I was pretty crazy about the lady. She quit films at about the same time as I discovered them. She has everything to do with my being enamored of the smartass dame-movie actress. She was one of the great queens of film noir. Any fan of that genre certainly knows Lizabeth Scott. While those things that give definition to film noir have always changed some over the years, a dame, a bad girl, was one of the constants. That husky voice in smoke-filled nightclubs, that lithe body, the long blonde hair, the pouty countenance, the sultry way in which she made tough guys weaker, how she beckoned them to her and then, with a cigarette dangling from their lips, slapped them across the face... this was Lizabeth Scott.
First she was Emma Matzo, born to Russian parents in 1922 in Scranton Pennsylvania. She was the eldest of six kids, always rather full of herself, mischievous, opinionated. Music was the mainstay in her family. She took piano lessons for years and also voice and elocution lessons. That deep voice was one of several in her expanded family. Growing up she was quite certain she would be an opera singer. And then one day that turned to acting.
While still a teen, she dropped out of college and headed for New York. The stage would be her calling. She knew Emma Matzo wouldn't look so good in lights and while reading a tale of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, she renamed herself Elizabeth Scott. Shortly she would drop the "E," for something she regarded as chic and catchy.
She worked a spell on Broadway before she was signed as Tallulah Bankhead's understudy in The Skin of Our Teeth. The two never got on very well and one cannot help wondering what was at the root of their problems. While their personal relationship has always been downplayed if not denied, it is said to be one of a couple of versions of the real backstage story that formed what was later known as All About Eve.
Her road to Hollywood is a long and involved one but the short version is that producer Hal Wallis discovered her and put her under exclusive contract at Paramount. He had just left a long career at Warner Bros in a huff and wanted to make a name for himself and his own stable of newcomers at his new studio. Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Wendell Corey would join but Wallis became obsessed with Scott. He became especially annoying to directors when he insisted they provide Scott with more close-ups.
There was publicity about a romance between Scott and Lancaster between his first and second marriages. No sale here. There was a great deal of publicity (in this case real) about how Scott was dogging Lauren Bacall throughout their early careers. Most of it is due to Wallis' machinations because he loathed Warners where Bacall was now based. Some publicity guy had once recommended both actresses to Hollywood. They both did fashion modeling for Harpers Bazaar. They both had husky voices and a generally similar look. Bacall was known as The Look before Scott took on the handle of The Threat. No one was particularly surprised when Scott, in only her third film, became Bogart's leading lady in Dead Reckoning... after Bacall declined.
That movie was a film noir and so were nine of her other films, which certainly provides her with film noir queen status. Of her remaining 12 films, six were dramas, two were comedies, two were westerns, one was a musical and one an all-star extravaganza format. It is truly too bad she didn't do more comedy. She definitely had a knack for it. She was glorious when she laughed and it would have broadened her acting chops and perhaps lengthened her career.
Scott would always claim her first film, You Came Along (1945), a drama costarring Robert Cummings and Don DeFore, was her favorite. I can't imagine why. It concerned an army officer with a fatal disease and a coworker determined to make his final days pleasant. Doesn't sound like anything spectacular or original and she feuded with Cummings for most of the shoot.
Scott made it clear to Wallis early on that she was a different kind of a career girl. She wanted desperately to be a big movie star but she would chafe at being asked to do publicity photos, particularly those in states of undress, and would not care to be arm candy for some up-and-coming hunky actor at a movie premier. She also put him on notice that she was a private person and didn't want anyone snooping into her personal life.
|With Van Heflin in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers|
Her second film brought Scott into the dark world of film noir. The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers was actually two separate stories with Barbara Stanwyck the focus of one of them and Scott the focus of the other. Van Heflin crossed over into each story that mainly dealt with a decades-old murder in the first and jealousy and another murder in the second. Although Stanwyck and Scott only had one brief scene together, the former took an instant dislike to the latter. Lawyers got involved and at stake was an issue of billing which Stanwyck lost in favor of Hal Wallis' new discovery. This film could be the answer to a great trivia question: name three lesbians to star in the same film. Scott, Stanwyck and Judith Anderson. If one loves film noir, one usually loves this one.
She was busy in 1947, starting with Dead Reckoning. She was a mysterious lounge singer who gets involved with Bogart as he searches for a missing friend. It wasn't the film it could have been. Her contract guaranteed her as much coverage as Bogart in print ads and billing. Just her third film and the lady was already someone to be reckoned with. She was one of many Paramount contractees to appear in cameos in Variety Girl and then came Desert Fury. It was an unusual noir because it was in color. Scott played the daughter of Nevada casino owner, Mary Astor. Mother very much objected to daughter's involvement with hoodlum John Hodiak. Other Wallis talent, Lancaster and Corey, were also in it. I think this is my favorite Scott film.
I Walk Alone (1948) costarred all of Wallis' stable, Scott, Lancaster, Douglas and Corey. (Douglas had made his film debut as Stanwyck's husband in Martha Ivers.) Scott played a torch singer involved in double-dealings between two ex-partners. Actress Kristine Miller was to have played the role, but Scott made it known to Wallis that she wanted it and she got it.
The same year she led a married Dick Powell down the proverbial path in Pitfall. Perhaps her best part was in Too Late for Tears (1949). She played a very bad girl who finds a suitcase full of money and is determined to keep it even if it means murder. Both were wonderful noirs.
|With Dean Martin and Hal Wallis|
She and Lucille Ball switched roles in Easy Living (1949), the story of a down-on-his-luck football hero (Victor Mature) with a sweet secretary who secretly loves him and a shrewish wife who nearly ruins him. Ball was tired of playing smart-mouthed dames and Scott was recognized already as cornering the market on them. For whatever reason, this was Scott's first unsuccessful film.
Paid in Full (1950), again with Robert Cummings, had Scott in competition with another woman, her sister, played by Diana Lynn, for Cummings' affection. This time Scott was the good girl but in real life she and Lynn didn't get along at all. Burt Lancaster refused to work with her again in Dark City (1950), so Charlton Heston got his first movie role. Again she's a torch singer, this time in love with a bookie. She worked with Heston three years later in Bad for Each Other, in which he played a war vet returning to his small hometown and into Scott's rich, wicked arms. Neither film with Heston was a success.
She and another film noir queen, Jane Greer, should have switched roles in 1951s The Company She Keeps, an improbable tale of a probation officer and a parolee both in love with the same man. Scott was the good girl and it might have worked better had she not been. She was a gangster's moll in The Racket (1951), an excellent noir with Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan that didn't get its due. I am sure the first film I had ever seen her in was 1951s Red Mountain, an Alan Ladd western about three people holed up in a cave trying to avoid a posse and outlaws. Of course, I loved it.
Scott said she accepted the role because she wanted to do something different from film noir. I would imagine that's not quite the truth. By the early 50s, film noir was more or less on its way out but so was Scott to some degree. She had acquired a reputation of being hard to get along with in addition to all those whispers. Additionally her contract with Wallis was ending and her relationship with him was fractured as well. But an Alan Ladd western? Really?
She had not done comedy so she opted for one starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. It was called Scared Stiff (1953) in which two nitwits running from the law end up in a haunted house. At the time I dearly loved it but I suspect I'd feel otherwise today.
She likely never forgot 1954, the year her life rather unravelled and her cherished personal life became more public. Basically, Confidential Magazine, the scandalous ragmag of its day, outed her. It noted that she was not known to date nor had she ever married. It quoted her as saying she always wore men's cologne, slept in men's pajamas and positively hated frilly feminine dresses. It concluded by saying that she was taken up almost exclusively with Hollywood's weird society of baritone babes.
As the magazine usually did, they presented their article to Scott and offered her to purchase it for a hefty price and it would not be published. Instead, she sued them for $2.5 million. The outcome was never made public but the assumption was it was handled very favorably in Scott's behalf. Nevertheless, the damage was done. Her career was almost over.
In 1956 she made The Weapon, about a boy who accidentally shoots a friend with a gun he found and it's determined it was involved in an old murder case. I liked it well enough but it never caught on. Scott's role was not a part of the main story. In 1957 she made arguably her most famous film, Loving You. Wallis was producing Elvis Presley's third movie and he offered Scott (and another old pal, Wendell Corey) the part of a band manager. It was a peace offering to her. It didn't take.
However, she did look fabulous in the film and it is one of Presley's best. It has long been said she developed on crush on the wiggly singer but it seems more likely it was something drummed up by Wallis. Wallis' widow, actress Martha Hyer, said her husband spent the last years of his life watching Lizabeth Scott movies.
She would not make another movie for 15 years. I expect everyone thought she had retired. One never heard anything about her. Then in 1972 she made the Michael Caine-Mickey Rooney comedy, Pulp, a bit of a sendup of film noirs. No wonder she was hired. It was not successful and she never made another film.
She had done a little television and a couple of plays and tried for a while to become a singer but basically stayed out of the limelight. It was said she lived in an apartment near the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Once in a great while she would turn up at some film retrospective of movies she appeared in... or not. For sure they were always film noir.
And for sure, as long as there is a discussion, a retrospective or an interest in film noir, Lizabeth Scott will be remembered. I truly adored her in everything she did.
She died in Los Angeles on January 31 of congestive heart failure.
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