Today is May 1, the traditional date for little girls to dance around Maypoles and Soviet workers to parade through the streets. It’s also the start of “The Lusty Month of May.” This is the title of a big production number in Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot, and it’s my cue to talk about the 1967 movie version of the Broadway musical hit.
Jack Warner, the last of the great movie moguls, loved Camelot. He was convinced that a film adaptation could be as huge a box office success as the top roadshow of that era, The Sound of Music. He also felt it could equal the cachet of Warner Bros.’ previous Lerner and Loewe extravaganza, My Fair Lady. Nearing the end of a long career (he was about to sell the studio to Seven Arts), Warner anted up $1 million to buy the film rights, then spent a great deal more to make the production as sumptuous as humanly possible. Ultimately he invested somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million, which in that era was an enormous expenditure. His crew, headed by director Joshua Logan, filmed at eight Spanish castles. Australia designer John Truscott was signed to produce exquisitely detailed costumes, like Queen Guenevere’s wedding gown. Encrusted with tiny sea shells and pumpkin seeds, it’s reported to have cost $12,000, though its full beauty was never fully captured on screen.
So intense was Warner’s focus on Camelot that he pretty much ignored smaller Warner Bros. films of that era, like Bonnie and Clyde. At first his gamble seemed like a good one. The fact that Camelot was widely known as the favorite musical of the late President Kennedy worked in his favor, and the story’s elegiac tone seemed to suit the mood of the day. So many expensive reserved seats were sold well in advance that he could afford to stock his picture with rising young British stars like Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave whose appeal was largely to the art-house set. Said Warner with satisfaction, upon watching the completed film, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure that there’ll be pictures like that one any more.”
Director Logan, in talking about Camelot’s appeal, emphatically did not promote it as suitable for a family audience. The story, of course, is that of the tragic love triangle between the mythic King Arthur, his queen, and the noble knight, Sir Lancelot du Lac. Promised Logan, “The film shows real adultery in the relations of the King, Guenevere and Lancelot, something the stage musical didn’t do.” Tying his movie to the shifting morality of the Sixties, Logan called it “a mod treatment of the adultery theme,” with physical passion woven into the film’s very fabric. This determination to appeal to hip young Baby Boomers comes through loud and clear, starting with Camelot’s gorgeous poster, which features Guenevere’s wildly flowing and flower-entwined tresses, along with an almost psychedelic profusion of colors. The outdoor frolicking in several of the big musical setpieces seems cribbed from some edition of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Featured players Vanessa Redgrave (Guenevere) and David Hemmings (Mordred) represented Boomer touchstones due to their appearance in 1966’s Blow-Up, which combined philosophical conundrums with some of the first on-screen nudity that American youth had ever seen.
Warner Bros. was so sure of this film that merchandisers went berserk, offering up Camelot-themed nightwear, wallpaper, and stockings in “a pageant of ‘translucent’ colors, misting the legs in romantic shades from an enchanted spectrum.” Too bad the movie belly-flopped, leaving Bonnie and Clyde as the last big hit of the Jack Warner era.