Wednesday, December 13, 2017

GIDGET: Blu-ray (Columbia 1959) Twilight Time

“If you’re in doubt about angels being real…” Oops – sorry. Wrong Gidget. Or rather, right Gidget…the mother of all Gidgets, in fact. Widely regarded as the movie to have kicked off the ‘beach blanket’ badinage that would later follow it, not to mention the legitimate Gidget sequels and short-lived TV series starring Sally Fields, director Paul Wendkos’ Gidget (1959) is fluffy, good-natured, wholesome fun; the quintessential ‘coming of age’/teen romance drive-in flick for which ‘the sound of youth’ (later, spoofed in Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii, 1961) was invented. Based on author, Frederick Kohner’s series of novels, begun with 1957’s Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas, Gidget, the movie is a sun-kissed frolic that today, very much warms our hearts as a quaint reminder of the way things used to be. It’s the ‘oh by gosh and golly’ magic of it all that remains so…well, ‘gosh darn’ invigorating nearly 60 years later. 60 years?!?! Kowabunga, dude. Where has the time gone? This latter reference is, of course, a nod to the picture’s surf-themed misadventures of our Gidg’; surfing then, an alien experience, tinged with an air of exoticism for anyone not of the Californian or Hawaiian persuasion. The term ‘gidget’ is actually an abbreviation for ‘girl midget’ that today’s political correctness would likely lengthen to “g’little people”. Whatever.
For anyone growing up in the early 1970’s, my opening reference will remind them, either fondly or ‘un’, of mid-summer television reruns from that other short-lived series starring Sally Fields, its bouncy tune, ‘Wait’ll You See My Gidget’ penned by Messer’s Howard Greenfield and Jack Keller, rather fetchingly warbled (after the pilot episode) by Johnny Tillotson (sounding uncannily like Bobby Rydell). This movie has another, as catchy title tune written by Patti Washington and Fred Karger, harmonized by The Four Preps, and later, reprised as a partial love ballad sung by the movie’s co-star, James Darren, who acquits himself rather nicely of the more upbeat, ‘The Next Best Thing to Love’ – serenading our star, Sandra Dee with lyrics by Stanley Styne, perfectly married to another set of neatly arranged notes composed by Karger. The outstanding ‘musical’ highlight of the picture remains ‘Cinderella’ – sung by The Four Preps (a California quartet sounding – and dressing – very much like The Beach Boys), performing their smash single, made exclusively possible through a licensing agreement with Capitol Records.  
Formed, as a good many ‘boy bands’ were back then, not by overly-processed/prepackaged hype, but a chance meeting between four high school buddies, fairly to knock the socks off a Capitol Records scout at their 1956 Hollywood High talent show; from then on, the boys were off and running with no less than 13 chart-grabbing hits – the mega-million seller 26 Miles, earning them a gold record. As with most groups swamped by the mid-60’s British invasion of pop singers, in the wake of the tsunami known as The Beatles’, the Preps’ popularity went into steep decline. After several changes, they officially disbanded in 1969. Yet, one has to sincerely admire the fifties for its wide-eyed optimism, typified by groups like The Four Preps and movies like Gidget. In a decade overrun by changing tastes, oft taken to cliché in the socially-repressed Eisenhower era (America’s heavily distilled impressions of itself, both as a world super power and buttoned down ultra-conservative nation of do-gooders, riding the crest of their newfound post-WWII economic prosperity), the allure of that mythology, in suggesting nothing bad could or would ever happen ‘from sea to shining sea’ was just too good to be true or indefinitely last. It also appears deceptively ‘normal’ for the fifties. But the engineering gone into such a lithe and optimistic flick like Gidget is – at least today – less of a foregone and effortless conclusion than the exemplar of carefully orchestrated Sport n’ Shave Ken-dolls meet Suzie-Cream-Cheeses from the suburbs: a propaganda puff piece, shamelessly meant to promote an American ideal that never actually existed, as universally accepted and culturally – ‘the norm’ (as our Gidg’ puts it) in ‘total awesomeness’. It’s just plain silly to fight it. The fifties were fabulous…for some.
Gidget made a household name of Sandra Dee (born, Alexandra Ruck of Russian-Orthodox faith). Depending on the source consulted, Dee’s meteoric rise is ascribed to producer, Ross Hunter. Long before she was cast in his glossy remake of Imitation of Life (1959), Dee had been the reigning gamin of New York fashion; earning an impressive $75,000 annually as a model at the age of twelve. She also suffered from a horrendous crash diet to maintain her lithesome, flat-chested frame; her slavish devotion almost costing Dee her life. At one point, Dee’s anorexia made her unable to properly digest food. She had to learn how to eat all over again. Better things were in store, however. In 1957, the same year Kohner published his first Gidget novel, Dee made the transition to Hollywood, appearing in Robert Wise’s Until They Sail. Her looks and talent, touted by gossip maven Louella Parsons as the new Shirley Temple, quickly earned Dee the right to be cast as the lead in Vincente Minnelli’s frothy comedy of errors, The Reluctant Debutante (1958). Signing a multi-picture deal with Universal gave the studio the option to loan her out for several pictures, including Gidget (produced at Columbia). Immediately following Gidget’s box office success the studio would have liked nothing better than to include Dee in a pair of sequels. Regrettably – at least for Columbia, Universal had more prescient plans; Dee appearing in two more loan outs, including the iconic ‘A Summer Place’ over at Warner Bros. (all three made and released in 1959); Dee earning the respect of her peers and a rank as the 16th most popular star in the land. By 1960 it would jump to #7!
Stardom alas, and more often than not, is a very double-edged sword, and after Dee’s frenzied marriage to hip-swiveling pop sensation, Bobby Darin (the two were wed in 1960 and divorced barely 7 years later), she steadily retreated from the spotlight, appearing sporadically in movies and on television, succumbing to bouts of alcoholism, depression and chronically plagued by anorexia. When Darin tragically died at the age of 37 in 1973, Dee elected to retire from the national consciousness; briefly revived in lyrics to a song from the movie, Grease (1978). Describing herself as “a has been who never was”, Dee would live long enough to know the indignation of seemingly being forgotten, her death at the age of 62 in 2005 brought on by complications from kidney disease. It’s hard, if not impossible to reconcile this image of the ‘washed up’ celeb with that goody-goody wallflower Dee presents to us in Gidget as Francie Lawrence; the apple of her parents’ eye - the ever-understanding Dorothy (Mary LaRoche) and easily flustered, Russell (Arthur O’Connell). Dee is such an innocent here, decidedly wet behind the ears in the ways of amour (with the right boy, of course!) and just not able to wrap her head around the art of ‘man-chasing’. Remember, it is 1959. The best any girl can hope for is a man who will ‘take care of her’ (a phrase of varied interpretations).
Yet, how can our Gidg’ be sure it’s the right man? Mercifully, Gabrielle Upton’s screenplay gives Francie some options…well alright – two; the much older, Kahuna (a.k.a. Burt Vail, and played with affecting sweetness and charm by Cliff Robertson) and ‘Moondoggie’ (a.k.a. Jeffrey Matthews, less effectively realized by James Darren – physically, a knock-off of John Aston, with whom Dee had great chemistry in the aforementioned Minnelli picture). Alas, Dee and Darren never quite hit it off for at least two-thirds of this movie; his myopic exultation of Kahuna’s devil-may-care ‘beach bum’ lifestyle (that Jeff will unsuccessfully seek to emulate – if only for this one eventful summer) and Jeff’s equally as narrow-minded view Gidget is ‘a child’ rather than a girl of his temperament teetering on the cusp of womanhood, leaves our projected lovers at cross-purposes for far too long. It also leaves Gidget feeling frazzled. Today, we’d call it ‘sexual frustration’. One of the most winsome aspects of the picture is Dee’s potential to clear-cut through all the male preening going on around her. Thirty minutes into Gidget, Dee’s tomboy already knows Moondoggie is the only fellow for her. It will take him until seven minutes before the final fade out to come to a similar epiphany. Somewhere between truth and romance we get humorous vignettes devoted either to homespun mother/daughter advice or some truly laughable blue-screen inserts of our tomboyish Gidg’ assimilating as ‘just one of the boys’ as she takes up and masters the leisurely ‘all-male’ pursuit of surfing.
Miraculously, it’s her pert and pint-sized self-reflection that proves the catalyst for so much change; Kahuna, protective of his charge – old enough to drive daddy’s Caddy but hopelessly lacking the social wherewithal to acknowledge an obvious – and even more unwanted, pass made by another member of the troop - ‘Lover Boy’ (Tom Laughlin). Gidget may not know her way around raging hormones, but she certainly has her way with these guys. Kahuna’s boys begin by reluctantly acknowledging her presence as a minor nuisance; then, as their mascot, and finally, as the right girl at the right time, primed for the picking – if only harvest time did not involve so many anxious farmhands in search of this one vine-ripened tomato. I have read several feminist treatises, citing Gidget as a catalyst for the dawning of a new cinematic representation of the all-American woman. Oh, please…let’s not go overboard! Dee’s bright-eyed and book-read babe in the woods is refreshingly not ‘with it’. Were that she could figure out the machinations to mimic her enterprising cohorts I have no doubt she would succumb and succeed in turning on the facet and the charm in tandem to achieve that holiest of holy ‘primal objectives’ for the fifties female: to land a quality hunk of man-flesh. That Gidg’ goes about it all wrong, or rather backwards and sideways (and still manages to hook the biggest catch of the day) is undeniably the crux of this movie’s time-capsule/fairy tale lure; also, its’ foregone conclusion.
After a bouncy main title, we settle in on a day in the life of our Frances Lawrence; a close-up of a decidedly juvenile one-piece bathing suit drying on the clothes line, dissolving to a shot of Frances, all of seventeen and lamenting to a crop-haired Betty Louis (Sue George) she is quite hopeless when it comes to attracting the opposite sex. Frances’ gal pals, Mary Lou (Jo Morrow), Nan (Yvonne Craig) and Patti (Patti Kane) all want to troll the beaches for available red-blooded men. Alas, Frances has yet to feel the hormonal twinge. Despite her father’s best-laid plans to inveigle Frances with Jeffrey Matthews, the son of a business associate, she has other ideas about how best to spend her summer holidays.  Arriving at the beach, the girls are immediately attracted to a group of shirtless, tanned fellas lying around a makeshift hut, waxing their surfboards. But even their more obvious effects fail to catch on. Nevertheless, Frances meets Kahuna and Moondoggie, becoming fascinated by the surfboard. Frances begs Russell to loan her $25 for a used board. Contented their daughter’s interests are aligned with ‘some nice boys’ she has met at the beach, Dorothy convinces Russ to let his little girl have the money.
While Kahuna and the other fellas are impressed by Frances’ resolve to partake of their male-dominated past time, Moondoggie finds virtually nothing redeemable about Gidg’. The boys unofficially take Frances for their mascot and nickname her ‘Gidget’, a portmanteau word derived from 'girl' and 'midget'. Unable to see this as a playful putdown, Gidget believes she has made inroads to a likely détente with Moondoggie. Briefly, Gidget becomes enamored with Kahuna; a Korean War vet twice her the age who has since written off the rules of what society expects of him to become a full-time beach bum. Moondoggie admires Kahuna so much he has decided to delay his own college plans in the fall to accompany his mentor on a freighter bound for Peru at summer’s end.  Of all the boys, Kahuna genuinely enjoys Gidget’s company. Without prying into his affairs, she sincerely questions whether if he knew then what he knows now he would still make the same lifestyle choices…uh…mistakes. It takes some time for those words to sink in, but sometime later, Kahuna takes Gidget’s philosophy to heart, electing to rejoin the human race by getting a real job and hang up his wanderer’s shoes.
Meanwhile, desperate to fit in with the guys – and one in particular – Frances lies to everyone about securing some premium steaks and refreshments for the planned ‘end of summer’ luau. Gidget’s rise to prominence as a ‘surfer girl’ is also delayed when, after being initiated by the fellas, repeatedly dunked in a tangle of kelp, she nearly drowns, developing an acute case of tonsillitis that leaves her bedridden for weeks. Not one to waste any time, Gidg’ practices her surfing technique by balancing her board across her bed. Fully recuperated, she takes to the waves with the boys, impressing even Kahuna and Moondoggie with her impeccable balance. At every attempt to catch Moondoggie’s eye, Gidget’s plans turn either sour or moot. Moondoggie isn’t interested in her. Everyone – even Kahuna – can see that. So Gidget hires one of the other surfers to play the part of her date for the luau. Too bad this plan backfires when the date passes off his sworn duty on Moondoggie, who still has no idea he is the object of Gidget’s affections. Lying to Moondoggie she is out to impress Kahuna instead, Moondoggie and Gidg’ remain at odds until he implies she is just a child, much too young to be interested in a man of Kahuna’s years. Storming off in her convertible, Gidget pursues Kahuna to a nearby ‘love shack’ he has borrowed for the evening from a friend.
Meanwhile, having discovered their daughter’s stormy alliance may not play out in Gidget’s best interests, Dorothy and Russell elect to go see exactly what is happening down at the beach. They arrive too late to find Gidget but are informed by another surfer of the ‘love shack’ and Gidget’s departure to chase after Kahuna. Well ahead of the game, Gidget arrives at the love shack and valiantly pitches herself to be ‘taken advantage of’ without actually knowing what this means. Kahuna is willing to oblige…up to a point. But even he can see Gidget does not really mean what she is saying. As a noble gesture, he sends her away. Too bad a nosy neighbor (Cheerio Meredith) has been all too eager to telephone the police. Now, Moondoggie turns up, demanding to know from Kahuna what has transpired at the shack. Before he can answer for his actions (or lack thereof), Kahuna and Moondoggie get into a brawl. The police break things up. Next, they find Gidget standing by her car down the road. She has suffered a flat tire. Unable to show proof of her license or registration for the family car, Gidget is taken by the officers to the station house. She is humiliated to find Dorothy and Russell already there, desperate for information on her whereabouts. Russell makes both the police and his family a promise: nothing like this will ever happen again. Dorothy reminds her daughter of grandma’s old saying, “A good woman brings out the best in every man.”
In an attempt to realign his daughter’s discernment between nice guys and bums, the next day Russell arranges for Gidget to meet Jeffrey Matthews, the son of his business associate. Both she and Jeff are startled to realize they already know each other much too well. You see, Jeff is Moondoggie! Not wanting to upset her parents any further, Gidget agrees to go on a date with him. Despite her linger affections for Jeff, almost immediately the two begin to quarrel as he drives back to the beach for, as he puts it, ‘one last (nostalgic) look around the place’. The couple discover Kahuna dismantling his makeshift beach shack. Ironically, he too has decided being a beach bum is no way to live. Having accepted a job as a flyer for a local airline, Kahuna and Moondoggie part as friends. Gidget and Moondoggie embrace. He offers her his fraternity pin – the ultimate fifties pledge of long-distance fidelity - while he is away at school. Gidget is over the moon with joy. Her dreams have come true – at least, for the time being.
Gidget takes some time to get going, but once it does its spirit of youthful optimism is as irresistible as ever. Watching Dee’s book-read but clumsy young Miss put herself through the grueling paces of an intellectualized determination to solve a problem where the heart should be leading the way instead, performing ‘breast-enhancement’ exercises in the hopes of amplifying her cleavage before the luau, leaves a palpable sincerity to linger about the hopefulness as well as the helplessness of young people desperate to become adults. But ‘mama’ was right. Being young is the best part of life, filled with new discoveries about one’s self, friendship and love affairs meant to last a lifetime – if only as lingering memories, neatly tucked into the faded pages of a yearbook or old Christmas card. I’ll admit this much; with its summer-themed festivities, releasing a Blu-ray of Gidget just before the pending Christmas holidays seems rather idiotic, or just poor timing to capitalize on its oodles of charm. Whatever the season, Gidget’s passion for life proves the magic elixir to warm our hearts. Sandra Dee was not a great actress. She was, however, a fairly fetching presence on the screen, able to be genuine and play solid comedy. Herein she illustrates not only the potential, but the emotional/mental resources to have achieved far better in a career cut short by inner demons and the inevitable sad decline of her screen popularity by the late 1960’s as she too grew into womanhood, leaving naiveté, along with those school girl days far behind.
In Columbia’s subsequent sequels, Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963), a more mature Gidg’ would be fleshed out by Deborah Walley and Cindy Carol respectively – neither able to recreate Sandra Dee’s bushy-tailed buoyancy. Gidget may not be high art, but it hardly matters. It is a movie to remind of a simpler time in that fictionally woven tapestry of Americana; when to be a virgin was hardly taboo, young love did not necessarily equate to leaving your knickers in a ball on the backseat of someone else’s car, and the prospect of finding true love the first time around – even while in high school, contained a sincere promise made through due diligence to find happiness on one’s own terms; free love, diaphragms, STD’s, and, the pill be damned! We don’t make movies like Gidget today, not even as retro-fitted homage, mainly because our present age has vulgarized the fragility of youth all out of proportion. In music, movies, TV programs and ads promoting hyper-sexualization as ‘the cultural norm’; we live in a pop culture where if you haven’t lost your virginity by sixteen and traded up a partner or two in the interim you might just as well consider yourself washed up. The movies have since confused finding love with getting laid, or rather, made it appear as though the latter is the only gateway to discovering the former. Refreshingly, our Gidget feels the same way – although, she equates ‘making it with a boy’ to friendly hand-holding, a tender kiss on the lips, and storybook daydreams of marrying to start a family. So, the end game really has not changed since 1959. Regrettably, the approach has. So, to paraphrase: “If you’re still in doubt about angels being real. I can arrange to change any doubts you feel. Wait'll you see this Gidget… you'll want her for your Valentine. You're gonna say she's all that you adore. Step right this way. Our Gidg is spoken for. You're gonna find, this Gidget is simply divine!”
Gidget arrives on Blu-ray via Twilight Time. Basically, another quality release from Sony, cribbing from restored and remastered elements in their archive a la Grover Crisp and his minions, who implicitly understand only one route to deep catalog releases from their Columbia Studios’ archives: polished with class and dedication to every last detail. We readily applaud Mr. Crisp and Sony on this blog. Once again, the kudos and accolades are well worth it. Gidget was shot in Cinemascope and ColumbiaColor – the studio-sanctioned derivation of Eastmancolor. Neither is a great process; ‘scope’s peripheral warping of the image wed to muddier than anticipated hues of this monopack color negative. The image can hardly hold a candle to Technicolor or Technirama. Less expensive though, folks; and, in the cost-cutting fifties, keeping the budget in check oft’ meant more than maintaining an overall integrity to any print master for generations that…let’s face it… were still three decades removed from the home video revolution. Movies then, as movies now, were made as disposable mass market entertainment. Unlike now however, then, conservation/preservation (even basic longevity of the product itself) was not considered a priority. Once a movie had its first run theatrically it was rarely shown in its entirety – perhaps, on late night TV, or unless it proved a blockbuster rife for multiple reissues.
Gidget in 1080p looks very nice indeed. There is some marginal fading and the image can occasionally look thick rather than refined. But this is Cinemascope and Eastmancolor, folks; not the fault of this meticulous remastering effort. Age-related artifacts have been completely eradicated. There’s a patina of naturally realized film grain too. Honestly, nothing to complain about here. The DTS audio is 1.0 mono. I am uncertain if Gidget was originally recorded in 4 or 6 track-stereo. Certainly, ‘scope’ was capable of stereo, though a good many original sound mixes were gassed and reused back in the day, leaving only mono mixes behind. Oh well, and again, it is what it is – nicely balanced with clean, crisp dialogue and no strident spots. We also get the score and three songs in stereo, isolated on a separate track. We love Twilight Time for including classic film scores as a supplement when rights permit, although I would sincerely champion all future TT releases of musicals like Doctor Dolittle include not only orchestrations but also vocal tracks. But I digress. Gidget is a charmer on Blu-ray. If you are still in doubt about angels being real, get this one today and be very glad you did. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, December 10, 2017

DOC HOLLYWOOD: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1991) Warner Archive

Michael J. Fox rounded out a phenomenal decade of film and television work with director, Michael Caton-Jones’ Doc Hollywood (1991); exactly the sort of ‘fish out of water’ feel good for which Fox’s unpretentious disposition seems tailor-made. America today is so grotesquely polarized it is hard – if not wholly impossible – to imagine a lithe comedy like Doc Hollywood ever having been green lit by a major studio; so effortless in its satire and then ‘contemporary’ slant on the traditional comedy of manners, with a bit of screwball lightly peppered in for good measure.  Unexpectedly poignant, Doc Hollywood is populated by enough Southern caricatures to make the likes of Tennessee Williams blush. It’s also is the last of Fox’s big screen 'crowd pleasers' to showcase the actor’s natural charisma. At its core, Doc Hollywood remains a Hollywood-zed fairy tale about finding one’s place in the world; not necessarily the same as making plans for the place one might have imagined to be in the next five to ten years. In the same year Fox learned he had Parkinson’s Disease (and, rather fatefully was told by doctors he had maybe ten good years of work left in him), he gives one of his most heartfelt and engaging performances as D.C. hot shot surgeon, Benjamin Stone. The character’s transformation from arrogant prick, with daydreams of wallowing in the superficial glam-bam of La La Land as plastic surgeon extraordinaire to the stars, is derailed when Stone’s cocky entitlement lands him in very hot water with the local magistrate, Judge Evans (Roberts Blossom). Forced to remain for 32 hours in the Southern backwater of Grady, South Carolina - a town with its share of coots, carnies and careworn curmudgeons - Ben elects to make the best of his situation. It won’t be easy. Nurse Packer’s (Eyde Byrde) first impressions of him are as an arrogant piece of work in need of being knocked down a few pegs. She may be right.
Ah, but there’s good people in Grady too; Mayor Nick Nicholson (David Ogden Stiers at his most enchantingly elfin) for one; his daughter, Nancy Lee (Bridget Fonda) – something of the town tart with the proverbial heart of gold for another. We also get Kyle (Time Winter) and Mary Owens (K.T. Vogt) who, despite being perpetually pregnant, only come to the hospital to have their mail read. Homespun summer magic unearthed too by the trio of cameos from Frances Sternhagen, Helen Martin and Amzie Strickland; Grady’s ‘welcoming committee’ – as Lillian, Maddie and Violet, respectively. And then there are Mel Winkler and William Cowart as Melvin the Mechanic and Lane, his German-speaking assistant (just think of them as the grease monkey’s Statler and Waldorf in this unkempt back of beyond). Also, Macon McCalman, as Aubrey Draper, part of Grady’s town counsel and a sort of effete stand-in for Tennessee Williams who takes a marginal – if distant – fancy to our Ben.  Last but not least, we get the 'as ever' unenlightened Insurance salesman, Hank Gordon (brilliantly conceived by Woody Harrelson).
It’s a hell of a cast, capped off by an affecting cameo from George Hamilton, as pony-tailed and perpetually tanned Doctor Halberstrom, whose Los Angeles’ clinic rams as many cash cows through its front door as he can. Aside: I have known such physicians in my time, devoted to their check books in a bottomless pursuit for this gold-plated lifestyle, seeing patients as necessary slabs of meat to furnish another vacation or stately abode in the country, but with precious little in the way of bedside manner that does justice to their Hippocratic Oath taken in service to the community at large. I would be remiss, first, not to acknowledge there are a good many great doctors among this lot, but also to further point out Hamilton’s callous practitioner in Doc Hollywood represents a more common thread afflicting those practicing medicine today. Fox’s depiction of Ben Stone at the outset is well on his way to living down this sense of personal entitlement, lauding his experience over those who (let’s face it) only go to a doctor when they are in desperate need of guidance, advice and, most immediately, medicinal treatment or a cure for what ails them. Viewed from this vantage, literally crash-landing in Judge Evans’ backyard is more than a wake-up call for Ben. He can either revert to being a good doctor (a calling for which he has been trained) or escalate his already ballsy egotism to treat all patients as dollar signs: the fork in the road decided by a pair of wayward milk maids, toting their cows down a lonely back road; Ben, veering his Porsche roadster into Judge Evans’ newly painted white picket fence to avoid them. 
Doc Hollywood is an underrated film in Michael J. Fox’s body of work, coming, as it did, at the tail end of both the fun-filled 1980’s (in hindsight, a decade perfectly suited to Fox’s particular brand of frenzied comedic unease), and, his meteoric reign as one of the most beloved and hardest working actors in Tinsel Town. Appearing in two undistinguished pictures at the beginning of the eighties, Fox landed a pair of plum roles destined to secure his place in movie-land history: the first, as uptight Republican, Alex P. Keaton in the wildly popular TV sit-com, Family Ties (1982-89); the second, by default after first hire, Eric Stoltz proved a disappointment to director, Robert Zemeckis in Back to the Future (1985). It isn’t overstating the obvious to suggest there was no greater ‘teen’ heartthrob throughout the eighties than Michael J. Fox, despite already being 25 years old in 1985. Fox’s boyish good looks carried the illusion he was much younger. But it was his acting chops that secured lasting popularity on both the big and small screens.  Fox rode this wave in popularity through several otherwise disposable entertainments like Teen Wolf (1985) and The Secret of My Success (1987). To both movies he brought an intangible sense of proportion, balancing clean-cut good humor with the most fanciful plots.
Interestingly, Doc Hollywood isn’t quite as silly as it sounds. It’s also not nearly so serious as Fox’s two irrefutable flops: Bright Lights, Big City (1988), where he played a New York magazine fact-checker whose life spirals out of control on booze and drugs, and, Casualties of War (1989), where he proved wholly unconvincing as a vet in a Vietnam war drama co-starring heavy-hitter, Sean Penn. Ironically too, and strictly by the numbers, Fox’s biggest hit after the Back to the Future film franchise was The Secret of My Success; at $110 million, a far cry from the original Back to the Future’s whopping $381.1 million intake. Doc Hollywood ought to have been another world-wide bell ringer. Alas, its $54,830,779 was something of a letdown and perhaps a sign Fox’s box-office drawing power was on the wane; confirmed when only one of his next three pictures – the leaden comedy, Life with Mickey (1993) actually managed to turn a small profit. A great rom/com is only as good as its love interest. Doc Hollywood’s ingenue is Julie Warner, perfectly cast as forthright and no-nonsense ambulance driver, Vialula ‘Lou’. Daring for an actress just starting out, Warner’s ‘cute meet’ with Ben takes place near the lake facing the cabin Mayor Nicholson has picked out for Ben’s residence; Warner, emerging ‘perky bosom’ and ‘bushy’ from the frigid waters, astonishing both Ben and the audience with her overt confidence to appear au naturel. Clumsily, Ben offers Lou his blanket. She tells him if he really is a doctor she does not have anything he has not seen many times before. “You can blink now,” she adds, before getting dressed. It’s a hell of an entrance, book-ended by a performance where Warner pulls no punches and keeps the usually boastful Ben feeling off-kilter and refreshingly humble; also, from making a complete ass of himself after he discovers she is a divorcee with a four-year-old daughter, Emma (Amanda Junette Donatelli).
Doc Hollywood is politely entrancing and far more frank about the platitudes and pitfalls afflicting male/female romantic couplings. Director, Caton-Jones keeps the checks and balances of the anticipated ‘folly, frolic, fun and games’ of courtship balanced in tandem with the underlying current of seriousness, anchored to a real dilemma brewing in Ben’s heart. How can he justify accepting the $35,000 annual salary Mayor Nicholson and the town council are offering him to stay in Grady with the potential for millions, probably earned in a single year, performing unnecessary nips and tucks on L.A.’s uber-rich and sophisticated? The answer, of course, is that quality of life has more to do with the happiness to be quietly unearthed by a community genuinely respectful and in need of his medical talents. Indeed, Grady’s present practitioner, Dr. Hogue (Barnard Hughes) is a grumpy country doctor, his ‘home remedies’ method clashing with Ben’s more recent and up-to-date reliance on modern medicines. The shortcomings of both approaches to medicine are illustrated in Doc Hollywood; Ben, narrowly avoiding open-heart surgery after a misdiagnosis on a six-year-old with an acute case of indigestion, and Hogue, after suffering a major heart attack he stubbornly insists is only angina, has his life saved by Ben’s quick thinking.
Doc Hollywood begins with a glimpse into Dr. Benjamin Stone’s internship since graduating medical school. A promising surgeon working in Washington, D.C., Stone has had his share of over-crowded emergency rooms. Fellow practitioner, Dr. Tommy Shulman (Barry Sobel) thinks Ben is a schmuck, taking the easy way out of a promising career to perform pointless plastic surgeries on the rich. Ben attempts to justify his decision by suggesting the work he intends to pioneer in L.A. will make it possible to advance the art for those desperately in need of reconstructive surgery. Neither Tommy nor Ben actually believe this. But to Ben, it makes no difference. Why work hard when one can just as easily work fast and get paid far more handsomely for it? After all, he has a $70,000 student loan to pay off. On his last day, Ben realizes none of his colleagues care enough to even say good-bye. So, good riddance. Who needs them? A pity, Ben is about to discover everybody needs someone sometimes. While driving his Porsche Speedster, Ben encounters heavy construction and elects to take a shortcut off the main highway. He gets lost in the proverbial boondocks, swerving to miss two cows and a pair of milk maids crossing the road. Momentarily losing control and taking out a considerable breadth of newly painted white picket fence, Ben brings his vehicle to a not so successful stop in the middle of Judge Evans’ front yard. More angered about the state of his car than the fence, Ben nevertheless offers to have his insurance company pay for the damages.
Instead, Judge Evans orders Ben to perform 32 hrs. of community service in his town of Grady, South Carolina.  Mayor Nicholson is elated, hoping Ben will decide to remain as a permanent resident. But Nurse Packer is unimpressed by Ben’s arrival; asking to see ‘some I.D.’ and further humbling him by using a punch clock to register the hours he has put towards his sentence. Ben invests himself in his work and is amused by the various patients he gets; a woman who suggests she is seeing spots when, in fact, she merely needs to have her glasses cleaned; a fisherman with a hook stuck through his thumb, and, an elderly farmer requiring a mere stitch for a superficial cut on his toe. He also meets the Owens – Kyle and Mary; an illiterate couple who come so Ben can read Mary’s sister’s correspondences depicting several lurid relationships in their extended family. Ben is in for a reckoning when he misdiagnoses a young boy with a grave heart condition. In actuality, the boy has chewed his father’s tobacco and been given too much bismuth sub nitrate as an antacid, causing his skin to turn blue. Dr. Aurelius Hogue is carpet-hauled by Ben for prescribing Coca-Cola to neutralize the effect. But Hogue, who is quite right, turns the tables on Ben, admonishing his irresponsible ‘big city’ ways that might have resulted in unnecessary and expensive surgery.
Ben learns from the local mechanics, Melvin and Lane, his vintage car needs a rare part to be repaired. Problem: the vendor does not take credit and Ben has no money. Melvin offers to take a pig given to Ben in trade for his medical services off his hands for the part to fix Ben’s car. Alas, Melvin then sends the pig to the butcher to be slaughtered. Ben desperately tries to get Lou to take an interest in him and is rather startled to discover she was once married to an exotic dancer with whom she has a daughter, Emma. Meanwhile, the Mayor’s daughter and town flirt, Nancy Lee tries to convince Ben to take her with him when he is ready to leave Grady. As if this were not enough of a complication, the local Insurance salesman, Hank Gordon informs Ben it is ‘hands off’ where Lou is concerned.  Hank plans to marry her…someday. Realizing Lou has zero interest in him as a ‘big shot’ from the big city, Ben confesses he is also originally from a very small town in rural Indiana. She is touched by his candor. Alas, fate intervenes again. Dr. Hogue suffers a heart attack. Thanks to Ben’s quick thinking and skills as a doctor, Hogue’s life is spared. Upon his recovery, Hogue entertains his closest friends in his hospital room. But Ben denies Hogue the luxuries of their well-intended fatty feast, dumping most of the food into the garbage and reminding Hogue it was his expertise that saved his life.
Grady marks its annual ‘Squash Festival’ with a parade, midway and fireworks. Ben meets up with Lou and Hank but is quite unsuccessful at sharing anything more than a dance with her. However, some time later while strolling home on the dark backroad, Ben encounters Lou driving her ambulance. She offers to drive him to the lake where she intends they should consummate their brief affair, knowing well Ben still intends to leave town, especially since Judge Evans, grateful for Ben saving Hogue’s life, has had a change of heart and commuted the rest of his sentence. Ben can leave town any time he wants. Alas, once at the lake, Ben suffers an attack of conscience. He will not become another man in Lou’s life she has to regret. Returning to his lakeside lodge to pack, Ben finds Hank awaiting his return. Expecting a fight, Ben is startled when Hank reasons Ben is not selfless enough to share all of his life with Lou. And Ben begrudgingly agrees. Thus, in the dead of night he packs his kit, reclaims his car from Melvin’s garage and plans to make his escape from Grady before anyone is the wiser. Fate, again, has another purpose in store. Ben finds Kyle and Mary Owens stalled by the side of the road. Mary is about to give birth. So, Ben pulls off to attend to Mary, just as the ‘packed up’ carnival rides from the festival are being trucked down the open road. A sleepy driver plows into Ben’s Porsche, evaporating all hope for a discreet getaway.
The next morning, realizing the inevitable cannot be delayed any longer, Lou has Mayor Nicholson get a collection together. The town buys Ben a one-way plane ticket to Los Angeles; Nicholson providing him with a police escort to the airport. Lou tearfully announces she intends to marry Hank and settle down before rushing off into the crowd. Ben leaves Grady and we flash forward to his arrival for the much-anticipated interview on the West Coast with Dr. Halberstrom. Anxious to begin anew on his fast track to success, Ben is haunted by memories of the good people in Grady and, particularly, of Lou. He soon tires of L.A.’s superficiality. Hence, when Halberstrom’s secretary informs Ben a newly arrived woman with ‘a heavy Southern accent’, is eager to meet him at one of the upscale cafés, Ben mistakenly assumes Lou has come to L.A. to be with him. Instead, he finds both Nancy Lee and Hank, newly arrived in his restored Porsche. Hank informs Ben he has decided to relocate his insurance practice to L.A. Better clientele. Hank has turned down Lou’s proposal of marriage. Hank is now with Nancy Lee…well, sort of. Realizing what an epic mistake he has made Ben returns to Grady, reclaims the pet pig meant for the slaughter house and turns up on the steps of the hospital, eager to get Lou back. After some awkward badinage, she takes him back.
Doc Hollywood bounces along on its bucolic un-self-consciousness and country-bumpkin witticisms.  It’s predictable, but precisely the sort of picture Frank Capra in his prime would have championed, its plot bested by the conviction both Michael J. Fox and Julie Warner lend to their characters. These are not kismet sweethearts, per say, but clumsily feuding equals, despite their disparate life’s pursuits. The fact ‘Lou’ is a mother is given short shrift in Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman, Daniel Pyne’s shoot-from-the-hip screenplay, based on Laurian Leggett’s adaptation of M.D. Neil B. Shulman’s novel. Doc Hollywood is often mis-referenced as ‘breezy’ – code for just another ‘fluff piece’ of feather-weight comedy. But actually, the romantic complications invested in Doc Hollywood burrow much deeper into the wounded, shared reticence of two basically smart people, destined to find their own level of comfort in the unlikeliest of situations. A clever movie need not be original to work. We have seen a lot of Doc Hollywood’s in our time, mostly because Hollywood itself enjoys taking humorous stabs at the cornfed Bible belt. Yet, herein, these Southern caricatures have not been misplaced as clumsy oafs or good-time Charlies with a drawl. Everything about Doc Hollywood in fact, feels genuine, smart and sexy with good solid character parts for all concerned. It works and the results are a great little movie to pull out any time you need a pick-me-up or a smile.
Doc Hollywood’s arrival on Blu-ray in a new 2K scan via the Warner Archive is a blessing. The picture was shot by the great Michael Chapman whose credits include the highly stylized palettes of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. It’s a different kind of artfulness he brings to Doc Hollywood, inconspicuous and unassuming, capturing the heavy-heat, lazy atmosphere of this nearly forgotten pocket of the South. Employing an interpositive curated at MPI’s remastering facility at Warner Bros., this Blu-ray looks wonderful and light years ahead of the tired ole pan-and-scan DVD we have suffered through for decades. Applying due diligence, the image has been cleaned up and color balanced, revealing a gorgeous film-like presentation that is crisp and detailed with a light smattering of film grain looking very indigenous to its source. A few shots look marginally soft, but otherwise there is nothing to complain about here. The new 2.0 DTS audio is culled from a Dolby magnetic master that, when decoded, expands to create a pleasantly atmospheric blend in the surround channels, with frontal sounding dialogue and some competently rendered SFX.  One regret: no extras, save a careworn theatrical trailer. Oh well, we can’t have everything. Bottom line: Doc Hollywood should warm the heart with its sincerity. The Blu-ray looks and sounds great.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

I'LL BE SEEING YOU: Blu-ray (Selznick International/Vanguard 1944) Kino Lorber

David O. Selznick never thought small. He did, however, straddle the chasm between artistry and commerce rather efficiently; producing hit after hit at virtually all of the major studios in Hollywood throughout the early 1930’s before electing to go it ‘alone’ as an independent producer mid-decade. Alas, being ones’ own boss proved very expensive for a perfectionist like Selznick and, as a result, by the mid-1940’s he was increasingly fighting a losing battle to keep his studio from sinking deeper into the red. In hindsight, Selznick’s folly was his own nature. He needed to be right and, more often than not – he was. This made for an incredible run of profitable pictures. Alas, it also took time and made for some very strange bedfellows, later to become bad enemies along the way. Creatives like Alfred Hitchcock positively abhorred their tenures with Selznick, chiefly because a picture made under his auspices was, in fact, “A David O. Selznick Production”. By 1944, Selznick had split his interests between movies made with his personal stamp of approval (under the Selznick International banner) and others superficially under his control as executive producer, but made far more cheaply for the B-unit offshoot of his production house – Vanguard.
This decision was primarily necessitated by Selznick’s distribution deal with United Artists. UA demanded a steady stream of product for which Selznick was increasingly finding it difficult to keep up while maintaining his usual standards. The war-time weepy, I’ll Be Seeing You (1944) is a prime example of Selznick diversifying his portfolio; modestly budgeted and coming dangerously close to the sort of ‘assembly-line’ programmer made at other studios that had irked Selznick immensely. Selznick, like MGM’s Irving Thalberg before him, had firmly believed in making fewer pictures, but ones so far and above the competition they could not help but attract an audience with their prestige. Eventually, such gambles on ‘landmark’ pictures would do Selznick in. Yet, for the time being, his philosophy seemed to bear itself out with ever-expanding success and an enviable reputation in the industry for quality that equated to profit, in spite of all his lavish expenditures along the way. Apart from immortalizing the Sammy Fain/Irving Kahal pop standard of the same name (previously inserted into a Broadway flop in 1938 that closed after only 15 performances), I’ll Be Seeing You is a poignantly scripted melodrama about two mismatched wanderers come to discover the strengths of their character in a chance meeting, unexpectedly to blossom into romance. It also happens to be the movie that convinced Selznick from now on he would do far better to create ‘package deals’ (stars, scripts and directors) and then sell-off these properties lock, stock and barrel to a rival for a sizable sum and a 50/50 split of the profits.
Although I’ll Be Seeing You opens with Alfred Newman’s iconic Selznick International fanfare, Selznick served only as executive producer, mostly in name only; passing along the lion’s share of responsibility to Dore Schary, whom Selznick greatly admired at the start, but would come to dislike intensely by the end of their brief alliance. Schary was, in fact, not an easy man to favor, perhaps, in part, because he shared something of Selznick’s temperament for getting things done his own way. Also, Schary’s die-hard liberal politics clashed with Selznick’s more conservative views. Selznick always adhered to the policy audiences were coming to the theater to be entertained. Schary, alas, thought a little ‘re-education’ of the masses was in order; a good many of his subsequent pictures invested in delivering ‘a message’ that oft preceded a picture’s entertainment value, prompting Samuel Goldwyn to suggest, “If I want a message, I’ll send it with Western Union.”
Based on Charles Martin’s play, I’ll Be Seeing You is the bittersweet tale of a prison parolee and a shell-shocked soldier finding their second chance at love and life under the unlikeliest of circumstances. The picture stars Ginger Rogers as Mary Marshall, a naïve secretary with one-time aspirations to have become a New York model. In defending herself from the unwanted advances of her inebriated boss (most certainly to have raped her), Mary inadvertently caused his death. For her ‘crime’, she was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six-years in prison; commuted with time off for good behavior. Rogers career as a dramatic star had taken off since her 1939 divorce from glossy musical fluff a la Fred Astaire over at RKO, winning a Best Actress Academy Award for 1940’s Kitty Foyle. While many today debate the validity of both that performance and Rogers’ Oscar-win, there is little to deny she could play smart, sexy and serious, given the right opportunity. In I’ll Be Seeing You, Rogers is more reserved than her usual, taking a cue from director, George Cukor (a close personal friend who also briefly offered uncredited assistance behind-the-scenes on this picture) to hone her craft for the film’s credited director, William Dieterle. Rogers’ intuition translates to a refreshingly adult sense of purpose and reflection. Her Mary has grown up quite a lot in the three years since her incarceration and Rogers plays Mary as a wounded and world-weary creature, not above allowing a bit of homespun optimism to creep in from the peripheries of her reservations about men.          
Rogers’ co-star is amiable Selznick contract player, Joseph Cotten. Having achieved fame in Orson Welles’ RKO production of Citizen Kane (1941) Cotten became a Selznick favorite. His Corp. Zachary Morgan is a man on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Today, we would likely classify Zach’s affliction as PTSD. Cotten underplays this in all but a single scene; Zach’s penultimate denial of his own self-worth, culminating in one of those Hollywood cliché, ‘make or break’ moments capped off by an epiphany surely to set his mind at ease and his heart upon the right path to true love. With very few exceptions, Cotten usually played to his strengths as a good guy; his stoic Virginian upbringing and mellifluous voice a natural for the movies. And Cotten could equally convey an inner sadness as well as menace when called upon to do so. Remember, he was Hitchcock’s first choice to play the warped serial killer in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – a role about as far removed from the character he plays here. Like Selznick’s other favorite leading ‘every man’ - Gregory Peck, Cotten could also reveal an undercurrent of emotional darkness and grave uncertainty. We get flashes of this in I’ll Be Seeing You; especially during Zach’s penultimate ‘breakdown’ – collapsing onto his bed at the YMCA and mentally reeling as he relives the horrors of the war inside his own head. Sweat-soaked, writhing and terrified, Cotten illustrates the full breadth of Zach’s teetering emotional fragility without ever veering into self-pity or shameless maudlin sentimentality.  
I’ll Be Seeing You commences on a train as Mary and Zach meet cute on a trip to the modest town of Pinehill. Mary is unimpressed by the loud-mouth sailor (Kenny Bowers) who takes the seat opposite her. But she takes a quiet interest in the even more shy Zach. In short order, Mary and Zach establish a false pretext for their mutual interest in each other. She lies to him about being a ‘buyer’ for a department store on holiday and he claims to be on a ten-day furlough from the army, presumably come to visit his sister who also happens to live in Pinehill. Actually, she has been temporarily sprung from the big house for good behavior and he has been only just discharged from the military hospital, suffering mental exhaustion with crippling bouts of nervous anxiety. Once in Pinehill, Zach finagles an invitation to Mary’s Aunt Sara (Spring Byington) and Uncle Henry (Tom Tully), who also have a teenage man-crazy daughter, Barbara (Shirley Temple, unsuccessfully attempting to make the leap from child star to more adult roles). We see Zach take a room at the local YMCA and experience Mary’s reluctant assimilation into her extended family. Almost unknowingly, Barbara anxiously pumps Mary for answers about her past. Meanwhile, suffering from an acute case of conscience, Zach tells Mary he lied to her about having a sister in Pinehill. Since she has already told Sara and Henry as much, Mary helps Zach maintain the illusion to save face.
Afterward, Zach and Mary go to the movies. But the war picture they see seems to unsettle Zach. When Mary ask if this is really what the war is like, Zach opens up to her about his personal experiences. Momentarily imbued with a newfound courage, Zach’s liberation is short-lived. He falters when Swanson (Chill Wills), a middle-age soda jerk afflicted with a facial tic, recounts being shell-shocked from his experiences in World War I. Anxious his own affliction will soon result in a similar disfigurement, Zach suffers an anxiety attack and flees from the café, unable to share his true fears with Mary. And although Mary is reticent about the night’s awkward conclusion, she agrees to see Zach again the next day. Returning to Aunt Sara’s, Mary now addresses Barbara’s innate distrust of her by relating the circumstances that sent her to prison. At the end of her sobering tale, Barbara is brought to genuine tears and begs Mary’s forgiveness for her ignorance. It is willingly given. The next day, Zach takes Mary to a nearby lake to explain his previous night’s behavior. We hurry ahead to Christmas Eve at the Marshalls; Zach, commenting on their close-knit affections. It’s the only real family he has known in a very long while. As Zach is still quite unaware Mary’s stay is temporary, she asks Sara if he should be told the truth. Sara cautions against it, however.
Now, Zach invites the Marshall family to a New Year's Eve gala hosted by the YMCA. To mark the occasion in style, Sara elects to buy Barbara and Mary new party dresses. To ease Sara’s expenses Mary quietly gives the sales girl some money to bring down the actual cost charged to her Aunt. Believing Mary will feel very self-conscious about the price, Sara also gives the sales girl some money in advance, instructing her to down play the actual cost even further. At the party, Zach is put on the spot by a U.S. Senator who attempts to solicit the homogenized soldier’s opinions on political affairs. In reply, Zach explains every soldier is his own man with his own thoughts on how to pursue the American dream. What one thinks the others do not necessarily, and thus – soliciting ‘the soldier’s point of view’ seems a very moot and foolhardy pursuit indeed. Mary and Zach dance the night away. In the wee hours of the morning, while walking Mary home, Zach is attacked by an angry dog. Rather than cowering in fear, Zach manages to ward off the dangerous animal until its owner can have it restrained. Mary suggests to Zach he has proven, if only to himself, he is a lot stronger; much more than he thinks.
Invested with confidence, Zach returns to his room at the YMCA, only to suffer a debilitating setback; reliving his worst nightmares of the war, leaving him emotionally and physically depleted.   Knowing they are scheduled to leave for their respective destinations the next day, Zach agrees to ride with Mary to the train depot. Mary is cut to the quick by Zach’s declaration of love, rushing indoors to cry on Aunt Sara’s shoulder. But the next day as Mary reluctantly prepares for the train, Barbara inadvertently explains Mary’s real situation to Zach. Wounded by her lack of trust in him, Zach becomes distant on the car ride to the station. He silently boards the train leaving Mary perplexed. Returning home, Mary discovers what has happened. Unable to hold Barbara responsible, Mary nevertheless weeps genuine tears. Her last chance at happiness has been ruined. Or has it? That night, as Mary approaches the gates of the state prison, Zach steps from the shadows to apologize for his behavior. The two lovers embrace; Zach vowing to wait out the next three years for Mary’s official release. He will be seeing her again!
I’ll Be Seeing You was Selznick International’s Christmas release and, unsurprisingly, hit the bull’s eye at the box office to the tune of $3.8 million. A tearjerker with a poignant message about love, life and loss is usually surefire, and while the romantic inklings between Ginger Rogers and Jo Cotten were not exactly ‘sparks’, they did equate to a lighthearted and tender whimsy for simpler times that wartime audiences could definitely relate to. I’ll Be Seeing You has held up remarkably well over the years, despite its lack of reissue – both theatrically, and later, on television as the sort of pre-packaged Christmas fodder one expects a la Going My Way (made and released the same year as this movie) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (coming down the pike one year later). Selznick may not have appreciated the more factory-like grinding out of Vanguard’s yearly output (indeed, he believed in fewer pictures made with precise craftsmanship and attention paid to every last detail), but the old-time mogul could definitely respect the revenues generated from these ‘less than perfect’ crowd-pleasing entertainments; particularly as he was then preparing to launch into another opus magnum on par with all the struggles and strife endured on Gone With the Wind (1939). Regrettably, for Selznick, Duel in the Sun (1946) would not be another Gone With the Wind.
Kino Lorber is mining the Selznick back catalog with gusto, though not exactly with the sort of attention to every last detail Selznick would have admired. It’s not their fault, actually. They are merely the distributors of ‘less than perfect’ to (on occasion) downright shoddy and tired, careworn and outdated masters provided to them by the real rights holder. I’ll Be Seeing You doesn’t look as bad on Blu-ray as Since You Went Away or Portrait of Jennie. Indeed, a lot of this 1080p transfer will please the casual viewer. Contrast is weaker than anticipated, but overall the gray scale contains some very nice and consistent tonality. Close-ups and medium shots illustrate more refined details and a light smattering of film grain. Long shots tend to appear soft and slightly out of focus.
What can I tell you? This image harvest derives from elements that ought to have received a new 4K (minimum 2K scan and clean-up). It is the benefactor of neither. So, what we have here is a rough approximation of an image harvest prepped for DVD some years before, merely bumped to a 1080p output. It’s okay in an average sort of way that usually receives a passing grade from other reviewers neither interested in what the film looked like theatrically, nor aspiring to do the utmost to ensure future generations have an archival print worthy of all the talent, time and energy that went into the original making of a classic. Accepting such base-line efforts would be a good starting point if Blu-ray and film preservation/restoration technologies were still in their infancy. They’re not! With a little more time and money paid we could have had a quality affair to champion. I’ll Be Seeing You’s audio is, again, adequate, but unremarkable. Extras are limited to an audio commentary by film historians, Kat Elinger and Sam Deighan, plus a very badly wore theatrical trailer. Bottom line: recommended for content…and transfer, I suppose. Sorry, but I’m not into ‘average’. Neither was Selznick. How about you?
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, December 8, 2017

SAYONARA: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1957) Twilight Time

In a career of innumerable highs, Marlon Brando gave one of his most affecting performances as a U.S. military man whose most heroic act is working through his own ensconced bigotry. Joshua Logan’s Sayonara (1957) is based on James A. Mitchener’s 1954 novel; itself, a brave and heartfelt cause célèbre, never preachy about its message of racial tolerance. Brando, who in later years would be branded with the scarlet letter for being a ‘difficult’ actor was, in fact, praised by Logan herein for his ‘pliable’ good nature as well as his inventiveness; adopting a Southern accent (not in Mitchener’s book) to play the part of U.S. flyboy, Major Lloyd ‘Ace’ Gruver. Paul Osborn’s genteel, yet probing adaptation of Mitchener’s prose charts Gruver’s sensitive self-investment, stirring from the stupor of his Kentucky-fried white-bred racism towards the Japanese. Brando’s performance is lightly peppered in precisely this sort of homespun good ole boy charm, slowly to slip from the tangled knots of a conventional youth into a more mature and honest assessment of the world beyond. Indeed, early on Brando’s hot shot pilot begins to suffer from an acute attack of conscience, confessing to one of the base doctors his mounting ennui, bordering on depression. The Japanese pilots he has been decorated for shooting down have begun to acquire ‘faces’ etched into his memory; the plight of people as opposed to nations more presciently replacing that military-indoctrinated, oft blindsided patriotism. 
And yet, as memorable as Brando’s performance is, it isn’t the one that received the highest praise or honors in 1957. While Brando did earn a justly deserved Oscar-nomination (forgivably forfeited to Alec Guinness for The Bridge on the River Kwai) it was co-stars, Red Buttons (in his movie-land debut) and Miyoshi Umeki (in her American unveiling) who took home statuettes for their tenderly flawed coupling as American flyer Joe Kelly and his fragile war bride, Katsumi. Umeki, in fact, became the first Asian to win the Oscar; her legendary career as a recording artist in Japan ended with her decision to move to the United States. In their review of her performance on Broadway in Flower Drum Song (a role she would reprise for the movie version in 1961) Time Magazine summarized Umeki’s effectiveness as an actress far better than I ever could: “the warmth of her art works a kind of tranquil magic.” Sayonara also received Oscars for Ted Haworth and Robert Priestley’s Art Direction/Set Decoration and George Groves sound recording. Sayonara’s forgivable Best Picture loss to the aforementioned ‘Kwai’ does not diminish its impact on audiences ever since. Apart from its ‘message’, Sayonara is an exquisitely photographed super-production; Warner Bros. pulling out all the stops to produce a lavish spectacle, photographed on location in Kobe Hyogo, Kyoto, Tokyo, Isaka and Takamatsu Island in Japan, as well as sound stages back home, effectively blended in Technicolor’s patented hi-def process of Technirama by cinematographer supreme, Ellsworth Fredericks. Joshua Logan fills the elongated screen with a vista of breathtaking compositions, achieving an exoticism to bottle the genuine flavor of Japanese culture, offset by Brando’s proverbial ‘fish out of water.’ 
After a mesmerizing main title sequence, to showcase the fragile beauty of the Japanese landscape, set to Franz Waxman’s haunting score with (wait for it) a title tune written by Irving Berlin, Sayonara begins in Korea. Maj. Lloyd Gruver has just returned from another successful mission in the skies. Alas, his heart is just not in the spirit of combat anymore. Despite his reputation as a hot shot pilot, whose square-jawed ‘good looks’ and butch persona make him the envy of every aspiring flyer on the base, Ace is able to recognize something is sincerely lacking. His fame is meaningless. A good ole Southern boy, Gruver is used to doing what he is told. That includes accepting reassignment to Itami Air Force Base in Kobe, Japan, a ruse perpetrated by Gen. Webster (Kent Smith) and his Mrs. (Martha Scott) to place Gruver in closer proximity to their daughter, Eileen (Patricia Owens). Ellie and Lloyd have been sweet on each other for some time. She desperately wants to marry him; a spark he decidedly does not share. Indeed, Lloyd has never been in love and Eileen, recognizing this, will not settle for a man who would marry her out of sense of duty alone. Paul Osborn’s plot briefly deviates to a potential liaison between Eileen and Kabuki star, Nakamura (Ricardo Montalban, idiotically miscast). Indeed, Eileen practically drags Lloyd to Nakamura’s show where Lloyd is decidedly uncomfortable with the idea of men playing women’s roles on the stage. He prefers Marilyn Monroe.    
Reluctantly agreeing to be ‘best man’ at Joe Kelly’s rather perfunctory and thoroughly uncomfortable wedding to Katsumi, despite the U.S. Military establishment’s strong disapproval to inter-racial marriages, as well as his own strong misgivings on the subject, Gruver comes under even graver scrutiny from Webster and his wife, who have yet to figure out he and Eileen are not going to be married. Gruver is astonished to discover some 10,000 Americans have since wed Asian sweethearts in spite of this overwhelming animosity: America imposing an embargo on virtually any of these inter-racial couples desiring to relocate to the United States. At the officer’s recreational clubhouse fellow soldier, Captain Bailey (James Garner) is denied permission to bring his girlfriend, Fumiko San (Reiko Kuba) to table. Although Gruver is not particularly pleased with the club’s stance on this innocuous fraternization, he sides with the policy as outlined by Webster. Alas, sometime later, Bailey and Gruver meet again; Bailey offering to take Lloyd to the latest production put on by the Matsubayashi all-female musical revue. Its star, Hana-Ogi (Miiko Taka) is a stunningly handsome woman with oodles of talent to boot. She mesmerizes Gruver throughout the night’s festivities, bringing him to his feet in rousing applause at the end.
Alas, Gruver’s attempts to introduce himself to this vibrant artistic flower grow dim. Hana-Ogi, who lives on the grounds of the academic dance school she is honored to teach at, does not entertain gentlemen callers – especially Americans. Later, Gruver learns from Fumiko both Hana-Ogi’s father and brother were killed by American fighters in the war. Undaunted, Gruver waits patiently by the footbridge each afternoon as Hana-Ogi and the girls take their leave off school’s grounds to venture into the nearby city. Gruver elects to concoct a plan to test Hana-Ogi’s interest in him. After a week of waiting by the bridge he deliberately misses an afternoon, quietly observing the girls from a distance and waiting for any reaction from Hana-Ogi. To his great pleasure she is suddenly disturbed not to find him lurking about. Meanwhile, the Websters press on with their flawed plans to force an engagement between Lloyd and Eileen. In their presence Eileen repeatedly turns down Lloyd’s invitations to dinner, effectively putting a period to their nosy queries. As both romances seem to be at a standstill, Gruver receives an invitation from Joe to visit the home he has established with his new bride. Gruver is most impressed with the modestly appointed abode; also, by Katsumi’s abiding love and respect for her new husband. But he is quite unprepared for what comes next; Joe having arranged for Hana-Ogi to meet Gruver in one of the adjacent rooms.
Gruver’s first tries at polite conversation fall flat. Indeed, Joe and Katsumi afford the couple total privacy to break their glacial barrier. Finally, Hana-Ogi informs Joe of her lingering resentment towards all Americans, bitterly blamed for the deaths of her father and brother. Joe’s pride is momentarily wounded by Hana-Ogi’s inference all Americans are monsters. But then, Hana-Ogi confides, having met Joe, and now himself socially, she cannot in all good conscience maintain this bias. Gruver orchestrates clandestine meetings; a growing affection blossoming between these two lovers as they transgress against, and finally conquer the prejudices from their respective youths. Tragically, the dark hand of fate intervenes on this happiness. Eileen overhears a conversation. Joe’s home has been under military surveillance. Believing Gruver is in danger, Eileen goes there to warn him, only to discover he is in the arms of another woman. Meanwhile, Joe’s idyllic life is further threatened when his new superior officer assigns him the least attractive duties to preoccupy virtually all of his free time. To quash any more of their boys falling for the local color, the military plots to reassign its gallant men immediately. Aware his reassignment states-side will result in a permanent separation from Katsumi, who has since become pregnant with his child, Joe quietly elects to take both their lives in a double suicide.
Unaware of their fates, Gruver pleads with Gen. Webster to allow Joe and Katsumi to remain in Japan. Webster refuse. Gruver and Bailey rush to Joe’s home to discover the Army already boarding up the doors and windows of Joe’s home, a crowd of locals gathered outside. Gruver breaks in and finds Joe and Katsumi locked in each other’s arms on their marital bed – dead, yet with a look of serene repose about their faces; Joe, still gently clutching his pistol. Their discovery sickens Gruver, who now informs Gen. Webster he intends to wed Hana-Ogi at the earliest possible convenience. This revelation is made before Eileen and her mother also. Quite satisfied Lloyd has never loved her as much as he does Hana-Ogi, Eileen decides to pursue a romance with Nakamura. Regrettably, Gruver’s passion is thwarted when, after barging into the dance academy, he discovers Hana-Ogi has since moved to pursue her career in Tokyo. General Webster informs Gruver the ban against enlisted men bringing their war brides back to the United States is to be lifted.
Armed with this news, Gruver travels to Tokyo, interrupting Hana-Ogi backstage after her latest performance. She insists the gentle soft core of their love affair will never withstand the aged crust of prejudice that surrounds them. When asked “what will our children be?” Gruver humbly explains, “Half yella’/half white. Half Japanese/half American. Half you/half me.” Hana-Ogi cannot argue with her beloved’s resolve to discover the future awaiting them – together. As the couple departs the theater, they are besieged by fans and reporters from The Stars and Stripes military newspaper for a sound bite about their plans. Proudly, Gruver informs everyone he and Hana-Ogi will marry with all speed. When one of the reporters suggests such a marriage between one of the great war heroes and a Japanese actress will ruffle too many feathers in the top brass, further inquiring what he, Gruver, intends to tell his superiors in his own defense, Gruver rather flippantly replies with confidence, “Tell ‘em we said, ‘Sayonara’ (the Japanese word for ‘good-bye’).”
Sayonara was a huge hit in 1957. Regrettably, its reputation has waned in the intervening decades. Rarely seen, and suffering the further indignation of allowing its rights to lapse, Sayonara ought to have remained proudly under the Warner Bros. banner, for it is truly one of the stars in that studio’s tiara of crown jewels. The story is riveting from start to finish, never told with the heavy-handedness that so readily afflicts other ‘progressive’ pictures devoted to themes of social justice. Under Joshua Logan’s direction, Sayonara endures as a splendidly conceived and extremely poignant time capsule; a nostalgic depiction of the fallout from racial prejudice. It is a story from an era when Hollywood, perhaps not readily known for its ‘message pictures’, nevertheless expressed a willingness to gamble on ‘unusual’ properties that have long since continued to ripen and unearth so much more about the human condition with each passing decade. While too much of our movie culture now, and certainly a goodly number of pictures made in the fifties, are glossy and gargantuan confections, offering much for the eye, yet too little to ease the heart (certainly, Sayonara’s lithe tale is as tricked out with positively sublime production values to coat the pill of its sobering moral with a bon-bon gloss, most palpable – even to the narrow-minded among us), it shares the spotlight today with virtually no other production as invested in challenging racial stereotypes. Herein, Sayonara is quite unique, heartfelt, epic in its tragedy, and yet, morally uplifting – even more impressively, all at once. Surely, there are other Sayonara’s yet to emerge that need to be told. Alas, where are today’s talented ‘progressives’ to rise up and meet this challenge finely, purely and with all the splendiferousness of achieving their high art from their high morals – not their high horses? Where, indeed?
Twilight Time’s new to Blu release of Sayonara is a mixed blessing. For although this 1080p offering rectifies a goodly number of sins committed on the old MGM/UA DVD release from 2002, through renewed studio short-sightedness and lack of funds, these badly archived original elements have not been given the benefit of a full-blown restoration. Pity that. For Technirama was a magnificent process, employing 35mm, 8-perforation frames, nearly twice the size of conventional Cinemascope. Unlike the ‘scope’ process, Technirama used a 1.5:1 anamorphic optic to stretch the image vertically rather than horizontally. In Technicolor’s laboratory, the 8-perf negative was optically reduced to 4-perf with images vertically made in the 2:1 anamorphic ratio. Because of its pliability, Technirama also carried 4-tracks of stereo and could be blown up to 70mm prints, revealing a startling breadth of color density, adjusted and balanced during the printing process. What all this means is Sayonara on Blu-ray ought to have been a visually resplendent experience. What we have instead is a presentation merely adequate, and, regrettably, at times totally subpar to the Technirama process.
From the outset, it becomes quite clear something is terribly wrong; the main titles looking as though they have been fed through a meat grinder; riddled in a horrible amount of dirt and scratches. Would it have really broken the bank for Fox/MGM, the present-day custodians of this deep catalog title, to employ a little blue-wash therapy to fill in the damage and cracks, and perhaps a bit of color stabilization thereafter to reduce the sporadic amounts of built-in image flicker? Perhaps. The good news here is that much of Sayonara escapes MGM’s miserly shortsightedness. Age-related artifacts are curiously curtailed after the main titles to an acceptable – though not forgivable – level. Aside: it’s almost 2018, folks. This sort of half-ass mastering is a holdover from the bad ole days before hi-def was even an inkling on the horizon. It has virtually no place among home video efforts we should be expecting today. Color density is pretty solid throughout, but occasionally the image appears slightly faded. Flesh tones can look quite good some of the time, but downright pasty elsewhere; not just from scene to scene, but shot to shot. What a shame and a sham! TT is not to be blamed here, folks. And for many, Sayonara’s overall image will greatly impress as it does noticeably advance over the careworn MGM/UA DVD.
But is this the barometer by which any hi-def 1080p release should be judged? “Better than” is still not “best of all” or “the best it can be.”  I often receive flak from both fans and distributors when I am critical of their output, lack thereof, or worst of all, lack of quality in what actually manages to escape from their respective stables. Sayonara is a great film deserving of far better than it has received herein. The 2.0 DTS audio is adequate but unremarkable. It would be interesting to know if there are any archival 4-track stereo elements of Franz Waxman’s isolated score. We know from TT’s ‘insider’ surviving 4-track stereo elements of the finished soundtrack (dialogue, SFX and music) do exist in the Warner vaults. TT was denied access to them by WB – a very sad state of affairs, indeed (unless, Warner is planning its own re-issue from their Archive sometime in the near future). Perhaps the final insult here is TT’s release contains only an isolated music and effects track. We really ought to have an audio commentary here to provide historical context, not only on the movie’s back story, but also the U.S. policy regarding interracial marriages back then. Few movies are as deserving of more attention paid than Sayonara. It is frankly a little off-putting Sayonara in particular has received so little love for this debut Blu-ray release. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)