It’s lurid, it’s soapy, it’s forbidden: where does the line form? Joseph E. Levine made hay from Harold Robbins’ best seller, with prose that The New York Times said belonged more properly “on the walls of a public lavatory.” So why is the picture so much fun? When the performances are good they’re very good, and when they’re bad they’re almost better. Plus there’s a who’s who game to be played: If George Peppard is Howard Hughes and Carroll Baker is Jean Harlow, who exactly is Robert Cummings? I think this is the first time on Blu for this title, and playback-wise it’s A-OK for Region A.
Viavision [Imprint] 9 (Australia)
1964 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 150 min. / Street Date August 26, 2020 / Available at [Imprint] 34.95
Starring: George Peppard, Alan Ladd, Robert Cummings, Martha Hyer, Elizabeth Ashley, Martin Balsam, Lew Ayres, Carroll Baker, Ralph Taeger, Archie Moore, Leif Erickson, Tom Lowell, Arthur Franz, Tom Tully, Paul Frees.
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
Film Editor: Frank Bracht
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein
Written by John Michael Hayes from the novel by Harold Robbins
Produced by Joseph E. Levine
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
It’s trashy, it’s vulgar — yet it seems more like a real movie than much of what passes for feature filmmaking today. Oddly, this disparaged epic has one of George Peppard’s better performances; he and Carroll Baker do their best to heat up the screen within the Production Code’s straitjacket. Harold Robbins shied away from admitting it in full, but his book’s Jonas Cord is Howard Hughes through and through. Frankly, it’s a more satisfying movie about Howard Hughes than is Scorsese’s overproduced The Aviator. Edward Dmytryk’s direction is phone-it-in stuff, but he doesn’t slow up a mini-epic that plays much faster than its 2.5 hour running time.
Both Robbins’ ‘dirty book’ The Carpetbaggers and Paramount’s half-sanitized film adaptation were a mini-sensation in their time and probably half-forgotten now. Yet the movie remains an entertaining soap ‘n success saga of the kind still celebrated in television miniseries about sin and glamour. Severely curtailled by the Production Code, it slips in an amusing undercurrent of double entendres and almost-sensational scenes. We’re told that Hollywood was mainly bucking the Code for commercial reasons — they couldn’t keep up with the often earthy films coming out of Europe — some of which were far more honest about adult subjects such as sex. John Michael Hayes’ workmanlike script and the earnest performances now play like quality goods, even if they wander close to the borders of camp parody. The dialogue can get purply, but it doesn’t fall back on obscenities to keep us listening. The stars are fun, the thinly veiled historical associations are amusing, and the picture walks a risky tightrope over the pit of censorship. Carroll Baker’s hothouse widow must have five scenes where she’s ready to be seduced — but darn it, she’s frustrated every time.
1925. Carefree playboy Jonas Cord, Jr. (George Peppard) doesn’t fold when his industrialist workhorse father (Leif Erickson) drops dead from a stroke. Jonas takes over the family chemical plant and develops it into a sprawling empire of companies. Old family pal Nevada Smith, aka Max Sand (Alan Ladd) splits, but lawyer Mac McAllister (Lew Ayres) stays on to help as Cord’s top executive. A few years before, Jonas brought home a girlfriend, Rina Marlowe (Carroll Baker), only for his father to immediately steal and marry her. Now Jonas rejects his widowed stepmother’s sordid advances, and she goes packing to Europe. Jonas expands the company into aviation and plastics, marrying Monica Winthrop (Elizabeth Ashley) because she says she doesn’t want to settle down. Nevada Smith becomes a cowboy star in Hollywood; when he overextends himself filming a thinly disguised version of his criminal youth (as dramatized in Paramount’s follow-up western Nevada Smith), Jonas steps in and saves the movie by hiring Rina to act in it. The stunt makes Rina a star and Cord a big-time film producer. Further developments pit Jonas against movie tycoon Bernard B. Norman (Martin Balsam) and the opportunist agent Dan Pierce (Robert Cummings). The devious Pierce sends the prostitute Jennie Denton (Martha Hyer) to meet Jonas, who promotes her into a new star to replace Rina.
studios gobbled up the block all the way down to Melrose Blvd. You needed to know that.
The saving grace of The Carpetbaggers is that its drama carries just enough weight to avoid complete self-parody. John Michael Hayes’ screen work includes hits like Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, and an adaptations of the ‘hot’ book Peyton Place. His screenplay finds an excuse for philandering millionaire industrialist Jonas Cord’s every sin, but doesn’t expect us to take it all seriously until a somewhat suspicious ending wraps things up far too neatly. The many interesting characters and coded Hollywood events keep us on our toes: ‘Now what real Hollywood person is she supposed to be? Which sex scene from the dirty book is supposed to be happening now?‘
The story enlightens us with the canard that terrible childhood traumas cause power-mad industrialists abuse those who love them and work for them. That’s the motivation for Jonas Cord’s battering ram method for seizing succe$$, ruthlessly chopping down all obstacles in his path. But Peppard’s Jonas doesn’t stop to breathe, let alone enjoy his riches. He does seem to be driven by an inner demon, not a desire for wealth and luxury.
There’s no denying that Jonas Cord = Howard Hughes, who came out of the roaring twenties to become a king of machine tools, aviation, and motion pictures. The parallels are interesting in that The Carpetbaggers almost seems a whitewash of Hughes’ career. In the movie biz Hughes was an obsessive and controlling paranoid with a harem complex. He ran RKO straight into the ground, whereas the Jonas Cord we see here is a natural Hollywood mogul. Cord outthinks and outmaneuvers the entire industry while demonstrating excellent commercial smarts. Lew Ayres’ role might be a cypher for the couple of trusted aides that helped Hughes ruin a movie studio, raiding its assets and betraying its employees while amusing himself playing infantile movie mogul games. The film’s Jonas Cord easily fends off the schemes of a venal studio head, and is only thwarted when a trusted advisor betrays him.
Joseph E. Levine must have jumped through flaming hoops to translate the sex-obsessed Robbins novel into a movie that could be granted a production seal; The Carpetbaggers stretched the permissiveness factor to the point that the Code looked toothless, hypocritical. Unlike Kiss Me, Stupid and The Pawnbroker, this picture raked in the moolah, sending signals that overt bad taste could be marketed without the nation rising in protest.
According to Murray Schumach, Joe Levine purposely leaked the info that he might ‘bust the Code’ by including actual nudity in his expensive show: “I got enough in this book for six movies.” But this was 1963 and the publicity was just a bluff. The on-set nudity was just for the benefit of the press.
The racy stills you may have seen of Carroll Baker nearly topless are posed cheats for publicity: hanging from a chandelier in Paris, holding her dress together in Jonas Cord’s hotel room. The nude photos of Baker in Playboy gave the impression that similarly hot scenes were in the movie. Playboy routinely dispatched photographers to film sets for unclothed photo shoots, and publicists didn’t mind giving the wrong impression. It was also implied that an uncensored ‘continental’ version exists, but that’s not been verified.
As might be expected none of the characters in The Carpetbaggers is the Sunday School type. Carroll Baker’s Rina is a nymphomaniac & alcoholic with gutter tastes. Her scenes with Cord are wrestling matches carefully designed and choreographed to create sizzling tableaux — her clothes ripped half off, etc. — without anything happening. Despite all the come-ons and naughty talk, nobody actually beds anyone.
Although we hear about Cord’s womanizing, he isn’t seen actually sleeping with any of his consorts. Instead we see him rejecting women right and left, in Rina’s case to intentionally torment her. Cord wants to vent his rage on Rina, but with his frustrated wife Monica he just doesn’t care. He ignores and humiliates Monica to goad her into filing for divorce. Of course, he has a secret ‘meaningful reason’ to not want a home or children of his own. Cord only feels comfortable when his sex dealings are transactional, as with his cold-fish marriage proposal to Martha Hyer’s Jennie Denton, a card-carrying, self-loathing slut. Jennie proves to be just as honest a woman as the more conventional Monica. But with all three women, suggestive verbal banter substitutes for anything overtly physical. Some of it is fairly clever, if not actually witty.
Jonas Cord’s rise to fame and power harkens back to glossy depression-era rags to riches fantasies. Cord’s pals and advisors tell him he’s going too fast and overreaching, but they’re always wrong. Unlike Hughes, Cord doesn’t seem to have any fetishistic sex obsessions or demented illusions that spoil his hyper-efficient facade. An over-sold ‘fear of insanity’ scare gums up a couple of relationships, but most of the time Cord functions like a winner. I think that’s why George Peppard is so effective in the role — he makes Jonas Cord direct and uncomplicated, and wholly self-confident without being a monster too preposterous to believe. The shallow, cool-headed Peppard is a good fit for Cord. In most of his starring roles Peppard wandered far afield of his excellent, intensely likable Rafe Copley back in Minnelli’s Home from the Hill.
For a show stacked with stars off the Hollywood use-by shelf, the supporting cast is well chosen… at least they had the sense not to hire Red Buttons, who for a while seemed to show up in every movie like this one. Alan Ladd is far too old to be playing forty-three but he delivers his dialogue well, especially the howler lecture he gives Peppard before the climactic fistfight. Ladd would die before the film’s premiere. This film’s somewhat worn and dissipated character isn’t the best exit for Ladd. But he brings the authority that The Carpetbaggers so badly needs, with his Shane genuine-ness.
Robert Cummings gets a bad rap in his darker films (The Chase, 1946) for playing roles too bright and breezy — which I think is unfair. At the time Cummings was known for his clean-naughty line readings on his TV comedy show Love that Bob, canned laughter and all. The same basic behaviors make his Dan Pierce come off as an unprincipled, lecherous weasel. A take that Cummings’ Dan Pierce does upon meeting Carroll Baker at a railroad station is a perfect example of his comic timing. Only in Pierce’s betrayal scene does Cummings seem a bit inadequate.
→ Martha Hyer adds ‘hussy prostitute’ to her list of screen roles, but doesn’t replicate Shirley Jones’ success with a similar part in Elmer Gantry. Just the same, only the ex- noir troublemaker Audrey Totter (Tension) is allowed to utter the word ‘hooker’ in a later scene. Hyer’s Jennie Denton is the only one of Jonas Cord’s conquests that has enough sense to run away from him. Elizabeth Ashley (Ship of Fools, Rancho Deluxe) is less glamorous than the other two leading ladies but has equal fun with the slippery dialogue, as when her Monica describes her measurements to Cord in aviation lingo. Monica is supposed to be a magazine editor, so naturally Peppard asks her if she’d like a ‘layout.’ Lew Ayres is solid as the older legal instrument of Cord Enterprises. Ayres’ natural authority helps establish Jonas Cord as a hotshot tycoon right out of the box.
But Carroll Baker is the film’s high-wire act; she’s a genuine star. The great actress brings the grit and grace needed to animate Rina Marlowe in a performance that’s admirably bold — as opposed to self-destructive or humiliating. Rina’s platinum blonde is always on the make. She’s less a transposed Jean Harlow than a channelling of Harlow’s star-slut image. Instead of drifting into Hughes’ life through an aviation epic (Hell’s Angels) Rina provides much of Jonas Cord’s motivation to become a movie producer.
(real spoiler next paragraph)
Was the ending some kind of compromise with the Production Code office? It certainly looks like it. Alan Ladd’s Nevada Smith thoroughly thrashes his substitute ‘son’ Jonas in a really good fight scene, setting us up for a perfectly good, downbeat Hud– like finale. Ladd even snaps out an okay cynical exit line. The show instead zooms forward in time to see a chastened and reformed Cord returning to ‘make everything better.’ The solution for all abusive megalomaniacs, therefore, is a good beating from Alan Ladd. The ending is trite, forgettable. ‘The End’ zooms up over a freeze frame like the joke finale of a parody skit, or even an episode of the comedy TV show Police Squad.
Speaking of parody giveaways, each star name in the main titles flies toward us, from infinity past the camera. They’re a cheesy pre- Superman optical, and apparently so expensive that the omitted word ‘Special’ was squeezed in above the ‘Visual Effects’ credit after the fact instead of repainting a crowded credits card. The only other campy giveaway is the narrator: Paul Frees supplies his best Voice of Doom voiceover personality, to add to the faux-serious tone.
Viavision [Imprint]’s Blu-ray of The Carpetbaggers is a flawless presentation of Paramount’s glossy, steamy and lurid show. The artless high-key look nevertheless seems appropriate. All rooms are brightly lit, showing off the fancy decor. For instance the Cord desert mansion is all red wallpaper inside — it looks like Jonas was brought up in a fancy sportin’ house.
Carroll Baker looks sensational at all times, even when the camera keeps its distance, perhaps because of her many sheer costumes … did the Production Code insist on fewer revealing close-ups, or was it just Edward Dmytryk’s lazy habit of shooting scene masters from a medium distance, with acres of empty space all around? the frame grab just above has actually been cropped by about 20%. ↑
A trailer is included along with a photo gallery. Elmer Bernstein’s rather generic ‘big story’ music score comes across well enough, even though the main title doesn’t tell us if we’re watching a crime story, or a western, or a war movie. He’s mostly there just to handle transitions and underline the film’s overblown ‘big’ moments, like the scene in which Jonas Cord opens the ‘haunted room’ in his dead father’s house.
Kat Ellinger’s commentary track is colorful in word and thought; she touches on the same things I do, sometimes in a more direct and profane way. Early on she says she grew up in the generation of the ’80s but she has a good handle on Hollywood’s censorship confusion of the ‘sixties. She also informs us that Elizabeth Ashley married George Peppard after filming ended. I missed most ‘adult’ movies of the time as well, remembering George Peppard only in How the West Was Won and then The Blue Max. I fell in love with Carroll Baker when I saw her 1961 Something Wild on its network TV debut, an impression made more indelible by her performance in How the West Was Won — her romance with James Stewart may be the most moving material in that film. Kat calls out Harold Robbins as “one of the most terrible literature writers ever.” She gleefully points out where various God-awful events in the book have been toned down. That’s what I call a public service — with this guide I can either skip the dirty book or zero in on the hot stuff.
Author Richard S. Randall makes the possibly unlikely claim that Levine’s hit show “recouped its cost of 3,300,000 dollars in the first five weeks of its run in the New York metropolitan area alone.” The producer then purchased Harold Robbins’ next book The Adventurers before it was written. He probably found a way to make a profit on that one, too — Paramount surely did not.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good +
Supplements: Trailer, photo gallery feature commentary by Kat Ellinger.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case in slip case
Reviewed: September 16, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson