Wednesday, November 19, 2014

FEDORA: Blu-ray (UA 1978) Olive Films

An aged William Holden is in pursuit of the truth behind a once luminous, semi-retired Hollywood recluse in Billy Wilder’s Fedora (1978); a shamefully underrated masterpiece from the directorial giant who gave us, among many others – 1950’s scathing indictment of Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard; the antithesis of that town’s sycophantic nepotism. Fedora is, in fact, something of a follow-up/throwback to the aforementioned movie, based on Tom Tryon’s novel and conceived by Wilder as a passionate, often spellbinding meditation on the Hollywood that was, the bygone studio machinery that used to churn out movie magic en masse, and, the expected infallibility of ‘star quality’ – presumably, never meant to age. Timelessness is an intangible and foolhardy pursuit for mere mortals, however, and in his critique of this decaying Babylon, Wilder seems to be giving us more personal, bitter reminiscences; a careworn warhorse wearily clinging to the last vestiges of his own reputation. Fedora is old-fashioned in the best sense, richly textured, with finely wrought performances. Its plot, that of a vain silver screen diva, disfigured by botched plastic surgery at the height of her reign and feigning eternal youth by exploiting her estranged daughter to assume her identity - thereby destroying her own chances for happiness – may, at least on the surface, seem a shay ridiculous. But Wilder perfectly contains both the ironies and the enigma in this tragedy about two women destined to burn in hell for misguidedly chasing the same eternal flicker of corruptible youth and beauty.
Fedora comes at the tail end of Billy Wilder’s career. It is a flashback by an old master; its ruminations brutal and haunted, its anecdotes about the fast and frothy life of a movie queen of Garbo-esque mystique (she throws herself under a train like Anna Karenina – one of Garbo’s greatest successes) teeming with a majestic sort of guilt, bordering on epically perverse grand guignol.  Density and equilibrium are equally applied to the screenplay, co-written by Wilder and his long-time associate, I.A.L Diamond; the towering score by no less an authority than Miklós Rózsa, thundering with ersatz empathy and pathos. There is nothing remotely self-conscious about the exercise, Wilder reeling his audience in on the lure of an almost supernatural suspicion begun when aged, hard-luck film producer, Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweiler (Holden) decides to confront the elusive apparition of a woman he has long admired and once had a fleeting tryst with as a much younger man.  Made at any other juncture in Wilder’s career, Fedora would have justly taken its place alongside Sunset Boulevard as a bona fide work of genius. Alas, by 1978 Wilder’s good fortune – and, indeed, that of Tinsel Town itself – was far less conducive to the movie’s success.
A four year absence separates Fedora from Wilder’s The Front Page, ill-received and a financial flop. To Wilder, it must have appeared as though the very earth beneath his feet had suddenly shifted from a massive quake of audience expectations left unfulfilled at the box office. In reality, it was the audience who had strayed – perverted in their viewing habits and tastes – the backlash from a decade’s worth of indie-product making it more difficult for even stellar craftsmen of Wilder’s ilk to exist; deprived of the studio system’s insular artistic core, helmed by a competent mogul ready to back up and provide them with carte blanche. The other uphill battle for Fedora was it came in the wake of a slew of problematic stabs made by other filmmakers to tell stories about ‘old Hollywood. The grave-robbing begun with such offerings as Harlow (1967), Gable and Lombard, and, W.C. Fields and Me (both released in 1976) took on added artifice with Fedora; the fictional tale of an imaginary star, transparently modeled on the reclusive Garbo.
Still, it was a tough sell. Wilder’s first choices for leading ladies Marlene Dietrich to play the title character, and Faye Dunaway as her daughter, Antonia, fell through after both actresses expressed a genuine contempt for Tryon’s novel and the Wilder/Diamond screenplay. Indeed, Wilder could find no major production company states’ side to foot his bills or even show a modicum of interest in the project; a considerable blow for the man who once commanded respect without fail or question from the studio hierarchy and could literally write his own ticket at will. Fedora had a very spotty incubation period, beginning with Universal Pictures paying Wilder and Diamond to write the screenplay, but then promptly putting it into turnaround – code for a sort of creative purgatory from which too many projects are never rescued.  Undaunted, Wilder began to shop Fedora to other potential investors, discovering more cold shoulders than anticipated. Eventually, an infusion of capital from German investors, Geria Films, Bavaria Atelier GmbH and Société Française de Production allowed Wilder to make more definite plans.  In reviewing Fedora today, one can see nothing of Hollywood in it for obvious reasons. It was shot entirely abroad, in Greece and France, even the brief flashbacks supposedly taking place inside one of the cavernous sound stages at MGM during the halcyon thirties. In preproduction, Wilder had almost settled on casting former fashion model, Marthe Keller to play the dual role of the younger Fedora and her daughter, Antonia. Keller’s near fatal nerve damage sustained in a horrific auto accident prevented her from wearing heavy makeup, and Wilder thus reverted to hiring Hildegard Knef for the part of the aged crone.
Shooting commenced at a relatively uninterrupted pace. But it was only during his assemblage of the rough cut that Wilder suddenly realized, and much to his horror, neither Keller nor Knef’s dialogue was audible, necessitating the dubbing of both by German actress, Inga Bunsch for the English-speaking version of the film. Alas, Fedora’s troubles were only to fester and grow from here. The original distributors, Allied Artists, unceremoniously ditched Wilder in the eleventh hour of their agreement, after a sneak peak of the film for the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation in New York City met with less than enthusiastic response. Rumors abounded Fedora was a lemon; Lorimar Productions stepping up to the plate, but planning to release it as a CBS TV movie of the week. Mercifully, these plans were thwarted when United Artists agreed to a limited distribution deal, but ordering Wilder to cut approximately twelve minutes before another sneak preview in Santa Barbara. In the old days, previews were meant to test and improve the overall quality of a motion picture. Regrettably, in the cost-cutting 70’s, such pre-releases only served to cement a picture’s reputation either as a sleeper hit or a disaster in the making. In Fedora’s case, the latter scenario proved all too quickly to come to fruition, the audience bored and walking out; the critics mostly tepid in their praise or marginally cynical in their reviews.
Wilder’s perfectionism was mortally wounded by their response. He refused to cut or alter the film any further. Fedora had its official ‘world premiere’ at Cannes in May, 1978. By then, UA had lost all faith in Fedora, releasing it in only a few choice ‘art house’ theaters in Europe and America where it failed to catch fire or even the tailwind of Wilder’s immense reputation as a director. Dejected, Wilder would later quip with more than a modicum of disdain that UA had spent $625 on the film’s marketing campaign. Possibly, a wider release coupled with more PR would have buoyed the picture onward to a profit. But in retrospect, Fedora is hardly an artistic flop. Although it does not quite measure up to Wilder’s top tier efforts from the 50’s or 60’s, it is imbued with his distinctly glib style. The acting is uniformly solid, particularly William Holden’s craggy middle-aged has been, chasing the elusive dream of a comeback with the ageless and remote Fedora as his star. Part of Fedora’s allure derives from their passionate – if all too brief – affair of bygone years; ironically begun after Fedora accuses a much younger Dutch (played by Stephen Collins) of being ‘a queer’. The film opens with Fedora’s death; she, sheathed in a hooded cloak and wild eyed, throwing herself beneath the wheels of an oncoming train.
From here we regress into various flashbacks, to the summer before and Dutch’s arrival in Corfu; determined to be reunited with the legend, mysteriously not past her prime.  He has a script tucked under his arm – a remake of Anna Karenina that can’t possibly fail. And Fedora, who seemingly came back from the dead a half dozen years earlier to be hotter than ever at the box office, but then just as inexplicably went into a self-imposed exile at the height of her own popularity, would be a natural in the part. If only Dutch could somehow find the opportunity to make his pitch. Alas, the actress is sequestered on an island chateau surrounded by barbed wire and stone fences, guard dogs and a bizarre entourage of sycophants, including the aged and domineering Polish Countess Sobryanski (Knef), her overprotective servant, Miss Balfour (Frances Sternhagen), a rather thuggish chauffeur, Kritos (Gottfried John) and curmudgeonly, Dr. Vando (José Ferrer), the physician reportedly responsible for maintaining Fedora’s perennial youthfulness. Yet, something is remiss about the good doctor, intermittently regarded as either a miracle worker with only one client or a sinister quack with a diabolically spotty track record. The Wilder/Diamond screenplay revels in keeping the audience guessing as to the uncertainty of Vando’s art. Why should the greatest plastic surgeon in the world shutter his lucrative clinic in Germany to take on just one client?
At first, Dutch’s interest in reuniting with Fedora is purely mercenary. Without her, his backers have elected to walk away from his proposed film project. Seizing the opportunity to ingratiate himself to Vando on the mainland, Dutch quickly realizes the good doctor has zero interest in helping him secure a chance meeting with Fedora. So Dutch slips a copy of his script into Vando’s coat, certain when Fedora reads it she will jump at the chance to do the film; another comeback –another chance to prove to fans she hasn’t lost the magic that made her internationally famous. Too bad for Dutch he is summoned to the villa by the Countess Sobryanski instead, given a tongue-lashing in her presence, but nevertheless denied access to Fedora. When Fedora emerges from her bedroom she is indeed as startling youthful as ever. Dutch cannot help but observe how time appears to have stopped for her while he has suffered its indignations; becoming a much older man, barely recognizable to his former paramour. Fedora expresses some interest in his movie. But her pleas grow hysterical and frantic; the Countess ordering Balfour to escort Fedora back to her room. Afterward, the Countess fabricates a nervous breakdown for the former star, presumably predicated on a failed love affair with actor Michael York (York, playing himself in a flashback).
Dutch doesn’t buy it, but departs the villa with script in hand, determined to think of some way to reach Fedora without the Countess’ influence. He doesn’t have long to wait; Fedora reappearing in his hotel room on a dark and rainy night; briefly pleading to be rescued before being found out by Vandos and Kritos, who waste no time hurrying Fedora off into a waiting limousine. Now, it is Dutch who is frantic. No one believes his story. Moreover, he cannot find anyone who will take an interest in rescuing Fedora from the Countess. So Dutch storms the villa alone, discovering it vacated and shuttered. An intercepted and cryptic telephone call for Vando tips off Dutch that Fedora and her entourage are likely headed for Vando’s clinic in Germany. However, he is unable to act upon the information; knocked unconscious by Kritos and awakening nearly a week later only to learn Fedora has since taken her own life. Attending her funeral, a glittery assemblage of adoring fans, Dutch confronts the Countess and Vando as coconspirators in Fedora’s demise.
He is in for a very rude awakening as the Countess confesses she is Fedora; that the woman lying in the casket is the love child she gave birth to but kept secret all these many years, possibly after being impregnated by Dutch during their foolish youthful dalliance from long ago. Billy Wilder delves into a very hideous and insidious side of fame; Fedora isolating her young daughter (played by Christine Mueller). Antonia is kept a prisoner of Fedora’s own image –tucked in the shadows and all but ignored accept for the briefest of reunions, instead pawned off as a ward to be looked after by Balfour. The child is undeniably – and justly – resentful; returning to her mother’s side many years later as a young adult after Vando’s experimental injections – meant to keep Fedora eternally youthful – have instead resulted in her permanent disfigurement. Multiple strokes follow, crippling the once glamorous screen queen and confining her to a wheelchair.
Hence, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science contacts Fedora to bestow an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, Fedora concocts a perverse illusion for the Academy’s President (Henry Fonda, playing himself) to witness. She dresses Antonia in her clothes and trains her in all mannerisms and deportment. The illusion is uncanny, the deception complete. Fedora now perpetrates the ultimate fraud; a comeback with Antonia carrying on the masquerade. Miraculously, no one questions how a woman in her sixties can appear as unchanged and vibrant as a girl of thirty. Many movies follow, as does a whirlwind romance with co-star, Michael York who falls madly for Fedora. It’s a fairytale, alas, doomed to the darkest side of a tale told by the Brothers Grimm; Antonia informing Balfour she intends to confess everything to York and thus, marry him as her own person. This, of course, Fedora cannot – and will not – allow.
And so, the second coming of the star abruptly ends; Fedora impersonating the Countess, kidnapping and holding her daughter a prisoner at her isolated Corfu villa; perpetually anesthetized by Vando and kept under lock and key to ensure no one discovers the truth. Unable to surrender herself to the cause, Antonia makes a daring escape from the villa. Met at the depot by Balfour, Antonia learns that none of her love letters to Michael York were ever mailed; that he knows nothing of her situation and is therefore not waiting for her at the station. Heartbroken, Antonia throws herself under the oncoming train – at last free of the deception she helped to perpetuate. We return to Fedora’s funeral; the late afternoon guests allowed to pay their last respects as Dutch bids the real Fedora farewell and departs, realizing the final resting place for his dreams and his memories has died a long time ago. We learn from Dutch that only a scant six weeks later the woman who called herself the Countess has also passed away.
Fedora is one of the most lyrically tragic homages to Hollywood stardom yet attempted; Wilder’s inability to reconcile the ersatz glamour and exoticism of old time talent with the town’s notorious reputation for dismantling, destroying and discrediting it, leaves a very bitter aftertaste on our collective misperceptions about fame and fortune. The desirability of a life in the spotlight is shattered. In fact, Wilder seems unscrupulous in his blind determination to shake even the staunchest daydreamer from his/her illusions. Success for Fedora and Antonia comes at an impossible price; the mother, selfish as ever as she exploits her naïve offspring to satisfy her overweening ego, the daughter attempting to draw nearer to a remote and desolate figure without any maternal warmth left to share. Antonia’s successful morphing into the real Fedora’s legacy is uncanny – and, in fact, unrealistic. But it’s only the legacy worth preserving here; not the tangible flesh and blood that might have carried the burden of such incalculable cruelties through to the inevitable finding out of their charade. 
In some ways, Fedora foreshadows our present-day obsession with youth-orientated culture; the coarsening, cheapening and ultimate disposal of humanity for neither art’s sake nor reputation, but simply in favor of the next ‘best thing’.  Wilder’s criticisms of Hollywood then were undoubtedly warranted. But the town has seen too much since. Fedora is far more prescient and relevant today; the quixotic myths about Hollywood brutalized and bombarded by a barrage of ‘tell all’ biographies and the steady stream of tabloid journalism meant to deny us of our fanciful ideas about the glamorous world of celebrity pop culture. Fedora really is Wilder at his best. It is a film imbued with the most transcendent qualities of old time entertainment, unfashionably out of touch with the grittier screen achievements from the 70’s, but wrought with a narrative assurance far beyond the comprehension of most any director working in movies today. Though imperfect, Wilder’s anachronistic approach to storytelling yields a highly personal aestheticism that buoys his harshest commentaries about fame. And, if there were ever any doubt about the lingering sting of Wilder’s prose, it’s all as plainly written on Bill Holden’s craggy face; the arctic desolation of a dream remembered, a remembrance best forgotten since, and well past its prime, and finally – regrettably – relegated to those ghost flowers of our collective imaginations, deadened without the illusion left intact.
Fedora was restored and remastered in 2k by Bavaria Atelier GmbH and, as represented on Olive Film’s new Blu-ray, is mostly impressive. There are a few inexplicably soft – nee blurry and decidedly out of focus shots; most noticeably underneath the main titles (partly the result of the primitive optical printing methods back hen). But this is sourced from an original camera negative and color saturation is mostly consistent, if leaning toward the warm spectrum. Better still, there are no age-related artifacts to distract and film grain is accurately reproduced. Contrast, however, is infrequently weak, the diffusion filters used in Gerry Fisher’s cinematography causing whites to bloom or give off a soft ‘angelic’ glow. Exteriors shot at the sundrenched villa teeter between paler than expected contrast, compared to the studio-bound and night time photography. Flesh tones are orange, though not demonstratively. Color fidelity is mostly solid. Close ups often reveal minute detail in hair, skin and clothing. A few sequences exhibit startling clarity. Undoubtedly, this is the best Fedora has ever looked on home video. But it lacked the essential consistency to achieve the ‘wow!’ factor. The DTS mono audio ably supports this dialogue-driven story. Alas, it also deprives us of listening to Miklos Rosza’s gorgeous score in the full-bodied luster of true stereo. There are no extras. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, November 17, 2014

A CHRISTMAS CAROL: Blu-ray (MGM 1938) Warner Home Video

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has been filmed too many times to adequately list in any review; the various cinematic permutations of this timeless tale of the redemptive quality of Christianity’s most sacred holiday given over to a litany of fairly rich and vibrant impressions and some truly awful adaptations along the way. None, however, are quite as disappointing as MGM’s 1938 rendering, directed by Edwin L. Marin. It took six weeks for Dickens to pen this perennially revived magnum opus and a scant 69 minutes for Hugo Butler’s badly mangled screenplay to insincerely rush us through a series of vignettes even more episodic than as depicted in the novella. I confess to never having been much of a fan of this immortal classic. I prefer A Tale of Two Cities or Oliver Twist to A Christmas Carol. However, without Dickens own ingeniousness for linking passages all Marin can think to do is periodically fade to black, Butler’s prose departing from Dickens too, and not in ways that improve on his greatness either. Narratively, this is a very clunky, clumsily edited and not terribly engaging motion picture. It comes to life in only the briefest of fits and sparks and, even then, mostly from the presence of easily recognizable faces; their dumb show tragically less than convincing because they have precious little to say and even less treasurable time to say it with any conviction.
It’s disheartening because MGM has afforded this Christmas Carol its usual exquisite production values; Edwin B. Willis’ art direction (cribbing from sets and costumes created for MGM’s immaculate 1935 adaptation of another Dickens’ masterpiece – David Copperfield); Cedric Gibbon’s production design, and a superb cast, featuring Reginald Owen as the perpetually scowled Ebenezer Scrooge; an angelic Ann Rutherford as the Spirit of Christmas Past, Lionel Braham as the quintessence of The Spirit of Christmas Present, Terry Kilburn (an infallible Tiny Tim), Gene Lockhart (Bob Cratchit), Forrester Harvey (Old Fezziwig), Barry Mckay (Scrooge’s nephew, Fred), Lynne Carver (his betrothed, Bess) and finally, Leo G. Carroll as a thoroughly spooky, Jacob Marley’s ghost. Fair enough, Owen’s Scrooge cannot hold a candle to Alistair Sim in the 1951 British-made classic; renamed ‘Scrooge’. In fact, the Brits were fairly outraged upon viewing MGM’s version. Their contempt, however, did not extend to this side of the pond where A Christmas Carol was a great commercial success for the studio and has endured with some repute. Yet, the British-ness of the production is entirely superficial. A Christmas Carol has the look of a sumptuous period picture, but lacks its intuitive appeal and air of authenticity.
No, the fault of this Christmas Carol is decidedly not in its stars, but in the way director, Marin has managed to bungle nearly every opportunity to utilize the strength of their collective thespian prowess toward anything more satisfying than this veritable claptrap of snippets and sound bites. Interminably, Marin takes not only the hallmarks of Dickens’ enduring reputation – and that of the novella’s stunning success, but also the scantiness of a 69 minute feature and transforms both into a rank exercise in abject tedium. He also takes too many liberties with the original text, concocting vignettes while excising whole portions of the original text. The great tragedy of this Carol is that it starts off quite strong, particularly as Leo G. Carroll’s Marley is every bit as frightful and haunting; Scrooge’s shuddered and creaky old manor house exemplifying the purgatory of its unscrupulous miser; redressed from MGM’s 1935 Anna Karenina. Carroll, a superb actor, is ominous and commanding as Scrooge’s forsaken former business partner, destined to haunt the netherworld between heaven and hell for all embittered eternity, dragging and rattling his chains behind him.
Worse, there is pointlessness to the visitations by the three subsequent Spirits in this Carol – the ghost of Christmas Past, as example, barely showing Scrooge a glimmer of his lonely youth, ushered away at a private school and denied the joys of Christmas by an estranged father. We also catch a fleeting glimpse of old Fezziwig; a kindly gent and employer who treated Scrooge benevolently as his surrogate son. Missing from this sojourn is the novella’s lavish house party given by Fezziwig, and, Scrooge’s devotion to Fan (an ebullient Ira Stevens, barely seen); his beloved and ever-devoted sister, who died in childbirth. The screenplay doesn’t even think to mention Belle, Scrooge’s fiancée whom Ebenezer forsakes as he greedily pursues the love of wealth instead. What we’re left with is one hurried night flight amidst the clouds, done with noticeable wires suspending its two stars, and some fairly transparent rear projection and stock model shots.
The second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, is as mixed a bag of blessings; Lionel Braham a lusty and enthusiastic spirit indeed, but given precious little to do in this rehash. In the novella Scrooge, who has declared Christmas a humbug, is shown the importance of the holiday on the collective mindset of humanity; witnessing various townsfolk reveling in their shopping experiences at market; the joys of the season eluding him. The movie jettisons this montage of revelry; scurrying with some urgency to Fred’s Christmas party instead. Far from the bright and bouncy occasion depicted in the novella, the filmic Fred is seen surrounded by close friends and his fiancée, Bess; the brood addressing the plight of Ebenezer. While the novella’s Fred does indeed discuss his uncle at the party with equal portions of empathy and pity, without the merriments to bookend the exercise on celluloid, the cinematic gathering takes on the flavoring of a psychoanalytic deconstruction of Scrooge’s barren soul.  After all, it’s Christmas. Don’t they have more pleasurable joys to pursue?
The spirit now takes Scrooge to Bob Cratchit’s humble abode where he witnesses the impoverished family nevertheless imbued with the truest spirit of Christmas. Tiny Tim is quite ill, but teeming with excitement for the holidays; the spirit informing Scrooge the boy has not long to live if his present course of illness is not intervened upon with the necessary treatment and care. Once again, director Marin cuts what ought to have been one of the movie’s most startling vignettes from the film; the spirit revealing two destitute children beneath his lavish, fur-lined robe. Labeled Ignorance and Want; the spirit of the novel forewarns Scrooge of the perils of each, repeating his own words back to him, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” It should be pointed out that the infinitely superior 1951 film version, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring the quintessential Scrooge (Alastair Sim) retains this blood-curdling moment and to exemplary effect.
Predictably, the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come arrives last; a hooded, threatening figure on the windswept moors, looming with skeletal fingers to direct Scrooge to the Cratchit household one year later; the family still gathered around the hearth, only now mourning the passing of Tiny Tim. The novella is fairly deliberate in illustrating the death of a ‘wretched man’ whom we quickly learn is Ebenezer. Only businessmen attend his funeral, and even then, simply because a luncheon has been provided. From here, the novella illustrates Scrooge’s indentured servants raiding his bedroom while his corpse still lays undisturbed in bed; collecting what treasures they can to sell off to a fence. None of this appears in the final vignette in the film; the ghost merely ushering Scrooge to a neglected tombstone inscribed with his name. The 1970 musicalized version of A Christmas Carol (also renamed Scrooge and starring Albert Finney) has Ebenezer struggle with this last spirit, revealing its skeletal remains beneath the weighty black robes; Scrooge tumbling through the ground in terror into the bowels of hell where he is reunited with Marley, directing several devil’s to sheath Ebenezer in heavy chains.
The epiphany suffered by Scrooge in virtually all of the many other incarnations is inevitably more fully realized than herein. In fact, Reginald Owen’s Scrooge begins to experience a miraculous conversion almost from the moment he is terrorized by Marley in his bed chamber; certainly, by the time he has been introduced to the Spirit of Christmas Past, and definitely in the shadow of Christmas Present. Owen’s lack of sour cider and vinegar coursing through his veins, except during the first brief spate of scenes inside his miserly shop, is an incalculable misfire from which his characterization never recovers. Owen is impeccably bitter as he admonishes Fred for his benevolent good cheer and orders the charitable collectors out without a donation. But once he arrives at his brooding, dimly lit abode, he becomes a bumbler of sorts; just a fool about to get his justly deserved comeuppances, cringing from the sidelines and willing to rethink his supposedly dyed in the wool corruption of Christmas as the proverbial humbug. Like every other vignette in this adaptation; Scrooge’s penultimate revelation - to keep Christmas in his heart year round - is vastly truncated. We see him skulking about as though he were a sort of peg-legged hermit; grinning ridiculously from ear to ear. Is it any wonder Fred or Bob Cratchit should both think him mad after their first sight of this newly reformed Scrooge; dancing about with bags of plum pudding, toys and a Christmas turkey to boot; shouting his jovial blessings for a very Merry Christmas, and pledging his time, efforts and – most important and startling of all – his monies to the service of his newly reinstated partner, and the nephew he intends should inherit the business after his inevitable demise.
A Christmas Carol ought to have yielded more treasures than this. Again, the actors are whitewashed into stereotypes; particularly Gene Lockhart’s effete and Humpty-Dumpty-ish naïve and his deliciously silly wife, Martha (Bunny Beatty).  Yet, despite its A-list trappings, the film plays very much like a rushed – and severely botched – B-unit serial. Even its meager run time – 69 scant minutes of mostly joyless wonderment – suggests, perhaps, MGM was marketing its Carol as part of a double bill, rather than its own stand-alone holiday release. In preparing this review – like all others, I admit to doing a little fine-tuning and homework regarding the general and popular consensus among critics. Generally, I like to get a feel for such things. But I remain frankly unconvinced by the collective argument this Christmas Carol is second only to the 1951 offering. If we are to contextualize it as such then, by all means, label it an extremely distance ‘second’ in a queue with most any other version labeled 1B, 1C and so on! All prejudices aside, I was singularly unimpressed MGM’s A Christmas Carol; particularly in the shadow of my reviewing the 1970 – and, more directly 1951 – screen adaptations: also, because it is an MGM film, and, from a period when more impeccable craftsmanship abounded in spades on the back lot. The apples to oranges comparisons really are embarrassing, though unequivocally serve as a twofold reminder; first, that not even the lyrical artistry of a William Shakespeare – or, in this case, Charles Dickens is infallible, and second; even with peerless material at its disposal, the cinema screen is quite capable of transforming the proverbial silk purse back into a sow’s ear.
Nothing shoddy about Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray – a marked improvement over its lackluster, edge enhancement and artifact riddled DVD from 2002. Wow! What an improvement! For starters, the B&W elements exhibit a cleaned-up and layered visual refinement that belies the film’s 70+ years. For the first time we see fine details in hair, clothing and background detail; the evocation of Victorian England far more impressive than I remembered. Film grain is very natural and the old problematic issues of shimmer, dirt and other age-related and digitally imposed anomalies have been completely eradicated for a decidedly pleasing and generally smooth visual presentation. Yes, the process shots are still wanting. The visitation by Marley and Scrooge’s flight with the Spirit of Christmas Past are quietly marred by the forgivable shortcomings and sins of matte process work of yore. It is unlikely more could have been done to improve the clarity and/or sharpness of these vintage and quaint SFX. But contrast is solid and black levels astound. The audio is a lossless DTS mono. Extras are limited to the same bunch included on the old DVD and in just as squalid a condition; 480i. Lousy! Where’s the point (except, economical) of extras presented in a quality – or lack thereof – that make them virtually unpleasant to view? Bottom line: if you love A Christmas Caroland this version in particular – then the Blu-ray wins as the preferred home video presentation.  It looks great.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY: Blu-ray (MGM 1945) Warner Archive

One of the most remarkable literary adaptations ever to emerge from MGM, Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) remains a startling tale of the supernatural, of course, based on the masterwork by Oscar Wilde. The film flies in the face of the studio’s motto ‘ars gratia artis’ – loosely translated as ‘art for art’s sake’ - its harsh critique of aestheticism based on Wilde’s own celebrated dabbling with its precepts. Aestheticism today is superficially translated as living one’s life solely for pleasure. But actually, in Wilde’s time there was an entire mantra that went with this scant definition; a wanton meandering through life as a reflection of nothing better than to mildly amuse. According these precepts, art should be beautiful and one should strive to emulate its beauty in the real world. There is no place for morality or even a social conscience in aestheticism. Achieving venal gratification is all that matters; a very Machiavellian approach to human existence and one which Wilde had begun to question and, in fact, was quite critical of at the time he wrote his one and only novel.
Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray is hardly the creature exposed to us in Lewin’s film; the stoic, glacially serene brunette male beauty as masterfully portrayed by Hurd Hatfield. Nor is Angela Lansbury’s Sybil Vane anywhere near the novel’s depiction of a worldly Shakespearean actress who manages to seduce Dorian, but then commits the carnal sin of aestheticism by forsaking her art for her lover, thereby rendering her importance in Dorian’s life utterly moot and disposable. No, Wilde’s incarnation of the ‘perfect’ male specimen and the girl whose love he tortures into premature death are far removed from Wilde’s original intent. And yet, the film functions as a superior re-telling of Wilde’s prose.  In the novel, Dorian Gray is a buff, blonde Adonis who exudes, rather than concealing, his emotions. In casting against type for the film, Lewin achieves a rather spectacularly spooky effect. It is said the director repeatedly forced Hurd Hatfield to keep his facial features virtually unchanged throughout the story. Hatfield, a skilled actor of considerable range (whose post-Dorian Gray career fell sadly at the mercy of maintaining the illusion of his alter ego), was literally straight-jacketed in his performance. The effect, however, is uncanny, foreshadowing the malignancy of the character’s wretched spiral into self-destruction.
As for Angela Lansbury’s Sybil Vane; she has been reshaped in Lewin’s screenplay into the most unassuming innocent from a lower strata of life; the celebrated chanteuse of The Two Turtles; a lowbrow nightclub in the heart of Limehouse – then considered England’s ‘red light’ district.  Lewin, who was a highly literate man, a huge fan of Oscar Wilde, and, a former University professor to boot, had no compunction about toying with Wilde’s original prose. Yet in translating the story to the screen there is an almost religious adherence to Wilde’s central themes – to keep the actual tawdriness and debaucheries consuming Dorian Gray’s core a secret from the audience. In the novel, Wilde commits only a few veiled lines to suggest the devilry his Dorian Gray might be up to, while in the movie Lewin briefly shows us his Dorian merely trolling the stark alleys and murky byways of Blue Gate Fields. The novel caused quite a scandal for Wilde when it was first published in 1890.  Despite its incendiary appeal, Wilde insisted that the sins of Dorian Gray were only present in the reader’s lurid imagination.
As in the novel, Dorian Gray is a man in love with himself – or, that is to say, with the image of his own physical attractiveness, captured for posterity within a startling portrait painted by his good friend, Basil Hollward (Lowell Gilmore). In the otherwise B&W movie, this portrait is revealed to the audience thrice, each time in blazing Technicolor. The portrait takes Lord Henry Wotten’s (George Sanders) breath away. In the novel, Wotten is something of a bi- or perhaps homo-erotic catalyst who contributes to Dorian’s downfall. In the movie however, Wotten’s contribution to Dorian’s fate is far more insidious. As played to perfection by George Sanders, eyes gleaming, cheeks proudly gloating beneath his Mephistophelian goatee, Wotten is a very cultured bon vivant, undeniably attracted to Dorian’s glacially masculine handsomeness. But he neither goads nor orchestrates the fate of our anti-heroic fop by plucking his strings as an overbearing puppet master; rather, he merely presides over Dorian’s misadventures by introducing aestheticism into the young man’s cultured mind. The only way to divert a temptation, Wotten suggests, is to yield to it - to give in and satisfy its urge. Having done so, the urge no longer teases the imagination because it has been revealed and/or tested in a very concrete way.
In a moment of weakness, Dorian concurs with Wotten’s theory and decides to make his own Faustian pact with the devil: that if only he could remain eternally youthful he is willing to sacrifice Basil’s art in place of his own bodily corruption. Basil’s portrait – the iconography of his outward beauty - will decay, revealing both the awfulness of Dorian’s actions and the ravages of time.  It is a fool’s pact, of course, one made by a young man who cannot imagine himself robbed of the great good fortune of his good looks. These have made him the envy of most men and a very desirable artifact to at least two women; Sybil Vane (Angela Lansbury) and Basil’s daughter, Gladys Hallward (played as a precocious child by Carol Diane Keppler, then, later as an adult by doe-eyed Donna Reed).
In critiques of the movie, George Sanders’ Henry Wotten is often misperceived as the devil incarnate. But if anything his Henry Wotten is the devil’s advocate, and perhaps not even that – Wotten’s renunciation of aestheticism upon the discovery of Dorian’s badly decomposed and tortured body, lying on the floor inside his upstairs attic playroom in the film’s penultimate moment, perfectly mirroring Wilde’s own harsh criticisms of aestheticism as a way of life, but also redeeming Sander’s Wotten of any wrong-doing he might have exercised.  Wilde’s details about the relationship between Wotten and Dorian remain sketchy at best, particularly since sodomy was then a crime punishable by imprisonment and certainly not a topic readily discussed in prominent literature of the day.
Morose at the prospect that his own life is slipping away, Dorian takes to the streets of Limehouse. He meets singer Sybil Vane at The Two Turtles, a seedy pub run by Malvolio Jones (Billy Bevan). Sybil’s love life is mismanaged by Jones and her mother (Lydia Bilbrook), each of whom exact a fee for Dorian’s romantic pursuit of the girl. Despite her station in life, and the wily machinations of the spurious adults who surround her, Sybil remains a girl pure of heart. She refuses Dorian’s stipend and pursues him with unfettered affections. He, in turn, is absolutely smitten with her, even going so far as to tell both Basil and Wotten of his discovery and encourages them to meet Sibyl at the Two Turtles some time later. Only Basil can see the true value of the girl. Wotten is merely amused, suggesting a cruel experiment to Dorian to test the fidelity of Sybil’s affections. Wotten tells Dorian that he should invite Sybil to his home that evening under an innocent pretext, but then make violent advances to seduce her. If she accepts these, then she is a creature no more favorable than a guttersnipe and is to be discarded by Dorian at once.
Basil is appalled by the spitefulness of the exercise. But Dorian elects to test Wotten’s theory. Unapologetically, and with no emotion, he orders Sybil to stay the night or lose his affections forever. The heartlessness of his invitation breaks Sybil’s young heart. Moreover, it shatters her idealisms about Dorian – a man whom she truly, painfully loves.  Her pride and sense of morality encourage her to walk out. But Dorian callously strikes up a Chopin prelude with great vigor. This he had previously played for Sybil with demure tenderness at The Two Turtles to illustrate his legitimate affections for her. But now the music rings ominous as it lures Sybil back to Dorian’s side with great and tragic reluctance; her advancing shadow approaching from behind as Dorian continues to play on.
Sometime later we learn that, having once taken advantage of the girl, Dorian has repeatedly lured Sibyl to his bedchamber, each time her love growing more resilient for him while his exponentially cools toward her until the moment of his outright dismissal arrives by messenger. Dorian consults his portrait, detecting a slight smirk in the face staring back at him. Is it real or imagined? Examining his own flawless features in the hall mirror, Dorian realizes that his pact has begun to take hold. He is ageless, the portrait reflecting his insincerities in his stead. Having surrendered to Dorian, Sybil is destroyed by this remote farewell. She vanishes from the movie – and presumably, from all polite society thereafter. We learn much later from Sybil’s devoted brother, the mariner James (Richard Fraser) that she has died, presumably by her own hand or at the very least, prematurely from a broken heart.
News of Sybil’s demise eventually reaches Dorian. He is perhaps wounded by this discovery, although his first recourse is hardly to mourn her loss, but rather to delve deeper into a self-indulgent litany of debaucheries that leads further to his own destruction. The portrait, hidden from our view, is infrequently consulted by Dorian – its eventual exile beneath a heavy cloak and hidden under lock and key in the upstairs attic playroom where other relics from Dorian’s forgotten youth now reside, suggests that its physical ravages are beyond casual concealment. The years pass. Gladys grows into maturity and is courted by David Stone (Peter Lawford); an amiable suitor whom she does not love. Dorian toys with Gladys affections. But his ageless human perfection has become a source of quiet gossip and the subject of much speculation amongst even his closest friends.
Intent on sparing his daughter the unpleasantness of learning the truth about Dorian Gray, Basil has long defended his old friend’s honor when questioned about these persistent rumors. But his curiosities and apprehensions continue to linger. Unable to dismiss them without prejudice, Basil confronts Dorian and insists that he be allowed to view the portrait. Dorian denies this request at first. But Basil presses on, informing Dorian that he will do everything within his power to spare Gladys any great unhappiness. Dorian reluctantly leads Basil to the attic. Horrified by the ravages depicted in his artistry, Basil realizes that the rumors about Dorian Gray are all true. So that Gladys should never know the truth, Dorian stabs Basil to death in the attic, the portrait’s hand beginning to bleed as a consequence of his actions.
The murder of Basil is perhaps the most startling sequence in the movie; Harry Stradling’s extraordinary and Oscar-winning B&W cinematography capturing Dorian’s unrepentant façade as a ceiling gas lamp teeters wildly back and forth, revealing in contrasting light and shadow Basil’s bloodied corpse slumped across the desk. This sequence is capped off by another moment of understated showmanship as Dorian uses an embroidered cloth from his youth to casually wipe his blood-stained hands. Immediately following this chilling sequence there is another, in which Dorian now orders another old friend, Allen Campbell (Douglas Watson) to dispose of Basil’s remains or face having his own sins exposed by Dorian to Campbell’s wife and family. Like the sins of Dorian Gray, Campbell’s are never fully fleshed out for the audience. Nevertheless, they must be fairly lurid. For Campbell, unable to bring himself to terms with his own demons, later commits suicide to spare himself the indignation of his own duplicity in Basil’s murder.
Dorian Gray is often referred to – incorrectly - as a sociopath. In the truest sense of the word, the aforementioned scenes do suggest as much. But then comes the fateful moment when Dorian is reunited with Sybil’s brother, the pair having just come from a brothel in Limehouse, and James determined to exact his pound of flesh from the man he rightfully blames for his sister’s untimely death. The confrontation, however, never entirely materializes perhaps because James can sense a parallel between their lives. But it does open an old wound in Dorian’s emotional psyche; one that will continue to fester for the rest of movie, infecting Dorian’s every thought and proving just as corrosive to his own conscience as his actions have been to the canvass that now truly illustrates his own sad self-destructive nature. 
Meanwhile, David is determined to reveal Dorian’s true self to Gladys. His inquiries to view the portrait locked in the attic in the presence of Wotten and Gladys are thwarted, but finally convince Dorian that he has come to the end of his decadences. Despite his best laid plans, he can no longer mask his true identity from the encroaching world or from the woman he sought to possess at all costs. Hurrying to the attic, Dorian uncovers his portrait for one last time; strangely appalled by its epic decay; the torture encapsulated within his soul – or at least, what is left of it – has at last taken hold. Ironically, Dorian uses the knife he murdered Basil with to stab at the heart of this mirrored image, the wound taking hold in his own breast. He falls to the floor just as Wotten, Gladys and David barge in; Basil’s portrait reverting to its former glory while the crust and filth of his own depravities has consumed the pathetically withered body now lying at their feet.
MGM knew it had a masterpiece on its hands. And yet, it wasn’t quite certain how to market the movie. The Picture of Dorian Gray was sold as everything from a macabre romance to grand guignol; a horror movie with some of the most bizarre and tepid taglines ever used to promote a major motion picture. Nevertheless, tempted by the prospect of seeing something truly imbued with a sense of the tragic and the supernatural, audiences flocked to see the movie and were startled and satisfied for their fascinations. Oscar Wilde’s novel has since been made and remade several times and by some very competent film makers. Yet the oeuvre of Oscar Wilde’s sly prose seems to elude all but this 1945 classic. Director, Albert Lewin has tweaked the novel just enough and in all the right places to punctuate Wilde’s double-edged absorption/disgust with aestheticism and the results yield to a cinematic work of genius with few – if any - equals; rich, dark and brooding with the symmetry of tenderly flawed romanticism.
Hurd Hatfield was forever typecast by Hollywood afterward. Although he steadily worked and committed to his craft some very fine performances, particularly on the stage, his entire life was spent commiserating with this chilling alter ego, giving autographs and interviews as the undisputed Dorian Gray. It must be said that despite Hatfield’s objections to remaining glacially reserved throughout the movie, here too Albert Lewin knew exactly what he was doing. Without so much as moving a muscle, Hatfield exudes a sort of paralytic wickedness through his mellifluous delivery of each line of dialogue. When Hatfield’s Dorian beckons Sybil to spend the night his words drip with a sinister stroke of genius, the unremarkable expression on his face strangely full of star-crossed innocence and diabolical temptation; hypnotic, compelling and yet strangely off-putting and repugnant all in the same instance. The moment of Basil’s murder is punctuated by Harry Stradling’s brilliant camerawork. And yet it is Dorian’s face that remains captivating; unchanging and yet imbued with a sense of the truly sublime – inspiring both our admiration and dread as he coldly stares down at his handy work.
Angela Lansbury had been brought to the attention of both Lewin and director George Cukor on the same afternoon by Michael Dyne; an actor much closer to Oscar Wilde’s vision of Dorian Gray than Hurd Hatfield, and who was testing for the coveted role. Lansbury, who had come to America with her mother to escape the war, was immediately snatched up for the part of Sibyl, and also for the role of Nancy, the saucy maid in 1944’s remake of Gaslight. In each case, Lansbury was Oscar-nominated for her performances and in each she lost the coveted statuette to another more established star.
Produced with impeccable panache and style by Pandro S. Berman, The Picture of Dorian Gray has long remained a favorite among audiences and critics. It was a commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic. It is even rumored that America’s merchant marines excised Lansbury’s performance of ‘Goodbye Little Yellow Bird’ (the song she briefly sings at The Two Turtles) from a copy of the film to play over and over again aboard their naval vessels while stationed at sea.  Viewed today, The Picture of Dorian Gray has lost none of its luster to thrill and shock. The film’s clever pacing, its meticulous attention to claustrophobic bric-a-brac in all its set dressings: the stellar performances by all the cast – these go beyond mere quality, transcending the boundaries of time and space.  As a movie, this Dorian Gray has indeed attained immortality of a very different kind. It is ageless.
Were that the same could be said of the transfer. Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray marginally bests its previous DVD. Alas, the B&W image occasionally lacks crispness, and intermittently suffers from the same edge enhancement as its standard predecessor. Improvements are, in fact, inevitable and abound. The brief Technicolor inserts of the portrait, as example, are far more stunningly realized on the Blu-ray. The DVD’s hinted at a slightly greenish/bluish tint with minor age-related artifacts present. The Blu-ray looks more natural here; flesh tone especially, looking appropriately pink rather than ruddy orange. The minor inconsistencies with film grain that also dogged the DVD have been eradicated herein.  Once again, my major quibbling is the overall softness in the image, particularly the last reel that continues to look blurry rather than photographed through gauze for effect. I also think Warner ought to have cleaned up and stabilized the two or three shots plagued by edge enhancement.
Overall, this is a very solid rendering; and no claim to the contrary is made herein. But it isn’t quite as perfect as other titles in the Warner Archive, and that’s a genuine pity.  The audio is mono as originally recorded and has been very nicely cleaned up. Extras are limited to an audio commentary from Steve Haberman with Angela Lansbury; the latter, a tad sketchy on certain details about the making of the film. We also get two short subjects and a trailer; all of it ported over from the DVD. Bottom line: The Picture of Dorian Gray is required viewing. Warner’s Blu-ray isn’t pristine, but it is more than passable. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, November 14, 2014

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT: Blu-ray (Columbia 1934) Criterion Collection

Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) has been called many things. Upon shooting her final scene, Claudette Colbert picked up the telephone to an old friend, mercilessly declaring in front of Capra, “I’ve just made the worst picture of my life!” Neither Colbert, nor co-star Clark Gable thought much of the project, each making it under duress. Colbert had, in fact, been strong-armed by Columbia Studio chief, Harry Cohn, who famously told his temperamental diva she would make It Happened One Nightor else. The ‘or else’ was left open to interpretation. But during the golden era in Hollywood, when stars were indentured to lengthy studio contracts without fail – or question, for that matter – it could have easily meant anything from lousy parts to a forced absence from the screen; allowing for the fatal cooling off of the public’s fascination with one’s career. Colbert was no fool. Neither was Cohn.  But her first picture with Capra (1927’s For the Love of Mike) had been such a disaster Colbert feared she was in for more of the same this time around. Hence, she came to It Happened One Night with an innate and festering prejudice that only seemed to exponentially grow. A tenuous détente was struck between Colbert and Cohn – anything to get Colbert off on her promised vacation to Sun Valley. But Colbert made Capra’s life a living hell for the duration of the shoot; insisting on close-ups shot from only her best side. Frequently they bickered about the way a scene should be played – Capra usually getting his way, though not without a struggle.
On the whole, Clark Gable proved more congenial, though even he had his moments. Gable wasn’t particularly keen on Colbert as his costar. He was used to the glamor gals at Metro. The feeling, it seems, was mutual; Colbert protesting the mild stench from Gable’s dentures during their kissing scenes. He treated her with fairly casual contempt. She dismissed his movie-land/he-man image outright. Over the years rumors have varied as to how Gable came to do It Happened One Night. One goes, Gable had refused a picture at his alma mater – MGM – inciting studio raja, Louis B. Mayer to a show of force. On a good day, Mayer would have not thought twice about the loan out of his numero uno box office stud. After all, Gable was king.  But Gable had caught L.B. on an off day – ripe for the disciplining and forcibly ‘rented’ to Columbia Pictures; then considered little better than a poverty row studio. To come from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; the Cartier in the industry – to Columbia (unquestionably, the equivalent of the five and dime) was a smack down for Gable. He took his lumps, but made the best of a bad situation.
There is another rumor to satisfy; namely, that Mayer was paying Gable a respectable salary of $2,000.00 a week – then, a princely sum – whether he worked at MGM or not. To maximize his profits, Mayer loaned Gable to Cohn for $25,000.00 per week, thereby making back $500 on his investment. Whatever the case, when It Happened One Night became the first motion picture to score Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay, both stars were left wondering what all the backstage feuding had been about. Colbert at least had the decency to offer something of a public apology to Capra, during her acceptance speech leaning into the podium, and with gold statuette proudly raised, declaring “I owe all of it to Frank Capra!”  Capra’s reputation at Columbia, already steadily on the ascendance prior to It Happened One Night, experienced a colossal boost immediately thereafter. Indeed, for the rest of the decade, Capra could do no wrong in Cohn’s eyes. He was afforded carte blanche on his pick of projects, the subsequent movies growing more lavish; culminating with a string of sublime super hits and one unfortunate miss: Lost Horizon (1937); today, rightfully viewed as a masterpiece, but so costly it served as a millstone, dragging Columbia’s bottom line back into the red.
It Happened One Night falls into the category of the ‘road picture’ – eloquently scripted by Capra’s long-time collaborator, Robert Riskin and based on Samuel Hopkins Adams minor success, ‘Night Bus’. The formal, in hindsight, seems deceptively simple. Take one pampered runaway heiress, a ‘brass tax’ news hound - out for the scoop of his career, a misguided dalliance in the middle of nowhere, and, the added screwball of both individuals starting out as virulent enemies (but winding up passionate lovers) and voila – you have, It Happened One Night. The film’s enduring success is predicated on a series of engaging mishaps, some occurring behind the scenes. Capra shot the picture in sequence in only 28 days, feverishly shooting, and playing ringmaster to his two tempestuous stars, improvising scenes along the way, and encouraging cinematographer, Joseph Walker not to invest too much time in creating the usual cinema glamor. All of this last minute brouhaha gave It Happened One Night buoyancy and a verisimilitude uncharacteristic of the usual Hollywood product.
The bedroom détente scene, played midway through the story (where Colbert’s stuffy Ellie Andrews reluctantly acquiesces to Gable’s Peter Warne’s refusal to sleep elsewhere; the two stringing a rope across the room with an oversized comforter slung over it to provide an imaginary wall), became iconically romantic; not the least for its suggestive exchange of dialogue. Ellie – who is heart sore and desperately longing for a real man’s touch and Gable’s forthright resistance of Ellie’s charms because, in fact, he has sincerely begun to fall for her, created the sort of elusive cinema magic and romantic electricity it required. The preceding scene, where the couple separately undresses for bed, was cause for minor controversy, however, when Gable revealed a bare torso beneath his outer shirt. Overnight, sales of men’s undershirts plummeted across the United States! Such was Gable’s star drawing power back then.
Because its pieces fit so succinctly together, It Happened One Night looks deceptively simple. Yet, others have long since tried to recapture – or at least, emulate – the ‘formula’ of this road picture and miserably, have failed. It is fairly safe to assume the casting of Gable and Colbert helped boost interest in the movie itself. But Frank Capra was cribbing from an exceptional screenplay too; Robert Riskin’s prose keeping the action lithe and spirited; his dialogue remaining true to the strengths of his stars. There is, in fact, an opportunity for both Gable and Colbert to do what they did best in It Happened One Night; their off screen mutual antagonism boding well for the troubled flirtations ripening throughout the story. Gable’s introduction to Colbert’s spoiled heiress on the night bus is impeccably crafted. Peter Warne informs Ellie Andrews with double entendre, “That upon which you sit is mine.” When she refuses to give up her seat, Gable inquires whether “these seats sit two”. Ward Bond’s caustic bus driver belligerently declares, “Well maybe they don’t and maybe they do!” Peter merely squeezes his way into the seat occupied by Ellie, muttering, “Move over. This is a ‘maybe they do’.”
Nevertheless, Gable’s cock of the walk is repeatedly tested in It Happened One Night. He isn’t this lady’s choice…not by a long shot. Nor, is Ellie without her talents to upstage her he-man. She proves the drawing power of her own sexuality after the two become stranded on the side of the road. Gable’s complex theory of the perfect technique to thumb a free ride falls flat in practice as he proves unable to procure a means of transportation; a series of speeding automobiles passing him by. Observing his chagrined debacle from the sidelines, Colbert’s Ellie declares, “I’ll get us a ride and I won’t use my thumb!” whereupon she merely raises the hem of her skirt, revealing a shapely nylon-stocking limb, and immediately secures a ride from the next available passerby. Gables response registers bewilderment, sheepish dismay, and finally, a genuine admiration for this gal with hidden talents. It’s a delicious moment of proto-feminism; Ellie having grown a woman’s heart in place of the vapid, angry void that caused her to flee her father, millionaire Alexander Andrews (Walter Connelly) yacht in the first place after he gave her a well-deserved slap on the cheek for being insulant.
It Happened One Night toys with the idea of ‘a woman’s place’ in society: Ellie – the haughty and exclusive princess of the manor born refuses to abide by her father’s wishes; that she not marry stuffed shirt and middle-aged bore, King Wesley (Jameson Thomas). He’s a penniless fortune hunter. But Ellie professes to love him. Actually, she’s rebelling against what she perceives as patriarchal intrusion on her private life. She wants to be her own woman; alas, without first actually fully grasping the concept. Nor is Ellie prepared for the various cads preying upon her relative innocence and inexperience in the outside world. What Ellie really needs is not a he-man protector, per say, but a guy’s guy to show her the ropes for getting along in a dishonest world. After all, she’s a fairly quick study. She sees through the insidious boar/travelling salesman, Oscar Shapeley (Roscoe Karns) and, too late, clues in to the modus operandi of the seemingly congenial driver, Danker (Alan Hale), who offers Ellie and Peter a lift, but actually manages to lift their luggage and drive off without them. Although she plays helpless, Ellie is really responsible for making up her own mind about things in general and Peter in particular; coming to her senses in the eleventh hour – while strolling down to the makeshift outdoor altar in her wedding dress, no less – before making a sprinted B-line for the nearest exit to be reunited with Peter. It’s unlikely theirs will be a true 50/50 relationship; but at least Peter is able to acknowledge the diamond his own heart has managed to pluck from the rough. Ellie may be a gem. But Pete is going to have his hands full!
It Happened One Night begins with Ellie’s daring escape from her father’s yacht. He attempts to lock her in a cabin below decks when she professes her undying love and desire to marry King Wesley. Father and daughter have words, her razor-sharp and biting diatribe forcing dear ole dad into a bit of paternal discipline. He wallops her across the cheek. It’s such a startle – for Ellie too – that she immediately pushes her way past Alexander and several of the boat’s crew, diving off the top deck and swimming ashore before Alexander can turn his boat around. In the meantime, a very inebriated Peter Warne is sitting inside a terminal waiting for the night bus; prodded by some fair-weather lushes to telephone his managing editor, Joe Gordon (Charles C. Wilson) and offer up a piece of his gin-soaked mind. The insults fly hard and heavy, Gordon hanging up the phone before Peter is finished. To save face, Peter goes on for a few moments more as his cronies listen in; afterwards declaring, “That’s tellin’ him!”
Before long Peter and Ellie have their cute meet on the bus. Ellie falls asleep on Peter’s shoulder, awakening a short while later, still full of her own independence. Peter, however, has recognized Ellie from the local newspaper headline about a runaway heiress, and quietly telephones Gordon to offer him the scoop of the century; an exclusive on what’s become of Ellie Andrews. The night bus makes several stops, one at a roadside outdoor diner where Ellie’s bag is pinched by a thief (Ernie Adams) without her even knowing it. Peter makes chase but is unsuccessful. Penniless and, for the first time, scared to boot, Ellie accepts Peter’s philanthropy. She is not terribly good at managing his money, however; squandering what he gives her on superficialities rather than necessities. When Pete finds out he’s furious.  
From here on in, It Happened One Night steadily evolves into a series of fairly plausible and thoroughly charming misadventures. The couple spends a night in a rented cabin, dividing the room with a clothes line they label ‘the walls of Jericho’. Soon, initial inhibitions and mutual disdain take a backseat to true confessions about the great unhappiness in each of their lives. Whether either chooses to acknowledge it or not, this moment will serve as the foundation to their romantic relationship. Lumping it on foot, Ellie and Peter spend their second evening together, snoozing near some hay stacks. In the morning, Ellie is paralyzed with fear at having been abandoned by Peter. Instead, he arrives with some hand-picked fruit and veggies for breakfast. Exhausted, Ellie demands Peter procure them a ride. His hitchhiker’s technique could use some work. So Ellie raises her skirt and lands them both their first big break. It turns out to be anything but as the driver, Danker, pretends to be their friend, but then drives off with their suitcases in tow.  A short while later Peter exacts his revenge on Danker, stealing his car.
On the last length of their journey, Ellie confesses her love for Peter. He is determined to marry her. But after depositing Ellie inside a cabin and hurrying off to inform Gordon he intends not to write the story about their escapades, Peter returns to the cabin to discover Ellie gone; having been found out by Alexander, rescued back to his estate where the wedding to King Wesley is to take place. Peter arrives at the Andrews’ estate on the afternoon of the wedding; Alexander offering him money in gratitude for Ellie’s safe return. He turns it down. But Ellie is insulted even at the insinuation Peter might have only been interested in her because of her wealth and family name. Peter storms off in a frustrated, masculine huff, leaving Alexander to escort his teary-eyed daughter down the aisle.  Alexander quietly whispers his approval of Peter’s motives and also of the man himself. He informs Ellie that Peter turned down flat his generous offer. It must be love. Armed with this understanding, Ellie breaks free of her father’s arm and scurries past the astonished guests with King Wesley in hot pursuit.
Unable to apprehend his bride, Wesley inquires what could possibly have made her change her mind about their marriage. Alexander plays dumb, but secretly is satisfied his daughter has made the right choice.  Capra cuts to the same cabin the couple shared earlier, the bemused proprietor of the Auto Camp (Harry Holman) informing his wife (Maidel Turner) Peter has requested a toy trumpet, some string and a heavy comforter; symbolic of the ‘walls of Jericho’ that barred the couple from consummating their relationship eariler. The trumpet sounds and the lights in the cabin go out. It’s every man – and every woman, for that matter – for themselves; the honeymoon begun; the show - fini.
It has often been noted that some of the greatest movies ever made were the product of blind chaos and great luck. This was, perhaps, never more astutely observed than in It Happened One Night; deceptively lighter than air. Yet, the paper thin plot and preposterous scenarios come off without a hitch. More than that – the love affair blossoming between Ellie and Peter is wholly believable. Ironically, It Happened One Night was the movie nobody – except Capra – wanted to make. Afterward, it became the movie everyone, including Capra, was trying to beat. Capra’s association at Columbia would prove immensely fruitful. Arguably, he did his best work here during the 1930’s, culminating with 1938’s Oscar-winning You Can’t Take It With You, and his superbly crafted social commentary on American politics; Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939); a clever indictment of graft in Washington’s back-slapping machinery, as seen through the eyes of its ultimate 'every man' and daydreamer, James Stewart. It Happened One Night has the more cynical Gable to recommend it in Stewart’s stead and Gable proves (as though any proof were needed) why he earned the moniker of Hollywood’s ‘king’. There’s an intangible animal magnetism to Gable that cannot be manufactured. He simply was a real man.
It Happened One Night is a movie that could only have been possible in the 1930’s; a decade brimming with wide-eyed optimism about most things; Hollywood thumbing its collective noses at the Great Depression and providing audiences with topflight, class ‘A’ entertainment. While many of the other studios, chiefly MGM, invested heavily in the escapist and otherworldly glamor of fanciful and well-appointed living, Columbia’s budget would not permit Capra such a luxury. It’s just as well. Capra’s yen for telling relatively real stories about the flaws in male/female relationships, struck a more genuine chord on a more restrained outlay of capital. And the profits Columbia and Harry Cohn were to derive from Capra’s ‘corn in totem throughout the 1930’s proved the studio’s salvation; a means by which Cohn built Columbia’s reputation in the industry for quality product, hiring A-list directors and free-agented talent on a picture by picture basis.
In retrospect, It Happened One Night is Capra’s earliest masterpiece in this tenure; blessed with his inimitable light touch and penchant for achieving a level of on-screen intimacy fairly hard to top. The relationship between Ellie and Peter just seems genuine; the morphing of their acrimonious relationship into one of mutual respect and finally, love, taking on a life of its own. Gable and Colbert may have thought they were committing career suicide with It Happened One Night, but time has proven the opposite to be true. While Gable will likely always be associated with Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939), Colbert’s regrettably dwindling repute has been buoyed over the generations almost exclusively by her appearance in this, Frank Capra’s classiest romance.  Arguably, Colbert ought to be remembered for much more; her performance in David O. Selznick’s superbly crafted wartime weepy, Since You Went Away (1944) arguably, her greatest. Gable’s repertoire too is a myriad of treasures yet to be unearthed in hi-def, or even competently given their due on standard DVD. In the final analysis, It Happened One Night represents the best from both actors, despite their misgivings. Arguably, each star would go on to do ‘better’ work elsewhere. But together in It Happened One Night, they’re dynamic, engaging and deliriously in sync with one another, achieving a level of quietly restless passion few stars of any vintage have been able to express with such professionalism, confidence and graceful charm.
Well, it’s about time! Criterion Home Video rectifies many a sin committed on this vintage catalog title over the years. First off, it should be noted that, like a good many Columbia titles from the 1930’s, no original nitrate elements survive. Over the decades, Columbia attempted to do right by what remained; their first attempt on DVD more marginally competent, followed by a disastrous reissue as part of a Frank Capra Collection in which contrast was so severely toggled down it yielded an oppressively dark and poorly contrasted image. Well, prepare to be exceptionally pleased with what’s on this Blu-ray. Not only has contrast been rectified to reveal new and revitalized minute details, but we also get the film’s indigenous grain looking gorgeously thick and natural. Truly, It Happened One Night has never looked this good on home video. The visuals have a subtly nuanced, filmic appearance; fine detail popping as it should; showcasing Joseph Walker’s soft lit, and softly focused cinematography to its best advantage. Better still, age-related dirt and scratches have been eradicated, thanks to a thorough clean-up. We can likely thank Sony Pictures VP Grover Crisp for that. There are still issues of modeling and streaking; unavoidable, given this is an 80 year old film that has suffered greatly over the decades since from improper preservation and storage. But honestly, It Happened One Night in hi-def will be a distinct revelation for most. Get ready for a quality effort put forth with very pleasing results!
Predictably, Criterion has gone the route of another PCM mono audio track, plagued by inherent weaknesses, lovingly preserved for posterity herein. Criterion pads out the extras, including: Screwball Comedy?; a 40 minute conversation between film scholars/critics, Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate. Much too short, though appreciated, is the11-minute interview with Frank Capra Jr., first recorded for the old Columbia Classics DVD release in 1999. We also get Capra’s very first movie, 1921’s Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House, with a new score composed and performed by Donald Sosin. The most comprehensive extras are Frank Capra’s American Dream; Ken Bower’s hour and a half long documentary, hosted by Ron Howard, from 1997, and the complete AFI tribute to Capra. The former features interviews with a litany of Capra collaborators as well as actors and directors from Capra’s vintage. The latter is a star-studded evening, hosted by James Stewart. A few portions of the original broadcast are MIA herein. Aside: I think it astonishing the AFI has never bothered to reissue any of their Lifetime Achievement broadcasts to home video in any sort of meaningful or comprehensive way.  Last, but not least, we get an original theatrical trailer and liner notes from critic, Farran Smith Nehme. Bottom line: It Happened One Night is an American classic. Criterion’s Blu-ray gives the film its due. Enjoy and buy with confidence. One of the best classic releases of 2014!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)