Film History 101 (Part 7): A Near Death on the Nile

As part of our journey though Film History 101, we’ve now reached the 1960s. Major changes were afoot.  Not the least of which was seeing the entire industry rocked to its core by one film which clearly demonstrated that the studios no longer had complete control over their projects as they did during the previous decades.

We’ll get to that in a minute.  But first, as we saw in the previous post, the release of Ben Hur in 1959 seemed to validate the Old Hollywood concepts of how to make money. Big budgets, big stars, and subject matters that appealed to a mass audience looked like a sure-fire formula. The following year, Kirk Douglas’ independent production of Spartacus added further credence to this line of thinking. Like Ben Hur, it was hugely successful. Spartacus was also the first film to break the Hollywood Blacklist during the 1950s. In order to secure the needed financing, Douglas’ production team needed a finished script in record time. They turned to the super-talented screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who had been unable to find work the previous decade due to his perceived leftist leanings. Sitting at home in his bathtub, Mr. Trumbo was able to churn out a rough draft of the screenplay in only three days. (Trivia Note: Busby Berkeley was another Hollywood legend who did the bulk of his creative work sitting for hours in a bathtub. It’s not a coincidence that most of the musical numbers he designed took place in giant swimming pools). Everyone liked what they saw from Trumbo, and production got underway with first Anthony Mann, and then Stanley Kubrick as director.

But as Spartacus neared completion, the issue of credit reared its ugly head. The heads of the production team got together to discuss how they were going to properly compensate Trumbo. In previous years, no one had dared incur the wrath of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In the few cases that a blacklisted screenwriter had gotten work, the studios had usually come up with a pseudo or a front man for the discredited author. Probably the most extreme example of this was The Bridge on the River Kwai. The real writer was blacklisted. So, the screenplay was credited to French author Pierre Boulle (who also went on to write the original book version of Planet of the Apes). The fact that Mr. Boulle didn’t speak a word of English didn’t seem to catch anyone’s attention.

But Kirk Douglas claimed he wasn’t comfortable with this approach. He felt it was “creatively dishonest” —not to mention unfair to Dalton Trumbo. At one point in the meeting, Stanley Kubrick spoke up. He stated in a matter-of-fact tone: “We’ll just say I wrote it. No one will dispute that.” Douglas was incredulous. In a fit of anger, he took it upon himself to challenge the blacklist, and openly credit Trumbo with being the author of Spartacus. ( Years later Douglas would write that Kubrick was undeniably talented. But even by Hollywood standards, he was one talented little s**t).

Due to these types of conflicts, Kubrick later disowned Spartacus, but left his name on the credits. Of course, he would continue on to become one of the most successful directors in the history of movies (Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange etc.). But Spartacus did very well…earning lots of money and heaps of critical praise. In the 1990s it was chosen as only the second film to be fully restored by a team of experts led by film historian Robert Harris. It remains a very watchable and enjoyable movie to this day.

But the success of Ben Hur and Spartacus helped set the stage for a nearly cataclysmic event in the film world. The success of these two films didn’t go unnoticed over at Twentieth Century Fox. Five years earlier, “The Ten Commandments” had also made a killing at the box office. Hoping to hop on the “Sword and Sandal” bandwagon, the studio began looking for a similar property. They thought they had one which looked ideal. It was titled Cleopatra.

A remake of a Cecil B. DeMille film from 1932, this new version of Cleopatra was slated to have budget of $2 million, and was going to feature someone who was arguably the greatest movie star in the world at the time: Elizabeth Taylor. She was eventually paid a then record $1 million to appear in the film. Other key cast members included Peter Finch, and Stephen Boyd, (the latter who had played the character of Masala in Ben Hur).

Cleopatra looked like a sure-fire hit. Especially given the track record of similarly themed films. But it was plagued by problems from the very beginning. For starters, most of the film was scheduled to be shot in England. But the chilly English weather wasn’t conducive to growing palm trees or for building sets supposedly set in the Egyptian desert. After a minor fortune had been spent on new plants and props, it became evident that a drier climate was needed. So, the entire production picked up and moved to Italy.

Of course that took time. And during that time, two of the principal leads, Finch and Boyd, had to leave the production because of other commitments. Because they had been in virtually every scene that had been shot, this meant that the previous five months worth of work was now worthless. The production had to start over from scratch. Rex Harrison and Richard Burton were then hired as the new leads.

But even after the production began shooting again just outside of Rome, its troubles continued.  Taylor began having a very public affair with Burton and started to not show up when scheduled to shoot her scenes.  At one point, she became extremely ill and had to be rushed to the hospital for an emergency tracheotomy.   This led to even further delays, which continued to mount.   As the production stretched on, more and more producers were called in to steer the ship. This led to one script revision after another until no one knew what they were shooting anymore.  Major portions of the film were ad-libbed by the actors, because they would show up for work without having any lines to read.

Over the following year, Cleopatra degenerated into one giant colossal mess. This wasn’t just your normal production which was behind schedule and over budget.  It was a project manager’s worst nightmare.  With horror, the producers began to realize the monster they had created.  As money continued to pour into the production, simply shutting it down was no longer an option.  The control mechanisms from the old Hollywood Studio system were simply gone.  There were so many completion and distribution deals tied to Cleopatra being finished, that if the spigot was turned off, the resulting lawsuits would have easily bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox.  That would have meant the end of the studio.

The executives at Fox realized they had no other choice. They no longer in control of the final product.  Their goal became to reach the finish line, no matter what the cost. The studio began to borrow heavily and to systematically shut down most of their other productions. All available resources were diverted in order to keep Cleopatra from sinking into the Nile. And its price tag just grew and grew and grew. The film had become the industry’s equivalent of a black hole.

Eventually the film was finished at a cost of $44 million. (A mere $42 million over it’s originally approved budget). That made it by far the most expensive film made up until that time. Adjusted for inflation, it would continue to hold that dubious honor for over 40 years. (And if you subtract merchandising subsidies from today’s film budgets, it would still hold the record).

And what of the final film? In viewing the movie, it’s remarkable how little of that money actually shows up on screen. Even the climatic battle of Actium, which should have been a highlight, happens off screen. As far as the actors go, only Rex Harrison turns in a decent performance. And worst of all, at over three hours, the movie is, well, boring. (The original cut of the film was over six hours in length. Watching the story unfold, you can almost feel the pain of the editors trying to make sense out of all the footage).

After several years and with world wide distribution deals, Cleopatra would eventually come close to breaking even. But the film’s troubled production set shock waves throughout the industry. Twentieth Century Fox had survived, but just barely. There were huge hits to its bottom line. And it took years to get its other productions back on track. For the first time in the history of Hollywood, it had been demonstrated just how dangerous an out of control film could truly be. The studios now knew they no longer had complete ownership over their own product. Films were now like fully loaded trains sitting on steep inclines. Once the decision had been given to release the break, it was sometimes no longer possible to stop their progress as they rolled downhill at breakneck speeds. And once they reached the bottom of that hypothetical incline….

For decades the specter of Cleopatra hung over Hollywood. In executive board rooms, the very mention of it’s name became synonymous with the word “Armageddon”. More than one producer shuddered when confronted with a movie that threatened to outgrow its original benchmarks. Executives became very leery of committing to even moderately expensive productions, for fear of losing their jobs.

(Twenty years later, history would repeat itself. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in 1983 had a production history very similar to Cleopatra. Only this time, the excesses were driven less by production mismanagement as by the oversized ego of the director. “Heaven’s Gate” holds the record for the highest shooting ration for any Hollywood production with over 100 hours of footage shot for every hour on screen. The executives at United Artists which produced the film were acutely aware of the legacy of Cleopatra. They knew instantly that the train was rolling downhill without any breaks, and struggled desperately to stop its progress. But they were unsuccessful. In this case, the end result was the eventual liquidation of United Artists. We’ll discuss that in more detail in a subsequent post.)

But back to the 1960s. The major Hollywood studios were relieved in 1964 when The Sound of Music became one of the industry’s all time top money-makers. After the trauma of Cleopatra, here was something everyone could get behind. A family friendly musical directed by Hollywood veteran Robert Wise. It, along with the success of West Side Story (also by Wise), convinced many that the path to prosperity lay in big splashy musicals.

The mid to late 60s began to see a spate of old-fashioned movies featuring lots of song and dance numbers. My Fair Lady, Funny Girl, Dr. Doolittle, Oliver, Paint Your Wagon, Hello Dolly, and Darling Lili are some examples. But all of these films had two things in common: 1) They cost a lot of money, and 2) No one went to see them.

No one realized it immediately, but the end of the classic Hollywood movie was at hand. And with it, the entrenched Hollywood Studio System began to draw its final breath. The old studio heads didn’t know what to think. The ground had not merely shifted under their feet. It had completely fallen away. Counterculture films began to dominate the marketplace. Young people wanted to see movies like Easy Rider and A Hard Day’s Night. Not films made on a Hollywood assembly line. None of the old rules applied anymore. Actors, writers, and directors no longer belonged to individual studios. They became free-agents who signed contracts for specific projects, often jumping from one studio to another. Any sense of ownership over all of the elements in the production process was effectively gone.

Some of the most popular films of the era were made using new techniques that flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Easy Rider, for example didn’t even use a script. Production started when Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and the crew showed up at a parking lot one morning. Half of them were high at the time. They just started shooting, and made up the movie as they went along. (Arguing and fighting most of the time). Both they, and the rest of Hollywood, were completely shocked when Easy Rider became one of the biggest hits of 1967.

But as the curtain came down on Old Hollywood, the stage was being set for one of film’s most remarkable decades. In fact, most film historians consider the 1970s to be THE decade for classic films. With the studio control systems defunct, the 70s would see an unprecedented output of great movies. 1974 alone is often singled out as a rival to 1939 in the sheer number of classic films ever released in a single year.

But before we get to that, we don’t want to leave the 1960s without mentioning some of the other great films that decade also produced. That’s next in Film History 101.


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