Thursday, October 31, 2019

"Death" Becomes Her

If you've been loitering around Poseidon's Underworld for a fair amount of time then you know how much I love 1970s made-for-television movies. The two-hour ones are great, but the ones I truly adore are the ones that were made to fit in a 90-minute scheduling block. Without commercials, these typically run about 72 minutes, which is the perfect length for a compact story with minimal padding. And they almost always feature great stars who otherwise might hardly be seen at these stages of their careers. One of the more notable telefilms, Death at Love House (1976) has long been seen in only blurry, dull, marginal-quality bargain DVDs and it was a real delight to see it broadcast recently on the SonyHD movie channel in its original bright and clear splendor. It's like watching a whole different film (and the picture is better even than my poor camera could capture for this post.)

About a pair of married writers who wish to do a novel on a long-dead silent film superstar, the story has them moving into her large mansion in order to do research. Her perfectly preserved corpse remains on display in a glass-enclosed shrine (conveniently located by the swimming pool!) But things hardly so as swimmingly as they had hoped...

As the film begins, Robert Wagner and Kate Jackson (eighteen years his junior... welcome to Hollywood!) are about a tour bus that is showing off all the homes of the stars in Tinseltown. When they arrive at Love House (the estate of silent film star Lorna Love), they ask to disembark from the bus.

The driver is reluctant to allow them to leave, but Jackson explains that she's pregnant and feeling queasy. (She is pregnant, but not truly queasy.) The couple took the bus there because they wanted to experience visiting the house among tourists, so they could get a feel for people's reactions to it. Once inside the gates, they meet up with their agent who has arranged their stay.

Bill Macy, the agent, cannot find the alleged house- keeper on site, but he's able to let them inside the luxuriously appointed, though dated, mansion. (The incredible real life home of legendary silent film comedian Harold Lloyd - Greenacres Estate - was used for filming.)

Immediately, Wagner is taken with the face of the deceased star, who - as it turns out - was once deeply in love with his artist father. In fact, his father did the portrait of the actress which hangs in the drawing room.

Finally the house- keeper, the deliciously craggy Sylvia Sidney, appears in the room and explains how the subject of the painting was captured so well because she was in love, as was the man wielding the brush.

Macy presents Wagner and Jackson with a publicity photo of them that he intends to release right away in anticipation of the book that they have yet to begin. He wants to drum up interest in the subject and start agents around town thinking about movie rights to the story in advance.

Jackson is admiring the elaborate (if run down) grounds when she suddenly spies a figure draped in layers of white chiffon darting across the path by a fountain! She's the only one who's seen it and little is made of it by the other two.

Still, the couple decides to head down to the shrine and check out the body of Lorna Love (portrayed by Marianna Hill) for themselves. Macy declines an invitation to join them and heads out.

The beautiful remains of the once-great star are carefully presented in a glass-enclosed mausoleum which can be viewed from the edge of the pool.

Later that evening, a knock at the door occurs during a heavy rainstorm. It's John Carradine, who was the silent movie director who made Hill the star she was. He begins a diatribe against her, about how rotten she was and that she deserved her horrible fate.

On his way out, the old coot can't resist getting out of his car in the rain and taking one last look at the corpse of his dead protegee, but he never makes it all the way to the shrine. A figure in an embroidered black cloak kills him and tosses his body into the fountain!

The next morning after the police remove the body, a disturbed Jackson heads to her room to retrieve a sweater and discovers not only a Satanic looking dagger in her drawer, but half of the publicity photo she and Wagner posed for! Her half is missing...!
"Ever get the feeling you aren't truly wanted...?"
Sidney, who demon- strates a restrained fondness for Wagner, but doesn't seem to want to give Jackson the time of day, takes Wagner down a long corridor of publicity photos of all the stars. At the end is one of his father who, as Sidney has pointed out, he closely resembles.
The resemblance is uncanny...! How'd they do that?!
He presses her for details of his father and Hill's love, but she is reluctant to give much away. She informs him that the house will tell him what he needs to know... Jackson appears, agitated over the dagger and the torn photo, but - again - no one else seems to be all that bothered by it.

Now we come upon the almost surreal image of one Dorothy Lamour, rhapso- dizing about the flavor of a certain (unnamed) brand of coffee! It turns out she is filming a commercial.
"Why, yes, I always wear pearls and blue topaz while enjoying coffee in the kitchen of my one-room river cabin..."
Wagner and Jackson have visited her on the set to discuss Hill. It seems Lamour was once a silent film star as well and almost gained the same level of fame as Hill, but was prevented from doing so by the jealous rival. She also reveals that it was she who discovered Wagner's father in the art department of the studio and that they were in love until Hill managed to take him away.

She's still reminiscing when the director comes over and informs her that she's needed on set in order to film her hands for the commercial! (Don't they have hand models to do inserts like that?!) Interesting that this former silent movie star is shown doing TV ads while the deceased Hill lives on in memory as the famed goddess she was, the cruel irony of surviving.

Before they leave, Lamour finds out that the couple is living at Love House and implores Jackson to leave, stating that there is nothing but death there.

Back home, Wagner is increasingly besotted with the portrait his father painted of his great love.

As he slinks into a chair, he finds himself dreaming or hallu- cinating that Hill is beckoning him. Trancelike, as if under the effect of drugs, he begins seeing visions of his father (played, of course, by Wagner as well) and Hill dancing around the home's ballroom.
Studio 54 meets MGM Studios?
Meanwhile, Jackson is taking a shower and she's hardly entered the glass door when a robed, gloved figure comes in and sneaks across the room to where a gas heater is located. Turning the gas on, then undoing the tube leading to the heater, the figure then locks her in the bathroom and takes away the key!

Upon exiting the shower, Jackson is nearly overcome by the gas and tries to turn it off to no avail, attempts to break a window with no success and, of course, cannot get the dead-bolted door to open! (Do people usually have a deadbolt on their BATHROOM door...?)

Fortunately, Wagner snaps out of his hallucin- ogenic state and hears Jackson screaming for help. And the always one step behind Sidney finally appears with a master key to let him into the bathroom to rescue his distraught (and don't forget pregnant!) wife.

The following morning, Jackson finds a record on the turntable and plays it, to the immense conster- nation of Wagner. It seems that "The Lorna Love Waltz" happens to be the exact same music he'd heard in his head the night before when he was having visions.

They get out of the house for a bit and go to visit loopy Joan Blondell, who was Hill's biggest fan and like a little sister to her for a time. She lives in a beachfront house that was purchased for her by the great star.

Blondell tells them of an evangelistic spiritualist named Father Eternal Fire who'd become close with Hill following the breakup between the actress and Wagner's father. She's clearly a little bit off-center, but Jackson still wants to press her for more info.

Wagner won't allow Jackson to continue and it aggravates her that he cut her short and basically forced her to leave without getting the information she wanted. She was particularly intrigued because Blondell had an iron dagger much like the one she found in her bureau drawer.

That evening, Wagner is compulsively watching Hill's movies again. Now Jackson is starting to have her fill of the whole thing. "Writer" Wagner has yet to put pen to paper and is basically just wallowing in all the Lorna Love he can get.
It must be said that Hill, while attractive, is in no way reminiscent of a silent film goddess. Not only is her hair utterly and completely wrong for the 1920s era she is supposed to be a part of, but she hasn't got the right physical aura at all. Here she looks more like Marilyn Chambers than Jean Harlow or Carole Lombard!
Pola Negri or Rula Lenska?
Nevertheless, Wagner is immersed in the whole thing again. Now he has an elaborate fantasy or flashback or dream in which he and Hill are living out their affair amid all the old glory of Hollywood... the parties, the cars, the homes... The coral-strewn sands of the beach...
"Wow! That's really rock hard!" -- "Me or the coral??"
He ultimately finds himself in Hill's spacious and ornately-decorated bedroom.
Jackson, awakened and unable to locate him, calls out for her husband. She runs to the shrine only to find one of the Satanic daggers plunged into the front of the structure.

Wagner is writhing around on the bed, believing that he's got Hill on top of it with him until finally and exasperated Jackson finds him and snaps him out of his trance-like episode.
"RJ, you said I could could have the Camille part and you'd be Robert Taylor...!"
Now, Jackson has really had enough. She wants to leave and she wants Wagner to come with her, but he won't go. He accuses Jackson of attacking Hill, which leaves her confused and disenchanted.

She meets up with Macy for advice and he begins to tell her of his own brief association with Hill back in the day. He tells Jackson that she was a decadent party host, throwing orgies up at her home (to which he was never invited!)

He also tells her that after Wagner's father smashed all the mirrors in the house and left, she tried to engage the help of Father Eternal Fire to stage a ceremony that would bring him back. But... there was a real and true fire that burned her terribly! When Jackson remarks that her corpse has no burn marks on it, Macy reminds her that they live in the heart of plastic surgery heaven where top-notch work is performed every day.

Jackson returns to Love House that night and sees the white chiffon lady again. She chases her down a long corridor not sure of what she'll find at the end. What she does find is her half of the torn photo, stabbed with a dagger and smeared with blood!
The whole thing finally winds up in a fiery confla- gration (and a positively insane twist ending that, while fun, isn't even remotely possible if one has been paying attention to what has gone on before, specifically certain cast members physicality and features. But it is certainly eye-popping and entertaining.)

At the time of Love House, Wagner was in the midst of his TV detective series Switch (with Eddie Albert) and was balancing plenty of television with the occasional film (such as Midway, 1976.) The season after Switch was cancelled, he proceeded to the even more popular Hart to Hart. Now eighty-nine, he still acts occasionally, most recently in a recurring role on NCIS.

Jackson, having costarred on The Rookies, was in a period of doing quite a few TV-films and was about to land the show that would make her an international celebrity, Charlie's Angels. She eventually left Angels to pursue a movie career, but when that didn't pan out she scored another hit show Scarecrow and Mrs. King (with Bruce Boxleitner.) She returned to working primarily in TV-movies until the mid-2000s and is now seventy-one.

While Aaron Spelling produced Love House as well as Charlie's Angels, Wagner also had a financial stake in Angels as a mostly silent producer. He had worked with Jackson on an episode of Switch (something he also did with Cheryl Ladd, though never Farrah Fawcett.)

Also appearing on Switch three times was one Jaclyn Smith, who Wagner later teamed up with for the miniseries Windmills of the Gods (1988.) Those two were paired off one final time on a couple of episodes of Hope & Faith. It might have been neat to see Wagner and his real-life wife Natalie Wood costarring in Death at Love House, but Wood was still at the time principally a cinematic leading lady and chose her TV roles very carefully, usually doing either televised versions of stage plays or prominent miniseries versus something this fluffy.

1930s leading lady Sidney was in the middle of a terrific career renaissance after a very spotty period in the late-1960s and early-'70s. She'd nabbed an Oscar nomination for Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973), which went to Tatum O'Neal for Paper Moon, and her particular brand of dry-lipped crustiness was in high demand for other movies and telefilms. In fact, she worked steadily until almost to the point of her death in 1999 of throat cancer at age eighty-eight. (Remarkably she was but sixty-six here!)

Carradine, who began working in movies in 1930, was a staggeringly busy character actor who seemed to pop up in everything. His lean, gaunt frame and heavily-lined face paired with a throaty voice led him to many horror projects along the way. He was also the father of actors David, Keith and Robert Carradine. He died in 1988 of natural causes at age eighty-two.

Lamour got started in films in the mid-1930s and by the end of the decade was costarring in hits like Hurricane (1939), which, among other movies, led to her being dubbed "The Sarong Girl." She blossomed into a highly popular and well-paid star of light adventures and comedies, notably as the girl caught between Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in the many "Road" pictures. By this time she was doing little acting, though she continued to pop up until 1987. She passed away in 1996 of a heart attack at age eighty-one. 

Blondell got her start in movies in 1930 and remained a busy working character actress in films and on TV up until her death of leukemia in 1979 at age seventy-three. Nominated for an Oscar for The Blue Veil (1951), she lost to Kim Hunter of A Streetcar Named Desire. After Love House, she enjoyed working on the smash hit Grease (1978) and in The Champ (1979) in addition to various television roles.

Stage actor Macy had been acting since the late-1950s before working on the Broadway rendition of Oh, Calcutta!, a saucy musical in which he and everyone else appeared nude (making his remark about the orgies something of an inside joke.) In 1972, he costarred with Bea Arthur on the successful sitcom Maude (which he was in during this time) and afterwards balanced stage parts, TV roles and the occasional movie until 2010. He died just earlier this month at age ninety-seven.

Hill was a very busy television ingenue in the 1960s who proceeded to win movie roles in films such as The New Interns (1964), Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966, opposite Elvis Presley) and Medium Cool (1969, in which she cavorted with a naked Robert Forster.) After High Plains Drifter (1974) with Clint Eastwood and The Godfather: Part II (1974), she began to do more low budget and horror fare. By the late-'80s she had withdrawn from acting on screen in favor of teaching Method at the London Lee Strasberg Studio. She is still with us today at seventy-seven.

Till next time, have a very safe and happy Halloween!