Sunday, February 24, 2013

Game Changers: Raintree County, 1957

Taylor, Clift and Saint studying MGM footage: MGM

Nearly twenty years after David O. Selznick began shooting Gone with the Wind, MGM launchedRaintree County. MGM promised that this epic Civil War drama—based on the novel of the same name by Ross Lockbridge, Jr.—was meant to surpass GWTW in spectacle and beauty. The cast was stellar. Elizabeth Taylor was to be paired, once again, with the enigmatic and handsome Montgomery Clift. Theirs was a magnificent team. The best of friends, they adored one another and worked perfectly together. Taylor, it was thought, could keep Monty’s drinking under control during the filming. Monty would keep Liz’s acting in check. Rising star Eva Marie Saint was cast as Monty’s hometown sweetheart. The glorious Agnes Moorehead (known to most of us as Endora) would play his mother. Rod Taylor, Walter Abel, Nigel Patrick, Tom Drake and Lee Marvin rounded out the cast.

MGM built lavish sets and planned detailed battle scenes meant to rival Gone with the Wind. The location shooting was planned to the last detail. Everything was in place. Production began…

And, then, one night, after leaving a little dinner party at Elizabeth Taylor’s house, Montgomery Clift crashed his car. His friend, Kevin McCarthy, was in the car ahead of Monty’s. He rushed to the wreckage, but couldn’t see Monty. McCarthy ran back to Taylor’s house, banging on the door. “Monty’s dead!” Taylor and others rushed to the scene. However, Montgomery Clift wasn’t dead. The impact forced his body under the dashboard. His head was swollen to the width of his shoulders. He was choking. Elizabeth Taylor forced her way through the rear windshield, cradling her dear friend in her lap as she removed two teeth that had been lodged in his throat.

While Montgomery Clift lived that night, part of him died. Production halted for months while he recovered. He returned to filming as a different man—the left side of his once-perfect face was paralyzed. His mind was muddied from pain and too much medication. Though at times, he appears gaunt and wooden, Clift still manages to give an outstanding performance in the film which is, otherwise, I hate to say it, rather uneven.

Clift, after the accident, his face paralyzed.
Taylor’s performance swells to sometimes unnatural crescendos. However, these moments of histrionics fit the increasing madness of her character. And, of course, she looks stunning. It’s not Taylor’s fault that the film falls flat at times. Nor is it Montgomery Clift’s—or anyone’s. It’s just a production that was chaotic from start to finish.

Strangely enough, the picture did well at the box office though everyone associated with it knew it wasn’t the best. Clift—in his own dark way—joked that people would go if only just to see if they could spot which scenes were filmed before and which were filmed after his accident.

So, why am I recommending the film? Frankly because it’s an important part of film history. It marks an important place in the lives of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Also, despite being overwrought, it’s an interesting film to watch. The plot is a bit murky, but the picture is beautifully shot. Not only is it a recreation of the Civil War, it’s, more importantly, a time capsule of the film world of the late-1950’s. Also, it’s historically significant as the first use of 70 mm cameras. Raintree County was a turning point in the film industry and worth seeing—even if only once.

(Note: The film has not yet been released on a legitimate DVD by MGM)

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