A LOOK BACK AT JOAN FONTAINE IN “DARK MANSIONS” (1986)

When actress Joan Fontaine passed away earlier this week, she left behind an incredible legacy of films, ranging from her Oscar-winning performances in REBECCA and SUSPICION to roles in Richard Thorpe’s IVANHOE and Max Ophuls’ LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN. Like many female actors, however, she found that film roles became more difficult to get the older she got, and Fontaine didn’t make a theatrical film after Hammer’s solid 1966 shocker THE WITCHES.

But it wasn’t that Fontaine retired from acting – as another leading lady most famously put it in SUNSET BOULEVARD, it was the pictures that got small. Fontaine continued acting occasionally on television throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, making appearances on “The Love Boat,” “Cannon” (as a former film icon) and “Hotel.” However, none of these were regular gigs, and it seemed as though Fontaine was content to sit back and enjoy semi-retirement.

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In 1986, however, that sentiment seems to have changed, as she took one of the lead roles in the Aaron Spelling-produced DARK MANSIONS, a pilot film for a potential series directed by TV staple Jerry London. Fontaine was reportedly cast as a last-minute replacement for Loretta Young, whom Spelling had tried to coax out of retirement and had agreed to do the show. Instead, it was Fontaine who stepped into the shoes of Margaret Drake, the matriarch of a boat manufacturing family with the usual batch of dramatic issues that came along with every ‘80s nighttime soap.

It’s not that surprising that Young passed after reading the script, allowing Fontaine to take her place. While it’s by no means terrible, it’s a fairly unexceptional affair, a melding of “Dallas” and “Dark Shadows” with the gothic elements played up but, outside of one character’s psychic tendencies, the supernatural elements excised. It would have made for a decent role for Fontaine to sink her teeth into had it gone to series, but it certainly isn’t remarkable enough for someone like Young back to the screen.

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DARK MANSIONS didn’t get turned into a TV series, ending up airing with a stockpile of other pilots that failed to make it – NORTHSTAR, CONDOR, William Friedkin’s C.A.T. SQUAD and the Ed O’Neill-starring POPEYE DOYLE among them – in the summer of 1986. It ended up being Fontaine’s second-to-last screen appearance.

The film begins with Margaret Drake (Fontaine) welcoming writer Shellane Victor (Linda Purl) into her home to help with her memoirs. Shellane quickly integrates herself with the family, including Margaret’s husband Alexander (Dan O’Herlihy), her adult children Jason (Michael York) and Phillip (Paul Shenar) and their children, and the family lawyer Davis (Raymond St. Jacques), all of whom are busy preparing for the company’s upcoming giant anniversary gala, amidst family squabbles over going public with the company.

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It’s all very “Knots Landing”-esque, down to the presence of Nicollette Sheridan, but eventually the gothic nature promised by the brooding opening credits starts to emerge. For one thing, the family owns two houses on the same property (the adopted brother and his family live in one) due to an accident in which Margaret fell down the stairs in their first house, thus necessitating them building a second house exactly the same so she wouldn’t have to relieve the memory!

During a thunderstorm, the family’s patriarch ends up getting fried by a lightning bolt, causing the blind granddaughter Noelle (Melissa Sue Anderson) to go into a psychic tantrum. Meanwhile, angry grandson Nicholas (soap star Grant Aleksander) has been having bad dreams, and Shellane, whose presence is remarkably accepted amidst all this drama, starts thinking that it all looks pretty strange.

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The reason behind her acceptance becomes clear the more we learn about how much she resembles Jason’s late wife, who died under mysterious circumstances. Yes, out of random casting luck, Joan Fontaine, Oscar-winner for REBECCA, ended up in the pilot for a television series about a giant mansion and a mysterious deceased wife, and the climax of the film even features Shellane being dressed specifically to resemble the dead woman in a painting revealed in an explosive moment. It’s a strange coincidence, and one that serves as a curious bookend to Fontaine’s impressive career.

The revision from pilot for a potential television show to TV-movie afterthought seems to have been a quick one, as Shellane, who would potentially have been a major character had it gone to series, is disposed of with an ending credit coda just listing her death as “mysterious.” At least Shellane’s story gets resolved – the majority of the sub-plots set up in DARK MANSIONS are clearly meant to be longer arcs with no explanation in sight by the time the closing credits roll.

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Sadly, DARK MANSIONS remains a curiosity, unreleased to VHS or DVD, and consigned to the obscurities of rare television airings. While it’s not some sort of tragic event that a DARK MANSIONS television series never happened, it would have been great to see Fontaine get a chance to embrace the “grande dame” archetype in a gothic horror context, thus giving her a chance to revisit the likes of REBECCA from a very different angle.

@Paul Freitag-Fey

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