Tuesday, May 3, 2016

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1966) Warner Archive

Elizabeth Taylor once confided in an interview she believed the best security for a ‘healthy’ marital relationship was to occasionally engage in a knock-down drag-out fight with one’s significant other. Two marriages to Richard Burton and another, prematurely interrupted, though nevertheless, tumultuous whirlwind with the monumentally charming brute, Michael Todd, and one could almost believe Taylor knew from whence she spoke, already having discovered Valhalla thrice in her relationships. All the more reason, then to view director, Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) through its inevitable paradigm between Edward Albee’s fictional feuding couple - caustic George and shrewish Martha - and the legendary, rumored fireworks taking place behind closed doors at the Burton/Taylor maison. In hindsight, the couple who would continue setting rumor mills abuzz before, after and during the filming, have, in hindsight, transformed Albee’s electrostatic prose into a veritable mirror-image grand guignol of their own love affair. Right or wrong, with the passage of time, George and Martha have continued to mature in the public’s estimation as Liz and Dick at their absolute worst – or rather, best; the acting put forth from both ‘the star’ and ‘the thespian’ probably the greatest of all their frequent screen pairings; certainly, the one picture in which they both appear to have let their creative hair down with shocking duplicity to satisfy the public’s insatiable appetite for the wickedest of tabloid fodder and innuendos that cleverly appear to copycat them with an uncanny degree of verisimilitude.
The pall of the Burtons’ larger-than-life flagrante delicto and the aftermath it rained down on three households (Burton’s marriage to Sybil - shattered, Elizabeth’s to Eddie Fisher – ditto, and Debbie Reynolds – late, nee the first, Mrs. Fisher – but apparently glad to be rid of her philandering hubby while purging herself of all bitterness) bore an unsettling resemblance to the decidedly naughty and abusive exchanges the fictional George and Martha engage in during their cataclysmic cocktail hour as mere blood sport to survive – inviting an unsuspectingly naïve younger couple, Honey and Nick (played with a masterful, wounded innocence by Sandy Dennis and, occasional begrudging bewilderment by George Segal). Nick and Honey lack the necessary jadedness, and thus, emotional armor to guard and protect themselves from George and Martha’s ‘fun and games.’ But they are not without their own peccadilloes. Honey, the mousy and insecure lush, who cannot hold her liquor, has only begun to realize how faking a pregnancy to land the all-star hunk du jour and big man on campus has trapped them both in a prematurely doomed and loveless union. In one of the play’s less hyper unguarded moments, Nick confesses to George he never would have wed Honey otherwise, except for believing his drunken one night’s indiscretion created an unexpected responsibility that his own personal integrity could not shirk. Yet, even in doing ‘the right thing’ Nick realizes he is caught in a desperate trap, relishing Martha’s garrulous and uninhibited flirtation, her mooning critique of his physical prowess and taunt body. This leaves both George and Honey feeling the spank and pall; forever, the outsiders unable to fulfill the truest desires of their respective spouses.
George had aspirations – once; gradually chiseled down to bedrock by Martha’s emasculating domination of his life and career. According to Martha, George could have been Head of the History Department - if only he had the gumption, guts and brains to succeed. Alas, wedding Martha has reduced George into a mostly ineffectual boozehound and academic, merely going through the motions on an adjunct professor’s salary without any hope to insinuate himself back into her father’s good graces and take over as Dean someday. Daddy saw through George’s lack of ambition right away, much sooner than Martha, who has held this inadequacies against him ever since.  Perhaps no other movie, save Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (released the same year as Virginia Woolf), was as responsible for striking into the very heart of Hollywood’s galvanized Code of Censorship with such exacting complicity from then President, Jack Valenti. Indeed, producer, Jack L. Warner had been politely discouraged from pursuing the rights to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; categorically ignoring the play’s earth-shattering assault on the senses with enough ‘blue’ language to make a sailor blush. In a letter written to Warner in April of 1963, it was ‘suggested’ “…if you want to make a picture of this, you must get rid of all the profanity and sexually charged dialogue!” While few concessions were granted along the way – to blunt at least the 4-letter aspect of the loaded exchanges between George and Martha – Warner made a fortuitous decision in hiring screenwriter, Ernest Lehman to adapt Albee’s caustic barbs. He was not Warner’s first choice. In fact, John Frankenheimer had already worked out the particulars of his own shooting script – and had been hired as the picture’s director - when Richard Burton informed Warner he would not be partaking of the exercise should Frankenheimer remain on the payroll. With a list of enviable screen credits under his belt (Sabrina, Executive Suite – 1954, The King & I, Somebody Up There Likes Me – 1956, North by Northwest – 1959, West Side Story – 1961, The Sound of Music – 1965), Ernest Lehman, was already considered an eminent writer in Hollywood. He would unequivocally prove it on Virginia Woolf, tweaking the play’s loaded language without blunting the effect of Albee’s carefully contrived narrative, ever so cleverly ‘opening up’ what, on stage, had been essentially one embattled exchange given full flourish on a single set.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became the cause célèbre to put Jack Valenti’s newly established presidency in the Motion Picture Association of America to the test. Like Warner, Valenti had seen the Broadway original as directed by Allen Schneider and co-starring Uda Hagen and Arthur Hill. He too was an ardent fan from the get-go.  But Albee’s masterwork required delicate consideration to make it into a movie that would, at once, retain the potency of the original without shocking the more puritanical sect of the movie-going public right out of their theater seats. In fact, Virginia Woolf would provide the impetus for a pet project Valenti had been toying with for some time – nothing less than a complete overhaul of the system - rewritten to accommodate the transition from stage to screen. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the first motion picture to receive a ‘rating’ under Valenti’s system of classification; an 18A, thus barring more impressionable minds from attending its’ screenings, presumably to keep their ears – as well as everything else – virginal. Nevertheless, the play’s potency could not be ignored, winning 5 Tony Awards as well as the Drama Critic’s coveted prize. For obvious reasons, the word ‘fuck’ was replaced by Lehman – first, with ‘screw’; then, altogether expunged, meaninglessly dumbed down to ‘damn’; the same ‘damn’ that had once cost David O. Selznick a considerable fine of $5,000 to keep in at the end of Gone With The Wind some thirty odd years before.
Initially Henry Fonda was approached for the part of George, despite a leaked press junket to Variety shortly after Warner had already acquired the rights, suggesting big plans were afoot to costar Bette Davis and James Mason. Fonda’s polite refusal to partake may have had something to do with the rumored belief any actor endeavoring to draw clarity from such a polarizing work of fiction was likely to forever alter – nee, wreck – his on-screen as well as his public image. Viewed from this vantage, the juiciness in Albee’s sizzler inevitably appealed to one of Hollywood’s most notorious – if Teflon-coated - couples. Edward Albee was kept out of the loop on these decision-making processes, though he quietly approved of the aforementioned stars under consideration. Albee was less sincerely enthusiastic about the final decision to costar Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor – at least, at the start. “I understand why they did it,” Albee would later admit, “They went for bankable box office.”  Albee’s discontent was chiefly centered on Elizabeth Taylor; at thirty-two, much too young to play the frumpish fifty-something Martha.  Taylor too had expressed nervous apprehensions about playing the part, considering it “a stretch”; her anxieties abated by Burton’s coaxing – “It’s a wonderful part and you must do it!”
There is a very old axiom in Hollywood to suggest that simply because a woman is beautiful it also stands to reason she can never be much of an actress. Indeed, this reputation had dogged the violet-eyed Taylor for most of her film career; considered a lightweight clothes horse, easy on the eye, though with virtually nothing for the heart, despite illustrating all evidence to the contrary in several major movies that had established her reputation as a consummate professional; including National Velvet (1944), Father of the Bride (1950), A Place in the Sun (1951), Giant (1954) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Alas, the lingering pall of Cleopatra (1963), the costly film to date, along with Taylor’s devil-may-care attitude towards the institution of marriage had effectively deprived her of a more lasting reputation in the movies. Albee’s admitted skepticism had more to do with Taylor’s age than her backstage shenanigans, by the playwright’s estimation, at least 20 years the fictional Martha’s junior, while Richard Burton was about five years too old to play George. Nevertheless, Albee was to be pleasantly surprised with the results put forth by this unlikely screen team; also, singing the praises of Jack Warner and Ernest Lehman’s contributions. “I think they gave a fairly accurate translation of the play,” Albee would later offer. Interestingly, Albee remained circumspect about Mike Nichols’ impact.
Exactly how Nichols came to direct Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is another matter entirely. A close personal friend of Richard Burton in 1960, Nichols had planned to fly to Rome with his then fiancée and meet up on the set of Cleopatra when an unanticipated breakup in his own pending engagement put a wrench in their rendezvous. Sending Burton a cablegram to inform him of this delay, Nichols was intrigued when Burton wired back, “Come anyway.” Nichols did, and was instrumental in helping to squire Elizabeth incognito around Rome during delays on the lengthy shoot. Afterward, Nichols became a confidante to both Taylor and Burton; so much, that the pair used their clout as a power-brokering couple to help Nichols land the gig to direct Virginia Woolf.  Mike Nichols would rely heavily on his cinematographer, Haskell Wexler to create the necessary ‘atmosphere’ for the picture; the decision to shoot in B&W not entirely embraced by Albee, who was informed by Jack Warner, “color is for glossy spectacles and musicals; black-and-white, for ‘serious’ pictures.” And yet, at its crux, Who’s Afraid for Virginia Woolf? can almost be considered as a deliriously dark and mildly disturbing farce. Indeed, George and Martha’s sad realization, that, despite their share contempt for each other they are anchored by an underlying and unerring fidelity to one another’s pain – and the infliction of it on each other – is a rather ironically sad social commentary on modern marriage. 
Ernest Lehman’s screenplay retains Albee’s three act framework in exposing this hellacious breakdown of communication, rife with venomous resentment, nevertheless indulged by an escalating turpitude of verbally abusive, jealous insults and mean-spirited head games. Despite the psychotic nature of their relationship, George and Martha continue to ‘need’ each other on a more profound – and profoundly disturbing - level. Albee had, in fact, based these characters on his good friends, Wagner College literature professor, Willard Maas and his experimental filmmaker/wife, Marie Menken; legendary for the infamy of bringing unsuspecting guests into their parlor game-styled tempestuousness. Setting aside George and Martha’s proclivity for strong drink, the screenplay holds tight to Albee’s ‘theater of the absurd’ inculcated with Freudian references and fitful bouts of existentialism. Entertaining George and Martha’s passive-aggressive behaviors, Lehman telescopes themes more lengthily expressed in Albee’s play, presented within the time constraints of a manageable 2 hrs., 11 mins. as mercurial, deepening, yet foundationless; the struggle of wills between two couples, or four individuals, swirling in a toxic bath of near pathological and very self-destructive behaviors, but caught in a maelstrom of their own design. Honey and Nick lack longevity in their relationship to be both as openly cruel or as needy as George and Martha, though, in essence, they are the prototypes, foreshadowing precisely where their relationship is likely headed; George and Martha’s open vetting a real ‘eye-opener’ for Honey and Nick.
The play was divided into three acts: the first, ‘Fun and Games’ but a prelude to the nightmare yet to follow. Immediately following the main titles, in which we see a slightly inebriated George and Martha stumbling home on foot from a dinner party given by Martha’s father, the Dean of an undisclosed New England college (actual exteriors shot on the campus of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts), we catch a glimpse of Martha’s sandpaper abrasiveness as she disapprovingly surveys the eclectic disaster zone that is their home, cluttered with a lot of scholarly books, papers, old and careworn furniture, and, other academic paraphernalia, boastfully declaring “What a dump!” The line – excised from the infamous Bette Davis potboiler, Beyond the Forest (1949) - is repeated several times by Taylor; each time, with more flavorful embellishments. Aside: one ponders with mild amusement to think what Davis, the initial frontrunner to play Martha, might have done with this grotesque lampoon of herself.
George is mildly obtuse about both the line and his wife’s nagging inquiries. However, he is stirred to minor irritation when Martha informs him she has invited newly arrived academic, Nick and his wife, Honey to their place for a nightcap. Why bother? After all, they have only just met the young couple; he, a biology professor – twenty-something, ex-footballer with a strong face, shock of blonde hair and taut body Martha finds fitfully attractive; Honey, the mousy little thing lacking all the glamor and ambition Nick has in spades. George will spend the first half of the evening needling Nick about his wife’s narrowness in the hips and their lack of children; eventually liquoring up Honey and spinning her about the room until she is driven to throw-up in the bathroom. Martha thinks Nick is the new adjunct prof in the math department. Either way, it’s not a number’s game she is after, leaving George miffed and Honey mildly unsettled. In between showing Honey about the house and attempting to seduce her husband, Martha goads George and manages to tell Nick and Honey an embarrassing story about the time she sucker-punched George in front of her father. To avenge this humiliation now, George gets a rifle down from the shelf in the storage room, cautiously approaching Martha, Nick and Honey from behind; his sights squarely fixed on the back of Martha’s head.  Catching a glimpse of George out of the corner of her eye, rifle poised; Honey lets out a blood-curdling scream to startle everyone. Martha reels around, staring down the gun barrel, whereupon George pulls the trigger, letting out a trick umbrella from its chamber.  Honey and Nick are understandably relieved, sharing in the joke. But Martha escalates her verbal sparring with George; now, turned moodily acidic and against the supposed son they share which George repeatedly refers to as ‘the little bugger.
Act Two of the play is esoterically referenced as the ‘Walpurgisnacht’ or ‘annual witches meeting; ironic, since it has much more to do with the menfolk; Nick staggering after a berated George; the boys meeting up near a modest swing hanging from a backyard tree. The men share stories about their wives. Nick confides he only married Honey for her family’s perceived wealth; also, because he believed she was pregnant with his child. Too bad for Nick, Honey’s pains and bloating turned out to be a ‘hysterical pregnancy’ instead. Now, Nick’s stuck with an unattractive wife he doesn’t love and a future unclear, except to say it may or may not involve another stab at firing up the ole furnace for another try at parenthood. Herein, Richard Burton delivers what is probably one of the top ten best soliloquies ever put on film; George relaying a tall tale, presumably from his youth, about a trip to a gin-mill he took with a few fellow classmates; one, having accidentally killed his own mother the summer before while cleaning his rifle in the kitchen. Burton’s incantation of this shy and retiring lad is so vividly recalled that one might almost anticipate seeing him suddenly – if ethereally – materializing from the bushes. What an exceptional actor Burton was, the tenor of his recall shifting from relatively lightheartedness, as George relays how this inexperienced drinker was practically laughed out of the mill for mispronouncing bourbon as ‘bergin’, to a lower timber achieved to retell a rather sinister coda; the boy losing control of his car the following summer and accidentally driving it into a tree, thereupon killing his father, who was in the passenger seat at the time. According to George, the boy, who narrowly survived the wreck, nevertheless lost his mind from grief in the process. He was committed to an asylum, and never spoke again.
In the play, this riveting account was immediately followed by the men rejoining Honey and Martha; George, telling another fictitious story – this one thinly mirroring Nick and Honey’s loveless marriage. Ernest Lehman’s screenplay delays this wounded trust and betrayal, long enough for Nick to openly admit to George he has intentions to charm and screw his way to the top; getting a little of his own back by suggesting Martha might be as good a prospect as any to begin his debaucher’s journey. George is mildly amused. So the stud thinks he can outfox an old campaigner, does he? Insisting on driving Honey and Nick home, George is mildly perturbed when Martha once more begins to talk about ‘their son’; the conversation delayed when Honey, still tipsy, urges an impromptu stopover at a nearby roadhouse. Sandy Dennis’ performance, throughout Virginia Woolf, is one of the most fragile, tragic and striking; truly, a lost soul, masking life’s disappointments by constantly stroking her husband’s ego. Intoxication has its liberating effects on Honey, who whirls about the vacant roadhouse, screeching “I dance like the wind” – her embarrassing lack of coordination stifled by Nick’s embarrassed insistence.
However, Nick has designs on Martha, proving he can be just as cruel to both George and Honey by rubbing up against Martha suggestively on the dance floor. Eventually whipped into a frustration, George unplugs the jukebox from the wall, announcing ‘the game’ is over. Undaunted, Martha alludes George may have murdered his parents as the protagonist of his unfinished novel; a revelation causing George to lunge at Martha and attempt a strangulation until Nick pries George’s hands from her neck. Convincing the owner to serve them one last round before their departure, George proposes a game changer, from ‘Humiliate the Host’ to ‘Get the Guests’, before crudely moving on to another ‘group’ activity - Hump the Hostess. To inaugurate this new game, George tells Martha he has written a new novel, one about a young Midwestern couple – a good-looking teacher who enters into a loveless marriage to a ‘mousy’ wife on the falsified pretext she is pregnant. Suddenly realizing the story is about her and Nick, a thoroughly humiliated Honey takes ill for a second time and rushes off. Nick vows to avenge this betrayal before hurrying off to comfort his wife.
In the parking lot, George tells Martha he will brook no more of her humiliations. She hisses back before driving off with Nick and Honey, leaving George to find his own way home on foot. Back at the house, George discovers his abandoned car in the front drive with Honey fast asleep in the backseat. From her semi-conscious ramblings, George deduces Honey was, in fact, pregnant at the time she ‘tricked’ Nick into marrying her, but secretly had an abortion thereafter. Meanwhile, George spies Nick and Martha’s silhouettes through the half-drawn shades of their upstairs’ bedroom, presumably about to engage in the sexual act. Too bad for Martha the young buck has had a little too much to drink. All that ‘bergin’ has affected his libido. Martha is ruthless in her admonishments, George suddenly appearing in the doorway holding a bouquet of snapdragons he hurls at Nick and Martha. George makes a veiled reference to ‘their son’, causing Martha to reflect how George was too rough with the boy during his formative years; George swatting back insinuations of a possible incestuous attraction between mother and son that Martha vehemently denies.
Now, George relays news supposedly received in a telegram, informing him their son was killed in a freak accident on a country road after swerving to avoid a porcupine.  This declaration is verbatim what George told Nick about his friend earlier and Nick suddenly realizes George and Martha have been playing a sadistic game with them all along. Martha and George have no son. As day breaks over the horizon an emotionally distraught Martha is cradled by George. Horrified for having been played the fools, Nick takes Honey home. What a ghoulish couple George and Martha are; he, quietly whispering ‘who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, to which a careworn and tear-stained Martha openly confesses, “I am, George…I am.” The penultimate exorcism of this night’s blood sport suffers from quiet defeatism; Martha, momentarily drawn to George in her presumed grief…or rather, her realization George has ‘won’ the game.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is nothing less – and sadly, nothing more – than a showy bit of theater with most of Edward Albee’s articulate profanity lovingly preserved in Ernest Lehman’s uncompromising screenplay. Director, Mike Nichols’ go-for-broke staging of the piece is a tad too predictable and pretentious; relying on something live theater can never give an audience – the close-up. Virtually all of the confrontations we suffer through herein are photographed by Haskell Wexler in tight medium shots and/or close-ups. To some extent, a goodly part of the play’s influence has been blunted when viewed today – not by the enforced ‘changes’ made to land the picture a suitable rating under Jack Valenti’s revised production code – but because, in the interim, there is not much audiences have not been exposed to in the name of high (or even lowborn) dramatics and cinema. Peeling back the layers of Albee’s verbal pyrotechnics reveals just how fragile and nonexistent Virginia Woolf is as ‘a play’ and certainly, as a movie. The whole exercise is anchored by a two hour plus diatribe, drawn out in academic/existentialist nonsense and represented almost as ‘debate’ between a pair of rudimentary theorists on the art of living, but who get off on dismantling each other’s reputations and crippling their psyches in public.
The big reason to see the movie today is the same as it was back in 1966: Elizabeth Taylor’s monumental performance. Arguably, Taylor is vindicated in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as ‘an actress’ rather than ‘a star’; and this, after a prolonged latent period, like a snake shedding its second skin; void of glamour, elegance or even a shred of decency as the bitchy, disheveled and impious Martha. To be sure, Albee’s dialogue is an actor’s dreadful dream, full of vicious humor. But Albee gives most of this clever-cleverness to George; the venom to Martha. Lines like, “I swear, if you existed, I'd divorce you”, “Hey swampy”, “You make me want to puke!” or the ambiguous, “Damn you” (changed from ‘Fuck you!’ in the play) carry a certain thirty second bravado – particularly as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was preceded by forty some years of studio-sanctioned innuendo fervently stamped out at every possible turn by the Production Code. Yet, here, in Taylor’s resurrection of Albee’s Medusa, is the undiluted manifestation of truly wicked beast only hinted at in Taylor’s Oscar-winning performance as the high-priced call girl, Gloria Wondrous in Butterfield 8 (1960). Five years of hard-living with the likes of Richard Burton; also, some intense and deliberately unflattering makeup, have physically transformed the one-time shapely and violet-eyed beauty into the epitome of this shockingly evil and castrating anti-Christ. With her vituperative tongue, capable of painful lacerations to the heart as well as the mind, was there ever a bigger bitch in heat, either on stage or in the movies, than Albee’s Martha? 
A lesser man is George, to be sure. But he is played herein by a titanic presence – an actor’s actor, and, to rarified perfection of a different kind. Virtually all of the appeal in Richard Burton’s recital is strengthened by his abilities to command in the moment. Partly through his inimitable vocalization, that richly timbered and mellifluous baritone, oozing vileness and glib repartee in tandem, Burton can take even a know-nothing comedic line like “Martha is 108... years old. She weighs somewhat more than that” and tease it into a deliciously tart and pronounced declaration of his character’s bottomless scorn, yet equally as bizarre concern for this woman so virtually unlikeable, she would otherwise reign pointless as the repugnant harpy. And Burton gives us a man of influence even when under the influence. While virtually all the remaining principles momentarily lose themselves in the camp of playing slightly inebriated, repeatedly electro-shocked back into reality by the staggering perversity in this exercise of ‘fun and games’, Burton’s George, bookishly dense, modestly short-sighted, and sporting a perpetual scowl that can as easily find surrender as strength, is never entirely a man – surrendered to these belts of booze. Burton’s awesome discipline as a consummate actor is most astutely observed in his loaded exchanges with George Segal. Granted, Segal’s Nick is not the flashier male part, though Segal is quite obviously not in the same league as Burton. But Burton makes even Segal look better – playing to the actor’s limitation rather than overpowering him with his obvious command of the English language. One has to admire Burton for his chutzpah indeed, though also for his ability to know exactly when to pull in his horns just enough so as not to skewer the competition.
The chief problem any first-time viewer likely has with the movie is shared by first-time theater attendees. Albee’s play, as the movie, is uncompromisingly heartless, without even an iota of empathy for its antagonists. Arguably, Albee is not interested in what makes the story superior stagecraft or pure cinema. His focus is on tearing apart, stripping bare, laying to waste and making raw the crises and follies of an already desperately crumbling marriage; Albee’s cerebral pontifications occasionally stifling the forward motion of the narrative, though, in such capable hands as these, never the performances as given. Indeed, even Albee, who had had sincere misgivings about the casting of Taylor and Burton as his warring partners, perhaps fearing their dumb show within his own would too much gild the lily, had laudatory praise for the movie upon its release. Still, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is very much a product of its time. Today, it comes off as intermittently static and wordy, and, in its most bravura moments, as a work, less of daring than just plainly unhinged, gin-soaked craziness, or as noted film critic, Andrew Sarris aptly put it “…a brilliant play about living and a bad play about life”, misguidedly “projecting Albee’s familial fantasies as marital realities…neurotic (with) masks and metaphors and masquerades and tinkling symbols.” As no one under the age of eighteen was allowed to see the picture, no one – least of all the Catholic League of Decency – could accuse Jack Warner of corrupting the moral fiber of impressionable young minds. Viewed today, one sincerely wonders how it ever could, a very sad indictment on just how far down the rabbit hole contemporary society has gone in these intervening years.  
As anticipated the Warner Archive’s (WAC) new Blu-ray advances in virtually all aspects of presentation. The DVD was fairly impressive. The Blu-ray is immaculate, offering additional detail, overall image clarity and sharpness that really shows off the nuanced clutter in George James Hopkins’ stunning and meticulous production design. The gray scale pops with exceptional tonality. Close-ups, of which there are many, reveal all the craggy pocks in Burton’s skin and even a few unintentional dimples in Taylor’s otherwise porcelain visage; hair, clothing fibers, wood grain, foliage etc. all coming to the forefront in utterly startling razor-sharp clarity. Wow and thank you! The Blu-ray’s audio, upgraded to DTS is still mono but exhibits subtle refinements over the Dolby Digital mono on the DVD.
Extras have all been ported over from the 2-disc DVD edition and include two audio commentaries, one from Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh, the other featuring Haskell Wexler. I think Nichols’ is the more comprehensive of the two; covering back story, personal recollections, personal stories about Burton and Taylor, the lasting impact of the movie and so on. Wexler sticks pretty close to commenting only on his contributions. There are also two featurettes that cover, in interview format, a lot of the same ground already addressed in these audio commentaries. We continue to champion WAC for its due diligence in hi-def. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is another outstanding achievement and for this – and hopefully many others yet to follow – we sincerely tip our hats to Senior VP of Warner’s Theatrical Catalog, Mr. George Feltenstein for bringing distinction and preservation to the best and brightest of the studio’s illustrious history. Bravo and thank you again! Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Monday, May 2, 2016

RANDOM HARVEST (MGM 1942) Warner Home Video

In 1942, MGM released Mervyn LeRoy’s Random Harvest; just one of the studio’s grand and glorious odes to an England that never was, based on a best-selling novella by author, James Hilton whose previous works, Lost Horizon and Goodbye Mr. Chips had entered the popular lexicon and been made into equally as gratifying motion pictures.  Random Harvest is really a throwback to the Irving Thalberg era; Metro’s raja, Louis B. Mayer electing to partly honor the precepts that owed a great deal to Thalberg’s extravagant spectacles of the mid-1930’s. Random Harvest has at least the look, if not the deportment of a movie overseen by Thalberg’s mighty and uncompromising hand. Throughout their joint reign over this Culver City empire, better known to the outside world as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Thalberg and Mayer frequently clashed over Thalberg’s profligate spending on fewer pictures to make up Metro’s yearly quota. Thalberg had reasoned – usually with uncanny clairvoyance – that less output with more distinction would net the studio even greater profits. At least in his time, this much was generally true. Even so, when the diminutive zeitgeist unexpectedly died at the age of 36 in 1937, exiting the synagogue on the day of the funeral, Mayer is rumored to have nudged executive, Eddie Mannix, whispering the murderous line, “Isn’t God good to me?”
Indeed, Thalberg’s passing had left a void in management Mayer was only too eager to fill as the undisputed monarch of MGM. Too much has been written of L.B. Mayer since as a tyrannical and oppressive influence, mostly by those who never knew or even met the man in person. And while it is nevertheless certain Mayer would continue to rule Metro with an iron fist, it is equally as true he fully believed his way was the just and only way to ensure perennial profitability. The proof is in Metro’s longevity and profitability while Mayer reigned supreme, and the cataclysmic spiral into fiscal oblivion that steadily marked and dogged the various regimes put into place after his forced departure from the studio. Mayer could have cleaned house immediately following Thalberg’s death. He could have done away with those devoted almost exclusively to Thalberg’s edicts, except that Mayer, for all his faults as a human being, could sincerely recognize the strength – as well as the profits to be had in retaining these loyalists; every last one integral to the proliferation and maintenance of Metro’s supremacy at the box office. From this vantage, Random Harvest is yet another example – at least from the outside looking in – of how a change in top-level management had not impugned Metro’s ability to carry on in the grand manner on which its reputation with the public had been based. It was, after all, in keeping with tradition and that long-since dreaded word ‘prestige’ that, at least in Mayer and Thalberg’s heyday, meant far more to the cachet of a company than pictures that don’t make any money.
Random Harvest is an exquisite melodrama; a wartime weepie wrapped in the enigma of an elegant – if thoroughly – far-fetched tale of woman’s suffrage. The book, published in 1941, had appealed to a primarily female readership. The movie would make a valiant attempt to reach out to both sexes, and, on the whole succeed in broadening its appeal. How could it not, with winsome Greer Garson, riding the crest of success begun with her debut in 1939’s Goodbye Mr. Chips, and continuing with a string of highly profitable tearjerkers, including Pride and Prejudice (1940), Blossoms in the Dust (1941) and the Oscar-winner, Mrs. Miniver, released earlier in the same year as Random Harvest. For a brief wrinkle in time, Garson’s screen appeal was almost Garbo-ian in tone. Metro had, in fact, been meticulous in crafting movies to showcase her infectiously lithe Irish charms; Garson’s image as the perennially devout woman of hearth and home leading to a her frequent on-screen teaming with the genteel and adoring Walter Pigeon as her soon-to-be/or already ensconced husband. Behind closed doors, Garson was actually more heatedly involved with actor, Richard Ney who played her son in Mrs. Miniver. Yet, unlike Garbo, Garson radiated genial warmth, the perfect quality for Hilton’s patient heroine, dance hall performer, Paula Ridgeway. At first, Paula takes pity upon, but then almost immediately falls in love with an amnesiac/escapee from a nearby asylum in Melbridge.  Seemingly without effort, Garson’s performance morphs from motherly and protective to instinctually romantic; the transition never forced or awkward.   
And in her co-star, the ultra-sophisticated, yet fluently graceful Ronald Colman, she all but finds the strength to endure his character’s unintentional loss of affections. Colman, who had quickly gone from little known British émigré actor to A-list Hollywood star, primarily thanks to the dawning of sound, that unlike for so many had marked the kiss of death to their careers, in Colman’s case revealed an exquisitely mellifluous and richly nuanced baritone, ideal for the talkies.  In writing this review I can almost hear the echoes of his immortal and penultimate farewell “…a far far better thing I do…” as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities (1935). The thirties had indeed enriched Colman’s prospects in Hollywood, even as his presence in such classics as Lost Horizon and The Prisoner of Zenda (both released in 1937) firmly established him as the epitome of a certain kind of benevolent, proud English aristocracy; the personification of the traditions England herself was fighting to preserve with the advent of WWII.  Colman is generally magnificent as the shell-shocked British soldier who skulks off from the asylum after the armistice in Random Harvest; greatly depleted and quite unaware he is actually Charles Rainier; heir apparent to an industrialist’s fortune and ancestral estate. After another failed attempt made by his devoted doctor, Jonathan Benet (Philip Dorn) to establish his identity, Charles casually walks away from the asylum in search of his own truth on a moodily fog-laden eve.
A chance meeting with Garson’s empathetic Paula on the crowded and chaotically cheering streets of Melbridge, the latter on her way to the Tivoli music hall to perform for the troops, gives rise to a whirlwind romance and the sort of pastorally emblematic and escapist retreat American movies in general sought to present and preserve as the English way of life; all cultured garden parties and staunchly enduring principles: stiff-upper-lipped morality, decorum and propriety – noblesse oblige. Paula rescues the amnesiac from being sent back to the asylum by a well-intended tobacconist (Una O’Connor), ushering him into a local pub run by the exuberant keep; retired pugilist, ‘Biffer’ (Reginald Owen). In short order, Paula is ordered by the Tivoli’s stage manager, Sam (Rhys Williams) not to be late for the performance. What to do? Charles is so very fragile. He ought never to be left alone. So, Paula takes this man she barely knows, whom she has since nicknamed ‘Smithy’, to her dressing room, bolstering his confidence with an ebullient one-sided ‘conversation’ in which she reveals a great deal more about her own character and aspirations. Leaving Smithy backstage to enjoy the show, Paula delights the crowd with her high-spirited and leg-revealing rendition of ‘Daisy’. Alas, as the returning soldiers who populate the audience join in for a verse and chorus of ‘It's a Long Way to Tipperary’ something stirs within ‘Smithy’. Unbeknownst to these revelers, Smithy has suffered a relapse and collapses on the floor.
The next afternoon, Biffer learns the man Paula is keeping hidden in his upstairs bedroom over the bar is actually the mental escapee everyone in the village is talking about. Biffer is staunchly loyal and agrees to guard Smithy’s secret. After a few days convalescence, Smithy’s outlook has greatly improved. He speaks full sentences and his optimism and faith in humanity have been renewed. Alas, Sam refuses to take him along on the company’s travels throughout the provinces forcing Paula to make a life-altering decision. After briefly considering returning Smithy to the asylum, Paula instead leaves the touring company without giving notice; taking Smithy under her care and more determined than ever to see him restored to perfect health. Together, they make their way from Melbridge to the West Country – ‘the end of the world, lonely and lovely’ – the ideal retreat to mend a shattered mind into which Paula invests every last vestige of her nurturing self to oversee Smithy’s complete recovery. Gradually, a romance blossoms. And although Smithy is unable to unlock the portholes to his past, he finds himself making new and enduring memories with Paula. Befriending the country physician, Dr. Sims (Henry Travers), Smithy girds his resolve and proposes marriage to Paula. She, at first, resists, fearing he is only doing this to repay her kindness. But Smithy confides in Paula that she has resurrected more within him than a sense of loyalty and compassion. The two are wed in a quiet country church, Sims walking the bride down the aisle to the altar.
The skillful condensation of Hilton’s prose by screenwriters, Claudine West, George Froeschel and Arthur Wimperis nimbly cuts through many chapters in just a few brief scenes. Paula gives birth to a son, named John Smith after his father. In tandem with this good news, Smithy receives word that his application for a full-time position as a writer with The Mercury, a Liverpool-based newspaper has been received with great interest. Hurrying in the rain to make his appointment for the interview, Smithy is struck down by an automobile, awakening a short time later, relatively unharmed but with his pre-war memories fully restored. As he has virtually no recollection of the events that have transpired since the war, Smithy now gives his name as Charles Rainer and his address as Random Hall. Naturally, Charles’ relatives are at first skeptical of his return, though quickly they rally to his side, recognizing him as the rightful heir to their formidable family’s wealth and privilege. The youngest of this extended brood, Kitty (Susan Peters) is not directly related to Charles, but finds him utterly fascinating nonetheless. Over time, she evolves these impressionable feelings into naïve young love.
In the meantime, Paula, having realized what has become of her husband, gets a job as Charles’ private secretary, rechristening herself as Margaret Hanson. In her present capacity, Paula neither intends to deprive Charles of his obvious happiness, nor his reunion with his rightful family, nor does she set about to expose the fact they are husband and wife. Appealing to Dr. Benet for guidance, the mood turns palpably romantic when Benet suggests Paula forget about her life with ‘Smithy’ and pursue a relationship with him instead. Yet, he is ever more kind-hearted than enterprising, offering Paula renewed hope, even though, in doing so, it so utterly deprives him of his own chances to procure lasting happiness with the woman he so clearly loves. Endeavoring not to dishonor the love she and Charles shared, though perhaps realizing it is utterly futile to cling to this dream that was, Paula has her marriage to ‘John Smith’ annulled. At the same instance, and despite their discrepancies in age, Kitty and Charles become engaged. Alas, in preparing the hymnals that will crown their moment of happiness together, Charles suffers a relapse; stirred by a distant and cloudy reminiscence; the haunting faraway look caught in his eyes convincing Kitty she has been desperately grasping at an imaginary life together that can never include her.  Maturely, Kitty breaks off their engagement, causing Charles to begin a deeper soul-searching excursion that takes him back to Liverpool.
On this sojourn, Charles employs Margaret as his social secretary. As he plans to enter public life as a politician, Charles suggests they are both prisoners of their respective pasts, haunted by a clouded history that can never be whole. Perhaps together, they might find a new path to move forward. Paula is taken aback by this sudden change in her fortunes, but conceals her joy. Indeed, in proposing marriage this second time, Charles remains aloof at best. While he firmly admits he would be lost without her, in the same breath he offers her nothing but passionless friendship in return for his hand in marriage; Paula expected to play the part of devoted wife and hostess as the first lady of an elder statesman. Paula agrees to these terms, informing Dr. Benet of her plans to remarry Charles. In public, the ruse is imperceptible. Margaret and Charles are a handsome couple and the envy of their contemporaries. But behind closed doors, Paula realizes that to have remained alone was not the worst that could have happened to her; that, to be nearer still the man of her dreams, and yet not even considered worthy to be his lover, is far more painful. She is wounded, increasingly heart-sore and ever as unhappy as before, perhaps even more so. How could she have agreed to such a bloodless arrangement? Declaring her need to take some time for herself, Paula departs for Melbridge, to the inn where she and ‘Smithy’ first fell in love. It is only a stopover, as Paula intends to take an extended vacation to South America.
In the meantime, Charles is called by the home office to act as intermediary in a strike in Melbridge. His arrival is met with enthusiasm and he does, in fact, restore order between the workers and the mill. However, in choosing to walk the streets instead of taking a cab en route to the train station, Charles begins to suffer from recollections he cannot explain. A trip to the pub run by Biffer further jogs his memory, as does his remembering the tobacconist who nearly returned him to the asylum so long ago. Inquiring from a local cabbie as to the location of the hospital, Charles is further haunted by memories at the front gates of the asylum which now stands in ruins, a relic from the post-war period. In the meantime, Paula prepares to depart from the inn. Charles, who has kept a mysterious key to a door he has never known tucked in his coat pocket, is now drawn to the country cottage he once shared with Paula. Trying the key in its lock, Charles is astonished when the door opens. Paula, who has astutely surmised the unnamed and unseen man who came to the inn moments before her departure, making inquiries, was likely Charles, hurries to be reunited with ‘Smithy’ at the cottage. Charles memories are stirred into full flourish and he now recognizes Paula by name as his wife; the couple tearfully reunited.
Random Harvest’s finale is perhaps a bit too idealized for today’s audiences lacking in sentimentality. Most certainly it represents a curious challenge for this foursome of aliases; Margaret/Paula and Smithy/Charles. While the novel spans whole decades of lost and regained memories, the movie understandably lacks this luxury; its’ condensed narrative timeline suggesting an either/or solution to this lover’s quandary. Yes, Charles has come around to remembering Paula a second time. But has he equally forgotten once more who he really is in this psychological game of ping-pong; ergo, is he Smithy again? Reentering Paula’s life as Smithy seems to suggest the couple can pick up where they left off nearly a decade before, if only Charles were not already a public figure with a new/old life as an established statesman from a very well-established English family. Stories about the sacrificing of time and place, surrendering life itself – or, at least, as we know it from our primitive limitations in the space/time continuum – have been perennial favorites in literature, the stage and the movies; Lost Horizon, Carousel, The Enchanted Cottage, and Brigadoon among them.
Yet, the sacrifice is always muddled by the realization human beings are tangibly mortal, if imperfect and decidedly perishable creatures of habit, desperate to establish a more lasting and permanent world; arguably, a forever futile pursuit. As such, we cannot preserve our own longevity or legacy without an inevitable choice made in service to this sacrifice. Random Harvest’s ‘perfect’ finale suggests life can be resumed, even after an absence of some years, when love is ever-present to restore the eternal flame of passion into the mix. Glamorized implausibility has been the driving factor of a good many romance novels - both pulpy and legitimate; Hilton’s authorship decidedly leaning towards the latter and loftier pursuit. Mervyn LeRoy’s movie straddles the chasm dead center, however; the treacle ever more fancifully contextualized by Cedric Gibbons and Edwin B. Willis sumptuously visualized Art Direction. And yet, Random Harvest never once veers into abject tedium or an obvious display of hearts and flowers; the screenplay, LeRoy’s direction and the solid acting from its two stars conspiring to evolve a tender, moody and thoroughly satisfying tome to wounded, though enduring love among the ruins of fractured time. Reuniting the lovers before the final fade out satisfies our insatiable need to believe in fairy tales without dismantling the sincerity or credibility in this exercise. It is saying a great deal that Random Harvest was one of MGM’s biggest money makers of the year; perhaps, even more telling, it was never remade; the varying vintages in film-making that have since come and gone unable to quantify, analyze or even deconstruct – if only to resuscitate – this magic elixir and reintroduce it to a new century for generations with enough confidence to sidestep its gross inconceivability.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is now well over two decades old and the transfer looks it too. Although the gray scale is solid with good contrast, on the whole fine details tend to suffer, particularly during the foggy studio-bound night time scenes depicting Smithy’s escape from the asylum and his penultimate return to Melbridge to resolve the strike. Film grain is nonexistent, leading me to deduce a bit of heavy-handed DNR has been applied to achieve these overly smooth results. Compression artifacts are a non-issue and, except for minor speckle, there are no age-related artifacts to intrude. Overall, Random Harvest doesn’t look awful on DVD. But it would behoove the powers that be at the Warner Archive to line this one up for a brand new hi-def Blu-ray transfer, surely to restore and resolve the issue of absent grain and capture the more subtly nuanced details in Joseph Ruttenberg’s moodily lit cinematography. The audio is mono and remarkably clean and free of hiss and pop during quiescent moments. Extras are limited to a few vintage short subjects and a theatrical trailer. Honestly, it is about time Random Harvest made the leap to 1080p. Like so many of MGM’s perennially satisfying gems from the 30’s and 40’s this movie is deserving of that honor in time, money and other resources spent to restore it for optimal home viewing.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, May 1, 2016

FATHER OF THE BRIDE (MGM 1950) Warner Home Video

It is one of comedy’s more sobering and morbid axioms that humor – good, bad or indifferent - is generally reinforced by mankind’s rather sadomasochistic ability to derive laughter – even pleasure – from someone else’s pain. Case in point: Vincente Minnelli’s Father of the Bride (1950); as it turned out, a harbinger of all the like-minded frothy entertainments foisted upon television throughout the Truman/Eisenhower eras; tales of upwardly mobile, headstrong/heart-sure, clean-cut and antiseptically wholesome Americans to whom the pile of living room shag or size of fins adorning the family automobile spelled success, prosperity, and above all else, an artificially inflated sense of solidarity within the family unit. It may be sacrilege. For damn sure, it goes against the grain of a personal mantra, but I have always preferred Charles Shyer’s 1991 remake to Minnelli’s overwrought, if urbane and uber-clever original; its’ obvious star power, Spencer Tracy (fast entering his emeritus years) as harried patriarch, Stanley Banks, and, a positively ravishing 17 year old Elizabeth Taylor as Kay – his adoring, soon to be married daughter of the title, gradually submarined by Minnelli’s darker suppositions on even as lively an event as a wedding; the nightmare challenging the fairytale and all but superseding the sheer joie de vivre in this exercise. One can debate the point, that Minnelli had no real stomach for comedy – at least, not in its undiluted form (his comedies are always about people better than the preposterous situations foisted upon them. They also generally rise above such nonsensical debacles, thus providing the rest of us with a textbook example of how best to live).
Shot with unusual thrift in just a month and a day, and grossing a whopping $4,150,000 against a budget less than a quarter this sum, Father of the Bride was something of a rarity for Minnelli; perhaps even more so for MGM as it turned out. For although the studio with ‘more stars than there are in heaven’ was no stranger to glamour or star power, they had rather deliberately shied away from making the sort of nutty screwball comedies that were bread and butter at virtually every other studio in Hollywood. In lieu of these, MGM reaped rewards from lavishly appointed costume epics and musicals, densely packed melodramas and the occasional wartime actioner. Louis B. Mayer’s edict for handsome men and beautiful ladies ensured a smug urbanity around the back lot and ethos that flew in the face of such anarchical hilarity. It positively abhorred and railed against bowdlerized farce. Stars like Jean Harlow or the Marx Brothers, having come to Metro second best from a proving ground where such un-sanitized silliness roamed free, were inevitably curtailed in their razor-backed sass and escapades; their image realigned with Mayer’s homogenized view of ‘America the beautiful’. What little experience MGM possessed in the pantheon of comedy was usually allied to a particular star; Mickey Rooney’s joyously adolescent misfires as Andy Hardy, as example, or the perennially stylish William Powell with Myrna Loy – sophisticates, pitting wits and pointed marital barbs in between scenes of heartfelt tears of pity, joy, angst and forgiveness.  MGM never entirely warmed to comedy for comedy’s sake, thus losing out on a genre that might have stemmed the tide of their steady decline throughout the mid-fifties.
In retrospect, Father of the Bride is MGM’s response to comedy; a challenge even, to the other studios to do their particular brand of it even half as well. Assigning Minnelli the honor to direct it fit succinctly with MGM’s glacial façade of peerless gloss at the expense of practically everything else – including ‘laughs’. Father of the Bride is not a ‘funny’ comedy, per say; much less so than the 1991 remake. Our amusement from it originates in Spencer Tracy’s rare and inimitable strengths to convey careworn dissatisfaction with the foibles of life; an almost Shakespearean acquiescence to fate itself.  Interestingly, by minimizing the role of ‘the bride’ with an unknown in the remake, Charles Shyer’s movie becomes more of an ensemble piece; Steve Martin front and center as the perpetually perturbed piñata. By contrast, Minnelli’s movie is nearly derailed by the presence of Elizabeth Taylor – already very much an MGM star; affording her classical feminine beauty a barrage of close-ups to flatter. Taylor is a star – if not a talent – on par with Spencer Tracy. Behind her magnetic visage we find Tracy’s Stanley T. Banks lurking; desperate to survive Kay’s announcement, her courtship to the monumental stick in the mud, Buckley Dunstan (Don Taylor), the escalation of tensions in meeting his in-laws (scatterbrain, Billie Burke, as Doris, and Moroni Olsen as Herbert) for the first time, the inevitable merry-go-round of parties that inaugurate and lead up to the big day (at which poor Stanley is expected to forego schmoozing and simply play host), the actual wedding ceremony (complete with a truly noir-ish prelude dream sequence), and finally, the devastatingly regal reception (that accosts thrift-happy Stanley with the rape of his pocket book).  At one point even Stanley speculates, “What are people going to say when I’m in the gutter because I tried to put on a wedding like a Roman emperor?” It is a fitting line. For although no cultural historian of this period would likely have considered as much, there is little to doubt, at least in retrospect, that America’s middle class postwar evolution was fast affording the working man his day in the sun as his own master. Charmingly, Father of the Bride distorts, then completely removes the rudder from this trajectory; leaving Stanley Banks to founder and almost implode under the duress of satisfying both his wife and daughter’s visions for the perfect wedding.
Yet, Minnelli seems to deny us any chuckle-worthy warmth in this (mis)treatment of Stanley Banks as the unluckiest of rubes; financially secure, but otherwise socially inept; a ‘yes’ man to his family. They rely on his patronage for their comforts, but otherwise afford him little more than backhanded ‘respect’ with palms outstretched. Joan Bennett’s Ellie Banks adopts a Scarsdale-pukka high tone that is diametrically opposed to her husband’s practicality, perhaps in keeping with the character as written by novelist, Edward Streeter. Stanley’s boys are atypical stock teenagers of the Hollywood ilk; Tommy (Russ Tamblyn), eating him out of house and home, and, Ben (Tom Irish) – too much collegiate gone to his head to consider ‘pops’ his intellectual equal, even if he is good for the keys to the family car.  Is it any wonder Kay is Stanley’s pride and joy; the only offspring to show him kindness without first anticipating anything except as much in return? And the in-laws are not much better; more affluent, and thus, more obtuse to the financial strain this wedding is about to put on Stanley. Remember, we are in the thick of the domesticated 1950’s. The father of this bride is therefore responsible for everything from the trousseau to the reception. The parents of the groom merely show up and provide a gift to furnish the happy couple’s new home.  
Initially, Vincente Minnelli was overlooked to direct Father of the Bride; a last-minute intervention by prolific producer, Pandro S. Berman changing Minnelli’s prospects for the better.  He might have been known as the director of The Skipper Surprised His Wife; a turgid and undistinguished little programmer barely recalled today. Although Berman and Minnelli almost immediately concurred on Spencer Tracy as the representational ‘father’ of all modern brides, they were as immediately confronted by a miserable gaffe made by Production Chief, Dore Schary who had already promised comedian, Jack Benny a chance to screen test for the part. It was a role Benny desperately wanted; his film and radio work in steep decline since the mid-40’s. In the meantime Tracy, having learned of Benny’s test, refused to even consider the project second best. Ultimately, Minnelli appealed to Tracy’s paramour, Katherine Hepburn, whom Minnelli had befriended on the set of Undercurrent (1946). Leave it to Kate to iron out the rough edges and restore calm from the storm. And indeed, Tracy could have done far worse by rejecting this part; the first of his self-deprecating/slightly pontificating ole sages; this one neither as self-appointed, assured, nor as all-knowing as some later to follow it.
The pièce de résistance in Father of the Bride, that is to say the entire reason for Minnelli agreeing to do it, apart from his appreciation for screenwriters, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, is the nightmare sequence; Stanley’s last anxious gasp, subconsciously released as a hallucinogenic night terror on the eve before the big day. In this scene, Stanley envisions his late arrival to the church, Minnelli indulging in an almost Dali-esque interpretation of the religious ceremony as its own purgatory. Ominously lit by cinematographer extraordinaire, John Alton, the chapel becomes a gallery of ghouls; heavily pancaked faces, grotesquely leering, oozing repulsion from every pour, unable to speak their disapproval as the checkered floor beneath Stanley’s feet bows, gives way, and then devours him up to his waist, his trousers and cutaway reduced to tatters as he valiantly assails his way to the altar on hands and knees. Even for Minnelli, no stranger to experimental flights into fancy, this absurd delirium is way over the top. The Gothic Guignol and cold-sweated perversity of Minnelli’s obbligato resists integration into the rest of the movie. It is a standalone piece, punctuated by Kay’s penultimate look of sheer embarrassment and a blood-curdling shriek to awaken the fallen from his slumber, but also cruelly to suggest a daughter’s love can only be stretched so far.     
Father of the Bride begins with an epilogue to the great event; a beleaguered Stanley T. Banks and his wife, Ellie quietly surveying the cluttered wreckage after the reception; their living room strewn in streamers, confetti and rice. It ought to have been joy galore, except Stanley is about to regale us directly with his cynical sentiments on the art and craft of ‘getting married’; generally a downright monotonous affair until it happens to involve him personally. From here, Minnelli regresses into the not so distant past, three months to the day: the family Banks gathered around the dinner table…well, father, mother and daughter at least; unanticipated in learning of Kay’s intentions to marry Buckley Dunstan.  Kay is in love. That much is obvious. Oh, a father’s woes. Which one of the many suitors has conquered her heart? Of course, the one he fears the most – the muscle-bound ham with the tennis racket – is the one he must reconcile with and eventually accept. Actually, it is not all that difficult to do; Don Taylor’s wooden performance presents everybody’s all-American as an uninspired lump of blind devotion – a lost puppy made whole by the love of a good woman. Okay, so marriage to Buckley Dunstan is hardly an earth-shattering revelation; if only Stanley, despite being a successful lawyer, could set his mind at ease, or on anything except how much this wedding is going to cost him. Buckley’s arrival is met with indifference bordering on open hostility. In the 1991 remake, Steve Martin’s George Banks refines this animosity to a finite level of wounded jealousy. But Tracy’s portrait of it teeters between two/thirds distraction and one/third disappointment in Kay’s choice of beau. In both movies, it is the wife who is immediately enamored with her future son-in-law; instantly consumed with visions of the perfect wedding and falling asleep with happy thoughts. Stanley lies awake, terrified by the uncertainty of what the next three months have in store. He does not have long to wait to find out for himself.
After insisting on a ‘serious meeting’ to establish Buckley’s financial situation, Stanley instead nervously regales his future son-in-law with a history of his own financial standing. Unlike Martin’s George Banks, Tracy’s Stanley forgoes learning anything more about Buckley when Ellie announces dinner is ready. While Martin’s patriarch is insistent to prove his son-in-law a fraud unworthy of his daughter’s love, Tracy’s harried dad is merely ashamed he cannot come up with anything better than speculation to buoy his argument. From Ellie, Stanley learns Buckley owns his own company and is presently showing a $5000 profit – a sizable sum in 1950. So far/so good. However, a cordial get-together at the Dunstan’s stately home gets uncomfortable when Stanley has a wee too much to drink; dominating the conversation with a recitation of Kay’s formative years, confusing names in the process and slurring his words. Mercifully, Stanley’s waggling tongue does not land him in too much hot water, though Ellie is mildly embarrassed by his gregarious talk while under the influence. A short while later, the Banks play host to the Dunstans; Stanley all but confined to the kitchen, mixing drinks while everyone has a gay ole time in his front parlor at his expense. Stanley even misses out on the opportunity to officially welcome the in-laws with a prepared speech. Chagrined yet again, Stanley and Ellie engage Buckley and Kay to finalize plans for the big day. Distracted, the young couple instead takes off on their prearranged date while Stanley begins to lament the cost of throwing such a grand affair. In private, Ellie makes it known to her husband of twenty-some odd years that like Kay she would have preferred a church wedding to the modest ‘justice of the peace’ ceremony that marked their nuptials. While she harbors no regrets, Ellie views Kay’s marriage as a chance to live out that dream vicariously.
Stanley decides to remain silent about the escalating costs – for now. Still, he cannot help but feel the bottom line on his balance sheet sinking incrementally deeper into the red when he discovers Kay’s invitation list has topped out at a staggering 572 guests; 282 asked to the reception too! Behind Ellie’s back, Stanley pitches a solution to Kay. What if she and Buckley eloped? He almost has her convinced when Ellie barges in; Kay attempting to inform her mother, but quietly shut up by Stanley, who realizes his damage control is futile. There will be a wedding – oh, how there will be a wedding, even if Stanley cannot fit into his old cutaway. So, it’s a new tux for Stanley, to go with Ellie’s new dress. The Banks also hire wedding coordinator extraordinaire, Mr. Massoula (Leo G. Carroll) to cater the reception. After surveying the Banks’ modest property, Massoula politely informs his clients they will have to hire a moving company to take out all of the furniture and have a makeshift marquee set up adjacent the house to accommodate everyone for dinner. More confusion. More money. More headache. But now the heady preparations reach a tipping point when Kay suddenly informs her parents the wedding is off because she has since unearthed a devastating secret about her fiancée. 
No, not another woman, but Buckley’s plans to take her to a fishing shack in Nova Scotia for their honeymoon. Alas, Stanley finds the absurdity of this latest crisis rather amusing; shoring up the damage without much effort and allowing Kay and Buckley their reconciliation.  The rehearsals at the church serve as a prelude to the chaos yet to come. Stanley suffers a debilitating nightmare in which he fancies himself late to the church, falling through the floor and winding up in tatters and patches crouched upon the floor next to the altar, much to Kay’s utter horror. Awakening in a cold sweat, Stanley finds Kay also unable to sleep, eating in the kitchen. Father and daughter share a heartfelt tête-à-tête that puts them both at ease. Unlike Stanley’s terrible dream, the actual ceremony goes off without a hitch as does the reception; the one regret, Stanley is unable to find a moment to share privately with Kay his infinite joy and pride at seeing her happily wed and on her way to begin a new life as Mrs. Dunstan. Not to worry. After witnessing the limousine cortege pull away from the curb, pursued by an entourage of well-wishers, Stanley and Ellie retire to their parlor; alone at last and suffering the letdown of realizing the big day is at an end. Kay telephones to thank ‘pops’ for everything, and Ellie reminds her husband he has met and surpassed all expectations as ‘the father of this bride’. Husband and wife share a slow dance together, the camera pulling back to reveal the lazy wreckage of strewn decorations and half-wilted flower arrangements.
Half way through production MGM knew, or perhaps, merely suspected it had a winner; quickly registering the title ‘Now I Am A Grandfather’ – later, to become Father’s Little Dividend, the sequel to Father of the Bride. Shot on an even tighter budget, the sequel reunited virtually the entire cast for another go-around. In less than a year, MGM had two hit movies. Now, under serious consideration to be spun off as a franchise, the way they had earlier done with the Andy Hardy series, plans for a Part III were quashed when a sex scandal involving Joan Bennett broke in the tabloids; her husband, producer/director, Walter Wanger, shooting her lover, agent, Jennings Lang in the genitals; a crime of passion for which Wanger served a paltry eighteen months in prison.   Nevertheless, Father of the Bride could lay claim as the ‘granddaddy’ or precursor to a certain type of fifties TV sitcom, devoted to extolling the humorous virtues and vices of the all-American postwar upper middle class family. MGM ought to have jumped on this bandwagon to reap the whirlwind, except that L.B. Mayer – soon to be ousted from his ceremonial post - utterly loathed ‘that little black box’ in everyone’s living room, if for no other reason, than it had stolen nearly 40% of his theater-paying audience – and thus, profits – seemingly overnight. Even after Mayer was no longer dictating the company agenda, MGM continued to avoid any direct involvement in the new-fangled medium; the studio’s holdout filled by other ambitious companies in the interim and forcing MGM to play a woefully sub-par game of ‘catch-up’ throughout the 1960’s to partake; a game they would never win.  
As though even further to blur the fine line of distinction between art and reality, Elizabeth Taylor announced to the press she would wed Nicky Hilton, heir apparent to the Hilton Hotel dynasty in May of 1950; MGM rushing like mad to make the premiere of Father of the Bride just two days before Taylor’s actual wedding; Taylor appearing in newsreels, wearing the bridal gown costumer, Helen Rose had designed for Kay in the movie to her own wedding. Alas, Kay’s celluloid marriage would outlast Taylor’s; the couple divorcing just eight months later when it became apparent Hilton’s erratic and abusive behavior, coupled with his gambling addiction had made for a very bad first union.  For the moment at least, Vincent Minnelli could breathe a sigh of relief, the success of Father of the Bride offsetting the failure of The Pirate (1948); a passion project he had championed but that had sunk like a stone at the box office and badly strained his reputation with Dore Schary who had little to zero interest in making musicals – and this, working at a studio renown, even revered, for making some of the greatest musicals of all time.
Viewing Father of the Bride today, one cannot help but find it quaint at best and downright archaic at its worst; its stereotypical sexual politics having dated rather badly. Kay’s greatest ambition is to marry; hardly the goal of most young women today. She neither desires a career or any prospects to further her education. What does a woman need smarts when the man can manage everything? Wife and motherhood – though still noble institutions – are presented in Father of the Bride as the Holy Grail yearned for by all women of considerable breeding and social standing; nice girls from the suburbs who would likely wither and die, or turn spinsterish if the right man never comes along to sweep them off their bare and soon to be pregnant feet like a fairy tale princess. The last act of Father of the Bride does, in fact, possess a fairy tale quality; the Emily Post-ness of its fabulous uber-sophistication, offset by Minnelli’s verve to stage a thoroughly claustrophobic reception; the alleviation of everyone’s ‘needless’ worrying, capped off by a flawless farewell as rosy as pink champagne; Minnelli sounding the call with a flourish before retiring his merriment like a master illusionist putting away his magic tricks.
Charles Shyer’s 1991 remake offers a less attenuated balancing act; more earnestly devoted to the comedy, less direness and drear; trading Leo G. Carroll’s inordinately stuffy wedding coordinator for effete comic relief, brilliantly conceived and executed by Martin Short. Perhaps it is a mistake to compare and contrast these two movies as though they were companion pieces. For although they share the same title, premise and virtually most – if not all – of their best vignettes, with slight, though nevertheless important variations to mark the update, Vincente Minnelli’s Father of the Bride remains a time capsule of fifties chic good taste; imbued with fine performances, some more satisfactorily enduring than others. Like so many of MGM’s postwar movies, it’s the craftsmanship in the exercise that is admirable herein; Minnelli’s proficiency, the swiftness with which he amiably shoots this artifice of life as though it were genuine, yet somehow manages to retain that patina of art for art’s sake in spite of itself. In the final analysis, this Father of the Bride is ‘Taylor’-made for its leading lady or, as Metro’s astute marketing campaign pointed out “the bride gets the thrills…her father…the bills!”
Warner Home Video’s DVD presentation of Father of the Bride is pretty spiffy, so it will indeed be interesting to see how their recently announced Blu-ray release via the Warner Archive will compare and surpass this effort. Father of the Bride on DVD looks magnificent; a solid gray scale with exceptional tonality and incredible amounts of fine detail to satisfy. There’s a light smattering of grain and expertly balanced contrast too. This is about as good as DVD can hope to get with slight imperfections, some minor ringing and noise around some of the plaids and herring bone patterns, a few minor age-related artifacts and once in a long while, minor gate weave and wobble. On the whole, it is forgivable of DVD but wholly unacceptable once the image makes the leap to hi-def where every little glitch and imperfection is sure to show.  We’ll wait in the hope of a perfectly mastered Blu-ray. We won’t have long to wait either. The audio herein is mono with quiescent moments sporting some very minor hiss but virtually no pop. We get a few newsreel extras, including footage of the ill-fated Taylor/Hilton wedding and a slightly worn theatrical trailer. Better stuff, I suggest, is on the way. Wait for the Blu-ray and get ready to pitch a little rice on the side.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


THE THREE MUSKETEERS (MGM 1948) Warner Home Video

Odd, that MGM should have undertaken a lavishly appointed screen adaptation of The Three Musketeers (1948) barely a decade after 2oth Century-Fox’s superb B&W spectacle of 1938, co-starring The Ritz Brothers. Not that director, George Sidney’s sumptuously mounted remake - in glorious Technicolor no less - was unworthy of the effort. On the contrary, with a roguishly handsome Gene Kelly as D’Artagnan, Lana Turner, oozing sinful sex appeal as the deliciously devious, flaxen-haired Charlotte - the Lady de Winter, June Allyson, above it all as the virginally obtuse, Constance Bonacieux, and Vincent Price, a thoroughly wicked Cardinal Richelieu, this adaptation of the famed Alexander Dumas swashbuckler was every bit as lusty, playful and exquisitely staged as its predecessor; in some ways, more so.  As Metro always did in its grand days, it threw enough kilowatt stardust at the screen to stifle a supernova; Angela Lansbury, as the Queen, Frank Morgan, a thoroughly loveable King Louis XIII, Van Heflin as Athos, the intellectual amongst freedom fighters, and, Gig Young and Robert Coote; stars ascending, if never to reach the upper echelons, as Porthos and Aramis respectively.
Apart from being a pugnacious mogul, Louis B. Mayer knew his business inside and out; arguably, audience’s tastes much better still; the post-war generation’s verve for valiant heroes, despicable villains and hot-blooded women – both virtuous and viperous – cavorting with enough nimble brio to set cash registers ringing; updating the time-honored paeans of Dumas’ tongue-in-cheek adventurist spirit with just enough of that ancient flowering in golden age Hollywood razzamatazz to allow its nostalgia - all high-spirits and marvelously staged set pieces – and the treacle its proper place within an actioner’s pantheon. Even better, Mayer had assigned the prolific, Robert Ardrey to write the screenplay, Herbert Stothart to compose the score, and cinematographer extraordinaire, Robert H. Planck to lens this happy affair – cobbled together on back lot facades, the occasional location shoot at Santa Monica beach, and, sound stage sets held over from Irving Thalberg’s monumental acquisitions on Marie Antoinette (1938). Quite simply, The Three Musketeers could not miss – and didn’t – at $4,124,000 in domestic grosses, one of MGM’s brightest moneymakers, not only of the year, but the entire decade.
At its zenith, Metro could display such stifling eccentricities as these with wild abandonment and a certain unapologetic lack of authenticity. None of the actors carry off their roles with anything even remotely resembling an authentic ‘French’ accent (Kelly’s boyish rascal, more sexy pirate/comedian than sword-slashing seducer). Miraculously, this disconnect is virtually unnoticed – at least, for long stretches of time, allowing the audience to slip into the ether of suspended disbelief with narrowly a thought for remaining anything less than thoroughly and pleasantly entertained by these jaw-dropping gorgeous and ridiculously out of step accoutrements. Mayer’s version of entertainment may have been coming to an end by 1948 – in point of fact, MGM was experiencing something a downturn in its profitability at war’s end (the beginning of the end for its one-time untouchable supremacy, as it turned out) - but there was little to doubt The Three Musketeers as exactly the sort of gargantuan spectacle, a la the blessings of the late Irving Thalberg would have judiciously approved, and, the likes of which virtually no other studio in Hollywood dared to rival without a few sweaty palms in the executive front offices. Interestingly, costume epics had fallen out of favor with the war; a genre Metro reviled in and almost single-handedly kept alive as they had done a decade earlier with the screen operetta (soon – if briefly – to be revived yet again in the fabulous fifties, and, in Cinemascope with stereophonic sound!).
Mayer could afford to be magnanimous, even extravagant in his pursuit of such antiseptic perfection. His kingdom had weathered the lean war years spectacularly. Even with wartime cost-cutting, Metro had managed to make many fine and fanciful movies far above and beyond the means of their competition - and show handsome profits besides; MGM, the envy of the world and in possession of a highly prized roster of stars never again to be rivaled under one roof.  Tossing a handful of them at the screen for this adaptation of The Three Musketeers would have seemed frivolous to downright dangerous coming from any other mythical back lot in the land. But from Mayer’s private repository, an embarrassment of such riches, it just seemed par for the course and frankly expected. If nothing else, and with very few exceptions, The Three Musketeers gives us the Cook’s Tour and lay of the land around the Metro back lot; spanning the girth of its formidable outdoor sets, from Copperfield Square and the famed footbridge leading to the house where Greer Garson once defended the virtues of England from a downed Nazi pilot in Mrs. Miniver (1942) to Dutch Street and Salem Waterfront, all of them, curiously depopulated.
In hindsight, MGM’s cost-cutting is not altogether nor even successfully camouflaged. Consider first, the lack of extras to populate these cluttered streets of a pseudo-France. So too, reflect upon Malcolm Brown and Cedric Gibbons’ art direction that asks we not look too closely for the discrepancies in these varying bits of architecture, in no way  replicating the flavor and/or authenticity of period France; disparately butted against period trappings on display in interior sets culled from Thalberg’s Marie Antoinette, the throne room as example, slightly reassembled herein with its iconic parquet flooring and gargantuan crystal-cut chandeliers: a gleaming gold obelisk to Thalberg’s own era of bygone decadence.  Were that The Three Musketeers had been made during Thalberg’s reign, it would have emerged a far more meticulous and arguably worthy contender in the ‘illustrated classics’ tradition of Hollywood make-believe. In retrospect, it more represents Mayer’s verve for asexual ‘family-orientated’ fare; cleansed of most of the political hypocrisies and intrigues, except as they serve to remind the ardent reader of Dumas’ novel in a sort of primitive connect-the-dots plotting; swiftly executed, but distilled of its intellectual bite, and, in service to the more luridly escapist chapters of the book for which Mayer’s kingdom was world renown.
The Three Musketeers opens with great pomp and circumstance, Gene Kelly, as D’Artagnan, doing some of his most ambitious swashbuckling and swordplay this side of Errol Flynn, some of it later reappearing in B&W as ‘The Royal Rascal’ movie within a movie used in Singin’ In the Rain (1952).  Alas, for all his skill as a swordsman, D'Artagnan is a rather uncouth Gascon youth; his ego preceding his manners. On his way to Paris he encounters the villainous Charlotte, the Lady de Winter who orders her protector, Rochefort (Ian Keith) and his men to subdue the lad, fearing he is the King’s spy. D’Artagnan is beaten unconscious, his father’s letter of introduction burned, thus depriving him immediate entry into the elite Musketeer corps. However, the Captain of the corp, de Treville (Reginald Owen) does allow D’Artagnan cadet status. Almost immediately, D’Artagnan makes rather bad enemies of three Musketeers in his clumsy pursuit of Rochefort. Athos, Porthos and Aramis each demand their satisfaction, arranging duels at half hour intervals throughout the course of the day. Thus, when Athos’ seconds arrive to observe the first of these confrontations they are pleasantly astounded to discover the youth challenging them is one in the same. However, before the first duel can commence, the Musketeers are confronted by Richelieu’s men, including Rochefort. Determined to avenge his early assault, D’Artagnan stands with the Musketeers – all for one, and one for all. Hastily, D’Artagnan proves his mettle with a sword in the dispatch of their foes. His superb skill utterly humiliates Rochefort by exposing his pantaloons.
Amused by this fine upstart in their midst the Musketeers and D’Artagnan return to court to face the King’s wrath. Fittingly, the befuddled Louis XIII exonerates them of any wrong doing, but orders de Treville to get D’Artagnan a new suit of clothes and a noble steed. With this newfound wealth and title, D’Artagnan takes a fashionable suite of rooms near the palace. His landlord, Bonacieux (Bryron Foulger) pleads for D’Artagnan to watch over his daughter, Constance while he is away. Constance is Queen Anne’s most trusted and loyal confidante and thus in danger of being kidnapped by Richelieu’s men. Interestingly, Louis B. Mayer proclaimed to his screenwriters that no mention would be made of Richelieu as a ‘cardinal’; presumably, so as not to offend the Catholic diocese. D’Artagnan and his man servant, Planchet (Keenan Wynn) are cruel to Bonacieux, knocking him down a flight of stairs. But shortly thereafter, D’Artagnan becomes smitten with Constance, whom he spies on from a secret porthole in his floor. Witnessing her near kidnap by Richelieu’s men, D’Artagnan intervenes and subdues these would-be attackers. Constance is grateful and quickly falls in love with D’Artagnan. Meanwhile, Anne has given a matched set of diamond studs, a gift from her husband, to her lover; the Prime Minister, the Duke of Buckingham (John Sutton). Unearthing this indiscretion, Richelieu plots an intimate crisis in order to distract Louis from more pressing matters of state and later persuade him to declare war against Britain. Louis is reluctant to do so. Thus, Richelieu decides to arrange a ball, a diversion in which the Queen will be expected to wear the diamonds she no longer possesses.
Constance implores her lover to retrieve the gems before anyone is the wiser. Alas, on the road to England, D’Artagnan and the Musketeers are ambushed by Richelieu’s men yet again; another display of swordsmanship resulting in some spectacularly photographed Californian beachfront scenery that in no way replicates the coast line of France. One by one, the Musketeers are forced to separate; only D’Artagnan and Planchet reaching the Duke in time. As a failsafe, Richelieu has sent the Countess de Winter ahead to seduce the Prime Minister and steal two of the jewels back – proof, returned to Richelieu, he intends to use to illustrate the Queen’s infidelities to her husband. With marked efficiency, Buckingham has his jeweler create two replacements; the gems entrusted to D’Artagnan. On the eve of the ball, D’Artagnan sneaks past an army of Richelieu’s guards, crashing through the windows of Constance’s bedroom and restoring the jewels to her. In short order, Constance gives the diamonds back to the Queen who arrives at court with the complete set, much to Richelieu’s chagrin. Now more than ever, Richelieu is determined to destroy the monarchy; his venom telescopically focused on Constance.
Not long thereafter, Constance is abducted on Richelieu’s command; Richelieu attempting to enlist D’Artagnan in his service by promising her unharmed return to him. As D’Artagnan openly refuses to even consider the appointment, Richelieu now sends Milady de Winter to work her feminine wiles on D’Artagnan. She is most conniving and erodes at least part of his resolve; Athos desperately trying to convince D’Artagnan Charlotte is an evil, corrupting and remorseless viper who will stop at nothing to destroy any man who falls under her spell. And Athos intimately knows of what he speaks. De Winter is, after all, his wife! Refusing to accept Athos claims at face value, D’Artagnan soon discovers the fleur-de-lis branded into Charlotte’s flesh – the irrefutable mark of a common criminal. Meanwhile, relations between Britain and France disintegrate. War breaks out. Amidst this chaos, Anne discovers where Richelieu is keeping Constance. A daring rescue ensues and Constance is taken to England. In reply, Richelieu gives de Winter carte blanche to murder Buckingham. Learning of this insidious plot, D’Artagnan sends Planchet to England to warn the Duke. Athos confronts de Winter, exposing Richelieu’s treachery to Buckingham.  Charlotte is imprisoned and Constance made her jailor. Alas, Constance takes pity on Charlotte, who fakes madness and then a hunger strike to win her forgiveness. Pleading with Constance to procure her a knife by which she means to take her own life rather than face torture and an inevitable hanging in the public square, the weapon is instead used by de Winter to murder both Constance and Buckingham.
Arriving too late to prevent these cold and calculated assassinations, Athos, D’Artagnan, Aramis and Porthos nevertheless thwart Charlotte’s departure back to France. With them is the Executioner of Lyons (Frank Hagney). There is no escape this time. De Winter is beheaded in the gardens just beyond the castle where her bloody treason has been wrought. Now, the Musketeers are ambushed by Richelieu's men. While Louis XIII is empathetic to their plight, he nevertheless is easily manipulated by Richelieu to see things his way. Richelieu is about to sentence the Musketeers to death when D’Artagnan produces the carte blanche given to de Winter by Richelieu. It proves his complicity in the plot to destroy Louis’s kingdom from the inside. Determined to preserve his integrity at all costs, Richelieu grants the Musketeers their choice of exile; Aramis, to a monastery; Porthos, to find a rich widow of his choosing and settle down, and D’Artagnan and Athos, to retire in a manner of luxury befitting their station in life. The Musketeers retreat from the King’s court, secure in the knowledge they have done their sworn duty to the crown.
This version of The Three Musketeers can be an exhilarating experience. Without question, Gene Kelly’s performance is the memorable one, despite his second billing to Lana Turner’s incendiary vixen. In the beginning, neither star was attached to this project; Louis Hayward, then Douglas Fairbanks Jr. advertised in the trades for D’Artagnan; Lana Turner relenting to make her first appearance in Technicolor after negotiations with Alida Valli fell through and Louis B. Mayer threatened Turner with suspension should she refuse the honor. Alas, only days before production was to begin on Easter Parade (1948) Kelly broke his ankle during a game of touch football at his home; exercise expressly forbidden by Mayer in case of just such an injury. While Kelly’s delayed healing forced him to bow out of Easter Parade entirely, Mayer pushed back shooting the more elaborate fencing sequences in The Three Musketeers to give Kelly’s ankle a chance to sufficiently heal. But Kelly would begin the picture with his injury only partly on the mend; strapped into a cast-like brace and doing all of his love scenes and close-ups ahead of schedule.
Rooting from behind, Van Heflin does his absolute best to keep up, but it is Kelly’s miraculous and seemingly inexhaustible vigor that delights on more than one occasion in The Three Musketeers; his athletic swordplay, part technician/part pantomime, with a touch of the clown, bon vivant and uncouth rapscallion all rolled into one. Quite simply, it remains a tour de force. Evidently, Kelly’s incorrigible horseplay and risk-taking incurred Mayer’s ire on more than one occasion. Mayer’s utmost concern was likely Kelly’s safety; also, Mayer’s plans to keep one of his most popular stars steadily churning out some of the best musicals ever made on the back lot. Had Mayer not been dethroned in late 1950 he might have been the one to nix Kelly’s tenure at the studio mid-decade after the slow, sad and unstoppable implosion of the Hollywood musical had already left MGM with a cavalcade of classically trained musical/comedy talent, but alas a real dearth of viable spectacles to showcase their enviable talents. With very few exceptions, Kelly would remain perennially tied in the number one spot as the best hoofer at MGM and arguably, in all of Hollywood, his only real competition, Fred Astaire; although, I would sincerely argue Gene Nelson, Donald O’Connor and The Nicholas Brothers could have given him a run for his money too.
Kelly brings balletic maneuvers, yet a genuinely earthy and masculine appeal to his D’Artagnan; a smug joie de vivre too, especially when asserting his robust physicality in the company of men. He is altogether less convincing as the adoring suitor/later husband to Constance; June Allyson’s virginal ‘girl next door’ passionlessly at odds with Kelly’s slightly tarnished man of the world. Indeed, the scenes between Kelly and Lana Turner are more up to speed in achieving romantic chemistry; albeit, of a highly toxic nature. Turner usually devoured the men she was paired with on the screen; all except for frequent costar, Clark Gable and, ironically, Gene Kelly in this movie. It has something to do with Kelly’s bravura, equally as dazzling and devil-may-care as Turner’s bodice-ripping harlot and schemer. Depending on one’s point of view, it is either a pity or a triumph that the plot weighs so heavily on D’Artagnan; the rest of the cast generally wasting away in his shadow. The worst of these noble sacrifices is Angela Lansbury – barely glimpsed as Queen Anne; a thankless part. Ditto for Frank Morgan’s hapless Louis XIII and Vincent Price’s skulking Richelieu; never given the opportunity to go beyond a venomous twinkle in the eye or coy, but cutthroat grin.
Whatever its shortcomings, The Three Musketeers can be forgiven virtually everything in glorious Technicolor. Robert H. Planck’s cinematography is a veritable ice cream sundae for the three-strip process; the violent green plumage atop Lady De Winter’s bonnet, gold brocade and embroidery in D’Artagnan’s riding ensemble and flowing blood red robes of state for Price’s grey-haired and goateed Richelieu are all given over to eye-popping representation on the screen. By comparison, Herbert Stothart’s underscore is unremarkable at best. Stothart, a workhorse at Metro with a very fine pedigree (1935’s Anna Karenina, and, Mutiny on the Bounty, 1936’s A Tale of Two Cities, 1938’s Marie Antoinette and 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, for which he won Best Original Score, among his many commendable credits) could perhaps be forgiven this rather homogenized and tepid effort. By the mid-1940’s, MGM’s in-house style had taken on a sort of pompously romanticized regality that was increasingly at odds with its more homespun productions. And Stothart, although not yet ill, would die of lung cancer barely a year after the picture’s release. Whatever the case, his music cues herein seem to chart all-too-familiar territory; his bombastic prompts to follow the dueling sabers, or imperious marches and dainty waltzes to accompany the more courtly pursuits in Louis’ palace, are veiled offerings that hint and occasionally reek of better work done elsewhere. In the end, we are left with unapologetic and gushingly elegant bedazzlement without any genuine substance to anchor the effect. Perhaps the best that can be said of The Three Musketeers, as with a good many of MGM’s supremely crafted spectacles of this vintage, is that we exit the theater smiling, superficially entertained by the distraction of it all.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is better than passable, though hardly spectacular. The original Technicolor hues have held up remarkably well, avoiding differential shrinkage for the most part. Colors are robust and at times illustrate a reasonable facsimile of vintage three-strip color photography. While close-ups bear a superb amount of fine detail, we lose something of this as well as the aforementioned vibrancy in a good many long shots; background information slightly blurring. Flesh tones look a tad orangey and contrast is a little weak. There are no true blacks, as example; the azure night skies and murky shadows inside the dungeon where Lady De Winter is being held prisoner, exhibit a warmish brown tint. Occasionally age-related artifacts crop up, but these generally do not distract.  The audio is vintage mono and quite respectably solid, although quiescent moments exhibit a pronounced background hiss and slight pop now and then. Warner adds a few unrelated short subjects and trailers to this mix; vintage stuff that likely appeared before and after the feature theatrically. But we get nothing in the way of history or making of – an oversight, indeed. Bottom line: recommended. But I would sincerely encourage the Warner Archive to give this deep catalog title consideration for a revamped Blu-ray release.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)