Monday, October 18, 2010

Cry Wolf - 1947

In “Cry Wolf” (1947), we have another look at a non-swashbuckling Errol Flynn, this time as the master of a gloomy country estate where family secrets are deadly.

We’re dovetailing themes here, concluding a two-part look at Flynn’s non-Errol roles, and beginning a couple of weeks of Halloween-themed offerings. This movie even starts with credits printed in an exaggerated font that wipe mistily away, evoking the melting style of 1930s monster movies. We might even wonder if the title, “Cry Wolf” infers the presence of werewolves on this foggy bit of real estate. However, Maria Ouspenskaya is nowhere to be seen, so you may rest easy. No werewolves. They’re all at casting calls for other movies.

Instead, we have a spirited Barbara Stanwyck as woman on a mission, part Nancy Drew and part commando.

Mr. Flynn is Mark Caldwell, whose nephew and ward has suddenly died. Miss Stanwyck barges in on the preparations for the funeral announcing she is the bride of his nephew. She’s come for the inheritance.

When they first meet, Errol is at his desk in the library. He does not look up at her, but continues working, either because he is very busy or he wants to impress upon her that she is unimportant. He finally glances up, wearing round Harold Lloyd-type reading glasses. It’s an almost comic moment, and we never see them again for the rest of film, but it shows us from the start that Errol is firmly telling his audience he’s someone else they may not be expecting.

Geraldine Brooks makes her film debut as Flynn’s niece, also under his guardianship. She is the sister of the deceased nephew. She is a willful, unhappy girl, chafing under the protection and authoritarian supervision of her Uncle Errol. Miss Brooks, like the rest of the family, is stunned to have Miss Stanwyck plopping herself down at the dinner table as the newest member of the clan, but Geraldine’s isolation on this estate is so acute (Flynn forbids her to see her boyfriend), that she welcomes Stanwyck as a big sister. She needs one.

Jerome Cowan has a small role as Flynn’s brother, a United States Senator, with whom Flynn shares urgent, whispered conferences and hasty plans. Mr. Cowan’s most memorable movie role was probably as the attorney who prosecutes Edmund Gwenn in “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), and he also played in a slew of “Blondie” movies, but he has one of those reliable character actor faces that make you think you’ve seen him in just about everything.

I wonder if this is the last time we would see Barbara Stanwyck with light brown, shoulder-length hair? She soon adopted the 1950s shorter cuts and famously let her hair turn gray. Perhaps the longer, darker hair was used in this film purposely to emphasize her youth. She is supposed to be a woman possibly in her late 20s, who has just completed her doctoral studies in Geology.

When Flynn, obviously suspicious of her abrupt presentation, questions her on her supposed secret marriage to his nephew with the enormous trust fund, she replies in quite an open and businesslike way that she and the nephew, who is named Jim Demarest, were not in love. They were good chums, and he asked her to marry him so he could circumvent the rules of his trust fund, which stipulated that he could not get any of his money before the age of 30, unless he were married. Jim promised to give Stanwyck $2,000 to use for her doctoral studies if she helped him out by becoming his bride. They intended to divorce after the check cleared.

I think if any other actress gave this astonishing speech, we might cringe with disgust or laugh with incredulous disbelief. Barbara Stanwyck has that take-no-prisoners glint in her lovely brown eyes that makes you not only believe her wild tale of practical avarice, but admire her for it as well. Rarely does a gold-digger earn such respect.

Or, is she truly after the millions in the trust fund? Is there something else? Miss Stanwyck hints that Jim told her of his scheming Uncle Errol, a control freak who tightly held the reins on the family and the family money, who might stop at nothing to keep what’s his. Is she here really to investigate the suspicious death of her college chum?

Mr. Flynn brooks no nonsense from anyone, but he suffers Stanwyck’s boldness with courtly, if cold, patience. He slings muted accusations back in her face, noting with wry and controlled confrontation that her husband’s death seems quite a convenient thing for her. The two have many scenes in this movie sparring intellectually, and gradually there are moments when the contempt and mistrust they feel for each other lifts ever so slightly, like the cold mist outside, to reveal understanding, and even passion if circumstances were different.

It is, like “That Forsyte Woman” (1949) discussed in our last post, a departure role for Errol Flynn. He is anything but swashbuckling or even energetic in this film. He displays restraint, coolness, and many layers of a mysterious man. It is perhaps as equally challenging a role as the one he played in “That Forsyte Woman” because it is cerebral, but he gets less opportunity here to display his terrific acting range. This is a more muted role.

Because this is a creepy mystery movie, we are more plot-bound and less delving into character here. If the actors open up too much and allow us to think we know them, there is no mystery. We have to be as uncertain about their integrity and motives as we are about what’s going to happen next.

So, Flynn is crisp, occasionally domineering, but always behind a gentlemanly, self-contained demeanor. He calls his new sister-in-law Mrs. Demarest with rigid propriety. He never fails to pull out her chair, or stand when she enters. He watches her like a hawk.

So does young Geraldine Brooks, but in her case it is with fascination and with needy affection, that can be as pitiful as it as manipulative. Big sister Barbara takes her in hand, reassures her anxieties, and listens to her complaints about Uncle Errol. She listens hard. She also asks questions. What, for instance, is that closed-off wing of the house used for?
Why, it’s only Uncle Errol’s LABORATORY, silly.


What’s a gloomy mansion without a laboratory? Look in any real estate ad, you’ll find that listed as one of the perks.

Barbara discovers that Uncle Errol is some kind of scientist, and that he works mainly at night.

Working in a home laboratory mainly at night usually raises eyebrows among the neighbors.

This mansion set, by the way, is a great piece of work. Several levels, grand staircases, dark wood paneling. It must have been used again for another film; it’s too good not to use again.

We are never told the exact location of the estate, but it is mentioned that a nearby town is called Salem, and the family owns a townhouse in Boston, so I’m assuming this is probably the North Shore of Massachusetts. Maybe so. All I can say is Flynn’s Tasmanian accent fits in better here than in Dodge City.

While Barbara mulls over the circumstances of her chum/husband’s death (He supposedly died of pneumonia, which makes her wonder, why the closed casket?), she comforts Miss Brooks’ attack of nerves. The girl claims to hear a man’s tortured screaming in the night. Uncle Errol has told her these spells of hers are only nightmares. Miss Stanwyck might agree, the girl is quite emotional, but then Barbara starts hearing the screams of agony herself.

When Miss Brooks shows her Jim’s bedroom, Barbara notices that his collection of pipes, and his clothes are missing. She begins to wonder if the screaming at night has been coming from a still very much alive Jim. She wonders if he is in the LABORATORY.

Morphing into Nancy Drew, Barbara decides to sneak a look in the second floor LABORATORY. It is locked, so she waits until the dead of night, and hauls herself up in the dumbwaiter.

(Just as a bit of trivia, in the movie “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” (1997), Julia Ormond also gains passage into a secret room by pulling herself up in a dumbwaiter. In “Sabrina” (1954), William Holden suggests to Humphrey Bogart that they sneak Audrey Hepburn into his room via the dumbwaiter. Clearly this is a feminine trait. Can you think of any other movies where women are stuffed into dumbwaiters? Or men? Children? Small pets?)

Now that I’ve thoroughly distracted you, the dumbwaiter scene is quite tense, because she’s timed her entrance wrong, and Flynn is still in his lab. He discovers her presence (with the help of her reflection in a water cooler, and a missing hair comb), but does not let on he knows she is there. He plans to reel her in later.

This is not Miss Stanwyck’s only stunt. Later on she tries to enter the LABORATORY another way: by climbing out onto the wet slate roof in a skirt and heels. Okay, they’re low to medium heels, not high heels, but they’re still heels. She drops herself through a skylight. She lands like an acrobat, not a shoulder pad out of place.

Barbara Stanwyck loved doing her own stunts, and did them right on through her “Big Valley” days when she was in her early 60s. All the fence climbing, falling from a horse, running through a dark mansion in this movie was probably child’s play to Barbara.

Another round of subtle cerebral sparring with Errol over a round of cordials he makes himself according to an old family recipe called “tears of blood”, (yikes) we are confronted with new suspicions about both of them. Who has whose best interest at heart? We may wonder if Errol intends to poison her. But he kisses her.

“Purely research,” he says with a sneer. He wanted to see if his first impression of her was accurate. She slaps his face over his intentionally cryptic comment, but we begin to wonder is she is afraid of him, or only of what may be her feelings for him. He is probably the first man she has ever met who is her match in intellect, self discipline, and courage.

Then Geraldine Brooks is found dead on the terrace outside her bedroom window. Miss Stanwyck believes Mr. Flynn has killed her for her share of the inheritance.

Overhearing a conversation between him and his gamekeeper, she thinks she knows where Jim is being hidden on the estate, and she sets out to find him. When she does, we see her chum/husband is Richard Basehart, so fine at playing sensitive, even emotionally brittle roles, but his part is unfortunately small in this movie. At first he does not remember her, and he tells her he is being drugged.

After a while, he snaps out of it, remembers her, remembers his wrath for Uncle Errol, who is trying to steal his money and trying to kill him.

The movie ends with a bold escape, a recital of hushed-up family scandals involving a history of hereditary insanity (as common a plot device in old movies as creepy mansions and secret laboratories), and a final showdown between Miss Stanwyck, Mr. Basehart, and Uncle Errol.

It’s a movie whose plot is a bit weak in spots, but is enjoyable for excellent work by all the principle actors. Errol Flynn adds another offbeat movie to his resume, and it’s fun to see him in this role, but it’s really Stanwyck’s movie.

She had the ability, probably better than most of her contemporaries, to show deep and passionate emotion with very little histrionics or demonstrative methods. Not that she couldn’t all-out rant or flip out with the best of them, but in roles such as this one, she seethed, smoldered, suspected, and, in turn, was suspected, with effortless transparency. Like falling off a log for this dame. Or a skylight.


panavia999 said...

Thanks for the write up. I LOVE this movie. Have not seen it for years. An old dark house melodrama with Flynn, Stanwyck and Basehart? It's got to be worth watching. On the theme of actors cast against their normal type as we approach Halloween: Bogart, Stanwyck and Alexis Smith in "The Two Mrs. Carrolls". (1947 was kind of an old dark house year for Stanwyck.) IMHO, The Two Mrs.Carrolls is not as good as Cry Wolf on the old dark house scale, but it's fun, incongrous mystery melodrama. Bogart's tour de force entry through a window on a rainy night is great.
These two movies would make a great Halloween double bill. That is if you are like me and prefer old b/w movies on Halloween.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Ah, another fan of "Cry Wolf". I'm glad you like the movie. We touched upon it briefly in a previous post on "Crazy Bogie" (, but it probably deserves a closer inspection.

You're right, I guess that was a creepy old house kind of year for Stanwyck. Sounds like a great double bill. Pass the "fun size" candy bars we're supposed to save for the trick-or-treaters.

Yvette said...

I've NEVER seen this, Jacqueline. Another title to be added to my Must See Movie List. Where have I been all these years? HA! I love your review, it made me smile, it made me laugh, it made me want to see this movie!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Yvette. I hope you get to see it soon. It's a quirky piece, for sure, but fun to see these familiar actors in unfamiliar roles and settings.

ClassicBecky said...

I'm one of Errol Flynn's true blue fans, and I loved this movie. I haven't seen it for a long time, and would love to again. Of course his swashbuckling stuff was marvelous, but he was darned good in other roles as well. He was very good in this movie, and of course Stanwyck was at her best. Great idea to do a series of articles on Flynn's non-Flynn roles. I really enjoyed this one!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, ClassicBecky. So good to hear from Errol's fans, and it's been interesting to note how everyone so far seems to enjoy his non-heroic roles just as well as the swashbuckling stuff.

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