Call him strange, but CineSavant is fascinated by ‘women’s films’ that advance a consensus role template for American women. Then they ask questions like, “Is Hilda Crane a . . . TRAMP?” Ladies attending these films may have sought to stir up fantasies with a racy romantic adventure — but not too racy. What a tough nut to crack within the Production Code: ace screenwriter Philip Dunne chose this as his third writing-directing assignment. Jean Simmons gives it her best shot, but the screen is stolen by everybody’s favorite harpy, Evelyn Varden.
1956 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 87 min. / Street Date , 2018 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: Jean Simmons, Guy Madison, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Judith Evelyn, Evelyn Varden, Peggy Knudsen, Gregg Palmer.
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
Film Editor: David Bretherton
Original Music: David Rakson
From the play by Samson Raphaelson
Produced by Herbert B. Swope Jr.
Written and Directed by Philip Dunne
Women’s roles in the 1950s were a mess, and likely left most American women in total confusion. Marilyn Monroe projected the image of a sexy plaything, while Audrey Hepburn exuded elegant pixie charm in glamorous fashions. Fallout from WW2 saw articles and films exhorting women to get back in the kitchen and have babies. A picture called Woman’s World suggested that a wife’s duty was to complement her husband’s career, to make him look good in the corporate atmosphere. And funny Betsy Drake movies reflected a pragmatic, predatory female type intent on snagging a chosen husband, using lies and deceit if necessary.
A steady thread involved stories about adventurous women after something more exciting than marrying the grocer’s son upon graduation from high school. 1956’s Hilda Crane is a so-so soaper with some surprising turns. Its second- rate script is by two of the better writers of classic Hollywood. Star Jean Simmons, a formidable fighter who took on the tyranny of Howard Hughes and Otto Preminger without batting an eye, can only do so much with a character forever plaguing others with speeches about Her Past, Her Freedom and Her lack of terrific choices. We’d really like Ray Walston as Mr. Applegate to walk in from stage right and shout, “Get married! Have children!” Not because Hilda Crane should, but because somebody needs to slap her around.
As sometimes happens in films of this ilk, all the interesting scenes took place before the curtain rises. Beautiful Hilda Crane (Jean Simmons) of Winona Nevada attended college locally and was hotly pursued by two men, hunky-handsome Russell Burns (cowboy actor Guy Madison) and the faux-sophisticated French professor Jacques De Lisle (Jean-Pierre Aumont). She instead took off to make it in New York. All we know is that she ‘got around’ in business and romance, was divorced twice and is now back in town. Hilda’s conservative mom Stella (Judith Evelyn) offers a tepid welcome. She’s happy with whatever Hilda does, so long as no local scandal results. Russell is now a wealthy contractor. He immediately (too immediately) proposes marriage into the kind of domestic life that scares Hilda. Professor De Lisle is leaving town to pursue a writing career; he already has a potential best seller in a period romance about a notorious courtesan. De Lisle counsels Hilda that she’s the modern equivalent of a courtesan, a seduction maneuver that Hilda inexplicably finds attractive. Yet she resists and accepts Russell’s proposal. That brings in another problem, Russell’s mother Mrs. Burns (Evelyn Varden). A grasping monster with a heart condition, Mrs. Burns considers Hilda a ruined tramp and does all she can to scuttle the marriage.
We’re not sure what to make of Hilda Crane. Her plan to find happiness doesn’t explain what went wrong with her first two marriages, except that the first impulsive elopement with an athlete sounds fairly flaky. Did Hilda drink too much or sleep around in New York? Was she incompetent in her career, or were people jealous of her? She seems to think that she screwed up somewhere, but all we learn is that ‘things didn’t work out.’ Hilda does a lot of talking about the father she loved and the mother that didn’t love her enough. Sure, we care about Hilda, but the truth is that we don’t learn much about her beyond her self-interest and her self-pity.
The men in the movie are a total loss. Jean-Pierre Aumont’s sleazy professor/author Jacques is the kind of cad that winds up with three grad students accusing him of rape. When Jacques lays his ‘seductive’ line on Hilda (you want me because you’re a tramp) she really needs to respond with something more proactive, like running him over with a car. The attempt at the portrait of a complicated heroine falters for too much of the wrong insights into her character.
We also have no idea what the cardboard Russell Burns is like. Guy Madison excelled as cheerfully heroic non-entities. Russell makes with the flowers but proposes on paper. If Hilda took the time to ask him why he likes her, they might find a common thread. But the story thesis keeps Russell off stage, as a package deal to what Hilda considers a terrible fate: a steady mate, a comfortable life, stability. The story keeps the characters apart the old-fashioned way: Hilda and Russell never have a good sit-down to hash out differences. For a while we get a dose of the old ‘haunted portrait’ curse from various ’40s soaps. Only this time, the dame in the painting mocking Hilda is Russell’s battle-ax mother.
Here we’re let down as well. Russell stays remote because of the ‘curse’ of the mother, but he’s no potential Norman Bates. A simple conversation eventually clears that up. It’s just an excuse for Hilda to turn to the bottle. Oh, so she’s weak, too: the needle on our interest meter sinks lower.
The real fun in Hilda Crane is that aforesaid battle-ax mother-in-law. Evelyn Varden is so sincere as Mrs. Burns that we’re almost on her side — she’s clearly more committed to Russell than is dear Hilda. Hilda shows a backbone only when confronted with Mrs. Burns’ direct accusations and insulting bribes, so the movie picks up considerably whenever the fine actress Varden is on screen.
All the sultry sexy stuff happened off-screen in the past. Hilda’s present-tense escapades with Jacques De Lisle do not (I think) include any actual sexual misbehavior, even though they spend a lot of time together in a hotel room. Does this mean that the film’s provocative posters are fantasizing some theoretical trampy Hilda? And what’s with that image of a third man in the poster art? (↑) Was something cut out, a flashback to New York, maybe? The extra disembodied head can’t be Gregg Palmer’s Dink, the husband of Hilda’s best friend. Could it be Hilda’s very interested fellow-traveler on the Super Chief? Maybe they had sex in the dining car’s restroom when nobody was looking. Well, that would have guaranteed that Hilda Crane would stick in the memory.
Simmons is good as ever despite the lack of a character to play; we’re told that she’s much better as a domestic woman of mystery a couple of years later in a Warners picture called Home Before Dark, which sounds like a contempo spin on Gaslight. The great actress Judith Evelyn (right→) will forever be honored for her fine mime performances in Rear Window and The Tingler. Nobody remembers that she was Liz Taylor’s mother in Giant. Curiously, Ms. Evelyn has more to do in her small part in the epic The Egyptian than she does here — forget the expressive ‘silent’ performances of the other movies, as the one dimensional Mrs. Crane barely changes her facial expression.
Stage star Evelyn Varden (← left) lived only a couple of years longer, but her undying cult reputation among film fans was secured by The Night of the Hunter (“All I do is lie awake and think about my canning”) and The Bad Seed (“Rhoda Rhoda Rhoda”). Not even Ms. Simmons commands the frame as does Varden. The local woman who endured a hard life for her son continually uses the word ‘ain’t’ and isn’t a bit ashamed to be openly hostile to everybody she meets.
Second-billed Guy Madison received serious star build-up pitches from RKO (Till the End of Time) and Columbia (5 Against the House) but never escaped the Western mold; curiously, the movie he’s best known for now is a third-rate dinosaur versus cowboys epic, The Beast of Hollow Mountain. On seeing his good supporting performance in Castle Keep, I found that Jean-Pierre Aumont had years of classy European credits behind him. I still have to catch up with the ones that might make me a fan. His professor character here is pretty thin.
Not well used are the gorgeous Peggy Knudson (Mona Mars in The Big Sleep) and the dependable but vaguely disagreeable Gregg Palmer, who I discover I’ve been confusing with John Bromfield all these years — both actors earned special guest victim billing in sequels to Creature from the Black Lagoon. If Knudson and Palmer’s characters represent what the future holds for Hilda in Winona, she’d be better off washing dishes in Reno. Actually, the school shown in the movie is in Reno; the township of Winona appears to be fictional. How can Mrs. Crane be so worried about her reputation in a fictional town?
Philip Dunne is no slouch at screenwriting, but almost every important scene in Hilda Crane happens off screen: Hilda’s New York adventures, the death of an important character, Hilda and Jacques’ wayward toot in the hotel. So I guess that the ‘liberated’ aspect of Hilda remains theoretical. Not helping is the direction of Philip Dunne — every scene arranges characters flatly across the ‘scope screen. Dunne’s shots tend to be divided between two extremes, TV- friendly and TV- unfriendly. The first clumps people screen center, ideal for later pan-scanning for the tube. The latter puts them at either end of the frame.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Hilda Crane is quite beautiful, clean, slick and attractive. The color values in the art direction tilt strongly toward blue, a common thing with Fox pictures of this time. Fox went teal-crazy with their latest scan & re-color job on Desk Set, but as I’ve never seen this show elsewhere I can’t appraise what’s been done here.
They certainly didn’t find those nice color images for the disc insert on the web, as you can tell from my mangy selection, which gives no indication of how good the disc looks. Julie Kirgo’s insert essay posits the movie as an example of competent studio output, but then segues to her own take on its central character. Hilda’s beloved father sent her out to conquer the world like a man, a mission that experience taught her wasn’t at all easy. Who can’t relate to that?
The show provides an original trailer in wretched shape; it’s fun anyway: “Was Hilda Crane Really a TRAMP? Shocking — Shameful — Judge for Yourself!” A very welcome long-form extra is a full Biography bio on Jean Simmons, Picture Perfect. The quality TV show offers plenty of good interview input, from the late Ms. Simmons as well as others. The only thing dating the program is Peter Graves’ one-style-fits-all narration read. In his long career, Graves must have spent more time in narration recording booths than he did on movie sets.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good +/-
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, Trailer, Jean Simmons Biography docu, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: May 29, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson