Monday, February 16, 2009

MOVIES OF THE 1960s: A Brief Retrospective

In many ways, the year 1960 reflected a definite changing of the guard in Hollywood. The old guard, best encapsulated in a regal sense of propriety, faux piety and outward glamour, fell at the mercy of more stringent film budgets, a faltering Production Code of Ethics and an investment by the general public in more ‘adult’ entertainments – mirroring a growing social bitterness and general dissolution away from middle class morality.

With the government’s Consent Decree firmly in play, Hollywood studios scrambled to divest themselves, not only of their theater chains, but also their ensconced star system, heavy production overhead and other assets (like their music publishing, shorts subject and cartoon apparatuses) then deemed unnecessary and therefore, unwanted.

Worse, the care and nurturing of talent, that meticulous attention to every detail in daily operations so delicately managed by old time studio moguls had given way to less capable juggling and micromanagement from a seemingly endless line of would be ‘executives’ who had neither the creative finesse nor the intuitive nature to accurately assess what the paying public wanted to see.

Indeed, by the mid-1960s the old guard in body, as well as spirit, had all but vanished from the creative landscape; the one exception being Jack L. Warner who, through finagling and the well timed slitting of a few corporate throats along the way, managed to maintain control over much of Warner Brothers film product throughout the decade.

Over the next five years (1960-1965) the rape and pillage of studio warehouses continued unnoticed with executive logic - ergo greed - dictating the renting, selling or – in some cases – purging of many catalogue titles from their vaults. Television gladly obliged this shortsightedness by buying up block books of classic films for a song and regularly airing them to fill dead air on Saturday afternoons and late night programming.

Despite all the backstage chaos in play, Hollywood continued to churn out grandiose product, most of it in the grand manner of yesteryear, but with increasingly mixed reception at the box office.

Despite a cast that included Frank Sinatra, Maurice Chevalier and Shirley MacLaine, 20th Century-Fox gambled and miserably lost on its costly version of Cole Porter’s Can-Can. Off color results too were forthcoming from Vincente Minnelli’s Bells Are Ringing – a rather lackluster rendering of the Broadway smash; its one saleable feature the effervescence of its star – Judy Holliday.
There were success stories too; few and increasingly far between but most welcome nonetheless. United Artists had a colossal smash with John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven – a sort of sad farewell to the gallant heroes of the old west, while marking the foray into more gritty realism that would soon be the main staple of both the western genre and movie-making in general.
A recent swell of cheaply made Italian epics continued to impact Hollywood’s bloodlust for gargantuan movie making. Kirk Douglas made a startling contribution with Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus – hauling black listed writer Karl Foreman out of his imposed retirement. However, the most impressive epics were yet to come – made abroad and for a fraction of what they would have cost in America.
In America, and, more precisely, on the Universal Studios back lot, director Alfred Hitchcock cast off the peerless glamour of his ‘50s tenure; employing the same scant production crew responsible for his weekly television series and creating what, arguably, remains his most enduring cinematic work: Psycho. Based on the novel by Robert Block, the film was a drastic departure from its text, casting all American ‘pretty boy’ Anthony Perkins as serial killer Norman Bates and forever changing the perception of evil on the screen.

Walt Disney produced a memorable and lavish version of Pollyanna starring his latest ‘discovery’; Haley Mills, then billed as the next Shirley Temple. Owing to Mills’ extraordinary handling of the subject matter, the film managed to remain faithful to its’ novel origins while ever so carefully excising the book’s excessive sugary sweet treacle. Disney took no chances on the film, surrounding Mills with an exceptional supporting cast including Jane Wyman, Karl Malden, Agnes Moorehead and Adolph Menjou.

Other notable productions of the year included the teaming of Audrey Hepburn and Burt Lancaster in The Unforgiven; Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr roughing it in the outback in The Sundowners, and, John Wayne’s personally funded, supervised, starred in and directed The Alamo. Billy Wilder’s The Apartment stood head and shoulders above the rest; a captivating exposé of inner office romance and its inevitable fallout on the marital home front. It took home the Oscar as the year’s Best Picture.
Elizabeth Taylor shone as Best Actress Oscar for Butterfield 8, a rather soapy tale of a self destructive call girl torn between the man she ought to marry and the married man she truly loves. Taylor despised this performance, taking her shoes off during the daily rushes and flinging them at the screen. However, a virulent bout of pneumonia that nearly claimed her life while in England that same year to begin shooting Cleopatra contributed to an undercurrent of sympathy that probably translated into Oscar buzz.

Overall, productions shot in Hollywood were down, though the gap was more than adequately filled by a flood of European films; the most successful of these being Never On A Sunday, starring Melina Mercouri.

Despite the collapse of the star system, new faces continued to emerge and make indelible impressions with audiences; among them Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughan, Charles Bronson, Jane Fonda, Nancy Kwan and George Hamilton. Death claimed cinema's 'king', Clark Gable at the age of 59, just months before the birth of his only son. Though nobody knew it at the time, The Misfits would be Monroe’s last movie too. Gregory Ratoff, Diana Barrymore, Margaret Sullivan and Mack Sennett also took their final bow.

1961: Maverick producer cum spendthrift visionary, Samuel Bronston premiered his epic remake of Cecile B. DeMille’s King of Kings – lambasted and dubbed by the critics as ‘I Was A Teenage Jesus.’ It seems everyone was laughing.

But Bronston had the final chuckle, departing America to found his own studio in Spain and releasing what remains one of the most captivating and impressively mounted super epics in film history: El Cid. The film costarred Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren – the latest and most successful European import.

Already an Oscar winner for the Italian melodrama Two Women, Loren had been dubbed ‘the Italian princess’ – a moniker well deserved. Unfortunately, actor’s ego made Heston and Loren despise one another on the set.

In America, United Artists had a monumental hit with West Side Story; the updated Romeo and Juliet love tragedy relocated to the projects of New York and starring one of filmdom’s most popular stars; Natalie Wood. Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, the film swept the Oscars with nine wins including Best Picture.
Also notable for the year were Audrey Hepburn’s turn as conflicted call girl Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, based on the frank novel by Truman Capote. Walt Disney supervised his last cartoon classic, One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Disney also had another smash on his hands with Haley Mills – this time, playing twins separated at birth who find one another as teenagers at summer camp in The Parent Trap.
Gregory Peck came out on top in the fictionalized WWII thriller, The Guns of Navarone. Elvis rocked the islands with his mega hit Blue Hawaii; a sort of travelogue set to pop rock and ballads. Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita became the first Italian film to win audiences on both sides of the world.
Arguably, the most compelling movie of the year was Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg; a gripping court room drama about the trial of Nazi officials. Abbey Mann’s screenplay made for well appointed critical argument that revealed no simple answers on either side of the Allied victory.

The curiosities of the year lay in its ambitious failures; Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe’s The Misfits failed to catch on, as did Marlon Brando’s directorial debut One Eyed Jacks. At year’s end, Hollywood was left to mourn the passing of legend Gary Cooper, who died of cancer at the age of 60. Gone too were Ruth Chatterton, one time girlfriend of William Randolph Hearst - Marion Davies, beefcake Jeff Chandler from a brain aneurism, Chico Marx, wily curmudgeon Charles Coburn and crusty Irish wit, Barry Fitzgerald.

New faces emerged to take their place at home and from abroad; among them from Britain; Albert Finney, Italy – Claudia Cardinale; America - Warren Beatty.

1962: The industry approached each new project with caution as overall profits dipped. Though the entrenched mentality of ‘bigger is better’ continued to be the norm in America, it was becoming increasingly apparent, and with growing frequency, that smaller independent films – well scripted and with solid, hard edged acting, made for a fraction of the cost elsewhere - was what the average ticket buyer longed to see.

As such MGM slashed the budget on Billy Rose’s Jumbo. What ought to have been a lavish escapist musical emerged as a rather tired and uninspired road show with Doris Day valiantly attempting to keep her ‘world’s oldest virgin’ persona alive amidst the sawdust, spangles and dreams. Opinion was generally split as to which movie was the most popular of the year. Arguably, the most poignant and introspective was To Kill A Mockingbird; starring Gregory Peck as lawyer Atticus Finch, struggling to defend a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman.
David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia was a brilliantly conceived epic that examined one man’s loss of self in the vast expanses of the Nefu desert. The film made instant stars of both British born Peter O’Toole and Egyptian Omar Shariff, while providing Lean’s favorite chameleon, Alec Guinness yet another impressive performance to add to his roster; that of Arab Prince Feisel.
The Manchurian Candidate made for a terrifying glimpse into the dark side of political ambition. Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? brought horrific shrieks of another kind. Faded movie queens and real life arch rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were unleashed as a pair of sisters, hell bent on destroying each other.
Initially, Jack Warner refused to have the film shot on his back lot, telling Aldrich “I wouldn’t give you a dime for those two washed up old broads!” When the film proved to be an unexpected smash hit, Warner revised his opinion, welcoming Davis back to the studio she had reigned supreme during the 1940s.

Popular with audiences: the deconstruction of myth in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; Natalie Wood shedding a few clothes for Gypsy; Ann Bancroft and Patty Duke’s respective performances in The Miracle Worker, and, Robert Preston’s reprise of his iconic Broadway turn as spurious band leader Harold Hill in The Music Man.

Most of the more memorable films of the year sought to cast an unflattering light on human failings: Otto Preminger’s brutal indictment of American backroom politics in Advise and Consent; the castration of Paul Newman’s disreputable gigolo in Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth; an exploration of implied lesbianism amongst school teachers in The Children’s Hour, and, salacious relationship between a teen girl and much older man in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita.
For reasons explicable only to him, Marlon Brando chose to play his Fletcher Christian in the first half of a very expensive remake of Mutiny on the Bounty as an effeminate fop. Despite exotic Tahitian locales and the construction of a real life tall ship, the film was lethargic and disappointing. Fox mega star of the 1940s, Alice Faye, was coaxed to rejoin the studio for a remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair – an abysmal misfire that convinced Faye her early retirement had been the more prudent choice. Cinerama; that cumbersome three camera widescreen process glimpsed in only travelogue footage throughout the 1950s, premiered its only two narrative features. The first: The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm was received with tepid response from both audiences and critics. The second: MGM’s How The West Was Won was infinitely more satisfying; both artistically and in terms of box office revenues generated. In fact, in its initial run, How The West Was Won became the biggest grossing film of the year.

The most shocking news of the year was the sudden death of 36 year old blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe; dead of an apparent drug overdose only days before her suspended feature ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ was set to return to filming. The loss put 20th Century-Fox in a particularly precarious financial situation, brought on by continued delays and mounting costs on Cleopatra.

Veteran character actors Frank Lovejoy, Louise Beavers, Thomas Mitchell and Charles Laughton died. Robert Redford, Tom Courtenay, Terance Stamp, Sue Lyons and Suzanne Pleshette arrived on the scene to make indelible first impressions.
1963: Apart from the debut of the cinematic James Bond in Dr. No, that made an instant international star of Sean Connery and generated megawatt box office appeal around the world, it was a very dangerous time to invest in movie production. Audience tastes seemed precariously fickle. What appealed to the public and critics this week, failed to catch on next month…or so it seemed.

Hitchcock released his most technically challenging movie, The Birds – arguably his last enduring cinematic work. John Sturges’ The Great Escape – based on a real life incident during WWII – made a huge star of Steve McQueen, who played a POW with a penchant for ticking off his Nazi captors. Paul Newman gave the performance of his career in Hud; the story of a rough and tumble son of a cattle rancher, forced to come to grips with his own failings as a man.

Fox finally premiered Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra to mixed critical reviews. Though tickets had been sold out well in advance, the film failed to recoup its staggering $30 million investment. Worse, Elizabeth Taylor, who had demanded and received an initial record sum of $1 million to star in the film, publicly decried the final cut.

Mankiewicz had wanted to release two three hour movies; Caesar and Cleopatra and Anthony and Cleopatra. However, the affair between Taylor (then married to Eddie Fisher) and Richard Burton (married to Sybil) prompted Fox to capitalize on the press’s feeding frenzy; truncating Mankiewicz’s vision and distilling the pieces of the puzzle into one ‘almost’ four hour epic.

If Cleopatra was the most expensive movie of the year (or any other for that matter), then Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was undoubtedly the most star studded; utilizing some 70 Hollywood’s alumni – past and present - and wasting almost all of them to tell the lugubrious and conventional story of what happens to a group of unrelated individuals who learn of a buried treasure in a park in California.

Judy Garland gave it her all in her final musical; a sort of fractured autobiography entitled I Could Go On Singing. Samuel Bronston released 55 Days at Peking – a lavishly appointed, intricate character study that failed to have the same impact as his El Cid. The Best Picture of the year, according to Oscar anyway, was the British made Tom Jones, starring Albert Finney.

The world of entertainment lost character actors Jack Carson, crooner/detective Dick Powell, sourpuss Monte Woolley and cantankerous, Adolph Menjou.

1964: In movies, as well as music, the British invasion was in full swing, prompting Hollywood to counteract the influx with a few homespun movies celebrating the fabled Britain of old. Walt Disney finally convinced author P.L. Travers to sell him the rights to her much beloved children’s novel, Mary Poppins. A huge fan of the book since the 1940s, Disney also imported relative unknown Julie Andrews for the lead.

With the release of Mary Poppins – a superlative last gasp in old time glam’ - Andrews suddenly found herself at the center of a minor controversy. She had originated the part of Eliza Doolittle in Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady on Broadway several years before and had been the original Guinevere in the stage version of Camelot – the performance that brought her to ‘Uncle Walt’s’ attention in the first place. However, despite Andrews’ golden voice and obvious stage presence, studio mogul Jack L. Warner proceeded to cast Audrey Hepburn in his personally supervised filmic adaptation of My Fair Lady.
Hepburn’s presence, though adequately charming, required a vocal dub by professional singer, Marni Nixon – thus prompting the press into a feeding frenzy upon the release of Mary Poppins. Speculation ranked high that Andrews’ Oscar win for ‘Poppins’ was preempted by Hepburn not even being nominated for ‘Lady’.

The foreign market produced The Beatles filmic debut, A Hard Day’s Night; little more than a threadbare reason to string together some of the band’s more popular songs into a sort of extended music video. Much more impressive, particularly as cinematic art, was Umbrellas of Cherbourg; a beautifully composed musical extravaganza buttressing a rather tender love story.

Elsewhere in Hollywood and abroad there was much to cheer. Goldfinger, the third James Bond movie in the franchise, became the highest grossing installment yet. Arguably, the film remains the most celebrated of the Bond movies. Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton sparred magnificently in Michael Curtiz’s epic, Becket. Burton also had a substantial hit with John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana, based on the play by Tennessee Williams.

Anthony Quinn charmed with his zesty performance as Zorba the Greek, though it was costar Lily Kedrova who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her sad, lonely and tragic dowager. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove was a satirically black comedy with several stellar performances by Peter Sellers. The actor also excelled at self parody in Blake Edward’s jaunty romp through the moneyed playground of unscrupulous heels in The Pink Panther. After a career at MGM spent mostly making musicals, Stanley Donen proved he could direct a Hitchcockian thriller with Charade. Initially Cary Grant had refused the part of the amiably glib spy because he believed no one would buy his burgeoning romance with the much younger Audrey Hepburn. Convinced otherwise, the film proved to be Grant’s last truly memorable film role.

For the most part, traditional entertainments faired poorly at the box office; some deservedly so. Audrey Hepburn reunited with her Sabrina costar William Holden for Paris When It Sizzles, a featherweight flat comedy that fizzled at the box office. Paula Prentiss valiantly tried to take the place of Doris Day as Rock Hudson’s costar in the turgid romantic comedy, Man’s Favorite Sport. Joan Crawford reduced her screen image to that of near self parody in Nick Castle’s schlock/shocker, Strait Jacket.

Despite being too young and very much in shape, Debbie Reynolds resurrected the gregarious ghost of Titanic survivor Molly Brown for The Unsinkable Molly Brown; costarring Broadway’s Harve Presnell. The Rat Pack was put to relative good use in Robin and the Seven Hoods – a preposterous, though melodic tale of feuding mob bosses and featuring an electrifying routine by Sammy Davis Jr. as well as introducing the Sinatra standard, ‘Chicago’.
Two noteworthy epics bookended the year; the first starring Michael Caine as a British officer under attack in Zulu; the second, Samuel Bronston’s gargantuan and darkly brooding The Fall of the Roman Empire; starring Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, James Mason, Christopher Plummer and Alec Guinness. Produced with staggering meticulous attention to every detail and three dimensional free standing sets of epic proportion, Bronston’s movie failed to catch on at the box office. The world of entertainment bid farewell to George Burns’ better half, Gracie Allen; as well as William Bendix, Eddie Cantor, Cedric Hardwicke, Peter Lorre, Harpo Marx and Alan Ladd.
...to be continued...
@ Nick Zegarac 2009 (all rights reserved).