LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945, Twentieth Century Fox, 35mm Technicolor)

Running time: 110 minutes.  Director: John M. Stahl.  Produced by: Darryl F. Zanuck and William A. Bacher.  Cinematographer: Leon Shamroy.  Based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams.  Cast: Ellen Berent Harland (Gene Tierney), Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), Ruth Berent (Jeanne Crain), Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), Dr. Saunders (Gene Lockhart), Mrs. Berent (Mary Philips).

A FORGOTTEN DIRECTOR

There is a wealth of writing about Douglas Sirk, but there is little information about the director who clearly influenced his career.  Born in 1886 in New York City, John M. Stahl began his noteworthy career as a stage actor at the age of 16.  By 1916 he was working at the Vitagraph studios in Brooklyn, NY as a bit player in comedy shorts and within a year began directing a series of historical shorts that are now considered to be lost.  In 1917, Stahl moved to the New York studios of Louis B. Mayer and was a key director in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s early years.  By 1927, Stahl became vice-president and “directorial producer” of his own company Tiffany-Stahl.  With the coming of sound, Stahl sold his interest in Tiffany-Stahl and signed with Universal where he made his most celebrated films, including STRICTLY DISHONORABLE (1931), BACK STREET (1932), and IMITATION OF LIFE (1934), and THE MAGNIFICANT OBSESSION (1935). It was during this period that Stahl developed his signature style described as “a deft blend of sentimentality, hothouse melodrama, baroque romanticism, with emphasis on strong, self-reliant female characters.”  Stahl’s career suffered a minor set-back in 1936 when he produced and directed MGM’s PARNELL, “notorious as Clark Gable’s worst and least successful starring feature.” 

In 1943, Stahl moved to 20th Century Fox where he went on to direct several box office hits such as THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM (1944) and the classic “ ‘I love you to death’ soaper,” LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945).  Stahl left a tremendous impression on those directors who specialized in “women’s pictures” including his contemporaries George Cukor and George Stevens.  None were more influenced than Douglas Sirk, who throughout the 1950s and 1960s directed three remakes of Stahl’s most popular films THE MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1956), INTERLUDE (the 1957 remake of Stahl’s 1939 classic WHEN TOMORROW COMES) and IMITATION OF LIFE (1959).  After retiring in 1949, Stahl died one year later of a heart attack. Stahl directed forty-five films between 1917 and 1949, so how has this prolific director fallen into oblivion? 

Stahl directed women’s pictures and weepies: a genre that has a history of being ignored, slandered, and poked fun at by critics. According to Molly Haskell, author of From Reverence to Rape, “James Agee was almost alone among critics in not dismissing the women’s film summarily…but for every Agee, there have been critics whose voices dripped of sarcasm and whose pens went lax when they came to review the women’s film.” Haskell lists Bosley Crowther as one of the harshest critics when it came time for his pen to hit paper after seeing a woman’s picture.  These are his very words from the New York Times 12/20/1945 after seeing LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, “Miss Tierney’s petulant performance of this vixenish character is about as analytical as a piece of pin-up poster art.  It is strictly one dimensional in the manner of a dot on an i… Only the sets are intriguing, being elaborate and gadgety…This picture is plainly a piece of cheap fiction done up in Technicolor and expensive sets…John M. Stahl’s direction is practically a model of what not to do in changing over a piece of fiction to the screen.” 

Crowther forgot to mention that aside from being “gadgety,” the sets were also exquisitely photographed by the talented Leon Shamroy, the cinematographer who holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations ever (18) with 4 wins, including one in 1946 for LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN.  Come to think of it there isn’t a gadget in the entire film, which takes place in the most remote of lakeside and seaside hideaways. Haskell reminds us “the most common pattern [of the women’s film genre] is probably the wife competing with her husband’s other life…the wife becomes a killjoy, distracting not only the hero but the audience from the fun and danger.”  LEAVER HER TO HEAVEN certainly weaves its story within this plot convention. Perhaps what critics like Crowther object to are films with women so overcome by emotion that instead of fun and danger we find ourselves witnessing endless scenes of tantrums and meltdowns.  These are the scenes that Stahl was able to create with such fascinating intensity.  David Thomson claims “the scenes in which Tierney allows her child brother-in-law to drown and coldly throws herself downstairs to abort her baby, and the moment when, on horseback, she scatters her father’s ashes, reveal Stahl as a thrilling artist in the cause of self-destructive Technicolor emotionalism.”  The only thing I might add to this is that the ash-spreading, earn-flinging scene is certainly unforgettable.

The Production Code Administration file for LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN shows that censors found the film offensive in its portrayal of abortion, its explicit discussion of crime, and the likelihood of Gene Tierney’s wardrobe being too suggestive and revealing.  The first piece of correspondence from Jason Joy to Joseph Breen on the 1st of December, 1944 states that “It will be absolutely essential to remove any flavor from these pages that Ellen plans to murder the unborn child merely because she is misshapen,  It should be definitely established that her reasons for murdering the child is that she thinks that the newborn will replace her in her husband’s affections.  This is important in order to avoid any of the flavor that is normally connected with what could be termed ‘abortion.’"  The PCA, as festidious as they were, noticed a second concern to be raised, “this reference to coffee being mixed with arsenic is unacceptable as a detailed discussion of crime.”

Wardrobe stills were habitually submitted for approval, correspondence on this issue went on at great length, the dates are as follows, April 21 and 23 of 1945, May 4, 5, 11, 14, 25, and 28, then on June 4, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 19, 20, and July 2.  Specific angles were cautioned against so as “to avoid any unacceptable breast exposure,” and in regards to costume “16 and 16A, the breast line seems rather questionable since it points up cleavage of the breasts.”   

 IS IT A FILM NOIR?

Immediately following the end of World War II, author James Naremore notes that the reason the French came to label Hollywood films as noir was twofold: first, it had to do with the peculiar local ways they viewed Hollywood films; and second because “American noir evoked a golden age of their own cinema…[resembling] Popular Front films such as PÉPÉ LE MOKO (1936), HÔTEL DU NORD (1938), AND LE JOUR SE LÈVE (1939)—a group of shadowy melodramas set in an urban milieu and featuring doomed protagonists who behaved with sangfroid under pressure.”  At the beginning of the American occupation of France, popular works contained “indigo moods, smoking jazz clubs, American fiction, and romantic isolation, with themes of sexual violence and racial otherness or blackness. The discourse on noir grew out of a European male fascination with the instinctive (a fascination that was evident in most forms of high modernism) and, as such, many of the films admired by the French involve white characters who cross borders to visit Latin America, Chinatown, or the ‘wrong’ parts of the city.”

The first instance of writing on Hollywood film noir is Nino Frank’s “Un nouveau genre ‘policier:’ L’aventure criminelle,” published in the socialist L’écran français in August 1946.  Frank emphasized a rejection of “sentimental humanism,” the “social fantastic,” and the “dynamism of violent death” as being obsessive French noir themes and called attention to the American proclivity for criminal psychology and misogyny.

The second essay was published in November of 1945 in the more conservative Revue du cinema by Jean-Pierre Chartier, titled “les Américans aussi font des films’ noirs,” Chartier found fault with what he deemed the common thread of film noir, the “pessimism and disgust for humanity.” These early notions of film noir weighed heavily on changing trends in Left bank intellectual culture, Raymond Borde and Étiene Chaumeton wrote a less contradictory and more in depth analysis on the topic called Panorama du film noir américan in 1955.  For them “film noir becomes a full-fledged outlaw genre, systematically reversing Hollywood’s foundational myths.”  If we return to the French for a definition of noir we are constantly reminded of the extremity of the term, the totality it evokes.  Somehow the meaning of this generic term has been diluted and is currently used to describe simply a stylistic or element by American critics and historians. 

If it is a style it must be such an oppressive style that it takes precedence over all else.  For this reason, obscurity and ambiguity become essential elements in a noir film.  Pessimism is valued over vision, over orientation, over content, over clarity, and finally over narrative which is why noirs almost always use flashbacks. So is LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN a film noir?  Probably not.  Perhaps its noir in the sense that Chartier might complain of the film’s “disgust for humanity” but that assessment can exist in any form of drama. Based on Ben Ames Williams’ best-selling novel, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN is the story of the beautiful and flawless Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) whose insane jealousy and manipulation reek havoc on her whirlwind romance and subsequent marriage to popular novelist, Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde). The film is dark that’s for sure, but there is an absence of a total pessimism; once Ellen (Tierney) kills herself, widower Richard (Wilde) is free to live happily ever after with Ruth (Jeanne Crain) albeit a two-year prison sentence.  Where is the existentialism there? A bittersweet ending is not enough to categorize LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN as a film noir.

 

FILMOGRAPHY

1918 WIVES OF MEN

1919 HER CODE OF HONOR; SUSPICION; A WOMAN UNDER THE OATH

1920 WOMEN MEN FORGET

1921 THE CHILD THOU GAVEST ME; SOWING THE WIND

1922 THE SONG OF LIFE; ONE CLEAR CALL; SUSPICIOUS WIVES

1923 THE WANDERS; THE DANGEROUS AGE

1924 HUSBANDS AND LOVERS; WHY MEN LEAVE HOME

1925 FINE CLOTHES

1926 MEMORY LANE; THE GAY DECEIVER

1927 LOVERS?; IN OLD KENTUCKY

1930 A LADY SURRENDERS

1931 SEED; STRICTLY DISHONORABLE

1932 BACK STREET

1933 ONLY YESTERDAY

1934 IMITATION OF LIFE

1935 MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION

1937 PARNELL

1938 LETTER OF INTRODUCTION

1939 WHEN TOMORROW COMES

1941 OUR WIFE

1942 THE IMMORTAL SERGEANT

1943 HOLY MATRIMONY

1944 THE EVE OF ST. MARK; THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM

1945 LEAVER HER TO HEAVEN

1947 THE FOXES OF HARROW

1948 THE WALLS OF JERICHO

1949 FATHER WAS A FULLBACK; OH, YOU BEAUTIFUL DOLL

 

SOURCES

From Reverence to Rape by Molly Haskell

More than Night Film Noir in its Contexts by James Naremore

PCA File for LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, Margaret Herrick Library, Special Collections

 

Notes by: Mary Samuelson and Savitri Young