My friend Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is hosting the Joan Crawford Blogathon to honour one of her favourite actresses. The event started on July 28, 2016 and takes an end today, on July 30, 2016. Of course, I had to be part of it as, even if I haven’t seen many of her movies, Joan immediately became a favourite of mine the first time I saw her on screen.
For the occasion, I decided not to go with Joan’s most popular film, but with one that deserves to be explored, a favourite of mine. I name: Autumn Leaves.
Autumn Leaves was directed by Robert Aldrich in 1956. This was Joan’s first film under the direction of Aldrich. In 1962, she also starred in his most more well-known What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, alongside Bette Davis.
Autumn Leaves also stars Cliff Robertson, Vera Miles, Lorne Greene, Ruth Donnelly and Shepperd Strudwick.
Joan Crawford plays the role of Millicent “Millie” Wetherby, a lonely woman who never seems to have found the true love. She works at home as a self-employed typist. Her neighbour, Liz (Ruth Donnelly), often visits her, but she seems to be the only one around. One night, she goes to the concert as she has received two tickets from her employer, but having no one to go with her, she goes alone. During the concert, she gets lost in her thoughts and thinks of the times she had to take care of her sick father, one of the main reasons why she wasn’t going out with men. On her way back home, sad and lonely, she stops at a little coffee to eat something. The place is packed and there’s only one table left. She sat there. A minute after, a young man asks her to share the table. She refuses, but he stays next to her, waiting for her to finish. Annoyed, she invites him to sit down, but she prefers not to speak to him. However, the young man succeed to make her laugh and she then becomes more friendly. They get acquainted. He is Burt Hanson, an army veteran, lonely like Millie. The next day, they go together to the beach where they kiss each others in the sea. Back home, Millie, who doesn’t feel comfortable with the situation, asks him to find a girl of his own age. A month later, Burt comes back and takes Millie to the movie. Once again, she rejects is love, but thinking twice about it, she accepts his marriage proposal. The couple marries in Mexico. However, Millie soon discovers that Burt might not have told her everything about his past, especially when his ex-wife (Vera Miles) shows off at her place with divorce papers. Mentally affected, Burt becomes aggressive and his entourage starts being worried for his mental condition.
I have to say, it’s hard for me not to reveal everything about Autumn Leaves in this plot, because, at one point in the film, everything seems to happen at the same time.
Here, Joan gives us a very sensible performance. She plays a woman many could identify with, because we all feel a bit sad and lonely at some point. Her performance is honest, and she amazes us with her big beautiful eyes. Joan shows us a great balance between the weakness and the strength of someone: her weakness being to be too afraid to make a step forward, to be afraid of what people might think of her; her strength being to fight for her love for Burt when this one starts behaving dangerously.
Even if the film wasn’t a box-office success, Joan had a good opinion of it, saying “Everything clicked on Autumn Leaves (1956). The cast was perfect, the script was good, and I think Bob handled everything well. I really think Cliff did a stupendous job; another actor might have been spitting out his lines and chewing the scenery but he avoided that trap. I think the movie on a whole was a lot better than some of the romantic movies I did in the past… but somehow it just never became better known. It was eclipsed by the picture I did with Bette Davis.”
Well, isn’t that a good way to convince you to see a film? Joan is right, some more obscure films can sometimes be real treasures. I personally think it’s always interesting to have one actor’s opinion about the film he or she has starred in, because the actor’s point of view and the spectator’s point of view can never be exactly the same.
Joan mentions Cliff Robertson “stupendous job” in the film. She was right to talk about him this way because, has much as she is great, I have to admit, he really steals the show. You may know that this is not the only time we’ll see Cliff playing a man with a mental disorder. We can also think of Charly (Ralph Nelson, 1968) for which he won the Best Actor Oscar. It’s a difficult task to move from someone “normal” to someone mentally disturbed (or the opposite in Charly‘s case), but Cliff does it with an amazing easiness. He’s also a real charmer and it’s difficult not to fall in love with him when we watch this film.
Autumn Leaves was among Robertson’s first films, but certainly not Joan’s first one, who had gained an amazing baggage of experience through the past years/decades as an actress. She was obviously a legend, and it was a thrill for Cliff Robertson to work with her. They certainly came up to be a most intriguing pair.
Ruth Donnelly surely does a fine job as Liz, making acting look easy. As for Vera Miles and Lorne Greene, they together make a delicious evil pair. Vera Miles is a very favourite of mine, so any appearance of her in a film, big or small, is always appreciated.
Music has a very important role to play in this film. Indeed, Millie is a music lover. One of her favourite songs is Autumn Leaves. It’s indeed one of the many reasons why Burt likes her: she has great tastes in music. So, we can understand better why the film is called Autumn Leaves. During the opening credits, we can hear the song sung by Nat King Cole. Autumn Leaves was originally a french song called Les feuilles mortes composed by the poet (and screenwriter!) Jacque Prévert and popularized by singer Yves Montand. I think it’s important to precise it, because many people tend to forget the real origins of this song, which is both beautiful in French and in English.
Autumn Leaves sung by Nat King Cole
Les feuilles mortes sung by Yves Montand
As for the beautiful and poetic original score, this one was composed by Hans J. Salter and reflects pretty well the mood of the film.
Another one of this film’s qualities is the script. This one makes us see something different. Love story between an older woman and a younger man were indeed not common at the time, but it may be closer to reality as the woman is not always younger than her man. It shows us a very interesting progression of the characters, their evolution, how they change. Of course, we understand that Millie and Burt are meant for each other and together they, somehow unconsciously, help each others, for better and for worst. It’s a story that makes us think.
Today, Autumn Leaves still remains an overlooked film, but it somehow is appreciated by some and recognize as a fine movie. Dan Callahan of Slant Magazine said of it :” All of Aldrich’s early work is intriguing, but Autumn Leaves is his secret gem. It’s been passed over as camp because of its star, Joan Crawford, but Aldrich brings all his hard edges to this woman’s picture. The collision of his tough style with the soapy material makes for a film that never loses its queasy tension.”
On its release in 1956, Autumn Leaves won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival.
The wonderful Joan Crawford never stops to amaze us, even in less known movies such as Autumn Leaves. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you to do so. You’re in for a treat.
Luckily, the full movie is available on youtube!
It was a pleasure for me to write about a Joan Crawford’s movie and celebrate this great actress. A big thanks to Crystal for organizing this event.
Don’t forget to read the other entries: