BOOTLEG FILES 596: “Raintree County” (1957 epic with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor).
LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last exhibition of this film.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A VHS video and LaserDisc release only.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Out of circulation in the home entertainment channels for too many years.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is possible.
There are some films that seem to be doomed from the first minutes of their inception through the last seconds of their release, and the 1957 epic “Raintree County” is one of the more notable examples. The story of its creation is far more complex and tragic than anything on that appeared on the screen.
“Raintree County” first appeared in 1948 as a Civil War novel by Ross Lockridge Jr., an Indiana-born professor at Boston’s Simmons College. Lockridge spent six years writing his book and two years editing down his original 600,000-word manuscript at the behest of his publisher, Houghton Mifflin. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) bought the film rights to “Raintree County” before it was published, but the studio also demanded its own edits. When the Book-of-the-Month Club selected “Raintree County” for highlighting, it made demands for additional cuts. The stress was too great for Lockridge, who suffered from poor physical and emotional health prior to starting the project, and he committed suicide at the age of 33 in March 1948, two months after his book debuted.
At first, MGM had no clue how to proceed with its expensive property, and for several years it was passed around to several screenwriters who struggled with combing Lockridge’s grand literary vision into a tight screen adaptation. Millard Kaufman, who wrote the screenplay for the first Mr. Magoo cartoon, “Ragtime Bear” (1949), and who served as a front for the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo in the credits for the B-movie classic “Gun Crazy” (1950), was tapped by MGM for the job after his 1953 screenplay for “Take the High Ground!” received an Oscar nomination. Kaufman’s resulting screenplay significantly chopped away at Lockridge’s story, thus further truncating the author’s vision. Edward Dymtryk, who was blacklisted as part of the Hollywood 10 but who later restored his career after outing many of his former Red-leaning comrades in congressional testimony, was hired to direct the project.
MGM recognized that the central hero in “Raintree County,” an Indiana teacher whose marriage to an unstable Southern belle eventually forces him into a reluctant service in the Union Army, needed to be filled by an actor who could seamlessly alternate between intellectual vulnerability and unexpected inner strength. British actor Alec Guinness was considered for the part, but Montgomery Clift seemed to be the more ideal choice. But Clift had left Hollywood after his 1953 hit “From Here to Eternity” and rejected a surplus number of scripts in favor of focusing on Broadway acting. Clift was unenthusiastic about the screenplay, which he dubbed “a soap opera with elephantiasis,” but his personal finances were running on empty and the job was lucrative enough for him to hold his nose and carry on.
MGM packed “Raintree County” with a wealth of on-screen talent — the studio’s reigning sex symbol Elizabeth Taylor (Clift’s co-star from “A Place in the Sun”), Oscar-winner Eva Marie Saint, up-and-comers Rod Taylor and Lee Marvin, and old reliables Agnes Moorehead, Walter Abel and British star Nigel Patrick. The studio insisted in on-location shooting in Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee for Civil War landscape authenticity, and the production was used to highlight a new 70mm widescreen process dubbed MGM Camera 65, which stretched the screen to a massive 2.76:1 aspect ratio.
But in the middle of production, an extraordinary disaster occurred. On May 12, 1956, after completing most of the soundstage scenes and prior to the company’s departure for the Southern location shooting, Clift attended a dinner party at the home of Taylor and her then-husband Michael Wilding in Los Angeles’ Benedict Canyon. After leaving the party, Clift lost control of his automobile and crashed into a telephone pole. The actor suffered extensive facial and cranial injuries, and production was halted for two months as he underwent surgery and recuperated. Clift gamely agreed to return to the production – there was too much invested in the project for MGM to abort the film or reshoot Clift’s scenes with another actor. But Clift’s swollen and immobile facial appearance was noticeably different from the sequences shot before the crash, where he was at the peak of his physical beauty. Clift’s post-accident medication regimen created a painkiller addiction that was complicated with a pre-existing alcoholism, and this burden clearly contributed to an uncommonly weak performance (not to mention bizarre behavior off-camera).
Ultimately, “Raintree County” never really clicked. While the visual aspect of the production was more than satisfactory, the style could not compensate for the substance. Kaufman’s screenplay failed to replicate the compelling sweep of Lockridge’s novel – the psychological angst and the harsh description of the war’s carnage was heavily diluted for the big screen, making it seem like a Cliff’s Notes version. As a result, characters became caricatures, particularly Eva Marie Saint’s too-good-for-belief Nell Gathner and Elizabeth Taylor’s excessively erratic Louisiana honey Susanna Drake, who becomes haunted with the irrational belief that she might be the mixed-race child of her plantation-owner father and his black concubine slave. Taylor would later scathingly dismiss her performance as a triumph of being able “to climb up the walls and chew a lot of scenery.” The supporting cast also overplayed their roles with gusto, often with a grandeur of vocal and physical energy that made the film seem overly theatrical; this hamming might have been the result of Clift’s enervated central performance, which created a dramatic void in need of filling. It also did not help that the film’s Civil War setting created unfortunate comparisons to that other epic about the 1860s, “Gone with the Wind.”
The film’s budget ballooned to nearly $5.5 million, making it the most expensive motion picture up to that time. To try to keep costs down, MGM released the film in a 35mm CinemaScope version rather than in the pricey MGM Camera 65 technology (which was later renamed Ultra Panavision 70). Initial reviews were cruel – the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther singled out the leading man, noting “the strange appearance and the aging, husky voice of Mr. Clift” – and 14 minutes were cut after its brief road show premiere. (Incredibly, Lockridge was misidentified in the credits as “Ross Rockridge.”) Although it became a box office hit and received four Oscar nominations – Elizabeth Taylor for Best Actress plus nods for costume design, art direction and Johnny Green’s score – the film is poorly considered today by most film scholars.
To date, “Raintree County” has only been available for home viewing in a VHS video release and a LaserDisc release. Import DVDs of a dubious nature can be found on e-commerce sites, and there is a Facebook page calling for a digitally restored DVD/Blu-ray release. There is no obvious rights issue holding up a release – the film has been broadcast on television multiple times – but the costs of restoring a work with such a problematic reputation may be holding back any future home entertainment presentation.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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