Monday, November 15, 2021

“The Legend of Lylah Clare” 1968

Kim Novak as Elsa Brinkmann, facing the press in "The Legend of Lylah Clare." 
The scene is afternoon, but the window's view always says sunset in Transylvania!

Robert Aldrich, one of the least subtle directors ever, made one of his most outlandish and personal films in 1968, The Legend of Lylah Clare. The 130 minute Tinseltown tale was taken from a 60 minute ‘63 TV drama. Aldrich loved showbiz gothic—imagine The Big Knife, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and The Legend of Lylah Clare in a triple feature.

How many camp classics feature the star madly slashing away at a portrait?!

This type of hothouse Hollywood story was out of style by the late '60s, when gritty new movie realism had taken hold. What we have here is a Sunset Boulevard-esque show biz mystery: What Really Happened to Lylah Clare?

Those Kim as Elsa portrays '30s star "Lylah Clare," Novak's style says '60s, baby!

Kim Novak plays the legendary title character AND wannabe Elsa Brinkmann. Lylah’s agent, Bart Langner, who discovered the late star, comes across the dead ringer starlet. Thinking he’s struck lightning twice, Bart takes her to Lewis Zarken, Lylah’s late director—and husband, for a day! Skeptical, he runs roughshod over Elsa, though she turns out to be a diamond in the rough. Soon, the starlet is groomed to play Lylah in a big screen bio epic. Along the way, Elsa starts channeling Lylah that borders on obsession…or possession? To describe the byzantine plot any further would require many spoilers and a flow chart.

Tuesday Weld at 20 played Lylah as a fragile Monroe-type starlet.

While Tuesday Weld played TV’s Lylah as a Marilyn Monroe-esque type, Kim's movie Lylah is written as a Garbo/Dietrich-esque icon. Both Lylahs are controlled by a domineering director and claustrophobic Hollywood mindset. The TV version focuses on what Hollywood does to fragile personalities, having been filmed a year after Marilyn Monroe's sudden and shocking death. The expanded movie version gives director Aldrich ample opportunity to take his pot shots at Hollywood, both old and new. Some criticisms are still relevant today, like moviemaking as a mainly tie-in venture, the public's acceptance of anything that's dished up to them as truth, etc. And old Hollywood gets skewered with their crass moguls, bitchy gossip columnists, and movie legends with lurid off-screen lives. 

Kim Novak at 35 played Lylah ala Dietrich/Garbo, here portraying "Anna Christie."

With the exception of Kim Novak, the cast cannot be faulted for the mind-bending awfulness of The Legend of Lylah Clare. It's the absurd, literal screenplay. Robert Thom wrote the original teleplay, but some Aldrich associates with slim resumes wrote the film screenplay, along with Bob’s heavy hand, no doubt.

Elsa/Lylah gives the hunky Italian gardener the Hollywood handshake 
in "The Legend of Lylah Clare, as the Svengali director looks on.

The supporting cast plays types, often stereotypes, but they get the job done. Peter Finch has great fun as the egotistical director, based on Svengali-types of Hollywood past like Josef von Sternberg, Mauritz Stiller, and Erich von Stroheim. Peter's at his most rugged, silver fox best, and he's quite convincing in this cartoonish role. Notice how Peter Finch in flashback as the evil genius sports the same goatee as Kenneth Branagh in his flashbacks from Dead Again. Finch has the film’s most absurd lines and relishes every one of them! Yet, in the few moments of melancholy, Finch is genuinely touching.

In one of the many absurd flashbacks, Peter Finch as the mad director sports a goatee.

...which reminded me of Kenneth Branagh
in HIS maestro flashbacks from "Dead Again!"

Everyone assumed that Coral Browne as Molly Luther was playing a mix of Louella Parsons, with her grumpy cat face, and Hedda Hopper, all queen bee snappishness. Perhaps, but it's also a takeoff on lesser-known columnist Radie Harris, who had a wooden leg due to a childhood riding accident, and was usually in a wheelchair. Ironically, Browne was sued by Harris years prior, when she publicly asked Radie how it felt to have showbiz at her FOOT. Browne lost, but got her revenge later!

Coral Browne does a take-off on imperious columnist Radie Harris in "Lylah Clare."

Rossella Falk is quite convincing as ... Rossella! The drug addict lesbian loves Lylah, but seems to have a love/hate feeling toward Zorken, is an interesting character. Why does she stick around and put up with the director’s abuse—the drugs, their secrets? Falk makes this all very believable and empathetic.

Rossella Falk plays imaginatively named Rossella in "The Legend of Lylah Clare."

Ernest Borgnine has a ball hamming it up as the forever shouting movie mogul, Barney Sheean. His exact opposite, mild-mannered Michael Murphy, plays the son, who wants to make films! Aldrich fave George Kennedy has a cameo as Lylah's co-star in a movie within a movie of Anna Christie

Ernest Borgnine as the loud studio head, bargaining with Peter Finch's director,
with demurely dressed Kim Novak looking on.

Of the huge cast, the one big problem is Kim Novak. As mousy Elsa Brinkmann, Kim is vulnerable and awkward in the Vertigo mold. Kim's face and figure found her aging far more beautifully than such screen beauties as Rita, Ava, and Liz. However, Kim was 35 and a bit long in the tooth to be playing an aspiring actress. Sharon Tate, a decade younger, might have been a better choice. But that's the least of Kim's problems as Lylah Clare.

I think Kim Novak is actually prettier as "plain" Elsa Brinkmann
than as bleached blonde Lylah Clare.

Once Kim gives up Elsa's dowdy clothes and long brownish wig, Novak gets the Hollywood makeover and is transformed into the late, great Lylah Clare. Kim Novak also seems to have her own version of Wigstock going on in Lylah Clare. Kim looks fab in the Renié wardrobe and sports a variety of puffy platinum wigs and falls, accented with Novak's trademark black eyeliner and frosted lipstick. Oh, wait, isn't Kim supposed to be playing an old-time Hollywood star? Novak's about as convincing a '30s star as Carroll Baker was as Harlow. Authenticity apparently wasn’t “in” during the '60s.

Kim as Elsa starring in a Lylah Clare bio pic, got all that? With Peter Finch.

Kim Novak's 60s's style reminded me of another star
who loved wigs, black eyeliner, and frosted lipstick!

Though Kim looks more like Dusty Springfield than Hollywood golden era, Novak handles the gorgeous part, but doesn't have the flair to play the flamboyant film diva. As Lylah seems to possess Elsa, Kim throws her head back to laugh so far and wide, that you can see all of her fillings. And out from her mouth spouts a baritone German accent that sounds more like Mercedes McCambridge in The Exorcist than Hildegard Knef mimicking Marlene Dietrich. The dubbing comes off especially bad because it seems broadcast in Stereophonic sound compared to Kim’s whisper! The excruciating dialogue makes the accent sound even more absurd: "Keep your FEEL-THEE hands off me!" And her bwah-hah-hah laugh makes me think of Rocky and Bullwinkle's Natasha Badenov! Finally, in the flashbacks, the voices are slowed down, making the dubbed baritone sound especially bizarre. It’s all insane, and instantly undercuts Novak, who looks helpless as the late volatile screen siren.

Photographer Richard Avedon took a series of pictures of Kim Novak as Lylah Clare,
which are more subtle than anything in the film!

Elizabeth Taylor and Bette Davis dished up over the top self-parodies in Boom! and The Anniversary in ’68. Lana Turner and Jennifer Jones were oblivious in their late '60s camp misadventures, The Big Cube and Angel, Angel, Down We Go. But Kim seems painfully aware that she's out of her depth in Lylah Clare. She doesn't just cruise along in like Lana and Jen, or ride the wheels off like Liz and Bette. Novak looks like she wants to leap out of her vehicle!

The finale of "Lylah Clare" is a circus scene. Why? Don't ask! And don't look down!

The last act of Lylah Clare takes the cinema cake. The circus climax that “explains” Lylah’s mysterious death is beyond absurd. The film within a film finale at the premiere is a major eye roll. And the gun-wielding Rossella watching a deranged dog food commercial in the last scene is beyond “what the hell?!”

Kim Novak as Lylah Clare in her swan song... dive. Lylah dies with her tiara intact!

Gossip girl Molly Luther asks Zorken, “Aren't you borrowing from Sunset Boulevard?” Yes, and Vertigo, and Baby Jane, too. And as usual, Aldrich’s film is at least 15 minutes too long.

Rossella and director Louis' reaction to Lylah's bio pic! Bingo to the "BS" logo!

That insane soundtrack by DeVol, especially the theme, is like being put on hold by ‘60s showbiz hell. The music seems more suitable for a sitcom or romantic comedy, not a Hollywood horror story.

I loved all the paintings of Kim as Lylah Clare, which makes me wonder if artist Novak got to keep any mementos. Jaroslav Gebr is the same artist who did the paintings for the Night Gallery pilot, including the famous Joan Crawford painting, and the nostalgic title cards for The Sting.

Artist Jaroslav Gebr with his collection of Kim as Lylah Clare paintings.

Director Robert Aldrich deserves credit for owning up to this debacle and for his mishandling of Kim Novak. Classic film fans will probably find The Legend of Lylah Clare fascinating to watch. More casual movie fans will probably reach for the remote!

Kim at the "Lylah" premiere, channeling more Lylah than Elsa!

FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB  movie page. 

Check it out & join!

Like many movie paintings, I wonder who owns Kim's "Lylah Clare" portrait now?



  1. I'm always rather stunned at the "contribution" of Lee Meriwether to this "epic!" Crazy, like most of the movie....! I could have used more of that gardener myself. LOL

    1. Hey Poseidon,
      It's so important to appreciate good help!
      Cheers, Rick

  2. Apparently Novak wasn't aware that she was dubbed for her Lylah scenes until she attended the premiere. That must have been humiliating. I wonder how she sounded when she did the scenes? It might have been a better choice to keep her voice as Lylah. One of the many things that throws the movie off is that no one seems to really react when Elsa becomes Lylah and starts speaking in that over the top gutteral accent.

    1. Hi,
      It reminds me a bit of when stars Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn were told they were being dubbed for "West Side Story" and "My Fair Lady" well into filming... Given Kim's regular speaking voice was so whispery and hesitant, I'm not sure how well Novak could have pulled off a German accent. But supposedly, Hildegard Knef did the dubbing and it was really too much, as I wrote in my review. Aldrich later admitted he mishandled Novak and regretted it...
      Cheers, Rick

  3. With Aldrich's movies I'm never quite sure if he actually realised how awful they were and that he was making camp classics that people would love for their silliness, rather than important movies. THE BIG KNIFE is a case in point.

    1. Hey,
      Good question! In interviews, Aldrich seemed like a bright guy, but his directing style is so heavy-handed. The Big Knife feels operatic at times, but Lylah Clare... I've never seen anything like it!
      Cheers, Rick

  4. You hit the nail on the head, Rick, Aldrich’s inability to edit himself and poor Kim’s uneven performance ruin what could have at least been an entertainingly campy melodrama. Carroll Baker would have played the heck out of it…
    Kim was in the nadir of her film career here and never really enjoyed her time as an actress. This kind of put an end to it, except for those couple of bad horror films she did later.
    As always, loved your article and gorgeous photos. Better than the movie itself!
    - Chris

    1. Thanks, Chris!
      When I watched "Lylah" once more time and saw Kim lounging in the screening room, it reminded me of Sharon Tate watching one of her "art" films in VOTD... and it hit me that Sharon might have been interesting... or at least the right age!
      Kim surprised me later with her later Lola Brewster in "The Mirror Crack'd." Finally, some humor!
      Cheers and Happy Thanksgiving,