Leave Her to Heaven, Don’t Leave Heaven off your List


Leave Her to Heaven, is a brilliant thriller, tackling the subjects of love, trust, innocence and of the basest sins of human nature: obsession, malice, domination, winning-at-all-costs and jealousy. This leaves the viewer with a progressively nastier taste in their mouth as the story develops; pulling and tugging the audience along a rugged path, dappled with beauty along the way, which acts as a buffer to the stark and dark reality seen. A methodical pacing is used by director John M. Stahl to draw the observer into close proximity with the characters, providing a claustrophobic atmosphere; issuing a sense of dread, yet, rendering the watcher unable to avert their attention, as though watching the catastrophe of a train-wreck.

The adaptation of Ben Ames Williams’ novel, Leave Her to Heaven, by Jo Swerling is delicately handled, offering many observation posts, outlooks onto the panorama of the two families: Berent and Harland. But the story continues farther afield, beyond Berent and Harland, stretching tentacle like and retrieving the feelings and actions of friends, acquaintances and passerby alike to drive home the message of the tale; securing firmly the basis of the context of the account, so that no one can mistake the meanings coming forth from the screen. If the story-line seems a message laden morality tale, it is intended to be that way; the author, Mr. Williams, had written five previous stories, during his career, plucking themes from the “Seven Deadly Sins.” Leave Her to Heaven was number six, but Williams felt that jealousy was a stronger human emotion and more universal than the rest of the sins, including the two subjects, sloth and gluttony, of which he had not written on, nor would he ever write about.[1] The Seven Deadly Sin titles by Ben Ames Williams prior to, Leave Her to Heaven were: Evered (Anger); The Rational Hind (Pride); Mischief (Envy); A Man of Plot (Covetousness) and Hostile Valley (Lust).[2]

The color of, Leave Her to Heaven, plays a distinctive role in the emotional impact of the film; it’s brighter than real-life look, producing a simultaneous narrative, which communicates to the onlooker, on a different level. This color chronicle plays a significant part in how we feel about this Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde drama; the Technicolor process, adding fresh, surreal or hyper-realistic layers to the already complicated palette of sensations engendered by the subject matter.

Alfred Newman provides a score that accentuates the cinematography of Leon Shamroy, offering beautiful accoutrements to the action, characters and scenery; Newman’s compositional skills had just been heard in, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, from earlier in 1945 and he was responsible for, The Song of Bernadette, 1943. Shamroy had the year before photographed, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and with Leave Her to Heaven he won Best Cinematography, Color, at the Academy Awards; each of these men recorded multiple nominations and Oscar statue wins.

While Leave Her to Heaven, can be construed as strictly a psychological-drama, yet, it contains some elements of Film Noir, which genre we most often associate with black and white photography. But the foreboding, the seeming fatalistic results, should classify this colorful piece of Heaven, to the realm of Noir. Cornel Wilde had just reached the level of star-power, with, A Song to Remember, and, A Thousand and One Nights, to gain this co-starring role. With, Leave Her to Heaven, Wilde, planted himself firmly in the history of Hollywood, albeit, he would nary surpass the popularity of this film during his remaining years in celluloid entertainment. Gene Tierney continued with, Leave Her to Heaven, a personal string of hits that would end with, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; this period for Tierney would not be duplicated in her future. From, Heaven Can Wait, in 1943, followed by Laura, in ’44, A Bell For Adano (like, Leave Her to Heaven, was also released in 1945); Dragonwyck (her work on that film was complete prior to the cameras rolling on Heaven) and, The Razor’s Edge, each opened in 1946. The aforementioned, Mrs. Muir, would finish the chain of seven classic Hollywood films in 1947. Beginning in late 1949, Tierney would turn from the box-office pleasers to three films that would forever etch her name into Film Noir legend: Whirlpool (directed by Otto Preminger, 1949), Night and the City (Jules Dassin, directing, early 1950) and, Where the Sidewalk Ends, again with Preminger, this premiering in the early summer of ’50.

Scene of the Crime; Where and When:

On Wednesday, December 19, Leave Her to Heaven, had a “lush, Hollywood premiere” at the Fox Carthay Circle Theatre, presenting an unusual Christmas Gift for the movie-goer in the Los Angeles area; the film opened at the Roxy in New York City on Christmas Day, with the first showing at 10:30 AM.[3] Zanuck and 20th Century-Fox wanted, Leave Her to Heaven, to qualify for the Academy Awards, therefore the film had to be released by December 31; evidently Zanuck rushed the process in those final days, ensuring that the psychological thriller would be ready on time.[4]

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Brooklyn, New York, December 24, 1945

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Brooklyn, New York, December 24, 1945


The nationwide release was then set for January 1, 1946 and exhibitors were anticipating big things from, Leave Her to Heaven, at the box-office.[5] Actually some theaters opened the film on New Year’s Eve; Tucson, AZ, Long Beach and San Bernardino, CA were among the cities which started the 20th Century-Fox production on the last day of the year.

Long Beach Independent, Long Beach, California, December 31, 1945

Long Beach Independent, Long Beach, California, December 31, 1945

San Bernardino County Sun, San Bernardino, California, December 31, 1945

San Bernardino County Sun, San Bernardino, California, December 31, 1945

Tucson Daily Citizen, Tucson, Arizona, December 31, 1945

Tucson Daily Citizen, Tucson, Arizona, December 31, 1945


On January 3, 1946, the Roxy Theater of New York, announced that Leave Her to Heaven had established a new box-office record for the house during its first eight days, with over 180,000 patrons and nearly $170,000; no other film (to that time) in Roxy Theater history approached those numbers. The Roxy held over the film through a sixth week (ending its run on February 5), all the while continuing to break house records; the RKO Albee (Brooklyn, NY) showed, Leave Her to Heaven, through February 26, and the psychological-drama was finally released to all of Queens and Brooklyn, NY, on February 28, 1946.[6] Major metropolitan theaters were not the only ones setting records with, Leave Her to Heaven; medium and small markets climbed to new heights in ticket sales… Huntingdon, Pennsylvania (east of Altoona), at the Clifton Theatre, reportedly “smashed” all house records;[7] Harrisburg, PA, also set a new house mark at the State Theatre, leaving the manager having to handle overflow crowds.[8] It did not seem to matter that critics had, in the words of Erskine Johnson, “murdered,” Leave Her to Heaven;[9] the word probably that best describes the critical reception of the film, was “mixed,” that from Herbert Cohn of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.[10] Clearly, audiences were eating up, Leave Her to Heaven, while many of those paid to give their opinions about film, regarded the picture with a less appreciative eye.


Literary before Celluloid:

The rush was on, a month before Ben Ames Williams’ new book, Leave Her to Heaven, was published,[11] the rights to it had been obtained by Twentieth Century-Fox; the purchase price was $100,000.[12] Williams, was a popular author nearly from his beginnings, a voluminous writer, selling much of what he penned;[13] Leave Her to Heaven was a Literary Guild choice for June of ’44, published by Houghton Mifflin.[14] Heaven was a mega seller for Ben Ames Williams (7th for 1944), and one has to but read the newspapers of the day to find many glowing reviews and such perusal will ascertain for the reader that the novel was part of book-club must-read-lists throughout the country and often, Heaven, was near the top on reserve and demand lists at libraries nationwide. Louella Parsons thought the price-tag paid by Fox was the highest doled out, to that point for an unpublished work, she, being unable to think of another title fetching such a sum.[15]



Casting Call; Changes, They Were Aplenty:

Reports suggested that producer Darryl Zanuck intended the production values to reflect the cost of the rights to the novel, which the $100,000 paid to Mr. Williams was considerable for the era; first of all, on Zanuck’s “to do list” was to choose the right woman for the role of the very wrong Ellen Berent Harland. Zanuck, concurrent with purchasing the story, intended to co-star Tallulah Bankhead (as Ellen) and Ida Lupino (Ruth Berent) in the story about, “A woman who had to win, and to hold on to her winnings. A woman who cheated in love, and in death. A woman who dominated the lives of those around her as implacably as she was dominated by a consuming jealousy.”[16] By Thanksgiving of ’44, Bankhead had begun to tell friends that she would not do, Heaven, because she did not want to play a murderess; so reported Hedda Hopper.[17] The next name in the offering for, Leave Her to Heaven was Jeanne Crain (added to the cast in June of ’44) for the part of the sister (Ruth Berent) of the homicidal harpy; this was a portion of a reward for her performance in, Home in Indiana, and a new contract with Twentieth-Fox.[18]

Linda Darnell replaced Tallulah Bankhead as the femme fatale in late September of ’44; Zanuck saw rushes from, Hangover Square, and was convinced that Darnell had to play the part of Ellen Berent Harland in, Leave Her to Heaven. Just a few days after Thanksgiving of 1944, another well-known name was thrown into the mix for the part of that heartless siren, Ellen, that of actress Paulette Goddard;[19] it seemed that there were as many actresses suitable for the role of the villainess as there were shades and facets of the personality of the character that was to be left to Heaven. By the end of ’44, Joan Fontaine was thought to be the next lady in waiting for that juicy impersonation of Williams’ murderess;[20] which producer initiated the negotiations is anyone’s guess but Darryl Zanuck and David Selznick were in talks for Fontaine to star in, Leave Her to Heaven, in December ’44 and January of ’45.[21] Added to the list of actresses under consideration by Zanuck for the lead in, Leave Her to Heaven, was Lauren Bacall; according to columnist Louella Parsons, all the gals were dying to do it. [22]

One of the finalists for the role of Ellen Berent Harland was Joan Fontaine, at least Gregory Peck thought it was Fontaine and he was anxious to be her co-star in the thriller.[23] Finally the suspense was over, when Louella Parsons reported on January 17, 1945, that Gene Tierney had been given the part; the official announcement was made to Tierney at Darryl and Virginia Zanuck’s early Anniversary party which had been hosted by Lew Schreiber and Gregory Ratoff. Zanuck’s decision occurred between January 11 and January 17; in her column, Louella O. Parsons stated that nearly every actress in Hollywood and a couple in New York had “been up for the role of the insanely jealous wife,” Ellen.[24]

Dana Andrews was announced as the male lead for, Leave Her to Heaven, playing Richard Harland opposite Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent Harland; this reportage was at the last of January of 1945.[25] February brought Thomas Mitchell to the cast, but by April this was changed, when Ray Collins was chosen to replace Mitchell in the role of Glen Robie;[26] why Mitchell dropped from the project was not stated. Collins had to lose ten pounds for his, Heavenly, role and then followed up that with five more pounds taken off for his upcoming part in, Boy’s Ranch.[27] Michael Dunne tested for the junior Harland role in March of ’45 and editors at Twentieth Century said the he had a great ease about him of course,Darryl Hickman did the drowning instead; a couple of days past the middle of April of 1945, Cornel Wilde was named to play, Richard Harland, the unsuspecting husband to the predatory Ellen Berent Harland.[28] Ruth Nelson was signed for a featured role in, Leave Her to Heaven, in April of 1945 but by early June had been loaned out to Columbia for the part of Kate Comstock in, Girl of the Limberlost.[29] Margo Woode got an extension to her contract with 20th Century-Fox and a role in, Leave Her to Heaven, but she obviously did not make it to Heaven.[30]

Choice, Choices:

Director John Stahl was selected to helm, Leave Her to Heaven, in January of 1945; Stahl would direct just six more films after, Heaven, with two of those going uncredited.[31] Chill Wills was borrowed from MGM for his part in, Leave Her to Heaven, in May of 1945; Wills had just returned from a four month tour overseas, doing military-shows, visiting outposts in Greenland and Iceland. Mr. Willis was to follow his work in, Heaven, with a US hospital tour and a USO Tokyo bound troupe.[32] Silent film star, Mae Marsh, appears uncredited as the fisherwoman; Ms. Marsh would continue acting through 1964, albeit mostly without a mention on screen. Kay Riley who portrayed Danny Harland’s nurse (uncredited) was a childhood friend of Roxanna Stahl, the director’s daughter.[33]

Camera Location:

The cameras rolled on, Leave Her to Heaven in the last week of May, 1945; Tierney, after finishing Dragonwyck, went directly to work on Heaven.[34] Nearly two months later the project was still in production;[35] Leave Her to Heaven, was mostly made on location and for the lake scenes in which young Danny Harland dies, the Moxley Range Ranch, near Bishop, California (Bass Lake, at Madera, CA), in the high Sierras was used for the drowning sequence.[36] Three sets (the lakeside lodge, the boathouse and the tavern) were built on the shores of Bass Lake, preparing for the arrival of the dozen or so actors; filming was expected to end at the lake by May 29th.[37] Darryl Hickman who portrayed Danny Harland, spent enough time simulating his character’s drowning, that he became quite ill after his scenes in the cold water of Bass Lake.[38]

Screenland, September, 1945

Screenland, September, 1945

Screenland, October, 1945

Screenland, October, 1945


Colorful Connotations:

2015 is the 100th anniversary of Technicolor, a process that would change the way we look at movies; those early days with Technicolor, jolted Hollywood and excited the movie-goer. Had it not been for the Great Depression, the movies of the 1930’s and 40’s may have all been in color. The film-making industry is going through something similar to what the film community did in the 1930’s, 40’s and even into the 1950’s: an upheaval of what has been considered normal; now, with higher frame-rates, digital presentation and a more practical 3-D experience.

The Technicolor method has brought to our eyes a brightness that in some sense is not seen in the real world, yet, one we feel comfortable with. Technicolor has afforded an array of colors that have burst upon our entertainment scene from larger-than-life adventures, musicals where part of the harmony are supplied by vibrant hues, and plodding dramas that move at an attractive rate because of hyper-shades. Some of the most respected films, with many reaching the acme of the Golden Age of Hollywood were produced in Technicolor; today those colorful-celluloid-dreams often stand iconically, pointing lovingly to those days of yesteryear. For the millions who view this era of movies incessantly, for the tens of thousands that research and review, for the thousands of film industry employees, these Technicolor beauties are a wonderful exemplar of Classic Movie making.

For further reading on Technicolor, Adrienne LaFrance wrote an informative article, which appeared in February, 2015, on: The Atlantic. Also the George Eastman House celebrated the 100 years of Technicolor with an exhibition at their facility and published a book, written by James Layton and David Pierce (the filmography by Crystal Kui and James Layton), entitled: The Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935. For those who want a shorter introduction to Technicolor history, a special Technicolor page has been added to the George Eastman House website, offering a quick look at Technicolor through the years, an explanation of the Technicolor process and the use of Technicolor outside the US; a company history is also included, with reference to the actual camera department, color control (don’t miss this page) and an overview of the company.

This article is my addition to the 100 year Technicolor celebration; for the countless hours of colorful entertainment that I have enjoyed because of Technicolor, I extend a hearty thank you and copious plaudits to all of those involved throughout the decades for a gift that keeps on giving and that cannot be enumerated. Leave Her to Heaven is available on DVD and Blu-Ray (the Blu-Ray is expensive).

The following series of full-color ads (four full page, one half-page) are from, the December 29, 1944 edition of, Box Office magazine…

Box Office, December 29, 1945Box Office, 2, December 29, 1945Box Office, 3, December 29, 1945Box Office, 4, December 29, 1945

Box Office, 5, December 29, 1945


By C. S. Williams

[1] Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) June 11, 1944

Milwaukee Journal (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) July 2, 1944

[2]  Colby Library Quarterly, Ben Ames William and the Saturday Evening Post, by Richard Cary, volume 10, issue 4,

1973, September 1972, pages 190-222

[3] Tucson Daily Citizen (Tucson, Arizona) December 24, 1945

Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) December 24; 26, 1945

Film Bulletin, December 24, 1945

[4] Evening Independent (Massillon, Ohio) December 20, 1945

[5] Film Bulletin, December 10, 1945

[6] Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) January 3; 21; 26;  27, 1946

[7] Daily News (Huntingdon, Pennsylvania) January 15, 1946

[8] Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) January 19, 1946

[9] Miami Daily News (Miami, Oklahoma) February 13, 1946

[10] Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) January 16, 1946

[11] The book was released on June 8, 1944 and the rights to the book were purchased by Twentieth Century-Fox in

the middle of May, 1944

[12] Motion Picture Daily, May 18, 1944

[13] Colby Library Quarterly, Ben Ames Williams: The Apprentice Years, by Richard Cary, series 9, number 11,

September 1972, pages 586-599

[14] Odessa American (Odessa, Texas) April 16, 1944

[15] Fresno Bee (Fresno, California) June 11, 1944

[16] Motion Picture Daily, May 18, 1944

Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah) June 8, 1944 (description from an advertisement of, Leave Her to Heaven)

[17] Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah) November 24, 1944

[18] Film Daily, June 29, 1944

[19] Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah) November 28, 1944

[20] Fresno Bee (Fresno, California) December 31, 1944

[21] Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) January 8, 1945

[22] Middletown Times Herald (Middleton, New York) January 11, 1945

[23] Salt Lake tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah) January 18, 1945

[24] Fresno Bee (Fresno, California) January 17, 1945

[25] Film Daily, January 30, 1945

[26] Motion Picture Daily, February 23, 1945

Film Daily, April 10, 1945

[27] Film Daily, August 2, 1945

[28] Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) March 8, 1945

Fresno Bee (Fresno, California) April 18, 1945

[29] Film Daily, April 9; June 11, 1945

[30] Film Bulletin, May 14, 1945

[31] Film Bulletin, January 22, 1945

[32] Motion Picture Daily, May 21, 1945

Morning Herald (Uniontown, Pennsylvania) June 21, 1945

Pottstown Mercury (Pottstown, Pennsylvania) November 10, 1945

[33] Evening Independent (Massillon, Ohio) June 22, 1945

[34] Film Bulletin, May 28, 1945

[35] Film Bulletin, July 23, 1945

[36] Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) May 14, 1945

Fresno Bee (Fresno, California) May 18, 1945

[37] Fresno Bee (Fresno, California) May 18; 20, 1945

[38] Morning Herald (Uniontown, Pennsylvania) June 21, 1945


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