Something to Live For (1952)

US / 89 minutes / bw / Paramount Dir & Pr: George Stevens Scr: Dwight Taylor Cine: George Barnes Cast: Joan Fontaine, Ray Milland, Teresa Wright, Richard Derr, Douglas Dick, Herbert Heyes, Harry Bellaver, Paul Valentine, Douglas Spencer.

Something to Live For - 0 opener

Advertising executive Alan Miller (Milland), a reformed alcoholic who now does interventions on behalf of Alcoholics Anonymous, is called by Billy (Bellaver), the elevator operator of a residential hotel, to come and intervene in the case of one of the guests, struggling actress Jenny Carey (Fontaine). Alan takes her out and manages to sober her up. By the end of the evening, though, even if they’re not admitting it—and especially because Alan is married with two small kids—they’ve fallen in love.

Something to Live For - 1 Alan's first sight of Jenny

At first Jenny (Joan Fontaine) resents Alan’s presence.

The next day Jenny discovers she’s lost the Broadway role for which she was rehearsing, having missed two read-throughs in a row. Though tempted to hit the bottle, she tries to get in touch with Alan. He has just been comprehensively upstaged by David Baker (Dick), the rising star at the ad agency where he works, Crawley Inc., and is himself in danger of falling off the wagon. Through a sort of tragicomedy of errors, the two keep just missing each other; by the time Jenny finds Alan, sitting at a restaurant bar waiting for a table to free up, he’s ordered an old-fashioned but fortunately hasn’t touched it.

All the folk at the office—notably his boss, J.B. Crawley (Heyes), and the artist with whom he works, Joey (Spencer)—keep worrying that Alan may have gone back on the sauce again, because he’s a rejuvenated man. In reality it’s because he’s in love. He’s far more eager to do something about this state of affairs than Jenny is, even though she’s single and uncommitted. In fact, although Alan is the soul of decency and understanding where Jenny is concerned, he’s on the verge of becoming a complete cad so far as wife Edna (Wright) and his two small sons are concerned.

Something to Live For - 2 Tense times at the Miller breakfast table

Tense times at the Miller breakfast table as Edna (Teresa Wright) suspects something’s wrong with husband Alan (Ray Milland)

Jenny tells him that the principal reason for her failure to make an impact on the New York scene is that she was once the lover of Tony Colton (Derr), a director and entrepreneur, a pillar of the New York theater, who made her his protegee and was incensed when she took a part in a Baltimore production under another director. When the play’s run came to New York, Jenny became phobic about the possibility that Colton might be sitting in the front row, watching her, his mind full of caustic criticism. Hence the drinking; hence the sense that her failure is inevitable.

Alan gets to meet Colton for himself when he takes Edna to a party that David Baker’s throwing to trumpet his own success. He discovers that both Jenny and Colton have separately been invited and, while he tries to talk with Jenny, is treated to a full dose of the man’s narcissism; as Jenny earlier pointedly said of Colton, “Outside of himself, he loves the theater more than anything else in the world.”

Something to Live For - 4 The obnoxious ColterThe obnoxious Tony Colton (Richard Derr).

Edna’s beginning to suspect that something’s awry, but she doesn’t know what it is. There are a few clues for her. At the Baker party Jenny knows that Edna is pregnant, even though this isn’t yet public knowledge. Alan and Jenny had a tryst at the Egyptian Room of the Met and Alan accidentally came home with a copy of Jenny’s script; he passed it off clumsily as part of an upcoming advertising campaign. And so on.

Jenny is adamant that nothing should come of the romance, and takes a part—once more in fateful Baltimore—in a costume play called The Egyptians opposite costar Albert Forest (Valentine), with whom something might well kindle.

Devastated by their separation, Alan struggles along until Christmas Eve, when he survives the office party drinkless and does his best to ignore the fact that The Egyptians, having had a successful out-of-town run, is tonight opening on Broadway. As Jenny and Albert are happily surveying the crowds outside the theater, a vast wreath turns up with a card reading:

Something to Live For - 6 The note on the floral tribute

It’s enough to make Jenny bolt for the nearest liquor store, and the next we know of her is when Alan, who’s just about finished decorating the family Christmas tree, gets an emergency call from Billy . . .

Milland was of course no stranger to movies about alcoholism, having starred in the far better known Billy Wilder piece The LOST WEEKEND (1945). For that matter, Fontaine had already appeared in a classic of doomed love, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). But, while Something to Live For has far less of a reputation than either of those, in certain aspects it far transcends them. The chemistry between Milland and Fontaine (who much of the time here uses a throwaway diction that seems almost to anticipate mumblecore) is excellent, nowhere more so than in the movie’s most romantic scene. Jenny has phoned Alan at work to tell him the news that she’s landed the part in The Egyptians. They agree to meet in the Met’s Egyptian Room, for inspiration (well, that’s the excuse), and they play a romantic charade of Alan helping Jenny rehearse her lines. This inevitably leads to a kiss. However, before anything can develop too far, suddenly Alan’s elder son arrives at the head of a phalanx of his school classmates, brought here for kulture by their teacher. The intrusion is a powerful reminder to Jenny—as is her later meeting with Alan and Edna at Baker’s ghastly party—that the man she has fallen in love with is not just married but settledly so and, as far as anyone can see, happily so.

Something to Live For - 3 Jenny and Alan 'bond' in the Egyptian room

Jenny (Joan Fontaine) and Alan (Ray Milland) bond in the Egyptian Room at the Met.

And this is the thing: just as there’s good chemistry between Milland and Fontaine there’s chemistry between Milland and Wright. There may not be sparks of passion flying, but there seems to be a deep-flowing love. It’s Wright who’s at the heart of the movie’s other great romantic scene. Although Alan has had to rush out to tend to his mystery relapser on Christmas Eve, Edna gets tickets for The Egyptians. By dint of an ice-cold shower and a quart or so of black coffee produced by Billy, Alan has managed to sober Jenny up enough for her to take the stage. As Edna and Alan watch the play, rapt, Edna suddenly starts to recognize a few of the lines that she read before, the lines that were supposed to be part of an advertising campaign. Alan, for his part, doesn’t see any significance in them. In the most fleeting of facial expressions, we read that Edna has decided that whatever might have happened is now in the past, and belongs there.

Something to Live For - 7 The moment when Edna recognizes the lines

The moment when Edna (Teresa Wright) recognizes the lines being spoken on stage, then decides to ignore her knowledge.

Yes, this borderline-melodramatic romance has virtually nothing to do with film noir. It is, however, of tangential noirish interest through its first-rate principals (and let’s not forget Derr in fine form as the obnoxious Colton and Bellaver as the good-willed Billy) and through its treatment of a subject that was at the time considered not quite taboo but certainly a bit demi-monde.

Something to Live For - 5 Jenny's name in the Broadway lights


This entry is part of the 1952 book (and movie) event mounted by Rich Westwood’s Past Offences blog.


On Something to Live For DVD



5 thoughts on “Something to Live For (1952)

  1. Thanks. Very well argued. Really will have to,track this down now! JF is under rated – much more versatile than generally given credit for and RM is unflashily excellent. Regards Thom.

    • I’m a big JF fan too. I was surprised I was so little aware of this movie, bearing in mind its cast and how good it is — not a milestone of cinematic history, but deserving to be well known rather than a tad obscure.

  2. Good piece here John. Know the film well, and agree there is rather remarkable chemistry between Milland and Fontaine, and that in ways it may well transcend their respective performances in THE LOST WEEKEND and LETTERS. To be sure this is not as good a film as either, but it is well worth a look-see for those who haven’t yet negotiated it. DP extraordinaire George Barnes is on board here.

  3. Pingback: Where’s Papa going with that ax? The #1952book challenge | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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