Carpetbaggers, The (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stuart Galbraith IV
  • Review Date: Mar 18, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
  • Bookmark and Share
Carpetbaggers, The (Blu-ray Review)


Edward Dmytryk

Release Date(s)

1964 (November 28, 2023)


Embassy Pictures/Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
  • Film/Program Grade: B+
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: B-

The Carpetbaggers (Blu-ray)

Buy it Here!


The Carpetbaggers (1964), from Harold Robbins’s epic, hot-and-steamy 1961 novel, is widely regarded as an “enjoyably bad movie,” but that’s not quite right. Mostly it’s a very well-made film shrewdly adapting trashy source material. The performances are mostly excellent, with several standouts. It’s a handsome, lavish production with many fine elements, such as Elmer Bernstein’s musical score, and John Michael Hayes’s (Rear Window) screenplay remains faithful to the book while simultaneously both toning down more salacious aspects that would never get past the Production Code while keeping its purplish prose from sounding too ridiculous. One need only look at producer Joseph E. Levine’s semi-follow-up, The Oscar (1966), a film that manages to get everything wrong that The Carpetbaggers gets right.

The Carpetbaggers is a roman à clef starring George Peppard and Carroll Baker playing characters clearly based on Howard Hughes and Jean Harlow, with many others matching up with real-world counterparts. When Jonas Cord (Leif Erickson), the alcoholic owner of an explosives factory, dies suddenly, son Jonas Cord, Jr. (Peppard) orders right-hand man McAllister (Lew Ayres, playing a character based on Noah Dietrich) to buy up all the company stock, giving Cord total control of the company and its assets. He also pays off his father’s much younger widow, Rina Marlowe (Baker), formerly Junior’s lover, and Nevada Smith (Alan Ladd, in his final role), Cord’s surrogate father.

A bona vide innovator willing to take huge financial risks, Cord becomes a leader in the aviation industry, creating the first commercial airlines and later a developer of bombers during the war. Back in the ‘20s, he marries Monica (Elizabeth Ashley), the daughter of his chief rival, though his obsessive work habits and refusal to settle down and raise a family causes a years-long rift and separation. Later, when Nevada’s movie star career in silent Westerns is threatened by the coming of talking pictures, he buys Nevada’s semi-autobiographical film outright from studio head Bernard B. Norman (Martin Balsam) and on instinct replaces the leading lady with Rina, who becomes an overnight sensation. Later, he tries to repeat that success with Rina lookalike Jennie Denton (Martha Hyer), a prostitute being blackmailed by studio publicist Dan Pierce (Bob Cummings).

The picture works in much the same way as later television miniseries of the 1970s and ‘80s that The Carpetbaggers anticipates. One way that it does is that its purplish prose is consistently delivered with conviction and with a foundation in emotional reality that, because the acting is generally so good, defies the frequent ludicrousness of what’s being said. The psychological aspects behind Cord’s obsessiveness is more than a little silly, but Peppard’s approach to the character—circumspect, instinctive, emotional aloofness with a touch of cruelty—is exactly right. He underplays with an emotional reality rather than play down to the material, a stark contrast to, say, Stephen Boyd’s not dissimilar character in The Oscar, who’s so over the top it may be the worst-ever leading performance by an actor in a major Hollywood studio production.

Even better is Carroll Baker, an underrated, fearless actress who, if not single-handedly, was perhaps the leading force bringing raw sensuality to the screen in the 1950s and ‘60s, more so than Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor, to name two. In movies like Baby Doll and Something Wild, she consistently broke new ground about the relationship of women and the power of sex; even covered head-to-toe in pioneer garb romancing the way too old Jimmy Stewart in How the West Was Won, Baker used her raw sensuality to compensate for inequities between the sexes. In The Carpetbaggers she’s both incredibly sexy throughout and has the acting chops to make the character come alive. Elizabeth Ashley is likewise fine playing a very different character, though Martha Hyer is a somewhat miscast as an honest hooker.

Alan Ladd, who died before the film was released, makes excellent use of his long-established screen persona, while Lew Ayres and Audrey Totter, she shining in a one-scene part, make strong impressions. Bob Cummings’s career was in steep decline due to his amphetamine addiction; he’s not quite yet at the nakedly manic state he’d be in by the time of Five Golden Dragons (1967), but he certainly looks like he’s on something. Oddly, it almost enhances his character’s unseemliness.

After about Warlock (1959), Edward Dmytryk’s abilities seem to fail him. The Carpetbaggers is a typical example, with the director blandly staging way too much of the film in long, boring master shots. Even the film’s climactic fight scene between Cord and Nevada, imaginatively, brutally, and realistically worked out by stunt men, is badly shot, most of it watching it play out from the other side of the room with a wide-angle lens, this at a time when editors like Peter Hunt were rewriting the rules of cinematic brawls in his James Bond movies.

Dmytryk shows a little imagination here and there: when Cord first drives through the studio lot, full of the usual costumed extras wandering between soundstages, it’s in the dead of night, adding to the make-believe atmosphere. When he introduces prostitute Jennie, first seen making out with venal Dan Pierce, it’s from an angle that has the audience deliberately confused, they assuming the platinum blonde is Rina.

In pushing the Production Code to the limit, the $3 million production had a worldwide gross of $40 million by the late ‘70s, including a reissue earlier in the decade. It prompted one of the first Hollywood prequels in Nevada Smith (1966), with Steve McQueen replacing Ladd, acting out point-by-point Nevada’s backstory that Cord reveals in one early scene.

No doubt using the same video master that the Australian Imprint label used for its earlier Blu-ray release, Kino’s release of The Carpetbaggers looks splendid in high-def, the 2.35:1 Panavision image looking razor sharp with excellent color and contrast. DTS-HD Master Audio mixes in 5.1 and 2.0 are offered. I watched the film in the former system, and was impressed by the use of surround channels on Bernstein’s scoring particularly. (The film apparently had some original theatrical books in 4-track magnetic stereo.) Optional English subtitles are included in this Region “A” encoded release.

Supplements consist of two audio commentary tracks, the first by Julie Kirgo, the second by David Del Valle. A trailer is also included.

The Carpetbaggers is not exactly good, but it is a lot of fun, and certainly worthwhile viewing, especially via this superlative video transfer.

- Stuart Galbraith IV