By: Megan McGurk
Home Before Dark (1958) tells a story with four dresses. Jean Simmons plays a woman whose psychological recovery stalls through an inability to choose a dress that fits, both in terms her of body and personality. Her character Charlotte Bronn, released from the scary Danvers psychiatric institution, buys two dresses that are wrong on every level. Poor shopping choices signal that she still doesn’t know herself after a year in hospital. Each sartorial travesty shows her effort to gain purchase on reality and find her place within it. Charlotte tries to become someone else, someone her husband desires, when she buys the frocks. The dresses match a streaky peroxide dye-job for an awkward style. Two other dresses and natural hair colour indicate Charlotte’s stable mental health. In between tragic attire, Jean Simmons looks adorable in menswear: a soft wool cap, pea coat with popped collar, relaxed tops and turned up jeans with loafers. She looks most comfortable in shoreman-on-leave gear, accessorised with a mug of sweet black coffee and a cigarette.
Hectored by her step-mother (Mabel Albertson) to buy new clothes, Charlotte visits a boutique in their small New England town, and selects the dress on display she had examined in a previous scene. The shop keeper questions whether Charlotte can charge the items and rings Arnold, her button-down college professor husband (played by Dan O’Herlihy) for permission. Since it’s Charlotte’s inheritance they live on (she also supports her step mother and step sister, Joan, played by Rhonda Fleming, who live with them) the scene builds a moment of humiliation for Charlotte. With no money in her pocket and no access to her bank account, she’s furthered estranged from herself. Who is a woman if she can’t even charge something in a backwater shop?
Charlotte wears the new dress to dinner and asks her husband (as cold as iced mackerel) if it pleases him. When he’s less than forthcoming, Charlotte replies that he’s just not used to seeing her in a dress. Nothing about this dress works. It’s probably a cross between salmon and coral, with an insipid floral print. The cut hasn’t seen daylight since the 1930s, a knee-length peplum over a longer mid-calf hemline. Lacking any waist definition, it resembles one of those foulards that Mrs Vale nagged another Charlotte to wear during a mental breakdown. What prompted her to select it? Something about it must have said ‘faculty wife’. Although the dress fails to suit her and feels aging and dowdy, it’s hardly so bad it could stop traffic. That job belongs to the next dress Charlotte buys.
Charlotte and her repressed husband go to Boston to reconnect, but really, he makes the trip about his career, with an informal interview for a position on faculty in Harvard. They’re set to dine with an important couple. Once more, Charlotte becomes transfixed by a dress in a shop window, one that hangs alone in a glass case like a statute of an historical figure. Howard Shoup designed the metallic gold gown that rivals the skyscraper vision Travis Banton created for Marilyn Monroe in Gentleman Prefer Blondes. A column dress with straps, it needs a fleshy woman to fill it out.
Viewers know exactly what she thinks the dress can do for her. Charlotte projects herself into what the dress promises: glamour, confidence, sex-appeal. By the way her eyes light up, we know that she believes her husband will finally see her and love her if she wears the gold dress. If she becomes more like Joan, bleaches her hair again and sets it in Joan’s signature coronet braid, then he’ll love her.
Three shop clerks attempt to dissuade Charlotte from the purchase. She’s a size 9 and the dress is a 14. At first Charlotte dismisses their objections in the fitting room as she clutches the dress to keep it from sliding off her body. Not to worry, she tells them. She’ll pin it. The senior shop clerk disagrees and protests that alterations are impossible without making it another dress altogether. Charlotte changes tact, saying that her sister will wear the dress. And then we realise how much better it suits Joan.
When she joins the trio in the swanky dining room, it may as well be shot in slow motion (director Mervyn LeRoy wrote in his memoir that the scene was shot in the lavish Crystal Room in the Beverly Hills Hotel). Everyone looks dressed to kill. Few screen entrances summon as much gasp-inducing horror as Charlotte’s debut. Everyone notices the state of her. She looks completely undone, half-dressed, wobbly. Charlotte’s long-line bra stands out on display underneath straps that slide down to her elbows. These days the sight of a woman’s bra seems as commonplace as florals for spring, but no one would have ever shown evidence of a bra in public then (and it’s a white bra, which has all the aesthetic charm of a menstrual pad, a dogsbody piece of lingerie designed for service more than stylish allure).
She trips over an extra foot of hemline. Charlotte loses a shoe when she finally makes it to the table. With an overdrawn mouth caked with lipstick and giant black brows set against blonde dairy maid braids, she looks cartoonish, like a sloshed Zsa Zsa Gabor. Much to her credit, the faculty wife (Joan Weldon) snaps out of judgy face mode, and rather than scorn the woman at table, she takes pity on Charlotte and covers her up with a mink stole. Arnold forgets about being gallant and simply picks Charlotte up and carries her from the restaurant. Upstairs, alone in their room, he breaks down and sobs violently.
When Charlotte wants to know what’s wrong and why he’s crying, he appears dumbfounded: ‘don’t you know how you looked?’ Charlotte’s fashion mishap becomes all about him, like everything else. He doesn’t even mention that she had introduced herself to the faculty couple as ‘Joan’, a dead giveaway that she’s neck deep in an identity crisis. Charlotte presses him in the hotel room until he confesses that he doesn’t love her, which helps Charlotte turn the corner, and recover her sense of self. At one point Charlotte bites him. She should have thrown him out the window right after the wrapped presents she had bought for an undeserving man.
When they return to the small town, Charlotte’s inner turmoil has been replaced with an appropriate anger over the gaslighting from Arnold and Joan. Charlotte gives the gold dress to Joan as part of her plan to see things clearly. Rhonda Fleming as a sister would reduce many women to trembling insecurity. Fleming looks like a Teutonic fertility goddess, crowned with a braid. She’s zaftig, ripe, and full of appetite, always nibbling on something when poor Charlotte can’t stomach more than coffee. She fills out the gold dress as though it were made for her, boobs and hips in full swing as Arnold gawps in an erotic stupor.
Now that she sees everything clearly for the first time, that there’s something going on between Arnold and Joan, she wants the rest of the truth. She doesn’t waste time asking them about what they have or haven’t done. Instead, Charlotte jumps to the more pressing matter—why did they put her in a state asylum when she has plenty of money for private care? Any doubt about casting Joan as a villain in the picture falls by the wayside when she replies ‘just what do you expect an insane asylum to be? A luxury hotel?’ A woman who sponged off her sister for years and then poached her husband while claiming innocence has no redeeming value. Charlotte should have turfed them into the street at that moment. Instead, she just packs a bag and leaves before dawn.
By contrast, two nearly identical frocks with a sweetheart neckline, nipped waist and full skirt look suited to Charlotte’s age and figure, and the same goes for her dark bouncy hair. The first, shown in a flashback, has Charlotte calling Arnold ‘ducky’ just like Joan does. She’s playing that aloof flirting game designed to pique a man’s curiosity. Unfortunately, she picked a dud. Arnold has as much blood as a turnip. Once she’s gotten him out of her system, she looks as glamorous as Liz Taylor or Ava Gardner.
As satisfying as screen makeovers can feel, a more compelling scene often unveils styling that goes haywire. Watch one too many style upgrade montages and it starts to seem too easy, or maybe less revealing. A fashion disaster reminds viewers how many obstacles women must negotiate from style hatchling to swan. Much as some films would have us believe women need only remove their glasses and unfurl their hair or put on a tight dress to be a knockout, woman’s pictures divulge the truth about the perilous road to glamour. Chief among the lessons in Home Before Dark tells viewers not to dress for a man, an idea that would be more radical in 1958 than today, but still needs to be said.