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After a hit & miss early box office record, the tough and independent-minded Robert Aldrich's hit-making accuracy improved in the 1960s. A short string of successes included the genuine blockbuster The Dirty Dozen. Thanks to a better profits deal than usual, the sudden cash windfall gave the producer-director the ability to realize a personal dream: the ownership of his own studio. At the same time Aldrich was putting the final touches on The Legend of Lylah Clare, a star-studded "Hollywood looks at Hollywood" epic that wallows in its own decadence and grandiose bad taste. Extending the Gothic Guignol vibe from his hits What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, Aldrich built his show around a curse from the Hollywood past. Lylah Clare's screenplay takes big bites out of Wilder & Brackett's Sunset Blvd. and especially Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. Dialogue in the film even refers directly to Billy Wilder's picture. Lylah and its follow-up The Killing of Sister George were mainstream post-rating system movies that flaunted scandalous, "never before now" subject matter. The poster image for Lylah is confrontational, to say the least.
Working with a former TV play (that starred Tuesday Weld) Aldrich cast big stars but retained his "associates" with whom he shared billing throughout his producing career: cameraman Joe Biroc, editor Michael Luciano, composer Frank DeVol. One of the screenwriters was the former blacklistee Hugo Butler. 1 Although the director's experiment in studio ownership was short-lived he remains one of Hollywood's most committed filmmakers. We can tell that the man believes completely in each and every one of his pictures.
At first glance the story seems a revisit of Aldrich's 1955 Hollywood shocker The Big Knife, with its corrupt studio boss, guilty star and various victimized women. Revered "genius" film director Lewis Zarkan (Peter Finch of The Flight of the Phoenix) hasn't worked in twenty years, ever since the death on her wedding day of his biggest star Lylah Clare. Zarkan is surrounded by human reminders of the past, like his drug-addicted companion Rossella (Rossella Falk), who was once Lylah's lover as well. Lewis's agent Bart Langer (Milton Seltzer) is dying of cancer but demands that Zarkan make a comeback movie about Lylah: he's found the perfect actress in the polite, quietly ambitious unknown Elsa Brinkman (Kim Novak). Impressed by Elsa's close resemblance to his long-dead star, Zarkan undertakes to transform the bookish woman into the brassy, confrontational firebrand that was Lylah. To this end he must re-establish communication with Hollywood's power brokers. Volcano-tempered studio chief Barney Sheean (Ernest Borgnine) gives Zarkan a hard time, but one look at Elsa and he knows that the Lylah project could be a big winner. Vicious gossip columnist and career-breaker Molly Luther (Coral Browne of Sister George intends to demolish Elsa in print, until the new star-to-be puts her in her place with a Lylah-like profane verbal tirade. As the production gets underway Hollywood is revealed to be a tangle of mean-spirited sexual malcontents. Sex is power, and Elsa/Lylah initially employs it in self-defense. She is soon acting and behaving like her scandalous predecessor. Zarkan is split between worshipping the woman and dreading the idea that, as Rossella warns, he's leading Elsa down the same path that destroyed Lylah years before.
The Legend of Lylah Clare is never dull, but its complicated psychological story is delivered without subtlety or style -- it's just thrown in our faces by actors that shout as they threaten each other. All of the human relationships are power relationships, with frequent violent overtones. Interpersonal relations are grossly unequal, tainted with sexual obsession or just plain violent. To show Zarkan that he's serious about the new actress he's found, Bart Langer must break a window. The bully Barney Sheean threatens his employees with physical beatings, even if only verbally. And Aldrich's career-long theme of apocalypse is given a strong workout. Sheean shouts that he's going to live forever while Barney is dying of cancer. Zarkan, the "new" Lylah and several other characters behave as if they wouldn't mind if the world came to an end. Zarkan's creative energy is directed not at creating art, but toward a grandly masochistic desire to recreate (and subconsciously re-destroy) the love of his life. Lylah Clare sizes up Hollywood as a glamorous slaughterhouse. In the name of the town's dubious glory, self-serving power brokers enslave their employees and throw talent to the wolves. Molly Luther represents the 'spirit' of Hollywood: she's a cripple who works out her sexual frustrations by bending others to her will.
Like the libertines of Aldrich's Sodom and Gomorrah, the swinging Hollywood-ites are "hell-bent" on burning themselves out in sex, drink and general corruption. The petty scandals and personal tantrums of Aldrich and Odets' The Big Knife seem by comparison to be kid's stuff. This take-no-prisoners town seems slightly unstuck in time. Barney Sheehan operates like an old-fashioned mogul, and decisions are made by individuals, not a corporate board. Lewis Zarkan's been gone twenty years yet is still a bankable name. Most big directors go belly-up after a few flops, and even two years out of harness can make a previous hit-maker seem hopelessly dated. The enormous talents Joseph von Sternberg and Preston Sturges had very brief stellar careers followed by a lingering decade or two of relative inactivity. This Zarkan must be a regular Terrence Malick.
The cast overflows with grotesques. Rossella Falk's Rosella (did Aldrich see the ambiguous Falk in Joseph Losey's Modesty Blaise?) may be the only person who truly understands Elsa / Lylah, and she's a cynical heroin addict kept by Zarkan for unstated reasons. The characters size each other up with frequently awkward, over-literal dialogue. Lylah, for instance, compares Molly Luther to Medusa by saying that she has a snake's nest between her ears. Coral Browne plays her one-note gossip monster to the limit; Molly's minders and helpers look like members of the Hollywood Undead Boy Toy Club. Ernest Borgnine needed to be pulled back about ten notches for Flight of the Phoenix and is perhaps the only wrong note in that entire excellent movie. Here Borgnine's bombast as Barney Sheean is appropriate but still way too much -- we lean back in our seats, wishing we could dial him down. Aldrich was nothing like the crass Sheean, but he dresses the character exactly like himself, complete with his trademark untied necktie. After the experience of The Big Knife, this may have been the director's way of deflecting the notion that Sheean is a lampoon of any living studio head.
Lylah's weaknesses eventually undermine its play with Grand Fate. Zarkan's descent into obsession, despite Peter Finch's strong performance, never grips us. Elsa's transformation into Lylah appears to happen almost overnight. Rossella introduces her to drugs, and she responds to the demands of her new personality by sleeping with various men, even as her relationship with Zarkan deepens. This film pretty much marked the end of the lovely Kim Novak's career as a top star. Billy Wilder undercut Novak's glamorous image in Kiss Me, Stupid and the trashy ethic of Lylah makes her seem even more unattractive. The shy and bookish Elsa is unconvincing and a lazy writing concept to boot. The reborn Lylah Clare is almost a banshee, from her cheap hairdos to the faux-vampish costumes she wears. Sort of a cross between Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and a transvestite hooker, Lylah sells her trashy personality with an exaggerated German accent one might hear in a cartoon. It's just awful, a "you can't be serious" filmmaking decision. For her part, Kim Novak attacks every scene like a trouper. I think that Associates and Aldrich thought they were making a perfectly straight Hollywood exposé -- but it's all difficult to take seriously. In one sample scene Lylah wears a lacy brassiere to walk with a visitor around a grand Hollywood garden... she's decadent, see? The Legend of Lylah Clare as an early example of Hollywood Gothic Camp, on the same level as something like Mommy Dearest.
Opinions about The Legend of Lylah Clare that run the gamut, including some from Aldrich biographers that consider the film a masterpiece. Most everything that happens in the show has some basis in Hollywood lore -- I've seen loud, glad-handing 'celebrities' table-hop at places like Musso and Frank's, and their behavior was almost as grotesque as that shown here. Even the film's "Possession by Dead Movie Star" theme isn't that far-fetched. The unhealthy need some people develop to be part of glamorous Hollywood takes all kinds of unpleasant forms, primarily the abuse of people around them. It's hard to conceive of a more garish movie being made in 1968. Robert Aldrich movie references hit us in the face, if only through titles on posters and marquees: The Dirty Dozen, The Flight of the Phoenix. The lighting and set design make even Zarkan's Hollywood mansion seem ugly, and remind us that erratic alcoholics really need hand rails on their staircases. The film's repeated flashbacks to the "legendary" death scene should be interesting, seeing as how the particulars change with each iteration. Aldrich films them in a bizarre red-tinted gauzy cameo, not unlike the flashback re-cap of the end of Christopher Lee that opens Dracula Prince of Darkness. Elsa makes love to Zarkan in a room filled with Lylah Clare memorabilia, a necrophiliac touch that suggests The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. A splash of cartoon blood added to one shot during a stabbing is just silly; making us wonder why some sane Aldrich associate didn't stand up and say, "Uh, isn't this a bit too much?"
Aldrich thrived at the box office when he produced giant audience pleasers, like Vera Cruz, The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard. But he also had a gift for subversive, un-commercial apocalyptic grandstanding of the kind that makes Kiss Me Deadly a classic. A number of Aldrich films either blow up the world or place a metaphorical bomb in the middle of the dramatic situation. The airplane designer designs toy airplanes ... the other sister was the hit & run criminal ... the gunfighter wants to sleep with his own daughter. Lylah Clare has the most radical, revelatory ending of all. Sort of an extension of the rude interruption at the end of the Marlon Brando movie The Ugly American, we see Lewis Zarkan giving a TV interview outside Grauman's Chinese Theater. Just as he's searching for words to express his feelings, the picture abruptly 'changes channels' to a vision of Hell in American commercial culture. I was lucky enough to see this ending "cold", on a big screen, and these final ninety seconds were a terrifying display of savage imagery. Like a nuclear blast that reduces life to ashes, all the strife, sensation and drama of Hollywood become just another disgusting commercial product. For its shock value alone, this conclusion more or less redeems the whole movie. No spoilers here.
The Legend of Lylah Clare is now a popular Camp classic, which is fine as long as one doesn't get the idea that Aldrich was purposely aiming for that honor. The horror Guignol aspects of Baby Jane and Sweet Charlotte were quickly overtaken by the Camp sensibility, which is perhaps appropriate. Lylah Clare is garish and tasteless and still hugely enjoyable.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Legend of Lylah Clare is a handsome Remastered Edition that finally returns this strange show to its proper Metrocolor hues. Kim Novak's hair and costumes look correct once more. The enhanced widescreen image restores the original compositions and the improved resolution gives us a better chance of recognizing the film's long list of supporting and bit players: Michael Murphy, George Kennedy, Lee Meriwether, Dick Miller, Robert Cornthwaite, Ellen Corby, Michael Fox, Peter Bravos, William Aldrich, Robert Ellenstein. After being killed off so quickly in Flight of the Phoenix, Gabrielle Tinti gets a bigger role here as one of Lylah's lovers / victims. Unlike the reptiles portrayed in his films about Hollywood, Robert Aldrich always took care of his own.
I have to hand it to the Warner Archive's package copy -- the unnamed writer describes the film perfectly and places it in its correct context, suggesting its Camp value without calling the picture a Camp farce. A trailer is included that pretty much sums up the movie's tawdry tone. Lylah is called a Cow and a Broad, and we're also told right out that the original Lylah was "discovered" in a brothel. The trailer plays up the lesbian angle -- as does a secondary image on that provocative poster. When is a thumb not a thumb?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Legend of Lylah Clare rates:
1. Screenwriter Hugo Butler's health was failing on Lylah, and he didn't live to see it released. His devoted wife Jean Rouverol was also a co-writer. They knew Aldrich from at least as far back when Butler and Aldrich both worked on Joseph Losey's The Prowler. They re-connected in Mexico, where the Butlers were in exile from the blacklist, and continued to write for him (sometimes uncredited or through fronts) on World for Ransom, Autumn Leaves and Sodom and Gomorrah.
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T'was Ever Thus.