FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Legend of Lylah Clare
Reviewed by Martha P. Nochimson

Kim Novak plays a double role in Robert Aldrich's The Legend of Lylah Clare

Kim Novak plays a double role in Robert Aldrich's The Legend of Lylah Clare

Produced by Robert Aldrich; directed by Robert Aldrich; written by Hugo Butler and Jean Rouveral; cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc; edited by Michael Luciano; music by Albert Woodbury; starring Kim Novak, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine, Milton Selzer, and Rossella Falk. Color, 130 min., 1968. A Warner Bros. Archive release.

The Legend of Lylah Clare, in which Kim Novak plays both a fictional dead silent-film star named Lylah Clare and Elsa Brinkmann, a young actress who looks remarkably like her, was made just as the studio system and its watchdog, the Production Code Administration, were crumbling. The new DVD of Lylah Clare is likely to be significant primarily for Novak fans and as an artifact that demonstrates the shallowness and sensationalism with which Hollywood interpreted its new freedom. With childish bravado, this film breathlessly produces for the audience some formerly forbidden themes and situations, which it embellishes with a sophomoric attempt at homages to classic Hollywood, primarily to Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Marlene Dietrich. Still, it is a great-looking movie. And it ends on a strikingly auteuristic note, as director Aldrich boldly repudiates his own film as drivel.

Purportedly an exposé of Old Hollywood as a sausage factory, the film is itself a bit of a sausage. Elsa is caught between a couple of the Old Hollywood usual suspects: a crude, overbearing producer named Barney Sheean (Ernest Borgnine) and a brilliant but cruel director, Lewis Zarken (Peter Finch), obsessed with the memory of the great love of his life, Lylah. On cue, Sheean humiliates and thwarts Zarken, but the driven Zarken will, on his terms, complete his cinematic tribute to Lylah—a great star who rose from a German brothel to become the toast of Tinseltown—no matter what it costs anyone else. Rooting for Elsa is the familiar cliché of the avuncular agent, Bart Langner (Milton Selzer), who understands the game, but isn’t much help to his client in the clinch.

Enter the new freedom of New Hollywood. There’s a lesbian on the premises. Rossella Forte (Rossella Falk), who was Lylah’s lover—along with many other men and women—is a pathetic attempt to open a discussion about the sexual complexities of Hollywood. If Rossella’s orientation is treated more directly than was previously permitted, the film is suffused by the homophobia of Old Hollywood. Rossella is not much more than a creepy threat to Elsa, for whom she becomes as hot as she was for Lylah, especially after Zarken bleaches the young actress’s hair Lylah’s shade of platinum, styles it as Lylah wore it, and dresses her in Lylah’s old gowns.

Just as sappy as Rossella’s lesbian menace is the hoary cliché of the power that Lylah exerts from beyond the grave that makes itself known when Elsa shows signs of channeling Lylah’s excesses. At dramatically appropriate moments, the ladylike Elsa is possessed abruptly by a spirit of Bacchanalian abandon—so reminiscent of Lylah—and starts speaking in Lylah’s throaty German-accented voice. Is Elsa consciously exercising her own power? Or is she really possessed by Lylah? To the credit of the film, it rises above cliché by refusing to nail down the answer to that question. But ultimately the spirit of bad melodrama triumphs über alles, when Elsa conveniently dies by falling from a trapeze as the last scene of Zarken’s film is being shot, in a way that recalls Lylah’s deadly fall from a staircase.

Lylah is a cheap allusion to Marlene Dietrich, and Lylah Clare’s story of the possible possession of a woman reconstructed in the image of a dead platinum-haired woman, who dies by falling from a great height, is a knockoff of the one truly great film in which Kim Novak starred, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Such homages only trivialize the originals. This is similarly true of the allusions to Citizen Kane in the opening scenes of Lylah Clare, which are flavorless re-creations of the “March of Time”-style biography of Kane, suffused by the light of the projector and the flat voices of a bunch of reporters talking about the mystery of Kane’s death. In that spirit, Lylah Clarebegins with celluloid images of Lylah, light pouring from the projector, and the flat voice of agent Bart Langner speaking to Elsa of the mystery of Lylah’s life as he encourages her to audition for the part of Lylah in a new film that is meant to investigate what really happened to the silent-screen vamp.

Ultimately, the mystery of Lylah Clare is not excavated with anything like genuine depth. Hollywood has rarely been able to see women as anything but sex objects. AndThe Legend of Lylah Clare is in the Hollywood mainstream. It isn’t for lack of historical example that Lylah and Elsa are such diminished creatures. The real Dietrich was, like Lylah, a bisexual adventuress, but she also hauled her narcissism onto battlefields to keep the World War II effort going, even though she was fighting against the country of her birth while her mother was still living there. Lylah is noteworthy for nothing more spectacular than our discovery of her bisexuality. Similarly, Elsa’s life is reduced to her romantic tribulations and the size of the movie set where she perishes as they play out. To add insult to injury, Lylah Clare isn’t really about Lylah or Elsa, but about the power struggles of the men around them. The action is divided between Sheean, Zarken, and Langner, who all compete for traction in the system by trading Lylah and Elsa.

Then, suddenly, as a seeming afterthought, Aldrich castigates his own film in its last, surreal frames. The penultimate scenes of the film take place at the premiere of the film-within-the-film, which comes to closure as the now-dead Elsa is shown using her dying breath, in character as Lylah, to proclaim her love for the Zarek character onscreen. An audience close-up shows Zarek watching this collapse of the line between movies and life and reveals the magic that this feminine selflessness has worked on him. Love triumphant? Not while Aldrich has breath in him. Aldrich undercuts the sloppy melodrama of our last sight of Elsa/Lylah and real Zarek/movie Zarek by showing the premiere as a crassly televised event paid for by the Barkwell Dog Food Company. Indeed, as Aldrich’s film ends, we jump to a Barkwell commercial. In it, a sexy media version of a housewife, expensively dressed, is putting Barkwell dog food into a bowl for a pure-bred poodle who enters the spotless, upscale kitchen through a pet door. Suddenly, a hoard of dogs bursts through the pet door, and the unreal glamour of the “lady of the house” yields to the surreal strangeness of the images of savage fighting among the dogs that have invaded the premises for the modicum of food in the small bowl, Aldrich’s exposure of the reality behind the glitzy media product. Milady disappears from view. In the final image, all that remains is a freeze frame of the exposed teeth of one of the snarling dogs—and Aldrich’s one moment of truth.

Martha P. Nochimson is the author of five books, most recently World on Film: An Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

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Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.