Stage Fright (1950): Hitchcock’s Cinematic “Trick” or Treat?

Once upon a time there was an Alfred Hitchcock film. But not just any Alfred Hitchcock film.

This film had the distinction of dividing fans of The Master of Suspense, for The Master himself claimed he made a mistake in his choices on the production. By the time he realized it, time was no more.

The very premise of Stage Fright is based on the theater, the birthplace of artifice and illusion. And as the credits roll, the safety curtain rises on our story.

With this in mind, did Hitchcock really make a mistake or does his cinematic “trick” fit like hand in glove?

The Plot

Eve Gill (Jane Wyman), an aspiring actress, seeks to clear the name of her friend and crush Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) while posing as a lady’s maid to the woman (Marlene Dietrich) whose husband Jonathan is accused of murdering.

The Production

Stage Fright takes its source material from the 1947 novel Man Running by Selwyn Jepson and was adapted for the screen by Whitfield Cook, Ranald MacDougall, and Alma Reville (Hitchcock), with additional dialogue by James Bridie.

Stage Fright began production under Hitchcock and Sidney Bernstein’s Transatlantic Pictures, founded in 1946. Their first two films, Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949), released through Warner Brothers were box-office failures.

Stage Fright was shot at Elstree Studios in London, with location shooting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Scala Theatre. Production was completed at Warner Brothers.

The Cast

Decked out in glistening diamonds and creations by Christian Dior, Marlene Dietrich steals the show as Charlotte Inwood, the glamorous stage actress and singer who entangles Jonathan Cooper in her seductive web.

Charlotte Inwood could have been stereotypical and dull but in Dietrich’s hands is fascinating and electric. Just when we think we’ve got her number, she unveils another layer of her personality.

The cinematography adds to this effect as the lens ambiguously caress her.

According to Hitchcock’s Heroines by Caroline Young, Hitchcock knew of Dietrich’s technical prowess and let her have free reign of her camera angles and lighting.

Because of this it almost appears as if Dietrich is in an entirely different movie than her co-stars, as her shots are in soft focus and every inch the star treatment – think von Sternberg.

Surprisingly, the effect is not jarring. It aids in our perception of her character.

Charlotte Inwood might just top Endora from Bewitched with the many names she calls Doris Tinsdale, Eve’s alias, with everything from Phyllis to Nancy.

Her disconscern with something as “trivial” as her maid’s name is both amusing and telling.

Because Charlotte Inwood is a singer and actress it gave Marlene Dietrich the opportunity to wear amazing gowns add some tunes to her repertoire.

In the film, Dietrich sings “The Laziest Gal in Town,” written by Cole Porter for Stage Fright, and friend Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose.” These songs would become part of Dietrich’s famous one-woman stage shows which blossomed in the mid-1950’s.

We experience most of Stage Fright through the eyes of Eve Gill.

Fresh off her Oscar win for Johnny Belinda, Jane Wyman has a likable quality that corresponds well with Eve’s character, bringing this curious, daring girl to the screen through her spirited performance.

Eve takes us along with her as she adopts a guise and Cockney accent while gathering evidence to indict Charlotte Inwood with the murder.

Although Wyman felt overshadowed by Dietrich (sources say she would break down in tears after seeing the rushes) we have to root for her in order for the story to work – and we do.

We feel the fear of her ruse being discovered by Detective Smith (Michael Wilding) whom she befriends and her confusion as she begins to fall for him.

Richard Todd convincingly portrays the confusion and mad desperation of Jonathan Cooper – a man on the run with no where to turn except to Eve and her family.

Beneath his stalwart quality, Todd gives off an unsettling edge, where one can imagine something darker.

Todd was hot stuff at this point in his career, having won a Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Male Newcomer of 1949, an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor for his performance in the The Hasty Heart (1949).

With his talent and fame, it is clear why Hitchcock would be eager to snatch him up for Stage Fright.

See all three leads in action here – if cou can find them beneath all the feathers 🙂

The Supporting Players

Stage Fright has been described by some as Hitchcock’s family oriented picture. Eve has a loving, supportive father (Alastair Sim) who tries to help her out of the many jams she gets herself into.

Although Eve’s father and mother (Sybil Thorndike) don’t always get along, you can sense their love for Eve.

These two bring an undeniable magic to the screen in their scenes together as they address each other indirectly and show their affectionate disdain for one another.

Hitchcock was intrigued by this project since it afforded him the opportunity to return to London, his first time since leaving for Hollywood in 1939, to be near his daughter Patricia – a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Patricia did some stunt driving for Jane Wyman and also has a small part in the film as Eve’s friend, Chubby Bannister. How’s that for a name?

Conclusion

I greatly enjoy this film. It emanates warmth, charm, and wit while delivering the director’s signature mystery and suspense.

Stage Fright won’t make you hold onto your seat, but it just might surprise you as familiar Hitchcockian themes present themselves in a cleverly told manner that was very much ahead of its time.

What do you think about Stage Fright? No spoilers, please!

This post is my contribution to The Distraction Blogathon hosted by Rebecca at Taking Up Room. Thanks for letting me participate, Rebecca!

Head on over HERE for more distractions from the silver screen!

Niagara (1953) – Marilyn and the Falls

Image via: https://www.hojobythefalls.com/content/marilyn-monroe

The more powerful force of nature? I’ll let you watch and decide! Niagara is the film that put Marilyn Monroe on the map. Through the character of Rose Loomis, she established the persona and style that would follow for the rest of her career.

Niagara concerns two couples on holiday at one of the most romantic places on earth, Niagara Falls; however, the two couples couldn’t be more different. Polly (Jean Peters) and Ray Cutler (Casey Adams) are there on a delayed honeymoon and are as happy as newlyweds. Rose (Marilyn Monroe) and George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) have a strained relationship and are there to regain marital bliss. The suspense builds as Polly becomes involved with the unhappy couple and notices that there’s more to them than meets the eye.

Niagara is one of the few film noirs that were shot in Technicolor, and boy, does it deliver. With the setting of the infamous falls, the addition of color is absolutely essential and heightens the drama in this suspense thriller.

The film takes full advantage of its magnificent setting by masterfully showcasing the natural beauty and danger of the falls. Niagara perfectly captures the feeling of being at the site, and the thundering of the rushing water is never far away.

The cinematography in this film is stunning. Yes, black and white noir films are beautiful and iconic; but when done artfully, color can have its own luminous quality. We can thank Joe MacDonald, the cinematographer, for that.

Joe MacDonald
image via: IMDB

MacDonald was born in Mexico and came to Hollywood in the 1920’s working as an assistant camera man. By the 1940’s he was a full fledged cinematographer at 20th Century Fox. Among the movies he filmed were My Darling Clementine (1946), Call Northside 777 (1948), and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). Though he didn’t win (a three time nominee) any accolades during his lifetime, MacDonald holds the honor of being the first Mexican born cinematographer, and left behind a legacy of seventy-five films.

Marilyn absolutely glows throughout this movie. Not only visually, but in her role as well. She portrays a woman with a lust for life, ready to do anything to be with the man she loves. A very broad character indeed; and yet, she plays the part with such subtlety. Her performance is found in a look, a roll of the shoulder, a smirk. It is a shame that she didn’t go on to make another film noir as she is quite enjoyable to watch in this one.

Henry Hathaway and Marilyn Monroe
Image via: IMDB

Henry Hathaway, the director of Niagara, said that Marilyn was “marvelous to work with, very easy to direct and terrifically ambitious to do better. And bright, really bright…” Hathaway commented to a columnist in 1952, “She’s the best natural actress I’ve directed, and I go back. I’ve worked with Barbara LaMar, Jean Harlow, Rene Adoree-right up to today…”

Henry Hathaway learned his craft from the best. In the 1920’s he was an assistant director to such notables as de Mille and Victor Fleming. Hathaway made his own directorial debut in 1932 and became known for his work in westerns, including How the West was Won (1962), and noirs, such as Fourteen Hours (1951). He was at his best in action sequences, location shooting, and excelled at driving the narrative tension. Niagara stands as a fine example of the talented director’s work.

Let’s get to the rest of the cast! Joseph Cotten and Jean Peters work very well together on screen, creating a rapport between their characters and with us, the audience. This was a lovely piece of casting; however, Casey Adams is another story. He might have been brought in to provide some relief and lightness to the dark plot, but his style could have been better used elsewhere. The dialogue he was given does not help matters either. For me, the film does lose its steam about three-quarters of the way in (for repeat viewings only; the first time I saw it I was riveted.)

Jean Peters and Joseph Cotten

Niagara never gets old. It contains wonderful performances, standout moments, stunning visuals, and a gripping story line. All these reasons and more make it a film that’s not to be missed!

Legacy

According to film historian Sylvia Stoddard, there was a new system invented to make filming at the falls possible for the equipment. “In order to keep the camera lens free of water drops and mist during filming, a lens that could be kept dry and clear in any kind of weather was developed at a cost of $10,000…Cinematographer Joe MacDonald predicted it would be in wide use shortly and was worthy of a technical achievement Oscar.”

Marilyn’s iconic pink dress, designed by Dorothy Jeakins, was in demand the moment audience members saw it on the big screen. Since then it has been copied, sold, and served as inspiration for designers.

Side note: (This shade of pink reminds me of Esther William’s bathing suit in Bathing Beauty (1944), our first look at the swimming star in Technicolor. Was this Hollywood’s “look at me” color?)

image via: books.google.com

Niagara contains the “longest walk in cinema history” – a view of Marilyn walking away from the camera, which used 116 feet of film.

A great companion to this movie would be the book, Falling for Marilyn: The Lost Niagara Collection by Jock Carroll. Mr. Carroll spent a few weeks with Marilyn in Niagara Falls on the set and behind the scenes. He shares many photographs he took along with his reflections on the time he spent with the young starlet.

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