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Fact is often stranger than fiction when it comes to the life stories of well-known public figures and celebrities. And no novelist or screenwriter could have concocted a more complex or mysterious character than the eccentric billionaire tycoon Howard Hughes. One novelist - Harold Robbins - came close though in his trashy best seller, The Carpetbaggers. Jonas Cord, Jr., the central character, is clearly inspired by Hughes, despite the author's denial of it (Robbins said Cord was based on airplane manufacturer Bill Lear). Like Hughes, Jonas inherits a family fortune at a young age, develops an intense interest in aviation and eventually moves into film production in Hollywood where his playboy reputation earns him front-page headlines. In the end, his ruthless ambition, fueled by financial and sexual obsessions, alienates him from everyone and he becomes a virtual recluse.
Even without the similarities to Hughes's life, the film version of The Carpetbaggers (1964) would still have generated enormous advance publicity. For one thing, audiences were curious as to how the filmmakers would handle the racier parts of the book; plus, the movie marked the return of Alan Ladd to Paramount Studios for the first time since 1954; he had previously been one of their biggest stars in the forties but was now trying to stage a career comeback at the age of fifty. Cast in the role of Nevada Smith, a longtime friend of Jonas's father who tries to offer the young tycoon moral guidance, Ladd looked much older than his actual age due to years of alcohol abuse and lacked the confidence he once had as a leading man. He had reason to worry. George Peppard, the star of the film, was also the focus of most of the publicity and not handling it well. According to co-star Carroll Baker, who plays Rina (a starlet modeled on Jean Harlow), Peppard's role "seemed to go to his head. He acquired delusions of being far more than just a talented young actor who was working his way up the ladder of success. I got the impression he felt he was God's gift to women and the cinema....He showed up uninvited at my house late one night and gave me a stern warning: "If you don't have a love affair with me, I'll make love to Elizabeth Ashley" (from Baby Doll: An Autobiography by Carroll Baker).
Despite the fact that he was married, Peppard made good on his threat and soon rumors of the actor's romance with Ashley, who was also married, reached gossip columnists. Biographer Beverly Linet wrote, "Although the two maintained separate residences for appearance sake, they were, in fact, sharing a hideaway to which they retreated evenings when the cameras stopped rolling. Everyone on the lot knew they were lovers, and the studio gave the affair its tacit approval, presumably thinking that a touch of real-life scandal could further hype the film." (from Ladd: The Life, the Legend, the Legacy of Alan Ladd). At the time, Ashley, like Carroll Baker, was being groomed for stardom and The Carpetbaggers marked her screen debut. She recalled in her autobiography, Actress: Postcards From the Road, that she "was brought to Hollywood by Marty Rackin, the head of production at Paramount. He had seen me on Broadway in Take Her, She's Mine...Rackin knew I was good casting, even though I was so skinny they had to pad me out to give me a proper Hollywood body. I had started out and made it in comedy, and the girl I played was the only character with any funny lines. To this day, people who don't know me from anything else come up to me on the street and tell me they still remember one line I had in that movie. My fiancé says to me, "What do you want to see on your honeymoon?" and I answer, "Lots of lovely ceilings."
Initially, several actresses were tested for roles in The Carpetbaggers including Katharine Ross but producer Joseph E. Levine was insistent on the casting of Carroll Baker as Rina and Martha Hyer as Jennie (a blonde call girl that Cord uses to make Rina jealous). "Neither of these choices thrilled us," Edward Dmytryk, the director of the film, admitted in his autobiography (It's a Hell of a Life But Not a Bad Living), "but we had no one to offer in opposition, so we gracefully acquiesced." More problematic to Dmytryk was the casting of Ladd. "Rackin felt a strong obligation to Alan for past favors, and insisted we take a chance. My fears proved well founded, but somehow we nursed him through the film, and what eventually appeared on the screen was one of the best performances of his life." Baker confirmed Ladd's on-the-set difficulties in her own biography: "I remember how his hands used to shake. One day during a scene with me his drink spilled over the sides of his glass because of the trembling. Out of sheer frustration, he punched the door of the set with his hand still holding the glass and cut himself quite badly." There were other near-disasters on the set as well including a moment where Baker was almost electrocuted by faulty wiring in the party scene where she swings from the chandelier.
Probably the most controversial aspect of the film - aside from the thinly veiled Howard Hughes references, the rumors about Peppard and Ashley's affair, and Dmytryk's former notoriety as one of the "Hollywood Ten" (a group of industry professionals who were investigated and found guilty of communist affiliations in 1947 by the House Un-American Activities Committee) - was Carroll Baker's nude scene. In retrospect, the scene is extremely tame by today's standards but as Dmytryk explained in his memoirs, "Even partial nudes were shot only in skin flicks in 1963, and most of us were embarrassed that Carroll Baker should appear nude on the set, even though we were photographing only her back. The set was lit, Carroll, in a robe, seated herself at the dressing table, and a screen was placed around her. When all was in readiness, those members of the crew not absolutely necessary were excused from the stage. I started the camera, the wardrobe mistress took Carroll's robe, the screen was removed, the scene was shot, and we all breathed a little more easily. And all that eventually showed on film was a bare back which was quickly covered by a robe."
The Carpetbaggers proved to be a commercial hit for Paramount when it opened theatrically though most critics panned it. Bosley Crowther's put-down in the New York Times was a typical response: "a sickly, sour distillation of the big-selling Harold Robbins novel." But film adaptations of Robbins' novels were rarely well received by reviewers. Can you think of any? If nothing else, The Carpetbaggers ranks as a guilty pleasure for some with highly quotable dialogue like "You dirty, filthy, perverted monster! You're the meanest, cruelest, most loathsome thing I've ever met!" Critic Pauline Kael wrote, "of its kind fairly energetic, and the pop psychology is self-serious enough to be funny." It's also amusing to try to decipher Robbins' characters' real identities. In addition to Jonas Cord as a stand-in for Hughes and Rina as a Jean Harlow-type actress, Jennie's character was supposedly inspired by Jane Russell and Nevada Smith was partially based on the silent Western star Ken Maynard and a genuine cowboy who was close friends with Howard Hughes's father. In 1966, Paramount produced a prequel to The Carpetbaggers with Steve McQueen playing the title role of Nevada Smith. But Alan Ladd, who first essayed the role in The Carpetbaggers, never got to view his final film release; he died of an accidental overdose (a combination of alcohol and sedatives) just a few months prior to the movie's opening.
Producer: Joseph E. Levine
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: John Michael Hayes, Harold Robbins (novel)
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
Film Editing: Frank Bracht
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Walter H. Tyler
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: George Peppard (Jonas Cord), Carroll Baker (Rina Marlowe Cord), Alan Ladd (Nevada Smith), Robert Cummings (Dan Pierce), Martha Hyer (Jennie Denton), Elizabeth Ashley (Monica Winthrop).
C-150m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford