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In Tucson, Arizona, widowed Mrs. Marrable (Geraldine Page) has a big problem. Her dead husband left her with only a few knickknacks including his stamp collection, and now she's relocated to get away from the humiliation and live closer to her nephew. Undeterred, she comes up with a novel solution when her housekeeper turns out to have a substantial life savings - namely to steal her money by "investing" it, then killing her employee and hiding the body in the garden. The process continues and starts to fatten Mrs. Marrable's bank account, but things get complicated when her latest victim, Miss Tinsley (Mildred Dunnock), is followed by another potential housekeeper with a few tricks up her sleeve: Mrs. Dimmock (Ruth Gordon), a resourceful widow herself with a few secrets and an agenda of her own.
Released by Cinerama in 1969, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? is one of the later legitimate entries in the line of so-called "horror hag" films which began with Robert Aldrich's What Ever Happened in Baby Jane? in 1962. That groundbreaking film teamed up Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as feuding sisters cut off from the world in their Beverly Hills home, and its melding of gothic horror and campy melodrama inspired a heavy wave of imitators featuring middle-aged Hollywood actresses. The Associates & Aldrich Company turned out one of the better-regarded successors, 1964's Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, while Shelley Winters made a virtual mini-industry out of this format with titles such as The Mad Room (1969), What's the Matter with Helen? (1971), and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972).
This particular film was produced by Aldrich (again for his own company) but directed by the late Lee H. Katzin, a proficient TV helmer making his big screen debut here (along with the same year's odd western, Heaven with a Gun). The following year he moved on to one of the strangest youth-rock films ever made, The Phynx (1970), followed by the Steve McQueen racing drama Le Mans (1971), the Euro thriller The Salzburg Connection (1972), and one of several made-for-TV nature attack movies, Terror Out of the Sky (1978).
Written by TV scribe Theodore Apstein, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? was adapted from a 1963 novel entitled The Forbidden Garden by Ursula Curtiss. A prolific writer of pulp thrillers, Curtiss also wrote the 1964 novel Out of the Dark which became a feature film one year later under the title I Saw What You Did from director William Castle. Though she was rarely adapted to the screen, she remained a familiar name in the mystery sections of bookstores thanks to memorable paperback titles like Voice Out of Darkness, The Poisoned Orchard, and The Stairway.
In the juicy role of Mrs. Marrable, Geraldine Page was no stranger to heated melodrama thanks to an illustrious, Actors Studio-trained career on the American stage including several plays by Tennessee Williams (and two cinematic adaptations, Summer and Smoke in 1961 and Sweet Bird of Youth in 1962, the latter also featuring Dunnock). Her big screen career began in earnest with Hondo in 1953, however, and she remained busy in both television and film through the 1980s, eventually winning an Academy Award for Best Actress with her role in The Trip to Bountiful (1985). What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? marked her first venture into horror, but it by no means proved her last. She went on to appear in a memorable trio of episodes for Rod Serling's '70s anthology program Night Gallery including the harrowing episode "The Sins of the Fathers" opposite Richard Thomas and Barbara Steele, but perhaps her strongest gothic contribution remains her leading role opposite Clint Eastwood in Don Siegel's grisly Civil War drama from 1971, The Beguiled.
As Page's sympathetic housekeeper nemesis, Ruth Gordon had a far more long-reaching cinematic career dating back to the silent era and a lengthy career both as a stage and screen actress (which even inspired a biopic, 1953's The Actress in which she was portrayed by Jean Simmons) and as a screenwriter. Her relationship with husband Garson Kanin inspired the couple to write such films as Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952), but it was Gordon's eventual return to the other side of the camera in the 1960s that led to her greatest career moment when she was cast as Minnie Castevet in Roman Polanski's 1968 horror classic, Rosemary's Baby. The role earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar®, and her teaming with Page was her first film after that iconic role.
Two years later Gordon enjoyed another watershed performance opposite Bud Cort in Hal Ashby's cult favorite Harold and Maude (1971), which shares an unusual connection with this film. In her autobiography, Gordon recalled that she wore a pink scarf while filming her final scene in Alice driving to the lake with Page. The film's original director, Bernard Girard, agreed with Gordon that the scarf should be seen floating up from the water at the end of the scene, but Katzin removed it. "That's all right," Gordon recalled. "I'm not a director and don't want to be. I wanted a pink scarf afloat to be a continuation of my performance. Alice stood for good against evil and the glimpse of pink would show that good survives." Instead the scarf went on to appear on Gordon for her initial day of filming on Harold and Maude in which she drives wildly with Cort in the passenger seat for the first time.
Producer: Robert Aldrich
Director: Lee H. Katzin; Bernard Girard (uncredited)
Screenplay: Theodore Apstein (writer); Ursula Curtiss (novel)
Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Art Direction: William Glasgow
Music: Gerald Fried
Film Editing: Frank J. Urioste
Cast: Geraldine Page (Mrs. Marrable), Ruth Gordon (Mrs. Dimmock), Rosemary Forsyth (Harriet Vaughn), Robert Fuller (Mike Darrah), Mildred Dunnock (Miss Tinsley), Joan Huntington (Julia Lawson), Peter Brandon (George Lawson), Michael Barbera (Jim Vaughn), Peter Bonerz (Mr. Bentley), Richard Angarola (Sheriff Armijo).
by Nathaniel Thompson
My Side: The Autobiography of Ruth Gordon by Ruth Gordon. Plume, 1986.
What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?: His Life and Films by Alain Silver. Limelight, 1985.