Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and that chilling scene…

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Leon Shamroy’s stunning, ethereal Oscar-winning cinematography in Leave Her to Heaven (dir. John M. Stahl, 1945) is the perfect backdrop for one of the most despicable things any character ever did in a movie. But before that, here’s what we’re dealing with: Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) and Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) meet on a train and soon become attracted to each other. As luck would have it, they’re heading to the same destination, a beautiful ranch in New Mexico. Unsurprisingly, after a few mishaps that include Ellen breaking off her engagement to Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), she and Richard get married. But things start to take a turn for the worse, as Ellen’s possessiveness and jealousy start to show and her obsession with Richard turns deadly…

The film’s crowning moment, and one of the greatest moments in film history, comes about an hour into it and represents a clear, undeniable shift in the film’s tone and in the character of Ellen: on a beautiful, sunny day, Richard’s younger, disabled brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) and Ellen are on a boat in the lake. She’s been helping him with his swimming and he’s eager to show his brother how much he’s improved, so he decides to go for one last swim, so he can ‘show Dick tomorrow!’. He goes in and swims for a while, with Ellen right behind him on the boat, almost like a predator… After a few seconds, he gets a stomach cramp and starts to drown. He calls out for Ellen… But Ellen doesn’t come. She sits motionless on the boat, watching him drown, her eyes hidden behind her sunglasses, knowing that, with him gone, Richard will be all hers…

It’s one of the most horrifying scenes in any movie, particularly because of how unusual it is. Unlike its 1940s noir counterparts, Leave Her to Heaven is set against the backdrop of a breath-takingly beautiful place, making the most of its glorious Technicolor. So it stands to reason that its most dramatic moment should take place on that lake, surrounded by trees, not too far from their lodge, on a sun-soaked day. That’s all it needs, because Ellen is dark enough as it is. And that in itself is probably the biggest argument for Leave Her to Heaven‘s inclusion in the noir canon: that comfort, that security, that idyllic scenario, cruelly taken away from us by something extremely dark lurking underneath. From the moment she realizes what she could do, to the moment Danny drowns, her evilness is evident: her face barely hiding her contempt for Danny as she decides what she’s going to do; her lips pursed, and her eyes fixated on him as she makes sure he’s gone for good… And like that, silence. Nothing, apart from the ripples of the water as it becomes still again.

This was Gene Tierney’s only Oscar nomination, and while her performance had been good enough up until this point, I am convinced this was the scene that sealed the deal. It’s an extraordinary acting moment, one that doesn’t require a whole lot of dialogue, other than a few stone-cold responses as Danny looks back every once in a while, and one that only needs to be conveyed on her face. That’s it. There’s no music, no big argument, no nothing. Just Gene Tierney. Because that’s all we need.

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COMEDY GOLD #13: The morning routine from The More The Merrier (1943)

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One of the most endearing rom-coms of all time, the premise of The More the Merrier (dir. George Stevens, 1943) is full of comedic potential: during the war, Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur), Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) and Joe Carter (Joel McCrea) are forced to share an apartment following the housing shortage in Washington DC, with Dingle eventually acting as the matchmaker between Connie and Joe. The film is filled with hilarious situations and one-liners but, if pressed, I’d say the morning routing between Connie and Dingle is possibly the funniest moment: after seeing an ad in the newspaper, Dingle heads to Connie’s apartment and asks her to let him stay with her, despite her initial objections. She eventually says yes, and while the entire movie enjoys the comedic abilities and chemistry between the three leads, it is really Connie and Dingle who set the movie up for comedy glory right from the start. About ten minutes into it, the two of them have drafted an over-complicated morning schedule which, when acted out the following morning, relies on physical comedy so wonderfully, it borders on slapstick. Everything from pratfalls, to miscommunication to hilarious outbursts! George Stevens directs the scene – and the whole film – to perfection, while the two of them provide the laughs with their legendary comic timing. Jean Arthur was Oscar-nominated for her performance – the one and only time – and Charles Coburn actually won for Best Supporting Actor. No wonder!

SCREENPLAY BY: Frances Marion

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Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the 1920s and 30s were, actually, surprisingly kind to female screenwriters – as kind as the Hollywood studio system could be anyway. And none was more renowned than Frances Marion, the woman who is literally prefaced as ‘the most renowned female screenwriter of the 20th century’ in every bio. That acclaim, of course, is richly deserved.

Born in San Francisco, CA, in 1888, Marion worked as a photographer’s assistant and artist in her youth before becoming a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner. After her move to Los Angeles in 1913, she began working as a writing assistant in director Lois Weber’s film company. During that time, she worked as a war correspondent and eventually became the first woman to cross the Rhine after the armistice. In Hollywood, she wrote several scripts for her friend Mary Pickford, including Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), Polyanna (1920) and The Love Light (1921), which she also directed. In 1925, she wrote the first film adaptation of Stella Dallas (1925), and in 1930, she won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Big House (1930), making her the first woman to win a Screenplay Oscar. In that same year, she wrote the hugely successful Min and Bill (1930), a vehicle for Marie Dressler, who won Best Actress. The next year, Marion won her second Oscar, for The Champ (1931), which in turn also earned Wallace Beery his Oscar. In 1933, she teamed up with Beery and Dressler again, in George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight (1933), which she co-wrote with Herman J. Mankiewicz. The popularity of Dinner at Eight, so soon after Min and Bill, saw her being credited with having revived Marie Dressler’s career. This was due in no small part to her ability to work with specific actors and to highlight their strengths as performers, and in a variety of genres; she wrote comedies, silents, crimes dramas, tear-jerkers, among others, in the course of nearly four decades. She retired in the 1940s, having written over 300 scripts throughout her career. In 1973, Frances Marion died in Los Angeles, at the age of 84.

The Jean Harlow Blogathon – The subversive message of Wife vs. Secretary (1936)

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The silly title of Wife vs. Secretary (dir. Clarence Brown, 1936) could easily fool you. And the plot could very well make you want to scratch your eyes out just from reading it: Linda Stanhope (Myrna Loy) believes her husband Van (Clark Gable) is about to have an affair with his secretary, ‘Whitey’ Wilson (Jean Harlow). But this obvious and stereotypical plot is anything but. Wife vs. Secretary is not what you think it’s going to be. Wife vs. Secretary is neither about a wife nor a secretary and their rivarly, not in the traditional sense anyway. We only have to look at the first moment we see Jean Harlow to understand this: dressed in proper secretary clothes, she stands on a chair fixing a portrait of Van that hangs in his office. Professional, capable and business-minded, she interacts with Van as his secretary and friend. It isn’t until Van’s mother Mimi (May Robson) takes a look at her – blonde and beautiful – that she decides that she must be a distraction to Van. She expresses her worries to Linda, who quickly dismisses them: she and Van are very obviously head over heels in love with each other and their marriage is a happy one. But Mimi insists, and so do Linda’s (female) friends… And we all know what that’s going to lead to. And that’s just the thing. There is nothing in Van and Whitey’s relationship that would make one believe that they’re more than friends, other than the fact that she’s very attractive and that he is a man, and in the words of Mimi, ‘men are like that.’. The movie’s very treatment of the Jean Harlow character goes against the stereotype: she’s a smart, ambitious woman who loves her job and her relationship with Dave (James Stewart in one of his first screen roles) ‘suffers’ because of this, as we see in the scene where he asks her to give up her job in order to become a wife and mother, which he thinks is only natural. In this moment, as the close-up on her face shows her inner turmoil, we root for her. Of course we do. And I suspect audiences in 1936 did as well. She is the hero of the picture, rather than the villain, or ‘the other woman’. In fact, all three leads are extremely sympathetic. This isn’t your typical love triangle, certainly not the kind we’re used to seeing in 1930s comedies, with regards to its characters. There are no ‘sides’ in this, at least from the point of view of the audience and, in a way, they’re all victims.

Disguised as a comedy-drama, Wife vs. Secretary is so much more than that. Alice Duer Miller, Norman Krasna and John Lee Mahin crafted a screenplay that deals with society’s double standards, stereotypes and damaging perceptions in a subversive way that is almost unprecedented. Wife vs. Secretary is an eye-opener, then and now.

For more entries on the Jean Harlow Blogathon hosted by Samantha over at Musings of a Classic Film Addict and Virginie from The Wonderful World of Cinema, click here.