Wednesday, August 15, 2018

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN: Blu-ray (First Artists, 1972) Warner Archive

John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) is at once an imperfect, yet absorbing western that, with varying degrees of success, manages to make something out of the curiously awkward performance of its star, Paul Newman – stepping out of his usual ‘pretty boy’ persona with both actor and director doing their damnedest to make this titular character, morally ambiguous, occasionally even ugly and thoroughly misguided. That Newman succeeds more oft than he stumbles through this performance is a credit to his chutzpah and, of course, his acting chops. But the movie suffers from a very strange disconnect between character motivation and Newman’s own Teflon-coated personality that, at times, goes against the grain of his alter ego. There is also Huston’s shameless attempt to recapture the glory of 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s musical interlude, ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ with the ever so coy and cloying ‘Marmalade, Molasses and Honey’ – a ditty co-written by Maurice Jarre, Marilyn Bergman, Alan Bergman. Although this latter effort was nominated for an Oscar, it really does stop the show in the worst sense of that tired old cliché. And then there is the debut of Victoria Principal as the Spanish ‘hussy’, Maria Elena; Principal, undeniably sexy, but very much out of her element as she feigns a fractured accent, sounding more vaguely European than anything else and, in her stately white gown, looks ever more the porcelain figurine than earthy and tan-skinned Mexicali rose. 
Huston has some difficulty getting his plot off the ground, chiefly because he is hellbent on running the gamut in Michael Todd-styled cameos during the first third of his picture, beginning with Anthony Perkins’ Reverend LaSalle, and culminating with Roddy McDowall’s brutally ambitious Frank Gass. Between these, crop up Tab Hunter as Sam Dodd, hanged (along with a good many others) by Bean’s posse, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and, Huston himself – doing less than two minutes of mugging by moonlight as the codger, Grizzly Adams, who lets his black bear loose on Bean and Maria Elena in the hopes to stir up a little chaos after Bean denies him a settlement in his town. Instead, the bear follows Bean and Maria home, becoming their boozy pet and protector. The other oddity is the casting of megastar, Eva Gardner as Lillie Langtry – Bean’s idealized ‘perfect woman’ whom he never meets, but builds a shrine to in the outpost saloon he eventually converts into a ‘sort of’ courthouse. We spend almost 2 hrs. waiting for Gardner’s toast of Broadway to appear, and when she does, her arrival in this all but forgotten ramshackle of Vinegaroon makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Lost in the shuffle too are Ned Beatty, as Bean loyalist, Tector Crites – who inherits Lillie’s shrine after Bean’s passing and, Jacqueline Bisset, as the judge’s illegitimate daughter, Rose.   
What is most frustrating about The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is how callously Huston seems to bandy about a lot of A-list talent on a narrative that repeatedly stalls, or rather, becomes isolated into oddly framed vignettes. Perkins’ LaSalle, as example, addresses the audience with a full-on camera narration, spends a whole of six minutes aiding Bean in his burial of ‘the dead’ and then makes a flippant departure, never to be heard from again. Later, McDowell’s Gass performs a similar address with an infinitely longer stay in town as Bean’s arch nemesis and legal heir to the land on which Bean has built his modest empire, soon to become a den of iniquity after oil is discovered on the land. Originally scripted by John Milius, who equally possessed ambitions to direct the film, the project was wiggled loose from his grasp by producers, eager for Huston’s participation, and paying through the nose to get it: a whopping $300,000 for Milius to step aside. Begrudgingly, he did, and forever thereafter regretted his decision, believing Huston’s tinkering with the plot and Milius’ original plans to cast Warren Oates as the star, conspired to ruin ‘his’ picture. Producers originally sent the script to Lee Marvin, then shooting Pocket Money with Newman. Instead, Newman liked what he read and presented himself as a viable contender for the lead, his cache in Hollywood practically ensuring he would get the part.
Milius’ objections were duly noted and virtually ignored. He accused Huston of making ‘a Beverly Hills Western’, totally at odds with his original vision of Roy Bean as ‘an obsessed man’ whose recalcitrant notions of law and order were visionary and yet myopic. “I love those kind of people…who built this country! That’s the American spirit! And they say, 'What you’ve created is a reprehensible man. We’ve got to make him - cute.' So, they changed it from a Western about royalty and greed and power to a western where Andy Williams sings a song in the middle of the movie and the judge and his girl and a pet bear go off on a picnic. It’s incredible. He goes on a picnic and sits on a teeter-totter. It’s a movie about Beverly Hills people. About John Foreman and John Huston and Paul Newman.”
As though to compound this insult, Huston took Milius into his confidence along each step of this repurposing, reasoning his way through the production, as though to simultaneously torture Milius, as he watched his brainchild mutate into something quite different, but also, defend his own creative decisions. One may argue, the singular plus of this exercise was that it prompted Milius to become a director, thus to assume total creative control over his own genius for storytelling thereafter. Despite Milius’ strenuous objections over Paul Newman, Huston embraced his star with genuine affection. “My God he is a good actor,” Huston would comment, “…just marvelous…he’s caught something unique and original…there’s something uniquely American about the judge!” Huston went on, “I think we've got a hell of a picture. I think it will be very popular. Of course, I've been wrong before, but there’s a grand sort of thing about it. The wind blows through it. The story is a complete departure from reality, a pure fantasy.” A grubby little fantasy, at that! The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is an oddity in the western milieu straddling a chasm later taken on full tilt into farce by Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974). The escapist quality of Huston’s effort is queerly off; the opening sequence, depicting Bean beaten to a pulp and nearly hanged, dragged along the dust with a broken collar bone by a wild horse, leans too far into the uber-violence of The Wild Bunch (1969) – ditto for Bean’s day of retribution, as he and his posse assassinate Gass and his police force, torching to the ground Gass’ empire of oil derricks – to be offset by extracts depicting Bean as a naïve, knocked unconscious by crooks outside a San Antonio theater, or feeding bottle after bottle of hard liquor to a black bear, only to eager to indulge.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean begins with Bean’s arrival in the Texas outpost later to be rechristened Vinegaroon by him. The opium-smoking and booze-soaked clientele he encounters inside the saloon – the only building in town - pretends to cater to his needs for strong liquor and women. Promptly, however, they beat him to a pulp, steal his satchel, tie a noose around his neck and have his horse drag him, presumably to his death. Awakening hours later in the care of Maria Elena, Bean recovers from his wounds, regroups and promptly returns to the saloon, murdering every last patron who done him wrong in a hellish bloodbath. Virtually making up the rules as he goes along, Bean appoints himself ‘judge’ – the only ‘law’ west of the Pecos. As the bodies strewn about the place have been left to rot in the sun, the arrival of a traveling preacher, LaSalle is most welcomed. LaSalle helps to bury the dead, reading Biblical passages over the graves before departing. Bean rechristens the saloon The Jersey Lilly and hangs portraits of the noted actress and singer, Lillie Langtry to ‘dress up’ the place. For a brief wrinkle in time, Bean and Maria live humbly and alone; their solitude intruded upon by Big Bart Jackson (Jim Burk) and his outlaws, including Nick the Grub (Matt Clark), Fermel Parlee (Billy McKinney), Tector Crites, and, Whorehouse Lucky Jim (Steve Kanaly). Outnumbered, and no fool, Bean makes the impromptu decision to swear the men in as his deputies. Together, they will administer ‘the law’ – such as it is according to Roy Bean.
The boys dispense with a murderer, Sam Dodd and share in his loot. But Bean’s idea of frontier justice is more than a tad perplexing. He abides several drunks who shoot up his saloon; all, except for one who accidentally fires his pistol into the poster bosom of Lillie Langtry and is immediately shot dead for this effrontery to the ‘great lady’ by Bean.  The plot trips along through a series of disposable sketches. A pimp (Jack Colvin) with a carriage full of whores (Karen Carr, Lee Meza, Dolores Clark, Francesca Jarvis) is hung by Bean. Shortly thereafter, Bean parcels off ‘these ladies’ to his men who wed to make them respectable. But Bean’s attempt to take one of the prostitutes for his own is intercepted by Maria Elena. She jealously pursues the whore at gunpoint. An albino, Bad Bob (Stacey Keach) rides through town in a hailstorm of bullets, bringing momentary havoc to this burgeoning outpost until Bean also shoots him dead with his rifle from a hay loft.  Maria Elena occupies a special place in Bean’s heart. She is afforded some fine clothes ordered from the Sears-Roebuck catalog. Bean further promises her she can have anything she desires. Elena’s rather simple request for a music box will eventually be fulfilled by Bean, but not before tragedy strikes at the couple. In the meantime, mountain man, Grizzly Adams and his black bear, ‘Zachary Taylor’ arrive in town. Adams is looking to settle down. But Bean denies him this luxury. Willfully, Adams frees his bear. However, instead of attacking Bean, the animal becomes his pet. Adams departs for the open plain, leaving Zac behind.
Not long thereafter, attorney at law, Frank Gass pulls in with a bill of sale, claiming all rights to the land grant currently occupied by Bean and Vinegaroon. Not about to surrender the town, Bean instead has Gass locked up with the bear until the terrorized lawyer begs for mercy. Thereafter seen to reason, Gass begrudgingly accepts Bean’s invitation to practice law in Vinegaroon. His work generates respectable profits and with this affluence, also influence Gass steadily used to erode the town’s confidence in Bean as their patronne. Meanwhile, learning from the papers Lillie Langtry is set to perform at a theater in San Antonio, Bean departs for the big city in his newly purchased tuxedo, leaving Maria Elena, already eight months pregnant with his child, in the care of her family. Alas, unaccustomed to the finer points of social etiquette, Bean is easily spotted as a rube in a three-piece suit by the locals. Nobody takes him seriously. After discovering Langtry’s theatrical engagement has been sold out for months, Bean offers to bribe several patrons with a wallet-full of money for their tickets. Instead, he is taken advantage of by a pair of cons (Anthony Zerbe, John Hudkins) who lure him to the alley behind the theater with the promise of a backstage pass. The pair knocks him unconscious and steals everything.
Returning to Vinegaroon without ever having seen Miss Lillie perform, Bean is informed by his men that Maria Elena has had a particularly difficult birth. The child – a girl, later named Rose – survived. But Elena is on her deathbed. Bean fulfills his promise of the music box. But Elena dies in his arms shortly thereafter, leaving Bean shell-shocked and grief-stricken. Departing the saloon, Bean is confronted by Gass, only too gleefully ready to inform him the town council and his own men have elected him mayor of Vinegaroon. Gass’ first order of business is to strip Bean of his title as magistrate. Disgusted by this turn of events, Bean mounts his horse and rides off, presumably never again to return. In the interim, Gass fires Bean’s marshals; the men, forced to take up serious work and faring poorly in their newly chosen professions. Tector inherits the saloon and rears Bean’s daughter, Rose, the girl growing up in the midst of Gass’ oil boom town; transformed from a simple and God-fearing little outpost, into a ‘progressive’, though sin-ridden hamlet where money is the only thing being worshipped.  The adult Rose is ordered to get out of town by Gass. She refuses. Unexpectedly, Bean returns to Vinegaroon. Determined to take a last stand against Gass the judge, now elderly, regroups his men. On the eve Gass orders his police to descend on the saloon and evict Rose, Bean leads a nightmarish charge on the town. In a blaze of glory and gunfire, Gass’ Vinegaroon is burned to the ground.
The desert reclaims the land, leaving Bean’s original saloon the only standing structure in the middle of nowhere. Time passes. We are never told what became of Rose or the men who survived this terrible night. As the railroad has long since come through, by a curious twist of fate, Lillie Langtry arrives in town and is shown into Bean’s archived shrine by Tector; explaining to Langtry how the judge – who has since passed on - dedicated his whole life to the preservation of her career and memory. Langtry, a genteel flower in the truest sense, and exactly as Bean has imagined her – pure of heart and stunningly handsome – is deeply moved by this altar built by a man whom she never met, but has ostensibly worshipped her from afar. Tector presents Lillie with the impassioned letter Bean wrote, but never quite had the guts to mail to her so very long ago. As Lillie reads Bean’s glowing praises the light begins to dim; the time between them, having already set as the sun.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is an oddly structured western at best. Its last act is rather poignant, but unbelievable; the judge, reclaiming ‘his’ land, and bringing about an end to Gass’ ambitious plans to be an oil baron, more mythologically satisfying than based in any sort of perfectly formed make-believe. Lillie’s long anticipated discovery of Bean’s idol worship is also too conveniently dispatched. Given her prominence in Bean’s heart, it is more than a little off-putting Eva Gardner’s role in the picture is reduced to a mere cameo at the end. Uniformly speaking, the performances given throughout the picture are solid, if unprepossessing. None of the characters who populate Vinegaroon make much of a splash. Roddy McDowell’s villain is weakly defined. His ruination in the end satisfies the plot but is otherwise unfulfilling as Gass has always been unworthy of Bean’s time and energies. Undeniably, John Huston is having a great deal of fun poking at the balloons of hypocrisy regarding class and social status, nowhere more humorously than when Bean’s men implore the judge to speak kindly to their wives, who have taken it into their heads since marriage they are somehow more respectable than Maria Elena, never ‘officially’ made Bean’s wife.  In one of the most hilarious back-handed apologies ever conceived, Newman’s low-keyed Bean delivers the following salutation: “I understand you have taken exception to my calling you whores. I'm sorry. I apologize. I ask you to note that I did not call you callous-ass strumpets, fornicatresses, or low-born gutter sluts. But I did say whores. No escaping that. And for that slip of the tongue, I apologize.”
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean arrives on Blu-ray via the Warner Archive in a transfer that is intermittently problematic. For the most part, the image has been stabilized with a bright palette of colors. Flesh tones appear too orange or piggy pink. On occasion, the entire palette also suffers from momentary muddiness; close-ups looking refined with a light smattering of film grain indigenous to its source, interpolated by medium and long shots looking duller with a noted amplification of grain. Overall, there is a residual ‘softness’ that creeps into Richard Moore’s cinematography, and at least one instance where close-ups of Newman’s Bean look as though they have been sourced, either from a badly produced blow-up or ‘second generation’ prints cut into the original camera negative. Odd. When the image is crisp, it looks very good indeed – the arrival of Grizzly Adams, at dusk, superbly rendered, as is the simply gorgeous desert landscape at sunset as Maria Elena asks Bean to bring her back a music box that plays ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’. I suspect virtually all of the aforementioned inconsistencies in the image are a flaw inherent in the source materials and not caused by faulty 1080p mastering. The audio is 2.0 mono and adequate. Occasionally, dialogue can sound a tad muffled. On the whole, the track is solid. Apart from a badly worn theatrical trailer, there are no extras. Bottom line: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is for Newman or Huston completionists only. All others can easy forgo its curiously leaden blend of light comedy and darkly purposed action and drama.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

THE OLD DARK HOUSE: Blu-ray (Universal, 1932) Cohen Media Group

Director James Whale and screenwriters, R. C. Sherriff, and, Benn W. Levy make atmospheric gumbo of The Old Dark House (1932), a thoroughly moody, but mostly leaden and misguided attempt to recapture the Gothic horror of Whale’s monumental Frankenstein, made and released the previous year. The Old Dark House is based on ‘Benighted’ a novel by J.B. Priestley, following the exploits of six frightened strangers, laid up in a doomed manor house during a hellish thunderstorm. Whale gets a lot of mileage out of this premise; also, Russell A. Gausman’s set decoration, expertly lit and photographed by cinematographer extraordinaire, Arthur Edeson. But it is all for not as our superb cast gets mired in an episodic and not altogether prepossessing series of bizarre vignettes, intermittently peppered by some light, and equally as out-of-touch bits of comedy – mostly timed at the expense of Charles Laughton’s English lord, Sir William Porterhouse; a crass ole bugger who bought his title, and, apparently, the affections of his mistress, Gladys DuCane/Perkins (Lilian Bond), already on the wane and being rechanneled toward the infamously lazy bon vivant, Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas, as a bad boy?!?). Also, along for the scares and silliness are caustic marrieds, Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart), who begin the picture at each other’s throats but wind up aligned in their mutual fear of the Femm clan – proprietors of this curiously castle-esque estate. It was a dark and stormy night…stop me if you have heard this one before.
The Femms are a queer bunch, fronted by the perpetually quizzical and fragile, Horace (Ernest Thesiger), his embittered and beady-eyed harridan of a sister, Rebecca (Eva Moore), the practically mummified and bedridden Sir Roderick (Elspeth ‘billed as John’ Dudgeon), and, his mad-as-a-hatter ‘younger’ brother, Saul (Brember Wills, in the gender flipside of Jane Eyre’s crazy ole lady, locked in the attic). The family is attended by Morgan (Boris Karloff, top-billed, and, once again evocatively disfigured by makeup artist, Jack Pierce’s masterful collodion and spirit gum applications), a horrifically scarred, perpetually lumbering and boozy/mute butler who intermittently breaks apart furniture and harbors a pseudo-erotic yen for Margaret. In Philip’s absence, Morgan pursues Maggie around the dining table. Cast wise, The Old Dark House has much going for it. That it all seems to fall apart almost from the moment the Wavertons, with Penderel in tow, intrude upon the usual macabre taking place at Casa Femm, is thus a real letdown. But the plot, such as it is, falls apart and quickly degenerates into the sort of ‘okay…what’s next?’ mishmash that makes for some dizzying, frantic moments never to actually come together and thoroughly haunt us.
We begin in earnest with the arrival of Philip, Margaret and Roger, quite lost in the storm, and barely escaping both a flash flood and landslide en route to ‘the old dark house’ in the Welsh countryside. Curiously, none of the cast even attempt a Welsh accent. Very reluctantly, they are given shelter by Horace, against the strenuous objections of Rebecca, a vial old crone. Horace is a nervous lot, forewarning this trio of trespassers that the family’s butler, Morgan, drinks like a fiend and is apt to become uncontrollably violent. Karloff’s beastly goon is, actually, the best thing in The Old Dark House. He conveys so much with only body language to support his performance. Under duress, Rebecca escorts the sopping wet Margaret to an upstairs bedroom where she regales her with the Femm family’s legacy - sinful and godless. Perhaps owing to her jealousy of the much younger and strikingly beautiful Margaret, who slips into a rather slinky silken evening gown, Rebecca accuses her too of being immoral. Rebecca also reveals that her 102-yr-old father, Sir Roderick still lives, bedridden in an upstairs room.
The Wavertons and Penderel settle in for the night. They are offered light supper; the meal intruded upon by the slovenly Sir William Porterhouse who, along with his mistress, chorine Gladys DuCane, have also become lost in the gale. Getting further acquainted around a roaring fire, Gladys reveals ‘DuCane’ is just a stage name. She was born Gladys Perkins. Roger suggests the mood might be lightened by a little libation; a bottle of whiskey left in the Waverton’s car currently parked in the shed behind the house.  Gladys elects to accompany Roger to the garage to retrieve it. At this juncture, predictably, the lights go out; always the trigger to split up our remaining cast so the true horror can begin. Curiously, however, this never happens. Rebecca orders Horace to get a lamp from the upstairs landing. The petrified Horace is slightly calmed when Philip offers to accompany him. But only one flight up, Horace implores Philip to go the rest of the way alone. Unknowing, Philip agrees. He finds the lamp, along with a plate of half-eaten food on a table next to a bolted and locked door. Meanwhile, Morgan – very drunk – attacks Margaret, chasing her around the dining table. Terrorized, Margaret ascends the stairs and is rejoined by her husband, who defends her honor by striking and knocking Morgan down the first flight of stairs.
We regress to the garage where Roger and Gladys, after some mild flirting, have already begun to fall in love. Fast action, folks…and very nice work if you can get it! The rather forthright Gladys claims a platonic partnership with the much older Sir William before making her sly pitch to live with Roger instead. Undaunted by her liberated sexuality, Roger concurs. They should run away together. So, the couple returns to the main house to inform William of their new arrangement. Interestingly, he is hardly angered or disgusted by this change of events. Evidently, his hopes for a love affair with Gladys were not as prescient. Meanwhile, Philip and Margaret discover a decrepit Sir Roderick, peacefully resting in a stately – and oddly enough, cozy – bedroom. He forewarns them of the eldest prodigal, Saul, a notorious pyromaniac kept under lock and key in the attic for his own good and everyone else’s safety. Too late, everyone discovers Morgan has freed Saul. Charging at the group, Morgan is wrestled by Roger, Philip and William, who can barely manage him. Rebecca locks herself in her bedroom and Philip orders Margaret and Gladys to barricade themselves in the pantry.
Saul descends the stairs and, appearing old and infirmed, pleads with Roger not to return him to the attic. Roger’s compassion proves his undoing as Saul, now, is transformed into precisely the sort of raving psychotic. Possessing superhuman strength, Saul pummels the more youthful Roger into submission. Saul seizes a flaming log from the hearth and sets afire a large tapestry handing from the balcony. Roger momentarily regains consciousness. But in his feeble attempt to prevent the fire, both he and Saul tumble from the second story balcony into the dining hall, presumably to their deaths. Indeed, Saul has perished in the fall. But Roger shows weakened signs of life and is attended to by Gladys. After attempting to assault Gladys and Margaret, Morgan is shown Saul’s body. The lumbering giant buckles with sadness over the loss, carrying Saul’s lifeless body back to the attic. At the break of dawn, Roger regains consciousness and sincerely proposes marriage to Gladys as everyone prepares to leave the old dark house for the last time.
The Old Dark House was largely dismissed by both critics and audiences in 1932. I can certainly see why. It simply fails to catch either the tail fires of Whale’s Frankenstein or tries much too hard to become something it is not – a would-be masterpiece of ‘horror’. Whale would have likely preferred ‘suspense’. Yet, this too is never achieved. It is difficult, if not downright impossible, to become invested in the comings and goings of six strangers whose character traits are as cartoony and cardboard cutout as anything ever seen on the screen. Worse, there is no dramatic arc to the piece. The moments of ‘suspense’ that do arise seem to come out of left field with little or no build-up to prepare the audience. There is nothing even remotely compelling about the way this whole ugly, but decidedly little affair is cobbled together, as though, from the remnants after Dr. Frankenstein finished constructing his monster.   Screenwriter, Ben Levy (on loan out from Paramount) and Whale had conspired the year before on Waterloo Bridge (1931) – a most impressive offering. Only this time around, Levy is lost, or rather mired by the particulars of J. B. Priestley novel about post-World War I disillusionment – badly bungled with inserts of crudely assembled comedy.
Perhaps justly, audiences did not gravitate to The Old Dark House in 1932 as Universal had hoped. Variety labeled it a ‘somewhat inane picture’. Personally, I think they were being too kind here.  There is little to deny audience reaction to The Old Dark House. Although booked for 3 weeks at New York’s Rialto Theater, attendance dramatically dropped off after only 10 days. Negative press and bad word of mouth sank its prospects in virtually every major city thereafter. Ironically, the picture did better in Britain where it even broke records and was actually afforded a reissue in 1939. In 1957, Universal Studios failed to renew the rights and in 1963 schlockmeister, William Castle offered audiences his failed take on The Old Dark House. Perhaps due to its obscurity, in the interim since, Whale’s original has garnered a reputation as a pre-eminent gothic horror classic, spared the indignation of becoming a ‘lost film’ by Whale’s friend and curator, Curtis Harrington who, after an exhaustive search in 1968, persuaded George Eastman House to preserve The Old Dark House for posterity. While today’s critics have been far more forgiving of the picture’s monumental shortcomings, oddly charmed by its ‘impressively atmospheric and hilariously grim’, if less than grand guignol, The Old Dark House really is more of an anomaly in the Universal canon of horror classics. It does not represent Whale at his creative peak, but rather effectively serves to illustrate even geniuses have their misfires and follies to bear.
Cohen Media Group have helped restore and remaster The Old Dark House on Blu-ray. Likely due to its rarely seen status, also Curtis Harrington’s concerted efforts to archive it along the way, the original camera negative is in astonishingly good shape. The B&W elements simply sparkle with remarkable clarity. Contrast is superb, film grain accurately balanced, and fine detail abounding throughout with virtually no presence of age-related artifacts. Truly, there is nothing to complain about here. The 2.0 DTS mono is equally impressive. Less so are the extras Cohen offers up. We get a fairly engaging interview with Sara Karloff – Boris’ daughter. This is a newly recorded piece and well worth the price of admission. But the ‘interview’ with Curtis Harrington – obviously recorded several decades earlier – is badly represented here, with poor video quality and truncated besides. It begins and ends in the middle with no introduction or closure to the discussion. There are two audio commentaries to consider; neither particularly good – the first, from Gloria Stuart, who at least exhibits remarkable recall in discussing a picture she made nearly 70 years earlier: the other, belatedly provided by biographer, James Curtis. Curtis does not even begin his track until well after the credits have rolled and then, only intermittently does he speak, preferring to let the movie’s soundtrack play with long pauses in between. Boring! Finally, we get the 2017 trailer, plus trailers for other Cohen product, annoyingly to precede the movie. Bottom line: The Old Dark House is not a classic nor a masterpiece. Although it sports a very fine cast and many of Whale’s inspired creative touches, it never comes across as dramatically compelling or even mildly scary. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, August 10, 2018

THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN: Blu-ray (Walt Disney Pictures, 1985) Disney Club Exclusive

When it was released in 1985, promotional art for Jeremy Paul Kagan’s The Journey of Natty Gann declared it, “Unforgettable…undeniable…Disney.” That the movie managed to thoroughly live up to its claim, and, the valued hallmarks in family entertainment inculcated by the studio, to hark all the way back to Walt’s own craftsmanship in his heyday, was perhaps as thoroughly gratifying as it substantiated a most welcomed surprise and return to form. After all, Walt Disney Pictures had not produced a totally memorable live-action movie in quite some time. Despite some valiant efforts between the old mogul’s death in 1966 and 1985, the consistency of quality was lacking, belabored by some high-profile flops that put a distinct strain on the company’s coffers (as well as applying considerable tarnish to its reputation as purveyors of ‘family’ fare). This was due, at least in part, to an ironic change in the times and tastes of the movie-going public. Suddenly, Walt’s particular brand of wholesomeness had fallen hopelessly out of favor. A change in the company’s top management, another applied to its foundering business acumen and Disney Inc., for all intent and purposes, steadily began to claw its way back from the brink of bankruptcy throughout the 1980's. Diversification helped; new boss, Michael Eisner instituting a fragmentation of the film output, exclusively released either via the Walt Disney Pictures or Touchstone brands.
All the more impressive then, The Journey of Natty Gann came across as thoroughly ole-fashioned (in the best sense of that word). Buoyed by a winsome performance from newcomer Meredith Salinger, as the wide-eyed, if determined innocent, given a crash course in the hardships of the Great Depression, an inspirational underscore by James Horner (whose compositions replaced those originally written by Elmer Bernstein), and, Dick Bush’s utterly gorgeous cinematography, capturing some of the most startlingly dramatic master shots along the BC Rail, The Journey of Natty Gann emerged as, perhaps, the most perfectly realized ‘family film’ of the 1980's; genuine in its sentiment, compelling in its narrative, and quite simply, beautiful to look at in all its artful, Thomas Cole-inspired compositions. Paul Sylbert’s production design is ‘spot on’ perfection, as are Michael S. Bolton’s art direction, Jim Erickson’s set decoration and Albert Wolsky’s costume design, cumulatively to capture the essential, grit and clutter of a shanty town-plagued generation, populated by stern, yet stout-hearted men and women, stalwartly refusing to throw in the towel and crumble under the pressures of seemingly insurmountable hard times.
The Journey of Natty Gann is a tale of self-reliance and self-discovery, capped off by a heartwarming and teary-eyed bond of reunion. Along this harrowing path, passing through some of the most exotic and uniquely ‘American’ landscapes, a young tomboy is taught the value of friendship by the unlikeliest companions – a grey-haired, golden-eyed wolf (played by Jed), whom she saves from the brutalities of a staged dogfight – and, hinted at bittersweet romance between the 15-year-old Natty and 20-something Harry (John Cusack), a youthful tramp who repeatedly defends the girl’s honor. Employing superb storytelling economy, as Natty’s journey evolves over many days and nights, but only takes an hour and forty minutes to actually tell on the screen – this gallant trek seems far more emotionally grand, as director, Kagan delivers an infinitely arresting saga that never fails to enthrall. Ultimately, the success of this minor masterpiece rests squarely on the slender shoulders of 15-year-old Meredith Salinger; an intuitive star at the outset who conveys wounded pride, forthright determination, heart-sore yearning and bull-headed resolve in tandem; a real ‘kid’ of these Depression-era streets with a heart as pure as gold. Salinger’s steadfastness in the role serves Natty’s unbreakable bond with her father, Sol (Ray Wise) who is forced to temporarily abandon the girl to Connie (Lainie Kazan giving us shades of Little Orphan Annie’s ‘Miss Hannigan’) a heartless proprietress of the hotel where the Ganns reside.
Convincingly to encounter virtually every major obstacle on her cross-country quest, including a narrow escape from death after a train derailment, and, incarceration in a brutal workhouse for her part in a botched cattle rustling, there is not one step in Natty’s odyssey uncomplicated, nor able to detour our diminutive heroine. It may seem a little queer to refer to any father/daughter relationship as ‘passionate’. But Natty and Sol are inseparable. Despite the vast expanses that momentarily part them, Natty is staunchly invested. Nothing will prevent her. And thus, our journey with her begins. Jeanne Rosenberg’s screenplay is a masterclass in how to parcel off run time, stretching barely two hours into a never tedious and seemingly days’ long expedition. The Journey of Natty Gann really does take its audience on a trip, at once, satisfying the mind, while burrowing deep into our collective hearts with an emotional intensity, far to outlast its brief stay on the screen. There is not a frame wasted, nor an instance when we do not feel anything less than an immersive compassion for this clear-eyed girl. Natty’s struggles are relatable and timeless: particularly when the world beyond seems determined to see us fail, and yet, still appeals as exhilarating, if terrifyingly infinite.  
Set at the height of the Great Depression – 1935 – our story begins in Chicago with a meeting of unionized workers at a local steel mill. The employee’s representative, Sol Gann has given the bosses an ultimatum the company will not abide. As the heated debate among workers continues, in a bathroom stall young Natty is sharing a stolen cigarette with two cohorts, Louie (Zachary Ansley) and Frankie (Jordan Pratt). But when Frankie accuses Natty’s dad of being a ‘commi’, Natty attempts to pummel him silly. Mending her bruised cheek from this fight, Sol is proud of his daughter. It has not been easy raising a girl alone. Still, Natty and Sol get by. While Sol hangs out at the local employment agency, hoping for work, Natty spends her days wandering the crowded streets, befriending Sherman (Scatman Crothers), a local vendor who advises her on the virtues of prudence. But when Sol gets a last-minute call for steady employment as a lumberjack in Washington, he leaves Natty behind without a goodbye, and, worst of all, in the care of the shallow-hearted Wagnerian-built, vulgarian, Connie, who does Sol this one favor because she once hoped to lure him romantically – also, because he is paying her, with the promise to mail Natty a train ticket to rejoin him just as soon as he can earn enough money to pay for it.
Life with Connie is not easy. Indeed, she is cruel, impatient and generally resentful of Natty. After observing Frankie and his family being evicted from their tenement, and partaking of the mob assault on the police, Natty is brought back to the hotel by a couple of officers, much to Connie’s chagrin. Deciding for herself that Sol is not coming back, and, quite unwilling to play ‘mother’ to the girl any longer, Connie telephones a local orphanage to report an abandoned child. Overhearing this call, Natty breaks out of her locked room, tying bedsheets together to lower herself from a second-story window to ground level. She hurries to the depot and attempts to board a moving train bound for Washington. Saved from certain harm by Harry, another hobo already inside the boxcar, the two become briefly acquainted. The next morning, Natty narrowly escapes being caught by the rail yard police. She stumbles into town and a nearby paddock where a rabble of jeering men are engaging a wolf and a Doberman in a ruthless dog fight. The wolf kills its competitor and escapes recapture, aided by Natty. Sneaking back to the depot and another boxcar, Natty is confronted by the growling wolf, already aboard.  As a peace offering, she places a half-rotten/half-eaten apple, early stolen from the garbage for her own dinner, for the wolf’s consideration. Meanwhile, Sol learns from Connie that his daughter has run away.
Spending the night asleep inside a cement sewer pipe traveling on the moving train’s flatbed, Natty is awakened when the cars suddenly derail in the middle of the wilderness, sending her tumbling to the ground. Barely surviving a series of hellish explosions, Natty’s wallet is later discovered among the wreckage; Connie passing along the grim information to Sol – that his daughter likely died in the blast. Unwilling to accept this, Sol journeys to the site. And although no remains are discovered, Sol is forced to admit the likelihood of Natty’s survival is slim. Ah, but even he has underestimated his daughter. Natty has endured, spared starvation by the wolf who, having eaten her apple the night before now deposits a freshly killed rabbit at her feet, presumably to return the favor, before vanishing into the woods. An impromptu storm forces Natty into a hollow cave where she again encounters the wolf. Exhausted, scared but recalcitrant, Natty refuses to go out in the rain. She awakens some hours later, newly refreshed to find the wolf has lain down to provide her a cushion while she rested. The wolf and Natty cross many hills and valleys together, their bond of loyalty growing stronger with each passing hour.
At one point, the wolf attempts to deliver Natty to a local farmer (Frank C. Turner) and his pregnant wife (Verna Bloom). Alas, this respite is short-lived when the farmer, mistaking the wolf after his hens, tries to shoot him. Natty bravely defends her friend from the buckshot and scurries with the wolf into the woods. A short while later, Natty falls into a bad lot of dime store ruffians, fronted by Parker (Barry Miller); a sort of Depression-era Fagan, who enlists wayward and discarded youth for the purposes of common thievery. After providing Natty with food and temporary shelter, Parker orders her to climb into a pen and usher a prize bull toward their nearby waiting truck. Unhappy circumstance that, while Natty and wolf are successful in their partaking of this theft, Parker and his brood (Grant Heslov, Gary Riley, Scott Andersen, Ian Tracey and Jennifer Michas) do not wait for either of them to catch up. Natty is captured, convicted of the crime of cattle rustling and remanded to a juvenile detention center. Wolf is taken in chains and awarded to local blacksmith, Charlie Linfield (Bruce M. Fischer), who bears a horrible facial scar.
Life in the detention center is strictly regimented by a trio of stone-faced matrons (Gabrielle Rose, Marie Klingenberg and Kaye Grieve) who brook no nonsense from their pintsized inmates. Natty’s defiance lands her in solitary confinement. Nevertheless, she befriends Twinky (Hannah Cutrona), a waif several years her junior, who helps in her escape to freedom through a drain pipe. Arriving at the blacksmith by night, Natty confronts Charlie as to the wolf’s whereabouts. In reply, the imposing, but kind-hearted Charlie releases the animal from his paddock. Wolf and Natty are reunited and Charlie affords Natty enough money to buy a ticket on a real train to complete her trip in style. Again, fate intervenes as the Station Master (Alex Diakun) recognizes Natty from her description in a police circular. Overhearing him telephone for the authorities, Natty vanishes without a trace, resurfacing sometime later with wolf in tow, and again, making her pilgrimage on foot. She is picked up by a man in a truck who tries to molest her. Wolf springs into action and saves Natty from ruin; the pair, staging a terrifying escape from the careening truck.
A short while later, Natty and the wolf arrive at a desolate shanty town beneath a grubby train trestle. Momentarily reunited with Harry, who offers Natty his pot of cooked beans with no strings attached, their reunion is cut short when the bullwhips arrive by the truckload to destroy what they consider a blight on their community, beating up the destitute men who live in the shanties and burning down their squalid shacks. Meanwhile, Sol, still grieving over the ‘loss’ of his daughter, makes a bitter request of his logging boss (John Finnegan) to assign him the most perilous job in the camp; top-cutter of the towering pine trees, effectively nicknamed ‘widow’s work’ as it often leads to accidental death. Now, Harry and Natty make their way to the coast. Harry is exuberant after finding work through the federal Works Progress Administration in San Francisco. He sees this as his new beginning. But his pride is wounded when an offer to have Natty accompany him is rejected. She needs to find her father first. Natty makes the last length of her cross-country tramp with the wolf, undeterred when the logging camp’s workmen’s manifesto does not list a Sol Gann among its employees. The company’s human resource manager (Sheelah Megill) admonishes Natty for her inquiry at first. But after the girl makes it halfway up the mountainside, the manager’s heart softens considerably and she agrees to do her level best to locate Sol Gann.
Indeed, a small company of men are still high atop the mountain, assigned a perilous mission to detonate explosives to remove the last remnants of buried stumps, otherwise irremovable from the land. Natty travels aboard a truck towards the site as Sol and his team prepare to detonate these charges. Alas, the dynamite is prematurely ignited, causing an epic explosion that severely wounds the men. Having stalled in her ride, Natty hears the echoes from this upsurge, assumes the worst, and witnesses as a truck carrying the men – among them, her father – hurries down the mountain, determined to get these wounded to hospital. Unable to intercept the truck, Natty cries out for her father, not knowing whether her tearful shouts are being heard. Valiantly, she trudges downward, only to witness the truck already several miles below and still racing towards base camp. Mercifully, Sol has not accompanied it. He appears, almost miraculously from behind; as yet, in total disbelief his daughter has found him. Sol and Natty are reunited. From a respectful distance, the wolf quietly observes, before disappearing, presumably for the last time, into the woods. Each of these travelling companions has found their true home.
The Journey of Natty Gann is an extraordinarily heart-felt celebration of life. If the picture has a flaw, it intermittently suffers from precisely the sort of joyfully forgivable and wholesome, fresh-faced hokum that used to permeate Disney films en masse. Case in point, a pensive moment where the cynical Harry observes as a belated wolf races alongside their speeding rail car, repeatedly informs Natty, “He’ll never make it.” When the animal majestically leaps from a craggy embankment, sailing through the air, outwardly with little effort through the open door, Harry’s pessimism instantly melts away as he declares with a smile, “He made it!” For those old enough to remember, there remains a genuine and palpable ‘Grizzly Adams’ quality to this slice of starkly bucolic Americana – untapped in the movies during this interim; Dan Haggerty’s bearded woodsman and Ben the bear traded for this wisp of a girl and her devoted four-legged compatriot.  Ironically, although set in Depression-era America, virtually all of The Journey of Natty Gann was shot in Alberta and British Columbia, Canada, its resplendent rural grandeur captured by cinematographer, Dick Bush with a painterly eye for achieving masterful compositions, virtually absent since the likes of imminent film-maker, David Lean departed the industry.
Undervalued in its own time, as it grossed only a modest profit of $9,708,373, and virtually unseen anywhere after its brief reprieve on network television, truncated and severely cropped as part of ABC’s Disney Sunday Movie lineup, The Journey of Natty Gann was granted an abysmal reprieve by Disney Home Video in 1997: a thoroughly awful DVD, cropped in pan and scan, with wan colors that could not even hint at the once exhilarating pictorial value in Bush’s cinematography. But now, after far too long an absence, comes the hi-def Blu-ray debut via Disney’s ‘exclusive archive’. The results, while light years beyond anything since its theatrical engagement, are still less than perfect. The chief transgressor here is film grain. It never appears indigenous to its source; clumpy and thick during sequences shot at night/all but non-existent during brightly lit scenes. Mercifully, none of the image is marred by excessive DNR, and fine details abound in virtually every frame.
There are minute traces of edge enhancement, very slight and not distracting, but present nonetheless. Color fidelity is exceptional, the predominantly dingy palette of Depression-riddled grey/brown cities and shanty towns contrasted by some of the lushest greenery, splashes of blood red, and stark, snow-capped mountain-scapes that simply take one’s breath away. Flesh tones appear slightly pinker than anticipated and are rather artificial in tone. Contrast is superb with deep, velvety blacks, and crisp whites. Oddly, the soundtrack is 5.1 Dolby Digital, not DTS; a genuine shame, since James Horner’s score would undoubtedly benefit from this upgrade to lossless audio. What is here sounds really good, if not altogether outstanding. As with all other ‘archive’ releases, there are NO extras. Pity that! The Journey of Natty Gann deserves a comprehensive 'making of' featurette. It is family entertainment of the highest order. This Blu-ray, while not ideal, is superior to every home video presentation gone before it. It should be considered a Christmas stocking stuffer for both the young and young in heart. To see The Journey of Natty Gann again, and in all its Panavision glory, sincerely warmed my heart. Truly, it never entirely left it since 1985 – always the hallmark of a great movie. Now I remember why. Bottom line: Very highly recommended.  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1956) Twilight Time

In 1951, noted author, William Bradford Huie wrote of an impoverished young woman from Mississippi who went to Hollywood to stake her claim on a career as an actress. This dream, short-lived, she turned instead to prostitution to pay the bills, moved to Honolulu and took up work in – what else? – a brothel that she later took over and used as a springboard to buy up real estate cheap, becoming a ruthless wartime profiteer. Huie’s allegory for the decline of American society became a best seller, and, the first in a trilogy of books thus themed: The Americanization of Emily and Hotel Mamie Stover being the other two. By the mid-fifties, 2oth Century-Fox outbid the other majors for the rights to produce the first in Huie’s runaway potboiler series; attaching their numero uno sexpot, Marilyn Monroe to the project. Monroe, alas, turned Fox down, leaving the part wide open for her Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) co-star, Jane Russell to step in.  Given the stringencies of Hollywood’s Production Code at the time, the screen incarnation of The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956) feels more like a minor mutiny than an ‘all out’ revolution, or gestalt to decry the times; director, Raoul Walsh and screenwriter, Sidney Boehm forced to make huge concessions that blunted the generally seedy nature of the story.
Hence, Russell’s Mamie is not a whore – just misunderstood, and, curiously run out of town (the bookends relocating the ousted madam from Hollywood to San Francisco, perhaps because Huie’s critique hit just a wee too close to home for the film-making community). Just why Mamie is encouraged to leave…well…we are never entirely told as much. Shortly after landing in Hawaii, Mamie finds work at ‘The Bungalow’ in Honolulu – not a brothel, but a colorful hotspot where sailors buy tickets to dance, play gin rummy or drink watered-down liquor with a bevy of ‘good-time gals’ who just happen to dress the part of high-class escorts, even though there is no hanky-panky going on. Right! The film also downplays the ‘relationship’ between these working girls and the Bungalow’s proprietress, Bertha Parchman (a blonde and very ‘butch’ Agnes Moorehead) – so desperate to woo Mamie back into service, she offers her a 70% cut from the profits derived from all her hard work. In the great Hollywood tradition of yesteryear, ‘this’ Revolt of Mamie Stover is a fairly glamorous affair; Jane Russell’s hourglass figure poured into a stunning ensemble of form-fitted Travilla gowns, exponentially to show off her two amply endowed assets to their fullest potential. This, plus the sight of seeing the usually brunette turned hooker henna Russell is enough to set the heart of any red-blooded male pounding. Wow, and what a woman!   
Less of a thrill is the plot that spends far too much of its meager run time in lamentation over Mamie’s lovestruck pining for successful novelist, Jim Blair (50’s beefcake, Richard Egan, tanned, hulking and intermittently shirtless on the beach). After Mamie is given the old heave-ho by Frisco’s local constabulary, she boards a tramp steamer bound for Hawaii. These two ‘meet cut’ when Jim is informed by the ship’s Capt. Gorecki (Alan Reed) there is ‘strange cargo’ aboard and Mamie, overhearing their conversation, decides to set the record straight and quietly cut the Captain ‘a new one’ for his blindsided admonishment of her. Gorecki and Jim are amused. But soon, Jim is drawn to Mamie. A shipboard romance evolves, problematically, since Jim cannot quite shake off his prudery regarding her kind of woman. Nobly, he turns down Mamie’s offer to move in together, but then throws a few dollars in her direction, either to get her started or keep her honest. Proud, but not above accepting the payment, Mamie and Jim depart the steamer in Honolulu as friends. Disembarking, Mamie pays close attention to Annalee Johnson (Joan Leslie in her last screen role) – the nice girl, all dressed in white, come to meet her sweetheart at the docks. So, this is what men want? The hell it is!
Mamie wastes no time looking up an ole pal, Jackie Davis (Jorja Curtright), who hooks her up with a gig at ‘The Bungalow’ – a tropically-themed nightclub, catering to the local male gentry and service men stationed nearby at Pearl Harbor – just a bunch of nondescript lonely guys, desperate, horny and out for ‘fun’; a word of many permutations. The club’s proprietress, Bertha Parchman, has a very strict set of rules she expects every girl to live by under her employ. No boyfriends – they take up too much of a girl’s free time – and no bank accounts to bother the IRS. Bertha is none too keen to have any of her girls seen outside these premises – but especially at the posher hotels or Waikiki beach. After all, what is the point of opening up the store if you give the goods away? Overseeing the nightly operations is Harry Adkins (Michael Pate); goon muscle to keep out the riffraff, but also rough up any girl who believes she can do better on her own. Billed as ‘hostesses’, Bertha’s broads get to keep 30% of whatever they make from revenue generated by selling tickets for dancing, private visits in the club’s lounge, and overpriced bottles of watered-down booze.  
Bertha is drawn to Mamie, making her The Bungalow’s star attraction, rechristened ‘Flaming Mamie’. In no time, Mamie has accrued a tidy sum of $2200. This she keeps tucked under her mattress, enough to pay back Jim, whom she invites to the club. He disapproves of her lifestyle and encourages her to go home to Mississippi. No soap, as Mamie is determined to go back only when she has saved enough cash to make everyone who frowned upon her pea-green with jealousy. Despite Jim’s judgmental nature, he cannot resist becoming reacquainted with Mamie outside of business hours; the two, skulking off to a secluded beach where polite conversation fires up into red-hot passion. Mamie persuades Jim to write a check to her father back home. She covers the amount in cash. Alas, when Jim receives a reply for his philanthropy, addressed to Mrs. Jim Blair he is outraged. Mamie explains that she had to tell her father something to quell his concerns over where she could have acquired so much money in so little time. Meanwhile, Jim is transparent about his relationship with Mamie to Annalee, who is patient, if wounded by his interests. Jim’s manservant, Aki (Leon Lontoc) is less forgiving. He does not like Mamie at all. “You’re a snob,” Jim suggests. But actually, Aki has only his master’s best interests at heart. 
Jim and Mamie see quite a lot of each other. Exactly what extracurricular activities they engage in during their ‘off time’ is their business as the movie keeps the affair fairly hidden from prying eyes, save a clandestine clutch and kiss, and, even subtler game of ‘tease me/please me’ we never witness on the screen. Eventually, Harry Adkins gets wise to Mamie’s frequent daytime absences, tailing her and Jim to the country club where a showdown occurs. Jim tries civility, at first. But when this fails, he promptly pummels Adkins to the ground before being restrained by Capt. Eldon Sumac (Richard Coogan).  As Adkins’ outburst is too ‘high profile’ for the reputation of the club, Bertha cuts her losses and lets Adkins go from her employ with a healthy stipend. The rest of the working girls are exceedingly grateful to Mamie for making this happen. Alas, a blissful return to her promising flagrante delictos with Jim will not be possible. The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, placing the entire city on red alert. Jim joins the army and leaves Annalee for the last time. Determined she should become the sort of woman Jim would want to marry, Mamie redoubles her efforts at the club, turning hard cash into pure profit, investing in real estate at bargain basement prices. In turn, she quickly rents out these abandoned buildings to the military at an even higher return on investment.
Jim is pleased by Mamie’s business acumen. He makes her promise to quit The Bungalow for good. After all, she does not need him or his money any more. She has enough of her own to sustain a comfortable life during his absence. Exactly why Jim never offers Mamie the opportunity to move into his fashionable hill-top house while he is away is a mystery. Now, Jim goes off to war. Realizing she is about to lose her best working girl, Bertha ups the ante to keep Mamie in her employ. Under an exclusive arrangement, Bertha agrees to let Mamie keep – first, fifty, then later, seventy percent of the profits she earns at the club. Reluctantly, Mamie agrees to these terms, even though she knows staying put will place Jim’s trust in their relationship at risk. Alas, the money means more to Mamie than her promises. Bertha gets Mamie a respectable forwarding address for all of Jim’s letters. But Mamie continues to work and live at the club. Meanwhile, Mamie is reunited with Capt. Sumac, who accuses Bertha of overcharging service men and threatens to have them banned. To prove the establishment’s ‘legitimacy’ Bertha encourages Sumac to have ‘a date’ on the house with Mamie.  Mamie uses this opportunity to thank Sumac for his intervention during the brawl between Jim and Adkins. She would also like him to teach her golf – presumably, a sign of the well-cultured trophy wife Mamie aspires to become for Jim’s sake, once he has returned home from the war.  
Sumac offers Mamie lessons – in golf, as well as life. Despite being a married man, he reasons all is fair in love and war and explains to Mamie that her kind never wins the heart of the nobler gentleman, a caste to which Jim belongs. She is disgusted by his attitude and haughtily departs for The Bungalow. Bertha has some pin-up photographs made of Mamie. These are distributed to the service men. Regrettably, Jim learns from a fellow solider in possession of one of these cheesecake pictures that Mamie did not quit The Bungalow. Believing everything she has told him to be a lie, Jim is granted ten day’s furlough after being wounded in battle. His first port of call is The Bungalow. At first, Mamie is ever so glad to see him. And although he had planned to crucify Mamie for her wickedness, Jim cannot bring himself to be anything less than understanding now. After all, it is not Mamie’s fault. She has been poor and ostracized, but now is flush with success and money. How could he expect her to give all that up for him? Mamie promises to leave the club immediately. But it is no use. The damage done to their relationship is irreparable. Although Jim forgives Mamie her trespasses, he wants no further part of her. It’s over. Tearfully, Mamie agrees, watching Jim walk out of her life for the last time. In the movie’s epilogue we find Mamie newly arrived at San Francisco, explaining to the same police officer who put her on the boat earlier, that her intentions now are to return to Mississippi and move back home with her family, dispelling the old cliché that bad girls can go anywhere in life.
The filmic adaptation of The Revolt of Mamie Stover is as watered down as the liquor served up at the fictional ‘Bungalow’. Producer Buddy Adler and director Raoul Walsh make valiant attempts to hint at the novel’s sleezier aspects. But in the end, they regress to the relative safety of another glamorous affair, expertly shot in Cinemascope and DeLuxe color by Leo Tover. A lot of the picture was actually photographed in Honolulu with the principles’ frolicking on the beach, or at some of the posher hotels and country clubs, with minimal usage of the distracting rear-projection process, herein reserved mostly for scenes taking place in a car. Virtually all of the interiors were lensed on sound stages at Fox, along with a few backlot facades standing in for the exterior of the Bungalow by moonlight. Jane Russell and Richard Egan have palpable chemistry, lending a modicum of ballast to their bitter farewell at the end. But the finale is truncated; cryptic, even, as Mamie confides in the cop, still waiting at the docks, that she ‘gave away’ a lucrative fortune. What?!?!? Exactly what became of the profits derived from her many rental properties and all the hard-earned cash accrued at the club remains a mystery. What? Did she lose it in a poker game? Did she split it among the girls? Did she blow it on cheap times with Capt. Sumac? You guess, I suppose.
In the eleventh hour of production, Adler and Walsh inserted a novelty number into the picture, ‘Keep Your Eyes on the Hands’ – reportedly, discovered playing at one of the Honolulu night spots while the company was shooting abroad, with producer and director concurring it would be a perfect fit for Russell to reincarnate in their picture. This she does rather fabulously, flanked by a chorine of hole-skirted natives. Yet, at 1hr. 32 min. The Revolt of Mamie Stover just seems rushed and equally as starved for something relevant to say. As the Boehm screenplay all but jettisons author, Huie’s social critique about a way of life in very steep decline, what we are left with is a glossy fable about imperfect love and the perils of becoming involved with someone not of one’s own class. Joan Leslie is utterly wasted herein as the barely seen third wheel in Jim’s life – intermittently popping up to offer a few bittersweet regrets that go nowhere and carry no emotional content apart from Leslie’s ability to convey rank sincerity with a doe-eyed glance.
The penultimate goodbye between Jim and Mamie is dealt with very matter-of-fact and thoroughly passionless, given all the sexy good fun gone before it. In the end, The Revolt of Mamie Stover is passable entertainment, though just. Russell’s amply endowed figure is on full display, and she fills out Travilla’s gowns with her impossibly perfect proportions. Russell is also quite a fine actress, although she was rarely given the opportunity to show it on the screen. Richard Egan is not exactly Russell’s equal, despite having a prolific career after his casting director instructed him to take his shirt off. Egan’s status as the nominal love interest in The Revolt of Mamie Stover is about par for the course.  Possessed with a fine voice but a genuine lack to emote anything beyond one-note delivery of his lines, Egan’s popularity truly resided with his looks, or rather, his chiseled musculature. For women, they used to say ‘nothing beat a great pair of legs’…except, in the man’s case, a nice set of pecs.  Ultimately, we get to see both in The Revolt of Mamie Stover – a real ‘dog and pony’ show where the principles both just happen to be Blue-ribbon winners. Woof and saddle up!
The Revolt of Mamie Stover arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Twilight Time’s association with Fox Home Video. Fox has, of late, really stepped up their game with regards to their vintage catalog. Photographed in DeLuxe and Cinemascope, the 1080p transfer looks fairly lush and lovely, with lots of eye-popping color to spare. The transfer is free of age-related artifacts, has a light smattering of film grain and good solid contrast to recommend it. Occasional softness creeps in, although this is likely due to the limitations of ‘scope’ lenses, rather than any untoward tinkering with the original film elements. It is gratifying to see more ‘scope’ catalog coming out, minus that curious ‘teal/beige’ bias that afflicted far too many deep catalog titles previously released by Fox to Blu-ray. Not much else to say about this transfer. It’s very good indeed. The 5.1 DTS audio is solid and enveloping. TT affords us an isolated track to appreciate Hugo Friedhofer’s score. But what is up with the ‘trailer’ – looking about a hundred years older than the movie, horrendously faded, missing footage at the end, and riddled in age-imbedded dirt, scratches, etc.?!? Where was Fox keeping this one – under a bushel, buried in the back yard behind the honey wagons? Wow, and just awful! Bottom line: The Revolt of Mamie Stover is worth a second glance, if for no other reason, then to appreciate the beauty of Jane Russell in her prime, looking every inch the glamazonian goddess from an entirely different vintage in leading ladies we shall likely ne’er see again.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

MY SISTER EILEEN: Blu-ray (Columbia, 1955) Twilight Time

The slightest of the many reincarnations of Ruth McKenney’s beloved stories, first serialized in New Yorker magazine, collected into a best seller in 1938 that swept the nation, on the surface at least, director Richard Quine’s My Sister Eileen (1955) has everything a blue chip musical should to succeed; a pre-sold title, a killer cast, some energetic and affecting choreography from Bob Fosse, and a score by Jules ‘Gypsy’ Styne and Leo ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ Robins. That the results are far from stellar, at least for a musical, thus remains a sincere mystery, as co-stars, Janet Leigh (Eileen) and Betty Garrett (Ruth) prove real firecrackers, flanked by delicious comedian, Kurt Kasznar as the lovable slumlord, Papa Appopolous, Dick York (slightly miscast as the robust physical specimen, Ted Loomis, perpetually wearing a grey track suit and lifting weights, in a part originally slated for the beefier, Aldo Ray), the effortlessly chic dancer/choreographer, Bob Fosse (soda jerk, Frank Lippincott), superb dancer, Tommy Rall (as slippery newshound, Chick Clark), and, in the pivotal role of Ruth’s potential mate, Jack Lemmon (publisher, Robert ‘Bob’ Baker).
Requiring little tweaking, as McKenney had written from the heart about experiences with her own sister Eileen, the pair newly migrated from relatively laid-back Ohio to New York’s den of Bohemianism, Greenwich Village, the 1940 Broadway adaptation by Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov was a smash hit, running a whopping 863 performances. Barely a week into its lucrative run the real Eileen was killed, along with her husband, in a horrific auto accident. She was only 27. But the show, as they used to say, went on…and on, mutating into a 1942 screen comedy costarring Rosalind Russell and Janet Blair – a smash for Columbia Pictures, and later, a 1946 radio adaptation also with Russell and Blair reprising their roles. 1953 saw yet another acclimatization along the Great White Way: Wonderful Town, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Leonard Bernstein. Again, McKenney’s fondly recollected exploits proved impossible to resist.  Ostensibly, Columbia chief, Harry Cohn, would have loved to produce another hit movie based on this latest resurrection. Alas, producers of this musical were asking too high a price for the film rights.  And so, Styne and Robin were brought in by Cohn to write an entirely different score; Cohn also hiring an attorney to ensure ‘his’ Eileen bore no earthly resemblance to Wonderful Town. Alas, this proved a miscalculation from which My Sister Eileen never entirely recovers.
For although Bob Fosse’s choreography, particularly during his character’s competition dance-off with Tommy Rall, is startlingly original and exhilarating, virtually none of the Styne/Robins’ songs hold a candle to Comden and Green’s Broadway score. In point of fact, the co-authored screenplay by Blake Edwards and Richard Quine is chalked so full of great comedy vignettes, culminating in a gregarious conga line with a fleet of Brazilian sailors, it somehow seems sacrilege to intermittently delay the laughter with these mediocre ditties. The songs repeat what we already know about these characters. The title, My Sister Eileen is also a tad misleading, since it is Betty Garrett’s sharp-witted and level-headed Ruth who gets the plushier part, leaving Janet Leigh’s plucky and prettier, Eileen to naïvely fend off the wolves…if only she could recognize them as such. Six years earlier, Betty Garrett’s ‘association’ with liberal hubby, Larry Parks had blacklisted her a communist sympathizer in the eyes of HUAC, ousting her from a promising film career. Her big return in My Sister Eileen puts a period to this hiatus and, in the expanded part of the sadder but wiser Ruth, Garrett illustrates proof positive she is as ever the marvelous and genuine comedienne.
Regrettably, it is the sheer waste of talent on the whole, or rather, its restricted under-use, that proves truly off-putting as the narrative progresses. As example, it takes nearly 20 minutes for the writers to introduce us to second-billed Jack Lemmon’s wily womanizer; his 30-second ‘cute meet’ with Ruth in an elevator is barely a cameo, delayed almost another 15 minutes thereafter before we revisit his character again. The musically inclined Lemmon acquits himself rather nicely of ‘It's Bigger Than You and Me’ – a seditious seduction of our ever-pure ‘good girl’ – even if the song, like the remaining five, are colossally forgettable and thus, a terrible let down. Having spent her career always cast as the ugly duckling, meant to land the second-string/second-best male, Betty Garrett is a seasoned pro at spoofing the spinster. Despite all her subterfuge and obfuscation, she wins the grand prize in My Sister Eileen: quite refreshing. Watching Garrett and Lemmon go through the romantic motions and spirited ‘chase’ in this number, as flounder and octopus respectively, is vaguely reminiscent of Garrett’s comedic pas deux with Red Skelton in Neptune’s Daughter (1949), albeit, with the roles reversed; Garrett’s obsessed man trap hunting down Skelton’s frantic suitor to the catchier Oscar-winning tune, ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’.    
If only My Sister Eileen had a meatier score to recommend it. Certainly, the ensemble is up to the task of tackling some good – nee great – material. But no, the numbers in My Sister Eileen seem to be shoehorned into an otherwise simple little comedic gem that does not require their presence to be enjoyable. Worse, they stop the show cold, re-purposing plot points already outlined in the story, in no way to enhance or advance the story. As example, Garrett’s lamentation ‘As Soon as They See Eileen’ covers what we already know about both sisters: Eileen – the prettier, to whom men just naturally flock, and Ruth – a perennial wallflower, destined to remain tragically single - perhaps. Worse, the screenplay introduces, then jettisons most of its supporting cast. We spend the first moments of our story with Kurt Kasznar’s devious Appopolous, snookering Ruth and Eileen into accepting his moth-eaten basement apartment at a not-so-bargain-basement price. Kasznar’s comedic timing is superb as he gives a farcical grand tour of these dilapidated digs. He also does his noble best to augment the novelty song, ‘I’m Great’ – meant to instill confidence – a commodity both sisters thoroughly lack. But then Appopolous vanishes from view, as does Tommy Rall’s loveably disreputable Chick Clark – presumably, a better-looking rival for Eileen’s affections, much to the comparatively anemic Frank’s chagrin. But perhaps the biggest ‘red herring’ is Lemmon’s publisher; set up as a real lady killer who prefers beauty to brains, but then quite inexplicably falls for the more cerebral Ruth, who repeatedly lies to him about ‘her past’.
My Sister Eileen opens with some exotic second-unit shots of New York City, none too convincingly wed to Columbia’s backlot facades and facsimiles of the Big Apple’s more colorfully reconstituted Greenwich Village. Indeed, our cast never actually went to New York to make the picture: Hollywood’s tried and true ‘shoot it on the backlot’ liberally applied. We meet the Sherwood sisters, Ruth and Eileen – hailing from Columbus, Ohio. Although they already have an apartment lined up, the girls allow themselves to be swayed by the ebullient slumlord, Papa Appopolous into accepting a horrendously second-rate basement flat in his artsy tenement. Once occupied by a spurious clairvoyant, who likely did a lot more than read the palms of her clientele, these dingy downstairs lacks running hot water, has a kitchenette the size of a closet, and a front door that cannot even be locked from the inside. Worse, the apartment is located directly above the city’s planned route for a new subway line, with frequent dynamiting between early dawn and midnight, surely to unruffle the nerves. Too late, the girls discover these shortcomings. As Appopolous has promised to refund their money only at the end of thirty days, the girls have no choice but to stick things out. 
We learn a little something of each sister’s aspirations in coming to the big city to stake their claim: Ruth, as a writer, and Eileen, an actress. While Eileen’s plans to become famous are pretty much a pipe dream, Ruth actually has a letter of introduction to Bob Baker, editor-in-chief of Mad Hatter Magazine. But Ruth has caught Bob at a bad time. All he wants is to get a jump start on his vacation. But before he departs, Bob counsels Ruth to write about the things she knows rather than the artificial stories she earlier submitted to him. There is no caveat of a job offer anywhere in this advice. And so, Ruth returns to the apartment somewhat disheartened. That evening, the girls become acquainted with neighbor, Ted Loomis, a disgraced wrestler living just upstairs with his fiancée, Helen (Lucy Marlow). Ted has his troubles too. Helen’s mother (Barbara Brown) knows not her daughter is ‘living in sin’ with a man and is shortly planning to visit her. Meanwhile, Eileen befriends soda jerk, Frank Lippencott inside a Walgreen’s Drug Store. Along with being instantly attracted to her beauty – like every other man – Frank sincerely offers to do what he can to promote Eileen’s career with any of the theatrical impresarios who occasionally frequent his counter.
Overhearing their conversation, newspaper reporter, Chick Clark oils his way into Eileen’s plans to audition for a new show, suggesting he has the inside track on the casting and can surely work his magic to ensure Eileen is a shoe-in for the lead. Both Frank and Chick accompany Eileen to her audition. Alas, this turns out to be for a burlesque house where striptease is the main attraction. Affronted after being asked to show off her ‘assets’, Eileen storms out of the theater in tears. Time passes. Bob returns from his vacation and invites Ruth for a sit down in his office. She presumes this will lead to a job. But actually, Bob once again admonishes Ruth for writing syrupy and contrived romances. He does, however, admire one of Ruth’s pieces – an exposé on the misadventures of her sister Eileen. Presuming Bob is just like all the other men she has ever met, more interested in Eileen than her, she lies to him about having concocted all of the stories about Eileen based on her own romantic experiences. Bob is confused – then, impressed. Evidently, Ruth is a gal to get to know better…a lot better, and presumably, by candlelight.
Bob pitches for a date with Ruth. She turns him down. She wants a job, not a romance with the boss. Returning to the apartment, Ruth lies to Eileen that Bob is fat, middle-aged and thoroughly unattractive. That evening, Ted asks if he might spend the next few days living in their apartment as Helen’s mother is coming for a visit. Reluctantly, they agree. Meanwhile, Eileen has invited Chick and Frank back to the apartment for a home-cooked dinner. But when Ruth’s famous spaghetti is ruined by the plumber, Chick suggests the foursome pair off for a night of high-stepping at the popular nightclub, El Morocco. Regrettably, Ruth runs into Bob. He is squiring a thoroughly vapid model. Once again, Bob is intrigued by Ruth whom he invites to join his table. Again, she refuses and shortly thereafter, convinces Chick, Frank and Eileen she has a horrible headache and must therefore go home at once. However, once outside the club, Ruth experiences a miraculous recovery. The foursome agrees to go elsewhere for their libations, winding up slightly inebriated in the park near a bandstand after dark. 
The next day Bob asks for his secretary’s (Mara McAfee) opinion on Ruth’s writing. While she is enchanted by the ‘Eileen’ stories, she is also quite certain they are not autobiographical. Intrigued, and determined to get to the bottom of things, Bob invites Ruth to a candle-lit dinner in his penthouse apartment, presumably to discuss publication. Before long, however, Bob makes his ‘other’ intensions known, pursuing the chaste Ruth around the apartment like a scared mountain goat until she tearfully is forced to leave. Their money run out, their dreams dashed to pieces by the cruelty of the big city, the Sherwood sisters begrudgingly prepare to return to Ohio. Ted is sorry to see them go. Chick reenters the picture feigning, by telephone, to be the editor of a big newspaper, about to give Ruth her big break by assigning her to cover a ‘human interest’ story about a newly arrived Brazilian schooner docked nearby. Ecstatic, Ruth rushes off. Now, Eileen is confronted by Chick, who reveals the truth to her about his deception. She is outraged and summons Ted to chase Chick out of the apartment.  Unable to reconcile his own slum prudery regarding Ted’s ‘live-in’ presence, Frank assumes the worst about Eileen and is ordered to leave; a real pity too, since Eileen has fallen hopelessly in love with Frank in the meantime.
Having arrived at the docks, Ruth gets more than the scoop when the Brazilian schooner’s sex-starved crew, every last one a handsome robust naval cadet, pursue her on foot back to the apartment, engaging both sisters in a conga line that attracts the attentions of the local constabulary. Everyone is arrested, presumably for disturbing the peace - even Helen and her mother, who had absolutely nothing to do with it. Eventually, the Naval emissary and Brazilian Consul intervene on everyone’s behalf. The girls return to their apartment and prepare for the trip back to Ohio. As luck would have it, Bob has figured out Ruth’s ruse and is even more in love with her for having lied to him about her sister, Eileen. Better still, he wants to publish her stories. As a peace offering, Frank gives Eileen with a box of chocolates. The Brazilian navy with Consul in tow arrive to present the girls with honorary metals for their hospitality. As Eileen and Ruth have decided to remain in New York, they accept the honor and elect to engage the entire neighborhood in a conga line that closes out the show.
My Sister Eileen is a fairly dulcet and disposable little nothing. Had it been made over at MGM in the mid-1940’s it likely would have received a more flavorful panache and a lot more fanfare. MGM, widely regarded as the greatest purveyors of musical entertainments, were not above producing charming ‘little’ musicals like Small Town Girl (1950) and Two Weeks with Love (1953) alongside their decidedly more instantly recognizable masterpieces. But Columbia Pictures never entirely licked the musical genre. Occasional hits, like You Were Never Lovelier (1942) and Cover Girl (1944) aside, the studio pretty much stayed out of the musical limelight, or produced them on a budget and talent scale far less noteworthy than the competition. And, tricked out in the vast expanses of Cinemascope, the subtleties of My Sister Eileen seem to get lost under the studio’s desperate attempt to transform a ‘small-time’ comedy into a big-time musical entertainment. Quite simply, it doesn’t work. The numbers are interruptions to the plot instead of being integrated for maximum effect, the characters’ motivations for bursting into song threadbare to downright flimsy. It is as though we can hear the sound of some grip just out of range drop the needle on the pre-recorded record about to be lip-sync for the benefit of the camera. Six forgettable songs and one electrifying dance routine later, My Sister Eileen is barely passable as a musical. Its comedy remains golden however, and on this score alone, there remains some joyously obtuse nuggets of laughter to be mined.
My Sister Eileen arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Twilight Time’s alliance with Sony Home Entertainment in another superb-looking transfer, supervised by Grover Crisp and his re-mastering minions. There’s not much to say here, except that the visuals are, for the most part, up to Sony’s usual high standards in hi-def. One caveat, the main titles exhibit some modest built-in flicker, amplified grain, and, a hint of edge effects around the titles themselves; forgivable, I suppose, but rather curious, given Sony’s meticulous attention to fine detail elsewhere on this 1080p transfer. Colors pop as they should. The Cinemascope image is slightly soft around the edges, owing to the shortcomings of the Bausch & Lomb lenses more than anything else. The first reel looks marginally less refined than what follows it. On the whole, this is a very pleasing presentation with two ways to enjoy its soundtrack: either a 5.1 DTS remastering of the original 4-track stereo, or a 2.0 DTS remastering of the original elements. Naturally, the 5.1 has better spatial separation, but the 2.0 is noticeably louder by direct comparison, particularly for sound effects.  Extras are limited to an isolated underscore, a badly worn trailer and liner notes from Julie Kirgo. Bottom line: My Sister Eileen left me flat. It is an adequate comedy but a very disappointing musical. The Blu-ray is first-rate. So, if you are a fan, this one is definitely for you. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)