Friday flash fiction – Mise-en-scène

Most ghosts cannot be captured on film; there are exceptions. I refer, of course, to the posthumous career of the late Delilah Hargreaves.

Hargreaves first came to notice as the scene-stealing maidservant Irma Grace in Songs of Revolution (1954), a cheap historical drama rushed out by producer Antonio Grumman for contractual purposes. The film sank without a trace on initial release, but caught unexpected attention when it was re-released the following year in a double bill with the Kurt Nederland crime comedy The Hapsburg Poisoners.

Although welcoming cinema-goers’ enthused response to the double bill, which saved his studio from bankruptcy, Grumman was nonetheless baffled. The mystery deepened when he attended a late showing, and saw the re-released Songs for the first time.

The character of Irma Grace – the scatter-brained and clumsy maid who administers cherry ice cream and heartfelt advice to the film’s lead – does not appear in the script, nor do members of the cast and crew recall working with or ever having met performer Delilah Hargreaves. She appears in almost one-third of the film’s scenes.

Grumman recounts his reaction to seeing the new version of the film: “I stood up right there in the jam-packed Odeon and called out ‘Who is this dame? How did she get in my movie?’ But the rest of the audience shushed me and threw popcorn. They loved that kid!”

Hargreaves next appeared as a flirtatious hotel manager in 1958’s The Bungling Bellhop, which was conceived as a vehicle for the wrestling star, Titus Church. Church, whose alcoholism had made him the bane of wrestling promoters from San Diego to Eureka, frequently arrived on set “pickled and late”, according to his long-suffering co-star Gladys Pepper. He declined to rehearse, refused directorial demands for second takes, and before the shoot wrapped ten days later, Church had fatally crashed his Studebaker while drunkenly negotiating a hairpin turn along the cliffs of Laurel Canyon.

The director walked off the picture, leaving the husband and wife team of Clyde and Vanessa Merrill to salvage the wreckage in the editing suite. With no script to hand and having not so much as visited the set, they nevertheless assembled a creditable farce from the reels of footage available.

“Going through the rushes we quickly spotted that the character of the manager, Natty, was the spine of the movie,” said Vanessa Merrill, interviewed some years later by Haunted Hollywood Magazine. “She was terrific. A real live wire. Everyone else looked drop-down drunk or mad as a mongoose, but Natty just popped off the screen.”

Husband Clyde agreed. “She was pretty lively for a dead lady.”

When Bellhop was released, word soon spread that its standout performance was delivered by a non-corporeal presence. As Gladys Pepper put it, “If you saw me up there with that gal, you’d think we were a comedy double act from way back. I kind of wish we were, as a matter of fact. Damn, she had killer timing.”

When asked if she was upset about being upstaged by a supernatural presence, Gladys was philosophical. “Not so much. I can’t blame the kid for seeing her shot and taking it. And that film was a burning bag of dog business without her. I owe her one.”

Audiences went wild for The Bungling Bellhop, which enjoyed a success far beyond anyone’s expectations. However its popularity was limited to US audiences. A studio push to export the film to Canadian and UK markets proved disastrous, as the prints turned out to be just twelve minutes long and comprised mainly of establishing shots of Church and Pepper.

Hargreaves was nowhere to be seen.

While all known American prints of the film soon found their way into the private collections of occultists with deep pockets, Hargreaves appeared to become restless.

She began appearing in more films – some estimates put the number at three dozen, but perhaps a hundred more are the subject of hot debate. Most of these were crowd scenes or brief background shots, though two scenes stood out as notable. The first is a scene in Yellow Teeth (1961), in which she offers a morose George Appleby her cigarette lighter at a rainy bus stop, an incident which papers over a plot hole in the script where Appleby later uses the lighter to escape being tied up. The second scene is from The Fiend in the Studio (1963), in which Hargreaves, appearing as a previous victim, helps scream queen Kelly Neimeyer turn the tables on the sadistic portrait artist played by Walter Caxton.

“Yeah, I never thought that scene made any sense when we were rehearsing it,” observes Caxton. “But you watch it now, when Delilah picks the lock on the shackles and gives Kelly the jar of paint stripper, suddenly it all hangs together.”

Delilah Hargreaves had by now become a minor celebrity. In late 1962, “Delilah-spotting” was a popular sport among first-night crowds, and incredibly, films in which she didn’t appear performed conspicuously poorly at the box office.

By comparison, the minor and otherwise tedious anti-war film Wings of the Dove (1962) contains just nineteen seconds of Hargreaves as a Polish farm widow, wordlessly watching fighter planes crash in her fields. It topped the box office receipts for two months in a row, and was briefly the subject of rampant if optimistic Oscar speculation.

At the height of her popularity, Hargreaves vanished. For reasons unknown, her clandestine insertions into popular Hollywood films ceased after a fleeting stint as roller-skating waitress Polly Oswald in Drive-In of the Damned (1963).

Theories explaining her departure abound. Had she fulfilled unfinished business from her lifetime? Did the Kennedy assassination in some way disrupt her career? Was she unsatisfied by her string of supporting roles? Many who rate her performances as star quality prefer this supposition.

Perhaps Hargreaves had the last word herself, in her final scene as Polly:

“I can’t hang around here all day, Professor. It’s been good talking, but now I gotta get back to work.”

I’m a fan of ghost stories. If I were to go back through the Friday flash fiction archives I suspect they would be over-represented in comparison to other genres. But while I enjoy reading stories about twisted revenants taking bloodthirsty revenge from beyond the grave, the ghosts I tend to write about are melancholy haunts, not so much obsessed with unfinished business as a bit confused as to how they’ve ended up dead. Just for once I thought I’d feature a previously-alive character who embraces her new circumstances.

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