Now practically forgotten, The Carpetbaggers catalogs the financial rise and moral descent of half-cocked entrepreneur Jonas Cord Jr. (the tacitly manly George Peppard). The film was a blockbuster back in 1964 and could have been seen as the last word in silver screen sleaze…at least as far as mainstream America was concerned. By no means as suggestive as any of the jazzy underground masterpieces from the era (namely Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss) or even the trashy frolic of Kitten with a Whip, The Carpetbaggers got its reputation by channeling the Cecil B. DeMille blueprint for lovingly (or lustingly) crafting smut tableaus laced with just enough 11th-hour morality to appeal to even the most puritanical of the blue-hairs. And it was the intended audience, and not the content per se, which informed its repute. Now that the film is tame enough to merit a mere PG rating—the parlor game of trying to figure out whether or not the Harold Robbins tale is indeed about Howard Hughes will likely fly over the heads of younger cinephiles—what’s left? Camp. Pure, unadulterated camp. The most enduring image to emerge from the film is that of Carroll Baker straddling a French chandelier and shaking her shimmy until it careens to the floor, a high point in the long history of clumsy-sexpot kitsch that deserves mention alongside the string of slip-ups that pepper Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. After marrying the gravelly-voiced Elizabeth Ashley (who, when emoting sincerity, sounds uncannily like Sissy Spacek) and asking her what she would like to see on their honeymoon, her reply is “lots of beautiful ceilings.” Of course, The Carpetbaggers is also worthy of note for showcasing Alan Ladd’s final screen appearance as Nevada Smith, Cord’s ineffectual bosom buddy with a pipe dream of being a big western star (the 1966 spin-off Nevada Smith, starring Steve McQueen as the titular hero, is also being released on DVD by Paramount). Director Dmytryk (well past his glory days as the auteur behind 1947’s incendiary anti-Semitic noir Crossfire) was still intuitive enough to save the best high camp moment for last: an undercranked knock-down brawl between Ladd and Peppard that climaxes with Peppard flipping the feeble Ladd onto his back with a bone-crunching thud. For all its facades, nothing in the film reads quite as false as the final scene, in which Ashley (who, halfway through the film, went from profligate flapper directly to maternal moral compass) makes a sane and adjusted family man out of Peppard. Sunrise it’s not.
Any film made before the digital age gets a freebie when it comes to judging the video transfer and sound mix, but Paramount's job on Carpetbaggers is indeed impressive (now if only someone would talk them into performing the same miraculous work on some of their older vault classics in danger of being lost forever, like Make Way for Tomorrow). A transfer that recovers the near-decade fudged on Alan Ladd's character's age looks about as vibrant as it must have when it first debuted, with solid, bold colors and only a minimal amount of dirt and scratches. There appears to be some slight edge enhancement, but it's forgivable considering the results. The sound is even better. The 5.1 Dolby remix gives a great deal of breathing room to Elmer Bernstein's gin-soaked score, and even the restored mono soundtrack manages to sound completely fresh.
The disc is as threadbare as Carroll Baker's "widow's weeds."
If the Internet Movie Database is to be trusted, and if you liked The Godfather Part II, you should therefore enjoy Carpetbaggers. Yeah, if you're John Waters.