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A Woman's Secret

A Woman's Secret

For his second film as a director, Nicholas Ray took an unexpected trip into the world of romantic melodrama for what critics at the time would have called a "woman's picture." It's not that Ray's worldview didn't allow for a feminine perspective. Among the most memorable characters in his films are those played by Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar (1954), Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and wife Gloria Grahame in In a Lonely Place (1950). But A Woman's Secret, the 1949 film about a has-been singer (Maureen O'Hara) whose life is almost ruined by her ungrateful protegee (Grahame) was the farthest he ever went into pure soap opera. Yet it also offers an intriguing, more mordant version of a subject filmed with more success in All About Eve (1950).

A Woman's Secret was a movie that had to be made, but not because of any urgency to its subject matter. RKO had to make it to justify paying a staff of designers and technicians and finish off a contract to borrow O'Hara from 20th Century-Fox. Moreover, with Grahame's recent hit as a sympathetic call girl in Crossfire (1947), the studio needed a suitable follow-up for an actress they hoped to promote to stardom. Finally, producer John Houseman had recently secured a studio position for Herman J. Mankiewicz, the writer with whom he had worked on Citizen Kane (1941). Generally considered unemployable because of his drinking and gambling problems, Mankiewicz was taking one last shot at success as the film's producer and writer.

The vehicle they chose to meet all these needs was a novel by Vicki Baum, author of the original Grand Hotel. As "The Long Denial," the film's original shooting title, the story had been serialized in Collier's magazine before being published as Mortgage on Life. Mankiewicz tried to shore it up with multiple flashbacks, including some depicting the same scene from different viewpoints (a device he had used in The Power and the Glory (1933), as well as Citizen Kane). But two of the flashbacks also lied, a gimmick Alfred Hitchcock would point up as a sure ticket to box-office failure when he tried it in his own Stage Fright (1950). And though the has-been singer in the novel was supposed to have lost her looks, RKO insisted on casting the amazingly beautiful O'Hara, changing the story so that it was the loss of her voice that had cost her stardom.

The first choice to direct this tangled tale was Jacques Tourneur, who had worked his way up from the studio's profitable Val Lewton unit, where he had directed such horror classics as Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). His moody, psychologically intense work, particularly on Out of the Past (1947), could have given the film a touch of style, but he turned it down - and so did Ray. Coming off his first film, They Live by Night (1949), which was generating buzz at the studio, he wanted a stronger project for his second film. But when he took a vacation after finishing his first picture, he came back ready to work on anything and allowed himself to be assigned the film. At least he could look forward to working with two of his favorite character actors -- Jay C. Flippen and Curt Conway -- whom he cast in small roles.

Ray kept the production moving at a good pace and even finished four days ahead of schedule. The main concern during shooting was O'Hara's low-cut costumes and provocative posing on camera. Leading man Melvyn Douglas would later say it was the only time he had found himself physically aroused while shooting love scenes. After a preview screening, Ray shot a new scene with Grahame, and then the film sat on the shelf for over a year. Howard Hughes had bought RKO Studios during the last days of production. Not only did he put the production through a number of different titles before settling on A Woman's Secret, but he then lost interest. By the time of its delayed release, Grahame had lost her career momentum, and the film lost almost all of its $853,000 budget. That marked the end of Mankiewicz's comeback. He would only have one more writing credit before his death in 1953.

A Woman's Secret brought Ray more than a box-office disaster, however. It also brought him a new wife. On the set, he and Grahame had developed an electric attraction to each other. He didn't really like her, he would later admit, but when he got her pregnant, he had to do the right thing. With his $5,000 bonus for completing the film and advances from RKO and his agents, the two went to Las Vegas, where they married a few hours after she secured a divorce from her first husband, actor Stanley Clements. The couple tried to make marriage work. Grahame even took time off from the screen to raise their son, Timothy, which may have contributed to A Woman's Secret's failure. In a curious footnote to movie history, the marriage ended partly because she had fallen in love with Ray's son, Tony, whom she would marry in 1960, thereby making Timothy his own uncle.

Producer: Herman J. Mankiewicz
Director: Nicholas Ray
Screenplay: Herman J. Mankiewicz
Based on the novel Mortgage on Life by Vicki Baum
Cinematography: George E. Diskant
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Carroll Clark
Music: Frederick Hollander, Nacio Herb Brown
Cast: Maureen O'Hara (Marian Washburn), Melvyn Douglas (Luke Jordan), Gloria Grahame (Susan Caldwell), Bill Williams (Lee), Victor Jory (Brook Matthews), Jay C. Flippen (Police Detective Fowler), Robert Warwick (Roberts), Ellen Corby (Nurse).

by Frank Miller



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