Natalie Wood in This Property Is Condemned
By Susan Doll
Star of the Month Natalie Wood shines every Friday evening on TCM, which is showcasing 27 of her films. The order of the titles follows a rough chronology as her earliest appearances as a child actress aired on November 4, while her final roles, including those in Brainstorm and Meteor, will be shown on November 25. Wood spanned several eras of film history from the Golden Age through the transition period of the 1950s and into the Film School Generation, a testament to her ability to change with the industry.
I grew up watching her suffer as the high-school girl who was too much in love with the football hero in Splendor in the Grass (November 18), and I could always relate to her sass in The Great Race (November 19) as the emancipated woman in a man’s world. However, my favorite Natalie Wood film, This Property Is Condemned, is not part of the line-up. Expanded from a one-act play by Tennessee Williams, This Property Is Condemned is a trashy tale of lusty men, a twisted mother, and destined-to-lose lovers.
In this Depression-era melodrama, Wood plays Alva Starr, whose beauty and vivacity attracts the railroad workers to her mother’s boarding house. Mama Hazel Starr exploits her daughter’s beauty for financial gain, arranging “dates” for her with well-to-do married men. Mama is positioning Alva to land a man with money, so that the whole Starr family, including little sister Willie, can live in style. The constant party atmosphere at the Starr Boarding House suits Alva, though she dreams of a life away from her rattlesnake of a mother. Her opportunity comes when Owen Legate, played by Robert Redford, arrives from New Orleans to lay off a dozen men on behalf of the railroad. Legate is attracted to Alva, and vice versa, but her flirtatious manner and willingness to prostitute herself at her mother’s behest angers him. Despite his resistance, they fall in love, making life difficult for Legate. He not only fires several of the men who live at the Starr Boarding House but he wins Alva, inciting their jealousy. When Mama Starr’s interference causes Owen to leave town, an infuriated Alva seeks revenge by stealing her mother’s young lover. Alva marries the boyfriend, steals his money, then takes off for New Orleans to look for Owen. Given that this steamy melodrama originated with Tennessee Williams, viewers can guess that it doesn’t end happily.
This Property Is Condemned was not well reviewed when it was released in 1966. In fact, the Harvard Lampoon, which is sometimes more cruel than funny, named Wood the “worst actress of this year, last year, and next.” Today, the film seems forgotten compared to her other work from the 1960s. Perhaps it was doomed from the beginning. Originally, John Huston was tapped to direct, with Elizabeth Taylor set to play Alva Starr. When Huston dropped out of the project, Taylor was no longer interested. Paramount offered the role to Wood, who asked Redford to costar. The two had become friends while making Inside Daisy Clover. The project still needed a director, so Redford recommended Sidney Pollack. Pollack and Redford had appeared together in the Korean War drama War Hunt, and the two New York-trained actors discovered they had similar sensibilities. After War Hunt, Pollack turned to directing, though most of his credits were for television. Wood, who had director approval, agreed to accept Pollack, which helped launch his career in Hollywood.
However, neither Redford nor Pollack were passionate about the material, which the studio treated as merely a star vehicle for Wood. And, John Houseman, who was near the end of his career as a studio producer, disliked the tawdry, gritty aspects of the material. Paramount kept hiring writers to rework the storyline and characters. When Pollack stepped in to direct, he was handed eleven versions of the script by the studio, with Wood hoping he could improve on them. The director checked into a motel with the different scripts and set to work. He literally cut out the best parts of each version, taped them together into a final script, and then found someone to help him smooth over the rough patches. Some of the script’s weaknesses remain: the film loses its tension after Alva gets to New Orleans, and the fates of some characters are never addressed.
Despite the flaws, I like this film because Wood’s powerful performance as Alva Starr commands the viewer’s attention. As little sister Willie says repeatedly in the film, “Alva is the main attraction around here,” and that holds true for Wood’s feverish interpretation of this character. It’s hard to take your eyes off Alva, who owns whatever room she waltzes into with her calculated spontaneity and vivacity. Alva represents the last of Wood’s roles as a lost young woman too vulnerable for the emotional baggage that comes with a passionate love affair. Splendor in the Grass is the highpoint of this phase of her career, which also includes films like Inside Daisy Clover and All the Fine Young Cannibals. Going through an emotionally difficult time in the mid-1960s, as she jockeyed between failed relationships and problematic shoots, Wood must have channeled her own vulnerability and disappointments into the role. In his autobiography, Pollack recalled her fragility beneath a surface of professionalism. After the film was completed, Wood suffered a nervous breakdown.
Robert Redford’s best work is opposite actresses with distinctive star images who excel at highly charged characters, such as Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, and Natalie Wood. Wood and Redford not only had chemistry, they complemented each other’s star personas. Redford’s rational, guarded demeanor is the opposite of Wood’s sparkle and vivacity. Redford’s best scene occurs inside the decrepit, abandoned train car that Alva has adopted as her special place. As she shows off her sanctuary to Owen, she spins an imaginative tale about the elegance of the train and how the dust on the seats is really talcum powder that the conductor has spread for the benefit of the passengers. Angered at her fanciful yarn, Owen admonishes her, “Why do you make everything special?” as though it were a bad trait, then proceeds to remind her that it’s just a broken-down train car. Alva’s dreamy nature and hopes for a beautiful future are in sharp contrast to Owen’s insistence on staying grounded in the real world of the Depression, lay-offs, and hard times. He sadly remarks, “I have no dream.”
This Property is Condemned also includes a talented supporting cast. Kate Reid is downright diabolical as Mama Hazel Starr. Charles Bronson plays Hazel’s younger lover, J.J., a railroad ironworker who has eyes for Alva. Though Bronson has very few lines, his deliberate moves and controlled facial expressions exude menace and physical strength. The scene in which an enraged Alva, who is all jacked up after Mama Starr has ruined her chances with Owen, persuades J.J. to marry her right in front of Hazel crackles with tension and electricity. Robert Blake is memorable in a small role as Sidney, a young railroad worker who falls apart when he is the first to be laid off. Mary Badham, who starred as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, plays Willie Starr. The story unfolds in flashback from Willie’s perspective as she tells Alva’s ill-fated tale to a stranger she meets as she walks idly along the railroad tracks. The film opens with Willie dressed in Alva’s torn evening dress walking atop the rail of the abandoned tracks, trying not to fall off. As she walks toward the camera, she yells to the young stranger, “I don’t think I can hang on much longer,” the perfect line to signify the plight of all of the characters in the story.
A graduate of Northwestern University’s film program, Susan has been an instructor of film studies at several universities and colleges. She currently teaches at Ringling College of Art and Design. Parallel with her teaching career, she has worked as a researcher and writer in pop culture-related topics for Encyclopedia Britannica, Publications International, Facets Multi-Media, Field Museum of Chicago, and Turner Classic Movies. She is the author of Elvis for Dummies, Understanding Elvis, The Films of Elvis Presley, Marilyn: Her Life and Legend, an interactive children’s book titled I Love Lucy, and Films in Florida (co-authored).