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Vigil In The Night

23 Jul

Vigil In The Night – produced and directed by George Stevens. Medical Drama. 96 minutes Black And White, 1940.

★★★★★

The Story: Two nurses try to escape their pasts in a cruel and dangerous profession.

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The five important pre-War directors in American film – George Stevens, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston, and John Ford – all were permanently affected by it, as were the actors who went.

Robert Montgomery, Tyrone Power, James Stewart, Douglas Fairbanks, Junior, Clark Gable engaged in dangerous action in The War. Sweet Kid Galahad, Wayne Morris, flying a Hellcat off the aircraft carrier Essex, shot down 7 Japanese planes and contributed to the sinking of five Japanese ships. As did the whole nation, all came back solemnized by The War.

Before The War, George Stevens made comedies such as Swing Time, the best of the Rogers/Astaire musicals, Vivacious Lady with Jimmy Stewart, The More The Merrier with Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn, Gunga Din with Cary Grant, and Woman Of The Year, the first and best of the Tracy/Hepburn comedies. During The War, George Stevens filmed Dachau. After The War he never made another comedy.

So the pre-War Vigil In The Night comes as a surprise in Stevens work. It is serious. It is an ER melodrama such as we have seen many a one on TV, set in the nursing profession, with Carole Lombard in a role of the sort she was never known for.

The highest paid actress in Hollywood at the time, she ordinarily played lamé women of a highly volatile disposition in slapstick comedy. Here she is burkad in nurses’ caps and scarves and aprons. She appears to wear no noticeable lipstick or eye makeup. Because she had a scar on her left cheek, her face has a heavy, but matte, foundation. Her blond hair is seldom visible.

The story is from a novel by A.J. Cronin, who, like Keats, Stein, Maugham, W.C. Williams, was a medical doctor, so, written from the inside, the movement of the material rings true as narrative.

If Vigil In The Night had been a masterpiece, the film would have been a masterpiece. But unlike Stevens’ A Place In the Sun and Shane, no visual or narrative power on the part of the director can budge it beyond its convention of well-ordered melodrama. Its convention is honorable and solid, of course. It is narrative-driven. But it cannot escape the many corners of its own story. This story holds the film firmly in hand, and the only escape from it is the question that arises in the viewer as to whether the leading nurse will renounce her profession of nursing for marriage to the doctor who is in love with her.

This is the sole drama for the audience. All the rest of the drama is elected to the screen, moved forward there, resolved there. In Vigil In The Night, there is nothing for us to do. In Shane and A Place In The Sun there is everything for us to do. In A Place In The Sun, the power of the film lies in the director’s ability to leave an immense part of the story literally in the dark, at a distance, over there, for our delectation and voyeurism. To Watch it, a huge amount of imagination is called for, as to watch Shane. To watch Vigil In The Night no imagination is called for. The plot suborns it all.

The astounding thing about it, this being so, is the director’s handling of the material: the almost silent-film opening with its Bela Lugosi music, the angles of the camera, the overhead shots of the operating room, the director’s movement of the cast through wards, his placement of personnel, his characteristic use of windows through which to shoot, the taciturn handling of a bus accident so that, in not quite knowing what is going on, we experience the confusion of the episode, the management of every scene to make it unobtrusively interesting and right for us, shooting the child’s rescue through the slats of the crib, his arrangement of bodies in light, his ability to tell the emotional story through stark movement. From the point of view of treatment, Vigil In The Night is a masterpiece. Otherwise, not.

He produced the film, under the fine, overall production of Pandro S. Berman at RKO with whom he had worked successfully before. And as usual, he edited the picture himself. The only blight on the film is Alfred Newman’s music, which sentimentalizes emotion by supplying sentiment already there. Stevens’ soft spot for polemic also peeks out here – a trait that was to sink him years later.

What you have at the center of all this are four main characters: Carole Lombard as the career nurse, Brian Aherne as the honest hospital physician who must fight the head of the hospital board for healthier conditions, Anne Shirley as Lombard’s sister who doesn’t belong in nursing at all, and Ethel Griffies as the hospital head matron of nursing.

In scene after scene, through imaginative shifting of points of view and position Griffies holds the story in suspense as to the question of whether Lombard and her sister Anne Shirley can escape or redeem their pasts.

Brian Aherne, the archetypical leading man, is an actor of lyrical rather than dramatic strain, which perfectly suits the sexuality of the character he plays, since he needs to not claim Lombard without her express permission. Stevens films him with his eyes lowered in one scene; unusual for a camera to dwell on an actor like that; it suits the character perfectly.

As it should and must, the film retains our engagement because of Carole Lombard.

What is it about her? There was always the sense she was a madcap amateur, with the voice pitched too high.

Not so here. Here she is entirely under wraps, and one is given latitude to respect what she does and is. Quite simply, quite obviously, she was that rare combination of an actor who was both truly beauteous and, behind that, truly appealing.

With her hair concealed, the planes of her face emerge, and they are something to behold. Large, wide-spaced eyes. Mobile mouth. High cheek bones. A long, delicate jaw-line. Slender figure. And the voice, for once, placed low. Regard the slight movement of her exquisite brow. The features are severe; what lies behind them is not.

Technically it is a part hard to do without pushing and thus betraying the virtue we are expected to credit this character to possess, which is that of self-sacrifice, devotion to duty, a capacity for grueling, dangerous work, command in emergency, nobility. None of these does Lombard “play.” We are left to supply them, and we do, willingly. Thus we root for her. She herself makes nothing of them – and makes nothing of making nothing of them, as is right, for they would be already part of her character’s nature, and she and the director knew that the muscle of the story and her movement in a scene did the job. Lombard keeps it simple.

She had chosen the part because the wanted an Oscar. She had been nominated for My Man Godfrey, but she was not nominated for Vigil In The Night at all, and you can see why: the part goes nowhere. No alteration is available to her from beginning to end; no arc. She is superb in it, but superb is all she can be. Still, she is a perfect vessel for Stevens’ direction. Had she lived, one wonders if he would have used her again, as he tended to do with actors.

Stevens tells and lets the actor tell the emotion of the story with movement alone. By this I don’t mean grimace, expression, gesticulation. What I mean is that he makes the dynamic of the scene itself move the actors, not emotionally, but physically, to tell their story. You know what they feel by where and when they walk, how closely they stand to one another. For Stevens, emotion is narration, narration is actor placement, placement dictates scenic content. Stevens was the cameraman of Laurel and Hardy, and knew that their power lay not in jokes or in what they said or in slapstick, but in the collection of drama available inside the wider context of each scene they played. It had to do with the quite careful but unforced allowing of comedy to emerge – you find this over and over in Stevens’ comedies.

You find it here. Finding it here might not be enough to lure you to see this film, but Vigil In The Night is more than a text for screen scholars or students. It is master work by a great film artist. It is a masterpiece of directorial and acting entertainment in which every resource available to render the material for us has been engaged, invented, imagined.

 
 
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