Book into Film – “A House Is Not A Home” (1964)

Hollywood biopics tended to follow one of two routes – overcoming circumstances or falling victim to circumstances. Polly Adler’s autobiography A House Is Not A Home fitted into neither category. It was more of a survivor’s guide and if there was any element of triumph it was within an unsavory profession and one that sailed too close to the nether worlds of the Prohibition gangster.

The film stuck to a shorter time frame than the book, kaleidoscoping certain events and characters, highlighting an inevitably impossible romance and adding a gangster subplot, while acting as an expose of civic corruption, cops especially rubbing their noses in the financial trough.

Dramatic license is taken throughout the film, for example Adler (Shelley Winters in the film) was not rescued in the book by future lover Casey Booth (Ralph Taeger), who was in any case a pseudonym, but first met him when he drank himself unconscious in her brothel. Lucky Luciano (Cesar Romero) makes only a brief appearance in the book. Both film and book skip present Adler as businesswoman first and victim second.

Adler’s unflinching attitude to the business is core to both book and film but inevitably a movie made in Hollywood in the mid-1960s enjoyed less freedom in matters relating to sex than a book published a decade before. In some respects it’s a shame that the film was shot  in such prohibitive times. Had it been made today either as a movie or mini-series it would have had a more decent chance of telling a better story and bypassing the pressing issues of morality, as was the case with Molly’s Game (2017), another true story, about a woman heading up a multi-million-dollar illegal gambling racket.

The book tells a fascinating story and casts a light on troubled times. Adler came to the U.S. as an immigrant at the age of 13, was raped by her workplace supervisor, thrown out of her home and went into the pimping business by accident before setting up her own brothel. But she did quit and operated instead as a lingerie retailer before being duped out of her savings. Thereafter, back in the sex worker business, she made a point of hiring only the most beautiful girls and her career path  demonstrated a fascinating understanding of business, especially her grasp of marketing, as she moved from the gangster world into high society.

There were busts along the way and she went out of business for over a year when implicated in the Seabury vice investigations of 1930-1931 and for a time afterwards was bankrolled by gangster Dutch Schultz. And although Adler worked her way up to notable personality and enjoyed the attention of artists and members of high society who used her premises almost as a salon, she did not run shy of spelling out the worst aspects of the life.

Loneliness was a key factor. It was impossible to retain a relationship except a destructive one with a pimp or gangster. Poverty, lack of education, poor home environment, lack of love and early exploitation were the reasons women became sex workers. Suicide – loss of hope – was common as was drug use. A high-class brothel was a long way from the type of operation where women were expected to service 25 men a day – a record of their activity kept by a “lace curtain” of holes punched into a sheet – but yet, inevitably, that was the final destination for the high-class girls once age or drugs or alcohol took its toll.

 “To outsiders it seems hypocritical and hair-splitting for a madam to make a distinction between herself and a pimp,” said Adler who maintained she did not fall into the latter category because her girls kept more of the money they earned and she did not take on inexperienced girls whereas a pimp seduced girls into the life and kept them there often by hooking them on drugs. 

Much like Don Corleone in The Godfather, morality did not enter the equation. “If I was to make a living as a madam, I could not be concerned either with the rightness or wrongness of prostitution considered either from a moral or criminological standpoint.”

Unlike the bulk of women employed as sex workers, the Adler story had a happy ending. After being busted in 1943 and undergoing a public humiliation on vacation, she retired from the business, went to university and wrote her biography which turned into a bestseller. She died in 1962, two years before the film appeared.

A House Is Not a Home (1964) ***

Best remembered these days as the debut film for Raquel Welch (One Million Years BC, 1966), the rest of the film is well worth a look.

Hypocrisy had its heyday in The Roaring 20s when prohibition made bootleggers millionaires, helped bankroll other criminal activities like prostitution and encouraged cops and politicians to seek their share of the loot. No surprise then that the biopic of real-life madam Polly Adler (Shelley Winters) is knee-deep in corruption.  

Thrown out of her own home after being raped, Adler finds a knight in shining armor in the shape of bootlegger Frank Costigan (Robert Taylor) and is soon, at first apparently innocently, pimping out her friends. The reality of what becomes her profession is not ignored, the word “whore” bandied around, one girl, Madge (Lisa Seagram), turning junkie as a result while Lorraine (Meri Welles) commits suicide. As in Go Naked in the World (1961) Polly realizes that true love has no place in her world, a relationship with musician Casey (Ralph Taeger) unsustainable.

Adler, in her many voice-overs, explains why vulnerable women become sex workers – poverty, lack of family and lack of hope is her take on it – and she professes to view it as a business and preferable to working in a factory for pitiful wages, but the movie is at its best in linking the nether worlds of infamy and showing that the woman is always the loser.  Morality got in the way of portraying Adler as a winner, a successful businesswoman who brought a certain amount of style to the oldest profession. Women profiting from illegal activity would not be deemed heroic (to use the word loosely) until Molly’s Game (2017) and like Jessica Chastain in that film Adler’s love life is in tatters because, like her male counterparts, she devotes so much time to her business.

While any attempt to properly portray the period is hampered by lack of budget, it does provide an array of interesting and occasionally real-life characters, Lucky Luciano (Cesar Romero) for example. A brothel proves an ideal meeting place for crooks and politicians, the latter easily bought by contributions to their campaign funds. Cops are not shy about asking for donations to their Xmas funds or using the facility.

The Adler operation puts a glossy shine on the shady business since all her girls are glamorous. But still the movie pulls no punches except in the case of the madam herself, presented too often as an innocent and who saw nothing wrong in taking as much advantage of the vulnerable girls in her employ as the  clients who paid for them. Nonetheless, while Adler attempts to justify her life the film’s moralistic tone undercuts this.

 

Oscar-winner Shelley Winters (The Chapman Report, 1962), more often a supporting player at this point in the 1960s than the star, grabs the role with both hands and although unconvincing as the younger girl delivers a rounded performance minus the blowsy affectations that marred much of later work. One-time MGM golden boy Robert Taylor, pretty much in the 1960s reduced to television (The Detectives, 1959-1962) and low-budget pictures, shows a glimpse of old form as the smooth bootlegger.

Cesar Romero (Oceans 11, 1960) and Oscar-winner Broderick Crawford (All the Kings Men, 1949) head up a checklist of old-timers filling out the supporting cast. Future director Lisa Seagram (Paradise Pictures, 1997) as the junkie hooker makes the biggest impact among the girls.

From the flotilla of wannabes playing Polly’s girls, apart from Raquel Welch the only one to break into the big time was Edy Williams (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, 1970). In the main they comprised beauty queens – Amede Chabot (Miss America), Danica d’Hondt (Miss Canada) and Leona Gage (Miss Universe) who had a small part in Tales of Terror (1962). Otherwise Sandra Grant became the most famous – for marrying singer Tony Bennett. Patricia Manning had the most screen experience, second-billed in The Hideous Sun Demon (1958), bit parts in television shows, and fourth-billed in The Grass Eater (1961). Inga Nielsen would later turn up as bikini fodder in The Silencers (1966), In Like Flint (1967) and The Ambushers (1967).

Director Russell Rouse (The Fastest Gun Alive, 1956) was better known for the screenplay of D.O.A. (1949) and had a story credit for Pillow Talk (1959). In fairness, although the film has no great depth, Rouse keeps it ticking along via multiple story strands, although occasional lapses into comedy fail to work. Lovers of curiosities might like to note that Rouse was the producer on an abortive American attempt to remake the classic British television comedy Steptoe and Son for U.S. audiences with Lee Tracy in the role of Albert and Aldo Ray as his son Harold.

This is hard to get hold of. Ebay will be your best bet. Youtube has a print but it’s not in great condition.

A Study in Terror (1965) ****

Excepting Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) the world’s most famous fictional detective had been absent from the big screen for over two decades so it seemed an inspired decision to set him on the trail of the world’s most infamous serial killer – Jack the Ripper. The result is high-class comfort food – the first of the series made in color – classic deduction coupled with barbaric murders in a fog-bound London replete with cobbled streets, Dickensian urchins and sex workers apop with cleavage and corset. Throw in sensitivity towards the abject poverty of the period, female exploitation and a nod towards an upper-class cover-up and you have a movie with a surprisingly contemporary outlook.

This is a tougher Holmes, handy with his fists, sporting a spring-loaded knife in his walking stick. The investigation draws in the Prime Minister (Cecil Parker) and the Home Secretary (Dudley Foster) as well as Sherlock’s pompous brother Myron (Robert Morley) and the ubiquitous Inspector LeStrade (Frank Finlay).

Pretty quickly it is Suspects Assemble. Due to a scalpel being the murderer’s instrument of choice, doctors are immediately implicated, the most likely candidate the philanthropic Dr. Murray (Anthony Quayle) who operates a soup kitchen. Publican Max Steiner (Peter Carsten), with a sideline in blackmail, is another possibility. And there is the mysterious disinherited son of a lord, Michael Osborne who has married sex worker Angela (Adrienne Corri).

The Italian ad campaign combined a more conservative Sherlock Holmes
with exploitative illustrative detail.

As ever, the plot is complicated by red herrings and sleights of cinematic hand. But the highlight of a Holmes picture is the sleuth’s mastery of deduction based on clues missed by the ordinary mortal and every now and then the story comes to a halt to allow time for the detective to demonstrate genius. Occasionally he dons a disguise. And thoroughly enjoyable these scenes are before he gets down to the main business of uncovering the killer.

A Study in Terror introduces social depth to the Holmes saga. When the crimes focus the media spotlight on Whitechapel, Dr. Murray draws attention to the constant “murder by poverty” ignored by the state. Female exploitation is of course the norm in the sex worker business and small wonder that such women are easy targets for the Ripper and although that is an overdone trope in this case a different angle comes into play. 

Shakespearian actor John Neville (Oscar Wilde, 1960) handles the main character with considerable aplomb with Donald Houston (The Blue Lagoon, 1949) as his often baffled sidekick Watson. Robert Morley (Genghis Khan, 1965) is a splendid Mycroft although Anthony Quayle (East of Sudan, 1964) fails to nail down his Scottish accent.

The considerable supporting cast includes Judi Dench making her second film appearance, Barbara Windsor of Carry On fame, John Fraser (Operation Crossbow, 1965), John Cairney (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963), Peter Carsten (Dark of the Sun, 1968),  singer Georgia Brown (Nancy in the original stage production of Oliver!), Edina Ronay (The Black Torment, 1964), Corin Redgrave (The Girl with the Pistol,1968), former British leading lady Kay Walsh (Oliver Twist, 1948) and future television comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd (Are You Being Served?, 1972-1985).

The picture was unusual in that it was not drawn from the existing Holmes canon but as an original devised by Derek and Donald Ford (The Black Torment), the former going onto a more extensive career as a director of British sexploitation pictures such as Suburban Wives (1972). Production company Sir Nigel Films had been set up as an official vehicle to exploit the Holmes legacy.

Director James Hill (The Kitchen, 1961) had won an Oscar for the short Giuseppina (1960) and was a year away from his breakthrough Born Free. Given the low-budget this is a highly watchable picture.

Flick Vault has this for free on Youtube or if you want to own it forever there’s a DVD.

Go Naked in the World (1961) ***

Under-rated at the time and ever since, and overshadowed at the box office by MGM’s other venture into the world of the good-time-girl Butterfield 8 (1960), this raw slice of emotion delivers on every front and may be even more pertinent today in its unashamed depiction of paternal love.

Spoiled brat Nick Stratton (Anthony Franciosca), trying to escape controlling millionaire Greek father Pete (Ernest Borgnine), falls in love with widow Julie (Gina Lollobridgida), unaware that she is a high-class hooker, among whose clients number Pete.

Three tales run in parallel – the main love story, Pete’s attempts to drag his son into the family construction business, and the father’s undying love for his son. Julie is only too aware that her profession prohibits the development of true love, her world consisting of putting on a happy face for grey-haired men, while avoiding commitment. Where Butterfield 8 evaded the reality of prostitution, that is not the case here, Julie tormented by the prospect of bumping into former clients or her lover unable to accept her past. Overwhelmed by guilt, she believes she is beyond forgiveness. Nick wants none of the commitment of a rich man’s son but all the entitlement. 

Never mind the story, which was always going to tumble into tragedy, it’s the performers who steal the picture. Lollobrigida (Strange Bedfellows, 1965) gives a terrific performance, carrying the emotional baggage of the love story, devastation only inches away, self-destruction possibly the only path open, constantly aware that taking the easy path to riches and independence now stands in the way of happiness. The scenes where her self-loathing breaks through the patina of sexy gloss are tremendous as is her touching belief that somehow she can escape destiny.

While this might appear to be nothing but an over-the-top performance from Borgnine (The Split, 1968), it is anything but, and any man in an early 1960s picture who can demand a kiss from his grown-up son and constantly tells him how much he loves him is a pretty unusual character for the period. Of course, this overt show of emotion is explained by his nationality, but it’s clearly more than that. While attempting to control all around him, with hypocrisy in full spate, as heavy on religion as playing away from home, this is actually a superb piece of characterization, of a powerful man rendered impotent by the loss of love. He has the two best scenes, almost having a heart attack as he watches his son walk across a sky-high girder and later begging Julie’s forgiveness for attempting to wreck the romance.

Anthony Franciosca (Fathom, 1967) is the weak link. For all that he is saddled with a spineless character, moping and running away his default, he never quite seems worthy of romance with Julie nor for that matter of equality with his father. Former child star Luana Patten (Song of the South, 1946) makes an impact as the rebellious daughter while Nancy R. Pollock (The Pawnbroker,1964) brings dignity to her role as the doormat wife.

This was the fourth outing as a hyphenate for writer-director Ranald McDougall (The World, the Flesh and the Devil, 1959) but he was better known for screenplays such as Mildred Pierce (1945), The Naked Jungle (1954) and, later, Cleopatra (1963) and you can see he is accustomed to creating great roles for independent women and filling his picture with sharp dialogue and lines that sound like epithets. There’s more than enough going on to keep the various plots spinning and emotions teetering over a cliff edge.