Friday, January 26, 2018

Not as a Stranger (1955)



"It isn't enough for you to have a brain. You have to have a heart."

Producer Stanley Kramer had staked his claim in Hollywood. After a string of successful films, he was ready to tackle being a director. For his directorial debut, he set his sights on Morton Tompson's bestselling novel Not as a Stranger. A huge hit with the public, the almost 1,000 page novel explored the work and social lives of doctors and nurses with a focus on its main character Lucas Marsh. Kramer was excited to adapt the story that took the nation by storm and he wanted to go big. He needed big stars and a big production. Little did Kramer know what he was getting into.



Medical student Lucas Marsh (Robert Mitchum) will do anything to be a doctor. His best friend Al (Frank Sinatra) and buddy Brundage (Lee Marvin) know it. When Marsh goes home to get some of the money he inherited from his mother, he finds that his drunken father Joe (Lon Chaney Jr.) has spent it all. After hearing some harsh words from Joe, Lucas goes back to school with a major dilemma. If he doesn't pay the rest of his tuition bill in 30 days he's out. Even the lab gig his professor Dr. Aarons (Broderick Crawford) and the check he forked over isn't enough. Lucas has been chatting with the talented Swedish nurse Kristina Hedgivson (Olivia de Havilland). At a family dinner Kristina's sister Bruni (Virginia Christine) and brother-in-law Oley (Harry Morgan), Lucas discovers that Kristina has several thousand dollars stashed away. He speeds up their romance and marries Kristina for the money and the chance to be a doctor, even though his buddy Al warns him that it's not a good idea. Eventually the couple moves to a small town where Lucas will replace the resident doctor (Charles Bickford) but he encounters the gorgeous and seductive widow Harriet Lang (Gloria Grahame). With his marriage in jeopardy, Lucas is also faced with a major operation that will test his skills as a doctor.

Not as a Stranger (1955) is a medical melodrama. To prepare for their parts, Mitchum, Sinatra and Crawford attended an autopsy in a hospital theater much like one in the beginning of the film and Mitchum and de Havilland had extensive training for the different surgery scenes. While Not as a Stranger an interesting look at hospital dynamics and the science of medicine circa the 1950s, this movie has some serious problems. At first I was annoyed by the over-the-top music and the fake Swedish accents and the sluggish pacing. But then I was frustrated by the fact that Mitchum, my favorite actor of all time, who could save pretty much any film, was terribly miscast. Perhaps it was a combination of various factors but Mitchum's Lucas is a very flat character. We don't get to learn enough about him or to connect with him for him to be fully dimensional. Olivia de Havilland serves well as the moral center of the film. Frank Sinatra is absolutely necessary to keep this film going. He's not only the voice of reason but he gives the movie some levity that it so desperately needs. The movie is overly long and at least 30-40 minutes could have been easily cut. What saves it is the wonderful cast and interesting subject matter.

Stanley Kramer, Olivia de Havilland, Frank Sinatra and Robert Mitchum on the set.

Kramer wanted to go big or go home. But perhaps he should have gone home. According to Don Lochte, in later years Kramer called the making of this movie "ten weeks of hell." Robert Mitchum told Lochte that "Stanley stays in his own way as a director." It wouldn't be fair to say this is all Kramer's fault. According to Mitchum biographer Lee Server, "Kramer had unwittingly loaded the picture with a number of Hollywood's most ferocious drinkers". Putting Mitchum, Chaney, Sinatra, Marvin, McCormick and Crawford in one movie might not have been the best idea. But Kramer believed in this cast. Lee Server in his book Baby I Don't Care wrote that there was a lot of hype for the movie adaptation. When news broke that Robert Mitchum would play Lucas Marsh, fans of the book were outraged. They didn't think he could pull off such a sensitive part. Kramer stood by Mitchum and proceeded.

It didn't turn out to be a total disaster. Not as a Stranger cost $2 million and made over $7 million at the box office. According to Frank Sinatra biographer James Kaplan, Sinatra was in the midst of a comeback and needed to keep working so accepting third billing and a smaller part was just something he had to do. Coming off of From Here to Eternity, Frank Sinatra still had something to prove if he wanted to be a big leading star in the movies. Not as a Stranger got him in front of audiences and kept that momentum going he desperately needed.

Olivia de Havilland and Gloria Grahame play polar opposites in a love triangle with Robert Mitchum. Their roles suited their particular strengths well. I wish De Havilland wasn't made to have that Swedish accent but I enjoyed her performance and for a while there she convinced me she was a trained nurse. Grahame was at this point becoming self-conscious about her appearance and was stuffing tissue underneath her front lip which makes her scenes kind of unbearable to watch.

During the making of this film, Mitchum, Sinatra and Crawford had some drinks with Joe DiMaggio and set after to break into Marilyn Monroe's apartment to get the couple back together. They broke into the wrong apartment in what was then called the "Wrong Door Raid."

I can't tell you not to watch Not as a Stranger. This film has such a fantastic cast and such an interesting backstory it would be a shame to ignore it.



Not as a Stranger (1955) is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. Besides a few issues in the beginning of the film, the Blu-Ray looks great. The extras include captions, various trailers and film commentary by Troy Howarth.

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of the Blu-Ray to review!

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