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With his tenure as production head at MGM drawing to a close, Dore Schary wanted to cap it with a project that would be recognized in the class of Gone With The Wind (1939) in terms of sweep and scope. In electing to adapt Raintree County (1957), the popular, sprawling novel of a 19th-Century Hoosier's life journey, Schary took on a challenge that seemed fated to be a lightning rod for adversity.
Ross Lockridge Jr., a preternaturally brilliant literary scholar with an archival knowledge of his native Indiana, invested six years into crafting an opus that would reflect America's development through the two generations flanking the Civil War. Houghton Mifflin conditionally accepted his manuscript in 1946, and Lockridge spent two stressful years paring away roughly half of his original 2000-page submission at his editors' behest.
In 1947, MGM awarded Lockridge $150,000 for the film rights to Raintree County, a prize that eventually escalated to $250,000 due to the novel's being made a Book-Of-The-Month Club selection and emerging as a best-seller. Both the studio and the Book-Of-The-Month Club demanded pre-publication cuts as well. Lockridge had longtime struggles with depression, and the price of compromise proved dear. In January 1948, with his novel topping the charts after two months in print, the author took his own life at age 33. MGM quietly tabled its plans for Raintree County for eight years.
Various scenarists struggled to adapt the screenplay, and Millard Kaufman's 200-plus page final draft eliminated roughly a quarter of the events from the novel. Edward Dmytryk, whose refusal to cooperate with the congressional anti-Communist inquiries of the late '40s resulted in prison time, and whose subsequent decision to name names placed his career back on track, was attached as director. Montgomery Clift accepted the lead after being coaxed by Elizabeth Taylor; the two developed a deep friendship while filming A Place In The Sun (1951), and were desirous of working together again.
The screenplay of Raintree County takes up the life of Lockridge's protagonist Johnny Shawnessy (Clift) at age 20, after he's finished with his studies and is tantalized with the notion of locating the lone, mythical raintree at his homeland's heart. His ambitions are swiftly sidetracked by the efforts of transient Louisiana belle Susanna Drake (Taylor), who wastes little time in duping a proposal out of him. Following her home to the South, abolitionist Clift is appalled towards the prevailing attitudes regarding slavery, and troubled by the increasing evidence of Taylor's mental instability. After the attack on Fort Sumter, Taylor disappears with their young son, and Clift signs up with the Union Army as his only means of searching for them.
On May 12, 1956, with the interior shooting complete and the cast and crew ready to travel to location in Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky, Clift accepted a dinner invitation from Taylor and then-husband Michael Wilding at their Benedict Canyon home. Afterwards, opting to follow friend Kevin McCarthy down the winding, unlit canyon road, Clift lost control of his vehicle and struck a telephone pole. The actor suffered a terrible litany of facial and cranial injuries; broken jaw, nose and sinus cavity, loss of teeth, severe concussion, heavy lacerations on his left profile. The Raintree County production shut down for two months while he recuperated, and film buffs to this day have a grisly fascination about which scenes with Clift were filmed before and after the accident.
Moreover, Clift's injuries went on to spur a painkiller dependency that, coupled with his troubles with alcoholism, ultimately shortened the performer's life. Narratives about the location shooting for Raintree County are rife with incidents regarding the star's erratic behavior. In his autobiography It's A Hell Of A Life, But Not A Bad Living: A Hollywood Memoir (Times Books, 1978), Dmytryk recounted how during dinner at a Danville, Kentucky restaurant, Clift "coated the steak with a thick layer of butter, took the cap off the pepper shaker and covered the butter with pepper, then picked the steak up with his bare hands and started tearing it to pieces...Nor was his image enhanced when a few nights later, blown out of his mind, he ran naked through the upper-class residential area of the town."
Despite his considerable inner turmoil, Clift turned in creditable work, as did Taylor and the strong supporting cast of Eva Marie Saint, Agnes Moorehead, Walter Abel, Nigel Patrick and Lee Marvin. Details from the studio's first usage of 70mm cameras (dubbed "Camera 65") to the painstakingly detailed costuming drove Raintree County's final production costs to a then-considerable $6 million. The film went on to score Oscar nominations for Taylor's efforts, as well as costume design, art direction/set decoration, and Johnny Green's moving score.
Producer: David Lewis
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: Millard Kaufman; based on the novel by Ross Lockridge, Jr.
Art Direction: William Horning, Urie McCleary
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Editing: John D. Dunning
Music: Johnny Green
Cast: Montgomery Clift (John Wickliff Shawnessy), Elizabeth Taylor (Susanna Drake), Eva Marie Saint (Nell Gaither), Nigel Patrick (Prof. Jerusalem Webster Stiles), Lee Marvin (Orville "Flash" Perkins).
C-188m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jay Steinberg