Film history is littered with proposed projects that seemed tantalizing in concept, but somehow never found their way before the cameras. But were these aborted efforts destined to succeed? Seriously, would Stanley Kubrick’s proposed biopic of Napoleon or Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune” been instant classics? I think that some vigorous debates could be enjoyed on whether or not we should be fortunate those works never got made.
For my two-cent deposit, I would like to offer a list of 10 intriguing films that were bandied about at one time as potential shoo-ins for box-office glory, but ultimately never found their way before the camera.
“The Little King” (early 1930s). Cartoonist Otto Soglow struck comic strip gold with “The Little King,” a droll offering that presented a regal but often befuddled silent monarch in unlikely regal circumstances. The character first appeared in newspapers in 1930 and was the subject of a brief series of animated shorts by the Van Beuren Studios. Filmmaker Marshall Neilan envisioned a film version of the strip starring Buster Keaton, whose transition from silent to sound films was somewhat haphazard – Neilan envisioned Solgow’s pantomime strips serving Keaton’s stone-faced persona well. Alas, nothing ever came of this plan.
“The Pickwick Papers” (early 1940s). When Orson Welles arrived in Hollywood, one of his proposed projects was a film version of Charles Dickens’ “The Pickwick Papers” starring W.C. Fields. This seemed like an unbeatable combination – Welles helmed a memorable adaptation for his radio show and Fields scored a cinematic personal best as Micawber in the 1935 MGM version of “David Copperfield.” Unfortunately, Welles and Fields were at different studios when the project was first proposed in 1940 and then both were considered unemployable when the subject was raised again in 1943. Fields’ death in 1946 effectively ended any idea of a film.
“Huckleberry Finn” (early 1950s). MGM had grand hopes for its musical version of the Mark Twain classic, with an original score by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane, direction by Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly and Danny Kaye as the comic villains the Duke and the Dauphin. The film was in pre-production when the plug was abruptly pulled. Several different versions were given for its cancellation, including scheduling problems with the gathered talent and concerns by civil rights groups over how the film handled the thorny racial aspects of the story. The film was put on indefinite hold and never revisited.
“Alice Adams” (mid-1950s). Judy Garland played the title role in a 1950 radio adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel, which was made into a classic 1935 film starring Katharine Hepburn. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II heard the broadcast and were convinced they should team with Garland on a musical version of the work, which could either be adapted for Broadway or for the screen. RKO Pictures owned the rights to the property, but the studio’s financial difficulties coupled with the box office disappointment of Garland’s 1954 comeback vehicle “A Star is Born” ensured the film would not be made.
“Macbeth” (late 1950s). Laurence Olivier had scored artistic triumphs in his Shakespearean films “Henry V” (1944), “Hamlet” (1948) and “Richard III” (1955). Olivier wanted to go one further with the Scottish Play, in which he would direct himself as the homicidal Thane of Cawdor and his then-wife Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth. The regal couple starred in a well-considered stage version of “Macbeth” for the Royal Shakespeare Company, but the financial failure of “Richard III” in its U.S. release spooked off would-be investors, and Leigh’s poor health created further delays that eventually forced the project to be shelved.
“Lady Sings the Blues” (late 1950s). Billie Holiday’s 1956 autobiography offered a frank and harsh consideration of a life that saw a surplus amount of pain – sexual abuse, drug addiction, racism and incarceration – as well as artistic triumphs. Dorothy Dandridge was coming off her Oscar-nominated career peak in “Carmen Jones” and was proposed as the star of a biopic on Holiday’s life. Although films based on the lives of troubled singers was a mini-rage in the late 1950s – “Love Me Or Leave Me,” “I’ll Cry Tomorrow,” “The Helen Morgan Story” and “The Joker is Wild” were among the top films of this genre – Holiday’s life experience was too difficult to adapt in a film industry still governed by onerous censorship, and the project would not be filmed until the 1972 production starring Diana Ross.
“A Day at the United Nations” (early 1960s). Billy Wilder raised the prospect of reuniting the Marx Brothers for their first on-screen romp since “Love Happy.” The combination seemed too good to believe – the zany siblings would turn the Cold War political environment into a balmy funhouse as they ran amok in the center of global diplomacy. Unfortunately, the teaming of Wilder and the Marxes came too late – the wacky siblings were already too elderly and frail for the old-style knockabout that Wilder envisioned and Chico Marx’s death in 1961 forever ended the plans for a Marx Brother reunion.
“Up Against It” (1967). British playwright Joe Orton gained notoriety with his dark comedies “The Visitors,” “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” and “Loot,” and he sought to expand into screenwriting with a project envisioned for the Beatles. The Fab Four’s manager, Brian Epstein, rejected the screenplay and Orton would later revise the work – the original version created for the Beatles is considered lost, but the revision offers an outrageous romp with cross-dressing, prison and warfare, which seemed very far removed from the jollity of “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” Richard Lester, who directed the Beatles’ first two films, Richard Lester scheduled a meeting with Orton to discuss filming options on “Up Against It,” but before the meeting Orton was murdered by his lover Kenneth Halliwell, who committed suicide after killing Orton.
“Man’s Fate” (1969). After winning the Academy Award for “A Man for All Seasons,” director Fred Zinnemann opted to follow-up with a big screen adaptation of Andre Malraux’ novel “Man’s Fate.” With a cast including David Niven, Peter Finch and Liv Ullmann (in her English language debut) and locations set up in Singapore and Malaysia, Zinnemann was in the midst of rehearsal in anticipation of filming when news came that MGM, the producing studio, was cancelling the film due to cost overruns and internal financial problems. Even though no one was going to be paid, Zinnemann and his cast and crew continued their rehearsals for an additional three days until they did a dry run of the entire screenplay – all with the knowledge that none of this would ever show up on the screen.
“Jackie Robinson” (1996). Spike Lee wrote five drafts of a screenplay based on “I Never Had It Made,” the autobiography of Brooklyn Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson. Lee pitched the project to Denzel Washington, who starred in Lee’s “Malcolm X,” but he turned down the part by insisting he was too old for the role. Robinson’s life story would be told in the 2013 film “42” starring Chadwick Boseman, while Lee would share his unproduced script on his Instagram page in 2020.