By the ripe old age of 27, Jean Simmons had already portrayed many aspects of womanhood on screen, from gawky innocence to stately courtesans to noir femme fatales. When a number of films about worldly yet vulnerable contemporary women seeking renewed chances at meaningful romances starting lighting up the box office in the mid-1950s, along the lavishly mounted likes of the Ross Hunter/Douglas Sirk All I Desire (1953) and Magnificent Obsession (1954), it came time for Simmons’ step up to the plate for a similar “women’s picture” foray Hilda Crane (1956). This provocative Cinemascope/Technicolor production followed two 1955 outings, the low-budget thriller Footsteps in the Fog (a “bad girl” part alongside then-husband Stewart Granger) and the enormously popular musical Guys and Dolls, playing a prim Salvation Army “good girl” transformed by Runyonesque romance.
The property’s pedigree was promising: veteran Hollywood director/screenwriter Philip Dunne adapting a 1950 stage drama by the celebrated Samson Raphaelson (The Shop Around the Corner, Heaven Can Wait, Skylark), which originally starred Jessica Tandy in the title role and concerned the return home to Winona, Illinois, of a twice-divorced woman whose fast-living five years in New York City ended in unhappiness and the need to nurse personal wounds back within the family hearth. (It’s no wonder that Tandy and the play were both referentially reviewed to her triumphant A Streetcar Named Desire of three years prior.) Hilda desired to live independently “like a man” in contrast to her mother Stella’s insistence on a “well-ordained existence grounded in a solid family life.” Naturally, “solid family life” in Winona is far from ideal, particularly as suitors from Hilda’s bygone days present alternately intriguing and stolid romantic choices to the still restless and now “tarnished by a past” Hilda.
Interestingly, despite the distinctive casting choices of Jean Pierre Aumont and Guy Madison as the college professor and local architect to whom Hilda are attracted, the presence of two strong mother figures gives Hilda Crane an even edgier energy. Hollywood reliables Judith Evelyn (indelibly poignant misjudging romantic partners as Miss Lonelyhearts in 1954’s Rear Window) as the manipulative Mrs. Crane and Evelyn Varden (who originated her Hilda Crane character on Broadway and made vivid impressions as easily fooled busybodies who misjudge family relationships in the 1954-55 Main Stem run of The Bad Seed and the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter) as the censorious Mrs. Burns (mother of Madison’s character) create vivid impressions as protective maternal figures who clue the audience in as to the roots of mentally troubled Hilda’s divided character. The result is both scenic and juicy melodrama, including a death, a tawdry assignation, a suicide attempt and eventual, tentative redemption, which Simmons (who already has shown Twilight Time fans her dramatic skills as a star-crossed romantic in Desirée (1954, here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/17535/DESIREE-1954/) and a disillusioned wife in The Happy Ending (1969)) handles with a compelling blend of the “earnestly notorious” (David Thomson) and the achingly vulnerable. TT’s hi-def Blu-ray offers the first opportunity to give this neglected gem a look in its original full anamorphic widescreen form, with maestro David Raksin’s lush score on an Isolated Music Track, and a Jean Simmons: Picture Perfect documentary profile as extras. Meet the “many loves” of Hilda Crane May 22. Preorders open May 9.