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In the late 1950's, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner were Hollywood's most celebrated couple, their generation's Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt. Young, gorgeous, successful, and apparently happily married, they kept their professional lives separate and had never appeared together in a film. But in 1960, with their individual careers in the doldrums, they realized they could earn more together than apart. So they accepted MGM's offer to appear together in All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960), along with two other young stars on the rise, George Hamilton and Susan Kohner.
Loosely based on Rosamond Marshall's novel, The Bixby Girls, All the Fine Young Cannibals also incorporates some biographical details from the life of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker mixed in with a dash of Tennessee Williams Southern Gothic. Wagner and Wood play a white trash couple from Texas. He wants to be a musician; she wants to be rich. She gets pregnant, and marries a rich preppie (George Hamilton). On the rebound, Wagner's character marries the preppie's sister (Susan Kohner). As Wood later recalled, "we all dripped Southern accents, paraded around in wigs, and tried to look terribly, terribly decadent." The public didn't buy it, and neither did the critics, who savaged the film. Wood and Wagner never appeared in another feature film together, although they would later make a well-received TV movie, The Affair (1973), and a television version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976).
Forty-something years later, all that posturing and faux Southern decadence have made All the Fine Young Cannibals something of a cult classic. And the film does have a knockout performance by Pearl Bailey, as a Bessie Smith-like blues singer who self-destructs when her lover leaves her. It was a dramatic change of pace for Bailey, who usually played sassy, wisecracking dames in her rare film appearances. Character actresses Anne Seymour and Louise Beavers also turned in strong supporting performances.
Susan Kohner, the daughter of producer Paul Kohner and Mexican actress Lupita Tovar, was coming off a very busy year, which included an Oscar-nominated supporting performance as a black woman passing for white in Imitation of Life (1959). Kohner would appear in only two more films after All the Fine Young Cannibals, retiring following her marriage to fashion designer John Weitz. Her two sons, Chris and Paul Weitz, are following in the family business, as a producer-director team of the American Pie films, and About a Boy (2002).
After All the Fine Young Cannibals, Robert Wagner's career went through some ups and downs before he became a hugely successful television star in several long-running series. Natalie Wood's career not only survived the failure of All the Fine Young Cannibals, it prospered. Her next three films were Splendor in the Grass (1961), which earned her an Academy Award® Best Actress nomination; West Side Story (1961), and Gypsy (1962). Her marriage to Wagner did not survive, but even that eventually had a happy ending. After they both wed and divorced other people, they remarried in 1972, and remained married until Wood's untimely death by drowning in 1981.
As for All the Fine Young Cannibals, it has been immortalized in a most unlikely way. The 1980's British pop group, Fine Young Cannibals, named itself after the film.
Director: Michael Anderson
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: Robert Thom, based on the novel, The Bixby Girls, by Rosamond Marshall
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Editor: John McSweeney, Jr.
Costume Design: Helen Rose
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Edward Carfagno
Music: Jeff Alexander
Principal Cast: Robert Wagner (Chad Bixby), Natalie Wood (Salome Davis), Susan Kohner (Catherine McDowall), George Hamilton (Tony McDowall), Pearl Bailey (Ruby Jones), Jack Mullaney (Putney Tinker), Anne Seymour (Mrs. Bixby), Louise Beavers (Rose).
C-113m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri