Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Lizabeth Scott: In Memoriam

She's a Femme Fatale

By Ed Garea

I didn’t want any part of her, but I kept smelling that jasmine in her hair, and I wanted her in my arms. Yeah. I knew I was walking into something.” “Rip” Murdock (Humphrey Bogart), Dead Reckoning, 1947.

She was made for film noir: a sultry blonde with a smoky, come-hither voice who had romance on her mind and homicide in her heart. She played opposite such stars as Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Mitchum, Dick Powell, and Van Heflin. And though her heyday lasted only about a decade, her influence remains; fueled as much by her private life as by the femme fatales she played on screen.

Lizabeth Scott, nicknamed by Paramount, the studio that signed her in 1945, as “the Threat,” died on January 31 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles at the age of 92. While the hospital confirmed the death, it did not list a cause, but her longtime friend Mary Goodstein stated the cause was congestive heart failure.

When Paramount signed her, the studio described her as “beautiful, blonde, aloof, and alluring.” Their plans were to cast her in the mold of Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake, two other blonde dames of noir. But critics and the public never saw her as being in the same league with Bacall and Lake; she was seen as more of a generic imitation. It wasn’t until years after her career flamed out that she was seen and appreciated for bringing something original to the hard-boiled characters she often played. In her book, Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film (1998), film historian Karen Burroughs Hannsberry called Scott “one of film noir’s archetypal femmes.”

She was born Emma Matzo on Sept. 29, 1922, in Scranton, Pa., one of six children of Ukrainian immigrant John Matzo and wife Mary (nee Pennock), who owned a grocery store. She attended Marywood Seminary, a local Catholic girls’ high school, but transferred to Scranton’s Central High School. After graduation, she spent the summer working with the Mae Desmond Players, a stock company in the nearby town of Newfoundland. That autumn she enrolled at Marywood College, but quit after six months, against her parents’ wishes, to move to New York City, where she enrolled at the Alvienne School of Drama. She took the stage name of “Elizabeth Scott,” and landed a small role with the touring company of the stage hit Hellzapoppin, where she had little to do, except to appear between sketches in stunning gowns is a series of comedy blackouts.

After the tour concluded, she returned to New York in 1942. Unable to get an acting job, she was hired as a fashion model by Harper’s Bazaar at $25 an hour. Later that year, Broadway producer Michael Myerberg cast her in a small role in Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. She also understudied star Tallulah Bankhead, but had no chance to substitute. When Bankhead left the show in 1943, Scott hoped to replace her as star. But the role was given instead to Miriam Hopkins, and Scott returned to modeling. But when Gladys George, who replaced Hopkins, became ill, Scott was called back to the show and won rave reviews. She later played the lead in the play’s Boston run, also to rave reviews and good business.

Later in 1943, when she was modeling after leaving the play, Warner Brothers producer Hal B. Wallis spotted her at her 21st birthday party held at the Stork Club in New York. Wallis scheduled an interview with Scott the following day, but she canceled it when a telegram asked her to replace Hopkins in the Boston production of The Skin of Our Teeth. 

In 1944, agent Charles K. Feldman, who saw her photos in Harper's Bazaar, invited Scott to Los Angeles. After failed screen tests at Universal-International and Warner Brothers, Scott again ran into Wallis, who told her that he would hire her if he had the power to do so. She thought he was jerking her around and left for New York. But Wallis left Warner Bros. and formed his own production company, which would release their product through Paramount. He called her again, and she came out to Los Angeles, signing a contract with Paramount. She was now known as Lizabeth Scott after dropping the “E” in her first name “to be different.”

Her debut film was the Ayn Rand-scripted You Came Along in 1945, in a role originally intended for Barbara Stanwyck. Scott played U.S. Treasury flak Ivy Hotchkiss, whose job was to look after three pilots on a patriotic bond-selling tour. She falls in love with one of the pilots, Major Bob Collins (Robert Cummings), but while she’s serious, he’s lackadaisical. Despite the efforts of the other two pilots (Don DeFore and Charles Drake) to keep her in the dark, she discovers why Collins isn’t serious: he has terminal leukemia. It wasn’t a smooth shoot for Scott; she experienced problems with leading man Cummings, though these were later worked out, and she had difficulties with director John Farrow, who made no secret of the fact he wanted Teresa Wright for the starring role. Another consequence of the film was the lifelong friendship between Scott and Rand.

On the strength of this film, Wallis next cast Scott as one of the leads in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers in 1946 over the protests of top billed star Stanwyck who, in a letter, said that she would not be co-starred with any other person other than a recognized male or female star. Nevertheless, Scott wound up in third place at the top behind Stanwyck and Heflin and ahead of Douglas, appearing in his first film. Wallis, notorious for a weakness for blondes, was obsessive with his new discovery to the point of demanding director Lewis Milestone reshoot certain scenes to feature more close-up of Scott. Milestone walked out, telling Wallis that if he wanted to reshoot the scenes, he could do so himself, which is just what he did.

It was during this time that the publicity for Scott from Paramount and Wallis began to backfire. Journalists began to notice the resemblance between Scott and Bacall, which, coupled with the studio’s nickname for Scott being “The Threat” (as compared with Bacall being nicknamed “The Look”), began the critical trend of marginalizing Scott in favor of Bacall.

Scott got her next starring role as a result of a loan-out from Wallis. Columbia was about to film Dead Reckoning with Bogart and Rita Hayworth. But Hayworth was busy filming The Lady From Shanghai, so Scott was imported to fill in. The film represented Scott’s first portrayal of a hard-boiled femme fatale. She plays Coral “Dusty” Chandler, the ex-girlfriend of Bogart’s murdered war buddy who’s a singer in a nightclub run by a local gangster. She knows more about the buddy’s murder than she lets on, and to keep Bogart from finding out the truth about his buddy, she seduces him into believing that she loves him. Both the film and Scott were hits, with the film typecasting her as a beautiful schemer caught in a whirlpool of jealousy, greed, betrayal and murder, but nevertheless irresistible.

Her fourth film was Desert Noir (1947), a coming-of-age noir with Scott as the rebellious daughter of Mary Astor, whose character, a casino and bordello owner, runs the corrupt town of Chuckawalla, Nevada. The film also starred newcomers Burt Lancaster and Wendell Corey.

In December 1946, Scott began filming on Wallis’s I Walk Alone, co-starring Douglas, Lancaster, and Wendell Corey. Scott plays torch singer Kay Lawrence, who befriends convict Frankie Madison (Lancaster), returning to New York after being in stir for the last 14 years. Kay’s boyfriend is Noll “Dink” Turner (Douglas), who owns the Regent Club. However, Madison claims that he’s Dink’s partner. Dink sends Kay to sweet-talk Frankie in order to stall for time, but the truth is that Dink, having tired of Kay, intends to dump her and marry socialite Mrs. Richardson (Kristine Miller).

The film, a big hit with audiences and seen as one of the classic film noirs today, contained even more drama behind the scenes. Originally titled Deadlock, the role of Kay was supposed to be Kristine Miller’s breakout role. But Scott, having read the script, decided she wanted the role, and prevailed upon Wallis, with whom she was involved in a hot and heavy affair, to give her the part, which he did. Miller wound up with the secondary role of the socialite. Her relations with Lancaster, previously romantic (it was rumored that they were to marry at one point) cooled to the point of near hostility. After filming wrapped, Lancaster tried to break his seven-year contract with Paramount, ostensibly on the grounds that it violated a previous freelance deal. However, he also admitted that he never wanted to work with Scott again.

Scott followed up I Walk Alone with two films that refined her femme fatale image even further. First up was Pitfall (1948), with Scott playing Mona Stevens, a model who becomes involved in a hot and heavy extramarital affair with bored insurance investigator Dick Powell. Powell soon finds himself competing for her with sociopath detective Raymond Burr, who is blackmailing Mona. She followed this with a film that many critics and viewers regard as her best performance and film: Too Late For Tears (1949). In this film, Scott is the ultimate femme fatale, Jane Palmer, who discovers $60,000 that had accidentally been thrown in the back of her husband’s car. She will go to any length to keep the sudden fortune, as witnessed by the bodies that begin to pile up. Unfortunately, the film bombed at the box office, resulting in bankruptcy for producer Hunt Stromberg.

One of Scott’s problems was that, despite appearing in nine films from 1946 to 1949, she failed to achieve the level of stardom and clout necessary to maintain popularity at the box office. Her health also contributed, for in 1949 she collapsed in hysterics during the filming of RKO’s The Big Steal, with Mitchum. Her illness was such that she had to quit the film. The doctors prescribed rest. By July 1949, Scott was sufficiently recovered to star in the Princeton (University) Drama Festival’s production of Philip Yordan’s Anna Lucasta. She also legalized her stage name.

Her films in the ‘50s were a mediocre lot, attributed in large part to her falling star. Dark City (1950) was a traditional noir with Charlton Heston (in his film debut) playing a bookie who is the target of the vengeful brother of a dead man he swindled. Scott once again played the torch singer-girlfriend. Two of a Kind (1951) featured Scott as a socialite who seduces gambler Edmond O’Brien into joining a caper. In The Racket (1951), another traditional noir, Scott plays a torch singer (for the last time), based loosely on mob moll Virginia Hill, who is caught up in a struggle between big city police captain Mitchum and local mob boss Robert Ryan. Red Mountain (1951) is a programmer starring Alan Ladd as a Confederate Army captain who goes west to join Quantrill’s Raiders. Scott is the wife of Arthur Kennedy, who along with Scott, join up with Ladd after he rescues Kennedy from a lynching.

In the midst of this, Scott traveled to England in October 1951 to begin filming Stolen Face, a Hammer Studio noir directed by Terence Fisher. It’s a uniquely nutty film about plastic surgeon Dr. Philip Ritter (Paul Henreid), who is devastated when the love of his life, American concert pianist Alice Brent (Scott) leaves him and reveals she’s engaged to another man. Dr. Ritter’s not about to take this lying down, and decides that if he can’t have the real thing, perhaps he can construct a duplicate to take her place. Which is just what he does when he meets horribly scarred convict Lily Conover (Mary Mackensie). A snip-snip here, a tug-tug there, and voila! Mary now looks exactly like Alice, and Scott now takes over the role as Lily. And, of course, he marries her. Not only that, Ritter gives her the same clothes, hairstyle, and so forth, as the departed Alice. Unfortunately for the good doctor, his pet theory, elaborated in the first part of the film, that physical deformities can lead to a life of crime, and if the deformities are removed, so is the criminal’s need to commit crime, falls by the wayside when Lily returns to her criminal ways. She steals jewelry and furs, with the doctor bribing shop owners to keep it on the QT. Just when it can’t get any worse, Alice pops back into Ritter’s life, and now he’s stuck with two Lizabeth Scotts. It presages Hitchcock’s Vertigo in a way, and Scott is wonderful in the dual role.

An important footnote here is that by casting Henreid, who was blacklisted in America because of his participation with the Committee for the First Amendment, Scott and Wallis were effectively among the first to break the Hollywood blacklist.

Returning to America, Scott began work on the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis vehicle, Scared Stiff, a remake of the 1940 Bob Hope-Paulette Goddard comedy, The Ghost Breakers. Scott plays the Goddard role, an heiress who inherits a haunted castle on Lost Island, off the Cuban coast. Although Scott would claim fond memories of working on the set in later interviews, it was not without its trials. Scott found Lewis’s impersonation of her offensive and made a point of telling him. Behind the scenes, a jealous Wallis was instructing director George Marshall against letting the romantic scenes between Scott and Martin get too steamy.

Scott’s last picture for Paramount was 1953’s Bad for Each Other, a drama set in Scott’s home state of Pennsylvania. She plays avaricious heiress Helen Curtis, who has her sights on recently returned Korean War physician Colonel Tom Owen (Heston), poor but idealistic. Despite her plans to encase him in her jewel-encrusted world, treating the imaginary illnesses of her society friends, Owen opts to leave that world to minister to the impoverished community. The film was a box office failure and ended not only her Paramount contract, but also her professional and personal relationship with Wallis. Scott was now a freelancer, going on to make a Western noir titled Silver Lode in 1954 and the JD drama The Weapon, in 1956. She also attended USC, where she audited courses in political science and philosophy, and began investing in real estate.

In April 1954, Scott flew to the Cannes Film Festival, where she spent time posing for photographers, wading barefoot in a fountain and the surf. Though she left immediately after the festival’s closing for London, her visit to France would come back to haunt her, both professionally and personally, damaging her film career beyond repair, for she found herself caught in the crosshairs of Confidential.

Confidential was the premier scandal sheet of its day. There were others, such as Hush Hush, but Confidential was the most popular by far. Bogart said of it, “Everybody reads it but they say the cook brought it into the house.” The magazine developed a network of call girls, waiters, bellboys, journalists, private detectives, and even minor actors who would provide small bits of fact about celebrities. The magazine then elaborated on the facts, magnifying them with a great deal of innuendo, marked by the frequent use of puns and alliteration. Instead of stating outright that an actor had participated in a scandalous act, Confidential operated by suggesting that something scandalous has occurred. Because the stories contained a kernel of actual truth and could be attributed to reliable sources, for a time celebrities would be unlikely to sue the publication, if only because of fear of further revelations that would come out at trial. For those who found themselves splashed over the front pages, the advice was to wait it out until the scandal died down.

In September 1954, Confidential ran a story titled, “Why Was Lizabeth Scott’s Name in the Call Girls’ Black Book?” A police raid on a Hollywood bordello in 1954 uncovered some interesting evidence. A “little black book” seized on the premises contained one entry under ‘S’ that astounded the vice officers: Scott, Lizabeth (4), Ho-2-0064, Br-2-6111. According to the article, the cops could scarcely believe their eyes. “Could that name be that of the honey-blonde star they’d seen in a dozen top movies? If so, what was it doing rubbing elbows with a zesty collection of customers for a trio of cuddle-for-cast cuties?”

The magazine went on to state that when the cops questioned the older girls, all they said was “We don’t want to get anyone in trouble.” But then the article noted that one of the three girls arrested, a juvenile of 17, cracked enough to convince the cops that their first suspicions were right. Supposedly the cops called the number listed in the book, only to have Scott answering, “with her famous husky drawl giving her away.”

To this little nugget was added a myriad of suggestion and supposition. “Liz,” the article stated, “was a strange girl, even for Hollywood, and from the moment she arrived in the cinema city, she never married, never even got close to the altar.”

Her movie career,” the article continued, “went off like a rocket” with such hits as You Came AlongThe Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and Dead Reckoning, but faded just as quickly. Liz “had few friends and never went out of her way to make new ones.” But now, according to the article, she “was taking up almost exclusively with Hollywood’s weird society of baritone babes.”

Baritone babes” was the magazine’s euphemism for the Sapphic sisterhood, or what Hollywood insiders called “the sewing circle.” In what was par for the course with every Confidential story on lesbianism, Liz was linked to a Parisian lesbian named Frede: “In one jaunt to Europe she headed straight for Paris and the left bank where she took up with Frede, the city’s most notorious lesbian queen and operator of a nightclub devoted exclusively to entertaining deviates just like herself.” Well, she did visit France, taking in Cannes. Whether or not she visited Paris was of no consequence to the magazine, which was only getting started. The fact that Frede was a friend and ex-lover of Marlene Dietrich, whose own bisexualism was no secret, was enough to paint Scott with the taint of guilt by supposed association. In fact, Frede was the proprietor of the posh Parisian nightclub Carroll’s, where the stars of France performed to a mixed clientele. In her 1989 memoirs, Eartha Kitt, who began her singing career at Carroll’s in the late 1940’s, described Frede as “the most beautiful manly-looking lady in the world.” The article also quoted her as saying that she “always wore male colognes, slept in men’s pajamas and positively hated frilly feminine dresses.”

The truth about Scott was that she was a nonconformist to the core. Off screen she was fairly open about her life, loved wearing shirts and slacks, and unlike many other stars rumored to be gay, she refused the services of a studio-provided “beard” husband. When Scott saw the article she was furious, but instead of merely sitting by and waiting for the storm to blow over, she enlisted the services of lawyer-to-the-stars Jerry Geisler and sued the magazine for $2.5 million, accusing it of “holding the plaintiff up to contempt and ridicule and implying in the eyes of every reader indecent, unnatural and illegal conduct in her private and public life.” However, it is important to note that she did not sue the magazine for implying that she was gay, but rather for its allegations that she used the services of call girls. The outcome of the trial was never made public. Some reports state the suit was settled out of court, while others maintain Scott lost on a technicality.

Her movie career was in tatters, although ex-lover Wallis gave her the female lead in the Elvis Presley vehicle, Loving You (1957). She played Glenda Markle, a press agent who discovers young country singer Presley and sets him on the road to fame. Backstage rumors were that she was smitten with co-star Elvis and tried to pursue a romance. Whether or not she was successful is not known. The film did very well at the box office and Scott received favorable reviews, but for her, the joy of making movies had passed. “I simply decided there was more to life than just making films,” she said in a 1970s interview. “And, I proceeded to explore all of life’s other facets. None of us is ever too young or too old or too smart to learn or to create.” In fact, after Loving You, she would only come out of “retirement” to make one more film, Pulp, with Michael Caine and Mickey Rooney, in 1972, as a nymphomaniac princess.

Instead, she turned to other things, such as music. In 1957, she cut an album simply titled Lizabeth for Vik Records, a subsidiary of RCA Victor. The album, a mixture of torch songs and romantic ballads such as Cole Porter’s “I’m in Love Again,” also contains in the inner notes an interview with Earl Wilson, in which he states she is a fan of Ralph Waldo Emerson, sleeps in the nude, loves deep-sea fishing, and adores sexy clothes (possibly a counter to the Confidential article). On April 23, 1958, she made her public singing debt on the CBS program The Big Record. The album was poorly received after its release, but since has become a cult favorite.

She also kept busy with television appearances, radio shows, and television voice-overs for juice and cat food commercials. In later years, living off returns from her many real estate investments, Scott led a quiet, private life at her house in the Hollywood Hills, helping to raise funds for museums, art galleries and charities (including hemophilia research and hunger). She turned down many requests for interviews and guest appearances, save for the occasional appearance for special screenings of her films. She also attended health clubs on a regular basis, and studied literature, philosophy and languages. There were rumors that she might marry Hal Wallis, but she remained steadfastly single, with Wallis marrying actress Martha Hyer instead.

Survivors include her brother Gus Matzo of Plymouth, Mich.; and sister Justine Birdsall of Middletown, N.Y.

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