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Douglas Sirk- More than Melodrama: Sleep, My Love (1948)
Welcome again to Douglas Sirk-More than Melodrama, where we look at the films of Douglas Sirk before he became, well, DOUGLAS SIRK.
Today's film is 1948's Sleep, My Love, which reunites the stars of 1939's Midnight, Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche. But all is not glamour and giggles here, as Colbert plays a wealthy woman whose no-good husband Ameche is scheming to drive her crazy...
Hey, wait a minute, wasn't this the plot of Gaslight? Yeah, that's Hollywood in a nutshell: when a movie is massively successful, there will invariably be an army of imitators and rip-offs. As Michael Stern wrote in Douglas Sirk, "[Sleep My Love] belongs in the subgenre of films like Gaslight (1944) or Whirlpool (1949) in which women are menaced, usually by a scheming husband who has a no-good tramp on the side (p. 57)." Stern is only half right, for Whirlpool is about a woman terrorized by her no-good psychiatrist, not her husband (her husband is bland, but okay). Still, Gaslight isn't the first movie about an innocent woman being psychologically terrorized by some dude, or by a group of people in cahoots with said evil dude, and it certainly won't be the last. 2014 will see the release of Before I Go to Sleep, featuring Nicole Kidman as an amnesiac who loses her memory every night as she sleeps, and the two men in her life who may or may not be terrorizing her.
Basically, it's 50 First Dates, only more amusing.
Another thing about the "innocent woman being psychologically terrorized" tropes is that they tend to run together, which is inevitable when there are numerous imitators. Sleep, My Love opens with socialite Allison Courtland (Colbert) waking up on a train to Boston. She's understandably panicked, as she has no memory of ever boarding, even though numerous witnesses say they saw her. Already there are shades of The Lady Vanishes. She calls her husband, played by Ameche, whose character is aptly called "Dick", and he's all soothing sympathy (he lays it on so thick, you would know he's the villain even if I hadn't spoiled it for you). Gaslight again. Allison returns home via plane (honey, you live in New York, and you're in Boston, take a bus!), and she strikes up a conversation with affable Bruce Elcott (Robert Cummings). Though she's married, he quickly becomes taken with her. Gaslight yet again.
But a tryst is the furthest thing from Allison's mind, as she discovers she not only has no memory of getting on the train, but she apparently attacked Dick with a gun as well. Dick hires a psychiatrist to visit Allison. He arrives, and he has the bedside manner of Nurse Ratched. The psychiatrist leaves the room to phone Dick, but when Allison follows him, he's gone! And she calls the office, but Dick left a half hour ago! Dick goes from sympathetic to quietly tyrannical as he orders Allison to not socialize (more Gaslight) and to always drink her nightly hot chocolate "like a good girl". As poor Allison struggles to maintain her sanity, we find out that Dick is hoping to drive his wife mad through drugged drinks and hypnosis and inherit her money, so he can marry his nasty mistress Daphne (Hazel Brooks), who is itching to join the upper echelon. Meanwhile, Allison's friendship with Bruce deepens, and he becomes determined to figure out the meaning behind all the strange events happening to Allison, culminating in a climactic showdown.
Sheesh, even more Gaslight. Why not rename it The Lady Vanishes on a Train While Being Gaslit?
Tiresome Observation of the Day: That's a young (but no less craggy and imposing), pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr as a cop.
I'm just busting the movie's chops, of course. Sleep, My Love, though derivative and predictable, is entertaining enough. Sirk attempts to play the notes and the music of film noir, with only varying degrees of success. It isn't his fault, given that the screenplay is based on a novel that was just part of a trend in fiction at the time. Still, we do see the trademark in Sirk's repertoire of a sympathetic female protagonist, and a far from admirable leading man. Where Gaslight succeeds and Sleep, My Love fails, however, is that at the end of Gaslight, our tormented heroine Paula (Ingrid Bergman) finally regains her backbone and is able to strike back at her venomous husband (Charles Boyer), even if it is only a tongue-lashing (the priceless "If I were not mad" speech). Allison, though Colbert is charming and likable as always, is never given an opportunity to get some of her own back. She is forced to be the cringing, cowering victim from beginning to end, and it's so disappointing, especially since Ameche clearly relishes playing such a despicable worm. I have to say it is interesting casting; Boyer always had a shifty quality to him, even when he was playing good guys, while Ameche had more of a nice guy air, so it's interesting seeing him play against type, especially so soon after viewing Midnight. Cummings isn't that well remembered today, and he tends to get dismissed as "bland" by critics. I disagree, though while Cummings wasn't exactly oozing charisma, he had a natural charm, an easy rapport with his other actors, and fine comic delivery and timing. He's not John Lund, is all I'm sayin'. My favorite Cummings role was as the wisecracking love interest in the Deanna Durbin film Three Smart Girls Grow Up.
I'll admit, there are some laughable elements to Sleep, My Love. Because Allison is never once allowed to have agency or gumption, Cummings is the one who has to do detective work. And, boy, do things just fall on his lap! He is able to weasel his way into Dick's office, where he finds the receipt for an emerald bracelet he bought for his mistress (dude, keep that under lock and key!), and when he finds his way to Dick's partner in crime, Charles Vernay (George Coulouris)'s photography shop, he is able to rummage through the first drawer he finds and discovers a book entitled something along the lines of Uses of Drugs and Hypnosis. A little on the nose there, don't you think? It may as well have been titled How to Aid a Scheming Husband in His Diabolical Plot to Drive His Wife to Madness and Inherit Her Fortune (In Which He Will Not Screw You Over at the Eleventh Hour). Why can't all criminals be this stupid and sloppy?
Sleep, My Love didn't exactly wow at the box office, and even Sirk would pooh-pooh it later in life. It's a pleasant enough distraction, but it doesn't take chances or do anything you haven't seen before (cough*Gaslight*cough). I recommend it only because it's an interesting change of pace for Douglas "Suburbia is Bad, Here's Why" Sirk. It was sadly made at the twilight of Colbert's film career, but she more than bounced back in the theatre world.
Tiresome Trivia of the Day: Sleep, My Love was produced by, of all people, former silent film ingenue Mary Pickford. Pickford wore many hats throughout her career in addition to acting, and she served as a producer for 36 films. The last film she produced was in 1949, just one year after Sleep, My Love, for Love Happy, which was the final film starring the Marx Brothers.