#3. Chinatown -- "Forget It, Jake, It's Chinatown" Was Written Because the Screenwriter Left
The last scene in Roman Polanski's Chinatown is incredibly bleak, but that's the whole point of the movie: It's supposed to make you angry that some people can get away with anything, no matter how despicable, if they are sufficiently well connected.
Oh hey, how did this get here?
Here Jack Nicholson is Jake Gittes, a private investigator in the 1930s who gets involved with Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), the daughter of a powerful corrupt businessman, learning that as a teenager she was abused by her father and gave birth to a baby. In the last scene, Evelyn is shot dead by the cops who are protecting her father, and then we see the old man taking away her sister/daughter with impunity.
Earlier, Jake had told Evelyn that when he was a cop in Chinatown he did "as little as possible." When everything goes to shit and Jake is the only one who looks horrified by what just happened, a cop tells him: "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown."
But They Only Included It Because ...
In another case of "why would they bother doing it," Chinatown originally had a happy ending. There was no "It's Chinatown" line because they weren't even in Chinatown (as in, for the whole movie). So how did the writer come up with that change? He didn't: Polanski made it up at the last minute after the guy quit. He wrote the ending literally a couple of nights before shooting it, with some input from Jack Nicholson.
"... and she has these really big boobs, you know, just massive, and then ..."
The ending as intended by screenwriter Robert Towne was a lot more traditional: The bad guy dies, the love interest survives and you forget about the movie by the time you reach the parking lot. It would have been a completely different movie, and as Polanski points out, we wouldn't be talking about it today.
"Great job, Jake" doesn't have the same ring to it.
As Polanski and Towne reworked the script together, their relationship deteriorated into mutual insults, and Towne ended up storming off before they could reach the last scene. And so the movie went into production without an ending -- a couple of days before wrapping up, Polanski improvised something and asked Jack Nicholson to help him out with the dialogue. It's unclear who came with "Forget it, Jake ..." but it definitely wasn't Towne, because he was long gone by then. His decision to bail out and let others finish his script eventually earned him the film's only Oscar win.
Towne claims that his ending wasn't exactly happy, since Evelyn would have had to flee the country after killing her father in order to avoid going to trial. We know a lot of escaped criminals who think that isn't such a bad fate.
Seriously, who keeps putting these here?
#2. Casablanca -- "As Time Goes By" Was Left in Because of a Haircut
Casablanca is one of the most perfect movies ever: As far as we're concerned, the only people who have a legitimate reason to not like it are the Nazis, and we're pretty sure even Hitler got a little bit choked up during the classic scene when Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) asks Sam the piano player to play the song "As Time Goes By."
The song, which we hear again during the most important moments in the film, fits Casablanca perfectly: Its lyrics don't just reflect the bittersweet love story between Ilsa and Rick (Humphrey Bogart), but they also seem to foreshadow the way their romance makes Rick realize it might be time to stop serving drinks to the Nazis and start serving ass-whoopings (because it's "a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die").
But They Only Included It Because ...
Casablanca's composer Max Steiner absolutely hated "As Time Goes By." He didn't just want to cut it out of the film, but he actually got the approval to replace it with something "better." The only reason they couldn't do that was that Ingrid Bergman got a haircut.
"As Time Goes By" was left over from the unproduced stage play that Casablanca is based on: No one made a conscious decision to include it in the movie, it was just there when they arrived, and since it was already in Warner's song catalog, they kept it. In fact, they cared so little about it that producer Hal Wallis agreed with Max Steiner and let him record a replacement song, even if that meant calling back the actors to re-shoot some scenes.
"Play it, Sam. Play 'Max Steiner Has a Huge Cock.'"
There's no record of the director, the actors or anyone else going "Are you crazy? You can't cut that!" Steiner was already working on his new song when they found out that Bergman had cut her hair short for her role in For Whom the Bell Tolls -- since she didn't look like Ilsa anymore and no one in the entire studio was aware of the existence of wigs, they couldn't re-shoot her scenes and they were stuck with the damn song.
Steiner figured that if he was forced to incorporate "As Time Goes By" into the movie's soundtrack, he might as well base the entire score on it, so that's exactly what he did. He was basically going "Fine, have it your way, let's see if you like it" -- and accidentally crapped out one of the most enduring soundtracks in movie history.
#1. It's a Wonderful Life -- The Whole Movie Became a Classic Because of a Clerical Error
Even if you've never seen It's a Wonderful Life all the way through, you can still probably reconstruct the entire plot from all the times you've caught five seconds of it on TV. For decades it was shown a dozen times or so every Christmas, along with all of the other standards -- you'd flip through TV at Christmastime and it'd be "Scrooge, Claymation Frosty, Charlie Brown, that black-and-white movie about the guy who tries to kill himself ..."
But new Christmas movies come out every year ... why did this one become a timeless standard for half a century, when all the rest were forgotten? It's because it's great, right? And not for some completely stupid reason?
But They Only Included It Because ...
Nope, the only reason they played it so often was that, for a while, it was free. Before that, no one cared about it. We've heard about beloved movies that weren't appreciated in their time, but this is different, because It's a Wonderful Life wasn't rediscovered by the audience -- it was saved from obscurity by TV stations too cheap to pay for their programming.
"Listen, your show is great and all, but this schlock is free."
When the film was released in 1946, it got mixed reviews and barely made back its budget. In contrast, the previous collaboration by director Frank Capra and actor Jimmy Stewart had made six times its budget. After this, Capra and Stewart never made a movie again. And precisely because no one really gave much of a crap about the film, in 1974 someone forgot to renew the copyright (a "once every 28 years" task) and it accidentally fell into the public domain.
TV stations looking to fill airtime with inexpensive programming took this little seen film by two well known names and started playing it all the time, especially during the holidays because, well, that's just when the story takes place. Several companies started selling cheap video copies without having to pay royalties, and there was nothing the studio could do.
Except go "Really? The one with the angel and shit?"
Apparently, people figured that if they played the movie so often it had to be a classic, so over the next couple of decades that's exactly what it became. Eventually, the paperwork was sorted out, and currently NBC has exclusive rights to air it, but the damage has been done: Millions of people now worship a film they never would have heard of if some office clerk had done his job. Copyright law works differently now, but still, who knows what future classics we're overlooking right now.
For more things that people just kind of stumbled through, check out 6 Classic Series You Didn't Know Were Made Up on the Fly. Or check out 7 Famous Movie Flaws That Were Explained in Deleted Scenes.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out Deleted Scene That Would Have Ruined 'Shawshank Redemption'
And stop by LinkSTORM to see which columnist we keep having to encase in carbonite.
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