1952 was an important year in Marilyn Monroe’s career, a Life magazine cover, photographed by Phillip Halsman, her nude calendar photos, originally published a year or two before were reissued and became a scandal that only helped her career plus the release of five films, including her first leading role. The first three films were released within a month of each other. In Fritz Lang’s “Clash by Night,” for which Marilyn was loaned out to RKO, she had a small but impressive role dressed mostly in a swimsuit. This was followed by a five minute appearance in “We’re Not Married,” a multi cast film with little to offer and then came “Don’t Bother to Knock,” along with “Niagara” the darkest roles in the Monroe catalog. Later the same year came “O’Henry’s Full House” another multi cast film in which Marilyn appeared in one segment and “Monkey Business” a comedy starring Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers. In this film Marilyn played the kind of part she already came to hate, the dumb blonde.
In “Don’t Bother to Knock,” Monroe’s character is a young disturbed woman recently released from a mental institution who gets a job, through her uncle, as a babysitter for a young girl. Considering Monroe’s mental history, and eventual suicide, plus her mother’s illness, it would seem this film could have hit very close to home for the young and upcoming actress as well as being prophetic. It is also arguably one of her best dramatic performances.
The film also represents filmmaker Roy Ward Baker’s (credited here as Roy Baker) first American film. Six years later Baker would head back home to Britain and direct “A Night to Remember,” arguably the best film on the sinking of the Titanic, and TV series such as “The Avengers” and “The Saint.” Eventually he would work for Hammer films making the likes of “Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde” and “The Vampire Lovers” among others.
As the mistress of 20th Century Fox honcho Joseph Schenck, Monroe was awarded the lead role over objections from Darryl F. Zanuck who thought her an untalented sexpot who had screen charisma but little talent. He did require her to do a screen test which admittedly was impressive. Either way, Zanuck really had little choice but to use her since Schenck had the power to demand so. According to some sources Zanuck wanted to kept production cost low. Yet, among Marilyn’s biographers there seems to be a different of opinion on the production budget for the film. Donald Spoto in his Monroe biography states the film had a production budget “that must have established a new low in Hollywood.” In “Marilyn: The Ultimate Book,” author Mike Evans interviewed director Roy Ward Baker. In the introduction to the interview it reads the studio decided to “make the film on the cheap.” On the other side of the equation, in his 2009 biography, “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe” author J. Randy Taraborrelli writes “The importance the studio placed on the film is evident in the care it gave to the production artistically, assigning the studio’s top composer to create the score, multiple Oscar winner Alfred Newman.” He also mentions the use of Daniel Taradash as screenwriter and cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Still, he does admit the studio was not ready yet to assign Monroe to a lead role in an “A” film. So while this was not a top flight production it certainly was not “a new low in Hollywood” either considering the behind the scenes talent. (1)
Written by Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity, Knock on Any Door) based on a novel by Charlotte Armstrong, “Don’t Bother to Knock” stars Richard Widmark as cynical airline pilot Jed Towers who just arrived in New York and is staying at the McKinley Hotel where his ex-girl friend Lyn Lesley, Anne Bancroft in her big screen debut, is a singer in the hotel’s lounge. Jed hopes to repair the relationship and win her back. Also staying at the hotel are a wealthy couple named Peter and Ruth Jones (Jim Backus and Lurene Tuttle) along with their young daughter Bunny (Donna Corcoran) who needs a baby sister for the evening while the couple attend a dinner party at the hotel. Elevator operator Eddie Forbes (Elisha Cook Jr.) recommends his young niece Nell Forbes (Marilyn Monroe) to the couple conveniently leaving out that Nell has recently been released from a mental hospital.
When Marilyn first appears on the screen, she is plainly dressed and restrained with the frighten look of a deer who has been caught on a lonely road with headlights blaring straight at her. There is nothing glamorous about her; she is rather plain looking or at least as plain looking as she can be considering she’s Marilyn. While babysitting she tries on Mrs. Jones expensive jewelry, her lipstick and a fancy negligee. She checks herself out in the mirror, smiles, and dances in the room while unknowingly being observed from across the hotel’s courtyard by Jed. But Nell’s past is never far away. When an airplane is heard passing over it brings back tormented memories of her boyfriend who died in a crash. Later when Jed and Nell meet in her ‘room,’ and she discovers Jed is a pilot, she becomes convinced Jed is her dead lover. All through these changes in personality, the highs and lows, Marilyn handles her part with a quite poise never overdoing a gesture or a reaction. Her performance is off kilter, the way it should be and she never stumbles.
The script has its problems, too much time is spent on the Jed/Lyn relationship though Anne Bancroft’s singing is interesting and I liked the atmosphere of the hotel setting. There are a couple of scenes in particular that will shock even today’s jaded audience and they certainly must have shocked audiences back in 1952. Late in the film where we find the child, young Bunny, gagged and tied up in the bedroom. In another a scene Marilyn almost tosses the young girl out the hotel window. A crazed babysitter? Sure today it’s not surprising, but back in those simpler more innocent days the thought of a crazed babysitter was surely far from anyone’s mind.
According to Richard Widmark, Marilyn was difficult on the set, “Marilyn was terrible to work with,” Widmark is quoted as saying in an article written by Frances Ingram in the 2009 summer issue of Films of the Golden Age. “I was very fond of her, she was a nice girl, but she was a damaged girl.” Natasha Lytess was Marilyn’s acting coach back then and was always on the set making life difficult for everyone especially director Roy Ward Baker. Widmark did not think much of Marilyn as an actress. In the article, he bluntly explains, “She couldn’t act her way out of a bag, but she became an icon because something happened between her and the lens, and no one knows what it is….” He goes on, “the minute she hit the screen everyone else was gone.” Widmark also revealed that Marilyn was set to co-star with him in “Pickup on South Street” but was replaced by Jean Peters, who would co-star with Marilyn a year later in “Niagara,” when another project overlapped with the production.
Overall, “Don’t Bother to Knock” is rather ordinary, Widmark, an actor who generally stands out does not here. His character is not very likable nor do we really care about him. This is more due to the film’s weak script than Widmark’s performance. After watching this I began to wonder what Alfred Hitchcock could have done with this film. The premise is interesting enough but I am sure he would have demanded some rewrites.
(1) The studio’s insecurity in using Marilyn in this role is further noted by the poster (at the top) used in advertising. It shows Marilyn in this sexy, red, shoulder less gown. It’s a gown she does not wear in the film and does not remotely reflect her character’s personality. This was obviously an attempt by the studio to exploit Marilyn’s already glamorous sexpot image luring men into theaters thinking they were going to see a steamy looking Marilyn Monroe. The second poster, further down in the article, reflects a more accurate picture of how Marilyn appears in the film.