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Thursday, February 25, 2010

John Wayne's Last Good One

The John Wayne movies after True Grit were kind of a scraggly lot, but people still paid to see them. I remember going with my sister to the Rivoli in Myrtle Beach for Chisum the summer after Wayne got his Academy Award and the place was jammed to rafters. It impressed me at the time that so many would flock to look at a star who’d been around forty years and counting. Television stations were even back to running JW’s old Lone Star westerns from the early thirties as his name leaped again to Boxoffice Top Ten Lists. Wayne was virtually alone for being able to make home movies and call them major features. Most of these were under auspices of his Batjac company. All were done Duke’s way and nobody else’s. Costs stayed under four million as competing studio westerns bloated toward extravagance and loss. Wayne’s son Michael was efficient at producing and Dad didn’t have to worry about accounts being looted (as had been the case when outsiders oversaw previous coffers). The old man was by now well insulated by a team he could trust. So many had been with him from nearly the start. It was a policy great for comfort on location, but less promising as to merit of done product. Wayne got away with frankly weak films just for continuing to be John Wayne, not a small favor to millions who revered him. He promised in trailers that Hellfighters was the hottest picture I’ve made, and most were willing to forgive him the fact that it wasn’t. Understandable then how a man in Wayne’s position wanted to boss his sets, for as mentors like Ford, Hawks, and Hathaway faded fast going into the seventies, who was left he could look up to? I don’t care much for any of JW’s late vehicles save Big Jake. It remains for me the single oasis in a desert otherwise pretty arid. Am I alone for thinking this his best post-True Grit?

Big Jake skims the cream of what worked before for Wayne and much that would appeal to rougher trade stimulated by Dirty Harry and The Wild Bunch. In fact, it was contributors to the former (Harry Julian Fink and R.M. Fink) that wrote Big Jake. Much of their original concept for Dirty Harry anticipated Wayne in that role, but he turned it down to eventual regret. There’s a good deal of Harry in Jake. Both are loners and somewhat outcast. This was a departure for patriarch Wayne, generally in command of whatever environment his characters occupied, be it Chisum-sized ranches or Civil War troops in Rio Lobo. As Big Jake, he’s back to wandering with Hondo’s nameless dog companion after having been exiled off McLintock’s Garden of Eden. Opening credits link us to The Wild Bunch for Jake’s New(er) West time frame (c. 1909) and how the country had changed around him. A surprisingly violent kidnap/massacre demonstrates Wayne’s having made peace with bloodletting now demanded even in family westerns. He despised ethos of The Wild Bunch, but would borrow further from it. For the first time in seeming ages, JW has an opponent worthy of him in Richard Boone. The latter plays kidnapper as though his Frank Usher from The Tall T had merely regrouped from that failed enterprise and was ready to try again with a larger gang. Wayne and Boone’s parrying is by far the most satisfactory either actor engaged during years too often matched with weak partners.

Wayne’s twilight westerns were charm bracelets studded with names (beyond family) he figured would bring luck. Big Jake’s director was George Sherman. Why the italics? I guess just incredulity that such a fossil would be handed reins of an expensive feature at an age nearly Wayne’s own and after so long an inactivity other than short schedules doing television. Sherman brought tradition for having guided Wayne in buckets of Three Mesquiteer westerns for Republic. I’m guessing he was supportive when the star drew smaller checks and this was payback. Directors were by 1971 accustomed to being directed by Wayne. All they needed to do was show up and don the hat, difference being JW’s held ten gallons and he wore it tall. Playing on his team required knowing at all times who the captain was. I’d be curious as to how much someone like Bruce Cabot received for coming down to Durango. And John Agar. And Harry Carey, Jr. ... these and so many others of Duke’s stock company. Wayne liked shooting westerns there because Mexicans he hired worked harder and cheaper than American crews. He was always cash poor, it seemed. Does his family still derive coin from sustained cable runs of Big Jake? I remember when the Atlanta Superstations built primetime schedules around John Wayne. That was twenty-thirty years ago. Before even that, a friend passed along a home address and I chanced a letter to the actor with mention of having collected posters and memorabilia on his films. The letter shown here was John Wayne’s reply. I did reach the phone number he included and spoke to secretary (and later revealed intimate) Pat Stacy. She said he’d gone out to the fish camp for lunch and would be sorry to have missed my call (gulp!). Per request, I sent out my collection such as it was. Not wanting to seem boorish, I didn’t ask him to autograph any of the items (still should be wearing a Kick Me sign for that). Their return included a nice Thank You note, also with bold signature (and I don’t think either were secretarial). For the record, Wayne did not make it to Salisbury for that April 1978 Sportscaster’s presentation.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Precode Hardship Of Life

I remain too timid to watch Wild Boys Of The Road despite Warner’s DVD said to derive from camera elements. My cowardice goes back to an electrifying excerpt that highlighted a William Wellman documentary from the early seventies. A bunch of kid hoboes are shown jumping off a freight to avoid yard bulls. One of them falls and is knocked unconscious, his leg splayed across the track. Friends react with horror as a locomotive from the opposite direction bears down and cleaves off the limb. It’s one of Depression movies’ defining moments and the go-to clip when compilers address Hollywood of that era. There was also a photo I’d stare at in Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer’s The Movies, my (and a lot of other's) first book about the history of same. It showed Richard Barthelmess standing under a billboard that reads Jobless Men Keep Going --- We Take Care Of Our Own. His hunched posture and resigned expression conveyed seeming hopelessness of the Crash and aftermath. The film was Heroes For Sale, another of those that awed me for dynamic still images and likelihood I’d never get to see them. Now both Heroes and Wild Boys are available in Forbidden Hollywood --- Volume Three, which might better be labeled Six Lives Of The Luckless. Everyone in these roll snake eyes. Or in the case of that kid on the rail, boxcars. To say I enjoyed them wouldn’t quite be accurate. Glad to have finally seen them, yes. Well, five of the half-dozen anyway. Wild Boys Of The Road will just have to wait until my hide’s as tough as 1932 audiences for whom its calamities were everyday reality of life.

People’s expectations of Precode have more to do with Volume Three’s box art than content within. Joan Blondell winks us bid enter … there’s fun and naughty frolic here. Only there really isn’t. Was it Bill Wellman or beaten-down dispositions of Warner scribes? I picture all of them walking around with targets painted on their backs, writing downer movies by day and sneaking after twelve hour (or more) shifts to clandestine union gatherings . There’s revolution simmering in these seventy-minute kettles. If people had taken films more seriously then, they might have wondered what anarchy Warners was fermenting. I have to admit being too unsophisticated to appreciate reforms these shows advocated, so won’t prattle about such issues being still relevant and how WB boldly anticipated many of our own social ills. I’ll cling instead to Warren William being ruthless and Joan Blondell compliant. They’re my kind of precode and the sort to which first-time viewers are best introduced.

Should have mentioned it before, but Forbidden Hollywood Three’s lineup is Wild Boys Of The Road, Frisco Jenny, Other Men’s Women, Midnight Mary, The Purchase Price, and Heroes For Sale. Marching feet montages appear to unite the six. Also calendar leaves to show time dismally passing. Poor Loretta Young gets pinched or bludgeoned every time she walks out of the house. The actress was barely twenty when she did Midnight Mary and Heroes For Sale in succession. Her whole life ahead of her, as they say. Did Young imagine it might turn out as jaundiced WB writers foresaw? Survival skills among Depression players were surely cut to a fine edge by hard-hitters assigned and pitiless dialogue exchanged. For whatever lucrative wages they collected, precoders knew well how lives enacted might become their own should autograph and bread lines suddenly merge. I don’t wonder that Loretta Young’s career lasted the seventy plus years it did, for likes of Midnight Mary and Heroes For Sale did nothing if not toughen her up for whatever ordeals to come dished out.

Ruth Chatterton was the been there/suffered that alternative to Loretta Young’s innocence despoiled. For her Frisco Jenny, earthquakes are just another bump on a hard road. You could laugh at so much despair but for her playing it with such conviction. Jenny and remaining five pack more incident into just over hour’s length as to make you wonder why movies since poke along so. Heroes For Sale disposes of almost two decades in Dick Barthelmess’ life within a brisk 71 minutes. It’s loaded with content movies wouldn’t address once Code restrictions began enforcing. Character actions and motivations admittedly baffled me at times. Maybe I lack compassion thinking Barthelmess a total chump for shunning the fortune he’s made promoting a dry cleaning invention, but have to remind myself that life for writers then (and near everyone else) entailed many times the struggles we bear up under today. Did creators of such Depression parables develop a keener understanding of the human spirit for struggles they endured? It’s for that possibility that I hesitate to criticize these more. That plus the fact each hit hard when they connect. You have to admire Warners for so often stepping outside safe genres.

Richard Barthelmess described himself jokingly as the screen’s leading underdog. For directions his talkie career was headed, I’d call him Number One Raw Deal Recipient. Like it or not, moviegoers prefer their idols assertive. Dick seemed passive in both stance and attitude. The uninitiated keep waiting for him to straighten shoulders and take charge. Here was an actor unique for being put upon. He’d begun that way as Tol’able David. Frustrating was the fact that bullies too often got the best of Dick. Why is it then he’s so compelling? For one thing, it’s the face. Whatever expression there is must be supplied by viewer interpretation. Especially after Barthelmess submitted to cosmetic work that froze it even more. Lilian Gish thought his the most beautiful face in movies. There is something compelling about emotions you can customize to suit yourself. Dick’s underplaying seems boldly modern in leaving us room to observe a variety of possibilities for what make his characters tick. Stardom could indeed have served him longer had Barthelmess gone easier routes like contemporaries who found a safe niche and stayed within it. Instead, he seems to have sought out vehicles to challenge movie conventions if not societal norms. Had he been along after the next war, might RB have found himself in hot water with the HUAC and other social/political monitors?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

We're All Film Preservationists

The Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy On Films have been hosting a Film Preservation Blogathon this week. I didn’t promise to join in for simple doubt I could contribute anything worthwhile. So many others know infinitely more on this subject than I ever will. Articles about restoration lose me once they get technical. I look upon those who rescue films like oracles. Where do they get such smarts to make crumbling nitrate sparkle again? The one time I visited a working lab was after finding a 16mm home movie reel Basil Rathbone had taken on The Adventures Of Robin Hood. Technicians there were going to make new prints and a preservation negative. The place was filled with jobs they’d done for major studios. I learned to appreciate more that day just how much detailed labor goes into salvaging fragile celluloid. Not that I hadn’t handled nitrate before. That was the format old-time collectors traded when I began searching out 35mm in the early seventies. I was as foolish handling it as they were reckless. Years-long fearless Moon Mullins let me have Isle Of Lost Ships and I hauled that 1929 nitrate around in the trunk of my car for several weeks … during August. Just too lazy to bother taking it out. By all rights, I should have been blown to molecules. You could argue this was just the finish I had coming for such colossal stupidity. Some of my finds wound up with the AFI. A few boxes were mailed to Tom Dunahoo at Thunderbird Films. I don’t recall if I declared them for dangerous nitrate content, but the fact no mail planes imploded during mid-flight suggests I did. My parent’s house was neither brick nor fireproof, but I used to run nitrate upstairs as if it were. Yes, I had all sorts of aptitude and qualifications to advance the cause of film preservation. So what’s made me any better equipped to lecture on it now?

Just as classmates gave up recreational drugs, I was able to rid myself of nitrate’s incubus. Let others more conscientious address it. Still there was the dream of coming across a lost treasure. Haven’t we all imagined a London After Midnight tucked under someone’s flea market table? Suppose you found that uncut Magnificent Ambersons during shore day on a South American cruise. 16mm collecting has turned up several thought lost. I knew someone who located Shadows Of Chinatown, a Bela Lugosi serial out of pocket for decades. Forum participants speculate that Laurel and Hardy’s Hats Off was indeed rented on that format back in the forties. Is it just a matter of time before someone unearths this thought-gone two-reeler? My closest to glory story took place in October 1977 when Georgia collector Clyde Carroll, among greats in the hobby, read me a list that included The Man Who Lived Again. That title being mentioned among dozens of B westerns gave me immediate pause. Wait a second, Clyde. Did you say The Man Who Lived Again? Well, yes he did. Uh, the 1936 one with Boris Karloff? Yep again. My blood near congealed on hearing that. Hadn’t Bill Everson recently (1974) written that The Man Who Lived Again (aka The Man Who Changed His Mind … aka Dr. Maniac) was never likely to be appreciated as it deserved since the lack of really good or complete printing materials preclude the possibility of a reissue or television sale? Clyde didn’t care about that stuff. He preferred cowboys and serials. Could we maybe trade for the Karloff then? The deal was consummated upon my relinquishing a pile of Tim McCoy and Charles Starrett lobby cards. The Man Who Lived Again had its share of time’s ravage and an abrupt end, some of which knocks I tried repairing. Still this was collecting’s apex for me. I felt like quite the preservationist just for those modest mends and keeping my treasure cool and dry (though I couldn’t arrest vinegar syndrome eventually setting in).

The thing is, all of us are preservationists for spending what we do on DVD’s. What good then, is a restoration unless people have access to it? Paramount’s Fu Manchu group was saved over ten years ago, but can’t be distributed beyond archival walls. Same for the two-color Technicolor Follow Thru, which was based on a stage musical by songwriters Da Sylva, Brown, and Henderson. Paramount’s agreement with them called for rights to revert to the team after a specified period. Clearing them now would be (too) cumbersome and expensive. I read with interest Eddie Muller’s recounting of Cry Danger’s rescue and its triumphant reception at the Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco, but there’s the bugaboo he reveals of pre-print elements belonging to Warner Bros. vs. overall rights in the film claimed by Paramount. How do we get a DVD release out of that pudding? TCM runs Cry Danger from time to time. Will they at least get a new transfer from this latest archival pass? Warners has derived practical benefit from preservation efforts made on behalf of their library. Early Vitaphone features like Noah’s Ark, When A Man Loves, and Weary River were lovingly restored, unveiled at festivals, then placed on TCM rotation for home viewers to enjoy. Many of these have lately been released through their Archive program, with the promise of more to come.

With technology advancing at its present pace, everything old will have to be made new again. Present digital delivery looks more and more like analog cassettes we long ago discarded. High-Definition is the future and I wonder how many out of vaults will make the trip. I’m told it’s expensive remastering titles for HD. Warners has done that already for Casablanca and The Wizard Of Oz, but will they ever pull the trigger for Case Of The Curious Bride and The Mask Of Dimitrios? Some cable services already offer TCM in HD, but most of what that network plays remains standard definition. The restoration task that lies ahead, just to bring thousands of titles up to minimal broadcast standard for televisions selling today, is monumental. Will companies invest so much in movies few are left to care about? Once TCM goes to all-HD programming policy, and that’s bound to be soon, what becomes of deep vaulties we treasure? HD Net Movies scheduled Adam’s Rib and The Bad and The Beautiful for this month and next, so there’s two prepared for HD broadcast, but what of thousands more Warner owns? The truest hero of preservation now might be the genius who invents a way of generating high-definition masters for very little money. Unless someone manages that forthwith, our days of enjoying all but an arbitrarily chosen Hot 100 might be numbered.

Lest I strike a bummer note, let me add that things overall have never been better, with more to watch than hours in our days. High profile restorations are a frequent and happy occurrence. Just this week they were streaming an outdoor run of Metropolis live from Germany. I was afraid to try and get in on that for fear my computer would fry (why wasn’t I so cautious with nitrate?). After eighty years, Fritz Lang’s masterpiece is nearly complete again. I think it’s safe to say no one saw this coming, but then who imagined they’d find Bardelys The Magnificent or Beyond The Rocks? MGM’s 1926 Bardelys deal called for that company to destroy all prints and negatives after general release, per arrangement with author Rafael Sabatini, yet somehow a single print survived. Beyond The Rocks was a film its star, Gloria Swanson, searched in vain for. We can thank a private collector for hoarding that precious one. Focusing on these lessens the pain of so many more that remain lost. I don’t even like to look at stills for movies I can never see, and there’s nothing so depressing as a flip through 20’s newspapers where most everything they’re advertising is gone to us now (read the above ads and weep). So much thanks is due to preservationists who make their finished work available on DVD. Last year there was Becoming Charley Chase from producer David Kalat and VCI Entertainment, a wonderful Lost Serials Collection from The Serial Squadron, and just everything Flicker Alley does (including Bardelys and a wonderful Douglas Fairbanks set). Charlie Chaplin’s Keystone output is being painstakingly restored by the BFI, and these will be offered up on DVD before long. The best any of the rest of us can do toward encouraging more such projects is to support these and ones forthcoming.
Part of this Blogathon’s mission is to encourage donations to The National Film Preservation Foundation, which the hosts describe as an independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support. As the NFPF is affiliated with The Library Of Congress, I’m wondering if enough contributions might bring them around to restoring that complete print of The Greatest Story Ever Told they’re rumored to have. Now there’s a project we can all get behind!

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Greatest Story Ever Told --- Part Two

George Stevens had no doubts that The Greatest Story Ever Told would be made. The only certainty as of September 1961 was that 20th Century Fox wouldn’t be making it. Fine, he said. Three other American companies and two European financing groups stood ready, and one of these represented a better deal than Fox had given him. Whatever delays were attendant upon 20th’s withdrawal, Greatest Story would go before cameras early in 1962, he promised. In the meantime, Stevens and staff continued screening all of Hollywood’s past biblical output to make sure theirs avoided pitfalls of general superficiality and … assembly-line approach. Bible movies, said Stevens, are the only sort of films still in their infancy. Financial rescue came in November 1961. United Artists stepped up with, among other things, absolute freedom on artistic matters for the producer-director, along with unlimited completion responsibility. That last part would help send costs skyward. According to Tino Balio’s excellent book, United Artists: The Company That Changed The Film Industry, UA had no overbudget protection with Stevens. He’d give up none of his agreed-upon 75% of profits, whatever the cost overruns incurred (GS also collected a $300,000 producer’s fee). UA would fall into what Balio called a blockbuster trap exacerbated by production delays, foul weather, and logistics of shooting on location with an enormous cast and crew. Stevens wanted to film in the US, having toured Holyland sites and deeming them wholly unsatisfactory (though publicity for having walked paths Christ trod was invaluable). Parts of Utah and Arizona would plausibly stand in. The director had never shot a feature offshore and didn’t propose doing so now.

The Greatest Story Ever Told became a production saga with no apparent end in sight. The intimate drama of Christ and his teachings that Stevens envisioned was spread to Cinerama proportions in accord with United Artists’ pact to utilize the process on a slate of big releases to come. "Secret tests" were conducted in August 1962 to determine viability of filming Cinerama with a single camera rather than three as before. Stevens attended these demonstrations and brought along make-up and wardrobe tests he’d made for The Greatest Story Ever Told. He was unimpressed with the projected image and agreed that work lay ahead to perfect a revised Cinerama. Further research over the next six months produced what would become known as Ultra Panavision, a 70mm process that yielded an aspect ratio similar to three-strip Cinerama, but not as all-engulfing. Thanks to special rectified lens, you could project Ultra Panavision on a deeply curved screen, and there were no visible joins in the picture as had bedeviled previous Cinerama subjects. Stevens liked what he saw of this and incorporated it into Greatest Story shooting which began finally in autumn of 1962 and lasted nine months. The burden became such that two of Stevens’ director colleagues joined in to helm second units. David Lean oversaw Claude Rains’ scenes as King Herod and Jean Negulesco helped out in multiple capacities, all toward harnessing a ballooned enterprise whose budget had been revised (in summer 1963) to $12 million. Press visits to the set and locations assumed postures of hushed reverence. Ordinary conversation seemed to make spectators feel self-conscious, said one observer. Both LIFE and The Saturday Evening Post featured TGSET in multiple-page color spreads, with LIFE’s May 1964 coverage referring to $16 million poured into its telling. Said profligate spending became a focal point of interest. All of 1964 found Stevens buried in editing chambers with his masterpiece. Would this Greatest Story ever see the light of projection screens?

UA vice-president Robert Blumofe spoke to the company’s confidence in October 1964. "The Greatest Story Ever Told" might never be shown except in the Cinerama process, he claimed, United Artists has no plans for multiple runs after the film’s roadshow career and no 35mm prints will be made up. Blumofe refused to even estimate the film’s extraordinary earnings potential (that’s him at center above with Stevens to his left and Cinerama president William Forman at right). Director Stevens emphasized that his Greatest Story was made and designed to take advantage of the great Cinerama screen. Everyone counted on it to take permanent residence there. There was talk of opening TGSET for Christmas 1964, but insiders suggested Stevens was not happy about sharing the limelight with "My Fair Lady" or sharing possible Academy Awards. Warners’ musical premiered in October 1964, the same month word went out that Greatest Story had exceeded $20 million in costs. All Stevens needed was his film joining Cleopatra on extravagance scoreboards. A February 15, 1965 opening was set for New York and Los Angeles. Always the perfectionist when it came to exhibiting his films, Stevens did an inspection tour of theatres scheduled to run The Greatest Story Ever Told. What he saw at these roadshowing venues was not encouraging. People are paying higher prices for goldbricks, he said. The adult moviegoer was gradually being alienated as result of offenses committed by theatre managers and projectionists (a recent UCLA survey had indicated that average age of the latter was 67). Stevens’ idea was for distributors to band together and form a joint staff whose job it would be to visit theatres around the country and see that films are properly exhibited. To that end, he planned to put a crew in each house running The Greatest Story Ever Told to make sure presentations weren’t bungled. As these added up to sixty-three roadshow engagements, his task was both formidable and expensive.

Some reviews were good, but negative ones were noticed more. Maybe because these were so excoriating. Publicity’s overkill surely entered into critic’s glee in panning the Great Man’s sermon. Stevens had preached right to opening bell as to his movie's capacity to fill in the empty places and smooth over what is painful in patron’s lives. I think film has a unique way of expanding not only the comprehension of the viewer, but providing aspiration for a better life, a finer life. The director was clearly setting himself up for deflation, and you wish in hindsight he'd have stood back from quotes like these and realized he was perhaps a little too close to the majesty of his subject. Critical attacks cut deeply, of course. Worse than negative, they were mocking. The last thing Stevens expected was for people to ridicule his supreme effort. United Artists suggested one problem that could be fixed, and they were insistent as to that. Four hours!, screamed naysayers, as if that were Stevens’ towering offense. Well then, some of that would have to go, said UA. Music arranger and adapter Ken Darby worked with composer Alfred Newman on the film and wrote a book, Hollywood Holyland: The Filming and Scoring of The Greatest Story Ever Told, which tells of how Stevens spent days trimming reel-by-reel, pausing occasionally to consult review clippings he brought along for guidance. According to Darby, United Artists ordered an hour off the running time, but Stevens was able to hold the line at a little under half that. Anecdotal accounts of the premiere version as it differed from the subsequent one indicate that both the Crucifixion and the raising of Lazarus were shortened, along with numerous trims made from beginnings and ends of scenes throughout (all of which, said Darby, wreaked havoc on Newman’s music). Roadshows subsequent to New York and Los Angeles openers would run 199 minutes, including overture, intermission, and exit music, this reduced from Stevens’ intended 225 minute version. An even longer TGSET at 260 minutes has been alleged in years since, but not confirmed.

The film that would live fifty years was a commercial fiasco. United Artists took a drubbing like none they’d experienced before. The sixty-three roadshow sites reported back a combined gross of $8.977,892, from which UA saw rentals of $3.141,616. Whatever chance this film had of recovering its costs would have to be realized in a general release, an avenue the distributor had hoped to avoid. That would come in 1967, at which point The Greatest Story Ever Told was further cut, this time to 141 minutes. I recall it turning up that year in Kings Mountain, NC, a small town where we’d gone to visit my Grandmother. All set to leave for home that Sunday morning, I discovered that TGSET was playing at the local Joy Theatre. Could we maybe stick around for another day for me to catch it? I argued to my mother that it would be just like attending Sunday school, only for an entire afternoon, reasoning which got me nowhere. After that, sightings of The Greatest Story Ever Told were sporadic and sometimes bizarre. There was a 1972 reissue inspired by the Hippie Jesus fad, an ad for which is shown here (and thanks to Robert Cline for supplying it). I don’t know if this was a national or a regional campaign, but it was sure an unusual one. United Artists cushioned some losses by leasing Greatest Story to NBC for $5 million. That network premiered the film in two parts on Friday, April 12, 1974, with the conclusion broadcast the following night. Wanting to expand their showing to Easter event level, NBC opted for the second roadshow length, which, minus overture, intermission, and exit music, came to apx. 193 minutes. There were NBC repeats of the two-parts in 1975 and 1976, both for the Easter season. Pay-cable service Home Box Office ran The Greatest Story Ever Told in December 1980 just prior to its transfer to syndication as part of United Artists’ Showcase 11 package, which included 30 off-network features. TGSET was listed here as having a running time of 196 minutes. UA/16’s non-theatrical catalogue offered 16mm prints for rental in anamorphic format for $100, but only of the 141 minute version. What I saw on MGM-HD was 199 minutes, which included the overture/intermission/exit music. MGM’s DVD is also this longer cut. As to the fate of Stevens’ initial 225-minute version, there is a print reputedly stored at the Library Of Congress. Assuming it’s there, would anyone step up to rescue and restore The Greatest Story Ever Told?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

George Stevens' Passionate Play --- Part One

I’d long been promised an ordeal should I ever try sitting through The Greatest Story Ever Told. Its reputation was that of most failed among Sunday School roadshows, a bore of … well, biblical dimensions. Last week the MGM channel played TGSET in High-Definition. My time and test had come. Lest anyone think I propose dumping on George Stevens’ epic, let me say straight off that to my mind, it’s outstanding, and that appreciating The Greatest Story Ever Told has everything to do with presentation. First of all, without a really big screen, you can’t even read the credits (specifically designed for Cinerama delivery). Mine is fourteen feet across and those titles are still a strain. Watching TGSET flat or even in 35mm is pure misuse of time. You’d be better off to miss it altogether. Some will say that's a good idea in any case. For whatever truncated opportunity they’ve had to see it over the last forty-five years, I can’t blame them. There’ll probably never be enough money or interest in a serious restoration of the film as Stevens envisioned it, though I guess that unhappy circumstance is no worse for most 50’s-60’s roadshows gone to ruin since. MGM-HD has become a sort of elephantine graveyard for discredited epics. They own the United Artists library, and UA handled a lot of beached whales during a widescreen’s heyday. You can see Khartoum there most months, and it’s stunning. Also The Pride and The Passion, Hawaii, and others. HD really levels the playing field for all these. You may not be persuaded that they’re good, but neither would you be likely to come away with the sour aftertaste of prior televised broadcasts.

One could almost call The Greatest Story Ever Told an art film were it not for the parade of stars in roles major and miniscule. So much of Stevens’ film is resolutely anti-Hollywood. Had he led with Max Von Sydow and a minor cast in support, we’d have had a Jesus story along lines European directors might have told. To that sensibility, and in 1965 when art cinema was near a fashion’s peak, TGSET missed its chance at becoming a real critic’s darling. John Wayne horning in on the Crucifixion was the film’s own Golgotha, however. From a first sight of him and the New Testament Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World preceding, there was little chance of reviewers heaping anything other than ridicule upon Stevens and the project he expended nearly a decade of his life upon. The Greatest Story Ever Told generated some of the snidest notices on record, another of those occasions when critics felled a wounded ox and went about demonstrating how cleverly they could gore it. There was derision over running time (initially 225 minutes), so United Artists handed Stevens a choice: Either you cut it, or we will. Analysts said TGSET was the most expensive film yet produced in the United States, and resentment flowed too from that. Slick magazines had promised the moon, so knives were sharpened from premiere night. It was The Greatest Disaster United Artists Ever Had as of 1965, and that’s mostly what we remember about the show now. George Stevens’ name came off bankable rolls as a consequence and he’d never be entrusted with such extravagant resources again.

Daryl Zanuck had purchased rights in 1954 to Fulton Oursler’s book, The Greatest Story Ever Told, which remained a paperback evergreen from initial 1949 publication. It seemed a natural to follow up on success of The Robe. Besides, no one in the US had attempted a talking dramatization on the life of Christ. George Stevens took an interest and started negotiations to produce and direct. His fee would be a historic million dollars, unheard of for anyone behind the camera. It was November 1958 before final contracts were signed. Stevens wanted and got control few others could bring to term, this achievable following a three-punch of A Place In The Sun, Shane, and Giant, each long-runners and all profitable. Stevens was a physically imposing man whose judgment no one questioned (sturdily built … square-jawed, said The New York Times). He'd regularly (and publicly) let fly on moguls too obtuse to realize this director knew best. The plan was for Stevens to get his script ready through 1959 and begin shooting in 1960. In the meantime, he’d pilot The Diary Of Anne Frank, also for Fox release. Maybe this was too much heaped on a plate, for delay and anticipation brought others to the Holy table from which Stevens hoped to sup. Metro had gone ahead with King Of Kings by mid-1960, and August of that year brought announcement of producer Ray Stark’s The Young Christ, a three million-dollar venture to be filmed in 3-D and possibly star Robert Wagner as Jesus. Stevens had to somehow keep kettles boiling on The Greatest Story Ever Told even as 1960 passed without cameras rolling.

Cast announcements were one way of maintaining interest. John Wayne and Sidney Poitier were committed as of October 1960. Trade ads (as shown here) with Wayne appeared that year. Elizabeth Taylor was rumored for Mary Magdalene, while Marlon Brando mulled possibilities of essaying Judas. Spencer Tracy meanwhile held promise for a swell Pontius Pilate. Against said glittering constellation (which financing Fox encouraged), George Stevens got more press than if he’d already finished TGSET. There was an appearance with son George Jr. (named the film’s associate producer) on Person To Person, wherein the director lent professorial authority to explanation of the Gospels and how he’d dramatize them. For many observers, Stevens’ own integrity as a picture maker was Greatest Story’s most valued asset. His quiet indifference to the hectoring of budget-watchers and script-kibitzers has won this square-jawed (that again!) director the nickname of "Great Stoneface," said admiring Hollywood correspondent Murray Schumach, whose dispatches gave full vent to Stevens as artist first and foremost, indeed one of few the town could boast. Prestige was further enhanced by the addition of Carl Sandburg to Greatest Story’s screenwriting team. He was credited as a consultant, but Sandburg was toiling away daily at script conferences with Stevens and co-scribes. Above everything, Stevens wanted a Christ story not to be confused with excesses of DeMille and other Hollywood chariot-racers: I want it told simply, without embellishments. We want to make a picture that will be alive fifty years from now.

Others of Greatest Story’s company sought distance from Biblical movie artifice. Max Von Sydow was lined up for Jesus in late February 1961. That got respect Jeffrey Hunter missed when MGM signed him to play their King Of Kings (often referred to thereafter as I Was A Teenage Jesus). Von Sydow exemplified Euro resistance to Golly-wood toga parties gone before: I thought with horror of Cecil B. DeMille and such things as "Samson and Delilah" and "The Ten Commandments." But when I saw the script, I decided that the role of Jesus is absolutely not a religious cliché. Was Stevens getting boxed in by his own seriousness of purpose? After all, merchants in filmland temples were still counting dollars pouring forth from The Ten Commandments (just then enjoying its first reissue) and no one made so persuasive a commercial role model as DeMille. Maybe Fox saw writing on Jerusalem walls, for by September 1961, they were pulling out. Three million had been spent without a frame exposed. Calling it an indefinite postponement, 20th president Spyros Skouras withheld reasons as to why, but a previous year’s $13 million studio loss undoubtedly entered into the decision, plus fact they were knee-deep in The Longest Day and Cleopatra, two enormously expensive projects. Competing King Of Kings would also be released the following month. Either way, Stevens was incensed and went to the mat against Wall Street powers interfering with the creative aspects of moviemaking. He assured a news conference that The Greatest Story Ever Told would be made in spite of Fox’s faltering and timidity. Monies the company had advanced would be repaid out of the film’s eventual profits. Stevens projected a $6.5 million budget toward completion sometime in 1962. That was the third year deadline he’d announced, and the third (but not the last) he’d miss.

Part Two of The Greatest Story Ever Told HERE.
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