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The Lizzie Borden Mystery -- Solved!

Actually, it's the mystery of an odd scene in
"The Legend of Lizzie Borden"

By Bob Gutowski

Note: Bob Gutowski's been writing DVD Savant for at least eight or nine years and his corrections and added thoughts have been amended to many Savant reviews. He wrote me a few days back about solving a mini-film mystery, the kind of sidebar footnote I can't resist. It's a simple story but typical of what one discovers when one digs into something odd noticed in a movie: a strange cut; an inconsistent piece of dialogue. In this case, it's an errant bit of film found in a montage in a TV movie.

Incidentally, Monday August 4 is the 116th anniversary of the infamous, officially unsolved Borden murders! -- Glenn Erickson

I have been haunted for thirty-three years. This is my story...

The image is that of an elderly man seated at a dining room table. He is apparently in some distress, his hand outstretched, his expression both confused and furious. It appears in a montage at the climax of the excellent 1975 TV-film The Legend of Lizzie Borden, while the man himself, Andrew Borden, is being murdered with a hatchet.

The assailant is his notorious daughter, played (in a shrewd and successful change-of-career performance) by Elizabeth Montgomery, formerly the enchanting "Samantha" of the long-running sitcom Bewitched. Not only was she nominated for a Best Actress Emmy for Lizzie, but the film won for costumes and editing. The Legend of Lizzie Borden was directed by Paul Wendkos (The Mephisto Waltz) from a screenplay by William Bast. It is considered a masterful combination of fact and supposition, with some still surprising partial nudity and graphic bloodshed.

After this Paramount production for ABC was repeated once, it showed up late at night for years on local channels, cut for time and missing its chapter headings. This device was most likely "borrowed" from the 1973 smash The Sting. Additionally, while The Sting's use of ragtime music is anachronistic given its 1930's setting, Lizzie, whose main events take place in the 1890's, boasts a title sequence and final credit sequence which are scored with a correct-for-the-era and sweetly sour piece of faux-Joplin by composer Billy Goldenberg.

With the advent of cable, the film started to show up again, more or less intact. This was welcome news, as there has never been a home video release. I was finally able to tape the film for myself, though I eventually bought a virtually intact collector's copy. That brief, almost subliminal shot of Andrew Borden (played by Fritz Weaver) at the table intrigued me more every time I saw it. Mind you, I tried several times to obtain the film's elusive screenplay, only to wind up empty-handed.

The montage in which the image appears comprises brand new footage of the idyllic relationship between young Andrew and Lizzie as a child (at various ages), until, as the adult Lizzie continues to swing the hatchet, it turns darker. We see bits of an earlier scene in which we saw undertaker Andrew insist on having an unwilling young Lizzie touch one of his cold, calm clients. In pulling away, the girl knocks loose a drainage tube, which crazily spurts blood as the child screams. This is followed by shots of the family arguments from earlier in the film, at which point the mystery shot of Andrew appears.

As a long-time student of the Borden case, I annually make a side-trip during my vacation to the former Borden residence in Fall River, for some time now a bed and breakfast and museum. A few weeks ago I was at the gift shop for a visit with the woman running it that day, one of The House's owners, Miss Lee Ann Wilber. As she excused herself from our chat to take a phone call, I gazed down at a book shelf to find an item I hadn't seen there before - a framed color Xerox of the title page of the screenplay of Lizzie Borden, bearing the autograph of Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan (who'd played the Borden's maid in the film), and a snap-shot of her with Lee Ann. Did Lee Ann actually own a full copy of the screenplay?

I was soon sitting under Lee Ann's friendly but watchful eye, paging through her copy of the script, which was originally the property of the film's hair stylist, Sugar Blymer. Page by page I found slight differences and longer or shorter versions of lines I knew well, until I came upon a scene that stopped me, well, dead.

In the film as aired, Lizzie is at the inquest being questioned about the family's meals when there is a flashback, apparently her memories of a recent breakfast. Her father and hated step-mother are greedily spooning mutton and broth into their mouths. We see Lizzie gaze into the tureen - the soup has, apparently, gone bad in the summer heat - and she pushes her empty soup bowl away from her. At this point there is a cut back to the inquest.

Ah, but in the script, the scene suddenly turns into a murderous fantasy of Lizzie's in which the old folks writhe in pain as the soup (or something in the soup) affects them adversely. As they die, their heads hitting the table, Lizzie sits with a smile playing about her lips - then we cut back to the inquest.

"I found it!" I shouted, bringing every eye in the now slightly more populated gift shop upon me. But I had! The shot of the stricken Andrew had to have come from the sequence; his soup bowl is completely empty, as you can see in the accompanying frame grab. The filmmakers probably realized that since the entire film was predicated on not knowing for sure whether Lizzie was guilty or not until she stands facing the jury, this was far too early in the film to stack the deck against her. In addition, the scene as written was a confusing blend of flashback and fantasy, and so it was wisely trimmed in the editing room.

The source of the shot had been located, and my haunting was over. Well, this haunting, anyway ...

July 30, 2008

Frame grabs courtesy Victor Mascaro

© Copyright 2008 Bob Gutowski
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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