Spellbound and The Girl of the Golden West

Dave and I watched Hitchcock’s Spellbound Friday night. I’ve been a Hitchcock buff since my childhood and I’ve seen Spellbound many times before, but evidently not in some years, because I noticed some things in it I don’t remember noticing before. Including a really startling number of structural correspondences and similarities with Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West.

Think about it: Independent, strong-willed Minnie Falconer/Dr. Constance Petersen has been wooed without success by a number of the men in her community (the mining camp/the hospital), including the local sheriff/her supervisor at the hospital, but has turned them all down — and then falls hard for the handsome newcomer Dick Johnson/Dr. Anthony Edwardes. Then she learns that the man she has fallen for is in fact an imposter and wanted for murder. But she knows in her heart that it can’t be true, and when a group of men, including the local sheriff, come to her room one evening to warn her and show her a photograph that proves the man is not who he says he is, she conceals what she knows from them, even though she could help them capture him if she wanted to. Instead, she works to save his life and make things right with the law, so they can marry and start a new life together.

Another parallel: In both cases, the couple’s first kiss is marked by a door opening (well, several doors opening in the case of Spellbound, and no snow), which in both cases is a metaphor for the heroine’s opening herself up to physical passion for the first time.

Did Hecht notice the parallels in the two stories and model some of his scenes on scenes in the Belasco play? I don’t know, but there seem to me to be just enough similarities to make that entirely plausible. And I doubt there’s any way Hecht didn’t know the Belasco play — it had been too huge a hit.

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2 thoughts on “Spellbound and The Girl of the Golden West

  1. Huh. I’ve only seen Fanciulla del West and only once, back in the late ’80s, so I’ll have to take your word on the parallel construction. Nice catch, though.

    The doors in Spellbound, I remember. (I missed all those hints as a youngling; one of the pleasures of watching Hitchcock movies now is noticing cinematographic consummation.)

    • This isn’t always done in productions of the opera, but the second act takes place in Minnie’s cabin during a blizzard (which in the Belasco production was done very realistically, with elaborate lighting and sound effects and the windows even frosting up before audience’s eyes), and when Minnie and Dick kiss for the first time — which is a release of a lot of psychological tension, as the two have been playing cat and mouse around the issue since halfway into act one — the storm blows open the door to the cabin, and snow begins to form a drift in the entrance, all while they are lost in a long, passionate kiss, oblivious to all else.

      I got to know the play well while I was working on my new libretto for the opera a few years ago, and I’m surprised I wasn’t reminded of the doors opening in Spellbound all the time I was working on it. I guess I hadn’t seen the movie in quite a while — with the play relatively fresh in my memory, I noticed a whole series of similar situations.

      I was really struck with how well Spellbound works on a variety of levels. The psychology involved is very much oversimplified, of course, and in reality poor Gregory Peck is not going to be permanently freed from his demons by bringing his repressed memories up to consciousness at last — he’s just making a first big step on his journey toward wholeness, and there will be plenty more grief and hard work still ahead of him. But the story still rings true in the shadowy, metaphorical way that a fable does, or at least it feels that way to me.

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