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When it comes to picking a favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, movie lovers usually have a hard time narrowing their choices down to one movie but you'll rarely hear Stage Fright (1950) mentioned as one of the favorites. It's a shame because it is one of the director's most underrated and misunderstood films. Part of the problem is the title, which seems to promise a nail-biting, suspense thriller. But Stage Fright, despite elements of the standard murder mystery, is really a film about the acting profession, a subject Hitchcock became fascinated with in his youth. In an interview with Francois Truffaut about Stage Fright, Hitchcock later revealed that "the aspect that intrigued me is that it was a story about the theatre. What specifically appealed to me was the idea that the girl who dreams of becoming an actress will be led by circumstances to play a real-life role by posing as someone else in order to smoke out a criminal." Another reason Hitchcock wanted to make the film was because it offered the California-based director a chance to work in London again where his daughter, Patricia, was currently enrolled as a drama student at the Royal Academy. He even awarded her a small role in the film as a friend of the actress/sleuth Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) with the unflattering name of Chubby Bannister; 'a girl you could always lean on' he was fond of saying.
Stage Fright would prove to be Hitchcock's last picture filmed in England until Frenzy in 1971. With the exception of Jane Wyman (the only American in the cast) and German-born Marlene Dietrich, the cast list reads like a who's who of the British stage and screen: Alastair Sim, Kay Walsh, Michael Wilding, Richard Todd, Miles Malleson, Joyce Grenfell, Andre Morell, Irene Handl, and Dame Sybil Thorndike in the role of Wyman's mother. Thorndike was best known for her acclaimed stage work in Greek tragedies and plays like Saint Joan (The latter was tailored especially for her by George Bernard Shaw).
Depending on whose biography you read, the making of Stage Fright was either a pleasure or an ordeal. It certainly was a pleasure for Dietrich who enjoyed a passionate off screen love affair with co-star Michael Wilding during the filming. She also gave one of her best performances as Charlotte Inwood, singing star and murder suspect; it was the ideal role because it gave her an opportunity to sing. Her friend, Edith Piaf, granted Dietrich permission to use her own theme song, "La Vie en Rose," and Cole Porter wrote a tune specifically for Dietrich - "The Laziest Gal in Town." The latter song ran into trouble with the Code due to some sexual innuendos, resulting in the creation of a new verse to replace the risque original. In her biography, Marlene, Dietrich had this to say about Stage Fright: "Hitchcock filmed Stage Fright in London when food was still strictly rationed. He solved the problem by having steaks and roasts flown in from America and delivered to the best restaurants in London, and then after work, he would invite Jane Wyman and me to a princely dinner. "Ladies must be well fed," he would say, as we gratefully polished off the delicacies. These dinners were the only contact we had with him outside the studio. He kept us at a distance. Like many geniuses he didn't like being idolized."
One of those who fared less well than Dietrich on the set of Stage Fright was Jane Wyman though she has always been gracious to the director and her co-stars in print. Despite researching her character thoroughly - she worked with co-star Kay Walsh on her Cockney accent for one scene until she got it just right - Wyman didn't really develop a rapport with Hitchcock. He had mainly cast her for box office insurance (she had just won the Best Actress Oscar® for Johnny Belinda, 1948) but years later, he revealed to Francois Truffaut, "I ran into great difficulties with Jane. In her disguise as a lady's maid, she should have been rather unglamorous; after all, she was supposed to be impersonating an unattractive maid. But every time she saw the rushes and how she looked alongside Marlene Dietrich, she would burst into tears. She couldn't accept the idea of her face being in character, while Dietrich looked so glamorous, so she kept improving her appearance every day and that's how she failed to maintain the character."
Other trivia of interest for Hitchcock fans: Stage Fright was supposed to be filmed on the coast of England but bad weather prevented it. Instead, the entire movie was photographed on the sound stages at Elstree Studios. In his traditional cameo appearance, Hitchcock plays a spectator on the street who stares at Jane Wyman. Upon release, the film stirred up controversy among critics, some of whom accused it of being a 'dishonest whodunit.' This charge was aimed at the opening flashback sequence which is later revealed to be a lie. When you really think about it, it's an unwarranted criticism. After all, it's like accusing Dorothy of having a dishonest dream in The Wizard of Oz (1939) or criticizing Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) for presenting conflicting flashback accounts of the same incident, a device that even contemporary filmmakers have used in such movies as The Usual Suspects (1995) and Courage Under Fire (1996).
Producer/Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Whitfield Cook, Selwyn Jepson (novel), Alma Reville
Art Direction: Terence Verity
Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Costume Design: Milo Anderson, Christian Dior
Film Editing: Edward B. Jarvis
Original Music: Leighton Lucas, Cole Porter (song "The Laziest Gal in Town")
Mischa Spoliansky (song "When You Whisper Sweet Nothings To Me")
Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Charlotte Inwood), Jane Wyman (Eve Gill), Richard Todd (Jonathan Cooper), Michael Wilding (Inspector Wilfred Smith), Alastair Sim (Commodore Gill), Sybil Thorndike (Mrs. Gill).
by Jeff Stafford