Women-in-Peril – 4 Obscure Gothic Thrillers of the 1940s!

As a treat I thought I’d talk about 4 really interesting films that were released amidst the slew of suspense thrillers of the 1940s. Some Gothic melodrama and a few perhaps conveying an almost hybrid sense of noir with their use of flashback, shadow, odd camera angles and elements of transgressive crime. I’ll just be giving a brief overview of the plot, but no worries there are no spoilers!

I recently had the chance to sit with each film and said to myself… Joey, these would make for a nice collection of obscure thrillers so without further adieu, I offer for your enjoyment, The Suspect, Love From A Stranger 1947, Moss Rose & The Sign of the Ram!

THE SUSPECT 1944

The Suspect

Directed by Robert Siodmak (The Spiral Staircase 1945, The Killers 1946, Criss Cross 1949, The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City, The File on Thelma Jordan 1950) and adapted to the screen by Bertram Millhauser and Arthur T Horman from the novel This Way Out written by James Ronald. Basing this film very loosely on the Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen murder of his wife that was sensationalized at trial in 1910.

The Suspect stars the inimitable Charles Laughton, (Dr. Moreau – Island of Lost Souls 1932, my favorite Quasimodo in William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1939, the most lovable ghost Sir Simon in The Canterville Ghost 1944, The Paradine Case 1947, The Strange Door 1951, Witness for the Prosecution 1957, Spartacus 1960, Advise and Consent 1962 and notably–director of two films–his masterpiece Night of the Hunter and his uncredited The Man on the Eiffel Tower 1949)

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The film also stars the underrated Ella Raines (Phantom Lady 1944, Impact 1949) Dean Harens, Stanley Ridges, (Possessed 1949, The File on Thelma Jordan and No Way Out 1950) Henry Daniell , Rosalind Ivan and Molly Lamont (The Dark Corner 1946, Devil Bat’s Daughter 1946) Raymond Severn plays the delicious little urchin Merridew who works for Phillip as he tries to keep the little guy on the straight and narrow. Merridew would make the perfect name for a little tabby cat!

Charles Laughton gives one of his most subtle performances as a kindly man trapped by an abusive wife. Siodmak as usual creates a dynamic framework for this psychological thriller that is lensed in shades of darkly ominous spaces that seems to shape itself around Laugton’s comfortable face and Ella Raines intricate beauty.

from IMDb trivia – Lux Radio Theater broadcast a 60 minute radio adaptation of the movie on April 9, 1945 with Charles Laughton, Ella Raines and Rosalind Ivan reprising their film roles.

Music by Frank Skinner (Blond Alibi 1946, Johnny Stool Pigeon, The Brute Man, The Spider Woman Strikes back and way more to his credit see IMDb listing) With cinematography by Paul Ivano. Who did the camera work on director Hugo Haas treasures like Strange Fascination 1952, One Girl’s Confession 1953, Hold Back Tomorrow 1955!

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And marvelous gowns and hats by Vera West. (The Wolf Man 1941, Shadow of a Doubt 1943,Flesh and Fantasy 1943, Son of Dracula & The Mad Ghoul 1943, Phantom Lady 1944,Strange Confession 1944, Murder in the Blue Room ’44, House of Frankenstein ’44, The Woman in Green 1945, Terror by Night 1946, The Cat Creeps, She-Wolf of London, Dressed to Kill, Danger Woman & Slightly Scandalous 1946.)

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In 1902 London, well respected middle class Englishman, but unhappily married shopkeeper Phillip Marshall (Charles Laughton) develops a loving and warm friendship with young and beautiful Mary Gray (Ella Raines) who’s father has recently died, leaving her down on her luck and looking for a job. Phillip Marshall is such a kind and genteel man he stops to say a kind word about his neighbor Mrs Simmon’s garden, loves his son and shows real affection. Is like a father to young Merridew. Is beloved by the community. Even when he approaches Mary, and she hasn’t yet looked up from her tear soaked hanky, thinking she’s being approached by a lecherous man in the park, “I’m not that sort” tells her, only wanting to see if she needs help.

Mary like Phillip is lonely… the first night Phillip begins to walk her home- “A cup of tea, a six penny novel and a good cry.”
Mary- “I’m afraid you’ve been looking in my window.”

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Phillip’s dreadful wife Cora (Rosalind Ivan –perfectly suited to play the emasculating harpy-she had a similar role tormenting Edward G Robinson in Scarlet Street 1945) is a reprehensible shrew who humiliates and demeans both her husband and her son (Dean Harens who had more room to act in Siodmak’s terrific noir Christmas Holiday 1944 starring a very different kind of Gene Kelly and the self-persecuting Deanna Durbin.) John is shown moving out of the house, because his horrible mother has burned some important papers of his. She got into one of her rages and before he could stop her she burned a whole weeks work.

Cora Marshall is vicious and cruel, showing no maternal feeling, caring little that her son is leaving home.

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Cora-“That’s just what young hopeful did, he’s clearing out bag and baggage that selfish ungrateful good for nothing.”
Phillip-“What did you do to him?”
Cora- “What did I do to him… that’s right put the blame on me. All I did was bring him into the world, nurse him, make myself a doormat for him to walk on!… Go on, go to him and tell him from me that when he leaves this house needn’t think he can come crawling back. Deserting his own mother!… And what do you think you’re doing now?”
Phillip- “I’m moving into John’s room.”
Cora- “Of all the indecent…we’re married aren’t we?”
Phillip (deep sigh)- “Oh we’re married all right.”
Cora –“Then how dare you! I forbid it do you hear me. I forbid you to treat me like this.”

Phillip says, “Now Cora that’s all over now that John’s gone. It’s all over and done with, do you understand me?… I’m moving out of here and there’s nothing you can do about it”
Cora- “Oh yes there is. There’s plenty I can do!”

They wrestle with his clean folded white shirts that he’s busying himself moving out of the bedroom. She tries to grab them and he finally loses his composure and yanks them away.

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Cora- “What’s got into you.. I’d like to know what’s going on in your head.”
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Phillip- “It’s much better that you shouldn’t Cora, it might frighten you…”

Saddened by his John’s departure who he loves and will miss, prompts Phillip to move into his son’s room. Cora, so bent on appearances is driven to tirades of abusiveness toward the meek and genteel Phillip. Harassing him at every turn. I might have thrown her down the stairs myself or given her one of those late night glasses of milk!

The scene with Merridew just tickles me and shows how kind, compassionate and caring Phillip is. He calls Merridew over talking to him in a quite earnest and fatherly tone, all the while you can tell he’s quite fond of the little fellow and visa versa.

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Phillip- “Merridew I have to bring a very serious matter to your attention- I regret to say there’s a shortage in your accounts-there’s a penny missing from the stamp box.”
Merridew- “It… it was for a sugar bun this morning but I’ll put it back on pay day honest Mr. Marshall”
Phillip- “And the tuppence the day before yesterday what was that for?”
Merridew- “Acid drops sir.”
Phillip- “Acid drops??? quizzically… that’s very serious. And the hay penny the day before?”
Merridew- “For the monkey with the hurdy gurdy but I’ll put it all back Saturday every last farthing. “
Phillip- “That’s what all embezzlers plan to do.”

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tears in Merridew’s voice make it quiver as the camera shows Mary listening in, she smiles and laughs at this whimsical inquisition.

Merridew- “But I’m not an embezzler.”

Phillip- “Yes, but you can get started that way. It’s the first step that counts… after that it all becomes too easy. Six pence tomorrow, half a crown the day after… then a five pound note… I know you’ll always mean to pay it back, but I’m afraid you’ll finish by paying it back in the Portland quarries”

Merridew- “Don’t send me to no quarries please Mr. Marshall (sniffling)”

Phillip- “Well not this time Merridew. Now stop sniffling and wipe your eyes.” he hands him a hanky.

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Mary has come into the shop looking for employment. When Phillip tells her there isn’t a position available he later finds her on a park bench crying. He takes her to dinner, gets her a job with a colleague and the two begin a very tender friendship.

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Phillip continues his platonic relationship with Mary, but once his wife finds out that he’s been seen supping with the young lady, he breaks it off, as he’s a gentleman who truly thought his wife would want out of a loveless marriage.

Still, Cora threatens him with scandal as well as making trouble for Mary. When Cora refuses to divorce him, worried that gossip will spread that she has failed to hold onto a husband, he is driven to the point of frustration and despair. She tells him the neighbors are all beginning to gossip about him coming in at all hours-

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Phillip- “None of that business Cora.”

Cora- “Ha! Married people’s lives is everyone’s business and I’m not going to be made of object of pity in front of my friends do you hear!I wonder what ever possessed me to tie myself up with a poor stink like you… walked through the forest and picked a crooked tree that’s what I did. A crooked fat ugly tree.”

Even after she’s been so cruel, he tries to reason with her about getting a divorce and face things honestly by admitting that they’ve never been happy together. He asks her to let him go. But she wants to punish him, because she is a bitter and cruel woman calling him immoral and indecent.

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Phillip is very decent in fact, even though there’s only been friendship between he and Mary, he breaks it off with her so as to do what’s expected of him telling Mary that he behaved badly but he was afraid that she wouldn’t want to see him again. He was sure Cora would let him go… Phillip tells Mary , “And I couldn’t let you go once I’d met you.”

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But Cora won’t be happy til she “drives them both ‘into the gutter where you belong!”

Laughton is adorable and wonderfully believable as a romantic figure because of his gentle nature.

His murderous response is more to protect Mary from Cora’s wrath, who tells him with a face like a Victorian harridan spewing a poisonous vitriol-

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“You better be afraid. As sure as the sun rises tomorrow, I’ll give her the Merry Christmas she’ll never forget”
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Paul Ivano’s brilliant camera angle frames Laughton as somewhat diminished, seemingly trapped or rather oppressed by the space around him.

And so, Phillip murders his wife. We see him grab one of his canes and assume though we don’t see him actually bashing her head in with it, that he has in fact brained her. The next morning she is found dead at the bottom of the stairs, and it is deemed an accident.

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Added to the plot’s layering of Sturm & Drang is the always wonderful scoundrel in Henry Daniell’s Gilbert Simmons, Phillip’s neighbor a stumbling drunkard who also beats his wife (Molly Lamont) Mrs Simmons and Phillip also have a very sweet relationship, one that ultimately anchors Phillip to his integrity. But I won’t reveal the outcome of the story. The miserable Gilbert Simmons also has the distinction of turning to blackmail adding to his other earthly vices.

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Amidst all these dreary, grim and dark ideas, the film still emerges as a beautiful story, partly due to Siodmak’s ability to guide suspense along it’s way with an appealing cadence. As Foster Hirsch states in his must read Film Noir-The Dark Side of the Screen, “Siodmak films like Christmas Holiday and The Killers have an extremely intricate narrative development…{…} the relative extremeness of Siodmak’s style is reflected in his obsessive characters.”

The Suspect works as a great piece of Melo-Noir mostly due to Laughton’s absolute perfection as the sympathetic, trapped gentle-man. As always he is masterful with his intonations, sharpened wit and ability to induce fellowship with the characters he’s playing… well maybe not so much with Dr. Moreau, Capt. Bligh, Judge Lord Thomas Horfield or Sire Alaine de Maledroit in The Strange Door. But he’s a lovable sort most of the time, one can’t deny.

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Charles Laughton and Margaret O’Brien in Jules Dassins’ The Canterville Ghost 1944-based on the story by Oscar Wilde

Ella Raines is just delightful as Mary. She’s such a treat to watch as you start to believe that this beautiful young woman genuinely has fallen for this older, portly yet kind hearted misfit. You find yourself hoping that he gets away with his wife’s murder, and that the two find happiness together.

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Scotland Yard Inspector Huxley (Stanley Ridges) stalks Phillip Marshall believing he killed his wife

Phillip is staunchly pursued by a Scotland Yard Inspector Huxley (Stanley Ridges) who has the tenacity of Columbo. Speaking of which, a poster of The Suspect appears in an episode of Columbo“How to Dial a Murder” in 1978.

LOVE FROM A STRANGER 1947

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On the darker more sinister side of these suspense yarns we find Sylvia Sidney as Cecily Harrington at the mercy of a very deranged bluebeard in John Hodiak as Manuel Cortez.

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the exquisite beauty of Sylvia Sidney

Sylvia Sidney Love From a Stranger

Directed by Richard Whorf who became more fluent in directing for television. Written for the screen by Philip MacDonald (Rebecca 1940, The Body Snatcher 1945 for Val Lewton, The Dark Past 1948, Boris Karloff’s Thriller episode The Fingers of Fear 1961, The List of Adrian Messenger 1963) based on Agatha Christie’s short story Philomel Cottage. Hair Stylist Eunice Helene King is responsible for slicking back Hodiak’s swarthy and murderously Lothario hair, he’s almost Draculian. He definitely covets his slickety hair as he shows his first sign of deranged pathology when Cecily tries to stokes his hair and he lashes out at her, telling her not to touch it.

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The marvelous costumes equip with capes, sequins and ostrich feathers are by Michael Woulfe (Blood on the Sun 1945, Macao 1952, Beware, My Lovely 1952)

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Isobel Elsom plays Auntie Loo Loo with her usual exuberance, Ann Richards is the faithful friend Mavis Wilson. Anita Sharp-Bolster as Ethel the maid (wonderfully crabby Christine in The Two Mrs Carrolls)

And again a terrific score by Hans J. Salter. This period piece is lavishly framed by Tony Gaudio (The Letter 1940, High Sierra 1941, The Man Who Came to Dinner 1942) Once the protagonist and her murderous husband honeymoon at their hideaway cottage, the lens turns the film into an almost chamber piece, becoming more claustrophobic as Manuel and Cecily begin to awaken into the revelation of his dangerous nature.

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Sylvia Sidney  plays Cecily Harrington, an unassuming English girl in Liverpool who has just won £50,000 in the Calcutta Sweepstakes which was a fortune in turn of the century England. Cecily meets Manuel Cortez (John Hodiak) when he sees her name in the newspaper next to the headline of his latest murder. He follows her then arranges to make it appear as if he’s looking to rent her flat. She is taken with this mysterious stranger and suddenly breaks off her engagement to her fiancee Nigel Lawrence (John Howard) rushing into marriage with the mysterious stranger who turns out to be a Bluebeard who is after her money.

The swarthy Manuel Cortez has already alluded the police for the murder of three women, believed to have drowned while trying to escape he has changed his appearance, darker hair no beard. Dr Gribble (Philip Tonge) who is a crime connoisseur collects journals and books, one with a drawing of him showing his beard. It also mentions his earlier crime as being in South America and New York (Hodiak’s character is given several Spanish aliases-Pedro Ferrara and Vasco Carrera)

The newlyweds spend the summer at their secret honeymoon cottage where he’s been planning to kill her and bury her body down in the cellar.

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Isobel Elsom plays Auntie Loo Loo with her usual exuberance, Ann Richards is the faithful friend Mavis Wilson.
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Manuel Cortez pretends to be looking for a flat to rent, showing up at Cecily’s door he has actually followed her from their ‘accidental’ meeting at the post

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Cortez begins to work his Bluebeard charms on Cecily
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The handsome John Howard as Cecily’s fiancee Nigel Lawrence is crushed to find her love has gone cold, as she is now entranced by the swarthy Manuel Cortez
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Neither Nigel nor Mavis trust this mysterious stranger with the slickety hair and cape
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Everyone around Cecily knows there’s something not quite right

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Auntie Loo Loo is surprised at her nieces impetuous behavior

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Ethel and billings the gardener greet the newlyweds at the cottage they’ve spirited off to.
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There’s a dark cellar with a lock on the door. That never bodes well!

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Digging the hole!
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which poisons to use, decisions decisions
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Manuel warns Cecily to stay away from his experiments in the cellar
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Auntie Loo Loo and Mavis manage to find out where the honeymoon cottage is and pay Cecily a visit to make sure she’s alright
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The couple are going away on a long voyage soon, though Manuel hasn’t shown her the tickets

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Auntie Loo Loo is worried!
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Dr Gribble- Walking over to the book shelf- “Ah criminology are you interested in criminology Mr Cortez?”
Cortez- “Yes, it’s a sort of hobby of mine doctor.”
Dr Gribble- “Well we’re fellow enthusiasts”
Cecily “Yes I think it’s a horrid morbid past time.”
Dr Gribble “But fascinating Mrs Cortez. Here’s a great favorite of mine. Criminals and their mentality. That’s great psychology… Bless my soul the latest journal of Medical Jurisprudence and the Criminal. I should have thought I was the only person within a hundred miles radius who ever so much as heard of this publication.”
Manuel Cortez-“Really I’ve subscribed to it for years”
Dr Gribble “Let’s see did I read this issue? Ah yes this is the one with the account of that South American Carrera. It’s a very interesting case.”
Manuel Cortez- “I don’t believe I’ve read it.”
Dr Gribble- “You should have. This fellow Carrera was a professional wife murderer. They caught him after he completed his third crime. Then he was drowned trying to escape.”
Manuel Cortez- “Oh yes I remember. They never found the body did they?”
Dr Gribble- “No as a matter of fact they didn’t. I don’t think there’s any real doubt he’s dead!”

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Manuel catches Cecily by the cellar door. Look his hair has finally lost control!

Love From A Stranger is perhaps the more melodramatic and Gothic of all these films I’ve talked about in this post, but perhaps the most unrewarding in terms of it’s depth. While there are some truly terrifying scenes, the queer chemistry between Sidney and Hodiak creates a distance from the narrative. It’s still truly worth watching as part of the canon of 40s suspense melodramas.

Sylvia Sidney has a certain edgy sensuality to her, that doesn’t make her performance thoroughly implausible for the story but perhaps a different actress might have brought another style of vulnerability to the role. And Hodiak has an unctuous, gritty sort of sex appeal, that made his part as a psychopath believable. He’s got intensely dark focused eyes, sharply defined features and an iron jawline that slams shut, when he’s internally scheming. Toward the end he brings it a bit over the top, but he’s sort of good at playing a surly mad dog.

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Told to read aloud from the journal of criminology- “There is no doubt at all that Vasco Carrera the last name he was known by is a truly remarkable character. He posed as a great world traveler women even those from a cultured background succumbed very quickly to his perculiar charms
possessed of a remarkable charm of manner Carrera exerted an extraordinary fascination over women”

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YOU AND ME 1938-Sidney, Sylvia and George Raft- Now that’s chemistry!

Perhaps the one issue I have with the casting is the chemistry between Sidney and Hodiak that never truly rings authentic. He’s too internally frenetic to be romantic… mysterious yes, but he’s not convincing in his wooing of Cecily. And the character of Cecily doesn’t seem to have the layers that peel innocence away, unveiling a vulnerable yet eruptive sensuality that would be unconsciously drawn to the scent of a dangerous man. That’s why Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight and Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door 1947 work so well.

John Hodiak is a puzzle for me. I’ve been trying to decide whether he’s one of the most intriguingly sexy men I’ve come across in a while or if I find him completely cold and waxen in his delivery as a leading man.

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John Hodiak and Tallulah Bankhead in Alfred Hitchcock’s marvelous floating chamber piece Lifeboat 1944

He had me going in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat 1944. I would have thrown my diamond Cartier bracelet over the bow to tumble under the tarp for a few hours with that sun kissed, salt sprayed crude adonis, sweaty, brash, unshaven -the whole deal. Just watched him in Somewhere in the Night 1946, once again, found Hodiak’s character of George Taylor compelling in his odd way of conveying vulnerable but faithful to the lure of the noir machismo. I felt sorry for a guy who can’t remember who he is or if he should just stay forgetting- in case he was a rotten human being.

But as the cunning and psychopathic lady killer in Love From A Stranger, he sort of makes my skin crawl which I supposed means he did a fabulous job of inhabiting the role of Manuel Cortez right.. Maybe he would have had better chemistry with someone like Alexis Smith or Audrey Dalton.

Now, I haven’t yet seen Basil Rathbone’s version in director Rowland V Lee’s 1937  film also known as A Night of Terror with Ann Harding -still based on the short story by Agatha Christie but set in contemporary England, Rathbone plays the intrepid type of urbane gentleman who sweeps Ann Harding off her feet and plunges her into a sudden and dangerous marriage. Where he then plots to killer her and take her money. In the earlier version, the heroine too gradually realizes that she’s in danger…

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Basil Rathbone and Ann Harding in the 1937 version of Love From a Stranger

Sylvia Sidney looks stunning as the new bride who begins to notice the strange behavior of her husband and realizes once she goes down into the cellar that Manuel is hiding something. He spends hours locked away down there preparing for the moment he will kill Cecily and has forbidden her to go down there, claiming that he’s doing experiments which are dangerous. Well that’s true, since he’s mixing poisons and digging her grave.

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This version places it back in Victorian England, perhaps due to the success of the melodramatic thrillers that were proving to be so successful in the 40s like, Rebecca, Gaslight, The Lodger, Hangover Square, The Woman in White, Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door 1947, The Two Mrs Carrolls 1947.

Continue reading “Women-in-Peril – 4 Obscure Gothic Thrillers of the 1940s!”

Edward Dmytryk’s Walk on the Wild Side (1962) At the Doll House; “When people are kind to each other why do they have to find a dirty word for it”

As part of The Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by The Girl With the White Parasol

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Barbara Stanwyck in Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957)

WALK ON THE WILD SIDE (1962)

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The Graphic Genius of Saul Bass post here:

In Edward Dmytryk’s Walk on the Wild Side Barbara Stanwyck is no ordinary ‘Jo’

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Stanwyck was the epitome of independence and determination. She had a streak of non-conformity, toughness, and resilience.

Stanwyck was born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn, July 16th 1907. A New Yorker like me and a fellow Cancerian. Her mother died and her father disappeared when she was 4, leaving her and her brother in the care of her older sister Mildred and foster homes where she’d often run away. At age 9 Ruby toured with her dancer sister, a John Cort Showgirl practicing the routines back stage. Watching her idol Pearl White on the big screen inspired her to go into showbiz. She quitt school at age 14, followed her sister’s lead and became a Ziegfeld Follies girl.

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Ziegfeld Girl 1924 Barbara Stanwyck

In 1929 Stanwyck had the lead in the road company production of the Broadway hit ‘Burlesque’ which was a hit in theater. She shared the stage with Mary Tomlinson, a clergyman’s daughter who most likely ran away from home because she was a lesbian. Mary changed her name to Marjorie Main and become the quick talkin’ ‘Ma’ in the raucous Ma and Pa Kettle series from ’49-’57.

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Marjorie Main as the unflappable Ma Kettle

One of her good friends during those years was pianist Oscar Levant who said Stanwyck was “wary of sophisticates and phonies.”

Ruby became Barbara Stanwyck at age 19 while she had the lead in ‘The Noose’ on Broadway. At 21 she was introduce by Levant to Frank Fay star of Vaudeville and ten years older than she, a closet homosexual, alcoholic and abusive husband. They married and moved to Hollywood in 1929 when Stanwyck was on her way to becoming a star of the silver screen. They used her money and bought a mansion in Brentwood. That’s how she and Joan Crawford (married to Franchot Tone at the time) became neighbors and close friends.

At first Stanwyck starred in a few B movies but began getting attention for her roles in Ladies of Leisure30, Illicit ’31, Night Nurse ’31, and Miracle Woman ’31.

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Stanwyck in Illicit 1931

While working with Frank Capra on Ladies of Leisure he taught her that much of acting was conveyed with the eyes, and that unless the audience was drawn in, the dialogue didn’t matter. This was her breakthrough movie. Edward Bernds who worked with Capra said “That first take with Stanwyck was sacred.”

Stanwyck’s first Academy Award nomination was for the down trodden mother Stella Dallas ’37 where her old friend Marjorie Main played her mother-in-law.

Three nominations followed for Ball of Fire ’42 with Gary Cooper, Double Indemnity ’44, and Sorry Wrong Number ’48 with Burt Lancaster. Stanwyck was now on her second marriage to another gay man, the handsome Robert Taylor. Their ’39 marriage was arranged by the studio. The couple had separate bedrooms.

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Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor on the cover of Movie Life

Stanwyck had a life-long relationship with her publicist Helen Ferguson. In ’35 she played the rugged farm girl living in a man’s world– Annie Oakley, a masculine woman who was great with a gun.

Annie Oakley

She did a slew of romantic comedies with charismatic co-stars. Twice with Henry Fonda in the screw ball The Mad Miss Manton ’38, and Preston SturgesThe Lady Eve ’41. Remember The Night ’40 opposite Fred MacMurray was her first film with costume designer Edith Head.

Some of my favorite films of her’s were: playing opposite co-star William Holden in Rouben Mamoulian’s Golden Boy ’39. Then Meet John Doe 1941, Lady of Burlesque, and the immortal femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson in 1944 Double Indemnity, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers ’46, The Two Mrs. Carrolls ’47, Cry Wolf ’47, B. F.’s Daughter ’48, Sorry, Wrong Number ’48, in 1950 The File on Thelma Jordan, No Man of Her Own  & The Furies. Fritz Lang’s tumultuous Mae Doyle opposite Robert Ryan in Clash By Night ’52, Witness to Murder ’56, There’s Always Tomorrow ’56, Crime of Passion ’57 & Forty Guns ’57.

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Phyllis Dietrichson is brought to life by Barbara Stanwyck in the noir staple Double Indemnity ’44
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Stanwyck and MacMurray Double Indemnity ’44
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Stanwyck and Wendell Corey in The File on Thelma Jordan 1950

Clifton Webb who co-starred in Titanic 53 called her his “Favorite Hollywood Lesbian.” It’s pretty significant that Barbara had finally played her one and only screen lesbian in Walk on the Wild Side ’62. Barbara Stanwyck’s sexual orientation has been called ‘the best kept secret in the movies’ by Axel Madsen who wrote the very engaging The Sewing Circle. It’s a hell of a read!

Three years later she created a new image for herself as the gutsy matriarch Victoria Barkley in the television western The Big Valley. Stanwyck loved her character ‘an old broad who combines elegance with guts.’ 

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Stanwyck as classy & rugged frontier woman Victoria Barkley  in 60s television show The Big Valley 1968

Walk on the Wild Side was Barbara Stanwyck’s return to the big screen since playing Cattle Queen Jessica Drummond in Sam Fuller’s sexually charged western Forty Guns 1957 which had this fantastic line, `Can I touch it?’ asks Jessica referring to Griff Bonnell’s (Barry Sullivan) gun. Griff tells her, ‘It might go off in your face’  Stanwyck was in love with the Western genre.

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Stanwyck and Sullivan Forty Guns ’57

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She was thrilled to accept a good part in a film, that of Jo Courtney the iron-willed lesbian madame of a ritzy bordello named The Doll House in New Orleans. The film still maintains that clichéd whiff of mothballs from The Celluloid Closet holding the mystique and stereotypes of homosexuals and lesbians who are all either sad souls, psychopaths, or villains. Yet Stanwyck’s Jo Courtney poured from concrete and as dangerous as a steel trap conveys a pathos transcending the caricature of a predatory lesbian. It’s probably what made her such a beloved lesbian icon. Stanwyck proved she could go head to head with any man or woman who came her way. And although she never came out of the closet she went through two marriages to gay men without a hitch of scandal.

in 1962 the film sets this lurid lesbian melodrama and peek at the underbelly of bordello life, down in the midst of the underworld revisiting the archetypes of gays being part of the illicit subculture of society. Revisiting the ‘sexual ghetto’ in quite the same way the briefly liberated films of the early Thirties depicted them. As Vito Russo says in The Celluloid Closet, “The movies simply reflected what little they could identify of a hidden world and, in both pre-Code and post-Code times saw Homosexuals solely in sexual terms because that what had always been sold.”

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For over thirty years the subject had not been talked about, so when the ban was lifted, filmmakers picked up where they had left off. The film was able to represent the whore house openly as just that, a house of prostitution.

Walk on the Wild Side is the story of a New Orleans brothel and the seductive melodrama surrounding an obsessed drifter in search of his lost love, the lugubrious courtesan who is ensnared in a tangled web of vice, decadence and the lesbian madame who desires to possess her.

The bordello is stocked with liquor, a bartender who never quits pouring, and a full jazz ensemble who play fabulous bluesy melodies that cater to their clients while the employees all seem to suffer from a collective languorous state of mind.

Languid ladies of The Doll House

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Stanwyck’s Jo Courtney villainous nature accepts her own lesbianism. Instead of killing herself like Shirley MacLaine’s Martha in The Children’s Hour ’61, Jo decides to declare her power by opening up a brothel, and selling sexuality on her own terms.

Jo lusts after and loves her object of desire Hallie, played by model actress Capucine. But the love that dare not speak it’s name finds itself disrupted once smooth talking Texas farmer Dove Linkhorn (Laurence Harvey) comes looking for Hallie. Three years prior Hallie and Dove swam and kissed each other and danced themselves silly til Dove was hopelessly hooked on the lovely divinity that he refers to as his ‘religion.’ Dove had to wait for his ailing father to die before he could come and claim his love.

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Jo bitterly resents the intrusion of Dove and feels threatened by this young buck’s presence. The camera frames his coming between Jo and Hallie

The film was not the huge success they thought it would be despite the adult themes and stellar cast. Probably because of it’s screenplay which doesn’t allow Algren’s novel to freely express it’s most provocative and sociological themes. Nelson Algren’s book focused on the seedy underbelly of the New Orleans of Depression Era 30s. Screenwriters, Fante, Morris and Hecht while synthesizing the essence of the story, their observations gloss over the grittier descriptiveness and atmosphere of Algren’s murky brothels filled with even more vile and violent pimps. A world that showcased fetishistic patrons and sullen whores who wade around in the muck hoping for a better life. While the film has a way of self-moralizing the plot to death at times, Algren’s novel did not show contempt for his prostitutes. It had a real strain of class conscious angst and didn’t sermonize about the unpalatable people who lived on the fringe of society but rather focused on those in power who exploited them. In some ways the film hones in on the story making it a more intimate venture into melodrama.

Continue reading “Edward Dmytryk’s Walk on the Wild Side (1962) At the Doll House; “When people are kind to each other why do they have to find a dirty word for it””