|Whatever Happened To Aunt Alice?|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Monday, 10 July 2000|
Robert Aldrich's great 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?', starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, became a smash hit, leading to a mini-wave of aging actresses in horror movies and thrillers. Crawford herself made a couple of movies for William Castle, Bette Davis appeared in a pair of Hammer movies, and others were busy elsewhere. Aldrich's own followup, 'Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte,' also with Davis, likewise did big business, so he produced -- but did not direct -- 'Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice?'
It's second-string stuff for the most part, not bad at all, but perfunctory and straightforward. But, fortunately, it stars Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon, and they're terrific, both of them. Page was one of the most creative actors on stage during the 1950s, but there was a nine-year gap between her first movie ('Hondo') and her second ('Summer and Smoke'). She was nominated for Oscars several times, finally winning for 'The Trip to Bountiful' in 1985; she died two years later. Gordon appeared in movies as early as 1915, but turned to the stage for many years thereafter, appearing in a handful of films in the 1940s. She and her husband Garson Kanin wrote plays and movies together, then she went back to acting in the 1960s, and appeared in several iconographic roles, winning the Oscar for 'Rosemary's Baby.' She was everyone's favorite feisty old broad until she died in 1985. She was so busy toward the end that movies with her continued to be released for several years after her death.
They're wonderfully well-matched here, because there's such a strong contrast between them, both physically -- Page was tall, Gordon short -- and in terms of acting styles. Page was a leading exponent of the Method, which results here in a creepy, sub-Tennessee Williams performance, full of malevolence and quirks. Gordon's style is straightforward and vigorous, no fuss, no muss (unlike some of her other performances of the time).
Page is Claire Marrable, who, as the movie opens, learns that instead of being the rich man she always assumed, her late husband was penniless. She doesn't even own the house she lives in -- and she's never in her life had to get by on her own. But a few years later, now in Tuscon, Arizona, she's getting along just fine. She has a nice house way out in the desert, where she enjoys tending her hard-wrought garden. We soon learn what's made the difference, as she murders her latest housekeeper, Miss Tinsley (Mildred Dunnock), and buries her in the garden. She plants a young pine tree on the grave -- and the next day, we see a series of pine trees of descending heights. The unfortunate Miss Tinsley was just the latest in a series of murdered housekeepers. Claire gets them to make bogus investments, kills them and keeps their money.
Soon, Miss Dimmock (Gordon) arrives to interview for the position of housekeeper. She rouses Claire's suspicions, but when she learns that Miss Dimmock has a tidy sum set aside for her old age, Claire hires her, already planning on planting another pine tree.
But Miss Dimmock is not all she appears; she's there with a plan of her own.
As long as the movie sticks to the cat-and-mouse game between these two shrewd, flavorful actresses, it works very well. Even the digressions with neighbor Harriet Vaughn (Rosemary Forsyth), the boy she's looking after and the dog they've rescued, fit nicely into the murder plot. But the screenplay by Theodore Apstein (from Ursula Curtiss' novel The Forbidden Garden) is a little cluttered with too many characters. And the script takes a turn toward the end that tends to turn a lot of people off, though it's in keeping with what went before.
Director Lee H. Katzin does a good, workmanlike job, rising above the routine in the suspense sequences. The supporting cast is okay, too, but the real joy lies in seeing Page and Gordon walk in circles around one another. The characters are well-drawn to begin with, and the stars seem to enjoy working together; their dialog should have been stronger, though.
Claire is haughty, childish, manipulative and self-pitying, convinced that murder is really her only option. Miss Dunnock (who's the Aunt Alice of the title) is a little nervous at first, but determined to investigate what she's sure is a murder. They have a great confrontation in the kitchen near the end of the film, when they both play their final cards. Page's throaty laugh is used for punctuation throughout the movie, a very nice touch.
Anchor Bay's disc is from an exceptionally good print, although the only extra is a trailer. There's nothing special about the sound; it's standard for a lower-case A movie of the period (1969). The score by Gerald Fried is unusual, but not outstanding. Joseph Biroc's cinematography is above average.
'Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice?' is good viewing for a cold winter evening; except for the lead performances, it's not memorable, but it's an entertaining little thriller.