Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Legend of Lylah Clare

Tonight is the last night of Kim Novak's turn as TCM's Star of the Month. Among the movies is a bizarre mess that needs to be seen to be believed: The Legend of Lylah Clare, at midnight (ET; it's earlier Thursday evening in the rest of the US).

Peter Finch plays Lewis Zarken, a formerly-successful Hollywood director whose claim to fame was the discovery of the 1930s actress Lylah Clare (Kim Novak). However, Clare died in mysterious circumstances in the late 1930s, and has been a legend ever since; much, I suppose, in the way that a Marilyn Monroe is a real-life legend because of her early death. Since Lylah's death, Lewis hasn't had a particularly stellar career. So what's a director to do? How about making a biopic of the woman he made a star? There's a great idea!

There's the problem of finding an actress suitable to play Lylah, but that's solved when the filmmakers meet Elsa Brinkmann, a struggling Vicki Lester-type actress. The thing is, she looks amazingly like the deceased Lylah Clare. To be honest, it's really not that amazing, when you consider that Elsa, like Lylah, is being played by Kim Novak. Elsa agrees to do the movie, and everybody lives happily ever after.

Oh, heavens no. You wouldn't have a real-life movie here if the movie-within-a-movie went off without a hitch, and this one has a whole bunch of hitches. Lewis begins to fall in love with Elsa, except that one has to wonder whether Lewis is falling in love with Elsa, or the fact that she's another Lylah Clare: part of the old Lylah Clare mystique is that she had been engaged to Lewis before her tragic death. Elsa, for her part, is really getting into the Lylah Clare role, enough so it's to the point that you begin to wonder whether she's being taken over by Lylah the way Norman Bates is taken over by his mother in Psycho.

As I said, The Legend of Lylah Clare is one strange movie. Making things even stranger, or perhaps just messier, is the fact that part of Lylah Clare's story is told in a series of flashbacks, with the movie switching back and forth from the flashbacks and Elsa, to the present day. Meanwhile, back in the present day, they're having trouble getting the movie made: Elsa has figured out that it's Lylah that Lewis still loves, and not her, so she makes life difficult for him, and everybody else in Hollywood who remembers the old Lylah Clare.

The Legend of Lylah Clare is one of those movies that leave you thinking, "What were the movie makers thinking of when they made this?" The plot is baffling at times; the acting uneven, ranging from wooden to over the top; and the sets and costumes are thoroughly overblown. At times, though, the movie has the feel of watching a train wreck: fascinating for what a disaster it is. The only problem is that there are other movies which are even more entertaining disasters than this one. The Oscar. Skidoo. Some of those bad horror or sci-fi B-movies from the 1960s. But as regarding disasters, The Legend of Lylah Clare is still miles ahead of something like Dondi.

The Legend of Lylah Clare has received a release to DVD from the Warner Archive collection, and is apparently part of a Novak box set too.

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