Capitalism, American Style
The original tagline for The Carpetbaggers declares, “This is adult entertainment!” But what constituted “adult entertainment” in the mid-1960s was complicated by the Production Code, Hollywood generated guideline of standards and norms for film content at the height of the studio era. By 1964, however, the Code was being challenged by a slew of prestigious theatrical and literary adaptations, and the most prevalent form of “adult” entertainment released by Hollywood was exemplified by films like The Carpetbaggers.
Yet, even as it promises “adult” content, such as explicit sexual situations, varying degrees of nudity, and graphic violence, The Carpetbaggers can’t entirely escape Code ethics, and delivers these elements only superficially. Typical of the industry’s attempts at the time to manage controversial content, it offers a simplistic plotline, relatively chaste sexual relationships, and heavy-handed morality.
Adapted from a novel by Harold Robbins (reportedly inspired by the life of Howard Hughes), the film begins in the 1920s, with the young Jonas Cord (George Peppard) taking over the family chemical business after his father’s (Leif Erickson) sudden death from a heart attack. Jonas callously breaks the news to his stepmother and former girlfriend, Rina (Carroll Baker), who dumped Jonas for his father’s wealth and power. Jonas has never forgiven her or his father for their betrayal and announces he will get revenge at a time of his choosing. Here the titillation of incestuous sexual desire and bloodlust combines with a clear reference to classical Greek drama in a curious mix of tragedy and sex thriller that only Hollywood could deliver.
Jonas quickly convinces his father’s accountant, “Mac” McAllister (Lew Ayres), to invest in the burgeoning aviation industry and expands the family business into a new interest, Norman Pictures, a struggling studio owned by Bernard B. Norman (Martin Balsam). Strikingly, Jonas’ business acquisitions are dramatized as the result of some instinct, impulse or idiosyncrasy, rather than business acumen or a well-considered strategy.
In The Carpetbaggers, the path to fame and fortune is reduced to hostile takeovers and dumb luck (not to mention nepotism). It is as the studio head who calls all the shots at Norman Pictures that Jonas’ predilection for total control and manipulation is driven home. Soon after discovering the unique opportunities for manipulation available in the film industry, he draws Rina into his web of revenge. The woman Jonas couldn’t control as a young man he now works to humiliate and destroy, casting her as his new star. At the same time, he does irreparable harm to his marriage to Monica Winthrop (Elizabeth Ashley).
More troubling than the melodramatic disintegration of Jonas’ personal life is the film’s depiction of Hollywood’s exploitation of female sexuality; it’s presented as the critical element in the commercial regeneration of Norman Pictures. Rina, in particular, is entirely defined by her sexuality and appears almost exclusively in skimpy negligees or slinky evening gowns. She acts initially as a sexual object for Jonas, then his father, and is ultimately tapped for those qualities as a movie star. Of course, in the tradition of Hollywood depictions of hypersexualized women, Rina is simultaneously exalted as a physical spectacle for movie audiences and degraded and punished for her transgressions within the narrative.
But Rina is not the only character pilloried by The Carpetbaggers. Jonas pointedly appears as a maniacally driven capitalist who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Even the film’s title alludes to capitalism run amok—a carpetbagger being a serial opportunist who profits financially from the misfortunes of others. The film takes the high moral ground by exposing the fundamentally pernicious nature of Jonas’ personal and business dealings, but also reveres his talent for business. In this way, The Carpetbaggers justifies the means as well as the ends of corporatism. Material success is presented as easily attainable through ruthless acquisition and the exploitation of those around you.
This idea that exploitation is inextricably woven into the fabric of material success revolves around Jonas’ relationships with and attitude toward women. His repeated victimization of the women in his orbit occurs at every phase of the narrative. Rina, Monica, and a prostitute-cum-starlet, Jennie Denton (Martha Hyer), are all rendered as completely helpless in the face of Jonas’ abuses. Eventually, Rina is reduced to alcoholism, Monica leaves him, and Jennie runs away after she learns that Jonas chose her precisely because of her background as a prostitute and performance in a pornographic film.
Though Rina is destroyed, Monica and Jennie’s escapes can be seen in a partially positive light. They are able to assert themselves individually, an important acknowledgment of power and identity very different from Jonas’. Still, while the film finally tries to assert the sanctity of home and hearth, the bulk of it promotes the very values that it purports to critique.
What does success mean, according to The Carpetbaggers? Power, money, and sex. Hollywood has frequently attempted to dramatize the issue, often using the institution of Hollywood itself as the focal point. On the surface, The Carpetbaggers is a harmless soap opera-ish confection, a gently titillating, possibly campy adaptation of a likeminded novel. And yet this film both addresses and replicates darker elements of the American dream—the cruelty, greed, and moral emptiness of capitalism—issues still at the center of national debate and popular consciousness.