Autumn Leaves is a Soaper, not a frilly or floral soap but more in the lines of a deep cleaning-cleanser made for grimy, greasy hands; this is a quintessential Joan Crawford vehicle, affording her many strong scenes, and allowing ample room for her larger than life personality. I assume many would have thought that this was an odd follow up for director Robert Aldrich after 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Knife, but in some ways it was the perfect choice for the 37 year old. That is what the Berlin International Film Festival felt as they awarded him the Silver Bear for Best Director; this Berlin award fit Aldrich and his out of the main-stream-directing style, his darling of the film-festivals rough-hewn auteur image very well. Also the Berlin Festival was the premier for Autumn Leaves, in June of 1956, followed up by a July 4th, general release in West Germany, not making its USA premier until Wednesday August 1st, 1956. The film starred Joan Crawford as the hard-working, reticent loving Millicent Wetherby, Cliff Robertson portrayed the affable (when calm and un-confronted) yet violent (when faced with the troublesome truth) Burt Hanson, Vera Miles was particularly nasty as Virginia Hason, (ex-wife of Burt) and Lorne Greene appeared as the despotic and vile Mr. Hanson, (Father of Burt).
Each of the cinematic-disciplines were well represented in “Leaves”, director of photography was Charles Lang, one of the exceptional names of cinematography in Hollywood’s golden days. Blacklisted scripters Jean Rouverol and Hugo Butler along with Lewis Meltzer and Robert Blees turned in an award-worthy screenplay. Hans J. Salter provided an appropriate score for the heart-string-pulling movie; composer Salter made much of his living scoring Westerns and Horror flicks but was more than adept for the task of “Leaves”. Mr. Salter, I think, could easily have received an Oscar nomination (4 nominations for his career, all coming early on) for his work. I am not implying that it was a weak Academy Award field of five but that it was not a deep year altogether. 14 times Oscar nominee Jean Louis presented Ms. Crawford and cast in delightful wardrobe; Aldrich editing favorite Michael Luciano administered the cuts, with another of the Aldrich film-making-cadre William Glasgow, taking care of the art direction with his usual efficiency, and seldom used set decorator Eli Benneche brought a simple, direct and sometimes stark hand to the scenery.
Not exactly a critics-choice Autumn Leaves faired best with a review from Variety, seeing in the film what most see in the autumnal colors: difference and a kind of unique beauty. Pauline Kael offered a mixed-bag of thoughts on Autumn Leaves; one would have expected for her to promptly crush “Leaves” beneath her strident feet, taking into consideration her thoughts on popular, main-stream films or maybe she saw this as an underdog because of Aldrich, bearing in mind that the reviews, overall, were not positive, as with Photo Play and their trashing of the melodrama and Bosley Crowther of the New York Times taking a rake to the movie.
Recently, an addition to the critical-mass was published by Slant in 2004, considering “Leaves” an Aldrich mislaid gem; of this school of thought I am a proud alumni. Autumn Leaves is a wonderful look at love from a mature, practical perspective. Millicent Wetherby does not dump and dash when finding out her husband’s problems but stays the course to help him find a way out of his hurt-locker. This really is a film about change, change of the seasons of our lives, change of our emotions and the change that takes place when we are able to overcome. All of this said I have not mentioned that Nat King Cole’s cover of Autumn Leaves is heard over the opening credits, which is a treat, in and of itself. Autumn Leaves is available in a collection from TCM: Joan Crawford in the 1950s (Harriet Craig / Queen Bee / Autumn Leaves / The Story of Esther Costello). So, even though winter is almost past with spring drawing closer each day, plan some time for Autumn in the near future.
On the set of Autumn Leaves:
By C. S. Williams