Would The Masses Buy Class Chills of The Uninvited?
I'm thinking The Uninvited was Hollywood's first
"class" ghost story doneseriously (MGM's A Guy Named Joe from 1943 being sort of a warm-up). Notwithstanding Universal monsters from the
30's, I don't know of big studios floating supernatural themes to prestige
extent of The Uninvited prior to 1944, and selling them in terms of general
audience appeal as opposed to specialized crowd predisposed to thrill topic.
Here was where Paramount
departed from norm, but played safe by targeting a wide as possible public.
They went for those who'd like scares, but pulled punches where necessary by
linking The Uninvited with "mystery romance" as tendered in the novel
and film that was Rebecca, a hit still in pic-goer memory that Paramount evoked in 1944 ads. The year was
significant for A-budget chills aimed at plush seats. Universal remade Phantom Of The Operawith Technicolor, had The Climaxon deck for '44, and spent way
more than they'd have put into horrors till then (1943) --- Para would acknowledge the splurge by materializing the Phantom in teaser art (below) for The
Uninvited. Then there was 20th Fox's The Lodger, a more intense shocker than
had been attempted before. The Val Lewton series at RKO, though B's by definition,
had an ongoing and greater influence than historians yet realize. These echoes are
heard through The Uninvited.
Paramount wouldn't chicken out with its ghosts being real, but
invited healthy skepticism by way of Ray Milland's doubt and humorous asides.
At one point, he even jumps under bed covers when a door shuts by itself, a
moment that threatens to tip The Uninvited into Cat and Canary farce, thankfully
averted as tension mounts later on. Para had
prestige and unbroken success in wartime. Movie attendance was nearing all-time
peak, this company owning a greatest number of theatres to draw crowds.
We pay less attention toParamount
because so little of their 40's stuff circulates today, thanks to vagaries of
distribution (Universal owns the pre-49 inventory but has done little with it).
The Uninvited was designed to serve purpose beyond mere scaring of customers,
being a careful calibrated showcase for introducing a personality the company
had pre-programmed to become a star.
Stardom as a fait accompli was not uncommon
then. There was enough confidence in this game and its outcome to go ahead and
cast a promising enough face in two of three vehicles before patronage had even
a first glimpse, it being possible to impose a newcomer on filmgoers and make
them like it. Calibration did have to be set just so, as was case with Paramountvis-à-vis Gail
Russell. They just didn't figure on her crippling inability to play the H'wood game.
Tinseltown tragedy was borne upon wings of the Gail Russells, ones lacking
survival skill in what could be a cruelest jungle --- ones who in the end had
no business in this business. Russell was plucked off a high school campus. Someone
there said she looked like Hedy Lamarr. Fate dealt the rest. The Uninvited for Paramount was as much about Gail as ghosts. We've forgotten that too. Gail Russell might have preferred to as wellafter stardom went wrong and most of her close-ups got made in police court.
Publicity shown here assumes a sadness in light of what would happen. Today it's
as easy to think of Gail Russell as real-life counterpart to the weeping ghost
we hear in The Uninvited.
There were devices reliable to sell horror
movies, most set in concrete.Paramount
might have preferred a moredignified approach,
but die was cast upon this mode of showmanship, and in final analysis, a spook
show was a spook show, so far as exhibs were concerned. Yes, Dorothy
MacCardle's best-seller had been read by three million, and indeed you could
call hers a "mystery romance," but vet vendor Louis Brandt knew where
bodies were buried when it came to selling scares, and he wasn't for measuring
The Uninvited to elegant fit. Whatever his Globe Theatre's approach, it worked
for the New York
premiere. Brandt dressed the building's front with black cats (at right) that flashed
menacingly by night, a lighting effect that drew attention from pedestrians up
and down Broadway. Reward came of four week fill-up for the Globe and an
effusive, if joshing, wire (above) sent by Brandt to pals in Paramount sales. This sort
of congrats was mostly meant to let other showmen know that dollars were
percolating and they should get in on it quick.
We have advantage of customized home viewing to create
atmosphere for Uninvited viewing. But compare our lights- out and reverent sit
with wild and wooly first-runs where The Uninvited was tail end to sky-the-limit
vaudeville. Washington's Capitol Theatre gave
'em fifty-five minutes of hoke before Paramount's
ghosts were let in. Would HennyYoungman onstage spoil your mood for The
Uninvited? If not him, what about community singing ("as never
before," said Variety) with a house organist pulling his final week? Or
maybe Pistol Packin' Mama as sung by the Murtah Sisters --- they got a
"riotous hand." Then came Wally Boag blowing up toy balloons to comic
effect, with Pansy The Horse doing tricks with "an eccentric blonde"
for a sock finish. Such, and more, is what you got with admission to The
Uninvited at the Capitol in 1944.
Campaign ideas looked like pillage from
Universal's old playbook. Arrange for a brave soul to spend a night alone in
your local haunted house (but be sure to get permission from owners!) ... Hold
a séance in your lobby ... Have ushers hold open doors for
"invisible" patronage ... the list goes on. Showmen had their own
gags for spook peddling and most were prettytimeworn, but what worked ten or
twenty years before still would for generations coming up who liked being
creeped out. Suggested ads from Paramount
and poster art centered on Gail Russell, she being The Uninvited's investment
toward future grossing (the actress would be back in a follow-up, The Unseen). Fulfillment
of our own latter-day hope and anticipation for The Uninvited came this month with Criterion release on Blu-Ray, giving us finally a visual experience close to what
audiences enjoyed in 1944 (minus Pansy The Horse, of course), and there are
admirable extras, including a fine booklet essay by Faran Nehme and an
interview with director Lewis Allen by noted genre historian Tom Weaver. More atGreenbriar Archiveson The Uninvited, and a Glamour Starter look atGail Russell.