Bite Size: She Shoulda Said No! (1949)

Lila Leeds wasn’t exactly a star, but she was definitely a starlet. Originally from Kansas, Lila’s mother took her teen daughter on vacation in Los Angeles, and the headstrong young woman decided to stay and take the gamble on a movie career. She parlayed a position as hatcheck girl at legendary nightspot Ciro’s into an MGM contract. Reputedly, the studio was so impressed by her beauty —and likely the idea of having a younger actress on the payroll who superficially resembled Lana Turner— they didn’t even require a screen test.

She appeared in a few small parts (most notably in 1946’s Lady Of The Lake) and had a knack for keeping her name in the gossip columns, albeit primarily for her tumultuous romances. By 1947 she had swapped studios from MGM to Warner Brothers. The newspapers announced the change by duly noting that Lila’s new home lot was ready to give her a proper build up, rather than just the cheesecake and bit parts ingenue treatment. The then 19 year old Lila Leeds looked like she was on her way to becoming something big.

That all ended September 1st, 1948. During a small gathering at her home —Leeds herself, her roommate Vicki Evans, real estate agent Robin Ford and actor Robert Mitchum— the partygoers decided to pass a joint around. Unfortunately for Lila, the cops were watching the house. While everyone involved disagreed on the responsible party, it was clear someone had tipped off the authorities. Lila Leeds and Robert Mitchum were both busted for possession. Originally they were sentenced a year in county jail, later suspended to two years probation and sixty days in jail.

Robert Mitchum was already a star over at RKO, and his sleepy eyed, tough guy appeal wasn’t dependent on being the type you bring home to Mom. His screen image was built on westerns, war films, and noirs. Boy next door just wasn’t his style. The studio’s lawyers also went briskly to work investigating irregularities in the state’s case.

Lila Leeds wasn’t so lucky, even though both she and Mitchum both maintained the sting had been a set up. A blonde starlet was one of Hollywood’s most plentiful commodities, and Lila found herself a pariah after serving her sentence. Her contract was quickly dropped, the newspaper coverage openly cruel. Her boyfriend at the time — restauranteur and ex Mr. Lana Turner Stephen Crane— stopped returning her phone calls and decamped for Europe to avoid being tainted by the scandal. Job offers had completely dried up. At the end of her financial rope, Lila signed on for a cheapie exploitation item initially titled Wild Weed.

Neither the MPAA nor narcotics authorities were thrilled with the idea of a film about drug use where the lead could draw from her own life experiences. The film initially had trouble finding a distributor, until roadshow king Kroger Babb (Mom And Dad) scooped it up for his company Hallmark Productions. Retitled as She Shoulda Said No!, posters posited “How bad can a good girl get?” above a prominent display of Lila’s face and figure. Select engagements even promised a personal appearance from the film’s leading lady, to deliver a brief anti drug speech.

Lila is orphaned beauty Anne Lester, who works as a showgirl in a nightclub. Still sweet despite her spicy occupation, she became a lady of the chorus to pay the college costs of her younger brother, Bob (former child star David Holt).

Meanwhile, Markey (Alan Baxter) is a particularly unscrupulous pusher about town. He has no qualms shaking down high school kids for their allowance money, selling marijuana cigarettes at the malt shop. When the sock hop crowd is short on cash, he sells to the showgirls at the nightclub. Fascinated by Anne’s innocence and obvious beauty he forces the already hooked Rita (Mary Ellen Popel) to arrange a party at Anne’s house, where he could make a proper introduction.

Anne is peer pressured into smoking a few puffs at the party. That’s all it takes to start the oddly timed theremin warbling and soft focus slide into drug addled ruin. Anne barely remembers the “party”, sleeping with Markey, why her house is trashed, or who the random man is that a surprised young Bob finds passed out on her couch.

Before long, she’s too stoned to dance, and gets fired from her showgirl gig. Wanting to stop Bob from quitting school and getting a job to ease their shared financial burden, she takes Markey up on his offer to help him sell weed. Soon she’s hawking marijuana sticks from tomato cans at similar house parties to the one that got her mixed up in this mess.

She Shoulda Said No! hits all of the familiar beats of this subgenre, including the opening square up text crawl of supposed public good, ridiculously rapid escalation of problems that would even put an infomercial to shame, and goofy drug slang it is clear a clueless middle aged man likely made up. It even riffs on a few set pieces from king of all puff puff pass paranoia films, 1936’s Reefer Madness.

A early set of disposable teenagers gets into a weed fueled deadly car crash, too busy necking and nattering about purple hair to watch the road. Everyone who smokes weed becomes mysteriously delusional, manic, or both. There’s a brief striptease, jittery dancing, hyena cackling, and a concerto hallucination that allows a full 3 minutes of cost saving superimposed stock footage. Windows are broken, dignity is left to burn along with the roaches in the ashtrays, and most inexplicably….. no one gets hungry or tired from all of this smoking.

When Bob discovers the true nature of Anne’s new job, he promptly commits suicide by hanging himself in her garage, which has to be a high water mark in angsty cinematic overreaction. Anne gets careless in her grief, and is arrested. Narcotics agent Captain Hayes (1930s contract player Lyle Talbot) gives the usual scared straight tour of zonked out young women in holding, the track marks of the heroin addict she’s likely to become, and a mental ward. Wracked with guilt over Bob’s suicide, she is tormented by her self imposed status as a “baby killer”.

The back half of the film liberally borrows from bargain bin noir and police procedurals, as the cops close in and Anne plays the part of hard bitten babe with her own (ultimately virtuous) agenda. It’s a pleasant deviation from a formula that had grown rather long in the tooth, and allows for some starkly shadowy lighting that elevates Sam Newfield’s otherwise workmanlike direction.

While Lila was last gasp attempting to image rehab by touring with with the heavy anti drug message of She Shoulda Said No!, Robert Mitchum suffered no such indignities. He made a very minimal circuit of attrition to the press that only cemented his contrarian, counter culture cache. There was no public backlash, and the first Mitchum feature released after his conviction — the Loretta Young fronted Western Rachel And The Stranger— did boffo box office. In early 1951, authorities quietly overturned Mitchum’s conviction, a tacit admission of there being truth to the allegations of a frame up. Mitchum enjoyed lasting stardom, with one hundred plus credits spanning a 50 year career.

She Shoulda Said No! didn’t do anything to revitalize Lila Leeds’ career, only reminding the public of an incident that she (and her career prospects) would have been better off to forget. Lila only had one other on screen appearance, an uncredited bit in 1949’s The House Across the Street . Two weeks after her release from jail she was involved in a questionable auto accident, where she was lucky to avoid a charge of driving while intoxicated. Not that it mattered much, as she was arrested for a separate drunk driving incident roughly 6 weeks later.

Both incidents were in violation of her probation, and the modern concept of rehabilitation programs for addiction hadn’t yet taken root as a medical or cultural norm. In 1949, a Los Angeles circuit court judge banned Lila Leeds from entering the state of California for 5 years.

She attempted to reinvent herself as a nightclub singer, but her increasing reliance on a heroin habit she had picked up while incarcerated made that career path ultimately unsustainable. In 1953 she was arrested on drug charges, and in 1956 was busted for solicitation. Each step of the downward spiral was covered extensively in the scandal sheets, her personal and legal troubles having long eclipsed her career as an actress or her brief association with Robert Mitchum.

She Shoulda Said No! wasn’t initially a hit, but floated around the bottom of exploitation bills for an incredibly long time. Reissued as The Story of Lila Leeds, it was still playing scattered theatrical dates as late as 1961, as well as the occasional spot on late night television. The 1970s revival of the midnight movie circuit gave it yet another half life.

By then, Lila Leeds had found religion and her way back to Los Angeles, doing outreach for addicts and raising money for the Shriners. It is impossible not to wonder how she might have felt seeing herself once again blonde and beautiful, on the precipice of stardom that would never come. Maybe she wouldn’t have been the next Lana Turner, but she has an undeniable charisma, a natural knack for the hard case blonde that would have been an easy fit for midcentury B cinema.

Instead, there’s only a record of down times and double standards, another life reduced to a line item in a tabloid rag and a celluloid curiosity. She died in 1999, without any of the major papers even giving her the grace of a small obituary. She really should’ve said no, but so should we, to the endless cycle of feminine desirability and disposability that has existed as long as Hollywood itself. More so than titillation and questionable taste, splatter and sleaze, and all of the other varietals of forbidden fruit. More than just a movie, to ruin someone’s real life for a marijuana cigarette and a self righteous moral panic……that’s exploitation.