"I'd like to be around when you finally take off the makeup. I'd give a year's pay to know who you really are underneath. Who knows? You might even be the devil."
The Carpetbaggers is a movie that will likely divide any audience that sees it (and they will be few, but they will be there). This thinly veiled Howard Hughes biopic, based on a bestseller by Harold Robbins, will likely split audiences between those that can appreciate camp on an operatic scale, and those that can't sit still for anything pre-1970 that isn't an established classic. To those in the latter group, stop reading now. This DVD wasn't made for you. For those in the first group (and you know who you are)—sit down, buckle up, and get ready for one hell of a goofy ride.
Facts of the Case
The story begins in the 1920s, when Jonas Cord Jr. (George Peppard), a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants pretty boy, is heir to his family's multinational manufacturing corporation (what they actually manufacture is never revealed early on, although we learn that they are soon to be involved in some sort of "plastics" deal). When his father dies unexpectedly of a stroke, Jonas, who always despised the old man and his domineering ways, inherits the company and sets forth to expand it in ways his father never dreamed, buying businesses as he goes and taking no prisoners.
As he decides to expand the corporation into the movie business, this is when the troubles start, as Jonas becomes a slave to his own greed, and it is those he loves that suffer the most. His wife (Elizabeth Ashley) is tossed by the wayside in favor of hookers and movie starlets. His greedy but vulnerable stepmother (Carol Baker) starts down a self-destructive path that leads to tragedy. Soon it becomes evident that Jonas is becoming the man he hated most, and it's going to take the efforts of those that care for him to make him understand the terrible secret that motivates his ineffable corruption.
It's difficult for me to get a handle on just how to review a movie like The Carpetbaggers. Make no mistake; this isn't a very good film. It is unabashedly silly, and probably seemed so back in 1964, when it was released. It isn't half as trashy as it wants to be, no doubt due to the Production Code limitations of the time. It features only one truly memorable performance, that of Alan Ladd in his final screen appearance as Jonas' movie star friend, Nevada Smith. And at a running time of two and a half hours, it is easily 45 minutes too long. And yet the film's length is part of its greatest achievement, which is that it reaches a sort of grandiose badness the likes of which few films ever strive for. A shorter movie would've probably made for an easier viewing experience (or, at the very least, a less butt-numbing one), but it may not have made for a better one. Because if you're going to make a bad movie, you'd better have the guts to go all the way with it, right?
The film's lead performance is from George Peppard, an actor who rose to prominence in the 1960s but never became a superstar, and judging by his work in The Carpetbaggers, it's easy to see why. Peppard's performance alternates between two apparent acting styles—wood and stone. When the material does call for him to express any emotion other than anger, as in an early scene in which he recalls a traumatic childhood event, the results are painfully, hilariously forced. Jonas is, like Howard Hughes, supposed to be a larger-than-life tyrant, but as played by Peppard, he never really becomes much more than a bratty, self-absorbed grouch. For those of us in the audience to have any sympathy for the character, he needs to express some sort of vulnerability, and Peppard shows none. When the film finally arrives at its inevitable conclusion, it's impossible to buy, because we're supposed to take for granted that in a five-minute span Jonas has learned how to be a better man and will, in the events that take place after the movie, reform. It would have been better off to just keep him a bastard, and given him a comeuppance worthy of his tyranny.
The rest of the cast are more than willing to ham it up accordingly, with Carol Baker doing the most noticeable overacting as Rena Marlowe, Jonas' sexed-up stepmother-turned-actress. Baker spends most of the film prancing around in skimpy outfits and, though she's supposed to be portraying a tragic figure, the actual results of her misfortune are more comical than sad. There's also some fun supporting work from Elizabeth Ashley as Jonas' long-suffering wife and Martin Balsam as a conniving movie studio chief.
The standout here is Alan Ladd, seen in his final film appearance as Jonas' best friend, an actor who knows his screen days are numbered. Ladd wisely chooses to underplay rather than overplay like everyone else, and the irony of his performance is impossible to dismiss, as he would pass away shortly thereafter. Even in a movie as silly as this, he's a consummate professional, and the performance stands as a fitting end to a great career.
The Carpetbaggers was directed by Edward Dmytryk, a Hollywood workhorse who began his directing career in 1935 and would go on working up through 1979, never really making a great film but coming close on one or two occasions (most notably the minor film noir classic Murder, My Sweet in 1944). The screenplay was penned by John Michael Hayes, perhaps best known for his work with Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950s (he wrote the master's To Catch a Thief and Rear Window). Neither man can really be blamed for the failures of The Carpetbaggers, as the silliness of the source material was perhaps a bit too much for either to handle. As it is, the film remains a camp classic, not necessarily a good movie but certainly a watchable one, and fans of cheesy '60s melodrama would do well to check it out.
Paramount's DVD of The Carpetbaggers is presented in a 1:85:1 anamorphic transfer from a terrific source print. Colors are rich and vibrant, with nary a speck of dirt to be found, and there's almost no evidence of edge enhancement or haloing present. The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, though they needn't have bothered, because except for Elmer Bernstein's boisterous score, it's a dialogue-heavy film, with pretty much all of the activity coming from the front speakers. Also included are English and French mono tracks, as well as English subtitles for the hearing impaired.
As we've come to expect from Paramount's non-prestige catalogue releases, there's not a single extra to be found on the disc, not even a trailer. This would be disappointing if it weren't so commonplace among the studio's older titles, so it's not really worth complaining about any more. It's time to just accept that this is going to be the norm and move on.
While nobody will ever accuse The Carpetbaggers of being high art, there's enough trashy fun to be had so that a purchase is recommended. In fact, I'm a bit more comfortable recommending a purchase here than a rental, as fans of the film will no doubt be the only ones interested enough in buying it and will do so happily, while I doubt anyone else will really "get it." Despite the lack of extras, Paramount's DVD is really a sight to behold, and presents the film with about as good a visual and aural presentation as you're likely to see.
How does one convict a movie that has Hannibal from the A-Team playing a Howard Hughes clone? Answer—you don't. Not guilty on all counts, for fear that a guilty verdict will cause the ghost of George Peppard to haunt the judge in his sleep. Case dismissed.
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