Film Title: Autumn Leaves
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
- Joan Crawford
- Cliff Robertson
- Vera Miles
Joan Crawford never had difficulty portraying a strong woman. The perfect example of art imitating life, her professional endeavors often echoed the same gusto that first brought her to the screen. Ten years after winning an Academy Award for ‘Best Actress’ in Mildred Pierce, and after two more Academy Award nominations for ‘Best Actress’ in 1947’s Possessed and 1953’s Sudden Fear respectively, Crawford starred with Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves with the working title being The Way We Are. Though the 1950s abandoned many of Hollywood’s leading ladies for the medium of television, Crawford was unfazed creatively and remained one of the most brilliant performers in the business.
Joan Crawford is Millicent “Millie” Wetherby, a lonely stenographer working steadily from her Los Angeles bungalow. Her interactions are limited to various customers and a friendship with Liz (Ruth Donnelly), the landlady. After typing furiously to finish a job, a client gives Millie two tickets to the symphony as a show of appreciation. The tickets are near the “nosebleed section”, which Liz points out in an almost belittling manner. Attending the concert alone, Millie is able to swap her two less-desirable seats for one in the orchestra section. As the music plays, she flashes back to when she cared for her ailing father, a task which clearly withdrew her from any social life of her own. As the performance concludes, Millie slowly walks the streets alone, as if searching for a reason to stay away from home. She finds a small restaurant just blocks from the concert hall and takes the last empty booth in the place. Seconds later, a young man appears in the restaurant and is told to wait for an available seat. He casually notices Millie sitting alone and asks to join her. Millie is guarded and apprehensive, noting that she’d much prefer if he didn’t sit down. Instead, he stands next to the booth trying to make small talk with her until she reluctantly tells him to have a seat. The young man continues his inordinate rambling, even commenting about the “MW” initials on Millie’s purse reading the same way upside down and right-side up. After a few misfired attempts at guessing her name, Millie clues him in and he reciprocates, introducing himself as Burt Hanson (Cliff Robertson). Burt comments that he’d recently returned from a tour in the Army and moved to Los Angeles to find employment. He claims to be a native of Racine, Wisconsin, a place where opportunity doesn’t exactly bang on one’s door. The two share pleasant conversation and after walking her home, Burt convinces Millie to join him for a date at the beach the following day. While changing into her bathing suit, Millie becomes very self-conscious about her aging figure and leaves the bathhouse donning a robe to cover the “flaws”. Burt removes the robe, and also the price tag from Millie’s bathing suit, remarking that they wouldn’t want anyone to know “It only cost $12.95 when it looks like a million”. Once in the water, Burt dives head first into the waves and Millie slowly wades. She clearly can’t swim but doesn’t want to let on for fear of embarrassment. Burt figures it out soon enough and they make their way back to shore, where they share a kiss in the crashing surf. Millie feels herself falling too quickly for the much younger Burt, and pleads with him not to return after he walks her home. Despite his insistent reassurance, she remains solid and asks him to leave her alone. Burt walks away dejected and Millie is heart-broken, but she feels that a relationship could not survive the weight of their age difference.
A month full of lonely nights pass and Millie becomes increasingly melancholy without Burt. Returning home from the market one day, she hears music flowing from the direction of her bungalow and runs in to find Burt waiting for her. She is thrilled to see him, though still a bit cautious about letting herself fall again. Burt tells her that he’s found a job at a department store and has come in the hopes of taking her out to celebrate. She maintains that Burt’s loneliness and her own loneliness is the only reason for their mutual attraction. Burt disagrees, assuring her that he’d tried to date women his own age during their month-long separation and found them to be too immature. She initially refuses the offer to go out but agrees when he presses her with an apparent desperation. They take in a movie, leaving halfway through for a cigarette break. Once outside, Burt confesses that he really brought Millie out to propose to her. He all but demands an answer right away, which causes her to recoil and she begins walking home. When they arrive back at the bungalow, Burt asks Millie her reasons for turning him down. She again blames the age difference, an excuse he is unwilling to accept. He is more inclined to believe that she finds him financially unstable and a “risky investment”. They exchange a few more emotional words before Burt turns to leave, half teary-eyed. Millie, now beginning to cry herself, jumps up to stop him and agrees to become Mrs. Hanson. They kiss enthusiastically and promise to never tire of one another. The two marry in Mexico the following day. Millie is a bit confused when the marriage license lists Burt as being from Chicago (remembering his earlier claim of hailing from Racine, Wisconsin). He dismisses her concern and insists that he’d never said anything about growing up in Racine. This would be the first of many inconsistencies. Just two weeks into their marriage, Burt showers Millie with gifts everyday, despite her warning to save money instead of spending carelessly. When a client of Millie’s drops by to pick up a manuscript, Burt proudly talks about his combat experience with the man. Millie remembers that Burt claimed to have never seen fighting during his tour in the Army. Burt leaves for work shortly thereafter. Suddenly, a woman named Virginia Hanson (Vera Miles) shows up on Millie’s doorstep claiming to be Burt’s wife. Though the news catches her off guard, Millie is certain that Virginia is mistaken until she produces a photo of Burt and his father from her wallet (Burt mentioned that his father was dead). Virginia states he she and Burt’s father have come to Los Angeles to find him, in an attempt to have him sign property settlement papers. Virginia also confides that Burt is a pathological liar, and that Millie is foolish for being involved with him. Sickened at the thought of deception, Millie leaves to find Burt’s father (Lorne Greene) at his hotel.
Burt’s father warns Millie about Burt’s dangerous emotional state. He paints his son as a lost soul who should be institutionalized for his own safety. After Millie leaves, Virginia steps out of the bedroom and embraces her former father-in-law in an “adult” manner. It’s evident that the two are romantically involved. Millie confronts Burt about Virginia when he returns from work. Showing signs of anger, Burt claims that his marriage to Virginia was never about love. He recounts a story about arriving home one day to surprise Virginia with a gift and suddenly blacking out. Millie suggests that Burt visit his father, which causes him to break down in tears. He agrees to pay the visit. Millie returns to Mr. Hanson’s hotel the following day to speak further and sees him cuddling with Virginia by the pool. She hides in a corridor while the two make their way up to Hanson’s suite. As Millie darts past the front desk, the hotel clerk tells her that Burt is on his way up to see his father. Millie is horrified at the thought of what Burt will find, and dashes up four flights of steps to try to cut him off before he can reach the suite. Too late, Millie sees Burt slumped lazily in the doorway. She comforts him and takes him home. Once home, Burt begins acting strange and is uncommunicative. Virginia and Burt’s father arrive in the courtyard demanding to see Burt, at which time Millie lashes out at both of them, slinging every insulting word in the book. Burt peers through the window curtains, watching the confrontation with a smug look on his face. When Burt’s father threatens to have Burt committed unless he signs the property settlement papers, Millie’s anger boils over into a rage. She spews more harsh words and returns to the bungalow to find an angry Burt waiting. Burt accuses Millie of being in cahoots with Virginia and his father, claiming he heard every last word of their conversation. He slaps her to the floor and raises a typewriter over his head to smash her, but she rolls out of the way, getting her hand crushed as the heavy machine comes down. She screams in pain, causing Burt’s personality to change as he tearfully begs her to forgive him. Millie’s injured hand is treated by Dr. Masterson (Maurice Manson), who recommends that Burt undergo a psychiatric evaluation with his friend Dr. Malcolm Couzzens (Shepperd Strudwick). Millie refuses the advice until one night when Burt is crying and screaming uncontrollably about Virginia and his father. Couzzens diagnoses Burt as a schizophrenic who is seeking the comfort of a mother figure rather than that of a wife. He advises that Burt should be put into a care facility that specializes in such cases. Millie must decide whether or not to have Burt committed, realizing that, once emotionally healed, he may no longer need her.
Autumn Leaves begins with the soft voice of Nat King Cole singing the title song, and ends the same way. Perhaps it signifies life coming full circle, or perhaps it’s only a tune. That is open to individual debate. Joan Crawford took on the role of Millie Hanson in the midst of a few films which have since been regarded as undeserving of her presence, namely Johnny Guitar and Queen Bee. As previously mentioned, many actors and actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age found scripts to be less than stellar when television became a major vehicle. Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper and Bette Davis were just a few who felt the effects of a changing industry. Nevertheless, this performance was further proof that Crawford refused to go quietly. Quite similar to her Mildred Pierce, Crawford played Millie as a martyr of sorts. She was willing to jeopardize her own personal happiness for the greater good, realizing that in doing so, she might drive herself deeper into the void of a painful existence. Whereas Crawford sacrificed in Mildred Pierce for her daughter Veda, she would do the same here for Cliff Robertson’s Burt Hanson. Robertson is best known to the current generation as “Uncle Ben Parker” in the new Spiderman films. However, he began in the early 1940s with a string of television appearances and a few uncredited parts which spilled over in the 1950s. Autumn Leaves was only his second real film role, aside from a smaller appearance in 1955’s Picnic with William Holden and Kim Novak. Robertson played Burt as a fragile “grown-up child” who teetered on the fine tightrope between co-dependency and Multiple Personality Disorder. It would undoubtedly be a break-out performance for him, as he continued to secure roles nearly every year afterwards. Robertson would appear in a 1996 television documentary titled Joan Crawford: Always the Star and again in 2002’s Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star. Despite Crawford’s legendary status and Robertson being a virtual newcomer, the two had great on-screen chemistry and made this film another benchmark in both of their careers. The real-life age difference between Crawford and Robertson worked well in personifying their respective characters. Crawford once again displayed her unparalleled dramatic abilities, while managing to slip a few comedic wisecracks into the mix.
Autumn Leaves is currently unavailable on DVD, though it can be found on VHS. There is talk of a second Joan Crawford Collection from Warner Brothers in the near future. Though no titles have officially been announced for the set, this film would be a great candidate for inclusion. A retrospective documentary focusing on Autumn Leaves and its relevance would be a much welcomed bonus feature.
The title of this film suggests a much softer plot than what is actually presented. It’s a good thing too, because it’s pleasantly surprising. We’ve seen films in this vain and will continue to find similarities in other works, but, the star makes the difference in this case. Joan Crawford is never Joan Crawford in any of her roles; she’s simply the person she portrays. She becomes her part and one gets the feeling that very little effort is required. When you achieve a certain level of notoriety for your ability, it’s no longer a job – it’s just instinct.
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