Kind Lady (1951)
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Don't talk to strangers! That's a standard warning parents still issue to their children but it should apply to everyone. Consider the case of Mary Herries (Ethel Barrymore), a wealthy patron of the arts with a spacious mansion. Due to her generous nature, she invites a impoverished street vendor named Elcott (Maurice Evans) into her home, takes pity on his hard luck story, and purchases one of his paintings. What looks like a simple case of charity soon takes on sinister overtones as the artist takes advantage of Mary's good nature, slowly insinuating himself into her household along with his shady relations. Blackmail, murder, and extortion are just part of the diabolical web spun by the scheming Elcott as he slowly isolates Herries in her own house and drives her toward insanity.
Kind Lady (1951) is the second film version of the popular Edward Chodorov play which in turn was based on Hugh Walpole's story, "The Silver Casket." The first film adaptation in 1936 starring Basil Rathbone as the evil con artist and Aline MacMahon as his hapless victim was effectively creepy. However, the 1951 version might have a slight edge over it due to John Sturges' expert direction, which has a more menacing tone and plays up Barrymore's claustrophobic fear of entrapment. Maurice Evans is also unforgettable as the malevolent Elcott.
Maurice Evans had previously been offered a contract at MGM during Thalberg's regime but turned it down when he received word of Thalberg's sudden death. The MGM brass were not pleased. In his autobiography, All This....and Evans Too, Evans wrote, "Fortunately for me, Hollywood memories are notoriously short, so that thirteen years after the Thalberg affair no one at MGM realized I had once earned their censure. I accepted the lead opposite Ethel Barrymore in their remake of Kind Lady and made pretend I'd never set foot in the studio before. Amongst those so blissfully ignorant of my earlier misdemeanour was the boss man himself, Louis B. Mayer. His executive, Benny Thaw, and I had just signed and exchanged the Kind Lady contracts when Benny asked whether I had ever met the boss. I said I'd never had the pleasure, whereupon I was ushered into the inner sanctum and there behind acres of desk sat a gnome-like figure. He jumped to his feet and, offering his hand - which I had difficulty reaching across the mahogany barrier - he proceeded to shower praises on my head. He had seen everything I had done in New York and was delighted to meet me. In the midst of this effusiveness, Benny Thaw mentioned that I was to start working for MGM on the morrow. Never has a torrent of cordiality been so suddenly damned. Next morning, when we passed each other in the corridor of a studio building, a nod and a grunt was all he vouchsafed to what was another of his slaves."
Regardless of Evans' bemused attitude toward MGM, Kind Lady features one of his best performances and is also a great showcase for the talents of Angela Lansbury as the villainous maid, Keenan Wynn as the homicidal butler, and Betsy Blair as Elcott's pathetic wife. At Oscar time, Kind Lady won the Academy Award for Best Black and White Costume Design.
Director: John Sturges
Producer: Armand Deutsch
Screenplay: Charles Bennett, Jerry Davis
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Editor: Ferris Webster
Art Direction: William Ferrari, Cedric Gibbons
Music: David Raksin
Cast: Ethel Barrymore (Mary Herries), Maurice Evans (Henry Springer Elcott), Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Edwards), Keenan Wynn (Edwards), Betsy Blair (Ada Elcott).
BW-78m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford