Autumn Leaves (1956)


(director: Robert Aldrich; screenwriters: from a story by Jean Rouverol/Jean Rouverol/Hugo Butler/Lewis Meltzer/Robert Blees; cinematographer: Charles Lang; editor: Michael Luciano; music: Hans J. Salter; cast: Joan Crawford (Millicent Wetherby), Cliff Robertson (Burt Hanson), Vera Miles (Virginia Hanson), Lorne Greene (Mr. Hanson), Ruth Donnelly (Liz), Shepperd Strudwick (Dr. Malcolm Couzzens); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: William Goetz; Columbia; 1956)

“Though it’s strictly soap opera, Joan Crawford lifts it higher than all the falling autumn leaves.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Nat King Cole sings with class the popular Johnny Mercer title song. Robert Aldrich (“The Dirty Dozen”/”Too Late the Hero”/”Kiss Me Deadly”) directs this weepie “woman’s pic” melodrama with style. Though it’s strictly soap opera, Joan Crawford lifts it higher than all the falling autumn leaves. She’s good at acting out parts that call for longtime suffering and makes the part of a lonely victim one that has some breath. It’s written by Jean Rouverol, Hugo Butler, Lewis Meltzer and Robert Blees.

The 50-year-old Joan Crawford plays Millicent Wetherby, a self-employed freelance typist who is an attractive fortysomething but a lonely old maid. Her only friend is Liz (Ruth Donnelly), the sour landlord of the bungalow apartment where she resides. After attending a piano concert at the L. A. Symphony Hall, Milly gets picked up in a crowded restaurant over chicken salad by a man half her age, Burt Hanson (Cliff Robertson, 31 at the time). The persistent handsome young man, just out of the army and settling down in Los Angeles from Wisconsin (but later we learn it’s actually Chicago), fights off her rebuffs over age differences and they marry. Their temporary bliss at their Mexican honeymoon soon gives way to Burt’s past secrets surfacing, such as him being a compulsive liar, his bouts with schizophrenia and a visit from his vengeful ex-spouse Virginia Hanson (Vera Miles) when wifey didn’t even know hubby was previously married. The store clerk hubby also tests Milly’s nerves, as he buys her gifts beyond his means. It’s also learned that Burt’s dad (Lorne Greene) is alive and not dead as Milly was told by him. When Burt agrees to meet his father at the hotel he’s staying at, Milly learns there was an affair between Virginia and Burt’s dad. When Burt sees his dad embracing Virginia, he becomes uncommunicative and angry. Milly soon confronts Virginia and her hubby’s dad, as they visit her and demand Burt sign away to them his deed inheritance from his late mother. They call Milly hurtful names and insult Burt as a nutcase, as Milly dismisses them by calling Virginia a slut and Mr. Hanson a fraud of a father. Burt responds by smacking Milly around and injuring her hand by slamming the typewriter down on it, as he insanely believes Milly is partners with the other two to steal his property inheritance. As their marriage deteriorates, Milly feels no choice but in consulting a psychiatrist (Shepperd Strudwick); when Burt’s condition worsens, regressing him to childhood, she agrees to commit him to a sanitarium. When he’s treated successfully after a few months and is released from the hospital, the two find their love is stronger than ever for each other and they start over again.

The soggy story never goes past basic Freud about creepy middle-class families, but it looks better on film than it sounds on print.