A Symphony of Dark Patches- The Val Lewton Legacy 1943

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From Dreams of Darkness-Fantasy and the films of Val Lewton by J.P. Telotte:
“{The audience} will populate the darkness with more horrors than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of… if you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it you want. We’re great ones for dark patches.” – Val Lewton

Swimming pool scene Cat People '42
Jane Randolph as Alice Moore in Val Lewton’s Cat People 1942 directed by Jacques Tourneur
Bedlam
A scene from Bedlam (1946) directed by Mark Robson 

During the 1940s Val Lewton and his ‘Lewton Unit’ used the essential vision of fantastic darkness to recreate a very unique style of horror/fantasy genre, one which challenged Hollywood’s notion of the tangible monsters Universal studios had been manufacturing. Lewton, while working at RKO Studios, produced an exquisite, remarkable and limited collection of films that came face to face with a ‘nightworld.’ Lewton used our most deepest darkest psychological and innate fears that dwell within the lattice of shadows of our dreams and secret wish-fulfillment.

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“Our formula is simple. A love story, three scenes of suggested horror and one of actual violence. Fade out” -Val Lewton

Lewton worked at MGM between 1926 and 1932 and then served eight years under David Selznick. He had published nine novels and a number of short stories. In addition he produced regular radio show versions of MGM films. He also had ties in the industry as his aunt was the the very influential silent actress Alla Nazimova.

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the great stage and silent screen actress Alla Nazimova-Val Lewton’s very influential aunt…

But Lewton had left his mark with Selznick and in 1940 rival company RKO was interested in hiring him..It was actually Selznick who negotiated Lewton’s contract.

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“My task is to initiate a programme of horror pictures to be made at the comparatively low cost of 125,000 each. Which should compete successfully with Universal horror films. Which cost anywhere from 300,000 to a million dollars. I feel I can do this quite easily and the Universal people spend a lot of money on their horror product. But not much on brains or imagination.”-Val Lewton

Frankenstein-Meets-The-Wolf-Man-1943

Lewton put together a team of collaborators with whom he would work closely. He chose Mark Robson to edit. Robert Wise and Lewton worked together on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. DeWitt Bodeen had worked him during his time with David O’ Selznick was to write the first screenplay for Cat People.. His old friend Jacques Tourneur whom he became friends with while working on A Tale of Two Cities. was brought on board to direct. He chose Nicholas Musuraca as his director of photography and Roy Webb to compose the musical scores.They all worked on countless RKO films. It was Lewton’s intention to create quality pictures though he was constrained with a low budget. Jacques Tourneur had said that Lewton was an idealist who had his head up in the clouds who would come up with impossible ideas. However for Tourneur his feet were planted firmly on the ground, yet somehow they complemented each other perfectly, Tourneur claims it was a very happy time in his life, and that Lewton’s gift to him was the filmic poetry that he was able to carry with him forever.

Jacques Tourneur is perhaps one of my favorite directors, with his use of shadow and and all together dreamy lens of the world, he’s responsible for one of THE best classic horror films Curse of the Demon & film noir tour de force Out of the Past. 

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Jacques Tourneur directs Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past 1947
Niall and Cat
Jacques Tourneur’s moody horror with Niall MacGinnis and cat Curse of the Demon 1957
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Part of the Lewton Unit- image from the documentary The Man in the Shadows from top left Roy Webb composer, Val Lewton, Nicholas Musuraca Cinematographer, Mark Robson editing/directing, DeWitt Bodeen writing and Robert Wise-director.

“Horror is created in the mind of the spectator. It’s necessary to suggest things. In all my films you never saw what caused the horror. I saw people screaming in the theater when there was a young girl in a swimming pool, but you never saw the black leopard. The lights blaze up at the end. And there’s Simone Simon. Something has definitely happened. -Jacques Tourneur

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Jacques Tourneur looking over the film sketches
jacques tourneur-on location for berlin express
Jacques Tourneur on location for Berlin Express 1948

“Lewton gave us something quite different than what’s known as Hollywood craftsmanship you can say that he presented us with a parallel world in which everything feels both real and a little unreal-familiar but strange. The characters and the viewer slip into a mysterious, troubling gray zone. Where real life and dream life come face to face. And where beauty and destruction merge. Lewton and Tourneur really created a new kind of cinematic beauty”-from The Man in the Shadows Val Lewton documentary

The Golden Boy in Bedlam
the golden boy from Bedlam

Learning from his last employer Selznick he made sure to supervise absolutely every aspect of the film’s production, from casting, set design, costumes, the direction, and editing. He even rewrote every script himself without taking credit or under a pseudonym. In this way he developed his own visual style of storytelling, having prepared each detail before shooting.

“My feelings are generated, however by more than my gratitude for that first opportunity. They come from the warm and highly stimulating creative experience I had working with Val. He taught me so much about directing and filmmaking in general…Val Lewton was one of that fairly rare species, a truly creative producer. As such, he was able to achieve an outstanding reputation for the high quality, unusual and interesting “B” pictures he produced at RKO Studios starting in the early 1940s” – Robert Wise, March 1994

Robert Wise behind the camera
Robert Wise behind the camera
Wise, Robson & Lewton
Robert Wise, Mark Robson & Val Lewton

“I remember him staying up until all hours of the night working on screenplays. He enjoyed having his hand in the writing. I used to that that he went out of his way to pick inept writers so that he’d have to redo their work. He used to write on a Royal typewriter;he used only two fingers but he was very fast. He’d talk out the different parts as he wrote them and, since my bed was just on the other side of the wall, I’d fall asleep listening.”Nina Lewton Druckman from the Reality of Terror by Joel Siegel

Robert Wise was part of the Lewton Unit, one of my favorite directors who would go onto direct some of the most outstanding films in a variety of genres, from musicals like West Side Story 1961, Sound of Music 1965, to Lewton’s Curse of The Cat People 1944 and The Body Snatcher 1945, noir masterpieces, Born To Kill 1947, The Set Up 1949 and The House of Telegraph Hill 1950, I Want to Live! 1958, Odds Against Tomorrow 1959,to sci fi and Gothic ghost story masterpieces Day the Earth Stood Still 1951, The Haunting 1963 and The Andromeda Strain 1971.

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Michael Rennie and Gort in Robert Wise’s Sci-Fi masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
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Robert Wise’s boxing noir The Set-Up 1949

Lewton drove himself very hard trying to achieve something beautiful of quality. He and his team were given a very small budget, a cast of veritable unknowns, and evocative titles that were sensationalist and lurid in nature and did not truly represent an accurate account of the narrative. There were no gruesome fiends nor even evidence of malevolent forces at work in his ordinary everyday environments. Yet RKO’s studio head Charles Koerner  dictated such titles as Cat People 1942, Curse of the Cat People 1944, Bedlam 1946, Isle of the Dead 1946, The Body Snatcher 1945, I Walked With A Zombie, The Ghost Ship and The Leopard Man in 1943 and The Seventh Victim.

“If you want to get out now, Lewton told Bodeen, I won’t hold it against you”

The sensationalistic titles lead viewers to expect corporeal horrors, grotesquery and accustomed chills. As critic Manny Farber points out that while Lewton got nicknamed the “sultan of shudders” or the “Chillmaster” they were missing the point entirely. Lewton’s films were purposefully inhabited by the average, the bland, the pedestrian all, so as to populate his world with normal characters. People you’d see on the streets, or doing menial jobs. And amidst this population of ‘normal’ stirred interesting pulp stories that were unorthodox, otherworldly and often grim. Themes like zoanthropy. a derangement in which someone believes they are an animal as in Cat People or the pervasive fear of the Vorvolakas, an undead creature in Greek folklore that drinks it’s victim’s blood in Isle of the Dead. Even when dealing with dreadful English asylums and the sacrilege of body snatching.

Val Lewton with Boris Karloff set of Bedlam
Boris Karloff and Val Lewton on the set of Bedlam

By the way… Bedlam 1946 is perhaps my favorite of the Lewton series. I’ll be doing a follow up to this piece and with an aim at covering the magnificent piece of filmic art that is Bedlam. I’ll also include the remaining films I love, Isle of the DeadThe Body Snatcher and his first Cat People.

Films with subversive themes like zoanthropy. a derangement in which a person believes himself to be an animal as in Cat People or the pervasive fear of the Vorvolakas is an undead creature in Greek folklore that drinks it’s victim’s blood in Isle of the Dead.

Karloff and Thimig in Isle of the Dead Lewton
Karloff and Thimig in Isle of the Dead 1946

One of the things I love about Lewton’s films is that he used many either lesser known actors or those who never quite attained stardom yet lived on the fringe. Wonderful character actors such as Ian Wolfe & Edith Barrett (whom I both adore) actor/director Abner Biberman, Theresa Harris, Edith Atwater Sir Lancelot former calypso singer from Trinidad, the unusual beauty of Elizabeth Russell who was a former fashion model. The portly Billy House who played Lord Mortimer in Bedlam had been a star of vaudeville or Skelton Knaggs (Terror By Night, House of Dracula) British actor worked on the stage. The handsome Richard Dix ,Tom Conway, James Bell, Anna Lee, Evelyn Brent, Helene Thimig, Dewey Robinson and Ben Bard.

Lord Mortimer's new pet with Skelton Knaggs
Billy House as Lord Mortimer in Bedlam
Ian Wolfe in Bedlam
The marvelous Ian Wolfe in Bedlam
Knaggs as Finn in The Ghost Ship
Skelton Knaggs as the mute Finn in The Ghost Ship
Leopard Man angry mother
Kate Drain Lawson as Señora Delgado in The Leopard Man
Edith Barret the ghost ship
Edith Barrett and Richard Dix in The Ghost Ship
Anna Lee in Bedlam
Anna Lee in Bedlam
Helene Thimig in Isle of the dead
Helene Thimig in Isle of the Dead
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Julia Dean and old Mrs Farren in The Curse of the Cat People

These characters seems to transcend their positions in the background and add layers of depth and a quiet simplicity or realism that made the storytelling more rich. They possessed a certain unique expressiveness that at times eclipsed the lead actors.

RKO known for their capacity to release films that were of the fantastic and original, initially who hired Lewton to organize and run their ‘B’-Film unit. RKO had a reputation for ingenuity and artistic innovation, paying careful attention to the shaping of the narratives. What he endowed them with was his deep understanding of the subtle patterns and symbols that lie within our dreams, psyche and fantasy world. Lewton satisfied the audience’s desire for horror yet what he delivered was swathed in a strange and poetically beautiful style.

At his disposal he had some of the best writers who knew how to tap into this process. Writers like DeWitt Bodeen, Donald Henderson Clarke, Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray art director Albert D’Agostino (Notorious 1946, Out of the Past 1947, The Thing from Another World 1951) cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca & J. Roy Hunt (Crossfire 1947, Might Joe Young 1949) and directors Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past 1947,Curse of the Demon 1957), Mark Robson and Robert Wise all contributed and helped shape the vision that became the Lewton film.

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Nicholas Musuraca and Jacques Tourneur

And while Val Lewton didn’t direct any of the eleven films he produced for RKO, (in two cases only taking screen credit for his contributions as writer), it’s rather irrelevant in terms of authorship -as collaboratively infused with talent of vision these films possess a distinct frame of reference that lead you into the fantasy realm or genre with an artistic unorthodoxy like no other. Director Jacques Tourneur directed the first three Lewton films produced by the Lewton Unit. He gave Lewton the soubriquet “The Dreamer.”

Joel Siegel from his 1973 book Val Lewton tells us, “His production unit would make only horror movies with budgets limited to $150,000 per picture. The films were to be ‘programmers’ slated for placement on double features in less than key theaters, with a running time not to exceed 75 minutes. {Production Chief Charles Koerner’s office was to dictate the titles of these films, based upon a system of market pre-testing.”

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Mark Robson and Val Lewton

Lewton hid much of the story in his shadow-plays and this allowed his crew to work the landscape by creating symbolism, key sounds (natural ordinary sounds become ominous premonitions and are fatalistic in tone), haunting textures, abstract shadow and a sense of dark absences. Within the more focused frames of the films are incidental point of view shots that fill in the spaces with a rich texture of realism within the fable-like quality, relying on shadow and suggestion to deliver the desired effect.

Lewton himself would usually write a rough draft, an idea adapted from a property to be filmed. Then using his grand ability to visualize a formula, manipulate the structures of conventionality so that he could compose a landscape and narrative that would best articulate his observations. Tourneur emphasized Lewton’s “structure, construction, progression of high points, low points” in the narrative. Director Mark Robson suggested that Lewton had already ‘thought everything out’ in such detail so as not to miss a thing. Jessie Ponitz, Lewton’s secretary relates, “the last draft was always his.”

Lewton and typewriter
Lewton at his typewriter

Lewton’s brilliance and vision are partly due to his understanding of how psychoanalytic symbolism, myth, dreams and archetypes influence our intimate fear of what lies invisible to the eye. The Lewton Unit embraced the collective nightmares of the human experience, bringing our dream-work into the cold light of daily life bounded to the material world. He presents us with irrational unseen forces, in particular those that lurk in our subconsciousness or dream world. His films transport his protagonists by contrasting them from the open, sense of security from daylight- immersing them into the dark regions of shadows, and the black patches of uncertainty. They do not confront conventional monsters, vampires, ghouls and malevolent spirits of the classic Universal plots- but actually come face to face with their own internal nightmares. A mechanism that emerges from the shadows of the mind. We see these images of fantasy and it triggers our most basic and personal need to belong to that which is created, however disturbing those visions are, these fantasy/horror films possess an enigmatic kind of darkness. His characters never ran away from the darkness and dread that was so pervasive they actually ran head on into it, in order to demystify it and lead themselves & us to understand it a little better.

PSYCHE OR SOUL- THE LEGACY OF THE FANTASTICAL

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Jean Brooks as the mysterious Jacqueline in Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim

Lewton and his associates understood the principles of fantasy, and utilized them in the complex visual structures they created in their series of films. In writing about Lewton’s use of fantasy, J.P. Telotte informs us that these films “are not mere horror stories or exercises in terror, yet ‘redeem’ or reunite us with a repressed side of the human experience.” And this is what makes Lewton’s fantastical work so unique.

As in his book America in the Dark, Thomson implies that unlike the films that consist of vampires, werewolves, and other alien presences “The Fantasy genre {…} draw fundamentally on a realm of darkness and psychic imagery for it’s existence. Such films typically evoke a dreamlike environment or nightworld in which, as if it were our own sleep, we can pleasurably and profitably immerse ourselves. {…} I wish to call attention to their ability to reveal how we also might come ‘to life with the dark’ finding an important, even life enhancing meaning in the fantastic’s dream realm. {…}”

The Body Snatcher
The Body Snatcher 1945
A Palladist The 7th Victim
a Palladist from The Seventh Victim

Lewton’s fantasy reworks our perspective to let us ‘see’ the dark spaces even within the light. As Todorov writes in The Fantastic 1975, fantasy evokes an ‘indirect vision’ that allows us to see what is usually not visible in the ordinary world. Lewton uses this ‘indirect vision’ to transgress and transcend normal perception. Lewton’s works suggest a disparity between the expected and reality. From this disparity, the greatest threats come from the most ordinary occurrences, objects, and the commonplace.  He populates his films with figures of authority who interpret their world incorrectly, harshly or inharmonious. The sudden revelation of the ordinary frightens and disorients the viewer in unexpected ways, forcing them to be more reflexive, to show the menace in the every day. As Carl Jung believed, fantasy precedes our normal sense of reality- “The psyche creates reality everyday. The only expression I can use for this activity is fantasy.”

Drawing on the psychologist James Hillman who specialized in archetypes, Lewton’s films evoke a dream-like nightmarish world in contrast to the realm of truth. The style of these films are often lensed as seductive and mysterious journeys, where the audience can escape the ordinary for a while. They seduce us by taking a path which follows our hidden desires within the psyche.

This is the proper aim at fantasy, as James Hillman explains; it should challenge our normal “literal perspective, its identity with material life,” since that perspective is usually “stuck in coagulations of physical realities. This perspective of reality needs to break down and fall apart, to be skinned live and sensitized, or blackened by melancholic frustration.”

Isle of the Dead-Karloff
Isle of the Dead 1946

This fantasy forces us to look at our own limitations of vision, and how difficult it is to describe the structure of something that has no’ structure’ It’s easy for the grey areas of fantasy to ‘lapse’ into absence and dissolve from a narrative field of a nightworld/dreamscape using the device of voice-over narrative or subjective camera. Lewton’s images make us ask are we seeing what’s really there, or are we merely informed by the dark spaces both inside the film and tapping into our individual and collective psyches. As Telotte cites Rosemary Jackson– 

“Objects are not readily appropriated through the look; things slide away from the powerful eye/I which seeks to possess them, thus becoming distorted, disintegrated, partial and lapsing into invisibility.”

Val Lewton had a special insight and grasp of formulas and mythic structures so that he could envision within the complex narratives, the presence of the most significant archetypal patterns. Lewton said “If you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it you want! We’re great ones for dark patches.” What those ‘dark patches’ suggest is something innate in all of us, a dark region within the ‘self’ that gets lost, or hidden away, or even denied as we go about our daily lives doing ordinary things in the guise of normalcy.

DARK PATCHES AND THE ABSENCE OF KNOWING

The Seventh Victim

In a Lewton film there is a sense of ‘Lack’ as an absence in the lives and environments seems to be at the core substance of these films. This play of absence and presence operates as a structural principle in Lewton’s films. For the benefit of this post I will point particularly to I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man  and The Seventh Victim, the prior both directed by the great Jacques Tourneur. In his two films that ‘lack’ translates into a disturbing landscape of openness in the narrative style.

The everyday, whether it be modern urban city streets, islands in the Caribbean or the nineteenth century, there is an attentive eye for detail that weaves a texture of daily life that the Lewton unit worked so hard to achieve. Be it the costumes, the architecture and the general look of the place during it’s particular time period. So much research went into developing the landscape of reality with a distinct verisimilitude. By looking at books, paintings and photographs they would try to capture the perfect light and shadow of the piece.

Although I won’t be covering Bedlam in this piece, the film is a perfect example of how The ‘Lewton Unit’ employed this research approach prior to filming. Several shot compositions were based on William Hogarth’s illustrations. Much emphasis was placed on ‘context’ as Lewton characters can so evidently be characterized by their station in life or occupations living in the seemingly natural world that is commonplace. Writer DeWitt Bodeen notes that Lewton “always insisted that all his characters have special occupations or professions and be shown working their jobs.”

Lewton’s films are populated with a texture of normalcy, people living in a visibly conspicuous and commonplace field of reality so that when the presence of the mysterious, and irrationality poke through it shatters the veil of normalcy and settles down to become abnormal and disturbing for the protagonist and us the viewer. These characters must journey through a field that is rife with coded messages, where they are not believed by the people around them.

Telotte explains, “What results is a subtle dialectic between ‘substance and lack’, presence and absence, replacing that of the more traditional horror films, where in the ‘self’ as the audience’s surrogate, is opposed by a threatening otherness in the shape of a monster or murderous apparition. The tension is no less. Though it’s source is different it is more disturbingly lodged in the individual  and the way in which he perceives and conceives of his world.”

The Body Snatcher Karloff

Like the protagonists, we are laid bare with our vulnerability to the abnormal. The threat comes as an external challenge to our lives, exposing our human weakness and fears and forces us to see life in an unsettling way. Everything falls out of harmony that which is usually so ordinary. And the sense of ‘otherness’ fills the screen and taps into our own psyche as the formidable shadows move about with an anima. The dark patches set themselves outward as props, while strange sounds and eerie low key lighting color the screen’s canvas as dark and mysterious.

Psychoanalyst Hillman refers to a ‘vesperal’ motion that leads us into the darker regions of the self and the human psyche with it’s ‘fantasizing impulse.’ Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People (you can read an earlier feature I did on this film-click on the link) is a more conventional initiation story focusing on the nature of innocence and ‘otherness’ and how it often challenges our rational perspectives of the world because it evokes the ‘unknowing.’

All of Lewton’s films are structured with a careful eye on the sequential narrative. Val Letwon referred to scenes heightened by shadows as signifier of something foreboding he called them “horror spots.” These “horror spots’ were carefully spaced through out his films in sequential scenes, as if each frame were its own visual narrative. Many potent moments though brief partly due to the limited time constraints yet remain with you forever.

I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE

These scenes were preceded by scenes of an alternating tone designated to bring relief to the audience, utilizing some form of imagery that could be very beautiful or lyrical. Joel Siegel talks about this approach as “fragmented, mosaic-like structure” of the films, with their dependence on a “series of tiny, precise vignettes which do not so much tell the story as sketch in its borders and possibilities. For film historian Robin Wood in his “Return to the Repressed,” Lewton’s series of films is distinct for their “often illogical poetic structure.” 

Early Lewton films display a narrative style which recalls Jean-Paul Sartre’s prescription for fantasy storytelling: “In order to achieve the fantastic, it is neither necessary nor sufficient to portray extraordinary things. The strangest event will enter into the order of the universe if it is alone in a world governed by laws.”

Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett in I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Lewton films do not simply strip the world of the laws which Sartre describes, as many horror films do, rather they manipulate the context within which even the most commonplace actions are perceived. In I Walked With a Zombie, the players are often viewed through a veil of elaborate shadows cast by wooden lattice, brush and thicket, Very sensual images and very flowing. The eye for detail… every frame is so well thought out. And while we as spectators have truly seen nothing tangible, there is that ‘lack’ reinforced by structural repetition. Drawing us in depends on our ability to fantasize and tap into the deep-rooted fears that we unconsciously embrace. This portrayal of Lewton’s mysterious yet mundane environment becomes utterly frightening. Lewton explained how this process reveals the viewer’s participation in that which he sees, establishing that given these kinds of visual narratives man himself “will populate the darkness with more horrors than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of.”

Robin Wood’s The American Nightmare chapter of Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.–
It is built on elaborate set of apparently clear cut structural oppositions : Canada-West Indies, white-black, light–darkness, life-death, science-black magic, Christianity -Voodoo, conscious -unconscious, , etc–and it proceeds  systematically to blur all of them. JEssica is both living and dead.; Mrs. Rand mixes medicine, Christianity and voodoo, the figurehead is both St. Sebastian and a black slave, the black-white opposition is poetically undercut in a complex patterning of dresses and voodoo patches; the motivation of all the characters is called into question; the messenger-zombie Carrefour can’t be kept out of the white domain.”

Lewton’s work absolutely inspired and trained Robert Wise to scare the hell out us with his adaption of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting in 1963, when in reality we never see a malevolent presence. Wise’s use of absence and presence, sequential stages of darkness and shadow, odd angles, and the process of what we ‘don’t see’ became one of the greatest ghost stories on film and I would dare to say one of the best films ever made. Wise learned this film philosophy from his time working as part of the Lewton Unit, whose contribution to film rippled outward for decades.

Robert Wise The Haunting Julie Harris
Julie Harris climbs the menacing spiral staircase in Robert Wise’s masterpiece of Gothic ghost storytelling The Haunting 1963

Lewton’s most accomplished manoeuvre was making the audience think much more about his material than it warranted. Some of his devices were the usual ones of hiding information… he hid much more of his story than any other filmmaker and forced his crew to create drama almost abstractly with symbolic sounds, textures and the like which made the audience hyper-conscious of sensitive craftsmanship… He imperiled his characters in situations that didn’t call for outsized melodrama and permitted the use of  journalistic camera. {…}Je would use a spray-shot technique that usually consisted of oozing suggestive shadows across a wall, or watching the heroines’ terror on a lonely walk {…} The shorthand allowed Lewton to ditch the laughable aspect of improbable events and give the remaining bits of material the strange authenticity of a daguerreotype.” Manny Farber criticquoted from 1951 in Jeremy Dyson’s book Bright Darkness

There is an overall unsettling revelatory pattern to each of the Lewton narratives. While I’m only covering the 4 contributions Lewton made during the year 1943, all of his 9 fantasy/horror films isolate the commonplace through the story, the patterns, the symbolism of innocence, and the rigidity of authority. In his films our roots in proven reason and sanity are given a different value. This contrasting shadowplay create the ultimate texture and environment of fantasy/horror.

A SYMPHONY OF DARK PATCHES :

Continue reading “A Symphony of Dark Patches- The Val Lewton Legacy 1943”

Heroines & Scream Queens of Classic Horror: the 1940s! A Halloween treat!

Evelyn Ankers
promo shot for The Wolf Man- Evelyn Ankers

THE WOMEN OF CLASSIC HORROR: THE 1940S!

You could say that Evelyn Ankers is still the reigning queen of classical 1940s horror fare turned out by studios like RKO, Universal and Monogram. But there were a host of femme screamtales that populated the silver screen with their unique beauty, quirky style and/or set of lungs ready to wail, faint or generally add some great tone and tinge to the eerie atmosphere when ever the mad scientist or monster was afoot. Some were even monstrous themselves…

For this upcoming Halloween I thought I’d show just a little love to those fabulous ladies who forged a little niche for themselves as the earliest scream queens & screen icons.

ELSA LANCHESTER 1902-1986

I’m including Elsa Lanchester because any time I can talk about this deliriously delightful actress I’m gonna do it. Now I know she was the screaming hissing undead bride in the 30s but consider this… in the 40s she co-starred in two seminal thrillers that bordered on shear horror as Mrs Oates in The Spiral Staircase 1945 and a favorite of mine as one of Ida Lupino’s batty sisters Emily Creed in Ladies in Retirement 1941

I plan on venturing back to the pre-code thirties soon, so I’ll talk about The Bride of Frankenstein, as well as Gloria Holden (Dracula’s Daughter, Frances Dade (Dracula) and Kathleen Burke (Island of Lost Souls) Gloria Stuart and Fay Wray and so many more wonderful actresses of that golden era…

Elsa Lanchester in The Spiral Staircase
Elsa Lanchester as Mrs.Oates in director Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase 1945
Annex - Lupino, Ida (Ladies in Retirement)_01
The Sisters Creed in Ladies in Retirement 1941 starring Elsa Lanchester, Ida Lupino and the wonderful Edith Barrett (right)

ANNE NAGEL  1915-1956

Anne Nagel
the playfully pretty Anne Nagel
Anne Nagel & Lon Chaney Man Made Monster Promo photo
Anne Nagel & Lon Chaney Jr in a promo shot for Man Made Monster
Anne Nagel, Lon Chaney & Lionel Atwill Man Made Monster
Anne Nagel strapped to the slab and at the mercy of the ever mad Lionel Atwill. Here comes the glowing Lon Chaney Jr! in his electric rubber suit in Man Made Monster!

The depraved mad scientist Lionel Atwill working with electro biology pins gorgeous red headed Anne Nagel playing June Lawrence, to his operating slab in Man Made Monster 1941. Lon Chaney Jr. comes hulking in all aglow as the ‘Electrical Man’ which was his debut for Universal. He carries Anne Nagel through the countryside all lit up like a lightning bug in rubber armor. Man Made Monster isn’t the only horror shocker that she displayed her tresses & distresses. She also played a night club singer named Sunny Rogers also co-starring our other 40’s horror heroine icon Anne Gwynne in the Karloff/Lugosi pairing Black Friday in 1940.

She played the weeping Mrs.William Saunders, the wife of Lionel Atwill’s first victim in Mad Doctor of Market Street 1942. And then of course she played mad scientist Dr Lorenzo Cameron (George Zucco’s) daughter Lenora in The Mad Monster 1942. Dr Cameron has succeeded with his serum in turning men into hairy wolf like neanderthal monsters whom he unleashes on the men who ruined his career.

Anne Nagel and Lionel Atwill Mad Doctor of Market Street
Anne Nagel and Lionel Atwill Mad Doctor of Market Street

Poor Anne had a very tragic life… Considered that sad girl who was always hysterical. Once Universal dropped her she fell into the Poverty Row limbo of bit parts. Her brief marriage to Ross Alexander ended when he shot himself in the barn in 1937, and Anne became a quiet alcoholic until her death from cancer in 1966

Anne Nagel Lon Chaney Lobby Card

Lon Chaney Jr and Anne Nagel Man Made Monster

the-mad-monster-glenn-strange-left-everett

anne
Dr Cameron’s daughter Lenora (Anne Nagel) discovers the wolf-like man in his laboratory in The Mad Monster
Hairy beast The Mad Monster
Glenn Strange as Petro the Hairy man in The Mad Monster 1942

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Annex - Lugosi, Bela (Black Friday)_01

1940 UNIVERSAL
the sultry Anne Nagel and Bela Lugosi in Black Friday 1940 photo courtesy Dr Macro

MARTHA VICKERS- 1925-1971

Martha Vickers
the beauty of Martha Vickers

Martha was in noir favorites The Big Sleep 1946 & Alimony 1949. This beauty played an uncredited Margareta ‘Vazec’s Daughter’along side Ilona Massey as Baroness Elsa Frankenstein and the marvelous older beauty Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva the gypsy! in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man 1943. Then she played heroine Dorothy Coleman in Captive Wild Woman 1943 and Miss McLean in The Mummy’s Ghost 1944.

Originally Martha MacVickar she started modeling for photographer William Mortenson.David O Selznick contracted the starlet but Universal took over and put in her bit parts as the victim in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and in other ‘B’ guilty pleasures like Captive Wild Woman & The Mummy’s Ghost. She was also the pin-up girl for WWII magazines.

Martha also starred in other noir features such as Ruthless 1948 and The Big Bluff 1955. She was Mickey Rooney’s third wife.

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Martha Vickers and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep photo courtesy of Dr Macro
Martha Vickers and Lon Chaney in Frankenstein Meets the wolf man
Martha Vickers and Lon Chaney in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
Martha Vickers and John Carradine in Captive Wild Woman
Martha Vickers and John Carradine in Captive Wild Woman
Martha VIckers
I just can’t resist Vicker’s sex appeal here she is again… Wow!

FAY HELM  1909-2003

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Fay Helm as Nurse Strand with John Carradine in Captive Wild Woman

Fay Helm played Ann Terry in one of my favorite unsung noir/thriller gems Phantom Lady 1944 where it was all about the ‘hat’ and she co-starred as Nurse Strand along side John Carradine in Captive Wild Woman. Fay played Mrs. Duval in the Inner Sanctum mystery Calling Dr. Death with Lon Chaney Jr. 1943

Ella Raines and Fay Helm in Phantom Lady
Ella Raines and Fay Helm in Phantom Lady

Fay Helm plays Jenny Williams in Curt Siodmak’s timeless story directed by George Waggner for Universal and starring son of a thousand faces Lon Chaney Jr in his most iconic role Larry Talbot as The Wolf Man 1941

Fay as Jenny Williams: “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

Fay was in Night Monster 1942. Directed by Ford Beebe the film starred Bela Lugosi as a butler to Lionel Atwill a pompous doctor who falls prey to frighting nocturnal visitations. I particularly love the atmosphere of this little chiller with it’s swampy surroundings and it’s metaphysical storyline.

Dr. Lynn Harper (Irene Hervey) a psychologist is called to the mysterious Ingston Mansion, to evaluate the sanity of Margaret Ingston, played by our horror heroine Fay Helm daughter of Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan) a recluse who invites the doctors to his eerie mansion who left him in a wheelchair.

Fay gives a terrific performance surrounded by all the ghoulish goings on! She went on to co-star with Bela Lugosi and Jack Haley in the screwball scary comedy One Body Too Many (1944)

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Night Monster
Fay Helm in Night Monster
Fay Helm with Bela the gypsy in The Wolf Man
Fay Helm with Bela the gypsy in The Wolf Man

LOUISE CURRIE 1913-2013

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Louise Currie and Bela Lugosi in The Ape Man

Ape Man Bela and Louise Currie

Ape Man and Louise stairs

Bela Lugosi as half ape half man, really needed a shave badly in The Ape Man 1943, and Louise Currie and her wonder whip might have been the gorgeous blonde dish to make him go for the Barbasol. One of the most delicious parts of the film was it’s racy climax as Emil Van Horn in a spectacle of a gorilla suit rankles the cage bars longing for Currie’s character, Billie Mason the tall blonde beauty. As Bela skulks around the laboratory and Currie snaps her whip in those high heels. The film’s heroine was a classy dame referred to as Monogram’s own Katharine Hepburn! She had a great affection for fellow actor Bela Lugosi and said that she enjoyed making Poverty Row films more than her bit part in Citizen Kane! And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that she appeared in several serials, from both Universal & Republic like The Green Hornet and Captain Marvel.

Tom Weaver in his book Poverty Row HORRORS! described The Ape Man as “a Golden Turkey of the most beloved kind.”

Louise Currie followed up with another sensational title for Monogram as Stella Saunders in Voodoo Man 1944 which again features Lugosi as Dr. Richard Marlowe who blends voodoo with hypnosis in an attempt to bring back his dead wife. The film also co-stars George Zucco as a voodoo high priest and the ubiquitous John Carradine as Toby a bongo playing half-wit “Don’t hurt her Grego, she’s a pretty one!”

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Pat McKee as Grego, Louise Currie, John Carradine and Bela Lugosi in Monogram’s Voodoo Man 1944
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the outrageous Voodoo Man 1944

Continue reading “Heroines & Scream Queens of Classic Horror: the 1940s! A Halloween treat!”

A Halloween clip joint-Man Made Monster (1941)

Just for Halloween & our upcoming Chaney Blogathon here’s the very deranged Lionel Atwill trying to create a race of ‘Electrical Supermen’ starring Lon Chaney Jr in his glowing electro-cool rubber suit for George Waggner’s Man Made Monster (1941)

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Man Made Monster

You Man Made MonsterGirl-It’s been Electrifying!!!!!

 

Postcards From Shadowland No.13

Act of Violence
Act of Violence 1948 directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Van Heflin, Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh
Chaney Hunchback
Lon Chaney in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1923
Baby Jane
What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? 1962 Directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford
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Bedlam 1946 directed by Mark Robson Produced by Val Lewton and starring Boris Karloff and Anna Lee
Bette Davis in Dead-Ringer
Bette Davis and Bette Davis in Dead Ringer (1964) directed by Paul Henreid and co-starring Karl Malden and Peter Lawford
Blondell and Tyrone Nightmare Alley
Joan Blondell and Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley 1947 written by Jules Furthman for the screen and directed by Edmund Goulding
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Cabin in the Sky 1943 directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Lena Horne and Ethel Waters
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Crossfire 1947 directed by Edward Dmytryk starring the Roberts- Robert Young, Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan
Day the Earth Stood Still
The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951 directed by Robert Wise and starring Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal and Hugh Marlowe
Devil Commands
The Devil Commands 1941 directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Boris Karloff and Anne Revere written for the screen by Robert Hardy Andrews
Title: OLD DARK HOUSE, THE (1932) • Pers: STUART, GLORIA • Year: 1932 • Dir: WHALE, JAMES • Ref: OLD005AA • Credit: [ UNIVERSAL / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]
THE OLD DARK HOUSE, THE (1932) GLORIA STUART and BORIS KARLOFF Dir: JAMES WHALE
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Dr JEKYLL AND MR HYDE 1931starring Frederick March & Miriam Hopkins and directed by Rouben Mamoulian
Farley andThey Live By Night
They Live By Night starring Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. Directed by Nicholas Ray
Fontaine and Anderson Rebecca
Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca 1940
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Phantom of the Opera 1925 starring Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin
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Tod Brownings Freaks 1932
Gloria Odds Against Tomorrow
Gloria Grahame Odds Against Tomorrow 1959 directed by Robert Wise
Josette Day Beauty
Josette Day in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast 1946
Judith Anderson Rebecca
Judith Anderson in Rebecca 1940
Leigh and Thaxter Act of Violence
Janet Leigh and Phyllis Thaxter in Act of Violence 1948
Louis Calhern Marlon Brando Julius Caesar 1953
Joseph L. Mankiewitz directs Louis Calhern & Marlon Brando in  Julius Caesar 1953
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Fritz Langs’ Metropolis 1927
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William Castle’s Mr Sardonicus 1961 Starring Guy Rolfe and Audrey Dalton
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William Wyler directs Shirley McClaine in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour 1961co-starring Audrey Hepburn and James Garner
Mary Astor and Van Heflin Act of Violence
Mary Astor and Van Heflin Act of Violence 1948
Odds Against Tomorrow Shelley Winters and Robert Ryan
Odds Against Tomorrow Shelley Winters and Robert Ryan 1959
Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird
Gregory Peck in Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird 1962 written by Harper Lee with a screenplay by Horton Foote
Robert Ryan The Set-Up
Robert Ryan in Robert Wise’s The Set-Up 1949
Sam Fuller's The Naked Kiss, Constance Towers
Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss 1964 starring Constance Towers
Samson and Delilah-Hedy Lamarr
Cecil B DeMille’s Samson and Delilah 1949 -starring Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature
Taylor and Jane Eyre
Robert Stevenson directed Bronte’s Jane Eyre 1943 starring a young Elizabeth Taylor and Peggy Ann Garner
The Children's Hour
The Children’s Hour Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine
The Haunting
Julie Harris and Claire Bloom in Robert Wise’s The Haunting 1963
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George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead 1968
Walk on the Wild Side barbara Stanwyck
Barbara Stanwyk as Jo in Walk on the Wild Side 1962 directed by Edward Dmytryk
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane Bette
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962 Bette Davis and Victor Buono

HAPPY FRIDAY THE 13th- Hope you have a truly lucky day-MonsterGirl

Backstory: What ever happened to William Castle’s baby?

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Photo of the great William Castle -courtesy of Spine Tingler

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Castle in NYC street with Polanski

“The film is frightening because it forces us to examine the kinds and bases of belief. We confront the idea that the Christian myth is certainly no more believable that its mirror image, and possibly less so. And beyond this, we are also forced to realize that our mode of believing in Christianity is quite different from the one with which we perceive ‘real’ things In other words, while Polanski’s film is determinedly realistic, it is at the same time a challenge to realism, locating the ordinary world of plausible social interaction within a wider and more primitive universe of magic, sorcery and supernatural forces.”Hollywood Hex, -Makita Brottman

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Rosemary’s Baby is my favorite film. I plan on doing one of my long winded major features on this masterpiece in it’s entirety but for the sake of celebrating William Castle this week, I’d like to strictly focus on his contribution to an iconic tour de force that would not have been filmed if not for him. Rosemary’s Baby premiered in June 1968.

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Roman Polanski on William Castle: “He was an excellent technician who understands filmmakers’ problems and doesn’t have the usual worries other producers have. He made a constant effort to make me happy in my work. I can’t think of a better producer.”

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After many years of William Castle slaving over B movies and programmers like The Whistler and The Crime Doctor, he found his niche in horror. He saw Henri-Georges Clouzot le Diabolique in 1955 and it lit a fire in his belly to create his own Gothic creepy storytelling that would lure the audience under it’s spell. Thus sung Macabre in 1958. While certainly not Diabolique, Macabre put Castle on the path toward creating engaging & frightening landscapes that would entertain millions!

That same year, thanks to his very successful House on Haunted Hill and his 12 foot plastic glow in the dark skeleton deemed ‘Emergo’ that flew over theatre audiences, he was now dubbed the ‘King of Gimmicks.’ Castle went on to chill us with The TIngler in ’59, 13 Ghosts in ’60, Homicidal and Mr Sardonicus in ’61, Strait-Jacket in ’64, and I Saw What You Did in ’65 both landing Joan Crawford at the helm.

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William Castle’s Homicidal ’61starring Jean Arless (Joan Marshall)

With all the ballyhoo and commercial success, Bill was craving respect. He thought he’d find that admiration in Rosemary’s Baby, a novel by Ira Levin (A Kiss Before Dying, The StepFord Wives, Boys From Brazil) about an unassuming pretty little housewife chosen by a coven of New York City witches to be the mother of Lucifer’s only begotten son and heir.

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What is remarkable about the film is the realism. It is so careful to remain dedicated to the naturalistic tone of Levin’s novel showing us a set of ordinary characters in an apparently common world. Then they gradually become introduced to extraordinary elements of dark forces, both magic and fantasy that begin to overwhelm the narrative. We as spectators are now caught up in Rosemary’s plight and her utter sense of powerlessness. This story is less about witches and more about paranoia and the lack of control over our own bodies and destiny. However explained in supernatural terms, it’s still about losing trust with those closest to us, the people we depend on to protect us from harm. We watch as Rosemary’s world turns upside down.

Rosemarys-Baby-paranoia

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I saw Rosemary’s Baby during it’s theatrical release in New York in June 1968. It was billed as a double feature with The Mephisto Waltz. We won’t get into how either really enlightened or truly nutty, depending on your perspective, my mom was for taking her 6 year old little girl to see two very intense horror pictures dealing with adult and subversive themes.

I was an extremely mature child and the film not only didn’t traumatize me, it opened up a world of desire for me to see as many intellectual horror stories without fear of nightmares. Although I must admit when I used to watch Robert Wise’s The Haunting in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon, I did manage to lock the basement door and shove the large gold (the color of Archie Bunker’s favorite chair) love seat in front of it to keep any boogeyman from coming up the basement stairs into the den when I was alone in the house.

I also just saw Rosemary’s Baby remastered on the big screen at the Film Forum a few weeks ago. I have to admit, that as soon as Christopher Komeda’s music starts playing and the birds eye view of the Dakota emerges on screen the electricity started flowing up my legs, this time not my usual RLS, I began weeping. Not only is Rosemary’s Baby my favorite film, I recognize the confluence of perfectionism in each and every scene that makes it a flawless masterpiece, from the vibrant performances to the exquisite storytelling. Every detail is magical and I don’t mean devilish, I mean artfully.

Castavets at Terry's fall

Something else wonderful happened during the screening that day. Amidst all the other film geeks like myself, and aside from the audible pleasure the audience let out when the magnificent Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer walk on screen where we all laughed and silently cheered for their strolling entrance as the iconic quirky and eccentric devil worshiping senior citizens. When Bill Castle did his Hitchcock walk on by the phone booth, I realized that it wasn’t only me smacking my partner Wendy’s knee with childhood excitement, “There’s Bill, there he is!!! We both chuckled with glee to see his wide warming grin. Suddenly we heard others in the crowd stirring and murmuring “there he is, that’s Bill Castle!!!” Amidst all the appurtenances Rosemary’s Baby has to offer, so many of us fans were thrilled to catch sight of Mr.Castle with his fat cigar standing by the phone booth. We were collectively excited to see the man who had entertained us all these years. It was heart warming. I did tear up.

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Mia back of Bill's head phone booth

rosemary in booth sees Bill

I recognize Roman Polanski as the auteur that he is, but that is not what I want to dwell on here. I want to stress that Rosemary’s Baby would not have been made if it weren’t for William Castle, and his perseverance, passion and eye for intellectual property. William Castle acknowledged that The Lady From Shanghai was a work of art because of Orson Welles‘ direction, however, it was Castle who first discovered and purchased the rights to If I Should Die Before I Wake, only to have Orson Welles turn around and pitch it to Harry Cohn as his own idea.

It was Rosemary’s Baby that Bill chose to elevate his status from B movie maker to respected filmmaker in a very fickle industry. Let’s pay tribute to one certain fact: Rosemary’s Baby would not be the film it is after 45 years without William Castle’s imprint on it.

B&W Bill at Booth

In Bill’s memoirs Step Right Up, I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America (which is a fantastic read for any enthusiast about the golden age of Hollywood and just a darn good bit of story telling) describes how William Castle’s literary agent Marvin Birdt, the person who found the script and insisted Bill read the galleys immediately. Castle looked at the title and dismissed it saying “Its probably some story about an unwed mother… cheap exploitation. Who the hell wants to make a picture like that?” 

rosemary'sbaby book cover

Bill Castle thought the film just wasn’t for him at the point. It was 1968 and the film industry wasn’t really embracing horror films anymore. He was so overwhelmed with the lousy books and manuscripts that were piling up that he just couldn’t fathom wasting any time with yet another piece of junk. But, it took him all of three hours to finish the story, as he said, ‘bathed in sweat and shaking.’ Castle saw the magnitude of Ira Levin’s story when it was still in unpublished manuscript form: “I made up my mind when I read the novel Rosemary’s Baby that it was the greatest novel that would translate into a screenplay that I had ever read. That just lent itself to a brilliant movie. And I loved the property and I brought the property because I wanted to prove to the industry my fellow peers that I could do something really brilliant.” (Step Right Up, 2010) He told Ellen, his wife, that it was one of the most powerful books he’d ever read, and that it would be an incredible picture to make. When Ellen finished reading it, she told him “it’s disturbing… frightening and brilliant.”(SRU, 2010) But Ellen also warned that he’d have trouble with the Church.

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William Castle and the love of his life, his beautiful wife Ellen courtesy of Spine Tingler

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Castle’s agent Birdt tormented him about other studios and directors interested in the story and making offers. Later, Castle had found out that the book had actually been offered to Alfred Hitchcock first. One wonders what it might have looked like if Hitch had been behind the camera, storyboarding Levin’s work.

Bill Castle was worried that he was going to lose the picture, but where was he going to get the quarter of a million Birdt demanded to finance the rights to the film? He asked Birdt to offer one hundred thousand dollars up front and then fifty thousand if the book became a bestseller with five percent of one hundred percent of the net profits. His agent wasn’t very encouraged that they’d accept the offer. The waiting to hear back was excruciating, but Castle did get the rights to Rosemary’s Baby. Now he had to come up with the money!

In Step Right UpBill describes how Robert Evans, in charge of Paramount Pictures, called to check in, not sure William Castle could handle such a serious motion picture.But, Charles Bluhdorn, owner of Paramount, wanted to meet with Castle personally to discuss the picture, saying “I have big plans for Paramount, and they include you.” Castle found Bluhdorn’s persona magnetic. He told him that Bob Evens had informed him about Castle’ obtaining Rosemary’s Baby.“Would you like to make the picture for us?” Of course, Castle told him, yes.

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head of Paramount Robert Evans

“Your services as producer, how much would you want?” Bill Castle corrected Bluhdorn by adding the word ‘director’… trying to avoid negotiating with this man without his lawyer. Bluhdorn wasn’t having any of that. He told Castle that he would not negotiate with lawyers on the making of Rosemary’s Baby. It’s either between Castle and him, or Donnenfeld and Castle’s attorney. Castle decided he had the ego to take on this financial genius and told him he’d negotiate with him directly. But first, Bill asked him if he had read the story. Bluhdorn had not. Bill thought that worked to his advantage as the story was intensely disturbing so the less Bluhdorn knew about the story the better.

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Robert Evans and Roman Polanski

When Bill Castle finally blurted out that he’d want to produce and direct, Bluhdorn laughed at him called him a ‘big ridiculous clown.’ He tried to offer Bill only one hundred fifty thousand for the film plus thirty percent of the profits. Bill told him no way. It was a hard bargaining session. Bluhdorn didn’t know what he was dealing for and Bill did, Bluhdorn was also dropping the phony niceties and getting close to bowing out of any deal. “If I walk through that door, Rosemary’s Baby is finished at Paramount. No one -and I mean no one- will renegotiate!” Castle finally composed his inner panic and came back at the austere blowhard with an offer of two hundred fifty thousand and fifty percent of the profits. It was a deal. (Step Right Up, 2010) 

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Bill Castle courtesy of Spine Tingler

Producer Evans In Conference

Bill’s daughter, Terry Castle remembers, “He had to do whatever he could and it was his time. Mom and dad mortgaged the house and they bought the rights for a substantial amount of money.” (Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story)

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Bill’s wonderful daughter Terry Castle founder of Dark Castle Entertainment

With that he asked Castle’s age and if he’d heard of director Roman Polanski, or seen any of his pictures. Castle had seen Repulsion and Knife in the Water. Bluhdorn sung Polanski’s praises calling him a genius. He impressed upon Castle that with the director’s youth and Castle’s experience as producer, they could both learn from each other. Bill Castle started to find his fire, “Look Mr. Bluhdorn, the reason I bought Rosemary’s Baby with my own money was to direct the film… It’s going to be an important motion picture and I’m not going to miss the opportunity of directing.” (Step Right Up, 2010)

Bluhdorn told him that Polanski directs Rosemary’s Baby or no deal, and asked Bill to at least meet the young director. Castle says “I had made up my mind to hate him on sight… and that he wasn’t going to direct the picture I said absolutely no way. I bought the picture, I bought the book. I own it, I’m going to direct it..{…} I worked all my life to get something worth while on the screen and so at first sight I hated him.” He’d sent Polanski the galleys to read and if after meeting him he decides he doesn’t want him directing the movie then fine. Bill Castle says in his memoirs that while Bluhdorn was a tough negotiator he was at least an honorable and fair man whose handshake was better than a written contract.

Castle and Polanski Spine Tingler
Castle and Polanski courtesy of Spine Tingler

In Step Right Up, 2010 Castle describes his first impression of Roman Polanski was that he was a little cocky vain narcissist who liked to look at himself in the mirror a lot. Bill asked if he liked the story, “I like it very much… It will make a great picture.” Polanski spoke in his Polish accent. “You would like to direct Rosemary?” Bill asked. “That’s why I’m here. Nobody will be able to direct it as well as Roman Polanski.” And Bill Castle’ felt that Ira Levin’s book was perfect for the screen, needing absolutely no changes whatsoever in adapting it. This was something he felt passionately about. He posed the question to Polanski. “The book is perfect… no changes must be made” Bill says that Polanski was so intense about this that it was quite jarring. “It’s one of the few books I have read that must be translated faithfully to the cinema.” (Step Right Up, 2010)

And having read Levin’s book, I can tell you that reading each line of every page is exactly like watching the story unfold on screen. It is the most faithful adaptation I’ve ever read, more like reading the script after the fact.

on set Castle, Gordon, Farrow and Polanski b&W

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Then Castle posed a trick question to Polanski to see what his vision was for filming the narrative, suggesting to him that the camera should not only move around a lot but use strange shots to tell the story. Polanski was empowered by his convictions and told Bill,“No, I don’t Mr. Castle. Actors tell story… like peeping through the keyhole of life. I do not like crazy tricks with camera… must be honest.” That was exactly how Bill Castle saw the film being made. When Polanski told Bill to start calling him Roman, Bill couldn’t help but start to like this man who truly did share a special vision for a very special story. Polanski went on to tell him, “Bill, we can make a wonderful picture together. I have been looking for a long time for a Rosemary’s Baby. To work with you would be my privilege.” (Step Right Up, 2010)

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Terry Castle, Bill’s daughter, remembers: “Polanski came over to the house and he was this young wild guy, just this incredibly wily dynamic man with this very thick accent talking about cameras and light he was just incredibly dynamic himself and my dad totally got him. He wanted to get Rosemary’s Baby made and he wanted to produce it… and yet he wanted to direct it. But I think once he met Roman Polanski I think he understood he could bring something incredibly special to the project. And I think it was okay for dad to give that up to him because I think he saw the brilliance in this man. […] Even though he wasn’t going to be directing it at least his name was going to be on it as a William Castle production and he was making for the first time in his life an important studio film.” (Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story)

Polanski on the set with Mia

Left tor right, William Castle, Mia Farrow, and Robert Evans during the production of ROSEMARY'S BABY, 1968.

Bill with Mia and John on the set of Rosemary's Baby

The last thing Bill Castle needed to know was who he’d pick to write the screenplay and why. Polanski told Bill he would do it himself because he would stick strictly to the book. They spent the rest of the time discussing the film, Bill finding Polanski brilliant and extremely open. He immediately called Bluhdorn and told him that he was right Polanski was the only one who could direct Rosemary’s BabyBill Castle had the wisdom and grace to understand that Polanski would make a great film, but to be fair to Bill Castle. it’s also only after his careful facilitation and thoughtful know-how that helped bring Ira Levin’s story to life.

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Polanski and Farrow and Cassavetes in hall color

Polanski kept his word, he wrote the screenplay and adhered strictly to the book as promised. Polanski asked Bill to help him find a house by the beach to work and that he’d send his fiance over to help him look for one. On a Sunday morning Sharon Tate was standing at Bill Castle’s door. They found the perfect beach house for the couple, owned by Brian Aherne who was in Europe.

Polanski wanted to use Richard Sylbert to do the set design for the film. Sylbert had just finished working on Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Roman Polanski thought his work was brilliant. Polanski suggested Tuesday Weld in the lead as Rosemary. Bill agreed that she was a fine actress but said, “I think the role was written for Mia Farrow” Polanski watched her in several episodes of Peyton Place and didn’t agree. He thought Tuesday Weld would be better. Jane Fonda, Julie Christie, Elizabeth Hartman, and Joanna Pettet were also considered for the part. Evans asked about the casting of Rosemary, which they both gave their choices.Evans told them that he didn’t think Mia Farrow was available because she was working with George Cukor, he’d check with Zanuck at Fox and in the meantime try and get a reading with Weld.

Tuesday Weld
Tuesday Weld

Now the buzz was all over Hollywood and every actress in town felt they would be just perfect for the lead role, but Polanski was still stubborn about Tuesday Weld. When Zanuck called Bill and told him the Cukor picture fell through, and Mia was available. Bill set up a meeting with Mia and Polanski over lunch and Polanski wound up being completely mesmerized by her. He finally agreed she would play Rosemary. The rest is history.

Roman Polanski actually developed a wonderful working relationship with Mia Farrow on the set. She didn’t bring any preconceived motivations to her role as Rosemary Woodhouse. Supposedly he had some difficulties with Catherine Deneuve on the set of Repulsion, but he found Mia very amenable to work with. Mia followed Polanski’s directions very well, which might explain some of her childlike and innocent air to her performance of the blithe and charming Rosemary.

Continue reading “Backstory: What ever happened to William Castle’s baby?”

Step Right Up! It’s The William Castle Blogathon: Day Two!

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Today is going to be a humdinger with some offbeat features to tantalize and titillate and make you whistle!

Goregirl’s Dungeon will be hosting Kristina at Speakeasy, The Metzinger Sisters of Silver Scenes & Heather Drain (Mondo Heather)

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I felt inspired here at The Last Drive In by all the ballyhoo and pageantry to do a ‘William Castle’s Villains & Victims! Scream-O Vision...’

David Arrate from My Kind of Story is sharing a particularly special little feature called It’s a Small World (1950) ‘Image Gallery’ I dare you not to fall head over heals for Harry Musk!

Ivan of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear & Radio Spirits: is whistling at us with his fabulous series:

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The Whistler (1944)

Mark of the Whistler (1944)

Voice of the Whistler (1945)

I’ll also be featuring Ray at Weird Flix -as he mesmerizes us with the Slaves of Babylon (1953)


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Slaves of Babylon

Lindsey at The Motion Pictures -brings us an interesting take on the film Matinee (1993) A Cinematic Love Letter to the films of William Castle

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Ivan’s got more over at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear The Chance of a Lifetime (1943)

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Karen at Shadows and Satin, our wonderful Dark Pages gal will titillate us with –Mysterious Intruder (1946)


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Mysterious Intruder

And my partner in crime at Goregirl’s Dungeon -is bringing us a fabulous bevvy of–The Women of Castle’ so head over there and ogle those beauties!

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Patricia Breslin Homicidal

Carol Haunted Hill

And the Spine-Tinglers Are:

Monday, July 29th:

Aurora at Once upon a screen…: The Night Walker (’64)

Rich at Wide Screen World: Top 5 William Castle Gimmicks

Le at Critica Retro: Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven (’48) ‘Live Dreaming’

Furious Cinemas: William Castle: Mad as Hell Movie Showman

Lindsey at The Motion Pictures: Favorite Things About… House on Haunted Hill

Forgotten Films: Macabre (’58)

Barry at Cinematic Catharsis: 13 Ghosts (’60)

Joey at The Last Drive In: House on Haunted Hill (’59) ‘Only the ghosts in this house are glad we’re here’

Goregirl’s Dungeon: Fun with GIFS: The William Castle Edition

Tuesday, July 30th:

David Arrate of My Kind of Story  It’s a Small World (1950) ‘Image Gallery’

The Last Drive InWilliam Castle’s Villains & Victims! Scream-O Vision…

Ivan of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear) & Radio Spirits: The Whistler, Mark of the Whistler, Voice of The Whistler

Heather Drain at Mondo Heather: 13 Frightened Girls! (1963) & Hullabaloo & Horror: A Tribute to William Castle

Lindsey at The Motion Pictures: Matinee (1993) A Cinematic Love Letter to the films of William Castle

Karen at Shadows and Satin: Mysterious Intruder (1946)

Kristina at Speakeasy: The Houston Story (1956)

Ray at Weird Flix: Slaves of Babylon (1953)

The Metzinger Sisters at Silver Scenes: Busy Bodies: Promoting Castle’s Camp” & The Films of William Castle!

Ivan G. Shreve at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear: The Chance of a Lifetime (1943) {Boston Blackie}

Goregirl’s Dungeon: The Women of Castle

Wednesday, July 31st:

Brian Schuck at Films From Beyond The Time Barrier:Strait-Jacket (1964)

Joey at The Last Drive In: Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949)

Rob Silvera at The Midnight Monster Show: Double feature Homicidal (1961) & House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Lindsey at The Motion Pictures: Macabre (1958)

David Arrate My Kind of Story-Images: It’s a Small World (1950)

Goregirl’s Dungeon: Goregirl’s Dungeon on YouTube: Alex North & Vic Mizzy

Thursday, August 1st:

Steve Habrat at Anti Film School: Mr Sardonicus (1961)

Classic Movie Hub: The Busy Body (1967)

John LarRue at The Droid You’re Looking For: William Castle Gimmick Infographic

Paul Lambertson at Lasso the Movies: The Tingler (1959)

Goregirl’s Dungeon: Favourite Five Series: William Castle

Lindsey at The Motion Pictures:Tribute

Scenes From The Morgue:Showcase of newspaper ads for William Castle films

Stacia at She Blogged By Night: Let’s Kill Uncle (1966)

Ruth- R.A Kerr at Silver Screenings: The Old Dark House (1963)

Ivan G. Shreve at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear: I Saw What You Did (1965)

Ray at Weird Flix: The Saracen Blade (1954)

Friday, August 2nd:

Toby Roan at 50 Westerns: The Law vs Billy the Kid (1954)

Misty Layne at Cinema Schminema: Project X (1968)

Jenna Berry at Classic Movie Night: Ghost Story/Circle of Fear

Kristen atJourneys in Classic Film: Spine-Tingler: The William Castle Story

Joey at The Last Drive In: Back Story: What Ever Happened to William Castle’s Baby? (Rosemary’s Baby)

Jeff Kuykendall at Midnight Only: Bug (1975)

Gwen Kramer at Movies Silently: After the Silents: Chills! Thrills! William Castle Special!

David Arrate at My Kind of Story-Images: Shanks (1974) & Masterson of Kansas (1954)

The Nitrate Diva: When Strangers Marry (1944)

Dorian Tenore Bartilucci at Tales of the Easily Distracted: The Spirit is Willing (1967)

Vinnie Bartilucci at Tales of the Easily Distracted:Zotz! (1962)

Sam at Wonders in the Dark: Christopher Komeda’s Score, Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

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House on Haunted Hill (1959) “Only the ghosts in this house are glad we’re here”

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vintage house on haunted hill poster

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL 1959

Disembodied screams, rattling chains and ghoulish groans amidst creaking doors- all a delicious mixture of frightful sounds that emanate from a jet black screen.

Suddenly Watson Pritchard’s floating head narrates the evenings spooky tale–

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“The ghosts are moving tonight, restless… hungry. May I introduce myself? I’m Watson Pritchard. In just a moment I’ll show you the only really haunted house in the world. Since it was built a century ago, seven people including my brother have been murdered in it, since then, I own the house. I’ve only spent one night there and when they found me in the morning, I… I was almost dead.” -Watson Pritchard

The marvelously dashing face of Vincent Price or for the film’s purposes, Frederick Loren’s head sporting a plucky mustache and highbrow tone introduces himself in front of the imposing Modern-Ancient structure–

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“I’m Frederick Loren and I’ve rented the house on haunted hill tonight so my wife can give a party. A haunted house party… She’s so amusing. There’ll be food and drink and ghosts and perhaps even a few murders. You’re all invited. If any of you will spend the next twelve hours in this house, I’ll give you each $10,000. Or your next of kin in case you don’t survive. Ah, but here come our other guests…”
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“It was my wife’s idea to have our guests come in funeral cars… She’s so amusing. Her sense of humor is shall we say, original. I dreamt up the hearse. It’s empty now but after a night in the house on haunted hill… who knows.”
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“Lance Schroeder a test pilot, no doubt a brave man but don’t you think you can be much braver if you’re paid for it?”
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“Ruth Bridges the newspaper columnist. She says the reason for her coming to the party is to write a feature article on ghosts. She’s also desperate for money. Gambling.”
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“Watson Pritchard a man living in mortal fear of a house and yet he’s risking his life to spend another night here… I wonder why? He says for money.”
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“Dr. David Trent a psychiatrist. He claims that my ghost will help his work on hysteria. But don’t you see a little touch of greed there around the mouth and eyes.”
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“This is Nora Manning- I picked her from the thousands of people who work for me because she needed the 10,000 more than most. Supports her whole family… Isn’t she pretty?”
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“The parties’ starting now and you have until midnight to find the house on haunted hill.”

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Von Dexter’s music, a mixture of solemn strings, a sustained and queasy Hammond organ & Theremin greet us with an eerie funeral dirge while the shiny black gimmicky funeral cars pull up in front the quite sinister post modern structure.

And this is just the opening fanfare of William Castle classic House on Haunted Hill!

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One of William Castle’s most beloved low budget, fun-house fright ride through classical B movie horror and exquisitely campy performances. Distributed by Allied Artists and written by Robb White who also did the screenplay for Castle’s Macabre 1958, The Tingler 1959 13 Ghosts 1960 & Homicidal 1961.

written by Robb White

White’s story is quirky and wonderfully macabre as it works at a jolting pace delivering some of the most memorable moments of offbeat suspense in this classic B&W B-Horror morsel from the 50s!

The success of the film inspired Alfred Hitchcock to go out and make his own low budget horror picture- Psycho 1960.

Much of the style and atmosphere can be attributed to the unorthodox detail by art director Dave Milton and set designer Morris Hoffman. The exterior of the house is actually The Ennis Brown House in Los Angeles, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, built in 1924, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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the house

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There’s a pervasive sense of dread in House on Haunted Hill, that makes the house itself a ‘spook.’
Whether the house is haunted or not, it’s forbidding presence tells us that it just doesn’t matter. The history of the house itself, it’s violent past is enough to give one chills. While not in the classic sense like that of Robert Wise’s diseased and imposing Hill House, William Castle does a fabulous job of inventing a parameter to tell a very cheeky and pleasurable little scare story. As David J Skal puts it succinctly “The real, if unintentional spook in House on Haunted Hill is postwar affluence.”

The narrative is fueled by the creepy atmosphere of the house itself. Not using a claustrophobic Old Dark House trope but rather a modern Gothic construction that swallows you up with odd motifs and a sense of malignancy within the fortress walls. The starkness of the wine cellar and it’s empty miniscule dark grey rooms with sliding panels is almost more creepy than black shadowy corners with cob webs and clutter. Director of photography Carl E Guthrie  (Caged 1950) offers some stunning and odd perspective camera angles and low lighting which aide in the disjointed feeling of the sinister house’s magnetism.

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Nora explores the house

The constant explorations into the viscera of the house by the guests is almost as titillating as the criminal set-up and conspiracy that is afoot propelled by Von Dexter’s tantalizingly eerie musical score with deep piano notes and eerie wispy soprano glossolalia.

House on Haunted Hill works wonderfully, partly due to the presence of the urbane master of chills and thrills, the great Vincent Price who plays millionaire playboy Frederick Loren. Vincent Price was a versatile actor who should not be pigeon holed as merely a titan of terror, given his too numerous layered performances in great films like Otto Preminger’s Laura ’44, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck ’46 etc. Vincent Price did however make his mark on the horror genre with House on Haunted Hill. The New York Herald-Tribune praised Price’s performance as having “waggish style and bon-vivant skepticism.”

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As David J Skal puts it in his, The Monster Show {Vincent Price} “Could bring an arch elegance to the most insipid goings-on…

The omnipresent Elisha Cook Jr. is superb as Watson Pritchard, the neurotic sot who is riddled with fear, spouting anecdotes about the house’s grisly history.

I adore Elisha Cook, from his cameo in Rosemary’s Baby, his performance as George Peatty in Kubrick masterpiece The Killing ’56 to his very uniquely intense role as Cliff the sexually jazzed up drummer in Phantom Lady ’44.

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Elisha Cook Jr as the doomed George Peatty in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing ’56

The strikingly beautiful Carol Ohmart plays Loren’s treacherously seductive wife Annabelle who is sick of her husband’s irrational jealousy. Has she already tried to poison him once but failed? The story alludes to as much. Annabelle wouldn’t be happy with a million dollar divorce settlement, she wants ALL her husbands money! Annabelle is Loren’s fourth wife, the first wife simply disappeared.

The supporting cast is made up of Richard Long, Alan Marshal, Carolyn Craig, Julie Mitchum, Leona Anderson and Howard Hoffman as Mrs. & Mr. Jonas Slydes.

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And of course the skeleton who is billed as playing ‘himself!’

Continue reading “House on Haunted Hill (1959) “Only the ghosts in this house are glad we’re here””

The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) The ‘Angel of Death’ and a nice glass of warm milk!

As part of the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by The Girl with the White Parasol

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THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947)

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When I found out that Rachel from The Girl With the White Parasol was hosting a Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, I chomped at the bit to participate. I love Stanny, pure and simple. She not only changed the way women demonstrated their power in film, she’s gutsy, gorgeous and persuasive in a very unconventional way.

Barbara Stanwyck, unlike some of her other vice-ridden murderous roles, plays Sally Morton an archetypal woman in peril, although not as individuated as ‘hysterical’ or pathetic like Leona Stevenson in Anatole Litvak’s Sorry, Wrong Number 1948.

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The consummate Woman- in -Peril is Stanny as Leonora Stevenson in Anatole Litvak’s Sorry, Wrong Number 1948

Stanny brought a unique kind of dynamism to the Suspense & Noir landscape. She’s got a face bred with burning spirit and animal coolness, that exudes a subtle psychology ferocious independence and dramatic intelligence.

The Stanwyck role was originally performed by Elisabeth Bergner in Martin Vale’s stage play. A suspense-thriller that fits within the realm of noir with Gothic tinges of horror. Humphrey Bogart appeared in the classic horror film The Return of Doctor X 1939. Bogart plays the subdued, yet sinister malefactor Geoffrey Carroll. He’s a cynical, eccentric and alienated artist. Stanny plays Sally the woman he kills his first wife for, poisoning her with glasses of milk just like in Hitch’s Suspicion 1941.

The Two Mrs. Carrolls is also the second pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Alexis Smith, who plays Cecily Latham the ‘other woman.’ She first acted opposite Bogie in Conflict 1945 where he played Richard Mason pursuing his wife’s sister Alexis Smith’s Evelyn Turner.

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Bogart and Smith in Conflict 1945

Produced by Mark Hellinger for Jack Warner and directed by Peter Godfrey (Cry Wolf 1947 also starring Stanny & The Woman in White 1948) The Two Mrs.Carrolls is a woman in peril, female victim story à la Hitchcock.

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Barbara Stanwyck in Peter Godfrey’s noir thriller Cry Wolf 1947

Stanwyck’s role diverges from some of her more famous female villains, the noir femme fatale who embodies the unacceptable archetype of the sexually aggressive woman. In this film she plays the more marginalized ‘good woman’ who is worthy of being a wife and often the victim, contrasted by the lustful and conniving Cecily (Alexis Smith) who embodies treachery and a freely expressed sexuality.

The film co-stars Nigel Bruce as Dr. Tuttle, Isobel Elsom (Ladies in Retirement 1941,Monsieur Verdoux 1947) as Mrs. Latham Patrick O’Moore as Charles Pennington (Penny), Ann Carter as Beatrice Carroll, Anita Bolster (The Lost Weekend, Scarlet Street 1945) as Christine the maid, and Barry Bernard as the blackmailing chemist Horace Blagdon. There’s a welter of melodramatic music by Franz Waxman, plenty of Gothic shadows by cinematographer J.Peverell Marley (Hound of the Baskervilles 1939, House of Wax 1953) & gorgeous fashions by Edith Head.

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Barbara Stanwyck looks stunning throughout the film, in the costumes envisioned by Edith Head

Made in 1945 Warner Bros. most likely held back the release of this film as it was very close to Bogart’s role in Conflict that same year. Bogart the quintessential scruffy cigarette smoking everyman equip with trench coat fedora and gritty sneer is very capable of playing complex characters with a disturbed pathology of inner turmoil. I think of his role as the controlling and ill-tempered script writer Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place 1950, or Captain Queeg in The Cain Mutiny 1954.

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Humphrey Bogart as the unstable Dix and Gloria Grahame in Nicholas Ray’s 1950 psychological noir In A Lonely Place

In The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Bogart is cast as Geoffrey Carroll a Bluebeardesque psychotic who first feels driven to paint his muse, the object of his desire, only to feel compelled to destroy her once he’s done exalting her essence using poisoned milk as his method of murder. He is not unlike Vincent Price’s anachronism of a Hudson Valley nobleman driven by an insane need for an heir in Dragonwyck 1946, in an extension of the Bluebeard mythos as he kills his wives who are incapable of giving him sons.

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Michael Redgrave as the derange architect married to the object of his desire/destructive force Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door 1948

Certain Noir films are the manifestation of psychosis, emerging in the form of the ‘mad artist’  most notably Edgar Ulmer’s Bluebeard 1944. Franchot Tone was the obsessively deranged sculptor in Phantom Lady 1944, Architect Michael Redgrave in Fritz Lang’s incredible depiction of noir psychosis in The Secret Beyond the Door 1947 which had suggestive imagery of a dream like atmosphere with it’s overt Freudian fairy tale patterns tied to psychoanalytical interpretations of childhood trauma and sexual significance. Joan Bennett refers to her own ability to purge these ‘repressed poisons’ because she is so chatty and exorcizes her demons by talking too much.

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Joan Bennett gazes at her own image in Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door- the iconic mirror!

Peter Godfrey’s The Two Mrs. Carrolls and Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door 1948 are ideal examples of a leading man portraying creativity and obsessiveness driven to madness. In the former Barbara Stanwyck plays Sally Morton who has a whirlwind romance with painter Geoffrey Carroll (Humphrey Bogart) only to learn that he is actually married to an invalid wife. Though Carroll is desperate to possess Sally as he claims she has ‘saved’ him, so that he can now paint again. Before they had met, his work suffered. When Sally finds out that Geoffrey is married she flees their romantic sojourn leaving Carroll in a cave showing dismay and turbulence on his face. Carroll goes to London and sees a chemist, signing a fictitious name. After several glasses of milk the first Mrs. Carroll is dead, and Sally becomes the second Mrs. Carroll.

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Sally becomes his new ‘subject,’ a replacement as artist’s inspiration and love object. But once the wealthy and decadent tigress Cecily Latham (she wears animal print) aggressively pursues him to paint her and become her lover, Sally’s fate is sealed. Carroll transfers his fixation to his new object, Cecily Latham, played by the gorgeous Alexis Smith (I saw her on Broadway in the 70s. She won a Tony award for her performance in the hit Broadway musical Follies… what a treat!)

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The film is an odd and edgy thriller which opens in a pastoral setting in Scotland where Sally and Geoffrey are having a quaint picnic by the lake, while Geoffrey sits upon a rock and sketches her. The initial loveliness and serene atmosphere sets out to misdirect us as a place much like Eden. The couple we learn have been dating for two weeks. Everything bares the most ordinary of appearances, as Geoffrey and Sally’s budding romance seems filled with a lighthearted joyfulness in alliance with the surrounding paradisal scenery.

McGregor tells him he’s caught a fish, Geoffrey yells to him, “Well from this distance that takes real talent. Throw that whale back, the way I feel today I don’t want even a fish to be unhappy!”

Geoffrey Carroll tells Sally, “two weeks of the only real happiness I’ve ever known… I love you Sally, I love you.” As soon as Geoffrey utters these words and the couple embrace, the sky begins to well up with uneasy clouds. Accompanied by old man McGregor who has the typified Scottish accent warning them of the rough weather brewing.

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As the opening serenity is quickly broken by the foreboding torrential rain storm, this symbol of strife and disturbance that oppresses the joy and becomes a metaphor as the film ends with a similar rain storm that besets Sally’s world.

This will inevitably turn into a nightmarish landscape for Sally but the serene local diverts us from the darkness to come, as we soon discover that Carroll is a disturbed artist who constantly needs fresh female inspiration in order for his art and sexual gratification to thrive. His art depends on it, and he is willing to kill the women he once desired to sustain himself.

The couple seek refuge from the rain in a nearby cave. As Geoffrey goes to get his fishing gear and picnic basket from McGregor, Sally remains behind holding his jacket. As she calls after him, a letter falls out of the pocket. She picks up the small white envelope and is horrified to see it is addressed to a Mrs. Carroll. The extraordinary range of emotions Stanwyck is capable of reflecting within a single frame is cogent and palpable, as she shifts from content glances to an interior that aches. Her eyes glimmer with crushed spirit. Franz Waxman’s dramatic score confronts the moment as Sally is framed in by the dark outline of the cave.

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Once Geoffrey returns to the cave he finds Sally suddenly unyielding and in emotional distress.

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“This fell out of your pocket you evidently forgot to mail it when we left the inn. It’s addressed to a Mrs. Geoffrey Carroll.”
“My wife”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
” I tried to from the first day but I couldn’t. There’s a child too.”
“Are you separated?”
“No that letter was to ask for a divorce.”
“Have you been married long?”
“We’ve been together for ten years, my wife’s been an invalid ever since the child was born.”
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“Do you think I’d marry you now. I’m afraid you don’t know me very well.”
“I know I love you.”
“I don’t want that kind of love… why didn’t you tell me before, why?”
“I didn’t want to lose you.”
“But it would have saved so much hurt, and now it’s no use.”
“I don’t believe that… ” “Before I found you I was finished. There was nothing. I couldn’t work I couldn’t think I didn’t care. We mustn’t lose each other Sally, ever. We couldn’t if we tried because our love is…”

Sally breaks down and flees the cover of the cave crying ‘No… no’ not wanting to hear Geoffrey’s excuses she runs out into the pouring rain.

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“Miss Morton, do you hear me, you’ll catch your death,” McGregor’s calls out to Sally his words echo within the walls of the cave, reverberating in Geoffrey’s mind.

He gives a tortured look as symbolic bars of rain  obfuscate his figure. As Waxman’s music acts like a buzz saw in his twisted psyche he looks down at the letter lying at his muddied feet he grips his head.

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The scene switches to Blagdon (Barry Bernard) the cash chemist sealing up a package with wax. He’s an unsavory character with a scar that gives him an added edge of sleaziness. Bladgon hands Geoffrey the register, “You’ll have to sign for this sir.” Blogdan answers the phone, he’s lost a bet on the horses.

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“You see this scar Mr. Fleming, is it?… well I got this scar when I was 9 years old I was kicked by a horse and I been trying to get even with the ‘orses ever since but it aint quite worked out.”
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The two walk over to an easel holding a painting. Bea tells her father, “You’re a genius… wait until you finish this one father, The Angel of Death.”
“You think it’s good huh?”
“I should say I do. It’s frightening of course, makes me shiver sometimes, but so definitely mother. Do you think she’ll live until we finish the picture?”

Geoffrey Carroll returns home to his London flat where he greets his daughter Beatrice. He takes the little white package from the chemist and puts it in his pocket. Geoffrey asks how her mother is doing, she tells him about the same.

He says, “What are you talking about, well of course she’ll live. What you mean?”
“Don’t get excited father. We both want her to live because we love her so much. That doesn’t mean she will live does it?”

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Bea tells her father that although she spends more time with her mother she adores him… “I love you too, and I admire you tremendously”

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A bell rings, it is time for Mrs. Carroll’s milk. Beatrice goes into the kitchen to prepare the hot white liquid for her mother. Geoffrey enters the room and takes the sauce pan and glass from his daughter pouring the milk himself. Standing outside the bedroom door, holding the glass of warm milk a queer look sploshes over his face like waves of disequilibrium. He suddenly tells Bea that starting tomorrow she’ll be going away to school.

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Carroll lurks outside his wife’s door like a fiendish vampire

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Christine the maid greets Mr.Pennington at the door, her angular face always an expression of joy!

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Bea-“I said it was tremendous “
Penny-“Yes but it’s a bit creepy don’t you think?”
“That’s only at first. You get accustomed to it. Then you think it’s wonderful. She was my mother. Died a little less than two years ago.”
“I’m sorry.’
“You needn’t be. We all die sooner or later.” Bea’s comment is calm and canny.Penny says, “I’ve heard a rumor to that effect.”
“It isn’t exactly as mother was, because it isn’t a portrait. Yet it is like her too. Father says it’s representational.”
“Your father took the very word right out of my mouth.”

Two years later, Sally now the second Mrs.Carroll and Geoffrey are living in Ashton in Sally’s Gothic manor house inherited from her father.

Charles Pennington (Patrick O’Moore) or Penny is greeted at the door by Christine (Anita Bolster) the house maid. As he waits for Sally, he studies the painting of the first Mrs. Carroll, not noticing Beatrice who is sitting in the armchair. She tells him the painting is tremendous.

Ann Carter as Carroll’s precocious daughter Bea figures prominently in the film as sort of the lens in which the conscience of the story reveals its moral code. Ann Carter exudes a mature seriousness reminiscent of Curse of the Cat People 1944 with her otherworldly air. She possesses a no nonsense touch to the mixed up morality she’s surrounded by that contributes to the pervasive despair and instability.

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Barbara Stanwyck looks stunning as she enters the room. Sally tells Bea she needn’t leave, that Penny is a dear old friend. Bea tells her they’ve already met, and he’s nice, quite nice.’  Penny asks how old she is ’45 or 50?’ She does give that impression, but she’s sweet.”

Penny is kind and obviously still very much in love with Sally. In a very evolved and civil manner, he hasn’t forgiven her for running out on him. She feels terrible about it, and says she should have given him some word. But when she met Geoffrey, when he came back it was as if nothing else mattered. He tells her that all a disappointed suitor need do is look at her. He asks if she’s as happy as she looks. Sally tells him “he’s good to me.” “He better be. Purely out of morbid curiosity I should like to meet him.”

She tells him that Geoffrey is working upstairs in his studio, and that she’ll call on him. Penny tells her that he’s not the only visitor. Mrs. Latham and her daughter Cecily are expected any minute. They’re friends and clients of his.

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“And Penny in case I didn’t make myself clear. It’s grand to see you again really grand.”
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“Thanks in case I didn’t make myself clear… Oh Sally.”

Sally runs up the staircase excited about her guests, she addresses the vinegary Christine

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“Christine there’ll be other visitors take them straight to the garden. Tea for five”
“Tea for five! Bread and butter?”
“Yes and some cucumber sandwiches.”
“Some cakes too?”
“Well if there are any.”
“We haven’t got any cakes.”
“Well then don’t serve them”
“I will.”

Waxman’s dynamically turbulent score breaks the witty moment, as Geoffrey paces his studio. Throwing down his paint brush and grabbing the canvas, he begins to rub the oil with turpentine wiping away what he has painted with hostility.

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Several frames show Geoffrey bisected by the large paint brushes. This might a visual indication of his fractured personality.
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Sally enters the room and sees him “What are you doing.”
“Something I should have done weeks ago, I’m sick of looking at it. A phony.”
“You can’t always paint masterpieces.”
“Well I can always try… I don’t understand it Sally, this fine old house, the most beautiful surrounding I’ve ever known and You. I have everything here. Then why isn’t my work better, what’s wrong?”

Continue reading “The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) The ‘Angel of Death’ and a nice glass of warm milk!”

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

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

Joan and Bette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bette and Joan on the set of Baby Jane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Crawford and Tone
Crawford and Tone

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

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

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Bette Davis and Franchot Tone in Dangerous ’35

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

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

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

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

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Franchot Tone and Joan Crawford

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

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

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Franchot Tone and Joan Crawford-a dynamic couple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joan accepts oscar for Anne Bancroft

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

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

Joan accepts the oscar for Bancroft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bette Davis and George Arliss The Man Who Played God

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dynamic Duos of Classic Film blogathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jane peers in from doorway


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

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

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

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Image of glamorous Davis & Crawford courtesy AMC’s Backstory

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

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

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

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

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Jane close up

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

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