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"She's a dumb tomato and crazy to boot," 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck once said about Marilyn Monroe. "She's a sex pot who wiggles and walks and breathes sex, and each picture she's in she'll earn her keep but no more dramatic roles!" Zanuck's comments followed Monroe's appearance in Fritz Lang's Clash by Night (1952) at RKO, in which she held her own against leads Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan at the price of countless delays and bottomless aggravation for all involved. The voluptuous Actors Studio trained actress remained for Zanuck an embarrassment, crowned as she had been Miss Cheesecake 1951 by the editors of Stars and Stripes and drawing the wrong kind of media attention for sashaying to a photo shoot across the Fox lot in a transparent negligee. Worse yet, a nude calendar for which a cash-strapped Monroe had posed in 1949 turned up in 1951 after her ornamental appearances in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve (1950) and John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950), making her the first Hollywood starlet that the general public could see naked.
Zanuck had hoped to keep Monroe buried deep in the Fox payroll but the blonde bombshell had admirers in high places -among them, Fox founder Spyros Skouras, who leaned on his executives to capitalize on her assets. Zanuck was obliged not only to use Monroe in a studio project but to slot her into a starring role. Required to test for Don't Bother to Knock (1952), an adaptation of the 1951 novel Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong, Monroe stayed up for forty-eight hours without sleep, preparing slavishly for the role of a psychologically scarred young woman unwisely left in charge of a minor with the help of her acting coach Natasha Lytess. (Monroe's contract with Fox stipulated that Lytess, a former associate of Max Reinhardt, be made a studio employee.) On the day of the screen test, the notoriously insecure Monroe disobeyed direct orders to sneak Lytess onto the soundstage. The gamble paid off in a successful test and a note of congratulations from Zanuck himself, pointing Monroe to her first starring role in a feature film.
Also making a debut with Don't Bother to Knock was British director Roy Ward Baker, working in America for the first time. A documentary filmmaker during his military service in World War II, Baker had directed the Tyrone Power vehicle I'll Never Forget You (1951) for Fox in England (where it bore the alternate title The House on the Square). Baker flew to Hollywood to deliver a rough cut of the film and, though Zanuck was ambivalent about the result, he was sufficiently impressed with the Brit's efficiency and eye for composition to offer him a job stateside. Baker thought Monroe grossly miscast as the desperately lonely Nell Forbes, whose flirtation with bachelor jet pilot Richard Widmark urges the narrative towards unthinkable tragedy, but soldiered on through a very difficult shoot. Headaches that Fritz Lang had endured on Clash by Night due to Monroe's habitual tardiness and inability to deliver two consecutive lines became migraines for Baker, Widmark, and fellow castmates Elisha Cook, Jr. and Jim Backus while veteran production manager Charlie Hall feared the delays caused by Monroe's eccentricities would push the low budget feature into overage.
"It soon became clear to me that this movie would have to be put together piecemeal," Baker recalled in his 2000 memoir The Director's Cut. "There could be no such thing as a master scene (but rather) single lines and reactions (derived) from several takes." Working in Baker's favor was the fact that Don't Bother to Knock was shooting entirely in-studio, allowing him to keep Monroe at all times relatively close at hand. Three weeks after the project's December 13, 1951 start, Baker informed Monroe that Lytess would no longer be permitted on set - part of the problem was that Monroe's attention was divided ruinously between her acting coach and her director, but the final straw was when the actress delivered a particular line using an unconsciously Germanic inflection. Wrapping the film on January 14, 1952, Baker delivered the odd psycho-drama to a diffident Zanuck, whose doubts about Monroe's future as a leading lady were confirmed by mostly negative reviews - perhaps none more damning than Bosley Crowther's in The New York Times, which alleged that the film would evoke in moviegoers nothing but unintentional laughter.
Though Don't Bother to Knock proved a negligible credit for all involved, many among its cast and crew were bound for brighter days. In 1953, with the expiration of his Fox contract, Richard Widmark began to distance himself from the villainous roles in which he was mired after his Oscar®-nominated film debut as the maniacal Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death (1947) and starred in his first comedy, My Pal Gus (1952). Third-billed Anne Bancroft was pointed to considerable success on stage and screen and a 1963 Academy Award for The Miracle Worker (1962). Back in England, Roy Ward Baker scored with A Night to Remember (1958), the Rank Organization's recreation of the Titanic sinking, but is best remembered for his work with Hammer Studios and such films as Quatermass and the Pit (US: Five Million Years to Earth, 1967) and The Vampire Lovers (1970). Screenwriter Daniel Taradash would win the 1954 Best Writing Oscar® for From Here to Eternity (1953) but the biggest Cinderella story of Don't Bother to Knock was Marilyn Monroe.
Although a few desultory projects followed (including the 1952 omnibus O. Henry's Full House, in which she appeared with Widmark - albeit in separate vignettes), Monroe would strike box office gold with the Technicolor triptych of Howard Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Jean Negulesco's How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Otto Preminger's River of No Return (1954). Monroe also derived personal satisfaction from the positive critical responses she received for playing a sultry femme fatale with a mind to murder husband Joseph Cotten in Henry Hathaway's Niagara (1953). Vindicated at last and an inarguable international superstar as well, Monroe remained nagged by personal demons (many of which had their parallel in Don't Bother to Knock, which hit a little too close to the bone), and tainted her marriages to baseball player Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller and hastened her untimely demise in 1962 at the age of thirty-six.
Producer: Julian Blaustein
Director: Roy Baker
Screenplay: Daniel Taradash (screenplay); Charlotte Armstrong (novel)
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Direction: Richard Irvine; Lyle Wheeler
Film Editing: George A. Gittens
Cast: Richard Widmark (Jed Towers), Marilyn Monroe (Nell Forbes), Anne Bancroft (Lyn Lesley), Donna Corcoran (Bunny Jones), Jeanne Cagney (Rochelle), Lurene Tuttle (Ruth Jones), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Eddie Forbes), Jim Backus (Peter Jones), Verna Felton (Mrs. Ballew), Willis B. Bouchey (Joe the Bartender).
by Richard Harland Smith
Marilyn Monroe by Barbara Leaming
The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe by J. Randy Taraborelli (Grand Central Publishing, 2009)
MM - Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe (Abrams Books, 2011)
The Director's Cut: A Memoir of 60 Years in Film and Television by Roy Ward Baker (Reynolds & Hearn, Ltd., 2000)
Richard Widmark: A Bio-Bibliography by Kim Holston (Greenwood Press, 1990)