One of the tag lines in Midnight Mary’s trailer is, “I lure men… I can’t help it!” A scandalous teaser if there ever was one, but is it a true representation of the film? Hardly.
One of the most shocking blows ever delivered to budding classic film enthusiasts who grew up with films like The Bishop’s Wife and Come To The Stable is that Loretta Young, yes that lady, once played a gangster’s moll, a lady of the night, a girl who just couldn’t stay on the straight and narrow. This was only the third Loretta performance I had ever seen, and though Key To The City captured my interest, it was Midnight Mary that made me think, “This girl is good at this.” And even Loretta thought it was one of her finest films. (ProTip: She’s actually really good at breaking down what was and was not good.)
In comparing this performance to some of her other pre-codes, however, one must wonder how much of the greatness of Midnight Mary was contributed by the director, William Wellman. In the early stages, this was to be a film about a gal of ill repute, supposedly based on some scandalizing essays written by a former gangster’s girl. And while, yes indeed, that vibe stayed with the picture, Wellman’s focus on Loretta, throughout, and her incredibly expressive eyes leaves us wondering- is this girl really that bad, or simply a victim of circumstance?
While Mary’s story is, by no means, a nice one, the pace Wellman uses leaves a viewer on the edge of the seat. The scenes are quick, to the point, and though meaningful and emotional, are never allowed to drag to the point of becoming maudlin. Certainly made in a time where it would be commonplace to say, “Well, she did ask for this,” the movie never allows a viewer to dwell long enough to try to get to that rationale. One thing after another stacks up against Mary, and no matter how hard she tries to follow her heart and be good, it gets fouled up. And that’s exactly how Wellman laid it forth- the flashbacks span a 14 year period, but it all happens so fast. Haven’t we all thought that, in a time of our own trouble? “It all happened so fast, there was nothing I could do…”
Overall, the film still comes across as a truly sympathetic “women’s picture.” It doesn’t dissolve into pithy nonsense of love conquering all, of the outcome not really mattering, as long as the female lead found love. Simply sit down and watch Loretta in The Accused, from 1949, to get a glimpse of that. We don’t know where the future lies, for Mary, but we know that her truly selfless behavior is going to be seen in a new light. She’s going to be given a chance to finally be protected, and we like that feeling because more than anything, we want to protect her, ourselves. It’s all well and good that the person doing it is the man she loves, but the focus is more on the sacrifice made by good people to eradicate the bad than it is on the love angle.
Simply put- I can’t recommend this film enough. It is a perfect encapsulation of the struggle of a woman to survive in the most trying of times, and to be her own. Though a few principals in the making, Wellman and Young included, were thrown into this picture as a sort of “punishment” for outspoken behavior, the final product shines. I look at it as one of those wonderful moments in movie history that backfired on the studios in such a glorious fashion that it eventually led folks to realize that, hey, maybe we might listen to these worker bees from time to time?
Okay, that would be a long way in the future, but it could have helped. 🙂
This post is part of The William Wellman Blogathon, hosted by Now Voyaging. I encourage everyone to take a look at all of the superb offerings, opinions, and breakdowns of Wellman’s vast film career.