gaslight facts1. The term "gaslight." The Ingrid Bergman thriller "Gaslight" -- released 70 years ago this week, on May 4, 1944, wasn't the original use of the title. There was Patrick Hamilton's 1938 play "Gas Light," retitled "Angel Street" when it came to Broadway a couple years later. And there was a British film version in 1939, starring Anton Walbrook (later the cruel impresario in "The Red Shoes") and Diana Wynyard.

Still, the glossy 1944 MGM version remains the best-known telling of the tale, with the title an apparent reference to the flickering Victorian lamps that are part of Gregory's (Charles Boyer) scheme to make wife Paula (Bergman) think she's seeing things that aren't there, thus deliberately undermining her sanity in order to have her institutionalized so that he'll be free to ransack the ancestral home to find the missing family jewels.

This version of Hamilton's tale was so popular that it made the word "gaslight"into a verb, a popular shorthand way to describe anyone's attempt to make another person doubt her sanity by presenting falsehood as reality.

2. Ingrid Bergman's first Oscar. Bergman had been nominated before, for 1943's "For Whom the Bell Tolls." The "Gaslight" role provided her first Oscar victory, however, perhaps because it was such a stretch. Few, including Bergman herself, believed that the tall, robust actress could convincingly play a frail, timid, haunted woman. But then, that's why she was right for the part, director George Cukor had insisted to her -- her transformation from her usual glowing self would be all the more dramatic and harrowing.

Bergman then dove into the part with proto-Method relish, even spending time at a mental hospital to study the behavioral tics of women who'd had nervous breakdowns. The result was so convincing that Bergman earned an upset victory over Barbara Stanwyck, the Oscar favorite that year for her iconic femme fatale role in "Double Indemnity." Even Stanwyck couldn't begrudge Bergman the prize, declaring that her "favorite actress won it and has earned it." Bergman would go on to win twice more over the next 30 years, becoming one of only a handful of stars in Hollywood history to claim three acting Oscars.

3. Angela Lansbury's movie career. One of the more difficult parts to cast was that of Nancy, the insolent young housemaid. Co-screenwriter John Van Druten thought of English actress Moyna MacGill, a World War II refugee who'd emigrated to Hollywood with her three children. Actually, he was thinking of MacGill's daughter, who was a teenager working at a Los Angeles department store. And so Angela Lansbury, then 17 and without any acting experience, landed her first film role. She was so young that the scene where she defies her mistress by lighting a cigarette had to be pushed back to late in the shoot because the social worker assigned to monitor her on the set wouldn't let Lansbury light a cigarette until she turned 18.

For that debut performance, Lansbury earned an Oscar nomination and quickly became a star, immediately landing roles in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and "National Velvet." Since then, Lansbury has, of course, gone on to worldwide fame for her versatility and longevity. Her TV career, highlighted by the 12 seasons she played sleuth Jessica Fletcher on "Murder, She Wrote," earned her 18 Emmy nominations. She won five Tonys on Broadway, where she continues to make regular appearances well into her 80s. And in film, she's been nominated for three Oscars; she finally won an Honorary Oscar last November in recognition of her seven-decade movie career, which includes such highlights as "The Manchurian Candidate," "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Nanny McPhee."

4. John Van Druten's movie career. Van Druten had been a successful playwright in England. That success continued on Broadway after he moved to America in 1940. "Gaslight" was one of his first screenplays. Afterward, he continued to find success in Hollywood for nearly 40 years (well beyond his death in 1957), as filmmakers continued to adapt his plays, including "I Remember Mama" (1948), "I Am a Camera" (1955), "Bell Book and Candle" (1958), "Cabaret" (1972, another adaptation of "I Am a Camera"), and "Rich and Famous" (1981, based on his play "Old Acquaintance" and the last movie directed by "Gaslight" helmer George Cukor).

5. Charles Boyer's image. The French émigré was known for playing suave European lovers in such movies as "Algiers" and "Love Affair." (So typecast was he that his phrasing and mannerisms were parodied by Mel Blanc in his cartoon performances as amorous French skunk Pepe Le Pew.) But Boyer twisted that stereotype to his advantage as the sinister husband in "Gaslight," and, like Bergman, proved he had more dramatic range than he'd been given credit for. As the slightly seedy Gregory, he also gave the first inkling of showing off his middle-aged paunch and receding hairline. He was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Afterward, he got to play more varied parts in such films as "A Woman's Vengeance" (1948), "Arch of Triumph" (1948, a reunion with Bergman), "The Earrings of Madame De..." (1953), "The Buccaneer" (1958), "Fanny" (1961), and "Barefoot in the Park" (1967).

6. George Cukor's reputation. Cukor was (and still is) known as one of Hollywood's most sensitve directors of actresses. He was also known mostly for nimble, female-driven comedies, including "Dinner at Eight" (1933), "Holiday" (1938), "The Women" (1939) and "The Philadelphia Story" (1940). He seemed an unlikely choice for a psychological thriller as dark and atmospheric as "Gaslight," but Cukor pulled it off, suppressing his usual stylistic touches out of fidelity to the text and the claustrophobic setting. (Of course, he did excellent work with the actresses, including Bergman, Lansbury, and Dame May Whitty as the nosy neighbor.) For the rest of his career, Cukor would balance his trademark lighter films with moody melodramas, including "A Double Life" (1948), "A Star Is Born" (1954), and "Wild Is the Wind" (1957). Twenty years after "Gaslight," he recreated turn-of-the-century London once more in "My Fair Lady" (1964) and finally won his first directing Oscar after five nominations.

7. The imperiled-wife plot. "Gaslight" wasn't the first movie to use the "Am I crazy or is my husband out to get me?" plot. Alfred Hitchcock had already done a couple of variations on the gothic haunted-wife-and-chilly-husband tale in "Rebecca" (1940) and "Suspicion" (1941). Still, "Gaslight" was one of the most effective and popular versions of the storyline, and it's credited with influencing many similar movies that followed, including Katharine Hepburn's "Undercurrent" (1946), Barbara Stanwyck's "Sorry, Wrong Number" (1948), Elizabeth Taylor's "Conspirator" (1949), Bette Davis, "Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte" (1964, co-starring "Gaslight" supporting actor Joseph Cotten), Jodie Foster's "Flightplan" (2005), and every Lifetime Channel cable movie ever.

Gaslight Movie Poster
In Theaters on May 11, 1944

After the death of her famous opera-singing aunt, Paula (Ingrid Bergman) is sent to study in Italy to... Read More

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