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Eugene O'Neill's name appears above the title in the film's opening credits. The film, like O'Neill's play, was divided into three distinct sections, which were titled "Homecoming," "The Hunted" and "The Haunted." Theater scholars note that O'Neill's play was inspired by Aeschylus' tetrology The Oresteia; Aeschylus' character "Agamemnon" became "Ezra Mannon," "Clytemnestra" became "Christine Mannon" and "Electra" became "Lavinia Mannon." In the original Theatre Guild production, which ran six hours with a dinner break, Alla Nazimova played Christine and Alice Brady played Lavinia. Modern sources add the following information about the film's inception: In 1935, Theresa Helburn asked M-G-M head Louis B. Mayer to film O'Neill's play, with Katharine Hepburn playing Lavinia. Mayer, whose studio had produced a financially unsuccessful version of O'Neill's play Strange Interlude in 1932 (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40 F3.4348), turned down the request, and the idea for a screen adaptation did not resurface until the mid-1940's. When O'Neill was approached to sell the play's screen rights, he insisted that Dudley Nichols, with whom he enjoyed a close friendship, be allowed to write, produce and direct the adaptation. O'Neill also stipulated that Rosalind Russell, whose performance in the 1946 RKO film Sister Kenny (see below entry) he greatly admired, star as Lavinia. Greta Garbo was first considered to play Christine, but declined to come out of retirement because she felt that, at the age of forty-two, she was too young to play the mother of Russell, who was then thirty-nine. (Ironically, Greek actress Katina Paxinou, who was cast as Christine, was only forty-three years old at the time of production, a fact some contemporary reviewers noted with disdain.)
According to an interoffice RKO memo included in the MPAA/PCA Collection files at the AMPAS Library, RKO executive William Gordon proclaimed that, in his view, O'Neill's play was in "complete violation of the Production Code." Gordon suggested that if the studio's contract with O'Neill had not yet been finished, RKO should add a clause requiring PCA approval prior to agreeing to the deal. Although PCA director Joseph I. Breen did express concern that the screenplay not contain any inference to incest, he deemed the story acceptable and did not demand any eliminations from the film.
Mourning Becomes Electra was The Theatre Guild's first film producing venture. A news item in Variety reported that the Guild gave RKO a ten-year lease on the screen rights to the play, which it co-owned with O'Neill. According to the Variety review, in exchange for the use of its name and "minor consultation...on casting," the Guild was to receive approximately two and a half percent of the picture's distribution gross. A Hollywood Reporter news item noted that O'Neill acted as an advisor on various aspects of the production. According to the SAB, Nichols requested that his name not be included in the onscreen credits as writer. (Modern sources note that dialogue in the film was not altered from the play.) Because of this request, Nichols was not eligible for a "Best Screenplay" Academy Award for this picture. In January 1947, Hollywood Reporter announced that Seth Arnold, who played "Seth Beckwith" in an early New York stage production, was to recreate his role for the film; Henry Hull, however, played the screen part. RKO borrowed Michael Redgrave from the J. Arthur Rank Organization for this production. Redgrave, who made his American screen debut in the film, replaced James Mason, according to Hollywood Reporter. Leo Genn made his screen debut in the film, which also marked Kirk Douglas' first assignment for RKO. (Douglas also appeared in RKO's Out of the Past, which was released before Mourning Becomes Electra, but was made later.) Jacqueline White, Shawn McGlory, Heather Angel, Frances Heflin, Evelyn Ankers and Ann Rutherford tested for roles, but were not cast, as indicated in RKO production files. Although Hollywood Reporter announced that the score for the picture was to be the "longest in screen history," very little music was heard on the viewed print. The traditional sea shanty "Shenandoah," which is referred to in the stage directions of O'Neill's play, was sung throughout the film by an offscreen chorus.
After its New York premiere, Nichols cut the film from approximately 175 minutes to 157 minutes, according to a December 23, 1947 Hollywood Reporter news item. The picture was screened at 157 minutes during the first half of its roadshow run, but was cut to 121 minutes in October 1948. Some of the above-listed bit players, including Jimmy Conlin and Robert Dudley, were not seen in the viewed print and were probably edited out for the shorter version. Although modern sources state that the picture was shown with a ten-minute intermission, the Variety review of the New York opening noted that it was presented without an intermission. The film opened generally in March 1949. Rosalind Russell was nominated as Best Actress for her performance as Livinia, but lost to Loretta Young in RKO's The Farmer's Daughter , and Michael Redgrave was nominated as Best Actor but lost to Ronald Colman in A Double Life .
Many reviews commented on the non-commercial, intellectual nature of this film. In a New York Times article published shortly before the film's New York opening, Dudley Nichols voiced his concern about current Hollywood filmmaking and the riskiness of projects like Mourning Becomes Electra: "After spending a year's continuous effort on the film production of...'Mourning Becomes Electra,' I can only hope that it will be liked by the people whose judgment I respect....So long as the people demand witless entertainment and adolescent films, and stay away in flocks when an adult film is presented, they will continue to get them." As feared by Nichols, Mourning Becomes Electra was a box office failure, losing, according to modern sources, $2,310,000. An operatic version of O'Neill's play, libretto by Henry Butler, music by Marvin David Levy, was presented by the Metropolitan Opera Company in 1967. On December 6, 1978, as part of its Great Performances series, PBS broadcast a televised version of O'Neill's play, starring Joan Hackett, Roberta Maxwell and Bruce Davison.