If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
When the producer is Ross Hunter, you go to him. He greeted his visitor at 10 a.m. last Monday in his suite at the Ambassador East. He was garbed in a blue silk dressing gown with Japanese sleeves, and he apologized, but - well, it was 10 in the morning, you know. His latest film: "Thoroughly Modern Millie."
When the producer is Dolores Taylor. she comes to you. I greeted my visitor at 3 p.m. last Monday in the hallway of The Sun-Times. I was wearing a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the tie undone. I apologized, but - well, it was 3 in the afternoon, you know.
Her latest film: "Born Losers." Hunter is the long-time golden boy at Universal Studios. Everything he touches turns into negotiable securities. He has produced 38 movies, and they have grossed $175,000,000. Among them were "Magnificent Obsession," "Imitation of Life" and "Pillow Talk." In gratitude, Universal allotted him $75,000,000 back in 1964 to make lots more movies.
Miss Taylor is the new golden girl at American-International. Everything she touches turns into an exploitation film. She has produced three movies. The first two were "The Proper Time" and "The Young Sinner," and neither made much money. "Born Losers," however, has taken off so quickly that it promises to become the most profitable film ever released by American-International.
Hunter is in the time-honored image of the Hollywood producer. He talks about millions of dollars, he flies around the country, he has a feeling for how people want to be entertained, and he is able to convert that feeling into big money at the box office. Indeed, he makes so much money for his studio that it even lets him loose occasionally to make a little movie just for himself - like his recent "The Pad."
Miss Taylor is an independent producer. But not an independent like John Wayne or Kirk Douglas, forming production companies for tax purposes and releasing films through established studios. She is a real independent - which means that she works out of her own living room and pocketbook, finds financial backers wherever she can, and sometimes has to stop filming to dig up more money.
When you get down to figuring things out you realize that Ross Hunter is very likely the biggest producer in the United States today, and that Delores Taylor is very likely the smallest (and also, by the way, the only woman now active). It was fascinating to talk to them on the same day.
"I've spent my life worrying about what the public wants," Hunter said. "In almost all of my films, I've tried to please great masses of people. In 'Imitation of Life,' for example, there was that sentimental death scene.
"Sure, I hid my head in my hands when that came on the screen. But I knew what I was doing. All over America, there were women who needed to go into the darkness of a theater and cry.
"And I made all those 'Tammy' pictures, too," he said. "I personally wouldn't want to go to one of them. Let's face it, I'd be nauseated. But somebody besides Disney had to make some good, clean little pictures to take the kids to. Tammy swept the nation. "I never kid myself. The times are so desperate, the life we lead is so worrisome, that people are hungry for light, escapist, cheerful, well done entertainment. Somebody has to supply it."
Hunter is very much the friendly, smooth type, completely at ease. He has boyish good looks at 41, wears dark-rimmed glasses, parts his hair like Ronald Regan. He makes every word sound as if he means it.
Miss Taylor, by way of contrast, was small, quiet, and spoke in a soft voice that made you wonder how this young woman, of all people, had produced a Hells' Angels picture. She is 31, has long, sun-bleached blond hair, and is terribly serious.
She sat with her hands folded in her lap and said: "We want people to talk about our pictures. We want people to go away impressed and involved. We want to change people's minds about things." She said "Born Losers" was inspired by newspaper stories in 1963 and 1964 about a series of shocking crimes which took place while bystanders watched but did not call the police.
"We wanted to dramatize one of these situations, and shock our audiences into realizing what was happening," she said. "We decided to use a motorcycle gang as our symbol. This was in 1964, long before the current vogue in Hell's Angels movies began. The reason we took so long to finish the movie was that we ran into money trouble. We had money to shoot for eight weeks, and in the middle of shooting, our star, Tom Laughlin, had to have an appendectomy. So we had to hunt up more money." Four studios offered to put up money to finish the picture if they could have the distribution rights, she said. She finally decided on American-International (which has distributed two other motorcycle pictures) for one reason: "They promised to let us keep complete control of the film. That was very important to us. We wanted control of the music, the editing, everything. And they kept their guarantee."
Hunter, musing about his multimillion-dollar productions, said they presented a lot of problems. "There is so much money involved, and so many people, that it's hard for anybody to keep on top of everything that happens," he said.
"Sometimes I wish American producers could do what European producers do all the time," he continued. "You know, make movies just for themselves. That's what I did with 'The Pad.' It's just a little film, a simple film, about a guy who loves classical music and doesn't know much about how to make conversation with girls. We used no sets. We rented a real apartment and used it for the 'pad'." He shook his head. "That was a movie made just to please me, not made to please millions, like 'Thoroughly Modern Millie,'" he said. "But you know what? Even with that one, I had trouble. The studio insisted on advertising it as a sex picture. And it wasn't. I finally pulled it from release, and fought the studio for six or seven months. l didn't want to see my little movie misrepresented."
Miss Taylor said she was "pleasantly surprised" by how much freedom American-lnternational gave her on "Born Losers." "But there was one thing we didn't think about," she said. "The advertising. I want to go on record right now as being very unhappy about the whole advertising campaign. Have you seen it? Those ads about boots, broads, bikes and bikinis - they're nauseating. This was a very serious, very personal picture. We've been fighting the studio but there's nothing we can do."
Hunter said he thought a lot of Hollywood movie companies are in a rut because they've been doing the same old things for too long. "We've been infiltrated by packagers, not producers," he said. "We have producers today who don't care about making movies. They only want to turn out a salable product. They think too much about costs. We're not developing new people. We need some fresh new blood."
Miss Taylor said she'll continue to operate as an independent, even though the success of "Born Losers" (which opens here August 18) has brought offers from two large studios. "The studios are always saying they want newcomers, fresh talent," she remarked. "But then they give you no opportunities to really accomplish something. I've learned a great deal more, working on my own."
And so there they were, at the end of the two interviews, Ross Hunter and Delores Taylor. A Hollywood tycoon and a young independent. Both sincere, both operating with their eyes open, both concerned about the state of the movies, and both shaking their heads and sounding discouraged.
I wish I could have introduced them to each other, so they could have shared their problems.
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