Behind the Scenes with a Behind the Scenes Operator: Reel Life

From attending to director Michael Winner’s parking meter and falling foul of the British film censor to interviewing David Lean at the National Film Theatre in London, Tony Sloman’s autobiography casts a fascinating light on the British film industry.  A marvellous string of anecdotes relating to Othello (1965), One Million Years B.C. (1966), Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang (1968), Wonderwall (1968), De Sade (1969) and cult television series The Prisoner (1968) are augmented by insights into the less well-known aspects of how movies are made. 

Most commonly associated with the sound and editing departments, he also directed two British sex films Sweet and Sexy (1971) and Not Tonight, Darling (1971). In addition, he is also a walking encyclopaedia on film – he later lectured on the subject – and a riveting part of the book involves how he fell in love with the movies. I’ve read countless biographies of actors and directors who made it big in pictures and rarely, if ever, do their stories focus on their love of the medium, of the films they saw when growing up and the experiences that entailed. So the first part of this book plays off to the soundtrack of inveterate filmgoing in the 1950s at his local cinema in London and then up to the West End, one expedition to view a revival of Gone with the Wind ending up instead with the saucier Femmes de Paris (1953).

Getting into the business was very difficult for a tailor’s son from Streatham and, having determined to become a film editor, even attending evening film classes failed to open any doors until he responded to a newspaper advert and became a dispatch boy and soon after an editor for a small suite of cutting rooms in Soho in the same building as Private Eye magazine, thus beginning a long apprenticeship in this particular discipline, working in all the  British studios from biggies like Shepperton, Elstree and Pinewood to smaller outfits such as Merton Park.

Except for this book I would be unaware of the how menial are some of the tasks essential for a film to be made. One of his earliest jobs was to attend the screening of rushes and “tick the selected takes in the rushes notebook…and then after numbering them break them out in script order for the editor to assemble the next day in the cutting copy.” He learned not to count frames or measure length when dictating a particular cut but to put himself in the position of the character and the audience, how much of what they see needs to be shown to register.  

One of the refreshing elements of this biography is that the author is happy to own up to professional and personal mistakes. As he didn’t drive he was unable to synchronise car engine sounds in the correct manner. He got into trouble for labelling cans containing film in pen and not stencil. As a result of personal mishap, he learned the hard way never to film anything without a continuity person present.

His second directorial effort “Not Tonight Darling” was renamed “Frustrated Wives.”

And he has a fan’s delight at meeting stars in the flesh, walking down the street with a David Niven determined to be swamped by fans, recounting that Maximilian Schell is shorter than expected, James Mason taller. He reveals that Dana Andrews’ favorite of his own films is not a Hollywood classic like Laura (1944) or The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) but the lesser known Three Hours to Kill (1954) because when the producer ran out of cash he paid the actor in Mexican artefacts that came to be worth a quarter of a million dollars. Former silent film star Bessie Love tried to convert him to Christian Science when the author would have rather she reminisced about her days in early Hollywood. Eating in a restaurant in Cannes he watched at another table Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti share a bowl of bouillabaisse and later bumped (literally) into Graham Greene and encountered in the hills working as barman a former camera operator for Jean Renoir.

He met the entire Dirty Dozen at lunch in the studio canteen, heard Maggie Smith swear and enjoyed an up-close-and-personal encounter with Raquel Welch over the moviola “pressing closer to me in that tiniest of bikinis.” Working with  Ray Harryhausen on One Million Years B.C. (1966) “my main function with him was to be his own personal soundstage at Elstree with the moviola…to see where his newly-shot material would go into the sequence as cut…Ray needed to see them over and over and do frame counts before shooting his effects.” On the same film he was responsible for writing “dialogue” – in other words” a series of grunts and sounds that would match up with the actor’s mouth movement.”

There are other fascinating nuggets. He played an unsung part in the success of The Prisoner, coming up with the ideal piece for the beginning of the Arrival episode – the “Radetzky March.” He had an unusual job title, too, “Film Librarian,” which consisted of getting all the back projections which had already been filmed ready for the actual set. Supplying library material as and when, shooting inserts, and matching new film to location work.  “The secret of finding music for mute material was not merely finding music that was appropriate but to find music that would positively enhance the image to which it would be matched.”

There are other fascinating nuggets. Donald Sutherland was revoiced in his role in Oedipus the King (1968) but after the success of Mash (1970) his original voice was put back in. The first screening of Wonderwall (1968) was for the Beatles because George Harrison had expressed an interest in writing the score. In the course of this when his Indian-style slippers were ruined  by rain someone on the set whipped up for him a “customized pair of cardboard shoes made from Technicolor delivery boxes.” Composer John Barry was set to co-finance a film called The Jam but the screenplay was shown to Jean-Luc Godard who promptly went out an made Weekend (1967).

Sweet and Sexy” was renamed “Foursome” for the U.S. market, even though no such activity takes place. At one point Scottish actress Quinn O’Hara had been engaged to U.S. pop star Fabian.

He shared a flat with Michael Billington (Alfred the Great, 1968) – who holds the record for most auditions for the role of James Bond. Billington was a lover of Liza Minelli, Barbara Broccoli and Quinn O’Hara and was slated to direct Sloman’s first film but when he was offered a starring role in the UFO series (1970-1971), Sloman took over the directorial reins and recruited as leading man Billington’s UFO stand-in Robert Case. Quinn O’Hara (Cry of the Banshee, 1970), Billington’s girlfriend, had the female lead. It began life with the relatively harmless title of City Suite.

But when it was funded by Miracle Films, the title changed to City, Sweet and Sexy and finally plain old Sweet and Sexy (though it goes by the name of Foursome on imdb). What the Americans called “sexploitation.” The initial budget only ran to £15,000 but was increased to  £20,000. But when submitted to the British Board of Films Censors in October 1970, it was refused a certificate unless 40 minutes were cut. After nearly 18 months of wrangling it was finally granted an X-certificate – minus 21 offensive minutes – and the 69-minute picture finally opened at the Cameo Royal in London in March 1972.

Sloman had better luck with his second feature, Not Tonight Darling (1971) – also known as Frustrated Wives. Luan Peters (Lust for a Vampire, 1971) came on board as star and Sloman had the good luck to snare pop band Thunderclap Newman, who had enjoyed a big hit with “Something in the Air”, for the score. There were also appearances by Jason Twelvetrees, who had also been in Sweet and Sexy, Fiona Richmond (Let’s Get Laid, 1978) and James Hayter  (A Challenge for Robin Hood, 1967).

The book ends in the early 1970s and I can only hope Tony Sloman is hard at work on a second volume as his memoirs are a welcome antidote to the raft of books about big stars which are often far less entertaining. An excellent read, especially if you are interested in the behind-the-scenes aspects of movie making.

EXTRA: This is not in the book but I did a bit of digging on my own account to see if any of his movies were ever screened in the U.S. I found out, as noted in the article above, that “Sweet and Sexy” was released in the U.S. as “Foursome”. Despite the concerns of the British film censor, it was not that out of line otherwise it would not have received an “R” rating when it could easily have been rated “X.” I couldn’t find any sign of a review, either in “Variety” or “Box Office,” the two main trade magazines. But I did find some evidence that it had been screened in some big cities.

It was distributed by AIP in the U.S, and C-P in Canada. “Variety” and “Box Office” had different methods of measuring revenue. The former simply listed the gross. But the latter employed a different approach. It related the receipts for each film according to the average weekly take of a particular cinema. This was in some senses a better idea. Strong figures might not necessarily mean a good result if that cinema was used to movies knocking up big numbers.

In January 1972 “Foursome”, playing solo, had a “sexy” opening week, according to “Variety,” at the 1,200-seat Midtown in Philadelphia (tickets priced at $1.50-$3.00) with $14,000 (equivalent to $96,000 today) followed by s second week of $9,500. The same month, supported by “Freedom to Love” (1969), a documentary about sexual behavior, “Foursome” ran for three weeks at the 609-seat World (tickets $1.25) in Chicago. The first and third weeks both accounted for $3,800 but the second week was tops with $4,000. In April there was a “lusty” (presumably intended ironically) $3,100 at the 2,809-seat Loews Downtown (tickets $2.00-$2.50) in Dayton where it played solo.

In August at the 676-seat Suburban World (tickets $2.25) in Minneapolis it scored a “fair” $4,000, again the only film on the program. In December it turned up at the 250-seat Playhouse (tickets $2.50) in Washington, as the supporting feature this time to “Together” (1971) starring Marilyn Chambers and directed by Sean S. Cunningham, later responsible for the first “Friday the 13th ” (1980). The outcome was a “sharp” $4,500. By comparing seating capacity and ticket prices you can get a better idea of the film performed.

Box Office magazine marked performance on a percentage basis against a basic mark of 100, which represented an average week. According to this magazine, the movie was also to be found in Hartford where it scored 175 (i.e. almost double the average week’s takings), New Haven (175), Boston (150) and Buffalo (100). The takings in Minneapolis were no great shakes according to this method of analyzing results, reaching only 100 on the magazine’s measuring system.

Box Office also noted a couple of outings in Canada, where it played as the supporting feature to “Love Me Like I Do” (1970) starring Dyanne Thorne, later immortalised as “Ilsa”. However, Canada appeared not to subscribe to the percentage system. Instead, in Winnipeg at the Downtown in March 1972 it was judged “very good” while in Toronto at the Coronet in November 1972 it was judged “fair.”

SOURCES: “Variety” – January 12, 1972, p8; January 26, 1972, p10; April 5, 1972, p14; August 30, 1970, p14; December 6, 1972; p14. “Box Office” – September 11, 1972, pB4; “Box Office Barometer,” September 18, 1972 pB4; November 6, 1972, p16; November 13, 1972, pK2; March 5, 1973, pK3.

Readers’ Choice – Behind the Scenes and Other Stuff Top 10

Regular readers will know that I don’t just write movie reviews but pick up on “Other Stuff” relating to the 1960s. This will take the form of articles about interesting aspects of the decade, book reviews and analyses of how particular movies were sold to the exhibitor via the studio’s Pressbooks / Campaign Manuals.

In addition, I have become especially interested in how works of fiction were adapted for the screen and these go out under the general heading of “Book into Film.” And, lastly, I have written a number of Behind The Scenes posts on the making of specific pictures.

So given I have been highlighting those movies that were the most highly regarded either by myself or my readers during the year, I thought it only fair to include some mention of the “Other Stuff.”

So these are my Top Ten posts of “Other Stuff”- as measured by reader response – during my inaugural year as a movie blogger. It’s worth pointing out that had the “Other Stuff” been included in the same chart as the Top 30 Readers’ pictures, five would have made the Top 20.

  1. “Box Office Poison 1960s Style” highlighted the stars whose attraction was beginning to fade.
  2. The Gladiators vs Spartacus was a two-volume book that I reviewed about the ill-fated production launched by Yul Brynner against the Kirk Douglas production of Spartacus (1960).
  3. Behind the Scenes of “Genghis Khan” (1965) related the battle to bring this Omar Sharif vehicle to the screen
  4. Behind the Scenes of The Night They Raided Minskys (1968) produced a surprising amount of interest given the film, directed by William Fredkin and starring Britt Ekland, was a notorious flop.
  5. The Pressbook for “The Dark of the Sun” / “The Mercenaries” (1968) identified the efforts of the MGM marketing wizards to sell the Rod Taylor-Jim Brown action picture to the wider public.
  6. Behind the Scenes of “The Guns of Navarone” (1961) was based on my own successful book The Making of The Guns of Navarone which had been reissued with additional text and illustrations to celebrate the film’s 60th anniversary.
  7. Behind the Scenes of “The Girl on a Motorcycle” tracked how director Jack Cardiff beat the censor and cajoled a decent performance from Marianne Faithful even though it was yanked form U.S. release.
  8. Book into Film – “The Venetian Affair” explained how screenwriter E. Jack Neumann took the bare bones of the Helen MacInnes thriller and turned it into an excellent vehicle for Robert Vaughn trying to escape his The Man from Uncle television persona.
  9. Selling “Doctor Zhivago” (1965) examined the media campaign run by MGM for the London launch of the David Lean blockbuster.
  10. Book into Film – “A Cold Wind in August” demonstrated how screenwriter John Hayes toned down the sexy novel by Burton Wohl to escape the wrath of the censor while turning it into a touching vehicle for Lola Albright.

Selling “Doctor Zhivago”

Yesterday was the 55th anniversary of the launch of the European premiere of Doctor Zhivago (1965) in London and would you believe it the English weather came to the promotional aid of the David Lean epic with an unseasonal snow shower as fur-clad models took to the streets on a sleigh. As was common in the 1960s, there was no such thing as a global release date. The film had been launched in the U.S. in December 1965 but only a couple of countries since then, the main drawback being the lack of available prestigious cinemas for a big budget roadshow. The delay was also caused by hope of major success at the Oscars – given Lean’s two previous films had won Best Picture – held in March.

Doctor Zhivago launched at the 1,330-seat Empire, Leicester Square, in the heart of the capital’s West End in the presence of Princess Margaret and with the director and five stars in attendance.  The first public demonstration of colour television in Europe was a feature of the launch, a large screen set up in the theater foyer to relay the arrival of royalty and celebrities to the audience already seated in the cinema.

Typical advert with booking form.

MGM had pulled out all the publicity stops, the massive advertising campaign beginning on February 1, twelve weeks prior to the opening, with the switching-on of a 40ft by 20ft electric sign in Piccadilly Circus. That triggered an advertising campaign in the press about two weeks later announcing the premiere. That served only to stoke up interest, another two weeks elapsing before tickets went on sale. Advertisements ran virtually non-stop in national daily newspapers and London evening papers as well as entertainment and film magazines.

Roadshows benefitted from press advertising more than normal pictures. The bulk of the adverts for Doctor Zhivago carried a booking form so money started rolling in to the cinema long before the first screening. Selling tickets in this way was also a bulwark against sudden changes in weather – torrential rain or glorious sunshine as equally likely to deter moviegoers – whereas if you had already booked your ticket well in advance it did not matter whether you turned up or not, and most people would attend even in sweltering heat rather than forego their ticket.

MGM also undertook the biggest advertising campaign in its history in Britain. Unlike today, when there is one universal advertisement, in those days a film might have half a dozen different pieces of artwork. Doctor Zhivago boasted fifteen. Four weeks ahead of the opening 8,000 double-crown posters were plastered over the city. One-third of the entire London bus fleet carrying such artwork, while 50 Underground stations had 48-sheets (three times the size of the normal posters) on train platforms. In addition, closer to the launch, double quads were posted in a thousand locations. A special mobile box office toured the city advertising the film and selling tickets.

A special “Background to Doctor Zhivago Exhibition” was set up in the Garringes department store opposite Victoria Station, one of the capital’s biggest travel hubs, by the Historical Research Unit and including many costumes from the production. Tie-ins were far more numerous than for the New York launch. Mansfield Fashion launched a range of popular-priced clothing based on the film promoted by a sleigh-ride through London with a bevy of models against the unexpected background of snow on April 14. A more upmarket manufacturer Sidney Massin was promoting a more expensive fur coat.

Among the other fashion tie-ins were: a white coat of Kalgan lamb with a Mongolian lamb collar from Swears and Wells, long black wool coat with white fox fur hood and collar from Femina Furs, fur hats for men and women from Edmund Mann, evening dresses from Berkertex and fur-lined fabrics from Clarewood Fashions. Hardy Amies designed male fur coats for Hepworths department stores and range of gloves for either sex for Dent Allcroft. Worldwide the Zhivago look had been reflected in collections designed by St Laurent, Dior, Cardin, Chanel and Rabanne.

Unseasonal snow in London in mid-April helped the fashion launch.

Outside of fashion, there was a tie-up with Cossack Vodka. There was also a Cossack hair cream while Waddingtons produced a jigsaw puzzle. As well as hardback and paperback editions of the famous Boris Pasternak novel, there was also a hardback of the Robert Bolt Oscar-winning screenplay.  The music also provided promotional crossover, the theme tune and original soundtrack already big hits. BBC2 aired a documentary on the filming of the movie and the stars and director appeared on numerous television and radio talk shows.

BBC News, Pathe newsreel cameras and CBS America all covered the premiere. Stars in attendance were Geraldine Chaplin, Julie Christie, Siobhan McKenna, Ralph Richardson and Rita Tushingham as well as Lean, Bolt and producer Carlo Ponti.

Although the movie failed to win any of the main Oscars, it still took home six: screenplay (Robert Bolt), color cinematography (Freddie Young), color art direction (John Box, Terence Marsh and Dario Simoni), set decoration (also Box, Marsh and Simoni), color costume design (Phyllis Dalton) and music score (Maurice Jarre). MGM promoted these accomplishments in its advertising and revamped its pressbook. And the studio was also able to take advantage of the fact that Julie Christie had been named Best Actress at that year’s Oscars for Darling (1965). Noted the new-look Pressbook: “probably no other motion picture actress has achieved the meteoric success and worldwide fame accorded Julie Christie.”

The Pressbook mainlined on awards of one kind or another. As well as Oscars, the Russian epic had picked up five Golden Globes included Best Dramatic Picture, Best Director and Best Dramatic Actor (Omar Sharif). It was named best film by the New York Daily News and was named one of the year’s top ten by the National Board of Review, and received awards from magazines as diverse as Seventeen, Parents and Scholastic.

Also contained in the Pressbook were snippets that might appeal to local journalists such as: six tons of nails were used in constructing the ten-acre set, Phyllis Dalton created 5,000 costumes and John Box 117 settings, rats in one scene were tested for infections, rumors of Omar Sharif shaving off his normal curly hair were false, movie livestock was donated to a local church at the end of filming.

Separately, a 32-page “Fact Booklet” was compiled for  journalists.

As ever, exhibitors were bombarded with promotional ideas by MGM publicists via the Pressbook. One idea was to ask female members of the audience whether they preferred Omar Sharif clean shaven or with a moustache with the intention of interesting the local women’s editor in the results of the informal survey. Cinema owners were encouraged to send bottles of vodka to entertainment editors with a message in Russian. Empty shop windows were often available “for the asking” from rental specialists and could be used for advertising. Since Zhivago has a son in the film, one aspect encouraged was a “father and son” competition and of course it was a no-brainer to dress doormen and ushers as Cossacks.

MGM had also made special efforts to promote the movie to younger audiences and combined that with marketing the music. More than million copies of the soundtrack album had been sold and “Somewhere My Love,” a single by Teddy Randazzo incorporating lyrics to “Lara’s Theme,” had also caught fire. The combination of records and sheet music plus general publicity material could encourage record store window displays.

One of the taglines I most remember is “one man…two women…and a nation ablaze.” But it was certainly not one of the initial official taglines when the movie was originally launched. Many of the British posters had no tagline at all beyond perhaps “the entertainment event of the year.” The post-Oscar Pressbook went with either “A love caught in the fire of revolution…Turbulent were the times and fiery was the love story of Zhivago, his wife…and the passionate, tender Lara”  or “The story of Zhivago – a man torn between his love for his wife and the passionate and tender Lara…told against the flaming background of revolution.”

SOURCES: Supplement to Kine Weekly, May 5, 1966; MGM Pressbook.

Guns of Darkness (1962) ***

You might think David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) had cornered the market in startling transitions involving light (from Peter O’Toole’s match to the rising sun) and gut-wrenching scenes involving quicksand but nearly six months prior Anthony Asquith (The Millionairess, 1960) in the less-heralded Guns of Darkness had adopted similar techniques. He cuts from a nightclub singer blowing out a candle to a man lighting a candle in a church and since his film is in black-and-white it cannot hope to match Lean’s fabulous color transition. However, the quicksand scene in the Asquith, I would argue, lacking color or not, is far superior to that of the desert epic.

Thanks to Pygmalion (1938) and The Winslow Boy (1948) Asquith was one of a handful of British directors – Lean, Powell/Pressburger and Carol Reed the others – with an international reputation. Stars David Niven and Leslie Caron had topsy-turvy careers. Niven’s box office cachet had almost disappeared in the mid-1950s before an unexpected Oscar for Separate Tables (1958) and a starring role in The Guns of Navarone (1961). Although Caron had An American in Paris (1951), Lili (1953) and Gigi (1958) on her dance-card she was not an automatic big-name star. It reflects their respective positions that Caron has star billing.

Niven and Caron are an unhappily married couple caught up in a revolution in a fictional South American country. His boyish charm has long worn thin, his employment record is spotty and he is inclined, when drunk, to insult bumptious boss (James Robertson Justice). On New Year’s Eve while an enclave of pampered Brits is counting down to the bells, rebels  are preparing to storm the presidential palace and seize power. Niven seems the last person to give shelter to a fugitive from the revolution, especially when the runaway turns out to be the ex-president Rivero (David Opatoshu, Exodus, 1960). Caron, who has been planning to leave Niven the next day, finds herself involved in the escape.

The couple are both quickly disabused of notions of the saintliness of presidents and peasants, Rivera nearly strangling a child who discovers his hiding place, Caron stoned by villagers, pacifist Niven forced into a horrific act of violence.  

If you ever wondered what screenwriters do to earn their money, this film is a good place to start. It was based on a book “Act of Mercy” by British thriller writer Francis Clifford, who also wrote “The Naked Runner,” also later filmed. The screenwriters changed the David Niven character from the happily married committed businessman of the book to the dissatisfied dilettante of the film. As a happy couple, there are none of the marital tensions in the film. The revolution in the book has already started but in the film it is moved to New Year’s Eve and about to begin. The quicksand scene is a screenwriter’s invention as is the incident with the boy and the massacre in the village.

The pace is brisk from the outset, Asquith cross-cutting between revolutionaries and the Brits and as the manhunt steps up a gear the three escapees face a succession of perilous incidents. Not least is a river that has turned to quicksand. This six-minute scene is a standout, the mud closing in on their heads, Niven having to crawl back to rescue Rivera. As you would expect with this kind of picture there is a fair bit of philosophizing, moralizing and sheer brutality. As the couple flounder towards reconciliation, the script spends some time trying to ascertain Niven’s motives. Had the film stuck to the source book’s title, Act of Mercy, that would not have been necessary.

A taut film with, once the revolution has begun, the British put in their place rather than acting as imperialist overlords. There are a couple of unexpected twists at the end and Asquith finished with a technical flourish of his own, the camera tracking back from people walking forward. Both Niven and Caron are excellent, James Robertson Justice at once cuddly and ruthless, and the picture comes out as a tidy character-driven thriller.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

My Movie Books of the Year

Rather than write about the best films I have seen this year, I thought I would look at the four best books about films that I have read over the last twelve months. However, I’m beginning with an older book. I was so taken with Kirsten Stewart’s portrayal of actress Jean Seberg in the biopic Seberg (2019) that I sought out Garry McGee’s Jean Seberg – Breathless, Her True Story first published in 2007 and reprinted in 2018 in time for the movie.

The film concentrates on Seberg’s mental disintegration as she discovers she is on J. Edgar Hoover’s hit list. But the biography has a far wider remit.

This is a startling and ultimately a very sad book of the star as an American tragedy who shot to the heights in her first film and spent the rest of her life with a couple of exceptions falling earthwards. She took her own life, aged 40, in 1979. She was seen as both calculating and a victim, a woman of great strength and immense vulnerability, who used her popularity to espouse unpopular causes.

Her career followed no pattern anyone could understand, least of all Hollywood. Thrust into the limelight as a teenager when hand-picked as Saint Joan (1957) by director Otto Preminger – an experience that scarred her physically and mentally – she quickly shifted to France where she was enshrined in Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave masterpiece Breathless (1960), but remained in France too long appearing in less prestigious productions. She was a vivid Lilith (1964) in Robert Rossen’s dissection of mental illness, but disappeared off the Hollywood map again until reappearing at the end of the decade in roadshow musical Paint Your Wagon (1969) – in which she stole the show from Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. After blockbuster Airport (1970) and western Macho Callahan (1970) she departed Hollywood for good, her final films being made in Europe.

Why her career was so apparently topsy-turvy is explored in this excellent biography, the final departure from America propelled by the discovery that she was under investigation by the FBI.

Chinatown (1973) is one of the greatest noir thrillers ever made but with its director Roman Polanski now persona non grata in Hollywood, it remains to be seen whether the film will retain its high status. Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye, Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood leaves any discussion of the director’s sexual mores until the last chapters when the shock of the allegations against him threaten to overwhelm the entire book. That said, up till then, it is a riveting book, not just the convoluted process of making this particular movie, but especially fascinating when discussing the screenplay, the working methods of writer Robert Towne, and the tangled dealings with agents.

After The Godfather (1972), Paramount was on a high and studio boss and wunderkind Robert Evans was apparently untouchable – the studio had given him his own production company – but his wife Ali McGraw had run off with Steve McQueen and he was at war with studio president Frank Yablans. Jack Nicholson, however, was approaching a box office peak. Polanski was hot and if his touch was anywhere as good as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) it would be a slam dunk. But as the movie approached its premiere, it was looking more like a stinker. Preview audiences hated it. The original score was dumped, Jerry Goldsmith brought in to make the music more evocative of the period.

The author takes a wider view than the normal “making of” book and his portrayal of Hollywood at a time of massive change and the corrosive and often self-destructive nature of many of the personalities involved gives the subject material greater bite. A film of this book is being greenlit with Ben Affleck’s involvement.

According to Stephen Rebello, Valley of the Dolls (1968) is in a class of its own. It was top of the class in Bad Movies We Love, the book he co-wrote with Edward Margulies. Rebello has now accorded to his “making of” one of the longest book titles in history – Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!, Deep Inside Valley of the Dolls, The Most Beloved Bad Book and Movie of All Time. Rebello, of course, is famous for his opus on Psycho. Valley of the Dolls was based on the bitchy bestseller by Jacqueline Susann and the movie itself fell into a similar category. Director Mark Robson had been twice Oscar-nominated, once for his adaptation of Peyton Place, a novel occupying the same trashy ground as Valley of the Dolls. Although Natalie Wood, Lee Remick, Bette Davis and Kim Novak were at various times in the running, the book was such a huge bestseller that Twentieth Century Fox thought it would get away with a less-than-stellar cast. The best known of the stars Judy Garland was fired over her alcoholism. Rebello has an irreverent style, but a forensic eye for detail and has produced a highly-readable book of a film now termed a camp classic.

If Valley of the Dolls was in a class of its own, then so too was Ryan’s Daughter (1970), filmed on location in Ireland. In the David Lean canon, none of his pictures have been so maligned. While not approaching the sensational box office of Doctor Zhivago (1965) it was still a massive audience favorite. In Glasgow, where I lived, it ran as a 70mm roadshow presentation at the first-run ABC2 for an entire year. But it was mauled by the critics who felt it was clearly within their rights to dole out to Lean a public humiliation after inviting him to a meeting of the National Society of Film Critics where Pauline Kael and Richard Schickel in particular tore his film to shreds.

Quite why the book has taken so long to be published is another mystery given the author says he did the bulk of the research in 1999-2003. Maybe the publishers were counting on a 50th anniversary revival. Certainly, he has no shortage of material from the drunken and pot-smoking shenanigans of star Robert Mitchum to the miscasting of Christopher Jones and the director’s own haphazard personal life. MGM, which was going through a financial tsunami, backed the director to the hilt even as the budget continued to soar -it ran 135 days over schedule. Because of the overages Jones took home more than this £200,000 contracted salary and John Mills nearly double his original $200,000. Lean’s legendary perfection endangered the lives of the crew and actors during the storm sequence while the sex scene between Jones and Sarah Miles caused particular problems. The author alleges that Jones’ food was spiked. For some reason the author has dubbed this “one of the great movie follies” and while I would not agree with that estimation it remains an interesting read.

Station Six Sahara (1963) ***

David Lean spent months in Jordan capturing his vision of the desert for Lawrence of Arabia. Seth Holt was granted no such luxury, a few weeks at Shepperton Studios in England to make this British-German co-production.  

It is a surprisingly tight and effective drama made on a low budget excepting whatever fee induced Hollywood star Carroll Baker to join. Five men trapped on an oil pipeline maintenance unit drive each other to distraction. Loud Scot Ian Bannen constantly needles stiff upper-class Denholm Elliott while overbearing German boss Peter Van Eyck cheats at poker. The arrival of steely-eyed German Hansjorg Felmy alters the status quo as he refuses in his own quiet way to knuckle down to authority.

There is a wonderful psychological battle going on between Bannen and Elliott. Extremely envious of the number of letters Elliott receives, Bannen offers a month’s pay for just one. When the offer is accepted, Elliott cannot stop fretting about what he might have given away and what secrets it revealed about himself.

The arrival of Carroll Baker upsets the equilibrium further as the men attempt to win her affections. While apparently promiscuous, she is steelier than the lot of them, and tensions climb high when she begins to spread around her favors. Interestingly, she does no wooing but waits for men to come to her.

Given the budget restraints, or possibly because of them, it is surprisingly well directed. Two scenes stand out in directorial terms. In one featuring Bannen and Elliott, the Scot is only partly visible behind a piece of furniture but his dialogue continues even when out of sight. In the other, one of Baker’s suitors finds her door locked and as she is about to reply a hand appears (not in aggressive fashion) to cover her mouth, indicating she already has chosen her bedmate. Naturally, this can only lead to a grim end.

The cast of male unknowns are uniformly good but Baker steals the show as you would expect. Given the times, there was no nudity, but the overt sexuality certainly skirted the bounds of what passed as decency and Baker is alluring however little or much she wears. But her sexuality takes second place to her individuality. Her independence will not be surrendered to a man. Despite the budget restrictions it stands up very well.  

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