The film is a landmark of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, venturing further than most films of the period with its heated sexual embraces, innuendo, and sadism between men and women, much like the novel, where "there is sex and/or sadism every 17 pages".
Filmed in 35mm Panavision, this was one of the first movies to be blown up to 70mm ("Panavision 70") for premiere screening. The Carpetbaggers was released in April 1964. Two years after this film, Steve McQueen played Ladd's character in a Western prequel entitled Nevada Smith.
Every generation has its modern carpetbaggers, its adventurers who gamble everything to stand head and shoulders above other men. Among them could be a creative giant, a do-gooder, a tyrant or a plunderer — a man who leaves his personal brand on everything and everyone he touches. I guess in the past generation it could have been someone like the fictional and fabulous Jones Cord Junior — the best or the worst — depending on how much you imagined he might have hurt you… or how much you believed he helped you. The legend of Jonas spanned almost two decades and it began that April morning in the nineteen twenties... in the sky over the Nevada desert."
Jonas Cord Jr. becomes one of America's richest men in the early twentieth century, inheriting an explosives company from his late father. Jonas resents his alcoholic father bitterly and is psychologically scarred from the death of an insane twin brother. Afraid that his brother's insanity is carried in the bloodline, Jonas avoids romantic commitments and doesn't want children of his own. He hates for anyone to call him "Junior" - or especially to call him "crazy" - with his reckless ways and wild money-making schemes.
Jonas buys up all the company stock including some held by Nevada Smith, a former western gunslinger. Once a wanted man named Max Sand, Nevada reformed and changed his name. In his new identity, Nevada had practically raised Jonas in the absence of his father. However, Jonas always investigates his associates and has uncovered the truth about Nevada's past. Jonas Cord Jr. also pays off his father's young widow, Rina Marlowe, a shapely blonde. She was his first girlfriend, much adored, in his naive youth. When he introduced her to his father, the elder Cord had promptly seduced and married her. Bitter and vengeful, Jonas carries on with his stepmother behind his father's back, in an ongoing love/hate relationship. He despises her for marrying his father strictly for money. Rina is portrayed as a sexually assertive gold-digger and expert manipulator of men, but she can't get the best of Jonas. Rina takes the money and moves to Paris, partying her way through the Roaring Twenties, ending up penniless but still beautiful.
Jonas becomes an aviation pioneer and his wealth grows. Flying across the country, always busy with new deals and schemes, he lives in hotel suites, with no permanent home, even though he now owns his father's house. A hard drinker and womanizer, Jonas makes no time for leisurely enjoyment of his wealth. Avoiding true friendship, he looks for the inside angle, using people to make money no matter how it hurts them. Jonas soon destroys a business rival named Winthrop, then seduces and marries the man's daughter Monica. Vivacious and unconventional at first, Monica seems to enjoy Cord's free-wheeling lifestyle. However, after many exhausting business trips ("air sickness instead of morning sickness"), Monica wants to settle down and have a home and children. Dismayed, Jonas cruelly abandons her, pushing her to divorce him. He offers no explanation except that he thought she wanted that hectic, loveless life. Monica hangs on for years, aware of Cord's troubled youth, hoping he'll come back to her. Finally Jonas arranges a nasty set-up to force the divorce. He invites Monica to his hotel room and she arrives eagerly, expecting a reconciliation. Instead, through the door deliberately left open, she sees Jonas kissing Rina, his sexy stepmother, in a way that leaves no doubt of their relationship. Crushed, Monica gives Jonas his divorce, then discovers she's pregnant with his child. After the birth, Jonas visits her, demanding to know if he's the father. Monica tells him to leave her and their newborn daughter alone. Years pass with no contact between them.
Meanwhile, Nevada Smith finds work in western films becoming a popular cowboy hero. Rina resurfaces, pursuing Nevada, who now has fame and money. She persuades Jonas to finance Nevada's project, a script about his former outlaw life, in which he will star. This gives Jonas an interest in the Bernard Norman company, the second-rate studio that produces Nevada's films, plus creative control over the resulting movie. Norman and Jonas argue then get into a fistfight over casting; the female lead is Norman's inept girlfriend. Jonas demands that Rina get the role; she's a natural actress and perfect for the part. Jonas even hires Dan Pierce, Nevada's agent, to work for him in public relations. Dan will re-work the script and expand Rina's role, while diminishing Nevada's part. Furious, Bernard Norman vows revenge for humiliation suffered, but Rina becomes a big star, the main asset of his company. She continues to drink and party; her career blossoms while Nevada's declines. To spite Jonas, Rina marries Nevada, now considered a has-been. Jonas offers several times to buy the film company, but Bernard Norman, still angry, refuses. Then Dan Pierce, although he works for Jonas, approaches Norman as studio head with bad news. Rina, drinking while driving, has crashed her car and died. Norman sees his chance for revenge. He offers Dan a sweet deal to keep Rina's death secret and arrange the immediate sale of the studio. Dan betrays his employer Jonas, sets up the sale, and Jonas pays Norman much more than the studio is worth absent its chief box-office draw. Realizing Dan's betrayal, Jonas beats him up and heads out.
Jonas goes on an alcoholic binge and disappears. Finally, he dries out. Upon his return, he decides he can run the studio, even directing films. Before their falling out, Dan had set up a screen test for his favorite call girl, Jennie Denton, an attractive blonde who resembles Rina. Jonas sees the possibilities and Jennie becomes the studio's new sex symbol and star. She also becomes his mistress. World War II is creating a huge demand for war planes and Jonas buys another aviation plant. He calls Monica to help him find and re-hire her father, to run the new facility. Monica takes that as a hopeful sign and comes unannounced to Jonas' hotel room, bringing their lovely daughter (who is unaware that Jonas is her father). Ironically, Monica walks into a replay of the set-up from years back. Just as Jonas seems happy to see her, eager to get to know his child, Jennie steps out of the bedroom, clearly nude except for a white mink coat. This debacle is truly an accident, but Monica walks out, hurt and disgusted. Jonas is too proud to go after her and too tough to show any feelings. Instead he coldly demands that Jennie demonstrate how much she likes her new coat and they have sex. Having lost any chance with Monica, Jonas begins to groom Jennie for marriage. She accepts his proposal, believing they're in love. Her career continues to flourish (a glamour photo of her is shown on the cover of the October 18, 1940 issue of the fictional magazine Comment), but she is in for a rude awakening.
Jonas cuts his ties with old associates, his aviation partner Buzz and his longtime lawyer Mac. Both have grown tired of his bullying and using them. They're glad to go. Mac tells Jonas he's playing a role, playing so well he doesn't know what's real. He's become just like his father, cruelly cold and alcoholic. Look in the mirror. "Goodbye, Junior." Jonas throws his shot glass and breaks the mirror, still denying what others know is true.
With news of Jonas' engagement, Dan Pierce tries to blackmail Jennie. Armed with a copy of a porno film she made in her youth, Dan threatens to reveal her shady past to Jonas and the world if she doesn't pay up. Upset and in tears, Jennie goes to Jonas to confess, breaking their engagement to spare him. She tells him, "I don't want you to get hurt. I love you!" Jonas just laughs. He's had her investigated (as he always does) so he knows all about her past. He brags that he made her a star, made her eligible to marry him. Why? So he can have her services conveniently available, all to himself. So what if she's been had all over town? People won't dare to disparage the wife of the rich and powerful Jonas Cord; do that and he'll destroy them. With her dream of loving shattered, Jennie runs out devastated. Jonas of course lets her go, seemingly unfazed.
Seeing the wreckage of both their lives, Nevada Smith confronts Jonas with fighting words, ending by saying "Your're crazy." That's all it takes; Jonas socks him and commences a vicious fistfight, a huge knockdown brawl. Both get in solid punches, falling over and breaking the furniture. At last they lie there, bruised and bloody. Then Nevada stands up and really lets Jonas have it. Nevada says Jonas is full of hatred and fear, hatred for his cruel father and fear of becoming insane like his long lost twin brother. He takes out his anger on anyone who cares about him. He's destroying everything that really matters. Monica truly loved him. They have a beautiful healthy daughter which proves there's no hereditary insanity lurking in his future. Jonas breaks down, crying because he never even got to speak to his brother, who was locked away when they were infants. He kept rushing to accomplish all he could, fearing insanity might overtake him any moment. Jonas sees how empty his hectic life is, how he's thrown away happiness and replaced it with money and power. He's made plenty of enemies, but no real friends. Except Nevada, who stuck by him even when Jonas sabotaged his career.
A contrite Jonas returns to Monica asking her to listen. He has sold all the businesses that kept them apart. He bought a house and wants to make it a home. All he needs is another chance and he'll try to earn her trust. He admits he lied to her so long because he loved her then and he loves her now. Sweet Monica, now strong without him, has always loved him. Of course she forgives him and they embrace. Their daughter will grows up as a healthy, normal girl (as much as is possible given the past).
John Michael Hayes signed to write the script in June 1962. (Soon after, Embassy signed him to adapt Where Love Has Gone.)
When Alan Ladd signed to play Nevada Smith, it was also announced that Paramount and Joseph E. Levine would make a prequel about Smith's adventures called Nevada Smith.
Filming started 4 June 1963.
Carroll Baker had a highly publicised nude scene, shot on a closed set.
Alan Ladd died before the film was released.
The Carpetbaggers was released theatrically in North America on April 9, 1964, and was a massive commercial success. It grossed $28,409,547 at the domestic box office, making it the 4th highest-grossing film of 1964. Variety reported that the film earned $13 million in domestic rentals. At the worldwide box office, the film grossed $40,000,000 against a $3 million budget. Due to its success, a prequel was filmed and released two years later. Ladd's part was taken by Steve McQueen.
The movie was one of the 13 most popular films in the UK in 1965. However, many critics frowned upon the film, considering it to be "vulgar and tasteless" or "an upscale dirty movie". The film became one of the targets for the negative impact of films on society. Bosley Crowther cited the film, along with Kiss Me, Stupid, for giving American movies the reputation of "deliberate and degenerate corruptors of public taste and morals".
The theme tune by Elmer Bernstein was used to accompany the title credits for the UK BBC2 TV The Money Programme, a finance and current affairs magazine programme. The music was recorded in a version by Jimmy Smith arranged by Lalo Schiffrin.
In her 1978 autobiography Past Imperfect, Joan Collins claims she had a firm offer to play Rina Marlowe but had to decline because of pregnancy.
Elmer Bernstein re-recorded his music for the movie as an album on Ava Records. In 2013 Intrada Records issued the complete original soundtrack on CD, pairing it with the CD premiere of the Ava re-recording (tracks 22-31).Nevada Smith (1966) was conceived as a prequel to The Carpetbaggers. Steve McQueen was chosen for the role of Smith as a much younger man named Max Sand who makes up the name Nevada Smith when he infiltrates the gang of a man he intends to kill.