The Unguarded Moment
Cast & Crew
In the small city of Ogden, detective Harry Graham investigates the murder of a woman who was killed while walking near the local high school, at which music teacher Lois Conway works. The next day, Lois brings the cheerleaders she coaches to the town soda shop, where star footballer Leonard Bennett is watched carefully by every girl in the room, as well as by his overprotective father. When Lois sits down, both adoring student Sandy and Mr. Bennett immediately turn their attention to her. Bennett waxes rhapsodic about his boy, explaining that he hopes to give Leonard all the opportunities he missed when he was a child and was bed-ridden with rheumatic fever. Before leaving, Lois finds a suggestive note in her purse addressed to "Dear Teacher," and laughs, assuming it is from Sandy. Over the next few days, however, the notes grow more obscene, and after receiving one missive asking her to rendezvous that night in the locker room, she goes, hoping to dissuade her admirer. The boy in the locker room shines a flashlight in Lois' eyes so she cannot identify him, and then proceeds to terrorize and, finally, assault her. After she breaks out of his grasp and runs outside, crying and clutching her torn clothes, Harry spots her and brings her into the police station. There, however, Lois refuses to press charges, insisting that whoever attacked her is not a criminal but a child who needs help. Lois dropped her purse in the locker-room scuffle, but when she returns home, she finds it on her table. Realizing that the boy has stolen the notes and is in the house, she yells at to him to leave, and he dashes out the open door. When he pauses briefly outside, Lois gets a glimpse of his face and realizes he is Leonard. Leonard climbs into his bedroom window just in time for his father's nightly visit, during which he receives a harsh lecture about the dangers of women, like his "dirty," long-dead mother. The next day, Lois informs on Leonard to the school principal, Mr. Pendleton, but Leonard denies everything, and Pendleton, eager to protect the school's main athletic asset, asks her for evidence. Word spreads quickly that Lois has trysted with Leonard, and her students soon become unruly, while her fellow teachers whisper in the cafeteria. One day, she pulls Leonard out of class to talk, and he warns her that the school is not big enough for both of them. Harry is waiting for her after school, and certain that Leonard is also responsible for the murder, criticizes her for empathizing with him. That night, Lois tries to talk with Bennett, who accuses her of seducing his son. Hearing that the police are involved, however, prompts Bennett to check for Leonard in his room, and, although he finds him gone, lies that the boy is asleep. Across town, Leonard aggressively pursues the soda shop waitress, who escapes when her boyfriend arrives for a date. That weekend, Harry escorts Lois to the school football game, and after overhearing that Lois requested that Leonard be disciplined, dusts Leonard's locker for fingerprints, matching them to those on Lois' purse. Harry then takes Lois to the school's big dance, where, she secretly warns Leonard about the prints. Although he begins to speak openly to her, Bennett interrupts them, and later whispers to him urgently. Leonard then asks Lois to meet him in the cloak room to talk, but when she goes there, Bennett and Pendleton are hiding, and assume her appearance is proof of an affair with the teenager. Lois falls into Harry's arms crying, and tells him to arrest Leonard. He kisses her first, and then brings Leonard in, but the boy insists that Lois invited him into her home. Bennett, recognizing Harry as Lois' dance date, accuses him of collaborating with the "degenerate hussy." Pendleton then puts Lois on suspension, after which Harry requests that she sit in on the next questioning session at the police station. As it begins, another man confesses to the murder, and Lois decides to drop the charges. While she, Leonard and Harry share a cab home, Bennett breaks into her house. Once home, Lois insists that Harry leave, and Bennett hides in a closet to watch her undress, then bursts out to rip out the phone and assault her. Meanwhile, Leonard, amazed that Lois would let him go after all the trouble he has caused, confesses everything to Harry, and asks to be allowed to walk home. Harry rushes back to Lois to tell her the good news, breaking in just in time to save her from Bennett, who escapes out the window. Harry chases him back to his house, where Bennett climbs up the trellis to Leonard's bedroom window. Leonard reaches the house just as his father suffers a heart attack and falls to the ground, dead. Months later, Lois joins Harry in the soda shop after cheerleading practice, and he shows her a picture of a smiling Leonard, who has graduated and joined the military. Sandy now barely notices Lois, but a new freshman steps up eagerly to pull out her chair.
Robert B. Williams
Donna Jo Gribble
Leslie I. Carey
Russell A. Gausman
Joseph E. Kenny
Jay A. Morley Jr.
Joan St. Oegger
The Unguarded Moment
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."
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)
The Unguarded Moment
The working title of this film was The Gentle Web. Although John Saxon is listed third in the opening credits, he is listed last in the closing credits, with a photograph and a written statement reading, "You have just seen a new personality: John Saxon as Leonard Bennett." Saxon made his motion picture debut one year earlier in the 1955 film Running Wild. Contemporary reviews reveal that Universal hoped that the young actor would fill a void created by the death of screen idol James Dean one year earlier. Saxon received warm reviews and played a few leading roles in the 1950s. By the 1960s he began to appear in numerous character roles in films and on television.
According to a January 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item,The Unguarded Moment marked the screenwriting debut of actress Rosalind Russell, who originally penned the film's story under the pseudonym C. A. McKnight. After hiring Larry Marcus to adapt the story, she sold it to Benagoss Productions, Inc., which then sold it to Universal. The studio requested that they be able to restore the writing credit to Russell, hoping to use her celebrity for increased publicity. The story was based on a true occurrence of the previous year, in which a college student was arrested for writing threatening notes to a coed. Although Russell received screenplay credit for her 1971 United Artists release Mrs. Pollifax-Spy under her pseudonym C. A. McKnight, The Unguarded Moment was the only screenwriting credit she received under her real name.
The film also provided Esther Williams, famed as a swimmer and star of glamorous musicals, her first dramatic acting opportunity. Williams had recently severed her contract with M-G-M in order to take on freelance work, and although some reviewers lauded her performance, others lamented her change of milieu.