Tuesday, June 4

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs: Favorite Movie #11

1960 Drama
From Warner Bros.
Directed by Delbert Mann

Robert Preston
Dorothy McGuire
Shirley Knight
Eve Arden
Angela Lansbury
Lee Kinsolving
Frank Overton
Robert Eyer

My 11th favorite film of all-time has that distinction chiefly because it is a family drama, a small film really, and just about the most appealing type of this film in my canon of greats.  It doesn't hurt that it stars Dorothy McGuire but we will discuss her at length sooner than you know.

Watching a family drama unfold on the big screen has always been a big draw for me, even as a young kid.  Actually I was only 16 when this movie came out and much that I witnessed at my local theater happened in one way or another in my real life.  So it becomes particularly meaningful to me to watch a film such as this and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs is one of the very best.

I am most beholden to the playwright William Inge for capturing some of the great truths in American families in his work.  Most of his characters in all his works are sexually repressed or frustrated and it is certainly the case here.  Inge richly portrays them in a series of mishaps and misfortunes and one might feel certain that it's not going to end up so well, but in Inge's work, so terribly American, it usually winds up with characters learning what they must learn and with smiles on their faces.  They get on with life. 

This work is actually the first play Inge ever wrote but at that time it was just a one-act play entitled Farther Off from Heaven.  He then wrote Come Back, Little Sheba, followed by Picnic and then Bus Stop.  Finally he reworked Farther Off from Heaven into a three-act play and retitled it The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.  He would also write an original screenplay called Splendor in the Grass and adapt a screenplay for All Fall Down.  Both of these films starred Warren Beatty who had been a friend of Inge's.  All of Inge's works are character-driven and there is nothing finer in good writing.

The story takes place over a couple of weeks in early 1920s Oklahoma.  The focus is the Flood family that has fallen on some hard times with the recent oil boom which would change American life. 

This is a family facing some of its worst fears.  They are all afraid of something.  Rubin, the husband and father, has secretly become unemployed because his sales job-- and Rubin is a dynamic salesman-- at a saddlery business is no longer needed.  No one is buying.  Rubin only completed the sixth grade but he is confident in his abilities and not willing to sit on my tail and take up space.  He is eager to find new work but is stumped at how hard it has become to do so.

Cora is the wife and mother.  She is afraid of never having any money and not being able to provide well for her children.  I'm tired of living on air and water, she cries, as she goes through her husband's wallet.  She wants some money so she can buy her daughter a dress for an upcoming dance at a country club.  She withholds sex from her eager husband which royally pisses him off.  She pierces the air with I can't fight with you all day about money and go to bed with you at night.  And I don't know many women who can.

Making his plea

Cora holds her children too close to her, again at the expense of paying attention to her husband.  She says she wanted to give life to her children as a gift but it's not working out.  She knows her 10-year old son shouldn't be spending the night in bed with her when her husband was traveling on his job. 

Reenie is afraid of life.  In her late teens, she is shy with a terrible self-image.  She wears braids, is sure that no one outside of the family would like her and she, according to her mother, never talks about grownup things.  She gets tears in her eyes when she hears others' sad stories.  Her mother wants her to go to this annual dance because it will open up opportunities for her to meet people and come out of her shell.

Sonny is the author Inge as a boy.  It is his family he is writing about.  Sonny is afraid of being beaten up by a pack of neighborhood kids and he is afraid of the dark.  His great love is collecting pictures of movie stars and he knows a great deal about them.  He doesn't really much understand his father but he dearly loves his mother.  When Rubin would go away on his job, he would tell Sonny that he was the man of the house.  It is apparent to all that much work needs to be done to accomplish that goal.

The Floods are decent people.  That is always clear.  They may be dysfunctional and in a particularly bad time in their lives, but these are good, decent folks and we root for them. 

Remember that dress that Cora snatched the money for?    Well, you-know-what hit the fan when Rubin discovered the dress box sitting in the living room.  We just bought her a dress he bellows.  That was three years ago, Cora shouts back, and for God's sake, she's grown.

The couple has a shouting match, interrupted only by them catching Reenie listening to them on the stairs.  Rubin and Cora say some mean things to one another, both caught up in leveling frustration.  He hasn't told Cora he has lost his job and she thinks he is simply being miserly.  Life is closing in on me, he says achingly.  Cora won't give up and she practically dares him to leave.  Go see that Mavis Pruitt, she says.  The whole town knows about you two.

And off he goes... to Mavis Pruitt.  Mavis is a long-widowed beautician who works out of her home.  She and Rubin are platonic friends.  She is someone he can talk to, someone who understands and Rubin needs some of that right now.  The truth is though that Mavis loves Rubin (a woman's needs don't stop just because she's  widowed) but knows that he is a man devoted to his family.  Even now.

When Rubin flies off, Cora invites her older sister and her husband over.  The sister, Lottie, is a bossy, overbearing shrew who is childless, sexually frustrated and married to a Casper Milquetoast of a man who can't stand her but won't say so.  Rubin surprisingly flies into the house as Lottie takes him on for causing her sister distress.  You wear the pants in your family, Lottie, and I'll wear them in mine.  Lottie finds most everyone in the world repellent and when she takes on Catholics, Rubin flies into the room and takes her on.  Sometimes I'm ashamed to be related to you, Rubin snipes, even by marriage.  Lottie is a counterpoint to Cora, much needed as well, and provides the film with some humor.

In the meantime, Reenie is off to the dance with a boy she has just met a day earlier.  She quickly realizes he is more afraid of life than she is and she is smitten.  He has been put in the town's military school by a movie star mother he barely knows.  He is very lonely, deeply hurt and continues to be hurt by people looking down on him because he's Jewish.  What happens to him is the saddest thing in the film.

Ultimately, Reenie learns not to be afraid.  Sonny learns how to whip the neighborhood thugs, Cora has a chat with Mavis who helps set her straight about standing by your man and Rubin finally gets a new job in what else?  The oil business.  As the intimacy is about to be reinstated, the film ends.  But it was a wonderful ride.

The acting is simply superb.  Preston brings his usual exuberance to the role and is totally believable.  I would say this is the best he has ever been in his long career but then I remember his Toddy in Victor/Victoria and I am not so quick in my praise.  McGuire is also exceptional, bringing grace and humanity to the role of a troubled but loving wife and mother.

Knight, in an early role, received an Oscar nomination as the timid teen.  Young Eyer (his real-life brother Richard was more famous) was spot-on as Sonny.

I am not sure why Arden didn't also get a supporting Oscar nomination.  As an actress who mainly did light-hearted comical stuff, usually as a lead actress' cynical best friend, she really stepped up for this delicious role.  A brunette Lansbury was delightful as the wise friend.

Lee Kinsolving

You may have never heard of Lee Kinsolving.  He was very moving as Reenie's sad friend.  Handsome, poetic, charming, his career never really took off and he died at only 36 of some mysterious respiratory illness which adds to the allure of this role.

Delbert Mann was a fine director.  He was responsible for four excellent films... Marty, The Bachelor Party, Separate Tables and Middle of the Night.  He would work with Lansbury twice more in Mister Buddwing and Dear Heart.

This is quite simply a wonderful story told by a man who knew how to do just that.  His stories of smalltown life in the midwest were filled with interesting, well-written characters.  William Inge had a great run with his plays and then excellent movie versions, but it was not to last.  He was a lifelong deeply-closeted gay man and it fascinated me to see those early beginnings fleshed out in this story.  He became quite depressed when later writings didn't get the attention his previous work had.  He committed suicide at age 60.

Sadly, too, I don't think The Dark at the Top of the Stairs ever got the true acclaim it so richly deserved.  I think it may be the only one of my 50 Favorites Films that is not out on a studio DVD.  Why is that Warner Bros?  It has my high acclaim.

The Quintessential Disney Mother

No comments:

Post a Comment