Book into Film: “The Bramble Bush” (1960)

Few novels have been as abruptly shorn as Charles Mergendahl’s massive bestseller – seven million copies sold – The Bramble Bush. The last quarter of the original story was just dumped. For screenwriters seeking to heighten every emotion this was a very strange decision for it is in the last section that the book delivers huge dramatic punch.

The film – SPOILER ALERT – ends with Guy (played in the film by Richard Burton) judged not guilty of the murder of dying best friend Larry. Guy’s one-night stand with Larry’s wife Margaret (Barbara Rush) has made her pregnant but now widowed she leaves him on the grounds that he will be unable to live with what he has done. It’s a sad enough ending but it’s nothing compared to the book.

The trial section takes place three-quarters of the way through the novel. In the film, it is placed much closer to the end so there are only five minutes or so to tidy up in a rather ho-hum manner, nothing highly dramatic, no floods of tears, just Margaret leaving him behind.  

Following the trial in the book, however, Margaret’s departure is much more sudden. There is no goodbye. She just vanishes. While judged innocent of murder, Guy has lost his license to practice so in the absence of professional commitments is free to spend months hunting for her. And find her he does.

The dramatic point you would have thought would be simply whether she can ever accept as a lover the man who has injected her husband with a fatal dose of morphine regardless of whether this was done with the best of intentions and could be construed as a mercy killing. But the author isn’t finished with these characters yet. Yes, they are reconciled and in fact get married.

But it’s too late. Margaret has tuberculosis – a considerably more dangerous condition in those days than now, and in some cases as untreatable as the incurable Hodgkin’s Disease that afflicted her husband. That puts both her life and that of her unborn child in danger. Guy faces another dilemma, just as he did with her husband. If he has to choose, whose life would he want to save.

The baby is born, and both survive. But only for the time being. Margaret’s TB has not abated. Since Guy’s license has by now been restored, they return to the town. But he’s in for a shock. The town is outraged. The public which had stoutly defended him and the jury which had set him free now turn against both, aware through the arrival of the child that they must have had an affair while the husband was still alive, which therefore clouds the issue of exactly why Guy committed euthanasia.

But before Guy can decide to move elsewhere and nurse his sickly wife and care for his newborn child – called Larry after the dead husband – Margaret dies.

That turns the book into a three-handkerchief tragedy that the film never was. Except for running time, you wonder why the screenwriters elected to miss all this out. Maybe the movie would have run over the two-hour mark, perhaps two hours fifteen minutes, but that would hardly make it so undesirable to exhibitors nor so offensive to the public given the ending was so much more dramatic.

Even then, the author isn’t finished. He provides an ironic ending The rejected Fran – dumped also by this point by Bert, Guy’s lawyer– determines that she will look after the child, allowing Guy to recover from his ordeal. And there is the hope – although she would not press her love for Guy on him – that in due course he will come to appreciate her and reciprocate her love.

Quite a different ending indeed from that foisted on moviegoers. Hard to say whether readers were disappointed, but when a novel is such a huge success it is generally because the public likes the story the author has devised. So to rob them of that seems extremely odd.

The novel had raced to the screen. The book was published in September 1958 and the film opened in February 1960, barely seventeen months later. When the gap between novel and movie is so short, it generates feverish public anticipation. And it seems almost perverse to deny the waiting audience the movie they expected.

Naturally, in the transition from book to screen there are other eliminations – and additions. And there is also the usual welter of changes made for no particular reason, for example the town of East Dereham becomes East Norton in the film.

Certainly, the aim of a movie being to heighten drama and combine disparate elements into a more cohesive whole, you can see why in the film it raises the stakes for the lawyer Bert Mosley (Jack Carson) to already be campaigning for district attorney rather than, as in the novel, only dreaming about it. Although both his parents are dead, Guy came from far more prosperous stock in the film than the book, the hospital named after his father in the film but not the novel.

Some of the changes must have seemed to create more drama, but I’m not so sure. What difference did it make whether it was Guy or the dying Larry (Tom Drake) to be the one returning home? In the film it’s Guy, in the book Larry. In the book Guy is kind to the town drunk Stew (James Dunn) but it’s the opposite in the book, hostile and physical abusive to him from the outset. In the book we learn why – Stew was Guy’s mother’s lover and their affair triggered the suicide of his father – from an internal monologue, but in the film this plays out in more dramatic fashion when Margaret confronts Guy about what she sees as his unfair treatment of the older man.

There’s an elimination that’s so shocking you can’t understand why it was left out by the screenwriters. In the book we discover that Stew is in fact Guy’s father, a fact ignored in the film. And in the last section of the book when Guy is tracking down Margaret in different towns he takes Stew’s surname as his own. And one core element of the film – Larry pushing Guy and Margaret together – is the screenwriters’ invention. (Perhaps audiences would view Guy in a lesser light if he simply took advantage of his friend’s illness to sleep with his wife). And to tie things up more neatly, it’s Guy in the film who prescribes sedatives for Margaret whereas in the book that’s not part of his role.

On the other hand Larry’s father Sam is hostile to Guy for reasons that are kept from us in the film – but in the book we find out it’s because Sam blames Guy’s father (also a doctor) for his wife dying in childbirth, an incident that caused him to lapse into the insanity mentioned in the trial scene in the film.

You can see why some elements of the book are not included. The creepy newspaperman Welk (Henry Jones) who blackmails Fran (Angie Dickinson) into posing nude for him later dupes his assistant into doing the same. Bert falls for a tough Boston reporter Sylvia for whom he quits town and dumps Fran.  On discovering she is pregnant by Guy, Margaret’s initial reaction is to seek an abortion. And there’s a section where hospital chief Dr Kelsey and Fran discuss the various ethical ways doctors have of letting exceptionally ill babies die.  The judge suggests to the jury that Guy could be acquitted due to temporary insanity. And there is a bunch of peripheral characters whose main purpose is to highlight the jealousies inherent in small-towns.

But there are two character turnarounds the screenwriters choose to ignore. The first is that the drink-sodden Stew becomes a recovering alcoholic after discovering he is a grandfather. The second is more touching. After Fran was rejected early on by Guy and later dumped by Bert she had resigned herself to a life of “doing terribly immoral things.” But the book ends with, as mentioned above, her taking a huge emotional leap by giving herself the task of nursing both motherless child and widowed father.

It’s always fascinating to see how screenwriters tee up a book for the big screen treatment, deciding what to leave in and what to take out, occasionally (as in Mirage, for example) using little more than the title and the original idea and jettisoning the rest. Of course, limitations may be imposed on the screenwriters of which we are unaware, star demands or budget impositions and other factors. Here, I felt that screenwriters Milton Sperling (also the producer) and Philip Yordan did not get the best out of the book.

The Bramble Bush (1960) ***

The secrecy business was working overtime in small-town America according to the Peyton Place template. And that wouldn’t be so bad here except returning big city doctor Guy (Richard Burton) has a few of his own in the locker but more importantly the unfolding of so many secrets detracts from the time available for the main dramatic premise which is an absolute corker.

We might as well account straight-off with the secret Guy drags around behind him like a two-ton weight thus explaining his general surliness, tight-lipped demeanor and occasional flashes of temper. As a twelve-year-old he told his father he had caught his mother in bed lover with Stew (James Dunn) which prompted his dad to chuck himself off a cliff.

The other big secret, dealt with fairly promptly, is that local nurse Fran (Angie Dickinson), who held a torch for Guy, now makes do with district attorney Bert (Jack Carson), that clandestine affair coming to light not so much in flagrante but in full beam when the illicit couple require treatment following a fire in a hotel bedroom.

The unravelling of both secrets impacts on Guy’s emotional state. The fire leads to Fran admitting her feelings to Guy, happy to have him use her for sex if love is not possible, “I love you so much I have no shame,” she proclaims, to no avail, but the hotel business also makes her fall prey to blackmail by local newshound Parker (Henry Jones), a budding amateur photographer of the unsavoury kind. Recounting his personal tragedy results in a Guy having a one-night stand with the married wannabe artist Margaret McFie (Barbara Rush).

But here’s the brilliant twist. Margaret’s husband Larry (Tom Drake) wants her to end up with Guy – but after his death. Larry, Guy’s best friend from childhood, is dying, the doctor scuttling back to a town that harbours too many bad memories in order to act as his personal physician. Larry’s never going to recover, he has the incurable illness Hodgkin’s Disease. His dying wish is that Guy marry Margaret.

Margaret is revolted by the idea, “I don’t want to be beautiful for anyone but Larry,” but unable to cope with his with illness is living on a cocktail of drink and drugs. And although Guy, who distrusts any woman, is similarly ill-inclined, Margaret becomes dependent on his medical ability, treating both husband and wife. Larry turns out to have another crazy idea – he wants Guy to kill him, medically speaking of course, some extra, illegal, doses of morphine would do the trick.

This incredible bucket list provides Guy with a huge dilemma, never mind what to do with Fran throwing herself at him and having to put up with the hypocritical Bert, and Stew, now the town drunk, begging for forgiveness, and Larry’s father Sam (Carl Benton Reid), who, for reasons unspecified, hates the doctor.  

There’s more twists to come, just in case you thought you had everything worked out. But you can see the problem over-complication creates. The euthanasia-please-have-sex-with-my-beautiful wife combination would have set the movie up nicely from the get-go. Guy wouldn’t need to have a deep secret to find himself in very deep waters. How he would react to either or both outcomes, how Margaret would equally react to the possibility of ending her husband’s suffering in a quick and painless manner, would be more than enough to provide the dynamic the picture required. The movie then pivots on Guy being charged with murder.

It’s certainly interesting enough but Guy is too buttoned-down to incur sympathy and his revelation, devastating though it is, doesn’t suddenly make him an instantly more attractive screen character. In fact, it’s Fran who elicits the greater sympathy, the woman bedding someone who views her only  as a sex object, yet willing to become a sex object for someone she does love if that’s all she can have. Eventually, the two key issues are put in the spotlight, which certainly puts a spark in the picture. But the poster promises a passion that just doesn’t exist.

Richard Burton (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1965) plays this character in a lower register than his screen persona, the sonorous voice toned down, and although the look of someone who doesn’t want to be back rings true the performance lacks variety and there are only occasional glimpses of the fiery actor. Barbara Rush (Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1964) has her own legitimate reasons for being dispassionate and the vibrant character her husband married never really gets an airing. Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962) comes across as a more human character with, in emotional terms, a greater flaw, and a more tragic figure, even though there is nothing life-or-death about her circumstances. Two veterans are showcased: Jack Carson (Mildred Pierce, 1945) and James Dunn (Bad Girl, 1931).

Television director Daniel Petrie (A Raisin in the Sun, 1961) was making his movie debut. The screenwriting team of Milton Sperling and Philip Yordan (Battle of the Bulge, 1965) drew on the bestselling novel by Charles Mergendahl.

Hard to find DVD so Ebay is the best source.

Selling The Rat Pack: Pressbook for “Robin and the 7 Hoods” (1965)

Warner Brothers pushed the boat out for Robin and the 7 Hoods with this lavish Pressbook. Apart from roadshows, most pressbooks of the era were around 16-pages A3. But this stretched to 28 pages with a tremendous range of advertisements, taglines and tie-ups plus, easier to accommodate from the exhibitor’s perspective, a healthy number of relatively straightforward marketing suggestions. On top of that, always a great incentive for cinema managers to rack their brains for good promotional ideas, the studio was offering seven cash prizes worth a total of $1,500 – about $14,000 today – for the best individual campaigns as well as a “special bonus prize” of the golf clubs used by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bing Crosby for the most original stunt.

With Pressbooks popping through a cinema manager’s door at the rate of one or two or three a week – dependent on how often a picture house changed its program – this one would certainly have made an impact, not so much from its size, but its commitment to the exhibitor. Most Pressbooks began either with information on the stars and the filming or with the advertisements and there was a sense of exhibitors being called upon to fit in with a pre-conceived campaign. Warner Brothers was not the first studio to go down the prize-giving route as a means of attracting attention, but in making the competition the first item on the promotional agenda – two of the first four pages were devoted to it – it certainly ensured it was high priority.

Following the competition came four pages of suggestions for gimmicks, stunts and tie-ins. WB had already tied-up with the The Antique Automobile Club of America and its members were being encouraged to lend out their vehicles to any movie theater planning a stunt. Exhibitors were told that car owners were “pleased to show them off.” There were over 100 chapters/branches of the Club so no shortage of eager participants. A parade of old-time cars in the town or a rally outside the cinema or even a race was guaranteed to attract publicity.

The Roaring 20s was another concept easily adopted – flapper fashions, the Charleston being performed outside the theatre or a dance competition, or girls dressed up in the outfits of the day strolling around town “carrying phonographs and camp stools; at busy intersections they can sit down and play one of the Robin tunes.”  Reward posters could be put up for famous gangsters of the speakeasy period, with photographs of the film’s characters included. A jazz parade was another possibility complete with straw hats and blazers. Setting up a gambling den was another suggestion using “actual gambling equipment captured by the police.”

And all this was before exhibitors could let fly with ideas based on the archery motif since “the words Robin Hood and archery and practically interchangeable.” Archery contests could be staged in a sports store, park, shopping mall or in front of the cinema. Robin Hood hats made of simulated felt with a feather sticking out – or bullet-riddled – were available at a low cost and ideal for giving away to children and to be worn by ushers and other staff as well as employees in other organisations participating in any promotion. Or just handed out to a local restaurant.

On top of that, since this Rat Pack picture was actually a denoted musical in which all the principals sang, there was the best tie-in of all – an original soundtrack album, an easy marketing tool for record shops. WB had also arranged for a book tie-in with Pocket Books, novelization written by Jack Pearl and stocked in 120,000 outlets.  The record, promised WB, would be “on every radio station night and day.” Even though Sinatra was no longer a top recording artist – “My Kind of Town” did not break the Cashbox Top 100 singles chart – his voice and that of his co-stars were exactly the kind of easy listening that appeared to radio addicts fed up with the British Beatle invasion.

The advertising campaign was fairly straightforward consisting of as many of the stars as could be crammed onto a poster – usually the main four plus either Barbara Rush or Peter Falk, occasionally all six. The tagline went hip: “Like we’ve taken the Robin Hood legend and changed the bows and arrows to machine guns…! Like with songs yet!…Like Wild.” The last word might be changed to “Wow.”  An alternate tagline along similar lines went: “In Merrie Olde Chicago, in the days when King Al ruled the land…” And “Gather round all ye swingers and hear this…we’re doing the Robin Hood legend in Chicago’s wildest era…with songs yet!” A final version ran: “Warner Bros right merrily presents the wild idea of doing the Robin Hood legend in Chicago’s wildest era.”

With the box office and recording firepower of Sinatra, Martin, Davis and Crosby and the range of promotional ideas, there was little need to jazz up the Pressbook with journalistic nuggets, but WB did not stint on this count. The appearance of Edward G. Robinson in the genre and studio where he made his name three decades before in the like of Little Caesar was too good an opportunity to miss – more so when the wardrobe department discovered his suit size had not changed. Other cinematic stalwarts from the early gangster picture days included Allen Jenkins and Jack La Rue, now a restaurant owner and making his first WB movie in 23 years.

Elegance was a keynote for Barbara rush’s femme fatale. Designer Don Feld created a range of dinner gowns, coats and negligees which served almost as a disguise for the hard-as-nails operator. Commented Rush, “I am as tough as daddy and just as blood-thirsty. But I play it sweet throughout and never become hard or evil. The role has more substance when you realize this sweet girl has the ruthlessness of a cobra.” Pool hustler Harold ‘Red’ Baker was hired to teach Dean Martin how to perform like a champion player and also set up the shots for the game between Sinatra and Martin. Baker. But the editorial section ran for only two pages, which was a mighty small proportion of the overall Pressbook.

Robin and the 7 Hoods (1965) ****

I’m still trying to work out why I enjoyed the Rat Pack’s last hurrah so much. Sure, it’s the knockout debut of “My Kind of Town,”  the last tune Frank Sinatra performed on the big screen and one that would have epitomised Ol’ Blue Eyes had it not been supplanted a few years later by “My Way.” And Bing Crosby, also in top crooning form, would have stolen the show except for Peter Falk’s gangster and Barbara Rush weaving a seductive web around all the males.  But, actually, it’s mostly because this one time, far more than in the three preceding pictures, there’s a match between story and stars, as if at last the whole idea has come together. The gimmick of transplanting the Robin Hood legend to 1920s Prohibition Chicago works a treat, a gentle spoof rather than an awkward one.

The notion that you would bring together three of the greatest singers – Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. – of their generation and deny audiences the chance to hear their voices was anathema to audiences. As if nobody could make up their mind which way a Rat Pack vehicle was headed, Martin and Davis were accorded tunes in Oceans 11 (1960) but the next two pictures, westerns of one kind or another, appeared tuneless. Robin and the 7 Hoods is a proper musical, all the stars sing, some even get to dance, and the story carries a lot more heft than your usual musical, some decent running gags, and an affectionate nod to the old Warner Brothers gangster pictures.

Guy Gisborne (Peter Falk), having taken control of the city by rubbing out his rival, comes up against Robbo (Frank Sinatra) refusing to bow the knee. Naturally, both decide the only solution is to bust up each other’s joints. Even more naturally, this ends in stalemate. Cue the entrance of Marian (Barbara Rush), the dead mob boss’s daughter who wants her father avenged. As a by-product of her involvement, Robbo ends up donating $50,000 to the poor, a good deed turned into public relations bounty by orphanage chief Allen A. Dale (Bing Crosby), reviving the legend of the outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

Complications arise when Robbo refuses to fall for Marian’s wiles and is framed for the murder of a corrupt Sheriff Glick (Robert Foulk). Marian proves far smarter than her male counterparts and when bribery, seduction and corruption fail she turns to politics.

While Sinatra’s rendition of “My Kind of Town” is the standout, tunesmiths Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen showcase some terrific numbers, in particular the gospel-style “Mr Booze” performed by Bing Crosby, “Style” involving Sinatra, Martin and Crosby, a Martin solo “Any Man Who Loves His Mother,” Sammy Davis with “Bang! Bang!”  and even Peter Falk makes a decent stab at “All for One and One for All.”  Once Sinatra, Martin or Crosby wrapped their larynxes round a particular song, they claimed ownership for life, you can’t imagine anyone else doing it better. And so it proved here.

In acting terms Sinatra, Martin and Davis are on cruise control, although Sinatra, the butt of the conspiracy, tends to have to work a little harder. The supporting cast relish the opportunities presented. Peter Falk (Penelope, 1966) makes the most of a made-to-order role as the back-stabbing mob chief, his fast-talking style little match for more superior brains, and you can see a screen persona develop in front of your eyes. Bing Crosby (Stagecoach, 1966) starts out as a joke with his outlandish language but soon comes to represent a different perspective on legitimate illegitimate moneymaking schemes. Barbara Rush (Come Blow Your Horn, 1963) is quite superb as the conniving sophisticate, all long dresses and innovative ideas.

Although Gordon Douglas (Stagecoach, 1966) would hardly be your go-to director for a musical, he acquits himself very well, incorporating a great deal of the style he evinced in Claudelle Inglish (1961). There are two marvellous running scenes. The first is that whenever the municipality sees fit to lay the foundation stone of some great new building you can be sure the block contains a corpse. But the second is just wonderful. Any time Marian has a man in her lounge, she goes round switching off the lamps until the room is in darkness. Each time, the scene is played in exactly the same way and of course the minute she starts switching off the lights, moving as sinuously as a spider from lamp to lamp, you know where this scene is going. I should also mention the “Mr Booze” sequence in which an illegal nightclub is transformed into a gospel meeting.

Edward G. Robinson (The Biggest Bundle of Them All, 1968) has a cameo and also look out for Oscar-nominated Victor Buono (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, 1962).   

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