Scotching the Snake: Polanski, Python, and Playboy Productions

Decades before Howard Stern anointed himself the “King of All Media,” Playboy Enterprises mogul Hugh Hefner took a run at the title as the swinging Sixties gave way to the permissive Seventies. In addition to its publishing arm, Playboy had a string of successful clubs and casinos, and had made inroads on the small screen with the Hefner-hosted talk show Playboy After Dark. One area it hadn’t ventured into, though, was the darkened theater, but that would change in 1971 with the release of two features that sought to expand the Playboy brand.

On the surface, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and Monty Python’s And Now for Something Completely Different couldn’t be more dissimilar. One is a Shakespearean tragedy shot on location and at Shepperton Studios over six months and at great expense. (The final cost varies based on the source, but the generally agreed-upon figure is in the ballpark of $2.5 million.) The other is a comedy filmed on a budget of 80,000 pounds at a converted dairy in just five weeks. Where one was intended to launch Playboy Productions as a high-minded purveyor of prestige films by world-class directors, the other was designed to break a British comedy troupe into the US market. Talk about your best laid plans…

“The selection of Roman Polanski’s Macbeth as the first Playboy Production is quite unexpected, I’m sure, in many quarters, and that’s one of the reasons we chose it. Because we didn’t want to do something that people were expecting.” –Hugh Hefner in Polanski Meets Macbeth, 1971

The point man for Playboy’s entrée into the film world was Victor Lownes, who managed the London Playboy Club and was a close confidante of Polanski’s. (He was even with the director the night Sharon Tate was murdered.) When Polanski decided to try his hand at adapting Macbeth (in collaboration with theater critic Kenneth Tynan) and no Hollywood studio would back him, Lownes convinced Hefner to put up the money. That amounted to something of a blank check for the perfectionist Pole, who quickly went overschedule – the shoot was originally supposed to last 10-12 weeks – and over-budget. Macbeth is one case where the money is up on the screen, however, since Polanski insisted on period-appropriate props, costumes, and settings, plus battle scenes featuring hundreds of extras. He even came up with his own fake-blood formula when he was dissatisfied with the one provided by the effects technicians.

That’s indicative of Polanski’s hands-on approach and attention to detail. As anyone who has seen Polanski’s Macbeth can attest, the blood is paramount since he makes literal lines such as “Never shake thy gory locks at me,” and “It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood.” With its shocking tableaus of King Duncan’s dismembered grooms and Macduff’s slain children, the film came under fire for Polanski’s supposed exploitation of his personal tragedy, as well as his decision to film Lady Macbeth sleepwalking in the nude. Any publicity these controversies generated, however, failed to draw audiences to the film beyond its premiere engagement at the Playboy Theater in New York City, where it opened on December 20, 1971. Near the end of Polanski Meets Macbeth, Hefner says going over-budget “will be a worthwhile investment.” He probably didn’t feel the same way after the box-office receipts came in.

“I found it dragged heavily and parts of it were downright dull. But my judgement is probably coloured by seeing most of it before – several times. I still feel sad that we didn’t write more original material.” –Michael Palin’s diary, March 5, 1971

Just as he brought Polanski to Playboy, Victor Lownes was instrumental in enticing the Python team into repurposing 90 minutes of material from the first two series of their Flying Circus for the cinema. His request for a flashy executive producer credit rankled animator Terry Gilliam, though, who declined to make one for him. (Accordingly, the title card crudely inserted into the opening was done by someone else.) That was but one of several disagreements Lownes had with the Pythons about the content of their own film since he insisted on a “greatest hits” approach to selecting material and demanded they cut out Michael Palin’s Ken Shabby character completely.

As a result of these and other decisions, And Now for Something Completely Different feels somewhat warmed over, with sketches that had previously worked like gangbusters falling flat. Sometimes this is the result of director Ian MacNaughton’s choice of dramatic camera angles and distracting camera moves (e.g. setting “Nudge Nudge” in a working pub with lots of extras and the camera slowly creeping around Eric Idle and Terry Jones trying to replicate the timing of their original studio performance). Tellingly, the sketches that come off best (“Hell’s Grannies,” “The Funniest Joke in the World,” “Upper Class Twit of the Year”) are the ones conceived as films from the start, along with Gilliam’s animations, which greatly benefit from being re-shot in 35mm.

Having been sold to the Pythons as a product for the American market, And Now for Something Completely Different’s UK release (on September 28, 1971) occasioned some ironic comments about how “different” it really was. And when it did show up stateside the following year, the film lost money due to poor marketing, inspiring the troupe to retain more control over their next film. Curiously, when Monty Python and the Holy Grail emerged three years later, it seemed to take its cues from Polanski’s Macbeth, since it’s just as muddy, bloody, and gory. (A thin line separates Macbeth’s graphic beheading and the Black Knight’s dismemberment.)

As for Polanski, his immediate follow-up was the kind of kind of titillating sex comedy audiences probably expected from Playboy in the first place. 1972’s X-rated What? (released in the US as Diary of Forbidden Dreams and shorn of 20 minutes) was even more of a flop than Macbeth, though, much to producer Carlo Ponti’s chagrin. Meanwhile, having shot its wad, Playboy Productions limped along with a slate of TV movies, capping off the decade with the 1979 special Playboy’s Roller Disco & Pajama Party. Enough said.

Craig J. Clark watches a lot of movies. He started watching them in New Jersey, where he was born and raised, and has continued to watch them in Bloomington, Indiana, where he moved in 2007. In addition to his writing for Crooked Marquee, Craig also contributes the monthly Full Moon Features column to Werewolf News. He is not a werewolf himself (or so he says).

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