Friday, May 25, 2018

WINDJAMMER: The Voyage of the Christian Radich (National Theatres, 1958) Flicker Alley

I do not recall ever beginning a movie review with a plaudit paid to an effort made some 60 years after the initial theatrical release; but the Herculean resurrection achieved by film restorationist, David Strohmaier and his team of creative geniuses on director, Louis de Rochemont’s Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich (1958), co-directed by the producer’s son, Louis III and Bill Colleran (husband of Lee Remick), ought to be held in the highest regard as an exemplar of what real/reel film restoration/preservation work in this digital age is all about. Strohmaier and his cohorts were, of course, responsible for the 2008 Blu-ray release of Windjammer; Strohmaier’s passion for all things Cinerama, then superseding the technology and funds necessary to make his first outing on this deep catalog release a total success. Cribbing from a re-composited Cinemascope image then, the results in 2008 could only be judged as adequate. Even then, I could not have thanked Strohmaier enough for his splendid interest in reintroducing newer audiences to this vintage piece of American cinema history – for much too long, forgotten and withheld from public view.
But now, with 2018’s Blu-ray re-release through third party distributor, Flicker Alley, audiences will at long last get to see Windjammer in as close approximation to its former glory theater attendees were privy to back in 1958. Culling elements from around the world, including original camera negatives and IP’s, Windjammer’s 3-panels have been scanned at 4K and color graded to reveal the extraordinary camera work of Joseph C. Brun and Gayne Rescher. Is it a perfect rendering? Alas, no. Time has not been on Windjammer’s side, and, on occasion, the results of decades-long neglect remain too great, even for Strohmaier’s ardent tenacity to overcome. What is here, however, is superb beyond virtually any and all expectations. Windjammer is a visceral, sumptuous and rousing experience: even for Cinerama - a true rarity in a class apart; the only movie to be photographed in ‘Cinemiracle’ – a then newly patented and slightly tweaked version of Cinerama – its left and right cameras, shooting into mirrored reflections that, once reversed and recombined in the editing process, recreated the total scope of human peripheral vision.  
Windjammer is such a remarkably exquisite movie-going experience that its technical aspects - a logistical nightmare by any stretch of the imagination – have been completely obscured. As example: how does one hoist a 500 lbs. Cinerama camera some 180-feet between dense rigging and sails to achieve all those miraculous overhead shots, looking down onto the decks of the square rigger, Christian Radich, at times, violently bobbing about like a cork caught in a gale? Indeed, on this particular Cinerama adventure, the Radich and its crew were to encounter one of the worst storms at sea ever documented on film, race within mere fathoms of a U.S. naval destroyer (with the very real threat of suffering a collision), and, unbeknownst to anyone at that time, chronicle the last visual record of Germany’s equally as famous four-masted barque Flying P-Liner, the Pamir –  lost in a hurricane off the Azores only a few days later, with only six of her 80+ crew surviving the ordeal. After the Pamir’s disaster, it was also decided by De Rochemont that a few connective scenes should be photographed in post-production to pay homage to her ship and crew. Thus, Sven Libaek and his cohorts, Lasse Kolstad, Kaare Terland, Alf Bjerke and Kjell Grette Christensen (who had formed a quartet aboard the ship, later to record an album for RCA/Victor, grouped as ‘The Windjammers’) were all flown to New York to shoot scenes on a studio-bound recreation of the Windjammer’s club room.
Setting aside the Christian Radich’s six-month, 17,500-nautical-mile globe-trotting voyage from Oslo, across the Caribbean to New York and then back again, De Rochemont and his real-life staff of novice sailors (some as young as fourteen) are to be commended for their blind vision and technological proficiency along the way. Rumored to be displeased with Colleran’s objectives shortly after embarking upon the project, producer, De Rochemont installed his son, Louis III as the de facto director midway through the shoot; a decision that did not immediately ingratiate the 28-yr. old to the rest of the troops. However, almost as quickly they realized Louis not only possessed a keen eye for visual storytelling but also the aptitude to helm such a titanic and all-encompassing journey documented on film. In a fascinating postscript, young Louis’ eye caught the eye of a lass from Oslo who would appear on camera in the movie briefly. Although smitten, when production of Windjammer wrapped, Louis and the girl went their separate ways. Fate, however, had other ideas, and, in 1977, the couple were reunited during Louis’ return to Norway. They married; Turi De Rochemont remaining at her husband’s side until his death in 2001.  
The Christian Radich was then, a training ship for Norway’s merchant marine – a proving ground held in considerably high esteem, where boys were sent to become men; many making a life for themselves as sailors thereafter.  For Windjammer, producer, De Rochemont charted a 9-month excursion through the English Channel to the isle of Madeira, crossing the Atlantic with pit stops along several Caribbean outposts and finishing up in Key West, Florida; then, running up the coast to New York City, Portsmouth and New Hampshire, before making a round trip return to Norway across the top of Scotland; an ambitious slate indeed, given the added expense and burden of importing a sizable film crew and the monstrous Cinemiracle camera along for the journey. In addition to the Christian Radich’s usual training cadets and officers, De Rochemont so ordered a few fresh faces brought aboard, Norwegian actors whom the audience could relate to and around whom the central narrative would be woven.  One of these hallowed chosen was Sven Libaek, a 17-yr. old aspiring pianist who would secure a plum spot performing the solo in Edvard Hagerup Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor opposite renown conductor, Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops; a performance interspersed with some gorgeous pastoral cutaways of the Norwegian countryside. Indeed, permission for Libaek to sail on the Christian Radich was granted by his mother, only after she insisted a piano be brought aboard so the young man could continue his practice while away from home; the upright lashed to a bulkhead to prevent it from careening back and forth during inclement weather.
The making of the Windjammer is worthy of a novel in and of itself. Its 17 officers and 85 young men were exposed to some of the most exhilarating, but also most harrowing conditions on their epic 200+ day voyage; not the least, dangling from the ship’s yardarm and rigging 180 ft. above sea level with the motto, ‘one hand for the ship, the other for yourself.’ Barreling past the English Channel at 18 knots, the Christian Radich encountered its first major obstacle; a perilous winter storm with mountainous waves in the Bay of Biscay, causing most of her novice crew to become violently seasick. Under such hellish conditions the excitement of being in a Hollywood-produced documentary easily evaporated, everyone suddenly invested in the survival of the ship. Passing through the gale without incident, what followed was a spring-like sojourn to the isle of Madeira, first discovered by Portuguese explorer, Zarco in 1419 – their arrival in Funchal captured by the weighty Cinemiracle cameras.  Here, the camera would also document, among many pleasures, the famous downhill slalom of the basket sleds before embarking, under favorable Trade Winds, onto their next port of call – San Juan, Puerto Rico, following the same route Columbus took in 1492.  It was during this league in the expedition the Christian Radich fatefully encountered the four-mast German barque - Pamir, herself en route to Montevideo, Uruguay; both crews, in high spirits, shouting salutations to one another as they passed – literally – like two ships in the night. 
Puerto Rico’s visitation was populated by invitations and parties, capped off by a lavish reception at the Governor's Palace Fortaleza where cast and crew were treated to a special performance by legendary cellist, Pablo Casals. For the next two months, the Christian Radich made a pilgrimage of the Caribbean, incurring production changes in St. Thomas, including Bill Colleran replaced as the director – a decision never entirely disclosed by its producer. One incident not captured by the Cinemiracle cameras occurred when Colleran’s wife, Lee Remick elected to take a swim in the warm waters off the coast of Salt Island, unaware of a nearby shark. Hurried into a small boat by some of the Christian Radich’s crew, Remick would turn a ghostly shade of gray after witnessing ‘a fin’ just several meters behind her. With renewed vigor, and Louis III now in charge of completing the picture, production moved on to Trinidad and the non-stop Calypso-ing at carnival in Port-of-Spain. Among the highlights for cast and crew was a steel drum welcoming committee and the limbo dancers, performing contortionist maneuvers to the rhythmic sway of kettle drums.  From here, production proceeded to the Dutch isle of Curacao.  As the crew disembarked, so too did the ship’s mascot, Stump take his own ‘unofficial’ liberty. As the dog was never recovered, De Rochemont found a suitable look-alike to complete the footage. Departing for Key West, producer, Louis de Rochemont made a fortuitous announcement, having arranged for Sven Libaek to study with concert pianist, Bernardo Segal in New York, in order to perform Grieg’s Piano Concerto with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops in Portsmouth: the musical highlight of the picture. 
Meanwhile, the Christian Radich pulled into New York harbor, by far the glossiest and most impressionistic part of their journey captured on film; cinematographer, Arthur 'Weegee' Fellig, separating the 3-strip projection into a series of dizzying kaleidoscopic imagery. From here, the Christian Radich engaged the U.S. navy in some breathtaking maneuvers, involving sea planes, a submarine, several naval destroyers and an aircraft carrier; the sequence, accompanied by composer Morton Gould’s most bombastic orchestral arrangement. In Portsmouth, Libaek displayed his musical prowess alongside the world-famous Boston Pops with Arthur Fiedler conducting; his performance interrupted by a montage of breathtaking snapshots of the Norwegian fjords. In the brief epilogue that followed, news of the Pamir tragedy created a sobering postscript to all the heady excitement gone before it; the pall, somewhat dissipated by the Christian Radich’s safe arrival in Oslo, alongside the Danish ‘Denmark’ and Norwegian ‘Sørlandet’; her crew, greeted by cheering crowds and capped off by a much-anticipated reunion with loved ones.
To say that the filming of Windjammer was a life-altering experience for many of its novice crew is an understatement. Some, like Sven Libaek, would leave their native Norway for good to pursue interests abroad. Indeed, even as principle photography wrapped, Louis de Rochemont instructed five of the chosen young men and Lasse to report to a studio in New York to shoot conjoining ‘inserts’ to evolve the storytelling, coached in their English diction by Claudia Franck. Along with Libaek, former shipmates Harald Guttersrud and Kaare Terland selected to remain in the United States thereafter; Harald, to study drama at Yale, and Kaare, devoted to business at Dartmouth, with Libaek eventually getting into Juilliard to continue his music. This trio also became emissaries for the general release of Windjammer, traveling on the Superchief to open the picture in various cities – including Windjammer’s world-premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood and its New York debut at the famed Roxy; along the way, having tea with Rita Hayworth, and, also, forming a singing trio that would regularly feature on popular radio and television programs, eventually cutting an album for RCA/Victor and appear on stage at the Grand Ole Opry.  
With the passage of time, Windjammers reputation as a bona fide Cinerama adventure has only continued to grow, despite the more recent loss of cast members, Jon Reistad, Lasse Kolstad and Alf R. Bjercke. Unlike many popular entertainments of their time, left to molder with the past thereafter, as the fickle public taste moves on toward the proverbial ‘the next best thing’, with each passing year, Windjammer’s legion of fans has continued to grow. Perhaps, by reputation alone, though arguably because of its perennial promise of youth – as depicted by all those bright-blue-eyed/blonde-haired Norwegian tough boys on the cusp of manhood – a real ‘coming of age’ saga in its truest definition, Windjammer remains as celebrated today whenever it plays. And thanks to the Herculean efforts of David Strohmaier and his restoration experts, the resurrection of its glorious past has been brought back from the brink of extinction for generations forever more to enjoy. Arguably, there is no affecting way to see a picture like Windjammer except in a real Cinerama venue; the vastness of its towering, louvered screen suddenly breaking through the conventional proscenium of the 1.33:1 prologue to reveal a spectacle unlike any other.
David Strohmaier’s restoration is to be championed. Alas, it is not perfect. So, it behooves us to point out the inherent flaws in this newly minted 1080p transfer, as represented a second time around on Blu-ray. For starters, there is some alarming edge enhancement during several of the sequences shot at night; Lasse Kolstad’s serenade ‘Kari Waits For Me’ plagued by haloing and flicker in highlighted background detail of the ship’s rigging. As this is the result of digital mastering, and not an inherent flaw in the original camera negatives, it is, at least by my opinion, the biggest disappointment. Is it a deal breaker? Certainly not, as there are only a few intermittent instances where its presence becomes egregious and distracting. We should also point out that despite a lot of dust-busting and digital clean-up with some high-end tools provided by Boris FX, Flicker Free, FotoKem and Chance Audio, the resultant image still reveals instances of color implosion and, again intermittently, brownish seams between the center and two side panels of the vast Cinemiracle frame. There are also one or two scenes shot under low light conditions at magic hour that suffer greatly from color fading. Finally, there is minor gate weave to consider; the left panel (more than the right) prone to distracting wobble. Now, let us be clear here. Nothing short of a multi-million-dollar restoration would correct these aforementioned sins, inflicted upon Windjammer through generational abject neglect.
And indeed, when Strohmaier and his small army of passionate preservationists first encountered Windjammer’s original camera negative, the likelihood anything could be done to restore and preserve it teetered between downright sketchy speculation to the humbug of a virtual impossibility. So, having pointed out the vices and shortcomings of these very unstable original elements, permit us now to extol the many virtues of what has actually been achieved. In a nutshell, nothing short of a miracle…a Cine-miracle if you prefer. Although a triple camera process, Cinemiracle in a theater massaged with precision the vignetting of its 3-projected panels in perfect registration, with steadiness and a more homogenized distribution of screen illumination, yielding better overall definition, image clarity, and, a much greater depth of focus. As an interesting aside: by the time an audience experienced the film in a theater, more than nine miles of actual film had passed through these electrically interlocked projectors.
For this Blu-ray release, Windjammer’s original camera negatives have been scanned in with as much loving care as Strohmaier’s funding would allow. The results are quite miraculous on the whole. Color fidelity is head and shoulders above its previous home video release; ditto, for overall image crispness and reproduction of accurately realized film grain. Occasionally, flesh tones can adopt a slight piggy pink hue. Again, it’s not a deal breaker. When the elements properly align with minimal age-related damage and all the technological bells and whistles playing in unison and in harmony, the resultant image is uncannily Cinerama-esque; augmented by Strohmaier’s insistence to present virtually all of the Cinerama catalog in the artificially recreated ‘Smilebox’ Simulation.  Although economically ideal, ‘Smilebox’ is not exactly ‘user friendly’ for those with home theater projector setups, as there is no way to compensate for the artificially induced curvature.
It would have been prudent of Strohmaier to include a flatly scanned in 3-panel recreation (as Warner Home Video did with their Cinerama release of How The West Was Won; allowing the home video enthusiast to choose the version to screen, given their circumstances and mode of presentation): costlier for Strohmaier and Flicker Alley too, and so we will not poo-poo the decision to only include the ‘Smilebox’ version herein.  The original 7-track audio, featuring an exuberant score by Morton Gould, and some memorable songs to boot, has been given the utmost care. Many of Windjammer’s songs were recorded live on location. However, when Windjammer’s original soundtrack album was released, it was an LP re-recording – not the originals, as heard in the movie. What is here is as it should be, with occasional built-in distortions, but mostly, yielding extraordinary fidelity for which all Cinerama productions of their time were duly noted.
Extras assembled by Strohmaier and his team include a newly expanded making of documentary: The Windjammer Voyage – a Cinemiracle Adventure. At just under an hour, this is an exceptionally comprehensive account of the film’s production, culled from vintage interviews with many of the cast and embellished with rare behind-the-scenes photographic materials never before made available to the public. We also get The Reconstruction of Windjammer – another thorough and engrossing look at the massive undertaking to resurrect Windjammer from the brink of extinction. The rest of the extras are less impressive, beginning with the inclusion of the ‘breakdown reel’ (unrestored) and a brief 2010 featurette on the Christian Radich Today, plus a behind-the-scenes slideshow of images from the production and another, depicting several of the venues where the picture originally played. I would have expected an audio commentary too, but no such luck. Bottom line: Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich is a one-of-a-kind movie-going experience not to be missed. That the Cinemiracle process was never again used is a curiosity, considering its improvements in photographing large-scale 3-panel Cinerama. As for this Blu-ray reissue: it is a no brainer, highly recommended with caveats as expressed earlier. Buy and judge accordingly. But prepare to be dazzled nonetheless. This is one hell of a grand show!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

THE EGG AND I: 70th Anniversary Blu-ray (Universal, 1947) Universal Home Video

Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray discover just how unenlightened they are about the rigors of life on a farm in Chester Erskine’s The Egg and I (1947), a charming little comedy programmer with plenty of heart to spare. The movie is based on Betty MacDonald’s runaway 1945 best-selling memoir, itself, a tongue-in-cheek account of the author’s self-discover and pratfalls while following first husband, Robert Heskett’s blind ambition to start a little chicken farm near Chimacum, Washington. While MacDonald’s experiences were enough to wreck the marriage, mercifully, Erskine’s adaptation leaves its newlywed protagonists modestly bruised, but unbowed, their marital bonds actually strengthened by the end of the ordeal. The Egg and I plays into the usual hokum and stereotypes; corn-fed country bumpkins mostly, with Louise Allbritton as the sassy, rich gal thrown in for good measure. Colbert had, in fact, segued out of precisely this sort of savage and internationally savvy ‘bright young thing’ role, after having appeared as everything from a viperous Roman goddess (The Sign of the Cross, 1932), to spoiled rich heiresses (It Happened One Night, 1934). Very early in her career however, Colbert took on motherhood in Imitation of Life (also, 1934), usually the kiss of death for actresses aspiring to be sexy; thereupon, illustrating the point that an actress need not be old to play maternal. 
In The Egg and I, Colbert takes a step back for womanhood, playing MacDonald as a doting and subservient ‘little woman’ ascribing to her husband’s dreams wholesale.  Does she like where things are headed? Not particularly. Does Bob know where things are headed? Hmmm. Like all dreams, this one quickly takes on the pangs of an all too concrete misfire of the best of intentions. Bob wants to be independent. So, he casts off the daily grind of an aspiring big city law career after getting the silly little notion he and his bride are born farmers. Oh, broooother! There is the hardest work in the world.  The Egg and I may not exactly derive from an original premise (the ‘fish out of water’ scenario has been conquered ad nauseam) but what it does spectacularly well is to represent these floundering fops as well-rounded, well-intended, real people caught in an error of their own design. As such, the comedy plays more genuine and we truly come to care about what happens to Betty and Bob. The Egg and I is also noteworthy for the debut of Ma and Pa Kettle (played with resplendent boisterousness by Marjorie Main and a sly and mostly silent, Percy Kilbride). The appearance of these two countrified kooks would spawn one of Universal Studio’s most beloved franchises; the pair (a regular Min and Bill for their generation) given star billing in nine additional movies between 1948 and 1957.
At its core, The Egg and I is a story about being tested; accepting life at face value, as it comes, and, being rewarded for the industry of hard work by those as devoted to its cause. Along the way, all sorts of misadventures happen; some, more convincingly realized than others.  Our story begins inauspiciously one morning in Manhattan as a nervous Bob giddily reveals to his war bride, Betty he has already quit his promising career at a law firm to pursue a new venture – chicken farming!  Having acquired a dilapidated truck loaded with livestock and other accoutrements necessary to launch their new enterprise, Betty’s reluctance blossoms into full-blown apprehension at the first sight of their shabby shack - an overgrown and dusty ramshackle. Bob has lost his mind! This place is a rundown sty with a roof as leaky as a sieve. Worse, Betty doubts she has what it takes to make a success of the Herculean task to transform this hovel into a home. Her initial confrontation with an unmanageable wood-burning stove seems to suggest it’s going to be anything but ‘smooth sailing’ ahead. But gradually – very gradually, in fact – Betty begins to wend her way through this quagmire of self-discovery; learning to plant an herb garden - in the wrong spot, making a mishmash of collecting freshly laid eggs, and generally unable, even to manage feeding the hog.
Meanwhile, an ebullient Bob plots his itinerary for breeding livestock. Rather idiotically, the birth of his first child is also slotted into this 12-month plan. Bob is an optimist; his good nature tested by their closest neighbor, Franklin ‘Pa’ Kettle, who promptly borrows more than several planks of wood and a bucket of nails Bob has only just purchased to build his own chicken coop. That same afternoon, Betty is horrified to find two Indians, Geoduck (John Berkes) and Crowbar (Vic Potel) peering through her kitchen window (shades of Colbert’s reaction to Indians in John Ford’s 1940 drama, Drums Along the Mohawk). However, unlike the rather ruthless savages depicted in Ford’s film, Geoduck and Crowbar are domesticated merchants, merely come to peddle fresh fish. Truth be told, Betty has just about reached her threshold for playing ‘old Susanna’ down on the farm, her mood unabated when Cleopatra, their pot-bellied pig, knocks her into the mud up to her elbows; hardly the way she would have preferred to first encounter their slinky neighbor, Harriet Putnam.
A rich divorcee, and owner of the stately Bella Vista Farm, Harriet proves she is more than just a pretty face, luring Cleopatra back into her pen with ease. Betty’s abject gratitude quietly devolves into animosity as Harriet puts the moves on Bob, who is seemingly oblivious to her charms. However, Bob is interested in Harriet’s skills as savvy business woman of the most profitable chicken farm in these parts. Unable to dissuade her husband from believing Harriet may have ulterior motives, Betty allows Bob a certain latitude to pursue her as an invaluable connection for future distribution of the goods they too are planning to sell. While Bob is off overseeing Harriet’s state-of-the-art operation, Betty is besought by Billy Reed (Billy House), a real pain in the denim traveling salesman, nevertheless unsuccessful at hornswoggling Betty into buying his wares. Not long thereafter, as remuneration for the lumber he managed to pilfer, Pa sends Tom (Richard Long), the eldest and most intelligent of his nine children, to help the MacDonald’s in their daily chores. Indeed, Ma confides in Betty she and Pa depend greatly on Tom for his support and hard work. It matters not Tom has a mind destined for a brighter future, if only he could afford to go to college. But no – the Kettles need him at home.
Bob returns from Bella Vista with a promising dinner invitation from Harriet to discuss business. Betty knows exactly what sort of ‘business’ Harriet is likely to transact if she fails to attend. So, off to Bella Vista she goes, only to quickly find herself the third wheel in Bob and Harriet’s impassioned discussions about chicken farming. Harriet offers to set up a meeting between the MacDonald’s and Mr. Henty (Donald MacBride) – a distributor of farm goods. A nod from Henty can mean the difference between success and failure. Alas, Henty makes an impromptu visit to the MacDonald’s modest abode on the very evening the couple have elected to ‘dress up’ and pretend they are back in New York, enjoying an elegant candlelit dinner in their own living room. It all looks too chichi for Henty, a real stick in the mud. Despite Bob’s many attempts to ingratiate themselves to their unexpected guest, Henty departs without agreeing to buy their produce. Sometime later, Betty arrives at the Kettles with a present for Ma – a new dress she has sewn so the Kettles can attend the local barn dance. Again, Betty makes a pitch for Ma to consider letting Tom go off to college to improve his mind. This time, Ma agrees to at least consider the possibility.
At the dance, Harriet quickly monopolizes Bob’s time, incurring Betty’s disquieting anger as she becomes inveigled with a series of clumsy dance partners from the local gentry. Alas, the night’s festivities are cut short when a neighbor bursts into the auditorium to inform everyone the Kettles’ barn, where Pa has set up a makeshift distillery for moonshine, has caught fire. As it has been a terribly dry season, the modest blaze has already spread across the dry brush, threatening adjacent properties, including the MacDonald’s.  Bob and Betty make valiant attempts to save their farm. Nevertheless, they are faced with the reality nothing can stop this inferno from destroying their hard-earned efforts. As the fire eats through their outbuildings, including the chicken coop and their crops, the wind shifts and badly needed rain begins to fall from the skies. And although the main house is spared the deluge, for once, Bob finds very little to rejoice.  Indeed, the couple’s finances have run out. There is no money to rebuild and nothing left to do but go crawling back to his bosses in the hopes he can still get his old job back. Mercifully, at dawn the MacDonald’s are awakened by the clatter of car horns. It seems the entire community has turned out to help them rebuild; each family offering what they can in the way of supplies, food and livestock for Bob and Betty to begin their enterprise anew. Even Mr. Henty has had a change of heart, offering the MacDonald’s a 2-year egg contract at premium prices.
More determined than ever to see Tom become a scholar, Betty decides to enter the quilt Ma Kettle made for her in the county fair. The prize money would be enough to pay for Tom’s tuition. Alas, the contest is a rigged game, the fair’s judges all relatives of local maven, Birdie Hicks (Esther Dale), who is sure to win first prize.  Remembering Billy Reed is the fair’s Master of Ceremonies, Betty bribes him into affording the quilting prize to Ma Kettle instead. Betty’s victory is short-lived, as she spies Harriet and Bob pairing off together. She suffers a fainting spell. Ma has seen it happen lots of times before. Betty is pregnant!  To celebrate, Betty prepares a surprise dinner at home, intruded upon by Emily (Ida Moore), a slightly pixelated old biddy who has magical conversations with her invisible husband and regales Betty with a horror story about a vicious giant chicken. Before long, the kindly Sheriff (Samuel S. Hinds) arrives, explaining to Betty how Emily used to live on this particular farm, but went insane after her husband ran off with another woman from a neighboring property. Believing the same fate may befall her if she remains (perhaps it already has…), Betty retreats in tears to the city to live with her mother (Elisabeth Risdon).
Time passes. Betty is wounded by the fact Bob has never sought to woo her back. Bitterly, Betty refuses to open any of his letters and later, gives birth to their daughter in secret. After more level-headed contemplation, Betty elects to reconcile with Bob and boards a train for the country. However, at the station Betty instructs a taxi driver to take her to the MacDonald residence, startled when he instead drives straight to Bella Vista Farm. Believing Bob and Harriet have moved in together, Betty jealousy plots to drive off before Bob can see her. Then, even more fretfully, she confronts him as a deceiver and bigamist. In his own defense, Bob explains that, while it is true he now lives at Bella Vista, it is not with Harriet, but rather – totally alone – having mortgaged everything to buy this property from Harriet for Betty. In fact, he wrote her incessantly of his plans but never received any reply. Sheepishly realizing what an absolute fool she has been, Betty now introduces Bob to his newly born daughter, reminding him that according to his itinerary they are still ‘right on schedule’. As the couple embrace, a car drives up to alert Bob of yet another crisis at the chicken house. As Bob dashes off in his night clothes to meet this latest challenge, Betty looks on affectionately. Yep, she has married a farmer – through and through. Time to hunker down and let the real work begin.
The Egg and I is unobtrusively warm-hearted. Chester Erskine and Fred F. Finklehoffe’s screenplay dotes on the particulars of MacDonald’s novel without ever belaboring the comedic, dramatic or poignant elements to the point where the laughter becomes absurdly screwball or the affecting dollops of sincere emotion, maudlin. Colbert’s performance can veer into the theatrical on occasion but that is part of its charm. Colbert, oft known for being difficult, was nevertheless a wonderful actress, imbued with the presence of mind to sell whatever the role as the epitome of truth in the moment. Hence, despite her never waning glamour and Brymore-esque poise, she conveys genuine warmth and an affecting homespun charm. The silent and tearful humility expressed by both Colbert and co-star, Fred MacMurray as the community turns out to replenish things lost in the fire is undeniably a tour de force. Budgeted at just under $2 million, The Egg and I would go on to reap $5,750,000 – making it one of Universal’s most profitable movies.
In hindsight, one can definitely see it as a forerunner to TV’s Green Acres (1965-71). Milton R. Krasner’s B&W cinematography is gorgeous. But the picture’s ‘dark horse’ surprise are Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride as the kindly/kooky Kettles. It is easy to see how Universal could spin this pair into their own lucrative franchise with varying degrees of success. Both Main and Kilbride have that ‘lived in’ quality a goodly sum of vintage ‘contract players’ possessed during Hollywood’s golden era. Indeed, stock company performers of their ilk were as valued then as ‘the stars’, chiefly for their ability to offer up some ready-made character traits on demand, however inconsequential the roles. It is a joy to observe these two old hams sparking off one another, convincing as on-screen marrieds. In retrospect, with her scampering manner, riotous voice and the blasé personality, Main had the more lucrative career, a beloved of MGM’s stock company, appearing in such diverse and high-profile fair as Stella Dallas (1937), The Women (1939), Heaven Can Wait (1943), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Harvey Girls (1946) and Summer Stock (1950).  Calling it quits in 1958, Main would appear only once more in public, this time at the 1974 premiere of That’s Entertainment! receiving a rousing round of applause from the crowds lining the street.
The Egg and I arrives on Blu-ray via Universal’s usual cut-rate lack of attention to detail – hardly what ought to be expected of a disc advertised as a 70th Anniversary release. Once again, Uni is dealing with archival mastering that is suspect. Although the B&W image is very clean and sports excellent contrast and, on occasion, some impressive detail, what’s missing here is the presence of indigenous film grain. These elements have been scrubbed with a wee bit too much DNR. Although they are not as waxy as one might anticipate, the absence of grain itself makes for an image more artificially video than film-based. There is also a curious split-second video ‘warp’ occurring during one scene, easily correctable if only a bit more due diligence had been applied during ‘quality control’. The DTS mono audio sounds fairly impressive – so, no complaints there. Uni has recycled its featurettes on Colbert’s career, a real ‘nothing’ junket, plus one of their 100 Years featurettes, this one on the studio’s founding father, Carl Laemmle – proof positive The Egg and I was likely planned to help celebrate Universal’s 100th anniversary back in 2012. For one reason or another this never happened so, once again, what we have is a disc with no main menu or chapter stops. It boots up and plays to the finish. Those who read this blog regularly know I am a stickler for Blu-ray authoring. Do it right and afford us at least the basics. That’s all I ask. Bottom line: The Egg and I is a charmer. This disc is merely a middling effort. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, May 18, 2018

FREAKY FRIDAY: Blu-ray (Walt Disney Pictures, 1976) Disney Club Exclusive

The hysteria that was Haley Mills in the 1960's was succeeded by the Walt Disney Studios active search for another prepubescent enigma to continue the trend in the 1970's. After a few false starts, an heir apparent did emerge, this time in the unlikeliest embodiment of tomboyish, Jodie Foster – an undeniable talent, later to make an even greater splash in films, entering super-stardom as an adult. It is always gratifying when a child star transcends this first flourish of instant fame afforded them largely because they are ‘cute’. So, many disappear completely from view once puberty kicks in. But Foster has proven to be a uniquely gifted performer, far above and beyond the many who try for as much, and, whose extraordinary talents have only continued to ripen with age. For those fortunate enough to have lived as long, we literally watched Jodie Foster mature on our movie screens, the public scrutiny of a life lived in front of the camera worn exceptionally well by this no-nonsense star. Foster has managed to skillfully elude the tabloids and retain her reputation as a consummate pro.  It is interesting to compare and contrast Foster’s breakout performance as Iris, the teenage prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s seminal melodrama, Taxi Driver, with the featherweight chameleon, Annabel Andrews, afflicted by the ultimate mind warp in Disney’s Freaky Friday (both films released months apart in 1976). While for certain, Walt would not have approved of her more adult foray, in hindsight, he would have likely been as passionate a proponent, recognizing Foster’s intuitive talents to fashion and guide her career as yet another beloved and wholesome moppet in his stable of stars.
Swiftly directed by Gary Nelson, with its emphasis on the hokey rather than the sincere, Freaky Friday is based on Mary Rodgers’ popular teen fiction about a mother and daughter, each assuming the other has the idyllic lifestyle. A cruel, though nevertheless educating twist of fate – or bad karma, as it were – transposes the mother’s brain into the daughter’s body and vice versa, leading to all sorts of misdirection, chaos and unintended hilarity as both women discover the proverbial grass is not nearly as green on the other side of the fence. Keeping with a time-honored Disney tradition, Freaky Friday is cast with some easily identifiable screen and stage actors with already ‘built-in’ character traits we have come to know and love; Broadway sensation, Barbara Harris (as Annabel’s mama, Ellen), John Astin (TV’s Gomez, as her befuddled exec/father, Bill; Dick Van Patten (Eight is Enough’s papa, herein reconstituted as the snobbish and doubting, Harold Jennings), Alan Oppenheimer (as his, and Bill’s boss, Mr. Joffert), Sorrell Booke (TV’s ‘Boss Hog’ as Principal Dilk), vintage Fox contract player, Patsy Kelly (as caustic and boozy housekeeper, Mrs. Schmauss) and finally, Ruth Buzzi (as the boorish ‘nameless’ coach of a rival ‘all-girl’s field hockey team). In hindsight, Disney Inc.’s live action output from the 1970s is a real mixed bag; on the one hand, still invested in big-budgeted movie musicals, like 1977’s Pete’s Dragon, though increasingly relying on quick n’ dirty outings like Freaky Friday to sustain its balance sheet. 
Freaky Friday is hardly A-list from the Walt Disney Company. Indeed, modestly budgeted at $5 million, Charles F Wheeler’s cinematography possesses about as much big screen appeal as a run-of-the-mill half-hour Norman Lear sitcom; Mary Rodgers’ screenplay, providing the bare minimum in character development, merely to connect the dots in a perfunctory way and touch upon all the goofy little nuances one does not readily think about before attempting to assume another’s identity wholesale. So, after her crazy ‘brain transplant’ the usually put together Ellen suddenly begins to unravel at the seams, possessing no clue how to even stock a washing machine, much less drive a car. She tries to goad neighbor boy, Boris Harris (Marc McClure) into getting behind the wheel, but to no avail, and, passes off the duties of preparing a buffet for Bill’s big marketing meeting on her seven-year-old son, Ben (Sparky Marcus), the gentlest soul whom Annabel has rather cruelly nicknamed, ‘Ape Face’. 
Like all Disney features, Freaky Friday is a morality tale that endeavors to teach a valuable lesson as Annabel and Ellen come to terms with the virtues and vices inherent in each other’s lives. Ellen gets Annabel’s braces off, has her hair done and borrows Bill’s credit card to do a little shopping for clothes the real Annabel would never deign to wear. Quickly, however, Ellen – in her daughter’s body – recognizes the girl she views rather tragically as a tomboy is actually quite an accomplished athlete, while Annabel acknowledges it takes far more effort, finesse and skill to play the ‘piss elegant’ lady of the maison; devoted wife, mother, confidant and confessor, juggling all these variables to make for a proficient and happy home. Freaky Friday is hardly deep, but it remains replete with insightful reflections for adults and teens to help debunk and bridge the generation gap. The best that can be said of the picture is that it remains effortlessly charming and rather naively wholesome good-natured fun from start to finish, topped off by a crudely cobbled, and unnecessary ‘comedy/action’ sequence that has Ellen (actually Annabel) driving irresponsibly through the city streets with Ben and Boris in tow, determined to reach the marina in time to save her mother (still in her body) from severely injuring herself in the water-ski show Annabel is expected to perform for her father’s business associates.
Immediately following a bouncy main title sequence, animated and set to Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha’s largely forgettable, ‘I’d Like to Be You for a Day’, Freaky Friday embarks upon setting up its tidy little tale of middle class domesticity. In this ‘almost perfect’ world, Ellen and her daughter are in a chronic flux of misunderstanding. Ellen wants Annabel to behave more like a young lady. But Annabel is devoted to her sports and could not give a hoot how she looks. Ascribing to the cliché that teenagers, by their very definition, are not fit for polite society, both Ellen and Annabel are in for a very rude awakening as each separately daydream about taking on the role of the other, on Friday the 13th no less. Their wish granted, Annabel – now implanted with Ellen’s brain, quickly realizes she is very much unable to keep up with the interests of her daughter’s contemporaries, Hilary Miller (Shelly Jutner), Bambi (Charlene Tilton) and Jo-Jo (Lori Rutherford). Interestingly, neither Ellen nor Annabel try to get in contact with one another, presumably, recognizing what has happened and determined to enjoy the switch while it lasts.
Annabel, as Ellen decides to indulge in a little creative make-up/makeover, adding undue rouge, lipstick and phony eyelashes with sabotaging results. But this is mere child’s play when considering the mockery Annabel makes of basic household chores: the laundry, as example (adding waaay to much detergent and overloading the machine) or basic car repair, buying groceries and managing the slate of carpet and dry cleaners who arrive on cue.  Firing the brittle Mrs. Schmauss after she makes some backhanded crack about Annabel being spoiled, Ellen (as Annabel) is incapable of even looking after the family’s beloved Basset Hound, Max. To make matters worse, Bill saddles his wife with preparing a spread for twenty-five after his company’s caterer backs out of a planned event at the last minute. Panicky, Annabel enlists Boris, a teenager on whom she harbors a crush (but who increasingly begins to find ‘Ellen’ attractive instead) to babysit Ben and prepare a chocolate mousse and turkey dinner. Too bad for all, the boys forget to put the lid on the blender and Ellen, having stepped out only for a brief errand, returns to discover the turkey burnt to a crisp.
In the course of these preposterous misfires, Annabel (as Ellen) develops a newfound respect for her baby brother. As Ben has confided in his mother that he thinks his big sister is the greatest person alive, Annabel begins to rethink the way she has marginalized his importance in her life thus far. Meanwhile, Ellen (as Annabel) immerses herself in the rigors of high school. What she quickly realizes is that Annabel’s extracurricular activities far exceed her level of comprehension. A parent/teacher interview with Annabel’s English teacher, Miss McGuirk (Pat Carroll) and Principal Dilk alerts Annabel to the fact the faculty truly believes in her smarts; something Annabel has virtually neglected in favor of her sports. Now Ellen, as Annabel, is grotesquely defeated in her all-girl’s field hockey finals, incurring the disappointment of her teammates, who were counting on Annabel as their most valuable player. Worse, she effectively ruins all her friends’ final assignments in photography class by accidentally turning on the lights in the dark room. Desperate to escape this academic nightmare, Annabel reports to Bill’s office to borrow his credit cards. After all, today is the day the braces on her teeth come off. Perhaps, it is also time for a fashion makeover. Inadvertently, Annabel (still, Ellen) meets Bill’s sultry secretary, Lucille Gibbons (Brooke Mills) whom she quickly sets about to unsettle in her ambitions by suggesting Bill is a devoted family man who would never look at another woman, much less contemplate an affair.
Having achieved Annabel’s physical makeover, Ellen is quite unaware her daughter is scheduled to perform in a water ski spectacle for Bill’s bosses. Horded into the back of a waiting van by the rest of the water-skiers, Annabel makes every attempt to wangle her way out of this duty. Meanwhile, Ellen (still, Annabel) is hurriedly plowing through the streets with Boris, Ben and her burnt turkey in tow; her haphazard driving drawing undue attention. The police make chase, but, in typical Disney-esque fashion, they prove more the Keystone Cops than competently positioned LAPD Highway Patrol. Somewhere between home and the marina, Ellen and Annabel wish for their own bodies back. As before, the exchange is granted, only now Ellen, in her black gown, is on waterskies and Annabel, behind the wheel of the family’s Volkswagen Beatle. Shocked and bewildered by the sight of his wife haplessly sailing around the lake, Bill tries to run interference with his boss, Mr. Joffert and his snooty assistant, Mr. Jennings who, along with a select group of invited guests, are surveying the aquacade from a floating pontoon in the middle of the lake.
Eventually, Annabel, Boris and Ben arrive at the dock, its support beam knocked out by Ellen’s skis that have already punctured one of the air-filled buoys on the pontoon. Taking to the skies on a hand-glider, Ellen somehow manages to navigate over to the half-submerged family’ car; pulled to safety by Annabel and Boris as Bill, and the rest of the guests on the pontoon, sink beneath the waves from the fatal puncture earlier inflicted. Sometime later, Ellen and Annabel remain very cagey about not explaining anything to Bill who is decidedly confused over what has transpired. Annabel accepts Boris’ invitation to go out for pizza, but also elects to take Ben along. Unable to comprehend his father’s upset, Ben informs Bill that if only he could assume his identity for one day he would surely know how to live a more fulfilling life. Bill agrees. If he could become Ben, life would be a whole lot easier. Hence, we end on the presumption another miraculous metamorphosis, this one between father and son, is about to take place.
Freaky Friday is an effortlessly appealing popcorn muncher. As a ‘coming of age’ flick, it passes the time without ever delving too deeply into the real trials and tribulations ‘parents with teenagers’ or ‘teenagers with parents’ undoubtedly share. The newfound respect Ellen and Annabel gleans from their day-long ordeal is marginally rewarding, though more so because we can see some sort of brain activity going on beneath Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster’s facades. Neither gets any real help here from the screenplay, so it is left up to the actresses to convey depth. Each, on occasion, does, elevating their performances beyond the rank cardboard cutouts that virtually populate the rest of the picture. I get it. Freaky Friday is not a melodrama but a souffle from the Disney stable at a time when their live-action feature output had dwindled to all but a trickle – the company in transition (or perhaps, decline) and interested in making movies never to strain the intellect…only their own credibility as purveyors of ‘family entertainment’. But really, Freaky Friday plays much more like a Disney Sunday Movie rather than a bona fide feature in the best tradition from Walt’s illustrious past.
Freaky Friday has found its way to Blu-ray via Disney’s Exclusive Club. What this means for anyone outside of the U.S. is it is virtually off limits except via third-party vendors on and retailing for triple the cost incurred as a Disney Inc. member.  I suppose we ought to be grateful the ‘Exclusive Club’ Blu-ray releases are back on – after an interminable hiatus that threatened to leave a good many vintage catalog in limbo. The good news for fans of Freaky Friday is that this 1080p offering sports some impressively vibrant color. A good deal of Freaky Friday’s photo-chemical and matte SFX shots, depicting Ellen on water skis and Annabel driving the family car, suffer from intermittent amplification of grain and matte work that is transparently obvious, with some built-in color fading to boot. Outside of these SFX inserts, image quality is uniformly vibrant, with oodles of fine detail and excellent contrast. The DTS 2.0 is threadbare at best, with thin-sounding dialogue and a general cacophony of cluttered noise during action scenes, bearing no aural separation. I suspect this is par for the course of the original soundtrack. It’s adequate…though just barely. The only extra that was available on the DVD release was a brief featurette in which the usually absent Ms. Foster waxed rather affectionately about her Disney days. But we do not get even this on the Blu-ray. Like all Disney ‘exclusives’ this is a movie-only release. The ‘Mouse House’ continues to slip in their 1080p output. Bottom line: the visuals look great. The sound is barely a middling effort. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

GUN CRAZY: Blu-ray (United Artists, 1950) Warner Archive

What makes a basically decent kid grow up to become a career criminal. Is it money, infamy, or the love of a truly psychotic femme fatale? According to director, Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950, and also intermittently recognized as ‘Deadly is the Female’), it’s the latter elixir, emanating like a powerful hallucinogenic and working its corruptible black magic on the unsuspecting country wiles of John Dall’s crime spree-prone young man. We should not entirely blame Peggy Cummins’ busty and blonde cowgirl/sideshow performer, Annie Laurie Starr for Bart Tare’s downfall. Long before Bart ever crossed paths with this rootin’/tootin’/shootin’ young lass he illustrated a penchant for petty larceny, inexplicably conjoined to his perplexing fascination with guns. But Bart (Russ Tamblyn as a spookily precocious 14-year old) was never ‘all bad’. Indeed, his busting the storefront window of a local gun merchant to steal a revolver, and his even earlier childhood desire to shoot a baby chick with his BB gun (only to be haunted by tearful remorse after observing his handiwork) are seen as virtues rather than vices, by his devoted sister, Ruby (Anabel Shaw) and boyhood chums, Dave Allister (David Bair) and Clyde Boston (Paul Frison). All three present themselves before Judge Willoughby (Morris Carnovsky) as character witnesses after Bart is apprehended for his youthful thievery.
Gun Crazy is mostly a cautionary tale about the toxicity of passion for a really bad woman ruining the future of a mostly genuine and good-hearted man. Personally, I have always found it rather odd so many film historians consider Gun Crazy an integral part of the film noir pantheon. I tend to see it more as a ferociously intense melodrama with a few noir-ish moments interspersed. Apart from Lewis’ exploitation of the femme fatale, there is not much else about the picture to recommend it as a bona fide noir classic; Russell Harlan’s B&W cinematography only occasionally delving into the stylistic bleakness most readily associated with the movement, though never with any great interplay of chiaroscuro light and stark shadows. Dalton Trumbo and MacKinlay Kantor’s screenplay (Trumbo, writing under the nom de plume Millard Kaufman to escape the blacklist) is a genuine departure from the time-honored principles of noir’s proverbial ‘man alone’; Dall’s anti-hero, more corruptible by his own stupidity where women are concerned. The script also affords Bart two ever-devoted pals; the aforementioned Dave Allister (played as an adult by Nedrick Young), eventually the editor of the town’s newspaper, and, Clyde Boston (Harry Lewis), who grows up to be the town’s sheriff, and therefore, Bart’s enemy. The noir anti-hero is usually all alone – no support system. Even so, Clyde cannot bring himself to shoot Bart. It’s no use. He knows it. We know it. Bart’s not the problem. He’s the victim.
The real appeal for noir enthusiasts is undeniably Peggy Cummins (in a part originally planned for noir veteran, Veronica Lake). Whether tricked out in her carnie/sideshow cowgirl’s gear or sporting the fashionable attire of a tight-knit sweater and beret (a look vaguely reminiscent of the real ‘Bonnie’, of Bonnie and Clyde fame, and much later to be copied by Faye Dunaway in the 1967 movie that immortalized this dynamic crime duo), Cummins’ exudes a sort of cheap and tawdry ferial scent of sexual attraction that could – and does – so easily turn the head of our inexperienced country bumpkin. Hmmm. You would think Bart’s stint in the army would have taught him something about the craftiness of this archetypal bad girl. But no, from the moment Bart encounters Laurie the two are on a collision course, destined to become wanted criminals in search of the finer things in life neither can legitimately afford. Reportedly, to achieve this on-screen chemistry, director Lewis told John Dall “Your cock's never been so hard,” before leaning into Cummins to add, “You’re a bitch in heat, and you want him. But don't let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.”
Cummins is a sadly underrated actress, I suspect, because she appears rather effortlessly herein to typify the sort of white trash female who would do just about anything to survive in a man’s world. Her manipulative skills, coupled with that insincerely ‘come hither’ glance, cast directly as opposed to the usual ‘over the shoulder’, is void of virtually all corny female subterfuge. She makes no bones about her intentions and is smitten with Bart only after he purports to favor the same stolen luxuries. But Bart really does not want to be bad, much as he desires this very wicked and warped babe. And this creates a stifling disconnect between his past and future; willingly inveigled in a life of crime even as he reconsiders what life would have been like if only he had stayed home to hoe potatoes on his sister’s farm.
Gun Crazy opens on a rain-soaked eve in the rural enclave of Hampton with fourteen-year-old Bart Tare peering into the local hardware store’s display window after hours. Just beyond his grasp, a new shiny revolver. Oh, what he couldn’t shoot if he owned that gun. And so, Bart shatters the glass with a large stone and takes what he wants. Alas, he is hardly the seasoned career criminal, slipping on wet pavement and dropping his ill-gotten gains at the feet of a nearby police officer. At trial, Judge Willoughby sympathetically listens to testimonials from Bart’s sister, Ruby and boyhood compatriots, Dave and Clyde. None, however, are able to sway the Judge in his duty. And so, Bart goes off to reform school, and then, rather valiantly to serve his country for a stint in the army. Returning from the front an expert marksman, the adult Bart is reunited with both his sister and boyhood chums, all grown up and living lives of their own. Clyde and Dave elect to take Bart out for a night at the carnival to celebrate. Alas, this will be the last camaraderie for the boys as Bart is introduced to sideshow sharp shooter, Annie Laurie Starr. Almost immediately, she catches Bart’s eye, much to the chagrin of her boss, Packett (Berry Kroeger), who desires her for himself.
Accepting – and winning – a wager to outshoot the act, Bart is wooed by Laurie to join up with the show. This does not sit well with Packett, who tries to break up their growing mutual attraction by divulging an insidious chapter from the girl’s past. But it makes no difference to Bart whether or not Laurie might have killed a man. He is already poisoned with the prospect of possessing her. Hence, when Packett tries to force himself on Laurie, Bart valiantly intervenes, threatening to pull the trigger himself. Packett coolly fires the couple and Bart almost immediately, and rather naively proposes marriage. The couple are wed in a cheap ceremony without family or friends, Laurie forewarning Bart that she is ‘bad…but will try to be good’ for his sake. For a while, Laurie lives up to her end of the bargain…at least, until the money holds out. But a Vegas-styled honeymoon is cruel on their savings and Bart quickly realizes they do not have enough money to get by for much longer. At this juncture, Laurie proposes an ultimatum; either Bart joins her in a life of crime or she will divorce him. Very reluctantly, and with jangled nerves, Bart partakes of several petty robberies. The couple holds up seedy motels, gas stations, corner and liquor stores.
In the back of his mind, Bart plans to squirrel away this cash for an early retirement, possibly to Mexico. But Laurie likes to spend what they have – on dinners, and dancing and expensive furs. So, more robberies are necessary to keep her in the manner to which she is fast becoming accustomed. Bart and Laurie get corresponding jobs at the Armor Meat Packer’s plant – she, as a stenographer to payroll manager, Miss Augustine Sifert (Anne O’Neal); he, as one of the meat cutters in the vast warehouse facilities. It isn’t long before the two hatch a plot to hold up their employer and make off with enough cold cash to set them up for good. Too bad even the best laid criminal plans are never entirely foolproof. Although Bart and Laurie manage to confine Sifert in the corner office at gunpoint while they fast empty out the company’s coffers, Laurie murders her boss in cold blood after Sifert pulls the emergency alarm to alert police of the holdup. Laurie and Bart take off in a stolen car, pursued by police. At the last possible moment, Bart shoots out the cop car’s tires, forcing them off the side of the road.
It appears as though the couple are home free. Ah, but then they make the terrible mistake of attempting to spend their loot on a night’s diversions at the boardwalk dance hall. The ticket seller recognizes the serial numbers on the bill Bart has used to pay for their entrance as part of the stolen moneys and alerts the police.  In desperate need of other funds, Bart and Laurie hold up a grocery store, Bart narrowly preventing Laurie from murdering the defenseless clerk. Sometime later, he reads about Sifert’s murder in the papers and, thanks to Packett, finds mug shots of him and Laurie plastered across the front pages of the local newspaper. Now wanted as national fugitives, Bart is more determined than ever to escape and start their lives anew without the pall of being branded wanted criminals. Originally, Bart and Laurie had agreed to split up for a while. To each other’s ever-lasting detriment, both quickly discover they cannot bear the prospect of remaining separated, even for a moment. Now, the FBI launch an intense manhunt for the couple. And yet, thanks to some clever disguises, Bart and Laurie still manage to outfox the locals, passing effortlessly in and out of roadblocks. Regrettably, time runs out. Forced to abandoned their car in the woods, Bart and Laurie scamper on foot, making it back to Ruby’s farmhouse.
While modestly grateful to see her brother again, Ruby cannot abide his chosen life of crime. Very quickly, a quiet animosity builds between Ruby and Laurie. In the meantime, Bart is confronted on Ruby’s front porch by Clyde and Dave, who have pieced together the clues, only to realize the dragnet has closed in on their one-time friend.  Holding the men at gunpoint, though with no intention to shoot either of them, Bart and Laurie steal Ruby’s car. This too is later ditched in the mountains, Bart and Laurie forced to go it alone over rough terrain on foot. They find their way to a very murky bog. Too bad, Clyde and Dave know this area almost as well, catching up as they attempt one last and very ill-fated negotiation for Bart and Laurie to turn themselves in. Laurie emerges from the swamp, eyes and pistol gleaming as she vows to kill again. Unable to watch as his wife murders his best friends, Bart shoots Laurie dead and is, in turn, gunned down by one of the advancing police officers, dying only a few feet away from his one-time beloved. As Clyde and Dave look on in despair, they cannot help but wish all their lives had been very different.
Gun Crazy is a fairly entertaining programmer from United Artists; B-budgeted and expertly played by Dall and Cummins. We really have to give it to director, Joseph H. Lewis. Through his expert use of flashback and montage he manages to take the picture’s modest 1 ½ hour run time and make it seem like a far more enveloping narrative. Gun Crazy just seems a ‘bigger’ entertainment than it actually is. If there was one thing that old-time directors of these B-unit pictures knew, it was how to tell a solid – if sordid – story on limited means and still possess it with the trappings of an A-list feature. It is a genuine pity Dalton Trumbo could not have published this screen credit under his own name.  The writing is among his best. Initially planned as a Monogram Studio’s release, King Brothers Productions settled on UA as its distributor, a decision affording Gun Crazy a fairly wide release, very lucrative to its bottom line. Critics too were impressed by the picture for its propellent direction and intense candor.  Although the reigning Production Code prevented Lewis from illustrating the extent of Bart and Laurie’s elicit passion, he nevertheless manages, mostly through Freudian subtext and the couple’s infrequent and oft truncated leering, to get across the notion neither could survive for very long without seeing the other naked.
Gun Crazy arrives on Blu-ray via the Warner Archive in yet another almost perfect 1080p transfer. Truth be told, the retired DVD from 2006 looked pretty spiffy. So, WAC was likely cribbing from some very solidly mastered elements to start. The B&W image is very clean and reveals vastly superior detail, especially in close-up. A few dupey-looking shots momentarily intrude on an otherwise supremely crisp visual presentation that sports excellent film grain and contrast. There are several fleeting glimpses of edge enhancement. Aside: I detected more than this on the old DVD, also – a ton of it from Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release of 1940’s The Philadelphia Story that reported to be from a ‘new’ 4K scan conducted by Warner Home Video – although it suspiciously mimicked the shortcomings of Warner’s archival print struck for its own 2002 DVD release. Is WAC cutting corners on their archive releases? Not sure. Won’t comment any further, except to say, the fleeting glimpses of edge enhancement on Gun Crazy’s Blu-ray are in exactly the same spot they appeared on the 2006 DVD. So, old scan or new to Blu from flawed surviving elements? Hmmmm. Ported over from the DVD release is a superb audio commentary by Glenn Erickson, plus, the nearly hour-long documentary: Film Noir – Bringing Darkness to Light. Personally, either extra is worth the price of admission alone. Combined with this nearly perfect transfer, Gun Crazy is a definite ‘must have’ for any noir-loving aficionado. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

THIS IS CINERAMA: Deluxe Edition Blu-ray (Merian C. Cooper, 1952) Flicker Alley

Technical innovations are often the barometer by which the state of any art is judged. The introduction of sound, as example, liberated movies from what was then considered their zenith in pantomime and self-expression. Alas, the innovation of ‘sound’ also led to a mass exodus and an even crueler fate – watching the stardom of silent legends implode virtually overnight, simply because their vocal capabilities lagged behind the enigma of their screen presence immortalized in ‘dumb show’. Then there was color – hand-tinted frames at first, giving way to the unpolished novelty of 2-strip Technicolor; its palette favoring pasty pinks and swamp frog green/beige hues. Then, 3-strip Technicolor, the Eastman monopack, color by DeLuxe and so on. The more one considers the history of Hollywood, the more apparent the fledgling flickers were in a constant state of upheaval – only partly attributed to its chronic technological refurbishments. While some of what ailed the industry behind the scenes has dissipated with time, technologically speaking, modernizations continue: widescreen, home video, CGI, a rebirth of 3D, another 1950’s novelty come full circle, only to fall out of favor with TV manufacturers, and most recent of all, 4K/8K digital mastering and projection taking the place of film.
In retrospect, Cinerama – a forerunner in the widescreen war – and undeniably the biggest, with its cumbersome three-camera set up and projection – does not seem so much a revolution as the preamble that forever changed the shape of movie screens from their relatively square 1:33.1 OAR. Inventor, Fred Waller gets the footnote for this evolution.  Arguably, he deserves most of it; his fifteen years of research instituted as the Waller Gunnery Trainer – a realistic flight simulator for U.S. combat pilots, later tweaked, refined and rechristened as Cinerama.  But lest we forget French director, Abel Gance beat Waller by nearly 20 years with the premiere of Napoleon (1927); a silent epic that, in its final sequence, breathtakingly expanded the square-ish movie frame into a 3-camera projection for the Battle of Waterloo. There was also William Fox’s superior Grandeur process in 1930’s early talkie, The Big Trail - a 70mm precursor, some thirty years ahead of its mid-1960s competitors. So, Cinerama did not hold the monopoly as a gigantic evolutionary step as much as it proved costly and very unwieldy: the kick-starter for that mad dash toward newer/better widescreen technologies yet to follow it: Cinemascope, Todd A-O, VistaVision, Technirama, Dimension-150 and, Panavision among them.
Waller’s first time out, Vitarama, was little more than a novelty showcased at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Yet, in viewing Cinerama’s debut today, with 1952’s This Is Cinerama, one is left dumbstruck, not only by its overwhelming success (the film had a five-year continuous run on Broadway), but also by how little the technology had progressed between the aforementioned touchstones and this re-introduction at the start of the 1950's. Arguably, without the Great Depression and WWII – both severely impacting budgets spent on innovations and movies in general throughout the war years - Hollywood would have likely streamlined and main-stapled ‘widescreen’ as the industry standard by the mid-1930's. Still, there are others who deserve a share of Cinerama’s success, beginning with maverick film maker, Merian C. Cooper, who backed Waller’s grand experiment; Hazard E. Reeves – pioneer of modern day sound recording, and finally, flyer extraordinaire, Paul Mantz, whose harrowing passes over such natural wonders as the earthy red mesas of the Grand Canyon, and craggy spiked rock formations at Zion National Park made for some truly spectacular scenery. This Is Cinerama’s grise eminence, Lowell Thomas was a world class writer/traveler/broadcaster/reporter – a true renaissance man of diverse experiences; among them, one of the hallowed few to have interviewed the real T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia).
With its promise of untold wonderment from the four corners of the earth (and a few nooks and crannies never even heard of then in the western world), This Is Cinerama caught the whirlwind optimism of the postwar generation. Ironically, the ripples from Cinerama’s box office sensation ran parallel to television’s introduction (another technology premiered at 1939’s World’s Fair, though regrettably then, to throw the whole menagerie into a tizzy by convincing nearly 40% of the paying public to stay home and get their entertainments for free in the comfort of their own living rooms). Overnight, these competing technologies forced studios into a race for competing widescreen formats. To be fair, This Is Cinerama did introduce various innovations to the movie-going experience that truly set it apart from its rivals. Cinerama’s louvered screen, as example, comprised of horizontal chords meticulously angled, greatly improved the overall luminosity and clarity of the image being projected onto them. So too did Cinerama give us our first real taste of eight-track directionalized stereophonic sound.  Walt Disney had earlier toyed with stereo - dubbed ‘Fanta-sound’ for 1940’s Fantasia. But Cinerama delivered a true stereophonic orchestral richness, unheard in any venue outside the classical concert hall before its time and arguably, ever since.  More than any other widescreen technology, Cinerama filled the entire periphery of human vision with its all-encompassing vistas.
Indeed, Cinerama’s pedigree was nothing short of impressive. Yet the film is somehow less than spectacular when viewed today, except in fits and sparks. This Is Cinerama opens with a rather tedious prologue in B&W and mono, featuring Lowell Thomas attempting to breach the chasm between the ‘dawn of time’ and, then, present day 1952. We move from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to Eadweard Muybridge’s experimental still photography of a running horse to settle a bet, then onto Thomas Edison’s famed ‘the kiss’ actuality, and, a detailed abridgement of Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) with Thomas’ monologue, at times, gravely overly-simplified. This prologue serves a trifecta purpose; first – it is a glorified history lesson; second – it artificially lengthens This Is Cinerama’s run time by twelve minutes, despite the fact this footage is not in Cinerama or even in color. Finally, it sets up a distinct comparison, as in ‘this is where we’ve been. Now this is where we’re going to take you’.
And so, immediately following Thomas’ declaration of “Ladies and gentlemen…this, is Cinerama!” the screen reveals its full aperture inside the dugout of Rockaway Playland’s Atom Smasher roller coaster; the audience placed in a front row seat as the car pulls from the station and plunges through a series of steep inclines and hairpin turns. Even on home video – arguably the least effective way to view true Cinerama – there is absolutely nothing to touch this moment for sheer exhilaration, and such a shame too, in the remaining 118 minutes of This Is Cinerama we are infrequently treated to little more or better than snippets of coming attractions for a feature that arguably never comes along. Instead, This Is Cinerama runs on like a glorified test reel for the format and not the comprehensive ‘you are there’ world-class experience its road show engagement program and movie posters promised. There is, of course, something to be said for the argument that today’s audiences have become jaded in their entertainment expectations. So, what played as ground-breaking then cannot help but fall short, given the vast improvements made in the 70+ years since.
Even so, there are some true oddities in this extended travelogue. A brief aerial shot of Niagara Falls in blazing Technicolor is followed by the turgidity of a static sequence photographed in sepia as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir enter with their backs to the camera, raising their voices in Handel’s Hallelujah. The sequence is meant to show off the razor-sharp clarity of Cinerama’s 6-track stereophonic sound. It does. But the staging just seems off if not entirely bizarre; drawing attention to the immobility of the camera rather than the size of the image, and to those atrocious seams separating the three panels. The setting itself, curtained with a makeshift altar taking center stage, is as unimpressive a thing as any ever photographed since the early days of silent cinema.
The opera vignettes from Verdi’s Aida are static, salvaged only by the staggering opulence of La Scala, the sumptuousness marred by the camera’s inability to get closer to the action. Cinerama’s tri-panel maintains the proscenium of the stage experience. From these rather stuffy moments, presumably meant to elevate the stature of Cinerama as justly capable of satisfying the highbrow, the production departs for a truncated tour of Spain with its flamenco dancers, castanets clicking; then, Italy’s St. Mark’s Square and a gondola ride down the Venetian canals. This, regrettably shows off one of the shortcomings rather than the virtues of Cinerama; a severely exaggerated warping of the image, the overhead bridges unnaturally stretched into cavernous, lopsided and tunnel-like spans; the seams between panels two and three slightly overlapping. After a brief intermission – a necessity to reboot the 3-projector setup, This Is Cinerama embellishes the splendors of Florida’s Cypress Garden for an invigorating water ski aquacade, and, an even grander Floridian display of southern-styled belles parading through some very lush tropical vegetation. This is the movie’s most lurid and eye-popping moment. It is rumored cameraman Harry Squire’s eyebrows were singed clean off when his boat sailed through a ring of fire in pursuit of the speedboats and water skiers.  Lowell Thomas’ commentary is mercilessly threadbare here, allowing for a flourish of Max Steiner’s orchestral underscoring in 8-track stereophonic sound.
This Is Cinerama’s finale is a mesmerizing overhead trek across America – from its fruited plains to pinnacled mountains, with breathtaking aerial views of Manhattan, Washington D.C. and Frisco’s Golden Gate bridge feathered in for good measure – serenaded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s haunting refrains of America, The Beautiful. The moment when Harry Squire’s low-lying camera, strapped to the nose of Paul Mantz’s P-51 Mustang, goes sailing over the edge of the Grand Canyon still retains its ability to take our breath away; ditto for Mantz’s hair-raising and equilibrium-testing swoops into the jagged caverns of Zion National Park. Mantz’s plane was so close to the rocks, the experience as captured on film convinced Squires to never again fly with him. As a tragic postscript, Mantz would die while performing similar aerial maneuvers for Robert Aldrich’s Flight of the Phoenix in 1965.  
Vintage reviews of This Is Cinerama ranged from moderately glowing to downright gushing.  Frequently, critics referenced the film’s ‘travelogue’ atmosphere – something Lowell Thomas vehemently detested because in the truest definition of that word This Is Cinerama is not a ‘travelogue’ per say, but a compendium of spectacular shots incongruously assembled to suggest something of a world tour or journey, shot mostly from overhead. Despite the success of This Is Cinerama and its several highly publicized sequels ‘The Windjammer’ and Cinerama’s Seven Wonders of the World among the many highlights, in hindsight it is very easy to see why the format never went beyond this initial fascination. To say the least, Cinerama’s laborious 3-camera setup and projection process was not cost-effect. Worse, at least for conventional storytelling, it suffered from a complete inability to favor the conventional Hollywood close-up. 
Even in MGM’s all-star blockbuster How the West Was Won (1962) - one of only two traditional narrative movies to use the process, and arguably, the only one to show off Cinerama to its very best advantage - the actors and action remain at a distance from the camera, the audience even further removed from the story by the proportionate space between their theater seats and the massive curved screen. This is Cinerama can be fun. I must admit, positioning myself just so in front of an 80-inch flat screen gave me a fairly accurate ‘you are there’ effect for the roller coaster and water-skiing sequences. But on the whole, the movie plays like the grand experiment that it was, but with slight imperfections. For a truly immersive experience, see This is Cinerama on a big canvas to recreate its enveloping and comprehensive movie-going experience. On home video, one cannot help but notice the exacerbated effect of slightly misaligned panels, or the curious anomaly of having rock formations, trees, bridges and buildings infrequently appearing as though they are about to crash against one another where the Cinerama panels meet.  
This Deluxe Edition of This Is Cinerama is the second outing put forth by restorationist/Cinerama enthusiasts, David Strohmaier and Greg Kimble with one major difference. The previous release was remastered from a 70mm Panavision recomposite of the original 3-strip panels made back in 1971 for a roadshow reissue. Various critics attending this theatrical experience in 1971 were quick to point out it left much to be desired and in no way recaptured the unique clarity of the original 1952 release in all its true 3-panel glory.   For this deluxe reissue on home video, This Is Cinerama has been remastered from newly recovered archival 3-strip original negatives. The results are head and shoulders above the old release. Colors are a revelation, yielding a richness of reds, greens, blues and yellows to almost recapture the vintage look of glorious Technicolor. It’s not perfect, but it is impressive nonetheless. Kimble has also managed to reduce a goodly amount of age-related damage and camera jitter for a fairly smooth presentation. Does this improve our overall viewing experience? Absolutely! But Cinerama’s inherent shortcomings – even the small ones – are quite obvious, perhaps more so than they probably appeared in a theater in 1952 when audiences were simply overwhelmed by the sheer size of Cinerama in projection. ‘Big’ can hide a lot of sins. The DTS audio is presented in either 5.1 or 4.0 DTS and is robust and bellowing with all the drama of Cinerama’s opening night sonic splendor.
Extras this time around are plentiful. We really need to tip our hats to Strohmaier and his team, beginning with a very engrossing audio commentary provided by Cinerama Inc.’s John Sittig (Cinerama Inc.), Strohmaier, historian, Randy Gitsch and original crew member, Jim Morrison. Anyone truly into the mechanics of film in general, Cinerama in particular, and, the business of 'making movies' cannot afford to miss this track. We also get The Best in the Biz, a revamped hour-long documentary, devoted to the composers of Cinerama. There’s also, Restoring This is Cinerama a thorough account of this new restoration, plus carried over extras from the original Blu-ray release, including an alternate European Opening for Act Two; Cinerama Everywhere, a French-produced short, an homage to the New Neon Movies; a brief celebration of Cinerama’s resurgence at the Ohio theater, plus radio interviews with Cinerama’s creator, Fred Waller, and, a refreshed This is Cinerama movie trailer.  Last, but not least, we get Cinerama Returns to the Cinerama Dome; a promo for the 50th anniversary of Cinerama, a breakdown reel of footage originally projected during the interruptions of any Cinerama performance (and there were many), and finally, TV spots – originally aired to market This Is Cinerama and Seven Wonders of the World.
Perhaps the best that can be said of This Is Cinerama, removed from all its hype and the luxury of seeing it as only it should be seen – in true 3-panel projection – is that it comes across as a quaint relic instead of a newly resurrected classic for all time. Although exceedingly grateful to Strohmaier and his crew for their renewed efforts, also to Flicker Alley for their faith in reissuing it to Blu-ray – a very important part of cinema history indeed – This Is Cinerama is nevertheless not a movie most outside of the die hard collector's community, film buffs and/or historians will find compelling. For certain, it has its moments. But they do not add up to achieving that participatory spectacle movie audiences undoubtedly experienced in 1952. That’s a shame. It’s also the truth. On home video, This Is Cinerama is likely to remain an intriguing historical anomaly, not a cinematic masterpiece. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)