The Uninvited (1944)

Toronto Film Society presented The Uninvited (1944) on Monday, October 29, 2018 in a double bill with The Undying Monster as part of the Season 71 Monday Evening Film Buff Series, Programme 2.

Production Company: Paramount.  Executive Producer: Buddy G. DeSylva.  Associate Producer: Charles Brackett.  Director: Lewis Allen.  Screenplay: Dodie Smith, Frank Partos, based on the novel by Dorothy Macardle, “Uneasy Freehold” (London, 1942).  Cinematography: Charles Lang, Jr.  Process Photography: Farciot Edouart.  Special Effects: Gordon Jennings.  Film Editor: Doane Harrison.  Music: Victor Young. Song: “Stella by Starlight”, music by Victor Young.  Sound Recording: John Cope, Hugo Grenzbach.  Editor: Les Millbrook.  Costume Design: Edith Head.  Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegté.  Set Decorations: Stephen Seymour.  Release Date: February 26, 1944.

Cast: Ray Milland (Roderick “Rick” Fitzgerald), Ruth Hussey (Pamela Fitzgerald), Donald Crisp (Commander Beech), Cornelia Otis Skinner (Miss Holloway), Dorothy Stickney (Miss Bird), Barbara Everest (Lizzie Flynn), Alan Napier (Dr. Scott), Gail Russell (Stella Meredith).

Lewis Allen directed 18 feature films between 1944 and 1959, and it’s impressive that his very first was today’s The Uninvited.

Allen was born in Oakengates, Shropshire, England on Christmas Day, 1905.  After finishing school, he joined the Merchant Navy, staying with them for four years.  Afterward, he had a brief stint as an actor before becoming involved in the management end of show business where he was appointed as an executive in charge of London’s West End stage productions.  Eventually, he made his way to the U.S., working first on Broadway, directing, as well as acting as a manager for Raymond Massey and stage actor Gilbert Miller before he was lured to Hollywood by Paramount studios.

Last week, purely by fluke, I watched another Lewis Allen film, the 1948 SO EVIL MY LOVE, also set in England and also starring Ray Milland.  Although not in the supernatural vein, it is a fine film, co-starring Ann Todd and Geraldine Fitzgerald.  TFS screened it in 1989 and 2008, but if it’s been that long for you, it’s something to revisit.

After making the majority of his films, Allen moved into the realm of television, directing many of the big name shows from the mid-1950s until the end of the 1970s.

Introduction by Caren Feldman

Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? Yet, how many truly memorable movies about the supernatural can you actually name? There aren’t many, though The Innocents (1961) and The Haunting (1963) quickly come to mind. Prior to the sixties, however, the subject of haunted houses was a rarity in Hollywood movies and that’s what makes The Uninvited unique for its era. With the exception of the atmospheric RKO pictures of producer Val Lewton (Cat People, 1942; Isle of the Dead, 1945; and The Wolf Man, 1941—the last of the great Universal horrors), the genre hit hard times in the forties, with an abundance of formulaic sequels (The Ghost of Frankenstein, 1942; Son of Dracula, 1943; and The Mummy’s Ghost, 1944) and uninspired, low-budget features (The Ape Man, 1943). The Uninvited, on the other hand, is a Grade-A production from Paramount Pictures, not a studio usually associated with horror films. Produced by Charles Brackett (a frequent screenplay collaborator with director Billy Wilder), the film is a handsomely-mounted thriller with a first-rate cast; atmospheric cinematography by Charles Lang; Victor Young’s emotionally gripping score; and a highly original story that invited Freudian interpretations of the characters while inserting a lesbian subtext and droll sense of humour.

While it might have chilled audiences of its era, The Uninvited is not a frightening film by contemporary standards. It is, however, an intriguing mood piece, as subtle and suggestive in its imagery as the best of Val Lewton’s work. Incidents that could easily appear clichéd and trite—a séance by candlelight; doors that open and close by themselves; and flowers that wilt suddenly in the presence of something evil—convey a genuine sense of the otherworldly. But what makes the film unique are the atypical relationships. The siblings, Roderick and Pamela, appear to be successful, in their early-thirties, and single with no current romantic interests. Yet they have set up housekeeping together like a happily-married couple. Their celibate lifestyle, however, proves to be a key to the supernatural events that unfold in the course of the film.

When the cause of the hauntings is finally revealed, it is directly linked to the dysfunctional relationship of the former owners, Mr. and Mrs. Meredith. A loveless marriage, an unrequited lesbian relationship, an extramarital affair, and attempted murder have left such palpable bad karma in the house that only a healthy, loving relationship can effectively exorcise it. And in the course of the film, both Roderick and Pamela find desirable mates, permanently ending the house’s dreadful curse. While a Freudian reading of the film might have seemed inappropriate during the forties, it’s impossible to ignore now; especially the scenes involving Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner), the sinister rest home director, whose obsession with the former Mrs. Meredith is all too clearly spelled out. In a possible homage to the film Rebecca (1940), Skinner makes Miss Holloway as dangerously loony and frightening as Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s 1940 film.

Because The Uninvited was such an unusual project for Paramount, the studio was uncertain how to market it and decided to add some special effects at the last minute, to exploit the film’s supernatural premise. While the ectoplasmic apparitions are appropriately eerie and more subtle than any present-day, computer-generated effects, they were removed by the censors when the film was distributed in England and, in many cases, critics and moviegoers preferred that version because it was more suggestive and less obvious.

The Uninvited was a box office hit and also fared well with critics in the U.S., but during the Oscars it received only one Academy Award nomination and that was for Best Cinematography. (It lost to Laura.) The film is also famous for introducing the song, “Stella by Starlight”, which has since become a pop standard. Paramount tried to imitate the success of The Uninvited the following year with The Unseen. Although it also starred Gail Russell, it was not a ghost story but a conventional murder mystery. It was not a success, despite a screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Hagar Wilde.

Notes by Peter Poles

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