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!

Prince of Players (1955): A Shakespearean Ode to the Beauty and Pain of Life

Edwin Booth lived a life few can ever imagine. Born into a renowned theatrical family, he inherits both his father’s genius for stage acting and the demons that plagued him. His success on the stage stirs the envy of his brother, John Wilkes, driving him to a terrible deed that will echo throughout history.

As personal tragedy strikes, will Edwin be able to weather the turbulence in his life or will the angry winds overtake him?

Prince of Players tells this story.

20th Century Fox’s lavish production gains its source material from the best-selling 1953 biography of the same name by Eleanor Ruggles.

The Patriarch – Junius Brutus Booth

Raymond Massey introduces us to the world of Shakespeare when the curtains rise on Prince of Players. Massey doesn’t just play the character of Junius Brutus, the famed, eccentric nineteenth century actor, he becomes him.

Massey carries himself with an air of grandeur as I’m sure a great Shakespearean actor from the past would, and when he is in a drunken stupor and young Edwin must drag him home and tend to him, his affecting performance brings the gravitas of the film to its center, setting in motion the battles Edwin must face.

The Prince of Players – Edwin Booth

Talk about perfect casting, in the 1950’s, Richard Burton was busy establishing himself as a Shakespearean actor, being hailed as the next Olivier, and completed a season with the Old Vic including a successful run of his popular “moody, virile, baleful” Hamlet.

Richard Burton is impeccable in the role of Edwin Booth. I am of the opinion that no other actor of the time could do the complex man justice while fitting seamlessly into the nineteenth century setting.

Sure, Burton is no American. But he possessed a mesmerizing presence, intensity, tortured quality, and a mastery of Shakespeare that even Olivier praised. Also, the way he can hold an audience without saying a word is something to behold/experience.

The Traitor – John Wilkes Booth

John Derek plays the infamous John Wilkes Booth. Since the film focuses on Edwin, we only get a brief outline of John Wilkes and his nefarious motives and actions, but what is there, is done well.

Derek’s characterization contrasts perfectly with Burton. Derek is outspoken, flashy, with an unbridled madness, whereas Burton is quiet, self possessed, and portrays an inward struggle.

The Peacemaker – Mary Devlin

Maggie McNamara is the Juliet who tames Burton’s Romeo with her gentle, comforting presence. You can sense the belief she has in Edwin’s abilities as an actor and as a man.

Burton’s trust in her to be there for him and his love for her is quite moving as he’s had to go it alone for most of his life and he cherishes the relationship that they share. The connection between the two is beautifully portrayed and convincing.

The Bard – William Shakespeare

Prince of Players treats its audience to monologues from Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, and Edwin Booth’s signature role as Hamlet, among others.

Since playwright Moss Hart is on board as screenwriter and long time screenwriter Phillip Dunne is at the director’s helm, these scenes don’t feel like add-ons, necessary evils, nor do they stop the action. On the contrary, rather they add relevant poignancy due to their thoughtful placement in the narrative.

For instance when Junius does not want to go on stage, Edwin gives his father a pep talk and pleads with him, “I’m proud of you, father. They’ll be seeing you for the first time. They built this theater for you. You’re going on tour where no great actor has been seen before. They’ve waited a year for your coming.” To which Junius responds positively.

While on stage though, Junius begins to forget his lines, leading to this heart wrenching scene while Junius and Edwin are playing Richard III.

Richard (Massey):

And thy assistance is King Richard seated.
But shall we wear these glories for a day,
Or shall they last and we rejoice in them?


Buckingham (Burton):
Still live they, and forever let them last.

Richard (Massey):
Ah, Buckingham, now do I play the touch,
To try if thou be current gold indeed:
Young Edward lives…

(Junius, forgetting his lines, is prompted by Edwin)

Think now what I would speak.

Buckingham (Burton):
Say on, my loving lord.

(Whispering admiringly and sadly) Say on, my loving lord.

(Another prompt from Edwin)

Richard (Massey):
Why, Buckingham, I say I would be king.


Buckingham (Burton):
Why so you are, my thrice-renownèd lord.


Richard (Massey):
Ha! Am I king?

(Searchingly, to his son) Edwin, am I…king?

The Supporting Players

The reliable Charles Bickford gives a solid performance as Dave Prescott, the Booth’s crusty, demanding manager who over time becomes their trusted friend.

Elizabeth Sellars plays Asia Booth, the sister caught between the opposing brothers, and gives a sincere portrayal of concern and care.

Esteemed stage actress, director, producer Eva La Gallienne is credited as the technical consultant for the Shakespearean scenes. She also appears opposite Burton as a fiery Queen Gertrude in Hamlet, marking her film debut.

The Score – Bernard Herrmann

Director Phillip Dune chose Bernard Herrmann to provide the score for Prince of Players based on his experience with the composer on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and as usual, Herrmann’s stirring music fits like hand in glove.

According to Herrmann’s biographer, Steven Smith, since childhood Herrmann had nurtured a love of English literature and theater and relished working on the project.

The opening titles sound a fanfare of trumpets and a dignified American march that sets the tone for what’s to come – the grandeur of the theater.

The music takes a different turn as the film goes on underlining the overwhelming drama. Herrmann’s cues resemble Vertigo in the scenes between Junius and Edwin, and Herrmann nails the psychological tensions that belie their relationship.

The love theme for Edwin and Mary is bittersweet and portrays the blissful love and devotion they share.

The Visual Style

Prince of Players handsomely recreates the mid-late nineteenth century through Mary Wills’s costumes (Hans Christian Andersen) and Lyle Wheeler’s art direction (Gone With the Wind), and includes a recreation of the fateful night at Ford’s Theatre. Charles G. Clarke’s cinematography (Miracle on 34th Street) has some particularly striking moments and is very appealing.

Conclusion

Prince of Players is a moving depiction of Edwin Booth’s early-mid life and the emotional pain that befell him as he endured a miserable childhood, struggled to maintain his own sanity and the guilt and shame of his family name, and the ray of light that helped him overcome.

In this way, Prince of Players is a fine study of the struggle of managing and overcoming family ghosts and one’s own personal demons, the importance of purpose, and finally, acceptance of life and that purpose.

Edwin Booth as Hamlet

Edwin’s daughter, Edwina Booth Grossman, on her famous father and his defining role:

…It was long before I could thoroughly disassociate him from the character of Hamlet, it seemed so entirely a part of himself. Indeed, in that impersonation, I think, his confined nature and pent-up sorrows found vent. He told me that the philosophy of Hamlet had taught him to bear life’s vicissitudes.

If that isn’t beautiful, I don’t know what is.

To buy or not to buy

You can find this film here on Amazon. Hopefully one day the powers that be will restore Prince of Players to its former glory and present it as it was originally filmed in Cinemascope. But for now, any form of this hidden gem is worth seeing. Enjoy!

(Note: I am not an Amazon affiliate.)

About Edwin Booth

Enjoy this informative video and learn more about the Booth family’s history while touring Edwin’s beautiful home in which he established The Players – a private social club bringing together creatives and industrialists – in Gramercy Park, New York.

This is my contribution to The Biopic Blogathon hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood.

Thanks for having me, Annette! Head on over and read the rest of the entries here.

An All-Star Cast Makes Monkey Mayhem in Gorilla at Large (1954)

Detective Garrison (Lee J. Cobb) investigates a crime scene at the Garden of Evil carnival. His job becomes more interesting when he learns there are a number of suspects among the carnival’s employees – human and animal – each with sufficient reasons for murder.

From the opening credits, you can sense this is a unique film. With large red letters popping off the screen accompanied by a wild gorilla’s roar, we are taken into a world where spectacle reigns supreme.

Made by Panoramic Productions and distributed by 20th Century Fox, Gorilla at Large was released during the 3-D craze and as such, it is a feast for the eyes. Luscious Technicolor takes centre stage bringing the carnival to life in vivid shades of blue, red, and yellow. Shimmering lights reflect on sequined costumes, a fur covered paw reaches out to a shrieking girl, fireworks burst brightly in the night sky above a whizzing roller coaster.

While Gorilla sparkles with life, personality, and individuality, what makes the whole thing work is the cast. And let me tell you, it is quite the line up.

Lee J. Cobb plays a cool detective – calm and composed – with a studying eye he examines each of the suspects. In the same year he would transform himself into a very different character, corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly in On the Waterfront. As the mysterious carnival owner, Cyrus Miller, Raymond Burr keeps us guessing as he would a few months later in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Just a year prior to Gorilla, Cameron Mitchell convinced Marilyn Monroe she looked beautiful with glasses in How to Marry a Millionaire. As the young and handsome carnival barker, Joey Matthews, he is eyed by the women, namely his sweetheart Audrey (Charlotte Austin) and sultry trapeze artist Laverne (Anne Bancroft).

Bedecked with glamour in Renie’s costumes (Cleopatra, 1963), Anne Bancroft is the unmistaken star of the show. (Sorry, mister gorilla.)

Anne made her film debut only two years before Gorilla, yet her ease and grace before the camera is evident. Her work here is subtle, but effective, and demonstrates the talent that would lead to her Tony and Oscar wins for her performance as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker and the continuation of her legendary career.

Peter Whitney’s character, Kovacs, is one you wouldn’t want to be left alone with, while Lee Marvin’s role as silly, absentminded police officer Shaughnessy provides the laughs. And we can’t forget the titular gorilla given a distinct personality by an uncredited George Barrows in a gorilla suit.

Lending an air of authenticity by filming at Nu Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach, California, Gorilla puts the audience right where they need to be – in the middle of the action – whether swinging wildly from a trapeze or being chased through a maze of dizzying mirrors.

I particularly enjoy how the script by Leonard Praskins (Call of the Wild, 1935) and Barney Slater (The Tin Star, 1957) informs personality quirks and characteristics, such as the sarcasm of Detective Garrison.

Joey Matthews: We’re trying to save enough money so that we can get married, is that any crime?

Garrison: Marriage isn’t but murder is, although sometimes I think it should be the other way around.

And the light hearted Shaughnessy…

Shaughnessy: What do you feed him [the gorilla]?

Kovacs: Bananas, apples, grapes.

Shaughnessy: Oh you do? Bring me some too. He don’t drink coffee, does he?

Kovacs: Of course not.

Shaughnessy: Well I do! So get me some.

Other 3-D films that were released in 1954 included Dial M for Murder and Creature from the Black Lagoon. While both films have gone on to attain status as classics, Gorilla retains its B standing; however, the film does have its devoted fans due in part to its airing in the 1980’s on television.

Compared to The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Gorilla at Large looks at the dramatic lives of the carnival workers on a much smaller scale. It still provides plenty of dazzling sights, but because of the size of the production and the 83 minute running time we aren’t left with any extras.

Gorilla at Large is a prime example of a talented cast elevating what would be subpar material (in less able hands) into highly enjoyable fare. Each character has their time to shine and the actors make use of every second. Collectively, they have an easy rapport that works. With a mystery begging to be solved, complete with twists and turns, the result is a wildly fun ride that packs a lot into a small package.

This post is my contribution to The Anne Bancroft 90th Birthday Celebration Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

Thanks for letting me take part, Crystal! See more posts honoring the lovely Anne Bancroft by clicking HERE.

Peter Lawford, Gentleman Jewel Thief in The Hour of 13 (1952)

In 1890 on the gaslit, foggy streets of London, policemen are being targeted by a murderous madman known as “The Terror.” High class jewel thief Nicholas Revel (Peter Lawford) coincidentally steals a famous emerald the same night and location of the last attack. Nicholas, now a prime suspect of the murders, must clear his name and find the real murderer, using himself as bait.

Here’s our anti-hero — the charming, sophisticated gentleman thief, Nicholas Revel. When we first meet Nicholas, he is practicing stealing a necklace from around a bust’s neck. With a flick of the wrist he displays his skill, boldness, and precision, thus setting the tone and enjoyment of our movie – watching Nicholas weave in and out of situations in his inimitable way.

Whether entering a society event through a mirrored door, or teaming up with the police commissioner’s daughter (Dawn Addams) to plant suspicions in any direction but his, Nicholas confirms his adage – “The safest place is in a crowd.”

Though this is a little known film, The Hour of 13 has noteworthy folk on its production team. Let’s take a look at some of them…

The Hour of 13 was made at MGM’s British studios and was adapted from X v. Rex, a novel by Philip MacDonald. MacDonald’s most famous screenwriting credit is for his adaptation of Rebecca (1940). The screenplay by playwright Leon Gordon and Howard Emmett Rogers (Libeled Lady, 1936) is delightfully witty and smooth. This film is a remake of The Mystery of Mr. X (1934) with Robert Montgomery in the lead.

The production designer on The Hour of 13 was Alfred Junge – arguably the most influential art director of his time. Junge had been a collaborator with Powell and Pressburger on eight of their films, starting in 1939 and ending in 1947 with Black Narcissus, for which he won an Oscar. Junge worked on everything from Alfred Hitchcock’s early films (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Young and Innocent) to Technicolor spectacles — Knights of the Round Table and Mogambo (1953). The sets are indeed lush and pleasant to the eye in The Hour of 13. Junge brings Victorian England to life with detailed sets, luxurious decor and his recreation of the city of London is brimming with atmosphere and mystery.

Admittedly, I had never heard of the director Harold French before seeing The Hour of 13. I learned that French was a British stage actor and director who caught the film bug. During his twenty year movie career, he was known for comedies but proved his versatility with war films, thrillers, musicals, and dramas. Although he is not as celebrated among British film directors, French has some interesting credits to his name including Disney’s Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue (1953). I am so impressed with The Hour of 13 that I want to see more of his work. Any recommendations? Please leave them in the comments!

On to the cast…

I was curious how Lawford would fare within a period mystery. I love him in Easter Parade and Good News, but those delightful, fluffy musicals are a horse of a different color to a dramatic crime story. I shouldn’t have doubted. Lawford fit so well into the period mystery scene that I wish he had done more of them. Victorian England was the perfect setting for his refined speaking voice, elegant manners, and aristocratic bearing.

I loved seeing Lawford play an ambiguous character. The signature Lawford charm was evident, but he gave Nicholas an extra bit of edge that made him a compelling character and one of his most interesting roles and performances during this stage in his career.

The rest of the cast is assembled with excellent British actors. Dawn Addams is innocent, lovely and provides a nice contrast to the enigmatic Lawford. Roland Culver (Thunderball) earnestly plays Scotland Yard inspector Connor, the man determined to frame Lawford. Leslie Dwyer and Colin Gordon provide light comic relief as Lawford’s accomplices. Michael Hordern, Heather Thatcher (Beau Geste, 1939) and Richard Shaw round out the cast.

In a way, this movie reminds me of To Catch a Thief (1955) with our suave jewel thief on the run from the police, while trying to track down the real thief, or in this case, the real murderer. And in the same vein, our sympathies lie with our anti-hero.

The Hour of 13 is not pretentious – it knows its bounds and stays within them, while the able cast provides a solid piece of entertainment for those willing to descend into its world of dark alleys and urbane thievery.

This post is my contribution to The 2nd Annual Peter Lawford Blogathon given by Kristen of Hoofers & Honeys in honor of Peter’s birthday, September 7th, 1923! Thanks for letting me participate, Kristen!

CLICK HERE to read the other entries about the talented Mr. Lawford.

The Enchanting Cyd Charisse in Brigadoon (1954)

Gill over at Realweedgiemidget Reviews is hosting The No True Scotsman Blogathon which asks us to bring to light thespians playing Scots who are not Scottish themselves. For this unique look at the movies, I’m turning my sights to the Scottish Highlands of Lerner and Loewe’s musical, Brigadoon (1954), and more specifically Cyd Charisse as the film’s heroine, Fiona Campbell.

In our story, New Yorkers Tommy Albright (Gene Kelly) and Jeff Douglas (Van Johnson) take a hunting trip to Scotland where they stumble upon a quaint, mysterious village. Tommy is unsatisfied with his life back in New York and finds what he’s looking for in Brigadoon, including love with Fiona Campbell (Cyd Charisse); however, if he’s to keep what he’s found, he will need to turn his back on all he’s ever known.

Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly

Unfortunately for MGM, their production of the Broadway hit Brigadoon was not as idyllic as the village it portrays. Gene Kelly and director Vincente Minnelli were excited by the idea of providing audiences with a film that was shot on location in Scotland. This realism had been denied Broadway theatregoers who flocked to see Brigadoon and the creative team was itching to see it come to fruition; however, their hopes were dashed by the prospect of unseemly weather and extensive cuts to the budget.

In addition to being confined to the sound stages, Minnelli was tasked with shooting the film in Cinemascope (which he disliked) as well as the standard widescreen format. With all of these drawbacks Kelly and Minnelli felt stifled, but still managed to give us a film to appreciate.

The stars of Brigadoon (1954) with producer Arthur Freed

Originally, Kathryn Grayson was chosen for the part of Fiona; but by the time production began Grayson was no longer under contract to the studio. The next choice – Moira Shearer (a Scot) – was unavailable, giving former Ballet Russe dancer Cyd Charisse her second leading role in a musical.

Cyd was American as apple pie, but this didn’t seem to hinder her performance. Cyd’s Scottish accent in the film is light and charming, although I’m pretty sure it’s not entirely accurate. On top of her refined speaking voice, she added a slight lilt and rolling of her “r’s.” Under all this, one would never guess that she was born in Texas and lived there till her teenage years. Lest ye think Cyd sprang some vocal chords overnight, she was dubbed by Carol Richards who carried the accent through as well.

Cyd Charisse’s star had risen by dancing with Gene Kelly in Singin in the Rain (1952) and Fred Astaire in The Bandwagon (1953), but in Brigadoon her graceful beauty shines through like never before. Cyd plays Fiona with passion and dignity. A brave woman who knows her heart and is honest with herself and others. Her ladylike bearing and poise is perfectly attuned to the character of Fiona. Just like Tommy, we, the audience, fall for her on sight.

The chemistry between Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly is palpable and is never more apparent than in “The Heather On the Hill.” Kelly’s choreography reaches the peak of romance as the two playfully run across the hills gathering heather and break into dance with some of the most beautiful lifts I’ve ever seen on screen.

The reprise is equally stirring as the passion between the lovers has fully bloomed and Tommy must make his decision.

For some reason I’ve always thought of this film as Tommy’s story. Upon further examination, I’ve realized that Fiona deserves more than I was giving her credit for. After all, when she falls for Tommy she is fully aware of the village’s secret and what she could lose if she puts her heart on the line, yet she does so anyway. Tommy hasn’t a clue what he’s getting into when he falls for the Scottish lass, but he does know what they have is real and true.

Brigadoon might go down in history as the MGM film that should have been shot on location, but to me the hand painted backdrops and studio sets add to the film’s magical quality (not unlike The Wizard of Oz, 1939). Also, as much as I love Moira Shearer, I can’t picture anyone else in the part of Fiona. In my book, Gene Kelly plus Cyd Charisse equals dynamite.

Fun bit of trivia: According to Imdb, Cyd Charisse said that of the several films she made with Gene Kelly, Brigadoon was her favorite.

This post is my contribution to The No True Scotsman Blogathon hosted by Gill at Realweedgiemidget Reviews. Thanks for letting me participate, Gill! Grab yer’ kilt head over to her blog for Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3.