A look at the design, market and legacy of Victorian pottery

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Majolica in the Movies: Raintree County


Raintree County was MGM's "big" production of 1957. Starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Eva Marie Saint it was based on a best selling book by Ross Lockridge Jr. and endowed with a liberal production budget of six million dollars. The studio hoped that it would be the next "Gone With The Wind." Things didn't quite turn out that way.

The movie was plagued with production problems, the worst being an almost fatal auto accident involving star Montgomery Clift which occurred halfway through filming. Clift's face was crushed, requiring months of reconstructive surgery. To finish the movie Clift relied heavily on pain killers and alcohol for the remainder of production causing aberrant behavior, delays and cost overruns for the studio. In addition to this the summer heat of the Southern on-location filming caused some of the cast, including star Elizabeth Taylor, to suffer from heat prostration from their heavy costumes.

Montgomery Clift's car after his accident.
The surgery was remarkably successful considering the severe damage Clift suffered. Still there was a noticeable difference in Clift's face after surgery that turned the entire move into a gruesome guessing game for the audience trying to choose the scenes shot before the accident and after the accident. (The accident occurred before the on-location scenes were filmed causing his looks to shift back and forth from indoor scene to exterior shot.)

The movie is set in the period just before the Civil War and concludes just after the Civil War. The recreation of the period was admirably handled with set decoration and costumes fit for a major MGM production. What I believe to be majolica make two appearances during the film. Early in the film the Clift character is shown at home with his parents in Raintree, Indiana. On the kitchen table sits a majolica bowl or tray on a trivet. I can't make out the pattern but the brown, green and yellow colors look like one of the oak leaf trays seen in the Lassie movies. Since this is the only view of the object that we receive and the only scene in the movie filmed on this set we'll never really know if it is this piece or another but it most certainly is majolica. Considering the date of the scene is supposed to be 1859, it may be a tiny bit early for such a piece to have supposedly found its way to Indiana but it is still within the realm of possibility.


Scene from "Lassie Come Home"


Later in the story at the protagonist's home, we get a good look at what appears to be the second piece of majolica in the movie– a large ceramic cockatoo centered on a Victorian display cabinet. I can't say the piece itself looks like a familiar majolica piece to me but the shiny glaze certainly seems to be majolica. This part of the story occurs sometime after the death of President Lincoln which would place it at around 1865. In this case majolica would have been available to the American market for a number of years so a prosperous household like Clift's would certainly have had access to this latest decorative fad from Europe.



After completion of filming MGM knew it had a problem. Not only was the movie a big white elephant but the Clift issue proved to be a disturbing distraction. Instead of releasing the movie in the higher resolution MGM Camera 65mm format in which it was filmed it was released in the smaller 35mm anamorphic CinemaScope format. It was not only cheaper to distribute on 35mm film which cut potential losses but the lower resolution was more forgiving where Clift's face was concerned. 

Raintree County was universally panned by critics at its release but still handed Elizabeth Taylor her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. It also received several other Academy nominations including one for set decoration. In the end however the film won no awards and lost money for the studio. 

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