Well, it had been a few years since the movie-going public lined up for a helping of The Egg and I (1947), the back-to-the-farm comedy that proved to be Claudette Colbert’s last major screen success. Still in print today, the non-fiction bestseller by Betty MacDonald on which the franchise-hatching hit movie is based has just been selected as BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime (for a 1947 radio drama version starring Ms. Colbert and her co-star, Fred MacMurray, click here). Considerably less enthusiasm was generated by Mel Ferrer’s The Secret Fury (1950), a box office egg that, even upon delivery, was anything but farm fresh.
In 1944, Colbert left Paramount, the studio that had shaped and protected her image—spirited, smart and sophisticated, after initial siren turns in DeMille features. Despite being a shrewd businesswoman, the by then middle-aged actress stumbled from one middling project to another, playing roles emblematic of an identity in a state of crisis and a career in uneasy flux: a crime-solving nun, a terrorist-beset Planter’s Wife, a Texas Lady. Even her outstanding performance in Three Came Home (1950), for the ordeal of filming which she lost her chance at starring in All About Eve, had gone largely unnoticed.
The Secret Fury, the hysterical melodrama she starred in next, was filmed at a time when audiences were being swept away by a new wave of crime stories that were tough, gritty and low on frills. Unconvincing and anachronistic, it is an irritatingly contrived variation on one of those neo-gothic mysteries in which newlywed heroines distrust their brain much rather than those who stand to gain from addling it.
As if to compensate for the mediocre material or to suit her acting to the overwrought plot, the refined and often reserved Colbert was, for once, woefully overacting. Two years earlier, she had played a similar role in Douglas Sirk’s Sleep, My Love (1948)—the thrills-promising poster for which I acquired last fall—and audiences had reason to be less than embracing of mature (if immaturely acting) women who put their lives and careers in peril by marrying into the wrong families or listening to the advice of their Hollywood agents.
When The Secret Fury was sold to theaters in Britain, it was promoted with the help of the Exhibitors’ Campaign Book pictured above. The latest artifact to have made it into my collection of Colbert memorabilia, it affords a fascinating glimpse at the industry’s marketing machinery. Aside from offering cinema displays and providing advertising copy to be fed to the press, it encouraged exhibitors to adopt various strategies of getting a potential audience excited about the motion picture. Suggested activities were contests in which audiences were asked to match Colbert’s eyes, to share their wedding pictures, or accurately to recall recent events in their lives (something Colbert’s character struggles to do in the film).
Another “stunt” to create interest in the film was this “Visualised Brain Test Reaction, followed by the instructions:
Make an enlarged copy of this graph to serve as a teaser display in the theatre foyer, along with an explanatory caption and film credits. Lead off with a display caption: “Did these brain waves reveal the truth of her mysterious week-end?”
Meanwhile, my own head is gradually clearing after a recent fever; no longer content to feast on television sitcoms, I am going to take in one of Colbert’s earlier comedy triumphs . . . the wintersporting romantic triangle I Met Him in Paris (1937). As DeMille pointed out in his introduction to the radio adaptation another Colbert comedy, The Gilded Lily (produced by the Lux Radio Theatre on this day, 11 January, in 1937), the actress had been somewhat of a “starmaker.” Those who were allowed to throw their arms around her became leading men in their own right, as had Charles Boyer and Gilded Lily co-star MacMurray. Back then, Colbert had her pick of roles and other halves, and brains enough to go for the right ones.