The True-ish Tale of The Locket with Writer Norma Barzman

January 7, 2015

“As you all probably know, I was a Communist," Norma Barzman stated matter-of-factly. Silence. "Well, I thought you all knew!"

 

Not me. I actually knew nothing of Norma Barzman before she took the stage at the UCLA Film and Television Archive in September 2014, but that's not the case anymore.

 

Barzman was in attendance to discuss The Locket, the 1946 movie she penned the story for with the help of her husband, screenwriter Ben Barzman.

 

For a woman who just celebrated her 94th birthday the day before, Barzman looked wonderful and had enough energy to prove it: she cheerfully took the stage around 10:45pm to begin the Q&A and was clearly very happy to be there, even at the late hour. Despite the fact that the subject of the evening, The Locket, boasts an incredible flashback within a flashback within another flashback, Barzman handled the intricacies of the birth of the story (details now seven decades old), like a pro. I mention this only because once you read the summary below you'll be even more impressed with Barzman's writing and memory! 

The Locket (1946)

A party celebrating the upcoming marriage of John Willis (Gene Raymond) and Nancy Patton (Laraine Day) is in full swing, but the festivities are quietly interrupted by one Dr. Harry Blair (Brian Aherne), who requests to speak to John. Harry reveals some startling information about Nancy's past to her fiancée, including the fact that he was once married to Nancy. Naturally, John does not believe him, but Harry continues his story, as he was once in John's position when a stranger named Norman Clyde (Robert Mitchum) walked into his life years ago claiming to know scandalous information about Nancy's past. 

 

As we see in flashback number one, that info includes a plea by Norman for Harry to talk Nancy into going to the District Attorney's office, because Norman is sure Nancy holds information about a murder that an innocent man is going to be executed for. How does Norman know that? He was with her right after the murder, and she confessed to being at the scene of the crime!

Norman Clyde (Robert Mitchum), left, tries to convince Dr. Harry Blair (Brian Aherne), right, of Nancy's past. It's not going so well.

Cue flashback number two, when Norman confides his story to Harry, telling him that he met Nancy a few years prior when she attended an art class of his with a friend.  Quickly, the two became friends, and Nancy used her boss, Andrew Bonner (Ricardo Cortez)'s influence in the arts to secure Norman a show of his own. Their relationship was running smoothly until Norman uncovered a missing bracelet Nancy stole and confronted her about it.

 

Nancy admitted that she took the bracelet and traced her actions back to her childhood. In flashback number three, Nancy recalled that when she was young, she lived with her mother (Helene Thimig), a housekeeper in the Willis home. Nancy was friends with Mrs. Willis (Katherine Emery)'s daughter Karen (Gloria Donovan), though because she was the daughter of the housekeeper, Mrs. Willis forbid the friendship from growing, even barring Nancy from attending Karen's birthday party. Saddened that her friend was relegated to the kitchen with the rest of the house's staff, Karen brought Nancy a locket to console her, which was sadly taken away from her moments later by Mrs. Willis because Karen didn't know the piece was expensive. 

Nancy (Sharyn Moffett) happily receives her locket from Karen (Gloria Donovan).

Of course, when the locket went missing soon thereafter, Mrs. Willis accused Nancy of taking it, even after her mother found the locket in Karen's dress pocket. This discovery didn't let Nancy off the hook; rather, Mrs. Willis charged Nancy's mother with covering up for her daughter, intimidated Nancy into confessing to the crime, and kicked them both out. Accidently, Nancy knocked over a music box on her way out. Though seemingly a little accident, that music box and its song would come back to haunt Nancy later. 

Who wouldn't be scarred by Mrs. Willis (Katherine Emery)? Even Nancy's mother (Helene Thimig) is powerless against her.

Back in flashback two, Nancy promised Norman that she had never stolen anything before and swore she wouldn't do it again. With that issue over with, the couple attended another party at Andrew's residence, but when Norman ventured upstairs to find Nancy, he heard a gunshot and watched Nancy slip out of a bedroom. The police arrived and started questioning the guests, and Nancy assured Norman that Andrew was dead when she entered the room to fix her makeup. She urged Norman to tell the police that she was with him all night. Though Norman agreed at the time, when another man was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death - a man Nancy did not see there that evening - Norman insisted that Nancy come forward. Instead, she refused to implicate herself, which put a permanent strain on the couple's relationship.

Could Nancy (Laraine Day) finally be in trouble? Perhaps, but she'll find a way out of it! 

Now we're back in flashback one. Harry does not believe Norman's story and tells him to visit his home to confront Nancy face to face. Norman stops by later that night in a last ditch effort to clear the innocent man's name; however, Nancy acts like she knows nothing of the murder and casts Norman in an even more delusional light. The following day, Norman shows up again at Harry's office, this time after the man was executed, knowing that he did all he could to clear the innocent's name. However, that obviously wasn't enough for him, because after leaving Harry's office, Norman jumps out a window. 

That's a pretty big headline. 

With Norman and his pestering out of the picture, Harry and Nancy move to England to get away from everything. They end up volunteering with the war effort while there, and during a weekend off, they visit a country estate. During their stay, the hostess' necklace goes missing. With Norman's suspicions planted in his own mind, Harry suspects his wife of taking the necklace, though when she empties her purse to find a set of keys, the necklace is curiously nowhere to be found. Husband and wife return to their volunteer duties, but one night after their home is hit by a bomb, Harry uncovers a box full of jewelry, including the missing piece. Even with the evidence front and center, Nancy denies that she stole anything. Since Harry has now learned the truth, Nancy schemes to keep him quiet by placing him in a mental institution, where she is sure that no one will believe a word he says!

Doctor, I think you have the wrong patient. 

Back in the present day, Harry wraps up his story, telling John that he just got out of the hospital. As history repeats itself, John of course doesn't believe anything Harry is telling him. John brings Nancy in, and though she admits to knowing Harry, Nancy denies she was ever married to him, blaming his 'crazy story' on the effects of the war.

 

The marriage plans move forward, but before Nancy heads down the aisle, her mother-in-law walks in with a gift. SURPRISE! It's Mrs. Willis from her childhood! She bestows upon Nancy a locket that has been passed down in her family, a necklace that her daughter Karen would be wearing had she not passed away; though her daughter is gone, Mrs. Willis feels Karen would want Nancy to wear it (little did she know...). In putting the pieces together and trying to process the situation, Nancy accidently knocks over a music box...the same one that fell all those years ago with the exact same music softly playing. As Nancy walks down the aisle towards John, all the images from her past pop up to haunt her. Overwhelmed, she collapses and is escorted out of the house by a nurse and taken away in an ambulance. Could it have been the locket that did it?!

What bad luck to have on your wedding day!

Norma Barzman and the Tale of The Locket

Barzman explained that what she wrote for The Locket wasn't a screenplay but rather an original story for the screen, which was a 120-130 page description of what the screenplay would be. Her husband, writer Ben Barzman, worked at RKO at the time and looked over her pages when she was finished. One piece of advice he shared with her? He told her she couldn't write a flashback within a flashback within a flashback. "Oh, yes I can!" she replied.

Norma Barzman chats with Archive Director Jan-Christopher Horak at the UCLA Film and Television Archive (Picture by Kim Luperi)

At that time, Barzman had only written one other story for the screen, Never Say Goodbye, which was sold in one day to Warner Brothers as an Errol Flynn vehicle (it was released the same year as The Locket, in 1946). Prior to that, Barzman was a reporter for the Los Angeles Examiner and therefore didn't have much experience writing for the movies, so due to her naiveté, she didn’t know what she could and couldn't do, story wise. However, her daring flashback within a flashback within a flashback template seemed so right to her because that’s how it developed in her mind. Luckily for her, it ended up working well, and the story miraculously is not very hard to follow (though it may seem that way on paper).

 

As intricately as the movie unfolds, the story surprisingly lends itself partly to a true tale, at least as was told to Barzman. The story begins in Mexico, where Barzman and her husband vacationed after the birth of their first child. Unfortunately, in Acapulco, her husband fell ill and spent the week in bed. His wife ended up meeting George Peabody Gardner, his sister Belle, and Belle's husband at the hotel they were all staying at. Barzman wound up spending a large amount of time with them and became friendly with the trio.

 

This chance meeting would play a large role in the story of The Locket. George and Belle were brought up in a very aristocratic family, and Belle, for one, ran away from her well-bred world with her husband, which was something George was also trying to do. When asked why they wanted so badly to leave that life behind, the siblings confided in Barzman that when they were both young something awful happened that concerned their family. George and Belle grew up in a household with a housekeeper and her little girl, Nancy, who the siblings were very friendly with. Nancy was accused of stealing a locket that she didn't take, and as a result of the accusation, Nancy's mother was fired from her job, and they moved away. George and Belle stayed in touch with the housekeeper, and years later, they found out that Nancy had a nervous breakdown, and her life headed down a dark path (yes, this included stealing). Due to the event that occurred when they were children, George and Belle felt their family was partly responsible for what had sadly become of Nancy.

So, apparently these two were based on real people!

After a week in Acapulco, Barzman and her husband traveled to Mexico City, but the story George and Belle told her stayed in her mind. When they arrived home, instead of returning to the newspaper, Barzman began writing the story for The Locket with her husband's help.  The story was eventually sold to Hume Croyn to produce, and Hume later sold it to RKO.

 

Along with the elements of truth included in The Locket, Barzman also admitted that the story was her "childish attempt" to reconcile Marx and Freud. She explained: In the 1940s, though both men had been around for a while, many people were just beginning to become aware of them and their respective work. In regards to the story, Barzman felt that Nancy was probably a very neurotic little girl with an anxious mother; to that effect, Barzman was going to include scenes showing that something was wrong with Nancy's father too - perhaps he passed away - to establish a clear psychiatric line through the two characters, but the father storyline never made it to fruition.  Furthermore, there was the added touch of the way Nancy and her mother were exposed to what Barzman saw as "controlling capitalism" when they were thrown out of the Willis household. In the movie, it's clear that both of these issues contributed to the adult Nancy grew in to, even if Barzman wasn't able to include everything she wanted in the story.

 

Barzman pointed out that there were some notable differences between her story for the screen and the final product, penned by Sheridan Gibney. The largest difference was the fact that her original outline never moved Nancy and Harry to England, which is where the Harry finally realized he was caught in Nancy’s deceitful web. Though as the movie plays today, the segment serves to solidify Nancy as a thief and liar, taking the couple out of the country did feel weird and almost unnecessary. Even with all the flashbacks, I felt all the other scenes and settings were crucial to the story, but this one felt out of place. I wonder why the decision was made to move the couple overseas for a brief period of time, when Nancy's actions could have been uncovered basically anywhere...

While in England, Nancy and Harry naturally get invited to a country estate, complete with a tour of the owner's priceless relics and jewels. Don't be shocked when something goes missing!

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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