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.
- Paramount Pictures
- 150 min
- Edward Dmytryk
- John Michael Hayes
- George Peppard, Elizabeth Ashley, Carroll Baker, Martha Hyer, Alan Ladd
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