Vigil in the Night is supreme melodrama. I mean, in its first ten minutes, the film manages to establish a small English town’s hospital, introduce stoic nurse Carole Lombard and her flighty sister Anne Shirley, throw them into tragedy and crisis, and kick Lombard into an entirely new setting. Vigil in the Night is an interesting melodrama in how Lombard’s not a suffering martyr, she’s a rejoicing one. It’s kind of iffy as far as character development goes, but Lombard plays saint perfectly.
She has a lot of help from director Stevens, who starts the film showing off a combination of miniature and ornate set. The camera just moves too. Robert De Grasse’s photography is effortlessly smooth. The camera moves around that small town hospital so much and so fluidly, it’s impossible to believe the film’s ever going to leave. When it does, it creates a fine jarring effect to accompany Lombard’s new position.
Steven’s style changes a little. He’s much gentler. He and De Grasse concentrate on holding shots, making Henry Berman’s editing do some of the work. Alfred Newman’s music gets more annoying–he has this one theme he uses over and over again and it sounds like a theme from Franz Waxman’s Bride of Frankenstein, which made it disconcerting for me, but also overbearing for the film. Stevens pushes on the melodrama boundaries and nearly breaks through in the second half, but he always relieves the genre pressure–read: retreats into genre–and he relies on Newman’s music to pull things back. Newman’s music blows the potential of some great shots, some great moments in performances.
Because, in melodrama, Stevens and his screenwriters and the film in general can get away with making Lombard the martyr. She doesn’t need to have a character as much as reject having one. She can become holy without too much trouble. Making her an actual character–she has less personality than everyone in the film–in a film about nurses suffering through terrible conditions for their patients, horny rich men after them, mercenary wealthy women exploiting them, the concepts of sibling responsibility and accountability, guilt, regret, loneliness, sacrifice. Well, it’d be a lot to do in ninety-six minutes and you’re not going to get the right tears or comeuppance. Stevens isn’t reinventing the wheel, he’s delivering an excellent melodrama.
Lombard’s good in the lead. She doesn’t actually have to do much. Anytime some earthly tragedy befalls her, just before she has to actually react, the film turns her into an angel. Stevens and De Grasse’s evolution of Lombard’s close-ups in Vigil probably warrant some better attention, just in terms of how subtly and gradually Stevens changes the viewer’s understanding of the character. Somewhere in the third act, I realized Lombard wasn’t the protagonist anymore–she was the film’s grounded center, while things ran wild around her.
Anne Shirley’s the most significant wild running thing. She’s the troublesome, callow, well-meaning sister. She’s Lombard’s sacrifice, but she’s actually got the film’s most developed character. It’s melodrama. The more drama a character has, the more development they have too. She’s good. She gets better as the film goes along and she succeeds in the role. It’s an unlikable part and Vigil has a somewhat peculiar structure. Stevens doesn’t worry about narrative transition, so Shirley will drop out of the film then have to come back and play catch up.
Brian Aherne’s solid as Lombard’s love interest. Ethel Griffies is awesome as the matron. Julien Mitchell’s a suitable toad of a horny rich man. Brenda Forbes and Rita Page are fun as Lombard’s sidekicks. Peter Cushing’s kind of disappointing.
Vigil in the Night does a bunch in ninety-six minutes. Stevens’s pacing of the film is exceptional. Lombard’s an awesome lead. The Newman music does hurt it. A better score might’ve done wonders. It’s an ideal melodrama.
Produced and directed by George Stevens; screenplay by Fred Guiol, P.J. Wolfson, and Rowland Leigh, based on the novel by A.J. Cronin; director of photography, Robert De Grasse; edited by Henry Berman; music by Alfred Newman; released by RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring Carole Lombard (Anne Lee), Brian Aherne (Dr. Robert S. Prescott), Anne Shirley (Lucy Lee), Julien Mitchell (Matthew Bowley), Brenda Forbes (Nora Dunn), Rita Page (Glennie), Peter Cushing (Joe Shand), Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Martha Bowley), Emily Fitzroy (Sister Gilson), Helena Grant (Nurse Gregg), and Ethel Griffies (Matron East).
THIS POST IS PART OF THE CAROLE LOMBARD: THE PROFANE ANGEL BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD and PHYL OF PHYLLIS LOVES CLASSIC MOVIES.