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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Another From The United Nations Parade Of Hits ...

Will The Poppy Is Also A Flower (1966) Bloom Again?

This ad in Charlotte's paper stopped me cold. Was this a new James Bond? The Poppy Is Also A Flower was first shown on television (4/66), then at theatres worldwide. It was produced under auspices of the United Nations, financed by the Xerox Corporation, plus monies from Euro distribs. Links to 007 were rife and heavily emphasized. Terence Young of three Bond-ventures would direct a story conceived by Ian Fleming. The cast was international and star-studded, all in for a single dollar, or English pound, Austrian shilling, whatever currency was dispensed in variety of countries where shooting took place. UN topper Adlai Stevenson helped grease wheels of cooperation and equated creative input to public service, thus a Yes from most names asked to participate. Proceeds were earmarked for UNICEF and other charities, so volunteers knew cash would head in useful direction. Director Young had choice of subject matter from UN files, and chose the opium scourge for his action base. From there, a modest venture grew to big-budget quest of Young to out-do Bond and have himself a sprawling and international hit.

Production took nine months at a cost of $1.8 million. Young had worked closely with author Fleming to incorporate "all the James Bondesque elements imaginable." Filming took place all over the continent, much of hospitality via the Shah Of Iran, who put desert locations and his nation's army at disposal of Young's crew. Iranian effort to quell drug trade was lauded by Princess Grace of Monaco, who spent two days filming a prologue for the feature. Distribution got cinched for all territories excepting the US (MGM, for instance, handling UK dates). Stateside majors balked due to Poppy's tube-premiering, that set in stone for 4/22 no matter epic size of the completed pic. Young was told to trim The Poppy Is Also A Flower to 80 minutes for fit into hour-and-half  slot ABC  skedded. That meant twenty minutes shaved off 100 that was Poppy's full length, these including "adult" content Young inserted for worldwide lure.

Some of wallop recalled highlights from James Bonds previous. There were bikini-clad girl wrestlers to evoke the gypsy fight in From Russia With Love, and the rail-set combat to death between 007 and assassin "Grant" (Robert Shaw) from the same film was redone here with UN investigator E.G. Marshall opposing drug minion Anthony Quayle. Variety reviewed The Poppy Is Also A Flower in its TV version and sang praise, called it "drama ... loaded with suspense, action, and excitement." Tube broadcast notwithstanding, there was a "World Premiere" in Vienna (5/7/66) at "the biggest cinema in Europe," seating 3,000 at what ordinarily was host to sport events and ice extravaganzas. Government officials and Poppy stars were there in force as the film teed off successful runs across the continent. What remained was theatrical release for The Poppy Is Also A Flower in America, but who'd distribute after ABC and sponsoring Xerox gave the show away?

A new company, Comet Films, picked up The Poppy Is Also A Flower among twenty features they'd have in US circulation for fall/winter 1966. Poppy, of course, was the jewel, but Comet couldn't swing initial bookings for New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, each turndown based on TV having first sniffed the Flower. Comet settled for a Texas opening, then to whatever keys they could interest. All would pound the James Bond links, Thunderball having been a biggest of all 007's and still playing to full houses. Comet made hay too of fact that theirs was a complete and unexpurgated version of The Poppy Is Also A Flower, unlike ABC's sanitized run. Expectations ran high, Comet headed into the marketplace with 200 prints (an "unusually large number ... for an indie," said Variety), execs figuring on two million at least in domestic rental. They'd adjust that later ("perhaps over-optimistic" said Comet staff), one million being the more realistic estimate. As of June 1967, however, Comet was still trying to rinse off the stain of Poppy having run first on television, and theatres' ongoing reluctance to book it as result.

Poppy barely sprouts on DVD, or streaming, let alone Blu-Ray. An indie label offers it as The Opium Connection, but reviews say picture/sound "leaves much to be desired." There's a disc from Region Two that smacks of buyer beware. You can watch The Poppy Is Also A Flower on You Tube, but that isn't the experience Terence Young aimed for. Maybe it's foolish optimism, but I've a feeling Poppy would flourish on properly restored and widescreen HD, but who the deuce "owns" it? Maybe I should drop by UN headquarters like Roger Thornhill and ask how much for rights to The Poppy Is Also A Flower. Wish someone would, because it's a fun ride over 60's "International" landscape. The cast is glittery, with action profuse, if not on level with 007. I'd have liked Poppy a lot more in 1966 than Matt Helm, Flint, or U.N.C.L.E paste-ups, but who would drive me ninety miles to the Dilworth in Charlotte?

Fun's a-plenty, even on You Tube. Stephen Boyd looks to crack the cartel in a first reel, but is casually killed off so a next star can shine. That's Yul Brynner, and later Jack Hawkins, as uniforms behind UN force. Going undercover are Trevor Howard and E.G. Marshall, theirs an early incarnation of "buddy cops" later decades would popularize. Scheme is to make opium radioactive so shipments will trace easier. Eli Wallach pops in as a dealer who fronts in aspirin and toothpaste sales, while lead heavy is Gilbert Roland, his muscle assist Harold Sakata in Oddjob guise. Briefly-in Rita Hayworth carries heroin in her purse. T. Howard notes grimly that there are "60,000 addicts in New York alone" (so few?). He cites as well "the law of the Mafia" that results in prison strangulation of a would-be informer. There would seem no reason for Trini Lopez to appear and sing Lemon Tree, yet there he is. Such is the wide, weird, world of The Poppy Is Also A Flower, a relic rare and likely to remain so until someone (anyone!) comes to belated rescue and makes it generally available again.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

I saw this on its original ABC airing. Being 10 years old, I found it pretty dull going. All I remember is Trini Lopez (I, too wondered what he was doing there), and someone --EG Marshall? -- hiding under a bed while a woman undressed. I believe his line was, "How was I supposed to know she took off her clothes to wash her hands?" As a 10 year-old, that impressed me the most.

1:25 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson recalls "The Poppy Is Also A Flower" being available as a 16mm rental:

Back in the early 70s, I remember browsing our school's 16mm catalogs and puzzling over films I'd never hear of. "The Poppy is Also a Flower" was one -- can't remember which catalog; quite possibly Films Inc. -- with its oddball name-dropping synopsis, United Nations endorsement and assertions of uplift. Even at a young age, I envisioned an update of something like "The Stolen Jools."

Anyway, there were 16mm prints struck and offered for rent.

5:57 PM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

I tried watching this when it first aired. It was & still is DULL DULL DULL.

7:57 PM  

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