Three Shots from Petulia

Richard Lester, originally from Philadelphia, had lived in Britain for many years when he returned to America to make PETULIA in San Francisco in the summer of 1967. A research trip enabled him to collect images and snatches of overheard dialogue to use in the film, and also fired his imagination to invent others.

A topless waitress on her lunch break.

A cigarette commercial is shot in beautiful, natural surroundings.

A sad and frightening clown.

You know the Lon Chaney story, right? Someone asked him, since he was a horror star, “What IS fear?”

Chaney replied thusly:

“Imagine you’re at home, reading. It’s midnight.

“The doorbell rings. ‘Who on earth could that be?’ you think. You lay down your book.

“The doorbell rings again, more urgently. You get up and go out into the hall. You can see the outline of a figure through the frosted glass of your door panel.

“Once more the doorbell rings as you reach the door and open it and there, his pale makeup gleaming in the moonlight, is a clown.

“Would you laugh?”

Lon Chaney in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, my favourite film.

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17 Responses to “Three Shots from Petulia”

  1. I’m quite proud that my clown film has allowed some people to get over their entirely natural revulsion for clowns. At the end of the ten minutes they’ve come to love the creepy things, at least the ones in the film.

  2. My love for “Petulia” is sufficient that I’m simply grateful for more examples of its imagery.

    That having been said, though, what I see — at least in the context of the film — is more pathos and comic displacement. Note the “Friendliest [?] In Town” balloons he’s holding. Like so much seen in the film, it demonstrates attempts at humanity and the, um, natural within a dehumanizing environment. Is there a “right” way, f’rinstance, to eat while naked in a restaurant? Or to shoot a “nature’s own” cigarette commercial?

    I read the novel years ago — which has a “Hollywood” happy ending, believe it or not. One of many things I’ve wondered is whom to credit for the *really* good script. Lawrence B. Marcus? Barbera Turner (mother of Jennifer Jason Leigh), who was involved or adaptation? Or an uncredited Charles Wood … who, I think I remember reading, worked with Lester in putting together his material.

  3. Lester reportedly hated the novel but what he felt was its dsihonesty about a class of people he knew well lead him to see the film he wanted to make.

    Wood wrote a 120-page script based on notes he and Lester took in San Francisco. Six weeks before shooting, Lester brought in Marcus to de-Anglicize it. Since Marcus had experienced divorce, unlike the happily married Wood and Lester, he added greatly to that aspect of the script (the long scene with Shirley Knight and her cookies is my favourite sequence).

    My guess is Barbara Turner wrote the first script before Lester became involved, and so almost automatically qualifies for credit, but the implication is little or none of her work was actually used.

    I like what you say about those images. Agree the clown is only accidentally sinister. There are SO MANY little moments like these — a girl in a kinono tying thermos flasks to a rope so workmen in scaffolding around a pagoda can have their lunch…

  4. What you say about the script sounds right.

    For the record, though, Barbara Turner (cf. typo above) went on to write the script of the Grosbard-directed “Georgia,” and I remember Georgia Brown in The Village Voice talking about how you could sense in “Georgia” the writer of “Petulia.” Likely as not, I suspect, the Lester film having an after-the-fact influence on one of its creators.

    [Errata]: that “involved or adaptation” in my earlier note was supposed to read “involved in the adaptation,” for what it’s worth.

  5. Well, directors and their collaborators who radically rework existing projects often tend to disregard the work that’s gone before, so it’s possible that Turner had more influence on Petulia than is acknowledged.

    But the darkening of the tone is supposed to date from Lester’s involvement.

    I haven’t admired any Grosbard film from True Confessions on, but is Straight Time good?

  6. The only Grosbard films I’ve seen end-to-end are “Subject Was Roses,” “True Confessions,” and “Georgia” … so I’m not the person to ask about “Straight Time.”

    Somehow, for me, the name “Grosbard” usually signals “Good for performances but the movie itself never really works.”

    A line that I found in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s capsule for “Deep End of the Ocean” seems all-too-typical: “Though director Ulu Grosbard is as good as he usually is with most of the actors, the story problems tend to stump him too.”

    I loved “Georgia” for Jennifer Jason Leigh’s gutsy lead performance, and for the dynamic it set up between her and “good” sister Mare Winningham. It don’t leave you with much, however, in terms of image or overall shape.

    Where it’s similar to “Petulia” is that the title character, JJL, a “bad news” singer, is the sort of intrusive character who forces people into examining their own problems, whether or not they want to or are willing to thank her for it. There’s also a similar lack of happy endings. Not-so-nice heroine gets her message accross, even if she injures herself in the process.

    Oh, yes, and I also loved the way Leigh-as-Georgia sang that least reassuring of love songs, Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue.”

  7. Well, DeNiro obviously trusted Grosbard, back when DeNiro was cautious, so I guess his reputation with actors is justified. Georgia sounds interesting, I would watch JJL in anything.

  8. It’s her best performance to date. I love the scene where she shows a hospital nurse trying to give her an injection how to find a vein.

  9. That DOES sound pretty good.

  10. Chanced upon some information about Barbara Turner and “Petulia” this afternoon, as well as a director I never thought to connect with this film — Robert Altman.

    [This comes from skimming Daniel O’Brien’s book “Robert Altman: American Rebel.”]

    It seems that, post-“Delinquents” and pre-“Countdown,” Altman and producer Raymond Wagner tried to put together some film packages designed, among other things, to encourage a non-television career for Altman. One of these was an adaptation of “Me and The Arch Kook Petulia,” which had a script by Vic Morrow’s wife Barbara Turner. Morrow being, of course, someone Altman had worked with on the show “Combat!”

    Wagner and Altman had a parting. Wagner kept the “Petulia” script. Enter a new director.

    I’ve been known to be quite fond of Robert Altman. I must admit, though, that I’m glad “Petulia” was directed by someone other than the director of “That Cold Day In The Park.”

  11. A pre-1967 Petulia would have been an entirely different animal, of course.

    I like Altman, but he’s something of a credit-stealer, always denigrating the writer’s contribution. I think it’s fairly clear that MASH was not entirely improvised, as he tried to suggest. And the tonal shifts that make Altman so daring and so ’70s are not really present in his work until MASH makes them an essential feature of its approach.

    So Ring Lardner Jnr had a hand in inventing the Altman style.

  12. Ted Haycraft Says:

    All of the above very interesting (I’m a big Leter fan!) – also wasn’t Vic Morrow Jennifer Jason Leigh’s father? And if so was Barbara Turner her Mom?

  13. Vic Morrow certainly was her dad, and if Chris is right, Barbara Turner is her mum, yes.

  14. Ted Haycraft Says:

    Hey since I caught your attention (by your above recent comment!) – oh & btw, I just found about you Blog from DVD Savant – thanks Glenn!!! – I saw where your big fan of Lester’s 3 & 4 Musketeer (from your R.I.P. Fraser Blog which for some strange reason I had no idea he had passed away – wow!) – anyway when people, knowing that I’m a film nut & critic, come up to me and ask me what my favorite film is (a totally hard question to answer) I usually spout out the 3 & 4 Musketeers (I mention both since they should have originally been one film!) so I love to hear from other fellow Musketeer fans and their thoughts & observations about those films! I’m rambling big time here but I would love to hear from you (& others) why it seems that Lester is so underrated & under appreciated. Welles, Leone & Mann (as in Michael) are my personal Holy trinity of Cinema but over & over again I keep going back to Lester (even his ‘flawed’ films).

    Again, sorry for the rambling – I do that a lot when it comes to subjects near & dear to me like Richard Lester films!!!

    TED!!! aka The Fan With No Name!!!

  15. I’m going to post a little something on the Musketeers again in a little while. Remember the beautiful dissolve from the Queen’s diamonds to Geraldine Chaplin’s eyes? I think I know where he got the idea…

    I like your other favourites, except Michael Mann — I can never figure out what he thinks he’s doing! I have a little Leone post lined up, and must do some more Welles.

    Meanwhile, B Kite points to a rather impressive Welles impersonation:

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