Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Mad Mannish Boy: THE CARPETBAGGERS (1964)

While Mad Men is out of season, get your hot angry period piece businessman fix with Edward Dmytryk's adaptation of the Harold Robbins' bodice-ripper, THE CARPETBAGGERS (1964). Age has been kind to this loose and potent reconfiguring of the Howard Hughes mythos. It keeps all the juicy bedroom camp alive in long, well-structured scenes that should have been studied by Scorsese and DiCaprio before they made the far less virile AVIATOR. Instead they made Hughes into a saint too fine, broken and dreamy for this world, easily dominated by Cate Blanchett's Hepburn, lost to he himself, as Leonard Cohen would say, while the fictionalized Jonas Cord (George Peppard) is a misogynistic chick magnet; he dominates women, and they love it. His marriage to the Winthrop heiress is scrapped when he finds out she's a clingy conventional hausfrau. His true love is his hot stepmom (Caroll Baker) who was his lover until his richer dad stole her away and married her, thus indicating the kind of womanizing waggery role model he grew up with. And oh, Jonas and mom are as amoral and manipulative a pair of hot-to-trot relatives as you're likely to find this side of the 80s. They're like Tony and Cesca in the last reel of SCARFACE ("I can't tell whether I love you or hate you"/ "Both") if they already had sex, so it wasn't, you know, weird.

Meanwhile, Alan Ladd hangs onto his hat as western hero Nevada Smith (the cowboy outlaw turned millionaire kid's bodyguard/pal, ala William Demarest in THE LADY EVE or Rock Hudson in WRITTEN ON THE WIND, or Viggo in EASTERN PROMISES), and Leif Erikson rants nicely as Joanas Sr., who yells at his tomcat progeny: "A man's judged by what's in his head, not in his bed!" Yeah, right.

As I mentioned in an old postTHE CARPETBAGGERS makes a great unofficial sequel to GIANT, with Jett Rink changing into Jonas Cord, and Carroll Baker playing the same girl, now married to Rink but also grown up and gone to Hollywood to pursue her dream in pictures. And oh that Baker. If GIANT has a fault it's that she's not onscreen enough but that's cuz George Stevens is a fool. Director Edward Dmytryk is no fool: he knows Baker's method hotness is his trashy piece of soap's best asset, and so gives her room to breathe and lounge. Meanwhile, Monica, the clingy Winthrop heiress (Elizabeth Ashley) sounds exactly like Kate Jackson, and through it all George Peppard is a real pleasant surprise as a taciturn, ruthless hedonist businessman workaholic with daddy issues. Such a role might warrant over-playing in less capable hands, but Dmytryk and Peppard are smart enough to never let Jonas smile or betray a hint of emotion other than simmering hatred. His voice is marvelously tinged with nasal reverb, like he's always either freshly buzzed or really hungover, or has a cold, or all three, like I used to have when seeing him in Breakfast at Tiffany's screenings Sunday afternoons in Tribecca circa 1997. 

I was too much of a boy to watch Dallas and Dynasty and all that back in the 1970s-80s, but  now I love the CARPETBAGGERS, and to me, the nymphomaniac stepmom is clearly the good guy. Actually sex itself is the good guy. Those who wield sex wantonly gain the world and lose the soul they never even had, a more than reasonable exchange when your life doesn't extend past the credits.

And yeah, it has that 60s Mad Men panache as well. What was once misogynistic becomes quaint and inspiring in our post-modern age for it reminds us we are not like that now. Even the most sordid sexual expression can become socially acceptable through the prophylactic rose-tinted windshield screen of time. As CARPETBAGGERS is itself set thirty years before it was made (in the swingin' 30s), our windshield here is double-tinted. Baker's boozy harridan becomes less a sex object through all this filtration and more of a third-wave martyr. Oh the things she could have done with a guest spot on the O.C.!

Of course it all ends happily, and I shan't reveal any more. But know that the DVD is in splendidly refurbished colors and it all glows with nice dark red wallpaper and tastefully dusky furniture and none of the usual suffocating bouquets and endless white marble that chokes so many other rich folk films. So when you have that yen for martinis, suits, gowns and a complete absence of political correctness, pick up CARPETBAGGERS the way you'd pick up a Kantian dissertation on 60s soap operas for the beach. Raunchier than Sirk, not neutered like Tashlin, not smothered in chintz and expensive perfume. It's about ballsy men, and deep oak and mahogany surfaces, and women who are allowed to make the kind of prolonged, sexually aggressive eye contact that would send a 21st century boy or 19th century girl blushing from the coffee bar. Edward Cullen would probably explode into CGI dust if Baker so much as batted an eyelash his way. Here's wishing there were a dozen more as good... or as bad... as Baker.


  1. Sounds good! Time to load up

  2. You need to see Paranoia/Orgasmo (1969) starring Carroll Baker, directed by Umberto Lenzi. Check the write up about it here:
    I had a chance to see it in a revival theatre and it is amazing.


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