Sunday, October 22, 2017

THE LAW AND JAKE WADE: Blu-ray (MGM 1958) Warner Archive

Over the years, the revenge tragedy has been played out a lot of different ways, though perhaps never more ad nauseam than in the Hollywood western.  Can anyone think of a single cowboy movie that does not involve some desperado feebly attempting to get even with the proverbial ‘good guy’, only to have his beautiful wickedness buried along with the rest of him in Boot Hill or a reasonable facsimile? And so we come to John Sturges’ The Law and Jake Wade (1958); a set aside and under-considered prime example from this ilk, I suspect the lesser, only because it arrived in the midst of so many shining examples. 1958 is undeniably the last gasp of the establishment having its hurrah; the ‘assembly-line’ mentality of making pictures rapidly coming to an end; the old guard clinging desperately to the past and the engineering gone into a studio-made product being cleaved from its audience by changing times, tastes, the government Consent Decree and too many other variables to be intelligently discussed in brief consideration now. Suffice it to say, The Law and Jake Wade is one of the last examples of a studios’ tight reigns over the creatives toiling under their auspices. I am always critical of those who write about the studio era as though it were micromanaged with a sledgehammer under the tyranny of demigods out to wreck any artistic merit an ‘auteur’ might benevolently bequeath them. Moguls ruled with an iron fist – perhaps. But their way yielded hours of pleasure and some of the finest examples of ‘movie art’ this world has ever – and will likely as ‘ever’ know; cultural artifacts to outlast the system responsible for their creation, and destined for immortality as long as there are men and women to remember and cherish this past with renewed interest into our ever more uncertain future in popular entertainments.    
Superbly photographed in Cinemascope and Metrocolor by the versatile Robert Surtees, in California’s starkly beautiful High Sierras, Lone Pine and Death Valley, The Law and Jake Wade also features incredibly nuanced performances from its two male leads: Robert Taylor, long since transgressed on the other side of his once impossibly handsome good looks and seeming appropriately weathered and careworn as the titular title character, and, the ever-as-accomplished Richard Widmark, fading shades of his Tommy Udo screen persona creeping into yet another exceptional turn as the superlative ‘baddie’ of the piece, Clint Hollister.  In their misguided youth, Jake and Clint were inseparably evil; robbing banks and killing any law-abiding citizen who stood in their way. Eventually, fate, time and conscience caught up with Jake who, having seen the error of his ways, matured and repented; working like hell to become the Marshal of his small town and a respected pillar of the community besides.  Alas, Clint never amended his outlook on life. In fact, the pall from his wicked past has only ripened, turning more rancid with age.
The Law and Jake Wade is a great western for any number of reasons, though chiefly because of the earthy antagonism between Taylor and Widmark in constant flux throughout the movie’s rather scant 88 min. run time. Yes, only 88 min., but so expertly scripted by William Bowers (based on Marvin H. Albert’s novel) and evenly paced by Sturges, it plays like an epic of considerably more girth and merit. Widmark’s is the sustained ‘flashier’ part in the picture. There is definitely something to be said for Widmark’s talent in making the very face of sin so scandalously appealing; a quality for which the actor in real life was a completely unassuming counterpoint. Likely, this curious attractive quality has a lot to do with Widmark’s voice, somehow raspy and cruel, yet with an underpinning of painful, disgruntled integrity. One always senses that under the right circumstances and with just a little creative tweaking, Widmark’s anti-heroes and outright villains could have been as good-natured and communal as the proverbial ‘boy next door’. This makes the revelation of his dastardly and venomous creations all the more poignantly tragic. When Widmark’s Hollister takes his fatal bullet near the end of The Law and Jake Wade, his crumpled glance of surrender is so full of guileless disbelief it fleetingly reveals the sort of average fellow he rather hoped to be in life if fate had dealt him a different hand.  
On the flipside here is Robert Taylor. In his youth, Taylor epitomized the thirties matinee idol. No kidding: in films like Camille (1936) and Personal Property (1937) he was one of the most perfectly formed male creatures to ever set foot in front of a movie camera; chiseled yet boyish, sexy though smart, and with a queerly fresh-faced ‘come hither’ way about him to make the ladies swoon on both sides of the screen. Taylor may have lacked Clark Gable’s rawer animal magnetism (no one ever topped Gable in his prime in this department) but he made up this dearth with a perfectly-planed face and frame that leant a competing desirable male beauty as the proverbial beefcake and pin-up. Time, alas, is unforgiving to us all, and in many ways, more so to Taylor, who continued to be typecast as the male ingénue long after his ‘cute factor’ had settled into the doldrums of middle-age; that fateful, inevitable epoch where one must work twice as hard to look half as good. The transition for Taylor might have been smoother had MGM not been so slavishly invested in continuing to promote him as their Numero Uno stud. Taylor’s Jake is decidedly gone beyond this expiration date.  Interestingly, Taylor allows us to see this residual sadness, perhaps even abject capitulation he might rekindle something of his former self for the ladies who paid to see Bob Taylor in his prime.
The chemistry between Widmark and Taylor here is toxically bromantic; Hollister’s repeated torture of his one-time cohort, now almost settled into quaint domesticity with the winsome Peggy (Patricia Owens, of 1958’s The Fly fame) fairly reeks of a homoerotic love affair turned stale. Hollister thought Jake was his ‘partner’ – either in life or a life of crime. Having been thrown for the proverbial ‘girl next door’, the ex is now out for bitter revenge; also, to reclaim the $20,000 Jake buried from their penultimate robbery after he decided to ‘go straight’.  Even more telling is Jake’s glacial reluctance to reveal virtually any part of his former self to the girl he supposedly wants to marry, despite her willingness to listen, even absolve him of his sins. No, there is something deeper, more darkly sinister about the hypnotic sway Hollister has over Jake. And his chronic goading to get Jake to reveal parceled off increments of their checkered past increasingly translates into a far more subversive exposure than anyone, even Jake, and much less Peggy, is willing to acknowledge. Oh say it isn’t so, Jake. Leave us something of our childhood impressions of manly men, solitarily trudging across these wide open spaces, to remember as the great civilizing factor of the American West!
Herein, we doff our caps to the picture’s excellent supporting cast: De Forest Kelley’s steely-eyed Wexler, and, Henry Silva’s as cool, if moderately more psychotic Rennie, Eddie Firestone’s weak-kneed Burke, and, perhaps best of all, Robert Middleton’s compassionate and portly, Ortero; the one man who implicitly knows Hollister is no good down to his core, and is willing to gamble on Jake pulling them all out of a very sticky situation; an Comanche ambush in a remote and desolate ghost town.  We lost ‘big’ Bob Middleton (born Samuel G. Messer) much too soon, dead at the age of 66 from congestive heart failure in 1977.  His Ortero proves the lone compassionate voice in this motley band of brothers. One senses a kindred spirit here, very much aligned with Jake’s desire to break free from the invisible shackles of an imperfect past. Middleton’s booming baritone is driven down to low sustained octaves, offering us flashes of his more affecting take on the brutish mountain man or corrupt, cigar-chomping fat cat he was oft’ typecast. It’s the nuanced empathy here that kicks Middleton’s performance into a higher gear; distinguishes it from the rest of the group with unanticipated dollops of humility and honor, commodities not readily explored by the others, or even in general within the western milieu of brazen banditos.  
After some stunning location photography underneath the main titles, The Law and Jake Wade wastes no time. We witness ex-Confederate soldier and highwayman-turned-marshal, Jake Wade ride into the sleepy outpost of Morganville to perform a daring jail break at dawn of his former partner in crime, Clint Hollister. After more than a year’s absence, it seems Jake has had an attack of conscience. The town’s sheriff intends to hang Hollister for a more recent spate of crimes. But Jake recalls too well how, under similar circumstances, Hollister came to his rescue; the two robbing a bank for $20,000 both men agreed to split at some later date. Instead, Jake turned legit, burying the money in the desert and leaving Hollister to fend for himself. Having reformed since, Jake erroneously believes springing his ex will square their friendship for good; an idiotic notion. Hollister’s promise to Jake is less than teeming with gratitude. After beating the sheriff senseless and wounding two townsmen who attempt to foil his escape, Hollister vows to never let Jake have a moment’s relaxation from this point forward. It does not take long for Hollister to fulfill this threat. Despite Jake’s best efforts to double and triple back, covering his tracks while making a pit stop to visit his beloved fiancée Peggy, Hollister sends one of his more capable scouts, Rennie, on ahead.
Jakes pleads with Peggy to pull up stakes and relocation somewhere more obscurely. She resists. After all, Peggy wants a home and stability, and a life free from want and fear; commodities Jake cannot provide. Returning to his outpost as Marshal, Jake is ambushed and knocked unconscious by Rennie, awakening some time later to find Hollister and the rest of his posse standing over him with Peggy already their hostage. Now, Hollister makes Jake a promise; to kill him after he has led them to the $20,000. Peggy? She may still get out of this one alive. But who knows? A strange woman in a strange land, surrounded by men of questionable character who haven’t seen a woman in quite some time; it doesn’t make for a very quaint bedtime story. And neither are the yarns Hollister spins during their nightly respites; regaling Peggy with her beloved’s former life as a bank robber who, during one of their heists, actually murdered a teenage boy. Jake is demoralized. And although Peggy’s naïve impressions of Jake as a heroic figure of the ole west have been bludgeoned by the truth her fidelity to the man remains unbowed. 
Hollister has Jake’s hands tied behind his back, causing him to take a tumble off his horse several times during their solitary trek across the stark tundra. At one point, Wexler implores Hollister to reconsider untying Jake so he can hang on to his saddle. As Hollister might have suspected, this is all the opportunity Jake needs to stage a daring – but ultimately failed – escape; taking a tumbled down a sand dune into a steep ravine. Recapturing his arch nemesis, Hollister and his men bluff their way past a cavalry patrol whose sergeant (Henry Willis) for warns of Comanche attacks. Hollister and his men proceed with caution, arriving at an all but forgotten and thoroughly abandoned outpost in the middle of nowhere. Hollister is eager to search for the money. But Jake stalls, pointing out an Indian scout followed them. Hollister uses a rifle to pick off this tracker, only to be informed by Jake of two more, since ridden hard and fast to alert the rest of their tribe of the white man’s intrusion into their territory. Infuriated, but realizing they will be overrun should the remaining scouts make it back to their base camp, Hollister makes chase across the wilderness, ordering the rest of his gang to remain vigilant in their observations. With Hollister out of the way, Jakes plots to win back the respect of his gang. Everyone takes refuge inside an abandoned saloon.
Unbeknownst to anyone, the Comanche have already quietly infiltrated the outer peripheries of the town. As night falls Jakes pleads with Ortero, the most empathetic of the bunch, to protect Peggy and find some way to get her back to the town of Cold Water. Ortero agrees. Alas, the Comanche now launch a full-scale attack on the village, picking off Burke without much effort. Both Peggy and Jake narrowly avoid being scalped. Rennie nervously suggests they abandoned their plans of recovering the money, lest they wind up dead first and therefore unable to spend it. Into their midst, Hollister unexpectedly returns. Now the Comanche launch another assault. Peggy frees Jake from his ropes and together with Hollister and Ortero they manage to fend off the attack. At the break of dawn, Hollister demands to know the whereabouts of the money. Jake informs him he buried it in the cemetery at the top of the hill. Forcing Jake to dig up the loot, Hollister is nevertheless unprepared when Jake recovers not only the money, still in its saddlebag, but also a loaded revolver he hid in anticipation of just such an ambush. Although he suspects the gun will not fire, Hollister is quite unwilling to take any chances. Holding Hollister at gunpoint, Jake instructs Ortero to take Peggy away so he and his rival can settle their differences like men. After their horses have departed, Jake gives Hollister back his gun and the two proceed to stalk each other in a game of cunning that ends with Jake shooting Hollister dead. Ortero and Peggy return; presumably, everyone much wiser for their terrible adventure.    
The Law and Jake Wade is a superior western. If it somehow fails to enter our collective consciousness with all the staying power of movies like The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) or True Grit (1969), it certainly isn’t for lack of trying. Director, John Sturges, whose film credits are as impressive as the man himself, infuses this rather straight-forward mano a mano revenge tragedy with an underlay of personal accountability. Our ‘hero’ – Jake Wade – is neither perfect nor impervious to the prospect of paying for his past transgressions. And yet, we sense in him all the angst of a solitary investigator into life’s more broadly misperceived truths. Jake is not a wanderer, cleaved from the six guns and saddlebags of those many dusty frontier loners put forth by John Wayne. He is a man in search of belonging to someone and something better than himself. The antithesis of his quest for inner peace is Richard Widmark’s insidious Clint Hollister; the past incarnated as the proverbial millstone about Jake’s neck. Jake will never be rid of his past until he is untethered from Hollister. And yet, to put a period to his arch nemesis without provocation would damn his conscience to a perennial reminder of yet another transgression against life itself. Recognizing the error of his ways has not made Jake soft. But it has made him mindful of the possibility there may be a point of no return in this life, and, if one exists beyond Boot Hill, where atonement and eternal enlightenment are destined never to run parallel courses. In the final analysis, The Law and Jake Wade carries on the traditions of great Hollywood western while ever so subtly advancing it beyond the proverbial good guys vs. the bad, and cowboys vs. the Indians scenarios. Understated, and sadly underrated, The Law and Jake Wade is deserving of renewed respect.
We tip our hats to the Warner Archive (WAC) for a very fine 1080p Blu-ray, mastered in 2K with a massive amount of color correction applied to improve upon the woeful vinegar syndrome inherent in virtually all movies shot on Eastmancolor stock from this vintage. Previous movies suffering from the same color density issues released via WAC have not fared as well. But WAC and MPI, its in-house motion picture imaging facility, have proven their investment in time and money worthy of the results. The Cinemascope image now reveals an impressive amount of color accuracy and razor-sharpness always inherent in Oscar-winner Robert Surtees’ cinematography. Various archival sources were used for this restoration, along with extensive cleanup applied to eradicate dust, scratches and age-related artifacts. On display: some impressive and occasionally eye-popping colors, accurate flesh tones and indigenous film grain. While no one could ever confuse the muted tones of Eastman with vintage Technicolor, on this occasion there remains enough richness and fine detail to satisfy the eye. WAC has mastered The Law and Jake Wade on a BD-25. Given the film’s scant 88 min. and dearth of extra features, it works. The movies’ original mono has been preserved as DTS 2.0 mono. Regrettably, the original magnetic tracks were no longer salvageable, leaving WAC to pursue their remastering efforts from surviving opticals with all the inherent shortcomings one might expect. The audio is clean and clear, although anything but dynamic. There are NO extras. Bottom line: a western worthy of our renewed respect and consideration. WAC’s remastering efforts are first rate, working with second-best surviving elements. Overall, a winner!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY: Blu-ray (MGM, 1940) Criterion

Katharine Hepburn possessed two great qualities destined to make her a star; the first, undeniably, her unique and staunch New England mannerisms that simply teem with haughty wherewithal and a flair for dramatic excellence. When Kate speaks it’s usually with an impossible directness. One can sense almost immediately the presence of accomplishment, forewarned perhaps, even to tread cautiously into a conversation, lest Kate either get bored with you or merely pick apart that quality you have misjudged as cleverness or cunning, but she can spot at a moment’s glance and correctly mark as superficial and charm-free brown-nosing. The other great quality in Hepburn’s arsenal was guts. I adore Kate. But I do not think there would be any place for her in today’s Hollywood if another like her emerged to tempt the spotlight. Even in her youth, Hepburn somehow lacked the all-important ‘sex appeal’ to be bottled and sold like a fizzy soft drink to the American public. Indeed, there isn’t anything ‘soft’ about Kate – the great – Hepburn and that, ironically, continues to make her so gosh darn appealing to audiences today. “They’re sweet about me now,” Hepburn once told 60 Minutes’ Morley Safer in a 1970’s interview, “You know like you get affection for a building or something…because I’ve been around so long.” Asked by Safer to quantify what sort of building she saw herself as, Hepburn amusedly quipped, “The flatiron building!” And, reflecting upon this rather snap assessment, one can definitely see the parallels between that triangular 22-story steel-framed landmark in New York and Hepburn’s sterling persona; the veneer between the public and private Kate crisp, up front, no nonsense, and without the architectural frills to deflect from her rather stark, if infectious ambience.
Hepburn is so very much a departure from today’s leading lady, and even more refreshingly set apart from her own crop of competitors it really is no wonder her reputation as one of the all-time greats has endured. Yet it is perhaps even more shocking to consider how easily she almost came to an end by the mid-1930’s. After skyrocketing to fame in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) and winning a Best Actress Oscar for Morning Glory (1933) Kate Hepburn foundered inside the artistic gristmill that was RKO, starring in a string of flops, incapable of maintaining her box office clout and popularity. By 1939 she was unceremoniously branded ‘box office poison’ - a moniker to derail many a star’s chances from ever hitting the big time again. But not Kate. Undaunted by Hollywood's snub she commissioned longtime friend and playwright, Philip Barry to pen The Philadelphia Story (1940); then, purchased the film rights before the play was even produced. We must remember that in the 1930’s live theater’s reputation superseded that of the movies – despite the latter’s overwhelming popularity with the public. A bona fide thespian of the ‘legitimate’ theater would never be caught debasing his/her talents on the silver screen; trading the adoration of an opening night’s applause for those flickering shadows on a wall. More to the point, movie actresses were marked the ‘lesser’ grade. So, Hepburn’s determination to take on the Great White Way and conquer it is all the more impressive. Hence, when The Philadelphia Story’s smashing success could no longer be ignored, and MGM’s L.B. Mayer decided he wanted to make a film of it, he was contractually obligated, not only to cast Hepburn in the lead, but also, settle on her terms of employment.
Her place in the movie version assured, Kate asked for Spencer Tracy and Ronald Colman as her costars. Mayer balked, but came up with a winning second choice – Cary Grant; also, James Stewart – then, a relative newcomer.  Hepburn also demanded script and director approval. Done! Kate’s good friend, George Cukor was brought in to shape the material. Known for his ability to coax great performances from temperamental beauties, Cukor’s ‘easy way’ with Kate practically assured smooth sailing ahead. And yet, like all relationships Hepburn was to foster throughout her career, even this one had begun on very shaky terms. At her audition for A Bill of Divorcement, Cukor initially labeled Kate’s performance idiotic, “…but you put the glass down with tenderness…and you listened.” Decades later, Cukor would determine, “Kate was never a ‘I’m lovable’ kind of actress. She always challenged the audience and that wasn’t the fashion in those days. On the hoof, when people first saw her, they felt something arrogant in her playing. But later, by sheer feeling and skill she could bend them to her will. Of course, her quality of not asking for pity, not caring whether people liked her or not, was ideal for The Philadelphia Story. But real talent is a mystery and people who’ve got it know it.” Still, the idea of relinquishing so much control to an actress, not so very long ago considered a ‘has been’ must have irked Hollywood’s raja. Nevertheless, L.B. Mayer was used to acquiring the very best of Broadway, and there was little to dispute The Philadelphia Story as quite simply the best. So Mayer, a mogul willing to gamble now and then, had absolutely nothing but high praise for Hepburn when the film version of The Philadelphia Story became MGM's biggest and brightest money maker of 1940. In retrospect, The Philadelphia Story is the catalyst for Hepburn’s big screen resurrection. Without it she might have remained a relic of the stage or simply faded under the pall of klieg lights and into pop culture obscurity.
Hepburn also exerted influence over the Donald Ogden Stewart/Waldo Salt screenplay. As such, the movie adheres to the construction and dialogue of Barry’s original stagecraft with remarkable fidelity. Hepburn did, however, allow MGM’s costumier, Gilbert Adrian his fondness for designing playful ensembles of clothing. In one sequence she wears a coquettish hat with a tassel, and in another she permits a rather flouncy ascot to adorn her long neck. But on the whole, the actress deferred to no one in the many other creative choices to be made. Professional, but determined, Hepburn and Cukor toiled in unison on the evolution of the film; her ability to secure both James Stewart and Cary Grant – two of the biggest names in Hollywood – illustrating just how much clout she wielded behind the scenes. “It was a very happy picture to make,” Cukor would later confide, “Philip Barry’s comedies always had damn good situations and like all good comedies the story was something that could have played seriously as well. I find it wonderful to take a serious subject and treat it with a kind of impertinence and gaiety. Phil Barry always skated on thin ice.” Indeed, the ice is exceptionally thin in The Philadelphia Storys opening scene as Kate’s Newport princess, Tracy Lord pursues her disgruntled and soon to be ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) out the front door; cracking over her knee and in two his golf clubs with deliciously venomous spite. Approaching her from behind, Dexter’s first inclination to strike Tracy down is blunted by either his good sense or waning, though nevertheless lingering affections; Grant, instead, taking Hepburn’s face full in the palm of his hand and violently knocking her to the ground. This scene received a resounding cheer in 1940. At least in part, it reset audiences’ impressions of Hepburn as the impervious and arrogant film goddess decidedly brought down a peg or two from her perch of self-importance.  
When The Philadelphia Story premiered, Bosley Crowthers gave it a glowing review, adding, it had everything a blue-chip romantic comedy ought – sassy wit, sophistication, and air of wounded longing, with a gutsy heroine, ideally matched by her as passionate ex-hubby/suitor. The Philadelphia Story is so much Hepburn’s show her male counterparts are somewhat diminished in her presence. It is important to remember that while both Cary Grant and James Stewart had already established themselves in the movies neither as yet had attained the status of a legend in his own time. Grant’s is the flashier part and he delivers as only Cary Grant can: with an element of the suave seamlessly stitched to an undercurrent of unapologetic and clear-eyed frankness. He never allows Tracy to entirely possess the upper hand. It is actually easy to see why these two divorced in the first place; neither willing to budge and inch on the finer points in their flawed marriage. Grant’s Dexter is a smart cookie – as direct, determined and forthright as his ex-wife. Into this mix is inserted the cinema’s ‘every man’ – James Stewart, as tabloid columnist, Mike Connor.
Tracy’s unlikely dalliance with Mike, amounting to one moonlit swim and a little badinage brought about by the elixir of too many champagne bubbles, is smoothed out by Stewart’s infinite charm. As a young man, James Stewart oft played the rather blunt-focused romantic fop, curt with his admonishment of the female sex for having their way with him, though ultimately giving in to their charms. In The Philadelphia Story he never bows to Tracy, yet seems as readily to bend to her gravitational pull on his heart strings; declaring an experience of ‘home fires and holocausts’ emanating from Tracy’s unfulfilled passion. Alas, Tracy is too much woman for Mike. The only time Stewart can marginally establish himself as Hepburn’s potential equal is during the post-swim confessional, her tiara and inhibitions having slipped from too much to drink and allowing his genial sheepishness to acquire the faux patina of a more adult charm. Cary Grant, on the other hand, is every bit Hepburn’s equal. His Dexter is precisely the man her Tracy must wind up with in order to be eternally happy. Resisting the inevitable is ultimately what fuels their passionate sparks – embers momentarily stifled by Tracy’s guarded insecurities about running true to form for the women in her family (mama is a divorcee too).  Despite Tracy’s best efforts, and, a new engagement to the, as yet unmentioned, George Kittredge (John Howard in a thoroughly thankless part) she is destined to come full circle with all the incinerating qualities of a white-hot love affair never meant to have cooled in the first place.
The plot concerns Tracy Lord’s pending marriage to George Kittredge - a milquetoast. After her fiery relationship with Dexter, George is just what Tracy needs…or so she believes.  At any rate, George is refreshingly dull rather than volcanic. Tracy’s marriage to Dex’ ended badly. She broke his golf clubs. He knocked her down. But now, times have changed. Dexter has changed. More recently, he has come to realize he still carries the proverbial torch for his ex. Fast forward to the weekend before Tracy’s wedding to George. A family scandal involving Tracy's estranged father, Seth (John Halliday), and the wily machinations of her Uncle Willie (Roland Young) force her to accept two tabloid journalists, Mike ‘Macaulay’ Connor (James Stewart) and Liz Embrie (Ruth Hussey) to cover her nuptials for ‘Spy’ Magazine. It is a bitter pill for Tracy to swallow. Moreover, she harbors a deep and abiding resentment for Seth ever since he cheated on her mother. Alas, arrangements for the weekend are about to curdle in an unexpected way after Tracy allows her glacial façade of propriety to slip just enough to indulge a romantic whim with Mike. This unexpected fall from grace leads to a riotous drunken binge and midsummer night’s swim in a moonlit pool. Tracy quickly reasons her ‘indiscretion’ is not enough of a foundation to build a real relationship. But has it been quite enough to wreck the rocky foundation of the one she is in already? Recognizing how ‘easy’ it is to have a moment’s lapse of moral judgement humanizes Tracy’s outlook on the other men in her life. Repentantly, she mends the broken father/daughter bond and rediscovers all the reasons she once loved Dex. While George worships Tracy, always having stood in awe of her beauty as a ‘high priest’ looking upon the virgin goddess, conversely Dexter knows Tracy much too well for any such blindsided naiveté. So how does it all end...brilliantly – with Tracy’s remarriage to Dex, and the sadder but wiser Mike recognizing Liz is the only gal for him. Poor George…always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
The Philadelphia Story put Kate Hepburn back on top; arguably, Teflon-coating her box office appeal as well as catapulting it into the stratosphere for decades yet to follow. From 1940 onward Hepburn attained an enviable level of super stardom few of her contemporaries enjoyed. Her teaming with Spencer Tracy in 1942, for the first of nine memorable movies, was magical. Their extracurricular affair in real life ran an enchanted parallel course, despite Tracy’s Catholic faith. He never divorced his wife to marry Hepburn, nor did she petition for the honor to be called the second Mrs. Tracy. When Spence’ died shortly after the filming of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) Kate did not attend his funeral, electing instead to allow his family to grieve. For many years, The Philadelphia Story has remained a sparkling jewel in MGM’s canon of glossy, frothy romantic comedies; so successful, the studio resuscitated it as High Society (1956) that champagne cocktail of a musical, co-starring Bing Crosby (as Dexter), Grace Kelly (Tracy) and Frank Sinatra (Mike). With music by Cole Porter, just like its predecessor, High Society became Metro’s bell-ringer of the year – a rarity: a movie remake as good as the original.
Warner Home Video has licensed The Philadelphia Story to Criterion for its hi-def debut. Personally, I do not care where they choose to parcel off their extensive libraries so long as the hits keep coming with such regularity and looking this good! This new to Blu release is gorgeous. Those already baptized into the glossy world of MGM, and cinema virgins alike should be exceptionally pleased with the results. Advertised as a new 4K digital restoration with PCM audio, The Philadelphia Story on Blu-ray offers a very solid upgrade to Warner’s own 2-disc SE DVD from 2005. Everything tightens up as it should. The B&W image is exceptionally clean. Minute traces of dirty and scratches that were evident on the old DVD have been completely eradicated here. Contrast is bang on superb. A minor hint of edge enhancement in the titles persists (I am not exactly certain ‘how’ or ‘why’ – by now, such digital anomalies should be antique). However, the body of the movie is free from any such minute distractions. The image is slightly brighter than its DVD counterpart and Criterion’s framing shows more information on all four sides of the screen. Extras are a mixed bag. While Criterion has ported over the 2005 audio commentary by Jeannine Basinger, originally featured on the DVD, it has jettisoned the two feature-length documentaries that were included with Warner’s 2-disc outing: the first, on George Cukor, the second involving Katharine Hepburn in her own words.
These are unforgivable absences in my opinion, forcing one to hang onto the old DVD simply for these extras, unlikely to resurface anywhere else anytime soon. In lieu of these shortages, Criterion has commissioned a ‘new’ intro to Kate’s legacy by documentarians, David Heeley and Joan Kramer (not as good as the aforementioned doc) and, infinitely more engaging, ‘In Search of Tracy Lord’ – a new feature-length documentary on the origins of the character and her social milieu.  We should also tip our hats here to Criterion for offering up two full episodes of The Dick Cavett Show; both from 1973, featuring rare interviews with Hepburn, as well as a 1978 excerpt with George Cukor. Criterion’s affinity for Lux Radio shows is intact – this one from 1943.  Finally, there is a restoration demonstration, a trailer and written essay by film critic, Farran Smith Nehme. Bottom line: The Philadelphia Story is required viewing – period. Criterion’s inability to clear the rights to the aforementioned docs included on Warner’s ole DVD is disappointing. The extras that replaced them are ‘okay’ but not as comprehensive. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Monday, October 16, 2017

A FISH CALLED WANDA: Blu-ray re-issue (MGM/UA 1988) Arrow Academy

English farce has never surpassed its sheer ribald misdirection in the art of creating dark comedies since the halcyon days of the Ealing Studios (1940-1959). So perhaps it comes as no surprise 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda hails from this vintage primrose, given that its mantle of quality derives from director, Charles Crichton, responsible for a good many Ealing masterpieces (1951’s The Lavender Hill Mob, 1953’s The Titfield Thunderbolt and 1954’s The Love Lottery, among them) and John Cleese – an artful disciple of Ealing who, along with his Monty Python cohorts, extended the reign of Brit-born farce to a whole new generation, if, in a complete departure into the absurd. By 1988, Crichton’s name was hardly a household word. He had not made a movie since 1965.  Nor was Cleese’s reputation as either a multi-talented star or quintessence of that certain type of stiff-britches Brit, perpetually chagrined by his own smug superiority, entirely successful at crossing the Atlantic post-Python; despite the ever-growing cult status of his decidedly short-lived follow-up franchise: Fawlty Towers, in which he cast himself as the short-fused hotelier, Basil (1975 – 1979).  Aside: only 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers were ever made: 6 in 1975; the remainder, four years later.
The bromantic chemistry between Cleese and Crichton had been brewing since 1969; Wanda’s incubation taking hold at approximately the same time. Cleese had desperately wanted to do ‘an Ealing-styled’ comedy and immediately began to fashion a part in it for himself with another going to fellow Python alumni, Michael Palin. For one reason, then another, the project could find no takers and was repeatedly postponed to the point where it looked as though it would all come to not. And yet, this is exactly what Cleese needed: time to hone and refine his acute sense of humor and smooth over the rougher edges on his concentrated action. The result: A Fish Called Wanda, a ludicrous yet purposeful crime caper/rom-com that moves like gangbusters, its 109 minutes feeling about half that, yet as densely packed with a select curio of Brit-born grotesques never to be sidelined by the exploitative pair of slick as pomade social outcasts from the colonies who vet and manipulate their cultured kissing cousins to suit their own means to a vicious and enterprising end. And what an end it becomes; an out and out outrageous festival of boobs, bitchery, bribes and bawdy on-liners; many of them simply cast off, only to find their way into our collective consciousness via osmosis. The red-hot poker of Cleese’s comedy genius strikes with ever-confidence: the lines, not so much as important as their potency laden with double entendre and venom, distinctly wrapped in the enigma of the well-timed and even naughtier ankle-biting barb.   
Wanda’s real gestation would stretch from June 1983 to 1988 as Crichton and Cleese ironed out every last wrinkle in this shar pei puppy of a shaggy dog crime caper. In retrospect, A Fish Called Wanda is such well-oiled machinery, infused with Crichton’s clear-eyed sense of creating a good show and Cleese’s constructionist brilliance it appears to effortlessly spring to life as a tailored studio-bound production. The pieces to Cleese’s screenplay fits so succinctly together that to imagine them independently, even now or in any other order, is to dismantle the delicate balancing act to the point where nothing works with any degree of competency. Take the ancillary character of Ken (Michael Palin); on the one hand, ruthlessly besought by a devious Otto, played by Kevin Kline, utterly superb as the misguided and dumb (notice, I didn’t call him stupid) philosophizing psychopath, faking a male-on-male attraction to deflect Ken’s suspicions about him and Wanda. Brother and sister indeed! Poor Ken: the naturalist, ordered by the brains of their operation, George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) to whack the prosecution’s star witness; Eileen Coady (Patricia Hayes), a puckered dowager with three Yorkies who, thanks to Ken’s ineptitude, instead wind up dead one at a time, only inadvertently to give the old girl her fatal heart attack. Ken - later, forced to endure Otto transforming his aquarium of rare and exotic fish into his own seafood smorgasbord. On the surface, Ken is a relatively minor character, perpetually delayed in taking a more proactive stance by a stifling stutter (Cleese, inspired by Palin’s father’s speech impediment). And yet, Cleese affords Ken prominence in two pivotal vignettes, capped off by a very sweet revenge: Otto’s steamroller demise at London’s Heathrow.
A gap of two weeks rehearsals likely afforded Cleese the opportunity to polish the comedy bits one recalls best from the movie today: Cleese’s own nude scene, as barrister, Archie Leach (Cary Grant’s real name) suggested by co-star, Jamie Lee Curtis, cast as the titular ‘fish’: Wanda Gershwitcz (asked to shed her wardrobe during their pivotal seduction and ‘discovery’ by the vacationing family renting the flat. Cleese would also follow Crichton’s lead to cap this hilarious vignette by covering up too late his unmentionables, not with a random book, but a silver-framed headshot of Mrs. Johnson (Pamela Miles), the lady of the maison. Personally, I have always been partial to the oblivious Otto’s chronic disregard for the traffic rules (being an American, he drives on the wrong side of the road) shouting indiscriminately “asshooooole” to those he misperceives as the offenders hurtling towards him. Throughout, Cleese and Crichton have populated their rather straight forward cat and mouse game with such a potpourri of great quality writing and so much over-sized finesse, A Fish Called Wanda cannot help but still seem bright and breezy nearly thirty years later. And it is saying a great deal the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPASS), rarely in tune with, or prone to honor a comedy, bestowed on Wanda a Best Supporting statuette for Kevin Kline’s pseudo-intellectual; in addition to nods to Crichton and Cleese – for direction and screenplay. Shakespearean trained, Kline’s wild-eyed hit man, spouting fractured Italian to drive our heroine periodically wild, crooning Volare as he drills her into the box spring during their one and only passionate session of…um…lovemaking, culminating in a cross-eyed orgasm, is undeniably the most flamboyant part in the picture; perfectly timed and designed for transatlantic appeal, if marginally overcompensating for the decidedly English reserve on display elsewhere.
Kline is actually the lone wolf of this piece, overshadowed and outclassed by the teaming of Cleese, Palin and Curtis; the trio forging their far more integrated and engaging on-screen chemistry. It is this kinetic energy that mostly satisfies in A Fish Called Wanda, if periodically pooped on by Otto’s chronic desperation to fit into their little clique. He never does. As example: even with fish-swallowing torture tactics applied, Palin’s animal-loving K-K-Ken would rather die devoted to Wanda and George, and, with a couple of ketchup-dipped French Fries stuffed up his nostrils/a whole pear jammed down his throat, than afford Otto the satisfaction of knowing he has beaten him. Palin’s is, in fact, the more potent and hilarious performance in the picture. He is dynamically funny, seemingly without even trying. On the flipside is Jamie Lee Curtis – the almost demonically driven spitfire, using sex like a flyswatter to get Archie to stick to her like the proverbial glue, destined to gum up his loveless marriage. Curtis is interesting casting to say the least; known then as the ‘scream queen’ of horror movies like Halloween (1978), Prom Queen and Terror Train (both in 1980). Her attempts prior to A Fish Called Wanda to break out of this mold – as a ‘serious’ actress – had not yet yielded any sort of career changer. And yet in Wanda Curtis is a hoot; loveably sadistic and enterprising to a fault as she feigns doe-eyed loyalty to all three men lusting after a piece of her action.
Between these diametrically opposed offerings we get John Cleese, as stoutly British as Kevin Kline’s ugliest of Americans. Initially overshadowed by the instant and out-of-the-gate bravura of his costars, it is Cleese’s stodgy barrister who brings up the rear during Wanda’s climactic race against time to learn the whereabouts of the hidden loot – the Cathcart Towers Hotel near London’s Heathrow airport. From the moment Cleese artfully sheds his clothes for the aforementioned failed seduction of Wanda, to his flubbed and thoroughly farcical defense of George at trial, where he inadvertently blows the cover off his many splendored ‘Wanda-lust’, to his penultimate escape from certain death at the point of Otto’s gun, Cleese’s befuddled booby acquires an admirable strength of his own convictions to carry on in that great tradition of the stiff upper-lipped gentleman forced to play by a different set of rules, yet proving he can slog it in the mud with the best of them and still come out on top to win the heart of this seemingly most heartless of all the ‘players’. And through it all, Cleese’s Archie remains the one man dripping with moral integrity he neither abandons nor trades up for a chance at the proverbial brass ring. He merely comes to his senses; recognizing his loveless marriage as such and making the executive decision to pursue something more satisfying with this tart who, by the end, only superficially holds ‘all the cards’.  Cleese’s Archie Leach is Wanda’s ‘nice guy’. Despite all the frenetic energy of his bungling cohorts, bumping into one another and the furniture like a bunch of juiced-up rabbits at the track, it’s Cleese’s slow and steady tortoise that wins this race.
Perhaps the most miraculous aspect of A Fish Called Wanda is the crudeness in its humor is almost always overshadowed by a lithe spirit of jest in the writing; the comedy, while razor-backed and nail-biting, never insufferable or sardonic. Take Otto’s chronic flirtations, taunting Ken with his supposed homo-erotic sexual interests in him. In any other comedy of the eighties, and a few made well beyond its lax tolerance towards homosexuals – treated mostly as limp-wristed figures of fun – lines like “I love to watch your ass walk away from me. Is that beautiful or what?” would play with sadistic disdain for gay culture. Yet, in Wanda they come off as devilishly clean, rather than ‘mean’-spirited. Possibly it’s Kline’s overt disregard for being offensive that tempers such lines with a more horrendous – and yet pleasing – if counter-intuitive aggressiveness. After all, any man who believes Aristotle was Belgium and the London Underground is a subversive political movement is quite obviously not playing with a full deck. Hence, such lines of dialogue come back on Kline’s misanthrope, instead of inflicting their tart-mouthed perversity to linger and besmirch the reputation of their target. Whatever the case, the comedy herein is deftly handled without malice.
A Fish Called Wanda opens in the London flat of Ken Pile, tending his aquarium full of exotic fish, including his favorite – an angel fish called Wanda. Ken is a recluse more in tune with animals than people, as is evident by the poster of a baby seal hanging on his wall. Enter Wanda Gershwitz and her ‘brother’ Otto – a disciple of Friedrich Nietzsche without actually understanding one word of Nietzsche’s philosophic debate. Kline’s pseudo-intellectual is brought in on a plotted diamond heist, orchestrated by Wanda’s gangster/boyfriend, George Thomason. This foursome knock off a jewelry store, making off with $20 million in diamonds. But almost immediately, the perfect plan goes awry. The fleeing foursome nearly run down Eileen Coady, a doddering dowager crossing the street with her three Yorkies. After Wanda and Otto betray George to the police, Coady also manages to pick him out of a lineup.  Wanda fakes concern to learn where George has hidden their loot, turning her sexual wiles on Archie Leach, the barrister assigned to defend George at trial. Recognizing this as a conflict of interest, Archie is nevertheless attracted to Wanda from the outset. And why not? His own wife, Wendy is a real cold fish; their daughter, Portia (Cynthia Caylor – nee, ‘Cleese’), a dull-as-paint princess, bored with her equestrian pursuits.
As Archie and Wendy separately prepare to retire for the evening, we cut to Otto and Wanda indulging in some kinky extracurricular exercises. Clearly, Otto is not Wanda’s brother! The next day an incarcerated George whispers to Ken an order to have Eileen Coady rubbed out before trial. Ken agrees and sets off to kill the dowager. Alas, his first attempt, releasing a foaming-at-the-mouth Rottweiler on the ole girl, instead results with the first of Coady’s beloved Yorkies being mauled to death. Ken, a devoted animal activist is tortured by his involvement in this innocent animal’s death. Relentlessly, he pursues another course of action. Disguised as a Rastafarian, Ken endeavors to run over Coady as she prepares to cross a quiet street in her neighborhood. Once again, he overshoots his target, flattening another of her dogs before escaping the impact from a crash into nearby trash cans. Ken’s final attempt at murder is as badly bungled; dropping a heavy block of cement from a nearby renovation project on the last of Coady’s pups, inadvertently causing the dowager to suffer a fatal heart attack.  Meanwhile, Wanda plots to seduce Archie and gain insight into George’s secret hiding place for the diamonds. Her first attempt is thwarted when Wendy’s car suffers a flat, forcing her and Portia to prematurely return home from a night at the opera. Otto, who has been shadowing her every movement, is forced to present himself as a fake CIA agent, supposedly keeping tabs on a high-ranking KGB official squirreled away in a safe house not far from the Leach’s country estate.  Discovering Wanda’s locket on the floor, Wendy mistakenly assumes it is a gift from her husband. Actually, Wanda has concealed the key to George’s safe deposit box inside it.
Wanda now demands Archie retrieve the locket on her behalf without Wendy’s knowledge. Alas, his feeble lies about the jewelry store mixing up ‘his’ order with another patron’s does little to persuade Wendy to return the locket to him, forcing Archie to stage a burglary while Wendy and Portia are out. Beforehand, Archie and Wanda had skulked off to a fashionable loft to satisfy their carnal lust. Unbeknownst to either, Otto followed them, instigating a confrontation that ends with Otto dangling Archie from a third story window until he apologized for calling him stupid. Now, Archie’s burglary backfires as Otto, ordered by Wanda to apologize for his earlier misbehavior, and driven to Archie’s home to make his recompense, instead perceives Archie – sheathed in a dark coat – to be a real burglar. Otto beats Archie unconscious before discovering his identity. Mercifully, Wendy arrives to discover her husband lying unconscious on the ground. Rushing to revive him with water, Archie awakens and swallows Wanda’s locket to conceal the real purpose behind his faked thievery. Next, he hurries to the loft where he and Wanda plan to finally consummate their affair. But again, fate intervenes; the Johnsons – the family renting the space, returning from their vacation just as Archie has stripped completely naked in their living room. Even worse, Mrs. Johnson recognizes him as the man who bought their house.  Chagrined, presumably for the very last time, Archie telephones Wanda to break off their failed flagrante delictos. Even so, he is revisited this same evening by Otto, desperate to apologize. Unaware Wendy is listening from their upstairs window Otto spills the particulars of Archie’s affair, the burglary, and furthermore, gives him carte blanche to ‘pork away’ with his ‘sister’.  
Having reported the ‘good’ news of Eileen Coady’s accidental death to George, Ken is instructed to get four plane tickets to Rio. Meanwhile, Wanda hurries off to George’s trial to act as a material witness, presumably in his defense. Left to finalize the details of their escape, Ken is confronted by Otto. Believing they are working for the same side, Ken cryptically reveals he knows the precise location of the diamonds while refusing to divulge it. Otto ties Ken up, demanding to know the whereabouts of the hidden jewels. As Ken staunchly refuses to tell him, he is forced to watch as Otto devours his tank-full of beloved exotic fish one by one. Taunting Ken further, Otto stuffs a ketchup-dipped French Fry into each of his nostrils; then, a pear into his mouth, momentarily causing Ken to hyperventilate. A tearful Ken gives up the location: the Cathcart Towers Hotel near the airport. Meanwhile, on the witness stand, Wanda incriminates George by implying he left their apartment on the morning of the heist with a sawed-off shotgun. Realizing the Judas in his midst has always been Wanda, George tries to attack her, resulting in utter chaos. As Wanda’s confession also reveals she and Archie have been unfaithful – if only in their hearts – Wendy confronts her husband, demanding a divorce.
From his holding cell, Archie implores George to get his sentence reduced with a confession. While George refuses to answer him, he does direct Archie to question Ken whom Archie discovers still bound and gagged inside his apartment. Archie coaxes Ken into divulging the location to him. Otto carjacks Wanda and drives them to Heathrow, determined to make the plane to Rio. Archie and Ken make chase to the Cathcart Towers. And although the diamonds are retrieved Wanda knocks Otto unconscious, making off with the loot. Archie arrives and is confronted by Otto, staggering to regain his composure. Otto forces Archie on the tarmac at gunpoint, quite unaware a portion of its landing strip is newly laid with still very much half-wet and sticky cement. As Otto’s feet become trapped, Ken appears atop a giant steamroller to avenge the death of his beloved fish by running over Otto. Archie boards the plane using Otto’s ticket. He greets the much surprised Wanda in Italian. As the couple discusses the future they fail to notice Otto, covered in cement, peering at them from the porthole. The plane takes off and Otto is thrown to the ground, shouting “asshooooooole”. In the series of epilogues to follow we learn Ken went on to work at SeaWorld while Wanda and Archie founded a leper colony with their many offspring.  
A Fish Called Wanda is ripe, silly, and unequivocally brilliant. For a ‘little movie’, co-funded by the financially beleaguered, if then newly amalgamated MGM/UA, it packs quite a wallop. The comedy is cynical without ever devolving into mean-spiritedness. Even Otto’s sadistic swallowing of Ken’s tropical pets leaves one with a bizarre jab of pleasure, and this, despite its dangerously real potential to lean towards garden variety gross out. I suspect the joy herein comes not from the fish-eating, but rather Kevin Kline’s expert ability to catapult the farce into outer stratospheres of the deliciously absurd.  Charles Crichton directs with evenly-paced hysteria; the vignettes magnificently lyrical in their cause and effect.  The movie clicks because its cast is telescopically focused on being ‘serious’, rather than scrambling to be funny.  The humor is dark but not particularly black and derives from Cleese’s acute powers of observation; seeing the transparent ridiculousness in life itself and tweaking it just enough to move us from daily follies into sublime examples of the audaciously perverse. The jewel heist may be modern cinema’s greatest MacGuffin – a point of interest only in so far as Cleese and Crichton can use it to hang their more ambitious skits, constantly raising the ante while maintaining the narrative equilibrium.  In the final analysis, A Fish Called Wanda is both a work of genius and a very sad epitaph to Cleese’s career as the un-intentionally funny every man. Neither he nor Michael Palin would do as much as the artful dodgers of situation comedy again…a real pity.   
A Fish Called Wanda’s Blu-ray’s debut in 2006 left much to be desired; particularly from MGM/UA, later to be absorbed and re-branded as MGM/Fox – the custodians of a lot of third-party acquired archives from Orion, United Artists, Avco/Embassy and other indies culled under one creative umbrella. MGM/Fox’s Blu-ray output, even their licensing of back catalog to third party distributors has been lackluster. But now in 2017 this tide seems to be shifting for the better, particularly as Brit-born Arrow Academy has been granted access to their archives. So, does this new to Blu re-issue of A Fish Called Wanda mean the old way of doing things is over? Hmmmm. We’ll see. What it does suggest, at least for fans of this movie, is Arrow may now hold the keys to the kingdom, applying their renown due diligence to this brand new 4K remaster with considerably improved video quality; albeit, in 1080p. Prepare to be thoroughly impressed. A Fish Called Wanda looks fabulous in this exclusively restored edition, culled from original 35mm camera negatives. Painstaking digital clean-up has yielded an image virtually free of age-related artifacts, with image stabilization applied. We tip our hats to Arrow and give sincere thanks for their efforts.  Colors are robust, if exhibiting a slightly dated characteristic, more and more to mimic the perfect reincarnation of vintage 80’s film stock. Saturation – bang on. Contrast – ditto. Love, LOVE this transfer – period!
We get two audio tracks: DTS 5.1 and LPCM mono, the latter recreating the original theatrical exhibition. It may ‘sound’ like sacrilege, but I prefer the mono here: less straining for reasons to envelope your surround channels – although, conversely the 5.1 does come with the added benefit of listening to John Du Prez’s underscore in true stereo. Arrow has been granted the rights to port over virtually all the extras from the old MGM/Fox Blu-ray, alas, with zero remastering applied. These extras are in 480i (yuck!) but include the comprehensive 1988 ‘making of’ documentary, nearly a half hour retrospective, produced for Wanda’s 15th anniversary, an ‘on location’ fluff piece hosted by Robert Powell, and ‘a message’ from Cleese. Arrow has also spiffed up its own extra content: a newly produced ‘appreciation’ by BFI archivist, Vic Pratt (clocking in at just under 20 min. and in 1080p) and an interview with production designer, Roger Murray-Leach (much too brief at 7 min. but also in 1080p). We also get nearly 30 min. of deleted scenes in 1080p hosted by Cleese, an image gallery and a theatrical trailer. Competing with Criterion here, Arrow has produced a handsome booklet with reflections and social critique by film critic, Sophie Monks Kaufman. While I completely disagree with Kaufman’s assessment of this movie, she writes it well and validates her position with class. Nicely done. Bottom line: A Fish Called Wanda from Arrow is a great stocking stuffer for the movie lover in your household. You want this disc. It’s that simple!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, October 14, 2017

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET: Blu-ray re-issue (2oth Century-Fox 1947) Fox Home Video

In accepting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Kris Kringle, Edmund Gwenn committed a cardinal sin as far as his pint-sized co-star in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street was concerned; showing up to the ceremony in a tuxedo sans Kris Kringle’s whiskers and thanking ‘the real’ Santa Claus for his great success. To Natalie Wood – and millions like her, then and ever since – Gwenn is the embodiment of this benevolent holiday icon. Never mind North America’s appreciation for the perpetually jolly ‘fat man in the red suit’ derives from Haddon Sundblom’s phenomenally effective 1931 marketing campaign for Coca-Cola – a trademark soon to become a tradition; ‘the real’ St. Nick (on which the modern mythology of Santa Claus was superficially based) bears a more striking resemblance to one of the apostles from the Bible. But no - the man with the bag and the reindeer is, alas, a sham – a clever one at that, with Gwenn typifying its manufactured legend just a scan sixteen years after it was first established, merely to sell more carbonated beverages during the month of December.
In an ironic twist of fate, the English-born and West End accomplished Gwenn, an actor far greater than this singular stint as the joyously genuine merry-maker of mistletoe and holly has since been ensconced as the surrogate for this classic figure.  And why not? Who can resist Gwenn, then age seventy, when he musters a devious little twinkle in his eye, correcting a harried window dresser about the placement of his reindeer in a holiday display, catching an equally frazzled Macy’s Day Parade coordinator, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) off guard after she has already learned the man she hired to ‘play’ Santa is a drunk; befuddling department store psychiatrist, Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall) by ever so gingerly taking over the examination and asking the questions, and finally, astutely rifling the uber-clever District Attorney, Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan) with equally as slick replies to his sly inquiries under oath and cross-examination. “What is your name?” Mara insists. “Kris Kringle,” Gwenn’s ebullient gentlemen answers. “Where do you live?” Mara sternly inquires, rolling his eyes in anticipation of the expected response. “That is what this hearing will decide,” Kringle soundly and unexpectedly suggests.
By now, Miracle on 34th Street ought to be required viewing for every living soul on this planet between the ages of five and one-hundred; its sentimental genuine and premise, putting a man on trial for lunacy simply because he suffers from the milk of human kindness, all too plausible in a world increasingly gone mad and long ago turned commercial, simply to make a buck. Yet, in the Spring of 1947, New York film critic, Bosley Crowthers, not generally known for his plaudits, positively gushed in his review of this film, concluding, “Let us heartily proclaim that it is the freshest little picture in a long time, and maybe even the best comedy of this year.” But perhaps the greatest miracle of all achieved by director, George Seaton was his cleverly concocted and featherweight Christmas offering had survived 2oth Century-Fox mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck’s incongruous executive decision to release a holiday-themed movie in the middle of May; the obvious disconnect mercifully unable to dissuade audiences from flocking to see it. In an industry where most movies play for maybe a week or two in first-run movie houses, Miracle on 34th Street bucked this trend to play on for more than half a year.
And yet, Fox’s PR department had a hell of a time orchestrating publicity for it. As example: virtually none of the poster art depicts Edmund Gwenn in full Santa Claus regalia. The movie’s tagline ‘meet the man who made the miracle’, about as cryptic as any ever concocted to sell tickets; the coming attractions trailer even more obtuse, featuring a fake studio mogul, proclaiming no movie could be romantic, funny, an intimate drama and a family feature all rolled into one, before screening mere snippets from the rough edit, only to declare that ‘yes’…one film could encapsulate all of the above (and a bag of chips!). In the wake of Edmund Gwenn’s superb characterization, many reviews gently overlooked the more sublime contributions put forth by stars, Maureen O’Hara and John Payne (cast as her love interest, defense attorney, Fred Gailey); also, nine year old Natalie Wood (as Doris’ daughter, Susan) – an exquisite foil whose practicality dissolves when she discovers the true spirit of Christmas in her abiding faith in Kris over her mother’s more cynical ‘common sense’. The kernel of an idea for Miracle on 34th Street came from screen scenarist, Valentine Davies’ last minute Christmas shopping experiences in 1944; beleaguered by all the overcrowded fussing and frayed nerves during this, the supposed ‘most wonderful time of the year’. In re-envisioning and expanding upon Davies’ initial treatment, Seaton would have to overcome his own set of obstacles – not the least, photographing more than half his picture on location during the heady 1946 Christmas season inside Manhattan’s flagship Macy’s Department Store; a second unit doing stock shots both in and outside, covering the Thanksgiving Day parade by day; the film’s stars and Seaton working like mad after hours once Macy’s had closed its doors to the paying public.
In hindsight, Miracle on 34th Street is a blessed offering, infused with immeasurable charm, wit and heartwarming Hollywood-ized sentimentality. Remarkably, it never veers into predictable saccharine. The trick and even the joy to be gleaned from the exercise can be summed up in two words – or rather, one name: Edmund Gwenn. Alas, this did not dissuade the late, John Hughes from challenging the original’s endurance with a wholly lackluster remake in 1994; the usually keen Hughes, going on record as stating he simply could not understand why Miracle on 34th Street had endured these many years; in hindsight, a grotesquely inane and ridiculously foolhardy comment. For even with color and stereo to its benefit, Hughes’ remake is a joyless excursion, incapable of holding even the faintest flicker of a candle to Seaton’s B&W masterwork. Miracle of 34th Street not only defied Hollywood convention in its own time, it went on to become one of Fox’s biggest and brightest money makers of 1947, with uninterrupted, sold-out engagements from mid-summer right on through to December 30th.
However, it is a shay premature to praise Darryl Zanuck for the wherewithal and instincts that contributed to its’ success; particularly since the old-time mogul was in minor panic mode for a slam-bang hit to pull Fox from its recent financial doldrums. But even Zanuck could not have anticipated the tidal wave of critical plaudits and overwhelming public response to this picture. Yet, in hindsight it all seems so perfectly predictable. How could it miss? Easily, as Valentine Davies high concept for this holiday movie repeatedly fell on deaf ears over the next three years; his pitch to directors and executives infrequently dashed and/or overlooked. But Seaton was a gambling man – a trait Zanuck admired. Moreover, Seaton loved Davies’ idea. So, Zanuck green lit the project as a B-unit programmer – perhaps, on faith alone; then, bumped the budget to A-list levels after early rushes looked promising. Fox, one of the first studios to go ‘on location’, was to inadvertently preserve another institution in the process.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – a tradition begun in 1924 – had seen its popularity slide between 1940 and ’46. At one point, Macy’s even contemplated disbanding its sponsorship of the event; a move that would have sealed its fate. But after Miracle on 34th Streets triumphant premiere, Manhattan streets were once again lined to maximum capacity with spectators. New Yorkers and tourists alike have been crowding the curbs with giddy anticipation for the floats, marching bands, and, the arrival of Kris Kringle ever since. As the custodians of this grand affair, Macy’s willingly opened its doors, as well as their hearts to Seaton’s production; allowing the director unprecedented access to activities on their floor as well as the behind-the-scenes hustle and bustle inside their upstairs offices, during and after peak hours of operation. For consistency’s sake, Seaton’s artistic license created a fictional R.H. Macy (played in the movie by Harry Antrim) when in actuality, the company was no longer owed by the Macy family in 1947, and the real Rowland Hussey (R.H.) Macy had died all the way back in 1877 from Bright’s Disease. Seaton would also create a fictional ‘friendly’ rivalry between Macy’s and Gimbel’s (a facsimile of Mr. Gimbel, played by Herbert Heyes, substituting for the Gimbel brothers, who had co-founded this legendary department store).
It goes without saying Miracle on 34th Street’s cast make an indelible impression; Maureen O’Hara’s vivacious marketing executive, John Payne’s agreeable attorney at law, and, Natalie Wood’s plucky and occasionally pert, prepubescent nonbeliever all strike a sincere chord. Even the supporting cast excels. Who can forget Porter Hall’s Granville Sawyer, a fidgety fussbudget who compounds the mad frenzy of this holiday season by setting into motion a plot to have Santa Claus tried for lunacy? Or Philip Tonge’s officious marketing exec’ Julian Shellhammer, quietly spiking his wife’s martinis to get her drunk and compliant with his enterprising notion to have Kris come live with them (a plan thwarted when Fred Gailey instead coaxes Kris to occupy his apartment; thus, nearer to Doris and Susan); William Frawley’s behind the scenes political muckraker, pulling the puppet string on Gene Lockhart’s playfully frazzled Judge Louis Harper. In reviewing Miracle on 34th Street today, one is immediately dumbstruck by the instant identity drawn even from the cameos: Alvin Greenman’s sad-eyed and pudgy custodian, Alfred, and, Thelma Ritter’s harried shopper adding subtle jabs of pleasure to this warm-hearted milieu.
Enough cannot be said of Natalie Wood’s old soul: a superbly aged persimmon well versed beyond her nine years. Wood’s interactions with Gwenn are charming - period. More than that – they speaks to the child in us all, our innate desire to believe in miracles – great or small – satisfying our wish fulfillment by discovering the unlikeliest truth wrapped in the enigma of a fairy tale, and made whole as a matter of record by blind faith…even when common sense suggests otherwise.  For those not yet acquainted with the magic of this timeless tale: the plot concerns a kindly old man, Kris (Gwenn) who firmly believes he is the one and only jolly fat man in the red suit. Kris is accidentally discovered by Macy’s parade coordinator Doris Walker, after the man (Percy Helton) she has hired to play Santa in the Thanksgiving Day Parade is discovered to be severely intoxicated. Replacing the drunken Santa at a moment’s notice, Kris is beguiling and immediately put on full salary at Macy’s where Toy exec, Julian Shellhammer is certain he will become a ‘born salesman’. But Kris confounds the sensibilities of Doris’ precocious and bright-eyed daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood) after he manages to sing and speak to a little Dutch refugee (Marlene Lyden) in her native tongue. “Susan, I speak French but that doesn’t make me Joan of Arc!” Doris attempts to reason. Nevertheless, Susan’s certainty in grounded logic has been ever so slightly shaken. It will only continue to erode from here.
In hindsight, Miracle on 34th Street is rather progressive in its portrait of the single mother; herein exemplified by Maureen O’Hara’s elegant matriarch who manages to balance work and home while falling hopelessly in love with attorney, Fred Gailey, who just happens to live in the apartment unit across the hall. Coming to realize Kris actually believes he is Santa Claus, Doris worries about the safety of having a delusional old man interacting with impressionable children. Kris’ attempts to anesthetize her apprehensions fall short; particularly when he suggests “You see, Mrs. Walker, this is quite an opportunity for me. For the past fifty years or so I've been getting more and more worried about Christmas. Seems we're all so busy trying to beat the other fellow in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less that Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle. You see Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind – and that’s what’s been changing. And you and Suzie are the whole thing in miniature. If I can’t win you over then I’m through. But I warn you – I don’t give up easily!” This leads into one of ‘Miracle’s’ most amusing vignettes; Doris suggesting Kris take ‘an examination’ administered by the store’s doctor, Granville Sawyer, before being hired; Kris, astutely confronting her, adding “A mental examination? Oh, I’ve taken dozens. Know them by heart.” As a demonstration of his own mental acuity, Kris begins to ask and answer the scripted questions that are a part of the standardized sanity quiz: “How many days in a week? Seven. How many fingers am I holding up? Four. Who was the first president of the United States? George Washington.” Kris’ verve for knowledge and the swiftness with which he dispatches all the right answers reaches its self-evasive crescendo when he deviates to add, “Who was the Vice President under John Quincy Adams…Daniel D. Tompkins, and I’ll bet your Mr. Sawyer doesn’t know that!”
Doris’ fears are compounded by Sawyer’s bitter snap analysis, that Kris is apt to become violent if confronted in his delusion. Her concerns are quelled by the more kindly Dr. Pierce (James Seay) a geriatric specialist working at the Brook’s Home for Old People in Great Neck where Kris has been a resident for some time. Pierce suggests someone in town rent Kris a room for the holidays while he is employed at Macy’s. Doris hopes Julian will oblige. And although he does indeed convince his wife (Lela Bliss) – after a few triple strength martinis – to rent Kris their son’s spare room, the offer is intercepted by Fred who has decided Kris should move in with him. Fred’s invitation is hardly philanthropic. Having admired Doris from afar, it is Fred’s hope Doris’ daily interactions with Kris will soften her wounded ‘matter of fact’ outlooks on life and romance. Indeed, Doris shields her heart from a messy divorce and lingering resentments towards all men with a seemingly impervious and glacial façade; determined to deny herself the opportunity to fall in love again.
Unfortunately, Kris comes into conflict over Sawyer’s mean-spirited psychoanalysis of Alfred – an impressionable custodian whom Sawyer suggests is suffering from a guilt complex. Kris confronts Sawyer with his balderdash, threatening to go to R.H. Macy and report him as a malicious and contemptible fraud. Instead, Sawyer lies to Julian after Kris gives him a bump on the noggin with his walking stick; the two plotting to have Kris committed to the state asylum. Believing Doris was complicit in their decision Kris gives up all hope and deliberately fails his psychiatric exam. His case comes before Judge Henry Harper. Meanwhile, Kris’ defense is launched by Fred.  Much to Doris’ dismay, Fred quits a successful firm to take Kris’ case pro bono after his law partners threaten sanctions. Now Fred is determined to go it alone. “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to,” Fred tries to explain to his lover, “Don't you see? It's not just Kris that's on trial, it's everything he stands for. It’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.” Barring Doris’ utter lack of faith in him, Fred lowers the boom. “Look Doris, someday you're going to find that your way of facing this realistic world just doesn't work. And when you do, don't overlook those lovely intangibles. You'll discover those are the only things that are worthwhile.” Now Fred shares something of Kris’ intangible goodness and desire to be kind to people. But it isn’t going to be easy. After all, what authoritative proof can he offer the court in support of his claim Kris is Santa Claus? Even as R.H. Macy is inspired to testify on Kris’ behalf, partly to shield his store from a public scandal, but equally – genuinely – accepting of Kris as the real McCoy, it isn’t enough to sway a judge.
The District Attorney, Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan) is confident he has an airtight case against Kris. Worse, Judge Harper is cornered by political shill, Charlie Halloran, urged to reconsider the merits of the case; both pro and con. Ruling in favor of Kris will make Harper a laughing stock, virtually unelectable to the bench. But officially declaring there is no such person as Santa Claus will have even more devastating repercussions for Harper’s political future. As Halloran points out in his private consultations with Harper, “All right, you go back and tell them the New York State Supreme Court rules there's no Santa Claus. It's all over the papers. The kids read it and they don't hang up their stockings. Now what happens to all the toys that are supposed to be in those stockings? Nobody buys them. The toy manufacturers are going to like that. So they have to lay off a lot of their employees - union employees. Now you got the CIO and the AF of L against you and they're going to adore you for it and they're going to say it with votes. Oh, and the department stores are going to love you too - and the Christmas card makers and the candy companies. Ho-ho, Henry; you're going to be an awfully popular fella. And what about the Salvation Army? Why, they got a Santy Claus on every corner, and they take in a fortune. But you go ahead Henry. You do it your way. You go on back in there and tell them that you rule there is no Santy Claus. But if you do, remember this: you can count on getting just two votes: your own, and, that district attorney's out there!”
It all seems rather hopeless. But in a gracious whim of fate, a New York postal employee (Jack Albertson) decides to redirect all the dead letters sent by children in the five boroughs to Santa Claus to the County Court House instead. Since misdirecting mail deliberately is a federal offense, Fred uses the arrival of these bags and bags of mail as irrefutable proof the Federal Government has certified Kris as the one and only Santa Claus. The case against him dismissed, Kris invites Doris, Fred and Susan to the Brook’s Home for Christmas dinner. Susan races to the tree in search of a gift she hopes Kris has managed to arrange for her. Earlier, Susan had shown Kris a picture of a house from the real estate pages, declaring her greatest wish would be to leave Manhattan for a ‘real home’ in the suburbs with a front porch and a backyard swing. But there is no indication at the party Kris has managed to fulfill this wish. Wounded by what she perceives as Kris’s betrayal of her faith in him, Susan’s disappointment is quelled by Doris who explains sometimes everyone must believe in people and things even when common sense denies them their expectations.
Afterward, Kris sketches out the details of a ‘faster’ route home for Fred and Doris who have become slightly estranged in their relationship since before the trial. While driving back to Manhattan, Susan suddenly sees the home from the picture she gave Kris, ordering Uncle Fred to stop the car. Racing into the empty house, its front door unlocked and a ‘for sale’ sign firmly planted in the lawn out front, Susan is at first disciplined by Doris. But the child’s abiding conviction in miracles has been restored. No amount of cajoling or explaining will dissuade her from believing in Kris now. And it almost makes sense she should so implicitly trust him – especially after Fred and Doris eye Kris’s walking stick – the one he always carries – propped up against a wall near the fireplace. Did he simply arrange for their arrival, or did he really get Suzie the dream house she wished for? We are never entirely certain and it is probably just as well. Our faith in Edmund Gwenn’s kindly old gent with the quaintly slick ability to make us all believe in miracles has remained intact ever since.
There is no getting around it. Miracle on 34th Street is a perfect gem – period. Beyond being a certified holiday classic it remains one of the most heart-warming romantic comedies ever conceived. Over the years, others have tried to recapture its magic without success. John Hughes’ totally charm-free clunker, co-starring Richard Attenborough as Kris and the sickeningly sweet Mara Wilson as Susan is perhaps the most egregious transgressor of the lot, but it really does not matter. So long as Seaton’s original endures – and, in all likelihood it will for many years yet to come – the legacy of Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus will forever be joined at the hip to Edmund Gwenn’s iconic performance as the man with the bag. All marketing coyness aside: Gwenn’s Kringle is the real deal. With American Thanksgiving right around the corner, it is once again time to revisit this perennial holiday favorite, sit back, and simply bask in its simplicity and charm.
Well…this is hugely disappointing. Fox Home Video has re-reissued Miracle on 34th Street yet again, but with the same flawed 1080p transfer. There had been rumors Fox was working on a remaster of the immortal holiday treasure – but no. This is strictly a repackaged affair and soooooo disappointing to report. For one thing, the image herein is much too dark, and adjusting contrast merely bleaches black levels to an unflattering level. The image is also periodically marred by obvious and distracting edge effects that should have been eradicated long ago. Consider there are no true whites represented; merely variations of tonal gray. If viewed in a completely darkened room, it is possible to marginally enjoy this transfer, despite these inconsistencies. But fine details have been artificially sharpened to compensate for this excessively dark presentation: the result – the image looks artificially harsh instead of subtly nuanced. Badly done! Fox could have – and should have – corrected these anomalies for an edition marked ‘70th Anniversary’. The audio here is mono as originally intended and quite acceptable. Extras on the Blu-ray are direct imports from the previously issued DVD and include an episode of Hollywood Back Story on the making of the film – rather scant on detail but containing some good interviews with surviving cast members. There is also a featurette on Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The late Maureen O'Hara's reflections have also been preserved in an audio commentary – an exceptionally fine listening experience from a very gracious lady.
Miracle on 34th Street is art. But also as a cultural artifact, having withstood changing social mores, film art deserves no less consideration than the classic paintings of the undisputed masters or the great statuary carved by ancient sculptors. Movies like Miracle on 34th Street are the Mona Lisas and The Last Suppers of their generation, and very much more in desperate need of some quality preservation/restoration efforts applied to ensure their longevity. For too long, neglect has been the order of the day; Hollywood en masse contented to let the past molder and plain away from our collective consciousness. Frankly, such abject disdain for the past is disgusting – period! Begging the reader’s indulgence here, studio logic, when it comes to classic archives has always baffled me. On the one hand, maintaining the films under the rubric of ‘asset management’ has yielded some phenomenal preservation of some very fine motion picture art. On the other, studios seem to turn a blind eye to any project in which the perceived fiscal return on investment does not align with their expectations as a profit center. Well, fellas – and I am speaking collectively to the choir here – the reputation of your studios was not built on the movies put into production over the last 20 years. It was founded on the building blocks and principles of the art the moguls wrought. You are merely custodians of their legacy. And, as custodians, your job is to preserve, protect and honor the past as they would have.
Placing films on the critical list in a ‘turnaround’ purgatory is not the answer. Nor should it remain the executive logic to set aside art for the sake of cost. Again, turning to the restoration of more traditional forms of art, as say, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: do you think the modus operandi here was prompted on a cost per admission basis of the tourist trade? No, it was not. It was based on the due diligence the Italian government possesses for its heritage and the investment, not only of the Vatican, but also private and public sponsors to see a cultural artifact preserved in perpetuity. Why is this ‘gathering of the clan’ attitude, this communal outpouring from novice film lovers, major Hollywood big shots, the studios’ front offices, and other media apparatuses devoted to ‘the arts’ never given its ample push in North America? Hmmm.  But someone somewhere had better pick up the baton here and soon, while archival elements are still salvageable. 
At this late stage in the hi-def mastering game no one should be pleased with or willing to accept such shoddiness as is exhibited herein as par for the course: aliasing, edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. Yuck!  By 2017, such digital anomalies ought to have been eradicated as surely as they could have been as easily corrected with funds allocated for a new 4K remastered scan in 1080p. New cover art is nice, folks. But it doesn’t excuse poor Blu-ray authoring. It never will.  Bottom line: Miracle on 34th Street is a movie of immense charm and immeasurable delights. It will surely endure as long as the spirit of Christmas. What we need from Fox is a new transfer. At this late stage in hi-def Blu-ray authoring, fans of this movie deserve nothing less. For shame, Fox. For shame, a thousand times more!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)