Monday, November 20, 2017

MAYTIME (MGM 1937) Warner Archive

The Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald operetta craze reached its apex in supreme exaltation with Robert Z. Leonard’s Maytime (1937) a gloriously elephantine ode to love, superficially based on Sigmund Romberg’s smash hit Broadway show. Maytime – the movie – ought to have been an entirely different experience; its’ production schedule interrupted by the sudden untimely death of MGM’s wunderkind producer, Irving Thalberg on Sept. 14, 1936. Thalberg had envisioned Maytime as MGM’s first all-Technicolor spectacle and had even brought in the then 50 yrs. young Romberg to write four new tunes for this celluloid update of his much-beloved showstopper. Thalberg had also handpicked Edmund Goulding to direct the picture. Goulding’s reputation for wit and sophistication already possessed the mark of chic good taste Thalberg perceived as the perfect compliment to this very classy affair du Coeur. Alas, the results proved disastrous. After spending nearly $800,000 Thalberg and assistant director, Joe Newman concurred: the footage thus far assembled was a catastrophe. In a gutsy move, Thalberg resolved to reboot Maytime with a new director at its helm. But then Thalberg died, placing the project in indefinite turnaround. 
In the interim Jeanette MacDonald heavily campaigned to make San Francisco (1936) with Clark Gable. Although the co-stars were anything but kosher toward one another between takes, the film became yet another feather in MacDonald’s cap and she approached Maytime with renewed resolve to renegotiate her MGM contract, while garnering a newfound appreciation for co-star, Nelson Eddy’s good nature. Dubbed by the critics as ‘the singing capon’ to MacDonald’s ‘iron butterfly’, Eddy knew that apart from his undeniable presence as a baritone he was, at best invisible, and at worst, something of a minor disappointment as an actor. A capon is a castrated chicken and, while the inference to Eddy - as a man - seems more than a tad cruel (in point of fact, it is), as a performer it fits his acting rather succinctly. There is no hint of masculine passion or even a modest twinge of virility to his performances in either Naughty Marietta or Rose Marie and period costumes only amplify this shortcoming.  Indeed, Eddy was very self-conscious and this translates into a queer asexuality on the screen. Although undeniably handsome, there is something oddly waxen about Eddy as a performer – more mannequin than man.
From the vantage and pall of this unflattering assessment then, Nelson Eddy’s performance in Maytime comes off as a revelation, especially when directly compared to his two previous outings. There is verve to him in Maytime that is excitingly alive. Perhaps the delays in the production gave the singer time to rethink his approach to the material. Or maybe he had finally begun to mature as an actor. Either way, Eddy’s new level of confidence in front of the camera gave fans of the duo their first real taste of the MacDonald/Eddy chemistry, and a genuine reason to celebrate. From start to finish, Maytime was re-conceived and rewritten in just six weeks – a masterful feat of the studio system with all its pistons impressively firing in unison. Even if Noel Langley, Claudine West and Rida Johnson Young’s screenplay owed much more to Noel Coward’s Bittersweet than Romberg’s original Broadway show, the results were to prove a real winner with movie audiences the world over. In fact, the film adaptation retains only one song ‘Will You Remember?’ from the Romberg original stage score.
Cedric Gibbons’ art direction and resident Metro couturier, Adrian’s plushly designed fashions, particularly MacDonald’s flounce and frilly gowns, are lavish accoutrements in the vein of Thalberg’s genius for creating lush and lovely screen spectacles. Given Mayer’s natural distaste for such absurd spending it is a minor wonder the picture was made at all. Mayer’s one denial in the post-Thalberg redressing of Maytime was Technicolor – then, still highly experimental, very costly, and proving not altogether successful at the box office. So, Maytime emerged, looking supremely ravishing in glorious B&W; Oliver T. Marsh’s cinematography affording the eye plenty of sublime vignettes, capped off by the ground-swelling romanticism of an immaculately bedecked Eddy and MacDonald, warbling ‘Will You Remember?’ amid an orchard of honeysuckle, its bowers casting a shower of soft and glistening white petals all around. To minimize costs, Mayer encouraged Gibbons to reuse as much of the interior glamor from Thalberg’s other spendthrift indulgences on Marie Antoinette (begun under Thalberg’s auspices, though yet to be released by the studio); a similar fate imparted on the studio’s production of the Garbo weepie, Conquest (made and released the same year as Maytime). Given the run of Metro’s extraordinary studio-bound sets, props and free-standing back lot forests, lakes and sets, Maytime is a thoroughly striking amalgam of Euro-sophistication meets California glam-bam. It oozes worldly charm.  
Our story begins on the kindly counsel of an aged Miss Morrison (Jeanette MacDonald) bestowed upon Barbara Roberts (Lynne Carver) – a passionate ingenue whose head is stuffed with the cotton, hay and rags to riches daydreams of becoming a great opera singer in New York. Predictably, Barbara’s rather Teutonic fiancée Kip Stuart (Tom Brown) does not want her to go. The couple quarrels. After Kip leaves Miss Morrison confides in Barbara she used to be Marcia Mornay – the world-famous opera diva who sacrificed true love for her art. Although we are yet quite unaware, as Barbara is, what real sacrifice looks like, MacDonald’s fragrantly wistful sense of longing infers the tale that is to follow will not be all hearts and flowers. Thus, we regress in flashback to the time of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Marcia and her impresario, Nicolai Nazaroff (John Barrymore) are invited to the French court to perform for Louie Napoleon (Guy Bates Post). Afterward, Nicolai tricks renown composer, Trentini (Paul Porcasi) into writing an opera exclusively for Marcia. Later that same evening Nicolai proposes to his protégé. Although she does not love him – and Nicolai knows this – Marcia agrees to wed out of a sense of loyalty for all Nicolai has done to help establish and build up her career. Overjoyed with the prospect of becoming a great operatic star (even if she has to sell her soul to get what she wants), and quite unable to sleep from all the giddy excitement, Marcia sneaks away for a midnight carriage ride after Nicolai has gone to bed. As fate would have it, the carriage breaks down in front of a tavern. While the driver begins his repairs, Marcia is drawn inside by the superb voice of Paul Allison (Nelson Eddy) a rather devil-may-care sort who lives in a nearby squalid one-room apartment with his music teacher, August Archipenko (Herman Bing).
Marcia is amused by Paul. He is nothing less than enchanted with her. Even so, August admonishes Paul for coming home so late, but is told that tomorrow Marcia Mornay has agreed to join them for lunch. She fulfills this promise, reminiscing with Paul and August about her home in Virginia. Paul steals a pair of opera tickets belonging to his friend, Fanchon (Sig Rumann) and attends Mornay’s last performance in France. However, at the opera Nicolai nervously spies Paul from beyond the footlights. Although he suspects Marcia and Paul’s friendship has developed deeper roots of affection, Nicolai is unable to justify these suspicions.  After the performance, Paul and Nicolai bump into each other in the hallway just outside of Marcia’s dressing room. She pretends Paul came backstage merely to congratulate her. But Nicolai is no fool. Moreover, he is the jealous sort. Paul is his competition for Marcia’s heart and he damn well knows it.
The next afternoon Paul and Marcia go ‘maying’ at the county fair; a golden afternoon of indulgences capped off by a romantic rendezvous in the pastoral hills outside of town where Marcia reluctantly admits she is on the cusp of fulfilling her promise of marriage to Nicolai. Paul desperately wants Marcia for his own. But she denies him their mutual love, marries Nicolai and departs Europe for a whirlwind tour of America. In the meantime, the forlorn Paul focuses his ambitions on his own singing career. Arriving in America to establish his own career with the New York Opera Company, Paul quickly rises through the ranks. Hence, when the company hires Marcia for their production of Traviata, Nicolai demands their choice of play be changed to the dourer Czaritza instead; less ‘artistic’ opportunity for Paul to rekindle his romantic passion for Marcia. Nevertheless, as the performances unfold in front of a live audience on opening night, the characters Marcia and Paul play are drawn into a spiraling passionate embrace that transcends art. Paul tells Marcia he will never let her go and Marcia agrees. She can no longer deny the love she feels. After the performance, Marcia fakes exhaustion to go home with Nicolai. But there she solemnly informs him she has decided to run away with Paul. Acknowledging Paul’s memory between them these past seven years of their married life, Nicolai – wounded and bitter – retires to his room, retrieves his pistol and trudges through the snowy streets to Paul’s brownstone.
Realizing too late where her husband has gone, Marcia runs after him. Nicolai arrives at the brownstone first. He tells Paul he has decided to give Marcia her freedom tomorrow, but he is giving Paul ‘his’ tonight. With this cryptic message Nicolai murders Paul. Marcia burst into the room and rushes to her lover’s side. He dies in her arms and the scene dissolves back to the present. A tearful Barbara thanks Miss Morrison for her advice. Kip returns and the two are reconciled with Barbara deciding to give up her career and become Kip’s wife. Drained of the strain of this lifelong secret, Miss Morrison quietly dies in her chair. She is revived as a youthful spirit and reunited with the perennially handsome Paul. The two walk away, hand in glove beneath the bowers of cascading honeysuckle; presumably destined to forever spend their eternity together.
Maytime is a marvelous movie; full of the sort of rank sentimentalism that warmed L.B. Mayer’s heart. And in viewing the film today one has to concur with its initial critical reception; Bosley Crowther declaring that, as a popular screen team Eddy and MacDonald had never been more ‘natural’ together. While Jeanette MacDonald’s performance in Maytime is consistent with others in her repertoire, Nelson Eddy’s is remarkably relaxed. He is convincing as both the loveable scamp when first introduced in the tavern, then as the more mature suitor who vows to rescue Marcia from her duty-bound wedlock to Nicolai. MacDonald effortlessly runs the gamut of emotions and ages, from precocious flirt to world-weary matron. John Barrymore lends a diabolical credibility to Nicolai Nazaroff, a man barely able to restrain his possessive jealousies. Herman Bing is a supremely satisfying bumbler; utterly charming in all his frustrated buffoonery.
Purging all but one of Romberg’s songs from his score composer, Herbert Stothart composed a twelve-minute aria inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony for Czaritza, then proceeded to repopulate the rest with songs from dead musicians whose work had fallen into public domain. Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots became a pivotal backdrop for the scene where Nicolai suspects a romantic entanglement between his wife and Paul. Other arias were borrowed from Donizetti, Verdi, Gounod and Wagner to fill in the musical gaps. At Napoleon’s embassy ball MacDonald trills the flirtatious Les Filles de Cadiz and the rousing Le Regiment de Sambre et Meuse. Purely from a musical perspective, Maytime is MacDonald’s show. The only time Eddy gets to sing alone is at the tavern when Paul is first introduced to Marcia and the audience. Otherwise, virtually all his songs are duets with MacDonald. Yet, Eddy becomes every bit MacDonald’s equal in the dramatic scenes – unusual and absolutely thrilling for fans only able to identify him as the usually wooden accompanist and/or appendage to MacDonald’s long lineage of robust and hearty chanteuses.
When Maytime had its premiere in March of 1937 it was all but universally revered by the critics as a seamless fusion of the high ideals of classical opera meets the pop culture at the movies. Audiences flocked to see it. In fact, Maytime’s box office even outranked San Francisco that, until Maytime’s release, had been MGM’s top money maker of the year.  Today, Maytime still ranks among the best movie musicals of its vintage. Unequivocally, it remains the very best operetta/movie musical Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy ever made together. The picture is full of that champagne and caviar schmaltz, hearts n’ flowers lilting melodies that raise our spirits high, reaffirming – at least in the uber-glamorous realm of musical fantasy – that perhaps some of the hardships in life can be rectified in the hereafter.
We could us a bit of rectifying on Warner Home Video’s MOD DVD transfer. Maytime is a film that deserves to have its original negative (if one still exists) re-scanned and cleaned up. It also deserves a Blu-ray release. The film, as it currently exists, is decidedly grainier than usual or what is even acceptable by today’s mastering standards.  Grain structure is an inherent part of photographic film. But Maytime’s grain on DVD looks a tad digitized rather than natural. The gray scale appears to have had its contrast levels slightly bumped too, creating a harsher than expected visual characteristic with the mid-register tonality blown out and overall, quite unflattering. Age-related artifacts persist and are intermittently distracting. The audio is mono and quite strident in spots with some minor hiss and pop, as when MacDonald hits the high ‘C’ during Le Regiment de Sambre et Meuse. As with other films in the Warner Archive Collection, all we get with this offering is a theatrical trailer that – oddly enough – looks very clean and solid. Recommended for content – not quality of transfer. Bottom line: we need Maytime restored and reissued from WAC on Blu-ray – sooner rather than later!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


SAN FRANCISCO (MGM 1936) Warner Archive

MGM publicity of its day declared W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936) the picture Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald, teamed for the first – and only – time, were ‘born to fall in love’. I have often wondered about that; Gable’s rugged manliness pitted against the studio’s ensconced ‘iron butterfly’; MacDonald just a little too refined to give off smoldering sparks of sensuality to match or even triumph over her charismatic co-star's earthy animal magnetism. San Francisco is a resplendently superfluous bit of nonsense, masterfully sold as the epitome of chic good taste. Anita Loos’ screenplay moves like gangbusters through a fanciful yarn about a rough n’ tumble saloon keeper, Blackie Norton (Gable) falling madly for this regal chanteuse, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), who dreams of becoming a great opera star. He recognizes her class, but only insofar as it will lend an air of authenticity to his saloon, and, saves her from starvation, only to be repaid with a conflicted romance repeatedly stalled by Mary’s ambitions to rise above his station in life.
Above all else, San Francisco is a celebration of that lusty bygone mecca of pre-modern infamy where anything could be bought or sold; the hypothetical 'sin capital' leveled to the ground by a devastating earthquake in 1906. Loos incorporates the quake as the divining moment in Blackie and Mary’s relationship; the feuding duo reconciled by the consciousness each almost came to losing the other. Mary and Blackie’s resolution gets smoothed over by a third cog in this spinning wheel; Spencer Tracy’s Catholic priest, Father Mullin. In years yet to follow, Tracy would be called upon again and again to play benevolent clergy, despising every moment of it.  But in San Francisco, he is a sublime deus ex machina for these bitterly star-crossed lovers; so obviously right for one another if only she would let her tiara slip just a little and he could descend from his ego-driven soapbox to admit man does not live by ‘bread’ alone.
San Francisco is typical of the film fare Gable’s career, as the undisputed king of Hollywood, was built upon, shot quick and dirty by director, W.S. Van Dyke, whose guerrilla-style film-making – bringing his movies in on time and well under budget - was much in demand at MGM – particularly on L.B. Mayer’s watch after the Thalberg era had ended in 1936. Thalberg truly believed in Metro’s motto – ars gratia artis (or ‘art for art’s sake); that it mattered not how much a picture cost to produce so long as every last penny showed up on the screen. The profits would follow their ‘high quality’ output. Mayer, however, preferred to keep tighter reins on his budgets. Ultimately, San Francisco emerges as a clash between these two mindsets, begun under Thalberg’s auspices before his untimely death and thereafter begrudgingly afforded every luxury the studio had at its disposal by Mayer. Mayer could afford to be philanthropic where Gable was concerned. His numero uno male star had an unimpeachable track record for bringing in big box office.
Gable’s raw intensity as a 'guy's guy' never fails to impress. He remains an extraordinary figure from the golden age of Hollywood, unique in the uninhibited robustness of his physicality, the sheer breadth of his machismo (ostensibly, he never took his stature as a He-man seriously, thus making it even more deliciously appealing), as well as his sadly underrated acting chops to carry off this uber ‘superman’ persona, merely as par for the course and an extension of his own genuine self. In reality, Mr. Gable was a far more congenial and sociable fellow; relatively shy and much more interested in chumming with the boys than playing the field with the ladies. While on screen he always managed to convey something of the untamed and unattainable; a stud that every woman swooned over. But in private Gable had married young, and, to a much older woman who helped mold and shape his early career. On the sly, he sired a child with actress, Loretta Young before beginning a closeted affair with madcap comedian, Carole Lombard, who would eventually become the second Mrs. Gable during the shooting of Gone with The Wind (1939).
In retrospect, San Francisco does not appear at all the kind of picture Jeanette MacDonald would have preferred to add to her list of achievements.  MacDonald, so nicknamed ‘the iron butterfly’ because of her impenetrable resolve to do things ‘her way’ (almost as readily to lead her into temperamental conflicts with Mayer), had nevertheless reigned supreme in Mayer’s mid-decade resurrection of the musical operetta; having already come from a tenure as Paramount’s exotic bird of paradise, cast mostly in director, Ernest Lubtisch’s saucy European-themed musical mis-adventures. Metro attempted to maintain this inspiration of European sophistication, casting MacDonald opposite Maurice Chevalier in The Merry Widow (1933). But by mid-decade, Mayer had tapped MacDonald’s potential as half of a formidable operatic team; the other, belonging to the studio’s resident male baritone, Nelson Eddy (unflatteringly nicknamed, ‘the singing capon’ because he generally lacked sex appeal). Indeed, without MacDonald, Eddy is often a queerly emasculated figure on the screen. Yet, with her, he acquires an unusual and highly appealing sense of place – if not in the same league as Gable – then certainly capable of holding his own, particularly in their melodic duets.
The bulwark between Gable’s earthy magnetism and MacDonald’s ‘to the manor born’ gentility is Spencer Tracy’s Father Mullin. In life, Tracy’s demeanor – particularly in the thirties – could hardly be considered saintly. A conflicted, oft’ self-pitying and tortured artist, he drank to excess, and chose an enduring love affair with Katherine Hepburn over marital fidelity (as a devout Catholic, Tracy never divorced his wife). Nevertheless, ‘on screen’ Tracy remains the soul of rectitude. I suppose this is why they call it acting. And Tracy, for all his humanly flaws, remains another of the finest actors ever to appear in American movies. His initial screen test had not ingratiated him to Mayer who promptly told Thalberg, “We don’t need another galoot. We already got Wallace Beery!” Indeed, Tracy’s foray into movies illustrates the awkwardness Mayer initially had in discovering the actor’s niche. But Tracy’s placement in the cinema firmament is unique in that he lacks the physical appeal as a leading man and yet still managed to become one almost by default, owing to his on-screen chemistry with Hepburn in a series of popular ‘man vs. woman’ dramadies produced between 1940-1960. In between these lighter moments, Tracy also proved he could handle intense drama and stand alone as ‘the star’ of almost any genre. In San Francisco, Tracy is a figure of unruffled fortitude and compassion – a buffer for the romantic sparing between the obdurate Blackie and self-sacrificing Mary. She eventually forsakes her aspirations for high culture to perform the gregarious title song at Blackie’s saloon; bringing down the house – literally – with a little help from Mother Nature. 
Plot wise: San Francisco opens on New Year’s Eve, circa 1906. Loos’ screenplay concerns starving operatic singer, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) who auditions for scamp nightclub owner, Blackie Norton (Gable). Although Blackie embarrasses Mary by asking to see her legs, he quietly softens when she acquiesces out of sheer desperation to land the job. Blackie hires Mary after she passes out at his feet…literally, if only from hunger. However, when socialites, Jack Burley (Jack Holt) and Maestro Baldini (William Ricciardi) hear Mary sing, they offer her a contract at the local opera house. Alas, Mary is bitterly forced to decline. Her contract with Blackie stipulates an exclusive ‘two year’ run. Burley offers to buy up the contract. Blackie can name his price. But Blackie desires to turn Mary into a ‘dolly’ – chiefly against her will, and moreover, because he is in love with her. Mary goes along with Blackie’s ideas because she has already fallen for him. But Father Mullin recognizes a brewing toxicity in their relationship. He suggests Blackie loosen the yoke on their professional arrangement so Mary can pursue her dreams of becoming an opera star. At first, Blackie resists. But when the strain of their relationship overwhelms Mary, Blackie allows her a brief respite from his ironclad contract.
Mary sings at Father Mullin’s mission church and later, under Burley’s guidance, she makes her operatic debut. In the balconies, Blackie quietly observes as Mary becomes an overnight sensation before his very eyes. Two things now become immediately apparent to Blackie: first, Mary has left his tutelage behind. She has outgrown him and can manage a career better than anything he could offer her. Second: Mary must make a decision where her future will reside – as Blackie’s romantic life partner, abiding by his rules, and held by rights under a slavish contract made to his saloon, or with Jack Burley – a man she does not love, but is willing to pursue in order to advance her legitimate career. When Blackie reminds Mary, he has not terminated her contract, merely suspended its terms temporarily, she storms off. A short while later Mary elects to return to Blackie’s saloon. After all, had he not ‘discovered’ her, there would have been no Jack Burley – not even the chance to succeed as she has since. Blackie is proud and boastful. He wants no part of her charity.
But Mary takes to the stage in a bawdy showgirl’s costume to belt out ‘San Francisco’ –  Bronislau Kaper, Walter Jurmann and Gus Kahn’s rambunctious anthem to the city by the bay. The packed audience, including Burley, is stirred to hysteria over Mary’s rousing rendition. But only seconds later the earth beneath the city begins to tremble uncontrollably. In the resultant chaos, the patrons panic and are trampled underfoot as an epic quake strikes, literally ripping apart the city and leveling its buildings to rubble. Douglas Shearer actually won an Oscar for Best Sound Editing, largely for this sequence. Indeed, the deep bass rumble and writhing of the quake is rumored to have terrified some theater patrons when the picture premiered in San Francisco. But it is James Basevi, Russell A. Cully and A. Arnold Gillespie’s special effects that remain a wonderment to behold; holding up even under today’s scrutiny; an ingenious amalgam of miniatures, full-size sets, models and rear projection; Oliver T. Marsh’s gorgeous B&W cinematography and Tom Held’s superb editing all conspiring to produce six minutes of exhilarating epic disaster.
Immediately following the cataclysm, surviving citizens begin their rescue and recovery efforts. To prevent the collapse of more buildings and stop a three-alarm blaze from consuming the rest of the city, the fire department is ordered to dynamite all existing structures whose foundations have been irrevocably damaged. This includes the Knob Hill fortress of Mrs. Burley, who watches helplessly as the family home her father built is leveled to the ground. Blackie finds Jack Burley’s remains buried beneath a pile of bricks, still clutching a feather from Mary’s gown. Mercifully, Mary is not among the dead. Blackie begs Father Mullin to help him in his search. But only after Mullin realizes the disaster has humbled Blackie before God does he lead him to the outskirts of the city where Mary is administering to the wounded and dying. Blackie gets on his knees and gives thanks for Mary’s survival, vowing to be a different man. Witnessing Blackie’s conversion, Mary returns to his side; a reprise of the song, San Francisco yielding to a dissolve from its fire-ridden decay to the contemporary metropolis it had become by 1936.
The last act of San Francisco is a fairly religious experience. As in the days when America’s film industry was collectively managed by self-professed pious individuals, showmen and moguls who fervently believed in God, country and the ten commandments…even the ones they never obeyed, the finale to San Francisco relinquishes its zest for crass commercialism to the nation’s Judeo-Christian allegiances promised to a higher authority. Partly to mask the dominantly Jewish-held control of the entertainment industry, though chiefly to appease and prevent government intervention via censorship of their cloistered kingdoms, the moguls helped to create a vision of America indivisibly wed to Roman Catholicism. This is embodied in the movie by Spencer Tracy’s benevolent patriarch of the church. The film’s first and second acts are structured around exposing the moral depravities of a city drowning in its own hedonism (highly sanitized and glamorized under Cedric Gibbons’ superb art direction).
The reformation that occurs in Blackie after the quake is indicative of the change in San Francisco itself; from its Sodom and Gomorrah-esque den of iniquities to a thriving cosmopolitan center, presumably dedicated to more altruistic human pursuits.  Viewed today, San Francisco ranks among MGM’s finest efforts from the 1930’s and one of Clark Gable’s biggest hits to boot. Alas, Gable and Jeanette MacDonald would never again appear together in a picture; chiefly due to MacDonald’s discontent while shooting the picture and Gable’s intense dislike of her. Although the property had initially been brought to MacDonald with shared enthusiasm, perhaps wisely thereafter, she realized the movie really did not belong to her. It remains a Gable picture, as any picture starring Gable (save Gone with The Wind) has remained so. There is just too much he-man on the screen to suggest anyone else could carry their share of the load. And while Gable’s ascension to the throne in popular entertainment would continue throughout the early 1940’s, until Lombard’s death and Gable’s enlistment in the war deprived him of that devilish ‘little boy’ quality he so infectiously possessed as a grown man, MacDonald’s tenure as Metro’s grand diva would rapidly fizzle after 1939. She made only a few films in the early 40’s, retiring from the picture business to pursue aspirations on the stage and a lucrative recording and radio career. 
In the past we have severely wished for more Gable back catalog to become available on Blu-ray. By 2018, this ought to have been a foregone conclusion. Alas, Warner Home Video has kept this one-time ‘king’ a closely guarded secret in its embarrassment of riches yet to be mined in hi-def. No Gable/no sale. How depressing. I will pause a moment here to express my discontent with both Warner proper and the Warner Archive (WAC) for not having taken a much more proactive stance on releasing more bona fide classics in 1080p. While WAC’s output has been much appreciated in terms of sheer numbers – and of course quality – their choice of catalog for Blu-ray teeters on the verge of becoming highly suspect; with ‘B’ and even ‘C’ grade fodder like ‘It Came From Hell’ or ‘The Green Slime’ taking precedence over movies like San Francisco. By now, we ought to have had more than a handful of examples from the Gable repertoire out there for public consumption in 1080p; starting with San Francisco, and presumably, to include such miraculous entertainments as Red Dust, Test Pilot, Idiot’s Delight, Honky Tonk and Boom Town – to name but a handful so undeniably deserving of the honor.
Warner Home Video’s DVD of San Francisco is quite stunning. Most of the B&W image exhibits a refined gray scale with a very smooth visual characteristic that is quite satisfying. Age-related artifacts are present to varying degrees throughout this transfer, appearing a tad heavier during the earthquake sequence. Contrast is solid, although there is some fading around the edges of the early reels and weaker than anticipated black levels. There’s also some very minor built-in flicker to contend with and the occasional water damage. But what is most remarkable about this DVD is how aggressive the bass tonality is during the earthquake sequence. Even in mono, the sound field suddenly comes alive with a thunderous ovation of crumbling brick, metal and glass; summoning nature’s wrath quite convincingly. *Please note: there are two competing versions of San Francisco currently available: the out of print (but widely available on Amazon) legitimately authored DVD and the WAC MOD-DVD reissue. The legitimately authored DVD contains an alternate ending, a few vintage featurettes and a rather clumsily produced 'documentary' on Gable's career. I believe the WAC edition has jettisoned all of these extras and is bare bones movie only. There are no extras. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

GASLIGHT (MGM 1944/British National 1940) Warner Archive

Few movies enter the public consciousness as enduring fond memories; fewer still, as bona fide works of art. But how many are lucky enough to become a part of the common vernacular? To ‘gaslight’ someone is to systematically drive them to the brink of mental collapse; an insidious means of twisting the truth to suggestively force the victim to question his/her most basic perceptions and, in the final stages, their very sanity.  If not for Patrick Hamilton’s London play, Gas Light (known as Angel Street in the U.S.), and the subsequent 1940 British film, Gaslight, directed by Thorold Dickinson, made a scant two years after the play’s debut, with only 3½ years separating it from George Cukor’s exquisite reinvention for MGM in 1944, we might never have known this term. Cukor’s remake is one of those rare occasions where both the passage of time and the very fact his movie came to this mantel of quality thrice removed have not only enriched its purpose and style, but systematically eclipsed its source material as well as the earlier movie. Indeed, part of MGM’s decision to remake the picture was predicated on the wholesale purchase of the rights: a contract with British National Films stipulating the producers of the 1944 film agree to destroy all prints and the original camera negative of the 1940 version. Mercifully, this never happened. Even so, comparing the two movies today, one can clearly recognize the technical superiority of Cukor’s remake, rightfully considered one of the most imaginative and spooky melodramas ever conceived.
In reworking the play’s premise, conspiring screenwriters, John Van Druten, Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston did much to augment the suspense and thrill-soaked paranoia pervading the original tale; introducing a back story, only briefly touched upon in the play and virtually ignored in the 1940 movie; also, revamping all the main characters to add glamor and an air of intercontinental sophistication to the proceedings.  Hence, the play’s Bella Manningham, having become shrinking violet, Alice Barlow (played by Diana Wynyard) – the unsuspecting wife, moved into an upstairs flat once occupied by a wealthy dowager, brutally murdered within the first thirty-seconds of our story in the 1940 screen adaptation, in 1944 has morphed into Paula (embodied by the statuesque and formidable Swede, Ingrid Bergman); niece of a famed opera star, Alice Alquist (only depicted in portraits in the movie). Initially, Cukor had endeavored to evolve an even more detailed prologue; the actual murder taking place in silhouette, foiled by the sudden appearance of Paula (played as a child by Terry Moore), discovered by the killer, standing in the doorway; the murderer fleeing into the night before he could unearth the whereabouts of Alquist’s jewels.
Alas, it did not make much narrative sense that a killer would flee (when he might just as easily murder the young Paula too), or, for that matter, wait out a period of some years for the girl to mature into adulthood so he could marry her, and thus return to the scene of the crime to continue his search, while simultaneously driving his new bride insane. Some concision was required. Thus, Cukor opens Gaslight on a highly ambiguous note; a crowd gathered along the fog-laden corridors of Thornton Square (Pimlico Square in the 1940 film); their curiosity peaked by the emergence of a teenage Paula from the Alquist home (Bergman redressed in a little sailor’s hat and travelling cape to suggest the presupposition of youth, escorted by her kindly benefactor, Mr. Mufflin (Halliwell Hobbs). From this inauspicious beginning, our story immediately jumps ahead to Italy where Paula is studying music under Maestro Guardi (Emil Rameau); the noted impresario who once guided Alice into becoming a great star. Regrettably, Paula has not her aunt’s gift for song. She has, however, fallen madly in love with Guardi’s piano accompanist, Gregory Anton (the supremely suave, Charles Boyer). The lovers have kept their two-week affair de coeur a secret.  Gregory urges Paula to marry. And although she is undeniably head over heels in love, Paula first professes a need to go away on a mini-holiday alone to reconsider his proposal. Anton reluctantly complies with this simple request, but later, surprises Paula by arriving at her destination first. The two are married off camera and spend a few blissful honeymoon hours at the Hotel Del Lago. Prior to this subsequent rendezvous and marriage, Paula is introduced to the nosy, but otherwise kindly dowager, Miss Bessie Thwaites (Dame May Whitty) aboard a train. In revealing the plot to a novel she is presently reading Thwaites confides she lives in London, at No.11 Thornton Square, just two houses away from Paula’s late aunt.
It seems the past will not remain buried. Despite the inability of Scotland Yard to nail down either a motive or even suggest possible suspects in the homicide, Paula’s desire to put this sordid past behind her is thwarted when her new husband professes his dream to reside in a fashionable townhouse on a cozy square. Paula reveals to Gregory she holds the deed to Alice’s home. To please her husband, though perhaps equally to face her own demons, Paula agrees to return to No. 9 Thornton Square. In London, Paula is briefly reacquainted with Miss Thwaite before being ushered into the brooding and moodily lit inner sanctum of her not so distant past. George Cukor illustrates his masterful sense of pacing in this early sequence; the sets congested with all manner of Victoriana and cobweb-laden bric-a-brac. Characters in Cukor’s movies always move with a purposeful poise and yet, avoiding the obviousness of ‘hitting their marks’; the action, while meticulously plotted down to the subtlest nuance and camera angle, never giving the audience pause to think on it as either deliberate or unnaturally staged for the cameras.
Of course, neither Paula nor the audience is as yet aware Anton has been at the townhouse before; haunted by his own reminiscences of a botched jealous love affair with Alice Alquist; a letter written in his hand, but signed in his alias - Sergis Bauer, slipping from under a few choice pieces of sheet music nestled against the piano music stand.  Paula’s naïve reading of the love letter aloud causes Anton to go into a momentary – and seemingly inexplicable rage. Can Paula really be this green not to see Bauer and Anton are one in the same?  In retrospect, Ingrid Bergman’s casting is one of Gaslight’s great coups; her transitioning from love-struck child, to fragile woman, half-driven mad by her outwardly adoring – though categorically cruel and very wicked husband, only to rise like a phoenix from the brink and turn the tables on her deceiver, is the irrefutable acting highpoint of the picture. This is saying a great deal, considering the array of superb talents on display in Gaslight. At its core, Cukor’s Gaslight owes a great deal of its heritage to Hollywood’s then fascination with dark and menacing thrillers – mainly set in a perpetually foggy England: Fox’s remake of The Lodger (1944), and, Hangover Square (1945), MGM’s own remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945); the latter, released a full year after Gaslight but actually completed before it. The other casting achievement yet to be discussed is 18 yr. old Angela Lansbury who, in the pivotal role as the saucy tart, Nancy, fairly steals the show from under Boyer, Bergman and co-star, Joseph Cotten; the three established stars of the picture. Indeed, Lansbury, who celebrated her eighteenth birthday on the set of Gaslight, was Oscar-nominated; her appearance herein and as Sybil Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray leading directly to a long-term contract with MGM.
“This is a Cinderella story,” Cukor would later muse. Indeed, exactly how Angela Lansbury came to the attention of MGM is the stuff dreams are made of: one of many refugees belonging to the exodus from war-torn London, her Belfast-born actress/mother, Moyna Macgill (arguably sacrificed her own stardom so her daughter’s might flourish – though with some lingering professional jealousy thereafter), Lansbury was not only ‘fresh off the boat’ but relatively inexperienced to boot when Metro elected to cast her in Gaslight at Cukor’s behest; as much Lansbury’s ‘big break’ as it proved utterly daunting. “I was in very big company,” Lansbury would later muse, “But they treated me as though I was one of them. That gave me confidence.” Perhaps it was the Irish strain in Lansbury adding gumption from the sidelines to play the part, or likely, the reality she had known her share of hardships in youth: her beloved father, dead of stomach cancer when Angela was only nine – an event Lansbury would later describe as “the defining moment in my life. Nothing before or since has affected me so deeply”. Afterward, the young girl retreated into a land of her own make believe while Moyna pursued a career on the stage and in British cinema. Lansbury, a self-professed ‘complete movie maniac’; would continue to lap up the magic of the screen while briefly studying music and dance.
But the family’s move to North America was neither fortuitous nor immediately profitable; Macgill quickly realizes she had traded down her daydreams of becoming famous abroad for a nomadic life of hard work; Lansbury attending Feagin’s School of Drama and Radio as a latchkey kid, then lying about her age to land a job at the Samovar Club in Montreal to help support her two younger twin brothers, Bruce and Edgar. Returning to New York, Lansbury was to learn her mother had since gone ahead to Hollywood with even bigger dreams to fulfill. However, once ensconced in their modest bungalow in Laurel Canyon, things began to move quickly for Lansbury instead; a chance meeting at a party with screenwriter, John van Druten, leading to a casual suggestion made by Druten to Cukor he might have inadvertently met the ideal candidate to play the impertinent cockney housemaid, Nancy Oliver, in Gaslight; a part yet to be cast.
In the meantime, Louis B. Mayer was orchestrating the loan out of both Bergman and Joseph Cotten; their contracts held by producer, David O. Selznick. Throughout the 1940’s, Selznick found it more lucrative to ‘loan out’ his stars than produce homegrown projects; his undisclosed fee for Bergman’s services alone, rumored to have sent a grumbling Mayer back to Cukor to inquire whether any of Metro’s resident young female talent might equally do justice to the part. But Bergman was the star Cukor emphatically wanted, and, in hindsight, the one necessary to secure the picture’s everlasting reputation and success. In just a few short years, Bergman had blazed a trail from virtual unknown, cast as the ingénue in Selznick’s 1939 North American remake of her most popular European movie, Intermezzo: A Love Story, to become a much sought after A-list star of the first magnitude; thanks to high profile exposure as Ivy, the sexually humiliated and emotionally tortured bar maid in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) and her even more enigmatic turn as Ilsa Lund, the mysteriously beautiful woman torn between two passions in Casablanca (1942). And Bergman, apart from her peerless and translucent allure, is riveting in Gaslight; arguably the first part that requires the very utmost of her acting talents; her wild-eyed depiction of this woman systematically questioning her own sanity, cementing Bergman’s presence as an actress of equal talents as good looks.
Paula’s harrowing descent into madness begins innocuously with the gift of a broach from her husband, rumored to be a treasured family heirloom. As the clasp is defective, Anton urges his wife to slip it into her purse shortly before they endeavor to go out on the town. A tour of the Tower of London and the Royal Crown Jewels results in an inauspicious chance encounter with Scotland Yard Inspector, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten) who momentarily mistakes Paula for the spitting image of her late aunt. Later, Cameron confides to his superior, Gen. Huddleston (Edmund Breon) and curiosity about Alquist’s unsolved murder. Huddleston reluctantly divulges the particulars never made a part of the ‘official’ investigation; that Alquist was in possession of some famous foreign jewels, given to her but an admirer – an undisclosed ‘high-ranking’ personage. After Alquist’s murder, the disappearance of these jewels was marked as ‘classified’ and left quietly buried with the past. Alas, Cameron’s nagging interest with the new tenants at No. 9 Thornton Square remains unabated. Questioning Miss Thwaite, Cameron learns of a few oddities; Thwaite’s inability to glean any information about the couple from Nancy, who is as close-lipped as ever; though equally as flirtatious with the master of the house and fairly insolent toward Paula in tandem. The household’s cook, Elizabeth (Barbara Everest) is hard of hearing, though likely in possession of some slight observations about what has been going on behind these locked doors.
Cameron decides to appoint a bobby, Williams (Tom Stevenson) to patrol the neighborhood; also, to sidle up to Nancy in the hopes of coaxing more information from her. Meanwhile, Anton pursues his insidious campaign to drive Paula mad. He accuses her of being forgetful; of losing things, misplacing her thoughts and occasionally stealing and hiding pictures off the wall. Paula is unable to renounce his allegations outright; and yet, queerly, as ambiguous to explain who else in the household might have even the inclination to commit these perversions of trust. Each night, Anton leaves No. 9, presumably to work at his rented offices in town. In actuality, he has skulked around the neighborhood, discovering a back way into their townhouse, leading directly to the attic where all of Alice Alquist’s possessions are presently stored. Hearing the sound of footsteps on her bedroom ceiling, the dimming of gaslight brought on by Anton lighting jets in the attic while he conducts his meticulous search for the jewels, Paula cannot fathom anyone lurking about upstairs, much less her husband, since Anton has had the attic boarded up from the inside, presumably to prevent Paula’s bad memories about the murder from further plaguing her mind.
After some weeks of enfeebling her confidence, Anton decides to take Paula to a music recital hosted by Lady (Heather Thatcher) and Lord Dalroy (Lawrence Grossmith). The plush conservatory is full of polite society. Also in attendance is Inspector Cameron. Paula has been looking forward to this outing all week. But Anton has ensured his wife will suffer a very public nervous breakdown, having earlier hidden his pocket watch in her handbag, then implanting the idea Paula has taken it to satisfy her bizarre kleptomania. Unable to deny the discovery of the watch in her handbag, yet equally incapable of reasoning how it might have arrived in her possession, Paula tearfully loses control; her muffled whimpers interrupting the concert.  Anton apologizes for his wife’s outburst, quietly removing her from the salon. But once at home, he admonishes Paula as a malicious and vial mad woman, even suggesting her mother died in an asylum, likely from the same affliction presently torturing her mind. Meanwhile, Cameron learns from Williams of Anton’s nightly disappearances in the neighborhood. Having already decided Anton is guilty of something, Cameron pays a call on the household after Anton has already left for the evening, presenting Paula with the gift of a missing glove, one of her aunt’s most cherished possessions. It seems the glove was made a present to Cameron by the great lady when he was only a boyish admirer.
Cameron tenderly questions Paula. She gradually comes to trust his judgment, especially after he infers “you’re not going mad…you’re systematically being driven mad.” As to the dimming gaslight, the strange sounds emanating from upstairs, the incontrovertible evidence someone is in the house and playing tricks upon her mind, Cameron readily encourages Paula to reconsider Anton is responsible for all of these things – and quite possibly, a lot more.  Together, Cameron and Paula pry open the lock on Anton’s roll-top desk; discovering the hidden letter from Sergis Bauer. Cameron begins to piece together the clues; Bauer, Alquist’s piano accompanist from Prague, already married with a wife and child still living there.  Hurrying away before Anton’s return, Cameron takes Elizabeth into his confidence. In the meantime, Anton comes home; more frustrated than ever at not being able to locate the jewels. He goads Paula, drilling harder than ever into her still highly fragile psyche. Only now, Paula begins to question not only herself but her husband’s motives. Cameron returns, demanding justice and a confession from Anton. The two have a scuffle in the attic, Elizabeth calling for Williams to assist. Eventually, Anton is subdued and bound to a chair in the attic; Cameron hurrying to get help. Paula confronts her husband. He begs for her to free him. But instead she produces a knife, playing a startling game of cat and mouse as she repeatedly threatens his life. Is she serious, or has he truly driven her mad enough to kill?
In the end, Paula reveals to Anton she has not lost her mind despite his best efforts; that she has no intention of freeing him now; the discovery of the jewels sewn into Alquist’s costume a moot point, as Anton is going to prison for a very long time for Alice’s murder. An unrepentant Gregory Anton is led away without even a smidgen of remorse. Her nightmare at an end, Paula is comforted by Cameron; the pair standing together on a balcony in the attic. She poetically declares, “This night will be long” to which he quickly reframes her unhappy thoughts to suggest the fog – both figuratively and literally – is already lifting from her life; the night too shall pass, and, above all else, things will look very differently in the morning. Cameron vows to be of comfort to Paula. As they approach one another for an embrace, Paula and Cameron are spied by Miss Thwaite, who readily approves of this match from a distance as we fade into the end credits.
Gaslight is a formidable achievement. Indeed, Cukor could not have been more pleased with the final results; the picture winning Bergman her first Best Actress Oscar. Despite uneven critical reviews, Gaslight also was a financial success. For the most part, the production encountered no problems, marred only by one incident involving Angela Lansbury. Years later, in reflection, Cukor insisted, “On the first day of shooting, even though she (Lansbury) was only seventeen, and had no experience, she was immediately professional. Suddenly I was watching real movie acting. She became this rather disagreeable little housemaid – even her face seemed to change. I was delighted with her from the start.” But Lansbury recalls a slightly different scenario – one for which she has long since accepted full responsibility. It seems an assistant director came to Lansbury on set to inform her she could go to an early lunch as the sequence being filmed did not require her presence. Unaware she lacked the authority to do so, Lansbury promptly informed costar, Barbara Everest she too could leave so they might lunch together, when, in fact, Everest was needed for another take. After enjoying their lengthy luncheon, the pair was met on set by Cukor, who rarely fumed in public, but when he did, gave every indication of being a veritable Vesuvius. “Boy, did I get a dressing down that day!” Lansbury recalls, “But he was right and I was wrong.”
Interestingly, Gaslight is a film as sparsely populated in its underscore (a few choice cues and main title written by resident composer, Bronislau Kaper) as it remains cluttered from floor to ceiling in Cedric Gibbons’ art direction and Edwin B. Willis’s set decoration; an out-and-out pastiche of studio-bound Victoriana, with immaculate costuming supplied by designer, Irene. Its’ virtues – at least visually speaking – are readily the result of Metro’s formidable back catalog in props; a grand storehouse of virtually any and everything a film maker could desire to stage a movie; all of it meticulously cataloged in vast warehouses spread over the girth of the studio’s then extensive land holdings. More is the pity, then, virtually all of these gorgeous accoutrements became the subject of a snatch and grab sell-off in the mid-1970’s; the shortsightedness of Metro’s new management, quite unable to see how such a staggering array of artifacts – many of them undeniable museum pieces – could best be put to use, except to auction everything off, lock stock and barrel, to the highest bidder; and, in retrospect, for mere two-pence their innate value.
Gaslight endures on home video via the Warner Archive. Initially, Warner Home Video released a legitimately authored DVD version, including both the 1940 and ‘44 versions on a DVD-50 flipper disc, accompanied by a truncated ‘making of’ featurette hosted by Pia Lindstrom and featuring snippets and sound bites from Angela Lansbury. In either incarnation the results are slightly below par and it would behoove WAC to reconsider doing a complete remaster of this engrossing film for a new Blu-ray release in 2018. Aside: If Gaslight ever makes the leap to 1080p it, along with a good many other B&W MGM movies already transferred to home video on DVD needs its main titles stabilized. I am really tired of watching main titles with a barrage of edge effects (Criterion’s The Philadelphia Story still looks atrocious!). I don’t understand what is so gosh darn hard about eradicating edge enhancement (a digital anomaly) from a hi-def scan – especially one remastered from elements scanned in at 4K. Fix this, folks! Please, and a premature ‘thank you’! 

So, we will wait in the hope of better things. For now, the DVD of Gaslight is adequate – though, just – suffering from occasional and very distracting edge enhancement and some thicker than anticipated film grain, infrequently looking digitized instead of indigenous to its source. The B&W elements are in fairly solid shape, although certain scenes appear to suffer from less than perfectly balanced contrast; the image, a tad too dark, causing finer details to get lost in the mire. Overall, the quality won’t disappoint. But it doesn’t win any awards either, and singularly fails to impress; a shame, since Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography is another chief asset in this peerless production. The ’44 version fairs much better than its processor, which has low contrast and a host of age-related artifacts to contend with; beginning rather abruptly and suggesting some introductory screen credits have been unceremoniously lopped off. The audio for both versions is mono, as originally recorded and in fairly good standing; no hiss or pop and clear-sounding dialogue. Again, Gaslight on home video is hardly perfect. The movie is, however, and chiefly the reason this disc gets my wholehearted recommendation. Movies as finely crafted deserve far better on home video – and, if anyone at Warner Bros. is listening – on remastered Blu-ray…pretty please!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (MGM 1940) Warner Home Video

There have been many screen adaptations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, that perennial revived, oft sublime human comedy of errors examining the caste, mores and social politics of courtship some 200 plus years ago;’ rituals that, in one form or another continue to resonate with contemporary audiences for more than their relative quaintness. Arguably, none is more bountifully appointed or exquisitely pedigreed than Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1940 version; and this, in an era where such extravagances were almost an afterthought. Others have tried to bottle the elixir of Austen’s ageless characters; updating and/or changing the pastoral English setting, or even extending Austen’s prose into miniseries format. But MGM’s Pride and Prejudice has Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier; ideally bred as perspicacious Elizabeth Bennet and her haughtily handsome suitor, Mr. Darcy. Augmenting their formidable talent, Garson and Olivier have that intangible and elusive quality known as screen ‘presence’ and ‘chemistry’. There is also a great deal to be said for star power. It separates rarefied creatures from the status quo, thus making them instantly memorable at a glance. Olivier’s stiff-britches theatricality is the perfect foil for Garson’s lilting Irish wit – herein ever so slightly tweaked to mimic the appurtenances of the well-brought up British lass. The two are sheer magnetism on the screen; her slightly devious good nature tempting his honorable intentions while throwing the rigidity of his high-borne vanity and anointed self-importance right back in his face.
The movie would suffer if not for Olivier and Garson’s frequent and delicious sparring; the guy who thinks he can manage both his equals and, even more assuredly, his betters with the same offhanded scorn; she, recognizing almost immediately his mask of virtue is little more than pomposity made in pretend to shield and deflect from his own heart while keeping the rest of the world safely locked outside.  As is so often the case, though particularly with the works of Austen, it is the asserting female influence that breaks through these conventions of anticipated, though never entirely fulfilled romantic worship; Austen intently illustrating how one woman’s heart – just as breakable, if gently free-spirited – can nevertheless complete, rather than subtract from a man’s world, ever more becoming something greater than just his decorous appendage.  The screenplay by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin, already once removed from Austen and borrowing heavily from Helen Jerome’s successful stage dramatization of the novel, is fraught with memorable vignettes that play to the strengths of these two co-stars. In virtually every way, this Pride and Prejudice manages the minor coup of 'improving upon' Austen’s masterpiece to make it even more palpably satisfying as cinema art.
MGM’s Louis B. Mayer was undeniably the Tiffany of star makers. At its zenith, Metro boasted ‘more stars than there are in the heavens’ – forgivable hyperbole, given just how many A-list names above the title the studio had under contract for a time. True, both Garson and Olivier were established in their native Britain long before Mayer brought either of them to Hollywood; Garson, under an ironclad seven-year contract with a star-making turn in 1939’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Olivier, as the occasional freelancer, already signed by agent, Myron Selznick and having broken out to international acclaim in 1939’s Wuthering Heights, for Sam Goldwyn, and, 1940’s Rebecca for David O. Selznick. Interestingly, afterward Olivier’s mark on American movies would remain spotty; the actor dividing his time and energies between appearances on the screen and works committed to his first love - the stage. Under VP in Charge of Production, Irving Thalberg, MGM had excelled at period costume dramas throughout the 1930’s. But Thalberg’s untimely death in 1936 was not as earth-shattering an event for the studio as predicted in the trades, primarily because Mayer – whose foresight often preceded his tact – had installed his own entourage of producers, affectionately known around the lot as ‘the college of cardinals’. Although in time Mayer’s executive logic would prove top-heavy and detrimental to MGM’s profit margin, necessitating the installation of ‘another Thalberg’, at least throughout the 1940’s, Mayer’s meticulous planning in the event of Thalberg’s demise ensured MGM’s reign continue, the focus shifting away from costly period costume dramas to homespun, if as glossy, homespun dramas and musicals.
MGM may not have invented Jane Austen but it was certainly the studio most likely to have pleased the witty authoress, as much for its opulence as its backdoor machinations; a festive assortment of sinners and saints cavorting to the tune of Austen’s most celebrated central theme – looking for love in all the wrong (and occasionally right) places. Perhaps more than any other novel in Austen’s illustrious canon, Pride and Prejudice boasts excellent repartee between its romantically challenged couples; the conversations revealing the foibles, farce and folly in England’s chivalrously mismanaged courtships with nods to more pressing intrigues. Austen was, arguably, disinterested in the politics of romance, except to exploit it for the purposes of amusing her readership with reflections on the futility and superficiality of what was then considered contemporary ‘polite’ society.  The fact her writing has not only endured, but also so readily exalted is a testament to Austen’s universal appeal as a clairvoyant in observation of life in general and the ritualized mating game performed by its male and female players. For all intent and purposes, Jane Austen was probably the greatest ‘people watcher’ of all time and her meticulous crafting of traits and mannerisms for each character in Pride and Prejudice provides a sumptuous template for the most basic intricacies behind human understanding.  
MGM’s Pride and Prejudice is no less accomplished; given the full Monty in discriminating taste. Cedric Gibbons’ as usual impeccable art direction and Edwin B. Willis’ set decoration (cribbing extensively from MGM’s vast storehouse of props – many easily identifiable from Thalberg’s uber-lavish production of Marie Antoinette 1938; also using redressed free-standing back lot facades from the studio’s production of David Copperfield 1935) resurrects ‘period’ opulence; part authentic/part fanciful Hollywood re-interpretations for which MGM was genuinely noted and readily admired.  Attention to ‘period’ can only take you so far, and throughout the 1940’s Hollywood in general, and MGM in particular, was as much about detail as it exercised pure escapism. Gone are the true to ‘period’ empire waistlines, as example, replaced by some exceptional re-interpretations of the latest fashion by MGM’s in-house couturier, Gilbert Adrian – known simply as ‘Adrian’. Absent as well, are the sweeping hills and rolling landscapes easily recognizable to Britons; the war in Europe preventing MGM from even entertaining the notion to go abroad with a second unit and photograph some exterior plates for rear-projection. Like other studios from this vintage, MGM exercised tight control, shooting within the confines of their own opulent and copiously appointed playground. What they needed they built with the help of miniatures and mattes to extend the grandiosity beyond what mere painted plywood and plaster could imply. Herein, Pride and Prejudice immeasurably benefits from Metro’s illustrious past with just enough authenticity and originality to mark it as a class ‘A’ production.
Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier make for an eloquent pair of lovers; Garson’s spasmodically stubborn pertness, invigoratingly rich in poise and pragmatism, matched by Olivier’s rather droll and severe, often arrogant, yet perversely tortured man of means, driven to boredom by his summer holiday among the common folk. These regal sparring peacocks are surrounded by an utterly charming roster of MGM’s best contract players; Mary Boland as the scattershot matriarch, Mrs. Bennet; Edmund Gwenn (better known as everybody’s favorite Santa Claus from Miracle on 34th Street), herein, clean-shaven and subtly humorous as the kindly sage, Mr. Bennet; Maureen Sullivan (Tarzan’s Jane), herein cast as a different Jane entirely; Melville Cooper as the appropriately stuffy vicar, Mr. Collins; Edna May Oliver, the austere Lady Catherine de Bourgh - benefactress to half the county and virtually all of the town. With such a cast in place, it is near impossible to consider Pride and Prejudice as anything less than an exceptional portrait of rural 19th century social mores. From beginning to end, director, Robert Z. Leonard’s Pride and Prejudice champions and channels both Austen’s ‘sense’ and ‘sensibilities’ of a different kind, advancing the period ever so slightly to take advantage of Adrian’s more sumptuous costume, but maintaining fidelity to the straitjacketed social mores Austen herself had no compunction to playfully expose.
We begin in town with the buoyantly unfocused Mrs. Bennet (Mary Boland) and her two eldest daughters; demure, Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) and genteel, Elizabeth (Greer Garson) shopping for fabric for new dresses. Their excursion is not without its surprises. A stately cavalcade of carriages with two handsome young men in front passes through town. Through her gossipy connections, Mrs. Bennet quickly discovers their identities: Mr. Bingley (Bruce Lester) a bachelor who has just let the imposing Netherfield country estate for the summer, and, has an income of five thousand pounds a year, his sister, Caroline (Frieda Inescort) and their eligible friend, Mr. Darcy, rumored to be worth twice as much, thanks to his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Edna May Oliver). Mrs. Bennet collects the rest of her brood with haste; Kitty (Heather Angel) and Mary (Marsha Hunt), each indiscriminate in their playful romantic tastes for men in uniform, and, Lydia (Ann Rutherford), who prefers to have her head stuck in a book. However, before the Bennets can adjourn to their modest family home – Longborn – with Mrs. Bennet thus plotting a formal introduction of her girls to Messrs Bingley and Darcy, the family is confronted by the capricious Lady Lucas (Marjorie Wood), whose own daughter, Charlotte (Karen Morley) also happens to be Elizabeth’s best friend. Mrs. Bennet touts her knowledge of the amiable bachelors, sparking a friendly rivalry to see which family will be the first to goad Mr. Bingley into a forced invitation to Netherfield.
Upon returning home, Mrs. Bennet is beside herself when Mr. Bennet (Edmund Gwenn) appears noncommittal about obliging these concerns. How could he be so cruel, his wife wonders? They have five unmarried daughters without dowry and no prospects as yet. Mr. Bennet is a very cool customer indeed, already having made Mr. Bingley’s acquaintance – and furthermore, with prior knowledge on good authority, suspecting both he and Mr. Darcy will be attending the local ball. However, the mood at this social gathering is fraught with pensive electricity, particularly when the Bingleys and Mr. Darcy fail to show up as anticipated. Arriving late, Elizabeth is, at first, intrigued by the brooding Mr. Darcy; that is, until she overhears him discussing her in private with Mr. Bingley. It seems that while Mr. Bingley has become quite sincerely enchanted with Jane, Mr. Darcy can find absolutely nothing to recommend Elizabeth. Her pride ever so slightly wounded, Elizabeth’s impression of Mr. Darcy is further colored by a confession from would-be suitor/officer, George Wickham (Edward Ashley Cooper) who suggests that a ‘great wrong’ was done to him by Mr. Darcy; a denial of considerable inheritance since made Mr. Darcy a very rich man at his expense.
Elizabeth is genuinely shocked when Mr. Darcy – goaded by Mr. Bingley – asks her to dance. Clever girl that she is, Elizabeth uses this opportunity to ever so politely – though directly - refuse Darcy’s ignoble gesture; then, almost immediately accepts another invitation from Mr. Wickham in his place. A short while later Jane receives an invitation to Netherfield from Caroline Bingley. Having assessed the purpose of the visit, Mrs. Bennet elects to send Jane on horseback instead of by carriage. Her bedraggled arrival at Netherfield in the middle of a torrential downpour is compounded by an abominable head cold, forcing Jane to stay on under the Bingley’s care for several days. Eventually, Elizabeth comes to inquire about her sister’s health. Once more, she and Mr. Darcy butt heads, he becoming tenderly intrigued by her willful rejection of his modest kindnesses. Meanwhile, the Bennet’s cousin, Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper), who will one day inherit Longborn, arrives for a cordial visit. In search of a wife, Mr. Collins attempts to ingratiate himself with overbearing and rather obvious compliments. Mr. Bennet tolerates Mr. Collins. But he does not respect him. Mrs. Bennet, however, is gracious to a fault. But the girls – particularly Elizabeth and Jane - are merely amused by this fop in cleric’s collar. After Mr. Collins suggests he may wish to marry Jane, Mrs. Bennet dissuades him to reconsider Elizabeth instead; much to the latter’s chagrin. Mr. Bingley elects to give a grand party at Netherfield. Naturally, the Bennets attend. But Elizabeth is mortified when her family becomes the center of amusement for Caroline Bingley, who thinks the whole lot uncouth and ridiculous. Even worse, after attempting a détente, Mr. Darcy withdraws from Elizabeth upon overhearing Mrs. Bennet confiding to Mrs. Lucas she has orchestrated the whole affair between Jane and Mr. Bingley to ensure a love match.
Not long thereafter, the Bingleys and Mr. Darcy depart Netherfield and Mrs. Bennet becomes overwrought. Will Jane ever marry a man of good character, qualities and, of course, property? Mr. Collins seizes the opportunity of Mrs. Bennet’s distress to propose to Elizabeth. The match would ensure the family’s financial stability. But Elizabeth denies Mr. Collins, much to Mr. Bennet’s relief. Mr. Bennet would rather see them all thrown into the street than sell his most cherished possession – his daughter – in marriage to a man she did not love. Not long thereafter, Mr. Collins enters into an agreement with Charlotte Lucas instead. After they are married, Elizabeth pays a visit to Charlotte and Mr. Collins where she becomes reacquainted with Mr. Darcy and is introduced to his glowering aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Edna May Oliver). Darcy makes Elizabeth what he considers a very unaffected proposal of marriage. Though drawn to him, Elizabeth resists – partly due to Mr. Wickham’s story, but also because she suddenly realizes Darcy was responsible for Mr. Bingley’s separation from Jane.
Conflicted, Elizabeth returns to Longborn where she learns from her distraught mother that Lydia has eloped with Mr. Wickham. Mr. Darcy compounds the family’s displeasure when he insists Wickham will never marry Lydia. The silly girl has been disgraced and has, in turn, disgraced her family by running off with the man who tried to elope with Darcy’s 15yr. old sister, Georgiana. After Darcy departs Longborn, Elizabeth suddenly realizes the true depths of her feelings for him. Only what can she do about them now? The Bennets make ready to leave their ancestral home in shame. But Lydia and Wickham return mere hours before their decampment – Lydia with a band of gold about her ring finger. Wickham has made an honest woman of her. But how…and why? It seems Mr. Darcy has interceded on the family’s behalf, setting Mr. Wickham up with a handsome annuity in exchange for his marriage to Lydia. The family rejoices in their good fortune; momentarily at least, until Lady Catherine arrives to test Elizabeth’s fidelity to Mr. Darcy. Lady Catherine tells Elizabeth she could disown Mr. Darcy, thus leaving him penniless if he chooses to marry her. Elizabeth denies any such proposal has been made, but also suggests that if Mr. Darcy were to enter into an agreement she would not deny him – rich or poor. Her reply impresses Lady Catherine, who immediately confides in Darcy he has indeed met his match in Elizabeth Bennet. Her approval secured, Darcy rushes to Elizabeth’s side. She accepts his proposal and is overjoyed to see Mr. Bingley has also returned to make his honorable intentions known to Jane. From her window, Mrs. Bennet delights in the news, already plotting how to marry off the rest of her brood.
Pride and Prejudice is an affecting and joyous masterpiece, capturing the essential flavor of Jane Austen’s timeless authorship without slavish devotion to her every nuance and word. The studio’s devotion to quality has set the bar high for subsequent reinventions of this classic story, and, in many ways, forced competing versions to tip their own creative hats to MGM’s master craftsmen. Karl Freund’s lush cinematography adds glossy allure to the already luminous performances while Metro’s sadly/badly underrated and workaday composer, Herbert Stothart delivers yet another regal underscore, perfectly embodying the enterprising romantic silliness as lush and lovely orchestral subtext. Like Jane Austen herself, MGM’s Pride and Prejudice proves timeless; a superb evocation of the studio system functioning at the pinnacle of its powers. Austen would most certainly have approved.
Were it only true of Warner Home Video’s woeful DVD, marred by excessive gate weave and a barrage of age-related artifacts; also, a slight hint of edge enhancement.  The gray scale exhibits remarkable resilience and there appears to be no undue contrast boosting. When the image is solid, as it sporadically is, and dirt and scratches do not intrude – much – this visual presentation can actually look quite acceptable. Regrettably, the aforementioned shortcomings are persistent throughout and occasionally quite distracting. The audio is mono as originally recorded. It sounds quite clean – much more pristine than the visuals – with minimal hiss and only a few minor pops. Extras are limited to two unrelated short subjects and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Pride and Prejudice deserves more and better than this. I am going to champion the Warner Archive take command of this deep catalog title and give us a new Blu-ray. Now there’s a disc I’d sincerely recommend!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (MGM 1937) Warner Home Video

Based on Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated novel, Victor Fleming’s Captains Courageous (1937) is a life-affirming - if glossy - sea epic about the fabled travels of a young boy destined to grow up fast. After proving he cannot be trusted by fabricating a tall tale about his schoolmaster, spoiled rich kid, Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) is taken on a world cruise by his well-meaning father (Melvyn Douglas) as a way of procuring some quality father/son bonding time. Mr. Cheyne is a captain of industry; alas, also a single parent, feeling a genuine sense of guilt perhaps even more than duty, considering how much time he has spent away from Harvey. Unfortunately for father and son, half way across their ocean sojourn the ship encounters a gale. Young Harvey is thrown from the luxury liner but saved from drowning by Manuel Fidello (Spencer Tracy), a Portuguese fisherman who makes up songs with his concertina in between catching fish. Manuel takes Harvey back to his schooner, helmed by Capt. Disko (Lionel Barrymore) and populated by a formidable roster of Metro’s finest contract players: Charles Grapewin, as dotty, Uncle Salters, John Carradine (borrowed from Fox) as the forthright and stern, Long Jack, and, Mickey Rooney, far too mature for his age, as the cabin boy, Dan - a superb throwaway cameo.
Captains Courageous must rank among the finest achievements in cinema - period, and not just those made at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. That is saying quite a lot for a studio known in its heyday for such titanic efforts as The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Marie Antoinette (1938) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). It is virtually impossible to sit through Fleming’s incredibly heart-wrenching and meticulously orchestrated coming-of-age four hanky weepy without breaking out the Kleenex. While too few movies then or now have taken dead aim at the youth market to plum and prime children with credibility and virtually none are brave enough to be frank in their reflections that would greatly benefit and mature such impressionable and constricted psyches, far too many movies are slavishly devoted to the interminable masking of life’s harsher truths with unrealistic sugar-coated candy shells of bright-eyed idealism. Captains Courageous is a movie made by a guy’s guy; Victor Fleming not yet past his prime to have forgotten the potency and impact genuine loss can have on reshaping a young boy’s perspectives; the child becoming a man before our very eyes. Harvey’s burgeoning maturity is nurtured by the unlikeliest of friendships, carefully cultivated by one tough/compassionate surrogate in lieu of the patriarchal influence he otherwise genuinely lacks at home. Alas, this too is cruelly taken away by a twist of fate.
Captains Courageous is both sobering and uplifting, thanks to Freddie Bartholomew’s astute pivotal performance as the spoiled rich kid cum sage seeker of life. The conversion Bartholomew subjects his alter ego to, is a masterful display, put forth by a sadly forgotten child star, once considered a rival – if not a better – of Mickey Rooney. Time and Rooney’s own enduring cinematic legacy (making the successful transition from pint-size powerhouse to enigmatic teen idol, and later, the diminutive savant of such children’s classics as Pete’s Dragon and The Black Stallion) have unfairly eclipsed Bartholomew’s reputation. But lest we forget, here was a boy of rare qualities who could appear and decidedly hold his own opposite such luminaries as Garbo, Lionel Barrymore and Judy Garland, delving into an extraordinary wellspring of uncannily adult emotions in Anna Karenina, Little Lord Fauntleroy and David Copperfield (all three movies made and released in 1935). For a brief wrinkle in time, Bartholomew was easily MGM’s male counterpoint to Fox’s Shirley Temple; a prepubescent box office dynamo with a screen presence and the acting chops of a seasoned professional twice or three times his natural age. 
It remains one of Hollywood’s artistic tragedies to reconsider what Bartholomew’s career might have been if not for a crippling custody dispute between his birth parents. Both mismanaged his earning potential, causing a devoted aunt step in and take custody of Bartholomew in 1937. The aunt had her own agenda, petitioning L.B. Mayer for a higher salary, in part due to Bartholomew’s staggering success in Captains Courageous. Mayer, however, was no fool. Nor was he about to pay more for goods already acquired at the going rate: Bartholomew’s loss/Mickey Rooney’s gain. After Bartholomew’s aunt threatened to break Freddie’s contract, Mayer’s interest in the pint-sized actor dramatically cooled. A stalemate between the aunt and Mayer caused Bartholomew to be overlooked for two splashy productions - Rudyard Kipling's Kim, and Thoroughbreds Don't Cry.
Bartholomew’s appearance in either film likely would have catapulted him to even greater heights as a child star. By 1942, the damage incurred was irreversible. Bartholomew did not make another picture of note after his loan out in 1938 to 2oth Century-Fox for director, Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (Fox’s thinly disguised attempt to recapture the glory of Captains Courageous). More B-budget fodder followed; Bartholomew’s appeal further afflicted by the onset of puberty and his spiking to a height of nearly six feet – decidedly a child no more.  By the mid-1940’s, conscription put a period to Bartholomew’s film career. At the age of eighteen he entered military service, severely injuring his back while working in aircraft maintenance.  Seven months of painful rehabilitation led to his early discharge from active service in 1944.
As is the case with far too many child stars, never again was Bartholomew to scale such dizzying heights in popularity. The Town Went Wild, a 1944 B-comedy marked a seven-year hiatus for the actor, bookended by Bartholomew’s disastrous attempt to break into live theater and a near-fatal car accident that almost paralyzed him. He wed the first of three wives, Maely Daniele, in 1946 and spent the rest of the forties waffling in undistinguished movie cameos; forming a brief nightclub act with Maely, moderately successful in Australia. By 1949, Bartholomew had reinvented himself as a fledgling television performer and host; later, showing remarkable clairvoyance by producing such popular entertainments as The Andy Griffith Show, and the soap operas, As The World Turns, The Edge of Night and Search for Tomorrow for Benton & Bowles; a New York advertising agency he would eventually be made Vice President of in 1964.
Captains Courageous would be nothing at all without Bartholomew’s extraordinary performance as Harvey Cheyne. But the production also carefully surrounds Bartholomew with an impressive roll call of Metro’s finest thespians, beginning with Spencer Tracy. Tracy never considered Manuel Fidello among his finest performances – despite the fact it won him his first of two back-to-back Best Actor Academy Awards; perhaps, impacted by Joan Crawford’s rather glib assessment as she passed the makeup department while Tracy was having his hair tightly curled, muttering, “Good God, it’s Harpo Marx!”  I will admit, for a whole fifteen seconds after Tracy’s Portuguese fisherman first appears on the screen his affected accent – more Yiddish than Portuguese, and sporting unnaturally twirled ringlets left me momentarily befuddled. But then Tracy kicks in with some of his most understated and earnest acting; his soothing, but well-founded counseling taking on a quaintly brusque appeal; the ballast in Harvey’s burgeoning admiration for Manuel affecting anyone young enough to have fallen in love with an elderly mentor, or, old enough to recall a special someone who brought out clarity and perspective from their youthful angst and confusion during that critical juncture we all face in our early transition from child to adult.
Captains Courageous hits the audience on an emotional gut level. Manuel’s hellish demise, dragged to the bottom of the ocean by collapsed rigging during a powerful storm at sea, even as Harvey desperately tries to keep his best friend’s head afloat; Bartholomew’s wounded, frayed and tearful disbelief, and later, his angelic solemnity in prayer inside a chapel, reunited with his father, who has only just begun to comprehend what their friendship meant to the boy, are indelibly etched vignettes, as truthful and emotionally satisfying as anything ever achieved at the movies. After Tracy won his Oscar, he was circumspect about the honor, “Well, I got away with it. Want to know why? …because of Freddie. Because of that kid’s performance; because he sold it ninety-eight percent. The kid had to believe in Manuel, or Manuel wasn’t worth a quarter. The way he would look at me, believe every word I said, made me believe in it myself. I've never said this before, and I’ll never say it again. Freddie Bartholomew’s acting is so fine and so simple and so true that it’s way over people’s heads. It’ll only be by thinking back two or three years from now that they'll realize how great it was.” 
Captains Courageous opens with a brief scene to illustrate Harvey’s deviousness; blaming an innocent headmaster for his expulsion from school; his father’s unquestioning faith in his son’s accusations, leading Mr. Cheyne to embark upon an extended cruise with Harvey in tow. Mr. Cheyne is a captain of industry; wealthy but distracted by matters of business and entrusting Harvey’s upbringing so far to a private school and the various staff who populate his lavishly appointed manor. Nevertheless, Harvey has grown up wild, or rather, bratty and undisciplined, believing he is entitled to this life of privilege in lieu of a strong patriarchal influence to show him what it means to really be a man. In Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Harvey has both a father and a mother; the issue of parental neglect, perhaps, more glaring. But in the movie, Mr. Cheyne is a widower; kindly, invested and empathetic, but just too busy building a legacy for his son to inherit without first realizing the child needs a solid base to be worthy of the honor. Father and son set sail for Europe. But Harvey, playing a deceitful game of ‘hide and seek’, inadvertently slips from the ship’s deck and topples overboard into rough seas; his frantic cries to be saved are drowned out by the sound of crashing waves and the thunderous call of the ship’s whistles.
A short while later Harvey is picked up by Manuel in a rowboat. Ever stubborn, and now wet, cold and angry, Harvey orders Manuel to take him to his father. Alas, the two are in the middle of nowhere; the luxury liner having sailed away without so much as a second thought to return in search of him. And Manuel is but a sailor on a nearby schooner traversing the waters in search of fish. Their journey will take many months. Upon returning to the schooner, Capt. Disko makes it emphatically clear to Harvey he will not turn his vessel around and sacrifice the fishing season – ergo, their livelihood – merely to reunite Harvey with his father. The boy can stay on and become a member of the crew until the season is over. What? Manual labor? At first, Harvey is as belligerent as ever. He orders Disko to return him to his father’s ship. The gruff Disko slaps the boy down to teach him a lesson; a shock to Harvey, who likely has never been disciplined in his life. Harvey’s next move is to plan his escape in one of the small rowboats chained to the ship’s bow. This incurs Disko’s considerable wrath and does even less to ingratiate Harvey to the rest of the crew; first mate, Long Jacks, old salt, Uncle Salters and matter-of-fact cabin boy, Dan.
However, with a little friendly patience and understanding from Manuel, Harvey begins to change his tune. Mulishness gives way to personal satisfaction, Harvey investing himself in the daily chores and becoming an integral part of the crew. Gradually, he gains their respect of these hard-working men through his deeds and learns what it means to be one in a company of brave sea-faring men. Manuel is the father Harvey has never known; an adult male figure intensely interested in his welfare and upbringing. As such, Harvey falls under a child’s spell of worshipping his mentor. As time wears on, he also begins to entertain ideas about joining Disko’s crew on a permanent basis; something Disko sincerely promises to consider once they make port. Tragedy strikes when the schooner is mortally wounded during a perilous storm at sea. In a desperate attempt to free the ship from its capsized mast, threatening to overturn and drag the ship to the bottom of the sea, Manuel becomes entangled in its heavy rigging. Harvey climbs atop the fallen mast and grasps at the soaked lapels of Manuel’s coat, feverishly trying to keep his fallen friend’s head afloat. Disko wagers Manuel’s legs have already been severely dislocated and on Manuel’s orders, Disko cuts the rigging free from the mast, knowing it will drag Manuel to his death beneath the waves.
The loss is devastating to all, but particularly to Harvey who looks on in stung disbelief as the only real friend he has ever known slips beneath the water. Later, after the vessel is secure, Disko and Dan try to comfort Harvey, alas, to no avail. Far from belligerently rejecting their kindnesses, Harvey merely confesses to simply wishing to be left alone. Disko makes for port, realizing the only thing that may snap the boy from his grief is a reunion with his real father. Mr. Cheyne is overjoyed to learn his son did not drown at sea and rushes to be reunited with him, only to discover Harvey has been changed by his experiences at sea. He is ever more the man now; prematurely aged in his outlook on life and death; Mr. Cheyne comforting his son inside a church while caught in thoughtful prayer, still mourning Manuel. After some awkward consternation, Mr. Cheyne elects to respect Harvey’s friendship; also, assuming his responsibility for having failed the boy He vows to never again make the same mistake. Harvey has returned to him – a second chance by the gracious whim of fate and God’s good graces. The boy still needs guidance. But even more invaluable, he requires his love and compassion – in short: he needs a father. As Mr. Cheyne prepares to take Harvey home, the two regard one another as equals; Manuel’s memory lingering in our hearts as the screen fades to black.
It is impossible to watch Captains Courageous without succumbing to the emotionally satisfying groundswell of its life-teaching precepts. Despite changing times and tastes, John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly and Dale Van Every’s screenplay is so supremely invested in the universals of life, the picture retains its perspective as a heartrendingly relevant melodrama, once seen, never to be entirely expunged. Victor Fleming, who primarily cut his teeth on a series of Clark Gable movies, is a masterful understudy of this particular brand of male-bonding. With Captains Courageous, Fleming – either consciously or subliminally – has given us another Clark Gable movie without Gable. In absence of Hollywood’s then reigning ‘king’, Captains Courageous is immeasurably blessed to have Freddie Bartholomew. As fine as the rest of the cast is, they pale to the uncanny command Bartholomew illustrates throughout; his subtle conversion from scheming brat to sincere contrition is a spellbinding piece of screen acting. Kipling is right up Fleming’s alley and he employs his own inimitable stroke of genius on this memorable excursion – the tale infused with great heart and, of course, superbly staged action sequences for which all Fleming films are duly noted. Captains Courageous is quite possibly the greatest coming-of-age story ever committed to celluloid. Easily, it remains among the high-water marks in Metro’s studio-bound/movie-land magic; a compelling/life-enriching tale about the brotherhood of the sea and a must see/must own experience to be forever treasured by the young and young in heart.
Captains Courageous ought to be green-lit for Blu-ray in 2018. Honestly, it should have already made its way down the pike at the Warner Archive (along with such immortal children’s classics as National Velvet, Little Women and Lassie Come Home). For now, Warner Home Video’s DVD remains an unexpected delight. Considering the elements are well over seventy years old, this DVD holds up spectacularly; the gray scale, impeccably rendered with deep solid blacks and subtle tonality throughout. Whites are generally clean. Age-related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum. Certain scenes appear ever so slightly softly focused – and there are several instances (mostly during rear projection and/or stock shots) marginally suffering from heavier than usual grain. I suspect this is as it should be, although I am equally as certain contemporary video stabilization techniques could do something to make the transitions between stock footage and studio-bound process work more seamless without sacrificing the indigenous integrity of the image. For now, at least, this standard DVD transfer will surely not disappoint. The Dolby Digital mono audio has been cleaned up and is well-represented at an adequate listening level. Extras are the real disappointment. We get two unrelated short subjects and the original theatrical trailer. What? No audio commentary?  Poo-poo, that! Otherwise, Captains Courageous is one of the all-time greats. Very highly recommended, indeed!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)