Autumn Leaves does not enjoy even a fraction of the acclaim thrown at the film that director Robert Aldrich later made by Joan Crawford, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? In fact, this earlier film has never been released on DVD and the VHS is long out of print. It seems it is best known for the eponymous theme song written by Johnny Mercer and performed by Nat King Cole. I got a hold of a copy from another collector who taped it from television. But Autumn Leaves is a well scripted and directed movie that tackles the ’50s taboos of mental illness, adultery, and, in a roundabout way, incest.
Joan Crawford had played mentally unbalanced characters before, but here she is on the other side of the table, playing a middle-aged woman fiercely devoted to her much younger husband, whose erratic behavior devolves into violent outbursts until his wife is forced to commit him to an institution. Crawford plays Milly, a straight-laced spinster who runs her own business as a typist. When a client gives her two tickets to a concert, she is horrified by the thought that he might be asking her on a date. When it is clear he just wants to get rid of the tickets, she reluctantly accepts them and goes to the concert alone. Milly can’t seem to enjoy the music, and a flashback reveals that the reason she is not married is she rejected a suitor when she was taking care of her ailing father. Stopping for a bite to eat after the show, she meets Burt (Cliff Robertson), a much younger man who shares her table in the crowded restaurant. It is not immediately clear why, but he pursues her relentlessly. When they get married, Milly is happy as a clam, but reality sets in soon, as on the way back from their Tijuana wedding, Burt says several things that contradict what he earlier said about his background. The apparent lies and subterfuge pile up until Milly answers the doorbell one day to learn that nothing she knows about her new husband. Like Milly, Burt’s problems stem from his father (the frightening and towering Lorne Greene), and director Aldrich seems to be taking a swipe at patriarchal obligation. Aldrich likes dealing with taboos and pushing the audience, and his characters, into uncomfortable territory. In Baby Jane, Crawford’s character alternates between feelings of caring and concern for her unhinged sister and absolute terror and the audience can only sit and squirm. In Autumn Leaves, when the formally reserved Milly confronts Bert’s father and ex-wife (Vera Miles), calling her a tramp and a slut, and telling both of them that their “filthy souls are too evil for Hell itself!,” this is not only classic Crawford, but is quintessential Aldrich.