In the early seventies Hollywood studio executives began to realize there was a huge untapped market for films dealing with African-Americans, a situation made obvious by the unexpected success of Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), an action comedy based on the Chester Himes novel about two black cops, Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) and Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge). In the ensuing rush to capture this previously ignored audience, the “blaxploitation” film was born, but the majority of these films were urban crime thrillers like Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972). Films which attempted to explore racial issues or feature complicated black and white relationships were a rarity but one unique exception was The Landlord (1970), which was virtually ignored by the public when it opened.
A fascinating mix of social satire, urban drama, and high comedy, The Landlord tells the story of an affluent young man, Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges), who purchases a tenement brownstone in Brooklyn with the intention of converting it into a swinging bachelor pad with all the necessary psychedelic trappings. What he doesn’t anticipate is the opposition he faces from his current black tenants. Eventually he abandons his master plan to devote his full energies to playing the landlord, becoming intimately involved in the lives of his tenants. Elgar’s naivete, however, creates unforeseen problems and raises the question of whether true harmony can exist between people of such varying social and ethnic backgrounds.
Seen today, The Landlord is remarkable for its outstanding ensemble cast which includes Diana Sands as Fanny, who has an ill-fated affair with Elgar, Louis Gossett, Jr. as Copee, Fanny’s enraged husband, Marki Bey as Lanie, a mulatto artist and dancer who becomes Elgar’s girlfriend, and Pearl Bailey as Marge, the resident fortune teller who introduces Elgar to soul food. The real surprise is Lee Grant who practically steals the film as Elgar’s racist, high society mother. (Her performance received a Best Supporting Actress nomination that year at the Oscar ceremony).
Equally impressive is Bill Gunn’s perceptive screenplay for The Landlord which was based on the novel by black writer Kristin Hunter. Gunn, one of the most eloquent interpreters of African-American life in America, was a true Renaissance man; he was a stage and television trained actor, a playwright (Black Picture Show), an author (Rhinestone Sharecropping), and a director (Ganja and Hess , a vampire tale incorporating African mythology with issues of cultural identity, is a rarely-screened cult film).
Hal Ashby, the Oscar-winning editor of In the Heat of the Night (1967), made his directorial debut with The Landlord, a film originally scheduled for Norman Jewison. The latter, who had a full schedule including pre-production on Fiddler on the Roof, admired Ashby’s talent and wanted to give his protege a well-deserved break. After all, they had worked together successfully on five films, including The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). During their collaborations, Ashby had scored two Oscar nominations for editing, one with co-editor J. Terry Williams for The Russians are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) and one for In the Heat of the Night (1967), which won the award for Best Film Editing.
The making of The Landlord turned out to be a non-stop obstacle course of production challenges but Ashby quickly won the respect and approval of his cast and crew over the way he handled each problem. To start with, Ashby had to change the original locale of Kristin Hunter’s novel from Philadelphia to New York City for budgetary reasons; it was cheaper to shoot in Brooklyn’s Park Slope district due to NYC’s mayor John V. Lindsay’s recent film permits reform. The director also employed many African-American residents from the neighborhood for crew and cast extra positions. In addition, Pearl Bailey and Diana Sands temporarily took apartments in the neighborhood and interacted with the community with Bailey cooking meals on the set for everyone.
At the time, the Park Slope neighborhood was still considered a dicey neighborhood and Ashby ended up hiring local gang members for security instead of using an outside protection service. For the scene where Elgar is chased by a group of angry black men, some local residents thought the incident was real and starting screaming “Kill that white motherf*cker.” Bridges had run several blocks away from the set for the scene and suddenly felt threatened by a gathering crowd. Luckily, co-star Lou Gossett came to the rescue and walked Bridges back to the set without any trouble.
Ashby took extra care to make sure his film debut would be a success but feel behind schedule as a result which caused executive producer Walter Mirisch to become increasingly concerned over this fledging director. Jewison had to intervene and convince The Mirisch Corporation that there would be no further delays. In the end, The Landlord was shot in 66 days and ran $400,000 over its initial budget of $2 million dollars.
So much footage had been shot for the film that the editing process became a nightmare for Ashby and he ended up using two editors, Bill Sawyer and Edward Warschilka, to hon the feature down to a 112 minute final cut. Another problem was the film scoring. Ashby first wanted to use the music of Sly and the Family Stone but the record company refused. Then he tried to get numerous songs by Neil Young with “Cinnamon Girl” serving as the theme song but the music rights were too expensive. Finally he hired Al Kooper to score the film, which also included vocals by Kooper as well as Lorraine Ellison and The Staple Singers.
A final complication to the filming was the fact that Ashby got married to Joan Marshall after a whirlwind courtship and their relationship became troubled during production. (Their wedding ceremony was filmed with cast and crew members and you can catch a glimpse of it during the opening of The Landlord). Marshall was primarily a TV actress (Surfside 6, Hawaiian Eye, Dr. Kildare, etc.) who only made a handful of films; her only starring role was in William Castle’s Homicidal (1961) in which she played the dual role of Emily/Warren, a transexual murderer. By the late sixties, her career was on the decline and she became emotionally unstable, which greatly affected Ashby during production on The Landlord. They would divorce the same year the film was released.
More than 50 years after its release, The Landlord is now considered one of Hal Ashby’s best films though it was not a box office success and was overlooked by most moviegoers. Ashby blamed the unsubtle ad campaign which may have misled potential ticket buyers into thinking it was a crude sex comedy. Regardless, the movie garnered many positive reviews from high profile critics like Roger Ebert who noted, “It adds up to a more honest, if less optimistic, portrait of American race relations than we usually see in the movies.” One of the film’s best reviews by Pauline Kael arrived too late to save the film from falling through the cracks: “The dialogue is crisp and often quite startling, and though the editing may be a little too showy and jumpy, the picture has originality and depth, and it’s full of sharp, absurdist humor…The distributors may have been frightened off by the tense, interracial byplay – or perhaps the public was; relatively few people saw the picture and it’s rarely revived.”
After The Landlord Ashby wanted to make a film of Cecil Brown’s novel The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger and shoot it in Denmark but eventually realized it was too controversial and would never attract a distributor in Hollywood. Instead, he was offered a film project by Peter Bart at Paramount. (Bart worked for studio mogul Robert Evans and was a big fan of The Landlord). Ashby was immediately attracted to Bart’s proposal, a quirky, offbeat comedy by screenwriter Colin Higgins entitled Harold and Maude. It would become one of the biggest cult films of all time.
The Landlord was initially released on DVD by MGM in April 2010 but KL Studio Classics put out a special edition Blu-Ray in May 2019 which is the best option for fans of the film. The extras include interviews with Beau Bridges, Lee Grant and Norman Jewison.
*This is a revised and extended version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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