They Only Kill Their Masters
Only a year or so before Kerkorian had authorized the selling-off of the contents of seven soundstages stuffed with classic MGM memorabilia. Over 350,000 individual items -- costumes, props, vehicles, furniture, and everything in-between -- went on the block in a gigantic three-day auction open to the public. Dorothy's ruby slippers went, Esther Williams' swimsuits went, Tarzan's loincloths went, and the HMS Bounty from the 1935 Clark Gable version of Mutiny on the Bounty sailed away, too. While it delighted film enthusiasts who could secure a piece of Hollywood history for their own, it was nothing less than the wholesale liquidation of MGM's entire legacy. Even more controversial was Kerkorian's decision to sell off Lot 3, nearly forty acres of the MGM back lot where so many of the studio's classic movies were filmed. Kerkorian was much more interested in creating his own legacy -- construction of the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas -- than in preserving anything dealing with the studio's past. The Andy Hardy streets, the hometown setting for Judy Garland's Meet Me in St. Louis and so many more memorable settings were just an inconvenience, a collection of derelict buildings taking up space on valuable Culver City real estate that Kerkorian couldn't wait to put on the market.
The plot of They Only Kill Their Masters was set in motion by the murder of a promiscuous divorcee by her own dog, a Doberman pinscher. Local police inspector Abel Marsh (James Garner) proves the victim was actually drowned and his investigation into her death leads to several suspects and some ugly secrets about his not-so-innocent community. This was the last full-length feature to be filmed on Lot 3 before it was bulldozed into oblivion, later to be transformed into a pricey condominium development. (The short segment intros in 1974's That's Entertainment were also filmed on what was left of the back lot. Anyone who saw it will remember the tattered condition of the settings. Those segments were the very last things to be filmed before the demolition of Lot 3.)
Director James Goldstone was primarily known for his television work starting in the mid-1950s, including directing episodes of such popular series as Highway Patrol, Dr. Kildare, The Outer Limits, and even some episodes of Star Trek. Starting in the late '60s he alternated between television and the movies, directing such features as The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight and the enigmatic Sidney Poitier film Brother John, plus important movies-for-television Shadow Over Elveron and A Clear and Present Danger. Screenwriter Lane Slate made his name with a teleplay about the Trail of Tears Cherokee tribe death march, and They Only Kill Their Masters was his first feature film. He later went on to a solid career in television, including many episodes and TV movies, especially in the mystery genre, and was an Emmy-winner for his teleplay Tail Gunner Joe on the life of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, played by Peter Boyle.
Star James Garner was a popular favorite in movies and on TV, with big screen successes in all genres, from two-fisted action in war movies and westerns -- The Great Escape, Up Periscope, Duel at Diablo, Grand Prix, Hour of the Gun -- to comedies such as The Thrill of It All, Move Over Darling (both opposite Doris Day), and Boys' Night Out. Garner was successful in all genres, and only a year or so after They Only Kill Their Masters he would begin work on a TV movie which would evolve into his six-year super hit series The Rockford Files, somewhat reminiscent of They Only Kill Their Masters with its sharp-witted and cool detective lead character, tempered with much humor.
In addition to the charming Katharine Ross, Garner's romantic interest in They Only Kill Their Masters, one of the key charms of the movie was the appearances of classic movie stars in supporting roles such as Ann Rutherford, an MGM studio veteran of many years. She was most famous for playing one of Scarlett O' Hara's sisters in Gone With The Wind and Andy Hardy's girlfriend Polly in that series of films starring Mickey Rooney. When Rutherford returned to the back lot after several decades to appear in They Only Kill Their Masters, the soon-to-be-liquidated streets were festooned with banners welcoming her home again. Rutherford had been retired from show business since the mid-1960s, happily married to producer William Dozier and today she's still a fan favorite.
Classic MGM fixture June Allyson, whose image at the studio through countless films was chipper and charming, also appears in the film playing a decided different character - one which would shock and displease some of her oldest fans. Other former Hollywood luminaries also peppered the cast of They Only Kill Their Masters. Suave Peter Lawford, known as much for his capers with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack as for his movies, came back to the MGM lot for this role. According to the biography Peter Lawford by James Spada, it was a bittersweet if depressing experience for the actor, whose personal life was somewhat unsettled at the time -- rumors of heavy drinking abounded -- but who could always be relied on for a professional performance. Lawford and former Good News co-star June Allyson had a few scenes together and joked between scenes, but overall, "It was a totally depressing scene," Peter said. "That old back lot, number two, hadn't been touched for years. We used the old Andy Hardy house in the film - it's completely overgrown with vines and bushes...I get moments of melancholia. Middle-aged melancholia, if you will." In regards to the Lawford-Allyson reunion, director James Goldstone recalled "There were jokes and light banter between them, and some of it got a little nasty. Peter found it rather amusing, in his way, which is a sort of fey, wan kind of sophisticated bemusement. Here he was back, burying the lot on which he was born."
Last but not least, we can't forget the contribution of the Doberman pinschers to They Only Kill Their Masters. Dobermans were enjoying sort of a pop culture boom at the time, with the movie The Doberman Gang, a low-budget production about a cadre of dogs who pull off bank robberies. It became a surprise hitthe same year as They Only Kill Their Masters. It also spawned several sequels, and of course many Americans had to go out and get themselves a Doberman, precipitating several well-publicized attacks with all the attendant bad publicity. The Doberman in this movie ends up in bed with James Garner and Katharine Ross.
Reviews for They Only Kill Their Masters were definitely mixed. While everybody everywhere seemed to love James Garner, some of the more sordid plot elements in the movie caused audiences to wince such as the detail that the murder victim was a dead pregnant lesbian (This was a time when tasteless jokes and derogatory terms for alternative sexuality were commonplace). Some critics felt these attempts to reflect contemporary culture seemed to be shoehorned in to what was essentially a TV movie. The New York Times critic found it "original and likable" though, and praised the movie's "casual relish and wisely amusing dialogue." The Village Voice, however, found it completely television-level in its sensibility, calling it "essentially a series of genre set-pieces and mostly gratuitous character sketches."
Middling reviews or not, They Only Kill Their Masters wasn't a big hit for MGM, only verifying Kirk Kerkorian's decision to back away from film production. Still, it's an engaging little mystery with a solid cast of favorites, and even more importantly offers one last chance to see those memory-laden MGM back lot streets.
Producer: William Belasco
Director: James Goldstone
Screenplay: Lane Slate
Cinematography: Michael Hugo
Art Direction: Lawrence G. Paull
Music: Perry Botkin Jr.
Film Editing: Edward A. Biery
Cast: James Garner (Police Chief Abel Marsh), Katharine Ross (Kate Bingham), Hal Holbrook (Dr. Warren Watkins), Harry Guardino (County Sheriff Captain Daniel Streeter), June Allyson (Mrs. Watkins), Christopher Connelly (John), Tom Ewell (Walter), Peter Lawford (Campbell), Edmond O'Brien (George), Arthur O'Connell (Ernie)
by Lisa Mateas