Hollywood's Dilemma about Posthumous Releases: Audience's Reactions to Films Distributed after the Death of Their Stars Have Reflected Mixed Results. (Entertainment)
Gehring, Wes D., USA TODAY
WHEN JAMES DEAN DIED with two movies yet to be released, Warner Bros. Pictures saw catastrophe. Jack Warner bluntly observed, "Nobody will come and see a corpse." He could not have been more wrong. Both Dean films--"Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) and "Giant" (1956)--turned out to be major critical and commercial hits. There is no set pattern as to how an audience will respond to a picture released after the death of its star.
During the first half of the 1930s, celebrated humorist Will Rogers was arguably the most-popular figure in the movies. In fact, he reigned supreme in every entertainment medium of the time, from a daily newspaper column widely syndicated across the country to success in radio and on the stage. Moreover, his often politically tinged humor books were bestsellers that helped make him, to borrow a 1926 title, a "Self-Made Diplomat to His President." Not surprisingly, his 1932 support for Franklin Roosevelt was instrumental in getting the New York governor elected president of the U.S.
Given Rogers' many talents and interests, he had long embraced the infant aviation industry to get him around the country as quickly as possible. In August, 1935, he joined his famous flyer friend Wiley Post in an ill-fated flight to the USSR, by way of Alaska. Their plane crash deaths shocked the nation, with many commentators suggesting that not since the assassination of Pres. Abraham Lincoln had the country been so moved by a tragedy.
A nervous 20th Century Fox was sitting on two completed, but unreleased, Rogers films--"Steamboat 'Round the Bend" and "In Old Kentucky." While no one at the studio seriously considered shelving the pictures, there was concern that the public might find two posthumous releases in poor taste and stay away. Yet, just the opposite occurred. So many fans honored Rogers with their ticket-buying presence that these final movies helped make the humorist the top male box office draw of 1935. (He was only commercially bested by a diminutive newcomer named Shirley Temple.) Indeed, "Steamboat" and "Kentucky" proved so popular that Fox was soon rereleasing earlier Rogers films, such as the 1936 appearance of the 1933 "Dr. Bull."
The 1937 death from uremic poisoning as a result of cerebal edema of the original blonde bombshell, 26-year-old Jean Harlow, constituted a different dilemma for parent studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The actress died during the production of the horse racing picture "Saratoga," which also starred Clark Gable. MGM was initially afraid it would have to take a loss on the picture. Nevertheless, with the creative use of Harlow's standin, Mary Dees--showing merely a shoulder here or a backside there--enough footage was salvaged to release the movie. Despite these distractions, "Saratoga" still manages to be an entertaining picture.
Indeed, the film proved to be both a major critical and commercial success. However, whereas Rogers' fans seemed anxious to generate some sort of loving closure by way of his posthumous films, the box office clout of "Saratoga," at least in part, was of a more-macabre nature. Period commentators credited the high patron turnout to a genuine viewer curiosity as to whether they could differentiate between the Harlow and Dees footage. While there were undoubtedly many loyal Harlow fans in attendance, too, the movie's commercial success was not necessarily America's finest hour.
At this point, it might seem that any film fatality could be parlayed into a box office hit, but the next example of a major star dying before a movie's release quickly disproves this premise. The victim was Carole Lombard, the country's designated "Screwball Comedy Girl," the eccentric heroine of such classics of the genre as "My Man Godfrey" (1936) and "Nothing Sacred" (1937). Nicknamed the "Hoosier Tornado," she returned to her native Indiana in early 1942 to kick off America's first war bond-selling rally of World War II. Anxious to return to Hollywood and husband Clark Gable, she cancelled her train reservations and booked an airplane flight, which crashed in the mountains near Las Vegas.
Lombard's death occurred a month before the opening of her dark comedy about German dictator Adolf Hitler and the war, "To Be or Not to Be" (1942). Unlike "Saratoga," where added footage needed to be shot, Lombard's death necessitated some of it being cut. The story had her involved with a flyer (Robert Stack), and director Ernst Lubitsch tweaked a couple of aviation-related scenes he felt audiences might find in poor taste, given that Lombard had just died in a plane crash.
This deleted footage was the least of Lubitsch's worries. Lombard's legion of fans seemed to honor their favorite star by staying away from her final film. However, this less-than-stellar performance at the box office cannot simply be blamed upon depressed viewers. A greater factor was no doubt her death in conjunction with the groundbreaking nature of the movie--a pioneering example of dark comedy.
While "To Be or Not to Be" is now a celebrated film (the American Film Institute selected it as one of the 100 funniest movies ever made), it may have been ahead of its time in 1942. Among its critics, The New York Times' Bosley Crowther was scathing in his attack on the picture: "To say it was callous and macabre is understating the case." Ironically, the type of dialogue which most offended him is now routinely quoted as an entertainingly classic example of dark comedy writing. Sig Ruman's comic Nazi criticizes Jack Benny's in-film "Hamlet" performance by observing, "What he did to Shakespeare, we are doing to Poland."
One should hasten to add that the movie was a posthumous triumph for Lombard, with Newsweek summarizing it best: "Lombard has never been better.... Her Maria Tura is an attractive, intelligently humorous characterization that is all too rare on the screen and will be rarer from now on." Still, Crowther's 1942 take on dark comedy as being in poor taste was probably a better "reading" of period audiences, because "To Be or Not to Be" proved a disappointment at the box office.
Of course, neither Warner nor anyone else could have predicted the instant cult status accorded James Dean with his 1955 death in an automobile accident. As author Derek Marlowe later observed in a 1976 New York magazine piece on the persistence of the actor's hold over the young, "When Dean was killed and `Rebel Without a Cause' was released, the farm boy from Indiana was elected hero by his generation." It's a position--martyred symbol--that young people have kept him in ever since.
Whereas "To Be or Not to Be" had been a groundbreaking dark comedy the public had not been able to embrace (indeed, Lombard's death made the genre all the more distasteful, like punishment for making light of serious subjects), "Rebel" was a more-palatable groundbreaker, at least for the young. Here was a family melodrama where the parents, not the children, were causing the pain.
Through the years, melodrama has often made a cottage industry out of martyred mothers, such as "Mildred Pierce" (1945) and the two versions each of "Imitation of Life" (1934, 1959) and "Stella Dallas" (1937, 1990, the latter simply titled "Stella"). In this pro-parents scenario, even grown children continue to cause pain, from the gut-wrenching separation of the elderly couple in the classic "Make Way for Tomorrow" (1937) to kids more concerned about appearances than their mother's happiness in "All That Heaven Allows" (1955).
"Rebel," therefore, broadsided the traditional melodrama equation. Each of the young principals (James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo) was fearfully insecure because of the inadequacies and/or absence of his or her parents. Their dangerous teenage activities, such as the film's "chicken run" (staying in a racing car as long as possible before it goes over a cliff), were both a cry for attention and an embracing of something real in a world layered with "phoniness," to borrow a pivotal word from James Dean's literary counterpart, Holden Caulfield, in 1951's The Catcher in the Rye.
Unlike Lombard's passing, so jarringly contradictory to her signature screwball roles, Dean's death in a speeding car seemed like yet more evidence that the actor really was that vulnerable character he was playing in the movies. Moreover, his method acting techniques, from the halting speech to the awkward twists of his expressive body, endeared him to young viewers who said, "That's me." This breakable quality helped make him not a hero, but the then-new "anti-hero." Holden Caulfield describes a fight he lost, "I don't remember if he knocked me out or not, but I don't think so. It's pretty hard to knock a guy out, except in the goddamn movies." Dean's "Rebel" did not seem like the "goddamn movies" to his young fans. It was a slice-of-reality torn from their own lives.
Dean's second posthumous release, "Giant," was also a critical and commercial success, in part because of the almost-religious cult that had by now grown up around this young man. By this time, the year after his death, more than 4,000,000 people in the U.S. alone belonged to James Dean fan clubs, and his likeness was being marketed on every product imaginable. Warner Bros. was flooded with thousands of Dean fan letters each week, many from young viewers who refused to believe the actor had died. One popular myth was that he had survived the automobile accident, but was horribly disfigured. Consequently, he had gone into hiding. America had not seen such public hysteria since the death of Rudolph Valentino, shortly after the release of his last hit film, "The Son of the Sheik" (1926).
Though elements of the Dean phenomenon continue to this very day, rivaled only by comparable cults devoted to Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley (a major Dean fan), Dean's public much prefers "Rebel" over "Giant." While the actor was even more critically acclaimed for "Giant" (receiving an Oscar nomination, as he had for 1955's "East of Eden"), his "Rebel" character is more consistent with the aforementioned youthful method acting vulnerability that has become his trademark. In contrast, "Giant" showcases Dean as a mere supporting player who is neither as central to the story nor as sympathetic. Indeed, viewers ultimately see his character become a drunkenly racist old man.
Compared to the sudden shooting star quality of Dean's emergence, the next major name performer to die before the movie's release was strictly old school--Clark Gable. Five years after "Giant," he costarred with Monroe in "The Misfits" (1961). Gable's durability as a romantic leading man might best be defined by the fact that the blonde bombshells of two generations (Harlow and Monroe) would make their last movie with him. Gable died of a heart attack before "The Misfits" opened. (Monroe committed suicide the year after its release.)
Like Lombard's "To Be or Not to Be," numerous critics praised "The Misfits," but it was a commercial disappointment. Although starting the mainstream Gable, in some ways the picture owed more than a little to the method acting revolution that produced Dean. Three of Gable's costars (Monroe, Montgomery Clift, and Eli Wallach) had logged time with the New York Actors Studio that helped spawn Dean. Even the story, about an aging cowboy (Gable) in the modern antiheroic West (the wild mustangs they are tracking are to be sold to a dog-food manufacturer), aspired to the realism so central to the Actors Studio.
This was not, however, the kind of picture a traditional Gable fan wanted to see, even with Monroe's compassion for the horses resulting in his last-minute freeing of the animals. Those who skipped the movie missed a tour de force performance from Gable, who had decided to do many of his own stunts in the grueling pursuit of the mustangs, which quite possibly contributed to his death from a heart attack shortly after the production shut down.
Another posthumous swan song from a second major star during Hollywood's golden age occurred in 1961 when Gary Cooper died before the release of "The Naked Edge." There was a certain irony in his outliving Gable by a few months, since Cooper had long ago established "The King" as the screen rival he most wanted to best at everything. (In pre-World War II Hollywood, after the death of Rogers, Gable was the dominant box office star--thus the title of "The King.")
Regardless, the public response to "The Naked Edge" was not unlike the box office take for "The Misfits"--disappointing. Again, as Gable did in his final role, much of "The Naked Edge" has Cooper playing against type. The suspense thriller has his screen wife (Deborah Kerr) thinking he is guilty of murder. Still, one might have assumed greater returns for both pictures, given the coverage accorded their deaths. Indeed, Cooper's lingering death (from cancer) had even given the movie industry time to honor him in 1961 with a lifetime achievement Academy Award, which was accepted on his behalf by distraught close friend James Stewart. (Cooper died less than a month later.)
The third 1930s superstar to have a posthumous film release in the 1960s was Spencer Tracy. "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967) reversed the mediocre final commercial showings of his two illustrious contemporaries. Of course, "Dinner" had the box office boost of a then-controversial mixed screen marriage (between Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton). Moreover, the picture also featured Tracy's nine-time costar and off-screen love Katharine Hepburn, though the public was not aware of their real-life relationship until long after his death.
While there are some who would opt for crediting the film's ultimate commercial success to controversy, many viewers (including my family) attended "Dinner" out of homage to the silver screen's greatest couple--Tracy and Hepburn. While Gable and Cooper had flirted with playing against type in their last pictures, "Dinner" gave Tracy and Hepburn fans a final moving dose of what had most attracted them in the past--a love story between two strong individuals willing to work hard at making a relationship endure. When Tracy ultimately gives his speech on why Poitier and Houghton deserve their chance at being a couple, his poignant references to Hepburn reverberate well past the "Dinner" storyline. One sees a montage of memorable Tracy/Hepburn moments, starting with "Woman of the Year" (1942) and best highlighted with "Adam's Rib" (1949) and "Pat and Mike" (1952). By the end of Tracy's talk, Hepburn is not the only one with tears in her eyes.
One's passion for Tracy's performance is further fueled by knowing the production background for "Dinner." The actor was in such poor health that he could not pass the all-important studio physical that would guarantee insurers picking up the tab if he failed to make it through the production. "Dinner" was only able to proceed when Hepburn and director Stanley Kramer waived their salaries in the event of Tracy's death. At the time, Tracy said this about Kramer, who was also responsible for the actor's previous three films: "I tell him my life expectancy is about seven and a half minutes and he says, `Action!' He's some kind of a nut or saint. Or both."
"Dinner" would go on to become a major critical and commercial success, snagging 10 Oscar nominations. Both Tracy and Hepburn would be included in the tally, although he would not live to know that. Fifteen days after finishing his portion of the movie, he was dead of a heart attack. Though Tracy did not win an Oscar for his performance, at that time no major category Academy Award statuette had ever been given posthumously. The unofficial Hollywood take on the subject was "Oscar was for the living." Consistent with this, Hepburn later credited her Academy Award for "Dinner" as really being for her beloved Tracy.
Other prominent performers have since died before their movies were released, but none match the stature of Rogers, Harlow, Lombard, Dean, Gable, Cooper, and Tracy. Three more recent deaths, however, merit noting for what might be called provocative reasons. First, Peter Finch's posthumous best actor Oscar for "Network" (1976) finally reversed Hollywood's tradition of reserving Academy Awards for the living. Second, Natalie Wood's 1981 death during the production of "Brainstorm" (released in 1983) triggered Hollywood's longest quandary to date over whether to shelve a film permanently or proceed with a revised story. Third, the dilemma of Oliver Reed's dying during the shooting of "Gladiator" (2000) was solved by state-of-the-art technology. Another actor was filmed in the remaining scenes, with computer graphics later making him appear to be Reed! Hollywood's acceptance of such an idea was evidenced by Reed's posthumous Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, though he lost to Benicio Del Toro (for "Traffic").
If one were to garner any posthumous postulates from this article it would be that the most popular of these focus films showcased a star in a typical role. The commercial disappointments (which involved Lombard's "To Be or Not to Be," Gable's "The Misfits, and Cooper's "The Naked Edge") all had stars pushing the envelope with regard to their established personas. Dean's sudden emergence as a new method acting meteorite might seem to be the exception, but one must remember his rebel image was already strongly established in the only starring feature that opened during his lifetime, "East of Eden." (Even the aforementioned melodrama-breaking precedents of "Rebel Without a Cause" have antecedents in "East of Eden.")
While "The Misfits" was a commercial disappointment, Gable's and Monroe's last lines on screen offer a haunting foreshadowing and metaphorical relevancy:
Monroe: "How do you find your way back in the dark?"
Gable: "Just head for that big star straight on. The highway's under it, and it'll take us fight home."
Drawn to darkened theaters to watch our favorite movie stars, the comfort zone they give us is predicated upon preestablished behavior. This is merely a variation upon the bedtime ritual synonymous with small children, as the repeated reading of the same stories provides a consoling constant in a world so often seen as chaotic. Thus, we like our film favorites (especially in last roles) to be as constant as the North Star.
Wes D. Gehring, Associate Mass Media Editor of USA Today, is professor of film, Ball State University, Muncie, Ind.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Hollywood's Dilemma about Posthumous Releases: Audience's Reactions to Films Distributed after the Death of Their Stars Have Reflected Mixed Results. (Entertainment). Contributors: Gehring, Wes D. - Author. Magazine title: USA TODAY. Volume: 131. Issue: 2696 Publication date: May 2003. Page number: 64+. © 2009 Society for the Advancement of Education. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.