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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Based on the Purlitzer Prize-winning play by William Inge Warner Bros.
THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS (1960) was adapted for the screen by
Harriet Frank Jnr. and Irving Ravetch. Produced for the studio by
Michael Garrison it turned out to be a fairly engaging and entertaining
melodrama thanks in no small measure to the well rounded direction by
Delbert Mann and solid performances by a committed cast. Although
unavoidably static, because of its theatrical origins, it nevertheless
was nicely photographed in Technicolor by the great Harry Stradling and
gorgeously scored by the studio's legendary Max Steiner.
Set in a small town in 20's Oklahoma the story concerns the ups and downs of the Flood family. An average family trying to get on with their everyday lives. The head of the household is patriarch Rubin (Robert Preston) who because of the changing times suddenly loses his job as a saddlery salesman and keeps it a secret from his devoted but angst-ridden wife Cora (Dorothy McGuire). Cora is also mother to their shy and withdrawn teenage daughter (Shirley Knight) and their equally withdrawn adolescent son who is constantly afraid of the dark at the top of the stairs.
Wonderfully acted throughout Preston gives a flamboyant portrayal of the irascible but well meaning Rubin and McGuire was never better as the ever worried and brow beaten Cora. Her performance is sensitive and heartfelt. Also fine is Shirley Knight in her Oscar nominated role as the young girl who's heart is broken much too early in life when she falls for the ill-fated Jewish boy Sammy Golden (Lee Kinsolving). But stealing the show is the entrance of Eve Arden as Cora's droll sister Lottie who arrives on a visit with her hen-pecked husband Morris (Frank Overton). "I just can't stand the sound of her voice" he confides in Rubin.
Complimenting the whole production is the lovely music by Max Steiner. Full of exquisite themes this is one of the composer's most captivating scores. The main theme, first heard under the titles, is a beguiling waltz. Rubin's theme is a jaunty march-like piece while the theme for Cora is bluesy and reflective. But the highlight of the score is the ingenious little theme he wrote for the teenage lovers. Scored for Harmonica and strings it gives their scenes together a gentle and persuasive charm. The piece became somewhat popular in the early sixties when a cover version was recorded by the Percy Faith Orchestra. Evidently trying for another hit with a Steiner tune after that orchestra's runaway smash with the composer's "Theme From A Summer Place" the year before.
THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS has never been released on DVD or VHS for that matter. Perhaps this accounts for it being without a reputation. Pity it's not better known but when it is seen the movie stands up well and all because of its fine production values, its memorable performances, its adroit direction and all wrapped up neatly in a gorgeous and unforgettable musical score.
Robert Preston will be forever remembered as "The Music Man"-and well he should be. However, he gave many other fine performances, and one of the best was as Rubin Flood in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.Dwight McDonald once wrote an essay mocking "Ingeland and Kazanistan", and he may have had a point. At the same time, the series of films based on William Inges plays includes some of the best dramas of the fifties and early sixties..still, perhaps the most underrated period of Amnerican film.This film is not just an example of sentimental "americana". Though set in the past, it is not an exercise in simplistic nostalgia. Instead it reveals the sexual repression, Anti-Semitism,and snobbery which poisoned American life in the early part of this century.However, it does not simply look at the past from a standpoint of smug superiority. Instead, it suggests the dignity and inner strength of these people, as they struggled with economic and moral uncertainty.It has a superficially "happy' ending', yet it is still a sad and troubling portrait of the fragility of quotidian existence.
I was fortunate to find someone who'd saved this film on videotape so I
could archive it on DVD. It is one of the more profound films to come
out of that period and one which stands the test of time.
Rubin Flood (Robert Preston) is a victim of progress. At middle-age, he finds himself losing his job because his boss faces bankruptcy. With the coming of automobiles, no one wants the horse-related leather goods he used to sell. Cora Flood (Dorothy McGuire), his wife, is a victim too. Forced to 'make due' with little money even before Rubin lost his job, she must also face the problems of a her daughter, Reenie (Shirley Knight), as she transitions from adolescence to young adulthood ... and the problems of her son, Sonny (Robert Eyer), as he transitions from childhood to adolescence.
Times are tough for the entire Flood family. But, they must come to terms with their problems of love, timidity, suspected infidelity, religious prejudices and the changing times in which they live. While the gadgets may have changed, the problems modern families face are no different than theirs ... making this film one that I think should be 'required' of all high school students to view.
I rate this film 10 out of 10 ... and rate Warner Brothers 'zero' for taking a 'dog-in-the-manger' attitude toward releasing this gem on home video. Preston, McGuire, Knight, and Eyer ... not to mention Lee Kinsolving (Sammy Golden), Eve Arden (Aunt Lottie) and Angela Lansbury (Mavis Pruitt) all turn in stellar performances in their roles. Kudos go to Shirley Knight who was nominated for an Oscar in the film and Lee Kinsolving, who only appeared in one more film and a handful of TV shows before his untimely death at age 36. And special kudos go to William Inge (stage play writer), Harriet Frank, Jr. (screenplay writer) and Delbert Mann for his masterful direction of an enduring work.
I've only seen this film two times. The first one was when I was a teenager, in the early 60s, and the other one was on TV, not so long ago. As it had happened in the first time, viewing "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" again gave me the same feeling: in spite of being a very American movie in all its aspects, it has a strong and universal appeal because it deals with people with flesh and blood, not puppets or flat characters. But what I consider appalling is the callousness of movie distributors who haven't so far given us the chance to see and buy this little gem either in VHS or DVD. According to the reliable Halliwell's Film Guide, this was produced by Warner Bros. Why don't they release it now in either of these formats, or, better still, in both? Maybe they lack what this movie is plentifully supplied with, that is, "a real feeling for the people and the place", in Halliwell's words.
Angela tends to play baddies - and she is good at it. In the Manchurian Candidate she was a black widow spider and praying mantis combined - with lipstick. In this movie, she is young and plump and wholesome and pretty - and in one scene with Robert Preston where they share a single kiss, she is more desirable than all the millions of boobs on the Internet.
I saw this movie years ago and fell in love with it. I have hunted for the video but unfortunately there isn't one. I was lucky enough to find it playing on TV several years ago and taped it. Although I am happy to have what I do, I think it's a shame it is not available for the Robert Preston fans out there. It is a movie that was before its time. It hit on topics that were seldom talked about publicly in the time setting. Topics hinted at but not openly discussed like they do in this film. Robert Preston did a remarkable job as the character, Rubin Flood. Your heart went out to him because you could see through his strong, always looking for the positive, family provider roll. The fear and uncertainty he faced each day as the head of his family and his aging prospects at being successful in the eyes of his family. The film has a glorious mix of humor and drama. Unforgettable!!
I'm known as a soft touch when it comes to the films I enjoy but this movie also touched and affected my two teenage sons who accidentally were caught up in it while I was watching it. It is very poignant especially the religious prejudice and the pain & destruction it caused. This is a tasteful story of first love, love lost and love re-discovered. The characters are wonderful. I hope to have an opportunity to tape it or even better to purchase it.
I saw this film at the age of 19 or 20 and it colored my days for some
time afterward. The subject matter was heavy for me, as it probably was
for most young women living in small towns in the 1950s. Most of us
were anything but sophisticated and mature in our late teens.
The plot examined those sensitive subjects we were old enough to be aware of and wondering about, but too repressed or timid to discuss with our parents. And my girl friends were little help, as their experience, or lack thereof, was much the same as mine.
Preston was great, and I'll never forget Dorothy McGuire, Shirley Knight or Eve Arden for their roles in this fine film. When seeing this movie, I was closest in age to Shirley's character and completely sympathized with her. Had I been going through the heavy stuff she and her family were dealing with, I would likely have been affected in much the same way.
What a shame this is not available on video or DVD. It's a film of real substance---far better than much of what passes for good viewing these days.
Events take place in a small town atmosphere. Rubin (Robert Preston), being
a family man, faces the bleak fact of losing his job when business takes a
downturn, and at middle age it's not so easy for him to cope. His wife Cora
(Dorothy McGuire) as well as their two children, each have needs of their
own. When Rubin goes off for four days and returns to argue and confront his
wife with his needs, she in turn reveals what is troubling her, money, that
they seem to argue over all the time. Sounds very familiar!
I think Robert Preston turns in a fine dramatic performance and fits the role perfectly. His next film was to be The Music Man so he obviously carried over all that dynamic energy to a musical, a very versatile man.
Eve Arden, as Lottie, is always too talkative, seeming to wonder aloud on every thought that comes into her head. Eventually she pours out her troubles to Cora while on a visit and this bonds them closer as sisters since both are having difficulties in their marriage.
Mavis (Angela Lansbury) is very friendly to Rubin, almost becoming the "other woman" but he's not really ready to cross that line. She's a very understanding and wise lady as it turns out later.
It's interesting to get a glimpse into the lives of each character, young and old -- a slice of life, you might say, and to observe the prejudices of the day as they are played out.
I think in many ways we've learned to be more tolerant in our time.
One of the most simple yet moving of William Inge's plays is presented here with some of the finest American actors to grace the screen. This is American cinema at its greatest. Anything else I could say would sound even more trite. If you can find this film (it's never been released on video as far as I know) give it a try. I was able to tape it off of Encore once, and I am forever grateful that they aired it.
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