Quote of the Day: 55 Drinks at Peking

Screenwriter Bernard Gordon (55 DAYS AT PEKING) on Nicholas Ray ~

The Green Ray

“Nick was trying hard to battle a long alcohol dependency, but his approach struck me as weird and unproductive. He didn’t allow himself any wine or liquor but kept a bottle of an Italian digestif, Fernet Branca, at hand. Almost every bar had this drink in stock, ready for patrons who’d eaten too much and were suffering from acid indigestion. Ergo, digestif. I tried it myself. It worked much better than Alka Seltzer, but it was a vile-tasting concoction made from something like fermented artichoke hearts; sipping it was only slightly less unpleasant than suffering from heartburn. It was actually a strong alcoholic drink. From the taste, I suspected it was about a hundred proof. Keeping to his vow and his promise to stay off the sauce, Nick sat all evening, sipping his digestif, consuming almost the entire bottle. Toward the end of the shooting on PEKING, Nick became seriously ill. I blamed that corrosive drink.”

~ From Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Stop Worryng and Love the Blacklist.

peking blues

Gordon’s stories from this one shoot are incredible. With an alcoholic director, and an alcoholic star (Ava Gardner, who walked off the film partway, necessitating an offscreen death for her character), the film was what you might call troubled. When David Niven, who had cheerfully signed up without reading a page of script, protested that his character wasn’t active enough, an English writer was brought in to help Gordon flesh out the role. Robert Hamer, the most serious alcoholic of the bunch. It was said at Ealing Studios, latterly Hamer’s home, that if by some freak of chance, endurance or depravity you managed to misbehave more appallingly than Hamer on a night out, he would be unable to face you the next day for shame of having been outperformed in the degeneracy stakes.

Gordon found Hamer charming, but completely unproductive.

He reports that Philip Yordan, handling the production for Samuel Bronston, was an eccentric sort of chap (Yordan, a writer himself, was a “front” for many blacklisted scribes. When all the blacklisted writers names were being restored to the credits of films they’d worked on, Yordan provided information about who had done what — except where he’d had a falling-out with the writer. Then they could go unnamed forever as far as he was concerned). Returning to their hotel from a late meal, Gordon saw Yordan purchase a stack of astrology magazines.

“You don’t believe in that stuff, do you?” asked Gordon, amazed.

“Do you know of a better way to predict the future?”

23 Responses to “Quote of the Day: 55 Drinks at Peking”

  1. Nick Ray was one incredibly brilliant, wildly messed-up, burnt-out case. For all the skinny read Mainly About Lindsay Anderson by Gavin Lambert.

  2. The Bernard Eisenschitz bio is also pretty good, and Ray’s own I Was Interrupted is essential reading. But I’m very glad Lambert decided to tell the story of his own relationship with Ray, which fills in some important missing parts of the picture. Even though some in the Anderson camp resented the way Lambert inserted himself into the Anderson biography — but if he hadn’t, it would have been SO depressing, like the later-published Anderson diaries.

  3. Well they obviously didn’t pay attention to the book’s title.

  4. Heh. And you get, by contrasting Lambert and Anderson, is a portrait of opposite kinds of gay cineaste life in Britain. If all you want is an anderson book, the other stuff is still useful as context.

    Looks like I’m getting a copy of Lambert’s film!

  5. Gavin was a marvelous and multi-faceted man. And his film Another Sky is quite teriffic. Walter Lasally was the dp. It was a small-scale low-budget production and while it all worked it convinced Gavin that he really didn’t want to direct.

  6. Lassally taught a friend of mine at the National Film School. He had two women in his class and he called them both Jane. “All women look the same to me.” He would teach them how to hid the bags under Vanessa Redgrave’s eyes — he was old school. My friend is a tough little Mancunian lesbian, but she grew to quite like the old fellow.

  7. I love his work, particularly Joanna — a truly terrible movie that looks fabulous.

  8. Ah, Sarne! What a classic chump. Myra Breckinridge is a scream, partly for the casting, partly for the editing, which lifts it enormously. But his “big idea” — it was all a dream — is an amazingly dumb piece of work.

  9. Tom Farrell Says:

    Google Alerts led me to your amusing website. Nick told me he loved Ava Gardner, whom Frank Sinatra called while they were working in Spain. Bernard’s biography asserts that it was Nick’s idea to cast Ava in this misguided movie and Sam Bronston was delighted to sign her to a contract.

  10. Wow — a thrill to hear from you! Please stick around. I’ll be quoting/discussing Ray some more for sure, as he’s a huge favourite of mine. But my knowledge is entirely second and third-hand, so your insights would be hugely appreciated.

    I wonder if Ava’s departure from 55 Days coincided with Ray’s, then? Bernard doesn’t specify this, but it would make sense.

  11. Tom Farrell Says:

    55 Days at Peking was an incoherent mess of a movie. It virtually finished Nick’s Hollywood career. Go back to another film such as The Savage Innocents, for which Nick Ray received sole writing credit along with directing.

  12. The Savage Innocents is a brilliant film. David Ehrenstein, a regular commenter here, (see above) did the audio commentary for the restored DVD, along with Bill Krohn.

    The only things in the film I’m not crazy about are the VO (but I don’t hate it) and what seems to be the dubbing of Peter O’Toole (would love to know the story there).

    Say — do you know of any way I could get to see We Can’t go Home Again? It’s the one major work that eludes me. I’d like to write something on Ray’s “decline”, if we can call it that, but without seeing his last film it would be a foolish thing to attempt. It’s a film I’m nervous about seeing because I so want to love it.

  13. Tom Farrell Says:

    Susan Ray owns the rights to We Can’t Go Home Again. I’ve not been in touch with her for some time and don’t know what her plans for the film are. Peter O’Toole has said that the next volume of his memoirs would begin with his film career, whenever it’s ready to be published.
    He’s bound to mention The Savage Innocents.

  14. I would imagine O’Toole, Ray and Quinn had some interesting times making that film, so I hope O’Toole does it justice (I hope he can REMEMBER!)

    I heard that there was a version of WCGHA online somewhere, perhaps illegally, but I’ve never come across it.

    Apart from that, I need to see The High Green Wall, and I have a not-too-great copy of A Woman’s Secret here which I’ll watch sometime. I’ve seen all the other major features, I guess. Which is kind of a sad feeling. Although it would still be great to see some of them on the big screen, which I’ve NEVER done.

  15. Tom Farrell Says:

    You can view High Green Wall with Joseph Cotten in NYC at what used to be called the Museum of Broadcasting but now has another name which escapes me. You can request this short film there and look at it in a booth with headphones, which is where I last saw it a couple of years ago, if it’s still available. A Woman’s Secret was shown recently on Turner Classic Movies but the story written by Herman Mankiewicz makes no sense. The Cinematheque Francaise has a print of We Can’t Go Home Again.

  16. Maybe that’s the Museum of the Moving Image? Something for me to do next time I’m in New York.

  17. Tom Farrell Says:

    It’s called the Paley Center for Media and is located on West 52nd Street. One block from the museum of Modern Art. Good luck, David!

  18. Thanks! Next time I make it to NYC, it’ll be top of my list!

    More Nick Ray postings v. shortly.

  19. What I can remember of “A Woman’s Secret” — mostly the Maureen O’Hara/Melvyn Douglas/Gloria Grahame stuff — I like a lot. Nice Herman J. Mankiewicz dialogue, plus Grahame offering an unsettling/provocative “perforamnce” of the song “Paradise.”

    What struck me the last time i saw it, thugh, was how much the “in medias res” first argument between O’Hara and Grashame looked like a lover’s quarrel.

  20. Intriguing. I really must watch it. Even Born to be Bad, which Ray laughed off [“It certainly was!”] has some enjoyable things, including a delightful ending. The femme fatale gets away with it all and is rewarded by society for her wickedness.

  21. [addendum]

    This is probably the point I should quote a good pun from playwright Lanford Wilson. In his “Redwood Curtain,” an Asian-American (I believe) woman comments on what appears to be a lover’s quarrel between two characters. Only her Anglo listeners misunderstand, thinking the words “lover’s quarrel” are “rubber squirrel.”

  22. Fnarr!
    (Translation: Heh!)

  23. […] Studios, from the postwar 40s to his 1963 death, from pneumonia, at age 52. (He was apparently a world-class souse, which may have had something to do with the pneumonia.) Starting out as an editor, assistant […]

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