NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH (1939) by James Hadley Chase

Chase_Blandish_posterWhat can you say about this infamous crime story – that as a book and again as a film it was once the most notorious title in the UK? That it was critically lambasted by George Orwell? That it sold millions of copies and was adapted several times for television, stage and the cinema? That more people have heard of it than actually read it? What was the fuss all about? Well, this twisted beauty and the beast story starts with a roadside stick up in Kansas City …

I submit this review for Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for links click here); Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at Sweet Freedom.

“There was something so repulsive and terrifying about this creature that she had a mad urge to scream and keep on screaming”

Far and away the most famous single work by British writer René Brabazon Raymond (who published most of his nearly 100 books either as ‘James Hadley Chase’ or ‘Raymond Marshall’), Miss Blandish marked his fiction debut in 1939 and was met with genuine and uniform hostility from critics – but was lapped up by readers. Quite why it was disliked and seemed so shocking is now less easy to gauge, not just because we are less easily taken aback by depiction of violence today but because the standard edition that has been in circulation for the last 50 or so years is not the same one that Orwell read. The approved text in fact is derived from some limited changes first made in 1942 and more radical alterations Chase imposed for a 1961 paperback reprint. These substantially amended the story, changed the fate of some of the characters and toned down its depictions of sex and violence quite considerably.

“It’s women and money that make the world go round”

Chase_Blandish_pantherSome of the changes are mere updates, like the substitution of TV for radio and removal of references to Clark Gable, but in other respects the book has been quite heavily re-written and with sections removed in their entirety so that overall it is much smoother in terms of prose but also somewhat shorter – and not necessarily better. While much less crude and obviously exploitative in some aspects, by removing much of the violence and perhaps more significantly the threat of violence (sexual and physical), combined with changes to the plot, this definitely makes the book much less intense, especially the crucial nature of the relationship between Miss Blandish and her psychotic kidnapper, Slim Grisson.

For example, to pick a not especially contentious section from the opening page, which in the later version is more specific about the geography (if you see a reference to Highway 54 in the second paragraph, you’re reading the later version), here is the description of the girl serving at a diner:

1939 version:

The blonde, who was leaning over the counter, gave him a smile that made Bailey think of a piano. She had worked on herself until she looked as good as any movie star until you got close to her, then she wasn’t so hot. She patted her tight little curls and stretched so that her large breasts poked at Bailey through her thin dress.
‘I bet you couldn’t sleep’, she said. ‘Aint this heat wicked? …’
Bailey scowled at her …

1961 version:

The blonde leaning over the counter smiled at him. She had big white teeth that reminded Bailey of piano keys. She was too fat to interest him. He didn’t return her smile.

Chase_Blandish_harlequinThe plot however remains basically the same – society girl Miss Blandish, out celebrating her birthday with the diamond necklace she was given by her millionaire father, is held up by Riley and a couple of buddies – but when her boyfriend is killed in the ensuing scuffle, the gang get scared and spirit the girl to their hideout Unfortunately for her, the kidnappers are themselves wiped out by the Grisson Gang, run by Ma and her psychotic son Slim. And Slim, for the first time, gets interested in women and decides to keep Miss Blandish to himself. The book then makes an interesting transition to 3 months later – everyone assumes Miss Blandish was killed as nothing happened after the ransom (half a mill in the original, double that in the rewrite) was paid. Her father hires Dave Fenner, an ex-reporter and now an inevitably impecunious private eye with a devoted secretary (natch) to find those responsible. Through Riley’s ex-girlfriend Fenner discovers that the Grisson gang have bought a nightclub, investing the ransom money via a third party so as not to implicate themselves. It turn out that Slim had a special suite built into the back where he keeps Miss Blandish imprisoned – to make her comply, Ma Grissom regularly administers drugs. While this has been downplayed in the 1961 revision, we eventually realise that Miss Blandish has through the months of physical and psychological abuse and that with the sustained drug intake has become completely attached to Slim and, in a version of what we would now call the Stockholm Syndrome, is unable to leave. This was fairly unusual for its day and really does give the book’s beauty and the beast story an additional psychological kick. Speaking of kicks, yes, the 1939 version is pretty violent, no question about it, and this has been substantially reined in for the 1961 edition.

“Can I hit him once more, Captain?” he asked hopefully, doubling his fists”

Chase_Blandish_corgi

Even some modern sources have been absurdly, even hysterically, critical of the book but to me this still seems quite a well structured and thematically rich work – for instance, the fact that Miss Blandish has no first name points to her being somehow incomplete, as per the title, a theme explored in an original and unusual fashion, if somewhat murkily and probably with too much emphasis in the 1961 rewrite. Despite the sordid milieu, high body count and roughness of some the writing (and some very unconvincing use of American slang), the book is definitely worth a look or two. George Orwell famously took the novel apart in his 1944 essay ‘Raffles and Miss Blandish’ (which you can access online here) and it remains a fascinating analysis that does not in fact play down Chase’s skills – the argument is purely ideological.

“it is not, as one might expect, the product of an illiterate hack, but a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a wasted word or a jarring note anywhere” – George Orwell

Orwell rightly pointed out the book’s large debt to Faulkner’s 1931 book Sanctuary, a book written as a money-making ‘shocker’ that easily transcended its intended generic confines and which I’ll be reviewing here at Fedora soon-ish. Despite what you may feel about violence in fiction (I’m not keen), generally speaking the 1939 version is certainly preferable and thankfully is available as an e-book from the ‘Murder Room’ imprint and on Chase_Blandish_serienoirpaper too (albeit rather expensively) from Brun Crimeworks in an edition that claims to offer both the original text and the revised versions too. For an especially detailed analysis of the book, its various possible inspirations and the bewildering changes made to the various editions over the decades, you really must check out John Kelly’s long and fascinating essay, Some Orchids for James Hadley Chase. A huge hit that led to Chase’s belated follow-up, The Flesh of the Orchid (1948), the author also co-adapted the book into a stage play and then went on to see it turned into several films. The book’s popular success, and its subject matter, inevitably made it ripe for adaptation into other media – here’s a quick rundown of some of the highlights:

  • 1942 – stage adaptation by Chase and Robert Nesbitt. It starred Robert Newton as Slim and Linden Travers as Miss Blandish, a role she later recreated in the 1948 film version
  • 1948 – British film adaptation (see below)
  • 1971 – filmed again as The Grissom Gang by hardboiled auteur Robert Aldrich
  • 1978 – French TV version, Pas d’orchidées pour Miss Blandisch , starring Robert Hossein as Slim and Sophie Deschamps as ‘Miss Blandisch’.
  • 2011 – audiobook version read by Jeff Harding

Released in 1948, the highly peculiar film adaptation by St. John Legh Clowes has mostly British actors put on unconvincing American accents, though at least Slim is played by US actor Jack La Rue, who not coincidentally had played the equivalent role in The Story of Temple Drake, Paramount’s 1933 adaptation of Faulkner’s Sanctuary. It makes for fascinating viewing as it tightens up and simplifies the plot and inevitably tones down the violence. It also, perversely but inevitably, softens the relationship between Slip and Miss Blandish, turning them into a very weird romantic couple to assuage the censors. But in fact this does not really change the book as much as it sounds as there is a more than a suggestion in the book that Slim, no matter how horribly, is somehow filling a gap in Miss Blandish’s life and indeed offers her a way out. This is of course a pretty troubling way to look at a story of a kidnapping (and implicitly rape) and it may explain some of the critical opprobrium that was heaped on both the book and film.

Banned in several areas but still a box office success that made into that year’s top 10, it was met with utter dismay by British critical establishment of the time, though they seem to have largely objected to the mere fact that a British film was trying to pass itself off as American (as opposed to the hundreds of examples from the time when Hollywood made films with very hokey depictions of Britain). Here are a few choice samples of what the critics had to say in 1948:

“a piece of nauseating muck” - Sunday Pictorial

“a most sickening display of sadism, brutality and suggestiveness” - Evening Standard

“About as fragrant as a cesspool”- Daily Mirror

“A wicked disgrace to the British film industry” – Daily Express

“One of the most undesirable pictures ever turned out by a British studio” - The Daily Star

“The most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever to be shown on a cinema screen” – Monthly Film Bulletin

To read more about the film version, see what John Greco has to say over at Twenty Four Frames and Glenn Erickson’s fine analysis as his DVD Savant as well David Kalat’s typically thorough overview for TCM.

DVD Availability: The film is currently available both in the UK in the PAL format in an OK transfer and in the US in a far superior NTSC special edition that includes over an hour of new interviews with Richard Gordon (who oversaw distribution of the film in the US) and actor Richard Nielson.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948)
Director: St. John Legh Clowes
Producer: St. John Legh Clowes
Screenplay: St. John Legh Clowes
Cinematography: Gerald Gibbs
Art Direction: Harry Moore
Music: George Melachrino
Cast: Jack La Rue (Slim Grissom), Linden Travers (Miss Blandish), Hugh McDermott (Dave Fenner), Lilli Molnar (Ma Grissom), Walter Crisham (Eddie Schultz), Richard Nielson (Riley)

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘Woman in the title’ category:

mark9b-vintage-golden

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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41 Responses to NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH (1939) by James Hadley Chase

  1. Sergio – Kudos for tackling this one. To me it’s interesting how the different re-toolings of the novel might have taken away some of the most controversial aspects of the novel, but also took away some of its layers. When that sort of thing happens, I think it’s most helpful (‘though I know it takes time!) to read the original version of the story as well as a later one. And as you deftly point out, in both versions, you see that it’s a lot more than ‘sock ‘em’ violence (although that’s there). There’s a lot else one could talk about. Thanks as ever for the thoughtful review.

    • Thanks very much for all the feedback Margot – I certainly found it much more interesting than anticipated as I had not initially realised how extensive the amendments had been.

  2. TracyK says:

    I have no idea why, but I have never wanted to read this book, and did not know much about it. So there was a lot of information here that was new to me. All very interesting.

    I don’t like the idea of revising a fiction book (that has been published earlier) but the author has that right. In this case, that first paragraph sounds much more interesting than the 2nd.

    I guess I should try it sometime. But do I read both versions? A quandary.

    • Thanks TracyK – I would definitely go for the original first but the interest in the variation is, literally, a bit academic – it’s still a not very edifying piece of reading, though historically a very interesting one let’s put it that way – frankly, I would certainly prefer to re-read the Faulkner (which I intend to do quite soon in fact)

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    My husband read this and warned me off reading it. Although I think I may be able to stomach more than him.

  4. Patrick says:

    Can I do something that I absolutely never do and jump to a conclusion? Perhaps the reason this book is so often targeted is because (a) it’s an easy target because it was a good seller and (b) the initial reaction was so hostile that plenty of negative reactions exist, which makes it easy to pretend you’ve read the book and pan it accordingly.

    • That sounds very, very plausible Patrick (good you have you back visiting chum) – every few years there is a book like this one, whether it be a Dan Brown or a Fifty Shades of somethign or other and I must admit, I found trawling through the opprobrium heaped on book and film almost as enlightening as reading and watching the items themselves!

  5. Colin says:

    Great thorough stuff, as usual. I haven’t read the book and the film is at this moment sitting unwatched in my parents’ place. I’ll have to wait a few months to see it.
    I haven’t actually read any James Hadley Chase but I did pick up used copies of You Never Know With Women & Mission to Venice for 50 cents apiece here not that long ago. I have no idea if they’re any good or representative of the author’s work though.

    • I’m not sure I’ve read those two in fact (read a lot in Italian translation 30 years ago …) – but in fact I’ve reviewing a couple more Chase titles soon because despite the catchpenny titles they are usually very efficiently done – or at least, that’s what I used to think. I have a Stark House double bill from the 1960s and one of his last books from 20 years later lined up – I don;t know about you but growing up in the 70s my eye was always caught by the corgi editions of Chase and the Pan editions of Ian Fleming – can’t imagine exactly why …

      • Colin says:

        :)

        I actually had a chance to buy a third Chase title while I was picking up the two I mentioned. However, the cover was so…, well I think you know what I mean, that I actually felt embarrassed to bring it along to the rather prim looking lady on the checkout.

        • This si where the internet can be so handy – I never have that problem at play.com!
          JAMES HADLEY CHASE
          JAMES BOND

          • Colin says:

            Indeed. Of course there’s still the matter of the knowingly arched eyebrows of girlfriends to deal with when the things arrive!

          • Ah well, you’re one up on me there!

          • Colin says:

            Well they come and go so I wouldn’t be losing too much sleep over that.

            I really must have a go at one of those Chase novels soon though, just to see whether he’s an author that appeals to me.

          • Definitely has length on his side as these are rarely more than 200 pages in any edition.

          • Colin says:

            A big plus as far as slow-reading old me is concerned!

          • For me this has been a bit of a blast from the past – Chase was popular throughout his lifetime especially in Europe and was certainly still a big name when I was growing up in Italy in the 70s and 80s and his titles always seemed to be around. I remember them being efficient and well done, but it’s been a while and I have gone and restarted with a text that I only belatedly realised was the expurgated version and had to work backwards so quite looking forward to reading some less mucked about texts . but who knows …

          • Colin says:

            Yes, I’ve seen quite a few of his titles knocking round 2nd hand bookstores here in Athens, which usually indicates popularity.

          • They certainly seemed to print a lot of them though in the UK there aren’t too many left in print (on paper at least).

  6. That’s fascinating: I didn’t know that about the two versions, and am glad you covered them, and the film, so thoroughly (though that’s only what I’d expect from you). I read the Orwell essay years ago, and read the book immediately afterwards for interest, but don’t know which version I read.

    • Thanks very much – I am now fairly certain that I have only, until now, had access to the 1961 revision, which in fairness does have a preface explaining the amendments – I just had not realised how extensive they were!

  7. Yvette says:

    “About as fragrant as a cesspool.” A great line from the Daily Mirror. Okay, we get it. I must say, Sergio, that I’ve never heard of this though apparently it’s been around for ages. Obviously I’ve had too sheltered a life. Ha. From the title I expected a cozy experience. But once I began reading your post, I was taken aback. Especially since a first glance at the poster made me think of Maureen O’Hara. Where is my mind these days? :)

  8. Ela says:

    I read about this in Orwell’s essay, and was briefly interested in it (though not sufficiently to read!). Did Chase make the revisions as a result of the criticisms, in order to tone it down a bit? I suppose it would have been a bit of a shocker in 1939.

    • Hi Ela – well, Chase’s entire reputation was pretty much built on the success of this one books really, so it might have been both a way to relaunch it and also I suppose to smooth out some of the rougher spots – would love to know for certain was his motivation was!

  9. Anders Engwall says:

    I have a British pb of this, published by Jarrolds which I believe was the British publisher of his. This particular edition seems to be from ca 1949, judging by the other titles of his it lists. What’s interesting is the foreword. “This edition of NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH is based on the play of the same title, licensed by the the Lord Chamberlain, presented by George Black, and dramatized by James Hadley Chase and Robert Nesbitt, with an additional dialogue by Val Guest.” And that section from page 1 quoted reads as:

    The blonde leaning over the counter gave him a smile. It made Bailey think of a piano. She had worked on herself until, from a distance, she looked as good as any movie-star. When you got close, she wasn’t so hot. She patted her tight, yellow curls and stretched. Bailey thought she was wearing a false front.

    As this is neither the 1939 nor the 1961 version mentioned above, I guess this is the novelization of – well, what, exactly? The 1948 movie? Some BBC radio version? A theatrical stage version? And what about “licensed by the Lord Chamberlain”?

    • Fascinating Anders, thanks very much. Jarrolds definitely published the original hardback in 1939. The 1942 stage version was, as I understand it, very successfull but also had its fair of problems getting the necessary approaval from the Lord Chamberlain’s office (as did all stage plays until the late 1960s in the UK) as I understand it – this may in fact be derived from the US hadback edition of 1942 which was amended as I understand it and it could be therefore that it was an edition trading on the success of the stage play. Chase certainly foud many ways to keep re-selling this particular tale!

      • Anders Engwall says:

        And so it turns out “Chamberlain” as in “the Lord Chamberlain” is not a family name but a particular office. The things you learn…

        Chase was certainly one of the most uneven of authors ever. When it was bad, it really was awful (e.g. the BLANDISH sequel THE FLESH OF THE ORCHID), but his good stuff really rates. I can especially recommend IN A VAIN SHADOW, STRICTLY FOR CASH, THE GUILTY ARE AFRAID, THE WORLD IN MY POCKET and SHOCK TREATMENT.

        • Thanks Anders – Shock Treatment was my first Chase I believe, about 30 years ago probably (sheesh) – and In A Vain Shadow is on my TBR in a very nice edition to Stark House, so a review is coming soon!

  10. neer says:

    What a thorough review of the book,Sergio! I have read the ‘sanitized’ version of the book but now really want to read the original one.

    At one point of time, Chase was very popular in India and his books were seen everywhere: shops; libraries; book-sellers on footpaths, at traffic lights, on railway platforms. He was also translated into many Indian languages. His books were relatively clean and usually contained quite a punch but somehow the covers were so lurid that you’d feel embarrassed buying, borrowing, or reading them in front of others. Many considered him a porn writer and would not go near his books at all.

    Thanks for the post, it brought back so many memories.

    • Thanks Neeru – that really matched my recollection of seeing his books in Italy and the UK in the 70s – the editions published by Corgi in particular, which usually featured a woman in a swimsuit or underwear, were certainly on the exploitativce side but the contents really didn’t match the spicy covers! I am going to review a few more of his books shortly but here are a few covers …
      JHC
      jhc2
      JHC3

  11. Wow, Sergio, this brought back all sorts of memories about my early reading days when I used to devour Chase, Wallace, Robbins, and Gardner. I remember reading this along with A CAN OF WORMS right in the beginning of my Chase craze, though I confess to not knowing anything about the film versions. Thanks for putting me wise to a lot more than just the book.

  12. Pingback: April 2014: Classic crime in the blogosphere | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  13. Bev Hankins says:

    Thanks for such a thorough review, Sergio. Fascinating stuff about the revisions! I’m afraid, however, that given all the books I know I definitely want to read….this one probably isn’t going to make it onto a TBR list.

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