Edward Dmytryk’s The Carpetbaggers (1964) often gets a bad rap, I suspect for two reasons; first, because it can only suggest so much of the epicurean malaise afflicting the characters in Harold Robbins’ sinful and scintillating best seller of the same name, and second, because unlike Robbins’ unrepentant, vial anti-hero, his filmic incarnation proves too late to possess a soul. We really must tip our hats to Harold Robbins’ whose novels were the pulpy Jackie Collins page-turners of their era; Robbins, basing a good deal of his characterizations on real people he had met along the way, often unapologetic and certainly transparent in his reconstitution on paper. The movie version of The Carpetbaggers is smut-laden good camp. Nobody, except maybe Larry Hagman as Jr. Ewing, can play the despicably arrogant bastard we love to hate better than George Peppard, perhaps because in life, Peppard favored some of the unflattering traits necessary to make any such portrayal stick. There is just something highly obnoxious, yet uncannily mesmerizing about Peppard’s Jonas Cord; a rotten-to-the-core industrialist so eager to transform his father’s (Leif Erikson) middling aviation company into the cookie-cutter brand that ate Hollywood, he cannot help but hasten the old bugger into a lethal heart attack, or wait for his funeral pyres to respectably cool before cleaning his corporate house; then, pawing at and tossing away Rina Marlowe (Carroll Baker), the tea dance twenties platinum sexpot who threw him over for daddy’s money not so long ago. Stepmother, indeed!
Peppard’s callous cutthroat is well-preserved beneath the façade of a handsome blonde stud. Alas, even Jonas Cord has his Achilles’ heel; fatally stricken with a bad case of aberrant lust for ‘Mommie Dearest’. What a diseased lot he is, though arguably not as much as he believes himself to be. It will take the better part of 2 ½ hours for Dmytryk to let the audience in on the novel’s dyed-in-the-wool dirty family secret that has Jonas so utterly distraught he would willfully sabotage virtually every and any chance at happiness to conserve his own sanity – literally. “It’s been a hell of a performance,” his retiring legal counsel, Mac' McAllister (Lew Ayres) cheerily reasons after submitting his resignation, “I’d give a year’s pay to know who you really are underneath. Maybe even the devil himself.” Harsh words, but well-deserved, considering the artful venom with which Jonas has managed to destroy several lives, wreck a handful of careers and turn virtually all of his amorous liaisons against him with an embarrassing display of sexual rigor mortis behind closed doors; ordering his latest fiancée, ex-hooker cum movie land glamor queen – and Rina knockoff – Jennie Denton (Martha Hyer) to accept his antiseptic proposal of marriage; more of a contract of convenience than partnership, with Denton keeping her mouth shut and thighs wide open at his beckoned call; straight sex, no chaser and no prospects ever for a happy home with children.
Still, it’s not a bad call for this ex-call girl. If only Jennie were not so downheartedly in love with Jonas. God help her. His ex, Monica Winthrop (Elizabeth Ashley) tried as much and wound up pregnant and friendless, cast aside twice like a ‘cinder-‘ without the ‘-ella’, but inevitably whimpering back to Jonas whenever he snaps his fingers. Even Rina, as jaundiced and cruel as she is, was no match for Jonas Cord; driving her flaming red Bugatti over a cliff with a devil-may-care resolve to teach Jonas a thing or two about hell having no fury like a shrew ne’er to be tamed. Okay, mixed Shakespearean metaphors aside, and, removed from all its hype as a scathing tell-all about the secret lives of the high, the mighty, and the superficially desirable, The Carpetbaggers is undeniably a lot of fun, expertly scripted by John Michael Hayes with oodles of blood-curdling, yet uber-sexy repartee to fill at least six soap operas and still have enough suds left over to polish off a miniseries or two. With its pre-sold title (the novel effectively sold well over 5 million copies), and a nation increasingly disillusioned with the lingering remnants of never to be fulfilled wide-eyed optimism from those Camelot years fast dissipating in their rear-views; The Carpetbaggers could not help but succeed, much to the satisfaction of the film’s indie producer, Joseph E. Levine.
It stands to reason when a book is this popular, any movie made from it will most certainly – and grotesquely – be judged, not on its own merits, but by how well it reincarnates the cheap quintessence and sickly soured piquancy of the original. Judged on these terms, The Carpetbaggers is a wan ghost flower of Robbins’ novel. It is, however, nonetheless fairly appetizing in its highly sanitized depictions of bath-tub gin-soaked prohibition-era stage door Johnnies and hedonistic tarts exercising their liberated libidos in posh, petrified, Parisian hot spots; like the highlighted orgy in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956); everyone respectably attired and keeping their frenetic gyrations to a not-so-bare minimum; one such ossified night on the Riviera resulting in Rina, champagne cocktail in hand, swinging from a cut-glass chandelier until she dislodges it from the ceiling hanger. Incredibly, both Rina and her pride survive this plummet to earth. Silly me. You can’t kill a bad girl. She has to perform the trick herself and only after being pushed too far.
If she were alive, Jonas Cord would sell his own mother for a belt of booze. As it stands, he knows how to get what he wants, even from the people he supposedly respects, like his father’s right- hand, Nevada Smith (Alan Ladd); alias, Max Sand – a notorious ex-con, gambler, womanizer and desperado, wanted in six states for murder, jumping bail, and, various other sundry crimes of passion and pride; the only father-figure Jonas Cord has ever really known or looked up to for advice. The last act finale to The Carpetbaggers will negate Jonas’ rather empathetic gift to Nevada of this incriminating dossier, gathered by a team of private investigators on his behalf; a knock-down, drag-out display of fisticuffs with Smith pummeling Cord until he damn near has had enough, in the process forcing Jonas to come face to face with his own laundry list of dark memories from a buried, though never forgotten past imperfect; Jonas – whose twin brother died at age nine a raving psychotic; Jonas, living in the shadow of his father’s brutalization of his mother whom the elder Cord blamed for the child and firmly believed Jonas too would one day unravel like a loon to dishonor the family name. The elder Cord might have first reconsidered his own peccadilloes; a satyr, seducing his son’s fiancée to satisfy some mid-life crisis. What an emasculating effect that must have had on young Jonas Cord; left to cope with the psychological complexities of being his own stepmother’s ex-lover.
A lot of The Carpetbaggers plays like a distilled Medean tragedy, updated to satisfy the swingin’ sixties verve and break out from under the straight-jacketed Eisenhower fifties; Dmytryk desperate, at times, to skirt the Production Code of Ethics too, yet still function within the boundaries of what was then considered ‘good taste’. It’s an awkward disconnect. And yet, for the most part, the picture succeeds and entertains; largely because the cast assembled is quite simply good enough to pull off such over-the-top salacious behavior with absolute doggedness never to get too stupid or sincere. In some ways, Jonas Cord bears an uncanny resemblance to the ancient world’s Greek hero; zestfully byzantine, yet brutally worn down by his self-made misfortunes. Here is a guy who, for all intent and purpose, might have found exactly what he was clearly after, if not in one woman – Rina – than, dishonestly, with Monica or even Jennie. Rina, the girl who once sold her voluptuous assets to the highest bidder, now offers herself as a sacrificial lamb on the altar of Jonas’ unquenchable sexual appetites. Instead, Jonas flings Rina into the maelstrom of her mounting fatalism. Never again will she grasp the depth of Jonas’ thirst for her. But we catch a glimpse of this after Rina kills herself in an off-screen highway wreck. Learning of the news, Jonas now hurls himself into a whiskey-soaked tailspin, only to awaken days later with the empty realization Rina will endure his abuse no more. There is nothing more he can do to get back at her.
But the real long-suffering doormat and punching bag here is Jonas wife, Monica Winthrop. In all other regards, Monica appears a wise young thing with a good solid head on her shoulders. Too bad her grey matter turns to a helium-filled mush - smarts right out the window - whenever Jonas is in the room. Monica is the gal Jonas needs – if only he would come to realize as much. But when will Jonas learn? Will he? The novel’s ending did not permit for such assertive reconnoiters to take place. For the movie, John Michael Hayes has concocted a rather perfunctory pledge of good faith; Jonas, inexplicably setting aside vengeance and coming to his senses after having had all the piss and vinegar knocked out of him by Nevada Smith. Their seriously brutal hotel brawl might have left either in a coma. At the very least, Smith’s elder statesman defiance, staying the course, head bloodied but unbowed, has given Jonas Cord’s a fairly good shake. The result: a badly mangled reconciliation; Monica, casting aside her forsworn contempt for this man who misled her up to his suite, only to discover a naked Jennie Denton, sheathed only in a soft mink fur. Bitch! Bastard! – two words never uttered in The Carpetbaggers, but willfully implied as the momentarily assertive Monica, looking like a fashion plate cutout from Modern Businesswoman, with their astute pre-teen daughter, Jo Ann (Victoria Jean) in tow, storms out, adding, “Do us both a favor, don’t ever come near me again!”
She doesn’t mean it, however. Women in Jonas’ circle never quite get around to avowing the feminist ideal; more doe-eyed deer caught unawares in the headlamps of an oncoming freight train or moths drawn detrimentally closer to the flicker of his red hot fame and fortune. Jonas Cord can have the world brought to his knees if it pleases him. Generally speaking, it pleases absolutely no one and Jonas would not have it any other way. Even when he blunders into the picture-making biz, allowing oily press agent, Dan Pierce (Bob Cummings) and studio mogul, Bernard B. Norman (Martin Balsam) to momentarily pull the wool over his eyes, buying up the beleaguered Norman Studios before realizing their one salvageable asset – Rina – has already returning to room temperature at the morgue – Jonas will not be beaten as he transforms this proverbial sow’s ear into a mink-lined Cadillac coup de ville. The miraculous metamorphosis of rent-by-the-hour Jennie Denton into Hollywood’s toniest glamor queen is a coup only Jonas Cord could pull off, chiefly because he does not care how many thorns he has to first pluck to discover the rose. Pierce believes he can discredit Jennie and ruin Jonas by exposing a little known ‘snuff film’ made when Jennie was still a girl of the streets.
The best thing in The Carpetbaggers is its bracing dialogue. John Michael Hayes is the master of double entendre and verily illustrates no need for flashes of flesh and four-letter insults bandied about to make steamy – even distasteful – sex crackle like the embers of a four-alarm blaze refusing to entirely be put out. “You had the right lighting but the wrong director,” Jonas coolly insists when Jennie nobly attempts to turn down his proposal of marriage because she truly loves him too much to drag his reputation through the mire of her former life. But Jonas is already two steps ahead of Pierce’s backstabber’s revenge, informing Jennie, “I know everything about everybody who works for me. You were attacked – successfully – by three boys in a public park at the age of fifteen, worked as a student nurse but liked better things – turned pro at twenty. I can name you dollars, dates or anything else you want. You were no good. That’s why I wanted you. You were beautiful and no good…that made it better. Why do you think I spent two million in publicity to cram your face and figure down everyone’s throat and make you the biggest star in Hollywood? Why? Because I wanted to make you important enough to marry Jonas Cord. And when you do – and you will – no one will dare raise his voice against you or I’ll step on them like an ant! This is the best sale you ever made. All I ask for is your beauty and your sex. I don’t want love or children or home-baked cookies. I just want a woman who’s there when I need her. In return you’ll live like a queen. Now pick up that ring!” It’s a scintillating great ‘bad’ moment, one immediately conjuring to mind the embittered showdown between George Sanders’ venomous Addison DeWitt, lopping off the viperous head of Ann Baxter’s hydra-headed ingénue in All About Eve (1950); a movie that otherwise bears no earthly comparison to The Carpetbaggers.
It isn’t flattering to have your life flashed before your eyes, especially when the particulars read more like headlines ripped from the cover of Confidential Magazine. Even so, Jennie has enough guts to turn Jonas down. He isn’t offering her Teflon-coated security from the wolves hungrily scratching at the locked back door for a taste, but a sort of gold-plated prison cell with no time off for good behavior or ever the chance of parole. Even for a dime-a-dozen whore, this won’t do. And so contrition becomes the order of the day; but only after Nevada takes a wild and wooly crack at Jonas; dragging him across a dining room table, bloodying his nose and blackening an eye with his bare fists; a last ditch effort to beat some straight sense into that irredeemable black heart and also get a little of his own back for thrice being betrayed by this runaway petulant boy who once regarded him as a father figure.
Right up until the end, there is no chivalrous reprieve for any of these amoral characters, least of all Jonas Cord; except that suddenly we have a complete about face, contrary to the conclusion of the novel. I will venture a guess Hayes would have not wanted it so; forced to satisfy some idiotic executive logic for the proverbial ‘happy ending’; having a repentant sadist awaken from the nightmare of his life’s work and boldly go where all good men traditionally have gone far too often before; right back into that atypically unsatisfactory reunion with the ‘good girl’ they traded in long ago for a hot time in the old town tonight. Having sworn off Jonas, presumably for good, Monica now inexplicably gives him the benefit of the doubt. Why? Who can say where true love – even combustible heat – is concerned. But the denouement to The Carpetbaggers is woefully a last minute tack-on and utterly ridiculous; Monica throwing her arms desperately around Jonas after he confides to an all-out liquidation of his assets to pursue a quiet life; even going so far as to set up housekeeping in the country. Jonas Cord – domestic?!? It’s a stretch to see just how any of this will work for very long once the sobering bruises inflicted in his confrontation with Nevada have sufficiently healed, and, old habits – as ingrained as Jonas’ – return to haunt, rustling through the bucolic night breezes with another ‘come hither’ glimmer at the big time. Jonas transformation, from arrogant monster to humbled heel is about as convincing as a centipede attempting to mimic the frog that will never grow into a prince – however much petting, cooing and kissing is applied for good measure.
Herein, I am reminded of a quote made by Yul Brynner in 1956’s Anastasia – “It was all quite good until the end.” And indeed, audiences in 1964 concurred with this assessment; The Carpetbaggers going on to earn a worldwide whopping $40 million on a budget of only $3 million. What can I tell you? Sex, even diluted to the point of naughty and titillating insinuation, sells – period. Repressed middle-class audiences could take their comforts in recognizing men of vision often live severely flawed private lives where the power of wealth more often proves a weighty vice than a winning virtue. Even so, The Carpetbaggers yields to this anti-capitalist sentiment while stopping just shy of suggesting it’s the money that is at fault. After all, leave us some fantasy we could all aspire to such decadence without equally succumbing to the debaucheries and sins committed for the all-mighty buck along the way!
The Carpetbaggers used to be a legitimately authored DVD release via Paramount Home Video, back in the day when Paramount still had a home video apparatus under its employ. With that disc long since out of print, and fetching far too rich a price on Amazon, and, better still, because of Paramount’s distribution deal with Warner Home Video later secured, the Warner Archive has undertaken MOD copies of this on DVD for a lot less to satisfy the niche market for this all but forgotten catalog title. In a perfect world, The Carpetbaggers would have come to Blu-ray by now, as this tired burn-on-demand DVD reissue could certainly use some clean-up and restoration. The elements aren’t in terrible shape, but they do expose some slight color fading, minor gate weave and sporadic amounts of age-related dirt and debris dotting the cinema landscape from time to time. Contrast levels are somewhat anemic and film grain has been digitally scrubbed – a customary practice when the old digital files were struck for the earlier DVD release. Nothing new has been done since to upgrade the overall quality and it shows – painfully so at times. The audio is stereo surround and, true to form, there are no extras. This is a competently minted disc; good but unremarkable. We could sure use a 1080p upgrade. Bottom line: a decidedly shallow but gorgeous-looking film, loosely based on a Howard Hughes-styled rags to riches romp in the hay; from chemical plants to commercial airlines, to running rampant through one’s own movie studio: the sky is the limit in The Carpetbaggers; Elmer Bernstein’s classy score given a main title sequence shot through billowy clouds at ten thousand feet and crimson text flying into the camera lens. Highly recommended for cheap thrills and some good solid writing/acting along the way. Don’t expect high art and you certainly won’t be disappointed. This one is lots of fun!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)