Monday, September 13, 2010

Niagara - 1953

(Remember to scroll down to the bottom of the page to pause the music first so you hear the video.)

As you can see by the trailer above, “Niagara” (1953) was a showcase built more around Marilyn Monroe than even Niagara Falls, though the Falls gets prominent play in this movie, as so too does Jean Peters. She’s the non-bombshell in this movie as we are repeatedly reminded.

The IMDb website notes a bit of trivia that a scene with Marilyn Monroe walking is the longest walk filmed in movie history at 116 feet of film. Apparently, the camera couldn’t let go of her.

Hollywood either saw her as box office or future box office, because although she had made quite a few movies before this one, “Niagara” was her most important role to date, and after this movie, it was stardom all the way.

There is an offbeat quality to this movie, a certain unevenness, a disarming goofiness that makes it intriguing. An average couple played by Jean Peters and Max Showalter, billed as Casey Adams, take a delayed honeymoon at Niagara Falls. They encounter their complete opposites in another couple played by Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe. Directed by Henry Hathaway, the film almost feels like Alfred Hitchcock material in the way pleasant, even comic, normality is suddenly accosted by the weird and threatening.

The film has the Kodachrome look of old family vacation slides. We get a travelogue of Niagara Falls throughout the course of the movie.

Peters and Showalter have been married a couple of years, and take this trip ostensibly as a honeymoon, but also because he works for the Midwestern branch of Shredded Wheat, which has its corporate office in Buffalo, New York. He won a contest for most imaginative sales campaign, and his prize is to be hosted by a company mucky-muck. When they arrive at their lodgings after a leisurely drive in their convertible (and need no documentation to get over to the Canadian side, nor probably back again), Mr. Showalter exclaims with excitement, “You can see it from here!”

We think he means the Falls, but he means the Shredded Wheat plant. We have in Showalter’s character one of the most delicious cornball yokels in movie history, someone Hitchcock would have probably featured as the guy who is comically oblivious to the murder and gore around him. Mr. Showalter may not be totally oblivious, but his ever-present grin and enthusiasm might be tiring it if weren’t so funny.

His wife, Jean Peters, is the steady, sensible one of the pair. She is more in tune to what is going on around them, and by nature, is more eager to be involved. She turns into Nancy Drew and gets her life threatened before the movie is over.

The tension is provided by Joseph Cotten, a recently released psychiatric patient from a veterans’ hospital (shades of his character from “I’ll Be Seeing You” - 1945 - see this previous post), and his nubile, duplicitous wife, Marilyn Monroe. Miss Monroe, is actually quite good in this movie, despite the caricature the studio is already making of her as a sex object, playing a woman hatching a plot to murder her husband all the while playacting she loves him and is so worried about his mental condition.

But, being Marilyn Monroe with her star on the ascendant, we get a lot of eye candy which has nothing to do with the plot. Shots of her showering, of provocative poses, and costumes, and constant stares by all the males around her.

We start the cheesecake from the very beginning of the film, when Joseph Cotten, after a solitary ramble around the Falls in the early morning while his voiceover tells us how miserable he is, returns to their room to find her nekkid in bed. He calls her name, picking up one of her stockings that she had dropped on the floor, but she pretends to sleep. When he gives up and goes to his own twin bed, we see her contemptuous sneer.

Their digs are a motel of efficiency cabins right by the Falls. Peters and Showalter have booked the same cabin, but Miss Monroe and Mr. Cotten have not vacated yet, and so the new couple agreeably takes another cabin.

It’s a whole world unto itself, this land of efficiency cabins, where the resident owner plods around watering flowers and knowing everything about everybody, where the companionable vacationers dance in the pavilion to swing records on a phonograph and sip from Coke bottles on the steps under the stars. They are in no rush to see and do.

If you don’t count the murder plot, it seems like a very relaxing holiday. These days I think we’re programmed to be constantly on the go, even on vacation.

But, it’s not all ho-hum reading magazines in the rooms that have no cable TV, phones, or Internet service. The travelogue continues as Miss Peters and her goofy husband do all the requisite tourist stuff at Niagara Falls: the Rainbow Bridge, the Maid of the Mist boat ride, the Cave of the Winds. They spend a fair amount of time in raincoats and boots.

On one such excursion, Peters notices faithful worried wife Marilyn Monroe kissing a strange man. This is also a movie of darkened stairwells, trysting places, and secret haunts.

Miss Peters observes, as do we, that there’s something not quite right about that couple in the other cabin. Miss Monroe is not the faithful wife she pretends to be. But what about Mr. Cotten? Is he really a sick man the way his wife contends?

Jean Peters, smart, open-faced and unassumingly friendly gets to decide that for herself. When the cabin neighbors are all dancing under the stars, Monroe comes out to enjoy the music alone, puts on a record she has brought with her, and joins the normal couple on the steps.

In a moment, Cotten barges out of their room and smashes the record in his hands like The Incredible Hulk. We begin to see that the tune has a deeper meaning, and her actions are calculated for effect. She is not embarrassed or worried about her husband; she is pleased that so many people have witnessed his over-the-top behavior.

She is planning for her boyfriend to murder him, and wants to make it look like suicide. It won’t be hard. It apparently doesn’t take much for Mr. Cotten to become unglued.

It is Jean Peters, not his wife, who rushes to his room with a first aid kit and mercurochrome to patch up the cuts on his hand. If you’re going to smash a 78 rpm record, wear gloves.

It is an interesting scene, her caring for him, but even when he turns off the lights so she can better see Niagara Falls lit up at night, there is no intended eroticism. She is businesslike in her kindness, and he is too overwrought over his oversexed wife to contemplate sex or romance with anyone else.

When Peters’ goofy husband enters, he is so comfortable in his marriage and in her that he is not even jealous or suspicious. Maybe he’s too stupid. I can see where an audience might find his obtuse cheerfulness irritating, but I think he’s a hoot.

Cotten smashes the wooden model car he has been making in his room (more fun things to do when there is no cable TV) as he tells his back story about always messing up his life and how his wife is a tramp. He imagines she is unfaithful with every man she meets.

We don’t know that for a fact, but we do know that Miss Monroe is playing him like a violin, and uses his jealousy to lure him into a hidden spot where Boyfriend can knock him off.

Cotten’s paranoia serves him well, because he kills the boyfriend in self defense. He sneaks back to his cabin, knowing his wife thinks him dead, and finding Jean Peters there instead taking a nap. Again, more confidentiality in the half-light, but she screams and he runs away. Later, her tails her (more raincoats and boots) on another walk to the Falls, and he pleads with her to not tell anyone he is alive so that he can leave his wife and just get on with his miserable life by himself.

She’s willing to do this at first, even keeping his secret when the boyfriend’s body is found and the cops get involved. But, then she realizes that he might now be after his wife, who has fainted at identifying the body of her boyfriend in the morgue. This time she isn’t faking; she’s really shocked. Miss Peters, by default, becomes her caretaker.

Miss Peters’ goofy husband finally loses his remarkable serenity and is fed up with her continued involvement with the neighbors.

“We wait three years for a honeymoon and spend it with a couple of spooks!”

Then we get another burst of comedy when Mr. Showalter’s Shreaded Wheat boss welcomes him. Played by the booming barrel of chuckles, Don Wilson, who was the announcer for many years on the Jack Benny radio show, the boss and his wife, played by Lurene Tuttle, escort them on a social whirl of Niagara Falls. More raincoats, more hiking up wet wooden stairways along wet cliffs, and finally, a fishing excursion on the Niagara River that has tragic consequences.

By the way, Don Wilson is not the only connection to Jack Benny we have in this movie, if you think about it. The model car Joseph Cotten builds is a Maxwell. Remember the Maxwell chauffeured by Rochester, and the sputtering sounds made by Mel Blanc?

There’s a lot more danger and intrigue from this point, but if I go on, I’ll ruin it for anybody who hasn’t seen it. Just a couple of items about this movie that are fun to note:

Will Wright, perennial movie night watchman and grumpy crooked suspicious fellow (remember his small but pivotal role in “The Blue Dahlia”? We’ll have to cover that movie one sometime or other.) Here he has a small role as a grumpy boat rental owner.

The Carillon featured in this movie was part of the Rainbow Tower on the Canadian border side, and was completed in 1947. “O, Promise Me” is played on it early in the movie, I suppose to refer to the honeymoon connotations of the Falls, but popular tunes are also heard on it, and in one scene, a secret message is sent to Marilyn Monroe in a song. At the time this movie was made, the Carillon was played manually by a carilloneur. Today, it’s all automated.

Come back Thursday for more fun at Niagara Falls through the perspective of other Hollywood films.


quizshowbob said...

I love this movie. I always thought it was funny that Showalter played Ward Cleaver in the pilot episode of "Leave it to Beaver" (It's a Small World).

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, quizshowbob, thanks for stopping by. I've read that Showalter did the "Beaver" pilot, and I wish I could see it. I can't imagine it.

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