What's It All About?

What's It All About?

Saturday, April 30, 2016

From The Vault -- Descending The Spiral Staircase

Out of the past comes an article I did back in 2009 on one of my favorite movies,
The Spiral Staircase.  I had just started my blog and had just a few followers, and
I remember being thrilled with any comment.  I hope that if you were not around
to see it in 2009, you will enjoy it.

The Spiral Staircase

In my part of the country, November shows its unique face with winds moaning and sighing through the trees in the dark of night, sudden storms of lightning and thunder and cold rain –- could there be a more perfect time for a movie of terror and suspense? If you don’t have such weather, you can experience it if you turn off the lights and watch The Spiral Staircase. Released in 1945, it is a story of a mad killer on the loose in turn of the century New England, raging storms and a house with plenty of shadows and fear at every turn. Imagine yourself on a stormy night with no electricity, moving through such a house with only a candle or dim lamp, and imagine making your way down a spiral staircase to a basement where horrors may lurk. Now you are in the mood.

Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore) and Helen (Dorothy McGuire
The lovely Dorothy McGuire plays Helen, a lonely, vulnerable girl who was rendered mute by a mysterious traumatic experience in her childhood. She is companion to Mrs. Warren, played by Ethel Barrymore, a strong-willed, cranky invalid confined to her bed but sharp and domineering. George Brent and Gordon Oliver play step-brothers Professor Warren (born of the father's first wife) and Steven Warren, (born of the invalid Mrs. Warren). Mrs. Warren believes, to her sorrow, that she has reason not to trust her son Steven, the prodigal son who turns up periodically. Whenever Steven is around, bad things happen. The supporting cast is perfection, with Kent Smith as the sensible Dr. Parry, whose visits to Mrs. Warren fit perfectly with his desire to see Helen, Elsa Lanchester as the amusingly drunken cook, Rhys Williams as her rather sullen caretaker husband, a young Rhonda Fleming as the Professor’s secretary, Blanch, and the redoubtable Sarah Allgood as Mrs. Warren’s long-suffering and often insulted nurse.

Steven Warren (Gordon Oliver)
Professor Warren (George Brent)

This household of complicated relationships, indeed the whole community, is shocked by the murders of young women, all with some kind of handicap. In a wonderful piece of film-making, we are allowed to see only the killer’s eye in extreme close-up as he hides in wait for his victim, and then see the victim through the killer’s eye as he stalks and kills. This perspective is chilling, and the music of composer Roy Webb heightens the chills.


As the mystery unfolds, it becomes apparent that the killer must be someone in the Warren household, with the mute Helen as his next possible victim. A great storm rages without, and fear rules within. The spiral staircase plays its part beautifully, shadowed, with each turn bringing unknown terrors.

Turn off lights, listen to the wind blow, and treat yourself to a suspenseful and frightening piece of film-making that stands the test of time. The Spiral Staircase will not disappoint.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

One Last Kiss -- Errol and Olivia

On Valentine's Day, the talented writer of Second Sight Cinema hosted a blogathon called "A Kiss Is Just A Kiss."  I was not able to participate, but I'd like to offer a belated article about one of the most sensuous and touching kisses in the classic era.  (Don't miss the other wonderful articles in the blogathon by clicking here:  http://secondsightcinema.com/happy-valentines-day-weekend-welcome-to-the-you-must-remember-this-a-kiss-is-just-a-kiss-blogathon/.)

Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland were one of the most famous movie couples.  They were a match made in heaven, and were together in several films.  Of course there was plenty of kissing, but the  sweetest, most genuine kiss was in "They Died With Their Boots On."  This 1941 Warner Brothers production was, as were most of the historical films of the period, full of inaccuracies and made-up Hollywood stories.  We may know more now than at that time, but it doesn't change the excitement of the movie at all.  The relationship between George Armstrong Custer and his wife, Libby Bacon, was pretty close to the truth, at least in the love they had for each other.  The movie portrayed this beautifully.  Toward the end, Custer  prepares for what would be the battle of the Little Big Horn, and the scene of their parting is, to me, their best.  It never fails to bring a tear.  As a woman, it rings true, as it must for men from their point of view. 

Olivia and Errol likely did not know that this would be their last film together.  The scene is all the more poignant to us now.  Enjoy a wonderful piece of film, and a wonderful kiss.