Friday, October 31, 2008

Grande Dame Guignol

Happy Hallowe'en! TJB has already heralded the holiday by bringing to mind one of Hollywood's scariest phenomena: the auto-trashing of stardom that many of Hollywood's biggest ladies participated in once their careers were heading to the far side of the arc of fame. The biggest stars dove in first, bringing us in 1962 the immortal spectacle that is Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.

I thought we might mark the day here at Café by taking a quick look at this same phenomenon, albeit generally one or two (or many, many more) rungs down.

Two years after Crawford and Davis, Olivia de Havilland put a toe into the exploitation waters with Lady in a Cage. She was joined in this macabre romp by none other than Ann Sothern.* She made sure it was a somewhat more old-school experience than Baby Jane by having her costumes by Edith Head and makeup by a Westmore, but even so, her Errol Flynn days at Warners feel very far away.

Nonetheless, she soldiered on; that same year, she replaced Crawford and joined Davis in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

1965 saw Tallulah Bankhead head to the UK to make what turned out to be her last feature, a Hammer horror first called The Fanatic and then re-titled, to maximally exploit her participation, as Die! Die! My Darling!**. Somehow the Italian title above just doesn't have the same ring.

Always eager to follow a trend, a few years later Shelley Winters (most of whose career was semi-exploitation anyway) flew to London for the first of her two "Question" thrillers, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (given the abbreviated title above for its U.S. release). Just about the best thing going for this one is its tag line: "The hand that rocks the cradle has no flesh on it!". Classy.

With that out of the way, Shelley hotfooted it back to LA to join Debbie Reynolds (and a startlingly star-studded cast that also takes in Agnes Moorehead, Dennis Weaver, and Yvette Vickers) for What's the Matter with Helen?. This one actually rises to the level of pretty good entertainment, with the two ladies playing Hollywood fringies in the 30s and more atmospherics than most of these pictures. It's sufficiently popular with at least one fan to have its own blog.

By the mid-70s, there were fairly few Big Ladies who hadn't found themselves wielding a knife, pushing a co-star down a flight of stairs, or otherwise generally trampling on the grave of Louis B. Mayer.

Perhaps the last of them was poor Veronica Lake, who was coaxed out of a boozy, reclusive retirement to appear ("star" just doesn't seem right) in Flesh Feast, a Miami-filmed quickie that makes Joan Crawford's Trog look like Grand Hotel. She plays a lady scientist who dabbles in experiments using maggots to carry out plastic surgery, and then someone wants to resuscitate Hitler, and... Oh, it's just awful, and she's terrible and sad.

Now that the line between "quality" entertainment and schlock has been more or less erased, it's hard to see any of today's star's getting much extra mileage simply out of appearing in shockers. A few decade ago, though, there was a palpable thrill in seeing somene like Bette Davis as a hag, or Olivia de Havilland menaced by beatniks, or even Veronica Lake as a sad shadow.

In any case, they mostly make fine entertainment for this spooky day, although I think myself that I'll induce the creeps by watching what I think is the scariest film to come out of a major Hollywood studio, Leslie Caron in Lili. But more of that anon.

* Moms Smackley's photostream has a snap of Miss Sothern in this that is something you want to see. Trust me.

** Hats off to the clever IMDb reviewer who points out that it could just as well be called
Chew! Chew! The Scenery!.


  1. I have "Auntie Roo" and "Helen" on a double-sided DVD. It makes perfect sense!

  2. Of course, if we want to make a complete weekender out of this, we would include Barbara Stanwyck's "The Night Walker"; Gloria Grahame in "Blood and Lace"; Agnes Moorehead (again) in "Dear Dead Delilah"; and let's throw in Lana Turner's "The Big Cube" AND "Persecution" for fun.

    Then let's move on to Carroll Baker's Italo-trash sex-slasher flicks!!!

  3. How could we forget "The Nanny", Bette Davis's warm-up act to Baby Jane?

    I adore "Lady in a Cage" mostly because I can't stand James Caan (although he was sort of cute in this) and always wanted to stick knitting needles in his eyes myself. So gratifying.

  4. whenever I drove by this old second-floor dance studio in Los Angeles complete with an old neon sign of a couple dancing I was reminded of Auntie Roo. Though camp it's one of Debbie's best roles.