Okay, let’s get into this … what is “a Chick Flick?”. And what constitutes “one of those Guy Movies?”. SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS - chick flick, absolutely … check! THE EXPENDABLES - guy movie, without a doubt … got it! What about say, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY? Ehhhh? Most would agree it’s probably a chick flick which guys tend to enjoy as well, kind of how a surprising number of women can find themselves caught up in the adventure of DIE HARD. Hey, it happens.
But has there ever really been a film which both genders could embrace equally? A movie women could watch with a group of friends and enjoy every bit as much as the latest SEX AND THE CITY escapade? And something which your average workaday guy, well, maybe wouldn’t necessarily seek out after a title bout on HBO, but would really dig, remember, and could watch with his significant other on a Saturday night and not be ashamed to admit he actually liked it to his “boyz” Monday morning? We think there is.
But it came and went so quickly upon it’s initial run back in 1973, high-tailing it through the drive-in movie circuit, it created nary a blip on cinema radar screens even though it was arguably one of the best films in which many of it’s participants were ever involved. With the exception of a pan-and-scan VHS release back in1991, and the occasional airing on Turner Classic Movies, it’s never really had much of a home video run either, only recently showing up as a limited edition dvd in 2009. But in a way that’s part of the allure and charm of 1973’s THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING - discovering a buried gem about which most know nothing.
CINDERELLA LIBERTY (1973)
The 1970s was a time of new beginnings in American cinema. The influence of the European New Wave (films like Truffaut’s JULES AND JIM - 1962) coupled with the crash of the studio system and the demise of big budget extravaganzas the likes of CLEOPATRA (1963) and HELLO DOLLY! (1969), gave birth to a new era of smaller more personalized works, films with a more harsh realistic life edge to them.
Even genre material was affected. The gangster mileu was taken over by harrowing “street-wise” nightmares like Martin Scorcese’s MEAN STREETS (1973). Science fiction films like SILENT RUNNING (1972) became critical of environmental neglect. And gone was the “harp and roses” sentiment of the old school love story to be supplanted by a newer breed of film populated by flawed, cynical characters, finding to their surprise and against all expectations, a modicum of solace within the arms of another social outcast or misfit; movies like THE WAY WE WERE (1973) and especially CINDERELLA LIBERTY (perhaps the quintessential "lost souls love story") filling the bill.
Even cinema’s old hoary standby, the beloved “horse opera” western, received a gritty makeover as revisionists painted a darker, not always flattering portrait of American history in films like Robert Altman’s McCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971) and Ralph Nelson’s blood drenched San Creek Massacre-inspired SOLDIER BLUE (1970). THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING would be a deft blend of both the gritty “misfit” love story and revisionist western, and it would be every bit as impressive as MCCABE, THE WAY WE WERE and CINDERELLA LIBERTY, though not nearly as well known.
Based on the first novel by Indiana housewife and mother Marylin Durham (who told her husband she could write a book better than the ones she had been reading, then one day set about doing so), CAT DANCING opens in the Wyoming Territory of the 1880s as well-to-do Eastern bred Catherine Crocker (in the film portrayed by Sarah Miles) escapes the abusive hands of her wealthy mining magnate husband and plans to board a train taking her to a new life.
Unfortunately it’s a train robbed by former Civil War Army Captain John Wesley “Jay” Grobart (Burt Reynolds) and his gang. Recently released from prison where he served time for the murder of the men who raped and killed his Shoshone Native American wife Cat Dancing, Jay intends to use the money from the robbery to “buy” his two children from Iron Eagle, Cat Dancing’s brother who raised them after the death of their mother and incarceration of their father.
Forced to take Catherine Crocker (also nicknamed “Cat”) along when she becomes a witness to their crime, Jay (understandably with no stomach for the sexual assault of women) ends up becoming her protector from the unwanted advances of members of his gang (among them character actors Jack Warden and Bo Hopkins).
As the story progresses, he and Catherine discover a kinship of souls, both regretful of the foolishness and tragedy of the life choices of their younger years. Catherine married for money. And it’s revealed Jay not only killed his wife’s attackers but Cat Dancing as well in a fit of blind rage before she could explain she was being assaulted. This he did before the eyes of his children who have been traumatized ever since.
Jay and Catherine fall in love, and after other members of Jay’s gang separate or are killed, the couple make their way into Shosone country, doggedly pursued by the posse of Wells Fargo man Harvey Lapchance (Lee J. Cobb), now joined by Catherine’s revenge minded husband Willard (George Hamilton).
Born in Evansville, Indiana in 1930, Marilyn Wall attended Evansville College (i.e. University of Evansville) for one year until marrying Social Security field worker Kilburn Durham in 1950, then settling into life as a self described “frumpy housewife”. When she began, at age 42, the four month adventure of writing her first novel, Durham had not only never written a book, but she had no degree, never held a decent job, never flew in a plane and had never taken a vacation. She did however live and breathe at her local library.
An avid self-taught student of literature (she says her character, Cat Dancing, was her version of REBECCA - there to give her hero a past) and history, she took her setting from a WPA guide to Wyoming, frontier details from BANNERMAN’S MAIL-ORDER CATALOGUE OF CIVIL WAR SURPLUS as well as from western set children’s novels, and her story’s narrative skeletal structure from various “How To” guides for new writers lining the library shelves.
She wrote in secrecy mainly in the morning after her daughters had gone to school and her husband to work. She didn’t tell them because she feared “If it wasn’t any good I wanted to be the only one who knew. I didn’t want egg on my face”. When her husband Kilburn did eventually discover her clandestine endeavors she swore him to secrecy. Upon completion, and not knowing any other way to proceed, she again used her library’s resources - this time going through the Literary Marketplace as well as various agent directories, getting a “first bite” from New York based Ann Elmo (her name originally chosen from the list because one of Durham’s favorite stories was Augusta Evans’ ST. ELMO).
THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING was published in 1972 by Harcourt Brace (the hardcover going for $6.95 at the time!), and was immediately chosen as a featured selection by the Book of the Month Club, quickly helping it become a national best seller. It received unanimous critical acclaim, with TIME magazine calling it an enjoyable “Women’s Lib Western". And even before it’s publication screenwriter Eleanor Perry (DAVID AND LISA, THE SWIMMER, DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE) saw the novel in galley form and brought it to the attention of producer Martin Poll (SYLVIA, THE LION IN WINTER, NIGHTHAWKS), who quickly purchased the rights.
Perry drafted a script, was assigned a producer credit alongside Poll, and after a young wunderkind named Steven Spielberg passed, Brian G. Hutton (THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS, WHERE EAGLES DARE, KELLY’S HEROES) was assigned as director.
From the very start the film version became the working definition of the “troubled Hollywood production”. Actors Studio alum Burt Reynolds had just starred to critical accolades in John Boorman’s 1972 thriller DELIVERANCE. This was years before his run as a comedic leading man in films like SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and THE END, and he was eager to branch into the unexplored territory of simultaneous romantic lead / man of action. He signed on early. But British actress Sarah Miles (BLOW UP, RYAN’S DAUGHTER) wasn’t confirmed for the role of Catherine Crocker till shortly before filming commenced.
Bo Hopkins and Sarah Miles clown on the Arizona set
Director Richard C. Sarafian
Early on director Hutton bowed out and was replaced by Richard C. Sarafian (known at the time mostly for TV series like BEN CASEY, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, I SPY, and the cult feature film hit VANISHING POINT - 1971).
Producers Perry and Poll argued incessantly, and the list of re-writers on the film became a rotation of names including Sarah Miles husband Robert Bolt (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, DR. ZHIVAGO, RYAN’S DAUGHTER), as well as original director Hutton, Bill Norton Sr. (NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER), Steve Shagan (THE FORMULA), Tracey Kennan Wynn (THE LONGEST YARD, THE DEEP) and even Miles herself.
None of this held a candle however to the headline-grabbing date of February 12, 1973 when Sarah Miles business manager, David Whiting, was discovered dead in his room at the Gila Bend motel where the cast and crew were staying. According to official police reports Whiting had physically assaulted Miles the previous night when she returned to her room late after a birthday party for Burt Reynolds.
To keep her safe Reynolds insisted she stay in his room the rest of the night; ... then the next morning Whiting was found dead of an apparent overdose of Quaaludes, Benadryl and anti-anxiety Librium. Contrary to tabloid rumors, Reynolds and Miles weren’t having an affair, but that didn't stop newspapers from creating a media firestorm of headlines throughout the remainder of the already difficult shoot. The troubles were far from over.
The first of the film’s final pair of production dramas happened late in the shoot as a result of one of it’s best “guy movie moments” - a brutally realistic fisticuff between Reynolds and Jack Warden in an abandoned mining camp, arguably one of the best hand to hand fights in action movie history.
Designed by veteran stunt coordinator Hal Needham (at the time famous for TV series like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, THE RAT PATROL and STAR TREK, then later for CHINATOWN and FRENCH CONNECTION II), Needham and Reynolds would become best friends and frequent future collaborators - Needham not only crafting stunts for the star’s WHITE LIGHTNING (1973) and THE LONGEST YARD (1974), but also directing the future Reynold’s hits SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977), HOOPER (1978) and THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981).
With Reynolds and Warden insisting on performing the entire action sequence themselves (that the camera might follow them closely and relatively uncut through smashed windows and hurled open doors) the danger level was raised considerably. Enough so that Reynolds suffered an abdominal hernia injury which shut production down for a week as he was rushed to Los Angeles for treatment. Regardless, MGM still insisted the movie make it’s June 1973 release date.
Composer John Williams
The final obstacle occurred during the film’s post production scoring phase. Back when Brian G. Hutton was attached as director, popular French composer Michel Legrand (the jazz / classical master behind THE UBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, BRIAN’S SONG, the original THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR and the future YENTIL) was hired to write the film’s musical score.
In May of ’73 he began recording an atmospherically complex “sound design” score based on Native American chants and natural environmental sounds interpreted musically. And while a fascinating exercise in avant-garde atonality, director Sarafian and studio execs James Aubrey & Daniel Melnick wanted something more melodic to which the audience could anchor themselves emotionally. They informed Legrand he was being let go, then they interviewed several other composers (including the legendary Miklos Rosza - KING OF KINGS, BEN HUR) before settling on John Williams.
At the time Williams was not the master behind the epic STAR WARS, SUPERMAN, INDIANA JONES or JAWS scores. He’d yet to even enter his famed “disaster movie” phase with THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE TOWERING INFERNO and EARTHQUAKE. He had however earned an Oscar for his orchestral adaptation of 1971’s FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, and was known and respected in musical circles for his TV work on LOST IN SPACE, LAND OF THE GIANTS and THE TIME TUNNEL as well as the feature westerns THE REIVERS (1969) and his vibrant Copland-esque take on John Wayne’s THE COWBOYS earlier in 1972.
Sinatra - "'ol Blue Eyes Is Back" ('73)
With less than a week to spot CAT DANCING then come up with approx. 40 minutes of musical underpinning, Williams created a widescreen (while at the same time intimate) score for medium orchestra (40-odd players at it’s largest) augmented with folk-style soloists including acoustic guitar, harmonica and western saloon-style pianola.
Three major themes (as well as a few colorful “stand-alone” musical motives) would carry the primary emotional weight of the musical story telling, and the main love theme (later given the title “Dream Away”) would receive lyrics apart from the film by singer/songwriter Paul Williams (no relation). This verbal rendition of “Dream Away” would be recorded by Frank Sinatra as part of his ’OL BLUE EYES IS BACK album in June of ’73, around the same time as the film’s release.
CAT DANCING - "Title" (J. Williams)
"I'm Running Away Too"/
"Mud In Your Eye" (J. Williams)
"Moving" (J. Williams)
THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING met it’s June 1st 1973 release date. But in a summer dominated by films such as LIVE AND LET DIE, Bruce Lee’s ENTER THE DRAGON, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES and THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (all opening within a month of CAT DANCING) it was a challenge for the western-actioner / love story to find and claim an audience. While it received fair reviews (though some die hard fans of the novel felt it “Hollywood-ized” things a bit too much for their liking) and did okay box office, the fact is Reynolds’ first Gator McCluskey “moonshiner” action vehicle WHITE LIGHTNING made considerably more noise at the ticket counters two months later.
CAT DANCING quickly settled into the drive-in movie circuit, then after an initial HBO run in the mid 1970s all but disappeared till it’s VHS and TCM resurrection in the 1990s. Even afterwards it would continue to gain a loyal cult following over the years among fans of 70s cinema and revisionist westerns (it and LITTLE BIG MAN - 1970 preceding Clint Eastwood’s THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES - 1976 as two of the first Hollywood westerns to present a fair depiction of Native Americans on screen). In 2002 the FSM (Film Score Monthly) label would in conjunction with TCM licensing release a 3,000 unit limited edition soundtrack CD containing both John Williams’ final CAT DANCING score as well as Michel Legrand’s unused tracks. And in 2010 WARNERS ARCHIVE COLLECTION would release a gorgeously remastered widescreen limited edition dvd available mail order only.
One year after THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING, Marilyn Durham would publish a second character-based western, albeit one a bit more serio-comic in nature. In 1973 DUTCH UNCLE followed the adventure of former gunslinger / now professional poker player Jake Hollander as he, against all plans to the contrary, stumbles into becoming Marshal of a lawless New Mexico border town, and at the same time finds himself surrogate father / protector to a pair of abandoned orphans. Like THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING it would receive critical praise and have it’s movie rights optioned. But DUTCH UNCLE would to date never make the leap to the big screen.
Interestingly while having established her literary name with a pair of westerns, Durham’s greatest passion, Medieval English history, would not find expression on the page until 1982 with the publication of FLAMBARD’S CONFESSION. An epic of historical fiction, the central character Flambard is a priest and former member of the courts of both William the Conqueror and William Rufus - the first two Norman Kings of England, who in a death bed reminiscence relates his multi-level machinations within the families of the two 12th Century monarchs.
It’s perhaps fitting Durham hasn’t written a novel since her magnum opus FLAMBARD’S CONFESSION. In 1994 her greatest fan and supporter, husband Kilburn, passed away, and her daughters have also since grown and flown from the nest. And while DUTCH UNCLE and FLAMBARD’S CONFESSION were best sellers, neither would match the popularity of her first venture into heart-felt fiction, THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING.
The at present only film-realized adaptation of Marilyn Durham's works, continues today to surprise and impress new generations with it’s gut wrenching love story and full blooded depiction of classic western anti-hero mythos.
THE MAN WHO LOVE CAT DANCING
CEJ - Sept. 2011