We’ve all had the experience of going to the movies with a sense of keen anticipation, only to be let down by what actually cavorted across the screen for our entertainment, amusement or edification. I certainly encountered a lot of examples of this last weekend from viewers who were somewhat less than whelmed by Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That’s perhaps an extreme example, since rarely has so much nostalgia ridden on the back of one movie. It would have to have been just about the best movie ever made to have lived up to the expectations it generated.
Expectations were made to be thwarted. I think Johnny Mercer said it best a long time ago when he and Fred Astaire penned the song “I’m Building Up to an Awful Letdown.” Unfortunately, it’s human nature to get excited over the prospect of something new and wonderful, or sometimes old and wonderful.
Being an inveterate skeptic—at least when it comes to new releases—I’ve been lucky in this regard. In the realm of “classic” cinema, that’s another matter. Movie fans of a certain generation will be able to identify with years of reading about movies that they’d never been able to see for a variety of reasons. I know I’m not alone with memories of making a dive for the new issue of TV Guide to pore over the movie listings and see if some holy grail title was going to suddenly pop up at 3 a.m. on a distant UHF station. Sometimes you struck gold. More often than not, you didn’t.
Then there were the special showings at film societies and universities. These you found by scouring the Friday entertainment section of the newspapers, or occasionally by seeing a listing of what was coming at a repertory theater. The latter sometimes promised a long-sought title far into the future. I’d waited four years for anyone to show Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah (1972), only to find it listed one September for a showing the following August. I spent nearly a year knowing exactly where I would be on Aug. 31! I’m delighted to be able to report that this is one case where my expectations were met.
Actually, I had pretty good luck overall in these matters. When the long “lost” James Whale horror picture The Old Dark House (1932) surfaced in the 1970s, I was far from disappointed. I was among the few who wasn’t disappointed by the other big horror movie event of that era. It had long been believed that no copy of Michael Curtiz’ Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) existed—when it turned out that there was a copy sitting in movie mogul Jack Warner’s private library all the time. It was unveiled to the world with a good deal of fanfare, followed by a good deal of complaining that it didn’t live up to expectations. It lived up to mine. It still does.
Oh, sure, there were fairly minor disappointments along the way. As an avid admirer of Mae West’s movies, I simply refused to believe that her last vintage film The Heat’s On (1943) could be as bad as legend had it. It became available in the 1980s, at which point I discovered that if anything it was worse than its reputation. It took me two sittings to even make it through its lackluster ho-hummery. I do not anticipate the need to reassess it.
The same can be said—in spades—for the Universal comedy fantasy Night Life of the Gods (1935)—a lost film that was found and ought to be lost again. I suppose one might expect something is amiss about a comedy with opening credits informing you that the author of the source material, Thorne Smith, and the film’s director, Lowell Sherman, have both died before the movie came out. This does not set a giddy tone.
My absolutely biggest moviegoing disappointment—and one that ultimately has a happy ending—came with Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). Here was a movie with a lot of legend attached. Amazingly tantalizing photos from the film festooned the pages of every “monster magazine” (as we called them at the time) that came down the pike from the 1950s through the 1960s. Reports of its greatness and its boundless creativity were not hard to find. The film, however, was.
Now this wasn’t a lost film. This was something much more nefarious. When MGM decided to do a version of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel in 1941, they opted to actually remake the Mamoulian film and bought the original from Paramount, whereupon they promptly buried the original to avoid any comparison. (MGM pulled this same stunt with James Whale’s 1936 version of Show Boat.) The film existed, but it was carefully locked away from public scrutiny until the early 1970s, when a retrospective of Mamoulian’s films was packaged and sent around to universities. By then, MGM wasn’t worried much about comparisons.
In 1971 the traveling retrospective made it to the University of South Florida in Tampa, which was only about 65 miles from where I lived. The second night of the series consisted of a double feature of Love Me Tonight (1932) and Jekyll and Hyde. I had no interest in the former. I’d never even heard of the former. The problem was that I was 16 at the time, had yet to get my full driver’s license and it was a school night. Grim prospects. My long-suffering father, who’d turned me on to the concept of going to these university showings and lived to regret it, agreed that we could go, but not for both films. We would see whatever was shown first, and that was something that wasn’t entirely clear. I reasoned that Jekyll and Hyde would probably be first since it came first chronologically.
It’s probably easy to imagine my disappointment when I found out on arrival that Love Me Tonight was first on the bill. I harbored some vague hope that my father might relent after it was over, so I submitted to the first feature with ill-concealed distaste. Oh, great, some musical I’d never heard of with Maurice Chevalier. My notions of Chevalier were then entirely grounded in the image of this white-haired old geezer from lousy Disney kiddie pictures like Monkeys Go Home (1967). This was hardly the sort of thing to enthuse a 16 year old with a penchant for horror pictures.
My distaste lasted maybe a full three minutes before I was so hooked. I’d never seen anything like this movie. I’d never seen anything made like this movie. And Chevalier was wonderful—nothing at all like my image of him. By the middle of the film, I wanted to rush right out and make my own movie. By the next day, I had ordered an LP of Chevalier’s songs from the era of the film. I was also a full-fledged fan of Rouben Mamoulian. Cinematic nirvana had been attained. The whole world of movies would never quite look the same to me.
But what, you ask, about Jekyll and Hyde? What indeed. Indulgent as my father was, he stuck to his word and we left after the first film. I didn’t kick up quite the fuss I might have, because I was so entranced by what I had seen. Still, my plan to see Jekyll and Hyde had been thwarted—and that desire had only been strengthened by my immediate conversion to Mamoulianism. If Mamoulian could make this wonderful musical, just imagine what he might have done with the horror genre? It would be a long, long time before I got to find out.
Years later—a few years into the VHS revolution—someone hooked me up with a truly wonderful…er…bootlegger. For a nominal fee, this fellow would make me a copy of the film from his own 16mm print—the same source material used to put together the retrospective. Happily forking over a very reasonable 25 bucks, I awaited the arrival of the tape with great expectations. The results were not what I anticipated.
The copy arrived. It was a beautifully made tape and certainly worth the price, but the movie itself was another matter. I don’t think I had ever been so completely disappointed in a movie. Oh, there was terrific stuff in it, but it was choppy and it felt rushed. The pacing was all wrong. The end result was a bit like being dragged through an art museum at a high rate of speed. You knew there were great things to be seen, but you never had the chance to actually look at them. It was there and gone and so what? I stuck the film on a shelf and didn’t bother with it again. I’d built it up in my mind and suffered that awful letdown for my pains.
The story doesn’t end there, I’m glad to say. I knew that two sequences were missing from the film—a fairly long subjective camera opening and a scene where Jekyll (Fredric March) turns into Hyde when he sees a cat kill a bird. That much was common knowledge in film history circles. The whole story turned out to be a little different.
Jekyll and Hyde had been made prior to the Production Code (that came in 1934). A lot that was permissible before the Code was strictly taboo later on, which didn’t matter unless the studio wanted to re-release a title. Box office receipts were so lousy in 1938 (well, so were a lot of the movies that year) that studios started plundering the vaults for their old hits. One of the ones Paramount chose was Jekyll and Hyde and it couldn’t be sent out unless specific cuts were made to tone the film down. (The exact same thing happened with Love Me Tonight.) This was the origin of the two known cuts (just why the opening was removed is a mystery) in the film. What was lost somewhere along the way was the information that these were not the only cuts. In total, about 20 minutes had been clumsily hacked out of the movie.
It was this truncated version that went to MGM in 1941, and it was the MGM print that was used for the retrospective. Fortunately, the original version turned out to still exist and was finally restored to us. (Too bad this can’t be said of Love Me Tonight.) It was like seeing an entirely different film. Hell, it was an entirely different film—20 minutes is a big chunk out of a 90 minute movie. The pacing was no longer off-kilter. There was true atmosphere. The previously incomprehensible manner in which the story progressed made sense. The whole film slowed down to a point where it was possible to appreciate its accomplishments. I don’t know if it quite lived up to my expectations—after all, Love Me Tonight is in my top five favorite films of all time, Jekyll and Hyde is only in the top 50—but it certainly wasn’t the crashing disappointment it originally seemed.
In this case, as I said, we have a story of thwarted expectations with a pleasant ending, but it’s a specialized case. I don’t see any such turnaround in the future for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (surely, the movie curently on screens worldwide is the one Spielberg wanted), though time may be kind to it. Who knows? I’m still not breaking out The Heat’s On or Night Life of the Gods again any time soon.