Censor Joseph Breen took issue with Ellen Berent, the lead character in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), terminating her pregnancy by dramatically throwing herself down a flight of stairs, even though the Production Code would not explicitly forbid on-screen abortions until 1951. Yet the abortion ultimately made it into the final print because, by Breen’s logic, an abortion is unrecognizable as such so long as it is not named. However, archival research suggests that Breen was wrong on both counts. Considering a wide array of archival records—Production Code Administration files and correspondence, early script drafts, audience preview screening responses, reviews, and more—this article argues that the discrepancies between Leave Her to Heaven’s censorship history and its reception illustrate popular morality eclipsing prescribed morality. The film was both a catalyst of the 1951 Code amendment banning abortion and an early harbinger of the dissolution of the PCA’s stranglehold over abortion as taboo.
In the abortion scene from Leave Her to Heaven (1945), a pregnant Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), the antihero protagonist, stands poised at the top of a flight of stairs, contemplating the fall she is about to deliberately take. We twice see a close-up of Ellen’s determined stare from the top of the stairs followed by a reverse shot of the staircase. The camera cuts between these shot/reverse shots to close-ups of Ellen’s slip-on heels as she places the toe of one shoe beneath a gap in the rug, then gingerly removes her foot. The cutting draws out the deliberateness of the moment and heightens the air of suspense and anxiety. The camera remains trained on the top of the stairs as Ellen disappears from view, screaming as she falls down the staircase, leaving the telltale slipper behind as evidence of the ‘accident’. The low, ominous drums and woodwinds that have created a sense of dread throughout the scene give way to string music that rises to a frenzy before stopping completely as Ellen screams and jumps. With a cut to the bottom of the stairs, we observe her motionless body as her family rushes to her aid. As we learn from the doctor shortly thereafter, Ellen will make a full recovery, but, he laments, “we couldn’t save the child” (fig. 1).
Leave Her to Heaven, Twentieth Century-Fox’s 1945 adaptation of the 1944 novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams, directed by John M. Stahl, offers a cautionary tale of a femme fatale who stops at nothing to maintain the attentions of her husband, novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde).1 Ellen, whom the film portrays as possessive and cunning, works methodically to eliminate any and all perceived threats to her relationship with Richard. First she orchestrates the death of Richard’s physically disabled adolescent brother, Danny (Darryl Hickman), who drowns while Ellen watches coolly from her nearby canoe.2 Later, after realizing that her plans to have a baby as a lock on Richard’s attention were misjudged, and resenting the increased physical and emotional distance between them during her pregnancy, Ellen aborts by throwing herself down the stairs. Ultimately, upon discovering that Richard has feelings for her cousin, Ruth (Jeanne Crain), Ellen commits suicide by poisoning herself and frames Ruth as her murderer. The trial scene near the film’s conclusion—ostensibly Ruth’s trial for Ellen’s death—turns into a posthumous trial of Ellen’s character and deeds, ending with Ellen convicted of being a “monster.”
In the climactic staircase scene, Ellen both decides to end her pregnancy and carries through with her abortion independently. For the other characters in the film she attempts to disguise as a miscarriage what viewers know is an abortion: through her decision to leave her shoe wedged at the top of the stairs, she hides her abortion in plain sight. What is clearly an abortion—and what was recognized as such by censors and contemporaneous viewers alike—is identified in the film as a miscarriage. Indeed, the implication, visual elision, and/or deliberate mislabeling of abortion was not new in film, even prior to the Production Code of 1930. But a significant aspect of these films during the Code era was the implication of abortion. Explicit talk or depiction of abortion would risk censorship in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1915 Mutual v. Ohio decision, which stripped film of its First Amendment protections; after 1934 it would also put a film at risk of not receiving the Production Code Administration seal.
The Production Code of 1930 was meant to tighten the slack of the Studio Relations Committee and bring standards of decency to Hollywood film, but it was not until 1934, with staunch Catholic Joseph I. Breen now at the helm of the PCA, that decency standards were duly and regularly enforced. Immediately prior to 1930, Hollywood film’s standards of morality—which dictated what could be shown or said (or, prior to 1927, printed in intertitles), how, and in what context—were governed internally by the Studio Relations Committee, a product of Will H. Hays overseen by Colonel Jason Joy and adopted by the Association of Motion Picture Producers in 1926. Nicknamed the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls,” the SRC’s resolution amounted to “a singsong list of bromides and taboos [that] failed to address the real threat and promise of the motion picture medium.”3 In a bid to appease the Catholic Church in the United States and stave off formal government intervention in the US film industry by creating a more robust mechanism of Hollywood self-regulation, the so-called Hays Code, formally the Production Code of 1930, was created by Catholics Martin J. Quigley and Reverend Daniel A. Lord, S.J., passed by the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), and overseen by the SRC.4 Yet the Code of 1930, too, fell short: “With no cost-efficient review process on the front end, and kangaroo court on the back end, the Production Code looked great on paper but crumpled in practice,” as Thomas Doherty assesses in his detailed study, Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration (2007).5 To again correct course, Breen assumed leadership of the SRC in February 1934, and with MPPDA approval, the SRC became the Production Code Administration. The PCA made two significant changes to the film censorship and approval process: “the transfer of power from producers to regulators and the application of the Code during the script phase of production.”6 Beyond this, however, as Doherty argues, was the centrality of Breen. While Breen’s PCA was efficient and transparent, there is no downplaying the near-unassailability of his interpretation of the Code and the conservative Catholic values that underpinned his decisions.
In the case of Leave Her to Heaven, the implication of abortion was the filmmakers’ attempt to clear the PCA hurdle and win the Code seal necessary for distribution. However, unlike most earlier, pre-Code contraception and abortion films (from the 1910s as well as from the pre-1934 Code years), Leave Her to Heaven showed the abortion, but in a way that avoided both the back alley and the hospital. Leave Her to Heaven's abortion happens hyperbolically within a domestic setting, using the staircase trope commonly associated with miscarriage, as in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Penny Serenade (1941). Historian Leslie Reagan notes of the period 1940 to 1973 in the United States: “In reaction to the growing practice of abortion, as well as apparent changes in female gender and reproductive patterns…1940 marks a dividing line as hospitals instituted new policies, and police and prosecutors changed their tactics,” although “the practice of abortion expanded in new directions in response to relentless demand.”7 Ellen’s abortion shows us an interpretation of this simultaneous restriction and expansion. As a product of a major production studio, Leave Her to Heaven would have needed to hew to the standards of the Code and deal in implication and innuendo—no one in the film uses the term “abortion”—in order to address a topic such as abortion. This article will explore the creative methods that director John M. Stahl undertook to work around censorship demands. It argues specifically that his use of spectacle made abortion read as such while remaining plausibly within the Code’s strictures.8Leave Her to Heaven only implies abortion verbally, while it visually and viscerally depicts and makes a spectacle of abortion itself.
It comes as little surprise that the PCA took issue with Ellen’s abortion—an act forbidden in the Catholic Church. Yet interestingly, there was no explicit mention of abortion in the Production Code of 1930 itself, at least until 1951. Theories vary as to why. Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons suggest that the omission resulted from Lord and Quigley drafting “only the philosophic rationale” of the document; with regard to specifics, “Hays had not included abortion among the Particular Applications of the Production Code because abortion had not earned censorial attention in the 1920s.”9 Thomas Doherty takes a slightly different approach, arguing that “abortion was so beyond the ken of Lord and Quigley that the 1930 Code had omitted any reference to it,” and that “in practice, Breen had simply disallowed it.”10 Whether the omission resulted from Lord and Quigley’s personal and religious opposition to abortion, from their focus on crafting guiding principles over details, or from Hays’s lack of censorial encounter with an abortion plot, we know for certain through censorship records that despite the lack of explicit mention of abortion in the Code, it nonetheless was treated as taboo and largely censored.
More surprising is the logic regarding abortion that Breen articulated in his many recorded objections throughout Leave Her toHeaven’s preproduction and production. He wrote to Jason Joy on December 12, 1944, that it was crucial that the film “avoid any of the flavor that is normally connected with what could be termed ‘abortion,’” taking issue with the manner in which Ellen terminates her pregnancy along with her perceived motives for their potential association with the word “abortion” itself.11 Arguably, Ellen’s staircase abortion and her references to her fetus as a “little beast” remained in the film because, by Breen’s logic, an abortion cannot be recognized as such and therefore is not such so long as it is not explicitly named within a film.
But my archival research suggests that Breen was wrong on both counts: Ellen’s act both was, and was clearly recognized as, an abortion at the time of the film’s release, despite the exclusion of the word. Indeed, as I will show, contemporaneous audiences and reviewers recognized and identified it, even noting the scene as a “most enjoy[able]” part of the film in a post-screening survey.12 One could make the case, based on archival evidence, that it helped make Leave Her to Heaven Twentieth Century-Fox’s top-grossing film to date at that time. Breen’s attempts to obscure Ellen’s abortion and redefine it as a miscarriage were unsuccessful.
In what follows, I use original archival research to present a twofold argument about Leave Her to Heaven’s censorship and production histories. First, by considering PCA records alongside audience response cards, reviews, and earlier script drafts, I argue that the discrepancies between the film’s censorship history and its promotion and reception illustrate two theories. The first is film scholar Annette Kuhn’s notion of regulation over censorship, which I contend is demonstrated by PCA negotiations as well as by the final film product. The second is historian Leslie Reagan’s notion of “prescribed” versus “popular” moralities as it applies to representation of abortion in film: in Leave Her to Heaven, the popular eclipses the prescribed.13 The second part of my argument asserts that this film was a direct catalyst of the 1951 Code amendment banning abortion and also an early harbinger of the dissolution of the PCA’s sanitizing stranglehold over abortion as a taboo topic—a shift we can clearly observe in allowances afforded films between 1952 and 1968.
The Prescribed and the Popular: Regulating Abortion under the Code
As a mainstream Hollywood film from a major studio, Leave Her to Heaven and its representation of Ellen’s abortion were certainly subject to stringent enforcement of the Production Code of 1930, albeit rather creatively and in line more with what Ruth Vasey describes as “industry policy” than explicit Code-based restrictions.14 Only one tenet in the Code made a specific, explicit restriction on representations of reproductive sexuality, and this pertained to childbirth.15Leave Her to Heaven, like many pregnancy films of the Code era, avoided said representation without issue.16 While other tenets of the Code placed limitations upon representations of adultery, sex hygiene, and cruelty to children, there were two tenets in particular that worked to implicitly limit the possibilities of representations of reproductive sexuality.17 Along with Section 1.1, which addressed murder, these tenets went even further to restrict visual representations of abortion—or, as was the case with Leave Her to Heaven, the representations of acts that the viewer could visually identify as abortions without them ever being thusly named.18
General principle 1 and section III, “Vulgarity,” stand out as the elements of the Code from which attitudes and interpretations against the display of pregnancy most likely stemmed. The former dictated that “no picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin,” and the latter stipulated that “the treatment of low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects should be subject always to the dictates of good taste and a regard for the sensibilities of the audience.”19 The topic of pregnancy—let alone birth control or abortion—was not mentioned, and this omission, I argue, is significant.
That even the Code itself could not or would not articulate what it wished to keep either implicit or absent underscores the taboo nature of these subjects at the time. Additionally, it suggests that abortion and birth control were generally understood as “low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil.” A topic need not be mentioned specifically as forbidden, taboo, and/or immoral in order to be understood as such; thus we see how the Code served as a sort of catchall for any topic that might garner negative attention from the Catholic Church. In turn, we see how the Code was not only a document that dictated taste and decency; it also responded to and absorbed dictates of taste and decency from other sources. The nebulous nature of what—with specific regard to pregnancy, contraception, and abortion—was actually forbidden and what was not could be creatively negotiated, potentially to surprising or problematic ends.
Analysis of PCA correspondence pertaining to Leave Her toHeaven reveals Breen and other members of the PCA making demands of Stahl and his film, yet the final product supports a narrative of pushback, if not negotiation. Francis Couvares’s historical inquiries into pre-Code censorship trace the power dynamics at play in censorship and cultural creation and representation. He characterizes them as not quite fluid, exactly, but also not rigid: “The history of efforts to censor and regulate the movies is best read not as a simple tale of artistic freedom struggling against repressive moralism.”20 Rather, censorship negotiations represented a “cultural struggle” on a number of different fronts and between different groups who would continually strive to represent nonhomogeneous viewpoints as homogeneous, and whose opinions about censorship and its role would change over time.21 The “cultural struggle” Couvares describes did not resolve itself in the Code era, and indeed was arguably exacerbated by the Catholic Church’s increased influence on the creation and interpretation of the Code.
And yet, this influence was not unassailable: Annette Kuhn’s and Janet Staiger’s scholarship addressing different approaches to film censorship can help us to parse how images of contraception, abortion, and the reproductive female body were retained in film. One approach to censorship, which Staiger refers to as “censorship as fetishistic or sadistic behavior,” is destructive censorship: either offending content is prohibited and removed, or it is retained but punished.22 A second type is the “eventualization/diagnosis” model, which Staiger draws from the work of Annette Kuhn. Kuhn’s approach derives from her understanding of the Foucauldian apparatus: “an apparatus, according to Foucault, is more than merely the sum total of a series of variegated components. Its most important characteristic is its activity, the interaction between its parts—its practices and processes. These interrelations are always fluid, always in a state of becoming, always ‘inscribed in a play of power.’”23 The dynamic nature of power that Foucault describes is crucial for Kuhn, who utilizes this construction to strip censorship of its seemingly unassailable position of power and place it on the same level as the film being censored.24
Within Kuhn’s regulation model, the distinction between the text and the context of a given film is elided; instead of censorship as an institution (context) dictating a film’s content (text), the text and context share a dynamic interrelation. Kuhn refers to the former act as censorship and to the latter as regulation. I find this a worthwhile distinction for Leave Her toHeaven insofar as it allows for a methodological consideration of the text-context relationship not only between institution and film, but also within a film itself. For example, under the rubric of regulation, we could consider not only a scene within a film but also its censorship documents and reworkings. Additionally, we could work backward from a film to the censor’s reports in order to see the finished filmic product in relation to these and, thusly, how this interplay affected the way the Code was interpreted. This reveals a two-way street: while initial interpretations of the Code affected what censors deemed presentable or non-presentable in a given film, the final version of the film itself affected future interpretations of the Code.
Additionally, we must consider the functions of and effects upon narrative within the censorship/regulation process. Like Staiger and Kuhn, Tom Gunning also points to the potential of narrative to mitigate offending images or content.25 This practice is of particular interest for contraception and abortion films as, within the rubric of regulation, it shows how implications are indeed part of the narrative. When a narrative film is censored, the offending material is not completely absent, as those censoring might have us believe. Rather, the absent material remains present insofar as it causes viewers to imagine what they recognize as missing. While the censored content is materially absent, it is not imaginatively absent. Christian Metz describes censorship along these lines as facilitating “the return of the repressed,” since “the unconscious formation always results in some conscious phenomenon.”26 Metz’s construction of censorship as nonlinear is helpful here in terms of both the viewer’s attempts to fill in missing material as well as the larger regulatory back-and-forth between censors and filmmakers.
I find it helpful to think of Kuhn’s separate characterizations of censorship and regulation as capable of functioning simultaneously. Rather than being mutually exclusive, these seemingly antagonistic models operate within a dialectical relationship. A productive space for exploring the possibilities of reproductive agency in narrative film opens up when censorship is considered as a negotiation, not a mandate. In these ways, I suggest that Kuhn’s model can be used with regard to abortion in film not only to privilege the creation and revision processes, but also to stress the importance and presence of the implicit—namely, abortion.
In addition to the productively liminal area we see within the concept of regulation, Leslie Reagan, historian of women’s and public health, points in her book When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867–1973 (1997) to a further discrepancy between what she terms prescribed versus popular moralities. Methodologically, Reagan’s study undertakes a meticulous investigation into the legal and health histories of abortion in the United States pre–Roe v. Wade; any references she makes to popular culture or media are largely general, however, and she does not specifically address filmic representations of abortion. What I want to do, then, is take the history of abortion that she traces in her landmark study and consider it alongside representations of abortion in contemporaneous film so as to observe the extent to which this history is accurately—or inaccurately—reflected. I wish to build upon Reagan’s history of abortion practice by also considering the stakes of prescribed versus popular morality as well as the inaccuracy of representations of abortion in mainstream Hollywood film.
The first of Reagan’s points upon which I wish to expand with regard to filmic representation concerns the clarification of some facts about who was having abortions, how, and under what circumstances; the second has to do with the ambiguity of moral conflict. According to Reagan’s research, during the period of her study, proper medically-assisted abortions were not as taboo or as fatal as is commonly thought. They were spoken about among a woman’s trusted circle, were generally supported by those who knew about them, and were considered a woman’s choice despite their illegality. Yet representations of abortion in the media—newspaper articles, stories, films—portrayed a wildly different narrative: “The publicly articulated and published discussion of abortion rarely included the voices or perspectives of women who had abortions, except to provide shocking examples of depraved womanhood,” Regan asserts.27 Despite the fact that primarily married women were having abortions throughout the first half of the twentieth century, “…the image of the seduced and abandoned unmarried woman dominated turn-of-the-century newspapers and popular thinking.”28 Even a late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century “[f]eminist interpretation of abortion did not admit the possibility of female sexual independence, only female victimization.”29 And then, of course, these very “victims” were vilified for carrying through with their abortions. The vilification of women who chose abortion was crucial to—and present even at the beginnings of—the anti-abortion movement.
In considering this trajectory, Reagan’s concept of popular versus prescribed morality is foundational. “Prescribed morality and popular morality may not be identical,” she says, and according to her research on early to mid-twentieth-century abortion practices, they were frequently quite different when it came to abortion.30 In Reagan’s terms, popular morality is rooted in historical reality, reflecting views actually held by those directly or indirectly affected by or otherwise engaged with a topic. It thus might also be called practical morality, since it stands as evidence of the way people actually think. Prescribed morality, by contrast, is the way some group wants people to think or wants to make others believe is a popular view. It is theoretical morality—the projected view that some group, with some specific purpose, thinks people would or should have. This is particularly relevant for abortion, for “the evidence of people’s behavior—the persistent use of abortion by women of all social groups, and the sympathy of many men and women for their doing so—suggests the existence of an alternative popular morality in conflict with the law.”31
This is not to say that popular and prescribed moralities cannot or do not coincide, but rather that they do not always already coincide, as is particularly the case with favorable early to mid-twentieth-century views regarding abortion in the United States. As Reagan points out, problems occur when prescribed morality regarding an issue is not questioned but instead uncritically accepted in popular discourse as identical to popular morality, as this could lead to an erroneous understanding of history. This is precisely the argument she makes about abortion: “Analysis of women’s practices and ideas—popular behavior and belief—…suggests that it is incorrect to conclude that hostility to abortion is ‘almost an absolute value in history.’ The reverse may be more accurate.”32 Reagan’s distinction clears room for considering other possible receptions of a topic such as abortion in conjunction with its representations as she questions the authorities who decide upon a prescribed morality and their motives for doing so. Given that “abortion was part of life,” she recommends considering “gradations in moral thinking or the existence of multiple moralities,” especially considering that “the widespread acceptance of abortion…suggests the persistence of a popular ethic that differed from that of the law and the official views of medicine and religion.”33 Furthermore, the argument that popular and prescribed moralities regarding abortion differed highlights a key discrepancy. But why do popular and prescribed moralities differ? And what was at stake in this difference for filmic representations of abortion, specifically for Leave Her to Heaven? What is at stake in considering “the behavior and beliefs of ordinary people in daily life,” especially when the ideas being presented in the popular medium of film—a medium that is part of people’s daily lives—run counter to what “ordinary people” believe?34
“Yes, she was that kind of monster”: Leave Her to Heaven’s Abortion Spectacle
In the case of Leave Her to Heaven’s Ellen, we observe popular morality disguised as prescribed morality. Because her abortion spectacle could much less easily be mistaken for something else, such as an attempted suicide or accident, it required a different manipulation of Breen’s censorship logic. The logistical gymnastics necessary to make Ellen’s pregnancy invisible and her abortion allowable under the Code were complex and raised a new set of concerns about the cinematic display of the reproductive female body, since Ellen’s pregnancy is not kept secret. In Leave Her to Heaven, I argue that we witness a remarkable effort on the part of the PCA to enforce a prescribed morality of anti-abortion through its attempts at censoring Ellen’s reproductive choice. Ultimately these attempts proved unsuccessful, particularly when we consider the film’s use of abortion spectacle, but tracing the records impresses us with the high stakes of the negotiation.
Leading up to Ellen’s abortion scene later in the film, costuming plays a key role both in highlighting her uniqueness—a point that the film later casts as a negative trait—and in establishing a point of contrast for Ellen’s costuming while pregnant.35 While feminine at times, Ellen’s pre-pregnancy costuming demonstrates her divergence from gender norms. She is a different type of woman: strong-willed, physically fit, and in charge of her own decisions. Early on, on several occasions we see her clad in a horseback riding outfit as well as in bathing suits (for swimming, not sunning) (figs. 2, 3). And while these outfits do foreground Ellen’s athleticism, they also remind us that she is a woman with a trim figure.
When Ellen becomes pregnant, her costuming changes dramatically. Instead of shoulder-length soft curls and tasteful yet form-fitting dresses, blouses, and slacks (which initially drew some negative attention from Breen), the expecting Ellen sports a matronly updo and wears loose-fitting dresses and billowing tops (fig. 4).36 As Kelly Oliver notes of the costuming, “[Ellen] never looks the least bit pregnant.”37 In other words, the costuming signifies pregnancy without showing a definitely or visually identifiably pregnant body. We, like the characters in the story world, are aware of Ellen’s pregnancy, and yet, as Breen suggests, the script had to walk a fine and precarious line to verbally indicate the state of pregnancy without drawing much, if any, attention to its attendant physicality. In official censorship correspondence to Twentieth Century-Fox’s Colonel Jason Joy on March 2, 1945, concerning the revised first draft of the screenplay, Breen commented that “Ellen’s reference to her physical condition will very likely be deleted by censorship boards, and we suggest that it be changed.”38 He notes in the same correspondence, “We ask that Ellen’s line ‘Look at me! Heavy and misshapen…’ down to the end of the page ‘…having the little brat under foot’ be rewritten.”39 Ellen’s hatred of her pregnant body in the film is consistent with the novel, where, for example, the narrator notes, “As the shape of [Ellen’s] body began to change, she sought to avoid [Richard, her husband],” and “Nameless terrors haunted her, and the child growing in her body came to personify them all.”40 These problems identified in the screenplay revision suggestions are separate from but related to something even more fundamental: a visibly pregnant body.
Leave Her to Heaven does not attempt to hide the fact of Ellen’s pregnancy. Ellen discusses the possibility of pregnancy with her cousin, Ruth; Ellen’s family is shown transforming Ellen’s late father’s old laboratory into a playroom; Ellen’s family physician, Doctor Saunders (Gene Lockhart), pays her a visit and gives orders regarding how she should care for herself while pregnant. For the PCA office, the problem was not simply discourse about pregnancy; it was the depiction of a pregnant body and verbal descriptions thereof that would call attention to it in a way that reflected Ellen’s negative feelings toward her own pregnant body. Any time Ellen appears on-screen while pregnant, her garments are loose fitting (to an almost comically exaggerated extent) even though, as we learn from Saunders, she is so far along that he orders her to bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy. The importance of Ellen’s costuming is not to make her look as though she isn’t pregnant, but rather to hide the physical details of her pregnancy. Ellen’s negative descriptive verbal references to it were likewise omitted, since self-identifying as “heavy and misshapen” would undermine all costuming efforts to present her as just simply pregnant. In the final version of the script, the “heavy and misshapen” reference was indeed removed, such that Ellen no longer calls attention to the physical condition of which the audience is nonetheless aware despite its physical invisibility. This revision makes clear the importance of the rhetorical negotiation necessary for the inclusion of pregnancy as a plot point while also ensuring that the pregnant body is censorable. The physically invisible pregnancy is also necessary for the alchemical transformation of abortion into murder.
Although Ellen’s abortion is not depicted this graphically in the novel, the film remains true to the novel’s inclusion of abortion, albeit heavily implied and not specifically named. Also, Williams does not describe the abortion itself—we don’t witness Ellen’s abortion, we are only informed of it ex post facto. The novel moves from Ellen’s remarks of hatred toward the fetus to the following descriptions: First, Richard informs Ruth, “‘Why—Ellen’s lost her baby.…She’s all right, but she lost the baby.’”41 Then, the narrator tells us secondhand through Richard: “Ellen, he said, had walked in her sleep during the night, had fallen downstairs. Her cry awoke him, and he was quickly at her side. She insisted she was unhurt, but almost at once they knew harm had been done, and Harland summoned Doctor Patron, who took her to the hospital. The baby—a lusty boy—was dead.”42 Both book and film clearly establish Ellen’s resentment of her pregnancy, her desire to not be pregnant, her jealously toward Ruth, and Richard’s eventual realization that the miscarriage was not a miscarriage, but an abortion.
The film remains true to the novel’s heavily implied but not specifically named description of the events, but it makes Ellen’s abortion clearer. And the implications of Ellen’s trip down a flight of stairs did not go undetected or unaddressed by Breen and the MPPA. On December 12, 1944, Breen informed Jason Joy of the following:
It will be absolutely essential to remove any flavor from these pages that Ellen plans to murder the unborn child merely because she is misshapen. It should be definitely established that her reasons [sic] for murdering the child is that she thinks that the newborn will replace her in her husband’s affections. This is important in order to avoid any of the flavor that is normally connected with what could be termed “abortion.”43
Breen’s comment again underlines the censor’s understanding of perceived audience reception. It is not so much that Breen attempted to make an abortion look like something it’s not—for example an accidental fall down a flight of stairs. Instead, he attempted to make what looks like an abortion seem like something else entirely. According to Breen’s logic, if the audience believes that Ellen’s intention in terminating her pregnancy is to regain her slim figure—a superficial, cosmetic reason—then the act will read as an abortion. If, however, the audience believes that Ellen’s intention is to remain sole possessor of her husband’s affections, then the act reads as murder, which is somehow less bad—or less requiring of censorship (although murder was still fair game for the cutting-room floor and did have Code-related guidelines around it).44 Interestingly, despite conservative and religious pro-life conflation of abortion and murder, and despite the film’s overall critical presentation of the character of Ellen, the two acts were treated separately for censorship purposes and for arguments such as Breen’s.
While Ellen does admit to an unsympathetic Doctor Saunders that “this baby’s making a prisoner out of me,” she also laments, “I don’t even see my husband.” When Saunders asks, “Why don’t you have him come in here?” she retorts, “Because I don’t want him to see me this way.” Ellen’s objections could be read as superficial and cosmetic or as coming from a place of embarrassment and shame—especially given the film’s earlier emphasis on her attractive figure—but the audience could also interpret them as legitimate concern over the increasing lack of basic physical closeness with Richard as a result of the pregnancy. In the event of the latter, Ellen’s act is a murder for the sake of saving her marriage, not an abortion. A story summary report from September 1945, nearly ten months after Breen’s objections, claimed, “Ellen is a very possessive type of girl who wants her husband all to herself.” Later it describes the abortion scene this way: “Ellen imagines that her child, even unborn, is taking her place in her husband’s affections. In hatred she deliberately falls downstairs, hoping to kill the child, and she is successful in this.”45 This example of official follow-up material, filed roughly three months prior to the film’s release, honors Breen’s recommendations regarding Ellen’s motivation for terminating her pregnancy.
Even so, striking in Breen’s letter and the story summary report is the distinction between an act looking like an abortion and an act being identified, even implicitly, as abortion; Breen suggests this distinction, and the film’s official documents later reiterate it. According to Breen’s thinking, the act may look like an abortion, but as long as it’s not called one, it does not read as one. Part of the social fear driving censorship—the fear that drove the passage of the Sims Act and the decision in Mutual v. Ohio—was that if cinematic material presented contains ideas or images deemed somehow ‘immoral,’ the impressionable imagined viewer may absorb and emulate these ideas or actions. In the case of Leave Her to Heaven, if the film were to show an abortion and actually identify it as such, it would then risk potentially advocating abortion (at most), or (at least) presenting it as an option.
Yet the film does no such thing, and Ellen’s choice to terminate her pregnancy is presented as the wrong one, regardless of whether it was done out of possessiveness or out of vanity. In this way, it shows an abortion, but according to Breen, as long as it is contextualized as something other than that, it reads as something other: namely, in Ellen’s case, miscarriage. Furthermore, the way in which the ‘miscarriage’ occurs (falling down a full flight of stairs), combined with the fact that Ellen does sustain some bodily harm, does not make ‘having a miscarriage’ look like something a woman viewer would wish to imitate. While some women viewers could doubtless relate to Ellen’s frustration with her pregnancy, Ellen is in no way presented ambiguously. As suggested by Breen’s written exchanges as well as the consequences Ellen faces for her abortion and her characterization earlier in the film as devoid of maternal instincts, her choice is to be understood as obviously wrong and therefore not to be emulated.
According to Breen and the Code, then, murder (and the representation thereof) ranks as less egregious and more tolerable a crime than abortion. Yet this does not mean that the Code took a progressive or liberal stance on abortion. By Breen’s logic, it was not that abortion wasn’t murder—he believed it was indeed murder—it was just that abortion couldn’t exist in a Hollywood narrative, and therefore abortion and murder had to be understood as two different acts. Thus, abortion must be criminally coded as something else.46 And the transformation of abortion into murder did not mean that murder could have no consequences. For Ellen Berent, there were certainly consequences.
I contend that Ellen’s punishment for her suicide is made to seem appropriate within the film, as Ellen is vilified throughout for her agency. Even before the release, MPPAA discourse about the character betrayed a decidedly negative bent. An analysis chart for Leave Her to Heaven lists Ellen as a “prominent” and “unsympathetic” character who commits the “murder of unborn child by deliberately falling downstairs [sic].”47 In the film itself, Ellen is immediately characterized as a femme fatale who is possessive and obsessive due to her close relationship with her now-deceased father, and warning bells sound early when she makes much ado about the uncanny resemblance between her father and Richard. Even Ellen’s own mother (played by Mary Philips) claims that Ellen “loves too much,” meaning that she does not love in a proper familial, wifely, or motherly manner, but with a selective fervor that borders upon derangement. Of course Ellen is also independent, strong-willed, and clever—she has agency—but those positive qualities that enable her agency become problematized along with her ‘negative’ traits. With this in mind, we recall the Production Code’s general principle 1: “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” If Ellen is to be vilified for her agency, then her crimes—the murder of her adolescent brother-in-law, the ‘murder’ of her fetus, her own suicide—are acceptable for public viewing insofar as they read as cautionary tales.
To return, however, to Ellen’s staircase scene: the composition, editing, and pacing make it difficult to mistake (or to un-see) the fall as an abortion. Not only is the actual scene spectacular, but, importantly, Ellen is committed to her reproductive choice—her fall is no accident, and so her resolve underscores her agency. As she stands at the top of the staircase, we notice Stahl’s use of a shot/reverse shot, which begins with a close-up of Ellen’s face as she gazes beyond the frame, then cuts to a pan of the staircase at which she is looking. The shot/reverse shot repeats again, this time with Ellen looking at her shoes at the top of the staircase, and then wedging the toe of one shoe beneath a gap in the carpeting. The first pattern repeats again, and the camera remains at the top of the stairs while Ellen unsteadies herself and falls. We do not see her fall, but we do hear her scream as she jumps; we also hear the sound of her body thudding down the stairs and landing, immobile, at the bottom. The pre-jump close-ups with reverse shots foreground her thought process and unwavering determination such that the focus is on her facial expressions, not her body. While the shot/reverse shot patterns could make it seem as though Ellen is rethinking her decision to carry through with the abortion, I argue that they actually reaffirm her decision; she is not reconsidering her choice so much as sizing up her fall and making sure that one shoe remains at the top of the stairs to prove that she ‘tripped.’
The ellipsis of the falling body and synecdochical substitution of the scream and thuds confirm that it is not the body that is of interest here, but the transgression. And yet the absence of the body at the crucial moment does not diminish the bodily spectacle—indeed, it enhances it. This simultaneously helps the film remain in line with Code requirements while also tacitly challenging them. By not showing the body at the moment of physical harm, the audience can imagine whatever it likes—it can imagine the most horrible version of the violence, which makes it all the more effective as a caution against any inspired imitation. Additionally, Code adherence is in check, for no detailed actual violence is being displayed. This, too, could help transform this scene from reading as Ellen’s abortion to reading merely as a miscarriage.
I am intrigued, however, by a comment Ellen’s mother makes to Saunders and Ruth at the hospital in the following scene. Speaking with pity for Richard, she distinctly suggests, that Ellen aborted her fetus, as she links the deliberate role Ellen played in Danny’s drowning with the deliberate termination of Ellen’s pregnancy: “First his brother, and now his son.” Mrs. Berent suspects Ellen’s part in both Danny’s death and the ‘miscarriage,’ and we viewers know her suspicions are correct. However, an act cannot seem like an abortion if an abortion is not possible. In this case, Mrs. Berent’s comment helps to keep the idea of abortion at bay while simultaneously reinforcing the idea of murder and casting Ellen’s reproductive agency as exclusively destructive—an accusation that follows Ellen even after her death. Ellen shows no remorse for orchestrating the drowning of her young, disabled brother-in-law; her own ‘accidental’ trip down a staircase and consequent abortion; or her own suicide, for which she attempts to scapegoat her cousin, Ruth. After poisoning herself, Ellen is slandered at her posthumous trial by her own husband: “Yes, she was that kind of monster.”48 Ellen is presented as a decidedly unsympathetic antihero, and yet, in spite of Breen and the PCA’s efforts to solidify this characterization, the film’s reception demonstrated their failure. Ellen is not a monster, but a woman exercising reproductive agency.
Popular Morality, Popular Success
Ellen’s staircase abortion scene underwent an interesting series of revisions. Notes from a conference with producer Darryl F. Zanuck on the first draft continuity of Leave Her to Heaven, dated December 5, 1944, specifically address “the baby” in one section:
Mr. Zanuck thinks we cannot get by with actually showing, or even indicating that she deliberately gets rid of the baby. It will have to be done off-scene, so to speak. We can leave it up in the air whether she got rid of it by accident or design. Perhaps after the scene with Ruth where she says she hates the baby, we come to Richard in his den, or in the garden, and someone comes to him and tells him there has been an accident to Ellen. Then we come to the hospital and learn that she has lost the baby.49
In the continuity breakdown that followed on December 28, 1944, Ellen’s pregnancy is called initially a bluff, but one “she had to make good subsequently.”50 When she throws herself down the staircase, her fall is not shown, but rather her mother hears her scream from outside. It is worth noting what had just happened a moment before: an errant baby bootie blown loose by the wind was symbolically pulled from Mrs. Berent’s grasp and washed out to sea. All of this was greenlit by Zanuck—in fact, his response to this draft the following day indicated that more should be made of Richard’s plans for the baby, which would serve as a further catalyst for Ellen’s jealousy and abortion decision: Richard is unwittingly “signing the death warrant for the baby.”51 And yet, in a later continuity outline dictated by Zanuck on January 30, 1945, not just Ellen’s staircase abortion but also her ‘real’ pregnancy have been removed. In this version, Ellen cannot physically conceive, lies about being pregnant, fakes a miscarriage (no details about said miscarriage are listed, staircase or otherwise), and only confesses the truth to Richard when he becomes too suspicious.52 Screenplay revisions dated April 30 and May 7, 1945, indicate a reinstated pregnancy and off-screen staircase abortion: Ellen is last seen at the top of the stairs before the film cuts to exterior shots of Mrs. Berent and the bootie, with Ellen’s screams issuing from the house, then a cut back to Richard reacting atop the stairs to what we assume is Ellen’s body at the bottom.53
Despite these drastic revisions, we know that the fake pregnancy idea was eventually rejected entirely (although censorship records do not indicate a reason). Not only that, the staircase abortion returns, yet with Ellen’s goal of ending her pregnancy made even more obvious by the under-the-rug shoe as well as the shot/reverse shot sequences that establish her intention to jump. Through its various permutations, even though Jo Swerling’s screenplay and the final film product do not show the fall, the film does ultimately show Ellen’s body post-fall. Although the paper trail does not connect the last revisions from April and May 1945 (listed as part of a final script dated February 27, 1945) with the final version, I posit two possible explanations for the ultimate version we see in the film. First, given efforts to make Ellen into a “monster,” abortion accomplishes this goal, but infertility, fake pregnancy, and fake miscarriage do not. While the fake pregnancy version could help characterize Ellen as manipulative, I would argue that her desperation to be pregnant would have made her sympathetic, and sympathetic is not something Ellen could be. Second, at that moment in 1945—toward the end of World War II—when the film was going through production, Code standards were facing challenges. While these challenges were mostly over language in war films, as well as over Howard Hughes’s decade-long censorship battle regarding Jane Russell’s figure and costuming in The Outlaw (1943), we could also consider Ellen’s abortion scene as Stahl’s attempt to push the envelope at an opportune time.54
Despite Breen’s and the PCA’s belief that abortion not verbally acknowledged would not be recognized, the opposite was true. After a preview screening, anonymously polled moviegoers shared largely positive feedback. Asked for a favorite part, one replied emphatically, “WHEN HE FOUD [sic] OUT THAT SHE HAD KILLE [sic]…[her] BABY.” Another most enjoyed “GENE TERINEYS [sic] EMOTIONS AT KILLING HIS SON.” A third praised “The end where Richard tells the truth about Ellen” and discloses Ellen’s responsibility for Danny’s death as well as her abortion.55 Viewers clearly noted the deliberateness of Ellen’s termination of her pregnancy, as indicated by their use of variations of “kill.” And not only did they recognize it, they enjoyed it. These responses and others like them demonstrate that Breen’s goal of obscuring and redefining Ellen’s actions was unsuccessful.
Furthermore, although almost all contemporaneous reviewers avoided the word “abortion,” they too acknowledged Ellen’s agency in the termination of her pregnancy. Lowell E. Redelings observed, “When impending motherhood forces her into confinement, she resents it so bitterly she hurls herself down the staircase—causing the death of her unborn son.”56 Virginia Wright commented, “Her plot to regain his love by having a child, then her destruction of the unborn baby by a deliberate fall when she fears her plot is failing are typical manifestations of her jealousy.”57 An anonymous review in Daily Variety explained, “Later, she deliberately falls downstairs, so that her child is stillborn.”58 Similar language appeared in reviews by Jack D. Grant, William R. Weaver, Edwin Schallert, and Louella O. Parsons at the time of release in December 1945.59 Perhaps most remarkably, an anonymous review in the December 31, 1945, issue of Newsweek featured a still of Ellen lying limp and unconscious at the bottom of the staircase captioned: “Tierney: Abortion by falling down stairs.”60 Although all reviews use language highlighting Ellen Berent’s agency and present her fall as deliberate, one contemporaneous reviewer even went so far as to name the act what it was: abortion.
The same general trend of coded acknowledgment carries over into the limited scholarship on Gene Tierney and Leave Her to Heaven. In her 2005 biography of Tierney, Michelle Vogel writes of the film: “[Ellen] has an accident that kills their unborn child.”61 Even as Vogel characterizes the fall as an “accident”—in contrast with contemporaneous characterizations of the act as deliberate—“kills” undoes that implication. A miscarriage is something that happens to a woman—it is not an action a woman chooses. Murder, however, is a choice. Peter Lev’s account of the film in his studio history of Twentieth Century-Fox more closely echoes contemporaneous reviews, as he describes how “Ellen dreads having the baby—indeed, she calls it a ‘beast’—and she plunges down the front stairs as a way to be rid of it (and succeeds).…She killed [Richard’s] brother, and the baby, and so on.”62
These reviews and audience responses could be read as critical of abortion based upon the language they use. Ellen is presented as a murderer who kills. Indeed, most reviews and synopses were critical of Ellen as possessive, obsessive, and manipulative. However, I have argued that this characterization was necessary in order to receive the PCA seal. It is not unusual—then or now—to see strong women presented as deceitful, mercenary, even criminal. The ostensible tone of the film is clearly, overtly critical of Ellen’s personality and decisions. Yet behind this veneer of female reproductive criminality, we find glaring and consistent acknowledgment of her agency: she makes decisions, she does things deliberately. This act does not read as accidental, as a miscarriage would be. Despite Breen’s logic, viewers and critics alike read Ellen’s abortion as an abortion.
In Leave Her to Heaven I see a paradigmatic example of popular morality contradicting Breen’s and the PCA’s prescribed morality. Not only did audiences recognize Ellen’s abortion for what it was, but they loved the film. Of the audience members polled at one preview screening, forty-four of fifty-two rated it “Excellent.” Not only did Ellen’s on-screen abortion read as such, but it, along with Richard’s discovery thereof, merited the distinction “most enjoy[able]” according to audience feedback.63 And this was not just a successful film; as I previously mentioned, it became Twentieth Century-Fox’s then-biggest moneymaker to date. In its September 25, 1946, issue, Variety listed Leave Her to Heaven as the top-grossing film for that studio and the seventh most lucrative film to date for any major studio, drawing in $5,750,000 (about $72–76 million in today’s dollars).64 Peter Lev notes: “Fox’s profits were impressive in the immediate post–World War II period, continuing and even accelerating the wartime trend. In 1946 the studio earned a profit of $22.6 million, by far the largest figure in the young company’s history.”65 And roughly one-quarter of those 1946 profits issued from Leave Her to Heaven.66 What I wish to emphasize here is this: a film that depicted abortion was recognized by audiences as depicting abortion despite censors’ efforts and faulty logic, and that in 1945–46, an abortion film garnered record earnings as well as critical praise with its 1946 Oscar nomination for Tierney as Best Actress and its win for Best Cinematography.67
The censorship and reception history of Leave Her to Heaven demonstrates a significant misreading and underestimation of the viewing public, particularly among women. What’s more, its censorship failure also points to a Production Code that was weakening at that moment in a specific and nuanced way. As Leff and Simmons note, “By the late 1940s…the softening of moral standards during the war and the rapid increase in illegitimate births that followed had taken some of the stigma from abortion, and the topic began to creep into popular magazines and public discussion. In this changed atmosphere, Breen met increasing resistance,” although The Doctor and the Girl (1949) and Detective Story (1951) still did not ultimately gain clearance to use the word “abortion” and dealt instead in innuendo—much like Leave Her to Heaven.68 Perhaps ironically, it was this continued testing of the Code’s stance on abortion that ultimately led to it being specifically forbidden in a 1951 Code amendment—one year before the Code’s authority was dealt a significant blow by the Supreme Court’s Burstyn v. Wilson decision, also known as the Miracle case, that reinstated film’s First Amendment protections, essentially reversing Mutual v. Ohio. In this way, Leave Her to Heaven was a harbinger for the kinds of pushback against abortion censorship that were building in the late 1940s; these pushbacks gained momentum between 1952 and 1968, the period between the Miracle case and the institution of a ratings system that put the last nail in the Code’s coffin. Although Leave Her toHeaven cannot be credited with completely breaking down censorship barriers regarding the representation of and naming of abortion, it made a significant stride toward this end through regulatory negotiations with Joseph Breen and the Production Code Administration. Through its extreme spectacle-based depiction of abortion, Leave Her to Heaven showed the lengths to which a woman will go for reproductive agency and insisted upon the acute need of portrayals of on-screen abortion based in popular morality.
I will refer to the novel periodically in the interest of highlighting points relevant to my reading of the film and its censorship history, but my intent is not a full adaptation study.
She convinces Danny to go for a swim, and when the boy finds himself in trouble in the middle of the lake, she pretends not to hear his cries for help and allows him to drown so that he will no longer occupy Richard’s time and attention.
Thomas Doherty, Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 37.
James A. Wingate took over leadership of the SRC in 1932.
Doherty, Hollywood’s Censor, 47.
Doherty, Hollywood’s Censor, 69.
Leslie J. Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867–1973 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 15.
Although Lois Weber’s 1916 film Where Are My Children? does visually include depictions of the baby-souls of “unwanted” children, it comes no closer to an actual depiction of an abortion. During the Code era, Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong (1933), like Leave Her to Heaven, depicted a spectacular abortion. In my in-progress book-length manuscript tracing the history of Hollywood abortion films in the United States between 1915 and 1968, Christopher Strong is considered alongside Leave Her to Heaven in a chapter on spectacle and abortion in domestic melodrama.
Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 173.
Doherty, Hollywood’s Censor, 301.
Joseph Breen to Col. Jason Joy, December 12, 1944, Motion Picture Association of America Production Code Administration Records, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, California (hereafter MPAAPCAR).
Leave Her to Heaven audience response cards, December 28, 1945, John Stahl Collection, Cinematic Arts Library, University of Southern California, Los Angeles (hereafter John Stahl Collection).
Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime, 6.
Ruth Vasey, The World According to Hollywood, 1918–1939 (Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1997), 194. See especially chapter 7, “The Big Picture: The Politics of ‘Industry Policy.’” Although Vasey does not specifically address contraception and abortion films in this chapter, I argue that censorship of these representations amounted to a type of industry policy, which she defines as “any area subject to regulation that was not included under the purview of the Production Code” (194). More specifically, I argue that while these topics were not explicitly addressed in the Code, they were implicitly addressed in general principle 1 and section III, “Vulgarity.”
Section II.7 states, “Scenes of actual child birth, in fact or in silhouette, are never to be presented,” which, in a way, falls in line with the prohibition of surgical procedures outlined in section XII insofar as they could both be considered under the rubric of potentially graphic medical bodily concerns. Motion Picture Production Code (hereafter MPPC) quoted in Leff and Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono, 288.
The following are examples of films explicitly treating the subject of pregnancy that do not show scenes of childbirth: Bad Girl (1931), Bondage (1933), Little Nellie Kelly (1940), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), and Good Sam (1948).
These restrictions are outlined in sections II.1, II.7, and XII.5, respectively. MPCC quoted in Leff and Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono, 287–88, 290.
Section I.1 stipulates that “a. The technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation,” “b. Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail,” and “c. Revenge in modern times shall not be justified.” MPCC quoted in Leff and Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono, 287.
MPPC quoted in Leff and Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono, 286, 288.
Francis G. Couvares, “Hollywood, Main Street, and the Church: Trying to Censor the Movies before the Production Code,” in Movie Censorship and American Culture, ed. Francis G. Couvares (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), 152.
Couvares, “Hollywood, Main Street, and the Church,” 130.
Janet Staiger, Bad Women: Regulating Sexuality in Early American Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 13.
Annette Kuhn, Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality, 1909–1925 (London: Routledge, 1988), 6.
Kuhn identifies four main developments that issue from the apparatus model of censorship. The first is that censorship now addresses “the conditions of operation and effectivity of film censorship,” meaning that the conditions that produce a given final film text are now part of that text. Second, “the productive capacity of film censorship…would require acknowledgment.” This indicates that censorship would have to be reconsidered as an element of film production with positive connotations. Third, “the nature of the powers involved in film censorship would be reexamined,” which opens a space for questioning and potentially reconfiguring the heretofore hegemonic (and patriarchal) nature of the censorship body. Last, “film texts would be rescued from their subordination and accorded a place…among the various practices that constitute film censorship.” With this, Kuhn posits that the text itself becomes equal to censorship institutions in terms of textual production. Kuhn, Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality, 6.
Tom Gunning, D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 27. In his discussion of the narrator system in particular relation to Griffith’s early films, Gunning describes these systems as able to allow, among other possibilities, the expression of “a range of moral judgments.” A main impetus behind the shift to narrative integration and narrator systems was the desire to make cinematic images less potentially offensive, with the imagined viewer running less of a risk of drawing the wrong ideas from a film, by tempering them with an integrated narrative frame. Since the actions or ideas are depicted within a narrative for the purpose of serving as a cautionary tale, and not as attractions, the viewer witnesses—must witness—the negative consequences of said act, and not only the “immoral” act itself.
Christian Metz, “Censorship: Barrier or Deviation?,” in The Imaginary Signifier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), 257.
Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime, 7–8.
Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime, 23.
Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime, 32.
Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime, 6.
Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime, 45.
Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime, 6. See Introduction, footnote 16, page 262, for full citation of quoted source.
Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime, 22, 22, 21.
Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime, 22.
Lea Jacobs, in her discussion of Baby Face (1933) as a fallen woman film of the gold-digger subset, highlights the importance of costume, particularly with regard to “transformation scenes.” Lea Jacobs, The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928–1942 (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 60. While transformation scenes in the films in Jacobs’s study illustrate “an exchange of sex for money” that fuels the leading lady’s class ascendency, here I suggest that Ellen’s transformation to pregnant and back again is marked as out of character for Ellen, as it contrasts so starkly with her costuming otherwise. This contrast underscores Ellen’s discomfort with the idea and the embodiment of pregnancy.
At one point, Breen instructs Jason Joy to “watch the costuming of Ellen…in order to avoid any objectionable exposure” and again to “watch the costuming of Ellen carefully.” Breen to Joy, December 12, 1944, MPAAPCAR. Later, Breen’s tone toward Joy becomes almost passive-aggressive: “We presume the costuming of Ellen will be quite proper.” While Breen does refer to page numbers from the script when referencing various of Ellen’s outfits, he does not specifically state (or restate) the problem. Joseph Breen to Col. Jason Joy, March 2, 1945, MPAAPCAR.
Kelly Oliver, Knock Me Up, Knock Me Down: Images of Pregnancy in Hollywood Films (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 28.
Breen to Joy. March 2, 1945, MPAAPCAR.
Breen to Joy, March 2, 1945, MPAAPCAR.
Ben Ames Williams, Leave Her to Heaven (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1944), 184. At another point, a frustrated Ellen beats on her stomach and yells to her fetus, “Oh, I hate you, too, you little beast! I hate you, hate you! Oh, I wish you’d die!” (191). This dialogue is nearly verbatim in the film version.
Williams, Leave Her to Heaven, 197.
Williams, Leave Her to Heaven, 197.
Breen to Joy, December 12, 1944, MPAAPCAR.
See note 18.
Leave Her to Heaven story summary report, September 7, 1945, MPAAPCAR.
A similar act of coding abortion as crime occurs in 1930s abortion exploitation films such as Guilty Parents (1934) and Gambling with Souls (1936).
Leave Her to Heaven analysis chart, September 7, 1945, MPAAPCAR.
Ostensibly Ruth is on trial for Ellen’s murder. However, Richard, compelled by his love for the humble and sweet Ruth, confesses that Ellen killed Danny and her fetus, therefore demonstrating Ellen’s capacity for killing herself and trying to ruin his and Ruth’s lives. With this admission, Ruth’s name is cleared; Richard, however, is convicted as an accessory to the crime and an obstructer of justice for having withheld information Ellen confessed to him. Although he is found guilty, imprisoned, and released two years later, Ellen is more the focus of the trial than is Richard; if anything, Richard is being tried for having fallen out of love with Ellen and in love with Ruth.
Conference with Zanuck on Leave Her to Heaven November 29, 1944, first draft continuity (notes from a conference with Zanuck regarding the script material), dated December 5, 1944, p. 4, John Stahl Collection.
Leave Her to Heaven continuity breakdown (this document serves as a kind of narrative outline of the script), December 28, 1944, p. 21, Twentieth Century-Fox Collection, University of Southern California Cinematic Arts Library, Los Angeles (hereafter Twentieth Century-Fox Collection).
Conference with Zanuck on Leave Her to Heaven continuity breakdown of December 28, 1944, p. 7, dated December 29, 1944, John Stahl Collection.
Leave Her to Heaven continuity outline dictated by Zanuck, January 30, 1945, p. 2, Twentieth Century-Fox Collection.
Leave Her to Heaven screenplay by Jo Swerling, final script, dated February 27, 1945, with future-dated revisions from April and May 1945, pp. 104–5, Twentieth Century-Fox Collection.
The Outlaw's highly contested 1943 release resulted in several subsequent re-releases.
Leave Her to Heaven audience response cards, December 28, 1945, John Stahl Collection.
Lowell E. Redelings, “‘Leave Her to Heaven’ a Colorful Film,” Hollywood Citizen News, December 29, 1945, John Stahl Collection.
Virginia Wright, “Leave Her to Heaven,” Daily News, December 29, 1945, 5, John Stahl Collection.
“Leave Her to Heaven,” Daily Variety, December 20, 1945, John Stahl Collection. The “stillborn” comment is echoed in a piece by Red Kann: “To hold Wilde, she decides on a baby and, later regretting the step she throws herself down a staircase. The child is still-born, but she lives.” Red Kann, “Leave Her to Heaven,” Motion Picture Daily, December 20, 1945, John Stahl Collection.
Jack D. Grant, “‘Leave Her to Heaven’ Fine, Powerful, Emotional Pic,” Hollywood Reporter, December 20, 1945; William R. Weaver, “Leave Her to Heaven,” Motion Picture Herald, December 22, 1945; Edwin Schallert, “‘Leave Her to Heaven’ Daring, Sensational,” Los Angeles Times, December 29, 1945; Louella O. Parsons, “Gene Tierney Scores Hit,” Los Angeles Examiner, December 29, 1945, all in John Stahl Collection.
“Possession Is Murder,” Newsweek, December 31, 1945, 95, John Stahl Collection. This article is not the only one to feature stills of the staircase scene: it is prominently pictured in another published spread about the film, although unfortunately no identifying information is available beyond the title: “Picturization of Another Best Seller Is Completed at the Studio.”
Michelle Vogel, Gene Tierney: A Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005), 97.
Peter Lev, Twentieth Century-Fox: The Zanuck-Skouras Years, 1935–1965 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013), 127.
Audience response cards, December 28, 1945, John Stahl Collection. The other eight viewers rated the film “Good”; no viewers rated it “Bad.”
“All-Time Top Grossers,” Variety, September 25, 1946, John Stahl Collection.
Lev, Twentieth Century-Fox, 102.
Lev also notes that Fox's “run of expensive features also corresponded to a new industry-wide emphasis on longer runs for the top features, and as a result nine Fox films earned $3 million or more in 1946,” with Leave Her to Heaven leading the pack. He also draws attention to the fact that “melodramas were getting glossier and more prestigious,” and that melodrama continued to be a top genre for Fox postwar. Lev, Twentieth Century-Fox, 102, 116.
Heaven also received three more nominations: Best Art Direction–Interior Decoration; Color; and Best Sound, Recording.
Leff and Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono, 173–74.