The Making of “The Godfather” (1972)

With the 50th anniversary imminent it’s no surprise to see a further addition to the already weighty library of works on The Godfather. What is surprising is just how good it is, wrapping up all previous research as well as adding copious new information about the making of the Mafia saga, in particular relationships between the filmmakers and the Cosa Nostra itself. A battle of egos as much as anything else with a budget that lay in tatters, quite how such a masterpiece emerged could have been a film in itself. Journalist Robert Seal has delivered a riveting book, replete with fascinating anecdotes, and with an insider’s knowledge of how a movie gets put together.

Some of the drama is certainly overplayed, the financial threats to Paramount at the end of the 1960s, the presence on the set of an auditor (hardly unusual with a director who had never handled such a big budget before), and the conflict with legendary producer Robert Evans who, after the event, claimed a greater share of the glory than he was entitled to. Evans at least had a track record – Rosemary’s Baby (1968), True Grit (1969) and Love Story (1970) among his successes during his tenure at the studio – compared to official producer Albert Ruddy with three flops to his name including Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970) and best known for television hit Hogan’s Heroes. But Ruddy was known as a producer who could bring a project in under budget. As an indication of the kind of penny pinching that Evans expected, he made Ruddy buy his own copy of the novel.

Australian distributors took a different approach to advertising the movie.

Paramount had little interest in Mafia movies after the under-rated The Brotherhood (1968) – reviewed in the Blog – had flopped at the box office and Burt Lancaster was waiting in the wings ready to take the project off the studio’s hands. Compulsive gambler and impoverished author Mario Puzo had no screenwriting credits when brought in to work on the picture. And no idea how to write a screenplay. So he mostly played tennis. His biggest contribution when he was sitting in meetings with little to show for his efforts was to suggest Marlon Brando as star. A suggestion that met with complete silence because Brando was box office poison.

Francis Coppola – himself the creator of three flops and as impoverished as Puzo had once been – was hired as director in part because Paramount got the notion that the reason The Brotherhood had failed was lack of cultural assimilation, director Martin Ritt having no Italian heritage. Coppola was pushed as having an insider’s knowledge of Italians even though as Paramount executive Peter Bart pointed out that he “may have had pasta now and then but I don’t think their family is any more Italian than my family.”

Paramount took out an eight-page ad in “Variety” (March 29, 1972) to publicize the colossal initial gross and listed the receipts from every cinema where it had been playing for mostly three or five days.

As the makers of Succession have realised, there is a classic story to be told about business inheritance. Coppola wanted to make a movie that was about “more than guns and goons and sex and spaghetti.” He envisaged a “classic succession concerning a great king who had three sons, each of whom had a single element of what made the king great.” Prior to Coppola making his presentation to the studio, Ruddy told him to play up the low budget. Instead, the director gave “one of the great sales jobs of all time” convincing executives to at least give him a shot at doing it his way. He was hired for $175,000 and six per cent of the profits. “I had two kids, a pregnant wife, and no money. I was terrified,” said Coppola.

As well he should have been. Not only did he have mobsters knocking on his door complaining on the one hand about how the film could adversely present Italian Americans and on the other hand determined to land a role in the picture to the extent of paying for their own screen tests. So many talent schools charged $100 to shoot screen tests for any gullible schmuck that Paramount had to take out restraining orders. But made man Gianni Russo did land the role of Carlo Rizzi. Al Lettieri’s brother was involved in the business. Ex-wrestler Lenny Montana with no acting experience was picked out of a crowd watching the shooting to play hitman Luca Brasi.

Not the ideal balladeer to sing about the Mafia.

Although Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine, Laurence Olivier and Rod Steiger were among the stars pitched for the Brando role, Puzo had sent a handwritten letter to Brando imploring him to consider the role. The Brando test, with the star improvising his own make-up, was electric. But the greatest actor of his generation had to accept a pitiful deal – $50,000 for six weeks’ work – though, thankfully, a percentage had been tagged on.

Robert Evans wanted Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty or Ryan O’Neal for Michael. “One of the reasons I got the job,” said Coppola, “was because they thought they could push me around.” He stuck to his guns, holding out for his dream team of James Caan, Al Pacino, Robert  Duvall and Diane Keaton, “eccentric and kind of weird in a way…to enliven the straight boring character” of Kay Adams.

But the casting was just the beginning of a momentous battle to keep Coppola’s vision intact. He came close to getting fired several times (“I was getting fired every other week,” recalled Coppola), especially as the budget, initially figured at $2 million, headed towards $6 million. The story of the shoot is told here in forensic detail. Come post-production, Evans wanted Henry Mancini to do the score so Coppola threatened to take his name off the picture unless the Nino Rota music was kept. 

Finally, when the film was ready it was met with – deafening silence. Paris premiere – silence. New York premiere – silence. When Albert Ruddy and Al Pacino watched it in an ordinary cinema with an ordinary audience the result was the same – silence. But the lines around the block indicated something else – a phenomenon.

The only area where author Seal gets it wrong is in his understanding of release strategy. “Its distribution was a revolution,” claimed Mark Seal. Only it wasn’t. I know because I wrote a book on the subject (In Theaters Everywhere if you’re interested) and there was nothing at all novel in releasing a movie in New York in 26 cinemas all at once.

But apart from that glitch, Seal has produced a brilliant, incredibly readable book, that covers the saga of the making of the film in as much detail as an aficionado would want. Drawing on the dozen other books written previously about the film and adding his own fulsome research, Seal has created a book that will be as much a monument to this film as the film is to Hollywood cinema in the 1970s.

For some reason the guy who created the best movie of the year wasn’t good enough to be named Best Director at the Oscars- that went to Bob Fosse for “Cabaret.”

In 1972, there was no such thing as a global wide release. Although it was shown in the U.S. in March that year, in Glasgow, Scotland, where I lived, The Godfather did not get its first showing until the end of August. It opened at the ABC 1 in Sauchiehall St in the city centre as well as over the River Clyde at the ABC Coliseum. It was competing with two roadshows, Young Winston and Mary, Queen of Scots at the Odeon 1 and Odeon 3, respectively, Robert Redford in heist picture How to Steal a Diamond at the Odeon 2 and What’s Up Doc? at the ABC 2. Western The Hired Hand was playing the arthouse Cosmo and the arty Made for Each Other at the gigantic Green’s Playhouse. The La Scala had the double bill of Dr No/Thunderball and the Regent was in the second week of Dirty Harry, somewhat unusual in that this was a second run house where pictures were rarely retained.

There were three performances a day for The Godfather but no advance booking – as would have been the case if it had gone into roadshow – so the queues outside both cinemas were huge. It had such an impact on me I saw it twice in the same day. When I moved to London I used to take regular advantage of the double bill The Godfather / The Godfather Part II when it used to play a cinema in Regent St on occasional Sundays, so I have no idea how many times I have seen both. Never enough, I would guess.

Where were you when you first saw The Godfather?

And where will I be on February 26 when The Godfather will be reissued in cinemas all over Britain (and possibly worldwide for all I know)? I leave it to you to guess.

To cash in on the 50th anniversary, cinemas all around the world are planning to screen all three parts of the trilogy. So watch out for them.

Book into Film – “The Godfather” (1972)

Watching King of the Roaring 20s (1961) and Murder Inc (1960) and struck by the number of similarities to The Brotherhood (1968) that could be found in The Godfather (1972) induced me to examine how well the original novel by Mario Puzo survived the often dangerous transition onto the screen.

There could not be a more textbook example of how to turn a big bestseller into a compelling motion picture. Although director Francis Coppola added texture and style to the bestseller, the film owes far more to the memorable characters created by author Mario Puzo. Apart from some slight structural changes and the elimination of a couple of subplots, the movie follows Puzo’s brilliant structure almost to the letter. And except for a few lines, virtually all the dialogue and many of the most unforgettable lines come directly from the book.

The opening wedding feast is an excellent example of the screenplay approach. The order of the action occasionally alters but the novel’s structure is strictly adhered to. The film’s striking opening line “I love America” by the undertaker is a slight but significant adaptation of that character’s line “I believe in America” in the book. But the screenwriters junk the book’s actual opening section which gives the background to the issues the three characters appealing to Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) for intervention against perceived injustice from Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and goes straight to the book’s wedding.  Here, too, the various elements are taken directly from the book with slight changes. For example, to the FBI men taking down car number plates in the novel the screenplay adds in photographers so that, to demonstrate his temper at an early stage, Sonny Corleone (James Caan) can smash a camera.

Straight from the book: fat Clemenza (Richard S. Castellano) dancing, wiping his brow and calling for wine from Paulie (John Martino); Sonny whispering in the ear of bridesmaid Lucy (Jeannie Linero); the frightened undertaker being told off by Vito; the  Luca Brasi story Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) tells Kay Adams (Diane Keaton); Sonny and Lucy having sex and being interrupted by Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall); and the screams that greet  singer Johnny Fontane (Al Fontane) and the subsequent scene where Vito shouts at the singer to act “like a man.” Additions are slight: in the book Sonny’s wife is in the kitchen not at a wedding table in dumbshow making jokes about her husband’s manhood, and Luca Brasi rehearsing his speech.

Indicative of the ruthlessness with which the screenplay treats the book is the elimination of a moving scene at the tail end of the wedding where Vito goes to see his dying partner Genco. As indicative of the author’s brilliance is that he invented degenerate film producer Jack Woltz (John Marley) and the decapitated horse in his bed.  But the storyline, the film’s core, from the attempted murder of Vito, Michael’s assassination of the Turk Solozzo (Al Lettieri) and corrupt cop McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), the exiled Michael struck by the “thunderbolt” falling in love, the ambush of Sonny and the stricken Vito suing for peace, is pretty much exactly that of the book. In some case, it’s clear that actors have drawn from Puzo’s characterizations, the chilling way Michael takes control of the Family, how Fredo goes from useless gangster to hotel dandy.

There are occasional additions. In the book Enzo’s hand outside the hospital is  shaking but Michael lighting his cigarette is the movie shorthand to demonstrate his icy calm, Sonny’s “bada-bing” isn’t in the book nor is Luca Brasi sleeping with the fishes, though there is something similar “Luca Brasi is sleeping on the bottom of the ocean.”

Occasionally, in the novel, for technical reasons, Puzo drifts away from the central characters to provide some more background or detail about a subsidiary person and in this manner we enter into the minds of Paulie, Carlo (Gianni Russo), Kay, Clemenza, McCluskey and Albert Neri just as they are about to play a significant role in forthcoming action.  Other subsidiary characters featured more prominently in the novel, in particular Johnny Fontane whom the book reveals develops from Oscar-winning actor to successful movie producer and from manic seducer to more considerate male.

Fontane also helps revitalize the career of another singer Nino who does not appear in the movie at all and plays a role in developing the Family’s interests in Las Vegas. Lucy, who disappears entirely from the film after the wedding, is more significant in the book, finding romance after Sonny’s death with a surgeon and there’s a part of their relationship that would only now be permissible to film. Sicilian shepherd Fabrizio, instrumental in the attempted assassination of Michael, also reappears in the book. The book also devotes more attention to Michael’s new breed, Alberto (Richard Bright) and Rocco (Tom Rosqui).

The death of Vito in the garden is almost identical to the book with the grandson present except for Marlon Brando’s improvisation of stuffing his cheeks with orange to frighten the boy. And Michael’s betrayal by Tessio and the subsequent mass murder of all his enemies is also drawn from the book except for Moe Green having been killed earlier (Fabrizio the shepherd slotting into his place in the book’s action). Some slight detail is changed – Barzini (Richard Conte) killed beside his waiting car not on the steps, Tattaglia (Tony Giorgio) murdered in a chalet not an apartment block. Somewhat surprisingly the image of acolytes paying homage to Michael as briefly viewed by Kay has its origins in the book. The two final scenes in the book, both concerning Kay, are excluded from the film, in the first, having run away, she is challenged by Hagen and in the second she prays for Michael’s soul in church just as (in the book) Michael’s mother had prayed for his father

A lengthy chapter on Vito’s beginnings, explaining his early relationships with Clemenza, Tessio (Abe Vigoda) and Luca Brasi, was wisely held over for The Godfather Part II.

Having by now read a number of books that were subsequently filmed, my over-riding impression was that in many cases (The Secret Ways, Arabesque) little survived of the original tale or that characters, locations and timescales (The Detective) were substantially altered. In some instances the book’s length precluded a straightforward adaptation. Occasionally, subjects easily dealt with on the printed page were not so welcome on the screen. But, for whatever reason, change appeared inevitable for a bestseller being translated into a movie.

The Godfather almost stands alone as a novel that made the transition with virtually no alterations. All the main characters are present as described by Puzo and the storyline entirely reflects the book. The bulk of the dialogue was originally written by Puzo. While there is no doubting the Coppola’s achievement in putting the book on film, there is equally no doubt that the book leant itself to easier adaptation than most bestsellers.

Red Line 7000 (1965) *

Quentin Tarantino is probably alone in preferring this movie mishap to John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966) – or I have somehow missed a “cult” picture. There was no doubt director Howard Hawks could handle speed. Check out the action in Hatari! (1962) as jeeps battle across tougher terrain than NASCAR racing circuits. But for some reason, he thought he would get away with interspersing footage of races and spectacular crashes with shots of actors behind the wheel. Any time something exciting is about to happen we’re alerted by the commentator saying “oh oh” or “wait a minute” or “hold it.” There’s none of the feverish excitement or authenticity of Grand Prix.

Hawks hired a no-name cast in a bid a) to become a star-maker, b) to prove he did not require the marquee wattage of the likes of John Wayne and c) to show he could make a movie cheaply. He failed on all three counts. He probably didn’t think he was taking any kind of gamble at all, as a male approaching 70, in trying to depict the lives of people around 50 years younger. James Caan, in his sophomore outing, comes out best, but that’s not saying much since he has very little to do except growl and look broody. Marianna Hill (El Condor, 1971) is also believable.

While the racing footage has dated in a way that Grand Prix has not, the main problem is just a jumble of characters getting lost in a jumble of stories. No sooner has one character been introduced than we are onto another. There’s none of the cohesive story-telling that marked out The Big Sleep (1946) or Rio Bravo (1959) and, frankly, none of the characters are particularly interesting. And what possessed him to stick in a song sung by a character (Holly, played by Gail Hire) who cannot sing – she talks the lyrics – with a backing group made up of waitresses, I can’t begin to guess.

The most fun to be had is spotting in bit parts people famous for other reasons. Carol Connors, for example, who co-wrote the lyrics to “Gonna Fly Now” (Rocky, 1976) appears as a waitress. As does Cissy Wellman, daughter of veteran director William Wellman. Comedian Jerry Lewis has a cameo. It says much for Hawk’s star-spotting abilities that of two female leads, Laura Devon only made five pictures and Gail Hire just two. Of the main supporting males, this was the beginning and end of John Robert Crawford’s movie career while Skip Hire made a bigger splash as a producer of television series The Dukes of Hazzard.

However, the French had a word for it – “genius.” Despite being dismissed as a rare misstep by the bulk of critics worldwide, Cahiers du Cinema decided it was one of the year’s Top Ten pictures. So what do I know? Make up your own mind – catch it on Amazoon Prime.

What If: When Harry Met Frank

Apologies for venturing outside my self-appointed remit of the 1960s but this is too good to ignore and the artwork above extremely rare.

It’s pretty hard to get out of our minds the vision of Clint Eastwood as the tough cop of Dirty Harry (1971) especially brandishing his .357 magnum and snarling lines like “Do ya feel lucky, punk?” It was such a high point of Eastwood’s career that it’s hard to see anyone else in the role.

But, in fact, Warner Brothers did. Long before Eastwood entered the equation the studio had Frank Sinatra lined up. If your notion of Sinatra comes from musicals like High Society (1956) or easy-on-the-eye Rat Pack ventures like Sergeants 3 (1963) or his Oscar-winning turn in From Here to Eternity (1953), you would be forgetting his harder-hitting roles in the later 1960s as a tough cop in The Detective (1968) and as private eye Tony Rome (1967) and sequel Lady in Cement (1968).

Nor was Don Siegel a shoo-in for the director’s chair. Warner had already assigned that task to Irving Kershner. The Sinatra-Kershner version got far enough up the production ladder for the studio to produce a piece of artwork with the actor in the title role – see above. This went out an advertisement that appeared in Variety on November 9, 1970, under the headline “Now In Production Or In The Can (And In Theaters Soon)” suggesting the movie with Sinatra in the title role was pretty much a lock. Though what exactly was in the briefcase was anyone’s guess.

Other films advertised in the same spread were Rabbit Run with James Caan (also seen in this section of the ad) and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (though under a different title). However, the photo of Sinatra with a briefcase was hardly inspirational and a far cry from the eventual Eastwood image that went with the picture. Whether Sinatra’s interpretation of the character was intended to be quite as tough and mean as that of Eastwood, we shall never know.

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