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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

HISTORY LESSON: The Way We Never Were

Greta Garbo "reflects" on possible acting projects and their outcomes.

It is often said with regard to our most beloved, classic films that life without them would not be the same. This makes one wonder about all of the possible projects in cinema history that "fell through," either prior to shooting or before completion. Some scripts or concepts never make it past the pitch table; others fall apart due to financing, conflicting egos, drop-outs, or even deaths. If we choose to believe in fate, then it is safe to say that all of the films in Tinsel Town "churned" out the way they should have. However, pondering some of our never-realized movies can weigh on the mind. Their unattainability makes their absence too hard to swallow, much like so many lost silent films of the past. Here are a few examples of what might have been. Might it have been grand???

Greta Garbo (left) was, on the one hand, a force to be reckoned with. She once told her great-nephew (is that accurate lineage terminology?) that she would have been a success no matter what she decided to do with her life. On the other hand, despite her serious dedication to both her career and her craft, her business sense was not always on par. She relied heavily on friends and advisers for help when deciding which projects to take on and which to refuse. John Gilbert, her first Hollywood lover, filled this role only too gladly, even encouraging her to hold out on old LB Mayer for more money-- a ploy that worked. After Greta lost, or rather, "passed" on John, she looked to writer, actress, and den-mother to all Hollywood foreigners, Salka Viertel, for guidance. Mostly, Greta just wanted to act and be passionate about what she was doing. Early on, she took whatever temptress roles were thrown at her; later she got pickier, holding out for pieces she considered more interesting, though she let others do most of her bargaining for her. In her later career, she found herself almost exclusively doing projects suggested by or even written by Salka, which makes one wonder if Greta was her friend, muse, or cash cow. Perhaps all. 

Nonetheless, throughout her career, Greta did have a mind of her own, and she often dreamed of roles that she would like to play. Ironically, a great deal of them were typically male roles. For example, Greta once mentioned that she would love to do an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray," with herself as the title character. She also stated that her ideal leading lady would be Marilyn Monroe as "Sibyl Vane." This casting, of course, was not to be, because of its overt, homosexual connotations. However, Greta did not have a great same-sex agenda or national statement in mind by making this project. Mostly, she was just a woman who understood that the more interesting roles in history seemed to be written for men. She wanted the meaty stuff. Her own androgyny, of course, was a factor, for Greta was always up for any role that would allow her to explore her masculine side and, most importantly, afford her the chance to wear trousers. This begs the question: did she intend to play the role of Dorian as a man, or was she was indeed willing to embark on perhaps the first unabashed same-sex romance in film history? The truth is that the social implications probably never entered her mind. Since Greta often referred to herself in the masculine gender,-- "I've been smoking since I was a small boy"-- she probably wouldn't have seen the issue as an issue. Needless to say, this dream role never came to fruition, and it's too bad, because imagining what she could have done with it-- playing the notoriously vain and twisted character of Dorian with her own epically beautiful face-- is a tantalizing train of thought. Other male roles that Greta longed to play include Shakespeare's famous Dane, "Hamlet," as well as Homer's iconic "Odysseus" in a failed GW Pabst directed interpretation. She also longed to pull a Chaney and play a male clown. (Greta "man's-up", right, with C. Aubrey Smith and John Gilbert in Queen Christina).

Another reason Greta Garbo continues to live on as such a legend is this unity of gender. She seems to be almost the being into whom all human beings are trying to evolve-- the perfect blend of male and female. While women and men can both be boxed in by stereotypes-- ditzes or meat-heads, sluts or cads-- Garbo transcended any type of labeling by creating her own definition of existence. Unlike the effeminate male, the masculine female has always been a more accepted form of sexual fusion, which perhaps has some sort of sexist connotation in terms of embracing the masculine ideal. Yet, in her hands, it worked. When she hams it up like an overgrown boy in Queen Christina, it is like witnessing her come alive at her most perfect. This is Greta's male alter ego at its best. However, she did have a feminine side, and her femme alter ego came to its most brilliant fruition as the tragic, romantic heroine of Camille-- what some hail as her greatest performance. In Greta, womanhood was best defined not in terms of poise, manner, or dress, but in sincere affection and devotion, whether it be maternal or passionate. Some other famous ladies that she nearly played in epic biopics were Isadora Duncan, Joan of Arc, and Mother Teresa. The latter is particularly intriguing... There is much martyrdom in Garbo's later talkies, evoking images and ideas of sainthood, but could Garbo de-sensualize herself enough to embody a true life Saint? (Greta tries martyrdom on for size in The Painted Veil, left).

Charlie Chaplin (right) was an enormous Garbo fan, and she in turn had a mutual respect for his equal genius. Getting these two icons on the silver screen together would have been quite the experience, which could only be made more outlandishly divine by a third egomaniacal interloper: Orson Welles. In fact, Orson did concoct an entire screenplay that he hoped the two divine idols would star in: The Loves of D'Annuzio and Duse. Since Charlie was a fan of Orson's work, and Greta was not un-interested in working with either man, the film seemed for awhile to be a major possibility. However, with all things Orson, the story was very high-concept, abstract, and in the end, unsettling. In his words, the plot revolved around "two crazy monsters" and explored themes of "degenerate hyper-romanticism." Ummm... okay. Obviously, the description did not reflect the general images of the King of Comedy and the Goddess of Love. As such, both famed actors turned the project down. They probably adhered to the age-old rule that if you can't understand it, no one else will.

Speaking of Orson, his first foray into the movies was very nearly not the pivotal film that changed cinema forever, Citizen Kane. In truth, he was kidnapped by Hollywood with no clear idea in his mind for his great filmic introduction. Several ideas flitted around in his head, including the play "Cyrano de Bergerac," but the story that he temporarily decided on was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's intense classic Heart of Darkness. It very nearly happened! Orson had storyboards, a hefty plot outline, and visual tricks all lined up after he came to RKO in 1939. He set about learning the art of film craft-- watching Stagecoach in particular repeatedly. In addition, with his typical, intellectual fervor, he set about studying anthropology to better familiarize himself with certain, untapped levels of the story, and he too decided to make some changes. First, he would move the locale from turn of the century Africa to contemporary South America. Then, he would turn the book's anti-hero "Kurtz"-- his role in the film-- into a fascist, which was a subtextual reading he uncovered in the original novel. He declared proudly that the film would be an attack on the violent Nazi system. He then combined the artist and the magician in himself to develop one heck of an opening sequence, which was totally un-related to the plot. His famous voice would boom out at the audience from a black screen declaring, as he had on his radio show, "This is Orson Welles..." A montage of images would thus flash across the screen: his mouth, a firing gun, an electric chair, a caged bird, etc. Finally, the succession of shots would land on an eye (left). All of this was meant to communicate his new technique of the "subjective camera," which throughout the film would act as its own character. He would then declare: "You're not going to see this picture-- this picture is going to see you." Unfortunately, the idea became a bit too avant garde... and expensive. The idea for Kane entered his mind, and that became the path he followed. (Later, his overly ambitious nature also nearly led to his adaptation of War and Peace with English producer Alexander Korda, but this too was not to be).

Errol Flynn also had to let go of one of his cinematic babies. By the mid '50s, Errol was past his prime as a leading man. Recently wed to Patrice Wymore and outrunning his own scandalous past, he hoped to approach the business from a new angle, and perhaps at last pursue more interesting roles that allowed him to "act." Of course, the glory of Errol's lengthy filmography proves that this guy more than knew what he was doing in front of the camera, but still, he hoped to take matters into his own hands and create his own personal epic. Thus, he set about producing an adaptation of the story of "William Tell." While hoping for something different, he clearly was also trapped in the mindset of his swashbuckling days and fearful that his audience would not whole-heartedly follow him into character dramas. Things started out positively with a sound crew, including camera guru Jack Cardiff (see right). However, financial issues clouded the horizon, and despite some impressive scenes caught on film and a devoted crew that was willing to hold on for months without pay, Errol was forced to throw in the towel, leaving the film forever uncompleted. It was one of the greatest disappointments of his life, particularly after his "friend" Bruce Cabot, a performer in the film, sued him for $17,000, even though Errol only owed him $5000 for his work on the project. Coming on the heels of the news that his business manager, Al Blum, had stolen over a million dollars from him as well, Errol hit rock bottom. Errol had hoped to make his best film ever and dedicate it to his latest daughter, Arnella. It tragically was not to be. All that remains of William Tell are a few feet of film, and these without sound. Yet, Errol would accomplish his goal in other ways, turning out impressive and nuanced performances in both The Sun Also Rises and Too Much, Too Soon. His pet project was sadly, too little, too late.

Barbara Stanwyck (left) was at the tail-end of her cinematic hey-day when she filmed the cult-classic Forty Guns with director Sam Fuller. Sam was completely hypnotized by her abilities and her jaw-dropping performance as the intimidating, salivating, yet desirous "Jessica Drummond. " He always hoped to work with her again, realizing that her potential as a character actress could easily be utilized in more mature and gritty roles that suited her age. Unfortunately, this film became Babs's cinematic swan song. She turned the majority of her attention to television thereafter, sensing that the new medium would offer her more opportunities than the youth-centric movie world. It had become a running theme: an acclaimed film star was essentially booted from the studio when he or she became too old, but was then more readily embraced by the TV studios, who were always looking for big names and former idols to pull in viewers. Talk about your back-handed compliment... Filmdom should have been sad to lose Babs, and Sam Fuller certainly was. He had planned to film a biopic of Evita Peron with Babs in the lead. Watching this hard-knock Brooklyn girl sink her teeth into the First Lady of Argentina was more than an opportunity missed, it was a tragedy. At least Sam knew talent when he saw it!

After the great success of All About Eve, Bette Davis (right) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz used to talk on and off about making a sequel. The actress-director duo had gotten on so well during filming and had collaborated so flawlessly that a reunion seemed to be more than in order. Thus, before What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, there may have been a "What Ever Happened to Margot Channing (and That Bitch Eve Harrington?)." Bette was always in earnest about pursuing the project, but just how serious Joe was remains debatable. He probably merely kicked the idea around with her as a means of personal entertainment, while Bette hung on his every word and started crafting out her character in her mind. As the years passed, it became pretty clear that the project was not going to happen, and all for the better-- a classic of All About Eve's stature should remain untainted by a string of re-evaluations and re-imaginings. In the end, there were no hard feelings. Later, after Bette had survived a disastrous and abusive marriage to Gary Merrill-- her co-star and love interest in the previous film-- Joe mentioned the sequel project to her in passing. Bette looked him in the eye, and with a twinkle in her own, told him to scrap the whole idea. With regard to the continuing saga of Margot she spouted: "I lived it. It doesn't end well!" Thus, the tale of life after Eve will never be told in celluloid. At least this way, Bette gets to metaphorically ride off into the sunset with her soul mate on the screen, whereas she had to endure the harsh loss of Gary and all hopes of love in reality.

This one hurts. After the usually stellar collaboration of Tracy and Hepburn failed to pull in astronomical numbers at the box office in Desk Set, the studio began looking for Spence's next project. Producer Buddy Adler thought he had discovered just the right one. In order to break out of the familiar pattern of "Spence and Kate," Adler wanted to try a new angle... or rather an old one. Thus, it was announced that Spencer Tracy would portray "Professor Unrat" in a colorized revamp of The Blue Angel-- the German film that had made Marlene Dietrich a phenomenon. His leading lady would be none other than Marilyn Monroe. It sounded like gold! Money in the bank! An acting match made in movie heaven!!! For Spence to play the aging, love-struck, then clowned and castrated Unrat would have been a challenge worthy of such a complicated and dedicated actor. To see Marilyn step into Marlene's stilettos as "Lola Lola" too makes the mind reel at the sensual possibilities. As Marilyn had already started to regain respect as an actress after her turns in Bus Stop and The Prince and the Showgirl, it seemed that she may have been able to bring something new and deeper to the table, perhaps even giving Marlene a run for her money, as only Marilyn could. Unfortunately, this dream engine too went kaput. Spence was skeptical about working with Marilyn, who was known to be... unpredictable. Certainly, he had his own issues as a man who battled alcoholism, so Marilyn had his sympathy on that count. However, at the first scent of trouble and "Marilyn" antics, he backed out. Even with the agreement that he would receive first billing, he was unmoved. He just wanted to make movies; he didn't need the extra complication of MM's neuroses (and lateness). He went on the make The Old Man and the Sea and Marilyn went on to terrorize the set of Some Like it Hot. Her film was still a bigger hit. (Marilyn poses as Lola Lola in the famous Richard Avedon photo session, left).

And then there was Lon. Lon Chaney was very involved in the story selection process when it came to his career. Once he had enough power in the industry to pursue and choose his dream projects, he did just that. History has shown that he was directly responsible for seeking out his two most famous roles as the Hunchback and the Phantom in addition to many others. While Lon did his role fishing, the studios did too, and as a top commodity, films were crafted completely around and for him and what he could do with his special talents. In his book The Films of Lon Chaney, Michael F. Blake not only goes into detail about the many completed films of his hero, but also of the handful that didn't make it before the camera. The sad lot includes the following:
  • An untitled Gouverneur Morris film, in which Lon was to portray four or five different characters, fell through in the early twenties. Since Lon had made such a splash in another Morris adaptation, The Penalty, there is no telling what a continued combination of Morris's macabre genius and Lon's contortion could have produced.
  • A young David O. Selznick himself penned a script for Lon entitled "The Man Who Lived Twice." The title alone makes this one intriguing, but the reasons as to its dissolution remain a mystery. This was a fate also belonging to an English production entitled "The Lancashier Witches," to which Lon was also assigned but did not complete. Too bad... it may have gotten the Colorado boy out of the country for once!
  • Lon also had a missed collaboration with his favorite partner, Tod Browning, titled "Hate." I am still angry about this one, and I am sure Tod is equally still fidgeting in his grave about it. In it, Lon was set to play the leader of an Apache band of thugs in war torn Paris. (Yes, you read that correctly). In any case, the bigger demands of national combat bring foes together in battle, and war with within war ensues. It was slated to be quite bloody. But, the duo skipped it and made The Big City instead.
Lon gets violent in The Big City.
  • Perhaps the most interesting lost relic of Lon's career would be "The Wandering Jew," a film purchased by Louis B. Mayer in the early twenties that was shelved until 1927, when it was finally announced for Lon. The plot involved the burdened and cursed life of a man who struck Christ on the day of the Crucifixion. As Lon was always a man of faith, a fact that Clarence Sinclair Bull would relate in a story about a secret photo session that he did with the actor (see great article here), the martyred role of a man paying his penance before God must have been very interesting to him, not to mention incredibly fitting with his always suffering on-screen persona. Yet, no dice. Que sera sera...
If there is anything positive we can derive from these missed opportunities that could have been either home runs or total nightmares, it is the knowledge that we still have many stories left to tell. You look at some of these creative gems just sitting there waiting to be picked up and wonder why Hollywood keeps making movies about... well... nothing. And so, we are left to sit here and wonder how the history of film could have been different, better, worse, and thusly how even our lives would have been effected had we had these different films to relate to or to make us question ourselves. But, we only have what we have, don't we? There is no "if." It kind of reminds me Milan Kundera's classic, The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

“There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, "sketch" is not quite a word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.”

That comparison may have resulted from a bit of over-analysis, but... fitting, no? 


  1. could you imagine Chaplin and Garbo in a Welles film.? I would have love to seen that! I'm sure Charlie wouldn't give up control. I think the last person to direct him in a film (other than himself) was Mabel. But still, him and Greta would be awesome. So many different possibilities with so many stars and I love how you never forget to leave a Lon item at the end. Thanks Meredith.

    1. I know, right?! That would have been such an amazing movie! Damn the bad luck, hahaha.