Lady in the Dark (1944) Directed by Mitchell Leisen. Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland, Warner Baxter. (100 min.)
Lady in the Dark was the peak of both Ginger Rogers and director Mitchell Leisen's career. Neither of them would ever make as successful a film again. Ira Gershwin, who did the song lyrics, had not collaborated with anyone since his brother George's death two years before. And Kurt Weill had been in the US for nearly a decade. He needed a hit and was ready to compromise some of his compositional austerity to get it.
Playwright Moss Hart had been going through a long psychoanalysis with Dr. Gregory Zilboorg, who had analyzed George Gershwin and many other prominent show business figures. The result was a desire to end his successful playwriting partnership with George S. Kaufman and strike out on his own. Hart had been boring all his friends with stories about his analysis, and he finally decided to write about it. One critic was to remark jokingly after the show became a Broadway smash that it was one way of getting back all the money Hart had given to Dr. Zilboorg.
Gertrude Lawrence dazzled in the Broadway version as Liza Elliott, but was nearly upstaged by Danny Kaye as gay fashion photographer Russell Paxton, played (somewhat) straighter in the film by Misha Auer. In the circus dream, Kaye sang a patter song which became one of his trademarks, "Tschaikowsky and Other Russians" in which he speedily recites the names of 49 Russian composers. At the preview, thunderous applause greeted the conclusion of the song, and the authors worried that their star, about to sing "The Saga of Jenny" couldn't top him. But, Lawrence rose to the challenge, bumping and grinding it to the complete devastation of the audience. In the film, "Jenny" is the only song to survive translation to the screen.
All the music in the play was in three dream sequences, like three little operettas, clearly differentiating between fantasy and reality. But, by the time Paramount was finished with it, very little of Weill's score made it to the screen. The love duet, "This Is New" is heard only as played by a nightclub band. A major loss was the song, "My Ship" which is hummed by ghostlike choirs, but never sung, even though it represents the breakthrough of Liza Elliott's analysis. The song was recorded, but the producer, Buddy DeSylva was a songwriter himself; he hated Weill and hated that song. You might well ask why he was producing the film version of a Weill musical, and I have no answer. By the time the film came out, "My Ship" had become a standard, and its omission seemed a stupid mistake. There is a wonderful cd on the Sony Classical imprint "Masterworks Heritage Vocal Series" of a 1963 Studio recording of the original score with opera singer Rise Stevens as Liza Elliott. This cd also includes Danny Kaye's 1941 recordings of some of the songs, including his star-making, "Tschaikowsky..."
Director Mitchell Leisen had started in Hollywood as a set and costume designer, and his detractors would say these are the most memorable elements in any of his films as a director. Although Edith Head and Raoul Pene du Bois are credited for the costumes, most of them are Leisen's including the mink skirted outfit Rogers wears in the circus dream, publicized at the time as the most expensive costume in film history (at $35,000). There were two mink-skirted dresses. The first was lined with glass beads, but was so heavy that Rogers couldn't dance in it. A second dress was made with the sparkling lining in sequins, which are much lighter. One of the two dresses is on display at The Museum of the Moving Image in London.
Liza tells her dreams to an infuriatingly patronizing analyst and they are dramatized in hilarious and appalling Daliesque dream sequences that are the main appeal of the film today. Her first dream is blue, her wedding dream is gold, white and brown, and the final circus dream is an eye-popping kaliedoscope. The Technicolor lavishness of the film was the intense focus of Leisen's attention, he designed, and agonized over every detail; the color schemes, the lighting and effects, even the way the chorus girls walked down a narrow catwalk shrouded in swirling dry ice, as well as the costumes.
All this is at the expense of the performances. Ginger Rogers was a practicing Christian Scientist, and had no sympathy whatsoever with psychiatry or those, like the director, who benefited from it. The scenes in the analyst's office were a complete mystery to her. Interestingly, just as Rita Hayworth did in Cover Girl Rogers took time off in the middle of production to get married, although she was a big enough star to shut down production for two weeks, instead of coming back the next day, as Hayworth did. David Chierichetti's book, Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director is filled with wonderfully catty accounts of the struggles to film Lady in the Dark.
This gorgeous film version has many pleasures, but I don't think I will be alone in saying Ray Milland needs a good shaking. He constantly criticizes Liza for working (and even worse, for being successful) and of course Freudian analysis backs him up. At the North Carolina Museum of Art screening of Lady in the Dark, this film really riled up audience members unable to place Milland's character's attitudes firmly in the dustbin of psychiatric history, where they belong. But, if the three men in this film, as in Cover Girl represent money, love and career, must we grit our teeth and consider this a mixed-up feminist tract, after all?
(Sketch from Edith Head's 1959 book The Dress Doctor; supposedly by her, but she rarely did her own finished sketches, so I doubt it. Portrait of Ginger Rogers in her fabulous waved pompadour hairstyle from the January, 1942 Silver Screen. Sheet music cover from moviediva's collection.)