A Poor Crop of Hearts

Originally published on Torontoist on July 28, 2010.

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Left: Stuart Whitman and Sandy Dennis wander through the Ontario Science Centre. Don Mills Mirror, November 11, 1970. Right: poster for The Heart Farm.

Imagine you’re a movie producer in 1970 searching for a location in Toronto to shoot a thriller about organ transplants. The script calls for a semi-futuristic scientific complex. Your problem is solved quickly thanks to the recently opened Ontario Science Centre. Within its walls you shoot a film that you hope will impress viewers of ABC’s Movie of the Week and theatregoers in Canada.

Despite having two Oscar winners (Sandy Dennis and Burl Ives) in its cast and a budget twice that normally allocated to TV movies, The Heart Farm went into cardiac arrest after encountering local film critics. The plot: a millionaire (Ives, Cat on a Hot Tin RoofRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) establishes Science City (guess where!), a research centre where all of the experts just happen to have the same blood type as he does. Seems our benefactor has a bum ticker and figures he’s good for only one more heart attack. A researcher (Stuart Whitman, The ComancherosNight of the Lepus) is the lucky donor of a new heart…whether he likes it or not. Dr. Whitman falls in love with a blood specialist (Dennis, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?The Out of Towners), and both figure out what’s really happening. The film turns into a James Bond-esque ski chase through the Rockies as agents working for Ives attempt to secure his key to immortality.

Interior sequences were mostly shot in Toronto during May and June 1970. When the Star interviewed Dennis (who had visited Kleinburg, Ontario several years earlier to shoot the controversial drama The Fox), the paper seemed more obsessed with her odd fashion sense than her acting talent. Clad in a beige turtleneck poncho, “she looked more like some fey wayward waif straight off Yorkville than your genuine 33-year-old, Oscar-award-winning star.” Apart from a reference to his toupee, the Star was gentler to Ives, even if it allowed him to admit that things might not have been going so well at a Yorkville soundstage. “I was skating on thin ice yesterday,” he told the paper. “Couldn’t remember my lines. It doesn’t roll yet. Not like Tennessee Williams does…But it will, it will. [stage whisper] After I rewrite it.” Producer Terry Dene was happy with the assistance he received from the Science Centre after awkward scheduling elsewhere. “They bent over backward to help us,” he told the Globe and Mail. “We screened our rushes in their film theatre, and late at night they’d even crank up the laser beam when we needed it for a shot.”

All involved could have used lasers and other advanced technology for personal protection after their masterpiece was unveiled. The first local review appeared in the November 11 edition of the Don Mills Mirror. Writer Kirk Brown was impressed with the Science Centre’s potential as a film set, but that was as far as his enthusiasm extended. He felt the film “abuses the Centre by depending on its futuristic design to set an atmosphere for a bad story and all too familiar plot… The actors have as much impression as a smudge of chocolate ice cream left by a scoop on a vanilla serving.” Especially unsatisfying was the romance between Dennis and Whitman, whose love scenes were “pathetically clumsy.”

But the critical knives were only beginning to sharpen…

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Toronto Star, November 20, 1970.

Outside of a showing at the Science Centre, the film ran briefly at the Yonge cinema downtown. The fleeting run was too long for the Star’s Urjo Kareda, whose review was merciless from the get-go:

Well, we’ve touched bottom now: The Heart Farm is the first out-and-out Canadian-made bomb, a movie beyond redemption…In a way, you can only bring yourself to believe in the existence of movies like The Heart Farm if you imagine them being thought up in the dim hours of the morning and somehow filmed in those couple of hours before the sunrise cleared everybody’s head.

Nobody involved in the hapless film escaped Kareda’s scorn, whether it was the stars (“Anyone who’d let the twitchy Miss Dennis play around with their corpuscles is beyond help”), the skiing sequences (“touchingly, the film has substituted lyrical scenes of downhill skiing for scenes of actual passion between the two”), or the misuse of the Science Centre (“photographed to look like a particularly unconvincing cardboard set”). Even Dolores Claman, composer of Canada’s other national anthem, was fingered for a score that resulted in “awful, signalling music” which left “no crudity unturned.”

As far as we can tell, The Heart Farm (which was also known as The Man Who Wanted to Live Forever) has never been released on video and hasn’t surfaced online. So much for its quest for immortality.

Additional material from the June 6, 1970 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the May 30, 1970; June 13, 1970; and November 23, 1970 editions of the Toronto Star.

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