Take a wild ride with ‘Just Imagine,’ a futuristic pre-Code, sci-fi musical with Martians and dancers

If you’re a classic movie fan who has never seen “Just Imagine,” I’m confident you could never have imagined anything like this 1930 film.

It’s a pre-Code sci-fi musical comedy with Busby Berkley-like dance numbers, vaudevillian humor, a trip to Mars and a man brought back to life after 50 years.

Of course, you’re curious – how can you not be? I was too, and that’s why it’s my choice for the Futurethon blogathon hosted by Barry from Cinematic Catharsis and Gill from Realweegiemidgetreviews.

You’ll find stories by many talented writers about movies set in the future on the two host websites, so please check them out.

Set in 1980, personal little airplanes have replaced cars, pills have replaced food and people have numbers instead of names. Oh, and Mars is inhabited by twins – a good and bad version of each Martian.

Are those the good Martian twins or the bad Martian twins with our heroes RT (Artie, played by Frank Albertson), left, Single-O (El Brendel) and Jay (John Garrick) in “Just Imagine.”

Imagining a future

It was only minutes into “Just Imagine” that it was clear the film was going to be as wild and strange and perhaps even as inventive as it sounds. Time to suspend your disbelief and let your imagination fly.

The title is the set up for the film: A narrator asks viewers to “just imagine” various scenarios and if you can’t imagine what he’s saying, you’ll be helped by intertitles that spell it out.

“Just Imagine what a difference 50 years can make!,” the narrator exclaims. Take a look at New York in 1880. It’s so quiet you can even hear the rustle of a bustle.”

Keep imagining.

One of the intertitles used to emphasize the narrator’s words.

“Just Imagine! The people in 1880 thought they were the last word in speed! Take a look at the same spot today,” the narrator continues as the setting changes to a busy Fifth Avenue filled with 1930s-era cars and people scurrying about.

We’re not done. Now imagine New York in 1980 where “everyone has a number instead of a name, and the government tells you whom you should marry!” And they aren’t kidding.

This 1980, as imagined by filmmakers in the 1930s, is a doozy. It’s a world of shiny 250-story skyscrapers, the sky is filled with small planes flying in orderly lanes, a new Prohibition is in effect, a spotlight turns on in your home when the doorbell rings and newborns are cheerfully ordered from vending machines.

And as the narrator warned us, the government decides your love life and name. However, the number-names are shorted to letters alone that mostly sound like a name. For example, our two main characters are LN-18, said as Ellen, and J-23 is shortened to Jay.

John Garrick sits on the wing of Maureen O’Sullivan’s plane as they talk about their future against an impressive city backdrop in “Just Imagine.” A larger image of this photo is at the top of the story.

We meet Ellen (played by lovely young Maureen O’Sullivan) and Jay (played by John Garrick) as they pull their planes together and hover in the air for a moment of privacy. (They’re in a zone which only allows hovering for 3 minutes, so a traffic copy yells at them to move along.)

Watch in disbelief – or awe depending on your point of view – as Jay steps out of his tiny cockpit, walks on the wing of his plane and jumps over to Ellen’s aircraft and sits next to her. He’s got news that the government tribunal will decide the next day whether they can marry or if Ellen will be forced to wed accomplished businessman MT-3 (Kenneth Thomson). Sure enough, Jay’s lack of achievement causes the tribunal to match Ellen with MT (pronounce it “Empty,” which is a fitting name for the dull suitor).

Though they have four months to appeal, our two young lovers are bereft. Jay is a pilot who has reached his job ceiling and fears he can never match MT’s accomplishments. (If only someone needed a pilot for a trip to Mars! Whoops – spoiler alert.)

So Jay does what people do in musicals– he sings. It’s the first of many songs that slow down the film and you may wonder, as I did, why there are so many songs anyhow. Here’s the answer.

The names above the title for “Just Imagine” are Buddy G. DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson, a trio of well-known songwriters who had huge success in 1929 with the musical “Sunny Side Up.” They were then brought in to write the screenplay for what has been considered a musical version of the great 1927 film “Metropolis” (just look at the skylines and you’ll see the connection).

Our musical trio may not have been great as screenwriters, but as songwriters they were important enough to not only have a 1956 biopic made about them, but it was with an A-List team of director Michael Curtiz and actors Ernest Borgnine, Gordon MacRae and Dan Dailey for the film “The Best Things in Life are Free,” the title of one of their most famous songs.

This is a good time to mention that while the film looks ahead to 1980, it is stuck in the ‘30s – if not earlier – as characters bemoan in song and words the modern world’s loss of innocence. “I like a girl like my grandmother used to be. That why I like Ellen, she’s an old-fashioned girl. I should have lived back in 1930,” Jay says and sings.

Jay is sharing this with his best friend RT-42 (Artie is played by Frank Albertson) who is also dating Ellen’s best friend and nurse D-6 (or Dee as played by Marjorie White, who gives the film much-needed comic relief).

Actor El Brendel in the dark suit is laughed at by doctors who have revived him 50 years after he was struck by lightning in “Just Imagine.”

To cheer Jay up, Artie takes him to watch an experiment where a doctor works to revive a man who was killed by lightning 50 years earlier on a golf course. (I can’t explain this strange turn in the story.) This Frankenstein-like experiment is a success as the dead man awakens to finish his swing and yell “Four!” The doctors cheer and then leave as if bringing someone to life is something they do every day.

Our golfer Peterson (played by vaudeville star El Brendel, who gets top billing and is known for speaking with a strange Swedish accent) is upset. They just can’t leave him there – can they?

Oh yes, they can. “I’m through with you,” the doctor says. “To me you were just an experiment. If you’re unhappy, I’ll kill you again,” to which all the other doctors laugh.

Bystanders Jay and Artie take pity on him. They explain he needs a new name which becomes Single-O and they help him get used to his modern surroundings. First up is lunch. The cafe is a wall-sized mural with buttons. Put in a coin, push a button and out comes a pill that tastes like clam chowder, roast beef, beets, asparagus, pie ala mode and coffee.

Restaurants in 1980 were imagined to look like a mural on the wall that acted as a vending machine to take your money and distribute a meal in pill form in “Just Imagine.”

 “The roast beef was a little bit tough,” Single-O says after taking the pill.

Now, remember Jay yearning for a good old-fashioned girl from 1930? A similar refrain comes from Single-O who just wants the good old days back.

“Back in 1930 a meal was a meal. You could see the thick steak with a jus running down … I don’t know boys, give me the good old days,” Single-O laments.

He’s given another pill that substitutes for alcohol, and it brings about more memories.

“A big stein of beer with the foam on the top … there was something to drinking then. I don’t know boys, give me the good old days.”

Happy parents are thrilled with the baby they received from a vending machine in “Just Imagine.”

That’s when a couple at a nearby vending machine decides it’s time for a baby and viola! Here it comes down the chute, all cute and cuddly and a few months old.

But wait, there’s more: We still have to get Mars and that is truly crazy town.

Scientist Z-4 (Hobart Bosworth) needs a pilot to take his new plane to Mars and wants Jay who resists until he realizes this would be his big accomplishment that would allow him to marry Ellen. The round-trip journey takes just under four months and will get him back to Earth in time for the tribunal meeting that will decide his fate with Ellen.

The spaceship to Mars in “Just Imagine” will disappear in a puff of smoke to start its mission.

This miraculous space ship is Z-4’s works through the “absurdly simple” science of his greatest invention: the gravity neutralizer, the only thing that makes the trip possible. “With the speed of the earth’s motion and the rocket attachment, the plane will have sufficient momentum to make the journey.”

Though Jay is warned about the dangers, he takes on the challenge and is joined by his best friend (“We’ve gone through everything together, there’s no reason we should stop now,” says Artie) and stowaway Single-O.

This big moment is anti-climatic as the tiny rocket takes off in a large puff of smoke that covers everything. On the trip, the trio of men do not need extra oxygen, special equipment or a place to sit as all the action takes place in one spot where they stand around a lot.

Our pilot (John Garrick) meets the queen Martian (Joyzelle Joyner) who dresses in a gorgeous fish-like two-piece outfit.

Once on Mars, we see that Martians wear scanty two-piece outfits (even the men who look like a cross between a gladiator and Fred Flintstone), they speak in grunts and other sounds, and use silly broad gestures with their arms and faces. And don’t forget about the twin factor which we’ll first witness during a large dance number with Martians dressed as apes.

Will our hapless trio be able to figure out the good Martian twin from the evil one? Can they ever get back to their spaceship and in time for Jay to make the meeting with the tribunal? Or will poor Ellen get stuck marrying the lame MT guy? Just imagine the possibilities.

Background on the film

In this futuristic film, we never fully leave 1930 behind and that’s OK. The set design is bit minimalistic at times, but is inspired by art deco and the styles of 1930. The cityscape is a nod to “Metropolis” and was built as a giant miniature over five months by more than 200 people in a former Army balloon hangar at a cost of $168,000. The film received an Oscar nomination for best art direction by Stephen Goosson and Ralph Hammeras.

If this laboratory from “Just Imagine” looks familiar, it’s because pieces were also used in “Frankenstein.”

If you feel a familiar twinge watching “Just Imagine,” that’s because sets and scenes like the dancing girls on Mars, a large Martian idol with moveable parts, the planes/spaceship and futuristic sets were reused in “Flash Gordon” and “Buck Rogers,” among other films.

Then there’s the laboratory scene where the doctor is reviving the dead golfer. It gives off strong “Frankenstein” vibes because it’s the first on-screen appearance for some of the equipment created by set designer and electrical effects expert Kenneth Strickfaden that was later used in multiple films including “Frankenstein” (1931).

This lobby card from “Just Imagine” is a great look at the pre-Code nurses uniforms as imagined for the 1980s with giant slits and cute panties. Pictured are four of the main actors: Marjorie White, left, El Brendel, John Garrick and Frank Albertson.

The wardrobe is also reminiscent of 1930 as many of the gowns are in the gorgeous, figure-hugging style of the time, but there are a few interesting things to note. In 1980, men’s suits don’t have lapels. Plus, one side wraps across the body and is buttoned low on the hip and waist (you can see this in the lobby card above).

The nurse uniform has long slits that bare the leg up to the panties (pre-Code alert!). My favorite fashion is the “stay out” dress: Multiple pieces of a demure black dress with a white Peter Pan collar are unzipped and turned inside out to create a low-cut slinky white party outfit. Even the hat is transformed into a small purse.


So how did the film do with predicting the future circa 1980 (and even beyond)?

“Just Imagine” was right in predicting that people in the future would use air hand dryers (note the tiny circular opening on the wall).

It did predict the air hand dryer and it’s much quieter than the industrial strength ones we use today. In the film, it’s a small circle on a wall above a sink that is activated with a foot pedal that will also fold up the sink and cleverly hide it behind a door when you’re done. That’s a pretty cool move.

People can talk to each via a large video screen in their homes that’s like a supersized Facetime.

Yet even though we’re close to 50 years beyond the 1980 future setting of the film, we still haven’t hit some of its grandest moments and ideas – and that’s not necessarily bad.

We still drive cars, though now they’re starting to drive themselves. We haven’t had a manned trip to Mars and when we do, I’m sure the astronauts will need oxygen in some way. I’m happy that we still eat full meals instead of a taking a pill (that would be awful). And we still have babies the traditional way instead of ordering through a vending machine. Call me old-fashioned, but the only thing I want from a vending machine is candy.

Cast extras

The most recognizable face and name – by far – is Maureen O’Sullivan who is only 19 in this movie. Two years later, she would start her decade-long film appearances as Jane in the “Tarzan” movies, beginning with “Tarzan the Ape Man.”

Frank Albertson is notable for roles in “Alice Adams” (1935) and “Room Service” (1938). He later guest starred in television westerns. In “Psycho,” he was the rancher whose $40,000 is later stolen by Janet Leigh’s character and was the mayor in the 1963 musical “Bye Bye Birdie.”

Why the scary ‘Little Girl Lost’ from ‘The Twilight Zone’ remains a favorite TV episode

“Favorite” is a word that’s often accompanied by a smile because it’s something that makes you happy.

As in, what’s your favorite ice cream?

Your favorite band?

Favorite movie?

We smile so much about our favorites that “smile” should be part of the definition, as in:

fa·vor·ite: Something that makes us smile.

Yet my choice for the 9th annual “Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon,” hosted by Shroud of Thoughts, is a TV episode that I love but doesn’t quite make me smile – at least in the happy, traditional sense of the word.

“Little Girl Lost,” the 91st episode of “The Twilight Zone,” has fascinated and terrified from the first time I saw it. Even rewatching it recently, the episode still freaked me out. (I guarantee you that “freak you out” is not part of the definition of “favorite.”) But the episode also makes me think and remains a favorite.

“Little Girl Lost” premiered on March 16, 1962 as the final episode (#26) of Season 3. I’m not sure how old I was when I first saw it, but I wasn’t older than 10, and could have been closer in age to Tina, the little girl lost of the episode’s title who was only 6.

Sure, that’s too young for “someone” (“me”) with an overactive imagination to watch a story where a little girl goes missing after she accidentally steps into another dimension. And yes, you read that right. In “Little Girl Lost,” sweet little Tina falls out of her bed, rolls underneath it and right into the fourth dimension. How do we know? The physicist who conveniently lives next door tells us so. And it’s all so believable.

Mac the dog tries to lead little Tina out of the fourth dimension in “Little Girl Lost.”

Here’s the episode’s plot, starting with Rod Serling’s original intro.

Missing: one frightened little girl. Name: Bettina Miller. Description: six years of age, average height and build, light brown hair, quite pretty. Last seen being tucked in bed by her mother a few hours ago. Last heard: ‘ay, there’s the rub,’ as Hamlet put it. For Bettina Miller can be heard quite clearly, despite the rather curious fact that she can’t be seen at all. Present location? Let’s say for the moment… in the Twilight Zone.

The episode opens with Chris and Ruth Miller waking to cries of “mommy” from their daughter, Tina (played by Tracy Stafford). They aren’t alarmed – yet. In fact Chris the dad  (Robert Sampson) takes the time to slowly put on his slippers despite the growing cries of his daughter.

Even when he can’t find Tina in the bedroom, it still takes him a few minutes before he starts to worry.

“What’d ya fall out of his bed?” he asks with a nervous laugh as he peers underneath the bed and gropes around the carpet for his daughter. Then he moves to the closet with similar results – she’s just not there.

Parents (Sarah Marshall and Robert Sampson) can’t find their daughter under the bed despite hearing her cries in “Little Girl Lost.”

Ruth the mom (played by Sarah Marshall) panics right away and makes a fuss as cute little dog Mack is barking up a storm outside and trying to get in. He senses the trouble but the adults aren’t paying attention. When Mack is finally let in the house, he runs fearlessly into the portal after Tina. (As physicist neighbor Bill will say later, “Animals are sharper about these things than humans.”)

Physicist neighbor Bill (played by Charles Aidman with a solid mix of composure and smarts) has been called over by a desperate Chris to help. Bill calmly explores the house and quickly deduces what has happened: Tina has fallen through an opening to another dimension.

Bill (Charles Aidman, right) calculates the location of a portal to another dimension where he thinks a child has fallen through as her parents (Sarah Marshall and Robert Sampson) look on.

“I’m no expert in this,” he tells the parents before going on about junctures between dimensions and gap openings that all sounds plausible to the untrained ear of say, a 10-year-old girl watching this at home who will soon develop her own phobia of falling into another dimension. (Hey, it could happen.)

Things get intense during the short 25-minute episode. Tina’s voice goes in and out and they fear she’ll be lost forever. Mack the dog’s barking indicates he hasn’t found Tina. And desperate dad gets way too close to the invisible portal in the wall and falls halfway into the strange world while screaming for Tina to find him.

Bill the neighbor physicist is clearly getting more agitated with every passing second and that ramps up the tension. Only later do we learn what was setting him off and without spoiling too much, let’s say that we are not dealing with a stable entrance to another dimension. Just thinking about it now is “freaking me out” (there’s that phrase again).

The fourth dimension is all strange angles, lights and fog in “Little Girl Lost” as dad (Robert Sampson) tries to grab his daughter and dog who are out of reach – and out of time.

By the end of the episode, when we should be feeling relief, the questions left unanswered also leave us unsettled.

Here is Rod Serling’s Outro for the episode: The other half where? The fourth dimension? The fifth? Perhaps. They never found the answer. Despite a battery of research physicists equipped with every device known to man, electronic and otherwise, no result was ever achieved, except perhaps a little more respect for and uncertainty about the mechanisms of the Twilight Zone.

Oh, Rod Serling didn’t need to tell me – as a kid or adult – to respect the possibility that other dimensions existed. I respected the idea so much that I read books with true stories of people from around the world who survived brushes with portals to another world. There were plenty of stories and yes, I believed them ALL!!!.

Neighbor Bill (Charles Aidman) reaches through a portal to another dimension as Ruth and Chris (Sarah Marshall and Robert Sampson) look on in terror in “Little Girl Lost.”

So stumbling into another dimension remains on my list of ridiculous phobias I gained from watching TV or film. Also on that “realistic” list: being mauled to death by a bear or tiger, suffocating in quicksand and burned alive by lava.

Here’s another creepy fact about “Little Girl Lost.” It was written by the great Richard Matheson after an incident where he couldn’t find his own daughter in her bedroom. Here is how Matheson shared the story in author Marc Scott Zicree’s indispensable “Twilight Zone Companion.”

“That was based on an occurrence that happened to our daughter. She didn’t go into the fourth dimension, but she cried one night and I went to where she was and couldn’t find her anywhere. I couldn’t find her on the bed, I couldn’t find her on the ground. She had fallen off and rolled all the way under the bed against the wall. At first, even when I felt under the bed, I couldn’t reach her. It was bizarre and that’s where I got the idea.”

To keep authenticity for his story, Matheson even named the TV characters after his real wife and daughter. (I wonder what they thought after watching it!). He wrote the original short story in 1953 and it appears in his collection “The Shores of Space” (1957).

‘Little Girl Lost’ and ‘Poltergeist’

Another reason why “Little Girl Lost” is one of my favorites is its influence on one of my favorite films, “Poltergeist” (1982) – and yes, “Poltergeist” does freak me out, too. If you’ve seen both you would have noticed the similarities that are worth a story on their own. But here’s the ToniNotes version of the “Poltergeist” plot.

After a few odd events in their new home in a fancy subdivision, parents wake to the sounds of their children screaming during a thunderstorm. Their son has been pulled outside by a tree limb that has crashed into the house. They rescue him, but can’t find their little girl. Then they hear her calling from somewhere “inside” the house. The rest of the film is their search for their own little girl lost, while battling malevolent spirits.

So we have a little girl, trapped somewhere “inside” of her house, crying for her parents who can’t see her. You’ll notice some similar shots (overhead views of the family looking upward toward the child’s cries) and you’ll hear lines that could have been copied and pasted from “Little Girl Lost.” For example the name of the dog Mac is replaced with the word “light” as in repeated references of “Go with Mac, baby” becomes “Go into the light baby” in “Poltergeist.”

Does this mean I think a monster is going to come out of my closet and steal me? Can a hole open to another dimension? Of course it can. Just watch “Little Girl Lost” and you’ll believe.

The blogathon

The 9th annual “Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon” is hosted by Terence Towles Canote on his blog Shroud of Thoughts. You’ll find links here to more posts where people write about their favorite TV episodes.

In a previous “Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon,” I wrote about an ingenious episode of “Murder, She Wrote” that acted as a sequel to the 1949 detective film, “Strange Bargain.” This is a favorite episode that truly does make me smile. Here is the link to that story.

Celebrating Kim Novak by meeting Polly the Pistol

Kim Novak will forever be Madge to me, a young woman yearning for love in “Picnic.” The film was my introduction to the actress and I’ve never stopped watching it, forever mesmerized by the romance and drama of this slice of American life in the 1950s. (And that dance with William Holden doesn’t hurt.)

There are many Kim Novak essentials: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” of course, with her vulnerability on full display as Madeleine and Judy. “Middle of the Night” and the profound loneliness in the May-December romance with Fredric March. And her delightful role as a witch who casts a love spell on Jimmy Stewart in the whimsical “Bell Book and Candle.”

The recent celebration of her 90th birthday – she was born Feb. 13, 1933 – is a reminder that her wonderful acting career of nearly 40 years has many more roles for us to explore and that’s what I did.

Let me introduce you to Polly the Pistol from the 1964 comedy “Kiss Me, Stupid.” I enjoyed watching Novak as Polly so much – she looks, acts and sounds so different than Novak’s other characters – that it’s my entry in “The Kim Novak Blogathon, a 90th Birthday Celebration” hosted by The Classic Movie Muse.

You’ll find the work of many talented bloggers who are writing about Kim Novak during this blogathon, held from Feb. 25-27, through this link. Here is my entry.

“Kiss Me, Stupid”

Comedy is not a genre that comes to mind with Novak, though she did a few including “The Notorious Landlady” and “Phffft.” Still she does very well in “Kiss Me, Stupid” and, in fact, may be the best thing about this sexual farce.

A 2021 review from RogerEbert.com agreed: “Novak is game, and aside from [Dean] Martin, the best player in the picture,” it reads.

That’s saying a lot considering the film’s pedigree: It’s written and directed by Billy Wilder, songs are by George and Ira Gershwin plus it stars Dean Martin, Ray Walston and Felicia Farr.

But all of that talent didn’t stop the film from falling well short of expectations; the cast changes before and during filming didn’t help (more on that later).

“Kiss Me, Stupid” is about two unlikely small-town songwriters who see a chance to woo a Dean Martin-like character (played by Dean Martin) to sing their song. It sounds innocent enough except for a prostitute (our lovable Polly), an almost pathological jealousy and double adultery. That overt sexualism in the script by Wilder and his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, was shredded by critics. in his 1964 New York Times review, A.H. Weiler called it “pitifully unfunny” and “short on laughs and performances and long on vulgarity.” And that wasn’t the worst of it.

The sexual hijinks throughout “Kiss Me, Stupid,” including womanizing charmer Dino (played by Dean Martin) and prostitute Polly (Kim Novak), were deemed too vulgar by some at the time.

It became the first Hollywood film in eight years to be condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency which demanded anything that hinted at marital infidelity be cut.

Yes, the movie is sexy and Novak’s performance as Polly the Pistol is a big reason. (Just watch her swing her hips, then glance back over her shoulder.) Plus there’s plenty of innuendo, double-entendres (the setting is Climax, Nevada for starters) and bawdy humor that was found so offensive although often it borders on being juvenile or just falls flat.

The film opens with our charismatic entertainer “Dino” playing his final show at The Sands in Vegas (where Martin was performing in real life at the time). On his way to L.A., a detour takes him through the small town of Climax where he is recognized by auto mechanic and aspiring songwriter Barney (Cliff Osmond) and his songwriting partner Orville J. Spooner (Ray Walston), a piano teacher.

They see Dino as their ticket to the big time if he’ll listen to their song. When he insists on leaving town immediately, Barney rigs his car to break down and then convinces him to stay overnight at Orville’s where the plan is to play him the song.

But first an important note about Orville. Orville is needlessly jealous about his loving wife Zelda (played by Felicia Farr), a jealousy that is creepy even when played for laughs. He’s always checking up on her, grilling the milk man about a note she left (it was for milk and eggs) and calling the dentist to see if she really had an appointment. Every male is a threat – even his very young piano student.

Songwriting partners Orville (Ray Walston, left) and Barney (Ken Osmond) hire a prostitute (Kim Novak) to woo a popular entertainer to sing their song in the sex farce, “Kiss Me, Stupid.”

Why does this matter? Dino loves women. He loves them so much that if he goes for even one night without “being” with one, he tells Orville, he’ll wake with a headache. There’s no way Orville will let him near Zelda now and that’s where the film dives into absurdity.

Polly the prostitute is hired for $25 to be Orville’s wife for a night, the main objective is to woo Dino with whatever is needed to get him to hear Barney and Orville’s song. To get his real wife out of the house, Orville sets up the lamest fake fight ever and Zelda runs home to mommy. (“You trust me? That’s a lousy thing to say about your husband,” he snipes.)

What could go wrong?

Everything, especially when Polly arrives. You’ll get a kick out of her her in a barely there crop/bikini top and fake jewel in her navel (she works at the Belly Button Club). Her hair is mussed, her makeup dark around the eyes. Polly has a cold and stuffy nose that accentuate the huskiness of her voice and accent.

She’s game for this silly plan even if she’s taken aback when Orville asks her to wear his wife’s dress  (that’s not the only nod to “Vertigo”). “What are you, some type of weirdie?” Polly asks.

Orville (Ray Walston) helps Polly get out of her “working clothes” and into one of his wife’s demure dresses in “Kiss Me, Stupid.”

As expected, Dino is instantly attracted to Polly and doesn’t hide it. She comically rolls her eyes at him and politely keeps him at bay when he gets out of hand. While Dino’s star power quickly fades as he’s seen for the charming cad he is, a tenderness grows between Polly and the neurotic Orville.

Polly falls easily into playing Orville’s “wife,” then it becomes obvious she’s not acting anymore. She is truly excited – like a real wife would be – when Dino agrees to use one of Orville’s songs. When Orville sings something he wrote for Zelda, Polly’s emotions overtake her face. In a lovely and unexpected moment, she sits with her head on his shoulder as he plays the piano. (Novak is wonderful in these scenes.) The two look content, each losing the anxiousness they had earlier. If this were another type of movie, these two would find happiness together.

Even the charismatic Dino (Dean Martin), left, is no match for the growing tenderness between a songwriter (Ray Walston) and prostitute (Kim Novak).

But this is a sex farce so things turn upside down and chaos ensues. Dino and Zelda, the forlorn wife, somehow end up in Polly’s trailer behind The Belly Button. Polly and Zelda will meet, too.

You know where it’s going, and this “double adultery” is what got the morality police up in arms.

Wilder co-wrote the script with his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond based off the play “L’ora della fantasia” (“The Dazzling Hour”) by Anna Bonacci (also the basis for the 1952 Gina Lollobrigida Italian film “Moglie per una notte” (“Wife for a Night”).

It was originally written for Marilyn Monroe who died before it was made; then Jayne Mansfield dropped out because of a pregnancy. Finally, Novak was cast as Polly. Jack Lemmon was originally offered the role of Orville J. Spooner. But Lemmon, married to Felicia Farr who played Orville’s wife, had prior commitments. Filming started with Peter Sellers who then suffered a series of heart attacks (something that would plague him throughout his life) and Ray Walston took on the role.

You may wonder what the film would have been like if Lemmon or Sellers played Orville. But you won’t wonder about Kim Novak as Polly the Pistol – she’s that good.

Now that I’ve been introduced to Polly, I can’t wait to meet more of Kim Novak’s cast of characters.

More to read

The blogathon: Click on these links to read more in the “The Kim Novak Blogathon, a 90th Birthday Celebration” hosted by The Classic Movie Muse, held from Feb. 25-27, 2023.

A love of “Picnic”: I previously wrote about my obsession with watching “Picnic” starring Kim Novak in the story The Joys of Watching “Picnic” for the umpteenth time for the “Umpteenth” blogathon hosted by Cineamaven in 2022.

When ‘The Bat’ flies, murder is in the air

Murder is deadly, but it can be entertaining, too.

That describes “The Bat,” a 1959 film written and directed by Crane Wilbur that’s a charming diversion with the bonus of a noteworthy – albeit almost forgotten – legacy in movies, books and theater. Still you may not know the film even though it stars Vincent Price.

That’s right – we’ve got a film named “The Bat” with Vincent Price, but it’s not about a blood-sucking vampire nor is it a horror movie. It’s a murder mystery thriller with a dash of humor and a “spinster” female writer/sleuth who works to solve a murder. If you’re thinking that sounds like Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher, you’re right: the movie’s 1907 source material, “The Circular Staircase” by Mary Roberts Rinehart, is credited with inspiring that genre. More on that later.

As her maid sleeps behind her, Cornelia Van Gorder (played by Agnes Moorehead) calls the police from inside her locked bedroom when she realizes they’re not in the house alone in “The Bat.” (Courtesy The Film Detective)

The plot: A mystery writer rents a summer home in a town where a mysterious killer known as The Bat has returned. There’s also a bank robbery and several murders that may or may not be committed by the same killer or even related in any way. Multiple suspects will keep you guessing about whodunit as it did to me the first time I saw the film only a few years ago and fell for this old-fashioned yarn.

That’s why “The Bat” is my pick for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s fall blogathon called “Movies are Murder.”

* * * *

Vincent Price is his reliable self in a film that showcases Agnes Moorehead in her first feature film starring role. (Though her previous work was noteworthy, even “The Magnificent Ambersons” was considered a supporting role, hence her Oscar nomination as best supporting actress.) Moorehead is wonderful as mystery writer Cornelia Van Gorder (love that name) who has rented a country mansion called The Oaks from bank president John Fleming. She’s there to write and has brought along her trusty long-time maid Lizzie (Lenita Lane) plus a few other servants from her city home.

It’s perfect timing for a mystery writer to arrive. The town is on edge with the return of a faceless killer who has been nicknamed The Bat for ripping out the throats of his female victims. He’s also being blamed for rabid bats that are on the loose.

While at the bank, Cornelia and Lizzie learn that $1 million in securities have been stolen, but no one can reach bank president Fleming who is on a remote fishing trip with Dr. Malcolm Wells (Price).

Cut to the cabin and meet Fleming and Wells. This is an economic film that doesn’t waste time so the mystery of who robbed the bank is shared within the first 7 minutes, quickly followed by a murder.

This scene is our first look at Price as Wells. He’s wearing a flannel shirt with a towel tied around his waist as an apron and washing dishes with hot water from a tea kettle – it’s a sight to behold. But Fleming casually drops a bombshell: He ripped off the bank and he’s got a plan. Fleming will give the good doctor half a million if he helps him fake his death. Wells scoffs, there are threats and suddenly a forest fire is ablaze around them. Before they can escape the cabin, we learn Wells is just as devious as Fleming when he literally takes his shot at all the money.

In praise of Roger Corman’s glorious ‘Sharktopus’

They had me at “Sharktopus.”

It wasn’t going to matter if the film was good or bad or laughable. With a name like that, I was in. All in.

After years of horror movies that were shrouded in the mystery of bland titles like “It,” “They” or “Them,” here was a film with a bold commitment to itself that was as clear as its name: “Sharktopus.”

The title was screaming that this was going to be a movie devoted entirely to jumping the shark with its outlandish idea of a creature that was part shark, part octopus.

To learn that the 2010 film was produced by the great Roger Corman only added to the anticipation and ultimate enjoyment. Like the movie’s title, you know what you are getting with Corman. There will be B-movie special effects, a basic plot with crazy ideas, babes in bikinis, blood and a lot of fun.

I am obsessed with “Sharktopus” and that’s why I chose it as my film to feature as part of Corman-Verse, the Roger Corman celebratory blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget Reviews.

Yes, “Sharktopus” is a stretch. Even Corman – the man behind the films “She Gods of Shark Reef,” “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” “The Wasp Woman” (twice) and “Carnosaur” – thought it was ridiculous.

So when he was initially approached to make “Sharktopus,” he turned it down. To understand why, let’s go back to the start of his partnership with the network that was then known as Sci-Fi Channel. (In 2009, it rebranded under its current name Syfy – same pronunciation, different spelling.)

* * * * *

From 2004 to 2015, Corman produced a series of films for the network that all had self-explanatory titles starting with “Dinocroc” about a – well, you already guessed.

After the success of “Dinocroc,” Corman understandably wanted to produce a sequel simply called “Dinocroc 2.” But at that point, sequels weren’t working for Sci-Fi and the network said no. (Things have since changed with the network, hence movies like “Sharknado 5: Global Swarming.”)

Undeterred, Corman made “Dinocroc 2” on his own under the title “Supergator” (2007). Sci-Fi quickly realized the error of its ways and Corman produced the sequels “Dinoshark” and “Dinocroc vs. Supergator,” both made in 2010, for the network.

He was then offered “Sharktopus,” but declined. He had his standards and was “not enthusiastic about that title,” as he shared later in multiple interviews to promote “Sharktopus.”

Now you’re probably asking the same question I did after learning this information: Why would Corman make films named “Dinocroc” and “Dinoshark,” but draw the line at “Sharktopus”?

Let Corman explain.

Roger Corman hesitated to make “Sharktopus,” but eventually produced it and appeared in a cameo on the beach.

“My theory is, you can go up to a certain level of insanity, and the audience is with you,” Corman told writer Clark Collis in a 2010 interview for Entertainment Weekly. “And ‘Dinocroc’ and ‘Dinoshark’ are within that level. But in my opinion, ‘Sharktopus’ goes beyond that feeling, and the audience turns and says, ‘Who wants to see this?’ ”

Well, I wanted to see it – and clearly so did plenty of others judging by the popularity of “Sharktopus” and its sequels.

The joys of watching ‘Picnic’ for the umpteenth time

We all have that movie that gets us every time.

The one we can’t stop watching no matter how many times we’ve seen it.

The one we own on DVD or have in a streaming queue, but don’t think twice about watching it when it pops up on TV.

It’s so irresistible that we don’t even know how many times we’ve watched it. Ten times? Twenty? No, we’ll have to go with “umpteen” times. And the best part is that during every one of those umpteen times, we still laugh or cry or fall in love all over again. It’s something to be celebrated and that’s what we’re doing with the aptly titled “The Umpteenth Blogathon” hosted by Theresa Brown of “CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch.”

Like many of you, I have a few films that fit into this category. I melt at the music and romance of “Laura” and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.” I revel in the ghostly poetry of “The Uninvited.” Even with my fear of spiders, I’m there for “Tarantula.” I watch each of those films every chance I get and yes, I own copies of them, too.

But there is one film above all that has the biggest pull on me – one with a train horn that might as well be a dog whistle since I come, sit and stay for another viewing of “Picnic.”

OK, that’s not why I keep watching “Picnic” of course – that would be for the sheer beauty of William Holden and Kim Novak (and to watch that romantic dance again and again). But I still remember that sound from the first time I saw the film as a kid.

The train at the opening of “Picnic” brings a handsome stranger and the promise of adventure.

It was time for the Sunday afternoon TV movie, a weekly ritual I watched whether I knew the “old” movie it was showing or not. I didn’t know anything about “Picnic,” but it had my attention as soon as the iconic Columbia Pictures logo appeared with the unexpected sound of the train whistle.

It signaled that we were going on a journey and as a kid living in a city neighborhood, trains brought romanticized thoughts of travel to faraway places. Then William Holden jumped out of a freight car and, despite his dirty face and bare feet, I was a goner.

By the end of “Picnic,” I had fallen in love with the film’s romance and nostalgia. (As well as Holden and Novak.) I yearned for that bygone era of 1955 Kansas that I had never experienced with its porch swings, picket fences and a community picnic where people wore their Sunday best. It was a place where there was a “prettiest girl in town” (that would be Madge, played by Novak) and the arrival of a handsome stranger was news.

And I learned that a dance could be truly life changing.

The romantic dance between Hal (William Holden) and Madge (Kim Novak) is an iconic moment in film history.

Shot in Technicolor and Cinemascope, it’s gorgeous to look at. And the score by George Duning – especially the main “Picnic” theme – is swoon worthy. (I’m hearing it in my head right now and I’m sighing.)

What I didn’t understand at the time – but have appreciated in the umpteen viewings since – is that the slice of heaven in small-town Kansas was filled with as much longing, broken hearts and disappointment as anywhere else. With each viewing, I am drawn deeper into the characters, who all live lives of quiet desperation.

Beyond Festus: The career of Ken Curtis

For more than a decade, actor Ken Curtis played Festus Haggen, the loyal sidekick to Marshal Matt Dillion (star James Arness) on the long-running television series “Gunsmoke.”

Curtis fully inhabited the role of the perennially disheveled and unshaven Festus, a man with a unique hillbilly accent who could be curmudgeonly and comical at the same time.

Festus remains a memorable character in TV history today, nearly 50 years after the show ended, to the point that even people who aren’t fans of Westerns – like me – know Festus. The actor behind the character is a different story.

Like many character actors, Ken Curtis is one of those familiar faces whose names may not be well known, but whose presence is an integral part of the fabric of film and television.

That’s why he is my choice for the 10th annual “What a Character Blogathon” hosted by Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled and @Irishjayhawk66, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and @Paula_Guthat, and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and and @CitizenScreen.

Who was the man behind Festus?

Two years ago, I couldn’t have told you the name of the actor playing Festus. That changed after spending months of Sunday afternoons recently watching “Gunsmoke,” Westerns and John Wayne films in general with my dad.

A clean-shaven and quite handsome Ken Curtis is pictured alongside John Wayne in “The Wings of Eagles,” one of seven movies they appeared in together.

The thin face of Curtis, nearly masked under a heavy layer of whiskers as Festus, was becoming familiar enough to notice in films like “The Searchers,” “The Wings of Eagles” and “Conagher,” leading to the question: “Hey dad, is that Festus?” (That’s a real quote – I said “Festus.”)

“It kinda looks like him, but doesn’t sound like him,” I naively said, believing Ken Curtis really talked with that heavy Southern accent. (He was born in Colorado.)

Sure enough, it was Curtis. Now I’m seeing his familiar face more often, even in unexpected places like the 1959 B-horror movie “The Killer Shrews.”

The elegant humor of ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’

How do you like your comedy? You can have it with the broad strokes of slapstick, the fast-paced dialogue of screwball, a slash of darkness with a black comedy and a dash of romance with a rom-com.

Or you could enjoy the subtle laughter of a subdued, elegant comedy like “How to Marry a Millionaire.” While the plot doesn’t sound like a comedy – three ambitious gold diggers set their sights on bagging a rich hubby in New York City –  in the capable hands of screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and a great ensemble cast, the movie will keep you smiling and laughing from start to finish.

That’s why this 1953 film is a favorite film of mine and my choice for “Laughter is the Best Medicine,” the theme of the 2021 fall blogathon from the Classic Movie Blog Association.

Setting the scene

Our female trio played by Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall aren’t shallow and underhanded as they appear on the surface, but insecure and hurt. They each have distinct personalities with endearing qualities that bring comedic elements to their roles whether it’s Bacall as the cool and collected Mrs. Page, Monroe as the daffy Pola or Grable as the unfiltered Loco.

After a more than 5-minute musical prelude, we meet the resourceful and sophisticated Mrs. Page (Lauren Bacall) as she’s renting a gorgeous Sutton Place penthouse fully furnished with a gilded grand piano and a patio with stunning Manhattan views.

Although it’s a deal at $1,000 a month (that’s about $10,000 today) because the owner is having income tax “problems,” it’s more than they can afford.  (The owner is Freddie Denmark, played by the wonderful David Wayne.)

But they need the penthouse. Mrs. Page – call her Schatze – is joined by Pola Debevoise (Marilyn Monroe) and “Loco” Dempsey (Betty Grable) in a plan to attract rich gentlemen by living the part in a swanky penthouse, gorgeous gowns and luxurious furs. (They are all upscale models which is the only explanation for their fantastic wardrobes.) The ladies even arrive in fancy cars by taking test drives in Chryslers (with gold trim) when they don’t have taxi fare.

They dream of marrying a Rockefeller or Vanderbilt. Is there a Mr. Cadillac or Mr. Texaco, they wonder? Schatze, burned by a quick marriage to a “gas-pump jockey,” still hopes to wed again but asks her friends what they would choose if they had their pick between marrying for love or money.

“It’s your head you’ve got to use, not your heart,” she tells them.

Schatze (Lauren Bacall, right) judges Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell) by the patches on his elbow and lack of necktie despite him helping Loco (Betty Grable) buy groceries.

So when Loco (or Lo for short) arrives with four bags of groceries paid for by a stranger at the deli counter, the handsome Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell), Schatze won’t have any of it. She marks him as one of those poor gas-pump jockeys and sends him away. (Viewers quickly learn the truth about Tom, so we can knowingly smirk each time Schatze declines his invitations.)

Singing praises for ‘Night Song’

How can a film starring Dana Andrews, Merle Oberon, Ethel Barrymore and Hoagy Carmichael be considered forgotten and hidden away?

Add in director John Cromwell and appearances by esteemed pianist Artur Rubinstein and conductor Eugene Ormandy and I ask the same question.

But it appears the 1948 romantic drama “Night Song” is not familiar to many classic movie fans. That’s understandable because it’s not usually shown on television or in repertory, although I was introduced to it on Turner Classic Movies.

On its original release, “Night Song” was panned by critics and lost $1 million, a huge sum in the late ‘40s. That’s most likely because of some eye-rolling moments in the plot. In brief: A rich young woman falls for a poor and bitter blind pianist, feigns her own blindness to get close to him, then sets up a composition contest with her own money to give him a chance for sight-restoring surgery.

Yes, it does sound contrived. But I have a soft spot for this melodrama and I love to recommend it which I’m doing as part of the Classic Movie Blog Association “Hidden Classics” blogathon.

 You’ll have to suspend your disbelief at some of the plot points, but the elegance of this classic Hollywood film, the tender love story at its heart and the wonderful piano concerto that is its own character make me fall for “Night Song” every time.

* * * *

First the plot in more detail, then I’ll share more of why this is a favorite.

Oberon plays Cathy Mallory, a socialite out with her stuffy rich friends after a night at the San Francisco Symphony. They go slumming in their furs and diamonds to a quaint jazz club called Chez Mamie where Chick and His Swing Six are playing. Cathy is clearly bored until she hears the soft strains of piano and approaches the broad-shouldered, dark-haired pianist.

Realizing he is blind, Cathy (Merle Oberon) lights a cigarette and puts it near the mouth of Dan (Dana Andrews) in “Night Song.”

“Light me a torch, will you chum?” he says to Cathy, not quite the greeting she was expecting.

He’s Dan Evans (Andrews), a man with a chip on his shoulders the size of a piano after being blinded in an accident by a drunk driver. He wants nothing to do with Cathy or anyone else. “I’m exhibit A here: I’m a blind piano player,” Dan says, with the bitterness he has used to build a protective wall around himself. The only person he lets in is Chick (Carmichael), his best friend, roommate, caregiver and boss in the band.

He’s a proud man but Cathy is stubborn. She returns to the elegant home she shares with her aunt, Miss Willey (Barrymore, who is my favorite part of this film). A voracious reader of detective novels, she doesn’t miss anything. Listening to Cathy play an unfamiliar tune on her concert grand piano with a far-off look on her face, Aunt Willey  knows what’s going on.

“You went somewhere after the symphony and someone played this nice music for you. Describe him.” (The relationship between these two feels very real, giving the film a rare sense of authenticity.)

Clearly smitten, Cathy returns to the club where Chick tells her Dan has quit – again. “He’s Mr. Blind Man and nobody with eyes can tell him anything,” he tells her.

“How about someone without eyes?,” she replies, clearly with an idea in mind and it’s a bit far-fetched.

Cathy (Merle Oberon) stages her first meeting as blind girl Mary with Dan (Dana Andrews, left) and Chick (Hoagy Carmichael).

She’ll pretend she is a blind woman named Mary Willey and goes so far as to rent a small, “rundown” apartment near the ocean where she’ll live with her caretaker and aunt (that’s true, at least). She softens her voice a bit and shrugs off her formal upper-class mannerisms when she “accidentally” runs into Dan and Chick on the beach.

But Dan is tough. As Chick says, “when he went blind, he went sour.” It takes a few meetings, some piano playing and the help of Chick and Aunt Willey to pull it off, but Mary starts to break through Dan’s wall. The more his heart opens, the more it releases his creativity. That lovely piano concerto starts to take form.

But that’s not enough for Mary when she learns there’s a chance Dan could regain his sight with surgery. It will take money he doesn’t have and that’s where she can help. She concocts a well-meaning ruse to sponsor a contest and puts up her own $5,000 as the grand prize. So much has to go right for Dan to win, but Cathy and Aunt Willey have the musical knowledge to understand that what Dan has written is great and deserves to win such a prize. Even Chick sees her deep understanding of classical music when he tells Dan after that first night in the club that “She went for the music, so she has brains as well as diamonds.”

After pretending to be a blind poor girl to get close to Dan (Dana Andrews),
circumstances lead Cathy (Merle Oberon) to meet him as the socialite she really is.

You can see where this is going, but it takes a detour when she runs into Dan again – this time as herself, the socialite Cathy Mallory. Dan doesn’t “recognize” Cathy is Mary for a few reasons. Like Clark Kent putting on his glasses so he’s not recognizable as Superman, Cathy raises the pitch in her voice and fools Dan though occasionally he does the old “I feel like I know you.”

That sets up the love triangle of Dan, blind Mary Willey in San Francisco, and the sophisticated Cathy Mallory in New York City. To say more about how they got to this point or where it goes would spoil the movie.

* * * *

I can remember the first time I saw “Night Song” and falling for it within seconds by the same music that wooed Cathy to Dan. Piano Concerto in C Minor by Leith Stevens was playing over the film’s opening credits and it’s magnificent – one of the best pieces of music written for a film. It’s featured in a nearly 9-minute sequence that I find spellbinding.

I originally watched “Night Song” for Dana Andrews, then for the love story. But it was Barrymore and Carmichael who hooked me. Though they were playing second fiddle to the lovebirds, they subtly stole the show.

Despite some of the illogical plot points, the dialogue flows so naturally and understated from Barrymore and Carmichael that the roles seem to have been written for them. They are well-defined to the point you don’t even need to see them to know they are in the room. In one scene, the camera is fixed on a radio with a dainty coffee cup on a saucer in front, and light smoke billowing across the screen. You know Aunt Willey is just off camera and she is.

Chick (Hoagy Carmichael) and Aunt Willey (Ethel Barrymore) become fast friends as they help Dan and Cathy/Mary.

The relationships between the characters are well done, too, whether it’s Dan and Chick, Mary and Aunt Willey or Chick and Aunt Willey. Chick is a steadfast friend who won’t let Dan wallow in self-pity and truly believes in him. “I think you’re a genius, he tells Dan. “So you’re blind, but Shubert’s dead.”

“Night Song” is elevated by little character moments. My favorite is Aunt Willey sitting in a comfy chair all happy to be reading a detective novel while smoking and drinking coffee. When she drops her book, she starts to bend over, then turns to the stack of paperbacks beside her and takes the one off the top.

“Night Song” has my favorite qualities of classic Hollywood movies like romance, star power, lovely music and a coziness you can sink in to. Besides any movie that stars just one of the four main actors – Andrews, Oberon, Barrymore, Carmichael – is worth a watch. A movie with all four? That’s a can’t-miss and a reason to give this hidden gem a chance.

* * * *

The blogathon

The Classic Movie Blog Association’s four-day “Hidden Classics” blogathon features stories on many other films that aren’t as well known as they could – and should – be. Here’s the link to read more stories on these hidden film gems.

From book to screen: The haunting beauty of ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’

The sublime beauty of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” can fill your heart and break it at the same time.

It’s in the faces of the equally lovely Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney, perfectly paired as the title characters. It’s in the Oscar-nominated cinematography by Charles Lang who paints the screen with hauntingly beautiful shades of shadow and light. And it’s in voices often so tender that a hushed utterance of a single word like “Lucia” can send goosebumps up your arms.

We’re drawn into this universally beloved film even before the opening credits roll. In an unusual move, the 20th Century Fox logo is not accompanied by the stately Fox fanfare, but by music from Bernard Herrmann that starts with a deep, swirling rumble and opens into an almost painfully sweet crescendo. It will repeat throughout the film, never losing its emotional power.

Everywhere you look or listen, this 1947 supernatural romance from director Joseph L. Mankiewicz wraps itself around you in a comforting cocoon.

That’s why “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” always felt like it existed only in movie form to me – and one that was nearly as perfect as any could be. The film about a sheltered widow moving into a British seaside cottage inhabited by the ghost of its owner holds a magic all its own. Somehow, I kept skipping over the opening credit that read “From the Novel by R.A. Dick.” I’ll blame that on the fact that I was too wrapped up in the splendor of Herrmann’s music and the scenery to read the credits.

I was always too busy listening to Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score and watching the crashing waves to see that “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” was based on a novel.

It wasn’t until a few years back that I stumbled on “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” by R.A. Dick while looking for books adapted into classic movies to read on a cross-country trip to the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival. “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” is one of the offerings in the very cool Vintage Movie Classics book series launched in 2014 by Random House under its Vintage Books imprint. (“The Night of the Hunter,” “Back Street” and “Cimarron” are among others.)

Because of this embarrassing gap in my film history knowledge, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” seemed a good choice for me to explore for the Classic Literature on Film Blogathon hosted by Paul Batters of Silver Screen Classics. It’s not Great Classic Literature with capital letters in the sense of Bronte, Austen, Dickens or Twain, yet this slim novel deserves credit as the basis for one of the most universally beloved classic films.

Setting the film’s atmospheric mood was the Oscar-nominated black and white cinematography by Charles Lang.

Often with classic movies based on literature we have either read the original novel – “Frankenstein,” “Pride & Prejudice,” “Rebecca,” “A Tale of Two Cities” – or at least have a CliffsNotes familiarity with it. You may not have read “Wuthering Heights,” but you know Heathcliff and Catherine.

But, I knew nothing about the book form of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” or its author so there was a lot to be excited about: Tierney and Harrison were perfect on screen, but did they fit the author’s original vision? How did the romance – so chaste in the movie – develop in the book? Would there be deep words of love between them or would it be hidden behind a softly uttered “Me, dear” as in the movie? Were R.A. Dick’s other stories equally mesmerizing?

The answers were surprising.

Author Josephine Leslie wrote “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” under the pen name of R.A. Dick.

“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” was published in 1945 under the pseudonym of R.A. Dick by Irish author Josephine Leslie. There’s not much out there about her other than she wrote two, possibly three other books over 20 years or so including “The Devil and Mrs. Devine.” She wrote barely any description of the lead characters other than their size (“Little Lucy Muir” and that the Captain was tall with broad shoulders) and there were no additional proclamations of love.

Think of the book this way: If it was published today, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” would be on a summer reading list or labeled a beach read  – those easy-to-read books that sweep you away for a relaxing few hours. It is a slim novel written with an economy of words that speak volumes. Leslie (as we’ll call the author from here) also has a way with descriptive, poetic dialogue. “The wallpaper had gone past fading into death,” is a wonderful visual of Gull Cottage. Lucy’s words in trying to make sense of unexplained happenings could be a poem: “There aren’t any ghosts really. They always turn out to be the wind in the chimney, or shadows on the wall, or branches tapping on the window.” The best of Leslie’s dialogue is used in the movie.

* * * *

As the novel opens, the author helps the reader understand in only a page that Lucy Muir has led an oppressed life, and that the young widow and mother is yearning for a life that is her own – not her late husband’s, nor his family’s.

She has finally found the courage to leave the house she lives in with her husband’s mother and sister for a fresh start by the sea. Arriving in Whitecliff, she fixates on the one property the house agent doesn’t want to show her: Gull Cottage. Very inexpensive, fully furnished and with a gorgeous sea view, Gull Cottage has been uninhabitable for the 10 years it has been on the market. Previous tenants haven’t lasted 24 hours, yet Lucy stubbornly insists on seeing it. The twinkling of the eyes in a portrait, the discarded lunch in the kitchen of someone was “called away in a hurry” and Lucy’s delight in seeing the clean telescope in the otherwise dusty house are the first signs that the house is haunted.

“Haunted! How perfectly fascinating,” she says with a big smile in the film and we know this haunted house story veers from traditional ghostly encounters. It is not interested in terrifying its audience, but rather wants to explore a woman’s fight for her independence as well as as the deepening relationship based on mutual respect of two characters that grows in the most unexpected way.

The ghostly inhabitant is Captain Daniel Gregg whose much talked about suicide was really an accident caused when he kicked over the gas heater as he slept.

Though it’s easy to assume Lucy fell under a ghostly spell, it worked both ways as our ornery sea captain was no match for the newly independent and determined Lucy Muir. Their bond formed almost immediately. Formalities are dropped – they become Lucy and Daniel to each other – and they make peace. She’ll take care of the cottage he built and he’ll stop his ghostly shenanigans (as long as no one messes with his “Lucia,” the swoon-worthy name he gives her). The story is sprinkled with light moments of humor such as when Lucy picks up the captain’s salty language such as “blasted.”

When she gets into financial difficulty and fears she’ll have to leave Gull Cottage, Daniel has her write out his life stories in a book on the “unvarnished life of a sea captain.” It’s a success.

Coming into their comfortable existence is the handsome and charming Miles Fairley Blane who sweeps her off her feet while hiding his own secrets. Though his portrayal in the book is different than the movie, the final effect is the same.

Actors Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison were perfectly matched on screen as Lucy and Daniel.

Adapting a book into film

Screenwiter Philip Dunne was brought in to turn Leslie’s efficient novel into a film. He had previously adapted such works as “The Count of Monte Cristo” (1934), “Magnificent Obsession” (1935), “The Last of the Mohicans” (1936) and “How Green Was My Valley” (1941).

In her forward to the Vintage Books edition of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” author and filmmaker Adriana Trigiani does a wonderful job in explaining Dunne’s talents. “Mr. Dunne was a master dramatist, keen and spare in his process. He would take apart a novel, pulling threads from it like a lacemaker. Mr. Dunne would hold on to some characters, discard others, restructure timelines, winnow down scenes, remove some altogether, and add new ones to create the most powerful screen narrative from the source material.”

That’s what Dunne did here. Let’s take Miles as an example.

Miles Blane (George Sanders) is a charming man with secrets who becomes a love interest for the naive Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney).

In the novel, Lucy meets Miles after he moves into a nearby cottage and saves her dog (with the “help” of the Daniel). He doesn’t have an occupation but he does a bit of “this and that.” For the film, Dunne turns Miles into a popular author of children’s books (he writes under the pen name of Uncle Neddy) who meets Lucy at the publisher’s office where she is trying to sell “Blood and Swash” by Captain X. Clearly attracted to her, Miles gets Lucy in to meet the publisher. Her gratitude and naivety combine to make her gullible and she falls for Miles, who is played with an unsettling mix of charm and scoundrel by George Sanders.

Another change by Dunne that works in the film’s favor is that Lucy has one child, not two as in the book. It was a good choice to focus on Anna (played by an adorable 8-year-old Natalie Wood), and thereby also focusing on Lucy instead of splitting attention with another child.

The big change, and one I am eternally grateful for, is that while Lucy never sees Daniel in the book – he comes to her only in her thoughts, like a voice in her head – he is a commanding presence in the film as played by Rex Harrison. Can you imagine the film without him? No, you can’t.

Through it all, there is a question of how a relationship caught between two worlds can be played out. We get a hint early watching Daniel’s reaction when Lucy asks “What is to become of us, you and me?” with a mix of yearning and pain in her voice. His subtle facial expressions help us understand he will do what he needs for her, whatever the sacrifice.

In this shattering scene, Daniel (Rex Harrison) softly tells the sleeping Lucia (Gene Tierney) that he was just a dream.

Dunne answers Lucy’s questions by adding one of the most romantically heartbreaking scenes on film as Daniel realizes he needs to allow his Lucia to live her human life. Visiting her as she sleeps with dawn pouring in the windows, he speaks to her with great tenderness of making her life among the living. “It’s been a dream, Lucia. In the morning and the years after, you’ll only remember it as a dream.”

He has kept his composure to this point but then his grief can’t be held back anymore. “What we missed, Lucia. What we’ve both missed,” he says with inescapable pain in his voice.

In another book or film, that could be the end, but not here. Instead, it starts another chapter. There is still more life for both Lucy Muir and Captain Daniel Gregg to live.

Other adaptations beyond the movie

Radio plays: About seven months after the film’s release in 1947, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” became an hour-long radio play for Lux Radio Theatre starring Charles Boyer (yes, with his heavy French accent) and Madeleine Carroll.

A 1951 production from Screen Directors Playhouse also starred Boyer, this time playing opposite Jane Wyatt. The opening statement credits Joseph L. Mankiewicz as the director.

Television: For the 1968 family comedy series, the story was moved to Maine and Lucy’s name was changed to Carolyn Muir. Carolyn was played by Hope Lang who won two Emmy Awards for Lead Actress in a Comedy. Edward Mulhare starred as Captain Daniel Gregg.

For an idea of how light a touch they were going for in the series, it also starred Reta Shaw as the housekeeper and comedian Charles Nelson Reilly as the captain’s great-nephew.

NBC ran the first season before canceling the series which was then picked up by ABC for its second and final season.

More about the Classic Literature on Film Blogathon

The second annual Classic Literature on Film Blogathon is hosted by Paul Batters of Silver Screen Classics. About 20 classic film writers from around the world are taking part and posting their stories from April 2-4. Please take the time to read these stories on a wonderfully diverse selection of books and movies. Here is the link.