Opportunity Bothers to Knock

Opportunity Bothers to Knock

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Sep 17th 2018

Quite a stage and screen career lay ahead for the recent American Academy of Dramatic Arts graduate born 87 years ago today. By the end of 1951 the Bronx-born actress had tallied appearances in several radio dramas and 11 live dramatic teleplays, and a screen test she’d done for a major studio nailed her a long-sought Hollywood contract. “Twenty-year-old Anna Marie Italiano, known as Anne St. Raymond on radio and Anne Marno on television, had dreamed of being a movie star for most of her young life. She was about to get her wish – and another name,” Douglass K. Daniel wrote in his 2017 biography Anne Bancroft: A Life. “The most important person she met in those first few days in Hollywood was Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of Twentieth Century Fox. Worried that an ethnic-sounding surname and her dark features could typecast her, Zanuck handed Anne a list from which she could pick a new name. The choices struck her as better suited to a stripper than an actress. She managed to find one that she liked and later remarked, ‘Bancroft was the only name that didn’t make me sound like a bubble dancer.’” Like those of many a future marquee-headlining talent, the screen debut of Bancroft (1931-2005) would be a modest affair: “Don’t Bother to Knock [1952] was a minor thriller by design. The script was based on a well-received novel published the previous year, Mischief, and for a time the movie was going to be called Night Without Sleep before Zanuck stepped in and changed the title. The film’s budget was set at $600,000, a ceiling met in part by using only interior sets on the large stage at the old Fox facility on Western Avenue.” 

Also by design, a major aspect of the project would be to test the dramatic mettle of another new Fox contract player, Marilyn Monroe, playing the lead role of a flirtatious but secretly delusional and unbalanced babysitter, entrusted with watching a child at a Manhattan hotel, while attracting the attention of a roving-eyed pilot (Richard Widmark) who’s currently estranged from his long-time romantic partner, the establishment’s lounge singer (strikingly played by Bancroft, though her warbling was dubbed by singer Eva Marley, as Bancroft admitted, because “I couldn’t have reached the high notes she reached”). Monroe and Bancroft were each paid $500 a week, the more established Widmark pulling in $1,750 a week. Director Roy Ward Baker, a Brit new to Hollywood but with a flair for thrillers that would later flower with Inferno (1953, a Twilight Time title), Night Without Sleep (1953, another Fox melodrama released a month later using the earlier discarded title) and A Night to Remember (1958), patiently and methodically steered the erratic and uncertain Monroe to an effective performance entirely appropriate to her character; he was also grateful to the support and professionalism provided by co-stars Widmark and Bancroft. Of the latter, Daniel notes: “‘She was a revelation,’ Baker told the film scholar Wheeler W. Dixon, ‘I mean, it’s unbelievable, she was so good.’” The two women shared only one scene in the film, the climatic sequence wherein Bancroft and Widmark quietly talk Monroe’s fragile sociopath out of killing herself. “Anne’s scenes with Widmark were about their characters’ breakup and did not include any intimate moments,” Daniel reports. “She later said that her sisters were disappointed that she could not tell them what it was like to kiss one of their favorite stars. ‘I found that Richard Widmark holds hands very nicely,’ she said.” Don’t Bother to Knock is primarily remembered, whether positively or negatively, as a Monroe vehicle, with Bancroft getting a passing positive comment in some reviews. But, Daniel states, she did start getting fan mail and “a different kind of reception greeted Don’t Bother to Knock when it played near her neighborhood in The Bronx. ‘We all went to see it at the RKO Pelham,’ remembered her high school classmate Grace Milo. ‘When she got on the screen, we all screamed, ‘Annnnne!’” Today’s Oscar®-, Tony®- and Emmy®-winning birthday nominee might possibly get a kick out of that reception from watchers of Don’t Bother to Knock on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Scott Eyman, himself a celebrated biographer, filed an astute Film Comment appraisal of the lady and Daniel’s book, accessible here: https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/book-review-anne-bancroft-life/.