The Blue Gardenia
The Blue Gardenia is a 1953 film noir crime film directed by Fritz Lang and based on a novella by Vera Caspary, starring Anne Baxter, Richard Conte and Ann Sothern An independent production distributed by Warner Bros., The Blue Gardenia - a cynical take on press coverage of a sensational murder case - was the first installment of Lang's "newspaper noir" movie trio, being followed in 1956 by both While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. The song "Blue Gardenia" was written by Bob Russell and Lester Lee and arranged by Nelson Riddle. The director of cinematography for The Blue Gardenia was RKO regular Nicholas Musuraca, then working at Warner Brothers.
|The Blue Gardenia|
Theatrical release lobby card
|Directed by||Fritz Lang|
|Produced by||Alex Gottlieb|
|Screenplay by||Charles Hoffman|
|Based on||the novella "The Gardenia"|
by Vera Caspary
|Music by||Raoul Kraushaar|
|Edited by||Edward Mann|
Blue Gardenia Productions
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
The source novella for The Blue Gardenia was written by Vera Caspary and entitled The Gardenia: the eventual amendment of the film's title to The Blue Gardenia would be an attempt to attract filmgoers by reminding them of the highly-publicized unsolved Black Dahlia murder of 1947. The Gardenia first appeared in the February-March issue of Today's Woman magazine: however the film rights for the novella had been acquired almost a full year earlier, it being announced in April 1951 that its filmation - purportedly entitled Gardenia - would be a production of the Howard Welsch-helmed Fidelity Pictures, who originally negotiated with Dorothy McGuire to play the female lead, which was subsequently offered to Linda Darnell, Joan Fontaine, and Margaret Sullavan (had Sullavan played the film's female lead, [The Blue] Gardenia would have been her final movie rather than No Sad Songs for Me in 1950; Sullavan, who died in 1960, would have three television roles in the 1950s, one of them later than 1953).
In September 1952 the rights for Gardenia were sold to independent producer Alex Gottlieb with the film henceforth referred to as The Blue Gardenia: despite reports of the female lead role being assigned to Darnell and also to the little-known Vicky Lane, Anne Baxter was announced for the role in November - The Blue Gardenia being considered the second of Baxter's two-picture pact with Warner Bros. as that studio signed to distribute the film - with the film's two other top-billed stars announced the same month. Being cast as the film's second female lead would afford Ann Sothern her first cinematic role since being dropped by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1950 due to her health issues. Prior to filming The Blue Gardenia, Sothern had signed with CBS to star in the sitcom Private Secretary, taping the first episodes in the latter half of December 1952 immediately after her eight days of filming on The Blue Gardenia: Sothern's focus would remain focused on television roles with occasional cinematic forays, her next cinematic credit subsequent to The Blue Gardenia being the 1964 film The Best Man. The last of the film's stars to be announced was male lead Richard Conte, who had previously starred for Alex Gottlieb Productions in The Fighter: Fritz Lang, hired by Gottlieb to direct The Blue Gardenia, had hoped to cast Dana Andrews, established as the top actor of the film noir genre, but Andrews had recently begun a sabbatical from film work.
In 1965 Fritz Lang - responding to the assertion by Peter Bogdanovich that The Blue Gardenia was "a particularly venomous picture of American life" - recalled the film as "[Lang's] first picture after the McCarthy business and I had to shoot it in twenty days. Maybe that's what made me so venomous". Although Lang evidently recalled his career as being seriously hindered by the Hollywood blacklist, the interval between his being hired for The Blue Gardenia (announced October 1952) and the completion of Lang's precedent directorial assignment: Clash by Night, was not objectively an overly protracted lapse lasting only about seven or eight months (Lang would be hired by a major studio - Columbia Pictures - in January 1953 some three months before The Blue Gardenia was released). The filming of The Blue Gardenia commenced 28 November 1952 and was completed Christmas Eve, Lang wrapping the movie a day earlier than its 21-day filming schedule.
In Los Angeles, California, Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter) is a single woman who works as a switchboard operator along with her roommates, Crystal Carpenter (Ann Sothern) and Sally Ellis (Jeff Donnell). On her birthday, she decides to celebrate by dining alone at home, with the picture of her fiancé, a soldier serving in the Korean War. At the candlelight dinner table, she opens the latest letter from him and learns to her shock that he instead plans to marry a nurse he met in Tokyo.
Devastated, Norah accepts a date over the telephone with womanizing calendar girl artist Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr). When she arrives at the Blue Gardenia restaurant and nightclub, Harry is surprised to see Norah, since he was expecting Crystal. However, he has dinner with her, and encourages her to drink six strong Polynesian Pearl Diver cocktails. Harry then takes her to his apartment, where he shows her his pictures and plays the record "Blue Gardenia", sung by Nat King Cole, whom they had just seen perform the same song at the restaurant. Norah passes out on Harry's couch, and he makes a sexual advance. She awakens and resists, and apparently strikes him with a fire poker, shattering a mirror. Norah flees the scene, leaving behind her black suede pumps, and returns home.
The next morning, Norah is awakened by Crystal; she has suffered a blackout as to the events of the previous night. Meanwhile, at the crime scene, police question a maid (Almira Sessions) about what she found before she discovered Harry's body. She admits to cleaning the poker, which would have removed any fingerprints, and placing the shoes in the closet, so valuable evidence has been compromised.
At Norah's workplace, the police arrive to question women who had posed for Harry. When Norah asks her colleague about the questioning, she is startled and goes to read the Los Angeles Chronicle newspaper's account of the slaying. Norah has a vague flashback of the wielding of a fire poker and the shattering of a mirror.
Newspaper columnist Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) dubs the presumed killer the "Blue Gardenia murderess." He learns from the Blue Gardenia waiter that the woman was a blonde, and from a blind female flower seller (Celia Lovsky) that the woman possessed a "quiet voice". That same night, at her apartment, Sally reads the newspaper report that the suspect wore a black dress at the time of the murder. Frightened, Norah wraps her own black dress in a newspaper and burns it in an outdoor incinerator. A patrolman arrives and demands to know why she is burning materials at an illegal hour, but he lets her off with a warning after she apologizes.
Wanting to catch the killer before the police do, Casey writes a column, titled "Letter to an Unknown Murderess", calling for her to turn herself in. Casey receives many bogus phone calls from local women, but when Norah calls, he realizes she is genuine. After one botched attempt, he meets her in his office. She convinces him that she is actually speaking for a friend, not herself, and Casey tells Norah that he is willing to pay for top legal representation if her friend agrees to surrender. The two later go to a diner, where Norah tells her supposed friend's account of the murder, but still insists her friend does not remember the actual killing. Casey asks to meet her friend at the diner the next day. Norah agrees and returns home, where she confesses to roommate Crystal, who is sympathetic.
The next day at the diner, Crystal meets Casey and points him to Norah's booth, where Norah finally admits that she herself is the woman he has been looking for. He feels shocked, because he had begun to fall in love with her. He also feels guilty, admitting to Norah that he was only pretending sympathy for the alleged killer when he thought it was someone other than her. Shortly afterward, the police arrive and arrest Norah. Bitter and confused, she mistakenly believes that Casey is the one who turned her in. (It was actually a diner employee.)
At an airport, Casey, with his colleague Al (Richard Erdman), notices that the piped-in music—the love theme from Tristan und Isolde—is identical to the music the maid found playing on Harry's phonograph. Finally grasping the significance of the fact that the records on the machine had been changed, Casey realizes it's possible that Norah was not the killer. Following up this hunch, Casey and Police Captain Sam Haynes (George Reeves) go to a local music shop. Harry's ex-girlfriend Rose Miller (Ruth Storey) is working in the back room at the shop. The clerk tells the police that it was Rose who sold Harry the record, and calls to her to come out and help. Realizing the police are closing in, she attempts suicide.
From a hospital bed, Rose confesses that while Norah was passed out at Harry's apartment, she herself arrived, demanding that he marry her. (Although she does not say that she is pregnant, the audience of that time would assume that that was the reason for her desperate demands.) He refused, she says, and started playing the record that had brought them together. (That record being Toscanini conducting Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.) Then, Rose recalls, she noticed Norah's handkerchief on the floor by the record player, and out of jealousy killed Harry with the poker. Norah, everyone finally understands, was simply an intoxicated and confused bystander.
After Rose's confession, Norah is freed. She confides to friends that she has forgiven Casey and wants him as the new man in her life. Casey wants her as well, and tosses his "little black book" to his buddy Al.
When the film was first released, the staff at Variety magazine gave The Blue Gardenia a lukewarm review: "A stock story and handling keep The Blue Gardenia from being anything more than a regulation mystery melodrama, from a yarn by Vera Caspary. Formula development has an occasional bright spot, mostly because Ann Sothern breathes some life into a stock character and quips ... Baxter and Conte do what they can but fight a losing battle with the script while Burr is a rather obvious wolf. Nat ‘King’ Cole is spotted to sing the title tune, written by Bob Russell and Lester Lee."
Film director and writer Peter Bogdanovich called The Blue Gardenia "a particularly venomous picture of American life". Jans B. Wager stated that it is a "film that rigorously contains black masculinity within a peculiar studio set". Critic Dennis Schwartz gave the movie a mixed review, writing: "A minor film noir from Fritz Lang (Clash by Night/The Big Heat) that never has a chance to bloom because of its dull script. It is based on the short story "Gardenia" by Vera Caspary. It plays as an unimaginative newspaper melodrama that takes jabs at the middle-class and how neurotic and fearful they are about romance. Nat "King" Cole makes a welcome cameo as the house pianist at the nightclub called The Blue Gardenia, crooning in his velvet voice the titular theme song. Noted cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca injects the film with some intriguing noir touches, such as those ominous rain drops on Raymond Burr's window the night of the murder ... Lang himself in interviews dismissed the film as a 'job-for-hire'. ... But the story itself wasn't original and the acting wasn't engaging enough to elevate it past being a mild thriller."
Reportedly Ruth Storey, the actress married to the film's leading man Richard Conte, while visiting her husband on-set during filming, accepted the producer's spontaneous suggestion that she play Rose in the film. Though this role was small, it was pivotal. Another key role – although uncredited – was played by Celia Lovsky, a long-time associate of Fritz Lang who had been instrumental in Lang's casting Peter Lorre – for a time Lovsky's husband – in M, Lang's 1931 sound film break-through. Bit parts at the newspaper office were filled by the film's producer Alex Gottlieb and his wife, retired stage actress Polly Rose (sister of composer Billy Rose).
A Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of The Blue Gardenia aired 30 November 1954, with the lead roles taken by Dana Andrews – in the role Fritz Lang had wanted him to play in the film – and Ruth Roman: Andrews would later play the male lead in both the 1956 movies: While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, which were the second and third installments of the "newspaper noir" movie trio Lang began with the movie The Blue Gardenia (Lang was not involved in the Lux Radio production).
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- Arizona Daily Star 17 December 1951 "Hollywood Today" by Sheilah Graham p.11
- Akron Beacon Journal 14 May 1952 "Flimsy Films Fatal to Fanfare: so say Dean & Jerry after weak plot of 'Sailor Beware'" by Erskine Johnson p.12
- Philadelphia Inquirer 17 November 1952 "Monday Morning Gossip of the Nation" by Herb Stein p.21
- San Bernadino County Sun 9 December 1952 "Deanna Durbin Not Fooling Anyone With 'Retired' Status" by Erskine Johnson p.3
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- Wager, Jans B. (21 March 2017). Jazz and Cocktails: Rethinking Race and the Sound of Film Noir. University of Texas Press. p. 49. ISBN 978-1-4773-1227-8.
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- Philadelphia Inquirer 19 December 1952 "Reagan Set for TV Role with Wife" by Louella Parsons p.29
- New York Daily News 28 April 1953 "Palace Back to Films with 'Blue Gardenia" by Dorothy Masters p.54
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- "The Blue Gardenia". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved November 3, 2019.