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For many years producers sought to make a film of William Henry Hudson's popular 1904 novel Green Mansions, but it wasn't easy. First of all, the book was a huge bestseller for decades; a screen adaptation was likely to disappoint fans of the novel on the one hand and, on the other, confuse those unfamiliar with the story. Then there was the story itself. A young poet, in hiding in the Venezuelan jungle after a political uprising in which his father was killed, comes across Rima, a jungle sprite untouched by civilization who lives in the trees and communes with nature. While seeking the gold she has told him about to finance his revenge for his father's murder, he falls in love with the mysterious, ethereal being. But her fate and their romance are doomed by a tribe of Indians who believe her to be an evil spirit.
Not an easy tale to bring to the screen, but RKO came close to filming the story as a follow-up to its great success with King Kong (1933), with exotic Dolores del Rio ruling a jungle filled with mechanical birds and animals. In 1947, MGM announced a production with Elizabeth Taylor as Rima, but it never materialized. Director Vincente Minnelli took a rather involved and costly stab at it in the mid-1950s. Armed with a script draft prepared by Alan Jay Lerner - better known as the lyricist of Gigi (1958), My Fair Lady (1964), Camelot (1967) and other Broadway plays later adapted into movies - Minnelli set out in 1954 for Cuba, Peru, Venezuela and other countries to scout locations for the project, enduring heavy rains, blistering heat and multitudes of bugs. On his flight back to Los Angeles, he spotted an issue of Life magazine in which young actress Pier Angeli, who coveted the role, did a still-picture screen test of sorts by having herself costumed, coiffed and photographed as Rima. Minnelli agreed to make a real test of Angeli, but less to judge her suitability and more for the chance to film an elaborate sample of how he felt the story should be told, building a set at great expense and spending 12 days shooting Angeli and British actor Edmund Purdom as her leading man. Producer Arthur Freed was unconvinced and decided to drop the project, and Minnelli moved on to other films.
There just didn't seem to be anyone who could pull off the part effectively, at least not until it became apparent that the perfect choice was the spritely child-woman of the time, Audrey Hepburn. Ironically, the role was to prove to be the one that sexualized Hepburn's image, offering her the opportunity to move from her rather virginal gamine roles of the previous decade into one that allowed her to be a scantily clad jungle princess awakened into passion by a handsome young man (rising star Anthony Perkins). MGM, which had hung onto the rights in spite of studio production unit head Freed's lack of interest, even decided to turn up the jungle heat by giving the character a more Tarzan-like image, labeling her "Rima the Bird Girl" (a title never used in the book) and promoting the picture with such tag lines as "Young lovers in a jungle Eden where menace lurks amid the orchids - Rima, the untouched, the girl of the virgin forest, meets her first man!"
To direct the picture, the studio hired Hepburn's husband Mel Ferrer, known mostly as an actor but with three pictures to his directing credit, all of them black-and-white crime dramas bearing no resemblance at all to Hudson's unique story. Ferrer also made a scouting trip to South America, returning with substantial stock footage. But before production began, Hepburn came down with a bad case of kidney stones, possibly developed during the shooting of The Nun's Story (1959) in Africa. Although she avoided surgery, Ferrer was none too eager to see his wife subjected to the rigors of yet another arduous jungle shoot. He persuaded the studio to let him film on a sound stage, using stock footage wherever possible. Twenty-five acres of backlot were converted to match the previously shot exteriors, incorporating 300 tons of turf, boulders, canoes, grass huts, blowguns, trees, plants and live animals shipped back from South America. The production also involved a deer named Ip (for the sound it made while feeding) which Hepburn had to raise from a very young age so it would be trained to follow her everywhere on set throughout the shooting.
Perhaps the most notable achievement of Green Mansions, however, was its launching of the Panavision process. Up to that time, other wide-screen formats were most often used, especially CinemaScope, the first choice for this film. The problem with that process, however, was that in close up, Hepburn's square face appeared fat and distorted, so much so that she refused to continue filming until a solution could be found. A test was made using the relatively new Panavision to everyone's satisfaction, especially Hepburn's. The format quickly became the industry standard, easily outdistancing its competitors to be used in such wide-screen epics as Ben-Hur (1959) and The Magnificent Seven (1960).
Director: Mel Ferrer
Producer: Edmund Grainger
Screenplay: Dorothy Kingsley, based on the novel by William Henry Hudson
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Editing: Ferris Webster
Art Direction: Preston Ames, William A. Horning
Music: Bronislau Kaper, Heitor Villa-Lobos
Cast: Audrey Hepburn (Rima), Anthony Perkins (Abel), Lee J. Cobb (Nuflo), Sessue Hayakawa (Runi), Henry Silva (Kua-Ko), Nehemiah Persoff (Don Panta).
by Rob Nixon