“Here I Come to Save the Daaaaay!”
[Mighty Mouse from the TV Show “Mighty Mouse Playhouse” (1955-1967)]
The Unexpected! We have all experienced this at different points in our lives. No matter what we may do, we never can plan for all eventualities in our lives (Coronavirus anyone?) When something goes wrong, we can either think fast, act fast, and try to overcome the problem or we cannot, and then we just have to give up. Making movies is no exception to this rule either. Also, TV, cable shows, theater productions all had and will continue to have to deal with the unexpected at some point in time too. However, what about those instances when someone actually succeeded in overcoming the unexpected? That is what this month’s post will discuss for the movies. However, first let me tell you about a famous film production that was basically cancelled due to the unexpected!
In 1937 British production started on the movie, “I Claudius” (1937) to be directed by Josef Von Sternberg and starring Charles Laughton. The movie was to be based on the two famous fictional historical novels by author Robert Graves on the Roman Emperor Claudius. If you want to find out more about its troubled production, check out the BBC documentary, “The Epic that Never Was” (1965). It goes into detail of the quarrels Laughton and Sternberg had over Laughton’s interpretation of Claudius. Ultimately, the production was shelved when leading lady Merle Oberon was injured in a car accident suffering a concussion and facial cuts (although some say it provided the studio an insurance way out to just end the whole thing). My own opinion is that Sternberg and Laughton could both be royal assholes to deal with, but honestly, the few scenes showing Laughton portraying Claudius were absolutely mesmerizing. We will never know for sure what could have been!
OK, now I’ll stop going off on a tangent and focus on this post’s actual topic. The computer-animated comedy film “Shrek” (2001), based on a fairy tale picture book, was a monster hit which won the first ever Oscar for best animated feature, had three additional sequels made, and helped establish DreamWorks Animation as a major rival to Pixar in feature film computer animation. So what might have happened if the thing was cancelled due to the death of the person voicing the principal animated character of Shrek? Well that was a real possibility when comic actor Chris Farley, who had completed almost all of the dialogue for Shrek, died of a drug overdose at age 33. Fortunately, DreamWorks decided to re-cast the voice role with Mike Myers as the new voice of Shrek. After doing a script re-write to adapt Myer’s personality to the character and later, after eliminating a recording of Shrek’s dialogue by Myers to enable him to redo the character’s voice with a Scottish accent (at an additional cost of 4 million), the new character of Shrek was reborn and the future success of the movie was assured.
Of course it is easier to just replace someone doing a voice in an animated film than an actual actor doing a role in a motion picture. This was the unexpected problem that occurred during the making of the Oscar winning movie, “The Apartment” (1960). Director Billy Wilder’s comedy drama about a lower level drone of an office worker (Jack Lemmon) allowing his shabby apartment to be used by upper managers for trysts so he could get ahead had originally had actor Paul Douglas slated to play the critical role of Jeff D. Sheldrake, Lemmon’s boss and one of the managers who was using his apartment. The only problem, Douglas died of a heart attack two days before Wilder was going to start shooting his role. Besides being a great director, Billy Wilder had real guts in tackling films that were controversial like “The Lost Weekend”, “Sunset Boulevard”, and “Ace In the Hole”. He also took real risks in casting actors that were not normally thought to have the ability to tackle some of the tough, complex roles in his films like Ray Milland, William Holden, and now Fred MacMurray as Paul Douglas’s replacement for “The Apartment”.
Certain actors can fall into a category that I have actually named for a particular actor. I have called this category the “John Travolta Syndrome”. It stands for an actor who can only play one type of role really well. Otherwise, they are completely worthless as an actor. John Travolta could only play one type of role really well: A dumb, stupid, Punk! He did it when he was on the TV show, “Welcome Back, Cotter”, and he did it when he starred in “Carrie”, “Saturday Night Fever”, and “Pulp Fiction”. Can you think of anything else that he ever did where he actually could do something like, Ahhhhhh, ACT? I can’t! As for Fred MacMurray, he was a charter member of the John Travolta Syndrome Club.
MacMurray, who always had a face that looked like a happy basset hound without the drooping ears, really wasn’t much of an actor. However, when it came to doing a really serious role which required real acting skills, he could portray one type of character really well: A weak, two-faced, and duplicitous, Bastard! Wilder directed him brilliantly that way in his great 1944 film noir classic, “Double Indemnity” (and to which MacMurray even originally told him, “Playing a serious role required acting and I can’t do it!”). Well, at least he was honest! However, Wilder saw something that MacMurray couldn’t and he got MacMurray to give a terrific performance. MacMurray later played that type of role very well once again in “The Caine Mutiny” (1954). For “Apartment”, Wilder tapped into MacMurray playing that character one last time, despite MacMurray’s misgivings (he’d just signed a long term contract with Disney to do a bunch of their dippy family movies along with him grabbing the lead in the brain dead “My Three Sons” TV sitcom). His re-casting paid off big time with “The Apartment” winning five Oscars along with Best Picture and Director for Wilder.
Sometimes, a last minute unexpected change on the production side of a picture can help a film to be successful too. I can think of two examples where this occurred. The first was for the big budget Epic action adventure World War II film, “The Guns of Navarone” (1961). Producer and adapted screenplay writer Carl Forman picked Alexander Mackendrick to direct, and everything was set to go when Forman abruptly fired Mackendrick one week before the start of filming due to the always popular excuse: Creative Differences. Fortunately, British Director J. Lee Thompson was brought in to direct after a recommendation to Foreman by star Gregory Peck. Thompson directed the film very well and the resulting movie was a smash hit. It was nominated for seven Oscars (including Best Picture and Director) winning an Oscar for Best Special Effects (which it deserved).
The second example was for the neo-Noir film, “Chinatown” (1974) directed by Roman Polanski. Polanski could be a great director, but he was also a psychologically F#@ked up individual who, besides being an angry, manipulative, and abusive bully, was also a monstrous child molesting sexual predator (other than that, the perfect boyfriend to bring home to meet your mom and dad). He got into constant arguments with his actors and screenplay writer Robert Towne even later changing Towne’s ending for the movie because he wanted to make it darker (which in my opinion, turned a “great” movie into just a “good” movie). Fortunately, Producer Robert Evans stepped in to try and do some sort of damage control by making two last minute production changes which helped to possibly keep this movie from being a disaster.
The first change, was that he rescinded Polanski’s offer to have William A. Fraker as the movie’s cinematographer since (1) Polanski never even discussed it with Evans first before hiring Fraker, and (2) because Fraker, who previously shot Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby”, would possibly provide Polanski too much power over the entire film’s production and make it even more difficult for Evans to control Polanski’s worst instincts. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez was briefly hired next but then fired shortly after production started due to disagreements with Polanski (Surprise! Surprise!) and because he was too time-consuming. Finally, Polanski had to find a new cinematographer in just a few days so he hired John A. Alonzo which met with Evans approval and who did a great job in shooting the film. The second change was Evans rejecting music composer Phillip Lambro’s original film score for the movie after it was royally panned by test audiences. Instead, Lambro was replaced by renowned film composer, Jerry Goldsmith who then had only ten days to create an original new film score for the entire picture. Goldsmith came to the rescue by creating a widely praised and later Oscar nominated film score along with Alonzo’s fine cinematography also being Oscar nominated. The movie was a success and nominated for eleven Oscars although winning just one for Towne’s altered screenplay. To this day I only wish that Evans could have also forced that little toad, Polanski, to shove his change to the movie’s ending up his arrogant ass and just shoot the original ending in Towne’s screenplay (supposedly, Polanski and Jack Nicholson teamed up to force Evans to cede). Maybe if he did, “Chinatown” would have won a lot more than just one lone Oscar.
The last two “unexpected” changes to movies that I want to discuss both involve actors. The first was for the movie, “All the Money in the World” (2017) which was based on the true story of the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III in Italy by the Mafia and the refusal of his grandfather, multi-billionaire J. Paul Getty, to pay their ransom demands. Ridley Scott directed, and principal photography was completed August 2017 with a release date set for December 22, 2017. Unfortunately, the “unexpected” flaw in the production was the explosion of numerous sexual harassment and assault allegations against actor Kevin Spacey, who played J. Paul Getty, in late October 2017 making the film a potential disaster to release. Fortunately, in this case Sony Pictures and the film’s production team figured out a plan to save the film. They decided to replace Kevin Spacey and reshoot all of his scenes in the movie with actor Christopher Plummer. On November 8, 2017 it was announced, and Plummer came onboard to begin work. Now Plummer may not have looked like Mighty Mouse, but in this case, he sure saved the day!
Fortunately, for everyone, Plummer was already familiar with the script since he was originally considered for the role before Spacey was picked. He also did not have to have special makeup applications since at the time of the actual kidnapping, Getty was 80 years old which was closer to Plummer’s actual age of 88. Lastly, they were able to get the rest of the cast back to do the reshoots which totaled twenty-two scenes in all. Plummer had only two weeks to memorize his lines. The reshoots started November 20th and were all completed by November 29th. The reshoots bumped up the cost an additional 10 million but the film’s opening was only moved back to December 25th! Even better, the movie got good reviews, made a little profit, and, best of all, Plummer’s yeoman effort was recognized with a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars that year. He also became the oldest nominee in that category in Academy Award history. Although he didn’t win, sometimes in other ways, the Good Guys actually do win!
The last “unexpected” change to a movie that I want to discuss is not for an actor being replaced, it’s when an actor actually, dies! This actually happened during the making of the movie, “Solomon and Sheba” (1959). This overblown biblical Epic (Biblical stuff was all the rage back then!) originally was supposed to star Tyrone Power as Solomon and Gina Lollobrigida as Sheba. Two thirds of the movie had already been shot during 1958 when, on November 15th, disaster struck. While Tyrone Power was being filmed doing a dueling scene multiple times with the movie’s principal Bad Guy, George Sanders (and a close personal friend of Power) Power had to stop the scene when he couldn’t continue and complained of pain in his left arm. He was helped to his dressing room and shortly afterwards, died from a massive heart attack. He was 44. Now what do you do? Well, the next person that came to the rescue happened to be actor, Yul Brynner!
Brynner originally turned down the role (Power did too before he reconsidered and accepted the part) but now Brynner was willing to do it. Major battle scenes were already shot and all they had to do was insert Brynner into a few close action shots so they didn’t have to be reshot. The love scenes still had to be shot although, I’m sure that Brynner had no problems doing that (Would you if you were a guy? I mean, come on, it is Gina Lollobrigida for cripes sake!). All in all, it took an additional 10 weeks to do the reshoots and additional scenes at an estimated cost of 6 million. It was finally released October 27, 1959. While the movie was a box office success, critically speaking, it really was pretty bad. Besides the wooden acting, even the climatic sword fight between Sanders and Brynner was boring. How can you make a 1950s movie sword fight Boring? It made some of the worst movie lists of the year (and also of all time). What was also sad was, from my having seen some of the scenes of Tyrone Power’s performance as Solomon, he truly was compelling in the role and far better than Brynner. It’s a shame that in his last role, he could have given one of the best performances of his career. Unfortunately, it was never meant to be.
As for Brynner, at least you had a chance to see him with a full head of hair (Or maybe a toupee. Who knows?) and a beard. He sort of looked like a Biblical Terrace Stamp as General Zod from Superman II. Hmmmm? If he was around then maybe they could have had Christopher Reeve as an Angel fly into the battle sequences and…