“America’s most modern fashion magazine,” complete with background clicking typewriters, is the scene of the story “Lady in the Dark.” (I stumbled on it earlier this week while researching the much different drama “Lady in the Lake.”) Long before “The Devil Wears Prada,” this 1940s Broadway musical explored the pressures of the fashion magazine business and a woman’s career decisions — enough to drive an executive editor to a psychiatrist.
You can guess what the conventional Hollywood psychiatric diagnosis for a powerful woman executive was back then. If I were teaching, this period romance would be great for class discussion. The “business woman” versus “glamour girl” costume changes in the movie may tell more of the story on screen than the songs and dialogue did on radio. Liza, the editor, and business manager Charlie (who wants her job) are the main characters… along with the older publisher and a handsome movie star who both want to marry her.
She’s indecisive about romance and about what to put on the next magazine cover, and “in the dark” on the psychiatric couch, sorting out what she really wants in life.
“You married that desk of yours years ago and you’re never going to get a divorce,” says Charlie, who calls her Boss Lady. “You’ll have magazines instead of babies.”
So Charlie wants to run things. The movie star seems to want her as his own boss lady, while the psychiatrist suggests she wants to marry her publisher as a father figure. Maybe a Psych 101 class should be a prerequisite for that class discussion. Liza’s preparing a spring Easter issue and Charlie wants to give it a Circus theme to sell more ads. That editorial decision could be worth some analysis, when Charlie appears in one of her dreams as a ringmaster…
In Technicolor, her psychiatric dream-analysis led to costume-fantasy musical production numbers that were probably the best thing about the movie, but not the most radio-adaptable feature. Lux Radio Theater tried twice, in 1945 “Lady in the Dark” with movie version stars Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland, and again with Judy Garland and John Lund in 1953. (That MP3 unfortunately is archived with the first half of the program missing.)
In the film, the circus dream includes “The Saga of Jenny” song and dance sequence in extravagant circus costume, a hint of change from editor Liza’s usual demure business dress.
The original Broadway show was a Moss Hart play with Kurt Weill music and Ira Gershwin lyrics, filmed for theaters in 1944, for TV in 1954 with Ann Sothern and James Daly, and recorded on video again in 1990, according to Internet Movie Database.
For some hint of the role of costumes (and Ginger Rogers’ legs) played in promotion of the film, see the IMDB image archive.
Theatre Guild on the Air also produced a radio adaptation of the play, in 1947 with Gertrude Lawrence, star of the original Broadway show, and a useful technique of having the psychoanalyst’s description set the stage and transition more smoothly into the dream-musical sequences.
Here’s what we have of the Judy Garland Lux version…