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THE INDIE EYE

Happy family? 'Must Read After My Death.'

They were a picturesque household. But appearances were deceiving, as was documented in recordings, home movies and journals.

February 22, 2009|Susan King

Morgan Dews was close to his grandmother Allis.

"She was wonderful," the filmmaker recalls with warm affection. "I mean, she was as hard as nails and very tough. She was very opinionated about everything. But she really loved me. I was, like, her favorite. She was kind of a dynamo and fiercely independent."

Allis, who died in 2001 at age 90, lived in a ramshackle farmhouse in upstate Vermont for 30 years. She moved there from Hartford, Conn., just three months after the death of her husband, Charley.

"I remember asking her if she wanted to marry again," Dews says. "She kind of laughed and said, 'I would marry if I could find somebody who is very charming and very wealthy and only wanted a week of my time a year.' "

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Hidden within sight

Allis never talked about Charley, nor did Dews' mother, Anne, or his two living uncles.

It wasn't until after Allis' death that Dews learned about the hundreds of audio recordings, home movies, photographs and written journals she left that chronicled her turbulent marriage and the problems her four children endured because of the marital difficulties. The family turned to psychiatrists to help them, but the sessions just heightened the strife at home.

Dews has transformed his grandmother's legacy into a startling new documentary, "Must Read After My Death," which opens Friday at Laemmle's Sunset 5 in West Hollywood. (Dews will participate in Q&A sessions at screenings at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and next Sunday and 5:20 p.m. Saturday and next Sunday.) A veritable real-life "Revolutionary Road," the film explores how a modern woman had a difficult time coping with suburban life in the 1950s and '60s.

Listening to audiotapes and Dictaphone recordings that Charley and Allis made when Charley's work took him to Australia yearly, Dews was shocked to learn his grandparents had an open marriage. Outwardly they presented themselves as a happily married couple, but it was no secret to Allis and the children that Charley had girlfriends.

"I remember turning to my mom and saying, 'Did they have an open marriage?' She turned and looked at me and said, 'You didn't know?' She said, in fact, that when Charley died, Allis said to her that you have to call this woman in Texas. He had had this 15-year love affair with this woman in Texas. There is a long riff [in the recordings] that Charley goes on that he understands why mariners have a woman in every port."

The couple didn't want to divorce because they both had had horrible first marriages. "They had based their marriage on friendship and honesty," Dews says.

But things went sour when Charley began to drink heavily in the early 1960s. An angry drunk, he would yell at Allis and the children, complaining that the household wasn't orderly enough for him.

"The PR person at the releasing company actually sent the film to a friend of hers who is a psychiatrist," says Dews. "He was blown away by the film and wrote a long report on their marriage and sent it to me.

"Actually, what he said was that Charley's whole overbearing neatness control freakery is based on the fact that on his sexual side he let his impulses run free. This was a kind of compensation for the unbridled section of his life."

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Trying psychiatry

Perhaps what is so chilling about the film is the juxtaposition of these supposedly happy family home movies with Allis' increasingly desperate audio recordings about her fights with Charley -- he also physically abused her -- and how his overbearing attitude was harming the children.

"They were very, very modern people in every sense of the word," Dews says. "So when psychiatry comes along, they seize on it as another great fad thing. "

One of Dews' uncles, Bruce, even was institutionalized as a teenager because of emotional problems from his home life. "Bruce honestly says that when he was in there it kind of gave him an opportunity to become an adult," Dews says.

"In a weird way, it was pretty sane there."

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susan.king@latimes.com

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