The Elephant Man (1980)

PG | 123 mins | Drama | 3 October 1980

Director:

David Lynch

Producer:

Jonathan Sanger

Cinematographer:

Freddie Francis

Editor:

Anne V. Coates

Production Designer:

Stuart Craig

Production Company:

Brooksfilms
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HISTORY

       According to articles in the 16 May 1979 Var and 1 Jun 1979 NYT, screenwriters Eric Bergren and Christopher De Vore were introduced to noted anthropologist Ashley Montagu’s 1970 book In Part on the Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, which framed subject John Merrick’s life in sociological and psychological terms. The men soon optioned the book, and De Vore’s girlfriend, a babysitter for producer Jonathan Sanger, presented Sanger with a script. He, in turn, shared it with actor-producer-director Mel Brooks, whose Crossbow Productions developed the project, which fit with Brooks’s mandate to handle material other than projects in which he was involved as a director or writer.
       Reportedly, Sanger’s involvement in the project predated the opening of playwright Bernard Pomerance’s off-Broadway play The Elephant Man. An article in the 14 Aug 1979 DV stated that Pomerance and producers of the hit play filed a lawsuit against Brooks and Crossbow Productions to prevent Brooks from using the play’s name. According to the complaint, producers Nellie Nugent, Richard Crinkley, Elizabeth I. McCann, and Pomerance claimed that a film with the same name would create confusion among the public, and devalue the rights of their intellectual property. Furthermore, a 22 Aug 1979 LAT item reported that the play’s producers wanted to make a film based on their play, and Brooks’s same-named independent project would make it more difficult. A 12 Sep 1979 Var article stated that Brooks and his corporation, Brooksfilms, filed suit against the play owners for the right to use the title. The argument was that the film was based on ... More Less

       According to articles in the 16 May 1979 Var and 1 Jun 1979 NYT, screenwriters Eric Bergren and Christopher De Vore were introduced to noted anthropologist Ashley Montagu’s 1970 book In Part on the Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, which framed subject John Merrick’s life in sociological and psychological terms. The men soon optioned the book, and De Vore’s girlfriend, a babysitter for producer Jonathan Sanger, presented Sanger with a script. He, in turn, shared it with actor-producer-director Mel Brooks, whose Crossbow Productions developed the project, which fit with Brooks’s mandate to handle material other than projects in which he was involved as a director or writer.
       Reportedly, Sanger’s involvement in the project predated the opening of playwright Bernard Pomerance’s off-Broadway play The Elephant Man. An article in the 14 Aug 1979 DV stated that Pomerance and producers of the hit play filed a lawsuit against Brooks and Crossbow Productions to prevent Brooks from using the play’s name. According to the complaint, producers Nellie Nugent, Richard Crinkley, Elizabeth I. McCann, and Pomerance claimed that a film with the same name would create confusion among the public, and devalue the rights of their intellectual property. Furthermore, a 22 Aug 1979 LAT item reported that the play’s producers wanted to make a film based on their play, and Brooks’s same-named independent project would make it more difficult. A 12 Sep 1979 Var article stated that Brooks and his corporation, Brooksfilms, filed suit against the play owners for the right to use the title. The argument was that the film was based on Dr. Frederick Treve’s memoirs titled The Elephant Man And Other Reminiscences in the public domain, and to call the film anything else would be a handicap. To complicate matters, Brooks discovered that screenwriter Dan Polier Jr. and Radnitz/Mattel Productions had registered the title with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and it was suggested that a deal was in the works for the rights to the title. Although the details of the lawsuit’s resolution are not known, the film kept its name, and a disclaimer appeared in end credits to clarify that the film was a separate work from the play.
       A 2 Oct 1980 LAHExam article reported that screenwriter-director David Lynch had hoped to follow his debut film Eraserhead (1979, see entry) with his script Ronny Rocket. However, Lynch could not generate any interest in the project, and directing The Elephant Man kept him afloat financially.
       A 28 Oct 1979 LAT article stated that Brooks got rejections from most of the film studios until Paramount Pictures production chief Michael Eisner agreed to distribute the film. To finance the movie, Brooks agreed to do special programming for television network National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in exchange for $4 million.
       According to Brooks, his bid to hire actor Anthony Hopkins for the role of “Dr. Frederick Treves” began with insistent telephone calls everyday to Hopkins’ agent, Tom Chasen. When another picture that Hopkins was going to do with Shirley MacLaine was delayed, Hopkins joined the cast.
       A 21 Mar 1979 Var news item announced that principal photography would begin in Sep 1979 in England, but the date was pushed to 15 Oct 1979, according to a brief in the 7 Jul 1979 Var. A 9 Jul 1979 DV article stated that the movie had a twelve-week schedule.
       The 2 Oct 1980 LAHExam reported that Lynch originally intended to handle makeup until a test was done two days before shooting began, and the decision was made to hire makeup designer Christopher Tucker. Tucker began by studying photographs of the skeleton and death mask of the real John Merrick archived at the London Hospital museum. Tucker noticed that Merrick’s upper palate and jaw were deformed and twisted, making his face totally asymmetrical. Tucker designed an acrylic overdenture, consisting of eight “baby” teeth to replicate Merrick’s mouth. Tucker conjectured that Hurt had much more facial mobility than Merrick, whose deformities made movement of the lower jaw almost impossible. The only person who understood Merrick’s speech was his doctor.
       Articles in the 26 Dec 1979 HR, 28 Sep 1980 LAHExam, and 7 Oct 1980 LAT stated that the application of John Hurt’s makeup was a seven-hour process, beginning at 5:30 a.m., then filming would occur between the hours of 1:00 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. Hurt shaved his head to accommodate the prostheses, which consisted of sixteen individual pieces. Due to the fragility of the makeup, Hurt took naps sitting up, and could not eat once it was applied. During a six-week period, Hurt’s last meal at midmorning consisted of two eggs mixed in orange juice and sipped through a straw. The actor would not eat again until makeup was removed during a ninety-minute session. Afterward, his wife cooked dinner around midnight. Hurt would film his scenes on alternate days due to the constraints imposed by the makeup.
       In a Mar 1981 Millimeter article, director of photography Freddie Francis described that the first day Hurt’s makeup was applied, the actor was scheduled to do tests at 4:00 p.m., but was delayed until 10:00 p.m. When Francis and his crew saw the makeup for the first time, he knew “we had a great movie.”
       According to “The Elephant Man Revealed” segment in the The Elephant Man DVD, at the time the movie was filmed, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences did not give honors for makeup design. Tucker said that after the film was released, makeup artists pointed to his work and lobbied heavily for the creation of an official award for makeup.
       The 9 Jul 1979 DV reported that a decision was made to shoot the film in black and white to be more in keeping with the atmosphere of Victorian England. Millimeter stated that although filming in black and white had long fallen out of fashion, Francis observed that the Victorian era was the dawn of the photographic age, and audiences would “subconsciously accept the atmosphere as original.” Additionally, Francis said he came out of fifteen years of retirement to work on the film. He shot tests on Plus X film, and sent them to three different labs for processing. The company that did the best job would handle the film’s laboratory work. At a later date, Francis learned that Rank Film Laboratories, which was awarded the contract, worked around the clock to clean and reassemble its black and white machines. Talks with Lynch revealed that he expected much of the look of the film to be dark so Francis chose Plus X film stock for its impressive tonal range.
       According to Francis, the production spent five to six weeks filming exteriors, which included about twelve incomplete sequences, before Hurt, in full makeup, was ready to go before cameras.
       The next photographic phase lasted three to four weeks at the soon-to-be demolished Great Eastern Hospital in East London. Around this time, Francis began to experience an assortment of film stock problems that persisted until the end of principal photography. The appearance of white flash marks every few frames and mysterious fogging on the side of the negative necessitated the need for a new film stock. Since Plus X was hard to come by, Eastman Kodak Company wanted Francis to switch to Double X, but Francis refused because partial sequences had already been shot. Although they approached other film manufacturers, none could guarantee to supply the quantity needed. Eventually, Kodak was able to manufacture a new batch of Plus X film, which was faster and needed much less lighting than the original batch. It took Francis and his crew a few days to adjust to the changes.
       Articles in the 6 Oct 1980 DV and HR stated that the picture set opening-day house records at the following venues: $11,189 at the Regent Theatre in Los Angeles, CA; $12,018 at the Coronet Theatre in New York City; $7,064 at San Francisco, CA’s, Royal Theatre; and $4,900 at the Uptown #3 in Toronto, Canada.
       A 28 Dec 1980 LAT news item reported that the film was number three on reviewer Charles Champlin’s Top Ten list.
       The film received the following Academy Award nominations: Actor in a Leading Role (John Hurt), Art Direction, Costume Design, Directing, Film Editing, Music, Best Picture and Writing. The film also received the following Golden Globe nominations: Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture–Drama (John Hurt), Best Director – Motion Picture, Best Screenplay – Motion Picture, and Best Motion Picture – Drama.
       The 9 Jul 1979 DV stated that the picture marked Sanger’s feature film debut as producer.

      The following statements appear in end credits: “This has been based upon the true life story of John Merrick, known as the Elephant Man, and not upon the Broadway play of the same title or any other fictional account,” and “Made at Lee International Film Studios, Wembley, Middlesex, England.”
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GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
LOCATION
SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
Oct 1980.
---
Daily Variety
9 Nov 1978.
---
Daily Variety
9 Jul 1979.
---
Daily Variety
14 Aug 1979.
---
Daily Variety
19 Feb 1980.
---
Daily Variety
12 Mar 1980.
---
Daily Variety
20 May 1980.
---
Daily Variety
29 Jul 1980.
---
Daily Variety
6 Oct 1980.
---
Daily Variety
11 Feb 1981.
---
Daily Variety
28 May 1981.
---
Daily Variety
27 Jul 1981.
---
Hollywood Reporter
26 Dec 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
25 Sep 1980
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
6 Oct 1980.
---
LAHExam
28 Sep 1980.
---
LAHExam
2 Oct 1980
Section C, p.1, 6.
Los Angeles Times
22 Aug 1979.
---
Los Angeles Times
28 Oct 1979.
---
Los Angeles Times
28 Sep 1980
p. 34.
Los Angeles Times
7 Oct 1980
Section G, p. 1, 5.
Los Angeles Times
28 Dec 1980.
---
Los Angeles Times
11 Jun 1981
Section H, p. 1, 4.
Marquee
Sep/Oct 1980
p. 6.
Millimeter
Mar 1981
pp. 140-4, 146-9.
New York Times
1 Jun 1979.
---
New York Times
3 Oct 1980
p. 8.
People
18 May 1981.
---
Screen International
16 Aug 1980.
---
Variety
21 Mar 1979.
---
Variety
16 May 1979.
---
Variety
7 Jul 1979.
---
Variety
12 Sep 1979.
---
Variety
1 Oct 1980
p. 20, 22.
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
Richard Hunter
+
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Brooksfilms Production
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
Dolly grip
Stillsman
Gaffer
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
FILM EDITORS
Asst ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Const mgr
Prop master
COSTUMES
Cost des
Ward supv
MUSIC
All other mus played by the
Orch
Comp and cond
SOUND
Sd des
Sd des
Spec sd eff
Sd mixer
Dubbing mixer
Dolby eng
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
MAKEUP
Elephant man make-up des and created by
Elephant man make-up applied by/Makeup supv
Makeup
Makeup
Hairdressing
Hairdressing
PRODUCTION MISC
In charge of prod
Casting
Cont
Loc mgr
Prod accountant
Prod secy
Research
Transportation
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the books The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Frederick Treves (London and New York, 1923) and The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu (New York, 1971).
MUSIC
"Adagio For Strings," by Samuel Barber, played by The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andre Previn.
COMPOSER
DETAILS
Release Date:
3 October 1980
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles and New York openings: 3 October 1980
Production Date:
began 15 October 1979 in England
Copyright Claimant:
Brooksfilms, Ltd.
Copyright Date:
10 February 1981
Copyright Number:
PA94239
Physical Properties:
Sound
Rerecorded in Dolby Sound ™
Color
Lenses
Filmed in Panavision®
Duration(in mins):
123
MPAA Rating:
PG
Countries:
United Kingdom, United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
26063
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In Victorian England, a surgeon named Dr. Frederick Treves sneaks into a carnival sideshow, and watches as the authorities announce plans to shut down a “Freak Show,” because it degrades the individuals who appear in it. A policeman herds the audience out of the tent before Dr. Treves has a chance to meet John Merrick, the freak known as “the elephant man.” Soon, Dr. Treves visits Mr. Bytes, the carnival barker who is the elephant man’s caretaker, and pays for a private showing. After Bytes explains that an elephant raped the freak’s mother in her fourth month of pregnancy, he pulls back the curtain. As he instructs the elephant man to stand up and turn around, Dr. Treves sees that his body is covered with bulbous, scaly tumors, and his eyes well up with tears. He pays Bytes additional money to send the elephant man to London hospital for further observation. The next day, the elephant man arrives, wearing a burlap mask that hides his face, and walks stiffly with the help of a cane. After examining Merrick, Dr. Treves tells his colleagues at the medical society meeting that he is twenty-one-years-old and English. He suffers from enlargement and massive distortion of the head, a useless right arm, curvature of the spine, chronic bronchitis and fibrous tumors, covering ninety percent of his body. Later, Dr. Treves tells his colleague, Dr. Fox, that he believes that Merrick is an imbecile. Meanwhile, Merrick returns to Bytes, who beats him for being gone too long. Merrick’s breathing becomes labored, and Dr. Treves is summoned. Bytes tells Dr. Treves that Merrick had a bad fall, and reluctantly agrees to let Merrick ... +


In Victorian England, a surgeon named Dr. Frederick Treves sneaks into a carnival sideshow, and watches as the authorities announce plans to shut down a “Freak Show,” because it degrades the individuals who appear in it. A policeman herds the audience out of the tent before Dr. Treves has a chance to meet John Merrick, the freak known as “the elephant man.” Soon, Dr. Treves visits Mr. Bytes, the carnival barker who is the elephant man’s caretaker, and pays for a private showing. After Bytes explains that an elephant raped the freak’s mother in her fourth month of pregnancy, he pulls back the curtain. As he instructs the elephant man to stand up and turn around, Dr. Treves sees that his body is covered with bulbous, scaly tumors, and his eyes well up with tears. He pays Bytes additional money to send the elephant man to London hospital for further observation. The next day, the elephant man arrives, wearing a burlap mask that hides his face, and walks stiffly with the help of a cane. After examining Merrick, Dr. Treves tells his colleagues at the medical society meeting that he is twenty-one-years-old and English. He suffers from enlargement and massive distortion of the head, a useless right arm, curvature of the spine, chronic bronchitis and fibrous tumors, covering ninety percent of his body. Later, Dr. Treves tells his colleague, Dr. Fox, that he believes that Merrick is an imbecile. Meanwhile, Merrick returns to Bytes, who beats him for being gone too long. Merrick’s breathing becomes labored, and Dr. Treves is summoned. Bytes tells Dr. Treves that Merrick had a bad fall, and reluctantly agrees to let Merrick go to the hospital for treatment. At the hospital, Dr. Treves places Merrick in an isolation ward in the attic. As he carries breakfast to Merrick, F. C. Carr Gomm, the hospital’s house governor, detains him, and discovers that Dr. Treves’ patient has been irregularly admitted, and states that hospital policy does not allow them to treat incurables. He suggests other facilities that could provide better services. Their discussion is interrupted by a nurse’s screams upon delivering Merrick’s breakfast. Dr. Treves apologizes to both the nurse for failing to properly warn her, and to Merrick. At night, as Merrick gazes at his mother’s photograph, an orderly wanders into Merrick’s room, pokes his limbs, and reveals future plans to exploit him. One day, Dr. Treves is frustrated by his inability to communicate with Merrick, and learns that his patient speaks after asking him to utter simple words like “yes” and “Hello, my name is John Merrick.” Soon, Bytes visits the hospital, and demands that Merrick be released to his custody. When Dr. Treves claims that Merrick is still recovering from his injuries, Bytes threatens to go to the police. Carr Gomm encourages Bytes to carry out his threat, and he leaves. Carr Gomm then arranges with Dr. Treves to meet Merrick. In preparation for the meeting, Dr. Treves rehearses some conversation, and a portion of the 23rd psalm. Upon meeting Merrick, Carr Gomm thinks he is mouthing words he has been taught, and concludes that the hospital is the wrong place for him. Behind closed doors, Merrick recites parts of the 23rd psalm that Dr. Treves did not teach him. Then, Dr. Treves realizes Merrick is capable of complex speech and can read, although the fear of his captors kept him from doing both. Carr Gomm agrees to keep Merrick as a patient. A London actress, Mrs. Kendal, reads about Merrick’s deformities and superior mind in the newspaper and asks to meet him. A hospital orderly reads the same letter to his friends at the pub, and reveals that he has access to Merrick for whoever is willing to pay. Soon, the doctor buys Merrick a new suit, and moves him to a room with a big window. He invites Merrick to his home for tea with his wife, Ann Treves. There, Merrick weeps at the kindness extended to him by a beautiful woman. After tea, Merrick admires family photographs on the mantle, and shows the couple the lovely photograph of his mother. As they admire his mother’s beauty, Merrick wonders if he can be reunited with her because he has tried so hard to be good. Ann is overcome by his wish, and weeps. Later, Merrick spends his days in his room, building an architectural model of St. Phillip’s church. He creates drawings that hang on his walls, showing him asleep in bed like a normal person. One day, Mrs. Kendal, the actress, visits, and brings Merrick her photograph and books from her library. They recite lines back and forth from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Mrs. Kendal declares him to be “Romeo.” Following Mrs. Kendal’s example, other members of London society visit Merrick. The hospital orderly continues to make money when he brings spectators. At home, Dr. Treves tells his wife that he has become Bytes, parading Merrick like a curiosity. His wife reassures him that Merrick is more fulfilled and well cared for than ever before. However, Dr. Treves is conflicted. Later, at a hospital governance staff meeting, any opposition to Merrick’s residence is erased by a letter from Queen Victoria read by Princess Alex, thanking the doctors for their charity toward one of England’s more unfortunate sons. Later, Carr Gomm and Dr. Treves deliver the good news that the hospital is now Merrick’s permanent home. They present him with a custom dressing kit, and he is overwhelmed by the kindness. Meanwhile, the orderly leads another curious group to see the elephant man, and Bytes joins the tour. The crowd tosses Merrick around like a football, plies him with liquor, and forces him to look at his reflection in the mirror. During the assault, women kiss him, his architectural model is ruined, and then, Bytes kidnaps Merrick. The next day, Dr. Treves discovers Merrick is missing, but Carr Gomm tells him that he cannot search for him because he is needed at the hospital. Elsewhere, Merrick collapses during a freak show performance, and Bytes retaliates by locking him in a monkey cage. Later, other carnival performers help him escape. Merrick boards steam ships and railroad trains to return to England. As he leaves a train, teenagers harass him and pull off his mask. When a crowd corners him, he cries that he is not an animal, but a human being. The police arrive, and return Merrick to London Hospital. Dr. Treves apologizes for the traumatic circumstances, but Merrick assures him that his life is full and he knows that he is loved. Soon, Mrs. Kendal arranges a night of theater in Merrick’s honor, and dedicates the performance to him. The audience gives him a standing ovation. Later, Merrick tells Dr. Treves how much he enjoyed the evening, then he gazes at his rebuilt church, and the drawing on the wall in which he sleeps normally. After Dr. Treves says goodnight, Merrick removes the extra pillows on his bed, and goes to sleep for the last time like a normal person. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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