Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ray is Haunted

This week, we revisited one of my favorite movies, the suspenseful The Uninvited (1944). Ray Milland stars as Roderick Fitzgerald, a music critic for a London newspaper who is vacationing on the Cornwall coast with his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey).  Rick and Pam are NOT rich.  They have enough money to get by, and some small savings, but on this fateful day, they encounter a wonderful old house that apparently has not been inhabited for some time.  The house reminds the siblings of their childhood home, the view and seaside location are breathtaking; the Fitzgeralds decide immediately to pool their savings and try to buy the house.

To their surprise and delight, Rick and Pamela find that the owner of Windward House, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), is eager to sell the house at a price they can afford.  However, it is over the loud protests of his young granddaughter,  Stella Meredith (Gail Russell).  The brother and sister take possession of their new home and Rick finds himself becoming involved with the "sleeping beauty" quality that is Stella Meredith.  But before he can move in, Rick must return to London to settle affairs with his employer.  When he returns, he finds Pamela's dog, Bobby, has run away, and Pamela seems tense and withdrawn.  That evening, Rick's first in Windward House, all becomes clear.  The sound of a woman sobbing reverberates through the house.  Only no one is there.

The fabulous thing about this film is that it never denies the existence of ghosts.  It doesn't end by having all the fantastic occurrences explained away by natural phenomena.  The house is haunted; there are ghosts, and while ghosts can be either good or evil, they remain on earth for a reason. And that goodness or evil is a reflection of their human personality, not something that came after death.  It is up to the mortals to determine WHY the ghosts are in the house and try to satisfy them, so both ghost and mortal can at last have peace.  This TCM article goes into more detail on the unique nature of this film.
As the article mentioned above states, by today's standards, this is NOT a scary film - no one gets killed in some particularly gory manner, nor are there long chase scenes by a masked stalker with a chainsaw.  But what there is is a delightfully eerie feeling - enough to put you on edge and keep you there.  Much of this is thanks to the acting, especially the remarkably talented Ray Milland and Gail Russell.  Milland is able to give Rick a controlled panic - he's just invested his life savings in a house that may be uninhabitable, and the girl he loves is dangerously attracted to a house that seems to want to harm her.  And so as Rick, Pamela, and Dr. Scott (Alan Napier) begin to investigate just WHAT causes spirits to stay at Windward House, and why they would want to harm Stella, Milland remains the focal point for the audience.  He is our anchor to reality and our connection to the supernatural; we trust the ghosts are real because HE believes it.

Which brings us to Gail Russell.  Much has been written about her beauty and her sad, short life.  An alcoholic, originating from her severe stage fright (and probably started while filming The Uninvited), she ended up dead at age 36 from malnutrition and liver disease.  (This Los Angeles Times history outlines Ms. Russell's unfortunate life).  But her history should not detract from her performance.  Her Stella is delicate, but determined; innocent yet wise in many things.  She is the glue that binds Rick to Windward, she is the song he composes.  Who can hear "Stella by Starlight" and NOT see Gail Russell's lovely face rise as the inspiration?  She gives Stella a heart that makes you want her to finally live in the house she loves, and find the man of her dreams.  In some senses, she is the soul of The Uninvited.

If Stella is goodness incarnate, then Miss Holloway, as portrayed by Cornelia Otis Skinner is the human link to pure evil.  The dear friend of Stella's mother, Mary Meredith, Miss Holloway hates Mary's daughter with the same passion that she adores Mary.  As the TCM article above mentioned, there is a lot in common between Miss Holloway and Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers, not the least of which is both of their overtly sexual obsession with a long-dead intimate.  Ms. Skinner, a noted stage actress and author, had a very limited screen career - only four films (one silent) and several appearances on television. She's wonderfully spooky here, letting the viewer glimpse the madness that is underneath her calm exterior.

Which brings us to another rarely seen actress, Dorothy Stickney as Miss Bird, a resident at the Mary Meredith home.  Though Miss Bird is supposed to be the one who is sick, she seems a lot saner than Miss Holloway!  We'd seen another one of Ms. Stickney's rare film appearances - she appeared as Henry Fonda's obnoxious mother in I Met My Love Again.  Ms Stickney had a very distinct voice, which led to her portraying a number of eccentrics on film and on stage.  She had a long career on Broadway, from her debut in 1926 in The Squall to the mid-1970s, when she appeared in Pippin (assuming the role of Pippin's grandmother after Irene Ryan's sudden death).  Of her many stage roles, two are worth mention here:  in 1928, she played Mollie Malloy in The Front Page and, beginning in 1939, she appeared as Lavinia in the original production of Life with Father.  She was, in fact, in that play for its entire run (til 1947), following it up with a short run, again as Lavinia, in Life with Mother.  Ms. Stickney died in 1998, just shy of her 102nd birthday.
The film was given a well-deserved cinematography nomination by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (it lost to Laura), but interestingly, the song "Stella by Starlight" was not even nominated, nor was the film's score. The songs that were nominated include some standards like "The Trolley Song" (Meet Me in St. Louis), "Long Ago and Far Away" (Cover Girl), "I'll Walk Alone" (Follow the Boys), and (the winner) "Swingin' on a Star" (Going My Way).  Regardless, "Stella by Starlight" became a popular and jazz favorite, performed by such artists as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, and Miles Davis.

Though it appears that the NY Times' Bosley Crowther was not paying attention during his viewing of the film in 1944, we know you will enjoy it.  We'll leave you with a trailer from this wonderful fillm.

1 comment:

  1. I'm also a very big fan of "The Uninvited." True, it isn't scary in the classic sense, but one can't help but feel a chill or two as events unfold.

    I'm glad you pointed up the performances of Gail Russell and Cornelia Otis Skinner. Russell's later problems should definitely not detract from her portrayal of lovely young Stella, the innocent target of evil. And Skinner is every bit as forbidding as Judith Anderson in "Rebecca" and Gale Sondergaard in more than one film (thinking of "The Letter" at the moment).

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