From Here to Eternity: Sinatra, Rumors, Myths…

Since it is Academy Awards week, I’d like to salute the 1953 Best Picture, From Here to Eternity.

I’ve watched the film over 100 times and I still marvel at the writing, direction and the tremendous range of the actors.

The film had all the earmarks of a great film. It was helmed by the master editor turned director, Fred Zinnemann. It was beautifully shot and cut. It was based on the best selling novel by James Jones with a top notch screenplay by Daniel Taradash.

Taradash had a long and successful career as a writer. He even co wrote the screenplay for Abbott and Costello’ The Noose Hangs High. His crowning achievement was From Here to Eternity where he won the Oscar for Best Screenplay.

In Taradash’s obituary in the Washington Post on 2/27/2003, reporter Adam Bernstein wrote:

“He was credited with persuading Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn that he could be true to the story line without alarming the censors or angering the Army by showing its leaders as cruelly as the book.”

Taradash told the WGA in 2003, “They invariably say how faithful I was to the book, and I nod very gravely and thank them, but they’re wrong! The novel runs 860 pages, and I was merely faithful to the flavor.”

“I guess the most famous lovemaking scene in movies is the beach encounter between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, and it isn’t in the book. James Jones had them in a hotel suite. Too prosaic, I thought. Poor Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr had a time of it because the sand got into their swimsuits after the first take.”

Another important element in the success of the film was the brilliant casting. The film almost starred Humphrey Bogart, Eli Wallace, Joan Crawford and Aldo Ray. The film was regarded as a potential blockbuster. as soon as Harry Cohn and Columbia bought the rights to the Jones novel- for $82,000- many of the top actors in Hollywood began to fight for parts.

For Sgt. Warden, the part played by Burt Lancaster, Harry Cohn wanted an old box office favorite- Humphrey Bogart. However in 1952, Bogart did not certainly fit the role at that point in his career as the rugged career non-com Sgt. Warden. Bogart was 53 and looked his age ( he would be dead in 5 years). It was Zinnemann who fought and won to cast Lancaster.

Zimmerman also fought to cast Montgomery Clift as Private Robert E Lee Prewitt. Zinnemann had directed Clift in 1948s The Search. Clift was a major star in 1953 and Cohn didn’t want to pay his asking price ($150k) and preferred to use his far cheaper contract player Aldo Ray. Zinnemann threatened to walk off the film and got his way.

It was Cohn who cast Deborah Kerr as Lancasters love interest Karen. He was leaning at first towards Joan Crawford, who was 6 years older than Lancaster but looked far older. The choice was dynamite since sparks flew between Lancaster and Kerr both on and off the screen. By the way, although it was an incidental part, Phil Ober as “Dynamite” Holmes was perfect as Kerr’s cheating husband and villainous officer

My Facebook friend, Aussie Kerry Pitts, who knew Kerr and corresponded fpr 20 years with her added, ” Shelley winters was considered for the part of Lorene. Its untrue that Harry Cohn chose Deborah Kerr for Karen. The suggestion was made by Deborah’s new agent, Bert Allenberg and Cohn was aghast. Cohn told Zinnemann who the “sonuvabitch’ Allenberg had suggested and it was Zinnemann who realized that this would be inspired casting against Deborah’s screen image.” Thanks Kerry!

Donna Reed playing against type as the prostitute and girlfriend of Prewitt, Lorene was an incredible choice. Reed won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Almost every actor selected was a home run. Ernest Borgnine, who would win an Oscar the next year starring as Marty, a sensitive, lonely butcher was the butcherous Sgt Fatso Judson of the stockades in the film. Borgnine hit every key note as the treacherous Fatso Judson.

In the mix was the versatile Jack Warden, the always amusing Mickey Shaunessey, the burly Claude Akins and vaudeville comic Tim Ryan (husband of Irene Ryan- Granny of the Beverly Hillbillies).

George Reeves had a minor role as Sgt Maylon Stark who had an earlier affair with Kerr. Reeves later claimed that most of his part ended up on the cutting room floor after there were chuckles at a screening of the film when he appeared on the screen. The audience recognized Reeves as television’s Superman. Reeves said that after that screening, Cohn demanded that most of his footage had to be cut.

I’ve saved the most juicy role for last. Everyone who read the Jones book knew that the part of tragic Angelo Maggio was Academy Award material. Frank Sinatra recognized that as well. By 1953, his career was in a slump. He was hurt by his affair with Ava Gardner. He saw the part as a career saver.

However, he wasn’t known for playing dramatic parts, and he known as a light comic and singer. His movie career was on the wane. But when Eli Wallach, who was originally cast as Private Maggio, had a scheduling conflict, Sinatra campaigned hard for the role. Contrary to the rumors that arose after Mario Puzo wrote a similar scenario into The Godfather, a horse’s head was not sent to studio chieftain Harry Cohn on the actor’s behalf. It certainly was not for the money as Sinatra only was paid $8,000—but it won him a Supporting Actor Oscar as he predicted.

One of the most rumored myths was how Sinatra got the part of Maggio. Novelist Mario Puzo in The Godfather created the story about using his Mafia influence. Puzo most likely based his story based on a small time Mafioso hanger-on named Johnny Rosselli who suggested the Sinatra story in his memoirs. Rosselli also claimed that Cohn hated Sinatra for screwing up one of his starlets.

Screenwriter Dan Taradash insisted that Sinatra’s being awarded the role “had nothing to do with a horse’s head.”

The true story was not as mythical. Sinatra actually got the role of Maggio by sending Cohn a blizzard of telegrams (signed by “Maggio”) begging for a screen test while his wife, Ava Gardner, entreated Joan Cohn to give Frank a chance. Cohn did, but only after Sinatra agreed to a salary of just of $8,000. (Seven years earlier, when he made Anchors Aweigh with Gene Kelly, he received $150,000.)

The film was a blockbuster as was predicted. On a cost of $2.5 million returned initially over $30 million Nearly 30 years later, Pauline Kael correctly wrote that it was “The movie of its year, and not just because it swept the Academy Awards but because it brought new attitudes to the screen which touched a social nerve.”

From Here to Eternity holds up nearly 65 years after its production. Subsequent remakes and mini series never matched this rare film. It stands among the great films and possibly the best casting choices ever made.

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