Sunday, October 12, 2014

Movie Review: A Life of Her Own, starring Lana Turner and Ray Milland (1950)

Ray Milland and Lana Turner in A Life of Her Own, 1950.

Lana Turner and Ray Milland make a handsome couple in A Life of Her Own, 1950.

Lana Turner, in costume for a modeling scene as Lily James in A Life of Her Own, 1950.
The 1950 film A Life of Her Own, starring Lana Turner and Ray Milland, is a fascinating look at the life of a woman who becomes a successful model. Directed by George Cukor, A Life of Her Own features an excellent performance from star Lana Turner, who showed that there was more depth to her than just her beauty. Turner plays Lily James, a girl from Kansas who takes the train to the big city (New York City) to try and become a model. Lily is willing to work hard, and she sees the dangers inherent in her profession right away when she meets Mary (Ann Dvorak) who was a very successful model and is now trying to re-start her career. Mary’s desperation is palpable as she tries to get another assignment from Tom Caraway (Tom Ewell) who runs a modeling agency. Mary takes Lily under her wing, and they go out to dinner with Mary’s seedy friend Lee (Barry Sullivan) and kindly Jim (Louis Calhern). Lily resists Lee’s advances and sees Mary home when it becomes obvious she’s had too much to drink. Lily leaves Mary at her apartment, and Lily learns the next day that Mary committed suicide by jumping out of her window. 

Lily focuses on her work and quickly becomes a top model, as she is beautiful and professional. Through Jim she meets Steve Harleigh (Ray Milland) who lives in Montana and owns a copper mine. They meet awkwardly, as Lily wakes up from taking a nap at Jim’s apartment and sees that Steve has been watching her sleep. (Which is kinda creepy.) They don’t seem to like each other at first, but they see more of each other and affection between them grows, even though Steve is married. Steve goes back to Montana and his mine, and he tells Jim to buy Lily some jewelry. Lily is not impressed with the jewelry and quickly figures out that Jim bought it for Steve and refuses it, saying she won’t be bought off. When Steve returns to New York on business, he and Lily begin an affair, and he pays for her new apartment. We learn that Steve’s wife Nora (Margaret Phillips) is in a wheelchair because of injuries suffered in a car crash. When Nora comes to New York to celebrate Steve’s birthday, Steve spends his birthday with Nora before sneaking out to the party that Lily is throwing for him. He finds the party to be full of people he doesn’t know, and he finds Lily tipsily dancing with another man. (Lily’s dance partner is played by the famous choreographer Hermes Pan, who choreographed all of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies.) Lily resolves to go to Nora and tell her all about her affair with Steve. When Lily goes to visit Nora with Jim, they find Nora lying on the floor, as she has been trying to learn how to walk with crutches. Lily feels ashamed, and in her conversation with Nora she realizes that Nora is a good person, and that she really needs Steve. She doesn’t tell Nora about the affair, and as she waits for the elevator, she runs into Steve and tells him their affair is over. Lily says to him, “I can’t live without you, but I’m going to.” Lily then finds the unsavory Lee hanging out in the lobby of her apartment, and he taunts her, telling her how she’s been ruined. Lily walks to Mary’s old apartment building and has fleeting thoughts of suicide as she stares up at the building. But she decisively turns around and walks away, determined to find happiness on her own.

A Life of Her Own is an excellent movie, and it features a fine performance from Lana Turner. It’s not too much of a stretch to see A Life of Her Own as an allegory about the Hollywood studio system and how it chewed up the young women who endured it, just as the modeling industry consumes Mary in the movie. As a veteran of the studio system from the time she was 16 years old, it’s obvious that Lana Turner knew exactly how to play the role of Lily. 

In her autobiography, Turner doesn’t show much affection for A Life of Her Own, but I would guess that she identified with Lily’s struggles to succeed in the difficult world of modeling. At the beginning of the movie, Lily says to Tom Caraway, “I want to be somebody, not just anybody, and all I have is myself and how I look. I’ll work hard because it means a lot to me.” Turner could easily be talking about herself. Towards the end of the movie Lily is talking to Jim about men and she says, “I’ve had men buzzing around me since I was 14, and I didn’t want it that way. I never wanted it that way.” I can imagine that Lana Turner would have felt the same way that Lily did.

A Life of Her Own was something of a comeback for Lana Turner, because when the movie was released in September of 1950, she hadn’t been seen on screen in almost two years, not since The Three Musketeers came out in October, 1948. Turner was suspended by MGM during part of that hiatus, and she also took a long honeymoon with her third husband, millionaire Bob Topping, who was an heir of a tin-plate magnate. Bob’s brother Dan Topping owned the New York Yankees from 1945 until 1964. Both Topping brothers were married many times, and Dan was married to the figure skater Sonja Henie from 1940-1946. Oddly enough, the actress Arline Judge married both Dan and Bob Topping. She was divorced from Bob just days before he married Lana Turner. Sadly, 1949 was a difficult year for Turner, as she gave birth to a stillborn baby boy. 

As detailed in Lana: The Memories, The Myths, The Movies, written by Turner’s daughter Cheryl Crane, A Life of Her Own had a long journey to the screen. The movie was loosely based on The Abiding Vision, a short story by Rebecca West. MGM’s first treatment of the story was rejected by the censors in 1936, as the treatment of adultery was deemed too sympathetic. The censors worried that there was “no proportionate punishment of the transgressors.” (Crane, p.303) The Production Code Administration finally approved the script for filming in late 1949, but the original ending had Turner’s character Lily committing suicide, which was apparently deemed a suitable punishment for her adulterous behavior. When the movie was shown to test audiences, they hated the ending. The ending was then re-shot so that Lily survived, which I think is a much better resolution to the story. I also liked that the ending leaves Lily on her own, to make her own way in the world. She’s a strong female character, and I think she will succeed. If the movie were re-made now, Lily would probably be paired off with Jim at the end, rather than be allowed to find her own path.

Cheryl Crane writes that many different actors were considered for the role of Steve Harleigh, “among them Cary Grant, Howard Keel, James Mason, and Robert Ryan. I would have voted for James Mason. Mother was embarrassed when she had to get his autograph for me.” (Crane, p.303) I think that Cheryl Crane had good taste, and I agree with her that James Mason would have been excellent in the part. However, MGM cast Wendell Corey as Steve Harleigh. Turner didn’t think Corey was right for the part, but grudgingly accepted the studio’s decision. On the first day of filming, Turner’s costumes were still not ready, so there was a delay as the costume department worked to pin her dress so it would look okay for the camera. Turner wrote in her autobiography, “As I left the trailer I heard Corey say, as though talking to someone nearby, ‘It’s interesting, you know. The wonderful Barbara Stanwyck never keeps us waiting. Not even for one minute.’ When I whirled around I saw that he was alone. He was talking to me, or rather, he had timed the remark for my benefit.” (Lana: The Lady, The Legend, The Truth, by Lana Turner, p.127-8.) Because it was widely assumed around Hollywood that Turner had an affair with Stanwyck’s husband Robert Taylor, Turner took Corey’s odd remark as an insult to her and made MGM fire Corey. He was replaced with Ray Milland, who took home a huge salary of $175,000 for his part, as he knew the studio was in a bind. When the producers asked Turner what she thought of Ray Milland, she said, “He’d be great. You should have hired him in the first place.” (Turner, p.129) I think Milland was perfect for the part, and I can’t imagine Wendell Corey in the role at all. With his more ordinary looks, Corey might be a more believable copper mine owner than Ray Milland, but Corey had none of the suave charm that Milland had. The difference between the two actors is that Wendell Corey was a character actor, and Ray Milland was a handsome leading man. Ray Milland reminds me a lot of Jimmy Stewart. They both had a similar build-tall and lanky, and their eyes and noses are quite similar. 

All of the supporting performances in A Life of Her Own are excellent. Ann Dvorak is great as Mary, the veteran model. I loved Dvorak’s voice; it’s so natural and modern sounding. She and Turner don’t have that “movie actress” voice that so many actresses from that era had that now sounds so unnatural to our ears. Be on the lookout for Jean Hagen, most famous as Lina Lamont in Singin’ In the Rain, in a small part as Maggie, the model who brings her son to the modeling agency at the beginning of the movie. Hagen also gets some screen time during the raucous party at Lily’s apartment, which features some wonderful tracking shots that really immerse you in the party. A Life of Her Own was produced by a man with the unlikely name of Voldemar Vetluguin, a Russian whose only other producing credit was East Side, West Side, from 1949. 

I would highly recommend A Life of Her Own to fans of Lana Turner, as she looks gorgeous and gives a terrific performance.

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