A dazzling and shocking tale of jealousy and obsession
On the surface, “Leave Her to Heaven” looks like a picture perfect postcard, but this juicy tale of obsessive love and jealousy unfolds more like a psychological horror show. Chock-full of visual allure and surprising fiendishness, this richly distinctive melodrama provides colossal entertainment. As finely made as it is thrilling, it earned four Academy Award nominations (winning one), and was such a smash hit, it became 20th Century Fox Film’s highest-grossing film of the 1940s. Fittingly, it has since become a cult classic. Even though I’ve seen this film countless times, I am still mesmerized by its glamour and gasp at its wickedness every time.
“Ellen Berent” sits at the center of “Leave Her to Heaven”. She’s a Boston socialite with a bold personality and bewitching beauty, whose mother describes her as someone “who loves too much”. She’s come to New Mexico to spread the ashes of her late father (with whom she was unusually close), and on the way meets novelist “Richard Harland”, who gets swept up by her charms and becomes the recipient of her overwhelming love. They meet and marry within a whirlwind second. “Richard’s” found the perfect wife in “Ellen” – beautiful, devoted, and deeply in love – and they live in his peaceful and remote lakeside cabin in the woods of Maine. Sounds like a “happily ever after” fairytale, right? Wrong.
“Ellen’s” obsessive love makes her more and more jealous of anyone or anything she believes stands between her and her man. Igniting her paranoia is her sweet and attractive adopted sister (and cousin) “Ruth”, and “Richard’s” much adored wheelchair bound younger brother “Danny”. Adding additional complications is the fact that when she met "Richard", “Ellen” was engaged to an attorney named “Russell Quinton”, who has plans to run for District Attorney. It all leads to surprising consequences, some quite bloodcurdling. As someone says early in the film, “Of all the seven deadly sins, jealousy is the most deadly”. To throw even more intrigue into the mix, the film opens as “Richard” returns to their lakeside paradise after spending two years in prison for …you’ll never guess – and will have to watch the film to find out.
“Leave Her to Heaven” is a one-of-a-kind movie that crosses many film genres without fitting completely into any one. Bursting with highly dramatic sets, colors, and performances, it looks and feels like melodrama, yet underneath is a film noir undercurrent of the dark side of human life. And even though it’s melodramatic in form and film noir in theme, the film plays out more like a good thriller.
Based on a best-selling 1944 novel of same name by Ben Ames Williams, Twentieth Century Fox bought the rights and assigned contracted studio director John M. Stahl to direct. A director with an honest, bold, and vivid style known for expertly handling domestic dramas and films about women, “Leave Her to Heaven” was a perfect fit, and this film is often named his greatest. Less concerned with capturing reality than emotion, Stahl manages to make a sinister story oh so tantalizing. He does this with a hauntingly fluid tone, juxtaposing visual majesty with the atrocities that transpire, reserving close-ups (you can count them on one hand) for a character’s most important and informative reactions, and by often showing ceilings trapping his characters in this fairytale gone awry. Stahl’s approach elevates what could easily have been a trite saga into soaring entertainment.
Azerbaijan-born John Malcolm Stahl moved with his family to New York City when he was young, becoming a theater actor before turning to movies in the early 1910’s, just as the budding industry was finding its legs. It's believed his first directed film was 1914's "A Boy and the Law". He began working with Louis B. Mayer (also just starting out), and worked with him for eight years, including during the start of MGM Studios. Stahl was also one of the 36 founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A solid silent film director, he easily transitioned to sound and moved to Universal Studios in 1930, where he found success directing what would come to be known as "women's pictures" or “tearjerkers” (such as “Back Street”, “Imitation of Life”, and “Magnificent Obsession”), and is considered the pioneer of that semi-genre. In 1943, Stahl signed with Fox, where he directed films that include two more of his best, "Keys of the Kingdom” and "Leave Her to Heaven". Of the approximately 50 films he directed, other notable titles include "The Immortal Sergeant", "Holy Matrimony", "Only Yesterday", and his final, 1949's "Oh, You Beautiful Doll". About half his silent films are thought to be lost. He was married three times. John M. Stahl died in 1950 at the age of 63.
A word must be said about the film’s spectacular production design, which is a large part of what gives “Leave Her to Heaven" its distinct personality. Production design refers to the overall visual look of a film, including settings, props, and costumes. Generally, a production designer works with the director, and then oversees an art director, who in turn works with costume designers, set decorators, architects, artists, prop masters, and others to implement the director’s vision. Production designer Harry Horner (who won Oscars for "The Heiress" and "The Hustler”) elaborates in the book “Hollywood: The Oral History”: “A good production designer per se is the left hand of a director or the mind or left brain cell of the director. The job of the production designer is to stimulate the director into seeing more than he has seen. By ‘seeing’, I don’t necessarily mean something visual. It means to have him understand more, to widen or be more curious about a character, about a landscape, about the relationship between the interior and a character”.
As “Richard” says to “Ellen’s” mother “Mrs. Berent”, “I think everything’s more beautiful here”, and indeed, the production design in “Leave Her to Heaven” creates a strikingly dreamy world. This film is a prime example of how production design can help expand a story and its emotions. Take the scene about “Ellen’s” engagement ring. It’s set in an outdoor swimming pool surrounded by meticulously placed manicured rocks, trees, and flowers. The scene could have been set anywhere or in any type of swimming pool and the choices made turn a “red flag” moment into pleasantly casual one.
The production design continually juxtaposes magnificent visuals against atrocities, such as when “Ellen” dons a dainty blue nightdress and stands in a matching baby blue hallway atop a staircase, or in sits a rowboat on a placid lake in bright daylight. The glorious production design enhances our emotions and senses in ways we can’t even fathom, and it earned Lyle R. Wheeler, Maurice Ransford, and Thomas Little a Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration Academy Award nomination.
Capturing the breathtaking production design and spellbinding performances is cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who took home the film's only Oscar (for Best Cinematography). His use of Technicolor and lush color palettes is jaw-dropping, such as the envy-green toned train car or the cool purple blue hues in the mountains at dusk. And he places shadows in the backgrounds of many scenes, or a blue sky peeking through a window, adding additional beauty while helping the settings come to life. His Oscar win for "Leave Her to Heaven" was one of four wins out of eighteen career nominations, making him a double record holder for being the cinematographer with the most Academy Award wins (shared with Charles Lang) and nominations (shared with Joseph Ruttenberg).
New York City Born Leon Shamroy joined the Fox Film Corporation in 1920 to work in the lab, and in 1928 became a cameraman. In 1938, he signed with 20th Century Fox, where he remained for thirty years. Shamroy shot nearly 120 films, and his many other classics include "The Snows of Kilimanjaro", "Stormy Weather", "South Pacific", "Porgy and Bess", "The Agony and the Ecstasy", "There's No Business Like Show Business", "Planet of the Apes", and his final film, 1959's "Justine". He was married three times, including his final marriage to actress Mary Anderson. Leon Shamroy died in 1974 at the age of 72.
Another major reason “Leave Her to Heaven” is so intriguing is the stunning performance by Gene Tierney as “Ellen Berent Harland”. Just as “Ellen” seduces “Richard” with her astounding beauty and magnetism, Tierney does the same to us. One of the most gorgeous creatures to ever grace a movie screen, Tierney can’t help but take anyone’s breath away, making it a given that “Ellen” could ensnare anyone into her silken web. Just as with the film’s production design, Tierney’s ravishing looks are in direct counterpoint to “Ellen’s” diabolical behavior, often taking us by surprise.
“Ellen” is undoubtedly one of the evilest characters in cinema, yet Tierney plays her with such a restrained hand that she seems more like a woman who does bad rather than is bad. And Tierney injects so many interesting colors into “Ellen”, she becomes wholly fascinating – whether being coy in a swimming pool, seductively conniving while having a sandwich, or chillingly cold on a rowboat. You can't take your eyes off her for a second. It’s true star quality, and her portrayal earned her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination. It also helped elevate her to one of the top movie stars of the 1940s.
Brooklyn-born Gene Tierney was raised in Connecticut to a privileged family with a father she idolized. At 17, she and her family visited Hollywood, and stunned by her beauty, director Anatole Litvak told her to become an actress. Warner Brothers offered her a contract, but her parents were against it, wanting her to take her place in society. Bored with society life, after making her society debut she decided to pursue acting and made a deal with her father that she'd become a legitimate actress of the theater. She began studying acting and in no time landed a walk-on in Broadway’s "What a Life" in 1938. After roles in two more Broadway shows, Tierney was garnering good reviews and the attention of Hollywood, and her father set up the Belle-Tier Corporation to fund and support her acting career. Her first starring role on Broadway was in 1940's "The Male Animal", which made her a sensation. She was featured in Life magazine, Harper's Bazaar, and Vogue, and 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck (who happened to see the show) put her under contract.
Tierney made her film debut in 1940's "The Return of Frank James", and when she first saw herself onscreen she was embarrassed and thought her high-pitched voice sounded like an angry Minnie Mouse. So she increased her smoking habit, which helped lower the register of her voice. By the next year she was starring in films, and in 1943 came Ernst Lubtisch's "Heaven Can Wait", which make her popular. Her next film, the 1944 classic noir "Laura", made her a star, and shortly after "Leave Her to Heaven” (which broke box-office records) put her at the height of her fame and gave her an opportunity to put her hand and footprints in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. One of the most popular movie stars of the 1940s, she rounded out the decade with films that include "Dragonwyck", "The Razor's Edge", and "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir". But just as beauty is contrasted with the dark side of life in “Leave Her to Heaven”, Tierney’s personal life was in direct opposition to her glowing career triumphs.
At at party in 1940, Tierney met Paramount Studio costume designer Oleg Cassini. They immediately hit it off and soon after wanted to marry. Her parents and Fox studio were against it and did everything they could to separate them. But after she caught her beloved father having an affair with a friend of her mother's, Tierney eloped with Cassini. Her parent's never accepted their marriage and the studio made sure the newlyweds were not invited to parties or events as a couple. Tierney was living off an allowance, with her paychecks going to Belle-Tier Corporation. But once she married, she wanted to be responsible for her own career and decided to dissolve Belle-Tier, over which her father sued her. She won, but found out that her father had taken all the money she earned to pay off his personal debts. The infidelity and betrayal from a father she'd idolized destroyed a part of her.
While filming “Heaven Can Wait”, Tierney found out she was pregnant. The US had already entered World War II, and Cassini was working in the Coast Guard. Tierney was entertaining troops and raising war bonds, and that included appearing one night at the Hollywood Canteen to entertain GIs. A few days after that event, Tierney came down with the German measles. Because of this, their baby, Daria, was born premature with many ailments including deafness, partial blindness, and brain damage. Tierney hoped it was a temporary situation, but after years of specialists and trying everything she could, she realized Daria would need professional care on a permanent basis. It took a toll on their marriage, and she and Cassini filed for divorce.
In her autobiography, “Self-Portrait”, Tierney writes, “Daria’s birth had been the beginning of a darkening time for me... I felt guilt I could not explain, and self-pity that I could not throw off. A mental illness may be set in motion by a series of factors, one or all of which awakens the sleeping flaw. This setback was the breeding ground, I now believe, of the emotional problems soon to come. I had been battered by the exposure of my father’s weaknesses, but I faced them. Daria’s disability exacted a greater cost, the more so when I learned what a vagary of fate had brought it about”. A year after Daria’s birth, a woman at a party approached Tierney and said they’d previously met at the Hollywood Canteen, and asked if she’d gotten the German measles after that night. The woman went on to explain she was in the marines and she and nearly her entire company were quarantined with German measles, but she’d heard Tierney would be at the Canteen and snuck out to meet her because Tierney was her favorite. After digesting what the woman said and knowing Daria’s condition was because of her, without speaking, Tierney quickly turned and walked away and never again cared if she was someone’s favorite actress. It's believed that the entire, well-publicized incident was the basis for Agatha Christie's 1962 novel "The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side", later made into a 1980 film starring Elizabeth Taylor.
The “emotional problems to come” Tierney mentions began showing their face while filming 1952’s “The Way of a Gaucho” in Argentina, when she suffered mood swings, hallucinations, and abrupt personality changes. It was the first of several films she made “while I felt my mind start to unravel”, and by 1955’s “The Left Hand of God”, Tierney was looking lost between takes. Her costar, Humphrey Bogart, knew of mental illness (his sister suffered from it), helped Tierney through the shoot and encouraged her to get help. She soon admitted herself to the Harkenss Pavilion in New York, where, "to my eternal regret", she consented to receive electric shock therapy, which left her with memory loss. After an attempted suicide and over a dozen more shock treatments, she found a hospital that treated her with medications which finally helped with her mental illness. She appeared in just a few more films, most notably Otto Preminger's "Advise & Consent" in 1962. After a small role in 1964's "The Pleasure Seekers", she retired from films and appeared on television twice in 1969, and in three episodes of "Scruples" in 1980.
Before their divorce, Cassini and Tierney had another child (a healthy baby named Christina, who in turn gave them grandchildren), and the two remained friends for the rest of her life. She married a second time, to a Texas oil baron who became her emotional support, and lived happily as a housewife in Texas. She also had romances with John F. Kennedy in 1946 (while separated from Cassini), and Prince Aly Khan in 1952 (after his marriage to Rita Hayworth), both ending in painful breakups. In 1979, Tierney wrote her autobiography which was the first and remains one of the best movie star autobiographies I've read. Though out of print, you might find a copy HERE if interested. Gene Tierney died in 1991 at the age of 70. My mother once told me she saw Gene Tierney come out of a taxicab in New York City. How cool is that?!
Starring opposite Tierney in “Leave Her to Heaven” is Cornel Wilde, who is perfect as writer “Richard Harland”. Mild mannered, kind, trusting, and somewhat insecure, "Richard" is no match for a scheming woman like “Ellen”, and Wilde lets him succumb without making him seem weak. Tall, dashing, and athletic, Wilde had become a star earlier that year with the 1945 film “A Song to Remember”, and the success of “Leave Her to Heaven” helped boost his stardom. He remained a prominent romantic lead and swashbuckler of the 1940s.
Hungarian-born (now Slovakia) Cornel Wilde moved with his family to New York City when he was seven. He had a talent for languages (fluent in English, Hungarian, French, German, Italian, and Russian) and mimicry, and an interest in performing. While studying to become a surgeon at Columbia University, he joined the fencing team and also appeared in theater. A champion fencer, Wilde was a leading member of the 1936 US Olympic fencing team, but quit the team and his medical ambitions to pursue acting. After taking acting classes, he made it to Broadway in 1933's "They All Come to Moscow”, continued acting on stage, and wrote "Touché", a fencing play, in 1937. Hired as a fencing teacher by Sir Laurence Olivier for the 1940 Broadway production of "Romeo and Juliet” opposite Vivien Leigh, Wilde was also cast in the production as "Tybalt", which led to a film contract with Warner Brothers. Other than a small part opposite Humphrey Bogart in 1941’s “High Sierra”, Warners cast him in lackluster roles beginning in 1940, so Wilde moved to Fox where he began getting better parts.
Wilde's breakthrough came on loan to Columbia Pictures, as Frédéric Chopin in 1945's "A Song to Remember”. The film was a hit, earned him a Best Actor Academy Award nomination (his only), and brought stardom. Many of the best films in his career (including “Leave Her to Heaven”) soon followed. After playing a trapeze artist in the 1952 all-star Best Picture Oscar winner "The Greatest Show on Earth”, Wilde predominantly appeared in adventure films. In 1955, he began directing, and directed eight feature films through 1975, most notably 1965's "The Naked Prey” (which he also produced and starred in). He acted in just over fifty films, with other notable titles being "A Thousand and One Nights”, "The Big Combo", “Shockproof", "The Bandit of Sherwood Forest”, and "Road House”. His over a dozen TV appearances include a very fun guest spot playing himself on a 1957 episode of the classic "I Love Lucy”. His final screen appearance was on a 1987 episode of "Murder, She Wrote". He was married twice, to actresses Jean Wallace and Patricia Knight. Cornel Wilde died in 1989 at the age of 77.
Also starring in "Leave Her to Heaven" is Jeanne Crain who plays"Ruth Berent", "Ellen's" cousin and adopted sister. "Ruth" likes to garden and affectionally becomes known as "the gal with the hoe”, and her gardening is symbolic of her nurturing, warm, and gentle demeanor. Crain gives us clues that “Ruth” likes “Richard”, even if from a distance, as when they speak and look at one another in the garden, or from their jovial behavior in the nursery or in the wind. Also under contract to Fox, Crain had also just found stardom and would become one of the studio's top leading ladies through the early 1950s.
While in high school, California-born Jeanne Crain won a beauty contest, appeared in a play, and at 18 was given a screen-test by Orson Wells (but didn't get the part). She studied acting at UCLA, was put under contract to 20th Century Fox, and appeared in a small part in 1943's "The Gang's All Here". After several hits, she was starring in roles by 1944, and greater success came with 1945's "State Fair", followed by "Leave Her to Heaven". She was one of Fox's top stars during World War II and the postwar years. As in “Leave Her to Heaven”, Crain often played wholesome types. She earned the moniker "Hollywood's Number One Party Girl", from what she said was attending 200+ parties a year. In 1949, her career hit its peak starring in "A Letter to Three Wives", "The Fan", and "Pinky", the latter of which earned her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination (her only). In addition to movies, she began working on television in 1955, where she spent the bulk of the 1960s. Crain appeared in 39 films and 20 TV shows, and her other films include "People Will Talk", "Cheaper by the Dozen", "The Model and the Marriage Broker", and her final, "Skyjacked" in 1972. In 1945, she married actor Paul Brooks, remaining married until his death. They had seven children. Jeanne Crain died in 2003 at the age of 78.
A familiar face to people watching the movies on this blog is that of Vincent Price, who plays "Russell Quinton”, a no nonsense man with political aspirations, and “Ellen’s” former fiancé. Price infuses “Russell” with a tinge of the sinister, which, along with his suave voice and perfect diction, would become trademarks of the legendary star. "Leave Her to Heaven" came early in a prolific career of over 200 films and TV shows, and his first breakthrough came the year before in the film “Laura” (also opposite Tierney), which established him as a recognizable character actor. Within a decade, Price would become a horror film fixture and icon, earning the nickname “The Prince of Darkness” (among many others). You can read more about the life and career of the one-of-a-kind Vincent Price in my post on “The Fly”. Just click on the film’s title to open that post.
Another actor that may be familiar to classic movie watchers and those watching the films on this site is Gene Lockhart who plays "Dr. Saunders". Lockhart was a versatile character actor who you can find in many classic films as villains, good guys, and often as businessmen, judges, or doctors (as in this film). He's appeared in another film already on this blog, "His Girl Friday", where you can read a bit about his life and career. Please check it out.
Darryl Hickman is wonderful as “Danny Harland”, “Richard’s” younger brother. Hickman brings a wonderful youthful energy to the film, and is especially affecting in his final scene. I don’t believe it's said directly, but it's assumed “Danny” has polio, for polio was a major affliction at the time and Warm Springs (where he is staying) was an actual polio rehabilitation facility (some exterior shots were filmed at the actual place).
A successful child actor since 1936, Darryl Hickman worked steadily through the 1940's and into the 1950s, appearing in many classics, including two already on this blog, "Meet Me in St. Louis", in which he plays "Johnny Tevis", the boy who tells "Tootie" to hit "Mr. Neely” in the face with flour (“Mr. Neely” is played by Chill Wills, also in "Leave Her to Heaven" as “Leick Thome"), and "The Grapes of Wrath". In my post on the latter, you can read more about the life and career of Darryl Hickman. Be sure to give it a read.
In addition to its Academy Award win for cinematography and nominations for Best Actress and Best Art Direction, "Leave Her to Heaven" also earned Thomas T. Moulton an Oscar nomination for Best Sound Recording. I must also mention the fantastic score by Alfred Newman, who composed it while it was in production to make sure the music would be fully integrated into the film.
A work with startling style, beauty, and plot points, this week’s classic will no doubt leave haunting images lingering in your mind well after the screen fades to black. It is prime, classic, Hollywood entertainment. Enjoy “Leave Her to Heaven”!
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