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The history of film is full of what-ifs. What if Ronald Reagan, not Humphrey Bogart, had appeared in Casablanca as proposed early on? What if Tom Selleck had played the lead in Raiders of the Lost Ark? What if Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons hadn't been savaged in the editing suite?

Sometimes we get a glimpse of the answers. Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, severely mauled in his absence, was pieced back together on a laserdisc a few years ago. And a greatly extended version of David Lynch's Dune surfaced in Japan.

A truly wrenching what-if was the loss of the 1937 version of I, Claudius, with Charles Laughton as the limping, stuttering, intensely admirable soon-to-be-Roman-emperor Claudius. The outtakes, contained in the old BBC documentary The Epic That Never Was and included in the recent three-disc DVD release of the 1976 BBC version of I, Claudius, are achingly wonderful. Dirk Bogarde, who narrates the documentary, rightly calls Laughton's Senate speech "one of the most moving, beautiful and powerful speeches I've ever seen on the screen. It ranks in greatness and splendour to my mind with Olivier's Crispin Day speech in Henry V and, on another plane, it has the humour and the honesty and the pain of Judy Garland's dressing-room scene in A Star Is Born."

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But Laughton had a tough time getting into the role and frequently broke down crying. When co-star Merle Oberon was injured in a car crash, the producer shut down the film.

There are echoes of that experience in another troubled what-if film, with another actor who was unable to remember lines or stay in character and who also broke down frequently. She was Marilyn Monroe, and the film was the 1962 bedroom comedy Something's Got to Give.

It was during the filming of that movie that Monroe died of an apparent drug overdose at the age of 36 and spawned a thousand conspiracy theories. Photographs from the set, notably of a coy poolside nude scene -- billed as the first nude scene by a major American actress -- have circulated for years. But nobody paid much attention to the 500 minutes of raw footage sitting in the vaults of Twentieth Century Fox.

Until now. Next Tuesday, Fox will release a six-DVD set to celebrate what would have been Monroe's 75th birthday. Included in the new set is a 120-minute documentary, Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days, with a 27-minute reconstruction of Something's Got to Give.

It's an incredible experience, to see a film thought lost emerge (at least in part) from a time capsule in sharp, beautiful colour -- but don't expect too much. Most of the film's scenes weren't shot. Because of Monroe's illnesses and absences from the set -- including her hop to New York to sing Happy Birthday to You to John F. Kennedy, a clip of which is included here -- many scenes didn't include her. And because she followed the usual pattern of being Monroe -- forgetting lines, losing focus, then being brilliant in that one take worth capturing -- whittling away the bad takes doesn't leave much from those 500 minutes.

The film wouldn't have been one for the ages, however brightly Monroe might have sparkled. It was based on the 1940 comedy My Favorite Wife, in which Irene Dunne was stranded on a desert island for several years and returned home to find she had been declared legally dead by her husband, Cary Grant, who had then remarried. Entertaining, but slight.

But hey -- it's Marilyn Monroe!

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Dean Martin is the husband, Monroe the former wife and Cyd Charisse the new wife, an unsympathetic character who calls her psychiatrist (Steve Allen) in moments of distress and insists on psychoanalyzing Martin and everyone else around her.

Cue the opening title, animated in the spirit of Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie. Character actor John McGiver, hamming it up as an irascible judge, declares Martin's wife dead and marries him to Charisse. Monroe finds her way to Martin's house, meets her two children -- a boy and a girl, infants when she left -- and plays with Tippy, the family dog. (There are outtakes of the dog blowing take after take.) Monroe is effervescent, beautiful and fully engaged, a far cry from some of the outtakes, in which she looks lost and pained.

Martin and Charisse return from their honeymoon to find Monroe pretending to be a Swedish maid called Ingrid Tic, complete with a game attempt at a Swedish accent. "Iss Svedish name. . . . Honeymoon is over, ya?" Either there's a missing scene of Martin learning that Monroe is alive or he does an incredible job of suppressing shock.

Martin, torn by guilt and unable to tell Charisse his first wife is alive, refuses to go to bed with her. Monroe swims naked in the pool (obscured by the reflecting surface) and Phil Silvers arrives as an insurance man. "My, listen to that splashing. Must be doing the breaststroke. I hope the pool is heated." Martin: "It's being heated right now." (Did I mention it's no masterpiece?)

Silvers tells Martin that Monroe hadn't been alone on that deserted island, and then leaves -- an excuse for more coy shots of Monroe naked by the pool and putting on a bathrobe (fleeting glimpse of bare backside). Martin tracks down the Mr. Universe who had been on the island with Monroe, but Monroe, not realizing Martin has found the real fellow, persuades a shy shoe salesman -- Wally Cox -- to pretend he was her inoffensive companion on the island. Here is the most enjoyable scene of all, with Monroe fully in sync with Cox's and Martin's timing:

Monroe: We lived in huts.

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Cox: (hastily) Separate huts.

Martin: Even during the rainy season?

Monroe: When it rained we moved on up into the trees.

Cox: (hastily) Separate trees.

And that's where the film ends. Monroe was in a bad way. The studio fired her. She launched a publicity blitz and the studio rehired her. And then she died.

The film was remade as Move Over, Darling, with Doris Day and James Garner. Martin went on to star in Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid, acting with Peter Sellers until Sellers suffered a heart attack and Ray Walston stepped in. Another what-if.

Along with Something's Got to Give, the Fox set includes beautifully restored copies of Bus Stop, How to Marry a Millionaire, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, There's No Business Like Show Business and The Seven Year Itch. The Itch disc offers one final Monroe what-if: a screen test of Walter Matthau, Billy Wilder's choice for what would have been Matthau's first screen role, opposite Monroe, as the guilt-racked hero of The Seven Year Itch. But the studio said Matthau wasn't well enough known, so Wilder went with the lesser Tom Ewell, who had played the role on Broadway.

And should anyone wonder why the Wilder-Monroe classic Some Like It Hot isn't included, the answer is that it was released earlier this week in a special edition by MGM. That movie is one for the ages.

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