May 6, 1926 – Ross Hunter:
The way life looks in my pictures is the way I want life to be. I don’t want to hold a mirror up to life as it is. I just want to show the part which is attractive.
Gay Hollywood producer extraordinaire, Ross Hunter; this queen’s fingerprints are all over some of Hollywood’s biggest pictures, including one that remains one of my magnificent obsessions. From melodramas to musicals, Douglas Sirk flicks to sex farces, Hunter sold audiences on artifice and not reality.
For decades, Sony Pictures refused to release the 1973 film version of Lost Horizon, despite considerable demand from film fans. In 2012, the studio bowed to public pressure and you can order a copy via Amazon or stream it on YouTube.
The story is about a group of Westerners whose plane crashes in the mountains of Tibet. There they are rescued by monks from Shangri-La, a remote valley where there’s no illness, greed, hunger, or war… and people live a very, very long time.
Lost Horizon is based on a 1933 novel by English writer James Hilton and was adapted to film in 1937 under the direction of Frank Capra.
Ridiculed by the critics when it was released, the Hunter version of Lost Horizon, a musical version, no less, was thought to be one of the worst films of all time, and everyone connected to the project tried to disown it. It lost $51 million. Yet over the years, people have discovered it and embraced the film despite being told they should hate it. It slowly became the best worst film of all time.
Directed by Charles Jarrott with a screenplay by Larry Kramer, and starring Peter Finch, Liv Ullmann, Sally Kellerman, George Kennedy, Michael York, Olivia Hussey, Bobby Van, Charles Boyer, and John Gielgud.
I saw it in its first run in the theatres, I was 20-years-old, and I wasn’t impressed. A fan of the first film, I felt that nothing was gained by making it a musical, despite having a Burt Bacharach–Hal David score. Every time a musical number began, I thought: “Oh God, they’re going to sing again”.
The story was first musicalized in 1956 as a Broadway show, Shangri-La, with a book and lyrics credited to Hilton (who had died in 1954), Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (the team behind Auntie Mame) and music by Harry Warren. Despite a cast that included Jack Cassidy, Alice Ghostley and Carol Lawrence, it was a bomb with just 21 performances.
Hunter, who had produced the musical film Thoroughly Modern Millie was determined to preserve the glamour of old Hollywood even though it was mostly dead by 1970. He envisioned a big-budget, all-star, all-singing, all-dancing Hollywood extravaganza, still sensing the relevance of the story to the Vietnam War era.
The Lost Horizon premiere was such a big deal in Hollywood that Governor Ronald Reagan was there, but it was quickly savaged by the critics with Pauline Kael and Judith Crist among its most vocal detractors. Its camp excesses inspired Bette Midler to quip:
I never miss a Liv Ullmann musical!
At that point, Hunter was one of the most successful producers in Hollywood history. Variety (the showbiz daily) called his movie Airport (1970) “a handsome, often dramatically involving epitaph to a bygone brand of film-making“. An apt description for all Hunter’s films.
Born Martin Fuss in Cleveland, Hunter was a former schoolteacher who first dabbled in acting. His first job in Hollywood was playing the male ingenue in the comedy Louisiana Hayride (1944) opposite hillbilly star Judy Canova. He played the leads in a few other Columbia B-movies, but when offers dried, he turned to a bit of stage work, returning the studios as dialogue director and occasional writer. In 1951 he became an Associate Producer at Universal, which had seldom made a wiser move.
Hunter’s first film as producer, Take Me To Town (1953), starred Ann Sheridan, the most undervalued of all the great Hollywood stars. The same year Barbara Stanwyck starred in Hunter’s second film, the melodrama All I Desire. Like most gay men, Hunter idolized the big female stars of the Golden Era. Those who arrived had made their names elsewhere. Hunter put them back into his glossy melodramas, the kind that American critics found so old-fashioned that Universal showed its films only to the press in Britain for the whole of that decade.
Two of his best films were directed by the great Douglas Sirk. When he and Hunter made a rare pro-Native American Western, Taza, Son Of Chochise (1954), it proved that they could work together in any genre. It starred Rock Hudson, whose career was given a big boost when he played opposite Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession (1954), and Hunter reunited his stars and director for another Sirk tearjerker, All That Heaven Allows (1956), with Wyman as a widow who defies New England society by marrying her gardener.
He found projects for other favorite female stars: Anne Baxter joined Hudson in One Desire (1955) and with Jeff Chandler in The Spoilers (1955); Debbie Reynolds in two sentimental tributes to teenagers, Tammy And The Bachelor (1957) and This Happy Feeling (1958); Stanwyck did her woman-of-the-world thing again in a remake of There’s Always Tomorrow (1956); June Allyson did two more remakes for Hunter, Interlude (1957) and My Man Godfrey (1957).
If Hunter’s love of remakes looked haphazard to the studio bosses, he did put together winners like Imitation Of Life (1959), where Lana Turner took Claudette Colbert‘s old role as a widow who is having trouble with her daughter. Film fans thrilled to see Turner, whose career was unharmed by the scandal a year earlier when her daughter knifed her lover. Hunter immediately put her into another glossy melodrama, Portrait In Black (1960), but yet another remake, Madame X (1966) with Constance Bennett returning to film after a 12 year absence.
Brilliantly teaming Hudson with Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1958), Hunter was able set off Universal’s most successful series of films since the days of Deanna Durbin musicals. These were sparkling comedies with luscious people in plush settings and more than a hint of salaciousness. Hudson only did three with Day, although as he said himself, people always thought there were more. The only other one produced by Hunter was The Thrill Of It All (1963), where Day’s frustrating husband was played by hunky James Garner.
The Chalk Garden (1964) is interesting if only because it turned Enid Bagnold‘s sober play into a vehicle for young Hayley Mills. The Pad And How To Lose It (1966) was another based on another West End play, in this one was gay writer Peter Shaffer‘s The Private Ear.
Hunter was able to nab Julie Andrews, film’s brightest talent, for a musical set in the 1920s, Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967): like most of his films the tone was over-the-top, but the star was showcased pefectly, and admirably supported from stars seldom seen on screen, Beatrice Lillie and Carol Channing. The result was the biggest success in Universal’s history, but three years later, Hunter’s Airport, based on the novel by Arthur Hailey, topped its $35 million profit by $100 million. Airport, the first in a string of 1970s disaster-films. It stars Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin and was directed and written by George Seaton. Hunter received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. This was when Hunter set his sights on remaking Capra’s Lost Horizon with music. It was one of the most prestigious film in Columbia Picture’s past and they had no intention of selling the rights to Universal. So, Hunter simply moved to Columbia. It would be Hunter’s final film.
He moved to Paramount in 1974, working in television, presenting The Moneychangers (1976), a mini-series from Hailey’s novel, featuring Golden Age stars Kirk Douglas and Anne Baxter, and The Best Place To Be (1978), with Donna Reed and the first lady of American Theatre, Helen Hayes, his final product. Hayes had won an Oscar for her work in Airport, so she owed Hunter.
Hunter was taken by cancer in March 1996. His longtime partner was art director, set designer and film producer Jacque Mapes (1914-2002). Hunter and Mapes were one of Hollywood’s first power couples. Mapes is best remembered for creating the fabulous sets for Singin’ In The Rain (1952). Mapes and Hunter were frequently co-producers on the same projects, sharing their professional and private lives.
They met at a Hollywood party during the 1940s. One of them was then Tyrone Powers‘ plaything, and the other was Errol Flynn‘s. Hunter:
I remember I was at the top of the stairs, and there stood Jacque. Our eyes met, and we left the party, dumped our famous boyfriends, and we’ve been together ever since.
Mapes began at RKO as set decorator for The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939), starring Charles Laughton. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he returned to Hollywood, taking a job at MGM. Mapes and Ross were together for 50 years. When Mapes left this world in 2002 at 88-years-old, none of his obits mentioned Hunter.