Saturday, August 13, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Guest in the House (1944)

GUEST IN THE HOUSE is a very entertaining, if rather improbable, story of the impact of a disturbed woman on a happy family.

The movie was directed by John Brahm, who made a string of excellent suspense films about mentally troubled characters in the mid '40s. These titles included THE LODGER (1944), HANGOVER SQUARE (1945), and THE LOCKET (1946). Curiously, both Andre De Toth and Lewis Milestone are said to have contributed uncredited direction to the film.

The Proctor family, their friends and relatives fill a cozy seaside home: artist Douglas (Ralph Bellamy), his pretty wife Ann (Ruth Warrick), and their daughter Lee (Connie Laird), as well as Douglas's full-time model, Miriam (Marie McDonald) and the housekeeper and handyman, Hilda and John (Margaret Hamilton and Percy Kilbride). Kindly spinster Aunt Martha (Aline MacMahon) lives nearby, and family friend Hackett (Jerome Cowan) drops in regularly. It's a congenial household filled with art, music, animals, and tennis matches.

Douglas's brother Dan (Scott McKay), a doctor in Baltimore, brings his invalid fiancee Evelyn (Anne Baxter) to the family home for the summer, hoping the sea air and family environment will help her regain her strength.

It's soon apparent to the viewer, if not the family, that Evelyn not only has a heart condition, she's absolutely crackers. What's more, she immediately decides she loves married Douglas, not Dan, and sets out to divide and conquer the household and have Douglas all to herself.

The longtime obtuseness of a household of smart people regarding Evelyn's mental condition is one of the things that makes the film a little hard to swallow. From her overly dramatic initial entrance to a million little things which follow, such as her hysterics over Lee's pet bird, it's clear this is not a mentally healthy woman. Evelyn's pull on Dan is also inexplicable, especially near the end of the film. Viewers never really understand his devotion, other than pure dumb stupidity. And he's a doctor!

It's rather fascinating watching Anne Baxter play Evelyn in what amounts to a trial run for her manipulative Eve Harrington of ALL ABOUT EVE (1950). The characters' names are even similar! Evelyn is a very nasty piece of work, smiling sweetly one minute and wishing she could stab someone in the back the next. When she rereads her own diary entry wondering what it feels like to kill someone, viewers fear the worst. Evelyn, incidentally, bears some resemblance to the mentally disturbed character Laraine Day plays in director Brahm's THE LOCKET.

It was refreshing to see Ralph Bellamy playing a role that's not stereotypical "Ralph Bellamy"; in the earliest scenes he's an energetic family man and artist who's fun for everyone to be around. There's also quite a romantic scene where he and wife Ann dance in their bathrobes. Unfortunately, in the long run Bellamy's Douglas proves to be as slow on the uptake as so many of his characters often were. His mid-film drinking bout also raises unanswered questions about his character's own personal issues.

Ruth Warrick gave my favorite performance in the film as Ann, playing an underwritten role with appeal and dignity. Aline MacMahon is also strong as the aunt who fiendishly uses Evelyn's phobia of birds against her. Jerome Cowan, a welcome face in countless films, plays a key role as the friend who immediately recognizes Evelyn's "Sarah Bernhardt" act and later tries to help Ann deal with the unwanted "guest in the house." Marie McDonald is effective in a small role as the model who is one of Evelyn's first targets.

The screenplay by Ketti Frings was based on the work of two playwrights; another writer has story credit, and uncredited director DeToth apparently also put his hand into the script. Other than a couple atmospheric shots near the ocean, the film retains a stagebound feel, with a tight cast mostly shot in one set, the home.

The black and white cinematography by Lee Garmes, who worked on GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), is excellent and one of the movie's best assets. This was one of a handful of film scores by Werner Janssen, who was nominated for the Oscar for this movie.

The film appears to be in the public domain, and the DVD I watched via Netflix was mostly clear but jerked abruptly between scenes, especially in the early going. I had a feeling I was missing some scenes. The DVD running time was just under 100 minutes; IMDb indicates there is a longer version which is slightly over two hours long. I'd love to see a better print with the complete film. This copy also suffered from uneven sound levels, becoming noticeably faint when Evelyn's diary is read aloud. Although the print was a disappointment, I'm glad I saw it until a better option becomes available.

GUEST IN THE HOUSE is available to watch online at numerous websites. I'd be curious to know if any of them run a full two hours!

The movie was reissued in the U.S. with the rather appropriate title SATAN IN SKIRTS.


Blogger grandoldmovies said...

Enjoyed your perceptive analysis of this film and of Baxter's character - I'm surprised it's not better known, considering its director and cast and its noirish atmosphere. You made a good point comparing it to Brahm's THE LOCKET; Baxter's character is just as unstable and manipulative as Laraine Day's. I hadn't heard about a longer version, it'd be interesting to see if it exists.

8:53 PM  
Blogger panavia999 said...

I really enjoyed this film. The silliness of the story is amply compensated by the excellent cast who turn a rather implausible story into cracking entertainment. On the other hand, maybe viewing the long version would solve a lot of those plot problems. I've only seen the short and scratchy public domain version. hmmmm...

12:43 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you so much, GrandOldMovies, I appreciate your feedback. I think THE LOCKET and GUEST IN THE HOUSE would make a fascinating double bill! I hope if anyone finds a full-lengthy version they'll share the info here.

Also enjoyed your take on this film, Panavia. I agree, the good cast compensates for a lot -- I enjoyed it very much even though I didn't always find it logical.

Best wishes,

10:47 PM  

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