Yet another puzzle picture, that came out on DVD back with the first wave of WAC films in 2010. An expensive romance with Albert Finney and Yvette Mimieux, it was filmed in Europe, co-written by Ray Bradbury and bears the music of Michel Legrand, including an exceedingly well known pop song. Yet it sat on a shelf for three years, only to make a humiliating world debut on TV — on CBS’s Late Nite Movie. It was clearly one of those Productions From Hell, where nothing went right.
The Picasso Summer
The Warner Archive Collection
1969 originally / Color / 1:85 enhanced widescreen / 90 min. / Street Date May 28, 2010 (not a mistake) / available through the WBshop / 17.99
Starring: Albert Finney, Yvette Mimieux, Luis Miguel Dominguín, Theodore Marcuse, Jim Connell,
Peter Madden, Tutte Lemkow, Graham Stark, Marty Ingels, Georgina Cookson, Miki Iveria, Bee Duffell, Lucia Bosé, Jean Marie Ingels.
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Original Music: Michel Legrand
Animator: Wes Hirschensohn
Written by Edwin Boyd and Ray Bradbury (as Douglas Spaulding) and Edwin Boyd, from a story by Bradbury, (film concept by) Wes Hirschensohn
Produced by Wes Hirschensohn, Bruce Campbell
Directed by Robert Sallin (credited), Serge Bourguignon (not credited)
The Picasso Summer is proof positive that a film doesn’t have to be very good to be absolutely fascinating, once one hears how it came to be. To begin with, take your pick on what year to assign this picture. It was shot in 1969, partly re-shot and locked down in 1969, but not shown publicly until 1972. It doesn’t appear in the Warner Bros. release records because it never hit the theaters — despite being a movie starring Albert Finney, with Yvette Mimieux. The Picasso Summer is what I would call an honorable mess. It would be easy to simply laugh at some of its shortcomings, except that the film began as a perfectly respectable, and in fact progressive, attempt to do something different.
Let me get a brief, non-spoiler synopsis out of the way. Picasso Summer is based on Ray Bradbury’s short story “In a Season of Calm Weather” from his book “Medicine for Melancholy”. The story concentrates on a single chance encounter that a tourist, George Smith, has with Pablo Picasso on a beach in Europe. The movie’s ambition is to enlarge that setup with an odyssey of self-discovery. Unhappy San Francisco architect George Smith (Albert Finney) is a modest success yet feels artistically unfulfilled. His supportive, loving wife Alice (Yvette Mimieux) takes him to an upscale ‘hip’ party where he’s further annoyed by the posturing phonies and wanna-bes. On a whim, George whisks Alice away to France, without preparation of any kind. They’ll just bicycle to the home of George’s life-inspiration Pablo Picasso, ‘drop in’ as it were, and personally deliver their regards. If they’re lucky they’ll be received and George will bask in the aura of his artistic idol. Although the weather and scenery are nice, the couple finds that Picasso is thoroughly insulated from casual visitors. None of the locals will help. George goes full grump on Alice until a bum he finds in a barroom (Tutte Lemkow) tells him that the famous Spanish bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín is friends with Picasso. Perhaps the bullfighter can help fulfill George’s destiny? Alice is doubtful about advice dispensed by a drunk, so the petulant George goes on alone. He finds the friendly Dominguín, who tells him that he must first go through a test . . . in the bull ring. Meanwhile, Alice meets an artist truly at peace with himself, a blind painter (Peter Madden) who works by instinct (and a helpful woman assistant). Ah, real life lessons always come from unexpected directions.
I doubt that the concept of Yuppies had come to pass by 1967 but this film seems determined to define it. The Smiths are tragic figures, woefully disadvantaged Americans with a luxury lifestyle and all the freedom in the world. But, darn it, what about those artistic life principles they felt so strongly about back in college? How can George break free of the curse of bourgeois prosperity? What would Pablo Picasso do?
The real Pablo Picasso was surely happy to have escaped liquidation with other artists during the Spanish Civil War. I also doubt that he would want to function as a sage on a mountaintop, dispensing wisdom to yearning acolytes. For this viewer, the whole notion of celebrity worship was used up by the Beatles — in the documentary Imagine John Lennon is seen trying to be kind to a similar fan pilgrim, a pre-echo of a later fatal encounter.
Accounts differ as to who is the real originator of the idea of Picasso Summer as a Yup version of The Wizard of Oz, but the finished film is almost insultingly naïve. It doesn’t matter much that the film follows through on the idea of undercutting George Smith’s misguided quest. The fact that George sees his odyssey as a good idea makes him a lightweight from the start. When he takes out his childish frustration on Alice and others, he seems terminally unworthy.
Comparing accounts, The Picasso Summer started with the former Disney animator Wes Herschensohn, who entered TV cartoon production in the 1960s. Herschensohn’s brother Bruce was the newly appointed chief of US information Agency’s Motion Picture and Television service. Wes was personally obsessed with Picasso and went to the trouble of using intermediaries, including the celebrity bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín, to meet with the painter to pitch an animated short movie that put some of Picasso’s artwork in motion. Herschensohn planned for a cartoon production company he worked for to bankroll the film, but it lost its contract to do Tom & Jerry short subjects and folded. A few months later Wes met Ray Bradbury, and they joined forces on a project. Bradbury would write a live-action screenplay to expand on his short story, and Herschensohn’s animated sequences would be interpolated along the way. They had planned to hire director Jean Renoir, and to again use the toreador Dominguín to re-contact Pablo Picasso to make an appearance at the conclusion. But the project crumbled a second time in late 1965, when Picasso fell sick and declined to participate.
An article in Variety reported that the project began as an extended TV show sponsored by American Airlines to promote European travel, a sidebar not mentioned elsewhere. But in 1967 Bill Cosby’s new production company stepped in to get the show up on its feet as a full feature. The ‘dead’ film leaped back to life, and went into production almost immediately.
The L.A. Times interviewed Wes Herschensohn in December of 1967, when Picasso was shooting in the fancy San Francisco apartment of attorney Melvin Belli. The main filming in France and Spain was already finished, under the direction of the Frenchman Serge Bourguignon, a former documentarian whose big picture Sundays and Cybelle (1962) had won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Herschenson was bullish on Bourguinon, saying that he was so enamored of Sundays and Cybelle that he had declined to see the director’s subsequent work, which hadn’t fared as well. Famed composer Michel Legrand was commissioned to compose an original music score. At the time of the interview Wes was still hoping that Picasso might reconsider and appear in the film.
Bradbury biographer Sam Weller gives a different view of the Picasso situation. Luis Miguel Dominguín was a showboat toreador par excellence, and even starred in a drama about himself called Yo he visto a la muerte (I Have Seen Death). Luis was also a world class ladykiller, and had been associated with a number of celebrity scandals, especially a long-running affair with Ava Gardner when she was married to Frank Sinatra. Perhaps the reason Gardner consorted with toreadors is that they were a category of man that Frank Sinatra couldn’t intimidate?
Apparently the Picassos were close to Yul Brynner and his wife. Sam Weller reports that when Señora Picasso discovered that Dominguín and Mrs. Brynner were having an affair, the bullfighter become persona non grata with her, and Picasso Summer lost its Picasso connection. Luis Miguel Dominguín remained in the picture, but not the film’s focus personality. For the climactic beach encounter, a double was seen only in longshot.
Wes Herschensohn’s vision remained a main part of the mix. At it turned out almost a third of the picture would be invested in his experimental animation, which played against an active orchestral score by Michel Legrand. Herschensohn’s lengthy animated sequences play with Picasso’s famous stylized figures, in the form of traditional cel animation. One extended sequence expresses the philosophy of the bull ring and another enhances a visit to a museum with an animated montage of Picasso’s imagery contrasting War and Peace. Yet another animated episode is a daring ‘erotic sequence’ cut directly into one of George and Alice’s lovemaking sessions.
The paella hit the fan at an early screening of Serge Bourguinon’s cut for Warners and Bill Cosby. Ray Bradbury was furious to discover that his screenplay had been largely discarded; Bourguinon instead had the actors ad-lib most of the movie. Although he wasn’t a producer, Bradbury reportedly shouted “You’re Fired!” and a brief fistfight broke out. Bill Cosby thought the movie a disaster as well.
Variety finally reported in 1969 that Bourguinon’s cut had been rejected, and that Warners had stepped in to see what could be done. With the big star Albert Finney on board, it wasn’t long before journalists began asking what happened to a project that he had filmed almost two years before. It had sounded like an even more romantic Two For the Road. The rumored notorious animated sex scene was again mentioned in the trades. New material was filmed by Robert Sallin, one of the owners of Hollywood’s Kaleidoscope Films, a major maker of TV commercials and later, movie trailers. In other words, the movie was put in the hands of a designated Film Doctor unrelated to the original production. I don’t have word on what changes were made. TV commercial-like fancy opticals had been a fad in features for several years, but it’s unwise to assume that the film’s many peppy, TV-like split-screen special effect montages were part of the retrofit.
But when Sallin was finished Picasso was shelved yet again. Another year went by without the announcement of a theatrical release. A Variety article listed it among two-score finished pictures that Warners was declining to distribute. Hammer’s Crescendo and Moon Zero Two made this list and subsequently did get theatrical exposure, but not The Picasso Summer. Its absence was made all the more visible when its key song “Summer Me, Winter Me” by Michel Legrand, with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, was released in 1969 as a single by Peter Nero, and in 1970 as a single by Barbra Streisand.
The multi-million dollar investment The Picasso Summer finally made its inauspicious debut two years later, in of all places, the CBS late-night movie. Warners reportedly sold it for TV distribution for just $250,000 dollars. The show was heavily cut for TV, a fact loudly decried when Wes Herschensohn took out an ad in Variety. The sarcastic notice protested the editorial butchering, saying that major sequences had been dropped, naming specifically the Erotic Animation and the bullfighting sequence (probably the live-action part, filmed in a real bull ring). Herschensohn complained that his animated War/Peace montage had been cut in half, keeping ‘war’ but dropping ‘peace.’ The only wide public awareness of The Picasso Summer would be in the liner notes of record albums. Few people heard Michel Legrand’s full soundtrack, but the song “Summer Me, Winter Me” was covered by scores of artists. It has become a minor standard, while the movie that introduced it is now obscure.
Even the credits on the picture are wacky. Wes Herschenson is given ‘originated by’ credit and a co-writer and co-producership. Ray Bradbury takes a story credit, but for his co-screenplay credit uses the alias ‘Douglas Spaulding,’ which is the name of the main character from his novel Dandelion Wine. Serge Bourguinon’s name is absent, perhaps by his request. Is co-writer Edwin Boyd a pen name for director Robert Sallin?
The credit block on the Warner Archive Collection’s DVD doesn’t match the film credits. Robert Sallin’s name is nowhere to be seen and Serge Bourguignon is given the strange credit ‘director of live animation.’ Wes Herschenson wrote his own book about the making of the movie, which I have not read. The subject shows up in chapters in books about Ray Bradbury as well as Yul Brynner. I’ve heard Bradbury speak publicly about his movie career, but he skipped over any mention of The Picasso Summer.
I have barely talked about the movie itself, which is altogether too interesting an experiment to be disliked. The live action material does indeed play like a somewhat lazy travelogue, with Albert Finney and Yvette Mimieux doing what they can with the thin material. They definitely come off as proto-Yups, blessed with the kind of entitled innocence that doesn’t make all prosperous Yankees into Ugly Americans. There is something a bit manic-depressive about Finney’s George, who is so elated that he rushes his wife off on a madcap European spree, and then sulks and mopes when reality fails to cooperate with his petty dreams. George isn’t cranky in a particularly fun way, and we wonder why Alice puts up with his creative funk and gloomy tirades.
Our married lovers have Picasso on the brain, but the moral of the story is that one can’t become more artistic merely through contact with a successful role model. One needs the inspirational experience that brings wisdom. Picasso Summer’s unwise plan is to show this process in action. For Alice, it’s a simple meeting with a low-profile artist for whom fame and fortune have no meaning. Working with the help of a lady friend, the blind artist has found peace and contentment. I believe it was Pauline Kael that once said, ‘next slide please,’ to describe a Meaningful Life Lesson delivered with the efficiency of an intelligence debriefing. The sentiment is honest enough and Ms. Mimieux has an easygoing charm, but the whole business is just too pat.
Alice’s epiphany isn’t as offensive as the ‘core experience’ that George is given in Spain. The real-life bullfighter won’t make a phone call for Pablo, but instead shows George what he must know to understand the Spanish soul — the majesty of bullfighting. Even in 1967 this must have seemed a little false, as if Luis Miguel Dominguín had promoted himself a place in the film on the basis of his connection with Picasso. One must be mindful that Dominguín wasn’t some kind of conman, but a genuine toreador with a long career. Ava Gardner, an expert on bullfighters, thought him the most magnificent man she’d ever seen.
In the film Luis the bullfighter comes off as an Iberian Yoda substitute. His flowery lecture is quite a mouthful:
“In the bullfight, instead of waiting for death, we make an appointment to meet it at four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. And ultimately struck blind by the sun or shadowed by the bull, we think, ‘so that was death’ and walk out of the arena more alive into the late day. Picasso likes to walk with me at such times, like a child, as with all children, he runs curious after the mystery. He shakes hands with death as it passes and with that hand, which has shaken the hand of the skeleton, he snatches the mystery and drafts it in oil on canvas.”
Luis also admits that one reason Picasso paints bullfights is because he cannot return to Spain to see them for himself. George witnesses some fairly bloody bullfighting scenes that many modern animal lovers will not countenance. These are capped by George’s own attempt to face down a bull. A final zoom-out shows George standing next to a dead bull, in a real tableaux of Blood and Sand, with an emphasis on the Blood. He’s now a recipient of instant enlightenment and can stand with pride beside the ghost of Ernest Hemingway. As in real life Luis still can’t get Pablo on the phone, but George goes away to a happy reunion with Alice. Aww.
Where does Wes Herschensohn’s animation fit in? ‘Far out’ trippy dream sequences were becoming a vogue in 1967, but it would be a couple of years before 2001: A Space Odyssey was positioned as a head trip movie, and a Fantasia reissue also filled theaters with dope smoke. The combining of live action with big chunks of animation had previously been associated with children’s movies. And I guess I’d better mention William Castle’s abject failure of a science fiction film, Project X. Its alternate-reality scenario plays out in full animation, apparently hallucinated by the live-action hero, Christopher George. It wasn’t released until 1968, but Herschensohn couldn’t have pointed to successful examples while selling his notion of a travelogue drama interrupted with extended animation sequences.
The active and colorful animation episodes might have impressed audiences of 1967, but each interruption for seven and eight minutes of cartoon imagery effectively stops the movie dead in its tracks. Distortions of Picasso’s famous sketches morph between different shapes, following the rhythm of the Legrand music. The animated bullfighting montage does the same thing, not telling a story but simply providing an active animated background. The war montage animation naturally sources images familiar from Picasso’s war-themed paintings, which remind us of his older artwork Guernica. Herschensohn segues into these sequences via matching dissolves between live action, and stylized animation of similar figures. To me the animation is not particularly creative or even that attractive, but that’s a matter of taste. It seems simply too literal, turning recognizable Picasso images into moving fingerpaint art. I can’t claim a deep understanding of the great artist, but I doubt that these sequences relate to his work on any but the most superficial level.
It is almost upsetting when a couple of soft-focus shots of Finney and Mimieux in bed dissolve to their animated alter egos in the flat cel-animation dimension. The imagery never becomes really graphic; for the real deal on that score, I can recommend Walerian Borowczyk’s Short Films. We instead see sketchy drawings of naked women floating about, changing shape. If this is a sex fantasy, it isn’t a shared one – it all seems to be from George’s point of view, with Alice along for the ride. It only reminds us that the whole trip to Europe was George’s idea, for the benefit of George’s ego. We don’t see Alice complaining though, what with all that breezy French scenery, wine and cheese to enjoy.
I have a feeling that any test screenings must have had viewers thinking, ‘oh no, not another eight-minute animation sequence where nothing happens.’ The one sustained live action set piece is the opening party in San Francisco. It can’t compete with scenes in, say, Petulia, but it at least makes a clear point — George is surrounded by artistic and professional phonies.
The show is reasonably breezy and fast. To make an exciting music video or short excerpt from The Picasso Summer would be a breeze, as the “Summer Me, Winter Me” song plays like a classic, lending a sense of exhilaration to the many traveling sequences. Being a problematic, literal viewer, I never really got past one of the first scenes. George announces that they’re going to jet to Europe that very same evening, without a care in the world. Alice says that she doesn’t have a passport at the moment. They go anyway; a dissolve and a cut later, they’re in France. Will Homeland Security let Alice back in the country?
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Picasso Summer was one of the first titles released by the Collection back in 2010, when the idea of a Made-On-Demand DVD delivery system was a major industry innovation. Since then Warners has given collectors access to hundreds of interesting and agreeably obscure films that would otherwise never have passed corporate scrutiny as mainstream consumer product. Soon after the program started, the WAC picked up a policy of holding up a title’s release until a good (and usually excellent) scan was available, maintaining each film’s original theatrical aspect ratio.
Was this the first time outside of special screenings that Picasso Summer was viewable in widescreen? The handsome transfer is clean and clear. Neither the live action nor the animation show visible damage, or for that matter, any evidence of editorial malfeasance. No scenes are obviously truncated, we perceive no sloppy added dissolves. With the good research in Sam Weller’s book, the only remaining mystery I see is the WAC’s credit block. The credits on Hollywood films are usually set in stone. Is there more than one extant cut or version of this show?
Also see Kimberley Lindberg’s review at the Streamline website, with its much different appraisal of the finished film.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Picasso Summer DVD-R rates:
Movie: Fair + plus
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 30, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson