At last the film industry has finished patting itself on the back! I hope! There is something you may not be aware of. For many long years an important part of the industry has been overlooked. Well, no more, I say! Yes, fellow thespians, it is time we honor that phenomena around which most classic movies are built - the staircase! Think about it. What would most of our award-winning movies be without that big block of architecture taking up most of the scenery? Nothing more than a big, flat landscape.
Over the years actors have walked up, walked down, tripped over, hung from, collapsed on, fallen through, revolved around, tumbled down, jumped over, danced, tapped, ran and fought on stairs. Sometimes that grand old staircase has even gone down with the ship.
These scene-stealers come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. Their appearance is shadowy, creaky, decaying iron, or perhaps an opulent marble staircase leading one up to the timeless night of dreams and imagination.
I'm sure everyone has a stairway scene they remember, and it's amazing how many are out there. Because of this, I had a hard time narrowing my list down to just ten. Not all the movies on my list are award-winners but here and there in these gems is a stairway scene I remember with fondness. In order to come up with this list I recently watched and/or sleep through these movies and more (just in case my memories played me false). In release date order:
1. The Battleship Potemkin, 1925
Long before The Untouchables stole the baby carriage going down the staircase scene there was a silent movie filmed by Sergei Eisenstein. This movie is a relatively short black and white film based on an actual event: the 1905 mutiny aboard the Russian battleship Potemkin. The massacre on the steps of Odessa is fictional. The film is filled with wonderful camera angles, great close-ups and an explosion of visual experiments with lighting effects. The cinematography is ahead of its time, and has probably been applied by many a film student.
The centerpiece of this film isn't the mutiny on board the ship, but the massacre of civilians on the steps of Odessa. This moment in the film is actually quite spellbinding as masses of people flood down the steps, only to turn into a frenzied mob as the troops of the Czar fire on them. There are so many iconic moments, from the young boy being trampled by the surging crowd, to the woman being shot, and then the last great sequence of the baby carriage skittering down the steps, past the fallen bodies, eventually ending up at the bottom on its side with its wheels turning. Great scene!
2. Gone With the Wind, 1939, Clark Gable, Vivian Leigh, Olivia de Haviland, Leslie Howard and a cast of thousands.
Before I begin, I want to make it clear that I debated including this movie on my list. There is so much about this movie that I find dated and cringe-worthy; however, there are so many iconic scenes that in the end I decided to add it. In fact, this movie has a plethora of stairway scenes - 34 by my count.
The scenes included Scarlett's first glimpse of Rhett as he is watching her from the bottom of the grand stairway at Twelve Oaks; the "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' no babies" scene; the burnt out remains of the Twelve Oaks staircase; the bad Yankee being shot scene; Scarlett's miscarriage tumble down; the "after all, tomorrow is another day" scene; and the most famous one for me, "This is one night you're not turning me out" scene - and then Rhett carries Scarlett off into the darkness. Fade out.
If you can get past the dated depiction of African Americans, the overblown acting and the downtrodden south, this movie should be watched at least once just to see the Hollywood of the past. And maybe you can even provide an answer as to why Ashley has no "plums". What a wishy-washy guy!
By the way, "Frankly, Scarlett, I don't give a damn" is a door scene and we are not giving out awards for those.
3. The Little Foxes, 1941, Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall. Originally a stage play turned into a movie, written by Lillian Hellman.
And once again there is somewhat dated material, and as in Gone With the Wind we have happy African American field workers singin' as they merrily pick cotton, to say nothing of the servants in the house. This story takes place 35 years after the end of the Civil War and has one of the most mesmerizing dysfunctional families ever written and put on screen. Every time I watch this movie I am always drawn in by Regina as played by Bette Davis, and her two brothers Oscar and Ben. Take note of the secondary character Aunt Birdie, a very poignant character.
Of course, one of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Regina's husband is having his fatal heart attack and he tries to crawl up the stairs. The camera moves in for a close-up of Davis' face as she realizes what's happening, while in the background, out of focus, her husband struggles up the stairs. Great scene - wonderful wacky family!
4. Arsenic and Old Lace, 1944, Gary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Peter Lorre, Raymond Massey. Once again originally a stage play, the movie takes place in mostly one room, dominated by a large, sometimes spooky stairway.
This is one of those movies I've seen a bazillion times and I never grow tired of it - From the sweet little old aunt's who poison lonely old men with elderberry wine, to the psychopathic brother Jonathan (played on stage by Boris Karloff, which explains the running Karloff jokes throughout the movie). There is also the fast-paced frenzy that only Gary Grant can perform, and crazy Teddy charging over and over again up those stairs, blowing his bugle. This is my kind of humor!
Warning - parts of this movie could scare small children.
5. The Uninvited, 1944, Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Gail Russell, Donald Crisp, Cornelia Otis Skinner.
Once upon a time, before one could get 50 zillion channels on television, there were shows called late, late shows - Late Night at the Movies, Midnight Movies, movies that teenagers could stay up late and watch after parents had gone to bed. Well, one of these movies always scared the hoohoo out of me. This was in the days when things that go bump in the night were scary and there wasn't any gore.
As far as spook movies go, this has everything one could possibly want - animals that won't go up stairs, seances, cold rooms, cliffs with trees, Ouija boards, the smell of mimosa, no electricity, moaning, groaning, disembodied crying, damp rooms that depress people, a superstitious Irish maid, a creepy nurse, and a mystery to solve. Everything you need for a great haunted house! And in true Hollywood fashion a brother and sister can afford to purchase this huge fantastic estate along the coast of England. (I never really understood how they got their money, but that's not important to the plot.)
Watch for the chilling scene when the ghost makes her appearance - w-a-y before Spielberg special effects. Great spooky stairway! Great old-fashioned ghost fest! Best watched with all the lights out!
6. Kiss of Death, 1947, Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Richard Widmark
If you ever want to know what film noir is all about take a look at this film. Talk about shadows - they're all over the place. However, what is truly fun about this movie is the language. Victor Mature's character is not a "rat," he's not going to "squeal," he's not going to "cash in his insurance policy," and he's not a "stoolie." However, he does end up "singing" against one of the best sociopaths in film history, Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark).
Let's talk about Tommy - Tommy is a mob hit guy and he's sent to "rub out" a "squealer." However, the "snitch" is on the "lamb," but the "snitches" wheel-chair bound "ma" is there. And in one of Hollywood's most chilling sequences, a laughing Tommy Udo pushes her down the stairs. You'll recognize the laugh, which was used by Jack Nicholson in Batman.
"You got your eyes full of smoke and you talk plenty, like the squirt you are."
7. All About Eve, 1950, Bette Davis, Celeste Holmes, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Gary Merrill, Marilyn Monroe, Thelma Ritter. Movie to stage play Applause.
Probably one of the most memorable lines ever said from a very understated staircase came from this movie: "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night." Oh sure, Anne Baxter has a longer speech, but the line uttered by Davis is the one remembered. I'm sure it was because of the stairs.
Speaking of which, watch for the scene with Celeste Holmes, George Sanders, Anne Baxter, Gary Merrill and Marilyn Monroe gathered on the stairway - a scene stealing moment for Monroe.
8. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, play to movie, the part of Lorelei Lee was originally played by Carol Channing (shudder).
I felt that with all the dancing that's been done on stairways I should have at least one musical in the batch. And since one of my all-time favorite movies happens to include one of the best musical stairway sequences, I didn't need to search very far.
This movie is just a thrill to watch - it's just so enjoyable! And Monroe is at her most brilliant - if you ever wondered what all the fuss was over Marilyn Monroe, this is the movie to watch. She absolutely sparkles while singing "Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend," which explodes on the red staircase decorated with a pink! pink! pink! What a treat for the eyes!
9. Psycho, 1960, Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Vera Miles
Don't turn off the road! Don't butter those sandwiches! Don't go up to that creepy house! Don't go up those stairs! Don't go down to the fruit cellar! Stay dirty! Why doesn't anyone ever listen?
Hitchcock has tons of movies with staircases in them, but this is one of the best. Just a shot of that creepy house with the crooked steps should be a warning to anyone to stay away. One of the best moments is when Martin Balsam is sneaking up the stairs, very tense. I've always thought his descent - the weird grappling he did was, I don't know---silly, but then Vera Miles creeping down to the fruit cellar makes up for it. By the way, is anyone besides me afraid of their basement steps?
10. Poltergeist, 1982, JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson
The stairs in this movie are center stage and have always struck me as odd - they are so weirdly curved. A number of important ghostly events happen on these steps. This is where a ghost similar to the one in The Uninvited materializes, shining ghosts with hats walk down it, and one of my favorite poignant scenes, the "She went through my soul." Love that moment.
Watch for a nod by Spielberg to The Uninvited, when Jo Beth Williams says "Smell that mimosa," it is at that point you should be aware that the haunting isn't over.
Honorable mentions: Sunset Boulevard, 1950, Double Indemnity, 1940, Harry Potter (all), Auntie Mame, 1958, Shadow of Doubt, 1943, Dracula, 1931, Beauty and the Beast, 1991, La belle et la bête, 1946, Lion in Winter, 1968, The Little Colonel, 1935, Stormy Weather, 1943, A History of Violence, 2005, The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938, Leave Her to Heaven, 1945, Titanic, 1997, Hello Dolly, 1969, The Spiral Staircase, 1945, Roberta, 1935, Notorious, 1946, Suspicion, 1941, Niagara, 1953, Vertigo, 1958, Lord of the Rings trilogy, 2001-2003, An American in Paris, 1951, My Fair Lady, 1964, Night of the Hunter, 1955.
Dishonorable mention: Streetcar Named Desire, 1951, Marlon Brando, Vivian Leigh, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden. Another play to movie.
This is a case of my memory tricking me. Imagine my surprise when this Oscar winning Pulitzer prize movie was over. I turned to my husband and asked, - "What was the point of that movie?" Yes, folks I didn't get it...Oh sure, I understand the plot and what's going on and there is some mighty fine poetic writing, but why? We do get to see a hot Brando yelling "Stellllllla" up the rickety spiral staircase, and the odd doormat sister who is aroused by the brutish animal who is her husband. You know Stanley Kowalski - he talks with his mouth full and rapes the mentally unbalanced, fragile Blanche but...why..? What's the point? What am I supposed to get from this? I guess I'm just not high-brow enough to understand the point of this depressing play turned into movie - Even with the ripped shirt. I do like my happy headings...
And now my fellow thespians, do you remember any stairway scenes in movies? And have you watched any movies lately that were your all time favorites? Did they stand up to the test of time?