The opening scenes of The Spiral Staircase, where we first meet Helen (Dorothy McGuire), take place in a hotel ballroom that has been set up as a make shift movie theater. There’s a hand written sign that states there are two showings, 4:30 and 7:30. Then we see a silent film flickering on the screen; a woman is on the piano accompanying the storyline. In the back, we see a “projectionist” hand cranking the film through the projector. Finally, there is the audience sitting on hard wooden benches enthralled by the flickering images of this infant art. It is a great scene that gives film lovers a glimpse at what it was like when the movies were young. Continue reading
It is Cagney versus Raft in the classic 1939 Warners prison drama EACH DAWN I DIE. Directed by William Keighley, Cagney is Frank Ross an investigative reporter who exposes a political candidate’s corrupt association with a construction company. After the article is published, Ross is snatched by some goons right in front of the newspaper building, knocked out, and soused with alcohol he is sent away in a speeding car which results in a car accident with three innocent people being killed. Framed for the murders, Ross is sent to prison where he meets big shot Stacey (George Raft). At first, they get off on the wrong foot with Ross continuing to claim he was framed and innocent, all falling on deaf ears with both prison officials and his fellow inmates. The two soon become pals when Ross saves Stacey’s life from an attempt by another prisoner to kill him.
The film has all the by now standard prison themes you expect, the innocent man who was framed, the prisoner who is a snitch, the sadistic guard, the prison system that turns a good man bad, the prison break and the riot. It’s all there but what is most exciting is Cagney! Brash, cocky and full of himself, grinning confidently just the way we like him. Here he gets to face off against George Raft, who by the way hooked up with some real gangsters in his off-screen life, and is even better known for giving Humphrey Bogart some of the best roles of his career when he turned down “Casablanca” and “High Sierra.” Raft is fine as Stacey but the film belongs to Cagney who goes through an entire array of emotions from a wronged innocent to a crazed bitter jail-bird locked up in solitary.
The cast also includes George Bancroft as the Warden, Victor Jory as a corrupt member of the parole board, Jane Bryant as Cagney’s loyal girlfriend fighting for his release and former boxer Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom. This is the kind of film you expect from Warner Brothers, hard-hitting, socially conscience and gritty.
The opening scenes of The Spiral Staircase, where we first meet Helen (Dorothy McGuire), takes place in a hotel ballroom that has been set up as a make shift Movie Theater. There’s a hand written sign that states there are two showings, 4:30 and 7:30. Then we see a silent film flickering on the screen; a woman is on the piano accompanying the storyline. In the back, we see a “projectionist” hand cranking the film through the projector. Finally, there is the audience sitting on hard wooden benches enthralled by the flickering images of this infant art. It is a great scene that gives film lovers a glimpse at what it was like when the movies were young.
While the movie is playing, up in one of the hotel rooms a young woman is changing her clothes, the closet door is open and we get an eerie feeling she is not alone. The camera moves toward the clothes and suddenly we can sense there is someone in the closet. The next shot is an extreme close up of a wide-open eye buried within, almost hidden between the hanging clothes. In the eye we see the reflection of the woman who is about to be murdered.
It’s a brilliant opening to a magnificent thriller that Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud to have made. Instead, the film is the child of another master of dark suspense, Robert Siodmak and the master of shadows and light, Nicholas Musuraca. It is Musuraca’s evocative lighting, his painting shadows on the walls, combined with the masterful camera placement of Siodmak that make this film so thrilling. A combination of low-angles and stark lighting against wrought iron fences and a circular staircase creates an eeriness that sends chills down the spine. The entire film is painstakingly crafted and well acted. The film is both a throwback to works like The Old Dark House filled with scenes of drenching rain, crackling thunder, candles that mysterious blow out, and the more current cinema of directors of recent thrillers like John Carpenter.
Though the plot is standard fare, the fine direction and magnificent cinematography make it all quite terrorizing. Helen is a mute servant for the sick and elderly bed-ridden Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Also living in the mansion are the ill matriarch’s womanizing son Steve (Gordon Olivier), her stepson, Professor Albert Warren (George Brent), his assistant Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), an abusive old biddy of a nurse (Sarah Allgood) , Mrs. Coates the housekeeper (Elsa Lanchester) who likes to hit the bottle and her groundskeeper husband, Mr. Coates. There is the new doctor in town, Dr. Parry (Kent Smith) who wants to take Helen to Boston for treatments that will hopefully restore her voice, the result of a childhood trauma.
When another beautiful handicapped woman is murdered in town, the third in a series, it becomes apparent a serial killer is on the loose focusing on “imperfect” women. Fearing Helen might be next, Mrs. Warren tells her that she should leave town immediately, go somewhere safe. However before she can get out……..well, let me stop here, I don’t want to spoil it.
Most of the story takes place inside the Warren’s large Victorian style home. The murder suspects are plentiful. We have the womanizing Steven who is having a fling with his brother’s secretary Blanche. There is the “kind” Professor Warren, or maybe it is the groundskeeper Mr. Coates who sneaks leering peaks at Helen. Who the killer is becomes fairly obvious but this does not distract from the fun.
The movie is based on a novel called“Someone Must Watch by Ethel Lina White who also penned the original story that was the source for Hitchcock’s film, The Lady Vanishes. The novel was first turned into a radio play with Helen Hayes. The screenplay was written by Mel Dinelli who would go on to write other suspense films like Cause for Alarm, The Suspect and“Beware, My Lovely. The screenplay would not only change the novel’s setting from England to New England but would also move the setting back from contemporary times to the early turn of the 20th Century to give it a more gothic feel. At one point, Ingrid Bergman was considered for the lead role.
The cast is a good one starting with Dorothy McGuire’s performance as Helen. Though mute, McGuire manages a wide range of emotions in a compelling performance. Ethel Barrymore was nominated for an Oscar for her role as the belligerent bed-ridden matriarch of the Warren family. Not that she is bad, she’s fine, it just seems like the role did not require the best use of her talents. The rest of the cast includes George Brent as the stepson, Gordon Oliver as Steven her playboy son, Rhonda Fleming is Professor’s secretary who has a fling with Steven and a rib tickling performance from Elsa Lanchester as the inebriated Mrs. Coates.
The Spiral Staircase became a blue print for many disabled woman thrillers that would follow in its path, See No Evil, Sorry, Wrong Number, Wait Until Dark and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? to name a few. The film was remade in 1975 with Jacqueline Bisset and again in 2000 as made for television movie with Nicollette Sheridan. Almost needless to say neither reached the level of the original film.
The first time I saw Baby Face was back in the 1990’s when it was released on VHS as part of the “Forbidden Hollywood series.” The film had a well deserved reputation for being one of the racier films to be ever made with sex, prostitution and plenty of morally corrupt individuals. Now on DVD as part of volume one in the Forbidden Hollywood collection, I finally got around to watching the disreputable pre-released version. Discovered back in 2005 in the Library of Congress film archives, this version was unearthed when a request was made for a new print to be struck. Mike Mashon, curator at the Motion Picture Division of the Library of Congress, received a print that was struck from the original camera negative, however; he was told there was a dup negative that was about five minutes longer. Intrigued, Mashon requested a print from the dup negative. After viewing the five-minute longer version, he knew he had struck gold. Typical for the times, Baby Face prior to its release was submitted to various state censor boards; in this case the powerful New York State Board of Censors and was rejected. Without the approval of the State Board, Warner Brothers knew the film would never play in the major New York City market. Subsequently, the film was edited removing the Boards objectionable scenes. The recut film was released and opened at the Strand Theater in New York to mixed reviews.
In viewing both versions, the dramatic changes are significant enough to change the tone,. The pre-released version being darker and certainly more sordid. Barbara Stanwyck is Lily, a young woman who is pimped by her own father to the slimy characters who frequent his Erie, Pa. speakeasy. This is explicitly shown in the uncut version where a coarse local politician pays dear old Dad hard cash to spend some quality time with Lily. When the politician fondles Lily’s leg, she pours hot coffee on him. Next, he crudely grabs her breasts and Lily retaliates by grabbing a beer bottle hitting him squarely on the head. In the officially released version, this scene was cut dramatically. No cash exchanges hands between Dad and the politician; the fondling of Lily’s leg is shorter and there is no groping of her breasts. In other scenes, dialogue was changed or cut to meet the censors’ requirements. When her father tells her she can’t talk to him so rudely Lily goes on a tirade about “What a swell start you gave me….” She goes on about him being a lousy father and about all the rotten lousy men of which he was the lowest. What was cut from the released version of this rant is a line about Dad pimping her out at the age of 14!
Soon after, her father is killed when his still accidentally blows up. A local cobbler, who in the original version comes across as more of a father figure, tells her to seek her fortune by going to New York. He tells her a beautiful young woman like her can get anything she wants, but she must remember there is a right and wrong way to go about getting ahead in the world. In the pre-censored version, the cobbler’s advice is not as fatherly as he encourages her to read Nietzshe’s Thoughts out of Season and to “Crush out all sentiment.” He tells her, a beautiful young woman like her can get anything because she has the power over men. “Use men, don’t let them use you”, he advises her. He goes on to say that she must be the master and not the slave. Use men to get the things she wants. Like Lily, this version of the film follows Nietzsche’s advice and crushes out any and all sentiment.
. Lily puts the cobbler’s advice to quick use when she hops a freight train with her friend and helper, Chico (Theresa Harris). Caught by a railroad inspector, Lily using the new found power of her body, seduces him as they ride the rails. In New York, Lily, with no work skills nor any education, seeks to get a job at the Gotham Trust Co. A personnel clerk asks her if she has any experience to which she replies “Plenty” with a knowing smirk. Telling Lily there are no jobs available she proposes they could work something out as she makes her way into the bosses empty office. The clerk follows closing the door behind him. Lily climbs to the top as she sleeps her way from the filing room, to the Mortgage Department to Accounting. It’s in the Accounting Department where she meets Ned Stevens (Donald Cook) who is engaged to Ann Carter (Margaret Lindsay) who is the daughter of bank head J.P. Carter or at least he is until Lily becomes responsible for breaking up the romance. Stevens is so hooked on Lily that when he finds his future-father-in-law Carter in Lily’s bedroom, he shoots him and commits suicide. Unperturbed by the violence, Lily nonchalantly calls the police telling them there has been an “accident.”
At this point, with all scandals Lily has caused she is sent off to the Paris branch of the Bank. This seems somewhat ludicrous. Why not just fire her? In Paris, she meets Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), who falls in love with Lily. They marry and Courtland showers Lily with jewelry, clothes and money. They eventually come back to New York when the Bank and Trenholm are having financial problems. He ask Lily to return some of the gifts and securities he has given her, so he can pay his debt, she refuses. Despondent Courtland attempts suicide. As Courtland is taken away in an ambulance with Lily as his side, the censors strike one more time. They did not like the idea in the original version that Lily is shown as not “paying” for her sins. Warner’s was forced to tack on an artificial ending instead of the pre-censored version, which is more ambiguous and yet hints at the chance that Lily and Courtland will live happily ever after.
“Baby Face” is not a great film and is remembered today more for its place in film history as one of the most salacious films ever made. The discovery, in 2005 of the pre-released version only cemented its place in history. The first half of the film holds up well from a story point of view however, the second part of the film somewhat shaky. Still the film is a thrill to watch mainly due to Stanwyck who gives us an early version of one of her classic bold ice-cold characterizations that she would play to perfection later on in films like “Double Indemnity and even on TV in “The Big Valley.” Also a pleasure is Theresa Harris as Chico, Lily’s helper and friend who hums the bluesy “St. Louis Woman” throughout the film, subliminally reminding us of Lily’s immoral roots. Her role is a rare example of a non-stereotypical black character that is treated as an equal, especially by Lily. Harris appeared in many well known films, generally, as a maid or waitress. Her impressive list include Morocco, Horse Feathers, Gold Diggers of 1933, Hold Your Man, Jezebel”, The Women Phantom Lady, “Cat People, The Dolly Sisters” “iracle on 34 Street, The Big Clock, The File on Thelma Jordan and Angel Face among many others. In the Jack Benny starring “uck Benny Rides Again, Harris had the opportunity to show off her singing and dancing talent in a duet with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Unfortunately, because of the times, this talented lady was never given the opportunity to climb the ladder to stardom. Also, look for a young John Wayne is a minor role as one of Lily’s conquest and character actor Nat Pendleton in a small role as one of Lily’s Dad’s slimy speakeasy customers. Pendleton appeared in over 100 films including Manhattan Melodrama, The Thin Man, Another Thin Man, Buck Privates and Buck Privates Come Home.
The film was directed by Alfred E. Green, who started in the silent days and continued to work up until the late 1950’s. Baby Face is probably his most famous or more fittingly his most infamous film. Most of Green’s output consisted of fairly routine programmers. The screenplay was written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola, based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck, writing as Mark Canfield. Zanuck’s career with Warner’s Brothers would end shortly thereafter, only partially due to his part in creating tawdry films, “straight from the newspaper headlines”, such as Baby Face and probably more to do with disputes with Jack Warner and his own desires to run a studio. He would soon be a co-founder of Twentieth Century Pictures and a few years later, they would buyout Fox Pictures forming Twentieth Century Fox.
An interesting aside I came across is from an article by Molly Haskell in the New York Times on how so many pre-code heroines were called Lily or Lil. Beside Stanwyck’s Lily Powers, there’s Marlene Dietrich’s Shanghai Lil’ in Von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, Jean Harlow as the gold-digging secretary Lil’ Andrews in Red Headed Woman and Lily, alias Mlle. Vautier in Trouble in Paradise. The character called Lady Lou played by Mae West in She Done Him Wrong was based on the play “Diamond Lil written by West. Paramount changed the character’s name in hopes of reducing the notoriety that preceded the play.