Posts Tagged ‘Ethel Barrymore’

My Classic Movie Pick: The Spiral Staircase

I enjoy suspense movies and not the slash and gore films that seem so popular with the younger generations.  I like a suspense film that doesn’t show all of  the violence or the evildoer immediately,  but simply hints at the fact that something bad is going to happen or is happening.  Of course, the suspense films I like also have a  good triumphs over  evil ending and the main character, who has been in danger, will now be safe.The Spiral Staircase opening shot

The Spiral Staircase is my kind of suspense film.  In the beginning of the film, the audience is swept into a local hotel that also shows silent films.  It is in this audience that we meet heroine Helen(Dorothy McGuire) who is thoroughly caught up in the plot of the silent movie that she is watching. ( The silent film shown is D.W. Griffith’s The Sands of the Dee.)    As the movie plays for the audience, we are taken upstairs where  a young woman is looking out her window.  She then walks to  her closet and we notice that she has a noticable limp.  She takes a dress out of her closet and what we see, but she doesn’t see,  is that a man is hiding in her closet!  The camera zooms in on just his eye and we see his pov,  watching the young woman dress.   With her arms over her head and the dress about her, the camera again zooms in on her hands as they clutch the air and show signs that the young woman has been grabbed.  We hear her groans, and then the scene cuts to the hotel’s movie audience.  They are happily getting their coats and hats and preparing to leave when above their heads they hear a loud thud and the sound of  breaking glass.  The hotel owner rushes upstairs and with the help of another hotel guest(character actress  Ellen Corby, aka Grandma Walton from the 1970s tv show, The Walton’s) he goes to the young woman’s room and finds her strangled to death.

Helen enjoying the silent movie.

Helen enjoying the silent movie.

The killer hiding in the closet!

The killer hiding in the closet!

Victim #3, the poor crippled woman.

Victim #3, the poor crippled woman.

Something evil has recently begun in this quiet, small New England town near Boston.   We learn that two young women  have been murdered for no apparent reason other than the fact that they both had a physical defect.  One of the victims had a facial scar and the other was described as “simple-minded”.  Now we see that the third victim was crippled in her leg.  Soon we learn that Helen, a maid at wealthy Mrs. Warren’s (Ethel Barrymore) home, is a mute.  That can only mean one thing, Helen’s life is in danger!

We don’t know a lot about Helen’s previous life.  We do know that she used to be able to speak but when coming home from school one day as a youngster, she discovered that her home was on fire and her parents died in the fire, the local firefighters unable to save them.  This horrific event has caused Helen to not be able to speak.  Who she stayed with until she reached adulthood we don’t know and we also don’t know how she came to be in Mrs. Warren’s employ.  We do learn that she is in love with kind Dr. Parry(Kent Smith), the young, handsome, new doctor in town and he also loves Helen.  He wants her to go to Boston and be evaluated by a team of doctors who, he believes, will be able to help Helen get her voice back.  There is a scene in the film where Helen daydreams about dancing with Dr. Parry and then she is at the altar to marry him and it breaks her heart that she can’t utter the words, “I do” during the wedding ceremony, with all eyes upon her.

Dr. Parry telling Helen about the doctors in Boston who could help her.

Dr. Parry telling Helen about the doctors in Boston who could help her.

Helen, frustrated that she can't utter the words, "I do."

Helen, frustrated that she can’t utter the words, “I do.”

Since we, the audience, know the killer is a man, the movie’s script cleverly introduces 4 male characters who could possibly be the killer.  There is Professor Albert Warren(George Brent), his younger brother Steve(Gordon Oliver), Mr. Oates(Rhys Williams), and even Dr. Parry.

Professor Warren seems very preoccupied, dislikes his younger brother, Steve,  immensely, and keeps intruding whenever his brother is trying to grab and kiss the Professor’s secretary, the very beautiful Blanche(Rhonda Fleming.)   Turns out Blanche and the Professor also had a past relationship so it really sticks in his craw to see his former girlfriend in the arms of his younger brother!

The constable asking the Warren brothers where they were when the 3rd murder happened.

The constable asking the Warren brothers where they were when the 3rd murder happened.

Steven and Blanche

Steven and Blanche

Mr. Oates, the caretaker of the Warren mansion and grounds, is seen entering the house in a dark raincoat and hat, which we saw the killer wearing earlier when he was stalking  Helen on her way home to the mansion from the hotel.

The killer, following Helen to the mansion.

The killer, following Helen to the mansion.

Mr. Oates answering  the constable's questions.

Mr. Oates answering the constable’s questions.

Steven seems to be a lazy, layabout, with no job.  He’s just returned from a tour of Europe with nothing but time on his hands when he decides to embark on getting closer to Blanche.  Later in the film, he cruelly scoffs at Dr. Parry’s suggestion that doctors in Boston could help Helen speak.  Why does the thought of a person with a disability getting help make him so angry?

How the killer sees Helen and her lack of a voice.

How the killer sees Helen and her lack of a voice.

Even Dr. Parry, so kind to Helen, is he really who he seems to be or could he be  hiding  an evil side, ala Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

The women in the film are also just as interesting as the men.  Mrs. Warren, cold to her two stepsons,  reveals that their father thought them both weaklings and wastrels.  She is insistent to Helen that she must get out of the house that night, that something bad will happen to Helen if she doesn’t get away.  She is also a concealed carry believer!(This performance earned Barrymore a nomination for Best Supporting Actress.)   Mrs. Oates(Elsa Lanchester) is the cook with a penchant for sneaking a drink.  Her husband’s scoldings about her habit she ignores and unfortunately, that “little nip” while washing up the supper dishes will prove to be unhelpful to Helen later that night!  Then there is Blanche, the dutiful secretary, drawn to bad boy Steven, and a search in the basement for her suitcase will prove to be a deadly decision on her part!  Of course, hats are off to Dorothy McGuire’s portrayal of Helen.  She has to emote and convey so much with no words being uttered.  A truly remarkable performance.

Mrs. Warren has a gun and she knows how to use it!

Mrs. Warren has a gun and she knows how to use it!

Blanche knows who the killer is!

Blanche knows who the killer is!

Professor Warren reminding Helen to stay indoors and to go to him if she needs any help.

Professor Warren reminding Helen to stay indoors and to go to him if she needs any help.

Mrs. Warren urging Helen to get out of the house!

Mrs. Warren urging Helen to get out of the house!

Mrs. Oates waiting to sneak a bottle of brandy.

Mrs. Oates waiting to sneak a bottle of brandy.

The Spiral Staircase does an excellent job of showing the twists and turns of very complicated people and it leaves one guessing as to who the killer is until the last 10 minutes or so of the movie.  I also enjoyed the photography shot by Nicholas Musuraca.  Lots of lights and darks, shadows where a killer could be lurking in the old mansion, and a large mirror on the first landing of the grand staircase is used for quite a few interesting shots and views.  If I ever had a basement, it wouldn’t be as dark and dank and creepy as the one in this movie, I can tell you!!

One can find The Spiral Staircase at Amazon.com, but I warn you, it’s really pricey.  I was shocked at how high it’s price is!  It’s not available at TCM’s shop, only a remake which was done in 1975 starring Christopher Plummer, Jacqueline Bisset, and Sam Wannamaker.  It is available on Youtube, however, in its entirety.  A Spanish or Portugese(sorry, I cannot tell the difference between the two languages) fan of the film put it on Youtube, with subtitles for the Spanish or Portugese viewers.

The Spiral Staircase was made in 1946 by RKO Studios, produced by Dory Schary and directed by Robert Siodmak.  The screenplay was written by Mel Dinelli, adapted from the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White.  I also discovered that the killer’s eye seen in the woman’s closet at the film’s beginning belonged to the director, Siodmak!

For a wonderful suspense film that I think younger filmmakers could learn a lesson or two from, seek out The Spiral Staircase!  The Spiral Staircase poster 3

My Classic Movie Pick: Pinky, for the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon

In  December, as I was reading blogs that I enjoy, I found out about  an upcoming blogathon, The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon.  The three ladies hosting it, their goal was for bloggers to focus on the history of  films during the time frame from 1915 through 1950.  I signed up for the year 1949 and decided to focus  on one specific film, one film that dared to tackle a topic that Hollywood hadn’t really looked at in much depth.  Be sure to visit these awesome hostesses’  blogs  to read about the films that encompassed these specific years: Ruth at Silver Screenings, Aurora at Once Upon a Screen, and Fritzi at Movies Silently.

  In 1949  America’s economic prosperity was on the rise, television had started entering  American households, and a book that had been written in 1946 that looked at racial issues in the South caught the eye of producer Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox.   The book was titled Quality and was  written by Mississippi native Cid Ricketts Sumner.  A screenplay was ordered which was  written by Philip Dunne, Dudley Nichols, and with collaborations by actress Jane White, who’s father, Walter White, was the Executive Secretary  of the NAACP.   The movie that evolved was Pinky.

The plot of Pinky is pretty straightforward.  A young black girl,Pinky,(Jeanne Crain) who could pass for white due to the lightness of her skin, is raised by her black Grandmother Dicey(Ethel Waters),  a laundress, in a sleepy, little Southern town.    Dicey saves enough money to send Pinky  north where she can attend a convent school.  Pinky graduates and then enrolls in a  3 year nurse training school in Boston.  She also  meets a young doctor, Tom Adams(William Lundigan) and they  fall in love.  Tom wants to marry Pinky, who has gone by the name Patricia while living in the north.   Pinky doesn’t know what to do so she hops the next train and travels back to her hometown.  Dicey  is overjoyed to see Pinky again and assumes that she’ll use her nursing training to help the poor in their community.  She is disappointed when Pinky firmly tells her that she is only home for a visit and that she’ll soon be going back to Boston.  Pinky is at a crossroads.  She knows she is disappointing Dicey and she knows she isn’t being honest with Tom, as she hasn’t revealed to him that she is really black.  She also hasn’t told Dicey about Tom.    Back in her hometown, she isn’t welcomed by the black community, who view her with distain for passing as white, despite the respect that they all have for her Grandmother.  Pinky needs guidance as to who she really is, how she wants to live her life, and then more  complications set in.

Dr. Tom Adams, who wants to marry Pinky, and doesn't know the truth about her background.

Dr. Tom Adams, who wants to marry Pinky, and doesn’t know the truth about her background.

Pinky back home with Dicey

Pinky back home with Dicey

Pinky Dicey is a laundress

Dicey gave money that was to be sent to Pinky’s school to local con artist Jake Waters(Frederick O’Neal) and he didn’t send all of the money as he was supposed to do.  Dicey has found out about this dishonesty and Pinky decides to confront Jake and get the money back.  He does give Pinky what he can, $15 of his wife’s money, and his wife, Rozelia(Nina Mae McKinney), comes home as Pinky is walking out with the money.  There is an altercation between the two women in the street and the local police happen to be in the area.  The two officers(one played by an uncredited Arthur Hunnicutt) treat Jake and Rozelia with disdain and disrespect and treat Pinky with utmost respect.  When Rozelia tells them that Pinky is “colored”, the officers immediately treat Pinky with disrespect and rudeness.  After a meeting with Judge Walker(Basil Ruysdael), Jake and Rozelia promise to not to get into trouble anymore, and they are dismissed.  Judge Walker keeps Pinky behind to inquire about her education, to tell her how much respect he has for her Grandmother, and to  remind  Pinky that she  needs to be a credit to her Grandmother.

Being treated rudely by the local police.

Being treated rudely by the local police and Rozelia laughing at her.

When Miss Em(Ethel Barrymore), the wealthiest woman in town,  has a heart attack, Dicey talks with Dr. Joe(Griff Barnett) and learns that a nurse will be needed to sit with Miss Em  until she has made a strong recovery.   Dicey insists Pinky do this job as a payment of a debt since Miss Em cared for Dicey the last time that  she was ill.  Pinky dislikes Miss Em, who was rude to her when she was a child and has always  treated her as an inferior person.  Pinky finally agrees to do the job for Dicey’s sake  and also tells  Dicey  that as soon as the nursing job is over she’ll be  traveling back  to Boston.    Miss Em has a way with challenging  Pinky’s doubts about herself and through a Will, and the challenge of its legality by an odious relative of Miss Em’s(Evelyn Varden), Pinky has to fight for her rights in a courtroom, learns more truths about  Tom and herself, and at the end of the movie, makes her decision of what to do with her life that is true to herself and  true to her own identity.

Ethel Barrymore as Miss Em

Ethel Barrymore as Miss Em

Pinky and Miss Em

Pinky and Miss Em

Evelyn Varden playing an evil lady intent on stealing property from Pinky

Evelyn Varden playing an evil lady intent on stealing property from Pinky

Pinky giving Tom her final answer

Pinky giving Tom her final answer

John Ford was the original director for Pinky, but he didn’t get on with the cast, he didn’t grasp the storyline as producer Zanuck envisioned it, and after watching the rushes and being disappointed with them, Zanuck fired Ford after one week on the job.  Elia Kazan had made a name for himself by directing dramas on Broadway, and for directing a  Best Picture Oscar for Gentlemen’s Agreement and for winning Best Director for that film too, all of which helped  Twentieth Century Fox’s coffers.  Zanuck hired Kazan to take over the directing for Pinky.  Kazan has stated how he found a demoralized cast, unsure of their acting abilities after one week of working with John Ford.  Kazan came in and decided to do many read throughs of the script, to get the cast more at ease with the story and with their acting abilities.  Kazan wanted to travel to the South for the filming but was told no by Zanuck.  With the talent of Joe MacDonald, Director of Photography and Atillio Gabani operating the camera , the movie  really looks like it was filmed in a southern town and not a Hollywood backlot and soundstage.

 Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge both  wanted to play the lead role of Pinky, but due to Hollywood’s  censure board that stated there couldn’t be any interracial kissing scenes, the part of Pinky went to actress Jeanne Crain.  Ethel Waters was cast as Grandma Dicey, Ethel Barrymore was cast as Miss Em, and William Lundigan was cast as Dr. Tom.  The film impacted critics and audiences alike.  Crain was a nominee for Best Actress for the Academy Awards in 1950, and her co-stars, Waters and Barrymore, were both nominated for Best Supporting Actresses.

Why did I choose this movie for my pick? Up until 1949, racial issues in movies weren’t explored.  With the end of WWII, President Truman appointed advisors to evaluate desegregating the US military and from my readings on that topic and others about race in America, the late 1940s and early 1950s would prove to have watershed moments and issues that would ultimately lead to the end of Jim Crow laws and the theory  that “Seperate but Equal” was a fine solution to racial issues in the US.

When I first saw Pinky, I was a college student and I stumbled upon it by accident one day, perusing the cable channels.  The unusual topic matter, being made in the 1949, held my attention.  What was this lady going to do?  Marry the man who says he loves her?  Turn her back on her Grandmother that raised her?  Turn her back on her community who clearly could use her talents and skill set at training nurses in her town?  Accept her fiance’s idea of both of them moving to Denver and a new life where no one would have to know of her background?  The movie posed a lot of questions that wouldn’t show the answers until the final scene.  I felt sorry for Pinky as I watched the movie, and grew irritated and angry as to how she was treated by some of the movie’s characters.  Pinky was a startling movie for 1949 and the majority of the critics praised it and audiences flocked to see it; it wasn’t shunned at all in Southern cities and towns across the US as some at Twentieth Century Fox feared would happen.

To see Pinky, it has been put on dvd and is available at Amazon.com, it is available to purchase from Turner Classic Movies, and some kind soul has put the entire movie on Youtube!  With a lilting, moving score by Alfred Newman, excellent directing by Elia Kazan, and an excellent cast, please seek out Pinky!  A daring movie for 1949.  Pinky poster 1