Sunday, May 11, 2008

Filming 'Tropic Of Cancer'

“The film of Tropic of Cancer will be definitively produced and directed by Joseph Strick, who made Ulysses (by Joyce). He’ll do it the same way. No castration, no modification. Bravo for him, I say!”
---- Henry Miller in a letter to Brassai, July 31, 1968
Henry Miller’s 1934 novel, Tropic Of Cancer, was adapted and released as a feature film in 1970. Although the film maintained Paris as its locale—as it had been in the novel—the action was shifted to contemporary times (1969). Although it remains the only film adaptation of Miller’s classic novel, it had not been the first attempt to do so.
Joseph E. Levine’s Embassy Pictures distributed foreign films in the U.S., most notably Godzilla (1956) and Fellini’s (1963). It was around this time that Embassy decided to get into the film production business, and in 1962 Levine bankrolled a film version of Tropic Of Cancer [1]. In January 1963, Henry was looking forward to going to Paris for 17 weeks as a “consultant” on the film, which would also yield a substantial payday [2]. But by June 1963, the production was bogged down in litigation [3], with production partners and an actress suing Levine. Due to these troubles, Henry’s contract as advisor was terminated at the end of the year [4]. In June 1964, the conflicts were settled out of court [3] and Levine was ready to forge ahead again with Tropic, but, by the following summer, Henry expressed his concern to Brassai: “I'm increasingly convinced they're going to massacre my Cancer. What can be done? The author counts for nothing” [5]. The project eventually lost steam and died in development.

Famed Hollywood producer Robert Evans has many saucy stories to tell in his memoirs The Kid Stays in the Picture. Although the dialogue exchange he provides between he and Henry [6] seems apocryphal to me (maybe it isn’t, but it remains otherwise unsubstantiated), Evans tells of a friendly ping-pong game that turned into a hustled wager in which Henry bet him to turn Tropic Of Cancer into a film if he won. The balls fell in Miller’s favour. As the head of production at Paramount Pictures, Evans had the clout to get it made, but, writes Evans, the top brass were less than impressed, and threatened to fire him and burn the negative. “It played in one theater and disappeared for good,” writes Evans. “Because of Henry Miller, I traveled a back elevator for the next two months. Henry, you got the last laugh, wherever you are, and I'm sure it ain't heaven” [6].
Above left: A German poster for the movie.

In another telling of this same story [7], Evans makes no mention of a wager, but instead quotes Henry as challenging him verbally: “'You don't have the guts to make Cancer.'” Is any of this true? In fact, Joseph Strick’s production company Tropic Film Corporation (half backed by a Swiss film corporation) [12] produced the film in 1969, while Evans’ Paramount seems to have been involved only as far as picking up distribution rights [13].

On December 8, 1968, the New York Times reported that director Joseph Strick would be attached to direct. Strick had previously earned an edgy reputation for his film adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1967), whose raw language caused much controversy, including a ban in Ireland that would last 33 years. Henry initially felt encouraged by the vision of the 45-year old director, whose unorthodox approach got him fired the previous year by the Hollywood honchos who were paying for a conventional adaptation of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine.
Above: A 1971 Japanese poster for the film.
After a visit to London, Miller was sent to Paris in the summer of 1969 as a consultant on the film, an experience he wrote about for a article called “Tropic Of Cancer Revisited,” published in Playboy’s June 1970 issue: “I had hardly arrived at my hotel when I was summoned to the shooting of a scene in a night spot on a narrow little street called Passage du Depart off the rue d’Odessa” (p. 133). The chauffered ride to the set gave Henry a flashback of his bike rides from Porte de Clichy to Louveciennes in 1932-33 to see Anais Nin (135). Paris “looked better to me than it ever had,” wrote Miller, despite the “ugly modern apartments,” but he seemed resigned to the fact that “there would be no attempt to re-create the Paris of the Thirties” for the film(133). Henry’s impressions of Paris was to be the most-asked media question (201) during his nearly-two month visit. He would never return to Paris again [8].

James Decker’s essay “Literary Text, Cinematic ‘Edition’: Adaptation, Textual Authority, and the Filming of Tropic of Cancer (2007) covers details about the filming of Tropic Of Cancer as well as offering analysis of its adaptation: “Strick attempts to preserve as much of Miller's language as possible, but he hardly follows the novel word-for-word or scene-by-scene, choosing instead to alter those parts of the book that would not translate well to the screen. Strick, moreover, consciously chose to emphasize the book's comedic elements.”

Decker quotes Strick admitting that he “doesn't write well enough to do an original screenplay.” Although Strick is listed as a co-writer--along with associate producer Betty Botley--Strick’s Ulysses writing partner Fred Haines was originally assigned the task. According to Haines’ obituary in The Independent (he died this month, on May 4th), the two men “disagreed on the shape of the screenplay, [and] Haines simply asked that he not be credited as the writer.”

Although Henry uses the Playboy article to express admiration for Strick’s directing demeanor, Rip Torn’s vitality (playing Henry 30 years younger), and Ellyn Burstyn’s penetrating understanding of Mona/June (whom she portrayed), Henry was most pleased to socialize with a short, hunched French bit-actor named Alfred Baillou, who played a minor part as a night watchman at the lycée at Dijon (a role that essentially ended up on the cutting room floor): “the most interesting person I had the pleasure of conversing with during my visits to the set,” wrote Miller. “We talked as people talk who have known each other for years […] like myself, he was drawn to the arcane and the occult” (Playboy, 200).

Henry also had the company of his son Tony, who got some work on the film [8]. His young wife, Hoki, was to join him in Paris, but chose to stay away most of the time, even though Henry got Strick to call her to offer her a small part in the film [9].

Henry was invited to view the raw, unedited film dailies, but he found the process “tedious and confusing” (Playboy 134). He also made a fleeting appearance in the film as a “spectator” in a wedding scene. His tenure as advisor ended around August 10th [5].


Cancer film opened in N.Y. at the Paris Cinema on 58th & 5th Ave. last week. Mixed reviews by critics,” wrote Henry to Lawrence Durrel on February 27, 1970 [10]. Some critics felt that the faithful narration slowed the action down; parts of the film were considered unintentionally funny, or even sexist [8]. Pauline Kael, however, seems to have appreciated it: “This series of vignettes and fantasies, with bits of Miller's language rolling out, may be closer to Russ Meyer's THE IMMORAL MR. TEAS than to its source, but at least it isn't fusty. It makes you laugh” [from Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies, and online here]. (Kael had originally written a longer review for The New Yorker on March 7, 1970. For a full analysis of the use of sex in this film, and a thorough breakdown of its content, read Decker’s essay.)

To make matters worse, the film was saddled with a “X” rating. Strick, as the Producer, immediately took antitrust legal action against his own distributor, Paramount Pictures, who refused to release the film without a rating (which Strick wanted); being branded with an "X" severely restricted its sales potential. (Tropic Film Corp v. Paramount Pictures Corp. 319 F Supp., 1247 (S.D.N.Y. 1970).

Regardless of the accuracy of Robert Evans’ ping-pong anecdote with Henry, perhaps he had made a bad wager after all; perhaps he was hoping to cash in on the “X” cachet that had reached its peak with the Academy Award wins for the X-rated Midnight Cowboy in 1969. The Paramount publicity packets for theatre owners in 1970 reveals their eagerness to cash in on scandal: "One of the things that you can do to heighten [the] controversy, thereby bringing attention to your engagement, would be to screen the film for a number of local dignitaries, judges, lawyers, college professors, and students and let them debate on their pro and con feelings" [14].

I am not clear that the film was originally X-rated due to sexual portrayals or for language. However, when re-classified in the 1992, Tropic Of Cancer was labelled with the new NC-17 rating: “for strong language and sex-related dialogue.”

Miller, 1970: “[It’s] possible that a public that has been feeding on raw meat will find [the movie] Tropic Of Cancer tame, even innocent, like the author himself. One thing that I suspect audiences will not find tame, however, is the narration, taken word for word from the book” (Playboy 201).

Colour photos of Miller on the film set are available from the Life Magazine photo archive.


[1] Martin, Jay. 1978. Henry Miller: Always Merry And Bright. NY: Penguin; p. 471; [2] MacNiven, Ian S. (ed.). 1989. The Durrell-Miller Letters, 1935-80. London: Faber & Faber, p. 392; [3] Wickes, George, ed. 1996. Henry Miller And James Laughlin: Selected Letters. New York: Norton, p. 226; [4] Decker, James. 2007. “Literary Text, Cinematic ‘Edition’: Adaptation, Textual Authority, and the Filming of Tropic of Cancer” in College Literature, Summer 2007; n12; [5] Brassai. 2002. Henry Miller: Happy Rock. U. Of Chicago Press; p. 155; [6] Evans, Robert. 2002. The Kid Stays in the Picture. New Millenium Press, p. 176-177; [7] Grobel, Lawrence. 2000. Above the Line: Conversations about the Movies. US. Da Capo Press, p. 24; [8] Dearborn, Mary. Happiest Man Alive: Biography of Henry Miller. NY: Simon & Shuster; p. 296; [9] Howard, Joyce (ed.). 1986. Letters by Henry Miller to Hoki Tokuda Miller; pp.155; [10] MacNiven, Ian S. (ed.). 1989. The Durrell-Miller Letters, 1935-80. London: Faber & Faber, p. 438; [12] Journal of Marketing, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Jan., 1971), pp. 74-85; [13] U.S. Federal Trade Commission: , p.28; [14] Decker, James., Note 22.