Cast & Crew
At her Cedar Court Apartments bungalow in Los Angeles, Milly Weatherby, a lonely spinster in the autumnal years of her life, spends her days working as a stenographer. When one of her clients presents her with tickets to the symphony for a job well done, Milly attends the concert alone. The melancholy music causes Milly to recall a time, years earlier, when she sacrificed the love of a prospective suitor to care for her ailing father. After the concert, Milly stops for a bite at a crowded café and is seated at the last empty booth. As Milly plays the song "Autumn Leaves" on the juke box, Burt Hanson, a personable young man, enters the restaurant and, noticing a vacant seat at Milly's booth, asks to join her. After Milly reluctantly consents, Burt comments that she seems lonely and urges her to talk to him. Over dinner, Burt explains that he has recently been discharged from a non-combat post in the Army, and has moved to Los Angeles in search of employment. Burt insists on escorting Milly home and invites her to the beach the next day. As Milly dons her bathing suit in the bath house, she becomes self-conscious about her figure, but Burt soothes her doubts with flattery, and they end up passionately embracing in the crashing waves. At the end of the day, however, Milly admonishes Burt to date someone his own age and tells him not to come back. One month of lonely days and nights later, Milly enters the apartment courtyard, hears the strains of "Autumn Leaves" wafting from her apartment and runs home to find Burt waiting for her. When Burt invites Milly to a movie and dinner to celebrate his new job at a department store, Milly hesitates until Burt assures her that he has been dating women his own age and found them all too young. During the movie's intermission, Burt abruptly announces that he wants to marry Milly and presses her for an answer. Stunned, Milly calls Burt impulsive and insists on going home. When Burt sullenly says goodbye and begins to walk away, however, Milly changes her mind and accepts his proposal. Impatient, Burt suggests that they get married in Mexico the following day, but when he states on the marriage license that Chicago is his place of birth, Milly becomes confused because he had earlier told her he was born in Wisconsin. Two weeks later, Burt showers Milly with gifts and tells her that he has been promoted to manager. When Milly's client, Col. Hillyer, comes to drop off a manuscript, Burt eagerly discusses his combat experiences with the officer, perplexing Milly, who believed that her husband served in a non-combat division. After Burt leaves for work, a woman comes to the door and introduces herself as Burt's ex-wife Virginia. Having been told by Burt that he had never been married, Milly asserts that Virginia is in error until she produces a photograph of Burt and his father, who Burt had claimed was dead. Virginia explains that Burt walked out on her after being charged with shoplifting and that she and his father have come to Los Angeles to find him. Virginia then hands Milly a property settlement that she wants Burt to sign. After warning that Burt is an inveterate liar, Virginia leaves a sickened and frightened Milly. Distraught, Milly visits Burt's father at his hotel. After feigning concern for his son, Mr. Hanson cautions Milly that Burt is a lost soul who should be institutionalized. Once Milly leaves, Virginia slips out of the bedroom and carnally embraces her former father-in-law. When Burt comes home from work, Milly tells him that she has discovered he is a clerk and not a manager and accuses him of stealing the presents he has given her. As Burt stares at her dumbfounded, Milly asks why he never told her about Virginia. Becoming agitated, Burt says the marriage meant nothing to him, and recalls coming home early from work one day to surprise Virginia, after which he blacked out. When Milly insists that Burt see his father, he breaks down in tears, but finally accedes to her wishes. The next day, Milly goes to the hotel to talk to Mr. Hanson, and spots him at poolside cuddling Virginia. Realizing the extent of her father-in-law's betrayal, Milly hides in the corridor while the lovebirds go upstairs to their suite. Soon after, Burt comes to the hotel, and when Milly learns that he is on his way to see his father, she bolts upstairs in hopes of sparing her husband. She is too late, however, and finds Burt slumped in the doorway outside the suite. Back at home, Burt becomes withdrawn and uncommunicative. Soon after, Virginia and Mr. Hanson drive into the courtyard and demand to see Burt. As Burt eavesdrops from the doorway, Milly orders them to leave, and Hanson then threatens to commit Burt unless he signs the papers deeding Virginia the property that Burt inherited from his late mother. Denouncing the pair as monsters, Milly runs back to her apartment, where Burt ragefully accuses her of being in league with his father and ex-wife, slaps her to the floor and then crushes her hand with the typewriter. After Milly cries out in agony, Burt tearfully begs her forgiveness. Milly's injuries are treated by Dr. Masterson, who recommends that Burt see Dr. Malcolm Couzzens, a psychiatrist. Milly resists his advice until one night, Burt relives Virginia's betrayal and begins to sob uncontrollably. The next day, an anguished Milly confers with Dr. Couzzens, who diagnoses that Burt is a schizophrenic and advises hospitalization. When Couzzens warns that Burt is regressing into childhood, Milly finally agrees to commit him even though she fears that Burt will no longer need her once he is cured. While Milly throws herself into her work, Burt undergoes treatment. After months of having no communication with her husband, Milly receives a letter from the sanitarium, notifying her of Burt's discharge. Certain that Burt no longer loves her, Milly goes to the sanitarium and, after offering to send him his clothes, says goodbye and walks away. Following her, Burt tenderly kisses Milly's injured hand and then embraces her.
Then in 1956 Aldrich surprised everyone by trying his hand at a "woman's picture," a melodramatic soap opera that on the surface appeared to be a complete departure from his previous work. Autumn Leaves tells the story of Millie Wetherby (Joan Crawford), a lonely, middle-aged spinster who supports herself as a freelance typist, working out of her modest Hollywood bungalow. Except for occasional visits from her landlady (Ruth Donnelly), Millie has no social life or friends and has spent most of her years taking care of an invalid father (shown briefly in flashbacks). Then a handsome stranger enters her life. They meet in a diner and Burt (Cliff Robertson), though much younger than Millie, pursues her relentlessly, eventually breaking down her distrust and fear of romantic involvement. Despite her anxiety over being hurt and later rejected by Burt, Millie reluctantly agrees to marry him and for a brief period they are happy. Then cracks begin to show in Burt's happy-go-lucky facade along with his constant lies about his job, his family and his past. When his former wife Virginia (Vera Miles) shows up unannounced at the door one day, Millie learns that Burt not only has a history of psychological trauma but that Virginia is romantically involved with Burt's father (Lorne Greene). The path to a happy ending is rocky indeed and involves a frightening confrontation with an unhinged Burt (welding a typewriter as a weapon) and a period of rehabilitation in an institution before Millie and Burt can start life anew.
In Robert Aldrich: Interviews, the director explained why he decided to make Autumn Leaves: "I guess self-survival made me do that one. People were getting pretty collective in their criticism of the violence and anger and wrath in my pictures, although these things were intentional, and I thought it was about time I made a soap opera. I was also a great fan of the Butlers - Jean Rouverol and Hugo Butler - and this was her original story."
Working with Joan Crawford, however, brought its own challenges as Aldrich quickly noted. "I admired Joan Crawford, who is a "method" actress of her own concoction, but I could not get her to be a drab ageing woman, which threw off the balance of the picture...About a week before work on the picture began, Miss Crawford wanted her own writer to come in and rewrite, which I refused to allow her to do. At two a.m. on the morning before we were due to start shooting I received a phone call saying she wouldn't be there later that day unless her writer could attend, to which I responded that if her writer showed up we would not shoot. Looking back, I really think that's the only way you can properly deal with Miss Crawford. The writer didn't show up but she did, and we proceeded. But she didn't talk to me for about four or five days. She took direction, she did what she was supposed to do, but there was no personal communication. Then one day she was doing a scene terribly effectively: I forget which one. I was really touched, and when she looked up after finishing it I tried not to be obvious in wiping away a tear. That broke the ice, and from then on we were good friends for a long time."
By 1956 Crawford was no longer the major star she had been at MGM and Warner Bros. but that didn't stop her from behaving like a diva with most of the cast and crew. Writer Bob Sherman, who was hired as the dialogue coach on Autumn Leaves recalled meeting her for the first time in Shaun Considine's biography, Bette & Joan: "Bob Aldrich, the director, asked me if I'd go out to Crawford's house on a Sunday afternoon, to go over the script with her," said Sherman. "When I got there, I was ushered through the living room, with the white couch and white pillows and white rugs. At the back of the house, two little girls dressed in their white crinoline dresses, playing with two white French poodles. Mister Pepsi-Cola [Al Steele] was standing by the Greek white pool area, with two white pool houses on each side. And then I saw Joan. She was lying on a white chaise lounge, wearing sunglasses, having a manicure and a pedicure while dictating letters to a secretary sitting on one side. She patted a chair on her other side and I sat there, reading lines to her whenever she had a moment to spare. She was playing the 'executive-actress' to the hilt." Even Cliff Robertson - Autumn Leaves was his first leading role after a supporting part in Picnic (1955) - was personally "auditioned" by Crawford at her home prior to filming.
After Crawford's initial standoff with Aldrich for scriptwriters, the Autumn Leaves shoot proceeded smoothly though Joan did persist in antagonizing her director over his choice of soft drinks. He "liked to drink Coke out of a paper cup," said Phil Stern. "When he had a case of the stuff brought in, Joan had a Pepsi vending machine set up. Every time his back was turned, she used to throw out his Coke and replace it with Pepsi." Aldrich eventually put a stop to this but Joan continued to extol the virtues of drinking Pepsi to anyone who would listen.
When Autumn Leaves was released it proved to be a critical success and a modest box office hit that scored well with mostly female moviegoers. It is certainly one of Crawford's best films of the fifties, along with Sudden Fear (1952) and Johnny Guitar (1954), and it became a personal favorite of hers as well. She deemed it the "best older woman/younger man movie ever made," adding, "Everything clicked on Autumn Leaves. The cast was perfect, the script was good, and I think Bob [Aldrich] handled everything well. I really think Cliff did a stupendous job; another actor might have been spitting out his lines and chewing the scenery, but he avoided that trap. I think the movie on a whole was a lot better than some of the romantic movies I did in the past...but somehow it just never became better known. It was eclipsed by the picture I did with Bette Davis." (from Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography by Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell)
Since its release in 1956, Autumn Leaves has grown in stature among fans of Aldrich's work and now is seen as one of his best films. Richard Roud described it as an "extraordinary combination of domestic Guignol and elephantised soap opera" while Paul Taylor in TimeOut Film Guide describes it as "a seemingly eccentric, but in fact characteristic Aldrich film: cutting a radical cinematic swathe through weepie material." Probably the most perceptive critique is Dan Callahan's for Slant magazine which states "All of Aldrich's early work is intriguing, but Autumn Leaves is his secret gem. It's been passed over as camp because of its star, Joan Crawford, but Aldrich brings all his hard edges to this woman's picture. The collision of his tough style with the soapy material makes for a film that never loses its queasy tension...The real theme of Autumn Leaves is not loneliness, but incest...If photographer Diane Arbus felt that all families are creepy, Autumn Leaves proves that such creepiness persists in the most unlikely places.
Crawford originally wanted Marlon Brando for the role of Burt but was refused.
The original title of the film was The Way We Are but was changed to capitalize on the success of Nat King Cole's song, "Autumn Leaves", which is the movie's theme song.
The movie was shot in forty days and earned Aldrich the Best Directorial Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1956.
Producer: William Goetz
Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: Jean Rouverol, Hugo Butler, Lewis Meltzer, Robert Blees
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Film Editing: Michael Luciano
Art Direction: William Glasgow
Music: Hans J. Salter
Cast: Joan Crawford (Millicent Wetherby), Cliff Robertson (Burt Hanson), Vera Miles (Virginia Hanson), Lorne Greene (Mr. Hanson), Ruth Donnelly (Liz), Shepperd Strudwick (Dr. Malcolm Couzzens).
by Jeff Stafford
SOURCES: The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich by Edwin T. Arnold & Eugene L. Miller
Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography by Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell
Joan Crawford: A Biography by Bob Thomas
Robert Aldrich: Interviews (edited by Eugene L. Miller, Jr. & Edwin T. Arnold)
Bette & Joan by Shaun Considine
Sure, he should be committed!- Virginia
Of course, you'd want me to commit him, get him out of your life, put him away permanently someplace where he can never again remind either one of you of your horrible guilt; how you and you had committed the ugliest of all possible sins, so ugly that it drove him into the state he's in now!- Millicent Wetherby
What kind of a woman are you to be satisfied with only half a man? There must be so...- Mr. Hanson
Even when he doesn't know what he's doing, he's a saner man than you are! He's decent and proud. Can you say the same for yourselves? Where's your decency? In what garbage dump, Mr. Hanson?! And where's yours, you tramp?!- Millicent Wetherby
I don't have to listen to that!- Mr. Hanson
The working title of this film was The Way We Are. According to a January 1956 Daily Variety news item, the title was changed to Autumn Leaves in order to exploit the song that is performed by Nat "King" Cole over the title credits. The onscreen opening and closing cast credits differ slightly in order. As noted in an April 1997 Daily Variety news item, the Writers Guild of America(WGA) restored the credits of blacklisted writers Jean Rouveral and Hugo Butler, who did not receive billing in the onscreen credits of the released film. According to the WGA's press release, the writers' credits should be in the following order: "Jean Rouverol & Hugo Butler and Lewis Meltzer and Robert Blees."
A July 1954 Daily Variety news item notes that the rights to Jack Jevne's original screenplay were initially purchased by Robert Aldrich, who intended to produce and direct the production for his company, The Associates and Aldrich Co. At that time, the film was to be released through United Artists. In October 1954, a Daily Variety news item reported that Distributors Corporation of America was to finance and distribute the production. Although a Hollywood Reporter production chart places Minta Durfee in the cast, her appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. A clip from a "Mr. Magoo" cartoon is shown when "Milly" and "Burt" go to see a film.
Winner of the Best Director Award (Aldrich) at the 1956 Berlin Film Festival.
Released in United States Summer August 1956
Released in United States 1994
Released in United States Summer August 1956
Released in United States 1994 (Shown in New York City (Walter Reade) as part of program "Apocalypse Anytime! The Films of Robert Aldrich" March 11 - April 8, 1994.)