The Story of Barbara Graham in Robert Wise’s I Want to Live! (1958)


Who is Barbara Graham, you ask? Well, read on.

Barbara Graham’s life reads like it dripped off the pages of a hard boiled crime fiction writer’s pen.  A sexy, voluptuous, lethal femme fatale born bad to the bone.  The newspaper media of the day even tagged Graham with the nickname “Bloody Babs.” Born Barbara Ford, she  had a tough life right from the beginning. Born in Oakland, CA. out of wedlock to a teenage mother, who would herself be sent to reform school when Barbara was two years old, the child bounced around from one  foster home to another. In her early teens Barbara would ironically be incarcerated in the same reform school her mother was in just a few years earlier.  At 16, back in her hometown of Oakland, alone, pretty, with little education, Barbara made money by “dating” sailors. The dates did not always results in sex, sometimes they were just dates. She tried leading a straight life, went to school, married, had two kids, but the marriage soon failed as did two other marriages. She apparently turned to prostitution, petty crimes and drugs, her friends all crooks and low-life’s. Barbara would soon end up in jail after being found guilty of perjury when she foolishly attempted to protect two of her thug pals from the law.

Barbara Graham

Barbara Graham


Five years later, after her release, Barbara once again tried the straight life but found the world of a waitress too dull for her taste. She turned back to her old profession, the world’s oldest. She did try marriage one more time however, her choice was another poor one. Henry Graham was a crook and a bad drug addict. It was through Henry she met the two men, Jack Santos and Emmett Perkins, whom would get her involved in a series of scams and crimes. One mark was Mabel Monohan, a 64 year old woman who lived alone and was said to keep large amounts of money in her apartment. The plan was for Barbara to get the men into the woman’s apartment by asking to use the phone. She was soon followed by her male counterparts who also included a man named John True. They demanded the older woman turn over her money but Mabel refused. At this point it is alleged Barbara pistol whipped Mabel and then suffocated her with a pillow.

The criminals found no money, somehow missing something like $10,000 in cash and jewelry that were in the apartment. A short time later, some of the gang members including Barbara were arrested. John True pinned the murder on Barbara after being offered immunity. Graham, Santos and Perkins were all convicted and sentenced to die in the gas chamber. After various appeals and stays of execution, Barbara Graham became the third woman to be die in California’s gas chamber.

Bud Shank - I Want to Live Quartet-001“I Want to Live” is an intriguingly good film with Susan Hayward delivering a first-rate performance, one that earned her a Best Actress Oscar.  The opening scene of the Robert Wise directed 1958 film is 50’s cool. The scene is a basement Jazz nightclub with some hot musicians on stage, including Gerry Mulligan, blowing away on some far out tunes. The camera angles are slanted one way then another as the director’s camera roams through the audience. We see the older man with a young doll. Next to him, a hipster couple grooving to the beat and oh yeah, over by the “big boys room,” two guys are sharing a weed. When a cop enters the joint, one couple quickly leave and Wise’s camera follows making its way up from the basement sounds of the club to the street and then moving upward to an apartment in the same building. It’s here we meet Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward), a woman who has spent more than her share of time with men. The cop has made his way up to the apartment and is looking to bust the guy she is with on Federal Mann Act charges; transporting a woman across the state line for immoral purposes.  The guy’s married with kids, as Graham found out after looking in his wallet. Not wanting the guy to get hooked on a Federal rap, she tells the cop this is her room, she is the one paying. Yes, she opened herself up to prostitution charges but hey the guy has a family and it wasn’t like it was her first time she was picked up for these kinds of charges. Barbara was a whore with a heart of gold.

want_to_live_lawyer_spotBut it’s her good heart and her weakness for helping her “friends” that soon lands Barbara in prison with a one year sentence for perjury. When the year is up she is put on probation for five years and told to go straight and stay in Frisco. But Barbara soon splits and heads for L.A. She hooks up with some thugs getting involved in one small time crime after another. But Babs still yearns for a good life and tries to start a domestic lifestyle. Only the guy she marries is a junkie and the money’s tight with bum checks floating all over the city. The rent is due and they hook up again with some “friends” who soon frame Babs for a murder she did not commit. The remainder of the film focuses on Graham’s trial and the various attempts to get her off death row after being sentenced to die in the gas chamber. The final thirty minutes or so are agonizingly detailed and tense as Graham’s fate depends on a phone that will or will not stop her execution.  Director Robert Wise  goes to the extreme in showing us the preparations for the execution not sparing the audience any details.

i-want-to-live-movie-poster-1958-1020143969Whether the real Barbara Graham was guilty of murder or not has always been open to discussion. The evidence wasn’t that strong but with the testimony of John True, jurors of the day found what they felt was enough to convict her. By today’s standards she would probably have not been found guilty.  There is what seems to a fascinating book called Proof of Guilt: Barbara Graham and the Politics of Executing Women in America by Katherine A. Cairns that takes a close  look at Graham’s infamous life and the criminal punishment of women in America.  I have not read it but have read a few interviews with the author. As for the film, Wise and company, advocating to abolish corporate punishment, clearly indicate she was innocent and a product of the system.

While the Oscars has always been a mediocre barometer for what was best for the year, Hayward’s performance, in a field that included Elizabeth Taylor for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and Rosalind Russell for her delightful work as “Auntie Mame,”  was deserving. It’s a harrowing heart-wrenching piece of work. While Hayward played all types of roles in her career, and gave some fine performances, she seemed to have a certain ability to connect with roles featuring women with shattered psyches or alcoholic personalities whose life has spiraled out of control (I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Smash Up: The Story of a Woman). In these films she manages to convey a sense of  forlorn destiny that could have been averted had a good man or a change in luck been on the horizon.

The cast includes some familiar veteran character actors including Simon Oakland, who played the reporter Ed Montgomery, whose real life counterpart followed Graham’s trial and execution. John Marley (Cat Ballou, Faces, Love Story, The Godfather) as the priest who comforts Barbara during her final days on death row. There is also Dabbs Greer, best known as the Reverend in “Little House on the Prairie” and Raymond Bailey, as the compassionate Warden at San Quentin, who many will be familiar with as Mr. Drysdale in “The Beverly Hillbillies”  and as Dean Magruder in “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” Released the same year as “I Want to Live” Bailey also portrayed Elvis Presley’s school principal in “King Creole.”

7 comments on “The Story of Barbara Graham in Robert Wise’s I Want to Live! (1958)

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Susan Hayworth in top form, alright.


  2. Page says:

    Wait! Did you not love Elizabeth as Maggie the Cat? : )

    This film piqued my curiosity not because of Hayward (not her biggest fan) but due to the subject matter and being based on a true story. This biopic category certainly ups the interest come Oscar voting time too as history has shown. not that Hayward wasn’t deserving but it always seems to provide an edge.

    I remember the club scene and the hipsters, music then of course the trial which was tedious at times. It’s been years since I’ve seen the film. Shoot, I think I was still in high school when I watched it so perhaps I should give it another go although I’m not really any more mature. ha ha

    Always a pleasure reading your thoughts on these films, John. You know I’ve never noticed that poster before. Talk about sensationalism. It’s also a bit disturbing.

    Have a great weekend.


    • John Greco says:


      I thought Liz was excellent as Maggie the Cat. I just thought Hayward hit this character just perfectly. Her performance was purely organic. As for the poster, I was pretty surprised to see something so graphic for a film in that time period.

      Thanks and you have a great weekend too Page!!!


  3. I read that Robert Wise himself witnessed an execution in preparation for this film. Hollywood has an interesting history with death-row scenes (Angels With Dirty Faces, for one); but this film was so compelling in what I recall as its quite agonizing detail on depicting Graham’s own execution.


    • John Greco says:

      GOM – Yes, the execution and build up to it is methodical. I image it was fairly disturbing to see especially back in the 1950’s. One other film I can think of that has an impressive death row scene is more recent, the 1995 film DEAD MAN WALKING with Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon.


  4. TLBennett says:

    i’ve always seen bits and pieces over the years, and sat down last night and finally watched the entire thing… it was quite an interesting movie, well put together —

    Liked by 1 person

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