Friday, June 01, 2018

cinema obscura: Mark Robson's "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" (1971) / stage→film

The 1971 Kurt Vonnegut play, "Happy Birthday, Wanda June," made it to the screen in record time. It opened as a theater piece in New York on December 22nd, 1970 and ran for 96 performances. Less than a year later, on December 9th, 1971, it was back in New York as a Columbia film.

At the Columbia II theater, no less.

But the material hasn't been so lucky in terms of home entertainment. Sony now owns the Columbia Pictures library but this is yet another studio film that has never been released on Beta, VHS, Laser, DVD or BluRay.

Mark Robson's film version - an all-star, Oscar-bait production - is top-lined by Rod Steiger in a role created on-stage by Kevin McCarthy as an adventurer and big-game hunter with a bad macho complex and the unlikely name of Harold. His co-stars include Susannah York, Don Murray, George Grizzard and, reprising his stage role, inimitable William Hickey.

Steiger does an uncanny Hemingway impersonation as Harold, who didn't return from one of his adventures and, after eight years, is presumed dead, leaving behind his wife Penelope (York) and son (Steven Paul, also a holdover from the play).

Much to his chagrin, Harold discovers that things have changed during his absence when he suddenly materializes with an oddball sidekick, a character named Looseleaf Harper (played by - who else? - Hickey). For one thing, his wife has moved on in many ways. Penelope has become engaged to an erudite doctor (Grizzard), and during the time that has passed, she has advanced from a passive, artless woman to an educated and very independent sophisticate.

The titular Wanda June, for what it's worth, is a deceased child who plays shuffleboard with Jesus while commenting on the action and is played by Pamelyn Ferdin. Yes, this is an odd film, not great but definitely worth seeing. And for the occasion, Vonnegut himself wrote the adaptation.

Back in August of 2007, the only known existing 35mm print of the film (a brand-new print at the time) was screened at San Francisco's invaluable Castro Theater - a rare showing that gave me hope back then that perhaps, just perhaps, Sony was preping the title for a DVD release.

But it never happened.

The stage production of "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" opened at the Edison Theatre in New York and, in addition to McCarthy, Hickey and Paul, also starred Marsha Mason, Nicolas Coster, Keith Charles, Pamela Saunders, Ariane Munker and Louis Turenne. Michael J. Kane directed the play.

Sony has been doing great work of late. It's really come through in many areas. Let's hope that this eccentric, eclectic work makes its to-do list in the near future.

Notes in Passing: Finally, a word about the unsung Mark Robson whom I'll forever honor for such contributions as "The Seventh Victim" (1943), "Home of the Brave" (1949), "Phffft!" (1954), "The Bridges of Toko-Ri" (1954), "Trial" (155), "The Harder They Fall" (1956), "Peyton Place" (1957), "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness" (1958), "The Prize" (1963), "Valley of the Dolls" (1968) - yes, "Valley of the Dolls" - and "Limbo" (1972).

More Vonnegut on film: George Roy Hill's "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1972);  Steven Paul's "Slapstick of Another Kind" (1982), a Jerry Lewis vehicle; Keith Gordon's "Mother Night" (1996), and Alan Rudolph's "Breakfast of Champions" (1999), along with an incredible number of shorts.

Steven Paul obviously struck a relationship with Vonnegut, working with him both as child actor and, much later, as filmmaker.

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(from top) 

~Poster art for "Happy Birthday, Wanda June"

~Rod Steiger and Susannah York in a scene from the film 
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1971©

~Playbill for the stage version of "Happy Birthday, Wanda June"


Chris said...

As for the list of Robson films you admire ... what about "Isle of the Dead" or "My Foolish Heart"? I wouldn't count myself as a Robson fan, but I do like those two a lot, plus "The Seventh Victim."

I'm also curious about "Daddy's Gone A-Hunting," largely because of the Larry Cohen connetion. Wonder if it's any good ...

joe baltake said...

I remember good things about "Daddy's Gone A-Hunting," mostly about Carol White. Whatever happened to her?

david w. said...

Daddy's Gone A-Hunting is pretty good! I caught it on VHS a few years back.

Brian Lucas said...

"Daddy's Gone A-Hunting" is out on DVD Warner Archive. It's just OK. - an odd abortion-themed drama. Feels more Lorenzo Semple Jr., than Larry Cohen.

Alex said...

Robson was eclectic, I'll give him that. He never quite knocked one out of the park, but he was usually did well with what he had to work with. I like the Val Lewton stuff (although "Ghost Ship" is kinda weak) and "Champion," which gave Kirk Douglas his first big dramatic lead.

Bunuel said...

I believe that there's a disc of "Wanda June" available from Mod Cinema.

mike schlesinger said...

Absolutely one of my favorite films of the 70s, and it's a source of eternal frustration that I could never convince Sony to put it out on DVD.

BTW, I made that new print in the mid-2000s, hoping that it might get enough attention to sway the Home Entertainment sloths into changing their minds. God, I was so naive in those days.

joe baltake said...

Mike- No surprise. Writing this essay, I had a retrospective hunch that you might have been behind the Castro screening. Thanks! -J

Marvin H said...

Joe, I learned a lot from this posting. Thank you for the Robson films. I had never heard of LIMBO (1972), and will now attempt to find/see it. And a further thank you for listing Kurt Vonnegut works that are on film. I had never heard of the Jerry Lewis vehicle which you mentioned (I think made in 1982); and I am also unfamiliar with Mother Night, by Keith Gordon. Will also attempt to find/see those two films. Mike Schlesinger, I "second" my thanks to you for HAPPY BIRTHDAY WANDA JUNE, as I am a San Franciscan who lives very close to the Castro. Marvin H

Charlotte said...

I heard that Vonnegut didn't like this film, even though he wrote it and even though it is faithful to his play. And why wouldn't it be, right? Yes, it's an acquired taste, but I also like it.

Bill from Philly said...

I haven't heard of this film but must see it. I love Rod Steiger. Totally underrated actor. This is one of his that I missed.