Monday, July 16, 2018

A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT: Blu-ray (RKO, 1932) Kino Lorber

Katharine Hepburn marked a stunning debut in George Cukor’s A Bill of Divorcement (1932); a rather literal film adaptation of Clemence Dane’s award-winning play. Dane’s stagecraft, itself a response to Britain passing a ‘new law’ allowing a woman to sever her marital bonds based on a legal claim of insanity, had been produced as a silent movie ten year’s earlier. Cukor’s version sticks fairly close to Dane’s construction; his one luxury, the casting of the angular and statuesque Kate Hepburn to play the pivotal role of Sydney Fairfield, who undergoes a miraculous conversion of attitude, acquiring a real woman’s heart in the process and after she is inadvertently introduced to the father that, for all intent and purposes, she has never known, he, having been locked away in an asylum for twenty years. Cukor and the picture’s producer, David O. Selznick were lifelong friends who, oddly enough, resembled one another physically – a similarity that irked Selznick’s wife, Irene and Cukor’s mother. In terms of cinematic taste, the boys were frequently aligned too. But Selznick thought Hepburn all wrong for the part of this callous young lass, born to affluence, who suddenly discovers the true strength of sentiment in renewed empathy towards her father. Despite Hepburn’s rather uninspiring screen test, Cukor disagreed. “The acting was idiotic,” he told Hepburn at the end of it, “…but you put a glass down and listened intelligently.” And this, apparently, was all Cukor required to mold a great performance from his novice star.
Indeed, viewing A Bill of Divorcement today, one is absolutely struck by the visceral charm of Hepburn; the unsettling way her stoic and haughty awareness melts into genuine affection for Barrymore’s decidedly more hammy and unnerved performance as Hilary Fairfield. Pure sacrilege probably, but I have never quite understood the appeal of John Barrymore, hailed as one of the finest stage actors of his generation (he probably was), and trumpeted as ‘the great profile’ in the movies (yeah, whatever). True and fair enough, the art of acting in Barrymore’s time owed a great deal to theatricality. And truer still, a goodly sum of his contemporaries suffered similarly for their art. Yet, Barrymore always seems, at least to me, to be too in love with mugging for the camera – too invested in a rather narcissistic ‘look at me’ intensity that translates into laughable hysterics. By contrast, Hepburn’s subtler performance, as well as that of costar, Billie Burke (as Hilary’s estranged wife, Margaret ‘Meg’ – set to wed another) both appear resplendently natural, teeming in tenderness and nostalgia for a way of life lost to the past and nearly set aside for good in the future.
A Bill of Divorcement is, in fact, a very claustrophobic play, set during Christmas and taking place inside a few stately rooms of a grand manor house, time immemorial belonging to the Fairfields – a respected old family in England’s aristocracy. The patriarch having decamped for the asylum long ago, the household is jointly overseen by Hilary’s estranged wife, Meg and his stodgy elder sister, Hester (Elizabeth Patterson) who, despite Meg’s recent engagement to Gray Meredith (Paul Cavanagh) refuses to let her brother’s memory fade into obscurity. The family’s dirty little secret remains thus: that, the youthful Sydney, herself on the cusp of marriage to the dashing and impetuous Kit Humphreys (David Manners), has always been told her father lost his marbles due to shell shock from the war, when in reality he suffered a nervous breakdown long before it. Apparently, the Fairfield clan is plagued by a history of insanity. The rest of the picture is really a reunion between father and daughter; also, a reassessment of what it means to ‘be’ or rather ‘discover’ one’s own happiness inexplicably linked to another as Sydney desperately tries to keep her father from learning his ex-wife no longer harbors the same emotions towards him, and, after a long period of adjustment and great loneliness, has found the right man to look after her for the rest of her days.   
Our story unfolds at an elegant gathering of the socially affluent at Fairfield manor. Meg’s happiness is presently enraptured in the superficially romantic euphoria of her daughter, Sydney, who is breathless for her spontaneous fiancé, Kit Humphreys. As Meg adoringly looks on, the couple whirl about the dance floor, unabashedly the center of attention. Stodgy Aunt Hester does not approve of such ostentatiousness; even less so of Meg’s decision to wed attorney, Gray Meredith, instrumental in having the courts grant Meg’s divorce after Hilary went mad and had to be put away in an asylum. As Sydney and Kit happily discuss their future, Hester is emotionally wounded when a group of carolers serenade the household with ‘God Bless the Master of This House’ – meant for Gray, but an anthem Hester firmly believes is still owed the departed Hilary, presently psychotic and institutionalized. Sydney knows nothing of the true cause of her father’s infirmity, and thus, cares little for the man she has never known. Her callousness disturbs Hester, who suspects Sydney has likely inherited Hilary’s genetic predisposition. Meg is slightly more optimistic and does what she can to preserve the peace between these two. Having ‘escaped’ from the asylum, Hilary arrives Christmas morning to be reunited with his family. Alas, Meg and Gray are away at church and Hilary instead is tenderly greeted by his estranged daughter who, from a distance, admires his gentle rediscovery of their ancestral home and all its memories.
Dr. Alliot (Henry Stephenson) telephones to forewarn the Fairfields of Hilary’s escape. Concerned for the family’s future, Hester quietly reveals to Sydney that insanity has always run in the family; the previous explanation, Hilary’s breakdown caused by shell shock in WWI, actually meant to shield her from the truth. Armed with this knowledge, Sydney begins to form a bond with her father, recognizing in his instability hallmarks of her own that would likely manifest themselves if she and Kit ever had children. Realizing what a mistake this would be, Sydney bittersweetly gives up Kit. She loves him far too much to see him suffer as she has quietly observed Meg’s loneliness. But now, this may be at an end. Gray truly loves Meg and vice versa. They could be happy together.  The real question is ‘should they?’
Sydney introduces herself to Hilary as his daughter. The two chat comfortably, apart from a moment’s heated disagreement. Yet, this only serves to further parallel their similarities as finely strung and free-spirited individuals. Meg’s initial reaction to seeing Hilary again is one of shock, fear and dread. How will she ever tell him the truth. For several hours the family pretends at a happy and hopeful reunion. Wrapped up in his own recovery, Hilary is obtuse to the tension in the room and believes he has been welcomed back into the fold, ready and willing to assume the reigns as patriarch of this clan.  But these dreams are shattered when Alliot arrives at the manor and confronts his patient with a more sobering conviction. “Face it, man,” he cruelly tells Hilary, “One of you must suffer. Which is it to be? A healthy woman with her life before her, or a man whose children ought never to have been born?” Alliot strike a nerve from within Sydney. She clearly sees what must be done. Despite her love for Kit, she must send him away or risk endangering the children they might have had to a similarly cruel fate.
Conflicted in his emotions toward Meg’s love for Gray, Hilary shillyshallies from acceptance to desperate pleading for Meg to reconsider their life together.  Unable to willfully inflict any more pain on her ex, Meg bows to Hilary’s pressure. Still, she cannot deny her heart, and after Hilary witnesses a private conversation between Meg and Gray, he understands how truly miserable his ex-wife has been in his absence, and how absolutely awful his ultimatum would make her feel again. As heartsore as he is, Hilary selflessly has his daughter convince Meg to go away with Gray – her one chance at everlasting happiness. As the couple departs the manor house, presumably for the last time, a careworn but newly devoted Sydney returns to her father’s side. She is ever more his daughter now, and with newfound compassion, reasons to look after him for the rest of his days. Father and daughter take their place at the piano. Decades earlier, Hilary began a concerto he never finished. Now, he applies all his bottled-up creativity to the keys, willing a conclusion to the music as Sydney gingerly looks on with great affection. Perhaps, in her loyalty to him, these two wounded souls will find their modicum of contentment in a solitary life devoted to each other. 
A Bill of Divorcement is all about the performances. There is very little action to this three-act drama. Slavishly devoted to Clemence Dane’s play, and save a brief respite in the garden, Cukor confines virtually all of his scenes to three rooms in the Fairfield manor house; the lavishly appointed ballroom, quaintly situated morning room with its breakfast nook, and Hilary’s rugged private study. Cukor’s pacing of the play’s wordy dialogue is impeccable as, in retrospect, Cukor (like Joe Mankiewicz) was a master at achieving high drama almost exclusively from dialogue-driven stories. He is, of course, immeasurably blessed with acting talent who implicitly know how to channel intimacy and pathos for maximum effect. Hepburn, who remains the Academy’s most-honored actress with 4 Oscars (for 1932’s Morning Glory, 1968’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 1969’s The Lion in Winter and 1982’s On Golden Pond) ought to have at least been nominated for A Bill of Divorcement. Her portrait of a daughter’s devotion and sensible surrender of Sydney’s immediate happiness is heartbreaking and undiluted in its strength of character. As good as they are, the rest of the cast – even headliner John Barrymore – are all subservient to Hepburn’s beautifully nuanced performance – the lynch pin around whom all narrative threads are interwoven.  At 70 min. and modestly budgeted at $250,000, A Bill of Divorcement is neither an epic love story nor an ever-important piece of classic cinema. But Hepburn’s debut in it elevates the picture to a timeless and meaningful entertainment, well worth the price of admission.
A Bill of Divorcement has never been made available on home video since the bad ole VHS days. So, Kino Lorber’s newly minted Blu-ray is decidedly cause for celebration. The film elements are in relatively good shape. While minor speckling and age-related artifacts intermittently appear throughout this presentation, for the most part they do not distract. The B&W image is otherwise solidly rendered with a few fleeting moments of softness, but, on the whole, revealing some nice detail and crispness that will surely not disappoint. Film grain is appropriately featured and looking indigenous to its source. Contrast is just a tad weaker than anticipated. Everything falls into a mid-register of gray tonality with few instances of true blacks or bright whites. This, again, may be in keeping with Sidney Hickox original cinematography. The DTS 2.0 mono is adequate for this presentation – dialogue, front and center with minimal hiss and pop. The unforgivable sin here – no extras. A Bill of Divorcement is worthy of an audio commentary. But no – all we get are several theatrical trailers to promote other Kino Blu-ray releases of Selznick product. Aside: while A Bill of Divorcement has fared well in hi-def, I would sincerely encourage Kino to go back to the well for new remasters on Duel in the Sun and Since You Went Away – two, less than stellar previous releases in need of better work to be done. As for A Bill of Divorcement – it comes recommended for Hepburn’s powerhouse performance as well as the overall quality of this hi-def release.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, July 15, 2018

BEWITCHED: Complete Series Box Set (Screen Gems, 1964-72) Sony Home Entertainment

In retrospect, certain TV shows seem so much a product of their time, and so right in the spur of their moment, that to consider how close we came to not having known them at all just seems ludicrous. Case in point: Bewitched, ABC’s runaway hit series. It ran from 1964 to 1972. With a twitch of her nose, Elizabeth Montgomery conquered prejudices about the supernatural as a viable entertainment, readjusting cultural cynicism brought on by the thought-numbing splendor of a Presidential assassination and funeral, an ever-growing disillusionment with American society in general, and, racial politics in particular. While Bewitched’s featherweight story lines, and memorable cacophony of reoccurring oddballs rarely touched upon the topical, the show’s fanciful flights into escapist fantasy proved precisely the elixir to offset this woeful reality. “The envelope didn’t need much pushing in those days,” producer, William Asher admitted, “…because the envelope was shut tight.” Indeed, Bewitched hit the air at a time when television situation comedies were homogenized to a finite precision, meant to cater to certain ‘family friendly’ clichés about life ‘with father’ in America.  
Bewitched was therefore a refreshing departure from the status quo. If not entirely an original premise (there had been movies made before, about a mere mortal falling in love with a sorceress, from 1942’s I Married a Witch, costarring Veronica Lake and Fredric March, to 1958’s Bell, Book and Candle, with James Stewart and Kim Novak), Bewitched effortlessly tweaked this age-old premise with a bon vivant’s charm for transforming the every-day suburban mundane into an ongoing series of freshly inventive newlywed calamities, exacerbated by the intrusion of witchcraft…and, of course, a meddlesome mother-in-law (played to perfection by 66 yr.-old Agnes Moorehead). Moorehead, in fact, thought so little of the idea, she agreed to do it, simply on a whim.  Bewitched ought never to have clicked. TV Guide’s initial assessment was far from glowing. And bringing Bewitched to the airwaves was fraught in setbacks. ABC balked at commissioning the pilot, fearing the show would be boycotted in the American South and Midwest where witches and witchcraft were considered sinfully aligned with the devil. Corporate sponsorship from Quaker Oats and Chevrolet helped. And fans responded immediately to the show’s lithe blend of mirth and mayhem. Yet, behind the scenes, Bewitched clung together by only a few precarious threads.
Dick York nailed the audition, cast as Bewitched’s forever harried hubby - successful ad man, Darrin Stephens. Alas, York’s addiction to prescription pills (to numb chronic pain from an old back injury) and his steadily failing health (prematurely brought on by his conspicuous consumption of cigarettes) would result in his being forced to retire prematurely from the role. Ironically, York’s replacement was Dick Sargent – the actor originally offered the part by executive producer, Harry Ackerman in 1964 (Sargent, unable to accept, due to prior contractual obligations at Universal Studios). For the lead, producer William Asher had only one gal in mind – his wife, Elizabeth Montgomery. The actress, born to Hollywood royalty had appeared in a reoccurring cameo on her father’s series, Robert Montgomery Presents. But by 1964, young Elizabeth was far more infamous for two failed marriages in short succession; the first, lasting less than a year, to stage manager Frederick Gallatin Cammann; the second, to alcoholic actor, Gig Young. As they say – ‘third time is the charm’ and, by all accounts, Asher and Montgomery were a winning team both on and off the screen…at least, for the duration of Bewitched’s original run. But when the show ended, so did their life together.
Bewitched’s instant popularity with fans (it was ABC’s #1 show on Thursday nights) gave cause for NBC to commission their own ‘supernatural’ series from Asher, who dusted off a thinly premised sit-com that would prove almost as good, if as well-liked: I Dream of Jeannie (1965-70). As the sixties heated up into a political hotbed of unsettling crises both at home and abroad, audiences abated their stress levels by tuning into primetime television and Bewitched fed this growing dependency to set aside the real world for something more tangibly appealing. In direct reply, and for the most part, TV programming in the 1960's harked back to the more fresh-faced wholesomeness of the fifties – mythical in its clean-cut sterility for good ‘ole fashioned’ entertainment. The powerhouse behind such pop-u-tainments was Screen Gems – the television offshoot of Columbia Pictures, helmed by Harry Ackerman. It was, in fact, Ackerman who first pitched the idea to screenwriter, Sol Saks for a new sitcom based on the life of an ‘almost’ non-practicing ‘witch’ living in the burbs with her mortal husband. Originally, the part was offered to Broadway star, Tammy Grimes, who reluctantly declined the offer, owing to prior commitments on the stage version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown; in hindsight, a blessing, since today it is virtually impossible to imagine anyone except Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stevens.
The series also cast the perfect Darrin the first time out. Dick York had amassed impressive acting credits throughout the 1950’s in films and on television, appearing to good effect in support on such popular TV shows as Wagon Train, Rawhide, and, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, culminating in his high-profile big screen performance opposite Gene Kelly’s cynical reporter, in Stanley Kramer’s all-star, Inherit the Wind (1960). For the part of Endora, Samantha’s meddlesome mama, producers were genuinely stumped until Elizabeth Montgomery’s chance encounter with Agnes Moorehead inside a New York department store. The 4-time Oscar-nominated Moorehead, much admired for her acting skills was, at first, unimpressed by the offer. Still, between jobs and of the belief Bewitched would never last, Moorehead agreed to partake of its pilot and first season. For William Asher, the premise for the witchcraft needed a genuine feel. Thus, he landed upon the idea of using his wife’s nervous tick – a twitchy upper lip – as the trademarked catalyst for all the magical incantations to follow it. In later years, Elizabeth Montgomery would rue the day she ever agreed to this cue, tiresomely prodded by interviewers and fans alike to perform ‘the twitch’ in public, even some twenty odd years after Bewitched had gone off the air.
However, just as Bewitched’s pilot was set to begin shooting, the production was struck by a double whammy; the first obstacle, troubling only to immediate cast and crew; the second, afflicting the entire nation. Asher informed Ackerman that his wife was pregnant. No stranger to ‘writing in’ such a development, as had been done on I Love Lucy, on Bewitched an executive decision was reached to work around Elizabeth’s silently expanding girth; situating the actress behind furniture or simply photographing her from the neck up, and using a stand-in from the back, for long shots to keep the pregnancy a secret. But on Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. For the Ashers, the loss was far more personal as they had been very close friends of the Kennedys. Despite the strain and shock of this tragedy and the pall it cast on the set, the decision was made to push forward with the shoot.  But before long, another concern loomed on the horizon. Dick York’s pain medication caused the actor to slur his words and become slightly incoherent on the set, causing costly delays. Ever the pro, York pushed beyond the pain. And to their credit, producers and sponsors stood behind York as their chosen candidate for the part of Darrin.
Despite all odds, network affiliates in the South and Midwest boycotting the show sight unseen on its premise alone, and, decidedly mixed reviews from the critics (TV Guide famously trashed the pilot), Bewitched’s debut in the fall of 1964 proved an instant and runaway smash with fans. Virtually all of the show’s appeal was wrapped up in Elizabeth Montgomery’s endearing portrait of a doting wife (and soon to be mother) who just happens to be a witch. Rewriting the mythology of witchcraft, Montgomery’s Samantha Stevens was the gal-pal every man wished for as his own. Better still, Bewitched wasted no time expanding its roster with some enviable ‘crazies’ to flesh out Samantha’s side of this nutty family tree; the irrepressible Marion Lorne as dotty Aunt Clara, Bernard Fox (frequently convoluted, as Dr. Bombay), Alice Ghostley, as the scatterbrain, Esmerelda, and, finally, devilish Paul Lynde as sly, playful and witty, Uncle Arthur. Lynde actually began his stint on Bewitched as a one-off driving instructor, driven half-mad by Samantha’s ineptitude behind the wheel. The pair got on so famously between takes that when the episode wrapped, Elizabeth went to her husband with the request to find something ‘more permanent for Lynde’s florid talents. And thus, the character of Uncle Arthur was born. Interestingly, Lynde’s larger-than-life presence was so enigmatic, in only 11 episodes he managed to establish himself as a central performer, integral to the cast.
In Season Two, twins Erin and Diane Murphy were hired as Darrin and Samantha’s offspring, Tabatha (the part eventually played exclusively by Erin) with other roles going to David White (Darrin’s stodgy boss, Larry Tate) Kasey Rogers (his wife, Louise after the original actress, Irene Vernon died) and, George Tobias and Alice Pearce as the Stevens’ nosy neighbors, Abner and Gladys Kravitz. Aside: Pearce’s passing in 1966 also necessitated her role be recast – less successfully – with Sandra Gould from 1966 until the end of the show’s run in 1971. To say the instant fame of Bewitched caught ABC and the other networks off guard is an understatement. NBC scrambled to find its own ‘supernatural’ sitcom, and, with Asher’s aid, found it in I Dream of Jeannie. Debuting one year behind Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie would prove almost as popular with audiences, retiring one year ahead of its predecessor. The show even copied Bewitched by starting each episode with a spunky animated sequence.  
At the beginning of Bewitched’s second season, Asher announced Elizabeth was once again expecting. While producers had shied away from revealing the actress’ first pregnancy, this time they elected to do as Lucille Ball had during the run of I Love Lucy. A baby was written into the series, and, predictably, became one of the highlights of the mid-season ratings when Sam and Darrin welcomed Tabatha into their fold. (In real life, the Ashers had two sons.) In years yet to follow, Tabatha would slowly reveal dominant strains of her mother’s powers – another cause for concern among network affiliates, deftly handled by Asher, illustrating there was nothing sinful, wicked or evil – though occasionally, rather mischievous – about the art of casting spells. At the end of Season Two, Bewitched added another member to its cast; Samantha’s devious sister, Serena (also played by Montgomery as the frequently mini-skirted antithesis her more wholesome sister, destined to toy with the perfect balance of the couple’s happy home). But the biggest adjustment was yet to follow when ABC announced during the summer hiatus all subsequent seasons of Bewitched would be photographed in color. The sparkle of the series bedazzled audiences further still in its new vibrant hues. And Season Three continued Bewitched’s upswing in the Nielsen Ratings. By the end of Season Four, Bewitched still ranked in the Top 10 – periodically to hover in the top five. The show seemed unstoppable.
But behind the scenes, cracks were beginning to develop in this apparently indestructible franchise. During Season Five, Dick York could no longer hide his chronic back pain. The actor was struggling with addiction to prescription painkillers, simply to get him through a day’s shoot. On any given morning, Asher never knew whether his costar would be arriving on time or at all, leaving the production team in a quandary how best to maximize the efficiency of the day’s scheduling. To Asher’s credit, he kept much of York’s personal struggles from executives at ABC. York’s absences were explained away as temporary illnesses; Asher, rewriting episodes so York could shoot only its’ bookends: Darrin, leaving for work at the start of each episode and coming home just before the end credits to kiss his wife and daughter on the cheek. Audiences did not exactly warm to these episodes, as Elizabeth Montgomery was left to grapple with her oddball family and handle certain situations and crises on her own. “The whole point of the story was not about a witch…” Asher reasoned, “…but about a witch who was married to a mortal!” By the end of Season Five, Bewitched’s ratings had slightly dipped. Worse, Elizabeth expressed a desire not to continue.
ABC balked. Despite the lag, Bewitched was still one of their top-rated shows.  And so, with an undisclosed amount of money Asher would later describe only as ‘obscene’, a deal was struck between the network and the Ashers to remain on the air for four more years. Better still, the option was there for Elizabeth to pursue ‘other’ acting opportunities during the show’s down time; something the actress sincerely wanted. After five years, Montgomery had grown tired of playing TV’s ‘goody-goody’. Even her infrequent strides into naughtiness as Serena bored her now. Alas, Asher could no longer hide York’s condition from the network. After the summer hiatus, the actor returned to Bewitched, depleted but determined to partake of Season Six. Regrettably, after only a few pages into the first rehearsal, York suddenly collapsed on the set. He was rushed to hospital, having suffered a stroke that put him in a temporary coma. ABC lowered the boom on Asher. Recast the role of Darrin...or else. Begrudgingly, Asher turned to Dick Sargent, the actor initially slated for the part before York’s audition. This time Sargent, free of commitments, jumped at the opportunity to step into the hit show.
Predictably, the transition was hardly smooth. Despite his uncanny physical resemblances to York, Sargent was at the polar opposite of the acting spectrum; York’s eccentric mugging for the camera, replaced by Sargent’s more cerebral and subdued comedic styling. During the summer hiatus, ABC suggested several high concepts to explain away Sargent’s debut; everything from Samantha having divorced Darrin to marry another mortal, to Endora, finally achieving the ultimate revenge by altering Darrin’s looks in the hopes this would encourage her daughter to divorce her husband. Asher and Montgomery liked none of these suggestions. And so, Asher simply decided to run with the notion nothing had changed. Sargent was Darrin – period! In spite of Sargent’s winning charm on the set and his ability to play slapstick, audiences were not buying it. Between Season Six and Seven, Bewitched slipped in the Nielsen’s from #2 to #25. Even for its most diehard fans, the sparkle and magic had evaporated.
We should also consider how, at the end of the 1960’s the blind optimism that permeated the decade’s small screen entertainments suddenly gave way to the socially-minded and confrontational comedies of Norman Lear, whose All in the Family (1971-79) proved a zeitgeist into uncharted television territory. Furthermore, The Mary Tyler Moore Show had tapped into feminism, and a decided yen for the ‘new’ ‘progressive’ career woman. By these standards, Samantha Stevens’ stay-at-home wife and mother suddenly seemed clichéd and careworn. Gallantly, Bewitched endeavored to fulfill its commitments to ABC and Season Eight with the introduction of another child and the ongoing antics of Tabatha, firmly following in her mother’s footsteps as an apprentice witch. Just before the season finale, Elizabeth and Asher approached the network, expressing their desire to call it a day.  Despite having earlier agreed to a 4-year contract, of which the couple still owed the network one more year, ABC begrudgingly agreed. Bewitched had run its course. There were no more incantations to rescue its sagging ratings and rekindle what the show had once been. It was time to say goodbye. And thus, without much fanfare or farewell, Bewitched aired for the last time on March 25, 1972.
And yet, despite its unceremonious and rather quiet finale, Bewitched did not disappear from the public’s consciousness altogether. Endlessly revived on late night television or to fill dead air on a Saturday afternoon’s UHF channel, Bewitched continued to delight newcomers, experiencing the show for the very first time. It is a sincere pity life does not imitate art. But after Bewitched’s cancellation, Elizabeth Montgomery and William Asher also decided to call it a day. Asher moved on to produce other TV shows while Elizabeth struggled to carve a niche for herself that did not include revivals and discussions on the talk show circuit of what it had been like to have played everybody’s favorite witch. Although Montgomery would continue to work on TV, appearing in a highly acclaimed movie of the week as well as a short-lived murder mystery franchise, she never again scaled such heights in her career as those afforded her on Bewitched.
The news was even sadder for Dick York. After departing the series, the actor did not work again and continued his downward spiral into addiction. Moving his family from Hollywood to Michigan, York went the clean and sober route, beginning a successful charity – Acting for Life - to help the homeless, a decision brought on by his own bad investments in a real estate deal gone south, leaving the actor penniless. Alas, by now, York’s other vice – tobacco - had also caught up with him; a diagnosis of emphysema depriving the star of what little life remained. Dick York died in 1992 at age 62 – hellishly reduced to a gaunt whisper of his former self. After Bewitched, York’s replacement, Dick Sargent, continued to live as a closeted homosexual under constant scrutiny and fear of being ‘outed’ until 1991, when a tabloid threatened to expose the truth, forcing the actor to go public first and beat them to the punch. By 1991, the stigma of being gay had worn some and Sargent was rather pleasantly surprised at the outpouring of support for him. Three years earlier, he had been bitterly torn over not even being able to mourn the loss of his domestic partner of 22 years, Albert Williams. And Sargent’s own diagnosis of prostate cancer in 1989 left him further anxious and wondering whether people would ‘naturally’ assume he was dying from AIDS. As his condition worsened, Sargent called upon Elizabeth to accompany him as 1992’s Grand Marshal in LA’s Gay Pride Parade. Two years later, Sargent lost his battle with cancer, age 64. In one of those Hollywood ironies that never ceases to amaze, Elizabeth Montgomery followed her costar barely one year later after being diagnosed with an aggressive strain of colon cancer that quickly overtook her. She was only 62 too.  
Bewitched today remains a fondly remembered cultural touchstone from America’s beloved television past; one of those perennially classics to be revived and even parodied. Despite changing times, the show never fails to garner new fans when it is rerun on cable networks. It even endured the humiliation of a laborious big screen reboot in 2005, costarring Will Ferrell and Nicole Kidman – a forgettable travesty by all accounts. Bewitched has been out on DVD for some years now, Sony Home Entertainment releasing competing editions that featured the first two seasons in either B&W (as they originally aired) or in colorized editions (not certain, to satisfy who) that, on the whole, do not look as terrible as one might first anticipate (given the limitations of colorization in general…although the B&W versions are still very much preferred).
Ironically, when Sony elected to reissue all of Bewitched as a box set, it only included the colorized versions in this deluxe set. Odd…and dumb! Still, it is this Sony box set that is preferred over the studio’s even more ludicrous executive logic to farm out the entire series to third-party distributor, Mill Creek, for individually marketed seasons, and, yet another box set from Mill Creek that retains the B&W originals of the first two seasons. So, why is the Sony set still preferred over the Mill Creek release?
Well, the reason is quite simple. Sony’s DVD authoring is superior, spreading out less episodes per disc, it has preserved the audio/video integrity of each episode. The Mill Creek set, in an effort to cram more episodes per disc, suffers from some truly horrendous macro blocking and chroma bleeding, not to mention edge effects and compression artifacts that make their set virtually unwatchable on newer HD monitors. The Sony set is, regrettably, not without its glitches either; chiefly edge effects, intermittently featured. Also, as already mentioned, the Sony set only includes the colorized versions of the first two seasons. So, from a purist’s standpoint, not exactly the way Bewitched ought to be remembered. Nevertheless, the Sony set still wins the popular vote for its superior DVD authoring. Aside: Sony has recently announced it will release a deluxe Blu-ray box set of Jim Hensen’s Fraggle Rock – a series shot on tape, not film. Why do I bring this up? Simply, in the hopes that if this Blu-ray set does well, it might encourage the studio to dig deeper into its more vintage TV catalog to remaster and reissue shows like Bewitched (shot on film – not tape, and therefore, a far more viable candidate for this deluxe treatment) also, shows like Hart to Hart, Fantasy Island (both film-based) and Designing Women (tape). Will it happen? Hmmm. Wait and see. For now, binge-watching Bewitched on DVD is a reminder of a simpler time. It is small screen ‘feel good’ entertainment of the highest order.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Seasons 1-3 – 4.5
Seasons 4-5 – 3.5
Season 6-8 – 2.5
Colorized Seasons 1-2 – 3.5 
(turn off the color on your set if you do not approve)
Seasons 3-8 – 4


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

BATHING BEAUTY (MGM 1944) TCM/Warner Home Video

“Let’s get one thing straight…I know I can’t act. I know I can’t dance…and I can’t sing, but I’m going to keep trying until I get it right!” – Esther Williams
All self-deprecating humor aside, this infamous quote from Williams, given to a reporter at the time she was shooting the second movie in which she was to receive co-star billing, 1945’s Thrill of a Romance, is likely the one piece of adlib nonsense the actress wished she could forever thereafter retract. Williams’ harshest critics were always ready to concur with this assessment, however, as New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, when assessing Esther’s successful run from 1944 to 1957, concluded: “I’m really lost about Esther Williams’ work in the movies…but if nothing else, they had to be extremely difficult and dangerous to shoot!”  Williams’ tenure as America’s mermaid in 26 aquacade movies for MGM saw her through multiple pregnancies, and, as many physical injuries, from a fractured neck to a bruised ego and beyond; enduring ‘the rapture’ during an extended underwater sequence shot for 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid. As Esther’s lungs compressed from holding her breath too long, she later recalled director, Mervyn LeRoy shouting at her using his underwater microphone, “Esther…what the hell are you doing. We can’t keep you in focus at the bottom of the pool. We’re not lit for that!”
Exactly how did this little known 19-year-old hopeful, with barely enough experience as a sales girl at the posh I. Magnin department store, shift gears and her dreams of becoming an Olympic swimmer (delayed by the onset of WWII), to instead debut as one of the star attractions at 1939’s New York World’s Fair, and, winning the chance of a lifetime from talent scouts, who desperately wanted her to audition at MGM (an invitation she repeatedly refused before finally – and very reluctantly – acquiescing). That Williams went on to become a bona fide movie star, far more uniquely situated than most (there was only one Esther Williams) truly is the stuff from which dreams are made. And while Williams’ catalog of splashy Technicolor fantasies is rife with examples of truly inspired film-making, the one Esther Williams’ movie that belongs on everyone’s keepsake list, were they ever to become stranded on the proverbial desert isle, is 1944’s Bathing Beauty; her real/reel debut at MGM in the first of many lavishly appointed pieces of Technicolor escapism.  Initially, L.B. Mayer’s reaction to Williams being put under contract was less than enthusiastic. “How the hell are we going to make a movie in a pool?” Mayer was abruptly informed by director, George Sidney, “The same way Darryl F. Zanuck does with Sonya Henie and ice skating rinks.”
Williams might have enjoyed the experience more, had her anxieties about co-starring opposite Red Skelton, who grumbled incessantly about having to shave his auburn chest hairs, had not been further exacerbated by the implosion of her own 4-year marriage to Dr. Leonard Kovner. Apparently, Mr. Kovner’s idea of ‘the little woman’ had Esther staying at home and knitting booties, although he was not above demanding Williams pay him $1500 to get out of the marriage; virtually the entire sum she had scrimped and saved from her year-long stint in Billy Rose’s Aquacade at the World’s Fair.  Instructed by producer, Sam Katz to surrender the cash to her ex, under a provision in writing he would not ask for one penny more thereafter, Esther would be well rewarded in this leap of faith when MGM put her under contract, upping her weekly salary to $350 a week (she was only getting $75 a month in the aquacade), and affording her the plush accoutrements of a real star’s dressing room, redecorated to suit her tastes. To ensure Williams’ glycerin charms remained intact, despite being daily submerged in chlorinated water, Max Factor developed a new water-resistant makeup; Esther’s hair, gingerly saturated in a sticky confection of warm baby oil and Vaseline, braided, then augmented by artificial braids, held in place with heavy clamps and hairpins that left welts and indentations all over her scalp. Ah me…pain is beauty, I suppose.
Bathing Beauty was actually begun under the title, ‘Mr. Coed’ – as a star vehicle for Red Skelton (whom the studio was grooming as their response to Bob Hope) with Esther in support. Owing to her prowess in the pool, Sam Katz convinced Mayer to green-light a massive renovation of the studio’s largest sound stage; Stage 30, where a massive ninety-by-ninety indoor pool, twenty-five feet deep, was built with enough special effects engineering to make the likes of magician, David Copperfield blush. The pool contained hydraulic lifts, gently submersed fountains, enormous geysers, and, gas-lit pyrotechnics, its proscenium outlined in art deco columns capped by floral arrangements, and, situated between two gargantuan platforms where the likes of Xavier Cugat and his orchestra, and Harry James and His Band would later perform. At a staggering cost of $250,000, the water pressure alone, fed through needle nozzles, could envelope this entire set in a 60-foot curtain of sparkling mist. Given the extravagance of this undertaking, all in service to the film’s water-logged finale, Mr. Coed could no longer be the title. Indeed, what would finally rise from these ebbing tides was not a Red Skelton movie, but the first in a long line of Esther Williams’ aquacades, sending cash registers ringing around the world.
1944 marked another banner year for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, as it continued to acquire new talent the way you or I do paper clips – by the handful. Esther Williams’ arrival on the scene perfectly fit into Mayer’s notions of wholesome family entertainment, diverting from the rigors of war and carefully timed with an infectious blend of songs, good humor and never taxing storyline. The thimble of a plot, scripted by Dorothy Kingsley, Allen Boretz and Frank Waldman, is easily distilled into a single strand of consciousness: a mournful husband enlists in an all-girl’s college to win back the affections of his estranged wife, who just happens to teach there. Fraught with hilarious misdirection, superb casting, exceptional production values, and, an unabashedly playful score, Bathing Beauty is chiefly memorable, even iconic, because of its easily excised and predigested parts, rather than their total sum. Skelton (as Tin Pan Alley songwriter, Steve Elliot) tells jokes. Esther (his lovely young bride, Caroline Brooks) swims. In between, we have Basil Rathbone, as devious Broadway producer, George Adams, Jacqueline Dalya, as Maria Dorango (an unwitting accomplice in the break-up of Caroline and Steve’s marriage), and the electric fingers of former ‘Hit Parade’ organist, Ethel Smith – playing a college music teacher named (wait for it) Ethel Smith! Other bit parts are filled out by Jean Porter, as a plucky frosh, Janise Paige (a savvier school girl), Donald Meeks (lovable drunkard, Chester Klazenfrantz), Bill Goodwin (stuffy professor, Willis Evans, having set his cap for Caroline on the rebound), Ann Codee (humorously stern ballet master, Madame Zarka), Nana Bryant (as the clever, if compassionate, Dean Clinton), and finally, to satisfy the trending craze then for all things Latin American, Carlos Ramirez (as Steve’s baritone-warbling buddy, Carlos).  
Bathing Beauty is a richly mounted uber-kitschy musical escapism that resplendently glistens from start to finish as the sun-lit ripples in a backyard pool. It is a summer movie to be sure, ironically photographed in January, partly on location at Lakeside Country Club in the San Fernando Valley; its turgidly brown rolling lawns dyed bright green for the Technicolor cameras, effectively ruining the sod and forcing MGM to cover the costs to re-seed it in the spring. Bathing Beauty’s prologue tells us everything we need to know about the next hour and forty-eight minutes: “We don’t know if this story actually happened, but if it did happen it couldn’t happen in a nicer place than California.” And thus, we are off on a pleasurable excursion into that fabricated and fanciful dome of oddities affectionately known to all toiling on the back lot at Culver City. Bathing Beauty is not a Joe Pasternak production, although in hindsight, it just as easily could have been; its lithe mixture of pop tunes (of which 1929’s Te quiero dijiste’ – a.k.a. ‘Magic Is the Moonlight, once more became a huge hit, alongside Johnny Green’s ‘I’ll Take the High Note’) and re-orchestrated snippets from a more classical repertoire (everything from Strauss’ Die Fledermaus Overture to Jascha Heifetz’s Hora Staccato gets covered) proving irresistible to the masses.
Veering toward the more melodic, Helen Forrest’s syrupy rendition of ‘I Cried For You’; the exotic, fleshed out by Lina Romay, accompanied by Xavier Cugat and his orchestra, who open the show with the spirited and playful, ‘Bim, Bam, Bum’, center it with the extravagantly staged, ‘Alma llanera’, and close out the musical program with ‘The Thrill of a New Romance’ – kicking off Esther’s spectacular water ballet, interpolated with Harry James’ Boogie Woogie. Last but not least, Ethel Smith lent her dynamite fingering to two tour de forces performed on an organ, ‘By the Waters of Minnetonka’ and the electrifying ‘Tico-tico no fubá.’ We have to give it to Metro’s extraordinary ability in the forties in particular to throw everything but the proverbial kitchen sink at the movie screen and, more often than not, come up with one gorgeously sublime and towering musical achievement after another; perfect fodder for war-weary audiences desperate to set aside their woes for just an hour or two. “In those days we left MGM movies with a smile,” Ricardo Montalban later recalled, “If was fictious, let it be…it really relaxed you…it was wonderful.”  And indeed, Bathing Beauty is a picture to leave even the most hardened cynic grinning from ear to ear, if only because of the audaciousness in the exercise itself; buoyed by oceans of love and effervescently held together by Metro’s uniquely branded ‘je ne sais quoi’ for a world perfectly re-conceived as idyllic, warm and full of most-welcomed surprises.
Bathing Beauty begins at the country club as pop tune writer, Steve Elliott makes his intentions known to New York producer, George Adams; he plans to give up songwriting and settle down with Caroline Brooks who has pledged to retire from her job as a college swimming instructor once they are wed. Exactly what the happy couple will live on after they find themselves unemployed is open for discussion. But hey – this is an MGM picture. What me worry for a trivial little thing like ‘money’?!?  Naturally, Adams is gravely concerned. After all, he was counting on Steve to write the score for his new water ballet show. So, Adams enlists a former flame, Maria Dorango to pose as a Latin-American singer already married to Steve. Interrupting Caroline and Steve’s nuptials with the declaration Steve is her husband, and, producing three red-headed boys wearing sombreros besides, Caroline does not even give Steve a chance to explain, but rather rushes for the first plane back to Victoria College in New Jersey to resume her instructor’s career – the sadder, but none the wiser, girl.
Undaunted, Steve and his pal, Carlos Ramirez, tail Caroline to Victoria but are denied access at the gate as the college is strictly all-female. In despair, Steve’s resolve is given a badly needed boost when he accidentally bumps into the college’s inebriated attorney, Chester Klazenfrantz in a posh New York nightclub, managed by his good friend, Harry James. It seems Klazenfrantz has been hired to change Victoria’s charter as the college never was officially designated as all-female. Girding his loins, Steve returns to Victoria and insists on entering as a new applicant. Unaware of Caroline’s estrangement from Steve, Dean Clinton concurs, the college cannot deny him his application However, it can recommend expulsion after a two-week probationary period if the faculty can find reasons enough to give Steve 100 demerits. Newly enrolled, Steve makes valiant attempts to shore up his relationship with Caroline. She is hardly receptive to his explanations. Meanwhile, the other students, quite familiar with Steve’s reputation for writing pop tunes greatly valued on the hit parade, rally to his side. Thus, when stodgy music professor, Hendricks (Francis Pierlot) tries to discredit Steve by ordering him to re-orchestrate his own version of the Scottish ballad, Loch Lomond, Steve enlists not only the student body, but also the formidable talents of Carlos, Hendrick’s assistant (Ethel Smith) and Harry James and his orchestra.  Steve and his entourage perform, ‘I’ll Take the High Note’ – a superb riff on this time-honored ballad. It brings down the house, even leaving Dean Clinton exuberant, and forcing Hendricks to concede defeat by affording Steve an ‘A’ for his efforts.
Later that evening, Steve launches into yet another reconciliation with Caroline at her house. Instead, he is discouraged to learn Caroline is entertaining Willis Evans (Bill Goodwin), a conservative botany professor who has always been in love with her. Realizing Steve is hiding in her closet to spy on them, Caroline commands Duke, Willis’ Great Dane to stand guard, at the same time reminding Steve if he is not back in his basement dorm by eight o’clock, he will be expelled for breaking curfew. Managing his escape in the nick of time, Steve is confronted by Adams who threatens to vilify him in the press unless he finishes the score for his big show. As yet unaware it was Adams who hired Maria to wreck his marriage, Steve vows to seriously hurt the person responsible for his present predicament. Meanwhile, as Parents Day is fast approaching, Dean Clinton raises concerns among the faculty. Steve cannot remain at Victoria or the college will be subject to grave ridicule. Henceforth, all of Steve’s professors are encouraged to find legitimate reasons to ascribe him enough demerits to recommend his expulsion. To this end, ballet instructor, Mme. Zarka forces Steve to appear in class wearing a pink tutu and dance with the co-eds. Once again, despite his misgivings and humiliation, Steve rises to the occasion.
In desperation, Dean Clinton encourages Caroline to go out on a date with Steve and make certain the two arrive back at the college too late for curfew. Caroline reluctantly agrees to this subterfuge, but later, regretting her deception, begins to fall in love with her husband all over again. Furthermore, Steve is finally successful at convincing his wife he is innocent of the charge of polygamy. Having renewed their faith in each other, the couple make plans to return to California together. Unbeknownst to anyone, Maria has arrived at Victoria, looking to exonerate herself and expose Adams as the deceiver. What follows is a calamity of riotous proportions, vaguely reminiscent of the infamous ‘state room’ scene from the Marx Bros. classic, A Night at the Opera (1935) as Steve’s campus sorority tries to initiate him. Maria is forced to hide in the closet, along with Adams, Carlos and the rest of the girls. Plucky pledge, Jean Allenwood (Jean Porter) arrives with devastating news. Dean Clinton and her parents are on their way to inspect Steve’s basement accommodations. All hell breaks loose as Caroline and Maria are forced to hide in the same closet, and Caroline, stubbornly refuses to accept Steve’s implausible – but nevertheless true – claim of innocence. Expelled from Victoria, Steve begrudgingly returns to New York to write the score for Adam’s show. However, Maria has finally intercepted Caroline with the whole truth. As Caroline prepares to star in the lavish aquacade (Williams was actually suffering from pneumonia at the time she shot these scenes), she informs Steve it was Adams who orchestrated the whole darn quagmire. Happily, reunited with Caroline, Steve nevertheless wants his revenge, diving into the pool after Adams and nearly drowning before being rescued by Caroline, the couple ecstatically slipping beneath the waves.  
Bathing Beauty is a boisterous and blissful fantasy romance. And although Esther Williams would star in many more like-minded outings during her tenure at Metro (1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid and 1953’s Easy to Love the very best among them), none quite rival Bathing Beauty for its infectiously innocent blend of lithe charm and top-heavy musical talent, spellbinding, on tap and giving it their all. Bathing Beauty and Williams are also credited with virtually inventing ‘synchronized swimming’ as an Olympic event. Viewed today, the picture has everything one could hope for in a musical and has lost none of its youthful charm, as wholesome and unspoiled entertainment with the passage of time as the day of its premiere. Largely here, the credit must go to Esther Williams. Indeed, in only her third picture (her first as a leading lady), Williams is already a seasoned pro in front of the camera; kudos to Metro’s impressive roster of handlers and coaches who, under Mayer’s tutelage, could refine and transform a virtual unknown into a bona fide star of the first magnitude in record time; of course, provided the personality in question had what it takes to become a star.
And Esther Williams possessed this unerring, inimitable and intangible quality in spades.  Williams, who left us in 2013, was a remarkable performer, one hell of a good sport, and a delicious raconteur; one of the last legitimate links to ‘old Hollywood’ who frequently, and with a genuine zest for living, could strip away its mask of faux incredulity, playfully to expose the ‘grand ole days’ for what they were. Case in point: all early Technicolor movies required their stars to appear in screen tests, holding a cardboard and metal plaque with a spectrum of colors to see how they would register on camera under the current lighting conditions. This gadget was known as ‘a lily’. “You know,” Esther mused decades later, “I often wondered what Lana Turner was doing while I was holding that goddamn lily. (pregnant pause) I know what she was holding.” Despite having to deal with some fairly temperamental ‘artistic types’ during her years in the biz, Esther Williams remained circumspect and exceedingly grateful for the opportunities that had come her way. Labeling MGM as her ‘university’, in which she received a ‘diploma’ as a much-beloved Hollywood icon that continues to endure, Williams would acknowledge, “I came to the studio as a swimmer and left it as America’s mermaid. For some reason, people still tend to remember me that way.
We sincerely wish the Warner Archive would get busy remastering at least four or five of Esther’s aquacades for Blu-ray, starting with Bathing Beauty. The movie received a photochemical ‘restoration’ in 1992 for its MGM/UA LaserDisc release but with questionable results that have remained intact on Warner Home Video’s farming out of Bathing Beauty as part of the TCM Spotlight Collection Vol. 1. Given Bathing Beauty’s stature as ‘the first’ in Esther’s long line of aquacade classics, it is rather appalling it learn it has never been released as a proper and deluxe stand-alone by the studio – even through its own Archive. Bathing Beauty on DVD sports an inconsistently rendered image. At times, the Technicolor really looks snappy, with bold and richly saturated hues that come close to rekindling the sparkle of the vintage 3-strip process. At other intervals, colors are so muddy one wonders if the sources used in the restoration were so severely damaged as to not allow any further clean-up at that time. What ought to have happened in 1998 – the year Warner farmed out Bathing Beauty to TCM – was a complete digital remastering of the original Technicolor negative. Presumably, this has survived although, judging by the current results on DVD, it was never consulted.
Apart from the inconsistent color, we also have some dirt, nicks, chips and scratches to contend with; anomalies that could have – and should have – been corrected in the digital world. Contrast is weaker than anticipated too and there are also traces of Technicolor mis-registration. Again, this too ought to have been fixed. The 2.0 mono audio is adequate for this release. We also get a few short subjects. But Bathing Beauty on DVD is a complete fail. Disappointingly so, given the reputation Esther Williams continues to hold as America’s mermaid. Will the Warner Archive ever get around to remastering this one on Blu-ray? We sincerely hope so and will champion the studio to do better by this fun and fabulous flick. For now, the only way to appreciate Bathing Beauty is to buy TCM’s Spotlight Collection, which also includes the rather forgettable, Easy to Wed, On an Island with You, Neptune’s Daughter (whose one claim to fame is the Oscar-winning ditty, ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’) and Dangerous When Wet (co-starring Fernando Lamas, and, the one that sports an animated sequence where Esther swims with Metro’s resident cat and mouse team - Tom and Jerry). ‘I got outta bed on the right side’ this morning, only to discover Bathing Beauty still needs a better release than this! In Blu-ray from WAC and soon…pretty please.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

SHOW BOAT (MGM, 1951) Warner Archive

By Spring of 1950, MGM producer Arthur Freed was sitting pretty at the most profitable movie studio in the world. Freed, arguably the greatest proponent the movie musical has ever known, had established his preeminence at the ultimate dream factory and – almost single-handed – reshaped and defined the genre’s precepts and production values we regard today as synonymous with those gala glamour days. Throughout the 1930's and 40's, other studios tried to compete with Freed’s confections - other producers on Metro’s back lot too. But for this brief wrinkle in time MGM musicals in general, and Freed’s in particular, were the envy of the industry; lavishly appointed, untouchable money makers, much sought after by movie lovers and readily to receive advanced A-list bookings at premiere movie palaces like New York’s Radio City’s Music Hall. That Freed and the musical were to suddenly – almost inexplicably – fall out of favor by the mid to late 50's was as yet unknown and perhaps even more unanticipated. But in 1950, the year Freed undertook to remake Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein’s immortal stage classic, Show Boat, Freed was undeniably at the top of his game, still riding the crest from his Oscar-winning victory; An American in Paris – the first musical to take home the Best Picture statuette since 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld.
Show Boat was a cultural touchstone in the American theater long before its silent movie debut in 1929, or its even more iconic 1936 movie made over at Universal, costarring Allan Jones and Irene Dunne. It perhaps always irked Arthur Freed Universal, not readily known for musicals, had outbid him for the bragging rights to what eventually became one of their most popular and a much-beloved screen adaptations. The ’36 version made beautiful music at the box office, as well as aboard the Cotton Blossom. Freed in fact, attempted to rectify this oversight with a considerable prologue dedicated to Kern/Hammerstein’s masterpiece, opening Till the Clouds Roll By (1946); his self-indulgent and wholly fictionalized bio pic, reporting to be the life of Jerome Kern. This prologue featured Metro’s rising soprano, Kathryn Grayson and pop fav, Tony Martin as Magnolia Hawks and Gaylord Ravenal respectively, and, with the studio’s resident black chanteuse, Lena Horne positively glowing in the role of the ill-fated mulatto, Julie Laverne. Alas, casting Horne in an actual remake of Show Boat was a problem: virtually the same problem that precluded Horne from appearing in anything except cameo performances in other MGM musicals with the exception of Vincente Minnelli’s superb, all-black Cabin in the Sky (1940). Freed’s resistance to Horne owed its racial prejudice to the appeasement of the very much prevalent anti-black sentiment in the south. Also, by 1950 Tony Martin was no longer the crooning headliner he had briefly been in the late 40's. Curiously, Martin would reemerge in popularity, costarring opposite Esther Williams in Easy to Love (1953). But opposite Grayson, who had already been decided upon by Freed to reprise the role of Magnolia, Freed needed a richer baritone. The part ultimately went to rising singer, Howard Keel instead.
There are those today who hold dear to the opinion MGM’s remake of Show Boat is a wan ghost flower to 1936’s Universal outing. At least in retrospect, the 1951 re-envisioning does seem to ‘lack’ just a little something by way of that very distinct sparkle that permeated virtually every frame of director James Whale’s original. The personality of the piece is missing, replaced on this outing with superior and undeniably opulent production values. Freed’s Show Boat is a virtual feast for the eye, sumptuously photographed by Charles Rosher in 3-strip Technicolor. MGM’s resident arbitrator of good taste, Cedric Gibbons oversees Jack Martin Smith’s spectacular production design, while Walter Plunkett’s stunning costuming conspires to create a magnificent – and at times, appropriately gaudy - screen spectacle in shimmering silks and satin.  The studio edict under L.B. Mayer was two-fold; first – make it big, do it well and give it class, and second; all men must be handsome/all women, beautiful. Perhaps this is where the remake falters, in its basic lack of understanding Show Boat is a story about common river folk trolling the Mississippi to put on their lowbrow melodramatic skits and spirited buck n’ wings. The MGM movie is perhaps a tad too glossy for its own good; its cast – especially Grayson and Keel, but also Marge and Gower Champion - so seasoned and pitch perfect one begins to wonder why they have not yet left the river for the lights of Broadway and/or Europe. And Grayson, by 1951 was a woman, still ravishingly handsome, but decidedly a far cry from the coquettish ingénue as written by Kern and Hammerstein, who throws her heart into the ring for a no-account gambler.
To be sure, MGM’s remake made several necessary revisions to the Kern/Hammerstein narrative that did improve the overall structure and timeline of the piece. In the original stage play as well as the 1936 movie, Julie Laverne – passing for white – is exiled from the show boat after it is discovered her mother was black. She is never seen in the production again. Also, on stage, Magnolia and Gaylord become estranged for a period of some twenty years; the show, concluding with their chance meeting, united in their love for an adult daughter, Kim. To rethink the story, Freed brought in writer, John Lee Mahin whose forte was not musicals. However, Mahin is an exceptional constructionist who manages the coup of tightening these narrative threads while retaining the play’s basic structure, also condensing its sprawling timeline into a more manageable ‘movie’ length. Mahin also suggested Julie remain a presence, perhaps even the catalyst for Gaylord and Magnolia’s reunion.  The one unforgivable, but necessary change to this version of Show Boat occurs at the outset of the story. The opening number in the Kern/Hammerstein show – a product of its time and social climate, further to harking back to another vintage entirely – had included the lyrics, ‘niggers all work on the Mississippi, niggers all work while the white folks play…’ For the 1936 adaptation, Whale changed ‘nigger’ to ‘darkie’, an only slightly less offensive reference. By 1951, Freed could have run with the more racially tolerant alteration, ‘Here we all work on the Mississippi, here we all work while the while the white folks play…’ that had become something of the ‘standard’ whenever pop singers of the day elected to cover the song. Instead, Freed dumped the lyrics entirely, the opener now an orchestral arrangement by Conrad Salinger - a rather boisterous introduction to the Cotton Blossom as it lazily sails through MGM’s moss-draped lagoon before pulling into its fictional port.  
Just as production on Show Boat was getting underway, MGM’s corporate boardroom was rocked with an upset that, ostensibly, no one saw coming. In 1945, Loew’s Incorporated President Nicholas Schenk, the theater chain having actually put MGM on the map, plotted to have L.B. Mayer hire a new Production Chief – the incumbent, Dore Schary, arriving with his own professional baggage to spare. To say Schenk never cared for Mayer is an understatement. In fact, just prior to the death of MGM’s wunderkind producer, Irving G. Thalberg, Schenk had conspired to sell MGM to rival, Fox Studios for some quick cash – a deal narrowly thwarted by Mayer who had formidable connections both in Hollywood and Washington D.C. After Thalberg’s untimely death in 1936, Mayer held dominion over the most extraordinary assemblage of talent under one studio. But the rift created by his intervention in the Fox deal never entirely healed. After L.B. was ‘encouraged’ to hire Schary as his new V.P. in 1949 the working relationship between these two quickly soured. Schary, whose forte at RKO was some very impressive ‘message pictures’ and B-grade film noirs, was completely at odds with Mayer’s enduring vision of MGM as the purveyors of old time/big time, grand and glamorous entertainments.  Schary also had no particular interest in musicals either, even if, in 1950, these were still very much an integral part of the studio’s bread and butter. So, after a particularly nasty conflict, Mayer confidently picked up his direct line to Loew’s New York office and presented Schenk with an ultimatum, believing he would be backed. Instead, the Board of Directors under Schenk’s initiative unseated Mayer from his throne. Henceforth, Schary would assume absolute control of MGM. It was a case of gross miscasting; Schary’s tenure barely lasting until 1957 and the horrendous debacle of Raintree County.
For a time, Schary’s installation as ‘boss’ at MGM did little to impact the studio’s product, although infrequently he stuck his fingers into pies he had no business disturbing. In Show Boat’s case, Schary promised close friend, Dinah Shore the part of Julie Laverne. When Freed heard this he promptly telephoned the star, explaining, “I’d love to do something with you but you’re not a whore and that’s what the part is!”  In the meantime, Freed turned his attentions to casting William Warfield, whose rich baritone had made a sensation in a classical recital in New York.  Director George Sidney initially showed some concern over Warfield’s lack of movie experience. But Warfield came to Show Boat after a series of stage successes in Call Me Mister, Regina and Set My People Free. And in retrospect, the part of Joe was hardly taxing from a dramatic standpoint. What had been an integral role on stage was now distilled in the movie as a mere cameo, whose highlight undeniably remains ‘Ol’ Man River’ – the iconic dirge embodying the struggles and strife of a particular period in American life. Freed’s initial plan was to shoot at least some of the movie’s exteriors in Natchez and Vicksburg, finding a real show boat as stand-in for the iconic Cotton Blossom. Alas, on the eve of Freed’s departure to the South to scout locations, production designer Jack Martin Smith had a brainstorm and began to sketch out its details. Ultimately, and except for a handful of establishing shots, Show Boat would be photographed on the MGM back lot: Tarzan Lake, redressed with false fronts and a newly constructed dock. In hindsight, this was a stroke of genius that saved the production millions.
Meanwhile, Sidney set off for the Deep South where he became enamored with the idea of shooting ‘The Sprague’ – a genuine riverboat from the 1800's. The Sprague had not seen active service in more than forty years. It had no engine to power it and needed to be dragged into the middle of the Mississippi by a pair of tugs tactfully kept out of sight, with pots lit aboard its decks to simulate acrid black smoke spewing from its towering stacks. Unfortunately, the churning waters of the Mississippi caused the tugs to slip and lose their tow lines, The Sprague caught in a drift and rolling unexpectedly, its pots, tipping and catching fire. Back in Hollywood, Smith arrived at a more credible and in fact, incredible solution to counteract the dilemma of the Sprague. The MGM Cotton Blossom, 171 ft. long and towering 57 ft. in the air, with three tiers of deck and a 19 ½ ft. paddle wheel, was by far one of the most impressive props the studio had ever invested to build for a movie. As Tarzan Lake was only flooded to a depth of roughly ten ft. the massive paddle-wheeler was arranged on a series of retarding cables and touring winches, operated by 37 men, constantly in contact by radio to successfully maneuver her into position. Inside, the ship was a veritable marvel of studio craftsmanship, thoroughly unusable to shoot interiors, but containing two oil burning asbestos boilers to pump smoke from its stacks. There was also a working steam whistle, a calliope and a steam piston engine built in to turn the paddle wheel.
With the backlot forest sufficiently trimmed in moss and redressed with facades to suggest the South, the banks of Tarzan Lake laced in a man-made fog for added effect, the first sight of the Cotton Blossom emerging slowly from around the bend was not only uncanny but drew immediate applause from both cast and crew. Meanwhile, George Sidney and musical arranger Roger Edens were met with a force of nature of a different kind. Co-star Ava Gardner had agreed to play the part of Julie Laverne but only if she could sing her own songs. Both men reluctantly agreed before consulting with Arthur Freed. Regrettably, it became almost immediately apparent the score was beyond Gardner’s capabilities. Edens worked tirelessly to coax a performance from Gardner while Sidney quietly went about casting a singer to dub in her vocals – eventually hiring contract player, Annette Warren, as her octaves were closest to Gardner’s speaking voice. Decades later Gardner’s original recordings of ‘Bill’ resurfaced. In realigning them to picture, while it remains quite obvious Gardner’s voice is ‘untrained’ her intonation of the lyrics rather excellently captures the forlorn dramatic intensity of Julie Laverne with a husky, whisky-drenched whisper, perfectly in keeping with the fictional character’s spiraling alcoholism and dejected romantic sadness.
Show Boat opens with the iconic arrival of Captain Andy Hawk’s (Joe E. Brown) menagerie in a small Mississippi backwater. Capt. Andy’s wife, Parthy (Agnes Moorehead) is a stern manager, overseeing the troop while keeping a watchful eye on her husband who has a penchant for drink. The show boat’s arrival is greeted with excitement by the locals who race down to the docks to catch a glimpse of the spectacle unfolding along the water’s edge. However, when a fistfight between handsome leading man, Steven Baker (Robert Sterling) and the boat’s engineer, Pete (Leif Erickson) breaks out during Frank Schultz (Gower Champion) and Ellie Chipley’s (Marge Champion) buck n’ wing, Capt. Andy dismisses Pete without question, putting into play a series of events that will destroy two lives. For Steve is very much in love with Julie Laverne (Ava Gardner); the sultry dramatic star who, it is later discovered, is from mixed parentage; miscegenation (a mixing between races) an illegal act in the state. Forced to choose, Steve takes Julie away; the pair, skulking off into the night, leaving Capt. Andy’s show without a viable couple to perform the pivotal dramatic skit in the show.
Enter the utterly charming, Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel) who offers up his services while flirting with the captain’s juvenile daughter, Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson). Parthy is dead set against employing Gaylord or allowing Magnolia to assume the dramatic role once played by Julie because it includes the sensation of an on-stage kiss between its two principles. Capt. Andy quells Parthy’s concerns by altering the scene so that the kiss will be administered cordially on the hand rather than the lips. However, as the show boat steams on and the sketch featuring Gaylord and Magnolia becomes its centerpiece, Gaylord frequently inserts chaste kisses on the cheek, before securing a delay in Parthy’s arrival to the theater one night, and thus using the opportunity to ravage Magnolia rather intensely on the lips. The crowd loves it, and indeed, so does Magnolia who begins a romance with Gaylord under Capt. Andy’s watchful eye. When Parthy discovers the lover’s embraced on the Cotton Blossom’s moonlit deck after hours, she orders Gaylord off for good. In reply, Gaylord proposes to Magnolia who accepts him and the couple leaves the show boat together.
Gaylord’s past profession was as a gambler. Now, he reverts to his old ways and haunts, winning and winning; enough to spend quite lavishly and furnish his new bride with a very good time. This tide of luck, however, is extremely fickle and not to last. The streak seemingly broken for good, the couple pares down their lifestyle; Magnolia, encouraging Gaylord to remain true to himself. She stands beside him, even as he falters and lands them both into extreme debt. Ashamed of the financial ruin brought upon them both, Gaylord elects to abandon Magnolia in Chicago where a tearful Magnolia is discovered by Ellie and Frank who are in town to entertain at the Trocadero. Recognizing how badly Magnolia needs a job, Frank and Ellie take her with them to the open auditions. The Trocadero’s stage manager (Chick Chandler) is having a rough time keeping his star attraction, Julie Laverne sober. Indeed, Julie’s bittersweet rendition of ‘Bill’ brings down the house. But when she spies Magnolia from the wings, Julie nobly withdraws from the show, allowing Magnolia to replace her without the two ever being reunited for old time’s sake. On New Year’s Eve, Magnolia suffers an acute attack of stage fright. The crowds, inebriated, are unkind. But Magnolia’s confidence is bolstered by the sight of her tipsy father who has come to the Trocadero with a gaggle of friends to ring in the New Year, quite unaware his daughter is part of their floor show. Afterward, Magnolia confides to Capt. Andy she is expecting a child – her secret never revealed to Gaylord for fear it would upset him.
Returning to the Cotton Blossom, Magnolia gives birth to Kim (Sheila Clark). From here, director George Sidney’s narrative devolves into a montage spanning five years in a matter of moments. Kim grows up and Gaylord is seen slowly reclaiming his fortunes as a gambler, aboard various floating palaces. A chance meeting with Julie – who has hit the skids and is being abused by her latest lover – alerts Gaylord to the fact he has a daughter. The news is humbling and Gaylord makes his journey back to the Cotton Blossom where he discovers young Kim playing with her dolls on the docks. Moved to engage the child in polite conversation without divulging his paternity to her, Gaylord learns Kim has been named ‘geographically’ – for being born somewhere in the middle of Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri. From the Cotton Blossom’s balcony, Magnolia spies father and daughter together and makes her presence known to Gaylord. Given the circumstances of their separation, she harbors no ill will, and, in fact, reveals how much she still is in love with him. On board the Cotton Blossom Capt. Andy looks on approvingly, miraculously, Parthy too – who playfully chides her husband for his predilection for strong drink before encouraging him to cast off for their next port of call. As Gaylord and Magnolia embrace on the decks of the Cotton Blossom – presumably to resume their relationship – a darkened figure emerges from the shadows on the docks; Julie – aged well beyond her years, bittersweet and with tears of satisfaction majestically caught in the glint of evening sunset as the Cotton Blossom pulls away from port, regrettably, with no happy ending in sight for her.
Show Boat is precisely the sort of musical extravaganza MGM used to mass market to the public during its heyday. It teems with pageantry, spectacle and that ultra-sheen of spellbinding perfectionism for which Mayer’s fantastic empire remains justly famous. Such lavish panache does not really suit the grittier aspects of Show Boat’s sordid tale. Indeed, and visually, the movie tends to look just a tad over-inflated at times. Marge and Gower Champion are much too sophisticated for the riverboat circuit; their dancing is peerless, their dramatic performances echoing more social affluence than anything else.  William Warfield’s rendition of Ol’ Man River rattles the timber. And yet, in retrospect, it sounds more like the recital of a professional singing star rather than the indigenous suffrage exalted through a lifetime of bitter bondage. Even so, Warfield’s rendition remains the centerpiece of this Show Boat’s musical repertoire and deserving of high praise.  there is nothing to touch Jack Martin Smith’s impeccable production design; always gorgeous and occasionally even in keeping with the true intent of the material.
Mid-way through production George Sidney became ill, necessitating Roger Edens taking over the directorial duties. Edens, who had never directed before, seems to instinctively know where the camera belongs, retaining Sidney’s visual continuity It is virtually imperceivable which sequences in the film were not directed by Sidney – or rather, directed by Edens and vice versa. Without a doubt, Show Boat is an MGM musical in the very best tradition of that distinct – now defunct – classical strain of studio-bound style. The sets, while obviously retaining their ‘set-like’ quality, are nevertheless authentic and stunningly handsome in glorious Technicolor. Ditto for Walter Plunkett’s costumes; a veritable potpourri of fabrics, colors and patterns cleverly integrated to give the illusion of authenticity.  In January 1951, principle photography on Show Boat wrapped. However, Arthur Freed was less than enthusiastic with the results, believing its 3rd act dragged. Roger Edens came to a decision – Magnolia and Gaylord’s troubled romance took too much time to evolve. Hence, in the editing process, these scenes were intensely recut with Edens aggressively hacking out whole portions of dialogue, distilling everything down to dramatic action only. This gave the story a new momentum.
Ava Gardner’s original vocals were allowed to stay in for the first studio preview at the Bay Theater. But by the time Show Boat had its national release, Annette Warren’s vocals were laid over Gardner’s much to the actress’ dismay. When Show Boat debuted it was an immediate sensation with audiences who almost universally filled out their preview cards with glowing/gushing praise. The movie went on to gross $8,650,000.00 on a $2,295,429.00 budget; a qualified hit by any standard. However, when it was decided to release a soundtrack recording to coincide with the film’s popularity, only Gardner’s tracks – not Warren’s – were included on the original cast album.  In the infancy of cast recordings only a handful of songs were retained. Virtually none of the underscore – not even the bombastic main title – made it. Viewed today, Show Boat is an exceptionally well-orchestrated entertainment; its polish and panache beyond reproach. Yet, oddly enough the movie does not retain its status as one of MGM’s finest musical offerings.  When lists are compiled of Metro’s true musical genius, the A-list titles are always the same, beginning with The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) and ending with An American in Paris (1950), Singin’ In the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), and, Gigi (1958). With so much entrancing entertainment on tap, it is perhaps forgivable Show Boat never makes this cut. To be sure, and furthermore to be clear, MGM’s list of exceptional accomplishments in the musical genre hardly ends there. And certainly, no claim is made to the contrary. But at least in retrospect, Show Boat settles into this very solid, and much broader second-tier, arguably just as beloved but decidedly not quite in the same league as the aforementioned.
Warner Home Video’s endlessly reissued DVD is of the same tired old print master originally made available under the old MGM/UA banner back in 1997. It remains a colossal disappointment. Fans have been patiently awaiting a much-anticipated reissue of the old LaserDisc triumvirate of the 1929, ‘36 and ‘51 versions of Show Boat – a project long-promised by Warner Home Video’s VP George Feltenstein but more recently passed over as a restoration ‘too costly’ to undertake at the present time. Exactly when a viable ‘future date’ might present itself on the horizon, thus remains open for discussion. In general, Warner Home Video and its Warner Archive offshoot has been rather remiss in their devotion to 3-strip Technicolor releases in hi-def; I suspect, as many require costly clean-up and realignment of the original negatives in order to ensure their integrity.
Warner’s overwhelming acquisition of holdings from the MGM and RKO libraries, not to mention the vast holdings from their homegrown product, suggest a repository-based than restoration-minded philosophy when it comes to archiving these ancient goodies.  Thus, for now lovers of Show Boat have no alternative to this crummy DVD offering. The image is softly focused and colors seem strangely bright and/or boosted, if just as readily muddy throughout. From a purely archival perspective, Show Boat is very disappointing.  This DVD contains some age-related artifacts, color bleeding, color fading and wholly unnatural flesh tones. Contrast is a tad weak at times, but not terribly distracting. We also get edge enhancement and slight chroma bleeding. Yuck! The 5.1 audio is a credible attempt to remaster the movie’s soundtrack for contemporary tastes. But it lacks the depth and clarity of other remastering efforts. Bottom line: Show Boat needs a new to Blu 1080p restoration – preferably with some well-intended extra features to enhance our appreciation of the movie. Bottom line: not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)