a chicken/egg scenario. It’s sometimes difficult to know what came first.

In some cases, Hollywood ruled the day, as in the famous “It Happened One Night” (1932) example where Clark Gable removed his shirt when undressing for bed and ta-daa! Gasp! He wasn’t wearing an undershirt! Manufacturers and retailers of men’s underwear shuddered as sales dropped for undershirts.

We can also point to Sonja Henie and her fabulous white skates. White boots for girls’ figure skates is so standard now that we may forget that when ice skates made that first amazing transformation from just the kind you clamp onto your shoe to the kind that has its own built-in boot, they were all brown or black no matter if the skate was for a male or a female. Sonja Henie’s white skates, her trademark, changed the industry and fashion for skates.

Women’s pants were made acceptable by the Hollywood stars which adopted them in private life, even if they were not seen in many films.

Reportedly, colored shirts for men in public was the result of John Gilbert’s attending a party without changing the shirt he wore for shooting at the studio that day, which was blue. Photographers and graphic artists out there will know that light blue photographs lighter and softer than white in black and white photography. A white shirt will cause more glare from the lights, but a soft blue absorbs the glare and photographs as white. Apparently if John Gilbert can wear a colored shirt to a party, it must be the thing to do.

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