Tag Archives: Dorothy McGuire

The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1946)


There’s a serial killer on the loose in a small New England Town. He’s after women who are ‘imperfect’, 40’s code for disability. Helen (Dorothy McGuire,) has been mute since she saw her parents burn alive in a fire as a child. She’s now the carer of a cantankerous old lady (Ethel Barrymore) who is living in a huge house full of tiger skins, taxidermy and other remnants of dead animals on the outskirts of town with her stepson (George Brent), her son (Gordon Oliver), an alcoholic cook (Elsa Lanchester) and a full time nurse (Sarah Allgood). Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), who first had an affair with one son and is now fooling around with the other, also seems to be living in the house. Why is not clear. But does she have long to live? There’s thunder and lighting, a roving camera that make the most of shadows cast, candles blowing out, a cellar full of cobwebs and murderous thoughts; flashbacks, canted angles, plays on point-of-view. Will Helen survive the night and get married to the Doctor (Kent Smith) who  loves her but who is away tending patients and about whom she has nightmares of not being able to voice ‘I do’ at their wedding?. Will she be able to scream? Will anyone hear her? THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE is a visually dazzling and hugely entertaining Gothic/Serial Killer film, and surely one of Siodmak’s greatest achievements in direction.

Mr. 880 (Edmund Goulding, USA, 1950)

mister 880



A gentle, agreeable, if inconsequential romance about Steve Buchanan (Burt Lancaster), a Secret Service agent on the hunt for a counterfeiter known as Mr. 880. The number refers to the Secret Service case file. The Mr. is the honorific bestowed on the case due to it having been open for more than ten years with no progress made on finding the perpetrator.


Steve discovers Anne (Dorothy McGuire), a glamorous  UN translator, passing on a fake dollar bill and decides to get to know her better as a means of tracing who she’s in contact with and how she might have acquired the bill. They fall for each other but their romance comes under stress when they find out the counterfeiter is nice, gentle Skipper Miller (Edmund Gwenn), Anne’s neighbour, so kind and good he only passes on a dollar bill at a time, taking care to spread them through different parts of New York so no shop-keeper takes too much of a punishment, and often giving them away to neighbourhood children.

Gwenn is all twinkle here.  As a child I loved him as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. But the  sugariness with which the character is conceptualised here can stick in the throat a bit, though Goulding directs with tact and prevents him from being too twee.  Lancaster and  McGuire play well off each other and Goulding stages the whole film inventively. I particularly liked a scene where Lancaster tricks Mcguire into a meet cute by faking a fight with his pal, all shot from the inside of an antique shop where the audience can’t hear what is being said (see above). There is also really interesting imagery as, for example, the UN sequences (see below).

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The film is visually interseting.  See for example, the shot below with  Gwenn in the foreground outside a shop with Lancaster inside, waiting for the counterfeiter he knows only by actions rather than by face.

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Mr. 880 was a minor success in its time and  an agreeable watch now,  if no more than that. My main interest is in seeing Lancaster in a transitional phase of his persona, moving on from the film noir years onto his teeth and muscle roles (The Flame and the Arrow, The Crimson Pirate) and pausing here for a moment in 1950 as, in Dorothy McGuire’s words, ‘the man girls like to whistle at’. See below for proof:



According to Matthew Kennedy in Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory, ‘(Darryl F.) Zanuck was forever hovering about. “Every day Darryl Zanuck sent down a memo about the previous day’s rushed, and it contained the most brilliant analysis of what was wrong  and what was right about what we had done,” said Lancaster Zanuck’s involvement didn’t turn Mister 880 into a masterpiece, however. It bogs down with Gwenn’s stalwart amiability, and with the banality of the love story. How much richer Mister 880 might have been had Gwenn had just a trace of malice in him. As is, we are dared not to root for him. As Mister 880 is set up, that like kicking puppies or swearing at nuns’ (p.260).

José Arroyo

Camera Over Hollywood: Photographs by John Swope 1936-1938


I’ve only just discovered Camera Over Hollywood: Photographs by John Swope 1936-1938, and a discovery it is. John Swope was a life-long friend of Henry Fonda, James Stewart and Josh Logan. They all met in their early twenties when they were part of the University Players theatre troupe in West Falmouth, Cape Code, Massachussetts; and they all found success: Josh Logan as a legendary writer and director  in post-war Broadway (and a rather mediocre film director); Swope as a photographer and regular contributor to LIFE magazine; Fonda and Stewart need no introduction.

Joint Christmas card from Henry Fonda, John Swope, James Stewart and Josh Logan

The book shows us photographs of Hollywood at work (extras waiting on sets, cinematographer James Wong Howe behind the camera, the building of entire cities on the lot) and at play (James Stewart on dates with Olivia de Havilland and Norma Shearer); in front of the camera (Anne Rutherford posing with her dog) and off-stage (Rosalind Russell reading the script for The Citadel in bed; Charles Boyer in his dressing room).

Swope had unparalleled access to the studios, not only through his friendships with Fonda, Stewart and Logan but also via his enduring marriage to Dorothy McGuire as well as his own considerable credentials as a photographer and theatrical producer. And he doesn’t just show us the insides of the studios. I was particularly interested in his documenting of film-going, the continued emphasis on sex (see two images below), and the changes in the fortunes of particular stars that narratives of their careers signal but don’t  well convey.


In the image above, note how the cinema’s main feature is Stage Door but how they’re also showing Ellis Island and a Mickey Mouse cartoon as part of the bill. Note also how over the box office Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn are both billed above the title, though Hepburn’s name is misspelled. In the film print I saw Hepburn was billed first, probably a contractual obligation. But the manager of this particular theatre clearly thought Rogers was more of a draw in 1937. Moreover, if you look closely at the lobby cards and posters roughly pasted together between the two men, you’ll note that Ginger Rogers gets much bigger billing and that Hepburn and Adolf Menjou —  immediately underneath her name —  are barely discernible. A much clearer sign of the descent of Hepburn’s stardom with the filmgoing audience, in what is historically seen as one of her few hits of this period, and before she is officially designated box office poison, than any account I’ve ever read.

It’s a marvellous book of insightful photographs at a key period in Hollywood’s history. The introduction is by Dennis Hopper who credits Swope with getting him into pictures,


José Arroyo



The Spiral Staircase. (Robert Siodmak, USA, 1945)

The Spiral staircase 1946



A High-Concept film avant la lettre. There’s a serial killer on the loose in a small New England town early into the 20th-Century. The killer generally chooses women with some kind of imperfection, and our heroine, Dorothy McGuire, a maid who works in a mansion for a rich family, is mute. The film delights with every Gothic thriller cliché in the book: an orphaned heroine in an overstuffed mansion full of spiral staircases and dark corners, a Freudian explanation to McGuire’s muteness, music that positively telegraphs what you’re meant to feel, a portentous Surreal dream sequence, a camera that takes you right into the killer’s eye but not quite into his mind(at least until the end),  a McGuffin, candle-lights that blow out, streaming wind, pouring rain, dark cellars, and a narrative that keeps taking you down false-corridors but never quite cheats. The question is not whether the killer will get the star; nobody kills the star in a big-budget studio film in 1945 Hollywood.  Instead the film taunts and teases us to wonder who the killer might be and when exactly the star will scream.

The cast is quite good if not quite top grade (Dorothy McGuire and George Brent instead of, say, Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer). McGuire is effective if a bit out of her league; Brent is Brent no matter what league he’s in; and there’s a reason we no longer remember Kent Smith and Gordon Oliver, even after playing   important roles such as here. The rest of the supporting cast, however, is a film buff’s delight (Elsa Lanchester as the scullery maid that likes her nip of brandy, Ethel Barrymore as a bed-ridden matron who’s handy with a gun; Rhonda Fleming, before she became the Technicolor hottie with the flaming red hair in low-budget spectacles, as, I kid you not, a secretary).

The real star, however, is director Robert Siodmak: his camera movements alone are a thrill to see; they creep, glide, close in, pay attention, sweep, peek, penetrate; all in wonderful compositions that will elicit awe and joy in those who can appreciate them. Nicholas Musuruca, who was also dop on Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1942) and Out of the Past (Tourneur again, USA, 1947), produces wonderful work on camera here as well. A classic which perhaps has been slightly overlooked because it begs comparison with Hitchock’s work, indeed solicits it, his influence is everywhere evident here, and slightly falls short.

It’s worth noting here that I paid £7.40 to see it at the Electric Cinema in Birmingham where they showed it in what seemed a not-very-good DVD and had to be told-off by me because they were showing it in the wrong ratio.

It might also be worth noting that when the cinema is very dark (as it should be and as the Electric was) when sparse, high contrast, quasi-noir lighting like this goes very dark, as the eye focuses on the source of light, the image seems to expand into wide-screen. I wonder if this is just my own personal perception or if the experience is more widespread.

José Arroyo