William Castle was a director of B movie thrillers such as those in two popular franchises of the 1940s starring faded stars of the previous decades: The Whistler, with Richard Dix (Best Actor Oscar nominee for Cimarron, 1930-31), and The Crime Doctor, with Warner Baxter (Best Actor Oscar winner for In Old Arizona, in the 1928–29 period). In the early 1950s, Castle also directed both B Westerns (Conquest of Cochise, The Law vs. Billy the Kid) and B “Easterns” (Slaves of Babylon, The Saracen Blade).
But later in the decade, as explained by David Parkinson at Films in Focus, William Castle, now a producer-director, “sold his soul to horror.” How so? “In 1958 he hit upon the notion of insuring the lives of those brave enough to see his new chiller, Macabre, and recouped around $5 million on a $90,000 outlay,” Parkinson says. “The same year’s House on Haunted Hill confirmed Castle as the ‘King of the Gimmicks,’ thanks to Emergo, a pioneering process that involved a 12-foot plastic skeleton whizzing across the auditorium on a wire.”
But cheesy gimmicks or no, what William Castle really wanted was critical respect. How to achieve that? What about a movie revolving around a New York-based coven of satan-worshipers, directed by the renowned Polish filmmaker of Knife in the Water and Repulsion?
With Roman Polanski at the helm, and starring Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), based on Ira Levin’s bestseller, was both a critical and a commercial hit. Ironically, according to Parkinson “the showman who had peddled cheap thrills to millions ended up terrified of his own movie.”
Well, who can blame William Castle, when among Rosemary’s Baby‘s satan-worshipping New Yorkers (and assorted bystanders) were revered figures of the American stage and screen, such as eventual Best Supporting Actress Academy Award winner Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Ralph Bellamy, Elisha Cook Jr, Maurice Evans, and 1930s comedienne Patsy Kelly? But there were other reasons.
Castle claimed to have received up to 50 abusive letters a day following [the release of Rosemary’s Baby] on 12 June 1968 (exactly a week after the assassination of Robert Kennedy.) In his autobiography, Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America (1976) Castle quoted such accusations as “You have unleashed evil on the world” and threats like “Rosemary’s Baby is filth and YOU will die as a result.” But when Castle began suffering from excruciating pains in his groin, one taunt particularly hit home: “Bastard. Believer of Witchcraft. Worshipper at the Shrine of Satanism. My prediction is you will slowly rot during a long and painful illness which you have brought upon yourself.”
On 31 October Castle was preparing to fly to New York to discuss producing Neil Simon’s The Out of Towners when he collapsed. A spinal tap was required to remove a blockage in his urinary tract. But the condition recurred several times over the next few months, and legend has it that during one emergency admission Castle yelled out, “Rosemary, for God’s sake, drop the knife!”
William Castle’s post-Rosemary’s Baby career
William Castle would produce only two more movies after Rosemary’s Baby, neither of which caused much of a stir: Riot (1969) and Bug (1975). Additionally, he executive produced the TV series Circle of Fear, and directed the curious Marcel Marceau vehicle Shanks (1974). Castle died of a heart attack at age 63 on May 31, 1977, in Los Angeles.
William Castle publicity photo ca. 1955. Mia Farrow Rosemary’s Baby photo: Paramount Pictures.
Douglas Sirk: American vs. Japanese Audiences
At Moving Image Source, Chris Fujiwara’s article “Tears Without Laughter” deciphers “audience responses to Douglas Sirk, in the U.S. and Japan,” where he attended a 10-film Sirk retrospective in Tokyo. Here are a couple of snippets:
“In the U.S., screenings of Sirk masterpieces such as Written on the Wind (1956), Imitation of Life (1959), and even the mournful The Tarnished Angels (1958) are turned into endurance tests by audience participation rituals that, whether fueled by the urge to show off one’s camp sensibility or driven by a misguided sympathy with the irony evident in the films, ends up all but hooting the films off the screen. …”
“How different things are in Japan was proved at the Sirk retrospective of the Pia Film Festival in July.”
Here’s one brief example about the “difference” found in Fujiwara’s piece:
“Dorothy Malone’s performance as the rich nymphomaniac Marylee in Written on the Wind generally comes in for gusts of derision from American audiences, who bray at her as if Sirk were a cross between Tex Avery and Russ Meyer. The Japanese silence before Marylee’s larger-than-life compulsions lent Sirk’s film, for all its garishness, a Racinian dignity that an American audience wouldn’t let stand for a second.”
Most (voting) Academy members perhaps found some “Racinian dignity” in Malone’s performance as well, for the actress won the 1956 best supporting actress Academy Award. Following her win, Malone moved up to starring roles, but she was never again nominated for an Oscar.
My favorite Douglas Sirk effort, by the way, is All That Heaven Allows, in which suburban, middle-class widow Jane Wyman falls for hunky gardener Rock Hudson, much to her friends’ and family’s horror. Todd Haynes would more or less remake it in 2003 as Far from Heaven, in which white middle-class wife Julianne Moore falls for black gardener Dennis Haysbert while husband Dennis Quaid keeps going in and out of the closet.
Jane Wyman should have told her family that even in 1950s American suburbia, things could have gotten considerably more complicated.
Woody Allen Discusses ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’
Woody Allen discusses his latest movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, with the LA Weekly‘s Scott Foundas. While at it, Allen also gives his opinion about a few of his most recent efforts, including two box office flops: Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream. Below are three brief quotes.
“Scoop I found to be a trivial little Kleenex of a film - amusing, provided you like me and you like Scarlett [Johansson]. But it’s not worth much in the scheme of things. If you’re not doing anything on a hot afternoon and you want to get into the air conditioning, you can watch it.”
“Cassandra’s Dream I thought was a good picture that people have not flocked to in any quantity at all. But I thought it was a completely engrossing movie, brilliantly acted by everybody, and I was very satisfied with it - much more satisfied than with other films of mine that have been much bigger successes.”
“And Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a pleasant surprise to me. … I knew Penélope [Cruz] was going to be in it and I was pretty sure Javier [Bardem] was going to be in it, so when I was writing it, I had the two of them in mind. Scarlett I think of for everything because she’s great, so I was just lucky she was available and I could get those two women in the film and juxtapose them.”
Scoop stars Woody Allen, Scarlett Johansson, and Hugh Jackman. Cassandra’s Dream features Ewan McGregor, Colin Farrell, Sally Hawkins, and Hayley Atwell. And Vicky Cristina Barcelona stars Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Penélope Cruz, and Javier Bardem.
Woody Allen’s Academy Awards
Woody Allen has won three Academy Awards: Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for the semi-autobiographical Annie Hall (1977), which was also the year’s Best Picture winner, and co-starring Best Actress winner Diane Keaton; and Best Original Screenplay for Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), the highly popular comedy-drama in which Allen was featured opposite Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, Michael Caine, Dianne Wiest, and Max von Sydow.
Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona photo: The Weinstein Company.