Cast & Crew
Dick Van Patten
Charly Gordon, a retarded 30-year-old with the mind of a child, works as a sweeper in a Boston bakery, where he is often the victim of cruel jokes made by co-workers whom he considers his best friends. In a fruitless attempt to better himself, he diligently attends evening classes taught by Alice Kinian. Touched and impressed by Charly's intense desire to learn, Alice arranges to have him examined by Dr. Richard Nemur, a neurosurgeon, and Dr. Anna Straus, a psychiatrist. The two doctors have surgically cured mentally defective mice and are looking for a human subject. In his initial tests, Charly scores lower than Algernon, a mouse; but after experimental surgery, Charley rapidly improves, and his operation is considered a success. He quits the bakery job to devote all of his time to his studies, and his mental capacity soon reaches genius proportions. Charly develops slower emotionally, however; and, misinterpreting Alice's attentions, he tries forcibly to make love to her. Shamed by the rebuff, Charly runs away and briefly assumes a hippie lifestyle. When he returns to resume his studies, he has clearly become a mature adult. Charly and Alice then realize that they are in love, and they spend a idyllic holiday together before Charly is scheduled to speak to a gathering of distinguished scientists. Before going on stage, however, Charly discovers that Algernon is dead, and the other experimental mice have begun to revert to their former mental states. Aware that he probably faces a similar fate, Charly startles the assembly with a bitter attack on modern civilization. Although Dr. Nemur and Dr. Straus desperately attempt to prevent his regression, it soon becomes apparent that their efforts are in vain. Finally recognizing defeat, Charly returns to his room to face it alone, despite Alice's pleas that she be allowed to remain with him.
Dick Van Patten
Ed "skipper" Mcnally
Arthur J. Ornitz
Selig J. Seligman
Louis A. Stroller
Originally published as a novelette in the 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Charly (1968) was based on the science fiction story Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes; the story won a Hugo award for Best Short Fiction in 1960.
Shortly after Flowers for Algernon won the Hugo Award, CBS bought the television rights to turn it into a teleplay for the Theater Guild's U.S. Steel Hour. James Yaffee wrote the teleplay script, and actor Cliff Robertson played Charlie (it wasn't until the film version that the spelling of the lead character's name changed from "Charlie" to "Charly"). The 1961 live telecast was called The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon. The reviews were stunning, and Robertson received an Emmy nomination for his performance.
A few days after the successful telecast, Cliff Robertson began negotiations with the story's author, Daniel Keyes, to purchase the film rights. Robertson told the press that he had been "always a bridesmaid but never a bride," referring to the excellent leading roles he had played on television in productions such as Days of Wine and Roses and The Hustler, but had lost out to bigger stars like Jack Lemmon and Paul Newman for the movie versions. By controlling the property, Robertson was determined not to lose out again.
Robertson hired a young writer named William Goldman, who later became an Oscar®-winning A-list screenwriter with such hits as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and All the President's Men (1976). Goldman had never written a screenplay before but armed with a few how-to books, he wrote a first draft of the film, which he called Good Old Charley Gordon.
When Robertson showed Daniel Keyes Goldman's draft, the cover page had been removed so Keyes could not see who had written it. Keyes hated it. The spelling of the lead character's name had been inexplicably changed from "Charlie" to "Charley." Plus, the script had an implausible upbeat Hollywood ending-something Keyes had feared all along. "I told Robertson I didn't care for the script," recalled Keyes in his 1999 book Algernon, Charlie and I: A Writer's Journey. "He said nothing and took it back."
Cliff Robertson then assigned a new writer to the project, Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night ), and William Goldman's script was shelved. Keyes had no idea until years later that William Goldman had written the draft he had rejected. It wasn't until he picked up a copy of Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman's popular book, and saw that Goldman had devoted an entire chapter to his experience with writing Charly, which he credited with getting him started in the film business.
Charly was shot on location in Boston, which was a change from the original story's setting of New York City, and it was directed by Ralph Nelson (Requiem for a Heavyweight , Lilies of the Field ). Robertson, wanting the film to be cutting edge, sent Ralph Nelson to Expo 67, the 1967 World's Fair in Canada, to learn about the newest movie making technology. He wanted Charly to have a modern look, utilizing multiple images and split-screen techniques.
For the female lead of Charly's psychiatrist and love interest, Robertson hired respected stage and screen actress Claire Bloom.
Reviews of the film were generally positive, especially praising Cliff Robertson's performance as the title character. "Charly emerges a peculiar combination of sentimentalized documentary, romance, science fiction and social drama," said Variety, and the Long Island Press called it "Dynamic...a chilling ending that speaks volumes."
Cliff Robertson's investment in Charly paid off, and won him the Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance. The movie's success also helped book sales for Flowers for Algernon, which had been expanded into a novel and was used as an educational tool in schools across America. Bantam Books, the publisher, launched a joint project with the film where it sponsored a series of screenings for educators in major cities at which Cliff Robertson would often make personal appearances.
Producer: Ralph Nelson, Selig J. Seligman
Director: Ralph Nelson
Screenplay: Daniel Keyes, Stirling Silliphant
Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz
Film Editing: Fredric Steinkamp
Art Direction: Charles Rosen
Music: Ravi Shankar
Cast: Cliff Robertson (Charly Gordon), Claire Bloom (Alice Kinian), Lilia Skala (Dr. Anna Straus), Leon Janney (Dr. Richard Nemur), Ruth White (Mrs. Apple), Dick Van Patten (Bert).
C-103m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Andrea Passafiume
Charly on DVD
Instead, I had a more mixed reaction to the new DVD of Charly. It's the story of a mentally retarded man who undergoes a brain operation that makes him smarter, but the effects of which turn out to be unexpectedly temporary (a premise similar to more recent movies such as Awakenings and Phenomenon). Although the movie promises to go off the deep end several times, often due to its questionable use of the split-screens and super-impositions that were in vogue in the late 1960s, as well as a rather unconvincing romance, somehow it remains respectable, if not always as dramatic as it intends.
Robertson, most recognizable to younger moviegoers as Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, had seen other live-TV dramas in which he'd starred, including The Hustler and The Days of Wine and Roses, go to the big screen without him. So he optioned the rights to Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon after he starred in its 1961 TV production as Charly Gordon, the mentally-retarded man longing to be smarter, and shepherded the production himself. Robertson's Oscar® win was no doubt in part a nod of respect for his smarts and perseverance, but his performance is also underplayed in relation to most similar roles, like, say, Sean Penn in I Am Sam. Robertson doesn't overplay the affliction so much that you can't see the person behind it.
Charly first appears as a limited man who's not afraid to push himself to learn, whether it's in the ESL class taught by Alice Kinnian (Claire Bloom) or at the clinic where she brings Charly for therapy. There, scientists measure his smarts against those of a mouse named Algernon, who's had the same brain operation Charly eventually does. One of the stretches in the story finds Charly not only gaining normal intelligence after the operation, but becoming a genius. Another is his deepened relationship with Alice. Charly dimly links sexual urge with brain power, figuring that the boyish Charly of the opening has no urges, but post-op Charly is suddenly a torrent of hormones. What's worse, emotionally immature Charly jumps Alice's bones and she fights him off, only to soon dump her fiance for a guy who attacked her. In between, there's the movie's jaw-dropping "freak-out" montage in which Charly apparently becomes a biker; I thought this sequence had to be some sort of rage-fueled fantasy in Charly's head, but in the next scene, in which Alice returns to him, she does indeed make passing reference to his motorcycle, which he has decided to sell (so why include the biker "freak-out" at all?).
Charly has pretty much run off the tracks at that point. What keeps the drama somewhat tethered is the earthiness director Ralph Nelson, another live-TV vet, gives the story. Charly is not nearly so slick as it might be today (there was a 2000 cable-movie remake that I have not seen), and the shots of Charly's urban neighborhood, his scenes at the industrial bakery where he works and the way his eyes are opened to the world around him unexpectedly recall Brando's Terry Malloy and On the Waterfront. To some small degree, Charly shares an East Coast grit with Elia Kazan's movie, and that adds a little edge and heart to it.
If the atmosphere holds up, the message in Charly doesn't date so well. Charly discovers the effects of the operation might be temporary by seeing Algernon's regression just before the clinic's scientists are about to trot him out as their prized patient at a conference. Charly then unloads on the attending scientists for wanting to mess with him or anyone else. Charly was a 1960s cry for respecting nature's ways and not messing with them, but the message gets awfully muddled by the fact that, after his big speech, genius Charly spends the next scenes trying to come up with scientific ways to head off his own regression. Today, it feels as if Charly is madder at the scientists for botching the job than for using him as a guinea pig.
It's hard to imagine someone today grabbing Charly off a video store shelf, coming to it cold and getting much out of it. Even with its historical context, the movie seems at odds with itself ('50s method setting vs. '60s freak-outs, an anti-science movie with lots of scientific jargon, etc.). The new Charly DVD includes no extras that might impart any of that context. It's a shame Robertson wasn't brought in for a commentary track or at least an interview featurette. He's a fascinating raconteur who, in a 1996 interview, told me of his script for a Charly sequel for which he hoped to reunite the original's cast and shoot again in Boston. That, of course, never happened. But I'm sure Robertson has some interesting tales about why it didn't.
For more information about Charly, visit MGM Home Video. To order Charly, go to TCM Shopping.
by Paul Sherman
Charly on DVD
Cliff Robertson saw more than one TV production he'd starred in turned into hit movies with other actors (such as Days of Wine and Roses), so when he starred in the 1961 "U.S. Steel Hour" production of "The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon," based on the novella "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes, he bought the rights, and later was responsible for turning that story into this film.
Filmed on location in and around Boston; split-screen techniques are used in several sequences. The original story ("Flowers for Algernon," in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1959) was first produced in 1961 as The Two Worlds of Charly Gordon on CBS-TV's "U. S. Steel Hour" and starred Cliff Robertson in the original role of Charly.
Voted One of the Year's Ten Best English-language Films by the National Board of Review.
Released in United States Summer July 1968
Released in United States June 1998
Shown at Florida Film Festival (Special 30th Anniversary Screening) June 12-21, 1998.
Released in USA on video.
Released in United States Summer July 1968
Released in United States June 1998 (Shown at Florida Film Festival (Special 30th Anniversary Screening) June 12-21, 1998.)
Voted Best Actor (Robertson) by the 1968 National Board of Review.