By Gary Dowell
Recently, the geeks here at Movie Night took time out from watching movies to go watch a movie — specifically, the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which details Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ambitious but ultimately doomed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel to film. (More on that below.)
It got us thinking about the well-known failed projects that litter the landscape of cinema like so many broken dreams. The old adage is that it’s a minor miracle whenever a film makes into theaters; for every one that does, there are countless others that never see the light of a projector bulb. Here are a few of the many intriguing near misses:
Creation (1931). An ambitious early sound-era science fiction film about a submarine that discovers a lost island inhabited by dinosaurs, directed by early special effects pioneer Willis H. O’Brien.
What Happened? David O. Sleznick killed the project when he took over RKO studios; however, his assistant, Merian C. Cooper, kept O’Brien on staff to help him film King Kong, which mined its stop-motion effects, some footage, and certain concepts from this ill-fated endeavor.
Something’s Got to Give (1962). Arguably the most infamous unfinished film in Hollywood, this light comedy remake of My Favorite Wife was to have been a comeback role of sorts for Marilyn Monroe, who’d been absent from the screen for more than year.
What Happened? Monroe had already been fired from and re-hired to this troubled production when she committed suicide shortly before filming was to resume. Twentieth Century-Fox overhauled the film with an entirely new cast and released it as Move Over, Darling in 1963. Monroe’s footage remained unseen until 2001, when it was digitally restored and assembled into a 37-minute short and released on her 75th birthday.
The Deep (1966). An adaptation of Charles Williams’ thriller Dead Calm, starring Orson Welles, Jeanne Moreau, and Laurence Harvey, and directed by Welles.
What Happened?: Welles’ filmography features an inordinate amount of unfinished films, usually resulting from over-ambitious vision combined with a lack of funds, and such was the case here. Plagued by technical and financial problems during a three-year shoot, it eventually fizzled. The negative is lost, and the Munich Film Museum cobbled together a rough cut from the only two surviving work prints. The book was adapted in Australia in 1989, directed by Phillip Noyce and starring Nicole Kidman, Sam Neill, and Billy Zane.
Napoleon (1968). Immediately after the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick embarked on an ambitious, epic biopic of the French conqueror. It was to have starred Jack Nicholson and featured full-scale reconstructions of his battles, requiring some 50,000 extras.
What Happened? Kubrick worked for two years on the film, immersing himself and his team in the minutiae analysis of the Napoleonic era. He even convinced the Romanian army to provide tens of thousands of men for the battle scenes. Nevertheless, MGM balked at the cost. Kubrick went to Warner Brothers and made A Clockwork Orange instead. That film’s success lead to led to the masterpieces Barry Lyndon and The Shining.
Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales (1968). Directed by then-student filmmaker Penelope Spheeris (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization) this comedy-drama about a white man accused of raping a black woman was to have been Richard Pryor’s first starring role.
What Happened? Pryor shredded the only negative of the film following an argument with his wife. However, scenes from the film appeared at a retrospective in Pryor’s honor in 2005, setting off a lawsuit between his wife and daughter and Spheeris.
Kaleidoscope (1971). What would likely have been Alfred Hitchcock’s darkest film, told form the perspective a serial rapist/killer, with which the master of suspense would have experimented with cinema verite-style filming.
What Happened? MCA Studios were so put off by the “protagonist” that they turned the project down. All that remains is about an hour’s worth silent footage, though a number of elements made into hitch’s Frenzy.
Dune (1971). A psychedelic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic written and directed by notorious avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky; with production design by by Dan O’Bannon, H. R. Giger, and Moebius; music by Pink Floyd and Magma; and a cast that included David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dali.
What Happened? The production got as far as a movie can without actually filming anything when the funding fell through. The failed project nevertheless achieved a mythical status of sorts, and Frank Pavich’s recent documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune offers tantalizing glimpses of what might have been.
The Day the Clown Cried (1972). Directed by and starring Jerry Lewis as a depressed German clown thrown into a concentration camp after mocking the Fuhrer, where he entertains his fellow prisoners. It purportedly concludes with him leading a group of children into a gas chamber. (Seriously.)
What Happened? When the funding ran out, Lewis began paying out of his own pocket to complete the film — which is, perhaps, a mercy: Lewis owns the only rough cut of the film, which he keeps secreted away. By all accounts of the handful who have seen the film, it’s pretty damn awful.
Game of Death (1973). Bruce Lee’s existential martial arts epic, centered around a one-on-one battles as the hero works his way up the levels of a pagoda, was to showcase Lee’s philosophy regarding the principles of martial arts.
What Happened? Lee had completed Enter the Dragon and filmed roughly 100 minutes of footage for Game of Death when a cerebral edema claimed his life in 1973. The epic action centerpiece of the latter (which included battles with Hugh O’Brian and Kareem Abdul Jabbar) had been completed but most of the rest of the film was not. Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse was hired to finish the film via use of stand-ins (including a cardboard cut-out in one shot), archive footage, and (questionably) footage from Lee’s funeral.
Sherlock Holmes and the Vengeance of Dracula (1999). An epic clash between cultural icons written by first-time screenwriter Michael B. Valle.
What Happened? Christopher Columbus acquired the screenplay and was keen on making it. Unfortunately, Columbus waffled over the project, Valle died suddenly, and the flop of the similar but sub-par League of Extraordinary Gentlemen had a chilling effect. Columbus eventually turned his attention to Harry Potter. Considered one of the greatest unproduced screenplays, it has been in limbo ever since — surprisingly, given the sharp rise in popularity of both vampires and Holmes in the years since.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (1999). An adaptation of Miguel Cervantes’ classic novel with a contemporary twist, starring Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp. With a $32 million budget, it was to have been the most expensive European production ever filmed.
What Happened? Gilliam has always had notorious bad luck when it comes to film-making, but this project reached new lows for him. Shooting was plagued with problems — including a flood that destroyed equipment — and roughly a week into filming Rochefort suffered a double-herniated disc that essential shut the movie. On the bright side, it yielded that hit documentary Lost in La Mancha, and — in true quixotic fashion — Gilliam still intends on making the film. Production on his latest attempt is scheduled to start in September.