Thursday, June 21, 2018

GIGI: Blu-ray (MGM, 1958) Warner Home Video

When you see a movie like Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi (1958), representing the pinnacle of what Hollywood was all about in the old days; a film that stands head and shoulders above and apart in terms of quality, and, from a studio – MGM – virtually synonymous with the last word in refinement, as a testament to both its creative ensemble and that era in film-making ostensibly departed forever, one cannot help but to be simultaneously gladdened and saddened by the experience; warmed through to the heart by its subtleties and spellbinding artistic brilliance on virtually every level, yet, undeniably, brought to the dewy-eyed realization just how much has been lost in the transition since and arguably, what movies have become today, quite incapable of holding the proverbial candle to its traditions, seemingly so effortlessly put forth and on display herein. Gigi remains a seminal masterwork from the Arthur Freed Unit at Metro; a runaway smash and recipient of an unprecedented 9 Academy Awards. It must have been bittersweet for Freed then, to acknowledge the era he had, for all intent and purposes, ushered into being back in the mid-thirties, and, had helped nurture through three enduring decades of peerless contributions to the musical genre had somehow, quite suddenly, come to its glittering end. For MGM and the rest of Hollywood there would be tough times ahead. And Freed, afterward, was quite unable to make a go of it outside the protection of those fabled studio walls and backlot. But if the end had to come, then at least with Gigi, it left on a high note and in high-fashion, a sparkling vintage of a very rare champagne cocktail, fairly dripping with MGM’s in-house style and Gallic suave sophistication.
These trademarks, inherent in virtually all – or at least, a good many – of Metro’s memorable musicals, in retrospect and proportionately proved the film musical’s epitaph. Freed, who had cultivated and mined the musical genre for all its worth, was concurrently gearing up and winding down with Gigi; incontrovertibly, his last great hurrah. Electing to premiere the picture with an exclusive ‘black tie’ engagement at the Shubert on Broadway – a marketing ploy to effectively legitimize its’ pedigree – reserved engagements for Gigi sold out for months in advance; a minor coup to rival the popularity of New York’s celebrated stage version of My Fair Lady (also co-written by Frederic Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner). Still, pulling off a project as big and lavish as this was hardly a ‘joy galore’ for Vincente Minnelli. Maurice Chevalier, who on-screen epitomized the sprightly bon vivant, behind the scenes was deadly serious and slightly morose; his costar, Louis Jourdan, more finicky than pleasant, leaving the coquettish Leslie Caron to scratch her head. Caron was slightly incensed to discover her thin vocals would be dubbed by studio contract singer, Betty Wand without her consent. Confronting Arthur Freed on this matter, Caron was left to stew for a good ten minutes before, overcome with impatience, she was politely informed by Freed’s secretary, Margie, that the old master had quietly gone home for the day.
Freed’s driving ambition to make Gigi had a lot to do with the overwhelming success of the stage version of My Fair Lady. Having lost the bidding war to produce that show as a movie musical, Freed did the next best thing; hiring the ‘fair lady’s’ team of Lerner and Loewe to write a new score for his picture. While Lerner was immediately drawn to the project, Loewe (who could be counted upon to always prefer play to work) reluctantly signed on only after it was plainly understood he was getting a free trip to Paris out of the deal. Time has generally been unkind to Lerner and Loewe’s critical reputations. In the wake of Rodgers and Hammerstein, they simply have been allowed to fade into minor obscurity. But lest we forget, here is the team responsible for such stage smash hits as Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon and Camelot. My Fair Lady’s Broadway run dwarfed all previous records for ticket sales set by R&H’s Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The King & I.  For Gigi, the team turned their song-writing prowess inside out, composing a roster of breezy pop tunes with chart-topping brilliance. There is not a sour note or forgettable lyric among them; Gigi’s soundtrack becoming a rare best-selling album. The narrative parallels in Gigi’s Pygmalion-inspired transformation are an obvious riff on My Fair Lady, hardly opaque and causing noted film critic, Bosley Crowther to comment “There won't be much point in anybody trying to produce a film of My Fair Lady, because Arthur Freed has virtually done it with Gigi.” Glowing praise, indeed, for a project once unceremoniously dubbed, ‘Eliza Goes to Paris.’  The day after Gigi’s triumphant premiere, MGM’s switchboard operators were instructed to answer their telephones ‘Good morning, “M-Gigi-M.”
In retrospect, Gigi marks the apex in Arthur Freed’s ability to pull off such seamless musical entertainments. Freed’s great gift to the movie musical had always been his ability to assemble exactly the right people for each and every project he undertook. In his prime, Freed’s authority was law around the backlot. But by 1958, even he could see those halcyon days were fast coming to an end. Gigi therefore put a period to the era for Freed, simultaneously representing both his very best and last truly great effort. Vincente Minnelli’s tireless direction and perfectionism worked overtime to create an irrefutable work of art, mostly beyond reproach. The film is, undeniably blessed to have Maurice Chevalier as its éminence grise. In the rarely seen 1951 French film, the role of Honoré Lachaille had been little more than a wily middle-age philanderer, goading his grandson, Gaston to partake of the pleasures of Paris. Chevalier’s Honoré is a far more enriching presence; a gateway into these 18th century mores and mannerisms, bookending and anchoring the story in its timeless regality. Chevalier was, alas, persona non grata in Hollywood, having entertained the Vichy government during the war and therefore regarded as something of a traitor. Minnelli, however, was a great admirer as was Freed, who went to bat to secure Chevalier’s participation.
More problematic for Freed on every level was Hollywood’s governing board of censorship. Gigi is, after all, the story of two retired courtesans, sufficiently aged and past their prime, undertaking to train an awkward niece in the stratagems of prostitution. French author, Colette never considered Gigi one of her major works. The novel had, in fact, been written under great duress at the height of the German occupation while Colette’s own husband, of Jewish extraction was in hiding. Throughout most of the 1950’s, Freed had repeatedly tried to convince the censors there was more merit to the story than perhaps first met the ‘naked’ eye. Worn down by Freed’s constant prodding, and his sincere promise to adapt the novel tastefully, with more than a modicum of morality attached, the project was ultimately green lit. 
Although MGM and Freed would continue to produce musicals after Gigi, none ranked of its caliber. In hindsight, it remains a small wonder the picture was made at all, much less on such an opulent scale. By 1958, Metro was in a state of imploding chaos; its grand domain of sound stages and sprawling backlot under siege by skyrocketing costs and dwindling profits – thanks to the intrusion of television and the Government Consent Decrees, forcing a divestiture of the Loewe’s Incorporated theater chain and its venerable star system. Despite this brewing storm, MGM broke a time-honored precedence for Gigi, allowing Freed and Minnelli to shoot the picture in mid-August on location in Paris. Minnelli had, in fact, always regretted An American in Paris (1951) had not been afforded this luxury. But now, he would rectify the oversight with a resplendent TripTik through the city’s streets and byways; lapping up the local color and scenery as only an American tourist could in expansive Cinemascope and MetroColor.  The results would prove as intoxicating as a whirl around the dance floor at Maxim’s. But capturing the spirit of Colette’s novel was, regrettably, more a work-a-day chore than a pleasure for Minnelli.
Descending on Paris during its citywide August shut down was a minor blessing for Minnelli, as it easily gained the stock company the necessary permits to take over and populate the Bois-de-Boulogne with 18th century courtiers and carriages in place of the usual foot traffic and automobiles. A personal connection to Arthur Freed, managed to secure the Palais de Glace and Maxim’s, the latter a once-in-a-lifetime enduring piece of Parisian iconography, having long transcended its status as mere restaurant to become an orangery for the internationally rich and powerful. The name alone is synonymous with uniquely aristocratic glamor, although Minnelli was to quickly discover a minor shortcoming; its mirrored walls and ceiling limiting his movement, lest his own reflection and that of his omnipotent camera be projected back into his lens. To offset this challenge, Minnelli gained permission from the owners to stencil and artificially marble a few of its mirrors, Minnelli horrified when his boom accidentally shattered one of the ceiling mirrors. But Minnelli was comforted when a waiter casually explained that exploding champagne corks were apt to pose a similar problem almost nightly when the club was in operation.
Shooting in Paris ought to have brought Minnelli his greatest satisfaction as a film maker, except the summer of 1958 proved to be the hottest on record. With his artificial foliage wilting, extras fainting – and smelling – the ice at the Palais de Glace melting, and Metro’s patience back at Culver City dwindling, Minnelli labored at a feverish pace to ensure Gigi had at least the look – if not the reality – of a cool elegance. Even so, the production fell disastrously behind schedule; MGM cancelling the shoot before Minnelli had the opportunity to complete certain key sequences in the film. These would have to be shot on sound stages back at Culver City instead; populated by a veritable art auction house of props and scenery pilfered from Irving Thalberg’s 1938 magnum opus, Marie Antoinette. Even Antoinette’s throne room set, featured in countless MGM films from Du Barry Was A Lady (1943) to High Society (1956) makes yet another brief appearance during Gigi’s masked ball. Depending on one’s point of view, the one unforgivable flub remains the exquisite testimonial to old love, ‘I Remember It Well’ – staged with costars, Hermione Gingold and Maurice Chevalier reminiscing against an obviously painted skyline, but, with an artificially induced ‘sunset’ achieved via dimming yellow/orange lights; the effect, uncanny, though in no conceivable way capably mimicking the glistening shoreline at Trouville.
You can get away with a lot in a Hollywood musical, and Gigi’s artifice did not seem to bother the critics or audiences for that matter, although today it remains quite easy to spot the Parisian footage from those scenes recreated back at MGM.  After a main title sequence featuring caricatures based on the artwork of famed French artist, Sem (a.k.a. Georges Goursat 1863–1934), Minnelli settles into a delicious moving tableau of courtiers and carriages traversing up and down the Bois-de-Boulogne; well-mannered mannequins preening and parading with stilted chic. At present, we are introduced to Honoré Lachaille; an epicurean man about town, unapologetically admiring youth from afar. “Each time I see a little girl of five, or six or seven…” Lachaille reminisces, “I can’t resist the joyous urge to smile and say thank heaven…” In more recent times, this innocent ode to precocious young girls who will one day send men ‘crashing through the ceiling’ with their flashing eyes, has taken on pedophiliac undertones. Yet, herein, it is important to recall two social climates; the one in which such indigestible frothy lyrics were written – the 1950’s – but also, the tone and mood set for the period being evoked within the context of the story itself – the late 1800’s.
Honoré offers us a glimpse of Gigi, playing tag ball in her little Scotch dress with a gaggle of school girlfriends, utterly oblivious to his polite observations as she nearly trips over him on her way home, momentarily dashing her school books to pieces on the dusty ground before scurrying to the upstairs’ apartment she shares with her grandmother, Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold) and her own mother (whom we never see, but chronically hear rehearsing fractured scales in an adjoining atelier; too self-absorbed in her own career to take an active interest in Gigi’s upbringing).  It’s Tuesday, and Gigi must submit to lessons of a very different kind inside her Aunt Alicia’s (Isobel Jeans) fashionable apartment. In her day, Alicia was a much sought-after courtesan; the Duke of Milan and the Maharaja among her many weathly suitors. Alicia is determined to educate Gigi in the social etiquettes of a great lady. Not that she has even the slightest notion on how to behave as one just yet. As example, when told by Alicia she must learn how to choose a cigar, Gigi’s first reaction is “Oh, but Aunt, I don’t smoke cigars.”  Asked what makes a great lover, Gigi bewilderingly replies, “cigars and jewelry?”
Alicia’s butler, Charles (Edwin Jerome) is sympathetic to the young girl’s plight. She has, after all, not yet figured out what all these lessons are leading up to. Nor does Gigi seem particularly invested in this mis-education of her spare time, opening declaring “I don’t understand the Parisians!” In the meantime, Gaston Lachaille has narrowly averted another paralyzing embassy tea, leaving Honoré to make his apologies while he skulks off to Alvarez’s apartment for an afternoon cup of chamomile and diverting game of cards with Gigi, whom he readily regards as an infantile brat who cheats. Still, it is Gigi’s unmitigated spunk that excites Gaston. She is a fresh face with wild ideas, uninhibited by the guile exploited by others of her sex inside the cultured salons across the city for Gaston’s benefit. These feminine wiles Gaston readily finds ‘a bore’. Even so, his latest fling is Liane d'Exelmans (Eva Gabor), a superficial fashion plate who has fashioned another grand amour right under Gaston’s nose with Sandomir (Jacques Bergerac), her skating instructor.  Tailing Liane to a cozy little inn at Honfleur, Gaston and Honoré discover her involved in some heavy petting with Sandomir. “She never kissed me like that,” Gaston admits. “How is she kissing him?” Honoré inquires. “Wholeheartedly!” Gaston confides. “Of course,” Honoré concludes, “What did you expect? You’re legitimate. He’s forbidden fruit!”
Exposing the affair and paying off Sandomir, Liane attempts suicide with an insufficient amount of poison. The scandal leaves Gaston unsettled. But Honoré concludes there is only one thing to do; be gay, debonair and charming; also, to be seen going out with an uninterrupted cortege of eligible maidens. To satisfy his uncle’s declaration, Gaston commits himself to a series of fruitless trysts he finds as dull as paint. Gigi follows his exploits in the local tabloids. Eventually, the great man makes his way back to Alvarez’s apartment for another game of cards, admitting to the old matron and her granddaughter of his weekend plans, including a trip to Trouville. Gigi strikes a bargain; if she wins Gaston will take them all to Trouville – a wager he willingly accepts and is doomed to lose since Gigi is an expert con and easily defeats him.
At Trouville, Alvarez takes notice of her old flame. Honoré pursues the invitations of a young courtesan. Unable to consummate this affair under Alvarez’s watchful eye, he instead reunites with Alvarez on the balcony of a hotel overlooking the seashore. She explains the purpose of her weekend respite to him and he confesses an old wound to her; that he cheated on her many years before with a soprano because he was actually, desperately in love with her, but not quite certain what to do about it. “Thank you, Honoré,” Alvarez admits, “That is the most endearing excuse for infidelity I have ever heard.” The two reminisce about their once vibrant passion for one another. The song, ‘I Remember It Well’ is one of Gigi’s most illuminating bright spots, a poignant ode to fate’s misaligned chances for happiness, half-spoken/half-sung. The number was shot right in the middle of Chevalier’s 71st birthday, Minnelli and company pausing to mark the occasion with a cake and warm-hearted felicitations. Hence, when Chevalier’s line in Lerner and Loewe’s song read, “Am I getting old?” to which Hermione Gingold, placing a hand gingerly upon Chevalier’s own, declared, “Oh no…not you” the moment took on an unanticipated resonance that had everyone, including Chevalier, tearing up.
Returning from Trouville, Alicia plants the idea in her sister’s head Gaston has suddenly become infatuated with Gigi; quite possibly, as his next conquest. Setting aside Gigi’s obvious, if as yet, innocent attraction to Gaston, Alicia and Alvarez aggressively endeavor to remake the waif into exactly the sort of cultured and well-bred young lady Gaston finds deadly dull. Their tutelage yields predictable results. But these create an unexpected friction in Gaston’s weekly visits to Alvarez’s apartment. At some point, Alvarez explains she will only entrust Gigi’s ‘good name’ to the man who will take charge and answer for her future. Shocked by the insinuation the reputation preceding him can only taint Gigi’s honor, Gaston storms off in a huff, returning a few hours later with a proposal – not of marriage – but of monetary gain for all concerned; to look after Gigi and to spoil her “as no woman has ever been spoiled before”. “It’s alright,” Alicia concurs, “But it’s a little vague.”  The sisters are further enlightened to Gaston’s prospects; a suitable house on the Avenue Dubois, servants and a car, plus an expense account to satisfy everyone – everyone, except Gigi.
Here, indeed, is a young girl of quality – and so very frightened to throw caution to the wind to satisfy anyone else’s desires except her own. She puts her cards on the table where Gaston is concerned, explaining when he moves on, as inevitably he will, she has nowhere to go but into another gentleman’s bed. Her frankness is upsetting to him – frustrating too, as he storms off for a second time to confront Honoré with his difficulties in wooing this girl of his heart. Honoré speculates “youth can really do a fellow in” and extols the virtues of being sufficiently aged, grateful to have passed this awkward time when such trivialities seem so paramount and rife for concern. Summoning Gaston to her apartment a second time, Gigi poignantly declares, “Oh Gaston, I’d rather be miserable with you than without you.” However, a planned rendezvous at Maxim’s goes hopeless awry when Gigi plies the tools of her trade in public. She is every bit the enterprising courtesan Alvarez and Alicia have trained her to be and she disgusts Gaston with her proficiency as a paid escort. Returning her in tears to Alvarez’s salon, Gaston marches off in the direction of…well…he isn’t quite certain, and, after the briefest of contemplations, suddenly realizes their relationship cannot endure the same as before. Returning to the apartment, Gaston declares, “Madam, give me the infinite joy of bestowing on me Gigi’s hand in marriage.” All struggles abated, the couple is fated to be mated. We return to the Bois-de-Boulogne, Gigi, superbly turned out as a married of stature and quality with Gaston on her arm; the pair stepping into a horse-drawn carriage as Honoré bids the couple a fond goodbye with a reprise of ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’.
In hindsight, Gigi is every bit about the growth of its male protagonist as it proves a walking illustration of a young lady’s debut into culture and its inevitable rumors and vices. Gaston’s life has been exemplary thus far – sort of – yet left unsatisfied by female diversions. He is unable to bring himself to marriage, not entirely because no eligible prospects exist, but moreover, as none satisfy his need for fresh new adventures along the road of life. When he meets Gigi, he has no worldly intentions to make her his lover. Nor is he particularly appreciative of the Pygmalion-esque transformation achieved by Gigi’s grandmother and Aunt. Ultimately, Gaston comes to the realization Gigi is the only girl for him, not because she has achieved a level of sophistication to rival his own, but rather, as she remains unapologetically clear-eyed and pure of heart.
At one point she pleads with Gaston for their ‘happy little’ lives to remain intact; he, periodically coming to the house with chocolates, the two engaging in card games and playful banter unencumbered by the prospects of a sexual liaison or marriage. “Wouldn’t that be a lovely little life?” she asks. And, of course, from a child’s perspective, it would, except that Gaston now confesses his affections for the girl have ripened beyond mere friendship; an unexpected turn of events for this bored playboy. Interestingly, Louis Jourdan was uncomfortable with the idea of doing a musical until Lerner assured him the score would neither tax nor embarrass his shortcomings; encouraging Jourdan to speak/sing the lyrics on pitch the way Rex Harrison had done for Prof. Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Listening to Jourdan’s vocals today, one sincerely wonders what all the fuss was about. While it is true enough he could never rival a great baritone or operatic superstar, Jourdan is more than capable of warbling the title tune with infinite amounts of Gallic charm. There is an unexpected robustness to his intonations, knowing exactly when to carry and hold a few notes at a time, and when to break off into a sort of lyrical contemplation of practically spoken cues.  
At the end of their grand sojourn in Paris, Vincente Minnelli and Arthur Freed could breathe a great and rewarding sigh of relief. Although an early preview had revealed certain shortcomings in Margaret Booth’s heavy-handed editing of the picture, Minnelli’s insistence on a second edit done by Adrienne Fazan, also Freed’s urging for certain scenes be entirely re-shot by George Sidney after Minnelli had already departed on another project, revealed the inherent perfectionism wrought under this communal labor of love. Viewed today, Gigi continues to emanate a warm afterglow and for good reason. The stars are all at the top of their game, exuding a magical chemistry, almost as unquantifiable as that ‘elusive flicker of blue’ Aunt Alicia tells Gigi only the rarest emerald gemstones possess. Seemingly, Minnelli had spent a lifetime achieving this sumptuous and flavorful palette, typified in Joseph Ruttenberg’s positively gorgeous cinematography. And Lerner and Loewe’s score is instantly recognizable: the celebratory ‘The Night They Invented Champagne’, comedic ‘It’s a Bore’, melodic ‘Say a Prayer for Me Tonight’ and three grand odes of fresh insight into affairs of the heart; ‘I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore’, ‘I Remember It Well’ and ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’ capping off this bubbly elixir of jollity. The proof is in the years since the movie’s debut. We continue to say ‘Thank heaven - and MGM - for Gigi!’
Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray is a few years old. Despite some eye-popping colors, it is probably in need of another hi-def scan. Gigi was photographed in Metrocolor, its prints by Technicolor. We get vibrancy herein that, at times, looks almost too rich to the point of appearing slightly garish. Flesh tones, in particular, are either a strange pumpkin orange or wan pink hue. No one can fault Warner’s mastering efforts as such; but the color is queerly overpowering at times, while exhibiting slight sporadic fading. Overall, these shortcomings will likely go unnoticed by the casual viewer. But they are present and accounted for nonetheless. Film grain is naturally reproduced and contrast looks fairly consistent and solid. The image is startlingly razor-sharp, an impressive amount of fine detail in skin, hair, fabrics and background information – everything we’ve come to expect from 1080p. Warner’s ultra-hi res restoration has yielded magnificent results; more so in the way Gigi sounds, with Lerner and Loewe’s score filling the natural timber of one’s 5.1 surround channels with the glorious orchestrations of André Previn and Conrad Salinger. We’re a little light on extras; all of them ported over from Warner’s 2-disc DVD. We get the 1951 French film of Gigi, plus an exclusive ‘making of’ documentary; a compendium of more recent interviews interspersed with archival footage and other testimonials. Otherwise, there are a couple of unrelated short subjects and the film’s theatrical trailer, plus a fantastic audio commentary from historian, Jeanine Basinger and Leslie Caron.
The ‘French’ Gigi, shot in 1.33:1 and B&W, exhibits abysmal picture quality, well below par and plagued by white subtitles that completely disappear into the background of this overly contrasted print, making the film virtually un-watchable; a disappointment to be sure. I suppose it is MGM’s award-winning musical version we have all come to see anyway, but it would have been prudent of Warner to spend just a little extra time and money cleaning up this ‘origin’ master for comparison and appreciation. Otherwise, Warner’s Blu-Ray comes highly recommended. Gigi is a rare gem and an obvious ‘must have’!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


BULL DURHAM: Blu-ray reissue (Orion, 1988) Criterion Collection

Sports movies are perennial popular. I think it has something to do with our vague and unquantifiable affinity for sweat-smelling locker rooms and jocks or, in tandem, our primal urge for competition among – primarily – among men. Yes, there have been women’s sports movies too. But their proliferation has not been as great or as distinguished. Kind’a like women’s sports in general. Certainly, when it comes to America’s beloved favorite pastime – I mean baseball – the field – both figuratively and literally – has embraced the manlier ilk (with notable exception paid to Penny Marshall’s exquisite, A League of Their Own, 1992). All the more fascinating, then, to unearth Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham (1988); a sports movie whose subtext is all about getting in touch with one’s ‘feminine side’. The procurer of this seismic intrusion into man country is Annie Savoy (played with sultry aplomb by Susan Sarandon) – a baseball groupie whose racked up enough innings in the bedroom to be considered an MVP in her own right. Although, perhaps, Annie’s prowess has been sincerely overplayed. In fact, her modus operandi is not so much about banging the latest buck to hit the minors, but hand-selecting the player with the greatest potential to go on to become a contender in the majors.
Bull Durham is a decidedly unusual picture. For starters, it is Annie who does the pursuing, landing the hapless male into her den of iniquity, only to be taught a life lesson about women in general, and certain social etiquettes that equate batting average with notches on the bedpost. What she gives these enterprising young men will last a lifetime. What they give her in return barely lasts 142 games. But Annie does not consider this a ‘bad trade-off’. A good ‘ball player’ is one who knows how to swing his bat – literally, and…well…you know. So, with all due respect, labeling Annie as an oversexed cougar is a bit much. She has ulterior motives, I suppose – having been ditched in the dirt by the fella she really loved; just a guy with a passion…for baseball, that is. Annie’s training methods may have little to do with keeping one’s eye on the ball. Even so, she has knocked more than one good home run out of the proverbial park in the past. Batter up and who’s next? Well, Durham Bulls’ rookie, Ebby Calvin Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins) certainly has the potential to be great. If only he could more strictly hone his modest fame as a minor leaguer into a springboard for professional gains, rather than to land an ever-increasing succession of cheap thrills into the sack. Groupies are a dime a dozen. Fellas who play with their balls too!
Decidedly, Annie Savoy is not into either of these. Nor is she ready to give up on Nuke’s adolescent fancies; just an overgrown ‘boy’ who has yet to realize he is already inhabiting a man body. Time for the mind to catch up to his testicles…maybe. Director Shelton throws us a few curves in this pleasantly slick and occasionally gritty comedic gem, devoted to exposing the low shots and high curves in minor league baseball that develop into something much more telling on the road to the Hall of Fame. Bull Durham is far more concerned with the backstory of life on the road than it is with the love of the game, although there are decidedly moments devoted to this pursuit as well. Shelton, once a player for the Carolina league, came well-versed to this project. On the surface at least, Bull Durham is a rather minor movie, though it steadily reveals itself to be a far more engrossing commentary about men lacking substance, and the women who either accept this shortcoming or work like hell to give their menfolk’s heads a significant shake, thereupon forever changing the chemistry in their win/win relationship.
Ebby is a sideline for Annie – a real ‘fixer-upper’. Actually, Annie is desperate to suppress her true feelings for over-the-hill minor-leaguer, Crash Davis (Kevin Costner). He might have been a winner in his early days. But Crash did not have an Annie Savoy in his corner. An injury sidelined his career. Now, all his cache as baseball’s one-time golden boy is worth is as a mentor to the younger brood of up and comers. Nurse/maid is the way Crash would put it, his Triple A contract bought out to hold another player by the Johnson. What the heck? As the Durham Bull’s coach, Skip (Trey Wilson) puts it, “You can keep working the ball park. Beats the hell out of Sears!” Crash cannot believe his misfortune – a real head-scratcher. Especially since he harbors a genuine contempt for Ebby who is clueless and sure to squander his lead, becoming the sadder but wiser type too late – just like him…maybe. Or worse.  Maybe the kid, as misguided as he is, actually has what it takes to go all the way. Jealous, jealous, jealous. So, Crash, for all intent and purposes, is a bitter man. He knows how to play ball and proves it. But his zest for life in general has grown jaded; the appeal of women like Annie, more cynical still. Observing his potential ‘competition’ (a.k.a. man in training) Crash cannot abide Ebby’s chutzpah. He’s all fizz and no cola and proves as much when Crash challenges Ebby to pitch a baseball square in his chest.
“Go ahead, meat” Crash tells him, “Let’s see that million-dollar arm, cuz I got a good idea about that five-cent head of yours.” Indeed, when provoked Ebby is incapable of performing up to snuff. Although he possesses the speed, he lacks the control to carry it off. Crash quickly lands Ebby on his celebrated ass in a back alley in front of a gaggle of his fair-weather friends. It is embarrassing. But even Ebby realizes he has a lot to learn. And Crash will be the one to teach him – partly. Meanwhile, Annie has her own ideas about how to improve Ebby’s average. “Sweetheart,” she tells him in the comfort of her bedroom, “When you know how to make love you’ll know how to play ball.” Ebby still does not get it. But he is in for a very rude awakening when Annie, after watching him undress, gingerly binds his wrists to her bedposts, then denies him the implied reason for his visit.  Instead, she breaks out a copy of Walt Whitman’s The Body Electric, and sultrily coos its erotic verses into his ear.
The next day, Ebby arrives to practice looking like eight miles of bad road. Coach Larry (Robert Wuhl) wants the inside scoop on Annie’s technique. But Ebby confesses, his exhaustion stems from Annie’s all-night recitation of poetry. Annie has also given him a nickname, ‘Nuke’. Listening in on their conversation, Crash is thoroughly unimpressed. Ebby has fungus on his shower shoes. Until he wins twenty in the show this means he is a slob, not an eccentric edition to their roster. Next, Crash takes on Annie at the batting cages, confronting her reputation as a loose gal who collects baseball studs as though they were paper clips. She corrects him on this misconception after he proposes they make a pitstop at her place for a little badinage. During baseball season, Annie is nothing if not monogamous. Her pupil for this season is Ebby – not Crash. He is unimpressed. “I know women like you,” Crash suggests with a sly grin. He labels her the patron saint of lost causes, stray cats or six-foot three-inch homeless studs – too scared to invest her time or energies on a ‘real man’, lest she quickly discover they cannot be so easily bossed around. That evening, while making love to Ebby, Annie calls out Crash’s name. Ebby is unsettled. After all, and despite her protestations to the contrary, he knows exactly where her mind is – Freudian slip and all.
During a pivotal moment in the next game, Ebby tries to shake off Crash’s advice about throwing a fast ball. Crash wants Ebby to pitch a curve instead. Between Crash’s advice and Annie’s tutelage, Ebby just wants to have a bit of his own back. So, Crash informs the batter of Ebby’s intensions. The rival knocks Ebby’s pitch out of the park. Ebby is momentarily stricken with a bout of insecurity until Crash informs him he told the batter what to expect. As the Durham Bulls prepare to go on the road, Annie makes Ebby a present of kinky black underwear, telling him it will definitely improve his game. Alas, the team is besieged by one bout of bad luck after the next. At one point, Crash promises the boys a rain-out to spare them the indignation of another lousy match. As no rain is forecast and there is barely a cloud in the sky, the night before the game, Crash and a select few of the fellas stage a break-in at the ballpark and deliberately set off the sprinklers, thereby flooding the field and making it virtually impossible to play the next afternoon. At the end of their road trip, Ebby has a nightmare about pitching from the mound practically naked, and Crash quietly informs him it is quite common and nothing to be feared.
Crash is envious of Ebby, particularly when he watches from a distance as Ebby and Annie are reunited. On the car ride home, Ebby confides in Annie. He was lousy. He is also exhausted. Ebby cannot wait to go back to Annie’s home, make love and fall asleep. Alas, Annie has other ideas, bringing in her friend, Millie (Jenny Robertson) to chaperone her latest training session – equating Ebby’s pitching with the placement of his right leg and left testicle, and vice versa. Afterward, Ebby is encouraged and revitalized. He propositions Annie, who instead suggests all his sexual energies should be rechanneled into the love of the game. That evening, Ebby has an extraordinary run on the mound, demolishing the opposing team with a string of no-hitters. His improved prowess is immediately noticed by, Annie, his teammates and his coach. Despite his moment of glory, Crash informs Ebby he has a long way to go to be a viable contender for the majors. “Can’t you even let me enjoy the moment?” Ebby suggests. “Moment’s over!” Crash cruelly replies. Partly to quell his own jealousies, but moreover to truly impart on Ebby what it means to play ball with the big boys, Crash puts his money where his mouth is, hitting a home run.  Ebby once again begins to fall hard on his own beliefs. He sidesteps Crash’s pitching advice. It costs him a no-hitter. Ebby is confused. Isn’t he good enough to pitch without Crash’s constant badgering?
Reaching something of a détente in his own mind, Ebby concentrates on following Crash’s lead. Pretty soon, the Durham Bulls are making a clean sweep of their season, decimating the competition at Kinston, Winstom-Salem and Greensboro. Throughout their miraculous turnaround, Ebby has abstained from sex with Annie and this, despite her joy in watching the Bulls play like major-leaguers, has left her frustrated and itching for a good time. Ebby confides in Crash he might sleep with Annie, just to take the edge off. But Crash forewarns that taking the edge off of Annie can also wreck his hot-wired streak on the pitching mound. Meanwhile, the Bulls first baseman and part-time preacher, Jimmy (William O’Leary) becomes infatuated with Millie. Back at Annie’s, her latest attempt at seducing Ebby miserably fails. The boy has found himself, and not as a stud for hire either. He promises to return to form in the bedroom, only when the Bulls start to lose again. Ebby also informs Annie that part of his newly acquired acumen is thanks to Crash, who has equated a woman’s genitalia with the Bermuda Triangle. “A man could go in there and never be heard from again!”
Disgusted by the insinuation she might be the catalyst to wreck Ebby’s career, Annie decides to confront Crash. The two at last confess their mutual attraction to one another. Even so, Crash still thinks Annie should leave. It’s the craziest season. The Bulls cannot lose and Annie cannot win. But the tide is changing. During the next game, Ebby begins to have second thoughts about his stalemate with Annie. He is also self-conscious about his father (George Buck) watching him from the stands. Second baseman, Jose (Rick Marzan) informs the team his ex-girlfriend has put a curse on his catcher’s mitt. Only the beheading of a live rooster will break the spell. Finally, the team is perplexed what to get Millie and Jimmy as a wedding present; the two since engaged. The game is a fiasco, capped off by Crash calling the umpire an explicative usually reserved for only the harshest criticisms. Ejected, Crash spends the remainder in the showers – literally. The Bulls suffer a staggering defeat and Annie gets her wish. Ebby is coming home. One problem. Her affections have since transferred from Ebby to Crash. Arriving at Annie’s with his father in tow, Ebby learns he has been drafted into the majors. Annie and Ebby part as friends. It’s best that way.
But when Crash learns of Ebby’s good fortune he is even more sullen and condescending. He tells everyone Ebby is the real deal. While Crash may have brains, Ebby actually has what it takes to turn his skillset into a career. The two get into a fist fight. Only this time, Ebby has the upper hand, landing Crash on his celebrated ass. The next afternoon, the boys reconcile and Crash finally – and rather sincerely – wishes Ebby good luck. Jimmy and Millie are married on the field as Annie, the team and the spectators look on. Afterward, she and Crash hook up for their long-denied flagrante delicto. But Crash is right – the world is tailor-made for people like Ebby who lack self-awareness. Leaving Annie for a chance to finish out the season with a rival ball club in Asherville, Crash’s 247th home run – a minor league record-breaker – is barely covered by the press. Meanwhile, Ebby has gone on to become baseball’s golden boy of the moment; a superficial and fleeting victory at best, but one that decidedly suits his temperament. Both sadder and wiser, Crash suddenly realizes that to be Annie’s man is not such a bad trade-off for surrendering his own dreams of ever staging a comeback.  
Bull Durham is about so much more than baseball’s quaint and occasionally bizarre superstitions and rituals. With his insider’s wit, then first-time director, Ron Shelton has thrown a formidable curve ball into this deft dramedy with a soul, as vibrant and enriching as any of the truly great sports movies gone by. There are big laughs here, but a lot of soul-searching too with even the minor characters afforded their opportunities to truly shine and contribute to the milieu. Think about it. What other sports movie of any generation has introduced the likes of William Blake and Walt Whitman to an otherwise seemingly straight-forward tale about a sex-starved groupie and the two men of diametrically opposed intellectualism, destined to imprint her life’s work – shaping ball players – with all the passionate fire, music, poetry and meaning that, thus far has been lacking in her life? And it is to Shelton’s testament as both Bull Durham’s director and screenwriter, the script crackles with great dialogue, never overwritten or re-purposed in clichés from other baseball movies, but finding its own colophon as the ‘go-to’ for all sports-themed movies yet to follow it.
I am decidedly not loving Criterion’s Blu-ray reissue of Bull Durham for the simple reason the tired palette derived from the old MGM/Fox Blu-ray release from 2009 have been replaced with a harsh-leaning teal bias that is decidedly not in keeping with the original spectrum of colors. Sorry, but I remember Bull Durham rather clearly and never before did the Bulls wear teal jackets, jerseys and baseball caps. Ugh! I sincerely thought we were over this hump of controversy after a goodly array of vintage Fox Cinemascope classics began turning up in hi-def two years ago, looking as though some incorrigible graduate from film school, with tons of technical savvy but virtually no concept of how these movies originally looked, had been tinkering at the controls. But no – it’s 2018 and here is Bull Durham with a seismic shift in colors – tonality and density – neither favoring the original theatrical experience. This reissue is advertised as a restored 4K digital transfer, supervised and approved by Ron Shelton no less. Either Shelton has selective memory, or he signed off on this new scan before it was ported over to disc.  Image framing is another revelation – but in a good way, with decidedly a lot more information on the left and right sides. Despite a maxed-out bit rate with improved contrast and film grain appropriately placed, color variance is still the worst transgressor. One need only take a glimpse of Tim Robbins Motley Crue shirt to know something is decidedly amiss here; its original fire-engine red background turned raspberry. This is just wrong – period!  
As before, Criterion’s reissue contains two alternate soundtracks: the original 2.0 or 5.1 reimagining, both in DTS. Naturally, the 5.1 sports more subtly nuanced dialogue and SFX. But the 2.0 was good enough for the theater and frankly, sounds pretty good here too.  Criterion has rectified at least one previous sin – finally, including extras on the Blu-ray; two audio commentaries – the first, from 1998, featuring Shelton, the second, from 2001 with stars, Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins. From 2008 we also get ‘The Greatest Show on Dirt’ – an appreciation featuring numerous sidebars from players, broadcasters and sports/film aficionados. ‘Between the Lines’ is 30 minutes from 2001, another compendium of interviews with Shelton, his cast and others from the sidelines waxing affectionately about the movie. Criterion has also added 4 min. from a 1991 broadcast of ‘Today’ and a 1993 snippet from NBC Nightly News covering the final season of baseball in North Carolina’s Durham Athletic Park, slated for demolition. This leaves Going to the Show’ as the only ‘new to Blu’ extra, exclusively produced for Criterion this year; a 19-minute love-in between Shelton and film critic, Michael Sragow. Bottom line: I wouldn’t pitch your old MGM/Fox Blu of Bull Durham just yet. While the Criterion improves ever so slightly in contrast and framing, its colors are waaaaay off. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

DESIGNING WOMAN: Blu-ray (MGM, 1957) Warner Archive

There is an affecting moment in Vincente Minnelli’s Designing Woman (1957) where a relatively minor character, Broadway choreographer, Randy Owens (played by real-life choreographer, Jack Cole) confronts sports writer, Mike Hagen (Gregory Peck) on his veiled charge impugning his masculinity as ‘questionable’. Lest we forget, any inference to homosexuality in the buttoned-down 1950’s was akin to carpet-hauling someone for their communist sympathies. Indeed, George Wells’ screenplay deftly toys with the cliché of what it means to be a ‘real man’. Randy’s feminized flamboyance and unbridled creativity causes Mike to feel uncharacteristically squeamish in his presence. Without flinching, Randy pulls out a wallet-full of snapshots featuring his wife and children, leaving Mike sheepishly apologetic. In the movie’s climactic brawl, Randy’s balletic training saves the day, decimating a gaggle of Damon Runyon-esque hoods come to inflict their misery and muscle on Mike: Minnelli’s last word on misjudging the socially ‘out-of-sync’.  The rest of Designing Woman has absolutely nothing to do with this quest for social acceptance. But Minnelli, whose own sexual proclivities were frequently brought into contemplation, knew too well what an unkind – if thoroughly unfounded - rumor could do to one’s reputation. Herein, he draws the proverbial ‘line in the sand’; albeit, with undeniably uber-sophistication.
Designing Woman was, in fact, the brain child of MGM costumer, Helen Rose – who also fancied herself something of an aspiring screenwriter and idea woman. To this end, she pitched a pair of concepts to Metro’s ‘yes’ men. As per the first, with Leslie Caron in mind, but basically a rehash of Broadway’s Irene – the musical, and MGM’s forgettable forties rom/com, Her Highness and the Bellboy, the boys in the front offices said ‘no’. But to the second, Designing Woman, Rose found a sympathetic ear in Production Chief Dore Schary. Despite his lofty position at Metro, Schary was hardly satisfied. His edicts had been met with resistance from the old guard, while his yen for ‘message pictures’ was fast proving a disastrous fit for the studio’s glam/bam cavalcade of stars, increasingly underutilized until their contracts were allowed to quietly expire. MGM’s dwindling output of films in the mid-fifties remain a curiously insecure amalgam of Schary’s passion projects and testaments to the ole Mayer/Thalberg stardust; a battle royale slowly dividing the studio into two distinct factions. It kept the cameras rolling…for a time, but with the end of days for Metro’s seemingly indestructible style already on the horizon. Ambitious to a fault, Schary chose to ignore the obvious rigor mortis setting in; Designing Woman being a prime example of that queer disconnect between Schary’s passion, and his desperation for a smash hit.  
Designing Woman’s ‘he said/she told’ underpinnings hark all the way back to the tuxedoed urbanity of ultra-sophisticated screwball comedies from the 1940’s; albeit, now tricked out in MetroColor and Cinemascope. Regrettably, Designing Woman is deprived of the more erudite badinage usually afforded such ‘battle of the sexes’; herein, loosely replaced by a rather winning change of pace and genuine on-screen chemistry between co-stars, Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall; each, playing against type. Romantic comedy was hardly either star’s métier, although Peck had acquitted himself rather nicely as Audrey Hepburn’s beau in William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953). Even so, and while never daring to assuage the madcap farce in its totality of chaos, Peck and Bacall still do manage to infuse Designing Woman with a sort of unapologetic angst expected from such comedies of error about the mis-mated marriage. Rose’s concept was hardly ‘new’. Indeed, for all intent and purposes, Designing Woman is practically a remake of George Stevens’ Woman of the Year (1942) with one shameless rip-off from Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1936); a French poodle and man’s shoe substituted for Wire Fox Terrier, Asta and a bowler.
Originally, Designing Woman was slated as a much different picture; Schary, making it one of his personally supervised productions to have starred Grace Kelly, James Stewart and Cyd Charisse. Now, that’s a picture I would like to have seen. Designing Woman would have marked a reunion for Kelly and Stewart, first appearing in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). If only Kelly had not upstaged Schary’s plans by announcing her departure from films after her latest movies, The Swan and High Society (both made and released in 1956); movie-land’s regal star heading for the even high(er)falutin and monied playgrounds of Monaco, as her Serene Highness Princess Grace. No use – Schary had lost out on the opportunity to oversee Kelly’s last picture. Even so, the window for him to personally supervise Designing Woman at all was also narrowing - and fast; Schary, already embroiled in misfires on the costly Raintree County (1957) whose epic implosion at the box office would oust him from Metro’s hallowed kingdom for good. Undaunted – and indeed, unknowing of this hiccup – Schary quickly reassembled Designing Woman with a new – though arguably, not improved roster of talent, assigning Vincente Minnelli to direct after his original choice, Joshua Logan, backed off, owing to Kelly’s departure.  
Ironically, none of Designing Woman’s trifecta of stars was under contract to MGM – the studio once home to ‘more stars than there are in heaven’. Instead, Peck and Bacall were freelancers. Grey’s contract with Metro had only just elapsed. As the headliner of this puff pastry, Peck’s $250,000 salary dwarfed his two female costars, each paid $75,000 for their services. It is a paradox of the fifties – or perhaps, merely, the decade as it survived on celluloid over at MGM, that, with an end to WWII the studio sought to return hopefully, or perhaps desperately, to the sort of all-star souffles concocted during the pre-war era, where men were men – and stylish - and women, the eye candy of their chosen affections, sumptuously sheathed in gowns by the studio’s then resident couturier, Adrian. Arguably, the screwball comedy was never light on something relevant to say about a ‘woman’s place in the home’ – frequently, the power behind the throne, gingerly to coax her man into accepting he was not the captain of this ship once the wedding ring had been firmly affixed to her finger. And certainly, in an era where the menfolk were off fighting in Europe, the screwball comedy of the late thirties and early forties was skewed to appeal to a primarily female audience, ensconced in that pantheon, much later, and laughingly, re-grouped in the public’s estimation as ‘the woman’s picture’. But the fifties’ derivation of the screwball had fast become a discomfited hybrid at best; particularly MGM’s ill-advised remakes, supped-up in Cinemascope, stereophonic sound and color, serving only to expose their inelegance and tongue-tied inability to ‘looking back’ without becoming maudlin and cloying.
In a decade overrun by these celluloid albatrosses, Designing Woman actually fares quite well; in no small way thanks to Minnelli’s debonair visualization, afforded all the bells and whistles Dore Schary could provide, and one minor hand-me-down. Dolores Gray warbles, ‘Music Is Better Than Words’ originally scored by André Previn with lyrics by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Roger Edens for MGM’s 1955 musical, It’s Always Fair Weather. In the mid-fifties, Metro’s failing fiscal health resulted in severe cost-cutting. This affected virtually all departments across the board. However, Schary ignored this belt-tightening on Designing Woman; the picture, given twice the schedule of any other movie shooting on the back lot and even allowing Minnelli the luxury to go on location to Newport Beach Harbor, the Beverly Hills Hotel and Marineland. Perhaps Schary simply assumed the results would speak for themselves and pay off handsomely. If judging only by the $3,750,000 box office returns on an $1,844,000 budget, then definitely, the public response to Designing Woman bore out Schary’s faith in the project. Alas, with the cost of advertising/marketing, distribution and manufacture of prints, MGM reported a slight loss of $136,000; hardly, the bell-ringer pop-u-tainment of the year. Like so much of Metro’s weekly output that had made the studio’s name tantamount to Tinsel Town itself throughout the 1930’s and 40’s, Designing Woman quickly shaped up as an assertively-produced A-list feature with second-tier ambitions, lobbing sentiment and production values in lieu for any bona fide vigor or innovation.
At times, the faint whiff of Metro’s particular brand of embalming fluid is decidedly on display. George Well’s screenplay is infuriatingly strategic in its exhumation of another bygone era in film-making, this one populated by Depression-era gangsters and vexed, viper-tongued vixens. Designing Woman’s plot plays like an Andy Hardy movie for adults; fashion couturier, Marilla Brown (Bacall), the Sweet-Polly-Purebred of the piece, inveigled in a hapless marriage to sports writer, Mike Hagen (Peck) whose old flame, the sassy soubrette, Lori Shannon (Gray) is on the make. While we can fault Helen Rose and George Wells for their lack of inventiveness, it does not exactly spell the kiss of death for Designing Woman. And certainly, the cast, despite their lack of experience in the screwball genre, are experts of their acting craft nonetheless; their spellbinding proficiency, doing much to stave off shortcomings elsewhere. From a purely visual standpoint, Minnelli is at the top of his game. But like several other projects helmed by Metro’s prized director around this same time, Designing Woman appears to lack Minnelli’s total immersion in the material, at least enough to generate the necessary spark of elusive celluloid magic. At times, Minnelli is skating on the edge of a truly great entertainment, only to lose his creative verve or otherwise pull back from one of his more Minnellian light touches that might otherwise have luridly enveloped and enriched the story.  
In a not altogether humorous case of ‘opposites attract’, Marilla and Mike meet cute, poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel while he is in California to cover a golf tournament. Well…not exactly. Actually, Mike has already met Marilla…although he does not recall the moment. You see, Mike’s keen eye wisely picked out the winner of the tournament, winning him a cool $1200 from the reporter’s betting pool. To celebrate, Mike bought everyone drinks, then promptly went on a bender. Awakening the next afternoon, hung over and certain he has failed to file his story with his office, a distraught Mike finds his way to the pool to lick his wounds. At his newspaper’s office, Mike’s caustic editor, Ned Hammerstein (Sam Levene) forewarns him that his continued badgering of crooked boxing promoter, Martin J. Daylor (Edward Platt) has placed both the paper and him in a perilous position. Indeed, Daylor’s veiled threats to do bodily harm are getting much too serious to ignore.
But Mike cannot seem to concentrate on anything. Now, Marilla approaches him, gingerly flirtatious. This leads to a horrendous misunderstanding; Mike, certain she is a prostitute he picked up the night before. In fact, Marilla empathized with her drunken Lochinvar from the outset, helping him to finish and file his story on time. Gratitude is one thing. Only Mike becomes sincerely smitten with Marilla, who further offers to return the $700 he paid her for helping him. Mike instead proposes they spend the money on each other, touring the California coastline. After a whirlwind eight-day courtship, the couple are wed. Too bad, the bride has been keeping secrets. She is not Mike’s ‘gal Friday’ but a strong-minded business woman and a maven of the fashion industry with prestige, money and far-reaching connections on the isle of Manhattan. Mike is unimpressed by all this. Indeed, he had no idea his wife was a power-broker in heels with the artistic sect and this, coupled with the snobbishness of Marilla’s hoity-toity friends, generates much friction, spilling over into the couple’s otherwise idyllic honeymoon.
Mike is a sportswriter - not a playboy. His friends hail from a colorful assortment of prize fighters, poker enthusiasts and otherwise working-class stiffs Marilla merely tolerates to keep the peace. Memorably, this détente does not last very long after Mike discovers his poker club coincides with Marilla’s scheduled Drama Society meeting. Marilla and Mike clash after he challenges the sexuality of her close friend, choreographer, Randy Owen. Afterward, the couple predictably patch things up. But not long afterward, Marilla grows suspicious of a photograph of Lori Shannon found in Mike’s possessions. He sheepishly allays Marilla’s fears with a lie. Lori was just a girl…actually more like a ‘friend’ - not a girlfriend. Marilla is not buying it.  After seeking Lori out for a little girl talk, Marilla is convinced there is more to her past relationship with Mike than meets the eye. Unaware of Mike’s marriage at first, Lori makes her glacial displeasure known when, agreeing to meet Mike for lunch, she casually upends a hot plate of ravioli into his lap.
After changing into a pair of short busboy pants, Mike returns with Marilla to her upscale penthouse. Only, the couple has walked into a surprise wedding shower thrown by Marilla’s friends. They completely shun Mike, waxing surreptitiously on topical fluff Mike knows nothing about and is therefore unable to contribute to the conversation.  Already embarrassed by his attire, Mike grows more contemptuous of this fair-weather flock.  Even the one guest who does befriend him, Broadway producer, Zachary Wilde (Tom Helmore) has ulterior motives – Marilla’s ex, still worshipping her from not so ‘afar’. The last guest departed, Mike makes his contempt for Marilla’s friends known. She tearfully defends her lifestyle, leaving Mike sheepishly ashamed. The couple reconcile and agree to work out their differences. To bury the hatchet, Marilla attends the Friday night fights with Mike, but becomes utterly squeamish and overwhelmed by its blood-soaked brutality.  
Days later, Mike arrives at Marilla's haute couture fashion show, only to discover Lori as its musical star and seated at his wife’s table. Awkwardly, the pair pretends never to have met; Mike, bowing out of the wrap party before things heat up. Marilla, however, is no fool, although her jealousy gets the better of her and leads to wild speculations about an ongoing affair between her husband and Lori. Meanwhile, returning to Marilla’s apartment, Mike is confronted by Johnny O (Chuck Connors) and several of Daylor’s beefy henchmen.  Marilla walking in on the altercation. So, Mike quickly makes up a story about his split lip, suggesting Daylor’s goons are actually his ‘friends’.  Bowing out with a veiled threat to return does not exactly get Mike off the hook with his wife. She confronts him about Lori. Mike admits to nothing but Marilla suggests the affair he had with Lori is still going on. Angrily, Mike denies this, before storming out of the apartment.  
Meanwhile Ned encourages Mike to go into seclusion while he wraps up his exposé on Daylor's boxing racket. As protection, Ned assigns punch-drunk pugilist, Maxie Stultz (Mickey Shaughnessy) to shadow Mike. To spare Marilla her concern, Mike lies yet again about leaving town to cover the Yankees. Instead, he and Maxie check into a seedy motel on the other side of town. Alas, although Marilla suspects her husband is not being truthful, her thoughts quickly segue to more suspicions about Lori.  To stave off her jealous nature and also quell her thirst to know, Mike telephones Marilla from his hotel, pretending to be in various cities.  Alas, Daylor is no fool.  Deducing Mike is somewhere in the city, he sends his thugs out to discover Mike’s whereabouts.  During one of their nightly phone calls, Marilla confronts Mike again about Lori. In reply, Mike suggests Marilla ought to ask the lady in question herself. Now, with Lori’s assistance, Mike concocts a simple enough, if highly implausible alibi for the photograph Marilla found at home. He hurries to Lori’s apartment to gain her complicity in this cover story. Alas, his timing could not be worse; Marilla, arriving only moments later to make her own inquiries.  
Lori hides Mike in her bedroom and embarks upon peacemaking with Marilla, who is momentarily charmed by Lori’s pet poodle. Too bad the dog returns a few moments later with one of Mike’s shoes in its mouth. Recognizing the footwear, Marilla barges into Lori’s bedroom and finds Mike. Wounded by his betrayal, she storms out of the apartment – sadder, but none the wiser. Meanwhile, Maxie, having discovered Mike having left the hotel without him, idiotically calls out his name in the hotel lobby where Daylor’s fair-weather stooge, Charlie Arneg (Jesse White) just happens to be. Upon locating Mike, Charlie informs him of Daylor’s grand plan to kidnap Marilla during the opening night of the musical in Boston.  Obviously concerned for her safety, Mike places an urgent call to the theater. Still stinging from what she erroneously has misperceived as Mike’s marital infidelity, Marilla absolutely refuses to entertain his call.  Maxie and Mike catch the next plane to Boston. Meanwhile, Lori comes clean about her pre-marital fling with Mike. They were an item – ‘were’ being the operative word. Mike loves Marilla; Lori is certain of it, and, is convincing enough to make Marilla ashamed of the way she has treated her husband and Lori ever since. After all, Mike never wanted to hurt Marilla by stirring her jealousy to such toxic levels.
Seeing the truth in this, Marilla hurries from the dressing room, longing to be reunited with her husband. Johnny O’s sudden appearance startles Marilla. Still assuming he is one of Mike’s friends, she accepts his offer to take her to Mike. Mercifully, Mike and Maxie arrive just as Johnny and Daylor’s henchmen are attempting to force Marilla into their getaway car. In the ensuing fistfight, Mike and Maxie gain the upper hand from an unlikely ally; Randy, leaping into action and effectively disarming the gangsters with his acrobatic footwork. Her kidnapping thwarted, a slightly disheveled but unbowed Mike confides the truth to his wife about his prior relationship with Lori. Marilla accepts his word. Lori was right. Mike is truly devoted only to her. Several months later, Zachary becomes engaged to Lori. In the interim, Marilla and Mike have both softened somewhat; each, accepting the other’s circle of friends. With Daylor arrested, Mike is free to enjoy his marriage without any fear of reprisals. The couple agrees to set aside their differences once and for all and live happily ever after…perhaps.
Designing Woman is a relatively tame, if sophisticated affair. There is never any real doubt about Mike’s fidelity to Marilla or even the inference this one will end any other way except blissfully for the momentarily feuding couple. Arguably, it is one of the flaws in MGM’s fifties output that they generally chose to ‘play it safe’. Despite the ousting of L.B. Mayer, the pugnacious mogul’s old-time bill of fare for opulent romantic fantasies endured well beyond its natural expiration date and, questionably, to the studio’s ever-lasting detriment. Designing Woman can be charming – in spots. And irrefutably, it looks and plays the part of the gussied-up Clydesdale in Metro’s three-ring circus dog and pony show; Preston Ames’ luscious mid-fifties sets, capped off by uber-chichi trappings, like the Modigliani hanging over Marilla’s faux marble fireplace; a Park Avenue spread fit for a queen…or at least, a socially affluent mannequin who fancies herself as much - slinky black jerseys and stylish straight skirts optional. Everything about Designing Woman is perfection, and that is both its’ allure and its’ failing.
Everyone from Mike’s buddies to the man of the house looks as though they have just stepped out of a GQ spread. The thugs are as polished as the up-towners, too slick for their own good and not to be believed. The theatrical milieu in Designing Woman affords Minnelli the opportunity to supplement the picture’s lag in razor-wit and one-liner barbs with some truly eye-popping eye-candy; the gauche and the glamorous, sharing equal screen time in a perfect counterbalance, as only Minnelli’s keen eye for visual finesse could conceive.  But the overall impact is nevertheless tainted instead of enhanced by these augmentations. Nearly 70 years removed from its debut, the concrete world depicted in Designing Woman, moderately believable then to many in the audience as a glimpse into the lives of a select few living the high-hooey in Manhattan’s moneyed playgrounds, today, is as foreign a landscape as anything depicted in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; the creakiness in its plot, always more quaint than cutting edge, now just a wrinkle in time at the end of Hollywood’s golden era, when art was not the mimic of life, but a signifier to its highly manufactured alternate, meant to provide undiluted escapism for the masses.  
Designing Woman arrives on Blu-ray via the Warner Archive (WAC) in a simply gorgeous-looking 1080p remaster, sure to impress. A lot of Metro’s mid-fifties ‘scope’ product has suffered from improper storage, color fading and other anomalies exacerbated by the natural aging process. But Designing Woman appears to have somehow, miraculously, escaped all of that; its steadfast hues, showing off Robert Alton’s sumptuous cinematography to its very best advantage. Ostensibly, this is one of the finest-looking Cinemascope movies yet to arrive in hi-def and truly, one for the top shelve of any die-hard collector seeking to further complete his/her filmography of the works of Peck, Bacall and Minnelli. Contrast is superb and film grain has been properly maintained. The image is silky smooth and very consistent throughout, with transitional dissolves and fades (usually a problem with ‘scope’ movies) effortlessly on display herein. The only real drawback, as far as I can tell, is the image lacks razor-sharp crispness. But this is due to the shortcomings of Bausch & Lomb’s early CinemaScope lenses, with variations of the infamous ‘Cinemascope mumps’ (horizontal stretching) cropping up from time to time in close-ups. There is also a single moment where the image falls apart, approximately an hour into the movie, a dupe likely substituted for a damaged original camera negative. It’s so brief, it’s hardly worth mentioning, except to point out it exists within this otherwise flawless presentation.
For decades rumors have abounded Designing Woman was originally recorded in 4-track stereo. While it is certainly true Fox ‘scope’ releases from this same vintage uniformly sported directionalized stereo, MGM was far more circumspect about when and where to go the ‘full on’ treatment. Indeed, Metro usually reserved stereo for their ‘scope’ musicals or big n’ splashy epics like Raintree County (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959). To set the record straight, Designing Woman was never recorded in 4-track stereo. On this Blu-ra outing, WAC has seen fit to preserve the original magnetic master in 2.0 mono. It sounds wonderful. WAC has also included a featurette on Helen Rose, an exclusive produced for their original DVD release in 2003; also, the picture’s original theatrical trailer in HD! Bottom line: Designing Woman is not exactly a bona fide classic, despite Metro’s top-tier treatment. Glamour alone never sells a movie – nor should it. Peck, Bacall and Grey give this one their all and Minnelli really puts on the dog…in this case, a little more like applying lipstick to the proverbial hog. Not quite a clunker, but hardly better than an oink! Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Friday, June 15, 2018

DALLAS: The Complete Series (Lorimar, 1978-1991) Warner Home Video

The term 'cliffhanger' might very well have been invented for David Jacob's Dallas (1978-1991). Overnight this prime time soap opera became a sensation, then, even more unexpectedly, an American institution. For 13 years, audiences were hooked on the salacious comings and goings of good ole Texas folk, the uber-wealthy ranch and oil barons, the Ewings and the downright dirty and devious business dealings of its unloved heir apparent, John Ross Jr., more affectionately known throughout the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area as J.R. (Larry Hagman in a career-defining role). Originally scripted with a focus on the family’s younger brother, Bobby (Patrick Duffy), and a period of adjustment within the Ewing clan after he wed Pamela (Victoria Principal), the daughter of their arch rival, Digger Barnes (intermittently portrayed by David Wayne for the 1978 mini-series, Keenan Wynn, during Dallas’ 1979–1980 run, and finally, David Marshall Grant after 1986), Dallas’ plots quickly shifted gears to J.R. after Larry Hagman elected to slightly alter the character as originally written. Instead of either entering or exiting a scene with a perpetual, beady-eyed scowl, Hagman chose to infuse the character with a deliciously sinister grin, twinkle in the eye, and, light chuckle (shades of Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo); thus, typifying the unapologetic and unscrupulous womanizer/wheeler-dealer. J.R. was so transparently corrupt, he quickly became TV’s most fascinating villain we all loved to hate. Indeed, when at the end of Season Two the writers were suddenly perplexed how to paint themselves out of a narrative corner, creator David Jacobs casually suggested, “Why don’t we just shoot the son of a bitch?” – an inspired notion.
Season Two’s cliffhanger, ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ became a cultural phenomenon by accident (more on this later); the press, having a feeding frenzy over the possible list of suspects. Jacobs ordered absolute secrecy on the closed set, to the extent where alternate endings were created to confuse even the cast, featuring every major character presumably to have pulled the trigger. Although officially launched in the Fall of 1979, Dallas would come to typify all that was good, gaudy, and insincerely flawed about the American perspective on life, love and the rather ruthless pursuit of plasticized happiness throughout the spend/spend 1980’s. Dallas may not have invented the soap opera, but it honed and mined its time-honored precepts, centralizing fundamental human frailties to fan the ratings flames, and, with a penchant for raw human desire, lust, greed, deception, steamy sex and violent death, presented as luridly palpable fodder for the masses. From today's even further jadedness - ultra-raunch having long ago overtaken glamorous sex appeal, Dallas seems downright bucolic to utterly quaint. The iconic world inhabited by J.R., Bobby, Pam, Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) and their ilk now plays like an epilogue to another nearly forgotten time, largely removed from our own. The sexual mores, vices, and the corruption in big business in particular, hold up. Only now, they have acquired a patina of acceptability, posing the question; 'as a society...have we evolved, or simply become far too cynical to recognize the strength of Dallas’ artistic sentiment?'

David Jacobs’ initial inspiration was a TV series based on the art films of Ingmar Bergman – particularly, ‘Scenes from a Marriage’. Pitching the idea to Lorimar executive, Mike Filerman was a no-go. But Filerman had another project for Jacobs to tackle – ‘No Down Payment’. It proved the beginning of a lucrative professional friendship, or, as Jacobs later mused, “I wanted to do art. Mike wanted to do trash, and together, we did television!” So, Filerman and Jacobs wrote a synopsis about four California families living in a cul-de-sac. CBS liked the idea, though not enough to produce it – yet. Eventually, the project would find a home as Knots Landing. But for now, CBS encouraged Filerman and Jacobs to ‘think big’ – along the lines of a made-for-TV saga to star Linda Evans, who was already under contract. The writer/producer team eventually lit on an idea to transform Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into a modern day western set in Texas; the Capulets and Montagues transformed into mortal enemies - the Barnes and the Ewings.  
Jacobs submitted his draft of the, as yet, ‘untitled’ project to Filerman. Recognizing it as more of an ensemble piece, Filerman decided it lacked the potential to interest Linda Evans. But he sent it along to CBS on spec anyway, casually re-titling it, ‘Dallas’ – a decision that initially horrified Jacobs, as he had never been to Dallas and knew nothing of its social climate. Ironically, CBS liked Dallas enough to commission a 5-episode mini-series. So, Fiberman and Jacobs set about casting their project; the entire shoot expected to get underway in just six weeks.  First to be contacted was Steve Kanaly who immediately took an interest in the part of the wily ranch hand, Ray Krebbs. In the pilot, the character of Ray was a lusty reprobate, messing around with the Ewing’s underaged granddaughter, Lucy (Charlene Tilton) and scheming with J.R. to break up Bobby’s marriage to Pam as she was formerly his girlfriend. Also, up for the part was actor, Ken Kercheval. Producers would pass on Kercheval for Ray. But the actor was not entirely out of luck. In fact, he was handed yet another plum ‘part in a suit’ as Pam’s sullen brother and attorney at law, Cliff.
Producer, Leonard Katzman hired Camille Marchetta and Arthur Bernard Lewis to iron out the narrative wrinkles in Jacob’s synopsis. Ironically, all three were from Brooklyn and had never been to Texas. Nevertheless, this trio captured the essence of a city and a state as wide-open to the possibilities for a total transformation into pop icons, reinvigorating their tourist trade and putting Texas on the international list of celebrity. Interestingly, the bulk of Dallas’ cast would be culled from largely unknowns or actors whose first, second or even third stab at small screen immortality had miserably failed. Applying a bit of the time-honored Southern Gothic principles to their familial saga, Marchetta, Lewis and Jacob’s went in search of their ‘Romeo’ lead. They eventually agreed on 28-year-old beefcake, Patrick Duffy who had just completed his brief run as TV’s failed underwater superhero, The Man from Atlantis (1977-78).  Cast opposite this muscular star was another 28-year-old, Victoria Principal who, like Duffy, had seen her earlier career aspirations quickly fizzle. Unlike Duffy, Principal had achieved notoriety of a different kind, appearing in a spread in Playboy Magazine.
Seventeen-year-old Charlene Tilton, whose acting resume was practically nonexistent, nevertheless landed the part of the sexually charged nymph, Lucy. To anchor the series, as Eleanor Southfork Ewing (affectionately ever-after known to all as Miss Ellie) the ever-loyal but strong-minded matriarch of this feuding clan, producers turned to 55-year-old Barbara Bel Geddes, whose career dated all the way back to the mid-1940’s, with successful runs on Broadway. Although Bel Geddes had originated the feisty role of Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in the movies at least, she was oft cast as a rather placid ‘second-string’ and pure-of-heart love interest, sadly, never to get her man. Opposite Bel Geddes was another screen veteran, Jim Davis as head of the family, Jock – at age 67, decidedly, the elder statesman of the group.  For the part of Sue-Ellen Shivers/Ewing, a former beauty queen brought low via her marriage to the chronically philandering J.R., Katzman hired 38-year-old Linda Gray, whose only real claim-to-fame then was as a transsexual in the short-lived sitcom, All That Glitters (1977).
Although no one could have guessed it at the time, Dallas’ meteoric success would come to rely almost exclusively on one actor’s fame. Forty-six-year old Larry Hagman’s acting career had begun in 1950: small roles – mostly in theater, and tent show musicals. After serving his country from 1952-56, Hagman redoubled his efforts to break through to popular appeal. But his determination was not immediately rewarded; his off-Broadway bit parts gradually earning him modest notoriety and the inevitable segue to slightly more substantial supporting parts on Broadway.  He made his TV debut in 1957; a largely forgettable spate of live appearances that led to a few more in some high-profile movies. Then, in 1965, Hagman solidified his popularity with TV audiences in the effervescent supernatural/comedy series, I Dream of Jeannie. At the end of that series successful run in 1970, Hagman once again found himself unemployed, and seemingly unemployable – producers unable to see beyond the character of Maj. Anthony Nelson. ‘Jeannie’s’ syndication helped to keep Hagman’s name alive during this fallow period until 1978, when he was offered two series simultaneously; the lead on The Waverly Wonders, or the relatively minor part of J.R. Ewing in Dallas.
Weighing his options, Hagman wisely concurred that any show headlined by Bel Geddes and Davis could only turn out to be a winner. Despite what was then perceived to be his diminutive contributions to the series, Hagman had an ‘in’. He was the only actor to have actually hailed from Fort Worth. He was also quite certain from the outset that it was better to appear in support, as part of an ensemble in a hit, than as the headliner of a flop. Virtually all of Dallas’ ‘stars’, with the exception of Larry Hagman, were signed to 7-year contracts at a bargain basement price of $7500.00 per episode; provided Dallas was a hit. Although Hagman’s salary weighed slightly more, it was hardly a king’s ransom – even, for its time.  To ingratiate himself to the cast, Hagman turned up at the first rehearsal for the pilot in full Texas regalia; ten-gallon, buckskin and cowboy boots, toting a saddle bag full of champagne to lighten the mood. While the character of J.R. (or lack thereof) would quickly develop a general contempt for his fellow man/woman, Hagman’s behind-the-scenes persona proved the antithesis of his alter ego; a joyous bon vivant, eager to buck up his co-stars and work like mad to ensure the show’s success.
Leonard Katzman assumed a very personal responsibility for overseeing Dallas. Indeed, it has been suggested virtually every character adopted some of Katzman’s own personal traits; several of the writers suggesting a lot of the show was autobiographical, Katzman weaving his life experiences into the overriding narrative arc. For the actors, Katzman was both a man of action and the real authority figure to whom everyone relied upon. He also wisely assessed early on that part of the series’ success would be predicated on its location. Hence, no back-lot facsimile would do. While, in years yet to come, Dallas would increasingly rely on a blend of footage shot in Texas, with interiors mostly lensed back in Hollywood, on soundstages at the old MGM studio facilities (now belonging to Lorimar), for its final seasons, virtually episodes were recorded on indoor recreations of Southfork – both exteriors and interiors – to keep costs down. But for now, cast and crew were shunted off to Dallas in the winter of 1977, enduring frigid temperatures and the discomfort of working in an area unaccustomed to ‘Hollywood folk’. Interestingly, the ranch house that would ultimately become as much a part of TV-land iconography and integral as any character on the show, at least in the pilot, was not the sprawling Duncan Forest Ranch near Plano, but rather, the Southern antebellum-styled Cloyce Box Ranch near Frisco, Texas. A rift with the owner during the shooting of the 5-part mini-series forced Katzman to reconsider alternative locations after production wrapped. Tragically, the ornately styled mansion, once situated on an impressive 70 acres of wide open spaces, would be decimated by fire in 1987.
Although spirits ran high, despite some hellish weather, once shooting of the pilot wrapped in March, cast and crew returned to Hollywood, disbanding to look for other work. The general consensus was that Dallas was so wildly different from the usual programming on television, it would not survive its mid-season run and was likely to quickly fade into obscurity. But nothing could have been further from the truth. Dallas’ debut in prime time was hardly met with excitement. Audiences were not watching. And worse, Texans feared those that did tune in were getting the wrong impression about their fair state; populated by a bunch of gun-toting yahoos, raking in big money and living audacious lives steeped in sin and corruption. Lest we forget, it had been only a scant 15 years since the real city of Dallas played host to one of the most shocking chapters in American political history: the bizarre assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Worse for Dallas – the show – or so it would seem, the critics were watching. Although most eviscerated the first episode in the mini-series as salacious tripe, the buzz generated by their negative publicity ironically helped to invigorate audiences’ interest. By the end of the 5th episode, CBS had committed Lorimar to 13 more episodes of Dallas. Cast and crew were quickly reassembled and sent back to Texas.
Rescheduling the show from Sunday to Saturday, then finally, Friday nights at 9pm, Dallas suddenly took off. Early on, Katzman and Jacobs made the executive decision to write ongoing story lines. Up until Dallas, prime time dramas usually featured an all-inclusive narrative – one per week that did not hinge on either the episode that preceded it or led into the one yet to follow. As eager as the show’s stars were to make Dallas click with fans, some were initially not happy with the way the franchise was shaping up. Linda Gray, in particular, felt as though the women were being under-utilized. To her delight, Katzman agreed, reshaping Sue Ellen’s marriage to J.R. into the confrontational crux of the program. Sue Ellen would strike back at her husband by having an extra-marital affair with his arch nemesis, Cliff Barnes. Season One’s cliffhanger finale proved a real barn-burner as a pregnant Sue Ellen, unsure whether the baby inside her belongs to J.R. or Cliff, is involved in a horrifying car wreck that sends mother and baby to the hospital for an emergency Caesarean; audiences left to contemplate several pivotal plot points over the show’s summer hiatus.
Learning the newly born son is, in fact, his, J.R.’s tender acceptance of the baby at the beginning of Season Two marked a turning point in audiences’ empathy for this otherwise irredeemable mischief maker. Although Leonard Katzman may have been the head honcho on the set, he answered first and exclusively for each executive decision made to advance the series, to Lorimar’s President, Philip Capice. For better or worse, Katzman and Capice rarely saw eye to eye on the daily asset management of their hit show. As Lorimar’s Chief Executive Officer, Capice understood the business solely through the advertising profits to be derived from a show’s popularity in the Nielsen’s. And in the Fall of 1979, no one could argue with Dallas’ runaway success. In hindsight, it is easy to see how and why Dallas became so wildly popular. In 1979, America was a nation on the brink of an economic crisis; the oil embargo, sky-rocketing mortgage rates and abysmal unemployment statistics contributing to an overwhelming sense of ennui and genuine concern that these hard times would never end. And into this very bleak reality came Dallas – an escapist fantasy about millionaires leading their own unhappy lives in uber-moneyed playgrounds; a daydream and honeyed elixir of entertainment for the beleaguered nation.
In an inspired executive decision, Capice urged Katzman to come up with a spinoff series; Katzman refurbishing the premise for Knots Landing, now to prominently feature the Ewing’s cast-off middle brother, Gary (David Ackroyd) and his reconciled wife, Valene (Joan Van Ark). As their love child, Lucy was left in the care of Miss Ellie and Jock on Dallas while Knots Landing continued to exploit its own drama with an entirely different roster of performers. Meanwhile, Dallas fever hit the nation. Dismayed with the lack of direction of his character, actor Steve Kanaly planned to ask for a release from his contract just as Dallas was hitting its stride. Encouraged by Larry Hagman to stick it out, Hagman and Kanaly conspired on a subplot pitched to Katzman. What if Ray Krebb’s was actually Jock’s illegitimate son? Producers loved the idea. But it did put a queer spin on the initial romance between Ray and Lucy who, now, were actually related. As the 1979-80 season neared its end, CBS made an unusual requested. Invigorated by Dallas’ #6 rating in the Nielsen’s, the network wanted to extend the season by 4 additional episodes, leaving Katzman and his writers frantic to come up with a different cliffhanger than the one as originally planned. At some point, the frustrated team conspired on what would ultimately become one of the most infamous finales in television history.
More than 50 million viewers in the U.S. (a number only topped by the audience tuning into the Super Bowl, with 250 million more around the world) watched on the edge of their seats as Larry Hagman’s dastardly alter ego took a pair of bullets to the chest at the end of Season 3. Putting the fictional event into perspective, in 1980, national headlines for the ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ episode, dwarfed reoccurring news coverage about Russians invading Afghanistan, the devastating eruption of Mt. Saint Helens and the American hostage crisis in Iran. But behind the scenes, ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ came with unanticipated consequences for Lorimar. Displeased with his inability to successfully renegotiate his contract, Larry Hagman let it be known in the press he was perfectly willing not to return to Dallas in the Fall – unless, of course, his salary expectations were met. It was blackmail – pure and simple; Hagman adopting J.R.’s penchant for playing fast and loose with the big boys in Hollywood. Hagman’s hardball tactics initially infuriated Katzman. Despite having orchestrated a series of ‘would-be’ plotters, all of whom had motive and opportunity to want J.R. Ewing on a cold slab, Katzman knew that without Larry Hagman’s venomous J.R., Dallas was just another piece of prime time real estate, teetering on the brink of cancellation. So, negotiations ensued. Hagman hit Lorimar hard and they, in turn, threatened to recast his part with another actor. To his credit, Hagman never flinched, even encouraging Lorimar to try and pull off such a stunt, knowing very well they could never succeed.
And thus, Hagman – at the last possible moment, no less – agreed to return for Season Four at a pay scale of $75,000 per episode. This not only made him the envy of the cast but also one of the highest paid actors in all of television history. He also scored a percentage on all Dallas merchandise being sold to promote the show. A Screen Actor’s Guild strike delayed Dallas’ return by several weeks, elevating the mania over ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ to new heights.  During the summer hiatus, speculations ran the gamut into the absurd. Even Jarod Martin, who had briefly played Sue Ellen’s second lover, Dusty Farlow, before being unceremoniously deposed in a fiery plane crash, was recalled to the show, despite his seemingly untimely end. His character was miraculously resurrected, rewritten from hunky rodeo star to wheelchair-bound impotent – decidedly, a changed man. Truth be told, J.R. had ticked off a lot of people in Seasons Two and Three. So, there was certainly no shortage of suspects for his murder – at the top of the list; Cliff Barnes. As Katzman had ordered takes of every major co-star doing the deed, none could be assured they were not the failed assassin, and thus, total secrecy of the real would-be killer was maintained until Dallas returned in the Fall of 1980. For the record, Sue Ellen’s sister, Kristin Shepard (played by Mary Crosby), with whose affections J.R. had toyed before dropping her cold, was the guilty culprit.
Nearly 80 million viewers tuned in to Episode #3 to discover this cleverly concealed truth. For many, it was the end of a long wait; the strike, delaying the revelation until mid-November. For all intent and purposes, Dallas was unstoppable. But only mid-way though the shooting schedule, the cast was dealt a terrible blow when 70-year-old Jim Davis revealed he had inoperable brain cancer. To his credit, and despite excruciating chemotherapy sessions that left him physically depleted, Davis missed only one episode during the 1980-81 season. But on April 26, the actor succumbed to his illness. Despite the inevitable, producers had yet to figure out how they were going to write his character out. Electing not to recast the part with another actor, Katzman instead had his writers kill off Jock, while presumably on a routine helicopter flight overseeing potential oil wells in South America. In a subsequent episode, Bobby and J.R. flew to the swampy site of the wreck, diving for clues and reporting back to Miss Ellie that Jock’s locket had, in fact, been recovered. By the end of Season Four, Dallas was the #1 show in America – a top spot it would continue to hold throughout the mid-1980’s, its fan base snowballing to epic proportions. Writers wrote ever-evolving and complex narrative arcs with impressively connective tissue that kept fans coming back for more. The show was irresistible and trendsetting. And its appeal was not only felt from shore to shore but copied around the globe. To say Dallas was an international phenomenon is not an overstatement; its over-the-top story lines and larger-than-life characters seen as the cultural custodians for the Reagan-omic era.
In the city of Dallas, residents who at first had been very apprehensive about the show’s ability to play up to stereotypes, suddenly became aware how Dallas had transformed their beloved city and state into the epicenter of class and culture; Duncan Forest Ranch, a tourist destination rivaled only by the Alamo.  While cast members basked in the afterglow of success, co-star, Victoria Principal took her instant fame to even greater heights, publishing several workout and self-help books that became immediate best sellers; contradicting Gore Vidal’s rather pithy claim, the actress had to read at least a thousand books to be considered ‘lowbrow’. At the apex of this worldwide mania, Barbara Bel Geddes announced the 1983-84 season would be her last as the maternal Miss Ellie. For decades, rumors have run rampant over the reasons why Bel Geddes called it quits. Certainly, the bypass operation she had undergone the previous year did much to slow down the 61-year-old actress. So too, was it speculated Bel Geddes had simply tired of being locked into a reoccurring role. Perhaps, she simply wanted more money to play the part – a request that would most certainly have been denied at the time, as Dallas producers kept extremely tight reigns on the show’s weekly budget. Whatever the reason, Bel Geddes departure left room for speculation. Would she be replaced or killed off? At one point, it appeared as though Larry Hagman’s real-life mother, Broadway legend - Mary Martin, would step into Miss Ellie’s shoes. Instead, producers hired Donna Reed.
Entering the role, Reed had distinct ideas about strengthening the character’s appeal, shaping Miss Ellie along the lines of the wives of oil barons she had known while growing up in Oklahoma. These ladies were often perceived as the real ‘power behind the throne’. Initially signed to a one-year contract, producers extended the lease by two more years as Reed came in to replace Geddes for the 1984-85 season. In the previous year, Miss Ellie had wed Clayton Farlow, Dusty’s uncle (played with aplomb by Hollywood veteran, Howard Keel). And while the Dallas cast had accepted Keel almost without question, warming up to a new ‘mama’ took some time. Arguably, they never did. This much is for certain: audiences never did. The casting of Reed proved a misfire; Bel Geddes’ matronly appeal jarringly replaced by an almost stately glamour. Quite simply, it didn’t work and audiences did not respond well to this ‘new’ matron of Southfork. Worse, as shooting progressed, Reed distinctly suspected someone was trying to force her to quit. She was deprived of her ‘key light’ and photographed in the most unflattering way for several episodes, exaggerating a more haggard appearance. Reed often left the set close to tears; a chronic upset that Katzman tried to assure the actress was not worth it.
By the end of the 1984/85 season, Dallas was about to lose yet another cast member when Charlene Tilton was informed her contract would not be renewed. Katzman allayed the actress’ dismay – somewhat – assuring she had done nothing to bring about her dismissal. The character of Lucy had simply run its course. Naturally, this did little to make the situation better. And Dallas was rocked with another casting crisis when Patrick Duffy publicly announced he too would be departing the series. While Dallas could afford to lose a secondary character like Lucy, the show without Bobby – the perfect foil and sparring partner for J.R. – was quite simply inconceivable. Katzman did everything he could to stave off Duffy’s self-imposed retirement; the actor making it quite clear he had had enough of playing second fiddle to Hagman’s J.R. The real problem with this decision was that without the squeaky-clean Bobby Ewing to play off of, Hagman’s lascivious schemer became the de facto heir to the family business – unfettered in his treacheries. Meanwhile, having witnessed Donna Reed in ‘her’ role, Barbara Bel Geddes made it known she wanted to return to Southfork. What to do? The 1985 cliffhanger shook Dallas fans to their core. After a season of marital upheaval, compounded by a liaison between Bobby and the sultry, Jenna Wade (Pricilla Presley) Pam and Bobby had reconciled, only to have Bobby run down outside of Pam’s home in a mysterious hit and run. As the family gathered by his bedside, Bobby’s vitals flatlined, leaving no room for the prospect he had somehow survived his ordeal. At the end of taping this dour cliffhanger, Katzman reflected - it was time for him to leave the show; his creative differences with Lorimar President, Capice having reached an impasse.
But as Dallas moved on without Bobby Ewing, Patrick Duffy quickly discovered his desire to pursue ‘other’ projects were as ‘dead in the water’. Meanwhile, Donna Reed learned, while on a vacation in Paris with her husband, she too had been terminated; an executive decision made in secrecy that some continue to regard as utterly disgraceful. What no one knew at the time was Reed was gravely ill, having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As Barbara Bel Geddes marked her triumphant return to Southfork, Reed quietly retreated from the legal haranguing over the remaining two years left in her contract, and then, on Jan. 14, 1986, died from her illness.  Having suffering through the anxiety of a whole season without Bobby Ewing, writers quickly inveigled Pam with a new love interest, Mark Graison (John Beck). They also elected to take several of the series alumni in a completely different direction. For starters, it was decided Ray and his wife, Donna Culver (Susan Howard) should adopt a baby with Downs Syndrome. Writers also softened J.R. Perhaps, partly in response to the AIDS crisis, his womanizing was suddenly out. By the end of the 1986 season, J.R. had devoted himself completely to Sue Ellen, the wife he had emotionally tortured into chronic bouts of alcoholism, deprived of any spousal warmth or even moderate caring, by openly indulging with numerous other partners, and finally, had prevented from running off to marry several other men who might have been better for her.
Alas, these ‘new and improved’ story lines were not exactly what Dallas fans were seeking, and their lack of interest was reflected in a sudden dip in the show’s ratings. For the first time, Dallas’ popularity slipped; surpassed by ABC’s smash soap, Dynasty. The success of Dynasty was not lost on producers, who quickly reasoned part of that show’s meteoric rise was due to the fact it appealed more readily to women – the ‘other half’ of the audience Dallas had pretty much ignored with its male-driven story lines. Actress, Barbara Carrera was brought in to play the part of a ruthless Greek shipping magnet, Angelica Nero – a move that infuriated Larry Hagman. Also, to counterbalance the Dynasty effect, veteran Hollywood costumer, Travilla was hired to glam-up the gals on Dallas. Alas, Travilla was no Nolan Miller (Dynasty’s resident couturier) and the results on Dallas were an extraordinarily garish fashion parade, adding grotesquely mannish shoulder pads to virtually every outfit and teasing the hair of co-stars Linda Gray and Victoria Principal in particular to the point where it began to laughingly resemble a lion’s mane. Worse, the entire nation was still in withdrawal after witnessing Bobby’s death. Patrick Duffy would later recall being constantly approached by tearful fans in parking lots, still unable to separate him from his fictional alter ego. 

Meanwhile, Larry Hagman took on Phil Capice in a very public rebuke of his executive producing skills, giving several interviews to TV Guide and People Magazine in which he bashed Capice’s changes to the show and even went so far as to infer Capice had absolutely no talent and no business to have forced Leonard Katzman out of the producer’s chair. Hagman’s clout was at its zenith, and he wielded it like an angry child swinging a baseball bat. Lorimar agreed, offering Katzman the title of Executive Producer, quietly ousting Capice from his ceremonial post. Capice would never return to television. Meanwhile, Katzman went to work rectifying the damage that had been done to his brain child during the interim. And Hagman, true to form, invited Patrick Duffy to his Malibu home for a little tête-à-tête in which the riot act was read. At the end, Duffy agreed he would like to return to Dallas. The trick, of course, was how to do it. Everyone had seen Bobby die. Lorimar offered Duffy a cool million signing bonus and $7500 per episode. Out of desperation, Katzman finally resolved the issue of how to bring Bobby Ewing back to Southfork. Not just his death, but virtually the entire season had been nothing more than a dream; Pam, awakening to find Bobby, and not Mark Graison in the couple’s shower. To keep Bobby’s return a secret from the press, Katzman had Duffy shoot a bogus Irish Spring commercial in the shower, leaking tapes to the press as a distraction.
Even as Patrick Duffy’s return to Dallas sparked giddy excitement among his ardent fans, real-life tragedy conspired to deprive the actor of his triumphant comeback. Duffy’s parents, Terrance and Marie had owned a tavern in Boulder, Montana called The Lounge when they were murdered by a pair of drunken teenagers toting shotguns. The thieves made off with $97 and a bottle of whiskey in a stolen Volkswagen, only to be apprehended barely two hours later. By the time Duffy flew to Montana, the press had already arrived – eager for a sound bite. To its credit, the good people of Boulder stood with Duffy in his grief, effectively ordering the media to leave their city and the star alone as he grappled with their thought-numbing loss. After a brief mourning, Duffy returned, ready to work. But by now, Dallas had begun to show its age. It had been nine seasons since the Ewings altered the prime time television-viewing landscape, and, the plot lines were beginning to get stale. Dallas was one of the most-expense shows to produce. With the dip in ratings, cost-cutting measures needed to be applied. Pruning of the cast was just the beginning to offset the ever-increasing salaries of Larry Hagman, Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy – the three stars without whom the series could not survive…or so it was perceived.
Steve Kanaly was the first casualty at the end of Season 10; his departure, followed by Victoria Principal in Season 11 and then, shockingly, Linda Gray in Season 12; Gray’s one request, to Katzman – she wanted Sue Ellen to depart with grace and dignity. Katzman concurred. Sue Ellen Ewing would exit J.R.’s life, a sadder, but infinitely wiser, and far richer gal – executive of her own company and with a rich new husband on her arm; a very stylish farewell indeed.  Inadvertently, Katzman was not nearly as kind to J.R. – affording him a new, and much younger bride, Cally (Cathy Podewell) and infusing the aging cast with ‘fresh blood’ – newcomers who, alas, lacked the staying power to click with fans that, like the fictional characters, had also matured along the way, enough to appreciate the elder statesmen (and women) of the franchise. By the 1990-91 season, Dallas had slipped in the ratings to a point of no return, coming in at #61. As cast and crew assembled to shoot the 2-hour finale for Season 13 – a variation on the ‘never been born’ scenario inspired by It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Katzman let Patrick Duffy in on a little secret. He already knew the show was not being picked up by CBS in the fall. Predictably, Katzman ended the series with – what else? – a cliffhanger; a despondent J.R., putting a pistol to his temple, and then, off camera, the sound of a gunshot.
When Dallas went off the air it left a huge void in television’s prime time programming. The slick and stylish soap had debuted first and outlived virtually all of the competition that came after it: Dynasty (1981-89), Dynasty II: The Colbys (1987-88), Hotel (1983-88), and, Falcon Crest (1981-90). Only Dallas’ spinoff, Knots Landing would endure, ending its series run in 1993. Patrick Duffy rebounded almost immediately, finding renewed life on television as the doting father on the joyous family sitcom, Step by Step (1991-98), opposite another TV alumni, Three’s Company’s Suzanne Sommers. Now retired, Larry Hagman was quietly enjoying the good life when doctors informed him his decades of high-living had severely compromised his liver. Although Hagman effectively went ‘cold turkey’ on his alcohol consumption, the damage was irreversible. A cancerous tumor was discovered on the diseased organ and Hagman went on the list of patients in desperate need of a new liver. Miraculously, a donor was found in time and Hagman, ever the trooper, underwent surgery, staging a remarkable recovery. In 1996, fueled by a nostalgia for certain beloved TV franchises of the late seventies and early eighties, CBS gambled on a 2-hour Dallas reunion movie to bolster their sagging mid-summer ratings. J.R. resurfaced, wilier and more scheming than ever. The movie was a sizable hit with audiences, prompting CBS to roll the dice again in 1998 on another reunion movie. This time, ratings were not high enough to justify a third visit to the same well. Indeed, in the interim, the world of the primetime soap had been distilled into variations relying on a much younger cast (Beverly Hills 90210 – 1990-2000, and, Melrose Place – 1992-99) with hipper problems and a lot more sex.  
For all intent and purposes, Dallas – the original series – had officially hung up its spurs in 1991. Texas, America, and indeed, the world, had seen nothing like it. But with an end to the Reagan era, the momentum for monied happiness that had fueled the series was gone and so were the thrills. The movies that came afterward were but an epitaph to this electrifying moment in television history when cable TV had yet to proliferate and ruin any series’ chances to ever again dominate the Nielsen ratings as Dallas had done for nine out of its thirteen-year run.  At its zenith, Dallas commanded nearly sixty percent of TV’s viewing audience on Friday nights; an unheard proliferation that both reflected and helped to shape America’s cultural fabric and social attitudes throughout the late 1970’s and foreshadow virtually all of the 1980’s. There has never been, nor will there ever likely be another Dallas. Much as the ambitious 2012 reboot endeavored to resurrect the glory days of yore, Dallas (2012-14) was a wan ghost flower of its predecessor. The real-life death of Larry Hagman at the end of the first season put a genuine damper on the franchise. Arguably, nothing could overcome this loss. Dallas without J.R. Ewing? Please…and get serious!

Dallas has long been available on DVD from Warner Home Video. Were that I could sing its praises. But Dallas on DVD looks about as ugly and uninspired as anything currently available on home video. It is a real pity no one at Warner recognizes what they have in their possession is more than just another television franchise; but rather, a cultural touchstone. Not only is Dallas the quintessential prime time soap opera, in many ways, its lasting contribution to television ranks very much as small screen art of the highest order. Binge-watching 13 years of Dallas, one can definitely bear witness to its rise to prominence and, sadly, follow its decaying trajectory after Season 9. Today, under similar circumstances, no network would allow any franchise to continue beyond Season 10. And certainly, the last three years of Dallas are hardly up to par for what had once been a programming powerhouse. But Warner’s DVD transfers of virtually all these seasons – and the movies that followed – ranks as some of the spottiest remastering in the business. For starters, Seasons 1-5 exhibit varying issues with color density, color fading and very weak contrast.
Dallas was shot on film – not tape – so overall image fidelity ought to have been much more solid than this, with some instances of remarkable, if intermittent, image clarity. But what’s here frequently suffers from gate weave and wobble during splices and jump cuts. Unfortunately, age-related artifacts are everywhere, and, at times, not only consistent, but consistently heavy and distracting. Clearly, these episodes received a lot of play time over the years. The iconic opening credits fare the absolute worse, looking as though they have been fed through a meat grinder; riddled in a barrage of nicks, chips and scratches, with severe color fading. At times, the image here looks like an old, bleached out 16mm Kodachrome. Certain episodes do not fare much better – the entire palette adopting a green/beige lean with pasty flesh tones. Warner Home Video has added insult to injury by going the quick n’ dirty route, housing these episodes on ‘flipper discs’ that have proven, with time, to come with their own onslaught of technical glitches.
We are not talking about an obscure television franchise unworthy of the necessary care to resurrect it from oblivion. We are speaking of Dallas – the grand-daddy of all night-time soap operas. Quite simply, respect is due and, regrettably, has yet to be paid. In a perfect world, Dallas would have already made the leap to Blu-ray by now. But no, and for shame! The audio herein is 2.0 Dolby Digital mono and mostly adequate for this presentation, with a slightly muffled characteristic from time to time and a few minor instances of hiss and pop. Nothing as egregious as the picture quality and, owing to its source material, largely forgivable, I suppose. I will say this for Warner’s efforts – they have invested a lot of time and energy culling together vintage featurettes, as well as producing a handful of exclusive extras, cumulatively to cover the Dallas phenomenon from every conceivable angle. The extras are comprehensive and very much appreciated. But they do not excuse the horrendous video quality on display here. 
There are so many fine performances in Dallas, so many iconic moments and inspired cliffhangers, to simply offer up the whole affair in barely tolerable DVD quality seems more an insult to fans and a series that, despite its absence from public view in syndication on TV, still commands our respect and is able to rekindle fond memories from those old enough to have experienced this iconic chapter in TV history the first time around. What can I tell you? It was the eighties – a fabulously garish and glitzy decade where anything went and everything seemed possible. Dallas fed into the national verve for better times on the horizon and proved, unequivocally, that the wealthy – although living by a decidedly different set of rules – nevertheless, were never entirely content with their lot in life. In preparing this review, I have read far too many postmortem epitaphs on Dallas, unflatteringly describing it as ‘a relic’ best left to rose-colored reflections that, in actuality, veered more closely to ‘trash’ than ‘art’ – as Jacobs had feared at the start of his alliance with Katzman. And yet, those quick to label the franchise as such are quietly forgetting that while trash is quickly expelled from the public consciousness, Dallas has never entirely left ours for a single moment since it went off the air. Mention just the call letters, ‘J.R.’ in mixed company and almost anyone today will instantly know to whom you are referring.
The longevity of the series – particularly as, outside of the 2012 reboot, it has largely remained out of sight since 1991, is impressive to say the least. Dallas lives on, perhaps because it speaks to a broader, more heartily lived decade where optimism reigned supreme. Dallas was larger-than-life, as America in the 1980’s sincerely hoped to be – and for many – was, that shining beacon on the hill, so described by President Ronald Reagan. As the yellow rose of Texas, Dallas has long since proven a perennial blossom in television’s firmament; a moniker for a way of telling grandiose stories on a sprawling canvas, with intelligence, wit, and a little sex thrown in for good measure. Audiences of their day loyally tuned in to find out what came next in this familial saga. With the advent of home video, mercifully, we can rediscover what all the fuss was about for ourselves. But Dallas deserves far better than these tired ole DVD’s. Will it ever receive its due? And what are the consequences to our small screen cultural heritage if it does not? Hmmm. These are questions I sincerely hope future generations never have to address. For now, all that remains of those gala days in Texas are these badly worn transfers. If there is a petition to be signed for the preservation and restoration of Dallas on home video, then let us sign it – today! Permit yours truly to lead this charge! Yee-haw, from Texas! Y’all come back now, y’hear?
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Seasons 1-2 – 3.5
Seasons 3-9 – 4.5
Seasons 10-13 – 2.5
2.5 overall (*some episodes fare slightly better than others)