Behind the Scenes: “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” (1968)

Why films are flops is sometimes more interesting than why they become hits. That’s assuming no one’s memory plays them tricks. Originally, according to Tony Curtis, he was going to produce The Night They Raided Minsky’s and at that point it was more focused on the strippers working there. “Each stripper thought she was going to end up being a star like Gypsy Rose Lee” he wrote in his autobiography. However, in the star’s memory this film was going to be made after the completion of You Can’t Win ‘Em All (1970) and Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came (1970) when he was a dead duck Hollywood-wise – he did not appear in another picture until Lepke in 1975. The fact that The Night They Raided Minsky’s was made in 1968, two years before You Can’t Win ‘Em All, appears to have escaped his attention or that of the book’s editors and publishers and, strangely enough, also of Michael Munn whose later biography of the actor Nobody’s Perfect equally oddly attributed his involvement in Minsky’s to after You Can’t Win ‘Em All.

Director William Friedkin has a better recollection, but, also strangely enough, nothing like as detailed as that for the film that made his name The French Connection (1971). He had met Bud Yorkin at a private screening at the house of producer David L. Wolper (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968). Yorkin and partner Norman Lear had a two-picture deal at United Artists. (In his autobiography Friedkin called United Artists “newly-formed” which was a hell of a miscalculation since that studio had been on the go since 1919 and even the modernized UA had come into being in 1951 – he was probably referring to the takeover of the studio in 1967 by Transamerica). Even though at that point Friedkin’s only picture had been the Sonny and Cher flop Good Times (1967) he was offered $100,000 to direct on the grounds that he could “bring something original and contemporary to an older subject.” He was honest enough to admit the fee probably swayed him since he found the script “thin, superficial, not funny.”

Friedkin makes no mention of Tony Curtis potentially being involved on the production side. The first actor to be approached, Curtis agreed to do the film if the script was rewritten. According to Friedkin, Curtis was “at the peak of his popularity.”  That was wishful thinking. According to Variety, Curtis was one of the least successful stars in the business, his last four pictures averaging a lamentable $1.77 million in U.S. rentals. Curtis did not like the rewrite. He complained that between the two drafts, his role had “shriveled” and quit the production “due to differences in the concept of the male star role.” Or it could have been that he dropped out in favor of The Boston Strangler (1968).  

For a while it seemed his departure might benefit the planned production. Two rising Broadway stars – Alan Alda and Joel Grey – showed interest. Alda was in The Apple Tree directed by wunderkind Mike Nichols and Grey was attracting fabulous notices for his performance in the stage version of Cabaret. “It was a real coup to land those guys,” purred Friedkin. But it was a coup too soon – they could not get out of their stage contracts. “Unbelievably,” commented producer Norman Lear, whose job presumably it was to read the fine print, “nobody read the fine print.”

All roads then led to Jason Robards (“my first choice anyway” according to Lear) third-billed in Yorkin and Lear’s Divorce American Style (1967). Although Norman Wisdom had primarily a British moviegoing following, he had just finished a run in the Broadway comedy Walking Happy, so he was not entirely unknown. Bert Lahr fell ill a third of the way through production and died within a week so the pivotal role he was to play, “as a kind of tour guide to burlesque…left a hole in the film’s emotional center.” To try and minimize his loss, the producers “included every frame of Lahr including test footage.”

Worse, according to the director, Robards and female lead Britt Ekland proved a mismatch and had “no chemistry as lovers.” Danny Daniels took over the staging of the burlesque routines and Friedkin came close to being fired.

At least Friedkin was honest about the film’s failings. The biggest problem, he admitted, “was my own ineptitude…I was in over my head….Each time I set up a shot or talked to an actor about a scene I was filled with uncertainty….much as I’d like to absolve myself of blame for the film, I see my handiwork all over it, especially in the documentary approach to many of the scenes.” He didn’t help matters by almost sabotaging the release when he told a late-night talk show host that the picture was “terrible” and advised viewers not to “bother to see it.”

But for all Friedkin’s later downplaying of the picture, at the time he was giving it big licks, anticipating some kind of artistic breakthrough in part through innovative use of the hand-held camera. He aimed to achieve a “Brechtian flavor of casual seediness.” It was the biggest production ever filmed in New York with a budget in the $3 million-$4 million region. Friedkin had rejected the New York streets available on Hollywood studio lots in favor of the real thing. The producers found a block on the Lower East Side scheduled for demolition that fitted exactly the art director’s exterior design and successfully campaigned Mayor Lindsay to postpone demolition until shooting was completed. Friedkin confidently boasted to Variety that the Lower East Side so closely resembled what it was like half a century before that “all you have to do is rip out the parking meters and conceal the air conditioning” and line the streets with vintage cars.  

Cameraman Andrew Laszlo had developed a special camera that permitted much steadier handheld photography than before which would facilitate “Friedkin’s improvisational directorial style.”  Friedkin called it “the most expensive movie ever made with a hand-held camera.”

The picture finished shooting at the end of 1967 but that it did not appear in theaters until the tail end of the following year indicated the problems facing the producers. You might think Xmas an odd time to launch a movie about what was effectively a tawdry subject no matter how affectionately filmed. In a bid to shine a light on the more successful aspects of burlesque, United Artists publicists gave a major push to Dexter Maitland, a 40-year veteran of the business who had a small part in the picture.

SOURCES: Tony Curtis with Peter Golenbock, American Prince: My Autobiography (Virgin Books – paperback, 2009) p279 ; Michael Munn, Tony Curtis, Nobody’s Perfect (JR Books, 2011) p214; William Friedkin, The Friedkin Connection, A Memoir (Harper Perennial, 2014) p115-120; Lee Beaupre, “Rising Skepticism on Stars,” Variety, May 15, 1968, p1; “Tony Curtis, Britt Ekland To Co-Star in Minsky’s,” Box Office, June 26, 1967, p12; “A Minsky Burlecue Theme Needs N.Y.,” Variety, August 2, 1967, 18; “Tony Curtis Withdraws from Minsky’s Pic,” Box Office, August 7, 1967, pW-2; “Wreckers Refrain,” Variety, September 27, 1967, p28; Lee Beaupre, “Costliest Ever on Hand Held Camera; UA’s Calculated Risks As To Minsky’s,” Variety, December 6, 1967, 3; “Norman Lear Digs ABC,” Variety, December 4, 1968, p22); “Dexter Maitland Is Alive and Real,” Variety, December 11, 1968, 4.

William Friedkin’s autobiography pictured below is immensely informative of the director’s somewhat controversial career.

Behind the Scenes: Genghis Khan (1965)

Genghis Khan began life in the early 1960s as the main plank of a reboot for American International, the low-budget production company best known for churning out B-features in the horror, motorcycle and generally exploitation vein.

Greenlit in 1962 with a $4.5 million budget it was intended to be a Xmas 1963 release. American International planned to partner with British company Anglo-Amalgamated. As late as 1964 it was still seen as a launchpad for the mini-major’s leap into the bigger leagues with a starring role for company protégé Susan Hart (Ride the Wild Surf, 1964) but when production stumbled it was picked up by independent American producer Irving Allen who used Britain as a production base.

Allen had set up Warwick Films in conjunction with Albert Broccoli making films like Hell Below Zero (1954) with Alan Ladd and Fire Down Below (1957) with Rita Hayworth and Robert Mitchum. When Broccoli moved into the James Bond business, Allen ventured out on his own with Viking adventure The Long Ships (1964) starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier. Although European co-productions had been all the rage for some time, this was an unusual venture in that a large chunk of the funding came from Yugoslavian operation Avala.

For Genghis Khan, Allen drew on Avala again, plus $1.5 million from German company CCC and $2.5 million from Columbia Pictures. Avala was a mainstream coproduction outfit with a couple of dozen projects in the works including The Fabulous Adventures of Marco Polo with Horst Buchholz and Omar Sharif, western Buffalo Bill – Hero of the West with Gordon Scott and Uncle Tom’s Cabin headlining Herbert Lom after James Mason pulled out. The final budget topped out at $5 million, small potatoes for an ambitious historical epic, less than half the sums allocated  El Cid (1961) or Spartacus (1961) for example.

Yul  Brynner had been approached for the leading role but his $400,000 fee ruled him out given the total spend on the principals was around that sum. Reportedly, Stephen Boyd earned $250,000, but Sharif was on a pittance. Exteriors were shot in Yugoslavia and interiors in Berlin. It was made in Panavision on the 2.35:1 widescreen format and although lensed with 35mm cameras was blown up to 70mm for roadshow release in Germany and Australia. The world premiere was scheduled, unusually, for Germany, for the new Royal Palast in Berlin but when that was not ready in time shifted to  the Cinerama Grindel cinema in Hamburg at the end of April, 1965.

It opened in simultaneous roadshow in Berlin, Dusseldorf, Munich and Stuttgart. It proved a strong draw in Germany, pulling in $1 million in rentals, a quarter of the total European business, and one-sixth of the global total. After a dual premiere in Dallas and Houston in June, it rolled out in general release in America.

There was some controversial publicity after Playboy magazine ran a photographic spread of Telly Savalas in a bath with some topless women, a scene edited out of the picture. A couple of five-minute featurettes – Instant People focusing on actors being made up for their roles and The Director Is a General featuring Henry Levin marshalling the battle scenes – went out on local television.

It opened in Los Angeles the same week as newcomers What’s New, Pussycat, roadshow The Great Race, war picture Operation Crossbow and comedy The Art of Love starring James Garner. Response was muted, and total rentals hardly exceeded $2.25 million, leaving it in 60th position in the annual U.S. box office race. The extent of Columbia’s disappointment could be measured by the speed with which it was sold to television, appearing on CBS the year after launch.  

Sources: “Genghis Khan Invasion of Big Budget Market by American International,” Variety, Jul 18, 1962, 4; “American Int’n’l Setting 3-Film Deal with Anglo-Amalg.,” Variety, Aug 1, 1962, 13; “10 Years Ago Nicholson and Arkoff…,” Variety, Jul 22, 1964, 7; “American International’s Susan Hart, Bobbi Shaw First on Exclusive,” Variety, Aug 5, 1964, 24; “Genghis at $4,250,000 a New German High,” Variety, Oct 14, 1964, 3; “Upcoming Product of American Int’n’l,” Variety, Oct 14, 1964, 6; “World Preem for Khan in Berlin,” Variety, Apr 28, 1965, 24; “Khan May Launch New Berlin House,” Variety, May 17, 1965, 31; “Yugoslavia’s Stake in Yank Films, Avala Owns 51% of Genghis Khan,” Variety, Jun 16, 1965,3 ; “Playboy: Code’s Last Stand,” Variety, Oct 27, 1965, 7; “Big Rental Pictures of 1965,” Variety, Jan 5, 1966, 6.

Behind the Scenes: Isadora (1968)

“Only Vanessa Redgrave could portray the full range of emotions in the tour de force title role performance of Isadora,” runs the opening line to the sumptuous 52-page program (cover shown above) that accompanied the film.

Programs like this were part of the package for a movie intended for roadshow. I’ve no idea how many Universal printed but most were shredded since after an initial launch in Los Angeles, the movie was not shown in roadshow in America (though it was overseas). It was also drastically cut from 168 minutes to 138 minutes.

Redgrave had been on the cusp of major stardom after an Oscar nomination for Morgan!(1966) and box office breakout Blow Up (1966) but under-performing Warner Brothers’ musical roadshow Camelot (1967) and flops Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and A Quiet Place in the Country (1968) had put a dent in her surge to the top of the Hollywood tree.

Directed by Karel Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960, and Morgan!), the movie was filmed entirely on location – 72 of them – for six months. Main locations in Britain were Oldway Mansion in Devon and the British Museum.

Different rooms and aspects of South Lodge mansion in London, once owned by the Royces of Rolls-Royce fame, provided backdrops for scenes set in Moscow, Berlin, New York, Chicago and Boston. Yugloslavia doubled up for France and Russia, the Berlin Opera house represented by National Theatre in Rijeka, and the resort of Opatija on the Adriatic standing in for Nice.

The film was produced by the Hakim brothers, better known for arthouse picture like Purple Noon (1960) and Belle de Jour (1967). Jason Robards, on the first of two European excursions that year (the other being Once upon a Time in the West), played one of her many lovers. According to Robards, the art of acting “is an intuitive process; any actor can prepare only so much for any given part and the rest must come from a deep resource within him.” Although Redgrave received an Oscar nomination, the movie made a huge loss.