The Pacific Film Archive's "Arthur Penn: A Liberal Helping" shows the noorious director in full
Everybody was excited about their involvement in the prestigious project, packed as it was with high-profile talent on and off-screen. (Besides Brando's sheriff, Robert Redford's fugitive, and Fonda as his pining ex-wife, the cast included E.G. Marshall, Angie Dickinson, Janice Rule, Miriam Hopkins, Robert Duvall, and James Fox.) Penn wanted to prove he could direct a large-scale commercial picture; Fonda to break away from sex-kitten roles; Redford to establish himself as a movie star; etc. All were thrilled about working with the exalted Brando, who badly needed a hit. He also strongly identified with the (initial) script's potent commentary on civil rights struggles.
Like Foote before her, Hellman envisioned a taut, intimate drama about small-town tensions boiling over during one long night of drunkenness, bigotry, and violence. But this was, above all, a "Sam Spiegel Production." And the notoriously egomaniacal, controlling, duplicitous producer (one colleague called him "a corkscrew ... very effective ... but twisted and bent"), hungry for more Oscar gold after a major roll encompassing The African Queen (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), kept pressing her to make it "larger." He eventually brought other writers in to further tart things up.
As detailed in James Robert Parish's book Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops, the steadily cheapening rewrites continued daily even after shooting commenced. Morale sank, with Brando the most conspicuous malcontent. (One scene he remained enthused about was his sheriff being badly beaten by local bigots — onscreen it's as if the sleepwalking actor suddenly wakes up for a couple vivid minutes.) Penn clashed with the old-school cinematographer he hadn't chosen. Adding insult to injury, Spiegel managed to exclude the director from the editorial process, insisting that the film be cut in London or Los Angeles while fully aware that Penn was stuck in New York City on a Broadway assignment.
The result was crude, inauthentic (it was shot in SoCal), stagey-looking, with variably laughable Texas accents and barn-door-broad sexual innuendos. Aiming for importance in the worst way imaginable, it instead recalls the lurid finger-waggling Southsploitation of such later non-triumphs as Shanty Tramp (1967), The Klansman (1974), Scum of the Earth (1963), Mandingo (1975), and (more recently) Hounddog (2007), albeit on a more grandiose scale. Embarrassingly, this movie about Southern prejudice and injustice kept any people of color waaaay in the background: its lone "noble Negro" was played by Joel Fluellen, billed 21st.
Reviews were scathing ("witless and preposterous drivel," "a phony, tasteless movie") and the expensive project tanked commercially as well. It also turned Spiegel's luck for keeps: all his subsequent films were ambitious disappointments. Penn recovered, and then some — next stop, Bonnie and Clyde — but one suspects that he (or Foote, or Hellman, or Brando) never quite got over being so callously undermined and pushed around. For the next decade, at least, he made sure he'd never be in that kind of compromised position again.
ARTHUR PENN: A LIBERAL HELPING
June 10–29, $5.50–$9.50
Pacific Film Archive
2575 Bancroft, Berk.