Thursday, September 27, 2012

Paramount Centennial Blogathon

Sponsored by The Hollywood Revue, this Blogathon is celebrating the illustrious history of Paramount Studios.

Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack. Independently they have/had spectacular careers, each with two Oscars. Redford will forever be The Natural and The Sundance Kid. Pollack directed Tootsie and had pivotal roles on-screen in several films, including Michael Clayton. Together Redford and Pollack were a great team, giving us The Way We Were, Jeremiah Johnson, The Electric Horseman, Three Days of the Condor, Out of Africa and finally the underrated Havana.

Both men were so powerful and so prolific for so long that it's hard to think of them as anything other than successful. Yet there was a time, at the beginning of their careers, when they struggled. And it took a glamor girl using her clout to give them credibility with Paramount. The result is entertaining, if not successful.

In 1965, Natalie Wood was definitely A-List. Her transformation from enchanting child to alluring adult captivated the American public. Many of her recent movies -- Gypsy, West Side Story, Splendor in the Grass -- sold tickets. Her love life -- Elvis Presley, Robert Wagner, Warren Beatty and now David Niven, Jr. -- sold magazines. At this point in her career, she had a great deal of good, old-fashioned star power.

And she was wielding it to get her dream role. Wood always admired Vivien Leigh's portrayal of the sexually powerful but emotionally frail Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. She longed to do something just as literary, just as seductive, and she believed she found it in Alva in This Property Is Condemned. After all, it had the same author and a similar heroine. She wanted it, and Paramount gave it to her.

For her leading man, she handpicked Robert Redford. He had a few films in the can, including Inside Daisy Clover with Natalie, but was not yet a star. Many studio execs shared Richard Burton's assessment that he just didn't have what it takes to catch on (decades later we would learn from his diaries that Burton was glad Redford dropped out of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Hammersmith Is Out because he found the younger actor lacking). Still Natalie believed in Redford and, just as important, she liked and trusted him. Her tumultuous personal life had her "dancing on the edge of a cliff." (Biographers agree that there was a suicide attempt at about this time, though there's no consensus as to exactly when). She believed that being surrounded by those she felt a connection with was vital if she was to give the performance she believed she was capable of.

When This Property Is Condemned came to Natalie, John Huston was "attached to it." But he envisioned the movie with Elizabeth Taylor (a Tennessee Williams actress of the first order) and Montgomery Clift. Natalie Wood and Robert Redford simply were not in that league.

So now Natalie was without a director for her dream project. Redford recalls being the one to "sell" her on his buddy Sydney Pollack. The men met as actors on War Hunt (1962). Pollack moved on to direct a great deal of TV and The Slender Thread, an as-yet unreleased film starring Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft. She liked Pollack's established rapport with Redford and his frank assessment of the script ("It can be improved," he said, unimpressed by either the Tennessee Williams pedigree or the studio-approved Francis Ford Coppola script doctoring) and she saw to it that Pollack got the nod. Like Redford, she trusted Pollack completely and felt that, with these two watching her back, she could let herself go and be as daring as Leigh had been in Streetcar.

Filmed on location in Mississippi, This Property Is Condemned is told in flashbacks. It begins with two kids (Mary Badham and Jon Provost) wandering along the railroad tracks. The girl, Willie Starr, explains that the gaudy junk jewelry she wears belonged to her sister Alva, once the most beautiful girl in Dodson, back when Dodson was bustling, as opposed to the virtual ghost town it has become.

Willie recalls one of the many nights when Alva (Natalie Wood) was the "main attraction" at the Starr Boarding House. A party is in progress, and no one seems to notice the stranger, Owen Legate (Redford) in search of a room. As young Willie tells it, she takes Owen under her wing, introducing him to Mama (Kate Reid), who shows Mr. Legate to his room and then encourages him to join the party.

Legate stands back and observes. He sees Alva making out with a partygoer in the back while town boys drive up to the front call out for her. Disturbed by the boys' attention and protective of her big sister, Willie tells them to go on home or she'll get her Mama. "OK," one of them jeers, "we'll take Mama instead." The atmosphere is thick with competition between vibrant Alva and faded Mama.

Legate watches Mama and Mr. Johnson conspire to get him "settled" with Alva. Mr. Johnson is a wealthy married man from Memphis. His wife is an invalid and unable to show him affection. He will take care of Alva, as well Mama and Willie, too, if Alva will be his mistress whenever business brings him to Dodson. Alva is not interested in dull Mr. Johnson. She is, however, intrigued by the handsome stranger, Legate.

Alva finds him in the quiet kitchen and they spar. She believes she can captivate him with the same hair twirling, tall tales and saucy banter that enchant Mr. Johnson and the boys of Dodson High, but Owen puts her in her place. She furiously returns to the party and into the waiting arms of the local men who work on the railroad (including Robert Blake in a small role) by day and patronize the Starr Boarding House by night.

After the party, Alva visits Owen in his room. She admits that she was "fibbing" before, trying to impress him by appearing worldly. She doesn't consider it was lying because she dreamed of a life beyond Dodson so often, she almost believes she's lived it. Owen seems more bored than attracted, adding that if she is "included with the room," he hopes that can get on with it because he has to get up early in the morning. Alva runs to her own room in tears. Owen sees her for what she is, and it hurts to see it reflected in his eyes.

The next day Willie latches on to Owen, as she considers him her friend and appreciates the respect he shows her. It's hard to get any attention in a household that includes Mama and Alva. Willie walks him to his mysterious job as "efficiency engineer" at the railroad office.

Mr. Johnson comes to the boarding house for another date, another attempt to seal their deal. He gives the still reluctant Alva jewelry, but she can't bring herself to accept it. Instead she excuses herself and finds herself looking for Owen. They hide out in the garden, where Alva tells Owen that the long-absent Mr. Starr abandoned his family.

Alva wants to daydream her Papa, but Owen steers the conversation back to Mr. Johnson and their arrangement. He pretty much calls her a prostitute and it enrages her. She runs back to the house and loudly -- loud enough for Owen to hear -- announces that she's going skinny-dipping. Mr. Johnson is shocked, but Mama and her boyfriend JJ (Charles Bronson) and many of the other Starr Boarding House residents join in.

Nude in the dark water, JJ sidles up to Alva and makes it clear that he prefers the daughter to the mother. Alva distractedly brushes him off, hoping that somehow Owen can see this display of her desirability and is jealous. Instead it's JJ who is jealous, and tells Alva that Owen is management scum, there to throw them all out of work, spelling doom for Dodson and The Starr Boarding House.

Alva returns to the boarding house with her wet clothes clinging to her and confronts Owen. He admits it all and says that tomorrow most of the workers will be let go. He tells Alva that this frees her, that there is nothing holding her to Dodson, and that she's better than the life her Mama has planned for her. They spend the night together. (This is the first example of the Redford/Pollack romantic archetype -- the remote object of desire who sees and appreciates the girl as no one else does; think Hubbell Gardiner and Denys Finch Haddon.)

Mama may be malevolent but she's also a survivor. She realizes layoffs mean the end of the Starr Boarding House. She springs into action and turns to Mr. Johnson with a new proposition: If he will pay for the tickets, she and Willie and most of all Alva will accompany him on his return to Memphis. Mama confirms that, once in the new city, Alva will be his "companion."

Owen wakes up with his own rescue fantasy. He'll bring Alva home to New Orleans and once they are married, they will send for Willie. There is no place for Mama in Owen's plan, though, and that makes him a threat to the old girl. While Alva is in the shower, Mama maliciously lets Owen know that Alva is "just wild" about Memphis and Mr. Johnson, implying that her daughter is, indeed, a golddigger and a slut and that the night before with Owen meant nothing to her. Disillusioned, Owen leaves for New Orleans alone.

Owen's hasty retreat leaves Alva confused and depressed. Mama and JJ take Alva and Mr. Johnson out to celebrate their last night in Dodson and poor Alva gets drunk -- very drunk -- and reckless. At dinner, in front of Mama and Mr. Johnson, Alva asks JJ if he really wants her more than her mother. It's a dangerous game since, like Owen, JJ is a man she cannot control. He confirms he wants, all right. She says he can have her, right now, tonight, but only if he puts a ring on her finger and gets her away from her mother's clutches once and for all. (This is Wood's best scene.)

The next morning a very hungover Alva wakes up with JJ, horrified to find herself in a life she doesn't want. Desperate, she sneaks away with his money and their marriage license and pretends it didn't happen.

The movie isn't clear how much time goes by, but soon the flashy tramp from Dodson, Mississippi, is a polished, New Orleans fashionista. She tracks Owen down until he finds her and they pick up where they left off. It's a lushly filmed, romantic reunion, with Owen telling her, "Miss Starr, you were a missed person. Deeply missed."

Living together in Owen's tiny apartment, they are finally happy. One thing is missing, though: Willie. They send the girl a postcard, inviting her to join them in New Orleans. 

That was a mistake. For they come home to find that Mama has found them. Alva is struck dumb. She never told Owen that she married JJ, is probably married to him still, and that her new start in New Orleans came courtesy of the contents of his wallet. In the silence, Mama takes charge. She tells her oldest daughter/meal ticket to get her coat because they're going "home."

Owen is furious. There's no place for meddlesome Mama here. This is when Mama lowers the boom and tells Owen everything about JJ and that last night in Dodson. He turns to Alva and sees the truth written all over her face. She looks in his eyes and again, can't stand to see unvarnished reality reflected back to her. Wounded, she screams and runs out into the rainy night.

The film ends (rather too suddenly, IMHO) back in the present day, with Willie and her young friend on the railroad tracks. Willie explained that, as a result of that night in the rain, Alva caught tuberculosis and died, that's how Willie inherited her flashy jewelry.

The movie is more soapy than sophisticated. But it's also entertaining. The cinematography, sets and costumes are consistently high quality. Natalie is a beautiful, sympathetic mix of victim and vixen. Paramount believed it had a sexy Southern-fried hit on its hands. After all, they had a raven-haired beauty in a Tennessee Williams story (if not script) and, on paper at least, it looked like La Liz' classics, Suddenly, Last Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. So that's how they promoted it. Natalie's slip is reminiscent of Maggie the Cat's lingerie and the swimsuit scene in Suddenly, Last Summer.

Unfortunately, the public stayed away and This Property Is Condemned (along with her two other 1966 bombs -- Inside Daisy Clover and Penelope) was the beginning of the end of Natalie Wood's film career.

But it also marked the beginning of genuine stardom for Redford. His next two films were Barefoot in the Park and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Pollack's sensitive handling of Natalie Wood helped establish him a Cukor-esque actress' director and soon he was behind the camera with They Shoot Horses ... Don't They? Because of what Bob and Sydney went on to do, individually and together, This Property Is Condemned is one of Paramount's more influential films of the 1960s.

A sad footnote: While Natalie never worked with Pollack again, her path continued to cross with Redford's. Her second husband, Richard Gregson, produced Downhill Racer, and Redford was a groomsman at their wedding. She helped him out with a cameo in The Candidate. Which is why he was distressed that, the last time he spoke with her, he had to turn her down. She wanted the role of Beth in Ordinary People, his directorial debut. He wanted to help her out, understood what a difficult time she had finding good film roles. But he was committed, emotionally and contractually, to Mary Tyler Moore for the role.


  1. Great review and analysis.

    I was a Redford fan hardcore back in my teens and watched every film he made. This was a sort of confusing movie but interesting, nonetheless.

    I remembered the scenes as I was reading your words - it was like I was back there watching again. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  2. I have always enjoyed Robert Redfords work, but I have never seen this movie. Thanks to your wonderful post I will be watching it later tonight! It sound s like a highly enjoyable movie that would have been perfect for both of these fabulous actors.

  3. Anonymous8:42 PM

    I like Natalie Wood, Robert Redford, and Sydney Pollack, but I've never seen This Property is Condemned. Even if it isn't the greatest movie, it's one I'd definitely want to see just for the stars.

    Thank you so much for participating in the Paramount Centennial Blogathon!

  4. Thanks for including all the background info to this movie. You're right - it's hard to imagine Sidney Pollack and Robert Redford as "struggling"!

  5. Anonymous11:26 AM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. I really enjoy Robert Redford, as well as Pollack (just watched his last movie, The Reader).
    I wasn't aware of this film nor its backstage story. Very interesting how Natalie helped the two, yet the film wasn't very successful.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)