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.
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 the filming of Night Must Fall. If so, that makes his accomplishment in front of the camera even more impressive.