Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Doris Answers the Phone

Newlywed American Kit Preston (Doris Day) is wending her way home through a London "pea-souper".  A voice in the night calls her by name, then threatens her life.  Panicked, Kit runs home and tells her husband, Anthony (Rex Harrison).  He reassures her that it is common London practice to try to spook people in a London fog.  But the next evening, Kit receives a phone call from the same voice, again threatening to kill her by the end of the month.  The police are summoned, but are suspicious that no one else heard the voice but Kit.  Meanwhile, Kit becomes more and more terrified as the calls escalate - calls that no one hears but her. Our film this week is the mysterious Midnight Lace (1960).

Our discussion started with a birthday toast to Ms. Day, who turned 95 on April 3rd. For several members of our group, this was the first time they had seen Ms. Day in anything but a musical comedy.  And while her performance here is perhaps not as impressive as her work in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), she is still excellent as the terrorized victim.  According to the AFI Catalog, Ms. Day became truly hysterical (using as an inspiration for the scene a moment in her life when her first husband became abusive) and Ross Hunter had to shut down production in order to allow her to recover. 

If there is one problem with the film, it is that, in many respects, it has not aged well.  Kit is so remarkably helpless.  Sure, she's being stalked, and that is scary, but she does nothing to protect herself (she's wealthy - couldn't she hire a bodyguard?) She is aware that the police doubt her veracity, yet when her husband is finally in the house during one of the calls, she hangs up the phone before he can get on the extension (though why she doesn't just hand him the phone is another issue!)  There are times when you want to shake her!
On the plus side, you have a real mystery, with a number of worthy suspects that keep you guessing throughout the film.  We'll start with Roddy McDowall (who was odds on favorite among the newcomers to the film) as Malcolm Stanley, money-grubbing son of Kit's put-upon housekeeper, Nora (Doris Lloyd).  He provides the character with just the right amount of sleaze and menace, and given that he really only has a couple of scenes, Malcolm is a character that stays in your mind as the action progresses.

Mr. McDowall started his career as a child actor in the UK; in 1940, his family moved to the United States to escape the Blitz in England; by 1941, he was starring in John Ford's How Green was My Valley, and in 1943, he became the first owner of the collie America loved in Lassie, Come Home.  Mr. McDowall worked steadily in Hollywood, in both film and on television; worked on Broadway (he was Mordred in the original cast of Camelot, and played Artie Strauss in Compulsion, the role assumed by Bradford Dillman in the 1959 film) and in regional theatre, making a reasonably seamless transition to adult roles.  A highly regarded photographer, he worked for magazines such as Look and Life, as well as publishing several books in the field.  He remained close friends with his Lassie co-star, Elizabeth Taylor, was also a dear friend of his Midnight Lace co-star, Myrna Loy (he called her "Fu" because of her early role in  The Mask of Fu Manchu),  and was known for his parties, in which he would screen classic films for his guests.  Winner of both a Tony Award and an Emmy, Mr. McDowall died of lung cancer in 1998 at the age of 70.
Herbert Marshall  has a few scenes as Charles Manning, another possible culprit.  A deep-in-debt gambler, Charles COULD be trying to kill Kit to distract Tony.  Marshall, unfortunately, has little to do in the film; mostly, he looks worried and distracted.  It's always good to see him, but he really is underutilized in the part.

John Gavin's Brian Younger at first seems like a nice guy, who is always in the right place at the right time, but then there are those mysterious phone calls from the local pub.  What IS he up to?  Gavin, an amazingly attractive man, is well cast here, though I would say his perfect part was as Trevor Graydon in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), in which he mocks his white-bread good looks.  A reasonably successful actor, who appeared in Spartacus (as Julius Caesar) and Psycho (both 1960), Mr. Gavin would leave film and television work for a career as a diplomat (Ambassador to Mexico) during the Reagan administration.  Currently retired after a successful business career, Mr. Gavin and his wife Constance Towers have been married for over 40 years. 
Finally, there is a half-hearted attempt to make Kit's Aunt Bea Coleman (Myrna Loy) appear to perhaps be in cahoots to drive Kit crazy.  But really, Myrna Loy?  Her role as the reassuring voice that attempts to soothe the increasingly agitated Kit is very small, but she is a welcome presence in any film.  A noted liberal, Ms. Loy related in her autobiography Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming that she cautioned conservative John Gavin about being seen with her - she stated that he must have been, since he "rode Reagan's coattails right into an ambassadorship."

The voice that plagues Kit is discussed in this TCM article, comparing it unfavorably to something that  "now it sounds like a character on The Cartoon Network."  And while that is true, we did find the voice unnerving enough that, if we received a call that sounded like that, we'd be calling the police as well.  Wacky, perhaps, but also unnerving. 
Doris Day has 17 glorious outfits designed by Irene in the film.  The decision by the group was that the one above, was our favorite (I'm a sucker for hats that match a dress!)  The midnight lace of the title was a jet black lace pegnior, that was probably the most ordinary of the items of clothing Ms. Day wears. Several of the outfits are viewable on Google Images.

The film opened to moderate reviews (see this Bosley Crowther overview from the New York Times).  In New York City, it premiered in Radio City Music Hall (along with a new stage show and The Rockettes), always a sign of a prestige film.
We'll leave you with this scene of Doris Day traversing the London fog in the opening of Midnight Lace