Way back in 1975, 20th Century-Fox released a musical comedy I had written and directed, which was suggested by, and consisted of, numerous songs by Cole Porter. Like the recent Les Miserables, all the singing was performed live—as opposed to lip-syncing pre-recorded tracks—and a great many of the numbers were done in long, continuous shots, without much cutting. It was actually the first time anyone had done a musical live like that since the early ’30s. The studio loved the dailies, and rushed to get a great New York booking at the glorious Radio City Music Hall. Unlike all original Broadway musicals, which preview out-of-town for weeks sometimes, we had exactly two previews and consequently were never able to get the picture into the right balance between songs and dialog scenes—which is the toughest and most important thing to perfect in a musical—and so we were rushed into opening a show that really wasn’t ready at all.
We were killed. At Long Last Love was deplored by the majority of critics: the Village Voice headline summed it up: “At Long Last Lousy”. The glee implicit in this phrase was part of the climate of that time regarding Cybill Shepherd (one of the stars) and me—we were living together then—and the press was fed up with our much publicized romance. One TV critic said it was “written, produced, directed and ruined by Peter Bogdanovich.” A small minority saw the good qualities: Roger Ebert enjoyed it quite a bit, the Newsweek critic was kind, and the picture did very well in its Radio City run, but that was it. Woody Allen told me (many years after) that he’d gone to see it three or four times at the Music Hall and later did a musical inspired by it. But the studio pulled the film out of release. Cybill and I came to refer to our movie as “the debacle.” Kidding around, I always called it “At Long Last Turkey.”
It had all started because of a large coffee-table book of Cole Porter lyrics, which Cybill gave me as a present. One song in particular sparked the idea for a musical-comedy about requited and unrequited love between a quartet of men and women; a little-known ballad titled “I Loved Him (But He Didn’t Love Me)” inspired the story, and the first thing I wrote was a dialog between the two main women (Cybill and the wonderful Madeline Kahn) which led into that song. This scene would end up as the penultimate sequence in the finished work. In other words, I practically wrote the ending before anything else. Yet, as an example of how disjointed our thinking was at the time of the film’s theatrical release, this key passage —and among my personal favorites—was eliminated.
Abashed and quite miserable, Cybill and I flew to Europe for a couple of weeks. When we returned, I went to the Music Hall to see the picture with a fresher perspective. I hated it. We went back to Los Angeles and I told the studio head (it was Alan Ladd, Jr.) that I felt we had wrecked the work, and that I would like to recut it at my own expense. He said to go ahead but didn’t let me pay for this revised edition, which I thereafter referred to as “the TV version.” To be honest, I wasn’t that happy with this pass either, but felt it was certainly far better than the theatrical release. And that was that. I moved on.
Years went by. Occasionally someone would come up to me and say that they had seen At Long Last Love on TV and liked it very much; why, they asked, had it received such bad notices? I explained that what they had seen was quite different from the version which opened. As decades passed, more people would praise the picture to me and say they really loved it. I would shrug and say thanks very much. It was never released on Videotape or on DVD, though I heard it was shown a few times on cable: Showtime and Starz both aired it more than once.
Then, just a couple of years ago, a friend called to tell me that Netflix was streaming At Long Last Love on their system. I decided to take a look at it that way; I hadn’t seen the movie in 35 years. This led to an astonishing discovery: Watching the movie as it streamed by, I quickly began to realize that it was quite a different version than either the theatrical or the TV editions. Scenes and sequences that I had removed were back in; scenes I had left in were out; some of the song numbers were shortened, and some were lengthened. It was an edit that, if anything, was much closer to the very first preview cut which we had discarded in dismay. But it was sharper, better. In fact, it was the best version of the movie I had ever seen. And I loved it!
Where on earth had this come from? I got in touch with Schawn Belston in the editorial department at Fox, and asked him a myriad of questions, to which he answered that he’d get back to me shortly after researching the issue.
Well, eventually I was able to piece together what had happened: A man named James Blakely had been in charge of the Fox editorial department for something like 50 years, and he had passed away just a couple of years before. It seems that as a youngster he had been involved as a performer in a number of stage musicals, and that he was a die-hard fan of Cole Porter’s songs. Obviously, he had liked the dailies of our film as they came in, and was apparently less than pleased with the editing we did on any of the versions. After the shouting had died down, it looks like he went about restructuring the movie, following the original script, specifically making sure that the story-line of the characters was clear and that extraneous numbers were deleted, but relevant songs reinstated or expanded. When he was happy with the result, he turned that version over to distribution. And his cut was being seen (on TV and cable) as early as 1979, less than four years after the initial release. So, all those times people came over to me and praised the film they had seen, they were not referring to any cut of mine, but to Jim Blakely’s!
Now, of course, Blakely never told anyone what he had done because contractually I had final cut so his actions officially put the studio in breach. Well, I called 20th Century Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos, who is a friend, and told him the whole story. He was as amazed as I had been. “You mean there’s a cut of the picture you didn’t control or approve and you like it?!” Yes, I said. “Well,” he responded, accurately, “that’s one for the history books!”
As luck would have it, the Temecula (California) Film Festival was honoring me that year with a Lifetime Award and asked me who I’d like to present it, and which film of mine they should screen. I suggested Cybill Shepherd, and the brand new version of At Long Last Love. So they did, and it was a tremendous success with the sizeable audience there. Then Fox had a big screening on the lot in the Zanuck Theatre for over 300 people, and they loved it! Cybill said, tearfully, that it was like having a mutilated child miraculously returned to us whole again.
The studio’s home entertainment department, decided to release the picture on Blu-ray on June 4, and we went about cleaning it up, fixing certain passages and adding one more important sequence, lasting a minute and a half, but in need of considerable restoration work, which is probably why Jim Blakely had left it out. The result is an absolute joy for those of us who toiled so hard on it, lo those many moons ago. Burt Reynolds (the top-billed star) said it was like an entirely new picture. And he is right. It’s the movie we had wanted to make, in all its intended glory, resurrected by a man none of us had ever met, but to whom we will be eternally grateful.