MGM // 1969 // 101 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // January 14th, 2005
Oh Claire, your trees stand proud in a row,
What is it that makes your garden grow?
"Wouldn't you like to know."
Seems each of us has a "crazy aunt" dangling from their family tree -- but what if the arguably eccentric relation was prone to criminal deeds? Just what would it take to drive an otherwise cheerful cheek-pincher to commit murder? We find out in 1969's Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice?
"You have no assets, Mrs. Marrable; only liabilities."
Claire Marrable (Geraldine Page, The Pope of Greenwich Village) finds herself a widow after the tragic death of her husband. This being true, why does Claire smirk so? At last, she can live out her life as a wealthy widow thanks to her dearly departed husband's properties, oil holdings, furnishings and other valuable holdings. The executor of the will, however, deals Claire a deathly blow when he informs her that there is nothing but the contents of her husband's briefcase to pass along; the rest had already been cashed out, and the home and furnishings will need to be sold to pay off his accumulated debts.
"What will I do," she cries.
Some years later, Claire has relocated to Tucson, Arizona and seems to be doing quite well living in a remote home in the desert. You see, Claire has found a bountiful new source of income: the life savings of her ever-growing list of former housekeepers. After she brutally murders one Edna Tinsley (Mildred Dunnock), using her as the newest supply of "fertilizer" for her impressive row of spruce trees, Claire interviews and hires a spunky new maidservant, Alice Dimmock (Ruth Gordon, Harold and Maude). Although Alice is somewhat mercurial in her demeanor with her employer, Claire finds her stimulating, and as the cash reserves from former housekeepers is holding up well, decides to keep Alice on for some time. Alice, however, seems to be nosing around a bit and seems to have a secret association with a local auto repairman, Mike Darrah (Robert Fuller, Emergency!). Just what is Alice up to, does she have any clue about Claire's ghastly deeds, and will she live to tell about it?
If you're looking to sit down to a delicious serving of unscrupulous undertakings seasoned with a nice compliment of dark humor, Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? should be at the top of the menu. Although the film is clearly dated, showing it's late-'60s / early-'70s fashion and filmmaking style, its smart script and precise acting allows it to rise above any heap of dated dramas from the decade of bell-bottomed leisure suits and avocado-green household appliances. The plot gets straight to work as Claire Marrable begins her ghastly gardening at the expense of her first widowhood housekeeper in very short order. To us viewers, her atrocious acts are no secret -- immediately following the opening credits, we're shown how her tree garden is already in full blossom, each former sapling now standing tall over one of the undeservedly deceased.
Geraldine Page is simply superb in the role of the criminal yet coolly conniving spinster who has found it increasingly easy to dispatch another savings-bearing victim, those silver-haired sweet old ladies upon which she voraciously preys. Page certainly goes over the top as Claire, yet strikes an undeniable believability in her portrayal of the steely-eyed, fly-away haired ghoulish golden girl.
Although we're all too aware of Claire's devious deeds, there's still plenty of nail-biting suspense as we meet Alice Dimmock, a seemingly unpretentious yet formidable foil played perfectly by veteran actress Ruth Gordon. She plays the titular Aunt Alice with almost unerring exactness, quick with a presumed personal history and fast with an alibi when Claire teeters on suspicion of her current caregiver. It becomes a highly engaging game of cat and mouse as Alice looks ready to turn the tables and expose the horrors that lie decomposing beneath Claire's row of noble trees. Claire, however, is just as deft at tilting favor in her way to foul Alice's efforts. The two quietly and cautiously spar with one another, each looking to expose the other.
Also on hand is recognizable television actor Robert Fuller, whose perpetually furrowed brow commanded the halls of Rampart Hospital as Dr. Kelly Brackett on TV's Emergency!. He's more of a plot device here, not any sort of integral piece of the core narrative, yet he plays his role well. The same can be said for Rosemary Forsyth who, as Claire's unwelcome new neighbor, Harriett Vaughn, serves to add a point of confrontation to the increasingly unstable murderess.
The directing here is very Seventies, with plenty of quick cuts and somewhat clumsy medium and close shots. Nevertheless, the story moves along quite well (although it does seem to run on a bit long as we approach the climax) and is prevented from becoming just another artifact of the Brady Bunch era thanks to the tight script and capable leading ladies.
If you recall, Anchor Bay Entertainment had released this to DVD in July 2000, only to let it go out of print shortly thereafter. As a cult favorite of sorts (largely fueled by followers of Ruth Gordon), available copies began selling at collector's prices in secondary markets. Thankfully, MGM has now re-released the film, this time in an anamorphically-enhanced widescreen presentation and at an affordable price. Beginning with the transfer: the picture looks absolutely wonderful, struck from a near-perfect source print. Detail levels are high and unwanted artifacts are practically non-existent. Most notable is the color saturation, kept generally muted throughout as was intended by the original production design (thankfully relieving us from having to endure the usual colorful assault of '70s fashion and interior design) yet still providing very realistically rendered flesh tones. It's truly a well-managed transfer. The audio, unfortunately, comes by way of a rather horrendous Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix that's too often muddled and mangled, usually with score and sound effects overpowering the dialogue that's being spoken. Sadly, you'll strain on several occasions to decipher what's being said on screen. Oh, and there are no extras on this disc.
As good as this film is, it still plays pretty much like one of those early-'70s ABC Movie of the Week presentations (some were pretty good, mind you, though some are best left unremembered). Clearly the production wasn't blessed with a bountiful budget but, again thanks to a terrific script, it's able to draw us in despite lackluster production value that could just as easily leave us napping on our sofas. Don't look for any truly clever camera work or artistic accomplishments here; it's just a good little yarn.
Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? will likely come as a surprise to those who've never seen it and might offhandedly dismiss it as '60s/'70s dreck. A clever script and two delightfully over-achieving actresses make this a picture to see for sure -- especially before you head off to spend time with one of your own eccentric relatives.
MGM Home Entertainment is commended for bring this film to DVD once again, saving suspense buffs from having to pay inflated collector's prices. Unfortunately, the lack of any extras significantly lowers what should be a much higher judgment tally. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2005 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Rated PG