Mourning Becomes Electra (1947)

121, 157, 173 or 175 mins | Melodrama | 1947

Director:

Dudley Nichols

Writer:

Dudley Nichols

Producer:

Dudley Nichols

Cinematographer:

George Barnes

Production Designer:

William Flannery

Production Company:

RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
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HISTORY

Eugene O'Neill's name appears above the title in the film's opening credits. The film, like O'Neill's play, was divided into three distinct sections, which were titled "Homecoming," "The Hunted" and "The Haunted." Theater scholars note that O'Neill's play was inspired by Aeschylus' tetrology The Oresteia ; Aeschylus' character "Agamemnon" became "Ezra Mannon," "Clytemnestra" became "Christine Mannon" and "Electra" became "Lavinia Mannon." In the original Theatre Guild production, which ran six hours with a dinner break, Alla Nazimova played Christine and Alice Brady played Lavinia. Modern sources add the following information about the film's inception: In 1935, Theresa Helburn asked M-G-M head Louis B. Mayer to film O'Neill's play, with Katharine Hepburn playing Lavinia. Mayer, whose studio had produced a financially unsuccessful version of O'Neill's play Strange Interlude in 1932 (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40 F3.4348), turned down the request, and the idea for a screen adaptation did not resurface until the mid-1940's. When O'Neill was approached to sell the play's screen rights, he insisted that Dudley Nichols, with whom he enjoyed a close friendship, be allowed to write, produce and direct the adaptation. O'Neill also stipulated that Rosalind Russell, whose performance in the 1946 RKO film Sister Kenny (see below entry) he greatly admired, star as Lavinia. Greta Garbo was first considered to play Christine, but declined to come out of retirement because she felt that, at the age of forty-two, she was too young to play the mother of Russell, who was then thirty-nine. (Ironically, Greek actress Katina Paxinou, who was cast as Christine, was only forty-three years old at the time ... More Less

Eugene O'Neill's name appears above the title in the film's opening credits. The film, like O'Neill's play, was divided into three distinct sections, which were titled "Homecoming," "The Hunted" and "The Haunted." Theater scholars note that O'Neill's play was inspired by Aeschylus' tetrology The Oresteia ; Aeschylus' character "Agamemnon" became "Ezra Mannon," "Clytemnestra" became "Christine Mannon" and "Electra" became "Lavinia Mannon." In the original Theatre Guild production, which ran six hours with a dinner break, Alla Nazimova played Christine and Alice Brady played Lavinia. Modern sources add the following information about the film's inception: In 1935, Theresa Helburn asked M-G-M head Louis B. Mayer to film O'Neill's play, with Katharine Hepburn playing Lavinia. Mayer, whose studio had produced a financially unsuccessful version of O'Neill's play Strange Interlude in 1932 (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40 F3.4348), turned down the request, and the idea for a screen adaptation did not resurface until the mid-1940's. When O'Neill was approached to sell the play's screen rights, he insisted that Dudley Nichols, with whom he enjoyed a close friendship, be allowed to write, produce and direct the adaptation. O'Neill also stipulated that Rosalind Russell, whose performance in the 1946 RKO film Sister Kenny (see below entry) he greatly admired, star as Lavinia. Greta Garbo was first considered to play Christine, but declined to come out of retirement because she felt that, at the age of forty-two, she was too young to play the mother of Russell, who was then thirty-nine. (Ironically, Greek actress Katina Paxinou, who was cast as Christine, was only forty-three years old at the time of production, a fact some contemporary reviewers noted with disdain.)
       According to an interoffice RKO memo included in the MPAA/PCA Collection files at the AMPAS Library, RKO executive William Gordon proclaimed that, in his view, O'Neill's play was in "complete violation of the Production Code." Gordon suggested that if the studio's contract with O'Neill had not yet been finished, RKO should add a clause requiring PCA approval prior to agreeing to the deal. Although PCA director Joseph I. Breen did express concern that the screenplay not contain any inference to incest, he deemed the story acceptable and did not demand any eliminations from the film.
       Mourning Becomes Electra was The Theatre Guild's first film producing venture. A news item in Var reported that the Guild gave RKO a ten-year lease on the screen rights to the play, which it co-owned with O'Neill. According to the Var review, in exchange for the use of its name and "minor consultation...on casting," the Guild was to receive approximately two and a half percent of the picture's distribution gross. A HR news item noted that O'Neill acted as an advisor on various aspects of the production. According to the SAB, Nichols requested that his name not be included in the onscreen credits as writer. (Modern sources note that dialogue in the film was not altered from the play.) Because of this request, Nichols was not eligible for a "Best Screenplay" Academy Award for this picture. In Jan 1947, HR announced that Seth Arnold, who played "Seth Beckwith" in an early New York stage production, was to recreate his role for the film; Henry Hull, however, played the screen part. RKO borrowed Michael Redgrave from the J. Arthur Rank Organization for this production. Redgrave, who made his American screen debut in the film, replaced James Mason, according to HR . Leo Genn made his screen debut in the film, which also marked Kirk Douglas' first assignment for RKO. (Douglas also appeared in RKO's Out of the Past , which was released before Mourning Becomes Electra , but was made later.) Jacqueline White, Shawn McGlory, Heather Angel, Frances Heflin, Evelyn Ankers and Ann Rutherford tested for roles, but were not cast, as indicated in RKO production files. Although HR announced that the score for the picture was to be the "longest in screen history," very little music was heard on the viewed print. The traditional sea shanty "Shenandoah," which is referred to in the stage directions of O'Neill's play, was sung throughout the film by an offscreen chorus.
       After its New York City premiere at the Golden Theatre, Nichols cut the film from approximately 175 minutes to 157 minutes, according to a 23 Dec 1947 HR news item. For the picture's Mar 1949 general release, it was cut to 121 minutes. Some of the above-listed bit players, including Jimmy Conlin and Robert Dudley, were not seen in the viewed print and were probably edited out for the shorter version. Although modern sources state that the picture was shown with a ten-minute intermission, the Var review of the New York opening noted that it was presented without an intermission. Rosalind Russell was nominated as Best Actress for her performance as Livinia, but lost to Loretta Young in RKO's The Farmer's Daughter (see above entry), and Michael Redgrave was nominated as Best Actor but lost to Ronald Colman in A Double Life (see above entry).
       Many reviews commented on the non-commercial, intellectual nature of this film. In a NYT article published shortly before the film's New York opening, Dudley Nichols voiced his concern about current Hollywood filmmaking and the riskiness of projects like Mourning Becomes Electra : "After spending a year's continuous effort on the film production of...'Mourning Becomes Electra,' I can only hope that it will be liked by the people whose judgment I respect....So long as the people demand witless entertainment and adolescent films, and stay away in flocks when an adult film is presented, they will continue to get them." As feared by Nichols, Mourning Becomes Electra was a box office failure, losing, according to modern sources, $2,310,000. An operatic version of O'Neill's play, libretto by Henry Butler, music by Marvin David Levy, was presented by the Metropolitan Opera Company in 1967. On 6 Dec 1978, as part of its Great Performances series, PBS broadcast a televised version of O'Neill's play, starring Joan Hackett, Roberta Maxwell and Bruce Davison.


More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
6 Dec 1947.
---
Film Daily
19 Nov 47
p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter
16 May 46
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
6 Jan 47
p. 12.
Hollywood Reporter
8 Jan 47
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
3 Mar 47
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
24 Mar 47
p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter
24 Jun 47
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
6 Aug 47
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
21 Nov 47
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
23 Dec 47
p. 19.
Hollywood Reporter
11 Oct 48
p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter
18 Mar 49
p. 2.
Independent Film Journal
26 Apr 47
p. 35.
Life
8 Dec 47
pp. 63-66.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
22 Nov 1947.
---
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
22 Nov 47
p. 3941.
New York Times
9 Nov 1947.
---
New York Times
20 Nov 47
p. 38.
Variety
19 Nov 47
p. 8.
Variety
29 May 1946.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Dial dir
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Prod
in assoc with The Theatre Guild, Inc.
Assoc prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
FILM EDITORS
Film ed
Film ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Set dec
COSTUMES
Men's ward
MUSIC
Mus dir
Orch arr
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
Spec eff
MAKEUP
Makeup supv
Makeup
PRODUCTION MISC
Mannon portraits by
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the play Mourning Becomes Electra by Eugene O'Neill (New York, 26 Oct 1931).
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra
Release Date:
1947
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 19 November 1947
Los Angeles opening: 25 December 1947
Production Date:
24 March--23 June 1947
Copyright Claimant:
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Copyright Date:
19 November 1947
Copyright Number:
LP1583
Physical Properties:
Sound
RCA Sound System
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
121, 157, 173 or 175
Length(in feet):
15,710
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
12361
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In New England at the end of the Civil War, the wealthy Mannon family, which made its fortune in shipping, is being torn apart by jealousy and hatred. Just before her father Ezra, a Union general, and brother Orin are due home from the war, Livinia Mannon follows her mother Christine to New York and sees her kissing the much younger Captain Adam Brant in his house. Later, jealous Livinia, who also has been kissed by the sea captain, tells returning officer Peter Niles, her childhood sweetheart, that she cannot marry him because of pressing family problems. She then hints to her mother, whom she has long hated, her knowledge of the affair. After devoted servant Seth Beckwith suggests to Livinia that Adam might be the son of her banished great uncle David and his wife Marie, a former Mannon servant, she questions Adam about his family when he comes calling at the house. Adam freely admits he is a Mannon and tells his cousin that, because of the harsh treatment that his now-deceased mother received from the Mannon men, he pursued Christine to seek revenge on them. Armed with this information, Livinia, who worships her father, confronts Christine about her affair. She is shocked to learn, however, that her mother, who has detested the domineering Ezra since their honeymoon, already knows about Adam's identity and plans to run off with him anyway. As a counter move, Livinia reminds her mother that Ezra will never grant her a divorce and that her age will eventually repulse Adam. Although Christine agrees never to see the captain again, she later reveals to Adam ... +


In New England at the end of the Civil War, the wealthy Mannon family, which made its fortune in shipping, is being torn apart by jealousy and hatred. Just before her father Ezra, a Union general, and brother Orin are due home from the war, Livinia Mannon follows her mother Christine to New York and sees her kissing the much younger Captain Adam Brant in his house. Later, jealous Livinia, who also has been kissed by the sea captain, tells returning officer Peter Niles, her childhood sweetheart, that she cannot marry him because of pressing family problems. She then hints to her mother, whom she has long hated, her knowledge of the affair. After devoted servant Seth Beckwith suggests to Livinia that Adam might be the son of her banished great uncle David and his wife Marie, a former Mannon servant, she questions Adam about his family when he comes calling at the house. Adam freely admits he is a Mannon and tells his cousin that, because of the harsh treatment that his now-deceased mother received from the Mannon men, he pursued Christine to seek revenge on them. Armed with this information, Livinia, who worships her father, confronts Christine about her affair. She is shocked to learn, however, that her mother, who has detested the domineering Ezra since their honeymoon, already knows about Adam's identity and plans to run off with him anyway. As a counter move, Livinia reminds her mother that Ezra will never grant her a divorce and that her age will eventually repulse Adam. Although Christine agrees never to see the captain again, she later reveals to Adam her plan to poison Ezra, who has a weak heart, and become a rich widow. Adam at first balks at participating in the scheme, but is soon goaded into agreeing to it by the hate-filled Christine. That night, Ezra returns home and informs Christine that Orin, whom she loves with the same intensity that she hates Livinia, was wounded in battle, but was made a man by the war. A thoughtful Ezra then tells Christine that the death of war "made him think of life," and that he now wants to start over with their marriage. Although momentarily confused by Ezra's change, Christine finally reveals her affair to him and, when he begins to suffer a heart attack in bed, gives him the poison. The scheme goes awry, however, when Livinia bursts into the bedroom and hears Ezra condemn Christine before dying. Distraught, Christine faints and drops the pills, which the suspicious Livinia then pockets. After Ezra's funeral, the still-recuperating Orin returns home and immediately begins questioning his mother about Adam. Christine reassures her son, who has become embittered by the war, and promises him that they will soon go away together to a "lost island." Christine also tells Orin that Livinia is losing her mind and has been accusing her of outrageous crimes. Consequently, when Livinia tries to convince Orin of Christine's deeds, he demands proof. To satisfy Orin, Livinia takes him to Adam's boat in Boston, and there they spy on their mother and Adam discussing Ezra's murder and their plans to sail away together. Outraged by his mother's betrayal, Orin later shoots and kills Adam at Livinia's request and makes the boat look like the target of robbers. The next day, Orin and Livinia return to the Mannon house and tell Christine what they have done. Overcome with grief, Christine immediately shoots and kills herself. Although Livinia insists to Orin that Adam's murder was justified and saved the family from disgrace, Orin is inconsolable and guilt-ridden. Weeks later, the siblings return home from an exotic island trip and try to resume their lives at the Mannon estate. Orin, who has grown a beard like his father's, cannot let go of his growing guilt, however, and feels uncomfortable in the house. Livinia, on the other hand, has blossomed since her parents' deaths and, while becoming more and more like Christine, eagerly courts the still-devoted Peter. When Orin, whom Livinia is keeping a virtual prisoner at home, realizes that she intends to marry Peter and thereby desert him, he begins writing a confessional "history" of the Mannon family. He then gives the papers to Peter's sister Hazel, who has long loved him, with instructions to read them before Peter's marriage to Livinia. Livinia discovers Hazel with the confession, however, and vows to Orin that she will give up Peter if he will give her the papers. After Orin returns the confession, he tells Hazel he cannot see her anymore and commits suicide. On the day of Orin's funeral, Hazel tells the restless Livinia, who now lingers outside the house, that because of the suspicions surrounding her, Peter has become estranged from his family. Hazel begs Livinia to break off with Peter, but Livinia refuses her request. Later, however, when Peter comes by and bitterly condemns his family and the town, Livinia realizes that the dead have already "come between them." By claiming that she had an affair with an island native, Livinia convinces Peter to end their engagement. Then, accepting that she is forever "bound to the Mannon dead," Livinia orders Seth to nail the shutters shut and remove all the flowers from the house. As Seth begins hammering the shutters, Livinia walks inside her house and forever closes the door on the outside world. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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