The King of Marvin Gardens


1h 43m 1972

Brief Synopsis

A talk radio DJ gets involved with his brother's get rich quick scheme.

Film Details

Also Known As
The Philosopher King
MPAA Rating
Genre
Drama
Release Date
Oct 1972
Premiere Information
New York Film Festival screening: 12 Oct 1972; New York opening: 14 Oct 1972
Production Company
BBS Productions
Distribution Company
Columbia Pictures
Country
United States
Location
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New Jersey, USA; Atlantic City, New Jersey, United States; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 43m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Eastmancolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.85 : 1

Synopsis

One winter day, after relating a dramatic, but mostly invented tale about his childhood, late-night Philadelphia radio raconteur David Staebler receives an urgent call from his older brother Jason, from whom he has not heard in a year-and-a-half. Over the phone, Jason persuades David, who lives with his grandfather, to join him in Atlantic City. When David steps out of the Atlantic City train station, however, he is met only by Jason's flamboyant girl friend Sally and a brass band salute. Sally explains that Jason is in jail and needs his help getting out. Reluctantly the pensive, mild-mannered David visits Jason in jail and agrees to speak with Lewis, Jason's racketeer boss, on his behalf. Upon arriving at Lewis' establishment, however, David is ignored by the various bookies working the phones, then is taunted by an older black man. Frustrated, David leaves empty-handed, but later finds Jason, who was, in fact, bailed out by Lewis, cavorting on the boardwalk with Sally and her grown stepdaughter Jessica. The fast-talking Jason waxes poetic about Atlantic City in its heyday, when its sites, including the elegant Marvin Gardens, were featured on the Monopoly game board. As he escorts David to his suite in a rundown hotel, Jason explains that he is innocent of the felony theft charges against him but that Lewis has the power to press charges if he chooses. Jason then bombards David with a colorful sales pitch regarding his latest investment scheme, a plan to buy a Hawaiian island. Jason dreams of building a lavish resort casino on the island and wants David to handle the entertainment end of the business. Although Jason insists he already has six million dollars in investments and that Lewis is involved in the finances, David resists endorsing his brother's scheme. The next day, Sally becomes hysterical after she is nearly kicked out of the hotel suite for lack of payment. After convincing Surtees, the hotel manager, that he is legitimately trying to close a deal to sell the hotel for owner Lewis, Jason is allowed to stay, and Sally calms down. In the middle of the night, while holed up in the suite bathroom, David attempts to record his thoughts for his radio program and is interrupted by a curious Jessica. In the morning David momentarily lets his guard down, pretending with Jason to be an outrageous boardwalk salesman. Jason continues to press David to become his partner in the island scheme and hints that Jessica is attracted to him. Continuing his elaborate pitch, Jason rents the city's convention hall one night, so that he, Sally, Jessica and David can pretend they are participants in the Miss America Beauty Pageant. The foursome then dine with two Japanese businessmen to discuss the Hawaii deal. During the lobster dinner, David does his best to charm the Japanese but soon becomes aware that Jason has been less than honest about Lewis' involvement. At the same time, Sally notices Jason flirting with Jessica and grows despondent. Back in the hotel suite, David upbraids Jason for leading him on, just as he did two years before when they were supposed to travel the world together. Jason tries to diffuse David's anger by professing his brotherly love and continuing to talk eloquently about the island, which he plans to name Philosopher King in honor of David. The next day, Sally, convinced that she is a beauty has-been, burns her clothes on the beach and buries all her makeup in the sand. She then hacks off her long hair and tosses the pieces into the fire. Following Sally's tirade, David begins to compose a story on tape, in which he claims to have once lived like a hermit for eleven days. Noting that after six days alone, he felt like he was disappearing, David listens to the tape while rummaging through Sally's dresser drawers and discovers a gun. Late that night, while David is lying in Jason's bed, two black men slip into the room. David grabs Sally's gun and scares the men off, then confronts one of them in the hotel lobby. David deduces they were sent by Lewis and goes to meet the boss at a nightclub. There he is surprised to discover that Lewis is the older black man he met upon first arriving in Atlantic City. Lewis explains that, for years, Jason acted as his front man, helping him to complete deals in the South he would have otherwise been unable to negotiate as a black man. Now, Lewis complains, Jason has become "too big for his britches" and is trying to act like his partner instead of his employee. After Lewis makes clear that he will put Jason back in jail if he persists in his schemes, David returns to the hotel and angrily informs Jason he is going home. Sally, who assumes Jason intends to dump her for Jessica, joins in the argument, brandishing her gun while screaming in fury. When Jason brushes off Sally's threats, she fires several rounds into his chest, killing him. Soon after, David escorts Jason's coffin back to Philadelphia and wonders on his radio broadcast how anything "serious" could ever happen to his carefree brother. David cries before signing off, then returns home to his grandfather, who has stayed up late to project home movies of a young Jason and David on his bedroom wall.

Film Details

Also Known As
The Philosopher King
MPAA Rating
Genre
Drama
Release Date
Oct 1972
Premiere Information
New York Film Festival screening: 12 Oct 1972; New York opening: 14 Oct 1972
Production Company
BBS Productions
Distribution Company
Columbia Pictures
Country
United States
Location
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New Jersey, USA; Atlantic City, New Jersey, United States; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 43m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Eastmancolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.85 : 1

Articles

The King of Marvin Gardens


Every New Wave has its myths and legends, and arguably the paradigmatic tale of the American New Wave is the arc of BBS Productions. Beginning, unlikely enough, with the success of the manufactured teen-pop absurdity of The Monkees television show, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson's mini-empire expanded in the heartbeat of Easy Rider (1969), a low-budget project beginning as a quasi-Corman biker film with pretensions toward social profundity and, it was thought, little chance of doing more than earning its low six figures back. A stunning 10,000% box office return later, BBS was riding the Yankee Wave as pointman, splitting the difference between John Cassavetes and Arthur Penn, and defying the already-dissolving wisdom of Hollywood by making money with small, cool, despairing slices of Fringe America that never resorted to violence or action, but instead took the nation's pulse in a time of cataclysmic unease.

The films, most famously Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The Last Picture Show (1971), strove to out-neo-realist the neo-realists, reflecting the French and Czech yen for grit, natural light and off-screen life, paving the way and inspiring imitators from Martin Scorsese and Monte Hellman to Sidney Lumet. (Lumet, like many, didn't make movies the same way after 1969 as he did before.) Quite suddenly, after some 65 years of conscientiously mustering implausible daydreams, Hollywood was in the truth business, and it seemed that American movies had finally grown up. Easy Rider could be taken as a bit of cool wish-fulfillment, but Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces cut deeper across American grain, with Jack Nicholson's Nowhere Man, caught between high culture and wage slavery, between desert and mountains, between rebellion and self-pity, becoming the new decade's iconic pilgrim, identifiable to all age groups. Thus, the follow-up film took everyone by surprise: Rafelson's The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) didn't pretend to speak for any generational Zeitgeist, nor did it express a national open-highway restlessness, nor did it even capitalize on Nicholson's newly-famous swagger. Instead, the film plumbed a musty, creepy corner of all-American dead-end-ism, telling a kind of frustrating truth to a 1972 America that had just grown to like their homegrown existentialism with a little more road-movie wistfulness and a lot more "freedom."

The first thing we see is Jack in shadowy close-up, dryly telling a childhood story about his grandfather keeling over while choking on a fish bone. Only after six uninterrupted minutes do we realize that Nicholson is in a broadcast booth, storytelling on a Philadelphia radio show, after which he returns to his family manse and his very alive grandfather, irritated by the fictional story. We know immediately that this is an America where nothing is quite as it seems, or exactly what we're told. Nicholson's David Staebler is just as lost as Five Easy Pieces' Bobby Dupea, but he's no extrovert - everything for David is kept under a tight pot lid, Nicholson's wary lizard eyes taking everything in but showing us nothing. The man's self-restricted mini-universe of semi-truth is upset with a call from his jack-rabbit older brother, Jason (Bruce Dern), who's been arrested in Atlantic City.

David's journey into the dusty, desolate layers of off-season A.C. is beautifully conceived; the city's elliptical identity, mysterious underworld, barren tourist locales, and sense of last-resort desperation perfectly reflecting Jason and his headful of get-rich-quick schemes and delusions, and David is the pilgrim traversing both obscure wildernesses. (Critic J. Hoberman called it "an end-of-the-road movie.") Like life as a grifter or mob-connected real-estate mogul in any derelict resort town (we're pretty sure Jason is the former, but only a little luck and gall could make him the latter), the film involves a lot of waiting, as Jason and David negotiate equally ill-defined relationships with the floozie hangers-on team of Sally (a tawdry Ellen Burstyn) and Jessie (the rather ghostly Julia Anne Robinson, in her only film), who may be stepmother and stepdaughter, or not, but who are in some sort of unmentionable sexual competition, and who are both just as stuck on the edge of civilization, waiting for the American Dream in the rambunctious, unstable person of Jason to make good on its sky-high promise.

Jason has a big tropical-island sales deal up in the air, which David knows very well might just be a fat daydream and nothing more (except that the local mob and some Japanese investors are in on it, somehow), and so The King of Marvin Gardens is actually about the barely articulated history between the two brothers. Their parents are barely mentioned; what we glean from the actors' masterful physical interfacing and what they don't talk about amounts to a locked closet full of family secrets, all the more powerful for not being catalogued and explained for us. Of course in the process the situation between the four characters is in a state of collapse, as David seems to have imperceptibly quaffed Jason's pipe dream Kool-Aid, Sally dissolves into a full-on character meltdown, and the impossibility of Jason's plans becomes more and more apparent.

This was the Nixon era, after all, when disillusionment was the watch-word for every generation, and the American brand had lost its certainty and left its natives wandering. Movies that nailed down the nation's psychosocial crisis weren't hard to find. Inspired and iconic every step of the way, right up to when David impulsively rummages through Sally and Jason's nightstand and finds, ominously, a vibrator (Hollywood movies' first?) and a loaded handgun, The King of Marvin Gardens is as eloquent as any '70s film, and would be an overlooked masterpiece just for its amazing and heartbreaking final shot, a home movie within the movie, of two boys at the beach, left to run off its projector.

Producer: Bob Rafelson
Director: Bob Rafelson
Screenplay: Jacob Brackman (screenplay); Bob Rafelson, Jacob Brackman (story)
Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs
Production Design: Toby Carr Rafelson
Film Editing: John F. Link II
Cast: Jack Nicholson (David Staebler), Bruce Dern (Jason Staebler), Ellen Burstyn (Sally), Julia Anne Robinson (Jessica), 'Scatman' Crothers (Lewis), Charles LaVine (Grandfather), Arnold Williams (Rosko), John Ryan (Surtees), Sully Boyar (Lebowitz), Josh Mostel (Frank).
C-103m.

by Michael Atkinson
The King Of Marvin Gardens

The King of Marvin Gardens

Every New Wave has its myths and legends, and arguably the paradigmatic tale of the American New Wave is the arc of BBS Productions. Beginning, unlikely enough, with the success of the manufactured teen-pop absurdity of The Monkees television show, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson's mini-empire expanded in the heartbeat of Easy Rider (1969), a low-budget project beginning as a quasi-Corman biker film with pretensions toward social profundity and, it was thought, little chance of doing more than earning its low six figures back. A stunning 10,000% box office return later, BBS was riding the Yankee Wave as pointman, splitting the difference between John Cassavetes and Arthur Penn, and defying the already-dissolving wisdom of Hollywood by making money with small, cool, despairing slices of Fringe America that never resorted to violence or action, but instead took the nation's pulse in a time of cataclysmic unease. The films, most famously Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The Last Picture Show (1971), strove to out-neo-realist the neo-realists, reflecting the French and Czech yen for grit, natural light and off-screen life, paving the way and inspiring imitators from Martin Scorsese and Monte Hellman to Sidney Lumet. (Lumet, like many, didn't make movies the same way after 1969 as he did before.) Quite suddenly, after some 65 years of conscientiously mustering implausible daydreams, Hollywood was in the truth business, and it seemed that American movies had finally grown up. Easy Rider could be taken as a bit of cool wish-fulfillment, but Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces cut deeper across American grain, with Jack Nicholson's Nowhere Man, caught between high culture and wage slavery, between desert and mountains, between rebellion and self-pity, becoming the new decade's iconic pilgrim, identifiable to all age groups. Thus, the follow-up film took everyone by surprise: Rafelson's The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) didn't pretend to speak for any generational Zeitgeist, nor did it express a national open-highway restlessness, nor did it even capitalize on Nicholson's newly-famous swagger. Instead, the film plumbed a musty, creepy corner of all-American dead-end-ism, telling a kind of frustrating truth to a 1972 America that had just grown to like their homegrown existentialism with a little more road-movie wistfulness and a lot more "freedom." The first thing we see is Jack in shadowy close-up, dryly telling a childhood story about his grandfather keeling over while choking on a fish bone. Only after six uninterrupted minutes do we realize that Nicholson is in a broadcast booth, storytelling on a Philadelphia radio show, after which he returns to his family manse and his very alive grandfather, irritated by the fictional story. We know immediately that this is an America where nothing is quite as it seems, or exactly what we're told. Nicholson's David Staebler is just as lost as Five Easy Pieces' Bobby Dupea, but he's no extrovert - everything for David is kept under a tight pot lid, Nicholson's wary lizard eyes taking everything in but showing us nothing. The man's self-restricted mini-universe of semi-truth is upset with a call from his jack-rabbit older brother, Jason (Bruce Dern), who's been arrested in Atlantic City. David's journey into the dusty, desolate layers of off-season A.C. is beautifully conceived; the city's elliptical identity, mysterious underworld, barren tourist locales, and sense of last-resort desperation perfectly reflecting Jason and his headful of get-rich-quick schemes and delusions, and David is the pilgrim traversing both obscure wildernesses. (Critic J. Hoberman called it "an end-of-the-road movie.") Like life as a grifter or mob-connected real-estate mogul in any derelict resort town (we're pretty sure Jason is the former, but only a little luck and gall could make him the latter), the film involves a lot of waiting, as Jason and David negotiate equally ill-defined relationships with the floozie hangers-on team of Sally (a tawdry Ellen Burstyn) and Jessie (the rather ghostly Julia Anne Robinson, in her only film), who may be stepmother and stepdaughter, or not, but who are in some sort of unmentionable sexual competition, and who are both just as stuck on the edge of civilization, waiting for the American Dream in the rambunctious, unstable person of Jason to make good on its sky-high promise. Jason has a big tropical-island sales deal up in the air, which David knows very well might just be a fat daydream and nothing more (except that the local mob and some Japanese investors are in on it, somehow), and so The King of Marvin Gardens is actually about the barely articulated history between the two brothers. Their parents are barely mentioned; what we glean from the actors' masterful physical interfacing and what they don't talk about amounts to a locked closet full of family secrets, all the more powerful for not being catalogued and explained for us. Of course in the process the situation between the four characters is in a state of collapse, as David seems to have imperceptibly quaffed Jason's pipe dream Kool-Aid, Sally dissolves into a full-on character meltdown, and the impossibility of Jason's plans becomes more and more apparent. This was the Nixon era, after all, when disillusionment was the watch-word for every generation, and the American brand had lost its certainty and left its natives wandering. Movies that nailed down the nation's psychosocial crisis weren't hard to find. Inspired and iconic every step of the way, right up to when David impulsively rummages through Sally and Jason's nightstand and finds, ominously, a vibrator (Hollywood movies' first?) and a loaded handgun, The King of Marvin Gardens is as eloquent as any '70s film, and would be an overlooked masterpiece just for its amazing and heartbreaking final shot, a home movie within the movie, of two boys at the beach, left to run off its projector. Producer: Bob Rafelson Director: Bob Rafelson Screenplay: Jacob Brackman (screenplay); Bob Rafelson, Jacob Brackman (story) Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs Production Design: Toby Carr Rafelson Film Editing: John F. Link II Cast: Jack Nicholson (David Staebler), Bruce Dern (Jason Staebler), Ellen Burstyn (Sally), Julia Anne Robinson (Jessica), 'Scatman' Crothers (Lewis), Charles LaVine (Grandfather), Arnold Williams (Rosko), John Ryan (Surtees), Sully Boyar (Lebowitz), Josh Mostel (Frank). C-103m. by Michael Atkinson

Quotes

You notice how it's Monopoly out there? Remember Boardwalk, Park Place, Marvin Gardens?
- Jason Staebler
Go directly to jail?
- David Staebler
Well, that's me. Don't pass go, don't collect $200.
- Jason Staebler

Trivia

Notes

The working title of this film was The Philosopher King. Bob Rafelson's onscreen credit reads: "Produced and directed by Bob Rafelson." The picture opens with Jack Nicholson, as his character "David Staebler," relating a story about his childhood. The entire six-minute monologue is rendered in a single, darkly lit close-up shot. Modern sources claim that this close-up is one of the longest in American film history. Onscreen credits then begin, superimposed over shots of David leaving the station where he has been broadcasting his radio show and making his way home. Instrumental snippets of the Harold R. Atteridge and Harry Carroll song "By the Beautiful Sea" are heard at the beginning of the film.
       Although Julia Anne Robinson made her screen acting debut in the 1972 Canadian film A Fan's Note, that film was never released in the U.S. and had very limited release elsewhere. Toby Carr Rafelson, who was married to the director at the time of production, earned her first credit as an art director on The King of Marvin Gardens. Previously she had worked as a set decorator on Bob Rafelson's 1970 BBS Productions release Five Easy Pieces. A December 1971 Variety news item noted that Happenings Productions, Inc. was a subsidiary of BBS Productions and was the producing company on The King of Marvin Gardens. No other source lists Happenings Productions in connection with this picture, however. According to the same news item, the production received permission from the mayor of Atlantic City to shoot scenes at various locales, including City Hall and Convention Hall, after the mayor read the script and determined that the film would garner "good publicity" for the city. Shooting also took place in Philadelphia, according to contemporary reviews, and modern sources include the New Jersey shore as a locale as well.
       Many reviewers compared The King of Marvin Gardens unfavorably to Five Easy Pieces, which also starred Nicholson and was a critical and box-office hit. Modern sources note that Nicholson's character was inspired in part by Rafelson's experiences as a disc jockey in Japan. The role of David's brother, "Jason Staebler," was written with Bruce Dern in mind, according to modern sources, and screenwriter Jacob Brackman initially wanted Dern to play the radio host. In the end, however, Rafelson chose to have Nicholson, who was known for his loud and flashy portrayals, play against type. The King of Marvin Gardens marked the fourth time that Dern and Nicholson appeared together in a picture. According to modern sources, Nicholson wrote the film's closing monologue, in which he talks about his brother's death, and improvised dialogue in other scenes. Modern sources also note that the film's budget was under $1,000,000, and that the stars worked for union scale.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1972

Released in United States 1996

Released in United States October 12, 1972

Released in United States on Video July 7, 1993

Re-released in United States on Video February 2, 1994

Shown at New York Film Festival October 12, 1972.

Released in United States 1972

Released in United States 1996 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Out of the Seventies: Hollywood's New Wave 1969-1975" May 31 - July 25, 1996.)

Re-released in United States on Video February 2, 1994

Released in United States on Video July 7, 1993

Released in United States October 12, 1972 (Shown at New York Film Festival October 12, 1972.)