Wednesday, July 21, 2010

“Leave Her To Heaven”/Ben Ames Williams

Director: John Stahl, 1945
Everything about “Leave Her To Heaven” is overly ripe, from the performances (particularly Vincent Price’s sneering district attorney) to the Technicolor, awash in purplish hues, to the dialogue, also awash in purplish hues. Based on the popular 1942 novel by Ben Ames Williams (more on him later), the movie tells the melodramatic story of Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), seriously gorgeous but—alas—also seriously psychotic. Ellen has a major father fixation, and when daddy croaks she spots novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde, who sadly was anything but wild). Harland, you see, reminds her of her late father. Tierney, one of the most beautiful actresses of her day, is so overly and unnecessarily made-up here she could have inspired Lady Gaga. Ellen digs Richard so much that she proposes to him, even though she’s engaged to Vincent Price. Once married, Ellen turns out to be a homicidal control freak who will tolerate no one in her life but Richard.
Unfortunately, Richard has a younger brother, Danny, who has polio. Danny provides the one bravura scene in the film: when he develops a cramp in the middle of a lake, Ellen in a nearby canoe ignores his pleas for help and lets him drown. From there, complications arise of the sort you’d expect in a movie derived from middlebrow, best-selling claptrap (don’t get me wrong: I like middlebrow, best-selling claptrap, particularly from this era).
In short, “Leave Her To Heaven” is ridiculous—but it’s rarely dull; there are far worse ways to kill a few hours (say, a night spent watching Nancy Grace, or deciding to finally get around to renting “Yentl”).
Ben Ames Williams (1889—1953) is a perfect example of a celebrated author whose name and work quickly disappear from the culture after death. In life, Williams published 432 short stories and more than 30 novels, several of which were made into movies besides “Leave Her To Heaven” (including 1953’s “All The Brothers Were Valiant”). Where are those 432 short stories now? When was the last time anyone read one of them? As for the novels, his 1947 Civil War epic, “House Divided,” was reprinted in 2006, and it’s a hell of a doorstop: 1,514 pages in its original hardback--that’s about 720,000 words, or 275,000 MORE than “Gone With The Wind,” according to Orville Prescott in his New York Times review, which was decidedly mixed. Yet 17 recent readers praise the novel on Amazon. Nevertheless, life really is too short to take on 1,514 pages.
One odd fact about Williams (and this seems like something from The Onion): the second headline on his NYT obit reported that “Ben Ames Williams, 63, Is Dead—Author Succumbs During Curling Contest.”
That’s right: Williams died while playing curling.
And you thought bobsledding was dangerous.


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