Worldly but weary Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns home to a small fishing village after a ten year absence and reunites with her younger brother Joe (Keith Andes), who works for Jerry (Paul Douglas), the skipper of a trawler who lives alone with his elderly father. Mae admits defeat in having had “big ideas,” but “small results” and laments about having made a mistake by becoming involved with an older man who turned out to be married. Joe introduces Mae to his girlfriend, Peggy (Monroe), who works at the local sardine cannery. Peggy admires Mae’s sophistication and confides her own longing for excitement, as Mae had in youth, and desire not to be controlled by a man. When Peggy asks what brought Mae back home, Mae responds, “Home is where you come when you run out of places.”
Hungry to depart from the roles of secretaries and showgirls at her home studio, 20th Century Fox, Monroe campaigned for producer Jerry Wald to cast her in the relatively important supporting role in Lang’s adaption of Clifford Odets’ play with veteran actors. Originally performed in 1941 as a neo-realist Broadway play with Tallulah Bankhead in the starring role, Clash By Night’s plot involved a restless, disillusioned woman’s struggle between settling for the love of a stable but dull fisherman and risking all for a sexual thrill with an embittered film projectionist (Robert Ryan).
Wald took one look at Monroe at of her seated across from him at the table at Lucy’s on Melrose Boulevard and thought she looked about sixteen. After the meal, he contacted Lew Schreiber at Fox and requested a loan of Monroe for six weeks of work at RKO. Schreiber demanded a mere three thousand dollars.
Monroe’s role, Peggy, is a vigorous girl engaged to the heroine’s brother and who worked in a sardine cannery. She is warm, compassionate, and struggles with accepting the subordinate role of a 1950s wife. Wald wanted a younger actress with sex appeal to attract a teen audience since the film’s principals were established, middle-aged stars.
Fast-talking Barbara Stanwyck portrayed strong, self-assured, no-nonsense dames with a tinge of vulnerability in both comedies and dramas. She equally excelled as a femme fatale in the wacky The Lady Eve (1941), the selfless mother in the tearjerker Stella Dallas (1937), and as a murderous vixen in Double Indemnity (1944). Stanwyck was the obvious first choice for the role of hard-boiled Mae Doyle.
Paul Douglas transitioned from stage to films in 1949 and made two baseball comedy movies, It Happens Every Spring (1949) and Angels in the Outfield (1951). Although he was effective as tough guys in Panic in the Streets and Born Yesterday, Douglas could play vulnerable and awkward men like lonely fisherman Jerry D’Amato.
In the role of Earl Pfeiffer, the cad who betrays his best friend by sleeping with his wife, Robert Ryan had a solid career playing hyper-masculine cops and cold-blooded villains. Having served in the Marines as a drill sergeant and won a boxing championship, Ryan’s brand of toughness suited both film noir and western genres. He garnered good reviews as an anti-Semitic bully in Crossfire (1947) and as a declining boxer who refuses to take a fall in The Set-Up (1949).
Clash By Night also introduces newcomer Keith Andes as Monroe’s love interest. He remembered her attracting local and media attention while on location in Monterey. Servicemen from a nearby military base flocked around her, along with reporters and photographers. Paul Douglas complained about Monroe stealing the spotlight. “She’s younger and more beautiful than any of us,” Stanwyck matter-of-factly explained.
Director Fritz Lang originated from the German school of Expressionism and was dubbed the “Master of Darkness.” His most famous works were the groundbreaking German films Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) before he immigrated to the United States. Lang graciously permitted Monroe’s acting coach, Natasha Lytess, on the set under the condition Lytess refrain from coaching Monroe at home; he wanted his supporting actress pliable to his direction. Monroe was so terrified of Lang’s direction before a scene, allegedly her skin broke out in red blotches and she vomited.
To prepare for the role, Monroe rode a Greyhound bus all through the night three hundred miles north to Monterey, where she spoke with boat owners and cannery workers before filming at a cannery. Journals auctioned after her death revealed her notes and impressions of the Italian and Greek fishermen.
The plot follows Mae, flattered by the interest of kind and simple Jerry, infatuated with her. During their first date at a local movie theater, Jerry introduces Mae to his best friend, projectionist Earl. Mae is attracted to the brutish and cynical Earl but is offended by his misogynistic rants. Mae and Earl are both hardened and world-weary. Deep down, Mae desires a man who can make her feel confident and alive, a man like Earl.
Eventually, Jerry proposes marriage and Mae declines, stating she is not the “wife type,” but after a drunken flirtation with Earl, she sacrifices a chance at excitement for the promise of security and agrees to marry Jerry. Over time, Earl senses Mae has resigned herself to a dull life with a man for whom she feels no passion and questions her about the stability of her marriage. At first, Mae rebuffs Earls advances, but after a joyous Peggy interrupts them to announce her recent engagement to Joe, Mae weakens. After Peggy rushes off to Joe, since diamonds make her suddenly “punctual,” Earl seduces Mae.
From the moment Monroe appears on screen in a pair of jeans and a sweater, it is clear she is playing a strong girl, the strongest of her career, who is exploring the limited options for a woman in the 1950s. When Joe meets Peggy outside the cannery after work as she eats a candy bar, he warns, “You’ll spread.” Without vanity, she affirms the possibility and changes the subject to a coworker who was recently beaten by her husband. Joe justifies the man’s behavior based upon his role of husband. Peggy snaps back that he might beat her, too, if they were married. Joe tries to kiss her, and the couple playfully scraps. “When I want you to kiss me,” Peggy says while kicking his shins, “I’ll let you know…by special messenger.”
In another scene, Peggy and Joe dry off after a swim in the ocean and join Mae and Jerry at a waterfront dance hall. Earl makes a scene, and Peggy admires his brutish energy. “He’s kind of exciting, and attractive,” she tells Joe. Jealous, he wraps a towel around her neck and pulls her close to him.
“Who’s attractive?” Joe demands while playacting strangulation.
“You are,” Peggy says as she struggles to loosen his grip. She then punches Joe in the mouth.
In Monroe rare acting depiction of intoxication, Peggy gets drunk at Mae and Jerry’s wedding reception and stands on a table to make a toast. She grabs a sandwich off a tray, takes a bite, and throws the remaining sandwich on the floor. Never again would Monroe portray an earthy, working-class character.
A pivotal scene gives Monroe an opportunity for dramatic acting. When Joe condemns his sister’s transgression, Peggy offers sympathy and understanding. “You don’t have the right to judge,” she tells her fiancé. Joe questions Peggy’s commitment and announces that he will not tolerate being used until someone better comes along. This is a wake-up call to Peggy, and Monroe effectively conveys her character’s sudden realization of her deep love and fidelity. Peggy embraces Joe with strong emotion.
Using Michael Chekhov’s techniques and seeking realism in her role, Monroe rejects the costume jewelry engagement ring the wardrobe department gave her to wear, and instead borrowed the diamond ring belonging to wardrobe attendant Marjorie Pletcher.
At a preview in Pasadena’s Crown Theatre, Monroe received “terrific applause,” and the audience’s preview cards raved about her. “Before going on any further with a report on Clash By Night, perhaps we should mention the first full-length glimpse the picture gives us of Marilyn Monroe as an actress,” Alton Cook wrote in the New York World Telegram and Sun. “The verdict is gratifyingly good. This girl has a refreshing exuberance, an abundance of girlish high spirits. She is a forceful actress, too, when crisis comes along. She has definitely stamped herself as a gifted new star, worthy of all that fantastic press… Her role is not very big, but she makes it dominant.”
“As for Miss Pash-pie of 1952, otherwise Marilyn Monroe, the calendar girl, clad in dungarees,” began the Los Angeles Examiner, “she proves she can also act and can hold her own with top performers.”
Produced by a rival studio, Clash By Night showcases Marilyn Monroe’s early talents before her ascension to musical comedy queen at 20th Century Fox. “There was a sort of magic about her which we all recognized at once,” Barbara Stanwyck recalled of Monroe during this period. “She seemed just a carefree kid, and she owned the world.”
–Gary Vitacco-Robles for Classic Movie Hub
Gary Vitacco-Robles is the author of ICON: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes 1 & 2, and writer/producer of the podcast series, Marilyn: Behind the Icon.