Based on the novel by Foster Fitz-Simons, Bright Leaf (1950) marked the second pairing of Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, whose magnetic sexual chemistry on-screen in The Fountainhead (1949) evolved into a real love affair off camera though Cooper was married. Hoping to capture more of the couple's spark and sizzle on screen, Warner Bros. cast Cooper and Neal in this period melodrama with the same kind of love-hate relationship that had reached operatic heights in the previous King Vidor film version of Ayn Rand's novel. However, this time Michael Curtiz was secured as director and Lauren Bacall was cast as the woman who wins Royle's love and gratitude in the end. Initially Neal wanted to play the more sympathetic role of Sonia as she felt she was being typecast too often as "a bitch." She even pleaded with studio executives to let her play Sonia to no avail and then asked Cooper to help persuade them in her favor. According to Neal, Cooper refused, "Not because he thought I should fight my own battles and not because he was unwilling to raise suspicion about our relationship...he simply did not want to get involved in any conflict. Conflict was something Gary Cooper was a master at avoiding." In the end, Bacall won the coveted part of Sonia, even though Ruth Roman had originally been considered for the role.
Neither actress enjoyed working on Bright Leaf and it wasn't one of Cooper's favorite filmmaking experiences either. For one thing, the actor, who was accustomed to playing heroes, had difficulty playing his role of a ruthless, vengeful businessman with conviction. He was more comfortable in the film's occasional action scenes a public brawl, riding his horse or escaping a flaming mansion then in delivering dialogue like "A man with guts and a workable cigarette machine could make this valley belch fire."
Working with director Michael Curtiz, however, was the major challenge facing the two actresses. Neal had clashed repeatedly with the Hungarian émigré since shooting began and tempers flared when it came to shooting a crucial pre-wedding argument between Brant and Margaret. According to Neal biographer Stephen Michael Shearer, the actress demanded, "How can I fight with a husband before I marry him?"...She asked that they film the wedding scene first, saying that she would fuss with her husband that afternoon. Curtiz refused. "You will do the fussing and fighting, and then you must make love for the wedding," he said. "But I tell you one thing: you must not eat any lunch. Because you cannot make love on a full stomach. You will be gay, lovely and charming if you pass up the tray at noontime. Ditch diggers can eat lunch, yes; actors no. I have no use for any of them who eat." Patricia played her scenes hungry."
Bacall's experience with Curtiz on Bright Leaf was equally unpleasant and recalled the filming in her autobiography: "'Coop' was one of the most attractive men I've ever seen, with his cornflower-blue eyes. He was a pro, but not always on time. One morning he was late and Mike [Curtiz] was livid so much so that he screamed at me. He wouldn't dare let go at Coop, knowing he'd just walk off the set. Now, I have never handled myself well in screaming situations. I become inarticulate, usually cry. On this occasion with his ranting and raving 'Goddamn actor-bum! - I took myself tearfully to my dressing room. Finally Coop arrived, not all that late, and Mike was all over him: "Gary, dahling, how are you how do you feel?" Coop knew that Mike was full of it, but played the game." Regarding this period in her career, Bacall would later say, "Jack Warner kept giving me terrible scripts and I kept going on suspension." Bright Leaf would turn out to be the last movie Bacall made under her contract to Warner Bros.
Most of the filming of Bright Leaf took place on the studio's Calabasas ranch where the entire town of Kingsmont was built by the movie's crew; they also acquired an impressive number of period props and set decorations that lent the film a much needed authenticity such as the vintage 1900 cigarette machine seen in Bright Leaf. In addition, Victor Young's emotional, sweeping score and Karl Freund's lush, atmospheric cinematography were among the movie's most notable attributes.
Yet, despite all the star power and lavish production values on display, Bright Leaf was not a hit with critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it a "curiously flavorless film," and singled out Bacall for the most severe criticism, calling her performance "torpid and dull....It is hard to perceive how this lady could fascinate anyone." Variety was equally unimpressed, noting, "Star names provide some box office help, but there's not enough good, solid interest in the footage to sustain it." And Wanda Hale of the New York Daily News, issued the warning, "Many more pictures like his new starring vehicle Bright Leaf, and his [Cooper] high standing is likely to drop as suddenly as an elevator with a busted cable."
Surprisingly enough, Bright Leaf was a box office success and made a tidy profit of half a million dollars which was considerable at the time. In more recent years, renewed interest in the movie was generated when independent filmmaker Ross McElwee (Sherman's March, 1986) made a direct connection to it in his film Bright Leaves (2003); he thought that the movie might be a fictionalized version of what happened to his great-grandfather, John Harvey McElwee, a tobacco baron in North Carolina, whose empire was crushed by his rival James Buchanan Duke. While there are many similar parallels between the plot of Bright Leaf and the McElwee-Duke rivalry, McElwee was never able to prove that Foster Fitz-Simons, the original author, had based his novel on his great-grandfather and James Buchanan Duke.
Producer: Henry Blanke
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall; Foster Fitz-Simons (novel)
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Art Direction: Stanley Fleischer
Music: Victor Young
Film Editing: Owen Marks
Cast: Gary Cooper (Brant Royle), Lauren Bacall (Sonia Kovac), Patricia Neal (Margaret Jane Singleton), Jack Carson/Dr. Monaco (Chris Malley), Donald Crisp (Major Singleton), Gladys George (Rose), Elizabeth Patterson (Tabitha Singleton), Jeff Corey (John Barton), Taylor Holmes (Lawyer Calhoun), Thurston Hall (Phillips).
by Jeff Stafford
Gary Cooper: American Hero by Jeffrey Meyers
Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life by Stephen Michael Shearer
By Myself and Then Some by Lauren Bacall
Lauren Bacall: A Bio-Bibliography by Brenda Scott Royce
The Casablanca Man: The Films of Michael Curtiz by James C. Robinson