Camp David


By • May 18th, 2010 •

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Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie Borden - from  a contact sheet for THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN

During a lazy summer morning in August in the year of our Lord 1892, while the township of Fall River, Massachusetts, went about their simple daily pleasures, a crime was taking place that would rock not only that sleepy little New England hamlet to its very core, but would create a legend in both criminology and pop culture a Century later. A middle-aged spinster known far and wide to the townsfolk of Fall River as a church-going, God-fearing woman was about to be accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe. The spinster in question was Lizzie Borden, and the circumstances behind the gruesome slayings have long since taken their place among those unsolved homicides of Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac Killer as a mystery that only gets more compelling with time.

Now one would think that a story as colorful and Gothic as Lizzie Borden’s would have made the transition to the silver screen dozens of times by now, given the public’s fascination with serial killers and unsolved murders. However, there has been to this day not one single major motion picture regarding Lizzie Borden or her trial, which captured the entire nation for the fourteen days it took to find her not guilty. What could it be about this material that refuses to fire up the imagination of the vast array of writers and directors that have been working in the genre since the turn of the last century?

The one and only adaptation of the Lizzie Borden saga thus far was produced in 1975 by Paramount as a made-for-TV movie-of-the-week. The actress chosen to play Lizzie was Elizabeth Montgomery, who discovered after the fact that Lizzie Borden was her cousin, sixth removed, which means the first actress to play Lizzie in a film was also a blood relative. After the first run on television was over, the show was repackaged for theatrical release in the European market, which included nude footage of Montgomery doing the killings in flashback. One of the surprise elements in this adaptation was the theory that Lizzie performed her dark deeds in the nude, followed by a “Victorian shower” to remove any chance of bloodstains appearing on any of her garments, since she was being questioned within 45 minutes after the second murder by a doctor who happened to be nearby.

Elizabeth Montgomery is remarkable in her dedication to the role; for example, she used eye drops during filming to give her a drugged look, since Borden was on Morphine during the entire time she was a prisoner, right up through the trial itself. Anyone expecting a glimmer of her BEWITCHED persona will be impressed with how quickly she shed her sitcom image for this project.

The critical response to the production was positive, including Emmy nominations, of which it won three, which makes the fact that no other versions were ever mounted on the subject even more surprising. Montgomery was surrounded by a top-flight group of actors, with standout performances from Fritz Weaver as her father, Andrew Borden, Katherine Helmond as her older sister Emma, and Fionnula Flanagan as Bridget Sullivan, the maid. Even the smaller roles were filled with people like Ed Flanders, Don Porter and Gloria Stuart (in a clever cameo as one of Fall River’s residents who witnesses Lizzie shoplift a hatchet).

However, before I speculate even more as to why this–one of the best TV movies ever made–has all but disappeared from view with no DVD release on the horizon, I must explain my personal interest in its background. A few years ago I was having dinner with Curtis Harrington, who was a very good friend of mine, when the subject of lost opportunities in his career came up, and he lamented being passed over to direct THE OMEN, which as we all know was a box-office juggernaut and would have undoubtedly changed his life for the better had he been its director. After a moment Curtis said, “Well, there was another project that would have done much the same thing for my career, and I was already on board to direct, not to mention having researched the entire project, and that was the Lizzie Borden film over at Paramount in which Elizabeth Montgomery was set to play Borden. Now, Montgomery was a client of The William Morris Agency and as such they had the upper hand in calling the shots when it came to who was going to direct their stars. Paul Wendkos was a client of theirs, and at the 11th hour I was replaced without any provocation whatsoever. It was highly illegal, so I took it into arbitration with the Director’s Guild and won. Paramount had to pay me my full salary. It was a bittersweet victory at best, since I had spent a year of my life researching the Borden murders, even so far as going to Fall River and examining all the records of the trial. The worst thing about it was the damage it did to my friendship with Bill Bast, who wrote the screenplay, since he simply folded up when it came to standing up for what was right. They had no right to replace me and he knew it.”

Lizzie Borden's Lover, Nance O'Neal.

“Afterwards, I ran into Elizabeth at a party and she made a point of telling me it was not her call as to whether or not I stayed, yet we all know she had tremendous cache at that time, coming off eight seasons of a hit show. Yet they all benefited from my research. It was my idea to present Andrew Borden as this debauched father figure who may have sexually abused Lizzie as a child. When I discovered he was a mortician, it wasn’t hard to imagine him using this to further terrorize his daughter by forcing her to touch the dead. He was a control freak; we know this from the descriptions of him by his neighbors and businessmen in Fall River. The motive for the killings was money. It was as simple as that, yet I felt Lizzie was also repressed, as were most women at this time, especially in the social milieu of New England society in 1892.”

“We didn’t get an opportunity to reveal any elements of Lizzie’s sexuality in the screenplay, yet it was always there in the shadows. It was my idea to have Lizzie do the ‘Lady Macbeth’ nude sleepwalking gambit when she commits the murders, since this explains why she had not a trace of blood on her when the doctor and the neighbors arrive on the scene. If we could have done a follow-up of Lizzie Borden’s life after the acquittal, you could really flesh out her character, especially after she meets Nance O’ Neal in Boston. This would prove to be the undoing of her relationship with her older sister Emma, who moved out of the house in 1905, never to return. They died nine days apart after years of not speaking. It was such a fascinating subject you could really do two or three films about her and remain transfixed.”

Curtis would never really get over this betrayal in his career, and even though he did manage to direct some TV movies and two more features, he remained as always an outsider in show business, too esoteric for the suits and yet too talented to be overlooked altogether. His final film, the self-financed USHER would serve to forever remind us that like Roderick Usher, Curtis was too sensitive to survive in a world that had no place for artists anymore, unless they conformed to something he could not bear to be a part of. So he simply retreated into a shadow world of his own making, as Roderick retreated into the House of Usher, which in reality was Curtis’ home.

Curtis’s input still remains in key moments throughout the teleplay in spite of Paul Wendkos’s own style as a director (as evidenced in his later film, THE MEPHISTO WALTZ, in which he chose a similar movie-of-the-week atmosphere, with colored gels and disjointed dream-sequences). One of the most interesting moments in developing the love-hate relationship felt by Lizzie towards her father comes midway in the script when Andrew Borden savagely hacks Lizzie’s beloved collection of pigeons to death with a hatchet, not unlike the one that would later end his own life. This entire scene is staged in a manner that reminded me of a similar moment in Harrington’s WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN, in which Shelley Winters does the same thing to her collection of white rabbits. The flashbacks to Lizzie as a child being forced to touch the dead in her father’s “workshop” (in a very Harrington moment, young Lizzie accidentally bumps against the hose that is drawing blood from the cadaver, releasing a torrent of blood on both of them) allow the audience to begin to hate Andrew Borden, somewhat justifying his own gruesome demise. The suggestion of incest as a motive is also explored in these flashbacks as we witness Lizzie as a child receiving rather unfatherly attention as both father and daughter kiss each other on the mouth. The gifting of the ring from Lizzie to her father is also played out as a ritual between them; this is a relationship with subtext and shadows. One concept that keeps coming up is that Lizzie, in spite of everything, loved her father dearly.

The first murder, of Abby, the stepmother, was a passionate act of homicide, considering the savagery by which she was dispatched – multiple blows to the back and head. Lizzie realized after killing her stepmother that there was no turning back, creating a terrible certainty that her father had to die as well, since what she began was too horrible for him to ever forgive. It is my belief that money was the real motive here, since there is enough evidence to assume that Mr. Borden was about to change his will, cutting out both of his daughters in favor of his second wife.

Publicity pose of Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie Borden.

There really is (as Curtis pointed out to me on more than one occasion) an entire film to be made out of Lizzie’s life after the killings, with her move to Maplecroft, the mansion overlooking the town her family helped create, and remaining there the rest of her life, rubbing her crime into the very fabric of the community. Curtis also firmly believed that Lizzie had strong lesbian tendencies that were brought out when she encountered Nance O’Neil, an actress who loved to spend money and, in Lizzie, found much more than a mentor. This would explain the older sister, Emma, pulling up stakes and moving out of Maplecroft, never to return. ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS aired one of their half-hour teleplays (THE OLDER SISTER) in which we discover that it was Emma all along who did the murders, with Lizzie covering up for her at the trial.

The fascination with this case has never let up in over a century. It has become a major Feminist story with Lizzie Borden an iconic personality, a paradox of contradictions. Those close to the trial at the time could not help but comment on Lizzie Borden’s eyes and the mystery they held within her gaze. She was, of course, high on Morphine at the time, making her the true “Sister Morphine.”

The Borden case has distinct parallels to the O.J. Simpson murders, since both cases have captivated the public around the world, and to this day the real facts in both cases are shrouded in mystery, although the vast majority now believe he did the deed, and this holds true with Lizzie Borden in spite of several books that have been published with a wide range of speculation as to who else might have been responsible for the killings.

O.J. Simpson poses with Eliazbeth Montgomery for a TV movie of the week they did together in 1977... about a married cop who has an affair... life imitaing art once again.

JET MAGAZINE once ran a cover photo of both O.J. and Elizabeth Montgomery from an earlier TV movie-of-the-week which seemed to foretell the future in ways no one could have imagined in 1977. The major difference in the two trials is of course the absence of forensic technology in 1892 in any of the evidence collected by the police in Fall River. Yet flash forward a century plus and you are still confronted with inept police work contaminating the crime scene in the O.J. investigation that would later allow a killer to go free, just like Lizzie Borden, except in O.J.’s case he left the community for good. The film industry has perhaps wisely left O.J. alone in trying to adapt his case to film, since the sensitivity issue is still very much present, but in Lizzie Borden’s case all the principals are long gone; in fact, a recent survey has concluded that the majority of key people in the Borden case all died within 11 years of the 1892 trial.

So why has this fascinating case been ignored by the film world in general since the advent of the medium in the 1890s? The films about Jack the Ripper number in the dozens, as do most serial killers worth their salt, yet Lizzie’s hatchet killings seem to attract the small screen with docudramas on the History Channel or vanity projects of the Youtube variety, the one marvelous exception being THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN.

Portrait of Curtis Harrington by Dennis Hopper.

In the forties, actress Lillian Gish starred in a play based loosely on the Borden murders, entitled 9 PINE STREET, with the actual names changed, but the circumstances being similar. Gish later took the project to her old mentor D.W. Griffin hoping to persuade him to direct a film version for Paramount with Preston Sturges producing. In spite of the talent involved, it was not optioned and quickly fell to the wayside of unrealized wonders in the could-have-been department.

Perhaps the closest thing in cinema history to mounting a full-scale Lizzie Borden film was a Robert Bloch-scripted horror film made to cash in on the runaway success of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE (yet another film about dysfunctional sisters, filled with violence and murder). Bloch had been fascinated with the Lizzie Borden case all his life, writing about it as early as 1946 in his early short story, LIZZIE BORDEN TOOK AN AXE (which was later broadcast on his national radio program STAY TUNED FOR TERROR).

Joan Crawford as a Lizzie type ax murderess from STRAIT JACKET.

William Castle’s STRAIT-JACKET was in essence a modern-day retelling of the Borden case with everything omitted but the faux nursery rhyme and the axe. The Legendary Joan Crawford lent her name and considerable acting skills to this penny dreadful, enduring fright wigs and emotional outbursts to compensate for the lack of talent in front as well as behind the camera. In better days at Warner Bros. this same material would have brought Joan another Oscar nomination; instead of which we get this bon mot from the TIME magazine review: “It must also be the first horror film to boast that one of its diehard victims (Mitchell Cox) is a real life Vice President of the Pepsi-Cola Company. As for Pepsi-Cola Board Member Crawford, she plainly plays her mad scenes For Those Who Think Jung.” The script also allows for Joan to have another one of those unruly daughter relationships which would come back to haunt us all in the form of the spiteful and perhaps fictional account of her adopted daughter Christina in MOMMIE DEAREST (which also finds a way to give Joan Crawford an opportunity to wield another axe for the entertainment of her public, forever demonizing a great star).

Lizzie Borden’s fame was used fleetingly in other films, the most unlikely being the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman Broadway comedy THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, which has a subplot dealing with the unhinged sister of the poor soul who winds up with Sheridan Whiteside as a very unwanted house guest. It seems the man’s sister was a famous axe murderess from the past who had school children singing a certain nursery rhyme about taking whacks at her parents. More recently, rocker-turned-auteur Rob Zombie included a briefly-seen wax figure of Lizzie Borden in Captain Spaulding’s wild ride in his debut film HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES.

The jury may well be permanently out on whether or not the real Lizzie Borden did take that axe and give her parents those 40 whacks, yet as far back as most of us living today can remember, there has always been the shadowy figure of this certain spinster lady moving slowly down a darkened stairway clutching a shiny metal object in one hand, heading with demonic determination for that part of our collective imaginations where she may take her rightful place alongside Jack, O.J., Lucretia and Sarah Palin as one of those human monsters whose crimes go unpunished in the courts of law but ultimately are judged in that higher court of public opinion. To take a line from the poster ads used during the initial run of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE: “Sister, sister, oh so fair…why is there blood all over your hair?”

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4 Responses »

  1. Great article, Mr. Del Valle. You did Lizzie well. She would be proud. I was very impressed, as always. You never cease to entertain, nor inform, in the most entertaining way. Kudos for a job well done.

  2. David: I remember The Legend Of Lizzie like I’d seen it yesterday…Lizzie Bordon was when I realized that Lizzie Montgomery could actually act.

    I was raised during Bewitched & it was such an innocuous program, it was always on.. (nothing like the battles over Ed Sullivan) so it was a real treat to see Ms. Montgomery bust out of that casting…and she did a bang up job. Really memorable.

    Montgomery played Bordon very stoic. Certainly not a particularly happy girl, that Lizzie Bordon, but considering the time period, I suppose a particularly happy girl would have been lobotomized…like Franny Farmer, huh?

    If the network only ran that movie only 1 time & I only saw it 1 time & remember it so well, it must have been done pretty well…35 years ago..( geez ).

    I am, thankfully, spared any memory of E. Montgomery opposite OJ. Sometimes it does pay to get older.

    Thanx for the cheap entertainment. I always enjoy the read.

  3. i LOVE that you included mrs. palin among those monsters!

  4. Great article, David. I visited the Borden house back in the late nineties for a magazine piece and it was a creepy place. The displaying of the crime scene photos didn’t help my nerves a bit. I was still glad I visited the Lizzie Borden residence, but would much more rathered visited Elizabeth Montgomery’s house, if you know what I mean… and I’m sure you do! Your column is the best.

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