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The Unguarded Moment

The Unguarded Moment(1956)

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teaser The Unguarded Moment (1956)

Synopsis: When high school music teacher Lois Conway begins receiving secret notes from an anonymous admirer, the tone of the missives quickly escalates from flirtation to veiled threats. Convinced that the author of the mash notes is one of her students, Lois decides to confront her stalker when he suggests a rendezvous at night in the school's deserted gym. She realizes her mistake when she is attacked in the locker room and barely escapes only to be apprehended by the police who spot her fleeing from the scene. During questioning with Lt. Harry Graham, Lois learns that a rapist/murderer is on the prowl and her fears begin to mount. Yet the threatening notes continue and the sender's behavior becomes more brazen - he even breaks into her house to leave his message. Lois soon becomes convinced the suspect is Leonard Bennett, the high school football star, and enlists the aid of Lt. Graham, but is Leonard the real culprit or someone more elusive and cunning?

In 1955 Esther Williams completed her contact with MGM, where she had been one of their reigning stars since 1944 when she had her first starring role in Bathing Beauty. Her most popular star vehicles had all capitalized on her athletic skills and natural beauty in plots that blended musical numbers with romantic comedy and usually showcased Williams in elaborately choreographed productions numbers in pools, lakes or oceans. The public's fascination with this standard formula waned in the fifties and Williams found herself reevaluating her film career as she entered her mid-thirties. Starring in a straight dramatic role with no bathing suit scenes and a plot involving some sexually twisted male psyches, however, is probably not what the public expected from the former MGM superstar.

The Unguarded Moment (1956) is an enjoyably trashy but overwrought grade B melodrama that unintentionally accents Williams' limitations as a dramatic actress though she still looks gorgeous. The film, directed by Harry Keller, seesaws back and forth in trying to present Williams' as a sympathetic role model for the students while at the same time playing up her sexual appeal. There is an unconvincing romantic subplot - a slow, simmering courtship between Williams and the small town cop hero (George Nader) - but the most compelling aspect of the movie is the sick relationship between John Saxon (in his first major role) as the psychologically damaged football star and his controlling father, Mr. Bennett (Edward Andrews), who is responsible for his son's predatory behavior. On the surface, Bennett is a respected town leader but his officious behavior hides his true personality which is psychotic and misogynistic. While Esther Williams is the top-billed star of The Unguarded Moment, it is Andrews' unexpectedly creepy performance that hijacks the film and imbues it with an underlying mood of malice and menace.

The origin of The Unguarded Moment is as surprising as Esther Williams' casting in it. According to biographer Bernard F. Dick in Forever Mame: The Life of Rosalind Russell, the story idea came from writer Larry Marcus and Rosalind Russell, as a possible vehicle for herself. The first draft of the screenplay by Marcus and Russell (under the pseudonym C.A. McKnight) had a working title of Teach Me to Love and was completed by 1951. Russell, however, had no time to work on the screenplay as she became busy with back to back Broadway productions including Wonderful Town, The Girl Rush and Picnic. As a result, she didn't return to the project until 1955 when Marcus and scenarist Herb Meadow had made further revisions to the script under working titles of The Lie and The Hidden Heart. In the final draft of the screenplay which was retitled The Unguarded Moment, the heroine tries to help the disturbed student instead of being a mere victim and she becomes romantically involved with the investigating police lieutenant instead of a sympathetic fellow teacher in the original story.

In her own autobiography, Rosalind Russell revealed, "I've often worked on the material, on movie scripts (as I did with the play version of Auntie Mame), but only once did I actually get screen credit as a writer. A young man named Larry Marcus and I had an idea for a story about a schoolteacher who's attacked by one of her students. We sold it to a man who later sold it to Universal who made it with Esther Williams, who was very good in it. I had fun with Larry Marcus. So that we could concentrate without a thousand interruptions, I finally dragged him off to the Hotel Del Coronado, down at the beach, and sequestered him there until we'd finished our story. I knew we'd never get it done otherwise. We spent a week working, and I only let him go to his room to sleep. About five o'clock every afternoon I'd take him out on the beach and walk him up and down - it was winter - like he was a puppy "This is all you get, Larry, this air," I'd say. "Breathe in a lot of it, because after dinner, we start work again." The picture was called The Unguarded Moment. I wish I could tell you it was Gone with the Wind[1939]."

Esther Williams' own recollections of the picture in her autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, also express her ambivalence toward the role. "I thought it was a curious choice for Universal to offer me the lead in a "dry" psychological thriller, and I wasn't sure the public would accept me without my glittering crowns and sparkly swimsuits. Nonetheless, Universal offered me $200,000, which was more than I ever made for a single film at MGM in or out of the water...Later, after we had started shooting, Roz Russell came up to me at a party and said, "I hear you're doing my script." I looked at her blankly until she explained that she had written it under the pseudonym C. A. McKnight. "I wrote the part for me, but I got too old."

Universal International heavily promoted Williams in her first major dramatic role since MGM's The Hoodlum Saint in 1946 but the reviews and box office for The Unguarded Moment were not encouraging. Williams didn't give up though and returned to the screen in an equally overheated melodrama for the studio entitled Raw Wind in Eden (1958), co-starring Jeff Chandler, Rossana Podesta and Carlos Thompson. That film fared no better than The Unguarded Moment and after two more movie roles, The Big Show (1961) and the Spanish production Magic Fountain (1963, aka La Fuente magica, Williams retired from screen acting, only returning as an interview subject for documentaries on the MGM years or TV specials.

Producer: Gordon Kay
Director: Harry Keller
Screenplay: Larry Marcus (screenplay, story); Herb Meadow (writer); Rosalind Russell (story)
Cinematography: William Daniels
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, Alfred Sweeney
Music: Herman Stein
Film Editing: Edward Curtiss
Cast: Esther Williams (Lois Conway), George Nader (Lieutenant Harry Graham), John Saxon (Leonard Bennett), Edward Andrews (Mr. Bennett), Les Tremayne (Mr. Pendleton), Jack Albertson (Prof), Dani Crayne (Josie Warren), John Wilder (Sandy), Edward C. Platt (Attorney Briggs), Eleanor Audley (Mr. Pendleton's Secretary)

by Jeff Stafford

The Million Dollar Mermaid by Esther Williams with Digby Diehl (Mariner Books)
Life is a Banquet by Rosalind Russell and Chris Chase (Random House)
Forever Mame: The Life of Rosalind Russell by Bernard F. Dick (Univeresity Press of Mississippi)

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