The Gardenia by Vera Caspary (1952)
By Francis Booth | On March 31, 2022 | Updated April 4, 2022 | Comments (0)
Even by her usual standards, Vera Caspary’s novella The Gardenia had a very quick route to the screen. Published in early 1952, producer Alex Gottlieb bought the film rights on September 3, 1952, and engaged Fritz Lang to direct (Caspary had no input into the script).
This overview of The Gardenia, the basis for the renowned 1953 film The Blue Gardenia, is excerpted from A Girl Named Vera Can Never Tell a Lie: The Fiction of Vera Caspary by Francis Booth ©2022. Reprinted by permission.
By November 24, 1952, the final shooting script was ready, a distribution deal was struck with Warner Brothers on the 27th, Lang began shooting on the 28th, and finished on Christmas Eve.
The film was renamed The Blue Gardenia, probably to cash in on the notoriety of the 1947 “Black Dahlia” murder in Los Angeles and the 1946 noir film The Blue Dahlia, with a screenplay by Raymond Chandler – his first – where the title also refers to a night club.
The song The Blue Gardenia, specially written for the film, is performed at the Blue Gardenia restaurant and club by Nat King Cole while the two main characters are having dinner; it was rerecorded for general release by Cole in January 1953 with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra.
Not a “Caspary woman” — at first
Agnes Codd (called Norah in the film and played by Anne Baxter, who had co-starred with Gene Tierney in Laura) is no Caspary woman — at least not at first. She changes dramatically throughout the story.
On the surface, this is a murder mystery and fits best in the psycho-thrillers section. But deep down it’s also an existential coming-of-age story, a female bildungsroman just as much as Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, Fanny Burney’s Evelina, Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, or Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth.
If this comparison seems fanciful, remember that Sara in The Murder in the Stork Club has the professional name Haworth after the Brontë Parsonage and that Caspary was a big fan of Wilkie Collins.
Films and novels in the noir mode do not usually have psychological development in their characters, or indeed much psychology at all; The Blue Gardenia is generally considered one of the great films noir and perhaps this is part of the reason.
Unlike the typical Caspary woman, Agnes is not a highflying career success, but works with many other women in a telephone exchange as a long-distance operator, and the story is not set in fashionable, media-people Manhattan like its precursors Laura, Murder in the Stork Club and Stranger Than Truth.
And unlike her predecessors, Agnes does not have her own apartment but shares a bungalow with a roommate, divorcee Crystal. Shy, modest Agnes does not stand out among these many women, nor does she want to; her closest precursor is Mae in Music in the Street.
“Agnes was so tidy, so conventionally dressed, so conservatively made up, that she could pass in a crowd unnoticed. Many girls, less well-made, were more fetching because they had made a legend of their own glamour.”
All the other girls seem to have boyfriends, about whom they talk constantly, boasting shamelessly – as Agnes sees it – of their sexual awareness and experience.
“Most of them treated innocence, or ignorance, or chastity – it was the same thing whatever you called it – as a disability. It was innocence that made Agnes unimportant.”
Agnes’ colleagues are like Mae’s in relation to her and in return, she has Mae’s attitude to her fellow hostel dwellers. Agnes, brought up teetotal in a religious environment with an abiding sense of sin and shame, does not have anything to do with men, but because of this she feels isolated and alone; even her roommate has a boyfriend. The chatter in the ladies’ bathrooms at work sounds exactly like the lounge in Mae’s working girls’ hostel thirty years earlier.
She tried to saunter carelessly in to the Ladies’ Lounge. The room was crowded and filled with chatter. One theme prevailed: “my boyfriend” . . . “my husband” . . . “the man I dated last night” . . . “my steady” . . . “that heel” . . . “that egg” . . . “that jerk” . . . “my darling” . . . Because Agnes was so much out of it, she pretended not to care. Around her the girls preened, clattered, darkened eyelashes, flaunted breasts, swung their hips for the pleasure of watching themselves in mirrors.
Agnes “was an echo of prejudices, her mother’s and the sewing circle’s; her voice creaked like their porch rockers. Rebelling and fleeing her hometown had done Agnes no good. She was a product of her environment. The city had not remolded her in its gaudy image.”
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Henry Preble, office lothario
But still, Agnes attracts the attention of office lothario Henry Preble, who has quite a senior position at the firm; she agrees to go on a date with him while roommate Crystal is away with her boyfriend.
Henry is notorious in the office for telling girls he likes certain of their physical aspects. “‘I like you, Agnes. You’re a sweet girl and your legs,’ his lips trembled with the weight of praise, ‘your legs are like music.’” Although the other women think of him as a creep and pervert, Agnes thinks him not bad looking.
“A delicate man, who looked as though a feather would knock him over, he had the thin-skinned delicate face of a sensitive child. His eyes were large, light, and deeply set in bluish hollows and his mouth, as rosy and finely-textured as a baby’s, was always quivering and twisting.”
Agnes is well-aware of Henry’s reputation but has convinced herself she has nothing to worry about, as she tells Crystal. “Any girl can take care of herself. No girl ever had to let a man have his way with her . . . You know what my mother used to say? She always said a girl was safe so long as she had a hatpin.”
Crystal laughs at her for being so old-fashioned, and Tex, a female neighbor, calls Agnes “An angel. A lady. By me, that spells sucker.” But when Crystal and Tex go off with their boyfriends on Saturday, Agnes is wracked with loneliness.
“She watched Tex in her fringed jacket and wide-brimmed Western hat go off with Montie, and the sense of loneliness became so knotted in her insides, she closed all of her windows and pulled down the shades so that the sounds of life should not remind her that other people were not like her, listening to their radios and eating their dinner in solitude. . . Agnes had made a sandwich on whole wheat bread but it tasted of loneliness, as if it had been salted with tears.”
Agnes goes on the date with Henry. When he meets her, Agnes thinks everything is going to be okay.
“No one could have looked more respectable, more harmless than the delicate small man in the Saturday night uniform, dark blue suit, white shirt, plain tie. The conformity pleased her. She felt that she and Henry were correct, a well-dressed couple, part of the Saturday night world.”
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Learn more about Vera Caspary
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Plowed on alcohol; a gift of a gardenia
Henry takes her to a bar where he plies Agnes, who has never drunk alcohol before, with Gibson cocktails and afterward takes her to a Chinese restaurant, where they know him well. On the way in, a blind flower seller gives her a “mystery gardenia.” Agnes is thrilled, “no one had ever given her a flower before.”
In his controlling way, Henry decides to call her Charmian, saying he doesn’t like the name “Agnes.” Soon she is drunk – or possibly even drugged, it isn’t entirely clear. She can hardly stay awake. Henry takes her away in his car. Agnes is drifting off already.
Apart from the “I want to show you my drawings” trick, the “landlady chaperone” trick is the oldest in the book, and she doesn’t exist. There are lots of other clues in the apartment to Henry’s intentions, but Agnes is too drunk to notice them. In fact, she’s quite proud of herself and wonders what the other girls would think of her being pampered in such luxurious style by a man.
“Sweet enough to kiss,” says Henry as he brushes her cheek and gives her a drink in an erotically shaped glass.
“The handle of the glass was in the shape of a naked woman, leaning over to peer inside. On lacquered shelves, along with Harry’s books and souvenirs, were more of these glasses and a jug decorated with nymphs in provocative positions.”
Henry tells Agnes he likes to paint women and would like to paint her; she says she would not make a good model, as she is not good looking. “‘You’ve got a fine body. Thin but . . .’ He shrugged away her flaws with a movement of his wrist, ‘but those legs. I could kiss them.’”
Henry puts his arm around Agnes, she pushes him away. “Don’t. Please don’t.” He tries to kiss her, but Agnes is suddenly revolted, “and although her heart had begun to leap and skip, she was able to accumulate enough strength to push him off.” But everything has now become too much for Agnes.
“The music and the gardenia, the night and the weariness. Her heavy lids fell; but in darkness she still saw the red flickering of sinful light and the wicked yellow dartings of the candle flames.
When she woke up, it seemed that years had passed and a different person lay there. Her mother’s good daughter felt the pounding of evil in her head, knew the sour return of gin, the very taste of sin on her tongue. Of time and place she was not yet aware and her lethargy was such that she could not open her eyes and find out. Her back and legs knew, by the feel of the mattress, that this was not home.”
What occurred during the blank line in the text, a deliberate lacuna, we are not told and have to imagine for ourselves. But Agnes pulls herself round.
“Four cocktails could not defeat her mother’s daughter. Virtue was no disability; virtue was strength, and worthy of defense. Milk-and-water limbs turned to bone and muscle, gentle hands to iron. She was up, off the couch, holding him at arm’s length, shaking him like a dirty rug.”
But Henry is not done; he attacks her.
“He caught her, pinned her to the wall, his hands like cords that bound her wrists. To blind herself against the sight of twisted, juicy lips, flicking tongue, blood-bursting veins, she closed her eyes. He laughed then, seeing defeat on her eyelids. She turned her head so that when she opened her eyes his face should not sicken her. Now, lids lifted, eyeballs cut by the sudden fire, she saw the moving radiance caught in the poker which, with its sharp point and shining brass knob, stood erect among the andirons just as her mother’s best gold hatpin used to stand high and proud among humbler occupants of the pincushion.”
Agnes runs out of the apartment. The next thing we know, the next thing Agnes knows, is that Henry has been found dead, beaten to death with a poker, “a withered gardenia, broken off at the stem, left lying close to the studio couch,” as the radio announcer says.
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1953 film adaptation: The Blue Gardenia*
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Is she the killer?
“GARDENIA CLUE IN MURDER MYSTERY; FATAL LOVE DUEL IN STUDIO; LOVE TRYST KILLER SOUGHT” the newspaper headline screams. “GARDENIA KILLER SOUGHT! SEEK MYSTERY GIRL IN STUDIO SLAYING! yells another newspaper.
The police interview various of Agnes’ colleagues at the phone company; it turns out that Henry had taken several girls back to his apartment, given them new names and kept a list in his apartment of which parts of which women’s bodies he liked best, in his gender-reversed, Frankenstein-like attempt to create the perfect woman, if only in his mind.
Shy, mild Agnes is the last person anyone would suspect and her name is not listed. She doesn’t even suspect herself. The murderer wore gloves and there are no fingerprints; Agnes was not wearing gloves. She can’t have done it. Or could she?
Whatever she did, it has completely changed Agnes’ view of herself. A religious pamphleteer calls at the house, “repent and be saved,” she says. Agnes shouts at the woman but then wonders whether she should confess, thinking of her mother’s ideas of sin and redemption.
She gets dressed, goes to the police station to confess but changes her mind at the last minute. Instead, Agnes decides to change her appearance.
“On her way to the bathroom, she stopped at the mirror to greet the enchanting blonde … Agnes had never felt so alive. Alive! It was more than the newness of being blonde, deeper than the awareness of looking her best. It was a new depth in feeling.”
The experience of standing at the police station, about to confess a capital crime, has changed Agnes for good – good in the sense of forever as well as in the sense of good for Agnes; at least, that’s how she feels at this time, much more the Caspary woman now.
“She felt pretty, graceful, coquettish, no kin to the profane slut of the morning, nor to the mousy frump who had fled from her own reflection in the doors of the Locust Avenue police station.”
Norman, a newspaper reporter, turns up at the house looking for gossip and ends up flirting with Agnes and taking her out. She suspects that he might just be pursuing her to see if he can get a story out of her, but then she dismisses the thought. Norman’s attention feeds Agnes’ new personality.
“Her sense of female power was growing. Had there been anything other than admiration in his pursuit of her, he would not have allowed her to lead him to the boundaries of danger and follow so readily when she skipped away.”
But the personality change may not actually be for her good, she realizes, thinking back to her upbringing and her mother, to the pervasive idea of sin.
“To thine own self be true. Which self? Her mother’s good daughter or the slut whose whisky-tainted mouth had shouted obscenities at a dutiful Christian? No self could at the same time be both good and evil. The sourness returned to her mouth; she remembered the aftertaste of Gibson cocktails.”
Crystal begins suspect that Agnes is hiding something; Agnes had been very mysterious about the taffeta dress she wore on the date with Henry; the blind flower seller said she had heard the rustle of taffeta. But then a woman confesses to the crime, so that’s the end of that, all the pressure is off Agnes.
Except that it isn’t. It turns out that the woman who confessed is crazy and has done it before; the blind flower seller says the woman has the wrong voice and the waiter from the Chinese restaurant says she is not the woman who was with Henry that night. It can’t have been her.
Agnes goes to the police station, dressed in black taffeta, with white gloves and a gardenia. Norman still doesn’t believe it was her, why couldn’t it have been the other girl, he asks.
“Because I did it. I hit him with the poker. I killed him and . . .” Agnes looked at her right hand, immaculate in the white glove, but curved as when it had grasped a brass knob in which had been reflected the flames of an artificial fire. “And it was a sin,” she added. This settled it for her. The deepest urge of her nature had been satisfied. There were no more drumbeats in her head; distorted shadows had faded; she was not afraid. Confession had washed the sourness from her tongue.
Agnes will never again “pass in a crowd unnoticed.” She has completely transcended the humdrum world of her colleagues. She has also turned her mother’s moral system inside out; committing the greatest sin of all – murder – to avoid the lesser sin of unmarried sex.
And was what she did even a sin? Before any of Agnes’ circle knew she did it, there had been a discussion about whether the woman was right or wrong to stop her rapist – potential or actual – by any means necessary. One male character, Willard – whose views are perhaps more liberal than those of the average American male of the time, is very certain.
The public is sympathetic too; Agnes has become something of a heroine, at least in Caspary’s summing up:
“They looked and they saw. She was not a criminal; nor any more a sap. The small pale girl with her silk dress, her flower, and her dyed hair, would never again be innocent. She had fought the battle, trod the wavering path, known good and evil.”
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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:
Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.
Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England.
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