She Couldn't Say No

aka: Beautiful But Dangerous [Movie]

She Couldn’t Say No (1954), directed by Lloyd Bacon, is a small-town romantic comedy made by RKO Pictures in California and set in fictitious Progress, Arkansas. The story of why this little-regarded film was made and how it came to feature two major stars, Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons, leads into the murky waters of Hollywood studio intrigue.

In the early 1950s, tycoon Howard Hughes (not yet a recluse) controlled RKO. Simmons was a young British film star. Without warning, Hughes bought her contract and required her to work in films of his choosing. After making films with prestigious directors David Lean, Laurence Olivier, and Michael Powell, Simmons wanted no part of RKO’s commercial fluff. This once-famous feud reached a boiling point when Simmons won a lawsuit that limited her remaining obligation to RKO to three films, which had to be made in a rush before an imminent deadline. Eager for revenge, Hughes ordered three scripts and three hurried production shoots. Incensed, Simmons impulsively cut her hair boyishly short. Hughes ordered her to be fitted with a wig. Years later, Simmons told an interviewer that the four films she was forced to make for RKO “put my career right in the toilet.”

In his 1981 autobiography, Sparks Fly Upward, Simmons’s ex-husband Stewart Granger (also a film star) claimed that Hughes made sexual demands of Simmons and, when she rebuffed him, assigned her to films so poor he expected they would destroy her career. Simmons, however, always denied that Hughes sexually harassed her and insisted that her dispute with him was strictly about professional issues. A 2019 book by Karina Longworth, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’ s Hollywood, retells Hughes’s long record of sexual exploitation of actresses both famous and obscure but does not mention Simmons. Longworth clearly did not believe Granger’s account.

Two of Simmons’s final films at RKO, Angel Face (1953) and She Couldn’t Say No, co-starred Robert Mitchum. Mitchum’s biographers, Lee Server and George Eells, agree that when Mitchum read the script for She Couldn’t Say No, he was so appalled that he abruptly disappeared without telling his agent, his secretary, or his wife where he was going. Hughes’s agents found Mitchum in Dallas, Texas, and ordered him to get back to work. Mitchum sourly remarked that RKO should drop him as an actor and hire him as a script doctor.

In She Couldn’t Say No, the citizens of Progress are surprised when Corby (played by Simmons), a stylishly dressed young Englishwoman, arrives in town. They are even more amazed when expensive gifts and envelopes full of cash are delivered to homes all over town. When she was a child, Corby’s life had been saved by an emergency operation paid for by Good Samaritans of Progress. She was raised by wealthy English relatives and now wants to repay the town for its kindness to her by secretly giving the residents gifts. Local doctor Bob (played by Mitchum), who loves country life and especially fishing, tries to dissuade her. They bicker, engage in slapstick in a trout stream, and fall in love. Corby’s gifts cause chaos and eventually an invasion by belligerent out-of-town fortune hunters. The town returns to normal after Corby confesses that the gifts were from her. Corby settles down with Bob in Progress.

Simmons and Mitchum were backed up by a small army of rustic character actors such as Edgar Buchanan, Raymond Walburn, Ralph Dumke, and Hope Landin, including two who were actually Arkansans: Arthur Hunnicutt and Pinky Tomlin. The film presents an idyllic picture of small-town Arkansas. Even the town drunk (played by Hunnicutt) is likeable. All the problems are caused by Corby and the other outsiders. One of the farm families on whom Corby lavishes gifts is actually quite prosperous. Even families who are hard-up are proud, good-humored, and far from desperate. The movie claims that, in the early 1950s, rural Arkansans still preferred bartering to dealing in cash.

The Variety review (January 13, 1954) showed mild amusement with this “pleasant round of folksy comedy,” but later commentary was scathing. Richard B. Jewell and Vernon Harbin, in The RKO Story, said the film “sank to depths hitherto unexplored by the worst of RKO’s A-budget comedies…. The atrocious script was largely to blame.” They enjoyed only Hunnicutt’s performance.

The poor quality of the script for She Couldn’t Say No is especially regrettable because the film seemed to promise a realistic picture of 1950s Arkansas. The characters dress in up-to-date clothes and do not speak in exaggerated dialect. The contrast with The Kettles in the Ozarks (1956), which recycled antique hillbilly stereotypes, is extreme. In Bacon’s film, the town of Progress is a paradise. Quiet, neighborly charity and the barter system alleviate poverty and provide medical care. Doctor Bob is accustomed to accepting chickens as pay for his services. The chickens he doesn’t eat he barters for other things he needs. (But Progress is a paradise for whites only; the only blacks in the film are out-of-town truck drivers who deliver Corby’s gifts to Progress.) Corby is not quite arrogant, not quite a shrew in need of taming, but she is very pleased with herself and assumes that the people of Progress badly need her help. The only scene in the film not set in Arkansas shows Corby in a New York City showroom, giving instructions to her financial advisor while buying the expensive car she will drive to Progress. She is a wealthy young woman accustomed to shopping in London and New York, yet by the end of film she is so won over by small-town charm and virtue that she decides to spend the rest of her life in Progress.

Simmons’s and Mitchum’s careers quickly recovered from their forced labors for RKO. Surprisingly, Angel Face, the other film they were forced to make, has been recognized as a major noir film, with powerful performances by both stars. She Couldn’t Say No, in contrast, is a minor Hollywood view of Arkansas, a memento of a forgotten film industry feud, and one of the movies that caused film critic Pauline Kael to label Simmons “one of the most commanding actresses Hollywood ever trashed.”

For additional information:
Eells, George. Robert Mitchum: A Biography. New York, Franklin Watts, 1984

Higham, Charles. Howard Hughes: The Secret Life. New York: Putnam, 1993.

Hollywood: The Golden Years: The RKO Story. Part 6, Howard’s Way. Video set. EarthStation1, 1987.

Jewell, Richard B., and Vernon Harbin. The RKO Story. London: Arlington House, 1982.

Server, Lee.  Robert Mitchum: “Baby, I Don’t Care.”  New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001.

She Couldn’t Say No.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047476/?ref_=nv_sr_2 (accessed May 28, 2020).

Michael Klossner
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 06/22/2020