[8 May 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Hollywood has a long history of movies that were planned or proposed but never made. These often fascinating films inspire the imagination with a combination of “what if?” and “why not?” There are also a few examples of films that made it to the moment of production before being sidelined by some inexplicable or unexpected reason. Their legacy is usually one of last minute changes of heart or cast/crew. And then there are the MIA movies, the films that were completed, prepped for a general release, and then abandoned. These are the most frustrating of the bunch, actual projects that could be viewed and judged on their own merits if it weren’t for rights issues, estate arguments, studio stubbornness, or an overriding belief that whatever is contained on the shelved celluloid would ruin reputations and reap nothing but audience anger.
It happens more often than you know. Dozens of movies make into limited release every single week, many the result of contractual obligation that require some manner of public exposition. But there are also instances where no amount of legal ink ensures a sighting. For almost all the movies listed below, quality is questionable. In other situations, the solution remains in the hands of the very lawyers who created the chaos in the first place. Sometimes, a star hopes to avoid being embarrassed and there are those titles who period presentations end up being contemporary controversies. Still, the possibilities and probabilities remains fascinating, resulting in this list of the most fascinating MIA movies of all time. Not all are worthy of such legendary status, but until they can stand up and “speak” for themselves, there’s rumor and innuendo, and the dreams of film fans everywhere.
An important document about the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, this 1955 film focuses on famed area DJ Bill Randle and has remained unreleased due to that most common of commercial pitfalls, rights issues. In particular, director Arthur Cohen captured footage of formative musical acts such as Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and the Comets, and Johnny Ray long before they were household names. Said performances were never cleared, meaning the most important aspect of this movie—seeing important acts from rock’s infancy—couldn’t be used. Rumors suggest Universal now owns the title and intends to keep it buried in its vaults.
Otherwise known as the movie Roger Corman made in order to secure the continuing rights to the popular Marvel property. When a German producer approached Stan Lee about adapting the characters into a film, he had only three years to get a deal done. With time running out, he turned to the King of the B Pictures in order to get something made and FAST. The result was this un-releasable $1 million travesty with F/X so low budget they move beyond laughable and into the range of performance art. After some contractual back and forth, the film found a very limited release before disappearing into the realm of movie myth.
Before he became the six billion dollar man (at the box office, that is), Johnny Depp was struggling to jumpstart his idiosyncratic muse. Calling on friends Marlon Brando (in one of his last performances) and Frederic Forrest, he decided to make a post-modern look at the Native American issue in the US. Co-writing, acting and directing (his one and only attempt behind the lens, so far) he played a man so desperate for money that he agrees to star in a snuff film. Depp’s efforts premiered at Cannes to decidedly bad reviews and while it was eventually released in Europe, it has never been available in the US.
The tagline for this failed animated film should have read “28 Years in the Un-Making!” Indeed, cartoon icon Richard Williams, perhaps best known as the pen and ink supervisor on the classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit? had a vision for this take on Mulla Nasruddin, a “wise fool” of Near Eastern folklore. Produced independently and meticulously illustrated, the filmmaker would have an eventual falling out with Warner Brothers over additional financing. The incomplete footage was sold to another company who ‘cobbled’ together a version far removed from Williams’ intentions. While some have struggled to turn an available workprint into a reflection of the final film, this remains an unfinished curiosity.
Believe it or not, there was a time when David O. Russell was a Hollywood pariah. His reputation, enhanced by YouTube video of his blow-ups while on the set of I Heart Huckabees, almost cost him his career. His next project was a weird comedy about a young woman (Jessica Biel) who is struck in the head by a nail via a careless workman. Heading to Washington to champion the rights of the unusually injured, she meets a crocked Congressman (Jake Gyllenhaal) who exploits her problems. Shut down several times over money and actor issues (James Caan bailed halfway through), it’s supposedly complete, though Russell now disowns it.
Oz was an influential underground magazine available in its native Australia and in England. Catering to the ‘60s counterculture, it’s founding and the love story of editor Richard Neville and his girlfriend Louise Fletcher, as well as a pair of obscenity trials, were to be the focus of a film on the subject. Development began in 1998, with filming finally commencing nine years later. Changes in cast, screenwriters, and directors doomed the project, which was finally completed in 2011. The production company then announced it would not be released. While some have suggested the publicized scandals in star Sienna Miller’s life were the main reason behind the decision, others claim that the film is just not that good.
As the hedonistic yin to the Beatles boy band yang, the Rolling Stones were notorious for their hard partying bad boy behavior, so whatever Robert Frank managed to capture during the band’s infamous 1972 tour must have been really awful. The group sued to keep the documentary under wraps, it’s depictions of sex and drugs too much for their raunchy rock ‘n’ roll mantle. A lengthy court battle ensued with Frank winning the right to show the film, but only under such strict rules and unusual circumstances (i.e.: no more than four times a year, with the filmmaker himself present) that few have actually experienced it’s mindless Me Decade debauchery.
After Orson Welles turned his back on Hollywood for good (or, as some suggest, visa versa), he ran through a series of incomplete projects, none more intriguing and aggravating as this. Fellow filmmaker John Huston stars as an aging industry figure who dies before completing the title film. The result is a look at old Tinseltown taking on the emerging post-modern movement, with Welles using an experimental approach and his typical piecemeal production schedule (filming started in 1970 and ended in 1976). Legal and financial issues halted the editing process with only 45 minutes complete. By 1998, it looked like the film might be completed. Continuing complications with Welles’ unsettled estate derailed that idea.
There is only one reason this former Disney “classic” hasn’t seen a legitimate release since a special 1986 offering: it’s questionable depiction of race and African Americans in a Reconstruction-era Georgia. While the stories upon which it was based—the supposedly beloved works of Uncle Remus, created by white writer Joel Chandler Harris—are considered culturally significant, and the House of Mouse’s experimentation with live action and animation is inventive and inspired, the subject matter is treated with all the insensitivity of a standard Hollywood production circa the late ‘40s. While some minority groups have asked for a special home video release with contextual commentary, Disney has chosen to bury the film. It has been available overseas.
This is it. The Holy Grail of MIA movies. Jerry Lewis, in a recent interview, reiterated once again that his legendary Holocaust dramedy will “NEVER” see the light of day (though some footage featured in an old Dutch documentary recently went viral). Before movies like Life is Beautiful and Jakob the Liar, many considered the mere concept of a quasi comedy set in a Concentration Camp nothing short of a Final Solution level atrocity. Even with the acceptance of these otherwise misguided movies, one imagines that the story of a circus performer kept by the Nazis in order to entertain children as they head to the gas chamber will remain unseen.