Behind the Scenes: “The Comedians” (1967)

Richard Burton was at his box office peak. From Cleopatra (1963) through The VIPs (1963), Becket (1964), The Night of the Iguana (1964), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Sandpiper (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and The Taming of the Shrew (1967) he had enjoyed massive box office success and notched up  three Oscar nominations. He was being pursued for Camelot (1967) – the part he played on Broadway – and himself pursued the rights to Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer. But out of admiration for novelist Graham Greene he accepted, sight unseen, the leading role in The Comedians.

Director Peter Glenville, better known at the time as a stage director, owed his career to the two male principals. Alec Guinness had backed him for his debut The Prisoner (1955) and starred in his latest film, the farce Hotel Paradiso (1966). Burton had been one of his two incendiary stars of Becket (1964), a box office smash, as a consequence of which the director signed a four-picture deal with MGM. All three of his previous films had begun life as plays directed by Glenville.

Before the picture could get off the ground it faced a potential legal minefield from producer George Glass. He owned the rights to a short story The Prisoner, written by screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, 1959) and published in the January 1952 edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. It had since been turned into a television play directed by john Frankenheimer for the Playhouse 90 series in February 1957. Glass argued the new picture would infringe his copyright.

Although without doubt Taylor was the bigger box office star, the better remunerated  and the more acclaimed, at least by Oscar standards (two wins to his five nominations), in their personal life the roles were reversed. “There seems little doubt,” wrote Burton biographer Melvyn Bragg, “that although he was drawn into what he saw as the mystery and fun of Elizabeth he was the dominating partner. She soothed him. She sought him in bars.” Burton himself said, “We never had any question of who was boss. She always realised I was to run the show.”

Whether that was the reason she took what was no more than a supporting role in The Comedians at half her usual salary (for the first time Burton on $750,000 versus her $500,000 was the financial top dog) is unclear, but she certainly, as was attested on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, did not like to leave him footloose and fancy free on a film set where he could indulge his liking for liquor and pretty women. On her previous film, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) “she resented playing second fiddle” to Marlon Brando, and might have preferred making a picture where she regained a sense of her own importance, but instead she accepted a role that was not up to her usual high standard.

Director Peter Glenville (Becket) had not particularly wanted Taylor for the role, possibly feeling she might over-balance the project. It would be the couple’s seventh movie together, a pairing that was being discussed in the same hushed tones as the legendary Tracy-Hepburn. Alec Guinness was somewhat apprehensive about the film. Calls he had made to the couple’s suite at the Dorchester Hotel in London had gone unanswered and gifts returned. Burton was mortified. It turned out his staff had been too protective of their employer.

Shooting began in January 1967 before the novel was published. Although producers often purchased books while still in galley stage, they generally preferred the book to have acquired a substantial readership before embarking on a costly movie investment. However, Graham Greene could fairly lay claim to being the greatest living English writer and his involvement appeared to add gravitas to the project, although it would be fair to say that none of the translations of his works into movies had enjoyed anything like the success of The Third Man (1949). He had not written for the screen since Our Man in Havana (1960), also starring Guinness.

Unusually for a novelist, he had acquired a reputation for setting his stories in trouble spots. Often, he would take on a journalistic assignment from the likes of the British Sunday Times to investigate conditions in countries undergoing brutal change. His literary reputation often gave him access to the inner sanctum from which an ordinary reporter would have been barred. The author had adored Haiti before the Duvalier takeover and hated that Papa Doc ruled by terror, backed by the dreaded Tonton Macoutes.  The Comedians was a determinedly political novel, the author hoping his expose of an “unique evil” might put pressure on the dictator.

Greene described Haiti as a “a tormented little country” and had feared for his life on his last visit. The author told an Italian journalist that he had clearly got under Duvalier’s skin. “A writer is not so powerless as he usually feels,” he once wrote, “and a pen, as well as a silver bullet, can draw blood.”  Martha (the Elizabeth Taylor character) was based on a woman the author had known in Martinique who ran a hotel and had a son.

Initially, Glenville had envisaged making the film in Haiti, where the book was set, but, given the author had taken careful aim at country it was a concern that the dictator might take revenge on stars who had the audacity to film in his own backyard. Dahomey, in West Africa, about the size of Cuba, was its replacement.

When accidents plagued the shoot, and since voodoo was a story element, rumors spread that Duvalier had ordered witch doctors to curse the production. “Apparently voodoo spells cannot travel over water,” recollected Guinness, “and have to be operated at hand…(but) on the first day of filming one of the unit stumbled on the beach, possibly from a heart attack, and drowned in a foot of water before anybody could assist him. Several people complained of difficulty in breathing, suffering from acute headaches and deep depression; one or two had to be sent home….there was something a little sinister in the atmosphere.” Guinness, in conversation with the French Consul, was informed the country was still inhabited by cannibals, a threat he took seriously enough to warn actor Paul Ford’s wife not to sit around alone on her porch, but which was later discounted by the local archbishop as the kind of joke a foreigner would too easily fall for

Guinness also saved the director from drowning. Not realizing how treacherous the sea, with an infamous undertow, could be, Glenville had gone for a swim. Reading on the beach nearby, Guinness heard him calling for help and had to drag him to safety. Guinness suffered from a mysterious rash for four days.

Of course, Burton and Taylor were treated like royalty, They were met by President Soglo and given use of the presidential compound. And it was also a humbling experience. Washing was strung along lines in the presidential courtyard, the Queen’s closet was filled with “a perfectly ordinary rack of shoes.” Burton had mixed feelings, commenting in his diary, about the President: “his clothes were ill-made…he obviously likes women and was forever taking E (Taylor) by the arm…We both found the experience oddly moving. Here was this huge, mosaiced palace, only completed three years ago, and outside the immense Salle de Reception, capable of receiving 3,000 people at one time, there was washing on the line.”

But this treatment did not extend everywhere, and for the better. Most people in Dahomey had never heard of the couple so they were able to dine out without harassment. “Glenville noticed that the lack of outside stress helped them relax in front of the camera.”

But the heat was intolerable, temperatures some days reaching 110 degrees, hitting 138 degrees under movie lights. This resulted in no one dallying over takes. The situation was exacerbated by Burton’s drinking. “I hardly find him the same person,” commented Guinness, recalling the times the pair had occasionally spent together in the late 1940s when he was by far the bigger star. “Drink has taken a bit of a toll.” Breakfast for Burton on the first day of shooting was a Bloody Mary. On one occasion Burton was so inebriated he failed to turn up for a presidential dinner in their honor in front of two hundred guests.  He was an ugly drunk and his wife bore the brunt of it. Being top dog financially and in terms of screen credit did not appear to bring him the solace he required.

The Burtons’ extensive entourage recruited an additional member with a specific skill. Photographer Gianni Bozzachi was “considered the number one re-toucher in Italy,” his job solely to ensure that any photographs of Taylor sent to the press were “as beautiful as humanly possible.” He became the couple’s official photographer, often taking candid pictures unobtrusively.

Bozzachi believed Taylor more beautiful in person – her left and right profiles were equally symmetrical, a rare physical gift –  than on camera and was attempting to capture that inner beauty. He said, “without make-up she glows. There’s a sensuality always present.” But he also exuded a sensuality that disturbed Burton. That a tall curly-haired handsome young man was showering attention on his wife made Burton jealous.

Burton and Alec Guinness respected each other’s talent. In one four-minute scene where Guinness took center stage and Burton was simply listening, Guinness commented, “That was the greatest support I’ve had from an actor in my life.”

Burton was not particularly enamored of Dahomey. Although he retained a “certain amount of nostalgia” for the country, he also referred to the “dangerous sea,” the arrogance of the Americans, the “mad palace, the President and his dowdy provincial wife.” But then Burton in his diaries was particularly waspish.  Guinness was even more forthright. “I was glad to leave Dahomey. I couldn’t help feeling it was sinister…ideas of voodoo are never absent from one’s mind.” The final stages of filming were completed in Nice.

In the wake of the violence in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and, more especially, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which stirred up huge controversy, not least against the Production Code which had passed both films, MPAA president Jack Valenti took against the violence in the film and persuaded Glenville to “mute” one particularly bloody scene.

This proved a difficult film to market outside of the star names and the adaptation of a literary bestseller. However, Duvalier inadvertently helped, launching a furious tirade in the press against the picture, threatening legal action against what he termed “inflammatory libel” and exciting the U.S. media so much it triggered a four-part television series. There was a major article in Look magazine which had sent a reporter and photographers to the set in Dahomey. And the marketing team pulled off something of a coup in persuading the Museum of Modern Art in New York for the first time to devote a complete exhibition to a movie.

Despite the top-heavy English cast, the movie premiered in New York at the Coronet where it ran concurrently at the DeMille. Although it opened in the same week as Cool Hand Luke, it trailed the Paul Newman prison drama at the box office, taking $64,000 from two cinemas compared to $92,000, also from a pair. But that was still deemed a good result and initial U.S. first run bookings were brisk – the box office termed “socko” and “boffo.”

Post-production MGM had considered turning it into a roadshow for the U.S. market but decided against it. However, for the later British launch, in January 1968,  it was blown up into 70mm and presented as roadshow in London’s West End at the Casino Cinerama and in various countries around the world. The American version, running at 156 minutes,  was edited by nine minutes though the programme was effectively lengthened to accommodate the necessary roadshow intermission.

Though named by three critics as one of the top ten films of the year, the movie received no Oscar nominations. It proved to be Glenville’s last film although he lived for another 30 years.

SOURCES: Chris Williams (editor), The Richard Burton Diaries (Yale University Press, 2012) p130-131, 152-157; Melvyn Bragg, Rich, The Life of Richard Burton (Hodder and Stoughton, 1988) p223, 231-232, 236-237; Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, Furious Love, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, The Marriage of the Century (JR Books paperback, 2011) p196-204; William J. Mann, How to Be a Movie Star, Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood (Faber and Faber, 2009) p378-379; Alec Guinness, Blessings in Disguise (Hamish Hamilton, 1985) p209-210; Leopold Duran, Graham Greene, Friend and Brother (Harper Collins, 1994) p153, 238, 258; “Burton-Guinness Teamed,” Kine Weekly, September 8, 1966, p4; “Burton-Guinness Teamed,” Box Office, September 16, 1966, p4; “George Glass Protests Metro’s Comedians Treads on his Teleplay,” Variety, October 26, 1966, p5; “Elizabeth Taylor to Co-Star in Comedians for MGM,” Box Office, October 10, 1966, p7; “Comedians Looms as Metro Roadshow,” Variety, April 12, 1967, p26; “Plan Comedians Premiere,” Box Office, September 11, 1967, pE3; “Urge Films Shun Shock’n’Violence for Own Sake,” Variety, October 25, 1967, p1; “Museum to Devote Entire Exhibit to Comedians,” Box Office, October 30, 1967, pE7; “Haiti Protests Showing of Comedians,” Box Office, November 6, 1967, pE4; “Comedians on Roadshow at London Coliseum,” Variety, January 3, 1967, p5; “Year-End Best Picks,” Variety, January 10, 1968, p8.

The Comedians (1967) ***

Over-long, over-hyped and over-cast. Pretty much an early example of virtue-signalling, exposing corruption in a dictatorship (Haiti), but offering more through the singular self-deception of the main characters. An element of sleight-of-hand is also practiced on an audience enticed by four big stars “above the title” comprising three Oscar winners and one multiple nominee. Luckily, the ironic in-joke of naming characters with traditional English names – Smith, Jones and Brown – would probably pass most people by.

Brown (Richard Burton), a hotelier, is present throughout but Major Jones (Alec Guinness) appears only briefly at the beginning then disappears until late on to spike the plot. Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), the adulterous love interest, pops up sporadically as does her husband Ambassador Pineda (Peter Ustinov). There’s not much of a story, Brown, cynical about the dictatorship, is friendly with a rebel leader, Jones is an ineffectual arms dealer, and missionary couple the Smiths (Paul Ford and Lillian Gish) offer comic relief until barbarity rears its head.

Great play is made of naivete but the film suffers from the Hollywood curse of only being able to examine foreign politics through the prism of a (white) American or Englishman. At the time it might have been shocking to see brutality so convincingly dispensed, and there is, also, in Mondo Cane fashion, too much time spent on strange ritual, but at the same time, of course, the U.S. was inflicting its own barbarities on the Vietnamese.

On the other hand, Brown is exactly the kind of foreigner who believes things must improve because, damn it all, he’s British and bad things can’t happen to a Brit in a strange land. He is convinced he will be able to sell a hotel located in a war-torn country, persists in believing Martha will abandon husband and son, and convinces himself he is the very man the rebels have been looking for.

Jones mistakenly believes everyone is taken in by his hail-fellow-well-met routine and his tales of heroism in World War Two jungles, thinks he is in with a chance with Martha and that his gun-running activities will avoid detection. The ambassador thinks his wife will not leave him as long as he turns a blind eye to her affairs. And Martha, probably wondering why she married such a buffoon, can’t work out to dump him. Everyone who has much to lose appears to be continually on a precipice and it’s hard to see what they could gain from their actions. 

They are all misfits, “comedians,” stuck in the rut of their own destiny, unable to change.

Nobody is more gullible than those who dupe themselves and the film comes into its own when it sets personal delusion against political naivete. In narrative terms Jones is the most obviously unmasked but the others are no less shown to be foolhardy in their expectations.

This had all the hallmarks of a prestige picture, initially planned as a roadshow,  around $2 million spent on the above-the-line cast, another chunk on buying the rights to the Graham Greene bestseller and assigning the author the screenplay, location shooting in Dahomey.

Don’t expect oratorical fury from Richard Burton (The Bramble Bush, 1960) nor outbursts of angst from Elizabeth Taylor (Secret Ceremony, 1969). There’s something almost comically homely in their deception and in the outwardly confident Brown perceiving Jones as a love rival.  Alec Guinness (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) is the big treat, an upmarket con man, his boisterous voice and mannerisms far removed from his more usual introspective performances. Peter Ustinov (Topkapi, 1964), a bit too fidgety for my liking, nonetheless attracts sympathy as the man who is batting above his weight in snaring a trophy wife he knows he cannot hold onto.

Burton was the odd one out in the Oscar rankings. Despite five nominations by this stage, he had never taken home the statuette. Elizabeth Taylor, by contrast, had won twice, for Butterfield 8 (1960) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), Guinness once for Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Ustinov also twice Spartacus (1961) and Topkapi.  

However, in some senses if you remove the star turns, you are left with a rawer picture, and director Peter Glenville (Becket, 1964) captures much of the personal intensity of the novel. Taylor, in particular, misses the mark. Although playing a German, she never once bothers attempting an accent. Had Burton been the sole star, the movie would have worked much better since his low-key playing would not have been so much at odds with other actors.  

There’s a host of striking turns from supporting stars, ranging from silent film star Lillian Gish (The Unforgiven, 1960) to Roscoe Lee Brown (Topaz, 1969), James Earl Jones (The Great White Hope, 1970), Raymond St Jacques (Uptight, 1968) and Cicely Tyson (Sounder, 1972).

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