Sunday, December 09, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Lady in the Dark (1944) at UCLA

I first saw LADY IN THE DARK in the late '70s, when my parents took me to see it at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I was about 14 at that time, and the movie has been well-nigh impossible to see since then; to my knowledge, it hasn't had a VHS or DVD release, but has been available only on "gray market" DVDs. It was thus particularly special to have the chance to see the movie again this evening as part of UCLA's series celebrating director Mitchell Leisen.

UCLA showed a beautiful print of this visually fascinating film. I knew I was in for a treat when Ginger Rogers walked into her office; the turquoise walls and pink lampshades nearly popped off the screen, thanks to the Technicolor cinematography by Ray Rennahan. The color palette in many of the scenes, while attractive, is actually fairly restrained -- which provides a great visual contrast with the garish dream sequences, particularly a final circus number which defines the phrase "over the top."

Also of note: the interesting set design and art direction, to which Raoul Pene de Bois contributed. I'm still trying to figure out why Liza had wooden benches in her living room instead of sofas! They didn't appear to provide a relaxing setting, which is intriguing given the film's psychological themes. It may be a bit different to open a review by mentioning how the film looked, but the visuals were an extremely significant aspect of this film, which perhaps shouldn't be a surprise with the stylish Leisen directing.

Ginger Rogers plays magazine publisher Liza Elliott, who soon reveals herself as a mixed-up woman. Feeling unusually stressed, she ends up in therapy with Dr. Brooks (Barry Sullivan in an early role). She gradually untangles her issues with her father, men, and her feelings about her appearance. Meanwhile, she's juggling the magazine owner (Warner Baxter) who wants to divorce his wife for her, the visiting movie star (Jon Hall) who suddenly woos her, and the magazine's advertising executive, Charley (Ray Milland), who wants her job.

LADY IN THE DARK was based on an Ira Gershwin-Kurt Weill-Moss Hart Broadway musical which opened in 1941, yet it also reflects Hollywood's mid-'40s fascination with psychology. (Links to several more mid-'40s films with psychological themes can be found in last year's review of DANGER SIGNAL.) Times having changed, part of the solution to Liza's problems now seems quaint -- she really just needs to give up her job and have a man take care of her -- yet the film did a pretty good job laying out for a '40s audience how one's past experiences impact the present.

There's a hint in the final scene that perhaps Liza and Charley will end up as a professional team, rather than Liza quitting altogether -- they're both highly enthused about the magazine and obviously enjoy their sparring relationship. Those modern viewers annoyed by the film's more old-fashioned views may find the resolution a bit more to their liking if the focus is on the team angle rather than the dialogue about Liza divorcing her job. On the other hand, stressed-out female viewers may possibly find pleasure in the fantasy of a handsome man like Ray Milland sweeping all their troubles away. It's only a movie, after all!

I wouldn't class LADY IN THE DARK as a complete success, it's a bit off-kilter -- it perhaps could have used a little less psychology and a little more romance -- but it's a highly entertaining 100 minutes nonetheless.

Leisen biographer David Chierichetti returned this evening to provide an introduction and answer some questions at intermission. He related that director Leisen struggled with Ginger Rogers' performance, as she could not relate to or understand psychology, which made the part more challenging for her. She was also very distracted while making the film, taking a two-week break to get married mid-filming!

LADY IN THE DARK served as a reunion for Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland, costars of the very funny THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942). Here Milland manages to make a character who could easily be obnoxious in less deft hands completely charming and sympathetic. He also does his own singing in the dream sequences!

Warner Baxter was 22 years Ginger's senior and looks every bit of it, but it works in the context of the film, as Liza discovers that her longtime admirer is perhaps more father figure to her than lover. Jon Hall is convincing as a movie star who causes all the ladies in the magazine office to swoon.

Also of note in the large cast are Mary Philips as Liza's colleague and confidante, and Mischa Auer as the temperamental staff photographer. Watch for beautiful young Gail Russell as Liza's romantic rival in a high school flashback sequence; Rand Brooks (Charles Hamilton in GWTW) is Ben, the fickle boy who takes Liza to the dance.

Also in the cast: Phyllis Brooks, Fay Helm, Catherine Craig, Marietta Canty, Edward Fielding, and Harvey Stephens.

Plans to see the second film on the double bill, the funny TAKE A LETTER, DARLING (1942), were thwarted when the theater's lights refused to turn back off for the second show. Sometimes modern technology isn't all it's cracked up to be!

Previously: UCLA Celebrates Director Mitchell Leisen; Mitchell Leisen Series Opens at UCLA; Tonight's Movie: Swing High, Swing Low (1937) at UCLA; Another Wonderful Evening at UCLA.

8 Comments:

Blogger stateofgreen said...

How was Ray Milland's singing? Love your blog!

12:33 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I would love to see this one, having read about it and stage play over the years. Thanks for your interesting take on the experience.

4:22 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

I think this film was a considerable under-achievement. On Broadway, Lady In The Dark was a full blown musical that made a star out of Danny Kaye. The Movie actor was played by Victor Mature and Gertrude Lawrence had the female lead. No reason Ginger Rogers should not have been able to handle this thing, but she wasn't and it wasn't a true musical.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Ray's songs weren't very challenging, with the notes kept in a limited range, and he did fine. :)

Hope it becomes more available, Jacqueline!

Since this is a stage musical I'm not familiar with, I avoided making comparisons between film and theatrical version, but there were certainly issues in that regard, with at least one filmed musical number left on the cutting-room floor; Chierichetti delves into the changes from stage to screen a bit in his book on Leisen. Viewed strictly as a film, however, I felt it mostly works as a good piece of entertainment.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

How I envy you, Laura. I've always wanted to see this. It's one of the few Ginger Rogers films I've never seen.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I wish this would come out on DVD, Kevin. Yet another of those Paramount titles Universal is hiding away in the vaults.

Best wishes,
Laura

8:30 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

It's a long time since I last saw LADY IN THE DARK, but as I have seen the stage musical on which it is based. (In London) And love the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin score, to me it is another example of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s not properly adapting a stage hit. Such a pity Danny Kaye didn't recreate his powerhouse stage performance .
Another example for me is the film version of ON YOUR TOES, another great stage musical completely mucked about for the screen.
And, oh the lovely songs from both shows never used.
Funny too how Hollywood in the 50s did great screen versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Vienna,

It's interesting how often '40s adaptations didn't use the songs or changed a lot -- for instance, I love MGM's ON THE TOWN but it's funny how the score changed between stage and screen. Also interesting that many '40s B'way shows weren't filmed until the '50s, not just the R&H shows but Lerner & Loewe's BRIGADOON comes to mind. And FINIAN'S RAINBOW didn't make it to the screen until the '60s!

Best wishes,
Laura

11:05 PM  

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