We all have those moments that, not only frightened us to death as kids, but managed to stick with us long into adulthood. Even well after the realization that there are no monsters under the bed, we never really forget the sensation of how it felt to be entirely convinced otherwise. The movies you saw as a kid, viewed through parted fingers, nurturing an irrational fear of the dark, are most likely fairly silly now in retrospect.
But some of them will always be terrifying.
(Stick with me here, because this post is meant to be about TCM’s Star of the Day, the beautiful Ann Blyth, whose films are being honored both there and over at the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, hosted by our very own Jill Blake, and hosted by Michael Nazarewycz of Scribe Hard on Film.)
Out of everyone who ever scared the living daylights out of me as a kid (I was, and remain, a hopeless Scaredy Cat) Ann Blyth takes the cake. Forget Freddie. Forget Jason. Forget all those Killer Clowns from Outer Space. (What can I say, I hate clowns, OK?) It was Ann Blyth’s turn as the immortal, deadly Queen of Egypt in the classic Twilight Zone episode “Queen of the Nile” that seriously freaked me out as a kid and, after revisiting it for this post, it still boasts a high chill factor. Jam packed with all the delicious little goodies that make The Twilight Zone one of the most creative, ambitious television series of all time, Queen of the Nile remains one of its very best, due Ann Blyth’s rapturous embrace of the ridiculous. She slam-dunks the role. (And as you’ll see at the end of this post, I’m not entirely convinced that she was acting!)
Jordan Herrick is a handsome young newspaper reporter assigned to do an in-depth interview with glamorous movie queen Pamela Morris. (Apparently, Herrick has never seen Sunset Blvd. Reporter-Movie star relationships always end badly.) He arrives at her lavish Hollywood home, which is decorated heavily by Egyptian artifacts—no doubt many of which are authentic. He is bemused as he takes in the surroundings, and is captivated by a portrait of the famous star over the mantle—it’s very much a Laura moment as he becomes transfixed by the beauty of the portrait, dated 1940. He knows the perfection in the paint will no longer resemble its subject, it being nearly 25 years later. (It’s 1964.)
When the ravishing beauty enters to greet him he can’t believe his eyes: she is every bit as young as the portrait. Pamela Morris is a charming, kindly hostess; accustomed to hypnotizing men without much effort. Herrick is likewise entranced, but his reporter’s nose leads him and he tries to stick to business. Herrick has come with a notebook full of questions—the most pressing of which is getting to the bottom of just how old Pamela Morris really is.
(Note to men everywhere: If a woman doesn’t want to tell you her age…better let it go.)
Having fun with him, Morris jovially bandies about the topic, before giving him her answer: 38.
This number doesn’t gel with his notes.
“If you’re 38 years old, how could you possibly have stared in a film in 1935?”
Morris gaily shrugs it off, saying that she is commonly mistaken for that actress.
Herrick presses again. “The film the Queen of the Nile was filmed in 1940—the year of that portrait. You would have been 15.”
Again, Morris is playful in her defenses: “Ah, but Juliet was 12.”
Herrick, a cynic by nature, is for the moment satisfied with Morris’ responses, owing entirely to her affable nature and innocent flirting. He has coffee with Morris and her elderly mother, who strikes him as a bit off. The old woman has been monitoring the two, visibly anguished by it.
Morris, a deft worker, ends the interview by suddenly kissing the young man, who is intoxicated by her beauty, and they arrange to have dinner together. But before Herrick can leave, he is intercepted by the strange old woman who warns him not to see her ever again, adding, “She is much older than you think.”
When Herrick asks her if she means Morris was lying about being 38 (which he obviously still suspects to be possible) the woman confesses she doesn’t know how old Morris is, exactly.
“How can you not know? You’re her mother!”
And then, that classic Twilight Zone moment of: “I’m not her mother. I’m her daughter.”
DUN DUN DUNNNNNNNNN.
While Herrick enjoys his evening out with Morris, he is a reporter first and foremost. After their date he phones the copy desk back in Chicago and has his assigning editor pull a file on the film The Queen of the Nile. Herrick is taken aback when the aging editor asks which version—the silent film or the 1940 version. Sniffing a story too sensational to ignore, Herrick asks his editor about the star of the silent version.
Turns out the actress, named Constance Taylor, died tragically towards the end of shooting on location in Egypt, and bears an uncanny resemblance to Morris. The editor acknowledges this, also stating that he met Constance when he was very young and was struck by how ‘ageless’ she was.
Herrick presses him to explain.
The editor says that Constance had been a famous beauty as a Floradora girl at the turn of the century, and even then in the early 1920s hadn’t aged a day. “A real femme fatale,” he calls her. Herrick has the editor compare a picture of Taylor with Morris…the resemblance is uncanny.
Herrick knows he is onto something sensational and asks the editor to do a thorough investigation of Morris’ files, including every man who has ever been romantically connected with her. Once he has his files in hand, he goes to see Morris’ “mother.”
The old woman confirms the validity of everything found in the file: clippings dated from the 1920s, 30s, 40s, all bearing Morris’ photos, her perfect youth preserved in all of them. “Can you imagine what it was like,” she tells the reporter, “her always young, and fresh, and my own reflection yellowing in the mirror.” The woman finally admits that she suspects Morris might possibly be immortal; she does not know the truth of her secret, but think it has something to do with the images of the Egyptian scarab beetles that are so prominently displayed around the home. Herrick rightly cites the scarabs as the Egyptian symbol of immortality.
The old woman becomes frantic and urges Herrick to leave, but Herrick senses no danger—he’s too involved in the story to think of leaving running away.
Herrick confronts Morris.
All humor hitherto so much a part of Morris’ charade drains completely, and she orders her ‘mother’ to leave the two of them alone. The old woman is terrified to part with the young man—she knows what fate awaits him, and so do we. But we sure as hell want to see how this black widow will silence her prey… and Rod Serling does not disappoint.
Knowing that he has cornered her, Morris secludes the two of them for coffee, dropping a mysterious drug into his, of course, while his back is turned. She tells Herrick that if he wants the truth, she will give it to him. The drug begins to disorient him as the now venomous Blyth retrieves a hidden, small glass case. She calmly, regally, nobly, sits beside him, displaying it before him, informing him that inside is an ancient Egyptian scarb beetle. The drug is overcoming Herrick, but he manages to ask where she got it.
“From the pharaoh’s who understood its power.” And then. “I told you, Mr. Herrick. I was once Queen of the Nile.”
Queue the second DUN DUN DUNNNNNNNNN.
So Ann Blyth, although never named outright as Queen Cleopatra VII, is almost certainly meant to be that earthly goddess who conquered men far greater than this mere news reporter from Chicago. When Herrick collapses to the floor, we see the secret of her eternal beauty. She releases the scarab beetle upon Herrick’s unconscious body. As it sucks the man of his life, the Egyptian Queen is rejuvenated. He is bled dry until his is a corpse—his skeleton cracks and dissolves into dust in a genuinely creep sequence.
The old woman is overcome upon the sight of the pile of dust, and the Queen of the Nile is quick to remind her aged daughter that if she wants to live another day, she will quickly tend to the mess and mind her own business.
The episode ends as another young, handsome victim, appears at the movie star’s home, having made a similar appointment. Once again, Blyth is the charming, delightful hostess, taking her handsome victim into her hand, and leading him off to his death with a smile in her voice.
“Everyone knows Pamela Morris. The beautiful and eternally young movie star. But does she have another name even more famous? An Egyptian name from centuries past? It’s best not to be too curious. Lest you wind up like Jordan Herrick. A pile of dust in old clothing, discarded in the endless eternity of the Twilight Zone.”
Ann Blyth is pitch perfect as the murderous, immortal Queen of Egypt: her beauty accentuated here until it is almost as impossible as the secret she is meant to keep. And although her last feature film role had been in the late 1950s, appearing in an episode of The Twilight Zone was far from ‘selling out.’ Quite the contrary. The brightest talents in the business—old and young–guest starred on the anthology show. Ann Blyth’s name joins adizzyingly illustrious roster: Dana Andrews, John Carradine, James Coburn, Gladys Cooper, Robert Cummings, William Demarest, Robert Duvall, Buddy Ebsen, Peter Falk, Anne Francis, Ron Howard, Marsha Hunt, Buster Keaton, Cloris Leachmen, Ida Lupino, Kevin McCarthy, Roddy McDowall, Vera Miles, Elizabeth Montgomery, Agnes Moorehead, Sydney Pollack, Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, Mickey Rooney, Burgess Meredith, Cliff Robertson, William Shatner, Rod Taylor, Franchot Tone, Jack Warden, Gig Young… and dozens upon dozens of fellow ace actors that there neither space nor time will allow here.
Along with my fellow Black Maria co-founders Jill Blake and Drew Morton, as well as fellow film bloggers Jessica Pickens and Raquel Stecher, I had the great pleasure of seeing Ann Blyth in person at a Q&A preceeding a screening of her most famous film, Michael Curtiz’ Mildred Pierce, to a sold out crowd at the 2013 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. The entire audience was amazed with how young the EIGHTY-FIVE year old veteran actress appeared. Apparently 85 is the new 60, as Ms. Blyth was a radiant, striking presence, who literally appeared decades younger than her age suggested.
Which leads me to wonder … was she really acting…?