'Hilda Crane' (1956)

by Michael Barrett

25 October 2013

cover art

Hilda Crane

Director: Philip Dunne
Cast: Jean Simmons, Guy Madison

USDVD release date: 23 Jul 2013

Young Hilda Crane (Jean Simmons) arrives by train from New York, where she’s spent the last five years getting divorced twice. She returns to her small home town (the university scenes are filmed in Nevada) and moves back in with her widowed mom (Judith Evelyn). Hilda’s chastened because she’s been searching for love, which is apparently an euphemism for what she calls simply “being a woman” while everyone else calls it being a tramp. We’re told she got this way because her darling dead papa had advanced ideas while her mother is a proper stiff who never hugged her. A nice dashing handsome young fellow (Guy Madison) proposes the moment she steps off the train, but she’s in love or something with her old French-accented college prof (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who, being French, is allowed to want to have sex with her but old-fashioned enough to think of her as a “courtesan” (the topic of the bestselling historical trash he’s written).
Written and directed by the illustrious Philip Dunne, who specialized in adapting books and other talky projects into films, this project is based on a play by the equally illustrious Samson Raphaelson, famous for the bright, sophisticated innuendos of Ernst Lubitsch films. This is a more dour piece, though there are innuendos between the lines. The good hubby is presumably impotent because of guilt over his classically smothering, possessive mother, played by Evelyn Varden as a working-class, plain-spoken breath of fresh air, even if she is a harpy. He just has to get a grip on himself, or rather on Hilda, and once he remembers he’s a man, he’ll make her happy enough to love him instead of wandering into the clutches of Frenchmen. We all know what she needs.

He and mom feel like something of a dry run for Psycho (which also had a woman named Crane), while poor Hilda (played by Simmons as an articulate waif of some backbone, no matter how frustrated and restless) foreshadows a similarly unsatisfied “neurotic” wife played by Simmons in Home Before Dark. These are examples of how Hollywood navigated the touchy subject of women’s sexual desire, presented as a repressed taboo among small-minded townies and overseen by kindly old doctors in lavishly appointed soapers. This one boasts Cinemascope, Technicolor, huge decorated interiors populated by brittle women and bland men, and a busy soundtrack of background noises (sometimes drowning out the characters, as though wishing them to shut up) and lush score by David Raksin. It feels like a bottled sample (or perhaps pinned under glass) of 1950s middle-class anxieties about how to tame women’s burgeoning hunger for power, how to translate or displace these fears (simplistically) into sexual melodrama, the better to tame them while invoking their dangers. Or at least it feels like how cultural products invented such issues while trying to be “mature” and “daring” and “tasteful” all at once.

It’s now available on demand from Fox Cinema Archives. Fortunately, it’s properly letterboxed, although the letterbox is presented within a standard 4:3 frame (or 1.33:1), so that you may want to adjust your picture to fill the screen. I don’t know why it’s done that way, but it’s much better than pan-and-scanning, of which some Fox Archive items have been guilty.

Hilda Crane


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