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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The senator was undermined

This week is taking place across the blogosphere For The Love Of Film, The Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Campaspe at Self-Styled Siren and by Marilyn at Ferdy On Films. The event is meant to raise awareness (and funds) to help the National Film Preservation Foundation prevent the further disappearance of old celluloid (for those of you willing to contribute with a donation here's the link for donations).

I thought that would be a good occasion to finally finish a post on Charles Laughton's lost scenes from Spartacus whose draft I have kept in the fridge for months. So here it goes:

Gracchus and Caesar's walk through the streets of Rome: a scene deleted from the last edit of the film, but still present in some early lobby cards

The restoration of Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960) a few years ago, which released a carefully reconstructed version of the film, received much publicity about recovered scenes such as as the "oysters and snails" one between Laurence Olivier/Crassus and Tony Curtis/Antoninus, yet the sad fact remains that, although a good deal of Spartacus' footage has been saved and reincorporated, there were many scenes which have been lost forever: we could say we have oysters without pearls. Among those vanished scenes (some surviving only as stills) there were a few featuring Gracchus, played by Charles Laughton, who didn't precisely have a lot of screen time in the film to start with.

The incredible shifting script
In Howard Fast's novel, the (third) Servile War is recalled by those who were involved, Romans and slaves alike. Spartacus is thus only present in their memories, haunting them. A main theme is the impact of war in Rome and its society and in the balance of power in the high spheres of the republic: Crassus' final victory over Spartacus triggers the transition from a Republican democracy to the dictatorship of the patrician elite, eventually to become the Roman Empire.

Leading the opposing political factions of Rome, Fast presents Sempronius Gracchus, a senator and leader of the plebs and Marcus Licinius Crassus, a wealthy patrician general. While Crassus revels in his victory, and the new order resulting from Spartacus' defeat, Gracchus ponders if the slaves weren't right, after all: the senator recalls a time when the citizens Roman republic were not as decadent as they are now, and stood for themselves the way Spartacus and the slaves stood to fight for their freedom. Both men become obsessed with Varinia, but to Crassus, Varinia is just a trophy: he just wants to possess her. Gracchus, on the other hand, wants to understand her, and Spartacus' cause, realising that the slaves lived for a set of worthy values which for Romans are a long-lost memoir. Empathizing with their cause, Gracchus will orchestrate Varinia's escape and sacrifice himself to honour the old Republican virtues after a lifetime of corruption... and also, of course, because he gets a kick out of screwing Crassus' plans.

Fast presents Gracchus and Crassus as political archetipes which have a continuity in our days. For him Gracchus resembles an old Irish politician like Tip O'Neill , and Crassus resembles those born with a silver spoon, like George Bush... I hope it is clear, by now, that in Howard Fast's original novel, Gracchus and Crassus are presented as two main characters in the plot, equal in importance: How come then, that in the final film, Crassus is one of the principals and Gracchus a secondary character? One reason might lie in the convoluted gestation of the script.

Once Kirk Douglas and producer Edward Lewis set their eyes on Fast's novel, they felt they had to secure the property, for there was talk of United Artists producing a film titled The Gladiators, starring Yul Brynner, and there were even promotional stills of Brynner dressed as a gladiator. They saw that getting big names for the production would be good way to beat the rival project: thus, a script needed to be produced without delay.

Howard Fast was initially asked to adapt his novel, but since the producers weren't enthusiastic about the script he was writing, they requested the services of one of Hollywood's most expert writers, Sam Jackson: actually a nom de plume of Dalton Trumbo, unable to sign scripts with his real name because he was in the blacklist (1). Trumbo wrote the script in three weeks, and later considered that the further changes brought over by the adventurous making of the film didn't significantly improve his first draft.

As soon as the script was ready, copies were sent to the chosen stars, who agreed to work in the film.

A promotional still from the same street scene: notice the grafitti here and in the previous image

Backstage manoeuvres in the dark
One of the challenges Trumbo faced in adapting the novel was that, since Spartacus was the protagonist and was played by the producer of the film, the use of the recollections and flashbacks in the novel had to be changed from past tense to present, and Spartacus' actions narrated in chronological order: if Spartacus now was no longer a ghost, the rest of the story (and subplots) had to be squeezed accordingly to leave space. Simon Callow wrote in his Laughton biography that Kirk Douglas, in order to secure his dream cast, sent different versions of the script as a bait to the actors he wanted to be in the film, in which their characters seemed to be the most interesting part of the movie. John Baxter, in his Kubrick biography, denies it.

I am of the opinion that Callow is nearer the truth... for one, it well might be that there could be early rewrites, considering that Trumbo claimed to have written over 1400 pages of rewrites of the script. On the other hand, Peter Ustinov also stated the tension when, during the first rehearsal, Charles Laughton realized that the script he had read wasn't apparently, quite the same Laurence Olivier and the others were working with. Ustinov also said that Olivier came a week before the rest of principals, and it seems that he didn't waste time in suggesting improvements on his character. It is alleged that Olivier was interested in playing Spartacus: if so, it's not unlikely that Douglas, in order to secure the interest of the knight, guaranteed the importance of his role as Crassus.

Another factor was that, while Trumbo was the main writer, he wasn't the only one involved: as he puts it, the final script was the result of a comitee's work. It is obvious that the star/producer and the director, whose own opinions over the story differed, would have their say, and besides, all the performers would ask their parts to be improved.

Now Laughton may have been in disadvantage for many reasons: one being the fact that his own working schedule only allowed him to work for three weeks in the film. Obviously, those who were available for a longer time were in better position to add scenes and phrases that improved the roles they were playing. Still, it may be not well known that when Laughton played Captain Bligh in Mutiny On The Bounty (1936), he had a similarly tight schedule due to contractual obligations with Alexander Korda. But then producer Irving Thalberg and director Frank Lloyd were aware of the relevance of his character to the film, so Bligh's part wasn't cut or reduced while Laughton was away working in other films. Sadly, in Spartacus he wasn't in serious, contract-abiding company, so neither his character or himself received the respect he had got from Thalberg or Lloyd.

One of the characters which is the most benefited from the novel to film transition is Lentulus Batiatus, played by Peter Ustinov. In the novel, Batiatus is only relevant in the part of the story where Spartacus is trained at the gladiatorial school, disappearing once the slave revolt takes place. The scenes which Ustinov/Batiatus shares with Laughton/Gracchus in the film do not exist in the novel: Cracchus confidants and assistants are his political lackeys. Not that melting all this characters in one, as Trumbo did, is bad for the film: Batiatus is left as an entertaining, multilayered character capable of evolution in the course of action. The bad side is, this overshadows even more Gracchus' role. When Laughton felt crossed about the way his character had been diminished, Ustinov offered to rewrite his part, and Laughton was rather satisfied with that: there is, in fact, a great chemistry in their scenes together.

Dalton Trumbo was ambivalent about Ustinov's rewrites: on one side, he thought they bring considerable wit and humour to the script, thus balancing the tragedy and drama in the film. The bad side, Trumbo believed, was that Ustinov's rewrites belittled Gracchus, something Trumbo suspects Ustinov did on his own best interests to boost his part at the expense of Laughton's. Trumbo wrote that "Charles put himself into Peter's hands for certain rewrites in this scene. He could not have bee unluckier in his choice since Peter was determined to give Charles a screwing, and did so". Trumbo resented certain humoristic additions to the character, as Gracchus character "is far more important to the film as a whole than a few cheap laughs from the audience (...) The part of Gracchus can be amusing by reason of the character's wit and attitude, but it cannot be called truly comic" as Batiatus part is meant to be.

Still, I believe that Trumbo's complaints about the final script diminishing Gracchus' intelligence, for not feeling the change of tide (i.e. as when he is caught by surprise when his pupil Caesar defects him to join the cause of Crassus) should be somewhat mellowed by the fact that Laughton was perfectly capable to suggest what the written script had taken away from him. If you remember the scene in which Crassus leaves Rome to fight Spartacus you'll see that Laughton suggests, with just a glance, that Gracchus is perfectly aware that the winds no longer blow on his sails.

Laughton's Gracchus: far more perceptive than the final script allowed him to be

Lillian Gish, being interviewed about The Night of The Hunter, declared that in her view "an artist is like a six-moth kitten in business matters usually, and he needs someone he can trust, someone to manage the business for him". Preston Neal Jones believes that she must have had Laughton in mind when she said that... The truth is, Laughton was never apt at backstage manoeuvring and backstabbing: he was of the innocent opinion that, if one should strive to do the best possible work, one's efforts should receive recognition... But for this to be possible, one's efforts must reach the light, and what we can now see of his Gracchus is what survived a fierce behind-the-cameras war for the best lines and the greater screen presence.

The vestal and the strumpet
Ustinov liked to recall the events under a jocose light: he laughs at everyone and particularly seems to enjoy poking fun at Laughton. Mind me, not that this isn't fun to watch, but he often makes remarks about Charles which I find dangerously reductive. Ustinov states that Laughton would be in an intensely morose attitude throughout the shooting. These statements have been often isolated to highlight Laughton's "difficult temperament", as if, you know, he was pouting just because. In fact, Ustinov himself explains some reasons for Laughton's sulk which, curiously enough, are not highlighted half as often (2).

As opposed to a stereotyped image of a non-commital, whimsy prima donna, Laughton had done his homework: he was knowledgeable on classic history (at school he excelled in Latin) and had played two caesars earlier in his career. Laughton was always thorough in his preparation, and would usually read the original literary sources of a script (as well as any related books), so it is highly likely that he had read Howard Fast's novel. At any rate he was certainly aware of the importance of Gracchus in the original story, and according to Ustinov, "Laughton was very unhappy with what they had done to his part (...) it really didn't give him ammunition to deal with the other things. He had many ideas of his own which were incorporated vaguely into the mass of the thing: He felt he'd been taken advantage of and got to play this part which, to his mind was a really minor part by means which were not absolutely fair". In fact, Laughton would have agreed with Trumbo that the final script seriously downgraded Gracchus intelligence. Kirk Douglas used to tell with amusement, that Laughton would come and say he was going o sue him, pretending, in genuine "who? meee?" fashion that he would not know what Laughton was talking about.

There's another famous statement by Ustinov in which he compares Olivier and Laughton, seeing Olivier as a a pure vestale devoted to the art of Thespis, and Laughton as a Hollywood whore. It is true that one may share some disappointment about what could be felt as Laughton's waste of his talents in certain lesser films, but regardless of the quality of the film he might be working in, Laughton would generally toil to get the best possible performance. Besides, the comparison is hugely unfair considering what Laughton did in 1933, saying no to opulent Hollywood offers in order to be able to work for months at the Old Vic with much lesser wages. More examples? He would struggle to stage Brecht's Galileo (in 1947!), and making The Night of the Hunter isn't precisely the kind of film one does to get big bucks. After Spartacus, incidentally, Laughton would devote months to prepare for the part of King Lear... Honest, none of this makes me think of Laughton as the rent-by-the-hours type.

Whorish or not, Laughton's performance was certainly well appreciated by the writers: it certainly pleased Dalton Trumbo, and Howard Fast declared that Laughton "elevates whatever he's in, wherever he is"

Gracchus gives Caesar a few practical tips about buying votes at the public house: another scene lost forever

The film expands in Spain
Saul Bass said that "as the picture went along, it tended to expand". In fact, after the film was considered nearly finished, Dalton Trumbo issued a scene-by-scene memo analising the film and suggesting improvements. Trumbo complained that, while the life of the Romans was depicted in rich detail, the slaves were treated as a generic group of anonymous, undifferentiated people, and no clues as to their way of life and beliefs were given. To keep the balance, and strenghten Spartacus' reasons for revolt, he felt that the film needed extra scenes depicting the life of slaves.

So the crew and part of the cast went to Spain for further shooting (3). It is sadly ironic that the shooting of these scenes about slaves fighting for their freedom was done in a country living under a dictatorship not unlike the kind Crassus wanted for republican Rome. Edward Lewis recalls, not without compunction, that in order to be in the dictator's good graces, they donated money to the favourite charities of Franco's wife.

Spain became a popular location for big Hollywood productions during that period (4), mostly because of the weather and the benefits of monetary change, which helped to keep the budgets tight. The availability of trained Spanish conscripts for mass and/or battle scenes also came handy in the case of Spartacus. George Sanders, shooting Solomon and Sheba in Spain around the same period, was seriously concerned about the poor Spanish boy soldiers, often being used for dangerous stunts without proper protection and without getting any of the profits their generals got for hiring them (5).

Once the Battle scenes and the extra slave footage were added to the early edit, the film had swelled considerably and Kubrick was asked to reduce footage. Ironically enough, among the first scenes to be cut away were the depictions of Roman life Trumbo had praised to demand an equal treatment of slaves, and along with them, the scene where Gracchus/Laughton gives Caesar/Gavin practical lessons of how to earn votes (basically, by buying them). Kirk Douglas recalled that as a wonderful scene, whose cutting could only be explained for time reasons.

John Baxter writes that Kubrick didn't give much thought to cutting away Laughton's scenes, and maybe he relished that as well, not having found Laughton as a cooperative, or even worse, obedient performer. Peter Ustinov remembers how Laughton and him would rehearse the scene thoroughly at home, and on the following day, they would arrange the furniture of the set and perform the scene in such a perfectly finished way, that Kubrick had little option but film them as they had contrived. "It was difficult" said Ustinov "for even Kubrick to start from scratch and suggest we should do something different". Not that Kubrick would easily forget such breach of directorial authority: when the time came, Stanley grinded his ax and started to chop Gracchus footage mercilessly: "Here's Johnneeee!"

Any scene with Laughton that was cut is lost forever, except for a sound clip of Gracchus' suicide and last instructions to one of her liberated slaves. Nothing more.

Laughton would play a senator again in his last film, Advise and Consent: on that occasion, the director respected the actor's performance and the film certainly benefited from that. And certainly Spartacus could have be a better movie with a bit more of Gracchus in it. I certainly agree with Trumbo that the loss of importance of the senator's role is a great loss to the picture.

(1) But not for long, Trumbo was credited with as the author of the script of Otto Preminger's Exodus (1960), and Kirk Douglas would acknowledge him as well as the writer of Spartacus.
(2) There's something which is not mentioned by Ustinov and may explain further Charles' feeling annoyed... Remember I mentioned in the previous post someone didn't allow Don Juan in Hell to be played in London? Well, that someone was present in the shooting of Spartacus: The nimble reader will no doubt be able to deduce the identity of the culprit.
(3) Something rather evident for any Spanish viewer of Spartacus who recognizes in the background village houses as the ones in which their grandparents and parents dwelled, and many still live in: frankly, these rural buildings hardly look Roman.
(4) As many other producers did, as Stanley Kramer (i.e. The Pride And The Passion, 1957) or Samuel Bronston (i.e. El Cid, 1962).
(5) Sanders remembered when he accidentally ran over a young soldier with a chariot. Fortunately the soldier's injuries weren't too bad, but Sanders noticed that they wore no protection apart from their costumes, and were given no choice about wheter they wanted to be in a film or not, being under military orders. Incidentally, Yul Brynner (who wouldn't make The Gladiators, after all) was playing King Solomon susbtituting the recently deceased Tyrone Power.

:: Spartacus Special edition DVD (Criterion's version, released in Zone 2 by Universal), containing a Peter Ustinov interview; Track with comments by Kirk Douglas (actor and producer), Peter Ustinov (actor), Howard Fast (writer), Edward Lewis (producer), Saul Bass (designer) and Robert Harris (film restoration expert); Track with Dalton Trumbo's notes to the script read by actor Michael McConnohie.
:: "Spartacus" by Howard Fast
:: "Charles Laughton. A Difficult Actor" by Simon Callow
:: "Stanley Kubrick: A Biography" by John Baxter
:: "Dear Me" by Peter Ustinov
:: "Heaven and Hell to Play With" by Preston Neal Jones
:: "Memoirs of a professional Cad" By George Sanders

Some links
:: A review of the Criterion DVDA edition at Filmsondisc.com
:: Review by Roger Ebert
:: Review at Bear, Schmear!
:: Promotional illustrations by Tom Van Sant
:: Article by SuperSantiego in La realidad Estupefaciente (in Spanish)
:: Review by Jonathan Rosembaum
:: Review by CSE Cooney
:: Review at Dynamic 01
:: Review at American left History
:: Review at Cinema Debate (in Portuguese)
:: Review at aVoir-aLire.com (in French)
:: Mark Farnsworth reviews Spartacus at Global Comment
:: Review by Major Reisman (in Spanish)
:: Review by Pepe Gutierrez-Álvarez in Kaosenlared.net (in Spanish)
:: Review by Bob Aldrich in The Great Unmade Robert Aldrich Romantic Comedy

Thursday, February 11, 2010

One hell of an mp3

Well, I have good news Today! The 1952 Columbia recording of "Don Juan in Hell" has been re-released. Not in CD and not by the current owners of the rich Columbia catalogue who, I fear, are not particularly interested in re-releasing the many precious jewels in their vaults. Luckily, Saland Publishing considers that this recorded play will interest modern audiences, and has released the original two-vinyl set in two downloadable mp3 files, which are available at Amazon and iTunes at an irressistible price: let me tell you, these could be the best spent two dollars in your life.

"Don Juan in Hell" would deserve a real hugue post devoted to it, but today I'll just do a briefing.

The original Columbia cover of the recording

By the beginning of the fifties Laughton, through his association with Paul Gregory, was touring the States doing highly successful literary readings in whatever available space a stage could be improvised and an audience assembled. Laughton would mesmerize the public with words with just a bunch of books and a stool as props, declaring that "contrary to what I'd been told in the entertainment industry, people everywhere have a common shy hunger for literature", which was (and I fear, still is) a daring statement to make.

Gregory, seeing the box-office benefits of Laughton's literary crusade, wondered about the further possibilities of the act, and whether a play could be staged in such an economical (but effective) way with more performers. Discussing the matter with Laughton, they thought that the third act of George B. Shaw's Man and Superman, detached from the course of action of the rest of the play, would be a good choice for the experiment. This act presented a philosophical debate between Don Juan, The Devil, Doña Ana and the Statue (a.k.a. the Commander, Ana's father), and wasn't performed at all in most stagings of Man and Superman. Laughton and Gregory considered that the Don Juan in Hell act was long autonomous enough to be presented as a theatrical event on its own right.

They assembled three performers: suave Charles Boyer to perform the persuasive Burlador, the brilliant Agnes Moorehead to play Doña Ana, and Shaw veteran Cedric Hardwicke to play the Statue. Laughton would play the urbane Devil and direct the play. The four players would perform on a stage (bare save for the stools and microphones), wearing evening dress, apparently "reading" the play but under its minimal appearance there was a sophisticated dramatic work.

Hardwicke, Boyer, Moorehead and Laughton: The First Drama Quartette

George B. Shaw had clashed famously with a younger Charles Laughton when he performed professor Higgins while being a student at RADA: Shaw told Charles that he thought he was a dreadful Higgins, but predicted him a brilliant career "within the year". Shaw not only predicted Charles' quick ascent to lead parts, but also would, a few years later, consider him the best candidate to play Higgins of film (which sadly didn't materialise: I'd certainly would have liked to be able to compare such a performance with Leslie Howard's fine turn). When Charles asked Shaw for permission, the writer was still of the opinion that the third act was difficult to stage, but gave his blessings -and advice- to Laughton nonetheless. "Don Juan in Hell" is a compendium of Shavian themes, Hardwicke said it contained "the germs of virtually all his plays in one form or another", and Laughton considered it "a cathedral of ideas".

The play toured succesfully through many American cities and towns before its triumphant Broadway debut (a clever build-up characteristic of Gregory), and became a hit that revolutionized the American stage (1) and started Charles' -long delayed!- career as a stage director, a trade in which he would earn a remarkable and well deserved renown in the years to follow.

A few related links:
:: Terry Teachout reviews the mp3 and chronicles the First Drama Quartette's adventures in theaterland at Wall Street Journal
:: "The Happy Ham", an article about Laughton and the Don Juan In Hell tour (Time Magazine, March 1952)
:: A contemporary review of the play at "Time"
:: A post on Agnes Moorehead at Movie Morlocks, featuring an interview with Charles Tranberg, author of I Love The Illusion, a biography of the actress.

My paper copy of the abovelinked Time magazine, Simon Callow's seminal Charles Laughton, A Difficult Actor, Cedric Hardwicke's autobiography A Victorian in Orbit and Charles Higham biography of Laughton.

(1) There was a British interval of the Don Juan In Hell Tour during the Festival of Britain, in wich the four actors briefly toured the United Kingdom, but didn't play in London: The apparent reason being that someone in the British scene decided that, since a staging of the complete "Man and Superman" was played at the city, the London public wouldn't be interested in an alternative staging of the third act of the play, and one done by, *harumph*, "film stars". That someone obviously had a low consideration of the London's love for theatre or the fact that the play directed by Laughton had been sanctioned by Shaw himself, and sadly denied the Londoners the chance to enjoy both stagings.