William Holden never seems out of place in The Moon Is Blue, but occasionally the film seems out of place having William Holden in its lead role. He’s not mundane, he’s a star. The film isn’t about the mundane but it needs to acknowledge the possibility of it. Holden ain’t it.
He’s top-billed but not the protagonist. At the start, it plays like he might be, but no. The protagonist is Maggie McNamara. The film just follows Holden because–star wattage or not–he’s a lot easier to figure out than McNamara. The film covers the first twenty or so hours of them knowing one another (it’s a play adaptation). In that time, Holden picks up McNamara at the Empire State Building, they have dinner at his apartment, she meets his neighbors (David Niven and Dawn Addams), her father (Tom Tully) punches Holden out, Holden watches her on TV (she’s an aspiring actress, he’s a successful but not famous architect). A lot happens in the film’s ninety-nine minute runtime.
Being a stage adaptation, there are limited locations. About seven total. Most of the film takes place in Holden’s apartment, where he and McNamara stop off before an impromptu dinner date. They get there by cab, which is when Moon starts forecasting its twist. McNamara is going to talk real–Moon was infamous at time of release for the onscreen use of the word, “virgin”–and she’s fairly aware of what Holden (and then Niven) have in mind for her.
So a lot of Moon Is Blue is McNamara saying something honest and unvarnished to Holden or Niven (sometimes both) and the men reacting. It plays out, usually, in an approximation of real-time. Holden goes into the evening aware of McNamara’s disinterest in being seduced, Niven comes into it wondering (but very gently) if he can get around it. Age also plays a factor. Twenty-two-year-old McNamara wants a middle-aged man; thirty-year-old Holden (well, thirty-five playing thirty) isn’t old enough. Forty-one-year-old Niven (actually forty-three) more fits the bill, but by the time she meets him, she’s smitten with Holden.
Of course, Holden’s just broken Niven’s daughter’s heart. Addams is the daughter. She and Holden’s failed romance subplot gets introduced quietly in the first act, but really plays through in the second. Second act is where Moon gives up the pretense of not being McNamara’s movie.
She’s excellent. The part’s quirky and McNamara keeps up with it, always ready for Holden or Niven’s reactions. Holden’s good but his part is thin. Thinner than Niven’s, who’s just a rich, lovable lech. Moon stops Holden’s character development at the end of the first act (even when there are later revelations, they don’t turn out to be consequential at all). It’s not his story, it can’t pretend to be. And Holden keeps getting better, the less there is for him to do. Wonky third act material or not, Holden’s great in it.
Niven’s hilarious. He doesn’t have much character development, but Niven’s performance is so loud it both doesn’t matter and seems like there’s more depth to him.
Addams is basically caricature. She’s fine. Great costumes for her (courtesy Don Loper). While her character is important to the narrative, it’s not a big part for Addams. Intentionally, the costumes end up doing a lot of the heavy lifting.
F. Hugh Herbert’s screenplay (from his stage play) is good. The dialogue is better than the plotting, which falls apart in the third act.
Preminger’s direction is superb with the actors, strong with the pacing, troublesome with the composition. He’ll compose these excellent two or three shots, in medium or long, but his close-ups are dull. It works because the performances are so good, it just doesn’t excel. Much in Moon Is Blue excels. Preminger doesn’t keep pace, stylistically.
Even with the third act hiccups and the bland close-ups, The Moon Is Blue is still an excellent comedy. McNamara, Holden, and Niven do no wrong.
Directed by Otto Preminger; screenplay by F. Hugh Herbert, based on their play; director of photography, Ernest Laszlo; edited by Ronald Sinclair; music by Herschel Burke Gilbert; produced by Preminger and Herbert; released by United Artists.
Starring Maggie McNamara (Patty O’Neill), William Holden (Donald Gresham), David Niven (David Slater), Dawn Addams (Cynthia Slater), and Tom Tully (Michael O’Neill).