Tuesday 16 April 2019

The Godfather (USA 1972: Dir Francis Ford Coppola)

Notes from my introduction to the film at West Norwood Library and Picturehouse on Saturday 13 April 2019.

I’m very pleased to be introducing arguably one of the finest American films ever made, on the joint 50th birthday of the publication of the source novel and our own West Norwood library.

“To know him is to love him. To ‘No’ him is to die.” That was the ad line that started to appear in newspapers around the US in March 1969, announcing the publication of a book that by the end of that year had sold over half a million hardcover copies and was shifting 15 – 20,000 copies a week. That book was ‘The Godfather.’

But we have to go back a little bit to get to this point: Mario Puzo, the book’s author, was struggling. Born in 1920 in the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan, he was, at the start of the sixties, a magazine writer with two books behind him; 1955’s ‘The Dark Arena’ and the 1965 novel ‘The Fortunate Pilgrim’ (which dealt with an American-Italian family, a member of which is lured into organised crime). Both books were well received but only netted the author $6,500.

“I was forty-five years old,” said Puzo in an interview, “and tired of being an artist. Besides, I owed $20,000 [$140,000 adjusted for inflation] to relatives, finance companies, banks, assorted bookmakers and shylocks.” . The ‘shylocks’ were actually bookies – Puzo had a gambling problem.

So Mario did what many authors have done before and since – he set out to write a commercially profitable novel that would get him out of debt. Although Puzo maintains that at the time of writing that he’d never met an actual gangster (he derived much of the book’s detail from his Manhattan upbringing among Italian American households), he began to concoct a rich, colourful and very believable world of an Italian crime family residing and working in New York; the book’s working title was ‘Mafia,’ and his publisher, Putnam and Sons, loved the idea. But he’d also pitched the book somewhere else.

In the late 1960s Paramount Pictures was on hard times. Despite a few successes, like Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Rosemary’s Baby, they’d faced a string of flops and were vulnerable to being taken over. And the buyout came in the form of Gulf and Western, a sprawling company with holdings in diverse areas. Chairman of the Board Charles G Bluhdorn, who had no experience in film-making, took one look at Paramount’s books and reckoned at the point of takeover that he could make five times more money selling cigars than making motion pictures. But he was still committed to trying to revive the studio’s fortunes, while keeping a tight rein on the purse strings.

Despite its poor financial position, innovation persisted at the studio, nurtured by one of their more forward-looking Executives, Paul Bart, who was out there scouting for stories that could be nurtured and eventually turned into box office gold. And one of those stories was ‘Mafia,’ whom Puzo had directly pitched to Paramount when the book was in its early stages; it was by no means the first studio the cash hungry writer had approached, and all had passed on the opportunity. Bart became interested in the book, then at a formative stage – 114 pages and an outline – and bought it, offering Puzo an advance of $12,500 rising to $50,000 for the finished book (remember he was in hock for $20,000, $10,000 of which was gambling debts). Bart brought Puzo to the West Coast and for the next two years Mario completed the book with regular financial injections from Paramount.

As well as being unashamedly populist and often rather scatological, the finished novel also had some classical pretensions, being in part inspired by the Karamazov family in Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’; it also appropriated a number of lines from Honoré Balzac’s 1835 novel ‘Le Pere Gorit,' including one which you’ll probably all recognise that in Balzac’s original text reads: “I will make you an offer that no one would decline.”

When the book was completed, late in 1968, the title had changed from ‘Mafia’ to ‘The Godfather.’ Putnams were very excited. The critics were similarly thrilled when it was published the following year. “It comes with the force of a mugger in a midnight alley,” trumpeted Literary Guild magazine. “A skillful fantasy about violent personal power without consequences,” ran the New York Times review. The book remained in the best seller list for 67 weeks.

Paramount had secured the deal for final rights to film the book at a cost of $80,000. All was looking good.

But earlier in 1969, the Studio had released a movie called The Brotherhood - starring Kirk Douglas and Susan Strasberg - the story of a Mafia don who returns from Vietnam and gets involved with the Mob. It was a critical success but a commercial flop. Paramount concluded that nobody wanted to go and see a film about the Mafia anymore and that the gangster genre, so popular in Hollywood in the past, had probably had its day.

The other problem, from a Paramount Executive point of view, was that despite the huge sales of the book, on paper as a proposition 'The Godfather' looked cheap - $80,000. For the author at the time the money was a relief, but when compared to other recent acquisitions – like $400,00 paid to Philip Roth for film rights to ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ – it was chicken feed. So the Studio had their hands on the rights to a blockbuster novel, but had no firm thoughts about bringing it to the screen. Still smarting from the poor returns of The Brotherhood they initially debated putting out a $2million quickie movie using the title only and shoehorning in a different story, but decided against it and in mid-1969 shelved any plans for the adaptation.

So what changed their mind? Other studios sniffing round the property, basically – the whiff of competition and the smell of profit. But having made the decision to put it back on the production roster, it was difficult to find a producer and director to touch the project because a) it romanticised the Mafia and b) the budget allotted was so small that anyone responsible for bringing the film to life would likely be criticised when audiences compared it to the source novel.

For producer the studio finally came across Al Ruddy, who in his own words explained why he’d been picked - ‘They knew I could produce it cheap’ – and he also had a knack of being able to get top drawer stars for his films. What won it for him though was his razor-sharp observation, when interviewed for the job, that he wanted “to make an ice blue terrifying movie about people you love.”

Puzo was re-hired by Paramount to write the first draft of the screenplay and paid $100,000 – ironically more than the original rights to the book.

And finally, the director – after a string of refusals the job was finally offered to and accepted by Francis Ford Coppola, a young, well respected guy whose stock was rising in Hollywood. He had initially turned the job down, feeling that the book would not make great movie material and that frankly he was better than what he was offered, but his company, American Zoetrope, was in financial difficulty and the $125,000 salary would come in useful. So he accepted. It also helped that as an Italian American he had a feel for the characters in the story and also could work with Puzo.

The story of the making of the classic you’re about to see is a whole other introduction: the planned 80-day shoot being reduced to 53; the battling over the budget; the studio’s initial insistence in locating the movie in Kansas City. Suffice it to say that its production was about as straightforward as its inception. I’ll come back and tell you about that sometime – maybe in another 50 years.

Enjoy the film.

No comments:

Post a Comment