Monday, July 28, 2014

RADIO DAYS: Blu-ray (Orion 1987) Twilight Time

Woody Allen continues his New York love affair with an ambitious, affectionate – though only occasionally affecting – tribute to the golden age of radio with Radio Days (1987). The film is a very loose series of ruminations cribbed from Allen’s own fertile childhood memories. These are made misty-watered and rose-colored with the inevitable passage of time. All of them involve the radio in one way or another; the power of memory to be clouded by art and vice versa playing a big part in Allen’s opus magnum dedicated to this far simpler time. Woody Allen’s film-making is so irreproachable in so many ways it almost seems sacrilegious to pick apart Radio Days failings; chiefly, its queer inability to linger in the mind once the houselights have come up. But it just doesn’t have the staying power of a bona fide Woody Allen classic.
Like all of Allen’s New York fairy tales, Radio Days does appear genuine and autobiographical – Allen’s nostalgic memoir gleaned from a rich and varied tapestry of personalized reflections he so clearly regards as more intimate and meaningful than the present, and, using his own particular brand of self-deprecating Yiddish humor to palliate even uncomfortable reminiscences. Creative geniuses working in the cinema are rare. But Allen has proven the most prolific from the latter half of the 20th century. The challenge for Allen in Radio Days is to visualize a non-visual medium. Alas, he never quite licks it, perhaps because Allen has chosen to remain omnipotent in this loving valentine as its narrator; Seth Green, his prepubescent alter ego – Joe – never able to capture the essence of Allen’s own persona as the gawky, perennially befuddled and disillusioned social outcast.
In fairness to Green, he doesn’t have much of a part in this ensemble piece; Joe chronically relegated to the back of the line; getting beaned in the head by his otherwise benevolent father (Michael Tucker), nasally sounding, mother (Julie Kavner) and even the bitter and dictatorial, Rabbi Baumel (Kenneth Mars). It’s a thankless part, meant to illustrate for the audience the Freudian roots of Allen’s own emasculated sense of self. But Radio Days is starved by Allen’s absence. Without his tangible presence, there is no central character to follow, much less root for from beginning to end. Mia Farrow’s hapless cigarette girl and aspiring radio personality, Sally White is meant to provide this narrative continuity; Allen returning to White’s mindless plight time and again. But even Sally infrequently gets lost in Allen’s cavalcade of remembrances; having nothing to do with Joe’s family and fragmenting Allen’s already severely episodic claptrap even further.
There’s nothing wrong with the vignettes as vignettes, per say: young Joe and his pals pretending to collect charitable contributions for Palestine, but instead using the money to buy secret compartment rings as advertised on the radio by his favorite personality - the Masked Avenger (Wallace Shawn); Sally’s brief flagrante delicto with radio ham, Roger (David Warrilow) atop a nightclub, only to be locked on the rooftop in a thunderstorm; cousin Ruthie’s (Joy Newman) charming lip-synch to Carmen Miranda’s Tico Tico; Uncle Abe’s (Josh Mostel) confrontation with the neighbors who disregard the holiest of Jewish holidays by playing the radio too loud, result in a crisis of faith and a hilariously imagined heart attack; Joe and his schoolmates using a carrot to make an anatomically correct snowman in front of the school, and later, ogling a naked woman through an open window with binoculars, only to meet her the next day – with her clothes on – as their substitute teacher, Miss Gordon (Sydney A. Blake).
No kidding, Radio Days is an ensemble piece. But the characters who populate this story – or rather, ‘stories’ are mostly undefined – or rather, under-defined; a curious cross section of distracting, though weirdly unsympathetic eccentrics. Mia Farrow’s trusting nightclub doll cum radio wit is the most prominently featured; Allen habitually deferring to Sally White’s rumored past for sheer amusement whenever he paints himself into a narrative corner. White begins as a bored and put upon cigarette girl at a swank art deco nightclub, the plaything of self-appointed radio ham, Roger - of Irene (Julie Kurnitz) and Roger fame.  Later, Sally inadvertently witnesses the murder of her boss, pitied by mafia hit man, Rocco (Danny Aiello) who takes her back to his mother’s (Gina DeAngeles) for a ‘last supper’ as it were’ as mum and sonny boy openly discussing where to dump Sally’s body. Alas, Rocco’s heart isn’t in it. So Sally lives to become a USO singer, and later, a prominent radio gossip columnist, exposing tidbits about Hollywood’s hoi poloi. Interpolated with Sally’s fantastic tale of succession is Allen’s more intimate portrait of home life in Rockaway Beach; herein depicted as perpetually rainy, gray and windswept; echoing Joe’s family, who have apparently gone to seed.
Joe’s aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest), as example, is a star-crossed frump and daydreamer whose ever-changing high standards keep her a spinster. Bea has the most deplorable taste in men: like Mr. Waldbaum (Hy Anzell) who leaves her stranded in a car out of gas and six miles from home (in a dense fog no less), after panicking while listening to Orson Welles’ broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. There’s also dapper Fred (Robert Joy), who breaks down in the kitchen and confesses to Bea he is still mourning the loss of his beloved spouse – Leonard! Joe’s uncle, Abe has a ‘fish’ fetish, while Joe’s teenage cousin, Ruthie is addicted to eavesdropping on the neighbor’s party line; learning all sorts of salacious scraps about their communist activity and the wife’s hysterectomy. Joe’s family is, in fact, a lovable circus to behold.
Too bad Radio Days isn’t about any one of these characters in particular, or even all of them put together. It’s Woody Allen’s homage to the golden era of radio quiz shows, soap operas and the big band sound that so permeated, enlivened and enriched American culture throughout the 1940’s.  That’s problematic, because Allen wants us to reinvest and align ourselves with his concept and understanding of this grand and glorious past; a memory only he intimately knows to be true, while philosophizing it as art, but without ever building up any of these characters to make them real and truthful for the rest of us. The audience simply has to take both the story and Woody Allen at face value. Had Allen actually committed to being in this movie it might have worked – or at least, helped. Without his presence – even as the proverbial time traveler, Radio Days starts off as disembodied and thereafter becomes increasingly unsustainable.   
For a certain generation, Radio Days will remain a fond evocation of a time sadly no more – mostly because Allen illustrates how the power of imagination – gathering around a dimly glowing green light in the front parlor – gave form to people and places only existing inside our heads. The movies – and later, television – showed us concrete representations of how we aspired to live. But radio made us think it could actually happen; the glamor and celebrity palpable and attainable only from inside our daydreams.  Astutely, Allen places a child at the center of this idol worship. No mind is more impressionable than Joe’s. He begins by relaying a story of a neighborhood break-in; the robbers (Mike Starr and Paul Herman) answering the telephone and winning the random caller portion of ‘Name That Tune’ – their victims reaping rich rewards the next day as the grand prizes are delivered to their ransacked home.  
From here on, Radio Days bounces around a lot; personal history mingling with the collective memories of a generation hooked on radio programming; Woody Allen showing us how truth can become confused, manipulated and clouded over by fiction. Obviously, the dreamlike quality of radio served a purpose back then; our adolescent woolgatherer able to abscond from his working-class neighborhood into the uber-swank radio realm of a wholly imagined Manhattan. Perhaps, Allen presumes too much, however – jumping back and forth from fable to fact - each more vibrant, but only from the vantage of growing up and leaving it all behind. Fair enough, Allen isn’t particularly interested in creating a linear narrative. Radio Days begins and ends on an element of uncertainty, perhaps to reawaken the adult Joe to the only reality: that time moves incrementally, while memory remains cyclical - made even more perennially appealing when revisited.
Woody Allen has always had a yen for vintage songs, mostly to augment and punctuate his plots.  But in Radio Days the robust 40’s milieu – from Tommy Dorsey to Sinatra and Carmen Miranda – serves an entirely different purpose; mostly to provide cohesion where none might otherwise exist as Allen moves through his series of entertainingly silly back-stories. Almost instinctually, Allen knows which characters to shadow in this overflowing ensemble – able to pick up a storyline at will, then just as easily discard it for another, picking it up again at some undisclosed point in the future. Admirably, Radio Days plays like the trick of memory itself – the irretrievable past book-ended by iconic vintage pop tunes. But memory is a curious thing; prone to nostalgia – decidedly never anything less than idealized. We tend to forget all the ugliness and unhappiness gone before yesterday and what resurfaces is fond verisimilitude. In our absent-mindedness visions of family, sexual experience, local folklore, public scandals and religious piety can intermingle like the various decorative threads dangling from a child’s mobile.
Perhaps as part of his nostalgia, Radio Days naturally evolves into a cornucopia of Woody Allen favorites from days – and movies – gone by. Everyone from Mia Farrow and Diane Keaton to Tony Roberts, Dianne Wiest and Jeff Daniels make an appearance; Allen also corralling surviving stars from radio’s golden age - Kitty Carlisle and Don Pardo - to add authenticity and charm plus: the all-important Tiffany setting of his piece. It’s hard to argue with Radio Days as an audacious slice of Woody Allen’s wistfulness for another time and place. Increasingly we all begin to hunger for the past with age, somehow assuming it was better than our own immediate present. And in the luxuriant ambiance of forties kitsch and coo, Allen has an almost inexhaustible wellspring to draw upon and exploit to his own advantage and purposes.
The film’s climax is both poignant and solipsistic; Sally White – now an accomplished radio star, returns to her old haunt to ring in the New Year with a gaggle of fair-weathers whom she takes to the same rooftop where years before she had indulged Roger’s proclivity for a quick one. Allen uses the strange unbalance of anticipation and sadness we all feel on New Year’s Eve to turn the page and close the book on his little pastiche; the characters reluctantly moving away from the old to welcome in the new with giddy uncertainty. But as Allen has pointed out time and again in Radio Days; none of what really happened back then matters; only how we choose to remember it for always in our hearts.   
Radio Days gets a fairly robust Blu-ray transfer from MGM/Fox via Twilight Time. Aside from the occasional age-related speckle this hi-def transfer captures the essence of Carlo Di Palma’s warm-hued cinematography. There is a counterbalance of color at play herein; interiors teeming with vibrant canary yellows burnt reds, wood browns and pumpkin oranges while exteriors are mostly cold gray/blue and desaturated. Contrast is solid and film grain has been naturally reproduced without any undue signs of digital manipulation.  The DTS 1.0 mono soundtrack is crisp.  TT gives us another isolated music and effects track, plus the original theatrical trailer. Julie Kirgo’s essay extols Radio Days many virtues. While I cannot fault or deny her persuasive arguments, in the final analysis Radio Days just doesn’t resonate as profoundly, the way a lot of Woody Allen’s best movies do – and all movies in a perfect world should. Recommended; although I hardly consider this Woody Allen at his best.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


BORN YESTERDAY: Blu-ray (Columbia 1950) Twilight Time

William Holden’s sagging movie career may have been resurrected by Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, but it was forever writ in forty-kilowatt stardust thereafter with George Cukor’s Born Yesterday. Both films, made and released in 1950, heralded the return of Bill Holden as an A-list talent. Interestingly, the formula for bringing Holden back from the dead was to cast him opposite two uniquely talented powerhouse female stars. While Sunset Boulevard was, undeniably, a vehicle for costar, Gloria Swanson, Born Yesterday became a sparkling champagne cocktail of screwball comedy, made to order for the comedic genius of charismatic, Judy Holliday; her alter ego - Billie Dawn – the quintessence of a bubble-headed tart about to get a clue under Holden’s expert tutelage.
Many today forget Holden and Holliday were hardly considered top tier talent when Garson Kanin’s smash Broadway hit, Born Yesterday came to the attention of Columbia studio chief, Harry Cohn. Despite the fact Holliday had created the role on the stage (and won a Tony for it), Cohn considered her an unknown and untested quantity. More or less, Holliday was lacking star cache – that intangible calling card to filmdom fame and fortune. What it took to get Holliday in front of the camera involved more than a little cajoling from director, George Cukor; also the conspiratorial maneuvers of Cukor, Spencer Tracy and Kate Hepburn to cast Holliday in her first role: a plum supporting part in MGM’s Adam’s Rib (1949).
As for William Holden; he had graced a series of largely forgettable movies as the male ingénue; a would-be heartthrob whose debut in the boxing classic, Golden Boy (1939) had been salvaged in the eleventh hour by leading lady, Barbara Stanwyck. In the interim, Holden had managed to make the least of his landmark debut, cresting out of favor and aging gracefully, but aging nonetheless and beyond that lucrative category reserved for young men of more obvious talents. But who can argue with Holliday and Holden’s jubilant chemistry in Cukor’s deftly handled romantic comedy of errors? And who can think of two more radiant personalities to carry it off?
Born Yesterday is simply premised: a neatly packed ditz gets wise to the fact she is being used by her overbearing sugar daddy, Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford). The joy and the trick of it is to observe the proverbial light bulb going off inside Holliday’s head; her bleached curls yielding to a more fertile gray matter with all the neurons already begun to fire right under Harry’s nose. Like all truly gifted clowns, Judy Holliday’s great strength is she can move us as easily to tears as to laughter; her genius and technique suddenly – and often quite unexpectedly - gingerly plucking at our heartstrings.  The dumb blonde had been a staple of Hollywood for decades. But Holliday’s dippy dames are an intricate balance of complex joys and immeasurable sadness intermingled; Holliday’s vocal intonations alone, tapping into lost undercurrents and hidden anxieties – each fraught with unearthed subtext.
“A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in,” Paul suggests to Billie, a quote ringing more ominously true with each passing year since Born Yesterday had its splashy premiere. The axiom ‘born yesterday’ denotes someone unprepared in their understandings of the world at large. Ah, but Billie Dawn is about to prove she is nobody’s fool. In the intervening decades, Holliday’s persona has been reclassified as everything from an embarrassment of brassy naiveté to a doll-like teeter-totter: all dimples and squeakily voiced.  It’s a shame too, because Holliday was highly intelligent and thoroughly gifted; a great gal for whom the word raconteur might very well have been coined and embodying the old adage ‘it takes a sophisticated person to play a stupid one’.  
I have yet to mention director, George Cukor in this review, perhaps because Cukor’s style – nee, his personal imprint – tends to become cloaked by the veil of entertainment, so much as to render it outwardly invisible. What is Cukor’s style? Well…it changes from movie to movie and star to star; Cukor’s sensitive nature granting his talent unprecedented access to the inner workings of his own adaptable mindset. But Cukor remains a virtuoso whose body of work ought to have long since made his name as distinguishable and praiseworthy as the likes of a John Huston, Hitchcock or Billy Wilder. In his heyday, Cukor was irrefutably an actor’s director, deciphering every nuance of the camera to complement each character’s POV; but always in service to the story.  It’s a style we don’t see in movies anymore; absent of the more obvious legerdemain and swagger. Yet, it is anything but unsophisticated. And Cukor’s range is masterly and purposeful. He never gives more than he should and instinctually, he knows when to let a scene run long or cut it to punctuate the sincerity in a turn of phrase or moment of revelation.
Born Yesterday affords Cukor carte blanche to ‘open up’ the original stagecraft. Yet, herein, Cukor relies almost entirely on Garson Kanin’s revised screenplay, deferring his screen credit to Albert Mannheimer; Harry Cohn’s hand-picked writer. By Cukor’s own account, Mannheimer’s screenplay was scarcely perfect. Together with Kanin’s help, Cukor meticulously toiled to uphold as much of the original’s charm; Kanin’s embryonic idea to make Washington D.C. its own distinct ‘character’. Hence, Billie Dawn’s scholastic awakening is conceived in the cradle of liberty; Paul as her guide and our éminence grise through this travelogue of easily identifiable backdrops. It’s a clever device; using setting to augment plot beyond its more obvious function as backdrop for a story that could ostensibly take place virtually anywhere.
Our story begins with Harry Brock’s arrival at Washington’s Hotel Statler. Brock’s a blowhard – a thug in a three piece who made his money via crooked junk dealing. Automatically, he believes a wallet full of cash means he has arrived in polite society; worthy of others to take notice. There’s certainly nothing remotely polite or even couth about Harry Brock – the proverbial bull in the china shop. Brock’s entourage includes his brother-in-law, Eddie (Frank Otto), his mouthpiece, attorney at law, Jim Devery (Howard St. John) and Billie Dawn; Harry’s…well… Cukor ran into all sorts of censorship snags over Garson Kanin’s unapologetic depiction of Billie as a kept woman – and by a much older man, no less; the movie getting around the play’s inferences to adultery by having Billie skulk in and out of Harry’s suite using the back door instead.
After giving Sanborn (Grandon Rhodes), the hotel manager the most loutish brushoff, Harry is informed by Jim he is to be interviewed by a member of the press. Disinterested in the extreme, Harry asks why he needs more publicity. Jim astutely explains, “Listen…to get by in this town takes power – you got some; takes money – you go plenty; but above all it takes judgment and intelligence – that’s why you pay me a hundred thousand a year!” In short order, we meet Paul Varell (William Holden), something of an acquaintance of Jim’s. Paul is mildly amused by Harry’s primitiveness – at first. He’s much too inebriated by his own self-importance to be believed, but treacherous enough to be genuinely feared. Perhaps, Harry’s just a victim of circumstance; born in Plainfield, New Jersey, working out his junk dealer’s swindle during his formative years and parleying his con into a lucrative business. Harry’s self-made. He also happens to be a crook.  “Never bull a bull artist,” Harry explains, “I can sling it with the best of them!”
But Harry’s also a brute; belittling his cronies, manhandling Jim and controlling Billie, right down to how much she drinks and when. Unable to understand why he has no friendships, except those cultivated with strong-armed tactics, Harry dives headstrong into his first meeting with Congressman Norval Hedges (Larry Oliver) and his wife, Anna (Barbara Brown): a disaster when sparks fly between Billie and Harry – resulting in Billie becoming standoffish. Harry makes Jim a bet he can convince Paul to undertake the reeducation of Billie Dawn; a crash course in social etiquette. It won’t be easy. Billie’s more than just a diamond in the rough; she’s an ex-chorine (whose real name happens to be Emma) with a mouth and an attitude; a very lethal combination. Worse, she’s frank about her immediate sexual attraction to Paul; something he finds nervously diverting at first and doesn’t readily discourage. “It’s only fair,” Billie explains, “We’ll educate each other!”
After Paul leaves, Harry engages Billie in a game of gin rummy; Cukor moving us into a sublime vignette: Billie’s compulsive and chronic reorganization of her mitt full of cards, beating Harry at every hand. Here is a scene straight from the silent era, played almost entirely without dialogue; Billie, in her sparkling white sequin pant suit, fixated on her winning streak as Broderick Crawford’s befuddled boor helplessly looks on – his mounting confusion matched only by an even more cacophonous outburst of frustration. The scene ends with Billie forcing Harry to pay her $55.60 – immediately.  Cukor’s camera never moves from this two shot; Holliday and Crawford doing their utmost to entertain us with their delicious dumb show. It’s a riveting two and a half minutes of comedy and it never fails to impress.
Not long after Harry storms off to bed, Paul arrives with the early editions of the morning papers, instructing Billie to read up on world events; also to put a circle around anything she doesn’t understand. Her reaction is, of course, priceless, but it concludes in a most unlikely and spontaneous embrace; Paul excusing himself from their passionate kiss. The next afternoon, Paul arrives to find Billie in a slinky black negligee, still in bed – reading; her second attempt at seduction thwarted when he clarifies for her their situation is complicated enough already. “I ought’a take this pencil and put a circle around you,” Billie glibly replies.  
But from here on in, Billie’s eyes will be opened to more than love; Paul strengthening her cultural points of interest, beginning with the Capital Building and the rotunda. When next we see our Miss Dawn, she is sporting a pair of thick reading glasses. In fact, while Billie’s wardrobe (a truly fabulous series of ensembles designed by Jean Louis) remain flashy, her entire demeanor and carriage has begun to change; more bookish and introspective - Paul’s influence already taken hold. The next day’s trek yields even richer rewards; Billie discovering the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights – sharing her new finds with Paul, who treats her to a chocolate ice cream. Inquiring whether or not Billie has had any time to read his latest piece, Billie sincerely declares “I think it’s the best thing I ever read…I didn’t understand a word!”
Paul takes Billie to hear an outdoor classics concert. Alas, he has begun to have conflicted feelings about their working relationship. Billie isn’t dim-witted. But she’s utterly misinformed; denied the opportunities to blossom and discover herself for herself.  It’s no use. She’ll never make a Washington society matron. But she still might make a very good woman. Billy regales Paul with a letter she received from her father still living in New York; the first contact she’s had with him since running off with Harry eight years ago. Embarrassed by the confidences she’s shared, Billie asks to hear the story of Paul’s life to which he smugly replies, “Oh no…much too long – and mostly untrue.”
The next day at the National Gallery, Billie renews her affections for Paul. Although their tour of the city’s monuments continues on a purely platonic level, the tug o’ war between their minds and bodies has already begun; Paul explaining to Billie he hates everything Harry stands for, and yet, still cannot bring himself to despise the man himself. Billie is confused – more so than usual, Paul explaining the purpose of learning is to grow bigger – not become smaller. However, Paul’s natural disdain for Harry leads to unanticipated repercussions; Billie raising questions about Harry’s business deals – also questioning the way she has been exploited by Harry – with Jim’s complicity – to act as a buffer in Harry’s business holdings.
Harry gradually becomes displease with Paul’s tutelage – particularly after he attempts to show off his own knowledge of sports figures in front of Billie; his inquiries diffused by Paul who charmingly flaunts his deft superiority here too. “Take you on separately,” Paul suggests, “I’ve a special course for backward millionaires!” The snub goes over Harry’s head. But it’s already begun to impress Billie. Paul is twice the man Harry can never even hope to aspire to be. Thus, when Billie hears Harry mistreating Congressman Hedges, she pulls Hedges aside to sincerely inquire why he takes such abuse from a ‘no account junk dealer’. The way Billie sees it, pushing Norval around is like bullying the few hundred thousand constituents who voted for the congressman in the first place.    
Later, when Jim casually instructs Billie to sign more business documents, he is met with inquisitive obstinacy. She’ll sign – perhaps, but only after she’s had the opportunity to thoroughly read through what’s in them. Harry becomes enraged, ordering Billie to affix her signature on the dotted line. In reply, she explains how gradually her awe of him has devolved, first to disappointment – but now, displeasure. “I used to think you were a big man, Harry,” she tells him, “I’m beginning to see you’re not. All through history there’ve been bigger men – and better – now too!”  When Harry asks her to name one, Billie reasons “My father!” Their altercation reaches a fevered pitch when Harry realizes Billie has yet to commit her name to paper. Lacking the art of persuasion, Harry strikes Billie several times; her reaction implying this isn’t the first time she has endured his abuse. Moreover, Harry has had enough, ordering Billie to leave and for good. They’re through.
Even so, Harry confides in Jim that he loved ‘that broad’. In the meanwhile, Billie spends the afternoon revisiting all the monuments she and Paul enjoyed together; Harry ordering Eddie to find Billie and bring her back to his hotel suite. Instead, she arrives on Paul’s arm, their plan: to keep Harry preoccupied while Paul skulks around the apartment to learn the truth behind Harry’s illegal operations. When Harry proposes – not out of love, but to do as Jim has instructed (because a wife cannot testify against her husband) Billie turns him down. “Who are you to say no to me?” he belligerently inquires. “Don’t knock yourself out,” Billie eludes, “You got a lot of surprises coming!”  
Billie explains the situation in language even Harry can understand. Paul’s taken the evidence needed to expose Harry’s spurious dealings with Congressman Hedges. Moreover, Billie’s in love with Paul and vice versa. Billie isn’t through. She’s through with Harry and good riddance to him. Besides, Harry will never get his way, either with Billie or Paul. When he finally realizes this, Harry attempts to strangle Paul; a murder narrowly averted as Jim intercedes, tossing Harry to the floor.
The last act of Born Yesterday plays just a tad too heavy-handed as a pro-American manifesto against government graft and corruption; with Billie Dawn the crusader for high-minded ideals. Of course, Harry doesn’t understand a word. But Paul is smitten. Billie is the only girl for him. Moreover, Billie makes Harry an offer he can’t refuse.  She wants no part of his spurious business dealings. So, she’ll sign everything – all of his holdings - back to him; only not altogether, just one at a time. Thus, Harry will be beholding to her for his livelihood; ordered to behave himself in the meantime or else face the very real prospect of going to jail for life. It’s a sobering and very satisfying moment; the ogre put back in his cave; Jim gleefully accepting defeat with a toast to all the ‘dumb broads’ and ‘chumps’ who make it nearly impossible for crooks like he and Harry to thrive. The movie ends with Paul and Billie pulled over by a traffic cop, revealing they’ve just been married.
Born Yesterday is supremely entertaining; Garson Kanin’s slickly packaged prose, mildly distilled and reconstituted by Albert Mannheimer, but still retaining much of their charm. The underlying theme of crooked politics in both the play and the movie, regrettably, has not dated. More refreshing on all accounts is Judy Holliday’s Oscar-winning performance; the personification of abject idiocy on the verge of becoming utterly brilliant. And let’s not forget Holliday’s Billie Dawn beat out Gloria Swanson’s deranged gargoyle in Sunset Boulevard and Bette Davis’ towering viper - aging actress, Margo Channing - in All About Eve (the Best Picture of 1950). There’s never a false note with Judy Holliday; raucousness doled out in tandem with delightfully obtuse observations about concepts her Billie Dawn admittedly doesn’t immediately grasp, though nevertheless manages to get to the heart of using her own inimitable powers of deduction.
Broderick Crawford – fresh from his own Oscar win in All The King’s Men (1949) gives us an even more viscous antagonist this time around; the combination of ignorance and arrogance utterly believable – terribly funny, yet utterly terrifying in the same instance. We get more than ‘a mug’ in Crawford; this reprobate who, as part tyrant/part buffoon, becomes the perfect comedic fop and foil. We must also tip our hats to William Holden; scrumptious as the handsome newshound destined to elevate and transform his passing fancy into a love affair of girth and merit. Finally, to George Cukor, whose specialization never makes the audience aware the exercise is more theatrical than cinematic.
Born Yesterday is a play translated to film – remember? Dialogue is great. But too much can often be the kiss of death for movies. Situations become stilted; words more punctuated than necessary. Yet, Cukor avoids virtually any and all of these pitfalls; a master craftsman, intuitively feeling his way through the material and making the most of his blocking and staging. The actors never seem rehearsed in their movements; the narrative advancing at an incrementally even pace; Cukor building on clever setups until his joyous denouement.  Born Yesterday is a prime example of why Cukor endures as a great director – also, why he continues to go largely unnoticed in the pantheon of great directors.  The piece is so perfectly crafted we think of Born Yesterday as Billie Dawn’s story – and it is, though undeniably, not her own doing – something Cukor’s covert style makes us completely overlook. Joseph Walker’s cinematography augments Harry Horner’s cozy production design and William Kiernan’s set decoration. But it’s all in service to Cukor’s preponderant vision, artfully orchestrated to mask his involvement.
Columbia had a lot riding on Born Yesterday, Harry Cohn reportedly paying a record $1 million for the rights to produce it. He was well repaid when the film proved a smash hit and Judy Holliday became Hollywood’s latest overnight sensation. Cohn could breathe easy his first choices for the part, including Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Paulette Goddard and Ida Lupino?!? did not make Cukor’s final cut. Judy Holliday is clearly the real deal here. Without her, Born Yesterday is just a nice little comedy about a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who gets a clue and runs with it to her own satisfaction and purpose. With Holliday as its star, Born Yesterday registers as undiluted movie magic; a palatable romantic comedy gem. They don’t make movies like this anymore. I’m not even certain they know how.
Born Yesterday gets a superior 1080p transfer from Sony via Twilight Time. You can retire your old Columbia Classics DVD. Again, we tip our hats to Grover Crisp, his technical wizards and the studio’s overall commitment to remastering their back catalog with the utmost care and proficiency.  True, Columbia’s catalog is considerably smaller than most studios. But small or not, whatever Sony continues to release, bears the stamp of impeccable attention to every last detail. Such care needs to be readily pointed out and praised – because, it is a rarity among the majors pumping out ‘old movies’ in hi-def.
The B&W image herein is reference quality. Prepare to enjoy. Fine detail pops as it should. In close-up we can even appreciate minute amounts of hair, makeup and clothing fibers. There are several brief instances of softness, mostly during moments of rear projection and/or inserted stock footage. Otherwise, you are going to LOVE this transfer. The audio is DTS mono; perfectly adequate for a dialogue-driven movie with only the briefest of underscore provided by Friedrich Hollaender. Twilight Time gives us Hollaender’s score on an isolated track, and, of course, Julie Kirgo’s in-depth liner notes – always much appreciated.  Sony adds the original theatrical trailer. The old Columbia DVD contained some vintage advertising and talent files. We lose these on the Blu-ray. But what we gain in terms of image and sound quality dearly compensates.  Bottom line: very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, July 27, 2014

VIOLENT SATURDAY: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1955) Twilight Time

Hitchcock once pointed out that simply by walking down any street in the world one was apt to pass within feet of a sadist, a philanderer or a murderer. Not exactly a comforting thought, but one apropos when considering Richard Fleischer’s Violent Saturday (1955); aspiring to be ensemble film making at its finest. The beefy family man; the unhappily wed/wealthy couple teetering on the brink of divorce; a desperate-for-money librarian who turns to thievery to save herself; a doting/sex kitten of a nurse who spends more time raising the blood-pressure of this amiable male population than tending to the sick, and the seemingly button-down banker, frittering his afterhours free time stalking her. Add to this eclectic mix, an Amish patriarch, stirred to action against his faith in the face of real danger from three very mean/fairly conflicted bank robbers, come to wreak havoc on this small mining community and voila – Violent Saturday is teeming with the sort of raw and salacious, headline-grabbing fiction, better suited for the starkly lit forties film noir than the expansive DeLuxe-colored canvas of fifties Cinemascope. Never mind: the acting is solid, the drama deftly scripted by Sydney Boehm, cribbing for inspiration from William L. Heath’s novel.
In the mid-1950’s Hollywood turned hopefully – or, perhaps, desperately – to sex and violence; two commodities fairly under-exploited in Hollywood (except in long shot or cutaways to a roaring hearth as the lover’s embrace) to counteract the onslaught of television’s popularity. Today, it seems inconceivable the befuddled old-time moguls would struggle to concede this little black box in everyone’s living rooms had severed theater attendance by almost half within the first two years of its debut. In hindsight, the majors ought to have jumped feet first into this burgeoning new medium to hedge their bets. But Hollywood’s opinion of TV back then was rather bourgeois; the moguls still believing movies would remain as the sole purveyors of mass entertainment despite all evidence to the contrary. TV was third class in much the same way Broadway had once considered the movies as lowbrow popcorn fodder, unworthy to share the great white way with their flesh and blood live theater creations.
Indeed, Violent Saturday appeals to this lowest common denominator; humanity’s generalized, inquisitive thirst for scandal marginally satisfied by this peep show of oddities, the circumstances justified by a return to relative normalcy. Ergo, the philandering wife surrenders her ten year stretch of youthful dalliances to be with her husband – alas, martyred in the botched stickup; the voyeuristic banker confesses his sins to the object of his desire, and the robbers all get what’s coming to them; and I don’t mean a weekend in the country living stylishly off their ill-gotten gains. Today, a film like Violent Saturday would likely be drawn out to exhaust every possibility in its blood and guts spectacle; a showcase for mind-numbing stunt work, a few car chases, some gratuitous nudity and a hailstorm of bullets; the special effects wizards finding new ways to explode their litany of squibs for maximum grotesqueness.  
Director Richard Fleischer knows better and proves it with his fairly laid back approach to the material; building ever so slightly on the inner tensions already brewing among the locals, and, showing us the instinctual moral decay enveloping these lives we’re supposed to care about, long before the external seeds of death arrive in town.  It’s a kind of film-making we don’t see anymore, and, at first, it’s somewhat disconcerting – even off putting, given the film’s incendiary title. The violence suggested as permeating the entire story actually only happens within the last twenty minutes of this hour and a half programmer, tricked out in Charles G. Clarke’s luminous Cinemascope photography.
But when it does occur, it creates a sensation quite unlike any experienced by the ludicrous in-your-face tabloid approach to film-making today. The audience is not brutalized; the film’s ‘crime must pay’ epilogue mollifying any genuine threat; making the audience secure in the film’s mythology: people are basically good and humane with just a few bad apples weeded out by the local gentry, rising up in the eleventh hour to counteract and neutralize their influences. Even the God-fearing/peace-loving Amish take up arms. Clearly, God helps those who choose to help themselves.  
Violent Saturday is rather stylishly produced by the formidable, Buddy Adler; Charles G. Clarke’s moodily lit interiors ripping a page from the B&W film noir textbook and willing it into color and widescreen. In 1955, Violent Saturday was generally panned by the critics for its “unedifying spectacle” of violence; an opinion now more quaintly out of touch to downright ridiculous; perhaps merely a sad indictment on how far audiences have fallen in their collective expectations to be ‘entertained’ by such rank and creatively anesthetizing ferocity depicted on their movie screens.
Indeed, popular opinion has since shifted in praise of Violent Saturday; considered “the reigning king of Southwestern noir” and “great, nasty fun” by some. In retrospect, Violent Saturday attempts the impossible; to straddle a chasm between being an intelligently scripted critique of small town hypocrisies, book-ended by the trappings of the conventional crime story. We are expected to be more invested in the outcome of these nondescripts that populate this sleepy town. Today, our sentiments would side on the success or failure of the killers. I shudder to think what that says about society now!
But back to Violent Saturday: a film of considerable weight, even if its story does tend to unravel into a rank shoot ‘em up in the last reel. Director Fleischer gets some fair mileage out of William L. Heath’s novel, considerably cleansed and condensed to placate Hollywood’s then reigning button-down conservatism and censorship. There’s some smoke but little fire – apart from the 55’ Chevy that gets flame-broiled by the bank robbers in their desperate and misguided attempt to regain control over their hostages.  
What Fleischer is left with then, are the machinations of this isolated sect of basically good people, momentarily turned by disillusionment, bitterness, sexual frustration and other self-destructive behaviors, yet not so far gone as to be able to return to quote - ‘normalcy’ – unquote. Hence, here is a story where tramps reform, a morally forthright man copes with his philandering spouse by hitting the bottle (and momentarily hitting on the most attractive girl in town), and, hired guns confide their insecurities in heartfelt tête-à-tête, over a few cigarettes and sleepless nights.
Violent Saturday opens on that prerequisite panoramic vista all early Cinemascope movies have in common, to take full advantage of its sprawling screen dimensions; an underground explosion detonated in the apocalyptic landscape of the local copper mine, presumably meant to punctuate the pugnaciousness it will take the better half of its 90 minutes to revisit; the screen emblazoned with red and yellow title credits to whet our anticipation. 
We’re plunged into rank domesticity in Bisbee, Arizona; a small community of tightly woven, sparsely treed streets. Like all communities, this one runs the gamut from the socially affluent to the not so well off; the former represented by mine owner, Boyd Fairchild (Richard Egan), his wayward wife, Emily (Margaret Hayes), and his associate, Shelley Martin (Victor Mature) who is happily married to Helen (Dorothy Patrick) and has a devoted son, Steve (Billy Chapin). The latter is embodied by careworn librarian, Elsie Braden (Sylvia Sidney), who steals a purse while on her book rounds in order to pay her outstanding debts to the local bank, run by Harry Reeves (Tommy Noonan); a seemingly aboveboard milquetoast, harboring an unrequited – and fairly unhealthy – yen for nurse, Linda Sherman (Virginia Leith); the only attractive/unmarried girl in town.
Harry stalks Linda around town, under the pretext of walking his dog; waiting outside her apartment late at night and watching from the shadows as she undresses in full view of her open window. Ironically, during one of these late night peep shows, Harry observes Elsie ditching the stolen purse in a back alley garbage can. Honestly, couldn’t she have simply buried it somewhere in her own backyard, or ditched it on the outskirts of town where no one would have been the wiser. But, I digress. 
Harry and Elsie have words. She threatens to expose Harry’s ‘sick fetishism’ to his wife (whom we never see) if he ever breathes a word to anyone about her kleptomania. Alas, Violent Saturday isn’t really concerned with these intersecting lives; just one in a series of brief back stories meant to hold our attention while the real story continues to evolve: ditto for the heart sore machinations surrounding Boyd and Emily; she having taken up with local golf pro, Gil Clayton (Brad Dexter) and Boyd briefly considering a tryst with Linda too.
There’s also a subplot involving Shelley’s boy, Steve, who gets into an afterschool skirmish with his ex-best friend, Georgie (Richey Murray) in defense of dear old dad, considered something of a coward by the locals for never having served in the army during WWII. Steve believes in Shelley; an enduring faith to be richly compensated at the end of our story; a son’s hero-worship ever so slightly diffused by Shelley’s attempt to explain there is no great satisfaction in killing one’s fellow man – even in self-defense; a sentiment echoed more sincerely by Stadt (Ernest Borgnine); the farmer who refuses to defend himself against the criminal element until they wound his son in the shoulder. Hell hath no fury like the Amish scorned! 
The plot is intriguingly centered on none of these lives, but rather the pending robbery plotted by a trio of professionals come to knock off the bank: mastermind, Harper (Stephen McNally) hooking up with steely-eyed Chapman (J. Carrol Naish) and goony, Dill (Lee Marvin), who continues to psychosomatically snort his nasal inhaler because he was once married to a woman prone to giving him her colds. It’s an interesting bit of business, fleshed out by Dill’s midnight conversation with Harper; neither able to get rested on the eve prior to their big heist. 
The day of the robbery goes badly; Harper carjacking Shelley; forcing him to drive to Stadt’s farm where he, Stadt and Stadt’s wife, Martha (Ann Morrison) and family – son, David (Kevin Corcoran) and daughter, Anna (Noreen Corcoran) are bound, gagged and blindfolded; left in the barn to be guarded by a fourth accomplice, Slick (Boyd 'Red' Morgan). Harper, Dill and Chapman invade the bank just before closing time. Emily, having decided she truly loves her husband, has also come to the bank to take out $5000 in traveler’s checks for their planned trip around the world.
Earlier, Emily was confronted by Linda, informed of her own designs on Boyd. He’s all man and definitely Linda’s ideal, much to Harry’s chagrin. Drunk and depressed, Boyd later flirted with Linda at the local watering hole at Harry’s behest, presumably to deflect the town’s suspicions he is lusting after Linda too. Now, trapped inside the bank, Harry gets the itch to be cavalier, reaching for his gun inside his desk drawer as the robbers prepare to loot the safe. Instead, Chapman brutally shoots and wounds Harry, another bullet instantly killing Emily.
The trio’s ironclad plan of escape is foiled by Shelley, who has already managed to free himself and the Stadt family from their restraints and has killed Slick by dropping a barrel on him from the barn loft. Seizing Slick’s shotgun, Shelley becomes a one man vigilante, killing Chapman and Harper in short order. Dill isn’t so easily dispatched, however, cleverly ducking under a truck loaded with hay – their planned getaway vehicle – and shooting Shelley in the leg. In response to Dill wounding David in the shoulder, Stadt sneaks up from behind, plunging his pitchfork into Dill’s back. 
Fast forward to the aftermath: we discover Harry has survived, sheepishly confessing his voyeurism to Linda. She’s actually more flattered than surprised or even disgusted; but afterward, she turns to Boyd to comfort him in his loss; also, likely, to pursue a relationship now that Emily is out of the picture. Our story ends with Steve inviting Georgie and a group of school boys into his father’s hospital room; these impressionable minds whirling in awe of this man they once regarded as the town coward.
Violent Saturday isn’t a terrible movie. On the other hand, it isn’t an altogether prepossessing one either; director Richard Fleischer struggling for cohesion with all these disjointed narrative threads. Lest we forget, this isn’t a melodrama – or rather, doesn’t report to start off as one – although its first two acts are much more drama than action. As a melodrama, Violent Saturday might have worked, except, intermittently Fleischer is forced to differ to the noir-styled crime story without actually fleshing out the bad guys beyond anything more substantial than cardboard cutouts. Harper, Dill and Chapman are here to rob the bank – period! J. Carrol Naish and Lee Marvin make their mark – mostly because each is a strong personality. But Stephen McNally disappears into the woodwork. We won’t even count Slick in their scenario, because he seems to pop up out of nowhere – a local or an independent, who arranges to have the heist money smuggled inside bales of hay and driven across state lines in his truck. 
In his 1955 review, noted critic, Bosley Crowther called Ernest Borgnine’s performance ‘a joke’, and I must confess, its’ a fairly accurate assessment; Borgnine’s talents all but wasted playing the bearded hypocrite who refuses to fight based on his religious beliefs until, of course, his only son is shot by one of the killers; the old 'eye for an eye' taking precedence thereafter.  Victor Mature is top billed in Violent Saturday. But actually it’s Richard Egan who gets the most screen time; rather effective too as the humiliated hubby who cannot bring himself to hate the woman he wed even though theirs has been an open marriage almost from the moment each said ‘I do’. Egan is at his best as the self-deprecating drunkard, clumsily wooing Linda at the bar, or pouring out his heart near the end after Emily’s death, asking Linda to turn away while he indulges in a good manly cry.
Violent Saturday has its moments, but they become bogged down in these not so 'sunshine sketches' of a little town where middle-class morality has derailed and run amuck. Emily’s tryst with Gil on the golf green, the ignoble way he chooses to manipulate her already waning affections for him; Harry’s creepy pursuit of Linda – who knows she is being followed but seemingly doesn’t mind his adoration from afar because she has already astutely assessed Harry is more the ‘look - don’t touch’ harmless variety of freak; Steve’s undying patriarchal love, reaffirmed when Shelley breaks out the big guns in the eleventh hour. It all makes for some interesting back story. Unfortunately, Violent Saturday never seems to move beyond any of these narrative machinations, merely meant to delay and mark time until the whole point of the story – the botched robbery – can take place. In all fairness, at 90 scant minutes there's really no time to explore any of these plot devices beyond superficial talking points. But there are better crime stories out there on celluloid, and better ways to tell this one in particular.
But there is definitely nothing to complain about in Fox Home Video’s stunning 1080p Blu-ray transfer, released as a limited edition via Twilight Time. Ah, now here is a hi-def rendering to truly live up to the claim of perfect picture and sound. Violent Saturday is obviously the benefactor of some major restoration efforts. What’s not to love?: a robust palette of colors that pop, razor-sharpness revealing every last fine detail in Charles G. Clarke’s deep focus cinematography, and superbly rendered contrast and film grain levels. Even the transitional fades and/or dissolves between scenes – something of a shortcoming in early Cinemascope features – are smoothly rendered herein with narrowly a hint of that awkward momentary bump in grain and simultaneous loss in color fidelity.
The DTS 5.1 audio delivers a real kick. Aside: I am always impressed by the acoustics of 4-track Westrex vintage audio. In some ways, the clarity and spatiality is even more impressive when one considers the absolute technological crudeness these artists were working with back then. We also get Twilight Time’s usual commitment to providing an isolated score, plus the added benefit of listening to Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo affectionately wax and trade histories on the making of this film on a separate commentary. Bottom line: I can’t say I really appreciated the film, but I absolutely adored this transfer.  By those standards, and particularly if you are a fan of this movie, then this is the absolute best presentation on home video.  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, July 25, 2014

COME TO THE STABLE (2oth Century-Fox 1949) Fox Cinema Archive

Celeste Holm’s movie career has always baffled me. For here was an actress of substance and culture, and of immense patrician beauty in her youth; a fresh and instantly identifiable face on the movie landscape – and this, within a pantheon of memorable personalities. Holm could hold her own, and did so through two undistinguished pictures (1946’s Three Little Girls in Blue and Carnival in Costa Rica) until her stunning ‘official’ launch in Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) for which Holm justly won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. It should have been A-list starring vehicles for her from this point on. Although the actress would occasionally appear in some high profile movies like The Snake Pit (1948), All About Eve (1950) and High Society (1956), she would always be cast in support – often marginally – of the stars; her own popularity already on the wane as she lumped it from project to project; never again to enjoy those heady days of her early success. In retrospect, Holm as the disembodied, omnipotent voice of a notorious mantrap, unseen in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949) seems to foreshadow this downward trajectory; the same year she appeared as the benevolent foreigner, Sister Scholastica, handing out St. Jude medals in Henry Koster’s charming Come to the Stable (1949).
Come to the Stable is a movie worthy of Holm’s formidable gifts. Indeed, it would earn the actress another Best Supporting Oscar nomination. But Come to the Stable is a film only possible at the tail end of the forties; a decade buffeted by astringent censorship and buoyed by the Catholic League of Decency; a sort of shameless promoter, using the pulpit of Hollywood to launch a string of infectiously stirring hit movies – collectively billed as ‘films of faith’. These, marketed the archdiocese as saintly purveyors of humanitarian philosophy. Movies like Boy’s Town (1938), The Song of Bernadette (1943), Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) were wildly successful in their day; keeping Catholicism front and center in the public’s mindset; the church reaping the benefits in parishioner enrollment and a sanitized public relations push that no marketing firm can effectively price tag. The formula would endure, though seen less in the 1950’s as the code of censorship began to break down and eventually disappear by the mid-1960’s; the Hollywood gestalt from saints to sinners made complete shortly thereafter.
In the aforementioned pantheon of religious-themed pictures, Come to the Stable is actually rather unique. For in its opening moments, Oscar Millard and Sally Benson’s screenplay wastes no time in puncturing the balloons of religious hypocrisy; dispensing with no less an ensconced and time-honored chapter from the Old Testament than ‘the Christmas story’ – as a pair of nuns, newly arrived from France, stumble upon a mockup of this ‘world-influencing’ event (and, in a stable no less); the models, a local family, whose choral of Adeste Fideles is interrupted when one cherub (Teddy Driver) deliberately kicks the other (Roddy McCaskill) in the shin.  Clare Boothe Luce, the author of the original story concept, probably had something to do with this – her deliciously poisoned pen most perspicaciously given its due in The Women (1939). To be sure, Come to the Stable is unfairly biased in the nuns’ favor; Sisters Scholastica and Margaret (the latter played to perfection by Loretta Young) will not fail in their endeavor to build a children’s hospital on a property belonging to notorious gambler/racketeer, Luigi Rossi (Thomas Gomez), despite the seemingly insurmountable odds set against them.
Faith – so we are led to believe – is more resilient than any of our antagonists might first suspect. Ironically, like many religious-themed movies from this period, the biggest obstacle before the sisters is not external; but derived by resistance from the Catholic Church, herein represented by the Bishop (Basil Ruysdael) and his assistant, Monsignor Talbot (Regis Toomey). The Bishop is sympathetic to the sisters, even in awe of the enormity of their task, though nevertheless unwilling to spare them the necessary funds needed to carry out their good works. Undaunted, Scholastica and Margaret befriend – occasionally, annoy – though ultimately, corral their disciples from the simple folk of Bethlehem, Connecticut; beginning with local artist, Amelia Potts (Elsa Lanchester) whose religious paintings, though expertly crafted, have thus far failed to sell for what they are worth. In short order, the sisters convince an affluent songwriter, Robert Masen (Hugh Marlowe) to also pitch in, and, even more miraculously, they manage the coup of appealing to the heart of Luigi Rossi’s; a man noted for his steely resolve.
Through it all, Come to the Stable retains its elusive, ethereal quality – infectious as it stirs even the most secular among us to reconsider the strength of its convictions. Celeste Holm and Loretta Young make for a disarming twosome – coconspirators, actually – to whom the outside world’s rules need not apply. Whether or not the sisters are even aware of these rubrics is open for discussion, though Sister Margaret’s youthful upbringing in Chicago must have taught her a thing or two before entering the nunnery. Whether recklessly driving their borrowed jeep, loaded with fine wines and a terrified delivery man, Anthony James (Dooley Wilson) in tow; or transforming Amelia Potts stable/artist’s studio into a hostel without her consent for their visiting priest, Father Barraud (Henri Letondal) and a gaggle of devoted French sisters (Pati Behrs, Nan Boardman, Louise Colombet, Georgette Duane and Yvette Reynard) fixing to stay; or, in tearing up a parking ticket on the misguided assumption it is an advertisement; Sisters Scholastica and Margaret are a very hearty duo; headstrong do-gooders who will not take ‘no’ for an answer.
Our story begins on a cold winter’s night; the sisters solitary trek across the frozen land interrupted by a sign post pointing the way to Bethlehem, Connecticut, and eventually, to the stable of artist, Amelia Potts. Sister Margaret, a Chicagoan by birth, explains to Miss Potts how she and Sister Scholastica have traveled a great distance to fulfill a promise each made to God. It seems while serving at the children’s hospital in Normandy during the war their small town fell under siege; the German’s using it for an outpost against the allied invasion. Unable to move the sick, Scholastica and Margaret prayed for a miracle to spare the hospital from mortar attacks. While the rest of the town was virtually leveled, the hospital remained untouched by this deluge, although at a cost of many American lives.
In gratitude for sparing these children from the horrors of war, the sisters made a promise to build another hospital in the United States.  In choosing Bethlehem as the site Margaret was inspired by a postcard depicting a reproduction of Amelia Pott’s nativity, entitled ‘Come to the Stable’. Amelia is sincerely touched by their story, though quite unprepared for what comes next; Sisters Scholastica and Margaret basically inviting themselves to stay on at Miss Pott’s small farmhouse; ground zero as they embark on their plan of action. In sampling some of the freshly painted canvasses in Amelia’s studio, the sisters concur a hillside just across from the farm would be ideal to build their hospital. Amelia informs Scholastica and Margaret she is merely a tenant rather than the land owner, pointing them to the home of composer, Bob Masen.
Inconspicuously, they meet Masen on the snowy hillside the next morn; momentarily accosted by Masen’s overly friendly Great Dane - Arson. Masen informs the nuns he does not own the land in question either. Rather, it belongs to Luigi Rossi – a smalltime underworld operator in downtown Manhattan who has plans to build his own palatial estate on the property for his retirement from a life of crime. Undaunted, Sisters Scholastica and Margaret make ready to depart for Manhattan, borrowing Masen’s jeep and pausing a moment to visit the cathedral. They also encounter Monsignor Talbot, who informs them the bishop is a very busy man. Indeed, while the bishop is immediately struck by the resolute and ambitious scope of their project, he can offer nothing in the way of financial support. His best effort is to provide Scholastica and Margaret with $50 – for basic expenses – and afford them a month grace in which to launch their enterprise. If they cannot make a go of it in thirty days, the nuns agree to return to France.
Providence, however, does seem to be on Scholastica and Margaret’s side; forging their way beyond the bum’s rush given by Luigi Rossi’s thug muscle, Rosey (John Bliefer) and Whitey (Edwin Max); also, the casual brush off from his private bodyguard, Sam (Mike Muzurki, who specialized in such obtuse, but lovable goons).  Rossi is perturbed by Scholastica and Margaret’s impromptu visit for no more than a moment, his demeanor softening after Margaret notices a portrait of Rossi’s son – Luigi Jr. – in uniform. Learning of the sisters’ plan to establish a hospital, Rossi does an about face and offers them his land on one condition; a special wing be named after Luigi Jr., missing in action overseas.   
Buoyed by their impossibly good fortune, Scholastica and Margaret return to Bethlehem to share their news with Masen – also, to thank him for the use of his jeep. Masen is in the middle of entertaining his agent, Howard Shelton (Wally Brown) and his girlfriend, Kitty Blaine (Dorothy Patrick); the two engaging in some playful tickling. Good fortune seems to have smiled all around as Masen tells the sisters he has been assigned to underscore a picture in Hollywood.  The next day, Scholastica and Margaret spy a ‘for sale’ sign going up on the property adjacent their newly acquired land; an old witch-hazel bottling plant now being sold by local realtor, Claude Jarmin (Walter Baldwin). Naïve in the ways of business, the sisters acquire a $5,000 three month ‘option’ on the plant. They plan to use it as their fundraising headquarters for the hospital. However, when the bishop looks over their legal papers, he discovers the actual purchase price is $25,000 – the sister’s merely having acquired a mortgage they will likely be unable to pay on time.   
It is a heartbreaking blow, somewhat softened with the arrival of Father Barraud and the sisters from France whom Margaret has sent for to assist in their fund-raising efforts. Miss Potts is momentarily overwhelmed at discovering her peaceful abode overrun by these newly arrived. And although it was his initial intention to stop Scholastica and Margaret’s efforts then and there, in the face of their wide-eyed optimism the bishop sheepishly agrees to reserve his final judgment for one month. Above board, the bishop is gentle but firm. But later in private, he tells Monsignor Talbot he believes strange and unstoppable forces are at work in Bethlehem. Sisters Scholastica and Margaret fly on the side of the angels.
When Masen returns from Hollywood he learns from his hired man, Anthony James, the sisters are now indulging in a highly lucrative produce and art sale held in Miss Potts’ front yard. The enterprise has proven so successful Scholastica and Margaret have almost reached their fundraising goal. Miffed by his loss of privacy, Masen demands Potts expel the nuns at once. That evening, Masen hosts a party for his guests, the highlight of the evening: Kitty performing his latest song. Alas, Masen’s exuberance turns rancid when the sound of the sisters singing in their makeshift chapel rings ominously similar. Masen attempts to quell the specter of plagiarism by insisting his song was conceived months earlier. Alas, Masen’s melody is identified as a 2000 year old Gregorian chant by noted music critic, Al Newman (Louis Jean Heydt cast as the inside joke – nee tribute to 2oth Century-Fox’s in-house film composer extraordinaire, ‘Alfred Newman’). 
To add insult to injury, Sister Scholastica accidentally drives a stake through Masen’s water line while building her shrine. Out of spite, Masen quietly arranges to buy back the witch-hazel plant from Jarmin. Without a place of operation the nuns will have to pack up and leave Bethlehem. To raise the necessary $500 to complete their bid for the property, Sister Margaret wagers on a mixed double tennis match, Sister Scholastica partnering with Al Newman. Although a former tennis champion, Scholastica loses the match, much to Masen’s relief.  However, Masen is about to have his own moment of reckoning with a higher authority; sheepish and ashamed of his callousness after realizing his actions will likely ship the nuns back to Normandy where he was stationed during the war.  Asked to pray with them for their safe return, Masen instead experiences his own conversion; the movie ending with the sisters holding mass at the bottling plant with Masen, Kitty, Anthony, Miss Potts, Mr. Rossi and the Bishop all in attendance and moved to mark the unofficial inauguration of the hospital of St. Jude.
Come to the Stable is endearing on several levels, not the least in its ability to elevate the human spirit, while simultaneously renewing our faith in humanity at large. Movies in general – and ‘films of faith’ in particular – used to appeal to this higher moral compass. Times have changed considerable since. And yet, the basic fundamentals of human compassion endure. Occasionally, present day film scholarship poo-poos the studio system for making movies of this particular ilk; homogenized and meant to appeal to mass blocks of the population; the inference being today’s film makers somehow create more intimate stories. Personal – perhaps. Intimate – hardly. For there is nothing to touch the warm, fuzzy feeling any number of movies from the 1930’s and 40’s manage to retain despite – or rather – in spite of Hollywood’s present day diametric opposition to these kind-hearted family fare.
Personally, I grow increasingly frustrated with the popularized notion anyone can make a film like Come to the Stable today and it wouldn’t make any money. The argument is moot; first and foremost, because the talents required to sustain effervescence on the screen are gone from the creative realm that once was Hollywood – and second; because even our present-day cynicism has been powerless to render such films obsolete when perennially revived on television. If the definition of a classic is ‘true yesterday, true today and true tomorrow’ then Come to the Stable wears its mantel of quality unabashedly and with great sincerity. The audience hasn’t changed – not really. Solidly crafted entertainment is still in vogue. It always will be. What’s been corrupted over time is the system itself – without its core of moguls to reign in the creatives; also minus the watchdog of film censorship ensuring certain levels of quality are – dare we say - ‘religiously’ adhered to. Let us be fair and frank, when suggesting even a movie like Come to the Stable has its hidden meanings and subtext. But Come to the Stable judiciously endeavors to tug at our heartstrings; a perennial soft spot no matter the generation.
The comedic elements are undeniably holdovers from Clare Booth Luce’s original story; Sister Margaret’s deft, though perilous handling of the jeep on slippery roads, as example, bordering of joyous screwball.  Such moments intercede and help to diffuse the weightiness in this tale. It is, after all, a story of impossible odds overcome in the most unlikely – and arguably, incongruously optimistic ways. But such moments also humanize the sisters’ holy quest – also, to make subtle jabs and social critiques about humanity and its growing cynicism against faith even then, yet strangely powerless to eclipse its gentle reminders.
Sisters Scholastica and Margaret succeed in their task, not so much because they learn how to cope and eventually operate within the context of this unimaginably pessimistic ambit of non-believers, but rather because they manage to sway even the most unworthy and/or unlikely to their way of thinking – with a little help from God, of course.  Have a little faith, why don’t yah, then and Come to the Stable. It’s pure religious pulp, but successfully marketed as the gospel. We can think of no better way to spend a cozy night in front of the fire or a rainy afternoon when life seems to overwhelm.
Were that Fox Home Video had provided us with a quality transfer of this undeniably quality-made product. But alas, Come to the Stable arrives on DVD via Fox’s Cinema Archive in a musty/dusty and poorly contrasted print. This one is in terrible need of an upgrade and restoration. Age-related damage (tears, scratches, gate weave, etc.) are ever-present and fairly distracting. The blown out contrast levels results in Casper-like faces and a loss of mid-range fine detail. The image is thick, its grain unnaturally reproduced either as noisy grit or, in a few scenes, nonexistent to the point where abuse of DNR is highly suspect.  We also get minute edge effects – annoying, though not as distracting as one might expect. At least there’s no chroma bleeding this time around. Fox’s B&W Cinema Archive transfers tend to suffer greatly from rainbow hued/strobe-like video noise. Audio is basic Dolby mono and experiences considerable hiss and minor pop throughout. As with other Fox Cinema Archive titles this one has NO extras. Bottom line: great film/crummy transfer. Not recommended…unless, of course, you simply have to have it.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)