Today’s audiences remember the iconic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot when they think of Marilyn Monroe. Very few are aware of Monroe’s earlier dramatic performances prior to her ascension to global prominence. Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) is a rare gem in Monroe’s filmography which showcases her considerable acting chops long before she left Hollywood to study Method Acting at Lee Strasberg’s famed Actor’s Studio in New York.
After completing Clash By Night at RKO in 1951, Monroe returned to her home studio, 20th Century Fox, and received a screenplay adapted from Charlotte Armstrong’s 1950 novel, Mischief. A rival studio’s interest in Monroe as a dramatic actress made Fox executives reconsider the full potential of the contracted player they had relegated to minor, decorative parts such as secretaries and sirens. In fact, Fox made an about-face by considering Monroe for the substantial dramatic leading role of Nell Forbes, a psychotic babysitter who teeters on the edge of madness and eventually terrorizes the child in her charge.
The success of the World War II-themed Morning Departure (1950) drew international attention to the film’s British director, Roy Baker, as well as an invitation from Darryl F. Zanuck to join the team at Fox. Assigned to the new Monroe production, Baker filmed in real time; the duration of the fictional action equaling the run time of the film, both ninety minutes. He also set a tight 28-day shooting schedule involving two weeks of rehearsals, and filmed scenes in the exact sequence they appeared in the film. Busting the myth that Monroe required numerous retakes, Roy Baker printed only her first takes.
The suspenseful plot of Don’t Bother to Knock followed an airline pilot who is dumped by his girlfriend at a hotel and pursues another guest, a beautiful young woman babysitting a child for a couple in town for an award ceremony. The babysitter becomes psychotic, confusing the man for her boyfriend—also a pilot—who was killed in the war.
In the leading male role of pilot Jed Towers, Fox considered Montgomery Clift before selecting Richard Widmark. The actor later became Monroe’s neighbor after she married Arthur Miller and lived in Roxbury, Connecticut.
Fifteen years before her iconic role as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967) Anne Bancroft made her screen debut beside Marilyn Monroe as Jed’s girlfriend, Lyn Lesley, a singer in the hotel’s western-themed lounge.
As the father of Monroe’s babysitting charge, Peter Jones, Jim Backus makes the most of his screen time. Before playing James Dean’s father in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) Jim Backus voiced the near-sighted Mr. Magoo, in a series of animated cartoons beginning in 1949. During the production, Monroe invited him into her dressing room and begged, “Please do Mr. Magoo!”
Dubbed “The First Lady of Radio,” Lurene Tuttle appeared in fifteen broadcasts per week before transitioning to film and television in roles of wives and mothers. Tuttle is effective as the child’s mother, Ruth Jones. Monroe’s charge, Bunny, is portrayed by nine-year-old Donna Corcoran.
Elisha Vanslyck Cook, Jr.portrays Eddie, Nell’s empathic and supportive uncle who works at the hotel and obtains the babysitting position for her. He had played neurotic characters and villains such as Wilmer, who tries to threaten Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) in The Maltese Falcon.
The screenplay by Daniel Taradash (awarded the 1953 Oscar for From Here To Eternity) provides a suspenseful character reveal, as we discover that Nell isn’t just a pathetic waif, but a psychotic woman, in classic film noir style and dialogue.
Four years before she set foot into the Actors Studio, Marilyn gives a Method Acting performance, beginning with her entrance. Nell enters the hotel’s revolving door in a simple cotton dress, low heels, a black sweater, and a beret. From behind, we see her outfit is wrinkled as if she had been sitting on the subway for a long time. Apparently, Monroe bought the dress at a discount store in place of wearing a costume designed by Fox’s wardrobe department. Nell’s backstory is cloaked, and Monroe builds the character through use of her body in a manner studied with Chekhov. She moves with hesitancy and scans her environment in a way that suggests she has not been in public for a long time.
Nell meets her Uncle Eddie who introduces her to Mr. and Mrs. Jones and Bunny. After Eddie and the couple leave and Bunny is tucked in bed, Nell restlessly wanders the suite. Alone, her mask is removed, and her expression exudes deep pathos and despondency. She rifles through Mrs. Jones’ jewelry and clothing and tries on a negligée, earrings, and a bracelet.
Slowly, Nell transforms from an introverted waif to into a glamorous woman, much in the way Norma Jeane Baker Mortensen metamorphosed into Marilyn Monroe. When Nell entertains Jed in the suite and is stunned to learn he is a pilot. Her fingers nervously trace the scar on her wrist as she becomes delusional and believes Jed is her deceased boyfriend, a pilot who died in the war. “You were rescued!” she cries while embracing him. “You came back!”
Bunny unexpectedly enters the room and reveals Nell is her babysitter. Nell sends the child back to bed, and Jed expresses concern when he hears her crying in the other room. Nell reveals her own background of neglect when she coldly remarks, “If you don’t pay attention to them, they stop.” At Jed’s insistence, Nell goes to Bunny. “Don’t utter a sound,” she harshly orders the child. “Then we’ll all live happily ever after.” The effect is chilling and demonstrates Marilyn’s talent at this early stage in her career.
After Jed leaves in frustration, Eddie checks on Nell and admonishes her for wearing Mrs. Jones’ clothes. “Now stop it, all of you!” Nell shouts with terrifying rage, her eyes wide and crazed. She reaches for an object to throw at him but gains control. Enraged, she hits him over the head with ashtray. Not until The Misfits will Marilyn again have an opportunity to emote such anger and aggression in a role.
According to Anne Bancroft, Marilyn disagreed with both Baker and acting coach Natasha Lytess on how to play the final climatic scene, ignoring their advice. “The talent inside that girl was unquestionable,” Bancroft told John Gilmore. “She did it her way and this got right inside me, actually floored me emotionally.”
Nell Forbes is a fragmented personality with a blank expression. Sadness, fear, and rage register in Monroe’s face with credibility. She fluctuates from an introverted waif to someone who seems ruthless, even dangerous. Having worked with Chekhov, Monroe learned to delve deep into her own reservoir of painful memories and accessed her own natural talent for portraying vulnerability and madness. Employing Chekhov’s technique of physicality, she frequently held her waist as if the character were preventing herself from succumbing to madness. Perhaps Monroe’s mother, Gladys, served as inspiration. Gladys was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and institutionalized for long periods of time.
Monroe gives a stunning, riveting performance as a damaged woman, and suggests an alternative path her career might have taken if her physical beauty had not dictated the roles Fox gave her. Indeed, her comic performances were gems, which ultimately led to her legendary status, but what heights might she have achieved had she been allowed to experiment with more dramatic roles earlier in her career? Sadly, the film is rarely emphasized as a part of her body of work.
“It was a remarkable experience!” Anne Bancroft said of her work with Monroe. “Because it was one of those very rare times in Hollywood when I felt the give and take that can only happen when you are working with good actors… There was just this scene of one woman seeing another who was helpless and in pain. It was so real, I responded. I really reacted to her. She moved me so that tears came into my eyes. Believe me, such moments happened rarely, if ever again, in the early things I was doing out there.”
Retrospectively, Don’t Bother to Knock offers chilling biographical elements from Monroe’s life. Like Monroe, Nell is both vulnerable and sexy. Jed lusts after her, unaware of her damaged psyche, just as the public celebrated Monroe’s beauty while knowing nothing of her mental illness and suicide attempts. Monroe was admitted to two psychiatric hospitals in New York eighteen months before her death.
Fox capitalized on Marilyn’s sexy image and the sexual tension between the leading characters for the film’s advertising. Lobby posters promoted sex appeal by featuring a pin-up style rendering of Monroe in a strapless red dress beside copy describing her as “a wicked sensation as the lonely girl in room 803.” The trailer touted Marilyn as “America’s most exciting personality” and “the most talked about actress of 1952…every inch a woman…every inch an actress!” With obvious allusions to sex, Richard Widmark is “the guy who didn’t knock,” and Marilyn is “the girl who didn’t care.”
In a positive review, Variety announced Monroe “gives an excellent account of herself in a strictly dramatic role which commands certain attention…the studio has an upcoming dramatic star in Miss Monroe.” In his 1952 essay “Blame the Audience,” film critic Manny Farber he pointed to the film as one of the ten best of the year: “Monroe takes her character through several successive changes of mood and makes her transitions from lethargy to seductiveness to sadness to desperation very compelling.” Newsweek hailed her: “Monroe—hitherto typed as a glamour girl—easily comes off best with a surprisingly effective impersonation of a mousy maniac.”
Arguably, Monroe effectively channeled her mentally ill mother and gives a believable performance as a vaguely written character in a script without any description of her personality. Monroe later told friend Hedda Rosten that Don’t Bother to Knock was one of her favorite films and considered Nell her strongest performance.
–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.