The 1960s were a very strange time for Bette Davis’ career. The decade started off triumphantly with a pair of memorable achievements: her Broadway performance as the lusty hotelier in “The Night of the Iguana” and her off-beat film role as the deranged ex-child star in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”, for which she received an Academy Award nomination. But after that, things went downhill for Davis: she was replaced by Ava Gardner for the film version of “The Night of the Iguana” and was typecast in gothic horror shlock which attempted (and failed) to replicate the “Baby Jane” formula. Davis was considered for the role of Martha in the film version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” but was jettisoned when Elizabeth Taylor (the reigning film star of the era) became available.
By the mid-1960s, Davis was reduced to doing guest appearances on TV variety programs. Eager to jump-start her career, she relocated to England and signed to do a pair of offbeat films. The first (and better known) of the pair was “The Anniversary,” a 1968 dark comedy in which she played a one-eyed matriarch of an unruly working class clan. The second film is the focus of this week’s column: “Connecting Rooms.”
Based on a minor play called “The Cellist” by Marion Hart, “Connecting Rooms” is a compelling and often heartbreaking drama focusing on three tenants in shabby London boardinghouse. The newest tenant is Dr. James Wallraven (Michael Redgrave), a former boys’ school headmaster who was fired from his position and blacklisted from teaching due to a slanderous charge of pedophilia. The youngest tenant is Mickey Hollister (Alexis Kanner), a working class bloke who tries to use his oily charms to make a name for himself as a pop music lyricist. And the most mysterious of the three is Wanda Fleming (Davis), a cellist who is something of a sugar mama to Mickey but who becomes more interested in Dr. Wallraven and works hard to gain his confidence and friendship.
The headmaster’s story is clearly the most touching. Redgrave, who was never the most subtle screen actor (see the previous Bootleg Files columns for his performances in “Mourning Becomes Electra” and “1984”), manages to reign in his hammy tendencies and find the angst and isolation in the disgraced teacher’s existence. Pleading with former colleagues and employment agencies for work, the once-proud man is reduced to a shell of his former self. He keeps the boarding house denizens (and the nosy landlady, wonderfully played by Kay Walsh) at arm’s length by claiming he is doing research at the British Museum. But when he discovered working as a janitor in an art gallery (the only work he can secure), the look of shame and horror on his face is gutwrenching.
Redgrave is given a climatic monologue which details the circumstances surrounding his character’s fall. It is a very simple set-up (he is in bed, recovering from injuries sustained in an anti-war rally which became violent), and Redgrave has nothing to work with but his voice. But as he speaks and he describes the turn of events that ruined his life, a sense of catharsis comes into his voice. By sharing his secret, the tension and misery he felt begins to evaporate. The more he talks, the faster he releases himself from his pain, and his once-tortured existence is strangely at ease. It is a remarkably subtle piece of acting, and one can argue it is Redgrave’s crowning screen moment.
Less subtle, but more entertaining, is Kanner’s turn as the would-be music hustler Mickey. His character first appears grooming himself while a James Dean poster hangs behind him. But with his snake-like demeanor and unveiled arrogance, Mickey is closer in brotherhood to Laurence Harvey’s screen persona rather than the doomed cause-less rebel. Mickey has his eye on gaining instant fame by having a visiting French singer record one of his songs, and he uses a casual friendship with the singer’s British agent to make her acquaintance. In going in for the kill (he refers to the target as his “French canary”), the music is forgotten as a strong sexual bond with the singer. While the film’s grasp of the music world is rather naive, it is more than compensated by having the lovely Olga Georges-Picot as the French singer — especially when she gets to roll around in her panties and flash a glimpse of her bare breasts (tits ahoy, mademoiselle!). Mickey has his own subplot with a model girlfriend who gets pregnant, but that barely gets any attention here (the film’s one real mistake, since the issue is handled to casually to be real).
Back at the boardinghouse, Mickey has been playing effectively on the emotions of the upstairs cellist Wanda. He refers to her as “princess” and flatters her endlessly, and she falls for his flattery. In fact, she falls so deeply that she has no problem slipping him endless amounts of cash. Not surprisingly, she feels deep shame whenever Mickey betrays her — a tragic moment comes when they plan her birthday party as a private celebration, but Mickey skips the date and leaves Wanda alone with her cake, a champagne bottle, and a broken heart.
Not unlike the headmaster, Wanda has her own secret. I won’t give it away here, since it literally comes without any warning, but it should be sufficient to say that it is revealed in a brief yet extraordinary moment which reinforces Bette Davis’ standing as the greatest actress of her time. When her secret is revealed, Davis’ character says absolutely nothing. Instead, her body freezes slightly while her eyes (yes, those Bette Davis eyes) give a look which is initially shameful, but then suddenly appear to present endless relief. In her silence and her ocular _expression, Davis achieves a state of grace which is astonishing to behold. I knew nothing of this when I came to “Connecting Rooms” and I am still shocked that no other film writer ever seized on this.
“Connecting Rooms” is known, however, for a strange in-joke: a marquee on a West End theater announcing that “Margot Channing” is starring in a play. That, of course, refers to the Margo Channing character played by Davis in the 1950 classic “All About Eve.” It is not a particularly funny in-joke and it distracts from the flow of the drama.
“Connecting Rooms” was shot in 1969 and came to America for a brief and spotty release in 1970. For no clear reason, it did not play in Great Britain until 1972. Critical reaction was strangely unsympathetic, at least among the critics who saw it. The film had such a scant release that some sources mistakenly claim it never played in America.
The film has never been released on U.S. home video. Paramount owns the American rights to it and there do not seem to be any problems in putting it on DVD — in fact, the film’s already been on U.S. cable television (the bootleg video I have has a cable network logo popping up occasionally in the corner of the screen). Most likely, the film’s obscurity is keeping it out of circulation.
Sadly, neither “Connecting Rooms” nor Davis’ other British venture (“The Anniversary”) helped her career. She continued acting, mostly in unmemorable features and made-for-TV movies that were beneath her talent (although occasionally she hit a good script, such as “Death on the Nile” and “The Whales of August”). “Connecting Rooms” became little more than a barely-acknowledged flop in her long career, which is a major shame since it is actually a buried treasure. This is one of the best bootleg discoveries I’ve come across in a long time and I hope other people will help dig up this gem and give it the attention it deserves.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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Posted on June 17, 2005 in Features by Phil Hall
If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “CONNECTING ROOMS”
- MILES DAVIS: THE COOL JAZZ SOUND (DVD)
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “ANNA LUCASTA”
- WANDA (DVD)
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “ATOLL K”
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