Chapter 2 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:

THE LAND OF MORAL AMBIGUITY: HOLLYWOOD & THE HAYS CODE

“Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex Relationships are the accepted or common thing…”

Prior to the Production Code, LGBT characters were somewhat prevalent, if heavily stereotyped and exploited, in a number of major films. The 1920s especially were a time of shifting societal norms and expanding artistic experimentation. As women rode the first wave of feminism and prohibition was increasingly challenged, filmmakers began to expand their boundaries and feature more controversial plotlines. – Sophie Cleghorn

Pre-Code was a brief period in the American film industry between the dawn of talking pictures in 1929 and the formal enforcement in 1934 of the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC) familiarly known as the Hays Code. Pre-Code was a glorious time in the history of cinema. It was during the Depression Era, before the cultural politics of Clergy and reformer organizations came in and initiated the need for moral governance over the film industry. Their interference evolved into the Hays Code created to oversee silent and talking pictures.

In the late 1920s before the Hays Code, films began to speak becoming audible and more realistic as Hollywood recognized that many Americans knew all about sex. In the early era of talkies during the gutsy cinema of the Depression era, there was nothing stopping the studios from producing daring films. Hollywood movies weren’t afraid to show gay characters or reference their experiences. Ironically, queers were pretty visible onscreen at this time in American cinema. These characters left an impression on trade papers like Variety that called this phenomenon – “queer flashes.”

Also in the early twenties, there were notorious scandals on and off screen. Hollywood’s moral ambiguity was literally in the clutches of the Hays Code which the MPPDA used to wage a moral battle against Hollywood that they perceived would eventually lead to cultural ruination. The priggish William Hays was a deacon in the Presbyterian church, a former chair of the Republican party, and post master general before he was picked to lead the war on decadence in the movie industry. William Hays was appointed chairman of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) from the year it was established in 1922 to 1945, but the Hays Code was not overturned until 1968. Hays and his code regulated film content for nearly forty years. The little worm.

W.C.Fields and Franklin Pangborn- Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)

The Hays Code became a series of self-imposed, perceived-to-be-moral guidelines that told filmmakers and the major studios what was permissible to do in their movies. The Code was established in 1930, and the MPPC set forth censorship guidelines that weren’t yet strictly enforced. And states had their own censorship boards and so their individual standards varied. Hays tried to contain his guidelines without the intrusion of government censorship, so he created his own Production Code that was for all intents and purposes optional for studios.

They felt that the liberal themes of films in the 1920s were contributing to the supposed debauchery infiltrating society. They championed government censorship as the solution to return society to its traditional moral standards (Mondello).

In June 1927, Hays publicized a list of cautionary rules. A construct of ‘Don’ts and Be Carefuls’. The document and empowering legislation spelled out guidelines for propriety on screen in classic Hollywood that became known as the Production Code. It was co-authored in 1929 by Martin J. Quigley, prominent Catholic layman, editor of the journal Motion Picture Herald and Reverend Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit Priest. Their collaboration reflected a ‘Victorianism’ that would tint the freedom of Hollywood’s creative license. “The Production Code was a template for a theological takeover of American cinema.” “No picture should lower the moral standards of those who see it.”

“Just Ten of the Thous Shalt Nots”

Homosexuality

While the Code did not explicitly state that depictions of homosexuality were against the Code, the Code barred the depiction of any kind of sexual perversion or deviance, which homosexuality fell under at the time. -Wikipedia

The convict

“The courts of the land should not be presented as unjust…”

Prostitution and fallen women

“Brothels and houses of ill-fame are not proper locations for drama. They suggest to the average person at once sex sin, or they excite an unwholesome and morbid curiosity in the minds of youth…”

Bad girls

“Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing…”

Musicals

“Dancing costumes cut to permit indecent actions or movements are wrong… Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passion are forbidden…”

Adultery and the sanctity of marriage

“Adultery as a subject should be avoided… It is never a fit subject for comedy. Thru comedy of this sort, ridicule is thrown on the essential relationships of home and family and marriage, and illicit relationships are made to seem permissible, and either delightful or daring.”

NOT TO MENTION: GOD COMPLEXES-

Boris Karloff as Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s creation. Make-up by Jack Pierce.

By the time the sequel Bride of Frankenstein was released in 1935, enforcement of the code was in full effect and the Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s overt God complex was forbidden. In the first picture however, when the creature was born, his mad scientist creator was free to proclaim “Now I know what it feels like to be a God.”

‘Don’ts’ included “profanity,” “sex hygiene,” “miscegenation,” and “ridicule of the clergy.” There was a much longer list of ‘Be carefuls’ which indicated it was offensive to “show sympathy for criminals,” “arson,” “surgical operations,” and “excessive or lustful kissing” and of course “HOMOSEXUALITY.”

Hays appointed Colonel Jason S. Joy to be in charge of the supervisory agency, the Studio Relations Committee. Once the first talky The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jolson was released a newly fired up rebel cry was heard from the hoity-toity do-gooders who raised objections against Hollywood’s immorality. What was once suggestive in silent pictures was now committed to sound, with all it’s risque humor and wicked context.

In 1934 censorship was tightening its strangle hold. Under pressure from the Catholic Church and other religious groups the Motion Picture Production Code made it so that any marginal gay characters became masked in innuendo, relying on queer symbolism instead. Several grassroots organizations were founded in order to pressure the film industry, the most influential of all was the Catholic Legion of Decency.

So, between the Code and state censorship boards, one might expect that films produced after 1930 would be exemplars of wholesomeness and purity. In practice, the men who enforced the Code on behalf of the MPPDA (Jason Joy and James Wingate) were wholly ineffectual, primarily due to the very small staffs they were allotted to keep up with the work of reviewing scripts, treatments and finished films while battling studios that weren’t especially thrilled by the bottleneck caused by the whole operation. The combination of bureaucratic sclerosis and the economic, political and cultural crisis brought about by the Great Depression ushered in a vibrant era of filmmaking and the introduction of many stars whose personas would forever be rooted in their pre-Code films.- Mike Mashon

The Code set in place since 1930 was a turning point in the history of self-regulation. With the strict enforcement of the Production Code, they attempted to influence the discourse in American film without coming out and definitively stating which contexts were strictly forbidden. Instead they issued phrases like “should be avoided” and “should not suggest.” Though a variety of controversial topics weren’t vigorously banned by the Production Code, gay characters WERE strictly prohibited. 

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) directed by Alfred Hitchcock- Peter Lorre

When the Hays Code was adopted in 1930, they articulated that, “though regarding motion pictures primarily as entertainment without any explicit purpose of teaching or propaganda, they know that the motion picture within its own field of entertainment may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking.”

When the MPPDA formally ratified The Code, they demanded that it be followed to the letter but it “lacked an effective enforcement mechanism” – and the studio heads openly defied it’s frame of mind and it’s puritanical spirit.

The movie studios had other pressing issues of concern. It was the Great Depression, and studios were barely making it, on the brink of ruin due to low ticket sales. They were quite ready to fight with states over censorship because sex and violence sells. They wanted to draw in audiences that would be titillated by gangsters, vamps, and racy subject matter. Popular musicals could entertain with disparaging racial clichés and glamorous, intoxicating imagery, with hints of queerness. You could also watch languid prostitutes on screen — everyone seems to long for Shanghai Lil, in the film that has it all, Footlight Parade (1933)

Filmmakers tried to switch around controversial subject matter that would not only push the boundaries but would promote ticket sales, with films that would attract a more sophisticated audience. Breen perceived these films to be less ‘dangerous’ a word he often used. They focused on the ‘gangster’ film with it’s violent content, and when they put their foot on that genre’s neck, Hollywood rolled out the ‘fallen woman‘ films. They tried very hard to get around the scrutiny and so they delved into making horror pictures, and racy comedies. These fare better as they fell under the heading of being ‘unrealistic’ which rendered them as innocuous material to the censors.

During the Great Depression, movies were an escape for audiences in dire need of distraction. The morally-charged stranglehold that was beginning to challenge filmmakers forced them to experiment with movies that were audacious and candid in different ways. Pre-Code actually challenged audiences to watch real life issues on screen. Pre-Code cinema offered some titillating truths coming out of the dream factory. Depression-era cinema exhibited gay characters, but generally in small parts and often used for comic purposes that managed to cue audiences in, with roles that were codified and readable as queer. ‘Queerness’ was railed against because it subverted traditional masculinity which was under attack by the new socioeconomic crisis in the country. Yet somehow, Hollywood found it to be a viable trigger for ideological gossip.

These films illustrated narratives that were thought provoking, worldly, and subversive. Movies dealt frankly or were suggestive of sexual innuendo, sexual relationships between races, mild profanity, drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, and of course, homosexuality.

William Wellman’s Safe in Hell (1931) starring Dorothy Mackaill as a call girl in hiding. Prostitution is a no no!

Filmmakers took risks delivering a portrait of America with a punishing realism, and a creative freedom to portray taboo themes like crime (gangs and guns, violence), social dilemma’s (drug abuse, poverty and political unrest). And sexual relationships (adultery, promiscuity, deviance = homosexuality). In the 1930s filmmakers also sought to stir up controversy by screening queer characters, in order to shock audiences and drive up their ticket sales. The result, movies became more lewd, ruthless and vicious between 1930 and 1934. And Hollywood was it’s MOST queer from 1932-1934.

Yet during the silent era to the mid thirties, gay characters were illustrated as stereotypes showcasing the popular tropes established by conventional hetero-normative gender bias. These archetypes were styled to be gender non-conformists. Queer men were fussy, effeminate and flamboyant. With high-pitched voices, the air under their feet and waving hands. Essentially, ‘fairies’ who were deployed as comic relief on the periphery of the drama. Real-life queers of the Depression era and later periods were exposed to cinematic images, the vast majority being caricatures in which gays and lesbians were often presented as targets of ridicule and contempt for their divine decadence. ‘Entertainers play with gender ambiguity in Broadway thru a Keyhole (1933).‘ (Lugowski)

Lesbians were at the other end of the spectrum. They were ‘masculine,’ demonstrating deep voices, cross-dressing in male attire, and were installed in male-dominated professions. They were often invalidated by the straight male characters, and were either played for the uncomfortable humor or shown as baffling to men. The PCA in it’s Hollywood’s Movie Commandments specified that there could be no comic characters “introduced into a screen play pantomiming a pervert.” (Lugowski)

Gender Reversals, Queerness, and a Nation in Crisis.–

In Michael Curtiz’s The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932) Suddenly, queer imagery in film, typically in the form of comical representations of gay men, lesbians, and ambiguous sexuality, did not seem so funny any-more, least of all to those charged with applying Hollywood’s Production Code to film content. By “queer” imagery, I am focusing particularly on situations, lines of dialogue, and characters that represent behavior coded, according to widely accepted stereotypes, as cross-gendered in nature. As played by such prominent and well-established supporting comedy character actors as Franklin Pangborn, Edward Everett Horton, Grady Sutton, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore, and Ernest Truex, queer men tended to appear as one of two types.

The queer in his more subdued form appears as the dithering, asexual “sissy,” sometimes befuddled, incompetent,and, if married, very henpecked (Horton), and sometimes fussy and officious (Pangborn). Pangborn, however, was one of the actors who (along with the unsung likes of Tyrell Davis and Tyler Brooke) also played or suggested the other type, the more outrageous “pansy,” an extremely effeminate boulevardier-type sporting lip-stick, rouge, a trim mustache and hairstyle, and an equally trim suit, incomplete without a boutonniere. Although a number of actors played or were even typecast in such roles, one generally doesn’t find a circle of prominent supporting actresses whose personas seemed designed to connote lesbianism (the closest, perhaps, is Cecil Cunningham) lesbian representation occurs frequently as well, and in perhaps a greater range of gradations. At her most overt, the lesbian was clad in a mannishly tailored suit (often a tuxedo), her hair slicked back or cut in a short bob. She sometimes sported a monocle and cigarette holder (or cigar!) and invariably possessed a deep alto voice and a haughty, aggressive attitude toward men, work, or any business at hand. Objections arose because she seemed to usurp male privilege; perhaps the pansy seemed to give it up. -David M.Lugowski: Queering the (New) Deal-Lesbian and Gay Representation and the Depression-Era Cultural Politics of Hollywood’s Production Code

Filmmakers were encouraged not to promote lifestyles of a ‘morally questionable’ nature, so queers remained as humorous detours away from the central story. It was a subtle defiance that filmmakers were determined to feature queer characters in their films in spite of the ban. Because of the threat of boycotts, this created some maneuvering around the scrutiny. Queer identities were not portrayed with depth or realism, this marginalized group was relegated to one-dimensional stereotypes. They were never shown to be in romantic relationships and filmmakers relied on visual cues to signal the character’s identity.

Censors at the PCA, for example, were very worried about the three female characters in William Dieterle’s Dr. Monica (1934) starring Kay Francis. The film is the story of three women, an alcoholic, a nymphomaniac and a lesbian. In October 1935, Joseph Breen wrote a letter to RKO’s head B.B. Kahane concerned about Follow the Fleet (1936) starring Fred Astaire who gives a dance lesson to all male sailors. “We are assuming of course that you will exercise your usual good taste in this scene of the sailors learning to dance. There will be no attempt to inject any ‘pansy’ humor into the scene.”

Due to a new, stricter Motion Picture Production Code, gays were being swept under the rug in movies. In the late 1930s and 1940s the only way to circumvent the Code was by painting homosexuals as cold-hearted villains (The Celluloid Closet). Now it appeared that gays were committing terrible crimes because of their sexual orientation, implying that homosexuality leads to insanity. In a society where being homosexual was synonymous with being sinful, it is no surprise that Hollywood made the leap to correlating a homosexual orientation with malicious crimes and wicked urges (Weir).

Alfred Hitchcock is a visual magician who rolls out the answers gradually while deconstructing what is explicit to the narrative. He is one of the most measured auteurs, whose eye for detail links each scene together like a skillful puzzle. He has been studied, tributed, and –in my opinion–unsuccessfully imitated. Rigid to conform, he danced around the Hays Code like a cunning acrobat indulging his vision while deflecting the lax regulations. There are arguments that Hitchcock insinuated homophobic messages in some of his films. The queer characters were all deviants and psychopathic predators, who were the ones responsible for some of the most heinous murders on screen. For example, in his film Rope (1948) the two Nietzschian murderers are intellectual companions who get off on trying to perpetrate the perfect murder. They exhibit a romantic friendship with no sexual contact on screen. Yet there are cues that they are sexually aroused by each other’s mutual pleasure at killing a young boy. The Hays Code inhibited the depiction of a queer couple so Hitchcock had to subtly suggest their sexual relationship by dropping metaphors and visual clues. Though, it might be interpreted through a homophobic lens, and their homosexuality might be at the core of their cruel and immoral nature.

According to David Greven, Hitchcock’s homophelia ‘was through a larger conflict that Hitchcock’s cinema that filmmakers conducted their investigation of American masculinity, one that focused on fissures and failures. Homosexuality emerged as representative of these and also as potential new direction for American masculinity to take, not without serious risk but also treated with surprising, fascinated interest… Hitchcock’s radical de-centering of heterosexual male dominance, devising contemporary narratives of heterosexual male ambivalence that allowed for, at times depended on, an investment in same-sex desire as well as an awareness of its dangerous, pernicious seductions. Homophobia in both Hitchcock and the New Hollywood’s informed by an attendant fascination with the homoerotic that emerges from scenes of gender crisis and disorganization that are rife in both the Cold War and New Hollywood eras. 

Any illicit sexual behavior on screen considered as perverse would be demonized and exploited as immoral. Queers were shown as villainous, dangerous deviants who were fated for ruination and/or death.

There were several broad categories the Code was not vague about. Any movies depicting criminality had to essentially illustrate that there would be consequences. The message was clear, any flagrant criminal behavior is abhorrent and audiences should NOT feel sympathy, primarily through the implicit edict of “compensating moral values.”

Authority figures had to be treated with respect, and the clergy could not be portrayed as comic characters or villains. Under some circumstances, politicians, police officers, and judges could be villains, as long as it was clear that those individuals portrayed as villains were the exceptions to the rule.

Clearly there were some productive strategies of circumventing the Motion Picture Production Code. They enabled characters that performed behind the veil, under the radar of social acceptability, while dancing a step closer to the fringe. It allowed for ‘queering the screen’. I find it feasible to consider how Alexander Doty points out that ‘queering’ something implies that you are taking a thing that is straight and doing something to it. Rather it should be considered that it’s less about co-opting or subverting films – making things queer, and more about how something might be understood as queer.

It might be easy to read Zasu Pitt’s and Thelma Todd’s relationship, the brilliantly paired comedy twosome, as lovers. While they perform humorous heterosexual man hunting, they sure seem to be mostly interested in each other and sure look adorable in their pajamas! I wonder, as Big Daddy says, if there’s ‘something missing here’. Below, they are in the film short directed by Hal Roach – On The Loose 1931, with bobbed hair, leaning into each other in bed together, looking awfully intimate.

To be ‘queer’ is also to deconstruct existing norms and ‘destabilize’ them, making it harder to define, so that it is a clear picture of non-normative straight masculinity/femininity.

What was perceptible to those ‘in the life’ were expressions, gestures, of the term often used by the Hays Code, ‘deviancy.’ One of the things that the Code banned was in Clause 6 Section 2 on “Sex” was that “sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.”

Not that films during the reign of the Code were ripe with queer love stories, of course. There were none to be found beyond the foreign offerings of Oswald’s Different From the Others and Mädchen in Uniform. The most prevalent allusion to being gay was the flamboyant man who was the ambiguous bachelor or fussy asexual husband. If there was anything close to a butch woman, she could be an earthy farmer’s wife, a Marjorie Main or Patsy Kelly type (Both lesbians in real life). A tough as nails prison matron, a tyrannical madame or a risque night club owner. Perhaps shes an embittered heavy drinker or just one of the guys who is a faithful friend to the female lead. Maybe she never gets the guy or hasn’t met the right man. Perhaps she was married to a no good bum and is off men for good!.. And just sometimes, sometimes it’s because… well some of us would know why!

Thelma Todd joined up with Patsy Kelly in comedy series. Here’s a lobby card for their Babes in the Goods. The two became very good friends during their collaboration.

Patsy Kelly had started in Vaudeville and appeared in Wonder Bar 1931 centered around a Parisian club. Kelly played Elektra Pivonaka and sang two lively songs.

She is known for her ballsy, straight-forward, no nonsense persona, be it her tough as nails nurse Mac in Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964) or as Laura-Louise, attending to Rosemary (Mia Farrow) in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Kelly played very non-feminine roles, injecting a bit of her ‘in the life’ energy into the characters in every one of her roles. More often that not she had an unglamorous reputation as a funny spunky, brassy, wise cracking gal who played a lot of maids. She was outspoken about being an uncloseted lesbian, which hurt her movie career in the 1940s. But she had been a very successful actress on Broadway, returning to the stage in 1971 winning a Tony Award for No, No Nanette and Irene.

In director/screenwriter Sam Fuller’s sensationalist The Naked Kiss (1964), Patsy Kelly plays Mac the nurse, a hard-edged pussy cat. A no nonsense nurse who lives for helping children with disabilities, but there is no visible sign that she has the slightest interest in men, aside from a smart alecky comment about Grant bringing her back a man from Europe. Kelly might have wanted her role as an independent woman with a more offbeat way of stating that she is a tough dyke and expected Fuller to write her into the script that way. Knowing Kelly that’s a good assumption. The film is audacious in it’s scope for dealing with more than one theme, as taboo as prostitution, abortion and pedophilia.

The Catholic Legion of Decency used their influence to label gays as ‘sexual deviants’, not be depicted on screen. ‘Deviancy’ was used to refer to any behavior deviating from what was perceived to be normal in terms of romance, sex, and gender. Hays even ordered all ‘nance’ characters to be removed from screenplays.

The Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Hays Code tried to make symbolic gestures to maintain decency in films. The Legion of Decency were getting pressure from the Catholic Church. So in 1934 came up with A-acceptable B-Morally Objectionable and C-Condemned. Hollywood promised to observe the rules. Of the various subject matter that was restricted on screen-open mouth kissing, lustful embraces, sex-perversion, seduction, rape, abortion, prostitution, white slavery, nudity, obscenity, profanity.

But all this unsolicited attention caused the studios to be watchful of their off-screen personnel, and they also had to be certain that the Los Angeles Police Department received payoffs to keep their mouths shut. Though lurid and shocking subject matter was no longer tolerated on screen, the studios tried to continue to release their films without the intrusion of the Hays Office, even though from a commercial standpoint, sex sells.

Warner Bros.’ lack of cooperation with the Code until the bitter end and how Paramount, which was cooperative under B. P. Schulberg, decided to be “as daring as possible” under Emmanuel Cohen in 1932 and 1933. At MGM, Irving Thalberg’s resistance only really ended with his heart attack and journey abroad to recover in 1933. As James Wingate, Breen’s SRC predecessor, put things that same year: (Lugowski)

In 1934 Jack Warner ignored Breen’s letter and phone calls about a scene in Wonder Bar (1934) that explicitly demonstrates homoerotic desire. In it, one man cuts in to dance with another man, interrupting a woman who is dancing with her male partner. “May I cut in?”  she responds, “Why certainly,” as the man suitor grabs her chaperone to dance instead. The films stars Al Jolson who exclaims, “Boys will be boys!” Breen would later write, “It is quite evident that the gentleman [Warner] is giving me the runaround. He evidently thinks that this is the smart thing to do.” Wonder Bar  may have added a flash of queer diversion as part of the entertainment, but it is an incredibly offensive and racist film using a cast who are in Black face.

During the ongoing Depression era, sissy and lesbian characters of the period continued to be screened as effeminate and mannish with one change. They became progressively sexualized between 1933-34. As the Depression moved forward, the Code needed to establish a “suitable” masculinity in film that would satisfy the morality police. They wanted this accepted masculinity to mirror the public art imagery that was now being federally funded by the New Deal in the mid-and late 1930s.

Before 1934 the studios were able to ignore the Code’s denouncement and endeavor to censor the movie industry but Hollywood filmmakers could no longer disregard the regulations issued by the Hays Code. The Legion of Decency forced the MPPDA to assert itself with the Production Code and formed a new agency , the Production Code Administration (PCA). The Hays Code was formed in 1930 but it only began to have a profound impact on Hollywood when the Production Code Administration (PCA) began strictly enforcing it in 1934. The crusade to save America’s purity and squash the filth mongers began a cultural war.

It was a system of moral oversight, conservatives lobbied to enforce, using the PCA to compel the industry to drastically adhere to it. PCA is strongest in explaining how the Code tried to at once repress and enable discourse to appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of viewers and to offend the fewest. (Lugowski)

And in 1937, the Production Code Administration (PCA), handed down Hollywood’s Movie Commandments that decried “No hint of sex perversion may be introduced into a screen story. The characterization of a man as effeminate, or a woman as grossly masculine would be absolutely forbidden for screen portrayal.”

The Code was detailed in two parts that reflected the foundation of Catholic principles. The moral vision and “particular applications a precise listing of forbidden material.”

The code was divided into two parts. The first was a set of “general principles” which prohibited a picture from “lowering the moral standards of those who see it”, so as not to wrongly influence a specific audience of views including, women, children, lower-class, and those of “susceptible” minds, called for depictions of the “correct standards of life”, and lastly forbade a picture to show any sort of ridicule towards a law or “creating sympathy for its violation.

The second part of the Code was a set of “particular applications”, which was an exacting list of items that could not be depicted. Some restrictions, such as the ban on homosexuality or on the use of specific curse words, were never directly mentioned, but were assumed to be understood without clear demarcation. Homosexuals were de facto included under the proscription of sex perversion.” — Wikipedia

The second part of the Code was a ban on homosexuality. Though it was not specifically spelled out, queers were the subject under review of ‘sex perversion.’ Though the Hays office would not stand for “more than a dash of lavender” as long as the representation (especially a non desirable depiction of homosexuality) was fleeting and incidental. Thus, “Pansy comedy” was tolerable in Pre-Code Hollywood. “Despite the watchful eyes of the Hays Office, the trade paper Variety remarked that Hollywood continued what were called “queer flashes” and “mauve characters” who sashayed through Cavalcade 1933, Our Betters 1932 and Sailor’s Luck 1932.

The industry moguls and business offices finally had to follow the rules, clean up the ‘sinful’ screen and adopt a symbol of moral righteousness, that came along with a seal. The Code would be certified by a Code Seal printed on the lobby cards of each Hollywood film. And the seal would be an emblem that would appear on the motion pictures themselves. Any film without a Code Seal would be fined $25,000.

After some revisions, they agreed to the stipulations of the Code. … negotiated cuts from films and there were definite—albeit loose—constraints, a significant … against homosexuals, all in clear violation of the Hollywood Production Code.

Any sexual act considered perverted, including any suggestion of same sex relationships, sex, or romance, was ruled out.

Thus, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the PCA scrutinized and censored, everything coming out of Hollywood and put it’s seal on each movie released. The Hollywood executives preferred to call it “self-regulation” and feared that censorship by the PCA would be even worse if they tampered with the creative ‘source’ of their product. Because of the studios’ defiance, Roman Catholics formed the National Legion of Decency, which became an influential group who would put Hollywood’s transgressions through the ordeal, of boycotts, picketing theaters, urging Catholics not to patronize these immoral movies or fall “under the pain of sin”, being met by hoards of angry protestors at the gates of the studio. Now religious groups and other moral traditionalists began a warlike campaign for the government to regulate what was shown on the screen.

Mae West: She Done Him Wrong 1933

Also government officials were bent on making gay people invisible from cinematic narratives and the United States Supreme Court handed down the ruling that filmmakers were not protected by the First Amendment in the matter of free speech. They considered Hollywood to be a powerful mechanism that to exploit ‘sinful’ behavior on the screen and influence American audiences. This laid the ground work for local governments that could weigh in and ban films from their theaters, if they considered them immoral. Hollywood could not afford to lose money at the box office from governmental authorities, by negative publicity, or from the threatening boycotts by rabid church groups.

Motion pictures could be regulated and run out of town by cities, states, and by ominous extension, the federal government.

“After all, censorship had been a fact of creative and commercial life for motion picture producers from the very birth of the medium, when even the modest osculations of the middle-aged lovebirds in Thomas Edison’s The Kiss (1896) scandalized cadres of (literally) Victorian ministers, matrons, and other variants of a sour-faced species known as the “bluenose.” By common consent, the artistically vital and culturally disruptive spectacle of the motion picture – an entertainment accessible to all levels of society and degrees of moral temperament, including unassimilated immigrants,impressionable juveniles, and other menacing types – required editorial supervision from more mature, pious, and usually Protestant sensibilities” -from Archives Unbound

Hollywood was in the grip of the Code that saw the ‘dream factory’ movie machine as a Hollywood Babylon. While the powers that be were busy policing the murmuration of taboos, Pre-Code was a brief moment in history, a fruitful period between 1929 to 1934. Hays then appointed someone who could intercede between studio moguls and anti-Hollywood groups, Joseph I. Breen. “The vulgar, the cheap, and the tawdry is out!”

The PCA had been known as the Hays Office but to those in Hollywood, once the oversight became an operation with teeth, it became known as the Breen Office. Breen came in to take over the weak Studio Relations Committee (SRC). The Code had consisted of thirty-six rules that informed Hollywood filmmakers to limit representation of, or normalization of subject matter considered by religious groups to be “unsavory or morally corrupt.” The SRC and the PCA were the inner mechanism within the film industry, shaping the content of the film and heading off any ethical problems the film might encounter before they reached the local censors.

Dorothy Mackaill Safe in Hell (1931)

Many scenarios disappeared from the movies by mid 1934: for example, audiences would no longer see women’s navels, couples laying in bed together, murderers going unpunished, any illustration of a bedroom that isn’t merely recognized as a bed chamber. The normalization of drug use, the glamourization of criminal behavior, or not following the law, and of course any overtly revealed gay or lesbian character. After 1934, women would not be sporting short haircuts and tailored suits, confidently smoking cigars. Men toned down the gushy gestures that would be interpreted as flamboyant. Gay men and women were transformed into dowdy spinsters and high-strung bachelors.

What we started to see was an ambiguity, a narrative uncertainty that took the burden of responsibility off of the filmmakers and dropped the perception of the content into the laps of the audience. Since the Code asserted that no picture should lower the moral standards of those who saw it, it was a law that bound Hollywood’s accountability for their plots. Ruth Vasey calls the antithesis of this “the principle of deniability” which refers to the ambiguity of the textual vaguery that shifted the message to the individual spectator. Lugowski cites Lea Jacobs, “under the Code ‘offensive ideas could survive at the price of an instability of meaning… There was constant negotiation about how explicit films could be and by what means (through the image, sound, language) offensive ideas could find representation.” The studios would have to come up with a structure of ‘representational conventions’, that could be understood by a more sophisticated audience yet would fly over the heads of more inexperienced spectatorship. Though producers felt the sharp sting of the Code as a mechanism of restraint, in terms of ‘queerness’ on screen, film studios could use the leverage of deniability to argue about the interpretation of certain scenes.

Once the limits of explicit “sophistication” had been established, the production industry had to find ways of appealing to both “innocent” and “sophisticated” sensibilities in the same object without transgressing the boundaries of public acceptability. This involved devising systems and codes of representation in which “innocence” was inscribed into the text while “sophisticated” viewers were able to “read into” movies whatever meanings they were pleased to find, so long as producers could use the Production Code to deny that they had put them there. Much of the work of self-regulation lay in the maintenance of this system of conventions, and as such, it operated, however perversely, as an enabling mechanism at the same time that it was a repressive one.-(Documents from the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc., 1922 – 1939)

… by assuming that the social crisis over cinematic representation in the early 1930s was caused by the content of motion pictures. The institution of censorship in Hollywood was not primarily about controlling the content of movies at the level of forbidden words or actions or inhibiting the freedom of expression of individual producers. Rather, it was about the cultural function of entertainment and the possession of cultural power. (Tino Balio: Grand Design Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise 1930-1939)

Geoff Shurlock was appointed as acting director of the Production Code in the 1940s and as permanent director in 1954. Over the years, Shurlock would straddle the conflict, appeasing both movie producers, and morality mongers trying to persuade the Association Board that introducing more liberal thinking could protect the PCA from fading away. There were attempts to ease up on the Code, in 1954 he introduced an amendment that would eliminate various taboos, for instance, miscegenation, liquor, and some profane words, but producers felt that there weren’t enough considerations to the amendment and the Catholic Legion of Decency felt that even that much went too far. Shurlock had a tough time making everyone happy.

The 1950s witnessed a weakening of the Production Code to restrict specific representations such as adultery, prostitution, and miscegenation. By the beginning of the 1960s, the only specific restriction left was homosexuality = “sex perversion.”

In the 1960s, filmmakers pressured the Production Code Administration. In the fall of 1961, two films went into production that would deal with homosexual subject matter. William Wyler, who had initially directed Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon in These Three (1936), revealed that he was working on a more faithful treatment of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour; that dealt overtly with the love that dare not speak it’s name. Around the same time director Otto Preminger began to adapt Allen Drury’s political novel Advise and Consent 1962, which delves into the lives of Senatorial candidates that uncovers controversial secret, including Don Murray’s homosexual encounter.

Throughout Preminger’s career he challenged the restrictions of the Code, and eventually influenced their decision to allow homosexuality to be shown on screen. Also fighting to change the stifling rules was Arthur Krim, president of United Artists, who threatened to ignore the Code and release the film without the mandatory “seal of approval” forcing them to amended its ideological strangle hold.

On October 3, 1961, the Production Code Administration backed off: “In keeping with the culture, the mores and values of our time, homosexuality and other sexual aberrations may now be treated with care, discretion and restraint.”

In order to maintain control of the Administration’s power at least in terms of how homosexual’s were portrayed on film, they insisted that the subject be infused with medical overtones, to show it as an ‘illness’. Sympathy or illness in psychological terms, were two key factors. The Code’s changed the use of the word “sex perversion” and replaced it with “homosexuality.”

Don Murray –gay bar scene in Advise and Consent 1962

Another interesting shift was that they owned up to the fact that “mores and values of our time” were changing whether they liked it or not, people were become more in touch with the freedom to express their sexuality, society was becoming more permissive, the love generation was upon them and sexual representation was a fearless exploration reflected by a new generation of film goers.

Otto Preminger was the only major producer able to successfully release films without the Production Code’s Seal of Approval. He defied the Code (Hadleigh) with movies like Advise and Consent (1961) The Man with Golden Arm (1955) Anatomy of a Murder (1959) Wendell Mayes said “Look at the record–you’ll discover that many of the changes in the Code were a result of Otto Preminger breaking the rules”

Though the Code had been revised in 1961 to open up the door for portrayals of gays on screen, the sissy effete and predatory dyke took on a more sinister role. Because they had been hidden in plain sight using symbology that hinted at either failed masculinity or women performing masculinity. When the MPPA ratings system was established in 1968 gays on screen were starting to kick the doors open but what was awaiting them was an even crueler denouement than during the reign of the Code. Queers were now portrayed as suicidal, predatory or homicidal maniacs. And much like the coded gay characters under the Production Code, things moved very slowly in terms of progress for positive representations of being ‘queer.’

DIrk Bogarde and Dennis Price in Basil Dearden’s brave film Victim (1961)

Between January and June 1962, five films were released that dealt with homosexuality, almost as many as in the previous three decades. One did not receive a seal of approval from the Production Code Administration, but was released nonetheless. Even without the seal of approval, British director, Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961) was reviewed in all the publications being considered. The liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal even disagreed with the Production Code Administration’s claim that the film made pleas ‘for social acceptance of the homosexual.’ “63 Still, the consensus among reviewers was that of the Production Code Administration and society at large: films should not and, for the most part, did not condone homosexuality. (Noriega)

This ban applied to all characters attracted to the same gender or characters who differed in their gender presentation or identity. While nudity and violence were quickly reintegrated into film canon following the abandonment of the Production Code, LGBT characters remained taboo. For decades after LGBT characters were allowed to appear in films, their sexuality and gender was shrouded in thinly-veiled innuendos and visual cues. If a character was to be openly same-gender attracted or transgender, they would be gruesomely killed or presented as morally corrupted. (Cleghorn)

Like the Code’s authors, film critics tend to examine the film itself, and not the discursive acts that surround a film and play a sometimes central role shaping its meaning(s). Contemporary gay and lesbian film criticism of Production Code era films operates on the same principle, with the added limitations that historical evidence and homosexual “images” censored. Thus, in order to ensure “the survival of subcultural identity within an oppressive society,” gay and lesbian film critics have employed a wide range of interpretive strategies to recuperate a history of homosexual images from the censored screen. The emphasis, therefore, has been on “subtexting” censored films from a singular presentist perspective. (Sophie Cleghorn)

Sources:

*Mike Mashon & James Bell for Pre-Code Hollywood Before the Censors-BFI  Sight & Sound Magazine (April 2019)

*Archives Unbound (1http://gdc.gale.com/archivesunbound/)

*Sophie Cleghorn: The Hollywood Production Code of 1930 and LGBT Characters.

*Wikipedia-Pre-Code

*David Lugowski-Queering the (New) Deal)

*Chon Noriega

During the period of Pre-Code, queer humor appeared in films such as Just Imagine (1930) and the The Warrior’s Husband (1933). The male characters were feminized because of their affinity for writing poetry. This asserted that they must be queer.

The Warrior’s Husband directed by Walter Lang, is a film primarily cast with women. Yet the air of queerness permeates throughout because the women, featuring a butch Queen, are Amazons. Gender is inverted and several other female rulers cross-dress and exude a lesbian vibe. It is inhabited by independent women and swishy men who camped it up as ‘queens’ amusing themselves by flirting with all the good-looking men.

The Warrior’s Husband image courtesy Peplums Blogspot.com

Like so much self deemed culturally aberrant, the homosexual appears with greater frequency and readier acceptance in Pre-Code Hollywood cinema “The thirties was surprisingly full of fruity character comedians and gravel-voice bulldyke character comediennes” film critic Andrew Sarris observed in his touchstone study The American Cinema “but it was always played so straight that when ((character actors) Franklin Pangborn or Cecil Cunningham went into their routines, it was possible to laugh without being too sophisticated.” Maybe in the later thirties the homosexual was played straight but in the Pre-Code era, he and she was playing queer. No sophistication was needed to read the same sex orientations as gender disorientations.- Pre-Code Hollywood; Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty.

Miriam Hopkins got the part of free-spirited Gilda in Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living 1933. This original Noël Coward play actually featured a Ménage à Trois between the three Bohemian lovebirds in Paris of the decadent thirties. The film also starred Gary Cooper as artist George Cooper, and Fredric March as playwright Tom Chambers. The liberated Gilda becomes the girl both men fall in love with. They three make a pact to keep their mutual attractions platonic, but that doesn’t last too long, and they each begin a sexual relationship. When George comes back from a trip to Nice, he finds that Tom has taken up with Gilda. “I can’t believe I loved you both.”

Ben Hecht’s screenplay didn’t have a trace of any Coward’s romantic relationship between George and Tom. Ernst Lubitsch, known for his sophisticated style, directed memorable witty interactions between all four players. Edward Everett Horton as Max Plunkett plays Miriam’s bland suitor. Horton is, as usual, a whimsical idiosyncratic delight to watch. And Franklin Pangborn Mr. Douglas, Theatrical Producer is a perfect theatrical queen who is thoroughly annoyed when Gilda approaches him in the restaurant about Tom’s (Fredric March) play “Good Night Bassington”, as she leaves him with this thought, “There, read it, I’m sure you’ll adore it, it’s a woman’s play…”

Al Jolson “Boys will be boys” Wonder Bar (1934)

Any portrayal of on-screen “sex perversion” or homosexuality, even those connected with various tropes of ‘deviant’ sexual behavior were restricted after the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934.

Lending the Code moral authority even within the limits of pure love, asserted the Code delicately certain facts have been universally regarded by lawmakers as outside the limits of safe presentation Father Lord and Mr. Quigley saw no need to defile the document by typesetting long lists of “pointed profanity” or “vulgar expressions” Likewise, the prohibition against homosexuality dared not speak the name, but it didn’t need to spell it out. “Impure Love” the love which society has always regarded as wrong and which has been named by divine law… must not be presented as attractive or beautiful.”-Pre-Code Hollywood; Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty.

Different From the Others (1919) Conrad Veidt and Fritz Schulz two musicians in love — during the period of Pre-Code.

But, outside of the United States, films were a little more adventurous. Austrian director Richard Oswald’s film bravely shows two men in love. The “third sex” was eventually mocked. One of the earliest films to feature two men in love was the 1919 silent film from Germany,  Different From the Others. Director Richard Oswald’s story of two male musicians in love had a typical unhappy ending, but it depicted gay people in a positive light. The film condemned the German law known as Paragraph 175, which outlawed gay behavior. Different Than the Others was censored soon after it was released. Starring Conrad Veidt it is considered the first pro-gay film.

Joseph Breen viewed any meaningful treatment of queer cinema as perverted. Conrad Veidt also gave an emotionally evocative role in The Man Who Laughs 1928, playing a violinist who falls for his student and is then blackmailed for it. The risking Nazi party in Germany attempted to erase these films from the screen, and this made Oswald to flee to the America.

But, the Hays Code made certain that no films of this type would be seen in the United States. Even books and plays with gay, lesbian or bisexual narratives were reworked and any content related to the subject was erased in order to meet the social code of the time.

Other non-American films included Dreyer’s Michael (1924) and Mädchen in Uniform (1931) directed by Leontine Sagan and again in (1958) with Lilli Palmer as Fräulein Elisabeth von Bernburg and Romy Schneider as Manuela von Meinhardis. And Viktor Und Viktoria (1933) directed by Reinhold Schünzel.

Mädchen in Uniform (1931) was directed by Leotine Sagan, and starred Dorothea Wieck and Hertha Thiele.

William Dieterle’s Pre-Code German film Sex in Chains (1928) stars the director as Franz Sommer a man sent to prison for manslaughter who, though longing for his wife, develops a close relationship with his cell mate. A fellow inmate informs Franz that he’s “lived to see someone unman himself, just so he could finally sleep.”

In 1927, during the Pre-Code period, director William Wellman’s Wings won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and it also depicted the first gay kiss between two men in American cinema.

Wings follows two Air Force pilots in World War I, Jack (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Dave (Richard Arlen) who at first rivals for the affections of the beautiful Mary (Clara Bow) before they discover the underlying love they begin to feel for each other. During a boxing match at training camp gets to rough and Jack knocks Dave bloody and silly. Dave gazes up at Jack with an epiphany and the two walk off arm and arm as close ‘buddies’. The relationship is referred to as friendship, but the film paints a picture of two men falling in love.

Dave is mortally wounded in combat at the end of the picture, Jack embraces his dying ‘friend’ with a tender yet impassioned kiss while Mary looks on, framed with her on the outside looking in. Wellman humanizes the men’s close relationship in this scene when Jack leans into Dave to embrace him as he dies. He lets him know that nothing has meant more to him than their relationship. The moment feels sympathetic instead of exploitative, yet as he mourns Dave’s death. And though it is tinged with homoerotic elements, the case can always be made that it is a story about war, which brought two men closer together.

The Knocking Knees dance. Horton’s homosexuality – comedic, subtle and acceptable in The Gay Divorcee (1934)

In The Gay Divorcee (1934) crossing the threshold is the archetypal ‘Sissy’, Edward Everett Horton. Marginalized audiences were looking to the movies for any indication of the familiar, any little crumbs left as a trail to be picked up. For instance there is a moment in Johnny Guitar, the fiercely burning with sensual brawn, Joan Crawford. Bigger than life up on that screen, androgynous in her black cowboy shirt, strides down the stairs, gun in her holster waiting to confront coded dyke, Mercedes McCambridge. Many women’s chests, mine included, heaved a little with delight. That flutter of excitement hit us again when Doris Day sings the sentimental “Secret Love” in Calamity Jane (1953).

In Myrt and Marge (1934) Ray Hedges plays the flaming stage hand Clarence Tiffingtuffer he’s told “Here put this in the trunk and don’t wear it” speaking about one of the show girls costumes. In his boldly effete manner “If we got the runs on the show, the way the girls got in their stockings, I could put the 2nd down payment on my Kimono.”

Clara Bow, Willard Robertson and Estelle Taylor in Call Her Savage (1932)

From Call Her Savage 1932 purportedly the first on screen gay bar.

In director William Wyler’s These Three (1936) the relationship between Miriam Hopkin’s Martha and Merle Oberon’s Karen was delicately subtle and though to mainstream audiences might be seemingly obvious to interpret as two women attracted to the male lead, Joel McCrea. It revised Hellman’s play that centered around Martha’s love that dare not speak it’s name, for Karen. Sam Goldwyn bought the rights to Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, a story depicting the supposed ‘carryings-on’ of two female teachers at a private school for girls. Though, These Three on it’s face is the story of a love triangle between two women and a man, it could read as Martha being more uncomfortable with the presence of Dr. Cardin (McCrea) because he is intruding on her closed relationship with Karen. The later screenplay adapted to film, The Children’s Hour (1961) directed by William Wyler, was boldly more explicit and revealed the true nature of Martha’s predicament and her struggling with her love for Karen.

These Three (1936) Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins

The Children’s Hour (1961) Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn

Coded characters in film were on the screen relaying messages and signaling to those of us who understand and who are “in the life: that movies can reflect the existence of a queer reality. These representations were not necessarily a positive, but films showed evidence that we exist. You would see it in a revealing gesture, or an air of difference about them, though it would be inconspicuous to audiences that were unaware of the cues.

Continue reading “Chapter 2 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:”

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.

Kim Novak

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

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

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

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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!
Kim Novak Of Human Bondage
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.

-Kim_Novak

“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)

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

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

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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)

Betty and Joan Baby Jane?

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

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

lylah clare film scene end

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

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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.

novak as Elsa

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

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

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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)

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

Just a brief discussion about another Aldrich film that bares 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
Beryl Reid
The loneliness of Sister George- Beryl Reid as June who plays Sister George on the popular BBC soap opera. The last moments of the film, sums up her alienation as she reflects back on the sound stage. As James Ursini & Alain Silver point out the location in Aldrich’s Hollywood vision is a place where his characters find most comforting and ‘real’ from Charlie Castle to Jane Hudson.

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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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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!” *”

When the Spider Woman Looks: Two Glorias- “Wicked Love, Close ups & Old Jewels”- The sympathetically tragic villainesses of Sunset Blvd (1950) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

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This is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy* Shadows and Satin & *Silver Screenings from April 20th – 26th 2014

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”– T.E. Lawrence

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”- Mark Twain

IT’S ALL IN THE EYES! -THE LEGACY OF GLORIA SWANSON/NORMA DESMOND & GLORIA HOLDEN/COUNTESS ZALESKA

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Gloria Holden as Dracula's Daughter

Are these wicked women? Do they exemplify the monstrous feminine? I dare say NO! They are sensual yet tragic figures!

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Gloria Holden’s Countess Zaleska is a victim of her bloodline (literally)–her father Dracula’s legacy, desperately seeking out redemption and’ release’ from the torture of her relentless desires. (lesbianism in the form of blood lust) And Gloria Swanson‘s enduring Norma Desmond an aging silent screen star pushed out by talkies-a victim of a punishing Hollywood institution that forces older women into self-delusion. Though her beauty did not fade, the praise and recognition has.

Both women are-literally immortal!

Ironically without realizing the connection there are two threads of synchronicity that revealed themselves after I decided to pair both Glorias. A) Both women have male servants who show a stoic undying co-dependent worship of their mistress and B) Hedda Hopper appears in both films….

“She gives you that weird feeling!” –tagline from Dracula’s Daughter

Two Glorias, two dynamic forces on screen- Written about endlessly, on the surface spider women, vamps and villainesses perhaps… but to the thoughtful observer and film fanatic like myself… they are sympathetic figures in a cruel world…

“Cast out this wicked dream that has seized my heart.”- subtitle from one of Gloria/Norma’s silent films.

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First let’s begin with our ‘close-up’- on Gloria Swanson as the eternally mesmerizing Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece! Norma is in actuality the one trapped in an orbit of ambivalence about her own primacy which ultimately devolves into a vulnerable, needy, discontented and brooding personality whose dependency upon men and (one opportunistic man in particular) is self-destructiveness turned outward.

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Written and directed by auteur Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity 1944, The Lost Weekend 1945, Ace in the Hole 1951, Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution 1957, Some Like It Hot 1959, The Apartment 1960 which won for BEST PICTURE that year, beating out ELMER GANTRY!).

Considered the last motion picture in the film noir cannon. The first being Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity 1944  with his notoriously sexified femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson who’s got a great pair of gams showcasing that diamond ankle bracelet, dark sunglasses and Barbara Stanwyck’s cool exterior. And Wilder’s last noir Sunset Boulevard that unofficially marked the end of classical noir’s heyday. Sunset Boulevard truly pushing the conventions of noir to it’s limits.

Written for the screen by Wilder and Charles Brackett (The Lost Weekend ’45, Edge of Doom, ’50, Niagara ’53).

Music by Franz Waxman  (Magnificent Obsession ’35, The Invisible Ray ’36, A Day at the Races ’37, The Man Who Cried Wolf ’37, Gone With the Wind -uncredited, Humoresque ’46 I Married a Monster From Outer Space, Home Before Dark, there’s so much more– see IMDb profile). Waxman’s score is superb, from the exhilarating opening sequence that accompanies the flurry of police and newsreel camera trucks racing to the crime scene, the vibrant strings and strident horns that accentuate modernity to the more subtle poignant moments that underscore Norma’s internal agony.

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John Seitz is responsible for the evocative and quirky noir-esque cinematography (Sullivan’s Travels ‘4I, Double Indemnity ’44 , The Lost Weekend ’45).

The use of light in key frames showcases Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond who exults whenever she is either watching herself or is thrust into sudden illumination renders her as somehow lost. The use of shadows and oddly lit spaces evoke the sense of her tragic misconstruction of reality. 

Bruce Crowther on- Cinematographer Seitz who helped to define some of the memorable images of Sunset Boulevard“Rarely does full light intrude upon this movie… Seitz handles the often cluttered sets using lighting to direct the eye to each scene’s key areas. Even when light is used fully, as when Norma steps into the beam of her home movie projector or when a lighting technician at the studio turns the spotlight on her, it serves a dark purpose… Here it shows with appalling clarity the incipient madness that will eventually destroy Norma.”

Arthur P Schmidt, the film editor, died at age 52 (worked on Ace in the Hole and Some Like it Hot with Wilder).

Art direction by Hans Dreier and John Meehan, fabulous mise-en-scéne by set designers  Sam Comer Ray Moyer who both worked on (Read Window 1954, Vertigo 1958, Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961) Which arranges the landscape of Norma’s world with Art Deco style furnishing, elaborate candelabras, wrought iron scrolled staircases, tapestries and ornate lighting fixtures. Norma’s bedroom is something out of a Gothic fairytale with it’s superfluous ruffles and claustrophobic pageantry.

Wilder and his artistic design team create an atmosphere of decadence and decay. Using an ornate baroque visual style that puts emphasis on the surroundings which are careful set pieces of time-worn opulence. The scenes are filled with a cluttered and suffocating mise-en-scéne. Sunset Boulevard reveals the conflict of the old grandeur of the silent era with the hollow clamor of modernity, as a ‘clash of styles and eras.’

Once Joe walks in from the brightly lit Los Angeles hustle and bustle, the tone turns darker, as he steps inside the confines of the mansion crowded with the serpentine wrought iron staircase, large yet dim light fixtures and ancient looking columns that appear to be disintegrating in small scattered parts. Set against the crispness of Max’s white gloves and Norma’s black sateen lounging pajamas, it offsets the sense of a perishing house in an odd and creepy way. Again this is where noir meets horror by the elements combined in the visual style.

Most effectively is the central character of Norma Desmond who’s electrifying intensity and melodramatic flare projects an other-world style in contrast with the biting and cynical, dispassionate humor of the younger screenwriter from the age of talkies.

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According to Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair many of the film’s props came from own Swanson’s home and scrapbooks. “One shot pans across the table covered with Swanson’s film stills, the photographs in old frames capturing her young face and heavily painted eyes.”

The portrait in Norma’s living room was painted by Geza Kende. Wilder also borrowed a film clip of “Norma” in her prime from a Swanson film Erich Von Stroheim directed, Queen Kelly 1929.

From Foster Hirsch’s The Dark Side of the Screen- he cites Amir Karimi in Toward a Definition of the American Film Noir as the true period of noir beginning with Wilder’s Double Indemnity and ending with the same directors Sunset Boulevard 1950. He goes on to say that Wilder’s noir drama’s contain “the biting social comment, the stinging disapproval of the American way” Sunset Boulevard “transfers noir psychology to a novel setting, the decaying mansion of a once-grand film star. Wilder’s portrait of the megalomaniacal Norma Desmond is etched in acid; she is the embodiment of Hollywood’s rotting foundations, its terminal narcissism, it’s isolation from reality.”

Norma’s sensational costumes were created by prolific designer Edith Head who resurrected Swanson’s silent era look, the exotic and exaggerated costumes and fashions of an ex-screen Goddess, which point back toward Swanson’s past. She wears a hat, adorned with a peacock feather in the scene where she is reunited with Cecil B. DeMille. This is a visual homage to a headdress she wore in Male and Female 1919 one of the first films he directed her in.

The silent movie queen Norma Talmadge is reportedly “the obvious if unacknowledged source of Norma Desmond, the grotesque, predatory silent movie queen” Dave Kehr,An independent woman, nobly suffering in silents”, New York Times, 11 March 2010.

Sunset Boulevard could not have been cast with anyone better than the dynamic and grande actress who in 1919 was signed to a contract by Cecil B. DeMille. With this, her come-back role Gloria Swanson ignites the screen with her eponymous Norma Desmond -star of the silent screen -Norma Desmond, the tragic central satellite of the story who herself is dreaming of a comeback. Swanson’s performance is as much transfixing as it is exquisite.

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The intoxicating beauty of Gloria Swanson from the silent era

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Swanson herself was a very hard working actress in 1910s and 1920s with Mack Sennett before joining Paramount studios. She started her own production company in the mid ’20s but only made a few talkies in the 1930s. She made six silent films with Cecil B. DeMille.

As Leo Braudy says in his insightful book- The World in a Frame: What We See– Aesthetically, Swanson faces into the film as the fictional character Norma Desmond and faces outward toward us as the star. He calls her role a ‘meditation’ on her screen image and the relationship between the old world of silent films and the new world of 1950s Hollywood. He refers to the other actors who were her contemporaries playing themselves as ’embalmed’ with her in the past, losing their relevance to the audience and ultimately their power.

Billy Wilder’s film is as James Naremore says in his book More Than Night- Film Noir in its Contents- is an “iconoclastic satire” and “a savage critique of modernity.” Much like Aldrich’s The Big Knife it is a condemnation of Hollywood in the cycle of films released in the 1950s, also notable The Bad and The Beautiful 1952. Naremore points out these films coincided with the blacklist, and the decline of studio owned theater chains summoning the end of an era. Norma’s character is a casualty of changing times.

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Co-starring as the ill-fated gutless unemployed screenwriter who becomes Norma’s gigolo, is smooth and sexy William Holden as Joe Gillis. Erich Von Stroheim plays Norma’s devoted butler and ex-hubby Max Von Mayerling. Erich Von Stroheim who had directed Swanson in Queen Kelly ’29 is perfectly suited to play her servant/ex-husband/devotee.

The film also co-stars Nancy Olson (Union Station 1950) as Betty Schaefer, Fred Clark as Sheldrake, Lloyd Gough as Morino, Jack Webb as Artie Green, Franklyn Farnum as the undertaker, and special appearances as themselves, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Anna Q Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and composers Ray Evans and Jay Livingston.

The film is a Gothic, poetic nightmare in noir that so often evinces a sympathetic lens toward the forgotten characters who engage the audience like apparitions of another time in Hollywood. The unorthodox narrative that embraces a vividly unstable noir identity that dwells within the constructs of an American life, pushing the limits of social and sexual convention to a dark place of obsession and excess. Although Wilder scripted this as a black comedy, the noir stylization that had by now ran through it’s re-occurring patterns still manages to create the incessant mood of bleak cynicism and a distant vulgarity.

Bruce Crowthers Reflections in a Dark Mirror- ”Of the other German emigres who worked in Hollywood the most significant contributor to the film noir is Billy Wilder, whose Ace in the Hole perhaps the most cynical movie ever to come out of Hollywood, Double Indemnity with it’s mesmerizing manipulative spider-woman and Sunset Blvd with it’s atmosphere of brooding baroque insanity are classics of the genre.”

“Wilder introduces a creepy atmosphere of eccentric ruin that’s strange and destroys lives, yet hypnotically alluring and seductive from a lost indulgent age.”Alain Silver & James Ursini from The Encyclopedia of Film Noir-The Directors

Wilder wanted stark reality and realism to pierce the veil of illusion and fantasy that was the dream factory of Hollywood 1950s. He portrays a corrupt landscape of used-up people, conniving agents, writers hustling to get their scripts sold, and the loneliness and alienation that permeates a world of broken dreams and perpetual struggle. Andrew Dickos in Street With No Name calls Wilder’s noir films “visions are steeped in cruel and corrosive humor, distinctive in its own right and its ability to function apart from the noir universe.”

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In this provocative masterpiece Billy Wilder masterfully evokes a shudder in us, “by emphasizing it’s verisimilitude, though, Wilder reveals the hidden truths of the world’s cruelest company town- from the isolation of forgotten celebrities to the crass efficiency of producers. Not only a thrilling and strange piece of entertainment, the film also is an indictment of Hollywood.” –Kashner & MacNair

Louis B Mayer, at a private screening of Sunset Boulevard, was furious with Wilder for his cruel portrayal of the industry that supported him. At the party before the various celebrities, he reproached him, “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!” Wilder kept the script hush hush using the innocuous code title A Can of BeansWilder and Brackett fearing that Hollywood would respond negatively to their damning portrayal of Hollywood.

He offers us the very typified archetypes of classical noir with his doomed anti-hero, the dangerous femme fatale, and the good girl redeemer. Also present are the familiar themes of entrapment, claustrophobia, instability, corruption, flawed character, psychological crime melodrama and even the police procedural with it’s thrilling opening sequence as the newsreel camera’s and police cars, their sirens blaring, tear up the streets as they speed toward the murder scene.

Mae West