A Woman’s Secret (US 1949)

Sometimes films get a bad press and, even during the Studio Hollywood period, they fail at the box office and their directors disown them. But that doesn’t mean they are of no interest or that they can’t offer entertainment and enjoyment to some audiences today. A Woman’s Secret is one such film It has several celebrated names attached to it but it has been generally ‘bad-mouthed’. It was the second film to be directed under contract at RKO by Nicholas Ray and its problematic status is perhaps indicated by the fact that it was released after his third film. He himself tried not to be the director but was seemingly tricked into accepting the commission. He later disowned the film, but he did meet Gloria Grahame, the third-billed rising star at the studio. He was impressed with her and married her before the film came out. (The marriage was good gossip fodder and didn’t last long, but that’s another story).

Gloria Grahame as Susan in a classic mirror composition

The film was adapted from a story (a magazine serial and then a novel, Mortgage for Life) by Vicki Baum, a prolific Austrian novelist whose works were adapted in Germany and France as well as the US where she settled in 1932. The lead part was played by Maureen O’Hara, on loan from 20th Century Fox. She plays a singer, Marian Washburn, who loses her singing voice to a mystery illness. She can still sing but not with the distinctive voice that made her a star. Her long term admirer Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas), piano player and general music fixer, remains her companion and one day they discover by accident a young woman down on her luck who has a ‘voice’. They encourage her and she becomes Marian’s protégé. The young woman is Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame) who eventually becomes a radio star as ‘Estrelita’. One night after a show, Susan is upset and argues with Marian with tragic results. Susan is seriously wounded and hospitalised. Marian is arrested and the ‘secret’ of the title is why she did what she appears to have done. Marian admits to wounding Susan – but we haven’t yet seen what actually happened. Will Susan recover?

Nick Ray directs Maureen O’Hara as Marian

The film starts with Susan’s radio show and then the argument. Marian’s back story is filled in with quite lengthy flashbacks and we get to see how her relationship with Susan developed. The narrative might best be described as ‘playful’. The original material was adapted by Herman J. Mankiewicz, one of the most celebrated Hollywood screenwriters from the mid-1920s through to the early 1950s, so this was one of his last screenplays. His younger brother Joe was also a talented screenwriter and director of films like All About Eve (1950). Herman is perhaps best remembered as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Citizen Kane and the man known as ‘Mank’ about whom David Fincher directed a feature of the same title in 2020. His playfulness here  comes out in some of the dialogue and in the development of a sub-plot about the detective assigned to the case, Det. Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) and his arguments with his wife (Mary Philips). Husband and wife squabble as he always brings his work home. This time Fowler gets very pally with Luke Jordan, discussing the case at length and in response Mrs Philips gets out her Sherlock Holmes kit and proceeds to do her own sleuthing.

The film doesn’t seem to know what kind of film it is. Potentially it is a film ‘about’ singing and includes several performances. Maureen O’Hara sings in her own voice but Gloria Grahame is dubbed. Somehow though, the singing doesn’t amount to much and the film certainly isn’t a musical. It could be a mystery, a puzzle narrative – what really went on in that bedroom where Susan and Marian argued? How will Fowler and co. get the truth out of Marian? Finally, however, it seems that the film is a form of melodrama. It borrows devices from films noirs, an RKO speciality, and I was reminded of Out of the Past (1947). There are only a few noirish images, but the flashback structure was what reminded me of Out of the Past, especially a flashback to a bar in Algiers, where I half expected to find Robert Mitchum waiting for Jane Greer. The DoP is George Diskant who worked on several Nick Ray pictures including On Dangerous Ground (1951), featuring Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino. Ray’s career at RKO included several melodramas, both male and female-centred, and it isn’t surprising that noir elements crept into them as they were common in many studio productions at the time.

The staircase in the apartment Susan shares with Marian, a typical Ray composition

I can see why critics and some audiences didn’t like A Woman’s Secret and it is certainly a strange hotch-potch, but I liked its various sequences even if they don’t necessarily go well together. Mankiewicz provides some entertaining dialogue and my main reason for watching the film, to remind myself of Gloria Grahame’s performance, worked out well. Grahame is always interesting and I like Maureen O’Hara as a performer as well. One interesting auteurist aspect of the film is the staging of the first meeting of Marian, Luke and Susan (the key moment in structuring the narrative) takes place on a staircase, going down to a rehearsal room. There is also a staircase in the apartment Marian and Susan share (see above). Ray for me is always associated with the staircase, that bridge between two worlds, in this case between the bustling city outside and the world of music below. Three of the most famous of Ray’s staircase scenes are in Johnny Guitar (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Bigger than Life (1956). Ray briefly flirted with architecture as a young man and critics have noted the development of a mise en scène and a compositional and choreographic style that reflects an interesting in deviating from the straight line.

A Woman’s Secret is one of the RKO pictures which the BBC acquired ‘in perpetuity’ and it is currently available in the UK on iPlayer for several months. I think it is definitely worth a look for Grahame, O’Hara, the dialogue and early Ray style (and all in just 81 minutes). Here’s a clip of Maureen O’Hara singing. It’s a flashback, so introduced by a dissolve:

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