Wednesday, October 22, 2008

David Weisbart, Bad '60s Movie Auteur

This blog points out something I hadn't noticed before about Valley of the Dolls -- the camp-classic scene between Helen (Susan Hayward) and her younger rival Neely (Patty Duke) is quite similar to an earlier scene between an aging Fox star and a young starlet in the movie The Pleasure Seekers, which I wrote about years ago. And both movies were produced by the same man, David Weisbart. So he certainly had his own style as a Fox producer. (He also dropped dead soon after making Dolls.)

Weisbart had produced Rebel Without a Cause and Them! at Warners, but when he moved to Fox he mostly made glossy, slightly camped-up movies. He was one of a number of Warners people who lost all their edge when they moved to Fox, others being Jerry Wald and Jean Negulesco. An odd thing is that although Warners lost a lot of directors and producers to richer studios, particularly Fox, in the late '40s and '50s, almost all of them lost their edge rather quickly and wound up making movies that were nowhere near as interesting as their Warners stuff. (Negulesco, to be fair, made some good noir pictures after moving to Fox; he didn't become the king of turgid soap operas until CinemaScope came in.) It's Hal Wallis syndrome -- some producers and directors just seemed to be better off making pictures at Warners, where they might turn out a lot of cheap or rushed pictures, but had a better chance of striking through to something interesting than at Fox or MGM.

Anyway, the scene between Gene Tierney and Carol Lynley in Pleasure Seekers isn't quite as crazy as Dolls -- nothing is -- but it's certainly a prime example of mid-'60s studio cinema in all its desperation. That includes the '60s tradition of humiliating middle-aged actresses who had been stars only a decade ago.

Tierney vs. Lynley in The Pleasure Seekers, directed by Negulesco:

Hayward vs. Duke in Valley of the Dolls, directed by Mark Robson (a director whose work took a turn for the worse after he left another penny-pinching but interesting studio, RKO):

I admit that since I wrote that post in 2004, I've developed a certain weird fondness for Pleasure Seekers. One, I like most of the cast even though they're nearly all too good for this thing. But mostly it's one of my favorite bad movies of the '60s because it so perfectly epitomizes the studio system in 1964, trying to make literally the same kind of movies that were being made ten years earlier (since this is the same story as Three Coins in the Fountain), but with everything just a little bit "off." In that sense I find it a more interesting bad '60s movie than Dolls, because Pleasure Seekers is pretty typical of studio product in 1964 -- that's what's so terrifying about it.

For example, here's poor Ann-Margret doing her best with a terrible Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen song: the interesting thing is that the song is the kind of thing that would have been considered cool a few years earlier, about a Jet-Set/Rat Pack lifestyle that was the coolest thing in the world in 1962. But by 1964 the culture has already changed so much that this song sounds ridiculous, apart from not being a very good song to begin with. But that's the fun of it: A-M trying to apply her usual schtick to a bad Rat Pack song creates an early '60s pop culture collision that's unintentionally hilarious.

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