Tuesday 12 November 2019

Obituary: Lizabeth Scott

Actress known as 'The Threat' for her vampish turns opposite Humphrey Bogart and Kirk Douglas

Lizabeth Scott and Humphrey Bogart in Dead Reckoning (REX FEATURES)
Lizabeth Scott and Humphrey Bogart in Dead Reckoning (REX FEATURES)

Lizabeth Scott, who has died aged 92, was an enduring Hollywood vamp and arguably the most beautiful face of film noir during the 1940s and 1950s.

An appealing blonde with a husky voice, she was tagged "The Threat" by Paramount, with whom she had a lucrative film contract.

Lizabeth Scott resembled her contemporary Lauren Bacall ("The Look") in her screen persona, stature and voice, although with a more pronounced undercurrent of ruthlessness. Lizabeth even secured a role opposite Bacall's off-screen husband Humphrey Bogart, as well as co-starring with most of the leading men of the period, among them Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark, Burt Lancaster and Victor Mature.

She was born Emma Matzo on September 29, 1922, at Pine Brook, a neighbourhood of Scranton, Pennsylvania. She was one of six siblings. Her father's family originated from Sussex; her mother had arrived in the United States from Ungvar, Czechoslovakia, some five years earlier.

Lizabeth was a bright child and attended Penn Central High School, then Marywood College, where she was an academic high-flyer. Even so, from an early age, her ambitions were fixed on a career in showbusiness, and after graduating, she went to New York to study at the Alviene School of Drama.

She was scraping a living performing in summer standards such as Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard when the chance came up to understudy Tallulah Bankhead as Sabina, the leading role in a new play by Thornton Wilder, The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). In the end, she lost out to Miriam Hopkins, who replaced Bankhead in March 1943. Both Bankhead and Hopkins were said to have had a crush on Lizabeth; when asked to confirm the rumour in 2014, she joked, "Well, who wouldn't?"

Having gone off the idea of a career in repertory, Lizabeth began modelling and made the covers of Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. Then, it emerged that Gladys George, who had taken over from Miriam Hopkins, had been taken ill. The producers remembered Lizabeth, and quickly ushered her to the theatre to rehearse for that evening's performance. It marked the beginning of her legitimate stage career.

While celebrating her 20th birthday with friends at the Stork Club, New York, she was introduced to Irving Hoffman, lawyer for the gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Impressed with her talent and "frosted charm and grace", Hoffman suggested she meet his friend, the producer Hal B Wallis, promising a glowing introduction.

However, Lizabeth had already signed for the Boston run of The Skin of Our Teeth so turned the offer down. "I wasn't going to be tied down on the promise of stardom by a man," she later said. During her stay in Boston, the film agent Charles Feldman saw her on the cover of Harper's Bazaar, and subsequently, signed her on to his books.

Her first assignment was a screen test for Warner Bros, where she ran into Hal B Wallis, who was then working at Paramount Studios, and who personally signed her to a contract. She made her Hollywood debut in You Came Along (1945), winning solid reviews for her performance as an escort girl, who falls in love with an American GI (Robert Cummings) who is dying of leukaemia.

Paramount's publicity department dubbed the studio's latest acquisition "The Threat", with the tag-line: "The Girl Everyman in America Would Want to Run Away With". On the strength of her performance in You Came Along, Wallis cast Lizabeth in a supporting role in the film noir classic The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), with Kirk Douglas (in his film debut) and Barbara Stanwyck. It was both a critical and financial success and won the actress (as the former jailbird Antonia "Toni" Marachek) a legion of male admirers.

The comparison with Lauren Bacall was first suggested in 1947, when Lizabeth shared the top billing with Bacall's off-screen husband, Humphrey Bogart, in Dead Reckoning. It was her first crack as the archetypal femme fatale. As Dusty Chandler, she uses all her powers of sexual allure to entice Captain "Rip" Murdock (Bogart) into a web of lies, deceit and, ultimately, death. Despite its success, it was their only film together.

Her other films included I Walk Alone (1948), which paired her with Burt Lancaster and reunited her with Kirk Douglas, who likened Lizabeth Scott to Veronica Lake: "She could be dressed in rags and still knock 'em dead." She played Mona Stevens in the Dick Powell potboiler Pitfall (1948), and starred with John Hodiak and Burt Lancaster in Desert Fury (1947).

In Too Late for Tears (1949), unusually for a film noir where actresses were generally cast in supporting roles as gangsters' molls or victims, she had the entire male cast, including Dan Duryea, playing second fiddle to her.

She joined Victor Mature and Lucille Ball for Easy Living (1949) and was directed by William Dieterle in 1950 for both Paid in Full and Dark City, the latter with Charlton Heston. In 1953, she joined Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and Carmen Miranda for the comedy Scared Stiff.

Despite co-starring with some of the most eligible men in Hollywood, Lizabeth showed no inclination to date any of them. When asked by gossip columnists why she shunned the Hollywood social set, she claimed that she preferred her own company. A relationship with Hal B Wallis was hinted at after his death, but she refused to confirm or deny the story.

In 1955, a front-page story in Confidential magazine nearly ended her career when it reported that Lizabeth was linked to "Hollywood's baritone babes" (a euphemism for lesbians), and described her as "prone to indecent, illegal and highly offensive acts in her private and public life". She sued Confidential and won. Later that year, she travelled to England to escape the gossip, and joined Steve Cochran and Herbert Marshall in The Weapon (1956).

She returned to Hollywood in 1957, starring opposite Elvis Presley in his second feature film, Loving You, after which she semi-retired from the screen to concentrate on other projects, including a record contract with Decca. Her album, Lizabeth (1958) has recently become a success via iTunes.

During the next decade, she took occasional film and television roles, including in Burke's Law and Adventures in Paradise (with Gardner McKay), and in director Mike Hodges's crime drama Pulp (1972), in which she played an aristocratic nymphomaniac opposite Michael Caine and Mickey Rooney.

Lizabeth avoided the spotlight in her later years. However, she did appear at events which honoured the memory of Hal B Wallis.

In later life, her once platinum blonde hair turned silver grey, but she still wore it poker-straight, complemented by red lipstick. One of her best friends was singer Michael Jackson and, very rarely, she could be spotted on his arm.

By 2014, she seldom left her home in Hollywood Hills, which she had bought at the beginning of her career. She died on January 31.

Sunday Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top