Levine (center), pictured with his wife Rosalie and Howard Koch of Paramount
From the middle of January to the end of February, Hollywood finds itself in the midst of Oscar season, a time when the recent achievements of various actors, directors, and many others involved in the film business are celebrated widely. It is also be a time when the history of Hollywood is remembered for all its many characters. One such character was Joseph E. Levine, one of the most prolific producers of the middle twentieth century.
Born into the slums of Boston’s West End, Levine became a true American success story. His showmanship, boundless energy, and a fondness for both risk-taking and profanity made him one of the most recognizable personalities in show business. But despite being—by his own dubious accounting—involved in nearly five hundred films over the course of his life, Levine is barely remembered today. Showman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and His Revolutions in Film Production, a new biography by award-winning film writer A. T. McKenna, reveals the streetwise hustler, hawker, name-dropper and capricious and contradictory promoter who excited audiences and forever changed modern movie marketing. While he worked on films as notable as The Graduate (1967) and as notorious as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), he also produced many films that are now mostly forgotten. Presented here are just five, but there are many more.
The Oscar: Hollywood has always loved a story about itself (as recent critical favorite La La Land demonstrates) but rare is the film in which the Academy Awards themselves constitute a plot point. The Oscar (1966) goes against that trend to present the story of Frankie Fane, a self-absorbed actor who attempts to secure a Best Actor win after an unexpected nomination. Although it was, in fact, nominated for two Oscars (Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design), it was also labeled as one of the worst films of the year and ensured that Tony Bennett (who saw his film debut in it) would never play a dramatic role again.
Mad Monster Party?: The Rankin/Bass Christmas specials (Rudolph, Santa Claus is Coming to Town) have been a staple of American culture since their debut in the 1960s, but did you know that they also (in conjunction with Levine) released a monster mash theatrical film? In the traditional stop-motion style of their best known features, Mad Monster Party? sees Baron Frankenstein (voiced by Boris Karloff, in his last work in the Frankenstein mythos) summon the monsters of the world (among them Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Creature From The Black Lagoon) to his castle to inform them of his discovery of the secret of total destruction. Shenanigans ensue, in typical Rankin/Bass fashion, and the film has since attained a cult status.
The Day of the Dolphin: In this 1973 film, George C. Scott plays a scientist who trains dolphins to speak English. After two of his dolphins are stolen, he learns of a plot to use them to assassinate the President of the United States by placing a mine on the hull of the President’s yacht, and must race against time to stop it. Although the film was met with critical ambivalence and weak box office returns, it was nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and Best Sound.
Magic: Many remember The Princess Bride, but few know that its writer William Goldman also wrote Magic, a 1978 film in which Anthony Hopkins played a failed magician who turns to ventriloquism but soon finds himself killing friends and enemies at the will of his dummy. Originally, Gene Wilder was chosen to play the lead, but Levine refused on the grounds that he was making a serious movie, and the appearance of a comedian in the lead role would detract from that. Although widely praised on its release, the film has since passed into relative obscurity.
Tattoo: The last film ever produced by Levine, Tattoo (1981) told the story of a disturbed tattoo artist (Bruce Dern) who becomes obsessed with a model and kidnaps her with the intent of making her into a canvas for his art. Although its promotional materials (which featured a woman’s legs covered in tattoos and bound by cloth) were met with uproar by some, the film failed to make any dent in the critical or commercial landscape.
More film stories as well as many anecdotes about Levine’s life (including details about his feuds with George C. Scott and Peter O’Toole, among others) can be found in Showman of The Screen by A.T. McKenna.