Just mention the name Bert I. Gordon and images of cyclops and giant men immediately come to mind. He may have only 23 films to his credit but he clearly left his mark on impressionable young monster kids everywhere. But even the best of the best can have an off day and that may very well be what happened with Picture Mommy Dead (1966).
It’s important to remember that we were just six years removed from the classic Psycho when this film was released. Everyone was trying to have their Hitchcock moment, most with little success. So it comes to no surprise that Mister B.I.G. himself would attempt to do the same with Picture Mommy Dead.
The plot revolves around young Susan Shelley (played by Bert’s daughter Susan) witnessing the death of her mother Jessica (Zsa Zsa Gabor, Queen of Outer Space). Surviving a fire, it sent her into a state of shock. After three years in an asylum/convent supervised by a nun, she is released into the custody of her father Edward (Don Ameche, Coccoon). The problem is she thinks her father killer her mother and, once she starts seeing images of her mother, the question of her sanity comes into play. Add Edward’s new cheating wife Francene (Martha Hyer) into the mix, the lure of wealth and mysterious late night lurking’s reminiscent of an old, dark house, you have the recipe for something fun…right?
The problem with Picture Mommy Dead really centers on the performance of young Susan Gordon. She plays a key role and a better actress might have really stolen the film. Unfortunately, Susan Gordon simply wasn’t up to the task. She may have been cute when she was younger but here she comes across as awkward. Not surprisingly, she had one more guest role on TV after this film and she was gone from the screen. The rest of the cast put in good performances. In particular, I loved the over-the-top craziness of Wendell Corey as Mr. Clayborn the lawyer. His one-liners against young Susan are classic and make it well-worth checking the film out, at least for those scenes. Picture Mommy Dead looks beautiful in living color due in part to the location shots at the Doheny Mansion in Beverly Hills. It is also full of cool imagery, such as the bleeding portrait or the crazy melody young Susan sings over her dying mother’s body. Unfortunately, I just can’t get beyond the poor acting of Susan Gordon.
The role of Jessica Flagmore Shelley was originally to be played by actress Gene Tierney but she had retired prior to the start of the film. Tierney had suffered from depression for many years and had more than one stay in the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, KS. On an interesting side note, my sister and brother-in-law now own that once out-patient home and even know the room she lived in. Tierney was married to Texas oil baron W. Howard Lee at the time of filming, who had previously been married to actress Hedy Lamarr. Ironically, Lamarr was offered the part of Jessica after Tierney turned it down. She even started filming but was quickly fired after she collapsed on the set from nervous exhaustion. She hadn’t starred in a film since 1958 and this would have been her comeback. Unfortunately, that comeback never did happen.
TCM recently offered a rare broadcast of Picture Mommy Dead. There is an apparently out-of-print and rare DVD selling for as much as $95 on Amazon. The film is certainly not worth that kind of ridiculous investment. Thankfully, it is currently available on YouTube. It is certainly worth checking out and you’ll have fun while you do. I just think it could have been better than it turned out to be.