There’s very little which excites this girl more than a good noir where a woman steps up to lead a film, functioning as something more than a femme fatale or the lead’s ever-lovin’, faithful girlfriend. While there are precious few of these throughout the classic Hollywood era, these movies are out there. I present The Blue Gardenia! Now, does this 1953 noir stand alongside a gem like Phantom Lady, or does it fade into the fog? Well, here’s everything you need to know about The Blue Gardenia.
The Blue Gardenia follows Nora (Ann Baxter) a phone operator who, after a drunken, post break-up, night-on-the-town, wakes up to the realization that the man she was with (Raymond Burr) has been murdered. With the LAPD and a local columnist (Richard Conte) hot on the trail of “The Blue Gardenia Murderess”, she must be guilty… but there’s one problem, why can’t she remember anything about that night? Ann Southern and George Reeves co-star, with Fritz Lang directing. Charles Hoffman receives the only screenwriting credit.
Speaking bluntly, it didn’t take long to develop a sense of deja vu as I was watching this particular feature. There’s some noted crossover of the “noir-ey” variety with Fear in the Night. Heck, there’s even a dash of In A Lonely Place in there too. There’s nothing like vaugely halucinated murder to pull you into a noir.
That being said, The Blue Gardenia plants some fascinating seeds with Nora as the lead, her job, and a brilliantly colorful living situation with Crystal (Ann Southern). And truthfully, I wanted more! There are some tantalizing potential characters at the operator switchboard, as well as an equally interesting backstory between Crystal and her ex-husband (and current meal-ticket) Homer (Ray Walker). However, the script brings a much broader focus to the narrative, following not only the investigation, but Harry Prebble (Burr) as the victim, and columnist Casey Mayo (Conte). With a runtime of a little less than an hour and a half, this leads to the story feeling a bit packed.
Ultimately — and this is painful to say as a Richard Conte fan– Casey Mayo ends up feeling largely supurfulous to the scope of the narrative as it’s presented on-screen. His presence pulls focus, and he ends up feeling like a plot device meant purely to push the narrative towards its eventual conclusion. And like some of the other films we’ve examined this Noirvember, he seems to exist specifically to function as the “hero” with the purpose of saving the day. I do however freely admit this point stems from viewing The Blue Gardenia from a contemporary prespective. History passes and societal norms do change.
At the same time, the casting of Raymond Burr as Harry Prebble, ladies man, artist, cad and general man-about-town is a fascinating choice. At the time, Burr’s bread-and-butter was playing heavies, particularly noir heavies. However, his star persona shifted in 1957 with his casting as Perry Mason in the television series of the same name. Interestingly, even this early in his career, it’s difficult to see Prebble as the villain the movie wants him to be. In fact, there’s alot of Perry Mason peeking in through Harry Prebble. When Nora needs him, he’s kind, he’s funny and a great listener. The other characters talk about Prebble being a bit of a wolf, but it largely doesn’t come across. So, when the movie finally sees him showing his true colors, it feels like an awkward transition. Is this really a sudden change? Or could the narrative be aligning with Nora’s perspective, crafting Harry as perfect and adorable–until he isn’t. However, if this is the case, it isn’t visible throughout.
It is the characters in The Blue Gardenia who really sell the picture. Baxter carries the movie well, and absolutely thrives in the heavy emotionality rooted in her character’s confusion. It’s easy to feel for her, and the lead-up to everything going on with this woman makes perfect sense. However, there’s a disconnect in the crating of the murder. In truth, much of the script plays as a fairly straight forward, linerar narrative. We follow in Nora’s footsteps throughout the first act and see everything, including the crime. So, when the story shifts into the third act (no spoilers, sweetie!), the conclusion feels like we should have seen a different movie.
All in all, The Blue Gardenia ever-so-slightly misses out on its potential. The movie just bites off more than it can chew. Ultimately, an hour and a half only allows you so much time, and this is a frustrating realization in a world as rich as the one Lang crafts in The Blue Gardenia. Through all this though, the movie still brings plenty to like and proves to be an interesting watch, not only for fans of its popular cast, but for film fans the world over. Check this one out this Noirvember.
The Blue Gardenia is available to stream on YouTube!
Podcaster at Hollywood and Wine, historian and filmmaker studying contributions of women in Classic TV. Film critic for Geek Girl Authority. Classic film lover for Ticklish Business.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!