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Those born between March 21 and April 20 might take offense at The Sign of the Ram's assertion that its leading lady's villainy was a result of her having been born an Ares. But then they'd likely miss out on this underappreciated 1948 thriller. Combining equal elements of film noir, gothic thriller and melodrama, The Sign of the Ram has developed a devoted fan following. Fueling that is fascination with leading lady Susan Peters, one of the more tragic figures in Hollywood history.
Peters was one of several fascinating actresses of the '40s -- including Audrey Totter and Marsha Hunt -- who never rose as high as their talents deserved. Whereas the others' career problems could be blamed on the shortsightedness of studio executives, Peters was the victim of a freak accident. After making her name at MGM, where she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar® nomination for Random Harvest (1942), she was on the verge of stardom. In 1944 the studio even listed her among ten players, including Esther Williams and Gene Kelly, promoted from featured player to star status. Then a hunting accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. To his credit, studio head Louis B. Mayer paid her medical bills and kept her under contract even after it was clear she would never walk again.
Impressed with her talents, however, producer Irving Cummings and his son, Irving Cummings, Jr., joined forces with the Orsatti Agency to produce a comeback film for her. Margaret Ferguson's 1945 novel, The Sign of the Ram, offered the perfect vehicle with its tale of a wheelchair-bound poet living in a remote mansion on the British coast. The bitter young woman's only solace is a flirtation with her doctor (Ron Randell), but when she learns he is in love with her stepdaughter, interest turns to obsession, and she starts manipulating those around her to keep herself the center of attention .
The Cummings' secured a production deal with Columbia Pictures, where The Sign of the Ram was shot with contributions from such studio talent as cinematographer Burnett Guffey and rising young director John Sturges. They also surrounded her with a top-notch cast, including Canadian actor Alexander Knox, who had scored as the U.S. president in the title role of Wilson(1944), and Phyllis Thaxter, on loan from Peters' old studio, MGM. Best of all were another MGM veteran, Dame May Whitty, and child star Peggy Ann Garner. Whitty delivered her last screen performance as the malicious gossip who first plants the seeds of suspicion in Peters' mind. She finished her last scene briefly before her death from cancer. Garner had won a special Oscar® for her performance in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), but was having trouble finding other suitable roles as a young adult. In The Sign of the Ram, she played the family bad seed, whose devotion to Peters makes her act as the disturbed woman's legs, helping to spread rumors and trying to poison Thaxter.
Ultimately, however, Peters was the whole show. Her alabaster beauty and surface calm provided a perfect mask for her malicious schemes. She focused much of her inner life on the characters' hands, which dominate the film like a pair of spiders as she smokes endless cigarettes, plays the piano and writes poison-pen notes. It was a worthy comeback, but it wasn't enough to revive her career. Critics at the time were not receptive to the film's merits, complaining about Sturges' slow pacing and the melodramatic aspects that have made it so popular among later fans. Its box-office failure marked the end of Peters' film career. She would attempt a TV series, Miss Susan (1951), in which she played a wheelchair-bound detective, and toured to great acclaim in two plays -- The Glass Menagerie and The Barretts of Wimpole Street -- with roles that could accommodate her physical condition. With no other prospects and a life of almost constant pain, she starved herself to death in 1952, at the age of only 32. Fans captivated by her work continue to treasure the relatively small number of films in which she had a chance to excel. The Sign of the Ram is almost the Holy Grail for them, never released on video or DVD and rarely screened at revival houses.
Producer: Irving Cummings, Jr.
Director: John Sturges
Screenplay: Charles Bennett
Based on the novel by Margaret Ferguson
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson, Sturges Carne
Music: H.J. Salter
Principal Cast: Susan Peters (Leah St. Aubyn), Alexander Knox (Mallory St. Aubyn), Phyllis Thaxter (Sherida Binyon), Peggy Ann Garner (Christine St. Aubyn), Ron Randell (Dr. Simon Crowdy), Dame May Whitty (Clara Brastock).
by Frank Miller