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

January 7, 2015

Secondly, parts of the ending were changed, though Barzman could not recall what exactly her original ending entailed (is has been almost 70 years, to be fair). When asked whether or not Nancy recognized that her future mother-in-law was the same woman who accused her of stealing the locket all those years ago (and she gives it to her on her wedding day, no less!), Barzman wasn’t aware it was the same woman to begin with, so that decision must have been in Gibney’s script or a directorial call.


This question spawned a mini debate amongst the audience members and UCLA's Jan-Christopher Horak, who was moderating the Q&A: did Nancy deliberately arrange the marriage knowing her future husband was Mrs. Willis' son to get back at her? Did she even recognize the woman? Whoever’s idea it was puts another interesting psychological spin on it, because that decision takes Nancy directly back to her childhood and the start of it all through her recognition of the woman, the locket, and the music box she knocks over again. Even if Nancy didn't recognize any of those pieces right off the bat - it could be “part of her pathology,” Horak noted - that inability could be due to the fact that she buried herself in so many levels of deceit and therefore lost the ability to tell reality from fiction. What Barzman did recollect about her ending was that she did arrange for Nancy to be married to John, and she was also about to enter that vicious cycle once again, due to the locket. The whole A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) type ending (filmed years before either film), where Nancy is taken away to an asylum in a hysterical/spectacular scene, was Barzman’s idea as well. 

Does this scene look familiar to anyone? In later films, that is? Perhaps The Locket influenced those movies?

Interestingly, neither Barzman nor her husband received story credit for The Locket. When asked about this, Barzman even called it strange, since her husband was credited for his work on The Boy with Green Hair (1948), which was also produced by RKO. In fact, the only reason she could come up for their exclusion involved Howard Hughes, who ran the studio at the time. Hughes apparently was angry with the couple after a visit to the set of The Boy with Green Hair where he told Dean Stockwell to say something along the lines of: “We will never have war again if America has the biggest army, the biggest navy and the biggest air force in the world.” Dean refused, and director Joseph Losey and Ben backed him up, which greatly angered Hughes. Though Barzman claimed this story could have influenced the decision to take her and her husband's name off The Locket's credits, I’m not sure if that story adds up, because The Locket was released in December 1946, almost two full years before The Boy with Green Hair.


Another explanation that may be closer to the real story was that the Blacklist was slowly beginning in Hollywood. Though the HUAC hearings took place in October 1947, Barzman noted that everyone knew something was obviously up in the year or two prior to the trials. Apparently, it wasn't exactly a well-kept secret that she and her husband were members of the American Communist party. 


The anti-communist rumblings in Hollywood and the sympathies of the original story writers had no effect on the film’s reviews. The Variety analysis of the picture commended the movie’s risky reliance on flashbacks, saying the "story carries the flashback technique to greater lengths than generally employed." Sheridan Gibney's script "displays an understanding of the subject matter" - a knowledge that at least partly had to come from Barzman's original screen story, though she of course wasn't credited at all in the review. The reviewer also applauded John Brahm for strategically moving the "doubt - and audience hope - that Nancy is not the villainess." 

That portrait (of Nancy, without pupils) looks like it could be evil, but Nancy? No way!

To me, it seemed that Barzman did not intend for Nancy to be viewed wholly and simply as the villain, which is where the psychology of the character comes in to play. While Barzman undoubtedly based Nancy off the story the Gardner siblings shared with her - name and all! - it would have been impossible for Barzman, or the Gardner's, to have been privy to all the psychological effects the Gardner's family's actions had on Nancy. Thus, those complex layers in the original story must have been mostly, or all, Barzman's, as she told the audience earlier that she was trying to reconcile Marx and Freud in her story; consequently, it seems that she must have had an interest in that area. She also told the audience that she actually saw a psychiatrist during the early 1940s; though she was sure her doctor was one that was "kosher," because the Communist party was very suspicious with what their members revealed since the party was so underground in California. Her sessions may have also helped inform her characterization of Nancy.


I admittedly don't know much about psychology, but it was interesting to watch Laraine Day mentally take down one man after another with her twisted charm, innocent smile, and those big, bright eyes. Her unbelievably cool evilness, which she operates just under the surface, reminds me of Joan Fontaine's man-eating femme fatale in Born to be Bad (1950), which I'm actually writing about soon; the way in which both women conduct themselves and their disposition when they are not behaving abominably makes it almost impossible for the surrounding characters to believe they could be so physically immoral and mentally cruel.  

Look at that innocent face! Nancy's lying through her teeth here, to current husband Harry.

Of course, the director grants the audience extra visual information that the others in the story don't have access to. Even so, there’s a casualness and dignity to Nancy that Day uses in an attempt to persuade the audience to take the side of each of her unsuspecting suitors...until they all learn the reality of the situation, of course. Despite the final revelation (which the audience has known for a while), by the time the last sap has finally succumbed to the truth, Nancy has already transitioned to the victim after reacting aversely to the locket and collapsing on her wedding day, of all days!


The sequence brings everything full circle for her: Nancy fought so desperately for that gift from Karen when she was a child, only to have it cruelly taken away and then accused of stealing it by Mrs. Willis. It only seems fitting that her scheming actions in adulthood, which the film traces back to this childhood situation, lands the locket in her (rightful) possession; in fact, the necklace is handed to her by the very same woman who denied it to her decades earlier! While Nancy’s being taken away, we can't help but feel sorry for her, but there was always a thought in the back of my mind wondering if she would ever truly get better - or even if this was all an act! The ending is a bit clouded, and what fate awaits Nancy and her mental state is left up for discussion. 

There should be something familiar about this locket, Nancy, and the lady who's giving it to you...

There's the realization!

The supporting male characters, Robert Mitchum, Brian Aherne, and Gene Raymond, all turn in solid performances as the very diverse suitors caught in Nancy's web of deceit. Raymond's role is a small one and Aherne's rather straight and stiff (though it fits the character), but it was Mitchum who surprised me the most. Though for the most part he plays his usual hardened character here, he shows more compassion than I'm used to seeing from him, particularly when he begs Aherne's character to help the innocent man who went to death because of Nancy. Though he seems like he's come to terms with the events when he visits Harry at his office to tell him the execution took place, the situation clearly tormented him internally, as he leaps to his death moments later. Chalk up two deaths (and quite possibly a third) that Nancy's actions have indirectly caused. 

Poor Norman fell under Nancy's spell and tried so hard to warn the others, but we all know how that ended...

That’s pretty intense material to pen. I would have loved to hear more details of Barzman’s writing process, especially when it came to Nancy’s many layers and lovers – how much emanated from the original tale and how much from those psychiatrist’s visits (or was neither the case)? Despite the few questions that were still left at the end of the evening, from both the movie and conversation, it was a treat to learn more about the inner workings of Hollywood around the time McCarthy reigned, especially from someone who was there and directly affected by the era.


Fortunately, since that time the Academy has restored both Norma and Ben Barzman’s names on the credits for The Locket, and she’s received a plaque confirming as much from the Writer’s Guild.


I guess six decades late is better than never, right?

How to unlock the layers of The Locket:

Warner Archive released the film on DVD, and it's available for purchase from their website. After reading the tagline on the above ad, how could you not want to see this movie?!

thanks for stopping by!

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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