Thursday, November 1, 2007

TO PLEASE A LADY/JEOPARDY (MGM 1950-53) Warner Home Video

Warner Home Video has assembled two rather pedestrian and not terribly engaging feature films for a Barbara Stanwyck Double Feature; 1950s To Please a Lady and Jeopardy (1953). There’s really not much to recommend either apart from the fact that they represent a bit of cinema history best left as the second half of another double bill.

First up: Clarence Brown’s To Please A Lady (1950) is second tier melodrama with Clark Gable clearly past the roguish prime that made him such a heartthrob prior to WWII. In the intervening decade, Gable had gone through active service and lost the great love of his life, comedian Carol Lombard. The cumulative effect of these two watershed events on his emotional psyche was enough to instill a more world weary, less playful and somewhat less charming incarnation of his former self with a decided downturn in his box office appeal and earning potential after the war ended.

Here, Gable is Mike Brannan; a butch race car driver who plays dirty on the track, using every trick he can to win his races. He’s hated by the fans and despised by newspaper maven, Regina Forbes (Barbara Stanwyck). After witnessing Mike cause, what she believes to be a deliberate pile up on the raceway, Regina vows to destroy him in print. The motion for Mike’s demise is seconded by the paper’s ruthless owner, Gregg (Adolphe Menjou). However, Regina gradually begins to understand Mike’s perspective on racing and on life. She realizes that he’s not quite the demigod she envisioned and a quiet – if problematic – romance develops.

Director Brown offers nothing in either spark or flare from his illustrious past career on this outing. The film is a leaden, dull and uninspiring hodge-podge of sopping wet melodrama inserted between badly edited race car footage – most of it obviously shot in front of a process screen with cartoonish effect. Stanwyck delivers a complementary performance to match her costar, but she just doesn’t seem to be able to get much mileage out of feeling low. Gable is bored with his character on the whole. He reads his lines as though he can’t wait to collect his check and move on to something else on his roster.

The other film in this double feature is John Sturges’ low budget pseudo noir, Jeopardy (1953) – a wholly disengaged thriller without the thrills or enough plot to sustain its scant 94 minute running time. The tale begins on a buoyantly uncharacteristic note with young married couple, Helen (Stanwyck) and Doug Stilwin (Barry Sullivan) and their young son Bobby (Lee Aaker) en route for a vacation in the wilds of Mexico. Finding a desolate spot on the beach, the story attempts to kick into high gear when Doug jams his leg between a slab of rotting wood from a nearby dilapidated boardwalk and a stone on the beach. With high tide only a matter of hours away, Doug encourages Helen to get in the car and drive for help at an isolated service center they passed about ten miles back. Unfortunately for Helen, she finds the station deserted, save psychotic criminal escapee, Lawson (Ralph Meeker).

After commandeering the car, pawing at Jessie and presumably raping her in a remote and abandoned hacienda in the middle of nowhere, Lawson suddenly reforms. He drives Jessie back to the beach and rescues Doug from drowning, before escaping from the police across the beach head to freedom.

At the time Jeopardy went before the cameras, Dore Schary was head of MGM. A wily executive, once responsible for most of RKO’s gritty noir thrillers, Jeopardy is just the sort of film he would have liked – a message picture with a sort of maligned ‘don’t talk to strangers’ scenario. But the film is woefully short on something to say and with an almost malignant abuse of star power in favor of telling a tale that only a die hard noir aficionado could love.

Barry Sullivan is wasted in a thankless role, reduced to lying on his side in waste high ocean surf while imbuing his son with diatribes about how he will be ‘the man’ of the family ‘if’ Jessie should fail to return.

Stanwyck doesn’t quite know what to make of her part. At first she’s the simple little woman; then, a rather voracious mother lioness; and finally, an emotionally spent and aloof woman of the world. The gamut doesn’t quite come together as one performance, but rather samplings of various performances that are never fully realized.

Meeker is perhaps the worst served by his character. He plays psychotic and crazy fairly well, but then must shift gears entirely to do the right thing and save the family. His early scenes crackle with raving electricity that we rarely get from him throughout the rest of the film.

Owing probably to the fact that Warner Home Video is aware of the niche market for these titles, it has done a rather outstanding job on transferring them to DVD. The B&W image on both is beautifully contrasted with minimal grain and age related artifacts. The image is slightly more refined with greater detail evident on Jeopardy. Process shots on To Please A Lady are obvious and distracting. Neither film’s image quality will disappoint. The audio on both is mono. Extras include short subjects and theatrical trailers; adequate enough and satisfying nonetheless.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
To Please a Lady 3
Jeopardy 2.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
To Please a Lady 3.5
Jeopardy 3.5

EXTRAS
1

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