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Gaslight (October 7, 2010)

The British playwright Patrick Hamilton wrote the play Gas Light in 1938. It was a big hit in London and again on Broadway, where it opened in December, 1941. In May, 1940 British National Pictures released their film version of the story in Britain, directed by Thorold Dickinson. Columbia acquired the rights to that film and planned to release it in the U.S. in 1942. However, the director of the Broadway play, Shepard Traube, owned the American dramatic rights, and was able to prevent Columbia from releasing that movie here.

MGM acquired the film rights to the London production. The script to the American film was written by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, and John Balderston, and the American script displays several plot complications that make it more pleasing, at least for me, than the 1940 British film’s script. The writers pushed for George Cukor to direct, which he did. Ingrid Bergman had seen the play in New York and wanted to do the movie. She had been working for David O. Selznick since the beginning of her Hollywood career. He would loan her out to the studios who made her films. Selznick would not loan her to MGM for this film unless substantial changes were made to her contract with him, which, presumably, she agreed to. The film was made from August to December, 1943 and released in May, 1944.

Bergman won the best actress Oscar for her performance and Charles Boyer was nominated for best actor. The American director Peter Bogdanovich wrote that the two leads did some of their best work in the movies for Cukor in this picture. The 18-year old Angela Lansbury, in her first film role as the maid, Nancy, was nominated for best supporting actress. Cukor said, “Now: the very first day on the set, she was absolutely at home—she had never acted—and she was an actress. She wasn’t as accomplished as she is now but she was an actress and she had the talent for changing herself physically without appearing to. And she had this rather sullen, bad-tempered face—rather impertinent face—it just came from the inside.” Cedric Gibbons, William Ferrari, Edwin Willis and Paul Huldschinsky won Oscars for best black and white art direction. The writers were nominated for the best screenplay Oscar, Joseph Ruttenberg was nominated for best black and white cinematography, and the movie was nominated for best picture.

It was rumored that MGM tried to destroy all the copies and the negative of the 1940 British film, but they didn’t manage to do so. It was released in 1953 in the United States, and now is featured as an extra on the American Gaslight’s DVD. I won’t tell you anything more about the movie, because this one depends on plot surprises for a lot of its effectiveness. I hope you enjoy watching Gaslight with me tonight.