Quote of the Day! Murder, Inc (1960) “I boiled a thousand two minute eggs and never did it right once…”

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Murder, Inc. (1960)

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This is one of the most searing neo Film Noir police procedural/syndicate treasure hunt and shadow eye candy featuring a truly frightening and frenetic performance by our beloved Peter Falk who not only manifested THE only possible rumpled detective in a raincoat, that– “just one more question” knows who the guilty party is in the first five minutes of meeting them, Columbo (sorry Lee J. Cobb) whose inimitable style began the television detecting technique where we know who did it.

As Columbo Peter Falk usually uses the art of ‘misunderestimation’ and quaint anecdotes about relatives who may or may not exist, as he politely taunts and squeezes with relenting loose end tying questions pushing the culprit into a corner they can not escape from. In Murder, Inc (1960) Falk is so dark and brooding as a little thug with a mad on at the world and no acuity toward right and wrong. The only time I saw him create a darker character that sent chills down the back of my neck was in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour that aired on December 13th, 1962 called Bonfire where he plays a psychopathic lady-killer who is posing as a firebrand evangelist.

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Peter Falk plays psychopath Robert Evans who has brought on a heart attack in the kindly rich widow Naomi Freshwater (Patricia Collinge) so he can take over her impressive house.

I am planning a very special tribute to the genius of Peter Falk and his unmade bed detective always on the prowl for the jugular, with a very different slant on the show, (no hints please) hopeful getting it ready by the winter 2017 if I can enlist the wit & wisdom of fellow Columbo-worshiping Aurora of Once Upon A Screen to join me in pulling it off!

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In his 2006 autobiography, Just One More Thing, Peter Falk attributes his performance as the crazed Reles in Murder, Inc. for launching his career! Not to mention that the great stage actress/teacher Eva Le Gallienne highly suggested after Falk was caught sneaking into her acting class as part of the American Repertory Movement, that he stick with it!

Peter Falk received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his ruthless, violent and misogynistic murderous thug real life hit man –Abe Reles.

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Real life hit man Abe Reles

film critic Bosley Crowther wrote:

“Mr. Falk, moving as if weary, looking at people out of the corners of his eyes and talking as if he had borrowed Marlon Brando’s chewing gum, seems a travesty of a killer, until the water suddenly freezes in his eyes and he whips an icepick from his pocket and starts punching holes in someone’s ribs. Then viciousness pours out of him and you get a sense of a felon who is hopelessly cracked and corrupt.”

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Reles who reigned over the Brownsville district of Brooklyn during the 1930s depression era, was a clever and shifty taker and hit-man who could make people’s murders appear like brain hemorrhages by using an ice pick in just the right way. Lawman Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan) whose book the screenplay is based on, together with Det. Sgt. William Tobin (Simon Oakland) keep track of this psychopathic criminal who is now working for the powerful crime boss Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter played as a self-indulgent burlesque man-child by David J. Stewart (Carnival Rock 1957, The Young Savages 1961) who runs the nationwide syndicate known as Murder Inc.

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Simon Oakland as detective Tobin and Henry Morgan as district attorney Burton Turkus.

Directed by Burt Balaban (Lady of Vengeance 1957) and Stuart Rosenberg who later went on to direct the sublimely thoughtful Cool Hand Luke 1967 starring Paul Newman, he also directed The Amityville Horror in 1979.

Filmed in CinemaScope Murder, Inc. possesses a gritty realism painted effectively by cinematographer Gayne Rescher  (A Face in the Crowd 1957, Man on a String 1960, Rachel, Rachel 1968 and Otto Preminger’s Such Good Friends 1971)

The film’s musical score is indeed a great companion to the mood, as Frank De Vol who usually works with Robert Aldrich (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962) creates a tense and bitter little pill, a flamboyant world within the universe of egocentric criminals, petty thieves, depression era storekeepers like the wonderful character of Mrs. Corsi (Helen Waters who only appeared one more time in television’s Naked City in 1958) who runs the little soda shop or Joe Rosen (Eli Mintz) who live in fear for their lives. De Vol’s score in addition to a live smoking performance by the late Sarah Vaughan make the film’s musical personality work very well with the visual story.

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The viciousness touches the garment district, the Unions, the burlesque clubs all the way up to the Borscht Belt where comedian Walter Sage (Morey Amsterdam) is hit by Reles at the request of Lepke. There’s cops on the beat and the feds looking to finally incarcerate and shut down Murder Inc. The film is seeded with little cameos by some actors first appearances, like Sylvia Miles as Sadie the loud mouth who gets Reles’ hand shoved in her face while in the phone booth.

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Joseph Campanella who is just a guy who gets killed in the hallway for what ever he did or didn’t do… and Diane Ladd as a showgirl.

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A small but slick performance by Vincent Gardenia as the mobs attorney Laszlo, and terrific stage performance by Sarah Vaughan singing Fan My Brow and The Awakening written by composer George Weiss. I saw Sarah Vaughan at the Westbury Music Fair back in the 1980s! she was nothing less than magical!

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The inimitable Sarah Vaughan singing The Awakening at the dance hall where Eadie works as a showgirl…
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Abe ‘Kid Twist’ Reles first meets with Lepke to take the job offer as hit man for the syndicate.

The basic gist is this–Reles (Peter Falk) and his flunky Bug (Warren Finnerty) meet with Garment District crime boss Lepke Buchalter (David J. Stewart) who wants to hire Reles as the syndicate’s new hit man. Lepke’s first task is for Reles to hit comedian Walter Sage (Morey Amsterdam) who has a headline act up in the Catskills. Sage has been holding out money from the slots and Lepke is a petty hothead (who constantly drinks milk) with a literal belly ache. Enter Joey Collins Stuart Whitman (I’ve had a long time crush on this guy and his eyebrows!) a singer, who knows Sage from show business, and since he owes Reles $600 which will soon be $1,000 with every day he doesn’t pay back his loan he feels cornered into helping Reles do him a ‘favor.’ Joey Collins (Whitman) is coerced into driving up to the Borscht Belt in order to lure Sage out of the club so Reles can do his dirty work with his nice clean ice pick!

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Reles can’t believe that Joey lets his wife mouth off to him like this. She tries to throw Reles out.

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Abe Reles: “I’m gonna tell you something about women. I never met one that didn’t need a rap in the head, and often.”

When Reles pays a visit to the small apartment where Joey and his refugee showgirl wife Eadie (May Britt) live, Eadie is not only rude, she tries to throw Reles out. Reles who obviously has an inferiority complex takes Eadie’s dismissal as a rejection of his manhood and he comes back while Joey is out of the apartment and brutally assaults her with his, “dirty hands, his dirty fingers.”

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Even after Joey’s wife is violated by this mad dog Reles, he is still paralyzed by fear and too dug into the lifestyle of making a few bucks from the gang to protect Eadie and just try and get away.

But Joey is so entangled and emasculated himself by the predicament he’s gotten himself into, he doesn’t even try to stand up to Reles, but rather feels he is trapped, though Eadie wants to just run and get as far away from Reles and the whole deal. While the couple stay together because they are forced into a dynamic by Reles, they no longer sleep in the same bedroom nor act as a married couple. The weak and shameful Joey should have listened to Eadie!

Reles sets the kids up in this glamorous apartment as a front.

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CapturFiles_45 "You see what you can get your hands on and you take!! Don’t ask questions… TAKE!!!”
“You see what you can get your hands on and you take!! Don’t ask questions… TAKE!!!”

Now that Lepke thinks he has everything under control he has Reles working full force taking out anyone who can fink on him. Reles gives a maniacal soliloquy about ‘taking’ manipulating the couple into living as a cover in his gorgeous apartment that is furnished with imported stolen goods and dope.

The police want to bring Lepke in because they have found a witness, small business man Rosen who Lepke warned already to keep his mouth shut. He should have had his trusted man-crush Mendy push down the elevator shaft when he had the chance. Rosen is seen brought in by detective Tobin by Lepke, Mendy and their lawyer Laszlo in the halls of the courthouse. Rosen is now, at least this time– a dead man…

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Mendy Weiss (Joseph Bernard) is asked by Lepke to kill Rosen himself, gunning him down right on the street in front of his shop, one pop in the guts, and then a bullet to the back of his head at Lepke’s request. Lepke comes to hide out at Joey and Eadie’s apartment, where he proceeds to demean and treat Eadie like a servant.

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Lepke barks at Eadie “I said two minutes. Do I have to get you a stop watch so you can tell two minutes… What’s a matter with you ha. What kind of a girl are you? Can’t cook. You don’t talk. I don’t understand you. What they teach you over there in Europe?”
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She answers him a stoic statue of ice “To be civilized.”
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Lepke intestinally insane-“Do you think I don’t know two minutes when I taste it? I told you a hundred times I have to be on a special diet. I got the most delicate stomach in the world!… Now go back and bring me another egg. Two minutes!!!!”

While detective Tobin (Simon Oakland) has been trying to shake things up and harass Reles and Lepke, even asking the small shop owners for their help, as Mrs. Corsi explains to Tobin that innocent people are being threatened, ‘acid thrown’ on their wares, even attacked just being seen talking with the police. She refuses to say a word. He can’t break the protective shield surrounding this gang, nor legally fight against a sly lawyer like Laszlo (Vincent Gardenia).

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District Attorney Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan) moves in and begins an all out mission to bring down Murder Inc. which has it’s tendrils in Chicago and Florida (What happened to New Jersey? hhmm)

Burton Turkus is interrogating Reles after he agrees to turn states evidence. He asks Reles how he can simply murder people without any feelings around it. Reles asks him how his first time on the job as a cop effected him. He tells Reles, he was shaky at first but “he got used to it.” Reles gives him a very matter of fact  ‘that’s your answer’ look.

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Before the police finally pick up Lepke, while in hiding Lepke gets paranoid about his people squealing so he orders a hit on anyone in Brownsville that can connect him to the syndicate, especially Joey Collins and his wife Eadie who are living with him and now know too much. Finally Eadie can’t bear it anymore and goes to the police and becomes an informant. Turkus takes Joey and Eadie into protective custody. Which isn’t so protective but hey, I won’t ruin the film for you.

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Once Reles realizes that Lepke is on his trail he agrees to spill the entire can of Murder Inc. beans on the operation too, knowing the law very well, and making a deal with Turkus for a lesser murder sentence and his promise of protection.

So Reles is also hidden away at the less than fortress-y Half Moon Hotel room watched over by disgruntled uniformed cops in Coney Island. I won’t give away the defenestration climax, but I will say that Lepke does finally face execution for his part in several unsolved murders. His last meal must have included a gallon of milk for that upset stomach disorder

You can absolutely say that it’s Peter Falk’s incendiary performance as the high strung little punk with a Napoleonic complex based on true life Brooklyn gangster “kid twist’ Abe Reles earning him the Academy Award nomination for his combustive performance and his myriad of colorfully vicious asides.

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Joey Collins: (Stuart Whitman) “Why’d you do it? Why did you kill him? Abe “Kid Twist” Reles: “Because he had bad breath.”

It’s what makes Murder, Inc (1960) work so well, but there’s a lot of little inlaid gems that make this neo-noir crime drama a conflagration of mind gripping tropes and wonderful little characterizations.

Murder, Inc is a neo-noir/documentary style/crime-drama masterpiece featuring not only Falk’s searing performance, but David J. Stewart as the despicable complainer -Lepke who ran the syndicate in New York City and was connected to all the major city crime bosses who oversaw big money, murder and mayhem like a miserable business, taking out potential stool pigeons, or little shop owners who just can’t pay their protection fees — Vicious brutal and utterly mesmerizing the film plays like a nightmare while the well intended but at times inadequate good guys who just can’t seem to legally or physically pin down the bad guys without getting their witnesses murdered. Or it’s suggested that there are also insiders in the police department and government that shield these criminals from prison time. Murder Inc spreads like an insidious disease taking over the city, but like all things violent -they must eventually self-destruct as Stuart Whitman who plays Joey Collins: says to Reles, after he is arrested “I’m gonna watch you fry! I’m gonna watch you fry! I’m gonna watch you fry!”

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Eadie (May Britt) is the film’s sufferer and sacrificial lamb as a woman who is either consistently abused and mistreated or woefully looked after by all the men in the film. She is surrounded by dread and ruin.

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Talking about Lepke–“He came in the door like a king. He came with a hole in his stomach. All the time he stayed I was his house maid. Two Minute Eggs… (she closes her eyes)….  I boiled a thousand two minute eggs and never did it right once…”

Edie "He came in the door like a king. He came with a hole in his stomach All the time he stayed I was his house maid. Two Minute Eggs (she closes her eyes) I boiled a thousand two minute eggs and never did it right once…”

“I boiled a thousand two minute eggs and never did it right once…”

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This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying I gotta go make a two minute egg! 

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

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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.

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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: http://www.doctormacro.com. 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

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Novak as Judy in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)
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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.

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“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.

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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 along side 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.

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Bill Holden and Kim Novak dance in director Joshua Logan’s Picnic (1955) adapted from William Inge’s play, boasts as great cast!
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Kim Novak as prostitute Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage (1964) image courtesy of The Red List
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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.

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“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

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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)

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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).

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Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak in The Notorious Landlady (1962)
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Kim Novak as Jeanne in the biopic Jeanne Eagels (1957)
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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)

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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.”

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‘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

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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 it’s 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.

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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 it’s trifling regulations and intolerance that can drive anyone to ‘moo.’ at the end.

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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
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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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.

THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE (1968)

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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)
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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)

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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

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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.

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

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“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!

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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.

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

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The wedding of Zarken and Lylah Clare
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Becky Langner shows Elsa Lylah’s dress
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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.

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Bart Langner to Elsa –“You can’t imagine what a big star she was, I mean really big Everybody loved her, worshiped her.”
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Elsa-“She had a strange kind of appeal didn’t she.”
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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

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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

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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 film maker and not just a crummy agent.

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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.

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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!”

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“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 world wide idol or perhaps just his art piece to mold and exploit once again… or a combination of all of the above.

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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. 
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Portraits and memorabilia of the enigma that is Lylah Clare are all around Zarken’s house, like a shrine to the dead goddess.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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As Elsa is paraded in front of Zarken he depersonalizes her.
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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.

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Both Lylah and her assailant wind up dead at the bottom of the great staircase.
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“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.
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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.”
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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 down right 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.

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

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Valentina Cortez plays the costume designer Countess Bozo Bedoni
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Ernest Borgnine is studio head/producer Barney Sheean.
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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
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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?”

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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

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

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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.

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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?!”
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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…”

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“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!”

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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.

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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!”
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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!

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

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Molly- “She’s a degenerate swine!”

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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.

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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.”
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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.

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

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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.

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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
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Even Bart’s wife Becky sees the change in the mild mannered girl who is now flirting with her husband.
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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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!”

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

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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…

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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!”
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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.

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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.
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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.

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

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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?

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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on set Elsa (Kim Novak) is playing Lylah Clare in the story of her life and death… a film within a film…
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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?”

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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.

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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.

 

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

Revisiting Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema: Part II ” I wouldn’t piss on Joan Crawford if she were on fire!”

As part of the Dynamic Duos of Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Once upon a screen… and Classic Movie Hub

Joan and Bette

Of all the notorious rivalries identified with Hollywood celebrities the most enduring in the public consciousness is that of legendary Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. As the documentary ‘Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition‘ (2005) insightfully decries ‘Betty Davis was the screens great Sadist and Crawford was the screen’s great Masochist.’

“If equally matched adversaries are bound to create sparks and flames of conflict, then Bette Davis and the late Joan Crawford should offer a good battle.” – Publisher’s Weekly

Bette Davis on Joan Crawford: “Her eyebrows are like ‘African caterpillars’ and her best performance was “Crawford being Crawford.”

Joan Crawford on Bette Davis: “She’s phony, but I guess the public really likes that.”

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I want to preface this piece by qualifying something. With all that’s been written about the infamous feud, there’s also those who try to dispel it as a myth, stating that rather than loathing each other Bette and Joan were actually cordial to each other-even chatting on the phone occasionally from the 30s until the making of Baby Jane? And that contrary to what’s been asserted, Davis wasn’t threatened by Joan’s coming to Warner Bros because she felt they were suited to playing different types of roles so there was no conflict there.

Bette Davis, photographed by Maurice Goldberg in 1935 for Vanity Fair
Bette Davis, photographed by Maurice Goldberg in 1935 for Vanity Fair
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the gorgeous Joan Crawford

When Joan Crawford started to gain momentum with her best melodramas at the studio where Bette Davis’ was queen, Davis was already planning an exodus anyway. Finally in regards to Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte when Joan Crawford saw that Bette Davis was acting more like the director taking control and adding more of her own presence in the script while cutting Crawford’s dialogue to shreds, she decided to bow out of the picture claiming illness so she could be let out of the contract.

Bette and Joan on the set of Baby Jane

Some people assert that while they never became close friends, the two stars only wound up being not so friendly to each other in the end. But, for the sake of my theme of the feuding divas I felt like putting the more sordid version of the saga out there.

The notable feud, fueled by rumor, gossip, falsehoods, and dished up dirt, drew so much juicy attention to these fierce Divas whose careers and lives often traversed each other in ironic and titillating ways giving us a peek into the tumultuous allure of Hollywood. 

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Both were incredibly talented, super ambitious, independently driven and possessing strong personalities. They were each on divergent paths to stardom, Crawford gaining her power remote from the proverbial casting couch “She [Joan Crawford] has slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie.” –Bette Davis. Most of Crawford’s leading men found her sexual magnetism hard to resist.

But she proved she could command the screen with an invincible vigor and facility to emote and Davis who had a determined streak of flair manifested itself into an unyielding spirit and incomparable depth. Both ironically similar both indomitable, independent and possessing great fortitude. Both married four times, and both were at the receiving end of hostile and vengeful children ultimately ending up as reclusive alcoholics.

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Aldrich’s iconic offbeat Gothic thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962) brought these two legends together culminating in the classic pairing of two bitter adversaries not only on screen but behind the scenes as well. Baby Jane? would forever consign their iconic images engaged in dramatic conflict and defining their rancorous relationship for an eternity.

The film cannily exploited the genuine animosity between both stars who had been competing for good roles in the 40s. Michael Musto of the Village Voice says this – “They just didn’t get along. Bette thought of herself as a real actress she thought of Joan as just kind of a flashy movie star without any depth.”

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Crawford and Tone

Was their long drawn out public war due to Crawford’s marrying co-star Franchot Tone allegedly stealing him away from Bette? Or was it the competitiveness for good roles in the 40s that drew a wedge between them. These two women were the most illustrious female stars in their day, successful at playing ordinary working class gals with at times questionable reputations. But good roles were something they both had to fight to get. So was it a case of unrequited love or fierce competition? Either way, for both stars it was a genuinely personal and delicate affair.

On Davis’ last trip to London two years before her death, she revealed that the love of her life was Franchot Tone, but she could never marry him because he was Crawford’s second husband. “She took him from me,” Davis said bitterly in 1987. “She did it coldly, deliberately and with complete ruthlessness. I have never forgiven her for that and never will.” Crawford already dead for ten years, was still the recipient of an eternal hatred on the part of Davis now 80 years old and desiccated from her stroke.

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Bette Davis and Franchot Tone in Dangerous ’35

Bette Davis was filming Dangerous 1935 a role that would win her first Best Actress Oscar. Warner Bros. cast her playing opposite the handsome Franchot Tone. In this fabulous melodrama Davis portrays Joyce Heath an egomaniacal actress considered to be box office poison living in obscurity in the throws of alcohol addiction. Tone plays Don Bellows a playwright who tries to rehabilitate her. The story is loosely based on Broadway star Jeanne Eagels who died of a drug overdose at age 35

Davis wound up falling in love with her leading man, unaware that he was already involved with Joan Crawford who was recently divorced from the dashing Douglas Fairbanks Jr. This began the legacy of love jealousy and possession. At the time Davis was married to musician Ham Nelson. Everyone on set could see that Davis was attracted to co-star Franchot Tone.

Years later she recalled “I fell in love with Franchot, professionally and privately. Everything about him reflected his elegance, from his name to his manners.”-Bette Davis

Crawford first entertained Franchot Tone at her Hollywood home. When he arrived he found her tanned and completely naked in the solarium. According to friends and neighbors he did not emerge from the seductive sojourn until nightfall.

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Franchot Tone and Joan Crawford

“He was madly in love with her,” Davis confessed, “They met each day for lunch… he would return to the set, his face covered with lipstick. He made sure we all knew it was Crawford’s lipstick.”-Bette Davis

“He was honored that this great star was in love with him. I was jealous, of course.”-Bette Davis

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Franchot Tone and Joan Crawford-a dynamic couple

But instead of Crawford retaliating she reached out to Davis hoping to be friends, but it was too late by then her heart was broken, she was furious. Crawford announced her engagement to Tone during the filming of Dangerous and they married soon after the film wrapped.

Both actresses were present at the Oscar ceremonies. Davis was nominated for Best Actress. The hostility showed it’s ugly face when Bette wearing a modest navy blue dress stood up when they announced she’d won the award. Franchot Tone enthusiastically embraced Davis calling her darling” which caused his wife to take notice. Crawford wearing a spectacular gown herself, looked Davis over and coldly said “Dear Bette! What a lovely frock.”

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“Joan Crawford and I have never been warm friends. We are not simpatico. I admire her, and yet I feel uncomfortable with her. To me, she is the personification of the Movie Star. I have always felt her greatest performance is Crawford being Crawford.”

Interesting if  you consider the inherent veracity of unrequited love that was systemic to their discord we may also consider the allegations that Crawford was herself a promiscuous bisexual in love with Davis, supposedly making several sexual advances toward Davis which were rebuffed with expressed amusement. Davis was an avowed heterosexual. “Gay Liberation? I ain’t against it, it’s just that there’s nothing in it for me.”  “I’ve always liked men better than women.”Bette Davis

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Davis also proposed that Crawford used her body and sex to get ahead in Hollywood, “She slept with every star at MGM” she alleged later “of both sexes.”

Some of the women that allegedly were Crawford’s lovers included Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, her friend Barbara Stanwyck & Marilyn Monroe.

The years of hostility and jealousy were only galvanized later by the battle that ensued on the set of Baby Jane? where Davis upended Crawford by endearing herself to director Aldrich. Davis got the Oscar nomination for Best Actress, Crawford did not. only to have Crawford undermine Davis at the award’s ceremony sabotaging Davis by accepting the award for Ann Bancroft who won for The Miracle Worker.

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Allegedly Joan shoved Bette aside to grab the coveted statue at the podium. Shaun Considine’s book ‘Bette & Joan The Divine Feud’ relates how when Ann Bancroft’s name was announced Davis felt an icy hand on her shoulder as Crawford said, “Excuse me, I have an Oscar to accept.”

Davis recalls “I will never forget the look she gave me.”It was triumphant. It clearly said ‘You didn’t win, and I am elated!”

Joan accepts the oscar for Bancroft

Making matters worse the newspapers paraded the image of Crawford holding the golden idol that Davis failed to win. According to Bette Davis, Joan was bitter and conspired to keep her from winning the Oscar.

Crawford managed to insinuate herself into accepting the Oscar for Ann Bancroft in case Ann won. The night of the awards Bette Davis shows up fairly confident she could take home the Oscar. She was waiting in the wings with her purse ready to walk on stage when they the announced the winner. But Joan Crawford was also hovering in the wings waiting to take her revenge.

From an interview in ’87 -“I was furious. She went to all the New York nominees and said if you can’t get out there, I’ll accept your award. And please do not vote for her. She was so jealous.” Crawford’s scheme worked, it was a terrible slap in the face for Bette Davis.

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“The best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”

“There may be a heaven, but if Joan Crawford is there, I’m not going.” Bette Davis

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And how much does the media fuel this rivalry? Is it partly the paradigm of a film industry that engenders a climate of sexism and agism that feeds tabloid culture devaluing women’s self-worth antagonizing the rift that already existed between the two actresses. Consider the symbiosis that occurs between the press and female celebrities, their exploitative and predatory hunger to devour them whole and the co-dependent dysfunction pervasive in the film industry. You have to wonder how much of the nasty fodder that kept the feud burning was fact and how much of it was a myth the media created?

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It isn’t hard to see how both these aging stars were forced to fight for screen supremacy. An irreconcilable difference that put Aldrich in the sad and awkward position of having to fire Joan Crawford from her role as Cousin Miriam in his second feature with the dynamic duo in his Gothic thriller  Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

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Davis & Crawford on the set of Baby Jane
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Davis & Crawford on the set of Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte with Aldrich

Despite their feud the box office success of Baby Jane? encouraged Aldrich to change the story and characters but reunite the same controversial and quarrelsome stars. Originally called “What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?” written once again by Henry Farrell. Crawford agreed to get back on the screen with her familiar enemy. But when Aldrich asked Bette to star in a second picture with Joan she loathed the idea of ever acting with Crawford again.

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“I wouldn’t piss on Joan Crawford if she was on fire.”

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Davis used to say that she and Crawford had nothing in common. She considered Crawford “a glamour puss” who depended on her fabulous looks alone, though Crawford did wind up working with some of my favorite auteurs like Michael Curtiz, George Cukor, Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray, Otto Preminger, and Jean Negulesco.

Both were very strong women who had to scratch and claw their way through a mire of misogyny to achieve their stardom. Crawford was always playing the formulaic vulnerable ‘girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Born in poverty she reaches for a dream and strives through hard work to make good. Stories reflecting the struggles of Depression Era and World War II appealed to audiences of the 30s & 40s.

Based on Bette’s early stage performances critics said she was made of lightning filled with fantastic energy. It was George Arliss who decided Bette would be perfect for his next film The Man Who Played God 1932. He became a bit of a mentor, Bette said he played god to her. In September 1931, she felt finished with her career in Hollywood and was packing her things with her mother ready to return to New York when George Arliss came along and saved her.

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Bette Davis and George Arliss The Man Who Played God

Joan Crawford had been married to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. at the time and learned everything about Hollywood royalty and how to become pretentious. When Crawford first arrived in Hollywood she was a dancer, an it-girl flapper for MGM through out the late silent & early sound eras working alongside Clark Gable.

She didn’t have those signature eyebrows yet. At some point in the 30s she started changing her look which embraced the heavily arched eyebrows, the wider mouth and the notorious shoulder pads which became her iconic trademark. She left MGM and joined Warner Bros in 1943.

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Crawford before her legendary eyebrows took over her face
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Bette and those big beautiful blues

Continue reading “Revisiting Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema: Part II ” I wouldn’t piss on Joan Crawford if she were on fire!””

Revisiting Robert Aldrich’s Grande Dame Hag Cinema: Part I ‘Get back in that chair Blanche!’

This post is for The Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon Hosted by Classic Movie Hub and Once upon a screen…

Dynamic Duos of Classic Film blogathon

Davis and Crawford on the set of Baby Jane
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Robert Aldrich is one of my favorite directors with numerous memorable films that transcend a restrictive genre tag. He always brings us a cynical and gritty story with very flawed characters who are at the core ambiguous as either the protagonist or the antagonist. Aldrich took economics in college, then dropped out and landed a very low paying job at first as a clerk with RKO Radio Pictures Studio in 1941.

He studied with great directors like Jean Renoir. It was his training in the trenches that made him the auteur he is, delving inside the human psyche and questioning what is morality.

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Aldrich has a flare for the dramatic. He likes to break molds and cross over boundaries. He also has a streak of anti-authoritarianism running through the veins of his films. There aren’t just traces of his ambivalence toward the Hollywood machine in his film philosophy, he also conflates the ugly truths beneath the so called American Dream and the “real” people who inhabit that world.

He died in 1983, and while he remained inside the Hollywood circle, he maintained an outsider persona. He memorialized the misfits and outcasts by making them the anti-heroes in his work, all of which ultimately were destined to fall because they refused to play the conformity game.

Aldrich partnered with Joseph E Levin to purchase the rights to the British writer John Farell’s Hollywood horror book in 1961 but at first no one seemed interested. Aldrich got Seven Arts Pictures curious about the film and so Warner Bros agreed to distribute the film but didn’t allow it to be made on the Warner lot.

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Bette Davis, Jack Warner, Joan Crawford and Robert Aldrich
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Robert Aldrich with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford

Aldrich relates in an interview that “Eliot Hyman at Seven Arts read the script , studied the budget and told him candidly: “I think it will make a fabulous movie, but I’m going to make very tough terms because it’s a high risk venture.”

Baby Jane? was not an easy sell, even with the double billing, both the actresses box office draw had diminished by then. Later on Aldrich said that the problem with Jane was that “the topic was perceived as controversial and not a built in moneymaker which would alienate portions of the public”

Jack Warner was quoted as saying he “Wouldn’t give a plug nickle for either one of those old broads” Warner was an asshole!

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Warner Studio head Jack Warner with 2 two star ‘broads’ Bette Davis & Joan Crawford

It’s has been noted in interviews with Aldrich that his working relationship was already very good with Crawford having worked with her on Autumn Leaves (1959). However with Bette Davis he had to do a little more convincing. Eventually she was on board with the project.

By the time Aldrich bought out Levine the story price had gone from $10,000 to $85,000 and no one seemed interested. But Aldrich relates in an interview that “Eliot Hyman at Seven Arts read the script , studied the budget and told him candidly: “I think it will make a fabulous movie, but I’m going to make very tough terms because it’s a high risk venture.”

It was Aldrich’s persistence and his faith in the project that made Davis enthusiastic about the film. Crawford had already expressed a desire to work with Bette Davis in a film. For Bette to take on such an unattractive role was pretty gutsy for her.

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I choose to focus on Baby Jane? and Sweet Charlotte, as they are not only my favorites of his, but also they are 2 incredible pieces of film art with the allure of the dynamic pairing of two of THE most legendary actresses from the silver screen.

What’s most fabulous about the film is that it has both Bette and Joan, which gives it such a dynamic double billing. The film really was a seminal work because nothing quite like it had been done earlier. Films like Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Autumn Leaves (1959) set some ground work for older actresses to wax crazy dramatic in film. But ultimately the pot boiled over with Baby Jane? and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

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Joan Crawford has the more glamorous role of an aging movie starlet, while Bette Davis must inhabit the role of the decrepitude has-been child of vaudeville.

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And while Aldrich has a notable filmography to his credit, like his Cold War scare noir masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly, his film that exposes the flawed Total Institution of the penal system, The Longest Yard with Burt Reynolds, and his iconic war ensemble, The Dirty Dozen ’67. There’s his other psychological thriller with Joan Crawford playing wife to the psychotic Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves ’56 and the two Hollywood ventures exposing the darker side, The Big Knife ’55 with Jack Palance and of course Kim Novak in The Legend of Lylah Clare ’68.

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Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves ’56

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Directed by Robert Aldrich is based on the novel by Henry Farrell with a screen play by Lukas Heller. Cinematography by Ernest Haller (Gone With the Wind ’39, Mildred Pierce ’45, Rebel Without a Cause ’55) Art Direction by the fabulous William Glasgow Norma Kotch won an Oscar for her costume design on Baby Jane? and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte as well as Aldrich’s The Flight Of The Phoenix (1965)

Co-starring: The main players–Victor Buono as Edwin Flagg, Marjorie Bennett as Dehlia Flagg, Anna Lee as Mrs.Bates, Maidie Norman as Elvira Stitt and Barbara Merrill (Bette’s daughter) as Liza Bates.

The film premiered on October 26 1962. and released on Halloween of 1962. Davis was nominated for Best Actress and Victor Buono for Best supporting actor.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is filled with grotesque melancholy, the wasteland of forgotten womanhood, and abject psychosis drenched within the portrayal of a repressed woman-child born of rage and delusion. It’s also a striking condemnation of sexism and agism rampant in Hollywood. Another reason I want to talk about Aldrich’s’ two seminal films is that both motion pictures set the tone for a whole cycle of films to follow. Aldrich’s two Grande Dame Guignol films started a cinematic trend. 

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Jane peers in from doorway


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For the 50s and 60s, melodrama’s consisting of plots about mental illness weren’t typically conventional and a film as extremely grotesque as Baby Jane? could be considered very disturbing. Even as groundbreaking as Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was, released the same year as Baby Jane? Psycho’s narrative veiled Norman Bates as a mild mannered young man with an Oedipus complex. In Baby Jane?, her flagrant derangement is glaring.

Perhaps films like Val Lewton’s Bedlam 1946, Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit 1948 and Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor 1963 addressed the systemic institutional problems surrounding mental illness, but Aldrich’s films are very intimate ventures.

This lurid pulp melodrama of abject madness is superb particularly because of the uninhibited performances by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. It was pretty courageous of both starlets to leave the glamor behind for such ghastly and unpleasant ceremony.

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Image of glamorous Davis & Crawford courtesy AMC’s Backstory

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First of all, I LOVE Bette Davis with a passion, the actress and the woman herself. Have you ever seen the fabulous Dick Cavett interview? if not you should track down a copy. Bette is an enduring icon and one of a kind. She has a distinct style, a unique “hitch to her git along”, as Andy Griffith would say, and is a true Hollywood legend, thoroughly intrepid, dynamic and just down right glorious!

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And I adore Joan Crawford as well. She was unbelievably beautiful when she first started out in motion pictures, before her signature crazed galvanized eye brows took over her face and those shoulder pads her wardrobe. It makes me sad to think that these woman might have truly despised each other. It’s truly a shame.

Aldrich directed this film with a crude veracity leaving us to dwell on some feelings of ambivalence toward these particular characters. I was with Jane even at her cruelest, although I pretend that the bird died of natural causes and the rat was found that way… I never warmed up to Blanche even though she was an invalid, I got the sense from her that she’s not what she appears to be.

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To reduce Davis’ performance to histrionic camp would diminish the moments when she is starkly in control of the serious meter of Jane’s growing madness. The oscillation between Jane’s childish tantrums and musings and the all out fury and retaliations are an artful feat delivered by Davis quite masterfully. She must have enjoyed the role immensely. It must have also been challenging. Jane’s dissipated drunken swagger, the way she literally slouches around the house and her irritable disposition might be the culmination of not only 30 years of taking care of Blanche, but also a sign that she is inappropriately uninhibited by her years of the undigested bile of animosity, hostility and ultimately her malicious outbursts of paranoia, that lead to her aggression and violence.

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Jane close up

In the end Jane’s macabre corpse’s white make up, painted like a mask with heart shaped beauty mark, Kewpie-doll lipstick and blond wig of massive ringlet gives Jane an extra bizarre persona. While Jane is supposedly a vain character, ironically she is under the impression that she is fashionable, she is a vaudeville clown with caked on face powder, slouchy dresses that are adult versions of the Baby Jane stage outfits she wore as a child. When Jane goes out in public wearing the fur and wilted corsage and antique jewelry, it represents her attachment to the past, although it is not flattering to her at all, when in fact she is perceived as pitiful. Apparently it was Davis herself who created the chalky pale freakish make-up that Jane puts on when she starts to plan her comeback. It’s almost a decrepit version of the artistic painted face of Geisha culture. In Peter Shelley’s book Grande Dame Guignol Cinema- A History of Hag Cinema from Baby Jane to Mother he compares the way Blanche looks at the end, with her pasty death mask and dark rings to the actress Irene Papas. It was definitely the dark imposing eyebrows.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane

Continue reading “Revisiting Robert Aldrich’s Grande Dame Hag Cinema: Part I ‘Get back in that chair Blanche!’”

Grande Dame/Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema Part VI conclusion: Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte “Ruined finery…that’s all I have left”

THE VISUAL NARRATIVE “Ruined Finery”

Continue reading “Grande Dame/Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema Part VI conclusion: Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte “Ruined finery…that’s all I have left””

Grande Dame/Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema Part V: Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte “You’re my favorite living mystery” “Have you ever solved me?”

Miriam is back on screen she’s looking around as if searching for something. The tinkling flutters of incorporeal music still tipping back and forth. We are suspended in some kind of time frame ourselves. Captive. Again as in Baby Jane we as spectator are being held within the constructs of the visual narrative as much as the characters themselves. Aldrich uses his shadows to constrict our visual movement. So much of the plot is drenched in the mysterious cloaking of shadow that it obliterates our senses. The shadows formulate the environment to feel obstructive.

Once again the blackest bar of shadow cuts across Miriam’s figure, casting an ominous 2nd Miriam luring behind herself. Throughout Charlotte the camera/shadows have aggressively dissected the woman’s bodies in varies parts. In advertising there has been criticism aimed at Ads depicting women’s body parts being cut off, as if to dehumanize them. I don’t think Aldrich’s intention was to dehumanize these female characters, rather to show the fracturing of their ambivalent personalities.

The Manifest meaning behind the shadows could be as simple as framing these female characters in mystery, the ultimate question is one of the Latent meaning, in which we might as spectators come to understand the characters’ principal personality and the underlying motivating forces that drive them.

And I’d like to think that the camera lens didn’t develop a bit of Acrotomophilia , the amputee fetish that sadly some people suffer from. Still I found that it is something of worthy note to observe how these shadows frame the female body in both films.

Even the plant seems to cut across Miriam’s torso

Miriam knocks on Charlotte’s door. There is a quick jump cut, Charlotte is on the other side of the door. Miriam knocks once more and then walks away. She shuts the lights out and throws us into yet even more darkness than before. She walks over to the silky lace covered windows. The dog is still barking outside near the graveyard.

A flute flutters the scales as an almost Middle Eastern mixed Phrygian mode, an exotic mysterious motif , as Miriam peers through the curtains yet looks back behind her. She turns away and walks back into the room.

We hear a creaking door. It’s the large Armour as the door swings open to show that Miriam’s sequined dress has been slashed. With the use of an inner monologue we hear Miriam say, “My dress, somebody’s slashed my dress.” She stares at it. Again we see her in profile. the little pipe flutterings play again as she walks toward the shredded dress. Slowly ever so slowly to build the tension.

The fluttering is now almost child like. Is this to represent that a regressive childish acting out is responsible for this destructive behavior. Miriam’s head is in complete shadow surrounded by the shiny sequins, dangling like torn fish gills and silk. She begins to handle the ruined fabric, the music still with us. The strings come in strident. Finally we see Miriam in full face. She looks contained but shocked at the same time. Continue reading “Grande Dame/Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema Part V: Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte “You’re my favorite living mystery” “Have you ever solved me?””

Grande Dame/Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema Part III Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte “He’ll Love You Til He Dies”

Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Directed by Robert Aldrich, written by Henry Farrell, who also wrote What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), How Awful About Allan (1970) and the made for tv film The Eyes of Charles Sand (1972) scripted by Lukas Heller and Farrell. Starring, the legendary Bette Davis as Charlotte Hollis and Olivia de Havilland as cousin Miriam Dearing, Joseph Cotten as Drew. The inimitable Agnes Moorehead as Velma Cruthers. Cecil Kellaway as Harry Mills and Victor Buono as Big Sam Hollis,  Mary Astor as Jewel Mayhew and a very young Bruce Dern as John Mayhew. George Kennedy as the foreman and extra recasting of Wesley Addy as Sheriff Luke Standish and Dave Willock from Baby Jane.

Aldrich apparently had another hit with his 2nd genre film, which opened to generally positive reviews. With the exception of this scathing review in The New York Times, by Bosley Crowther who couldn’t have been more off the mark, he writes “So calculated and coldly carpentered is the tale of murder, mayhem and deceit that Mr. Aldrich stages in this mansion that it soon appears grossly contrived, purposely sadistic and brutally sickening. So, instead of coming out funny, as did Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? it comes out grisly, pretentious, disgusting and profoundly annoying.”

Again, I wholly disagree with Crowther, as this film wasn’t meant to be as campy as Baby Jane, and “funny” is an odd word for the film as well, nor was there an unwritten rule that said Aldrich, had to restrain some of the grisly details from this picture. I don’t believe chaining an invalid to a bed, feeding them road kill and slowly starving them to death, is the less disgusting proposal. And as far as being brutally sickening, I see Charlotte as a hauntingly nightmarish allegory.

Let me say that I loved Peter Shelley’s book. He compiled some great examples of the genre and added a lot of information and insight to the subject matter, I was with him all the way, so the few points of divergence in our opinions of Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte aren’t a slight to the author at all. According to Peter Shelley in his Grande Dame Guignol Cinema: A History of Hag Horror from Baby Jane to Mother , chapter on Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte the film suffered from the absence of Joan Crawford. Shelley considered the follow up film to be a “bloated reprisal of the pivotal components of the earlier film” (pg.57). Actually I think quite the contrary about this suspenseful, understated film. It has less feeling of a”bloated” extension of the first Hag film, as Charlotte appears more distilled, virtually more refined in it’s subtle use of hallucinatory machinations, with a very cogent argument for Charlotte’s sustained ire and melancholy. Shelley considers the location an attempt to surpass the Grande Guignol aspect of it’s predecessor by placing it in a southern Gothic milieu, the Ascension Parish but he thinks it fails with it’s “florid exoticism” again because it lacks the electrifying cast choice by not rejoining Crawford and Davis. Additionally, I say too much of a good thing becomes a device therefor a reuniting of the two would have minimized the impact that the prior collaboration by both film stars made with Baby Jane. I think that Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte is perhaps even an elegant piece and stands well on it’s own, as a taut psychological standpoint of the regressive woman and at it’s very essence is an ideal Grande Dame film.

I think Crawford would have brought a certain purposeful intensity that worked for her in so many films, but would have overshadowed the interplay between Davis’s Charlotte and Olivia de Havilland’s subtle malignant charm of her characterization of cousin Miriam. Supposedly after the great success of Baby Jane, Crawford agreed to do a follow up film. Aldrich encouraged writer Henry Farrell to create a new story called “What Ever Happened To Cousin Charlotte?” Bette Davis asked that the title be changed to fit the line from the song. And so Aldrich agreed and Davis signed on. Crawford however wanted her name to come first on the credits, unlike Baby Jane where Davis’s name appeared left of screen or side by side. Leftward being the more pronounced association as the star. Bette Davis even agreed to this provision. Once shooting began in Baton Rouge on June 4th 1964 Davis only got to film one scene with Crawford, where she watches Crawford enter the mansion. Otherwise they never did another scene together from that point on. The production was put on hold because Davis was called away to finish some re-shoots on Where Love Has Gone in Los Angeles. Continue reading “Grande Dame/Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema Part III Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte “He’ll Love You Til He Dies””

Grande Dames/Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema Part II: Baby Jane: “You mean all this time we could have been friends?”

“Lunatics are similar to designated hitters.Often an entire family is crazy, but since an entire family can’t go into the hospital, one person is designated as crazy and goes inside” -Suzanna Kaysen from Girl Interrupted (1993)

*This is featured as part of my Women in Peril series*

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane (1962) Directed by Robert Aldrich. The film Stars Bette Davis, Joan Crawford Victor Buono, Marjorie Bennett, and Maidie Norman as Elvira

“But you “are” Blanche, you “are” in that chair!”~ these are the words I often utter to myself or amongst friends, merely cause it tickles me.

I could question whether or not Aldrich made these films as a vehicle in which to translate the lives of the psychologically intricate , often tragic women which he viewed through a sympathetic lens, or perhaps some of his female driven films are an exercise in misogyny.

So was he a misogynist? Perhaps some might find the portrayal of his female characters unattractive, or maybe he didn’t differentiate between his male and female roles. He was definitely more focused on both genders’ struggle. These outliers of society who couldn’t simply fit in, so if the film’s driving character happened to be a woman then it would stand to reason she would also be an outcast or damaged in some way. If he did make a distinction as to the gender, he was mostly preoccupied with the character’s system of dealing with the obstacles they faced in their lives. It does appear that his “women” usually are the solitary focus, while his “men” are framed as groups of men trapped by precarious situations.

Robert Aldrich is still one of my all time favorite directors.

Aldrich always brings us a story that is cynical and gritty with very flawed characters who are at the core ambiguous as either the protagonist or the antagonist. Aldrich studied economics in college, then dropped out and landed a very low paying job at first as a clerk with RKO Radio Pictures Studio in 1941.

He studied with such great directors such as Jean Renoir and it was his training in the trenches that made him the auteur he is, delving inside the human psyche and questioning what is morality? Aldrich went on to become the assistant director, script writer and associate producer, to various filmmakers whom were later on targeted by the black list.

Aldrich has a flare for the dramatic, he likes to break molds and cross over boundaries. He also has a streak of anti-authoritarianism running through the veins of his films. There aren’t just traces of his ambivalence toward the Hollywood machine in his film philosophy, he also conflates the ugly truths beneath the so called American Dream and the “real” people who inhabit that world.

He died in 1983, And while he remained inside the Hollywood circle, he maintained an outsider persona. He memorialized the misfits and outcasts by making them the anti-heroes in his work, all of which ultimately were destined to fall because they refused to play the conformity game. Continue reading “Grande Dames/Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema Part II: Baby Jane: “You mean all this time we could have been friends?””

Grande Dames/ Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema “But you *are* Blanche, you *are in that chair” Part I

What Ever Happen To Baby Jane (1962)

At the start of Baby Jane the screen is pitch black, we can hear a child sobbing. The 1st prologue begins 1917. The screen still blacked out, we hear a man’s voice say “Don’t you want to see it again,little girl?” This is setting up an eerily invasive narrative as we do not know yet if it is something sinister making the child cry. The male voice adds “It shouldn’t frighten you” then a quick jump cut and we are able to see a Jack in the Box toy popping up, causing terror in the child. Now we actually see the little girl staring at the toy with tear soaked cheeks as she gasps for air.The toy has disturbed her with it’s quick movements and odd expression. There is a shot of its peculiar face which has an uncanny shedding of tears down it’s tin cheeks. The use of children’s toys in horror films has often been used as a mechanism to evoked fear or otherworldly dread in us, as if they might embody some incarnate evil. Here is a great link to Horror Film History’s website.

http://www.horrorfilmhistory.com/index.php?pageID=childsp

Next we hear vaudeville music and see Baby Jane Hudson’s name up in lights on the marquee of the theater. The theater is sold out, Jane is tap dancing in spot light, to Stephen Foster’s “Swanee River” in front of a packed house.Her father is waiting off stage with Blanche and their mother. He is rallying her with encouragement from the wings while the wife looks solemnly at him, simultaneously young Blanche is looking at him with resentment. Both figures are feeling left out. Young Blanche is played by Julie Allred who was marvelous as little Priscilla in the Boris Karloff Thriller episode Mr.George.

Mr Ray Hudson played by Dave Willock comes out to a cheering audience holding a banjo, and tells the crowd okay folks one final request. A little freckle faced boy stands up and requests “I’ve Written A Letter To Daddy” And so the lights dim and father sits at the piano to accompany his little girl on this very popular tune.The voice has such a warbling vibrato that it makes little Jane sound bizarre and incongruous (no offense to the singer Debbie Burton) as a child’s voice. She sings with such a sugary exaggeration. Jane’s got the affected style of performer down to all the over reaching body gestures indicative of a ham. Holding the letter to her heart, kissing it, looking upward toward the ceiling sky. “And wish you were here with us to love” as she sings this line she wraps her arms around herself clinging as if the embrace a lover but meant for her father.

Mr Hudson, Jane’s daddy comes out from behind the piano and joins his daughter in a dance,which make them appear as if a romantic couple. From the side of the stage we see the expressions on Mrs Hudson’s face and young Blanch , there is obviously no room in the father and Jane’s relationship for either sister Blanche or the mother.

After the performance a little boy runs on stage and hands Jane a replica Baby Jane doll of her very own. Jane’s daddy is a showman all the way, “folk’s have you ever seen such a lovely doll” (he in fact has objectified his daughter, as well as exploited her for profit “a genuine Baby Jane” doll. “And kids remember you can tell your moms that each and every one of these genuine beautiful great big dolls is an exact replica of your own Baby Jane Hudson.” Continue reading “Grande Dames/ Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema “But you *are* Blanche, you *are in that chair” Part I”