Marlon Brando on DVD, Part Two: The Sixties
by Jesse Shanks
April 3, 2002 is Marlon Brando's 78th birthday. Almost universally acclaimed as the greatest American actor, he has fueled his fans—and enemies—with a long life of triumph, controversy and failure. dOc continues its look at the film career of Brando as it comes slowly to DVD. In Part Two, we find the astonishing fact that only one of a baker's dozen of his films from the 1960s has been released on DVD.
As the 1960s dawned, Marlon Brando joined many stars in participating in the political controversies of the era. Brando was a visible activist for Civil Rights, especially those of Native Americans and African Americans. He stood at the top of the motion picture world with an unmatched record of achievement, including a string of Academy Award® nominations, one statuette and almost universal respect for his acting abilities. But, he also had a growing reputation as a difficult actor to work with and had begun to express his disdain for the profession. Difficulties with the studios had led to contract problems that continue to plague his career.
Success and the dissolution of the Hollywood studio system prompted Brando, like many other major stars, to create his own production company in order to develop suitable projects. He had formed Pennebaker Productions in an attempt to maintain control of the projects he worked on and develop others. The company was involved in the Production of 1957's successful Sayonara, but also was responsible for the troubled Fugitive Kind. Ultimately, the company would produce six other films including Shake Hands With the Devil (1959), Paris Blues (1961), The Naked Edge (1961), Man in the Middle (1964), Brando's Bedtime Story (1964) and Wild Seed (1965).
In 1960 Brando had hired a young director, Stanley Kubrick to work on his next film under the Pennebaker banner, to be the actor's first big screen western, with a working title of A Burst of Vermillion. The pre-production process was troubled and presaged the eventual problems with the resulting film that would become know as One-Eyed Jacks. When no suitable replacement for Kubrick could be found, Brando took the helm and made his directorial debut. This production is legendary in Hollywood for astonishing record of how much filmstock was shot. Back stories include such incidents as Brando keeping an expensive crew waiting for hours to get just the right light for a short scene and the cast getting drunk to add realism to a scene that ultimately proved to be unusable. Although the film was generally accorded positive—if bemused—reviews, it was also legendary for the costs accrued and the miles of film that was exposed to create the final result. One-Eyed Jacks features the first of the brutal scenes in which Brando's character is masochistically beaten as the Sheriff that he is seeking revenge against turns the tables and cruelly puts him to a bullwhip, then breaks his gun hand with the butt of a pistol. Ultimately, the film is a very enjoyable with many effective sequences and features excellent performances by Karl Malden, Katy Jurado, Ben Johnson and Slim Pickens. The photography emerges as very beautiful and Brando's performance is as weighty as any that has been recorded in a western.
Unfortunately, the DVD situation of One-Eyed Jacks is in a sorry state. There is a disc listed from the Platinum Disc Corporation for $6.99 that was released in November of 2000 and there is a listing that credits Unicorn Video with an upcoming release of the film in January of 2002, priced at $7.99. There is a version of the film on DVD that found in the "under $10" bin that is credited to a Canadian company called Madacy Entertainment. The quality of the disc is horrific and completely unwatchable. Fans of Brando and fans of westerns should go to http://www.criterionco.com/asp/ask_form.asp and request that Criterion buy the rights to One-Eyed Jacks and give it the release that it deserves in The Criterion Collection.
Soon after, Brando found himself in one of his most notorious battles with a studio remaking the sea epic Mutiny on the Bounty. Cast as Fletcher Christian, his acting choices were almost universally condemned, and Brando battled his fellow actors, the producers, the directors and public perceptions. The role had been originally played by Clark Gable as a "manly man" in a very popular 1934 version. Brando's Christian was more psychologically oriented and started as a fey young officer who grows into maturity and, yes, manliness during the difficult voyage under Captain Bligh (Trevor Howard). It shows that hallmark of Brando's acting that his characters change and grow over the course of a film. The mutinous Christian, who has rebelled against everything that he held sacred, is a very different man from the one who steps jauntily from the carriage in the film's opening sequence.
Mutiny on the Bounty went far over budget (for reasons not always attributable to Brando) and threatened to bring down the studio—similar to the way Cleopatra almost destroyed 20th Century Fox—so the actor bore the brunt of the criticism and blame. Ultimately, the film sank at the box office under a barrage of bad publicity. Despite this, it garnered seven Academy Award® nominations including Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Color Cinematography, Best Special Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Substantially Original Music Score, Best Song for Follow Me and Best Picture. No acting nominations were given and no wins were recorded, but one could argue that this was a great year for Hollywood with films like Lawrence of Arabia (a role which Brando is purported to have turned down), To Kill a Mockingbird and Birdman of Alcatraz all receiving much more positive press.
There are many fabled back-stories of Mutiny on the Bounty. Brando and co-star Trevor Howard battled constantly with each other, with both actors inducing extra takes to upstage the other. The film had two directors, beginning with Carol Reed and ending with Lewis Milestone, neither of whom got along with the star. Milestone eventually refused to go anywhere near Brando. There is the tale that Brando prepared for his death scene by lying for 45 minutes on a hundred pounds of cracked ice.
There is much that is good about Mutiny on the Bounty, including excellent performances by Trevor Howard as Captain Bligh and Richard Harris as Seaman Mills. Although the film clocks in at a hefty 178 minutes, some astonishing sequences are captured in this film with excellent cinematography and a beautiful musical score. Some portions come across as a Polynesian travelogue, but there is that certain sense of Hollywood period realism that makes the film an effective portrayal of this era.
Mutiny on the Bounty is not available on DVD.
This disaster led to a series of eccentric films in the 1960s that developed into a legendary string of box office failures. The Ugly American from 1963 was an earnest attempt to create a message picture about a controversial topic right at the time when that topic was poised to dominate the headlines. In 1963, American involvement in Viet Nam was tied to the domino theory of global politics as the US, stung by the stalemate of the Korean War, drew another line in the sand with Communist insurgents by taking over as its Colonial caretaker from France. Ho Chi Minh was an ally of the Americans against the Japanese and it is one of the controversial post-war decisions to ignore his nationalistic aims for his people and put the French back in power, in some cases aided by the very Japanese they had been fighting. Ultimately, as the French withdrew, the Americans backed the Diem regime that seemed to be a continuation of the French policies with a new face. The story of The Ugly American—an idealistic politician becoming the US ambassador in Sarkhan, a thinly-disguised reference to the political troubles brewing in Southeast Asia—was not popular either at the box office or among critics. The ambassador had been a friend of Deong, an American ally during the war, who was branded a Communist by elements of the American government. In power in Sarkhan is a corrupt government that seems out of touch with the people and American policies seem designed to keep the Sarkanese people as what Deong derisively calls "your little brown brothers."
The film is hampered by the performance of Eiji Okada as Deong and some of the more melodramatic elements of the story muddle the political potency, but this is a very underrated film. Made at a time of confusion in American foreign policy, it takes a stance that was to be proved correct, but only at the cost of almost two decades of war. President John Kennedy had been poised to withdraw American military advisers on the eve of his assassination and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, embarked on the very military adventurism that is referred to in the film. Following hard on the heels of the House Un-American Activities Committee controversy in Hollywood, it is surprising that such a film could be made that focused negatively on American policy towards post-Colonialism. It is not surprising that it was a critical failure and sank quickly at the box office. Senator William Fulbright of Senate Foreign Relations Committee condemned The Ugly American as "too controversial and even unpatriotic." The film is also notable for its casting of Brando's sister, Jocelyn, in a small role; Jocelyn Brando had been blacklisted during the Hollywood red-scare years.
During this era, Brando's political involvements also contributed to hampering his career. His outspokenness about Civil Rights caused Southern theaters to cancel bookings of his films,
The Ugly American is not available on DVD.
1964's Bedtime Story is the first of Brando's farcical performances in a film that he found himself working on due to contact requirement involving the buy-out by Universal of his production company. Written by Stanley Shapiro, writer of Pillow Talk and Operation Petticoat and Paul Henning, who later created The Beverly Hillbillies, the film is an uncompromising dumb comedy and seemingly all wrong for Brando. He plays Freddie Jones, an American Army enlisted man stationed in Germany who has made himself into quite a conman, notable for taking pictures of charming cottages and then knocking on the door and informing the fraulein living there that this was the house of his grossemutter. Deciding to take his chances as a gigolo in Europe rather than returning to the United States, he runs afoul of a more experienced conman, David Niven, and the two enter into a partnership-contest to see who can fleece a beautiful tourist played by Shirley Jones. The film is a madcap farce and the scenes where Brando is disguised as Niven's idiot brother Ruprecht are priceless. At one point, to win sympathy, Freddie pretends to be confined to a wheelchair, needing money to pay his expensive doctor for treatment. Niven seizes on this to appear as the doctor and puts Freddie through terrible tortures as treatment. This film was remade in 1988 as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with Steven Martin and Michael Caine.
Bedtime Story is not available on DVD.
In Brando's emerging pattern of being involved in troubled productions, 1965's Morituri finds him opposite Yul Brynner in an ocean-going spy/war drama that does not quite work and has some odd aspects to its story. Brando is a spy who has been blackmailed by British intelligence into going undercover as a Nazi on a freight ship captained by Brynner. The movie features some evil American sailors, concentration camp survivors and other odd characters, but to see Brando acting with Brynner is worth the price of admission. It is also notable for the appearance of longtime Brando friend Wally Cox in a small role. Morituri actually did garner some Oscar® attention with nomination in the Best Black and White Cinematography category and Best Black and White Costume design.
Morituri is not available on DVD.
Another troubled production followed with 1966's The Chase, on of those Hollywood productions in the 1960s where you have a great director in Arthur Penn, writers including Lillian Hellman penning the script and an all-star cast that, in addition to Brando as the Sheriff of a small Texas town, features Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, E.G. Marshall, and Angie Dickinson, but failed critically and financially. Filmed as a Texas Peyton Place-style racial drama, this potboiler never quite jells, despite some unusual and interesting moments. Based on a novel by Horton Foote, the story involves big helpings of sexual promiscuity, betrayal, racism and corruption. It features another of those graphic beating scenes as the rednecks of the down invade the Sheriff's office and beat him bloody. Penn would later go on to acclaim in directing Bonnie and Clyde, and one of the problems with this film is that the editing was taken out of his hands and completed by the studio. This also featured an appearance by Bando's sister Jocelyn.
The Chase is not available on DVD.
The Appaloosa, also from 1966, is a western that steals some of its drama from One-Eyed Jacks and was another movie that was part of Brando's contract with Universal. The film features an over-the-top performance by John Saxon (Golden Globe® nomination) in opposition to Brando's mumbling cowboy trying to retrieve his stolen horse. It is beautifully shot by director Sydney Furie, but this film marks another destructive pattern in Brando's career: the tendency to sabotage his own performances. Although the movie is really not that bad as a B Western, it just seems that Brando would rather be doing something else.
The Appaloosa is not available on DVD.
The Hollywood trade papers were aflutter in 1967 when Brando signed on with film legend Charlie Chaplin to star with Sophia Loren in the romantic comedy, A Countess from Hong Kong. The back-story of this particular film is legendary in Hollywood. The perfectionist, controlling Chaplin meets the loose, creative actor Brando and sparks fly! The script had been written by Chaplin years earlier for him and Paulette Goddard and seems terribly dated. The story is of a diplomat who finds a "prostitute" stowed away in his stateroom on a passenger ship and the comic situations that ensue. The chemistry between Brando and Loren defies any definition of the word. Static and humorless, this "comedy" is definitely a trial in viewing, as there is not much relief from leaden jokes and shameless mugging by Brando, who struggles with the precise requirements of Chaplin's style. Besides writing, producing and directing, Chaplin wrote the score and makes a cameo appearance in what would be his final original film.
A Countess from Hong Kong is not available on DVD.
Reflections in a Golden Eye completes a series of films in which Brando has worked with top casts and top directors and provided sometimes interesting, if not particularly commercial performances that all failed to attract an audience or critical respect. John Huston was at the helm of this Carson McCullers drama, which told the kinky and sordid tale of "an Army base somewhere in the South." This is one of those films that are just astounding to watch with its bizarre events, perversions and characterizations. Elizabeth Taylor stars as a domineering wife, having an affair with neighbor Brian Keith. Brando plays a homosexual Army Major who is obsessed with a young enlisted man.
Supposedly Brando took the role to replace Montgomery Clift, who had recently died. The sexual confusion and ambiguity in the plot lead to trouble all around, including the amazing sequence in which Brando's Major takes out his wife's horse and, when it throws him, he brutally whips the animal. Taylor in turn attacks Brando with the same horsewhip at a dinner party! Brando's multi-layered performance is really quite convincing and this film, from such a director, featuring such a cast and subject matter is really not to be missed. It is certainly one of Brando's films from this decade that could do with a DVD release to accommodate Huston's stylized direction, and this would it to be seen in something resembling it original conception.
Reflections in a Golden Eye is not available on DVD.
Sexuality is the point of the pointless Candy from 1968, the first of the truly bizarre Brando performances. He participated in this cult film playing an Eastern guru attempting to have sex with the innocent heroine of the film (as was every other male character in the story). Candy, based on a notorious satire written by Terry Southern, was generally reviewed to be a disastrous hodge-podge of material and did little to enhance Brando's bankability as a film star. Others celebrities involved include Ringo Starr as a strange Mexican gardener, James Coburn as a self-important surgeon, Richard Burton as the drunken poet McPhisto, singer Charles Aznavour as a weird spider-man, John Astin as Candy's father, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson as a companion of Burton's poet, John Huston as Dr. Dunlap, Walther Matthau as General Smight, and Anita Pallenberg as Nurse Bullock.
Directed by long-time Brando friend Christian Marquand, it features a screenplay by Buck Henry. The score is by jazz composer Dave Grusin and includes songs from The Byrds and Steppenwolf. Brando's performance, with his put-on Eastern accent, must really be seen to be believed as it lampoons everything related to American worship of the idea of Eastern religions. The guru Grindl announces, "They say in my country that the centipede has a thousand legs, but they can't tap-dance," and later opines, "Space is an illusion. It curves back on itself like an artichoke."
Avoid the television version that severely truncates an already confusing mishmash and Brando's sequence in particular suffered greatly from the editing knife. The DVD version is far superior with an anamorphic widescreen presentation and a reprocessed mono soundtrack. With the deleted "sex" scenes, it clocks in at a more substantial 124 minutes. Notorious and panned in its time, the film has seen a minor renaissance for its outrageousness and nostalgia for an era long gone by.
Candy was released on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment April 10, 2001.
Released that same year was The Night of the Following Day in which Brando played a character referred to as Bud (Marlon's childhood nickname) in a dream story of a kidnapping plot in France. Legend has it that Brando felt contempt for young director Hubert Cornfield and made the filming of this little drama a trial for all. The plot makes little sense and this required the use of the dream device to explain the disjointed, non-sensical activities of this gang that couldn't shoot straight. Other cast members included Richard Boone, Rita Moreno and Pamela Franklin. Like so many of Brando's films in this era, there is still some interest, especially in the set pieces between Bud and Moreno's "Blonde" and Boone's "Leer." He once again surprised his fans with a newly slender appearance and hair dyed blond.
The Night of the Following Day is not available on DVD.
Somehow Brando's next film, Burn! (Quemada!), from 1969, marked his emergence from the doldrums of the decade with a solid performance in a powerful film directed by Gillo Portecorvo. Like many of Brando's films of the 1960s, the money and administration of the film was handled by a consortium of international elements and this led to productions difficulties and distribution problems. Portraying an English adventurer of the early 1800s who served the powerbrokers of the era by manipulating local politics in the Caribbean, Brando's performance is thoughtful and thought provoking. Although the film is erratic, it does manage to make some potent statements about colonialism and racism. It is another film that shows that somehow, despite the problems of this decade and no matter the vehicle, the Brando screen presence was as potent as ever. Alberto Grimaldi, who had also produced Fellini's Satyricon and would later hire Brando for a landmark film of the 1970s, produced this film.
Burn! (Quemada!) Is not available on DVD.
As the decade ended, despite a remarkable string of financial failures, Brando had reached the low point of his career. Virtually unemployable in Hollywood, he had turned to international productions in the same way that Orson Welles had. With inconsistency in finances, equipment and personnel, the results were often less than satisfactory. Brando himself had some magic moments in these films but none would make anyone's lists of top films in any particular genre with the exception, perhaps, of One-Eyed Jacks at the beginning of the decade. Amazingly, despite the directors and casts involved, only Candy has been released on DVD. So, 20 years and 24 films by one of the most respected actors in American cinema, and only 6 have been transferred to DVD thus far. A person could take a glance at some of the films that have been transferred to the new medium that represent a level of quality only slightly above a coaster and only shake his or her head at the fact. In the third and final part of this series, covering the 1980s until the present, the career of Marlon Brando achieves new levels of critical and financial success, starting with a little comeback performance as a Mafia gangster, but then alternates between the sublime and the ridiculous.