Friday, February 3, 2017

The Making of "RAINTREE COUNTY": The 1957 Attempt to Clone 1939's "GONE WITH THE WIND"

"RAINTREE COUNTY" and "GONE WITH THE WIND"! Two epic novels transformed by Hollywood into two epic motion pictures, but the second is remembered and the first mostly forgotten. 

Both novels were set before, during and after the American Civil War, but that was the only real connection between the two. One had already been turned into a 1939 classic motion picture from MGM starring Clark Gable, Vivian Leigh, Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland. A movie America still loved in the year 1948. When the studio made a decision to get the rights to that new best selling novel entitled "Raintree County".

This is not a comparison of the two works, or for that matter the two movies. Although "Gone With the Wind" as a novel and motion picture can not be just ignored in this article. This is a look at a classic American novel that disappeared from view for decades after 1957, was rediscovered in 1995 and is now once again disappearing. Along with a motion picture that should never have been made, but may not be worthy of it's negative reputation.

Before A Studio Can Turn A Novel Into A Motion Picture. There Is The Author:

Ross Lockridge, Jr,'s life with the success of his novel "Raintree County" seemed to be heading for greatness, but instead was cut short by his suicide at age 33. For a blog article I am restrained from a detailed biography of the author. but for those of my readers who may be interested. I highly recommend his son Lawrence Lockridge's "Shade of the Raintree".

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Additionally Lockridge's eldest son Ernest wrote another biography of his father entitled "Skeleton Key To The Suicide Of My Father Ross Lockridge, Jr. Author Of Raintree County". The difference is that Ernest's work is a more sensationalized look at his father's death and should be read with that in mind.

Ross Franklin Lockridge. Jr. was born in Bloomington, Indiana on April 25, 1914. He was the youngest of four children born to popular Indiana historian and lecturer Ross Lockridge, Sr. Senior was known as "Mr. Indiana" for his historical knowledge. Ross's mother was Elsie Shockley whose life and family would become the basis for some of the characters and situations found within the pages of "Raintree County".

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In 1931 Ross entered Indiana University and for his Junior year studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. The young man earned the highest grades ever for a Foreign born student at the time. Returning to Indiana University his excellence in study earned him the nickname of "A Plus" Lockhart and he would graduate from that University in 1935 with the highest grade point average to that year. However, according to Lawrence Lockridge his father was side lined for a full year after graduation with what was first diagnosed as scarlet fever, but might actually have been rheumatic fever. One year after his sickness ended in 1937 Ross Lockridge, Jr. married his high school sweetheart Vernice Baker.

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At this time Ross was teaching as a graduate student in the English Department at his Alma Mater and working upon what would become an unpublished 400 page long poem entitled "The Dream of the Flesh of Iron". Calling this poem entirely unreadable Lawrence Lockridge wrote in "Biography and Enigma: The Case of Ross Lockridge, Jr." the following"
And for the first time I read my father's unpublished epic poem, The Dream of the Flesh of Iron, written in his mid twenties. Raintree County is often (mis)read as a Whitmanian celebration of America. But The Dream is four hundred pages of nightmare--an apocalyptic cultural history of the human race from the First World War to the beginning of the Second. Its protagonist, a Shelleyan figure in pursuit of ideal beauty, finds himself in a world of sinking ships. He confronts a brutal rival with many shifting identities, including Hitler whose face grows grotesquely larger and larger. He attempts to return to origins, to the protective environment of his home and to childhood--but (tellingly for a reading of my father's own psychology) he finds only the debris of childhood objects, no parents and no siblings and no comfort. In effect he chooses then to die, sinking programmatically into a maternal lake.

Vernice and Ross's son Ernest was born on November 28, 1938. In 1940 the future author of "Raintree County" accepted a fellowship to Harvard University and the small family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Where he planed to write a doctoral dissertation on Walt Whitman. However, with his epic poem completed in September 1940 Lockridge approached the publishing company Houghton Mifflin, but had the poem rejected for publication.

While teaching in 1941 at Boston's Simmons College. The idea of the author's dissertation on Walt Whitman was finally dropped as the opening lines of what would become "Raintree County" was set on paper. Also that year Vernice and Ross's second son Lawrence would be born on July 1, 1942. The couple would have two more children, but I could not find any information on them for this short biography.

In 1946 now living again in Bloomington, Indiana with his family. The author carried his finished manuscript in an old suitcase to Houghton Mifflin. That manuscript weighed 20 pounds and contained a counted 600,000 words.

The Novel and the Author's Death:

My reader must remember that Ross Lockridge, Jr. was brought up by a father who was a historian and loved his State of Indiana. This love for Indiana and its history was transferred to his son. That same love was visibly transferred into words within Ross's epic novel "Raintree County".

There is an on line website about the author called: "A Brief Synopsis on Ross Lockhridge, Jr." which contains the following:

In Raintree County Ross Lockridge unabashedly aspired to write the Great American Novel, not a regional novel, but he anchored his 1,060-page narrative in nineteenth-century Midwestern history, folklore, and landscape. The novel incorporates many rites, customs, and linguistic practices of Hoosier culture in a carnivalesque atmosphere, and has been called, by Joel Jones and Charles Trueheart, at least the "Great American Studies Novel."
     Set in a mythical Indiana county based partly on Henry County, Indiana, the novel tells the life story of John Wickliff Shawnessy in a series of flashbacks occasioned by the events of a single day, July 4, 1892. It thus owes much to Joyce--as well as to such Midwestern writers as Anderson, Clemens, Dos Passos, Dreiser, Garland, Hemingway, Lardner, Lewis, Lincoln, Masters, and Tarkington. But Lockridge attempted an encyclopedic fiction that would be more accessible than Ulysses, as William York Tillyard noted early on, to the common reader. Its form is cinematic, indebted to Intolerance and Citizen Kane; its plot is based on Hawthorne's story, "The Great Stone Face"; and its themes reflect Lockridge's absorption in myth, environment, sexuality, and the need for reaffirmation of American idealism in the midst of cultural decline.
This website can be reached at:

For my readers interested in Hawthrone's "The Great Stone Face" for comparison. This link takes you to an on line publication of the short story:

By the above synopsis my reader can feel the scope of Ross Lockridge Jr.'s novel and what would become a problem for any Hollywood Studio wanting to turn it into a motion picture of any size.

The words contained within the novel "Raintree County" are not like the chronological life from age 16 to 28 of Scarlett O.Hara written by Margaret Mitchell. Her "Gone With the Wind" is considered one of the last of the Southern Anti-Tom Slavery works. Still refuting Harriet Beecher Stowes 1892 "Uncle Tom's Cabin" 44 years later in 1936.

Mitchell rewrites Southern history by picturing the slaves of Tara as happy families and the Aristocratic O'Hara's and Wilkes as always kind and loving toward them. While the enemy North wants to destroy this idyllic lifestyle. As compared to the factual basis of Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s "Raintree County". Which uses actual Indiana history, it's legendary "hokum" like Johnny Appleseed, for example, and again in many respects his own mother's family history to tell John Shawnessy's life.

However, to be a "published author" a manuscript must first be turned into book form. That metamorphosis created unexpected pressure on the young author that started to affect his mental state. Here again are the word's of his son Lawrence:
Following acceptance of the novel, my father entered a period of "grandiosity"--for a few months he felt he had indeed written the Great American Novel and didn't try to conceal the fact from his publisher. But grandiosity is a flip side of depression. The contract dispute with Houghton Mifflin over the MGM monies seemed to collapse his entire sense of identity as a great writer. He appears to have suffered a severe "narcissistic wound" that undercut the grandiosity, and he never recovered from the depression this brought on.
The MGM money was called a "Prize" that the studio awarded to works they thought might be turned into feature films. In other words they were purchasing the rights to that work. The "Prize"initially offered Ross Lockridge, Jr. was $150,000 1947 dollars, but the novel quickly became a Book of the Month Club Selection. The studio immediately increased the offered "Prize" money to $250,000 now 1948 dollars. In response Lockridge's publisher Houghton Mifflin claimed the "Prize" money was a violation of his contract with them.. In short they were worried they would loose control of the author and his novel, because to give my reader a little perspective. The amount of $250,000 in 1948 dollars adjusted for inflation to 2016 equates too $2,489,699 dollars. A great mount for a young man raising a family of four children with his wife.

 Lawrence Lockridge continues:
The novel was initially submitted with a closing 356 page dream section--it was one-third of the novel's conceptual apparatus, and he was deeply attached to it. But his publisher politely insisted that he drop it. And he did so with great pain. That his novel was so amenable to cutting and slashing made him begin to doubt its worth.
Then the MGM Novel Award came along. At first he turned it down, despite the fact that our family had less than $100 at the time. It was conditional on his cutting 100,000 words. This he refused to do, supported by his wife, who warned him not to sell his soul. But after an all-night session with moguls at the St. Regis in New York, he gave in, agreeing to cut 50,000 words--and felt he had sold out in a Faustian pact.
Then there was the contract dispute that I've already mentioned. He wrote a series of tortured letters to Houghton Mifflin, arguing his position and that of his lawyer (who should have been writing these letters himself to earn his keep). He regarded his novel as a spiritual testament and was ashamed to have been arguing over money.
The pressures didn't cease. Book-of-the-Month Club asked him to cut a sex scene, which he did though the novel was already in page proofs. In a state of exhaustion--"bled white," as he put it--he was still revising it down to the wire.
Ross Lockridge, Jr's original 600,000 word manuscript was now 450,000 words, but that wasn't all. The Book of the Month Club objected to certain parts of the novel including the aforementioned sex scene. A group of just three words that they refused to publish was found on page 152. Where Professor Jerusalem Webster Styles, actually Ross Lockridge, Jr's alter ego, has a blasphemous rant praising bastards and uses the words "Wasn't Jesus God's?". When all was done there would be two different versions of the novel published, but the original (?) now a 450,000 word version had already been released in a press run of 50,000 copies on January 4, 1948. Reviewers were getting his title wrong calling the novel "Raintree COUNTRY" not "County" and that was also getting on the young author's nerves.

These pressures, as Lawrence Lockridge wrote, had caused the author to go into severe depression. On March 6, 1948 Ross Franklin Lockridge, Jr committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. Two months and two days after the publication of "Raintree County".

The following link will take my reader to the original "Atlantic Monthly" review of "Raintree County" from February 1948 and explains some of the story line:

The Making of "Raintree County" the Motion Picture

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Upon it's publication in 1948 the novel became a favorite of the new Head of Production for MGM Dore Schary. It was Schary who first imagined turning "Raintree County" into a second "Gone With The Wind" for the studio. The potential film became known as Dore Schary's "Passion Project". He envisioned another great love story with MGM showing the American Civil War period now from the point of view of the North as they had in 1939 from the South.

On paper Dore Schary's "Passion Project" worked, but as I mentioned above Ross Lockridge's "Raintree County" was an intricate novel featuring flashbacks and historical incidents. The novel's construction was not the straight forward year by year story of Scarlett O'Hara. It could not be broken down to a basically simple event follows event screenplay as Margaret Mitchell's chronological novel had been.

Contract writers started working on an adaptation. When suddenly Ross Lockridge, Jr. committed suicide. That sad event and the problems connected with turning the novel into a workable screenplay. Put Dore Schary's "Passion Project" on what became more than a 7 year hiatus as MGM's fortunes started to decline.

At the start of 1955 Dore Schary took up the project once more envisioning "Raintree County" as the means to reverse MGM's fortunes. However, before the year ended the new powers at MGM demoted Schary and he was replaced as Head of Production by Benny Thau. Dore Schary had become MGM's fall guy and when "Raintree County's" screenplay was finally ready for filming in 1956. Schary was off the project completely and reduced to some smaller films and would leave the studio.

The screenplay finally would be written by Millard Kaufman. Who would also serve as an Associate Producer to Producer David Lewis on the production. Kaufman had written the screenplays for 1953's "Take the High Ground" and 1955's "Bad Day at Black Rock". Both motion pictures had earned him Academy Award nominations. So the writer seemed the perfect choice to turn Ross Lockride, Jr's novel into a screenplay.

From 1939 through 1952 Producer David Lewis was the companion of Director James Whale. Lewis's work as an Associate Producer had included 1939's "Dark Victory" and 1942's "Kings Row". As a Producer he made 1946's "Tomorrow Is Forever" and 1948's "Arch of Triumph" among others prior to "Raintree County".

The man chosen to Direct the motion picture was Edward Dmytryk. Dmytryk had previously directed 1953's "The Juggler", both 1954 film's "The Caine Mutiny" and "Broken Lance" and 1955's "The Left Hand of God", He had run afoul of "The House Committee on Un-American Activities" during the "Hollywood Black Listings", but by naming names he was returned to their Good Graces.

As with Dory Schary's idea of turning Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s "Raintree County" into a new "Gone With the Wind". The men behind the production looked good on paper.

Then there was that star studded cast headed by Montgomery Clift as John Wickiff Shawnessy.

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Elizabeth Taylor was cast as Susanna Drake.

 Eva Marie Saint became "the River Girl" Nell Gaither, but without those references in the novel.

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In support were Nigel Patrick, Lee Marvin, Rod Taylor and Agnes Moorehead among the 119 total speaking parts. The most speaking roles still in one motion picture.

In short what could go wrong?


Almost Everything!

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To begin with Writer/Associate Producer Millard Kaufman was faced with editing and restructuring Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s novel into an acceptable screen play. Where others had failed Kaufman was given specific instructions that even with Dore Schary off the picture. MGM still wanted "Raintree County" to be their "NEW" "Gone With the Wind" and to use that film as a model for what Lockridge's novel should look like on the screen. The powers to be, if they had even read the written work as Dore Schary had, forgot, or more probably disregarded that the construction of the novel contained multiple flashbacks and was a far more complex story.

A major example of what Kaufman was up against with the original novel pertains to the characters of Esther Root and her father Mr. Root. Look on any list of the complete cast and characters for the film and you will not see either name. However, in the novel the one time student of teacher John Wickiff Shawnessy, Esther, will become his second wife after the death of Susana,

In fact the novel opens and takes place on a Fourth of July with the elder John, Esther and their children. Almost immediately John starts having the flashbacks on his past life. When the novel ends some 1090 pages later it is still that same Fourth of July from the first page.

In Millard Kaufman's alternate motion picture ending to Ross Lockridge, Jr's novel. The audience witnesses Susana going into the swamp in search of the mythic "Raintree" that John has been dreaming about all his life. She ends her tragic life by drowning and Susana's body is discovered by members of the town searching for her and her four year old son Jim. The boy had followed his mother and a servant seeing this had alerted John Shawnessy/

Assisting in the search is Nell Gaither who has confessed to still being in love with John, Her character is portrayed as his true love and Nell is sympathetically understanding of the circumstance causing John to marry Susana. As the Southern young women tricked him into believing she was pregnant with his child.

Kaufman's screenplay has a typical "Hollywood Ending" as Nell and John locate his son and the three, John, Nell and Jim leave together. The two adults never seeing the beautiful "Raintree" the boy had been sleeping under until he heard his father's voice. Fade out to end credits.

The movies ending has a major problem as compared to the novel. After she hears, falsely, that John was killed in the Civil War. Nell marries Senator Garwood B. Jones and will die in childbirth.

As New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote on December 21, 1957:

But Millard Kaufman's screenplay is a formless amoeba of a thing, and therein lies the fatal weakness of this costly, ambitious film.
More or less following Mr. Lockridge, the long, tedious tale unfolded here is that of a nineteenth-century Indiana youngster who starts out with magnificent dreams—he wants to find the mythical rain tree, which holds the secret of the meaning of life (or some such bilge). But he gets mixed up with a daughter of the deep South who has a fixation that she is part Negro and he spends some eight years (and the rest of the picture) tagging after her.
The first scene from Ross Lockridge's novel used in Millard Kaufman's screenplay doesn't appear in the published book until approximately page 109 and is attached to another sequence that doesn't occur until about page 174. Kaufman's finished screenplay ran an amazing 200 pages in length and was taken from no more than about 60 percent of the total novel.

Apparently the initial Director's cut of "Raintree County", not including a 15 minute intermission, ran 4 hours in length for the different preview audiences. That length of time also included the Overture, Entr' Acte and Exit music. For comparison "Gone With the Wind" without it's Intermission, but with Overture, Entr' Acte and Exit music runs 3 hours and 41 minutes.

The entire negative review of the motion picture by Bosley Crowther can be read at:

An Overview of the final motion picture screenplay can be found on the Turner Classic Movie Website for "Raintree County" at:

Production of the motion picture began filming in early 1956. Then what could have been deja vu for Elizabeth Taylor occurred.

Near the end of filming for "Giant" on September 30, 1955 Taylor's co-star James Dean had died in single car accident. Now on May 12, 1956 only eight months after that tragedy and having spent the evening at a diner party at Elizabeth Taylor's home with her second husband Michael Wilding. Her  "Raintree County" co-star Montgomery Clift was almost killed in another single car accident. He had apparently fallen asleep at the wheel.

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Clift would have facial surgery and be away from the cameras for two months. When he returned to them there were noticeable facial differences in his appearance including partial paralysis. A problem that could be seen by the movie's audience and was made more obvious, because a motion picture is not filmed in chronological sequence.

Clift had allegedly calmed some of the profit fears of  the MGM Executives over the impact of his accident. By supposedly telling them it would actually bring in larger audiences to see what he looked like and probably did.

However, a side effect of the accident was Montgomery Clift becoming addicted to both drugs and alcohol. Both affected his performance on "Raintree County" and afterwards. During production the actor had mood swings and erratic behavior in public and on the set.

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Elizabeth Taylor also had problems during the filming. In Taylor's case it was a result of her heavy period costumes causing her to be overly warm. At one point she started hyperventilating and collapsed on the set. Elizabeth Taylor was treated, at the time, by one of the studio doctors using of all things Montgomery Clift's bottle of Demerol and one of his syringes. Another incident attributed to her costumes caused the actress to develop Tachycardia. This is a too fast heart rate and she was off set for a week so her heart could relax.

While all of this was going on Elizabeth Taylor had discovered Producer Mchael Todd and started an affair with him. This would lead to her divorce from Michael Wilding and her marriage to Todd. A name that after the features completion would come up again for MGM. Taylor's romance was causing her to be late for work and like Clift forgetting lines, or showing no interest in the days filming of "Raintree County".

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The MGM Executives wanted "Raintree County" to be seen in a film process that would outdo Michael Todd's "TODD A.O.". The film process Todd developed and used for 1956's "Around the World in 80 Days". MGM came up with what was then called "Camera 65", but would eventually be known as "Ultra Panavsion 70". "Raintree County" became the first motion picture shot in this new process, but when it came to showing it in 1957 across the county. That plan was dropped, because the movie theaters capable of projecting a 70 mm feature film were showing the same "Around the World in 80 Days" the MGM Executives wanted to show up. Most theaters than received a CinemaScope equivalent release. In Los Angeles I saw the Roadshow production at the Wilshire Theater in "Camera 65", because it was one of only three theaters in the country available for that process.

"Raintree County" had its world premier in Louisville, Kentucky on October 2, 1957. Which seems to me a strange place for a motion picture about the State of Indiana. The final Roadshow version of the feature was released on December 20, 1957. It now had a running time of 3 hours and 2 minutes including Overture, Entr' Acte and Exit music. This time did not include the normal 15 minute Intermission. Someone had cut 58 minutes from the original 4 hour preview version and in some sequences continuity was lost.

The General Release version of the film runs 14 minutes shorter than the Roadshow cut at 2 hours and 48 minutes.This is simply that version without the Overture, Entr' Acte and Exit music. In many theaters across the country it was shown in General release without an Intermission break.

As I just mentioned that initial editing from what the preview audience viewed to the Roadshow version caused portions of the finished release to appear to be missing something. There is even a critical scene with Elizabeth Taylor that seems to just jump into view and it doesn't take a genius to know something is just not right at that point. When Nell Gaither appears at the ending to help in the search. The audience has no idea where she has been as the screenplay has focused on John and Susana's story only. Another problem Millard Kaufman was faced with in turning "Raintree County" into a screenplay.

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Image result for images of movie raintree county

The motion picture had a budget of $5,474,000 1957 dollars and looking only at the worldwide box office receipts made $9,080,000 dollars. However, when you consider all the costs not reflected in what is called "The Budget". Such as advertising "Raintree County", making the prints in both "Camera 65" and a CinemaScope format for showing both in the United States and overseas. dubbing or adding foreign language subtitles and the food bill to feed the cast and crew among other non-initial budget items. "Raintree County" was a financial failure for MGM and lost the studio $484,000 dollars instead of Dory Schary's vision of it saving the company.

In fact of the 20 motion pictures under Dore Schary's replacement as Head of  Production Bernie Thau. 19 of those features lost the studio money. He would be replaced by Sol C. Siegel before the end of 1958. That one money making motion picture Thau made for MGM was the third on screen appearance of Elvis Presley. "Jailhouse Rock".

Although critics and many viewers found MGM's new "Gone With the Wind" overly long and boring. The picture was nominated for Four Academy Awards including Elizabeth Taylor for Best Actress. She lost out to Joanne Woodward in "The Three Faces of Eve". The picture lost Best Musical Score to "The Bridge on the River Kwai". Lost Best Costume Design to "Les Girls" and Best Art Direction to "Sayonara".

Was the movie really as bad as the critics claim?

There are some interesting pro and con reviews by viewers of the motion picture on the TCM Website at:

Those reviews are from average people like my readers and not professional film critics. They reflect some interesting points. In one, a reviewer wishes the motion picture that critics called overly long had been 10 to 15 minutes longer. Their reasoning was that extra time might have helped to clarify some of the characters motivations. We can only speculate what that 58 minutes cut from the preview version might have held. Of course we will never know, because apparently the footage is lost after 60 years.

We know that many writers attempted to turn Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s complex novel into a screenplay, but once the decision to actually start production again was made. The only on screen writing credits for "Raintree County" shown are for Millard Kaufman and Lockridge as the author. Records do not reflect any non-screen credited assistance give to Kaufman.

While the on screen film credits for "Gone With the Wind" show Margaret Mitchell as the author of the novel and the screenplay by Sidney Howard. We know that additionally there were four other non-credited writers including Ben Hecht working on the screenplay from what was a very non-complicated novel.

There is no doubt that Montgomery Clift's car accident impacted the production, but many today seem to lay the total blame on the actor's shoulders for the film's failure. I think I have laid out the major problems facing MGM from the moment Dore Schary conceived the idea of turning Ross Lockridge, Jr's novel into something it was never meant to be as a clone of "Gone With the Wind". In today's world of television mini-series a remake of "Raintree County" as a three, or four part series totaling even 9 hours might not do it justice, but it would certainly permit the story to be told correctly.

In my opinion he motion picture is not as bad as it's reputation implies, Although it has conflict between its painstakingly recreated nostalgia look and feel versus the tragedy of John and Susana's life. Which although well acted just doesn't seem to fit the reconstruction of time and place on the screen as it did as part of the overall novel, because in the end the motion picture is still only a shell of Ross Lockridge, Jr's novel.

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