'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,' in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9 p.m., KCET brings you Lewis Milestone's 1946 dark and melodramatic thriller, "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers." The film tells the fatalistic story of a rich but miserable wife, played by former Ziegfeld girl Barbara Stanwyck, who tries to reunite with the one man she truly loved, but who also knows her deepest secret. This is the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" on July24, 1946.

As Americans, we often pride ourselves on the ability to make something of ourselves regardless of where we were born or who our parents are. That freedom to pursue happiness in life, love and career is a hallmark of the American identity. But the on-screen world of small-town, industrial Pennsylvania depicted in "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" is epitomized by an entrenched class structure where people aren't free to do as they please, and that rule applies to rich and poor alike.

The film embraces several artistic traditions. On one hand, there's an element of Shakespearean, "Romeo and Juliet"-esque tragedy inherent in the story. But it also exhibits the film-noir trait of exposing the dark underbelly of American life. It's this straddling of genres that makes director Lewis Milestone's film stand out from the crowd.
Kirk Douglas's college graduation photo, via Wikimedia Commons.

It also happens to be the screen debut of an actor who went on to have a pretty decent career: Kirk Douglas.

Take a closer look back

When producer Hal Wallis traveled to New York to scout new acting talent for "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers," his friend Lauren Bacall had an idea: She remembered an old classmate from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts named Izzy Demsky who she thought Wallis should meet. Demsky had been doing theater work on Broadway before enlisting in the Navy in 1941. Before he went to war, however, he decided to change his name to a moniker he first used in college while doing summer stock productions. The name he chose was Kirk Douglas.

Douglas, of course, went on to become a Hollywood legend, starring in such films as "Spartacus," "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and "Lust for Life," among many others. He is such an icon of both the film and theater communities in Los Angeles that the Center Theater Group named its Culver City, Calif., theater after him:

At the beginning of "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers," the character of Martha, portrayed as a young girl by Janis Wilson, makes an unsuccessful attempt to run away from Iverstown, Pa. with Sam, her friend from the wrong side of town, played as a young man by Darryl Hickman. Had the pair not been caught, they could have moved around the state, and thus the country, quite easily thanks to the Pennsylvania Railroad. PRR, as it was known, was booming in 1928 when the film takes place. For much of the 20th century it was busiest and most profitable railroad in the country, with up to 10,000 miles of track. Here's a promotional film the company released in 1946, the same year the film was released:

However, the railroad scenes in the film were shot not in Pennsylvania, but in Los Angeles, along the Southern Pacific Railroad. One of Southern Pacific's largest freight yards was Taylor Park, located in the Cypress Park neighborhood. Before its closure in 2009, the 247-acre Taylor Yard was a major hub for the railroad company. It was 35 tracks wide between San Fernando Road and the Golden State Freeway and stretched three miles from Fletcher Drive to the Pasadena-Golden State freeway interchange. Southern Pacific's almost 14,000 miles of track were was bought out in 1996 by Union Pacific Railroad.

Here's a photo of Taylor Park in 1974:

Today, the site has been converted into Rio de Los Angeles State Park.

"The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" also stars Van Heflin as the grown up "Sam Masterson," in addition to Lizabeth Scott and Roman Bohnen. Screenwriter Jack Patrick was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the film.