Nora Prentiss (1947) is arguably Ann Sheridan’s most fascinating and fashionable film. This 1947 film noir 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.
The film also marked the beginning of Ann Sheridan’s collaborations with fashion designer Billy Travilla. Thanks to Ann’s influence, Nora Prentiss was the first film Travilla designed for Warner Bros. The stunning gowns Travilla designed for Ann in the film proved him a designer of tremendous talent.
You can purchase Nora Prentiss here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s get to the plot, then go behind the scenes of the film, and Ann’s friendship with Billy Travilla.
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. 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…
Oh 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 will never ask his wife for a divorce, has decided to move to New York and leave the romance behind. She’s shocked and elated 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.
Talbot tells Nora they just need to discretely wait for his divorce to go through, then 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 the “death” of his friend and partner.
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 and a crash, which engulfs Talbot in 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"
Ann Sheridan was a star who had no problem going on suspension. If Ann’s studio didn’t show her respect through salary and quality film roles, she let them know something needed to change through her willingness to take long suspensions.
Ann’s popularity soared after the successful “Oomph Girl” campaign in the spring of 1939. But when she asked Warner Bros. for better film roles and a pay increase to match this popularity, the studio refused.
So, in the fall of 1940, Ann Sheridan went on suspension.
Ann’s strike ended eight months later, when 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 some of the best work of her career, and earned the praise of audiences and critics alike.
Ann had now proved both her popularity and talent. But Warner Bros. continued offering her lackluster parts in average films. Primed for another strike, Ann went on suspension again in December of 1944.
As Ann later shared, this 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 referred to Ann’s strike as the greatest “long-distance star suspension hold-out on record.”
Ann herself later joked 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 approved 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, the story which became Nora Prentiss. Sherman bought Webster’s story for $2500 as a “future project.” He was intrigued by the premise—a man charged for his own murder, and believed it would translate well on film.
Sherman was surprised when one day over lunch, Jack Warner offered to buy the rights to The Man Who Died Twice from him for $7500. Warner’s only conditions to the sale were that Sherman direct the film, and that he make it an Ann Sheridan vehicle.
With Ann’s hard won script approval provision now in her contract, this meant Vincent Sherman would have to convince her that Nora Prentiss was a good role, no easy feat considering that, as Sherman told Jack Warner:
“It’s really the man’s story,”
Sherman wasn’t certain he could make The Man Who Died Twice into a starring vehicle for the female character.
But the prospect of working with Ann motivated Sherman to make the story more female-centric:
“The prospect of working with Sheridan was even more appealing than the ‘fast five grand,’ and I agreed [to Jack Warner’s deal].”
Sherman & Sheridan: Fast Friends on Nora Prentiss
Sherman decided the best approach was to be honest with Ann. 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 that he could enlarge the nightclub singer’s role. The straight-shooting Ann appreciated Sherman’s directness, and she agreed to do the film.
Renamed Nora Prentiss after the successful enlargement of Ann’s role, the film marked the first time that Ann and Vincent Sherman worked together. It was the start of a friendship that both cherished. Ann would refer to Sherman as “a wonderful guy and good director,” while Sherman shared 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 range as an actress is evident 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 complimented Ann for how she “brought the role to life,” and lamented that Warner Bros. didn’t appreciate her talent:
“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 performance in the film is enhanced by the 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. He sets the tone of the film through his dark, harsh lighting. Howe’s work is a beautiful, film noir tribute to San Francisco.
Filming in such a populated, bustling city brought its own challenges however. Vincent Sherman came away from Nora Prentiss with a few more tricks up his sleeve: Sherman found 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 also found that in order to keep the natural, fast-paced feel of the city, stand-ins to the stars had to be used until the very last minute. Only then could the stars be brought in to film. Otherwise, crowds formed, and the scene lost authenticity.
In the words of Vincent Sherman, when Nora Prentiss was released in February of 1947:
“the picture caught on and did better business than expected.”
Nora Prentiss earned Warner Bros. almost double what it cost to make—the film was budgeted at $1.48 million, and earned $3.3 million—a 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 out to find a new vehicle for Vincent Sherman and Ann Sheridan. With Sherman’s input, that film would be The Unfaithful (1947).
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 also marked the beginning of Ann’s collaborations with legendary fashion designer, Billy Travilla. Nora Prentiss was the first of five films Ann and Travilla made together.
Ann first met Travilla in 1945, after spotting some of his artwork at Don the Beachcomber, a favorite restaurant of Ann’s in Hollywood.
Ann asked to meet the artist one night, and the two immediately hit it off. Ann and Billy found more common ground when the subject turned to fashion: Travilla was an aspiring designer with slight success to his name, while Ann was a popular film star who loved to dress well.
In 1946, when Ann negotiated her contract with Warner Bros. at the end of her 18 month strike, she made sure that Billy Travilla was part of the deal. The studio hired Billy to be her personal designer.
Nora Prentiss was Travilla’s first film under the new contract, and he features Ann’s statuesque figure to full advantage. As Travilla said of working with Ann at the time:
“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 frequently used in the 1950s.
The sunburst on Ann’s white dress from Nora Prentiss above hints at the full scale sunburst pleating that Travilla would implement almost a decade later for Marilyn Monroe’s famous gold lame gown in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).
Another Travilla element we first see 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
Ann loved the wardrobe Travilla designed for her in Nora Prentiss. So much so that Ann asked Billy to make copies of 20 of her costumes in the film for her own closet.
And she made sure to praise Travilla’s work publicly, stating 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.”
Goodbye Warner Bros.
Though Nora Prentiss was only the first of six films that Ann’s new contract stipulated she make for Warner Bros. over the next three years, she was too disenchanted with the studio to finish out the contract. Ann ultimately bought out the final six months for $35,000.
For Ann Sheridan, it was time to move on to better projects and collaborations.
That's it for Nora Prentiss
And that’s it for Nora Prentiss.
Join me next week for all about Ann Sheridan, Cary Grant, and I Was a Male War Bride (1949).