The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968)


(director: Robert Aldrich; screenwriters: Hugo Butler/Jean Rouverol/based on a Dupont teleplay by Robert Thom and Edward DeBlasio; cinematographer: Joseph Biroc; editor: Michael Luciano; music: Frank DeVol; cast: Kim Novak (Lylah Clare/Elsa Brinkmann), Peter Finch (Lewis Zarken), Ernest Borgnine (Barney Sheean), Milton Selzer (Bart Langner), Rossella Falk (Rossella), Gabriele Tinti (Paolo), Valentina Cortese (Countess Bozo Bedoni), Michael Murphy (Mark Peter Sheean), Lee Meriwether (Young Girl), Coral Browne (Molly Luther), Ellen Corby (Script Girl), Sidney Skolsky (Himself), George Kennedy (Matt Burke in Anna Christie, 1930), Dick Miller (Reporter), Gabriele Tinti (Paolo); Runtime: 130; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Robert Aldrich; MGM; 1968)

“An expose on the inside Hollywood scene.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The garish and caustic film, an expose on the inside Hollywood scene, bombed at the box office but lived on to divide audiences into pro and con camps, as it tries to say something valid about how Hollywood often destroys its most talented stars. Those on the pro side are gravitating to it as a camp film and perhaps a trashy masterpiece, while the haters are saying it’s a muddled mess of cliches and a bomb. Talented veteran director Robert Aldrich (“Apache”/”The Big Knife”/”The Dirty Dozen”), not new to making filmsthat divide audiences, and writersHugo Butler (just off the blacklist) and Jean Rouverol, base it on the original television production directed by Franklin Schaffner and starring Tuesday Weld that aired as The Dupont Show of the Week in May of 1963 on NBC. Kim Novak plays a double-role, after a three-year absence from movies, but was never enthused about the role or, to the dismay of Aldrich, ever got fully into her character’s head. Nevertheless Kim was quite good, as her confusion was not misplaced for this film and her experience in Vertigo proves to be useful. Though critics treated her unkindly and the actress still in her mid-thirties never again became a big star. What dismayed critics about the film upon its theater release was that its blend of ‘gothic horror, insider Hollywood gossip and high-pitched melodrama’ never coalesced into a whole. I think that’s a fair critique, but does not necessarily mean the film can’t be enjoyed for other reasons.

The flamboyant German-born international film star Lylah Clare (Kim Novak) mysteriously died on her wedding night to Svengali director Lewis Zarken (Peter Finch), after taking a fall down a flight of stairs, but the agent who discovered her, Bart Langner (Milton Selzer), has discovered her lookalike, Elsa Brinkmann (Kim Novak), someone who secretly idolizes Lylah, and he plans on using his new discovery to make a biopic on Lylah to revive her legend with the unknown actress from Chicago as star. Lewis is on aboard to direct, returning to work for the first time after his wife’s death, while the movie will be backed by crass Hollywood mogul Barney Sheean (Ernest Borgnine).

Lewis, still obsessed with Lylah, tries to whip into line the talentless Elsa to play Lylah in a semi-confessional biopic, bringing up the dirt from the past (need we say nepotism, lesbianism, adultery, drug-addiction, necrophilia, abortion, vulgar producers, vicious gossip columnists, a gun-toting voice coach and so on), and thereby turning the movie into a grotesque gothic horror special.

How the viewer takes to such an audacious film, depends on their mood for such a Hollywood debunking. I took it as camp (even if that wasn’t the intention of Aldrich) and though finding it lacking in many dramatic aspects, I never shirked from laughing at its many unintentional ridiculous moments or stopped trying to guess which Hollywood celebrity Aldrich was throwing darts at via one of the characters.