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A sexy starlet resembles Lylah Clare, a flamboyant star of the thirties, who died mysteriously and tragically on her wedding night gets a chance to play her in a biographical film directed by Lylah's real-life husband (Peter Finch) and history repeats itself as he falls for her reincarnation. Written by
They Just Don't Make Bad Movies Like This Any More
Every once in a while Hollywood feels obligated to turn out cautionary tales to encourage young people in Iowa to stay at home instead of hopping a Greyhound to Los Angeles. People ignore them and keep on coming, but it's created a whole sub-genre of films. In a fairly short period of time we had this, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, and BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.
The film starts very well: Kim Novak, wearing glasses, walks around Hollywood Boulevard early in the morning. She passes Mann's Chinese Theater, where THE DIRTY DOZEN (director Robert Aldrich's previous film) is playing. Kim plays Elsa, a reserved, somewhat bookish young woman, who resembles Lylah Clare, an actress who died in the late 1940's after marrying Lewis Zarkan, the director who shaped her screen persona and made her a superstar.
An agent has found Elsa and thinks she'd be perfect to play Lylah. Soon the movie spirals into silliness that's fun to watch but not very rewarding.
Elsa changes her last name from Brinkmann to Campbell and work begins to transform her personality so that she can play Lylah in a filmed biography. Imagine putting MY FAIR LADY and VERTIGO in a blender: you'll get some idea what the project is like.
Finally Elsa is ready for her debut to the Hollywood press, especially the much feared gossip columnist Molly Luther- a dynamite performance by Coral Brown, who played the lead in THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE for Aldrich the same year.
Elsa descends the stair at Zarken's mansion, her hair and wardrobe perfect. She confronts Molly, and instead of submitting to Molly's questioning she suddenly starts speaking in a guttural voice with a thick German accent and humiliates Molly.
Bear in mind that the film comes from over forty years ago, and gossip columnists did wield tremendous power. Much goes into the buildup for the confrontation, it takes place, and........really, nothing. The story lurches on as if it never happens.
There are good performances here. Novak is looser and more relaxed in front of the camera than I remember ever seeing her. Ernest Borgnine as a hearty vulgarian studio chief, Rossella Falk as a drug addicted lesbian with a peripheral connection to the story (she seems to function with Zarken like a sidekick to a villain on an episode of Batman), and, of course, Coral Brown all gleefully overact so much I wondered if MGM wrote checks to them or vice versa.
The chickens all come home to roost in a circus scene that comes out of absolutely nowhere. There was no reference to any big top films with Lylah, but it does put the characters in place in a setting that possibly reminded someone at MGM of Fellini: the same mistake would be visited upon Robert Altman at the same studio when he made BREWSTER MCCLOUD two years later.
This film seems more antique than many others from the same time period. THE GRADUATE, BONNIE AND CLYDE, YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW and EASY RIDER feel so much looser, more organic, more like real life caught on film. This feels very much studio bound, and watching it you appreciate the scenes under the opening titles mentioned in the second paragraph for their naturalness.
Case in point: an important scene takes place at the Brown Derby restaurant. The place is packed. During the dialog scenes there's no background noise at all: no conversations, no sound of people moving, no clink of silverware and plate. No ambient noise at all. It's as if the characters had entered a soundproof recording studio and closed the door.
This film takes Robert Aldridge into a dimension he'd never touched on before. He'd made dramas like AUTUMN LEAVES and THE BIG KNIFE, action films like KISS ME DEADLY, TEN SECONDS TO HELL, THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, and THE DIRTY DOZEN. THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE just doesn't fit in his filmography. Like Mark Robson's VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, this seems to totter toward Camp.
Aldridge is one of the great directors of time, so this is definitely worth watching. And it's certainly not unwatchable: in fact, it's like watching a school bus go over a cliff- it's hard to tear your eyes away. You just can't help wondering if this was what Aldridge really intended it to be.
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