Saturday, 30 November 2019

Reflections on ... Too Hot to Handle (1960)

“Under the naked glare of the spots they do their stuff … the girls who rock the night as tease queens!”

"The Sizzler You Read About in Playboy Magazine!"

"In the fall of 1959 Jayne made a couple of shabby British films in her first independent ventures. She played "Midnight Franklin", a Soho nightclub dancer, more accurately a stripper, in Too Hot to Handle directed by Terence Young. Midnight was in love with Johnny Solo, doomed owner of The Pink Flamingo club. The censors refused to release the movie in this country under its American title, Playgirl After Dark. Jayne suggested that someone get a spray gun and cover her offending areas. But the process cost more than the budget of the film."

/ From Jayne Mansfield and The American Fifties (1975) by Martha Saxton /

Recently watched: lurid British noir crime drama Too Hot to Handle (1960), concerning the inexorably violent rivalry between two competing striptease clubs in the underbelly of Soho, London’s neon-lit glamour jungle! Between the two club owners, we’re seemingly encouraged to sympathise with Johnny Solo, proprietor of striptease emporium The Pink Flamingo Club. (The unappealing actor who plays him - Leo Genn - is a total charisma by-pass). Atomic-era sex kitten-gone-berserk Jayne Mansfield is platinum blonde American showgirl deluxe Midnight Franklin, Solo’s glamorous moll and the star attraction at The Pink Flamingo. Rounding out the cast are Christopher Lee as Solo’s untrustworthy thug henchman Novak (of course he’s untrustworthy – he’s played by Christopher Lee and wears a pencil-line spiv moustache!), Austrian actor Karlheinz Bohm (who in the same year would star in chilling cult classic Peeping Tom) and young starlet Barbara Windsor as naïve, doomed underage stripper Ponytail ("the girl with the rock'n'roll hairstyle"). Lee played an extremely similar role in another trashy exploitation film released the same year, also set in the Soho burlesque milieu: Beat Girl (1960).

Slumming American superstar Mansfield – on loan from her Hollywood studio Twentieth Century Fox - made two fairly undistinguished films in the UK in 1960 (the second one is heist thriller The Challenge. Of the two, Too Hot is considerably more fun). The gangster subplot of Too Hot is pretty unconvincing, but the film sparks to life when it embraces sexploitation and switches to the scantily-clad exotic dancers’ ultra-camp musical numbers and their bitchy dressing room confrontations. Mansfield herself – looking lushly zaftig, her waist cinched to almost Vampira proportions – coos two outrageous songs (“Too Hot to Handle” and  the calypso-style “You Were Made for Me”). Both  are sheer sex kitten bliss (and the film’s highlights by a long shot). When we’re first introduced to Midnight, Mansfield is wearing a tight white leotard and busy auditioning new dancers. The camera fixates on her voluptuous marshmallow thighs and butt (Mansfield is “thicc”, as millennials would put it) and she suggests one of cartoonist Robert Crumb’s big-assed Amazonian dream women come to life. Mansfield was 26 here and – although no one knew it at the time – she’d already “peaked” and the “reputable” legitimate stage of her film career was ending. From here on in, she’d mostly star in low-budget European quickies (or “Nudies!” as Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls would call ‘em).

Pre-Carry On movies Windsor is 22 years old here (her character Ponytail is meant to be 16. One of the male characters actually refers to her as “jailbait”). Later Windsor would claim that Mansfield was threatened by her youth and beauty, refused to make eye contact and demanded that Windsor darken her platinum blonde hair so as not to compete onscreen. To which I argue, the age difference between them was four years and Windsor’s hair (and fake ponytail) in the film is the palest albino shade of white-blonde!

/ Young starlet Barbara Windsor as Ponytail in Too Hot to Handle (1960). Check out those brows! /

Too Hot has a complicated history. In the UK it originally received an X rating. A shorter, censored cut was released in the US with the alternate title Playgirl After Dark. Most weirdly, it was originally filmed in gleaming better-than-life Eastmancolor but the current version in wide circulation is black-and-white! Apparently when Too Hot was made available for television broadcast, most people still had black-and-white TV sets and that’s the print that survives. On YouTube you can view Mansfield’s musical sequences in lush, gorgeous colour and it’s a vastly different, infinitely superior experience. Someone needs to sort out a digitally re-mastered full-colour DVD or Blu-ray of Too Hot to Handle!

Watch Too Hot to Handle online here.

/ German-language for Too Hot to Handle in colour /

/ One of Mansfield's musical numbers in colour. This sensational sheer "nude-look" dress is a somewhat tamer version of the infamous gown Mansfield wore onstage in her Las Vegas cabaret act /

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Reflections On ... Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Attention, Scream Queens! In honour of Halloween, for the October Lobotomy Room film club presentation we’ve scheduled the apogee of the “hagsploitation” genre Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) starring Bette Davis at her most frenzied! Wednesday 16 October! Come and settle-in for an evening of spine-tingling Southern Gothic horror in the Tiki splendour of Fontaine's Bamboo Lounge!

Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is the FREE monthly film club downstairs at Fontaine’s bar (Dalston’s most unique nite spot!) devoted to Bad Movies We Love, specializing in the kitsch, the cult and the camp! (Our motto: Bad Movies for Bad People!). Remember: admission is FREE so that you can buy more cocktails! (One drink minimum).

“Millionaire and southern belle Charlotte Hollis guards a deep, dark secret. When cousin Miriam comes to stay with Charlotte, mystifying events begin to occur, driving the latter closer to insanity.”

/ IMDb’s synopsis for Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) /

/ "Suspense that starts with a whisper … and mounts to a shattering unpredictable climax!” /

Here at Lobotomy Room we love hagsploitation. For anyone unfamiliar, it’s the disreputable and campy subgenre (sometimes also referred to as Pyscho-Biddy or Grande Dame Guignol) whereby aging,  hungry-for-work leading ladies of Hollywood’s Golden Age swallowed their pride, lowered their standards and slummed it in gruesome horror movies in the 1960s and 70s. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) – which revived the flagging careers of arch-rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford - is universally credited as inaugurating the whole cycle, but you could argue that Gloria Swanson as homicidal silent movie diva Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950) was the original hagsploitation anti-heroine. And surely Norman Bates' toxic mother in Psycho (1960) merits a mention?

/ Bette Davis as Charlotte Hollis /

In any case, these horror flicks offered a temporary fillip to the flatlining careers of actresses as disparate as Tallulah Bankhead (Die, Die My Darling, 1965), Veronica Lake (Flesh Feast, 1970), Miriam Hopkins (Savage Intruder, 1970) and Shelley Winters (in multiple Curtis Harrington-directed thrillers like Who Slew Auntie Roo? and What’s the Matter with Helen? both 1971).

With some justification, the genre has been denounced as both misogynist and ageist. It essentially positions the aged woman as inherently horrific, after all. These are horror films about the ravages of time! But on the plus side, these films also offered juicy, demanding lead roles to veteran actresses who’d been otherwise sidelined by their industry for the crime of growing older. It's complicated!

Hagsploitation movies mostly tapered-off by the late 1970s, but it never entirely vanished from popular culture. Note how sixty-something Oscar winner Jessica Lange (whose film career had long been in the doldrums) triumphantly re-invented herself playing homicidal harridans in Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story on television. I’d argue the campy psychological thriller Greta (2018) starring Isabelle Huppert is a prime example of modern hagsploitation.

/ Crawford and Davis promoting Hush at the beginning of filming, before it all went tits up /

Hush, Hush … Sweet Charlotte is the follow-up to the unexpected box office victory of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It was meant to jubilantly reunify director Robert Aldrich with his Baby Jane leading ladies Davis and Crawford – but as you probably already know (especially if you watched Ryan Murphy’s wildly entertaining 2017 TV mini-series Feud: Bette and Joan) that went catastrophically wrong. Penny Stalling pithily recaps what happened in her 1978 book Flesh and Fantasy:

“Despite the fact that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had been bitter rivals for years, Jack Warner managed to get them to agree to co-star in his upcoming thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The press predicted that all hell would break loose when the girls got together, but director Robert Aldrich, keenly aware that his budget couldn’t afford costly delays, kept the girls apart as much as possible when they weren’t working. When the two screen queens were reunited for Hush, Hush … Sweet Charlotte, however, the predicted fireworks became a reality. Riding high as a result of the earlier film’s success, Bette and Joan apparently felt they could afford to engage in some impromptu histrionics for Charlotte’s cast and crew. The hostilities ceased when Crawford became ill. After doctors told her that she would have to bow out, Crawford cried for three days in her hospital bed. When she read that Olivia de Havilland was to replace her, Crawford announced that she was happy for Olivia since she “needed the work.” A victorious Davis posed for on-the-set candids sipping a Coca-Cola.”  

Interestingly, de Havilland was not the first choice for Crawford’s substitution. The character of Miriam was also reportedly offered to Katharine Hepburn, Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck and Vivien Leigh first. (Some accounts claim Stanwyck was proffered the role of Jewel Mayhew – the part played by Mary Astor – rather than Miriam). Leigh – de Havilland’s co-star in Gone with the Wind - rejected the opportunity, bitchily explaining, “I could just about look at Joan Crawford’s face on a Southern plantation at 6:00 in the morning; I couldn’t possibly look at Bette Davis’.”

(In fact, Hush was the second film in a row in which de Havilland stepped into a role originally intended for Crawford. Prior to this she played the lead in ultra-lurid shocker Lady in a Cage (1964) when Crawford bowed-out. (This also means Hush wasn’t de Havilland’s first foray into hagsploitation)).

Understandably, a lot of people are preoccupied with what Hush would have been like with Crawford as Miriam. As a great cinematic “What If?” it ranks up there with Judy Garland as Helen Lawson instead of Susan Hayward in Valley of the Dolls (1967). But hell, I love raspy-voiced bitch goddess Hayward hamming it up and growling her way through Valley, and I love de Havilland in Hush. To fixate on Crawford does de Havilland a grave disservice. Why not appreciate de Havilland’s performance on its own considerable merits? In the 1930s and 40s she specialized in exuding sweetness as exemplars of virtuous femininity, most famously as the demure Maid Marion opposite Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and as Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind (1939). Cast against type, de Havilland is spellbinding in an evil role (sorry – spoiler!), portraying Miriam with purring subtlety. It’s genuinely unsettling when Miriam suddenly betrays her true nature and turns nasty or violent, her usual honeyed ladylike voice abruptly shuttling to a snarl.

(I’m trying to think of other examples of de Havilland exploring her inner bitch onscreen. She’s mesmerizing in the underrated The Dark Mirror (1946) playing identical twin sisters, one good and one bad. The sociopathic one is inevitably far more compelling). It’s also worth noting that de Havilland - now 103 years old – is the sole cast member of Hush still alive and in fact is now one of the very few surviving Golden Age Hollywood-era stars. At this point her only peer is Kirk Douglas (102).

/ Can you say fierce? Joan Crawford as Miriam / 

All the footage shot with Crawford as Miriam has seemingly vanished and to this day remains unseen.  Presumably it was destroyed at the time: if it still existed, it would surely have cropped-up as a DVD extra or in a documentary by now? But watch for the scene where Miriam’s cab first pulls up to the driveway of Charlotte’s sprawling Southern mansion (approximately 28 minutes and thirty seconds into the film). De Havilland is wearing a hat and no sunglasses. In one fleeting shot we get the briefest, almost subliminal but unmistakable blink-and-you-miss-it glimpse of Crawford (wearing no hat and dark sunglasses) peering out of the cab’s passenger window. Presumably this was left-in in error. In all likelihood, this is the sole surviving fragment of Crawford as Miriam.

/ Olivia de Havilland as Miriam /

The film’s original title was to be What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte? (the title of the short story it’s based on). But it was decided this was too like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and it was re-titled (reportedly at Bette Davis’ own insistence).

The painting of young Charlotte displayed on the wall is recycled from Bette Davis’ role as petulant southern belle Julie in the 1938 film Jezebel.

/ See Bette Davis scream and scream again (and again. And again. And then some more. Seriously, she screams a lot in this film!) / 

Hush doesn’t just reassemble Davis and director Aldrich from Baby Jane: the cast of Hush also includes Victor Buono (1938 - 1982), seen in a flashback as Charlotte’s father. (In reality, Buono was young enough to be Davis’ son). Speaking of age: as someone who certainly ain't getting any younger, it’s very enjoyable watching a film in which all the lead characters are on the wrong side of fifty!

The basic premise of Hush (people are conspiring to make Charlotte have a nervous breakdown and pin a murder on her) is essentially the same plot-line as Strait-Jacket starring Joan Crawford (1964).

Think of Hush as the Mercedes Benz or Rolls Royce of hagsploitation. It was made with a luxe high budget, featured a distinguished all-star cast (not just Davis and de Havilland, but Joseph Cotton, Mary Astor and Agnes Moorehead) and was filmed on location on an actual Southern mansion (the Houmas House Plantation and Gardens in Baton Rouge, Louisiana). The sultry Southern Gothic atmosphere simmering with resentments, family tragedies and secrets almost hints at Tennessee Williams terrain. The black and white cinematography is exceptionally beautiful and velvet-y (watch for a haunting shot of de Havilland peering out of a misty window).

In fact, Hush is almost too plush for its own good: hagsploitation is better when it’s starker, nastier and more hardboiled. Baby Jane, for example, was made on a significantly lower budget. I’d argue William Castle’s primal, trashy low-budget b-movie Strait-Jacket starring Joan Crawford is superior, more urgent hagsploitation than Hush, which feels overextended and bogged-down with flashbacks, art-y dream sequences and way too many cliched shots of characters prowling around darkened hallways.  And Hush shamelessly plagiarizes one climactic moment from the French film Les Diaboliques (1955)!

As Paul Roen argues in volume one of his essential High Camp: A Gay Guide to Camp and Cult Films (1994), Hush is pioneering in one regard, though: “the historical significance of Hush … is that it brought graphic gore into the mainstream. There had of course been other gory films before this one, but they didn’t have stars and weren’t nominated for Oscars. (Contrary to popular perception, Psycho contains no gore). Before we even get to the opening titles, Hush … shows us Bruce Dern’s hand being severed with a meat cleaver, blood splashing on a cupid and Dern waving the gruesome stump of his arm at the camera.”

Hush is also one of the shrillest, loudest films you’ll ever watch, comparable to John Waters’ Desperate Living (1977) where everyone screams their lines at full volume. It certainly captures volatile monstre sacree Davis at full screech and at her most abrasive. Look, of course I love Bette Davis. Everybody loves Bette Davis. But in Hush Davis is borderline insufferable at points! Charlotte Hollis is not nearly as nuanced a characterization as her earlier Baby Jane Hudson. Davis seemingly assumed the success of Baby Jane meant she should crank up the histrionics even more. Was Aldrich too intimidated by the volcanic Davis to reign her in? And she’s matched by character actress par excellence Agnes Moorehead as loyal housekeeper Lydia: both ham it up shamelessly. (Odd to think the usually excellent Moorehead – overacting here as if her life depends on it – was nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this performance). The acting honours in Hush truly belong to the actors who dial-down the hysteria: de Havilland, Cotton and notably Mary Astor. In her last-ever film, Astor makes a haunting impression in a fleeting guest star appearance as Charlotte’s old rival Jewel Mayhew, lamenting “the ruined finery” of her genteelly impoverished old age. Davis’ eye-bulging, jibbering nervous breakdown towards the end reminded me of Divine’s as Francine Fishpaw in John Waters’ Polyester.

Further reading:

Read my analysis of Feud: Bette and Joan here.

Read Ken Anderson's essay on Hush here.