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Monday, May 30, 2016

Censorship Giving Way With The 50's

Lonelyhearts (1958) Samples Forbidden Fruit

Relaxation of the Code, limited to be sure, saw more adult content into films as the 50's wore on. MGM tentatively adapted Tea and Sympathy in 1956. Columbia held its Picnic a same year. 1957 tossed grenade that was Peyton Place, a considerable hit that proved grown-up stuff could sell. From here came check-off of one forbidden theme after another. United Artists' Lonelyhearts was sold on basis that most of ten commandments were made to be broken. "Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Wife" became a useful and provocative tag line. Sex and resultant shame still went hand-in-hand where most movies were concerned, this a legacy of twenty years under Code dominion. At least now, we'd get a little more of the sex. Trouble was too many pics hopping the same bus. They couldn't all click. Lonelyhearts was one that didn't, a worse-even-than-feared flop. Was the theme too reflective of lonely people going to movies, or worse, sitting home alone watching them? Or maybe star Monty Clift was played out after his accident and recovery. Either way --- few wanted any part of Lonelyhearts.

There were two distinct Montgomery Clifts. The one before his wreck, and what remained after. Little of the old Clift survived the crash. He became an entirely different sort of actor, a character rather than romantic star. It was a circumstance Tyrone Power might have wished for in latter stage of his career, even as he, or anyone, would have loathed to come by it in the same way. I wonder if it relieved Clift to be shed of such beauty as to distract from his performing. He'd become more intense, go deeper, after recovery. Some would say increasing addictions were part-cause of that, but messed up as he admittedly was from completion of Raintree County to the end, I don't see impairment in his work. A burden Clift carried from start was fan idolatry (of frivolous bobby-sox sort) and their insistence he fulfill promise of a perfect face and romance it implied. Clift turned down parts that might satisfy that ideal, and so did few to truly please his base. Momentum had slowed before the accident; in fact, Clift seemed not to care so much if he remained a film star, as evidenced by further reject of parts and commitment to stage work. Jack Larson would later say that there came stacks of scripts to Monty's NY flat, some from eventual hits to star others, all ignored by first-choice Clift. Catastrophe that it was, the wreck did give the actor entree to parts he'd find more rewarding, with pressure relaxed for him to do conventional Hollywood leads. Trouble was critics knocking the new, to them now damaged, Clift, plus a public made uncomfortable to see him so.

Lonelyhearts was based on a Nathaniel West novella, earlier adapted on precode terms with Lee Tracy. As may be imagined, latter had an entirely different approach from what independent producing Dore Schary did in 1958. Schary wrote the Lonelyhearts screenplay as well, drama ladled in heaviest terms per 50's unpeel of hot potatoes. Everyone aboard carries a big sack of rocks, emptied often and discussed into powder. Is there anything so overwritten as overwritten 50's drama? Monty penning advise to lovelorn for a newspaper column could as easily be comedy, or like before, ribald precode, but Lonelyhearts was all intense bets down, Clift and co-stars Robert Ryan, Myrna Loy, plus Dolores Hart, Maureen Stapleton in support, vying for lead at suffering. Ryan's part, though not his performance, is repetitive and ponderous (the actor valiant in opposition to Schary's script), while Loy's character does feature-length penance for having once strayed during marriage to Ryan (their adultery theme a major focus of UA merchandising).

All this is joyless as written, depressing as performed. In his own changed circumstance, Montgomery Clift wanted all the more to distance himself from what he'd call "Angry Young Men" at work in movies and theatre. He had never embraced the Method, in fact deplored it, regarding the Actor's Studio as fakery under leadership of "charlatan" Lee Strasburg. Clift had come to a point where he could no longer laugh at any aspect of life, so that even where he does here, it's cover for despair just beneath. His own tragedy had disqualified the actor for anything other than tragic parts. We're surprised to see his Lonelyhearts character evade death in a last reel, the plot having set that up, but Schary couldn't risk dollars spent, and so contrived a happy, or at least hopeful, ending. Outcome for distributing UA was neither, Lonelyhearts doing ruinous $354,279 in domestic rentals, $329,000 foreign. Networks passed on a run, which would have helped, Lonelyhearts put to syndication in 7-62 with UA's "Showcase Of The 60's, Number One" package (alongside 30 other features). Lonelyhearts was released in 1992 on VHS, but in no other US format since (a Region Two DVD is around). It runs even with Freud as most obscure and unattainable of Montgomery Clift films.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

David Mamet, in his book TRUE AND FALSE, is with Clift on describing The Method as fakery. Mamet writes, "Invent nothing. Deny nothing. Stand up. Speak up. Stay out of school." Says the same in his book on film, BAMBI VS GODZILLA. Both are excellent reads that should be given asap to anyone considering a career in theater, the movies or both. Nathaniel West is a favorite author. The movie of DAY OF THE LOCUST is pretty good. I saw this once and liked it. Never understood what the fuss was about Clift's looks. They never changed for me. He had, probably, deeper demons (or a demon) and never learned to use it in the classic Greek sense of a guiding spirit. You hit the nail on the head, though, about the movie being too close to home for movie audiences. More than one person has told me they like looking at movies (and TV) as they can look at other people without having them looking back. I love having people look back.

6:06 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

There's an 80s indie version of Miss Lonelyhearts which makes the same mistake-- playing West's jet-black comedy for the most lugubriously pathetic pathos. It needed a Bunuel.

7:08 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Clift doesn't do much for me pre-accident -- his performance in Hitchcock's "I Confess" just kind of sits there, even if he does have some kind of presence. But post-accident, he's fascinating, even in his final, so-so movie "The Defector."

Clift's terrific in "Freud," which my daughter found helpful before taking a college psych course! My copy lacks one crucial dream sequence, however, which I remember from AMC's sole airing 25 years ago. Why isn't "Freud" officially on DVD in the US? It's far better than its reputation, and even Larry Parks is excellent -- better, in fact, than in the Jolson bios.

11:18 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

"Freud" is a real neglected great, and Clift is terrific in it. There are several Region Two discs, but none so far in the US. This one made a big impression on me when network-premiered by NBC in 1968.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Yes I remember that showing in 68...surprised NBC left the dream sequences in...or that bit where Susannah York said she was raised as a Prostitute. Protestant

6:57 PM  
Blogger Nick Patterson said...

Unlike Freud, Lonelyhearts does turn up from time to time on TCM. Keep an eye out for it.

10:55 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer offers some thoughts on Montgomery Clift's post-accident career:

There is a story that, at the premiere of "Lonelyhearts," someone screamed when Montgomery Clift made his first appearance on screen. Perhaps it's apocryphal, a way of illustrating the effect of the accident on his looks. Nothing of the sort had occurred during showings of "Raintree County," even though half of his scenes for that picture were filmed after his accident. Great pains, however, had been taken to disguise the damage done to his appearance. He was still wearing the same period hair style and wardrobe, which helped. The camera angles and lighting were carefully chosen and the right profile, which was the least affected, was photographed whenever possible. "Lonelyhearts" was stark and contemporary, in contrast to "Raintree County," and Clift, as though to assert a new, more authentic style, was deliberately shorn of anything that might recall how glamorous his image had been before. Truth to tell, however, it was a fading glamor even when "Raintree County" began filming in the spring of 1956. Clift was 36 years old, already in the throes of an increasingly hectic life style, and no longer possessed of that extraordinary masculine beauty he enjoyed when he made his debut before the cameras 10 years before, with "Red River." It was not due to any accident, unless the passing of time is an accident, and another reason why there was not such a great difference between the scenes filmed before and after. No doubt he would have looked only a little different in "Lonelyhearts" had the accident not taken place, with that short, unflattering hair style, those cheap suits, and with the harsh lighting and photography. The dystopian world of Nathanael West had no room for romance or tenderness. Possibly his career would have slowed anyways, even if "Lonelyhearts" hadn't so blatantly dispelled any thought that he was still an attractive man. He made six more films over the following five years, all character studies of emotionally disturbed men, as though his own ravaged looks were a metaphor for their inner disfigurement. He then went a stretch of four years before making his last film, a Cold War spy drama call "The Defector." It was released three months after his death on July 22, 1966, of heart disease and a number of other health problems. Supposedly, he was to star opposite Elizabeth Taylor in "Reflections in a Golden Eye," in the part that Marlon Brando would play, but one that would have been little different from the roles he'd been playing and with no more likelihood of reviving his career.

6:42 PM  
Blogger Inverness said...

I really enjoy these smart, thoughtful posts. However, I'll posit a correction: it's quite untrue that Clift lost his sense of humour after the car accident. If you watch the recent documentary, "Making Montgomery Clift," he was a very funny guy, who continued to find joy, even shortly before his death. So I'd disagree that he " had come to a point where he could no longer laugh at any aspect of life, so that even where he does here, it's cover for despair just beneath."

1:00 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Having seen "Making Montgomery Clift," I am quite in agreement with you, Inverness. That was a wonderful profile of Clift that challenged a lot of myths about this great actor, a few of which I had unfortunately bought into. Thanks for the corrective.

1:41 PM  

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