The Disappearances of Aimee Semple McPherson and Agatha Christie

*contains spoilers

Two rather well-known celebrities of their day “disappeared” for a short time within around six months of each other back in the 1920s, and in the 1970s within a few years of one another a couple of interesting movies resulted about each disappearance.

Aimee Semple McPherson at the height of her popularity

The first is The Disappearance of Aimee (1976 tv movie) about evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and the second is Agatha (1979) about crime author Agatha Christie.

“I’ll take Jesus for mine… Oh, you can have the whole wide world, I’ll take Jesus for mine,” was one of the theme songs used by evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944 sleeping pill overdose), who was a phenomenon in the United States in the 1920s and remained popular until her death in the 1940s.

Agatha Christie at the beginning of her lifelong popularity

At the height of the popularity of her megachurch, she rivalled movie star Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926 peritonitis) and baseball player ‘Babe’ Ruth (1895-1948 brain cancer) in terms of fame and adulation. Her disappearance for five weeks as the result of an apparent kidnapping would cast aspersions upon her character as she was hauled into court to be accused of lying about her whereabouts from May 1926.

VHS cover

“I am like a lamb led to the slaughter,” says Aimee, when she is called to appear in court with her mother. In the teevee movie The Disappearance of Aimee, she is played by Faye Dunaway (1941-) and her mother by Bette Davis (1908-89 breast cancer).

The People vs. Aimee as well as her mother was about committing acts injurious to the public morals and obstructing justice about her surreptitious disappearance between 18 May and 23 June 1926. She was found behind a slaughterhouse near the Mexican border…. Aimee went before a grand jury and said she had been kidnapped and kept in an unconscious condition for more than 30 days. Was it a fake disappearance? Two people lost their lives as a result of searching for her in the ocean in what became a worldwide scandal.

Barbara Stanwyck played an Aimee type in Frank Capra’s The Miracle Woman (1931)

The Disappearance of Aimee is supposedly based in part on solemn sworn testimony as we flashback to what “really” happened, also interspersed with drama between mother and daughter.

It begins on Venice Beach, where Aimee “disappeared” in the water while she was swimming. So, mother Minnie Kennedy played by Davis, takes over the sermons saying that Aimee has “drowned”.

The headlines of the day when Aimee “disappeared”

“I believe a blow to the head caused her death,” says Davis and she blames the underworld. In the film, legend and fiction merge with possible fact as Dunaway as Aimee takes a call from married man Kenneth ‘Kenny’ Ormiston. The film uses flashback throughout. Apparently, he had been dismissed by Aimee’s mother. Only he’s come back to be with Aimee.

“What are you doing here?,” asks Davis. “I thought you had accepted the fact that the climate of Southern California doesn’t agree with you?” She paid him off. “We had a bargain,” says Davis.

Davis in the 1970s with Cary Grant

The film cuts from Grand Jury to trial as it flashes back to various parts of the jigsaw that is Aimee’s disappearance. This Charismatic Christian had one of the most influential ministries in the history of America. An ardent crusader against Darwinism, later in her life Aimee threw her support behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his social programs after his election. Her church kitchen also served millions of meals to the poor during The Great Depression. But that was after her disappearance.

While she was “kidnapped” there was apparently sent a ransom note and a lock of Aimee’s hair. But was she really with Kenny Ormiston at a cottage at a Californian resort town? Cut to a reporter who had heard Ormiston was seen around Santa Barbara… was it Aimee with him.

The Disappearance of Aimee (1976) trailer

“I don’t know,” says the reporter when asked in court if it was her.

In real life, Aimee condemned theatre and films as “the devil’s workshop” and yet she employed cinematic and theatrical methods to avoid her sermons being dreary. She also gave serious messages in a humorous tone to also alleviate boredom. Worshippers would be spellbound as she spoke for over an hour and at her peak used a reported 50-piece band.

Faye Dunaway as Aimee Semple McPherson

According to the film, Aimee used her sermons to give a running commentary of the Grand Jury trial and used them to influence public opinion about her in her as many as 22 sermons a week. There was a regular broadcast on radio of her sermons as well.

“Most of them don’t take her seriously,” says a member of the prosecution team played by James Woods (1947-), upon hearing that a million people would have listened to her sermon in one night as she ridiculed the witness who couldn’t recognise her.

The real Aimee doing one of her radio broadcasts

The question of how she was kidnapped from the water in a green bathing suit past her secretary who was on the beach remained questionable. The police investigation called the disappearance a “show” as Kenny drops into the temple to see mother Davis nine days after the disappearance. He’d heard people wanted to interview him…

The real Aimee with her defence lawyers when she faced the Grand Jury

“There have been so many false alarms,” says Davis about the fact Aimee is finally found alive a few weeks later and has been taken to Douglas, Arizona. Davis seems to have been certain that her daughter was dead, such was the shock upon getting a phone call from her. It was then that she produced the ransom note for her daughter… Aimee claims she was taken to a shack in the Mexican desert where she was kept and it wasn’t until the people who took her there went away that she escaped through a window. Aimee said she had been blindfolded and gagged….

Faye Dunaway won an Oscar for Network (1976)

Dunaway as Aimee is in bed in an Arizona hospital and says: “There was a woman I’d never seen before, she had black hair and brown eyes…” Was she lying? Aimee claims the woman said her child was dying… and she followed the woman to a car from the pier near where she was swimming… and she was pushed into the car and ether was used to drug her… It could all be a rehearsed story… and she and Kenny could have been having it off in Santa Barbara!

In her later years, there were various blackmail attempts against Aimee and one blackmailer reckoned he had moving pictures of Aimee having sex. Nothing turned up.

Director Anthony Harvey with Katherine Hepburn during The Lion in Winter (1968) shoot

The Disappearance of Aimee was directed by Anthony Harvey (1930-2017) who started his career off well with The Lion in Winter (1968) but turned down Love Story (1970) and Cabaret (1972).

Dunaway as Aimee as she recounts her story, gasps for air almost like she is suffering emphysema. Certainly, she rings hollow like Aimee really was lying, but the film didn’t win Dunaway any acting plaudits.

Mother and daughter together after Aimee escapes her kidnappers

“Very well, I’ll check into the hotel and I’ll be back,” says Davis, almost glassy eyed upon hearing her daughter’s statement, immediately upstaging Dunaway’s big scene.

“Who do you think you’re fooling?,” Davis asks Dunaway later, who tells her mother: “Believe. Or get out!”

The drama between mother and daughter is stagey and poor Davis must have been hanging for a cigarette, lifelong addict that she was. But mother doesn’t believe daughter.

Bette with cigarette substitute in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile (1978)

“Let them try. Let them. My people will believe me,” says Aimee, with all the gusto of her sermons.

I am flicking between the Aimee and Dunaway names for the same character to add to the dimension that there maybe two sides or more to the story in the film.

The real Aimee in her hospital bed in Arizona upon her return

And Aimee told her congregation that it was the thought of being back with them was all that kept her going while she was locked away in that cabin.

“Brothers and sisters – all of this is a plot… a plot hatched by the devil… to wreck this temple,” says Aimee about reports she made the whole thing up to her flock.

Aimee spoke to the Grand Jury like an Evangelist with a big E… and the hardest physical evidence that Aimee spent her time with her boyfriend disappeared around the time of her appearance… specimens of Aimee’s handwriting left at the cottage where she and Kenny stayed vanished from the exhibited evidence, possibly taken by a sympathetic juror.

The Davis/Dunaway “feud” rivalled the Davis/Hopkins feud. Here the latter pair in Old Acquaintance (1943)

“What is the truth?,” Davis asks of Aimee. “Why won’t you tell me?”

And Aimee answers that she wanted something of her own she doesn’t have to share with anyone else. She seemed to forget that the all-seeing eye in the sky, or God, sees all. But for lesser souls there is what is called the sanctity of the bedroom.

“Were you with Ormiston?,” Davis grabs Aimee, almost shaking her in a pale imitation of the moment between Davis and Miriam Hopkins in Old Acquaintance (1943).

Appetite… the real Aimee with husband Number Three

In the end, Kenny Ormiston takes the stand. He admits he took a house in Carmel or Santa Barbara when Aimee disappeared… but was it a love nest? And was Aimee there?

Well, the rest is history… Aimee’s reputation was harmed by the case and she died of a possibly accidental overdose of Seconal in 1944. Or was it suicide? The trial which was aborted after only a number of days would shut forever the door for Aimee on God and her mother and the public. She must have thought that nine days with Ormiston was worth it. But for many, she would from then on ring as hollow as her mother thought she did telling her the story in that hospital bed.

Part of Aimee’s elaborate grave

The jigsaw that is The Disappearance of Aimee shows no real proof she was the woman in the love nest and yet it more or less discounts the kidnapping theory.

Bette Davis said on The Johnny Carson Show that she wouldn’t work again with Faye Dunaway for a million dollars. She said Dunaway was “uncooperative” and when they filmed the tabernacle scenes in Denver, Colorado in front of a large audience, Dunaway turned up late.

Errol Flynn was unprofessional according to Bette Davis

“She is very unprofessional… very, very difficult,” Davis continued on Larry King’s show. But, she added, so was Errol Flynn.  It is probably interesting that she compared Dunaway to Miriam Hopkins due to the scene in Aimee reminiscent of that feuding pair.

Whether it was a coincidence, or whether she was inspired by Aimee’s May 1926 disappearance, British mystery writer Agatha Christie (1890-1976 natural causes) disappeared in December 1926 for eleven days. It was the opposite side of the world.

Agatha Christie disappeared for different reasons than Aimee

And whereas The Disappearance of Aimee takes a more factual approach to Aimee’s disappearance, the film Agatha is, more or less, speculative fiction.

Written by Kathleen Tynan (1937-95 cancer), who was originally going to turn her story into a documentary, she was encouraged by producer David Puttnam (1941-) to make it into a screenplay.

Kathleen and husband and critic Kenneth Tynan

The Agatha Christie estate, she was not long dead, opposed the film and tried to stop it. The difference between the disappearances of Aimee and Agatha was that there was never any question that Agatha was kidnapped. She wasn’t. But whether it was a mere flight of fancy to get away from it all… it happened several months after her mother’s death and during a period when Agatha’s husband wanted a divorce as he had a new lover… Or did she have a complete mental break? When she was found after those eleven days, it was at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel a kind of health spa. When her husband came to claim her, she first said she didn’t recognise him – although she recovered.

Timothy Dalton and Vanessa Redgrave in Agatha (1979)

“Don’t leave me… please… please,” says Agatha as she is played by actress Vanessa Redgrave (1937-), falling to her husband’s feet upon declaring he wants a divorce.

Ex-James Bond Timothy Dalton (1946-) plays Archibald Christie (1889-1962) “the husband of the famous Agatha Christie.” Also, in the film is Dustin Hoffman (1937-), who plays a fictional American journalist who is investigating Agatha’s disappearance.

Dustin Hoffman as the journalist in Agatha

In reality, Agatha’s deep depression over her mother’s death and her impending divorce may have caused a break… but in the film we know this isn’t so… and even newspapers speculated what the writer looked like in disguise… Anyway, one evening, after arguing with Archie, she disappears, leaving her car perched above a chalk quarry and leaving behind her driver’s license.

The real Agatha Christie’s abandoned car

When it happened, there was a public outcry, perhaps because it was thought there might have been foul play. This is shown in the film with people combing the local countryside. In fact it is reported that over 1000 police officers were used along with 15,000 volunteers.

When Agatha/Redgrave checks into her hotel in Harrogate, it is under the name of Neele, which is true and was the name of her husband’s new lover. Agatha probably knew what she was doing and this may be reflected in the fact she didn’t mention a word of it in her autobiography. Also, she probably didn’t want to mention mental illness as it would have been distasteful even in the 1970s.

The hotel today where Agatha Christie turned up with memory loss. The film is set there.

In retrospect, when she was found, the public wasn’t sympathetic either, thinking it a publicity stunt. What is interesting about the movie, is that it positions itself to be a possible murder mystery of the type the missing author was most renowned for.

Also, Agatha’s disappearance was, more of less, in plain sight compared to that of Aimee. Whereas Aimee had to hide in the countryside due to her face being so recognisable, Agatha, not strikingly beautiful and not a star of film or stage, except for the odd headshot in the newspaper, could get away with disappearing without having to really hide… although for all we know she just spent most of her time in her hotel room.

The media at the time speculated that Agatha may have deliberately disappeared

“It’s just not the sort of thing she’d do,” says Agatha’s maid to Hoffman about the possibility of suicide. The fiction of the film has Archie’s real lover Nancy Neele possibly turning up in Harrogate at the spa… and meanwhile Agatha has learned that a bathtub with electrical current running through it for health benefits could be dangerous… Are the planets aligning for Agatha to kill Neele?

Agatha (1979) trailer

Agatha was directed by Michael Apted (1941-), best known for directing the British documentary Up series for every seven years since 1964. He also did the Bond film The World is Not Enough (1999). After making Agatha, Apted directed The Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) about country singer Loretta Lynn (1932-). He has directed many a feature film along with teevee work but few have met with the acclaim that The Coal Miner’s Daughter received. He also directed Richard Pryor (1940-2005 heart attack) in Critical Condition (1987). Groan – but a few laughs. Agatha, while no award winner is classy and despite being made in England was Hollywood financed.

Director Michael Apted’s Continental Divide (1981) trailer with John Belushi

Apparently, Hoffman was an uncredited producer and his role in the movie was at first meant only as a cameo. Puttnam dropped out of the development of the film when the script was rewritten almost as a Hoffman vehicle. The film’s legal troubles interrupted production and as a result the film went over-budget and over-schedule. Whether it was the Christie estate’s grievances I don’t know, but under the first Amendment of the US Constitution the film was safe from prosecution as it was a work of fiction.

Redgrave is always a beautiful soul to watch on screen

It is also reported that the film almost caused Hoffman to quit film acting for good, except for the stage, but someone convinced him to do Kramer vs. Kramer and he got an Oscar.

Hoffman with his Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Meanwhile back to Agatha and there are two Mrs Neeles staying at the hotel, something Agatha is now wary of. Hoffman is almost a Christie character created for the film, a type of Poirot investigator as he follows Agatha around. Will she murder her husband’s beloved? Hoffman gets to know Agatha in the period she is at the hotel…

“I know you’re in trouble… I know something is very wrong,” says Hoffman, who isn’t about to blow the whistle on Agatha just yet, if he knows who she really is.

Michael Apted doing what he does best

The dialogue isn’t terribly memorable but the production design captures the period as most English set films do and Apted sets a low-key mood to the proceedings as we are intrigued as to what Agatha is really up to. Whatever it is, we know, with her mind, it will be a well-planned crime. Redgrave too is always such a beautiful soul to watch.

The puzzling Agatha poster

While the Disappearance of Aimee’s narrative was delved into puzzle-wise, it is the release poster for Agatha that shows pieces of a jigsaw puzzle as some sort of frame. While Agatha is a bit of a mystery over what is going to happen – it is not really a puzzle, if so, only faintly. The true puzzle to this day is what Agatha got up to in the period before she was found. It was obviously not a lover as she was not the type considering her circumstances.

While Aimee Semple McPherson may possibly have not been saved in the end… that’s between herself and God… Agatha Christie is… but from committing suicide or murder? You’ll have to see the movie, although the extended coda is a bit of a dramatic fizzle.

Aimee like Agatha took her secret to the grave.

The interesting fact that both disappearances happened within months of one another but for totally different motives – this, plus the different perspectives of each film, makes them worth a look if you’re interested in the subjects.

Agatha wouldn’t tell in her autobiography

Also, the fact Faye Dunaway won the Oscar for Best Actress for Network the year she did Aimee is telling. Keeping a cast of hundreds of extras waiting showed it went to her head, while Hoffman got a Best Actor Oscar for the film that followed Agatha. Hoffman kept his head and continued to have a fine career with another Oscar for Rain Main (1988). Dunaway was snubbed by Oscar and the BAFTAs for the rest of her downwardly spiralling career. I did think she was great in Barfly (1987) though along with an excellent Mickey Rourke. If a Cannon film deserved an Oscar, it was that one!

Both disappearances remain, essentially, mysteries with one perhaps caused by lust and the other by love, or the lack of it.

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