Things are happening up in Elton tonight. It’s another opening for another lounge singer at Jefty’s Road House. Lily Stevens is Jefty’s latest find and, maybe, latest squeeze. The bar area is filling up, the piano has been moved to the center, it’s almost show time. Let’s hope the manager remembers to close the door on the 10- lane bowling alley. That’s her over there – at the end of the bar – the doll in the black sequined dress, smoking a cigarette, downing a bourbon. Somebody just stuck a nickel in the juke box and pushed “Don’t Blame Me (for Falling In Love with You)”.
“She reminds me of the first woman that ever slapped my face,” says this guy to his date. “If she sings like she looks…” His girl interrupts, whining, “You wouldn’t let me wear a dress like that!” For sure. Nobody but Lily Stevens could wear a dress like that…Fabulous Film Songs/Ladies of the Nightclubs/Ida Lupino
Enter Richard Widmark. “Oh, Pete!” It’s Jefferson T. “Jefty” Robbins, owner of Jefty’s Road House. Widmark is still riding high from his success with last season’s Kiss of Death. No doubt, he’s perfect for Film Noir—very appealing, a bit on the creepy side. “I want to do this right,” he says to good friend Pete Morgan, manager of the Road House. Pete is played by Cornel Wilde, who is staying in great shape, working out a lot. Last year was tough-going for Mr. Wilde. The critics roasted his assets in The Homestretch and put a damper on what was supposed to be his next big blockbuster, Forever Amber. More like, “forever ember”. Too many feathered hats. “Give Lily a break,” says Jefty. “You know what I mean? Lights out. Spotlight.”
What Jefty doesn’t know is that a couple of hours ago, feisty Miss Lily Stevens hauled off and slapped the muscle-bound Morgan back into what’s what. The jerk tried buying her off with a couple of c-notes, along with a bit of strong-arming, and a worn-out threat to leave town. “Now look, baby, I’m not tryin’ to rush you…” Whack! A stinging right, straight across the chops, echoed clear across Town Square. He’s stunned—and suddenly interested. “Silly boy!” she says, and walks off.
Pete’s not big on Jefty’s songbirds, always flying-in and cutting-in on his share of the profits. With all the other gin joints and bowling alleys in the world, why do they have to come here? Elton is way-way up north. It’s a forested hamlet (if you can find it) about four-bits worth of gas from the Canadian border. No critics around to comment on anybody’s debut. Good thing! Jefty’s notion of Lounge decor starts with the severed heads of anything wearing antlers. Yes, Jefty’s a great shot, the evidence is mounted all over town. Check out the Hotel Antlers. It will serve as home to Lily Stevens for the next six weeks. Jefty’s got her in his scope. Surrounded by all those lofty pines, the town can get really dark at night. A girl might get lost. So not like Chicago. Why, oh why-o, did she ever leave Chicago? Lily’s accustomed to the spotlight alright.
“I’ll give her the works,” says Pete, and slaps the cash register.
Ida Lupino was one smart dame. By 1947, she knew that Warner Brothers Studios wasn’t working for her and the situation would never get any better. So, she hired Margaret Gruen and Oscar Saul to fashion a property that would magnify her assorted talents and present her as a true star. Gruen’s previous assignment had been Mildred Pierce for Joan Crawford and Saul was re-working a 1939 mystery, Blind Alley (which starred Chester Morris), up to an edgier Noir for William Holden and calling it, The Dark Past. Ida managed to sell their finished project, Dark Love to 20th Century Fox with the proviso that she would play the female lead, “Lily Stevens”, a second-string, thirty-ish, chain-smoking chanteuse from Chicago. And no dubbing! Ida would sing all the numbers. Executive producer Darryl F. Zanuck gave it the OK, but called for a number of rewrites and changed the title to Road House.
Ida knew she could sell a song and so did the studio’s musical director, Lionel Newman. He would compose two numbers for her, The Right Kind (lyrics by Don George and Charles Henderson), and Again (lyrics by Dorcas Cochran). Lily’s Road House debut would start off with the already popular hit from 1943, One For My Baby by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. The song had been written for Fred Astaire and was introduced in The Sky’s the Limit. A year prior to the release of Road House, Frank Sinatra put out the first of his four recordings of One For My Baby, thereby corralling the blue and moody tune as “a man’s song”.
That is, until Ida Lupino took a crack at it. Lights out. Spotlight.
One for My Baby is a brilliant piece of writing. But it’s not exactly at the top of the list for opening numbers – especially not in a nightclub situation (with the clang of bowling pins in the background), sung by a total Unknown, and in a jerk-water town like Elton. But once at the piano, bathed in Pete’s special spotlight, after a few measures of purring, “It’s quarter to three, there’s no one in the place, ‘cept you and me…” – we are hooked by her charms.
Out of the charred remains of Ida Lupino’s smokey vocals—we get a lot of up- close and personal information about Miss Lily Stevens. All that heartache about whatever it was she had going on back in Chicago. Isn’t it always something about love, sex, and booze and (remembering it’s 1948) clouds of second-hand smoke? One for My Baby is a confession. It works a too-familiar story and leaves out all the details. We know the details. “We’re drinkin’, my friend,” she sings, “to the end of a brief episode.” The friend, Joe, the bartender, must have told her all along that torrid affair was headed nowhere else but in the wrong direction. He pours her another. “Make it one for my baby, and one more for the road.”
You need “A Past” to carry-off a song like that. Lily must have been or still is carrying some kind of torch. She’s determined to drown it—all of it. Never again. Lock the door, keep a lid on it. Six weeks in Elton ought to solve the problem.
Lily is a solid hit. This will be a blast.
Susie, the bookkeeper (Celeste Holm) summed up the evening the best. “She does more without a voice than anybody I’ve ever heard!” Pete and Jefty are suddenly drowning in hormones. Pete needs to bowl it off. Jefty brings back a marriage license and a bucket of paint. All those walls with the mounted heads could really use a coat or two. But before Lily’s contract expires – out there in the woods, in the dark, where no one can hear you if you scream – one of these two smitten gentlemen will be found dead in the dirt, shot down with Jefty’s own gun.
If you look hard enough, it’s all in Lily’s (now fatal) opening number. “Well, that’s how it goes,” she sang. “And Joe, I know you’re gettin’ anxious to close.” It’s over. Chicago, the Road House, the Antlers Hotel. Move down, clean cups! Turns out, Elton really was that Once In A lifetime. So, Joe, “Make it one for my baby, and one more for the road. That long … oh, that long, long road.”
Ida Lupino has been pushing my buttons since I was in third grade. That season, her new TV series with husband Howard Duff, Mr. Adams and Eve—all about a famous acting duo in Hollywood—debuted the same season that I Love Lucy was in its final episodes and by spring was literally laying an egg. Lucy had been totally in my scope for as long as I could remember. Monday nights had always been about the Ricardos and the Mertzes and eventually I caught reruns during the day. It didn’t take long to be able to quote chapter and verse. But once I noticed that something was off kilter with these last shows, especially with Lucy, it was enough to be led astray by the younger and more vivacious charms of Ida Lupino. She was 39 at the time and hot as a firecracker. I was entranced.
By third grade in Catholic School, you’re accustomed to weekly trips to the confessional. Carnal ruminations, sins against the flesh, all those near occasions of sin—like, gaping over the R-rated illustrations in the Family Bible—began marking my wee soul with the stains of ruin. Pardonable sins, yes, but the Knowledge doesn’t wash away. How then could I possibly write in my little Yearbook that my favorite TV show was a new series called Mr. Adams and Eve? The nuns might be horrified. And if I confessed to it, would I be told to stop watching or risk the fires of Hell?! So instead, I wrote in “Ida Lupino” and hoped no one had ever heard of her.
“Oh? Ida Lupino. A TV show? That’s nice.” Saved! Apparently, nuns don’t watch romantic comedies on Friday nights.
Our friend Eddie Muller – film historian, the Czar of Noir, and welcome guest on the Turner Classic Movie Channel – describes the “Femme Fatale” (in his commentary on the DVD of Road House) as the last woman a guy should ever meet. It’s true. One innocent encounter with Ida Lupino and suddenly I’m rationalizing my sin of Deception. Quick! Lights out! Under the sheets with a flashlight and a sleazy paperback. Overnight, Ida Lupino had evolved into my little secret, my new-best-favorite Femme Fatale.