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A Star Is Born -- And Dies!

Here begins a sad, sorry saga of how my California graduate career at UCLA became sidetracked into Hollywood. It had all the elements of a classic film script: struggling graduate student lured into tinsel-town; struggling graduate student offered film contract; struggling graduate student mashed and then dropped like the proverbial hot potato.

It all began simply by drawing a lot from a hat. I had enrolled in my first Dickens seminar at UCLA. The professor discovered that there were exactly fifteen students in the class; coincidentally, Dickens ultimately wrote fifteen novels. Wanting us each to research a different work by Dickens, she put all the titles into a hat and had us draw at random for our research project. I drew The Old Curiosity Shop, an early Dickens work and one that I had never read.

You can imagine my amazement three weeks later when my professor called me at home to ask a “favor.” She had just received a phone call from George Cukor, the famous Hollywood director of such films as Greta Garbo's Camille, The Philadelphia Story, and My Fair Lady. He told her that he had always wanted to make a film version of his favorite Dickens novel, and he wanted her, as a recognized Dickens scholar, to serve as technical director for the movie. The film he had in mind: The Old Curiosity Shop.

She told him that her academic schedule was already too full to consider it, but she did have a graduate student currently writing a long paper on that very novel. Would he consider using him as a substitute? Cukor asked her to send the young man over to his mansion for an interview next week. And so my professor was calling to ask if I might be interested in the project.

I-N-T-E-R-E-S-T-E-D!!! I counted the minutes and seconds until it was time for my arrival at his home, high up in the Hollywood hills. I seriously considered renting a car so that his French country driveway would not be profaned by my old dented Opel Kadett wagon. Fortunately, when I arrived at his home there were two Bentleys of such enormous girth parked in the driveway that they obliterated the offensive sight of my tiny car when I carefully parked between them.

The interview was a dream. It came out early (somehow) that both our fathers had come to America from Hungary at an early age, and after that I was almost family. The highlight, though, had nothing to do with the interview but with its interruption. The phone rang as we chatted. Cukor picked it up and exclaimed: “Oh, Kate! I’m busy talking to a fellow Hungarian who is going to be my invaluable aide on the Dickens film. I’ll call you back in an hour.” It was Katharine Hepburn, and Cukor was hanging up on her to get back to me! This was heady, heady stuff for a twenty-two year old graduate student from Indiana (via Budapest, of course).

I not only was to be hired as a technical director for the film, but I was to do my doctoral thesis on turning a classic novel into a movie. Filming was to begin in England in less than four months, and Cukor had already signed Sir Ralph Richardson for a major role. When word of my good fortune spread among my fellow graduate students, I quickly became The Most Hated Student on Campus. While my peers were going to be struggling with such droll dissertation topics as “Dust Imagery in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland” or “Dialectic Imperative in Fourteenth-Century Scottish Prose,” I would be following a famous movie director all over England and advising him on all literary questions that might arise. I was relieved that I received no obscene phone calls nor death threats.

Two weeks before I was to sign the contract for the film, disaster struck. My excitement was particularly intense because I was to make more money than I’d earned for a year of my teaching assistantship. Actually, the figure was only $9,000, but to a graduate student in 1970 that sum of money was equivalent to a Powerball win today.

Because George Cukor demanded the most lavish of sets and the most famous of actors for his films, he had trouble locating a producer who was willing to spend the kind of big money he required. But — unfortunately for all involved — he found one: Reader’s Digest.

As unlikely as it seems, the magazine had decided to start producing films. Their producers had just brought out a painfully cloying musical version of Tom Sawyer and were eager to prostitute yet another classic work, preferably British this time (they were an Equal Opportunity Destroyer). When Cukor told me who would be producing, I remember worrying that Reader’s Digest might not be eager to work with a PhD in English. But I naively assumed that Cukor would certainly have the final say-so.

About two weeks after Reader’s Digest came on as producer, Cukor called me with some sobering news: because the film version of Tom Sawyer had been a rollicking musical, they were now insisting that The Old Curiosity Shop should be an upbeat musical as well. “Oh,” I replied, trying to banish any sarcasm from my tone, “Did they read the last chapter and notice that little Nell, the twelve-year-old heroine, DIED?” Cukor assured me that they were well aware of this decidedly downbeat ending, but they viewed it as a unique challenge to be overcome with perhaps a jaunty dirge. He also mentioned that they didn’t like the title The Old Curiosity Shop and wanted to name the movie instead after the villain and call it “Mr. Quilp.” This made as much sense to me as naming a movie version of Hamlet “Mr. Polonius.”
When Cukor confided that he might be forced to bow to these demands, I foolishly replied: “But you’re the director, and you have all the taste.” He quietly answered: “But they, dear boy, are the producers and have all the money.”

It was the next week — one month before we were to leave for England and I was officially to go on the payroll — when Cukor called with one more horrifying tidbit from Reader’s Digest: “They feel that the movie should appeal to the broadest audience possible and want the script to be written at a level to engage those five years old and above.” I remember being surprised that they were willing to sacrifice the pre-toddler crowd. “Look Elliot,” he added, “I’ve tried to find another producer so that we can do Dickens as he deserves to be done, but nobody has the money.”

He then said the words I had been dreading but expecting. He decided that he would simply sell his commercial percentage of the film to Reader’s Digest and withdraw both himself and me from the picture. After all, why would Reader’s Digest want to retain the services of a literature PhD when they seemed intent on changing the novel’s setting from a curiosity shop to a romper room? My Hollywood career was suddenly as dead as Little Nell herself.

I had to scramble to find a new dissertation topic since my involvement with “Mr. Quilp” (nee The Old Curiosity Shop) had cost me six month’s work. My fellow graduate students, who had been sick with envy when I was working with Cukor, now had the delightful thespian challenge of acting terribly sorry to hear of my tragic reversal of fortune. Shortly thereafter, Reader’s Digest did write me a note expressing both sadness at my withdrawal from the film and pleasure in considering me “a very close friend.” Their sincerity was somewhat undermined by the fact that they addressed the letter to “Mr. Engle Eliott.”

Turning the other cheek, I wrote them a pleasant reply. I of course addressed it to my dear friends at Digest Readers.

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