In 1975, United Artists released a political thriller called Rosebud.
Rosebud was based on a best-selling novel.
Rosebud dealt with terrorism, an important topic both in 1975 and today.
Rosebud was directed by Otto Preminger, an acclaimed, award-winning filmmaker who was known for making controversial movies and who had a showman’s flair for publicity.
Rosebud had an international cast of screen veterans and up-and-coming stars. Peter O’Toole, Richard Attenborough, Cliff Gorman, Peter Lawford, Raf Vallone, Adrienne Corri, Lalla Ward, Claude Dauphin, Isabelle Huppert, and Kim Cattrall all had key roles. Former New York City Mayor and presidential candidate John V. Lindsay made his acting debut as a U.S. senator.
Rosebud was released with a good deal of publicity.
And, finally, Rosebud is almost totally forgotten today. Not only did Rosebud receive less-than-stellar reviews, it’s box office failure pretty much spelled the end of Preminger’s directorial career. (He directed one more film after Rosebud.) Rosebud sunk into such obscurity that, for years, it wasn’t even available on anything other than VHS tape. It was finally given a Blu-ray release in 2021 but, unlike some of Preminger’s other films, Rosebud isn’t going to end up getting a Criterion release anytime soon. (That said, it can currently be streamed for free on a few sites. So, go watch it after you finish this review.)
Having seen Rosebud, I can tell you that the film wasn’t forgotten because it was a disaster or anything like that. Instead, Rosebud was forgotten because it was thoroughly mediocre. There’s nothing particularly terrible about it but there’s nothing particularly good about it. Instead, it’s a slowly-paced and flatly directed film. There are a few interesting scenes, the majority of which involve Richard Attenborough’s terrorist. But otherwise, it’s just a mediocre film from a director who was past his prime.
Interestingly enough, Rosebud’s mediocrity is what makes the 1980 book, Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture, such an interesting read. While directing Rosebud, Otto Preminger allowed journalist and filmmaker Ted Gershuny to observe every detail of the production. From Erik Lee Preminger’s attempt to write a workable script to the casting sessions to the film’s eventual release, Gershuny was there. Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture tells the story of how a group of talented people ended up making a thoroughly forgettable film. There have been plenty of books written about the production of terrible movies. There’s been even more books written about the making of classic films. But Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture is one of the few books to take a serious and detailed look at what it’s like to make a thoroughly mediocre film. And let’s be honest, most films are mediocre. Most films are more likely to be Rosebud than they are to be The Godfather, Goodfellas or Battlefield Earth.
The book, not surprisingly revolves around Otto Preminger. The Preminger described in the book is a complex figure, a proud man and an occasionally sensitive artist who is also frequently a bully. As the book makes clear, Preminger can be kind but he also came of age at a time when it was common place for directors to yell and be autocratic. Preminger’s habit of shouting rubs more than a few crew and cast members the wrong way. When he’s not yelling, Preminger comes across as thoughtful and witty but there’s also an undercurrent of sadness to him as Preminger realizes that the film industry is changing and that he’s getting left behind. The fact that he directed films like Anatomy of a Murder, Laura, Exodus, and The Cardinal didn’t matter in the new Hollywood. The same things that had once led to Preminger being branded a rebel and an innovator now led to him being branded as being out-of-touch. Rosebud was Preminger’s attempt to remain relevant, both artistically and politically. Unfortunately, the 70s were a brutal decade for the directors who previously defined Hollywood’s Golden Age. Some, like John Huston, were eventually able to adjust and make a few more good films before their careers were ended by either retirement or death. Most, however, were like Preminger, too engaged to quit but too old-fashioned to keep up with the younger filmmakers. Still, even when it becomes obvious that Rosebud is not going to work as a film, Preminger refuses to give up or surrender. He’s going to make his movie.
Also making a huge impression is Robert Mitchum. Mitchum was originally cast in the film’s leading role and, having seen Rosebud, it’s easy to understand why Mitchum would seem like the ideal choice to be play Larry Martin, a cynical and hard-boiled journalist and CIA asset. When Mitchum first appears in the book, he’s a breath of fresh air. Even on the printed page, it’s easy to see that Mitchum’s no-nonsense style invigorated the disorganized production. However, Mitchum quickly becomes disillusioned, walks off the film, and is hastily replaced by Peter O’Toole. Not even Gershuny seems to be sure what specifically caused Mitchum quit the film, though it’s suggested that Mitchum felt that he had been personally slighted by Preminger. (At one point, Mitchum claims that Preminger accused him of being drunk when he was sober. At another point, it’s suggested that Mitchum walked because he realized that film wasn’t going to be any good and he felt he was wasting his time.) O’Toole does his best to take Mitchum’s place, though his poor health proves to be almost as much of a challenge as Mitchum’s bad attitude.
(That said, O’Toole’s apparent frailty disappeared after the production received a bomb threat that is later revealed to have been a hoax. The book suggests that O’Toole and his entourage tracked down the hoaxer and essentially beat the Hell out of him.)
It’s a highly interesting and well-written book, one that will make you appreciate the effort that goes into making even a forgettable film. Used paperback copies can ordered off of Amazon for $22.00. I found my copy at Recycled Books in Denton, Texas and paid $3.00 for it. Support you local independent book stores, people.