Life of Her Own, A (1950): Cukor’s Melodrama Starring Lana Turner, Ray Milland, Tom Ewell, Louis Calhern

George Cukor’s first assignment in 1950 was a minor picture, a romantic melodrama (soap opera by today’s standards), starring Lana Turner and Ray Milland, called A Life of Her Own.

Grade: C (*1/2* out of *****)

Turner plays Lily Brannel James, a young woman who leaves her small town in Kansas for New York City, where she is hired by the Thomas Caraway Model Agency.

She befriends former top model Mary Ashlon (Ann Dvorak), who becomes her mentor. Mary is depressed about her foundering career and, after a boozy night, she commits suicide.

As a favor to her attorney friend Jim Leversoe (Louis Calhern), she spends time with Steve Harleigh (Ray Milland), a Montana copper-mine owner in New York on business. The two fall in love, but both realize nothing can come of it. After Steve goes home, he has Jim buy Lily a bracelet, but she refuses to accept it.

Lily finds that success does not fill the void in her life. When Steve returns to New York to secure a loan, he runs into her and confesses that he’s married. His wife Nora was left a paraplegic in a car accident for which he was responsible. Despite this, they embark on an affair.

Crisis occurs when Nora visits him to celebrate his birthday. On the night of Steve’s birthday, Lily hosts a party too, even though Steve stays with Nora. Steve slips out to Lily’s party and is shocked to observe her self-destructive behavior.

Lily decides to confront Nora, but when she sees how nice Nora is and how dependent she is on her husband, she cannot bring herself to tell Nora about her involvement with Steve. Bumping into Steve at the elevator, she tells him the affair is over.

Later on, Lily runs into ad executive Lee Gorrance (Barry Sullivan), who had dated Mary prior to her death. When Lily resists his advances, he predicts she will end up lonely and depressed like Mary. Upset by his comments, Lily considers suicide, but finally resolves to remain strong.

While the acting was better than in other Hollywood melodramas about adultery, for Cukor it was a forgettable movie and the nadir of the entire decade. This movie soon became a negative point of reference–the kind of films he knew he should NOT do.

Though designed as a star vehicle, nobody wanted to do it, least of all Lana Turner.

The lousy script was never really finished, and the existing one  was deemed by Cukor as one of the worst he had read.

Furthermore, the actor cast as the married man, Wendell Corey, was disliked by both Cukor and Turner.

Cukor protested that Corey projected anything but the image of a rich and suave married man who falls in love with a glamorous actress like Turner, but to as if to demonstrate his power, Dore Schary hired him.

Though sympathetic with her cause, Cukor, the ultimate professional, was furious when Turner decided to stay home for a couple of days, halting the entire production.

The tension between Turner and Corey, compounded by Cukor’s continuous protests, led to a quick recasting–of another actor Cukor was not fond of, Ray Milland.

Cukor was also unhappy about working with costume designer Helen Rose, a friend of Schary, which he described in a memo as a “conniving bitch.”

Untalented and devoid of taste, Rose designed such lousy clothes for Turner that they almost knocked her off as a glamour girl. For the first scene, her dress was an ugly red chiffon, whose seams were still unsown. To speed things up, they pinned the dress so that Turner could do the master shot. Rose’s work nearly succeeded in creating bad blood between Cukor and his leading lady.

Nonetheless, Turner gave a surprisingly subtle performance, better than Cukor what he had expected of her. He enjoyed working with Turner, whom he found practical as far as acting was concerned, though he detested her “barbarous taste” (his expression) about everything, particularly men.

To his own surprise, Turner could be funny and campy too, even poking fun at herself–screen image and offscreen life.

Before they started the film, Turner came to Cukor and said, “Mr. Cukor, I want you to know one thing, I can do it if I can understand it and believe in it, which I am not sure of.”

Cukor thought that it was very funny–it was the kind of story he relished telling his friends at his dinner parties.

The production values, especially camera work (George J. Folsey) and music, were polished, but they could not salvage the shallow script–even for Turner’s hardcore fans.

In the end, the movie was a commercial flop, earning $1,4 million in the US and $504,000 elsewhere, resulting in a loss of $679,000.

Cast
Lana Turner as Lily Brannel James
Ray Milland as Steve Harleigh
Tom Ewell as Tom Caraway
Louis Calhern as Jim Leversoe
Ann Dvorak as Mary Ashlon
Margaret Phillips as Nora Harleigh
Barry Sullivan as Lee Gorrance
Sara Haden as Smitty

Credits:

Directed by George Cukor
Written by Isobel Lennart, based on The Abiding Vision, 1935 novella by Rebecca West
Produced by Voldemar Vetluguin
Cinematography George J. Folsey
Edited by George White
Music by Bronisław Kaper
Production company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Distributed by Loew’s Inc.
Release date: September 1, 1950
Running time 108 minutes
Budget $1,818,000
Box office $1,917,000

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