New This Week
“It’s May, it’s May, the lusty month of May” or so begins one of the songs from Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot, the Broadway show that defined both the once and future king Arthur and the once and future presidency of John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy had been elected but not yet taken office when the show premiered on December 3, 1960. The parallels between the mythic British leader of the late 5th and early 6th centuries and the youthful president who held so much promise were not lost on JFK who legend has it played the cast recording every night before going to bed.
The original cast recording was a huge best seller in the days when cast recordings were more than a niche item in the recording world. The singing performances of Richard Burton as Arthur; Julie Andrews as Guenevere; Robert Goulet as Lancelot and Roody McDowall as Mordred were so well known that they were engrained on the public consciousness.
Jack Warner, the last of the original Hollywood moguls, had great success with the 1964 film version of Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 Broadway smash, My Fair Lady. Nominated for twelve Academy Awards, it won eight including Best Picture which went to Warner who personally produced the film. It only his second nomination (the first had been for Auntie Mame) and only win. It also made lots of money for the studio. He hoped to duplicate its success with the film version of the duo’s Camelot.
Production began on the film in late 1965. Joshua Logan, who had great success with such films as Picnic; Sayonara and Fanny was hired to direct, and selected the actors. He chose rising stars Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave to play the parts originated by Burton and Andrews who were busy with other projects. Logan picked newcomer Franco Nero and Redgrave’s Blow-Up co-star David Hemmings to fill Goulet and McDowall’s shoes. Harris and Redgrave did their own singing, Nero was dubbed and Hemmings did no singing as McDowall’s show-stopper, “The Seven Deadly Virtues”, was not used in the film.
By the time the film opened in October, 1967, the mood in the country had changed. JFK had been assassinated four years earlier, the Vietnam War raged on while anti-war demonstrations and the fight for racial equality dominated the nightly news. The previous year Warner Bros. had released Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and in August, 1967 released Bonnie and Clyde, neither of which were personally produced by Jack Warner. In fact, Warner hated Bonnie and Clyde and thought the by now old-fashioned Camelot would prove to be its antidote and bring back older audiences which had shied away from the new realism in film. It was not to be.
Critics lauded the film for its breathtaking cinematography, audacious sets and exquisite costumes but decried the lack of singing ability of the film’s stars. Critics and audiences were especially aghast at Redgrave’s talk-singing in place of Andrews’ lyrical splendor. Only Nero, who was dubbed by Gene Merlino, escaped criticism for his singing. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association was so taken with Nero’s acting and Merlino’s singing that they awarded the character’s signature song, “If Ever I Would Leave You”, the Golden Globe for Best Original Song and gave another to the score as the year’s Best Original Score. Did they not know neither the song nor the score were originals, or were they sending a message that there was nothing actually original this year that merited awards in those categories?
Richard Harris also won the Golden Globe for Best Actor Musical or Comedy and Vanessa Redgrave was nominated for Best Actress Musical or Comedy but lost to Anne Bancoroft in The Graduate , which also won the Globe for Best Musical or Comedy over Camelot. Franco Nero was nominated for Best Newcomer – Male, but lost to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning three for Best Art Directon; Costume Design and Adapted Score. It had also been nominated for Best Cinematography, losing to Bonnie and Clyde, and Best Sound, losing to In the Heat of the Night. It was still not a financial success, which resulted in Jack Warner stepping down as head of the studio he co-founded half a century earlier.
Jack Warner made just two more films, the musical 1776 and the western Dirty Little Billy starring Bonnie and Clyde’s Michael J. Pollard. Both films were released by Columbia in 1972.
Richard Harris returned to Camelot on the London and Broadway stages in the early 1980s. A 1982 video recording of the stage performance, which was made for HBO, proves that Harris improved with age. It also proved that the stage production, which had much more comedy than the doom and gloom screen version, was the better one. It’s available on DVD.
Seen today on Blu-ray, the 1967 film looks scrumptious. The sets and costumes would likely not be duplicated today. The scoring is still quite wonderful despite Harris and Redgrave’s vocal shortcomings. The two, however, fare quite well in the dramatic scenes. Although not one of the great screen musicals, it still holds up better than the year’s other big musicals, the inexplicable Best Picture Oscar nominee Doctor Dolittle; the bloated Thoroughly Modern Millie and the delightful but undernourished The Happiest Millionaire.
Today, of course, musicals are no longer routinely made by Hollywood, and adaptations of Broadway musicals are seemingly made on a shoestring in order to protect their producers’ investments. Rarer, still, are original screen musicals, which is why last year’s The Muppets was a breath of fresh air. Nicely produced, with just the right mix of comedy and nostalgia, the film had five original songs and a smattering of the tried and true, most notably “The Rainbow Connection”. Jason Segel and Amy Adams were fine as the human leads, but were overshadowed, as they should be, but The Muppets themselves.
I have one quibble, though. “Life Is a Happy Song” is better than the Oscar winning “Man or Muppet”. Catch it on Blu-ray or standard DVD and see if you don’t agree.
Maybe it’s that I’ve been a sucker for time travel romances from 1933’s still not available on DVD Berkeley Square to 1979’s Time After Time, but I’ve always thought that 2001’s Kate & Leopold deserved a bigger audience. The newly released Blu-ray Directors’ Cut, complete with director James Mangold’s commentary and deleted scenes, seems geared to bring it more fans.
Hugh Jackman is the Englishman visiting 1870s New York who follows a mysterious stranger into the waters off the Brooklyn Bridge and wakes up in present day Manahttan. The stranger is his great-grandson, Liev Schreiber, and Schreiber’s girlfriend, with whom Jackman will fall in love, is Meg Ryan. Both Ryan and Jackman provide a great deal of charm, so much so that it seems a pity that Jackman’s subsequent career has been more on the action than romantic side and Ryan’s career has pretty much fizzled out.
This week’s new DVD releases include Haywire and W./E..