The Backstage Blogathon 2016: Kim Novak- Fallen Idol double bill “You’re an illusion… without me you’re nothing!” *


Here’s a truly compelling Blogathon hosted by two of the most insightful bloggers you’ll ever find! Fritzi of Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid ! They’re featuring a subject that is endless in it’s offerings. The Backstage Blogathon 2016!

What is most challenging, eye opening and delicious for me is what I discovered not only about the films I chose that have a ‘Backstage’ theme, but how in fact, I uncovered the volatile backstage world within the backstage world. The back story of both screen & stage sirens, Kim Novak and Jeanne Eagels, the directors -particularly Robert Aldrich who made ‘Lylah Clare’, and the artists involved in molding the historic perceptions of all of it!

I’m thrilled to have been invited to join in, and couldn’t resist the temptation to do yet another double feature, cause I’m a child of the 60s & 70s & and I like it like that…!

Kim Novak

This time spotlighting three? legends, one a symbolic artifice of that intoxicating mistress that is… celebrity’ and two true legends– both portrayed by Hollywood goddess Kim Novak in The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) & Jeanne Eagels (1957) with a little bit about the real tragic legend Jeanne Eagels herself.

Director Alfred Hitchcock and Kim Novak in the an earlier film where Novak plays an eerie dual role, a story of fixation & fear of heights in the classic thriller Vertigo (1958).
Kim Novak - Vertigo - 1958. Restored by Nick & jane for Doctor Macro's High Quality Movie Scans website: Enjoy!
Kim Novak Vertigo (1958) courtesy of Nick & Jane at Dr Macro’s

[on her role in Vertigo (1958)] “I don’t think it’s one of my best works, but to have been part of something that has been accepted makes me feel very good…{..} They’ll always remember me in Vertigo (1958), and I’m not that good in it, but I don’t blame me because there are a couple of scenes where I was wonderful.”-Kim Novak

Novak as Judy in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
Kim Novak as Madeleine -Scottie (James Stewart’s obsession) in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).

Kim Novak ‘The Lavender Girl’ like many Hollywood hopefuls went to L.A to become an actress, discovered by an agent who got her a screen test with Columbia Pictures who signed her to a contract. Harry Cohn marketed her as a ‘sex goddess’, something she resisted from the beginning.

Kim Novak

“I think it will be helpful to people because I know the expectations that are put on you as a sex symbol, and how MarilynMonroe suffered and so on, and I was able to get free of that.” –Kim Novak

She made her first motion picture at age 21, getting the lead in the film noir gem Pushover (1958) co-starring Fred MacMurray. Novak received a Golden Globe nomination for “Most Promising Newcomer” in 1955.

That year she made three successful pictures, Otto Preminger’s controversial film about drug addiction The Man With The Golden Arm (1955) starring Frank Sinatra as a strung out junkie and Novak as Molly.

Frankie Machine: “You got any money, Molly?… I feel so sick. I hurt all over”Molly: “Jump off a roof if you’re gonna kill yourself but don’t ask me to help ya…”

Then she received critical acclaim starring alongside William Holden as the girl next door- Madge Owens in Picnic (1955), While Novak was surrounded by an incredible cast that includes Betty Field, Susan Strasberg, Cliff Robertston, Arthur O’Connell, Verna Felton, Rita Shaw, Nick Adams, Elizabeth Wilson AND Rosalind Russell as a painfully cliché old maid school teacher. The film didn’t seem to jive for me, and I felt it didn’t do anything to showcase Novak’s acting ability. 

She then followed up with Pal Joey (1955) again co-starring with Sinatra.

Bill Holden and Kim Novak dance in director Joshua Logan’s Picnic (1955) adapted from William Inge’s play, boasts a great cast!
Kim Novak Of Human Bondage
Kim Novak as prostitute Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage (1964) image courtesy of The Red List.
Annex - Douglas, Kirk (Strangers When We Meet)_02
Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak smoke on the screen in Strangers When We Meet (1960) image courtesy of Dr Macro

Sadly with the way Columbia hyped their young star, she continued to make box office flops that halted her career, playing the other woman in love with Kirk Douglas in Strangers When We Meet (1960) then cast as prostitute Mildred Rogers in the remake Of Human Bondage (1964) with co-star Laurence Harvey, and Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). Novak made several films with director Richard Quine with whom she dated, was married to actor Richard Johnson for one year, still remaining friends afterwards. But Novak never truly fit into Hollywood, was disillusioned by the pressures & politics of being framed as a sex goddess and not really getting film roles that were to her liking.


“I don’t feel that I was a Hollywood-created star.”-Kim Novak

“The head of publicity of the Hollywood studio where I was first under contract told me, “You’re a piece of meat, that’s all”. It wasn’t very nice but I had to take it. When I made my first screen test, the director explained to everyone, ‘Don’t listen to her, just look’.”-Kim Novak

novak and pywacket
Pyewacket and Kim Novak in 1958 Bell, Book and Candle

She never quite broke through and lived up to her potential. With various cameo appearances and a few stints on television, she gave it up for good– married a veterinarian and lives in Oregon with her horses, her love of nature and animals. Kim Novak still the goddess!

Kim Novak the sultry lavender haired beauty is well known for Hitchcock’s beautiful mirror image as Madeleine Elster & Judy Barton in the psychological thriller Veritgo (1958), but I’ll always have a thing for her portrayal of Lona Mclane in Richard Quine’s noir film Pushover (1954).

Kim Novak as Lona Mclane in Richard Quine’s film noir Pushover (1954) co-starring Fred MacMurray

She was great as Kay Greylek in 5 Against the House (1955). And though it possesses a terrific cast of stellar talent, I’m less enthusiastic about Novak (not her fault) cast as Madge Owens opposite William Holden in Joshua Logan’s Picnic (1955). Other notable films featuring Kim Novak are as Molly in Otto Preminger’s Man With the Golden Arm (1955), Marjorie Oelrichs in another George Sidney film biopic The Eddy Duchin Story (1956), Linda English in Pal Joey (1957), My Favorite as Gillian Holroyd in Richard Quine’s Bell, Book and Candle (1958), Betty Preisser in Delbert Mann’s Middle of the Night (1959), She was excellent as the conflicted ‘Maggie’ Gault in Richard Quine’s Strangers When We Meet (1960) She is wonderful as Mrs.Carlyle Hardwicke in Richard Quine’s hilarious romantic comedy with Blake Edward’s screenplay, The Notorious Landlady (1962) with lovable Jack Lemmon , Polly the pistol in Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) Mildred in Of Human Bondage (1964), Moll Flanders, and in Terence Youngs’ The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965).

Annex - Novak, Kim (Notorious Landlady, The)_NRFPT_01
Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak in The Notorious Landlady (1962).
Kim Novak-Jeanne Eagels
Kim Novak as Jeanne in the biopic Jeanne Eagels (1957).
Kim Novak with director Robert Aldrich on the set of the 60s deviant trashy melodrama The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968).

“The same characters that keep reappearing bigger than life, find their own integrity in doing what they do the way they do it, even if it causes their own deaths.” Robert Aldrich

Over his extensive career director Robert Aldrich has always pollinated his film world with losers, outcasts, deviants and ego maniacs, that collectively form a certain archetypal group which goes against the grain of a ‘civilized’ & ‘moral’ society. One just has to think of his eternal cult hit What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962)

Betty and Joan Baby Jane?

Dark Romance: Sexuality in the Horror Film- by David J Hogan –“In the sixties director Robert Aldrich released a number of pictures that popularized Grand Guignol, and shaped Hollywood myths into stylish decadent burlesques. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is the best-known, but The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) is the most grotesque. Peter Finch played a washed-up film director whose chance for a comeback is a biopic of his ex-wife Lylah Clare, a German actress whose wanton bisexuality and taste for high living led to her accidental death. The director is amazed when he meets (Elsa) Kim Novak), a young actress who is the image of Lylah. Elsa is cast in the role and gradually assumes the dead actress’ personality and voice. Her relationship with the director grows more brutal and pernicious as Lylah’s influence becomes stronger…{…}

… it is tacky, vulgar and full of improbable circumstances. Lylah’s odyssey to stardom began in a brothel; her death occurred on her wedding day, and was caused by a fall from a staircase during a struggle with a female lover. Her reincarnation, Elsa inspires a number of sexual advances-lesbians and otherwise-from people who had known the actress. Lylah consumes Elsa, and finally assumes control of her body. Kim Novak’s blankness of demeanor perfectly expressed Elsa’s suggestibility. An un-credited actress provided Lylah’s throaty Germanic voice, and though the effect is hard to swallow at first , the film’s campy tone makes the device seem appropriate. In this gaudy movie, anything is possible.”

lylah clare film scene end

‘Lylah Clare’ presents us with a few cliché characters you’d find in the industry. Aldrich places them within the narrative “that is fragmented into contradictory possibilities.” The symbol of Lylah Clare dies twice in the film, that is to say she is destroyed in various ways. “The original death has been sentimentalized, sensationalized, fantasized in the course of the film. All these elements have been brought together in a way that can only suggest the triumph of savagery and vulgarity.” – Ursini & Silver


Here’s a snippet of historian/writer Alain Silver’s interview with filmmaker Robert Aldrich who is perhaps one of my favorite non-Hollywood directors… talking about Lylah Clare & Kim Novak.

novak as Elsa

Silver: Some years after the fact, are you still dissatisfied with The Legend of Lylah Clare?

Aldrich: I think it has a number of flaws. I was about to bum rap Kim Novak, when we were talking about this the other day, and I realized would be pretty unfair. Because people forget that Novak can act. I really didn’t do her justice. But there are some stars whose motion picture image is so large, so firmly and deeply rooted in the public mind, that an audience comes to the move with a preconception about that person. And that preconception makes “reality’ or any kind of myth that’s contrary to that preconceived reality, impossible. To make this picture work, to make Lylah work, you had to be carried along into that myth. And we didn’t accomplish that. Now, you know you can blame it on a lot of things, but I’m the producer and I”m the director. I’m responsible for not communicating to that audience. I just didn’t do it.

lylah painting slash
Novak as Elsa/Lylah in The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968).

Many of Aldrich’s explorations deal with the acidic nature of Hollywood with forays like his cult classic – What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), The Big Knife (1955), and the The Killing of Sister George (1968)

Aldrich on the set
Robert Aldrich on the set of The Killing of Sister George (1968) starring Beryl Reid and Suzannah York.

Just a brief discussion about another Aldrich film that bares its frenzied teeth at the entertainment industry The Killing of Sister George (1968), which possesses the same problematic themes that emerge from show-biz which are transferred to June Buckridge (Beryl Reid) a middle-aged BBC soap opera star named Sister George who happily rides her bicycle  throughout the town helping the quaint folk. She is quickly being phased out of the show, in other words she is going to be killed off! 

Reid gives a startlingly painful performance as the belligerent June– a lesbian and a raging alcoholic. Abrasive, vulgar and absolutely a challenging anti-heroine to like as she will cause you to cringe yet at times feel sympathy for. Her internal conflict, volatile, poignant, alienated and transversing a heteronormative world as a nun on a popular television show of all things is quite a concoction. The conflict between the character on television and the actress’ personal life both connect as they renounce the morally & socially acceptable code that is splintered by the queerness, the vulgarization of her actual self, which is daily eclipsed by the illusion of her cheery onscreen persona as George, the bicycle riding do gooder tootling about town in the popular series, as a nun –this mocks June’s private life.


She’s a belligerent vulgarian, foul mouthed, domineering alcoholic who has a vein of sadism she inflicts on her infantilized lover Alice ‘Childie’ McNaught (Suzannah York) who is ultimately set free from her present overpowering lover, only to be seduced/abducted by another strong Sapphic figure, Coral Browne. At the end, June is left to sit and reflect on the sound stage as she is about to play the cow in a children’s show, she yields to her professional and personal demise as she ‘moos’… a pathetic coda, yet a telling one about the industry. Aldrich creates a satirical version of Hollywood within the television workings of the BBC with all its trifling regulations and intolerance that can drive anyone to ‘moo.’ at the end.

actress Beryl Reid learning to smoke a cigar for her role in the play picture-courtesy of Getty Images.
No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features ( 534946B ) THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE, (ctr) Susannah York, Beryl Reid, Coral Browne - 1968 FILM STILLS
Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features ( 534946B )
THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE, (ctr) Susannah York, Beryl Reid, Coral Browne – 1968
Beryl Reid
The loneliness of Sister George- Beryl Reid as June who plays Sister George on the popular BBC soap opera. The last moments of the film, sums up her alienation as she reflects back on the sound stage. As James Ursini & Alain Silver point out the location in Aldrich’s Hollywood vision is a place where his characters find most comforting and ‘real’ from Charlie Castle to Jane Hudson.


The Killing of Sister George  emerged during the fury & flutter of Queer Cinema that was experimenting with putting gay characters in the main frame of the narrative. These films took the subject of homosexuality and lesbianism head on… Head on as in a head on collision with homophobia!… For each character ultimately met with some kind of fatalistic & dire end. Figures either predatory, alienated, lonely or desperate. Doomed to die or eternally alone, by way of murder, suicide, violent death or unrequited love. All shown to either be mentally ill, or homicidal. For example: Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1961) Otto Preminger’s Advise and Constent (1962). Films like director Edward Dmytryk’s salacious Walk on the Wild Side (1962), Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961), Robert Rossen’s Lillith (1964) Gordon Douglas’ The Detective (1968), Claude Chabrol Les Biches (1968), Mark Rydell’s The Fox (1967), John Hustons’ Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), Radley Metzger’s The Alley Cats (1966)Thérèse and Isabelle (1968), Estelle Parsons in Rachel, Rachel, (1968) , The Sargent (1968) starring Rod Steiger who gives a gripping performance as a self hating homosexual.

And, including this post that includes lesbianism/bi-sexuality in The Legend of Lylah Clare.

She's dead and I'm alive so you'll have to get used to me That can be arranged
Elsa“She’s dead and I’m alive so you’ll have to get used to me.”Rossella- “That can be arranged.”


Lylah Clare is an unnerving journey, with very unattractive show-biz types… And it’s supposed to be. Aldrich wants you to despise everyone who inhabits the Hollywood chimera, inhabited by outliers and egocentrically driven characters.

From the beginning of the film the ‘legend’ is set up by revealing to us, flashbacks, slides, a grand portrait, and vocal recordings of Lylah’s speaking style, wardrobe archived, fashion sense, body language and attitude.

staircase scene
The dangerously iconographic staircase, that tells the death of Lylah Clare in three separate yet altered flashbacks

Aldrich himself an outsider to Hollywood has made a name for himself as an irreverent auteur who creates high melodrama germinating in the realm of show business, stage & film. With cut-throat, and malignant sorts, parasites who feed on the desperately narcissistic, delusional and addictively determined to succeed.

There isn’t anything poignant or warm-hearted about Aldrich’s view surrounding any of the characters in the narrative itself as seen through the lens of The Legend of Lylah Clare. It’s imbued with noxious gasoline– giving off fumes just waiting to be thrown onto the smoldering fire, as he depicts this love/hate story about the myth and the illusion that is Hollywood.

You’ll start to feel the bile rising from your stomach, as every predatory, cynical and egomaniacal neurotic seeks to feed off the dreams of others trying to do the very same, like a snake devouring it’s own tail. It’s a quite unflattering look at fleeting power, bottomless fame, self-worship and the seduction of celebrity… deviant cannibalistic & venomous.


Novak plays both the fictional screen siren Lylah Clare and her doppleganger Elsa in Robert Aldrich’s toxic orgy of Hollywood indulgences in The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968).
Rosella Falk plays the sapphic Rossella obsessed with both Lylah and Elsa as the reincarnation of her lost love… Lylah.

The Legend of Lylah Clare is one of director Robert Aldrich’s crassest indictments of Hollywood, using brutal symbolism -exploring a visual narrative of an industry that is narcissistic, chaotic, duplicitous, superficial, devours the soul, and cannibalizes it’s own.

From James Ursini & Alain Silver’s wonderful book, What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?“Real emotions and real events are clouded in ambiguity. Elsa and Zarken are not ‘simple-minded stereotypes’, they are the expressive components of The Legend of Lylah Clare which begins in setting up a standard genre expectation then they goe to consciously excessive lengths to frustrate and altar those expectations.”

As pointed out in Ursini & Silver’s insightful biography, Aldrich is one of Hollywood’s rebels & great auteurs, they also point out that Zarken (Peter Finch) & Elsa’s (Kim Novak) are industry victims by their own doing and because of the cut throat nature that permeates within its closed universe. They both come to an end by death, physical, emotional & career. “Their fates are as fixed as that of Joe Gillis, floating face down in Norma Desmond’s pool.”- Ursini & Silver- (they are referring to Sunset Boulevard 1950)

Elsa Trapeze
Kim Novak as Elsa filming the final scene in the film within a film’s biopic film about the life and death of Lylah Clare.

Kim Novak stars as Lylah Clare /Elsa Brinkmann/ Elsa Campbel, with Peter Finch as egomaniacal director/ Lewis Zarken/Louis Flack, Ernest Borgnineis the studio bigwig. Barney Sheean,wonderful character actor Milton Selzer is agent Bart Langner and Jean Carroll plays his wife Becky. Giallo queen & 8 1/2 star Rossella Falk is Rossella, Lylah’s lover, the dreamy Gabriele Tinti plays Paolo the Adonis gardener, Valentina Cortese is fashion designer Countess Bozo Bedoni and Coral Browne who was incredible in The Killing of Sister George that same year, does her thing as the scathing, acid tongued film critic and virulent gossip mongering columnist Molly Luther. Ellen Corby has a small part as the script woman.

Teleplay by Robert Thom and Edward DeBlasio, with the screenplay by Hugo Butler, and Jean Rouverol
Music by Aldrich regular Frank De Vol… Filmed on location at Grumman’s Chinese Theater and MGM Studios. Aldrich consistently used masterful Cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc

George Reeves with cinematographer Joseph Biroc Biroc served as cinematographer on the “Adventures of Superman” He also received several Emmys for his work and in 1989 received a lifetime achievement award from the Society of American Cinematographers.

The camera work in Lylah Clare is perhaps one of the standout aspects of how the film is skewed & washed over by reality vs illusion. Here’s just a few of the amazing films credited to Biroc… a master at film noir, fantasy & suspenseful landscapes. Joseph F. Biroc has lensed some of my favorite films.

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), Cry Danger (1951), The Glass Wall (1953) Vice Squad (1953), Donovan’s Brain (1953), Down Three Dark Streets (1954), Nightmare (1956), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Born Reckless (1958), Home Before Dark (1958), The Bat (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), Toys in the Attic (1963), Kitten with a Whip (1964), Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Enter Laughing (1967), Tony Rome (1967), The Detective (1968), The Killing of Sister George (1968), The Grissom Gang (1971), Emperor of the North (1973), Blazing Saddles (1974), The Longest Yard (1974)

William Glasgow who had worked on Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955) is responsible for the stunning art direction.

lylah opening titles

Overnight, she became a star…Over many nights, she became a legend.”


lylah cast

“The entire film might be classed as a reincarnation fantasy or murder mystery”  Alain Silver & James Ursini; What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?

It could also tantalize us with a hint of the supernatural theme of ‘soul possession’ within the Hollywood Exposé It is never clear whether Lylah is possessing Elsa or if Elsa just goes mad!

Kim Novak

Agent Bart Langner (Milton Selzer) who is dying of cancer wants to finally produce a film before he dies. He discovers Elsa Brinkmann (Kim Novak) a meek horned rimmed glasses wearing movie fan who is the spitting image of the dead screen goddess Lylah Clare, a legendary actress who died 30 years ago in 1948 by mysterious means on her wedding night to director Lewis Zarken. Her husband/director has vowed that he’d never direct another picture again.

But when Bart brings Elsa (Novak) to the egocentric who ‘lifted his name from a Hungarian magician who slit his own throat’ director Lewis Zarken/Louis Flack (Peter Finch) who has been isolating since the death of his star/wife, he begs Lewis (Finch) to come out of hiding, so they can make a movie about the life and death of the legendary Lylah Clare. Bart has been tirelessly molding Elsa (using slides and voice recordings of Lylah) into the personification of the dead starlet to entice Zarken to make the picture.

Milton Selzer as Bart is running through a series of slides with his wife Becky, showing Elsa bits and pieces of Lylah’s past.
A slide shows the image of brooding ego-maniacal director Lewis Zarken played by Peter Finch.


The wedding of Zarken and Lylah Clare.
Becky Langner shows Elsa Lylah’s dress.
Elsa lacks confidence to take on such an intimidating role.

Kim Novak inhabits two roles, the title of the film which is the ‘dead’ screen goddess Lylah Clare seen in various flashback. And, her other character, that of Elsa Brinkmann who starts out as a shy star-struck neophyte, clumsy and appearing frightened at times until she emerges from her cocoon. The film almost alludes to the idea that Elsa is either a   ‘reincarnation’ of Lylah Clare or is under a spell, like soul possession.

Bart Langner to Elsa –“You can’t imagine what a big star she was, I mean really big Everybody loved her, worshiped her.”
Elsa-“She had a strange kind of appeal didn’t she.”
The Legend of Lylah Clare uses many touches of Neo-Noir as part of it’s flare. This is outside Elsa’s lonely motel room.




Elsa starts the circular pattern of the film, starting out walking down Hollywood Boulevard looking at famous star footprints and winding up in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The film will end in front of the landmark.


In Lylah Clare, Kim Novak portrays the flip side of two women once again…  Elsa Brinkmann a star struck timid girl who is discovered by agent Bart Langner. The brash studio head who represents the business end of the world, is played by Ernest Borgnine who calls Bart (Milton Selzer) a ‘lousy ten-percenter.’

Because Bart knows he is dying of cancer, and  his days are numbered he figures that introducing Elsa to the world as the second coming of the legendary actress Lylah Clare a sort of Dietrichesque screen goddess who died 30 years earlier shrouded in mystery will allow him to leave his legacy as a filmmaker and not just a crummy agent.


Finding Lylah’s doppelgänger would give him the opportunity to finally produce a picture, putting Elsa on the big screen in a biopic version of the legendary Lylah Clare.

Elsa goes through an evolution from insecure fan whose bed is cluttered with movie magazines, to the vigorous narcissist who embodies the passion and recklessness of the dead starlet. However the catalyst… Elsa becomes TRANSFORMED into either a surrogate Lylah or the real deal. Of course Zarken and Elsa become lovers, but it is not made clear whether he is in love with the new actress or living out old patterns with a replica . Elsa however has fallen for the director and is tortured by the conflict Lylah’s memory/incarnation that has been rekindled.


Peter Finch, Kim Novak

She begins to feel her own ascendance beyond Zarken, who utters the line, “You’re an illusion. Without me you don’t exist!” In response she shows Zarken to himself who was originally Louis Flack a hack magician. Shouting in defiance, Elsa holds up a make-up mirror that distorts his reflection. “Look you are a God… and I’m created in your image!”

“Look you are a God… and I’m created in your image!”

Let’s turn the reel back a bit… Bart brings Elsa to meet Lylah’s director/lover Lewis Zarken who has been in seclusion since the tragic death of his protege Lylah Clare. Once Lewis sees Elsa and watches the time she’s put into studying her guttural  accent which she intermittently uses as cackles with other throaty Germanic utterances that is eerie and off putting. This is to give her a streak of supernatural irreverence. Zarken sees a spark of potential to resurrect not only his own career, but to bring back from the dead, his lost love and worldwide idol or perhaps just his art piece to mold and exploit once again… or a combination of all of the above.

The camera shows only Zarken’s back To Bart. Setting up the idea that Zarken is a deity in his own mind, unreachable force who commands deference and obedience. 
Portraits and memorabilia of the enigma that is Lylah Clare are all around Zarken’s house, like a shrine to the dead goddess.


Zarken sits in his swivel chair with his back to us and the camera spouting his arrogant and cryptic sense of humor, which already alienates us from his character right from the beginning. As Ursini & Silver point out, it also sets him up as a mythic figure himself. He is congratulated and warned about having a second chance. “You’re getting a chance to live a part of your life all over again… Lewis be careful with this girl… remember, it’s not everyone who gets two chances.”

Zarken, originally named Louis Flack a professional magician plays like he’s a megalomaniac in the vein of Svengali. Elsa winds up living in the shadow of the ‘myth’ of a great mysterious woman much like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca feeling as if she is NOT nor will ever be the late great idol of passion.

Zarken aggressively pulls up Rossella’s sleeve to show the track marks on her arm. Each character in The Legend of Lylah Clare has obsessions and demons of their own making.

Now living isolated in his decadent old mansion (reminders of the Hudson sister’s house in Baby Jane?) he shares the isolation with friend Rossella the beautiful Italian dialect coach and Lylah’s lover who is a dope addicted lesbian. She inhabits her scenes with a love/hate relationship toward Zarken as she haunts the house like part of his conscience for both characters the memory of Lylah won’t rest.

Zarken is a psychopathic megalomaniac who lives in the odd mansion like Norma Desmond. He plays life/death tricks with a gun, and is an abrasive egoist, and an elitist, A maudlin auteur from the first moment we meet him. After Bart works with Elsa, playing recordings of Lylah’s Voice and teaching her the walk etc. Bart is ready to bring Elsa to meet Zarken.


Zarken makes Bart play the gunshot trick/game with him. He is impervious to bullets. A God like man…



Elsa arrives at the mansion and begins walking up the staircase looking at the extravagant portrait of Lylah.



As Elsa is paraded in front of Zarken he depersonalizes her.
The 1st flashback which suggests Lylah was assaulted by a crazed fan with a knife. There is a struggle. The use of red to soak the screen in blood.


Both Lylah and her assailant wind up dead at the bottom of the great staircase.
“We’re moving like a deeply offended Tibetan yak!” Lewis tells Elsa as he watches from below the absurd staircase that plays a very significant role in the film.
Lewis Zarken: [Talking about choosing a stage name for Elsa] Elsa Brinkmann. “John Foster Brinksmanship.” It’s horrible. We’ll have to change your name.” Elsa: “Thank you, but I’m happy with the name I have.” Lewis Zarken: “Well, I’m not! And neither will the public be! Anyway, what’s in a name? Why are you so sensitive? If it’s any consolation to you, I rejoiced in the name of “Flack.” Louie Flack, F-L-A-C-K, Flack. How does *that* grab you? Then one day I saw this magician: “Zarkan the Magnificent.” He was a terrible act. I think he finished up cutting his throat in a Hungarian boarding house. Anyway, I lifted his name. Sounds a bit like a Transylvanian pox doctor, but it serves to impress the natives. We’ll do the same for you.”
Lewis Zarken: “I’ve never seen a woman yet who didn’t have a whore locked up somewhere deep inside her.”

As Elsa is paraded in front of Zarken he depersonalizes her. Zarken is offensive and rude and downright abusive. Eventually Elsa is imbued with the essence of the dead actress and the possession, or the spell Elsa falls under begins to manifest the abrasive more bravura persona that apparently was Lylah, losing Elsa all together. She falls in love with Zarken of course, but is he in love with Elsa?, or the image of Lylah that has been molded as if by Madame Tussauds, or intoxicated by the idea of being able to control Elsa/Lylah all over again, creating her image on screen for the sake of art and his supposed genius. Lewis tells Elsa in his preachy condescending way. Lylah has died under very curious circumstances on their wedding night, that only begins to unfold as the film’s flashbacks start to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Elsa sits in the screening room watching old film’s of the dead goddess Lylah Clare.




Valentina Cortez plays the costume designer Countess Bozo Bedoni.
Ernest Borgnine is studio head/producer Barney Sheean.
It is the premier coming out party at Zarken’s mansion where Zarken has invited the press and industry people to meet his new Lylah Clare protégé.
Molly Luther: “Free food, free drinks, free press.” Molly Luther: “She’s tame enough now, Lewis, but will she turn into a slut like the last one?”


Jean Carroll as Bart’s wife Becky Langner, Valentina Cortese as Countess Bozo and Rossella Falk as Rossella are gleefully admiring their make over –an anti Pygmalian transformation. No grace, no grammar just guts and glamour.


Elsa is created to look like a carbon copy, down to the rose and blonde hairstyle as the huge portrait by the staircase.
Coral Browne as the cynical and acerbic  Molly Luther is lying in wait to offend & grill the young actress!







Elsa must past inspection by the harpy like critic Molly Luther played by Coral Browne. Elsa manifests Lylah’s contemptuous maniacal laugh and nasty tongue. Demeaning Luther by almost molesting the disabled woman’s private parts by putting her cigarette out in the ashtray on her crotch. Then banging her leg brace with her own cane in front of the crowd of party guests.


Molly Luther–I presume you know what kind of an establishment Lewis’ last performer came from? Are we to take it that your background is equally unfortunate? Oh come along child, surely you’re not retarded. I am asking you Do you sleep with him?!”
Elsa (Manifesting Lylahs throaty German voice) “Why you miserable son of a bitch. What makes you think that because once Yes Miss Luther just once (she puts her cigarette out in Luther’s lap) you spent a cozy hour with Lew Zarken… that you have the right to be jealous of him…”



“Do you really believe that you have a license to ask any dirty question that slides into that snake nest between your ears… And nobodies jealous of you why! Because they’re gentleman? NO… I’ll tell you why. Molly Luther’s magic wand. (Elsa holds Molly’s cane in her hands) It keeps her safe from (smacking Molly’s leg brace) dragons!… (she cackles) Luther’s personal guarantee that she has the right of God almighty… Now get out and don’t come into this house again!”




Elsa ultimately professionally and psychotically reincarnates or uncannily manifests herself as Lylah. She seems almost possessed by the spirit of the dead screen goddess. This suggests an element of the supernatural perhaps that the films doesn’t bother to dissuade or convince us of. Elsa’s intermittent vocalizations arise at times as M.J Arocena says in their IMBd review —“talks with the grave tones of a hybrid, part Lotte Lenya part Mercedes MacCambridge. Outrageous!” I remember reading that Mercedes MacCambridge had done the voice of the demon possessing Regan (Linda Blair) in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973).

Once an agreement is set with the studio to allow Zarken to make his picture and Lewis Zarken agrees that he can mold Elsa in the image of Lylah and cast her in an epic biography about the lost screen goddess and her tragic mysterious death, we meet the mouthy studio head ’ Barney Sheean played by Ernest Borgnine. Who is wonderfully belligerent and not all too enthusiastic to revisit another Lylah Clare with auteur Zarken helming the project.

Barney Sheean (Ernest Borgnine) is invited to come to the unveiling, where Elsa is coached even how to walk down the long staircase at Zarken’s mansion to greet her public and more importantly the press, in particular that harpy-like gossip columnist Molly Luther played by brilliantly by Coral Browne, as the archetypal scandalmonger in the vein of the great  Louella Parsons.

Molly asks what Lewis has to say about being thrown out by Elsa. “I’ve always been told that a director should never under cut their actors big scene. I’m afraid I must ask you to leave!”
With Lewis Zarken taking sides with his new actress, Rosella and Countess Bozo do their version of a spit take! Rosella drinks to it and Countess Bozo gags on her cigarette smoke!


Bart, in a panic chases after Molly making excuses “she’s really a nice girl” pleading with her to wait for Barney (Ernest Borgnine).


Molly- “She’s a degenerate swine!”


As she descends the oddity that is Zarken’s high and open ended staircase symbolically a decent with no safety bars attached, Elsa seems bent out of joint by Molly’s questioning so rather than succumb she assaults her using that thick throaty German Lylah voice in order to make the intimidation more grandiose!

On the day of Elsa’s big unveiling, she manages to conjure Lylah so well that she has a cat fight with columnist Molly Luther (Coral Browne) who calls her a ‘degenerate swine’ in which she inappropriately mocks and attacks not only her physical disability, but her identity as a woman  by banging her own cane against her leg brace to demean her in front of the gathered crowd at the party. Elsa goes as far too call her a ‘freak’.

Director Lewis Zarken’s Svengali like preoccupation with molding Elsa in Lylah’s own image creates a sort a Monstrous Feminine, a beautiful Frankenstein who begans to desire it’s own primacy rather than be mastered, while he is trying to re-create what he has lost, he loses all control over his creation yet again.



Lewis Zarken: [Upon nearing a large greenhouse, while giving Elsa a walking tour of his estate] “You might say that that greenhouse is something of a memorial to her. We had a Japanese gardener that used to look after it. Nice little fellow – quiet as a cherry blossom. Worked out here the best part of ten years, then suddenly one day we were at war. And the Government – who know a dangerous man when they see one – gave him a few hours to pack up before they shipped him off to some god-forsaken concentration camp in the middle of a desert. Lylah was so upset, she came down here to say good-bye to him. You can take my word for it, that gardener had the most *unexpected* going away present he ever had in his life.” Lewis Zarken: [pauses, noticing that Elsa looks somewhat taken aback] “Don’t look so shocked… She wasn’t married at the time.”

Barney Sheean: “Films”? “Films”? What the hell ever happened to movies? What do you think you’re in, the art business?
I make movies, not films!

Under the shadow of the great Lylah, Elsa is driven hard to bring forth the same enigmatic persona by Zarken. During the film we’re not even sure if Elsa is either, becoming possessed by the dead star, truly talented at stepping into character or absolutely mad. Is she driven by a desire to be a great actress, or is she trying to please her lover Lewis who only sees her as an object, and the subject that is ‘Lylah’.

What’s like a rollercoaster ride is how Elsa suddenly bursts into one of Lyle’s vulgar tirades perfect pitch German accent, once when Lewis tries to grab her she spews venom at him shoving him away, “keep your filthy hands off me!”

I’ve read that Novak’s voice was dubbed post-production as a last minute idea- something that purportedly caused the actress much embarrassment at the film’s premiere. This was based supposedly on the idea that Aldrich realized that Elsa could not have known so many private details of Lylah’s intimate life and so the idea of ‘possession’ became more viable when she would manifest the guttural laugh and tirades she would go off on in that German accent. But due to this maneuver after the film was shot, the possession scenes come across as even more surreal or otherworldly and off-putting & creepy.


The 2nd flashback a different version of the assailant/lover is revealed to be a woman played by a very young Lee Merriwether.





Along the for the ride in this ensemble excursion typical of an Aldrich narrative, is Rossella Falk, who plays assistant Rossella, Lyle’s heroine addicted lover.

There aren’t any characters that have an attractive, compelling or empathic role, as they are all in this mission to resurrect the dead Lylah for an agenda each one has. Zarken desires to destroy the woman all over again, Bart just wants to produce one great film before the cancer kills him, and Rossella is still hopelessly in love/lust with Lylah, which she easily transfers to the now well groomed Elsa.

During the exhausting studying down to each movement and inflection, Elsa begins to lose her identity slipping more and more into Lylah’s personality off the film set.











Elsa kisses Bart on the cheek, even his wife Becky is starting to see the transformation and the shy Elsa is becoming more flirtatious like Lylah Clare
Even Bart’s wife Becky sees the change in the mild mannered girl who is now flirting with her husband.
I doesn’t escape me, the use of the re-occurring iconography -the use of ‘the mirror’ to represent the splintering of personalty.

The film becomes an almost surreal fruit salad of moments that are a journey for several archetypal figures who are destined for self-destruction in the literally dog-eat-dog world of show-biz. Also a film within a film within a film.

What’s hard to know or what is not meant to be discovered is whether Elsa becomes possessed, whether Lewis is using Elsa to resurrect a woman that he might have also driven crazy or in fact killed, and the strange romance between the two. It’s hard to define it as a love relationship rather than one of opportunity obsession and need.






Zarken is re-shooting the death scene on the staircase where Lylah was either attacked by a true assailant, a female lover playing dangerous foreplay with a knife, or in fact if the fall was caused by the jealous & possessive Zarken.



Ellen Corby plays the script woman. Watching the volatile scene on the staircase


One plot line concerns the actress and her possession by the spirit of the late Lylah Clare, and the other subplot concerns the romance between the actress and the director, and the burgeoning promiscuity (hearkening back to Lylah) as Elsa begins to explore sex with Rossella the voice coach and the hunky gardener played by Tinti.








An interesting confluence, Kim Novak’s character Lylah too suffers from vertigo as did James Stewart character in Hitchcock’s film. In flashback we see three possibilities of what happened the night that Lylah Clare died, but it doesn’t unfold until it has been strained through a few different psychedelic versions to get to the likely truth behind her death. Photographed by the great Josef Biroc he creates a mesmerizing color palate that reminds me of some of the best Giallo films from Italy.

At the climax of the film when Elsa is filming the last scene as Lylah, she is up on a trapeze being able to still capitalize on Lylah’s fear of heights (a scenario that never happened but Lewis envisions this campy exhibition as a metaphor to her real death, also signifying that Hollywood is a circus!), Elsa shouts to Zarken, “All right, Lewis we will see if I am an illusion!”

Lewis Zarken is one of Robert Aldrich’s typical film megalomaniacs, with a measure of psychopath added to the mix. Bart (Milton Selzer) berates Zarken, “You think you created her, can create her again!” The combative Zarken tells him- “The public will continue to believe what we tell them… We make the legends and the legends become truth!”





Bart is getting increasingly disparaged by Zarken’s controlling ego trip and mistreatment of Elsa.


This maxim that the illusion becomes the reality is re-articulated in Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George (1968) as June (Beryl Reid) tells her lover ‘Childie’ (Suzannah York) about her quaint & extremely popular soap opera gig, “It’s real to millions of people, more real than you or I.”

Once the filming begins the blustering studio head Barney Sheean (Ernest Borgnine) begins to oversee the picture and vocal coach Rossella (Rossella Falk) and staff, designers etc are on board. Novak starts embodying the very essence of Lylah’s persona as she further immerses herself into the character. Is she possessed? or merely going mad from the pressures. Everyone begins treating her as if she is the late screen goddess to tragic results as history repeats itself again…








Elsa as Lylah Clare: “Just tell ’em Lylah’s coming, soon as she gets her harness on… Lylah Clare: [to Barney Sheean] Squat and wait!”

The 3rd flashback gives more of an impression that Zarken either caused or purposefully made Lylah fall off the staircase when he finds out that her lover is a woman.


Up on the trapeze the final flashback -one of the dream sequences be it real or fantasy of Lylah’s death, the predatory male suitor with a knife is now a young woman who is shot by Lewis falling off that ridiculous staircase with no railing—it is Lee Meriwether (Catwoman in Batman 1966) and former Miss America. — playing a lesbian suitor/lover dressed in male drag wielding a knife as deadly phallic weapon or just s&m foreplay–all of it that precipitates Lylah’s fall to her death.
Elsa looks down, and winds up missing her cue, as she too falls to her death for real, not just written into the script as a feature.






Ironically the film premiers at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the very place that Elsa playfully walks around in the very beginning of the film.
Rossella waits… she loads a gun. Will she kill Lewis Zarken? That is left up for grabs…
Molly Luther at the premier of the ‘degenerate swines’ movie… Life goes on in Hollywood
Zarken reflects on what has happened.
Zarken is interviewed about the film, but it is quickly cut to a Barkwell dog food commercial…







In the end, Elsa in a struggle of power to maintain her identity falls to her death from the trapeze, dying in an eerie similarity to Lylah. She might as well have slipped inside Lylah’s skin.

The filming catches every nuance. The extras gather around her body. It is a bizarre scene… until Aldrich leads us out with the dog food commercial freeze framed under the rolling credits. We are also left to wonder if Rossella will finally shoot Lewis in a jealous rage for having caused her beautiful lover to die yet again… Molly Luther shows up to the premier of Zarken’s film at the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theater smiling as none of this scandalous affair has tainted her career and Zarken himself  brooding & reflecting about the premier while being interviewed by a reporter until he is cued away on television to a Barkwell dog food commercial, phasing out Zarken’s soliloquy in front of Grauman’s Chinses Theater. All is back to normal in the world of Hollywood and with its short attention span syndrome.

Aldrichs’ way of ‘vulgarizing Hollywood showing that nothing is sacred, nothing lasts. The camera pulls away and goes to the commercial. The symbol of the dog food (incidentally used in Baby Jane? when the dog food ad interrupts one of Blanche’s classic films re-run on tv) is a grandiose show of contempt as a pack of wild dogs pile into a kitchen through a dog door and in a frenzy, sharp fangs bared, tear each-other apart over a bowl of meat. Leading out to the final freeze frame of the snarling teeth, as De Vol’s theme song for Lylah plays over the rolling credits.

An ugly Grand Guignol Guilty Pleasure stylized by Aldrich’s animosity toward the film industry-wonderfully vulgar in the same way as was his What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962). It’s another poison love letter to Hollywood that is perhaps even more absurd, and almost as grotesque as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

what ever happened to
The two iconic ideals of the vulgarization of screen goddesses worship and ruination, as the Hudson sisters Blanche and Jane. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. The exemplar of Grande Dame Guignol theater.

The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) was a failure in the sense of a box office hit it could have been, even with the collaboration of Novak’s star quality, the studio MGM’s money machine, the successes Aldrich had with The Dirty Dozen in 1967 and the stellar casting, it came across as an convoluted oddity.

Aldrich created a quirky uncomfortable campy indictment of Hollywood, and not a grand action adventure or high melodrama that never sank too low in decadence for it’s audience.

a similar film theme that precedes Aldrich’s film by 16 years!
Tagline: from THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952)“The story of a blonde who wanted to go places, and a brute who got her there – the hard way!”

The Bold and The Beautiful 1952 Douglas and Turner
Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner star in The Bold and The Beautiful (1952) directed by Vincent Minnelli.

Aldrich gathered his usual ensemble of outliers in a world gone mad and literally let the dogs loose. If people are looking for his edgy noir touch he used in Kiss Me Deadly, or the gang of men fighting against all odds in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), or The Longest Yard (1974), the taut melodrama of the older woman loving back to sanity a younger psychotic male like his Autumn Leaves (1956) starring Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson, they will not find this kind of linear style of story telling in Lylah Clare.

The film does fit somewhere in the realm of pulp like- Jacqueline Suzanne’s Valley of the Dolls (1967) or other auteur Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970).

Unfortunately what was to be Novak’s return to the big screen, wound up being her swan song, because the film was not the critical success she had hoped for nor a flattering dramatic exercise for the actress.

But the film also acts as a corollary for the glamorous days of Hollywood and the death of the industry that was a dynasty. The late 60s didn’t deal with dreams anymore, but brutal realism and social awakening to a different kind of story on screen and backstage…. In that way, the film itself is a queer swan song to those golden days, much in the way Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard was in 1950.



In Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) Novak also was called to embody the roles of two separate yet identical archetypes of the enigma that is ‘the male gaze’ of the ‘objectified female body.’

Aldrich’s film will immediately grab you as something campy with a bit of that offbeat vulgarity that he’s known for. Peter Finch who plays the Svengali like director Lewis Zarken who tries to transform Elsa both physically and psychologically into the very being that was his actress/star/wife Lylah Clare.

Amidst the transformation in the film we are shown three different versions of how Lylah met her death. The flashbacks are psychedelic with a hazy focused lens using bold color washes and weaves of slow motion and blood splatter on screen to obscure what we see.

When Elsa is seemingly channeling Lylah it sort of works as a reincarnation piece draped in the mod quality of the late 60s and the make-up job by veteran William Tuttle and Robert J. Schiffer create the look of Nancy Sinatra, Karen Dors or Mamie Van Doren which are all good things but it’s not quite the look of the Golden Age glamour of Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich.

It’s also never clear within the story whether Elsa is rational or descending into madness. Similar to Jack Palance’s actor Charles Castle in The Big Knife (1955) who is a victim of his own inflated ego subject to box office ratings, betrayal and his fear of failing. Betrayal, which was also at the turbulent core between the Hudson sisters in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

“The film has moments of self-conscious ‘parody and stylization.’… whether she merely continues to act at being Lylah off the set or is actually ‘possessed’ by her. The Legend of Lylah Clare is neither pure satire nor pure melodrama, but a difficult integration of real and unreal.”Silver & Ursini.

on set Elsa (Kim Novak) is playing Lylah Clare in the story of her life and death… a film within a film…
The Big Knife 1955 Ida and Jack-
Jack Palance and Ida Lupino in Robert Aldrich’s very intense film The Big Knife (1955).

The Lavender haired actress is wearing a more mod 60s icy white coif and velvety pale pink lips and Twiggy style eyeliner that just doesn’t say screen goddess of a bygone era. More-so cheesecake, groovy, and eerily out of place, perhaps this is what Aldrich intended as he is apt to vulgarize what he touches.

Lylah Clare might also be said to contain fragments or composites of great actresses of long ago, Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Garbo, Dietrich and Harlow. all icons of the 1930s.

Aldrich also didn’t miss his commentary on the struggles of studios to make the almighty buck, clawing to get that money making actress, and film. The conflict between the studio system and the directors who want to make art. And the servitude they must surrender to– the media and piranha like Molly Luther who can immortalize or annihilate with their power of the press. Ernest Borgnine as the studio head Barney Sheean says in one scene, “I don’t want to make films. I want to make movies. What do you think we’re making here, art?”

Novak San Fran- Vertigo
Kim Novak too remains a legend shown here in this iconic allegorical imagery from Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).

The ending is irreverent, trashy, campy and is the lead up to the cynical climax. Absolutely the weirdest of all Aldrich’s dark show-biz operas, as Lylah Clare and Kim Novak both remain a legend.

IMBD TRIVIA–Although this was her first film in three years, Kim Novak found that she had little enthusiasm for her character. Director Robert Aldrich found it increasingly difficult to elicit a viable performance from her. This was Kim Novak’s last starring role in an American-made feature film. When Kim Novak walks along Hollywood Blvd, a theater she passes by is playing The Dirty Dozen (1967), a film Robert Aldrich made a year earlier, and whose commercial success made it possible for the director to start his own production company and make movies like this.


When MGM executives finally screened the film, they decided to market it as being “deliberately campy”, but audiences in 1968 were not yet ready to embrace the idea of going to see something trashy on purpose, and the movie proved to be a box office bomb despite this trend-setting marketing ploy. This film is listed among the 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made in Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson’s book THE OFFICIAL RAZZIE® MOVIE GUIDE.



“I’m the greatest actress in the world and the greatest failure. And nobody gives a damn.”- Jeanne Eagels

Eagels in Man, Woman and Sin
Jeanne Eagels in Man, Woman and Sin (1927)
Novak in Eagels
Kim Novak channels the legendary yet tragic actress Jeanne Eagels in director George Sidney’s biopic Jeanne Eagels (1957)

Directed by George Sidney (The Three Musketeers 1948, Scaramouche 1952, Kiss Me Kate 1953, The Eddy Duchin Story 1956, Pal Joey 1957, Bye Bye Birdie 1963, Viva Las Vegas 1964)


Kim Novak plays legendary actress of the ‘legitimate theater’, silent film & a few talkies– the great Jeanne Eagels. The film co-stars Jeff Chandler as Sal Satori loosely based on Eagels carnival owner husband Dubinsky. In truth screenwriters Daniel Fuchs (Panic in the Streets 1950) & Sonya Levien ( The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1939, Quo Vadis 1951) used Satori as a composite of the many men in Eagel’s life.


CapturFiles_3 a waitress from Kansas City meets the Carnival Tent show
a waitress from Kansas City meets up with a Carnival Tent show…




Traveling Saleman promises Jeanne that the beauty pageant is in the bag… She loses and he takes off…


Though Novak received a luke warm reception for her performance of Eagels, there are many moments in the film where she exhibits an eerie greatness… Not over the top embellishments of drunken disorientation, but the subtle moments as her face holds perfectly the look of alienation. The film is beautifully filmed, though the script is weak with it’s ‘fairy tale’ version of the real life experience of actress Jeanne Eagels. This biopic is still a mesmerizing & pulp view into the backstage world of the highs & lows and struggles of being a performer.

Jeanne says to Sal “You think I’m a hillbilly, don’t you? Come on.”



The incomparable Agnes Moorehead plays acting coach and devoted friend Nellie (Neely) Neilson perhaps a nod to real life stage actress whom Eagels studied with Beverley Sitgreaves. Larry Gates plays Al Brooks, Jeanne’s agent and Virginia Grey plays Elsie Desmond, the actress in this film version whom (it did not happen in real life) Eagels steals the part of Sadie Thompson in the hit show Rain. This precipitates the suicide by defenestration of Elsie Desmond. The wonderful Gene Lockhart plays the Equity Board President in his last film role.

Fabulous score by George Duning and editing by Viola Lawrence and Jerome Thoms. Robert H. Planck is responsible for the moody cinematography that at times paints a bleak and volatile atmosphere.

Trade magazines called Kim Novak the girl with the Lavender-hair..

But as writer Susan Doll aptly puts it, “Novak’s interpretation of the love goddess did not simmer and burn with passionate desire and aspiration; instead she played her characters coolly, passively, and with little expression. At best, her demeanor gave her characters a vulnerability, or made them as enigmatic as the Sphinx; at worst, her characters seemed emotionless, leaving Novak open to criticism that she possessed a limited acting range.”

This assessment of course it totally opened to interpretation. I think Novak is enigmatic, and just needed the right script and character to bring out that marvelous Sphinx like charisma.

Director George Sidney’s film is more than a white washed biopic, it’s an over the cliff erroneous fairy tale about much of the life and volatile career of legendary actress Jeanne Eagels. Who from her years as a young girl was driven to become a famous actress and who did possess an extraordinary raw talent that was enigmatic on stage and on and off screen.

She began in regional theaters, stock companies and on the Broadway stage and ended in the 1920s to the age of talkies. Unlike Arlene Dahl as Kathy Allen who wins a rigged beauty contest in Wicked As They Come (1956) Kim Novak as young Jeanne is promised that a carnival beauty pageant is in the bag, and her ticket out of poverty and on the road to becoming an actress. Though Jeanne get’s passed over for the winner, she catches the eye of the carnival owner who throws her over his shoulder, puts her in the back of his pick up truck and takes her on the road with his traveling carnival/tent show.


Sal “You came out of nowhere, you don’t know nothin’ all of a sudden you’re all in an uproar” Jeanne –“Look Maybe I came from nowhere, but I’m going somewhere.”




Novak as Jeanne Eagels as Princess Dardanella.


In the film. Jeanne joins the traveling carnival & theater company getting romantically involved with one of the three brothers Sal Satori (Jeff Chandler) who is a composite of many of Eagel’s many lovers and her first husband Morris Dubinsky who ran a traveling theater Company. Jeanne had married the head of a traveling theatrical company and not a carnival barker. Sal highlights Jeanne in a number of theatrical ‘tent’ performances that are like burlesque costume acts.

It was rumored that the real Jeanne Eagels worked as a ‘hootche kootchie dancerl’ this fallacy is only perpetuated and driven by a scene where she dances as Princess Dardanella. The police come and raid the carnival. In fact Eagels immersed herself from the the time she was 10 into serious acting, and the carnival scenes were more likely a way to showcase Novak’s extraordinary bumps and curves. Which makes the film from the get go more cheesecake and exploitation  than serious historical account of the great actress’ life. And that’s too bad.

The show is raided by the police. Jeanne lands in jail.


Sal and Jeanne head to New York City… Jeanne has dreams of Broadway…
Satori brings Jeanne to New York, while he sets up a show at Coney Island with his brothers. The couple are awestruck by Broadway.





CapturFiles_53 I don't take carnival or tent performers
Jeanne has written to Nielson asking to be trained by her. Jeanne pleads to Nielson ‘Neely’ –“Yes, we ran sideshows. Why, I’ve starred in everything, from Little Eva to Princess Dardanelles.” Nielson tells her she doesn’t work with beginners and… “I don’t take carnival or tent performers.”
CapturFiles_54 doesn't take beginners she's performed "to gypsys freaks and snake charmers
Jeanne tells her that she has performed. Nielson snaps at her “to Gypsies freaks and snake charmers…”
CapturFiles_54 maybe all the freaks aren't in the sideshows
Jeanne answers with “Maybe all the freaks aren’t in the sideshows.”

When they travel to New York, Jeanne grabs the opportunity to become a legitimate actress becoming trained by renowned coach Nellie Neilson played by Agnes Moorehead. Again a ultra vague synthesis using the great stage actress who left America for Paris and trained Eagels—the great Beverley Sitgreaves. Nellie Nielson’s first reflex is to reject Jeanne, then she sees something in the girl.


Agnes Moorehead as Nellie and Larry Gates as Al Brooks watch in the wings as Jeanne performs on the New York stage for the first time.


fans and the Satori brothers wait in the alley at the back door of the theater. Applauding Jeanne’s performance. She isn’t going back to Brooklyn just yet, she is now a star…



Robert H. Planck’s camera work is superb as Jeanne takes a celebratory but solitary swim in the ocean…







Else-“I came all the way from NY to see Mr Brooks but he won’t even talk to me he will talk to you though. See your’e new on the rise I want this role desperately. Would you talk to him for me”


Else after Jeanne steals the play “Don’t worry I won’t make a scene. I shouldn’t have given you my play should I I thought you had your own play. I thought you were human. You’re not. You’re a monster. You tricked me out of my last chance. Well, you’ll be a success Eagels You think this play will bring you luck. It will. It’ll bring you luck alright. All bad…”


The film also creates an incident that never happened, as it shows Eagels getting her big break on the Broadway stage by stabbing the backstage actress Else Desmond (Virginia Grey) who is on her way out due to alcoholism. Elsie asks Jeanne who has been taken under the wings of elite theatre people Neilson and Brooks, to speak on her behalf to Broadway producer Al Brooks (Larry Gates) about a script that she’s found believing it would be perfect for her. She asks Jeanne to talk to Brooks about it since he won’t talk to her and shows great affection toward Jeanne. The role of Sadie Thompson is adapted from Somerset Maugham’s story, Rain. Jeanne says nothing about her meeting with Desmond and winds up debuting in the play herself, devastating poor Else Desmond.

Virginia Grey happens to be a favorite unsung actress of mine, and while I’m featuring Kim Novak for this post, I found Grey’s performance a stand-out feature of the film.

So Eagles instead manages to take the script and steal the part for herself, launching her career, and making a lasting iconic impression by playing prostitute Sadie Thompson, as she slinks onto the stage with Wabash Blues underscoring her entrance wearing Jean Louis gowns.



Kim Novak as Jeanne Eagels on stage in her successful run of the play Rain… adapted from Somerset Maugham,





From the play RAIN to the preacher “Maybe you got the power of the lord on your side, but I got the power to stand here and say HANG ME AND BE DAMNED TO YOU!”
Jeanne’s debut on Broadway in the play Rain is a smashing success!
The film shows Eagels marrying into high society by allowing herself to be wooed by John Donahue (Charles Drake) who is a playboy and ex-All-American football star. The marriage is a disaster.



Else Desmond has gone to the press telling her story that Jeanne has stolen her script for the successful play Rain. Neely tells Brooks to take care of the bad publicity. Though Neely suspects it is true.


Jeanne goes to Else’s apartment to try and set things right but finds a myriad of newspaper items heralding her debut. She finds a slipper on the window ledge and the actress on the street below.






The film shows Eagels marrying into high society by allowing herself to be wooed by John Donahue (Charles Drake) who is a playboy and ex-All-American football star. The marriage is a disaster. Though the suicide is not a factual event, Jeanne goes to Else’s apartment and finds that she has committed suicide by jumping out her window. Jeanne’s made all the  Variety newspapers with front-page celebrity strewn about the room. She takes on the guilt of having driven the poor actress to her death.












Neely asks “What brought on this new madness Jeanne? Jeanne tells her, “Sometimes you feel blue and alone and everything’s dark in front of you. You know how it is. And you get scared.” Neely -“OH but on your opening night. Now what really happened… OH, I could beat you! I could just beat you! Jeanne-” Dr. Richards is coming, he’ll give me something.” Neely- “Richards! That ghoul! New York is full of fine doctors and you have to pick that slimy Richards…! Why do you do these things? Movies by day Plays by night. Never sleeping. Headaches, pains, pills. After the show, you faint dead away. Jeanne tells her-” I faint Neely but I never faint before the show, only after…”




the ‘doctor’ giving Jeanne a shot of ‘dope’ before her show.
With the immense strain it takes on Eagels both emotionally and physically she turns to a doctor who prescribes her heroine, she mixes it with booze to self-medicate.



the wide-eyed stare reminds me of Norma Desmond…




In front of the actors Equity she admits everything about the cancellation of Careless Lady and asks what the fine is… “It goes beyond fines Miss Eagels you will never work on the legitimate stage again.”


Novak seemed more comfortable portraying the tragic actress as Jeanne Eagels than as the ambiguous Elsa in Aldrich’s toxic melodramatic fantasy that is Lylah Clare. Fans of Eagles will have to decide whether Novak manages to manifest the campy, edgy charismatic siren that was the true legend. Novak seems to do her best to inhabit Eagel’s well-known erratic behavior who suffered from pills, heroin addiction, and booze-induced blackouts.

Agnes Moorehead does an Agnes Moorehead treatment as Jeanne’s coach and confidant. Although Novak had requested actor Jeff Chandler, it seems a bit of a bad casting choice for this particular film. His fireclay face and inflexible style which works for certain roles, doesn’t do much to create any chemistry between the two stars.

the imposing presence of Agnes Moorhead as Neely


Chandler and Novak both beautiful to look at, don’t seem to muster up a compelling chemistry.

But it’s incidental since the story of Jeanne here is more about her excursion into the demons of fame and self-destruction. In the heyday of the roaring twenties and Pre-Code early 30s Hollywood flirts with a myriad of casualties like the tragic Peg Entwistle and Mabel Normand.

Jeanne Eagels also features a small role for Gene Lockhart which would be his last, playing the President of the Equity Board, which in real life suspended Eagels from appearing on the stage for 18 months due to no-shows and unprofessional behavior, and the drug and alcohol abuse.

While far away from being an accurate biopic, even from the costume design by Jean Louis to the musical score it fails to represent the time period and most importantly the life of a great actress of a bygone era, still the film is a good snacking BACKSTAGE melodrama about a time when explosive talent, fame and the rigors of stardom spelled self-destruction.

I was imagining a few other actresses who might have done a spectacular job playing the tragic star. Peggy Cummins, Irene Dunne, Kim Hunter or perhaps Eleanor Parker. And… with a little more depth and accuracy of the script, the story might have seemed less sensational and a more compelling tribute.

Eagels in The Letter

Jeanne Eagels and Herbert Marshall in The Letter
Jeanne Eagels and Herbert Marshall in The Letter (1929)

Especially if you ever get to see Eagel’s 1929 film The Letter, you’ll understand what a fine actress Eagels truly was.

Novak is probably at her best in Richard Quine’s film noir’s Pushover (1954), Otto Preminger’s Man With The Golden Arm (1955) as Maggie in Evan Hunters, Strangers When We Meet (1960), and as the intoxicating Gillian in Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

Whenever she successfully gets to work her authentic sensuality that is very ‘real’, she needs a role distinctly carved out for her alone. Kim Novak IS a great actress who needed great scripts, roles, and directors who allowed her to explore what she had to offer. Unfortunately marketing her as a ‘sex goddess’ was a misfortune. We would have figured that out for ourselves because her magnetism can’t be hidden. Seeing past that truth, and recognizing her depth she might have been given the opportunity to play some exciting characters, rather than a figure of ‘the male gaze’.

Pyewacket the Siamese familiar and the mesmerizing Novak as Gillian in director Quine’s bewitching Bell Book and Candle (1958)

As director Joshua Logan’s beautiful girl next door, Madge Owens in Picnic (1955), Novak seems more like a lonely woman in her early thirties than the burgeoning ingénue, the more complex character for me was the very realistic younger sister Millie played Susan Strasberg.


Fans of the oft-irritating melodramatic-mess Picnic (1955) can send their rotten tomatoes and spoiled heads of lettuce to my old address in Jersey!

I read one reviewer’s opinion about Jeanne Eagels and it sparked in me, a bit of truth chills. They wondered if Jacqueline Suzanne hadn’t taken some of her ideas for her book the 1966 sensation Valley of the Dolls from director Sidney’s tame, yearning to be the tawdry excuse of a tribute. Perhaps they’re right! As the film feels like a pulpy black & white carnival room of mirrors and less a theatrical homage to the tragic Jeanne Eagels.

In real life, Jeanne Eagels was planning a come back to the New York Stage, but she suffered a convulsion before going out for the evening in her apartment. She was rushed to a private clinic in New York but where she died. The autopsy showed a mixture of heroin, booze, and painkillers. It was termed a ‘self-administered sedative’.
In the movie, Kim washes down a load of pills with booze after being raped by a vaudeville comic in her dressing room at Sal’s Coney Island theater.

Jeanne Eagels the movie leads us out in a darkened theater with a focus on Jeff Chandler’s broken-hearted expression as he’s watching his lost love’s image on the screen… as she sings Ben Oakland’s song I’ll Take Romance, another un-fact.


Eagels ending screening


New York Times
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
The Screen: This, Too?; ‘Jeanne Eagels’ With Kim Novak at Capitol
Published: August 31, 1957
THE kindest way to appraise “Jeanne Eagels” is simply to call it embarrassing. As Kim Novak, in the title role of the Capitol’s new arrival yesterday, howls hysterically near the end, “This is an occasion!” Amen.
Whatever possessed Columbia to cast this comparative fledgling, with her nice light comedy flair as one of Broadway’s immortals, remains a studio secret. In a sense, though, Miss Novak, Jeff Chandler, Agnes Moorehead and even director-producer George Sidney are blameless.
All of them are battling for their lives (forget momentarily poor Miss Eagels’) against an incredibly dull, trashy script credited to Daniel Fuchs, Sonya Levien, and John Fante. It unfolds like a composite of Little Nell from the country and a woman’s “Lost Weekend,” with no soap opera holds barred.
Miss Eagels was an enterprising Kansas City girl who achieved stage greatness in the Nineteen Twenties (most notably in “Rain”) only to be ruined by her sordid personal volatility. As nearly as we can make out here, Miss Eagels was done in by Coney Island, not Broadway.
The reason is Mr. Chandler, a “carny” man who first hires her as a Midwest “cooch” dancer (the lady actually played Shakespeare at the age of 7, lovingly prods her toward Broadway, and, in a most curious Freudian switch, snarlingly denounces her success for the rest of the picture. Miss Novak continues to “crawl back for more” (the hero’s words).
Oh, yes—Broadway. A handful of fictitiously named Rialto folk mill around Miss Novak, as some cardboard vignettes shoot her to fame “like a comet.” “This girl has talent!” booms Miss Moorehead, her coach, pointing a finger and sounding like the witch in Disney’s “Snow White.” To judge by one brisk, dreadful stage excerpt—the only one—she certainly has a wiggle.
As if “Rain” itself weren’t wet enough, Miss Novak guiltily hits the bottle after a pitiful has-been actress (Virginia Grey), who apparently owned the famous play (it says here), commits suicide. The heroine marries a rich Princeton graduate, Charles Drake (it was actually a Yale man—figure that one out), who, himself, dries out just in time by divorcing her.
Penalized, finally, by Actors Equity, Miss Novak commutes from liquor to the theatre and narcotics, in about that order, in some of the most miserably maudlin closing scenes one viewer has ever witnessed. As her funeral postscript, Mr. Chandler drops in at the Paramount (around the corner) for the heroine’s silver-screen warbling of a tune Grace Moore introduced eight years later—in the Columbia movie, “I’ll Take Romance.
Again, it’s certainly an occasion—and we’ll take vanilla, thanks.


Susan Doll writes an outstanding overview of the film for Turner Classic Movies and sheds some light on the reasons Novak was enlisted to play Jeanne Eagels appearing in most of the scenes. Doll cites one review from Variety who claimed that she was ‘dull’ and ‘not temperamental enough.’

“Harry Cohn, Columbia’s querulous studio head, intended Jeanne Eagels to feature Kim Novak in her first solo starring role. Prior to this 1957 biopic about an explosive 1920s stage and screen actress, Novak had costarred in such films as Picnic (1955), The Man with the Golden Ark (1955), and the Eddy Duchin Story (1956), with high-profile male stars whose characters were the center of the action. In Jeanne Eagels, the action was not only driven by Novak’s character but the young actress appeared in almost every scene. Cohn’s plan was standard practice in the star system during the Golden Age whenever a studio was developing a major movie star…”- Susan Doll

Doll continues to write that Cohn was basically grooming Novak to be the screen’s next big love goddess, the likes of Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe. “However, Novak balked at his machinations and at the sex goddess image he created for her.”

One of the reasons I have such a resistance to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is how as Doll points out, the director seems to capitalize on this strange duality of impressions that Novak the actress leaves on critics.

You either believe she’s an enigma that shuns the sex-goddess label or that she herself just doesn’t find the role that complex at all. Hitchcock casts her in two halves of the film, to exploit this ’tension.’ The first is the ideal sensual beauty that is unattainable and lost to Stewart’s character when she falls to her death and the second coming of Madeleine Elster now Judy Barton, Stewart’s obsessed character keeps trying to re-make this doppelganger (not unlike Lewis Zarkan tries in The Legend of Lylah Clare with turning Elsa back into Lylah) into the image of his desire. Plainly, I’m creeped out and offended by his Svengali-like willingness to annihilate anything that’s real about Judy in order to re-make her into his sexual fantasy. Novak’s character is sublimated and humiliated and it’s not a comfortable watch for me, even though Robert Burks’ cinematography and the film’s color scheme is outre cool! Let’s face it, I LOVE Hitchcock, and there have been many a primal & strong female figure in his films even if they’re killed off by the first 30 minutes… just sayin’. Marnie (1964) is another film that makes me uncomfortable with how Sean Connery’s hyper-masculine patriarchal punishing fixation infantilizes and demoralizes Tippi Hedren’s character. but I’ve digress as I am apt to do…

Even Novak herself was not happy with the outcome of the film. She was as Doll writes, “exhausted’ and sad about the mixed reviews. Finding out that Jeff Chandler actually made more money than she did doing less time on screen, she bucked Harry Cohen who wound up putting her on suspension. Novak hired William Morris who made up the difference in salary, she waited out the suspension and eventually, Cohn gave her a contract that reflected her star status.

Kim Novak



“I’m the greatest actress in the world and the greatest failure. And nobody gives a damn.”- Jeanne Eagels

Her charismatic beauty yet erratic emotionally raw talent, alluring mystique & controversial persona preserve the image of Jeanne Eagels as legend.

Eagels knew from early on that she was destined to be an actress-

Jeanne Eagels

“I played the grave-digger in ‘Hamlet,’ first, at the age of seven. They gave me the chance to play Shakespeare because nobody else of the tender age of seven would do so. They wouldn’t say the rather amazing words…the other kiddies. I took it all quite seriously and said ALL the words without a quiver. Once I had begun I could not be stopped. I was ill when I was not on the stage. It seemed to me I couldn’t breathe in any other atmosphere.”

Fleeing an impoverished childhood, dropping out of school, and joining the Dubinsky traveling theatrical carnival marrying the eldest brother, she made her way to New York working in regional theater and caught the eye of theatrical impresario David Belasco. Changing much of her identity even the spelling of her name, she adopted a British accent, went to Paris, and began studying with Beverley Sitgreaves.

beverley sitgreaves in The Great Love The Bohemian 1906
Beverley Sitgreaves in The Great Love The Bohemian (1906)

Agnes Moorehead in the film version was a vague reference who had worked with Sarah Bernhardt Jeanne Eagel’s idol, then worked her way on the stage starring with the legendary George Arliss until her most notable part as the damned prostitute Sadie Thompson in the adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s short story RAIN.

The role Gloria Swanson would play in the silent version in (1928) and the talkie versions with Joan Crawford in 1931 and then Rita Hayworth in 1953, none of which would ever touch the success that Eagels attained with the role… forever the definitive Sadie Thompson for the way Eagels embodied that part.

Leslie Howard who considered both Eagels and Bette Davis whom he had worked with considered both actresses ‘untrained’ but the truth is that Jeanne Eagels studied rigorously while working in regional stock companies and acting coaches in New York.

The Letter Jeanne

Eventually making it to Hollywood, she was cast in The World and The Woman (1916) filming by day and working on the stage by night, the pressure and exhaustion got to her and she became addicted to dope and alcohol to numb her physical and emotional pain- something the movie studios would try to cover up.

She received great reviews for her work with George Arliss in the Broadway hit The Professor’s Love Story in 1917, and then another smashing success with Arliss in “Disraeli” and “Hamilton” (The wonderful Arliss had also worked with one of my favorite actress’ Mary Astor)

Arliss had said of Eagels that in all three plays, she “played with unerring judgment and artistry.”


In 1918 she appeared in David Belasco’s “Daddies” a play about the orphans of war, which starred George Abbott. However she dropped out of the show due to her exhaustion. It is rumored that she had been sexually harassed by Belasco. She considered him an artist who sought perfection, but he had more than a professional interest in her. In 1919 she appeared in the comedy “A Young Man’s Fancy” and “The Wonderful Thing” in 1920. She was now a Broadway star.

Jeanne Eagels--“I do wrong in speaking of ‘playing to an audience,’ however. A true artist never ‘plays to the audience.’ Rather he or she keeps his or her own vision true, and the creation evolves itself.”

Though it said that she had many lovers, here’s a quote from Eagels about love- “I am timid and afraid of men and far too busy to become well acquainted with them. My work fills my life, and I should not care to fall in love or marry before I am very, very old — about thirty-five — because a woman gives too much of herself when she loves, and that would interfere with her career.”

Eagels continued on Broadway but would either show up late or disappear for days, during the run of “Her Cardboard Lover” in 1926 co-starring with Leslie Howard, her unprofessional behavior of drinking and drugging not only caused animosity in actor Howard but brought about her suspension from Actor’s Equity banning her from performing on stage for 18 months.

Director John Williams spoke about Jeanne’s talent calling her a genius and saying “First off, she knew to perfection, and adhered to as to a religion, the art of listening in acting. At every performance, whether the first or the hundredth, the speeches of the character addressing her were not merely heard but listened to. Hence there was always thought and belief and conviction behind every speech and scene of her own– the essence of theater illusion.”

Once again, Eagels’ behavior was erratic during the filming of director Monta Bell’s Man, Woman, and Sin in 1927, Eagels would fail to show up on the set. Though it was rumored that she and co-star John Gilbert were having an affair, she was increasingly difficult to deal with. The scandal sheets wrote that she was off again on one of her drinking binges.


Ironically Monta Bell started to work for Paramount Studios in Astoria New York and hired Eagels even after he was aware of her problematic behavior, casting her in THE LETTER 1929, she played the murderous adulteress. Bette Davis would revive the part in 1940 for William Wyler. Davis played a character loosely based on Jeanne Eagels in Dangerous (1936)

Eagel’s performance was astounding and she received rave reviews. So Paramount signed her to a two-picture contract. First, she co-starred with Fredric March in director Jean de Limur’s JEALOUSY 1929, in which it was rumored she suffered a nervous breakdown during the filming. The studio denied any trouble concerning their star actress. But she begged to be let out of her contract for the second picture THE LAUGHING LADY due to illness, and she was replaced with Ruth Chatterton.

Jeanne Eagels

Jeanne Eagels – “Mention of my personal life, even tho I expect it, acts terribly on my nerves. I suppose I’m an odd person.”

Once the Actors Equity ban was due to expire she planned a return to the Broadway stage. She had surgery to treat ulcers on her eyes, but two weeks later on Oct 3, 1929, she was rushed to a private 5th Avenue hospital where she suffered a convulsion and died. several autopsies conflicted with the cause of her death. Was it either an overdose of alcohol or her use of the tranquilizer chloral hydrate or her use of heroin found in her system? It’s also rumored that a first doctor gave her a sedative, then a second one not knowing about the first administered a second causing an overdose.

Jeanne Eagels–“We are glorious, unearthly people, set above all others because of our genius, our capacity to sway others, to make them laugh and cry, or make them live a romance we but play.”

old photo of Eagels

Academy Award-nominated actress Ruth Gordon, a friend of Eagels, had said, “Jeanne Eagels was the most beautiful person I ever saw and if you ever saw her, she was the most beautiful person YOU ever saw.”

Jeanne Eagels has left a lasting impression, referenced in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s masterpiece ALL ABOUT EVE 1950. Addison Dewitt (George Sanders) tells Margo Channing (Bette Davis) “Margo, as you know, I have lived in the theater as a transit monk lives in his faith. I have no other world, no other life. And once in a great while I experience that moment of revelation for which all true believers wait and pray. You were one. Jeanne Eagels another.”

From director Sam Fuller’s book A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking. Fuller talks about Jeanne Eagel’s funeral. “I saw a glorious coffin with six polished brass handles. I lifted the massive cover of the coffin. Inside was the most beautiful corpse I’d ever laid eyes on, and, believe me, I’d seen plenty of them by then. I stopped breathing as I stared at Jeanne Eagels, one of Broadway’s most celebrated actresses. I could hardly believe it was her. Yet there she was, laid out in a stunning evening gown, her bleached-blond hair perfectly done up, as if she were going out on the town. She wasn’t going anywhere. She was dead.

The Letter poster

I was staggered. Jeanne Eagels electrified Broadway with her performance in Rain, a play adapted from a Somerset Maugham story that opened in November 1922 and played for four years, nearly fifteen hundred performances. I’d taken my mother to see Eagels in another play Maugham wrote especially for her, The Letter. She was sensational I adored Jeanne Eagels and knew she’d just finished doing the filmed version of The Letter for MGM. It would be her last performance. All that beauty and talent was now extinguished, nothing more than a cold corpse lying in that splendid goddamned coffin.”

Fuller reminds us of a quote Eagels had shared that stuck with him. “Never deny, Never explain. Say nothing and become a legend.”

“Joseph Mankiewicz told me once that the main character of All About Eve, Broadway actress Margo Channing, was inspired by Jeanne Eagels…{…}… Rain was made into a movie by Lewis Milestone in 1932, with Joan Crawford getting the role of Sadie Thompson-whom Jeanne had played so memorably on Broadway- a prostitute quarantined with other passengers on Pago Pago Island. While Sadie gets along with the American soldiers stationed there, the missionaries make her life miserable. (especially the Reverend Davidson) …{…} Crawford became a star after that movie, but for me, she couldn’t ever equal the inimitable Eagels.”

1930 NYC "Im a cocky crime reporter at the Graphic with a cluttered desk just around the corner from the men's room.
1930 NYC “Im a cocky crime reporter at the Graphic with a cluttered desk just around the corner from the men’s room.

Eagels death would effect Fuller throughout the rest of his life. She had been his first scoop at The Graphic, a newspaper in New York City. “Her talent was like a shimmering diamond that transfixes your eyes on brilliance. Her arrogance was a legend too. I was damned proud of my first scoop but, at the same time, deeply saddened by the terrible waste of the young actress, only thirty -five when she died. I’ll always remember the angelic expression on Jeanne Eagel’s face in that godforsaken coffin. Through her, I understood for the first time the quicksand nature of fame, a seductive mistress I’d never court.”


Here’s to Legends that shimmer and shine before our eyes, and backstage as well! With love and reverence, Your EverLovin’ Joey

13 thoughts on “The Backstage Blogathon 2016: Kim Novak- Fallen Idol double bill “You’re an illusion… without me you’re nothing!” *

    1. So true about Novak’s inner sensibilities. She’s excellent when allowed to be her real self and not the over-emphasized vision of sex goddess which she railed against but got forced into by the industry. She’s better at subtlety. I’ve gained an affection for her because of this blogathon –and a sort of protectiveness because of how she was treated..Thanks so much for your thoughtful and much appreciated comment! Cheers Joey

  1. Wow! Thanks so much for joining in with this epic review of the films and the women behind them. What an amazing journey through the world of theater and cinema. It truly is a mad, cutthroat world!

  2. Wow, Jo! Such a great post, and so many things to comment on… So here they are in no particular order…
    1. Loved your analysis & background research of Kim Novak’s career. I didn’t know a lot of the info you presented, and I think I like her more as a result.
    2. Jeanne Eagles: Did she ever take a bad photograph? She’s always stunning. What a treat it would have been to see her in “Rain” on Broadway. It looks like clips from her version of “The Letter” are on YouTube, which I will check out.
    3. “The Letter of Lylah Claire” sounds like a mind-bending flick. I’m surprised it wasn’t a hit in 1968. You mentioned audiences weren’t yet ready for a film that was marketed as deliberately campy which I wouldn’t have anticipated.
    4. Robert Aldrich certainly had a lot of interesting things to say, period, didn’t he? He wasn’t one to pander to the masses. Like you said, this sounds like an intriguing skewering of Hollywood.
    Thanks for sharing all of this with us – your research, your insights and this well-written post. Bravo!

    1. I would have LOVED!!! to see Eagels perform on Broadway… All of Aldrich’s films are a matter of personal taste. You either really dig his us vs them mentality where oddballs fight ‘the system’ or you just find him crass and exploitative. Or maybe both are true but u love his honesty. Personally I LOVE his films. Davis was brave to take Baby Jane? and she should have won an Oscar, but Crawford sabotaged her chances and Davis never forgave her for that… Lylah Clare isn’t a pleasant movie. So if you’re not an Aldrich fan, save yourself the bother. Thanks so much for stopping by here with your kind comments. I always appreciate it!!! PS Loved your post on Footlight Parade for the Backstage Blogathon! Cheers Joey

  3. Amazing post (as always) and so much to think about. I’ve actually seen very few Novak films and – as reading this proved – knew very little about the actress. The Letter of Lylah Claire sounds like a gem, but I’m not surprised that it wasn’t a success. I sometimes think we give audiences in the era more credit than they’re due (rose-tinted glasses perhaps!). Some of the films that were successful in the era are surprisingly conventional – although perhaps I should watch this one before I pass too much judgement ;)

    1. Thanks so much!!! I had never really thought about Novak, except for when she happened to appear in a film I was watching for other reasons. I started out pretty critical, and then through reading and studying the roles she was given, I realized that she has a powerful inner voice, and needs the right kind of role for her to exercise that talent. When she’s subtle and humorous, she’s magical.. Aldrich is not for everyone. He manages to be disturbing because his heroes & heroines are anti-social figures who fight either against each other or against a ‘system’ They’re often crazy, ruthless oddly likable but at times dangerous… He fascinates me, and so do his films… Baby Jane? Sweet Charlotte, The Dirty Dozen, The Longest Yard, Emperor of the North The Killing of Sister George is another tough film to watch… But Beryl Reid’s performance is astounding!!!!

      1. PSS: I just read your stunning overview of Contempt for the Backstage Blogathon. I’ve been wanting to see this film for years, and somehow never manage to take the time. I can now sit with it, with your thoughtful take as a guide. Really interesting feature and I loved the images you chose.

        “This is a film that’s far from perfect, but what’s good about it exists right there on the surface. It’s a self-indulgent, melancholy song about betrayal. A mediation on romantic tragedy and what happens when you see but don’t understand”

  4. Wow, that was a real photo and information extravaganza! Vertigo is one of my favorite films. Though I’ve seen Novak in other films, I’m not very familiar with her work. I’ve got to see this “Lyla Claire” film–sounds like it’s right up my line of interest.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out
    Wrote By Rote

  5. Thank you for all the work you put into this blog. I am an Aldrich fan and I was glad he owned up to the failure of Lylah Clare.To me it was so over the top that it toppled over. My hunch is that it was 1968 and a LOT of drug use was in vogue and may have played a part in the excessive nonesense that resulted. And as a Kim Novak fan it is sad that Lylah was her last American film. Too bad she didn’t ‘come back in” like Sterling Hayden–a kindred spirit

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