Sometimes great movies seem to come together like strokes of good fortune. For many a great movie, you can read just a little of the behind-the-scenes story with the realization that that movie is something of a minor miracle. It’s a topic far, far too broad to cover with just this one post, for there are a lot of great movies and hence a lot of minor miracles, but here are a few of my favorite narrow escapes.
Citizen Kane (1941) is a classic example. In an era of powerful movie studios, when directors were seen as technicians and the real creative forces behind movies were the producers they worked for, inexplicably Orson Welles struck a deal that gave him absolute creative control over his very first movie. It was power many Hollywood veterans did not have, which speaks to how much of a sensation Welles had become from his work in radio. But he had to fight to keep that power, for when producers finally saw what his movie was all about, they panicked. Citizen Kane is a vicious expose of one of the most powerful men in the country at the time, William Randoph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon. Kane is ostensibly a work of fiction, but the guise was thin, and it laid bare Hearst’s personal life in a way that was just unthinkable. Even today, an expose like that of a contemporary powerful figure would incite controversy, but there’s a big cultural difference: today, we’re conditioned to scrutinize authority, and powerful, accomplished men are accorded less respect, not more, than the average Joe. But Welles had the legal right to the film he wanted to make, and he made it. After an initially successful release, it was quickly buried, however, and not widely seen for many years after. Welles never again got back the creative control he had on Kane, which is why film after film he made subsequently was butchered by the studios, seemingly as much for personal reasons as commercial. Famously, Welles’ original ending to the otherwise brilliant The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) was burned so that Welles couldn’t restore it later. Touch of Evil (1958) was also famously butchered, but it has a happier end: in 1998, the movie was re-edited according to the dictates of a long memo Welles sent the studio, and today we actually do have something pretty darned close to what Welles was trying to make.
Casablanca (1942) shouldn’t have been any good. There was no case of a oppressed mad artistic genius, though. Nobody thought this would be any good. The stars kept joking about ways to get out of making the movie. The script was being written as the film was shot. Ingrid Bergman was continually frustrated during filming because she didn’t know who her character was in love with — and her pleas to the writer and director and producer to tell her didn’t do much good, because they didn’t know either. The production was a shambles, and yet what came out of it was a film that feels unwaveringly confident and laden with unforgettable characters and unforgettable lines.
One, Two, Three (1961), a madcap comedy by director Billy Wilder, shouldn’t have been any good. The star, James Cagney, was so miserable during filming that he retired from acting, returning again only for a small role in the 1980s. He and co-star Horst Buchholz hated each other, or at least hated working with each other. Cagney said in his autobiography that he depended on Billy Wilder keeping Buchholz’s upstaging attempts under a tight rein. But the movie betrays not one hint of any friction on the set. It’s oiled like clockwork, a fast and smooth comedy whose tone never steps wrong.
Star Wars (1977) shouldn’t have been any good. The problems it encountered in production are pretty well-known. Nobody thought it would be any good, least of all the producers, who eventually only dared hope that the film would be completed on-time…which it wasn’t, due to overruns with special effects and so forth, and so the movie missed its initial December 1976 release date. Speaking of those effects, when you start using old shoes to stand in for asteroids, that’s normally a red flag. And yet Star Wars became like nothing the movies had ever seen before. Of course, the visual effects weren’t even the most daunting part of it. At the time, science fiction was primarily the province of cheesy drive-in movies and, occasionally, cerebral meditations on the human condition. Star Wars sure wasn’t going to be the latter.
The Lord of the Rings shouldn’t have been any good. Somehow, I was optimistic throughout its development cycle, but I certainly wasn’t expecting what we got, which was the most culturally defining epic movie trilogy since Star Wars. You just can’t put Tolkien on the screen and have it work. But you especially can’t do that when you’re limited to a $75 million budget and an executive producer that says things like, “So thereâ€™s these four hobbits, right? And, you know, they go on this adventure and none of the hobbits die? . . . Well, we canâ€™t have that. Weâ€™ve got to kill a hobbit! I donâ€™t care which one; you can pick â€” Iâ€™m not telling you who it should be: you pick out who you want to kill, but weâ€™ve really got to kill one of those hobbits!” It was thanks to the political savvy of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh that they knew how to handle meetings with executive producers and keep their vision intact through its early years with Miramax. Read more about it.
As I said, this post only scratches the surface. I’ve heard it said that, almost as a general rule, if a movie set is harmonious and pleasant, the resulting movie will be uninspired, while all the great movies come out of troubled productions. I’m sure that’s an over-simplification, but maybe there’s something to it. If everybody on a set is comfortable, maybe they’re not inspired to do their best work. If people are fighting over creative issues, maybe it’s because they care about doing their best, and maybe once in a while the clash of impassioned artists results in a final product that merges the best of many visions.