Books – Behind the Scenes of “Valley of the Dolls” (1968)

Behind-the-scenes books generally benefit from as much scandal as possible. Using that criteria, Dolls! Dolls! Dolls! by Stephen Rebello leaps to the top of the list. Rebello had been primarily responsible for turning Valley of the Dolls (1968) into a camp classic by hosting repeated showings of the picture from the 1990s onwards and making it number one in his book Bad Movies We Love.

The novel Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann was a record-breaking bestseller on the “sex/sin/salvation literary rodeo” but nothing that came out of the fevered imagination of Harold Robbins could match the Susann book, an insider’s look at the murky goings-on in Hollywood with drug abuse at the top of the heap. Unfortunately for Susann, Twentieth Century Fox struck a deal for the film rights pre-publication, long before it became a sensation, so she earned only $85,000 upfront, a quarter of what was paid for Peyton Place which sold far fewer copies. Mark Robson who had brought Peyton Place to the big screen was hired as director.

Stars clamoring for roles included Natalie Wood, Bette Davis, Debbie Reynolds and Kim Novak. The list of those who turned it down was longer: Lee Remick, Jane Fonda, Julie Christie, Raquel Welch, Candice Bergen. Christopher Plummer and James Garner were screen-tested. Sharon Tate, Barbara Parkins, Judy Garland and Patty Duke won the main roles.

Movies had done away with the “any similarity” disclaimer but it was upfront in all ads for the film as well as in the pre-credits on the film, whether as a publicity ploy or to head off potential legal action is unknown.

The screenwriters were as appalled at the material as the censor. But that was just the beginning of strife central. The personal enmity between Duke and Parkins rivalled that of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Screaming matches and hissy fits abounded. Duke suffered from drug and alcohol abuse, mood swings and nervous skin conditions and constantly clashed with the director. Plus, despite cutting some singles and albums, she had to mime.  Tate was forced into take after take for the normally economic director. The three young stars, believing this was a career-making picture, took no prisoners. Robson used a stopwatch when filming, as if he was already editing the film in his head, pushing the actresses to speak the lines faster, or undertake actions exactly on a time cue, a humiliating procedure in one scene for Tate. She refused to cry in case it messed up her make-up, which would cause further delay and further infuriate Robson. Tate was also embarrassed by publicity photos taken during her pornographic scene.

Garland was in no fit state to make a movie. She was drinking wine by the bucketload, dropping pills, slurring her lines, missing her cues and turning up late for work. Finally, it got too much and she was fired. Fans bombarded the studio with irate messages. Ginger Rogers rejected the role on account of the language.  Robson put in a personal phone call to Susan Hayward, who had quit Hollywood, and turned down several comeback roles including Mrs Robinson in The Graduate. When Hayward was finally persuaded for a hefty fee, the producers had to shred Garland’ s costumes. They were different sizes. Hayward’s wardrobe was redesigned from scratch. The last straw on the troubled production was producer David Wiesbart dropping dead. That wasn’t quite the last straw. Critics trashed the picture. Luckily, audiences didn’t and lined up in droves.

Selling Paul Newman – The Pressbook for “The Prize”

You’ve got a new Paul Newman picture to sell to the exhibitors responsible for booking the picture into theaters – or not. So, do you mention the fact that he has been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar three times in the last five years? Nope, that gets discounted because that was serious Paul Newman, heavy dramas, weighty themes. This is new-look Newman – a thriller in the vein of North by Northwest. The movie is set against the background of the Nobel Prize, the most important award scheme in the world, so surely promotion could focus on that. Well, no, actually that’s kind of weighty as well.

Nope, your best bet, according to the marketing team putting together the Pressbook (Exhibitor’s Campaign Manual) for The Prize is – wait for it – nudity and food. The first promotional page of the manual hits you with a couple of great ideas based on the fact that in the movie Paul Newman ends up in a nudist colony with only a towel to protect his dignity. “Announce that the first fifty women at your theater opening day will receive a costume just like the one worn by Paul Newman in the film” – in other words a towel. And if that doesn’t work “install a peek-a-boo box in which theater patrons can see the famous nude scene.” After all, continues the manual in confident tone, you are sitting on “the controversy of the century.”

Next big idea – “pre-sell The Prize with gourmet foods from Sweden.” Apparently, a heavy focus on food promotion had worked wonders for previous MGM pictures The VIPs (1963) and The Wheeler Dealers (1963) and neither of these pictures could call upon the actual menu served at the actual Nobel Banquet for 800 people at the Stockholm City Hall. The Pressbook gives menu ideas for exhibitors to pass on to local newspapers including such delicacies as “Supreme de Poulet Farci a la Royal” which is basically chicken stuffed with goose liver, cognac and madeira.  Alternatively, housewives could be tempted into making “Charlotte a la Royal” which consists of pineapple sorbet, curacao parfait, almond pastries filled with Grand Marnier, almond meringue and candied grapes.

Luckily, there were more mundane marketing ideas more likely to appeal to the theater manager who believed the name of Paul Newman should be all he or she needed to sell the picture. MGM had cut a single of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme for the picture – four singles actually by four different artists – and that was guaranteed airplay in over 500 radio stations, the tune was also included in a composite album of movie themes.

And link-ups were also possible with your local book store, newsagent and drug stores for the movie tie-in paperback of the bestselling Irving Wallace novel with the stars on the cover.

It was only the last two pages of the 16-page glossy A3 Pressbook that carried any information on the film itself and the stars. German Elke Sommer making her Hollywood debut was given as big a push as Newman himself. She had taken the alternative route into acting of winning a dancing contest (according to MGM’s press office – a beauty contest according to Imdb) that led to a small part in an Italian picture.

The pressbook erroneously stated her second picture was directed by Vittorio De Sica, whereas he was merely the star and Sommer merely a supporting actress. By the time she came to make The Prize, she was a veteran with 25 pictures in the can. Sommer’s wardrobe as worn in the picture might also generate tie-ups with sweater shops, beauty salons and lingerie retailers. An idea for a lobby stunt was to stick an enlarged photo of Sommer on the wall and give a prize for the best sketch by a local artist.

Needless to say, neither director Mark Robson nor screenwriter Ernest Lehman merited a mention in the Pressbook.

The Prize (1963) ****

Thoroughly involving potboiler with alcoholic novelist Paul Newman turning unlikely detective to uncover murky double-dealings at the annual Nobel Prize ceremony. Based on the Irving Wallace bestseller set in Stockholm, director Mark Robson (Von Ryan’s Express,1965) strings together a number of different stories that coalesce in a gripping climax. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest,1959) brings alive what could have been a very soggy adaptation of a beefy bestseller with witty and literate dialog and a plot that hovers just the right side of hokum.

Elke Sommer, delegated to look after Newman, starts out as stuffed shirt not sexpot, allowing Newman’s attention to drift towards Emily Stratman (Diane Baker) – daughter of another winner Dr. Max Stratman (Edward G. Robinson) – while he is also dragged into romantic entanglement with neglected wife Dr Denise Marceau (Micheline Presle). Mostly, Newman just wants his next drink and his almost continual inebriation sparks some good comedy and he is gifted good lines to extricate himself from embarrassment. Simmering in the  background are warring winners – the Marceau husband-and-wife team and Dr John Garrett (Kevin McCarthy) convinced that Dr Carlo Farelli (Gerard Oury), with whom he is sharing a prize, has stolen his research.  

 There are sufficient character clashes and plots to be getting along with if you were just intent on taking a Valley of the Dolls approach to the material, that is, cutting between various dramatic story arcs, but, without invalidating the other subsidiary tales, the movie takes quite a different turn, providing the potboiler with considerable edge.  

Turns out that Newman is so impoverished that he has been writing detective novels under a pseudonym and suspecting that Dr Stratman is an imposter he starts investigating. So in some respects it’s a private eye procedural played out against the glamorous backdrop of the awards. But the clues are inventive enough and there is a femme fatale and once Sommer comes along for the ride and with Newman a target the picture picks up an invigorating pace. Echoing the humorous auction scene in North by Northwest is a sequence set in a nudist colony where Newman seeks refuge to avoid villains while another terrific scene plays out in the docks.

Newman looks as if he is having a ball. In most of his pictures he was saddled with seriousness as if every part was chosen with an eye on the Oscars. Here, he lets rip with a lighter persona, and even if he mugs to the camera once too often, the result is a screen departure that lifts the picture. Inebriation has clearly never been so enjoyable. Sommer is a delight, showing great dramatic promise. Edward G. Robinson (Seven Thieves,1960), more renowned for his gangster roles, convinces as a scientist. Diane Baker (The 300 Spartans, 1962), Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers,1956) and Leo G. Carroll (North by Northwest) provide sterling support.

Robson directs with dexterity, mostly with an eye on pace, but it is Lehman’s script with occasional nods to Hitchcock that steals the show.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog – Paul Newman in Torn Curtain and Cool Hand Luke; Diane Baker in Marnie and The 300 Spartans; Elke Sommer in The Corrupt Ones and Mark Robson picture The Lost Command.  

 

Lost Command (1966) ****

Derring-do and heroism were the 1960s war movie default with enemies clearly signposted in black-and-white. This one doesn’t fall into that category, in fact doesn’t fall into any category, being more concerned with the military and political machinations pervasive on both sides in war. Movies about revolutions generally succeed if they are filmed from the perspective of the insurrectionists. When they take the side of the oppressor, almost automatically they lose the sympathy vote, The Green Berets (1968) in this decade being a typical example, although the sheer directorial skill of Francis Coppola turned that notion on its head with Apocalypse Now (1979) when slaughter was accompanied by majesty.  In the 1950s-1960s the French had come off worse in two uprisings, Vietnam and Algiers. This movie covers the tale end of the former and the middle of the latter and it’s a curious hybrid, part Dirty Dozen, part John Wayne, part dirty tricks on either side, with a few ounces of romance thrown in.

Scene from the Italian photobusta.

Anthony Quinn, in unlikely athletic mode (that’s him leaping in the poster) is the officer of a paratroop regiment who sees out the debacle of the final battle of the French war in Vietnam, loses his commission, and then, reprieved, is posted to Algeria, where the fight for independence is in full swing, with a ragbag of rejects plus some faithful comrades from his previous command. In any spare moment, Quinn can be seen keeping fit, doing handstands, swinging his arms, puffing out his chest, and a fair bit of running, presumably to avoid the contention that he was too old for this part. Alain Delon, a bit too moralistic for the dangerous business of war, plays his sidekick. Quinn is an ideal anti-hero for a hero, an officer who ignores, challenges or just plain overrides authority, adored by his men, hated by the enemy, ruthless when it matters.

Cardinale’s seductive wiles can’t fool Quinn.

The brutal realism, which sometimes makes you quail, is nonetheless the best thing about the picture, no holds barred here when it comes to portraying the ugly side of conflict. The training in The Dirty Dozen is a doddle compared to here, soldiers who don’t move fast enough are actually shot, rather than just threatened with live ammunition, and there’s no second chance for the incompetent – at the passing out ceremony several are summarily dismissed. The only kind of Dirty Dozen-type humor is a soldier who fills his canteen with wine. Otherwise, this is a full-on war. Battles are fought guerilla style, the enemy as smart as the Vietnamese, catching out the French in ambushes, using infiltrators sympathetic to the cause and terrorism. Unlike Apocalypse Now where the infantry appeared as dumb as they come, relying on strength in numbers and superior weaponry, Lost Command at least has an officer who understands strategy and most of what ensues involves clever thinking. The battles, played out in the mountains, usually see the French having to escape tricky situations rather than blasting through the enemy like cavalry, although having sneakily pinched a mayor’s helicopter (though minus Wagnerian overtones) gives Quinn’s team the opportunity to strafe the enemy on the rare occasions when they can actually be found, their camouflage professionally done.

George Segal, unrecognizable under a slab of make-up apart from his flashing white teeth, plays the Arab rebel chief. In terms of tactics and brutality, they are evenly matched, Segal shooting one of his own men for disobeying orders. Claudia Cardinale appears briefly at the start as Segal’s sister and when she turns up halfway through giving Delon the come-on it’s a bit too obvious where this plotline is going.  With both sides determined to win at all costs, atrocities are merely viewed as collateral damage, so in that respect it’s an unflinching take on war. The picture could have done with another 15 minutes or so to allow characters to breathe and develop some of the supporting cast. The movie did well in France but sank in the States where my guess is few of the audience would even know where Algeria was. Gilles Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, out the same year, gave the revolutionaries the leading role. For the most part Quinn is in bull-in-a-china-shop form but his character is more rounded in a romantic interlude with a countess (Michele Morgan), his ability to outsmart his superior officers, his camaraderie with his own soldiers and, perhaps more surprisingly, the ongoing exercise routines which reveal, rather than a keep-fit fanatic, an ageing soldier worried about running out of steam.