Screen Saver

Just in time for the New Orleans Film Festival, two New Orleans classics -- Suddenly, Last Summer and Walk on the Wild Side -- get spiffed up by restoration expert Grover Crisp.



Something about the original version of the 1959 film Suddenly, Last Summer didn't make sense to Grover Crisp. As one of Hollywood's most respected film restorers, Crisp was attempting to refurbish Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1959 adaptation of the Tennessee Williams stageplay set in New Orleans. But while trying to fix the climactic monologue by Catherine Holly (played by Elizabeth Taylor), he noticed that there was an odd cut to neurosurgeon Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift).

What Crisp finally learned was that when the film was made, someone at the studio -- possibly legendary producer Sam Spiegel -- had ordered a handful of lines to be excised from the released version. In this case, when Catherine is describing the types of young Spanish men she procured for her cousin Sebastian Venable (and who were now seeking a grisly revenge), she says, "Some of the boys." In the original, unreleased version, she says, "Some of the boys, between childhood and older." It was one of a few moves the studio made to tone down some of the film's then-racy subjects, including homosexuality, prostitution, pedophilia and even cannibalism.

"Since that scene was shot without any cuts, the only way they could cut that and you wouldn't know was to insert a shot of Montgomery Clift that wasn't [originally] there," explains Crisp, the vice president of asset management and film restoration for Sony Pictures Entertainment (which includes Columbia studios). "In this [newer] version, the camera stays right on her. It was an interesting little piece of detective work, to find out why they did that."

That's what Grover Crisp does. Part detective, part surgeon, the Los Angeles native meticulously dissects original prints of vintage films, often combining them with duplicate versions, and tries to create as pristine a version as possible. He does so in an effort to counteract the much-lamented decimation of original movie prints over the years. In fact, half of all the original prints of titles from before 1950 have vanished. Crisp estimates that from the silent film era, the number is as high as 90 percent. "It's a terrible thing to think about in terms of the history of film, that so much of it is gone," he says.

Two years ago, Crisp won acclaim for what many considered a miraculous bit of surgery on the 1969 cult classic Easy Rider, and celebrated the 30th anniversary of the film at the 1999 New Orleans Film Festival. Now, Crisp is back to show off two other films with New Orleans connections. Along with Suddenly, Last Summer, the Festival presents the second-ever screening of Crisp's restoration of 1962's Walk on the Wild Side, which was set and filmed partly in New Orleans. (Suddenly was shot in England and on location in Spain.)

Throw in his work on last year's re-release of the 1976 Brian De Palma film Obsession -- shot partly in New Orleans and also screened at the Festival -- and you could almost call Grover Crisp the savior of New Orleans movies.

Separated by three years, Suddenly, Last Summer and Walk on the Wild Side have their share of similarities beyond their New Orleans roots. They explored subjects that were taboo in the late '50s and early '60s. Both refer to prostitution and homosexuality, for instance, and both were considered pretty racy at the time. Of course, few of Tennessee Williams' plays weren't racy. Like so many other adaptations of Williams' work, Suddenly's content was watered down -- but enough remained to earn the condemnation of the Catholic League of Decency. Walk on the Wild Side -- starring Laurence Harvey, Capucine, Barbara Stanwyck and a young Jane Fonda -- also had its moments, even though it also didn't live up to novelist Nelson Algren's depictions of the seedy underworld of New Orleans.

In Suddenly, Last Summer, though, Tennessee Williams pushed the envelope even further with his metaphorical use of pedophilia and cannibalism. He co-wrote the screenplay of his 1958 one-act play with author Gore Vidal after producer Sam Spiegel -- just two years removed from his Oscar-winning production of The Bridge on the River Kwai -- quickly bought the rights to the play. Williams enjoyed a reunion with Elizabeth Taylor, who just the year before had earned what would be the second of three consecutive Oscar nominations, for her role as Maggie the Cat in Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The rest of the key figures were equally impressive. Katharine Hepburn signed on to play steely matriarch Violet Venable. Montgomery Clift reunited with Taylor for the second time in eight years, having received an Oscar nod for his work opposite Taylor in 1951's A Place in the Sun. Four-time Oscar winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz (for writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve) directed.

Though Williams was artistically still strong at the time, he was at a spiritual low when he wrote Suddenly, according to Williams scholar Kenneth Holditch. "He had reached a pessimism there, that he shortly overcame," says Holditch, professor emeritus of English at UNO and editor/author of two Williams-related books. That pessimism infiltrated Williams' growing disdain for artists who exploit others for inspiration. It is here, Holditch says, that many people misinterpret Williams' characterization of Sebastian Venable, who is already dead under mysterious circumstances when the story begins.

Some believed that because Sebastian was a poet, Williams was being autobiographical. Sebastian is a user, as his cousin Catherine says ("Isn't that what love is?" she asks). Many assumed that Williams was pointing the finger at himself. Not so, according to Holditch: "A lot of people think it's about the failure of art, but Sebastian's not a good artist. He's a dilettante. Tennessee felt in the back of the mind there lurked this notion that [some] artists and writers use others for their material."

Ultimately, Suddenly, Last Summer is about the consequences of exploitation, and how it can come back to haunt us all. In order to get proper funding for the New Orleans mental hospital where he practices lobotomies, neurosurgeon Dr. Cukrowicz agrees to consider a request from Violet Venable to perform such an operation on her niece. She's gone mad, Mrs. Venable claims, ever since her cousin's death, telling wild stories that besmirch his character. But the more the doctor learns about Catherine, the more he realizes where the madness lies.

Consequently, Clift as Cukrowicz spends the rest of the film basically staying out of the way and watching Taylor and Hepburn play out one of the great scene-munching duels in Oscar history. Taylor's beauty and passion duels with Hepburn's steely poise. Both Taylor and Hepburn received best-actress nominations -- though both have done superior work -- losing out to Simone Signoret in Room at the Top.

Suddenly also netted a third, well-deserved nomination for its art direction, thanks in part to the Byzantine-style Venable mansion complete with its forest-like courtyard. According to the DVD version's liner notes, production designer Oliver Messel imported 30 pounds of Louisiana moss to the Shepperton studio lot in London, as well as $150,000 worth of antique Empire furniture. (Some New Orleanians believe the courtyard was inspired by the Freret Mansion behind the Bultman Funeral Home, where Williams lived for two months in 1941. One Bultman family friend reports that members of the movie's production team studied the mansion's two-story solarium, which bears a resemblance to the courtyard.)

Though blessed with a visually and aurally impressive film, Grover Crisp didn't like what he saw as he evaluated the original print to restore the film for a screening at the request of the Mankiewicz estate. "We found a lot of problems," he recalls. "The film was torn in a lot of places. I think we replaced 20 different sections of the film. In some cases, we replaced sections that had already been replaced in the 1970s, for whatever reason."

That's when he discovered all the missing dialogue, about a minute's worth total, particularly gaps where Catherine mentions the word "rape" (another taboo at the time), and more graphic references to cannibalism in the final scene. "It bothered me there were these shifts," he says. "It was interesting to find the little choices they made." Fortunately, Crisp located the omitted footage and restored the line, "so we were happy to put it back in. And it made sense that it shouldn't be cut."

Edward Dmytryk's Walk on the Wild Side didn't enjoy nearly the same fanfare as did Suddenly, Last Summer, but was no less intriguing a piece of work, and was also a challenge for Crisp to restore. Nearly 40 years later, many remember the film for two of its highlights, both of which occur early on: Saul Bass' opening title sequence featuring a black cat slinking along (looking for and finding trouble) set to Elmer Bernstein and Mack David's Oscar-nominated title song (sung by Brook Benton). "Sinner you been swingin' not prayin'," Benton sings with a gospel swagger. "One day of prayin', six nights of fun/The odds against going to heaven/Six to one."

But not everyone might recall that the film's director, Edward Dmytryk, was one of the tragic "Hollywood Ten," a group of entertainers blacklisted by the industry after they refused to name names for the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Communist witch hunts of the late '40s and early '50s. In order to return to America after a self-imposed exile in England, Dmytryk, the man who had directed The Caine Mutiny as well as Clift and Taylor in 1957's Raintree County, renounced his affiliation with the Communist Party and was ostracized by many afterward.

Still, Dmytryk remained a gutsy director, and tackled Nelson Algren's novel about preacher's son Dove Linkhorn (Laurence Harvey) trying to reclaim lost love Hallie Gerard. She works at a Depression-era French Quarter brothel called the Doll House, run by Jo (Barbara Stanwyck), who like Dove is trying to claim Hallie while trying to understand her restless ways. Though Jo is clearly the bad gal here, Dmytryk appreciates the complexity of her character, and allows her tenderness toward Hallie to come through while she's fiendishly conspiring to keep Dove out of the picture.

Complicating everything are more women: jailbait and hooker-in-training Kitty Twist (Jane Fonda, in only her second role), and doting cafe owner Teresina (Anne Baxter), whose respect for Dove's quest to win back Hallie is matched only by her unrequited love for him.

Maybe at the time only a handful of directors would've been able to play Jo's lesbianism so straightforwardly, and Dmytryk does just that, regardless of the fact that Jo is indeed the villain here. And for a film shot partly in New Orleans, Dmytryk avoids any tempting clichés (no Mardi Gras parades or streetcar shots!), instead limiting himself to the French Quarter streets, and a revelatory scene in sunny Jackson Square.

Harvey uses the same aloofness here that marked his career; later that same year, he starred in the classic political thriller The Manchurian Candidate. His aloofness didn't always inspire his fellow cast members. Fonda, a princess of over-emoting, once remarked, "Acting with Harvey is like acting by yourself -- only worse."

Grover Crisp's challenge in restoring Walk on the Wild Side wasn't quite as complicated as it was with Suddenly, Last Summer. His biggest challenge, he says, was trying to decide between low-quality duplicate versions to replace flawed scenes, or to leave in the flaws because the scene was otherwise in better condition than the duplicate version. "In that particular film, there were a lot of places where I tried, but decided to leave it," he says. "Still, it's a pretty good-looking film."

These are but a few of the projects facing Crisp as he continues to comb through the Sony/Columbia vault, checking the quality of prints as they come up for DVD release or other presentations. Some require lots of lab work -- like Suddenly -- and others require a tweak here and there. In the meantime, he's looking forward to his return trip to New Orleans, where he finally got to match the scenery to all the films he's seen to the real thing.

"It's really nice to go there and see all those places that I've seen all the time on the screen," he says. "Especially in Obsession. For these particular movies, of course, the work is incidental. As a setting for a film, it's just got all kinds of atmosphere. I know a lot of mysteries have been set there."

And thanks to Crisp, some of those mysteries are being solved.

Part detective, part surgeon, Grover Crisp is on a mission to restore and preserve the entire Sony/Columbia studio vault. - GROVER CRISP
  • Grover Crisp
  • Part detective, part surgeon, Grover Crisp is on a mission to restore and preserve the entire Sony/Columbia studio vault.
The 1959 film Suddenly, Last Summer was considered controversial in its day for its references to homosexuality, prostitution, pedophilia and cannibalism.
  • The 1959 film Suddenly, Last Summer was considered controversial in its day for its references to homosexuality, prostitution, pedophilia and cannibalism.
Dove Linkhorn (Laurence Harvey) tries to win back his lost love Hallie Gerard (Capucine) the only way he can in Walk on the Wild Side.
  • Dove Linkhorn (Laurence Harvey) tries to win back his lost love Hallie Gerard (Capucine) the only way he can in Walk on the Wild Side.

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