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Night Must Fall

Night Must Fall(1937)

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teaser Night Must Fall (1937)

Handsome, debonair, and stage-trained, Robert Montgomery entered films at the dawn of the sound era, and instantly became one of MGM's most popular leading men. He excelled at breezy sophisticated comedy, and co-starred with the studio's top female stars, Shearer, Crawford, and Garbo. But Montgomery soon tired of being typecast, and by the mid-1930's was constantly battling with studio bosses to be allowed to play more challenging roles.

Montgomery had seen Welsh-born writer and actor Emlyn Williams' play, Night Must Fall (1936) in New York, starring Williams himself as the psychopathic killer who carries his latest victim's head in a hatbox. When Montgomery returned to Hollywood, as columnist Ed Sullivan wrote, "Robert Montgomery, cocktail-shaking smarty of films, rebelled and asked to be assigned to Night Must Fall." Tired of the constant badgering and convinced that a failure would cure Montgomery's ambitions, production chief Louis B. Mayer agreed to let the actor star in the film version of Night Must Fall (1937). As Montgomery recalled, "they okayed my playing in it because they thought the fan reaction to me, in such a role, would humiliate me." Montgomery also put his money where his mouth was - he agreed to subsidize part of the cost of the film.

Rosalind Russell was still in the early stages of her career, but she, too, was already being typecast in vapid society-girl roles. She had already appeared in several films with Montgomery, and knew they played well together. The spinsterish, conflicted niece in Night Must Fall offered a part with some substance and subtlety, and Russell was happy to play the role. She would make a total of five films with Montgomery.

Repeating her stage success as the crotchety old woman charmed by the killer was 72-year old British stage actress Dame May Whitty. Although she had appeared occasionally in silent films, Night Must Fall was Whitty's talking film debut. She received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her performance, but Alice Brady won for In Old Chicago.

Emlyn Williams had used his own Welsh accent, with a touch of Cockney, in his stage performance. Montgomery found that too difficult, and in the film version of Night Must Fall he attempted, not always successfully, a slight Irish lilt. It was the one weakness in a mesmerizing portrayal which had the critics cheering. The New York Daily News said the film "lifts the MGM actor out of the lower brackets, where he has slipped because of shoddy material, into an eminent position among the top-notchers of Hollywood players." Variety, however, was more practical. "The appearance of Montgomery in a part which is the antithesis of his pattern may be art, but it's not box office." Louis B. Mayer agreed. On the night of Night Must Fall's Hollywood premiere, the studio passed out flyers disclaiming the film. Mayer also personally supervised the making of a trailer which preceded the film, also warning filmgoers of its "experimental nature."

Night Must Fall was a critical, if not financial success. Robert Montgomery was nominated for an Academy Award, but MGM did little to support the film's Oscar chances. Spencer Tracy won the award for Captains Courageous (1937). Montgomery went back to romantic comedies, but he was becoming increasingly independent. He kept fighting for, and occasionally winning, more varied roles. As one of the founders and a four-term president of in the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), he helped expose racketeering in the film industry. He was one of the first film stars to get involved in television, and enjoyed a long career in the medium as a producer, director and actor - calling his own shots.

Director: Richard Thorpe
Producer: Hunt Stromberg
Screenplay: John Van Druten, based on the play by Emlyn Williams
Cinematography: Ray June
Editor: Robert J. Kern
Costume Design: Dolly Tree
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Edward Ward
Principal Cast: Robert Montgomery (Danny), Rosalind Russell (Olivia), Dame May Whitty (Mrs. Bramson), Alan Marshal (Justin), Merle Tottenham (Dora), Kathleen Harrison (Mrs. Terence), Matthew Boulton (Belsize).
BW-116m. Closed captioning.

by Margarita Landazuri

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