Friday, October 21, 2005

Little House in the Big Woods

Autumn is the Siren's favorite season, by a mile. Perhaps that's because she grew up in the heat-soaked Deep South, where you look forward to the cooling breezes of fall the way those up North yearn for spring. But she would probably like this time of year anyway. She can put on a sweater, the sky turns a brilliant color, the wind picks up and so does her energy during the day. At night the Siren finds herself wanting to wrap up in a quilt on the couch, sip a soothing drink and watch something that will suit the mood, as the days rush on toward Halloween.

So the other night she pulled out her unwatched copy of The Red House, Delmer Daves's thriller from 1947. The movie stars Edward G. Robinson, which was reason enough to buy it. Martin Scorsese discusses this movie in "A Journey Through American Film," but the Siren remembers nothing he said.

Anyway, if it is autumnal atmosphere you are after, this movie is the business. The red house of the title is out in the woods, in a location so remote that the characters discuss it for a long while before anybody locates it. Allene Roberts is Meg Morgan, the sheltered teenage niece of Wisconsin farmer Pete Morgan (Robinson) and his sister Ellen (Judith Anderson, who apparently hadn't changed hairstyles since Rebecca). Nath Storm (Lon McAllister), comes to work at the Morgan farm as a part-time hired hand, and despite his ludicrous name Meg has a raging crush on him. Nath lingers too long at dinner one night, time comes for him to go home, and he decides on a shortcut through the woods. Pete, who obviously knows too much about the forest, tries to dissuade Nath, yelling "Did you ever run from a scream? You CAN'T!"

What with the wind picking up, Robinson's bullfrog mouth stretching his face into a gargoyle and Miklos Rozsa's fantastic score building the menace, the Siren would have said, "You win, Pete. Let's call a cab."

But this is a thriller, Nath insists he isn't afraid, and with Pete, the wind and Rozsa howling after him, off he goes into the woods. Nath's journey through the woods takes him through thick and threatening underbrush, snapping branches and leaves that seem actually to pursue him down the path. Eventually Nath, exhausted and terrified, runs right back to the Morgan farm and takes refuge in the barn. It's a gorgeous sequence. The next day, Nath and Meg decide to unravel the secret of the woods and the red house.

The Siren found throughout the film that each time the camera entered the forest, the tension grew and the effect was beautiful and menacing indeed. Scenes outside the woods are sometimes equally interesting, but not always. Part of the fault lies with the Siren's fellow Alabamian, Roberts, who is what novelist Georgette Heyer used to call a "milk-and-water miss." Pete's interest in his niece seems unhealthy from the beginning, but Robinson has little to play off with Roberts since she has the appeal and personality of a plucked chicken. Robinson was an incredible talent, and he mostly gives a fine performance (I don't think he gave any other kind). But the part requires so many abrupt changes of mood and motivation it's a wonder the man didn't get whiplash. Judith Anderson as a Wisconsin farm frau just doesn't wash. Her queenly bearing kept giving her away, and every time she opened her mouth the Siren expected either iambic pentameter or something like "Why don't you leave Manderley? He doesn't need you."

The Siren was touched to see that the cast included Ona Munson in a brief part as Nath's mother. She made a vivid impression as Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind and Mother Gin Sling in The Shanghai Gesture, but she was in a typecasting straitjacket and this was her last role. She had major surgery in the early 1950s and suffered from depression afterward. In 1955 she committed suicide with an overdose of barbituates, leaving a note to her husband that read, "This is the only way I know to be free again." Munson looks wan here, and while she does a good job her scenes make for sad viewing.

There are a lot of reasons to see The Red House. There's Robinson, always fascinating even when the script demands the impossible. There is the gorgeous soundtrack, skillful building of atmosphere by Daves and the beautiful cinematography by Bert Glennon. And there's an actress whose future fame was much more as a singer, Julie London. As Tibby, the town bad girl, she is just luscious. Nath is going steady with Tibby, and when Meg is around it's rather like setting a rag doll next to Botticelli's Venus and asking who's gonna get the guy. London was a real eyeful, and in The Red House her seductive speaking voice and masses of tumbling hair do half the work. She walks off with every scene she's in.


Exiled in NJ said...

Your words do it everytime! Now I want to find this time, IMMEDIATELY.

I chuckle at the thought of "country slicker" Robinson and his wife Anderson, yet I doubt that today's casting methods are any better.

surly hack said...

Robinson works well in the part because he's working class all over, and you believe he could work a farm.

I just saw a new print of TWO SECONDS (Mervyn LeRoy, 32) which stars Robinson as a man who's life flashes before him in the two seconds it takes to die in the electric chair.

Based on a play, the film is too stagey and obvious--until Robinson's final scene. As a literal spotlight falls on him, he delivers a bravura monologue, mashing his face, driven mad by injustice. Suddenly the theatricality works--and how.

This was playing with a new version of the startling BABY FACE (Alfred E., Green, 33), starring Barbara Stanwyck. Even in it's earlier version this was one of the best pre-code Warners films--it's even more amazing now with quotes from Nietzsche.

Berlinbound said...

I once knew a girl named Tibby ... your blog remined me of her ... another show stopper.