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Friday, July 24, 2009

Metro's Red Badge Blow-Off

How radical was John Huston’s The Red Badge Of Courage? Those insiders who saw his proposed version were impressed to a man. It was only when hoi-polloi at the previews laughed and walked out that panic ensued. The story reads like a second act for The Magnificent Ambersons, another legendarily mutilated classic still unaccounted for in its entirety. Red Badge should have moved through the Metro system like dozens more literary adaptations going back to the company’s inception, so I’ve got to figure Huston’s treatment was at the least a major departure from formula they’d applied to those. Accounts of production and infighting abound thanks to a remarkable series of articles published in The New Yorker after Red Badge itself was dead and buried. Little time was needed for this one to evaporate out of theatres. Huston would remember it as his first film to lose money, and indeed it did ($940,000), though a lot of other MGM releases shed skin as well during those troubled years when a public seemed to have decided en masse to stop attending movies. For whatever good or bad reason, the studio gave writer Lillian Ross total access to staff involved with Red Badge and received for their hospitality a primer book (the collected articles appeared hardbound in 1952) on corporate myopia and venality. Huston sort of got out unscathed for having charmed the author, but others, including VP in charge of production Dore Schary (below with MGM's Leo the Lion), came off looking like a vacillating fathead bent on vandalizing a talented director’s work. Ross was probably right on that account. The Red Badge Of Courage looks to me to have been another of those pictures too far ahead of 1951 to survive that year intact. Everyone seemed desperate to salvage jobs placed in perceived jeopardy for having worked on it. They all nodded yes to scissors Schary personally applied after those disastrous previews and Huston splitting town to do The African Queen. Like Ambersons, it’s still a terrific show, but you have to decode much of Red Badge’s remains to divine what Huston had in mind. The real story was the off-set smack-down between Schary and soon-to-be-deposed Louis Mayer, who unwisely brandished this modest project (final negative cost: $1.642 million) as Exhibit A for a him-or-me ultimatum to New York studio chief (and deciding voter) Nicholas Schenck. Schary won, but blinked when the Red Badge pet he’d adopted grew teeth at those previews and threatened to become an audience joke received at his expense. To avert that, he’d simply cut it until the laughter stopped.

Red Badge seemed too inconsequential to arouse such backlot rancor, for Huston was at no time extravagant and his budget was actually exceeded by post-tinkering done by others. This was no Von Stroheim challenging studio authority. He’d just made money for them doing The Asphalt Jungle and was shaping up as one of postwar’s first total filmmakers worthy of rank alongside experienced writer-directors prized for being so few in number. His wild man ways were indulged for having delivered goods and showing a keen eye for what sold in theatres. According to some accounts, Huston turned in Red Badge Of Courage at less than ninety minutes (It was never a long picture, he later said). I’ve read variously of running times at 95 and 105 minutes. Some remembered two and a quarter hours of agony during test screenings wherein half the audience jeered and others walked out. Battle scenes were alleged to have been gorier and in greater abundance. Huston’s Civil War was far more hellish than conservative Metro was willing to depict. Mayer blanched at carnage and ruefully commented that it was typical of excess from this director (LB had heartily disapproved of The Asphalt Jungle as well). Other Metro personnel who’d liked Red Badge before chickened out now. Schary went to plucking and yes-men called him a hero for the result lasting just over an hour. The Motion Picture Herald announced release for September 1951 in July of that year, with running time to be 81 minutes, though by the August 18 trade screenings for exhibitors, it was down to a final 69 minutes. Everyone connected with the sorry affair spent remaining years trying to justify actions taken in mutual panic. Longtime MGM editor Margaret Booth told Focus On Film in 1976 that Red Badge was very long at first, that it was better shorter, and still managed somehow to emerge a classic. For his part, Huston seems not to have held grudges. He’d even hire Booth to edit his much later Fat City. Narration from Stephen Crane’s source book was appended to a reshuffled Red Badge to give literary weight and essentially dare patrons to ridicule it as they previously had.

It was clear those 69 minutes had been arrived at by way of hacking. Reviews were laudatory, but critics didn’t cover house nuts ruptured by a black-and-white downer about cowardice on the battlefield. Independent film buyers charting for The Motion Picture Herald called it poor. MGM’s New York sales division, where studio releases were made or broken, admitted indifference to investigating Lillian Ross, saying they’d known all along it would be a dog. Such candor as shared with an outsider was unprecedented. Red Badge ended up an art film (mis) handled by a company unequipped and frankly resentful of that label. Metro’s market was still a mass audience seated in big auditoriums, but here was a show that would reach neither. The fallback was to open (late by a month) at New York’s Trans-Lux 52nd Street art house, which seated 539 and was home to a number of Metro orphans thought unfit for wider bows (their Red Badge ad shown here). Opening a new picture at the Trans-Lux houses instead of on Broadway saves the major companies money for an elaborate house front, said the Herald. The New York newspapers devote an equal amount of space to reviews of pictures at the art houses. Thus the art spots, which formerly played British, Italian, or French product exclusively, are now getting the offbeat pictures from the majors --- and giving them long runs, which gives favorable word-of-mouth a chance to build business. The Trans-Lux was good for a six-to-eight week engagement of Metro peculiars like Teresa, Kind Lady, and The Man With A Cloak, far more than they would have played at a large Broadway house, said Boxoffice. Red Badge was offered up as another Gone With The Wind in print, while its trailer promised a latter-day Birth Of A Nation. Historians would damn Metro for playing it on double features, not realizing this was standard policy for all but potential biggies the company handled. Wider release did find Red Badge occupying lower berths, but so did most other black-and-white Metros done at reduced budget, and Schary’s mutilation was no diamond in the rough. There was little chance of Red Badge breaking out to attain sleeper status. Not with audiences rejecting it wholesale as they continued to do.

Variety spoke for a doubtful trade press as Red Badge went into general release, calling it curiously moody. Big returns do not appear likely, they added. Boxoffice appeal in the general market is rather limited, and in this release film will be best held to companion bookings. MGM’s misgivings having been confirmed, they now sent out The Red Badge Of Courage in support of features likely to perform better. In Boston, it buttressed Texas Carnival, a program held over in mid-October thanks to interest in the Esther Williams starrer (the latter's eventual profit was $709,000). Red Badge was second fiddle to The Strip in Denver, and Detroit saw it first-running beneath Across the Wide Missouri. The Red Badge Of Courage had legs weak as Metro’s other punk release that month, The Man With A Cloak, which was yanked off a single berth in Cincinnati after four days and replaced with oldie combo Luxury Liner and The Barkleys Of Broadway. Bitter experience taught MGM’s sales force not to persist once hothouse plants were identified as such. Best to let them play off and disappear. Final domestic rentals for Red Badge amounted to $789,000, with foreign as usual rejecting all themes Americana with $395,000. The $940,000 loss was no more disgraceful than many other Metro releases awash in red ink. Their Mr. Imperium of high hopes and a Broadway opening (as shown here) went down in crushing defeat to $1.4 million lost, but who remembers that? Now well separated from Metro, it seemed Louis Mayer was vindicated in his apprehension over Red Badge and belief that Civil War subjects invariably fail (save for the obvious exception of GWTW). Ironic then was RKO’s release the same month of Drums In The Deep South, a more straight-forward and actionful Blue-Gray engagement, with square-jaws James Craig and Guy Madison far less tentative in the field than Huston’s ragtag army. Trade support and a splashy Atlanta premiere (star Barbara Payton in person!) greeted Drums, but a worldwide rentals total of $1.025 million actually fell slightly below Red Badge. Many public school showings lay in wait for John Huston’s ruined masterpiece (he’d often say the complete version was perhaps the best film he ever made), as state libraries kept it on hand and many a youngster sat for runs in history class. MGM surprisingly withheld Red Badge from its Perpetual Product reissue program in 1962-3, despite "World Heritage" groupings that would have seemed ideal. Television release came in a syndicated package for 1964, with Red Badge among forty titles the highlights of which included On The Town, The Stratton Story, and Love Me Or Leave Me. Revenue from Red Badge syndication totaled $118,000 as of April 1983, plus a "non-prime" network run on the CBS Late Movie which yielded an additional $34,000. By way of comparison, a pre-48 from Metro, Somewhere I’ll Find You, earned $149,000 from syndication through 4-83 and Mrs. Miniver $332,000.


Blogger James Corry said...

John; are the original negatives for "Red Badge" destroyed as well? I would assume that they are. This seemed to be a practice of the studios when a film was "re-cut" to make it more "accessible." I guess I just don't understand why a safety print of the original-length cut of films such as "Red Badge", "Magnificent Ambersons" and the 1954 "A Star Is Born" (I'm certainly leaving out many others)wasn't squirrled away somewhere. I understand the need for storage space in a studio, however, colleges and universities are VERY willing repositories of such material and generally always have been, AND the studios (I believe) could get some sort of tax-credit for such donations. I certainly know that they can today.....


8:44 PM  
Blogger onlyanirishboy said...

Huston, according to his own account, was not willing to fight for The Red Badge of Courage, and Mayer told him he ought to be ashamed of himself for not standing up for it against Mayer. I have never regarded Huston's frequently-displayed irresponsibility and indifference as charming as some of his admirers do. As with The Magnificent Ambersons, the blame for the butchery of The Red Badge of Courage falls in no small part on a director who went off to another hemisphere instead of sticking around to protect his work.

I wonder how much of the disappointing box office of The Red Badge of Courage versus Drums of the Deep South was due to its focus on Union troops. Buster Keaton felt the mistake Disney made with The Great Locomotive Chase was in focusing on the Union raiders instead of, as in the General, the Confederate pursuers. (Now, of course, it's very difficult to portray those fighting for the South as heroic, even when doing something incredibly brave -- witness the critical reception of TNT's "The Hunley.") In general, until very recently, Southerners were far more interested than Northerners in the Civil War. I'd be curious to compare the performances of RED BADGE and DRUMS in the South.

I suspect that a particular box-office turnoff about The Red Bad of Courage is an aspect for which Huston was celebrated as a genius: the casting. There is something unappealing about Audie Murphy being asked to play a coward. (Max Hastings' WARRIORS: Portraits from the Battlefield has an excellent description of the demons within Murphy that made him so outstanding under fire but so troubled in his life after WWII.) Given how limited Murphy was an actor, this stunt casting could easily be seen as Hollywood denigrating an unquestioned war hero. On the other hand, the thinking may have been like the once-common practice of casting indisputably straight actors in gay role (e.g. Burton and Harrison in STAIRCASE), i.e., making it quite clear to the audience that the star is definitely NOT like the character he's playing.

The bottom line is that the movie version of The Red Badge of Courage is another instance of a film's deriving much of its lasting prestige from the stature of the book on which it was based.

1:46 AM  
Blogger onlyanirishboy said...

In response to James Corry's question, studios have always been short-sighted about keeping a copy of the uncut version, or even the excised footage. And even in this day of a director's cut giving a studio another shot at DVD sales, not all directors are willing to restore their original version. For example, the original ending of The Big Chill, a scene circa 1970 when all the friends, plus Kevin Costner (seen only from the back, in the jacket that Glenn Close is seen caressing in the present day sequences) were living together in Ann Arbor, explained many of the loose ends and cryptic references in the body of the film. To me, this ending took the film to a much higher level. When the ending tested poorly with young audiences, Carson Films simply lopped it off, along with scenes of the departures from the Kline-Close house of the other characters. Yet Kasdan still, as far as I know, refuses to release his original version, or even show the deleted scenes. (This adoption of studio-imposed upbeat ending is somewhat reminiscent of Richard E. Grant's defense in The Player of an ending that embodied all the phoniness he had earlier railed against.)

And, long before Oliver Stone kept recutting ALEXANDER, filmmakers themselves have shown a penchant for removing scenes from their original work on their own initiative. For example, Harold Lloyd cut a ham radio scene out of the Freshman when he released that feature around 1966 as part of Harold Lloyd's Funny Side of Life. And I have a vivid memory of Frank Capra at a Museum of Modern Art screening of LADY FOR A DAY openly aching to trim some scenes which he felt now (circa 1972) played too slowly. William Wyler used to call TV stations in Los Angeles wanting to re-edit a movie of his that they had just played. Griffith traveled with The Birth of a Nation in its original roll-out, cutting and adding scenes. Presumably the cut footage, like the church-censored scenes in CINEMA PARADISO, was forever lost. I'm sure that if Huston felt as strongly about the merits of his original cut of The Red Badge of Courage as he subsequently claimed, the studio would have made him a personal copy, although given MGM's fortunes at the time they might have charged him for it.

1:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Interesting information as always, John.
I thought you might like to see what was said in the review of "Red Badge of Courage" appearing in "The Exhibitor" (Jay Emanuel Publications), August 29, 1951 issue, page 3134:

Meritorious film will need plenty of help.
Without question, this is a high grade piece of movie-making, but what it will do at many boxoffices is questionable. Taking Stephen Crane's great literary work, director John Huston has made a film of high calibre but a picture that needs strong merchandising. Class spots and those appealing to patrons appreciating better efforts have much to sell, and for war film fans there are excellently handled battle scenes and some emotional moments. Performances are top-notch, with Audie Murphy, as the boy, a standout, and Bill Maudlin, Douglas Dick, John Dierkes, Royal Dano, and others hand-picked for their roles. The use of a commentary adds dignity to the production. There isn't a woman in the cast, a boxoffice disadvantage, and short running time, also, may prove a problem in some sectors. Despite the shortcomings, the film is something that doesn't come along very often, although the boxoffice attractiveness is something else again. Tie-ups with schools, etc., and better film groups are definitely in order.

Tip on bidding: Program price.

Ad lines:
"A Great Novel...Now A Great Film."
"See One Of The Finest Civil War Pictures Of All Time."
"The Story Of A Boy Who Became A Man...With The Red Badge Of Courage."

--- Richard Finegan

2:21 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Just the day before you put this up, I placed "Red Badge" on my Netflix list -- part of my daughter's upcoming, 8th grade study of the Civil War, along with reading a couple of novels. I'd always been vaguely aware of some post-production trouble, but didn't realize to what extent. I wonder if Houston really did think the uncut version was his best movie. It's difficult to disprove what doesn't exist anymore!

7:47 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

even at 69 minutes,its still a fascinating film,one of a kind.

10:43 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Another very welcome e-mail today from the always interesting Craig Reardon ...

I'm so happy you wrote this one! Brilliant remarks. This is one of the greatest movies that never made it. The scraps----that's what you get, when you watch it-----are almost like dailies for one the great films in the making. But you wind up at the end of this wondering, where's the rest of it?! I understand that Huston actually filmed the unforgettable scenes in Crane's genius novella such as the death on the road of the 'ragged man', where he babbles incoherently and then lurches off the road and abruptly pitches over, dead; and, the signal scene of the entire work, when the soldier (whose name is never vouchsafed to the reader by Crane), having gone AWOL, encounters the corpse of another soldier, half-sitting, half-lying against a tree. This is described in some detail, in the book, but so is the setting, "cathedral-like" as I remember. It is so quiet and somber and hurtfully beautiful in Crane's prose. This book made him one of the American immortals. I was forced to read this in junior high school, and wound up loving it. Crane, of course, also wrote a story, "The Monster", which became one of the most under-seen, underrated movies I have ever seen, "Face of Fire", with similarly-underrated stars Cameron Mitchell and the recently departed James Whitmore.

To see this butchered as it is is to wonder what lack of common sense some execs had? If a thing didn't play in a long version, what on earth made them think it would play in a truncated and almost incoherent version? I'm not religious, I confess, but if there is a heaven, then perhaps they show the uncut versions of "Magnificent Ambersons" and "The Red Badge of Courage" in perpetuity in a nice movie house 'up there', attended by old pals and fellow iconoclasts Huston and Welles. If so, I'm hoping they don't send me to that other place! (Where they show Russ Meyer movies and Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge", in lieu of Huston's!)

Keep swatting out these great posts, Mr. McElwee!


8:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As always John, another great post. As to the notion, suggested by some, that John Huston could have had a print of the original uncut version provided to him. This simply WAS NOT DONE, especially in the 40's and 50's. Huston was an employee of the studio paid to create a product and could never have arranged for print made for his personal use, especially if it was an alternate version of a film in current release. To put it in perspective, it would have been like GM or Ford allowing an employee to take home a concept car that was never going to be produced even if they offered to pay for it.

9:41 AM  
Blogger James Corry said...

On the other hand Mr. Craig (Reardon) I AM religious, and I can tell you that Heaven holds a place for old, truncated movies, as well as for old, trucated movie fans, who (like Deluxe Color) never die.....they just fade to purple or red......!

Seriously yours,

B. (er, that's "JC")

3:58 PM  

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