12 March 2018

A Margaret Millar Mystery Spoiled

The Lively Corpse [Rose's Last Summer]
Margaret Millar
New York: Dell, [1956]
224 pages

Margaret Millar's The Iron Gates was sold to Warner Brothers. Barbara Stanwyck was signed to play the lead. The film never happened, but I haven't give up hope. David Cronenberg, if you're reading this, The Iron Gates is for you.

One of the odd things about Millar's career is that she was courted by Hollywood, and worked for Hollywood, yet nothing came of it. The only adaptations of her twenty-five novels appeared on the small screen. Beast in View, which was moulded into a 1964 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, is the best. A later adaptation of the same novel, shot as part of the series' 1980s reboot, can't be considered an adaptation at all.

Anyone who has read the novel will agree.

I wrote here about Beast in View on television six years ago. Right after I did, I made the mistake of watching the 1960 Thriller broadcast of Rose's Last Summer, the only other Millar novel to have been adapted. It's not so memorable as either Alfred Hitchcock Presents Beast in View, but it did stay with me... and, as a result, it ruined my enjoyment in reading the book. I place Rose's Last Summer near the bottom of the Millars I've read, but can't say whether I'm being fair. That this mystery held no mystery is probably explained by the fact I'd watched that old Thriller adaptation.

Random House sold the 1952 first edition as "A MYSTERY TOLD WITH MURDEROUS WIT." It's an accurate description, though I would argue that "MURDEROUS" is intended to deceive. Rose's Last Summer is lighter than than Do Evil in Return (1950) and Vanish in an Instant (1952), the two novels that come before and after.

Much of the wit is supplied by its main character, Rose French, a once wealthy former film star, who now lives in a rooming house many miles north of Hollywood.

Rose is given to drink, though Frank Clyde, her greatest champion doesn't think she's "true alcoholic," nor does he consider her a "mental case." A social worker, Frank has all sorts of time for Rose, and is in every way her greatest defender and champion. He knows the actress better than anyone – all five ex-husband's included – and so is surprised when Rose calls him to say that she's taken a job as a housekeeper in San Francisco.

The next day, news of Rose's death makes the afternoon papers.

Reports have it that she was found face down beside a lily pond on the grounds of a large house rented by Willett and Ethel Goodfield. Their gardener, Ortega, made the discovery. Willett dealt with it in an practical manner:
"A dead woman you say? Well." Willett cleared his throat. "Well, I'll tend to the matter immediately."
One of three heirs to the Horace M. Goldfield Doll Corporation, makers of the Sweetheart doll,  Willett Goodfield appears to have more pressing concerns, one of which is the health of his ailing mother, who rests in a bedroom overlooking the lily pond.

The Thriller adaptation spoiled things for me. I'm assuming you haven't seen it. Even if you have, I recommend the novel. See if you don't agree with me on this point: Rose's Hollywood career wasn't destroyed by drink, but by age.

Margaret Millar knew Hollywood.



A humorist and minor Hollywood screenwriter, Morris McNeil Musselman (1899-1952) is best remembered for the 1939 version of The Three Musketeers, starring the Ritz Brothers. A friend of Margaret and Kenneth Millar, he was the author of a half-dozen  of books, including Wheels in His Head (1945), a biography his inventor father. M.M. Musselman died of pancreatic cancer seven months before Rose's Last Summer was published.

Object: A squat mass market paperback, this edition marks the only time the novel appeared under the title The Lively Corpse. The cover painting is by the brilliant  Victor Kalin, a man who I most associate with John Coltrane. I purchased my copy three years ago from a New York bookseller. Price: US$4.50.

Access: Held in one edition or another by Kitchener Public Library, four academic libraries, and Library and Archives Canada.

Rose's Last Summer returned to print last year as one of the six novels included in Volume Two of the Collected Millar. It was last published on its own in 1993 by Allison & Busby (again, no relation). As far as I've been able to determine that edition marked the first and only UK edition.

Lancer published the novel 1965, followed by International Polygonics Ltd in 1985. Unlike most IPL Millars, the cover (left), ain't half bad (though, like the Random House first, the cover caption misleads).

Used copies of the novel are easily found online with prices ranging from US$3.15 (a Very Good IPL) to US$250 (a Near Fine first edition).

A French translation, Son dernier rôle, was published in 1961 and 1986 by Librairie des Champs-Elysées.

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  1. I can attest that the same thing is still going on with Hollywood. Options are cheap, even screenplays. They can afford to keep buying up work that never gets made.

    1. Researching my John Glassco biography, I kept coming across references to options and options renewed for Memoirs of Montparnasse. This seemed to go on for decades. I'm happy he got some one out of it, just as I'm happy it has never been filmed.

  2. It was Bette Davis who was supposed to be in The Iron Gates. But when she read the novel prior to the script being finished she learned that the character they wanted her to play dies well before the halfway mark and she refused to appear in it.

    1. I'd read much the same thing, John. And that Stanwyck had agreed after Davis turned it down. Davis' reasons for doing so remind me of a radio documentary I once heard on Hitchock's Psycho. One person being interviewed talked about how he kept waiting for Janet Leigh to return, because a star wouldn't just die halfway through.

  3. This was the fiest Millar I read and I loved the Christie-like plotting and the Millar sardonic wit. I said to myself, what a find!

    I didn't see the Thriller episode until five or so years later, thankfully. Was nice to see Mary Astor though!

    1. I don't think Miller's humour has been properly recognized. I couldn't get enough of the letter-writing landlady in Wives and Lovers.

      As for the Thriller adaptation, Mary Astor's performance is almost too good in that it makes the other actors look weak.

  4. Another excellent piece, which also reminds me that I'm getting worried the last 2 volumes of the Collected Millar may never appear: the publication dates keep being pushed back again and again.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, James. I share your concerns about those last two volumes. It has been five months since the last, and all were supposed to have been published by now.

  5. Ok I give up.
    Out of curiosity, why does Victor Kalin get associated with John Coltrane by You?

    1. Victor Kalin painted the portrait of Coltrane used on the cover of Expression.

    2. Wow, upon first glance, I didn't realise it wasn't a photograph, hence my comment. It's very well executed.
      Having said that, I am not unfamiliar with Victor Kalin as I collect vintage paperbacks.