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!

Book Review – Hitchcock’s Heroines by Caroline Young

Hitchcock’s Heroines, by Caroline Young, is a beautiful coffee table style book that is written from a unique perspective – that of the leading ladies and their working relationship with the famous director. This topic has been discussed in the past, but never with such style and visual splendor.

This book takes us on a guided tour of (almost) each film that Hitchcock made. Each film is given eight spreads which cover the production of the movie, how each actress was cast, her personality and style preferences, and what she thought of the Master of Suspense. In addition, the plot of the film and a brief biography of each actress are clearly and neatly presented.

Full page black and white and color images abound, making this a real treat for the eyes. There are numerous costume sketches, behind the scenes photos, costume test and production photos – enough to warrant repeat viewings of this book.

what did i enjoy?

I love how Hitchcock’s stylistic choices for his characters are discussed in detail and how these choices contributed to the storytelling. I also enjoyed learning how the actress’ personal style choices came through in the final design for her character.

Edith Head, the legendary costume designer, gets some time to shine in this book as well, as she was part of Hitchcock’s “dream team” and worked on some of his most successful films. It’s great to hear her personal thoughts about collaborating with the director and how she worked to make his creative visions come to life.

what would i change?

I was surprised that not every Hitchcock film was included in this book. The one that immediately comes to mind is I Confess along with Strangers on a Train. Granted, those films are not as well known as The Birds and Vertigo but I still would have liked to see them included and learned the behind the scenes facts about them as well.

who is this book for?

I’d recommend this book for any fans of Hitchcock or Grace Kelly. Since Grace has been called” the ultimate Hitchcock blonde” there are lots of photos and commentary about her and Hitch’s collaborations, making this a must for any Grace fan. I’d also recommend this book for those interested in costume design, Old Hollywood style, and female character studies.

want to know more?

Those who would like to know more about this topic might enjoy Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies by Donald Spoto. I haven’t read Spellbound, but Hitchcock’s Heroines seems like a coffee table version of Spoto’s book.

Warning: this book DOES contain spoilers! If you want to avoid them I’d suggest watching the movie you’re interested in learning about before reading the related section.

You can buy today’s book, Hitchcock’s Heroines, by clicking here.

Grace Kelly and James Stewart in a promo shoot for Rear Window (1954)

Thanks for reading and for visiting The Classic Movie Muse!