Night Into Morning
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After a string of modest romantic comedies and minor mysteries, Ray Milland returned to familiar ground with this 1951 drama about a college professor driven to drink and suicide when his wife and child are killed in a fire. The film may not have earned any Oscars®-or even approached the kind of box office attained by 1945's The Lost Weekend, but at least Night Into Morning exemplified the kind of realistic social drama Production Chief Dore Schary was trying to bring to MGM in an effort to accommodate changing times.
Until his Oscar®-winning role in The Lost Weekend, Milland was hardly the actor one would pick for a searing portrayal of anything, much less a self-loathing alcoholic. In fact, Jose Ferrer had been writer-director Billy Wilder's first choice for that role. Studio executives argued that a more attractive leading man would make the film more palatable to audiences. They forced Wilder to cast Milland, even though the British-born actor was best known until then for romantic comedies. Winning the Oscar® didn't really change that, though Milland at least got a few more shots at heavier roles like his dramatic turn in Night Into Morning. Fed up with the roles Hollywood had to offer, he eventually turned to directing himself in interesting genre films like The Safecracker (1958) and Panic in the Year Zero! (1962). The latter re-teamed him with one of his co-stars from Night Into Morning, Jean Hagen.
Had Night Into Morning been a bigger hit, it might have changed the nation's future. Milland's leading lady in the film was an MGM contract player hungry for big-screen stardom, Nancy Davis. She came to the film from one of the studio's biggest flops ever, The Next Voice You Hear (1950), in which she played a pregnant woman whose husband (James Whitmore) picks up messages from God on his radio. Night Into Morning gave her one of her best dramatic opportunities on screen as a sympathetic college professor who tries to help Milland through his personal crisis. The scene in which she tries to talk him out of committing suicide was a particular triumph. She got the lengthy dramatic scene in one take, an accomplishment that later prompted her to call this her favorite film.
In addition to delivering a fine performance on her own, she also helped co-star John Hodiak turn in an uncharacteristically light scene. Hodiak was a very serious actor, rarely scoring in comedies. For one scene in Night Into Morning, he had to come on laughing as he and Davis climbed down a staircase on the college location. He had no trouble the first few times, but as technical difficulties required more takes - and the stairs seemed to grow steeper - his laugh grew more and more forced. Finally, director Fletcher Markle took Davis aside and asked her to do something to help Hodiak laugh. The crew set up for one more take, and just before Davis and Hodiak walked into camera range she whispered, "Belly button." Hodiak erupted with laughter, and they finally got the take.
None of this was enough for the studio executives, however. Faced with diminishing box office and competition from television, all the studios were cutting their contract lists. They dropped Davis the following year, just as she was planning her wedding to Ronald Reagan. With film stardom a lost cause, she was in just the right place to devote her considerable energies to supporting her husband's political ambitions.
Producer: Edwin H. Knopf
Director: Fletcher Markle
Screenplay: Leonard Spigelgass, Karl Tunberg
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Film Editing: Robert Watts, George White
Original Music: Carmen Dragon
Cast: Ray Milland (Philip Ainley), John Hodiak (Tom Lawry), Nancy Davis (Katherine Mead), Lewis Stone (Dr. Horace Snyder), Rosemary DeCamp (Annie Ainley), Jean Hagen (Girl Next Door), Dawn Addams (Dottie Phelps).
by Frank Miller