“MeToo” Warning – The Pressbook for “Claudelle Inglish” (1961)

Unusually timely in today’s MeToo era, the 10-page A3-size Pressbook had a warning for young actresses 60 years ago about the sex predators operating in Hollywood. On the subject of “coping with an amorous male,” star Diane McBain commented: “The first months in Hollywood are likely to be dreadfully discouraging to any girl trying to gain a foothold as an actress. She needs an older person in whom she can confide.” In other words, get yourself a chaperone to fend off the men.

This was somewhat at odds with the tone of the film itself, which suggested that Claudelle Inglish was a male magnet.

The marketing team took the easy way out in selling this picture. Sleaze was the hook with  copy lines and images as the big come-on. Pick of the copy lines: “When she was seventeen there wasn’t a man she’d let near her…When she was eighteen there wasn’t one she’d keep away.”  More in keeping with the actual film was: “She liked boys looking at her…and thinking…and then she’d take her delicious kind of revenge on them all!”

The promotional people did not have much else in the way of ideas, beyond a glamor portrait of star Diane McBain as a means of stimulating a newspaper poll under the title “The Screen’s Most Beautiful Woman?” Another idea was a contest to list movie titles comprising a female name such as Mildred Pierce, Gigi etc. Probably the most original notion was a tie-up with a shoe store since the film’s main character had a predilection for red shoes.

Otherwise the emphasis was on the provocative. Exhibitors were encouraged to use a sidewalk stencil of the “voluptuous young girl”  or arrange a lobby display of all the gifts Claudelle had received from her suitors. Slightly more complicated was getting restaurants involved in a contest where the letters of the character’s name could be used to part-spell out the titles of Erskine Caldwell books.

Author Erskine Caldwell, the all-time best-selling writer in America at that point with  41 million copies in print, was another big selling point. He had also authored other steamy yarns like God’s Little Acre and Tobacco Road and another 36 books besides so his novels were likely to command prime space in a bookstore. Signet had printed a movie tie-in edition that would go on sale in 100,000 outlets.

In terms of star push, the Pressbook concentrated on Diane McBain, promoted as a newcomer, despite having already appeared in Ice Palace (1960) and Parrish (1961) and with an ongoing role in television series Surfside 6 (1960-1962). Exhibitors were informed that McBain had “soared to stardom in little more than a year.” But also that her legs had given her a “big lift up the ladder of stardom” with several scenes revealing those attributes. McBain was only 20 at the time of the film’s release, born in 1941 in Cleveland, Ohio, but already earning money as a model at college. A Warner Brothers talent scout had spotted her on a modelling assignment which led to a role as the grand-daughter of Richard Burton in Ice Palace.

At the other end of the fame ladder, five-time Oscar nominee Arthur Kennedy appeared content to acknowledge that he was “rarely recognized in public” and if so was usually mistaken for someone else. Constance Ford, who played his wife in the picture, had already been paired with the actor three times, previously, twice on stage – Death of a Salesman and See the Jaguar – and in A Summer Place (1959).

There is a sad postscript to this which was pointed out to me by one of my readers. Sexual assault on women is not restricted to the movie industry. In 1982, Diane McBain was raped and attacked in her garage on Christmas Day after she had returned from a party. The culprits were never found. And although she began a second career as a rape victim counselor, she told the Los Angeles Times eight years later: “The shock of what happened caused loss of memory, inability to concentrate and I’m still startled out of all proportion.” (Gerald Peary, “In Search of…Diane McBain,” LA Times, May 27, 1990, 23).

Claudelle Inglish (1961) ****

Simple small-town morality tale, brilliantly told, with a quiet nod to The Blue Angel and Citizen Kane. Shy dirt-poor farmer’s daughter Claudelle Inglish (Diane McBain) after falling for the handsome Linn Varner (Chad Everett) expects to be married when he returns from his Army stint until she receives a “Dear John” letter. Initially devastated, keeping all his letters and the dancing doll she had won with him at a fair, she decides that lying in bed all day and staring at the ceiling is not going to work. So she smartens up her frumpish look with lipstick and turns her simple wedding dress into a more attractive outfit.

She discovers that the boys are so desperate to come calling on this new-look creature that they will bring presents to every date, ranging from the biggest box of candy in the shop to a pair of red shoes. Encouraging her determined manhunt, dissatisfied mother Jessie (Constance Ford), who has endured twenty years of broken promises throughout marriage to hardworking Clyde (Arthur Kennedy),  beseeches her to go after a rich man. Luckily, there is one in the vicinity, the widowed S.T. Crawford (Claude Akins) who happens to be their landlord. Crawford tries to bribe Clyde with free rent and other benefits to put in a good word, but to no avail, the father believing that true love cannot be bought and, furthermore, will alleviate abject poverty.

Advertisement to the trade encouraging exhibitors to book for one
of the key dates on the U.S. release calendar.

Claudelle bluntly rejects Crawford as “too old and too fat” but takes his present anyway and, under pressure, agrees to go for a ride with him without allowing him to stop the car. Dennis Peasley (Will Hutchins), elder son of a store owner, believes he is the front runner, deluging her with gifts, naively believing she is his sweetheart until he realizes he is in competition with a horde of other local boys, including his younger brother, and outsider Rip (Robert Colbert). Jessie, seeing the prospect of a rich husband slip away, embarks on an affair with Crawford. Soon, Claudelle has the entire male population in the palm of her hand, piling up presents galore. However, tragedy, in the way these things go, is just round the corner.

What struck me first was the subtlety. Nothing here to bother the censor, beyond the immorality on show and despite Hitchcock breaking all sorts of sexual taboos with Psycho the year before. This isn’t an all-hot-and-bothered essay like the previously reviewed A Cold Wind in August or a picture that pivots on twists-and-turns like A Fever in the Blood, both out the same year. It is so delicately handled that took me a while to work out that Claudelle was actually having sex with all these guys.

Erskine Caldwell was America’s bestselling author at the time with over 40 million books sold and most famous, of course, for God’s Little Acre, filmed in 1958, and Tobacco Road (1941).

The initial shy girl blossoming under the first blush of love is done very well, a gentle romance ensuing, Claudelle still withdrawn in company, agreeing to an engagement even though Linn cannot afford a ring, waiting anxiously for his letters, adoring the dancing doll,  paying off a few cents at a time material for a wedding dress. It’s only after she receives a Dear John (Dear Jane?) letter that it becomes clear, though not crystal clear, that sex has been involved because that word is never spoken and that action never glimpsed. Only gradually do we realise that present-givers are being rewarded, and as her self-confidence grows she is soon able to pick her own presents.  One look is generally all it takes to have men falling all over themselves to give her what she wants, which is, essentially, a life where promises are not broken. But the closest she gets to showing how much she is changed from her original innocent incarnation is still by implication, telling a young buck she is “pretty all over.”

I was also very taken with the black-and-white cinematography by Ralph Woolsey. The compositions are all very clear, but in the shadows Claudelle’s eyes become glittering pinpoints. The costumes by Howard Shoup won an unexpected Oscar nomination, his third in three years. Veteran director Gordon Douglas (Them!, 1954) does an excellent job of keeping the story simple and fluent, resisting all temptations to pander to the lowest common denominator while extracting surprisingly good performances from the cast, many drawn from Warner Brothers’ new talent roster.

Diane McBain (Parrish, 1961) handles very well the transition from innocence to depravity (a woman playing the field in those days would be tagged fallen rather than independent) and holds onto her anguish in an understated manner. In some senses Arthur Kennedy (Elmer Gantry,1960) was a coup for such a low-budget production, but this could well have been a part he was born to play, since in his movie career he knew only too well the pain of promise, nominated five times for Best Supporting Actor (some kind of record, surely) without that nudging him further up the billing ladder. His performance is heartbreaking, working his socks off without ever keeping head above water, repairs getting in the way of promises made to wife and daughter, kept going through adoration for his wife.

Constance Ford (Home from the Hill, 1960) is heartbreaking in a different way, scorning her loving husband and dressing like her daughter in a bid to hook Crawford.  Television regular Claude Akins is the surprise turn. In a role that looked like a cliché from the off – i.e. older powerful man determined by whatever means to win the object of his desires – he plays it like he was auditioning for The Blue Angel, hanging on every word, being twisted round her little finger, demeaning himself as he is made to wait, sitting downcast outside the Inglish house like an rejected schoolboy. Of the younger cast, Will Hutchins was Sugarfoot (1957-1961), Chad Everett was making his movie debut, and Robert Overton had appeared in A Fever in the Blood (1961). Leonard Freeman (Hang ‘Em High, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on the Erskine Caldwell bestseller.

And where does Citizen Kane come into all this? The dancing doll Claudelle won at a fair when dating Linn is something of a motif, never discarded, as if a symbol of her innocence, and in close-up in the last shot of the film.