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On March 9, 1953, Mabel Monahan, an eighty-year-old widow, was found murdered in her Burbank home, the victim of a pistol-whipping. It was rumored that Monahan had hidden $100,000 in her house and was killed by burglars. Almost a month later, the police apprehended four suspects in the Los Angeles suburb of Inwood - Barbara Graham and three male accomplices - and charged them with murder. Despite the fact that Graham had an alibi the night of the murder - she claimed she was with her husband - she was put on trial and persecuted by the press, more for her sordid past than on the basis of any tangible evidence. Unfortunately, her husband disappeared, never to be found again, and Graham, in a state of desperation, accepted an offer of an alibi from a stranger who turned out to be a police officer. Graham was found guilty and sentenced to death. Although her lawyers attempted to overturn the verdict during a two year campaign of appeals, she was eventually executed in the gas chamber of San Quentin on June 3, 1955.
The Barbara Graham story was particularly fascinating to producer Walter Wanger who had recently spent time at the Wayside Honor Farm in Castiac, California, for shooting his wife's lover in the groin (Naturally, the story made front page headlines since Wanger's wife was actress Joan Bennett and her lover was Hollywood agent Jennings Lang). It was Wanger's interest in the injustices of the prison system that led him to produce Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954). Around the same time, he read a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ed Montgomery about the first woman to die in the gas chamber at San Quentin. Montgomery had covered Barbara Graham's trial and execution in the San Francisco Examiner and had led the fight for her acquittal, after initially thinking she was guilty. It was Montgomery's screenplay with its focus on the cruelty of capital punishment, and the personal letters of Barbara Graham, that became the basis for Wanger's film, I Want to Live! (1958).
From the very beginning, Wanger wanted Susan Hayward to play Graham but the actress was enjoying her quiet life in Carrollton, Georgia, as Mrs. Floyd Eaton Chalkley and wasn't ready to return to Hollywood. After much coaxing from Wanger and her own husband, Hayward agreed to do the film, partly because Wanger had been so instrumental in making her a star (He produced two of her hits, Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947) and Tulsa, 1949). But her main motivation for accepting the role evolved from her extensive research. In Susan Hayward: Portrait of a Survivor by Beverly Linet, the actress said, "I was fascinated by the contradictory traits of personality in this strangely controversial woman who had had an extraordinary effect on everyone she met. She was first a juvenile, then an adult delinquent, arrested on bad check charges, perjury, soliciting, and a flood of misdemeanors. But somewhere along the line she was a good wife and mother. I read her letters, sometimes literate, often profound. She loved poetry and music, both jazz and classical. None of this seemed to square with the picture drawn of her at the time of the trial. I studied the final transcript. I became so fascinated by the woman I simply had to play her."
Preparing for her role in I Want to Live! was just as grueling on an emotional level as her part three years earlier in I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955) as Lillian Roth, a singer/actress whose career was derailed by alcoholism. Hayward remained aloof from her co-stars between scenes and didn't engage in socializing after work; it was her way of maintaining concentration in the role. For the controversial execution scene when Graham is walked to the gas chamber, Hayward was blindfolded and had to convey all her emotions and thoughts through her stance, subtle body movements, and the way she walked. It's a powerful scene and Roman Freulich, a still photographer assigned to shoot publicity shots of Hayward on the set, recalled being moved to tears by the performance. Yet, when he visited Hayward's dressing room directly after the scene, he found her 'dry eyed and humming a little tune.'
Prior to filming the gas chamber sequence, director Wise had actually witnessed a real execution at San Quentin in order to capture the authenticity of such a grisly event. In a 1975 interview with American Cinematographer, Wise said "In putting it on the screen, I tried to do what I could to make it as truthful as possible....The gory fact is that you watch the body in the chamber go through writhing motions and gasping for nine or ten minutes before being pronounced dead. So I tried to get the initial impact up to a point and then get away from it. I don't think I've ever gotten so deeply involved in a film, in every sense, as I did with this one."
I Want to Live! proved to be a sensation with critics and audiences alike when it went into release and even inspired a low-budget exploitation version entitled Why Must I Die? (1960) starring Terry Moore. Susan Hayward won the Best Actress Oscar® for her performance as Barbara Graham (It was her first win and her fifth nomination in that category, the others being Smash-Up, My Foolish Heart (1949), With a Song in My Heart (1952) and I'll Cry Tomorrow) and the film also received Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing. Unfortunately, the excellent jazz score by Johnny Mandel (available on CD) was ignored by the Academy.
Producer: Walter Wanger
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Nelson Gidding, Barbara Graham (letters), Don Mankiewicz, Ed Montgomery (articles)
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Film Editing: William Hornbeck
Original Music: John Mandel
Cast: Susan Hayward (Barbara Graham), Simon Oakland (Ed Montgomery), Virginia Vincent (Peg), Theodore Bikel (Carl G. G. Palmberg), Wesley Lau (Henry L. Graham).
by Jeff Stafford