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Deep Valley (1947) was the last movie Ida Lupino made for Warner Brothers, where she had done her finest work throughout the decade as the self-described "poor man's Bette Davis." She called herself that not only because she had an intensity like Davis and an equal ability and willingness to play less-than-sympathetic characters. She also had been told frequently by Jack Warner that she could replace Bette Davis, the implication being that she was held as a threat against the studio's troublesome Queen of the Lot but the reality being that she was frequently assigned the lesser parts Davis had turned down. Lupino had taken suspensions rather than act in these hand-me-downs, so when Warner demanded she sign an exclusive four-year contract at the end of her original term, she refused and went freelance.
Lupino completed her term at the studio with Deep Valley, a minor but fascinating role as a poor, uneducated young woman, abused by her parents and suffering from a debilitating stammer. Removed from any social interaction by her life on a farm, the only love and companionship she knows is with her faithful dog until she catches a glimpse of a convict working on a road gang. When he escapes into the woods, she takes him in and hides him from her family and the posse hunting for him. Together they create a briefly idyllic but doomed life apart from the rest of the world.
Deep Valley was relatively overlooked in its day. Critics derided its similarities to an earlier Lupino vehicle with Humphrey Bogart, High Sierra (1941), some of them noting similarities to Tobacco Road (1941) and even the British novel Cold Comfort Farm. Audiences mostly stayed away, which was too bad, because the film featured one of her most interesting performances, the kind for which she was uniquely suited, with an affecting screenplay by Salka Viertel and Stephen Morehouse Avery.
The picture had originally been announced for Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, and John Garfield in 1942. The script was dusted off only to save the studio from having to pay Lupino even when she was idle. Her terms with Warners dictated she was to be paid for a set number of periods per year, whether or not she was making a picture. A scheduling gaffe meant that the deadline for her first check, May 1946, had come and gone without an assignment, and she was paid $20,000. A second deadline in August also passed with no film on the docket, and the star happily went about taking on lucrative radio guest spots instead. To save themselves from yet another free check, the studio quickly put Deep Valley into production in September.
Director Jean Negulesco, who would later move to Fox for a series of glossy widescreen productions, was under contract to Warners at this time, helming dark dramas for Garfield, Joan Crawford, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet. He gave Deep Valley some very effective atmosphere, aided by location shooting at Big Sur and Big Bear (a decision resulting from a strike that prevented filming on the back lot at Warners according to modern sources). However, press material at the time claimed the film was to be shot at Big Bear and Hermosa Beach. It proved to be a grueling shoot for Lupino. Scenes supposedly set in summer were shot in the cold mountain air, and Lupino, clad only in a cheap wardrobe of jeans and workshirt, caught a bad cold. For another shot, she was running barefoot over rocks by Bartlett Cedar Lake when she sliced her toe, developing a serious infection that caused her ankles to swell. Despite intense pain, she insisted on continuing the production without further delays, even after she suffered a flare-up of her chronic bronchitis. Just before Christmas she strained her back and had to be carried from the set on a stretcher. Ever the trouper, she received an injection of a pain killer and returned to complete the day's work. The principal photography on Deep Valley was finally completed on January 25, 1947, forty days behind schedule. Having already refused Warner's contract ultimatum, she packed her dressing room and bitterly exited the studio.
The more favorable reviews for Deep Valley gave it the credit it was due as a "first-class melodrama" with a performance from its leading lady that was "one of the finest...she has ever turned in." They also praised the work of Dane Clark, getting his first real acting lead opportunity after supporting roles in Hollywood Canteen (1944), Pride of the Marines (1945) with John Garfield, and the Bette Davis drama A Stolen Life (1946). Lupino's emotionally detached parents are played by Oscar® winner Fay Bainter and Henry Hull, who had created the role of shiftless patriarch Jeeter Lester in the Broadway production of Tobacco Road.
Screenwriter Salka Viertel is probably best known as Great Garbo's closest friend and confidante (many have said her lover) and the writer of five Garbo vehicles between Queen Christina (1933) and the actress's final film Two-Faced Woman (1941). Reportedly William Faulkner did some uncredited work on the script for Deep Valley.
The moody noir-like cinematography is by Ted McCord, who following Deep Valley, shot The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Negulesco's next picture, Johnny Belinda (1948). In addition to the latter film, McCord received Academy Award nominations for Two for the Seesaw (1962) and The Sound of Music (1965), which is far removed from the noir world of Deep Valley.
Director: Jean Negulesco
Producer: Henry Blanke
Screenplay: Salka Viertel, Stephen Morehouse Avery, based on the novel by Dan Totheroh
Cinematography: Ted McCord
Editing: Owen Marks
Art Direction: Frank Durlauf, Max Parker
Original Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Ida Lupino (Libby Saul), Dane Clark (Barry Burnette), Wayne Morris (Jeff Barker), Fay Bainter (Ellie Saul), Henry Hull (Cliff Saul).
BW-106m. Closed Captioning.
by Rob Nixon