Behind the Scenes: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down, United Artists 1966 – Part One

Most observers don’t have a clue why some films are made in preference to others, or even of which movies have sat in turnaround hell for years. When I was researching my book The Making of The Magnificent Seven I came across some priceless material that gave some clues regarding the process. An “Inter-Office Memorandum” dated February 3, 1966, provided an insight into how independent producers Mirisch, then allied to studio United Artists, set about giving the thumbs up or thumbs down.

The memo referred to a meeting held at the Beverley Hills Hotel on January 29-30, 1966, attended by the three Mirisch Brothers – Harold, Marvin and the recently-deceased Walter – as well as UA head honcho Arthur Krim, Herb Jaffe and David Picker. On the agenda: Inspector Clouseau, Sherlock Holmes, The Mutiny of Madame Yes, The Egyptologists, Garden of Cucumbers, Wind on Fire, High Citadel, Saddle and Ride, The Narrow Sea, The Great Japanese Train Robbery, Lydia, In the Heat of the Night, The Cruel Eagle, How To Succeed in Business, and Death, Where Is Thy Sting-a-Ling.

Separately, the group examined commitments to various talents including John Sturges, Norman Jewison, Bryan Forbes and Billy Wilder.

Top of the agenda was Inspector Clouseau, a sequel to the successful Pink Panther series, from which Peter Sellers had withdrawn. The budget was set at $3 million including $466,000 for director and star. Alan Arkin was not yet a lock, UA reserving its opinion on Arkin’s marquee’s credentials until it saw how The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), in which he was the star, performed at the box office. Should it bomb, second choice was Zero Mostel. Jonathan Winters, viewed as a “questionable choice,” was also in the running. Clive Donner was the preferred director. If he passed, next up was Guy Hamilton. (In the end both rejected the offer and it was released in 1968 with Bud Yorkin at the helm.)

Two projects on the table were mooted as vehicles for Steve McQueen. The first, Wind of Fire, was intended as “immediately following Sturges’ racing picture.”(This was Day of the Champion but a legal battle with MGM would derail this and McQueen was five years away from releasing Le Mans). Wind of Fire, to be directed by Norman Jewison, suffered from an incomplete script which restricted discussion. John Wayne had shown an interest but UA “was not really interested in Wayne,” possibly as a result of the fall-out from The Alamo (1960). The second McQueen project was the thriller Lydia based on the book by E.V Cunningham (the pseudonym of Howard Fast of Spartacus fame). Here, the script was complete and in the actor’s hands. Doris Day had been touted for female lead but Mirisch had nixed her involvement. When dealing with any major star, greenlighting a picture depended on schedules not clashing. (In the end neither project saw the light of day.)

Mirisch was also juggling two properties to star Dick Van Dyke.  The Great Japanese Train Robbery was due to commence filming in June 1966, although that meant cooperation from Columbia and Disney who had first call at that point on the actor; Disney had excused him, Columbia had not. Virna Lisi, the intended female lead, was dunped for demanding too much money, $300,000 her current asking price. In her place were suggested Claudine Auger, Catherine Deneuve, Stefania Sandrelli or Luciana Paluzzi. Although the budget was approved at around £3.3 million, the movie never went ahead.

Garden of Cucumbers with Van Dyke, though minus a female lead, was already scheduled to start shooting in August-September 1966. Proposed director, in order of preference, was Norman Jewison, Arthur Hiller or Elliott Silverstein. This project did make it over the line though the title, changed to Fitzwilly, was helmed by Delbert Mann and co-starred Barbara Feldon in her biggest role to date.

A budget of $1.89 million had been set for High Citadel, based on the Desmond Bagley thriller. UA was locked into a pay-or-play deal, which meant star James Garner would receive his salary whether or not the picture was made. However, there was a get-out clause. The studio could use Garner for another picture as long as it slotted into the same timeframe. The other options were Saddle and Ride and The Narrow Sea. Of these Mirisch preferred the former, UA the latter. But there was a directorial issue with The Narrow Sea. Mirisch had a moral commitment though not a legal contract with producer Robert Relyea to make this his directorial debut and UA didn’t want him. (In the event neither film was made.)

There were budget issues on How To Succeed in Business. UA had given the go-ahead on the basis that it would cost no more than $3.25 million but the budget had since soared by over half a million. To meet the May 1 start date, the budget had to be trimmed back to the original amout. (This was presumably done, since the movie appeared the following year). In the Heat of the Night was in the early stages of development, the production company still to see the Stirling Silliphant script, but at this stage no objections were raised. Fred Zinnemann was being considered as the director of The Cruel Eagle by Frederick E. Smith, author of 633 Squadron. (It was never greenlit).

Making movies in Britain – in order to take advantage of the tax advantages of the Eady Plan – was central to the Mirisch strategy. While Inspector Clouseau, Death, Where Is Thy Sting-a-Ling,  and The Mutiny of Madame Yes– budgets totalling around the $10 million mark – were already committed to the Eady Scheme, Mirisch was also seeking backing to set up a low-budget unit in Britain to maximize the government’s largesse. Budgets per picture would be limited to $1 million or less. In the memo they were described as “disciplined” or “service” pictures to be “produced in color.” In essence that meant basic programmers that could be sold to drive-ins and cinemas with a high movie turnover, on a rental basis if they topped the bill, for a flat fee if they were supports. This would have the added benefit, for those houses whose customers demanded a double bill, of being able to offer a program where all the revenue would end up in the Mirisch pocket.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

2 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down, United Artists 1966 – Part One”

  1. As far as I am aware, The Russians Are Coming and How To Succeed In Business Without Trying fared badly in the Far East. The stars lacked box office appeal.

    Liked by 1 person

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