- The few highlights in the 45-year film career of actress Carol Lynley – among them Blue Denim, The Cardinal, and Bunny Lake Is Missing – featured the (generally) blonde, blue-eyed beauty as captivating “all-American girl-next-door” types willing and able to shatter social conventions.
In all, throughout her 45-year career, actress Carol Lynley was seen in three dozen features, ranging from Ronald Neame’s international blockbuster The Poseidon Adventure to largely ignored efforts like the H.G. Wells-inspired adventure/sci-fier The Shape of Things to Come and the self-reflective Julio Iglesias drama Me olvidé de vivir.
Somewhere in-between those cinematic extremes lay her work for filmmakers like Philip Dunne (Blue Denim), Robert Aldrich (The Last Sunset), Jean Negulesco (The Pleasure Seekers), and Otto Preminger (The Cardinal, Bunny Lake Is Missing).
The previous post includes information on the teen pregnancy drama Blue Denim, the mystery thriller Bunny Lake Is Missing, and The Poseidon Adventure. Listed below are several other notable movies starring/co-starring Carol Lynley, from the early 1960s, when she was a 20th Century Fox contract player, to the late 1970s, shortly before she found herself stuck playing leads and second leads in little-seen and long-forgotten fare.
Return to Peyton Place: Less successful sequel to 1950s blockbuster
Directed by Academy Award-winning actor José Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac, 1950), Return to Peyton Place (1961) was a far less successful sequel to Mark Robson’s Oscar-nominated 1957 blockbuster Peyton Place.
Even so, if online reports are accurate, this potboiler based on Grace Metalious’ novel was Carol Lynley’s lone sizable moneymaker ($4.5 million in rentals) during her Fox years – seven features between 1959–1964.
As in Blue Denim, Lynley (in the role previously played by Diane Varsi) once again flaunts social conventions, this time around – in a case of like mother (Eleanor Parker; Lana Turner in the original), like daughter – by having an affair with a married man (Jeff Chandler).
It gets more scandalous: In her upcoming novel, the young woman exposes all the filth hidden behind the white picket fences and spotless house façades of her small New England town.
And that’s when veteran Mary Astor (Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for The Great Lie, 1941) steps in to steal the movie from its more prominently billed stars.
The Cardinal: First collaboration with Otto Preminger
In a role reportedly intended for Audrey Hepburn,* Carol Lynley, as a brunette for a change, plays the sister of Boston priest Tom Tryon in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal (1963), based on Henry Morton Robinson’s “sensational” bestseller.
Despite qualms about the original’s low-caliber drama, Preminger’s great-looking big-screen version earned the veteran filmmaker his second and final Best Director Oscar nomination† (but no Best Picture nod).
Billed below Tryon and Austrian import Romy Schneider, Lynley has several of the film’s showiest scenes, as, after becoming engaged to a Jewish man (John Saxon) and losing him to bigotry and World War I, she finds herself once again both unmarried and pregnant (by another man).
* It sounds odd that Preminger would have wanted Audrey Hepburn as the future cardinal’s sister instead of his ethereal romantic interest – the larger female role that went to Romy Schneider.
† Otto Preminger had been previously shortlisted for Laura (1944).
Shock Treatment: ‘Truly tacky’ cult classic
Denis Sanders’ low-budget cult classic Shock Treatment (1964) stars Stuart Whitman as an actor hired to “play” insane so he can be sent to the mental institution holding a gardener convicted of decapitating his boss.
But is the gardener truly demented? And just by chance, did he also steal his headless boss’ dough?
Carol Lynley is Whitman’s romance-stirring fellow patient, a virginal-looking young thing who might just happen to be a nymphomaniac.
Also in the cast: Lauren Bacall (“I lowered my professional sights totally to start working in pictures again, and agreed to be in a truly tacky movie, Shock Treatment…”) and Lynley’s fellow The Poseidon Adventure survivor Roddy McDowall as the garden-shear-happy horticulturist.
The Pleasure Seekers: Money-losing remake of 1950s blockbuster
A well-regarded filmmaker in the 1940s, Jean Negulesco (Best Director nominee for Johnny Belinda, 1948) took a more crowd-pleasing route in the ensuing decade, with mixed critical and commercial results (e.g., the hit How to Marry a Millionaire, the costly disappointment The Rains of Ranchipur).
Nearing the end of his career, in 1964 Negulesco remade his Oscar-nominated box office success Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), the insipid tale of three American women finding romance in post-war Rome.
Retitled The Pleasure Seekers, the reboot – with a screenplay by Blue Denim’s Edith Sommer (officially adapting John H. Secondari’s novel Coins in the Fountain) – had the action transferred to Madrid.
Billed below Ann-Margret and Anthony Franciosa (but above Pamela Tiffin), Carol Lynley was cast in a role that is (more or less) a cross between those of Jean Peters and Dorothy McGuire in the original, with an added touch of her Return to Peyton Place character: a secretary breaks the rules by falling in love with her married boss (Brian Keith).
Unlike Three Coins in the Fountain, The Pleasure Seekers was a money-loser for Fox. The film marked the end of Lynley’s six-year association with the studio, though she would be back eight years later for The Poseidon Adventure.
Harlow: Carol vs. Carroll
In 1965, by then former Fox contract actress Carol Lynley – 23 at the time – seemed to have been everywhere you looked:
- On TV, in the Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre episode “The Flyers,” directed by future Oscar winner Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa, 1985), and co-starring John Cassavetes and Chester Morris (who had been featured in Blue Denim on Broadway).
- In newsstands, in a nude Playboy spread – thus breaking social conventions in real life as well. (“It wasn’t really my decision [to pose naked for Playboy],” Lynley would recall decades later. “I had an agent who said I needed to make a transition from teenager to adult, and this was the one way to fast track it, which he was right. I did the shoot in Los Angeles. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t done it, it’s a little tacky. On the other hand, it’s here in my roster of pictures.”)
- On the big screen, in Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing, as a single mother looking for her (imaginary?) missing daughter, and in Alex Segal’s indie biopic Harlow, as 1930s MGM sex goddess Jean Harlow (Red Dust, Dinner at Eight), whose apparently impotent second husband (producer Paul Bern) committed suicide, and who died at age 26 in 1937.
Notwithstanding its stellar supporting cast (Ginger Rogers, Barry Sullivan, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Audrey Totter, Hermione Baddeley, etc.), this independent production was both cheaply and quickly made. Filming – in black and white, in a process known as electronovision (high-resolution videotape) – lasted only eight days so this particular Harlow could come out before Paramount’s more elaborate Jean Harlow biopic, also named Harlow and starring Carroll Baker.
The New York Times’ Howard Thompson expressed acerbic disapproval of both the electronovision Harlow and its star:
“The picture took eight days for filming, the last two due to inclement weather. It didn’t rain long enough. There is, front, center and anything but alluring, Carol Lynley as the nation’s movie sex goddess of the thirties. She squeaks, occasionally furrows her youthful brow and twitches her nostrils.”
The Shuttered Room: Straw Dogs predecessor
Following Bunny Lake Is Missing and Harlow, neither of which was financially successful, Carol Lynley, still only in her mid-20s, saw her Hollywood career take a nosedive.
Arthur Penn might have turned her into a compelling Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde. She and Robert Redford could have made an amusing newly married couple in Barefoot in the Park. She would have looked perfect as Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s daughter in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Instead, Lynley became mired in a series of B movies that failed to capture either the interest of audiences or the goodwill of critics. Of the half-dozen such flicks released during that pre-The Poseidon Adventure period, the one notable title is perhaps David Greene’s The Shuttered Room (1967).
Based on a short story by August Derleth and H.P. Lovecraft, the New England-set, (Old) England-shot British horror thriller features Lynley and veteran Gig Young (Teacher’s Pet) as an urban couple having to deal with some of the same inconveniences – an ignorant, idiotized, vicious rural crowd – encountered by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George in Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 revenge thriller Straw Dogs.
It gets worse: gang leader Oliver Reed lusts after the sexy missus and there’s something residing in the attic of her family’s ancestral house.
The Cat and the Canary: Eclectic talent combo
Strangely, The Poseidon Adventure failed to have any noticeable effect on Carol Lynley’s standing as a film actress and/or box office draw.
Although busy on television, where female roles were more abundant, she would stay away from the big screen for over three years, returning in William H. Bushnell’s minor Israeli-U.S. gangster comedy The Four Deuces (1976), noteworthy for reuniting her with fellow Blue Denim player Warren Berlinger. From then on, Lynley’s motion picture career would almost invariably be relegated to low-budget, low-quality efforts with even lower box office appeal.
One exception of sorts is the haunted house comedy thriller The Cat and the Canary (1979), remarkable in that it boasts an all-star British cast (Wendy Hiller, Honor Blackman, Peter McEnery, Edward Fox, etc.) working under the direction of Radley Metzger, best known for sexually explicit features like The Opening of Misty Beethoven and Naked Came the Stranger.
In a role previously incarnated by Laura La Plante (1927), Helen Twelvetrees (1930), and, most famously, Paulette Goddard (1939), Lynley portrays a young heiress-to-be whose inheritance will be forfeited if, after spending one night at her deceased relative’s foreboding mansion, a doctor fails to pronounce her sane.
Below are Carol Lynley and Robby Benson presenting two Academy Awards in the short film categories at the 1979 ceremony.
TV actress Carol Lynley: Ratings champ The Night Stalker
Busy on television from the mid-1950s to 1990, Carol Lynley’s small-screen career peak took place in the first half of the 1970s, when she was seen in a handful of high-profile made-for-TV movies. Here are two of them:
- Broadcast the same year The Poseidon Adventure hit theaters, John Llewellyn Moxey’s mystery thriller The Night Stalker (1972) became the highest-rated TV movie up to that time. The plot chronicles the search for a serial killer who may or may not be a vampire; Darren McGavin is the cop investigating the case while Lynley, looking great in a relatively brief and none too effectual role, is his girlfriend/possible sex worker.
- In Jerry Jameson’s The Elevator (1974), she is one of the stars – including veterans Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Roddy McDowall, and Craig Stevens – whose day is ruined after the titular contraption gets stuck between floors at a Los Angeles high-rise office building. Waiting outside for claustrophobic armed robber James Farentino, Lynley is the steamy getaway-car driver.
But for the most part, Carol Lynley’s TV appearances – much like those in motion pictures – were mind-boggling cases of “What’s a beautiful, charismatic actress like you doing in a dump like this?”
As a TV series guest star, among her dumpy surroundings were The Love Boat, The Fall Guy, the daytime soap opera Another World, and no less than 11 Fantasy Island episodes.
The comeback that never was
In her 2000 San Francisco Chronicle interview (see previous post), Carol Lynley, then 58 years old and an actress for more than four decades, made an assessment of her professional standing and future career possibilities:
“Hollywood is afraid of middle-age women. I think it has something to do with menopause. But I feel I’m going to have a latter-day career like Jessica Tandy and Ruth Gordon. I don’t mean to sound conceited, but I am a very talented actress, and I have my head screwed on right. I’m not going to drug clinics, I look good, and I’ve got all my marbles. So I really believe I’ll be back.”
Yet there would be no Rosemary’s Baby– or Driving Miss Daisy-like comeback in her future. Or any veritable comeback, for that matter.
Lynley’s final TV appearance was a guest spot in a 1990 episode of the series Monsters. Her final feature film role was as a grandmother in John Carl Buechler’s little-seen 2003 fantasy A Light in the Forest – despite the title, no connection to her big-screen debut.
Three years later, she took part in the short Vic, directed by Sylvester Stallone’s son Sage Stallone, and featuring fellow 1960s celebrities Clu Gulager (TV’s The Virginian) and John Phillip Law (Barbarella).
And thus actress Carol Lynley’s Hollywood career came to an end.
What might have been
Those who appreciate her work in The Cardinal and/or Bunny Lake Is Missing can only lament what could have been had Carol Lynley been cast as the female lead in well-received releases of the 1960s and 1970s.
Or, in the early 21st century, had big-name filmmakers with a knowledge and appreciation of 1960s American cinema taken the trouble to offer her suitable supporting roles.
As it is, Bunny Lake Is Missing, for one, is always worth another look.
“Actress Carol Lynley” endnotes
Lauren Bacall Shock Treatment quote via her autobiography, By Myself.
Fox box office information: Stephen M. Silverman’s The Fox That Got Away: The Last Days of the Zanuck Dynasty at Twentieth Century-Fox.
Carol Lynley, Ann-Margret, and Pamela Tiffin The Pleasure Seekers image: 20th Century Fox.
Carol Lynley and Ginger Rogers Harlow image: Magna.
“Actress Carol Lynley: Dazzling ‘Girl-Next-Door’ Willing to Break Social Conventions” last updated in September 2021.