A Victorian Triptych of Tenderness and Tension

A Victorian Triptych of Tenderness and Tension

Posted by Mike Finnegan on May 25th 2018

Chance encounters paved the way to movie careers for many notable performers, all with a modicum of talent and a great deal of hope. In the case of Sydney, Australia, native Jeanette Elphick, born 83 years ago today and later to assume the professional name of Victoria Shaw (1935-1988), hope played a rather enormous role. Having appeared in the Chips Rafferty Aussie Western Return of the Plainsman (1953, under her given name), she gained notoriety as that nation’s top model circa 1955, when the stylish beauty was discovered by beloved entertainer Bob Hope during a performance tour Down Under and encouraged to come to Hollywood for a screen test at Columbia Pictures, where she signed as a contract player in the twilight era of that fertile period in which studios showcased emergent actors working regularly in multiple roles and genres that explored their potential for engaging the audience and reflected their versatility. Shaw got three plum parts familiar to the Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray faithful, displaying her innate elegance and inner fire. 

The first was a crowd pleaser, director George Sidney’s stylish – if liberty-taking – musical biography The Eddy Duchin Story (1956), a melody-rich portrait of the 1930s/40s society pianist/bandleader (Tyrone Power) awash in glamour, high times and heartache, in which Shaw, as a British governess named Chiquita Wynn, comes to the revitalizing romantic rescue of the musician whose first wife (Kim Novak) dies shortly after childbirth. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times pronounced her “as crisp and attractive as a new $20 bill” as she helps the moody, now World War II veteran Duchin pick up the pieces of his service-interrupted career, reconnect with his estranged son and find new love as he faces down the debilitating final illness that would cut his life tragically short. Cinemascope, ravishing Technicolor and lush and lively soundtrack melodies made this a high-profile box-office hit and earned Shaw a Golden Globe® Award as Most Promising Newcomer. 

It would be three eventful years – which included marriage to and the birth of two children with fellow up-and-comer Roger Smith – before Shaw returned to the big screen, but it would be in a powerful one-two punch, this time working for two notorious tough-guy filmmakers, Samuel Fuller and Don Siegel. Fuller’s frenetic and tabloid-styled The Crimson Kimono (1959), filmed on vividly captured Los Angeles “Little Tokyo” locations, top-billed her as a gentle, empathetic artist who is a key witness in the lurid murder investigation of a stripper, and becomes the object of affection for the two detectives (Glenn Corbett and James Shigeta) partnered on the search for a killer who’s sworn to eliminate her. In Fuller’s acutely thoughtful execution, Blake Lucas writes in Film Noir: The Encyclopedia, “there is nothing primitive or naïve about the unusual love triangle in which the heroine prefers an Asian over a Caucasian, especially as both men are likable and attractive.” In his memoir A Third Face, Fuller recalled that he chose Shaw for the pivotal part after seeing her work in The Eddy Duchin Story: “When I walked out of that formulaic movie, I thought more about Victoria’s character, a sweet girl who takes care of children, than about the sexy one that Kim Novak played. I wanted a normal-looking yet classy actress to play the role of the white artist who falls for the Nisei. Victoria Shaw was poised and steady at all times, with Romy Schneider-like beauty. She was a far cry from the flaming-hot blondes who were so popular back then.” And the filmmaker drew from her a sense of quiet longing and a smoldering yet vulnerable sensuality that played off the growing tensions between the cop comrades effectively. 

In the sizzling Cinemascope thriller Edge of Eternity (1959), lensed on scenic, often breathtaking and then-unspoiled Arizona locations near and inside the Grand Canyon, she stepped out further as a cool yet flirtatious socialite who may or may not be involved in a gold-smuggling caper that has triggered two mysterious deaths under scrutiny by straight-arrow sheriff’s deputy Cornel Wilde. Shaw’s sharper edge here, evocative of the similar desert imagery of lovely Rhonda Fleming in another TT thriller, Inferno (1953), is honed courtesy of the maverick director Don Siegel, who would later showcase seductive and destructive women in his harder-edged thrillers of the 1960s, but stops short of that here, as she and sheriff Wilde start to feel a mutual attraction, as well as a shared resolution to sort out the intrigues that ensnare her father and brother. What’s more, it would have been difficult to make a true femme fatale of Shaw’s character: the sometimes risky location shooting around the steep cliffs and precipitous valleys – not to mention the movie’s climactic confrontation between Wilde and revealed murderer Mickey Shaughnessy, with Shaw held hostage, on a dangling cable car high above the canyon floor – daunted the otherwise capable, game-for-almost-anything leading lady. “Poor Victoria Shaw was terrified of heights,” the director wrote in his A Siegel Film: An Autobiography. “She literally had to be carried up the steps with her eyes closed. Fortunately, she was supposed to look frightened. She gave a great performance.” Indeed, these three early performances by today’s birthday honoree are all worth investigating on TT’s marvelous discs of The Eddy Duchin Story [exclusively available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/26668/THE-EDDY-DUCHIN-STORY-1956/],The Crimson Kimono and Edge of Eternity.