28 April, 2017

The Manchurian Candidate

          It’s interesting that, as I write this entry, The Frank Sinatra Bungalow is back in the news.  This is the little building that was his unofficial dressing room -- more a hideaway -- when he worked at Samuel Goldwyn in the fifties and sixties.  That studio is The Lot now;  if you live in Los Angeles, the studio across the street from The Formosa (yes, the bar in L.A. Confidential).  It’s been The Lot since the nineties.  Before that it was The Warner Annex, before that Samuel Goldwyn, before that United Artists, before that Pickford-Fairbanks (who bought it from Jesse Hampton in 1919).  Some of the movies shot there over the years?  Robin Hood (1922), Stagecoach (1939), Up In Arms (1944) which you can read about in my Danny Kaye Top 5, The Best Years Of Our Lives, Witness For The Prosecution (1957) which you can read about in my Tyrone PowerTop 5, Some Like It Hot, West Side Story, Apocalypse Now, Se7en (sparking a run of Fincher films) and, yes, L.A. Confidential.  In TV it hosted Sinatra and Bob Hope and Lucille Ball (in her final series Life With Lucy) and True Blood and, in 2014, became home to Oprah’s OWN.  It's still a major studio space that few people know even exists.
           Without digressing too much from why we’re here today, The Frank Sinatra Bungalow was once part of the lot (whatever its iteration) until -- as happens to all lots -- its land was cut-up yet again and The Bungalow became part of The DWP next door.  And so its future is in question.  The space where Sinatra hid-away while shooting The Frank Sinatra Show (1957-1960), while recording The Concert Sinatra (1962) and while starring in two of his four-picture-deal with United Artists;  one of which is ours today.  That little bungalow is very likely where he learned his now famous memory, “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” 

            The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
            w George Axelrod 
                from the novel by Richard Condon
            d John Frankenheimer

            The 1959 Novel was a best-seller.  It was praised in The Times as “a wild, vigorous, curiously readable melange” and in The New Yorker as “a wild and exhilarating satire” and Time named it “one of the Ten Best Bad Novels” which, The New Yorker wrote in 2003, “from a publisher’s point of view, is far from the worst thing that might be said about a book.”  The novel allowed Condon to spend most of the rest of his life abroad, writing in similar themes:  Winter Kills about a Presidential Assassination (in which -- the movie version -- John Huston acted) and Prizzi’s Honor about a contract killer for The Mob (which -- the movie version -- John Huston directed).  Condon’s adapation of Prizzi’s Honor garnered him an Academy Award Nomination (lost to Kurt Luedtke for Out Of Africa while another Huston -- Angelica -- won for Best Supporting Actress).  That same 2003 New Yorker article goes on to say --

Condon was a cynic of the upbeat type, not unlike Tom Wolfe:  his belief that everything is basically shit did not get in the way of his pleasure in making fun of it.  He learned that attitude in the finest school for it on earth, Hollywood.  Before he was a novelist, Condon was a movie publicist.  He began, in 1936, at Walt Disney Productions, where he promoted Fantasia and Dumbo, among other animated masterpieces, and moved on to a succession of studios, finishing up at United Artists, which he left in 1957.  He didn’t know what he wanted to do next;  he just wanted out.  “The only thing I knew how to do was spell,” he later explained, so he did the logical thing and became a writer.  Condon claimed that his work in Hollywood had given him three ulcers.  He also claimed that he had seen, during his years there, ten thousand movies, an experience that he believed gave him (his words) “an unconscious grounding in storytelling.”

            Books to movies change, of course, they always do, but one of the more interesting -- subtitle that salacious -- changes is with Raymond’s mother, Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury in our version today).  The head of the Manchurian Brainwashing Project grants Raymond a happy side effect of using him:  Raymond becomes a lethario, very much in contrast to his meek persona beforehand where he hadn't even kissed the love of his life, Jocelyn Jordan (the darling Leslie Parrish today).  Is that the salacious bit?  Hardly.  Remember the little moment near the end of the film where Mrs. Iselin kisses her son right on the mouth;  lingering there?  It’s a little bit “If only we” and a little bit “Goodbye” and, yeah, it’s a little bit uncomfortable.  Well, this is nothing compared to the novel where -- while the two are traveling abroad, she uses Raymond to kill various political figures and (it’s not specified but likely) Jocelyn Jordan's first husband -- things really begin to heat up between the two.  Mrs. Iselin was sexually abused by her father but fell in love with him and idolized him after his early death.  So in the novel (at about the same time plot-wise as the movie’s kiss), Raymond is hypnotized by The Queen of Diamonds, he reminds her of her father, and she sleeps with her son.

            This is shocking under any circumstances, and certainly was in 1959, but let’s also remember the weirdly hypnotic (no pun intended) pull The Naughty had on readers at that time (and any time, of course, but consider Popular American Literature in a given five years):  Condon couldn’t have helped but relish in another book that became the first blockbuster in American publishing, Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place (1956);  and only a year before that there’s Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita (1955) which, fairly or not, will go down in history (no pun intended) as, well, what it is and isn’t.  But that’s for another blog.  Louis Menand on the Manchurian Candidate book:  “Some people like their bananas ripe to the point of blackness.  [This] is a very ripe banana and, for those who have the taste for it, delectable.”


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