Behind the Scenes – “The Picasso Summer” (1969) Crisis

The making of The Picasso Summer was an odyssey in itself but what happened to the picture on completion generated a crisis in Hollywood.

Pablo Picasso in the early 1960s had apparently given “an enthusiastic endorsement” to American layout artist Wes Herchendson to animate some of his paintings. Some time afterwards, Hershendson came across sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury’s short story In a Season of Calm Weather about an American tourist meeting Picasso on a beach. Developing the scenario with the author, the pair turned the idea into an American couple attempting to meet the artist in the south of France.

Originally, the project was modest. It would run only an hour and be shown on television, sponsored by an airline company to promote foreign travel. But once the idea attracted the likes of British star Albert Finney (Tom Jones, 1963) , who had recently filmed Two for the Road (1967) in France, and Yvette Mimieux (The Time Machine, 1960), who had a percentage of the picture, it became bigger. It was the first film for a fledgling production company part-owned by Bill Cosby and when Warner Brothers-Seven Arts stumped up $1.6 million – a reasonable budget since a WB picture three years averaged just $1.75 million – it turned into a full-length feature intended for theatrical release. Filming began in November 1967 in San Francisco and France without a finished screenplay, working in almost improvisational style to a sketchy 20-page treatment.

Herchendson took care of the animated sequences with  the “live-action” section in the hands of Oscar-winning French director Serge Bourguignon. Although making his name with the French arthouse-oriented Sundays and Cybele (1962) he had also made mainstream western The Reward (1965) starring Mimieux and Max von Sydow and romantic drama Two Weeks in September (1967) with Brigitte Bardot, so his credentials appeared strong enough.

But something went very badly wrong. “The resulting footage was completely unsatisfactory,” went one report. Another claimed it was “incomprehensible.” So WB-7 Arts scrapped the first version and, because the movie, often filmed outdoors, had taken  advantage of the seasons, the film was pushed back a year to ensure footage matched. WB hired a new director Robert Sallin to salvage the picture with the principals returning for reshoots.

Initially, that appeared to have done the trick. WB announced it was considering launching the film as part of a big junket aimed at journalists in February 1969, and then screening it “in whole or in part” at a major conference in June with a view to a late 1969 release. A launch date was pencilled in for December 1969 – the original “X”-certificate issued in the same week as Easy Rider by that time had been amended to an “M” – with the intention of “finally getting it on the market.” And there was the signs of some promotional tie-ins with Barbra Streisand recording the theme tune “Summer Me, Winter Me.” But it didn’t appear. Officially, it was on the shelf.

The shelf, at that time, was not necessarily a bad place to be. Many pictures had been held back for a more convenient release spot during the 1960s, even more had been forcibly delayed when successful movies ate up preferential first run movie theatre space. It was nothing, for example, for The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968) to wait eight months to be released.

But there was waiting and there was waiting. It soon became apparent that The Picasso Summer was not going to find a release date any time soon and that it was, officially, in limbo. Which was an astonishing state of affairs at the end of one troubled decade and the beginning of another. The hundreds of millions lost in big budget roadshows had seen a dramatic cutback in production. Cinemas were crying out for product, anything with a star, rather than being forced to make do with a flood of imports, spaghetti westerns of the here-today-gone-tomorrow variety and sexploitation vehicles featuring unknowns.

Hollywood had been known for routinely throwing stinkers into the marketplace and while exhibitors might complain about poor quality generally they had little option but to screen what was available because there was nothing else. But the harsh financial climate facing studios meant that every dollar spent had to be weighed up. Releasing a bad movie cost as much as releasing a good one with no guarantee that further expenditure in advertising, promotion and prints would generate profit. No point throwing good money after bad.

So Warner Brothers did the unthinkable. Even as Albert Finney recovered his box office status after Scrooge (1970) and Yvette Mimieux starred in hit sex comedy Three in the Attic (1969) and The Delta Factor (1970) the studio kept The Picasso Summer in the vaults. Even throwing it out in a wide release with no premiere or a trial run in an arthouse was considered too risky.

The number of movies that were completely unrelease-able, as opposed to being withdrawn after failing to attract an audience or turning into big flops during their run, was actually very small – Fade In (1967) coming closest to achieving that notoriety even though it had been occasionally shown in cinemas, and it was also low-budget.

But, suddenly, at the end of the 1960s that number started growing. MGM’s The Appointment (1969) was also shelved. And that had more apparent box office cachet with  Oscar-nominated director Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker, 1964) and featuring Oscar-nominated Omar Sharif (Doctor Zhivago,1965), an even bigger star than Albert Finney, and Anouk Aimee (Justine, 1969) also Oscar-nominated with greater box office clout than Yvette Mimieux. After it was booed at Cannes, MGM cancelled the American release after one U.S. test date .

But the trickle of shelved movies was becoming a flood. Into that category fell John Frankenheimer’s The Extraordinary Seaman (1969) starring Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) and Oscar-winner David Niven fresh from hit comedy The Impossible Years (1968). Courtroom drama Hostile Witness (1969) starring another Oscar-winner Ray Milland (Dial M for Murder, 1954) was denied a release as was comedy western A Talent for Loving (1969) with Richard Widmark, on a career high after Madigan (1968), and Adam’s Woman (1970) with Beau Bridges, who would strike a box office mother lode with Gaily, Gaily (1969) and John Mills (The Family Way, 1967). Swelling out the list was Crooks and Coronets / Sophie’s Place (1969) starring Telly Savalas (The Heroin Gang, 1968) and Hammer sci-fi Moon Zero Two (1969).

At a 1970 press conference, questioned about the shelving of The Picasso Summer, a Warner Brothers executive admitted: “We don’t know what to do with it, but not in the sense marketing is a problem; completion into a releasable form would seem to be the nub.”

By 1971, The Picasso Summer was not alone in failing to meet expectations. Some 80 movies funded by the majors had either still to be screened or had already been yanked off screens after poor test showings or minor playoffs failed to garner an audience. A year later Warner Brothers alone had ten completed movies on its books that would never see the light of theatrical day.

There had been one get-out clause for under-performing movies – television. A sale to the networks could bring in a substantial amount, sometimes enough to balance the books. But television was beginning to look askance at product that, in subject matter and in relation to violence and nudity, did not suit the Big Three channels. It was soon obvious that the networks had “lost their omnivorous feature film appetite.”

But there a light on the horizon. One network was interested in more unconventional fare and pictures that it could present as U.S. “premieres.” The CBS  “Late Night Movie” slot airing on a Thursday aimed to attract an adult audience seeking more adult material. The conventions of television would still minimize nudity but the films themselves would have an adult theme. Thus, in 1972 The Picasso Summer, The Appointment, The Extraordinary Seaman and Adam’s Woman were shown on CBS.   

The version of The Picasso Summer shown on American television was not the completed version. Herchendson complained to CBS about the “massacre of my film.” The network had deleted the entire bullfight sequence, the entire animated Eroica sequence and “chopped up the War and Peace” section. In fact it was well known in advance that one of the four animated sequences, the one considered “more sensual than erotic,” would go.

But there was one big plus for Warner Brothers. CBS paid $1.6 million for the movie, making it, according to one wag, the most expensive made-for-television movie. That turned a potential loss into break-even.

SOURCES: Quentin Falk, Albert Finney in Character, (Robson Books, 1992) p122-124; “WB Pacts Cosby Company,” Variety, January 17, 1968, p7; “Yvette Mimieux: Many-Phased Career,” Variety, February 5, 1969, p24; “W-7 Bahamas Junket,” Variety, February 26, 1969, p3. “WB-7 Arts First Global Sales Conference in LA June 8-14,” Box Office, April7, 1969, pW1; “Not Just Passing, WB Bets,” Variety, November 5, 1969, p7; “No “X” for Xmas,” Variety, December 3, 1969, p7; “Press Peek at Calley,” Variety, April 22, 1970, p7; “Unsalvageable Cupboard Item Lucky for WB,” Variety, August 19, 1970, p[3; “Pix in the Shortage Era,” Variety, December 22, 1971, p21; “TV-Bearish WB Cupboard,” Variety, March 29, 1972, p3; “Cannes Jeered Pic Recut By MGM,” Variety, July 19, 1972, p7; “Picasso Summer Twice Shelved  Will Be Seen AT Last, CBS Aug 4,” Variety, August 2, 1972, p22.

The Picasso Summer (1969) ***

Must-see for collectors of cinematic curios. A reflection on entitlement, bullfighting, Picasso, the impact of celebrity on everyday lives and the hermaphroditic qualities of snails? Or an innovative piece of moviemaking utilizing jigsaw split-screen, an audacious reimagining of the painter’s work via documentary and animation? Or just plain bonkers and despite the involvement of top talent like Albert Finney (Tom Jones, 1963), Yvette Mimieux (Dark of the Sun, 1968), composer Michel Legrand (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968) and writer Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451, 1966), rightly consigned to the vault and never given a cinema release?  

George (Albert Finney), a disenchanted San Francisco architect who designs warehouses, and wife Alice (Yvette Mimieux) take a holiday in France to rekindle his love of Picasso and set out to find and – in in a severe case of early onset entitlement – talk to the legendary artist. So they fly to Paris, take the train to Cannes and cycle around.  Romance, it has to be said, in that idyllic countryside is the last thing on his mind, although George does pluck a guitar and sing a love song on a riverbank and they do dally in the sea. And he is far from a stuffed shirt, in one scene stealing a boy’s balloon to prevent the kid hogging a telescope.

There are barely ten lines of meaningful dialogue, though Alice’s frustration at her husband’s obsession is soon obvious. Reimagining Picasso via animation works well. Picasso broke down the world, so we are told, and represented it as his own so by this token it seems pretty fair to do the same to the artist’s work. In the best scene George turns toreador (not sure the budget ran to stuntmen) facing up to a real bull. But there is plenty Picasso to make up, including a candlelit walk along the “Dream Tunnel” displaying the artist’s War and Peace murals, a lecture on the painter’s ceramics and his self-identification with death in the bull ring.

And there is a twist at the end, as the couple on a beach do not loiter long enough to see a man resembling the artist make Picasso-like drawings on the sand. But mostly it’s a story about American entitlement, that a painter should not shut himself off from the world in order to prevent the world stopping him getting on with painting. When George, denied entrance or even acknowledgement, stands at the gate to the Picasso villa, it is almost as he is the one imprisoned by his need for celebrity. Half a century on, the need for ordinary lives to be validated by contact with celebrities has become an insane part of life. The fact that the impossible mission ends in defeat (“everything is still the same”) lends a tone of irony.

Finney’s box office status at this point in his career allowed him to retain his thick Lancashire accent – Sean Connery managed that trick for his entire career. As in Two for the Road (1967) he does a trademark Bogart impression and eats with his mouth open. And he is game enough to stand in a bull ring with a raging bull. Yvette Mimieux is scandalously underused, insights into her thoughts conveyed by lonely walks through night-time streets, although she is the only one to fully appreciate art when she comes across a blind painter (Peter Madden). The best part goes to Luis Miguel Dominguin playing himself, a bullfighter and renowned friend of Picasso. In the incongruity stakes little can match Graham Stark (The Plank, 1967) as a French postman.

As you might have guessed this had a somewhat complicated production. Three directors were involved: Robert Sallin, Serge Bourguignon and Wes Herchendsohn. It was the only directorial chore for Sallin, better known as the producer of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). It brought a temporary halt to the career of Oscar-nominated director Bourguignon (Sundays and Cybele, 1962) whose previous film was Two Weeks in September starring Brigitte Bardot. Herchendsohn was primarily an animation layout artist/supervisor later credited with episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-1974).  

There is some stunning cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, 1972) and a superb score by Michel Legrand.  This was the beginning and end of the movie career of Edwin Boyd who shared the screenwriting credit with Bradbury. And it was the beginning and the end of the movie as a viable film for general release, Warner Brothers promptly shelving it, a decision that made headlines in the trade press, especially given the movie’s budget and the box office status of the stars.

In the hands of a French, Italian or Spanish arthouse moviemaker, with a tale of protagonists going nowhere, this might have gained critical traction. It’s hardly going to fall into the highly-commended category, but in fact from the present-day perspective says a lot about celebrity obsession and entitlement. Despite the oddities – perhaps because of them – I was never bored.

You might be surprised to hear that a film initially disowned by the studio is actually available on DVD.

Two for the Road (1967) ***

This film had everything. The cast was pure A-list: Oscar winner Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961) and Oscar nominee Albert Finney (Tom Jones, 1963). The direction was in the capable hands of Stanley Donen (Arabesque, 1966), working with Hepburn again after the huge success of thriller Charade (1963). The witty sophisticated script about the marriage between ambitious architect Mark Wallace (Albert Finney) and teacher wife Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) unravelling over a period of a dozen years had been written by Frederic Raphael, who had won the Oscar for his previous picture, Darling (1965). Composer Henry Mancini was not only responsible for Breakfast at Tiffany’s – for which he collected a brace of Oscars – but also Charade and Arabesque. And the setting was France at its most fabulous.

So what went wrong? You could start with the flashbacks. The movie zips in and out of about half a dozen different time periods and it’s hard to keep up. We go from the meet-cute to a road trip on their own and another with some irritating American friends to Finney being unfaithful on his own and then Hepburn caught out in a clandestine relationship and finally the couple making a stab at resolving their relationship. I may have got mixed up with what happened when, it was that kind of picture.

A linear narrative might have helped, but not much, because their relationship jars from the start. Mark is such a boor you wonder what the attraction is. His idea of turning on the charm is a Humphrey Bogart imitation. There are some decent lines and some awful ones, but the dialogue too often comes across as epigrammatic instead of the words just flowing. It might have worked as a drama delineating the breakdown of a marriage and it might have worked as a comedy treating marriage as an absurdity but the comedy-drama mix fails to gel.

It’s certainly odd to see a sophisticated writer relying for laughs on runaway cars that catch fire and burn out a building or the annoying whiny daughter of American couple Howard (William Daniels) and Cathy (Eleanor Bron) and a running joke about Mark always losing his passport.

And that’s shame because it starts out on the right foot. The meet-cute is well-done and for a while it looks as though Joanna’s friend Jackie (Jacqueline Bisset) will hook Mark until chicken pox intervenes. But the non-linear flashbacks ensure that beyond Mark overworking we are never sure what caused the marriage breakdown. The result is almost a highlights or lowlights reel. And the section involving Howard and Cathy is overlong. I kept on waiting for the film to settle down but it never did, just whizzed backwards or forwards as if another glimpse of their life would do the trick, and somehow make the whole coalesce. And compared to the full-throttle marital collapse of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) this was lightweight stuff, skirting round too many fundamental issues.

It’s worth remembering that in movie terms Finney was inexperienced, just three starring roles and two cameos to his name, so the emotional burden falls to Hepburn. Finney is dour throughout while Hepburn captures far more of the changes their life involves. Where he seems at times only too happy to be shot of his wife, she feels more deeply the loss of what they once had as the lightness she displays early on gives way to brooding.

Hepburn as fashion icon gets in the way of the picture and while some of the outfits she wears, not to mention the sunglasses, would not have been carried off by anyone else they are almost a sideshow and add little to the thrust of the film.

If you pay attention you can catch a glimpse, not just of Jacqueline Bissett (Bullitt, 1969) but Romanian star Nadia Gray (The Naked Runner, 1967), Judy Cornwell (The Wild Racers, 1968) in her debut and Olga Georges-Picot (Farewell, Friend, 1968). In more substantial parts are William Daniels (The Graduate, 1968), English comedienne Eleanor Bron (Help!, 1965) woefully miscast as an American, and Claude Dauphin (Grand Prix, 1966).

Hepburn’s million-dollar fee helped put the picture’s budget over $5 million, but it only brought in $3 million in U.S. rentals, although the Hepburn name may have nudged it towards the break-even point worldwide.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) ***

Minus an understanding of the context and setting aside the compelling charm of Albert Finney in his debut, it would be hard to find any sympathy for as unlikeable character as Arthur Seaton.

He belonged to what was called the “Angry Young Men” who sprang up as figments of the collective imagination of a new group of writers like Alan Sillitoe, who wrote this novel, David Storey (This Sporting Life), Keith Waterhouse (Billy Liar) and John Osborne (Look Back in Anger).  They were angry at circumstance, at growing up in a time when the working classes knew their place, and were consistently reminded of it, and work was generally a hard, monotonous grind.

It is hard to see what Seaton is angry about. He has sex on tap with an older married woman, a girl his own age on the side, enough money to spend on his own pleasures which mostly consist of drinking and sex, gets his dinner put on the table the minute he comes through the door and even though the teapot is sitting next to his hand still will call on his mother to pour it out. He is an inveterate liar, a bully, injures one woman and frightens the life out of another, and refuses to face up to his responsibilities. He does not want promotion, despises those who do, and equally holds in contempt fellow workers organised into a union.

What he does actually want is never made clear. He just doesn’t want the life on which he is set.

One of the curiosities of the movies made out of these books and plays was that the writers came from that working-class background they described so well while the directors belonged to the privileged classes. Writers and directors alike subscribed to the notion that the working man was exploited by the bosses and that everyone who used their own money to invest in a company and provide employment was a rotter. This was a Britain on the verge of a cultural revolution that would explode a few years later in fashion, music and politics. 

That said, the film is an excellent portrayal of the period, the first time a proper working factory was depicted on screen, where employees were paid by piecemeal, i.e. remunerated for what they individually produced rather than whether they produced anything or not, rewarded for their own endeavors rather than as a collective. The bicycle was the chief means of locomotion and life consisted of meals in cramped kitchens, living with your parents, trying (mostly vainly) to get sex and drinking so hard you were apt to fall down the stairs.

In a star-making turn, Finney is superb, charisma oozing from the screen, a manly, brawny fellow, unlike the bulk of British actors, and speaking with his own accent, unlike the bulk of British actors.   Likewise, Rachel Roberts as his mistress, is equally good and Shirley Anne Field makes a strong impression as his girlfriend. The women are all particularly good in a world where no matter how forward-thinking they might be their role will inevitably be long-suffering to the males who inevitably get away with murder. It’s an assured debut from Czech director Karel Reisz.

A rare interview with Albert Finney will appear on July 19, 2020.

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