Sunday, November 21, 2010

Perverted Movie Classic: Leave Her to Heaven

Tomorrow, November 22, 2010, at 11 AM EST, TCM will be airing a classic of perversion called Leave Her to Heaven. Those with an interest in the disturbing are very much encouraged to watch.

LHTH is the story of an amazingly beautiful woman, portrayed by the soul-achingly beautiful Gene Tierney, who is completely and utterly bonkers. The film begins with a drippy author named Richard Harland having just been released from two-year prison term. He gets on a canoe and heads out to -- an island, or something. We don't know yet. But not before he's stared at and whispered about pityingly by the locals. Their pity does not stem from the fact that the actor who portrays the character, Cornel Wilde, is stiff as a board -- rather it has to do with the fact that he was railroaded into prison. His attorney, Glen Robie, relates the story of how Richard came to be sent to prison. (Robie is portrayed by Ray Collins, supporting player in another perverted movie classic, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.)

Mr. Harland first encountered Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) on a train that was taking both of them to Robie's estate in New Mexico. Richard is a novelist, and Ellen just happened to be reading one of his novels.

Also, she is soul-achingly beautiful, as I've already suggested. Well, as would happen with any writer who met a soul-achingly beautiful woman who just happened to be reading a novel he wrote, Richard falls in love with her. But she happens to be engaged to someone else. The two exchange some semi-charming banter and suddenly Ellen decides to take off her engagement ring -- for good.

 Yes, this is a photo of the astonishingly beautiful actress Gene Tierney -- but the word "YANK" in the corner is not intended as advice for the viewer; "YANK" was actually the name of a US Army magazine.

She now wants to marry Richard. About two days after they've met. Richard gets the news when Ellent's former fiance (played by a very dapper, elegant, and just-slightly oily Vincent Price) shows up. When they're introduced he says something like, "So this is the man you're going to marry?" and then Ms. Berent says something like, "Yes, it is!" and Mr. Harland stands there looking slightly more dazed than usual.

Price's character, Russell Quinton, takes Ellent into another room and asks her to wait to announce her engagement until after the election -- he's running for Attorney General. Ellen tells him no, she can't wait, she and Richard are getting married tomorrow. If he doesn't like that, he can get stuffed.

Ellen Berent always gets what she wants. For some reason she wants Richard Harland. They get married, and Richard brings Ellen to Warm Springs, Georgia, to meet his little brother Danny. Danny has polio, and he's been there trying to recuperate. This kid is one of those upbeat, gee-whiz-ain't-it-swell kind of kids you sometimes in meet in movies from this era, but he is also charming, sweet, and sincere. You really root for him.

So does Ellen, it seems. She spends a lot of time encouraging Danny to use his crutches. Her attention seems to pay off, as Danny's condition improves, and when Ellen and Richard are about to leave for Richard's remote lodge, "Back of the Moon," Danny's doctor tells Ellen that Danny is well enough to accompany them.

But Ellen doesn't want Danny to go. She tries to convince the doctor to tell Richard that Danny isn't well enough, and should remain in Warm Springs. The doctor won't lie. "But  he's a cripple!" Ellen blurts. She wants Richard all to herself; she doesn't want to share him with his little crippled brother. And yet, when Richard enters the doctor's office, Ellen goes from cold to hot in a flash, telling Richard about the wonderful news that the doctor says it's okay for Danny to accompany them to the lodge.

At the lodge, Ellen's mask begins to crumble. The lodge is too crowded (in addition to Danny, the young couple is saddled with a family friend/handyman), the walls are too thin, Richard won't stop writing long enough to spend time with Ellen -- who in addition to doing the cooking and cleaning also wears elegant makeup and clothes every single day (and in a home with no running water, either!).

Richard invites Ellen's mother, Ruth, and her cousin/adopted sister Margaret to come and visit. He thinks it might cheer her up. More people at the crowded lodge, but they're "her" people. Oh, it only makes her angrier.

Ruth, by the way, is played by the absolutely lovely Jeanne Crain. What a family.

 Jeanne Crain in Leave Her to Heaven. And she was only the SECOND most attractive woman in that film.

Anything that might draw Richard's attention from her makes Ellen absolutely crazed with jealousy.  Even that likable, crippled brother of his. The one she's been encouraging. Since getting out to the lodge, Danny has been practicing his swimming, and hopes to one day soon impress his older brother by swimming the entire length of the lake. His partner in this has been Ellen, who paddles along beside him in the canoe.

One day, out on the lake, Danny gets a stitch in his side. Ellen encourages him to keep swimming. "You're right, I'll get my second wind," Danny gamely declares. But a few seconds later, he's calling for help, he's too tired, he can't swim anymore.

He goes down. Ellen just sits and watches. She just sits and watches this poor kid drown. Think about that. The going under the surface of the water, desperately holding your breath as long as you can, your weakened muscles struggling to propel you back to the surface, the panic in your mind as fight with everything you've got to not take that gasp of breath that your body is pushing you to take---

What a miserable way to die. This has got to be one of the most disturbing scenes ever, in any film.

When she notices Richard walking near the lake, she screams and jumps into the water, but it's too late. Little Danny Harland is dead.

The two leave "Back of the Moon" and join Ruth and Margaret. From there, Ellen just gets worse. There is more murder. More deceit. An abortion is committed onscreen (first time ever?). Someone is framed for murder in a particularly devious manner. I don't want to give away too much, just in case you're one of those people who won't watch a new production of "Romeo and Juliet" because you know the ending, but trust me, this is one perverted movie.

The screenplay was written by Jo Swerling, who wrote another perverted movie classic, It's a Wonderful Life. That screenplay was based on a novel by a man named Ben Ames Williams, who has got to be one of the very few people to have ever died while curling.

In addition to starring in the great perverted classic A Letter to Three Wives, Jeanne Crain also had seven children, kept a pet lion and possibly a bear cub, and cast an Irish on her husband, and might have beaten him up in a car.

Cornell Wilde was apparently a genius linguist who qualified for the 1936 Olympic fencing team, but he quit just before the games.
Wilde was hired as a fencing teacher by Laurence Olivier for his 1940 Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet and was given the role of Tybalt in the production. His performance in this role netted him a Hollywood film contract.
Gene Tierney was the star of another perverted movie classic, Laura. She also had some serious mental health problems.
Tierney married twice, first to costume and fashion designer Oleg Cassini on June 1, 1941. She and Cassini had two daughters, Antoinette Daria Cassini (born October 15, 1943) and Christina "Tina" Cassini (born November 19, 1948).

In June 1943, while pregnant with Daria, Tierney contracted rubella during her only appearance at the Hollywood Canteen. Daria was born prematurely in Washington, D.C., weighing only three pounds, two ounces (1.42 kg) and requiring a total blood transfusion. Because of Tierney's illness, Daria was also deaf, partially blind with cataracts and had severe mental retardation. Tierney's grief over the tragedy led to many years of depression and may have begun her bipolar disorder. Some time after the tragedy surrounding her daughter Daria's birth, Tierney learned from a fan who approached her for an autograph at a tennis party that the woman (who was then a member of the women's branch of the Marine Corps) had sneaked out of quarantine while sick with rubella to meet Tierney at her only Hollywood Canteen appearance. In her autobiography, Tierney related that after the woman had recounted her story, she just stared at her silently, then turned and walked away. She wrote, "After that I didn't care whether ever again I was anyone's favorite actress." Biographers have theorized that Agatha Christie used this real-life tragedy as the basis of her plot for The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side. The incident, as well as the circumstances under which the information was imparted to the actress, is repeated almost verbatim in the story.

During 1953, Tierney's mental health problems were becoming harder for her to hide; she dropped out of Mogambo and was replaced by Grace Kelly. While playing Anne Scott in The Left Hand of God (1955), opposite Humphrey Bogart, Tierney’s long string of personal troubles finally took its toll. She said that “Bogey could tell that I was mentally unstable.” During the production, he fed Tierney her lines and encouraged her to seek help. Worried about her mental health, she consulted a psychiatrist, and was admitted to Harkness Pavilion in New York. Later, she went to The Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut. After some 27 shock treatments, Tierney attempted to flee, but was caught and returned. She became an outspoken opponent of shock treatment therapy, claiming that it had destroyed significant portions of her memory.

In 1957, Tierney was seen by a neighbor as she was about to jump from a ledge. The police were called, and she was admitted to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas on December 25. She was released from Menninger the following year, after a treatment that included - in its final stages - working as a sales girl in a large department store (where she was recognized by a customer, resulting in sensational newspaper headlines).
Ms. Tierney's life story rivals any of the fiction portrayed in any of her films.

The movie was filmed in bright, almost syrupy Technicolor which, considering the bleakness of the subject matter, is at times disorienting. It adds an extra layer of unease to the whole thing.

Gene Tierney Yank pic source.
Jeanne Crain pic source.


A.Jaye said...

A Personal Journey with Martin Scorcese Through American Movies was made and broadcast on Channel 4 in 1995. That's how I first came across Leave Her to Heaven. The clip showed Danny's drowning. What drew me to the scene was the reaction shot of Ms Tierney. You're right. She is beautiful. I knew I had to see this film.

I had to wait to watch it on TV. Local video libraries didn't stock that 'arty' stuff. Turns out it wasn't psychological - or noir as false advertised - drama it is melodrama. Turns out I love movies about beautiful broken women. Marnie. Vertigo.

It also turns out I've got zero patience for Hollywood nutjobs. There are millions of parents with disabled kids. Some of those parents are single and/or poor.

Having said that is rehab today's version of sanitoria?

Ricky Sprague said...

A.Jaye, that is an excellent point, and I wish I'd thought of it -- if the stunning Ms. Tierney were around today, she would probably have gone to "rehab," rather than a mental institution, and then gotten a second career, perhaps on reality television.