Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Crawford's Latter Day Best: ‘Autumn Leaves’ 1956


A young Cliff Robertson and mature Joan Crawford have a believable chemistry
in the May-September romance, "Autumn Leaves."

Autumn Leaves offered a rare sympathetic role for Joan Crawford in the 1950s, the autumn of the great star’s career. This was also Crawford’s first collaboration with director Robert Aldrich, usually known for his tough take in storytelling. In this adult soap opera, their team work is subtle and sympathetic.

Joan Crawford's Milly is a typist and you better believe she's the best!

Crawford plays Milly Wetherby, a work at home typist, who meets a younger man on a rare evening out. Burt Hanson, played by film newcomer Cliff Robertson, is a returning veteran. They strike up a friendship, which leads to romance. Initially resistant because of their age difference, Milly comes to realize that she really loves Burt. They marry and the honeymoon period is idyllic. Reality intrudes when Burt’s past catches up to him in the form of an ex-wife and estranged father. The young man’s stories don’t add up, and his family’s version doesn’t speak well for him. And their claim that he is unstable is indisputable, as Burt begins to fall apart. Still, there is more than meets the eye, as Milly is determined to not only help Burt, but get to the truth of the matter.

Crawford's Milly eventually realizes that she's ready to take a chance on love with
 Robertson's Burt Hanson in "Autumn Leaves."

Kudos goes to both director Aldrich and star Crawford.  They were known to go over the top and both the film’s direction and lead performance are surprisingly restrained and effective. Yes, there are moments when Robertson's troubled young man’s downfall is a bit voyeuristic. But Aldrich is empathetic to character Burt Hanson’s plight and makes him neither a weakling nor a bad guy. The director gives this "woman's picture" a noir-ish take, with camera work that heightens the tension. Best of all, Aldrich's look at the May-December romance between the typist and the tie salesman is treated seriously. 

Burt Hanson's mental illness is handled sensitively in "Autumn Leaves,"
without sentimentality or sensationalism.

As for Joan Crawford, she rarely got to play a sympathetic character so warmly in the '50s—an era of tough cookies, control freaks, or flat-out neurotic bitches: The Damned Don't Cry; Harriet Craig; This Woman is Dangerous; Torch Song; Johnny Guitar; Queen Bee; Female on the Beach; and The Best of Everything

Joan Crawford's Milly, having a night on the town, in "Autumn Leaves."

Joan's spinster typist Milly Wetherby is practical, confident, yet warm and caring; Crawford’s scenes depicting her loneliness certainly resonate. When Millie finally takes a chance on love, she gives her all, and you care for Crawford’s character. Along with Baby Jane, this is Joan's best latter day role and performance. Except for a few trademark Crawford poses in some of the big scenes, Joan is at her most genuine and straightforward here.

At nearly 50, Joan was in fine form in "Autumn Leaves," here with
co-star Cliff Robertson and director Robert Aldrich. 

The only criticism I have is that it's a shame someone couldn't get Joan to tone down her visual style in Autumn Leaves. At nearly 50, a swimsuit scene shows Joan in fine form and her huge eyes and bone structure were eternal. While the infamous Crawford shadows are ever-present, along with some heavy duty makeup contouring from the jaw line down, this was pretty typical of the era. But Joan's makeup of her eyes, eyebrows, and lips are truly startling, especially when she's in scenes with younger cast members, who are made up to look like merely attractive mortals. Joan’s severe cropped hair was unfortunate for most of her '50s.This called more attention to her age, along with some ill-advised extreme close-ups. 

Not sure who thought extreme close-ups like these of Joan Crawford were a good idea.

As Burt Hanson, this was Cliff Robertson's first leading man role. Robertson would play another mentally challenged man a dozen years later, as Charly, for which Cliff won an Oscar. Robertson uses his boyish charm to an almost Jimmy Stewart-like degree. He's very winning and it’s startling when he turns on a dime into a rage. When his character is hauled away, Burt has a male Blanche DuBois moment. 

Robertson's Burt depends on the kindness of strangers and Crawford's Milly
in "Autumn Leaves."

The 1956 film featured a great supporting cast, with Vera Miles looking every inch the Hitchcock blonde as the scheming ex-wife. This year was a break out for Miles as well as Cliff Robertson. Along with this showy role, Miles worked with John Ford in The Searchers and Alfred Hitchcock for the first time in The Wrong Man. Smoothly villainous Lorne Greene is memorable as Burt’s father, before he became saintly patriarch Ben Cartwright three years later. Ruth Donnelly is a scene stealer as outspoken but big-hearted Liz, Milly’s apartment complex manager. Also, future Baby Jane cast member Marjorie Bennett has a great bit as the waitress with an attitude.

A striking shot of Burt's loving family, as played by Lorne Greene and Vera Miles.

There's a number of lovely scenes in Autumn Leaves: the banter between landlady Liz and Joan's work-at-home typist; lonely Joan determined to have a nice night out solo; the first meeting of Burt and Milly at the restaurant; their courtship and the navigation of trust into love; the scenes where Milly battles Burt's selfish father and ex-wife that give Joan a chance to breathe some fire; the breakdown scenes, which are realistic; and the ending is hopeful, but not corny.

The two Mrs. Hansons: Joan Crawford as the current Mrs.; Vera Miles is the ex!

For a ‘50s film soap opera, Autumn Leaves feels authentic. It’s a Crawford fan favorite, and even those who aren’t one of Joan’s fans may be pleasantly surprised.

"Autumn Leaves" seems to be copying the love scene from another Columbia film,
 "From Here to Eternity." Legend has it that Joan Crawford turned the Deborah Kerr role down!

Also, here’s my look at Joan’s signature role, Mildred Pierce:

Milly gets her happy ending, though warned Burt might have changed once cured,
at the finale of "Autumn Leaves."


  1. Coming to this via your Facebook link. A very nicely done piece on a well crafted and slightly neglected work by Aldrich. All the main players get a good run out in this and it makes for a very satisfying watch. I featured it on my own blog a while back:

    1. Thanks for writing, Colin! Yes, I was pleasantly surprised by this, after watching all the dragons Joan played in the '50s. And I will check out your review, as well... Cheers, Rick

  2. I enjoy this movie (actually I could watch JC read the phone book...), but I have to concur about her severe look at this point. Never liked the close-cropped hair on her and, for me, those Peter Pan collars and dainty cap sleeves were not great either. But her confrontation of Greene and Miles outside her apartment is just about one of my very favorite scenes ever committed to celluloid! LOVE when she lets loose on those two...! Ha ha!!

    1. Hey Poseidon, always love when you weigh in on Joan! Yes, the attempts to "feminize" Joan's harsh '50s looks with femme fifties styles always gave her a drag queen look! But her performance is quite empathetic. And yes, the big JC style scene, especially to Vera: "And you... you SLUT!" I'm surprised some major drag queen hasn't included this in their act! Cheers, Rick

  3. Very well written. The original title was The Way We Are, but they changed it to accommodate the hit song

  4. It’s true, I never heard of this movie. I think the short hair is kind like of Jean Seberg. Very French. She might be wearing espadrilles- the Mediterranean wegie with a straw sole and tie ups. I still have one pristine pair in a box somewhere. On my list to see. Thanks.

  5. I've only seen Autumn Leaves once, and I wasn't that wild about it. Although Crawford is my second-favorite actress, I'm not as fond of some of her 1950s films as I am of her earlier work. But your post makes me want to go back and watch it again! I barely remember Ruth Donnelly (who I'm always glad to see) and Vera Miles -- I definintely have to give it another chance. Really good write-up!

    1. Well, Autumn Leaves is a definite change of pace from the type of roles JC was playing in the '50s. And while it's a soap, it's fairly adult for it's time, and the cast is really quite good. Check it out again, for sure, Cheers, Rick