Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright” (1950) starring Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding, & Richard Todd

Commodore Gill: The best thing you can do, my girl, is go back to the Academy; practice your soul-shaking antics in surroundings where they can’t do any harm.

Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) is wanted for questioning by the police who suspect him of killing the husband of a famous theater actress. His friend Eve Gill (Jane Wyman), offers to help him hide; she’s infatuated w/ Jonathan. He says that his lover, actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich- fabulous at age 49), is the real murderer. He even carries a dress smeared w/ blood! Eve’s father, Commodore Gill (Alistair Sim- famed as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol), reluctantly decides to let Jonathan stay in his seaside cottage. Eve wants to investigate the murder herself! She follows one of the cops in charge of the case, Detective Inspector Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding- who later became one of Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands), to a pub. To get close to Charlotte, Eve becomes a substitute for her maid/dresser, Nellie Goode (Kay Walsh). Eve’s unsuspecting mother, Mrs. Gill (Sybil Thorndyke), thinks that her daughter is busy w/ classes at R.A.D.A.

D.I. Smith: Perhaps you’re allergic to bars. Look, would you feel less uneasy if I sat with you? Or, more uneasy? Perhaps you’re allergic to strange men too.

Eve Gill: No, I love strange men! I mean, I’m very fond of them.

Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s 21 y.o. daughter, Patricia, was studying at R.A.D.A. (one of the settings for the movie) at this time. He wanted to spend some time w/ her (after being based in Hollywood for several years); Pat has a small part in the movie. Hitch also had Pat double for Wyman in the early scenes that required “dangerous driving” in the opening. Pat is given the unflattering name of “Chubby Bannister,” which was a term of endearment according to Hitch (b/c she was “a girl you could always lean on”).

Charlotte Inwood [to Eve]: Oh, darling, don’t confide in me. Pour some tea will you?

The novel upon which this movie was based, Man Running by Selwyn Jepson, appeared in serial form in Collier’s Magazine (August 9, 1947 to September 13, 1947). Hitch thought of Stage Fright as “more than a murder mystery, it is a critical examination of the acting craft” (a subject that long fascinated him). Eve wears costumes, puts on an accent, and creates a role for herself. This movie is significant b/c it broke a (long-established) cinematic convention that flashbacks were always a true account of earlier events. In Stage Fright, the opening flashback turns out to be a lie, which confused then angered viewers of that day (as they felt cheated)!

Ladies must be well fed. -Hitch commented, having steaks and roasts flown in from the U.S. for his two leading ladies (while food was being rationed in London)

Wyman (who had achieved success the previous year at the box office) worked for weeks in to perfect her Cockney accent; Walsh coached her each day after filming was completed. Wyman was required to appear frumpy/dowdy when acting as the maid, but she was reluctant (when Dietrich appeared so glamorous). Hitch said that Wyman would cry when she’d see Dietrich looking glamorous on-set when she had to wear her maid’s disguise. Much to Hitch’s bemusement, Wyman secretly wore make-up or tried other tricks to improve her appearance (so failing to maintain character).

Eve Gill [in disguise]: My Dad says that man on the run might turn up here. Might even get into the dressing room. Might even murder me, madame.

Charlotte Inwood: The scene of the crime, the murderer returns to – not the theater.

In a rare move, Hitch allowed Dietrich creative control, esp. in how her scenes were lit. Dietrich learned re: cinematography from directors Josef von Sternberg (also one of her exes) and Günther Rittau; so Hitch let her to work w/ the film’s cinematographer, Wilkie Cooper, to light and set her scenes the way that she wished. Dietrich’s costumes were designed by Christian Dior. One of the songs that Dietrich sings is Édith Piaf’s signature song, La Vie en Rose. Dietrich and Piaf were close friends; Piaf granted her permission to use the song. Dietrich’s The Laziest Girl in Town (written by Cole Porter) is spoofed in Blazing Saddles (1974). According to Dietrich’s autobiography, she began her love affair w/ Wilding while making this movie.

I heard she’d only wanted to do it if she were billed above me, and she got her wish. Hitchcock didn’t think much of her. She looks too much like a victim to play a heroine, and God knows she couldn’t play a woman of mystery, that was my part. Miss Wyman looks like a mystery nobody has bothered to solve. -Dietrich on working w/ Wyman

[1] It is the masterful presence of the great Alastair Sim, however, that makes Stage Fright one of Hitchock’s most enjoyable to watch. He is equally at home playing comic relief as he is to serving as the plot glue that makes Eve’s capers possible.

[2] Great use of silent sequences, close ups, slow motion, black humor, and mood lighting… this murder mystery offers all kinds of plot twists and sly humor even though you know the outcome long before it unspools.

[3] The performances here are all excellent, especially Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich as Charlotte Inwood, perhaps the laziest girl in town, but also the most flamboyant. The secondary characters are also in fine form and make memorable impressions that adds to the enjoyment factor of this film.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

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