Selling Sharif – The Pressbook for “Mayerling” (1969)

MGM didn’t know how to sell this. So they came up with three different campaigns. The first was the classical illustration of stars Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve about to kiss. This image was used for the film’s launch in the U.K. and at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. The artwork could be augmented if need be by various scenes from the film. You would categorize this as the straightforward romantic sell. Sharif after all was the most famous romantic idol of the decade following the monumental success of Doctor Zhivago (1965).

But this was the more liberalized 1969 rather the restrained mid-decade so MGM offered exhibitors the opportunity to promote the picture as a more salacious number, not overdone sexually since that would defeat the purpose of achieving a rating designed to attract the widest possible adult audience, but nonetheless touching on enough of the risqué to satisfy modern cinemagoing taste.

Of the two alternatives, one was considerably more spicy than the other. Using the tagline “No one woman could satisfy him…until he fell in love” this presented Sharif as wanton playboy, wine glass in hand, cavorting with cleavage-ridden woman.  The other approach, though technically more reserved, was as provocative since it highlighted Deneuve’s role as a high-class sex worker in Belle de Jour (1967), the sensational arthouse breakout. The connection would not be lost on the more sophisticated members of the audience.

Nor did the Pressbook avoid the more intimate elements of the drama and in fact the biggest article in the promotional material concerned the “emotional incest” between Sharif as the Crown Prince and his mother played by Ava Gardner – “the abnormally close relationship between the two was noted again and again in records of the era” – and in their first scene together “looked like lovers to the silver screen born.”

Historical films lent themselves to the kind of detail that journalists loved and the Pressbook for a movie set in a magnificent Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century capitalized on this.  As you might expect, waltzes played a key role in the social life of high society. The Pressbook introduced newspaper editors to the concept of “left-waltzing,” a particularly energetic form of the dance performed on state occasions. This waltz had a “strict etiquette” in that it is “forbidden to reverse no matter how dizzy one gets,” explained director Terence Young. Auditioning for extras to participate was made simpler by eliminating anyone who collided with another dancer.

The Pressbook, unusually, also casts light on directorial technique, again in reference to a waltz. This is the one where Omar Sharif scandalizes the court by opening a ball by dancing with his mistress Catherine Deneuve. Young wanted to create the effect of the whirling couple revolving into a world of their own.  To achieve this the stars had to “dance in a perfect circle, keeping a constant distance in the center of the ballroom floor from director of photography Henri Akedan and his revolving camera.”

Initially, Young resorted to “two elaborate and – as it proved – punishing devices since the dance had to be done over and over.” The first saw camera and stars balanced at opposite ends of a rotating “see-saw.” But this moved so fast Sharif lost his balance and Deneuve suffered from dizziness. Next, they were connected by a lasso but this metal contraption struck them so often in the hips it was abandoned. Finally, they reverted to the simplest of solutions, working round a circle chalked on the floor. 

To ensure authenticity, Young was able to film at the Hapsburg Palace, the Karlschirche and the Schonbrunn Palace. However, such was the urge to preserve these antiquities, the stars were not permitted to sit on any of the chairs or even get anywhere close to them, so it was standing room only for days at a time. However, the Vienna Opera House of 1888 was reconstructed on Parisian sound stages.

The marketers were able to take advantage of the current fashion for the vintage look as pioneered by the likes of The Beatles. Under the heading “Groovy Gear,” the promotional gurus encouraged exhibitors to target the university crowd and metropolitan areas with a preponderance of young people who would appreciate the “freaky clothes” and “up-town hippy clothing” like the military garb, long topcoats, high boots and fur hats worn in the film. Even so, the Pressbook originators were remarkably unimaginative when it came to dreaming up stunts and promotional gimmicks. Their best suggestions were a Catherine Deneuve look-alike contest and a competition to list all Omar Sharif’s roles. Rather more ambitious was the idea of inviting high school pupils to write an essay on aspects of the period.

Book into Film – “The Secret Ways” (1961)

You might ask yourself why star Richard Widmark bought the rights to Alistair MacLean Cold War thriller The Last Frontier (title changed to The Secret Ways for American publication and the film) if he was going to ignore so much of the author’s brilliant story. In the original version hero Reynolds (the Widmark character) does not simply fly into Vienna as in the film, but has already crossed the Austrian border into Hungary in a blizzard after hitching a lift in a truck but now is stranded on foot in sub-zero temperatures, 30 miles from Budapest. This is not the only change authorized by Widmark, wearing his producer’s hat.

His Reynolds is a freelance gun for hire clearing a gambling debt and hired by an American spy ring compared to MacLean’s British secret service agent, intensely trained for 18 months for this mission. The mission in MacLean’s book is to rescue/kidnap British scientist Professor Jennings, the world expert on ballistic missiles, with the help of Hungarian resistance leader -Hungary at the time part of the Soviet bloc – Jansci (Wolf Rilla). Widmark eliminated all mention of Jennings. Instead, the task facing his Reynolds is to get Jansci out of Hungary. Widmark’s Jansci is still a resistance leader but doubling up as the professor albeit a straightforward scholar with nothing to do with missiles.  

Cover of the Doubleday U.S. hardback edition in 1959.

Combining characters was not unusual in the movie business and Widmark may have deemed it necessary to streamline the plot. But if the idea was to simplify the plot, that hardly explained the existence of Elsa (Senta Berger). She was not in the book. Her sole purpose may have been to provide Widmark with casual romance – a testament in Hollywood terms to his irresistible attraction – early in the story.

This was Alistair Maclean’s first shift away from the trio of war novels, including The Guns of Navarone, which had rocketed him into the bestseller class, and it proved to be a major change of style that created the non-stop thriller template that would underpin the later Fear Is the Key (published in 1961), When Eight Bells Toll (printed in 1966) and Puppet on a Chain (1969 publication), all of which were filmed, which saw loners or secret agents enduring horrific physical abuse as they battled the odds.

MacLean’s Reynolds enters Budapest a captive, rather than as in the Widmark version merely catching a train. Widmark meets Jansci’s daughter Julia (Sonia Ziemann) in Vienna. But in the book the secret agent meets Julia, along with her father, after he is captured by the resistance. In the book Reynold’s kidnap occurs in the first 20 pages, in the film at the halfway mark. From the outset Maclean thrusts his hero pell-mell into action with nary a let-up but in the film the action is punctuated by romance and various political meanderings.

Giving the game away No 1: the back cover of the Fontana paperback movie tie-in explains the plot – and it’s different from the one Widmark filmed.

Perhaps Widmark shied away from the MacLean plot due to budget constraints for the novel is certainly more intense and continually action-packed. Starting with the blizzard and ending with a perilous river crossing, the novel has several scenes which would have looked stupendous on screen. The story Widmark ignored involved the scientist in danger of being removed from Hungary to be returned to the Soviet Union, forcing Reynolds to effect a rescue on board a train, in a devil-may-care episode worthy of James Bond, by separating one car from the rest. There follows a 400-kilometer chase to the Austrian border where, pursued by Hungarian secret police, they cross the river Danube. In a final twist, while the professor and Julia are safe, Jansci refuses to leave his native country.

In various blogs covering the transition of novel into screenplay, I have mostly understood why a screenwriter would delete, alter or embellish plot, characters, time scale and even locale. Sometimes the screenwriter simply comes up with a more believable plot (as in Blindfold) or is required by the sheer length of the novel to make considerable changes. It’s rare for me to think that the screenwriter has taken the wrong approach. I thought The Devil Rides Out could have done with more of the occult background in the Dennis Wheatley novel. Here, it’s quite obvious that Maclean had a far better storyline than the film Widmark chose to make, the blizzard, train and river crossing scenes far more exciting than anything in the finished picture. As I noted, money may have been the issue.

Giving the game away No 2: the back cover of the Pocket Books paperback movie tie-in explains that Reynolds is a British secret service agent – but that’s not how Widmark played him.

However, it’s just as interesting that Widmark and Co. managed to make an enjoyable picture by not following the original story. The role of gambler-gone-bad was more appropriate to the Widmark screen persona than a secret service agent (outside of the humorous Our Man in Havana, there were not many of those around until a few years later). The film did introduce Senta Berger to a wider audience and the plot as it stands made a lot of sense.

The book was published in Britain in 1959 as The Last Frontier. In America the same year Doubleday renamed it The Secret Ways. There was a Victor Mature western called The Last Frontier in 1955 – and the title had also been used in 1932 and 1939 – so unless  Richard Widmark had purchased the film rights prior to American publication and announced a name change, then I have no idea why the book title changed.

 

Mayerling (1968) ****

Sumptuous historical romantic drama set in a fading European empire awash with political intrigue and incipient revolution. Archduke Rudolf (Omar Sharif), married heir to the throne and constantly at odds with rigid father Emperor Franz-Josef (James Mason), sympathizes so strongly with Hungarian dissidents that he threatens to tear apart the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, when he falls in love with Maria (Catherine Deneuve) and wants to marry her instead that, too, threatens to throw the empire into disarray.

Although dissolute, a mistress (or two) on the side, and addicted to morphine, that is not the way Rudolf is introduced to the audience. Instead, he is one of a string of bloodied men arrested after a demonstration giving his name to an officer in a police station who, once he is recognized, orders all other prisoners be released. He is the poster boy for good royalty. The Hungarians, agitating for independence, want him to become their king.

Beautifully mounted with lavish sets and enough in the way of balls, ballet, processions,  horse riding and sleighs to keep up a steady parade of visually interesting distractions, the films steadily builds up an undercurrent of tension, both between father and son and between rebels and ruler. The emperor is a political genius, not just spying on his son, but full of devious devices to hold together whatever threatens to break up the empire.

The romance develops slowly and with true historical perspective, the first kiss they share is not on the lips, Rudolf kisses both her cheeks, she kisses his palm. Yet, there is a real sense that, no matter his power, they can still both be trapped in roles they despise, separated at the whim of parents. Rudolf, as he understands true love for the first time, finds the self-belief to challenge political certainties.

The regal aspects are well done, arguments about the rule of monarchy come over as heated conversation rather than boring debate, the political realities unavoidable. Rudolf, desperate to avoid a future where someone has to die before he has a reason to live. Escape is not an option.

There is a wonderful bitchy atmosphere in the court, where ladies-in-waiting disparage each other behind their backs, one dress described as “wallpaper,” and are forever seeking advancement. Countess Larish (Genevieve Page) is a self-appointed procurer-in-chief for Rudolf, not caring what chaos she causes.

I should add, if you are as ignorant of your European history as myself, that Mayerling is a place not a person. I tell you this so that you don’t make my mistake of waiting for a Mayerling character to appear. The film pointedly avoids a history lesson but it could have spared a minute to explain that the events depicted take place just 20 years after the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the second largest land-mass in Europe, and among the top two or three nations. That would have helped clarify why Franz-Josef was in such a constant state,  worried about forces that could break up the empire, and as concerned that his son, living such a debauched life, lacked the personal skills to hold it together after his father’s death.

It is ironic that Rudolf does prove his worth as a result of being briefly separated from Maria, taking the army to task for its incompetent officers and poor maintenance of everything from weaponry to horses.

To his credit director Terence Young (Dr No, 1962) does not rely on Omar Sharif’s soulful brown eyes and instead allows action to convey character and looks and touch the meaning of his love. This is probably Omar Sharif’s best role, one where he clearly made all the acting decisions rather than being over-directed by David Lean as in Doctor Zhivago (1965). Catherine Deneuve is equally impressive as a far-from-docile innocent, especially given the wide range of more sexually aware characters she has created for Repulsion (1965) and Belle de Jour (1967).

James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) is superb as the conniving emperor, so rigid he will not approve a change of buttons for the army, so cunning that an apparent rapprochement with his son has unseen strings attached. Ava Gardner (55 Days at Peking, 1963) sweeps in briefly as an empress protective of her son and making the best of life in a gilded cage. Also impressive are Genevieve Page (Grand Prix, 1966) and James Robertson Justice (Doctor in Distress, 1963) as the high-living British heir nonetheless under the thumb of his mother Queen Victoria.

Terence Young also wrote the literate, often amusing script, although Denis Cannan (A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965) and Joseph Kessel (Night of the Generals, 1967) are credited with additional dialogue. While Francis Lai (The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl, 1968) wrote the score he relies heavily on classical music from Aram Khachaturian’s Spartacus.

If you come at this not expecting a David Lean style affair full of striking compositions, but an old-fashioned drama advancing at leisurely pace, you will not be disappointed.

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