By Joan Amenn
The year 1944 saw an intriguing film take a serious look at the supernatural. This was “The Uninvited”, a scary yet surprisingly sophisticated ghost story that even serenaded its heroine with her own song. Rarely since has a film been as subtle yet effective in delivering chills and foreboding atmosphere while staying faithful to its source material. Originally a book written in 1941 by Dorothy McCardle, “The Uninvited” has become popular among famous directors and lovers of the genre.
Brother and sister Roderick (Ray Milland) and Pamela (Ruth Hussey) Fitzgerald impulsively fall in love with an old house in the English countryside and eagerly track down its owner to try to buy it. Poor Ruth Hussey had just played a sensible, intelligent but almost dowdy woman in “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) and she was once again typecast as a similar character here. However, thanks in part to the costumes by the always brilliant Edith Head, she is much more appealing. Pamela’s level headedness makes her a strong heroine, but this film actually has two. The other is the opposite of Pamela in temperament. Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) is the sheltered, emotionally fragile granddaughter of the owner of the house the Fitzgeralds want to buy, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp).
Stella’s past is linked to the house but how is a mystery which has something supernatural very upset, much to the shock of the Fitzgeralds once they move in. “The Uninvited” is unapologetically about a haunted house with no plot devices to reveal any kind of tricks being pulled by wires or mirrors. However, there is a psychological component to the story through the character of nurse and close friend to Stella’s late mother, Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner). And this is where “The Uninvited” gets really interesting.
The year 1944 saw an intriguing film take a serious look at the supernatural. This was “The Uninvited”, a scary yet surprisingly sophisticated ghost story that even serenaded its heroine with her own song. Rarely since has a film been as subtle yet effective in delivering chills and foreboding atmosphere while staying faithful to its source material.
The Catholic organization known as the Legion of Decency was created in 1933 to target what they viewed as offensive and “morally corrupting” content in American film. They should not be confused with the Hays Code which was an inhouse monitoring organization sponsored by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America founded in 1930.The history of the Code and its evolution into the current American film rating system is a story for another day.
For the sake of this article, let’s focus on the Legion and their eventual concerns with the character of Miss Holloway and her relationship with Stella’s mother. Roderick and Pamela go to visit Miss Holloway upon learning that Commander Beech has sent Stella to stay in her “rest home” due to his concerns about her psychological well-being. He believes that her obsession with the house the Fitzgerald bought from him can be traced to her growing up in it and her mother falling to her death on its grounds. Miss Holloway shows she has an obsession of her own and it’s Mary Meredith, her late friend and financial backer.
When Miss Holloway describes herself and Mary sitting together plotting their ambitions for the future which apparently did not include motherhood, the warning klaxons went off at the Legion of Decency. They sent a note of alarm to the offices of William H. Hays, protesting that crowds of “unwholesome” viewers were gathering at odd showtimes to see the film. Whether this was true or not is unknown but “The Uninvited” also has suggestions of infidelity and illegitimacy as subplots that the Legion either did not notice or chose not to comment on. The ruckus was absurd and nothing came of it, but this was the 1940’s and Hollywood was seen as a den of perversion preying on the American consciousness.
It is smart and witty Pamela who first guesses a major clue to the mysteries of Stella’s past and the hauntings in her house. She is aided by charming and kind Dr. Scott (Alan Napier, who would go on to play Alfred to Adam West’s Batman) in bravely attempting a séance to confront whatever is crying in the night head on. Meanwhile, Roderick, who is a composer, realizes he is falling in love with Stella and writes her a song to try to express his feelings for her.
This beautiful melody, “Stella by Starlight,” was criminally overlooked for an Oscar nomination but became a jazz standard years later. Ray Milland convincingly attempts to protect his young love from the darkness in her past but he does not rely on science or the occult to do so. Once he knows the secret of the identity of the menacing spirit, he simply refuses to be afraid of it and dismisses it to the next world where it belongs. It seems that laughing at whatever is haunting one’s house can be just as effective as calling, well, you know who.