If you are like us, you love watching movies. Even more, you love watching movies that are rightly considered to be all time classics. Movies that would easily make any person’s top hundred list of films that you have to see before you die. When you watch this classic snapshot of celluloid in time, it never actually occurs to you that the film was anything other than a success. You would also like to think that if the film was a real classic, then it would also enrich the lives of those that went into its production. Ehh… not always so much. As you are going to see, some classic movies actually destroyed careers and worse entire lives by the sheer act of being made.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) – Frank Capra is so ingrained in our collective minds as a cinematic genius that it is hard to even remember that he was a man with a career on this mortal coil. As a matter of fact, you are very unlikely to even associate the words ‘Frank Capra’ with such independent film mavericks as ‘Quentin Tarantino.’ It is harder still to think of the masterpiece ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ as the moral equivalent of ‘Clerks’ or ‘Pulp Fiction’ in its day. To the great surprise of many, that is exactly what it was. Capra actually hated the studio system and his true passion was to build an independent studio. Capra was so much for the concept of independent cinema that he called his venture :Liberty Films. The first, last, and only film produced by Liberty Films was ‘It’s A Wonderful Life.’ A major studio in the 1940’s (and very few today for that matter) was not about to have a Christmas film (or any other film for that matter) start out with an attempted suicide. ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ was a costly misfire for Capra and his career. Because if you are going to snub the studio system, you had better have the benefit of being right as well. ‘It’s Wonderful Life’ lost millions at the box office. Liberty Films quietly folded. The damage to Capra’s prestige and brand was immense. Capra would only go on to direct a limited number of feature films after that. Most of his work would actually be relegated to paying his bills through directorial work on television. Television, of course, is the same medium that his disastrous attempt at independent film would find a home as a Christmas staple for perpetuity.
PETER PAN (1953) – You can search the entire history of twentieth century film and you will not likely find two words more tragic than ‘Bobby Driscoll.’ Driscoll was one of the original ‘Disney kids’ and went down that path long before it was a simply accepted way to destroy a child’s life. When the chance to be the voice of Peter Pan came around, Driscoll was already a child star veteran. Having starred already in hits such as The Song of the South and Treasure Island, young Driscoll was easily one of Disney’s brightest, youngest, and most bankable stars. The success of Peter Pan even led to a pay raise for Driscoll’s salary at the Disney studio. This would be a contract for which he was paid for a few years but never actually used. Driscoll’s adolescence was not as kind to him as his younger days. He developed a horrible case of acne which led Walt Disney to believe that he was only best suited to play bullies or unlikable characters (if that). Not many other roles followed and eventually Driscoll was released from his contract. The following years found Driscoll increasingly unable to find work and also impoverished. The boy who played Peter Pan then lapsed into drug addiction. In 1968, the body of a young man was found in a park in New York. He was buried in a pauper’s grave and it would take over a year to eventually identify him as Bobby Driscoll. The story of Driscoll’s death did not even make large circulation until it was mentioned as part of the press for the re-release of Song of the South in 1972 – four years after Driscoll’s death.
CARMEN JONES (1954) – Carmen Jones was a film so progressive that it is hard to believe it was even made in the 1950s. Jones was the story of a love affair between two African-Americans played by Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge. Impossibly, Dandridge would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture. This had never been accomplished by a black actress up to that date (and truthfully has been done by very few afterwards as well). So this was the launch of great things for Dandridge, right? Not so much. When we say that it was a singular achievement on many levels, we are not kidding. Not only was Dandridge not launched into stardom by an Academy Award win, she did not even have another picture for another three years. She would only go on to make one more film that would even get acclaim (Porgy and Bess with Sidney Poitier in 1959) and that was her next to last picture. Dandridge’s life spiraled down ward into bad financial investments, alcohol dependency, and eventually died of an overdose of barbiturate poisoning in 1965. Just a decade or two later and Dandridge’s star would be shining brightly over a whole series of films.
THE CROW (1994) – We know. You are thinking that this one is just too easy. Every one knows that Brandon Lee died during the making of The Crow. You cannot get a career as promising as Brandon Lee’s any more ruined than dead, right? This is not about Brandon Lee. This is actually about Michael Massee. Do you know who Michael Massee is? Exactly the point. Michael Massee was in only his second film role when he was cast as Funboy in The Crow. Is it starting to come back to you? The long haired guy who had way too much heroin put in him by Eric Draven… after he kept shooting him? Yeah, about that.. In a scene that never made it onto the screen and one in which Massee was not even originally supposed to pull the trigger – he was the one who shot the fatal blow killing Brandon Lee. Massee was so distraught over the event that he went to New York and did not work again acting for years. By the time Massee started up again, it was as if he was starting his career all over (with the only notoriety being that he was the one who shot Brandon Lee.) Fully recovering as well as starting to get regular television work would take another decade for Massee to achieve. In case you are wondering, the context of The Crow in which Lee actually did die was the scene in which Eric Draven is originally killed. It was a scene without Crow make-up so it was put off to the end as kind of a ‘gift’ for Lee not having to wear the make-up in the final days of production. The original shooter was not available and firing the gun fell on Massee.
So it all falls predictably under ‘Be careful what you wish for…’ We would imagine that most everyone would like to say that they were in a classic film. It is a dream that some where secretly (or even openly) many people have. Unfortunately, that immortality may come at a cost and very few will more than trivially look at the aftermath.