Sunday, July 24, 2016

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1944) Warner Archive

Picture it: Hollywood – 1944. A young girl, barely established in her modeling aspirations departs Manhattan, determined to etch out a career in the movies.  What she lacks in experience will be made up in her tenacity to succeed, and, by the Svengali-esque transformation under the auspices of her mentor, already well established in the industry; also, by an unlikely and enduring alliance cum whirlwind romance with one of movie land’s biggest box office names. Betty Joan Perske could not have dreamed a more perfect fairy tale kick start to her daring legacy. Under the tutelage of director, Howard Hawks, her transformation from naïve upstart into the mythological unicorn of smoldering sex appeal and sly impertinence, better known to movie fans around the world as Lauren Bacall, was made iconic in To Have and Have Not (1944). Not only did the picture bring Bacall to world renown, it inadvertently launched one of the most iconic love affairs Hollywood has ever known. It takes a lot to be immortalized in Hollywood. Indeed, had Hawks known of this latter wrinkle, he might never have given Betty Perske her big break; Hawks – magnanimous to a point, rather obsessively protective of ‘his discovery’ in this quid pro quo casting couch scenario, still being vetted and leveraged in the Hollywood of today. Too bad for Hawks, his grand seduction became the stuff of ‘lamb bites wolf’; Bacall moving on to bigger and better things. After all, why have part of the married grey fox’s swag and lolly when she could take it all with one of the most revered screen he-men of his era and in his prime; tough, with or without his gun.  
There was, in fact, little to suggest Bacall, duly noted in Harper’s Bazaar for her feline grace and blue-green eyes, would become the object of Humphrey Bogart’s amorous attentions, much less his life companion and wife. Given their age disparity alone (Bacall barely twenty to Bogart’s forty-five), the likelihood of any lasting affection between the two seemed doomed from the start. And Bogart, who had taken the slow boat to becoming a major ‘name above the title’ (some 20 years in pursuit of the dream) was already married. The nightmare that was Bogart’s connubial martyrdom to Mayo Methot is legendary; Methot’s usually unwarranted jealousy (basically accusing him of having a notorious flagrante delicto with every leading lady in his repertoire) having the completely opposite effect on Bogart’s association with the women he costarred opposite in pictures. Ingrid Bergman, cast opposite Bogie in Casablanca (1942) famously insisted, “I kissed him, but I never knew him” – an astute assessment of Bogart’s remoteness between takes; usually to be found alone in his dressing room, drink in hand, indulging a game of solitaire.
By 1941, Mayo and Humphrey were dubbed ‘the feuding Bogarts’; their mutual animosities boiling over into infamous rows. Born in 1899, Bogart always considered himself a 19th century man, devoted to that more chivalrous period of manhood when commitment remained paramount – for better or worse. But then he met Lauren Bacall; the two famously hitting it off over Bacall’s bad case of upstart’s jitters and Bogart increasingly admiring the ingénue’s observant good nature; diverting and different from his usual heated exchanges with the opposite sex. Originally, Bacall’s role in To Have and Have Not was to have been very minor; secondary, in fact, to co-star, Dolores Moran; just a walk-on to test audience response: Bacall’s insolent pickpocket, Marie ‘Slim’ Browning asking for a match to light her cigarette, then, casually tossing a lighter back to Bogart’s Capt. Harry Morgan. Reportedly, Bacall was so utterly terrified during her first day her hands shook to an extent where it showed on camera. Empathetic to the newcomer’s jitters, Bogart taunt Bacall a trick to control her shakes, seeing her through this iconic introduction to the movies. After only a few days’ work, it became rather obvious to Hawks something more was brewing on the set. Bacall and Bogart had chemistry – the kind that not only ignites but incinerates movie screens. To capitalize on these unanticipated sparks, Howard Hawks recalled his screenwriters, Jules Furthman and William Faulkner to rework the screenplay, beefing up Bacall’s part at the expense of toning down Dolores Moran’s.
Hawks – a taciturn, if brilliant storyteller, already well on his way to establishing his iconic reputation as one of filmdom’s greatest directors, was likely – if obtusely – unaware the attraction roiling between Bogart and Bacall was genuine, already begun to spill over into their after hours’ badinage. Hawks could be a remote figure, invariably allowing his braggadocios to get the better of him. Indeed, he had even had the chutzpah to challenge Ernest Hemingway, the author of To Have and Have Not with the claim he – Hawks – could make a silk purse from what he deemed the author’s worst novel, openly referring to To Have and Have Not as “that bunch of junk.”  Tossing out everything except a few names and, of course, the title, the cinematic To Have and Have Not would relocate the plot to Vichy-held Martinique after pressure was applied to Warner Bros. by the Roosevelt administration, encouraging Jules Furthman to temper Hemingway’s story – originally located in Cuba – and centered on an unrepentant rum runner/revolutionary who meets with an untimely end. Such alterations appeased and upheld the U.S.’s ‘good neighbor’ policy with its Latin American satellites.  
Hawks was generally dissatisfied with the several drafts Furthman submitted to him, hiring William Faulkner to spruce up the situations and dialogue; Faulkner, then going through a fallow period, elated to be in collaboration with his idol, Ernest Hemingway. And truth be told, Hawks was as interested in hand-crafting the rough clay that was Betty Perske as to create one hell of a good picture from his revisionist perspective on this original material. In fact, Hawks had given the character Marie Browning the nickname ‘Slim’; an affectionate pet name for his own wife, but also a rather transparent precursor of where his affections for Bacall resided. To test the waters of his ‘discovery’, Hawks first introduced the newly rechristened Lauren Bacall to Bogart while he was shooting Passage to Marseille (1944). Alas Bogart, then distracted by that picture’s arduous schedule and Mayo’s constant alcoholic-induced badgering, virtually ignored Bacall. However, on the set of To Have and Have Not, Bacall’s palpable feistiness immediately won Bogart over. And Bogart, having endured decades of his wife’s unwarranted chastisements; perhaps, with a little dark satisfaction, at long last gave Mayo Methot something for which to be jealous. Bacall was immediately smitten. Just three weeks into shooting, she and Bogart began their affair; Bogart, impulsively planting an unscheduled kiss on her lips and asking for her phone number. Much to Hawks’ chagrin, Bacall obliged. If not for Hawks’ own marriage, one could almost feel twinges of empathy for what could only be considered an outright betrayal.
Indeed, Mayo Methot was hardly pleased as rumors began to circulate about Bogart’s roving eye for this ingénue, young enough to be his daughter. Alas, one can argue Methot brought such misery upon herself; her insanely jealousy all but predicting Bogart would eventually stray into the arms of another woman. That he staved off the urge for so long when he might just as easily have bedded a bevy of female costars, but instead repeatedly tried to make the very best of this tragic union, is commendable. Nevertheless, when production wrapped on To Have and Have Not, Bacall temporarily went back to Hawks and Bogart to Mayo. Ultimately, Bogart asked Mayo for a divorce; begrudgingly granted and allowing him to pursue Bacall yet again. Bacall and Bogart would marry just three days after production on Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1945). In the interim, Bacall had made Confidential Agent (1945) a notorious fizzler co-starring Charles Boyer; the picture’s grotesque implosion at the box office, and in particular, the scathing reviews lobbed at Bacall, immensely pleasing Hawks, who unwisely deduced that without his hand-crafted manipulations of Bacall’s career, the starlet he ruinously regarded as belonging exclusively to him, would ultimately fail in her aspirations. Instead, Hawks would rue the day he ever laid his own aspirations for Bacall at the head of Humphrey Bogart; likely, left asking himself “was you ever bit by a dead bee?” – the memorable query, intermittently asked of various costars in To Have and Have Not by the irrepressible Walter Brennen; cast as the lovable rummy, Eddie.  Mercifully, Bacall’s momentary fall from grace would be buffeted by the release of The Big Sleep, followed by Key Largo and Dark Passage; cementing Bogie and Bacall as one of the all-time legendary screen teams who really could – and did – have it all.         
To Have and Have Not is a rogues’ gallery of familiar faces in the back lot pantheon; beginning with Walter Brennen’s exquisitely nuanced performance as Eddie; twitching from alcohol withdrawal, and pleasantly oblivious to the fact he is considered mostly a nuisance by everyone except Harry Morgan, who finds his harmless doddering diverting and worthy of all the respect of a fallen father-figure. “He thinks he’s looking after me,” Morgan tells the boorish, Johnson (Walter Sande), his latest charter client who increasingly has come to resent Eddie’s infrequent interference in their fishing expedition. Eddie casually, if chronically suggests of Johnson’s inability to snag a marlin, “You’re just unlucky, Mr. Johnson…that’s all. I never seen anybody so unlucky.”  Brennen, largely forgotten today, was highly respected and enthusiastically sought out by the studios for plum roles in his day, becoming the only actor in Hollywood to win 3 Academy Awards in 1936, ’38 and ’40 respectively; a record never topped, but later tied by Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis – very distinguished company to say the least. Notoriously, Brennan arrived in Hollywood penniless, his real estate fortunes virtually wiped out by the Great Depression; falling back on ‘film work’ to survive and steadily build his credits from 1925 onward. His forte was often playing drunkards of varying degrees, either bitterly contemptuous or obtusely lovable, the latter of which his Eddie in To Have and Have Not is among his best.
One is, in fact, rather startled to discover Brennan was only fifty years old in To Have and Have Not; the loss of most of his teeth in a 1932 accident, rapidly thinning hair, anemic physicality and unusually frail voice, making him appear much older. To Have and Have Not falls right in the middle of Brennan’s golden period as an actor, his breakout performance in Two-Fisted Law (1932), leading to an ever more impressive array of cameos. By the early 1940's, Brennan was one of Hollywood’s most prized character actors; achieving ever-lasting screen immortality as the considerate preacher who shapes the moral fiber of Gary Cooper’s Sergeant York (1941), costarring again with Cooper, atypically cast as something of the sage in Pride of the Yankees (1942).  One of Hollywood’s most steadily employed and hardest working actors, Brennan’s face later became a fixture on television. Like a good many of Warner’s finely wrought gallery of character actors, Walter Brennan would never achieve fame as ‘the star’. And yet, his presence in any movie is immediately felt; in To Have and Have Not, his paternal good nature towards Bogart, proving skillfully the unlikeliest of charmers.
Our story begins in Fort-de-France; a tiny coastal hamlet on the island of Vichy-occupied Martinique. Capt. Harry Morgan procures his daily license with the local constabulary to take his fishing vessel out to sea. Morgan makes his living taxiing rich tourists up and down these fertile waters in search of good sport.  Eddie is Morgan’s unofficial first mate, though he is of little use because of his rank alcoholism. Nevertheless, Morgan feels a sense of duty toward Eddie and vice versa. Their latest fare is Johnson, a boorish American who repeatedly ducks Morgan’s inquiries for remuneration, insisting he will pay up his tab of $825.00 in full at the end of their chartered cruise. Morgan is not particularly worried since Johnson is staying at the Marquee Hotel he too calls home. Nevertheless, Johnson is planning to step out at the break of dawn without settling his account. That night, the hotel bar is populated by an eclectic assortment of weary travelers. The hotel’s manager, Gerard – a.k.a. Frenchy (Marcel Dalio) tries to inveigle Morgan in an urgent plot to assist the French Resistance in smuggling a small contingent of Free French freedom fighters onto the island. Morgan is unimpressed. Moreover, he has written off his responsibilities to the war effort. It’s no dice, and as far as Morgan is concerned, nothing Frenchy can say will change his mind. The expats try more aggressive persuasions inside Morgan’s hotel room. But Morgan reminds them of the dangers involved. Men have been exiled to Devil’s Island for far less than what they are proposing. Without compunction, Morgan sends the group away.
Meanwhile, the piano player, Cricket (Hoagy Carmichael) engages the crowd with a few songs, one of the visitors, Marie Browning, helping along his little ditty. Marie is chummy with Johnson – to a point. But Morgan cynically reasons her interests in the dull American are purely mercenary. In fact, Morgan quietly observes as Marie, whom he has since nicknamed ‘Slim’, picks Johnsons pocket without his knowledge. She’s good – very good; only Morgan is not about to let Slim walk away with the monies owed him, nor the $1400.00 Johnson already possesses in traveler’s checks. Instead, Morgan confronts Slim. Johnson is decidedly not her first stooge, and knowing Morgan knows it, forces Slim to give back Johnson’s wallet. Unhappy luck for all concerned, the hotel is fired upon by several revolutionaries fleeing arrest. In the resulting hullabaloo, Johnson is killed by a stray bullet and his wallet – along with its cash – is confiscated by the portly Prefect of Police, Capt. M. Renard (Dan Seymour). Renard interrogates Morgan and Slim. While he is satisfied with Morgan’s sullen replies, Renard is not about to let Slim get away with such churlish obstructions; at one point, giving her cheek a light smack with Johnson’s wallet to show her he means business.
Renard confiscates Johnson’s money and takes Morgan’s passport – for safe keeping. Without it, it is virtually impossible for Morgan to operate his chartered cruises. Released from custody, Morgan – whom Marie has rechristened ‘Steve’ – and ‘Slim’ pause a moment at the Bar de Zombie; a voodoo-themed local watering hole (shades of Val Lewton’s I Walked With A Zombie -1943, on display). With no money to pay for their drinks, Slim picks out her latest pigeon rife for the asking; a French lieutenant. Morgan is mildly amused by the ease with which she ingratiates herself into this stranger’s company, but leaves the bar and later, comes to resent her for it. Slim confronts Morgan about his fickle jealousies and he attempts to wangle the story of her life to cool the air. Herein, we are exposed to some delicious and brilliantly scripted repartee; all barbs and sexually-charged innuendos, as Bacall’s whisky-voiced insolence simmers with a juicily erotic tenor from even the most benign double entendre; ‘the pot calling the kettle…’ as it were, and Morgan feeding into and off of Slim’s glacial scorn; an elixir for his hypocritical male pride; this sly one’ using sex like a fly swatter to get exactly what she wants from him.
Frenchy returns with renewed appeals and incentives for Morgan; now broke, and in desperate need of some quick cash. He could transport Resistance fighters, Hélène (Dolores Moran) and Paul de Bursac (Walter Surovy) to Martinique. With zero prospects ahead of him, Morgan reluctantly agrees to this daring mission but elects to go it alone. The heat is on and much too high profile for Morgan to take anyone else along. Meanwhile, his hot romance with Slim proves combustible. Slim tells Harry she thinks him ‘a stinker’ but wastes no time planting a passionate kiss on his lips, adding “It’s even better when you help!” Slim’s alright; tough and razor-backed – just the way Morgan likes his women. But his dalliances with her will have to wait. Instead, Morgan sets out in a dense fog to pick up the Bursacs. He has underestimated Eddie who, even after being ordered off the boat, finds a way to sneak back aboard. Morgan confides the purpose of his mission to Eddie; the two collecting the Bursacs – Mr. and Mrs. – from a remote island.  Regrettably, Morgan’s boat is spotted by the Vichy harbor patrol. They open fire and Paul is wounded. Stealing away into the relative safety of a low-lying fog bank, Morgan unloads his human cargo nearby before lumbering into port. Frenchy implores Morgan to feverishly work to exculpate the bullet from Paul’s shoulder, even offering to wipe the ledgers of Morgan’s sizable hotel bill as remuneration for once again jeopardizing his own safety. While Morgan agrees to save Paul’s life, he refuses to accept Frenchy’s charity. Hélène’s austere disdain for Morgan melts away. Indeed, she faints at the first sight of her husband’s wound; Slim bringing her back to life with some smelling salts as Morgan diligently digs the projectile from Paul’s gaping wound.  Realizing she can trust Morgan, Hélène confides the real purpose of their arrival in port; to help a prisoner of war escape from the penal colony on Devil’s Island.
Morgan is not interested in sticking his neck out for anyone (shades of Casablanca’s Rick Blaine rearing up), much less with the very real threat hanging overhead like the Sword of Damocles. Returning to Morgan’s hotel room, Slim offers to help the weary Morgan untie his shoes, make him a hearty breakfast and/or draw his bath. Morgan is unimpressed. He asks Slim to have a stroll around him, inferring he will not be coaxed into any sort of cheap and doe-eyed ‘romance’ with ‘strings attached’. But only moments later, the couple is locked in a passionate embrace, Slim suggesting they continue their détente after Morgan has had a shave. Alas, love will have to wait - again. Frenchy alerts Morgan Renard is in the hotel’s bar, plying Eddie with rum in the hopes to have him confirm his own suspicions; that it was Morgan’s boat caught in the crossfire and thus, force Morgan to divulge the whereabouts of the Bursacs. Renard tries to bribe Morgan, first with a small stipend; then, the return of his passport and all monies previously confiscated, if only he will reveal the Bursac’s hiding place on the island. But Morgan has dug in his heels and Eddie, even under the influence, is artfully vague about any such midnight crossing Renard suspects of them.
Morgan hatches an escape plan for two…or rather, three; himself, Eddie and Slim. Their daring disappearing act will cause Renard to tear Frenchy’s hotel apart and discover the Bursacs hidden in the cellar. But before any of this finely tuned plot can be set into motion, Eddie inexplicably disappears; Renard and his men arriving at Morgan’s hotel room with Frenchy in tow. Renard informs Morgan Eddie is in police custody. Renard has deviated from his usual interrogation method. Instead of plying Eddie with strong alcohol, he intends to withhold it until Eddie suffers a severe withdrawal and breaks under pressure. Pretending to reach into his desk drawer for a match to light his cigarette, Morgan fires a loaded pistol, wounding one of Renard’s men. With Frenchy’s help, Morgan handcuffs Renard to Lt. Coyo (Sheldon Leonard); Morgan mercilessly pistol-whipping both men until Renard relents and makes a telephone call on Morgan’s command, ordering Eddie’s release. Morgan also has Renard fill out harbor passes for himself, Slim, Eddie and the de Bursacs. With narrowly a moment to spare, Slim says ‘goodbye’ to Cricket. He asks her if she is happy to which she smugly replies with a Cheshire grin, “What do you think?” Morgan, Slim and Eddie depart the Marquee for the last time; their futures uncertain, their enduring love assured. 
To Have and Have Not is a winner on many levels, chiefly for its first on-screen pairing of Bogie and Bacall. We expect Bogart to be insolent. He is good at it. Hell, his entire career has been built on variations of the noble savage, reconstituted as the brooding, hard-drinking God’s lonely man with an ax to grind and a chip the size of Gibraltar teetering on his shoulders. And Bogart never disappoints. Impudence comes second natural to him. But Bacall’s brashness is totally unforeseen. Observing Bacall’s statuesque Slim take no guff from Bogart’s salty sea scamp is a refresher course in the art of oblique subtlety; Bacall giving as good as she gets, taking it on the nose now and then, but more frequently out in front of her man like a fine thoroughbred with the bit firmly chomped between her teeth. Marie Browning is not a femme fatale, and yet, Bacall lends her an air of slick, sly and stylish foreboding. She can mesmerize the room with just a bat of her long lashes, or tantalize the gentry with a seemingly effortless swish and sashay of those angular hips and padded shoulders, exaggerated in Milo Anderson’s exquisitely utilitarian fashions. Of course, in hindsight, the added appeal is knowing, or rather, attempting to figure out which scenes were shot by cinematographer, Sidney Hickox after the real-life amour had taken hold; the clamor of Cupid’s artful noise, perhaps most transparently on display in the moment when Bacall’s vixen, wearing nothing more exotic than a bathrobe, suggests to her man that he pucker up and blow. A naughty sensuality permeates; Bacall, both scintillating and genuine, the frisky amusement she generates reflected in Bogart’s eyes as he half winks, then smiles, mustering an anemic whistle, trailing behind either his own or Morgan’s sudden realization - “the kid’s alright.” Indeed.   
My one regret each time I view To Have and Have Not is Warner Bros. never wrote a follow-up charting the rocky course of this interrupted love affair; Slim and Morgan’s daring escape across the high seas, culminating (presumably) with Slim going back to America. It would have made for one hell of a picture. With only four movies in their shared repertoire, Bogart and Bacall managed to carve an indelible niche in the cinema firmament; the gutsy, brooding, and confrontational sweethearts happily ensconced in our hearts and minds as sexy compatriots with oodles of charisma to spare. Apart, Bogart had the more enviable career, seguing from star to producer, and even founding his own independent company - Santana - while still committing to other projects as a freelancer; Bacall, willingly, all but retiring from the screen to be Mrs. Humphrey Bogart until her husband’s death from esophageal cancer in 1957; a loss of security that caused her to stumble back into the limelight; alas, older, wiser, but unprepared to navigate through a string of largely forgettable pictures with too few bright spots to recommend the comeback.
Prepare to be astonished, because Sidney Hickox’s sumptuous B&W palette has been perfectly preserved on Blu-ray. Your ole DVD is officially a Frisbee. Fling!  It is one of the unforgivable sins that no original camera negative for this iconic movie exists. Generally speaking, Warner Bros. was always a forward thinking studio. Regrettably, they somehow overlooked this one. But the Warner Archive has once again worked its magic for this hi-def release, utilizing a brand new scan of a nitrate fine-grain master positive archived at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Because of age-related deterioration this fine-grain element required extraordinary care and, in addition to this Blu-ray release, Warner has also taken great pains to strike new preservation elements on film stock, ensuring To Have and Have Not will be around for decades to come. In rare instances where the fine-grain was not able to be utilized because it had deteriorated past the point of no return, and no viable image could be scanned from it, a dupe safety negative was used in its place. Thanks to WAC’s technical wizardry, these transitions are not perceivable.  Only the critical eye looking for such things will likely notice a minute change in image quality.
Extensive repair and density/shading correction were performed to yield what can only be described as a resurrection of the opening night splendor of this almost lost masterpiece.  With exceptions noted, as regarding stock footage and rear projection, the image herein is crisp and refined, nuanced in subtle details and shading to the point where we see exceptional amounts of fine detail in hair, skin and fabrics that is exceptionally pleasing and, for those who have long endured less than stellar renderings on home video, a real revelation. As the original soundtrack has long been lost to the ages WAC has reconstructed a 2.0 DTS mono mix, drawing on several sources to achieve an acoustically seamless presentation.  Extras are nil but honestly, given the amount of time, effort and money WAC has poured into restoring To Have and Have Not for this Blu-ray release, all we can do is doff our caps at the monumentally satisfying results from all their fine efforts. Permit us to worship and give immeasurable thanks. Bottom line: very highly recommended! Very highly, indeed!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, July 22, 2016

THE MARK OF ZORRO: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1940) Kino Lorber

There has never been another Errol Flynn…although the same could be said of Stewart Granger, and, of course, Tyrone Power. To some degree, virtually all of the aforementioned inherited their mantle of quality from the swashbuckling arena of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. – arguably, the screen’s first modern-day rapscallion. Despite changing times and tastes, and the introduction of sound in 1928, the poses struck by these he-men of the cod piece and sword remain variations on a template first trademarked by Fairbanks in his prime. Indeed, The Mark of Zorro had been a much-celebrated 1920 adventure; the thirteenth movie in Fairbanks’ career, for which Douglas eschewed the comedic trappings to don the black cape and mask of author, Johnston McCulley’s famed hero, Zorro (Spanish for ‘fox’). The novel, The Curse of Capistrano was serialized to great acclaim only one year earlier and Fairbanks’ depiction of the cloaked crusader sent romanticized chills of exhilaration down the spines of his adoring female fans. Fairbanks, whose career had momentarily sagged just prior to the release, was to quickly discover an entirely new outlet for his finessed athleticism. From this movie on, he would be popularized on celluloid and immortalized for all time in the hearts and minds of millions around the world as the epitome of the dashingly robust rogue.  Fairbanks would also set the standard for Zorro’s wardrobe; the black satin mask, large hat and flowing cape not a part of McCulley’s original characterization.
Two decades later, the legend of Zorro returned; this time resurrected by Darryl F. Zanuck at 2oth Century-Fox for the biggest thing to hit the back lot since sound: Tyrone Power. Heralding from a thespian’s background – Ty Sr., also an actor – Power’s early appeal lay in his impossibly beautiful fine-boned features, a pair of dark and flashing eyes, framed by thick brows and a pate of slick black hair; his screen presence oddly boyish yet manly. At least in hindsight, Power owed more to the legacy of the late Rudolph Valentino than Douglas Fairbanks. In fact, Power would be cast in a glossy Technicolor remake of Valentino’s bullfighting classic, Blood and Sand one year after The Mark of Zorro, and, go on to star in a half dozen actioners as the devilish heartthrob who either took what he desired by force or could just as easily charm any woman of his choosing into handing it over for nothing. Power’s slender build may have lacked Fairbanks’ barrel-chested/bicep-popping muscularity, but otherwise he proved the perfect fit for Zorro, revealing a rather edgy sense of mischief married to his undeniable sex appeal. The latter is worth considering for just a moment. 
Sex appeal on the screen is as much, if not more so, the yardstick by which public response to both men and women is duly measured. Some actors have it. Others do not. The public decides exactly what sex appeal is on an individual basis. If one has it, then name your price. Yet, sex appeal goes well beyond the physical contents of any man or woman. It is a perennial state of mind; an elixir more imagined than ascribed; an intangible for which Power arguably matched Metro’s he-man, Clark Gable, and Warner’s Tasmania devil, Errol Flynn, sly grin for grin, and with a diseased little twinkle caught in his eye, suggesting he had lived a man’s life and was equally as unashamed of it. 
Zanuck would exploit The Mark of Zorro to launch the career of another Fox contract player into the stratosphere.  Linda Darnell had been ‘discovered’ by the studio’s talent scouts in her native Dallas in 1937. Pushed into the limelight by an overzealous stage mother who likely wanted this dream for her own, but settled to live it vicariously through her daughter’s accomplishments, Darnell was thrust into the gristmill of Hollywood’s star-making machinery, by her own admission, without the blind ambition to excel at becoming a ‘great star’.  With only a few artistically negligible movies to her credit, Darnell set the screen afire opposite Power’s lusty bandit in The Mark of Zorro, as the lovely, Lolita Quintero. Alas, unlike Power’s reign at Fox, Darnell’s meteoric rise in popularity as ‘the fresh-faced’ sex bomb would be brief; her plummet from this perch, as swift as it proved devastating.  In later years, Darnell would suggest her overnight flourish had been deliberately sabotaged by Zanuck’s deliberate mis-casting of her in shoddy parts after she refused to acquiesce to his lascivious advances. “He was after something I wasn’t willing to give,” Darnell mused, “…and so I found myself at the back of the line, other actresses getting the parts that ought to have come to me. Even if the public wanted me.”  Indeed, Zanuck’s transparency in letting Darnell ‘know her place’ was only slightly offset by his disastrous gamble to cast her in one of the studio’s biggest costume epics; Forever Amber (1947) – the story of a treacherous courtesan brought to heel by her own greed; equally as big a disappointment at the box office.
Only in retrospect does the oddity of Linda Darnell’s stardom become more perplexed; seemed effortless, mildly erotic and very appealing when working opposite Tyrone Power, but elsewhere faintly benign with an almost petulant attitude when cast opposite other big male stars on the Fox back lot. The romantic chemistry between Power and Darnell is palpably adversarial in The Mark of Zorro, particularly during their early scenes where Power’s ego-driven fop sparks fiery discontent; a little of the Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland attraction smoldering like sensitive embers all too ready to ignite into a four-alarm blaze. For the vial Captain Esteban Pasquale, Zanuck turned to a rather predictable, though no less effective choice; Basil Rathbone, who, apart from appearing to excellent effect as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved Edwardian-era sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, in two lavishly appointed pictures made back to back at Fox the previous year, was better known for his expert swordsmanship, culminating in an, iconic duel opposite Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
The Mark of Zorro is an obvious prestige picture for Fox; John Taintor Foote’s screenplay cribbing only partly from McCulley’s novel and tricked out in Richard Day and Joseph C. Wright’s stunning art direction, magnificently photographed in B&W by Arthur C. Miller – a true artisan of his craft.  To helm the production, Zanuck hired Rouben Mamoulian; one of the screen’s unbridled romanticists, better known for coaching performances from temperamental beauties like Greta Garbo than for his swashbuckling prowess. What Mamoulian brought to the palette goes well beyond his usual idiosyncratic lushness; the open air training grounds (supposedly photographed in Madrid – actually, on the Fox ranch with matte paintings to add an air of authenticity), where young blades are taught the fine and fashionable art of killing, and the palatial settings of ole Spain – again, built on the back lot, exquisitely contrasted against the relative squalor of ancient Los Angeles and the rural trappings of California. Mamoulian’s penchant for stylish film-making elevates the picture’s glamour and escapism. But he does not cheat the audience out of its oft dark, and suggestively homoerotic subtext brewing between Rathbone’s majestically vial Pasquale, overcompensating with a sword perennially clutched in his fist, and Power’s impossibly handsome, Don Diego, feigning effeteness as a dandified fop to guard against his truer intentions as the masked savior of the people; the perfect camouflage.
Don Diego is a respected guardsman. But his training in Madrid is cut short by an urgent request from his beloved father to return home at once. At first, Diego is bitterly disappointed to give up his appointment in Spain. He is a respected caballero with a wicked track record for satisfying gentlemanly duels. Asked by his fellow guardsmen what he will do in California, Diego bitterly explains the tepidity of the people will yield no earthly pleasures for his adventurous spirit. Alas, Diego is in for an happy surprise. Informed by his boatman (Victor Killian) of the people’s displeasure with the reigning Alcalde’s (a.k.a. governor) mismanagement – a post, Diego’s father, Don Alejandro Vega (Montagu Love) once occupied – this errant knight’s anxieties are only marginally relieved upon discovering that his father has since resigned the post. Don Vega is still one of Los Angeles’ most respected citizens. The same cannot be said of the newly appointed Alcalde, Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) who cruelly manhandling its citizenry with Captain Esteban Pasquale’s uncompromisingly militaristic might. Quintero’s wife is the coolly aloof gargoyle, Inez (Gale Sondergaard), immediately attracted to Diego’s suave – if slightly effeminate – interests in ‘the latest fashion’. Alas, Diego is distracted by a glimpse of the couple’s young ward, the virginal, Lolita. Having only just missed out on the opportunity to meet Diego for herself, Lolita persists to have Inez make the necessary introductions; her aunt jealously threatening to have her sent off to a convent – in these ole-fashioned times, a fate to result in the depravation of a young woman’s fancies for attractive young men Inez would rather keep for herself. 
On the road to his ancestral home, Diego encounters Sergeant Gonzales (George Regas), a simple-minded oaf commanding a small contingent of Pasquale’s men. Gonzales casually admits to using his whip on ‘stubborn’ peons who are unable to pay their strained share of the ever-escalating taxes leveled against their homes and families to satisfy the expensive whims of His Excellency. A brighter outlook emerges upon Diego’s arrival at his father’s estate; his mother, Isabella (Janet Beecher), father, and friar, Fray Felipe (Eugene Pallette) most eager to welcome him with open arms. Diego discovers his father did not retire, but rather was forced out to make way of this new corrupt regime. Don Alejandro refuses to take up arms against the government he has served for thirty years, much to Felipe’s chagrin. But soon, the Don and this padre are aligned in their disturbing contempt for Diego’s laissez faire disinterest in their present woes. Diego’s indifference is, of course, a ruse, designed to throw everyone off his grand plan: to avenge the people by using a mysterious alias to achieve the miracle for which they have all been praying.  In short order, Diego launches a daring counteroffensive, ambushing the Alcalde and Inez in his robber’s disguise on the open road as they are preparing to meet with a banker from Madrid; carving the letter ‘Z’ into the plush upholstery of their carriage before absconding with all of Quintero’s ill-gotten gold ducats and a prized necklace taken from Inez.  Aside: in outtakes shown to Zanuck purely for his amusement, Tyrone Power performed this same stunt; but with actor, J. Edward Bromberg’s look of utter bewilderment and nail-biting fear followed by a declaration of ‘Zanuck!’ instead of ‘Zorro!’; Power topping off the gag by adding, “…and let that be a lesson to you – damn it!”   
Now, with a 5000 peso price on his head, Zorro’s reputation among Los Angeles’ beleaguered citizenry begins to take hold. He is their savior; not boastful or proud, but a true liberator to challenge Quintero’s authoritarian rule with a clash of steel if necessary. Indeed, Zanuck could not help but see the parallels between Quintero’s fictional regime and that of Adolf Hitler’s SS already sweeping through the whole of Europe with an iron fist. Disguised as Zorro, Diego attends Quintero in his study, blind-folding, then ordering the frightened aristocrat to resign and go back to Spain immediately; also, to appoint Don Alejandro Vega as his replacement or face the full wrath of his sword. Disappearing into the night without further delay, Quintero is discovered by Pasquale, more determined than ever to rid the landscape of this vaporous avenger who would dare dictate his policies to them with unabated aplomb. Diego’s escape is detoured through the chapel with another disguise as the padre. Inadvertently, he meets Lolita praying at the altar. She too is fooled by his appearance at first, but gradually realizes the man in cleric’s robes is no priest. Thus, when Inez bursts in on them, Lolita keeps Zorro’s secret to assure his safety. Diego remains silently grateful for her candor. Alas, he is discovered by one of Quintero’s men in the courtyard, leading to an even more death-defying race on horseback. The price on Zorro’s head is raised to 20,000 pesos.
More than ever, Zorro is the people’s crusader. He thwarts Pasquale and Gonzales’ in their tax collecting and evades capture by Pasquale’s men, doubling back to the monastery. Fray Felipe is befuddled by Diego’s midnight arrival; even more so after a small contingent of the Acalde’s men intrude to question them as to Zorro’s whereabouts. Diego fluffs off their concern in preening jest. This incurs Felipe’s ire once more. To think the boy he once regarded as highly as a son could make light of Zorro’s daring do. But now Diego confesses his secret to the one man he can trust to keep it holy. He is Zorro. Handing over his loot to Felipe for safe-keeping, Diego suggests it is only a matter of time before Quintero peaceably leaves office. To hasten Quintero in his decision, the next afternoon Diego pays a call, exploiting the opportunity to fabricate a tale about a madman from Madrid who, like Zorro, plundered at will. Diego’s ebulliently suggests to Quintero that like this fictionalized villain, Zorro is quite insane and sure to slit many throats before his reign of terror is over. Terrified, Quintero confides this story to Pasquale who is quite unimpressed. Pasquale suggests that since Zorro is demanding Vega’s return to power, Vega himself is likely in cahoots with the masked bandit. Pasquale further proposes an alliance, or rather, a marriage of state to establish a new détente: Quintero’s niece to Diego, sure to keep the peace and put an end to Zorro’s marauding.
In the meantime, Diego works on Inez’s vanity to convince her she is being wasted in Los Angeles. As the wife of the ex-Alcalde she would most certainly be a welcomed edition at court in Spain. Now, Quintero approaches Vega to propose the marriage. Don Alejandro is, quite understandably insulted by the prospect their two households should be united for the sake of some bastardized political entente. But Diego alleviates their tension, hinting he might be interested, provided he finds the young girl attractive. To sweeten the deal, Diego is invited to dine at Quintero’s estate, making a dandyish nuisance of himself and thus deliberately alienating Lolita, who finds him boorish, silly and quite unsuitable as a love interest. Electing to retire early to her bedroom, Lolita is surprised by Diego, now dressed as Zorro, on her balcony. His confession is thwarted by Quintero’s reentrance, Diego retreating, only to return dressed as himself. Lolita now realizes the man she loves and the one she absolutely abhors are one in the same. But Inez, who has become rather smitten with Diego herself, suggests to Lolita she reject this marriage of state under the guise that no woman should ever be sacrificed for political gains.
Diego applies his most heavy-handed influence to sway Quintero; pretending to be disinterested in Lolita; then, suggesting his disinterest might improve if the Alcalde will fetch them both some wine from Quintero’s private cellar. Beneath his study, Quintero discovers wine barrels with a ‘z’ carved into them and their taps left open, the contents having spilt all over the floor. Zorro’s footsteps have left their imprint in the dirt floor. Yet, they seem to lead nowhere except a solid stone wall. Is Zorro a man or a ghost?  Meanwhile, Pasquale discovers the stolen tax monies and Inez’s necklace inside a locked box in Felipe’s monastery. Unable to grind a confession from his lips, Pasquale instead imprisons Felipe without trial to improve his memory. Confronting Quintero in his study, Pasquale finds Diego’s amusement at their predicament quite disturbing. Pasquale challenges this man he has misperceived as a popinjay to a duel, a grueling test of swords that ends badly for the Captain of the Guard, but also for Diego, who has at last been found out by Quintero.
Locked in the same cell as Felipe, Diego tricks their jailer into unlocking the door. Alas, he is too late to plan an escape; Quintero, arriving with Don Alejandro and the caballeros, presumably to gain a confession from Vega’s own lips as to the extent of his own complicity. Unaware, his son and Zorro are one in the same, Vega suggests Quintero to be the biggest fool that ever lived. Now, Diego ambushes Quintero, and, together with the caballeros, launches into a full-scale revolution. The town’s people, barred from the prison, break down the gates and thwart Quintero’s autocratic rule. Quintero is forced into accepting Zorro’s original call for his resignation.  Part of the condition is for Quintero and Inez to leave California on the first ship bound for Spain; Vega reinstated to the exalted position as Los Angeles’ Alcalde. Inez is elated by this turn of events until she suddenly realizes her dreams of court life, with Diego as her kept man, are not to be. Diego intends to follow the customs of California; to marry Lolita with all speed, raise a family, and, tend to their vineyards. The crowd rejoices as Zorro hangs up his sword for good.
Given the overwhelming success of The Mark of Zorro, and Tyrone Powers’ iconic resurrection of the masked hero for the sound era, it is rather surprising – and more than a little disappointing – Zanuck never bothered to spin off the story into a lucrative film franchise. Interestingly, 2oth Century-Fox lacked in the serials department. Elsewhere in Hollywood, serials were considered highly profitable B-budgeted programmers. Fox would eventually get around to two franchises of their own; Charlie Chan, and later, Mr. Moto. Oddly, they let one of their very best – Sherlock Holmes – languish after only two pictures; the franchise relocated to Universal where serials were not only prized, but in fact buoyed their yearly output.  While the legend of Zorro would remain a perennial part of our movie-going pop culture, with various incarnations attempted elsewhere on the big screen, as well as a TV series produced by the Walt Disney Co. in the mid-1950’s, Tyrone Power would never again don the cape and black mask he had helped make famous herein. Without a doubt, The Mark of Zorro launched Power as a swashbuckling lothario; his youthful virility brought into check with a more earthily rugged appeal. Power’s career was slightly derailed by his enlistment in the marines. From 1942 to 1945, he was absent from the screen; Zanuck only too eager to capitalize on his return with Fox’s biggest prestige picture to date, The Razor’s Edge (1946).
We will never know for certain what sort of movie career Tyrone Power might have had, had he managed to evade military duty as so many others of his ilk chose to do. Unequivocally, the war changed Power’s audience appeal and, equally, his iconic good looks. The Tyrone Power returning to Fox in 1946 is a different man entirely; his adolescent handsomeness given a harsher edge. While Power was eager to return to Fox, he had increasingly tired of Zanuck’s insistence to merely pick up where his career had left off before the war; the cod piece and tights not aligning with Power’s own ambitions to stretch his artistic wings.  The spate of pictures that briefly followed retained Zanuck’s high standards in production value, but they no longer suited Power’s transformed mystique, nor did they satisfy his own impressions as to what a leading man he could be given half the chance and better opportunities. Indeed, Power’s singularly impressive post-war achievement would not be made at Fox, but rather as an independent for producer, Edward Small in Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution (1958) in which Power, cast against type, played Leonard Vole, the cold-blooded murderer of an unsuspecting widow.  
That same year, Power departed for Spain to begin work on Solomon and Sheba, the movie that prematurely ended his life. Engaging George Sanders for the climactic duel, Power was suddenly taken ill, collapsing on the set. He died on November 15, 1958 – aged, only 44. While great heroes of the silver screen are oft’ judged by their elemental sex appeal; their athleticism and their ability to dazzle us with daring feats, the best of the lot are imbued with a far more intangible quality that transcends mere ‘good looks’. As Power entered middle-age he illustrated he was far more than just another ‘pretty face’. But he was unceremoniously denied the longevity to prove anything else beyond that. Even so, his legacy remains happily ensconced as one of those rarefied male specimens – a great star, stud and vigorous striking hunk du jour. Regrettably, Powers’ real influence in pictures ended much too soon to be more properly assessed. But The Mark of Zorro endures among his finest films and performances given.  It still only tells half the story of Tyrone Power – that graceful paragon for the ages.
Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray of The Mark of Zorro is a welcomed improvement. The old Fox DVD was very problematic on two levels: first, because much of the B&W image was riddled in disturbing amounts of edge enhancement (very distracting to say the least) and minor gate weave; and second, because Fox equally elected then to provide us with a painfully ugly ‘colorized’ version of this gorgeous movie that all but destroyed the exquisite tonality in Arthur C. Miller’s original and utterly superb B&W cinematography. Both sins have been rectified for this 1080p reissue. The colorized version is gone. Yes! And the B&W incarnation presented on this Blu-ray reveals a startlingly detailed image virtually free of age-related artifacts. There is a lot to admire here; Thomas Little’s set decoration and Travis Banton’s exquisite costuming, a real visual feast in hi-def. Minor imperfections do exist, but they are negligible. The Mark of Zorro looks very appealing on Blu-ray and we suspect Fox has gone back to the drawing board for this one with admirable results. Great stuff! The DTS 2.0 mono audio offers up exceptional clarity with a few moments of unanticipated bombast – particularly in Alfred Newman’s iconic score. Extras have been ported over from the old 2005 DVD and include an A&E Biography on Tyrone Power, and, a rather bumbling audio commentary from Richard Schickel; plus trailers to promote Witness for the Prosecution (already available via Kino Lorber on Blu-ray) and Rawhide, currently being readied for its hi-def debut. I have to say, it is about time Fox took a more aggressive path to reissuing their vintage catalog on Blu-ray. For too long their association has been limited to Twilight Time exclusives with their trickle of output rather disturbingly subpar in terms of quality in a lot of cases. We could certainly use mainstream Blu-ray reissues of Anastasia (1956), The Song of Bernadette, Demetrius and the Gladiators, and, Jane Eyre for starters; plus a host of iconic film fare from Fox’s early output, including all of their Shirley Temple movies, The Keys of the Kingdom, In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), and, The Rains Came (1939) – the latter three, Tyrone Power classics sorely absent in hi-def. We will have to wait and see. But Kino Lorber’s new alliance has already yielded some very good stuff with more promised in the pipeline before year’s end. As for The Mark of Zorro – it comes very highly recommended in 1080p. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT!: The Complete Collection Blu-ray (MGM 1974, 76, 94) Warner Home Video

Upon its release, Variety – the showbiz Bible – astutely eulogized Jack Haley Jr.’s That’s Entertainment! with a glowing review, adding “It’s more than a movie…it’s a celebration! Well many may ponder the future of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer no one can deny it’s had one hell of a past.” And indeed, this bumper crop of classic numbers and songs from the studio’s unimpeachable treasure trove became the biggest and brightest money maker of 1974; little wonder since in just a little over two hours audiences were magically teleported into a world just the other side of the rainbow. Haley had appealed to MGM to consider making such a movie. But it was only after Haley’s own hour-long TV tribute, Hollywood: The Dream Factory, hosted by Dick Cavett, was nominated for an Emmy that the powers that be green lit his full-scale ‘dream project’ for a relatively paltry $3,200,000. Daniel Melnick, then the latest in an increasingly forgettable and ineffectual line of studio executives placed atop Metro’s increasingly unstable empire, afforded Haley and his editor, Bud Friedgen the run of the back lot, his choice of ole-time stars to co-host the various self-congratulatory segments, and, unprecedented access to the vast un-air-conditioned sheds and warehouses harboring these golden ticket memories from Hollywood’s yesteryear.  As ironic as it seems incongruous to consider today, Leo’s iconic roar was preceded by the optimistic tagline, “Beginning our next 50 years…”
Alas, Metro’s fate had already been sealed six years earlier; Las Vegas financier, Kirk Kerkorian gaining controlling interest in a company he had virtually zero interest in managing as a film studio.  What appealed to Kerkorian was MGM’s Culver City real estate and the marketable value of the name itself; also, grave-robbing 45 years’ of legacy to line the plywood trappings of his newly inaugurated MGM Grand casino. With the appointment of television maverick, James T. Aubrey in charge of Metro’s daily operations, Kerkorian wasted no time pillaging the back lots for franchise-able assets; slapping the MGM logo on his private airline and Vegas hotel, while drastically reducing the studio’s output to one or two home-grown and modestly budgeted programmers per annum; the rest of the yearly spate padded out in low budget, independently-made movies purchased outright for a song under lucrative distribution deals. To those who had spent their lives behind the hallowed gates of Hollywood’s premiere ‘dream factory’, Kerkorian’s corporate takeover was the final death knell. Retirements were ‘encouraged’ with Aubrey orchestrating the sell-off of Metro’s mind-boggling assortment of props and costumes in a heart-breaking auction; the ‘profit for profit’s sake’ rape filmed for posterity. Chariots from Ben-Hur (1959) Garbo’s gowns from Camille (1936), Judy Garland’s Oz-bound ruby slippers and thousands of other ‘relics’ archived from the studio’s illustrious past were sold off to the highest bidder. Yet, these were the ‘lucky’ sacrifices.
More tragic – and frankly, idiotic - was the hasty purge occurring inside Metro’s stills, animation and music publishing departments. Original compositions with hand-written annotations by the likes of Arthur Freed, Conrad Salinger and Lenny Hayton, screenplays with revisions from Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli, etc., hand-painted Tom & Jerry cartoon cells, and, stacks and stacks of production stills, documenting every movie ever made at Metro, including glamour shots photographed by such artisans as Laszlo Willinger and George Hurrell; impeccably crafted images of all of the studio’s glittery stars and contract players, plus original artwork for lobby cards and posters; these were assessed as having virtually no resale value prior to the nostalgia craze soon to hit Hollywood; Aubrey giving instructions for this priceless heritage to simply be boxed up and junked in dumpsters. With all the sadistic glee of a maniacal playground bully eager to pulverize his latest target into the dust, Aubrey liquidated MGM Records and sold off the company’s overseas theater chain. Next, he turned his attentions to real estate closer to home: the iconic Lot 3; acreage containing byways, streets and lagoons where every Andy Hardy picture, Meet Me in St. Louis and Show Boat – among countless other classics – had all been photographed were slated to be razed.  Thus, even as Haley was preparing to shoot his present day star cameos for That’s Entertainment!, the rumblings of bobcats and bulldozers could be heard in the distance, mowing down these fiberglass and plywood facades. That’s Entertainment! would be the last time audiences saw the fictional town of Carver, the streets of old Verona built for Romeo and Juliet (1936) or the train depot where Fred Astaire had once sauntered along ‘by himself’ in The Band Wagon (1950). In less than a month all of these invaluable objet d'art, so nicknamed by co-cost, Bing Crosby as a “sort of scruffy… illusion on an illusion”, slightly dilapidated ruins, having resisted the passage of time, would be leveled to make way for future condo and housing development.
“I went to Aubrey and said you can’t tear it down,” Debbie Reynolds reflected years later, “Lot 3 is like a Disneyland. You just put in a turn style…I’ll get stars to come every day and sign autographs. It’ll be great.” Alas, Reynolds pleas fell on deaf ears, Reynolds turning her efforts to the auction, scooping up as many of bits of memorabilia, later hoping against hope to establish a more permanent home for these irreplaceable pieces of movie land memorabilia. “Later on Universal did it. You know, if a little dumb girl from Burbank could see it why couldn’t they? And the shame of it is - why didn’t they see it? It’s too late now!” To add insult to injury, Kerkorian inaugurated his Vegas hotel with an inauspicious statement to his stockholders, in part reading “MGM is a hotel company and a relatively insignificant producer of motion pictures.” It had taken Louis B. Mayer nearly 40 years to will Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer into the greatest purveyor of ‘make-believe’ this world had ever known, but only a little over six years for Aubrey and Kerkorian to break it down to bedrock; MGM’s distribution offices shuttered; its creative personal and groomsmen laid off, the rights to its vast library outsourced for a period of ten years to television; mercifully, later to be snatched up, ridiculously colorized, but ultimately – and lovingly – preserved for posterity by cable network impresario, Ted Turner.
In the wake of all this carnage, That’s Entertainment! hit theaters with much fanfare and even more unanticipated interest from audiences who made it the most successful release of 1974 grossing more than $26,890,200. If Aubrey and Kerkorian had mis-perceived no interest in the past, That’s Entertainment! sparked an overnight cottage industry for collecting, revisiting and treasuring Hollywood’s national heritage. Underground movie buffs, long knowing the giddy excitement and joy of squirreling away whatever they could salvage of their movie-land memories, viewed That’s Entertainment! as a complete vindication of their eccentricity. Now, the general public wanted in on the action. And Aubrey and Kerkorian were stumped. Worse, they had liquidated far too many assets far too quickly to make yet another quick buck on any of them now. Apparently, there was a lot of ‘marketability’ in these otherwise easily discarded remains than had first met the eye. MGM was hardly in a position to launch a glitzy Hollywood premiere. And yet, the stars of yesteryear turned out in droves, bedecked and bedazzled for the occasion; the retro appeal of seeing so much megawatt star power on the red carpet, capped off with a star-studded dinner and photo-op at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel where many of these almost forgotten names L.B. Mayer had made legendary assembled to break bread together for the first – and arguably, last – time since the studio’s much touted 25th anniversary in 1949. That’s Entertainment! ought to have been the regal beginning of another majestic era in MGM’s stellar history.
Alas, it served only as a glorious, if poignant reminder that the real glory years were a thing of the past.  Directed with adroit – if self-congratulatory – aplomb and concision by Jack Haley Jr. (son of Oz’s Tin Man), That’s Entertainment! was the sort of spellbinding all-star extravaganza, virtually unseen elsewhere in the grittier realism afflicting the cinema firmament in 1974, reinforcing MGM’s once galvanized mottos of “art for art’s sake” (or art for art’s sake) and “more stars than there are in heaven.” In an era before home video, where else could one hope to see Eleanor Powell majestically tap and spiral her way down a series of drums from Rosalie (1937), or witness the mammoth spectacle of ‘A Pretty Girl is Like A Melody’ from The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Here again, Esther Williams swam, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire danced apart and together, and, Mario Lanza projected ‘Be My Love’ soothingly to Kathryn Grayson. The Cotton Blossom sailed with Cap. Andy from Show Boat (1951), Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney ‘put on a show’ as ‘babes in arms’ and ‘on Broadway’ and Bing Crosby crooned Cole Porter’s immortal ‘True Love’ to Grace Kelly in High Society (1956). Seven potential brides danced with seven backwoodsmen, Tony Martin proclaimed ‘Hallelujah!’ aboard ship and Maurice Chevalier ‘thanked heaven’ for Gigi.   
In all, some 150 clips and snippets from MGM’s mind-boggling array of perfectionism gave audiences the sort of walloping ‘one/two’ knockout in utterly fabulous entertainment that, even today, can scarcely seem fathomable. Acting as the film’s MC, Frank Sinatra gave a brief overview of the early sound era; Elizabeth Taylor shared moments ranging from her own awkward musical debut in Cynthia to the sumptuous college musical, Good News (both released in 1947); Peter Lawford explained some of the pitfalls and perks of being a studio contract player, and, James Stewart illustrated them more definitively with quaint examples as diverse as Jean Harlow’s whisky-voiced warbling in Reckless (1935) to his own thinly trilled ‘Easy to Love’ from Born to Dance (1936). From here, That’s Entertainment! effortlessly segued into Metro’s real ‘golden’ period: Mickey Rooney sharing poignant remembrances of Judy Garland, further embellished elsewhere by a tribute to Garland’s post-Rooney movies, lovingly introduced by her daughter, Liza Minnelli. Gene Kelly paid homage to Fred Astaire, with Astaire returning the favor in kind later on. Between them there followed Donald O’Connor (a real curious choice to co-host since O’Connor only made Singin’ in the Rain at MGM – the rest of his career spent mostly at Universal, with loan outs to Fox and Paramount. O’Connor’s tribute to Esther Williams was even more of an oddity as he never appeared with Williams on the screen. Debbie Reynolds championed some of Metro’s finest films pre-Cinemascope, including Show Boat (1951). Bing Crosby gave a nod to his own brief career at Metro (Crosby’s tenure devoted to Paramount) and Sinatra’s, jokingly discounted as ‘his competition’, before capping off the jubilation with a series of widescreen spectacles from the mid to late fifties, the Barn Raising Ballet from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) amongst these highlights. Sinatra returned to conclude the show, introducing ‘the best number’ from possibly ‘the best musical ever made’ – a truncated rendition of the ‘An American in Paris’ ballet.     
At its gala premiere, Jack Haley Sr. declared, “This isn’t nostalgia. This is art.” And rightly so, since by 1974 the MGM musical had been dead for some time; the studio, teetering on the verge of a devastating restructure that would ultimately reduce its holdings to ‘garage sale’ status. But at least in That’s Entertainment! such nearly forgotten treasures were resurrected from near oblivion and exalted to their rightful place in film history.  Not everyone was pleased with the results. Esther Williams famously sued the studio for unauthorized use of her clips – a suit later settled out of court. With all the hoopla surrounding it MGM just had to have a sequel; That’s Entertainment Part 2 (1976). Unfortunately, producers, Melnick and Saul Chaplin’s follow-up was decidedly something of a let down on several levels. First, it removed the star cameos that had so poignantly buttressed the original movie’s vintage clips – deciding instead to have Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly co-host the movie; billed as something of a reunion, as the two had not tripped the light fantastic together since The Babbitt and the Bromide sequence from 1949’s Ziegfeld Follies.  Alas, time had taken its toll; neither Kelly nor Astaire as light or fantastic as they once had been.
Another misfire, Melnick and Chaplin had decided to showcase their footage in a rather hap-hazard chronology, toggling back and forth between color to B&W snippets, and, widescreen to full frame images without any continuity and seemingly zero connective tissue to establish and maintain the film’s base narrative. Worst of all, the musical performances were heavily truncated and frequently interrupted to showcase even more disjointed word play from the studio’s non-musical performers; sound bites excised from such classics as Woman of the Year, Goodbye Mr. Chips and Red Dust, but again, without any context or even subtext; thus, neither enhancing the memory of their original performances nor establishing their place in this new venue of presentation. Finally, since MGM had leveled all of their outdoor back lots in the interim, the newly filmed introductory sequences featuring Astaire and Kelly were confined to a series of rather garish sets built on sound stages; the most ‘impressive’ of these reserved for the finale where Kelly and Astaire warbled a revised version of the iconic showbiz anthem, ‘That’s Entertainment’ while climbed up and down ladders leading to a series of transparent cubes, suddenly illuminated with the visages of various stars who had appeared in the movie. Though not nearly as successful as its predecessor, That’s Entertainment Part 2 was nevertheless a money maker.
Time passed. MGM went through more corporate restructuring. In 1981, Ted Turner made a valiant attempt to strengthen the company’s assets and, in tandem, resuscitate the old MGM, by acquiring and amalgamating Metro with United Artists. Regrettably, the new company proved more a liability for Turner than an asset. In a little less than a month of his acquisition, Turner was forced to sell off the studio to Lorimar Telepictures: the MGM name and rights reverting back to Kerkorian. Turner was left with Metro’s classic film library, arguably, the only asset he was ever truly interested in acquiring anyway. During this turbulent period, Kerkorian offered to purchase the remaining shares and take the company private. His proposal was met with open hostility from the stockholders and never came to fruition. For a brief period in the early 1980’s, MGM tried to return to form, its output of largely forgettable movies, every so often, yielding a winner like Octopussy or Poltergeist. But in 1982, the studio officially ceased operations as a ‘film-making entity’, choosing instead to rely solely on independently produced pick-ups for its bread and butter. Even so, there were hints the old MGM might come back yet again. In 1985, Jack Haley Jr. pitched That’s Dancing! to the executive brain trust. Unlike the That’s Entertainment! franchise, That’s Dancing! would exclusively feature the very best dance numbers without interpolated songs. The new film would stick to the format that had made the first That’s Entertainment! a winner; hiring a host of old-time and contemporary dancers to narrate its segments. Unlike That’s Entertainment!, this time Haley drew inspiration not only from the MGM library, but also gave nods to Warner Bros., 2oth Century-Fox and even the Archers.  Despite the presence of such luminaries as Gene Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Ray Bolger and Sammy Davis Jr., That’s Dancing! was not nearly as successful as That’s Entertainment!, its $4,210,938 gross, a disappointment, given Haley had had to license various clips outside of MGM/UA’s custodianship and thus, pay for the privilege. The new movie was also fairly uneven; ballet intermingling with Broadway show stoppers and even Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ music video. Once again, time passed.
Kirk Kerkorian reclaimed MGM in 1986, the name of the company changed to MGM/UA Communications Co. – the two corporate entities separated from each other. There were MGM pictures (or rather, those which used the lion to precede their acquisition from outside producers) and those outsourced under the United Artists’ banner. By the end of the decade, MGM had endured several more failed corporate restructurings; Kerkorian refusing to relinquish his rights, but seemingly doing next to nothing to resuscitate the studio’s prestige. Perhaps the bloom for Kerkorian had worn off after the disastrous MGM Grand fire of 1980 that claimed 85 lives and injured another 650. Either via manifest irresponsibility during its construction phase or simple unbridled greed thereafter to capitalize on the MGM brand at the expense of cutting corners and deliberately sacrificing safety standards, the hotel tragedy was investigated, yet curiously without any charges ever leveled at Kerkorian’s feet.  In Hollywood, another name change and MGM-Pathé Communications was born in 1990. Four years later, Bud Friedgen, Michael Sheridan and Peter Fitzgerald would pitch That’s Entertainment III to studio executive, George Feltenstein.
Regarded for his enduring passion for Hollywood’s history and MGM’s in particular, Feltenstein green-lit Part III almost without reservation; returning to the original movie’s format, padding out the new segments with an enviable roster of surviving alumni, including Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly, June Allyson, Ann Miller, Howard Keel, Cyd Charisse, Esther Williams and Lena Horne. Signing Williams and Horne proved something of a minor coup; the first, because of her rather tempestuous lawsuit filed after the first That’s Entertainment! proved a smash hit; the latter, as her career had largely been relegated by the studio to appearing in cameos; easily excised to appease the Southern censors. This time, Feltenstein stuck very close to home, producing yet another cornucopia of classic moments. That’s Entertainment Part III would also diverge from its predecessors by offering something no previous anthology had even dared; outtakes or deleted songs and dances left on the cutting room floor decades earlier, yet miraculously, having survived Metro’s turbulent demise and, in the interim, lovingly archived for posterity. Thus, alongside vintage kitsch and coo, Judy Garland radiantly burst forth in two deleted gems; the first, the sly and jazzy ‘Mr. Monotony’, from Easter Parade (Garland wearing the top half of a tuxedo later reused for her iconic ‘Get Happy’ finale from Summer Stock in 1950) the other, ‘The March of the Doagies’, from The Harvey Girls; an extravagant dance number shot at night. Cyd Charisse, lip-synced to contract dub artist, India Adams, performed ‘Two-faced Woman’, originally planned for The Band Wagon, but later winding up as a garish bit of camp in blackface, mouthed by Joan Crawford. Lena Horne seductively cooed ‘The Gospel Truth’ – another outtake from Cabin in the Sky.  For all its gloss, the remembrances in That’s Entertainment III now seemed more tinny and artificially self-congratulatory than ever; the assembled clips, serving only as a somewhat painful reminder that the MGM most people recalled was indeed a thing of the past. As though to relive 1974, That’s Entertainment III was given a lavish premiere. But it failed to generate the sort of giddy excitement known to pack theaters and garner ebullient reviews, Variety labeling it ‘Briga-swoon’ – a glib nod to a clip from 1954’s Brigadoon prominently featured in Part III. Arguably, the nostalgia craze had cooled.
To date, Warner Home Video has made only the three That’s Entertainment! compendiums available in hi-def; That’s Dancing! the red-headed stepchild of this franchise (included in the TCM collector’s series DVD set) still awaiting such treatment. It is really too bad what’s here is rather disappointing too. When Warner Home Video elected to transfer all three movies to ‘flipper’ DVD discs back in 2002, they gave the public the option to view them in two separate ways; either, as originally seen in theaters, with optical zooms built in to re-frame clips originally shot in 1.33:1 to fit the 1.75:1 modern movie frame, or, lovingly reassembled, with the 1.33:1 clips properly formatted and the widescreen segments left intact. Inexplicably, this same option has not been afforded these Blu-ray releases. We get only the original theatrical cuts. Personally, as a purist, I wouldn’t mind this so much. Although the 1.33:1 clips are cropped, occasionally cutting off pertinent information at the top or bottom of the frame, and do appear slightly cramped in the recomposed 1.75:1, this is, in fact, the way Jack Haley Jr. intended these movies to look. No, the chief problem herein lies in a lack of overall clean-up and image stabilization. First, clean-up: it has been minimally applied. While certain vintage clips appear fairly pristine, far too many suffer from advanced grain, likely due to the printing techniques of the day, but with an unsettling amount of chroma bleeding during the B&W segments and occasionally muddier than expected colors in place of the radiant hues of vintage Technicolor. It would have been prudent of Warner Home Video to reassemble at least some of these vintage clips from their more recently restored Blu-rays of Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Easter Parade and Meet Me In St. Louis
Worse, the ‘new’ star segments, shot in 1974, ’76 and 94 respectively, look twice as old as any of the vintage clips featured elsewhere. The best looking transfer in this 3-pack is the original That’s Entertainment! but even it falls short of expectations. Obviously, WHV has paid some attention to it – or rather, marginally more than its two sequels. That’s Entertainment! Part 2’s color palette is sorely lacking and age-related artifacts are everywhere. But the real oddity here is That’s Entertainment III; as colors are bizarrely anemic, the entire image slightly soft and/or out of focus. Given the recent age of this latter installment in the series, and, also the fact the now defunct MGM/UA Home Video’s CAV format LaserDisc transfer from 1995 positively blows this new hi-def incarnation out of the water; it is a real mystery why this penultimate movie looks so awful in 1080p. In all three cases, WHV has improved upon the audio, remixed to 5.1 DTS.
Equally admirable is Warner’s commitment to stacking each of the 3 discs in this set with a host of intriguing extras; vintage trailers and featurettes discussing the movies, giving us a behind-the-scenes look at their Hollywood premieres, specially produced junkets originally aired on TV to help promote each movie and finally, a host of unedited outtakes and musical sequences featured in Part III. Idiotically, this latter compendium of clips, labeled as jukebox outtakes, is not nearly as comprehensive as what was available on that now defunct and aforementioned LaserDisc offering. While the LD contains literally hours and hours of songs and dances to sift through, many featured as ‘audio-only’ supplements, the Blu-ray merely gathers together a handful of selections, presented in 720i not 1080p for consideration.  It should be pointed out, none of these extras are in hi-def and nothing has been done to stabilize their image quality. It ranges from fair to abysmal, depending on the source material.
Bottom line: I would have liked to champion the That’s Entertainment!: The Complete Collection gift set as a must-have purchase.  Indeed, I credit the original That’s Entertainment! as the life-altering experience that made me a starry-eyed movie buff. I saw it when I was nine and, then, knowing absolutely nothing about Hollywood or its stars, fell completely under its spell, barely able to wait for the time when I could go to Hollywood to dance in the rain with Gene Kelly or belt out a few tunes with Jane Powell. Over the next 5 years, I systematically hunted down each and every movie featured in That’s Entertainment!, determined to soak up all I could at my local VHS retailer and discovering, to my then naïve amazement, there were a lot more goodies out there to be had for the price of a cheap rental…this, in the days before the studios made ‘collecting’ our memories on home video possible. Now, in reviewing these Blu-rays, I have to say this is merely a passable effort with a few sincere disappointments along the way. As Frank Sinatra suggested in the original film, “You can wait around and hope…but I’ll tell you, you’ll never see the likes of this again!” Regrettable indeed, and pity that.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
That's Entertainment! – 5+
That's Entertainment Part II - 3.5
That's Entertainment Part III – 3

3.5 (overall)


Sunday, July 17, 2016

THE OX-BOW INCIDENT: Blu-ray (2oth-Century-Fox 1943) Kino Lorber

Darryl F. Zanuck never shied away from a challenge. A writer at heart, who had tired of working for somebody else, and with a spark of defiance soon to ignite a four alarm blaze of creativity under his own auspices, Zanuck would become an ‘untouchable’ in Hollywood, the master of all he surveyed over at the newly amalgamated 2oth Century-Fox Studios. Within a year of its incubation, both in terms of quality and output, 2oth Century-Fox would rival the big three (Warner, MGM, Paramount); Zanuck, living, eating and breathing the picture business until it was his all-consuming passion - or of them. Hollywood had seen nothing like it; the first studio to be managed by someone who instinctively understood that good scripts make better movies. While other studios focused on style over substance, or the talents of a tyrannical director, or even the strength of ‘star power’ to buoy less than admirably concocted scenarios, Zanuck’s success squarely rested on solid story-telling and his uncanny ability for picking stories with a social conscience. Fox films dealt with issues seemingly taboo and un-filmable according to the laws of self-governing censorship; bigotry, rape, suicide, illegitimacy, drug addiction, the murder of a clergyman, and, in the case of William A. Wellman’s The Ox-bow Incident (1943), senseless and un-pitying mob rule that causes a motley entourage of otherwise forthright citizens to exact their brand of frontier justice by lynching a trio of men suspected of the crime of murdering one of their own.
Praised for its maturity, Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s literary masterpiece of the same name presented several problems for Zanuck, not the least, its dark and uncompromising narrative. Like a good many of Zanuck’s more ambitious projects, intrinsically designed to push the boundaries of censorship while simultaneously elevating the art of motion pictures, the theatrical release of The Ox-bow Incident was met with indifference from a wartime public, more eagerly in search of frothy entertainments.  Lest we forget the aberrant act of lynching had become almost a complacent part of the American landscape. Despite an onslaught of legislation to abolish it, lynching was still readily practiced at the time Zanuck green lit The Ox-bow Incident. Before that, the property had languished in the hands of UA producer, Harold Hurley, who pitched the idea to William Wellman as a titanic Technicolor epic starring Mae West as the proprietress of a gambling saloon. Although Wellman loved the book, he was immediately put off by Hurley’s idiotic approach to the material. Time passed. Hurley was fired from UA, taking Clark’s novel with him. In the interim, Wellman offered to buy the rights for $500 more than Hurley had paid. Desperate for money, Hurley sold out, leaving Wellman to shop The Ox-bow Incident on his own. Still, no takers.
Now Wellman hit upon an inspired notion. He and Zanuck had not spoken since an impromptu fist fight in 1933 severed their lucrative alliance at Warner Bros. Now, Wellman relied on his reputation prior to this incident, including thirty of the most profitable movies he had directed for Zanuck, to reestablish ties with the newly elected mogul at Fox. Reminding Wellman of their altercation, Zanuck nevertheless let bygones be bygones, reading the book and agreeing it would make a good movie. However, unwilling to gamble too much on either Wellman or any novel that ostensibly tore into the western milieu with a dark and harrowing detour, Zanuck imposed several restrictions to get the job done. With the exception of a day’s shoot on the open plains in and around Victorville, and a few choice shots lensed at the studio’s already existing outdoor western set, the remainder of the picture would be entirely photographed inside a sound stage. This decision might have crushed any chances for The Ox-bow Incident to visually succeed, except that Zanuck had assigned cinematographer, Arthur C. Miller to ply his craft on a very limited budget of $565,000. Staging a good deal of the action under low lighting conditions to mimic night, Miller achieved a miraculous verisimilitude from this ersatz sagebrush and tumbleweed.   
One aspect both Zanuck and Wellman agreed upon immediately: Clark’s novel had to be brought to the screen with all the intensity and frankness they, and screenwriter/producer, Lamar Trotti, could muster. Exactly how to achieve this miracle, keep the novel’s incendiary tone intact, but, without ruffling the censors, remained to be seen. To counterbalance the controversy, Zanuck threw everything he could into this production; its cast, a stellar who's who of home-groomed stars including Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan, Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Jane Darwell.  Herein, we should pause to recall Fox’s roster of talent as unique in the annals of the then reigning ‘star system’. While most every studio went for the glycerin appeal of stunningly handsome and beautiful men and women, a sort of faux waxworks owing more to pseudo-European sophistication, each member cherry-picked from the anatomically gifted, Zanuck’s players were earthy, sultry, seedy and careworn.  Even Fox musicals from this vintage favored the rawer humanities; Bette Grable and June Haver; shoot from the hip gals, sporting million dollar gams, yet lacking the bloom of fresh-faced wholesomeness that was MGM’s stock in trade.
The Ox-bow Incident is a very bleak movie told with unvarnished poise. Zanuck’s decisions during pre-production undoubtedly favor Clark’s original unsettling stoicism, the perfect visual complement for this angry mob. From this unlikeliest of melodramas there emerges a startling indictment of America’s fallow sense of community; justice for some – not all, a trampling under hoof and boot of the oft’ mythologized era of the noble pioneer. Assembling his executive brain trust for a private screening, Zanuck was to face rank opposition as the houselights came up. Not even his wife, Virginia understood his motivations, reportedly inquiring with bewilderment, “How could you allow your studio to make this picture?!?”  Mercifully, suggestions to shelve The Oxbow Incident were quashed by Zanuck who rushed it into theaters instead, only to be bitterly disappointed by the public’s response. While the critics lauded praise upon the picture (it received nominations from both the National Film Board and the Academy) box office failed to rival its critical coup; Orson Welles offering Zanuck these comforting words, “They don’t know what they’ve just seen.”  In retrospect, it is amazing how many movies long since regarded as bona fide classics for all time, were labeled as little more than ponderous trash in their own time: Fantasia (1940), Citizen Kane (1941), Vertigo (1958), etc.; all masterpieces/all condemned or virtually ignored by the public in their day. 
There are no clear-cut heroes in The Ox-bow Incident. Although Henry Fonda is its star, his rough-hewn roughneck, Gil Carter, is not above picking a fight or making veiled sexual innuendos about a portrait hung over the bar in Darby’s Saloon, depicting a middle-age lech leering at a half clad young woman splayed on a divan in a state of ‘come hither’ repose. Indeed, the most chivalrous act in the picture is the repeatedly emasculated attempt by shopkeeper, Arthur Davies’ (Harry Davenport); the gentle voice of reason, to implore these men to reconsider their actions. Davies refuses to partake of their blood thirst and draws his own line in the dirt; a vantage from which only a handful of his contemporaries, including Gil and sidekick, Art Croft (Harry Morgan) will follow. Yet, Davies remains powerless to stop the posse. In the novel, Davies later confides he feels a moral responsibility for failing to dissuade the mob. The movie supplants this confession with the reading of a letter, written by the most repentant of the accused, Donald Martin (Dana Andrews) and meant only for his wife's ears. 
Everything except this moment in The Ox-Bow Incident seems to ring with truth and the spirit of a genuine happening; the cruel finale, expertly photographed by Wellman to conceal Fonda’s wounded eyes as he affectingly recites the letter (never meant to be publicized, yet somehow far more relevant to these men now listening to its posthumous indictment of them; actually, Zanuck’s own heavily revised magna carta condemnation of capital punishment). The words are true enough yet tinged with insincerity for the purpose in which they were presumably inspired, even as they remain profound and aesthetically pleasing to the ear.
“My dear wife…Mr. Davies will tell you what’s happened here. He’s a good man and has done everything he can for me. There are some other good men here too only they don’t seem to realize what they are doing. They are the ones I feel sorry for, cuz it’ll be over for me in a little while but they’ll have to go on remembering for the rest of their lives. Man just can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin’ everybody in the world. Cuz then he’s just not breaking one law but all laws. Laws are not just words you put in a book or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people have found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity. There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience. Cuz if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience?  And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of conscience from all men that ever lived. I guess that’s all I’ve got to say except kiss the babies for me and God bless you.”  
Is this really the honest farewell of a devoted husband and father acknowledging his own mortality and giving thanks for and to the woman who has shared his life? Hardly. And Zanuck, chiefly responsible for this revision, must have known the loaded nature of the verbalized gun he had just shot off, prepared as a caprice to his own cause célèbre. In hindsight, The Ox-bow Incident’s box office failure is almost preordained by Zanuck’s myopic focus to will a morality play, telescopically focused on hand-crafting a work of ‘quality’ – née prestige – rather than making another ‘popular entertainment’. Zanuck might have had it both ways except his passion for clear-eyed storytelling works sincerely on only one level; as a mandate ironically meant to join ‘the fight’ against ‘brutality’ even as it contains certain ominous parallels between American lynch mobs and Hitler’s SS rounding up ‘undesirables’ for extermination.  Yet this does not absolve Zanuck of the fact he liked rocking the proverbial boat to the point of capsizing. Even at his most insular, one of Zanuck’s most admirable qualities, imbued in the best of his ‘personally supervised’ projects, was his capacity to make the rest of us meditate on man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. While lesser film-makers have atypically relied on plying the audience with sentimentality to elicit pathos, appealing to the cheapest of all emotional responses – crocodile tears – Zanuck’s yen for cutting into the heart of human tragedy leaves his audiences holding a very mixed bag of emotions in the end.
It is not being overly critical to suggest The Ox-bow Incident does not emotionally satisfy on this or any other level, nor arguably, was this ever Zanuck’s intent. Instead, the picture attempts to goad the average viewer into reconsidering the content of his/her character. Do we follow blindly as sheep in a flock, as too many of the townsfolk in the fictional town of Bridger’s Wells do to their detriment, or choose to remove ourselves from their mob mentality and thus exit the theater with a sad-eyed, but very sobering vindication of our ‘better’ angels left intact. Neither outcome proves satisfactory because the results remain the same. A group of seemingly God-fearing and forthright townsfolk have committed cold-blooded murder – some to satisfy a blood lust; others swayed by bigotry; still others, influenced in their mass of contradictions kept hidden from public view; as retired Major Tetley’s (Frank Conroy) deep-seeded anxiety - that his own son, Gerald (William Eythe) may somehow not be a ‘real’ man because he initially refuses to partake of the exercise. Determined to break Gerald of his sensitive nature – always code for homosexuality in classic Hollywood films - Tetley orders Gerald to directly participate in the execution; thereby severing all paternal bonds with the young man and, in abject humiliation, forcing Tetley in retreat to his colonial-styled manor house where he commits suicide; the gentleman’s out of a very sticky situation. 
Miraculously, The Ox-bow Incident casts no aspersions and/or moral judgment on any of these characters it introduces at a glance with spellbinding efficiency and without cliché.   Certainly, there are archetypes. At a scant 75 minutes, there is not enough time to unearth the particulars beyond such incidental traits; characters like Rose Mapen (Mary Beth Hughes); reportedly a ‘good time had by all’ cum respectable newlywed to a San Franciscan businessman; or Judge Daniel Tyler (Matt Briggs), a foppish and ineffectual ‘authority’ figure; or Deputy Butch Mapes (Dick Rich), the boorish and all too eager ‘lawman’ who, in absence of real authority - his boss, Sheriff Risley (Willard Robertson) - transgresses against the law by allowing others to take it into their own hands.  Yet, not once do any of these ‘bit players’ seem to be going through the motions of their thumbnail-sketched character studies. In fact, one senses a great level of investment and distinction between them perhaps collectively owed Zanuck his expert casting choices, drawing on a wellspring of repetitively featured character players; fondly cherished and instantly recognizable to audiences of their day. That cleverness is somewhat diminished today due to our current lack of familiarity with these indelible faces. And yet, Zanuck’s handpicked thespians hold up – in fact, spectacularly well; as example - Marc Lawrence’s beady-eyed instigator, Jeff Farnley, equally as menacing even if one knows absolutely nothing about Lawrence’s illustrious career, perpetually typecast as baddies of one sort or another.
The impetus for The Ox-bow Incident begins in the tiny hamlet of Bridger's Wells, Nevada - circa 1885. Two drifters, well known to the town, Art Croft and Gil Carter have only just come back from their latest wandering; making a much-needed pit stop at Darby’s Saloon. Gil, who is equally of a hothead and a loner, inadvertently discovers from the saloon’s proprietor (Victor Killian) that his paramour, Rose Mapen has since left town for parts unknown; tired of waiting for Gil to come back to her. Overhearing this news, Jeff Farnley goads Gil into a confrontation he narrowly loses; Darby temporarily knocking Gil unconscious with a bottle to break up their fight. A distinct pall hangs over the town; Farnley’s allegation, that no one except a drifter could likely be responsible for the recent spate of cattle-rustling.  One of the locals, Greene (Billy Benedict), bursts into the saloon, informing the men one of the town’s most respected, Larry Kinkaid, has been murdered; Sheriff Risley already gone out to the Kinkaid homestead to examine the crime scene. Without further proof to support the claim, Farnley elects to gather a posse to pursue the murderers.  Imploring the menfolk to reconsider, local merchant, Arthur Davies is chastised by Farnley for his weak-kneed reluctance; Davies now appealing for Gil to fetch Judge Tyler for their counsel, but imploring him to avoid divulging the particulars to Deputy Butch Mapes who will surely side with the mob.
Alas, Mapes is keeping company with the Judge. The pair arrives at Darby’s with Tyler suggesting the culprits, whoever they may be, must be brought back to Bridger’s Wells alive to stand trial. Farnley fluffs off this suggestion; buoyed in his stubborn resolve when another local, Poncho (Chris-Pin Martin) tells of a trio of men on the outskirts of town escorting cattle bearing Kinkaid’s brand. Although not entirely convinced, Art and Gil join the posse to avoid suspicion, as does Davies, still hoping to dissuade the men from acting on their rage. The posse is led by Major Tetley who has ordered his son, Gerald to join them. Interestingly, while Tetley appears in full Confederate regalia, no mention of his loyalties is made in the movie, Zanuck likely eager to have the picture appeal to audiences in the Deep South who were unlikely to find Tetley a forgiving representation of the ole southern aristocrat.  En route through a narrow pass, the posse encounters a stagecoach. Under the cover of night the driver, assuming an ambush, wounds Art in the shoulder before being subdued by Tetley and Farnley, who clarify the situation. Emerging from the coach is none other than Rose Mapen with her new husband, Swanson (George Meeker). Gil and Swanson regard one another as adversaries for Rose’s affections. It is rather clear Rose still harbors some feelings for Gil and vice versa.
Unable to quantify these in the moment, Gil proceeds with the posse. They come across three sleeping men in a nearby clearing. Stirring them to wake at the point of a gun, the youngest of the accused, Donald Martin makes repeated attempts to explain their situation as his compatriots, a rather fiery gaucho, Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn), who pretends not to know any English, and a doddering old codger, Alva Hardwicke (Francis Ford), whose loyalties blow as the wind, look on with grave curiosity. Yes, they were at Kinkaid’s ranch earlier in the day and yes, they are in possession of heads of cattle and a pearl-handled revolver belonging to Kinkaid. But Donald insists everything is above board. He purchased the cattle and the gun, but was not given a bill of sale for either by Kinkaid. Informed by Farnley that Kinkaid is dead, the news is just as devastating to Donald who now realizes why these men have come for them. Donald insists they are innocent. They are neither rustlers nor murderers. Davies believes Donald’s story. But the others are not nearly as sure justice will be best served by handing everyone over for trial, and some, like Tetley and Farnley are wholly unwilling to concede they might be wrong. No – Donald and his friends will hang at sunrise. Davies refuses to partake, and appeals to the others to reconsider what they are doing. Only six men eventually side with Davies, including Art and Gil.  Juan stages a daring – if misguided - escape. He is quickly recaptured by Farnley. Realizing their fates have already been decided, Donald writes a letter to his wife back home, entrusting Davies to deliver it.
Instead, Davies reads the letter; then, attempts to share it with Tetley and Farnley as proof to dissuade them from continuing with their revenge. Donald demands the letter be returned to him to destroy it rather than having his personal thoughts revealed to the posse. Davies apologizes and promises the letter will reach its rightful owner. At dawn, Tetley pistol whips and orders his son, George to partake of the hangings. Reluctantly, George complies. At the last possible moment, Gil tries to intervene. He is knocked unconscious. Donald, Juan and Alva are ruthlessly hanged from a nearby tree with an almost ebullient satisfaction expressed by the rest of the posse. Alas, their smug self-righteous vindication turns rancid when, upon encountering Sheriff Risley at the pass, they are informed by Risley not only is Larry Kinkaid still very much alive, but the rustlers who shot at him have already been apprehended and confessed to the crime. Learning of his deputy’s complicity in this miscarriage of justice, Risley orders Mape to turn in his badge. Tetley stoically rides with George back to his manor house, barricading himself in his study alone and taking his own life. Back at Darby’s Saloon, Gil, now in possession of Donald’s letter, elects to read it aloud to every man in the room; a reminder of their ill-advised hastiness, not to see justice served, but rather blindly driven to commit the very act they accused Donald and his friends of without any proof. Disgusted by what he has witnessed, Gil leaves Bridger Wells, presumably forever, to seek out Donald’s widow with Art at his side.
The Ox-bow Incident is an extraordinarily achievement, particularly in an era of despotic screen censorship. Like all of Wellman’s pictures, this one is imbued with his uncompromising sense of moral clarity; a gruffness and contempt for humanity’s absurdities that could allow such a travesty to blindly occur. Wellman’s recompense for convincing Zanuck to produce The Ox-bow Incident was a two picture commitment, resulting in a pair of unremarkable follow-ups; Thunder Birds and Buffalo Bill (both released in 1944). While the box office tallies would not reflect it for generations yet to follow, Zanuck could take much pride in having done right by Clark’s extraordinary novel; Lamar Trotti’s screenplay ingeniously avoided the pitfalls of censorship while retaining a good deal of the novel’s unadorned eloquence and clarity. Zanuck had originally offered the part of Gil Carter to Gary Cooper who turned it down. And Henry Fonda, although slight in physical stature when compared to ‘Coop’, nevertheless manages to embody all the conflicted valor and unpretentiousness required of the character. Indeed, Fonda did not think much of his tenure at Fox – considering it more servitude than an expression of his artistic strengths. In later years, only The Ox-bow Incident and The Grapes of Wrath (made three years before it) impressed him as parts in which he had managed with humility to live up to the source material.  Viewed today, The Ox-bow Incident remains a one of a kind in the western genre; a movie that, in hindsight, ushered in the anti-heroic western exploits later to achieve legendary status in pictures like The Wild Bunch (1969) and Unforgiven (1992); irrefutably, a trail-blazer.    
Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray release is advertised as a 4K restoration. Alas, owing to less than perfect source materials, what’s here is not nearly as impressive as one might expect. The 1.33:1 image is free of age-related artifacts. But overall image crispness is sincerely wanting with the additional hint possible DNR compression has been applied to smooth some of the more obvious film grain. Shadow delineation is generally strong, but there is some edge enhancement peppered throughout this presentation and also, occasional haloing effects. While close-ups look generally solid, even they do not reveal the sort of finite detail in skin, fabrics and hair we have come to expect from ultra-hi-rez remastering. No, this is a generally soft focused presentation. I am entirely uncertain whether the blame herein lies with the source materials used in the clean-up; perhaps second or third generation removed from the original camera negative, or has the softness come from a blatant application to digital manipulate the image too liberally applied with tinkering to ‘improve’ the overall quality; inadvertently homogenizing and slightly blurring the image instead. At this point, your guess is as good as mine. The 2.0 mono DTS fairs considerably better; void of any hiss or pop, and delivering clear dialogue with unanticipated bursts of sonic intensity in effects and score.  We get the Biography Special on Henry Fonda, plus an audio commentary by western scholar, Dick Eulain and William Wellman Jr. and three trailers for other Kino Lorber Fox westerns coming soon. Bottom line: this ‘restoration’ of The Ox-bow Incident is underwhelming. Better than the DVD but not nearly as good as a Blu-ray can get. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)