Legend of Lylah Clare, The (1968)

Legend of Lylah Clare, The (1968)

“She was the most remarkable woman I’ve ever known. So what do you do? You spend the rest of your life trying to find her again.”

A shy actress (Kim Novak) named Elsa is recruited by a reclusive director (Peter Finch) to play the lead role in a biopic about his ex-wife, Bavarian movie star “Lylah Clare”, who died mysteriously some 20 years earlier. Soon Elsa begins acting more and more like Lylah, even imitating her deep, gravelly voice — but is she doomed to repeat Lylah’s fate?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Actors and Actresses
  • Dick Miller Films
  • Ernest Borgnine Films
  • Hollywood
  • Kim Novak Films
  • Peter Finch Films
  • Possession
  • Robert Aldrich Films
  • Untimely Death

Robert Aldrich made a number of classic films — including Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) — during his 32-year career as a director, but this ill-conceived, horribly executed fiasco — his first film outside the studio system — exists squarely in the realm of “what was he thinking?” mishaps. While Peter Finch and Ernest Borgnine try their best with the insipid material (and fans of Coral Browne will undoubtedly enjoy her brief turn as a Louella Parsons-esque gossip columnist), the rest is an incomprehensible mess. The film’s one (potentially) redeeming quality is the level of camp it achieves through sheer ineptitude: whenever Elsa starts acting like a bitchy diva, for instance, her voice is inexplicably dubbed with a deep, gravelly, almost mannish German accent; unfortunately, while it’s hinted that Lylah may somehow be inhabiting Elsa’s body (conveniently enough, they look identical), it’s never made clear whether Elsa really is possessed, or is just doing a darn good imitation of her deceased doppelganger. By the time the utterly confusing denouement — involving a trapeze act and a dogfood commercial — rolls around, most viewers will no longer care enough to try to figure out what it all means.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Finch as Lewis Zarkin
  • Ernest Borgnine as a self-important Hollywood bigwig
  • The campily constructed “flashback” scenes
  • The truly awful, deep-voiced dubbing when Elsa is “possessed” by Lylah
  • Some amusing dialogue: “You’re moving like a deeply offended Tibetan yak!”

Must See?
No. Although it has a small cult following, I can’t in good conscience recommend this mess as a “must see” for film fanatics.


One thought on “Legend of Lylah Clare, The (1968)

  1. Not a must – but I admit it’s a bad movie I love.

    Watching it again, it occurred to me that the script’s appeal to Aldrich is rather clear. He probably cared less about the main story than the script’s attack on Hollywood and the entertainment industry in general. In that sense, ‘Legend’ fits right in with Aldrich films like ‘Baby Jane’, ‘The Killing of Sister George’ and ‘The Big Knife’. As noted, Aldrich went outside the studio system for this film and ‘Legend’ itself holds hints as to why.

    Perhaps the film’s strongest – and most realistic – scene comes midway: in a prominent dining spot, Borgnine joins Finch and Novak at their table to discuss the details of Finch’s upcoming film project. As Novak remains rather removed (until the voice of Lylah pours through), Borgnine and Finch go mano-a-mano verbally and we hear the somewhat-cutthroat details of how money is made as movies are made. Things here turn a bit vicious, and the scene could very well mirror Aldrich’s distaste for working within the system. (No doubt, the film’s final, startling dog-eat-dog image cements this.)

    That aspect aside, ‘Legend’ is one contrived film in the worst possible sense: for the most part, it is simply unbelievable and you don’t really buy it for a minute. It doesn’t even respect its own terms: while it is clearly established that the ghost of Lylah enters Novak’s Elsa, the possibilities of that angle are under-developed (for a large section of the picture, the idea seems dropped altogether).

    I can personally get some enjoyment out of the film because of its sheer ridiculousness. I first saw it in the theater when I was 13 and I’m sure, to me, it fit in nicely with a number of other bizarre and scatterbrained films that the ’60s brought us. As well, I’m sure I was agog at how dopey it was. (Of course, being young and gay helped.)

    Finch and Novak don’t really come out of this with any amount of dignity – but, I must say, I prefer Novak when she’s Lylah (overdone as that tends to be). Borgnine is solid in his blustery way and there is some pleasure derived from seeing Browne’s tank-like force hit with comeuppance. The most memorable performances, though, are turned in by the two Italian actresses in the cast: Rossella Falk smolders appropriately as the resident lesbian ‘dialogue coach’, and Valentina Cortese has a nice commanding presence as Countess Bedoni. (She’s given the film’s best line, to Borgnine: “For a man who sticks his initials on everything – including the toilet seat – you’re pretty critical of other people’s vanities, aren’t you?”)

    Yes, make no mistake…’Legend’ is legendary as a train wreck. Still, it tickles me.

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