Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Haunting Melody of The Uninvited (1944)

The Uninvited, from Paramount Pictures in 1944, is an elegantly spooky Rebecca-esque romance with more than one haunting quality. Yes, Windward House, the sea cliff-situated home central to the story, is haunted by a malevolent woman’s ghost, but the film’s music is equally haunting (though not at all spooky).

Victor Young (who composed the film’s Rachmaninoff influenced score) and his orchestra introduced “Stella by Starlight” in The Uninvited. The melody is a thematic refrain throughout, but takes center stage in a romantic scene between Ray Milland (Roderick Fitzgerald) and Gail Russell (Stella Meredith). The pair is spending an evening together at Windward House and Rick begins to play the music, which he has written, on his grand piano:

(Jan. 2013 update: sadly this video is no longer available on YouTube)

Victor Young wasn't Academy Award-nominated for his rhapsodic score for The Uninvited, but did garner 22 Oscar nominations over his prolific career. He was nominated for as many as four films in a single year, but his only win came posthumously, for Around the World in 80 Days (1956). His scores for Golden Boy (1939) and Written on the Wind (1956) were among many nominated for the gold statuette - and he also scored The Palm Beach Story (1942), Shane (1953), Johnny Guitar (1954) and The Country Girl (1954). Young died in 1956 with hundreds of film credits to his name.

As with Laura, another notable film of 1944 with an evocative musical theme, song lyrics were composed for "Stella by Starlight" after The Uninvited was released and became a popular movie. In 1946 Oscar-winning lyricist Ned Washington (“When You Wish Upon a Star”/Pinocchio and “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’”/High Noon) created lyrics to accompany the music.

In 1947, two versions of "Stella by Starlight," one recorded by Frank Sinatra the other by the Harry James Orchestra, climbed the pop charts. In 1952, iconic saxophonist Charlie Parker made the first jazz recording of the tune; the song remains both a popular standard and jazz standard today.


  1. Eve, I agree.. the music in this movie is a very important part and helps set the mood..

    This, is one of those movies you will never forget. Even without the blood or gore, this movie will give you chills.

  2. Dawn - I hadn't seen "The Uninvited" for a long time and was so happy when it premiered one Halloween season on TCM a while ago. I've seen it so many times that it doesn't give me chills anymore (except when Miss Holloway/Cornelia Otis Skinner is onscreen) - but it did the first time...the apparition, suddenly cold rooms, the scent of mimosa...and Miss Holloway.

  3. The music in this film elevates a really good movie and makes it great. Thanks so much for a lovely post focusing on this aspect of THE UNINVITED -- I enjoyed revisiting that YouTube scene too!

    Best wishes,

  4. Laura - I completely agree that the Young's elevates the movie to another level. I watched "The Uninvited" (again) recently and effect of the "Stella" theme came through stronger than ever for me. "The Uninvited" is a good story, is well-made, and boasts a strong cast - but Victor Young's score adds that extra magic.

  5. The Uninvited is definitely one of my favorite horror films: No cheap thrills just a wonderful chilling atmosphere. But besides the scares it is also quite a beautiful film. I love the relationship that develops between Milland & Russell's characters.

    And you are right the score was perfect for this film.

  6. THE UNINVITED is such an evocative movie, and its music is used so well (it really captures that romantic-noirish mood of the film) - thanks for such interesting info on Victor Young - had no idea he was so prolific.

  7. Great score for a great film. There's a wonderful re-recording of the film's score on the Marco Polo label, along with selections from "Bright Leaf" and the title music from "The Greatest Show on Earth."

  8. Eve, I agree that it's amazing what a piece of music can add to a film. In addition to THE UNINVITED and LAURA, I always think of the "Love Theme from PICNIC" and the John Barry-Rachmaninoff themes from SOMEWHERE IN TIME.

  9. Eve, this was a lovely salute to Victor Young's most beautiful score (in my opinion)! I was first introduced to "Stella by Starlight" by my dear mom; in fact, I loved the song before I ever even saw the movie! :-) Thanks for your wonderful post and for bringing back happy memories!

  10. Eve, excellent post(as always) I should have read it before I posted Triva Times question # 9.
    Victor Young is not as well known by some classic movie fans as he should be. Along with this score some of my favorites are Around The World in 80 Day's, and(believe or not) Flying Tigers.

  11. Great to hear from so many fans of Victor Young's music for "The Uninvited" - and the wonderful song, "Stella by Starlight."

    Kevin - That recording on the Marco Polo label seems to spotlight Victor Young's work - he scored both other films you mentioned, too.

    You've all got me thinking about muscial themes. Love "Laura," of course - and the "Moonglow/Picnic" theme. There's also Bernard Herrmann's "Scene d'amour" theme from "Vertigo." I've always loved Jerry Goldsmith's work on "Chinatown" and John Barry's on "Body Heat" - both evoke powerful noir moods. Many more come to mind, but I'll leave it at that.

  12. This was a wonderful choice on your part, Ms Eve. The use of "Stella By Starlight" in "The Uninvited" is a great example of how a piece of music can become an intregal part of a film - a "heard but not seen" central character that effects the whole mood and theme of the film. I love the part where Ray Milland is playing the song for Stella and the malevolent presence of the ghost is felt in the darkened change of tonality in the music. I've seen this film multiple times over the years (as a child I found it pretty frightening) - it has gorgeous cinematography,too, with the high cliffs and cresting waves, the always in-view backdrop of the ocean, calling out to Stella. There is a real fascination with the eternal, particularly with death, that seems always to be such a great part of Romantic art - "The Uninvited" really captures that in it's theme and mood and manages, at the same time, to be a classic ghost picture. There are so many great versions of "Stella By Starlight" done by jazz musicians (besides a gorgeous melody it has a superb harmonic structure for improvisation). Another classic version is by Miles Davis, with a little help from a group including John Coltrane and Bill Evans.

  13. MB - I've always thought Gail Russell was very well cast as Stella and that it isn't at all hard to imagine the beautiful "Stella by Starlight" was written as a serenade to her...

  14. Eve, your evocative description of the moody plot and sets conjures many fond memories of the first time I watched this film. The Uninvited has the perfect blend of an immensely likeable cast of players and a thoroughly believable supernatural plot. Victor Young’s score, highlighted by Stella’s theme song, elevates the story from a nice little film to a small cinematic gem. Although Ray Milland wouldn’t need help in that department, the music of Stella by Starlight couldn’t help but win Gail Russell’s romantic heart. Thank you for including the clip from the film and Frank Sinatra’s version of the song, sigh, ol’ blue eyes working a bit of his own magic.

  15. This is such a beautiful and haunting film. it has such a fragility about it (much like Gail Russell's character). The music is a perfect compliment.

  16. Eve,
    Just look at Milland in that poster. So debonair, so mysterious! lol

    I haven't seen The Uninvited but with your description "Rebecca-esque" my favorite film I can't wait to see it.

    Thanks for introducing me to another film I'm excited about seeing. A perfect Halloween pick since I'm such a scaredy cat and I won't go near the hardcore horror films.

  17. As I'm reading comments from 'gypsy, FC and Page I suddenly remember that those who haven't seen "The Uninvited" for a while - or ever - will have a chance to watch or record it this Sunday, Oct. 30, on TCM - it will air at 10:15am Eastern/7:15am Pacific...

    I'm currently reading and enjoying Dorothy Macardle's novel of the same name (pub. in 1942) that the movie was adapted from...Warning: another "Uninvited" post may be on the way...

  18. Victor Young has had a great influence on my musical taste, first as an arranger on jazz recordings and later as a film composer. I think my favourite of his scores is for "Rio Grande".

    Thanks for a grand post spotlighting an unjustly almost forgotten composer, and a true spooky classic.

  19. CW - What a cruel fate that Victor Young - an Oscar-winner and 22-time nominee, not to mention the composer of "Stella by Starlight" - has fallen into relative obscurity. Most curious and undeserved. He's not quite forgotten, though, as comments here attest...

    Seems to me TCM ought to consider honoring Victor Young with at least a day of the films he scored.

  20. This is a great Halloween treat of a film, atmospheric, haunting with a wonderful cast. I never made the connection ,or realized, that this score contained the classic standard STELLA BY STARLIGHT. I need to watch it again now!

  21. Hi Eve! I've always said that music makes or breaks a movie, and the Uninvited, although it would have been good anyway, was made very special by that gorgeous melody. Have you ever heard the song as sung by John Gary? He was very popular in the early 60's, had a glorious tenor voice, and did probably the best singing version I've ever heard. I enjoyed your article a lot!

  22. John - I hope you'll be watching or recording "The Uninvited" this Sun. morning on TCM...I understand it isn't available on DVD, so this is a great chance. I'm reading the book and tomorrow night will be watching the movie back-to-back with "Rebecca" (blog fodder!)...
    Becky - I DO remember John Gary - he was a TV staple back in the day. My own favorites are the John Coltrane/Miles Davis/Bill Evans instrumental version and, of course, the Ol' Blue Eyes vocal - his soulful renderings of the standards still thrill me...

  23. Eve, I just adore Sinatra, and his version is so lovely. John Gary's just always stayed with me -- he sings in such a lyrical style. I read on an album cover when I was a kid that he held the underwater record for holding his breath, like 3 minutes and some. Unbelievable, and really explains his marvelous sound. Anyway, if you've never heard him sing Stella or don't remember, here's the link to it on Youtube:

  24. this is just a NICE film period..
    not horror..
    not thriller...
    great story and cast...
    and wonderful music!!

  25. Thanks for the link, Becky...

    And Doc, couldn't agree more, "The Uninvited" is a well-spun story of love and ghosts with a divine score that enhances everything else about it...

    ...Am in the process of watching "Rebecca" and "The Uninvited" right now...great double feature...Just saw "Undercurrent" (a "Suspicion"-ish picture directed by Minnelli, starring Katharine Hepburn, Robert Taylor and the one and only interesting thing about the entire concoction - Robert Mitchum) but it doesn't measure up to the other two at all...

  26. Just came across this post, Eve. THE UNINVITED is one of my very favorite films. I recently found a DVD copy and bought it, hoping for a good print. It's pretty good but not great. Still, it's better than nothing. I love this movie.

    I talked about it too on my blog months ago. But I like that you concentrated on the music which is such an integral part of this very atmospheric film.

    Enjoyed reading this very much. I'm off to look for the Miles Davis version of Stella.

  27. As a somewhat series jazz guitarist, I find Young's "Stella by Starlight" a perfect composition. It's invocation of the "half diminished" chord throughout song make it a perfect structure in which to improvise. Although the film maybe somewhat obscure, "Stella by Starlight" as lived on throughout the decades, immortalized by jazz greats like Miles Davis, Byrd, George Benson...the list goes on. It is always a favorite call at jam session, it is a must learn song for those of us struggling to learn jazz improvisation. Victor Young, was the man!

    1. My older godson was a musical prodigy in his youth, he played trumpet (his idol, of course, was Miles). One of the great memories I have of that time is of his trumpet solo on "Stella by Starlight" at the Green Music Festival at Sonoma State University. He was only 13 but performing with an adult orchestra.

      Thanks for your comment, Clifton!