Camp David, Columns


By • Oct 1st, 2011 •

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Sometime during the summer of 1982 I found myself at Duke’s Tropicana Café, then located on Santa Monica Boulevard. Duke’s had become a Hollywood rock-and-roll institution since both Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin had nursed many a hangover within its greasy walls and booths during the summer of ’68, when Duke’s first opened its doors.

On this particular morning (a Saturday, if memory serves) the joint was jumping with a cross section of Hollywood and rock-and-roll personalities. In the corner booth sat a very familiar-looking older gentleman with two other men around the same age. Now at this point I must tell you I am really good at recognizing former film stars and the like, and on this Saturday morning I was staring at one of the only surviving stars of CASABLANCA, Paul Henried, famed Warner Bros. leading man and then TV and feature film director. If Paul had never directed anything he would still deserve my attention but this man, who worked with Bogart, also directed one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures, DEAD RINGER, one of the macabre films Bette Davis made in the wake of her WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? success. Paul had been her co-star in NOW VOYAGER where he famously lit two cigarettes and then handed one of them to Davis at the film’s teary finale.

As I watched Mr. Henried begin to collect his things I knew I had to do something fast to let him know I was aware of who he was, but how? At this point in time I still smoked and the guy I was with that morning also had the habit, so I waited until Paul Henried had made his way up to the cash register and then I made my move. He sort of noticed that I was grinning at him as he walked over to where I was standing, still waiting for a booth, and at that moment I took two cigarettes out of my coat pocket and yes, I did exactly what you are thinking I did: I lit two of them and handed one to a startled Henried who, as it turned out, was a real sport, accepting it with panache. By now a couple of the customers caught on to what was transpiring at the cash register and, with all eyes on the two of us, applauded the situation.

I was so impressed with the grace he displayed at what could have been a real moment of embarrassment for both of us if he had not been so gallant about this blatant display of Hollywood nostalgia. I introduced myself and then told him how much I enjoyed his films at Warner Bros., especially NOW VOYAGER, and then I brought up his film DEAD RINGER. He smiled and while he paid his check he gave me his card and then said to me, “I enjoyed making that film probably more than you did watching it…Bette is such an enormous talent that it was a pleasure to direct her in anything.”

This was the first time I was able to articulate just how much this film has stayed with me since seeing it as a kid at the drive-in and then again countless times on television. I had brought up what is acknowledged by most film buffs to be a highly enjoyable piece of camp from a totally over-the-top Davis riding the crest of her popularity from BABY JANE. Her co-star Joan Crawford was doing exactly the same thing that year, starring in her own variation of BABY JANE mania with STRAIT-JACKET over at the Columbia lot with William Castle.

The “divine feud” between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis has been well documented elsewhere, but in discussing DEAD RINGER it always amused me that even though Davis’s film was a first class Warner Bros. production, photographed by Ernest Haller, with a suitably macabre score by Andre Previn, and with a hand-picked collection of top Hollywood character actors, the fact remains Crawford’s trashy low-budget William Castle howler (with Joan playing at being both 25 years old and 55 within the same film) did twice the business DEAD RINGER did that year (1964) because Crawford went out and sold it in major cities across the country. Bill Castle knew how to sell a horror film but he had no idea how much wattage a star like Crawford could put out when it came to her career.

When I first met Bert Remsen he was moonlighting as a casting director with another actor, Dick Dinman. The combination of these two became Remden Casting, and very successful at it they were. Bert was a great guy and loved to talk “Hollywood.” He told me that Bette Davis had cast approval on DEAD RINGER: “The first time I met her she was in make-up sitting in her chair in front of one of those very theatrical mirrors with light bulbs all around it….She had just taken one of her huge eyes and lifted the lid until she looked positively freakish glaring at me with one eye-lid extended….Without missing a beat she said, ‘Can you mix a cocktail and stay on your mark?’ I laughed and told her, ‘Most definitely I could do both and sing Irish while I’m doing it.’ She laughed that famous cackle of hers and told the producer, ‘He’s in. I like him just fine,’ and that is how I got the part of her bartender at Edie’s. During the filming she came in one day with a copy of the Hollywood Reporter and was really excited. She said to me, ‘Bert, have you seen the crap Crawford is up to over at Columbia? I mean, she is doing Lizzie Borden in blackface!’ and with that she just broke herself up laughing. I was then convinced that the Crawford/Davis feud was an ongoing concern with no holds barred…”

The first thing I realized with DEAD RINGER is how old-fashioned a film it was for 1964. It adheres to many film noir conventions, yet was marketed as a horror film, which it decidedly is not. The murder of Margaret De Lorca by her sister Edie is so bloodless as to register disbelief that she was actually shot in the head in the first place. Much attention is placed on Edie removing her dead sister’s stockings and jewelry before donning her sister’s widow’s weeds and making her hasty exit from the poverty that was her life on Figueroa Street.

While her rival was over at Columbia filming “crap” and beheading most of the cast in the process with an axe, Bette was at that same moment being exceptionally photographed by Ernest Haller with much attention to noir shadings in the opulent surroundings of GREYSTONE, the Doheny estate which had been used in films as varied as THE LOVED ONE and the 1991 remake of DARK SHADOWS. Gene Hibbs was assigned to do Davis’s make-up and he managed to give the star a streamlined “glamour” look that took at least 10 years off her appearance in DEAD RINGER, something Joan Crawford could have really used in her Columbia fright flick since STRAIT-JACKET required her to do those flashbacks (sadly ineffective) as her 25 year-old former self.

The original title of DEAD RINGER had been the noir-ish WHO IS BURIED IN MY GRAVE? They even retained this title into the advertising stage of the promotion as several posters were released prior to the release date from the studio with that title before Warners decided that the only way to go with a Bette Davis film after BABY JANE was to milk the connection for all it was worth: In BABY JANE the poster art maintained the catchphrase “Sister, sister oh so fair, why is there blood all over your hair?” Now with DEAD RINGER the phrase was “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest twin of all?” It is a supreme gesture that after the well-publicized feuding that ultimately ended the Davis/Crawford partnership on HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE, which also came out in 1964, Davis realized that the only actress with whom it was worth sharing the screen was herself, and that is exactly what we have here with DEAD RINGER. Except for some minor upstaging by the wonderful Jean Hagen in what became her final screen performance as Margret De Lorca’s flighty high society confidant, Davis is free here to act herself literally off the screen. The support she gets from top-flight character actors like George Macready and Estelle Winwood only enhances her own performance even more. The standout performances from Karl Malden and Peter Lawford never get in her way. The most poignant character in the film is played beautifully by Cyril Delevanti as her butler Henry, who knows the score from the moment Edie leaves the De Lorca mansion at the onset until Margaret/Edith is taken away by the police for poisoning her husband. It is Henry who sees the goodness in Edith and maintains his silence until the bitter end, giving Davis one of her most heartfelt lines: “And I thought I was all alone.” Davis understood the importance of such moments and made sure her co-stars were solid in her support.

It was always my impression that DEAD RINGER was designed to follow Bette Davis’s success in BABY JANE and to a certain extent it was. However there was another version based on the source novel LA OTRA that was filmed in Spanish around 1946 showcasing Dolores De Rio.

After that the script sat dormant for years at Warners until the studio dusted it off as a possible vehicle for Lana Turner, whose work for producers like Ross Hunter made her a natural for this kind of film. Turner had achieved a certain reputation by then by way of the scandal sheets that had a field day after the murder of her lover Johnny Stompanato by her teenage daughter. This was most likely the reason Lana Turner turned it down, not wanting to do another murder mystery, even one in which she got to play opposite herself. Bette Davis had been offered a role in the “Rat Pack” western FOUR FOR TEXAS and withdrew to make DEAD RINGER. Her co-star, the Oscar-nominated Victor Buono, was also in the cast of this film, making it a reunion of sorts for them. One can only imagine the quality of scripts that were being sent to both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford if STRAIT-JACKET is any indication at all.

The motif of famous actors playing twins is a long one and just this week seeing Dominic Cooper in THE DEVIL’S DOUBLE play both Uday Hussein and his double was a reminder of just how well it can be done now, yet the real test rests with the actor and in Cooper’s case it has made him a star. Bette Davis was already a legendary actress by the time DEAD RINGER came her way. She had played twins once before in A STOLEN LIFE (1946) and this may have been a factor in why it took so long for Warner Bros. to convince Davis or any other actress to tackle such a project. When Davis made life such a living hell for Joan Crawford that she left the location for HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE after filming nearly half the film, Crawford was later replaced by Olivia De Havilland, another actress who had some experience playing twins in THE DARK MIRROR ( a well-done thriller made by Robert Siodmak, very similar in theme to DEAD RINGER; this film also had two sisters, one homicidal, the other less so).

The best of all the films involving famous actors playing opposite themselves has to be (in my opinion) the 1988 DEAD RINGERS with Jeremy Irons in a tour-de-force performance under the direction of David Cronenberg. Recently I watched Edward Norton, another fine actor, play twins in a very underrated film, LEAVES OF GRASS. The list goes on with special mention to the creepy “Grady daughters” in THE SHINING, Tony Randall in THE SEVEN FACES OF DR. LAO and of course Jack Lemmon in THE GREAT RACE. Bette Davis does not have to suffer her twin beyond the first reel since she summons her to Edie’s cocktail bar right after their tense encounter at the De Lorca mansion where she shoots her sister in the head…reminding us all of the tagline from BABY JANE (“Sister, sister oh so fair, why is their blood all over your hair?”). In the case of this film there is no blood, period, and even when Edie has to see Margaret’s body at the morgue it is a very dead but altogether perfect corpse. The lack of gore and blood in DEAD RINGER simply confirms its status as an LA noir masquerading as a horror film–at least in the advertising.

In spite of the “Addams Family” harpsichord that does its spidery best to keep informing us we are in a macabre situation there at the Doheny estate, the film is decidedly a thriller with noir overtones. The great Dane “Duke” who could not stand Margret De Lorca takes up with her sister which proves the undoing for glamour boy Peter Lawford. His death scene is as close as we ever get to a classic horror film moment in DEAD RINGER. I have always been fine with that, considering we already had a full-throttle performance from Davis that same year with CHARLOTTE. Davis clawing her way down the stairs as the swampy remains of Joe Cotten stands above her, a living corpse, is classic Grand Guignol.

I have to believe one of the reasons a film like DEAD RINGER stays in one’s memory so vividly is the staying power of one of the cinema’s most enduring stars. In her earlier work in films like THE STAR, Davis proved once again that she would take on a role that was unflattering and risky only to walk away with another Oscar nomination for her bravery. In BABY JANE she appeared in clown make-up that I doubt any other actress of her generation would ever have dared to do. Bette Davis deserves her iconic status alongside Joan Crawford and Olivia De Havilland. De Havilland has always given Oscar caliber performances in her work on the screen, and even in her moment of despair, making LADY IN A CAGE–an unfortunate misfire and not her fault–she still gave a stunning performance. The film itself is just too nasty for its own good.

David's second book also from Bear Manor media will be out in early
2012 which will also featuring DEAD RINGER as it's cover art.

I still have not seen the remake of DEAD RINGER, done around 1986 as a made-for-television affair entitled KILLER IN THE MIRROR. I remain confidant that it will have little effect on my admiration for the 1964 version which still, like all cult films that you revisit time and again, is “Like seeing an old friend” come to life, another line from BABY JANE, when Crawford finally is allowed to read her fan mail…this was a remark made by a fan of Blanche Hudson after watching MOONGLOW…a fictitious title for one of Crawford’s early films for MGM.

Both Crawford and Davis had their careers revitalized after BABY JANE. Davis fared a little better for the rest of the 60’s whereas Joan had to suffer for the likes of Herman Cohen and Bill Castle. Davis did not get out of this unscathed either; Joan may have bowed out in a cave in England with TROG as her swansong, yet never knowing when to quit seems to have died with Garbo because Bette Davis just had to make WICKED STEPMOTHER before saying goodbye to her adoring public. We must forgive them both since it was never about the money, it was just one more curtain call–or as Edie would have put it, “Where am I going to spend it–OUTER SPACE?”

Films in Reviews’ own David Del Valle will be signing copies of his
(3512 West Magnolia Boulevard, Burbank, CA 91505-2818).

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