Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

- by Jeanne Kane

Cornel Wilde & Gene TierneyThink of Leave Her to Heaven as Valley of the Dolls meets An Affair to Remember; itís got ruthlessness, a tragic love story, romantic ending, and of course, fabulous costume and set designs. This includes a couple of those rustic homes that know enough to incorporate the beautiful scenery around them (the film won the 1945 Academy Award for Best Color Cinematography). You may be more entranced by the scenery than the story, but this movie is not without merit.

Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) falls in love with fiction writer Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde). The first time they meet she stares, and stares, and stares, and says, ďOh, I was staring, wasnít I? Itís just that you look so much like my father.Ē Not much of a come on, but it has everything to do with the story. Ellen and her father were inseparable until he died a few years prior. Actually, inseparable is an understatement. She was pathologically possessive of him, isolating him from his wife, and others who apparently stepped aside, saddened but understanding. Ellen sets about creating the same kind of life with Richard, her fatherís look-alike.

Ellen and Richard meet on a train and discover they are visiting the same desert ranch, having a mutual friend there. We find out that Ellen is competitive and Richard is impulsive. They fall in love. Ellen proposes to Richard two days later. When heís taken aback, more or less accepting the offer, she says, ďIíll never let you go. Never!Ē

As a new bride, Ellen tries to anticipate her husbandís every wish and indulge it. She cuts their honeymoon short, so that he can be with his beloved younger brother, Danny (Darryl Hickman), who has been sick and without the use of his legs. In secret, she nurses the brother along, so that he is up and walking with crutches sooner than expected. She scores! Everyone is happy now because the brother is well enough to go to Richardís favorite place, his lodge in Maine, called the Back of the Moon. Oops, she loses! She meant to go to the lodge alone and have her husband all to herself.

The lodge fills up pretty quickly when Richard also invites Ellen's cousin and mother up for a surprise visit, thinking it will make her happy. Oops, he loses! Between the surprise visitors, and Danny, not to mention, Thorn, Richard's friend who lives year-round at the lodge as it's caretaker, Ellen really flips out. She insults Thorn and argues with Richard. The guests leave early.

While the evidence is stacking up that Richard and Ellen are, at best, a mismatch, Richard finds in Ellenís cousin Ruth, (played by Jeanne Crain) a sympathetic companion. Not only is Ruth up to speed on the effects of Ellenís possessiveness, but she actually shares in significant events in Richardís life, like the coming of his child when Ellen becomes pregnant. Ruth even reads his manuscripts. Manuscripts and children are obstacles between Ellen and her husband. She works overtime to eliminate them.

Ellen is not just the possessive type, she is competitive with others and she always wins. She comes from a wealthy New England family who gave her lots of room to have things her own way. Some might say she is a kind of grown up spoiled brat, who has lethal temper tantrums when she doesnít get her own way. For example, when kid-brother Danny wonít leave Back of the Moon and Ellen canít be alone with her husband, she lets Danny drown while heís practicing his long-distance swimming. This does not make Richard happy - oops, she loses!

To get herself out of her messes (she also stages an "accidental" tumble down a flight of stairs to kill her unborn baby), Ellen poisons herself and makes it look like Ruth is the killer. Vincent Price is the prosecuting attorney and Ellenís jilted fiancť. He stirs up the court room drama by making thundering accusations about Richard and Ruth being in love and that they poisoned Ellen to get her out of the way. Itís under these circumstances that Richard and Ruth come to find out they truly are in love and from this comes the happy ending.

The thing that made this movie worthwhile for me was its gentle treatment of what is otherwise criminal and unforgivable behavior. Although, effectively cut off from her husband and daughter, Ellenís mother says about her daughterís possessiveness, ďThereís nothing wrong with Ellen, she just loves too much...You must be patient with her. She loved her father too much.Ē Even Ellen, in confessing to her husband that she let his brother drown, struggles to describe the dark rage that overcame her, and by the time it lifted, the boy was gone. Her possessiveness is her punishment; it never gets her the results she wants. I think the subtleties of the story and the ways in which they are brought forward in the characters make Gene Tierney both an unlikely and satisfying choice for Ellen Bernet.

It is tempting to throw Gene Tierney into the lot of actors who stay close to their own personalities; their own appeal carries the day but not necessarily with any depth or range as an actor. I would arguably put the likes of Fred Astaire and Cary Grant into this group. I would expect Gene Tierney to show up there also, given her cheek bones alone. Add the pout and the stony stare and she often appears to be posing for a glamour photo rather than offering insight to her character - and yet she does offer such insight! She is believable whether she is the driven and manipulative Ellen Bernet or the young Lucy Muir, testing her independence in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Sheíll win you over in Leave Her to Heaven.

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