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Desire Under the Elms

Desire Under the Elms(1958)

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The film's opening title cards read: "A Paramount Release in VistaVision Motion Picture High-Fidelity Sophia Loren Anthony Perkins Burl Ives in The Don Hartman Production of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms." The surname of actress Rebecca Welles, who had recently changed her name from Reba Tassell, was spelled "Wells" in the onscreen credits, although most reviews spelled it "Welles." According to information in the Paramount Collection and the Paramount Scripts Collection, both located at the AMPAS Library, O'Neill himself submitted a screen treatment of his controversial play to Paramount in 1933. [Some sources state that O'Neill prepared his treatment in 1927 or 1928, but the copy in the Paramount Collection is dated 1933.] In his treatment, O'Neill changed the character of "Abbie," a New England woman in her middle thirties who marries "Ephraim Cabot" and has an affair with his son "Eben," to that of a young Hungarian immigrant, to be played by Marlene Dietrich.
       O'Neill also changed the content of the story, so that the immigrant would be a housekeeper rather than Ephraim's wife, and that while she and Eben would be romantically interested in each other, they would not have an affair, nor an illegitimate baby, thus eliminating the infanticide. The project was abandoned, however, as the studio decided that it would be non-commercial if it were filmed in a "watered-down" version, and that it could not be filmed at all if it were not censored. According to an April 1958 article in Theatre Arts, in 1933 former film producer Kenneth Macgowan, who participated in the original play production, attempted but failed to interest RKO-Path in O'Neill's treatment.
       In 1936, Universal submitted O'Neill's treatment to the PCA office, according to information in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, but it was rejected. Joseph I. Breen advised Universal that while the treatment itself was acceptable, the play was on the "so-called banned list," and that the board of directors would not approve a film based on it or using its title. [As noted in a March 1958 New York Times article, the play was faced with "threats of closure and censorship" during its initial 1924 New York run, and when it ran in Los Angeles afterward, the cast was "arrested and charged with presenting an obscene play."] In the early and mid-1940s, Lee Marcus of RKO, independent producer Edward Small and Steve Sekely, who wanted to produced the picture for Republic with Walter Huston as Ephraim, also expressed interest in the play, and were informed by the PCA that it was unacceptable. According to a November 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item, William Rowland was attempting to produce a film version at RKO-Path, with Robert Edmond Jones, who worked on the 1924 Broadway production, to supervise and design the sets.
       On May 17, 1954, Paramount sent the PCA a copy of the play for consideration and was told that it was unacceptable "by reason of an overemphasis on gross and adulterous lust." On November 26, 1954, Paramount official Luigi Luraschi and Sol Siegel, who was appointed to produce the picture at that time, met with PCA executives, and noted that Spencer Tracy and Jennifer Jones were being considered for the leading roles. Siegel agreed that some of the "more sordid elements of the play" would have to be eliminated, and stated that John Patrick would be working on the screenplay. In March 1956, Luraschi reported to the PCA that Hartman would be making the film as an independent production for Paramount release. Several pre-production sources commented on Hartman's intent to remain as true to the play as possible, which was also noted by reviews after the picture was released. According to information in the Scripts Collection, H. L. Davis and Alan J. Pakula wrote screen treatments of the play for Paramount in 1954, but it is unlikely that any of their work, or any done by Patrick, was included in the completed picture.
       In late March 1956, Hollywood Reporter's "Rambling Reporter" column stated that Hartman was hoping to cast Tracy and Marlon Brando in the picture opposite Sophia Loren. According to modern sources, Clifton Webb was also considered for the role of Ephraim. By January 1957, Hollywood Reporter noted that the cast of Loren, Anthony Perkins and Burl Ives had been set, and that Melville Shavelson and Jack Rose were scheduled to "write, direct and produce" the picture for Hartman. According to information in the Paramount Collection, the film shot on location at Brent's Crags in California for one day, and the rest of the picture was shot at the studio in Hollywood. In reviewing the film, several critics complained about its "staginess," but studio records indicate that shooting on location in Vermont was decided against because of the variability of weather conditions.
       February 1958 Hollywood Reporter news items announced that the Police Censor Board of Chicago had restricted the showing of the film to adults only, so that no one under twenty-one would be admitted. Hartman planned to appeal the decision personally, pointing out that the because the play was "approved reading matter in school libraries throughout the country, [the film] does not deserve an adult-only tag in theatres." On February 14, 1958, Hollywood Reporter reported that Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley notified Hartman that he was taking the matter under consideration. An March 11, 1959 memo in the PCA files indicated that Paramount was likely to give up its attempt to "advance its suit." Because the police commissioner reportedly was causing "difficulty" for the studio in its attempts to exhibit other films in the city, and city authorities had agreed to lower the admission age from twenty-one to seventeen, Paramount was inclined to drop its case. On April 8, 1958, however, Hollywood Reporter noted that Daley had refused to rescind the censor board ruling, and that Paramount had filed an injunction against the city to force the lifting of the adults-only rating. According to the news item, the studio had decided "not [to] open the film in Chicago until the issue [was] resolved." The final disposition of the suit has not been determined.
       Although Loren had previously appeared in American films shot abroad, Desire Under the Elms was the first film she made in the United States. Both Loren and the film itself received mixed reviews. The Film Daily reviewer stated that Loren turned in "one of the finest performances in her career," while the New Yorker critic complained that she conducted "herself as if her only problem were to keep her eyes open under a most generous application of mascara." The picture was also the first independent production by Hartman, who had been head of production at Paramount from 1950 to 1956. According to several contemporary sources, Hartman first saw the play during its Broadway run and was so captivated by it that he saw it three times and vowed to turn it into a film one day. In an April 1957 Los Angeles Times article, Hartman was quoted as saying that he quit as Paramount's head of production in order to make Desire Under the Elms. Hartman made only one other picture, The Matchmaker (see below), before his death in March 1958. For his work on the film, cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp received an Academy Award nomination.