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Black Widow

Black Widow(1954)

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teaser Black Widow (1954)

In 1943 Gene Tierney had successfully kept her new pregnancy a secret from the cast and crew of Heaven Can Wait. The shoot was scheduled to wrap in April 1943, but before then, Tierney attended a morale-boosting event for servicemen and women at the Hollywood Canteen. She was mobbed by well-wishers, including a Marine who had secretly sneaked out of quarantine to see her. Seven months later, Tierney's daughter Daria was born with severe birth defects and mental retardation, brought on by prenatal exposure to German measles. Privately, guilt and regret permanently unhinged Tierney, but she never lost her knack for playing cool in moody noirs like Laura (1944) and Night and the City (1950). "As long as I was playing someone else, everything was fine," she later recounted. Even at the edge of the penultimate breakdown that effectively ended her career, she could do it again in Black Widow (1954).

A noir-flavored whodunit shot in Cinemascopic color, Black Widow evokes the spirit of the mate-devouring arachnid in its cautionary tale of a Broadway producer (Van Heflin) who gets wrapped up with the wrong femme fatale -- not Tierney, who plays his elegant wife, but with the mousy, unassuming ingnue Nancy (Peggy Ann Garner, a former child actor transitioning to adult roles after appearing in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)). Meeting Nancy at a party while his wife is away is the first step in his torturous downfall -- and when the law starts closing in, the lead actress in his latest stage production (Ginger Rogers) starts to wonder what exactly he's been up to.

While Tierney dished out the same cool sophistication her fans had come to expect, Ginger Rogers was giving audiences something new. She'd recently hung up her dancing shoes and migrated to Fox, hoping to prove she was more than a hoofer in memorable comedic roles like Roxie Hart(1942), Dreamboat(1952) and Monkey Business(1952). While the role of opinionated, theatrical grande dame Carlotta Marin was (natch) originally slated for Tallulah Bankhead, Daryl Zanuck felt Rogers could do the part justice. (Despite her sunny musical comedy reputation, Rogers possessed a formidable, iron-willed personality that helped her keep pace with ultra-perfectionist Fred Astaire.)

Rogers was vacationing in Rome with actor husband Jacques Bergerac when Zanuck called about Black Widow, opening the conversation with "Ginger, this is the opposite of the nice lady you usually play," and ending the call by exhorting "I demand that you do it!" Rogers trusted Zanuck (they'd been longtime friends since, after seeing her playful rendition of "We're in the Money" in Pig Latin on the set of Gold Diggers of 1933, Zanuck included it in the film) and took his counsel seriously. (Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was not impressed, however, dismissing her character as "shrill and shoddy" and unfairly sniffing "It is asking a lot of an audience to believe that [Rogers] could display anything but clothes.")

Rogers and Tierney both radiate professionalism in their performances in Black Widow, but only Tierney was under a terrible secret mental strain. "I was not well, my mind was playing tricks," she recounted in her autobiography Self-Portrait. While the other actors remembered her generosity and graciousness on set, she had difficulty learning her lines and recognizing people's faces. At night she was haunted by dreams of Daria (who had been institutionalized since the age of four) and would prowl the house looking for her absent daughter. "I held together by force of habit," she wrote, but just barely. She may have fooled her co-stars this time, but she didn't fool Humphrey Bogart when the two were cast in The Left Hand of God (1955) the following year. Bogart's sister suffered from depression, and, recognizing Tierney's dire mental state, tried to alert the studio. Tierney entered psychiatric treatment, was hospitalized, received mind-scarring electroshock treatments, and after her release had to be coaxed back from a window ledge in an aborted suicide attempt. After that ordeal she only worked sporadically until her death in 1980. Usually it's an insult to compare an actor to a wax dummy, but in Tierney's case, her smooth, serene, noir-cool performance in Black Widow is a testament to her professional self-control.

Producer: Nunnally Johnson
Director: Nunnally Johnson
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson (screen play); Patrick Quentin (novel and story)
Cinematography: Charles G. Clarke
Art Direction: Maurice Ransford, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Leigh Harline
Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Cast: Ginger Rogers (Carlotta 'Lottie' Marin), Van Heflin (Peter Denver), Gene Tierney (Iris Denver), George Raft (Detective Lt. C.A. Bruce), Peggy Ann Garner (Nancy 'Nanny' Ordway), Reginald Gardiner (Brian Mullen), Virginia Leith (Claire Amberly), Otto Kruger (Gordon Ling), Cathleen Nesbitt (Lucia Colletti), Skip Homeier (John Amberly)

by Violet LeVoit

Vogel, Michelle. Gene Tierney: A Biography.
Rogers, Ginger. Ginger: My Story.
Tierney, Gene, Mickey Herskowitz. Self-Portrait.
Orth, Maureen. "Cassini Royal" Vanity Fair, Sept 2010
Demaret, Kent. "Gene Tierney Began Her Trip Back From Madness On A Ledge 14 Floors Above The Street." People, May 7 1979
Crowther. Bosley. "'Black Widow' Bows At The Roxy Theater." New York Times, October 28, 1954.

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