July 18, 2013

‘Leave Her to Heaven’ has stunning visuals, a leading lady

“All women are born evil. Some just realize their potential later in life than others.”  — Chad A. Gamble.

John Stahl, an American director who floated successfully up from the silent era to become a favorite in the ’30s and ’40s, had that genius for knowing how to make women, and some men, weep.

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Gene Tierney portrays Ellen, a beautiful but unstable woman, in “Leave Her to Heaven,” which plays at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Waterville Opera House.

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“Leave Her to Heaven” plays at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Waterville Opera House. Run time is 1 hour, 50 minutes.

He was especially wise in picking the female leads for his weepers.

Claudette Colbert’s “Imitation of Life” in 1934 was a biggie for John. But Stahl’s most famous heart-breaker with a woman at the wheel was Gene Tierney (“Laura,” “Razor’s Edge”) as Ellen, an A-list psychotic lead in his “Leave Her to Heaven.” As the movie moves on, it’s clear that heaven didn’t want Ellen, and probably didn’t get her.

In Stahl’s big, powerful, over-the-top and deliciously photographed “Leave Her,” Tierney plays Ellen Brent, a gorgeous nut case three checkout counters from total madness.

At opening, Richard (Cornel Wilde, 1940s heart-throb star) arrives on a dock in Maine, greeted by some old friends. It seems that Richard has been in prison for the past two years. For what? We wonder. Don’t rush. Like melodramatic blood and lipstick, it will all come out in the wash at the end.

The flashback begins with the magic couple meeting cute on a train. That always means trouble.

Sensing a new fly, our spider lady sucks him into her web, pulling him deeper into her dark corners.

Love blooms, but Ellen is an all-or-nothing kind of gal who can’t tolerate Richard even petting a dog. In a blink of an eye, Ellen rushes him to the altar, and the story ripens.

Richard has a beloved kid brother (a totally pro Daryl Hickman who worked with every star from Gable to Tracy and back) who is semi-crippled and recovering from polio. Richard adores his kid brother and wants to keep him close. Trouble brews.

Off the couple go “upta camp” at Back of the Moon, a family owned island where Richard can write and Ellen can tick.

This is an incredibly lush layout, where the “campers” all rough it by wearing summer frocks and white heels like they do at the Bush compound.  Hold the laughter, Mainers.

Spoiler alert: Soon, Richard announces his plans to take his brother everywhere with them for the rest of their lives. That does it. Ellen’s homicidal obsessive compulsions take over. One day the boy wants to go swimming. Deep in the lake, Ellen sits calmly behind her oversized Foster Grants and watches as he gets cramps and goes under. All of this while Alfred Newman’s operatic score pounds away. 

“Leave Her to Heaven” is a great example of how some of the great old movies, once thought dramatic classics, eventually turn into near comedies. Throughout “Leave Her,” Ellen’s symptoms are so obvious, that today she would have been committed in pre-school.

Director Stahl clearly loved his leading ladies and lavished great attention on them, as is evident in cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s shameless close ups and Technicolor lighting of Tierney. Shamroy’s camera work here is stunning.

What makes it a clear winner for this year’s film festival is the Maine lake location, the unusual use of location shooting, which was almost never done in this era, and the expensive Technicolor, so richly used in those years. All of which, despite its flaws, keeps it dear to the heart of old movie buffs.

It’s being shown here at the Waterville Opera House in a newly refurbished 35 mm print.

J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.

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