Thursday, March 31, 2016

NOT WITH A BANG, BUT A WHIMPER: A List of Lamentable Last Films

“This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”   - T.S. Eliot   

It can’t be easy maintaining a film career. The practical side of the motion picture business doesn’t readily correspond with an artist's desire to work well and consistently while trying to hold onto whatever faint vestiges of integrity and self-respect are left intact after one is deemed no longer young or the pop-culture “flavor of the month.” Fans, critics, and rear-view-mirror biographers tend to speak of an actor’s career and body of work as though they are things strategically orchestrated and mapped out. Perhaps in some cases this is true, but for the most part, the cold realities of the business of fame suggests an actor’s lingering legacy is often the result of nothing more premeditated than the serendipitous meeting of talent, luck, ambition, and tenacity.

A film career of any length is bound to have its ups and downs, but if an actor is lucky, the ups outnumber (or outweigh) the bad to sufficient degree as to have little impact on time’s overall evaluation of an actor's merits. Because Hollywood films ween us on happy endings and tidy conclusions, perhaps this breeds in us an expectation (or hope) that the careers of our favorite stars culminate in films and performances worthy and emblematic of their lifetime achievements, in toto.

Occasionally it works out: as in John Wayne, dying of cancer in real-life, portraying an aging gunman dying of cancer in his last film The Shootist (1976); or Sammy Davis Jr. appearing as a revered, aging tap-dancer in Tap (1989) his final film. But all too often stars with illustrious early careers bow out in vehicles severely at odds with their cumulative talent, reputations, and dignity.
So here's a list of the less-than-celebrated last films of a few of my favorite actors. An unlucky list of 13 movies - indicative of nothing deeper than a movie fan's wish that these talented stars had been shown to better advantage in their final movie roles.
1. Mae West — Last Film: Sextette (1978)
The final film of screen legend Mae West turned out to be something of a good news/bad news affair. The good news being that the self-enchanted octogenarian ended her four-decade movie career in a name-above-the title star vehicle (vanity project) designed as a tribute to her image and career. The bad news, of course, is that I’m referring to Sextette: an ill-advised, fan-produced exercise in celebrity exploitation so unflattering to its leading lady, it essentially ends up being a 90-minute exercise in character assassination and idol-smashing...set to a disco beat.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: My Little Chickadee (1940) 

2. Laurence Harvey  — Last Film: Welcome to Arrow Beach (1974)
Speaking in terms of equal opportunity, it’s nice to know that late-career leading men are as susceptible to the beckoning charms of the B-grade horror film as the cadre of older actresses populating that subgenre known as Grand Dame Guignol. On the heels of appearing with gal pal Joanna Pettet in a 1972 episode of TVs Night Gallery, and co-starring with longtime friend Elizabeth Taylor in Night Watch (1973); Oscar nominee Laurence Harvey (Room at the Top - 1959) went the full  slasher route in the rarely-seen cheapie Welcome to Arrow Beach. Appearing again with (VERY) good friend Joanna Pettet, Harvey underplays a military vet with a cannibalistic taste for hitchhiking hippie chicks and blowsy booze hounds. Looking gaunt from the stomach cancer that would claim his life before this film was released, Harvey also directed this bloody exploitationer which rode a short-lived 70s trend of cannibalism-themed horror movies. I remember seeing this as a teen (under the alternate title, Tender Flesh) on a double bill with the another  cannibal horror film, The Folks at Red Wolf Inn (1972). I guess we all have our low moments.  View trailer HERE
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: Night Watch (1973)

3. Joan Crawford — Last Film: Trog (1970)
As a journalist once noted, the boon and bane of every Crawford fan has always been the actress’s dogged professionalism. No matter how low she'd fallen (and Trog is about as low as it gets) Crawford always emoted as though Louis B. Mayer were still breathing down her neck. Crawford’s co-star in Trog is a professional wrestler in a rubbery Halloween mask (Joe Cornelius), but by the level of her intensity and commitment, you’d think she was acting opposite Franhcot Tone. And while this trait is certainly admirable, it has the unfortunate effect of making Joan appear to be performing in a vacuum; acting her ass off independent of the tone and timbre of the scene, not really relating to her co-stars. In Trog, Joan – looking tiny and occasionally pretty well-oiled – plays an anthropologist who attempts to tame a "Kill-crazy fiend from hell!” amidst public outcry and resistance. As always, Joan is the best thing in it (on my personal Camp-o-meter, anyway), but this B-horror movie programmer is so beneath her talents it makes the schlock she made for William Castle look dignified.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: Berserk (1967)

4. Gene Kelly — Last Film: Xanadu (1980)
A curious inclusion given how much I love this film and how, considering what he had to work with, I actually think Gene Kelly acquits himself rather nicely.
But I have to admit I've always found my enjoyment of Kelly in this musical to be running neck and neck with a sense of missed opportunities and a disappointment in how poorly he’s served by this charming but rather weak vehicle as a whole. Xanadu is nothing if not respectful of the influential actor/singer/dancer/director/choreographer who helped shape the face of the modern movie musical; it’s just that he’s let down by an insipid script, sabotaged by editing and camerawork which fails to understand the rhythms of dance (or rollerskating...they cut off his feet!), and is left to play third-fiddle to two low-wattage leads who fail to possess even a fraction of his screen charisma. So while Xanadu is not exactly a career embarrassment (I'd say that honor goes to his direction of Hello, Dolly! & The Guide for the Married Man), it ranks as a poor representation and send-off for the genius that was Gene Kelly.
Shoulda Quit  While I Was Ahead: The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

5. Gloria Swanson — Last Film: Airport ’75 (1974)     
In this loopy sequel (of sorts) to 1970’s Airport, silent screen star Gloria Swanson appears as herself and makes up for all those mute years by never shutting up. Swanson’s not onscreen a great deal ‒ although it feels like it since, in a film overrun with nuns (Helen Reddy, for one), Swanson makes the curious choice of dressing exactly like a nun who’s been to a couturier ‒ but when she is onscreen you can bet she’s talking about herself. Ostensibly under the guise of dictating her memoirs to her self-medicating secretary (Planet of the Apes’ Linda Harrison or Augusta Summerland, who knows a thing or two about keeping quiet), Swanson, who is said to have written her own dialog, captures perfectly what it’s like to be in the company of an actor: they are always their own favorite topic of discussion.
Overlooking the suspense-killing casting of having Swanson playing herself in a fictional narrative (what are they gonna do, have her get sucked out a window?), her role feels like a far-in-advance infomercial for her 1980 memoir Swanson on Swanson. A title describing the entire thrust of Swanson's self-enamored characterization here.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: Sunset Blvd. (1950)

6. Dean Martin / Frank Sinatra — Last Film: Cannonball Run II (1984)
Although I tend to consider myself a child of the '60s & '70s, and therefore lay no claim to the cinema atrocities committed in the 80s; the next time I go on a jeremiad about the craptastic bros-before-hos movie oeuvre of Adam Sandler and Kevin James, someone needs to remind me that Burt Reynolds – an actor from my generation – pretty much originated the lazy buddy comedy genre. That's when you find someone to pay for you and your pals to get together and have a good time, hand somebody a camera, film it, slap a title on it, and then call it a movie.
I never saw the original The Cannonball Run (1981) but the appeal of having the '60s Rat Pack reunited onscreen in this movie (Sinatra, Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. & Shirley MacLaine all appear) got the better me, and so I watched it one night on cable TV. With this movie (and I use the term loosely) I discovered that nostalgia is no match for a film that clearly holds its audience in low regard. The level of contempt this movie has for the intelligence of its audience is palpable and pungent. Dean Martin dares you to call him on the obvious fact that he really doesn’t give a shit, and Frank Sinatra looks exactly like someone dutifully following through on a favor/obligation. Dreadful. An unspeakably depressing last film for two of my favorites.    
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: Airport (1970) / The First Deadly Sin (1980)

7. Elizabeth Taylor  — Last Film: The Flintstones  (1994)    
Beyond the garden-variety complaint that Hollywood never seems to know how to properly showcase stars once they cease to be young, I’ve no objection to an actress of Elizabeth Taylor’s magnitude and reputation being cast as Fred Flintstone’s harridan of a mother-in-law (one Pearl Slaghoople) in a live-action version of the enduring 60s primetime TV cartoon show (inspired by the live-action The Honeymooners). Indeed, given Taylor’s sense of humor about herself, lack of pretension, and past success in playing shrews and shrill, fishwife types, it’s actually a pretty cool idea.
My problem lies with how dismal a comedy The Flintstones turned out to be. Taylor's role is little more than an extended walk-on, but in it, she's saddled with some strenuously unfunny material that she doesn't handle particularly well. There's so little to The Flintstones beyond the wittily prehistoric costumes, sets, and special effects (it's all concept, no content), that one is left with too much time to contemplate why the only laughs the film earns derive from how accurately the production team has captured some device or creature recognizable from the cartoon. Taylor (sporting that awful Jose Eber feathered helmet hairdo she adopted at the time) has definitely been better, was capable of better, and I only wish she had been given better.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: The Mirror Crack’d (1980)

8. Peter Sellers — Last Film: The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980)
It’s anybody’s guess how this flat, misguided comedy ever got beyond the planning stages, but avarice likely played a role in this unsuitable-for-release trainwreck ever seeing the light of day (it was released weeks after Sellers’ death). Fandom fuels a desire to see the last professional efforts of any favored celebrity, but it’s hard to imagine any Peter Sellers fan deriving much joy from this slogging crime comedy. A film which also served as the last screen role for Mary Poppins’ David Tomlinson and features Helen Mirren impersonating Queen Mary, the grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II, whom Mirren would win an Oscar portraying 26-years later. Sellers was a comic genius who made a career out of disappearing behind impersonation, but by the '80s his extended yellowface Fu Manchu shtick was strictly cringe material. Matters aren’t helped much by Sellers (ill at the time) playing dual roles: bored & tired.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: Being There (1979)

9. Tallulah Bankhead —  Last Film: Die! Die! My Darling!  (1965) 
This one’s a bit of an academic call. A call resting both on the awareness of Tallulah Bankhead being an esteemed stage actress whose motion picture appearances were rare (thus branding this Z-grade exercise in Hag Horror as a film far beneath her talents); and the full understanding that no one in their right mind would care to deprive the world of Bankhead’s mesmerizingly over-the-top performance in said Psycho-Biddy gothic. Bankhead is too fine an actor for a title like Die! Die! My Darling! to stand as the representative coda to her brief film career, but as a longstanding connoisseur of camp, I can’t deny that I’m forever grateful to her for having undertaken it.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: A Royal Scandal (1945)

10. Bette Davis — Last Film: Wicked Stepmother (1989) 
It’s kind of a good thing this chaotic comedy about a homewrecking witch (Davis) is so aggressively unfunny, for the sight of the frail, reed-thin, surgically tightened, post-stroke, eerily animatronic Bette Davis croaking out her lines while chain-smoking like a madwoman is a bonafide laugh-killer. A problem-plagued production that had the ailing, dissatisfied Davis deserting the film shortly after shooting began (resulting in her onscreen time amounting to slightly less than 15-minutes), Wicked Stepmother may have brought Davis a hefty paycheck and yet another opportunity to work – something obviously very important to her – but beyond the curiosity value of seeing one of Hollywood's greats in her last film roe, the whole affair has a ghoulish feel to it.
The only joke in the film that works is a brief sight gag revealing the late wife of Davis' new husband (Lionel Stander) was Joan Crawford.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: The Whales of August (1987)

11. Charles Boyer — Last Film: A Matter of Time  (1976)
Charles Boyer is an interesting case. He dodged having to be shackled with Ross Hunter’s Lost Horizon (1973) as his last film by following up that misstep with the stylish Alan Resnais film Stavisky…; a fine and suitably distinguished movie to end his career. Unfortunately, Boyer dodged the Ross Hunter bullet only to jump into the firing line of Vincente Minnelli’s calamitous A Matter of Time (1976). A film which not only reunited Boyer with the director of two of his earlier films (The Cobweb and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), but reunited him with his Arch of Triumph and Gaslight co-star, Ingrid Bergman.
Hopes couldn’t have been higher when it was announced Vincente Minnelli (making his first film since 1970s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) was going to direct daughter Liza (in need of a hit after Lucky Lady) in a lavish costume drama. Without going into the ugly details behind a problem-plagued production, suffice it to say A Matter of Time didn’t do anybody’s resumés any favors. Boyer, as the husband of dotty Contessa Bergman, is really rather good. It’s the film that’s such a mess.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: Stavisky…(1974)

12. Lucille Ball — Last Film: Mame (1974)  
Mame was released with a ton of hoopla and cheery smiles all around, but once the smoke cleared (and a few years had passed) what were we left with? A star who claimed making the film “was about as much fun as watching your house burn down”; a costar (Bea Arthur) who went on record stating, “It was a tremendous embarrassment. I’m so sorry I did it,” and that the leading lady was “terribly miscast”; a discontented composer (Jerry Herman); and a marriage dissolved (according to Arthur, her husband – Gene Saks, Mame’s director – used emotional blackmail to get her to do the movie: “As my wife you owe it to me to play this part.”).
Mame was to be TV legend Lucille Ball’s return to the silver screen, but reviews and reception to the film were so harsh, this $12-million misstep was her swan song. Oops! Maybe it’s not polite to bring up singing in this context.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: The Long Long Trailer (1953)

13. Barbara Stanwyck — Last Film: The Night Walker (1964) 
After playing a bordello madam (Walk on the Wild Side) and appearing in an Elvis Presley movie (Roustabout), I guess Barbara Stanwyck decided to make her career degradation complete by working for William Castle. The Night Walker is a somewhat listless, surprisingly gimmick-free William Castle melodrama that, while not doing much for Stanwyck, at least reunited her with former hubby and co-star Robert Taylor.
As always, Stanwyck and her trademark intensity are fascinating to watch and the only worthwhile elements in a film that really would have been just fine as an episode of one of those suspense anthology TV programs (although the really creepy music by Vic Mizzy is effective as hell).
Happily, with the movies treating her so shabbily, it's nice to know television provided Stanwyck with some of her finest latter-career moments (I'm crazy about her performance in The Thorn Birds).
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: Walk on the Wild Side (1962)

"I am big! It's the pictures that got small."
Norma Desmond - Sunset Blvd.

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. Hey Ken,
    This is one topic I think about on occasion. Like, why didn't Audrey Hepburn stay retired after "Two For the Road?" Or why did Jane Fonda come back 15 years after unofficially retiring, only to do junky movies, and falling into the aging actress facelift trap? And no, I'm not a fan of the sitcom Jane's doing with Lily, either... one step up from "Golden Girls!"

    One star who left on a high note was Jane's dad, Henry Fonda, who finally won an Oscar for "On Golden Pond" before passing.

    As for our fave, Elizabeth Taylor, I only wish she had stopped after "The Flintstones," and not have let pals Carrie Fisher and Shirley MacLaine talk her into "These Old Broads"--ugh! At least with "The Flintstones," Liz looked good and with it, plus she donated her salary and got the premiere proceeds to benefit her AIDS charity. "Broads" was ET's version of "Wicked Stepmother!"

    Love reading you, as always, Ken!


    1. Hi Rick
      Thank you very much! I share your feelings in sometimes wondering why certain stars make the career choices they do. I guess that's why celebrity biographies are often so illuminating; there are usually reasons that have nothing to do with career and all to do with something going on in the personal side of their lives.
      (Like Walter Matthau's enjoyment of gambling fueling his accepting so many substandard roles late in life.)

      I respect that many actors prefer to work rather than retire, and often they choose vehicles that are the best from a slim pool of offers. But it can be a trying for fans. TV outings like "These Old Broads" inspire pity and embarrassment.

      And while I enjoy Fonda in Grace & Frankie, the movies she's been offered (and accepted) after returning from retirement are such a sorry lot. You look at "Klute" and "They Shoot Horses" and you just wish someone stop her before she goes the Streisand route and appears in "Fockers"-like comedies.
      Such a sad waste of talent.
      And can you imagine how untarnished Faye Dunaway's reputation would be had she decided to quit acting after "Network"?
      Thanks for the food for thought, Rick!

    2. I guess I'm the only one who hasn't seen Grace and Frankie yet but I don't put Jane in this category. Monster-in-law was fun, and as a super fan and reader of her blog she had a facelift because was tired of looking tired and with her bone-structure it didn't make her look like someone who obviously had a facelift IMO.

    3. I agree, by no means is Fonda (a fave since I saw her at age 9 in Cat Ballou in 1966) anything less than stunning. And in Grace & Frankie she even addresses that whole needing to look young thing that some women fall prey to.

      In my eyes she's just a woman who looks great for her age, not an older woman (say, like Goldie Hawn) still clinging to a youthful look.
      But she's one of our generation's best actresses (to me) and my respect for her talent can't help but make me wish Hollywood offered her work suitable to her abilities. Like the Julie Christie had with "Afterglow." Those parts aren't plentiful, but she deserves better than she's been given.

    4. I've always enjoyed Jane Fonda's work, but never thought her to be much more than the lucky beneficiary of her father's name, skinny genes, and unsurpassed bone structure. And practice. She has gotten to work a lot, while other actresses with distinguished talents get passed over for the limited work available. Fonda is a practitioner of a certain kind of film acting, one that hews very close to the actor's own bone. Can you see her in a character role? I cannot. She will NEVER play Madame Arcati, if you get my drift. But she is photogenic in a way that few can claim. And that has kept her in front of the camera. Whether it be feature film or exercise video, she photographs beautifully. Put her face on the screen and the viewers will imbue it with all the emotion required. It's a talent, for sure. But is she as good an actress as Miranda Richardson? I have often thought not.

      However, I was fortunate to see Fonda on Broadway a few years back in "33 Variations." She projected genuine star power of a kind and size that we don't often get to see on stage these days. She walked out on that stage and commanded everything. Everything. Her performance made me re-evaluate everything about her. It makes me wonder what she else could have done.

      BTW, I bow to your accomplishment with this topic. Never in a million years could I have told you the last film for any of these people (save for La Liz.)

    5. Very interesting Fonda assessment from the perspective of how she has struck you over the years, as well as in relation to other actresses whose work you admire.
      You make a lot of excellent points, especially in speculating about her as a feasible character actress. She's always been a kind of peerless actress to me, but I do like that your opinions about her are so well-considered and come from a place of personal observation and evaluation. Would love to have seen her on stage.

  2. Some of the movies you highlighted are diehard favorites of mine (Trog, Xanadu, Die Die My Darling and Airport 1975) so, for better or worse, I'm glad they were made.

    Bette definitely should have let The Whales of August be her swan song. That would have been perfect. One big-screen farewell that many people might have felt was an elegant one, but which I was very disappointed by, is Katharine Hepburn's in Love Affair. Yes, the film was burnished and had a budget, stars and all that, but I really, REALLY could have done without a badly-lit Hepburn using her final film opportunity to use the word "fuck." I was gobsmacked the day I watched that one in a (mostly-empty) theater.

    1. Hi Poseidon
      So many of these films are favorites of mine too. And while I like to flatter myself by thinking have a clear-eyed affectionate regard for these film's pluses and minuses, I sincerely hope it's not based in getting some mean-spirited schadenfreude kick out of seeing these stars fall so low.
      At their best, these are a lot of fun because the stars often triumph over the material or gamely sink down to its level. But those films by Davis, Sellers, and Harvey are no fun because the actors look soooo unwell.

      I never saw "Love Affair" but I remember critics at the time reiterating your sentiments. I felt the same way about Mae West's self-scribed smutty talk in "Myra Breckinridge"...seeing old folks swear or speak in a raunchy matter in movies is no more fun than seeing little kids do the same. But audiences somehow think its hilarious.
      Terrific hearing from you Poseidon, thanks!

    2. Somehow when I saw this post initially, "Mame" and "The Night Walker" weren't on it! "Mame" is another BIG guilty pleasure of mine. And, rotten as it is, I do love the clothes and quite a few of the lines here and there.

      BTW, I was dying to comment on the recent post about books, but I knew that if I even got started I would wind up hijacking the post for all eternity. I've collected movie-related books of all sorts since I was 19 years old and they threaten to do me out of a bedroom in my house! I did greatly enjoy reading the post and the comments, though (and strangely enough, have not read most of the ones you list as favorites - but I have no taste at all and always gravitate to the tacky. Ha ha!)

    3. Hi Poseidon
      Yes, when I first posted this, there were only ten entries, but I liked the idea of a kind of "lucky 13" and added Lucy, Boyer, and Stanwyck.
      One day I think i have to explore why I find some rotten movies watchable (Mame, Sextette) and others too awful to visit more than once (Wicked Stepmother).
      I love all your posts about your book collection. Especially those tie-in paperback releases that have become collectors' items. Most film lovers I know share an almost equal love for reading about them. And any post of mine you want to hijack...feel free. you know how people love getting bonus information!

  3. Veronica Lake in FLESH FEAST. She was 50 and looked at least ten years older. Drink and hard living had destroyed her delicate blond beauty. The movie is a grade-z, beyond low-budget schlock fest. A sad coda for an actress who lit up screens a generation before.

    Also: I have no idea when either Robert DeNiro or Nicholas Cage will make their last movies, but--based on the dreck both of them have been churning out for the last decade--do we expect either of them to be giving Oscar-worthy performances in prestige productions as their swan songs?

    1. Hi Deb Because I restricted my list to include only the movies I've actually seen, I had to leave off Veronica Lake's "Flesh Feast" and Miriam Hopkins' "Savage Intruder"- two films that have been on my bad movie bucket list for some time.
      However, in researching this post I discovered that both are available on YouTube, at least for now!!
      If they are as bad as I've heard, I'll have to add them to this list.

      And an excellent point about Cage & DeNiro. I've never liked Cage, but his early career appeared promising. But DeNiro has made one stinker after another, fairly blotting out my 70s memories of him as one of the best actors of the decade.
      I don't think I've enjoyed him in anything since "Casino"- 1995 or "Jackie Brown"- 1997.

  4. Ken, like you I've often wondered why stars don't leave on a high note. While there are far too many examples of stars who took one too many bites at the Apple, one star I thought bowed out with grace was Jean Arthur. Shane was a lovely way to end her career. As far as I know she never wrote an autobiography either, so we are left with just the magic of her screen persona to remember. I believe Irene Dunne also went out with class and seemed to just disappear after retiring. Again all we have left of her is stardust. Of course sometimes death ends a career at an unexpected high point (think James Dean or Heath Ledger) but one old pro who went out with a win was Melvyn Douglous whose last film was Being There.

    In keeping with your theme, one star I so wish had quit while he was ahead was William Holden, a particular favorite of mine. If only he had stopped after Network!! Not only would he have ended his career with class, we would have been spared seeing the physical deterioration of one of the screen's mist handsome leading men. It still makes me sad to see photos of him from the final years. Speaking of photos, I didn't even recognize Laurence Harvey in the picture you included. When I first opened the post I thought it was a rather flattering picture of Leonard Nimoy.

    As always Ken, I look forward to your insights and the charity of heart you show to the stars even when they have embarrassed themselves. I wish you could write my epitaph when I go!

    1. Hi Roberta
      You're too kind! I have to hand it to you for your apt calling of that screencap of Laurence Harvey...I scrolled back up and indeed, Harvey looks exactly like Leonard Nimoy!
      You bring up so many good points I'd wanted to touch on, but this being a "list" article, I didn't have the opportunity.
      For instance, what you say about William Holden reiterates what many of us feel about aging stars- is part of our desire to see certain stars "quit while they're ahead" born of a desire not to witness the decay of beauty?
      I know I had a hard time resigning myself to the boyish Warren Beatty still playing boyish with a craggy older face in "Ishtar."
      But there are some actors (Maggie Smith, Keith Carradine) who actually age marvelously and move into different kinds of roles. Is it because looks were never their forte and they were not romantic leads?

      And what about the decay of talent? Shelley Winters was perhaps never Miss Subtle, but what the ham she later grew into...
      And of course, when stars like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe spare us their decline...does that make them more iconic and easier to love? Like the way we all conveniently forget fat Elvis over slim Elvis?
      Fascinating stuff that would make an interesting article or at least point of discussion.
      But what most people want for their favorite stars is what you indicate in mentioning Melvyn Douglas' wonderful last film "Being There"; we hope that the last film of a favorite star in some small way reflects a sense of reaching a pinnacle. It's somehow sad harder when a gifted movie star bows out in the type of film they likely would have turned down at the start of their careers.
      Thanks for making so many excellent points, Roberta!

    2. I don't know why I know this, but for Jean Arthur fans... she did get bitten one more time and appeared in an episode of GUNSMOKE.

  5. I would say that Lucille Ball's "Shoulda quit while I was ahead" film was Yours, Mine and Ours - I love that movie!

    Maybe we can give Liz and Luzy half-credits for their final TV Movie appearances: Liz in These Old Broads (2001) and Lucy in Stone Pillow (1985)

    1. Ha! It's good to be reminded that with "last film" in many cases, didn't always indicate the last screen appearance of a favorite star (such as Shirley Booth's last film being 1958's "The Matchmaker" but her TV career extending into the 70s).

      Although it's not a personal favorite of mine (I have a hard time with Henry Fonda in any movie) I remember seeing "Yours, Mine, & Hours" at least four times when I was a kid. It ran for two weeks on a changing double bill at our neighborhood theater, and in those days getting your 50 cents worth meant sitting through every movie twice.

  6. Not being much of a Peter Sellers fan, I never saw Fiendish Plot. Of the others though I think the most unwatchable has to be Wicked Stepmother.

    Even if Bette Davis didn't give up after The Whales of August, at least it became a lovely send off for Lillian Gish and the dear Ann Sothern.

    1. Hi Max
      Often when it comes to these kinds of low tier films, being boring is more offensive than vulgarity or poor taste. For me, "Wicked Stepmother" is just so terribly dull a movie. Not helped by its 80s sitcom vibe. "Fu Manchu" is in lousy taste, but it puts you to sleep before you can find it distasteful.

      And yes, it's nice that Sothern and Gish bowed out in such a graceful film as "The Whales of August"

  7. I've never heard of Welcome to Arrow Beach, but the thought of watching Laurence Harvey, dying of stomach cancer, in a film about cannibalism sounds like a horribly tasteless joke, and I shall definitely steer clear of it. I confess, though, I've never seen Trog, but (to my shame!) I also confess to a sneaking desire to see it. (Late Joan Crawford is just something not to be missed.) Night Walker was just a bizarre, boring film, and a waste of Barbara Stanwyck; and unfortunately for William Castle, it really exposed his utter lack of directorial talent. He seemed to be trying to make a serious horror film but just didn't have the skill or subtlety to carry it off. Maybe Castle himself should have stopped making movies after The Tingler and Homicidal. (I mean, after Jean Arless and her double-drag act, where else is there to go?)

    1. Hi GOM
      As bad as "Trog" is (and it's pretty bad) it really just feels like one of those cheap 50s sci-fi films. The biggest puzzle and being Crawford's participation. Eager for a name star, I don't think producers of these cheapie flicks ever considered what a distraction Crawford's old-style acting had on these routine melodramas.
      and I agree, Stanwyck was too good an actress for the pedestrian gifts of William Castle. The film he made with Marcel Marceau in the 70s looks so much like a film made in the early 60s.
      Perhaps we should compile a list of directors who should have quit while they were ahead!

  8. Hey Ken-
    Thanks for this post. I see Joan rears her head again. This time as an anthropologist with great hair (wigs) no less. Trog is so campy & horrid fun.

    And Mae, oh that one is really bad. Poor ole thing was so myopic they filmed her from waist up so someone below could steer her around.

    Another haunting last movie performance is Just A Gigolo. Marlene's last movie. Her soft focus photography made Doris Day's look razor sharp.

    One classy last performance is Patricia Neal in Cookie's Fortune. What a talent and beauty she was.

    1. Hey Michael
      Yes, Joan is quite the fixture on this blog. Happily, I haven't even scratched the surface of her GOOD movies yet.
      I've got to put "Just a Gigolo" on my "to see" list. I remember when it came out and some critic referencing she had a role that never required her to stand up. Is that true?
      And I love Patricia Neal, but I thought her last film was a Billy Ray Cyrus flick (I never saw it...maybe it was never released?).
      Thanks for commenting, Michael!

  9. Fun as always Ken!

    I agree that Gene Kelly was the highlight of XANADU. When I found out that he was going to be in a big movie musical, I was all excited and couldn’t wait. As it is, the nicest part of the film for me is when he and ONJ do that old-fashioned MGM style dance number.

    I actually think he did a beautiful job with DOLLY. It’s such a colorful, lively film, and it’s brought me years of joy. You can see his “MGM” hand behind it. I know the film took a lot of abuse, but I think over the last few years, it’s been re-evaluated (according to articles that I’ve read on various sites). I think the release of the gorgeous blu-ray (and the passage of time) had a lot to do with that.

    As for GUIDE/MARRIED MAN – eh. You wrote awhile back in your review of CACTUS FLOWER that a lot of 60s movies seemed to try and get laughs out of the “middle-aged-man-tries-to-cheat-on-wife-and-hilarity-results” trope. I never got how that was funny, and Gene could have skipped that one.

    As for Lucy – it is a pity that MAME brought her ridicule. Now in honesty, MAME is one of my favorite movie musicals, faults and all (there's actually a lot of good things in it). Had all gone well, that would have been a career-topper for her. From what I’ve read, she was sad about it and hurt from the critics’ words for the rest of her days. For “Should have quit while she was ahead” – maybe YOURS, MINE & OURS? It showcased her nicely in terms of comedy and acting.

    Lastly, you made me laugh out loud about Gloria Swanson in AIRPORT 1975, talking about herself. Even when I was a kid and I saw it in the movies, I thought it was amusing that they kept cutting back to her rambling away. And your comment about her outfit was a hoot! In full disclosure though, AIRPORT 1975 (in fact all of the AIRPORT movies) are among my all-time favorites and I mean that un-ironically. In fact, our Joan Crawford was approached for Olivia DeHavilland’s role in AIRPORT ’77.

    Keep ‘em coming Ken! This was another great article!!

    1. Hi Michael
      Thanks for the kind words and for sharing your thoughts on the listed and discussed films!
      It was actually fun to research and establish (for myself) a criteria by which I found certain last films to be truly fitting of an actor's status (for example, I didn't like the film "Always", but Audrey Hepburn playing an angel in her last role seemed an apt ending to an angelic career), and ones which fell short.
      One thing became apparent in all that research, a star's chances of ending on a high note were greatly improved in direct proportion to their ability to avoid the horror genre as they got older.
      And as for the "Airport 77" tidbit, I'd forgotten that de Havilland and Crawford had more than "Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte" in common! Thanks, Michael!

    2. Thanks Ken!!
      Interesting that most big male stars avoided the "B Horror Movie" trap in the later years. You mentioned Mr. Harvey, but Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, and Van Johnson managed to avoid it. Poor Gloria Grahame wound up in a horrible Grace Z movie called "The Nesting" in 1981 in which she was billed way down in the cast list!

      Then there are of course the "A" list horror films that our ladies have appeared in - "Charlotte" or "Baby Jane". However, A-list though they were, they did set these ladies up as "scream queens" which led them into the Grade B (and Z) chillers. I'd still rather go out with "Baby Jane" than "Trog" though!

      One last thought - many older stars found employment in "The ABC Movie of the Week" and as you've mentioned, anthology shows like SIXTH SENSE. Those are still better endings than "The Nesting"!


    3. Hi Michael I have to dig up "The Nesting"!

      I read an article online somewhere that addressed the phenomenon you reference (older stars and the B-horror movie trap) was great in that it referenced how Hollywood (and our culture) viewed men growing older as natural, but older women were seen as scary or grotesque. As if a loss of sexual desirability or physical allure left women as figures of fear.
      It's a very interesting examination of the kind of misogyny behind Hollywood aging.
      Perhaps that's one reason why so many people look upon Mae West as a kind of feminist icon. She may have been camp and deluded, but she was groundbreaking in refusing to let age determine whether or not she saw herself as a sexual being.A cool perspective, that.
      And speaking of TV and those Movie of the Weeks; where would a lot of aging stars be without The Love Boat, Murder She Wrote, or Diagnosis Murder? Those shows were like AARP employment agencies.

    4. Hi Ken, Yes! LOVE BOAT, FANTASY ISLAND, MURDER SHE WROTE, DIAGNOSIS MURDER, MATLOCK....I do love watching those shows and waiting for the "guest star" cast list namjes to be displayed in the first few moments of each episode!

  10. A lot of these, of course, skate on the edge of hilarious and sad. At least you limited this list to "real" movies--there are plenty of 60s-70s exploitationers with 40s-50s stars on their last legs (thinking here of things like Wendell Corey, half in the bag, staggering through Astro-Zombies).

    Let's not forget Peter Sellers' posthumous appearance in "Trail of the Pink Panther." And though he's of a later generation, always sad to think of Raul Julia's last movie being Street Fighter.

    On a different, though somewhat related, topic--have you ever been able to reconcile Freddie Francis' pedestrian work as a director with his gorgeous work as a cinematographer? I haven't.

    1. Hi MDG
      Indeed "Skate on the edge of hilarious and sad," perfectly sums up many of these entries. I don't know the film "Astro Zombies" (that title!) but you actually make it sound like a must-see.
      And yes, while Nicolas Roeg's dula career seem to compliment one another, Freddie Francis' movies seem the work of an evil twin.

  11. It's Hollywood Ken. No one would put Charlotte Rampling or Catherine Deneuve in this category but Sharon Stone and Kathleen Turner sure are.

    1. True. But happily, none have passed away (or retired, as far as I know) so hopefully it'll be years and years before their "last" films are a topic of evaluation.

  12. Raul Julia in Street Fighter deserves a mention. His take on Gomez Addams in the two Addams Family movies was leaps and bounds better, in my opinion, although not near as good as he was in Moon over Parador, and even that pales to his role in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Haven't seen Romero yet, but I've heard he's good in that one too.

    1. I liked Raul Julia a great deal. You're the second person to mention"Street Fighter" so at least someone has seen it, Unfortunately, I have a strict, self-imposed, no Van Damme policy, so I'll only be able to go by what others tell me.
      I hear it's a case of an actor being very good in a very bad film.

  13. Dear Ken: Hi! Again, you've come up with a wonderful topic.
    Of my favorite stars, some went out in a good role (Margaret Sullavan in "No Sad Songs for Me"), some went out in indifferent roles (Doris Day's final string of mediocre but still watchable-enough movies), and some went out on a bad note:

    Jennifer Jones: Although her final film was "The Towering Inferno," perhaps the best of the 70s disaster flicks (and that's faint praise coming from me), her second-to-last film was "Angel, Angel, Down We Go," which you already have covered in its glorious entirety. I've read that some of Jones' friends actually feared for her sanity after she appeared in "Angel, Angel."

    Rosalind Russell: "Mrs. Pollifax, Spy" could have been an ideal role and a fun movie, but instead it's a dreary slog. And sadly Russell bears some of the blame, since she worked on the screenplay.

    Susan Hayward: Her final role was a glorified cameo in a blah 70s Western, "The Revengers," which she did as a favor to her old pal William Holden. But Hayward's second-to-last film was "Valley of the Dolls"--'nuff said!!

    Jane Powell--This lovely soprano star of 1950s musicals should have decided to end her screen career when those musicals ended. But instead, her last film was a 1958 atrocity called "The Female Animal." Although the film was made under the censorship code, so strictly speaking there's nothing "dirty" in it, at heart it's strictly a piece of exploitation sleaze. The less-than-charming plot is about a mother (Hedy Lamarr, also ending her career on a bad note) and her adopted daughter (Powell) fighting over the same paid companion (gay hunk George Nader). The movie now is out on DVD and is worth a look if you're in the mood for something campy and trashy.

    Merle Oberon: This actress with a fascinating life (although she was of mixed Indian-Irish ethnicity, the racism of the time made her pose as strictly Anglo) made some classic and classy vehicles in the 1930s, including "These Three" and "Wuthering Heights." By the 1940s, she made movies that may not be remembered today but are still fine entertainment ("Night Song" is a personal favorite). She could have ended her career in 1954 playing Josephine to Marlon Brando's Napoleon in "Desiree" and with a nice supporting part in the all-star MGM musical "Deep in My Heart." But instead she made periodic returns to the cinema, all awful. 1963's "Of Love and Desire" is sleazy trash, "The Oscar" a camp hoot, "Hotel" a boring TV-style movie. But her final film, 1973's "interval," is really one for the books. You should try to seek this one out, Ken (I had to buy an old used VHS to see it)--I think it would appeal to your taste for the perverse. Oberon plays an older, mentally troubled woman who, while traveling in Mexico (Oberon's real home country at the time) falls for a man decades her junior (the gorgeous Robert Wolders). The movie unfortunately was written by Gavin Lambert, a heavy-handed scribe whose movies (such as "Inside Daisy Clover") tended toward flat-footed camp. "Interval" is no exception--unintentional laughs abound. However, at least Oberon had a happy ending in real life--she and Wolders fell in love for real, and he remained her husband until her death in 1979.

    1. Wasn't Robert Wolders also involved with Audrey Hepburn toward the end of her life? I don't think they were ever married though.

    2. Yes, you're correct--Hepburn and Wolders were life companions for the final years of her life. Wolders may not have been much of an actor (my only memory of him as a performer is from a "Mary Tyler Moore" episode where Mary's friends can't believe she's dating a man (Wolders) just because he's good-looking), but he must have been a gentle and caring man off screen.

    3. Hi David
      Your comments echo the page of notes I compiled for this post. I had to make a choice between indifferent movies (like Towering Inferno) or just leaving some off (Rosalind Russell almost made the cut. Oh...I was so disappointed by how dull Mrs. Pollifax was!).
      However, there are so many I overlooked entirely. I never saw the Susan Hayward film you mention, but that Jane Powell one sounds like a must-see disaster.
      Just the plot description is cringe-worthy!
      But I must thank you for the recommendation of "Interval", a movie I've never heard anything about but which sounds irresistibly bad. Those are harder to come by than you'd think!
      Thanks, David!

  14. Definitely some guilty pleasures in this list.
    Were it not for "Wicked Stepmother" we would have been denied hearing Bette Davis countering the claims of her cigarette smoke polluting the air with, "Well, I'll try neeeeevah to exhale."

    That's gold.

    1. Hi David
      Ha! That is a good line! And truly, some of her lines aren't as witty as they think they are, but she is given a few sarcastic gems.
      Her role is so small, as a public service someone should just do a YouTube reel of her scenes. Sparing others from having to sit through this.
      Thanks for reminding me of that line!

  15. Groucho Marx in Skidoo.
    It's said that Otto Preminger made it to reveal the wonders of LSD to the world. It looks like the writers, Preminger and the cast were all on LSD.

    1. Yikes! I'd forgotten about that one being Groucho's last film! I've tried two times so far, but I've never been able to make it all the way through"Skidoo."
      From what I recall, your The LSD comment is right on the mark.

    2. I saw it in a cinema in a Marx Bros. season. I sat there thinking "I've paid for this and I'm going to get my money's worth, no matter how much I hate it!" - a Grouchish attitude, I recognise now. I don't know if I should have taken LSD to watch it or whether that would have been the finak straw...

    3. I do confess to having Carol Channing's rendition of "Skidoo" on my ipod...but I can't possibly explain why.

  16. Hello Ken, thank you for the very funny list and topic! I laughed out loud at your descriptions of Gloria Swanson in Airport '75 and Burt Reynolds in "Cannonball Run". I never realized that Gloria as Gloria could not be killed off in the movie! That could have happened in "Airplane" though. I love her headdress though. Very fashionable then, I hope. I saw an extra in a Julie Christie movie wearing an orange snood just like it!

    I'm longing to watch "The Night Walker", "Mame", "Die, Die my Darling" and "A Matter of Time". Did you review the latter? I would love to read your opinion about it. It would be great if someone could assemble a directors version of "A Matter of Time".

  17. Hi Wille
    I'm glad you enjoyed this little "list" article. You have to tell me what Julie Christie movie that was. I remember in the 70s (and I think it can be seen in the fashions in "The Love Machine"- women wearing hoods and snoods was a real thing).

    If i could ever get my hands on a good copy of "A Matter of Time", I would love to write about it. It's such a mess, but American International had such a reputation for screwing up movies by wresting them away from directors and cutting them to bits. Merchant/Ivory (The Wild Party) & Roman Polanski (Vampire Killers) all had the chance to release their director's cuts and the films were notable improvements. I'd love to get a better idea of what Minnelli intended.
    As it is, it's a fairly embarrassing and cheap-looking movie.

    Also, sometimes if the lion's share of what I would have to say about a movie is bad, I usually pass on it. That's one reason I haven't written about "Hello Dolly" yet!
    Thanks for reading this Wille. And hope you get around to seeing those titles you mentioned. I think you'd enjoy them in that "so bad they're good" way.

    1. Hi Ken, having seen "A Matter of Time", I can't say I'm terribly confident in how good its original version would be, considering what remained (inconsistent behavior within a single scene, the misogynist screenwriter character, Minnelli's cousin's borderline-suicidal view of her own job just describing it to her, a casually-homophobic line not long after, etc.). It's seemingly-non-existent availability outside of Italy gives me the impression that even its rights holders don't want to draw attention to it.

      (Also, AIP's excision choices reminded me *a lot* of that T.V. edit of "Secret Ceremony", which changed Elizabeth Taylor's profession in that film to "wig model".)

      And is it wrong of me to say I also wished for you to review "Hello Dolly!"? Even as a non-musical fan, the oft-stated point of Streisand being too young for it is well-taken, but the Matthau factor does up my curiosity for it.

      With this post's subject, I can imagine lots more last films like these that could belong on a whole separate list.

    2. Hi Chynna
      I'm kinda with you in believing that ANY cut of A MATTER OF TIME would be problematic. But if the director's cuts of the above-named films are any indication (The Wild Party, Fearless Vampire Killers), the end result may not be perfect, but at least its coherent.
      Some TV edits of films are disasters (Secret Ceremony) while others are remarkable in how they practically fashion an entirely new movie out of it (TV edit of DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE actually humanizes those terrible children of hers).
      And thanks for saying you'd like to read my thoughts on Hello Dolly. I've somewhat relaxed my opinion about not writing about films I don't really like (The Apple), so who knows, Dolly may be in my future! And yes, this article is but the tip of the iceberg of bad last films of esteemed stars. Thank you again for commenting!

  18. Hi Ken,
    I keep thinking that without Gloria Swanson in "Airport '75", we wouldn't have Carol Burnett as Nora Desmond in "Disaster '75" XD

    Now that I think about it, the show seems to take the same position you do on the character.

    1. Hi Chick (I sound so 60s!)
      Indeed! Carol Burnett always seemed to hone right to the heart of what was funny about a movie she spoofed. So clever and such wonderful makeup and costuming (her Karen Black wig is a hoot!) Thanks for providing those links!

  19. This discussion made me think of the two actors closest to my heart, Conrad Veidt and Buster Keaton. Connie's last film was Above Suspicion (1943), a run-of-the-mill wartime espionage drama with Fred MacMurray and Joan Crawford in which he is woefully under-used, yet still manages to outshine his co-stars ( my completely objective opinion). But the film he completed prior to that was Casablanca: not a bad lasting cinematic legacy, eh? And were it not for his tragically premature death at age fifty, I've often wondered if Connie's career might have followed the trajectory of his contemporary and frequent co-star Peter Lorre. Much as it breaks my heart that so much of Connie's early silent work is lost forever--incl. the full version of Different From the Others (1919), the first-ever gay-centric film!--I would find it nearly as distressing if he had ended up parodying himself in B-movies as Lorre did. Small mercies...?

    Buster's last film was A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum. It's been many years since I saw it, but from what I recall, that type of 'zany' sex-comedy is a far cry from the incomparable lyricism of The General or flawlessly executed hilarity of Cops (and Steamboat Bill Jr. And The Navigator. And...). Buster deserved better, IMO. Honestly, I think if he never made another film after his last silent feature--The Cameraman, in 1928--he would be every bit as revered as he is today. Still, it could have been worse.

    BTW, I loved the mention of those murder-mystery shows as actor employment projects, as I've had that same thought myself! In dealing with my habitual insomnia, lately I've been watching late-night reruns of Murder, She Wrote on the Hallmark Murder and Mysteries Channel (which continues the tradition of employing "mature" [~35+] actresses with their telefilms), but sometimes I'll stay awake if a new episode is starting, just so I can see who's in it! Dack Rambo guest-starred several times, and seeing him always makes me so sad. Yet another talented, beautiful man lost to the plague. I'm so glad you're still with us. {{internet hugs}}

    1. Hello Lila
      Thanks for elaborating on two actors I know very little about and whose work I'm only sporadically familiar with.
      When it comes to certain actors, one never knows whether they'll ease painlessly into character roles in major productions, or if they will be forced to go the AIP route of Lorre, as you mentioned.

      Although Keaton's work in "Forum" is minimal and he certainly deserved better, most fans are just grateful he lasted long enough to make it into an "A" film. When I was growing up, all I remembered him from were those Beach Party movies. Yikes!
      My partner is a big fan of those old murder-mystery shows, and sometimes we watch them together. I'm always amazed at the roster of actors who were trotted out in those tiny roles. Invariably with huge shoulder pads.
      A couple of TV channels seem to feature a slew of these kind of shows, and it sometimes looks like a TCM parade.
      Thank you for the informative comment (I know next to nothing about silent films), and internet hugs right back at you!

  20. Great article! I'm on board with most of these choices, although I gotta disagree on DIE! DIE! MY DARLING being Z-grade hag horror; I think it's at least B+ hag horror. One hell of a great time with an amazing cast that includes Donald Sutherland and the underrated British character actress and comedienne Yootha Joyce. And, regarding the slagging off of Freddie Francis's directorial efforts vs. his cinematographical efforts, I understand this viewpoint to a certain extent, BUT, I think THE SKULL and especially THE CREEPING FLESH are excellent horror films, two of the best films Hammer never made.

  21. Hello WaverBoy
    Thanks for reading! I must say I was most intrigued by your use of the term, "slagging off" which I absolutely adore, but have only ever heard spoken in British movies or TV (along with "taking the piss"). American colloquialisms never sound as cool to my ear.
    OK, back on point: Yes, I'm being subjectively a little hard on "Die Die My Darling" largely to make a point. An earlier post on the film reveals how much I love it, but grading down to a "Z" has more to do with emphasizing how, when it came to underutilized talent, I think Bankhead was an A+.

    Unfortunately, as I've not seen either film, I can't speak to the quality of the two Freddie Francis horror movies, but of the few I've seen, I honestly had to double check on IMDB to be sure there weren't two different men named Freddie Francis...I mean Nicholas Roeg's work as a cinematographer looks like his work as a director...but, WOW! when I found out about the dual career of Mr. Francis, you could have been knocked over with a feather. SO different to me!
    Sounds like you have a admirable appreciation of British horror tradition, WaverBoy! Thank you so much for sharing with us your thoughts on your favorites.

  22. Very interesting piece and a subject I have spent many years discussing with fellow film fans. I think it should be noted in the defense of certain stars that they took terrible final vehicles because they needed the money or they simply didn't know what to do with themselves if they weren't working. Crawford and Davis fall into both those categories I think. Lucy surely had all the money in the world, but she was a workaholic, and had no interests outside show business to satisfy her drive. I think stars like Streisand, Fonda, Goldie, Bette Midler and Diane Keaton for instance--and the late Audrey Hepburn--are much better off because they have so many varied areas in which to express their creativity. They are not sitting by the phone hoping for work.
    Still it is sad that so many of the greats ended their glorious careers on such sour notes.

    1. Hi Chris
      I agree, the reasons behind an actor wanting (or needing) to work is the non-academic subtext lurking behind any list of "bad last films." Some were just fortunate to have full enough lives to be able to choose when and under what circumstances they stopped. Others worked because of lifestyle, habit, or need (Walter Matthau once told me he took on so many so-so parts later in life in order to pay for his gambling passion).
      All is fair in criticism since movie theaters don't offer a "Don't expect too much because the actors in this movie needed to pay the mortgage" ticket discount; but a look at how some of Hollywood' biggest stars ended their careers is a great springboard for myriad discussions about the nature of fame, the business side of show business, and the maintenance of a career.
      That's why lists (like political polls) only ever tell a small part of a bigger story.
      Thank you very much for reading and taking the time to comment!

  23. Loved this Ken!! It is a fascinating thing to see how a respected performer’s career wraps up. Unfortunately sometimes in a train wreck fascination way but then there are the lucky ones who through perseverance, a sense of timing, luck, or occasionally darker forces are able to bow out of a high note.

    Some instances:
    Perseverance-Both Robert Ryan and Fredric March kept plugging away and were able to finish up near the top with an O’Neill adaptation, The Iceman Cometh.

    Timing-Both Mary Astor and Jennifer Jones were canny enough, and perhaps not driven to keep going until the last second, to realize that their roles in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte and The Towering Inferno while perhaps not award worthy were respectable roles in popular successes that were more than likely the best they were going to get from that point on. And then there was William Powell and Cary Grant who were still in demand and could have continued but had had enough and withdrew after good parts and films with their reputations intact. Then there’s the case of Anne Shirley whose last film Murder, My Sweet, with a few exceptions…Stella Dallas, Vigil in the Night, Saturday’s Children, was actually far above the level of most of the films she made in her career.

    Luck-Though it might not have seemed so at the time, Judy Garland was fortunate enough to exit Valley of the Dolls making the far more appropriate and classy I Could Go on Singing her cinematic swan song. Perhaps one of the best: feet firmly planted on a stage, arms thrown to heaven singing her heart out for her audience.

    Then the darker forces where death became a good career move: Carole Lombard’s death made the classic To Be or Not to Be her final film rather than the minor They All Kissed the Bride which she was set for. John Garfield’s heart attack made the tough He Ran All the Way his last, though his previous film The Breaking Point was superior to it, than the low budget Taxi that his blacklisting was going to force him to do. Of course both Marilyn and Gable closed out with The Misfits, and Ingrid Bergman could hardly have asked for a better last film than Autumn Sonata.

    There are a few others but the rockier ones are more plentiful and of course the reason we’re here. All of yours are great examples, though I never thought The Night Walker was quite as low nor awful of a sendoff as many others. Add in the fact that while it was the end of Stanwyck’s feature career unlike most of the others on the list she had an extended decades long and very respectable career afterwards. But the others are all just sad, though Frank and Dean have no one to blame but themselves-they’d both been around far too long not to know that Cannonball Run II was swill from the get-go.

    1. Hi Joel
      Glad you enjoyed the piece. It really is a tip-of-the-iceberg article, and specifically for what your comment calls attention to: the variables attendant to and dictating what would be a star's last film are so varied.
      From yours and all the comments here, it's obvious that "how you check out" is so much a draw of the cards in so many actors' lives. That's why it's fun to chronicle them without actually holding the individuals entirely responsible for their "exits".
      The well-documented list of actors you provided really paints a vivid portrait of that very fascinating fact.
      Thanks, Joel, for lending your broad knowledge of film to this comments section and helping to expand the list of stars and their last films.

  24. Unfortunately these aren’t even the worst, though you did say you only listed those you’ve seen. I’ve been working on trying to see the complete filmographies of many of my favorite performers and it has required sitting through some truly horrendous stuff. There have been some bright spots when it comes to the wrap up films:

    Hedy Lamaar’s The Female Animal is a fun Crawfordish 50’s meller

    Ann Blyth was totally wrong for The Helen Morgan Story but she didn’t humiliate herself and the picture had its moments

    Claire Trevor is borderline brilliant in Kiss Me Goodbye and it’s a sweet film.

    Myrna Loy’s laser sharp supporting role in Tell Me What You Want suited her perfectly.

    Vivien Leigh is fabulous in Ship of Fools and Richard Widmark bowed out in fine style in the little known but very good True Colors.

    They’re the lucky one though. This would be my list of the ten most unfortunate swan songs:

    First off we share two- Joan Crawford and Lucille Ball-just terrible films.

    Agnes Moorehead-The good part is that Aggie is all glammed up but the picture is stupid junk.

    Alice Faye in the bargain basement atrocity Every Girl Should Have One.

    Eve Arden-Either Grease 2 or Pandemonium depending on what source you look at, it doesn’t matter though both are beyond dreadful. This one is a real heartbreaker since Woody Allen wrote a special role for her in The Purple Rose of Cairo which would have been a great finish but she had to drop out when her husband became critically ill.

    Fred MacMurray-The Swarm. Why Fred? Just WHY?

    Gail Russell-The Silent Call-A down market ultra-cheap Lassie knockoff making its way back to its owners against all odds. There are worse films but it’s heartbreaking to see the once ethereally beautiful actress looking a rough late 50’s considering she was only 36. She would drink herself to death before the year was out.

    Gloria Grahame-The Nesting-Another case of had she only stopped one sooner. Instead of this horrible, horrible thing her final film would have been Melvin & Howard. She doesn’t even have a decent part.

    Groucho Marx-Skidoo-A low point for everyone involved but only Groucho suffers the ignominy of having this be a career close out.

    Veronica Lake-Flesh Fest-The lowest of the low. A truly ghastly film, cheapjack in every way with a revolting storyline. With what was apparently a budget of $1.98, shot in someone’s home and some of the worst acting ever this is the sorriest sendoff anyone could ever have.

    The only one I’m missing is Miriam Hopkins’ Savage Intruder. I quake in my boots at the very thought of it but it is on YouTube so I’m going to bite the bullet very soon.

    1. Excellent list! Including both the good and the not-so-good. A few of these I'd forgotten (Fred MacMurray and Eve Arden) and a couple are now on a list of films I'd like to check out (I don't know "The Nesting").
      And I too need to get to "Savage Intruder" before YouTube drops it.

  25. I'd suggest Ray Milland. His last movie whas a zero-budget Spanish monster movie: THE SEA SERPENT (aka HYDRA).

    1. Never heard of that one! I'll have to check out YouTube.

  26. stanwyck was never as good as she was in walk on the wild side. and no one has yet answered her question. can i heterosexual man really love a woman without also lusting to possess, control, and exploit her body for his own desires. then again, nastasia kinski asks the same question of john heard in cat people. *could you love me if you could never make love to me?* heard never answers the question. he just strips off her clothes and has sex with her. lol.