MY FAVORITE CLASSIC MOVIE BLOGATHON: NATIONAL CLASSIC MOVIE DAY ( MAY 16TH )
THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE ( 1946 )
Based on the 1933 novel “Some Must Watch” by Ethel Lina White, which was published to positive encomium, the book was later turned into a movie in 1946, starring Ethel Barrymore, Dorothy McGuire and George Brent. “The Spiral Staircase” was superbly directed by Robert Siodmak, who was notable for his directorial efforts in the Film Noir genre, with films such as: The Dark Mirror, The File Of Thelma Jordan, and The Killers. Having been made first, his work in this only encouraged him to venture into more thriller, mystery based productions.
One stormy night, during the early twentieth century in a sleepy New England town, young Helen ( Dorothy McGuire ) a mute domestic assistant is returning to the Warren mansion after an afternoon at the movie house in town, where a crippled girl has just been strangled to death in her room. When she arrives back to the dark and gloomy residence that is owned by the ailing and cantankerous Mrs. Warren ( Ethel Barrymore ) and the house full of occupants, they all become concerned for Helen’s safety, especially Mrs. Warren who implores her to leave that night.
With a serial killer prowling the neighbourhood, murdering women with afflictions, they fear that Helen might be the next target. Mrs. Warren who never turns a blind eye on things knows all to well that Helen is in danger, and she does the best she can to deter her from staying, even going as far as calling the local physician, Dr. Parry and ordering him to take her away. Dr. Parry, who has recently discovered that he is infatuated in Helen agrees with Mrs. Warren’s adamant demands, develops intentions on taking Helen to specialists in Boston for voice recovery and to get married.
As the night progresses, so does the rampant thunderstorms that are making this isolated house spookier and even more mysterious by the minute. Suspicions arise when a murder occurs in the mansion. Now Helen doesn’t know who she can trust or who she can turn to for help, but all she knows is that the murderer is getting closer to her than what she ever imagined.
“The Spiral Staircase” is perhaps the best thriller/mystery of the decade, and in my opinion it is. On it’s release, it attained a plethora of accolades. Leslie Halliwell crowned “The Spiral Staircase” a superior thunderstorm mystery. Needless to say her inscription was right on the mark. The film is indeed set during one colossal thunderstorm, which seems to exacerbate as the film rolls on.
Another element that makes the movie stand as a prodigious classic is the incredible cinematography that supplements the Victorian atmosphere and elegant décor from the Victorian era. Director, Robert Siodmak was known as the master of shadows, and with Nicholas Musuraca’s demonstration of evocative lighting is what makes the film so chilling.
The films opening sequence is one of the best inceptions I’ve ever seen. This is where we first become acquainted to Helen, who we see wide eyed and mesmerized by a silent film flickering on the screen, while a woman is on the piano accompanying the storyline. At the back of the room there is a projectionist” hand cranking the film through the projector as the audience sits on large wooden benches enthralled in what is being presented on the screen.
As for the cast, they were all commendable. George Brent, who was known for his string of Bette Davis movies delivered one of his greatest performances here, and Dorothy McGuire gave the most culminating performance of her career. It wouldn’t be easy portraying a mute girl, who is also an intended murder victim, but McGuire was able to excel in the role by displaying such raw emotions, showcasing an array of different expressions on screen that were not too over done or over the top.
Ethel Barrymore, who I feel is the highlight of the film received a well deserving Academy Award nomination for her laudable portrayal of Mrs. Warren, the terminally ill mother, who senses the evil around her, having a pretty good idea who the murderer is, and warns Helen to get out before it is too late.
After 1944’s “None But The Lonely Heart”, which was her first picture since “Rasputin And The Empress” in 1932, Ethel had returned home back east, where she would continue on touring for “The Corn Is Green” until June 1944. Ever since attaining the Oscar for “None But The Lonely Heart” she had received a multitude of offers in Hollywood, so Ethel decided to pack up and locate to the west coast. When she arrived, RKO had suggested the possibility to her of filming a delightful fantasy, but seeing as she hadn’t committed to anything she wanted some time to reconnoitre around at her own expense to see what else was available.
When word came that they were looking for an actress to play Mrs. Warren in “The Spiral Staircase”, Ethel clutched at that opportunity straight away. She saw the part to be tailor made for her, along with the featured cast, some who she had always admired or worked with onstage.
Like most character actors, Ethel is sadly forgotten about today. All these actresses worked hard, and were never really given their due. In most cases though, it’s the character actors that tend to shine in the movies. They are the ones that provide the comic relief, and make the films what they are today. That is the case with “The Spiral Staircase”. Ethel was the one that brought out the laughs in the movie with her acidic aura.
Ethel as Mrs. Warren is a bedridden ambiguous prophet, who seems to be watching your every move even with her eyes closed. Usually though she’s awake with her big luminous eyes giving you that scintillating glare, her voice hypnotic as she delivers such standard horror film lines, such as “Leave this house tonight if you know what’s good for you.”. At the time, Ethel was about 65 years of age, and she was still able to retain her famous sidelong glance and smile that captivated audiences many years earlier.
Joan Crawford, after receiving critical praise for her performance in A Woman’s Face (1941), at one point campaigned for the role of the mute girl played by Dorothy McGuire. Crawford also owned the rights, but MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer vehemently opposed the idea, telling her “No more cripples or maimed women”.
“Screen Director’s Playhouse” broadcast a 30 minute radio adaptation of the movie on November 25, 1949 with Dorothy McGuire reprising her film role.
While this film was based on Ethel Lina White‘s 1933 novel “Some Must Watch,” there are several major differences. In the novel, the maid stalked by the killer was crippled, not mute. It was also set in contemporary England, not early 1900’s New England. Finally, the title of the film and the idea of incorporating a “spiral staircase” as a thematic element comes from another source entirely: Mary Roberts Rinehart‘s 1908 novel “The Circular Staircase.” The heroine of the book was not mute or crippled, nor were any of the murderer’s victims.
Mrs. Warren: “I told you to sit in the hall. Why must you spy on me?”
Nurse Barker: “I’m not spying on you. It’s time for your medicine.”
Mrs. Warren: “Helen can give me my medicine.”
Nurse Barker: “I don’t know what I’m being paid for.”
Mrs. Warren: “You’re being paid to sit in the hall, that’s all your good for. GET OUT.”
Mrs. Warren: “Forgive me, Steven, I thought it was you. He always waited until you came home, so I thought it was you.”
Ethel Barrymore: Born Ethel Mae Blythe on August 15th, 1879 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Died: June 18th, 1959 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 79.
Dorothy McGuire: Born Dorothy Hackett McGuire on May 28th, 1916 in Omaha, Nebraska. Died: September 13th, 2001 in Santa Monica, California. Aged 85.
George Brent: Born George Brendan Nolan on March 15th, 1899 in Raharabeg County, Roscommon, Ireland. Died: May 26th, 1979 in Solana Beach, San Diego, California. Aged 80.