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The film's opening title credits, designed by Saul Bass, feature white lines breaking up a black background. The lines form a crooked arm over the last credit, that of producer-director Otto Preminger. The crooked arm became the film's symbol and was used extensively in its advertising. According to a November 3, 1949 Hollywood Reporter news item, the screen rights to Nelson Algren's best-selling novel, which was the first book to win the National Book Award, were purchased by producer Bob Roberts as a starring vehicle for John Garfield. Information in the film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library reveals that Paul Trivers was to write the screenplay for Roberts, with Robert Aldrich scheduled to direct. Roberts first submitted a screenplay to the PCA in February 1950, and in March 1950, was told by PCA director Joseph I. Breen that the basic story was "unacceptable under the provisions of the Production Code" because of the Code's prohibition against showing drug addiction and illegal drug traffic. Breen further stated: "In view of the fact that this dope addiction problem is basic to this story, we suggest you dismiss any further consideration of this material for a motion picture to be made within the Code."
Roberts continued to consult with the PCA in hopes of preparing an acceptable script, but was repeatedly discouraged by the Breen office, which warned him that not only would the subject fail to receive PCA approval, it would also receive condemnation from the National Catholic Legion of Decency, the U.S. Treasury Dept., the Bureau of Narcotics and "state and municipal censor boards, both in this country and abroad." In late March 1950, Pandro S. Berman, then a producer at M-G-M, expressed interest in making a film based on the novel, and was also told by the PCA that it would be impossible for the picture to receive a Production Code seal, without which many movie theaters of the time refused to exhibit films.
According to modern sources, Roberts was acting on Garfield's behalf in purchasing the book's screen rights from Algren, who purportedly thought that Garfield would be ideal to play "Frankie Machine," and Garfield himself owned the rights. Garfield, who had been under great strain due to questioning by the House Un-American Activities Committee, died of a heart attack on May 21, 1952. Although Trivers and Algren himself worked on a screenplay for Garfield's project, it is unlikely that they contributed to the Preminger film. In March 1955, New York Times and Hollywood Reporter reported that Preminger had purchased the rights to Algren's book from Garfield's estate and entered into a deal with United Artists to produce and distribute The Man with the Golden Arm. According to a September 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, a clause in the contract between Preminger and UA allowed UA to withdraw from distribution if the film did not receive a Code seal. At that time, Preminger, who had produced and directed The Moon Is Blue, which failed to obtain a Code seal prior to its 1953 release, indicated that he would set up his own company to distribute The Man with the Golden Arm if necessary.
A March 24, 1955 Los Angeles Examiner news item reported that Preminger was hoping to persuade William Holden to star in the picture, while modern sources add that Marlon Brando was considered for the role of Frankie. According to July 1955 Hollywood Reporter news items, Barbara Bel-Geddes was under consideration for one of the female leads, but her participation in the project was contingent upon her being able to obtain a four-week leave from her role in the stage production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In August 1955, Hollywood Reporter's "Rambling Reporter" column stated that Preminger was "torn" between casting either Ray Middleton or Raymond Burr as "Zero Schwiefka." Eleanor Parker was borrowed from M-G-M for the production, and Kim Novak was borrowed from Columbia. Hollywood Reporter news items include Arvle Miller, Jay Lawrence, Robert Paquin, Diane DeLayne, Ursula Fimbers, Libby Jones, Bene Marten, Jack Mulhall, Mahin Shahriver and David White, Frank Sinatra's stand-in, in the cast, although their appearance in the finished picture has not been confirmed.
In August 1955, Hollywood Reporter noted that Preminger had contemplated shooting the picture in color and CinemaScope, but decided that black-and-white with a 1.85:1 ratio would be "more suitable." According to a August 29, 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, background footage was shot on location in Chicago, IL. A October 4, 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that the dog "Rumdum" was played by "Mike," a dog rescued from a pound by noted animal trainers Frank and Rudd Weatherwax. Hollywood Reporter news items and the film's pressbook noted that drummer Shelly Manne taught Sinatra how to play drums; magician Charles E. Miller served as the technical advisor on the poker sequences; Tom Bailey, a retired Los Angeles police officer, was the technical advisor on the jail scenes; Jack Entratter, a director of the Sands casino in Las Vegas, acted as a technical advisor; and an unnamed physician supervised narcotics sequences.
Although the drug to which Frankie is addicted is never specified in the finished movie, most contemporary and modern sources assume that it is heroin. In the book, however, Frankie takes morphine, to which he became addicted during his military service in World War II. After being wounded while fighting in the South Pacific, Frankie began taking morphine and became addicted. In the film, only a very brief mention is made of Frankie's wartime service, and no connection is made between it and his addiction. Other notable differences between the novel and the movie are that in the book, Frankie, not "Zosh," kills Louie, and Zosh is not feigning her paralysis, although it is partially psychosomatic. At the end of the book, Zosh is committed to an insane asylum, "Molly Novotny" is arrested by the police for harboring Frankie and Frankie, who has run from Molly's apartment, commits suicide by hanging himself in a flophouse.
Preminger continued to have problems with the PCA throughout the film's production, and he decided to release The Man with the Golden Arm without a Code seal. According to November 1955 trade paper and New York Times news items, after viewing a rough cut of the picture, United Artists, which had also released The Moon Is Blue, decided to release The Man with the Golden Arm, even though the action could result in the company being fined $25,000 by the MPAA. UA president Arthur Krim called the film "one of the most important productions ever handled by the company" and expressed the hope that the PCA would reverse its decision because of the film's "immense potential for public service." A modern source states that UA invested $1,000,000 in the film's production. A November 13, 1955 New York Times article reported that the film's release would mark "the first time that a company has made public its intention to go forward with the release of a controversial picture in advance of its submission for a Code seal." The film also received several advance bookings in November and early December 1955, before the issue of the Code seal had been settled.
Although numerous contemporary sources speculated that the PCA would make an exception for The Man with the Golden Arm, after the film was submitted for final approval in early December 1955, the PCA denied it a Code seal. Their decision was upheld by the appeals board of the MPAA on December 6, 1955 in a meeting in which the MPAA board also declined to revise PCA guidelines governing the depiction of drug use. In order to protest the censorship battle, UA resigned from the MPAA on December 7, 1956, although the company rejoined later in the 1950s. Even though the PCA refused to approve the film, the influential National Catholic Legion of Decency awarded it a "B," or "morally objectionable in part for all," rating. According to a December 31, 1955 Harrrison's Reports news item, The Man with the Golden Arm marked the first time that the Legion did not give a "C," or condemned, rating to a film not passed by the PCA. Several contemporary sources indicate that the schism between the Legion and PCA was one of the contributing factors to the revision of the Code.
Controversy over the MPAA's decision to uphold the PCA's ban on the film forced MPAA president Eric Johnston to launch a four-man committee to investigate Production Code provisions and methods of appeal in January 1956. A January 25, 1956 New York Times article about the investigation noted that one of the major reasons for the need to revise the Production Code was the "refusal, for the first time, of the Loew's theatres and other large circuits to abide by a Production ban." Loew's and other large theater chains were then exhibiting The Man with the Golden Arm despite its lack of a Code seal. In December 1956, New York Times announced that the committee's recommendation to change several provisions of the Production Code had been accepted, and that "the film industry has revised and relaxed its code of morals and taboos for the first time since the code was adopted in 1930." In addition to revising restrictions about the portrayals of prostitution, abortion, kidnapping and miscegenation, the MPAA eliminated the absolute prohibition of subjects having to do with narcotics. The first film to benefit from the PCA's revisions about the depiction of drug addiction was the 1957 Twentieth Century-Fox release A Hatful of Rain.
The Man with the Golden Arm received mostly laudatory reviews upon its release, with many critics commenting on its success in dealing with the controversial subject matter. The Variety reviewer declared: "Fortunately this is a gripping, fascinating film, expertly produced and directed by Preminger and performed with marked conviction by Frank Sinatra as the drug slave." In conclusion, the Variety critic stated: "It makes for a powerful condemnation of the use of narcotics merciless in its display of the cruelties of the habit. This is the kind of message that should be spread, not suppressed." Several critics did complain about the film's contrived happy ending, however, stating that it was both inaccurate and potentially harmful to show an addict recovering completely in such a short time period.
As noted by New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther, in order to satisfy censor requirements, the sequence in which Frankie receives a "fix" from "Louie" was shortened, to prevent the details of Louie's preparations of the drug from being shown. Crowther concluded, "either way, what you see or what you don't see is not likely to create anything-outside of the hardened addicts-but a revulsion toward the habit of drugs." According to a December 14, 1955 Daily Variety news item, the short sequence was deleted at the insistence of the New York State Censor Board, although Preminger deleted the footage from all prints of the film, not just those shown in New York.
In February 1956, Hollywood Reporter noted that censors in Maryland, Atlanta, GA and Milwaukee, WI threatened either to ban the film outright or demand cuts, but that Preminger was determined to fight them and allow the film to be shown in the same version that was then being distributed. In July 1956, Variety reported that after several court decisions in its favor, United Artists was able to exhibit the film uncut throughout the world except in Spain, which had banned the picture. According to the news item, Spanish officials declared that they did not want the film to "give the people ideas" about narcotics use. According to information in the MPAA/PCA Collection, the film received an "X" rating in Great Britain, which restricted admission to adults only.
Even though Preminger claimed in several contemporary sources that the MPAA was exerting pressure on exhibitors not to play the film, UA stated in a February 12, 1961 New York Times article that the film had been a "spectacular" success at the box office. The article concluded that the film's achievements were partially due to the "considerable publicity" surrounding its censorship battles. The Man with the Golden Arm received Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction (Black and White) and Best Music (Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture) and a BAFTA nomination for Best Film from Any Source. The film's score, which was Elmer Bernstein's first jazz score, became a best-selling soundtrack record and is considered by many sources to be one of the most important film scores of the 1950s. The McGuire Sisters released a vocal version of the distinctive main theme, called "Delilah Jones," with lyrics by Sylvia Fine. A title song, written by Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen, was recorded by Sammy Davis, Jr., and their "Molly-O" was recorded by The Gaylords and The Naturals. According to a November 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, Sinatra himself was to record a version of the title song for Capitol Records. A Sinatra discography notes that Sinatra's version of the song was never officially released, but did appear on a bootleg album entitled "On the Town and Others."
Sinatra, who received many positive reviews for his work in the film, was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award as well as a Best Foreign Actor BAFTA award. The Saturday Review (of Literature) critic stated that Sinatra gave "a truly virtuoso performance," and Hollywood Reporter reviewer Jack Moffit proclaimed that he achieved "a tortured realistic masterpiece as the drug addict." According to several biographies of Sinatra, the actor considered his performance in The Man with the Golden Arm to be his finest work.
According to November 1955 Daily Variety and New York Times reports, screenwriter Walter Newman protested the joint credit that he and writer Lewis Meltzer were to receive, claiming that he alone should be credited with the film's screenplay. After the Writers Guild of America (WGA) denied his petition, Newman attempted to take his case to Los Angeles Superior Court, a first in WGA history. Newman's attempt was denied by Judge Arnold Prager, according to the New York Times article. In mid-December 1955, Daily Variety reported that the Screen Writers Branch of the WGA protested the print advertising of The Man with the Golden Arm, stating that the overly prominent emphasis on Preminger in the ads mistakenly led people to believe that he wrote as well as directed and produced the picture.
In April 1956, Algren filed a lawsuit against Preminger, UA, Carlyle Productions and several other individuals and companies, according to a April 24, 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item. Algren asked that profits from the picture be held in trust and that the profits from the distribution of the theme song be accounted for and held in trust, in addition to asking for an injuction "restraining Preminger, UA and others from `passing off' the plaintiff's work as that of Preminger." According to Algren's lawsuit, the agreement under which he had sold the screen rights to Roberts stipulated that he would receive a percentage of the film's profits or a percentage of Roberts' profits if he sold the rights, but the agreement had not been upheld. Algren also claimed that the title song was "not up to the literary and artistic standards set by the novel," according to a May 1956 Saturday Review (of Literature) article. The disposition of the suit has not been determined.
As reported by various contemporary sources, the film was granted a Production Code seal on June 14, 1961. According to a July 31, 1961 New York Times article, UA applied for the seal in order to re-issue the film, along with The Moon Is Blue, which was also granted a seal, and to sell it for television broadcast. In January 1965, Preminger contracted with Allied Artists for The Man with the Golden Arm and The Moon Is Blue to be re-released theatrically as a double bill. [A July 1980 New York Times article confirmed that the rights to both films had reverted to Preminger in 1965.] In December 1966, Preminger leased television broadcast rights to The Man with the Golden Arm to ABC. The network was to be allowed to show the film twice during the following two years, according to a December 28, 1966 New York Times article, and Preminger had obtained the previously unheard-of concessions that the film was to be shown uncut in any way, and that he himself would be allowed to decide where the seven commercial breaks would be inserted. An January 18, 1967 Variety item reported that Sinatra would receive a percentage of the fee Preminger received for the broadcast rights. Although a July 1986 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Preminger was agreeing to allow Hal Roach Studios to colorize the picture, along with three other of his works, the colorization was never completed.