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The Curious Career of David Bradley

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

David Bradley filming Charlton Heston as Antony in Julius Caesar (1950); photo by Chalmers Butterfield.

I have long been aware of the life and work of David Bradley, whose career seems to have been cut short before it really got started. A teen prodigy, Bradley first attracted attention with his 16mm independent features, including his version of Julius Caesar, starring a very young Charlton Heston. Though he was signed to MGM by studio chief Dore Schary as a result of that film’s reception, which won a tie for First Prize at the Locarno Film Festival, Bradley’s first act was brighter than anything that followed.

This is not to say that his subsequent films, particularly the science fiction parable Twelve to The Moon (1959), photographed by the gifted John Alton, are not without interest, but it is safe to say that for some reason, after making so many striking films on his own, Bradley never really found his footing within the industry, and instead completed his career teaching film at UCLA and Santa Monica College.

His papers are archived at Northwestern University, and as their summary of his life notes, “David Shedd Bradley was born in Evanston, Illinois on April 6, 1920, the son of Addison Ballard and Katherine Shedd Bradley. A member of Chicago’s prominent Shedd family, Bradley earned his undergraduate degree at Northwestern University. He went on to direct films for MGM as well as teach at UCLA. Bradley died in 1997.

Bradley attended the Todd School from 1935 to 1937 and Lake Forest Academy during 1937-1940. At Lake Forest Bradley made one of his earlier films, Preps in Action, an account of a day in the life of an average student. His first experience with film came through his use of his family’s Winnetka basement as a movie theatre for neighborhood friends. Bradley had turned his hand to filmmaking by the mid-1930s. Preceding Preps in Action was a 16 millimeter short of Treasure Island (1937).

Other films from the period include Doctor X (1938), Emperor Jones (1938), and an adaptation of The Christmas Carol, titled Marley’s Ghost (1939). Bradley spent a year at the Goodman Memorial Theatre Drama Department of the Art Institute of Chicago and cast actors he met there in full-length film versions of Oliver Twist (1940), Peer Gynt (1941), and the Saki story, Sredni Vashtar (1943).

In September 1941, Bradley enrolled in the School of Speech of Northwestern University where he continued to pursue his interests in film and acting. He was accepted also into the Northwestern University Radio Playshop. In 1942 military service interrupted Bradley’s formal education. Following three years in the film section of the Signal Corps, he returned to Northwestern where he completed film versions of Macbeth (1946) and Julius Caesar (1950). The latter tied for first place at the Locarno Film Festival and won much international acclaim.

One of the first 16 millimeter films to be booked into theatres on a nationwide scale, Julius Caesar attracted the attention of Dore Schary, the M.G.M. studio chief. After graduating from Northwestern in June 1950, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Speech, Bradley went to Hollywood to work for M.G.M.

Bradley’s first assignment at M.G.M. was to assist in coaching pre-production rehearsals for first-time director Robert Pirosh’s Go For Broke. After two years of interning, Bradley was allowed to direct his own film, Talk About a Stranger (1952). At the age of 32 Bradley was then the youngest director at M.G.M. In the early 1950s, with Gerry Sherman, Bradley formed Oceanic Productions Inc. Their first project was to be a filmed version of Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian journal Noa-Noa. James Agee wrote the screenplay and Emile Gauguin was hired as a technical assistant. This project was not completed.

Bradley left M.G.M. in the mid-1950s and made three more films: Dragstrip Riot (1958, American International), Twelve To The Moon (1960, Columbia Pictures), and Madmen of Mandoras (1964, Crown International). Later in his life, as an adjunct to producing and directing and drawing upon his extraordinary collection of rare films and extensive knowledge of the field, Bradley taught courses in film aesthetics and history at the University of California at Los Angeles and at Santa Monica College.”

Bradley’s life is thus extremely curious, and he’s never really gotten the attention he deserves; his career, cut short by Hollywood, remains one of the most enigmatic in cinema history, and his later films have been unjustly maligned, especially Madmen of Mandoras, which was taken out of his hands and drastically recut and reshot; the original film, to the best of my knowledge, no longer survives.

I may do some writing on Bradley in the future; his work remains uneven, and deeply mysterious.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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