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Be It Victorian England or '50s-era America, Women Are Driven Bonkers

Promo art for Lizzie (1957)

In several projects, Eleanor Parker embodied women trapped in desperate circumstances in 'The Woman in White' and 'Lizzie'.

The Woman in White

Director: Patrick Godfrey
Cast: Eleanor Parker, Alexis Smith
Distributor: Warner Archive
Year: 1948
USDVD release date: 2016-03-10


Director: Hugo Haas
Cast: Eleanor Parker, Richard Boone
Distributor: Warner Archive
Year: 1957
USDVD release date: 2016-03-10

Eleanor Parker was an intelligent, versatile actress best remembered today for playing the Baroness in The Sound of Music. In the '50s, she was thrice nominated for Oscars: as a distraught young woman sent to prison in Caged, as the distraught wife who confesses an abortion to her husband in Detective Story, and as an opera star distraught to discover she has polio in Interrupted Melody. In two films just released on demand from Warner Archive, she's distraught in multiple roles, as based on novels symbolizing the social and legal limits placed on women.

The story of Wilkie Collins' Victorian novel, The Woman in White (1948), seems designed to illustrate the lack of options women have when men have legal rights to their property and lives. Parker plays two roles: sheltered heiress Laura Fairlie and her imprisoned, unbalanced, illegitimate cousin (and half-sister, though the movie doesn't get that far), who's the spitting image of her and can be substituted without anyone noticing. As in the book, Laura finds strength with her resourceful cousin Marian (Alexis Smith) and artist Walter Hartright (Gig Young).

Sydney Greenstreet inevitably steals the show as the villainous Count Fosca, while John Abbott has fun as a useless invalid uncle. After the first act, the script by Stephen Morehouse Avery alters several details to make the women a little more self-reliant, beefing up the role of Countess Fosca (Agnes Moorehead) so that the film offers more of a subversive sisterhood to defend themselves against the hostile paternalistic world. The script also transfers Hartright's affections midway through the story, leading to an ending that gives the curious visual impression of his having two wives.

Henry Blanke's production extends to wonderful sets, lush music by Max Steiner, and Carl E. Guthrie's gliding camera and high-contrast lighting under Peter Godfrey's competent direction. The film is watchable and handsome, if a bit on the plodding side. Having to tell the story more straightforwardly, instead of through the novel's multiple voices, gives us a movie that freely moves among characters without having as strong a dramatic identification as it should.

Ten years later and moving up to the contemporary America of 1957, Lizzie finds Parker playing one woman with three personalities in Lizzie. Most of the time, Elizabeth's a meek and dowdy museum worker, always having headaches and being a killjoy. Those headaches turn out to be hangovers caused by Lizzie, the most powerful personality for whom the film is named and who spends her nights smearing on makeup and pushing down her shoulder-straps to pick up men in bars.

This loud, brazen, sexual persona is the one instantly labelled "coarse and evil" by understanding if touchy-feely shrink Dr. Wright (Richard Boone), who hypnotizes Elizabeth to get to the bottom of things with dreams and flashbacks to childhood traumas. The sneering Lizzie often threatens to "kill" Elizabeth by taking over completely. A third persona, Beth, is the well-balanced and confident career girl whom nobody ever sees, and a movie about her wouldn't be very interesting.

Lizzie is re-enacting Elizabeth's guilt-ridden memories of her alcoholic and sluttish mother (Dorothy Arnold in flashbacks), while Elizabeth lives with a similarly loud and sozzled aunt (Joan Blondell, unconvincing) who has apparently taken forever to notice anything untoward. Midway on the stars from one level of awareness to another, mild Elizabeth suddenly stands up straight, drops her voice an octave, and calls her shocked aunt a "drunken old slut". This is presented both as truth-telling and unacceptable. Lizzie is the raging id with contempt for all the middle-class niceties around her, and she clearly must be stopped!

This movie's caricaturish and psychological reductiveness allows its cultural assumptions to stand out starkly, with its triangle of alcoholic women as the "evil" personality lives to enjoy sensual pleasures. Getting drunk, having sex, shouting harshly, hanging out in dives, threatening to commit murder- -- it's all the same, a horror in any well-behaved young lady. It all goes back to a broken home, poor role models, and mama's sleazy boyfriend (John Reach), who vaguely resembles Lizzie's current grinning squeeze (Ric Roman).

Scripted by Mel Dinelli from Shirley Jackson's novel and produced by Jerry Bresler for Kirk Douglas' Bryna Productions through MGM, this is a very early example of a movie where an adolescent rape explains everything. In other words, the simplistic nature of the drama and its resolution is offset by its unusual pioneering status. The result is a "serious" movie that sensationalizes its topic to campy extremes, and that seriousness and campiness comprise a disorienting, schizophrenic vibe that makes the movie watchable and sometimes uncomfortable.

Moments of baroque garishness are provided amid the flatness and bluntness by director Hugo Haas, who plays the understanding neighbor. He's best known as the writer-producer-director of several B-pics starring himself as an older man obsessed with a young woman. This project, which he neither wrote nor produced, is more elevated than his comfort zone but still concerns sexual obsession and unsavory secrets.

Johnny Mathis appears in the bar scenes, where he plays piano and croons his imminent hit "It's Not For Me to Say" and a minor Bacharach/David song, "Warm and Tender". Future Happy Days mom Marion Ross plays Elizabeth's only would-be friend at the museum, a setting that should have offered richer symbolic possibilities. Leith Stevens provides jagged "crazy" music behind Paul Ivano's black and white photography, which tilts from drab realism to shadowy staircases to dream-sequence opticals.

This film came out a few months ahead of the more classy, tepid and respectable The Three Faces of Eve, supposedly based on a real case study; the latter film won all the accolades, including an Oscar for Joanne Woodward. While neither film is completely successful, Lizzie is the more uneven effort in style and perfunctory drama, with notably awkward editing in certain scenes. That said, it's clearly an adult and unusual product for 1957 and in certain details may be the more honest treatment of a controversial topic; Elizabeth's backstory has more valid trauma than Eve's.

Dinelli scripted several classics of middle-class suspense, including The Spiral Staircase, The Window, Beware My Lovely and the brilliant The Reckless Moment. Suburbia as a trap was his beat, and this film's relative lack of success must be due to stressing the cerebral, "realistic" aspects of a story whose dramas are primarily internal, played out before mirrors and in dark offices.

The multiple personality topic was so new that MGM didn't know how to describe it in advertising except with the Jekyll-Hyde trope. All Jekyll-Hyde variants, including early psycho-thrillers like Hangover Square and A Double Life, naturally use one personality as a killer, the unleashing of repressed evil. The trailer calls the heroine a "Jekyll and Hyde girl" and asks "How many girls ever admit they have more than one personality -- a wish to be different? Lizzie did. See what happened." You can almost see the cautionary finger wagging at those who wish to be different.

I haven't read Jackson's novel but Jackson did, and her article about watching the film is in the new collection Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings. She writes: "Out of my many conflicting reactions, the only one I can isolate clearly is excitement", because she'd never seen one of her stories enacted before. More telling is the reaction of three of her kids, if she's not exaggerating for comic effect as she often did. She says it was her young son's second movie, after Cinderella. He loved the MGM lion and thought the rest of it not very much different from Cinderella, which is an acute observation for a child or anyone.

A young daughter "broke into enthusiastic cheering at the sight of my name on the screen and had to be violently hushed by her horribly embarrassed father and brother" -- even though it was a private showing in an empty theatre. An older sister found it "more deeply disturbing. She sat through the entire show in silence, refused to join in the later discussion at the dinner table, and had nightmares all night. Under other circumstances, I had realized by then, it would not be the kind of movie we would take Jannie to at all; I could measure the extent of its disturbance to her by my own reactions." A master of the indirect, as usual, Jackson elaborates no further.


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