Saturday, January 30, 2021

WISE UP - A look at the Best Director you've forgotten & the book "ROBERT WISE: THE MOTION PICTURES"

Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures (Revised Edition) by J. R. Jordan - 2020
The Pause That Refreshes.
Director Robert Wise hoists a Coca-Cola on the set of West Side Story with the film's star Natalie Wood. Wise co-directed West Side Story with choreographer Jerome Robbins, their twin 1963 Oscar win for Best Director was the first time the directing award had ever been shared. (Photo not featured in book.)

By rights, the director of the movie that single-handedly saved 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy should be as well-known as John Ford or Howard Hawks. And if that same fellow received his first of seven career Academy Award nominations (four wins) for editing one of the most highly-acclaimed motion pictures in American cinema, you'd think he'd be at least as talked and written about as William Wyler or George Cukor.  Now, what if this guy was also responsible for two of the most iconic movie musicals of all time...films that made a fortune for the studios, garnered Best Picture Oscar wins for both, and influenced the way movie musicals were made for years after...surely this director must be as famous as Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock. Right? 
Answer: Well, not so much.
The Sound of Music
Even die-hard devotees of the film have a hard time remembering who directed it.

Of course, the person I’m referring to is the late director-producer Robert Wise (1914 – 2005). It was Wise’s adaptation of the Broadway musical The Sound of Music (1965) that rescued 20th Century Fox from the threat of Cleopatra (1963)-induced bankruptcy. It was Wise who, at the ripe old age of 26, edited the Orson Welles masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941) and received his first Oscar nomination. (Wise was also the person controversially tasked with whittling/butchering Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) down to 88 minutes from its original 148-minute running time.) And in 1962 and 1966, it was Robert Wise who each year took home Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director in recognition for his work on West Side Story and The Sound of Music respectively.

West Side Story
According to the Jerome Robbins biography Somewhere, Robert Wise was "quite reluctant" when asked to co-direct with the Tony Award-winning choreographer/director of the original 1957 Broadway production. An agreement was struck granting Robbins control of the musical sequences, Wise the book scenes. Even with this, the producers fired Robbins some 45 days into the film's 7-month shooting schedule, citing his over-meticulousness as the cause for the film being severely and expensively behind schedule. 

Having directed some 40 motion pictures throughout his six-decade career—several now regarded as contemporary classics—Wise is hardly an unknown in film circles. Similarly, given the many positions of honor he held in his lifetime (president of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and The Director’s Guild) and the number of industry trophies bestowed upon him (the aforementioned four Academy Awards, The Irving G Thalberg Memorial Award, The Director’s Guild D.W. Griffith Award, and The AFI Life Achievement Award), Wise isn’t even a filmmaker about whom it can be said had a career that went unrewarded.

Two for the Seesaw
Wise uses space to dramatize the isolation of characters played by Shirley MacLaine & Robert Mitchum

The boon and bane of Robert Wise’s career has always been his versatility and disinterest in imposing a defining “A film by Robert Wise” signature on his movie. 

“Some of the more esoteric critics claim there is no Robert Wise style or stamp. My answer to that is that I’ve tried to approach each genre in a cinematic style that I think is right for that genre.” - Robert Wise  The Los Angeles Times 1998 

The range of genres Wise worked in is staggering. Film-Noir: Born to Kill (1947) / Western: Blood on the Moon (1948) / Sports: The Set-up (1949) / Comedy: Something for the Birds (1952) / War: Destination Gobi (1953) / Bio: I Want to Live (1958) / Crime: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) / Romance: Two for the Seesaw (1962) / Adventure: The Sand Pebbles (1966) / Musical: - Star! (1968) / Horror: The Haunting (1963) / and Sci-Fi: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). 
The Hindenburg
Suspicious-looking onlooker Roy Thinnes skulks behind Colonel George C. Scott and Countess Anne Bancroft, whose opium addiction has her airborne long before the dirigible ever leaves the ground. 

And while Robert Wise may not have been the most hands-on director, his films led many a performer to Oscar wins and nominations (Steve McQueen received his only Oscar nomination for The Sand Pebbles). 

—From the book Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures by J.R. Jordan—
René Auberjonois on working with Wise on The Hindenburg (1975): “But I have very little recollection of Robert directing me as an actor. And that is unique, really. I didn’t have much of an actor-director relationship with him.”   
Janette Scott on working with Wise on Helen of Troy (1956): “From our perspective, he didn’t really direct. He would place us and say things like, ‘Let's try it.’

The Day the Earth Stood Still
Michael Rennie (left) no doubt feeling ill.

Historically speaking, if Wise suffers from anything, it's from a lack of legacy. He's a director with no visibility (there aren't any Alfred Hitchcock-like walk-ons in a Robert Wise movie); no public persona (he didn't make the talk-show circuit like Otto Preminger); no mystique (there are no juicy anecdotes detailing displays artistic temperament); and impossible to "type" (versatility resists branding). When film enthusiasts and scholars talk about the directors of the studio system era, the name Robert Wise is conspicuous in its absence. Underrated and overlooked in comparison to his peers, Robert Wise is the Jan Brady of film directors. The Rodney Dangerfield of Cinema. 

Photo: Los Angeles Times
Robert Wise's reputation as a director worthy of scholarly evaluation took a serious blow in 1968 when influential film critic and Auteur Theory advocate Andrew Sarris summarily dismissed the versatile director as a "technician without a strong personality," and claims that Wise's stylistic signature was "indistinct to the point of invisibility."

Hoping to rectify this is the book— Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures by J.R. Jordan, originally published in 2017 and now available in a revised and updated edition. Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures is a well-researched, sizable volume (506 pages) that takes a comprehensive, chronological look at the full body of Robert Wise's career output as a director. All 40 of Wise’s feature films are highlighted, including his last, a TV-movie filmed when the director was 85-years-old. 

The book is divided into five sections, each representing a significant period in Wise’s career (section titles are the author’s, the descriptors my own):
RKO Pictures – B-movies under the tutelage of horror master Val Lewton.
The Fifties – His most prolific period.
Primetime – The ‘60s, his most successful decade.  
The Science and Surrealism of the Seventies – Big budgets & modest returns.
Twilight – His brief return to filmmaking following a 10-year absence. 
The Haunting
My favorite Robert Wise film is also one of the most effective haunted house films I've ever seen

An entire chapter is devoted to each of Wise’s films. The chapters comprise a thematic quote; plot description; details about the making of the movie; trivia and behind-the-scenes-info; pertinent screen dialogue; and in some instances, interviews with actors and other individuals involved in the production. More than 20 interviews were conducted for the book, among those contributing their thoughts on working with Wise are Marsha Mason (Audrey Rose), George Chakiris (West Side Story), Lindsay Wagner (Two People), René Auberjonois (The Hindenburg), Earl Holliman (Destination Gobi), Billy Gray (The Day the Earth Stood Still), and Janette Scott (Helen of Troy). For me, these interviews are an entertaining and informative highlight. 
Featuring an index, bibliography, and where necessary, citation footnotes, it’s a book that can be read cover to cover (as I did) or used for reference. 
Star!
When it came to Wise's return to the musical genre, three failed to be the charm. The expensive, tuneful, and colorful musical biography of Gertrude Lawrence was as big a flop as The Sound of Music was a hit.

Because so many of Robert Wise’s movies are so well-known and popular, yet Wise remains a director about whom little has been written, it’s natural to approach this sizable volume with a great deal of expectation. (In my case, over-expectation. I’m a big fan of Robert Wise, but the last book I read about him was back in 2007…Richard C. Keenan’s The Films of Robert Wise.) So, at this point, I need to emphasize that one's enjoyment of Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures will be significantly enhanced by understanding clearly what the book is and what it isn’t. 
Odds Against Tomorrow
Produced by Harry Belafonte and credited as the first film-noir to star a Black actor


Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures is not an academic work of film scholarship and doesn’t present itself as such. More an appreciation and career tribute to Wise, Jordan approaches his subject with a film-buff’s enthusiasm and a well-informed informality. Biographical information about Wise, personal or professional, is minimal, the emphasis being on letting the films speak for themselves, letting actors and industry professionals share their thoughts on working with Wise, and highlighting each film’s production and content. As per the latter, perhaps an overabundance of riches. Unaccountably detailed plot descriptions dominate the book, it not being unusual for 5 pages of a 9-page chapter to be devoted to the recounting of a film’s storyline alone.
Audrey Rose
Marsha Mason and John Beck wonder if the reincarnated can reverse charges

For me, Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures succeeds as an introduction and primer for those unfamiliar with the director, and as a solid reference book supplement to the already existing books about Robert Wise (I’m only aware of their being 5 total). I would think this book would prove very useful in this age of streaming sites and online movie accessibility, its chapter-by-chapter highlighting of each film serving as a guide for the unfamiliar, a recap to the initiated. 
Should there be a 2nd revised edition of Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures, I hope the opportunity presents itself for a strong editor to tighten up the prose a bit. There's so much worthwhile in Jordan's book, yet I suspect its form as is might keep well-read cinema enthusiasts away. It's great to have a book dedicated to the entire body of Robert Wise's directing career, even better to encounter such a sincere tribute to a man who, by all accounts, was an unusually kind, principled, and self-effacing director whose movies continue to touch many lives.
The Andromeda Strain
You know it's science fiction when Paula Kelly and James Olson battle an uncontrolled
outbreak of a deadly virus and there's no one around bitching about having to wear a mask.


Indeed, the major through-line of each and every interview conducted in the book can be found in this quote by a pre-The Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner, whom Wise directed in her first film Two People (1973): 

“Robert (Wise) to this day remains one of the nicest, most gracious film directors I’ve ever encountered. Consequently, my indoctrination to the business was that power, success, and kindness can all coexist. Because to me, those are the characteristics that defined Robert Wise.”

 The author provided a review copy of the book.

All screencaps are from Robert Wise movies in my personal DVD collection.

Simone Simon and Ann Carter in The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Taking over the reins from original director Gunther von Fritsch, this RKO film
produced by Val Lewton marks Robert Wise's debut as a film director.


Copyright © Ken Anderson     2009 - 2021

Monday, January 4, 2021

BOOM! 1968

"I don't believe God is dead, but I do think he is inclined to pointless brutalities."
Tennessee Williams

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made a total of ten films together (11 if you count the presciently-titled 1973 TV-movie Divorce His/Divorce Hers) over the course of their highly-public, passionate-but-rocky, ten-plus-one-years marriage (wed in 1964, they divorced in ’74, remarried a year later, re-divorced a year after that). By the time they appeared in their 8th vehicle together, Joseph Losey's Boom!, unkind film critics--worn down by years of ceaseless press coverage of the couple's top-of-the-line lifestyle and bottom-of-the-barrel movie resume--had taken to referring to the paparazzi-popular pair as a traveling vaudeville act. A difficult point to argue against at the time.

Branded infamous for their scandalously out-in-the-open, adulterous canoodling during the making of Cleopatra (1963), the combination of gossip and public curiosity helped turn cinematic dogs like 1963s The VIPs (neither had secured divorces from their respective spouses by then) and the following year’s The Sandpiper (their first onscreen pairing as man and wife) into boxoffice blockbusters. Yet it wasn't long after scoring an unexpected critical and boxoffice bullseye in Mike Nichols’ film adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), that Taylor and Burton developed the reputation for saying yes to any film offer that promised a hefty payday, major tax break, or exotic locale in which to work. 

Il Palazzo di Goforth
Built especially for the film, the mansion of Mrs. Flora Goforth is situated high atop the limestone cliffs of Isola Piana, a small island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Sardinia. Along the bluffs are replicas of the Easter Island moai heads, six of them, representing perhaps the spirits of the six husbands she outlived. Some interiors of the mansion were sets in Rome.


Boom! offered all three, plus the prospect of granting Taylor an unprecedented Tennessee Trifecta: Having already appeared in two successful Tennessee Williams screen adaptations—Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)—garnering Oscar nominations for both, surely reuniting with Williams for Boom! (working titles Goforth and Sunburst) would result in delivering the third cherry for a boxoffice jackpot. 

In his diaries published in 2012, Richard Burton admitted that The Sandpiper—a substantial financial success, but critical flop—was a film both he and Taylor knew to be a joke, but accepted solely for the opportunity to work together and as a cash-grab of convenience should negative public opinion about Le Scandale lead to their never working again. On the topic of the $5 million mega-flop that was Boom!, Burton asserts that it was a film both he and Taylor very much believed in and very excited to do. In fact, after watching dailies mid-production, Burton writes of the film looking “perverse and interesting, and optimistically intones, “I think we are due for another success, especially E [Elizabeth].” Given the dismal returns on their most recent releases The Comedians (1967) and Doctor Faustus (1967), perhaps the words "long overdue" are more apt.   

Elizabeth Taylor as Flora "Sissy" Goforth

Richard Burton as Christopher Flanders 

Noel Coward as Baron William "Billy" Ridgeway, aka The Witch of Capri 

Joanna Shimkus as Francis "Blackie" Black

Michael Dunn as Rudi

Elizbeth Taylor is eccentric millionairess Flora (“All my close friends call me Sissy”) Goforth. Cloistered away in a majestic mountaintop villa on her private island in the Mediterranean, Sissy Goforth dictates her alternatingly introspective/self-aggrandizing memoirs to her put-upon secretary (Joanna Shimkus) while being overzealously watched by her sadistic bodyguard Rudi (Michael Dunn). It’s summer (isn’t it always in a Tennessee Williams movie?) and Signora Goforth is dying. But not to hear her tell it.

 After burying six husbands--five wealthy industrialists and a penniless poet/adventurer who was the love of her life--the widow Goforth fancies herself as an indefatigable force of nature and nothing less than eternal. And, in point of fact, after getting a load of her constant carping, bellowing, and hurling of coarse invectives at all and sundry, one can well imagine that even death itself, when faced with the prospect of coming face-to-face with Flora Goforth, might opt to pass her by.

In 1968 Boom! and Rosemary's Baby earned the dubious distinction of being the first American feature films approved by the MPAA (Production Code Seal) to feature the word "shit."


"The doctors are disgusted with my good health!” Flora insists. Even in the face of nightly pain injections, blood transfusions, regular vitamin B shots, a steady diet of pills and medications, and the distressing increase in the number of paper roses blooming in all corners of the villa (a paper rose is Flora's bleakly poetic name for the many discarded wads of tissue stained with her coughed-up blood.) 

But for all that money can buy, it can't buy immortality, so the gravely ill Flora Goforth...racing against time to complete her memoirs...is fated to go forth from this plane of existence. But not until she’s good and ready. And ready she’s not. The "dying monster," as she's referred to by her scornful staff, is not yet willing, prepared, or capable of relinquishing her vicelike grip on life. Or, closer to the truth, that which has come to represent life tor her: wealth, power, possessions, position, acquisition, and excess. 

The Walking Dead
By way of her vulgarity, cynicism, lack of compassion, and ostentatious flaunting of wealth,
it's inferred that Flora Goforth's spiritual death occurred long ago.

As though metaphysically summoned, a trespassing stranger named Christopher Flanders (Richard Burton) arrives at the villa carrying two heavy bundles and professing to have been invited. Flanders, whose saintly Christian name proves to be as symbolically relevant (and subtle) as Flora’s surname, is an itinerant poet, mobile artist, aging gigolo, and professional houseguest. Most recently, among his circle of imposed-upon jet-set friends, he has come to be known as “The Angel of Death.” A bitchy-but-accurate name assigned to him after a pattern emerged involving his paying visits to some of his aging and ailing benefactors shortly before their deaths.

With Christopher’s arrival, the already sublimely bizarre Boom! takes on the form of a spiritual allegory played out in a highly-stylized manner suggesting a Western interpretation of Eastern kabuki theater. Flora, facing mortality by stubbornly ignoring its existence, clings ever tighter to what she wants. Meanwhile, Christopher, whose physicality inflames Flora’s lifelong use of sex as a means of denying death, dares to suggest that beyond the things she wants lie the things she actually needs. 

Death Takes a Holiday
Flora amuses herself by dressing Chris (whose clothes were shredded by her attack dogs) as a samurai warrior, but the joke may ultimately be on her. The flowing black kimono and samurai sword present Chris as a kabuki variant of the traditional black-robed Grim Reaper with his scythe.
  


Hostess and guest engage in verbal sparring matches exhibiting the one-upmanship strategizing of games. An element emphasized both in the costuming (Flora & Chris are dressed in the colors of chess pieces) and art direction (chess boards and B&W domino tiles are scattered throughout the villa). Between bouts of seduction and bargaining, their parry and thrust conversations circle around existential fundamentals like acceptance of the inevitable and the relinquishing of the inessential. 
As the sun sets on Flora Goforth's island and indeed, Flora herself, Tennessee Williams’ paradoxically heavy-handed and confoundingly opaque screenplay leaves us with the metaphorical food for thought that “Saint” Christopher has trudged up that mountain to assist Flora in her journey to the other side. And in the recurring device of having Chris' requests for food (especially a drink of milk) met with refusal or completely ignored, the presumed takeaway is that Mrs. Flora Goforth is singularly lacking in the figurative ‘milk of human kindness,’ its train long having ceased pausing at her lonely threshold. 

Flora Goforth, appearing to be engulfed by a stylized golden shroud, is at last ready to go forth. But in reciting the title of the 1963 Broadway play upon which Boom! is based, lets it be known that she...like Helen Lawson...intends on going out the way she came in. 

Such is the tale Tennessee Williams hoped to tell. What he delivered was a wordy, over-stylized exercise in opulent incoherence that, had the cast been a decade younger, would likely have been labeled a youth-culture "head trip" movie. As it stood, the generation still interested in the life-in-a-fishbowl antics of Taylor and Burton were either baffled or bored. It didn't take long for word about Boom! to get around, and, as the saying goes, people stayed away in droves.
Taking advantage of a little breather between Goforth tantrums,
her houseman Etti (Fernando Piazza) and her attending physician Dr. Luilo (Romolo Valli) 


PASSION PROJECT
One of the more persistent Hollywood myths that gains traction every award season is that of the passion project. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen Oscars triumphantly hoisted overhead as the recipient shares the same “tenacity rewarded” tale of never giving up on a beloved movie vehicle despite years of studio rejection. This then cues everyone watching to shake their heads in amazement at the thought of all those studio dummkopfs failing to recognize the value of a project whose obvious merit now shines so brightly. As reassuring as all this is to those who romanticize the never-say-die spirit, I think it neglects the equally-valuable flip side: recognizing when it is both wise and prudent to let something go. Ironically, one of Boom!’s major themes
Even those who meet Boom! with, as one journalist phrased it "almost gleeful critical contempt" are apt to be impressed by the glorious compositions of Douglas Slocombe's stunning cinematography, and the breathtaking production design and art direction by Richard McDonald and John Clark.


If any Tennessee Williams work can be called a passion project, it’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. How else to explain the alarming fact that Boom!’s screenplay represents Williams’ 4th crack at the same material and he STILL failed to work out bugs?  What began life in 1959 as a short story titled Man Bring This Up Road (a line of dialogue that survives in Boom!) morphed into a stubbornly unsuccessful Broadway play that had the unprecedented honor of bombing twice in the same season. Claiming it to be one of his most obsessively beloved yet most difficult plays to write, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is partly 52-year-old Williams confronting his own creative decline (his last hit was 1961's The Night of the Iguana), part his processing of the 1963 death of Frank Merlo, his partner of 14-years, from cancer at age 40.
Flora Goforth's secretary, Mrs. Black--the most honest and compassionate character in the play--owes her name to Williams paying tribute to his love, Frank Merlo. Merlo is the Spanish name for a blackbird, one of which appears in a golden cage in Boom!

In what feels like a desperate, last-ditch effort to get his point across, Williams has a character simply verbalize one of the film's themes: "Sooner or later, a person's obliged to face the meaning of life!" but Joseph Losey's stylized direction works just as hard making sure little as possible makes sense. What comes through (almost in spite of itself) is that death is the ultimate solitary act. No manner how many friends or how much money and "stuff" we amass, we can't take it with us and we must "go forth" alone. Boom! in its clumsy, campy way, proposes the gladdening notion that life offers us final mercy...the appearance of someone (something?) to ease our fear and escort us on our irrevocable journey.  We may claim it was never invited, but death requires no formal invitation. It's been summoned the instant of our birth. 

In his 1975 memoir, Williams relates that he was both astonished and overjoyed when the film rights for The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore had been purchased and director Joseph Losey (The Servant) assigned to the project: “Then a dreadful mistake was made. [Producer Lester] Persky offered the film to the Burtons.”


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Were I the gambling type, I’d wager that the very reasons Tennessee Williams saw the Burtons as the least-favorable casting option for Boom! are the very reasons I find them to be absolutely ideal for the material. The stunt-miscasting of Taylor & Burton in Boom! was a bald-faced effort to try and recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of Mike Nichols’ “And you thought she/he was all wrong for the part!” Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  hat trick, while simultaneously exploiting the screenplay's many Taylor-related bits of self-referential coincidence. Flora was supposed to be a past-her-prime battleax grinding to a halt in her 60s (Taylor was 35), Chris a fading gigolo in his early 30s (Burton was 42). Neither really fit their roles in ways having nothing to do with their ages, but say what you will, Taylor's mesmerizingly purple performance abutted by Burton's Sunday-morning-hangover thesping are the sole and primary reasons Boom! achieves any level of watchability at all.
Chris: (Indicating cigarette) "May I have one?" 
Flora: "Kiss me for it."

But I’m the first to admit that the Boom! I adore is probably not at all the Boom! Losey & Co. set out to make. As a play cloaked in Brechtian minimalism, it reads like a needlessly convoluted rehash of themes Williams has already explored…with more poignance and coherence…in Sweet Bird of Youth, The Fugitive Kind, Summer and Smoke, and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. As a film, not only does Williams’ trademark brand of cloaked symbolism and Freudian metaphor sound cobwebby in the era of “tell it like it is,” but no one involved in the project seemed aware that high-minded drama and high glamour have a funny way of canceling each other out. The end result is like watching a Theater of the Absurd sequel to Valley of the Dolls dramatizing the final days of Helen Lawson.

Since Mrs. Goforth on her deathbed looks better than most people in the full bloom of health,
it's kinda hard to wring much pathos out of her plight. 

Representing murky ideologies rather than people, the king-size personalities of Burton and Taylor, left with no characters to inhabit, resort to playing exaggerated versions of themselves. Portraying Death and often looking like it, Burton staggers about while letting his trained voice do all the heavy lifting. Meanwhile, Taylor, tottering around in high heels and even higher hair, plays Flora Goforth as a female impersonator doing a burlesque of Elizabeth Taylor. Yet they’re impossible not to watch. The film's sole concession to a contemporary sensibility is achieved in having a character written as a gossipy queen actually played by one. The Witch of Capri is traditionally played by a woman, and the producers had hoped to snare Katharine Hepburn. But granting the role to famed playwright/composer Noel Coward is inspired if ultimately affectless. 

Losey’s directorial style is languid and lovely and the storytelling clumsy, but there’s no end of delights to be found in the Burtons in their scenes together. Or in the regal blowsiness of Liz and her coughing, barking, swearing, drinking, glowering, and bitching. It entertains and maybe even enthralls.
Despite his initial reservations, Tennessee Williams, feeling his screenplay for the film was much better written than his play, ultimately warmed to Elizabeth Taylor's interpretation of Flora Goforth. Even going so far as to call her performance "The best that she's done." 
Howard Taylor (Elizabeth's older brother, who died in 2020) appears briefly as a journalist 

THE GAWK FACTOR
Before reality TV, the only opportunity fans had of getting a glimpse into the private lives of the rich and famous was when movie stars obliged them by taking on roles audiences were encouraged to interpret as fictionalized versions of themselves. They called it the Gawk Factor. Boom! is a movie loaded with Gawk Factor. The play was written for Tallulah Bankhead, but new generations of viewers are to be forgiven if they assume the role of Flora Goforth was Taylor-made.
Liz Taylor Loves Jewelry
Flora Goforth is a widow who sports a huge diamond ring that (tellingly) cuts into her hand every time someone tries to hold it. It's Taylor's 1956 engagement ring from 3rd husband Mike Todd. Two weeks prior to Boom!'s 1968 premiere, Burton gifted Elizabeth with the famous...and much larger...Krupp Diamond.

Mrs. Goforth has been married six times; Taylor beat that number by one (Burton was husband #5). The one husband Goforth truly loved died in a mountain climbing accident. Mike Todd (whom the fan magazines were fond of claiming was Elizabeth's one true love) died in a mountain plane crash. It's difficult to argue that these fact/fiction similarities weren't exploited, because in the play, Goforth's husband dies in a car crash.   
Liz Taylor Loves To Drink
Enjoying what appears to be a glass bucket of Bloody Mary, Goforth subsists on coffee, cigarettes, codeine tablets, and alcohol. In real life, Taylor suffered from alcohol addiction and helped destigmatize the illness by being one of the first celebrities to go public with her rehab treatment. Boom! is rumored to have been a very liquid set.

Liz Taylor Loves Kaftans
Goforth reveals closets overflowing with colorful kaftans. In the late '60s and '70s (until she found Halston) it was the rare photo that did not feature La Liz in a flowing, colorful kaftan.


Other exploitable Goforth/Taylor parallels pertain to Flora being known for her beauty ("If you have a world-famous figure, why be selfish with it?"), and Flora being plagued by numerous health maladies. Taylor enjoyed poor health throughout much of her life, her paparazzi-attended hospital visits as numerous as red-carpet premieres.

John Waters has called Boom! a “failed art film,” which I think is a very accurate description. It’s just ironic that Boom! ismovie that never could have found financing without the star-system leverage of the Burtons attached, yet the duo's megawatt star-quality is precisely what turns so many scenes in Williams’ elegiac “poem of death” into The Liz & Dick Show
But I don’t really have a problem with that because I think I must be a little in love with Elizabeth Taylor. How else to explain my finding her to be both epically awful and some kind of wonderful in this ambitiously off-beat camp curio that feels more emotionally truthful the older I get?
No, Boom! is not a perfect film, it's possibly not even a good one. But it's a risk-taking film. And the risk-taking Burtons of fascinating flops like this one are infinitely more affecting and fun to watch than the play-it-safe Burtons of moneymaking snooze-fests like The Sandpiper.

What does BOOM mean? It's...



BONUS MATERIAL

Robert Redford portrayed Death as a kind young man who comes to ease an old woman’s (Gladys Cooper) fear of dying in the 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone titled "Nothing in the Dark." 


Divine Intervention
A favorite blogger writes about BOOM! as drag inspiration HERE

That's Tab Hunter embracing Divine in the 1981 John Waters film Polyester. Hunter appeared opposite Tallulah Bankhead in the second Broadway incarnation of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. British actress Hermione Baddeley starred in the original production which opened 11-months earlier. 

In 1997 a red-wigged actor Rupert Everett (My Best Friend's Wedding, Another Country) portrayed Flora Goforth to David Foxxe's Witch of Capri in a London production of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore at the Lyric Theater


Early casting considerations for Joseph Losey's film version (likely never moving past the discussion stage) were Simone Signoret and Sean Connery; Ingrid Bergman and James Fox. Donald Sutherland was wanted for the role of bodyguard Rudi.

BOOM! opened on Wednesday, May 29, 1968 at Hollywood's Pantages Theater. 



Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2021

Saturday, December 5, 2020

CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG 1968

Last year, whenever I came across a review complaining about the 3½-hour running time of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019), my first thought was that none of these folks would have survived being a kid in the 1960s. Not at a time when Hollywood's most eagerly-anticipated family movies all wore their lengthy running times like emblems of prestige: Mary Poppins (1964): 2hr 20m; The Sound of Music (1965): 2hr 55m; Doctor Dolittle (1967): 2hr 32m; Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967): 2hr 33m; and Oliver! (1968): 2hr 33m.

And certainly not at a time when double-features were the norm, and theaters, under the guise of presenting “Top Family Entertainment” offered child-abuse programming like pairing the 2hr 25m Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with the 3hr 4m Around the World in 80 Days (1956). Such was the bladder-challenging bill at San Francisco’s Castro Theater in the summer of 1969 when I was 11-years-old and saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the first time.

click image to enlarge
A 1968 Christmas season release, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opened in San Francisco as a reserved-seat roadshow attraction (complete with overture, intermission, & exit music) at a then-steep minimum $3 ticket price. When it played regular engagements in 1969, its revamped ad campaign underplayed the musical and magical car angles in favor of emphasizing the comedic figure of Dick Van Dyke and anachronistically (the film is set in 1910) showcasing Sally Ann Howes' legs.   

Most roadshow films went immediately into wide-release after their exclusive engagements were over (Continuous Performances! Popular Prices!) but the underperforming Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was swiftly yanked from screens after its poorly-reviewed initial run (The SF Examiner called it “abysmally saccharine”), re-emerging six months later as a get-the-kids-from-underfoot summer release in August of 1969. But by then it was too late. Over the Easter holidays, America’s fickle kiddie population had fallen in love with another four-fendered friend…Herbie, the matchmaking Volkswagen Beetle of Disney’s The Love Bug. A case of love at first sight that saw the modest feature earning more than ten times its $5 million budget at the boxoffice while the heavily-promoted Chitty Chitty Bang Bang remained unable to recoup its $12 million budget. 

Dick Van Dyke as Caractacus Potts
Sally Ann Howes as Truly Scrumptious 

Adrian Hall and Heather Ripley as Jeremy & Jemima Potts

Lionel Jeffries as Grandpa Potts

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the only children’s book written by James Bond creator Ian Fleming. It’s also the only non-Bond film made by James Bond franchise producer Albert R. Broccoli. Fleming’s slight story of a family and their magical car was made into a grand-scale movie musical (at the time, the most expensive musical ever made in England) that is commonly (and accurately) described these days as a James Bond film for children.

This is certainly true of its story, which pits a good guy devoted to gadgetry (crackpot inventor Caracticus Potts) and a woman with an outrageous name (candy heiress Truly Scrumptious) against an eccentric villain (Auric Goldfinger himself, Gert Fröbe as Baron Bomburst). But the Bond connection also applies to the production team, many of whom began work on CCBB fresh from completing the latest Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967). The screenplay of that film was written by Chitty Chitty Bang Bang screenwriter Roald Dahl (with director Ken Hughes), and Hughes, along with Baroness Bomburst Anna Quayle, had just finished work on the Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967).

Desmond Llewelyn as garage owner Mr. Coggins, portrayed "Q" in 17 James Bond films. 

But in 1968, the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang most eagerly sought to emulate was Disney’s blockbuster Mary Poppins (1964). And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was so sincerely devoted to flattering Mary Poppins that it all but followed a blueprint. Same songwriters (Robert and Richard Sherman Sherman); same choreographers (Mark Breaux & Dee Dee Wood); same period (the book's contemporary setting was changed to Mary Poppins' Edwardian era); same casting (Poppins’ Dick Van Dyke—mercifully, minus the English accent), and a Julie Andrews substitute (Sally Ann Howes). I've read that the producers sought to reunite Mary Poppins costars Julie Andrews & Dick Van Dyke, but unless the role of Truly was conceived as significantly larger than what we see in the final film, it's hard to imagine that Andrews--a headlining Oscar-winner--ever seriously entertained the idea of playing anybody's second lead.

So intent was CCBB on duplicating Mary Poppins' winning formula, it features a copy of what has always been my least-favorite Poppins number: "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank." In this instance, the 'comical old coots' song is the livelier but no-less-deadly "The Roses of Success."

But Hollywood wishes do come true, and when released Chitty Chitty Bang Bang did indeed have critics comparing it to Mary Poppins…unfavorably on all counts. In his memoirs, even star Dick Van Dyke joined the chorus, citing that he felt Hughes was the wrong director for the job and that the film ultimately failed to capture the magic of Disney's classic. Given that Ken Hughes would go on to direct the Mae West travesty Sextette (1978), perhaps Van Dyke has a point. Falling short of its fantasmagorical expectations Chitty Chitty Bang Bang joined the ranks of Camelot (1967) and Paint Your Wagon (1969) as representative of a form of "Bigger is Better" filmmaking whose era was nearing its end. But time has been kind, and in the 50-plus years since its release, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has emerged from the shadow of Mary Poppins enough to be hailed as a beloved children’s classic judged and appreciated on its own considerable merits. A far cry from the days when my attempts to recommend the movie to schoolmates were met with chants of “Shitty Shitty Bang Bang.” 

Anna Quayle and Gert Frobe as Baroness & Baron Bomburst of Vulgaria

Seeing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the first time on a double-bill with Around the World in 80 Days was quite the thrill and nowhere near the backache challenge for my 11-year-old self as I would find it today. Though I confess to having fallen asleep during part of Around the World in 80 Days (one moment Shirley MacLaine hadn’t yet entered the movie, the next, there she was in that balloon) by and large, as long as the Jujyfruits and popcorn held out, I was a happy camper. 

The only big musical I’d seen at this point was Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), so without prior visions of Mary Poppins dancing in my head, I thought Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was the most extraordinary movie I’d ever seen. I was utterly wowed by it. On an enormous screen and with glorious stereophonic sound Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was a storybook fantasy adventure come to life. It seemed to have everything: action, laughs, chases, comic schtick, rousing songs, zany characters, romance, dance, spectacle, and a big wooly sheepdog named Edison. It even had a bit of a dark side.

Robert Helpmann as The Child Catcher
I was too old to find this legendary kindertrauma character scary at the time, but as an adult, I've often found myself wishing (usually in a restaurant or on a plane) that such a service actually existed.

I remember being very taken with Potts’ kooky Rube Goldberg-style inventions (the work of Frederick Rowland Emett), particularly that ingenious breakfast-making machine I still would love to own. But what stands out best of all and most memorably is the titular automobile itself. Designed by Academy Award-winning production designer Ken Adams under what must have been no small degree of pressure to live up to the laundry list of glowing superlatives ascribed to it in the title song, the magical car dubbed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is every bit the iconically miraculous motorcar the movie needed it to be. 

Critics were tough on the film for what they asserted were disappointingly primitive special effects for a movie of this size and expense (they may have had a point, as Chitty's budget was equal to or larger than that of another 1968 release, Stanley Kubrick's 2001:A Space Odyssey whose special effects had set a new standard), but back then I didn't notice or didn't care. When Chitty turned into a boat or the first time it takes wing, just the sight of it (crude special effects and all) hit a fanciful, fantasy nerve in me. I remember getting such a goosebump charge out of it.   

Custom cars were all the rage on TV in the '60s, the George Barris-designed automobiles on Batman, The Monkees, The Munsters, & The Green Hornet were big hits with the young set. But even amongst these memorably snazzy machines, Ken Adam's whimsical design for the flying, amphibious Chitty Chitty Bang Bang stands out with class and distinction. 


THE STUFF OF FANTASY

I saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang two more times that summer, by then paired with Heaven with a Gun, a truly awful Glenn Ford western made bearable only by its being half the running time of Around the World in 80 Days. And in all these years my love of it as a cheerful, brightly-colored confection as sweet and loaded with empty calories as anything whipped up by the Scrumptious Sweet Company, has only increased. I say empty calories because Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a delectable film that, for all its whimsy and charm, has always engaged my spirits more than my heart. The story—essentially a kidnap/rescue adventure fantasy—is fun in a cartoon kind of way…full of activity and “business” meant to entertain and amuse. But the screenplay keeps the characters at a bit of a remove, their personalities and goals presented so cursorily that the movie never touches me or gives me waterworks in the manner of The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

It's not entirely true that nothing in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang gives me waterworks. For some reason, the duet performance of "Doll on a Music Box/Truly Scrumptious" gets to me every time. It's a lovely courtship dance in a film skimpy on romance, so when Truly breaks character at the end to give Caractacus a loving smile, I always melt. 


Maybe this is owed to the fact that, as children’s movies go, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s emotional stakes are kept on a low-boil. Both The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins saw lonely children reclaiming their fathers thanks to the spunky intervention of Julie Andrews, and in Oliver! a severely brutalized and exploited orphan finds a home. But Chitty Chitty Bang Bang presents us with a cast of characters whose lives, when the film begins, may not be perfect, but are far from unhappy. Caractacus is a widowed fantasist whose inventions come to naught, but his loving children’s belief in him is unshakable. And I couldn’t have been the only kid who thought Jemima & Jeremy had it pretty sweet living with minimal parental supervision out there in the country in a picturesque windmill crammed with toys and gadgets made by a fun dad. 

You Two
Caractacus Potts and his two unaccountably British children. Though Potts' father and children speak with English accents, Dick Van Dyke, still stinging from criticism of his problematic Cockney accent in Mary Poppins, only agreed to appear in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang if he could forgo the accent.


Even Jemima & Jeremy’s quest to rescue the junked Chitty from the fiery furnace is a low-wattage conflict due to the notion of Chitty being a sentient machine is never fully developed (she shivers at the mention of being melted and rescues the family at moments of danger, but has no personality to speak of) not mention the kids are ready to abandon their salvage mission when it appears doing so will cause their dad undue hardship. However, one thing the film gets right is to grant the frosty Truly Scrumptious character a thawing-out musical number with the children. What's ideal about the casting of Sally Ann Howes is that' she's pretty in precisely the way a child can relate to...like a teacher one develops a crush on. By the end of the number, it's been firmly established that Jeremy & Jemima need a mom, and we in the audience can identify with them in their wish for Truly and their dad to fall in love.

Benny Hill as The Toymaker

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM

I didn’t like movie musicals very much when I was young. No fewer than 13 musicals were released in 1968 (3 by Elvis alone!) and to this day I could kick myself for passing opportunities to see current favorites like Funny Girl, Finian’s Rainbow, and Star! in their original release. But what I did like were cars. Toy cars, model cars, and, after seeing the 1967 theatrical re-release of The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), flying cars. Fred MacMurray’s flying Flubbermobile captivated me to no end, so when Chitty Chitty Bang Bang came on the scene, the car was the primary attraction for me. Nowadays, my absolute favorite thing about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are its songs and musical sequences. The eleven songs by Robert and Richard Sherman (showcased by Irwin Kostal’s brilliant orchestrations) are catchy and hummable and have aged remarkably well. Not a clunker in the bunch, the entire original score is splendid...even the dreaded “The Roses of Success” has started to grow on me.

Toot Sweets
This pitch-perfect musical pitch meeting is a visual delight. The candy factory set is an eye-popper, and I still get woozy with vertigo when I see those dancers up on that narrow ledge near the rafters.
 

Me Ol' Bamboo
CCBB's answer to Mary Poppins' "Step in Time" is this rousingly entertaining and athletic number in which clever choreography takes center stage. Production on the film was shut down for a week due to 41-year-old Dick Van Dyke sustaining a leg injury while performing one of the dances in the film (sources vary as to whether it was this one, the most likely suspect, or "Toot Sweets"). 

Chu-Chi Face
My partner never saw the film, but when I played this song for fun in my dance class, the silly lyrics and comical vocal performances of Gert Frobe & Anna Quayle made it one of his instant favorites. When we finally watched it together, he was so surprised by its ironic staging (cloying terms of endearment are exchanged amidst the Baron's many unsuccessful attempts to kill the Baroness). I don't think the number ever made much of an impression on me as a kid, but because it never ceases to make my sweetheart laugh, this sequence has become my most-replayed favorite.

Though Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was one of the more eagerly-anticipated releases of 1968, when award season rolled around, only the music of the Sherman brothers (their first non-Disney score) garnered any attention...no wins, but attention. Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for that irresistible earworm of a title song, and a second Globe nomination for Best Original Score. 

Emmy Award-winning TV star Dick Van Dyke had the opportunity to display his versatility as an actor, dancer, and singer in several iconic movies. He made his film debut opposite Janet Leigh in Bye Bye Birdie (1963), his likable persona transferring easily to the big screen. 


THE STUFF OF DREAMS

I’d allowed a lot of time to pass between viewings of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, this recent revisit stirring up dust clouds of nostalgia of such density as to fairly obscure my awareness of what I might have once characterized as the film’s flaws. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang hasn’t changed, but in the last few years, my appreciation of the value of good, old-fashioned schmaltz, cornball comedy, and sweet-natured sentimentality has. One doesn’t have to try very hard to draw contemporary parallels to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s child-caging Vulgarians and the tyrannical, childishly-petulant, tantrum-throwing Baron Bomburst. And indeed, it’s for that very reason that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s liveliness, tuneful good cheer, and elemental, storybook sweetness (and silliness) proved to be just the right “happy endings” spoonful of sugar medicine I needed to make the waning days of 2020 a little easier to deal with. (There go those Mary Poppins comparisons, again!)




BONUS MATERIAL:


Two of my favorite stars from Ken Russell's The Boy Friend (1971) appear briefly in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: British cinema icon Barbara Windsor (top photo) and dancer Antonia Ellis (bottom photo, far right)

Ballet star Robert Helpmann (The Child Catcher) with Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes (1948)


Actress/dancer Paula Kelly (Sweet Charity) dances to an instrumental rendition of the Oscar-nominated title song "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" on the 41st Academy Awards. It lost to "The Windmills of Your Mind" from The Thomas Crown Affair.



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