Saturday, January 8, 2011

Random Viewing II: Beauty and the Brute

As an adolescent, I was glued to CBS every Friday night for The Twilight Zone. After weaning myself from the addiction to attend college and then live without a television in young adulthood, it’s been possible to catch up with missed episodes whenever the US network SyFy holds a marathon – which the cable channel did during the recent holidays. Although thinking that by now I’ve seen the entire Rod Serling oeuvre, I tuned in and found one of the best stories the show ever produced: “Two,” which first aired in mid-September 1961, addresses the issue of mutually assured destruction. Such topics apparently were popular with the peacenik intellectuals who penned and directed these scripts during a Cold War era marked by nuclear weapons proliferation.

The spare “Two” is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where a man and a woman, quite possibly the last people left on Earth, cross paths in a badly damaged town that’s devoid of all other living things. They’re soldiers from disparate armies, dressed in different military uniforms, not able to understand each other’s language. Hers might be Russian, though it’s difficult to say since she utters only one word throughout the half-hour they’re on screen. Both are searching desperately for food and struggling to survive. They fight. He slugs her. She’s knocked out. A simple desire for companionship then begins to supplant his wariness, and the former enemies edge their way into an uneasy truce that might ensure survival of the human race.

Bronson and Montgomery in "Two"
At first, I thought these were unknown young thespians until realizing – Yikes! – it was Charles Bronson and an uncharacteristically brunette Elizabeth Montgomery, who was best known in the late 1960s for appearing as a kooky blonde housewife with special powers on the ABC sit-com Bewitched. He looks incredibly handsome, before his face became so weathered and morose under that menacing mustache. More importantly, their Twilight Zone performances are surprisingly subtle in a series that too often would opt for stilted theatrics. He could really act, something I never would have suspected given his thuggish roles in the subsequent quartet of vigilante Death Wish movies (1974, 1982, 1985 and 1987). Then again, I always tended to steer clear of any release with Bronson’s name in the credits.

Charles Bronson
As a journalist, I certainly had no interest in trying to interview him once I learned that, in the early 1970s, he and wife Jill Ireland had moved to a colonial farmhouse on 260 acres in West Windsor. (This Vermont town is two hours southeast of the small city where I landed at about the same time as a mother with a baby daughter.) They called the place Zuleika, in honor of their own newborn daughter. Bronson was Ireland’s primary caregiver as she was battling cancer in 1990 and a grieving father when their adopted son – one of six additional children between them from previous marriages – succumbed to a heroin overdose that year.

Originally called Charles Dennis Buchinsky, the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner, he had graduated from ye olde school of hard knocks but apparently turned into a tough guy with a tender soul. His career, as far as I can tell, rarely allowed him to break free of typecasting to demonstrate versatility. Bronson died in 2003 at age 81and is buried a few miles from Zuleika Farm.

Another Hollywood luminary whose destiny was forever entwined with this little New England state: Veronica Lake, but her demise here is a mystery worthy of the femme fatale parts she generally played in the noir genre. One of those films, This Gun for Hire, was the 1942 crime drama that propelled the svelte actress to stardom. Lake – whose long blonde hair falling over her right eye inspired numerous American women to copy “the peek-a-boo look” – died of hepatitis in a Burlington hospital on July 7, 1973 (more or less coinciding with the arrival of my family and Bronson’s in Vermont).

That much is known about Lake. Everything else seems to be in dispute, despite the precise details of her death certificate. Theories abound: 1) She had collapsed while visiting friends in Stowe, a quaint village frequented by skiers; 2) It might have happened in the Adirondacks of New York; 3) She had flown north from the Bahamas for treatment. A fourth and far more gruesome narrative suggests Lake’s body was smuggled over the border from Quebec by her lover, the cigar-smoking editor of a publication called The Police Gazette. He reportedly told customs officials she was just sleeping. In that scenario, the poor woman wound up in Montpelier, our capital. This post-mortem relocation supposedly was due to a deathbed request that the public not learn her last breath had been drawn in Montreal, which then suffered from a reputation as Sin City.

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire
Sin is rampant in This Gun for Hire. Lake portrays Ellen, a nice girl rather than a seductress who nonetheless works as a sultry chanteuse doing magic tricks at a Los Angeles nightclub. She’s been asked by a U.S. senator to spy on her boss because he’s suspected of helping a ruthless war profiteer sell a poison-gas formula to the Nazis. In this adaptation of a Graham Greene novel, a paid assassin named Raven (Alan Ladd) is an existential anti-hero somehow involved in the conspiracy, but he loves cats and can trace his problems to childhood psychological trauma! Raven takes Ellen hostage. That should have spelled romance. Instead, she’s smitten with Robert Preston as a Goody Two-(Gum)Shoes detective. 

The Lake-Ladd chemistry was so potent that, altogether, they were paired in four hard-bitten pictures, the most famous of which probably is The Blue Dahlia. Author Raymond Chandler, who wrote the screenplay, once referred to her rather unkindly as “Moronica Lake.” However, the dame may have had more smarts than he realized. She had been “discovered” in 1941 thanks to Sullivan’s Travels, written and directed by the legendary Preston Sturges. The classic satire offered an early example of Lake’s comedic talent, otherwise mostly eclipsed by the exploitation of her glamorous image. In a self-effacing 1970 ghostwritten memoir, she acknowledged: “I wasn’t a sex symbol. I was a sex zombie.”

Veronica Lake
However gripping, no work of the imagination can compare with Veronica Lake’s real-life tragedies. As Constance Frances Marie Ockleman, she was a Brooklyn native who attended a parochial school in Montreal until expulsion for rebellious behavior. Her mother later claimed the youngster had been diagnosed a schizophrenic. In the first of Lake’s four marriages, she was injured while pregnant and gave birth prematurely to a baby that perished. A long list of miseries ensued: divorces, bankruptcy, estrangement from her three other children, booze, paranoia (a belief that the FBI was stalking her), and an arrest for being drunk and disorderly.  
Lake’s age at the time of her passing is variously listed as 50, 53 and 54. Most biographies suggest she was born on November 14, 1919. But 1922 is the date on that pesky Vermont death certificate. The document also supports Burlington’s link to Lake at the end. She had checked into a local hospital’s acclaimed alcoholism unit under the care of Dr. Warren Beeken, according to a 2006 article by Donald Bain. He’s the ghostwriter of her 1970 memoir who later went on to pen the Murder, She Wrote TV series.

But the princess of peek-a-boo’s cry for help came too late. Her liver and kidneys failing, she slipped into a coma. The deceased was taken to a cemetery in a remote part of Vermont called the Northeast Kingdom for cremation. Either her grown son, the afore-mentioned Montreal lover or Bain made those arrangements, but for reasons unknown none of them claimed Lake’s remains from a funeral home in Burlington until 1976. At that point, Bain paid $200 for the storage costs. Her ashes were then scattered off the coast of Florida, though some contend it was the Virgin Islands.

In a final twist worthy of pulp fiction, three decades later a Catskills antique shop displayed a makeshift urn purportedly containing at least a portion of Lake’s ashes. A labyrinthine explanation of how they got there could not confirm whether or not the claim was genuine. Whatever the case, the proprietor launched a 2004 Lake look-alike contest with males and females in slinky dresses sporting long, blonde wigs. A local baker sold Peek-a-Boo Cookies, as a videotape of This Gun for Hire played on a television monitor in the store window. Like Bronson, she was a prisoner of typecasting in her craft, but at least he has been allowed to rest in peace.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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