Home Before Dark (1958): Jean Simmons Dominates Mervyn LeRoy’s Femme-Centered Melodrama, Co-Starring Rhonda Fleming, Dan O’Herlihy (Housewife, Feminism, Mental Breakdown)

Mervyn LeRoy produced and directed Home Before Dark, a femme-centered drama, beautifully played by Jean Simmons, as a neglected and insecure wife, whose main goal is to please her husband.

Grade: B-

Home Before Dark
Home Before Dark (film poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

Co-written by Eileen and Robert Bassing, based on the novel by Eileen Bassing, the script probes deep into the personality of one woman who embarks on a journey of self-discovery, after years of being dependent on the opinions of other.

The film, which could be described as an early feminist melodrama, received positive reviews for its subtle direction.  But it’s Jean Simmons, in one of her finest parts, who dominates the film, rendering a quietly reserved, multi-nuanced performance.

In the first scene, Charlotte Bronn (Simmons)  leaves the Maraneck State Hospital mental institution in New England, after a year there, to resume a “normal” life in their plush New England home. (She is richer and the house owner).

From the start, husband Arnold, a college professor, seems distant, emotionally repressed, hyper-critical to every word or move that she makes, and manipulative.

The residents of the house form a bizarre extended family.  The childless couple lives with Charlotte’s beautiful step-sister Joan (Rhonda Fleming), and Joan’s mother, Inez (Mabel Albertson), a scattered chatterer.  They also have a boarder, Dr. Jake Diamond (Efrem Zimbalist), who, according to Arnold, has been experiencing anti-Semitism at their college.

Arnold shuns Charlotte, sleeping on the couch, keeping away from her with all kinds of excuses, while chumming around with Joan.  When she tries to make love to him, he politely rejects her.

Charlotte had nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental facility, largely due to her suspicions that her husband is having an affair with her younger stepsister.  

Back home, during the first three months, she is reduced to being a dependent girl.  She literally tiptoes in her own house, keeps apologizing for faux pas, even when it’s not necessary. Sister Joan is chilly but cordial, Inez bosses her mercilessly, and even the maid that she herself had hired scolds her in public.

Diamond could not have been more different than Arnold. He is a handsome man, who keeps his calm, and the only one who shows Charlotte gentleness and sympathy.  The two take long walks early in the morning (neither is a good sleeper), spend time outdoors.  Soon, the friendship evolves into a tentatively  romantic relationship.

Two acquaintances, Hamilton Gregory (Steve Dunne), a high school mate who still loves her, and Cathy Bergner (Joanna Barnes), tell her that the affair between Arnold and Joan is not one of her delusions, but a reality.

As a result, Charlotte walks several miles through the snow to the college to confront her husband. Later, before a dinner with important faculty, she comes dressed and coiffed to resemble Joan, disrupting the dinner and causing embarrassment to all concerned.

Is she heading toward another breakdown? No, it’s the first step of regaining her self-confidence and self-worth as a woman.

Diamond, whose promotion at the college was sabotaged by Arnold, plans to live for New York City.

In the last scene, Charlotte joins him in what’s nothing short of a declaration of independence.

Jean Simmons as Charlotte Bronn
Dan O’Herlihy as Arnold Bronn
Rhonda Fleming as Joan Carlisle
Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Jacob “Jake” Diamond
Mabel Albertson as Inez Winthrop
Steve Dunne as Hamilton Gregory
Joanna Barnes as Frances Barrett
Joan Weldon as Cathy Bergner
Kathryn Card as Mattie
Marjorie Bennett as Hazel Evans
Eleanor Audley as Mrs. Hathaway
Johnstone White as Malcolm Southey

Produced, directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Written by Eileen Bassing and Robert Bassing, based on Home Before Dark, 1957 novel by Eileen Bassing
Cinematography Joseph F. Biroc
Edited by Philip W. Anderson
Music by Ray Heindorf
Distributed by Warner Bros

Release date: November 16, 1958

Running time: 136 min
Budget $1.39 million