Marilyn Monroe and mental illness: Don't Bother to Knock ('52)

Wess Haubrich

Hollywood is full of wrecked souls and broken dreams and the immortality made from some of them. The pressures of stardom and being in the public eye at an intensity of a sunburst have indeed weighed hard on many a Hollywood and music luminary, with the end result often being a nasty drug and/or alcohol addiction or even worse.

In the motion picture realm, we have seen Robin Williams, who hung himself with his belt in 2014, arguably after he found out he had a form of dementia. Heath Ledger, who died in 2008 of a drug overdose: some say his state of mind was made much worse by his extreme method acting and perhaps at least partial decent into psychosis in his genre-rocking and bone-chilling portrayal of The Joker in the second installment of Christopher Nolan’s darkly noir take on the Batman saga, 2008’s The Dark Knight.
Marilyn in Don't Bother to Knockthe film

These two are just notable cases among many others, like the director of Top Gun (1986), Tony Scott, who jumped off a bridge in LA in 2012, after leaving a suicide note. In the realm of Old Hollywood, we have Chester Morris, Boston Blackie in the eponymous crime flicks of the 1940’s, and also nominated for best actor at the 2nd Oscars in 1929 for his performance in Alibi but lost to Warren Baxter for In Old Arizona, who overdosed on barbiturates in 1970 after cancer began ravaging his body. The villain in 1944’s Gaslight, suave Frenchman Charles Boyer, took his own life in 1978, two days after the death of his wife, who he reportedly loved madly and deeply, also through an overdose of barbiturates. Boyer’s only child, Michael, born while his father was filming Gaslight in 1944, tragically also killed himself at age 21, by Russian roulette, after ending a romantic relationship.

Yet, quite possibly the most famous case of Hollywood psychosis embodied in world-class beauty and wit was the case of Marilyn Monroe, dying also of a barbiturate overdose 55 years ago. One huge reason Marilyn Monroe rocked my world as a lover of film, is that I myself have struggled with depression and those feelings of deep-seated inadequacies that can be ALOT to bare sometimes. I identify with her struggle with mental illness – the seed of which was likely planted long before her stardom, as her mother was not in her life as she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and spent much time in and out of hospitals, and virtually none with her daughter - because I too have been there, in that deep, dark, blacker than the deepest black hole.

Marilyn Monroe further introduced me in huge part to classic cinema as I watched her as Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in one of my favorite comedies by one of my favorite directors, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), one of my first forays into the glamour and greatness of Old Hollywood.

Yet, playing the quintessential sexpot was far from the fullest extent of Marilyn Monroe’s abilities as an actress. She in fact ached to be known for more, and did things like take classes in literature at UCLA before she was discovered as an actress by Twentieth Century Fox, who let her contract lapse a year after offering it, being then picked up Columbia Pictures who featured her in the 1948 B-Picture movie Ladies of the Chorus. Columbia head Daryl F. Zanuck even said the following about Marilyn, following her performance in Fritz Lang’s 1952 film noir Clash By Night, another film we will be examining in my 5 part look at Marilyn: "She's a sex pot who wiggles and walks and breathes sex, and each picture she's in she'll earn her keep but no more dramatic roles!"

This kind of abuse from the studio head only drove her further. Ladies of the Chorus, however, is FAR from Marilyn Monroe’s finest contribution to the history of low budget B-Movies that are surprisingly often, unjustly overlooked gems in cinematic history. 1952’s Don’t Bother to Knock (based upon the 1951 novel Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong) hits on those fronts and is also, in my view, Marilyn at her most visibly delicate, at least early on in the film. The film is 65 years old this August.

We see Marilyn Monroe in the role of the fragile Nell Forbes, new to Manhattan and recruited by her uncle, Eddie (Elisha Cook Jr.), who is an elevator operator in a ritzy hotel in the city, to babysit for an affluent couple – Ruth (Lurene Tuttle) and Peter (Jim Backus).

In the screen test for her role, Monroe stayed up for 48 hours straight training hard with her acting couch Natasha Lytess, even disobeying direct orders not to sneak her on to the soundstage during her screen test, despite Monroe’s notoriously insecure nature at this point in her career. This gamble she took to get her first starring role in feature film paid off with a successful test, and Zanuck himself sent her a note of congratulations.

Meanwhile in the film, airline pilot Jed Towers (Richard Widmark) just flew into town and is meeting his lounge singing girlfriend Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft). After she rejects him at the hotel’s lounge, Jed heads back to his hotel room, understandably sulking.

It is then that he catches a glimpse of the voluptuous Forbes across the way, and decides to act: giving her a phone call for what he thinks will be a quick dalliance. Was Jed ever wrong about that when Nell starts thinking he is her long-lost fiancé, and tensions quickly escalate around the child Bunny Jones (Donna Corcoran), whom Nell Forbes has been enlisted to care for until her parents return. This tension in Nell Forbes unfolding psychosis is made all the more palpable because Marilyn Monroe’s performance feels like it reaches into the pit of her soul and her struggle with mental illness.

Don’t Bother to Knock was unjustly lampooned by the critics when it was released. Marilyn Monroe’s performance is truly something to behold, despite the low budget B-Picture trappings surrounding the film itself. It is a fine contribution to the canon of both film noir and B-Movie history.

Join us back here soon for the rest of the installments of our look at Marilyn Monroe’s contributions to film noir when we examine 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle, 1952’s Clash By Night, and 1953’s Niagra.

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Former editor, now dogged-maverick journalist and researcher covering the crime beat. I examine the weird, absurd, and downright infamous in American crime both here and at Real Monsters podcast. Contact:


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