Tuesday, November 27, 2018


When the world never seems to be living up to your dreams – "The Facts of Life" theme

A recent New York Times study found that most people’s music tastes peak somewhere around the ages of 13 to 16, concluding that as we age, we tend to gravitate to the music we listened to during our adolescence. I'm certain I would have balked at such a reductive claim back in my youth—given that throughout the '80s and '90s I listened to little else but what was played in heavy rotation on MTV. But today, having just turned 60, I skip right over the '80s and '90s and listen almost exclusively to early Motown, '70s disco, and ‘60s psychedelic pop...the music of my adolescence. 

I'm sure that had a comparable study been conducted about movies, the findings would be similar. That's definitely the case with me. I've long known that the films I fell in love with during my teenage years have played a significant role in the determining and shaping of my taste in motion pictures. Chiefly because they provided me with my earliest glimpses of adult life.
As a rule, when I was young I had little patience with movies featuring or marketed to kids my own age, and was chiefly drawn to movies about what I assumed was the infinitely more interesting world of grown-ups. But every now and then I came upon an exception.

Movies have explored the lives of teenagers in a great many coming-of-age films, but few have captured that curiously cocooned, exuberant, outside-adulthood-looking-in, bittersweet limbo state known as adolescence as fancifully as George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient. A thoroughly enchanting and enduring comedy-drama about friendship, found families, and the efficacy of imagination in coping with the imperfect world of flawed adults and inadequate caretakers.
Peter Sellers as Henry Orient
Paula Prentiss as Stella Dunnworthy
Angela Lansbury as Isabel Boyd
Elizabeth "Tippy" Walker as Valerie Campbell Boyd
Merrie Spaeth as Marian Gilbert
Henry Orient (Peter Sellers) is a vainglorious, not overly-gifted avant-garde concert pianist whose life (which consists of surprisingly little piano playing and considerable skirt-chasing) is turned upside down by the worshipful attentions of a pair of dreamy teenage girls who have decided to make him the object of their romantic fantasies. The girls in question are eighth-graders Valerie Boyd (Tippy Walker) and Marian Gilbert (Merrie Spaeth). Both are new enrollees at the tony Norton’s School for Girls in Manhattan's Upper East Side who establish a rapport over shared orthodontic burdens (i.e., braces: Marian has “rubber bands,” Val sports “railroad tracks”). Plus, a mutual appreciation of their temple of learning:
Val: “Do you like it?”
Marian: “They say it’s the finest girls' school in the country.”
Val: “I don’t either.”

But chiefly they share an inarticulate loneliness and the 14-year-old’s gift for filling the void of unsatisfactory home lives with an immersion in vivid flights of fancy.
"Gil" and "Val" (as they call one another) dream about the ideal family life

Valerie, a born fantasist, is musically gifted and branded a misfit at school due to her high IQ and family-rooted developmental problems (“I’m unmanageable,” she boast-confesses about being kicked out of two schools in one year). Traipsing about New York with disheveled hair and wearing an old, full-length mink (a hand-down from her mother, no doubt), she suffers the neglect of wealthy, globe-trotting parents (Angela Lansbury and Tom Bosley). Marian, an impressionable pragmatist of humbler circumstances than her private school peers (“Don’t tell me you finally found a friend in that snob hatchery!”), comes from a loving but broken home where she’s looked after by her divorced mother (Phyllis Thaxter) and materteral family friend, “Boothy” (Bibi Osterwald). 
Bibi Osterwald as Erica "Boothy" Booth and Phyllis Thaxter as Mrs. Avis Gilbert
 taking in a Henry Orient concert: "If this is music, what's that stuff Cole Porter writes?"

When a string of fateful, frightful coincidences consistently throw Val and Marian into the path of the playboy pianist --literally, in one instance--the girls, convinced of destiny’s intervention, swear blood-oath, lifelong devotion to their beloved. That Val & Marian’s ardent attentions come to inadvertently wreak havoc on Henry’s attempts to seduce a very-married patron of the arts (the wonderful Paula Prentiss, stealing every scene) is where The World of Henry Orient finds its humor. That the eyes of a couple of quixotic 14-year-olds can transform a mediocre musician and world-class phony into the fulfilled embodiment of all that is artistically pure and romantic in life is where The World of Henry Orient finds its heart.
"And then two small bladders came out of their mouths!"
Henry Orient describing his first sighting of Val and Marian 

Set in a romanticized New York that never existed (something the film’s young stars were dismayed to discover when in real-life they reenacted the scene where a concerned mob rushes to the aid of one of the girls as she feigns illness on a busy city street [in real-life, apathetic pedestrians merely stepped over them]), The World of Henry Orient celebrates the emotional resiliency of the young, suggesting that a fertile imagination is ofttimes the only line of defense afforded those vulnerable souls whose fate it is to make the best of the messes adults make of their lives.

That both comedy and dramatic conflict arise out of the struggle to maintain a hopeful dreaminess in the face of disillusionment and the inevitable eye-opening of maturity is what makes The World of Henry Orient an uncommonly insightful film about teenagers that also contains a few lessons for adults.
The Family You Create Can Be More Important Than The One You're Born Into
A particularly well-played and sensitively written scene has Mrs. Gilbert and Boothy, in an empathetic effort to make Val feel less self-conscious about her daily visits to a psychiatrist, both confess (to the surprise of Marian) to having "hit the couch" at one time or another in their past.

The timeline of its release and its favorable reception places The World of Henry Orient right at the start of the "youth wave" in motion pictures. Released one year after the first Beach Party moviea genre noted for its overage teens and absentee parentsThe World of Henry Orient is distinguished by being a film about adolescents whose stars are actually adolescents (Walker and Spaeth were 16 and 15, respectively). 
Like Disney’s The Parent Trap (released two years earlier), The World of Henry Orient, too, is about teens from broken homes, but its approach isn't as sanitized. The World of Henry Orient came out two years before another Hayley Mills film-The Trouble with Angels, and shares with it the rarefied status of being a major motion picture featuring female protagonists...their relationships and points of view...as the central focus of the narrative.

Based on Nora Johnson's debut novel first published in 1958, The World of Henry Orient was inspired by her New York childhood and the adolescent crush she harbored for pianist Oscar Levant (Levant is the French word for Orient, explaining the title character’s unusual last name). It was adapted for the screen by her father, Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath, How to Marry a Millionaire, Black Widow), whose extensively reworked screenplay is purported to have been completed without his daughter’s participation, but (perhaps in an effort to make up for being such a non-presence in her early life...the Johnsons divorced when Nora was five) he nevertheless granted her a co-writing credit and billing above his own.
Old-School Fangirls
The World of Henry Orient was released a month before The Beatles' first visit to the U.S. 

As autobiographical first novels go, Nora Johnson’s paean to the power of imagination to compensate for the absence of parental attention was the teenage antithesis to Françoise Sagan’s 1954 mordant memoir Bonjour Tristesse (written when Sagan was 18, Johnson’s when she was 25). While both books benefited from unsentimental perspectives, the essentially optimistic teens of Henry Orient were far more recognizable to American audiences than Sagan's cynical sophisticate. Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay lightened the tone of his daughter’s novel, fashioning it into a delightful, genuinely witty comedy with humor derived from character as much as calamity.
Noteworthy for the appealingly natural performances of its two leads, the film improves upon the book by eliminating Val’s therapist and fleshing out the girls' relationships with the adult characters via a three-pronged structure that matches the plot's shifting narrative perspective with corresponding variations in tone.
Henry Orient's offbeat piano concerto (featuring a factory whistle and a bass drum struck by a sack of potatoes) was composed by Ken Lauber, who appears in the film as the exasperated conductor

First, there's the coming-of-age comedy, which follows the breezy adventures of two girls loose in a picture-postcard vision of New York. Then there's the bedroom farce, which chronicles Henry's broadly-played attempts to seduce Stella. Finally, we have the adult satire which presents the adults of Henry Orient as the reality counterpoint to the fantasy world the girls have created for themselves. As the movie explores the differing ways in which children and adults deal with life's disappointments, The World of Henry Orient never once condescends to the girls, nor does it make all adults out to be fools or villains. Rather, the film treats all the characters with wry affection and a surprising amount of empathy.  
Paula Prentiss's elegant eccentricity brightens every scene. I can't--nor do I want to---watch anyone else.
She and Sellers reteamed the following year in What's New, Pussycat?

As a kid who spent a great deal of his adolescence in a paradoxical effort to both escape into and find myself within the flickering images of a movie screen; what I most relate to in The World of Henry Orient is the way it so entertainingly dramatizes the way young people, nonautonomous and dependent upon parents, can find temporary happiness in substituting dreams for reality when that reality is found wanting.
The film makes its points in emotionally perceptive ways. In particular, I like the scene where Val and Marian share a secret smile when the clock strikes six, the time of the day Marian confesses to most missing her absent and remarried father.
The film's only sour notes come when the girls, taking their cue from their idol's last name, lapse into the kind of non-malicious, yet nonetheless cringe-inducing, stereotypical Asian behavior (broken English, bowing) that we now recognize as casual racism. While nothing on the scale of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, the scenes are still plenty embarrassing and ultimately disappointing. 

Special mention must also be made of Elmer Bernstein's splendid musical score which enlivens every scene, and the sensational New York locations. It makes Manhattan look like a kids' Playland.

There are exceptions, but as a rule, I’m inclined to find most child actors annoying. They’re like some kind of dreamscape hybrid creature--juvenile bodies possessed of a lifetime’s worth of artifice and affectation. Paradoxically, I’m not much fonder of the practice of pawning off getting-on-in-years actors like Ann-Margret (Bye Bye Birdie) and John Travolta (Grease) as high-schoolers either, but of the two, I find adults posing as kids to be less grating. Therefore, the biggest miracle and greatest source of delight in The World of Henry Orient are the relaxed, genuinely likable performances given by its two age-appropriate, unknown, inexperienced leads making their film debuts. 
With her deliciously icy turn as Val’s disinterested mother, the ever-faultless Angela Lansbury was more than ready to bring a close to nearly two decades’ worth of playing unsympathetic character roles. She ultimately traded in her withering gaze and wry delivery for twinkly smiles and Broadway musical-comedy legend status. TV-familiar Tom Bosley (Happy Days) is very good as the distracted dad, but at 35 to Lansbury’s 37, Bosley felt he was “A little too young to be Angela’s husband.”

I don’t know how George Roy Hill did it, but Walker and Spaeth give such spirited, engagingly unselfconscious performances that it's hard to believe this is their first film. (One unsavory contributing factor perhaps influencing Walker's performance is that during filming, the married-with-children, 44-year-old director embarked on a creepy, purportedly platonic “relationship” with the 16-year-old former model which lasted several years). The quality of the young women's work (particularly Walker, who’s so heartbreaking in the film’s third act) is made all the more remarkable when contrasted with the patent amateurishness of the two equally inexperienced teenage girls cast by William Castle (per his usual copycat fashion) in  I Saw What You Did (1965). Trade periodicals from the time reveal that The World of Henry Orient was originally envisioned as a vehicle for Hayley Mills and Patty Duke, but I can’t imagine either of those seasoned vets improving upon the performances of these charismatic novices.
Character actor Al Lewis (aka "Grandpa" Munster) is a riot as a shopkeeper
 who fervently wants to be of assistance to Jayne Mansfield

Having made a splash in Lolita (1962), The Pink Panther (1963), and Dr. Stangelove (1964), The World of Henry Orient was Peter Sellers’ first American film. Renowned for his skill in playing multiple roles in several of his films, I am nevertheless relieved that Sellers only plays one part in The World of Henry Orient, for as much as I like him, a little of Sellers can go a very long way. His top-billed role here is more of a showy guest star turn, the innate theatricality of the self-enchanted Orient allowing Sellers to shine in a brilliantly exaggerated manner, while simultaneously preventing him from overstaying his welcome. His Henry Orient is one of my favorite Sellers performances precisely because it's one of the few to actually leave me wanting more.
The most lauded and commented-upon aspect of his characterization (deservedly so) is the way the Brooklyn born pianist’s accent keeps slipping from Bulgarian, French, Italian, and back to Brooklynese, depending on the situation. When on the make, his Henry Orient comes across like a guy who learned about seduction from watching reruns of Renso Cesana as The Continental
"I will give someone 1,000 dinars who can find one gray hair on my head!"
My partner harbors such a deep-rooted antipathy towards Peter Sellers that I actually resorted to trickery to get him to watch The World of Henry Orient. I began the film after the opening credits had rolled, and my partner fell in love with the film before he even recognized it was Peter Sellers (he thought it was Gene Kelly in "The Pirate" mode).

There’s no arguing that representation matters, but in the movies and TV shows of the ‘60s, adolescent girls almost exclusively saw themselves represented in ways subordinate to and reflective of a negative adolescent male perspective (“Dumb ol’ Margaret” in Dennis the Menace, or “creepy” Judy in Leave it to Beaver). The lone exceptions and only TV programs I recall in which the lives and relationships of adolescent girls were central and presented as genuine were The Patty Duke Show and Gidget.
There have always been motion pictures with teenage girls as central characters within the framework of larger, family-centric stories: i.e., A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), The Actress (1953), and Pollyanna (1960). And some—like Margie (1946), A Date with Judy (1948), and the “Tammy” and “Gidget” franchises—even placed teenage girls front-and-center of their own stories. Unfortunately, the storylines of these films were so often devoted to the heroine’s romantic misadventures that all other female characters were depicted as either rivals or bullies. Female friendships were a rarity.

“One thing about unwanted children, they soon learn how to take care of themselves”
Val and Marian’s liberating flights of fantasy are repeatedly intruded upon by adults (the concerned crowd, the overly-helpful shopkeeper, the parent with no respect for privacy), all events that underscore themes relating to the vulnerability of adolescence and the sometimes-dispiriting lack of control the young have over their circumstances.

I grew up in a house with four sisters drawn to (and catching me up in their orbit) entertainments centered around female characters. Unfortunately, for these four beautiful, vibrant Black girls with imagination and confidence to spare, images of themselves in movies and TV during the '60s were virtually non-existent, except as totems of white tolerance in special “social problem” episodes of their favorite TV shows. Even during the ‘70s, when I could find glimpses of my own existence in the teenage Black males at the center of The Learning Tree (1969), Sounder (1972), and Cooley High (1975); I can think of only one film from the entire decade that was about a black teenage girl: Ossie Davis’1972 film Black Girl.
Local Color
Angela Lansbury's Tony Award-winning turn in Broadway's Mame was still two years off, but this party scene looks like an early dry-run for the "It's Today!" number. The only scene in the film to significantly feature actors of color, its objective is to illustrate her character's high-style sophistication

Forced to live within themselves and cling to any depiction of girlhood they could get (movie-wise, Hayley Mills and Annette Funicello were pretty much it), all of my sisters responded enthusiastically to The World of Henry Orient when it aired on TV. None more so than my next-to-oldest sister, the film buff and Beatles fan who dragged me to The Trouble with Angels more times than I can count, and for whom The World of Henry Orient was something of a mirror into her life. To say she liked this movie is a serious understatement. This film spoke to her.

A Catholic school girl well-acquainted with feeling like a misfit, my sister was Val to her best girlfriend’s Gil; together they would spend entire Saturdays roaming the city of Denver, Colorado (where we lived before moving to San Francisco) creating mischief and having adventures. When she watched The World of Henry Orient—which she did, rapturously, every time it aired—it was clear to me that the big smile on her face was a smile of recognition. Not physical recognition, for no one in the film looked like her at all (it would be many years before she ever saw an authentic depiction of herself onscreen), but emotional recognition: I could tell she was responding to seeing just a little bit of her inner self reflected back to her from the TV screen.
Black Girl Excellence
An unforeseen reaction to my seeing Annie (2014): a multimillion-dollar musical built around a 10-year-old Black girl (Quvenzhane Wallis): and Black Panther (2018): a global blockbuster featuring a 16-year-old Black girl who is a science genius and warrior (Letitia Wright); was how often I found myself brought to tears watching these beautiful young women, thinking about what such images would have meant to my sisters growing up.

If part of our contemporary pop culture (fashion, the music industry) appears to be in a race to have girls acquire the tools to sexualize and objectify themselves as early as possible, another part (books, films, TV, behind-the-scenes production) feels as though it is listening to the creative and artistic voices of women and girls of all types. With more women—gay, straight, trans, Black, Asian, Latina—telling their own stories and becoming involved in the fields of writing, directing, and producing; I look forward to the day when there are more movies about the lives and friendships of girls. When a movie like The World of Henry Orient is more the cinematic norm than the rapturous rarity it remains.

In 1967 The World of Henry Orient was turned into a flop Broadway musical. Both the film's director and screenwriter collaborated on the stage production which ran a scant three months, garnered two Tony Award nominations, and featured Golden Age 20th-Century Fox musical star Don Ameche in the Peter Sellers role. The show, if remembered at all, is cited for the participation of a young Pia Zadora, the dances by choreographer Michael Bennett, and the appearance of several original members of A Chorus Line.

Twenty years after playing the unhappily-married Boyds in The World of Henry Orient, Angela Lansbury and Tom Bosley reunited on considerably more amicable terms as author Jessica Fletcher and Sheriff Amos Tupper on the long-running TV series Murder, She Wrote

I wish I could remember something about the circumstances surrounding getting this Tom Bosley autograph. In its stead, I suppose I should be grateful that I at least recorded the date.

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2016

Sunday, October 28, 2018


I remember having had a dismissive reaction to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death when ads for the low-budget feature began appearing in the newspaper during the summer of 1971. I was never much into horror in those days, my tendency to take them too seriously spoiling all the intended fun of being scared, so the somewhat jocular tone of the title only cemented my resolve to leave the film alone. 
My older sister, a horror enthusiast and the only one of us kids to make it through the broadcast TV premiere of Psycho in 1967, went to see “Jessica” and had raved about it, but I couldn’t be swayed. Jump ahead to the late-‘70s.
Films like Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) had turned me into, if not exactly a bonafide horror hound, then certainly an individual more appreciative of the genre and its power to do more than simply offer up the odd shiver and gasp. By this time I'd also come to be aware of actress Zohra Lampert via her appealing but brief appearance as Warren Beatty's make-do wife in Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass. A unique and talented two-time Tony Award nominee with an Actor’s Studio pedigree, Lampert was so unlike the type of actress one usually finds in horror movies, I was intrigued.
Happily, by this time Let’s Scare Jessica to Death had become something of a staple on late-night TV and local Creature Features-style programs.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death's eventual status as a cult film grew out of these wee-small-hours-of-the-morning broadcasts, but as far as I was concerned, if there was ever a film one should not be introduced to via the accompaniment of frequent commercial interruptions; intrusive, mood-killing host segments; and the murky dimness of pre-HD TV, it’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Already dealt a death blow with a grossly misleading shocker title that sets the viewer up for deathly scares that never materialize, the addition of commercials and comedy bumpers completely blows Let’s Scare Jessica to Death's deliberate pacing and low-simmer disquietude straight to hell. The first time I saw it, Let's Scare Jessica to Death felt like the slowest, darkest (as in underlit), least-eventful horror film I’d ever seen. I only made it through about 30 minutes before I grew impatient with waiting for something to happen. Nearly 30 years would pass before we’d meet again and I'd come to realize that when it comes to certain films, patience is definitely a virtue.  
Zohra Lampert as Jessica
Barton Heyman as Duncan
Mariclare Costello as Emily
Kevin O'Connor as Woody

Following the death of her father, New Yorker Jessica (who appears to be a folk artist of some sort) suffers a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized for six months. Upon her release, Jessica's husband Duncan quits his job as cellist for the New York Philharmonic, and in the interest of starting a new life, sinks all of their savings into the purchase of a 19th Century farmhouse and apple orchard in a remote rural section of Connecticut. With the help of their family friend, Woody, Jessica and Duncan embark on their pilgrimage, Jessica (whom it’s alluded has had no say or hand in the selection of the house) expending considerable energy in trying to convince them...and herself...that all is “fine” and that the ever-escalating doubts she harbors about the state of her sanity are baseless. But they aren't.
Almost immediately upon arrival, Jessica begins hearing voices and experiencing what she believes to be hallucinations, but she's afraid to voice her concerns. Not an easy task, given that their new home looks like it was once owned by The Munsters and that its history is attached to a macabre local vampire legend. Adding further fuel to Jessica's mental health fires, the nearby town is totally devoid of women and populated exclusively by bandaged, oddly antagonistic, old men. 
Upon moving in, Jessica discovers their new home to be occupied by a beautiful hippie interloper ("squatter" is such an inelegant word, don’t you find?) named Emily, whom she invites to stay, much to the barely-contained delight of both Duncan and Woody. Unfortunately, this act of hippie-era generosity sets into motion a series of events that exposes the new tenants to a deadly, ages-old supernatural threat and stoke the fires of madness leading to Jessica’s mental and emotional disintegration.
Gretchen Corbett as The Girl in White

It was 2010 before I ever sat down and watched Let’s Scare Jessica to Death in its entirety. By which time the middling state of contemporary horror films had given me an appreciation of the very things I once hadn't cared for in this movie back when I first saw it in 1978. In fact, its depiction of post-60s hippiedom is so evocative that I really wish I had seen it during its initial 1971 release. It perfectly captures the feel of what I recall about ‘70s-era Berkeley: a time when many of the privileged Bay Area hippies grew tired of playing at being poor and either resettled, en masse, in Mill Valley, or seized up ll the old Victorian houses around Berkeley and renovated them. Most of these post-'60s hippies looked a great deal like the cast of this movie. 
But I digress.  

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is largely a mood-piece vampire film, another in the 1970s female vampire movie trend (Daughters of Darkness, The Velvet Vampire) which cribbed liberally from the 1872 Gothic novel Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu that predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by 26 years. Although it has a couple of scenes that made me start and got the hairs on my neck to stand up, it’s principally one of those horror movies I’d categorize as disturbing. It’s get-under-your-skin creepy rather than jump out of your seat scary. A genuinely unsettling horror movie that works on a number of levels, all playing to things like paranoia, the fluidity of reality, and the human capacity to make the ordinary look sinister if we try hard enough. 
Relatable Horror
Let's Scare Jessica to Death plays on everyday fears: shadowy hallways, whispered voices, and unexplained noises. In this instance, the dreaded "Something's grabbed my leg!!"  terror of every outdoor swimmer.

To its benefit, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death tries to do something different with the tropes of the vampire genre; giving a nod to tradition here and there (whether treated reverentially or casually, impending death remains a constant presence), but deviating from the expected in interesting ways. For instance, I like how the vampire, a bride who drowned just before her wedding 100 years ago, doesn’t have fangs, wears white, and, in lieu of biting a victim's neck as a means of blood extraction, uses the knife intended for her wedding cake.

Because the film is largely concerned with creating a haunting mood of menace and dread, not a lot of what occurs actually adds up logically. But the central conceit of presenting the film from Jessica’s subjective, arguably splintered, point of view, allows for narrative murkiness to work in the film’s favor.
Flirting with Death
They drive around in a hearse, her husband's cello case looks like a coffin, and
Jessica's hobby is visiting graveyards to make tombstone rubbings

The strength of Zohra Lampert’s performance is so persuasive that I tend to (mistakenly) regard Let’s Scare Jessica to Death as a character-based horror film. It’s not, its characters are sketchily written at best, and while uniformly good, few of the other actors register beyond par-for-the-course for the exploitation horror genre. Mariclare Costello brings an assured, assertive quality to a character meant to be enigmatic. The likable Kevin O’Connor (who portrayed Humphrey Bogart in the truly dreadful 1980 TV-movie, Bogie) falls victim to tonsorial trendiness: little in the way of a performance is allowed to emerge from behind those huge sideburns, that enormous mane of styled ‘70s hair, and his Ned Flanders mustache.
I quite like Barton Heyman (who some might remember as the physician subjecting poor Linda Blair to all those tests in The Exorcist), as the overconcerned husband. He has several moments where he conveys a protective fear and resigned sympathy for Jessica that makes you wish his role were better written.
But the film is unimaginable without the superb Zohra Lampert. Her Jessica is a Master Class in how an inventive, skilled actor can put ten times more onscreen than is found on the written page. With almost nothing to work with beyond “neurotic,” Lampert (Warren Beatty’s shy bride in 1961’s Splendor in the Grass) sidesteps the clichés of the “woman in peril” and makes Jessica a complex, richly realized, wholly unique (and heartbreaking) character you can’t take your eyes off of. 

Beyond the compelling vulnerability, Zohra Lampert brings to the character of Jessica, I find myself most drawn to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’s sustained atmosphere of dreamlike creepiness. How it's achieved is clearly deliberate in some instances: the unsettlingly calm shots of the misty cove and surrounding forest; the angled, shadowy claustrophobia of the farmhouse. In others, it’s just as obviously the result of happy accidents: the film’s low-rent production values lend the film a turbid, documentary quality that makes every shot look, to borrow a quote from MST3K, “Like someone’s last known photograph.” 

Another asset, one that’s proved instrumental to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death's cult reputation, is its one-size-fits-all ambiguity. Presented with the prospect that all the events we witness are filtered through Jessica's neurotic gaze, the film opens itself up to myriad interpretations.
Lesbian Panic
One theory posits that the film is a hallucinatory delusion born of Jessica's
friendly/fearful attraction to the sensual Emily

In making his directorial debut, John D. Hancock (Bang the Drum Slowly - 1973) has cited Henry James' The Turn of the Screw as a direct influence, yet he also readily admits that several of the most tantalizingly obtuse elements in the film aren’t exactly pertinent pieces of an intricately thought-out puzzle. If the séance sequence and the appearance of the mysterious girl in white seem to make no sense and appear to have no connection to the plot, it’s for good reason: both were included at the suggestion of an exhibitor, and the insistence of the producer, respectively.
Feminist Revenge
Another theory sees the film through the prism of Jessica's response to her father's death and 
repressed feelings of hostility/resentment toward her disloyal and infantilizing husband. 

Such is the interactive magic and power of movies, apropos of the horror genre, especially. If you succeed in engaging the audience on a visceral level, to reach them through means of visual theory and emotional engagement, then their imaginations will always work to fill in the plot holes and gaps of logic. For me, Let's Scare Jessica to Death isn't a horror film that works in spite of it not making much sense, it works specifically because it doesn't make much sense. 

The Madwoman in the Attic
Let's Scare Jessica to Death shares with other atmospheric Gothics like The Innocents, Rosemary's Baby, and The Haunting, a heroine whose questionable sanity brands her an unreliable narrator. Ironically, by fade-out, most of these films tend to end on a note of "I Believe the Woman."

Something occurred to me while watching (as much as I could stomach) the horrorshow that was the 2018 SCOTUS hearings. It occurred to me that one of the things that has come to most characterize the current American socio-political climate has been the emergent spectacle of the hysterical male. They’ve always been around, these bastions of toxic/fragile masculinity, but never before has there been such a public parade of wild-eyed, blubbering, irrational, excitable, over-emotional (largely white and heterosexual) men, frothing at the mouth over an incapability of aligning an antiquated, deluded self-image to an evolving reality.
Eve Was Weak
Jessica is about to pick an apple from their recently sprayed orchard
 before Duncan warns her that it's poison

When explored in films at all, the phenomenon of the hysterical male has featured most often in the context of the paranoid thriller: films where a disbelieved male (whom the audience knows is actually right) fights a corrupt system. But given their visible abundance in real life, it's surprising to think how seldom the hysterical male appears in horror films.
Given that masculinity is a social construct only slightly less sturdy than the membrane lining an eggshell, it would seem a natural vulnerability topic for the horror genre; but Gothic tradition has long deemed the psychotic woman to be the defining trope of helplessness. When the psychotic man appears in horror, instead of being depicted as a victim or weak figure (which likely wouldn't sit too well with the genre's sizable male fanbase) his hysteria is inevitably framed in terms of his being an agent of violence or figure of fear.  
"It's OK Jess, I saw it, too."
Encouraged by her mental illness not to trust her own perceptions, Jessica frequently looks to the men in her life to validate her reality. A fine dramatic conceit for a horror film, but one which also reflects a very real (and tiresome) social mindset 

The theme of feminine fragility is a common one in horror films, and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is no exception when it comes to Jessica’s tenuous grip on reality being both the focus of the film’s dramatic tension and the source of the audience’s emotional involvement. Jessica screams, shrieks, and wails while the men remain at a stoic, emotional remove. Even when she voices perfectly reasonable concerns regarding the strange behavior of the townsfolk or the appearance of the girl in white, the men’s uncurious and dismissive reactions reinforce the genre’s need to render unreliable a woman’s account of her own experience. In horror, women are emotional, the men are rational and sound.
Screams, whispers, and odd noises punctuate the sound design of Let's Scare Jessica to Death.
Another major asset is composer Orville Stoeber's bloodcurdling score.

Standing in contrast to Gothic traditionalism and the theme of "the disbelieved woman" is the gender-based disruption introduced by the character of Emily. In horror films, a female vampire is depicted in ways not dissimilar to that of the femme fatale in film noir. Her power lies in her awareness of men's vulnerability to her sexual allure. She has both agency and control over her fate because men are such easy prey. 
The horror film to explore the terrors of male fragility is perhaps yet to be made, but in having Jessica’s non-stop self-regulating offset by the consequences Duncan and Woody pay for their smug male self-assurance, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is spared from being just another Madwoman in the Attic horror Gothic.

There's a good reason why the female performances in Let's Scare Jessica to Death register so strongly.  Zohra Lampert and Mariclare Costello were both members of the prestigious Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center. In 1964 they appeared together in the debut American production of Arthur Miller's After The Fall which also featured Jason Robards and Faye Dunaway.

In 1980 Mariclare Costello appeared as Mary Tyler Moore's 
sister-in-law Audrey in the film Ordinary People

I sit here and I can’t believe that it happened. And yet I have to believe it.
 Dreams or nightmares…madness or sanity. I don’t know which is which. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2018

Wednesday, October 17, 2018


Spoiler alert: This is a critical essay, not a review. Pertinent 
details and plot points are referenced for the purpose of analysis.

The suspense thriller is one of my favorite movie genres, but some films age better than others. The Patty Duke starrer You’ll Like My Mother had already been branded a word-of-mouth “sleeper hit” when it opened in the San Francisco Bay Area in December of 1972, having already built a momentum of respectable reviews and favorable public response during its East Coast engagements earlier in the fall. By the time this minimally-publicized release from Bing Crosby Productions made its way out West (BCP's low-budget horror-thriller Willard had enjoyed a similar surprise success in 1970), the advance buzz about the film was considerable. Public interest in the film received a significant leg-up when up-and-coming co-star Richard Thomas became an overnight household name as the star of TV’s The Waltons, which had premiered that September. 

Additional free publicity (though hardly favorable) was generated by the tabloids making much of  Patty Duke's real-life Mamma Mia!-like paternity scandal. The Oscar-winning actress had recently given birth to son Sean, whose father was potentially one of three men: May/December fling Desi Arnaz, Jr (Duke was 24, Arnaz 17); quickie 13-day ex-husband Michael Tell*; or current husband (wed just 4 months at the time) John Astin. The fan magazines ate it up, and in spite of the potential public backlash, Universal Studios didn't seem to mind, given how often the word "mother" had to be used in each article. *In 1994 Sean Astin had a DNA test to determine Tell as his biological father. 
Patty Duke as Francesca Kinsolving
Rosemary Murphy as Mrs. Kinsolving
Richard Thomas as Kenneth Kinsolving
Sian Barbara Allen as Kathleen Kinsolving

Although my subscription to Rona Barrett’s Hollywood had kept me abreast of all the aforementioned Patty Duke daddy drama, I’d somehow avoided hearing a single thing about You’ll Like My Mother before catching sight of the poster for the film at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome during our family's Christmas Season visit to Los Angeles. Looking at the poster now, it reveals a graphic heavy-handedness and lack of confidence in its audience I would later find to be characteristic of the film itself; but at the time, I was so intrigued by those scissors and all those exclamation points, I couldn’t wait to see it. 
Lest someone get the wrong idea and mistake it for a bit of homespun wholesomeness like TV's The Waltons, the film was marketed with the words "a thriller" in large type and in such close proximity, it appeared to be part of the complete title

Francesca (Duke) is the enormously pregnant wife of an Army pilot recently killed in Vietnam. Having met and wed in a whirlwind, Francesca and husband Matthew hadn’t been married long, nor even knew that much about the other, but during their brief time together Matthew would often say to his bride, “You’ll like my mother.”
On the strength of that endorsement, Francesca, widowed and without family of her own, braves a 3-day winter bus journey from Los Angeles to Minnesota to visit her mother-in-law; a woman she’s never met, never spoken to, or knows anything about.  

A snowstorm greets Francesca’s arrival at her destination, a small, remote town far from anything but snow, snow, and more snow. But the storm is like a day at the beach compared to the frosty response she receives from townsfolk whenever she mentions her husband's family name: Kinsolving...red flag number one. With weather conditions preventing vehicle transportation to the doorway of Kinsolving home, Francesca, ill-dressed for the occasion and looking every day of her clearly-advanced state of pregnancy, has to trudge through Zhivago-levels of snow to make it to her mother-in-law's home--a large, imposing estate possessing all the coziness of The Overlook Hotel. 
The Kinsolving home is actually the Glensheen mansion in Duluth, Minnesota. In real life, the location gained notoriety in 1977 as the site of the shocking Congdon heiress double murder

If at first glance the Jacobean-style architecture of the Kinsolving mansion appears lacking in the sort of eerie ornamentation one comes to expect from Gothic melodramas like this, fear not, for Francesca’s knock on the door summons forth a true flesh-and-blood gargoyle: Mrs. Kinsolving herself. Frostily disdainful of her uninvited guest from the get-go (“Why did you feel you had to come here?”), Mrs. Kinsolving’s internal Frigidaire setting hits glacier-level when the sight of her daughter-in-law’s filled-to-bursting state of pregnancy fails to inspire grandmotherly concern. Rather, it triggers she's-trying-to-horn-in-on-the-inheritance apprehension—"Since I didn’t acknowledge [you] the first time as Matthew’s wife, I saw no reason to applaud the progress [you’ve] made.”
Adding further to Francesca’s newfound family tree fun is the double-barreled discovery that Matthew has an intellectually-disabled, virtually non-verbal sister he never told her about, plus a distant, clearly homicidal cousin named Kenny who currently just so happens to be on the loose and wanted for a brutal murder.
When Francesca makes the wise decision, there and then, to hightail it out of Kinsolving Place as fast as her belly and boots will allow, she can hardly be blamed. But alas, her departure is waylaid by a stalled car, a disconnected phone (along with no TV, houses like this never have working phones), and an encroaching blizzard. When snow-clogged roads turn an awkward overnight stay into an acrimonious open-ended sojourn, Francesca's guest status soon takes on the appearance of imprisonment.   
Mrs. Kinsolving allows Francesca to stay in Matthew's old room

Thus far, an irresistible (if a shade familiar) stage has been set in having unforeseeable circumstances (a storm) force Francesca to confront a suspicious situation rife with questions both she and the viewer are asking: Why do the townsfolk react like horses hearing the name Frau Blücher whenever Francesca mentions the Kinsolving family? Why is Matthew’s mother so blatantly hostile and why did she lie about not receiving a telegram announcing her son’s marriage? Why hadn't Matthew told Francesca about weird cousin Kenny and kept his sister a secret? Is there someone else in the house? Mystery and viewer-identification are intensified from initially only knowing as much as Francesca knows. Later, when more information is disclosed, suspense springs from knowing...long before it dawns on Francesca...precisely the degree of real danger she's placed herself in.

The element of time becomes a suspense factor as well, as Mrs. Kinsolving needs to get Francesca out of the house before the unwanted visitor has time to unearth the secrets everyone in the household is so invested in keeping hidden.  Meanwhile, tension mounts as Francesca’s any-minute-now delivery date render an escape on foot an impossibility, while also leaving her vulnerable to Mrs. Kinsolving’s inclination (she’s a registered nurse) to drugging her and giving her shots without consent.
You’ll Like My Mother is a nifty, PG-rated (thrills are on the effective-but-tepid side), woman-in-peril suspenser in the classic tradition of all those paperback Gothics with covers featuring a woman in a long flowing gown running away from a sinister-looking mansion looming in the distance. Well-acted, atmospheric, but populated with stock characters and rarely deviating from formula; it’s a film that plays well on first viewing but whose plot doesn’t withstand the scrutiny of repeat visits.
Dennis Rucker as Red Cooper

I enjoy You’ll Like My Mother a great deal, but the disparity in my response to seeing it in 1972 and now is rather jarring. For the longest time, I harbored memories of it being this incredibly intense moviegoing experience…a nail-biting, suspenseful thrill ride I treated myself to four times over that Christmas holiday. Part Rosemary’s Baby (1968), part captive-damsel-in-distress/hag-horror Gothic à la Tallulah Bankhead’s Die! Die! My Darling! (1965); I remember being thoroughly gripped by Patty Duke’s predicament and startled by each new plot twist and character revelation. Because virtually no one else at school had even heard of it, I sang the film’s praises to any and all as this undiscovered gem they simply had to see.
When I watch the film now—seeing it through a nostalgia prism which takes into consideration my having been a 15-year-old at the time and not very well-versed in the clichés of the women-in-peril genre—I’m still able to access certain things I responded to so favorably long ago. For instance, I continue to be impressed by Rosemary Murphy’s iron butterfly take on motherhood, the shivery Minnesota setting, and the plot overall retains its bizarre quirkiness. But by and large, I find myself a little bemused when confronted with just how little it took for a movie to scare me in those days.

Sparsely populated, over-reliant on close-ups, with nearly every plot device spelled out for even the slowest on the uptake, You’ll Like My Mother plays more like your better-than-average made-for-TV movie than a major feature film. This is no doubt due to the film being helmed by veteran television director Lamont Johnson (That Certain Summer -1972) who directed Patty Duke to her only Emmy Award win in 1970s My Sweet Charlie
Though only 92-minutes long, You’ll Like My Mother is paced in that deliberate way characteristic of a great many ‘70s films, but in this instance the leisurely unfolding of the film's minimal action (once Duke is in that house, she's IN that house) calls attention to the many holes in the plot while inviting the viewer to remain always one step ahead of the familiar storyline.
Pray for Francesca's Baby
In the final analysis, nostalgia aside and divorced from any expectation for the film to live up to my teenage experience of it, You'll Like My Mother measures up as a fine, low-wattage suspense thriller that feels perfectly scaled for the small screen. Devoid of the clockwork shock cuts and audience-pandering excesses of so many of today's thrillers, I found myself appreciative of the film's direct, no-frills approach to the material. The performances still hold up--a little less so in regard to Sian Barbara Allen's Golden Globe-nominated turn. But the film benefits from a lack of Neely O'Hara overplaying on the part of from Patty Duke, and from an effectively offbeat (make that downright weird) story. While no edge-of-the-seat thrill-ride, I was surprised to find  You'll Like My Mother still crazy after all these years.

In the language of the studio pitch meeting, You’ll Like My Mother really is Rosemary’s Baby meets Die! Die! My Darling!, with perhaps a little bit of Psycho mother-fixation on the side. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as narratively assured as Polanski’s classic, nor as agreeably camp as Bankhead’s cinema swan song. But the mother-son stuff measures up as appropriately creepy.
Most obviously, You’ll Like My Mother evokes memories of Rosemary’s Baby in that a major thrust of the story is how Francesca’s pregnancy and baby are placed at risk. For not only is Francesca constantly lied to and given mysterious drugs in drinks, but her own predicament and the potential fate of her child is metaphorically foreshadowed when she arrives at the Kinsolving home just as her mother-in-law has drowned a litter of kittens. Mrs. Kinsolving’s pointed explanation to her daughter-in-law is that her beloved and pedigreed feline “Forgot herself and mated with an alley cat. The kittens were no good of course.” 
A Boy's Best Friend Is His Mother
Mrs. Kinsolving's relationship with creepy Kenny has a Norman & Mrs. Bates quality to it

Because they share a guest-as-captive-prisoner theme, You’ll Like My Mother most closely resembles the less well-known Die! Die! My Darling!. Both films featuring large, isolated estates without phones--although in Mother that plot point is something of a red-herring--lorded over by imperious,  loony, matriarchs with unconventional surnames (Bankhead’s is Mrs. Trefoile) suggesting great wealth and closets full of skeletons. The films share the central dramatic conflict of a young heroine locked in a room at the mercy of a rancorous old woman who blames the girl for the death of her son and the alienation of maternal affection. I’m not sure why developmentally disabled household help was such a staple of the genre, but in the Bankhead film, the pathos duties assigned to Sian Barbara Allen are assumed by a young Donald Sutherland. 

After the blissful debacle of Valley of the Dolls, Patty Duke worked almost exclusively in television, making only one other film before this one--1969s Me, Natalie for which she won a Golden Globe. Duke has said that it took years for her to appreciate Valley of the Dolls for the beloved camp classic it eventually became, but by her superb work in Me, Natalie, and her muted, underplaying performance here, it appears it didn't take her very long to learn the lesson of less is more. Duke gives a persuasive, intelligent performance here, displaying a subdued naturalism that would keep her working continually in television and film until her untimely death in 2016 at the age of 69.
Although their in-law relationship is antagonistic in You'll Like My Mother, Rosemary Murphy
and Patty Duke went on to play mother and daughter in the 1979 TV movie Before and After 

Not being a fan of The Waltons, my only awareness of Richard Thomas at the time was as one of the sociopathic teenagers in Frank Perry's disturbing Last Summer (1969), so his being cast as a possible rapist and serial killer didn't shock me as much as those who associated Thomas with the angel-faced John-boy Walton. Thomas is very good here, his malevolent boyishness creating the nightmare impression of a grown-up Dennis the Menace.
Actress Sian Barbara Allen gets an "introducing" credit in You'll Like My Mother, and her performance garnered near-unanimous praise along with the aforementioned Golden Globe nomination as Most Promising Newcomer. Although I still find her performance to be very touching and sympathetic, I must confess it was more effective when I was younger. These days I'm distracted by the fact that her characterization reminds me so much of Mia Farrow in Joseph Losey's Secret Ceremony -- all downcast cow eyes and dark hair cascading over her features. At the time, Allen and Thomas were quite the romantic item.
However, it's character actress Rosemary Murphy who makes the film for me. She's a credible villainess; ruthless, but not heartless. And she never once goes over the top or turns her character into a caricature. Her cool bearing hides a steely determination that makes Mrs. Kinsolving's motives unreadable and her actions all the more frightening.

Genre films are bound by a paradox that demands originality and freshness while still adhering to form. Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park (1969) or even Julie Christie's sci-fi curiosity Demon Seed (1977) stand as good examples of creative variations/subversions of the "captivity" melodrama. You’ll Like My Mother, which intentionally hews close to classic Gothic tradition, may not offer much in the way of novelty, but in being written by women, it bears the distinction of a female perspective. The original 1969 novel is by Naomi A. Hintze, its setting featuring an overflowing river instead of a snowstorm. Hintze's book was adapted for the screen by Jo Heims, the female screenwriter credited with writing the story for Clint Eastwood's directing debut - 1971’s Play Misty for Me.

Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009