One of the great gifts of the era of home video has been the availability of Directors Cuts of certain films. Sure, on one hand they can be seen as a cynical way for studios to get fans of a film to shell out for a new version after they have already paid for a copy of the standard theatrical release. But on the other hand, director’s cuts can be seen as a window into the creative process of the filmmakers, a hint as to what kind of tug-of-war over the project was happening between the director and the studio, and even as a way to give a better representation of the story that was being told.
Unfortunately, due to the way studios would archive material, especially their older films, director’s cuts are often only found for films from the 1980s forward. Studios just didn’t see the need to store alternate cuts of a film when they saw no potential commercial viability for them at the time. But every now and then, a directors cut of a film from before the age of home video, much to the delight of film fans and historians.
One such older film that had a director’s cut resurface was director Peter Bogdanovich’s very much maligned-upon-release, romantic musical comedy At Long Last Love. And this director’s cut had been hiding in plain sight the whole time.
You’re The Top
At the beginning of the 1970s, Peter Bogdanovich was one of Hollywood’s golden boys. His second film, 1971’s The Last Picture Show, was a huge smash with audiences and critics alike, earning eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Director. Comparisons were even being made between Bogdanovich and his own idol, Orson Welles. The Last Picture Show also introduced him to Cybil Shepherd, a young model-turned-actress whom Bogdanovich cast in the film and then fell in love with over the course of production.
Bogdanovich followed up The Last Picture Show with the screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc? (1972) starring Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal and the dramedy Paper Moon (1973) with O’Neal and O’Neal’s daughter Tatum. 1974’s Daisy Miller saw him bringing non-girlfriend Shepherd back as his lead in this adaptation of the Henry James novella. When response to that movie was somewhat tepid, he looked to bounce back with a new project, At Long Last Love.
Inspired by a book of Cole Porter lyrics given to him by Shepherd, Bogdanovich set out to create a movie musical in the mold of those from director Ernst Lubitsch with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier such as The Love Parade or The Merry Widow. He assembled a cast with Shepherd, Burt Reynolds, Madeline Kahn and Duilio Del Prete as a pair of couple at the center of its romantic misadventures.
The shoot was a hard one, with none of the cast being seasoned musical performers and Bogdanovich insisting that the musical numbers be shot in single, continuous takes. That combination meant that an entire musical number would have to be entirely redone if someone flubbed a lyric or dance step somewhere along the line, which they frequently did.
Down In The Depths
Although Bogdanovich had final cut on the film, after two previews which the director would describe as “total disasters,” he acquiesced to demands from the studio to recut the film to put more of an emphasis on Reynolds. The attempt at salvaging the film didn’t work however. When At Long Last Love was released in March 1975, it was met with harsh critical reviews. Many called the film “the worst film of the 1970s,” a strong statement given that they were barely halfway through the decade and Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was still three years away.
Bogdanovich tried to shrug off the bad reviews, ultimately putting the film behind him. Taking a three year hiatus from directing, he returned with 1979’s Saint Jack. And for a long while, he never looked back.
But the story of the film didn’t end there.
In 2011, it was discovered that a version of At Long Last Love that approximated Bogdanovich’s early cut had been in circulation, airing on various pay-TV outlets like the Starz channel and Netflix’s nascient streaming service.
As Bogdanovich told KCRW’s The Business back in 2013 –
Somebody called me and said At Long Last Love is streaming on Netflix, and I said, “Oh really?” So I checked it out… And it’s scene after scene that’s either cut out or different… It’s a completely different version of the movie. But the thing that was surprising was that it was good.
Making some inquiries, Bogdanovich ultimately discovering that longtime head of Fox editorial Jim Blakeley was the probable “culprit” behind this new version. A fan of Cole Porter’s music, Blakeley had watched the dailies for At Long Last Love as they came in from the production. When the released film tanked at the box office, he assembled his own cut based on the version that was test screened and caused such a panic among the studio brass. As Blakeley’s job was to re-edit films for airline and syndicated television use, it was an easy matter for him to sneak his approximated “director’s cut” into the studio archive and circulation.
(Blakeley passed away in 2007, and so was not able to accept any accolades for his work in preserving Bogdanovich’s original vision for the film.)
After Bogdanovich discovered the source of the alternate cut of At Long Last Love, he reached out to Fox executives to see about putting together an authorized director’s cut. The studio agreed, and a few nips and tucks and the addition of about ninety seconds of new footage later, the 123-minute “Definitive Director’s Version” was ready for the world. Critic Drew McWeeny of HitFix described the new cut of the film as “a minor key miracle” and “a gem, a completely charming trifle that benefits from the music of Cole Porter used with real wit, and packed with performances that are pure pleasure.” Definitely a far cry from the brickbats thrown at it some four decades earlier.
Unfortunately, while the “Definitive Director’s Version” may have helped to rehabilitate At Long Last Love‘s reputation somewhat, it could only do so much. As of this writing, the blu-ray release is now long out-of-print and the film is not available to stream on any service. Clips of a few musical numbers and what looks to be a version of the restored cut but which cuts off midway through at the 96-minute mark can be found on YouTube. But any current scholars or film fans wishing to give the film a look and evaluate the film for themselves are currently out of luck.