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DVD SAVANT

The Carpetbaggers


The Carpetbaggers
Paramount Home Video
1964 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 150 min. / Street Date April 22, 2003 / 19.99
Starring George Peppard, Alan Ladd, Robert Cummings, Martha Hyer, Elizabeth Ashley, Martin Balsam, Lew Ayres, Carroll Baker, Ralph Taeger, Archie Moore, Leif Erickson, Tom Lowell, Arthur Franz, Tom Tully, Paul Frees
Cinematography Joseph MacDonald
Art Direction Hal Pereira, Walter H. Tyler
Film Editor Frank Bracht
Original Music Elmer Bernstein
Written by John Michael Hayes from the novel by Harold Robbins
Produced by Joseph E. Levine
Directed by Edward Dmytryk

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Known as a trashy screen version of a trashy pulp novel, The Carpetbaggers is a very entertaining soap 'n success saga of the kind still celebrated in endless television miniseries about sin and glamour. Severely curtailled by the production code, it slips in an amusing undercurrent of double entendres and almost-sensational scenes. Strangely enough, mainstream movies have deteriorated to the point that this picture's crisp script and earnest performances now play like quality goods - the dialogue can get purply, but it's a lot better than a string of obscenities. The stars are fun, the thinly veiled historical associations are amusing, and the picture walks a risky tightrope over the pit of censorship.

Synopsis:

Playboy Jonas Cord, Jr. (George Peppard) doesn't fold when his dad (Leif Erickson) drops dead from a stroke; he takes over the family chemical plant and develops it into a multifaceted empire of companies. Old family pal Nevada Smith, aka Max Sand (Alan Ladd) splits, but lawyer executive Mac McAllister (Lew Ayres) stays on to help. A few years before, Jonas brought home a girlfriend, Rina Marlowe (Carroll Baker) who his father stole and married. Now Jonas rejects her sordid advances, and she goes packing to Europe. Jonas expands the company into aviation and plastics, marrying Monica Winthrop (Elizabeth Ashley), who he thinks does not want to settle down. Nevada Smith becomes a cowboy star in Hollywood; when he overextends himself filming a thinly disguised version of his own criminal life before meeting the Cords (see Nevada Smith), Jonas steps in, saves the movie by hiring Rina to act, in the process making her a star and himself a producer. Further developments pit Jonas against movie tycoon Bernard B. Norman (Martin Balsam) and duplicitous agent Dan Pierce (Robert Cummings), and have him turning an ex-prostitute (Martha Hyer) into a star to replace Rina.

The saving grace of The Carpetbaggers is that it's just convincing enough to avoid self-parody. The old-fashioned screenplay finds an excuse for philandering millionaire industrialist Jonas Cord's every sin, but until the foolish ending, doesn't expect us to take it all seriously. There are too many interesting characters and coded Hollywood events to keep us on our toes.

The story tries to tell us that hard-driving industrialists are power-mad and abusive to those who try to love them or work for them because they were traumatized children. This thin veneer supports the action we want to see - George Peppard ruthlessly chopping down all obstacles in his brilliant path toward success. The good part of all this is that Jonas Cord does seem to be driven by some inner demon instead of the desire for wealth; he doesn't stop to take a breath, let alone enjoy any of his riches.

Naturally, he's supposed to be Howard Hughes, who came out of the roaring twenties to become a king of machine tools, aviation, and motion pictures. The parallels are interesting in that they almost seem a whitewash of Hughes' career. Hughes was an obsessive and controlling paranoid with a harem complex, who ran RKO straight into the ground. The Jonas Cord we see here is a a natural Hollywood mogul who outthinks and outmaneuvers the entire industry, while demonstrating excellent commercial tastes. Lew Ayres' role might be a cypher for the couple of trusted aides Hughes used to manipulate people, but the film's Jonas Cord merely fends off the schemes of venal studio heads and a treacherous agent to thwart his goals.

Paramount obviously jumped through flaming hoops to translate the sex-obsessed Robbins novel into a movie that could be granted a production seal; The Carpetbaggers was one of the first pictures to stretch the code. Unlike Kiss Me, Stupid  1 or The Pawnbroker, this picture raked in the moola, sending signals that overt bad taste could be marketed without the nation rising in protest.

Carroll Baker's character is a nymphomaniac & alcoholic and her scenes with Cord are wonderful wrestling matches designed to create sizzling tableaux - her clothes ripped half off, etc. - without anything happening. Nobody actually beds anyone in this show. Instead we see Cord rejecting women left and right, in Baker's case as a cruel torture. He wants to vent his rage on Baker, but with his frustrated wife Elizabeth Ashley, he either doesn't have the time, or is afraid of having children. Only when he finds a barren, bonafide slut in Martha Hyer does he feel comfortable. All three substitute verbal banter (some of it fairly clever) for anything physical - all those stills you might have seen of Carroll Baker backless or topless are posed cheats for publicity: hanging from a chandelier in Paris, trying to hold her dress together in Peppard's hotel room.

The Carpetbaggers' storyline of Jonas Cord's energetic rise to fame and power is a lot of fun, a harkening back to depression-era rags to riches plotlines. His buddies think he's going too fast, and his advisors tell him he's overreaching, but they're always wrong. Unlike Hughes, Cord doesn't seem to have any fetishistic sex obsessions (at least that we're shown) or demented illusions. There's the fear of insanity nonsense that sticks its nose in to ruin a couple of relationships, but most of the time he functions like a winner.

The film also has a solid cast. Peppard is everything he needs to be. Alan Ladd is too old ("I'm 43!") but handles his dialogue well, especially the howler lecture he gives Peppard before the ending fistfight. Robert Cummings' naughty line deliveries from television, now that he looks aged, make him seem like a lecherous weasel, which befits his character. A take he does upon meeting Carrol Baker at a railroad station is a perfect example of his comic timing. Martha Hyer adds 'hussy prostitute' to her list of roles, although only Audrey Totter is allowed to utter the word 'hooker' in a later scene. Hyer is the only one of Peppard's conquests with sense enough to run away from him. Elizabeth Ashley is less glamorous than the other two but has as much fun with the dialogue, describing her measurements in aviation lingo. Later, when she's a magazine editor, Peppard asks her if she'd like a 'layout'. Ayres is solid as the older lawyer instrument of Cord enterprises, and helps establish the Cord character's credibility as a tycoon.

Carroll Baker is sort of a transposed Jean Harlow, or, more accurately, a channelling of Harlow's star-slut image. She's a platinum blonde who's always on the make, and instead of drifting into Hughes' Hell's Angels, she provides Jonas Cord's motivation to become a movie producer. (spoiler) The film has her die more sensationally than did Harlow, as well.

(spoiler, again)

The ending tacks on a 'make it all nicer' final scene that is so gratuitous, we have to conclude that after Paramount followed all of the censors' guidelines, they were forced to cook up a new ending at the last minute anyway. Nevada Smith has just cleaned house with Cord, and even has a good cynical exit line to end things on a strong downbeat. But we instead zoom forward in time, to see a totally reformed Peppard returning to Ashley, hat in hand. In about two minutes of corny dialogue, he changes her response from furious hatred to grateful wifely joy. All will be well; the solution for all abusive megalomaniacs is a good beating from Alan Ladd. 'The End' zooms up like the joke ending of a parody skit.


Paramount's DVD of The Carpetbaggers is a great way to enjoy this well-crafted piece of Hollywood flimflammery. I'd never gotten through it on television, pan-scanned with commercials. The transfer is flawless, with good color; it's a pleasure to watch.

There aren't any extras at all; it would be nice to know the story of how the prequel Nevada Smith, about Cord's daddy and young Max Sand, followed in its wake. The main titles are a cheesy pre- Superman attempt to fly in every name from infinity past the camera. Apparently they were so expensive, that the omitted word 'Special' was squeezed in above the 'Visual Effects' credit instead of recomposing the whole card. Paul Frees supplies his best 'voice of doom' narration, to add to the campy tone of the proceedings.



On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Carpetbaggers rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 26, 2003


Footnote:

1. coming soon from MGM with its pre-censorship ending restored by John Kirk
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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