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Evening Primrose

Like strange movies? Ever wondered what a musical episode of "The Twilight Zone" might've looked like? Check this out: "Evening Primrose" is a shot for '60s TV musical-fantasy-horror-melodrama with music by Stephen Sondheim, starring Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates from "Psycho") and Charmian Carr (Liesl from "The Sound of Music," in her only other starring role), based on a short story by John Collier about a small group of people who live in a department store, masquerading as a mannequins by day and coming to life at night.

Poet Charles Snell (Perkins) decides to shun the world and take up residence in a department store, where he'll have all the luxuries one could possibly desire -- once the customers have left for the day. But soon after arriving at Stern Brothers, he discovers others had concocted this same plan decades earlier. Living in the store is a small community of elderly residents and 19 year old Ella Harkins (Carr), who was essentially kidnapped as a child and kept as a slave. Love blooms between Charles and Ella, but they have to hide their romance for fear the others will send for the mysterious "Dark Men."

The movie's been hailed as a masterpiece by Sondheim aficionados, but that's really an overstatement.  It was conceived, written and shot quickly, the budget was miniscule, and virtually every aspect of the production is visibly rough around the edges.  But the exact same things that prevent it from being a true masterpiece are what make it so damned endearing, much like "Night Tide," "The Cube," "Carnival of Souls," and numerous other difficult-to-categorize no-budget, off-kilter cult curios from that era.  Plus the movie boasts some wonderfully nuanced performances, unusual photography, quotable (albeit frequently corny) dialogue, enchanting songs and an unforgettable ending.  So while it's not a masterpiece, the talented people on both sides of the camera managed to create an hour-long flick which is more special than it probably has any right to be.  So special, in fact, that the once-lost movie beat the overwhelming odds which were stacked against it and found a new lease on life on DVD.

The movie is based upon the short story of the same name by John Collier, which was first published in 1940.  In 1947 it was adapted as an episode of the radio show "Escape," and the broadcast was so popular that it was rerun in 1948 and 1949.  In 1956, producer David Susskind optioned the story for a live small-screen treatment that never materialized, which was to be written by David Swift ("The Parent Trap," "Pollyanna").   Although it was never directly adapted for "The Twilight Zone," Collier's story is alleged to be the inspiration for the 1960 episode "The After Hours" starring Anne Francis (an episode which debuted three weeks after "The Chaser," which was adapted from a Collier short).

The script for this 1966 version was penned by James Goldman, who was collaborating with Stephen Sondheim on the play that would eventually become "Follies."  Collier's story was one of Goldman's personal favorites, and he retained most elements from the original short, though he changed the name of the store's eldest resident Mrs. Vanderpant to Mrs. Monday, fleshed out the characters/dialogue and made one major deviation: in Collier's original story, Charles quickly fell for Ella, who was secretly pining for the store's night watchman.  Goldman cleverly managed to keep the story's implied ending intact, but in his incarnation Ella reciprocated Charles' affections.

The entire project was rushed, which was precisely the point.  Goldman needed quick cash because he had a new baby on the way, and buddy Sondheim was friends with a producer of a new TV anthology series called "ABC Stage '67."  Sondheim quickly recruited Anthony Perkins to portray Charles, and Broadway legend Dorothy Stickney for the mysterious Mrs. Monday, but casting the role of Ella proved to be trickier because of the vocal requirements.  Veteran TV director Paul Bogart ("All in the Family") was hired to helm the production, and he brought aboard  Larry Gates ("Invasion of the Bodysnatchers"), with whom he had worked extensively in live TV, to portray the store's chief male resident, Roscoe Potts. Charmian Carr had then-recently made a splash as the eldest daughter in "The Sound of Music," but like many actors in that era, she was locked into a contract with the studio, which didn't offer her any other roles.  Series producer John Houseman wanted Carr for the part, and he personally accompanied her to the audition, where she also impressed Sondheim by crooning the song "Bill" from "Showboat."  Carr told Julie Andrews of her predicament, and Andrews got her own manager to pull strings to get Carr out of the contract so the young ingenue could star in "Evening Primrose." 

There are lots of interesting stories about the shoot, but since it was done so quickly and so long ago, documentation is long-lost, people's memories are hazy and details are sometimes conflicting.  Cast and crew expected to have six weeks to prep and shoot the film, but it was knocked down to four when a fellow TV production was canceled.  Charmian Carr developed a not-so-secret crush on Anthony Perkins immediately, but the (closeted) actor was seemingly oblivious to her blatant flirtation... which doubtlessly made it all the more distressing when Carr opened the newspaper and discovered the network had fabricated stories of the pair's romance for the press. Perkins, meanwhile, found himself flustered with James Goldman, who was unwilling to make even the slightest of changes to the script (this might explain why Tony bowed out of the original production of "Follies" after being announced as the star). 

Portions of the movie were to be shot at the Manhattan Macy's department store, but Perkins and Bogart caused a spectacle when they showed up amongst shoppers to get some establishing footage, and someone made the hideous blunder of issuing a press release stating when the full crew would be there shooting.  Fearing the film's dark subject matter might tarnish the store's image, Macy's soon put the kibosh on filming.  Production was then hurriedly relocated to the Stern Brothers department store (which closed its doors in 1969), where the crew was given the run of the store during a single Sunday when the shop was closed.  (The bulk of the movie was shot on a studio sound-stage).  With numerous setups, the schedule was fast and furious and there was virtually no time for additional coverage and takes, which led to several mistakes and out-of-character moments.

Bogart had an aversion to camera-mugging, so he wasn't sure how to stage the opening number, "If You Can Find Me, I'm Here," in which Charles is directly addressing the audience. Sondheim, who was perched behind the cameraman, suggested that Tony focus his line of vision just to the side of the camera rather than directly into the lens.  Perkins obliged but later complained that this made him appear cross-eyed and crazy -- and he placed the blame solely upon Bogart.

As the production progressed, the crew kept pestering Sondheim for Ella's song, and he kept stalling.  Finally he went home one evening, revised a monologue that Goldman had scripted, set it to music and returned with the song "I Remember Sky" (later to be known simply as "I Remember").  It was so last-minute that Carr only had about a day to learn the song before laying down the vocal track, and she later admitted that some of the high notes were a little beyond her range.  Although that initial recording would be issued on CD decades later, it was only recorded as a backup -- she sang the song live on-set during filming.  In a more conventional movie, during this sequence there would have been several cut-aways to Charles' reaction as Ella sang, but Bogart decided that the moment belonged to Carr, so he had the cameraman stay locked on her for the entire song and very gradually zoom in on her face, then pull out wide as the song ended.  Over the years Bogart has been very critical of many of the choices he made in the movie, but he remained very proud of the way that he opted to shoot that sequence.

Now, presumably Goldman's script was set in the early '40s, when Collier's story was written.  It's established that the store's matriarch, Mrs. Monday, took up residence in 1897 (at which point actress Dorothy Stickney was only a year old), Charles tells Ella that the residents are odd "but after forty years in this place, I expect I'll be a little odd myself," there doesn't seem to be a television department, and costumes on the principal actors were either plain and timeless (like Charles' suits) or ornate and regal, harkening back to an earlier era (like everything Mrs. Monday wore). So if it's set in the '40s, there are countless anachronisms that the crew made no attempt to disguise, including cars, appliances, clothing and the prominently featured book "Alfred Hitchcock's Monster Museum," which was first published in 1965 and was clearly only added to the composition as a little nod to Perkins' role in "Psycho." 

Like most movies, the scenes were shot out of order, but the ending was actually the last thing shot... which presented problems.  Another crew arrived on the soundstage to shoot their movie as Bogart and his cast were struggling to perfect their final scenes.  Unfortunately, this scene included some inherent technical anomalies, but Bogart was so thoroughly determined to get the shots right that he ignored demands of the producers to vacate the studio and kept cameras rolling as long as he possibly could.  In the finished product, the problems weren't entirely masked, but like the rest of the film's imperfections, it sort of adds to the movie's surreal, unworldly charm.  Wow, that was really difficult not to spoil!

The network contracted the movie for three airings but it was broadcast a grand total of once in November 1966 on the low-rated "ABC Stage '67." Since it aired on an anthology series rather than as a stand-alone special, there doesn't appear to have been a great deal of promotion, and  critical reviews seem virtually nonexistent.  "Evening Primrose" was doomed to be forgotten like the rest of the films that were made for that series -- but it's just SUCH a little oddity that it refused to die.  Sondheim was always proud of the movie and acquired a low-grade black-and-white copy for his personal collection sometime in the '70s.  He later admitted to making copies for friends, and those tapes went on to be re-copied endlessly for decades, resulting in barely-watchable 188th+-generation bootlegs galore.  Furthering interest as time passed, Sondheim allowed the songs to be recorded by everyone from Barbara Streisand (who had him revise the lyrics to make it a holiday song) to Mandy Patankin to Neil Patrick Harris. The cult followings for Sondheim, Perkins and Carr have continue to grow with each passing year and, since these extraordinarily diverse cults all intersect here, it's little surprise that for many years "Evening Primrose" was one of the top requested programs for viewing at The Paley Center for Media (aka The Museum of TV & radio).

The Paley Center's research manager (and fan of the film) Jane Klain made it her personal mission to see the movie get a legitimate release in the highest quality possible. The movie consisted of a combination of film (the footage shot at Stern Brothers) and video (shot in the studio).  It wasn't common to save the raw film footage after video editing was completed in those days and, though most of the videos of "Stage 67" still reside in the vaults, the "Evening Primrose" tape went missing decades ago.  The Paley Center only had a worn black and white kinescope copy, and it was initially planned to source the DVD from this print.  Thankfully, however, Klain went digging around and ultimately unearthed an alternate kinescope print, which seemed to have been undisturbed since 1966 and was vastly superior in quality to the other known existing copies. This discovery was very last minute, and in order to get the print transferred and remastered, the DVD was pushed back from the originally-announced April 2010 release date to the following November. 

Although the kinescope used for the DVD transfer has been described elsewhere as "flawless" and "pristine", this is a bit misleading in our hi-def world. Kinescope is an old method of recording a program to 16mm film straight from a video monitor during broadcast. Unfortunately, when you transfer from video to film (or vice-versa), there's always unwanted distortion. In the case of the "Evening Primrose" this distortion is amplified in places because of the multiple transfers (film to video to a TV screen and back to film).  The picture sometimes appears a little fuzzy when actors aren't in close-up (as if someone needs to twiddle the fine-tuning knob which TVs no longer come equipped with), there's some stationary (though mostly-unnoticeable) flecks of dirt on the screen throughout, a handful of brief video rolls and blips as well as a few scratches here and there.

On one hand, it's a travesty that this b&w dupe is the best existing copy.  On the other hand, the picture is fairly sharp (overlooking the various vintage video transfer issues), the sound is crisp and it unquestionably beats the hell out of the long-circulating bootlegs... which seemed beaten to hell before they were transferred the first time (seriously, my first copy verged on unwatchable!).  Since black and white adds depth to visual composition, the shadowy horror moments are doubtlessly given an extra punch, and the cuts between film and video are not overtly noticeable, as I'm certain they were in color.  The pros and cons are actually somewhat balanced here.

The DVD also boasts some great extras including a 25 page booklet packed with information about the production and remembrances/opinions by Sondheim,  a 34 minute on-camera interview with director Paul Bogart,  21 minutes of silent color footage shot at Macy's (which Bogart shot himself and retained in his collection), and a 30-some minute telephone interview with Carr conducted by Klain. Carr and Klain in particular each had a lot of really interesting things to say about the film, and Carr also discussed her post-acting life and how she discovered Michael Jackson's adoration of "Evening Primrose" when she helped him decorate his first home (it's a suitably bizarre Jackson story). Unfortunately Carr's interview plays out on what's basically a menu screen with a static photo of her plastered on the side. You can't pause it, can't rewind, can't fast-forward and if you stop it, you've gotta start all over again from the beginning.  Annoying.

Guess what? There's also a soundtrack! Released as a special limited edition in 2008 by Kritzerland Records, the label seemed to have overestimated interest in this obscurity, as there are still copies available. The album contains all of the songs from the film as well as the bulk of the score (minus a few brief transitional pieces). There are two or three brief dropouts where it sounds like a player once chewed on the tape during "When;" "Take Me to the World" is lifted straight from the film (sans Charles' opening line), and there's some extraordinarily subtle differences in the CD recording of "I Remember" (which Carr sang live on-set in the movie), but on the whole the quality of this disc is pretty exceptional.  And the fact that the tapes lasted long enough to get a legit release is nothing short of miraculous!

The Internet Movie Database
Kritzerland Records

It should be noted that if you read a blurb on IMDb which looks similar to information found here, I contributed heavily to the page for the film.
(People tend not to take you seriously when you repost information found on IMDb and Wikipedia almost verbatim... so wanted to be clear that I actually didn't!!!)