Obituary: Catherine Turney

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THOUGH THE term "woman's picture" may seem condescending now, it was once the label attached to some of Hollywood's most successful films, particularly in the 1940s, when such strong female stars as Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Ann Sheridan and Ida Lupino were prime box-office attractions.

As a contract writer at Warners, Catherine Turney wrote for all those ladies and created quality scripts for such superior melodramas as Mildred Pierce, A Stolen Life, My Reputation and The Man I Love. "They must have liked my work to keep me on," said Turney, "for they were a male-oriented studio not particularly predisposed to women writers. We were seen as a necessary evil and were seldom paid as much as the men. But a lot of men were in the armed forces and they had all these big women stars."

Turney fashioned scripts in which the heroines were often independent women with spirit and a sense of humour. A former playwright, she was skilled in dramatic construction. "Mildred Pierce was a very big novel, about 600 pages, and to break it down to around 90 minutes you had to do a lot of manoeuvring and cutting and dove-tailing . . . I think that playwrights generally do this better than, say, novelists."

One of Turney's first assignments at Warners was to make amendments to Louise Randall Pierson's lengthy adaptation of her own autobiography, Roughly Speaking (1945), starring Rosalind Russell, and she also adapted Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1946).

Turney was particularly expert at highly charged confrontational scenes, among them the exchanges between the war widow Stanwyck and her mother Lucile Watson in My Reputation and between Crawford and her vicious daughter Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce. ("You think now you've made a little money you can get a new hairdo and turn yourself into a lady, but you can't, because you'll never be anything but a common frump, whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing. It makes me shrivel up to think you ever carried me.") Mildred Pierce, an Oscar-winning masterpiece of melodrama and film noir, is the most famous film Turney worked on, but she does not receive screen credit.

Turney produced the first viable screenplay from the unwieldy, episodic James Cain novel, making many changes which were kept in the film, but had completed only two-thirds of the script when she was taken off over a disagreement with the producer Jerry Wald about the introduction of a murder (not in the book) and a flashback structure. Ronald MacDougall produced a final screenplay, but when Michael Curtiz started the film he asked for Turney, now writing A Stolen Life at the request of Bette Davis, to return to do rewrites.

Turney stated later:

Bette was adamant in refusing to release her writer, so Randy MacDougall was assigned to work with Curtiz. The new flashback sequence came through to me from the script department as I was still listed as first credit on the script. When the final script was delivered to me, the credits were reversed - I was second. It seemed a fair arrangement to me, as Randy had been working closely with Curtiz . . . but my then agent thought I should remove my name. I had received nothing but solo credits and my agent objected to my being second banana, so to speak. As it turned out, it was a grievous mistake on his and my part.

The film's producer Jerry Wald credited Turney with "breaking the back of the story", the director Curtiz stated that he worked from both the Turney and MacDougall scripts while shooting the film, and the Screenwriters' Guild has ensured in recent years that historians now list her as co- writer of the screenplay.

Born in 1906, Turney became interested in writing while working at the Pasadena Playhouse, and in 1936 her play Bitter Harvest, about Lord Byron's relationship with his half-sister, was performed at the Arts Theatre in London, its cast including Eric Portman (as Byron), Torin Thatcher, Martita Hunt and John Abbot. It transferred to the St Martin's Theatre, and though its run was short (due in part to the death of King George VI) its reviews were excellent and prompted an offer from MGM (who had assumed she was English).

Turney and the writer Waldo Salt were asked to adapt an unproduced play by Ferenc Molnr, The Girl from Trieste, which was later turned over to Joe Mankiewicz to fashion for Joan Crawford. ("It turned out to be an awful turkey called The Bride Wore Red. We didn't get screen credit, Waldo and I.")

Turney returned to play-writing, and had her greatest stage success with My Dear Children (1939, co-written with Jerry Horwin), which was the Broadway swansong of John Barrymore, though its sell-out audiences were attracted more by Barrymore's outrageous antics and ad-libbing than the play itself. The critic George Jean Nathan wrote, "I always said that I'd like Barrymore's acting `till the cows come home'. Well, ladies and gentlemen, last night the cows came home." Directed by Otto Preminger, the play ran for 117 performances and would have run longer had not Barrymore tired of it. Turney was back working at the Pasadena Playhouse when the offer came from Warners.

Turney credited the producer Henry Blanke with giving her some useful insight into screenwriting. "When I was first at Warners, I'd tell Henry, `I don't know how to say this', and he'd say, `Have you ever tried saying nothing?' He taught me to let the camera say it instead."

Turney also became adept at ways to circumvent the stringent censorship imposed at the time; Wald's insistence on the flashback structure for Mildred Pierce (and the producer's previous hit The Hard Way) was also a shrewd way to placate the Production Code - if protagonists were shown at the start of a film to be suffering or contemplating suicide then it was possible to get away with a lot of sinning during the depiction of earlier events.

Turney's next film, My Reputation (1946), the story of a young war widow who dates an army officer and has to combat the disapproval of her young sons, her mother and righteous friends, treated the conflicts of wartime morality with intelligence, and remained one of Barbara Stanwyck's favourite films. It was after seeing My Reputation that Bette Davis asked for its director Curtis Bernhardt and writer Turney to work on A Stolen Life (1946).

For this story of two sisters who love the same man, Turney produced a script both romantic (in one wistful scene Davis, as sensitive sister Kate, discusses the difference between being alone and being lonely with the lighthouse keeper Glenn Ford as they watch the fog and listen to the mournful foghorns) and wryly humorous - when Ford first meets flirtatious sister Pat, mistaking her for Kate but bewildered by the personality change, he tells her that until now she has been like a cake without the frosting but - "Now," says Davis, eyes widening mischievously, "you think I'm well frosted."

Though Turney found Bernhardt difficult ("He was a product of the Berlin school of film-making and thought Americans hopelessly naive at that time"), she credits him with the advice "never to attack a scene head on, always do it obliquely if possible, and avoid sentimentality".

Turney liked both Davis and Crawford ("They respected writers and once you gained their respect it was not hard to get along with them") but she found Stanwyck "cold", though she was to write two more films for her, Cry Wolf (1947) and No Man of Her Own (1950). Turney's adaptation of Philip Barry's play The Animal Kingdom, starring Ann Sheridan and entitled One More Tomorrow (1946), was substantially altered for the screen. "It was a pretty good picture but nothing like the original. In order to get the idea of a man walking out on his wife for his mistress past the Hays office I had to have the wife say, at three different times in three different scenes, that she refused to have children. Then the situation was acceptable."

Turney's last film at Warners was the ill-fated Bette Davis vehicle Winter Meeting (1948). The story of a New England spinster who has her first sexual experience at the age of 40 with a naval officer (Jim David) only to find that he is committed to the priesthood, it was hampered by restrictions that Turney's talky script could not overcome. "We were not allowed to be honest about the differences of opinion between a non-Catholic and Catholic for fear of offending either religious group," said Davis. "Neither would the censors allow Jim and me to be shown in the bedroom let alone in bed."

Leaving Warners, Turney went to Paramount to adapt Cornell Woolrich's thriller I Married a Dead Man (retitled No Man of Her Own 1950) for Barbara Stanwyck. As an inside joke, Turney renamed the novel's heroine, changing Helen Georgesson into Helen Ferguson, the name of Stanwyck's publicist and lifelong friend.

Turney's last screenplays were Japanese War Bride (1952), a little-known but perceptive account of soldiers returning to the US with Oriental brides, and an unsuccessful horror movie, The Other One (1957). She wrote several other books, mainly biographies and historical novels, and worked on television soap operas, before retiring to Sierra Madre.

Tom Vallance

Catherine Turney, screenwriter: born 1906; died Sierra Madre, California 9 September 1998.