The formula for a Hollywood tale is straight-forward: Watch a semi-despicable protagonist navigate the cruel waters of stardom while meeting thinly veiled representations of real stars, rinse, repeat. The Carpetbaggers is the foremost example of this theorem, originally based on a Harold Robbins potboiler. Warner Archive’s recent release is worthwhile, purely as evidence of how this scandalous tale attempted to buck the Production Code (and does), but it’s unintentional hilarity and cut/paste script turns this into a two-hour disaster of epic proportions.
Jonas Cord, Jr. (George Peppard) is a young tycoon obsessed with having his way. As he worms his way into the upper echelons of business and Hollywood, it threatens his relationship and his sanity.
I haven’t read Robbins’ original text, but from what I’ve researched his books were rather lurid and received their fair share of controversy. For 1964, this adaptation is a shocking expose of Hollywood, albeit with an exaggerated soap opera finish. It’s a potboiler in the purest sense of the word; a trip to McDonalds where the food looks good, but you know you’ll be sick and regretful by the time you finish. At a lengthy 150 minutes, I was left frustrated and downright hostile to this movie for a variety of reasons. You can’t fault certain elements; the dialogue would never be spoken by real people, and the actors have trouble wrapping their lips around it because it’s 1964, not 1944. Older actors like Alan Ladd (in his final film appearance), Bob Cummings, and Lew Ayres succeed with the dialogue because they lived during the time period depicted. Other actors, particularly our leading man George Peppard, fail miserably.
Peppard acts as linchpin and weakest link in The Carpetbaggers. He’s a 1920s playboy with all the charisma of a wet blanket. Jonas’ father dies in front of him, and his expression conveys abject boredom. A discount Robert Redford, Peppard’s Jonas is a thinly veiled take on Howard Hughes; the issue with this is Hughes was well-known for his accomplishments, yet the script never shows Jonas accomplishing anything! He simply barges in and takes what he wants by force (the studios) or makes others build things while being berated for never spending anytime helping (his airplanes). Therefore, it’s difficult to believe Jonas is a wunderkind when he acts like a petulant child who throws his money around and calls it “earned.” His emphasis on assault as rough wooing is also a troubling trend throughout the movie. He tries to rape Rina (Carroll Baker) twice – once as a “test” of her golddigging and another in an attempt to get his wife (Elizabeth Ashley) to divorce him – both of which present him as a vile man. By the end, regardless of the 360 in personality, I didn’t give a crap whether he got his family back (the family he didn’t care about for 2 hours) because he engages in the worst things in the world. It’s like a murderer saying “I’m sorry” and expecting you to welcome him with open arms.
Sadly, the female characters are all sex-starved, golddigging or incredibly needy, but they are the strongest parts of the movie from an acting standpoint. Carroll Baker never looked better as Rina Marlowe. Marlow is an obvious representation of Jean Harlow, a role Baker would play in the abominable biopic, Harlow. If anything, this film proves Baker could have played the blonde bombshell to perfection with the right material. Her character is a gold digger, unfortunately, but she’s also a woman desperate for love (and possibly a father figure?). I could care less about her relationship with Jonas, who’s told numerous times by others that Rina loved only him, because her relationship with washed-up Western star, Nevada Smith (Ladd) is exemplary. Her few scenes with Ladd are filled with nuance and emotion, unlike her scenes with Peppard, hellbent on sex and titillation. Ladd surprised me as Nevada Smith (a character Steve McQueen would take on in the future), the irrelevant Western star and makeshift father to Jonas. His character actually has an arc that feels fleshed out and formulated. I’m tempted to check out McQueen’s take because I doubt it would touch Ladd’s heights.
Oddly enough, you start to doubt the script and the director’s belief in Peppard as he disappears frequently throughout the movie, jarring you back to reality when he loudly makes his presence known. The disjointed presence of the main character isn’t the only place where the script fails to coalesce. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes wasn’t a Hollywood novice, but you can’t tell based on how slap-happy the script for The Carpetbaggers is. Various joining elements in the script were either removed or just never explained: Why does Monica have a Southern accent upon meeting Jonas? Was it the actress or was her whole newspaper schtick a joke? Why, after being married for two minutes, does Jonas suddenly tell Monica to file for divorce? Who the hell is Monica anyway? If it wasn’t for stray dialogue I wouldn’t know. Why did they marry in the first place (we get one scene where you don’t even realize they know each other; so much for courtship)? When did Monica announce her pregnancy? Is it because we’re supposed to believe she’s been fooling around (scarily, movie never confirms or denies)? Why does Jonas want to find her father? Why doesn’t said father want to hide? And why does the entire plot get dropped? Character just declare things without any background or context before moving from them entirely.
“You want sensation. The uglier, the better;” sadly, this sums up The Carpetbaggers. The movie isn’t a complete loss. Carroll Bake and Alan Ladd are fantastic, while Elizabeth Ashley is endearing in a sea of sharks. The gaudy, soap opera tone is fun, so long as you don’t take it seriously. However, the script is shot up with holes and George Peppard is a total sociopath on the page and a dull duck on-screen. I actually recommend checking out the movie just to watch an example of Hollywood straining to break down the barriers of the Production Code. The Carpetbaggers reveals in its naughty ways, and refuses to say its sorry, which is admirable in the long run.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.