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The Education of Miss Anne Leeds: Jean Simmons in This Could Be the Night

This Could Be the Night (1957) is probably one of the lesser known films of both Jean Simmons and Anthony Franciosa’s varied careers. While it was Anthony’s film debut after his incredibly successful Broadway career, Jean already had an established film career having been nominated for an Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA. Jean would also be nominated for a Golden Globe for her role in This Could Be the Night. Sadly, the film was not well received by audiences, with MGM recording that the film lost a little over $800 000 at the box office.

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I’m NO Baby

Anne Leeds (played by Jean Simmons) is a young primary school teacher who needs a second job to supplement her income. She answers an advertisement for a secretarial position at a nightclub called “The Tonic”. Whilst the owner of the nightclub, Rocco (played by Paul Douglas) is initially sceptical about the refined and educated Anne’s suitability for the position, she manages to impress him with her ability to “speak a beautiful English”.

Anne’s stuffy landlords, Mr and Mrs Shea (played by Frank Ferguson and ZaSu Pitts) express concern at her new part time job, as Rocco was apparently a notorious gangster and bootlegger during Prohibition. But Anne is unfazed, even when Mrs Shea is vehement about Anne wearing her most conservative dress because “if [she] has to go there, then she at least [can] go covered!”

Despite a warm welcome from Rocco, Anne’s first night is a disaster. The other staff don’t like her because they think she is stuck up, and Tony (played by Anthony Franciosa), Rocco’s young partner in the nightclub, immediately does everything he can to alienate Anne and make it very clear that he doesn’t think she belongs anywhere near New York, never mind “The Tonic”.

When Anne inadvertently reveals to a customer’s wife that he is a liar and a cheat, Tony takes the opportunity to fire her. But Rocco is having none of it, and makes Tony rehire Anne and apologise to her. Tony does both of these things with extreme reluctance.

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Things slowly begin to improve at the club for Anne, and she is even able to win over the bus boy, Hussein (played by Rafael Compos), who intensely dislikes schoolteachers because of his strict Maths teacher. Anne also becomes good friends with Patsy (played by Neile Adams), a young performer at the club who has a very overprotective mother, Crystal (played by Joan Blondell). Cooking is Patsy’s passion, but her mother doesn’t understand or support this, and it falls to Anne to help her find a recipe for a baking competition that she wants to enter so she can win a stove. Anne gives Patsy her mother’s recipe for carrot cake, which helps Patsy win the baking competition and her beloved stove. While Tony is annoyed by Anne’s “meddling”, and Crystal is initially angered by her daughter’s actions, she comes around and congratulates Patsy, and happily lets her keep the stove in their kitchen.

Hussein then tearfully admits that he wants to change his name because of constant bullying (this is a somewhat problematic subplot given the Islamophobia that is rife in today’s society). However, his father has set a condition that he can only do so if he passes maths. His strict maths teacher sets an incredibly difficult test for him to do, and all seems hopeless, until Anne’s colleague, who is a maths teacher and has the hots for her, pitches up at the club. Some well placed seduction from Ivy (played by Julie Wilson) the sultry blues singer at the club, and some not so subtle threats from Tony, ensure that the test is successfully completed by said colleague and copied by Hussein. Despite this happy outcome, Anne has had enough of Tony’s condescending attitude, and after finding out from Hussein that everyone knows she’s a greenhorn (code for virgin), she resolves to confront Tony about his behaviour.

She goes up to his apartment and tries to convince him that she dated extensively in Massachusetts, and therefore doesn’t need to be protected or cosseted by her boss and coworkers. When Tony seems unimpressed, she demands that he take her seriously, and stop calling her the infantilising nickname of “Baby” and by her actual name (even “hey you” will do!).

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Instead of accepting this as an understandable request, Tony passionately kisses Anne, therefore confirming his long held attraction for her. Anne reciprocates before Rocco phones and asks Tony where Anne is, as her landlord is looking for her. Tony concocts the lie that she is sleeping over at Patsy and Crystal’s place that night. Rocco buys this, but now Tony has to make good on his lie. He tenderly kisses Anne after she admits she loves him and before he drives her to Patsy and Crystal’s apartment. Once outside, he does a complete about face by telling Anne that he doesn’t care for her, and that she needs to forget everything that has come to pass between them. Anne is, unsurprisingly, utterly crushed.

Tony goes back to his apartment, where Rocco confronts him after finding Anne’s handbag on Tony’s couch. Rocco punches Tony and accuses him of sullying and seducing the naïve Anne. Tony tells him he’s never been so wrong, and then says that he thinks that Rocco is actually in love with Anne. Both men are flabbergasted and upset by the other’s accusations.

The next morning Rocco goes to see Anne, and she admits that she is deeply in love with Tony despite their incompatibility. Rocco is saddened by this, but resigned. When he returns to “The Tonic”, he apologises to Tony, but also tells him that he isn’t a dirty old man and would never pray on Anne in such a way. Tony then gives an ultimatum: either Anne goes or he does. Rocco concedes that Anne is probably better off working somewhere else.

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Tony visits Anne at her school, and helps her resolve a tussle between her male students. This scene is particularly hilarious, with Tony’s Brooklyn accent becoming wonderfully exaggerated, and the child actors engaging in very well timed physical comedy. Tony gives Anne her salary, but she refuses extra money, and asks Tony to leave her alone from now on. Tony is upset, but accepts her rejection and leaves.

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All seems back to normal at the club, although Tony becomes extremely agitated when everyone keeps asking him where “Baby” is. This becomes unbearable when Hussein says that he passed his maths test and wanted to change his surname to Tony’s, but won’t do so now because of Tony’s poor treatment of Anne. Tony is at his wits end, and his wits come to a complete end when he finds out that Anne is working for Waxy London, an associate of Rocco’s that just got out of prison after a ten year stretch. Tony goes to Waxy’s club, which he tells Anne is a front for a casino. Anne won’t believe him until it is revealed that the letters she’s been writing for Waxy are not to his living mother, but his mother who has been deceased for many a year.

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The cops then raid the club, and Tony and Anne are forced to flee out of the bathroom window. Anne tries to shake Tony off after he tells her that she should come back to work at “The Tonic” because she’s a naïve, trouble magnet. Which is proven right when she is shoved by a drunk after an argument over a taxi cab. Tony forcefully evacuates said drunks from said taxi cab, and pays the driver to follow an irate Anne down the street.

It then cuts to Tony back at the club, where he tells Rocco that he’s rehired Anne. Rocco is clearly very pleased, and while Ivy sings the film’s theme song to a packed nightclub audience; all the employees joyfully pour into Rocco’s office and welcome Anne back.

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Night School

I discovered this film quite a few years ago, and it was the second film I saw Jean in after Guys and Dolls, and while the roles of Sister Sarah Brown and Anne Leeds share similarities, I think This Could Be the Night shows that Jean was definitely not a one note actress. While many other actresses would have come across as being too prissy or too committed to being the “girl who’s different to all the rest”, Jean seems to understand that a balance must be struck between the two.

Anne is a naïve character, but she’s also a very brave one, and Jean makes us very aware of this. While it may seem rather innocent for a public school teacher of primary school children to believe that she can work as a secretary in a nightclub run by an ex-gangster, it’s also extremely brave. Anne isn’t afraid of trying to associate with people who are not from the same upper middle class background as her. And as she tells Tony when he confronts her about this, she is trying to make her own way in the world and not be overcome by the strangeness of her new situation. Jean shows this through a very natural delivery of her dialogue, but also through her facial expressions and body language. Initially, she looks unsure and uptight, but as the film goes on, everything about her becomes more relaxed. It’s a subtle shift, but it shows how much Anne’s confidence grows as she gains her footing.

I think the highlight of the film is Jean and Anthony Franciosa’s onscreen chemistry. Not for a moment does the tension between them feel forced or over the top. You really buy into the fact that they’re like two cats on a hot tin roof, seeing who can stay on it the longest. And their interactions show the heart of the story: not making assumptions about other people. While Tony comes across as being a womaniser, it becomes clear that in his youth he was influenced by Rocco, who admits he was embittered by his divorce when he first met Tony. But the tenderness he shows Anne belies this behaviour, and it isn’t in a ridiculous way. Anthony Franciosa clearly respects Jean as an actress, and gives all his scenes with her passion and vulnerability. They play off each other perfectly, with many heated looks (not ridiculous, just subtly smouldering) conveying the building attraction. My favourite scene of the film, unsurprisingly, is when Anne confronts Tony. It is this scene that shows that Jean and Anthony should have been in more films together. There isn’t an uneven beat throughout the scene, and when they kiss, it’s absolutely wonderfully shocking. Even though I always know it’s coming, I still want to whoop.

The cast of This Could Be the Night is made up of actors who were all pretty much completely underrated. While Jean and Anthony both enjoyed long, successful careers, neither of them ever really reached the zenith of stardom that they deserved. And Paul Douglas is a character actor who I think definitely needs to be better known, especially for his turn in this film, which combines humour and real feeling. Even though contemporary audiences didn’t enjoy the film, and quite a few people have forgotten about it, I highly recommend it. Jean is a delight from start to finish. And trust me, you’ll really enjoy her dynamic with Anthony.

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This is my second and final contribution for the 90 Years of Jean Simmons Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema and Phyllis Loves Her Classic Movies. Please visit their blogs for further information and to read everyone’s contributions.

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