Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Dorothy McGuire descends "The Spiral Staircase"

The Spiral Staircase (1946) is a psychological suspense film directed by Robert Siodmak starring Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, and Ethel Barrymore. Dore Schary produced the film; the screenplay was by Mel Dinelli, the music by Roy Webb, and the cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca.

The setting is a small New England town during the early 20th century terrorized by a serial killer targeting handicapped women. McGuire stars as Helen, a mute since childhood, after she witnessed her parents burn to death in a fire. She is employed by Mrs. Warren (Barrymore), who insists that Helen leave town because she fears she could be the killer’s next victim. Does Mrs. Warren know who the killer is? Mrs. Warren is a widow with two sons: Professor Albert Warren (Brent) and Steven Warren (Gordon Oliver). Albert is Mrs. Warren’s stepson, the son of her husband’s first marriage. Steven is her biological son.

Dorothy McGuire walks home in the dark.

All the action takes place during one day, which adds to the film’s increasing tension. The cast also features Kent Smith, Elsa Lanchester, Sara Allgood, and Rhonda Fleming.

Robert Siodmak (1900 – 1973) had a very successful career in Hollywood and is best known for his thrillers and films noir. He signed a seven-year contract with Universal and directed The Killers (1946), the film that made Ava Gardner a star. He worked with some of the top movie stars during Hollywood’s Golden Age, including Deanna Durbin, Gene Kelly, Burt Lancaster, Dorothy McGuire, Yvonne de Carlo, Olivia de Havilland, and Barbara Stanwyck. Often compared to Hitchcock in his prime, he never got the recognition that the Master of Suspense did, but most of his films hold up remarkably well and are worth watching.

Dore Schary (1905 – 1980) was an American screenwriter, producer, and studio executive. Schary was a journalist and acted in bit parts on Broadway. Schary wrote screenplays for all the major studios before becoming a film executive with David O. Selznick’s Vanguard Films where he oversaw the production of I’ll Be Seeing You (1944), The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947). He moved on to the head of production for RKO where he produced Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) and Crossfire (1948). Schary left RKO and went to M-G-M to be vice president in charge of production in 1948 and immediately clashed with studio head Louis B. Meyer. Things came to a head with Meyer resigning and Schary made the head of the studio. After a series of film flops, Schary was fired from M-G-M in 1957. Schary went on to have success writing and producing shows on Broadway including Sunrise at Campobello (1958-59). He went on to write and produce the film version to great success.

Mel Dinelli (1912 – 1991) was an American writer for theater, radio, and film. Dinelli wrote the screenplays for The Window (1949), The Reckless Moment (1949), Cause for Alarm! (1951), Beware, My Lovely (1952), Jeopardy (1953), and Lizzie (1957).

Roy Webb (1888 – 1982) was an American film music composer. Webb was born in New York City and conducted on Broadway before moving to Hollywood in the late 1920s where he became the music director at RKO where he stayed until 1955. He was nominated for seven Academy Awards for his film scores including scores for My Favorite Wife (1940), I Married a Witch (1942), and The Enchanted Cottage (1945). Other famous film scores include Notorious (1946), Out of the Past (1947), I Remember Mama (1948), and Teacher’s Pet (1958). A graduate of Columbia University, Webb wrote the fight song “Roar, Lion Roar” in 1925.

Nicholas Musuraca (1892 – 1975) was a cinematographer best known for his work at RKO where he helped establish their house style. Musuraca filmed producer Val Lewton’s famous horror film Cat People (1942) and the film noir classic Out of the Past (1947), and director George Stevens’s I Remember Mama (1948). Other movies he filmed include Deadline at Dawn (1946), The Locket (1946), and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947).

McGuire at the movies

Dorothy McGuire (1916 – 2001) was an American theater and film actress. McGuire developed an interest in acting at a young age. At 13, she made her stage debut in A Kiss for Cinderella in Omaha, Nebraska, her hometown. Henry Fonda, also from Omaha, was her costar. As an adult, she achieved fame on Broadway in Claudia”(1941 to 1943). In 1943, she starred in the film version with Robert Young that was a huge success. She reunited with Young for The Enchanted Cottage (1945) and replaced Gene Tierney in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945). She was nominated for Best Actress in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). Some of her other films include Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Trial (1955), and Friendly Persuasion (1956). McGuire made several popular films for Walt Disney including Old Yeller (1957), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), and Summer Magic (1963).

George Brent (1904 – 1979) was an Irish-American stage, film, and television actor. Brent went to Hollywood in 1930 and appeared in supporting roles in several films. In 1931, he signed with Warner Bros. where he played opposite Barbara Stanwyck in So Big! (1932). That same year he co-starred with Stanwyck again in The Purchase Price. In 1933 he appeared in the musical classic 42nd Street, The Keyhole with Kay Francis and Stanwyck again in Baby Face. He made a string of pictures with Bette Davis: Jezebel (1938), Dark Victory (1939), The Old Maid (1939), The Great Lie (1941), and In This Our Life (1942). Brent continued acting in movies and television till 1978, a year before he died of emphysema.

Ethel Barrymore and McGuire

Ethel Barrymore (1879 – 1959) was an American actress whose career spanned more than six decades. She was the sister of actors John and Lionel Barrymore, the aunt of John Drew Barrymore, and the great-aunt of Drew Barrymore. Barrymore established herself as a major Broadway actress in the 1920s and appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1924. Barrymore made 15 silent movies and appeared in the early talking picture Rasputin and the Empress (1932) with her brothers John and Lionel. She won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in None but the Lonely Heart (1944) co-starring Cary Grant. She was nominated for three more Best Supporting Actress Oscars for The Spiral Staircase (1946), The Paradine Case (1947), and Pinky (1949).

A cautious McGuire navigates The Spiral Staircase

The Spiral Staircase trivia:

  • Ingrid Bergman was originally considered for the role of Helen.
  • The Killer’s eyes are those of director Robert Siodmak.
  • The silent film being watched by Dorothy McGuire’s character is D.W. Griffith’s The Sands of Time (1922).
  • Included among the American Film Institute’s 2001 list of 400 movies nominated for the top 100 Most Heart-Pounding American Movies.

To watch the film on YouTube, click the link below.

To join us on Zoom for a discussion of the film on November 24, 2020, at 6:30 p.m. Central Time, click on the link to the Chicago Film Club.

Discussion questions:

  1. What genre category do you think this film fits? 
  2. Some have called it a horror film. Is that a fair assessment?
  3. What did you make of the dynamic between the two brothers?
  4. Did you wonder if Mrs. Warren knew who the murderer was?
  5. Was the romance between Helen and Dr. Parry believable?

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