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 to engage in an act of subjective evaluation rooted in opinion, interpretation, 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 oneself 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.

When it comes to most of the movies I love, I find that critical analysis which encourages me to look beyond mere sensory response doesn't diminish my enjoyment of a film so much as it contributes to significantly enriching the overall experience. But every now and then I fall in love with a film so voluptuously visual, so lyrical, so ardently impassioned in its sensibilities, that there is absolutely no diminution in simply surrendering myself completely to its sensual charms and 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. Camelot (starring Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet, and Roddy McDowall) opened on Broadway in 1960, when I was three years old. 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, I have 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 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 my parents’ older minds, both holding to the position that it was “Out of the question 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 saw Camelot sometime in late 1968, by which time 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 (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, 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. 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 life to 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 buying expensive Broadway properties and, rather than actually using individuals who can sing and dance, hiring 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 wistfulness to her character that’s touching; 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 (like the world’s most well-funded Renaissance Pleasure Faire) has a decidedly hippie, 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

31 comments:

  1. What a beautiful piece of writing. How true, you remember how a movie made you feel. My litmus test is if I’m thinking about a movie the next day (God’s Own Country is my most recent thought provoker). I caught Camelot on TV when I was a kid and remember Vanessa on a swing and that’s about it. Even as a kid I was aware it had bomb written all over it, and it didn’t hold my attention. After reading this I would give it a second look for curiosity’s sake. Vanessa and Franco and Richard were at their peak and I’d notice the flower power aesthetic. For the whole King Arthur genre I remember Prince Valiant because Janet Leigh looked so beautiful to me and I loved “Excalibur” (that was alot later and had nudity), and the book Mists of Avalon. The poster is beautiful. It looks inspired by Gustav Klimt too. And Vanessa and Franco - how great they got back together (shades of Nicholas Sparks). I didn’t know they were on Australia’s’ “Dancing”. Wasn’t Vanessa married to Tony Richardson when they met?

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    1. Hi loulou
      You flatter me! Thank you. I like your litmus test for films; a movie you fail to think about after you've seen it is rarely one that got under your skin. I haven't seen GOD'S OWN COUNTRY,but in reading the synopsis it sounds interesting.
      I laughed at the your scant recollection of CAMELOT being Redgrave on a swing. When I was young I had a similar thing happen when FINIAN'S RAINBOW was broadcast on TV. I tried to watch it, but it failed to hold my interest as well. Later, all I could recall was Petula Clark chasing after a greased pig during a picnic scene.
      I never really was much into the whole King Arthur thing, so I never saw PRINCE VALIANT, but I did fall in love with EXCALIBUR. And not just because personal fave trouser-dropper Nicholas Clay appears pantless again. It's just a really beautiful film.
      I recently saw Redgrave and Franco in the film they did together following CAMELOT, a trippy 1968 Giallo titled A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY. They really have a powerful chemistry.
      As for their 2017 dancing stint, it seems every country has their own "Dancing" competition show, the one they appeared on was in Italy.
      Redgrave was indeed still married to Richardson when she and Nero fell in love (they officially divorced in April of 1967) but Redgrave has claimed they had been separated for some time before she began shooting CAMELOT.
      Very happy you enjoyed this post, for I certainly enjoyed reading your sincere and amusing comments here.

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    2. I'll echo the recommendation for God's Own Country. An intimate indie film that I ended up seeing four times on the big screen, because it just resonated with me that much.

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    3. I'm sold! They have it on Netflix. Thanks, guys!

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  2. What a thrill this was to read. I've neither seen nor heard Camelot, and only know the title song thanks to a musical compilation album my mother owned. The way you once again weave your personal history in with the movie is mesmerizing. The depth and humanity with which you always tackle your subjects is so gratifying, and then there are the one liners! "Ponder the wonders of medieval dentistry" surely had me this time. Furthermore, you speak so eloquently of your partner's tastes, the level of respect and warmth really moves me.

    The cast here is really interesting, even if just superficially - Nero and Hemmings are just so beautiful. I've always had the impression that the Redgrave sisters are really interchangeable, but now looking at their filmographies, it seems I've only really seen Vanessa's work. As immensely talented as she is, I've always found her very distant on screen. I think the only thing where she really left an impression on me was Atonement.

    Thanks for the write-up! I haven't commented on your most recent entries, but I always cherish reading them.

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    1. Hi Callie
      What exceptionally kind comments! Very gratified that you found interesting a piece on a film you know little about and perhaps have no interest in.
      In a way, the superficial appeal of this film (the beauty of its cast, settings, and costumes) are almost enough if you can get past the movie's length. To hear my friends speak of it, unless one seizes upon some bit of aesthetic distraction to guide you through, the film loses steam around the two hour mark.
      I too haven't seen many Lynn Redgrave films, but Vanessa Redgrave has always been a favorite. She does indeed possess a distant quality (like Tilda Swinton) that always seems to reveal hints of vulnerability and depth. I think she's so interesting to watch.
      I don't recommend you go into this movie blind, but you're in a dream spot in not being familiar with the score. You'd have a purer experience of the film than most. However, don't take this as a recommendation. I'd hate to be held responsible for the three hours of your life you'd lose should your response to the film be similar to that of my partner!
      I can't tell you what a lovely compliment the first paragraph of your comment is, but please know I take it heart with a great deal of gratitude and appreciation. Good to hear from you!

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  3. What a lovely essay, Ken!

    I will slow-read it later, too. I've never had an desire to see this film, but once again, you've made me curious!

    When I was a kid, I too quickly tired of kid stuff, and wanted to watch the grown up stuff : )

    Some quick thoughts about the '60s blockbuster genres:
    How many of those 'roadshow' epics and musicals bombed, and then were hacked down, and re-released...pleasing nobody? The list seems endless!

    I've never had much sympathy for Hollywood types who cry about a mega budget movie having to make several times its costs back to turn a profit...nor totally believed it. I always loved Elizabeth Taylor's reply when somebody referred to Cleopatra as a flop. "It wasn't a flop for me!"

    I don't which is worse--the previous trend of dubbing actors with near operatic singers, making them look ridiculous...or, letting actors who are non-singers do their own warbling. Thoughts?

    The look of this movie intrigues me...and that poster is gorgeous. Have you ever tried to find one?

    Cheers for now!
    Rick

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    1. Thank you, Rick!
      Yes, when I was a kid, the very last hing I wanted to watch was another child onscreen. Also, because I lived kind of a sheltered life (Catholic school and all) adult-themed movies was life my only glimpse into what the "real world" was like. I was already such a dreamer I didn't gravitate to fantasy.

      The practice of renaming, reediting bomb roadshow musical always looked as desperate as it appeared too be. I'm sure some film historian out there can cite an example where this worked, but more often than not (like Julie Andrew's "STAR!" re-titling itself the abysmal "Those Were The Happy Times") but more often than not it was the cinema equivalent of flop sweat. It telegraphed disaster!

      As per Hollywood bookkeeping, what I tire of is the way flop films drag in all these territories to convince folks it was a hit. Like CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC never letting us forget it was a huge success in Australia, or other expensive flops reminding us that overseas sales, TV sales, and cable all added it to I being a moneymaker. I've heard a fan of a flop film calculate what a movie earned since its release to present day (sometimes taking in as much a 40 years) declaring, "See! it made a profit!"

      The singers/non-singers thing is a good debate, and perhaps a personal taste. As much as I loathe dubbed voices in movie musicals, I would have given anything for a bearable singing voice in LA LA LAND. I can't stand autotune and electronic tinkering, either. Maybe my big complaint with dubbing is actually with poorly-matched dubbing. Marni Nixon never sounded like a human being to me, but Rosalind Russell's dubbing in GYPSY is great, as is Patty Duke's in Valley of the Dolls.
      Finally, I do have the CAMELOT poster! Some years ago a gallery a a show of Bob Peak's artwork and I was able to purchase a print of the beautiful CAMELOT graphic image without the movie poster text. It's gorgeous! Thanks so much for reading and contributing the great questions/comments!

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  4. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art had a special exhibition of movie costumes in 1974 one costume in the show that made a huge impression on me was the wedding dress used by Guinevere in this movie. On film it’s very pretty, shown from a distance in a stylized candle lit wedding scene. In person however the detail is exceptional. Consisting entirely of a netting of hemp, seeds and other natural materials are individually sewn on the dress with the care of the finest seamstress’s workmanship. It is a breathtaking tour de force of craftsmanship. It’s unfortunate that the screen image never took advantage of the detail and care expended on the costume.

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    1. OMG, I just wrote about the same dress at the same exhibit (below). I never forgot those pumpkin seeds!

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    2. Hi Jimbo (and Peter!0
      Seems like that wedding dress made quite the impression, proving more memorable than the film, in some instances! I've seen photos of the dress, but if the annual movie costume exhibitions they put on at the LA Fashion Institute are any indication, photos likely don't do it justice.
      The gown you speak of was mentioned in all the press publicity at the time, but given how the scene featuring it is shot, it's like you say, pretty, but you never get a sense of the workmanship. I wonder if that proves frustrating for a designer (or does one console oneself with winning two of the film's three Oscar wins).
      I was always taken by a magnificently crafted suede and leather gown Guenevere wears in the scene where she tells Arthur about her father having a round table. The gown is positively gorgeous, but seen for about 30 seconds. And shot mostly from the waist up!
      Thanks very much for commenting!

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  5. You never disappoint, Ken -- your take on Camelot is such inspired writing! I saw Camelot as a child -- nearly all my early film experiences were roadshow musicals it seems -- and it didn't make much of an impact. (I do remember seeing Vanessa Redgrave's lavish pumpkin seed-embroidered wedding gown at (I think) Diana Vreeland's Hollywood costume exhibit at the Met Museum in the mid-Seventies and THAT made an impression!) Your post sent me back to Matthew Kennedy's marvelous book "Roadshow: the Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s." His Camelot chapters vividly recall the no-expense-barred making of the film and the rapidly shifting popular taste of the late Sixties, at least for films musicals. I would really like to see Camelot again; I don't think I've seen the entire thing since its original release though there are a few clips on YouTube, including the wildly wacky (imo) "Lusty Month of May" number. I was struck watching it how much Redgrave reminds me of Garbo -- something about the eyes; you can't look away!

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    1. Thank you very much, Peter!
      Sounds like Warner Bros could have made more money on CAMELOT by just sending that gown on a tour across America. I just acquired that book you mention and can't wait to dig into it. I remember the roadshow craze, too, but only saw those releases after their roadshow runs had hit the "Now at popular prices" phase. Happily, it was still in the day of enormous movie theaters, so the presentation was memorably elegant, and, best of all, you could stay and watch the film over and over if your bladder to take it. CAMELOT was always such a curiosity to me because, with it's darker tone and minimal humor, I can't imagine why the studio thought it could have another SOUND OF MUSIC or MY FAIR LADY on its hands. It has a downer ending, adultery,only that crusty old king for humor, and no real rousing musical numbers (there is THE Lusty Month of May and indeed, it IS wacky. I always sgiggle at the close up of Redgrave "lying" on the grass, when it's so clear by she's standing [or at the very least, leaning] vertically against a grassy plank to avoid that falling skin thing).
      Still, it got to me somehow. I guess the beauty of those three leads combined with the music was kind of bewitching.
      And funny you should bring up Redgrave and Garbo. A couple of years ago I got to see the extended version of ISADORA, and in that film it struck me too, that there was something of Garbo about Redgrave's eyes and bone structure. It never struck me as being so in any other film, but you're the first person to echo something similar.
      Appreciate your kind words and always happy you continue to return to the site and comment so graciously. Thanks!

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    2. Speaking of watching a film over and over again, in 1970 we visited my cousins in LA, where my uncle had ajob (manager?) at the Cinerama Dome Theater downtown. My brother and I got to sit through the excruciating DARLING LILI at least 7-8 times -- I knew the Mancini score by heart! I also remember the coming attractions were for SONG OF NORWAY -- another famous dud. Those were the days!

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    3. Children are so resilient. You sat through "Darling Lili" 7 or 8 times?!? There's got to be a government-funded stress recovery program for that! ( I know not what of I speak, I've never seen it all the way through. Only made it to Andrews'first number). And I haven't thought of SONG OF NORWAY in years. And in all my years I've never encountered anyone ever to bring it up in conversation.

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  6. I popped onto your website and gasped "Camelot!" and was instantly transported back to my childhood. The first musical my father took me to was our small rural high school's production of "Camelot." I remember it very well. (Years later, my brother would play King Arthur in a later production at that same high school.) We had the soundtrack from the play on a record and the soundtrack from the movie on an (wait for it) eight track tape! My siblings and I listened to both constantly. My sister and I made up a silly set of pantomimes to "How to Handle a Woman" that reduced us to giggles every time we did it. In addition, my father would sometimes sing that song at my mother when they were amicably arguing about something. And that movie poster! It was on the cover of the eight track tape. I remember it well for being just so strange! My favorite song is also "What Do the Simple Folk Do". I just listened to it recently on YouTube and was fascinated by how the composers were able to create a complex sequence of rhythms and rhymes to convey a simple but ultimately wise message. And yet...as an adult I really don't care much for the movie (or the play either). Make no mistake, my memories of the music are a treasure but the movie...meh. But I would never attempt to argue you (or anyone else) out of your love for it! I really feel my childhood to have been just a little richer because "Camelot" was around.

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    1. Hi Ron
      What a splendid collection of CAMELOT memories! And such a far-reaching history with the show. All you describe resonates with how a young person responds to pop entertainment; it always becomes apart of the imaginative play of siblings.
      And an 8 -track tape! Oh my! Takes me back.
      It's especially nice that your adult indifference to the film doesn't mar your early memories.
      Oh, and you describe perfectly one of the things I like about "Simple Folk"...it's a clever, song that feels so effortless and light, yet it has sharp, witty lyrics, and is quite complex musically.
      Thanks very much for contributing to this post by sharing your personal and familial "connection" with CAMELOT!

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  7. Thanks for yet another highly-engaging treatment of a film of merit, Ken. It makes terrific reading!

    I agree wholeheartedly with your point about the "feel" of a film being of paramount importance. Ultimately, if all we take away from a film are its objective elements then that's a relatively limited experience. There's a certain sloppiness and orthodoxy in the area of film criticism which ignores the sensibility of a film - kudos to you for taking it on.

    I grappled for close to a week with Fassbinder's "Querelle", and consistently found that scholars of Genet actually have a far superior understanding of the film than contemporary reviewers and revisionist critics...yet Fassbinder went to great lengths to distance himself from the book's narrative, as per Genet.

    But I don't want to get carried away with myself: it ain't a flop if the customers feel it!

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    1. Hello Rick
      I'm pleased you enjoyed this essay! I especially appreciate that you "get" my approach in writing about a film. I'm of a mind that there many thoroughly valid ways to access and evaluate a film, but the purely academic approach, as you note, is I think a relatively limited experience of a film.
      It bears discussion and you bring up many interesting points of view: there are those who approach a film as almost purely sensual; others who feel they need to understand the filmmaker's intent rather than their own experience or interpretation; and certainly those who consider movies of merit have to fit a certain narrow criterion.
      I thank you for bringing up "Querelle," by the way. I havent't watched that in years. But the kind of criticism you reference --informed--is the type I enjoy; it doesn't ask me to change my experience opinion of a film, rather, it enriches it by giving me food for thought and/or calling my attention to things I may have over looked or misinterpreted.

      Indeed, the discussion could continue in several directions, but at the core is the point you make very well: that if a person is lucky enough to have an emotional response/connection to a film, the designation of "flop" has to be defined as something distinctly separate and apart. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

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  8. Hi Ken—can you believe I have never seen this one? I am one of those you mention who was warned away from it because it is always characterized as a “flop.” But the clips I have seen and the gorgeous still photos such as the ones you post here are indeed so lush and gorgeous and 1960s hippie Utopian, I always admired the production design. I have never seen Vanessa look more beautiful. Now I must see the film and make up my own mind, rather than rely on the groupthink about films like this one. (Remember, I am the guy who likes the Bacharach David musical of Lost Horizon!!)
    - Chris

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    1. Hi Chris
      It's funny, with CAMELOT I'm never surprised that someone hates it, but for some reason (perhaps because it's been around so long) I'm always surprised when someone hasn't seen it!
      I keep promising myself I'm going to do a post about all the well-known films I've never seen. It's odd that I was in my 40s before seeing either MARY POPPINS or THE SOUND OF MUSIC...I don't know, I guess some films are so discussed it sometimes feels as though you HAVE seen them.
      I think CAMELOT's chief pleasures are those you site: the production design, how beautiful the cast is, and the music. After that, your ability to last through the three hours of the film has a lot to do with how you respond to the performances and "tone" of the film. Most find it too slow, others find the flaws problematic book (a thing that plagued the Broadway show as well) have never been worked out.
      If and when you do see this, I hope you enjoy it. It certainly bodes well that you are a fan of LOST HORIZON! Great hearing from you, Chris!

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  9. Hi Ken, Well my local library had a copy and I watched...until Intermission!

    Camelot is certainly lovely to look at and as non-singers, I thought Harris and Redgrave did fairly well. Was it me, or did it feel like the music was secondary to the pageantry? I was amused that Franco Nero was Lancelot was supposed to be French!

    I have to wonder how Joshua Logan got his hands on both 'Camelot' and 'Paint Your Wagon.' Logan wasn't a full-time film maker and his last musical, 'South Pacific,' was controversial.

    I forgot this was a WB film, and when I saw Jack Warner's name on it, I wondered how much input he had. A notorious tightwad, Warner liked to throw money around on big properties and names only when he thought he could make even more back! Made me wonder if wanted Burton and Andrews, who were at the peak of their box office. It was Warner who famously gave Andrews Eliza Dolittle role to Audrey Hepburn for another L & L musical! Whoever was casting Camelot was going for a younger vibe, which I was fine with.

    This movie feels like a beautiful dream, Ken. I can see why it has stayed with you!

    Cheers,
    Rick

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    1. In the manner of William Castle, I think CAMELOT screenings actually gave out certificates in the lobby for those who made it to the Intermission! (No they didn't.)
      I'm impressed you were inspired to give the film a try. And your observations bear out your open mind. Someone on FB commented that the songs in this interpretation seem to naturalistically come out of the dialog (and move the plot and characterizations forward) that those familiar with a more traditional musical structure (say, My Fair Lady) miss the sense of a "musical moment." I agree with that take, and imagine that is precisely why the pageantry looms so large.
      In the ROADSHOW! (mentioned earlier by Peter Lapin) they go into how Jack Warner was all over CAMELOT and was devoted to the project. I forget why Josh Logan got both gigs, but I know Robert Wise bowed and other directors approached declined. Andrews passed on CAMELOT and I'm not sure if it was Warner or Logan who felt she wasn't "lusty" enough to play Guenevere, anyway (the book alludes to Warner not being particulrly ready or willing to admit he was wrong about Andrews and "Lady"). They both wanted Burton who wanted too much money. The younger vibe, for me, anyway, was a much nicer fit for the KIng and Queen.

      Franco Nero makes a beautiful Lancelot, but his Italian accent always makes me forget that his character is supposed to be French. I really never think of Redgrave and Harris as non singers, but I think because I grew up during the Golden Age of the variety show, I was a little weary of the old-fashioned sound of the Julie Andrews type of voice. Both Arthur & Guenevere have a more pop sound to me. Redgrave's voice has a Judy Collins quality to it, and Harris sounds like any number of folk or soft-rock singers of the day.
      I wondered if you were really going to give the film a try, and so I'm pleased you stopped back here and provided a follow-up on your virgin CAMELOT experience. I enjoyed reading it very much. Thanks, Rick!

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    2. Hey Ken, I checked out some clips of the Burton-Andrews Camelot on probably the Sullivan show. And yes, Julie was prim as always! Burton and Harris were somewhat similar, and Goulet was a Vegas cheeseball, as always! So, the casting of 'Camelot' the film was fine by me. And I'm glad I got a taste of it! Rick

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    3. Oh, glad you saw it. The one where Burton and Andrews sing "What Do the Simple Folk" is the one I saw as a kid. As enjoyable as it is (and how charmed I am by everyone looking so young...and seeing the ever-still Burton actually dance ) seeing it gave me a renewed appreciation for how the film version was reimagined. Sounds as though you may have felt similarly.

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  10. CAMELOT will always have my heart, flawed as it is, but in every way an improvement on the godawful stage musical. The Lerner and Loewe score and marquee casting made the Broadway show a hit. The Kennedy association gave it cultural significance that it never otherwise would have achieved. But that is not a good basis for a film musical.

    Get a copy of Josh Logan's book, "Movie Stars, Real People and Me." His writing about CAMELOT is especially interesting. He knew the troubles and flaws of the musical. The out-of-town opening night performance didn't end until midnight. The director, Moss Hart, had a serious heart attack. The show even was revised AFTER it opened on Broadway, when Hart had sufficiently recovered, with songs added and dropped. This never happens. Logan's fundamental objection was that the Broadway musical concerned courtly love. When Guenevere and Lancelot betrayed Arthur, they did so passionately, but only in their hearts, only in their mind. No bangin'. Lancelot broke with the Code of Chivalry. Guenevere betrayed her marriage vows. Both were disloyal to their king. That's it, kids. Logan understood that movie audiences would mainly be unaware of this historical idea of courtly love and could, therefore, not understand or accept it. He chucked courtly love and turned their story into four seasons of hot animal sex. Yee-haw! That fundamental change then directed the casting. Sparks he wanted from Lance and Guenevere. Sparks there were and, 50 years later, still are. Good job, Josh. Redgrave was a young star on her way up, but Logan did not know her. He was told to check out one of her films and he thought her perfect to be compelling to both Lancelot and Arthur;'a woman worth risking your kingdom for.' The three of them make that love triangle work beautifully. Logan knew the film needed that sizzling chemistry and he got it.

    Logan regretted the colored lenses in SOUTH PACIFIC, a concern that influenced CAMELOT. While SOUTH PACIFIC may have too much color, CAMELOT may have too little. Except for the title sequence, there is no red in the film. Logan feared the cheezey looking Arthurian films that Hollywood had ground out over the years would undercut CAMELOT. He and John Truscott worked very hard to create a world that was totally original. The designs don't come from a costume history book, nor are they found anywhere in history. It's all invented by Truscott to create the image and atmosphere that was this film's Camelot, not Hollywood 's hackneyed vision of it. It doesn't rest on gold and red and flashy heraldry. The palette is mostly earth tones. Costumes are created from things that might actually be available to these people at this time, not that the time is ever set in any point in history, either. Indeed, the film does not resemble any of the Medieval or Arthurian sorts of films that preceded it. Truscott was rewarded with Oscars for sets and for costumes, beating Bonnie and Clyde whose costumes were spectacular then and iconic now.

    Both castles featured in the film are Spanish. My late partner was Spanish. The first time I traveled with him to Spain, I burned to see those castles. Bless him, he took me. Lancelot's castle is the Alcazar in Segovia. That one is frequently visited by tourists. Coca is Arthur's castle in the long shots. I queened out at both. I picked up a few pebbles from the ground at Coca. Some years later, I was going to an event in NYC and knew I was going to be meeting Josh Logan there. So I gave him a pebble. He did not run from me. I thought he might. He spoke warmly about the film and thanked me for being a fan.

    Franco Nero is the last big point for me. I saw the road show release, but of course I was only 11 years old. I encountered Franco Nero just as puberty was encountering me. My first brush with sexual awareness lasted three hours. I liked it, but I didn't know what it was. A pox on Vanessa Redgrave for keeping from me!

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    1. Hi George,
      Your recounting of the events surrounding CAMELOT (both stage and screen) brought back memories of reading that Josh Logan book back in college. I haven't thought about it in years, but I recall that it was really a fascinating, accessible read for anyone interested in the kinds of choices that go into adapting a semi-hit Broadway show to the screen in hopes of turning it into a sure-fire hit.
      Of all the creative choices/changes you site, I think making the adultery real in the film (and therefore adding some much-needed passion) was the most persuasive for me, signaling as it did, a need for a sensual Guenevere. As you note, the three leads in the film version are quite a match, sexual chemistry-wise.
      Of course, I'm also very fond of Truscott's design contribution, as well. It's true...it's a welcome departure from the color-filled (artificial) MGM-style interpretation of the era.

      And how wonderful that you had the opportunity to see the two castles in Spain! They look marvelous onscreen - espeically Lancelot's - so it must have been quite the memorable experience (and the meeting up with Logan must have been especially gratifying). I used to have one of those CAMELOT souvenir programs they sold in the theater lobby, and they had such gorgeous travelogue type photos of the Spain locations.
      And Franco Nero...he really made an impression. In a sea of New Hollywood "everymen" like Gene Hackman, Richard Benjamin, and George Segal, Nero was matinee idol handsome with an overlay of sex appeal that was very heady for an adolescent. He single-handedly saved Guenevere from being an unsympathetic character; we all identified with her...heavily.
      Thanks, George, for sharing your personal CAMELOT history with us, and contributing so much fascinating production info in your comment. As I've often related, visitors to the blog are always telling me how much they enjoy reading the informed contributions to the comments section. Much appreciated!

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  11. Ken,

    As always, such an interesting piece you've written. I barely got through this film on VHS back in the 90s so I feel like I definitely need to give it another shot, in blu ray this time.
    One thing I wanted to note: I don't think Valley of the Dolls was ever considered a *flop* (it was, as you note, a huge financial success) financially, but rather a critical flop (which it most certainly was and is). A small distinction.
    Also, this has nothing to do with anything, but I do love trivia and this always makes me giggle when I think of Joshua Logan. In '61, he directed "Fanny" - not sure if you've written about that one. The story I love, though, is that when the film was first released the posters and advertising materials loudly proclaimed "JOSHUA LOGAN'S FANNY"! Amazingly, no one at WB advertising realized how that came across. Once the film was in the release, someone finally did pick up on it and the posters and ads were quietly revised to say "A Joshua Logan Production - FANNY".

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    1. Hi Chris
      Thanks very much for reading! As per the Valley of the Dolls note, perhaps you read my piece a little swiftly, for you're actually reiterating precisely the point I made in the essay.
      The Joshua Logan trivia anecdote is very amusing though, a fitting contribution to a post devoted to one of his more famous/infamous projects. Thank you for sharing it.

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  12. I read your essays regularly and always enjoy your points of view and personal insights. I saw 'Camelot' at the ABC Deansgate Cinema in Manchester, England shortly after it was released. At the time I lived about 15 miles away and I and my teenage friends used to see all the 'big' films in Manchester.

    I disliked this film immensely - an overblown American view of King Arthur et al and considered it a waste of the talents of all the actors concerned. If I remember correctly, the film was roundly criticised in the English press and they were quick to point out Miss Redgrave's dental work was plainly visible whilst she sang, the camera being just inches from her open mouth.

    Sorry Mr Armstrong, but not a film I want to revisit.

    I look forward to your next essay.

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    1. Hi Michael
      Ha! Yes, on the big screen Vanessa Redgrave's fillings do seem to be at least three feet wide in the scenes where the camera fairly dares you to look at anything else but her gaping maw. I found it rather amusing/charming (even when, during her crying scene, the camera appears intent on catching her running nose in all its key-lit glory). But I love that you, one of Redgrave's countrymen who saw CAMELOT during its original release, found it as unappetizing a film as my partner persists in telling me it most certainly is. I keep saying he needs to see it on the big screen, but he's not biting.
      I'm pleased you enjoy my posts enough to revisit from the time to time, and I thank you. Your excitement and enjoyment clearly contributing to your mistakenly calling me Mr. Armstrong--a fine name, to be sure, just not mine. :-)
      I look forward to hearing from you again. Thanks, Michael!

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