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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When MGM filmed Raintree County it had high hopes that it would be a
second Gone With The Wind. It didn't quite come up to that, but it is
still a good film on its own merits.
It took about 10 years for MGM to finally bring this to the screen. Shortly before the tragic suicide of author Ross Lockridge, MGM acquired the screen rights to this one and only novel by Lockridge which was a number one best seller in post World War II years.
The story opens in ante bellum Civil War Indiana, specifically in RaintreeCounty. Our hero is John Shawnessy, a sort of aimless young man who teaches school for lack of better direction. He's a sensitive soul with deep abolitionist convictions and no one was a more sensitive soul on the screen than Montgomery Clift.
If all had gone well, Monty would have probably married the girl from home played by Eva Marie Saint. But a visiting Southern belle played by Elizabeth Taylor in her best fiddle-dee-dee Scarlett O'Hara manner sweeps Monty off his feet. He hasn't got a prayer.
But Liz Taylor got her first Academy Award nomination not for simply imitating Scarlett O'Hara. Her role requires her to descend into the madness of Vivien Leigh's other Southern belle Oscar part, Blanche Dubois. It's on this devolution of character that Liz Taylor the actress really shines. She lost the Oscar sweepstakes that year to Joanne Woodward's Three Faces of Eve.
The film almost wasn't finished because of a horrible automobile accident that nearly killed Monty Clift during production. As it was, it was held up for three months while the best plastic surgeons looked to reconstruct Montgomery Clift's face. You can see clearly those shots before and after the accident.
Liz Taylor in her documentary tribute to her favorite leading man and best friend in the world said that Monty Clift did not lose the physical beauty, but he did lose the delicacy of his features which were her own words. In a strange way it probably helped his performance because John Shawnessy does go to war and war is an experience known for scarring and aging people.
As in A Place In the Sun, Monty and Liz's scenes together have that extra dimension that people who care about each other deeply can give a scene. Raintree County should be seen for that alone.
Eva Marie Saint as the good girl from home does all right, but her character just doesn't have the depth that Liz's and Monty's do. Eva Marie is just given less to work with. Others in this nicely rounded cast are Lee Marvin as Clift's friend and rival from his hometown, Agnes Moorehead and Walter Abel as Clift's parents, Rod Taylor as a sleazy politician and Nigel Patrick who observes it all as a wandering reprobate who takes a liking to Clift.
It's not Gone With the Wind, but it's pretty good.
An individual's life is formed by his memories. Books, music and - yes,
movies - influence us. We remember the situations and the dialogue, we
remember the sweet melodies. These memories enable us to react, as well as
give us the ability to identify situations as they occur.
I saw "Raintree County" when I was 15. Orphaned at six, I'd just departed from an orphans home in Dallas, after nearly nine years. Knowing virtually nothing of the outside world, I was receptive to everything, every person that I encountered. That summer of 1958, I sneaked into the Forest Park Drive-In to see Elizabeth Taylor, of whom I knew little, other than that she was a breath-taking beauty, and had been recently widowed when Michael Todd's chartered plane had crashed.
The characters in the movie (when I was 15) were literal, if not visceral: the magnificence of Miss Taylor's satin gowns encased over crinoline, Lee Marvin's sharp, smart-alecky wit, the professor's lechery, Montgomery Clift's Yankee stoicism, Agnes Moorehead's curious detachment, were all primary colors.
Forty-five years have passed. Those primary colors are now a multitude of blendings and shadings of secondary colors. Montgomery Clift's character is now a beautifully controlled young man who reflects his parents' stoicism, a young man whose intelligence and self control are at the core of the film, and upon whom all characters revolve.
Originally, I thought that "Raintree County" was strictly Taylor's vehicle. She is the burr under the saddle, the exquisite seductress that interfers with Clift's heretofore regulated, almost predestined lifestyle upon his college graduation.
'Raintree' is an achingly beautiful film, and Miss Taylor, who is the most gifted in her portrayal of anguished characters, blesses the movie. Norma Shearer could be beautiful in 'Marie Antoinette", but she lacked depth. Betty Davis portrayed Sturm und Drang, but was never a clothes horse. Taylor combines the two.
Having read some of the other's comments, most of whom disliked the story, perhaps it helps to be Southern to truly love this film. And also, one wants to realize that it depicts two diametrically opposed cultures: North and South. When Northern chill mixes with Southern humidity, chaos results. And so it did, and it was known as The War Between the States.
In conclusion, one wants to luxuriate in this film: Lockridge wrote a brilliant story, and for the most part, it is well delivered. It is rich in history and characterization.
Raintree County, MGM's attempt to make a picture that would faintly remind
audiences of Gone With the Wind, did have two things in common with the
earlier film: Technicolor and length. Otherwise, it was a disaster, a
clichéd period piece heavy on costumes, very light on absorbing human
Raintree had two insurmountable problems: ham-handed direction and a clumsy, uninspired script that failed to flesh out the characters of several cast members including two leading players. Worst impacted was Monty Clift as Johnny Shawnessy, a role so bland that it offered the actor nothing to grab hold of. Johnny is simply a nice person, honorable, loyal, patient, and truthful. He is someone of good values, a person to rely on, occasionally funny in an adolescent sort of way, and a good son to his boring two-dimensional parents. (Correction. Agnes Moorhead as Johnny's mother is one dimensional. The script's fault, not hers.) In short, there's nothing interesting about Johnny. He's ordinary. Apparently, studio executives didn't see a problem with this, even though Johnny Shawnessy is continuously front and center in a film that originally ran for almost three hours, as it does again in the restored video version.
Clift, one of the most gifted American film actors of the twentieth century, knew he was prostituting himself by appearing in Raintree. He responded by delivering what is arguably the worst performance of his career. It's painful to watch him: in most of his scenes he appears pallid, slightly dwarfish, and insignificant, giving the impression that he was privately making believe he really wasn't in the film at all.
The first excruciating hour of the picture is almost enough to drive audiences out of the theater. Since GWTW was long, Raintree County is long--and unfocused. In one particularly vapid scene Monty and Eva Marie Saint linger amid the widescreen splendor of well-scouted, photographically appropriate locations. As the two exchange graduation presents with Laurel and Hardy-like formality, the script calls for Eva Marie to coyly break into girlish giggles and say things like `Isn't that niiieeccce?...We think the same things. Isn't that crazy? Tee-hee-hee-hee-hee.' Privately, Eva Marie must have been wondering what crime she might have committed to have caused fate to whirl her from the triumph of her 1954 performance in On the Waterfront to this swampy mess.
The film is equally inept in making use of Lee Marvin, who was reduced to doing his loutish, clumsy, I'm-so-dumb schtick. Marvin wasn't nearly as good at broad physical comedy as he and some others seemed to think he was. (Doing more subtle comedy, however, where less is more, was another thing altogether for Marvin. Watch him as a clueless wannabe in a wonderful film like Pocket Money to see what he can do with a great comic role.) We watch as Lee challenges Monty first to a race (lots of grotesquely exaggerated, manly calisthenics at the starting line), then to see who can out-drink the other, while a dozen equally buffoonish male extras shout and yell on cue. Johnny, a guileless innocent, gets thoroughly looped for the first time in his life, whoops it up, and executes a flying swan dive into a bunch of liquor barrels. (In real life, Monty was a little less innocent than Johnny Shawnessy; according to his biographers, he was a walking all-nite pharmacy of illicit substances.)
To give credit where it's due, the film is briefly buoyed by the presence of the wonderful Nigel Patrick as a roguish schoolmaster with an eye for other men's wives. Happily for us, Patrick steals all of his scenes, impatiently bellowing at or comically insulting his young charges and generally pumping some desperately needed fire and energy into the film.
After a very long time, something of major interest finally occurs: Elizabeth Taylor makes her entrance. Sexy, conniving, dark-eyed Liz steals Johnny away from poor, decent Eva Marie and soon hornswoggles him into marrying her by falsely claiming to be pregnant. While on their honeymoon aboard a paddlewheeler, she nonchalantly arranges a dozen dolls on their bed and shows Monty her all-time favorite, a hideous half-white, half-black doll, appearing burnt in a fire and looking like it was designed by Bela Lugosi. This creepy figurine seemingly makes no impression on Monty, even as members of the audience are rearing back in horror, crossing themselves, and yelling `Monty! Watch out!!'
Taylor delivers a solid performance that displays the rising talent that she had already shown a few years before in A Place in the Sun and which would later would come to fruition in such films as Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf and Giant. As Susanna Drake, she is initially sexually beguiling towards Johnny. Then, after they marry, she begins to show the first signs of the madness within her. As the atmosphere around her grows slowly darker, you find yourself surprised to realize you're at last being drawn into the story. The actress took a gamble with this unsympathetic role, that of a southern-born woman who fails to see anything wrong with owning slaves and is terrified of possibly finding that she might have a single drop of `negra' blood in her veins. At the same time she manages to elicit a measure of sympathy for this narrow and unbalanced woman by displaying a touching vulnerability simultaneously with her fear of what's happening to her mind.
If anyone triumphs in this upholstered turkey, it's Liz Taylor, always a born survivor.
Liz is a disturbed New Orleans belle with a vision that she's part
She's the beautiful femme fatale to Eva Marie Saint's inevitable
As in "A Place in the Sun," Liz is used as the symbol
of a particular social class and a particular kind of woman
her mark on an idealistic young man John Wickliff Shawnessy (Montgomery
Clift) who's looking for the mythical rain tree that contains the
secret of the meaning of life
Trapping him into marriage with the lie that she's pregnant, and then proceeding to lose her hold on her sanity, Susanna detains the good and helpless John for eight years He is released, able to return to his magnificent dream and to his pure childhood sweetheart, only after tragic events
Retaining the essence of Ross Lockridge, Jr. best-seller, the movie states the equality of the unhappy romance with the Civil War: the personal drama is therefore a reflection of the nation's wounds According to the top-heavy symbolism, Susanna Drake represents the South, corrupting and dragging down the North; she's the Body contaminating the poet's Soul
Taylor plays Susanna Drake's character with an intensity that exceeds all her earlier work Montgomery Clift as the unlucky poet and Eva Marie Saint as his high school sweetheart and true love are on the remote side, but the scenes with Liz strike fire in a wonderfully brilliant way
With its battles and its formal balls, its magnificent riverboats and decayed mansions, its bordellos and madhouses, its childbirth and deathbed scenes, and its evacuation of Atlanta, Edward Dmytryk's "Raintree County," like its source, has undeniable epic dimension
"Raintree County" is one of those movies like "Ishtar" or "Waterworld;"
troubled productions remembered as much -- if not more so -- for what
went on behind the scenes as in the finished picture. Patricia
Bosworth's definitive biography "Montgomery Clift" (1978) is the source
of the facts that follow.
While "Raintree County" was in rehearsals, Montgomery Clift's drinking was out of hand, and threatened to hamper production. Elizabeth Taylor had no real influence on him, despite being his dearest friend and soulmate. Many in the cast and crew expressed their concerns to MGM higher-ups. This led to a series of meetings between Clift and MGM Production Chief Dore Schary. "Raintree" had a $5 million budget, the highest of any American film up to that time, so it was up to Schary to solve problems on the set or behind the scenes before they happened.
Schary left the meetings believing Clift was sincere in his desire to straighten up and behave himself. But he was not convinced that Monty would be able to do it. His demons were too powerful; every picture he made was held hostage to Clift's self-destructiveness. Schary decided to take out a $500,000 insurance policy on "Raintree County" just in case there was a halt in production for whatever reason.
Schary had never done this before, but his "funny premonition" tragically came to pass.
On May 12, 1956, half of "Raintree County" had been filmed. Elizabeth and other of Monty's friends had prevailed upon him to stay sober during shooting, and he was trying to live up to his side of the bargain. At a party at Elizabeth's and husband Michael Wilding's that night, Monty was sober and quiet. He had one glass of wine, and made his excuses and left. He was uncertain about driving down the steep hill to Sunset Blvd., and asked his close friend, Kevin McCarthy ("Invasion of the Body Snatchers") to lead him to the road.
McCarthy described many times in later years seeing Monty's headlights move wildly from one side of the road to the other in his rearview mirror. Then he watched in horror as Monty's car slammed into a telephone pole.
Montgomery Clift's impossibly beautiful profile and the planes of a face the camera adored were destroyed. He was crumpled on the floor of the car, his face and jaws crushed. Elizabeth Taylor resisted all attempts to keep her from going to his side. When she got to him, she straightened him up and pulled his two front teeth out of his throat before he strangled on them.
Recovery was long, slow; unbearably painful. Monty had friends sneak liquor into the hospital. Three weeks after rebuilding his jaws, Monty's doctors realized they had done the job incorrectly. They re-broke his jaws and wired them again.
Production was shut down for weeks. With over $2 million already invested in it, MGM was not about to abandon "Raintree," nor replace its star. Resumption of the project was primarily a question of money for the studio, but to Monty and those who loved him it was a question of pride.
Weeks after the accident, Monty was allowed to see himself in a mirror for the first time. He was not elated with the results, but relieved to see he looked enough like himself that he could continue acting in front of cameras. Greater than his pain had been the fear that his career was over.
Montgomery Clift returned to work on "Raintree County" knowing that the picture was no better than when he left. He returned knowing that audiences would come to see it to play a ghoulish game: they would try to spot him "before" and "after." He returned to the production numbed and dulled by painkillers and alcohol.
Despite his horrific ordeal, despite the liquor and the pills that eased his pain and enabled him to complete the picture, I still believe Montgomery Clift's performance of Johnny Shawnessy to be one of his best.
Clift had an unusual voice and unorthodox phrasing. On screen he was intuitive and sensitive, his portrayals always highly intelligent. However much he rehearsed (and he was notorious for doing things to death) Clift's readings always seemed quite natural. The accident changed none of these things. And equally fine performances were to come, in "Lonelyhearts" (1958), "The Misfits" and "Wild River" (both 1960); and "Judgment at Nuremburg" (1961).
Montgomery Clift died 40 years ago this week, on July 22, 1966. He was 45 years old. But part of him had died ten years earlier on a twisting road in the Hollywood hills. The accident that nearly killed him left him prey to his weaknesses but also to the enormous strength and passion that informs his later performances. "Raintree County" divided Monty Clift's life into "before" and "after."
M-G-M assigned some pretty heavy-hitters to cobble together this almost
indigestible attempt to tell a Civil War story without a producer like
David O. Selznick to insist that the whole thing should somehow come
together. Other comments on this site tell the sad story of miscasting,
a seemingly unfocused script, apparently disinterested direction and
the obvious tragedy of Montgomery Clift's catastrophic automobile
accident during production and its effect on all the performances he
was to give thereafter.
Elizabeth Taylor is about the only central player who emerges relatively unscathed and her Academy Award nomination was deserved (and certainly more worthy of the Oscar she did win for "BUtterfield 8".)
I bought reserved seat tickets for this before its initial engagement began and the reviewers' generally negative appraisals were available. M-G-M's new big screen process, MGM Camera 65 ("Window of the World" as they termed it, used only once again by the studio for "Ben-Hur"), afforded a handsome showcasing of all the expense lavished upon this production, but, even as a teenager, I squirmed in my seat as its oh-so-lengthy reels unspooled and I left the theater regretting that its makers hadn't somehow achieved something memorable for its quality and dramatic impact, rather than for its longueurs. Johnny Green's score (and Nat King Cole's rendition of the title song) did sound awfully good over the stereophonic sound system at that Beverly Hills, California theater and that's one aspect of this disappointment that is now probably lost forever.
I discovered Ross Lockridge Jr.'s attempt at the Great American Novel when I first saw "Raintree County" the film in 1957. I was aware that the story that was put on the screen was not perfect, although it is a beautifully-made and often-interesting film; so I read the novel, to discover what had been omitted. Because I have become an expert on both the book and the film, I appreciate even more what is right about cinematic achievement and find myself more willing to ignore the story's flaws. First, consider the direction, a near-miracle of taste, shot composition, blocking and work with actors achieved by Edward Dmytryk. Art direction, lighting, set design, Walter Plunkett's costumes, the low-key music by Johnny Greene, the theme song, the dialogue by Millard Kaufman, and some of the acting rate with Hollywood's finest. In particular, Eva Marie Saint's work as Nell Gaither, Nigel Patrick as Professor Stiles, Walter Abel as T.D. and Lee Marvin as Flash Perkins deserved Oscar nominations. The smaller parts in the film, from James Griffiths to De Forest Kelley to Tom Drake are all well-nigh flawless. And the memorable scenes such as the Southern ball, the visit to a bordello, the great July Fourth race, Johnny's misadventure in the swamp, the scenes on the Academy lawn, the handling of Johnny Shawnessey's house in Freehaven, Indiana, the war scenes, the great rally in 1860, Rod Taylor's office as Garwood Jones in Indianapolis, all are very well mounted. The flaw in the script, which has a story much-altered from the novel that has one philosophical error also (the author cannot accept American individualism as being not social but reality-based) was confirmed for me by Eva Marie Saint. In 1966, I complimented her acting then asked if the story might not have been handled more strongly, to reflect the novel. Sadly, she noted, "Oh no--they GAVE the picture to ELIZABETH!". A multi-million-dollar film had been made to wangle an undeserved nomination for an Academy Award for Elizabeth Taylor, who tries hard but lacks the classical dimension. But, there is a way to enjoy this superbly-made film that renders the problem of Johnny Shawnessey's obsession with the Taylor character smaller: watch it in 'thirds'. The film then becomes Young John Shawnessey; Johnny and Susannah Drake; Aftermath. It was shown this way on a Los Angeles TV station once, and the structure became much more evident. As the central character, Montgomery Clift starts well but the accident he had during the film and his miscasting vitiate some later work; he gets by with most of his very-demanding role, however, and his work in the last third of the film has some real power. I would not have missed this film for anything; it has been part of my life for fifty years; why not make its power, haunting successful scenes and many lovely attainments a part of yours also.
Idealistic Montgomery Clift (as John Shawnessy) is distracted by buxom
Southern belle Elizabeth Taylor (as Susanna Drake), and marries her
instead of pretty sweetheart Eva Marie Saint (as Nell Gaither). Life
with Ms. Taylor proves to be a cursed existence, so Mr. Clift takes
refuge as a Union soldier, after the United States Civil War breaks
out. Of course, Clift is on the winning side of the war - but, his
personal search for happiness, in an Eden called "Raintree County", is
a more difficult path to manage...
Clearly, MGM was hoping for something approaching "Gone with the Wind" - and, they failed. However, "Raintree County" is not so bad, when viewed without the comparative eye. The big budget production values are beautiful; the obvious expense, and the cast, helps maintain interest in the relatively weak storyline. And, it does get better, as the starring triad (Clift, Taylor, and Saint) slowly draw you into their lives. Viewing will require some degree of commitment, though; it's a long movie.
Early in the filming, Clift left a visit with friends at Taylor's home, and drove his car into a telephone pole. He nearly died, and his facial "reconstruction" is obvious throughout most of "Raintree County". Clift's performance is uneven, also - but, he was too good an actor to be completely derailed. And, Clift is better than you might have heard. Also, he, does not look as bad as many have claimed. The eventual toll on his "looks" was mainly taken by a growing dependence on alcohol and painkillers.
Taylor, who is credited with saving Clift's life, shows some of the sparkle that would quickly make her one of the best actresses in the business, especially during the film's second half. Nigel Patrick, Lee Marvin, Rod Taylor, and Agnes Moorehead head up a strong supporting cast. Robert Surtees' savory cinematography is noteworthy. And, Nat King Cole sings the Johnny Green title song, a minor hit, very sweetly.
****** Raintree County (10/4/57) Edward Dmytryk ~ Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Eva Marie Saint
This is one bad movie and a waste of some great talent. The characters are totally unsympathetic. The story is dreary and plodding and plays like a soap opera whose characters we don't care about. After two hours of hoping it would get better I gave up. Life is too short to sit through junk. If you like Elizabeth Taylor or Montgomery Clift or Lee Marvin see anything else that they've done-it's bound to be better! Many `B' movies are more interesting and engrossing than this. There's only one reason to see this and that's to see what Liz would have looked like if she could have played Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. But that's still no excuse to waste three hours.
I feel really guilty because my partner of 40 years, who is an avid film collector, fished this tape out of his vast repository (5000 films) and set it up so I could watch it. Since his media center is in one room and our eating space in another (the kitchen)I was running back and forth between the movie and my breakfast lasagne waiting breathlessly for La Liz's entrance which I caught just in time between bites of food and of course she was ravishing as always and utterly the center of attention in every shot, everyone else fading into the woodwork - there will never be a star to equal her! But alas the script is a muddled mess and there is no question the studio (MGM)could not have found a worse writer than they did - I looked him up here and he did nothing to warrant being asked to adapt Raintree County from the book which he did along with the book's author. Right off the bat both the story and the central character (The Professor) are just plain silly with heartthrob Clift running off into a swamp in his Sunday Best for absolutely no reason and the professor running off with some man's wife. What all this has to do with the main storyline is anyone's guess, but after reading the synopsis of the story here I realized that poor MGM in its quest to film a sequel to GWTW failed miserably with this pathetic attempt. As the old saying says, you can't go home again!
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