Nether Regions 04.19.12: The Godfather Saga – A Novel for Television (1902-1959)
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin in the movie-zone that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, “Why should I care about a film I have no access to?” My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
THE GODFATHER SAGA: 1902-1959
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro
Directed By: Francis Ford Coppola
Written By: Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo
Original Release Date: March 24, 1972 and December 20, 1974
Missing Since: October 1, 1990
Existing Formats: VHS
Netflix Status: Not Available
Availability: Extremely Rare
In November of 1977, NBC aired a TV mini-series that combined The Godfather and The Godfather Part II into one epic. The event rearranged the films in chronological order and ran over four consecutive nights. Since then it has become known by the following titles: The Godfather Saga, The Godfather: The Complete Novel For Television, The Godfather: A Novel for Television, and The Godfather Novella. For this review, it will be called Saga. Francis Ford Coppola, who directed and co-wrote the Mario Puzo adaptation with Puzo himself, commissioned his editor Barry Malkin to assemble this 7-hour version. He did this to raise money for Apocalypse Now, which was severely over-budget at the time.
When someone mentions the words “cinematic masterpiece” to you, various images might spring to mind. It would not be a shock if The Godfather and its sequel were the first examples that popped in your head. Having said that, it should be noted that this article is not intended to be a standard review of The Godfather Parts I & II. I do plan on dabbing praise here and there, but if this were simply an essay on ingrained classics, the read would be overlong and perhaps run of the mill since I would be treading territory that countless critics have already conquered. My goal is to analyze this particular version of the films, how it differs from the ones in wide circulation, and whether or not it is an improvement.
Your first thought might be, “What makes this version so special” or “If we already own the films, can’t we watch it in chronological order ourselves?” Well, if you wanted to play hopscotch with the chapters of your DVDs, I suppose yes, you could do that. That strikes me as a bit of a hassle but hey, go for it if you’re up to the task. However, those viewers would not be seeing The Godfather Saga that I tackled. To set Saga apart from the theatrical cuts, Coppola and Malkin integrated over 75 minutes of deleted and extended scenes to establish a smoother pace, form a more replete account, and well, give people a reason to watch at all. Had this been 10 minutes or so, the interest in Saga would have been weaker than it already was. But the additional footage is significant in most instances and in my opinion, only strengthens an existing diamond. That’s not to say Saga is absent of blemishes.
I honestly cannot recall the first time I watched The Godfather. Certainly I was aware of its status and influence, but it was not my earliest movie memory. I suppose I was in my early teens for that introductory undertaking, but I had to build up the desire to invest 3 hours in a movie and more for the sequel. Of course I loved it, and the run time did not seem that long because you’re so mesmerized by what is transpiring on screen. I did not learn of a chronological telling until several years later. I was intrigued, but copies of Saga were exceedingly hard to capture so I didn’t fret about its elusiveness. After a conversation with colleague George Sirois, I realized that since Saga has never been available on DVD, it would be perfect for Nether Regions.
I stumbled upon a copy of the VHS box set The Godfather 1902-1959: The Complete Epic on Amazon for a decent price. Yes, I still own a VCR. The mammoth collection of 6 VHS tapes arrived at my doorstep and blocked my door. My wife promptly reacted in anger that I purchased this gargantuan object, since the package resembled that of a new refrigerator. Still, it makes for a nifty decoration. Later I discovered that another version was released, exclusive to video in 1990 called The Godfather Trilogy: 1902-1980. This is not cheap, but you can track it down, though you might need a forklift to get it into the house. Shortly thereafter, a completely restored Saga (the same box set I own) aired on AMC celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Godfather. Oh well, at least the box looks cool.
At about this juncture of my articles, I would begin to reveal the plot of the highlighted film, but if you don’t know what The Godfather Trilogy is about, you shouldn’t be reading this. To save time, I will display the very brief summary that was listed on my DVR: “The men of the Corleone family run an organized crime syndicate in New York.” If that doesn’t lure you right in, I don’t know what will. Saga was recorded the four aforementioned segments on my DVR, and each installment begins with clips of the story intermingled with shots of an empty looking Corleone estate. The entire cast is listed, and the opening credits conclude with an image of Michael contemplating life while sitting in a chair outside on a beautiful autumn day. Saga commences with the Andolini family attending the funeral of their patriarch in the small town of Corleone located in Sicily, Italy. The tale then kicks off with the orphaned Vito Andolini, renamed Corleone on Ellis Island, rising to power in the mafia world.
The newly inserted sequences blend seamlessly with the theatrical cuts. I’ve seen these films several times, and could pinpoint many of deleted scenes, but at no point did I criticize their reason for being placed back. They simply add a more complex, sophisticated layer to the story. I won’t detail every scene, but I have my favorites. For an extensive list, click here. Coppola and Malkin ressurected a lot of De Niro material, all of which is positively golden. We witness his first encounter with Hyman Roth briefly, which is nice since Roth is not referred to often until The Godfather Part II. Another scene shows Vito killing two thugs who worked for Don Ciccio in Sicily, both of whom played a part in murdering his family. One bizarre moment has Vito observing Don Fanucci being attacked by some kids. You have plenty more footage of Sonny taking power, and an especially emotional sequence where Vito takes his boys to visit the dying consigliere, Genco, in the hospital. A hefty chunk of Genco’s scenes with De Niro were exised, so when you toss all of them back in, his passing means more.
As for the general editing and reorganizing of Parts I & II, the result is comprised of highs and lows. Does the death of Vito Corleone pack a more powerful punch? As the central figure, his collapse while playing with Anthony in the garden was already momentous. I would argue though that is has more weight because the audience has watched him grow up. Whenever you spend a long journey with the main dramtic character, his passing will tug harder at your heartstrings. It’s only natural. Vito does not benefit from the chronological order nearly as much as Clemenza and Tessio. Their presence when Vito launched his ascension against Don Fanucci boosts their significance as aging gangsters in The Godfather Part I plot-threads. Tessio’s betrayal with the Barzini family genuinely lands a blow to the viewer because they are acutely congizant of how many decades he has been loyal to Vito. As Saga unfolds, you might wonder why Clemenza and Tessio were shortchanged in terms of their on screen contribution, or why Tom Hagen’s entrance into the Corleone clan as a youngster is not shown. As a veteran moviegoers of the theatrical versions you understand why, but Saga must be judged as a unified whole. Granted, if these films are treasured to you as they are to me, you will sit back, enjoy the mafia carnage, and accept a few gaps in chronology, but they should still be addressed. The unnecessary Mark Winegardner novel The Godfather Returns covers the mysterious period from 1955 to 1962 for those who did not know.
The snipped sequences compliment the story, and while it might sound like a cliche, you don’t really think of this version as a “movie,” but rather a “saga”: The hills and valleys of the Corleone family tree. I tend to describe truly great trilogies or franchises as one story. That’s how I prefer to visualize them, but The Godfather Saga allows that idea to be more of a reality. While the straightforward timeline helps some characters and further fleshes others out, it does indeed hurt the rhythm and flow as the theatrical films are glued together. The project comes across as patchy and incosistent at times. There is a huge jump from when youthful Vito arrives in America to when he is older and preparing to usurp Don Fanucci (Gaston Moschin). Once he accomplishes this, there is a major gap between his initial taking of the throne and when he is about to retire in The Godfather Part I. These spaces, while noticeable, are not as glaring as the skip in time from the end of The Godfather Part I to the beginning of The Godfather Part II. One minute Connie is screaming at Michael for killing her husband Carlo, and the next she’s ready to shack up with Merle.
At the very worst, the holes in continuity are irritating, but when we’re talking about one of the greatest films of all-time, how damaging can this alteration really be? That is an arguable point. Putting the deleted scenes aside, The Godfather Part II gets hacked up in the most slices. The correlation of Vito’s rise and Michael’s descent is substatial and has force, but separating them did not permanently handicap the production. The narrative energy is maintained and the consolidation of the two installments musters a poise, profoundness, and measured melodiousness that the films independently could not attain.
What helps in alleviating the bumps from the time shifts is that the acting is impeccable from top to bottom. Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Robert Duvall deliver career-defining performances. Although the tone remains balanced and relatively undeviating in Saga, James Caan affords such dynamism as Sonny. Every cast member is brilliant: Diane Keaton (Kay Adams), Talia Shire (Connie), John Cazale (Fredo), Sterling Hayden (Cpt. McCluskey), Bruno Kirby (Clemenza), Lee Strasberg (Hyman Roth), and many more. These are characters that are forever etched in our memory. When any of the actor’s names are uttered, the likely mental picture is their depictions here. The direction is second to none. Francis Ford Coppola was at his peak in the 1970’s, and this is a perfect example of how densely interwoven and romantic an experience he was able to mold from the enthralling source. Gordon Willis’ cinematography is superlative and gorgeous. As a master of shadow and light, his style here is in a class all its own. Nina Rota’s iconic and evocative theme can be heard so regularly throughout Saga that it will take many days before you stop humming the tune. The passages from action to suspense to drama, the intensity and forlorn atmosphere, make this odyssey beyond fascinating; accurately put, irreplaceable.
The Godfather Saga is a story about immigration, crime, family, legacy, respect, corruption, and power. All of those themes are intact with this version. True, it requires more of an investment, but it only amplifies those values. Saga is not as tightly plotted as the theatrical cuts, and Coppola was smart at crafting his transitions, but the scope and epic traits prove to be invincible. The Godfather Parts I & II are masterpieces whether you mesh them together or not. I would say that they are superior when separated, but there will assuredly be an occasion when I have the urge to view the Corleone history in a chronological manner. If this were released on DVD tomorrow, I would purchase it without hesitation even though I owned copies of the VHS tapes, bought the first standard DVDs, and now have “The Coppola Restoration” on Blu-Ray. Until the recent AMC High-Definition airing, Saga had not been broadcast since 1977 on NBC. The ratings back then were not as high as expected or hoped for, possibly because the stand-alone films had already been shown in years previous. Sometimes hardcore film buffs will put the rare cut of a film on a pedestal and proclaim it as the ultimate version just because it’s harder to find. That is not the case here. This should not be approached to determine which version is better, but more of a curiosity. When we think about “messing with films” these days, we are reminded of George Lucas, friend of Coppola and his constant changes to the Star Wars franchise. Coppola’s tweaking might have originated from financial straits, but Saga deserves to exist. Despite its flaws, soaking in the years from 1902-1959 has purpose and does indeed improve upon the material in some respects. The trilogy is fine the way it is, so you will not hear cries loud enough to warrant a release, but it couldn’t hurt.
10.0/10.0 for all versions
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