Thursday, September 18, 2014

CUTTHROAT ISLAND: Blu-ray (Carolco 1995) Lionsgate Entertainment

Director, Renny Harlin’s desire to reinvigorate the sagging career of his wife, Geena Davis, transforming her from light comedian into a butch action star, produced two films of dubious distinction. The unmitigated turkeys, so we were then led to believe, were The Long Kiss Goodbye (1996), in hindsight, a sort of bittersweet farewell to the couple’s crumbling marriage, and Cutthroat Island (1995); an exuberant, if occasionally silly, swashbuckler, costarring Davis (somewhat ill-served in her faux sexy/tough pretend), and art house fav, Matthew Modine, looking every inch the rakishly handsome rogue. Troubled in its lengthy – and costly – location shoot (estimated between $98 and $115 million) and unfairly maligned by the critics (more intent on telescoping their contempt and blame on Harlin for his seemingly profligate expenditures) Cutthroat Island quickly acquired the reputation of an abysmal artistic – as well as financial – flop. Alas, only part of this assessment holds up.
While it is true, Cutthroat Island was the last movie funded by Carolco, the company filing for chapter eleven shortly after its release; it is debatable how much Harlin’s opulent pirate flick contributed to this fiscal implosion. Certainly, if Cutthroat Island had been a smash hit, then Carolco might have survived the bloodletting from its creditors. Either way, the company was on very shaky ground. Yet, for all its misfires (it is rumored Harlin, immensely dissatisfied with the original production design, scrapped early construction on the two pirate ships, to begin anew with Norman Garwood), Cutthroat Island remains a lavishly appointed, occasionally exhilarating and thoroughly exquisite spectacle; Peter Levy’s elaborate cinematography capturing all the exoticism and natural splendor of the movie’s Thai and Malta locations.
That neither its screenplay, cobbled together by Michael Frost Beckner, James Gorman, Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, nor the acting put forth by Davis or Modine ever manages to rise above the banal is regrettable, although queerly, not as lethal to the film’s overall entertainment value as anticipated. One could hardly blame Matthew Modine, as example; cast in the eleventh hour after the film’s original star – Michael Douglas – bowed out; citing too much emphasis on Morgan Adams (the Geena Davis role); a sultry/fiery she-captain, who champions her loyal crew onto riches galore. Modine was not initially considered on the A-list of alternatives; not even its’ B-roster as the producers attempted to broker favor, first with Tom Cruise, then Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves, Liam Neeson, Jeff Bridges, Ralph Fiennes and (gasp/choke) Charlie Sheen. Of the aforementioned, I can only see Fiennes doing the part any justice.
But Matthew Modine is a very competent ‘last resort’; his career, in retrospect, one of the grand disappointments in recent Hollywood lore, his potential box office cache never plumbed to make him a bona fide star. Apart from his swarthy good looks herein (a devilish grin and robust physicality, easily believed in the part) Modine can also fence with the best - a definite plus. The pity of it is that the screenplay never allows Modine to do much of anything, except play nursemaid to Geena Davis’ flashier tomboy/vixen. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Michael Douglas turned the part of William Shaw down and why Matthew Modine – despite having precious little to do – seems to fit so well as token testosterone on this feministic jaunt through the Caribbean.  He’s more of an appendage to the plot, looking scruffily debonair; a quality Penny Marshall’s Lavern (of Lavern & Shirley fame) would have astutely coined as ‘moon doggy’.
This too might have clicked, if not for Davis’ lethal miscalculation on how to be both feminine and daring. She never masters this tightrope; coming across too overbearing – a butch bitch – frequently taken to task in this male-dominated pirate world and even more readily beaten to a pulp. Perhaps to give his wife in public (and representationally) her comeuppance (what, otherwise would have turned into a courtroom drama of domestic violence), Harlin fairly revels in his rather transparent masochistic streak towards the character of Morgan Adams. She really takes a beating. It should also be pointed out, Morgan generally gives as good as she gets. In one of the movie’s most remarkable action sequences, Davis’s Morgan, looking fairly beleaguered and brutalized, races through a brothel of terrorized extras, diving headfirst from a second story window, to take a tumble (caught in slow-mo), perfectly landing in the coachman’s seat atop a careening carriage driven by Modine’s disreputable rascal, William Shaw.  I can only imagine how much rehearsal time went into this sequence – to get the timing just right – but it’s rather obvious Davis is doing her own stunt work and even more transparent she isn’t having a good time. She is, however, a pro.
The biggest problem I have with Cutthroat Island is it thoroughly mangles the dynamic of the romance. From the characters’ first ‘cute meet’ to the penultimate ship’s rescue finale, Morgan Adams treats William Shaw appallingly, as her subservient. If this relationship is ever to get off the ground – much less, succeed - then it will be Davis’ captain who will be wearing the britches – very starchily pressed – from now on. Alas, the…uh… ‘chemistry’ between the commanding Geena Davis and emasculated Matthew Modine never goes beyond the hook and worm stage; the clunky screenplay more intent on giving us a lot of shallow ‘crotch humor’ in place of more hearty and lustful byplay. As example; at one point, Davis’ Morgan presses a rapier against Shaw’s sheathed genitals to press him – literally – into providing her with a translation of the presumed Latin inscription she has taken from the scalp of her late father. Noting the writing mirrored in the blade, Morgan proclaims “They’re backward” to which Modine’s ego-wounded fop goofily declares, “I assure you, they’re normal in every respect.”
One can either choose to laugh or cringe at such adolescent humor. But the fact remains such dodgy/stodgy dialogue does not serve the story or these characters particularly well. Again, and miraculously, even this isn’t enough to sink the enterprise entirely; perhaps because there are other assets in this movie to deflect our attentions. Frank Langella, as Morgan’s uncle – Dawg Brown – also, her arch nemesis, is a fascinatingly cruel villain; played with aplomb by Langella, who only occasionally teeters into camp; and even so, of a deliciously malevolent ilk.  Stan Shaw and Rex Linn, as Morgan’s devoted crewmembers, Glasspoole and Mr. Blair respectively, are equally engaging. Despite the most threadbare dialogue given to either, each manages to distinguish themselves when they appear on camera. Christopher Masterson – as cabin boy, Bowen – also, has a few well-timed lines. If anything, these actors are underused in Cutthroat Island and this is, most definitely, a shame.  On the flipside: underused is always better than overplayed.
The other great asset for the film is Norma Garwood’s production design, buoyed by Roger Cain and Keith Pain’s art direction, Maggie Gray’s set decoration and Enrico Sabbatini’s regal costuming. Cutthroat Island has to be one of the most meticulously appointed pirate movies ever made; its superb recreations of these bygone Spanish/British outposts dotting the tropics, complete with their seedy, wench and drunkard infested back alleys and bars, evoking fond reminiscences of an ‘E’-ticket ride through Disneyland’s audio-animatronic, Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, long before the Mouse House endeavored to give us their CGI-laden movies based on the same ride. We really must doff our caps to Peter Levy’s cinematography for taking it all in; the pyrotechnics full scale and, at times, detonated frightfully close to the principles. The cream of the jest is John Debney’s underscore; dedicated mostly to variations on a towering central theme that perfectly evokes the nautical flair of the piece.  
After a mood-setting main title sequence, the plot, such as it is, begins in 1668 in Jamaica. In the movie’s playful prologue we see Morgan Adams quietly dressing in the presence of a half-naked lieutenant (Thomas Lockyer) still reclining in bed. He devilishly informs Mogran she is trapped. Since before their flagrante delicto, he has been all too eager to collect on the bounty on her head, producing a rather large musket gun from beneath his pillow. Unmoved by this turn of events, Morgan casually explains she knew all along the lieutenant was playing her for a fool, producing a handful of tiny metal bearings in the palm of her hand. “See,” she playfully exclaims, “I took your balls!” 
We move aboard the Reaper: Dawg Brown’s pirate vessel. It seems Dawg is intent on torturing Morgan’s peg-legged father, Black Harry (Harris Yulin) to learn the whereabouts of his pirate’s booty hidden somewhere in the Caribbean. Harry goads Dawg, claiming the location for the loot is in his head, electing to throw himself overboard, tied to the ship’s anchor, rather than reveal the whereabouts of his formidable stash. Waiting in a rowboat off the side is Harry’s daughter, Morgan, who rescues him just long enough to die in her arms near the shore. Before he passes, however, Harry orders Morgan to shave his head, revealing part of a map tattooed on the back of his skull. Renny Harlin spares us the next perverse bit, Morgan scalping her dead father’s remains to ensure Dawg does not get his hands on the map; the piece of dried flesh later confused for pigskin by William Shaw.
Instead, we shift focus to a lavish ball at the Governor’s mansion in Port Royal. Governor Ainslee (Patrick Malahide) instructs the rather foppish Captain Trotter (Angus Wright) to court Miss Mandy Rickets (Mary Pegler). After all, she is an heiress, certain to enrich any man with her dowry, if not an obvious ornamentation to his bed. When Trotter declares “she is rather homely”, Ainslee coldly points out to Trotter so is he. It is a match made in ‘heaven’…or some such place. Alas, before Trotter can make his move, William Shaw intrudes; his eyes more clearly focused on the prize of a string of pearls dangling around Rickets’ throat. Shaw is a conniver and a charmer. But he is a poor thief, easily exposed, arrested and enslaved for his presumptuousness. 
Arriving in Port Royal with her father’s scalp, to seek an interpreter for what she believes are Latin inscriptions on the map, and disguised as a lady of culture, Morgan – accompanied by Glasspoole, Bowen and a treacherous chronicler, John Reed (Maury Chaykin) - enter the local jail, determined to spring Shaw from his shackles. At a public slave auction, Morgan forcibly outbids a French aristocrat, Toussant (Ken Bones) who desires Shaw as his servant. Toussant declares he will have Shaw at any price and momentarily suggests if Morgan is attempting to buy him purely for pleasure he – Toussant - would most certainly accommodate her in Shaw’s stead, and, at no cost. Once again, Renny Harlin illustrates his proclivity for male-driven egocentric sexism, and sexually aggressive female vipers who will stand for none of it; Morgan stirring Toussant to reconsider his purpose by jabbing her concealed dagger into the soft flesh of his outer thigh.  Morgan wins the auction, but is found out by one of the more astute captains of the guard, who identify her from a ‘wanted’ poster hanging in the public square.
Renny Harlin moves us into the film’s first big action set piece; Shaw and Morgan taking turns at the reigns of a runaway carriage careening through the tight streets; the pair momentarily separated when Shaw is forced to improvise an alternate route to avert mowing down a funeral processional already in progress. Ainslee orders a ship docked at port to fire on the carriage. But Morgan and Shaw stage their daring escape with great success and are soon out of harm’s way. Ainslee now enlists the aid of the easily frightened and even more readily corruptible John Reed. As he has frequently followed this pirate bands on their journeys and plunder, to chronicle their exploits in his novels, they will think nothing of having him along this time. 
Once again, Harlin shifts to another port of call. The first act of Cutthroat Island is, in fact, a cleverly camouflaged Cook’s tour of the Malta locations; Morgan, Glasspoole, Bowen and Shaw now descending on the port of Spittlefield Harbor, where Morgan finagles her way into Mordechai Fingers (George Murcell) good graces; also past a pair of protectors into his private lair. Fingers has the second piece of the map to her late father’s treasure. But Mordechai is no fool. However, he quickly throws in his lot with Morgan; an ill-fated decision. For Dawg has caught up to Morgan and her crew. In the ensuing bar room brawl, Fingers is murdered and Shaw discovers the second piece of the map, keeping it to himself as he and Morgan make yet another perilous departure into the night. Dawg is quite ruthless, severely wounding his niece in the side. Morgan is taken back to her ship – the Morning Star - by Glasspoole and Bowen. Shaw professes to be a doctor. With a bottle of rum as both his anesthetic and sanitizer, Shaw diligently toils to surgically remove the imbedded ball bearing from Morgan’s side. His success and her inebriation conspire to effectively lead into a fleeting romantic pas deux, interrupted by Bowen. Later, Shaw sneaks into the map room, figuring out the coordinates to Cutthroat Island.
Regrettably, Reed also discovers as much and sends a carrier pigeon with this information back to Ainslee. In the meantime, Morgan believes the worst about Shaw. After all, in his greedy zeal to possess untold riches he would just as likely use any means at his disposal – even seduction – to secure such a treasure. There is little time to debate the point. For Dawg’s ship, the Reaper is bearing down hard. Morgan sails the Morning Star into a coral reef, then a gale. Another deceiver among the lot – the treasonous, Scully, seizes upon the opportunity to mutiny against Morgan. She and a handful of loyal companions, including Shaw, Blair, Bowen and Glasspoole are cast adrift in a small rowboat, almost certain to capsize in the heavy storm. Although their boat is wrecked, fortune smiles on Morgan once again. The next morning, she and her surviving crew discover Cutthroat Island dead ahead. Alas, somewhere in the night, Shaw has seemingly been lost at sea.
Not so, having made it to landfall ahead of Morgan and, using his wits to steal the last piece of the map from Dawg. It would be a perfect foil too, if not for the deadly quicksand. After making landfall, Morgan and her crew stumble upon Shaw in the nick of time. He attempts to barter for his life, using the missing pieces of the map as collateral. Morgan calls his bluff, and Shaw is forced to acquiesce in a pledge of good faith, even before Morgan shows little interest in sparing his life. Nevertheless, Morgan is merciful. After Shaw’s rescue, he and Morgan follow the map’s instructions to a perilous cliff, scaling half way down its steep vertical precipice to explore a hidden cave. There, they do indeed find the fabled treasure trove. Regrettably, Dawg has located the cave; instructing his men to shoot Morgan and Shaw who are now dangling from ropes over the side of the cliff. In what is Cutthroat Island’s most fanciful plot twist, electing to plunge into the raging surf far below, Morgan and Shaw are miraculously spared from death. 
The pair is separated in the swirling waters and Shaw awakens some time later on the beach; bruised, though otherwise unharmed. In regaining consciousness, he is discovered by Reed, who carefully leads him into a trap set by Dawg, Ainslee, and the mutineers. It seems everyone has joined forces against Morgan, intent on equally splitting up the formidable fortune. Shaw’s recapture is, mercifully, short-lived; Morgan sneaking on board the Morning Star and launching a full scale assault with her loyal crew against Scully and the mutineers. Morgan’s plan is to attack the Reaper by surprise. Regrettably, Dawg spies the rouse through his magnifying glass and wastes no time in a counterattack.
Renny Harlin’s penultimate sea battle is epic to say the least; a dazzling display of pyrotechnics. Muskets and canons flare; Shaw escaping his shackles only to be pinned below decks when the shifting tides wedge him between some heavy cargo. Ainslee is dispatched posthaste; blown to bits by canon fire; Morgan blasting a hole in the Reaper’s floor to sink the ship, but free the treasure; discovering Shaw too late. As the Reaper takes on more ballast, Morgan struggles to disentangle Shaw, while keeping her head above the rising waterline, also intact, as Dawg makes several brutal attempts with his sword to rid himself of his meddlesome niece once and for all. Dawg corners Morgan, knocking the sword from her hand. Only then does she reveal her deliberate plan, exposing a canon with its fuse prepped and lit and blowing Dawg through the wall of the ship.
Rescuing Shaw from his watery grave by breathing life into his body, Morgan also manages to save the treasure. Sometime later, she and her crew stand in awe aboard the Morning Star, admiring the vast assortment of jewels, gold and other treasures splayed across its decks. Morgan informs her triumphant pirate brethren they can either split up this loot now and go their separate ways, or elect to throw in their lot and sail to Madagascar, where other new adventures and the prospect of even greater riches likely await.  After a few pensive moments of reluctant contemplation (Mr. Blair, as example, momentarily teasing he’d rather be a farmer than pursue his present course as a pirate), the crew unanimously vote to follow Morgan on whatever damn-fool pursuit her fickle heart desires. Morgan commands Shaw to her bed chamber, presumably, at long last to consummate their awkwardly adversarial relationship; the camera pulling back to reveal the Morning Star on its course for Madagascar as the sun begins to set.
Cutthroat Island is perhaps the most ridiculous excuse for a pirate movie ever. And yet, I rather enjoyed its sincerity. Although Geena Davis had fervently vowed to bow out of the project after Michael Douglas’ departure (the terms of her ironclad contract dictating otherwise),  she nevertheless, secedes whatever residual hesitations remained at the forefront of her contemplations and has thrown herself headstrong and heart-first into this movie. If her performance lacks credibility – and occasionally, it does – the verve invested to partake in its grueling array of stunt work, with a body double employed only for the most perilous sequences, is commendable. Say what you want about the lagging and improbable story elements; Cutthroat Island was not an easy shoot by any stretch of the imagination.
The movie excels not so much for any one actor’s participation and/or performance, but rather, because the sum total yields to a communal investment; cast and crew delivering a class-A treatment of this very unevenly scripted hoopla being peddled as art. No use poo-pooing what’s not there, when what is gives a reasonable – if hardly perfect – facsimile of a rollicking good time aboard the Jolly Roger.  In the last analysis, Cutthroat Island will never be a great movie. It is, however, a highly competent one; Renny Harlin giving us much to take in, filling the screen with some of the most sumptuous visuals ever created for any sea-faring adventure. Hoist the colors and raise the anchors, then. Cutthroat Island sets sail with a hearty ‘yo-ho’ while taking on a minimal amount of ennui. It’s fun, fanciful and frankly, better than you expect.
We can say the same regarding Lionsgate’s Blu-ray; a gorgeous 1080p presentation with one minor caveat. Flesh tones veer between densely saturated orange (we could perhaps forgive this, given most of the action takes place in the sun-kissed vistas of the supposed tropics), and dangerously close to acquiring the dreaded piggy-pink tone that is decidedly unacceptable. The shifts are basically between scenes shot within a controlled lighting environment (on sets) and those photographed outdoors. We won’t get critical. Nothing is atrocious. Besides: contrast is superb. Blacks never crush and whites are pristine. A thin veneer of grain and virtually no age-related artifacts and ‘WOW!’ does Cutthroat Island look fairly spectacular in hi-def. Fine detail pops as it should, particularly in close-up; a startling amount of information in hair, skin, fabric, wood grains, etc. Set against the burnt stone facades of Port Royal, the blood red Royal Navy uniforms pop with razor-sharp clarity. Ripples on the ocean take on an almost third dimension. Ahoy! Great stuff. Jungle foliage looks breathtaking; ditto for the insides of the cavern and the richly saturated shimmering golds of the pirate’s booty.
In building the movie’s sound design, Renny Harlin insisted Cutthroat Island should be a visceral aural experience. The Blu-ray lives up to his wishes in 7.1 lossless DTS with John Debney's old-time orchestrations giving us a big-time reason to cheer. Wow! Dialogue is still a tad frontal sounding, and occasionally, not all that well integrated with SFX. But this is in keeping with the original movie’s sound design. Honestly, you couldn’t ask for better herein. The earthy calls of the jungle are vividly recreated. Better still, when cannonballs explode the screen thunders with an immersive presence apt to knock one from his/her comfy armchair. Channel surround is maxed out here, arguably at the expense of a more nuanced sound field. Personally, I think it works just fine for the movie. Extras are limited to a badly worn trailer, a lousy junket produced at the time of the movie’s general release, and a highly welcomed audio commentary (if memory serves) a holdover from the old DVD. Bottom line: Cutthroat Island is hardly perfect entertainment. But it looks spectacular on Blu-ray. Highly recommended for fans. Also, for those interested in discovering the movie for the first time. It’s not the flop you’ve heard about.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

SOUTH PACIFIC: Blu-ray (Magna 1958) Fox Home Video

“Peace is not the product of a victory or a command. It has no finishing line, no final deadline, no fixed definition of achievement. Peace is a never-ending process, the work of many decisions. I know the world is filled with troubles and many injustices. But reality is as beautiful as it is ugly. I think it is just as important to sing about the beautiful mornings as it is to talk about slums. I just couldn't write anything without hope in it.” – Oscar Hammerstein II
The Broadway stage, once thought of as a pantheon for bright and breezy musical revues, took on considerable ballast with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s South Pacific (1958); an inspired tome predicated on Hammerstein’s innate charity toward all mankind. “When I meet a man from another part of the world who is in showbiz, I feel close to him,” Hammerstein once explained, “If he’s in tryouts, I know exactly how he’s feeling. He knows I know this.”  At the heart of South Pacific remained this modus operandi, tweaked via its source material to explore the great racial divide, albeit - set to music. To label South Pacific as a milestone in American theater is an understatement. It is nothing less than a trailblazer. It may, in fact, be Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest achievement; certainly, one of their most perennially revived. 
The film version would deserve no less consideration, and under Joshua Logan’s direction (also, responsible for the Broadway sensation), South Pacific – the movie – retains its introspective critique of this artificially created cultural divide; the characters of mid-western American, Ensign Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor) and Lt. Joseph Cable (John Kerr) still grappling with their ‘carefully taught’ inhibitions; desperate to embrace the world without its color barriers. Ultimately, this resolution is achieved – at least, for Nellie, reconciling her institutionalized racism with a genuine love for French plantation owner, Emile De Becque (Rossano Brazzi) by dedicating herself as mother-figure to his half-Polynesian children from a previous marriage.
Based on James A. Michener’s novel, Tales of the South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific breaks with tradition, both theatrical and societal based. For never before had the artistry of stagecraft so cleverly revealed so much about the human condition, using its patina of heartfelt pop-u-tainment to explore a more politicized injustice plaguing the modern ‘civilized’ world. This timeless social evaluation had been a part of Michener’s novel. Michener, who had been based as a lieutenant in the South Pacific during WWII, had grown very close to its native peoples; his diaries, later reconstituted as a work of pseudo-fiction, first published in 1947 and winning the Pulitzer one year later. It was the beginning of a prolific – if inauspicious – writing career.
Interestingly, Michener’s novel was not an overnight sensation. Indeed, had it not been for Broadway director, Joshua Logan, the novel might never have come to the attention of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Basking in the afterglow of their two previous stage successes, Oklahoma! and Carousel, R&H had launched into Allegro – an original property that miserably failed to catch on. Moderately disheartened by its colossal thud, the duo was approached by Logan, who had read Michener’s novel and become an ardent admirer almost immediately. It was Logan who proposed the project to R&H, and ultimately Logan who would see it through to fruition on both the stage and the big screen.
As had happened before, the subject matter just seemed to click with the composers. Buoyed by the familiar theme of love’s transformative quality, and, feeding into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s positivism, as well as their cause célèbre for social reform, South Pacific would evolve into an enduring testament against racial prejudice. However, the question remained: was the public ready to embrace such unbridled hopefulness where race relations were concerned? Lest we forget, the play and movie’s debut are both ensconced in a pre-civil rights America; imbued by starchy conservatism and a general unwillingness to examine the world through color-blind spectacles. Alas, Rodgers and Hammerstein had little to fear. On stage, South Pacific became an immediate sensation.
In transforming Michener’s poignant tales into a show, Rodgers and Hammerstein were to rediscover their own moral strength; the show deeply appealing to Hammerstein’s sense of compassion toward all humanity. Alas, on film, this tenuous balance was mildly hampered: first, by director, Joshua Logan’s inability to reconceive the material in cinematic terms; also, by Logan’s obtuse overuse of various color filters to create an enforced tropical moodiness in specific scenes. On stage, the allure of the tropics had been conceived, and achieved using dramatic lighting changes; also, by incorporating impressionist backdrops to mimic the breezy outdoors. Regrettably, what works in a theater does not usually transfer well to movies for obvious reasons.
To satisfy the medium’s demands for reality, the production team traveled to the Hawaiian Islands, Logan toiling in the heat and sand to recreate that elusive stage magic in more tangible terms. There is little to deny South Pacific – the movie – as one of the most sumptuous and lush visual experiences of the decade – possibly, even of a lifetime. Indeed, when projected in expansive 65mm Todd A-O, Leon Shamroy’s cinematography proved a very intoxicating elixir. In London, as example, South Pacific played continuously at the Dominion Theatre for nearly five years – its’ gross intake at the box office rivaled only by The Sound of Music (1965). The English were equally as transfixed by the original cast album: 115 weeks at the top of their charts, with 70 consecutive in the #1 spot.  
At the time of South Pacific’s debut, Rodgers and Hammerstein were in the envious position to be calling their own shots. Artistically speaking, this presented a challenge for Hollywood; then, as now, unaccustomed to surrendering the future success of any project to the dictates of non-Hollywood players. But for R&H, the alliance forged with Darryl F. Zanuck at 2oth Century-Fox had been, if not initially amicable (they quarreled and were miserable working under Zanuck during their one and only foray into an exclusively film-based project, 1945’s State Fair) then ultimately manageable – if for no other reason, then Zanuck had already departed the studio by 1957; their cache affording unprecedented bartering power by the time South Pacific entered pre-production.
As such, South Pacific would only be distributed by Fox, who also partially funded the movie. The rest of the capital came directly from the Magna Theatre Corporation of which R&H were part owners.  Interesting too, R&H’s resurgence on film was only made possible after the movie’s technological capacity to recreate the aura – as well as the visual – splendor of a night in live theater, via new widescreen/stereophonic technologies, had matured. If never quite considered on par with a live presentation, particularly by theater aficionados and critics alike (such was the snobbery then) the movies had nevertheless stepped up their game, enough to appeal to Rodgers and Hammerstein, who fervently believed they were at the cusp of a new era in motion picture presentation. 
On screen, South Pacific remains more an event than a movie, and regrettably, less cinematic than stage-bound to its roots. The proscenium is rarely broken, Logan interrupting the action sparingly with a limited amount of close-ups to bring the audience into the story. Instead, we are kept at a distance. Yet, the stultification that had plagued the screen versions of Oklahoma! (both in Todd A-O and Cinemascope) is not quite so obvious herein; perhaps, because there are other distractions afoot to abuse the optic nerve. Of these, Logan’s misuse of color filters must be considered the worst transgressor. Initially the plan had been only to use a series of color filters to enhance the ‘Bali Ha’i’ sequence. Since Logan could find no tangible example in Mother Nature of this elusive tropical paradise described in Michener’s novel, the film relied on a rather obvious traveling matte painting for long shots of the island; heavily diffused through fog filters and an inexplicable mist; also plied with some Vaseline, rubbed around the edges of the camera lens to create a ‘dream-like’ quality; the screen changing from violent shades of magenta and aubergine, to cartoon reds and pumpkin oranges, and finally, a thoroughly unattractive urine yellow. Viewing this sequence today, it remains difficult to deduce exactly what about the footage proved so gosh darn tantalizing; enough to prompt Logan to pursue the technique for virtually every other musical moment in the movie. Rather than rendering ‘Bali Ha’i’ as a magical Shangri-La, the filter effects diffuse the spectacle into a sort of garish carnival sideshow oddity; splashed with all the frenetic energy of an epileptic let loose in Disney’s ink and paint department.
We could forgive Joshua Logan even this indiscretion, had he not burdened the rest of South Pacific with as incalculable artistic travesties; the jaundice yellow tints as Nellie Forbush sweetly trills ‘A Cock-eyed Optimist’; the lurid tangerine that intrude upon ‘Some Enchanted Evening’; the unhealthy carmine and scarlet, igniting the lush tropical foliage in a sort of impressionist’s Dante’s Inferno while Liat (France Nuyen) and Joe Cable consummate their passionate affair; the midnight cobalt and amethyst tints, meant to mimic a haunting eve in the tropics for ‘This Nearly Was Mine’, and so on. With so many shifting colors, South Pacific gradually devolves into a painterly mess; Logan, applying the broadest of hues to the story’s dramatic palette as might a child newly discovering his Crayolas. It’s too tempting to debate his motives; to argue Logan’s approach to generating dramatic tension and pathos is enhanced by the obviousness in his exercise, when the literal application of color merely gilds an already appropriately vivid lily.
Forced by the overwhelming success of the stage show to repeatedly delay plans for the movie only seems to have given Joshua Logan more time to reimagine his high concept – rather than his staging. As such, when at last South Pacific made it to the big Todd A-O screen, it was undeniably lush – although stricken with a perceptive bout of elephantiasis. Worse, Logan seems to have entirely forgotten motion pictures are ‘moving pictures’; his camera remaining stationary for long uninterrupted segments while the actors hit their marks, treating each location and/or set as though it were hampered by the invisible third-wall rule of a stage-bound  proscenium. The result: while South Pacific undeniable has all of the visual cache of a prestige picture, it lacks the mobility of a veteran filmmaker, this shortcoming amplified by Todd A-O’s superior high resolution.
What remains galvanic and endearing then, is the story; also the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. After an exhilarating overture, with main titles breathtakingly capturing the robust tropical paradise in all its’ natural splendor, we settle on a Seabee plane bringing Lt. Cable. In the extended roadshow cut, Cable engages pilot, Lt. Buzz Adams (Tom Laughlin) in a discussion about the tenuous nature of diplomacy and the mounting crisis looming in the South Seas. The theatrical cut expedites Cable’s arrival to the main island, the Seabees serenading with the hearty strains of ‘Bloody Mary’ – a tribute for their affinity for the local mercantile trader (played by Juanita Hall), who delights in tempting the more jaded Luther Billis (Ray Walston) with trinkets from Bali Ha’i. The island is strictly off limits to the American sailors. The film plays up the sexual frustrations of these homesick gallants as they strut and preen on the beach, belting out a chorus or two of ‘There Is Nothing Like A Dame’; the moment interrupted by the arrival of nurse, Nellie Forbush who has asked Luther to do some stitch work on several of her garments.
The men chide Luther who, determined to assert his authority among them, plies Lt. Cable with enticements designed to broker his own favor in getting to that off-shore paradise not restricted to officers. Cable is interested, particularly when Bloody Mary refers to him as a very ‘saxy man’ She also hypnotically serenades him with the magical strains of ‘Bali Ha’i’.  Alas, before any journey can get underway, Cable is called by his superior, Capt. Brackett (Russ Brown) to a meeting. Brackett is interested in using one of the locals, Emile De Becque as a guide to establish an observation outpost on one of the more remote Japanese-occupied islands. De Becque is a French plantation owner, widowed and raising two young half-Polynesian children; Ngana (Candace Lee) and Jerome (Warren Hsieh). He also harbors a darker secret, having fled France after killing a man, presumably in self-defense. De Becque has since begun a burgeoning romance with Nellie Forbush, whom Cable crudely suggests could be used as a spy to learn about De Becque’s political affiliations.
Owing to his own concerns about Nellie’s view of miscegenation, De Becque has yet to reveal his children of blended origin. To test his loyalties, Brackett invites De Becque in for a friendly chat with Cable and his second, Commander Harbison (Floyd Simmons) present. But the meeting is hardly enlightening; De Becque challenging America’s view of the conflict by adding “I know what you are against…what are you for?” Nellie agrees to spy on Emile. But her efforts are as transparent as they prove unsuccessful. Nevertheless, De Becque senses he has already made inroads to her heart; the two sharing snifters of brandy, and soliloquizing their respective anxieties apart, before coming together in their burgeoning romance, ‘Some Enchanted Evening’.
De Becque would prefer to be honest with Nellie. So, he confides the reason for his departure from France. Nellie dutifully relays this to Brackett who, already in possession of this information, is frankly astonished De Becque would share it with his paramour. Evidently, Brackett had hoped to use the murder as leverage to convince De Becque to accompany Cable on his mission to the Japanese occupied outpost. Departing for the nurse’s beach, off limits to sailors, Nellie insists to her fellow cohorts she intends to promptly ‘Wash That Man Right Out of (her) Hair’, but instead she dissolves into a blissful and euphoric daydream of love, openly declaring she is hopelessly in love with ‘A Wonderful Guy’. Like virtually all the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, this will be the pinnacle of Nellie Forbush’s romantic flourish; her cockeyed optimism about to experience a perilous shift toward tragic disillusionment.
In the meantime, Bloody Mary manages to coax Lt. Cable into visiting Bali Ha’i; Cable taking along Billis, who is intent on bringing back a boar’s tooth from the rumored savage’s island ceremony. Enveloped by the tropical splendor, and surrounded by sweetly innocent native girls who encourage the men’s participation in the pleasures to be had, Cable and Billis are soon separated; Bloody Mary taking Joe high into the mountains where he is introduced to Liat; the virginal beauty with whom Mary sincerely hopes to strike a marital bargain. Cable is captivated by Liat’s ‘Younger Than Springtime’ naiveté; learning only after the consummation of their affair that she is Mary’s daughter. Mary’s ‘Happy Talk’ proposal encourages Cable and Liat to marry; that, after the war, he remain on Bali Ha’i; she being the island’s wealthiest native with enough to support her future son-in-law.
Cable is taken aback by this proposition. Moreover, he cannot rid himself of an innate prejudice. Liat is good enough to sleep with, but she would never be accepted back home in his white-bred world as his wife. Struggling to purge these prejudices and anxieties from his heart and mind, Cable instead confides them to Nellie as ‘Carefully Taught’ – if utterly misguided. Nellie can definitely relate. For previously, De Beque had invited her to his home for a party. There, she met other planters and their wives. But Nellie’s effervescence was deflated when Emile introduced his children. The incongruity of Nellie’s own emotions – able to accept her future husband committing murder (albeit, in self-defense), but unable to embrace the fact he was once in love with a woman of differing ethnicity, has since split the couple up. De Becque now challenges Nellie and Cable to justify their prejudices. Unable to do just that, Nellie flees, leaving Emile to reconsider ‘This Nearly Was Mine’.
Shortly thereafter, De Becque accepts the assignment to accompany Lt. Cable on his hazardous mission on the occupied Japanese outpost. Daily, the pair is faced with death from bomber and sniper attacks; De Becque keeping Brackett abreast of developments by radio contact. In his absence, Nellie diligently endeavors to befriend Emile’s children and quickly discovers how much she has come to love them – regardless of their race. Realizing Emile may never come back, forces Nellie to reconsider what really matters in life. She wisely resolves to never again question De Becque’s love for her. For her love for him is truly genuine. Alas, as the Allied Forces move in, tragedy strikes.
Joe Cable dies on the remote island; Nellie introduced to Bloody Mary and Liat after learning of the news. Mary informs Nellie her daughter will marry no one except Joe and Nellie, knowing this can never be, now comforts the girl. Nellie departs the hospital, pointing in the general direction of the remote island where her lover remains, isolated and alone; declaring into the wind that whatever prejudices she once harbored have since been abandoned. She promises never again to question her heart. A short while later Nellie’s declaration is rewarded. While attending Ngana and Jerome at Emile’s plantation, Nellie is suddenly startled to discover De Becque, weary, dirty – but otherwise unharmed. As the children rejoice – seemingly oblivious to how much this reunion means to either their father or Nellie, she quietly reaches for his hand; forgiveness assured when De Becque leans across the table to accept it.
South Pacific was a colossal smash; by far the most popular film musical of 1958. Audiences flocked to see the spectacle in Todd A-O. On stage, Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza had originated the roles of Nellie Forbush and Emile De Becque. But Martin’s inability to make it as a film star, coupled with Pinza’s virtual invisibility on the radar, practically ensured neither would make the transition to the screen. In casting Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi in their stead, Rodgers and Hammerstein were betting on Gaynor’s recent ascendance as a popular ingénue. In retrospect, South Pacific really is the end of Gaynor’s splashy movie career; a definite step up from the featherweight roles she usually played in musical comedy, but also putting a definite period to her work in movies. Gaynor would eventually find a temporary home on television before effectively retiring as an actress in 1963, only sporadically appearing on variety shows like Ed Sullivan thereafter.
Rossano Brazzi’s film career was only slightly more distinguished. For although he had appeared, often in support, in some high profile movies throughout the 1950’s and 60’s – mostly as the swarthy Italian lover – South Pacific can justly be called his most prominent role; certainly, in which his prowess as a leading man is never questioned. Incidentally, Brazzi’s rather thin voice was dubbed by Pinza; Juanita Hall’s too by the London stage’s Bloody Mary - Muriel Smith, despite the fact, Hall had sung for herself in the Broadway original. Interestingly, France Nuyen and the late, John Kerr would go on to have the more prolific careers, as reoccurring characters in some very high-profile television dramas.  
Viewed today, South Pacific retains its intangible potency as a critique of racial prejudice. Almost all of the reasons are in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s superior score; steadfast in its melodic evaluation, defying the shortcomings in Joshua Logan’s color-induced rainbow malaise. With such magnificent hits as the buoyant ‘Cockeyed Optimist’; thought-provoking ‘Carefully Taught’; bittersweet ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ and iconic ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, South Pacific soars beyond the misfires in Logan’s direction. The principle cast is competent. But rarely do any of them triumph above the material in ways that would earmark their performances as standouts. Mercifully, it’s the weight of the score and the story that proves the inspired counterbalance to offset their mediocrity.  When we reconsider the film, it is the totality of the presentation, rather than any deconstructing assessment of its individual parts – or cogs, as it were, in this multi-spoke wheel that continues to fortify our minds, bring enchantment to our hearts, and ultimate nourishment to our souls.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray is a reissue of the disc released in 2006; a pluperfect mastering effort, fortunately void of the current pox of teal/orange tinting that has otherwise submarined the hi-def release of The King and I (1956). We get both the theatrical and extended roadshow cuts, spread over two discs. Like the previous minting, the roadshow footage has not been restored before being reinstated into the film and is woefully subpar to the rest of the 1080p image quality. I would have preferred Fox to color correct this reinstated footage; also to clean it up and bring the entire image into focus with current Blu-ray mastering standards. Perhaps I was expecting too much.
Since, most will recall South Pacific only from its theatrical engagement, we can attest to the fact South Pacific in its theatrical cut sports one of the most pristine and startlingly gorgeous/reference quality transfers anywhere. Prepare to be dazzled by the film’s ultra-vibrant color saturation (at times, overpowering) and its razor-sharp Todd A-O clarity: simply breathtaking in all respects. You are going to LOVE this presentation. South Pacific won an Oscar for its sound design and it’s easy to see why. The 5.1 DTS audio is robust beyond all expectations, with exquisite separation across all channels. The R&H score sounds magnificent to say the least. But dialogue also exhibits a naturalized clarity that is engaging. 
Extra features include Ted Chaplin’s audio commentary on the theatrical cut and Richard Barrios’ on the road show. There’s also a brief ‘making of’ featurette and Diane Sawyer’s 60 Minutes interview with James A. Michener from the 1980;s. All of these features were included on the standard DVD release. New and exclusive to the Blu-Ray is the documentary: Passion, Prejudice and South Pacific – a beautifully produced and thoroughly engrossing feature-length look back at the story behind the film. If you already own the previously issued Blu-ray from Fox you’ll want to pass on this one. If not, then South Pacific comes very highly recommended herein. It’s still ‘Younger than Springtime’ and more than capable of providing you with ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ in front of the TV.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Theatrical Cut - 5+
Roadshow Version – 4.5


Monday, September 15, 2014

THE GREAT RACE: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1965) Warner Archive Collection

Played strictly in caricature, and with its heart firmly affixed as an homage to the zany antics from the silent era, Blake Edwards’ The Great Race (1965) remains an absurdly amusing transgression against the more serious permutations of entertainment infiltrating the decade; also a pointedly obtuse send-up to 60’s radical feminism, astutely lampooned in the ironic parallel between its more aggressive contemporary campaigners and the film’s own Susan B. Anthony, Maggie Dubois (Natalie Wood) – a nonsensical, if aspiring, and occasionally perspiring, ‘working woman’ - given over to rambunctious camp. It isn’t hard to figure out which side of the argument Blake Edwards sentiments fall; Donfeld’s costuming for our forthright, strong-minded female who wants the vote, but is willing to settle in marriage to the Great Leslie (Tony Curtis as an undeniable paragon of bygone masculine virtues), leaving very little to the imagination. Wood actually spends most of the film’s second act scantily clad in a vibrant rose corset that pushes and plumps out her already ample bosom. Wood is a fine actress. Alas, The Great Race is not her finest performance by a long shot. She often appears stilted; her mannerisms deliberately meant to evoke a sense of theatric grandiosity, but somehow less authentic than a silly wink and a nod to that era when actors gesticulated for their pay.
The film has far better success with Dorothy Provine; all too briefly glimpsed as sultry Lily Olay; a feisty saloon entertainer in Boracho; a forgotten backwater bedecked in all the vintage trappings of a John Wayne western. Provine is a thoroughly captivating addition to this cast, utterly superb as she belts out “He Shouldn't-A, Hadn't-A, Oughtn't-A Swang on Me”; one of two hummable songs penned by the irreplaceable, Henry Mancini, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. The other is ‘The Sweetheart Tree’, Mancini writing an exquisite ballad that draws heavily on a Pianola influence. It’s about the most authentic thing in this period picture. Director Edwards is conspiring with Arthur A. Ross on the screenplay. But it’s something of a kerfuffle, begun as a vainglorious turn-of-the-century pastiche, under the misguided pretext to tell us all about the era of the daredevil; when men of indomitable spirits and disposable cash vied for supremacy in costly globe-trotting adventures to satisfy their own boredoms and captivate the impoverished masses with their free-spirited escapes into these flights of fancy.
We get all this and more in The Great Race; a film immeasurably blessed by Fernando Carrere’s production design and art direction; also, Russell Harlan’s sumptuous and eye-filling Technicolor cinematography. Carrere bids – with varying degrees of success and accuracy – to recapture the period, as well as a host of European locations. The Great Race did shoot in Salzburg and Paris; also, Big Bear Lake, Alabama Hills and Sonora California, before confining most of its action to sound stages over at Warner Brothers in Burbank; also a few obvious outdoor sets on the old MGM back lot. Alas, footage shot within the studio’s confines belies Blake Edwards attempt to recreate a marvelous travelogue a la the likes of Michael Todd’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) or even Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines (1965), another 1900’s cross-country/transcontinental escapist yarn, made and released the same year as The Great Race and with roughly as much (or as little) appeal and longevity as cinema art.  
Despite its evident virtues, The Great Race is decidedly second rate as a roadshow experience on several levels. The film is affectionately dedicated to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy; Edward’s ‘everything old is new again’ approach to the material leaving no stone unturned. But the recycling of this famous team’s sight gags (the polar bear sketch is an obvious swipe) – along with others re-orchestrated for the movie – fails to evoke nostalgia. Instead, it almost completely reminds us just how bygone and never-to-be-forgotten the silent era remains. For starters, the reteaming of Tony Curtis with Jack Lemmon (the two had played exquisitely off each other in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot 1959) is lacking the same intangible chemistry herein; the Ross/Edwards screenplay pitting the boys against each other; Lemmon cast as the Great Leslie’s arch nemesis, Professor Fate, whose sidekick, Maximilian Meen (Peter Falk) is less than hilarious. Lemmon is having a deliriously good time playing the maniacal Fate; something of a grotesque satire of Boris – the handle-bar moustache twirling villain from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (1961-64).  But only he can appreciate this farce. It is grating, to say the least.
There’s not enough charm to endear us to Fate; not even to make us understand why the Great Leslie – as noble, virtuous and carefree as he is – would risk his own life and victory in the race to save the despicable Fate from…well, his own in the movie’s third act; a horrendous rip off of The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), right down to its crossed-swords duel, done partially in silhouette, between our hero and Baron Rolfe Von Stuppe (Ross Martin). All the characters, from Keenan Wynn’s Hezekiah Sturdy (Leslie’s confident and travelling companion) to frenetic newspaper editor, Henry Goodbody (Arthur O’Connell) – who suffers a nervous breakdown and is committed to an asylum by his portly suffragette wife, Hester (Vivian Vance, of Ethel Mertz/I Love Lucy 1951-57 fame) are stick-figures at best. I suppose, that’s part of The Great Race’s charm; the story relying on the actors’ presence, rather than character development, to carry the weight. Actually, beyond the initial setup of Leslie proposing a lengthy competition from New York to Paris – by way of one of the most bizarre road maps ever selected for such an excursion – there’s not much of ‘story’ going on in The Great Race either.
This one’s played strictly for the guffaws; Blake Edwards ladling on the nostalgia just a tad too thick for my tastes. While naturalism was never the pursuit of the film or its director, it’s a crying shame more subtlety wasn’t applied by the actors; in effect, to surprise us with the campier moments, rather than repeatedly slug us over the brain with an, at times, lethally heavy-handed ‘look how funny we are, aren’t we?’ approach to even the most menial vignettes bridging the journey by carrier pigeon. Yes, The Great Race is meant to be episodic. But its pratfalls and wide-eyed leering grow tiresome after about the first ten minutes; particularly Jack Lemmon’s seriously apoplectic scoundrel, who teeters from gloomy hatred for our hero – simply because he is the hero – and a sort of emasculated, Freudian ‘mama’s boy’ who prefers Maximillian’s company to Maggie’s. At 160 minutes, there’s just too much ‘I can’t believe they did that’ and not nearly enough ‘wasn’t that clever?’ to win our hearts and fortify our funny bones with the proverbial good tickle.
It’s a shame too, because Mel Brooks would later illustrate the virtues of a world with no dialogue in his Silent Movie (1976…and pardon me – one word, ‘no’ uttered by – who else? – mime, Marcel Marceau: simply hilarious!). But no such sparks of brilliance seem to have inspired Blake Edwards on The Great Race. And indeed, with dialogue, the yuk-yuk sight gags in this movie (that might have worked without the benefit of sound) now seem to get weighted down and remade as unfunny tripe, precisely because they are stereophonically rendered. Edwards throws everything at the screen. The best vignettes in The Great Race are a no-holds-barred brawl inside Boracho’s Palace Saloon (a chance for some of Hollywood’s most proficient stuntmen to show off their truly mesmerizing and highly dangerous craft as they total the inside of a sound stage) and the lavishly appointed pie fight a la The Three Stooges; again, staged in Burbank, in which no custard, raspberry or lemon meringue is left untouched. The bar fight still gets my vote; chiefly because all the principles are engaged, and the delicious, Dorothy Provine (terribly underused in the movie) has no quam about rolling up her chiffon-yellow sleeves to get down and dirty with the boys. She takes her lumps on the butt – twice; sailing over the side of a pair of breakaway tables; tossed around like a ragdoll by her desperado brute of a boyfriend, Texas Jack (Larry Storch). Ray Rice…are you listening?
The Great Race does have its moments. But it takes far too long for the story to get off the ground; the Ross/Edwards’ screenplay bungling its first act with a series of botched competitions between the Great Leslie (a man constipated in his verbal communication and interactions) and Professor Fate, who suffers from chronic verbal diarrhea. Tony Curtis gives one of his most restrained performances. It’s actually refreshing not to see Curtis overreaching to impress, as he frequently did throughout his movie career. 
Alas, Jack Lemmon has not taken this cue from his partner. I’ve always admired Lemmon for his comedic genius and timing. But both are woefully off in The Great Race; Lemmon’s high octane energy, no match for his truly painful interactions with Peter Falk, who seems even less to be enjoying his position as the fop’s fool. And then there’s our third wheel – Natalie Wood – to reconsider. Pert, plucky, and frequently grating on the nerves (if decidedly, never on the eye), Wood clobbers her part with an interminable amount of feminist cheek and caustic venom; inexplicably dissolving like a cube of sugar when finally forced into a locked embrace by our proverbial ‘good guy’ (Curtis’ Leslie is perpetually clad from head to toe in virginal white…just in case there was any doubt as to his virtue and/or integrity). We’re seeing some very fine actors in this movie. Alas, ‘joyless’ is the best way I can describe most of The Great Race.
We begin on an open airfield where the Great Leslie is preparing to be bound in straightjacket and left dangling upside down from a cord attached to an unmanned hot-air balloon. The gathered crowd loves it, particularly several adoring female fans, who rush the podium for one last passionate farewell kiss before Leslie is sent into the skies, presumably to his death. Not far off, Prof. Fate and Maximillian lie in wait, having concealed themselves in a tank camouflaged as a rather large bush. Fate unveils a harpoon and commands Max to fire it into the balloon. It’s a bull’s eye hit and almost immediately the balloon begins to lose altitude. Not to worry, however. This is, after all, the ‘great’ Leslie; a man of collected calm and inimitable manly grace, who effortlessly slips from his restraints, straps on a parachute, and leaps to safety from the descending balloon, much to Fate’s angry chagrin.
A short while later, we catch up to Leslie again, this time attempting to break a speedboat record; Fate and Max setting an early prototype of a sound-seeking torpedo after Leslie’s boat. Alas, in attempting to make their quick getaway, Fate and Max’s model-T backfires several times; the bomb honing in on that sound instead, leaping from the water and pursuing Fate’s car to an inevitable conclusion.  Fate is, of course, beside himself. He desperately wants to rival and surpass Leslie’s feats of daring with one of his own. In this mad dash to outdo the perfect male specimen, Fate concocts a manned rocket probe he plans to shoot down the railroad tracks at lightning speed. Too bad the rocket proves much too powerful, blasting Fate and Max into the air before running out of steam and nose diving them back to the earth. In the meantime, Leslie has latched on to the next big thing; a great race from New York to Paris; by far, the most spectacular transatlantic crossing yet proposed, much less attempted.      
Convincing the Webber Motor Car Company to construct a new automobile expressly for the race – the ‘Leslie Special’ – Leslie’s engineering triumph is challenged when Fate sets out to create an even more impressive – if sinister – vehicle from scratch, stealing parts from some of the best auto manufacturers. The Hannibal 8 is a sort of Franken-Chrysler; part tank/part car: all Fate, complete with a front loading cannon, a heat-seeking torpedo (ironically, never used in the film) and rear smoke screen (decidedly, overused whenever Fate cannot figure out any other way to distract his competitors). Interestingly, the ‘Leslie Special’ was built at Warner Brothers to evoke memories of the Thomas Flyer; the actual car that had won the real 1908 New York to Paris race.
In the meantime, overbearing woman’s crusader, Maggie Dubois has infiltrated the front offices of the New York Sentinel newspaper, handcuffed to the men’s room in the hopes her shenanigans will endear her to its editor-in-chief, Henry Goodbody. Henry is, however, not about to let any woman dictate to him, ordering his copyeditor, Frisbee (Marvin Kaplan) to have Maggie arrested. The edict touches off a firestorm of unwanted publicity, the suffragettes – fronted by Henry’s own wife, Hester, parading up and down the square, then inside the hallways; demanding equality. Maggie overwhelms Henry with the promise of getting the intimate story by entering the ‘great race’ herself as a competitor.
Maggie’s first prospect, to lure Leslie into having her along for the ride in his car, is crushed when both Leslie and his trusted travelling companion, Hezekiah Sturdy, proclaim an automobile race is no place for a woman. Undaunted, Maggie attempts to broker favor with Fate, sneaking into his heavily guarded shop, chased by a pack of wild Great Danes, and inadvertently blowing up Fate’s garage with the Hannibal 8 still inside. Hardly dissuaded, Maggie now manages to secure her own ride for the race, packing up her note pad and photography equipment in the backseat to document the adventures that lay ahead.
The six-car launch is interrupted when Max sabotages three competitors; one crashing into a store front, another losing its transmission on the road, and still another overturning, then having its’ wheels pop off. Alas, in his zeal to wreck the chances of anyone finishing the race, Max has also ridiculously sabotaged the Hannibal 8, leaving Maggie and Leslie as the only competitors to proceed to the next round of competition.  Later, in the middle of the desert, Maggie’s car breaks down and Leslie, being the noble gentleman that he is, graciously offers her transport to the next refueling station; a forgotten western outpost called Boracho. The delay with Maggie allows Fate to gain a minor lead, arriving first in Boracho and presented with the key to the city by its Mayor (Hal Smith). All Fate wants is enough gasoline to propel his Hannibal 8 onto the next length of the journey. But the Mayor assures Fate he will receive nothing until the dawn. The town has planned a lavish celebration to mark the event. Fate manages to sidestep the Mayor, but later runs out of gas and is forced to concede he must remain in town until morning. 
When Leslie arrives in Boracho he is greeted with minor hostility until he graciously accepts the honor to partake in the festivities planned for the evening. That night, at the town’s local saloon, Leslie, Hezekiah and Maggie are treated like royalty; the entertainer, Lily Olay serenading the rambunctious crowd with a rip-roaring ditty that brings down the house – literally. For Lily ‘belongs’ to Texas Jack, a notorious desperado who manages to start one of the biggest brawls in screen history, believing Leslie has designs on his girl. Actually, it’s the other way around, creating a minor rivalry between Lily and Maggie, who gets the upper hand (and upper cut, later in the fight) planting a fist on Lil’ to send her toppling to the floor.
In all the hullabaloo, Fate manages to steal the necessary gas he needs to fuel the Hannibal 8, blowing up the rest of the stockpile, thus ensuring Leslie does not follow him. To Fate’s chagrin, Maggie has snuck aboard the Hannibal 8. He ditches her in the middle of nowhere. But the next afternoon, Maggie is once more rescued by Leslie, who has hitched a team of horses to pull his car to the next outpost; Grommet, where he intends to send a wire to ask for more gas. This, however, will take time and give Fate a considerable lead. Thus, Maggie offers to expedite the time it will take to order the gas and have it sent to Grommet, by sending a message ahead of them via carrier pigeon so that the train and Leslie’s car will arrive in Grommet at the same time.
Arriving in Grommet, Leslie is bribed by Maggie into her accompanying him on the next length of the journey…or she won’t sign for the consignment of gasoline. Hezekiah has had quite enough of Maggie’s scheming. He bitterly informs Leslie he must chose who will continue the race with him. For Leslie, the choice is quite simple. So, Maggie pretends to surrender and get on board the train, asking Hezekiah if he will help with her luggage. Instead, she handcuffs Hezekiah to a seat on the train, returning to Leslie and lying Hezekiah has decided to quit and go back to New York. A brief while later, her rouse backfires, when Leslie and Maggie meet up with Hezekiah in Alaska; also, with Fate and Max who have managed the next length ahead of them by a very narrow margin. Fate kidnaps Maggie, hurrying to the next destination; Russia. The two cars are caught in a violent blizzard, Fate and Max visited by a polar bear, forcing them into a toppled heap inside the backseat of Leslie’s car. The foursome huddle together to keep warm, awakening early the next morning only to realize they’ve been cut adrift from the mainland, now drifting on a block of ice in the middle of the frigid ocean. Will they survive? Intermission.
So far, The Great Race has been a consistently plotted affair. Alas, to expedite the journey from America to Europe (we’re already 83 minutes into the movie by now), screenwriters, Ross and Edwards devise a rather shoddy connecting device; Maggie using her trained carrier pigeons to send updates about their progress to the New York Sentinel; Edwards frequently cutting away to a close-up of the Sentinel’s latest headline being read with great interest by Henry Goodbody. Thus, we move into the movie’s half-baked European adventure; Fate, Max and Maggie arriving mere moments ahead of Leslie and Hezekiah; met with an ominously stern reaction until Maggie – who speaks fluent Russian – declares a celebration in order; Fate and Max hoisted on the shoulders of the merry villagers and carried inside the local watering hole.
Once again, we cut to the New York Sentinel, now overseen by Hester Goodbody who, it seems, has had her husband committed to the state asylum for a much need rest – also, to convince him to allow women in the workplace…or else. Cut again, this time to Salzburg, Austria, mimicking one of those mythical Ruritanian European principalities – this one named, ‘Pottsdorf’. The kingdom is presided over by a foppish Crown Prince, Hapnick (also played by Jack Lemmon). Fate, Max and Maggie pause for badly needed repairs to the Hannibal 8; Max eyeing Maggie as she takes a nude swim/bath in the nearby lake (so obviously shot on the old MGM back lot in the same forest where Leslie Caron’s Gigi warbled the last few bars of ‘The Parisians’. I mean, they didn’t even try to weed out the Californian tropical vegetation, not indigenous to the supposedly European landscape).
Unfortunately, fate seems to have caught up with Prof. Fate; the rebellious Baron Rolfe von Stuppe, struck by the uncanny resemblance between Fate and Hapnick, now taking the trio hostage to his isolated schloss on the Rhine. The Baron and General Kuhster (George Macready) force Fate to impersonate the Prince for the King’s coronation. Afterward, Kuhster will instruct Fate to abdicate the throne, thereby allowing the rebel government under Stuppe’s rule to take control of Pottsdorf. The Ross/Edwards screenplay now moves into its fairly transparent rip-off of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel, The Prisoner of Zenda.  Max, posing as a monk from a nearby monastery, encourages Leslie to rescue Fate and Maggie; also, Hezekiah who has been found out by the Baron while skulking around the castle late at night and is being tortured in the dungeon. The Great Leslie and the Baron duel with crossed swords, then sabers; a flashy display of swordsmanship, paying an almost verbatim photographic homage to David O. Selznick’s 1937 movie version of Zenda, right down to the cutaway shadows on the wall.
Unable to free Fate from his impersonation of the King, the coronation takes place. Fate is forewarned by Max that Leslie – who has managed to rescue the real prince in the nick of time – is on his way to the cathedral to expose the bait and switch. Hurrying from the church with Max hiding beneath his King’s train, Fate takes refuge in a nearby bakery preparing a vast assortment of pastries for the post-coronation feast. A hideous pie fight breaks out after Fate take a tumble into the nearly six foot torte made for the palace inaugural; the various pastry chefs incensed and picking up their pies to do battle. Leslie, the real prince, the Baron, Maggie and General Kushter all get their just desserts – literally – and in the kisser. But the walloping of creams, custards and other various fillings is more grotesque than riotous; the scene devolving into an abject waste of food.
Escaping across the countryside, Leslie decides to set up camp for the night in a forest; acknowledging Maggie as an emancipated woman, only to plant a rather sexist kiss on her for which she returns a sizable wallop to Leslie’s cheek. This leaves him stunned and confused. What’s a man in love to do? The next day, while the two furiously debate a woman’s place in society, Fate gets the upper hand in the race. But he makes an incalculable error by misreading the map en route to the Eiffel Tower; Leslie easily managing to make it to the famed Parisian landmark first. At the last possible moment, Leslie deliberately throws the race to prove to Maggie he really is in love with her.
Fate is overjoyed as he effortlessly sails past their stalled vehicle; awarded the silver loving cup and showered with ticker tape streamers and confetti. Sadly, he is unable to relish his victory, knowing Leslie ‘let’ him win. Outraged, Fate refuses his prize and instead challenges Leslie to another race – from Paris to New York. The Parisians immediately erect another banner to mark the start; Leslie and his new bride, along with Hezekiah, boarding the Leslie Special and taking off on their first length before Fate and Max can even get underway. Fate instructs Max to fire the newly installed jet propulsion rockets that will presumably hurl them to victory at lightning speed. But in the film’s penultimate shot, an overview of Paris with the Eiffel plainly visible, the sudden explosion is enough to topple its girders to the ground in a cloud of dust.
The Great Race is idiotic good fun. But it lacks the essential spark of crazy excitement to catapult it into the upper echelons of screen entertainment. Honestly, there just isn’t enough ebullience to sustain its hefty 160 minute runtime. I get it. Blake Edward’s has given us a stereophonic/Technicolor and widescreen sendup to those gloriously obtuse silent B&W screen spectacles a la The Keystone Cops, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and yes, even Laurel and Hardy. There are also elements of every road movie you’ve ever seen in The Great Race – with nods to Frank Capra’s masterpiece, It Happened One Night (1934) and Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). But the sight gags are mostly ill-served by the inclusions of sound, color and expanding the image horizontally. What was hilarious as slapstick in the 1920’s looks decidedly out of place in the 1960’s.  Yes, it’s still homage; but not an altogether successful one, and not at all well-received when it had its premiere.
To some extent, Blake Edwards was given the green light to make The Great Race because his previous two movies (Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961, and The Pink Panther 1963) had been so wildly successful with audiences and critics alike. Initially, The Great Race was planned as a $6 million dollar extravaganza for the Mirisch Company, financed through United Artists. However, when UA balked at the escalating budget, the project migrated over to Warner Bros. who had every confidence it would be a valiant successor to the previous hits directed by Edwards. In some ways, Tony Curtis doesn’t really fit the bill as our hero; Edwards preferring Robert Wagner, a choice vetoed by Jack L. Warner who was worried the recent divorce of Wagner and Natalie Wood would cast a pall on the entire production.  Jack might have also had the overwhelming success of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot in the back of his mind, believing Curtis and Lemmon would once more make beautiful music together – even, if they were living apart and in competition with one another in this movie.
But Tony Curtis’ participation on The Great Race proved very costly indeed; his agent, Swifty Lazar insisting on a salary of $125,000 - $25,000 more than either Jack Lemmon or Blake Edward was receiving for their work. As for Natalie Wood; she began the film under a cloud of reluctance, goaded/then bribed by Jack Warner, who assured her the lead in Inside Daisy Clover (1965); a part she desperately wanted. Unhappy chance for Wood the perceived ‘short shoot’ on The Great Race ballooned in proportion to its budget; the production eventually doubling from $6 to $12 million, making it the most expensive comedy ever filmed. The pie fight alone tipped the scales at a staggering $200,000 for less than ten minutes of screen time. The shoot proved exhaustive, trying everyone’s patience. But Wood, ever the professional, kept her energies and spirits up to its completion; shortly thereafter attempting suicide by swallowing a bottle of pills.   
Viewed today, The Great Race is much more an artifact than an entertainment; a relic even in its own time and a time capsule for a type of lavishly appointed film-making we are not likely to see again. There are definite virtues to this production, as already discussed. But the pluses barely outrank the minuses and what we’re left with is a fairly sluggish, would-be comedy with more spectacle than laughs. This isn’t a great film and unlikely to be appreciated as such for some time to come – if ever. Tastes vary and shift with time, but The Great Race was merely passable for me – and infrequently ‘less than’ in spots. Judge and buy accordingly.
But there’s great news for Warner Home Video’s archive edition Blu-ray: a peerless mastering effort. This is becoming something of a habit for the WB Archive, and one definitely championed by yours truly on this blog. I just sincerely wish Warner would invest in more A-list titles from its vast catalog. Could we hope for titles like Around the World in Eighty Days, Silk Stockings, The Student Prince, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Marie Antoinette, Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Pride and Prejudice (1940) and so on, and so forth?
Aside: I recently tuned into a Warner Archive podcast between WB VP George Feltenstein and noir historian, Eddie Muller where Feltenstein seemed genuinely perplexed the recently remastered Blu-ray edition of Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) was already in its forth minting. No kidding, George. If you release it, they will buy! Release more high profile catalog to hi-def and it will sell! I guarantee it! Alas, a lot the of the titles currently part of the hi-def archive are not A-list ‘must haves’ for collectors. I don’t know why this is so startling a find; especially to Feltenstein, who has been the driving force for catalog restorations and their releases at Warner Home Video since the mid-1990’s.  But I digress.
The Great Race is everything you could possibly hope for on Blu-ray; sparkling with deep, richly saturated colors, superbly rendered contrast, and a dazzling amount of fine detail evident from beginning to end. The rear projection matte work is more obvious than ever, but that’s part of the movie’s ‘charm’. There isn’t an age-related blemish to be seen. This is a clean, crisp and beautifully rendered reference quality disc that will surely not disappoint.  Better still, the 5.1 DTS audio is a minor revelation, particularly Henry Mancini’s score. It takes on a sumptuous sonic life of its own. Dorothy Provine’s ‘He Shouldn't-A, Hadn't-A, Oughtn't-A Swang on Me!’ nearly knocked me off my chair.  Wow and thank you! The only extra features are a brief vintage featurette of Edwards at work and a badly worn theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended for quality. Warner Home Video is once again to be congratulated on their efforts. I just hope this means better movies are coming down this pipeline in similarly pristine 1080p. We’ll wait and see.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)