Shave 20-30 minutes from this and you would have had a taut thriller. You could start with the number of clever dicks who happen to notice that what’s going on bears a close resemblance to a play Volpone by Shakespeare contemporary Ben Johnson, even down to the anglicizing of the names of those fictional characters. And prune the number of detectives, three is two too many especially when there’s an actual genuine detective in the mix. And the shock ending is just…well…mince.
Otherwise, quite fun in a way. Wealthy Cecil Fox (Rex Harrison) hires sometime actor, sometime factotum, law graduate Marty McFly – oops William McFly – to help him pull off an elaborate joke, “people-baiting”, a modern version of “bear-beating” apparently. Fox pretends to be dying in order to bring three former lovers, all he presumes desperate to be named in his will, to his bedside in a grand palazzo in Venice. Upfront reason, some kind of revenge. Hidden reason, something darker obviously.
The trio are Texan Mrs Sheridan (Susan Hayward), movie star Merle (Edie Adams) and Princess Dominique (Capucine). Sheridan is accompanied by a nurse Sarah (Maggie Smith), the “voice of morality.” They all certainly seem to have a sense of humor. Two presenting Fox with gifts of clocks, the princess with an hour-glass filled with gold dust instead of sand, presumably with the notion that he can watch his life ticking away. Needless to say, this is like an reality TV show, Fox not having named an heir in his will, so they are all battling to be the heir, and as he points out, even the rich will succumb because there is no such thing as “enough money.”
Things do not go according to plan when Sheridan unexpectedly dies. Enter Inspector Rizzo (Adolfo Celi). Sarah suspects McFly because he used her as an alibi but disappeared for a time when she (for unexplained reasons) fell asleep in a posh restaurant (and nobody tried to wake her). Turning detective herself, she comes up with “proof positive.” Turns out the two remaining suspects had conspired to also give themselves an alibi, easily demolished by the kindly inspector. McFly, too, has been doing some digging.
But then comes another twist and everything you thought you knew flies out the window. Cue more investigation, more alibis and finally an Agatha Christie pay-off when the two amateur detectives and the real one confront everyone in the drawing room. By which time the twists are coming thick and fast.
Best thing about this is the playing. Although decidedly stagey, very little in the way of visual audacity, that works to the movie’s benefit, and not a bad choice to rely so heavily on the acting given the cast. With the exception of Edie Adams, Capucine and Celi, all were Oscar anointed. Two winners – Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady (1964) and Susan Hayward for I Want to Live (1958) – and between them another five nominations – and two future winners in Cliff Robertson for Charly (1968) and Maggie Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). The others were not out of their depth, Edie Adams (Made in Paris, 1966) clocking up Emmy nominations. Adolfo Celi (In Search of Gregory, 1969) a deuce of nominations from the Cannes Film Festival while even Capucine (The 7th Dawn, 1964) had been nominated for a Golden Globe.
So director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Cleopatra, 1964) makes the right decision to let his actors get on with. Rex Harrison is at his suave best, but with a malevolent undercurrent, and has most of the best – and zestiest – lines. Robertson, usually the hero, is sly and duplicitous. Susan Hayward was in her comfort zone, forthright and taking no prisoners, Capucine at her cold and haughty best. Smith and Celi were the revelations, the former losing the trademark drawl and the nurse’s mousiness as to some extent she exerts control, and Celi departing from the bombast and delivering a lower-keyed performance.
Doing double duty, Mankiewicz worked up the script from three sources: the original Volpone, the play Mr Fox of Venice by Frederick Knott (Dial M for Murder) and a novel The Evil of the Day by Thomas Sterling. Next time the director went to the stage for inspiration he chose a better source for a mystery – Sleuth (1972).
Hollywood has been hitting the retread button for over a century. Today’s reboots and re-imaginings are nothing new. Although in the past the excuse was technological development, the splurge of remakes in the 1960s including Beau Geste (1966), Stagecoach (1966) and Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969) were superior to the originals in one particular aspect – they were in color.
When silent films went from two-reels to four-reels and from six-reels to eight-reels, roughly the length of a modern picture, and when silent gave way to sound the remake business went into overdrive. The 80-minute Tess of the Storm Country (1914) starring Mary Pickford was transformed into a 137-minute version eight years later headlined by the same star. Zane Grey westerns starring William Farnum Raiders of the Purple Sage (1918), The Lone Ranger (1919) and The Last of the Duanes (1919) were remade as Tom Mix vehicles between 1923 and 1925 and toplining George O’Brien between 1930 and 1931. Over 120 remakes were made between 1928 and 1930, with around 80 per cent going out with the same title. There was another remake burst at the end of the 1930s including The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).
Color was the prime instigator for the remake business in the 1960s. But you could also add the technological development of 70mm, the key element of roadshow pictures. Many big-budget films of the 1920s and 1930s had hit the box office target and with studios looking for as many sure-fire winners as possible it seemed sensible to give a new look to older projects. Ben-Hur (1959) could be seen as lighting the remake touch paper especially when it scored equally highly at the box office and the Oscars. MGM followed through with roadshows of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), one-third as long again as the 1935 original, Cimarron (1960) with an extra 20 minutes compared to the 1931 Oscar-winner. But the reimagining of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) ran about the same length as the Rudolph Valentino version of 1921 as did King of Kings (1961) compared to the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille version.
Prior to considering the expensive business of investing in a remake, studios had been able to rely on sticking out the old movie as a reissue, limited financial exposure often resulting in considerable box office. But it was impossible to sell silent pictures, excepting comedians like Charlie Chaplin, to a modern audience and many of the big hits of the 1930s had either been already sold to television or were considered dated by contemporary standards and although black-and-white films were still being made halfway through the decade (In Harm’s Way, 1965, for example) they were a difficult re-sell.
Far easier to revamp a well-known, perhaps beloved, product with the addition of color cinematography, better sound, and possibly with major stars in the vein of Marlon Brando (Mutiny on the Bounty) and Peter O’Toole (Goodbye, Mr. Chips). It also seemed the case that lesser stars could still prop a remake with little adverse effect on the receipts especially if the lower-priced actors substantially reduced the budget and consequently the income required to turn a profit.
Some movies appeared to be on an endless recycle. The Count of Monte Cristo (1964) had been filmed in 1956, 1954 and 1934, the latter starring Robert Donat. The Perils of Pauline (1967) had been remade twice since Pearl White had made the character her own in 1914. Back Street (1961) with Susan Hayward had been filmed twice before in 1941 and 1932. The Spanish-made The Last of the Mohicans (1963) starring Jeffrey Hunter was the fifth attempt at filming the famous novel after movies made in 1920, 1932, 1936 and 1957.
Some remakes changed their titles. Cary Grant comedy Walk, Don’t Run (1966) was based on The More the Merrier (1943), Stolen Hours (1963) with Susan Hayward on Dark Victory (19390 with Bette Davis, Doris Day vehicle Move Over Darling (1963) on My Favorite Wife (1940), and Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (1963) on The Old Dark House (1932). William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour (1961) starring Audrey Hepburn drew on These Three (1936), Uptight (1968) was a modern take on John Ford’s Oscar-nominated The Informer (1935), and comedy The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968) with Don Knotts had its origins in The Paleface (1948) starring Bob Hope. Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese classic Rashomon (1950) retuned as The Outrage (196) starring Paul Newman. The Bonnie Parker Story (1958) was drastically retuned as Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Frank Capra’s A Pocketful of Miracles (1961) was based on his own Lady for a Day (1932). Gregory Peck thriller Mirage (1965) took only three years to re-emerge as Jigsaw (1968).
Other studios decided the original title was too big an attraction to be discarded. Of Human Bondage (1964) with Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey had been made 30 years earlier with Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. Night Must Fall (1965) starring Albert Finney had originated 27 years prior. Raquel Welch-starrer One Million Years B.C. (1966) had been slightly truncated from One Million B.C. (1940), Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson headlined The Killers (1964) based on characters originally essayed by Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner 18 years previously, Mayerling (1969) with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve had starred Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux in the 1936 version.
Horror was the most obvious genre to receive a revamp. Robert Bloch rewrote The Cabinet of Dr Cagliari (1962) forty-two years after the original. Hands of Orlac (1961) with Mel Ferrer had previously been known as Mad Love (1936). Herbert Lom reprised The Phantom of theOpera (1962) following on from Lon Chaney in 1925 and Nelson Eddy in 1943. French-made The Golem (1967) was based on versions screened in 1921 and 1937.
Some films were remade with music, Goodbye Mr. Chips – the Robert Donat, Greer Garson original belonging to 1939 – the most obvious example but The Sound of Music (1965) was essentially a musical version of the Germanic The Trapp Family (1956), and Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) set in Rome turned up as the musical The Pleasure Seekers (1964) set in Madrid, both films directed by Jean Negulesco. On the other hand, State Fair (1962), which had been turned into a drama in 1945 despite being based on a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, was restored to its roots.
Not every remake idea proved a slam dunk. Projects that failed to get off the ground included: TheBirth of Nation (1915), Ecstasy (1933), Metropolis (1927) to be directed again by Fritz Lang, Wuthering Heights (1939) to star Richard Harris, Dark Angel (1925 and 1937) with Rock Hudson, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), The Crusades (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) with Roger Moore – although it was remade in 1968 – Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Jane Eyre (1943) to star James Mason, The Macomber Affair (1946) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Anthony Quinn was touted for a remake of Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (1962) and Saul David planned a westernized version of that director’s The Hidden Fortress (1958).
French director Claude Chabrol had ambitions to make a version of Hamlet (1948) from Ophelia’s point of view though a Russian version appeared in 1964. MGM blocked a remake of Tarzan of the Apes (1931). Francis Ford Coppola proposed Heaven Can Wait, a reworking of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, to star Bill Cosby. Stephen Boyd was mooted for a remake of The Quiet Man (1952).
Producer Ray Stark (Funny Girl, 1967) announced new versions of Casablanca (1942) and a Peter Collinson-directed The Maltese Falcon (1941). Musical versions were announced of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Our Town (1937), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Roman Holiday (1953), the latter to star Robert Redford.
SOURCES: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You, A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016), p21, 27, 31; “Drift Towards Remakes Grows on Coast,” Box Office, March 11, 1939, p37; “That Birth of a Nation Title,” Variety, April 13, 1960, p6; “Sales Come-On But Never Mislabel Content – Hathaway,” Variety, October 26, 1960, p13; “Bischoff-Diamond To Make Charge,” Box Office, July 10, 1961, p11; “Bash Vindicated – After 4 Yrs,” Variety, July 12, 1961, p5; “MGM Is Upheld In Suit over Tarzan,” Box Office, July 10, 1961, p13; “New Cycle of Classics for French Prods,” Variety, July 12, 1961, p16; “Dark Angel Remake to Writer Lee Mahin,” Box Office, December 18, 1961, pW-8; “Robert Blees Plans Remake of Macomber Affair,” Box Office, March 12, 1962, p16; “Anderson-U.A. Talk Wuthering Remake,” Variety, August 28, 1963, p22; “Spain’s Latest Western,” Variety, October 23, 1963, p18; “MGM Signs for 3 Co-Productions in Spain,” Variety, January 15, 1964, p22; “Hollywood Report,” Box Office, February 10, 1964, p16; “Japanese Sanjuro Remake for Quinn,” Variety, May 5, 1965, p4; “Weintraub Sends Down L.A. Roots,” Variety, January 12, 1966, p5;“Universal Re-Do of DeMille 1935 Crusades,” Variety, April 13, 1966, p3; “Plan Rebel Without Cause For Remake As Musical,” Box Office, April 18, 1966, p9; “Lee Thompson Busily Reprints His Musical Version of Henry VIII,” Variety, April 27, 1966, p17; “U’s Future Parks 17 Vehicles,” Variety, May 25, 1966, p33; “Re-Do of Quiet Man,” Variety, March 5, 1967, p5; “De Laurentiis in New Par Dickers,” Variety, January 10, 1968, p5; “David to Re-Do Kurosawa Plot As U.S. Western,” Variety, June 12, 1968, p4; “Re-Do of Falcon,” Variety, July 10, 1968, p14; “Star In W7 Pic,” Variety, January 15, 1969, p3.
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.
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.