[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
Shortly after World War II there occurred a meeting as potent, in its own way, as the confrontation of Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man: Evelyn Waugh went Hollywood. M-G-M had purchased the film rights to Brideshead Revisited and its eccentric author had a tedious time arguing with producer Leon Gordon and writer James Kevin McGuinness as to how it should be filmed. In the end, everyone gave it up as a bad job, the movie went unmade, and Waugh returned to Somerset. But the stopover in Tinseltown had one major by-product, which appeared in 1948: Waugh’s short, scathing novel about Los Angeles, its weird ways, and in particular its burial habits: The Loved One.
As the book accumulated celebrity, Hollywood forgave and forgot in its usual way, and snapped it up for filming. Waugh himself at one time had plans to work on a film version with his friend Alec Guinness (England’s only major international film star of the time) playing Dennis Barlow, the not-very-innocent abroad who is the novel’s central character. It was also a pet project of Luis Buñuel’s (ah, what might have been!), but, despite these eminences, a film never seemed to get made.
Finally, in 1964 or thereabouts, Metro and Filmways put together what must have seemed a classic example of the great Hollywood artform, the deal. The director signed for the film was the then exceptionally hot Tony Richardson, fresh from the $40 million grossed first time round by Tom Jones (which had been forecast throughout the industry as a certain money-loser, even on its slender budget) and from the Oscar ceremonies. Inked instantly as screenwriter was the Bad Boy of American letters, the outrageous humorist Terry Southern, who was also hot as a result of co-scripting Dr. Strangelove, a significant breakthrough in terms of black or bad-taste humour.
They could do no wrong. Richardson demanded and, unusually for those days, got final cut privileges. He refused to film in a studio, although bits of Culver City turned up as location. He went a million or more over the already sizeable budget. Stars came and went. Christopher Isherwood, like Dennis Barlow a minor English writer who’d come to California (and stayed), came in to do extra scripting – an ominous sign, as he was unlikely to have forgiven Waugh for caricaturing him so contemptuously in his 1942 novel Put Out More Flags. Martin Ransohoff, of Filmways, and Robert H. O’Brien, of M-G-M, got nervous, only to find themselves in the ignominious position of being barred from the film. Richardson wouldn’t even let them see the rushes. They offered to buy him out, as they couldn’t get him on his contract. He, brimming over with cheek, offered to buy them out. Now, no one, not even a foreign Oscar-winner, can do that to a studio head and get away with it unless he can be absolutely certain of delivering the goods and making big bucks on top. Here the English flyboy came unstuck; and it is not unreasonable to say that he has been unstuck ever since. The Loved One was perhaps no end of fun as a play-with whilst the filmic ball was rolling. But when it came to hammering the rushes into some sort of final shape, the limey wunderkind found himself with an inchoate mass of celluloid. With observable difficulty, he and three editors finally turned it into an exhibitable movie (opening in the U.S. late in 1965), only to find it widely hated. The public did not come, and it cannot be said that M-G-M was in any way keen to persuade them to.