Lady in the Dark: Comparing Play to Film

November 02, 2018



If you have ever watched the 1944 musical Lady in the Dark, you might think it was pretty odd. You might be indifferent to it, or if you were lucky enough to view it on nitrate at the 2017 TCM Film Festival, you probably enjoyed it. All in all, opinions vary greatly on this visually intriguing and complex film.

Lady in the Dark is derived from the 1941 play of the same name written by Moss Hart that became a Broadway hit starring Gertrude Lawrence. I recently finished reading the original written work and there is a quite a lot to unpack. This post is just to serve as my own personal evaluation of the two. If you are interested in reading the play or have not yet seen the movie, I would not advise reading this post until after you have done one or both.

Anyone that knows me knows I love the musical Lady in the Dark. I often list it as my favorite of Ginger's films. I am fascinated by every aspect of it, and I observe something new with each re-watch. With this in mind, you can bet I was pretty thrilled to finally pick up a copy of Hart's play. The preface alone immediately drew me in as it broke down the storyline beautifully. It explains clearly what Liza is gaining from each man she is involved with in the story. Hart delves deeply into Liza's mind in a sort of public operation displayed for all of us to see. He evaluates her in ways I could not explain effectively here. You must read the story to experience Hart's own words.

The play opens up to a scene in Dr. Brooks' office in which Liza has voluntarily showed up for psychoanalysis. This is already a notable change than what was used to open the film. In the film, it is important to note that Liza begins her journey at the office of family friend of Dr. Carlton. Carlton explains to her that he cannot help her for the time being because she is not physically ill, but rather mentally, and refers her to a psychoanalyst. Liza is visibly taken aback. She is not ready for such a change when she has been seeing Dr. Carlton all her life. This subtly illustrates a key to the film character Liza: an intense fear of change. This is a fear that perhaps contributes to the reason she has not yet broken it off with publisher Kendall Nesbitt, who is still legally married to another woman.

When Charley Johnson is introduced in the written story, he is portrayed as a drunken, sexually driven male, teasing the models at the magazine company with his blatant flirtation and assertiveness. His character was cleaned up more for the film, Ray Milland painting a still flirtatious Charley, but in a much more likable way.

Ginger during a dream sequence in Lady in the Dark
Liza is attempting to find the root cause of her panic attacks through the analysis of her dreams by her psychotherapist. Throughout the play and film, we see her fears materialize in the form of these elaborate dreams. We as the audience get a front row seat to observe the mind of Liza Elliott, and the dreams play out differently in both mediums. And while most of the settings are different, the messages remain the same: she is always depicted as the epitome of glamour and popularity. One dream that stands out to me is the dream which has several of Liza's graduating class recalling their high school memories with her.

Another element I loved about the play was the much larger focus on the Maggie character than in the film. Here, we get more insight into Maggie's skeptical personality. She shows up at Dr. Brooks' office on her own, worried about Liza and suspicious of psychoanalysis. This is something we are aware of in the movie, but only in the written work do we get the chance to delve into her perspective on a deeper level.

Later on, Dr. Brooks and Liza proceed to get into an argument. Brooks repeatedly questions her rejection of women and glamorous clothes. He states, "I wonder if your scorn and hatred of other women is because you are afraid of them." He goes on to say that she wears her everyday suits as a form of armor; with them she is not forced to compete with other women. What is even more interesting is the fact that Dr. Brooks is not the only one reading into the characters. Russell, the comic relief of the film played by Mischa Auer, engages in his own evaluation of the girls. He, like Maggie, is much more of a major character in the play than in the film.

Maggie is played by Mary Phillips in the film

After being asked out to dinner by dashing Hollywood star Randy Curtis, Liza is determined to shatter her hardened image by wearing the most glamorous gown she can find, and the way Liza goes about this is much more intriguing than in the movie version. Instead of sorting through dresses in a driven way, excited at the thought of presenting a new Liza, the Liza in the play is violently sobbing as she rips gowns and accessories off of various mannequins, her voice cracking as she begins humming a familiar tune to the mirror. The "Saga of Jenny" dream sequence portion that follows does not differ too much from the movie, but notably Russell has taken Charley's place as ringmaster; Charley is instead the prosecuting attorney. There is also an extra verse in the song that was later eliminated, covering Jenny at age 39.

Liza rifling through boxes to find the perfect gown

The big reveal emerges from one of the final scenes of the play. Liza recalls several traumatic events from her childhood that have shaped her present mindset. She was called an ugly duckling throughout her childhood by family such as her own father, and by the time she is seven years old and chosen for the part of Cinderella in the school play, she is dismissed as too unattractive for the part by a fellow classmate. A few years later her mother dies, and that constant reminder of unattainable beauty has temporarily vanished from Liza's life. That reminder rears its ugly head once again, however, in the form of fellow high school classmate Barbara. The memory of teenage Ben who left her for the much prettier Barbara is told much like in the film, only rather than child Liza reciting the words to the tune that has been haunting her, she recalls it as a teenager. The song is "My Ship Has Sails," and Liza sings it to Ben in the play. Ginger Rogers also sings it in the radio version but we do not hear her sing the words at any point in the movie as an adult.

Ben is played by Rand Brooks in the film

Spoiler alerts ahead! We surprisingly don't see enough of Charley throughout the play, he seems to have a bit of a smaller role. But all of that changes during the final scene. Charley has a private discussion with Maggie that we as the audience get to soak in as the fly on the wall. We witness Charley's softer side as he confesses to Maggie that he actually admires Liza as a person. This discussion is interrupted when Liza enters the room with Randy, who she seems to be absolutely taken with. It quickly becomes clear that Liza is going to choose Randy as her suitor. She has broken it off with Kendall in much the same fashion as in the film, stating, "part of my life walked out that door just now."

Randy explains to Liza that she radiates a certain feeling of courage that he draws from, and that he is just an insecure little boy on the inside. He is filled with excitement as he pictures a secure life with Liza, who he expects to take care of him. Once Randy leaves the room, Charley re-enters to explain how in truth, he resents her as his boss. It is here we start to get the vibe that Liza is quickly realizing Kendall and Randy are the same, and that she will choose neither.

Moss Hart wraps up the play beautifully with a final scene that ties everything together in a much different way than the film. Liza has suggested that she and Charley run the magazine company together. She begins to hum "My Ship Has Sails" as she and Charley eagerly sift through the pile of papers on her desk and share ideas about the new magazine. As she is softly humming the melody, Charley recognizes the tune and begins to sing the words that go with it. Liza looks at him, completely astonished, asking, "Do you know that song?" Charley replies that he does, but that he has not heard it since he was a kid. He motions for her to continue, and the two begin a soft duet, smiling at each other as the curtain descends.

There are many interesting characteristics that make both the play and the movie a joy to experience in their own respective mediums. As someone who holds the film version in high regard, I very much enjoyed the written, and I would recommend it to those seeking a better understanding of the story. If you would like to listen to Ginger as Liza in the radio adaptation of Lady in the Dark, you can find it here on YouTube.

Ginger with Ray Milland in the final scene of Lady in the Dark

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