Ann Sheridan Can Curse Like a Sailor on a Stormy Night, Shows Warner Bros. She’s More Than “The Oomph Girl,” And Looks Stunning in the Gorgeous Gowns of Billy Travilla.
Nora Prentiss (1947), Ann Sheridan, and Billy Travilla
Nora Prentiss (1947) is without a doubt one of Ann Sheridan’s most fascinating and fashionable films. This 1947 film noir, with all its twists and turns, keeps you guessing the whole time, and continues to gain respect as a “women’s noir” that stays true to the quintessential elements of film noir: if you’re looking for a romance with a happy ending, you won’t find it in Nora Prentiss!
Ann Sheridan’s wardrobe in the film, designed by William Travilla, is absolutely stunning, and almost steals the show. Nora Prentiss was Travilla’s first film under contract to Warner Bros., and it was thanks to Ann’s influence that Travilla finally got his big break in films.
Don’t miss Nora Prentiss when it plays on TCM this upcoming Tuesday! Check the TCM schedule here for showtimes. You can also purchase Nora Prentiss here on Amazon [aff. link].
To the plot!
Dr. Richard Talbot (Kent Smith) is a respected San Francisco doctor. Two kids, beautiful wife (Rosemary DeCamp), Talbot’s life seems just about perfect.
On the surface, that is.
You get the sense that underneath it all, Talbot is ready to explode: his wife is cold and nagging, and his partner at work, Dr. Joel Merriam (Bruce Bennett), gets away with late nights partying because he can count on Talbot to be at the office in the morning to pick up his slack.
Talbot is a creature of habit ready for an adventure. And he finally gets his adventure the evening that Nora Prentiss (Ann Sheridan) is hit by a taxi in front of his office.
Talbot's Adventure Begins
Talbot is working late the evening that Nora is brought in for treatment, so he’s the only one in the office. There’s an immediate attraction between the two, and Nora, a nightclub singer used to much more forward men, decides to have some fun with the quiet doctor.
“You may not have noticed, but I was a little fresh…next time I’ll be polite.”
Nora says at the end of the visit. But it’s obvious that they both enjoyed her forwardness. Dr. Talbot seems invigorated by meeting Nora, and plans to visit her at the nightclub to watch her perform.
The sparks between Nora and Talbot fly again after he watches her perform a sultry number at the nightclub. Then Dr. Talbot does something completely out of character: he kisses Nora goodnight, and asks her out on a date over the weekend. His wife and kids are conveniently out of town.
As Nora herself says on their date to Talbot’s cabin in the woods,
“You’re way off schedule now.”
A Double Life
The date at Talbots’s cabin is the turning point: the two begin an affair, and Talbot’s double life begins. Now he’s the one coming into the office late, returning home to his family at all hours of the night, even forgetting his daughter’s birthday party. All Talbot can think about is Nora, and how to leave his family for her.
One night at the office, Talbot decides to sit down and write a letter to his wife asking for a divorce. But before he can finish, a patient with a heart condition staggers into the office. Before Dr. Talbot can treat him, the patient falls to the floor, and dies.
As Talbot dials the police to report the death, he realizes that the dead patient and him are the same age. They’re also the same weight. And height…
Ohhhh no he didn’t.
Oh yes, he DOES.
Talbot trades clothes with the dead man, slips his wedding ring onto the dead man’s finger, moves the body down to his car, and drives out to Carmel. On a cliff overlooking the ocean, Talbot pours alcohol all over the body and inside the car, lights it on fire, and then pushes the car off the cliff in a grand explosion.
Now that he’s staged his own death, Talbot can leave his wife and kids without having to get a divorce. (But, wouldn’t that have been simpler?)
He jets over to the dock to catch Nora, who, convinced Talbot would never ask his wife for a divorce, has decided to move to New York and leave the romance behind. She’s shocked when Talbot shows up to join her in a new life on the east coast.
But the dirty rat fails to mention the whole staging-his-own-death-thing, and tells Nora they just need to discretely wait for his divorce to go through before they can marry.
Nora Prentiss Gets Suspicious
In New York, Nora begins to get suspicious that Talbot maybe didn’t leave things so simply in San Francisco—Talbot uses a fake name, and insists that they never go out together in public for fear of being recognized. The dead giveaway for Nora that Talbot hasn’t been straight with her is when he’s recognized by a doctor acquaintance on the one night they do venture out together. Talbot deals with the situation in just about the worst way possible, almost wetting his pants on the dance floor before practically running out of the joint. Smooth Talbot, smooth.
Talbot finally comes clean to Nora about faking his death. Nora realizes that they will never have the typical life together she dreamed of, so she gets a job in her friend’s nightclub, and begins supporting the both of them.
Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, Dr. Merriam begins to suspect foul play with his buddy’s “death.” Merriam becomes convinced that Talbot was blackmailed for some unknown reason, and that the blackmailer must have killed him and is still on the loose. The police begin to investigate.
Talbot has slowly been going crazy since staging his own death, and Nora is officially the only facet of his life. He starts imagining that she and her boss are hooking up, so he heads over to the club one night to catch them. Well, he’s wrong, but that doesn’t stop the crazed Talbot from almost fatally injuring Nora’s boss, and then fleeing the scene as the police arrive. It all ends in a car chase, a crash, and Talbot engulfed by flames.
The End of the Line
Talbot doesn’t die in the crash. But his face is burned and disfigured beyond recognition. As luck would have it, just as Talbot—with his now unrecognizable face—is about to leave the hospital, the police from San Francisco catch up with him.
Talbot thinks they’ve discovered that he staged his own death back in California. But actually, the police think that Talbot killed himself.
Or rather, they think that Talbot is the murderous blackmailer who killed Dr. Talbot…
Or wait…does that make sense? It’s all very confusing, but the police were able to match Talbot’s finger prints to the prints on the alcohol bottle at the scene of the crime in San Francisco. And since Dr. Talbot is dead, this guy with the disfigured face must be the blackmailer who murdered him.
Talbot is so done with it all by this time, he doesn’t say a word, and lets the police take him back to San Francisco for trial. In court, not even his own wife or Dr. Merriam recognize him.
The only person who can set things straight is Nora. But Talbot has pleaded with her not to say a word: he’d rather have his family remember him as an upstanding doctor and husband than know the truth. It means Talbot will be sentenced to death for his own murder, but it’s a price he’s willing to pay.
Nora takes pity on Talbot and his pleas, and promises to keep the truth to herself.
The film ends with Talbot waiting to meet his end, and Nora losing the romance she sacrificed so much for.
The "Suspension Queen"
If you remember from my intro post on Ann Sheridan, Ann was one star who was willing to go on suspension if her studio wasn’t showing her respect through salary and quality film roles. Ann would go on strike in the fall of 1940 after Warner Bros. refused to increase her pay and offer her better film roles in accordance with her increased popularity after “The Oomph Girl” campaign.
Ann’s strike ended eight months later, after Warner Bros. finally offered her the plum role of Randy in King’s Row (1941), opposite Ronald Reagan. Ann’s performance in the film was praised by audiences and critics alike, and is often cited by Sheridan fans as one of the best of her career.
So it was surprising that despite her popularity and proven talent, Warner Bros. continued offering Ann lackluster parts in average films. Ann was prime for another strike, and officially went on suspension again in December of 1944. Ann would later say this second suspension was
“Knock-down, drag-out. I went on suspension for 18 months after One More Tomorrow [the film] was finished. That’s when the strike began for better scripts, a pay raise and a picture deal. My option was coming up, which put me in a good position.”
Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper would refer to Ann’s strike as the greatest “long-distance star suspension hold-out on record.” Ann herself would later joke that she and fellow Warner Bros. star Lauren Bacall each held suspension records at the studio: Bacall went on suspension the most, but Ann’s suspensions were the longest.
With the help of longtime boyfriend, publicist Steve Hannagan, Ann eventually negotiated an enviable deal with Warner Bros.: in addition to a raise, Ann would make six films for the studio over a period of three years—2 films each year—with script approval for each project.
The first script Ann would approve under her new contract was Nora Prentiss (1947).
Sherman's Story Becomes Nora Prentiss
Director Vincent Sherman personally owned the rights to song writer Paul Webster’s story, The Man Who Died Twice, which would be the basis for Nora Prentiss. Sherman bought Webster’s story for $2500, as a “future project.” He was intrigued by the premise—a man being charged for his own murder, and believed it would translate well on film. Sherman was completely surprised when one day over lunch, Jack Warner offered to buy the story rights from Sherman for $7500.
Warner’s only conditions to the sale were that Sherman direct the film, and that he make it into a project for Ann Sheridan, which meant convincing Ann—remember that hard-earned script approval she’d just had written into her contract?—that this would be a good film role.
“It’s really the man’s story,”
Sherman told Warner. He wasn’t so sure it could be make into a starring vehicle for the female character. But, as Sherman later recounted,
“The prospect of working with Sheridan was even more appealing than the ‘fast five grand,’ and I agreed.”
Now all Sherman had to do was convince Ann to make the film.
Sherman and Sheridan: Fast Friends on Nora Prentiss
Sherman decided that honesty was the best policy, so when he traveled to Ann’s place in New York to make the pitch, he told her that though The Man Who Died Twice was the man’s story, he was confident he could enlarge the nightclub singer’s role. Sherman’s honest approach was appreciated by the straight-shooting Ann, and she agreed to the film.
The film, renamed Nora Prentiss after the successful enlargement of Ann’s role, would be the first time she and Vincent Sherman worked together. It was the start of a friendship that both would cherish. Ann would refer to Sherman as “a wonderful guy and good director,” while Sherman would say in his autobiography that Ann was [aff. link]
“…a joy to work with. She was genuine, no affectations and no bull; she loved to laugh and have fun and could, when provoked, curse like a sailor on a stormy night.”
Ann’s acting range was perfectly implemented in Nora Prentiss. Nora’s a girl with a hard, world weary shell protecting a sensitive heart of gold. Ann seamlessly transitions between tough and vulnerable throughout the film, delivering whatever the scene calls for. In his autobiography, Vincent Sherman would say Ann “brought the role to life.” He’d pay Ann the highest compliments about her great acting talent, which unfortunately, was under-appreciated by her studio:
“She knew how to toss away a line, underplay it with a wry quality, and get the full measure of the laugh therein. She could also play a dramatic role with the best of them. But because she came up from the ranks, her skill was underrated.”
Nora Prentiss Film Noir Cinematography and Tricks
Ann’s nuanced performance in the film is enhanced by the gorgeous cinematography of the great James Wong Howe. Nora Prentiss was filmed on location in San Francisco, and Howe perfectly captures the beauty of the city, and sets the tone of the film, through his dark, harsh lighting. Howe’s work is a beautiful, film noir-style tribute to San Francisco.
Filming in such a populated, bustling city brought its own challenges however, and Vincent Sherman would come away from Nora Prentiss with a few more tricks up his sleeve. Sherman would find that concealing the camera was absolutely critical when filming in the middle of a big city—the rear of a pickup truck was always a solid option. Sherman would also find that to keep the natural, fast-paced feel of the city, stand-ins to the stars had to be used until the very last minute, with stars watching discretely from a distance, until it was time to film. Otherwise, crowds would form, and the scene would lose its authenticity.
When Nora Prentiss was released in February of 1947, Vincent Sherman would say that
“the picture caught on and did better business than expected.”
Nora Prentiss would earn Warner Bros. almost double what it cost to make the film—the film was budgeted at $1.48 million, and earned $3.3 million—a pretty significant return, especially considering that the average price of a movie ticket in 1947 was 44 cents.
Understandably, Jack Warner was eager to repeat the success of Nora Prentiss, and quickly set about finding a new vehicle for Vincent Sherman and Ann to make together. Thanks to Sherman’s input, that film would be The Unfaithful (1947), which gave Ann another opportunity to demonstrate her range and talent.
Travilla and Sheridan: A Fashion Friendship
The pairing of Sherman and Sheridan wasn’t the only successful partnership that began on Nora Prentiss. The film would also be the first of five that Ann would make with legendary fashion designer, William “Billy” Travilla.
I’ll cover Travilla’s fascinating career and Ann’s role in it more in my Fashion Tribute to Billy Travilla later this month, but Ann and Travilla first became acquainted in 1945 after some of Travilla’s masterful paintings caught Ann’s eye at Don the Beachcomber, a Hollywood restaurant Ann frequented.
When she asked to meet the artist one night, Ann and Travilla immediately hit it off, and found even more common ground when the subject turned to fashion: Travilla was an aspiring designer with slight success to his name, and Ann was a popular film star who loved to dress well.
When Ann negotiated her contract with Warner Bros. at the end of her 18 month strike in 1946, she made sure that Billy Travilla was part of the deal: Travilla was brought in as her personal designer.
Nora Prentiss was Travilla’s first film under the new contract, and the young designer excelled at showing Ann’s statuesque figure to full advantage. Travilla would say about Ann in 1946 that
“Nothing shall ever veil, conceal, or minimize in any way the gorgeous works nature has formed on Miss Sheridan, Her hip-line is an unparalleled work of art and I wouldn’t commit the sin of hiding it.”
True to his word, Travilla’s designs for Ann in the film—from day suits to evening gowns—accentuate her slim waist and hips.
Signature Travilla Style in Nora Prentiss
Elements of Travilla’s later work and style are already apparent in Nora Prentiss, such as his signature darts, and a touch of the sunburst pleating he would frequently use in designs for Marilyn Monroe–think the famous gold lame gown—in the 1950s.
One of my Travilla touches that shows up in Nora Prentiss is the vertical sequins over skin-toned fabric he incorporates on the top of one of Ann’s evening gowns.
Friends to the End
Good friend that she was, Ann was sure to promote her friend Billy to the press with genuine praise, sharing in a 1946 interview that
“There’s one young designer I consider tops. He’s Billy Travilla of our studios. After each picture, I can’t resist buying the wardrobe he’s designed for me.”
This was completely true: Ann bought replicas for her own personal wardrobe of 20 of the 25 costumes Travilla designed for her in the film!
Nora Prentiss was only the beginning of the friendship between Travilla and Ann. Travilla would design Ann’s wardrobe in four more films, in addition to the costumes for her later stage work. And Ann’s support would again prove invaluable when Travilla launched his clothing line in 1957.
Ann, Bogie, and Practical Jokes Between Stars
A fun episode in the friendship between Ann and Humphrey Bogart also occurred around the time of Nora Prentiss. Ann decided to play a joke on her buddy Bogart, and made a brief cameo in Bogie’s current film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). These two Warner Bros. stars had enjoyed joking and teasing each other ever since Bogie first poked fun at Ann’s “Oomph Girl” title, when, referencing Ann’s famous comment about “oomph” being the sound a fat man makes, Bogie christened her “Miss Pushface of 1893.” Ann would respond to Bogie’s scatalogical humor by giving him a Gene Autry toy gun, poking fun at Bogart’s tough guy/gangster persona.
Always looking for a new way to catch her friend off guard, Ann, with Sierra Madre director John Huston on board, donned a black wig and padded dress to play a hooker who briefly passes Bogart in the film:
“I walked down the street in a big fat disguise to see if Bogart would recognize me. There’s a shot where he comes out of a bar…and he passes me and then turns and looks back. And you see a girl twitching down the street in a black satin dress. That’s me. A bit. John Huston and I whipped that one up.”
Of course, Bogart was beyond surprised, and found it absolutely hilarious when he realized it was his friend Annie “twitching down the street.”
Though there are photos of Ann wearing the costume behind the scenes of Sierra Madre, it’s debated whether her footage was actually used in the film. The close up shots are definitely not her, but many Sheridan fans swear that in the long shots, it’s Ann.
Either way, what a great practical joke between friends who just happened to be Classic Hollywood legends!
“He was a dirty rat, but I loved that man.”
Ann would say of her good friend Bogie in 1965.
Goodbye Warner Bros.
Though Nora Prentiss would be the first of six films Ann’s new contract stipulated she make for Warner Bros. over three years, Ann was so disenchanted with the studio by the end of the deal that she bought out the final six months of her contract for $35,000. It was time to move on to better projects and collaborations more deserving of her time.
And thank heavens she did! Otherwise we may have been deprived the genius pairing of Ann and Cary Grant in 1949’s I Was A Male War Bride, which I’m excited to review next week.