The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs

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THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS , released in 1960, was Robert Preston’s return to movies after a five-year absence.  He’d been gallivanting as The Music Man on Broadway in 1957 when this charged William Inge drama had run for 468 performances (Pat Hingle in the lead). Preston’s energetic, entertaining, often moving work here, directed by Delbert Mann, has a good deal of ‘Prof.Harold Hill’ in it: the character of ‘Rubin Flood’ is likewise a Midwesterner and a salesman.

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Unlike Hill’s successful Iowa huckster of 1912, middle-aged Flood suddenly finds himself jobless in mid-20s small town Oklahoma.  He has marital problems—sex-life with wife Dorothy McGuire has dried up and bitter arguments crackle; teen daughter Shirley Knight is being courted by troubled cadet Lee Kinsolving; young son Robert Eyer seems to be a mama’s boy.  Old girlfriend Angela Lansbury offers some comfort, while sister-in-law Eve Arden grouses with absurd theories about Catholics, to the dejected surrender of her husband Frank Overton.

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It takes a few scenes to get with the stage-like flow (tons of dialog), and the production values are somewhat studio tidy, but Inge hits a lot of triples and a few homers with his frank (for the time) language and understanding treatment of mid-life angst and growing pain confusion. It’s a good companion piece to his classics Splendor In The Grass and Picnic.

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Acting is excellent.  McGuire’s frustrated wife makes an interesting opposite to her blissful Mother in the same years Swiss Family Robinson.*  Arden gets juicy moments with her daffy rants and trademark sly delivery.  Overton (who’d done the part on stage) has the best role of his career. He was 42 here, seven years before his sudden death in 1967.  Eyer, 12, was the younger brother of Richard Eyer, famed playmate of ‘Robby the Robot’ in The Invisible Boy.  Lansbury gets to play it kindly for a change, as opposed to the vicious harpies she was often tasked with.  Shirley Knight, 24, was so good playing the teenage daughter that she was Oscar nominated as Supporting Actress (losing to another Shirley, Jones, a less-sweet Midwest 20s scamp in Elmer Gantry).  Kinsolving tends to overdo it, a tad Method’y.  Veteran bad guy Ken Lynch has a rare part showing some rueful consideration, his swallowed-gravel voice shaded here with some choked pain, unlike most of his 189 credits where he was a menacing, remorseless hardass.

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Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch get screenplay credit for adapting Inge’s stage work. Max Steiner did the score—he lays it on more than is helpful, but not bad enough to fudge things. Not successful at the cash register, it only made $1,800,000, a sad 97th place for the year. With Penney Parker, Paul Birch and Addison Richards. 124 minutes.

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*McGuire had become kind of Hollywood’s trouble-beset uber-mom. First it was the Civil War looting of her Quaker farm in Friendly Persuasion. Robert Eyer’s big brother Richard played her goose-chasing son.  Then rabies got her happy hound shotgunned in Old Yeller.  She was forced to choose between drunk husband Arthur Kennedy and hunk millionaire Richard Egan in A Summer Place while worrying daughter Sandra Dee would get knocked up by Troy Donahue. No wonder she needed to air some pent-up anxiety at Preston’s lusty blowhard. After this she was a widow with three kids in Summer Magic ,and finally, not having borne enough crosses, topped them all as The Greatest Mom Ever Sold, playing the Virgin Mary in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

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