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    Posted: January 19 2007 at 5:16pm




WHO’S TO BLAME:               

CAST:  Kim Novak (Elsa Brinkmann/Lylah Clare); Peter Finch (Lewis Zarkin); Ernest Borgnine (Barney Sheehan); Rosella Falk (Rosella); Valentina Cortese (Countess Bozo Bedoni); Coral Browne (Molly Luther)

CREW: Directed by Robert Aldrich, Written by Hugo Butler  and Jean Rouveral, From a Teleplay by Robert Thom and Edward De Blasio  


RAVE REVIEWS:               

“Not merely awful; it is grandly, toweringly, amazingly so…I laughed myself silly at LYLAH CLARE, and if you’re in just the right mood, you may too.”

Richard Schickel / LIFE Magazine

“So splendidly, memorably, unforgettably awful that you begin to wonder why it’s not more well-known. Do whatever you have to to see it. It’s worth it!”

 “Mike” / 

“A laugh-till-you ache classic…directed by Robert (“Over the top? Never heard of it!”) Aldrich.”

         Edward Margulies, Stephen Rebello / BAD MOVIES WE LOVE


PLOT, WHAT PLOT?  As laughably awful as THE OSCAR was, at least it has shown up on video over the years. THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE, on the other hand, is still an undiscovered gem of Hollywood hash-making, glomming together elements of not only THE OSCAR but also SUNSET BLVD, VERTIGO, FRANKENSTEIN, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE and just about any movie you can name. Though highly revered among the Crap Cinema Cognoscenti, LYLAH has remained unsung among mainstream movie historians.

Taking the basic plot device of VERTIGO, LYLAH is a fictitious story about a near-death filmmaker finally getting the go-ahead to make a movie based on his late sex symbol wife’s tragic life. The “legend” of Lylah Clare says that she was killed falling from atop the staircase of her Beverly Hills mansion during a knife fight with a burglar. But as we’ll soon see, legend and truth rarely intersect in Hollywood.

Populated almost exclusively by sycophants, media snakes, opportunists and other varieties of Tinsel Town reptiles, LYLAH is meant as an indictment of an industry built on fantasy, wet dreams and outright lies. But in the course of making its case against Hollywood’s reliance on clichés, LYLAH CLARE voraciously  unearths just about every Hollywood cliché imaginable.

Under the main titles, we follow an undiscovered starlet down Hollywood Boulevard, as she tries her feet in the stars’ footprints at Grauman’s, checks out the names in terrazzo tile along The Walk of Fame, and basically gambols down memory lane thru every newcomer-in-Hollywood platitude ever invented. The “girl” is Elsa Brinkmann, struggling to make it in The Big City with No Heart, determined to grasp every tiny break fate decides to hand her…

Her Big Chance comes in the form of a casting call for a movie about the life, and death, of the late, lamented, legendary love goddess Lylah Clare. Relying on the oldest and hoariest of all clichés, the mousy girl who becomes sexy just by taking off her glasses, Elsa is brought to the home of Lylah’s widower, director Lewis Zarkin, who makes Von Stroheim’s Max in SUNSET BLVD seem laid back. At the “audition,” Elsa is asked to emulate Lylah coming down the very stairs where Lylah died. Gliding awkwardly toward Zarkoff, Elsa is told she’s “moving like a deeply offended Tibetan yak!”  It is only the first of a string of over-the-top put-downs and one-liners that clutter this film like clumps in a cat litter box.

Just like Norma Desmond did in SUNSET, Elsa must undergo extreme preparations to play this coveted role. But as the project progresses, Elsa finds her voice falling into the guttural tones of Lylah’s Germanic accent even when she’s not rehearsing. And when dressed in full costume as Lylah, she so resembles the late actress that not only Zarkoff but Lylah’s lesbian voice coach both find her irresistible.

The centerpiece of this tiara-cum-turd is the scene where Elsa makes her debut at a press conference, posing on those stairs again, this time dressed exactly like the painting of Lylah that hangs behind her. In one of the filmmakers’ few savvy decisions, most of the Hollywood press corps in the film is played by actual members of the Hollywood press corps, thus assuring coverage for LYLAH in every gossip rag cranked out at the time. The one fictitious film journalist in attendance is Molly Luther, played by Coral Browne as a dikey, crippled old broad who could be the love child of Louella Parsons and Boris Karloff.  Our first impression of this gruesome gal is of her leg brace, into which has been placed a single red rose. Barking orders at Elsa, poking her with her cane and generally testing the girl’s mettle, Molly is met with a rebuke spoken in full Lylah voice, calling Luther “The Wicked Witch of the West – Throw water on her and she shrivels, she melts!”

Having established that press conferences may not be the best way to promote their potential new star, Zarkin and studio head Ernest Borgnine (the only actor who has the dis-stink-tion of being in both this film and THE OSCAR) decide to shoot on a closed set. But Elsa becomes ever more Lylah-like as shooting goes on, and by the end of the production, she’s gone completely bonkers. The scene they’re shooting last is Lylah’s death. By now we’ve learned that her “tragic” fall didn’t involve a burglar, but rather a “lady friend” dressed as a man who pulled a shiv on Lylah, and was attacked by the lesbian vocal coach. As Lylah watched her assailant tumble down the marble steps, Zarkin, knowing she suffered from vertigo (that word again!), prompted her to look down at the dead body and, growing dizzy, she fell to her fate.

For some unexplained reason, the death scene in Zarkin’s movie takes place on a high trapeze, with Novak dressed in tights and spangles, and loudly declaring as she exits her dressing room: “Tell them Lylah’s coming – As soon as she can get her harness on!” As any student of B movie-making knew it would, LYLAH ends with the death of Lylah’s ersatz stand-in, toppling from her trapeze as Zarkin zooms in for one last close-up, planning to use the real death as the end of his film.

At the premiere of Zarkin’s masterpiece – well, piece of something – the audience goes wild as Elsa/Lylah expires and the words “The End” write across her peaceful face. Outside, the TV announcer covering the premiere intros a dog food commercial, which freeze frames with two curs going at it…then launches into an end title song by Frank deVol that’s almost indescribable in its laughableness. Set to a mambo beat, it endlessly repeats the same several notes, interspersed with a breathy woman’s voice intoning “Cha! Cha! Cha!” every now and then.

Legendary in Bad Movie Maven circles, LYLAH CLARE will be hard to get your hands on. But if you wanna become a Serious Student of Sucky Cinema, you simply must see this one!


DIPPY DIALOGUE:  Crotchety gossip maven Molly Luther (Coral Browne):   “Aren’t you borrowing rather heavily from SUNSET BLVD??”


AVAILABILITY:              LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE is so good, it’s never been on video. It can only be seen on cable TV, and shows up about once a year or so on TCM. If you have TiVo, put it on your Wish List NOW!  



FUN FOOTNOTE: Realizing they had a less-than-stellar film on their hands, MGM decided just before releasing LYLAH CLARE to play up its campiness. Even this ploy didn’t help, and Lylah died all over again at the box office.


©2005, Warner Books and John Wilson


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