Thursday, October 27, 2016

THE MARX BROTHERS COLLECTION: Blu-ray (Paramount 1929-1933) Universal Home Video

We have to give it to the four Marx Brothers; a finer group of madcaps yet to be defined on the movie screen. All of the truly great comedy ‘teams’ from Hollywood’s golden age are unique; Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Gallagher and Shean, Wheeler and Woolsey, Abbott & Costello, etc. et al. Unlike their brethren however, The Marx Brothers are unhinged intellectuals, railing against authority – or at least, the appearance of it, repeatedly embodied by the long-suffering society matron, invariably played with irrepressible charm by Margaret Dumont (who never understood their humor and is, in fact, playing every last scene legit and for keeps). While some of their later features made away from Paramount Pictures included more elaborate production numbers and romantic scenarios designed to delay, compartmentalize and augment their insanity run amok, allowing audiences infrequent respites between their screwy repartee, the first five films the brothers Marx committed to make between 1929 and 1933 remain one of the few surviving links we have to Vaudeville: the premiere form of popular entertainment in America prior to the advent of motion pictures.  One should never confuse Vaudeville with quote ‘the legitimate theater’; the latter, considered ‘highbrow’ and generally frowning on the former as cheap thrills and skits suitable for the masses.  Yet, it is the combination of verbal and visual slapstick that has kept the Marx Brothers’ legacy fresh and alive for decades since; the audience treated with respect by these looney-tune incorrigibles.
Groucho (arguably, the most enduring and iconic of the brood) would have been thoroughly flummoxed to be referred to as anything less than antiestablishment. Indeed, in the late 1960s, he was to discover, much to his great surprise, an entirely new generation grown up to embrace the counterculture of controlled chaos inherent in all their classic films. Interestingly, the act itself seemed a long shot at best; the brothers’ matriarch Minnie, herself a Vaudevillian, basically foisting fame upon her sons by instilling in each of them the virtues of a life upon the stage. While Groucho arguably embraced his mother’s wishes from the outset, Harpo would later write at length how he felt shanghaied into the profession, and Zeppo – arguably, the slightest of the brood – barely waiting until his parents’ deaths before officially bowing out of the act altogether. The Marx Brothers gimmick – if one can call it that – lay in the curious assortment of caricatures assembled; Groucho, the self-appointed sourpuss authoritarian, sporting grease-painted brows and mustache, chomping on an ever-present, though usually unlit cigar as he ran through an ego-crushing barrage of nonsensical double entendre, puns and no sequiturs; mindboggling for their rapid fire delivery and scathing social commentary.
Running counterpoint to Groucho’s equivocation and one-line zingers and stingers was Harpo’s deafening silence, using only his horn, those hardboiled and expressive eyes and a Cheshire grin to portend of menace, elation, and a sort of impish deviance with a predilection for very young girls. Harpo’s pantomime has yet to be surpassed; a sublime visualist, who could conjure as easily to mind a sort of universal madness as innocence; the oversized, all-purpose Puck of each piece. Between these polar opposites came Chico; ever-present as a sort of slyly likable con, perhaps even affecting his accent along with his ignorance as camouflage, frequently to gain the upper hand in any situation and manipulate the variables on his own behalf. In the presence of such extroverts, Zeppo could never hope to compete. His response was first to assume the thankless parts of the ‘straight man’ (every comedy needs one); later, to adopt the least obscure or rather most mainstream character traits of any of his siblings. Running through a back catalog of family portraits, Zeppo is the least altered by make-up applications. Nevertheless, the role he frequently played on camera was that of the winsome male ingénue. It served its purpose.     
Employing a technique of mockery ascribed to the upper classes, one equally recalls, as example, the now famous incident from life where Groucho (born, Julius Henry Marx) deigned to get through to producer and MGM VP in Charge of Production, Irving Thalberg after their Paramount contract had lapsed; Thalberg, repeatedly stalled in discussing their contracts, distracted by more pressing matters in his daily management. Leaving the room for the umpteenth time, Thalberg was to return nearly an hour later to discover Groucho, Chico and Harpo seated in a semicircle before his roaring fireplace, completely naked and roasting baked potatoes from the commissary. It seems only the Marx Brothers would dare crack such a joke in front of Thalberg; the head of the whole menagerie and rather unaccustomed to being amused by the talent, most of who feared him without provocation. In retrospect, two aspects of the Marx Brothers legacy become immediately apparent: first, that their tenure in Hollywood was relatively brief (five trail-blazing movies at Paramount between 1929 and 1933) followed by two of considerable merit at MGM (in 1934 and 1935), before a speedy decline into B-grade fodder that, also in hindsight, bear no earthly resemblance to these stellar previous efforts. We must also consider that by the time The Marx Brothers made their movie debut in 1929, Groucho was already forty-one years old; seasoned in the art of subterfuge by the school of hard knocks; the urbanity of his loaded gibes boasting no formal education, though frequently sought after by the intellectual left for their cleverness and purity of wit.
Deliberately poised for success by an overbearing stage mother, The Marx Brothers went through various permutations during their Vaudeville and Burlesque infancy; 1904 marking Groucho’s stage debut with Gummo (a.k.a Milton), Harpo (Adolph ‘Arthur’) and Chico (Leonard) eventually following suit. As a team, The Marx Brothers specialized in a sort of frenetic energy and chaotic humor bordering on the ribald; naughty ripostes peppered in a sort of pseudo- academic trust, meant to deliberately insult and slap down the hoi poloi and give their supposedly more cerebral counterpoints a real run for their money. In 1924, The Marx Brothers had their first Broadway success with I’ll Say She Is; Zeppo Marx (a.k.a. Herbert) replacing Gummo, who had enlisted to fight in WWI. Garnering praise from noted theater critic, Alexander Woollcott, the brothers continued to hone their craft, along the way substituting the ridiculous for the sublime and vice versa as their anarchical style steadily gained in reputation within the cultural elite. The first two pictures made at Paramount, The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) are, in fact, almost literal translations of their Vaudeville smash hits (Animal Crackers consolidating the acidity of their comedic genius by jettisoning all but two numbers from the stage show – both showpieces for Groucho). The Marx Brothers debut could not have been more perfectly timed, set at a juncture in American entertainment when the silent cinema had suddenly become a thing of the past; thanks to Warner Brothers debut of The Jazz Singer (1929); the first, partial sound movie. As so much of The Marx Brothers success lay in their verbalized screwball, in hindsight it seems as though ‘the talkies’ were invented expressly to capitalize on their legendary status as masters of the byplay and wisecracks.
In the days before formality and red tape crept into the business of Hollywood, the details of the brothers’ deal with Paramount would remain a little sketchy at best. Adolph Zukor initially approached the brothers with an offer of $50,000 to reprise their roles in his big screen recreation of The Cocoanuts; Zukor reportedly scoffing when word trickled back via producer Sam Harris, Groucho was thinking of asking for a cool $75,000; a figure causing Zukor to suggest he would spit in Groucho’s eye if ever the price was mentioned again. At this juncture, Paramount owned the rights to the play but not the performers; producer, Harris selling off his claims without giving away the whole store. However, Zukor – and perhaps even Groucho – had underestimated Zeppo’s friendship; plying the old mogul with a litany of plaudits and kudos, even going so far as to suggest it would be the act’s finest hour to bring their vast wealth of stage experience to the movie screen for a mere $100,000.00! Reportedly, Zukor turned to Harris after the fleecing had ended, adding, “So what’s the problem? Let’s do this.”  If indeed this story is less than apocryphal, Zukor was to win the final hand in its high stakes game of bait and switch; offering the brothers fifty percent of all profits derived with the subtle ‘hidden’ clause - if any accrued beyond the expenses incurred by the studio to bring these movies to the screen. As Paramount was actually teetering on the brink of bankruptcy in 1928, Zukor saw to it the profits from the first two films were funneled elsewhere to shore up his company’s ailing bottom line. Hence, the brothers collected very few royalties; Zukor compounding the insult by casually creating a shell corporation to preclude any further payouts in the future. This shortsightedness would backfire when the Marx brothers made the decision to bow out of Paramount altogether; effectively becoming free agents and returning to the studio on a picture by picture basis from this point onward.
Working on a Marx Brothers movie proved trying for both sides. Used to spontaneity, only possible by performing their routines uninterrupted in front of a live audience, the brothers felt constrained by being forced to hit their marks; camera operators struggling to keep the boys in focus as they leapt about the proscenium. Shooting The Cocoanuts was further hampered by the fact the brothers had not yet finished their live stage run in Animal Crackers; making their first movie by dawn’s early light and well into the afternoon, only to leave the sound stages to give a full performance of their subsequent show each night. This strain was compounded when, in Sept. 1929, Minnie died; the emotional wreckage left behind from her sudden absence, enough to give Groucho pause to continue working without her. Almost simultaneously, the American stock market suffered its most devastating crash; Black Tuesday virtually wiping out Groucho and Harpo’s frugally amassed and individual net worth of $250,000 in savings.  Bloodied, but unbowed, Groucho pursued Paramount’s attractive offer to trade the east coast for the west; though he would never purchase a house in Hollywood, believing their popularity in the movies a mere fad. Christmas Eve marked a truce with Paramount. Although Groucho was reportedly mortified after seeing an advanced screening of The Cocoanuts, his chagrin was abated when the movie proved an unqualified smash hit with audiences, ringing cash registers around the world. Hence, a new 3 picture deal was outlined. After Animal Crackers the brothers agreed to star in three original properties; Monkey Business (1931), followed almost immediately by Horse Feathers (1932) and finally, Duck Soup (1933).
Like virtually all of their work at Paramount, the strength of these movies is not plot-based. Rather, it is the skits audiences have come to see, teeming with naughty pre-Code sexual innuendo alluding to sex without actually swatting at it heavy-handedly. The stories are slight to say the least and, essentially, can be summed up in single sentence synopses with a few minor embellishments. The Cocoanuts revolves around the slick and tart-mouthed Mr. Hammer (Groucho), owner of a posh but foundering Floridian resort, desperate to woo a wealthy dowager, Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont) into hosting her daughter, Polly’s (Mary Eaton) engagement party there. Jamieson (Zeppo) is Hammer’s right-hand man, overseeing the hotel’s daily operations in his absence. But Polly is in love with hopeful, yet penniless, if aspiring architect, Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw) who has great plans to expand the hotel’s prospects as Cocoanut Manor. Mrs. Potter doesn’t think much of Bob and plots instead to inveigle her daughter into a grand amour with the seemingly more socially acceptable and affluent, Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring). Unfortunately, Yates is a con artist, conspiring with an accomplice, Penelope (Kay Francis) to lighten Mrs. Potter of her $100,000 diamond necklace. When the scheme falls apart, Penelope plants evidence to suggest the foiled robbery was all Bob’s doing and Polly is forced to accept a proposal of marriage from Yates. Meanwhile, in the backdrop are Chico and Harpo – basically playing themselves - exploiting Hammer’s absent-mindedness and reoccurring distractions to stir the early rumblings of the hotel’s foreclosure into some truly hilarious and unbridled mayhem. 
The Cocoanuts is, of course, based on the Broadway smash hit by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, with an unusually forgettable score by Irving Berlin. To accommodate the Marx Brothers Broadway commitments on Animal Crackers, the picture was made entirely on sound stages at Paramount’s Astoria production facilities, with studio-bound painted backdrops subbing in the  for the sunny shores of Florida. Personally, I don’t mind the staginess of the piece. It adds a quaint verisimilitude without actually doing a literal ape of the Broadway original. As in the Broadway incarnation, the movie heavily relies on the Marx Brothers rare and distinct gifts to carry to load: Groucho’s caustic and insulting byplay, Chico’s fractured English and misunderstandings, complete with an electric piano solo interlude and Harpo’s impulsive and oversexed antics that, when viewed today, border on aggressive and predatory obsession. Recalling that The Cocoanuts was made during the absolute start of Hollywood’s infancy with sound recording, all of the numbers performed live with an orchestra just out of camera view (no post syncing to pre-recordings then), co-directors Robert Florey and Joseph Santley achieve a remarkable fluidity in camera movement quite uncharacteristic of the period. Just look at 1929’s Oscar-winning Best Picture, The Broadway Melody for comparison. Fair enough, there remains a distinct ‘theatricality’ to the exercise as a whole; but the musical numbers in particular are given ambitious scope and attention to detail, some nice overhead shots for which choreographer, Busby Berkeley would later spark a tradition over at Warner Bros. Berlin’s score never goes beyond the pedestrian; a shame and, frankly, a shock for the composer who gave us so many memorable songs during his lengthy career.
Regardless, all the necessary trademarks one expects from a Marx Brothers show are here in spades: The Cocoanuts greatly benefiting from its well-seasoned pros: Groucho’s flagrant flippancy, Chico’s eloquent befuddlement, leading to more frustration for Groucho during the now infamous ‘viaduct’ (a.k.a. ‘why a duck?’) skit; Margaret Dumont’s starchy dowager, unapologetically unknowing of Groucho’s doubletalk, and Harpo, either chasing skirts, devouring virtually everything in sight or pickpocketing the silverware. The production is only slightly hampered by the virtually nondescript ‘young lovers’ of the piece: Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton about as memorable as undressed Melba toast. Kay Francis and Cyril Ring are an amiable pair of monsters conspiring against the house, but destined to get their just deserts in the end. We must also tip our hats to opera star, Basil Ruysdael as the dour house detective, Hennessey who nevertheless gets to warble ‘The Toreador Song’ from Bizet’s Carmen; also, the Berlin specialty, ‘I Want My Shirt.
The filmic adaptation of Animal Crackers jettisons all but two of the Broadway show’s songs, telescoping the tale of a weekend party given at the grand estate of Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) to show off a priceless work of art entitled ‘After the Hunt’. The painting’s society debut perfectly dovetails with the highly anticipated arrival of big game hunter, Capt. Jeffrey Spaulding (Groucho), newly returned from his African safari, and ushered into Rittenhouse’s manor by a flamboyant parade of native bearers.  However, a bit of petty larceny is afoot. Rival society matron, Mrs. Whitehead (Margaret Irving) conspires with her jealous daughter, Grace (Kathryn Reece) to switch the masterpiece with a cheap copy Grace did in art school. In tandem, Rittenhouse’s own daughter, Arrabella (Lillian Roth) has less circuitous plans to replace ‘After the Hunt’ with her boyfriend, John Parker’s (Hal Thompson) near perfect replica, thus proving his merits as an aspiring artiste. Once again, Chico and Harpo are the outsiders of the piece as party crashers, Emanuel Ravelli and ‘the professor’ respectively; accomplices in Arrabella’s bait and switch until all three paintings suddenly go missing, necessitating the involvement of Det. Hennessey (Edward Metcalfe).
Morrie Ryskind’s screenplay leaves room for only two of the Broadway shows songs; ‘Hurray for Captain Spaulding’ (later to become Groucho’s reoccurring anthem), and a new ballad, coauthored by the legendary Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar, ‘So Romantic’ – a duet for Arrabella and John, later reprised by Harpo in an eloquent harp solo. Minimizing these distractions helps to promote the picture’s undiluted Marxian mayhem. More than any other picture in this collection, Animal Crackers is devoted to more of what made the brothers Marx renowned; Groucho’s brittle exchanges with Chico, Zeppo and Dumont are the veritable highlight. But there is also room for Chico’s unique isometrics on the keyboard, often described as piano ‘gunfire’, and an insane game of poker brilliantly executed by Chico and Harpo against two thoroughly nonplussed society matrons destined to lose more than their good name and social standing by partaking. Many today will forget Groucho’s infrequent addresses to the audience throughout Animal Crackers, in effect pausing the onscreen action, is a droll burlesque of the motif used by playwright, Eugene O’Neill in Strange Interlude; then, a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama on everyone’s lips; another smack in the puss of high art vs. its more mainstream lowbrow derivatives. Victor Heerman’s direction lacks the inventiveness of The Cocoanuts. Indeed, Animal Crackers remains the closest thing to a filmed stage show; the camera stationary for long periods. To compensate, the sets depicting Mrs. Rittenhouse’s Long Island estate are uber-lavish in the then-trending deco style; gorgeous, absurd architectural atrocities of chic good taste and utterly enormous to a fault.
Norman Z. McLeod’s Monkey Business (1931) marked a pensive departure; the Marx Brothers relying on brand new material rather than a pre-sold title with proven audience-pleasing antics inherited from a stage hit.  Producer Herman J. Mankiewicz, newly appointed at Paramount, was taking no chances, assigning crackerjack writers, S. J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone to come up with some situations to inveigle them.  Relying on the formula of their previous two movies, Monkey Business has a wafer thin plot, immeasurably fleshed out by silly skits. Unforgivably, the picture lacks the participation of Margaret Dumont, whom Groucho once referred to as ‘the fifth Marx Brother’. Indeed, Dumont is ‘the commodity’ greatly missed in Monkey Business, replaced by the lithe Thelma Todd (whose mysterious death from presumed asphyxiation barely four years later, discovered by a maid slumped over the wheel of her Lincoln with a bashed in nose, neck lacerations and two cracked ribs, was rather idiotically ruled as an ‘accidental suicide’ by the Los Angeles Coroner). In Monkey Business the boys play stowaways aboard a European luxury liner bound for Manhattan. Caught unaware, they come into conflict with each other after taking sides in a gangland rivalry between Alky Briggs (Harry Wood) and J.J. ‘Big Joe’ Helton (Rockliffe Fellowes). Helton hires Chico and Harpo as his bodyguards, while Briggs takes on Groucho, who is actually mad for his employer’s wife, Lucille (played by Todd). Bringing up the rear, Zeppo becomes enamored with Helton’s wide-eyed daughter, Mary (Ruth Hall) whom Briggs kidnaps during a lavish costume party, thus necessitating all the brothers valiant in coming to Mary’s aid and rescue.
Monkey Business is by far the most uneven of the Marx Brothers movies; Perelman and Johnston, with further assistance (i.e. tinkering) from screenwriter Arthur Sheekman, creating an utterly pointless patchwork, borrowing ideas and skits wholesale from the Marx Brothers own Vaudeville repertoire. Groucho is as Groucho does; unerring in his verbal assault on the Captain’s first mate (Tom Kennedy), Chico, both gangsters, and, of course, Thelma Todd, the beautiful brunt of his wicked humor. The picture also features two irrefutable highlights: first, Harpo’s ‘Punch and Judy’ pantomime; a tour de force of daft and breathtakingly original sight gags; second, a sequence near the end where each of the brothers attempts to get past customs without their passports, lampooning Maurice Chevalier.  Prior to the making of Monkey Business, Zeppo had dropped hints of his eagerness to retire from the act, and, in response, the writers here have really beefed up his part. There are whole scenes devoted to Zeppo, a couple exhilaratingly hilarious ‘love scenes’ with Ruth Hall, and a chance for the vastly underrated Marx brother to be the most competently chivalrous during their eleventh hour rescue of Mary.
Monkey Business was a solid and sizable hit, followed almost immediately by Horse Feathers (1932). Once again, Leonard McLeod directed; writers, Perelman, Johnston and Sheekman contributing to the creative badinage, but this time with Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby adding their own spin to the experiment.  Horse Feathers is a delicious farce, centered on the future welfare of Huxley College; an institute whose top-heavy Board of Directors (a lot of old men with white beards) have only just either sealed their own fate or saved the day by appointing Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho) as their progressive voice for reform. After some early deliberations, Prof. Wagstaff deduces all Huxley really needs to be put back on the path to fiscal solvency is a good football team. To hell with academics (…and academics – if you catch my drift); the seats of higher learning supplanted by the decision to train a team of athletes capable of winning just one season on the playing field. It all sounds good to Jennings (David Landau), the corrupting influence who secretly supports rival Darwin College and aims to discredit Huxley by recruiting a pair of pro bruisers for Darwin’s team (played with affecting dimwittedness by muscle-headed drunkards, Nat Pendleton, James Pierce).  A case of mistaken identity ensues as Wagstaff fallaciously books Baravelli (Chico Marx) and Pinky, the dog catcher (Harpo) for Team Huxley. Wagstaff is monumentally disappointed in his son, Huxley senior, Frank (Zeppo) who is courting college widow, Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd again). However, all is fair in love and revolution; Baravelli, and Pinky vying for time with Connie, much to Frank’s chagrin.
Horse Feathers is the most ‘plot-driven’ of the Marx Brothers movies at Paramount; Kalmar and Ruby writing a pair of catchy ditties for Groucho (I’m Against It, and, I Always Get My Man) and ‘Everyone Says I Love You’ – a ballad invariably taking on unique meaning as each of the rival Lochinvars warbles it to Connie in their own inimitable way. The picture is very much slanted in Groucho’s favor and plays to his strengths. The caustic taunts and quips crackle with cohesiveness; much more than just a series of one-liners loosely strung together. But the highlight of Horse Feathers is unequivocally the football match; gussied up with tethered pigskin and a metal garbage can tricked out to replicate the climactic chariot race from the 1929 silent version of Ben-Hur. Arguably, after Horse Feathers there was nowhere else to go but down. Today, the Marx Brothers penultimate movie made at Paramount – Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup (1933) is near universally, and I would suggest, justly regarded as the pinnacle of their movie careers. Alas, in its day it was a critical disaster, performing badly at the box office. It is difficult to understand the reasons for such open hostility. Perhaps this hilarious spoof, penned by Sheekman and Nat Perrin, with songs by Kalmar and Ruby, cut too close to an insult for all those brave lads who had defended America’s honor in WWI. Or maybe, the idea of an absurd oligarchy threatening its neighbors was a might too forecasting of the recent appointment of Adolf Hitler as Germany’s outspoken Chancellor.   
Whatever the case, critics in its time railed against Duck Soup with uncharacteristic venom. The plot concerns a bankrupted principality, Freedonia; its gaggle of wily politicos largely kept afloat by the auspices of the wealthy, Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont at long last restored to this mirthful milieu). With no money to back their nation, Freedonia is in very real danger of being absorbed by neighboring nation, Sylvania; its ambassador, Trentino (Louis Calhern) maliciously plotting the downfall. Teasdale, however, favors the appointment of Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) to the presidency and refuses to budge before signing any more checks to shore up Freedonia’s national debt. Trentino is appalled by Teasdale’s blind faith in Firefly. In turn, Firefly wastes zero time making a very bad enemy of the Ambassador. In reply, Trentino hires a pair of spies, Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) to unearth some dirt he can use to launch a political scandal that will oust Firefly from his seat of power. Unsuccessful in his endeavors, Trentino vows to take his nation into war. But the outnumbered and ill-equipped Freedonians nevertheless withstand his assault.
Duck Soup is irrepressibly anarchical; its screenplay, a veritable concentration of astringent digs at political uncertainty, with Kalmar and Ruby contributing an almost operatic leitmotif to the two extended numbers that open and close the show. ‘These Are The Laws of My Administration’ is a sublime assault on the bureaucratic ‘red tape’ afflicting most political machinery (the U.S. being no exception), while ‘The Country’s Going to War’ is a sort of march, lockstep and minstrel show set to big band swing; Firefly, the bastion of his nation, constantly changing clothes to represent his ever-elevating rank as Commander and Chief. Best of all is Groucho’s verbal brutalization of Margaret Dumont, who takes virtually every pointed insult in stride with never-waning affection. But the absolute highlight of the piece remains the “mirror sequence” where Harpo, dressed as Groucho, uncannily mimics Groucho’s every subtle gesture and befuddlement at seeing ‘a mirror image’ of himself in a doorway.   Duck Soup has the great luxury of Leo McCarey in the director’s chair; McCarey a master craftsman in the art of storytelling. Despite the fact Duck Soup may be the most heavily skit-laden and set piece-driven vehicle ever designed for the Marx Brothers, the picture never feels disjointed or clumsily stitched together; each vignette effortlessly folding into the next with the plot’s trajectory always caught in a forward moving motion.
For years the rumor was the Marx Brother Paramount contract was not renewed because of Duck Soup. Actually, Groucho had already managed to free the act from its oft tyrannically mismanaged tether. By 1932, the Marx Brothers were free agents. They chose to make Duck Soup at Paramount after plans for their independent passion project, ‘Of Thee I Sing’ were repeated delayed and finally laid to rest, never to be resuscitated. By this time, Chico, an avid poker player, had managed to befriend MGM’s VP, Irving Thalberg, resulting in an official meeting set up to discuss other options in furthering their careers over at Metro. Thalberg was, in fact, genuinely ecstatic about acquiring the act; a move that, at least in hindsight, proved the Marx Brothers undoing. For starters, Zeppo formally announced his retirement before the ink had dried on their contract. And although the movies the Marx Brothers made at MGM would be lavishly appointed (and, in the case of their first two projects: A Night at the Opera, 1935, and, A Day at the Races, 1937) class acts imbued with Thalberg’s impeccable knack for good timing and great storytelling; each movie increasingly watered down the effectiveness of the brothers wild-eyed insanity, until what we get are more fitful flashes of controlled comedy, cleverly sandwiched between a love story and well-oiled songs and dances, meant to rival the brothers’ crazy quilt in comedy skits. 
There is no getting around it: the Marx Brothers at MGM are not what they had been over at Paramount. Worse for the future of the act was Thalberg’s unforeseen death in 1936, right in the middle of making A Day at the Races. Thalberg’s passing sent seismic shudders through the whole of Hollywood (the community in fact, observing an entire day’s shutdown to mourn him). It also meant the brothers had lost their biggest proponent on the backlot. MGM had never enjoyed lasting success with comedy, perhaps because even under Thalberg’s dominion, the studio edicts sought to wrangle and, in effect, place a stranglehold on the true comedy geniuses of their era, forced to conform to Metro’s uber-suave and ultra-sophisticated glamor factory precepts. Louis B. Mayer’s transitional involvement with The Marx Brothers did not go smoothly; Mayer, arguably bungling the alliance, first by loaning out what he considered his ‘contract players’ to RKO; then, by recalling them to appear in pictures of questionable artistic merit, before cancelling their contract outright.  While A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937) yielded the greatest profits of any of their movies, many today argue neither represents the true temerity of their artistry.
While we patiently wait for the Warner Archive to mine their Marx Brothers gold bullion, Universal Home Video has inaugurated the team’s first 5 films in an ambitious Blu-ray collection, the result of considerable efforts to turn back the hands of time on these almost 90 year old masterpieces of caustic counterculture comedy. The results, while thoroughly impressive, have not been altogether successful in achieving that goal. This, to be sure, is no fault of the tireless work, time and money Universal has spent to salvage what was possible from decidedly ‘less than perfect’ surviving elements. Let us be clear about something first: The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup were never going to find their way to Blu-ray nirvana; chiefly, because of the shortsightedness derived from previous administrations at Paramount, and later, Universal; who acquired these films and became their custodians only after they had already and repeatedly been butchered, re-edited for TV reissues, used to make multiple prints, and, generally archived with all the foresight of a junk dealer leaving priceless Rembrandts out in the dampening snow of late January to molder with the past and eventually decay. 
What Universal has done here is perform a minor miracle with what has survived, despite fate, employing every digital tool in their arsenal to arrest, set back, and, on occasion, wipe clean the ravages of time. For the most part, their endeavor has been a great success, with whole portions of each film looking decades younger and renewed with unblemished images, mostly free of age-related dirt and scratches. What cannot be undone is the loss of first generation – or even second generation – excised footage; intermittently replaced by grainy dupes that continue to suffer from obvious degrading in terms of overall clarity and quality, with weak contrast and other inevitable distortions, fading, shrinkage, etc. et al built in. Universal has gone to great pains to eradicate these anomalies and stabilize the image as much as is technologically possible. The results are imperfect and, alas, must always remain as such. This, however, should not negate all of the effort poured into achieving the very best visual presentation each of these films has ever had on home video. The audio has equally been given the attention it deserves. Owing to its live recordings, The Cocoanuts is in the roughest shape; Duck Soup sounding marginally more strident and occasionally garbled during its songs than the other three movies in this collection. Again, it’s all about source materials and the proper care and maintenance of them over time. The Marx Brothers legacy was afforded no such luxury until very recently and it shows.  
A complete surviving print recently discovered and preserved by the BFI in England allows, for the very first time, a complete release of Animal Crackers, minus the distracting cuts that were later made, with all first generation materials presumably junked somewhere along the way. There is occasional twitter and noise present on all these releases; resulting in background and fine detail jitter. Universal has minimized this effect. They have been unable to entirely eradicate it. Regrets. Forgivable, perhaps; though regrettable nonetheless. In all cases, the audio is 2.0 DTS mono; variable and tinny. The best news is arguably had in the extras: each film given its own expert commentary, drawing on such imminent historians as Anthony Slide (The Cocoanuts), Jeffrey Vance (Animal Crackers), Robert Bader – together with Harpo’s son, Bill (Monkey Business), F.X. Feeney (Horse Feathers) and Marx Brothers aficionado, Leonard Maltin (Duck Soup). Best of all is The Marx Brothers: Hollywood’s Kings of Chaos; at just a little under an hour and a half, a thoroughly comprehensive homage, appreciation, tribute and history, drawing upon a host of contemporary critics, historians and other new and vintage discourse.  The least prepossessing of the extras is ‘Inside The NBC Vaults’; what amounts to a few badly truncated snippets from appearances made by Groucho and Harpo on The Today Show. We also get a handsomely produced 10 page booklet, providing a thumbnail history of the Marx Brothers early Vaudeville and Hollywood careers.
Bottom line: The Marx Brothers are an acquired taste, meaning that once seen, it has been immediately acquired. I cannot think of a single person alive today who does not find at least something memorable about these four legendary performers and geniuses, their impressive contribution to the world of comedy in general and film comedy in particular, impossible to accurately quantify, but likely to endure as long as the memory and Universal continues to treasure their legacy with the utmost care paid, as they have so obviously done herein. Very highly recommended, folks! Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
The Cocoanuts -  4
Animal Crackers - 5
Monkey Business - 4
Horse Feathers - 4.5
Duck Soup - 5+


Overall – 3


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

THE NIGHT OF THE GRIZZLY: Blu-ray (Paramount 1966) Olive Signature Series

I tend to look upon the career of Clint Walker with a modicum of regret; Walker (a twin – born Norman Eugene), one of the most robust and manly figures ever to cut a breathtaking silhouette of virile masculinity in the movies and on television (he towered at 6ft. 6 inch. with the even more impressive measurements of a 48 inch. barrel chest rendered down to a 32 inch waist and 21 inch arms built like tree trunks) so aptly described by New York Times film critic, Howard Thompson as “the biggest, finest-looking Western hero ever to sag a horse, with a pair of shoulders rivaling King Kong's.” And while Walker would make a great success of his reoccurring role as Cheyenne Bodie on ABC’s western serial, Cheyenne – and occasionally appear in movies of merit to his acting chops (The Dirty Dozen and None But the Brave among them), proving he was far more than beefcake for hire was his greatest challenge. Indeed, most roles rely on at least one or two sequences where Walker, stripped from the waist up, is toting an axe (or some other implement) with which to give credence and purpose to the artful flex of his taut musculature. There is a misnomer in Hollywood; that a gorgeous woman cannot possibly possess the intellectual wherewithal and natural ability to act her way out of the proverbial paper bag. Yet, by the mid-1950’s, this maxim had eschewed its sexual stereotyping to include men; Walker, like former bodybuilder cum actor, Steve Reeves, prime examples where producers became so enamored by their physicality, they ostensibly forgot such glorifications of the male physique were plied at the expense of any consideration the body functioned with a mind and/or talent to its rival – or, at the very least, its competition.  
Unlike Reeves, who recognized early on his body was his ticket to fame (and played up the image of the male beauty and muscle-bound pin-up in a series of cheaply made Italian ‘epics’ where he was frequently cast as some such nonsensically handsome, if ancient paragon of virility), Walker proved a gentle giant of many splendored pursuits; perfecting his physique, just one of them. Walker, in fact, machined the gymnasium equipment he used to create his look. Good with his hands, he liked to build things. He also loved other outdoorsy sports; skiing, almost, the death of him when, during a freak accident in 1971, he managed to pierce his own heart with his ski pole. Pronounced dead at the scene, doctors soon discovered a faint murmur and rushed Walker into surgery to repair the wounded organ and save his life. Mercifully, he is still very much with us today and looking years younger than the eight-nine presently prescribed him. Walker also possessed a rich baritone and the ability to carry a tune. Even more impressive; he was something of a self-made man, quitting school at the age of sixteen, joining the Merchant Marines a year later, making his bones on Texas oil fields and later, as a deputy sheriff at Vegas’ famous Sands Hotel. I could go on about Clint Walker as an enterprising young man who knew his own mind and went after exactly what he wanted out of life. Suffice it to say, I think much more of the man apart from either ‘his body’ or ‘body of work’.     
So, it is more than a little disheartening to watch Walker’s innate talents repeatedly squandered in director, Joseph Pevney’s The Night of the Grizzly (1966); a real hodge-podge and hokey-jokey disposable entertainment, scripted by Warren Douglas. The real problem here is the script, based off an actual incident Walker had read about and passed along to Douglas, about a series of grizzly attacks that decimated one community’s livestock, resulting in several human casualties as well. Douglas and Walker had worked well together on Cheyenne. But the net result in The Night of the Grizzly is a little too transparently riffing off the success of this serialized TV show; Douglas, introducing us to a cavalcade of great character actors, but then rather desperately endeavoring to provide all of them with a back story. It does not come off, chiefly because at 102 minutes, there is not enough time to get involved. Instead of fleshing out a few choice characters, we get a potpourri of one-dimensional cardboard cutouts; Walker, cast as ‘big’ Jim Cole – a northerner who has just inherited a track of choice real estate in Wyoming, very much sought by the enterprising, Jed Curry (Keenan Wynn), who aims to take it from his rival by any means necessary.
This alone would be enough of a plot to fill the movie’s run time, and rather successfully too. But no; the crux of our story – or so we are meant to believe, though only on occasion - is the nocturnal stalking conducted by a rather ruthless and seemingly indestructible grizzly bear (sometimes played by a real bear on a tether, and at other woeful intervals, by an extra in a bear skin); indiscriminately killing livestock and mauling the locals with a genuine bloodlust for both animal and human flesh. Add to this a rather feeble sideline involving reformed bounty hunter, Cass Dowdy (Leo Gordon), whom Jim sent to prison for nearly two years when he was a law man back east, now newly arrived in the neighboring town of ‘Hope’ at Curry’s request to kill the bear for a stipend. Time has not mellowed Cass’ desire for revenge. In fact, after Curry realizes Cass and Jim have a shared past, Curry wastes no time exploiting it to get Cass to conspire with him on yet another departure from the main event; this one, to steal Jim’s already heavily mortgaged ranch right out from under him. We also get flashes of Cass’ rhapsodic interest in Jim’s wife, Angela (possibly reciprocated in actress, Martha Hyer’s telling wayward stares) and the Coles’ prepubescent son, Charlie (Kevin Brodie) inexplicably devoted and perhaps, even preferring Cass to his own father. There are also hints Angela regrets marrying Jim; lashing out at his stubbornness to put a period to ‘Satan’ – the grizzly, once and for all. Instead, Angela increasingly urges her husband to simply sell out or even run away from the ranch when the chips are down. 
Warren Douglas’ screenplay ladles on more heavy-handed diversions; the precociousness of the Coles’ youngest offspring, Gypsy (Victoria Paige Meyerink) aside (a born actress/comedian at the tender age of six); a real ‘dead end’ romance involving the Coles’ bright-eyed teenage niece, Meg (Candy Moore), favored by Jed Curry’s youngest son, goony Cal (Sammy Jackson) and Jim’s camaraderie with bearded hired man, Sam Potts (Don Haggerty doing the clichéd ole coot no favors). Potts is relentlessly pursued by the gregarious, over-sexed dried goods proprietress, Wilhelmina Peterson (Nancy Kulp, whose career specialized in such awkwardly garrulous gal pals with no hope in hell of making it to the marriage altar). We also get Jack Elam, refreshingly not the baddie this time, as Hank, a rather adorably shiftless friend to the Coles; Ron Ely as Curry’s eldest son, Tad (who thrives on picking fights with practically anyone to prove his manhood), Ellen Corby (TV’s The Walton’s grandma, here cast as feisty livestock trader, Hazel Squires), and finally, Regis Toomey as benevolent banker, Cotton Benson. A lot of grade-A (or perhaps, just as easily identifiable, though nevertheless sold B-grade) talent has gone into The Night of the Grizzly, uncompromisingly pre-processed by screenwriter, Douglas’ poisoned pen of a gristmill, coming out Grade-F chuck on the other side.
We are never entirely certain where the story is headed and even more woefully disappointed to discover that whatever its trajectory, only one aspect of the plot is ever truly realized in the finale with a rather perfunctory showdown to quickly dispatch with all the loose ends. There is one surprise along the way; Sam’s death – mauled by Satan during a night raid in which Jim is too late at the point of his rifle to save his friend. This entanglement also puts a period to the built-up comedy/romance between Potts and Wilhelmina; a rather delicious bit of camp actress, Nancy Kulp is quite obviously having a marvelously good time, taking the rest of us along for the ride. The real ‘reel’ problem with The Night of the Grizzly is it never settles on a particular course. Is it a sprawling familial saga? – partly. Is it a noir-styled revenge (diffused by having Jim assaulted on all fronts: Cass, Curry, his sons, Satan – the bear, and, Angela, who threatens to leave him). Hmmmm. There is another old adage in Hollywood: ‘your hero is only as good as your villain’: or, the meaner the one, the more virtuous the other by direct comparison. As Jim’s noble ‘strong and silent’ type is never brought into question – he is as pure as the driven snow, built like an ox, and oozing the nobility of refined brawn with virtue to spare – we sincerely wonder why everyone except Gyspy is against him at one time or another, so jealously eager to knock him down a peg or two (as if they could for very long).  
The Night of the Grizzly opens with a rather turgid main title set to Leith Stevens’ nondescript underscore. We are introduced to the Cole clan; ‘Big Jim’, Angela, their children, Charlie and Gypsy, niece Meg and family friend, Sam Potts.  All arrive by horse-drawn carriage in the bustling town of Hope, Wyoming; Jim having inherited some property from his late uncle. The family’s introduction to the locals proves anything but inauspicious: the kindly banker, Cotton Benson informing Jim there is an outstanding balance on the mortgage. To pay it, Jim depletes nearly their entire life’s savings; naturally assuming the land is fertile and will yield everything they need to be sustainable. Jim is also informed by Benson that a local and prosperous rancher, Jed Curry is hot to reclaim the land as his own.  When Curry discovers the outstanding debt has been paid he is outwardly cordial to his new neighbors, though inwardly fuming and resentful. In the meantime, the rest of the family learns life in Hope will offer very little of just such a commodity to those who lack the gumption to pursue it on their own terms. Potts is hornswoggled out of $10 for a bottle of booze by Curry’s two sons, Tad and Cal, and their as devious fair-weather of a friend, Duke Squires (Med Flory). The vicissitude of Meg’s virtue is brought into question, while Charlie is shot in the seat of his pants with a slingshot by the local boys, resulting in an all-out brawl in the town square. The boys are eventually parted from bloodying each other’s noses by Jim.
The prospects for bucolic happiness do not improve as the Coles discover the ranch they have inherited is little more than a ramshackle cabin in the middle of nowhere (albeit, a picturesque ‘nowhere’) in need of a good makeover and decidedly, a woman’s touch. Presumably, to take advantage of Clint Walker’s baritone singing voice, Jim sings the ballad, ‘Angela’ (a thoroughly disposable ditty coauthored by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans) while the rest of the family is fast asleep. Angela is stirred to come out and recline for a moment or two in Big Jim’s big and burly arms. More beefcake by dawn’s early light, Walker’s first prerequisite ‘shirtless’ moment in the picture; Jim chopping wood as Potts adoringly looks on. Benson arrives to forewarn Jim about Satan – an impenetrable grizzly that kills livestock seemingly for fun. Others have tried to rid the land of this Baskervillian hell-beast, but without success. Now, Jed and his two sons pay the family a call, supposedly a peace offering by way of a drink from their secret distillery. But Potts accosts Tad, who strikes the old man and is thereafter knocked to the ground with a single blow from Jim’s meaty fists. Jed proposes a truce, but the bottle of booze is knocked to the ground and breaks. Now, Jed tries to persuade Jim to sell his property, but to no avail.     
A short while later, Jim learns from Wilhelmina of her intensions to pursue Potts romantically; mildly amused by her extroverted good nature. Wilhelmina proves a loyal friend, ordering her shiftless sidekick, Hank to take Jim to Hazel’s Squire’s farm. Jim needs quality livestock to populate his ranch and buys a few choice head of cattle, some pigs and chickens with Hank’s subtle guidance. A bit of foreshadowing follows as Hazel discovers the carcass of one of her pigs mercilessly butchered. Later in the evening, the Cole’s farm is visited by the bear. Havoc ensues and Pott’s beloved mule runs off in terror for parts unknown. The Coles’ dog is severely wounded, forcing Jim to hurry the animal into town for treatment, accompanied by Meg. While there, Meg becomes the unwilling recipient of some backhanded compliments from Tad, Duke and Cal inside Wilhelmina’s store. After Jim ensures his daughter’s safety he decides to teach these boys a thing or two about respecting women the only way ‘real men’ know how; with a display of fisticuffs, rendering all three unconscious. Jed is angered by this confrontation, his rage directed at his boys, not Jim, as he has instructed Tad and Cal to remain aloof – if not cordial – towards the man he is still trying to woo off his land.
As Jim has no money to buy more livestock he takes out a loan from the bank; Benson affording Jim collateral for his various possessions, including his prized saddle and former sheriff’s gold star. As the bank’s primary shareholder, Jed informs Benson there will be no other such loans. He will allow Jim to go into debt however, so the bank can buy back the loan prematurely, thus making him the sole owner of Jim’s land. Inadvertently, Jed hires Cass Dowdy, a bounty hunter, to destroy Satan. This causes Angela to fear for her husband’s safety. After all, Jim was responsible for arresting Cass for the crime of murder several years earlier. Despite Cass’ transparent ruthlessness, Charlie regards him with uncanny affection almost as a surrogate father figure. And Cass, whatever his flaws, equally harbors an abiding love for the boy. Perhaps Charlie is really Cass’ child – not Jim’s?!?! Alas, Warren Douglas’ screenplay is not telling, dropping fleeting hints to suggest Cass and Angela may have once been more than friendly in a former life.  Whatever the case, Charlie idolizing Cass just seems odd.  In the meantime, Potts and Jim find the carcass of Pott’s mule lying in the clearing. Potts vows to destroy the bear. He and Jim set off on their ‘vision quest’ only to be ambushed by Satan atop a cliff, narrowly escaping with their lives. Angela thinks it silly to risk martyrdom on these random bear attacks. She begs Jim to reconsider – even to move the family away. Jim refuses to even entertain any such notions.
Instead, he and Potts set up another stakeout for Satan. This backfires when, under the cover of night, the men fall asleep and the grizzly returns to wreak havoc. This time Potts is killed, dying in Jim’s arms. Wilhelmina grieves at the funeral, but begins to spend more time with Angela and the family as a result. Cass vows first to kill the beast that slaughtered all three of his faithful hunting dogs; then, also to gun for Jim, thereby settling their old score. Jim aggressively sets traps all around his property to kill Satan as there is a thousand dollar reward at stake. This prize money could wipe clean all outstanding debts to the bank. But Cass systematically sabotages these traps, accidentally placing his foot in one of the unseen steel traps. Caught red-handed in his deceptions, Cass and Jim engage in a brutal fist fight, ending when Jim narrowly knocks Cass unconscious, contemplating leaving him face down in the river to drown. At the last possible moment, Jim instead drags Cass from the water, laying him face up to recover on the embankment. By now, Angela has had quite enough of Jim’s hunt for Satan. She forewarns that if he pursues the matter any further she will leave him and the farm for good. Determined to spare his parents this brittle separation, young Charlie quietly sneaks off with a rifle to bag the bear himself. He is, of course, ill-equipped to achieve this goal and Jim hurries into the woods in search of his son. He finds Charlie up a tree – literally – Satan gnashing at his heels. Jim manages to wedge himself between some rocks, just out of Satan’s grasp as he repeatedly tries to stab the beast with his hunting knife. Cass arrives and, at Charlie’s behest, fires his shotgun at Satan to save Jim. Unfortunately, he cannot save himself. Satan turns on Cass and mauls him to death. However, this incursion proves deadly for Satan too, as Jim picks up Charlie’s discarded rifle and fires several lethal shots into the beast. Jim and Charlie return to the ranch, victorious and embraced by Angela and the rest of the pensively waiting clan.
The Night of the Grizzly is reportedly Clint Walker’s favorite role. Yet it does not speak to his abilities as an actor. Despite being given a few meager platitudes to espouse, about the importance of being a real man, holding to one’s valor above one’s personal safety, and so on and so forth, most of the dialogue in The Night of the Grizzly is of the perfunctory ‘cause’ and ‘effect’; merely written to get the audience from plot points ‘A’ to ‘B’ with the most rudimentary lack of character development. Great screenwriting is an art. But even good screenwriting should endeavor to something more. Unfortunately, The Night of the Grizzly is so interested in its ‘pulled pork’ of a plot it forgets to provide direction and development to each character’s motivations; instead, readily relying on comedic vignettes, inexplicably inserted at moments when more tautly scripted bits of screen suspense would be infinitely preferred. Case in point: the Coles attend a social gathering where Meg is romantically pursued by Cal. Charlie is once more made the brunt of the local boys’ antagonisms; this time, with an almost Bugs Bunny-esque episode: gunpowder detonated inside a watermelon, thus covering Charlie in its sticky-sweet remnants. When Tad attempts to thwart Cal’s sheepish amour with Meg by offering her a glass of spiked punch, literally to turn her green (cinematographers, Loyal Griggs and Harold Lipstein casting a bilious lime spot on Candy Moore’s visage), Cal chivalrously assaults his elder brother, knocking Tad unconscious with a single blow before becoming startled by the merit of his own fists. The entire episode is played strictly for laughs; even for camp.
If The Night of the Grizzly had been a western musical, or even a western spoof, all this might have worked. But the juxtaposing of these feebly feather-weight moments with the severity of the subplot’s mano-a-mano revenge scenario, and, also the overriding arc of ‘man vs. the wilderness’ neither serves as a counterweight to the suspense, nor as an addendum to the high stakes drama.  Point blank: there is too much ‘smoke’ and not enough ‘fire’ in the telling of this tale; Clint Walker left with the brunt of the responsibility to sell Warren Douglas’ clumsy contrivances as an ‘action/adventure/western/drama/comedy’ mutt. In the final analysis, The Night of the Grizzly fulfills none of its primary precepts.  Arguably, the most lucid performance is owed to Nancy Kulp; deliciously over-the-top and ebulliently silly as the love-starved spinster who sees her last chance for great (or even any) sex in the aged and unkempt Sam Potts whom she regards as the embodiment of a Grecian god. The other ‘fun’ performer to watch is six year old Victoria Paige Meyerink; who kicks Tad in the shin; then, when prompted by her father to explain herself, militantly admits, “I don’t like him!” No kidding! Whether pointing out the similarities between Jack Elam’s scruffy-bearded Hank and a fuzzy caterpillar crawling up a blade of wild grass or brought almost to the brink of tears, Meyerink is a bundle of unsettlingly adult charm. If only charm alone were enough to rescue The Night of the Grizzly from inflicting its uneven ennui. It’s not. This movie is forgettable to a fault.
Shot in 2-perf 35mm Techniscope; The Night of the Grizzly has been given an upgraded transfer by Olive Films as part of the company’s Signature Series. Alas, the elements used in this new master are as flawed as those featured on their defunct first Blu-ray release from a little over two years ago. I have issues with the contrast in particular; the image looking fairly anemic for scenes lensed outdoors, with mid-grade tonality throughout and bleached out colors, rendering fine detail utterly moot. Flesh tones have adopted a wan pink caste. Colors, while considerably more robust here than on Olive’s first Blu-ray release, are nevertheless faded; the lush greens and mountain blue/greys only occasionally popping with gusty visual vibrancy. Grain often teeters on appearing slightly digitized rather than indigenous to its source. Detail in scenes shot at night is distilled into a murky gumbo of nondescript blues, blacks and grays with a lot of very clumpy and equally as unnatural looking amplified grain. Olive has mostly eradicated the age-related wear and tear glaringly evident on their first Blu-ray; most white speckles, dirt and scratches gone for good. Again, it is the color saturation that disappoints.  The 2.0 DTS audio is another issue: strident and thin, with interspersed static and crackling. Extras include an informative audio commentary from film historian Toby Roan, a written essay by C. Courtney Joyner, an interview with Clint Walker (the best extra feature in my opinion), archival footage of the World Premiere and a fascinating ‘at home’ vintage interview where Walker shows off his home-made workout equipment (good for kitsch). Bottom line: The Night of the Grizzly is not a great film. In fact, it plays more like four half-hour episodes unceremoniously thrust together from some vintage TV western/comedy without the prerequisite laugh track included. This latest Blu-ray incarnation, while better than its predecessor, wins no awards for hi-def mastering. Pass and be very glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Monday, October 24, 2016

THE QUIET MAN: Signature Series Blu-ray (Republic Pictures 1952) Olive Media

“To be quite blunt, I make pictures for money, to pay the rent. There are some great artists in the business. I am not one of them.”
-        John Ford
John Ford’s directorial career ought to be taught in film schools as perhaps the foremost example of how to create movie magic of the highest order. There is an essence to Ford’s greatest masterpieces that goes well beyond the oft’ glibly referenced sense of ‘style’. And Ford himself would be the first to suggest he had none as it were, but merely felt good stories in the very depths of his heart and soul; two commodities he fought like hell to keep hidden from the public in general and his actors in particular. “He could be a mean son of gun,” Maureen O’Hara reflected in 2002, perhaps recalling the moment when Ford had the fields across which co-star, John Wayne drags her fiery Irish lass – supposedly by the hair - in The Quiet Man (1952), greased with genuine – and equally as ripe – sheep manure to make the task easier on Wayne. “But he was wonderful too; lovable, I suppose, but in a way he really didn’t like to share with too many people.”  It is one of Hollywood’s minor ironies, Ford, the curmudgeonly director of so many iconic westerns, is today chiefly regarded for two films removed from that artistic milieu he helped to define - How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Quiet Man. Ever since Ford was forced to sacrifice his plans to shoot How Green Was My Valley on location and in Technicolor (due to wartime restrictions) he had been searching for another vehicle to fulfill both desires.
In retrospect, The Quiet Man is the perfect anecdote for the realization of this dream; a testament actually, to Ford’s ingrained values as an Irishman, as well as an acknowledgement with sincere pride of the place where his roots began. It is also Ford’s only unabashedly quixotic movie; his affinity for the people and places recalled from his ancestral heritage, transparently embedded in the characters names; ‘Sean’ – played by Ford alumni, John Wayne (and named after Ford’s own real name) and O’Hara’s Mary-Kate, a moniker that subliminally exposes the two women Ford unequivocally loved throughout his 79 years; foremost, his wife, Mary McBride Smith, and platonically, actress, Katharine Hepburn, who had starred in Ford’s Mary of Scotland, all the way back in 1934. Bed-ridden in the months preceding his death in 1973, Ford was genuinely touched to have Hepburn pay him a visit; the two old titans, weather-beaten but sharp as tacks, regarding one another over a heartfelt conversation, at the end of which Hepburn added, “It really is grand to see you again,” and Ford, perhaps suspecting it was for the last time, suggesting, “You’ve a woman’s intuition about these things,” to which Hepburn (understanding his meaning) hesitantly replied, “Yes” before kissing Ford on the forehead and departing his company for the last time. 
“How do you describe someone you really admired and loved, who had so many aggravating traits?” Maureen O’Hara would later propose in her biography, “He was an instinctive con man. It was impossible to know when to believe or disbelieve him. Everything he said or did was for effect.  That is why he was so difficult to interview, because he would deliberately say the opposite of what he knew you were expecting to hear.  He could be kind, gracious and gentle, with a wonderful sense of humor…but he could also be vindictive and mean. All one can do with John Ford is accept him – with all of his faults and virtues…and love him.” In reading these reflections out loud during an interview, O’Hara was to suddenly lose her composure and burst into tears over the loss. The Quiet Man is, in fact, a movie that spiritedly realizes such contradictions: romantic/dramatic and comedic, bustling with the whimsy of the blarney stone so authentically a part of Ford’s own appreciation for Ireland. Alas, getting any studio to believe in the project was an entirely different matter. Ford had shopped the story around for nearly thirty years, politely refused by virtually every major, despite the fact he had an absolutely flawless track record for producing smash hits for all of them dating all the way back to the silent era. Ford, a caustic individualist, was nevertheless unrelenting in his quest. Those who knew Ford best also knew he usually got his way in the end. And so it came to pass that Ford eventually found support for The Quiet Man from producer, Herbert Yates at Republic Pictures. The alliance, however, was not without its concessions. Yates agreed to fund The Quiet Man in trade for Ford doing another western for Republic first. That film, Rio Grande (1950) took Ford and his favorite male star, John Wayne back to familiar territory in Death Valley – becoming the last installment in what is now regarded as John Ford’s ‘cavalry trilogy’.
Ford was infinitely rewarded by the experience when Wayne and then first-time co-star, Maureen O’Hara generated sparks of brooding on screen chemistry. Indeed, viewing Rio Grande today, one is immediately struck by how well suited Wayne and O’Hara are to each other; the rugged majesty in his stoic manly grace perfectly pitted against her ballsy vigor. “He was a very macho male,” O’Hara recalled of Wayne much later. Indeed, the actress would remain very protective of Wayne’s reputation, especially in the late sixties when the star’s ultra-conservatism branded him something of a dinosaur rife for the flogging like a piñata by the liberal left; O’Hara, making pilgrimage to the State Capital to petition Wayne for the Congressional Medal of Honor, adding, “It should simply say, ‘John Wayne – American’.” Decades later, asked by CNN’s legendary talk show host, Larry King ‘was he (Wayne) a good star?’, O’Hara still had his back, rather glibly replied, “Well, you don’t get to be the number one personality of the entire world unless you’re damn good!”  Largely due to their chemistry in Rio Grande, Wayne and O’Hara’s syncopated working relationship convinced Ford to re-cast the duo again in The Quiet Man. If How Green Was My Valley represents Ford at his most lyrically sentimental, then The Quiet Man is undeniably the director at his most disarmingly quaint and humorous. Herbert Yates was acutely aware of two things: first, that Republic was a fledgling at best that could not really afford to make The Quiet Man unless Rio Grande was a big hit, and second, that the hiring talent like Ford and Wayne could only enhance the reputation of his poverty row company. Ultimately, both Yates and Ford were to have their successes with Rio Grande and then, The Quiet Man.  Prior to the triumphant premiere of Rio Grande, Yates did attempt to convince Ford to shoot The Quiet Man in his own patented process of TruColor – infinitely cheaper than Technicolor, though hardly yielding as impress results. Ford remained steadfast in his demands. After Rio Grande’s box office tallies began to enrich Republic’s coffers, Yates gave in to virtually all of Ford’s demands. Clearly, Ford knew what he was doing.
The Quiet Man’s screenplay, based on a 1933 Saturday Evening Post short story by Maurice Walsh, is a charming parable about a man unwilling to sacrifice his principles, not even to prove his loyalty to the woman he loves. In expanding this wafer-thin narrative into a two hour movie, Walsh was ably assisted by veteran scenarist, Frank S. Nugent and novelist, Richard Llewellyn who had written How Green Was My Valley and won the Pulitzer for it. Ford, who treasured working with time-honored friends as opposed to first-time collaborators, insulated himself with a family of thespians on The Quiet Man; real-life siblings and Ford’s extended clan augmenting the cast and crew, generating a homespun close-knit atmosphere on the set. Maureen O’Hara’s brothers and a sister had bit parts in the movie too, as did real-life brothers, Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields; respectively cast as the elfin coach master, Michaleen Oge Flynn and Reverend Cyril Playfair. The Quiet Man is essentially a romance – but one peppered in serious melodrama and justly celebrated bits of rambunctious comedy.  It is a film that, quite simply, ‘feels genuine’ with progressive and repeat viewings; Ford’s multilayered vignettes, steadily advancing on a certain uncanny verisimilitude for a way of life as much left behind to the annals of history in Ford’s own time as it now seems virtually impossible to fathom ever having existed at all. There is, I think, a celebratory quality about it too – one last hurrah for the old guard, made from the inspiration of memory and with the fortitude and the intuition that the movie would outlast the creative talents who made it possible in the first place and thus, live in our hearts and minds forever. 
We begin with the arrival of Sean Thornton (John Wayne) by train to the pastoral community of Innisfree. After a profitable stint in America, Thornton has come home to Ireland to stake his claim on his ancestral home. The modest cottage is currently owned by Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick); a wealthy landowner who has thus far refused to sell the property to loud-mouthed Squire Will ‘Red’ Danagher (Victor McLaglen). Thornton is a charmer. That much is for certain. Moreover, he is handsome and broad-shouldered, though no less a stranger in these parts, met with equal portions of curious skepticism and mild curiosity from the locals. After some feckless debate as to the whereabouts of the widow, carriage driver, Michaeleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) agrees to drive Thornton to Tillane’s estate. Along the way, Thornton is bewitched by his first glimpse of Mary-Kate Danagher (Maureen O’Hara) tending her flock of sheep along a stretch of idyllic countryside. Michaeleen can see for himself that Thornton’s infatuation will lead to trouble. He spirits the young buck away and post haste to the widow’s front parlor. Although she initially refuses Thornton his request – even after she learns he is no stranger to these parts – Tillane is swayed to sell the cottage to Thornton after Danagher bursts in to demand she reconsider his bid for the property instead. Thornton outbids Will and makes an immediate enemy of him.
Learning the new stranger in town has managed this minor coup Mary-Kate becomes immediately intrigued and decides to surprise Thornton by helping him to fix up the cottage that has fallen into a delicate state of disrepair since his time. Thornton attempts to seduce Mary-Kate one windswept and stormy night. Superficially, she is appalled by his cheek and slaps his face. But as the days wear on, Mary-Kate inevitably changes her tune. Thornton desires a courtship on his own terms. But the time-honored customs, and moreover, hushed - if hypocritical - scrutiny of the villagers, prevents their romance from blossoming. Without Will’s permission, despite her own desire to pursue the matter, Mary-Kate cannot accept Sean Thornton for her beaux. Michaeleen has other ideas however, and encourages Rev. Cyril Playfair (Arthur Shields) and Father Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond) to play along. After all, and despite his formidable wealth, Will is not very highly regarded in the community. In fact, he is nothing more than an uncouth blowhard whose money shields his self-importance as a solid citizen. Michaeleen, Playfair and Lonergan convince Will that the reason the widow has been unreceptive to his overtures – both romantic and economic - is because of Mary-Kate’s presence in his house. A home can have only one mistress. Because Will harbors true affections for the widow, he reluctantly agrees to Thornton and Mary Kate’s courtship and eventual marriage. Regrettably, the ruse turns sour on Mary-Kate’s wedding day when Will makes an impromptu pass at the widow, only to discover she is still reticent to entertain his affections.
Enraged at having been duped, Will declares Mary-Kate shall never have her dowry. The money means nothing to Thornton. But it remains a sense of pride for Mary-Kate, who refuses to sleep in her husband’s bed until he can stand up to her brother and get back the things left to her by their late mother. Will sucker punches Thornton. Disoriented, Thornton suffers a flashback. In his previous life in America, Thornton had been a prize fighter of some repute – Trooper Thorn - who accidentally killed his opponent in the ring and thereafter retired his boxing gloves in favor of becoming ‘a quiet man’.  Only Rev. Playfair knows about Thornton’s past – being an avid fan of the sport and thus collected a scrapbook full of memories about his favorite fisticuffs champions. But Mary Kate allows pride to get the better of her, repeatedly refusing to share her husband’s bed because she has deemed his reluctance to face Will as pure cowardice. This marital rift exponentially grows as Thornton’s patience is repeatedly tested. Michaeleen and a few of the town’s folk manage to bribe Will into relinquishing some of Mary Kate’s belongings. But Will absolutely refuses to give his sister her part of their mother’s inheritance, stating that if she wants it Thornton will have to fight him for it. Despite this bitter impasse, Mary-Kate is drawn to her husband’s side. The couple shares a passionate night together; their very first since the wedding. However, afterward Mary-Kate sneaks off to the Castletown depot to catch a train bound for Dublin.
Michaeleen alerts Thornton, who has finally had enough. Forcibly retrieving his wife from her railroad car, Thornton physically drags her by the back of her neck to her brother’s farm with the whole town in hot pursuit to watch as the sparks fly. Will pays Thornton for his sister’s dowry that both Thornton and Mary Kate share a part in tossing into the fire of a nearby furnace; she thereafter, suddenly proud to be his wife. Now, Will decides to start a fight with Thornton. It quickly escalates into an all-out brawl. The town lustily cheers as the two drag and pummel each other about the rustic landscape, with Thornton eventually winning the match by knocking Will into a nearby stream. Justly defeated, Will acquires a curious admiration for Thornton. The two men return to the local tavern to clean up, drink up and shake hands. Afterward the widow and Will begin a courtship under the town’s watchful gaze. Mary-Kate and Thornton reconcile, heading back to their cottage, presumably to christen their marital bed for a second time.
The Quiet Man is un-apologetically farcical in its last act; almost a negation of its rather austere beginning and lush romanticism that runs tempestuously hot and heavy during its middle act. Arguably, John Ford has allowed his heart to run away with his head – the treacle thickly spread and perhaps a tad too rich to be properly digested by some. And yet, The Quiet Man is a sheer delight – almost from its first moment to its last. Part of the film’s enduring appeal is owed to John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. We can genuinely believe in Wayne as the embodiment of this dichotomous ‘fighting/quiet’ man, capable of both kicking and kissing the girl he so desperately loves as propriety and willpower demands, while O’Hara remains the archetypal fierce Fenian, stirred to both passion and ire for her ever-lovin’ man. The other inimitable charm the film has going for it in spades is its supporting cast; a veritable potpourri of familiar faces from Ford’s stock company who bring enough of themselves to the parts as they continue to augment each other’s performances in this ensemble. One gets a very real sense of community here – a genuineness extending far beyond the lush green moors and cozy firesides Ford lovingly evokes throughout the story. The Quiet Man was mostly filmed on location in Cong, County Mayo on the grounds of Ashford Castle. In retrospect, it is a genuine pity Ford did not choose to lens all of his exteriors there, since two pivotal sequences; a horse race, and, the first romantic pas deux between Mary-Kate and Thornton (set, supposedly in the ruins of a church courtyard overlooking a cemetery) reveal the obviousness of sets and rear projection, momentarily taking us out of the story.
The Quiet Man has had a disastrous history on home video. For decades, the original Technicolor elements looked more like a flubbed colorization than actual 3-strip Technicolor, while the general image quality remained disgustingly subpar – more like viewing a badly worn transmission on a TV with rabbit ears, the broadcast taking place during an exceptionally violent thunderstorm. The Quiet Man’s public domain status did not help the cause of seeing it ‘restored and remastered’. However, previous DVD incarnations, released under the now mercifully defunct ‘Artisan Home Video’ banner, have given way to yet another change of hands and a new licensing agreement, and – best of all – this newly remastered Blu-ray to mark the film’s 60th Anniversary. Ironically, we can thank Olive Films for this cause for celebration; atypical of Olive’s usual cost and corner-cutting measures, they have introduced a new ‘Signature Series’ in an ambitious attempt to up the ante of their company's reputation. The previously issued Blu-ray of The Quiet Man is considerably brighter than this reissue. But is this new edition better? Hmmm. I would argue – yes. Though there are fleeting glimpses of age-related flicker, colors are infinitely more vibrant, without appearing to have been artificially boosted, this time around; the Technicolor sparkling as it should, and, without mis-registration of the original 3-strip elements. Winton Hoch and Archie Stout’s cinematography is a sumptuous feast for the eyes. The ‘wow’ factor is frequently in evidence – particularly during exterior location photography – revealing a vast amount of fine details in the flora and fauna. Close-ups deliver startling clarity, though flesh tones frequently adopt a somewhat orange ruddy complexion. Contrast appears solid.
Olive is still using the same source from its previous 4K Blu-ray, but the technical specs are better resolved this time out; with a few caveats. The thickness evident in the earlier release, obscuring fine details, is gone here, and grain seems more natural in appearance. While a lot of the movie looks superb, there are trace scenes where DNR compression rears its ugly head; darker scenes suffering the most with occasionally ‘milky’ grays and blacks. Mercifully, there’s no untoward sharpening. The image looks very film-like. The image is also very stable, while age-related artifacts are virtually a non-issue. The pros far outweigh these minor cons in my opinion. The DTS mono audio appears identical to the previously issued Blu-ray (not a bad thing); capturing the howling winds and distant babble of a brook in all their subtle glories. Dialogue sounds natural as do effects and music – all front and center.
Where the reissue excels is in the extras. Alas, the featurettes are very brief. After the oodles of extras included on the company’s previous re-issues of High Noon and Johnny Guitar, these just seem a tad disappointing; barely totaling 36 minutes. We get a brand new audio commentary with John Ford biographer, Joseph McBride, a tribute to Maureen O'Hara, hosted by Ally Sheedy and featuring Hayley and Juliet Mills, ‘Don't You Remember It, Seánín?: John Ford's The Quiet Man - a visual essay by historian and Ford devotee, Tag Gallagher; ‘Free Republic: The Story of Herbert J. Yates and Republic Pictures’, ‘The Old Man: Remembering John Ford’ - an appreciation by Peter Bogdanovich, as well as the same ‘The Making of The Quiet Manhosted by Leonard Maltin. Cumulatively, instead of being comprehensive these extras appear as mere addendums of the cheaply produced ‘sound bite’ quality that have come to represent ‘extras’ more often than not on Blu-ray. Were that Maureen O’Hara had lived to see the day. Perhaps, it is enough to know the henna-haired beauty will never be forgotten as long as this movie – among so many others – survives. Bottom line: The Quiet Man: Signature Series on Blu-ray is recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)