Posted by Susan Doll on January 26, 2015
Tomorrow, January 27, TCM will celebrate Donna Reed’s 94th birthday by showing a selection of nine early films, including her first feature The Get-Away. My favorite film on the list is the crime thriller Eyes in the Night, which I have singled out as a Forgotten Film to Remember.
MGM signed Donna Belle Mullenger to a contract in 1941, just after she graduated from Los Angeles City College with a secretarial degree. During the production of The Get-Away, the studio fumbled around for a more marquee-friendly name. Donna Adams was trotted out for size until it was discovered that another actress was using the same name; someone suggested Donna Drake, but that was too close to big-band singer/actress Dona Drake. Even Donna Denison was considered, because the actress hailed from Denison, Iowa. Finally, MGM casting director Billy Grady came up with Donna Reed, a name the actress never really liked. When Eyes in the Night was released in October 1942, it was Reed’s eighth film appearance, more or less. (Two of her roles were uncredited and don’t always show up in filmographies.)
In many ways, Eyes in the Night is a typical b-movie from the Golden Age. Though b-movies are low budget and small scale, they tend to make good use of the skills and talents of the cast and crew, raising the level of the material. This stylish crime thriller is tautly directed by Fred Zinnemann (High Noon; From Here to Eternity; Julia) and benefits from a solid cast of rising stars (Reed), returning stars (Ann Harding), established character actors (Edward Arnold, Allen Jenkins, Reginald Denny), and a scene-stealing canine named Friday the Seeing Eye Dog.
Arnold plays the highly capable Duncan MacLain, a blind private detective who assisted in his practice by Allen Jenkins, Mantan Moreland, and Friday. Mac does not let his handicap interfere with his practice or his independence: He is an expert in judo, and he uses the senses of “hearing, touch and instinct with which blind persons make up [for their]lack of sight,” according to reviews at the time. Mac’s latest case begins when old friend Norma Lawry (Ann Harding) asks his advice regarding her 17-year-old stepdaughter, Barbara (Donna Reed). Barbara is an amateur actress who is dating her middle-aged costar, Paul Gerente (John Emery), while performing in a community- theater production. Norma and Paul had been an item back in the day, which makes his dalliance with Barbara doubly tainted. Spoiled, bratty Barbara believes her stepmother married her wealthy scientist father, Stephen Lawry (Reginald Denny), for his money and that she is jealous of her relationship with Paul. Mac advises Norma to appeal to Paul’s better judgment. When she tracks him down at his apartment, she discovers his dead body just as Barbara arrives for her date. The teen assumes her stepmother killed her beau. Norma immediately tells Mac about the murder, which prompts him to enter the crime scene only to find that the corpse is missing. Obviously, there is more to the case than headstrong teenagers, lecherous actors, and misunderstood stepmothers.
Eyes in the Night uses the visual conventions of crime thrillers to create suspense and to hint at the situations of the characters. At Paul’s apartment, high contrast lighting creates bar shadows from the staircase to suggest that first Norma and then Barbara are trapped by the circumstances surrounding the murder. Their finely defined shadows cast against the wall visually hint that both of them have a dark side to their natures. The shadows lead us to wonder if either or both could be capable of murder. Atmosphere and a brisk pace—the contributions of Zinnemann and his crew—compensate for some of the weaknesses in the storyline.
The cast can also be counted among the film’s strengths. Edward Arnold, who usually portrayed hard-hearted businessmen and corrupt politicians, had the opportunity to play a more physical role in Eyes in the Night. Mac seemed to be constantly practicing judo or fighting henchmen. The gimmick of the blind private eye was the twist to the detective archetype, spawning taglines like “Duncan MacLain, the Strangest Detective” and “Seeing Is Not Believing When a Blind Man Takes the Trail.” Eyes in the Night may have represented an attempt by MGM to start a series featuring Arnold as Duncan “Mac” MacLain. In 1945, Arnold reprised the role for a thriller titled The Hidden Eye, but the series did not take off. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, Edward Arnold was a highly respected actor during the war years. He starred on the New York stage as well as in Hollywood films. While promoting films, he traveled the country selling war bonds, using his position as SAG president to attract a spotlight to the cause. When costarring in a stage production, the entire proceeds from the box office were often used to buy war bonds.
MGM took advantage of Donna Reed’s Iowa background to construct an image for her as a wholesome Midwest farmer’s daughter. They played up her background as a family-oriented farm girl who grew up milking cows and making pets of ponies. Secondary roles in such series as The Thin Man, Dr. Kildare, and Andy Hardy helped push her as a fresh-faced girl next door. Later, her role as Alma the prostitute in From Here to Eternity was heralded as a complete departure from her wholesome star image. Hollywood mythmaking suggests that this departure was a singular event, or that this deviation from her usual roles came out of nowhere. In truth, Donna Reed was more versatile than acknowledged, and she played many characters outside her star image, including Barbara Lawry in Eyes in the Night. When Barbara lets her stepmother know that she was only seeing the late Paul Gerente to spite her, she spits such venom and vindictiveness that no hint of her Iowan wholesomeness remains. Curiously, when Reed lobbied for Alma in From Here to Eternity, it was Zinnemann who did not want her for the role. As her director in Eyes in the Night, he must have witnessed her ability to play outside her image. I wonder why he was hesitant to cast her.
Rounding out the cast is Ann Harding, a star during the early Depression who had grown weary of being typecast as virtuous innocents. When she married conductor Werner Janssen in 1937, she retired from the screen. Eyes in the Night represented her comeback to Hollywood. Though she appeared only sporadically in films after this role, she appeared in such respected features as It Happened on 5th Avenue and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.
Yet, all of these wonderful performers pale in comparison to Friday the Seeing Eye Dog, the real star who should inspire you to set your DV-R for Eyes in the Night at 10:45am. No dog since the original Rin Tin Tin did more to thwart criminals, rescue good guys, or mug so effectively for the camera. Friday, who was the son of Flash, a superhero dog from the silent era, climbed fences, scaled walls, opened doors, and jumped through closed windows in bursts of crashing glass. He delivered messages to the police, brought criminals to their knees, and untied the bound hands of his human companions with his teeth. My favorite moment was when Friday picked up a gun with his mouth and held it while Mac struggled with a henchman during a fight. One reviewer declared that “the dog deserved the Academy Award for his acting . . . he will amaze you.” According to his trainer, William Steuer, Friday knew 650 words and could differentiate between colors.
Like most Hollywood stars during the war, Friday served his country: He toured America in conjunction with Dogs for Defense, a not-for-profit organization that searched for and trained dogs for the war effort. Whenever touring to promote movies or to tout Dogs for Defense, Friday and Steuer frequently dropped by orphanages to perform for children.
In addition to Eyes in the Night, the line-up of Donna Reed movies tomorrow includes other notable films from her early career, offering an opportunity to see her progression from starlet to star. Tomorrow is also my birthday and that of my very good friend, Lisa. Lisa and I have always gotten a kick out of our indirect connection to a beloved star of the big and small screens. Happy Birthday, Donna Reed—and Lisa.
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