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Set in Oklahoma during the 1920's, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960) is a dramatic portrait of a troubled Midwestern family. The father, Rubin Flood (Robert Preston), is a high-powered traveling salesman who loses his job but can't bring himself to tell his self-centered wife, Cora (Dorothy McGuire). Their relationship already in desperate straits, Rubin seeks solace with Mavis (Angela Lansbury), a widow who runs the local beauty parlor. Creating additional conflict within the family is the Flood's teenage daughter, Reenie (Shirley Knight), who falls in love with a Jewish boy (Lee Kinsolving), and Sonny (Robert Eyer), the youngest child who has developed an indescribable fear of the dark.
The original source of the film was the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by William Inge, which had been directed on Broadway by Elia Kazan. At that point in Inge's career, all the major Hollywood studios were courting the acclaimed playwright from Independence, Kansas, with offers for film adaptations of his work. The Dark at the Top of the Stairs was the fourth of his plays to be adapted for the screen (the others, in order, were Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), Bus Stop (1956), and Picnic (1956)). While it was not the most commercially successful of his movie adaptations, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs did win Shirley Knight a Best Supporting Actress nomination though she lost to Shirley Jones that year for Elmer Gantry.
More significantly, the film was an ideal project for Delbert Mann, the former Yale School of Drama graduate who won a Best Director Oscar® for his debut film, Marty (1955), and whose best work is theatre-based. It is also worth mentioning that The Dark at the Top of the Stairs provided Angela Lansbury with one of her most effective supporting roles, even though it taxed her emotionally and physically. In Angela Lansbury: A Biography by Margaret Wander Bonanno (St. Martin's Press), the actress said, "There's nothing like a good villainess. You can go down and chew on great chunks of scenery. But some of the most successful things that I've done have been playing the simplest possible women. The character of Mavis in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs was a tiny part and yet remembered to this day by everybody who ever saw that movie."
Director: Delbert Mann
Producer: Michael Garrison
Screenplay: Harriet Frank Jr., Irving Ravetch, based on the play by William Inge
Cinematography: Harry Stradling Sr.
Editor: Folmar Blangsted
Art Direction: Leo K. Kuter
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Robert Preston (Rubin Flood), Dorothy McGuire (Cora Flood), Eve Arden (Lottie Lacey), Angela Lansbury (Mavis Pruitt), Shirley Knight (Reenie Flood).
by Jeff Stafford