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.
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.
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
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:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 26, 2003
1. coming soon from MGM with
its pre-censorship ending restored by John Kirk
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson