The Director's Cut: Past, Present & Future

Johnny Depp in ED WOOD (1994). “I’m Directing!”

So. Chances are you’re here, reading these words, because you have some sort of affinity for classic films. Black, white, color, VistaVision, CinemaScope, 35mm, 70mm, cinerama and even smell-o-vision. And as a fan of celluloid cinema (something facing extinction with the onslaught of the now commonplace DCP and the possibly soon-to-be commonplace 48 FPS) you are probably familiar with the work of director Chuck Workman. Even if you don’t know his name. In 1986, Workman created a short film entitled Precious Images, commissioned to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Director’s Guild of America. The film won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short in 1987, where it was screened during the Oscar ceremony. Classic film-lovers, however, possibly know it better for its second incarnation: 100 Years at the Movies.

This re-imagining of Workman’s original film was produced by Turner Classic Movies in 1994 and has been embraced, emphatically, by movie fans worldwide. The split-second splices of cinema’s greatest moments flicker, like flickers, and burn into our consciousness, like the celluloid matter they were magicked from. 100 years of history in eight minutes… it’s a film fan’s feast.

What few people are aware of is the fact that last year, in honor of the Directors Guild of America’s 75th Anniversary, Workman was commissioned to produce another short film in the vein of Precious Images. The result is called Directors Cut, and encompasses not only film, but television as well. And while it may not be as emotional and nostalgic as the TCM production 100 Years at the Movies, I highly recommend giving it a look.

I daresay you’ll end up looking twice:

Chuck Workman’s Director’s Cut

The Director’s Cut: Past, Present & Future

Johnny Depp in ED WOOD (1994). “I’m Directing!”

So. Chances are you’re here, reading these words, because you have some sort of affinity for classic films. Black, white, color, VistaVision, CinemaScope, 35mm, 70mm, cinerama and even smell-o-vision. And as a fan of celluloid cinema (something facing extinction with the onslaught of the now commonplace DCP and the possibly soon-to-be commonplace 48 FPS) you are probably familiar with the work of director Chuck Workman. Even if you don’t know his name. In 1986, Workman created a short film entitled Precious Images, commissioned to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Director’s Guild of America. The film won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short in 1987, where it was screened during the Oscar ceremony. Classic film-lovers, however, possibly know it better for its second incarnation: 100 Years at the Movies.

This re-imagining of Workman’s original film was produced by Turner Classic Movies in 1994 and has been embraced, emphatically, by movie fans worldwide. The split-second splices of cinema’s greatest moments flicker, like flickers, and burn into our consciousness, like the celluloid matter they were magicked from. 100 years of history in eight minutes… it’s a film fan’s feast.

What few people are aware of is the fact that last year, in honor of the Directors Guild of America’s 75th Anniversary, Workman was commissioned to produce another short film in the vein of Precious Images. The result is called Directors Cut, and encompasses not only film, but television as well. And while it may not be as emotional and nostalgic as the TCM production 100 Years at the Movies, I highly recommend giving it a look.

I daresay you’ll end up looking twice:

Chuck Workman’s Director’s Cut

San Francisco (1936) and The Art of Disaster

Aside

Songbird Jeanette MacDonald falls for the charming rake Clark Gable in W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936)– the biggest grossing picture of the year.

This post is in conjunction with Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence’s Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, which today salutes soprano superstar Jeanette MacDonald.

Strictly entre nous: I’m not a fan of MacDonald.  I am a fan of opera, thank you very much indeed (I begged–and won–for my parents to take me to see Le Nozze di Figaro at the LA Opera at age 16) but I’d much rather listen to Irene Dunne’s falsetto’s than the fluttery MacDonald’s. (MacDonald’s voice is superior, but Dunne’s has personality.) MacDonald, however, is the leading lady in the 1936 melodrama San Francisco, alongside Clark Gable  and Spencer Tracy (big fans of both, for the record), and she delivers a solid performance. But that is not the point of this post. The point here is that San Francisco features a very famous disaster sequence that I have long admired, and have decided take a closer look at it here. The production, being an MGM production, is the high-gloss, spared-no-expense spectacle you would come to expect from the studio, but Woody Van Dyke’s direction keeps things snappy and tones down the melodrama… which is *textbook* melodrama: Chorus girl and aspiring opera singer is torn between her love of her art and her love of her man, set against the disaster of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake– and then, somewhere towards the third act, this decidedly MGM production becomes as realistic gritty as anything you might have seen over at Warner Bros. Only, the bad guy isn’t a machine-gun slinging Warner Bros gangster- its mother nature.

W.S. Van Dyke (left) watches as Jeanette MacDonald performs the film’s anthem, San Francisco.

Under the supervision of MGM’s head of special effects, and true master of the art, James Basevi, and edited together by montage expert Slavko Vorkapich, seven decades on it holds its own as one of the most powerful special effects sequences ever filmed. Its camera tricks are still rooted in the real world, and therefore tangible. Not the least bit cartoonish, Basevi and Vorkapic recreate one of the greatest disasters in American history by grounding monumental special effects with humanity. Sure, the effects trump the story (even Clark Gable himself hated the soppy lines) and to this day one of the common flaws in disaster flicks is that story is often an annoying necessity keeping us from what we paid our 15 bucks for (or, in 1936, 25 cents. Discuss.) but with effects like these the viewer scarcely feels cheated.

I’m not a film academic, but I have watched this particular sequence– rather compulsively– again, and again, and again over the years, and in my opinion it stands out, and stands the test of time, for two specific reasons.

The first being, the disaster sequence itself is not concerned at all with the film’s protaganists. From Basevi’s greatest special effects moments (The Good Earth, The Hurricane) straight up to today’s biggest effects extravaganzas, disaster sequences feel obligated to pivot around the main characters.  While Basevi’s films work, today it has become something of cookie-cutter conformity:

BANG, BANG! *close up of leading man* BANG BANG! *close up of leading woman* BOOOM! *tender moment between the two in which they reconcile their issues*

James Basevi (far right) with Salvador Dali (center…duh) during production of Spellbound, on which they collaborated on the famous dream-sequence.

San Francisco is a marvelous anomaly. The sequence is book-ended by the protagonists’ dysfunctional affair, but they play no real role in the event. MacDonald queues the sequence, then fades out, and when the sequence is over, Gable brings us back to the narrative. Therefore, freed from any loyalty to the narrative, what we get are two minutes that feel like a prototype of cinema verite.  We don’t know any of the faces in the disaster sequence, which makes in particularly real. The people we see are the victims, the unnamed masses of any disaster– natural or manmade– brief glimpses of fellow humankind in their last seconds of life and it succeeds in what disaster films have long since failed in doing: making us aware of our mortality.

The second reason Basevi and Vorkapich hit a home run here, is their shared vision: Basevi’s technical wizardy and vision, and Vorkapich’s keen talent of threading together images into powerful collage movement, sound, and light. Vorkapich makes full use of Basevi’s monumental effects: the city hall collapsing; the dance hall splitting in two; the streets of San Francisco buying itself in brick and mortar. But he balances it with startling, unexpected close-ups and the human figure. A little girl’s crying face fills the frame, and is cut quickly with the side of a brick building toppling down onto her.  Human movement blurs these frames, and behind them we see debris, mayhem, and dying bodies. It’s a mixed media canvas, and the composting of film trickery and photo-journalistic sensibilities results in something that is disturbing and uncommonly affecting.

What Basevi accomplished in 1936 might be archaic in today’s world of 48FPS and mind-bending virtual technology– but the more advanced technology becomes, the further it alienates itself from what Basevi achieved in spades in 1936: true, human reality.

(Side note: the Visual Effects category was not introduced to the Academy Awards until 1938, hence no Oscar for Basevi. The film did, however, win for Sound Recording.)

The Paradise Club deconstructs onto itself.

The city of San Francisco follows suit.

Basevi’s stunning effects shots are grounded by harrowing closeups of unknown, unnamed victims.

Vorkapich’s editing turns the disaster sequence into a cinema verite-esque, jumbled montage of movement, shadow, and sound.

Another example (perhaps the most terrifying) of Vorkapich’s fast cutting between innocent victim and the anger of mother nature.

The images of Vorkapich’s montage become avant garde, almost, symbolic snapshots of life, interrupted and utterly destroyed. The most affecting, in my opinion, the image in the top left corner: the fleeing blur of a man reveals a still body behind him.

James Cagney: The Ultimate Bad-Ass

Today is James Cagney day on Turner Classic Movies and over at Sitting on a Backyard Fence, bloggers worldwide have rallied together to tip their hat to one of the biggest bad-asses ever to grace the screen.

I love bad-asses. No, not this newfangled generation’s overinflated sense of importance that has managed to give every Tom Dick or Harry the belief that, because of the number of Facebook friends they have or the number of people who follow them on Twitter that they are bad-asses.

No. You’re not. You know why?

James Cagney: The Ultimate Bad-Ass

Because THIS guy could knock the stuffing out of your designer-label-wearing LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME I’M SUCH A BAD ASS narcissistic kisser.

In my humble opinon, James Cagney is the ultimate bad-ass. And not for any one specific reason. Yes, his onscreen persona is often tough-as-nails. But, it’s also charming. Even when he’s the most sociopathic lunatic you’ve ever laid your eyes on… there’s still something undeniably likeable about him. He smashes grapefruits into women’s faces. And he’ll kill a man for his mama. On screen, Cagney is, indeed, capable of ANYTHING.His dangerous charm is part of what make Cagney’s best villains so deeply villainous, and what made him perfectly adept at playing lighter, romantic roles. While people might generally only think of Cagney as a “you dirty rat” mobster (a line that he actually never uttered onscreen), his range is terrific. You’ve got Angels With Dirty Faces, a film ending with one of the most unforgettably harrowing images ever filmed—Cagney’s demented, I’m-going-to-hell-and-I’m-proud-of-it close-up; a wholesome musical like Yankee Doodle Dandy with some of the best fancy footwork you’ll ever see; a charming romantic comedy like The Strawberry Blonde; a political comedy like One, Two, Three, with Cagney in a comic tour-de-force; and a sexy pre-code like Blonde Crazy.

Blonde Crazy isn’t one of Cagney’s best known films, and it isn’t one of his best (it’s no White Heat, let’s just say that), but it’s one of my favorites because Cagney is a sparkling firecracker in this fast, fun, frivolous precode. Cagney is young—terrifically young—as this is one of his first leading roles, coming hot on the heels of his star-making turn in The Public Enemy, and he is nothing but a ball of hotheaded charisma and, with the equally as hotheaded Blondell at his side, makes for a presence that is quintessential Cagney: rough, tough, yet somehow tender.

Being a bad-ass, you see, is not synonymous with being an ass-hole. Big difference. One that, for me, is wonderfully illustrated in the much overlooked Blonde Crazy. Directed by Roy Del Ruth, a director whose roster includes some of the very best precodes, Blonde Crazy is a rather average melodrama about a conman (Cagney) his partner in crime (Blondell) and their on-again-off-again love affair. After hooking up at a hotel (legitimately: they were coworkers) Cagney coerces Blondell to go into business with him on the small con. Cagney’s a know-it-all wiseguy who thinks he can take the world with his brains… and Blondell’s legs. He’s right, too. They run a successful racket with Blondell as the Venus Fly Trap and Cagney the guy pulling the strings. Until, of course, inevitably, Cagney gets pulled in by another con artist. You know what happens: he loses a load of lettuce and does anything to win it back. Including exacting revenge of the guy who suckered him.

The plot is light, the dialogue even lighter, but what makes this film sparkle is the pure starpower of Cagney and Blondell. Little touches, like Cagney’s adorable habit of calling Blondell “honey”, or as he pronounces it, “huuuuuuun-eeee”, playing around with Blondell’s undergarments, or my favorite: the beaming delight on Cagney’s face when Blondell, also beaming, smacks his face. Flirting doesn’t get much sexier than that.

And that goes for Cagney too.

Super sexy pre-code duo of James Cagney and Joan Blondell in Roy Del Ruth’s Blonde Crazy (1931)

Joan Blondell shows Cagney what she thinks of him with a playful slap to the face.

Cagney plays around in Joan Blondell’s boudoir

Cagney notices a noticeable posterior…

Sexy Joan Blondell

.

A white-hot young Cagney

Blonde Crazy shuts with Cagney’s unforgettably cheeky line “If I had the wings of an angel, honnnney: over these prison walls I would flyyyyyy.”

My Man Van

Van the man Heflin (1910 – 1971)

It’s day 6 of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence, a month-long celebration of Turner Classic Movies’ much-loved Summer Under the Stars festival. Each day, the network is featuring a movie star with a marathon of their films, and each day Sittin on a Backyard Fence is playing host to a roster of bloggers who are sharing their thoughts on it. Today the spotlight is on Van Heflin, one of my all time favorites. This post was originally published two years ago, but it felt right to dust it off in honor of my man Van.

***

So the other night I’m halfway through my second glass of Shiraz and I’m hit with a sudden craving. You know what I mean … that inexplicable, sudden, maddening craving that is generally fulfilled by processed sugars . Or complex carbohydrates. Or MGM musicals. Or all three, really, who am I kidding? MGM musicals, after all, have much in common with my empty-calorie companions: there is little, if any, nutritional value but boy-oh-boy if they don’t make you feel good! So last night I satisfy the itch by tearing through my DVD library looking for something to hit the spot … hidden in the back is ‘Till the Clouds Roll By, from 1946.

TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (1946) – screen caps pulled from LikeTelevision

Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, June Allyson, Kathryn Grayson, Angie Lansbury and Van Johnson in an MGM technicolor extravaganza? That tingly sensation took hold. This was gonna be a great night.

Problem was, I purchased the DVD from a grocery store checkout line and the quality of the video transfer was shameful, and especially disappointing because I really wanted the bright, popping, obnoxiously potent pigments of the original print. (Kinda like getting animal crackers when what you really want is a big fat oreo.)

It’s not like I was expecting Ghandi, OK? And Hollywood biopics of the 40s and 50s are particularly notorious for flouting fact in favor of fiction so I was ready to take the plot of ‘Till the Clouds Roll By, the supposed story of the life of Jerome Kern, with a grain of salt. All I wanted was musical delirium and was quite prepared to fast-forward through the gosh-oh-gee-ain’t-life-swell scenes to get my fix.

But the fast-forward button was foiled by one Van Heflin.

Dammit.

Now I was going to have to pay attention. I’m sure all of us have certain favorites who more or less dictate whether or not we’re going to give a movie a shot. Van Heflin is absolutely one of mine. Even if my finger is about to switch the off button, if Heflin walks into the frame I have no choice but to watch. He simply leaves me no choice in the matter.

Original 1946 movie poster for TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY. If you’ll notice, Heflin’s cartoon looks suspiciously similar to Beethoven. (What a role THAT would have been!)

To some, Van Heflin may look like a “squat-faced kumquat” (<– © my Mother) but, I beg to differ. Maybe I’m just a sucker for squat-faced kumquats, but Heflin possesses a  just-the-right-side-of-danger bad-boy edge that never fails to make my toes curl. The bobby-soxers may have swooned for Van Johnson when he makes his toe-tapping cameo in ‘Till the Clouds Roll By, but this gal’s swooning heart belongs to the other Van.

One never quite knows what to expect when Heflin steps into a picture. Is he going to melt my heart or murder my grandmother? Heflin toes the line between kindness and cruelty, danger and delight, with ease and dexterity … for it is perfectly clear that he is entirely capable of both. Suffice to say, Heflin is not a granny killer in ‘Till the Clouds Roll By (nor is he in any of his films, so I don’t know why I’m so gung-ho on the analogy) but Heflin’s very likeable role as Kern’s mentor and friend is still shadowed with his unique brand of roguish charm. Was this effect augmented by the fact that in Till the Clouds Roll By Heflin is surrounded by 1-dimensional, superficial character cut-outs? (Even darling Robert Walker is a bit of a yawn.) Well … perhaps. But I wager it’s due to the fact that Heflin is an absolute powerhouse of an actor, a total scene-stealer, and more often than not simply ends up walking away with any picture he’s in.

Once upon a time, Louis B. Mayer took one look at Heflin and told him flat-out, “You’ll never get the girl at the end [of the movie].” Heflin said, “I just didn’t have the looks and if I didn’t do a good acting job I looked terrible.”

Well, Mr. Mayer? Taking inventory of Heflin’s show-stopping performances in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Johnny Eager, Possessed, The Prowler, Black Widow, Shane and 3:10 to Yuma, I think what you’ll find staring you back in the face is a prominently raised middle finger.

The object of Joan Crawford’s crazed affection in Posessed. (My favorite Heflin film.)

His best roles are the 40s noirs that demanded a new breed of leading man. John Garfield and Humphrey Bogart weren’t matinee idols, but they smoldered on screen and Heflin was perfect for the postwar realism that American audiences, sobered by War, demanded. The Robert Taylors of the world found themselves having to toughen up their image while guys like Hef were ahead of the curve. There is a confidence, even swagger, to Hef’s complete command of himself on screen, giving full credit to the credence that confidence is sexy. Not only do we believe that Joan Crawford is dangerously obsessed with him in Possessed… we totally get it.

Whatever Heflin may have lacked in conventional good looks mattered nothing. His undeniable appeal was rooted deep within and his performances, when viewed today, are still fresh and exciting. Overlooked today as, sadly, his work tends to be, Heflin was without doubt one of the finest actors to first emerge on the scene of postwar American cinema… and one hell of a cool cat.

With Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

 

The Birth of an Actress: Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock

Theatrical Poster, 1952

This post is in conjunction with Sittin’ On A Backyard Fence’sSummer Under the Stars Blogathon”—a month-long celebration of the film icons being spotlighted each day, all day, on Turner Classic Movies. Today, the eve of the 50th Anniversary of the tragic passing of Marilyn Monroe, I am dedicating this post to the Blogathon and, more importantly, to Monroe. A tormented woman of strength and talent that, five decades on, still shines… and inspires.

Perhaps one of the many reasons I have such a deep admiration and respect for Marilyn is due to the fact that the first film I saw of hers, or rather, the first film I remember watching start to finish ( Marilyn’s films are so rooted in our cultural subconscious that someone can feel as though they’ve seen her films even if they haven’t) was not her  fluffy, fun, frivolous light comedies that immortalized her. The white pleated blowing skirt in The Seven Year Itch and the pink-gowned diamond-digger in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (In which, of course, she is dynamite.) Rather, it was a strange little noir called Don’t Bother to Knock. And it was scarcely a typical first encounter. It was in fact atypical. Don’t Bother to Knock is a curious, offbeat noir. The fact it originally was slated to be helmed by noir master Jules Dassin shows how seriously 20th Century Fox was taking the film: Zanuck granted a modest budget, assigned talented scribe Daniel Taradash to the script (soon to adapt From Here to Eternity) and wanted high production value… perhaps because he was still not sold on Marilyn’s (as-of-yet) unproven ability to take on a dramatic role. Fox assigned studio director Roy Ward Baker and his direction lacks the stylized tension that so permeates the noir film in general (take for example Marilyn’s previous film, Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night’s starring Barbara Stanwyck, or her next film, Henry Hathaway’s Niagara), but it in spite of the static direction, the film possesses an undeniable electric  current  with Marilyn as its conductor. In Don’t Bother to Knock, Marilyn was no “dumb blonde”. She was an actress.   A damn good one. Her performance as Nell Forbes managed to both scare the shit out of me, and leave me in tears.  It is a heartbreaking, soul-bearing performance that was the first truly great dramatic performance of her career.

Marilyn Monroe and Richard Widmark

And, in typical Hollywood fashion, her bottom-line money-mongering studio zookeepers would not allow it again. Monroe would have to take her career into her own hands, forming her own production company 4 years later with Bus Stop (my personal favorite of her films), before she would again have the chance to prove herself a serious talent to be reckoned with.

The premise of Don’t Bother to Knock is simple. A family hires a babysitter to look after their young daughter for the evening while they attend a dinner party. They are staying in a hotel, and the porter (Elisha Cook Jr.) recommends his niece Nell (Monroe) to babysit the kid. The problem is that Monroe is suicidal. She has only recently been released from a mental institution having gone off the deep end when her fiancé was killed in a plane crash during the war. With the Jones’ downstairs at the party, Monroe tucks the little girl, “Bunny”,  into bed and her intensely lonely, quiet life becomes painfully apparent to the viewer as she tries on the fine jewelry and expensive negligee of her well-to-do employers. Her appliqué of lip rouge reveals two scars on her wrists.  In a quietly moving scene, Monroe looks at her face in the vanity mirror, admiring the fine diamond earrings, and as she does a plane is heard to pass over the hotel. She crosses to the window and peeks out between the blinds, up into that black sky—the same black sky that had taken away her fiancé. She closes her eyes and the camera, only faintly, registers that she is crying. It’s the moment that I sat straight up in my seat, suddenly glued to this unexpectedly haunted, emotionally naked performance on the screen.  I must have been about 15. And I was riveted.

An airline pilot (Richard Widmark) occupying a room across the courtyard from Monroe has checked in to win back his girlfriend, a singer in the hotel lounge who has given him his walking papers (Anne Bancroft in her screen debut). When he sees Monroe’s bombshell figure in the room across the way, he rings the room and invites himself over.

What he thinks is going to be a casual night of hanky panky out to be anything but. Monroe slowly unravels during the course of the evening as he is the first man she’s been alone with since her fiance’s death and she begins to believe that he is her fiancé. Things take a fork knife turn when little Bunny blows Monroe’s cover, crying for her to ‘take off her Mommy’s things’ and Widmark understands that Monroe has been feeding him a line about her being a woman of the world. She’s nothing more than the babysitter, new to New York and lonely.

Against his better judgment, Widmark stays for a bit, visibly moved at Monroe’s confession , but all the while desperate to leave the crazy situation he’s got himself into and get downstairs to see  Bancroft again to try one last time to win her back. Monroe begins to believe that her uncle, who keeps trying to check in on her during the night, and the little girl, who is understandably concerned at finding a strange man in the hotel room, are intruders trying to keep her away from her fiancé . And when Monroe sits next to Bunny on the windowpane, looking out at their neighbors’ windows, there is a terrifying moment when it seems as though Monroe actually will push the girl to her death. Widmark steps in and, when his eyes meet Monroe’s, he is suddenly aware that, perhaps, he got more than he bargained for. Behind Widmark’s back, Monroe threatens Bunny into keeping her trap shut and going to bed… or else. And the psychotic glint in Monroe’s eyes leaves no doubt whatsoever that she is perfectly capable of carrying out her threat.

The night quickly caves in on itself when Monroe’s Uncle shows up again, unexpectedly, to check up on her.  Monroe shoves Widmark into the bathroom to hide, and takes some very tough love from her Uncle who, upon wiping off the lipstick off Monroe’s face, sends her into a fit and she strikes her Uncle on the back of his head, rendering him unconscious on the bathroom floor.  Widmark now knows that this girl is more than just trouble, she is very possibly dangerous, and he flees the scene to meet up with Bancroft downstairs before he loses her forever.

Widmark spills his guts to her about Monroe and the little girl, and Bancroft is hit by his uncharacteristically sincere interest in the situation. Widmark, however, is suddenly overcome with the realization that Monroe might actually do serious harm to the little girl. His intuition has served him well, as Monroe has locked her unconscious uncle in the broom cupboard and has bound and gagged little Bunny whom she blames for the night’s disastrous turn of events. The parents, sick with worry over their phone calls not having got through, show up just in time. Widmark is not far behind, as is the House Detective.

Monroe comes unglued on Elisha Cook Jr.

Monroe is a shattered, broken mess, crouching in the corner of the hotel room. A fragile shell of a woman that might, at any moment, be carried away with the wind, like dust, never to be seen again. And, as far as she is aware, her disappearance would matter just as much as dust particles in the wind. And so she sneaks away, unnoticed by Widmark, her uncle and the detective.

Her walk down the corridor is a death march. She leans against the wall for support. Her beautiful eyes wide and full of numbed confusion. Her perfect face cracked with the deep stain of lost, desperate tears. This is not Nell Forbes. This is not Marilyn Monroe. This is Norma Jeane Mortenson. For the final 10 minutes of the film, she is exposed: for all her cosmetic perfection, she is raw and imperfect, alone and afraid, desperate to feel the warmth of love and kindness and respect but all-too aware that she never will. What was Marilyn thinking and feeling during that long, languorous dolly shot? Was she thinking of her own childhood with a mother gone mad? Was she painfully aware of how much she actually had in common with the emotionally spent state of Nell? Whatever the case, there is an infinite depth in those glazed wide eyes, and to a modern audience it is acutely obvious that this emotion is coming from some place very, very deep within.

And when Widmark finds her, in a daze, with a razor in hand, Bancroft is at Widmark’s side. She is moved by his deep concern. It is the only asexual relationship Monroe will ever have onscreen. She is a child in a woman’s body that Widmark wants to protect.

It would be the story of Monroe’s life.

Monroe and Nell as they become one person on screen. It’s hard to watch when you know what painful emotions lay behind Monroe’s beautiful facade.

The film was released in 1952 while Marilyn was under contract with Fox, just prior to her watershed success in Henry Hathaway’s sexy, Technicolor noir Niagara which would catapult her into super-stardom.   Don’t Bother To Knock was far from sexy. It was not the sort of film, perhaps, audiences wanted to see this white-hot new screen personality in and the film flopped both financially and critically. (Daily Variety, however, was a fan and applauded her performance as “excellent”, and LIFE Magazine keyed in most astutely by calling Monroe’s  performance “the genuine article.” ) It’s a shame this particular role is so seldom discussed. A very real 180 from the soon-to-be sex kitten that Fox would brand her as, Monroe is a revelation here.  Untrained in dramatics, Monroe’s acting coach, Natascha Lyness, confessed “I have to say that I didn’t think she was ready to take on a role of that magnitude. I underestimated her talent… or at the very least, her resolve. The time we spent on the script—two days, no sleep—was very dramatic and passionate and filled with angst, like Marilyn herself. In the end, she did such a great job that Zanuck saw fit to writer her a note to congratulate her, which surprised thrilled her to no end. She was so insecure and unsure of her ability that any validation at all was considered high praise.” Zanuck may have flattered Monroe, but he had no intention of making a habit of such unglamorous, dramatic parts. “She’s a dumb tomato and half-crazy to boot,” he is reported to have said about Monroe in the film. “In each picture she’ll earn her keep, but no more dramatic roles.” Monroe would stretch her range in Niagara as an emotionally manipulative femme fatale but the role capitalized completely on Monroe’s sex appeal. It was branded as sex. And that’s all anyone saw: explosive, on-your-knees-slave sex. A presence so overpowering, that no one could (or wanted to) see the actress, so strongly competent right in front of them.

As Rose in Niagara.

As Cherie in Bus Stop.

As Joslyn in her final film, The Misfits

Marilyn’s close friend Montgomery Clift, himself an outspoken foe of the Hollywood studio system, later made this comment on Marilyn’s stunted growth as an actress following Don’t Bother to Knock: “Fox wanted to keep a tight grip and drain her dry. Marilyn had a right to make the choice not to demean herself. But the boss wouldn’t let her. They didn’t want an actress. That’s what they’d agreed upon. They sat at their round table and decide that Marilyn wasn’t capable of making a relevant decision.”

Clift would work with Marilyn 8 years later on her final film (and his third to final), John Huston’s The Misfits. Brilliant but doomed like Marilyn, a friend noted “Monty and Marilyn were psychic twins. They were on the same wavelength. They recognized disaster in each other’s faces and giggled about it.” Clift, considered to be one of the most gifted actors of his generation, would call Marilyn the finest actress he ever worked with.

The Misfits, to many, is Marilyn’s finest strongest performance. Written for her by then-husband Arthur Miller, the role could probably be played by any actress… but none as broken and Marilyn’s. Her Method training had allowed her to transcend written lines and bare herself completely. It is a testament to the fragile-yet-formidable talent first unveiled in Don’t Bother to Knock, made undeniable in Bus Stop, and forever cemented in The Misfits.

Of her relationship with her Method acting coach, the legendary Paula Strasberg, Monroe said simply “Whatever road leads to growth, you take.” And if Don’t Bother to Knock, Bus Stop, and The Misfits prove anything, it’s that Marilyn took those risks and traveled those roads that no one believed she should, or could, travel.  Thankfully, even though we lost her so many decades ago, these rarely appreciated artistic triumphs live,  forever, on film. Who knows. Maybe one day we’ll finally recognize her as the deeply human actress she truly was. Instead of the icon Hollywood created.

The Birth of an Actress: Marilyn Monroe in Don't Bother to Knock

Theatrical Poster, 1952

This post is in conjunction with Sittin’ On A Backyard Fence’sSummer Under the Stars Blogathon”—a month-long celebration of the film icons being spotlighted each day, all day, on Turner Classic Movies. Today, the eve of the 50th Anniversary of the tragic passing of Marilyn Monroe, I am dedicating this post to the Blogathon and, more importantly, to Monroe. A tormented woman of strength and talent that, five decades on, still shines… and inspires.

Perhaps one of the many reasons I have such a deep admiration and respect for Marilyn is due to the fact that the first film I saw of hers, or rather, the first film I remember watching start to finish ( Marilyn’s films are so rooted in our cultural subconscious that someone can feel as though they’ve seen her films even if they haven’t) was not her  fluffy, fun, frivolous light comedies that immortalized her. The white pleated blowing skirt in The Seven Year Itch and the pink-gowned diamond-digger in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (In which, of course, she is dynamite.) Rather, it was a strange little noir called Don’t Bother to Knock. And it was scarcely a typical first encounter. It was in fact atypical. Don’t Bother to Knock is a curious, offbeat noir. The fact it originally was slated to be helmed by noir master Jules Dassin shows how seriously 20th Century Fox was taking the film: Zanuck granted a modest budget, assigned talented scribe Daniel Taradash to the script (soon to adapt From Here to Eternity) and wanted high production value… perhaps because he was still not sold on Marilyn’s (as-of-yet) unproven ability to take on a dramatic role. Fox assigned studio director Roy Ward Baker and his direction lacks the stylized tension that so permeates the noir film in general (take for example Marilyn’s previous film, Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night’s starring Barbara Stanwyck, or her next film, Henry Hathaway’s Niagara), but it in spite of the static direction, the film possesses an undeniable electric  current  with Marilyn as its conductor. In Don’t Bother to Knock, Marilyn was no “dumb blonde”. She was an actress.   A damn good one. Her performance as Nell Forbes managed to both scare the shit out of me, and leave me in tears.  It is a heartbreaking, soul-bearing performance that was the first truly great dramatic performance of her career.

Marilyn Monroe and Richard Widmark

And, in typical Hollywood fashion, her bottom-line money-mongering studio zookeepers would not allow it again. Monroe would have to take her career into her own hands, forming her own production company 4 years later with Bus Stop (my personal favorite of her films), before she would again have the chance to prove herself a serious talent to be reckoned with.

The premise of Don’t Bother to Knock is simple. A family hires a babysitter to look after their young daughter for the evening while they attend a dinner party. They are staying in a hotel, and the porter (Elisha Cook Jr.) recommends his niece Nell (Monroe) to babysit the kid. The problem is that Monroe is suicidal. She has only recently been released from a mental institution having gone off the deep end when her fiancé was killed in a plane crash during the war. With the Jones’ downstairs at the party, Monroe tucks the little girl, “Bunny”,  into bed and her intensely lonely, quiet life becomes painfully apparent to the viewer as she tries on the fine jewelry and expensive negligee of her well-to-do employers. Her appliqué of lip rouge reveals two scars on her wrists.  In a quietly moving scene, Monroe looks at her face in the vanity mirror, admiring the fine diamond earrings, and as she does a plane is heard to pass over the hotel. She crosses to the window and peeks out between the blinds, up into that black sky—the same black sky that had taken away her fiancé. She closes her eyes and the camera, only faintly, registers that she is crying. It’s the moment that I sat straight up in my seat, suddenly glued to this unexpectedly haunted, emotionally naked performance on the screen.  I must have been about 15. And I was riveted.

An airline pilot (Richard Widmark) occupying a room across the courtyard from Monroe has checked in to win back his girlfriend, a singer in the hotel lounge who has given him his walking papers (Anne Bancroft in her screen debut). When he sees Monroe’s bombshell figure in the room across the way, he rings the room and invites himself over.

What he thinks is going to be a casual night of hanky panky out to be anything but. Monroe slowly unravels during the course of the evening as he is the first man she’s been alone with since her fiance’s death and she begins to believe that he is her fiancé. Things take a fork knife turn when little Bunny blows Monroe’s cover, crying for her to ‘take off her Mommy’s things’ and Widmark understands that Monroe has been feeding him a line about her being a woman of the world. She’s nothing more than the babysitter, new to New York and lonely.

Against his better judgment, Widmark stays for a bit, visibly moved at Monroe’s confession , but all the while desperate to leave the crazy situation he’s got himself into and get downstairs to see  Bancroft again to try one last time to win her back. Monroe begins to believe that her uncle, who keeps trying to check in on her during the night, and the little girl, who is understandably concerned at finding a strange man in the hotel room, are intruders trying to keep her away from her fiancé . And when Monroe sits next to Bunny on the windowpane, looking out at their neighbors’ windows, there is a terrifying moment when it seems as though Monroe actually will push the girl to her death. Widmark steps in and, when his eyes meet Monroe’s, he is suddenly aware that, perhaps, he got more than he bargained for. Behind Widmark’s back, Monroe threatens Bunny into keeping her trap shut and going to bed… or else. And the psychotic glint in Monroe’s eyes leaves no doubt whatsoever that she is perfectly capable of carrying out her threat.

The night quickly caves in on itself when Monroe’s Uncle shows up again, unexpectedly, to check up on her.  Monroe shoves Widmark into the bathroom to hide, and takes some very tough love from her Uncle who, upon wiping off the lipstick off Monroe’s face, sends her into a fit and she strikes her Uncle on the back of his head, rendering him unconscious on the bathroom floor.  Widmark now knows that this girl is more than just trouble, she is very possibly dangerous, and he flees the scene to meet up with Bancroft downstairs before he loses her forever.

Widmark spills his guts to her about Monroe and the little girl, and Bancroft is hit by his uncharacteristically sincere interest in the situation. Widmark, however, is suddenly overcome with the realization that Monroe might actually do serious harm to the little girl. His intuition has served him well, as Monroe has locked her unconscious uncle in the broom cupboard and has bound and gagged little Bunny whom she blames for the night’s disastrous turn of events. The parents, sick with worry over their phone calls not having got through, show up just in time. Widmark is not far behind, as is the House Detective.

Monroe comes unglued on Elisha Cook Jr.

Monroe is a shattered, broken mess, crouching in the corner of the hotel room. A fragile shell of a woman that might, at any moment, be carried away with the wind, like dust, never to be seen again. And, as far as she is aware, her disappearance would matter just as much as dust particles in the wind. And so she sneaks away, unnoticed by Widmark, her uncle and the detective.

Her walk down the corridor is a death march. She leans against the wall for support. Her beautiful eyes wide and full of numbed confusion. Her perfect face cracked with the deep stain of lost, desperate tears. This is not Nell Forbes. This is not Marilyn Monroe. This is Norma Jeane Mortenson. For the final 10 minutes of the film, she is exposed: for all her cosmetic perfection, she is raw and imperfect, alone and afraid, desperate to feel the warmth of love and kindness and respect but all-too aware that she never will. What was Marilyn thinking and feeling during that long, languorous dolly shot? Was she thinking of her own childhood with a mother gone mad? Was she painfully aware of how much she actually had in common with the emotionally spent state of Nell? Whatever the case, there is an infinite depth in those glazed wide eyes, and to a modern audience it is acutely obvious that this emotion is coming from some place very, very deep within.

And when Widmark finds her, in a daze, with a razor in hand, Bancroft is at Widmark’s side. She is moved by his deep concern. It is the only asexual relationship Monroe will ever have onscreen. She is a child in a woman’s body that Widmark wants to protect.

It would be the story of Monroe’s life.

Monroe and Nell as they become one person on screen. It’s hard to watch when you know what painful emotions lay behind Monroe’s beautiful facade.

The film was released in 1952 while Marilyn was under contract with Fox, just prior to her watershed success in Henry Hathaway’s sexy, Technicolor noir Niagara which would catapult her into super-stardom.   Don’t Bother To Knock was far from sexy. It was not the sort of film, perhaps, audiences wanted to see this white-hot new screen personality in and the film flopped both financially and critically. (Daily Variety, however, was a fan and applauded her performance as “excellent”, and LIFE Magazine keyed in most astutely by calling Monroe’s  performance “the genuine article.” ) It’s a shame this particular role is so seldom discussed. A very real 180 from the soon-to-be sex kitten that Fox would brand her as, Monroe is a revelation here.  Untrained in dramatics, Monroe’s acting coach, Natascha Lyness, confessed “I have to say that I didn’t think she was ready to take on a role of that magnitude. I underestimated her talent… or at the very least, her resolve. The time we spent on the script—two days, no sleep—was very dramatic and passionate and filled with angst, like Marilyn herself. In the end, she did such a great job that Zanuck saw fit to writer her a note to congratulate her, which surprised thrilled her to no end. She was so insecure and unsure of her ability that any validation at all was considered high praise.” Zanuck may have flattered Monroe, but he had no intention of making a habit of such unglamorous, dramatic parts. “She’s a dumb tomato and half-crazy to boot,” he is reported to have said about Monroe in the film. “In each picture she’ll earn her keep, but no more dramatic roles.” Monroe would stretch her range in Niagara as an emotionally manipulative femme fatale but the role capitalized completely on Monroe’s sex appeal. It was branded as sex. And that’s all anyone saw: explosive, on-your-knees-slave sex. A presence so overpowering, that no one could (or wanted to) see the actress, so strongly competent right in front of them.

As Rose in Niagara.

As Cherie in Bus Stop.

As Joslyn in her final film, The Misfits

Marilyn’s close friend Montgomery Clift, himself an outspoken foe of the Hollywood studio system, later made this comment on Marilyn’s stunted growth as an actress following Don’t Bother to Knock: “Fox wanted to keep a tight grip and drain her dry. Marilyn had a right to make the choice not to demean herself. But the boss wouldn’t let her. They didn’t want an actress. That’s what they’d agreed upon. They sat at their round table and decide that Marilyn wasn’t capable of making a relevant decision.”

Clift would work with Marilyn 8 years later on her final film (and his third to final), John Huston’s The Misfits. Brilliant but doomed like Marilyn, a friend noted “Monty and Marilyn were psychic twins. They were on the same wavelength. They recognized disaster in each other’s faces and giggled about it.” Clift, considered to be one of the most gifted actors of his generation, would call Marilyn the finest actress he ever worked with.

The Misfits, to many, is Marilyn’s finest strongest performance. Written for her by then-husband Arthur Miller, the role could probably be played by any actress… but none as broken and Marilyn’s. Her Method training had allowed her to transcend written lines and bare herself completely. It is a testament to the fragile-yet-formidable talent first unveiled in Don’t Bother to Knock, made undeniable in Bus Stop, and forever cemented in The Misfits.

Of her relationship with her Method acting coach, the legendary Paula Strasberg, Monroe said simply “Whatever road leads to growth, you take.” And if Don’t Bother to Knock, Bus Stop, and The Misfits prove anything, it’s that Marilyn took those risks and traveled those roads that no one believed she should, or could, travel.  Thankfully, even though we lost her so many decades ago, these rarely appreciated artistic triumphs live,  forever, on film. Who knows. Maybe one day we’ll finally recognize her as the deeply human actress she truly was. Instead of the icon Hollywood created.