Spoiler Alert: I do discuss the film through to the end. So if you haven’t seen it yet skip the review!
Butterfield 8 – Directed by Daniel Mann and scripted from the John O’Hara novel. One of his early works which garnered a lot of attention, primarily because O’Hara dealt bluntly with matters of social class, sex, and ambition that other novelists didn’t write about during the 50s and 60s.He acquired a grasp of social stratification that is pervasive in his writing.
The melodramatic score by Bronislau Kaper is as beautifully dramatic as it is as trashy as a Harold Robbins novel.
Butterfield 8 Stars the great lilac-eyed beauty of the golden age of cinema, when the big studio empires ruled over their actors. One of my favorites is Elizabeth Taylor.
Taylor won an academy award for her role as Gloria Wandrous and Laurence Harvey play Weston Liggett(without his groovy sideburns that he sported in the early 70s. Harvey whose speaking voice is like silk to my ears.)Both actors had played husband and wife in the psychological thriller Night Watch (1973) which I plan on reviewing down the road.
First some blurbs about O’Hara’s novel:
“Gloria Wandrous is New York’s ultimate playgirl–a professional escort in the down and out days of the Depression. O’Hara bitingly paints a portrait of despair in Gloria’s life–from the minute she wakes up in a strange bed, to the moment her life ends. Based on a true story, men flock to Gloria–raped by her father figure as a child, her security with love is thin, though she continues to seek support from her friend Eddie, and her seducer Liggett. In the speakeasy culture of New York, sex and booze is all the rage, and yet Gloria’s one real desire, love, only leads her to her death.”
Angela Allan, Resident Scholar
“Gloria Wandrous is a golddigger extraordinaire in New York City during the depths of the Depression, circa 1931. She escaped a molesting uncle in the sticks and has made her own way in the big city ever since. When she tangles with prosperous businessman and Yale grad Weston Liggett, it’s hard to tell who’s leading whom. David Loftus, Resident Scholar
The film unlike the novel is set in the 60s era style and not the Depression era 30s.It is a story not just about Gloria Wandrous a tragic figure, at the mercy of her past and present demons that haunt her, the film is about male ego, male control, and male pride. In order for Taylor’s character to be redeemed in the end as a good person, she must be obliterated by the plot. Similar to the way Kelly had to leave the clean town of Grantville In The Naked Kiss, Gloria must die in order for her existence to be redeemed.
This is what happens to girls who are either hyper-sexual, sexually independent, or perceived as wild and immoral. It’s a tragedy of moralizing. For me Butterfield 8 is a story about society’s fear as well as male fear of the female body, when neither are in control of it.
Gloria is portrayed as an amoral sex addict whose trajectory was formed at age 13 when a man her mother was engaged to marry raped her over the course of a week. Now her only goal in life is to obtain wealth and power through her body. The abuse is alluded to early on, we catch wind of Gloria’s mother Annie saying that Gloria didn’t like her fiance the Major.
The fact that her self-worth and promiscuity might stem from early childhood sexual abuse and that Gloria is a victim condemned to repeat the abuse with each man she flagrantly sleeps with isn’t really part of the narrative until much later in the film during a very powerful confession to her dearest friend Steve. Yet another male who needs to look after Gloria, and act as brotherly protector for her.
Not having read O’Hara’s book I am not sure if he wrote Gloria’s character as sympathetic. Taylor does her best to show us a compassionate woman in turmoil regardless of the moralizing in the film.
Dina Merrill plays Liggett’s wife Emily a “decent” respectable woman of breeding who is also portrayed as having stripped Weston Liggett of his manhood by foisting a life upon him that wasn’t of his own choosing, thus giving him an excuse for why he seeks the comfort of other woman and the excesses of booze. He too is self-deprecating and self-destructive like Gloria, but unlike Gloria, he gets the opportunity to find himself at the end, whereas Gloria had to literally crash and burn.
And yet we don’t see Liggett’s actions as being amoral. He gets a small lecture from an associate Bing who while on a train bound for Long Island, tells him he’s making a mess of his life, but people make excuses for Liggett all the way through. Liggett’s own wife recognizes her part of the blame in infantilizing her husband, therefore, taking the burden of blame off of him.
However, Gloria is a walking sexual plague, a virtual epidemic capable of taking men and marriages down with one phone call to BUtterfield 8. She is a rolling one-woman demolition team, smashing through sexual encounters like a bulldozer. Until she meets the one man she actually falls in love with, Wes Liggett. Only with this one man can she find self-worth and become redeemed. Finally, she starts to shed her life and aspire for more than taking from men, by giving over her body. Women are not allowed to be sexual beings, not in the way that men are expected to be.
The wonderful Mildred Dunnock ( she was in one of my favorite episodes of Boris Karloff’s Thriller, The Cheaters) plays Gloria’s fragile and inhibited mother Annie and Annie’s neighbor and best friend Fannie Thurber is played by Betty Field who adds some comic relief to the tension at times. She’s a constant in Annie’s troubled life, worrying about her daughter and her reputation.
Gloria Wandrous high priced call girl just dial BUtterfield 8 and wakes up in Wes Liggett’s bed in his lavish apartment. She starts calling for Liggett (Laurence Harvey) who we see stepping into an elevator. The vintage baby blue Crosley phone is off the hook. The oboe is ominous and alienating. She picks up a pack of crumpled cigarettes and flings it when she discovers it’s empty.
She keeps picking at the ashtray looking for the remnant of a cigarette butt that she can smoke. She finds a pack of Liggett’s cigars and lights up, inhales, and starts choking on it. Pours herself a glass of scotch. Walks around the swanky apartment in the bed sheets, and kicks a silk salmon dress she wore the night before lying on the floor next to her pumps. Picks up the dress and holds it to herself. Remembering last night she crumples it up and throws it back on the floor. Puts her slip on and saunters off to find Liggett calling his name. She steps into an ultra-ornate bathroom splattered with flecked pink and gold.
Her curves are accented by the silk slip. She drips sex. Looking in the mirror she wipes the night before out of her eyes. Rinses her toothbrush in the glass of scotch and brushes her teeth, gargles with the scotch, and spits into the sink.Sitting at Emily Liggett’s dressing table deciding on which perfume to douse herself with.
The film is photographed in washes of that fabulous vintage muted pink, blue, and gold tones fashionable for the 60s style. Gloria goes to the closet and fondles a brown mink coat, holding it close to her body like a lover. Sets it back in the closet and picks the other white fox-lined coat, wearing it over her slip. Goes into the bedroom and hangs up the phone.
She then goes over to her gold purse and pulls out a note written on an envelope”Gloria-$250 enough? Will phone you later. L” Lingering on the note a bit, she is visibly upset, this is not something she’s expected
The brash horns underscore her fervor when she grabs her lips stick and writes on the mirror in big red letters “NO SALE” and places the money on an ornate clock atop the mantle. She rips up the note and goes back to the closet to hang up the white fox coat, and grabs the more expensive brown mink instead.
Gloria picks up the phone and says “BUtterfield 8, it’s Gloria any messages for me…mhm, Charlie, yeah George, yeah, listen to a Mr. Liggett will try to call sometime today, He might use Mr. L…find me where ever I am…this is one call I want to take personally…and immediately” she hangs up. She picks up a bottle of scotch and then pulls out money for it and places it on the bar, and walks out into the gray New York City day. Hails a yellow cab and says she’ll double her tip for a cigarette. As is the assumption of the brash New Yorker attitude, the taxi nearly runs into an older couple crossing the street and yelling ensues. Gloria tells him that he’s in a good voice this morning.
This is how Butterfield 8 opens. We see a woman who is insulted that she has been paid for sex by the one man she thought was different. She arrives at her friend’s apartment, knocks on the door, and finds Steve Carpenter (Eddie Fisher), obviously a poor struggling composer, trying to work on tomorrow’s arrangements on the piano. She hands him the bottle of liquor and says “tribute” for his “faith, hope, and charity” and kisses him on the cheek. He says she’s got scotch on her breath, but she says it’s good scotch at 20 years old. He says “And the cigar smoke?”I always said I’d try anything once” Steve says”You ever try common sense?” and she answers “Only in desperation”
She tells him that she stole the fur coat, not for real, just long enough to get even with somebody. He made her so damned mad, he left her money,” he actually left me money!”
Steve tells her that his work is designed to get paid. She says it didn’t work. Besides, her dress was torn so she borrowed something “spiteful and elegant” She utters his name Weston Liggett, Steve’s heard of him, as very social. She says and “Very Yale” “what’s with you Yale?, always Yale,” she tells him it’s the last college left, she started with Amherst and worked her way through the alphabet to Yale” and puffs on her cigarette “I’m stuck there…of course, I could work backward again”
Steve and Gloria are childhood friends, and he is very protective of her. Steve tells her to put the coat back on”Half-dressed women make it difficult to concentrate” She tells him “Don’t think of me as a woman, after all, we’re just like brother and sister, remember” He gets agitated and tells her to put the coat back on.
He tells her. I’m sick of opening up that door every other day and finding you boozed up, burned out, and ugly”
She says “Sick for me or sick for you?” he comes back “For you, for everything you’re wasting…why do you come here like this?” he asks. She tells him that she always comes to him because at least she can be honest with him. He tells her to start being honest with herself.”You’re making a mess out of your life and you’re forcing me to watch it.”
Gloria says ” It’s terrible Steve, I say yes too much, when I shouldn’t and you say no too much when you shouldn’t”
She wonders how she’s gonna get home dressed in only a slip and fur coat what will her mother think? Steve says that her mother knows everything about her. She agrees but says she’d never admit it. “I’m still her innocent little girl…and she’s my dear sweet cookie-baking mother””So go home, give her an innocent smile, and have a cookie”
Gloria asks to borrow one of Steve’s girlfriend’s dresses. Steve’s girlfriend Norma played by the lovely Susan Oliver feels threatened by the friendship between Gloria and Steve. Gloria gives Steve a little of her philosophy on women.
“The more you ask her to sacrifice, the more she knows you love her…honestly”
On the LIRR heading to Long Island Liggett is smoking a cigar and lost in deep thought. On the train sitting next to him is a colleague Bing who asks “Problems Ligg?” he tells him “Do you know 3 of the most overrated things in this world, home-loving, home cooking, and security”
Ligg’s got everything, lots of people would envy him, but he wonders “But am I happy?”Bing says “Obviously not” “Ever wonder why?” “I have…can you take it from an old fraternity brother…you’re a heel…a low down rotten heel…anything that doesn’t go your way, anything that you can’t have you destroy” This is the one enlightened moment of the film where there is an insight into Liggett’s pathology and the narrative holds him accountable for his behavior. Bing tells him he could still come back and be a law partner with him any time.
Now on Long Island Ligg is skeet shooting with his wife Emily. He asks when she’s coming back to town(NYC). But the question is more of curiosity than passion. There is an obvious strain in the marriage. They are shooting at targets instead of engaging in a real conversation.
We’re back with Gloria, who’s borrowing a suit dress from Steve’s girlfriend Norma. She tells Gloria, “Just remember that suit has lived a sheltered life…it shocks easily” “Well then, it’s time it had a little adventure” A sarcastic banter ensues and Norma asks what happened to Gloria’s dress “It’s a funny thing, one minute it was there, and the next minute it wasn’t” Norma lilts her voice “much like your virtue I presume”
Gloria shows up at home in her little red sports car. Her mother says “Here’s Gloria now” Her friend Fannie says”From where, girl scout camp?” Mother Annie is holding a little Yorkshire Terrier and asks her skeptical friend Mrs. Francis Thurber who is drinking coffee. “Do I look alright?” setting the little dog down on Fannie’s lap. Fannie wriggles with displeasure, shooing it away. Gloria comes in and hugs her mother. Mrs. Thurber asks “How’s church?”Gloria snaps back “Why don’t you go sometime and find out.”
Her mother remarks about the nice suit, and Gloria tells her that she picked it up at the designer’s last week. Mrs Thurber gives a dig by saying” It must be hard changing dresses in one of those sports car trunks” Gloria shoots daggers back at her.
Then her mother tells her that the modeling agency sent some dresses, one of them they want her to wear to 3 different places tonight, but Mrs. Thurber interjects again with yet another dig “the Salvation Army, The Public Library, and The PTA in Brownsville” Gloria lets out a fake laugh for Mrs. Thurbers benefit.
Gloria’s mother is the only one who doesn’t openly acknowledge Gloria’s lifestyle “Francis don’t joke about Gloria’s work it’s very important to her…she’s one of the few girls of her kind in the city” Gloria asks if Butterfield 8 called? Her mother tells her she’s 2 weeks late on her car payment and Gloria asks to borrow some money.
Ligg is back at his apartment in NYC. He sees the lipstick writing on the mirror NO SALE and picks up the dress from the floor. He calls Gloria, they arrange to meet that night. She shows up at the bar wearing a stunning black dress, black gloves, and pearls. “He apologizes about the money. He tells her she’s with him tonight, and she comes back with “by choice, only”
Liggett says “Women are all alike, play tough,” Gloria says “I’m not like anyone, I’m me!” “That’s right I shouldn’t knock it should I?”He says she’s something different, she says “Sure I’ve got the world by the tail” He calls her doll face.
She gets up and says goodnight but he grabs her arm. “You’ve got a great act” She digs the heel of her pump into his shoe. He grabs her tighter, holding onto her wrist. It’s a battle of the wills. Neither one winces or cries out in pain. Ligg says “Go ahead rub your wrist”, and she says “Not if it killed me” Then Ligg says “I want to carry you out of here.” But Gloria slams him back “That was a lesson pal, not a treatment”
He says he won’t talk about money again, but offers her an apartment as big as she’d like, and charge accounts. “Mr. Liggett put your assets away…you don’t have enough,” he says to try him, but she tells him about offers she’s turned down “You couldn’t match what I’ve already turned down”, Yachts in the Riviera, genuine Van Goghs in every room, paid for by men with “pocket money” annuities for life, jewelry.”
She turned them down flatly, she earned her money modeling clothes. He remarks”Now I get it…you pick the man…he doesn’t pick you” “Finally, why I’m not teaching logic at Columbia I’ll never know” ” You also drop the man when you want to” and she snickers ”and without a parachute”
He’s driving her little red sports car but he purposely misses her stop. He says he’s tired of looking and listening. He says nobody treats him that way. She says “Oh Weston Liggett the wealthy,” he says “No Weston Liggett the man” I wasn’t cut out to be a chauffeur, an escort, or a straight man for your nightclub repertoire”
Gloria says “The next time you get angry just remember you sent for me, I didn’t send for you”. She puts a cigar in his mouth and lights it for him. He blows the smoke in her face and looks at her seductively, then he says “Like hell, you didn’t send for me” ” and now what you’re going to drag me up to your cave?”
He says his apartment is close. She tells him “Oh no not again.” He says it was alright last night. But she says “Last night my sense of direction was slightly impaired by gin,” he tells her “That’s okay I’ve got caves all the place” She rests her head on his shoulders. He says “Hello” she answers softly “Hello” the battle is over, they are seeing each other for the first time.
They Arrive at Happy’s Motel. Happy played by Kay Medford runs this out-of-the-way motel. Liggett calls out for Happy. She looks into the car and says “Oh we always have room for 2 weary travelers” Happy wants to tell him a joke about 2 old maids but he says later. She says “A man’s gotta get his “rest” he’s gotta get it regular”(rest is code for sex of course)
Happy was in Vaudeville once. Looks at Gloria, and they enter the motel room. A Saxophone is playing sultry music and the neon lights are flashing red and green in and out invading the darkness every time they blink. We know what’s next as they embrace in the doorway of the room and as the screen darkens they shut door number 9. End scene.
The next morning in a diner, the jukebox playing torchy music, “You know you’re liable to wind up psychologically famous, a case history in a medical book” He asks “You writing it?” “No, but I have to tell my psychiatrist everything that happens to me” (psychoanalysis was becoming the trend for the bored disillusioned angst of the middle class.)…” Even down to the smallest deepest, darkest detail,” Ligg says earnestly “That’s a set of notes I’d like to read”
He asks why she needs a psychiatrist. “I’ve never met anyone direct and uninhibited as you” she smiles, “Wild is the word,” He says “First genuine wildness I’ve ever come across in a woman”
Steve and Norma always fight about Gloria so he explains “Gloria and I grew up in the same neighborhood. I’ve known her all my life, we went to the same school together. Her father died when she was very little, and her mother went to work, so I sort of became her family”He gets in closer to Norma, “Somebody’s got to look after her…I”m gonna do it for as long as it takes, now will you try to understand?”
she says “I understand, I understand that it’s worse than I thought, much worse, you are actually in love with her and you don’t even know it”
“Steve is she or is she, not a tramp?” he says” I never liked that word” “Is she not the biggest tramp in this whole city?” Steve says “I especially don’t like to hear you use it”
Norma starts to suppose about marriage and children, Steve is plunking out indiscriminate chords on the piano. She asks “Do you want her hanging around us all the time, babysitting…nipping brandy out of a handbag at 8 in the morning and telling them the story of little red riding hood and the 3 lecherous bears. Do we keep a spare room where she can sleep off her hangovers?”
Steve answers “All I know is I worry about her” “But does she worry about you?” now Steve gets up and yells in Norma’s face ” I don’t know and I don’t care, this is something I’m gonna do whether you like it or not Norma”
Continued in Part II
Butterfield 8 (1960) Part II “I don’t suppose that anybody would think that she was a good person but strangely enough she was. On the surface she was all sex and devil may care yet everything in her was struggling toward respectability,and she never gave up trying”