Friday, October 19, 2007

Favorite Scream Queens: Beverly Garland

Actress/hotelier/all-around super lady Beverly Garland began her career in 1950, with a bit part in the classic film noir DOA, and she's acted steadily ever since in films and on TV. Unlike most of the ingenues who comprised her peer group, Garland always felt like a spunky, functioning adult, and she excelled at playing smart women who could more than take care of themselves when their backs were against the wall--which was often.

She's probably most famous for a couple of long-running TV gigs--as Fred MacMurray's no-nonsense second wife in My Three Sons in the sixties, and as Kate Jackson's wisecracking mom in eighties hit, The Scarecrow and Mrs. King--and she made history as the first female cop on a television show in the syndicated fifties police drama Decoy. But this being Horrorpalooza, I come to praise Garland for her work alongside monsters, aliens, and psychopaths.

Most females in horror and sci-fi fall into two categories--prey/decoration or psychotic hag. Beverly Garland, in her own unpretentious way, defied those genre stereotypes and had the talent and chutzpah to branch out and remain viable in the business for some six decades. She recently celebrated her 81st(!) birthday and still works steadily, but some of her best (and most fun) gigs have been in her fifties and sixties genre efforts. To whit...


It Conquered the World (1956): Garland earned her thespian combat medals as one of the favorite leading ladies to legendary budget auteur Roger Corman: She slogged gamely through some nasty marshland in 1955's Swamp Women, and even broke her ankle doing her own stunts in the same year's Gunslinger (Corman had a veteranarian pump the injury full of painkillers, and in just a couple of hours she was back in front of the cameras again!). Their first sci-fi thriller together is just begging for a legit DVD release, and it formed the template for many of Garland's future roles. She plays Claire Anderson, whose deluded scientist hubby Tom (Lee Van Cleef) has befriended a Venusian emissary who's bent on, yep, conquering the world. Paul Blaisdell's silly but wonderfully creative monster (described by Frank Zappa as an "inverted ice cream cone head with fangs") is the stuff of B-movie legend, but Garland does a great job of selling it as a genuine menace, and of playing a sweet and normal woman thrown into action by unforeseen (and unbelieveable) circumstances. Try finding another leading lady in any 1950's sci-fi flick who'd march, solo with a rifle, into a cave to take on the zipper-backed monster that's threatening the town and her man. What a woman.

Not of this Earth (1957): It's been eons since I've seen this Corman favorite (and it, too, is not on domestic DVD), but it's a fun chiller that deserves a new audience. Garland plays nurse to an eccentric, black-suited patient, Mr. Johnson (Paul Birch), who turns out to be a vampiric alien harvesting human hemoglobin for his fellow citizens from Way, Way Out There. Once again Garland lends a traditional female role some added gutsiness, catching onto Johnson's weirdness (if not the lethal extent of it) way before anyone else in the movie. Bonus points for Dick Miller's howlingly funny turn as an unctious chatterbox of a vacuum-cleaner salesman.

Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956): Writer Curt Siodmak contributed some classic stuff to sci-fi (the immortal novel, Donovan's Brain) and horror (the original screenplay to the immortal 1941 classic, The Wolf Man)...And then he wrote and directed this jungle adventure in monster movie's clothing. John Bromfield plays Rock Dean (is there a better name for a 1950's movie character than that?), a plantation owner who's trying to figure out whether there's a monster killing and scaring off all of his cheap labor. Garland plays his traveling companion, a scientist with a strong stomach and stout heart, and until Siodmak's script lets her down at the end by reducing her to yet another screaming Mimi she's the smartest, toughest, and best thing about the movie. Again, no masterpiece, but a colorful bit of fun that could really use a DVD issue.

The Alligator People (1959): Finally--Prime Beverly in full-on put-upon science fiction heroine mode on DVD! Here, she's Joyce Webster, a nurse whose husband (Richard Crane) mysteriously wanders off during their honeymoon only to turn up in a Louisiana swamp as one of the title creatures, thanks to the requisite daffy scientist (George MacReady). Old directorial hand Roy Del Ruth lends some creepy black and white atmosphere to the largely backlot-generated marshlands, offset amusingly by the inconsistent make-up effects (Crane's really creepy in the early stages of his metamorphosis, and titter-worthy later on when he's running through the wilderness with his gator snout bouncing demonstratively). Extremely entertaining grade B kicks, but Garland once again gives it her all: Without one bit of condescension or pretense, she invests her stock character with a combination of intense intuition and the sure-to-be-heartbroken inevitability of a classic film noir dame.


Pretty Poison (1968): OK, it's stretching a bit to call this a horror movie, but Noel Black's hypnotic and woefully underappreciated black comedy/thriller/indictment of the moral bancruptcy of Vietnam War era-suburbia will still chill you to the core. Recently released mental patient Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) woos All-American high-school girl Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld) with claims that he's an operative for the CIA, and when they take off for the road the line between who's nuts and who's being misled get blurred to wrenching effect.

How this movie failed on original release utterly escapes me: Black sculpts a bleak, sardonically humorous character study that takes a microscope to Apple-Pie Americana with more imagination and precision than a lot of that decade's most overrated cinematic sacred cows. Moreover, it's a tour-de-force for all three principals. Perkins was never more compelllingly vulnerable than he was here (it was really his last great film role before his passing in 1992), and Weld's kittenish joy at pushing the moral envelope 'til it tears will creep you out mightily. Brilliant as they both are, though, Beverly Garland knocks it out of the park with her multi-layered portrayal of Sue Ann's mom, a grown woman whose bored, occasionally nagging exterior just barely conceals her contempt for the blandly affluent life she lives, and her jealousy at her own daughter's Miss USA-perfect exterior. Beverly's had a terrific career (and probably wouldn't change a minute of it), but the mind boggles at what heights she might have achieved had her finest performance on film found the audience it deserved.

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