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Carole Lombard takes on a rare serious role in the 1940 hospital drama Vigil in the Night. Anne Lee (Lombard) and her sister Lucy (Anne Shirley) are both nurses in an English hospital. When Lucy's negligence causes a young patient to die, big sister Anne takes the blame and loses her job. Anne eventually gets hired at a larger but poorly equipped hospital where she falls in love with the handsome and dedicated Dr. Robert Prescott (Brian Aherne). Together Anne and Dr. Prescott work and sacrifice to improve hospital conditions and fight a deadly epidemic that threatens the community.
Known for years as the "Queen of Screwball Comedy", Carole Lombard had found her success in Hollywood by taking on funny lighthearted roles in such films as Twentieth Century (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936), for which she received an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress. Though she had done dramatic parts earlier in her career, comedies are what made audiences fall in love with her.
In 1939 Carole Lombard wanted to challenge herself as an actress and step out of her comedic comfort zone. She therefore turned down the Lewis Milestone comedy Lucky Partners (1940) co-starring Ronald Colman in order to do the somber drama Vigil in the Night. It would be her first and only picture with director George Stevens (Alice Adams , Swing Time ).
Vigil in the Night was based on a novel by A.J. Cronin, a former physician whose writings also provided the basis for the popular films The Citadel (1938) and The Keys of the Kingdom (1944). RKO Studios had high hopes for Vigil in the Night, which had all the ingredients to make it one of the most prestigious films of the year: a strong script, a talented director and the star power of Carole Lombard.
Filming commenced on Vigil in the Night in July 1939. However, apropos of the film's hospital setting, Carole Lombard was suddenly taken ill with appendicitis. Following her emergency appendectomy, the entire production had to be shut down for six weeks in order to give her ample time to recover.
Upon its release Vigil in the Night received mixed reviews, and audiences unfortunately rejected their beloved Carole Lombard in such an unrelentingly serious film. Lombard soon returned to comic roles with great success before her untimely death just two years later in 1942. It was the last film that director George Stevens made for RKO before moving to Columbia Pictures. Watch for a young Peter Cushing in a small role as Anne Shirley's love interest.
Producer: George Stevens
Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: Fred Guiol, P.J. Wolfson, Rowland Leigh; A.J. Cronin (novel)
Cinematography: Robert de Grasse
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Alfred Newman
Film Editing: Henry Berman
Cast: Carole Lombard (Anne Lee), Brian Aherne (Dr. Robert S. Prescott), Anne Shirley (Lucy Lee), Julien Mitchell (Matthew Bowley), Robert Coote (Dr. Caley), Brenda Forbes (Nora Dunn), Rita Page (Glennie), Peter Cushing (Joe Shand), Ethel Griffies (Matron East), Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Martha Bowley), Emily Fitzroy (Sister Gilson).
by Andrea Passafiume