The Blue Gardenia (1953)
“The clinch-and-kill girl they called…’The Blue Gardenia!'” That dramatic tagline, as well as its partner, “There was nothing lily-white about her!” on the poster are misleading but delightful. “Clinch-and-kill girl?” What a term. These slogans present a wild, violent, sexy thriller, which is somewhat true. But it’s more of a suspenseful film noir about a murder, amnesia, and a hardboiled reporter out to find the truth.
The Blue Gardenia (1953) was based on a short story by Vera Caspary, author of Laura and many other novels, stories, and screenplays. It was directed by the master of the genre, Fritz Lang, and contains his usual expressionistic touches and sense of doom, though it remains a minor entry in his filmography.
Unlike Lang’s other, more canonized film noirs such as The Big Heat (1953) and While the City Sleeps (1956), The Blue Gardenia was filmed in only twenty days and didn’t set the film world on fire. This despite its use of a “revolutionary dolly” invented by Lang and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca that allowed long take tracking shots that give the film “an intimacy comparable to handheld photography.” So look for those.
The Blue Gardenia stars Anne Baxter, Richard Conte, and Ann Sothern. Baxter had recently won an Academy Award for All About Eve (1950). Opposite her is film noir actor extraordinaire, Richard Conte. He appeared mostly in war movies during WWII and then transitioned to film noirs such as Call Northside 777 (1948), Whirlpool (1949), The Raging Tide (1951) and The Big Combo (1955).
This was Sothern’s first film since 1950’s Shadow on the Wall. Sothern had a busy career in the 1930s and 1940s, and found particular success with the Maisie films, but she contracted hepatitis in the late 1940s from a shot of infected serum in England and had to slow down. The Blue Gardenia was her last movie for 11 years because she acted exclusively on TV and radio for most of the 1950s.
Fun fact: Caspary’s original story was called “The Gardenia,” and some claim the title was changed to “The Blue Gardenia” to evoke the sensational, unsolved murder case of “The Black Dahlia” that happened in Los Angeles in 1947.
In some ways, this movie reminds me of The Dark Mirror (1946), which I wrote about recently. Great cast and great director, but lower budget and faster production than their other films. It isn’t part of the canon, but it’s still a fun noir and definitely worth a watch.
To the film!
We open at a telephone company where ace reporter Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) works a story. It must not be particularly urgent, though, as he has plenty of time to flirt with a pretty operator while she poses for a sketch.
The operator’s name is Crystal Carpenter (Ann Sothern), and she is one of many lovely ladies Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr, whom you may recognize from Rear Window (1954)) has drawn for his popular calendars. Harry doesn’t just sketch the women, though; he also gets as many phone numbers and dates out of his assignments as he can.
As he draws, Crystal’s roommates Norah (Anne Baxter) and Sally (Jeff Donnell, whose real name was Jean but who went by her childhood nickname “Jeff”) stop by. Harry grabs Norah and flirts even when she explains that she’s not interested because she has a boyfriend serving in Korea.
There is something menacing about Harry. His size, his elevated position in the frame, and his aggressive “flirtation” make for an intimidating character. You can watch the opening scene here.
We dislike Harry even more when we see him reluctantly take a call from a very distraught woman. She is desperate and begs him for help, but he blows her off. And that’s the last we see of her…
That evening, Crystal has a date with her ex-husband, Homer, and Sally just got a new murder mystery from the library. But Norah has a big night planned. It’s her birthday, and she has arranged a romantic dinner for herself and a photo of her boyfriend. It sounds a little grim, but she is looking forward to it. She puts on a black taffeta dress she bought for the occasion and opens a bottle of champagne.
After toasting the picture, Norah opens his latest letter, assuming it will be a sweet birthday note. But it’s a “Dear Jane” letter informing Norah that he has fallen in love with a nurse and plans to marry her as soon as he gets out. You can watch the scene here.
Norah is devastated. So when Harry Prebble calls to invite Crystal out to dinner, Norah impetuously decides to go in her roommate’s place. She arrives at the swanky club, the Blue Gardenia, where Harry has already ordered powerful cocktails designed to loosen his companion’s inhibitions.
As they dine and drink, he buys her a blue gardenia from a blind flower seller, and the pair listen to Nat King Cole sing “The Blue Gardenia,” a song written by Bob Russell and Lester Lee. You can watch it here.
Cole was a very popular artist in the 1940s and ’50s, and he had appeared in movies as himself or as part of the King Cole Trio since the early 1940s.
It’s the film’s only “live” musical interlude, but the song drifts in and out of the plot for the rest of the movie. It’s very catchy! Fun fact: the Blue Gardenia is a vaguely Polynesian/Asian themed club, hence the decor and Cole’s “lei” necklace.
Norah gets drunk quickly, but Harry keeps ordering cocktails, and then invites her to a party at his apartment. But when they arrive, the flat is empty. He’s not an honorable man. Norah can barely stand up by this point, and she asks Harry to make her some coffee. The sneaky jerk adds a shot of something to her cup, and as soon as she drinks it, she collapses on the couch.
Then Harry starts embracing and kissing her, though she begs him to stop, tells him she wants to go home, and fights him off as best she can. It’s highly disturbing to watch this prelude to rape. Finally, Norah pushes him off and grabs a poker from the fireplace. She smashes the mirror behind her and swings it at Harry. He cries out, then she passes out on the floor. A whirlpool/vertigo effect shows us Norah’s state of mind. Fun fact: Baxter apparently tore a ligament when they filmed the fight scene.
Some time later, Norah wakes up, though camera effects show us her blurred vision and overall confusion. She runs out of the apartment, leaving her shoes and a handkerchief behind. Somehow she gets home and wakes up the next morning to a horrible hangover and no idea of what transpired the night before. You can watch the scene here.
Cut to Harry’s apartment the next morning. The cleaning lady discovered his body(!) when she arrived, and the police are frustrated because she also wiped off the fireplace poker, washed the coffee cup, and put Norah’s shoes in the closet! But the police don’t have much moral high ground because they tramp around the apartment smoking and touching everything.
Casey Mayo also snoops around and discusses the case with his cop buddy. It’s always amazing how reporters get total access in these old murder mysteries! For more on that and old style forensics, read my History Through Hollywood: Vice.
Casey is a better investigator than the police and starts digging up clues. He visits the blind flower seller and her granddaughter, and learns that they dye the “blue” gardenias themselves (since the movie is black and white, they don’t look very blue to us). But more importantly, the seller tells him that the woman wore a taffeta dress. She could tell because of the fabric’s distinctive rustling sound.
That afternoon, the police visit the telephone company because they know Harry dated many of the operators. But since it was Norah’s first and only date with him, she escapes their notice. It’s lucky for her, because she is a wreck once she sees the afternoon papers. She still can’t remember what happened in Harry’s apartment, but she knows she was on a date with him and is fairly certain she killed him.
That evening, Sally and Crystal discuss the murder as they clean the kitchen. The newspapers and Norah’s friends are full of innuendo and shame for the woman who had the bad judgment/character/morals to end up at Harry’s apartment. For example, when Sally reads about the woman’s black taffeta dress, Crystal says that the gown was probably red–a woman “like that” wouldn’t wear black.
When Norah tries to empathize with the murderess and suggests that she acted in self-defense: “Maybe he deserved it.” Wise-cracking Crystal replies, “Honey, if a girl killed every man who got fresh with her, how much of the male population do you think there would be left?” It’s a sad commentary on what these women think is normal and acceptable. Fortunately, all of that is over now in this modern age! Ha.
That night, Norah listens to radio reports of the crime under the covers, and freaks out when the announcer says that the murderer’s black taffeta dress is an important clue. It’s an unusual shot with the radio light.
Anyway, Norah immediately grabs the gown and burns it in the incinerator in the yard. The police drive by as soon as the dress catches fire, but instead of questioning her, the cop chastises her for using the incinerator at night and drives away! Woops.
The next day, Casey decides to catch the “Blue Gardenia” murderer before the police do. It’s become a really popular story, and he loves showing up the police. So he writes a “letter” in his newspaper asking the murderess to call him. He promises that she can trust him, and says his paper will pay for a good defense attorney if she gives them the scoop. We get a great newspaper montage of the printing press and wide-eyed readers devouring the sensational column before we land on Norah.
Norah is terrified that the police will find her at any minute, so she decides to call Casey. She is one of dozens of women who phone the reporter, but she is the only one who knows what size shoes the murderer left in Harry’s apartment. So thinks she is the real deal.
He asks her to meet him at the newspaper office, and Lang films her arrival in a beautiful, foreboding scene. When they talk, Norah plays it smart, finally, by claiming that her friend is the murderess, and she is just acting as a go-between. Casey believes her and takes her out for hamburgers and coffee.
He’s not sure he believes that Norah’s “friend” truly can’t remember killing Harry, but he’s distracted by his feelings for Norah. Norah likes him, too, and their business appointment turns romantic.
Casey asks Norah to tell her “friend” to meet him at the same diner the next afternoon. Then Norah returns home, feeling more relaxed than she has since she killed Harry. But Crystal is waiting for her. She wanted to borrow Norah’s taffeta dress but couldn’t find it, and then she noticed that Norah’s black pumps were gone, too. That, along with Norah’s strange behavior over the last few days, make Crystal suspicious, and she confronts Norah. Poor Norah breaks down. Also, this is one of the only scenes when Crystal isn’t smoking. She even holds a lit cigarette in one rubber-gloved hand as she does the dishes!
But Crystal is a great friend and decides to help Norah. The next afternoon, Crystal meets Casey at the diner to check him out, then points him towards Norah, who admits that she is the “friend” she told him about.
Casey is upset because he really liked Norah. Then he admits that his offer of help in the letter wasn’t genuine. He just wanted the scoop and never intended to assist the murderer.
After he admits that he was just in it for the story, Norah tries to leave, but the police arrive. She assumes that Casey tipped them off, but it was actually the eavesdropping diner cook.
Norah is charged with Harry’s murder and there is enough evidence to convict her. But Casey can’t give it up. He continues working the case and realizes that the record spinning on Harry’s phonograph when the police arrived was not “The Blue Gardenia,” which Norah told him was playing when she was there.
He goes to Harry’s record store with a police officer and they ask to see the person who handled Harry’s account. And–shock–it’s the same woman from the distressed phone call early in the movie! When she learns the police are there to talk to her, she slips into the bathroom and tries to kill herself. But they find her and get her to the hospital in time.
And then the whole story comes out…
Casey and Norah listen as Rose (Ruth Storey–Richard Conte’s real life wife!) hints at her pregnancy (back then, it couldn’t be stated explicitly, but it’s clear what she means) and Harry’s refusal to marry her or help her in any way.
She became so desperate that she showed up at his apartment the same night Norah was there. In a flashback, we see her begging Harry to marry her because she “can’t go through this alone.” But he remains unmoved.
Then she sees Norah’s handkerchief in the apartment and kills Harry with the poker in a fit of rage and desperation.
It seems that Norah was unconscious during the murder and woke up afterwards. She never saw Harry’s body or Rose, and naturally assumed she killed him. But Rose’s confession clears Norah, and paves the way for a happily ever after for Norah and Casey. Poor Rose is left behind and we never find out what happened to her.
The Blue Gardenia was in production for only twenty days from late November to December 1952. It opened in Los Angeles on March 27, 1953. Reviews were lukewarm.
Variety wrote that, “A stock story and handling keep ‘The Blue Gardenia’ from being anything more than a regulation mystery melodrama with just fair chances in its general playdates…Miss Baxter and Conte do what they can but fight a losing battle with the script.”
But Sothern “reminds that she has a way with a line or situation when a light touch is needed and the film’s pace and interest pick up whenever she is on.” Otherwise, Musuraca’s “camera work and the other technical creeds are okay.”
This mediocre judgment was reflected in a Chicago Tribune review that called Caspary’s story full of “trashy, trite twists,” and bemoaned that none of the actors “manage to wring anything out of the obvious and awkward script.”
Edwin Schallert of The Los Angeles Times took a brighter view. He wrote that the direction, stars and script are better than the “routine muder thrillers,” and that the script “has both mood and intenseness, and that is so good much of the way that you can almost stand for a banal and quite-to-be-expected climax.” Schallert also praised Sothern, calling her “the real life of the party,” but noted that Baxter, Conte, and Burr all do well.
Lang would go on to make more classic film noirs, and thanks to his fame this movie continues to be studied and watched. Richard Conte also appeared in several more film noirs and remained active in movies until the mid-1970s. Anne Baxter had a long movie career ahead of her, too, and Sothern proved a success on television with Private Secretary and then The Ann Sothern Show.
One more fun fact: Lux Radio Theatre broadcast The Blue Gardenia in 1954 starring Dana Andrews and Ruth Roman in the Conte/Baxter roles.