Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Lizzie Borden: Dances (& Books & Operas) of Death

With the recent release of Lizzie Borden Took An Ax starring Christina Ricci (and it's spin-off fictional series The Lizzie Borden Chronicles), I thought it time to gather additional (digital) Lizzie ephemera to peruse. If you're interested in (one of) the most famous, unsolved murder(s) of all time here are some places to start, chronologically.
  • At the time of the murder, Edwin H. Porter worked as police reporter for the Fall River Globe newspaper and published a book (in 1893) that many Borden aficionados consider definitive. A non-illustrated text version of the Fall River Tragedy by Edwin H. Porter is available. This link opens a PDF in a new window.
  • This 1936 radio play is called Unsolved Mysteries: The Borden Case but manages to solve the Lizzie mystery by adding a tramp who makes his escape in the dark of night to the mix of people on 92 Second Street that fateful day. There is a narrator but no credits; the voice of Lizzie sounds strangely familiar.

  • The Fall River Legend dance was choreographed by Agnes De Mille in 1945 and purports to tell the story of Lizzie Borden although De Mille has played with the facts by adding a minister boyfriend, subtracting Emma (the other dancer in the piece is young Lizzie, not Emma), and arriving at a verdict of guilty. Still and all, this Canadian production is a lively work with excellent performances and solid characterizations by the dancers.

    Unfortunately, this performance (starring Sally Wilson) is not complete; thus I took the partial Fall River Legend 3/3 and River 2/2 (a different company and performance) and edited them together so the complete Agnes De Mille ballet is easily viewable by watching Fall River Legend 1/3, Fall River Legend 2/3 and then the following two mashups (Mashup 1/2 then 2/2).

    River 1/2 is the first half of this other performance which was shot from a balcony. River 2/2 had some wonky editing that I fixed in the mashup. Props to the original posters of these videos.
    In 1968, Agnes De Mille published a book called Lizzie Borden: A Dance Of Death. This tome tells the story of how the ballet was created - with the first two chapters dedicated to Ms. De Mille's research on the murder and its aftermath. It is a fascinating book and, though out-of-print, should be readily available at your local library. The book also discusses The Case of Lizzie Borden, De Mille's 1957 television program in which the crime is reenacted. An excellent recap of the ballet and its accompanying Morton Gould score is available on DRAM Online.
  • Agnes Moorehead starred as Lizzie in the 1952 episode of the CBS radio show Suspense called Fall River Tragedy. The radio play starts after the trial when Agnes (as Lizzie) reminisces about what happened. Flashbacks begin, the doctor testifies, Lizzie accuses Bridget of the murder (claiming not to have laughed), and Agnes does lip service to the sponsor as the telephone operator in the embedded commercials of the audio on YouTube. They also make liberal use of the infamous Lizzie Borden rhyme. The radio play is in two parts.

  • Verdict In Dispute seems to have been published in 1950-51. It examines the verdicts of six infamous murder trials. The chapter on Lizzie starts on page 206 and is an interesting account of the trial with a final sentence that asks the reader to decide if the verdict was a correct one. At 50 pages of the facts, just the facts, ma'am, this text is much shorter than the more detailed Porter book referenced above.

  • In 1965, Jack Beeson and librettist Kenward Elmslie premiered their opera Lizzie Borden: A Family Portrait in Three Acts. In the opera, Lizzie is the eldest of two children, her younger sister Margret (not older Emma) has a fiancé, and Abby Borden is portrayed as a servant in the Borden house before the first Mrs. Borden's death. None of this is true but the writers have used these extractions to fashion a tale to explain the violence of the act (and to create a good female goes mad scene). The New York City Opera performance captured by PBS is somewhat engrossing; it also seems more like a play with musical dialogue than an opera - not that I know anything about opera. Phyllis Pancella is very good as Lizzie, really emoting her (fictional) descent into madness. Lauren Flanigan as Abby is the perfect foil. Host Beverly Sills introduces the performance and even throws in a few bon mot about the historic murder. The original cast recording made in 1965 is available on YouTube and a DVD of the original cast's 1965 television production is available for purchase.

  • For now anyway, you can view the pièce de résistance‎ of Lizzie-philia on YouTube: Elizabeth Montgomery in the 1975 TV movie The Legend Of Lizzie Borden.

    For decades, there has been talk that the European theatrical version of The Legend Of Lizzie Borden contained nudity cut from the American television version. I have seen both versions: the European version (from VHS) is about three minutes SHORTER (which could be frame rate differences) but the murder scenes are exactly the same - ie: neither of Elizabeth's breasts are visible.

    But with the release (on October 7, 2014) of the The Legend Of Lizzie Borden DVD, we finally have an answer to the 'European cut' question. The DVD is a full frame 1:37 transfer. But the film was shown on television and released on VHS in the more common (for the day) 1:33 aspect ratio. This cropped out top, bottom and sides of the original film. When I discovered this, I played Andrew Borden's murder (using my digital rip of the VHS tape) vee-r-rry slowly. Low and behold, at 1:24:20 and 1:24:26 you can make out the very top of Lizzie's areola. When you watch the DVD, nipples are clearly evident. Another Lizzie Borden mystery solved!
  • Lizzie Borden Quarterly was a subscription 'zine published quarterly in the mid 1990s. It included articles on the house, surrounding area, new developments, books, and anything Lizzie related. All issues are available on archive.org.

  • An 80 page comic book with a fancy name (graphic novel) called The Borden Tragedy: A Memoir of the Infamous Double Murder at Fall River, Massachusetts, 1892 was published in 1997. The story is told from the point-of-view of a fictional Fall River resident and acquaintance of the Bordens. The artwork is good and it tells a fairly-detailed version of the story but breaks no new ground.
  • Lizzie Borden: The Musical by Christopher McGovern (book, music and lyrics) and Amy Powers (lyrics) premiered at New Jersey's American Stage Company in 1998 with Alison Fraser in the title role. (There is a cast recording available.) The musical then played a sold out run at the Norma Terris Theatre in 2001 with Christiane Noll as Lizzie.
  • The Biography Channel series Haunted Encounters: Face To Face aired an episode on the present day haunting of the Borden house. In addition to confirming the presence of ghosts through electronic voice phenomena (EVP), the episode addresses (and affirms) the rumors of molestation that have encircled the family.
  • Lizzie Borden: A Rock Musical (now referred to as Lizzie: The Musical) is a rock-show retelling of the bloody legend of America’s first and favorite axe-wielding double-murderess and Victorian hometown girl, Lizzie Borden. The team of Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt and Tim Maner began writing the show as far back as 1990 but it was premiered in its current (and recorded) form in 2009.
  • Lastly (although certainly not leastly) there's this Vine offering up the infamous Lizzie Borden rhyme with a modern twist.

This article was updated to reflect the DVD release on October 6, 2014.