When one thinks of Agnes Moorehead, who's 116th birthday is today, one almost always simultaneously thinks of Endora. Or you think of Endora and THEN Agnes Moorehead. You may also, if you grew up watching Pollyanna (1960) like I did, think of Mrs. Snow, the cranky old invalid who only thinks of dying until Pollyanna shows up and changes her life.
The truth is, Agnes Moorehead had a long career in and radio and in movies many years before she became everyone's favorite Mother-in-law. She got her start in films in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), arguably the most famous film ever made - whether you've seen it or not. The following year she appeared in The Magnificent Ambersons, another Welles film, and another sixteen films after that before appearing in the film I will be talking about today: The Woman in White (1948).
The Woman in White is based on the 1859 mystery story of the same name by Wilkie Collins and, as the opening credits tell us, "set the pattern for this entire field of literature" and the films made from them. This was not the first time this story was made into a movie. It is actually the 5th adaptation, the first being in 1912, followed by two in 1917 (one being titled Tangled Lives), and again in 1929. The 1948 version, actually filmed in 1946, was released by Warner Brothers and directed by Peter Godfrey (Christmas in Connecticut, The Two Mrs. Carrolls). The film stars Eleanor Parker (The Sound of Music) in a dual role, one being the woman in white. The rest of the cast includes Alexis Smith, Gig Young, Sidney Greenstreet, and in a small but crucial role, Agnes Moorehead.
Set in 1851 England, the film opens with a young man (Young) getting off of a train. It is late at night and apparently no one has come to pick him up. After being told the way to Limmeridge House, his destination, he sets off on foot down the road through the woods. He pauses to light his pipe on a lonely stretch of "woods and swamp" and is approached by a young woman (Parker) wearing a white dress and cloak. Though she is beautiful her face is tired looking and she has dark circles under her eyes.
What have they told you about me?
The strange woman tells him she is lost. She also tells him that she used to live at Limmeridge House, in her imagination that is, and pretended that the lady of the house there, Mrs. Fairly, was the one who first dressed her in white. We also learn that the young man is a painter, who has been hired to be the new drawing master at Limmeridge. Their conversation in interrupted when a carriage is heard approaching. The cloaked woman runs off as the carriage stops. The occupant asks the painter if he has seen a woman, "white dress no doubt, maybe a cloak," in the woods who has escaped from a nearby asylum. Without knowing why, the painter says no. As he says this we see that there is another passenger in the carriage, hidden from view.
Count Fosco (Sydney Greenstreet)
After the carriage leaves, the young man calls out for the young woman, but she is gone. He continues on his way and soon arrives at his destination. He is greeted by Miss Marion Halcombe (Smith), who proceeds to introduce herself and describe the other members of the household while he has a bite to eat. We learn his name is Walter Hartright. They are interrupted by none other than the mysterious man in the carriage. His name is Count Fosco and he is a guest at Limmeridge. Fosco, recognizing the young man as the one in the woods, gently prods him to try to see if he was indeed telling the truth, but Hartright doesn't indulge him.
Fairlie (John Abbott)
Then, even though it's late, he goes to meet his employer, Mr. Frederick Fairlie. Fairlie is an invalid and extremely nervous to the point of ridiculousness (and played perfectly by John Abbott). They don't talk long and Hartright soon retires.
Laura Fairlie (Parker)
The next morning, as Hartright is heading in to breakfast, he sees a young woman in the garden who looks exactly like the girl he met in the woods last night. He confronts her and she archly says she has never seen him before. Upon seeing her up close he realizes she is not the same and apologizes. He is quickly forgiven and the young woman introduces herself as Laura Fairlie. She is the niece of Mr. Fairlie. Marion is her cousin.
At the breakfast table, she excitedly recounts Hartright's strange story of the woman in white. Fosco excuses himself from the table and goes directly to Fairlie's room. Downstairs, the head maid recounts a memory of a little girl as like Laura as "a pair of slippers" who used to spend a lot of time with them. Mrs. Fairlie would dress them both in Laura's clothes. Marion takes the investigation further and finds a reference to the little girl, who was named Anne Catherick, in a letter from Mrs. Fairlie to her mother. Hartright asks her not to divulge this information to Count Fosco, whom he doesn't trust, when Fosco himself walks in. After a few moments of harmless talk, he leaves. Hartright and Marion discover the letter is missing, but Marion refuses to think Fosco has anything to do with it.
It doesn't take long for romance to bloom between Laura and Hartright. However, Laura is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde (John Emery). When Hartright learns of this he decides to leave as quickly and quietly as possible. However, as he is leaving he spies a ghostly figure in the nearby cemetery. It is the woman in white crying at the grave of Mrs. Fairlie. She tells him how she escaped from the asylum and that she needs to warn Laura. Hartright begins to take her to the house but when she sees Count Fosco she runs away in fear. Hartright decides to confront them without her. He tells them what he has just learned but Fosco scoffs at him and Hartright leaves.
Fast-forward to several months later. Laura and Sir Percival have been married and newlyweds are about to return to Limmeridge for a visit. Marion, who has been away visiting her family, is the first one to arrive. Her suspicions are aroused when she finds an entirely new household staff and that her usual room is not to be given to her this time. She bursts into Fairlie's room, demanding to know what is going on. He tells her it was Sir Percival's suggestion.
At the dinner table that evening, Marion barely recognizes the cousin she was once so close to. Laura is wearing expensive clothes, smoking, and acting completely different. This is also the first appearance of Agnes Moorehead in the role of Countess Fosco. There seems to be something not quite right about her, but the scene is to short to know just quite what it is.
Countess Fosco (Moorehead)
A changed Laura
After dinner, Laura visits Marion in her room, assuring her that she is the same but has to keep up an act in front of her husband. She also tells Marion that against her will she had to sign a marriage settlement that says if she dies the entire Fairlie fortune will go to Sir Percival. In the course of their conversation Marion also learns that Laura wrote her many letters that were never delivered. Marion decides to investigate.
Marion climbs out of a window and eavesdrops on a conversation between Count Fosco and Sir Percival. Percival is impatient and wants the Fairlie fortune now. Fosco says that his way will take time but he will take care of it.
Suddenly things start to happen. Laura falls violently ill, Fosco catches Marion and makes her a prisoner in her room, and the woman in white shows up in Laura's room. In this scene we finally see the two face to face.
The following contains spoilers. It also contains more about Moorehead's role in the film. If you want to watch the movie first, it is airing on TCM December 27th at 11am ET.The woman in white, Anne Catherick, tries to warn Laura about something but is having trouble remembering just what that warning is. She then hears someone coming and vanishes into the closet. Fosco and Percival enter and try to get Laura to sign something, leaving when they realize she is too weak at the moment. A few moments later, Countess Fosco enters. She sends away the maid and says she will stay with Laura for a while. As soon as the maid leaves, Countess Fosco also disappears in the closet. Behind the clothes is a secret door with stairs leading down to a room where Anne has been hiding. She apparently loves Anne very much, as she encourages her to eat something. While she is talking, Anne slips back up the stairs unnoticed. Laura is visibly better and Anne tries to warn her again. Suddenly Fosco and Percival enter the room again. Anne screams and slumps to the floor.
The next scene is the funeral of Laura Fairlie. Hartright attends the funeral and when he looks in the coffin, he immediately recognizes that it is not Laura, but Anne who has died. He tells Marion and they go hide in a hotel with plans to free Laura from the asylum they believe she is being held prisoner in.
Fosco and Percival visit Laura in the asylum. She looks more like Anne now with her dark circles under her eyes and long, unbrushed hair. Fosco has been hypnotizing her into thinking she is Anne, but she still remembers who she is. She tells Percival that she is carrying his child, and though this surprises Percival, Fosco thinks it is just a trick.
As they are being shown out, Laura switches two keys on a large numbered board. When she is locked in her room for the night, it is discovered that the wrong room key has been taken. The man locking the patients in goes to switch them and while he is gone Laura makes her escape. She runs into Percival on the street but luckily Hartright was keeping an eye on the asylum and saves her. When they arrive at the hotel room, they find a note from Marion saying she has gone to Limmeridge. Hartright decides to go for the police.
Major spoilers ahead
At Limmeridge, Marion is making a deal with Fosco, saying she will go with him if he lets Laura go. Fosco finally explains just who Anne is. It turns out, she is Laura's first cousin, born out of wedlock between Laura's aunt, who just happens to also be Fosco's wife (Moorehead). She was sent to Italy to have the baby. Fosco then tells Marion that he will give her the necklace he had promised his wife. The Countess walks in at this point and overhears him. She walks over to a cabinet and unnoticed, pulls out a dagger. Then, just when Marion and Fosco see the police arrive, she stabs Fosco in the back and takes the necklace. It is clear that years with Fosco have deteriorated her mind, as she smiles almost childlike at the glittering jewels. Hartright, Laura, and the police rush in just in time to see Fosco die. Laura recognizes Marion and we know that she will soon be on the road to recovery (Percival is also dead as he hit his head in the struggle with Hartright).
The film ends with a typical happy Hollywood ending. Laura has taken over the asylum and made it a happy place. The Countess lives there with her precious necklace. Hartright and Marion have married (she loved him all along and he realized he loved her more than Laura). They have a daughter named Anne and live at Limmeridge with Laura and her son, Walter Glyde.
End of Spoilers
Alexis Smith and John Emery (Percival) enjoying a relaxed moment on the set.
Agnes Moorehead could play many kinds of characters, old women, young women, cranky and jealous spinsters, conniving women, and women who's minds had been washed away. Though her role is a small one, Moorehead makes the most of it. I hope you get a chance to see this film.
Here is a well-written post on the film. Here is a blog devoted to Eleanor Parker with lots of screenshots from her films.
This post is for The Agnes Moorehead Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Be sure to read all of the other entries on this underrated movie actress!