"The Golden Head" Revisited
Widescreen Weekend, March 11, 2006
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|Written by: Tony Sloman||Date: 09.07.2007|
|From the moment it was announced that Bradford would be screening "The Golden Head" in single-lens Cinerama at the 2006 Widescreen Festival, it would be appropriate to suggest that only a few of the projected audience were exactly agog with anticipation. For though it’s certainly true that "The Golden Head" (along with, arguably, "The Big Fisherman" and "Lafayette") is the most want-to-see title on any 70mm. Collector’s must-view-in-70 list, it is also, as those lucky ones amongst us who had already seen it all those years ago on its British release would vouch, one of the worst 70mm films ever made, and, arguably, one of the productions (along with such as "Run Run Joe" and "The Great Waltz") that helped kill off the process altogether. However, fifty years on, the prospect of re-viewing, or, for many, catching up with at last "The Golden Head" in Bradford was to be the veritable highlight of the 2006 Widescreen Weekend, especially since it had been imaginatively programmed with "Fortress of Peace" in support, as it was at the Cinerama Royalty Theatre, Kingsway, London, back in April of 1964, when I last saw it. I was invited to introduce this screening, and perhaps it would be more appropriate to reprint part of my introduction here, to give you a flavour of the surge of anticipation felt that morning of March 11th, at Pictureville, Bradford:|
“And now to "The Golden Head". When a film is as rare as this one, you know there’s usually a very good reason. Sometimes there are no prints, other times a copyright hasn’t been renewed, or—as in this particular instance—the reputation of the film is so poor that, when combined with distribution difficulties involving format and lack of perceived general appeal, invariably means that nobody bothered to preserve copies, or even seek out possible existing ones.
“And so it is with "The Golden Head", which opened in London in  April 1965, which is when I saw it, supported then, as now, by John Ferno’s Cinerama documentary "Fortress of Peace". "Fortress of Peace" is better.
“But "The Golden Head" became a legendary lost film, never shown at all in the United States, and barely shown outside Hungary, where it was filmed. This screening today that you are about to witness is—as far as I can ascertain—its first screening anywhere in any ratio (there were no 35mm. reduction release prints ever made) since that premiere run in 1964, when it was distributed by Cinerama, Inc. themselves.
“The film had a chequered history. A Hungarian-British co-production, it started life utilising production grants from both countries, and was initially produced by a Hungarian based in England called Alexander Paal, who had once worked as a stillsman for Alexander Korda. Paal investigated the benefits obtainable from making an Anglo-Hungarian co-production, and purchased the rights to a British crime novel entitled ‘Nepomuk of the River’ by Roger Pilkington, and had a screenplay fashioned to order by British scenarist Stanley Goulder. Paal—amazingly—managed to convince Robert O’Brien, then-president of MGM, and Nicholas Reisin, the chairman of Cinerama, Inc., to invest in his movie—to be called “Milly Goes to Budapest”—as—would you believe?—a follow-up to the two successful MGM-Cinerama collaborations: yep, we’re talking the third film after "How the West Was Won" and "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm", which latter, not un-coincidentally, extensively utilised European locations and studios.
“ ‘Milly Goes to Budapest’ was to star Hayley Mills in the title role, with Lionel Jeffries in support, and was to be directed by James Hill, who had just won an Oscar for the best short film of the year. (Oh, and by the way, if you check the account of the making of "The Golden Head" in Carr and Hayes’ otherwise excellent McFarland book ‘Wide Screen Movies’, you’ll find they’ve hopelessly confused British director James Hill with Rita Hayworth’s ex-husband, the former American agent and partner of Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster, the ‘Hill’ of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. The James Hill who began directing "The Golden Head" was the Brit who went on to helm the tremendously successful "Born Free"—but I digress!)
|More in 70mm reading:|
Information about the 70mm Cinerama movie "The Golden Head" – aka "Milly goes to Budapest" An International Comedy Mystery
Millie Goes to the Golden Head
Jess Conrad, star of "The Golden Head" visits 70mm Film Festival
6. Todd-AO 70mm-Festival 2010
Super Technirama 70
70mm Blow ups
"Fortress of Peace"
|“James Hill started shooting in autumn, 1963. Because of MGM’s involvement, interiors were filmed at MGM’s British Borehamwood studios, with Mills and Jeffries, plus a cameo portrayal by movie director Otto Preminger, playing the butler. Shooting commenced in three-camera Cinerama, the same process used on "How the West Was Won" and "Brothers Grimm". But then shooting came to a halt. Both producer Paal and the MGM executives were unhappy with director Hill, and Cinerama, Inc. were wary of continuing with the cumbersome and distributor-unfriendly 3-camera Cinerama system. Shooting shut down, and in the time it took to find a replacement director, the film had lost its star, Hayley Mills, and by the time it restarted, Lionel Jeffries, too, had other commitments.|
“MGM and Cinerama replaced James Hill with veteran Richard Thorpe, a director responsible for some of Metro’s biggest smash hits, films like "Ivanhoe", "The Prisoner of Zenda", and "Knights of the Round Table" (MGM’s first CinemaScope feature), but who had aged into being a trusty workhorse, guiding the likes of Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock and Fun in Acapulco, and directing various vehicles for elderly MGM contract stars like Robert Taylor and newer ones such as Connie Francis. But he was very good with pictures in trouble: he saved MGM’s bacon when "The Student Prince" lost Mario Lanza to avoirdupois, and he was well-liked and reliable, and, like predecessor W.S. Van Dyke, was also known in the studios by the nickname “One-take”; and he never lost money on a picture.
“Replacing Hayley Mills in the title role of Milly was Lorraine Power, and Lionel Jeffries was replaced by George Sanders, whose agent insisted on top billing for his Oscar-winning client (for "All About Eve"). All of the material involving Mills and Jeffries was completely re-shot when filming recommenced in late 1963, largely on location in Budapest, with interiors now relocated at Shepperton Studios outside London, rather than at MGM’s Borehamwood complex. MGM’s permanent film editor-in-chief Frank Clarke, who had worked with director Thorpe on both "Ivanhoe" and "Knights of the Round Table", was instrumental in supervising the production, and final mixing was completed in England as early as January 1964.
“The cast was rounded out by American funnyman Buddy Hackett, virtually hotfoot from his co-starring role as Marcellus Washburn with Robert Preston in "The Music Man" (incidentally, also shot in Super Technirama-70, and never ever screened in 70mm. in the UK. How about it, Bradford?) "My Fair Lady" veteran Robert Coote, and English juvenile lead Jess Conrad ("Rag Doll", shot in 1958, but not released until 1962, for reasons oh-so-apparent on viewing), an aimiable personality who had held on to a career without actually displaying any discernable signs of talent. Recordings like “Cherry Pie”, “This Pullover”, and “Twist My Wrist” (Ready? To the tune of “Sur le pont d’Avignon”: ‘Twist my wrist gently now, we’ll embarrass all of Paris…’) may be revered by cognoscenti of the totally naff, but they didn’t sell, and his most famous film appearance is probably in "Konga" (You remember: ‘Put me down, Konga!!’) But maybe Jess Conrad’s time is about to come—he recently entered his 70s, and his autobiography is about to be published, in which he reveals his love affairs with several screen sex symbols, Jayne Mansfield and Diana Dors, to name but four.
"The rest of the cast, including the always reliable Douglas Wilmer, also on view this Widescreen Weekend in "The Fall of the Roman Empire" and an excerpt from "El Cid", plus some child actors, are British, and the whole remainder of the cast and crew are Hungarian, as befits the location shooting, and, where appropriate, were re-voiced in England.
“A real curate’s egg, then, perhaps but certainly a must-see for Cinerama collectors and 70mm. fanatics. Is it as awful as its reputation? Well, you’ll soon find out—but one thing’s for sure: You ain’t never gonna see it anywhere else—if ever a movie was ever considered unplayable, it’s this one.”
|"The Golden Head" 2010 lobby card by Schauburg Archive|
And then the lights went out, that glorious Pictureville curtain opened, and "Fortress of Peace" hit the curved Cinerama screen, followed by, at long, long last, the mythical "The Golden Head".
Well, "Fortress of Peace" was an absolute stunner, its MCS-70 Superpanorama photography brilliantly rendered on the huge screen, its pacifist message deeply worrying as the magnificent 6-track magnetic stereophonic soundtrack revealed every sonic nuance of what seemed to be a constant display of contemporary artillery. Its message was clear and still pertinent, and mercifully without spurious narration: woe betide anyone who dared to attack Switzerland! A well-deserved Academy Award for best short, the excellence of the 70mm photography and brilliance of the editing made "Fortress of Peace" a hard act to follow. But, as it was once at the Royalty Cinerama Theatre, Kingsway, so it had come to pass at Pictureville, Bradford, and lo! the short was followed by the feature "The Golden Head", at last.
And, hey, it ain’t so bad. And, well, it ain’t so good, either, but, bah gum, it’s quaint, and, heaven knows, you can’t take your eyes off the screen. The Plot? Oh, let’s get it over with: Milly’s Dad is attending an international conference on crime in Budapest when a con-man and his stooge seize the opportunity to steal the golden bust of onetime Hungarian King St. Laszlo from the cathedral of Gyor. While the local police prove unable to catch the crooks, Milly and her pals do so with alacrity, and bring the culprits to justice. Or (a twist in the tale) do they? The crooks are lovable, the children charming, the scenery (for Hungary) attractive, the widescreen under-used. Nu? What’s not to like?
Well, nothing, really. Trouble is, there’s not too much to like, either. Pace is lacking, but you could read that as European charm. The performers are – well, ‘adequate’ would be kind, with George Sanders at least conveying a sense that he’s enjoying himself on his Hungarian locations (and, anyway, didn’t he marry two of them—Magda and Zsa Zsa Gabor?), and there’s a sweet scene in a boozery where he executes a cute little Magyar shuffle, leaving any adult audience wanting more of the old charmer.
The cast are vaguely tolerable, at least one feels well disposed to them: not even Jess Conrad offends with his obligatory period ditty (penned especially for the film by Tin Pan Alley veteran Mitch Murray) ‘Things I’d Like to Say’, fortunately, however, seemingly truncated without imperilling the performance, and sung to his Hungarian vis-ŕ-vis, teenage ballerina Cecilia Esztergalyos, who unfortunately had not been told by make-up that underarm hair may well be de rigueur in European features (think Anna Magnani, or Penelope Cruz in Captain Corelli, if you must) but really should not be revealed to Western audiences, least of all not, darling, on a screen the giant size of Cinerama.
Buddy Hackett, in what is virtually an unplayable part, contrives to be genuinely funny, a veritable tribute to his talent in view of the fact that his role as Sanders' stooge is severely under-written. Perhaps one should credit director Thorpe here? We'll never know.
As for the children, well, neither Lorraine Power in the once-was title role of Milly, nor Denis Gilmore as Harold, are offensive in the way that movie children can be (often over-directed to be ‘cute’), and, frankly, the style of movie most often called to mind by "The Golden Head" is that of Britain’s Children’s Film Foundation, in whose features and serials, produced almost exclusively for a Saturday Morning Pictures young audience, children inevitably rout crooks after a series of (semi-) comic misadventures, and win the day. In fact, the sheer simplicity of storytelling and naďve lack of sophistication actually render "The Golden Head" more suitable to an audience of, say, under 11s than to its clearly non-existent projected audience as declaimed by the original advertisements: “YOU revel in a whirlwind of suspense and laughter! YOU are swept into the craziest treasure hunt ever for a king’s ransom in gold! YOU join a hilarious laugh chase after two international crooks from London to Budapest and back!” YOU who? I say. Oh, and the ad also shrieks “Cinerama presents an IDEAL HOLIDAY TREAT FOR THE ENTIRE FAMILY!” Oh, yeah? At 115 minutes plus intermission, the treat runs a little long for the young ’uns. (Only 102 minutes in Hungary, though, folks!) And, just maybe, a little long for the old ’uns, as well. Indeed, it’s difficult to estimate exactly who "The Golden Head" might actually be aimed at: a children’s romp on a scale that children may not respond to, containing ‘camp’ performances lost on the young, and youthful high jinks with little or no resonance for parents or guardians, in a relatively drab location, by comparison with, say, "Three Coins in the (Roman) Fountain", or the 70mm splendours of the "South Pacific" or "The Sound of Music" location shoots.
|"The Golden Head" 2010 lobby card by Schauburg Archive|
But, ultimately, viewed today, "The Golden Head" doesn’t lack charm. It’s by no means as heavy-handed as that other 70mm foray into Europe, Mike Todd Jr’s "Scent of Mystery" (with or without Smell-O-Vision) or as jaw-droppingly numbing as most of the feature-length Cinerama travelogues (anyone for "Search for Paradise" a second time?), and is certainly professionally put together, editor Frank Clarke presumably regarding it as a quaint chore between MGM melodramatics: his credit list flanks it either side with the Taylor-Burton vehicle "The V.I.P.s" and the Ingrid Bergman-Rex Harrison (quite literal) vehicle "The Yellow Rolls-Royce", both directed by the estimable Anthony Asquith. What’s really lacking is compulsive viewability: stronger star-power would help, a more engaging plot with twists and turns could’ve been fashioned, and perhaps a greater variety of European locations--? It’s easy to be wiser after the event, not to mention forty years after the event. There are many, albeit too few, incidental pleasures, often, perhaps, inadvertent pleasures. It’s a joy to see British character actor Warren Mitchell turn up as a London cabbie, years before he immortalised Johnny Speight’s errant creation Alf Garnett, or played in Arthur Miller at Britain’s National Theatre; the epilogue, meant to be actually filmed in Buckingham Palace, is lčse-majesté of great presumption, and its tacked-on feel is sure to offend royalists everywhere, that’s if they ever see it, and Sanders’ attempt at disguise via inadequate make-up is quite risible, making the whole ending of the film bad-movie-cherishable; the Danube itself looks lovely, and the then-new Elizabeth Bridge gives the film both historical and geographical significance, but, as we all know, locations count for little if the plot and the cast aren’t interesting; and there’s the always ever-affable Jess Conrad, for Jess Conrad collectors (what’s he doing now? Go onto his website, which lists his current contact phone number, and ask him!)
So, time to tick off "The Golden Head" then. Seen it, been there, done that. Maybe a re-view in 20 years, to check colour fading and memories. But let me state, that no matter what one’s aesthetic judgment on these 70mm productions, there is no cinematic substitute for the sheer excitement of watching those wonderful Pictureville curtains part on a production that only existed legendarily in screen history: unquestionably, every single 70mm production must be screened to a committed audience, and seen, before colour-fading and time catches up with celluloid: one thing’s for sure, these certainly don’t work on digital DVD (as the National Film Theatre’s shameful digital screening of "South Pacific" proved). So, Bradford, what are you waiting for? Roll on "Lafayette" and "Run Run Joe", "The Big Fisherman" and "Airport", "Barabbas" and "The Black Cauldron", "The Long Ships" and "The Alamo", not to mention all those blow-ups: whither Taras Bulba, The Cardinal, The Carpetbaggers, Winning, Hellfighters, The Concert for Bangla Desh (blown up from 16mm!), "The Dirty Dozen", "Bye Bye Birdie", "The Professionals", "Wild Rovers", "Logan’s Run", "The Comedians"…my goodness, the list, thank God, is endless!!*
*See Carr and Hayes ‘Wide Screen Movies’, pp 200-206, for a list of blow-ups that only goes up to 1988, the date of the book’s publication.
Editors note; please check the blow-up list in the Library.
"The Golden Head" Cast/credits
|Golden Head |
year of production: 1963
production company: - MAFILM Hunnia Filmstúdió, Metro Goldwyn Mayer (London).
Hungarian distributor: - MOKÉP.
laboratory works: - Magyar Filmlaboratórium Vállalat.
director: Richard Thorpe, writer: Roger Windle Pilkington, screenplay writer: Stanley Goulder, Boldizsár Iván, story editor: Fehér Imre, cinematographer: Hildebrand István, editor: Kerényi Zoltán, Frank Clarke, music: Fényes Szabolcs, sound: Winkler Jenő, Fred Bosch, set designer: Zeichán Béla, costume designer: Újhegyi Erzsébet, lyrics written by: Mitch Murray, production manager: Németh András, producer: Thomas Conroy.
source: Roger Windle Pilkington: A folyam Nepomukja (novel).
cast: Buddy Hackett - Márkus László (Bearded man), George Sanders - Szakáts Miklós (Palmer), Lorraine Power - Nagy Anikó (Milly), Denis Gilmore - Kern András (Harold), Jess Conrad - Tordy Géza (Michael), Douglas Wilmer - Pálos György (Stevenson), Robert Coote - Máriáss József (Braithwaite), Esztergályos Cecília (Anna), Pécsi Sándor (priest), Makláry Zoltán (old man), Ungvári László (police officer), Csákányi László, Csonka Endre, Csurka László, Dajbukát Ilona, Darvas Iván, Dömsödi János, Fonyó József, Garas Dezső, Gera Zoltán, Joó Piroska, Kibédi Ervin, Márki Géza, Pándy Lajos, Raksányi Gellért, Sitkey Irén, Zách János, dancing: Kun Zsuzsa, Fülöp Viktor, közreműködő: Magyar Állami Népi Együttes, Magyar Állami Operaház Balettkara.
genre: Fabular film, Genre film, Youth film, Detective story .
style: Anecdotal, Cheerful, Realist.
original film data: length: 2699 m, 100 minute, colour, 35mm.
Plot: Stevenson, the famous English criminal expert visits Hungary with his family. While he is chairing a conference on criminology, infamous art treasure robbers steal the golden herm of Saint László. Suspicion is cast on the Stevenson children. In order to prove their innocence and detective capacities, they search for the robbers and put them in the hands of the police. In the film produced in American co-production the sights of Western Hungary and Budapest are presented during the investigation.
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