Two versions of Souvenir Book

         Japanese Program

         

       

       

         

                           

       

             

                

                                       

PUNY

The legacies attached to writer Ross Lockridge, Jr., his novel Raintree County and the movie version are the tortured processes of writing, publishing and filming that are much more engrossing than what ended up on the pages or the screen. The original manuscript, reportedly weighing in at twenty pounds when hand-delivered by the author, was set to be published in spring of 1947 but Houghton Mifflin first wanted 100,000 words sliced from its 600,000. MGM, dangling a huge money prize as incentive, wanted another 100,000 words cut, compromising at 50,000. The then-powerful moral arbiter Book of the Month Club wanted more excised, in particular a sex scene, for its edition. Expensively mounted with engraving and artist renderings, and adorned with a cleverly risqué front cover, the bitterly negotiated rewrite was published on January 4, 1948 and achieved instant best seller status when the 50,000 press run sold out the very next day. Despite the sales and garnering largely favorable reviews, erudite Lockridge was moving fast and deep into clinical depression and would kill himself by auto carbon monoxide two months later. (Son Larry Lockridge, writing the post-mortem Shade of the Raintree, believes the reprint of the vicious New Yorker magazine review in Lockridge’s home town newspaper was catalyst sending him over the edge.) With MGM in possession of the expensive movie rights, the scheduling of production was more off than on for six years, finally given the go-ahead by studio head Dore Schary before he’d get the boot.

During Schary’s reign, Millard Kaufman (co-creator of Mr. McGoo) was selected to write the screenplay of Raintree County without previous experience in adapting heavy duty literature. The diffusive structure of the “Great American Novel,” modeled after Joyce’s Ulysses, doomed the movie version to butchered incoherency. Trapped in a 24 hour time span and set in the Civil War era, the book fantasies Raintree County’s symbolic Tree of Knowledge as the genesis of life using its golden branches to drop the seeds of humanity along with plenty of distracting discourse on mythologies and topical subjects such as psychiatry and sex by the central character John Shawnessy. Kaufman’s intent to faithfully adapt the 1,000 page pipedream epic—the diametric opposite of a hungrily consumed pop read—was superseded by MGM’s clearer directive to turn the contraption into a second blockbuster romancer by matching the popular response to both the novel and movie of Gone With the Wind. He likely also suspected the open secret—that probably the majority of readers failed to get through the book’s complexities, with Edward Dmytryk, the movie’s director, a constant reminder by having admitted to not reading any of it. When given the script, Monty Clift called it “a soap opera with elephantiasis,” echoing a comment made by a reviewer of the book. Whatever ardencies intended, and present in GWTW and the Liz/Monty Place in the Sun, they turn negligible in Raintree County as the audience feels it’s taking six years to get through the lumpy 187 minutes. Intermission as reprieve-getaway comes after 2 hours and 15 minutes. The number 6 had already appeared as warning: it’s the number of years Lockridge researched and then the number of years it took for him to write the novel.

We’re aware early on Clift’s nervous-in-the-service performance is too puny and clumsy; come the Civil War scenes and his wading through the swamp in the finale that doesn’t happen in the book, he’s a goner. From the way Lockridge conceived John Shawnessy as teacher and poet, Clift’s general comportment could be minimally tolerable, yet to maintain the audience he’d need to exhibit a convincingly healthy and intellectual cogency before the unavoidable ghoul factor of viewers scanning for evidence of the facial disfigurement he suffered in an accident while making the picture. A hollowed-out Johnny Appleseed, no one’s sure what he’s doing or why he’s playing the part, other than Taylor’s insistence he be co-star. (As his champion, she would insist on his presence in Suddenly, Last Summer a few years later and eight years after that for Reflections in a Golden Eye; he died of a heart attack only a few months before filming the latter was scheduled to start.) What we are sure about is when Rod Taylor arrives with his swagger and attractiveness, there’s no wanting to ever go back to Clift’s feeble condition, no matter the curiosities as lure. (Rod, who lobbied hard for the central role, suggests what the author’s wus might have achieved as sub for a bookish Clark Gable.) Alternately in Walter Plunkett’s ambrosial whites and drab oriental browns and unflattering millinery, Taylor in her first southern accent works diligently and has some amusing belle moments, an otherwise tribute to Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett. But soon those dolls make their appearance and we’re smack in the middle of Those Tired Crazies From MiscegeNation, wherein we recognize the origins of her repeated acting habits in followup films—the whims to flaunt the accent, the frequent jerky hesitations as unaccomplished “dramatic” depth to explain the psycho stuff. But she’s more agreeable to watch than Eva Marie Saint’s Nell condescending as Olivia de Havilland’s Melanie. As a prototype for Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka and looking a bit like Harvey Korman, Nigel Patrick manages to get a few chuckles as supercilious Jerusalem Stiles, the author’s alter ego added in rewrites of the novel.

The production values of Raintree County belong in a roadshow regardless of the obvious fact there’s nothing much happening on screen to warrant one. (On a large flat screen and letterboxed, the soaper’s scale regains a bit of respect, if only we could move beyond Nat King Cole and the chorus nauseatingly singing in 50s style the nauseating main theme.) Filmed in MGM CAMERA 65, the early term for UltraPanavision, it was never reeled in 70mm, with the studio claiming there weren’t any 70mm projectors available as Taylor’s then-current amour Mike Todd was using all that were for Around the World in 80 Days. With the UltraPan process adaptable, 35mm prints with aspect ratio of 2:35.1 were struck for the few roadshow engagements. Additional reserved seat runs planned were shelved within a month after the movie opened. For general release, prints were CinemaScope, then the industry standard for widescreen, though ads and credits in the movie continued to ballyhoo CAMERA 65. The movie would be cut down from 187 minutes to 169, some prints even less, restored when released on video. Still no Blue-ray, thus another possible restoration for maestro David Strohmaier (Opening 10/23/1957 at the McVickers, running 19 weeks.)

Oscar nominations: best actress (Taylor), color art direction-set decoration, color costumes, musical score (Johnny Green).

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ralphbenner@nowreviewing.com  

Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER (Revised 4/2024) All Rights Reserved.