Based on a novel by Harold Robbins, The Carpetbaggers is trash of the glossy, leering, “lifestyles of the rich and bastardly” variety, which of course is the reason anyone would watch it. One of the big hits of 1964, it’s part of Hollywood’s attempt in that era to catch up with Britain, France, Italy, and other European countries whose movies were frankly admitting that their characters had sex out of wedlock and perhaps not even in the missionary position. Hollywood’s version is that characters may behave in this way, but they’re terribly unhappy. This was as Britain was not only giving us James Bond but the Oscar-winning and guilt-free good times of Tom Jones.
The story is improvised from the life and legend of Howard Hughes (although apparently Robbins denied this, fruitlessly). When callow Jonas Cord (George Peppard) mouths off to his daddy (Leif Erickson), who’s trying to dress him down about his amorous escapades, the old man promptly drops dead of a convenient aneurism and is required to spend no more time in the picture. Jonas takes over dad’s aircraft firm and runs it like a spendthrift visionary. Then he goes to Hollywood and becomes a director and studio tycoon, making a star out of his sexpot stepmom (Carroll Baker) and inflicting misery on his wife (Elizabeth Ashley), who suffers nobly while trying to stand by her man, even after the d-i-v-o-r-c-e. While Jonas is transforming into his hated father and seethes with fury if anyone calls him “crazy”, he’s motivated by a dark secret and childhood trauma, whose hints cause Edward Dmytryk’s otherwise flat widescreen direction to get darkly expressionist while Elmer Bernstein’s grand score burbles with turmoil.
Ooh, he’s complicated—a ruthless, selfish genius who makes and ruins people on a whim, as the opening narration tells us bluntly. Shades of Charles Foster Kane? They wish. Childhood mentor Nevada Smith (Alad Ladd in his final role) is a former Wild West outlaw turned cowboy star, and his solution is to knock some sense into Jonas the manly old-fashioned way, leading to an ending more resoundingly unreal than anything heretofore. This ending characterizes the way Hollywood still couldn’t handle Robbins’ 1961 bestseller, which took advantage of recent Supreme Court rulings protecting graphic literature such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover—but not movies, yet.
The script by John Michael Hayes, whose career transitioned from several of Alfred Hitchcock’s 50s classics to such star-studded, “daring” and “controversial” soapers as Peyton Place and Butterfield 8. He was probably the best man for the job (with the possible exception of Delmer Daves, who was doing Youngblood Hawke), and his dialogue is often sharp and clever, but there’s not much he can do with these narrow-yet-sprawling antics and unconvincing resolution. The actors don’t do much with it either. Baker is clearly playing a variant of Jean Harlow, and would actually play Harlow in a Hayes-scripted biopic the following year. Hayes also wrote another Robbins adaptation for Dmytryk, Where Love Has Gone, and more significant than any of these, he scripted a sequel to Carpetbaggers (or what they now call a prequel) about the early years of Nevada Smith, now played by Steve McQueen. It’s a better movie.
Seen around the edges are Robert Cummings, Lew Ayres, Martha Hyer, Martin Balsam, 50s noir icon Audrey Totter (cameo as a motherly prostitute), and former boxing champ turned actor Archie Moore, who played an excellent Jim in the 1960 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and who’s thrown away in a nothing role as a family retainer despite his big billing. The out-of-print Paramount DVD is now available on demand through Warner Archives.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.