In 1944, after an intense bidding war, Twentieth Century-Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck acquired the film rights to Ben Ames Williams’s Leave Her to Heaven for $100,000, then an exorbitant price for an unpublished work. Later that year, Williams’s mystery novel, about one woman’s obsessive love for her husband, became one of the best-selling author’s greatest successes, and by December 1945 Fox had released its film adaptation.
The title of the book and the film is taken from act 1, scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the scene, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to him, urging his son to avenge his murder, though without acting against Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother: “Leave her to heaven / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her.”
Director John M. Stahl—who was born Jacob Morris Strelitsky in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1886, and who made his first film in Hollywood in 1914—was one of the thirty-six founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Today he is perhaps best known for the fact that three of his films—Imitation of Life, 1934; Magnificent Obsession, 1935; and When Tomorrow Comes, 1939—were remade by melodrama master Douglas Sirk in the 1950s.)
Over the course of Stahl’s thirty-five year career in Hollywood, Leave Her to Heaven was the only color film he directed.
Leon Shamroy, whose Technicolor photography on Leave Her to Heaven won him an Oscar, received eighteen cinematography nominations from the Academy, a record in the category that he shares with Charles Lang. Shamroy also won for The Black Swan (1942), Wilson (1944), and Cleopatra (1963).
After shooting Leave Her to Heaven—which many consider to be the first film noir in Technicolor, an expensive process that until then had been reserved for epics and musicals—Shamroy became one of the industry’s pioneers in new film formats. He shot the first feature film in CinemaScope, The Robe, in 1953. Three years later, he was the director of photography on The King and I, one of the only movies to utilize Fox’s CinemaScope 55 process.
Gene Tierney came close to missing out on the opportunity to play the iconic femme fatale Ellen Berent. The role was initially offered to Rita Hayworth, who turned it down.
Tierney was married to Oleg Cassini, who designed the costumes for Leave Her to Heaven, as well as for a number of Tierney’s other films of the 1940s and ’50s. (The two divorced in 1953.)
The Back of the Moon lodge in Deer Lake, Maine—the vacation home where novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) heads at the beginning of the film—wasn’t actually in Maine at all. The scenes at the house were shot at Bass Lake in the High Sierras of Northern California.
According to Darryl Hickman—who plays Danny, Richard’s younger brother—Zanuck was so impressed when he viewed the rushes of the famous lake scene that he proclaimed it the greatest moment in all of film. He may have been on to something: Leave Her to Heaven became Fox’s highest-grossing film of the 1940s.
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