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")


David Marill said...

Hey, Joe. Just found your blog. It's great. And I love this movie. Jean Simmons is fantastic in it. I guess great minds think alike, right? As a long-time reader of your newspaper reviews, I knew I could trust you. I enjoyed that even as you tossed in historical perspective and movie-making background, you always wrote reviews, and still do, with the understanding that people go to the movies to be entertained.

Anonymous said...

This is a great, great film! I taped it years ago off WOR-TV in New York. I guess my copy is really rare!

silvergirl said...

I used to watch this movie all the time on television in the 60's when I was a kid/teen. I still remember most of it, but I would love to see it again.

I just put it into my Netflix queue, but who knows if they will ever release it.

Tim Fairbanks said...

Excellent critique of "Home Before Dark." I felt that the sentence about LeRoy out-Sirking Douglas Sirk is just great. I'll be checking this blog often.

Anonymous said...

Great review of my all time favorite Jean Simmons movie. Her performance was mesmerizing. I have a copy on VHS, but it's not very good. Would love to have a nice, clean copy on DVD.

Chuck L. said...

This is a great movie that I completely forgot about! It's amazing, you know - Out of sight, out of mind. Thanks for the reminder. How about doing something on another Jean Simmons movie, "All the Way Home," with Robert Preston?

joe baltake said...

Chuck: I did profile "All the Way Home" in a post dated August 26th, 2007. Here's the link:

jbryant said...

Haven't seen this in ages, but have strong, fond memories of Simmons' performance.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joe,

I stayed very happy in discovery this site about the forgotten movies. Joe would you please help me to get a copy in vhs of the movie "This angry age"? I know that it was relesead only in VHS in Italy. But I didn´nt get in Website. I`ll wait your help.
Thks byby.