Millicent Weatherby (Crawford) is a self-employed typist of a certain age who rarely socializes. During an evening out alone, she runs into a young man named Burt (Robertson) who charms her. After a few dates, they marry. The lovebirds are happy until a woman claiming to be Burt's first wife arrives and says the man is a dangerous psychopath.
Millie begins to see signs of mania in her new husband and must figure out her next move.
Joan Crawford and the first couples therapy session
|Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone|
In later years, Crawford would go for campy, psychodrama films like Strait-Jacket (1964). These movies often take an unintentionally comic, and therefore calloused, look at those suffering from a mental disorder and what it does to a home.
However, in Autumn Leaves, the issue is treated with care and solemnity. Burt is a war veteran who might have sustained complicated trauma in service. It's questionable whether their marriage can withstand the therapy he needs.
Crawford was not only interested in how psychotherapy can help the home onscreen, she seems to have dabbled in it off screen as well.
During the early 20th century, therapy was seen as something shameful. However, in 1937, Crawford and her husband, actor Franchot Tone, committed to the first recorded instance of couples therapy with psychodrama founder J.L. Moreno.
The psychotherapist's son, Jonathan Moreno, shares the story in an October 9, 2014 article for Psychology Today Magazine.
Mixing psychology and a background in training actors, Moreno sought to help the couple, according to his son.
"Aware of the psychiatrist Moreno through his work with Tone’s mother and his reputation in the New York theater crowd..., the unhappy Joan and Franchot asked for J.L.’s help. Together the couple dramatized their conflicts on the psychodrama stage, one of which was the fact that Tone was not considered handsome enough to be leading man material in the movies, while the camera loved Crawford’s memorable features."
The two act out their frustrations with the therapist in ways often compared to an acting class with Stanislavsky. Unfortunately, the method didn't seem to help for long. The couple would break up two years later.
The screenwriter was blacklisted
The screenplay for Autumn Leaves is written by actress and author Jean Rouverol. During the days of hard penalties and blacklisting of anyone in the U.S. with Communist sympathies, the writer fled with her children and her husband, writer Hugo Butler, to Mexico.
From Mexico, the pair released screenplays to Hollywood with the help of friends, under other names. In the case of Autumn Leaves, writer Jack Jevne used his name as a front.
Rouverol would later return to the U.S. and write for television, including an episode of "Little House on the Prairie" with Michael Landon.
Dusting off an old pop tune
|Nat "King" Cole|
The title song of the film was written by Joseph Kosma in 1947 in French, "Les Feuilles Mortes,"
"The Dead Leaves." It's a song about remembering and yearning for a lost love.
(Watch Yves Montand sing "Les Feuilles Mortes" in the film Parigi è Sempre Parigi (1951))
By the early 1950s, its popularity reached the United States, where it enjoyed success mostly as instrumental music.
In 1955, songwriter Johnny Mercer added English lyrics, giving the song another round of popularity. The English lyrics more specifically draw on the analogy of changing seasons. The singer recalls lost summer kisses while surrounded by autumn leaves, dreading being alone during winter.
Legendary singer Nat Cole dusts off "Autumn Leaves" and sings it as the title song for this film.
(Watch Nat "King" Cole sing "Autumn Leaves" on his eponymous television show in 1957.)
The song somewhat matches Joan Crawford's character. As a young lady, she has lost boyfriends while taking care of her ailing father. As an adult, she has lost touch with humanity. As a married woman, she's losing her husband. The tune is appropriately maudlin.
Have you seen Autumn Leaves? What did you think of it?