Saturday, March 28, 2015

BEST SELLER: Blu-ray (Orion Pictures 1987) Olive Home Video

Don’t expect much from John Flynn’s Best Seller (1987), an occasionally atmospheric, but badly mangled suspense/thriller, written by Larry Cohen, whose other ‘gems’ from this period include Maniac Cop (1988) and Bette Davis’ tragic swan song, Wicked Stepmother (1989: the one where she morphs from an old hag into a cat and then, Barbara Carrera). Best Seller ought to have been more than it is: the tale of a semi-retired assassin, Cleve (James Woods at his most scummy, slick and treacherous), intent on exacting bloody revenge on his former employer, David Madlock (Paul Shenar). To achieve his goal, Cleve has concocted a particularly inane plan of action: exploit a forthright cop cum best-selling author, Dennis Meechum (Brian Dennehy), whom he nearly murdered back in the late 1970’s, to write an exposé on Madlock’s criminal activities.  Indeed, Cohen’s script ties in the fact Dennis and Cleve have met before; during a raid on the police department’s property room – inexplicably accessed through a secret passage via the men’s room at city hall. Cleve, along with three other men, all wearing Richard Nixon masks, leave a bloody trail inside this hidden bunker, murdering three of Dennis’ fellow officers and damn near killing him too. At the last possible moment, Dennis plunges a concealed knife into the gut of his would-be assassin – Cleve – who nevertheless takes a few pot shots before stumbling into the getaway van.
Fast forward to the present – or rather, 1987: Meechum, still on the force, despite his formidable girth and advancing years. Ah, but here he is, plain clothes and involved in a high security sting operation on the docks that, predictably, turns ugly and leads directly into a prolonged and not terribly prepossessing chase sequence. It seems every mystery, drama, suspense thriller from the 80’s had one of these to recommend it. Best Seller’s hot pursuit is a fairly inarticulate and wasteful affair; staged with pedestrian theatrics by director, Flynn, occasionally from an interesting overhead or low angle to elevate the overall intensity; Jay Ferguson’s tinny industrial-sounding score never going beyond the tradition of canned excitement; just something cooked up on a synthesizer to fill the aural gap between heavy breathing and even heavier soles beating across the tarmac.  
Unexpectedly, Meechum is reunited with Cleve, whom he does not recognize at first without the mask. Cleve saves Dennis’ life by executing a drug-smuggling longshoreman (Branscombe Richmond) who nearly puts a bullet in Meechum’s back. It’s all very dramatic in a ho-hum sort of way – Meechum puffing like a rhino; his suspect opening fire on an unsuspecting crane operator (presumably, to illustrate for the audience his gun is, in fact, loaded) before taking to some overhead mechanized rigging in a large hanger; the God spot from which he intends to do away with Meechum once and for all. Cleve’s omnipotent quality (he seems to be everywhere all at once all the time, knowing exactly what is going down or about to happen and how best to effectively diffuse the situation). This is more than a little unsettling – at first.
We can almost buy into this notion too, mostly because James Woods is a consummate actor; gutsy, self-involved, egotistical and full of cunning. Believing Dennehy as the rough n’ tumble, burn out of a cop/author with an axe to grind and an almost unquenchable thirst to have Cleve scraped off the pavement, takes a little more convincing; chiefly because Dennehy is always above his character’s limited pugnaciousness and seriously flawed modus operandi. He’s a widower, a father, and a frazzled wordsmith with writer’s block. His ‘relationship’ with Woods’ is a little like Foghorn Leghorn vs. the dog in those old Warner Brothers cartoons; Dennis, perpetually itching to send Woods’ antsy and preening hitman through a plate glass window or brick wall with his bare fists all the doo-dah day. Dennis does, in fact, split Cleve’s lip wide open during a nightclub brawl. He matches him with half-cocked weaponry during a bedroom confrontation in the wee midnight hour, the moment laced with some cheap Freudian ‘show me yours and I’ll show you mine’ homoerotic subtext; even less convincing than the notion these two warring whack jobs could wind up being good friends.
Best Seller is already a B-grade/C-budgeted effort. As though to prove this point we are introduced to some other fairly nondescript characters, given next to nothing to enliven the plot; Victoria ‘Flowers in the Attic’ Tennant as Dennis’ frigid editor, ice queen/snow bitch, Roberta Gillian, her knickers in a ball over Dennis’ lack of motivation to finish another ‘best seller’ on the advance her publishing house has already afforded him; George Coe as Graham, Madlock’s personal attorney with a pocket full of congenial threats that go nowhere fast; Jeffrey Josephson, as Madlock goon, Pearlman, whom Dennis makes fun of for bad hair plugs, and finally, Edward Blackoff, as Thorn, a particularly ineffectual stooge in Madlock’s army of gun-toting idiots; his big moment – threatening Dennis’ sixteen year old daughter, Holly (Allison Balson) before having his neck snapped by Cleve; Holly caught in perpetual teary-eyed cringe mode.  And then there are Cleve’s parents (Mary Carver and Charles Tyner) to consider, or rather, to forget. I am genuinely at a loss to explain director, Flynn’s retrospective on Cleve’s childhood, particularly as it intrudes upon the main plot with virtually no tie-in or payoff later on.  
As far as thrillers go, Best Seller begins with an absolutely nonsensical premise. Dennis discovering it was Cleve who shot and nearly killed him during the diamond heist gone awry nearly a decade ago ought to have spelled the end for their already strained buddy/buddy alliance of convenience. After all, Dennis is the Dudley Do-right of this piece; a little frayed around the cuffs and collar, and increasing getting steamed underneath it, but otherwise, basically, a ‘good guy’ counterpoint to Cleve’s cookie full of arsenic; unrepentant about killing for hire, except now he wants retribution to rain down on the man who made his oily cock of the walk possible. You know what they say about biting the hand that feeds; what it does for the cool cat tempted by curiosity too? Cleve will not come out on top. He really hasn’t that option. Alas, instead of explaining away the reasons why an autonomous assassin would expose his identity to the cop he nearly murdered, even out of desperation to have him write a ‘tell all’ to destroy his own arch nemesis is more than a little fishy. Okay, honestly, it stinks to high heaven. Why Dennis should follow Cleve from L.A. to New York on a whim – or rather, for proof against Cleve – and damn near miss getting blown to bits by a failed car bomb for his troubles – making a pilgrimage to Cleve’s family home; a little farm where good, honest and hardworking folk first spawned the Frankenstein monster, as yet, without knowing it; these are moments of introspection in Larry Cohen’s script dealt with in the most clichéd inadequacies of screenwriting 101 yet.
Worse, the central ‘vengeance is mine’ scenario just doesn’t hold up. Cleve wants Madlock dead. So why not do the job himself? Why involve Dennis? The most his book could do is smear Madlock’s nose in the already foul stench of his own reputation. But why does Cleve want this instead of Madlock’s blood spilled? Good question. Evidently, Cleve is persona non grata; an exile from Madlock’s criminal organization, now using charitable philanthropy to cloak deeper sins and ongoing political corruption, drug smuggling, etc. and et al. Larry Cohen’s screenplay is a little vague into which piles of manure Madlock is up to his elbows. But why should any of this matter to a big shot like Madlock? He could easily have Cleve rubbed out instead of fired from his organization. Somewhere along the way, Cohen’s script gets very sloppy, to the point where it cannot quite justify exactly what the story is about or where exactly its characters are within its ever-unraveling chain of events. To bolster the plot, or perhaps confuse and divert the audiences’ attentions even further, we momentarily digress to a spookily lit industrial laundry service, where one of Cleve’s complicit former paramours (Jenny Gago) now fears for her life. Good intuition on her part. For within moments of meeting this scared mountain goat, all hell once again breaks loose; leaving Cleve and Dennis on the defensive and this young disposable gal on her knees with a fatal knife wound to the chest. Another one bites the dust!   
Pity, none of these loose narrative threads are tied up with any degree of finality, much less competence. Madlock’s arsenal of supposedly high paid mafia-styled protection are the equivalent of the Keystone Cops; bumping into furniture and each other as they struggle in vain to escape Cleve’s dead aim. And then there’s Cleve. Who is he? Practically psychotic during the diamond heist prologue; later, reveling as he slits the throat of a New York City cabbie, Foley (William Bronder) inside a photo-mat booth (the most gruesomely unexpected moment in the movie), after he learns from Foley Madlock paid him to abandon Cleve and Dennis in the backseat of a taxi with a bomb about to go off. Later, Cleve takes Dennis to a brownstone on the lower east side merely to prove to him he’s been there before and murdered its former owner, pleasantly bribing the current proprietor (Anne Pitoniak) into letting them in; picking a bar fight he can’t win without his gun against a Texas-styled longhorn (Michael Crabtree) over a silly young blonde trick, dumb as a post, but bumped out in all the right places, and who ultimately winds up splayed for the obligatory thirty-second nudie shot, reading a magazine in Cleve’s bed.
But again, who is Cleve? James Woods gives us some compelling insight peppered with that usual self-assured neuroticism that infiltrates virtually all the actor’s finely wrought characterizations. Too bad Cleve is less three dimensional than a variation on a very flatly premised mama’s boy who was never quite able to crawl out from under the Midwestern angst and pall of being just a good ole boy turned rancid without a cause or purpose. He’s a freak, as Meechum goads; illustrating the epitome of his volatile bipolarity in the movie’s climax; a balls in/guts shot out finale at Madlock’s palatial beachfront home, playing host to some sort of underprivileged children’s house party.  Remember, Cleve is a ruthless killer. He enjoys it. But knowing Dennis has suddenly made him soft – mostly, in the head. He rescues Holly twice, takes out Madlock’s bumblers with ease, demanding to know their names before each kill, but then pursues a totally implausible policy of altruism that costs him his own life in the end. Does Cleve want to die? Nothing about the character indicates as much. And Madlock is hardly the kind to get his own hands dirty at the point of a gun. That’s what the hired help is for – however ill-conceived for the job they may be.
It’s frankly painful to watch Woods and Dennehy go through the motions of this last act finale, so unsatisfying and contrived, both actors must have set their artistic integrity from ‘stun’ to ‘comfortably numb’ with a good bottle of scotch after cashing their paychecks. Best Seller achieves a level of mediocrity few thrillers have by misfiring at even the most base level. Suspension of disbelief is one thing. But Best Seller strains the audience patience for even a straight forward suspense yarn. Larry Cohen ought to have steered clear of the twists and turns; all of them ultimately leading to a dead end. ‘Clever’ is so obviously not his thing! Ditto for director, John Flynn, whose post Best Seller career speaks for itself; badly achieved B-grade shoot ‘em ups with Stallone and Seagal; also a quickie schlock horror flick.  Best Seller is about as captivating as watching pudding harden. Nothing wrong with that if you like either your tapioca runny or your smooth vanilla with more than a few clunky lumps mixed in. But honestly, there’s better work out there to feed your fix for a solid two hours. This one has excised two from my life I can never get back. Regrets!
Okay, moment of truth for the folks over at MGM/Fox, the custodians of the old Orion Pictures library, who continue to offer us such crap-tac-u-lar 1080p transfers as this. As already explained, Best Seller is hardly a great film. But if it’s deemed worthy enough for a reissue in hi-def the least that can be done is to clean up these existing elements to satisfy Blu-ray’s long abandoned claim of ‘perfect picture’ and ‘theater quality sound’. When was the last time ANY vintage catalog from MGM/Fox met those requirements?!? Best Seller has been farmed out to Olive Home Video, presumably to keep its’ crummy quality a solid distance from the MGM/Fox banner. It’s properly framed in 1.85:1; probably the best that can be said of this disc; otherwise cribbing its visuals and audio from tired old and improperly archived elements in need of preservation and restoration. The opening several minutes include optical dissolves and montages and are among the most unstable and pathetically subpar looking visuals yet achieved in hi-def. Frisbee disc, anyone? Grain – exceptionally heavy. Overall softness? Yep, you bet. Crushed blacks, weak contrast, faded, dull and muddy colors? Oh yeah! Sign me up. If I wanted this film on VHS I would have sought it out in a $1.99 bin at my local thrift shop, thank you very much!!!
The counterbalance to all my caterwauling is that once this prologue has ended, the image begins to snap together as it should.  Colors and contrast both improve and outdoor sequences deliver an admirable amount of clarity. I should, however, point out MGM’s old DVD from 2002 offered similar improvements, leading me to deduce this Blu-ray transfer is another of the studio’s quiet bait and switches, using the same digital files merely bumped to a 1080p signal herein. No new remastering to satisfy Blu-ray’s vastly superior technology. More proof: age-related artifacts are present in exactly the same frame captures from both the Blu-ray and the DVD. Overall, nicks, chips and scratches do not distract. Biggest disappointment: the color. Orangey flesh persists. Overall color is dated and occasionally quite muddy. Best Seller's DTS 2.0 audio sounds about on par with the old DVD tracks, albeit, minutely crisper with slightly better separation between dialogue and effects. This is a base effort – if even the word ‘effort’ can be used to describe MGM/Fox’s commitment to external catalog titles currently under their distribution umbrella. Pass – and be sincerely glad that you did!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, March 27, 2015

ADVISE AND CONSENT (Columbia Pictures 1962) Warner Home Video

The truest movie yet made about the insidious nature of American politics remains Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent (1962); based on Allen Drury’s intriguing best seller, first published in 1959. The book would remain on the New York Times best seller list for a whopping 102 weeks and, despite a minor brouhaha, won the Pultizer Prize for fiction. The title derives from the U.S. Constitution Article II, Sec. 2, cl. 2, in essence affording the President the ability to nominate high ranking officers with the ‘advice and consent’ of the U.S. Senate. Upon publication, the novel was sincerely praised, Saturday Review admitting “It may be a long time before a better one comes along.”  What Drury had done was to create a wholly new subgenre in popular fiction; the political drama that neither relied on the time-honored clichés of international mystery or espionage nor a subplot involving a political assassination. Despite its occasional ‘out of print’ status, Advise & Consent has remained popular with readers throughout the years, its politicized and sexual revelations contributing to a vivid and truthful arc, setting the template, and making it one of the most gripping page turners of its ilk.
Like most of Preminger’s later movie projects, Advise & Consent pushed more than a few ‘hot’ buttons in Hollywood, not the least for the caustic director’s decision to hire blacklisted actors, Will Greer and Burgess Meredith; also, discarded former star (and Preminger favorite) Gene Tierney (once a reigning glamor girl, but then suffering from a debilitating bipolar condition) in one of her final roles, as Dolly Harrison, a sort of Perle Mesta ‘hostess with the mostess’ knockoff; unceremoniously discounted by Dolly’s own assessment as “any bitch with a big house, money and a good caterer can be the social darling of Washington!” Of more immediate concern to filmdom’s self-governing production code was the character of Brigham Anderson, the young idealist whose senatorial carrier is threatened when, in an attempt to unearth some dirt about the President’s potential nominee, Robert Leffingwell, leaders of the opposition to this appointment also discover the married senator with a young family was involved in a homosexual tryst while serving in the military in Hawaii.
To be gay in 1950’s America was decidedly tantamount to being a communist or communist sympathizer, the stigma analogous to political suicide and, both in Drury’s novel and the movie, ‘actual suicide’, in order to save face and escape the inevitably crippling public scrutiny.  Yet Drury, who was both staunchly anti-Communist and a conservative besides, approaches Brigham Anderson (played by Don Murray), not as the villain of his piece, but with an uncharacteristic empathy, decidedly railing against the muckraking sensationalism that could cause a basically good man to sacrifice even his life because of a private matter that, in essence, had harmed no one, not even his own wife (not yet met or married at the time of his gay involvement in Hawaii). In translating the delicacies of Brigham’s predicament to the screen, Preminger was neither weary nor timid about remaining faithful to Drury’s point of view.  Indeed, by now Preminger was used to Hollywood’s highly sanitized, ‘holier than thou’ approach to popular entertainment, had readily despised both its arrogance and hypocrisy, and, had steadily challenged its boundaries, forging a new permissiveness on the screen with or without the code’s seal of approval.
In retrospect, Advise & Consent is one of Preminger’s most brilliant movies, sadly underexposed to the general public and commonly maligned by the critics; mis-perceiving Wendell Mayes’ screenplay as intermittently ‘wordy’, without even ‘trying to be accurate or fair about the existence of a reasonable balance of good men and rogues holding political office.’ In fairness to the critics, Advise & Consent must have seemed like Preminger’s deliberate slap at the Presidency of John F. Kennedy. Preminger had even hired Kennedy’s brother-in-law, Peter Lawford to play the womanizing Lafe Smith, (ruthlessly modeled on Kennedy himself) and further, had drawn parallels between the two men by having Smith a representative from Kennedy’s former constituency of Rhode Island whereas, in Drury’s novel, Smith is actually from Iowa. Noted critic, Bosley Crowther also took umbrage to the homosexual affair, referring to it as the movie’s ‘latter complication’ exposing the drama as ‘deliberately scandalous, sensational and caustic; unrealistic, except as a splashy high point.’
Before it was a movie, Advise & Consent had debuted as a play on Broadway, adapted for the stage by Loring Mandel and directed by Franklin Schaffner. Starring Farley Granger, the stage version ran for a little over a year, but was only a nominal success. Like the play, Preminger’s movie would be largely overlooked in its own country, despite the fact he was nominated for the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and Burgess Meredith, cast as a mentally unstable former card-carrying member of the Communist Party, Herbert Gelman, would go on to win the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor. In Britain, Charles Laughton was also nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Actor for his portrait of Seabright ‘Seab’ Cooley; a corrupt and enterprising senator from South Carolina whose devious admonishment of Leffingwell, as Senator Smith points out “denotes a closed mind and an ancient crust of prejudice.” Laughton’s brilliant performance would be his last, dying within mere months of the movie’s premiere from renal cell carcinoma.
For the pivotal roles of Leffingwell and Senate Majority Leader, Robert ‘Bob’ Munson of Michigan, Preminger turned to two of the most distinguished actors from their time; Henry Fonda and Walter Pigeon respectively; packing his A-list cast with such noteworthy talents as Franchot Tone (The President), Lew Ayres (Vice President Harley Hudson, the former governor of Delaware), George Grizzard (embittered rabble-rouser, Senator Fred Van Ackerman of Wyoming), Paul Ford (Senate Majority Whip, Stanley Danta of Connecticut) and Inga Swenson (as Brig’s long-suffering, though ever-devoted wife, Ellen). In her movie debut, future TV alumni of both Mary Tyler-Moore and The Golden Girls, Betty White, was afforded a plum cameo as Senator Bessie Adams of Kansas, who joyously challenges Washington’s ‘ole boys’ club’ with a decidedly offbeat feminist critique of their tactics on the Senate floor. 
After another superbly conceived main title sequence from former Madison Ave. ad man, Saul Bass, the remnants of only the stripes of the American flag endlessly overlapping against one another, Advise & Consent opens with the arrival of Stanley Danta on the steps of the Capital Building. He buys a paper from a newsboy, reads its headline about the President’s nomination of Leffingwell for Secretary of State, and promptly hails a taxi to the Sheridan Park Hotel to confront Bob Munson. Alas, Munson is as much in the dark about the President’s decision; the pair quickly hurrying over to Senator Smith’s suite for damage control; also, to begin their more thorough investigation of Leffingwell’s chances for succession. Leffingwell is, by all accounts, a confirmed ‘egghead’, generally frowned upon, not only by members of the opposing party, but also from within the President’s entourage, as too daring and progressive. There might be something to their animosity: for Leffingwell, unbeknownst to anyone, once attended clandestine meetings in a chapter of the Communist League of America.  Evidently, a youthful folly with no basis in fact as to whether Leffingwell is ‘actually’ a communist, or even a communist sympathizer, the stain created by Seab’s exposure of Leffingwell’s past creates a minor stalemate during the committee’s deliberations on his potential candidacy.
Preminger was granted unprecedented access to various locations in Washington, shooting inside the state capital during the Senate’s summer shut down, adding yet another layer of verisimilitude to the story. Presumably, to break up the intensity of all these startling politicized revelations, Preminger briefly moves us to the stately manor of widow, Dolly Harrison; her vast salons dotted with the crème de la crème of Washington society. Bitterly disappointed at having been overlooked to partake in Leffingwell’s due process as the committee’s chair, Senator Ackerman nevertheless vows to remove every obstacle standing in Leffingwell’s way. Dolly breaks up his passionate confrontation with Senator Orrin Knox of Illinois (Edward Knox), decidedly not a Leffingwell supporter. Leffingwell, however, has chosen to remain fairly autonomous in Washington. He doesn’t hobnob or even pretend to play ball under their established guidelines, and this – at least partly – has unsettled the status quo. These initial sequences in the movie remain faithful to Drury’s novel, but they also reveal Preminger’s overall contempt for political machinations and politicians in general. None is operating with the purest of intentions; not even Munson, who has chosen to keep a tight rein on Leffingwell’s past, even after learning the truth, serving the President faithfully, though perhaps at the expense of almost placing an unworthy atop this democracy with the potential to topple, or at the very least, undo its time-honored precepts. 
Some hours later, the party at an end, Senator Munson returns to Dolly’s house where it is revealed the two are lovers and have been for quite some time. He would prefer to marry her. But Dolly enjoys her independence and politely refuses to entertain his proposal. Meanwhile, the second term President has reason enough – both personal and political – to hurry along Leffingwell’s nomination. Along with just about everyone else in Washington, the President marginalizes his V.P. Harley Hudson. In fact, the President only picked Hudson as his running mate out of political necessity. He does not believe he would be good for the administration's current foreign policy. Munson, who is about the closest thing to a friend Hudson has in Washington, confides in him that last year’s operation on the commander-in-chief was not a success. The President is gravely ill and failing.
At the Senate Foreign Relations sub-committee hearings, presided over by Senator Brigham Anderson, Seab Cooley entertains the notion Leffingwell is a communist. A general cry of outrage ensues, the press clamoring for evidence to support this claim. To illustrate his point for the committee, Seab brings forth a surprise witness; Herbert Gelman, a minor Treasury clerk who professes to being one of Leffingwell’s former students from the University of Chicago, and who also claims he and Leffingwell were part of a Communist cell, along with two other men, in their youth. Asked by Brig’ to qualify these allegations, Leffingwell requests a recess to reformulate his thoughts. Instead, he takes a taxi to the home of Hardiman Fletcher (Paul McGrath); the mysterious ‘other man’ who once partook in the communist activities as suggested by Gelman. Fletcher pleads with Leffingwell to keep his former activities a secret from the committee. Instead, Leffingwell manages to dig up some dirt on Gelman; exposing his mental instability to the committee and suggesting his hypotheses are mere figments of an ongoing delusion.
This counterattack is effective at quelling the committee’s suspicions. But it also severely humiliates Seab, now more determined than ever to learn the identity and whereabouts of this ‘other man’ who attended the communist meetings. In the meantime, Leffingwell attends the President in the Oval Office and confesses the truth: Gelman’s credibility, although brought into question, was nevertheless sound and essentially correct. Leffingwell has committed perjury to save face and spare the President embarrassment. He now pleads to withdraw his nomination. But the President, buoyed by Leffingwell’s honesty, is as resolved as ever to stand behind him. In the meantime, Seab identifies Hardiman as the ‘other man’ and forces him to reveal it to Brig’ who, in turn, confides this discovery to Munson. Despite personal lobbying by the President, Munson now insists on Leffingwell’s withdrawal. Gridlocked in his appointment, the President is begrudgingly forced to admit the White House will soon have to nominate another candidate. Brig’ agrees to delay his findings in the committee's report, giving the President enough time to quietly exile Fletcher; thus, anteing up this game of political hardball.
Not long afterward, Brig’s wife, Ellen begins to receive anonymous threatening phone calls from Van Ackerman’s men, forewarning that unless the subcommittee proceeds favorably on Leffingwell’s behalf, certain information will come to light about a cryptic incident involving her husband and another veteran, Ray Shaff (John Granger). Outwardly, Brig’ assures Ellen there is no need for concern. The threats are hollow and can in no way impact either their marriage or his political future. Ellen, however, begins to suspect Brig’ is lying about his past. While attending Munson in the commissary, Brig’ receives a phone call from one of Van Ackerman’s cronies; another thinly veiled threat, it sends Brig’ into a tizzy and straight to the airport for the first available flight to New York.
Arriving at a nondescript social club, Brig’ quickly realizes it is patronized by gay men, among them, his former lover, Ray who attempts to explain how he was being blackmailed for some quick cash. In the meantime, Ellen receives a parcel on her doorstep; an envelope with an affectionate letter written in Brig’s hand to Ray about their love affair; also, several photographs attesting to the intimacy in their ‘friendship’. Ellen is, understandably heartbroken. But she remains devoted to Brig’, attempting to reach him by telephone at his office. Alas, she is too late to save Brig’ from himself. He commits suicide in the bathroom with a straight razor; news of his death reaching Munson and Smith during a friendly card game at Dolly Harrison’s home. 
The President denies all knowledge of blackmail to Munson and Hudson, ordering Munson to push through Leffingwell’s nomination. Time is running out. Munson turns on Seab for using cheap tactics to oppose Leffingwell, all but blaming the southern polecat for Brig’s suicide by creating an impossible situation from which no other means of saving face was possible. Brig’s death has had unexpected fallout; allowing the subcommittee to proceed with the nomination.  To salvage his own reputation, Seab apologizes in the assembly for his ‘vindictiveness’ and suggests while he will stand firmly opposed to Leffingwell’s nomination, he will also not encourage any of his fellow senators to follow his lead, merely their own conscience in casting their votes. Listening in on the radio from the Oval Office, the President suffers a heart attack and dies. Word reaches the Senate chambers and Harley is sworn in as the new President, quietly informing Munson he intends to put forth his own candidate for Secretary of State; thus, ending whatever hope Leffingwell may have had of assuming the post.
Advise & Consent is unapologetically harsh about the business of politics, its’ real purpose (to do the people’s bidding and work as a cohesive element for the good of the nation) blunted by turmoil stirring from without and within. Stop me if this sounds vaguely familiar and relevant to the frequent stalemates occurring in D.C. these days! Ironically, the overall purpose in making this movie – to expose political corruption – may have been dulled if Preminger had had his way.  Originally, the director wanted to offer prominent cameos to both, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then Former Vice President, Richard Nixon. Only King took Preminger seriously for a brief moment or two, eventually deciding his appearance in any movie might sincerely hamper his own legitimacy in the civil rights movement. Nixon, on the other hand, was quick to point out what he classified as ‘glaring and obvious’ errors in the screenplay. Given Nixon’s own future ambitions for the White House, he might also have taken umbrage, as well as a chapter or two from Drury’s playbook, thereby seeking to distance himself from parallels in what would ultimately shape the political backbone of his own presidency.
It has always been an irony of humanity in general, and the citizenry of the United States in particular, that the heart of its own democratic system of checks and balances – that is to say, the very essence of the machinery designed to make democracy a reality, capable of functioning outside its theoretical framework (and we can sincerely debate both the speed and accuracy with which it has either achieved or failed in these goals in more recent times; missing the mark when living up to the altruisms of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or even, F.D.R.); nevertheless, politics has remained one of the most shielded and misunderstood of all human endeavors, ironically and increasingly so in spite of our supposedly transparent era in modern mass media.  As the novel before it, Preminger’s adaptation of Advise & Consent is thematically a film meant to shake American audiences from their complacency about the role government plays in all our lives; the enigma of Preminger’s ‘history lesson’ wrapped in a decidedly more appealing outer shell of ‘entertainment value’ for the popcorn crowds with celebrated stars at the helm.
The beauty of the exercise is it functions on both levels; as both an entertainment and as insight into how this imperfect system works in spite of itself and despite hidden forces who seek to keep the public naïve as to its inner truths and deceptions daily put into motion, either to move certain ambitions along with lightning speed or bring the entire enterprise to a grinding halt via competition, not always attained under the rubrics of honesty and fair play. Advise & Consent is therefore something of an eye-opener, just as Preminger had intended. Audiences of its day may not have necessarily grasped its overall importance, the concept of politics itself still very much a cherished and revered part of the American landscape. But with the assassination of J.F.K. one year later, and the perennially renewable rumored involvement of various factions of its own government complicit in the murder itself, America’s collective faith in government as an agency for ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ would be dealt a fatal blow. In more recent times, politics itself has taken on a highly inflammatory and more venal connotation. In retrospect, Preminger’s film was very much ahead of its time. Yet, from today’s vantage, it seems more readily and steadily to fuel and satisfy our collective cynicism about government itself and the conspiracies permissible under its easily misled guise dedicated to the democratic due process.
Exactly how Warner Home Video have become the custodians of Advise & Consent, I am not quite certain. Preminger made the movie for Columbia Pictures. Nevertheless, this DVD release is firmly a WB product. Overall, it’s adequate, though hardly great and this is indeed a shame. The B&W image generally suffers from contrast levels ever so slightly bumped, particularly sequences shot under natural lighting conditions outdoors. We lose the mid-register here, the image harshly contrasted. One can argue with indifference due the sun, but Advise & Consent was lensed in deep focus by the great Sam Leavitt, so this ought to have looked stunning. Mostly, it does; interiors revealing a good deal of fine detail in hair, clothing and backgrounds. Exteriors can, on occasion, appear bleached out and fuzzy around the edges; undue flairs caught off the gleam of a sparkling chrome fender looking strangely out of place.
The audio is mono, leaving Jerry Fielding’s majestic main title march a little on the flat side. Interestingly, Advise & Consent has no score to speak of, apart from this superb march. Overall, however, dialogue is well placed with little distortion. Extras are limited to a fairly informative commentary track from Dr. Drew Casper. It veers slightly on the side of Casper’s verve for self-pontification (do we really care or need to know the man holds the position of chair for the Alfred and Alma Hitchcock association? After all, he’s not critiquing a Hitchcock movie here.). Nor is he nearly as comfortable in his own ‘full flower’ of egg-headedness when covering Preminger’s career. His comments seem more apparently and heavily scripted than spontaneous with occasional long pauses as Casper waits for the screen’s visuals to catch up to a point of view he has already plotted ahead.
Again, it’s an okay commentary, though hardly a fascinating one. Herein, I’ll just put in a plug for Gregory Mank, whose commentaries are never anything less than spontaneous, informative and highly educated introspections, done with great passion and heart. But I digress. Advise & Consent belongs on everyone’s ‘must see’ list. It is a great film.  One can argue Drury’s superb novel has given the movie its cache in drama, but Preminger’s unique vision and his own caustic skepticisms about the democratic due process gives the movie an air of impassioned cynicism all its own. This is powerful stuff. So buy today and cherish forever. And hey, you just might learn something about politics besides. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

SOLOMON AND SHEBA: Blu-ray (Edward Small 1959) Twilight Time

King Vidor’s swan song to an industry he helped create and shape, along with Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith, was Solomon and Sheba (1959); a highly questionable Bible-fiction melodrama, nee would-be epic. It’s debatable what the celebrated introduction of Sophia Loren did for American cinema. Undeniably, it opened the floodgates for a small army of fractured English and smoldering voluptuaries like Gina Lollobridgida to follow in her footsteps. But neither the glimmer of sex from Gina nor the immensity of Yul Brynner’s smooth-pated masculinity could salvage this film from becoming a turgid mess. Based on a story by Crane Wilbur, Solomon and Sheba suffered a lengthy incubation period, an arduous shoot on location in Spain and the tragic death of its original star, Tyrone Power – dead at the age of forty-four. Power had endured longer than any of his contemporaries – even Errol Flynn – as the swarthy swashbuckling stud, despite being long in the tooth for it. Having begun Solomon and Sheba with verve, while rehearsing a daring duel with costar, George Sanders in the stiflingly inhospitable heat of Spain, he suddenly dropped to his knees, stricken with a fatal heart attack. Sanders, generally deemed as ‘not very nice’ was equally as stricken, not with a case of conscience but with a bad bout of anxiety. After all, he could now add ‘public executioner’ to his repertoire of professional cruelties.
In recasting the part of the Israelite king with Yul Brynner, independent producer, Edward Small sought to salvage what he could of Power’s footage, using long shots of Power astride his steed in the final edit to keep a reign on the movie’s budget. But the interpretation of the Divine as a sort of ‘seek and ye shall receive’ entity is rather obtusely handled; Paul Dudley, George Bruce and Anthony Veiller screenplay, mangling Christianity and treating God as though he were equal parts glorified tooth fairy and genie of the lamp, granting wishes at will with a complacent air. It seems anyone who prays to the Almighty has their prayers instantly heard and answered, be they Israelite or Pagan - a liberal notion; it rather defeats the purpose of converting Pagans to Christianity. Why bother if God is on speed dial 24/7? Evidently, Vidor had hoped – or perhaps, even prayed – his ‘something new’ approach to the Lord would reinvigorate this time-honored, and badly worn, sword and sandal quickie, conveying less of the Holy of Holy’s and veering disastrously afar and askew from the historical record, more stringently adhered to in the 1921 silent classic, The Queen of Sheba
But tricked out in Super Technirama and stereophonic sound, Solomon and Sheba ought to, at least, have looked the part. Alas, there is pretentiousness and a faux Hollywood glam-bam infiltrating its rugged style. Periodically, the film aspires to rise to the level of a DeMille epic, a sort of Ten Commandments wannabe, fabricated with all the decorous accoutrements a la an Edith Head, or, in this case, Ralph Jester, who vacillates in pouring the hourglass figure of Ms. Lollobridgida into one tantalizingly skimpy outfit after the next. Undeniably, Mr. Jester’s dispensation of chic good taste rises to a level of embarrassing tackiness during an orgy. This scene takes its cue from the ‘Romanesque’ offerings of both DeMille and Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis, though without the cleverly devised sumptuousness to fully carry it off. Worse, it is as though Vidor has forgotten some thirty years has elapsed since the public was first exposed to this sort of hysterical nonsense; sexy young gals gyrating to a primal drumbeat, their glistening navel jewels bouncing off some very flat tummies and well-rounded hips, accompanied by shirtless, chest-thumping studs, who pulsate, their arms and legs extended in ridiculous silliness, meant to invoke virility. There’s no subtlety to this set piece, and no sense of maturity about it either; Vidor relying on squirmy gesticulations to substitute for a sort of artless and witless eroticism; passé almost from the moment the movies first learned to talk.       
So much for sex, it seems – the objective to titillate the audience with harrowing displays of affection further hampered by Gina Lollobrigida’s inability to render any line of lust-laden dialogue with even a hint of ‘come hither’ spontaneity. English, so obviously her second – and extremely distant – language, she strains to overthink every last word; tongue-twisted and stumbling about in her annunciations; Brynner’s patient and forthright Solomon doing all he can not to laugh in her face or take her over his knee in a sort of ‘Kiss Me Kate’ inspired moment and spank her well-rounded bottom with supreme joy. It might have enlivened their love-making considerably. Knowing Tyrone Power’s rather stiff-britches approach to some of his later Technicolor swashbucklers, I can imagine how he and the loquacious Lollobrigida might have been more aptly suited to one another. But, having lost Power to the ages, jettisoned all notions of good taste and worse, discarded even a hint of fidelity to the historical record, director, King Vidor presents us with pseudo- antiquity in its place; the kind that makes virtually no sense whatsoever in any realm other than the bizarre-land chaos of a typical Hollywood costume drama, expecting the audience to simply fall in love with it for its own elephantiasis.  
Given Brynner’s intolerable fallaciousness in the part – he thunders like a Russian bear in a Victorian novel – and King Vidor’s implacably placid battle sequences (they look as though to have been shot as part of a high school prank on how not to graduate from stunt work finishing school) the final death knell for the film is its script; Messers Veiller, Dudley and Bruce badly bungling the precepts of treason and war, spiritual awakening, familial greed, international relations, and, politics – sexual or otherwise.  George Sanders is a sneering villain straight out of central casting, or, at least, George Sanders-ville; an enclave of justly celebrated, enterprising deviants.  After an ominous main title sequence, given over to a dirge by Mario Nascimbene (with an uncredited assist by Malcolm Arnold), we are introduced to Prince Solomon (Yul Brynner) and his boastful brother, Adonijah (George Sanders); a pair of preening peacocks in weighty robes, breastplates and effeminate headdress. Adonijah has set a trap for the marauding Egyptians near the Israeli border; effectively driving their forces from his encampment. To his great dismay, the warrior prince quickly learns from one of his captives, the Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida) has pledged her lot with the Egyptians against Israel. Aside: there is nothing either in scripture or archaeology to suggest Sheba was the Pharaoh’s pawn or ally.
Word reaches the encampment King David (Finlay Currie) is dying in Jerusalem. Adonijah is more pleased than concerned, for he has already accepted the throne as his own and vowed to overturn what he misperceives as weaknesses in their father’s rule, to pillage and conquer Egypt in bloodshed. It will not be as easy as he believes. Upon confronting Sheba and her troops in the desert, Adonijah is momentarily beaten into submission with the crack of her whip. Alas, Solomon has already left for Jerusalem, gravely concerned. Arriving home, he is comforted by his ward, Abishag (Marisa Pavan), just in time to hear David’s proclamation. It seems God has spoken in a vision to anoint Solomon as the heir apparent of Israel. Alas, this revelation drives a wedge between the brothers; Adonijah vowing to pledge his troth with the Egyptian armies sooner than see his birthright usurped by his younger sibling.  David makes Solomon promise he will erect a temple to house the Ark of the Covenant, containing the stone tablets brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses; a promise he once made to God, yet left unfulfilled these many years later.
Solomon vows to rule as his father would have wished. He prays for guidance and is granted God’s protection if he will heed the will of the Divine and allow it to rule the course of his own heart in perpetuity.  Solomon’s allegiance to God is repaid with a golden era of peace. He is embraced by the people as a benevolent and just ruler. Moreover, he desires to bridge the chasm created by his appointment to the throne; offering his brother command of the Israeli army – a decision that both perplexes and momentarily softens Adonijah’s heart. The temple for the Ark is built and Solomon dedicates it to the glory of God and the legacy of his late father. Meanwhile, in the land of Sheba, the Queen is informed by her trusted advisor, Baltor (Harry Andrews) the Egyptian Pharaoh (David Farrar) has grown displeased. More amused than threatened by Pharaoh’s wrath, Sheba vows to conquer Solomon not through battle, but by plaguing his heart with lust for her, thereby learning his secrets and his weaknesses and using both to destroy him. While there is little to suggest such a plan was ever hatched, and even less to hint the Queen and Solomon became fated by love – if, at all – undoubtedly, Vidor and his wordsmiths have concocted such obvious trappings to ensure good box office. Regrettably, it worked! Audiences made Solomon and Sheba a solid hit.
The Queen arrives in Jerusalem in a manner befitting her imperious stature, also her own ego; draped with gold and jewels and delivering a menagerie of rare hand-loomed clothes, Arabian horses, acrobats and entertainers at Solomon’s feet. Yet, her greatest offering is yet to follow; a pledge of loyalty to gain Solomon’s favor as an ally. He is most pleased and accepts Sheba’s display without question, even allowing her to sit at his side at court. Her presence is a dividing force amongst the resident courtiers. But Solomon illustrates both his compassion and wisdom during a dispute between two women over a child. The rightful mother (Claude Dantes) explains how her roommate, having accidentally killed her own baby by laying upon it, has stolen her infant son as a replacement. The other woman vehemently denies this claim. So Solomon decrees for the Captain of his Guard, Josiah (Jack Gwillim) to draw his sword and cut the child in two; that both women may claim their half, whereupon the maternal instinct kicks in and the rightful mother casts herself in harm’s way between Josiah’s sword and the boy, offering the child to the other woman to spare its life. Recognizing the truth, Solomon justly awards custody to the woman who sought to protect the child from death.
Sheba uses every feminine wile at her disposal to seduce Solomon but to no avail. And although it was understood Solomon would take Abishag as his wife, his desire is already enflamed by Sheba’s tricks. Unable to rid himself of the suspicion the queen has come to Jerusalem with less than altruistic intensions, Solomon decides to confront Sheba in her private chamber. He bluntly puts to her the question of her purpose. But now it is Sheba who has changed; stirred by Solomon’s kindness, enough to respect him and reveal how her journey had begun as one to destroy him at Pharaoh’s behest. Solomon knows this to be true. But he also realizes the effect his goodness has had on Sheba, and thus accepts her into his bedchamber. A romance, however sterile in its conception, causes consternation amongst the ministers who, at first, approach Adonijah for counsel. Adonijah refuses to act as their intermediary. But he cannot help realize how Sheba might be exploited, perhaps, even against her will, to bring about Solomon’s demise.
Baltor chastises Sheba for softening towards Solomon. She is betraying Pharaoh’s trust and thus threatening her own future sovereignty. To illustrate the sway she holds over Solomon, Sheba asks to hold a Pagan celebration in Jerusalem; a festival denied, but then granted by Solomon. Solomon’s advisors are dumbstruck and angered by his acquiescence. He has betrayed God’s trust by allowing another graven image to be worshipped in the city. Solomon pledges his love to Sheba. In response, her life is threatened by assassins loyal to Adonijah and Solomon’s heart hardens toward his own people. He grants Sheba the right to practice her Paganism in Jerusalem; reluctantly resisting to attend the ceremony. Abishag pledges her devotion to Solomon in Sheba’s stead. But Solomon, driven to distraction, now skulks off to Sheba’s festival, leaving Abishag to return to the temple containing the Ark of the Covenant to pray for forgiveness for her own failure to keep Solomon’s faith pure. Lightning strikes the temple, destroying a portion of its façade and killing Abishag in the process. Sheba outwardly claims a victory, but behind closed doors she is bitterly angry for her part in bringing ruination on this nobleman – God’s emissary on earth, as it were.
God sends a pestilence to Jerusalem. The elders of the tribes rebel and separate; the fertile lands turning to dust. At the same time, Pharaoh engages Adonijah to march on Solomon and destroy his armies and the city. Abishag’s father pledges his armies in defense of Solomon. But the battle is bloody and incurs epic casualties. Sheba repents her sins to God, promising to depart Jerusalem at once and build a temple to Solomon’s God, if only God will hear her now and spare her beloved from death.  The next afternoon, Solomon sets his forces upon a craggy cliff, the reflection from their shields blinding Adonijah’s and Pharaoh’s forces as they charge over the steep embankment to their deaths. In Jerusalem, Adonijah orders Sheba to be stoned; the crowd taking its vengeance on ‘the pagan slut’. Too late, Solomon returns victorious to the city, smiting his corrupted brother in a duel and discovering Sheba’s badly broken body lying at the base of the temple. His loyal guardsman explains how Sheba freely sacrificed everything – even life itself – so God might hear her prayer for the restoration of his throne in Jerusalem. Before the Ark of the Covenant, Solomon hears the voice of God proclaim that because Sheba was pure of heart she will be restored to life, though not to him, so she may return to her own kingdom and bear Solomon’s child; the keeper of the faith in two lands instead of one.
Solomon and Sheba is hardly a perfect entertainment. Moreover, it must rate as one of the most grotesquely inaccurate Bible-fiction epics to emerge from Hollywood.  Awkward moments of stoic introspection aside, the movie is monstrously sentimental in its last act – even ludicrous in its ‘go and sin no more’ happy ending, meant to inspire renewed devotion to the Christian faith. The production is as hampered by its rather miniscule budget and lack of set pieces. Recall, only for a moment, in this same year – 1959 – William Wyler stunned audiences and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the grandest Bible-fiction epic of them all; the eleven-time Oscar-winner, Ben-Hur; an infinitely more satisfying and resplendently mounted super colossus from MGM.
Solomon and Sheba lacks this total investment in spectacle. Moreover, it is denied the ‘Wyler touch’; a natural affinity Wyler had for instilling humanity into the grandeur of the exercise. In its place, director, King Vidor toggles between moments of lushness – alas, too remotely parceled off to make a consistent impact on the eye – and his even more tragic adherence to staged melodrama; heavy on the syrup, but all too light and disingenuous on its Biblically inspired truths meant to be taken at face value. It’s the artifice in the spectacle that submarines the glories of the film’s production value and narrative, and the lack of consistently high production values that belie what morsels of verisimilitude ought to have come from this drama bookended by flash, pomp and circumstance. In the end, none of it works, either effectively or perhaps, even as it should on the most remedial level, leaving Solomon and Sheba a real dud.  
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, via its alliance with MGM/Fox Home Entertainment, is hugely disappointing, as I must confess a goodly number of MGM/Fox hi-def releases are. Clearly, the studio isn’t ready as yet to fully recognize its wellspring of classics.  Solomon and Sheba was photographed in Technirama; an 8 perf 35mm process that ought to have yielded remarkable results in 1080p, particularly since the movie was shot by cameraman extraordinaire, Freddie Young. Alas, MGM’s hi-def transfer is almost certainly created from less than perfect 35mm reduction prints instead of an original 8-perf camera negative. We have mis-aligned frames and more than a handful of dupes, quite obvious in 1080p and distracting. Color density and balancing are adequate, although nowhere near the level Technirama is capable of yielding. Film grain is inconsistently rendered. It’s there, then it’s gone, then it’s heavier than expected.  The DTS 2.0 audio is, again, merely present and accounted for instead of delivering the wallop it likely had in discreet stereo during the film’s original theatrical release. As you’ve probably surmised from these comments, I’m not a fan of MGM’s hi-def efforts in general and this one in particular. It’s not TT’s fault. They’re working with what they’ve been offered. However, this doesn’t let MGM off the hook, in my not too humble opinion. Twilight Time has given us the barebones isolated score track and a trailer as extras. Want some solid advice – pass on this one. MGM and Fox’s general lack of investment on catalog releases in hi-def isn’t worth your time or money. If they want us to buy they need to start giving out with a level of quality worthy of the bang in our bucks - period!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Saturday, March 21, 2015

ON THE TOWN (MGM 1949) Warner Home Video

During the 1940s, producer, Arthur Freed had begun an ambitious slate of Broadway to Hollywood musical acquisitions. While Hollywood generally did very well with its own home grown product – particularly where musicals were concerned, Freed also endeavored to bring the very best from the Great White Way to the big screen: Babes in Arms, For Me and My Gal, Cabin in the Sky and Best Foot Forward among his ambitious contributions to expand the artistry of the Hollywood musical in new directions. It was a heady time at MGM; the dream factory churning out entertainment with a capital ‘E’, thanks, in part to Freed’s zeal for big and glossy mind candy; also, L.B. Mayer’s affinity for cultivating great personalities by adding to his ever-expanding roster of musical stars. If one could sustain more than two musical notes in succession and could illustrate the ability to master a basic time step, Mayer afforded that aspiring individual every luxury to professionally train as a singer and dancer. The results of his company’s expert tutelage can be seen in stars like Lana Turner, Esther Williams and Peter Lawford. Certainly, none was in the same league as, say, a Judy Garland, Jane Powell or Howard Keel. But very often, each appeared as competent ‘second string’ in A-list musicals made throughout the mid to late 1940’s. 
In retrospect, the Freed Unit at MGM provided Hollywood with its only legitimate ‘stock company’ of musical performers; Mayer affording his most ambitious producer a steady stream of creative talent both in front of and behind the camera impossible to top. Other studios, most notably 2oth Century-Fox tried to compete. But only MGM had the immense resources to consistently yield peerless quality. The MGM studio orchestra, as example, under the baton of Johnny Green, and later, André Previn, could rival any symphony orchestra with ease. Musical arrangers did not come any finer than Roger Edens and Kay Thompson. Freed’s repertory company would remain the best in the business throughout the 1940’s; the proof – the musicals made from 1939-59. Occasionally, however, Freed set his sights a tad too high – or, perhaps, he simply lost his focus –  buying up Broadway hits, only to toss out virtually most of their plots and a good deal of their scores.
Herein, it bears mentioning what works on the stage is rarely as effective on film. Musical stagecraft often inserts numbers and/or scenes as transitional pieces meant to bide time and keep the audience amused while a small army of decorators and prop men hurriedly scramble to redress the main stage area behind the curtain for the next act. Narratively, a musical on the stage has two distinct acts, usually interrupted by an intermission. Generally speaking, film functions with a three act partition, or rather – arc – without the benefit of a split down the middle to punctuate the action. Freed, of course, understood these basic conventions. He also had a trusted entourage of artists he could rely upon at a moment’s notice to fulfill his criteria for a newly proposed project on his ‘to do’ roster. Interestingly, On the Town (1949) should not have been one of them.  After encouraging L.B. Mayer on a blind commitment to the stage show sight unseen for $250,000 – even before a bar of music had been written by Leonard Bernstein – Freed, along with Mayer and a small troop of MGM exec’s went to see On the Town shortly after rehearsals and were summarily unimpressed by what their money had bought them.  Bernstein’s score was too recherché, much too sophisticated for movie audiences.    
Indeed, On the Town could not have come to the studio’s attention at a more inopportune time. Following the war, L.B. Mayer had naturally assumed the dwindling profits of the last few years would be corrected by an influx of new ticket buyers in the returning G.I.’s. Alas, the war had hardened the public’s appetite for grittier human dramas, making Metro’s lighter than air confections even less palpable and more out of touch with prevailing tastes. Loewe’s Incorporated President, Nicholas Schenck encouraged Mayer to find ‘a new Thalberg’ – a V.P. who could balance Mayer’s old-world gemütlich charm with these more contemporary stories to satisfy movie patrons and keep MGM in the black – made at roughly one third of the already sky-rocketing costs necessary to produce big and glossy musical extravaganzas. Mayer would have preferred Schenk keep to the business of counting his pennies in New York and leave the daily creative management of MGM’s assets in his more competent hands. But Mayer’s thirst for running MGM as his undisputed kingdom had strangely run its course. During the old Irving Thalberg regime, part of what had given Mayer his verve was his daily conflicts with Thalberg. Deprived of this nemesis, even one as ingenious as Thalberg, left Mayer uninspired and contented to let the studio gradually slump into a level of self-governing obedience, while he pursued other passions like horse-racing and socialite, Lorena Danker, on the side.  
Enter Dore Schary – arguably, the right man for the wrong studio.  Schary was well aware of two criteria upon his appointment as Vice President in Charge of Production: first, that his own passion for gritty B-budget noir thrillers with nondescript actors in the leads, severely clashed with the studio’s ensconced, top-heavy star system, dedicated to superficial glamor and peerless production values, and second; that a good many of Metro’s top exec’s and creatives considered his liberalism a prelude to being a communist sympathizer.  On his first day’s arrival, Mayer gave Schary a singular piece of advice – actually, more of a command: steer clear of Arthur Freed’s musical unit. To his credit, Schary gracious complied. He would continue to allow Freed to make his extravaganzas throughout the 1950’s, even after Mayer was ousted from power by Schenk, leaving Schary’s autocratic rule unchallenged.
Meanwhile, On the Town was green lit for production; hardly a simple translation from stage to screen, but principally given Freed’s own aversion to the Leonard Bernstein score. Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s early elation, as Broadway’s On the Town had been their baby, would turn to gloomy consternation after Freed explained how only a handful of Bernstein’s original songs would make it into the movie. In fact, only four survived, eventually supplemented by seven new songs written by Comden/Green and Roger Edens. Even more disheartening for Comden and Green; Freed wanted the entire premise revised. From the outset, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin were slated as the male leads, despite Sinatra’s apprehensions to do another picture in sailor’s garb. Sinatra’s disdain for Metro’s concocted persona for him, as the scrawny ‘less than’ always cringing in the shadow of Kelly’s more athletically robust masculinity, had irked Sinatra ever since their pairing in Anchors Aweigh (1945). On Broadway, the three sailors on shore leave in Manhattan had adopted a sort of collective ‘babes in the wood’ leitmotif; pure innocents thrust into the maelstrom of this writhing metropolis.  However, with Kelly as the film’s star, the entire structure of the story had to be reconceived.
While Kelly and his behind-the-scenes collaborator, Stanley Donen began putting Sinatra and Munshin through the paces of a rigorous dance rehearsal, Freed concentrated on securing the necessary civic permits to shoot a portion of On the Town in Manhattan.  Mayer was not a fan of location work. After all, what was there that his brilliant artisans in the property department could not recreate entirely from scratch on a sound stage: The Statue of Liberty for one; Rockefeller Plaza for another. Very reluctantly, Freed secured Mayer’s decision to send a second unit to photograph process plates; also, a very limited release of Donen and Kelly to lens the movie’s opening showstopper, ‘New York, New York’ at various locations in Manhattan. The logistics in pulling off this montage proved something of a minor nightmare, with the playback recording of Kelly, Munshin and Sinatra blaring over loud speakers; the sight of two major film stars and a small army of behind-the-camera crew cluttering up the streets with their technical accoutrements, attracting scores of onlookers wherever they shot. Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, Freed encountered his own brouhaha with the censors. They objected to New York being referred to as ‘a helluva town’; also to a line in the song ‘Prehistoric Man’, Ann Miller’s sultry anthropologist claiming, ‘lots of guys are ‘hot’ for me’…’beating on their tom-toms’. Mmm, yes. Their tom-tom’s indeed!
In hindsight, the plot to On the Town is not particularly inspired; the sailors on shore leave scenario fattened by an obvious homage – nee rip off – of Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938); the collapse of a fossilized tyrannosaurus rex, presumably on display inside the Museum of Natural History.  In Hawks’ movie, the madcap Susan (played by Katherine Hepburn) inadvertently discombobulates our hero (Cary Grant) by dismembering this petrified beast in one fell swoop. In On the Town a similar disaster ensues after the removal of a supporting ‘bone’ that topples the giant. The movie’s plot is essentially a girl hunt initiated by Gabey (Gene Kelly) after catching a glimpse of Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen) on a poster hanging in the New York subway. She is June’s Miss Turnstiles. Unaware of the minor celebrity this title holds, Gabey re-envisions Ivy as a rich debutante. In reality, she is little more than an aspiring actress, working as a seedy cooch dancer and indentured to the stern, Mme. Dilyovska (Florence Bates) to pay for her dancing lessons. 
Gabey convinces his two ship-to-shore buddies, Chip (Frank Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) to partake in his search for Ivy.  On the way, they encounter man-crazy cabbie, Brunhilde Esterhazy (Betty Garrett) and stud-hungry anthropologist, Claire Huddesen (Ann Miller). Each, predictably, takes a respective romantic interest in Chip and Ozzie. Now, this quintet goes in search of Ivy; Gabey eventually discovering her in a rehearsal hall, applying her craft with dreams of becoming a big star. The girls agree to keep Ivy’s secret, making a grand fuss over her position as Miss Turnstiles.  Now, a sextet – everyone goes clubbing for a night ‘on the town’, culminating in a rooftop rendezvous at the Empire State Building. Ivy must slink off for a late night performance at the carnival, causing Gabey to search for her. Upon discovering the truth, Gabey is unmoved. After all, Ivy is a good girl who actually hails from the same small Midwestern town as he. More importantly, she also happens to be deeply in love with him. Having broken their ship’s curfew, Gabey, Ozzie and Chip are arrested after a spirited police chase through Greenwich Village and are taken back on board at the crack of dawn; Ivy, Claire and Burnhilde waving goodbye to the men they vow to be true to until when next their ship docks in port.
The pièce de résistance in On the Town is the ‘A Day In New York’ ballet; rearranged by Leonard Bernstein, who agreed to work closely with Gene Kelly on re-conceptualizing it for the movie screen. Producer, Saul Chaplin was to add his own ingredient into their creative mix, borrowing on Agnes de Mille’s choreography for Broadway’s Oklahoma!, substituting more accomplished dancers for the principles, except Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen; who were, after all, already in a class apart as professionals. In essence, the ballet is a recap of the film’s plot, done in pantomime, slightly reconstituted through Gabey’s eyes and thought processes. ‘A Day in New York’ would set both a standard and a style for impressionist dance on film thereafter, later mimicked and expanded upon in Freed’s own An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), also repurposed by de Mille for the film version of Oklahoma! (1955). In retrospect, On the Town’s musical sequences are exemplars of the MGM style, in no small way etched into history by genius behind Gene Kelly’s collaborative efforts with Stanley Donen. Upon screening the rough cut assembly of numbers for On the Town, Arthur Freed was over the moon with his praise, comparing their work to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, adding “(they) can’t shine your shoes…red, white or blue. Much love from your proud producer.”
Evidently, the public agreed. Two premieres at the Bay Theatre and Loew’s 72nd met with ebullient plaudits and overwhelming critical praise. The line of eager ticket buyers outside Radio City numbered over 10,000. Despite Mayer’s initial premonition it would flop, On the Town would eventually go on to gross more than $4 million at the box office – a sizable hit. Mayer, who along with several top executives, had dismissed the stage show as ‘abysmal’, was begrudgingly forced to concede the picture’s success to Freed, as was rival producer, Joe Pasternak, overheard grumbling as Freed and his entourage passed in the commissary, “There goes the royal family!”  
It is perhaps one of Hollywood’s ironies On the Town does not hold up nearly as well today as some of the other Gene Kelly movies from its vintage; Comden and Green’s screenplay serviceable, though arguably, the most pedestrian they ever committed to musical comedy. True enough, the best musicals have rarely gone beyond the ‘boy meets girl’ hodge-podge. Yet, it isn’t simply that On the Town never strains or deviates from this ensconced template; rather, that it revels in such mechanical artifice to the point of borderline tedium, preventing the whole show from developing further. Kelly’s Gabey may not be the naïve fop of the stage hit, but he isn’t the savvy wolf from Anchors Aweigh (1945) or even Thousands Cheer (1943) either. His congenial able-bodied seaman is soft in the head for a girl he has never met - and won’t, at least for a considerable amount of the film’s runtime; the ‘cute meet’ between Gabey and Ivy further delayed when Esterhazy tries to lull his expectations by introducing Gabey to her homely spinster roommate, Lucy Schmeeler (the dimpled comedian, Alice Pearce).
More dampening to the overall impact and spirit of the movie is the jarring disconnect between the brief portions so obviously shot on location in Manhattan and those even more garishly on display in all their plywood backing, recreated at Culver City, mostly on soundstages. MGM’s art department has done a supreme job crafting a credible facsimile of the Empire State’s observation deck, elevated several feet off the ground and surrounded by a 360 cyclorama, moodily lit with neon signage and tiny pin pricks of light to simulate the New York skyline. But there is no mistaking any of it for New York itself, particularly since we’ve already seen the real thing from the Bronx to the Battery in the film’s enthusiastic opening. The outdoorsy flavor so emblematically captured during ‘New York, New York’ is pretty much absent from the rest of the picture; the sheer size of Manhattan cleverly camouflaged by Kelly and Donen’s co-directed zeal for remaining on tight shots of the sextet as they ebulliently declare they’re ‘going on the town’; strutting past a series of made up ‘storefronts’ on MGM’s backlot ‘New York’ street.
There is no atmosphere to these moments, or rather, none of the Greenwich Village type that ought to have endeared the audience to this particular locale. MGM would continue to keep very tight reins on shooting movies – particularly musicals – inside its studio walls. One can argue the pros and cons of this steadfast and/or shortsighted decision. Intermittently, it had both positive and negative effects; Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) surviving the crisis, despite its claustrophobic confinement to these massive soundstages; Brigadoon (also 1954) painfully succumbing to a paralytic artificiality; the very real heather arranged on its paper mache hilltops withering under hot klieg lights and daily having to be replaced. At least in both aforementioned movies MGM chose to maintain such inauthenticity from start to finish; as Freed would do for his Oscar-winning An American in Paris and Show Boat (both released in 1951). But attempting to mix the concreteness of Manhattan’s reality with these more fanciful re-interpretations does not serve On the Town well at all. In hindsight, the picture waffles from moments of verisimilitude into respites of sheer fancy; queerly, without the usual daydream quality of a Metro musical.
I will confess a certain appreciation for the original Broadway cast album in place of the movie’s score. In hindsight, On the Town lacks sophistication. In spots it retains a bright and breezy air for the fluff stuff. But it leaves virtually all the introspective love ballads on the cutting room floor. This is a mistake; one from which the movie never entirely recovers. Only in hindsight, does the ole Donen/Kelly magic appear to have evaporated; Roger Edens’ claim, that On the Town was a happy experience for all, virtually ignoring Sinatra's reticence on the project – partly, for having to don the sailor suit again, playing the scrawny Kelly-not, relentlessly pursued by Garrett’s gawky mantrap. Also, Sinatra had never much cared for Bernstein’s lyrics. He disliked the film's revamped repertoire even more, perhaps because it provided virtually no solo opportunities for his silken smooth vocalizations to distinguish themselves.
Undeniably, On the Town has merit: the opener, with Kelly, Sinatra and Munshin breezing in and out of a Cook’s Tour of New York’s most easily recognizable cultural and historic landmarks – remains its’ most celebrated and readily revived showstopper. Alas, the rest of the movie never quite matches or surpasses these initial expectations. Instead, we are treated to expertly choreographed ballets - both dream sequences; admirable for their terpsichorean skill, yet somehow lacking the imaginative spark of intangible excitement to make the spirit soar. The comedy is congenial, if occasionally rambunctious. Ann Miller is a delicious vixen and Betty Garrett sporadically reveals her truer calling as a glib comedian. But these gals are more appendages than central to the plot; the entire mobile of activity circling around Ivy’s burgeoning romance with Gabey. Herein, the fault is Vera-Ellen’s to bear; an impossibly perfect dancer, later to find a middle ground that could marginally sustain her limited acting abilities. But in On the Town she miserably fails to make a splash except when her feet are twirling and whirling in unison with Kelly’s. She’s too rigid for comedy, yet not serious enough to play drama, making her both unfunny and yet, not terribly serious; decidedly, a very weak love interest for Kelly’s fawning sailor.
Comden and Green’s oversimplification of the Ivy/Gabey romantic dilemma, resolved merely because Gabey does not care whether Ivy is a famous glamor gal or just the girl next door, is so arbitrary a conclusion, it mitigates the sheer joy of seeing these two people so utterly ‘right’ for one another, rise above these artificially imposed barriers of class distinction to find common law contentment in each other’s arms.  What’s here is formulaic and contrived, transgressing against the permissible boundaries of musical artifice. In the final analysis, and despite the fact it broke new ground in terms of shooting on location, On the Town is not one of MGM’s top-tier musicals. It may even rank as the worst Broadway to Hollywood hybrid, given most of what stage audiences saw never made it into the movie. Still, there are worse musicals out there. And no musical with Kelly and Sinatra is ever a complete waste of time. But On the Town is a letdown. It doesn’t shimmer like other Metro musicals. It merely shows off. Technically, it’s impressive. Artistically, however, it remains quite uneven and strangely, unsatisfying.
Warner Home Video has promised us a Blu-ray for May, along with several other Sinatra catalog titles. We’ll wait in the hope of better things, because Warner’s DVD, twice reissued in different packaging, nevertheless exhibits identical and sincerely worn transfers. Colors are weak at best and quite often muddy. There’s also some marginal blooming around the edges, and a few instances of Technicolor misregistration creating distracting halos. Let us pray someone at Warner is working hard to fix these oversights in 1080p. Contrast is weaker than anticipated with blacks more tonally gray and whites never clean or bright. Flesh tone is fairly pallid. Reds quite often appear slightly pinkish or orangey. Age-related artifacts are present throughout but, for the most part, do not distract. The audio is mono as originally recorded. Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)