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Thursday, December 13, 2007

(At Least) Two Big Sleeps

A guiding and protective hand was loosened when Howard Hawks sold to Warner Bros. his contractual interest in Lauren Bacall. Despite the debut sensation of To Have and Have Not, she would be as vulnerable as any newcomer, save for critical barb-spinners poised in anticipation of her follow-up vehicle. Confidential Agent (co-starring Bacall with Charles Boyer) might have sunk the whole enterprise had the public been so unforgiving as reviewers. The sultry stare has been almost as widely publicized as the glance of the Medusa represents panning Bacall and Confidential Agent got. This was the sort of dog that begged to be kicked. Mutual distrust and antipathy would characterize the Warners/Bacall relationship from this point forward. She wisely (if not cunningly) drafted a champion in Bogart, who would wade into studio battle on her behalf and spare Bacall the starlet’s eventual fate (was Dolores Moran her cautionary example?). What remained for Bogart and Howard Hawks was to rescue Bacall from the debacle of Confidential Agent and consolidate her stardom with The Big Sleep, a project to hopefully demonstrate she was no flash in the pan. The latter as final verdict would itself be narrowly avoided, for The Big Sleep was a deck of cards shuffled and reshuffled over almost two years between  shooting and eventual release. How and why this happened is understood better thanks to a surviving early cut that allows us to track The Big Sleep as the work in (slow) progress it was. Would we think less of classic era favorites given more rough drafts and false starts to evaluate? Maybe it was wiser studio policy that junked outtakes even if it meant the loss of Tarzan Escapes, forty minutes of The Magnificent Ambersons, and so many other now lost treasures. Proud companies didn’t like untreated merchandise getting to their public. The Pacific’s bottom might be our richest film archive but for pitiless salt water. The Big Sleep in dress rehearsal survives by virtue of prints shipped to military bases for off-duty entertainment. Soldiers felt like something special getting movies in advance of folks back home, and studios earned much good will putting combatants at the front of movie lines. Resulting letters home recommending previewed features made for buzz among family members and enhanced boxoffice when the shows played stateside, so rewards for studio generosity were ultimately measured by enhanced profits. 1944’s Hollywood Canteen endorses Warners’ policy of sneaking new films to servicemen when Robert Hutton brags to Bette Davis of having seen her Mr. Skeffington ahead of civilian patrons. The Big Sleep went out in like fashion after principal photography was completed in Spring 1945. It would be years before anyone noticed substantial differences between 16mm military prints and the version WB eventually released in August of 1946, as most of the former were gathered up and disposed of shortly after they played off in camps. One that survived came into noted collector David Bradley’s possession, but was seen by few. Robert Gitt and UCLA restoration crews got the 1945 Big Sleep back into circulation for archival showings and a DVD combo with 1946’s standard version. Differences are both subtle and substantial, depending on what you’re looking for.

Agent Charles K. Feldman isn’t someone historians talk about, so influence he wielded won't be  appreciated, but memos coming off The Big Sleep suggest he is due credit for broke things getting fixed and others being propped. In addition to well known reshooting he encouraged in January of 1946, Feldman seems to have arranged for even earlier retakes and additional scenes. He was Lauren Bacall’s representative, and didn’t want to see her ruined with ill-judged costuming and unflattering hairstyles. At some point, the initial scene with Bogart and Bacall went back before cameras, as the still shown here reveals a completely different outfit and coiffure from what ended up in either extant versions. There were issues as well over a veil Bacall wore during another scene (also here). As women never seem to opt for these anymore, I wonder how long ago they went out of style. Unflattering and off-putting at best, you’d have to wonder whose brainstorm it was to hang one on a nineteen-year-old actress, and whether Howard Hawks’ own middle-age betrayed him in using it. Bette Davis donned similar apparel in Now, Voyager and even kisses Paul Henried through the latticework, a scene always good for uneasy laughs out of modern viewers. Feldman wanted the veil dropped from The Big Sleep, but for at least the 1945 edition, Warners ignored him. Everyone agreed by the beginning of 1946 that The Big Sleep needed further work, and most of that would revolve around strengthening Bacall’s part. Feldman went so far as to warn that if this were not done, Warners’ investment in the actress might be a lost one. As with To Have and Have Not, there was another player nipping at Bacall’s heels, and like before, priorities had to be sorted out. Martha Vickers would be the sacrificial lamb, though in this case, Howard Hawks would not be so compliant when time came to gut her part. "The Big Sleep" has had an unfortunate history, said co-screenwriter William Faukner at the time. The girl who played the nymphy sister was so good she shattered Miss Bacall completely. So they cut the picture in such a way all her best scenes were left out except one. The result made nonsense and Howard Hawks threatened to sue to restrain Warners from releasing the picture. After long argument, I hear it; he went back in and did a lot of reshooting. Hawks had cast Martha Vickers after seeing her on a magazine cover, much as he had Bacall, only Vickers had done films prior to The Big Sleep, albeit small parts. With Bacall now off his personal contract payroll, Hawks was less willing to steamroll other players for her benefit, thus his objection to Warners’ plan for denuding Vickers’ role.

The Carmen Sternwood character was originally tagged for a spectacular third act finish according to Faukner; a hair-raising scene, as he called it. Instead of Eddie Mars exiting into a hail of henchman bullets (the climax we know), initial scripting had Vickers’ Carmen backing out the door with a pistol trained on Marlowe, only to be mowed down with machine guns when she’s spotted from outside. Whether such violence went before cameras is a question. Code restrictions would surely have prevented its inclusion in the final Big Sleep. Martha Vickers is good enough throughout to make us wonder how she might have fared if the part had been left intact. What became of her might have evoked memories of Dolores Moran among those who cared to notice. Few would. Martha Vickers was born in May 1925. She’d have been nineteen when The Big Sleep was shot between October 10, 1944 and January 12, 1945. Howard Hawks was supposed to have had a long-term affair with her, though anecdotes Regis Toomey told late in that actor’s life suggest she was woefully naïve about certain aspects of her "nymphy" character in The Big Sleep (according to Toomey, she claimed to be a virgin when kidded by cast and director). I wonder if Hawks didn’t get (or take) credit for conquests among actresses he never made. Persistently self-serving in every other career account, why not this? Indeed if Vickers accommodated him, no favors appear to have been reciprocated, and isn’t that, after all, why starlets bed down with powerful producer/directors? All she ever hit after The Big Sleep was a thick brick wall. Warners paired her with Jack Carson, Dane Clark, Zachary Scott, every pinch hitter and low scorer they had. Love and Learn was sufficiently lame as to be deplored even by its cut-and-paste director Frederick DeCordova. Vickers maintained public profile by marrying Mickey Rooney, which, like her Warners contract, wouldn’t last. She turned up in a second season Perry Mason I watched last week, somewhere down the cast list and bumped off short of the halfway sponsor break. Howard Hawks told Peter Bogdonovich of Vickers coming to him in tears over her skidded-out career after The Big Sleep, only to be chastised by the director for playing ingenues again after she’d been so good as a nymphomaniac. She died in 1971 at age forty-six.

That veil was finally off by 1946, but what of Bogie’s pajamas? No one mentioned it at the time. After all, men still wore them, including detectives (William Powell’s silken pair in The Thin Man) and private eyes. Sam Spade was pajama-clad upon receiving word of Miles Archer’s death. Modifications would come in the sixties. Sans top James Bond played host to a tarantula bedmate in Dr.No and would henceforth dispense with bottoms as well, this being a new era wherein heroes seldom if ever slept alone. The Code dictated single occupancy for Philip Marlowe come sacktime, but have passing years and changing fashion taken away some of Bogart’s cool for sleepwear he chose? Wartime necessitated The Big Sleep be shot indoors, thus a look and sound of alternate reality beyond even that we expect from old Hollywood. Street scenes are done on Warner stages. Car doors slam and echoes reverberate against studio walls. When Bogart runs his auto off a roadside, we’re startled to find ourselves in open spaces. On the topic of automobiles, were their interiors ever more celebrated than here? The Big Sleep embodies romance of forties driving. Vehicles compel even when sitting still. Bogart is staked out comfortably in his sedan and goes through a pack of Chesterfields waiting for something to happen inside a sound stage house, and this after rifling another parked car on the premises. Dashboard lights cast a noirish glow, ID tags hang from steering wheels, and ready gun compartments snap open at the touch. Spacious front seating might allow for picnics if one were inclined, every compliance there for love scenes played out minus impediment of safety belts we’re required (by law in many states) to wear. Bogart stalks hoodlum prey from behind leviathan-sized autos providing cover adequate as tanks he had utilized in Sahara. If Americans were gripped by the postwar driving obsession I’ve read about, surely we can credit The Big Sleep for starting us in that direction. There would (unfortunately) be no more Bogart/Hawks collaborations after this, hurt feelings over personal choices Bacall made a partial cause. The now married couple would not be comfortable working with this director again, and estrangement between them added up to entertainment loss for us all. Would Dark Passage and Key Largo have been better with Hawks in charge? Probably so. They would at least have had more humor, and judging by how both turned out, could have used it. I’ve read that Hawks never visited Bogart when the actor was sick, explaining that since he hadn't been invited before, there was no call to show up now that the end was near.


Blogger Vanwall said...

Hawks was bit of a bastard, true, and I have no doubt he could've done more for Vickers, Toomey's recollections as truth or not - judging by his past affairs, I tend to believe Hawks went for the quick and dirty and left her out to dry. I like watching Martha in "The Big Sleep" more than Bacall, who was somewhat mannered, while Vickers was stealing every scene she was in. And she was a knockout, too, with excellent movement on screen. She needed a Feldman.

11:16 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The thing about this film I never understood was why it had two titles for the Spanish language markets, both provided by Warner Bros.

In Spain, the film is known as EL SUEÑO eterno, which is essentially a literal translation.

But in Argentina and Latin America the film was released as AL BORDE DEL ABISMO, which means "at the edge of the abyss".

The discrepancy between film titles between Spain and Argentina is something that started back in the silent era and continues up to this day, although many films have similar titles in both markets.

Yet, the problem is since most of the film related books are mostly printed in Spain, they carry their own titles. And since these books are distributed in Latin America, the films frequently adopt the wrong titles.


Sometimes, the reasons of the changes were based in the fact that certain titles were already registered or used or that a literal translation wouldn't make sense in another language. But certain films from Argentina, inexplicably, would have their titles changed when they arrived into Spain.

2:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing the way Feldman knew more about what was wrong with the film and how to fix it than the people making it. And he was Bacalls agent, not really a part of the film creating process. Really makes one think more about how things got done, and more importantly why they were done in the making of these classic films. Really too bad about Martha Vickers screentime being cut down since it might have made the plot clearer. A very stylish film though and lots of great dialogue even if the goings on seem confusing.

It's interesting to note that even though both Moran and Vickers ended not having great film careers, they seemed to come out of it ok. Both married well; Moran to a producer and Vickers to a South American Polo player, so it's not as if they ended up on skid row. Sad that they both died so young.

9:46 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

The phrase "needing a Feldman" should become part of the language.

12:04 PM  
Blogger The Alchemist said...

I think Hawks was a bit out to sea on The Big Sleep. Not that it isn't one of the best things he ever did, but that the plot was so convoluted and there were so many other issues playing out behind the scenes that it finally dawned on him after contacting Chandler for a plot point that as long as the scenes were good, continuity wouldn't matter (and indeed many points are raised and dropped like the cipher that Bogie starts to work on in one scene that is never brought up again). Vickers is amazing in the film and I suspect that a film with more of her in it, especially one where she gets a final scene after being shown to be the killer of Sean Regan, would have been her film. But Warners and Bogie and Bacall too had too much riding on her being a success in the film. Feldman looked at the picture strictly in Bacall's terms and from that angle knew what had to be done to save her and part of that was more scenes of her coming off sophisticated and able to be a match for Bogart. Maybe Hawks was sleeping with Vickers, maybe not. Lucky for him if he was. One shouldn't judge Hawks too harshly on his comments to Vickers. Hawks had made a star of Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo. She was a brunette in the film. Then she dyed her hair blonde and visited Hawks and he told her he liked her better as a brunette, something she didn't like and never forgot. But...that's how he say it, he was giving her advice, and if she didn't take it, all he could do is throw up his hands. Vickers is not only a babe but gives an amazing performance in The Big Sleep and was probably offered similar roles and should have taken them. If she didn't, that was her fault. Hawks pointed it out and if it came at a time when it wasn't too late, she should have found a bad girl role in a quick hurry.

12:28 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yes, I think Hawks offered good advise to a number of players, even if he wasn't always tactful with it. His direct approach sometimes (often?) did not jibe with the very fragile egos he was dealing with.

Vickers was better than Bacall in "The Big Sleep," just as we could argue that Moran was, in many ways, the equal at least of Bacall in "To Have and Have Not."

Bacall was fortunate for how cards turned in her favor started out, or did she shuffle them (Bogart) to suit her own ends?

6:03 AM  

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