Lizabeth Scott: FIlm Noir’s Blonde Bombshell

SCOTT, LIZABETH 2In the dark and tortured world of noir cinema, the male protagonists could often be found struggling against, then ultimately resigning themselves to, their respective fates. Such also seems to have been the case for one of the genre’s leading femme fatales, who passed away late last month. For sultry blonde Lizabeth Scott, who on more than one occasion found herself in competition or outright conflict away from the camera with 0ther actresses, the “A” star status that she won during her late 1940s and early ’50s heyday seemed to just as quickly elude her and force her into a premature farewell to show business.

Born Emma Matzo in Scranton, Pa. in 1922, the grocer’s daughter performed in theater companies in Pennsylvania and Virginia before leaving college after six months to pursue a stage career. An 18-month study tenure in New York City followed, and in 1940–with the new name Elizabeth Scott–she was tapped to join a touring company of the Broadway comedy hit Hellzapoppin’. Returning to New York in 1942, Scott’s performance as Sadie Thompson in a revival of Rain brought her to the attention of producer Michael Myerberg, who hired her to serve as Tallulah Bankhead’s understudy for the role of Sabina in his Broadway staging of Thornton Wilder’s latest work, The Skin of Our Teeth. The problem, of course, was that Bankhead did not want an understudy and didn’t take kindly to the neophyte Scott’s presence (some say the ruffled feathers between the two helped to inspire the short story that would eventually become All About Eve).

Scott never did get the chance to fill in for Bankhead (little short of death would have kept the Divine Miss Tallulah from taking the stage), and only got to go on for Bankhead’s successor, Miriam Hopkins, once. She returned to studying drama and doing modeling work in New York, and during this time was approached by then-Warner Bros. producer Hal Wallis for an interview and possible screen test. Scott (who was about to drop the first “E” from her name to make it more distinctive) turned down the offer, however, when she was asked to take over as Sabina for an ailing Gladys George in the 1943 Boston run of The Skin of Our Teeth. Her two-week stint met with positive reviews and helped secure a second Hollywood invite, from agent Charles Feldman.

STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERSOnce in California, Lizabeth tested with several studios unsuccessfully (including Warners, which was about to introduce another husky-voiced ingénue named Lauren Bacall on the public), but by 1944 Hal Wallis had left the Warners lot and was working with Paramount, and he signed Scott to a contract. Her film debut came in a nondescript  1945 WWII romance/drama with Robert Cummings, You Came Along, which also had the distinction of being co-scripted by author Ayn Rand. A more memorable role awaited the starlet in her sophomore effort, 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which put Scott in the role of an ex-con caught up in a twisted “romantic quadrangle” with co-stars Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and–in his film debut–Kirk Douglas. Once again, however, the young Scott managed to get on the bad side of a more experienced leading lady, as Stanwyck was not happy with the billing and more than once complained that producer Wallis was interfering with director Lewis Milestone’s shooting, demanding more exposure for his discovery at the expense of Barbara’s on-screen time.

DEAD RECKONING 2The following year found Lizabeth in the first of her “dangerous dame” roles, playing a seductive lounge singer who lures ex-G.I. Humphrey Bogart, investigating his war buddy’s murder, into a world of deception in Dead Reckoning. The inevitable comparisons with Bogey and wife Bacall’s screen pairings found the Columbia release wanting…although few male viewers and critics complained about the slinky gowns gown Lizabeth wore in it. Also in 1947, she played the daughter of Nevada casino owner Mary Astor in the crime drama Desert Fury, which also starred Wendell Corey and Burt Lancaster (the latter of whom Scott was alleged to have had an affair with), and she had a cameo turn as herself in Paramount’s comedy/musical revue Variety Girl.

1948 found the actress hitting her mark in a pair of noir thrillers. In Pitfall, fashion model Lizabeth, the former girlfriend of an imprisoned embezzler, catches the eye of married insurance investigator Dick Powell (read a review of Pitfall here). And I Walk Alone, which found her again playing a singer, put Scott in the middle of a business and romantic rivalry with ex-bootleggers Douglas and Lancaster (their first film together). In looking back on I Walk Alone, Douglas once recalled, “Lizabeth Scott played the girl we were involved with in the movie. In real life she was involved with Hal Wallis. This was a problem. Very often, she’d be in his office for a long time, emerge teary-eyed, and be difficult to work with for the rest of the day.” As with her prior involvement with Lancaster, the exact nature of Scott and Wallis’s relationship has been the subject of public speculation for decades; some claim the two were in love, with Wallis refusing to divorce wife Louise Fazenda, while others state that theirs was a more traditional Hollywood coupling of mentor and protégé.

TOO LATE FOR TEARSScott and screen husband Arthur Kennedy found that a bag filled with money tossed into their car was anything but the answer to their prayers in the gripping Too Late for Tears, a 1949 noir drama that includes a scene where Lizabeth, yelling at co-star Dan Duryea, actually burst a blood vessel in her throat.  That same year she was at her conniving best…or is that worst?…as another greedy wife, this time the interior decorator spouse of ailing pro football player Victor Mature, in the downbeat tale Easy Living. A pre-I Love Lucy Lucille Ball co-starred as the football team’s secretary; she and Scott had originally been cast in each other’s roles. Scott was set to play opposite Robert Mitchum in The Big Steal for RKO, but bowed into a few days into production, days marked by hysterical fits and complaining about working with Mitchum, who had just been convicted on marijuana possession charges. This was seen by many as another manifestation of the “stage fright” that had been said to plague the actress throughout her career.

RACKET, THEBy the start of the 1950s, Lizabeth was ready to branch out from her “killer dame” noir resumé. After playing another crooning temptress opposite Charlton Heston in his feature debut, Dark City, singer in another, with mixed success. The 1950 melodrama Paid in Full found her and Diana Lynn as siblings in love with the same man. Also, 1951’s The Company She Keeps cast her as the probation officer of ex-convict Jane Greer, who repays Scott’s kindness by making a play for her beau; and she was cast alongside Alan Ladd in another ’51 release, the Civil Wart-set frontier drama Red Mountain. The lure of crime–crime movies, anyway–was too strong to resist, but 1951’s The Racket, in which she finally co-starred with Robert Mitchum, and 1952’s Stolen Face, a Vertigo-like thriller with Paul Henreid from England’s Hammer Films, at least gave Lizabeth the chance to flex her acting muscles. An opportunity to work her funny bone came in 1953, when Wallis cast her as the female lead in the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis haunted house comedy Scared Stiff.

The mid-’50s found Scott taking the occasional film role (a 1954 Western, Silver Lode, and the 1956 British drama The Weapon) along with work in such TV series as Lux Video Theatre and Studio 57, but a scandalous story in one of the more disreputable Tinseltown gossip magazines may have helped finish her career. A 1955 article in Confidential magazine alleged that the “never-married” actress (a brief 1947-48 union to a Russian nobleman has been speculated) was fond of men’s cologne and pajamas and had of late been “taking up almost exclusively with Hollywood’s weird society of baritone babes,” a not-very-subtle way of implying she was a lesbian. Given the then-standard chance to “buy back” the story before it hit the streets, Scott instead sued the publication for $2.5 million. The original suit was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, but as other actors began taking Confidential to court, the case with Scott was apparently settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. How much of an impact the allegations had on her already-waning popularity, however, is hard to say.

LOVING YOUIn the meantime, Scott set out to reinvent herself as a singer and put out an album of ballads and love songs, entitled simply Lizabeth, in 1957. Around the same time she also made her penultimate screen appearance alongside Hal Wallis’ latest signing–Elvis Presley–in the King’s second film, Loving You, playing a music publicist who sets out to turn a crooning truck driver (guess who?) into a star. While her recording career fizzled, Scott would make a few TV appearances in the 1960s (among them Adventures in Paradise and Burke’s Law) and was lured out of retirement to appear in the offbeat 1972 crime tale Pulp, which also starred Michael Caine, Mickey Rooney and Lionel Stander.

In the years that followed Scott–who remained unmarried–worked in real estate development and also devoted herself to charity work for such causes as hemophilia research, Project HOPE and various California museums and art galleries. While she shied away from the public eye, she would give occasional interviews and appeared at a 1987 American Film Institute tribute to Wallis following his death. The ice-cool blonde who was always compared to other actresses, yet still fought to find her own niche in Hollywood, passed away in late January of 2015 from congestive heart failure at the age of 92.