Good and evil with no shades of gray
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I recommend purchasing the DVD of "Leave her to Heaven" in order to listen to Darryl Hickman's recollections of working on the film as a 14 year old child actor, playing the part of Danny Harland, the crippled brother of the protagonist, Richard Harland (played by Cornel Wilde). Whether you agree or disagree with Hickman's comments, they remain fascinating and will give you insight into the making of this film.
Hickman recalls that director John Stahl treated him very poorly halfway into the making of the film. In the most famous scene in the movie, where Gene Tierney's character Ellen, allows Danny Harland to drown in the lake, Hickman states that he was forced to shoot many takes of the scene, swimming in ice cold water and freezing cold temperature. It was so cold that Hickman's stunt double refused to shoot the scene and Hickman was forced to act in the scene himself. At one point, Hickman got a cramp in his leg and he sensed that he was beginning to drown; Stahl ignored Hickman's pleas but fortunately an assistant on the set realized that the kid might be in serious danger and pulled him out of the water. The scene in the lake took almost three weeks to shoot. Hickman says Tierney was completely cold to him and seemed to support Stahl in his lack of support of the sensitive child actor.
Ironically, Stahl's attitude toward Hickman changed half way through the shooting of the picture. It seems that the producer, Darryl Zanuck, saw the rushes of the drowning scene and told Stahl that it was the most powerful scene he had ever seen in the movies. Stahl started to call Hickman by his first name and no longer referred to him as "son", which Hickman regarded as an insulting epithet. Now Stahl started to refer to Cornel Wilde as "son" and Hickman relates that the director treated Wilde very poorly throughout the rest of the filming of 'Leave her to Heaven'. In fact, Hickman maintains that Wilde told Stahl after filming was completed that he would never forget how Stahl mistreated him. And Hickman also maintains that Tierney treated Cornel Wilde quite coldly, always taking the director's side in his disparagement of Wilde.
Hickman's claims that Tierney didn't think much of Wilde's acting abilities is borne out by Tierney's recollections in her autobiography, "Self-Portrait". Tierney refers to the scene in the library and writes: "The scene was difficult for Cornel, who was meant to be weak and couldn't quite bring it off." She adds that Stahl turned to Wilde at one point and said, "They (referring to gaffers on the set) all seem to understand how the scene should be played, why can't you?" Hickman felt that Tierney's abilities as an actor were limited. He felt she was an emotionally constricted person who couldn't open up to people in general. He's aware that Tierney later had to deal with bouts of mental illness but concedes he knows little of the details of her personal life. Tierney was a troubled person during her career as an actor which she readily admits in her autobiography. One important point that Hickman is apparently unaware of is that Tierney gave birth to a retarded child in 1943 which certainly had a deleterious effect on her mental health in later years.
The conflict between Hickman and Tierney may have been simply due to the fact that Hickman needed more support since he was only 14 years old at the time he was working on the picture. Tierney on the other hand was probably more of a no-nonsense type who didn't believe in socializing while she was on the set.
Leave her to Heaven was sumptuously filmed in the Technicolor of its day. The 2003 digital transfer restores the faded colors of an earlier print to the plush hues we see on the DVD today.
The big problem with Leave her to Heaven is that the first half is all exposition. It's extremely slow-moving and we only get hints that something dramatic is going to happen. Finally, we're rewarded with the machinations of Tierney's evil Ellen Berent Harland in the second half. The high points come in spurts: Ellen sitting in the boat, casually doing nothing as Danny drowns; the shocking scene where she intentionally throws herself down the stairs in order to abort her unborn child and her grand exit where she commits suicide in order to facilitate her half-sister being charged with murder. Even today, those scenes pack an emotional wallop.
Despite Ellen's gripping histrionics, the other principal characters played by Cornel Wilde and Jeanne Crain, the husband and the half-sister, fit the typical victim mold of melodrama and are too beatific and wooden to be considered at all compelling. Speaking of histrionics, Vincent Price is much too over the top as the District Attorney with his one-note (and much too angry) grilling of Cornel Wilde while he's on the stand in the courtroom.
Finally I couldn't understand why Harland gets two years for "withholding evidence". It's inferred that the "withholding of evidence" occurred earlier in Harland's testimony when he fails to inform the court that Ellen stood by and let his brother drown. But where is the proof that Ellen actually did nothing? The court only had Richard's take on what had occurred and certainly that testimony is not backed up by any independent witnesses.
Leave her to Heaven will be remembered for its stunning cinematography as well as its portrait of a demented 'femme fatale'. Aside from a few classic scenes, it's a film that plods along and only manages to capture your attention during its most salacious moments. Leave her to Heaven descends into the morass of victim-hood, suggesting that there is only good and evil in the world and no shades of gray.