By Philip Schweier
During a brief respite from the drudgery we call modern life, I had the opportunity to enjoy a few days of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™, and stumbled across an enjoyable crime drama entitled The Blue Gardenia (1953). I suspect the title may have been inspired by the infamous Black Dahlia murder a few years prior, but having missed the first few minutes, I could be wrong.
Or does it? Because no sooner does she open his latest missive than it becomes clear it’s a Dear Jane letter. It seems while serving in Korea he’s met a lovely young nurse and they’re due to be married (“Seoul mates” – there, I said it).
Shattered and emotional, she is vulnerable to a phone call from Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr), whom we later discover is a scoundrel of the first order. In a case of mistaken identity, he invites Norah out. She quickly abandons her dinner and heads off to the Blue Gardenia Club, where she meets Harry who immediately begins wooing her with its trademark corsage and a barrage of Polynesian pearl divers (the drinks, not the actual divers themselves).
This prompts the following exchange between Joe the waiter (Victor Sen Young) and our male lead, Richard Conte. Conte plays newspaper columnist Casey Mayo.
Waiter: He's a fancy man with the ladies, that Mister Prebble.
Mayo: You jealous, Joe?
Joe the Bartender: Oh no, no...I fancy men myself.
Performing a bit of fortuitous music is Nat King Cole, singing “Blue Gardenia” at the Blue Gardenia. This song later comes into play (no pun intended), when Prebble puts on the record in an attempt to seduce Norah back at his place. Believe it or don’t, he’s an artist, with plenty of cheesecake art decorating his bachelor pad (because nothing gets a girl’s engine revving like pictures of beautiful women). Prebble makes his new girl one last drink; he may have called it a rum roofie – or not.
She comes to a short time later. Prebble is lying on the floor nearby, an ugly gash in his forehead. “I’m going to need a good defense attorney,” she says to herself. “Better call Perry Ma – Oh, that’s right.” Still confused, she pulls on her coat and heads out the door, leaving her shoes behind. The next day, she wakes in her bed, uncertain how she got home.
Prebble isn’t so lucky. He’s dead, his skull caved in by the fireplace poker. On the scene is newspaperman Casey Mayo and the police. Leading the forces of truth, justice and the American way is none other than George Reeves, with a cheesy mustache to conceal his true identity (Hey, if a pair of glasses will work, why not a mustache?)
Capt. Sam Haynes (Reeves) plays Inspector Henderson to Casey Mayo’s Clark Kent, and together they have only a handful of clues: A pair of women’s shoes, size 8C, a fragment of black taffeta, a blue gardenia corsage, and a record playing over and over. Immediately, they suspect one of his many girlfriends done him in and begin asking questions at his favorite haunts.
When her co-worker returns, Norah is told they’re not supposed to talk about it, and then proceeds to explain that Harry Prebble was murdered and the police are questioning his girls for leads. But she’s not supposed to talk about it. Norah is stunned, and pieces the events of the night before together. Convinced she’s responsible for Prebble’s death, she burns her taffeta dress, flies off the handle at her roommates, and generally acts in crazy fear for her life.
Mayo, meanwhile, takes a bit of sympathetic approach in his column. Even when offered a free pass to cover the next H-bomb test, Mayo wants to stick with the Prebble investigation. Knowing Prebble for the D-bag that he was, he pleads publicly for the Blue Gardenia – as the murderess has been dubbed by the press – to turn herself in. In exchange for her exclusive story, his paper will provide the best legal defense available.
Sticking close to his phone through the night, he fields several phone calls from various nutcases with dreams of notoriety. One the REAL Blue Gardenia can tell him the size shoes found at the scene. Even Capt. Haynes gets in one the act, claiming Mayo is interfering with an investigation. Nevertheless, in a moment of despair, Norah calls and provides that key to her authenticity.
The next day, greatly relieved after her chat with Mayo, Norah apologizes to her roommate Crystal (Ann Sothern) for her behavior. Crystal is more than understanding. She’s noticed Norah’s black taffeta dress is missing, along with her shoes. She agrees to go with Norah to meet Mayo.
When Mayo meets Crystal back at the diner, his first thought is she’s hard-bitten enough to have whacked Prebble, and is dismayed to see Crystal point him in Norah’s direction. But unfortunately for all concerned it’s a trap. Waiting outside is Capt. Haynes and the rest of the force. It’s only after she’s been escorted to the squad cars outside that we see Haynes credit the diner’s operator as the person who led to her capture.
Mayo is able to drag Haynes along on following up this flimsy clue, leading them to the music store where Prebble bought his tools of seduction. When the manager tells his shop girl the police want a word, she heads into the bathroom, where she shatters and ashtray and…
Cut to Norah being escorted by the prison matron to the bedside of said shop girl, who is in the midst of confessing that she paid Prebble a visit that night. Thinking she was there for another taste of Harry Prebble, he switched records. But she’s hoping he will help her with “her problem.” Harry loses interest quicker than you can say Roe v. Wade, focusing instead on an unfinished painting. She begins to notice the various clues that he’s not the first female he’s had in his place that night. Red-hot in anger, she uses the poker to bash his brains in.
It’s a pleasant little piece of crime drama, written by Vera Caspary, so perhaps the female point of view is more legit than most film noirs of the era. More notable is its director, Fritz Lang. Despite Lang’s reputation among film fans, many who worked with him found him abusive and difficult. Because of this, his career in America never reached the critical success of his earlier, more artistic films.
Reeves had an uncredited appearance in 1953’s From Here to Eternity, and a small part in Forever Female the same year. Otherwise, he played Superman almost until the day he died.