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I saw a documentary on this aborted movie; it was included with the DVD
edition of the "I, Claudius" series starring Jacobi.
Parts of it were nearly unwatchable, especially the interview with director Josef Sternberg. I got the sense that he was a hated man, at least on the set for this movie. During his interview, he sat on a theatrical stage, puffing on his pipe, and putting long (incredibly long), pompous pauses between his phrases. His body language and posture were aristocratic and haughty. He did not look at the camera, or an interviewer, but instead glared at the table in front of him. Then, at one point, he complained bitterly about how production on the movie was stopped because of "the actors." I don't remember exactly how he phrased it, but the gist of it was that the movie had been sabotaged by the sort of people one can't rely on.
That was the impression Emlyn Williams (who played Caligula) had too. He said that it sounded as if Mr. Sternberg ("oh, I beg his pardon--Mister VON Sternberg") was suggesting that Merle Oberon (Messalina) deliberately threw herself through the windshield of her car (though she wasn't driving and didn't cause the accident), ending up on the pavement with severe lacerations (but happily no worse injuries) simply to destroy the production of of Sternberg's movie.
One can't help but smile at Williams' obviously deliberate and very British dig at Sternberg by omitting the aristocratic "von" and then hastening to emend the error--thereby making only too clear what he thought of Sternberg's aristocratic pretensions.
It was also clear that Sternberg despised Laughton, and Laughton returned the hostility in full force. In fact, I think Sternberg may have despised everyone involved except himself. The actors interviewed had largely left acting behind them when the documentary was made (1965), and besides, Sternberg was a broken reed in the movie industry by that time anyway. So he represented no threat to them. Even so, they are muted in their criticisms of him, showing the kind of class and restraint that one can't imagine among today's blabber-mouth stars. But it's their very reticence that underscores all the more strongly how they felt. Oberon says not a single word that you can pin down as critical of Sternberg, but the exasperation at his remarks about her accident is plain on her face. Even more telling is the complete lack of praise or warmth toward him. They don't claw at him, but nobody has anything nice to say about him, either.
Leaving aside the enmities among the cast and crew, even some 28 years after filming, the rushes that have survived provide a fascinating picture. Laughton was clearly struggling with the role. The documentary narrator (an absurd Dirk Bogarde) pointed out that Laughton felt he'd finally gotten inside his character after listening to a recording of Edward VIII's abdication speech in 1936. Maybe. There are clearly aspects of Laughton's performance that are awe-inspiring. Yet nevertheless, he frequently looks as if he's still searching for the soul of the character. I don't want to make it sound as if I worship Jacobi's performance in the BBC series, because it has its flaws as well, but one thing that I thought Jacobi always carried off perfectly was the halting gait and the awkward stance of a man with one leg too short. Laughton looks like he's trying too hard; he almost looks like one of the characters in "The Holy Grail" riding along with a toy horse.
There's another scene where a laughing Messalina prances by, eyeing him mischievously. He looks back at her with a mooning, foppish grin. It doesn't really work. I have to say that this is partly because the scene itself doesn't make any sense. The beguiling 15-year-old Messalina wouldn't have made google-eyed passes at the 50-year-old lame Claudius. The scene was pure Hollywood invention, to give us our first long look at the laughing seductress. So I can't imagine just how Laughton should have played the scene to make it work. Nevertheless, Laughton's performance here almost reminds one of Curly Howard making eyes at a dame in a dentist's office.
But the scene in which he addresses the Senate is powerful and nearly perfect, and so is the scene when he is received by Caligula shortly after the latter has declared himself a god. Here, he knows exactly what he is about. Again, this probably has something to do with the fact that these scenes made sense and were an integral part of the story.
Also, the few scenes in which Williams (Caligula) and Flora Robson (Livia) appeared were astonishing. Mesmerizing. It's a real shame we can't see more of those two.
It's a shame this movie was never finished. It might have been flawed, but it certainly would have been memorable.
My father Denis Kavanagh, who had been a stunt flyer in Hollywood in the late Twenties, working on such films as William Wellman's Wings, returned to the UK to help edit I Claudius. As everyone knows the film was never made following a car crash in which Merle Oberon was injured. That's always been the official line anyway. Much has been made of Charles Laughton's inability to get into the part and at the time Korda was having trouble with Prudential Corporation who had invested heavily in London Films following the success of Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). Luckily, I have seen some of the rushes from the film which were tacked together for a BBC documentary in 1965 entitled 'The Epic That Never Was' narrated by Dirk Bogarde. The rushes featured many tantrums on Laughton's part. Korda used to despair of Laughton's insecurities and the editors, so my father told me, had a very difficult time putting anything useable together. In many ways, my father told me, it was a good thing the movie never appeared because it was going nowhere and Merle Oberon's accident was the ideal excuse to cancel the picture. Obviously, Derek Jacobi didn't have so many problems when the BBC made a television series of the book many years later.
I was amazed to have read previous comments especially that last one on
'Laughton not being able to develop the character'. Well you must be
blind to think that Laughton didn't understand the character and his
suffering. As so often before Laughton dug deep to find every emotion,
to feel every fiber of the Claudius character.
Unlike Dieterle , Boleslawski and Leo Mc Carey (directors of other Laughton films) , Von Sternberg wasn't prepared to follow his genius as he was not in for the 'thinking actor' approach.
He was used to have it his way or no way and was looking for a way out. Luckily for him and for Korda, whose company had already spent a zillion dollars on the project, Merle Oberon (who adored Laughton) had her car accident. What remains is proof of Laughton's genius and the greatness of the whole project. Derek Jacobi's portrayal, is equally masterful and both actors in my mind where examples of perfect casting.
Emlyn Williams comments on Laughton are sufficiently clear, praising his colleague and Merle Oberon who featured with Laughton in Korda's 'the private life of Henry VIII' was positive too.
Von Sternberg lost his touch around that time and never really recuperated turning him into an interesting but frustrated teacher at American film schools. One last thing : of course Laughton was not flawless himself and sometimes when he really put his teeth into a role he could be painstakingly meticulous and full of self-doubt even when he had mastered the whole character but the results were almost always worth the pain.
Ps.: It was Von Sternberg (still very frustrated) that didn't like Laughton 30 years on.
I am a serious fan of Robert Graves' books, the BBC series, and pretty much anything else I can devour about the era of the great Roman Emperors. Every time I rewatch the series (about twice a year), I absolutely MUST watch the documentary about this movie also. I find it quite fascinating, and am left with an unfulfilled longing to watch the entire movie. This is a totally EMOTIONAL response to the documentary, and has absolutely nothing to do with any controversy over the production, which IMHO is exactly what filmmakers want - an EMOTIONAL RESPONSE. Of course the clips we get to see have flaws, have you ever seen unfinished parts of a movie that didn't? (Or even a FINISHED movie, for that matter) I personally believe it is a shame they had someone like von Sternberg involved instead of a director that really cared about the project and was willing to do it justice. Think about it... The director is pretty much the backbone of a movie. If he comes in with the attitude that he's not happy with anything, how can anyone else be happy about what they are doing? I think it had as much potential of becoming a phenomenon as the BBC series.
I saw this documentary on the aborted I, Claudius (The Epic that Never
Was) a long time ago and just watched it again. Much has been said on
IMDb about the obvious ego of Herr von Sternberg and I agree, he didn't
seem well liked, and he wasn't happy with how the production was going.
I also agree that Merle Oberon's accident was used as an excuse to
close down the production.
I do disagree with one thing. One of the problems, supposedly, was that Charles Laughton was having difficulty with the part. Despite some disbelief on this board, that is true. He used to put his head in the lap of his wife, Elsa Lanchester, and sob that he couldn't get it. And, as someone whose father was connected with the production states, there is footage of Laughton having temper tantrums. I'm sure that was out of frustration.
Nevertheless, I'm sure that Laughton would have gotten the essence of the role, and some of his Claudius on film is brilliant. There are some wonderful scenes in this documentary with him, Flora Robson, and Emlyn Williams.
Dirk Bogarde narrates this documentary, which includes interviews with the aforementioned von Sternberg, Emlyn Williams, Merle Oberon, Robert Graves, who wrote I, Claudius, and Flora Robson. The liveliest interview came from Williams, who was hilarious. He reports that von Sternberg told him that his character, Caligula, was a little bit of a "sissy." "I was happy to hear that," he said, "because I'd seen my costumes - two hostess gowns and a couple of cocktail numbers with false fringe." As far as I'm concerned, his interview made the whole documentary worth it.
To those of you who have given this "film" a rating, shame on you. The
film doesn't exist. It was never completed and therefore you could not
have seen it.
The closest I or anyone else has come to seeing it is the documentary, The Epic That Never Was. It gave some very cool looks into the problems that plagued this film, most notably Laughton's inability to get into character and his numerous tantrums on set. It did not however show the entire film or even close to it. That's because only a small portion of the film was even shot.
So please, no more ratings for this movie.
I would concur with the assessment of how production was going. The documentary is now included in the BBC production's boxed set. It's clear from the rushes that the film was in trouble, and that Laughton was not having any success developing the character. Also telling was the interview with Korda from 1966 which shows that even 30 years later, he still did not like Laughton one whit. Given Derek Jacobi's brilliant performance in the BBC miniseries, I doubt anyone will ever try to tackle the project again.
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