Monday, August 22, 2016

SUMMER UNDER THE STARS Blogathon: Robert Montgomery in Night Must Fall (1937)


Robert Montgomery
May 21, 1904 - September 27, 1981

Kristen Lopez of Journeys in Classic Film is hosting the Summer Under the Stars Blogthon of which this post is a happy submission.  Check HERE for previous and future contributions throughout the month of August.

Robert Montgomery's long and successful career as an actor, producer and director garnered him two Academy Award nominations for Best Actor.  In 1941 he was nominated for the role of Joe Pendleton in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, adapted from Harry Segall's play Heaven Can Wait.  Joe is a boxer whose soul was taken before its time by an overeager Heavenly emissary.  How things are sorted out is the story of this cock-eyed fantasy with a problematic ending and, like its lead character, a lot of heart.

Robert Montgomery's 1937 nomination was for the role of Danny in the film version of Emlyn Williams' (The Corn is Green, The Stars Look Down) play Night Must Fall.  Playwright/actor Williams starred as Danny in the 1935 London production of his play which ran for over 400 performances.  A 1936 Broadway production featuring original cast members Williams and Dame May Whitty ran for just over 60 performances.  MGM picked up the property and John Van Druten (I Remember Mama, Bell Book and Candle) adapted the screenplay.



Robert Montgomery

Danny is a unique character, not only in Montgomery's career, but in Hollywood films at the time as perhaps the screen's first true sociopath.  A complicated soul is Danny.  He presents himself as a fellow of rakish charm and winning ways.  People, especially women, are enchanted by his devil-may-care appeal.  What isn't apparent to the blinded eyes is that Danny is a villain.  He is a remorseless murderer whom empathy has bypassed.

A picture-perfect, rose covered cottage on an isolated English lane is the setting for our story.  This little fiefdom is ruled over with an iron fist by Mrs. Bramson (Dame May Whitty), an invalid who bullies everyone in her sphere.  It is a tiny group over whom she rules, but she definitely rules her cook Mrs. Terrence (Kathleen Harrison), housemaid Dora (Merle Tottenham) and her unfortunate niece Olivia (Rosalind Russell) who acts as a companion/secretary under constant threat of being left out of the will.

Olivia is stifled in this environment and longs for excitement.  A way out is presented to her in the pleasant form of her aunt's solicitor Justin (Alan Marshall), but she declines his ardent proposal in lieu of something out there in the dark.

The cottage becomes less isolated when a middle-aged woman staying at a resort goes missing and is presumed dead.  The woods around the cottage are the subject of a search and the inhabitants questioned by the police.  Inspector Belsize (Matthew Boulton) is professional, sympathetic and impressed with Olivia's "flight of fancy" regarding this new situation.

Olivia:  "I often wonder on very fine mornings what it would be like for night to come, and I never can.  Yet it has to.  Silly.  Well, here we all are perfectly free English people.  We woke up this morning thinking "here's another day".  Got up, looked at the weather, talked - here we all are still talking - and all the time there may be something lying in the woods, hidden under a bush with two feet showing.  Perhaps a high heel catching the sunlight with a bird perched on the end of it.  And the other?  The other's a stockinged foot with blood that dried on the stocking.  Somewhere there's a man walking about, talking just like us.  He got up this morning.  He looked at the weather.  And he killed her."




Dame May Whitty, Robert Montgomery

"He" will soon enter this cloistered cottage.  The workhorse Dora has been having trouble with her young man who, coincidentally, is employed at the spa.  Dora's faith in the power of Mrs. Bramson extends to her being able to bring this fellow to heel in the matter of matrimony.  There will be no wedding bells for Dora, but Danny finds the situation much to his liking.  Mrs. Bramson is easy prey to his games and quickly offers him a job about the place.  Olivia, whom Danny deems "repressed", intrigues him.  Olivia is equally intrigued by the newcomer.  Olivia has great faith in her own powers of understanding and at the same time wants to dissect the charmer whom she suspects is a murderer.  Perhaps this is excitement beyond her expectations.



Rosalind Russell, Robert Montgomery

Danny has never yet been beaten in a contest of wills with a woman, but he doesn't realize that Olivia may be closer to his inner self than he suspects.  The sound of church bells bid a speech from the deranged stranger that is reminiscent of Olivia's thoughts.  Are Danny and Olivia two sides of the same coin?  Soulmates?

Danny:  "I forgot it was Sunday.  They're going to church down in the villages.  All done up in their Sunday best.  The organ is playing and the windows are shining, shining on holy things as holy things isn't afraid of the daylight.  And all the time the daylight is moving across the floor.  By the end of the sermon the air in the church is turning gray.  The people don't think of holy things so much any more, but only the terrible things that's goin' on outside.  Because they know it's still daylight and everything is ordinary and quiet.  The day is the same as all the other days, and it'll come to an end, and it will be night."

The scene outside the cottage becomes a circus as regular tours are made to satisfy the curiosity of the public once the murder has been definitely established by the discovery of the decapitated body.  What, precisely, does that detail have to do with the hatbox Danny brought with him?  While sensible women of the region refuse to travel alone at night Olivia can't bring herself to leave the cottage and Danny.  It is a psychological battle that tests two wills and the choice between sanity and depravity.

Robert Montgomery's outstanding performance was Oscar nominated and at the 1938 ceremony the award was given to Spencer Tracy for Captains Courageous.  Dame May Whitty was nominated in the Supporting Actress category with Alice Brady receiving the trophy for In Old Chicago.

Monday, August 22nd is TCMs tribute to Robert Montgomery on Summer Under the Stars.  The line-up includes the sophisticated comedy When Ladies Meet, the P.G. Wodehouse story Piccadilly Jim, the sentimental gangster story Hide-Out, and two with Norma Shearer The Divorcee and Private Lives.  The experimental Lady in the Lake is Robert Montgomery's official directorial debut although he did direct some scenes of They Were Expendable when John Ford was ill, and I have read that Montgomery took over the same chores for Richard Thorpe during filming of Night Must Fall.  If so, that makes his accomplishment in front of the camera even more impressive.









13 comments:

  1. Montgomery was splendid in this role. You've chosen a great film to highlight his day on Summer Under the Stars. I also like Rosalind Russell's work in the this movie, and, of course, Dame May Whitty is just fantastic. She and Montgomery work off each other with such lively precision. Great post.

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    1. A genuine thrill watching Whitty and Montgomery, especially in the final scene.

      I would not want to be an Academy member voting the year they were nominated. I suppose I can understand why some voters chose Tracy. After all, Manual is a much more sympathetic character than Danny, though no more finely wrought. I'm crazy about Alice Brady, but recall nothing extraordinary about her work in "In Old Chicago", especially when placed alongside Dame Whitty's performance here. The Academy is an enigma.

      Where, pray tell, was Roz's nomination? Was she too subtle?

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  2. I've been dying to see this for months. My friend Jen is a big Montogomery fan and she loves this movie. So what does TCM do OF COURSE but to show it in the middle of the night. I'll see this movie sooner or later!

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    1. It is one of those days (and they come fairly often thanks to my healthy ego) when I wonder why they don't just let me run the network. I can guarantee there would be fewer errors in the intros, and we'd put the movies we want to see on the time we want to see them.

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  3. Loved your review. You've really done this movie justice. Great script and (in my mind) a perfect cast with terrific chemistry. Some of my fave scenes are with Montgomery and Whitty, but I also love Russell's performance as a woman who is both intrigued and repulsed by Montgomery. An incredible film.

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    1. My most recent viewings have made me appreciate Rosalind Russell more and more. Did you know that E.E. Clive, who played the tour guide, was one of Roz's early mentors. Her first professional job out of drama school was working in his repertory company. In her autobiography she relates that she learned a lot from "Clivey".

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  4. When I first caught this film, I was surprised at how scary it could be without really doing much, largely thanks to Montgomery. That last moment with him and Dame May Witty shocked me. So good.

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    1. It is interesting how our brains can enjoy things on different levels. We can be shocked at the plot and at the same time thrilled by the performances.

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    2. Hi Paddy, I'm hosting my first blogathon and I wanted to extend an invite to you! I'd love to have you!
      http://loveletterstooldhollywood.blogspot.com/2016/09/announcing-vincente-minnelli-blogathon.html

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    3. On it! Thanks for the invitation.

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  5. I'm so glad I watched this thanks to your recommendation through this post, and that of another movie friend. The three leads were fantastic. I think RM tapped into an exceptional talent when he played villains--this one, and a somewhat similar role in RAGE IN HEAVEN. For me, as a leading man he's just 'good', but is truly terrifying as a murderous psychopath.

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    1. Another one has fallen under the spell of Williams' play and those great leading performances. The film feels as fresh today as it must have in the 30s.

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  6. It appears that Mr. Montgomery isn't wearing underwear in this movie. Whoa! Bulge Alert! Especially towards the end of the movie. It was actually a little distracting.

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