Saturday, September 20, 2008
cinema obscura: Mervyn LeRoy's "Home Before Dark" (1958)
A shameless, obscenely entertaining guilty pleasure, "Home Before Dark" is a tangy, campy soap opera in which director Mervyn LeRoy out-Sirks Douglas Sirk. This handsome 1958 Warner Bros. film deserves the success - and the following - that Sirk's "Imitation of Life" enjoyed a year later. Instead, it has fallen into oblivion. Who knows what happened? Perhaps, at 136 minutes, the film was a tad too long to be fully companionable for audiences. Too long? Personally, I wouldn't sacrifice a minute.
Or perhaps Joseph F. Biroc's handsome black-and-white cinematography put off people who were expecting Technicolored glamour. Or maybe, Jean Simmons, its leading lady, was more of an actress than a Star, unlike "Imitation of Life's" Lana Turner who clearly relished the high-camp theatricality of Sirk's piece.
The skeletal plot, written by Eileen and Robert Bassing (based on a novel by Eileen), is also something of a heartbreaker, with Simmons cast as Charlotte, a woman unwanted by her pretentious husband Arnold (Dan O'Herlihy), who conspires with her stepmother Inez (Mabel Albertson) and stepsister Joan (Rhonda Fleming) to steal Charlotte's inheritance from her father. Charlotte is especially fragile, having just been released from a state mental facility in Massachusetts - and it becomes clear what drove her there. Exacerbating matters, her husband is having an affair with the stepsister.
LeRoy masterfully exploits the juiciness of his material, taking it into camp when necessary, such as the delicious sequence in which, Charlotte, more unstable than usual, has her hair done up like Joan's platinum 'do, buys a dress that Joan would wear and generally makes a fool of herself at a dinner party - all to impress Arnold and win his love.
Simmons, who gives a quiet, relatively simple performance considering the material, won the New York Film Critics award for this top-notch, seriously neglected film that has never been made available in any format. Bring it back already.
Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.
(Artwork: Studio publicity shot of Jean Simmons in Warner Bros.' "Home Before Dark")
Posted by joe baltake at 9:01 AM