Wednesday, January 30, 2013
What I Watched With My Mother (The Finale): Home Before Dark (1958)
Home Before Dark (New Year's Day night) (Note: Home Before Dark is showing tomorrow (Thurs. 1/31/13) at 1 pm EST, as part of TCM's all-day birthday tribute to Jean Simmons.)
Of all the movies the Siren saw with her sainted Mom, this was the nicest surprise.
Jean Simmons plays Charlotte Bronn, who's being sprung from a mental hospital after a year-long stay. Opening shots show deep snow around the magnificently lugubrious Danvers State Insane Asylum (it's got a pseudonym, but that's Danvers all right). Before Charlotte shows up, her professor hubby, Arnold (Dan O'Herlihy), asks the head doctor something that paraphrases as "Gee, doc, shouldn't my recently crazy wife be, er, occupying her own bed for a while?" The shrink tells Arnold oh no, ho-ho, there's no reason for that.
Back home Charlotte's greeted by her slinky, shifty stepsister, Joan (Rhonda Fleming), not to mention her stepmother (Mabel Albertson), whom we immediately realize could drive Anna Freud into a mental ward. And what does Arnold do when his too-long-celibate wife makes a play for some affection? He tells her she needs her own bedroom for the time being—doctor's orders, you know.
This absolute whopper establishes, definitively, that Arnold doesn't love Charlotte. And, because Fleming makes such suggestive eye contact with O'Herlihy, we also know immediately that something's up between Stepsis and Hubby. Maybe they did the deed, maybe they didn't, but in any case, neither one of them has any business telling Charlotte she's delusional.
This may not sound like much of a set-up, especially for a movie clocking in at 136 minutes; add less than a half-hour and you've got enough time to blow up The Bridge on the River Kwai. Yet neither the Siren nor her sainted mom minded the running time. The considerable suspense comes from waiting for Charlotte to realize what drove her out of her mind in the first place. She has to, or she'll be back in Danvers, perhaps for good. The script (by Eileen and Robert Bassing, from Eileen's novel) makes the audience piece together the past events at the same time that Charlotte is recognizing, bit by painstaking bit, all the things that are driving her mad.
Crazy-Making Thing No. 1 is Arnold, with a Stepmama appetizer and Joan on the side, but there's definitely more. Home Before Dark was shot mostly on location in Marblehead, Mass., during a winter so cold the camera had to be de-iced like a plane on a runway. (One reason the beach scenes look more relaxed: They were filmed in Malibu.) The Bronn house is played by one of those lovely New England colonials that, properly lensed, resemble a cozy tomb. Inside, the ceilings are low, the halls are narrow and a person can't walk five feet without running into Stepsis and her torpedo bra. The cook (Kathryn Card) is a battle-ax who rules the kitchen with all the bighearted warmth of Ivan the Terrible. The house faces a slushy street where the other houses are so close that in spring you could probably sit on your own porch and prop your feet on someone else's. In this nosy college town, Charlotte can't so much as go shopping without facing a sales assistant who insists on calling Arnold to make sure his wife doesn't have a form of insanity that makes you run out and buy a silk dress. Encounters with other residents find them treating Charlotte like she's a kid who just got over chicken pox: "My dear, they told me you were ill. But you look so well!" (To which Charlotte replies, with a chilly half-smile, "They lied to you.")
Charlotte does have an old friend (Joanna Barnes) who's sensible and sympathetic, and an old flame (Stephen Dunne) who still lusts for her, but both have troubles of their own, and neither of them gets anywhere when they try to point out the obvious about Arnold and Joan. Charlotte tells her friends they're wrong, that she was wrong. It was all in her mind. Her denial is incredible, but after all, if a man you loved kept telling you that you're delusional, maybe you'd go crazy, too. It worked in Gaslight.
The Siren was impressed by the entire cast, but it's Simmons' show, and she's in almost every scene. It would be tempting for a leading lady to emphasize Charlotte's charm and victimization, a wounded-but-titillating-gazelle sort of thing. Instead Simmons plays up the woman's intelligence. Sarcasm, rebellion and reproof keep creeping into her voice, and each flash of her perception offers hope for more. Those supreme Simmons eyes tell so much about denial, about why Charlotte believes that everything's her fault and that she should be what her family wants her to be.
Offering one escape route is Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Jake Diamond, the handsome temporary lecturer who's boarding at the Bronn house. Arnold is trying to shore up his own position by sponsoring Jake, who's Jewish. (One bully-for-Charlotte bit comes when Arnold is tsk-tsking over Jake's aggressive manner with the college brass, and she says, calm but pointed, "I thought you said they didn't like him because he's Jewish.") Much of Home Before Dark finds Simmons looking as bad as she could look in 1958—little or no make-up, hollow eyes, hair that's turned gray and straw-like, dowdy clothes hanging off a hospital-shrunk body. But she's still Jean Simmons, and Jake takes in her beauty the first time he sees her, when she's coming down the stairs one morning in her robe.
Then Arnold emerges—from a ground-floor room. As Charlotte gets a good-morning embrace from the plaster-of-paris otherwise known as her husband, Zimbalist does an eye-flick up the stairs to where the marital bedroom is located, and back to Arnold. Arnold moves to the dining room, and Charlotte turns around to find Jake is still at the door to his room, still looking, already figuring out what the true problem is.
Zimbalist makes Jake's kindness seem like the way any good person would respond, which naturally brings up the corollary that Charlotte's other household members are not good people. His attraction to Charlotte is potent but not sleazy, and he gets points just for being willing to joke with her. Everyone else is afraid she'll set fire to the furniture or something. Charlotte, however, is in no shape to reciprocate, and besides, "I want her to rescue herself," the Siren announced. Mom nodded. The great thing is, so does Jake.
You do wonder why on earth Charlotte's so stuck on Arnold, with his fleshy mouth and his suck-up manner with almost anyone who isn't married to him. You find out in a flashback to a few years before. She wasn't—isn't—entirely comfortable with herself, so she uses Joan's bubbly flirting techniques to set her cap for the older, established Arnold. She thinks he's sophisticated, nothing like the "hey baby how 'bout it?" guys her own age. She's dead wrong, of course. Arnold's intellect is trained entirely on his own advancement, and sexually Joan is much more his type.
Late in the movie, Charlotte drags Arnold to what's supposed to be a romantic Christmas getaway in Boston (because where else would you go for one of those). The scenes where she decides that if Joan is what Arnold wants, Joan is what she'll be, are so horrifyingly funny, and then so horrifying, that the Siren couldn't believe what she was watching. Mad respect to the line delivery of Joel Marston, who plays a hairdresser named Frederic. Charlotte tells him that her husband wants her in Joan's platinum-blonde coronet, which makes even scrumptious Rhonda Fleming look like Brunhilde's understudy, and Frederic responds, "I hate him." The Siren and Mom had been waiting the whole damn movie for somebody to say that.
Pauline Kael wrote that "Jean Simmons gives a reserved, beautifully modulated performance" (hooray! cried the Siren) "that is so much better than the material that at times her exquisite reading of the rather mediocre lines seems a more tragic waste than her character's wrecked life" (DRAT). Oh well. Even if Kael thought the movie was too long, she appreciated Simmons and didn't use the dreaded words "soap opera."
The Siren has said before that a movie "isn't for everyone," and she should stop, because how fatuous is that? No movie is for everyone. This movie is for Jean Simmons fans and Mervyn Le Roy fans (the Siren's both). It's for those who like New England coastal settings and comeuppances and beautiful opening-credit songs with lyrics that Sammy Cahn seems to have written before checking out the script. Most of all, it's for people who think it can be just as fascinating to spend more than two hours with a woman who's figuring out that her husband doesn't love her as it is to watch gangsters or spies or a president getting a bill through Congress.
What Mom said: "That was our kind of movie, wasn't it."
The new banner is from Seraphic Secret. (Robert Avrech also has a wonderful memoir out about the love of his life, Karen--whom he was lucky enough to marry. It's on Kindle, and you should check it out.)
Jean Simmons would have been 84 tomorrow, but she died in 2010. Since the Siren wrote that adoring tribute, she's grown to admire Simmons' acting even more. You can order Home Before Dark at the Warner Archive Store. Should that not be enough, you can do what the Siren did and watch this here. Since she's had her knuckles rapped for drawing attention to these things, the Siren won't name the movie except to say that it's the uncut U.K. version of a gorgeous, full-rigged Gothic, based on a novel she's loved since girlhood, and Simmons is utterly marvelous, as always. [Redacted] also comes with a built-in mystery; it's a great-looking movie that should have spawned a good career for its director, so what happened to this man?
Then, because the Siren loves you, you can watch another one here. The Siren hasn't seen this one yet so do try to be discreet. She has no idea what to expect. What she's read of the premise seems only slightly less yucky than Susan Slept Here but then again, it's Simmons and Granger at their youngest and most physically dazzling.