Sunday, December 1, 2013

Autumn Leaves (Bill Goetz Productions/Columbia, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Autumn Leaves, a 1956 Columbia release of a Bill Goetz production and a vehicle for Joan Crawford, who lives in a bungalow by the L.A. beachfront and is 50 years old (the age of the real Crawford at the time). She makes her living typing would-be authors’ manuscripts from her home and has never seriously dated — though it takes a flashback sequence to tell us why: she had a boyfriend named Paul when her father became deathly ill, and she stopped going on dates with him to stay home and take care of her dad. We learn this while Crawford’s character, Millicent “Milly” Wetherby, gets two tickets to the second balcony of a classical concert from one of her clients who’s been trying to get her to do dinner with him, and she changes the two “nosebleed” seats (the term is actually used in the dialogue) for one in the orchestra. The concert turns out to be a solo piano recital in which the music we hear is Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66 (we see a highly capable young pianist on screen but what I suspect we’re hearing is one of José Iturbi’s soundtrack recordings for Columbia’s Chopin biopic, A Song to Remember), which has the effect on Milly that that madeleine had on Proust; immediately she and we are at daddy’s bedside, listening to (more or less) the same piece on an old-style portable phonograph, watching him warn her that if she keeps blowing off her boyfriend to take care of him she’ll lose him and be lonely by the time he croaks. She doesn’t heed his advice, and romance doesn’t rear its head in her life until, grabbing a late-night supper after the concert, she runs into a young man named Burt Hanson (Cliff Robertson, who at 19 years younger than Crawford was just the right age for the role — discernibly younger but not so much younger that it looks like she’s really robbing the cradle), who horns his way first into the other seat at her table (they’re dining at a nondescript cafeteria with a jukebox blasting swing, though when Crawford takes over she plays the title song of the film, the French instrumental by Jacques Kosma originally called by a title that literally translates as “The Leaves of Death”!), then into her bungalow (he lets himself in one day when she forgets to lock up when she goes out, which really dates this movie) and finally into a hot kissing scene on what looks like the same stretch of Malibu Beach where the famous tryst between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr had been filmed for From Here to Eternity three years before. (Director Robert Aldrich even copies Fred Zinnemann’s famous shot of the tide coming in over the bodies of the swimsuit-clad lovers as a Production Code-safe metaphor for the afterglow of a sexual climax.)

Aldrich and his writers, Jack Jevne, Lewis Meltzer and Robert Blees (according to, Jevne was a “front” for the blacklisted couple Hugo Butler and Jean Rouverol; Blees worked on some of Douglas Sirk’s similarly sophisticated soap operas for Universal around the same time), are sensitive enough to drop subtle little hints that all is not well upstairs inside Burt’s head, even as the reluctant Milly falls hard for him and lets him talk her into a quickie Mexican marriage (Mexico is represented, hilariously, by the usual Columbia backlot street sets, only with the signs changed to Spanish). First, he tells her he was born and raised in Racine, Wisconsin, only later he says he’s from Chicago. Then he tells her that while he was in the Army during the Korean War, he was strictly a noncombatant and his unit never got out of Japan — only when his father (Lorne Greene) and ex-wife Virginia (Vera Miles) come to town, he starts telling war stories that indicate he was under fire. Milly starts to investigate Burt’s claim that he’s a section manager at a downtown department store; she finds that he indeed works there, but only as a tie salesman, and the presents from the store he’s been lavishing on her, which he said he was paying for on credit, he’d actually stolen. Thanks to tasteful writing (whoever the real writers were) and Aldrich’s tense, understated direction — a far cry from the Grand Guignol atmosphere of his other movie with Crawford, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (though there, as here, Aldrich managed to get Crawford to underact — something almost nobody noticed because Bette Davis’s scenery-chewing performance in the title role overwhelmed Crawford’s far subtler, more delicate work as her victim), Autumn Leaves seems awfully soapy as it begins but gains power and force as it proceeds and we get the big reveal. It seems that Burt’s father seduced his wife and Burt caught them in bed together one day — and this freaked him out and led him to a mental disintegration that just gets worse when he catches daddy and his ex in bed together again when they come to town to visit him.

It seems all they’re interested in is getting him to sign some papers they need to get hold of the share of the family property that belonged to Burt’s now-dead mom, and to get him to sign they’re threatening to have him put into a mental institution. (This is a bit of a plot hole because if someone signed a legal paper when they were in a mental institution, they would be considered “not of sound mind” and therefore the paper would be invalid — and it’s not like they’re blackmailing him by threatening him with commitment; they’re saying they’re going to commit him and then force him to sign the document.) Milly confronts Virginia and Hanson père outside the bungalow where she and Burt are living in full-out Joan Crawford style (all the more startling since she’s been underplaying all movie until then) — “You, his loving, doting fraud of a father! And you, you SLUT! You’re both so consumed with evil, so ROTTEN! Your filthy souls are too evil for Hell itself!” — and then rejoins her husband inside. Alas, he’s so paranoid by this time he thinks his current wife is making common cause with his past one and his dad, and he slaps her a couple of times and then takes her typewriter and smashes it to the floor, injuring her hand — leaving it touch-and-go for a couple of reels whether she’ll still be able to work. Burt’s already slender hold on sanity disintegrates so rapidly that it reaches a point where he’s in a fugue state, hanging around the house doing nothing, and by the time Milly realizes that everyone she’s talked to (not only the dad and ex-wife who were too evil for hell itself, but her own doctor as well) is right and Burt does need to be committed to a mental hospital, Burt has literally regressed to childhood — and given what we know about her now, the sight of Joan Crawford “babying” an adult male is bizarre on even more levels than the filmmakers intended. It all ends more or less happily — he goes through his stint at the institution, she’s there waiting for him when he gets out, and the two of them look headed for an uncertain future but at least one with a shared vision of reality — but until then Autumn Leaves is quite a movie, a well-wrought, intense drama that, despite director Aldrich’s claim that “I didn’t think it would turn out to be quite as soap-opera-ish as it did. I didn’t have the foresight to see it then,” actually transcends its origins.

While it’s interesting to imagine what Douglas Sirk might have made of this story (especially since he would no doubt have cast Barbara Stanwyck in the female lead), Aldrich does an excellent job, not that far removed from the kind of sinew Sirk was putting into his big-budget 1950’s soaps at Universal. He had the usual problems with Crawford and her diva-ish temperament; she brought in her own writer (Aldrich, in his interview with Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg in The Celluloid Muse, doesn’t say who), and Aldrich wouldn’t let any changes be made in the script. “Up until the night before shooting on the film was due to commence, there was a continued harassment about the possibility of her not showing up,” Aldrich recalled. “I got a call at two o’clock that very night saying that she wouldn’t be there in the morning unless her writer could attend, to which I responded that if her writer showed up we would not shoot. Looking back, I really think that’s the only way you can properly deal with Miss Crawford. The writer didn’t show up, but she did, and we proceeded. But she didn’t talk to me for about four or five days. She took direction, she did what she was supposed to do, but there was no personal communication. Then one day she was doing a scene terribly effectively — I don’t remember which one. I was really touched, and when she looked up after finishing it I tried not to be obvious in wiping away a tear. That broke the ice, and from then on we were good friends for a long, long time.” Though Autumn Leaves is a pretty good illustration of François Truffaut’s comment, when he was still reviewing movies instead of directing them himself, that Crawford seemed to be looking more masculine in each film, she’s still quite effective in it, and the film has a genuinely haunting quality; I’d seen it once before in the 1980’s on a public-domain videotape and remembered it as good, but this time around it seemed even better!