“I did write for a while in spite of them,” says the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “but it does exhaust me a good deal — having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.” Writing as a woman is a dangerous act. Gilman knew it, and I suspect Lucy Beatrice Malleson knew it, too. Malleson’s breakthrough as a writer came in her late twenties, when she began publishing mysteries under the pen name “Anthony Gilbert.” Ostensibly this was done to maintain her privacy and avoid the appearance of capitalizing on her uncle Miles’ recent fame. But it’s hard to imagine that the financial and professional advantages of a man’s name didn’t factor into this decision.
1941 saw the release of the “Anthony Gilbert” novel The Woman in Red. A few years later, under the auspices of Columbia Pictures, screenwriter Muriel Roy Bolton adapted it into what director Joseph H. Lewis would later call “a damn near perfect script.” My Name Is Julia Ross premiered in November of 1945. The film opens in rain-soaked London, Malleson’s lifelong home. Nina Foch plays Julia Ross, an unmarried woman behind on her rent and desperate for a job. Tipped off by a newspaper ad, she nabs a plum secretarial position with a rich widow and her grown son. But overnight, this dream job becomes a nightmare: the family and their servants drug her, kidnap her, and install her in a locked bedroom at the rear of a country mansion overlooking the sea.
There, Julia’s assigned the name Marion Hughes along with a monogram-adorned wardrobe, both of which belonged to the son’s late wife. Her would-be employers crowd around her bedside, speaking to her in infantilizing tones: “You haven’t forgotten us again, have you, Marion?” asks the mother, played by Dame May Whitty, when Julia protests. “Please don’t excite yourself so. You’ll just bring on another attack.” The remainder of the film plays out as a tit-for-tat psychological game. Julia scribbles a plea and tries to smuggle it into the outside world; her tormentors tear it up. (“Correspondence is so often destroyed… that the film starts to appear contemptuous toward text,” wrote Joseph Jon Lanthier in 2013.) Julia smuggles her own body off of the mansion’s grounds, only for a well-meaning vicar to deliver her right back into the arms of her homicidal “husband” because he’s been told that she’s mentally ill.
In a twist that prefigures Vertigo, it turns out that the husband and mother-in-law have been planning to orchestrate Julia’s “suicide” as cover for an uxoricide that left Marion’s corpse drifting in the froth of the sea. In a twist that matches real life, it turns out that you can get virtually anyone to abet your conspiracy if you tell them a woman’s not in her right mind. Lewis repeatedly frames Foch in two shots next to characters—her “husband,” the groundskeeper, a young maid—who calmly, logically explain to her why she isn’t who she is. “You have a beautiful home, nice relations, pretty clothes. Everything a woman would want!” insists the maid. “You’re letting yourself be took up by illusions.” The title of the film becomes not merely a statement of fact, but a radical assertion of self.
“If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression, — a slight hysterical tendency, — what is one to do?” asks the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Like Julia Ross, she’s a prisoner who can gaze through a window out onto a vast estate. Like Julia Ross’s story, hers bears glimmers of Gothic horror. Both women are confined to haunted houses, but in place of ghosts, they’re bedeviled by interior design or noises in the night or the men who’ve been entrusted with their care. Of the two, Julia Ross is probably luckier, since she’s the target of an actual murder plot, and plots can be foiled. (A happy ending for “The Yellow Wallpaper” would require the full-on overturning of medical science.)
Latter-day critics tend to identify Julia Ross as film noir, no doubt influenced by the nature of Lewis’s subsequent output (Gun Crazy, The Big Combo); Burnett Guffey’s stark cinematography; and the villains’ involved criminal machinations. They’re not wrong, but that genre designation doesn’t paint the full picture, since Julia Ross lies at a three-way intersection between noir, melodrama, and horror. In his contribution to the new anthology Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade, academic Ian Olney writes that
Horror movies of the immediate postwar era reflect the greater independence and mobility women enjoyed as a result of their role during World War II… The male monsters in postwar horror represent the threat of women losing everything they had achieved during the war years and being forcibly restored to the domestic sphere; indeed, the home and women’s traditional place in it are the primary source of horror in these films.
Olney then uses this framework to analyze The Spiral Staircase, a film that shares with Julia Ross its old dark house setting and patrician psychopath. Although I’m wary about applying his schema to a wide swath of movies, it rings true with Julia Ross. The film’s heroine is a working-class woman swept up across class lines into a gilded cage. “My husband? …Mrs. Hughes?” she mutters, examining the wedding ring on her finger. She can’t comprehend the marital status that’s been inflicted on her. (The film’s depiction of marriage as a waking nightmare renders ambiguous its abrupt, single-shot denouement, in which Julia instantly accepts a proposal from the man who saves her. Is it earnestly happy, because this time it’s a choice? Her fiancé’s description of a wife—“combination secretary, nurse, companion, housekeeper”—is so off-putting that it inclines me to interpret the resolution as darkly ironic.)
Not unlike Mildred Pierce, which was released a couple months prior, Julia Ross speaks on “woman’s film” issues of romantic and economic dependence via genre-specific narrative motifs. Around the time it was entering theaters, Columbia ran a pair of ads in The Film Daily (dated November 13 and 23) that indicated, if nothing else, how the studio’s publicity department wanted exhibitors to understand their product. “Here is a ‘SLEEPER’ if ever there was one!” crows one tagline. Illustrations splashed across the ads recreate scenes from the film rich with traditional horror imagery: the shadow of a prowler’s hand stretching across Julia’s blanket; Julia cradling a black cat in her arms. One ad features a number of excerpts from positive reviews, which bandy about genre terms like “thriller,” “melodrama,” “mystery,” and “thrill-o-drama” (as well as adjectives like “tight-throated” and “corking good”). In the words of the Brooklyn Eagle, the film “keep[s] you on the edge of your seat,” and it does so as a means of getting at the truth and terror of women’s lives.
“There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house,” says “The Yellow Wallpaper”s narrator. “I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.” As with Julia Ross, her husband fears that she’s “letting herself be took up by illusions.” She’s in danger of constructing her own reality, just as Julia has a personal narrative (“They’re holding me here by force”) that she asserts no matter how insistently her “family” may contradict it. For a woman to write, whether she’s writing a short story or a mystery novel or a note to the police or a diary of her rest cure, is to carve a record of her truth.
That’s what makes these two tales of feminine horror especially scary. If a woman can be disabused of her truth—if Julia consents to being Marion—then that truth is gone. Poof. Their husbands already have the power and the money, so if they come to dominate those rooms of one’s own inside their wives’ heads, then no more Julia. Her very self depends on that mere sliver of resistance. And while My Name Is Julia Ross may be a work of macabre fiction, Julia’s experiences are recapitulated in miniature every day: “it’s not a big deal”; “you’re too emotional”; “your body is public property.” Living as a woman is a dangerous act.
“I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try.” —“The Yellow Wallpaper”