My name is Summer, and I am binge watcher. I take no responsibility for my addiction, I blame Netflix’s autoplay feature. Having exhausted the available episodes of Luther and Ripper Street, I was mercifully free from Netflix’s shiny red shackles.
Then Netflix added The Lizzie Borden Chronicles with Christina Ricci to their streaming service.
Curse you Netflix, you enabler!
This series is not Ricci’s first performance as Lizzie Borden, she also starred in the Lifetime movie Lizzie Borden Took an Axe. While I had massive issues with the creative license taken in Lizzie Borden Took an Axe, I cannot help but enjoy The Lizzie Borden Chronicles which takes far more liberalities (hypocritical? yes), reinventing Lizzie as a ruthless repeat offender.
The Lizzie Borden Chronicles is scandalous fun, but enjoying the series goes hand in hand with moral implications. It not only suggests that Lizzie killed her step-mother and father, this new series is built around her new murders. Grant it, these people on the show have it coming, but suggesting that a real person is a serial killer, might not be a good thing.
Fortunately, this show has an anachronistic soundtrack, reminding the audience that we are not watching a Lizzie Borden biography. So, if you can get past the fact that Lizzie Borden was a real person, and just enjoy a show about a 19th-century woman on a killing spree, I highly recommend it.
Like many Americans, I am fascinated with the real Lizzie Borden. Many people have made careers out of studying the crime scenes and the subsequent trial. So infamous were her alleged crimes, that she inspired a jump-rope song:
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
Gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done
Gave her father forty-one.
So when Movie Rob asked me to join this month’s Genre Grandeur exploring crime films, I saw an opportunity to explore a cinematic adaptation of a great unsolved mystery. Now if you share my fascination and seek something more biographical, you cannot beat the 1975 film The Legend of Lizzie Borden starring Elizabeth Montgomery.
The Real Story:
Lizzie Borden was a spinster living with her elder sister, Emma, her father Andrew and stepmother Abby in Fall River, Massachusettes. On August 4, 1892, while Lizzie was at home alone and the maid was outside, Lizzie found Andrew Borden brutally murdered, when the police searched the home they found Abby, also brutally murdered.
Being a 19th-century woman, Lizzie was above suspicion, but her strange behavior suggested otherwise.
Lizzie’s testimony changed repeatedly throughout the investigation. After the murders, Lizzie’s neighbors witnessed Lizzie burning a dress stained with paint. The state gathered its evidence and tried Lizzie for the grisly double murder.
Lizzie played upon the public sympathy of the press, being a frail woman, unfit to stand trial, and certainly not capable of murder. Ultimately she was acquitted, due to lack of hard evidence. Despite the court finding her innocent, the people of Fall River were less ready to embrace Lizzie as the martyred daughter. Society snubbed Lizzie Borden. Lizzie flaunted her inheritance, purchasing a large home in town and throwing lavish parties for actors and other “unsavory” types.
We do not know whether Lizzie committed the murders, she may be innocent, but this puzzle makes her story so fascinating.
The Legend of Lizzie Borden
The Legend of Lizzie Borden is a courtroom drama, relying on actual testimony from the inquest and subsequent trial. The film’s facts unfold in Lizzie’s (Elizabeth Montgomery) imagination, the story that unfolds is not a justified but surely a sympathetic double murder.
The Borden home is a humid place filled with claustrophobic oppression. Wealthy Banker Andrew Borden (Fritz Weaver) keeps his home on a tight budget. The Borden family live far below their means, with no running water, and no refrigeration. While the family can afford nicer things, Andrew Borden forces the family to eat five-day-old mutton stew, “waste not want not”.
Andrew is very possessive with his home, after killing Lizzie’s pet pigeons he tells her:
ANDREW. Everything on this place belongs to me, what’s mine is mine and I will dispose of it as I see fit.
But Andrew’s cruelty is not merely relegated to animals and his pocket book. The film shows several incestuous exchanges between father and daughter. While Abby (Helen Craig) turns a blind eye to her husband’s activities, she focuses her animosity toward Lizzie. In the family circle, Lizzie’s older sister Emma (Katherine Helmond) is a voiceless shrinking violet, and protective and maternal figure toward Lizzie:
EMMA. You’re special, and special people have often been misunderstood, you know that.
LIZZIE. Oh, Em, I don’t want to be special.
Hosea Knowlton (Ed Flanders) is the prosecuting attorney at both the inquest and the trial, he is Lizzie’s greatest detractor. During the coroner’s inquest, Lizzie testimony changes repeatedly, a dozen times:
LIZZIE. I’ve answered so many questions, and I am so confused, I don’t know one thing from another.
Lizzie’s confusion is not an act, it is also drug-induced, it is the 19th-century. Lizzie is kept medicated to treat her “hysteria”. Lizzie’s response to the murders is oddly calm, she shows no outward signs of grief for her Andrew and Abby Borden, the press describes her as “Sphinx-Like”.
Despite her lack of emotional display, many people stand behind Lizzie, including the prosecuting attorney’s wife:
HOSEA. That woman actually believes she can get off scot-free by hiding behind her skirts.
MRS. KNOWLTON. What else has she? I’m sorry, Hosea. It just seems that you men have only yourselves to blame if women hide behind their femininity as a last defense. After all, you cast us in this role.
HOSEA. You look upon your womanhood as a role my dear?
MRS. KNOWLTON. It’s not always a convenient part to play.
HOSEA. I’ve never heard you talk like this. Next you’ll be asking for the vote. I gather you sympathize with this murderess.
MRS. KNOWLTON. She has not as yet been found guilty, Hosea.
HOSEA. But you do sympathize with her?
MRS. KNOWLTON. Certainly not with her deeds, but perhaps with her motives.
HOSEA. Her motives? Now what would you know about her motives?
MRS. KNOWLTON. I should think a great deal, Hosea. You have no idea how unbearably heavy these skirts can be at times.
While the murders remain unsolved, this film offers a very plausible explanation of the crimes committed: how Lizzie executed the crime and hid the evidence. And while she was ultimately acquitted, the film also suggests that Emma had suspicions:
EMMA. I am only going to ask you this one more time, then I shall never mention it as long as we live, did you kill father?
The film demonstrates Lizzie had motive (suffering from abuse), means (a broken axe whose shape matches the blows on the Bordens dicovered in the home), and opportunity (being alone during the time of the murder).
Enjoying The Legend of Lizzie Borden, like its modern counterparts Lizzie Borden Took an Axe and The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, has moral implications. Once again, we are watching a speculative account of an unsolved double-homicide.
This is by far one of Elizabeth Montgomery’s best performances. You can watch The Legend of Lizzie Borden on Youtube!
Ciao for Now, Darlings!