An Invitation to Despair

For this week’s entry in the Maudlin Mondays series, I chose to watch the 1952 film Invitation, mainly because of its star, Dorothy McGuire, who plays the role of Ellen Pierce. A few days ago, I watched The Enchanted Cottage, also starring McGuire.

In The Enchanted Cottage, she plays a kind, plain-looking young woman who falls in love; in Invitation, she also plays a kind, plain-looking young woman who falls in love. Attention, Hollywood filmmakers: if you would like an actress to be “plain-looking,” don’t hire a woman who looks like this:

I don’t mean to say that McGuire should not have received the role. She was perfect as an innocent and kind young woman, nearly driven to madness after learning that her father (Louis Calhern) paid a man to marry her.

At the beginning of the film, we learn that Ellen’s father is a very rich and generous man; a fur coat is delivered to Ellen, which she hangs it in the closet, alongside many other fur coats. Ellen is worried that her husband Dan (Van Johnson, a.k.a. “The Voiceless Sinatra”) will become irritated with her father’s generosity:

Ellen: “Oh, Dan, you really hate it, don’t you?”

Dan: “It’s been so much: the house, the car, the china…”

Ellen: “I’ll talk to him about it.”

Dan: “No, don’t. After all, your father’s got a right to be as generous as he wants.”

Ellen: “You see, Dan, he doesn’t realize that he doesn’t have to make up to me for anything anymore.”

Dan: “What do you mean?”

Ellen: “Oh, you know, he doesn’t realize that there’s nothing more he can give me because now I … I have everything.”

Ellen is a devoted wife. She sends her husband off to work with a kiss after his morning coffee. She promises to have a cocktail ready for him when he returns from work. In fact, her whole life seems to revolve around her husband:

Ellen: “Do you know what the excitement of my days is now? Every morning there’s the excitement of having my breakfast with Dan and getting him off on the 853, and then, nothing, until midday, which overflows with the excitement of planning dinner with Agnes, and then nothing. Until early evening, when there’s the excitement of Dan’s coming home. Oh, it is exciting, it’s terribly exciting; but it’s not the kind that’s bad for me. It’s the excitement of knowing, from a lifetime of having been sort of pitied and left out of things. This morning I poured a second cup of coffee for a husband of my own.”

Her father discusses his concern for his daughter’s health with Dr. Pritchard (Ray Collins). Ellen attempts to soothe his worry over her health by telling him, “You want everything there is for me … Please try to get it through your head that despite everything, I’m really very happy. The fact that you didn’t give me the thing that makes me so happy shouldn’t make any difference, should it?”

Her father gives Dr. Pritchard a knowing glance as he says, “No, I guess it shouldn’t.”

In the next scene, Ellen visits her old best friend, Maud (Ruth Roman). We sense the tension immediately as Maud retreats inside her house without saying hello as Ellen pulls up. Nevertheless, Ellen repeatedly tries to smooth things over with her angry friend.

Maud: “Please say what you have to say to me and go … Nobody knew better than you that I was in love with Dan, and suddenly, without any warning, he marries you … Well, let me tell you something, in some respects, the daughter of a professor of bacteriology may look a lot better than the daughter of Mr. Simon Bowker, but when it’s a struggling young architect that’s doing the looking, believe me, there’s nothing prettier than a capital dollar sign.”

Ellen is struck by Maud’s cruel words, but Maud seems relentless. She looks so calm as she smokes a cigarette while lounging on the couch, speaking these harsh words to her once-close friend with confidence. Her beauty and nonchalant hatred reminds me of the way that Maxim de Winter describes his infamous first wife in the boathouse scene in 1940’s Rebecca. Maud is indeed the evil vixen in this film; she is bound and determined to have Dan for herself, by any means necessary.

Maud: “Business seems alright for him lately, doesn’t it?”

Ellen: “You saw Dan?”

Maud: “Oh, don’t worry, I just happened to be in the building, and dropped into his office. Oh, he’s still yours, at least for the time being. I told you, remember, the day of your wedding, ‘I don’t give up so easily.’ Remember? I said, ‘The first round goes to you, or your father’s money … You can have Dan,’ I said, ‘for about a year on loan.’ And that’s why you’re really here, isn’t it?  Because the year’s dwindling out fast. Only a couple of months left, and you’re scared to death. Well, Ellen, do you think I have given up?”

Rebecca de Winter, meet Maud.

When Ellen returns home and confronts her husband, he explains that he was never in love with Maud; however, he also says that he probably would have married her, had he not married Ellen. This seems to quell Ellen’s fears for some time.

Through a series of flashbacks, Ellen begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together. It is an invitation sent by Maud that is the catalyst for Ellen’s discovery. All in one afternoon, Ellen discovers that she has a potentially fatal medical condition, and that her father likely paid Dan to marry her. Obviously, this is a devastating discovery for our sweet and innocent leading lady. McGuire’s performance brought me to tears several times; my heart broke for her as she discovered that her husband had not married her for love, but for her father’s money. In the scene pictured below, Ellen telephones her father to confirm her suspicions about his influence over her husband. She learns all at once that she has little time left to live, and that her father made a deal with her attractive husband to allow her happiness in her supposedly short life. This is an especially painful realization for Ellen, as she has been ill almost her entire life. She had never had the attention of young men, and she wasn’t allowed much physical activity such as sports and games with her friends. She believed that her husband loved her, and she seemed so very happy as a doting wife. When she confronts her father over the phone, she repeatedly screams that she wishes for death. It is a moving and tragic scene.

Ellen: “Explain?! Get well?! Who wants to get well?! I want to die, Father. Don’t you understand?! I want to die!”

Truly, it is the superb acting in this film which made it so memorable. Dorothy McGuire made my heart break alongside Ellen’s. Ruth Roman was entirely successful in making me fear husband-hunting vixens like the beautiful and cruel Maud. By the end of the film, Louis Calhern actually made me learn to love her misguided father, for although he makes some terrible decisions, ultimately, he loves his daughter dearly, and only wants her to have some happiness in her short life. Last, but certainly not least, Van Johnson stole my heart with his sincere devotion to his wife’s health and well-being: “I love you, Ellen … I love you so much more than I ever dreamed it was possible for me to love anyone.” With his freckled face and friendly attitude, who could resist his charm? If you’re a fan of Dorothy McGuire, Van Johnson, or Ruth Roman, this is a must-see film.

As a result of the excellent acting, Invitation is awarded three teardrops on our Maudlin Meter.

6 thoughts on “An Invitation to Despair

  1. Sarah, you did an amazing job on your INVITATION blog post! You really got me caring about Dorothy McGuire (we should all be so “plain”!), and that’s saying a lot, since I generally can’t stand movies with either soap-opera plots or self-sacrificing types (as I’ve admitted elsewhere)! 🙂 Having only seen Ruth Roman as the simpering yet sympathetic Ann Morton in Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, I was intrigued to find that Ms. Roman did such a great job as a conniving man-stealer! Great post!

    • Thank you! Yes, Roman was quite convincing!

      This film was definitely soap opera-esque, but it was surprisingly dark. I expected it to be more of a light-hearted comedy of sorts, (“Oh, poor rich girl; daddy bought you everything you wanted, including a handsome husband”) but it was actually really depressing at times. As morbid as it may make me sound, the seriousness of her depression actually kind of made the film worthwhile. I don’t think that I would have enjoyed it as much otherwise.

  2. As weirdly corny as the plot of this film sounds, I must admit it sounds like the perfect movie for a Saturday-night get-together with lots of old friends and wine and cheese (and chocolate, lots of chocolate), and with a good supply of Kleenex. Thanks for your terrific post!

    • I agree that it was surprisingly good; I was skeptical when I read the introductory info about the film. Glad I could help! 🙂

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