If you can read between the lines, there’s an extra layer in the story that makes the whole film just that much more satisfying.
It’s no secret the Motion Picture Production Code, which set the rules for most studio filmmaking in the United States from 1930 into the 1960s, included a prohibition against “any inference of sex perversion,” a category that included same-sex attraction. Of course, filmmakers still found ways to smuggle gay and lesbian content into their films, because the code was enforced by people who weren’t exactly geniuses and were most likely unfamiliar with contemporary gay and lesbian culture. Thus, some directors and screenwriters became skilled at including coded references to forbidden feelings and relationships in their films, which would fly over the heads of the censors and most audience members, while connecting with those clued in to the game.
One such film is Lewis Allen’s 1944 The Uninvited, which succeeds perfectly well if you perceive in it nothing more than an “old house” ghost story with strong romantic elements. It’s a beautifully shot black and white film, all candlelight and shadows and intimations that there’s something there that you can’t quite see. (Cinematographer Charles Lang was nominated for an Oscar for his work on this film, and even the studio’s insistence that a visible spirit be included can’t spoil it.) The cast is quite good, including Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, stage actress Cornelia Otis Skinner, and (in her film debut) the radiantly beautiful Gail Russell. It’s possible to enjoy The Uninvited without even perceiving the coded subtext, but if you can read between the lines, there’s an extra layer in the story that makes the whole film just that much more satisfying.
The film begins with two city siblings, Rick (Milland) and Pamela (Hussey) Fitzgerald enjoying a walking holiday in Cornwall (The Uninvited was shot in California and Arizona, but that’s Hollywood for you). Their terrier Bobby chases a squirrel into what appears to be an abandoned house, and they immediately decide they want to live there. The Fitzgerald siblings have a bit of money stashed away, you see, and Rick’s always wanted to quit his newspaper job and work on his composing, and this seems like the perfect opportunity. When the asking price turns out to be remarkably low, that seals the deal.
But why was the price so low? The owner, Commander Beach (Donald Crisp), explains he wants cash in the bank to secure the future of his granddaughter Stella Meredith (Russell). There have also been some reports that the place is haunted, but Rick and Pamela are far too sensible to believe such tall tales. They move in their possessions and their housekeeper, Lizzie Flynn (Barbara Everest), and all seems to be well—except that Lizzie’s cat hisses at something on the stairs that no one else can see, while Bobby has taken off entirely.
It doesn’t take long for more evidence of spirits to emerge: Flowers wilt, strange sounds are heard at night, the scent of mimosa appears and disappears, and there’s a mysterious chill in Rick’s workroom. At the same time, the Commander seems determined to keep Stella and the Fitzgeralds apart, keeping her a virtual prisoner in his house, but she’s a young lady with a mind of her own and soon develops a romance with Rick. They befriend the town doctor (Alan Napier), who helps them dig up more information about Stella’s parents. It seems her father was painter who got very familiar indeed with one of his models, a Spanish gypsy named Carmel, and both Carmel and Stella’s mother Mary Meredith died in rapid succession: Mary by falling from the cliff near Rick and Pam’s new home, Carmel a few weeks later from pneumonia. As part of their research, the Fitzgeralds hold an old-style séance in the house (upturned wine glass and everything), which ends with Stella fainting. The séance scandalizes Lizzie, who considers it “a heathen device to call devils out of hell.”
Also in the picture is the formidable Miss Holloway (Skinner), who was best friends with Mary when they were girls. Today, Miss Holloway—a sinister, black-clad figure in the mold of Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca—runs a seriously creepy but very upscale asylum for women. She keeps a huge portrait of Mary in her office, and waxes rhapsodic about her deceased friend: “Mary was a goddess. Her skin was radiant, and that bright red hair!” In case you haven’t quite gotten the picture yet, she continues: “The nights we sat talking in front of that fireplace, planning our whole lives. It wasn’t flirtations and dresses we talked about. We were no silly, giggling girls.”*
OK, we have several intertwined mysteries:
- Who or what is haunting the Fitzgeralds’ home?
- What is the Commander hiding, and why is he so concerned for Stella?
- What does Miss Holloway have to do with it?
Needless to say, the solutions are all intertwined, although you probably won’t guess exactly how (I didn’t, the first time through). Screenwriters Dodie Smith (of 101 Dalmations fame) and Frank Partos (The Snake Pit, The House on Telegraph Hill) did a great job adapting the source material, Dorothy Macardle’s novel Uneasy Freehold, while Allen, a stage veteran making his debut as a his feature director, demonstrates an excellent command of cinematic pacing and visual storytelling. Even when you’ve figured out all the twists and turns in The Uninvited, it’s a film that merits repeated viewings, just because it’s so well done. | Sarah Boslaugh
*The Hays Office may have missed the import of this passage, but a certain subgroup of contemporary America did not. One of the executives from the Legion of Decency, a Catholic organization that labeled films according to their moral suitability, sent the following report regarding The Uninvited: “In certain theaters large audiences of questionable type attended this film at unusual hours. The impression created by their presence was that they had been previously informed of certain erotic and esoteric elements in this film.” Now who do you suppose made up those “large audiences of questionable type” and what “erotic and esoteric elements” drew them to this film?