Monday, 13 June 2016

Order in the Court! The Classic Courtroom Movie Blogathon: "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1946)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Tay Garnett, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) begins when drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) stops at the rural Twin Oaks diner for a meal and ends up accepting a job offer from its middle-aged, alcoholic owner, Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway). He is immediately intrigued by Nick's young wife Cora (Lana Turner), with whom he is soon involved in a passionate love affair. They run away together when Nick is out of town, but only travel a short distance, as Cora cannot face a penniless future with Frank. Determined to continue her furtive romance and make a better life for herself, Cora convinces Frank to help her kill her husband for his insurance money. 

Following a failed attempt to murder Nick in the bathtub, Frank and Cora stage a car accident, unaware that District Attorney Kyle Sackett (Leon Ames) has been following them. Although Sackett arrives on the scene too late to save Nick, he is certain that Cora and Frank are the killers. Without enough evidence to convict the couple, Sackett tries only Cora for the crime, as a way to get them to turn against each other. The tactic appears to succeed at first, but a clever ploy from Cora's lawyer, Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn), prevents her full confession from being read to the court. Keats persuades Cora to settle for a manslaughter charge and she is later released on probation. With the news that she is expecting their child, Frank and Cora rekindle their relationship and plan for a future together. After the now happy couple enjoys a moonlight swim, however, Cora dies in a car crash while Frank is driving. Although it was truly an accident, Frank is convicted of killing Cora and sentenced to death. Just before his execution, Sackett comes to see Frank and informs him that a note left by Cora not only revealed her love for him, but inadvertently divulged details of Nick's murder. Realizing that his situation is like that of someone who only receives the mail after the postman rings the doorbell twice, Frank contently heads toward his execution.

Frank Chambers: You know, there's something about this that's like, well it's like you're expecting a letter that you're just crazy to get, and you're hanging around the front door for fear you might not hear him ring. You never realize that he always rings twice... He rang twice for Cora and now he's ringing twice for me. 

The son of a college professor and an opera singer, James M. Cain hoped to follow the same career path as his mother, but was told that his voice was not good enough. At the age of 22, after holding a series of odd jobs, he decided to become a writer and began working as a journalist for The Baltimore American and The Baltimore Sun. In 1918, he enlisted in the United States Army and spent the final year of World War I in France, where 79th Division appointed him as editor of the weekly magazine The Lorraine Cross. Upon returning home, he continued with his work as a reporter, writing editorials for The New York World, as well as a short story and a collection of satirical dramatic dialogues for The American Mercury. In 1931, Cain was hired as managing editor for The New Yorker, but soon became disillusioned with journalism. Within ten months, he quit his job and moved to Hollywood, securing a screenwriting job with Paramount Pictures.

The West Coast rejuvenated Cain's imagination, inspiring him to develop what would become his archetypal noir story of a murderous triangle involving two men and a sensual woman. The genesis of this tale came from two sources. First, the specific setting for the story came to Cain when he observed a young woman who worked at a gas station he regularly frequented. He then combined this with details from the sensational 1927-1928 trial and execution of Ruth Snyder, who had conspired with her lover, Judd Gray, to murder her husband, Albert. The novel, which Cain initially called Bar-B-Que, was turned down by thirteen publishers — mainly because of its sexual content — until Alfred A. Knopf finally agreed to release it. After the original title was rejected, Cain provided a new one based on a conversation he had with screenwriter Vincent Lawrence, who told him that he always knew when his postman was at the door because "the son of a bitch always rang twice." Cain immediately lit upon that phrase, as it conveyed the metaphorical notion that punishment, even if delayed, was inevitable. Published in 1934, The Postman Always Rings Twice was an instant best-seller, although it was banned in Boston due to its mix of sexuality and violence.  

John Garfield and Lana Turner
Prior to the book's publication, Merian C. Cooper, then the head of production at RKO, submitted a synopsis of Cain's story to the newly-formed Production Code Administration (PCA), Hollywood's self-imposed censorship board. After reviewing the material, the PCA, whose president was former journalist Joseph I. Breen, persuaded RKO to abandon the project, calling The Postman Always Rings Twice "definitely unsuitable for motion picture production." Columbia and Warner Bros. also expressed interest in acquiring the property, but the PCA similarly advised them against filming it.

Meanwhile, MGM production executive Eddie Mannix purchased the rights to The Postman Always Rings Twice for $25,000 without consulting the PCA. The Breen Office made several impassioned pleas to MGM to drop their planned film, protesting against the "unwholesome and throughouly objectionable" general theme of the novel. In a memo, Breen stated that many elements of the story including "numerous sexual irregularities," the explicit treatment of criminal acts and "the emphasis upon the dishonesty of the lawyers and representatives the insurance companies" would ultimately prevent the film from gaining the PCA's approval. In April 1934, MGM agreed to shelve the project.

In 1936, hoping to soften up the PCA, Metro financed a stage adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, written by Cain himself. Opening at the Lyceum Theatre in New York, the production starred Mary Phillips as Cora Smith, Joseph Greenwald as her husband Nick and Richard Barthelmess as Frank Chambers, with Joseph Cotten appearing in a small role as a police officer. The play, however, ran for only 72 performances and was never revived. Three years later, Pierre Chenal directed a French version of The Postman Always Rings Twice entitled Le Dernier Tournant (1939), known in English as The Last Turning. Starring Corinne Luchaire, Fernand Gravey and Michel Simon, the film was a commercial failure and has never been screened in the United States. In a letter to Frederick L. Herron, the head of the Foreign Department of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), Breen wrote: "You will be glad to know that the film is a fairly complete flop. Very few of the critics liked it and I understand that the public hisses it from time to time. Some of this material might be used in defense of our industry when people over there claim that we make mistakes in refusing to permit certain stories to be filmed."

Cecil Kellaway, John Garfield and Lana Turner
In early 1940, MGM submitted to the PCA a story treatment outlined by Albert F. Joseph and Czechoslovakian director Gustav Machatý, who had helmed the highly controversial romantic drama Ecstasy (1933), featuring a 19-year-old Hedy Lamarr in a nude scene. The new version deviated from the novel in many aspects, namely in that there would be no "adultery of illicit sex" and that Cora's husband would die by accident. Despite MGM's willingness to alter much of Cain's original storyline, Breen informed studio chief Louis B. Mayer that the material "still continues to be pretty sordid stuff, and questionable from the standpoint of popular entertainment." Consequently, plans for a screen adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice were abandoned once again.

In 1943, Cain published Double Indemnity, which again centered on a seductive woman who plots with her lover to kill off her husband. Paramount purchased the rights to the novella and assigned the material to Billy Wilder and his writing partner Charles Brackett. Suprisingly enough, the Breen Office approved the project and Double Indemnity (1944) went on to become a massive critical and commercial success, earning seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress for Barbara Stanwyck. Suddenly, interest in Cain's "meaty properties" ignited and Hollywood began looking for other works to bring to the screen. Jerry Wald at Warner Bros. put Mildred Pierce (1945) into production as a vehicle for Joan Crawford, while MGM's Carey Wilson better known for his family-oriented Andy Hardy films decided to take another chance on The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Lana Turner and Hume Cronyn
In October 1944, Wilson submitted to the PCA a treatment composed by himself in collaboration with screenwriters Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch. MGM and the PCA exchanged numerous letters and script revisions through May 1945, when Breen finally approved a screenplay that clearly satinized Cain's novel. Many of the graphic references to sex and violence were eliminated and "particularly suggestive passages of carnal lust and savagery were supplanted with metaphor and innuendo." In addition, the screenplay by Ruskin and Busch emphasized Frank and Cora's guilt, their inability to enjoy life together after killing Nick and the just nature of their deaths at the end of the film. Furthermore, the script suggested that Frank and Cora fell in love before beginning their illicit affair. Lawyers Kyle Sackett and Arthur Keats, on the other hand, remained as corrupt as they were in the original story. The PCA's endorsement of The Postman Always Rings Twice was an important milestone in the film industry, representing a loosening of restrictions on sexuality in Hollywood motion pictures.

Wilson planned The Postman Always Rings Twice as vehicle for Lana Turner, who had been discovered at the age of 16 by William R. Wilkerson, founder of The Hollywood Reporter, as she sipped a Coke at the Top Hat Malt Shop, located across the street from Hollywood High School. Fascinated by her beauty and physique, Wilkerson referred her to comedian-turned-talent-agent Zeppo Marx, who then introduced her to director Mervyn LeRoy. She made her film debut in They Won't Forget (1937), a social drama directed by LeRoy for Warner Bros., in which she played a small role as a murdered school girl. Although Warners was convinced that Turner would not "amount to anything," LeRoy believed that she could become a star and subsequently took her with him when he moved to MGM in 1938. Transformed into a glamorous leading lady by studio chief Louis B. Mayer, Turner was soon rushed into sexy melodramas such as Honky Tonk (1941), Somewhere I'll Find You (1942) and Johnny Eager (1942), becoming an instant sensation. She was initially reluctant to play Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice, fearing that the public would not accept her in such a villainous role, but Mayer convinced her that she needed to expand her image into more dramatic parts.

Lana Turner and John Garfield
The role of Frank Chambers was originally offered to Joel McCrea, who turned it down. Gregory Peck was then approached, but he also declined. Thereafter, MGM casting director Billy Grady suggested John Garfield, whom he had unsuccessfully tried to interest in the male lead opposite Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls (1946). Born Jacob Julius Garfinkle in the slums of New York City, Garfield began his acting career on the Broadway stage, making his debut in 1932 in a short-lived play called Lost Boy. In 1937, he signed with Warner Bros. to appear in his first film, Michael Curtiz's Four Daughters (1938), for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Exempt from military service due to heart problems, Garfield spent World War II starring in a series of popular patriotic films, including Destination Tokyo (1943) and Pride of the Marine (1945), becoming one of the biggest male stars on the Warners lot in the post-war era. Production delays on Humoresque (1946) made studio chief Jack Warner amenable to the loan to MGM. When Turner discovered that Garfield was cast as her leading man, she reportedly said, "Couldn't they at least hire someone attractive?"

Both Garfield and Turner experienced their fair share of courtroom drama, albeit for different reasons and with different consequences. Long involved in liberal politics, Garfield found himself caught up in the "Red Scare" of the late 1940s and early 1950s. When called to testify before the House Un-American Activities (HUAC) an organization dedicated to investigating communist infiltration in the United States he refused to name Communist Party members of sympathizers, declaring that, indeed, he knew none in the film industry. Garfield was consequently blacklisted and barred from future employment as an actor by the Hollywood studios, an incident which led to his premature death from a heart attack in 1952, at the age of 39. Six years later, Turner's 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, killed her mother's longtime boyfriend, a Los Angeles gangster named Johnny Stompanato, stabbing him to death. The murder case quickly became media sensation, especially when love letters between Stompanato and Turner were read in court as evidence. Eventually, Cheryl was acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide — she had claimed that she was protecting her mother from a vicious beating by Stompanato.

Lana Turner, Leon Ames and John Garfield
South-African born actor Cecil Kellaway was borrowed from Paramount Pictures to play Cora's husband, who was made more sympathetic by the scriptwriters in order to avoid any suggesting that the affair and murder were justified by his behavior. To prevent conflicts with Greek immigrants and America's recent allies during World War II the character also lost his ethnic background, with his name being changed from Papadakis to Smith. For the role of District Attorney Kyle Sackett, MGM selected contract player Leon Ames, whose previous credits included Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Canadian actor Hume Cronyn, who had recently received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Fred Zinnemann's The Seventh Cross (1944), was cast as Cora's lawyer, Arthur Keats.

Filming on The Postman Always Rings Twice took place between early June and mid-October 1945. Director Tay Garnett, who had started his career in 1920 as a gag man and title writer for silent film moguls Mack Sennett and Hal Roach, wanted to shoot the picture in as many actual locations as possible, a rarity for MGM productions at the time. For the seaside love scenes between Frank and Cora, he took the cast and crew to Laguna Beach, where a fog made shooting impossible for several days. The company subsequently moved further down the coast to San Clemente in search of clearer skies, only to find more fog. Then they received the news that the fog had lifted at Laguna Beach, but by the time they got back there it had liften again.

Tay Garnett, John Garfield and Lana Turner on the set
The strain of waiting for the fog to lift reportedly caused Garnett, who had struggled with alcoholism in the past, to resume his old vice. It was not long before he began exhibiting erratic behavior, hiding himself in his hotel room where nobody could get him to stop drinking. Concerned about rumors that MGM was going to replace him, Garfield and Turner decided to visit Garnett on their own. While Garfield was unable to do anything for him, Turner eventually managed to convince him to go back to Los Angeles for treatment. When he returned to work a week later, the fog finally lifted on Laguna Beach, allowed the team to restart production. Additional exterior scenes were filmed at the East Los Angeles Union Pacific Train Station and at a gas station 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

The on-set sexual tension between Garfield and Turner was evident to everyone involved in the making of The Postman Always Rings Twice. On their first day together, he apparently called out to her, "Hey, Lana, how's about a little quickie?" to which he appropriately responded, "You bastard!" According to Warner Bros. director Vincent Sherman, a good friend of Garfield, Turner was the only co-star with whom the actor ever became romantically involved. The location delays had sparked a friendship between them and they eventually shared a moonlit tryst on the beach. However, that was their only night together, as they realized that they had no sexual chemistry off-screen. Nevertheless, they remained friends until Garfield's death.

The Postman Always Rings Twice opened at the Capitol Theatre in New York on May 2, 1946 to generally positive reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times was particularly impressed, describing the film as "a tremendously tense and dramatic show [which] gives Lana Turner and John Garfield the best roles of their careers." Indeed, the two leads were much praised for their performances. Variety said that they gave "the best of their talents" to their roles, while Newsweek noted that "Garfield is the right man for his role, and Miss Turner supplies the sex appeal." Cain himself was very pleased with Turner's portrayal of Cora Smith, presenting her with a leather-bound copy of the book inscribed, "For my dear Lana, thank you for giving a performance that was even finer than I expected." John McCarten of The New Yorker, however, had a different opinion: "Neither Mr. Garfield nor Miss Turner succeeds entirely in summoning up the violence of disposition called for by the leading roles." The Postman Always Rings Twice was also very successful at the box-office, earning $3,741,000 in North American rentals and $1,345,000 aboard, totaling a handsome $1,262,000 profit for MGM. Despite this, Louis B. Mayer hated the film.


This post is my contribution to Order in the Court! The Classic Courtroom Movie Blogathon hosted by Second Sight Cinema and CineMaven's Essays from the Couch. To view all entries, click HERE.

  


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SOURCES:
Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir by Sheri Chinen Bissen (2005) | Encyclopedia of Film Noir by Geoff Mayer and Brian McDonnell (2007) | James M. Cain: Hard-Boiled Mythmaker by David Madden and Kristopher Mecholsky (2011) | John Garfield: The Illustrated Career in Films and on Stage by Patrick J. McGrath (1993) | The Encyclopedia of Hollywood, Second Edition by Scott Spiegel and Barbara Spiegel (2004) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes)

6 comments:

  1. Loved your informative write-up of one of my favorite films from the 1940's. Now, having just seen Visconti's "Ossessione" a few weeks ago, I see this Hollywood version is pretty cleaned up. But for whatever Hollywood does, it does well and there's no denying Garfield and Lana's chemistry. Lana in white...my gosh, she's blinding; and held her own opposite the New York Method actor. But I've got to tell you who are my favorite favorites: Lawyers Leon Ames and Hume Cronyn. I wait for the whole movie to hear Cronyn say: "When I say I'm handling it, I'm handling it!" Whew!!! ( And this the same guy who played the nerdy next door neighbor in Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt"!!! ) Thank you Cátia for joining our blogathon.

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    1. Thank you for reading. This is one of my favorite films too, and it was fascinating learning about all the drama that went into making it. That Cronyn line is brilliant!

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  2. A fine review of a movie I confess to not loving (and feeling like maybe I'm missing something)—I won't give up on it though; maybe all the background I got from you will open the film to me. I read a lot about the Code and its diplomacy and discontents, so all that back-and-forth between Breen and MGM, the eventual rehabilitation of Cain as adaptable for Breen-Office-approved feature material via Wilder and Chandler's adaptation of Double Indemnity...fascinating. Here's one thing I totally do not get: Everybody seems to have taken it for granted that Garfield wasn't sexy. What's up with that? He might not have been a pretty boy, but from his first entrance in Four Daughters, Damn! he was electric.

    Thank you for your excellent contribution to our blogathon!

    Lesley / Second Sight Cinema

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    1. Hi Lesley! Thank you for reading.
      I agree with you on John Garfield. He might not have been as handsome as Gregory Peck - who was also considered for the role - but he was still a very captivating man.

      Thanks for hosting.

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  3. Enjoyed this piece. It's always great to get background on my favorite films and this is certainly one of them. It would never have occurred to me that Garfield might be considered unattractive by Lana or in Hollywood. His steamy charisma plays off her own attractiveness from their very first scene together.

    Molly - dreaming in the balcony

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