BluRay/DVD Reviews

CARPETBAGGERS

By • Apr 22nd, 2003 •

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Paramount Home Entertainment 1964
150 mins / PG / Widescreen enhanced for 16:9 screens

Except for a rough start, a silly skeleton-in-the-closet reveal, and an unconvincing final scene between George Peppard and Elizabeth Ashley, the film feels better now than ever. It’s superb trash, and what is most peculiar for me – having seen it several times over the years and never considering it to be more than sleazy fun – is how clever a screenplay it has, and what good performances, by Peppard, Robert Cummings and Martin Balsam and…I can’t quite believe my fingers are typing this but…Carroll Baker.

Not that Baker isn’t a good actress, but her appearance in this film was never considered to be anything but sexploitation at the time, and I was disappointed to see that her infamous nude scene (tamely shot from behind) is not in this print. The dialogue is still there, but the camera stays demurely in the other room, leaving the risque visuals to our imagination. Since it’s widescreen, I assume it to be an alternative theatrical negative prepared at the time for conservative communities. I’ve seen the film with that footage intact, at a press screening in New Orleans while I was the Tulane Hullabaloo’s Entertainment editor back in my college days. The excised shots would hardly have singed our eyelashes today. I’m going to guess that Paramount, as so often happens with studio archival releases, just didn’t realize they’d accessed the wrong negative.

Harold Robbins’ novel depicted characters loosely based on such icons as Howard Hughes, Jean Harlow and William Boyd. Another recent Paramount Home Entertainment release, NEVADA SMITH (’66), is a prequel concerned only with the Boyd character, this time played by Steve McQueen, and directed by Henry Hathaway. It’s a more substantial piece of filmmaking, and perhaps a tad less enjoyable for its somberness.

Director Edward Dmytryk, in answer to a question from a friend of mine about his approach to fight scenes, explained his theory thusly: “I direct them as if each blow was meant to maim the other person.” It comes through. Even with the unfortunate sense of stand-ins, particularly for Alan Ladd who pulled a Clark Gable and didn’t make it far beyond the end of shooting, the climactic fight is one of the better ones of the period. And if you like the reliable but, post-McCarthy-generally-impersonal Dmytryk (THE YOUNG LIONS, THE SNIPER, MURDER MY SWEET, CROSSFIRE, THE CAINE MUTINY, RAINTREE COUNTY, WARLOCK), his favorite among his films, and one which never got exposure in the U.S. – CHRIST IN CONCRETE – is premiering at New York City’s Anthology Film Archives this month.

I kept thinking of Minnelli while watching THE CARPETBAGGERS. With its dysfunctional family hijinks, and its excessive art direction, my feeling was that Minnelli could never have abandoned the elegance of his mise en scene and delivered merely a raw, tawdry melodrama. In fact the lack of personal flair is all that separates it from some of Minnelli’s later work. This poor white trash cousin of the Minnelli/Sirk soaps is more on a level with Richard Fleischer’s MANDINGO (’75) or Terence Young’s THE KLANSMAN (’74), films in which reliable Hollywood craftsmen were culled in the quest for pure prurient sensationalism. No personal statement allowed. Minnelli without the restraint, Sirk without the style. And Dmytryk was certainly another of Hollywood’s boys. He wasn’t repulsed by the script, and he made it genuine fun.

The sets by Hal Pereira and Walter Tyler are obscenely vast, adding calories to our guilty indulgence. On a disappointing note, Elmer Bernstein didn’t take the assignment as seriously as the others I’ve mentioned: his score has too many echoes, of WALK ON THE WILD SIDE (which Dmytryk must have liked, since he directed the film), THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and others. Dmytryk, Peppard, Baker, Pereira and the others were standing tall in this assignment, no matter it’s lowly aspirations, whereas Bernstein, knowing he was slumming, just hummed a few old tunes and collected his check.

The disc looks good. A little grain, but otherwise rich colors and pleasing sharpness throughout the widescreen image. There are no extras whatsoever, which is a bummer. So what if all the major players except Baker are dead? Hollywood is a repository of hidden goodies, as DVD after DVD from the vaults testify. A friend of mine, related to the late Joseph E. Levine by marriage, relayed a story the film’s producer had told him. Seems Baker decided to do a nude magazine spread, and Levine warned her “It’ll be the end of your career; the audiences don’t know you have small breasts.” Baker insisted she had a beautiful body, and went ahead with the pictorial. And her career was over.

Now I’ve heard a variation on this, in which Baker jacked up her demands on their next film together, HARLOW, and Levine had her blacklisted, resulting in what could have been the major part of her career being comprised of minor films made in Europe. Perhaps Levine told my friend the sanitized version?


Credits:
Directed by Edward Dmytryk.
Screenplay by John Michael Hayes.
Based on the novel by Harold Robbins.
Music by Elmer Bernstein.
Produced by Joseph E Levine.

Cast:
George Peppard
Carroll Baker
Alan Ladd
Robert Cummings
Martin Balsam
Ralph Taege
Lew Ayres
Elizabeth Ashley
Marsha Hyer

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