I caught a couple of Gene Tierney movies recently on TCM that I'd never seen before. One relatively obscure—CHINA GIRL—the other I knew about but had never seen—LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN.
I fell in love with Tierney the first time I realized how amazing she was when I saw her in LAURA, the old black-and-white classic, on our old black-and-white TV when I was a boy. I already was familiar with the theme song from that flick and loved it enough to play it on the piano pretty much as soon as I could play. But when I saw the movie on our little black-and-white screen I was smitten.
I saw her in other movies over the years replayed on TV, like THE LEFT HAND OF GOD or THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR. And I remembered them specifically because of the male leads whose movies they were, Humphrey Bogart in the former and Rex Harrison in the latter. These were leading men whose presence could match Tierney's.
Even Dana Andrews in LAURA—who was no Bogart or even Harrison—could carry his weight against Tierney. But in most of the other movies I saw her in over the years, her leading men just weren't on her level. Usually they seemed to be cast for their looks to somehow compliment her incredible screen beauty, but all that did was show them up as no match, acting wise or beauty wise.
CHINA GIRL and LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN are perfect examples of that. Her co-star in the former was George Montgomery (the poor man's Clark Gable), whose movie it really is. And in the latter it was Cornell Wilde, who became a better actor than Montgomery eventually but was no match for Tierney in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN. He was though, just good enough to at least make the movie work, whereas Montgomery's over-the-top bad Gable imitation in CHINA GIRL adds to the other elements of the movie that keeps it stuck in its time as an almost run-of-the-mill B picture.
What saves it, of course, is Tierney, and not just a typical Tierney seduction of the audience with her uncanny ability to occupy the screen as if it was made for her, because in this case she's playing, as Montgomery puts it in the parlance of the time (1942) the "Oriental" of the title.
It's worth watching for her, and also for the kind of poor man's CASABLANCA/TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT ambiance of early WWII flicks, where the adventurer is in it for himself until the beauty comes along. Though it works much better with the more realistic anti-heroic resolution and mug of a Bogart than Montgomery's sparkly-toothed grinning denseness.
As for LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, this is one of the more amazing "women's movies" of the '40s, and because it's in early Technicolor and came out the year the war ended ('45) it has that edgy darkness that Hollywood B pictures embodied in the wake of the war's psychological devastation. The darkness of Tierney's character contrasted with the unbelievable Technicolor blue of her eyes, induces an almost swoon-like surrender to whatever melodramatic plot point comes next.
Here's a couple of tributes [a little hokey but they highlight her unique allure] to some of her flicks I found on Youtube that only approximate the impact her screen presence had and continues to have as far as I'm concerned.