James Coburn & Blake Edwards Ride Again


James Coburn. A man so synonymous with laid-back charm he was paid half a million just to say the words “Schlitz. Light.” Blake Edwards, a filmmaker at ease in drama, action, and comedy, and always with a great score to back him up. Including early appearances on TV shows created by Edwards, the two men collaborated five times. And our double feature on June 22nd & 23rd pairs two striking extremes in how these artists were treated within the studio system.

Based on a 1968 novel pseudonymously written by Michael Crichton, 1972’s THE CAREY TREATMENT stars Coburn as Dr. Peter Carey, a pathologist transferring from loose-minded Northern California to comparably staid Boston, and shaking up a lot of entrenched attitudes upon his arrival. When the hospital administrator’s underage daughter dies from heavy bleeding, and police accuse Carey’s doctor friend (James Hong) of culpabity due to his illegal abortion activity, Carey keeps on shaking people further, finding there’s all manner of hypocrisy amongst so-called Hippocratic practioners.

The stars adding intrigue to this medical mystery include Jennifer O’Neill as the hospital dietician quickly drawn to Carey, Pat Hingle representing the police, John Hillerman and Robert Mandan as droll hospital staffers, and hunky Michael Blodgett from BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and recent New Beverly discovery THE ULTIMATE THRILL as the cad who may have the clues Carey needs. Instead of normal Edwards collaborator Henry Mancini, the score here is provided by GET CARTER composer Roy Budd, whose work was heard last month during the Bev’s shows of FEAR IS THE KEY.

CAREY was the second of two films Edwards made for MGM during the tenure of intensely disliked studio head James Aubrey, openly known as “The Smiling Cobra”. Both films suffered production interference and outside editing so onerous that Edwards sued the studio for breach of contract, and almost removed his name from CAREY. The film’s three screenwriters also chose to remove their names from the credits as well as a result of Aubrey’s tampering. Despite the behind-the-scenes drama, CAREY received high marks from Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris, who placed it on his Top Ten list for 1972.

Going back to 1967 filmwise and the Wild West timewise, WATERHOLE #3 presents Coburn as amoral gambler Lewton Cole, who lucks into a map leading to gold bullion stolen from the Army by Sgt. Foggers (Claude Akins) and hapless shoemaker Hilb (Timothy Carey). Keeping the map means killing Foggers’ other accomplice, which lands him a short jail stay from Sheriff John (Carroll O’Connor) and his deputy (Bruce Dern), but they’re quickly outsmarted and locked up themselves, as Cole proceeds to help himself to the Sheriff’s horse and daughter Billie (Margaret Blye). Soon, all parties will be wielding their weapons to recover the gold, and the victor will be determined by who’s got the least scruples in the desert.

WATERHOLE #3 was the first and only filmed screenplay by writer Joseph T. Steck, who also produced the film. Initially planned for Blake Edwards to direct, duties instead went to William A. Graham, a veteran of multiple TV series, who went on to make CHANGE OF HABIT with Elvis Presley, influential youth drama TOGETHER BROTHERS, and acclaimed TV movies 21 HOURS AT MUNICH, THE AMAZING HOWARD HUGHES, and GUYANA TRAGEDY: THE STORY OF JIM JONES. This features one of the earliest film scores by Dave Grusin, with the deceptively upbeat but darkly-worded recurring theme song performed by Roger Miller.

In contrast to the hostile environment surrounding CAREY, Paramount and Edwards allowed much freedom to the neophyte Steck. Film critic Stephen Farber remarked in a 1968 issue of Film Quarterly, “Joseph Steck, who was able to produce WATERHOLE #3, his first script, was certainly the auteur of that film. Since he had no technical training, he hired William Graham as director. But Steck was responsible for the decisions at every stage of the film – casting, shooting, cutting – in a creative capacity, not as stifler of the director. It seems necessary to acknowledge that while a writer may often simply be a helper to the director, there are instances where the director is, or should be, simply a helper to the writer – a technician managing visual problems. The writer will not have this sort of control, in reality, unless he is producing the film; but writers are beginning to be permitted on the set.”

Farber went on to praise WATERHOLE #3 as one of his favorite screenplays of the time, writing, “[It] makes fun of recognizable human weaknesses – mainly greed and selfishness, but also the condescension toward women in a male-oriented society…[it] reveals a good deal about the American relish for violence and the rather healthy, anarchic desire to strip the pretty little rosepetals from life’s crudest, most animal urges.” Coincidentally, another screenplay lauded in Farber’s article, Ted J. Flicker’s THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, became Coburn’s followup to WATERHOLE.

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