‘New Hollywood’ in Dublin: Notes on the Production of Quackser Fortune

Margot Kidder and Gene Wilder on location at Island Villas, Dublin (source: IMDB.com)

Recently, I was forwarded a YouTube link to a 1970 comedy that is something of an oddity among Hollywood depictions of Ireland and the Irish. Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in The Bronx stars Gene Wilder in the title role, as an oddball Dubliner whose unusual occupation – the collection of horse manure for sale as fertiliser – triggers an unlikely romance with a glamorous American student, played by a 20-year-old Margot Kidder in her first leading role.

The central love story is, of course, as doomed as Quackser’s anachronistic career. The city’s horse-drawn milk carts are about to be replaced by a fleet of electric vehicles, rendering Quackser’s dung cart obsolete. Determined to follow his own path, Quackser refuses to work at the local foundry, the only alternative employment available. The spectre of emigration is raised, until a final-act deus ex machina wraps up the story a little too neatly. Quackser’s ending inverts a standard trope of early American Irish films, like Sidney Olcott’s The Lad from Old Ireland (1910), whose plot was resolved by the emigrant’s triumphant return. Quackser’s unseen emigrant character delivers resolution more pragmatically, reaching out with a fortuitously timed intervention that nevertheless acknowledges the crucial importance of emigration to the Irish experience.

Quackser commenced its eight-week shoot on August 25th, 1969, filming mainly in the south inner city, Trinity College, and Ardmore Studios. While the $1.2 million budget was modest by contemporary Hollywood standards, what is perhaps most remarkable about the film is that it was made at all. Quackser’s whimsical storyline is indeed the stuff of Hollywood, but its gritty urban visuals are at odds with the ‘touristic’ image of Ireland more commonly associated with earlier works like The Quiet Man (d. John Ford, 1952) or Darby O’Gill and the Little People (d. Robert Stevenson, 1959). Changes in the political economy of US cinema in the 1960s, however, were having a discernible effect on screen content. With the major Hollywood studios in severe decline due to suburbanisation, the forced divesture of studio-owned cinema chains, a losing battle against television, and many other factors, ‘runaway’ overseas production increased as producers chased savings through reduced labour costs and favourable exchange rates. At the same time, an up-and-coming cadre of young directors inspired by European art cinema were spawning a ‘New Hollywood’ renaissance. Quackser Fortune, written by Gabriel Walsh, a young Dubliner who had himself taken the emigrant boat, was not untypical of the new stories emerging from this creative foment. Desperate to reverse their decline, the studios invested in new voices, unearthing a wave of talent in filmmakers like Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Coppola, Warren Beatty, Martin Scorsese and many more.

Gabriel Walsh, screenwriter (source: Poolbeg Press)

Against this background, a number of US studio films arrived in Ireland in the late 1960s. Not all of them, however, were of the New Hollywood sensibility. Even while Wilder and Kidder conducted their unlikely cinematic romance on the grimy but sun-dappled Dublin streets, David Lean was wrestling with the elements 300 kilometres to the southwest in Dingle, as MGM’s troubled Ryan’s Daughter, moved its $13 million production into full gear. A year earlier, the same company had spent a reported $6 million filming Alfred the Great in Galway. 

All of these productions, regardless of budget or creative ambition, drew production expertise and crews from Britain, as Ireland had yet to develop any meaningful native capacity for feature film production. Quackser Fortune was no exception. According to Gene Wilder’s 2005 memoir, ‘Kiss Me Like a Stranger, the project was initiated when he received a copy of Walsh’s quirky script. Fresh off an Oscar win for his breakthrough role in The Producers (d. Mel Brooks, 1967), Wilder had enough clout to get the film off the ground, bringing it to Sidney Glazier, a producer on the Brooks film. Glazier shared Wilder’s enthusiasm, as well as the actor’s alleged desire to find an Irish director and make the film in Dublin. No doubt aware that suitably experienced Irish directors would be thin on the ground, the pair travelled to London to perform the search. They checked in to Mayfair’s Connaught Hotel, where Wilder claims they interviewed “many directors, especially Irish ones”, none of whom turned out to have the “vision” they required. Intriguingly, a side trip to Paris to try to recruit Jean Renoir allegedly resulted in a conditional ‘yes’ from the celebrated French director. Renoir saw echoes of Charlie Chaplin in the Quackser character, according to Wilder. A commitment to another project meant Renoir was not immediately available, however, and the offer was reluctantly withdrawn. Eventually Waris Hussein, an up-and-coming young Indian who had made his name at the BBC directing, among other things, the first two series of Doctor Who, was signed up. Hussein’s limited feature experience would be counter-balanced by the vastly experienced British cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, whose previous credits included Doctor Strangelove (d. Stanley Kubrick, 1964) and A Hard Day’s Night (d. Richard Lester, 1964).

Wilder on location at Kavanagh’s pub aka The Gravediggers, Dublin 9 (source: Pinterest.com)

Glazier financed the picture in a deal with UMC Pictures, an ‘indie’ subsidiary of a Florida-based conglomerate with stakes in shipbuilding, chemicals, and moneylending as well as its newspaper and media interests. Again, this was not an unusual arrangement during a decade that saw the declining US studios taken over by corporations with diversified interests. Warner Brothers, for instance, was owned by a company that counted car parks and funeral homes among its myriad historic activities. Glazier’s relationship with UMC had completed the financing of The Producers, and the same studio’s involvement strengthened Quackser’s growing connection to the flourishing wave of energetic New Hollywood pictures of the late 1960s and 1970s described in Peter Biskind’s impeccably researched account of the period, ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls‘ (1998).

If Gabriel Walsh’s kitchen-sink verité was supposed to resonate with US audiences, however, it was not successful. The film failed to capitalise on Wilder’s rising star, flopping at the US box office after unenthusiastic reviews. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby was especially unkind in his assessment of the film’s inner city Dublin charms:

I kept thinking that people like Joyce, O’Casey, Wilde, Shaw, and a local bartender I know named Eddie had done well to get out of this self-perpetuating Irish mileu (sic), whose reputed charm always eluded me.[1]

Wilder’s career was stalled by Quackser’s failure to find an immediate audience at the box office. A similar fate awaited two other films made either side of his Dublin sojourn, Start the Revolution Without Me (d. Bud Yorkin, 1970) and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (d. Mel Stuart, 1970). Like Quackser itself, however, both of those films eventually found a cult audience, largely through television, following Wilder’s return to commercial and critical success in later films – especially his subsequent work with Brooks in Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles (both 1974).

Quackser’s disappointing US box office did not help its international distribution prospects, and it did not appear on Irish screens until June 1972. Irish critics were kinder than their American counterparts. Fergus Linehan of the Irish Times described the film as “a gentle, sunny and thoroughly enjoyable picture… which does Dublin and Dubliners proud”.[2]  The picture appeared to do good business on the limited release strategy that was typical of the era, and indeed was still occasionally playing two years later at Dublin cinemas.

Gene Wilder as Quackser (source: http://jason-hedrick.blogspot.com)

Whatever their budgets, international ‘runaway’ productions like Quackser FortuneRyan’s Daughter, and Alfred the Great represented valuable windfall economic benefits for the Irish economy. One week after Quackser’s New York premiere, the Fianna Fail government’s Film Industry Bill (1970) had a first reading in Dail Eireann. Unfortunately by the time the film reached Ireland, the Bill (and the Irish Film Board it envisaged) had been scrapped, a victim of a cabinet reshuffle after the 1970 Arms Crisis – an unfortunate series of events that has been well documented by Irish film scholars like Kevin Rockett and Roddy Flynn.   

Viewed today, Quackser Fortune is a Dublin time capsule, preserving on screen the city’s mid-20th century decay as much as the witticisms of its inhabitants. A number of stereotypes invariably appear: Quackser enjoys his pint of plain, although the use of Glasnevin’s beloved Gravediggers as the local pub is an egregious deviation from the film’s otherwise impeccable city centre geography. Location manager Jim Brennan found in the environs of Pearse Street and Westland Row a remarkable range of adjacent locations. Although much of the depicted neighbourhoods have since been redeveloped, many locations, including the Island Villas streetscape that Quackser called home, have survived. It’s hard to imagine, however, that a Quackser Fortune tour would find many takers despite the growing interest in film tourism in Ireland and further afield.

Despite Wilder’s hiccup, Quackser Fortune’s commercial failure did little to interrupt the careers of its makers. Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor went on to shoot Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (d. George Lucas, 1977). Given Taylor’s skilful cinematographic depiction of a disappearing Dublin, his connection to the sci-fi fantasy franchise is thus tinged with irony. Many industry observers consider Star Wars – a merchandise-friendly box-office behemoth – to have accelerated Hollywood’s eventual realignment around blockbuster ‘event’ films (like the Superman series, which propelled Margot Kidder to fame a decade after her Dublin experience). Regrettably, this more recent industry disruption eventually sidelined the mid-budget studio picture, sounding the death knell for quirky character dramas like Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in The Bronx.

[1] Screen: ‘Quackser Fortune’ Arrives. Vincent Canby, New York Times, 14 Jul 1970

[2] Fergus Linehan, ‘In Dublin’s Fair City’, Irish Times, 12 June 1972, p10

Published by Denis Murphy

Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellow, Film Department, School of Creative Arts, Trinity College Dublin

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: