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Movie Musical "Camelot" Lacked Magic of Broadway Show

The 1967 movie musical "Camelot" proved a major disappointment at the box office
The 1967 movie musical "Camelot" proved a major disappointment at the box office
Warner Bros.

The "all-star" musical Nine proved a disappointment at the box office in 2009. The movie received middling reviews despite a cast featuring no less than six Oscar winners, including star Daniel Day-Lewis,.At one point, Nine graced Wikipedia's list of the biggest box office failures ever.

The Wikipedia list is not adjusted for inflation, otherwise, such notorious flops as the musicals Half a Sixpence, the original Dr. Doolittle, Star!, Hello Dolly!, Pant Your Wagon and On A Clear Day You Can See Forever likely would be on it. All of these big-budgeted musicals, the Hollywood studios' answer to the Svengali-like hold TV seemed to have on potential movie-goers who preferred to stay at home in front of the box, tanked at the box office and nearly bankrupted the Hollywood studio system.

The Hollywood musical was made possible by the technological revolution that married sound to film and created "The Talkies." (The superb musical Singing in the Rain is set in the period of the transition from silence to sound.) Audiences wary of the first "all-talking" pictures due to poor sound reproduction and the shocking revelation that many of their favorite stars had lousy voices flocked to the movie musicals, a new form of cinema that proved a perfect fit for sound. The steady patronage of movie-goers seeing the latest musicals helped the industry deal with the economic aftershocks of the Wall St. Crash of 1929 that brought on the Great Depression.

M-G-M's The Broadway Melody  (1929) was a huge hit and won the Oscar for Best Picture. Musicals continued to remain popular, even after the movies began losing its audience to TV. In fact, the popularity of musicals  reached their height in the period of 1965-66, when Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady and Rogers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music won back-to-back Oscar as Best Picture. 

The Sound of Music proved so popular, it actually surpassed Gone With the Wind as the highest grossing film in movie history. Its star Julie Andrews  became the #1 box office star in America in the years 1966 and '67.  Like a generation earlier, Hollywood saw the genre as its financial salvation and put a slew of big-budget musicals into production.

In the wake of the success of these two musicals, Warner Bros.  (the studio that had produced My Fair Lady) put into production a movie version of Lerner & Loewe's 1960 Broadway hit Camelot, which had had a two-year run of 873 performances. The studio hired Joshua Logan to be the director of the film version. 

Logan had made his name on Broadway before making the transition to motion pictures. Two of his biggest successes on the Great White Way were the musicals  Annie Get Your Gun Fanny,  and South Pacific, the latter of which brought him the 1950 Pulitzer Prize, whih he shared with composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II , with whom he co-wrote the book. In addition to the Pulitzer, Logan also won three Tony Awards for South Pacific, including Best Director,  Best Producer and Best Libretto (Book). 

Studio boss Jack Warner wanted Julie Andrews and Richard Burton for his movie Camelot, which was budgeted at a hefty $13 million (approximately $85 million in 2010 dollars), a huge outlay at the time when the average cost of a movie ticket was about $1.00.  Andrews and Burton had originated the roles of Queen Guinevere and King Arthur on Broadway. Burton, like Andrews, also was on the list of Top Ten Box Office Stars, the true measure of Hollywood "royalty."

Julie Andrews had famously been rejected by Jack Warner for another role in a Lerner and Loewe musical she had originated, the part of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. She turned down the part, saying that she had too many prior movie commitments and could not fit the movie into her busy schedule. Some believe she may have been rejecting Jack Warner, just as he had once rejected her.

Richard Burton was offered a king's ransom to reprise his role as Arthur ap Uther. At the time, he was as famous for his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor as he was for his acting chops and movie stardom, as the two were the "Brangelina" of their time. By the time  Camelot went into production in June 1966, Burton not only had received four Oscar nominations but was opening in the blockbuster hit  Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) (which would bring him his fifth Oscar nod) and challenging Sean Connery as the highest paid actor in the world. Despite an extremely lucrative offer, Burton turned Warner down.

Like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, Richard Burton was no singer and had done Sexy Rexy's "tuneful talking" trick on Broadway when playing King Arthur. He won a Tony Award for his performance. However, the Broadway Camelot had been a troubled production, ultimately giving director Moss Hart a coronary as he tried to make the show work during its pre-Broadway tryouts.

Camelot on Broadway had been brought off by the star power of Richard Burton (one of the great stage actors) and Julie Andrews (a terrific singer).   Burton did not think that the property could make the transition to the silver screen. The problem with Camelot was that it had a mystical element, King Arthur as a Christ figure, that did not mesh well with the more realistic theme of adultery (Guinevere's affair with Sir Lancelot).

One of the reasons that Joshua Logan likely had been hired by Warner Bros. was his reputation for being able to doctor ailing shows. According to Wikipedia, "Logan cowrote, coproduced, and directed the 1952 musical Wish You Were Here. After the show was not initially successful, Logan quickly wrote 54 new pages of material, and by the ninth performance the show looked new. In its fourth week of release, the show sold out, and continued to offer sell-out performance for the next two years."

Richard Harris was very hot at the time due to his recent Oscar nomination for This Sporting Life, in which he brilliantly limned a rough-neck professional rugby player, a knave who was the antithesis of a king. He wanted the role and campaigned very hard for it. Joshua Logan decided to give him the part  over Jack Warner's objections, who didn't want Harris as he thought his singing ability was slight.  

The studio boss also did not want Logan's choice for Queen Guinevere, Vanessa Redgrave, but gave in on that point, too. Without the box office insurance policies of Andrews and Burton, the movie did mediocre business after receiving fair-to-middling reviews. Warner later blamed Harris and Redgrave for the flop.

Jack Warner might have been unfair: Contemporary reviews are kind to Redgrave and Harris (though he is faulted for occasionally crossing the line into camp), but point out that the problems of the Broadway show were not solved by the screen production. Essentially, Richard Burton was right that the show could not survive the transition to the silver screen.

Vanessa Redgrave went on to a distinguished (if controversial career) that brought her an Oscar. Richard Harris continued to act in movies as a lead until the mid-'70s and remained an in-demand character actor until the end of his life in 2002. However, the failure of Camelot was one of the reasons he never reached superstardom, or that rare niche of highly respected, "A-List" character lead enjoyed by his fellow Irishman, Peter O'Toole.

Ironically for an actor faulted for the poor quality of his singing voice, he had a major hit single with "MacArthur Park" the year after Camelot's release. The song reached #2 on the U.S. pop charts in the summer of 1968. 

Richard Harris would get a second crack at the role of Arthur, when he took over from an ailing Richard Burton in the 1980-81 Broadway revival and roadshow tour of Camelot. Interestingly, Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote the book and lyrics of the original musical and the movie's screenplay, used the movie script as the basis for a revised stage show.

Despite the flop of Camelot, Paramount hired Joshua Logan to helm its own Lerner and Loewe musical adaptation, Paint Your Wagon. Paramount permitted Logan cast the leads with non-singers, despite the criticism of Camelot for its non-musical stars. And whereas Redgrave and Harris actually could warble a tune, Paint Your Wagon featured  the bizarre casting of  Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood as the two male leads! The movie was even a greater flop.

Coming on the heels of the failure of Camelot, Paint Your Wagon ended director Joshua Logan's career.

Comments

  • Emylou Lewis 4 years ago

    :)

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