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Shadow on the Wall

Shadow on the Wall(1950)

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teaser Shadow on the Wall (1950)

In a rare case of against-type casting for Ann Sothern, the normally good-humored actress takes on the role of villainess in MGM's Shadow on the Wall (1950). Sothern plays Dell Faring, whose sister Celia (Kristine Miller) has been murdered, with the victim's little stepdaughter (nine-year-old Gigi Perreau) the only witness. The girl has seen the killer's shadow on the wall, but has been so traumatized by the killing that she has blocked out the memory.

Since the audience is in on the identity of the killer, it is not giving away plot secrets to reveal that Dell herself -- upset because her sister had a fling with her beau -- is the killer. Suspicion, however, falls upon Celia's husband, David (Zachary Scott), who may die in the electric chair if the truth is not uncovered. Meanwhile, although she is actually fond of the little girl, Dell fears the child will recover her memory and schemes to drown or poison her.

Co-starring as the child psychiatrist who tries to unravel the mystery is MGM contract player Nancy Davis, later to become First Lady Nancy Reagan. Also in the cast is Barbara Billingsley, later to play June Cleaver in the long-running television sitcom Leave It to Beaver.

MGM, which had profitably utilized Sothern's comic and musical talents in the long-running "B"-movie comedy series Maisie (1939-1947) and the occasional musical, had dropped her contract in 1947. But after her smashing success at 20th-Century-Fox in A Letter to Three Wives (1949), MGM invited Sothern back for leading roles in Shadow on the Wall and Nancy Goes to Rio (1950). Within a few years, she would largely abandon feature films to turn her full attention to television, where she achieved her greatest success as a sitcom star.

"Hollywood sold its stars on good looks and personality buildups," Sothern would later reflect. "We weren't really actresses in the true sense. We were just big names -- the products of a good publicity department."

Although Sothern delivers solidly in Shadow on the Wall and received some good notices for her performance, most critics had difficulty getting past their own image of her as a "Maisie"-type lightweight. A reviewer for The New York Times wrote that "Ann Sothern, who turns in a polished portrayal, seems out of character as the worried villainess of the piece." And a review in the Library Journal claimed that "Ann Sothern's role suggests that the picture might have been called Maisie Was a Murderess -- though she never overplays."

At the beginning of her MGM contract, the actress billed as Nancy Davis reportedly was romantically involved with studio executive Benny Thau. Most reviewers ignored her performance in Shadow on the Wall, although Variety described Davis as a "comer" who gives a "standout performance."

Forty years after the making of the film, Sothern offered these reflections to Reagan biographer Kitty Kelley, "I remember Nancy Davis as quite soft and pudgy... Although she was pleasant enough, she seemed rather devious to me. I can't tell you exactly why... It's just a feeling I had. Maybe it was because she was so ambitious... She was a tough lady...who definitely knew where she wanted to go."

Producer: Robert Sisk
Director: Pat Jackson
Screenplay: William Ludwig, from story Death in the Doll's House by Lawrence P. Bachmann and Hannah Lees
Cinematography: Ray June
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Eddie Imazu
Original Music: Andr Previn
Editing: Cotton Warburton (as Irvine Warburton)
Costume Design: Irene
Cast: Ann Sothern (Dell Faring), Zachary Scott (David I Starrling), Gigi Perreau (Susan Starrling), Nancy Davis (Dr. Caroline Canford), Kristine Miller (Celia Starrling), John McIntire (Pike Ludwell).
BW-84m.

by Roger Fristoe

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