Throughout film history, there have been endless occasions where productions have been the victim of unkind abortions. Whether the movie in question only began shooting or was nearing completion, the notion of unfinished films always pose the most tantalizing game of cinematic “What If?”
In celebrating the most intriguing unfinished films ever made (or never made, if you prefer), certain ground rules need to be considered. First, a film cannot be completed belatedly – this cancels such noteworthy unfinished works as Erich Von Stroheim’s “Queen Kelly,” Sergei Eisenstein’s “Que Viva Mexico” and Orson Welles’ “It’s All True” and “Don Quixote.” Those films saw some degree of completion, in one form or another, and found their way into commercial release.
Second, the film would need to have some degree of commercial significance to justify the angst caused in its cancellation. A film like the 1993 indie “Dark Blood,” which was shut down 11 days prior to the end of filming when leading man River Phoenix died from a drug overdose, probably would not have been anticipated in its day or appreciated years after (Phoenix’s star was already waning by this point in his career and the film, by all accounts, was not that special). Thus, it is not present here.
Third, the whereabouts of the surviving footage needs to be considered. There is a difference between a completely lost film, such as Eisenstein’s “Bezhin Meadow,” and a film that was left unfinished but still survives.
With those rules in mind, on with the cancelled show:
1. THE PROFESSOR (1919). Charlie Chaplin was the ruling movie star of the silent cinema thanks to his beloved character of the Little Tramp. But Chaplin toyed with abandoning the character in favor of a very different persona – a British music hall performer who traveled with his band of acrobatic fleas. Chaplin, who never worked with a script during the silent era, shot a sequence of “The Professor” with the eponymous character trying to find a night’s rest at a flophouse while sharing his dingy bed with his fleas. Chaplin clearly realized the film wasn’t going to work (the surviving footage is not particularly amusing) and he cancelled the film. The surviving film of “The Professor” went unseen for years, but can now be viewed as part of the DVD release of Chaplin’s 1952 classic “Limelight” (in which he plays a music hall performer who, at one point, has an act featuring acrobatic fleas).
2. CREATION (1931). Following the success of his 1926 silent film “The Lost World,” FX maven Willis O’Brien hoped to bring his stop-motion animation process to the world of sound films. He joined the fledgling RKO Radio Pictures in 1929 and set about creating the special effects footage for “Creation,” an adventure movie following sturdy explorers who land on a distant island occupied by dinosaurs. Twenty minutes of footage was shot by O’Brien before the studio, under the cost-cutting leadership of a young David O. Selznick, shut down production under the argument that an inadequate script and a bloated projected budget made “Creation” unfeasible. Yet O’Brien was not left to dangle – he was soon employed to create similar effects for another adventure movie – this one involving sturdy explorers who land on a distant island occupied by dinosaurs plus one giant gorilla. The fragmented “Creation” survived, miraculously, and was featured on last year’s DVD release of the 1933 masterpiece “King Kong.”
3. I, CLAUDIUS (1937). British producer Alexander Korda imported director Josef von Sternberg from Hollywood to helm this ambitious and artistic celebration of ancient Roman decadence. No expense was spared in regard to art direction, set design and costume considerations. However, neither Korda nor von Sternberg could lasso the outlandish performance given by Charles Laughton as the stuttering Roman noble who becomes the Emperor Claudius. Laughton’s overblown hammy acting and his insufferable off-screen behavior helped to drive the already costly production into a new financial stratosphere. When leading lady Merle Oberon was injured in a minor car accident, it was seized upon as an excuse to shut down production. The surviving footage and stars would later emerge in the 1967 documentary “The Epic That Never Was” – and from the looks of things, it was no great loss to see “I, Claudius” go the way of ancient Rome.
4. WILLIAM TELL (1954). In 1954, Errol Flynn abandoned Hollywood to set up operations in Europe with the hope of producing and starring in his own films. Flynn went to Italy to create “William Tell,” a rousing action movie based on the legend of the apple-splitting archer. “William Tell” was an uncommonly ambitious film, using Technicolor and CinemaScope (this was the first independent production shot in that widescreen process). Alas, Flynn’s financier proved to be less reliable than anticipated and “William Tell” sprung a money hole that Flynn tried but failed to plug. Lacking funds and the possibility of attracting new backers, Flynn reluctantly halted work on the movie. Over the years, the soundtrack for “William Tell” became lost and all that remains of the unfinished film are several now-silent scenes. This footage was shown for the first time in a recent Turner Classics Movie documentary on Flynn.
5. SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE (1962). By 1962, Marilyn Monroe was eager to expand her acting beyond the stereotypical dumb blonde roles. However, she was still under contract to 20th Century Fox and the studio liked having her play dumb blondes. “Something’s Got to Give” was a prestige film, with George Cukor as director and co-stars of the level of Dean Martin, Cyd Charisse, Wally Cox and Phil Silvers. But all eyes were on Monroe, either waiting for her arrival on the set (she was too frequently late or a no-show) or watching her push the censorship envelope over the edge (her nude swim in a studio pool was captured by the press). The studio, which was already hemorrhaging money from the “Cleopatra” debacle, could not afford another runaway production and shut down “Something’s Got to Give.” The footage that was shot has been available as early as 1963, when it was included in the tribute documentary “Marilyn” that was released a year after Monroe’s untimely death.
6. Ten Girls Ago (1962). The Bronx-born pop crooner Dion headed north to Toronto to make his starring debut in this strange little comedy involving a basset hound who helps three old-time comics (Buster Keaton, Bert Lahr and Eddie Foy Jr.) enjoy one last hurrah in the entertainment world. Dion was supposed to play the owner of the dog, but how the singer or his pooch were able to pull off the plot’s miracle is unclear. “Ten Girls Ago” was an independently financed feature that reportedly had money problems from the start. According to Jim Kline’s book “The Complete Films of Buster Keaton,” the film was 98% complete before a series of mishaps (including Bert Lahr getting pneumonia) shut it down. It was never completed and, to date, no footage has been available for public viewing.
7. The Deep (1967). Orson Welles made a career of starting films he never finished. One film that was abandoned without hope of completion was this curious thriller that Welles shot on a boat off the coast of Yugoslavia. Welles and Jeanne Moreau played a married couple who take a cruise on their yacht, only to face terror when they make the mistake of allowing a menacing stranger to join their seagoing journey. Having British actor Laurence Harvey play the stranger was clearly a mistake – the actor lacked the physical presence and sexual magnetism required of the role – while Moreau and Welles seemed more like a latter-day Laurel and Hardy than a romantic couple. Welles ran out of money shortly after beginning production and left “The Deep” out to sea. Harvey’s death in 1973 ended the hope of revisiting the project. The surviving footage is missing some of its soundtrack (Welles probably anticipated dubbing it in later) and has been seen at several Welles retrospectives.
8. Man’s Fate (1969). After winning the Academy Award for “A Man for All Seasons,” director Fred Zinnemann opted to follow-up with a big screen adaptation of Andre Malraux’ novel “Man’s Fate.” With a cast including David Niven, Peter Finch and Liv Ullmann (in her English language debut) and locations set up in Singapore and Malaysia, Zinnemann was in the midst of rehearsal in anticipation of filming when news came that MGM, the producing studio, was cancelling the film due to cost overruns and internal financial problems. Even though no one was going to be paid, Zinnemann and his cast and crew continued their rehearsals for an additional three days until they did a dry run of the entire screenplay. Whether any film for this production was actually shot is not certain; most likely the only film that was processed had to do with costume and make-up tests. In any event, nothing from “Man’s Fate” ever turned up on a screen.
9. The Day the Clown Cried (1972). Perhaps the most infamous unfinished film of all time is Jerry Lewis’ vision of a clown who is forced to entertain the children imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. This Swedish-based production has become something of a cult movie, even though it remains incomplete more than three decades after its completion. Contrary to popular rumor, there is no bootleg video of “The Day the Clown Cried” in circulation – the film was not finished, with most of it residing in a Swedish vault due to endless litigation regarding financial questions and rights ownership, while the final reel of the film is in the filmmaker’s possession in Las Vegas. Some people, most notably Harry Shearer, claimed to see the film, but how that was possible is unclear given its fragmented and unfinished state. However, at least two versions of the screenplay are easily obtainable via the Internet.
10. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2000). Making films about “Don Quixote” have always seemed cursed. Orson Welles never completed his version, and two musical versions (a 1934 edition with Russian opera icon Feodor Chaliapin and the 1972 “Man of La Mancha” starring Peter O’Toole) were major flops. Terry Gilliam, who was no stranger to problem-plagued productions, decided to tackle Cervantes’s epic with his own deliriously warped spin on tale. However, Gilliam faced a multitude of catastrophes ranging from uncooperative weather to an uncooperative star (French actor Jean Rochefort injured himself and was unable to do any horseback sequences). Gilliam was forced to cancel his movie, but his woes and the relatively little footage he shot were captured brilliantly in the entertaining documentary “Lost in La Mancha.” Gilliam still insists he will revisit this project, but to date this has not happened.