Friday, February 9, 2018

CAMELOT 1967

One of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes (one which paraphrases an earlier quote by Carl Buehner) is: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” I like this quote because not only have I found it to be true in my life, but it also summarizes what I’ve always maintained to be my own experience of film: I’ll forget what a movie made at the boxoffice. I’ll forget whether critics deemed it a hit or a flop. I’ll forget if it won any Oscars. But I never forget how a movie made me feel.

A great many things go into making a motion picture: acting, direction, screenwriting, cinematography, mis-en-scène, etc....simply a host of creative and aesthetic contributions by artisans and craftspeople in collaboration. But I always contend that unless you’re discussing measurable, fact-based elements such as whether or not a scene is in focus, or if a boom mike popped into frame; the act of ascribing value to a film (to classify it as either a “good” or bad” movie) is not an act of objective appraisal, but an act of subjective evaluation. In other words, to express an opinion based on individual interpretation, firsthand point-of-view, and personal taste.
I love movies. I’ve loved movies for as long as I can remember. I get a kick out of reading about them, discussing them, analyzing them, and especially writing about them. But one of the risks of being a devoted cinephile and immersing myself so (too?) deeply in film theory and fandom minutiae is that I can occasionally forget what made me fall in love with movies in the first place: they’re a great deal of fun. To be able to watch a large number of films over the course of one’s lifetime and yet still remain connected to the pure, sensual, escapist thrill of movies has always been a goal of mine. Something easier to tap into with some films more than others.

Academic essays about films I chiefly respond to in an emotional way can be enlightening, ofttimes  enriching my viewing enjoyment by encouraging me to look beyond a movie's more accessible virtues. In such instances I'm gratified to find both my heart and my head affected by a film. But every now and then I fall in love with a film so voluptuously visual, so lyrical, so ardently impassioned in its sensibilities, that I simply surrender myself completely to its sensual charms and (for better or worse) wind up leaving my analytical brain at the door.
For me, Camelot is such a film.
Richard Harris as King Arthur
Vanessa Redgrave as Guenevere
Franco Nero as Lancelot Du Lac
David Hemmings as Mordred
The mystical legend of King Arthur, Guenevere, Lancelot, and the knights of the round table is tunefully romanticized in Camelot, Alan Jay Lerner (lyricist & librettist) and Frederick Loewe’s (composer) follow-up to their wildly successful My Fair Lady. I was but 3-years-old when Camelot opened on Broadway in 1960 with a cast featuring Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet, and Roddy McDowall. When Warner Bros. released its heavily-publicized, three-hour, 70mm, $13-17 million (depending on the source) big screen film version in 1967, I was ten. In other words, as a child I had no real memory of a world without Camelot in it.
Lionel Jeffries as King Pellinore
When I was very small, I linked Camelot to dull, suitable-for-parents-only entertainment, associating it exclusively with Robert Goulet crooning the ballad “If Ever I Would Leave You” on TV variety shows (as I had Barbra Streisand and the song “People”). Following that, the show’s title tune became married to sad memories of President Kennedy’s assassination after my teacher (per the 1963 Jackie Kennedy Life magazine interview wherein it was referenced as the late president’s favorite song) played that paeanistic anthem to our class, resulting in a roomful of first-graders bursting into tears without any of us really knowing why. Not long after this, Camelot became familiar to me as an Original Broadway Cast album that every parent seemed to have in their home, yet never played.

By 1967 my family had settled in San Francisco, and it’s then that I recall first catching sight of Bob Peak’s colorfully alluring artwork for the movie poster. Still one of my favorite movie posters, I responded strongly to it because it resembled the then-popular psychedelic/Art Nouveau-style of San Francisco rock and roll concert posters that were all over the Haight/Ashbury district where we lived.
With Camelot’s artwork staring out at me from the poster display case in front of the Coronet Theater (where Camelot had its exclusive, reserved-seat, $3 a ticket, roadshow engagement) and from the cover of the Columbia Record Club mail-order soundtrack LP that arrived at our door one day because my mom forgot to send back the “not interested” card the month previous; suddenly this stodgy, must-to-avoid, middle-aged entertainment became the movie I couldn’t wait to see.
Laurence Naismith as Merlin
Of course, in the days when double and even triple features were the norm, the idea of paying $3 (75¢ to $1.50 was average) to see just one movie didn’t sound all that appealing to my young mind. As it turns out, the idea sounded even less so to the more mature minds of my parents, both of whom were of the opinion that taking me with them to see Camelot was- “Out of the question. I'm not going to shell out that kind of money for the privilege of watching you fall asleep!” That’s what drive-ins were for.
So, until Camelot became available at “popular prices” and made its way to our neighborhood theater, I had to content myself with listening to the soundtrack album.
And listen to it I did. Constantly. Persistently. Rapturously.
I fell in love with the sound of Camelot before I ever saw a single frame. 

I finally saw Camelot sometime in late 1968, by then the film’s flop* status was common knowledge, and some 30 minutes of footage from the roadshow version had been excised in an effort to speed things along, so to speak.
*[A huge bone of contention among retro film fans is the word “flop” ascribed to a beloved favorite. Hollywood has long held to the unwritten rule that a movie needs to make at least two to three times its production costs to begin to show a profit. Thus, while Camelot saw out the year as #11 on the roster of top grossing films of 1967 (meaning it was reasonably popular with the public), with its $15 million production budget, a domestic boxoffice return of $31 million translates as genuine flop material. The same holds true for many other “popular successes” that simply cost too much to promote and distribute. One of the most notable is Hello, Dolly! which came in as the #4 top-grosser of 1969. But budgeted at a whopping $25 million and marketed to the skies at a cost of at least half that amount, the $33 million it took in at the boxoffice proved that it may have been popular with the public, but nothing short of ruinous for 20th Century-Fox.
Perhaps the most curious application of the word flop is attributed to 1967’s Valley of the Dolls. Budgeted at a modest $4 million, VOD ranked #6 at the boxoffice and raked in an astounding $44 million, making it a significantly profitable hit for the studio. However, the film proved such a critical disaster and so devastating to the careers of those involved, the label of “flop” has clung to it, largely in reference to its quality (or lack, thereof), not its profitability.]

In any event, once the theater lights started to dim that Saturday afternoon in 1968 (I can’t remember whether it was at the Amazon or the Castro theater), none of that made any difference, because no one else’s experience of Camelot mattered but my own. I grew up with very little interest in most of the age-appropriate movies of the time (I was an adult before I saw The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, or Doctor Dolittle), so at age eleven, I hadn’t much exposure to fantasy or magic in movies. Camelot, which looked to me like a fairy tale come to life, captivated my imagination from start to finish.

There in the dark, before this enormous screen, came a vision of opulent, extravagant fantasy that seemed to shimmer with an almost otherworldly luster. The scope, the color, the lush orchestrations, the pageantry…this creation of a world both magically artificial and hyperreal so overwhelmed my senses that I’ve no memory of what I actually thought of the story itself; only the sense memory of feeling totally and absolutely transported by a movie.
It was aesthetic overload. I was absolutely floored by how gorgeous everything and everyone looked. Even those enormous, incessant, Panavision closeups that drove so many critics to distraction were positively swoon-inducing for me. At the time Camelot was the most “movie” movie I’d ever seen. 


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
Clearly, most of what’s recounted above is a young film fan’s response to the candy-store charms of old-fashioned Hollywood movie-making. Too young to sense the dissonance so many found (and continue to find) in having a mystical, musicalized wisp of romantic lore mounted as a massive, grandiose epic; I simply fell under the spell of cinema’s unique ability to give corporeal life to sublime fantasy.
Looking at Camelot today (I watched it over the Christmas holidays) I’d like to report that my adult self finds the film’s pacing to be sluggish when it should be lilting; the thin singing voices of the leads ill-serving of the score’s lovely melodies; the overall tone wavering unevenly between farce, romance, and drama; the film’s length interminable; the self-serious performances deadly to the story’s wit and humor; the sets artificial and stagey.
I’d like to, but I can’t.
I see these things and recognize them to be sound and justified criticisms leveled at the film by friends and loved ones (my partner, a man of unyielding good taste and intelligence, cannot abide a single frame of this movie); but they’re flaws visible to me only when I look at Camelot through the eyes of others. When I look at Camelot through my own two eyes, it’s a little like the scene where Arthur, extolling the virtues of Camelot to Guenevere, gives a brief lesson on how perspective can change perception: “When I was young, everything looked a little pink to me.”

Because I can’t separate the film from my experience of first seeing it, Camelot still shines with a kind of pinkish glow to me. I don’t kid myself that Camelot is a better movie than it is, but my adult perspective—the belief that one can derive perfect pleasure from an imperfect film—guides my youthful perception of it as a magical, majestic, utterly charming musical...in spite of its flaws.

Due to having fallen in love with the music first, Lerner & Loewes’ magnificent score will always be my favorite thing about Camelot. Preferring the movie soundtrack to the Broadway version (sorry, Julie Andrews) I adore the film’s human-sized interpretation of Arthur and Guenevere (Jenny, as he calls her) and never found fault with the smaller, more emotive voices of Redgrave and Harris, which achieve such a lovely, amatory quality in the duet “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” (my absolute favorite song in the entire show). Perversely perhaps, the one trained voice in the filmthat of singer Gene Marlino, dubbing Nero’s vocals—I find to be hollow and generic in the dubbing style of Marni Nixon and those disembodied, Doodletown Piper-style vocals they used in Hello, Dolly! and Lost Horizon.
As big-budget musical epics go, Camelot, with its glorious Oscar-winning costumes and production design, is nothing short of a dream; the film’s vast scale emblematic of Arthur’s full-to-bursting idealism. I suspect it was director Joshua Logan’s intention to use so many close-ups as a stylized means of creating emotional intimacy. While this device is sensually effective in the romantic and dramatic scenes, when the principals are required to break into song it offers too many opportunities to ponder the wonders of medieval dentistry.

PERFORMANCES
If you’ve ever seen an Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan the Barbarian movie or any of those straight-to-DVD action films featuring the likes of Dolf Lundgren, one can easily understand why mainstream superhero films have often found it more advantageous to hire and actor and pad his suit (Michael Keaton, George Clooney) than try to get an athlete to act. I’ve always guessed a similar mindset was behind the Hollywood custom of purchasing Broadway properties and, rather than actually hiring individuals who can sing and dance, they engage the services of actors who have minimal proficiency in either: it’s easier to teach an actor to sing (dubbing!) than find song and dance performers who come across effectively on film.
I could devote an entire essay on both the soundness (Ethel Merman and Carol Channing) and folly (Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood) of this practice; but confining myself exclusively to Camelot, I have to put forth that I find Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Harris, and Franco Nero all exceptionally well-suited to their roles. 

They are certainly the most visually stunning Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot I’ve yet to come across (Nicholas Clay’s virile Lancelot in 1981’s Excalibur being the exception); Harris a commanding and compassionate Arthur, Redgrave (Camelot’s most valuable player) looking like a fairy princess and bringing a touching wistfulness to her character; and Nero, abysmal lip-syncing aside, gives an engagingly robust, sensitive performance.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
An unanticipated pleasure in having seen Camelot when it was new and revisiting it some 50 years later, is reveling in the degree to which it embodies the attitudes and trends of the past, while its themes comment (with depressing acuity) on our current “situation.”
Camelot takes place in a fictional kingdom in the Middle Ages, but (as was common of period films in the days of the studio system) it has late-1960s written all over it. The casting, opting for up-and-coming talent over established stars, reflects who was hot at the time: Redgrave and Hemmings, fresh from cavorting nude in Antonioni’s Blow-Up; Harris only recently having bashed in Franco Nero’s brains in John Huston’s The Bible. The sound of Camelot may be traditional Broadway, but its look is that of the world’s most well-funded Renaissance Pleasure Faire. This Camelot carries a decidedly flower-child, hippie-commune, love-in vibe.
Guenevere (with her mod bangs, cascading falls, and teased hair bump…all color-coordinated with the castle and furnishings) is the world’s first flower-child; while Arthur—whose quixotic anti-war soliloquies sound like a Berkeley campus lunchtime messiah—sports a groovy pageboy haircut and adorns himself with furs, capes, boots, and abundant eye shadow worthy of a Fillmore rocker. Not to be outdone, bad guy Mordred struts about in a leather outfit that looks to have been borrowed from Jim Morrison.

Alas, with Camelot’s dark second half, quaint ‘60s nostalgia gives way to harsh contemporary relevance. As Arthur’s humane ideals crumble under his own hypocrisy (he decrees rumors he doesn’t like—Guenevere’s infidelity and Lancelot’s betrayal—to be fake news and banishes from the kingdom those who dare speak what he knows to be true), Mordred, Arthur's vainglorious illegitimate son tweets…I mean, boasts, “I’ve been taught to place needs ahead of conscience. Comfort ahead of principle. I find charity offensive and kindness a trap,” while making ready his plans to return England to a state of cruelty, chaos, and war.
When Arthur laments, “Those old uncivilized days come back again. Those days…those dreadful days we tried to put asleep forever,” he could be speaking of a dark day in Charlottesville, Ga. in August of 2017, or, more accurately, the United States every day since November 8, 2016.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Time has been kind to Camelot, which is ironic, since complaints about its length have dogged the film since its release. No longer condemned for not fitting in with the times, Camelot now belongs to the broader, nebulous past of Classic Hollywood. The cast of budding actors are now revered film industry veterans; the style of filmmaking employed, lambasted as creakily old-fashioned during the youthquake '60s, is refreshingly devoid of CGI and today's ADD style of editing (so ruinous to so many contemporary stabs at musicals); and the melodic score harkens back to a when scores had a timelessness to them that didn't date the music before the film was released.
Yet Camelot remains unique in that it is one of those movies whose dividing line never seems to shift. I've never known anyone who hated the film to ever come around to a different opinion, and those who love it (as I do) can't be talked down off of our cloud no matter what detractors say.

I can't speak for everyone, but I guess back when I was eleven I just took it to heart when Arthur said at the end of the film, "What we did will be remembered."



BONUS MATERIAL
King Arthur's Camelot took on the role of a Himalayan lamasery in the 1973 musical Lost Horizon


Camelot was revived on Broadway in 1980 with Richard Burton recreating his Tony Award-winning role as Arthur. When Burton succumbed to ill health in 1981, Hollywood's King ArthurRichard Harris, then 51-years-oldstepped into the role. Harris would go on to purchase the rights to the stage production and toured with Camelot for six more years. This production, co-starring Meg Bussert as Guenevere and Richard Muenz as Lancelot, was broadcast on HBO in 1982 and is available on YouTube 

Richard Harris passed away in 2005, nearly as famous as he was at the time of Camelot thanks to his role as Dumbledore, the Headmaster at Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. But a real-life fairy tale romance played out for Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero who fell in love during the making of Camelot, had a child out of wedlock, made a couple of films together, separated in 1971, reconnected some thirty years later, and wed in 2006. In 2017, when she was 80 and he 75, they waltzed together on the Italian TV dance competition program Strictly Come Dancing.

Richard Harris had quite the recording career, releasing several albums throughout the '60s and '70s. His biggest success came with 1968's Grammy-nominated A Tramp Shining, which featured the #2 Billboard hit, the talk-sing version of MacArthur Park. I never owned that now-rare curio, but a particular favorite I never tire of listening to is Harris' guest stint as "The Doctor" (talk-singing his way through Go To The Mirror with Steve Winwood and Roger Daltrey) on the 1972 studio recording of Tommy, The Who's double-LP collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra and a host of guest artists.

Don’t let it be forgot 
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment 
That was known as Camelot. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson