Pin-Up of the Day: Gene Tierney

“Without any question the most beautiful woman in the history of the silver screen,” said Darryl Zanuck, or words to that effect, and he ought to know, having slept with most of them. (He HAD to sleep with several at a time, honestly, otherwise he could never have racked up such a total. It’s not troilism, it’s just efficiency.)

Gene Tierney moved from early incompetence as an actor, through decent performances, and into really good work, aided by a truly amazing face that made her a pleasure to watch even when she sucked. Those distinctive features could suggest madness and evil in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, innocence and decency in HEAVEN CAN WAIT, wisdom and goodness in THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR.

I now list the features, and excuse me if I get overcome and have to go lie down:

The eyes: large, long, and very wide apart. I have a vision of walking up to Gene and putting my hand over the centre of her face, and of her looking back at me from around either side of my palm. THOSE EYES IS WIDE APART.

The big pale moonlike forehead. I am a man who likes a forehead. (Paulette Goddard, what a forehead that is! An eighthead, in fact.)

The nose, apparently hand-shaped from some soft, wonderful material — butter, perhaps — by tiny master craftsmen.

The cheekbones, beautifully defined, as if constructed especially to receive Von Sternberg’s light.

The mouth, completely redesigned by ambitious lipstick in these images, but in reality a wide, full and elaborately flared labial sculpture, balancing the eyes, and containing slightly erratic teeth which add charm to what could otherwise be chilly perfection.

In THE SHANGHAI GESTURE Tierney has moments of strange, erratic, embarrassing emoting that rival Elizabeth Berkeley’s mad flailing in SHOWGIRLS, but who’s to say what’s appropriate in a Sternberg menagerie such as this? Her perfect nose tilting under the lights, which seem to be dissolving into a dew the all-butter mannequin that is Victor Mature, she shows no trace of the control and grace that focus her best performances, but she certainly throws herself into the spirit of the thing. A gutsy, dynamic, original and deeply dreadful performance that’s never less than eye-catching. More decorous work was to come, but with the high frontal key-light shading her cheekbones, and the very hot backlight on the top of her head, Tierney showed she could be lit like Dietrich and come out just as well.

45 Responses to “Pin-Up of the Day: Gene Tierney”

  1. I was just communicating this morning with a young woman about Gene Tierney via the net. I recommended she check out my site. I did a woodcut print of Gene in The Shanghai Gesture, where she plays Poppy, the daughter of Mother Gin Sling, or Mother Goddam as originally written. I especially like the last shot of her, the tilt of the head, the neck, the lips, and that lighting. Wow.

  2. She’s fabulous in The Shanghai Gesture and incadescent in Leave Her To Heaven. Particularly in THIS All-time great scene.

    Even Bunuel didn’t go this far.

  3. Marty did in fact make mention of Leave Her to Heaven as one of the few color noirs. Having immersed myself in most all things noir for the past ten years, I was familiar with this film, but it’s been quite some time since I’d last seen it. Time to visit it again. I’d love to have seen it on a large screen.

  4. Great woodcuts, Guy!
    Check ’em out everybody!

  5. Thanks David. I call them my dog and pony show. While they’re not exactly flying out the door, I can say that Roger Ebert acquired one (Out of the Past, he’s a big Mitchum fan), and Ginette Vincendeau purchased le Samourai back in April. She suggested I do one of Gabin from Pepe le Moko, and that’s what I’m working on now. I did two earlier in the summer, of Newton as Sykes and Guinness as Fagin from Lean’s Oliver Twist, both head shots like the one of Tierney. Vincendeau teaches film at King’s College in London, did a book on Pepe for BFI a few years back, and also did commentaries for two of Criterion’s most recent releases, le Doulos and le Deuxieme Souffle.

  6. I’ve seen Vincendeau talk a few times on DVD extras, things like the R2 edition of Le Corbeau. She’s pretty good.

    Thinking of the Leave Her to Heaven scene, there IS something sexy about a beautiful woman drowning a poor cripple boy.

  7. Arthur S. Says:

    I think Gene Tierney was a very special actress. Incredibly gorgeous and also a very good actress. Ernst Lubitsch incidentally wasn’t all that keen on her when he first cast her in ”Heaven Can Wait” but immediately liked her afterwards.

    Her work in the 40’s is her best and after that she didn’t seem to get much good work until a wonderful performance in ”Advise and Consent” where she’s still as lovely as ever.

    ”Leave Her to Heaven” is of course her masterpiece and a thoroughly modern film. What makes the film so ridiculously disturbing is the fact that she gets more and more beautiful the more crazy she becomes. Think of that scene at the beach after she throws herself down the stairs to abort her kid and the next shot of her is her coming out of the beach in a red swimming suit.

    After I saw that, I said, Please God, please let Gene Tierney kill me. What makes it so fascinating is the fact that it’s really, I can’t think of other examples now, but it’s really one of the few times you have a character, a female character, who’s allowed to be ambiguous and not have any explanations given by her or for her. This is really, really rare. Incredibly moreso since this film wasn’t some independent work but a studio project with highest resources and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck(who I like a lot politics aside). I also like the music a lot. Especially those booming drums when she throws away her father’s ashes. Something really scary there.

    Other great Gene Tierney films for me is ”Laura” and ”Where the Sidewalk Ends”(where she pulls of the remarkably casting as a working class girl…Gene Tierney playing a role Sylvia Sidney was best at).

  8. Watching the scene I was reminded of Montgomery Clift on the lake with poor girl Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun. But in the latter there was a deliberate ambiguity posited in that circumstance, whereas in Leave Her to Heaven there is no doubt, that boy was meant to drown. Seems to me there are other films out there with that same scenario, or something similar, I just can’t seem to recall them. There’s another scene in a boat that’s pretty unforgettable, when the old coot in the boat looks down into the water and sees Shelley Winter’s corpse sitting in the car beneath him (Night of the Hunter). Like a scene from an old EC comic book from the early Fifties, pre-Code. “Poor Birdie.”

  9. Shelley Winters never had much luck around water, if you think about it.

    There’s some kind of quasi-psychology for Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, but the “explanation” is so inadequate to account for what we see that it ends up nullifying the very idea of character analysis.

    Tierney suffered depression, so it wasn’t that she wasn’t getting work, but she wasn’t able to take it. And then of course the offers do dwindle. Otto Preminger, in one of his occasional “nice guy” moods, got her the job in Advise and Consent.

    That last frame grab — she stands there jerking her head, birdlike, from one angle to another, seemingly experimenting for Sternberg to see how the light catches it. And it goes on for about ten seconds!

  10. The Shanghai Gesture is really amazing. That unique credit thanking the Extras for their work, Boris Leven’s great set (which is why Marty hired him for New York New York), the fabulous Phyllis Brooks, the mask-like inscrutability of Ona Munson, Ivan Lebedeff attempting suicide right in the middle of the casino, the humpy waiter Eric Blore and Andy Lawler lust after, showgirls in cages, Marcel Dalio as the croupier, and Victor Mature wrapping Gene Tierney in his cape and looking once around the room before smothering her with a kisses.

    Not only don’t they “make ‘m like that anymore,” they didn’t make ’em THEN! Just Sternberg.

  11. Rumour has it Jo would toss a silver dollar from his perch atop the camera crane, down onto the studio floor, as reward for any extra whose work had particularly pleased him in a scene. Which puts that unique credit in a different light.

    Sternberg was always inventing new ways to make himself unpopular.

    In his book he recalls directing the whole thing while lying flat on his back, which doesn’t gibe well with the above report.

    Special mention for Maria Ouspenskaya, looking like an escapee from Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop. Amazing. When she first waddled in, Fiona and I FREAKED OUT. “What is THAT?” and then we realised it was a human person, and in fact one we’d seen before, though never quite looking like she does here.

  12. I gather that Sternberg was far more interested in baiting pampered stars than rest of the cast and crew. He created a “look” thorugh which he not only saw the world but controlled it. He and Marlene worked in concert for she was all about the “look” that Sternberg had designed for her. In light of the planes of Gene Tierney’s face I would imagine he found her a great delight and she him. She’s absolutely ravishing. And Phyllis Brooks appears to be having a whale of a time too. Obviously Victor Mature is in on the joke of his character whose heterosexual tendencies emerge as the film’s biggest surprise (“Dr. Omar” is basically a semi-retired rent boy.)

  13. What’s really funny about the film, in light of censorhip strictures, is how Sternberg “slipped one past the goalie” re drug addiction. Clearly “Poppy” is getting plenyt of poppy on the side. But we never see her shooting up. Instead she’s constantly asking for a cigarette. Even if the cigarettes are reefers they wouldn’t cause the slide into Nico-like “degredation” that we see here. But that’s what happens. Consequently The Shanghai Gestrure is the greatest film ever made about . . .cigarettes.

  14. Arthur S. Says:

    Practically everyone in ”The Shanghai Gesture” seems to be on some drug or the other. Walter Huston is perhaps an exception but I wouldn’t be surprised if Walter didn’t know his way around an opium den in his youth.

    When I watched the film it had a great erotic pull over me. The entirely sleazy atmosphere, the weird as hell characters(“I am doctor of nothing” takes on new meaning when you are with your wife) and especially Gene Tierney’s last scene where she’s totally gone and she walks into that banquet table like…a cross between a banshee and a tart. The Tarty Banshee…people should make that film just for the title. And leave us not forget the girls in cages. And also the totally bleak ending. Wonder how Joe Sternberg got away with that.

  15. Those things’ll kill ya!

    According to Mitchum and Russell, Jo was nasty to the crew of Macao. His strictures against any kind of food on the set lead to Mitchum bringing in a giant hamper and laying out a picnic on the studio floor. Sternberg told him, “You could get fired!” and, in an exact duplication of what he said to Preminger, Mitchum said “I don’t think you quite understand the situation. YOU could get fired,” which indeed he was.

    After complaining about too many fingers in the pie on Jet Pilot, Sternberg says of Macao “Instead of fingers in this pie, a whole army of clowns rushed to immerse various portions of their anatomy in it. Their names do not appear on the screen,” which presumably is meant to include uncredited replacement director Nick Ray, who thought he did a fairly good job matching the Sternberg style.

    Sternberg: “If they hate you, at least they remember you.”

  16. Well he was a sonofabitch — and a great director. BTW, recent prints of Macao give Nick Ray co-director credit. I think he did most of the film. Only a few scenes seem Sternberg — and they stand out like a very unsore thumb.

  17. Interesting how Mitchum took on both Preminger and Sternberg. He got on like gangbusters with Laughton, giving him the performance for which he’ll alays be remembered.

    Mitchum was “a real piece of work” but a through professional who warmed to those who took acting seriosuly — even though he always claimed he didn’t.

  18. Well, Preminger was certainly a bully. And a man who didn’t even realise when he was doing it. Sternberg is more calculated — he seems to have had a masochistic fondness for being hated, so he had to behave in a sadistic way to provoke this. I like Sternberg, personally (from a distance), because he’s messed up. Whereas Preminger strikes me as psychologically fairly healthy, just an obnoxious personality.

    Everybody says Mitchum was a nice guy, when sober.

    There are stories about him collapsing a tent on Sternberg as he was changing into his pyjamas while camping out on location (did they DO this for Macao?) and smearing limburger cheese on the engine of his customised limo, so that the car stank as the engine warmed up…

  19. Losey said Mitchum was reportedly very nice to Mia Farrow on the set of Secret Ceremony as the finalized divorce papers from Sinatra came through which greatly upset her. He also says Mitchum wrote poetry but didn’t want anyone to know he did.

    Preminger’s bullying wasn’t the half of it. He treated Jean Seberg, Maggie McNamarra, Jill Haworth and (worst of all) Dorothy Dandridge (with whom he was having an affair) abominably. All these women were tightly-wound and emotionally high-strung. Otto loved to pluck at those strings.

    Sternberg’s chief involvement was with Marlene — who I’m sure we all know was a “Top.”

  20. John Waters says every director he knows wants to be in control on the set and have somebody control THEM in their private life. That would seem to fit Sternberg.

    Mitchum also wrote chunks of Macao and The Lusty Men, but had to be forced into it. A shame he doesn’t seem to have left anything for us to read.

  21. David E., David C.: thoroughly enjoyed the above exchange. I now recall the other couple-in-the-boat scene: Murnau’s Sunrise. Mitchum’s the best, he wasn’t perfect, but there was still so much to like about him. He had a great sensayuma, and had a photographic memory when it came to reading scripts. I can think of one other actor with a style similar to Mitchum’s, Lee Marvin.

  22. Apparently Sunrise was influenced at screenplay stage by An American Tragedy, which had recently been published. Maybe Dreiser should have sued Fox and Murnau instead of Paramount and Sternberg.

    Have you all heard Mitchum’s calypso album? Epoch-making stuff!

  23. I do know of it, have yet to hear it.

  24. It does not disappoint, I can tell you that.

  25. I wrote about Macao a while back; I didn’t find Lee Server’s account of filming to show Mitchum as very professional at all. Sternberg was a difficult man but deserved better than he got on that set.

    I love Gene Tierney and The Shanghai Gesture–that gambling den set, like Dante’s Inferno come to life! Victor Mature and that sexually ambiguous poetry-spouting whateverhewas…Ona Munson and those women in cages. I still couldn’t tell you what it’s all supposed to add up to, but some movies are just an eyeful and earful and you don’t need coherence. Tierney plays Poppy exactly like a spoiled child, more querulous and demanding with every thing she’s given. And lord she was beautiful.

    I think she’s charming in Heaven Can Wait and The Mating Season, too. It’s really a shame life dealt her such a harsh hand. The story of how her daughter, Daria, came to be born with severe birth defects is still one of the worst I’ve heard from Hollywood.

  26. Yes. that’s an incredible tragedy. And Agatha Christie stole it for The Mirror Crack’d, which struck me as in somewhat poor taste (or maybe it’s just the movie that used it? But I doubt that).

    Seemingly the censor rejected Shanghai five times, resulting in cuts that have robbed it of coherence, hence those corrupting cigarettes. The weird one is the question of Walter Huston’s guilt or innocence — surely of central importance to the story. Huston plays him as innocent, but Munson plays her role with sincerity too. All that’s needed is an explanation of how the bad stuff happened to her without his knowing, but we never get that!

    As for Mitchum, the far more stable Jane Russell supported his rebellion, so I guess Sternberg must have seemed pretty obnoxious. But for the sake fo the film, I kind of wish Mitchum had been as cooperative as he would be for someone like Huston (crawling through weird tropical grass until his chest was shredded, for instance!)

  27. The character that Huston played would no more admit wrong doing that Dick Cheney. Ona Munson has him dead to rights.

    But yes overall in an atmosphere as rich and heady as this one “narrative incoherence” not only comes with the territory — it’s beside the point. As always Sternberg directs our attention away from character and narrative to concentrate on some visual element or other that’s ravishing to look at and not easily explained.

  28. Here’s what Mitchum said about Josef von…

    “He was very short and sort of arty, and he was from Weehawken, New Jersey, but he had a German accent- he was very German. I said, ‘Where did you get that accent, Joe? You’re from Weehawken, N. J.,’ and he said if I wanted to know anything about anything, come to him, he was the omniscient artist. He had a junk shop in Weehawken.”

    “Joe was really something. He told me, ‘We both know this is a piece of shit and we’re saddled with Jane Russell. You and I know she has as much talent as this cigarette case.’ I replied, ‘Mr. von Sternberg, Miss Russell survives, so she must have something. Lots of ladies have big tits.'”

    From Lee Server’s Michum bio.

  29. Sternberg’s autobio offers a suitable correction to this! Have no idea where Mitchum gets the Weehawken thing from. But Sternberg was open about his lowly origins and self-educated approach.

    That book is awesome.

  30. David C., if you want to see my take on the Macao episode in Server’s book, it’s here. I agree, the antics definitely hurt the movie.

    Mitchum’s sense of gallantry was not what I’d call consistent; witness his completely unprovoked throwing of a basketball dead at a female photographer with a lens to her eye in a stunt that could have blinded her, which Server also covers. Server plainly loves his subject (as a biographer should, I add) but Mitchum’s off-screen charm eludes me despite his having given me great pleasure in a number of movies.

    David E., I love your comment on Huston — I agree, Ona has the goods on him. I never doubted for a moment that he’d done it, and I think Huston’s playing it that way too; his “innocence” is just a man gifted in self-deception. He’s really as corrupt as anyone else in the milieu. Also love your description of Sternberg’s aims.

  31. Thanks, I’ll read it tonight. Whenever a movie swaps directors it loses that coherent voice that could make it great. It might still be interesting or a good time-passer, but without an individual mind filtering everything, it loses any chance at being a great film.

    Have to rewatch the film with Huston’s guilt in mind. He’s an incredibly smart actor — I think his perf in Rain is almost unique in being utterly hateful without any mask of performance to hide behind — most actors would use something to tell the audience “This isn’t really me, folks, just a character I’m playing!” He can be so restrained or so OTT if required, as in the gobsmacking Kongo…

  32. Huston’s wonderful in The Devil and Daniel Webster, made I believe around the same time as Gesture. More impish than malevolent. Simone Simon has a small part, but the scene where she dances John Qualen to his death is inspired.

  33. Wow, Qualen is one of these guys I’ve seen in so many movies but I’m just getting to know him. He turned up when I was looking for Duvivier stuff on YouTube, as he’s in The Impostor (fine film). I’d forgotten he was in TDADW.

    Huston’s devil is my all-time favourite, even eclipsing Peter Cook and Laird Cregar, which is saying a lot. I suspect most of his son’s performances are modelled on that one.

  34. “. I suspect most of his son’s performances are modelled on that one.”

    WOW. I think you are really onto something there!

    The Devil and Daniel Webster is a huge personal favorite of mine, and Huston is amazing in it.

  35. Noah Cross in Chinatown is definitely a reprise of Mr Scratch!

    I love The Devil ADW also, my favourite Dieterle film and I think the most striking response to the innovations of Citizen Kane. Simone Simon is outrageous in it. Too bad the hero’s a bit of a stick, but I guess he has to be.

  36. Oh, btw, I emailed you about Duvivier’s Lydia…

  37. I love the fact that Qualen’s soul ends up as a moth, so strange. The Criterion DVD has this amazing extra showing outtakes of Scratch’s face flashing on the screen solarized, it’s almost like those flashes shown of the demon in The Exorcist.

  38. Wow! Actually, I can’t believe I haven’t bought that disc. Apart from having no money, I don’t see what’s stopping me.

  39. It’s been a while, but I may be able to burn that one too. I’ve been able to burn Criterion DVDs in the past, it’s been a while since I’ve tried. Again, email me:

  40. bunnybuntales Says:

    Wow thanks for celebrating Gene Tierney’s beauty. Leave Her to Heaven is one of my favorite films.

  41. Extraordinary, isn’t it? Certainly the finest Technicolor noir.

  42. Gene Tierney is one of my all time favorite actresses.I agree about Leave Her To Heaven,she was chilling.Chillingly beautiful and her acting is chillingly brilliant.Something definetly not right with Ellen(Genes character) but you root for her anyway,you simply can´t help yourself.

  43. I think a lot of it has to do with the dramatic effect of a character with a strong, clear, urgent goal: however twisted her psychology and methods, we can understand what she wants and so we can’t help but feel involved in her quest to get it.

  44. Though grimly now we reminisce,
    On sorrow lurking in a kiss,
    Blessed is she who could endure,
    A wounded heart and love unsure.

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