Tuesday, July 24, 2007

ROYAL WEDDING/THE BELLE OF NEW YORK (MGM 1951/1952) Warner Home Video

This reviewer would love to have been in conversation with the RKO talent scout who in 1932, upon critiquing an audition by the master of dance – Fred Astaire – glibly wrote in his referral to the front office: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Can dance a little…balding!”

As though any more definitive proof were required to illustrate Astaire’s supremacy as the premiere American dancer of the twentieth century, Warner Home Video now unleashes two of the master’s lesser (though no less entertaining) works on a double feature DVD; the long overdue resurrection of Stanley Donen’s Royal Wedding (1951) from that travesty of lack luster and down right shoddy public domain DVD transfers, and Astaire’s second teaming with the formidable Vera Ellen (the two were previously partnered in Three Little Words 1950) in The Belle of New York (1952). Both films are a testament to Astaire’s unique blend of seemingly effortless whimsy and meticulous proficiency as a dancer.

Royal Wedding (1951) casts Astaire as Tom Bowen, half of a brother and sister dance act who has taken their Broadway success on tour to England to coincide with the pending nuptials of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. Tom’s sister, Ellen (Jane Powell) is a notorious – though quite innocent – collector of amiable young suitors; a running gag turned serious when Ellen is introduced to the attractive and roving Lord John Brimdale (Peter Lawford). As their romance gets underway, Tom – a confirmed bachelor – begins to have second thoughts regarding chorus hopeful, Anne Ashmond (Sarah Churchill …yes, Winston’s daughter). However, the course of their true love proves to be anything but smooth.

Hardly cutting edge in terms of narrative structure, Royal Wedding is fleshed out by some genuinely appealing songs and dances penned by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane, the best, the innovative ‘You’re All The World To Me’ that Astaire sings, then dances all over the floor, walls and ceiling of his hotel suite – whirling about the scenery in an effortlessly staged bit of film trickery. Powell, who until this film had been relegated to playing winsome ingénues, graduates to full womanly maturity. Her vocals on ‘The Happiest Day of My Life’ and ‘Too Late Now’ throb with an emotional intensity that is poignant and pure. The film also contains a dated Vaudeville number that holds the dubious distinction of having the longest title in song writing history – ‘How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life?’

The other half of this Astaire double bill is Charles Walters’ The Belle of New York (1952); a polite and gentile comedy set at the turn of the last century. All about a randy and commitment shy womanizer, Charlie Hill (Astaire) who is reformed by the love of a good woman – Salvation Army mistress, Angela Bonfils (Vera Ellen). One can see varying shades of Guys and Dolls in this rather plot-less offering. At first Charlie is determined to do right by Angela. He courts her in the customary manner of a gentleman and even wins the approval of his benefactor aunt, Mrs. Phineas Hill (the undaunted and irrepressible Marjorie Main). Ah, but then Charlie’s cold feet begin to kick up a storm and it is every bride for herself.

At the time of its’ release, The Belle Of New York was considered something of a disappointment – a curiosity, since the film is no better or worse than the aforementioned Royal Wedding, and, in fact, brims with some truly stellar terpsichorean skills: Astaire’s charming ‘Seeing’s Believing’ that has him literally floating on air; ‘A Picture by Currier and Ives’ in which Charlie and Angela dance against lush painted recreations of the famed portraitures, and ‘Oops’ – a gingerly flamboyant pas deux aboard a horse drawn trolley car. All in all, this isn’t a landmark musical, but it is a highly enjoyable diversion nonetheless.

Warner Home Video has done a fine job restoring Royal Wedding to its original brilliance. The Technicolor full frame transfer exhibits bold, rich and vibrant colors. Flesh tones are a tad on the pasty side, but quite acceptable. Contrast levels are bang on. Blacks are deep and rich. Whites are bright but never blooming. There is only a slight hint of modest grain and NO digital artifacts for an image that is smooth and wholly satisfying. The audio is mono as original recorded but delivering a prominent and clear sonic presentation.

On The Belle of New York, the Technicolor isn’t quite as rich or flamboyant, though overall this too is an adequate transfer. The image is sharp and well defined. Contrast levels are a tad low, but will not distract. Again, modest grain and NO digital anomalies make for a very smooth transfer. A hint of age related artifacts occasionally intrude but do not distract. The audio seems a tad muffled in spots, presumably due to an oveuse of noise reduction in the mastering effort.

Extras on Royal Wedding include an informative – if brief – featurette on the making of the film, an outtake reprise of ‘Every Night At Seven’ sung by Lawford, and Private Screenings with Robert Osborne interviewing director Stanley Donen. Extras are a tad scant on The Belle of New York – an alternative take to Astaire’s ‘I Wanna Be A Dancing Man (previously featured on That’s Entertainment III), and the film’s theatrical trailer. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Royal Wedding 3.5
The Belle of New York 3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
Royal Wedding 4
The Belle of New York 3.5

EXTRAS
Royal Wedding 4
The Belle of New York 2

THAT'S DANCING! (MGM 1985) Warner Home Video

In 1974, MGM celebrated its waning kingdom of goodies with a docu-tainment featuring the best of the best from its former glories – That’s Entertainment! So successful was this film, both in and of itself, and, in jump starting a cycle of nostalgia for ‘the good ol’ days’ (that continues in full flourish today), that That’s Entertainment! was immediately followed one year later by a sequel. Though not nearly as popular as its predecessor, That’s Entertainment Part II convinced writer/producer, Jack Haley Jr. that there was more than enough unused material readily available and waiting for yet another sequel. 1985’s That’s Dancing! is not really a sequel, per say, but a departure from the format of the first two features, this one dedicated exclusively to great dancers and dance sequences in movie musicals.

In the intervening decade MGM, the studio that had once so proudly trumpeted its supremacy within the industry as having 'more stars than there are in heaven' had devolved into one of Hollywood's truly unforgivable tragedies; its boardroom repeatedly rocked by mismanagement and management crises, its stable of top flight in-house technicians whittled down to a handful of old timers barely able to remember the true golden age when virtually all of the studio's most memorable product had been produced. 

Worse, a corporate takeover in 1973 had resulted in a divestment of virtually all of the studio's assets. The production facilities were shuttered, then rented out to independent producers, the back lots containing sets spanning virtually every period in human history bulldozed to make way for condo and housing development, and the vast library of props and costumes once worn by Gable, Garbo and their like auctioned off to the highest bidder for a mere tuppence of what they were actually worth.    

In those final sad days MGM went from the king of features to a wholesale distributor of other filmmaker's product, its cavernous real estate becoming one giant garage sale to satisfy the needs of the new principle stockholder, Kirk Kerkorian. Hence, by the time That's Dancing! went into production, MGM was no longer an entity worthy of its celebration. Little surprise then, that Jack Haley Jr. was forced to shoot virtually all of his new inserts, featuring the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Gene Kelly,  and Liza Minnelli to name but three, elsewhere instead of within those once hallowed studio grounds.   

In crafting a loose narrative around another bumper crop of clips, Haley also chose to look outside MGM’s golden library, petitioning virtually every other studio in Hollywood to participate in his new venture. Some did. Most did not. Unwisely, Haley marched ahead with what he had. However, unlike the That's Entertainment! films that preceded it, That’s Dancing! emerged as something of a labyrinth rather than a holiday, with gaping holes in its narrative and a sort of truncated assessment of the present and future of musical entertainment.

There was, for example, no good reason - other than rights issues, to omit memorable films like The Sound of Music, Grease, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, Camelot, Brigadoon and Pennies from Heaven from this compilation. As a result Haley was forced to stay pretty close to home, relying on a good many clips from the MGM archive, while occasionally inserting scenes and numbers from the other studios to augment the occasion. 

But the film's flaw in continuity became further exacerbated by the fact that the clips taken from movies not made at MGM had - and have - a very different artistic flair. West Side Story's electrifying 'Cool' as example was incongruously butted against MGM's own 'The Red Blues' from Silk Stockings, Irene Cara's Fame unflattering and chaotic when dumped next to Michael Jackson's meticulously choreographed 'Beat It' music video. 

Somewhere along the road the producers jettisoned the idea to remain exclusive to movie musicals, while inexplicably and unapologetically excluding other relevant forms of dance. Mikhail Baryshnikov's tribute to ballet on film suffered from too much stilted exposition and not enough examples of ballet on film. (In truth, ballet on film has always been a rather tough nut to crack, presumably because it remains too highbrow for the masses). There were extensive tributes to Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley, but curiously none dedicated exclusively to Gene Kelly, much less Gene Nelson or Donald O'Connor. 

Also, for obvious reasons, That's Dancing! excluded the great singers of movie musicals from its repertoire, creating a sort of 'black hole' within the context of the genre itself. After all, the earliest movie musicals were often trumpeted as "All dancing! all singing!" Yet, at its best That's Dancing! is a little of both, though hardly a celebration of either.

The film's opening sequence set to the title tune "That's Dancing", featured a stunningly edited compendium of clips from a host of memorable movie musicals never again glimpsed in the film, while the finale attempted to recap the previous two hours of occasional tedium, this time set to Carly Simon's 'Invitation to Dance'. 

To assist in this mélange, Haley employed no less authorities on the art of dancing than Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ray Bolger, Sammy Davis Jr., Gene Kelly and Liza Minnelli. Each was provided with a particular period in film history to filter through; Kelly book-ending the exercise – beginning with the 1980s break dancing craze, before regressing to clips from Busby Berkeley’s best work at Warner Bros. Sammy Davis Jr. paid homage to Fred Astaire’s solos and pas deux at RKO. 

Minnelli attempted to present the ‘best of Broadway’ – a curious claptrap of clips that included James Carney’s turn as George M. Cohen in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Bolger gave a brief summary of MGM’s late 1940s and early '50s tenure and Baryshnikov provided a dull and rather meandering account of ballet. Despite some interesting material feathered in along the way, That’s Dancing! failed to come to life except in fits and sparks, reminding the viewer that the past – unlike the film that attempted to resurrect it – was indeed completely and sadly dead.

When it was all over the public generally agreed. While not a financial flop, That's Dancing! was hardly the box office dynamo That's Entertainment! had been. Viewed today, That's Dancing! seems so much more a cultural relic of the 1980s than a timeless cavalcade. Kim Carnes' songs and the 'new' inserts are woefully undernourished offerings at best, superficial in their understanding of the talent they so desperately seek to emulate and extol. In the final analysis, That's Dancing! is very much like a starter home for newlyweds. You know it isn't exactly what you want, but if you don't know any better you do your best to convince yourself that it will do for the time being. My advice? Skip the starter and just jump right into the That's Entertainment anthology - an infinitely more rewarding and pleasurable distraction for an hour or two.

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is middle of the road considering that, at the time these clips were assembled for the original theatrical engagement, digital restoration was not even an option. Many of the clips included in That's Dancing! are imperfect. Even so, it appears as though Warner Home Video has gone back to the drawing board, inserting newly mastered clips from some of their restoration efforts made in the interim. Clips from Singin’ In The Rain and the Berkeley musicals – as example – appear much more refined than others included herein. Throughout That's Dancing! the aspect ratio changes as it did during the original theatrical exhibition to accommodate full frame and widescreen formats.

Video quality varies. Some clips are quite sharp and free of age related artifacts while others show their age. Arguably, one is watching this film for its historical content and not for overall visual integrity. Even so, the image is satisfactory for the most part. Colors can be vibrant and bold. Contrast levels appear quite accurately rendered. The audio has been remastered in 5.1 – the only real benefactors being the opening title music ‘That’s Dancing’ and Kim Carnes’ ‘Invitation to Dance’.

Extras include 4 abysmal featurettes made in conjunction with the film. These featurettes are of such poor visual quality that they cannot even be classified as reference materials. It is a pity more was not done to stabilize the image. The original theatrical trailer is also included.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
2.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
1

WORDS AND MUSIC (MGM 1948) Warner Home Video

With his eye clearly on the box office returns garnered by Richard Whorf’s Till The Clouds Roll By (1946), director Norman Taurog takes dead aim at his own bio pic with Words and Music (1948); a blissfully obtuse would be biography containing not an ounce of truth about the lives of its subjects: composers, Richard Rodgers (played to laconic effect by Tom Drake) and Lorenz Hart (a quip-talking Mickey Rooney). Like its predecessor, Words and Music's screenplay by Fred Finkelhoffe and Guy Bolton is a threadbare framework on which to hang a decorous catalogue of Rodgers and Hart standards with all the opulence and star power that MGM in its prime could muster.

The film finds Rodgers and Hart as a pair of young forlorn composers who eventually strike it big with the aid of friends, Eddie Lorison Anders (Perry Como), Peggy Lorgan McNeil (Betty Garrett) and Margo Grant (Cyd Charisse). Hart suffers from ‘short man syndrome’ – an affliction that taints his romances and ultimately leads to his premature death…at least, so the narrative would suggest. In between his great search for love in all the wrong places, Hart manages to compose a compendium of singable standards that have remained peerless examples in song writing.

No less than seven of the studio’s major stars appear as themselves in the film; Lena Horne delivers a sultry ‘Where or When’ and glib-savvy ‘The Lady Is A Tramp’; June Allyson performs the utterly charming ‘Thou Swell’ from A Connecticut Yankee; Perry Como croons ‘Mountain Greenery’ and ‘A Blue Room’ – to name but a handful of the 22 songs incorporated. There's even opportunity for Judy Garland to reunite with Rooney in the delightful ‘I Wish I Were In Love Again’, before claiming the floor for her solo – ‘Johnny One Note’ - a positively electric experience. 

Words and Music is an enchanting musical for musicals sake. There's no integration of the songs and dances into the plot. They're strictly played to illustrate the ballast in showmanship - an embarrassment of riches that MGM wielded with peerless autonomy during its glory days. Thus the film is more 'a show' than a story. That said, it works as a glossy star-spangled hit-filled cavalcade; hard to argue with and a real tough act to follow. When the dust had settled on the production, audiences were not left wanting for entertainment value and the film became one of MGM’s biggest and brightest money makers. While it isn't in the same league as Meet Me In St. Louis or The Band Wagon, Words and Music is a joyful, tune packed experience not to be missed.

Warner Home Video’s DVD provides quite a satisfactory DVD transfer with a few minuses. The pluses: bright solid colors that are fully saturated, a generally crisp and well defined image with good contrast levels registering just a smidgen below par. The one unfortunate inclusion on this transfer is the appearance of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details scattered sporadically throughout. 

Some scenes are entirely free of this nuisance, while others are painfully obvious. There is also more than a hint of grain in certain scenes, providing for a less than entirely smooth presentation. The audio is mono but quite adequately balanced. Extras include an informative commentary by historian Richard Barrios, a new featurette on the film, an audio library of rare musical cues and outtakes and the original theatrical trailer.

Recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
3.5

THE PIRATE (MGM 1948) Warner Home Video

Love it or hate it, Vincente Minnelli’s The Pirate (1948) remains a fascinating experiment that attempted to expand the boundaries of the musical comedy. That it failed to find its audience in 1948 speaks more to our collective expectations than any actual artistic failing. In retrospect, the chief problem with many MGM movies coming out of the war years is that they had become too formulaic, too frothy and too escapist for the increasingly cynical tastes of a postwar America. Musicals were particularly notorious for maintaining the threadbare 'boy meets girl' scenarios with few, if any deviations. Thus, audiences became secure and increasingly rigid in their expectations of movie musicals. It's one of the reasons the genre steadily fell out of favor from the mid-1950s onward. 

Yet The Pirate attempted something different; a lavishly mounted spoof of the Douglas Fairbanks Sr. swashbucklers from the silent era updated for the post war generation. It is a film of immeasurable spirit, but limited musical appeal. And its screenplay by Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich is awkwardly battling the more adroit sophistication of S.N. Behrman's original play - never a good place to be in from a narrative standpoint.

Judy Garland is cast as the naïve Manuela, a girl guarded from outside influences by her Aunt Inez (Gladys Cooper). Manuela’s marriage has been arranged to the wealthy governor, Don Pedro Vargas (Walter Sleazak). But the portly Vargas is no match for Manuela’s lurid dreams about the dastardly and dashing rogue of her imagination, gleaned from tales of Mococco the Pirate.

Enter Serafin (Gene Kelly), a traveling clown and acrobat touring the seaside with his theatrical troop. Recognizing that he will win Manuela’s heart if he can convince her that he is, in fact, ‘Mack the Black’ Mococco – Serafin dons his best disguise and trips the light fantastic in her honor. But will Manuela be enough of an innocent to fall for both the act and him?

At first, yes - particularly after Serafin manages to hypnotize the girl. She breaks free of his mind-controlling constraints, however, and later learns the truth. Determined to make him pay for his lies, Manuela allows Serafin to believe he is still her lord and master, then lowers the boom and all but demolishes half the house in the process. 

Angered by Manuela's obvious affections toward Serafin, Vargas exposes the truth to her and the town's folk; that he was indeed Mack the Black Mococco in his youth. Since the days of his piracy he has been a wanted man, living off his fabulous wealth in general obscurity. Since he is still a wanted man, Vargas is arrested, leaving Manuela to pursue Serafin. But before she can, Serafin interrupts the show. We fast track to a moment in the not so distant future to learn that Manuela has joined Serafin's travelling show as just another stooge; the two indulging in a spirited rendition of 'Be A Clown' that closes out the show. 

The artistic crisis – if one can call it that - of The Pirate is that it does not look or behave like a typical MGM musical. Critics of the day were quick to suggest that both Garland and Kelly were lampooning their roles all out of proportion but actually the two seem a perfect pair in this bizarre hybrid of the classic Hollywood swashbuckler. 

Given that Garland's chronic addiction to drugs was getting the better of her throughout the film's lengthy shoot, she cavorts attractively enough – her best bit being ‘Mack the Black’, staged with fire and brimstone and sung to gaudy dispatch while under hypnosis. Made up as the sexy paragon of every woman's fantasy Kelly too is in fine form, delivering the penetrating stare of a swarthy swashbuckler, but with the garish aplomb and amiable theatrics of a true ham. 

The Pirate is a potpourri for Minnelli who is at his most flamboyant in a setting befitting his penchant for visual extravagances. He floods the screen with a captivating darkness; an autumn harvest of deep sinister oranges, violent shades of red and magenta and a blaze of flame enriched yellows. But in the end, The Pirate is a flop because it can never rise above this stylized backdrop to offer the viewer anything more tangibly engaging by way of its plot. 

The boy meets girl scenario isn't enough for this musical, particularly when the musical portion of the program is so threadbare. Apart from the aforementioned numbers, Kelly warbles and dances to Cole Porter's Nina, an infectiously athletic top-tapping song in which his Serafin attempts to seduce the various eligible maidens in town. He also does a buck n' wing with The Nicholas Brothers to an instrumental version of 'Be A Clown'. Garland sings 'Love of My Life' - a rather turgid ballad that fails to captivate and seems even more strained, considering that by the time she decides to sing it her character has already discovered that Serafin is a fraud. 

Otherwise, the film remains short on music and long on sustaining its amusing premise of misrepresented identities. In the final analysis, The Pirate is noble in its pursuits, but utterly flawed in its execution. It's still worthy of a glance, but it doesn't hold a candle to the more memorable musicals in MGM's extensive backlog of classics.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is a travesty, excessively marred by edge enhancement, shimmering of fine details and extreme pixelization that breaks apart virtually all of the background information. This is by far one of the most unattractive offerings Warner has ever released and I cannot understand what went wrong, except to say that the results are sloppy and unworthy of Warner's usual stellar commitment to home video. 

Colors are pale, muddy and unrefined. Contrast levels are much too low. Whites are either a dirty gray, slightly blue or overly yellow. The image contains so much glaring digital noise that the film is virtually unwatchable by virtue (or vice) of its visual distractions.  The audio is mono but adequate for this presentation. 

Extras include an audio commentary by Garland biographer, John Fricke, a new featurette on the making of the film and audio bonuses. If only someone at Warner’s had cared more about the general quality of the film presentation.

Not recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3

VIDEO/AUDIO
1

EXTRAS
3

Thursday, July 19, 2007

ESTHER WILLIAMS VOL. 1 (MGM 1944-1953) Warner Home Video

In a critique of 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid, a reviewer for Time Magazine once wrote, “I’m really lost about Esther Williams work in the movies…but if nothing else they had to be extremely dangerous to film.”

They were – as Williams herself has attested to in numerous interviews. At one point during the filming of an underwater ballet, the actress succumbed to ‘the rapture’ – a diver’s worst nightmare, her lungs temporarily collapsed from lack of oxygen. Director Mervyn LeRoy, who was overseeing Williams as she drifted into unconsciousness at the bottom of the pool, but oblivious to her plight, shouted at her using his underwater microphone – “Esther…what the hell are you doing? We can’t keep you in focus at the bottom of the pool, we’re not lit for that!”

Comedian Fanny Brice was even more glib in her snap analysis of Williams’ star power, saying “In the water she’s fabulous. On dry land she’s just a nice girl who should settle down and have children.” But perhaps Ms. Brice was a wee bit jealous of Esther’s formidable talents.

Besides having the face and figure of a goddess (both photogenic beyond compare to most contemporary starlets), Williams has proven, at least in retrospect, to have also been an adroit comedian, a competent singer and dancer and one hell of a dynamic swimmer. She’s also one of the most frankly honest raconteurs, capable of waxing affectionately about her days at MGM but with a razor sharp wit that cuts both ways.

Despite having her hopes for an Olympic medal dashed when the games were canceled because of WWII, Esther’s antics in the saucer pool at MGM directly led to the creation of synchronized swimming as an Olympic sport a decade later. One fact about Williams’ career is irrefutable: it remains resilient, unique and endearingly popular with audiences to this day.

When the idea of building an entire film around a swimmer was pitched to L.B. Mayer in the fall of 1942, Mayer reportedly said “How the hell do you make films in a pool?” He was told, “The same way Darryl F. Zanuck does with Sonja Henie and ice skates.” Much to Mayer’s fascination, finding ways of keeping Williams wet became a favorite past time for MGM’s writing department – the creation of 26 aquacade musical comedies making Esther Williams one of the most iconic superstars of the late forties and early fifties.

Now, TCM and Warner Home Video open the floodgates on Esther Williams Vol. One – a five film compendium that, unfortunately, isn’t as good at showcasing MGM’s underwater goldmine as one might expect. This collection includes Esther’s entrée into the aquacade; Bathing Beauty (1944), a remake of Libeled Lady in which Esther remains pretty much on dry land - Easy to Wed (1946); the rather lack luster – but glossy, On An Island With You (1948), the abysmally garish Neptune’s Daughter (1949) and almost low key, Dangerous When Wet (1953).

In Bathing Beauty (1944), Esther is cast as Caroline Brooks, a professor at Victoria; an all girls’ college. Caroline marries her dreamboat - composer Steve Elliot (Red Skelton) while on a vacation at Sun Valley. But she is erroneously led to believe that Elliot is already the husband of Spanish vixen, Maria Dorango (Jacqueline Dalya). The wrinkle; Elliot’s unscrupulous agent, George Adams (Basil Rathbone) has contracted Dorango to play the part so that Elliot will forget Caroline, give up on his plans for early retirement and continue writing scores for his new shows.

The rest of the plot is threadbare at best, with Elliot trying to convince Caroline that he is innocent. To that end, he registers as a student at Victoria resulting in some spectacularly riotous vignettes that are a high water mark in comedy. The plot is also immeasurably fleshed out by its musical program that includes Latin tenor Carlos Ramirez, organist Ethel Smith, Harry James and his Music Makers and Xavier Cugat with Lina Romay. Musical highlights include Cugie’s Bim Bam Boom, Smith’s electrifying Tico Tico, Ramirez’s Te Quiero Dijiste and James’ Hora Staccato – all taking a backseat to the lush and lavish aquacade finale featuring James, Cugat and, of course, Esther doing what she does best.

Easy to Wed (1946) is a rather lack luster remake of MGM’s Libeled Lady. Funny man Keenan Wynn is Warren Haggerty – an editor whose newspaper is about to be sued for slander by trite (and on this occasion, rather boorish) Connie Allenbury (Esther Williams). Complicating matters is the fact that Haggerty has broken his engagement to fiancée, Gladys Benton (Lucille Ball) for the umpteenth time. To resolve his issues with Allenbury, Haggerty employs lady’s man Bill Chandler (Van Johnson) to pursue the ice princess. 

But first comes the wrinkle: Bill must marry Gladys to make a charge of 'alienation of affection' stick against Connie – thereby getting his paper off the hook for false accusations. The script is fairly faithful to the original comedy classic, but with songs and dances inexplicably inserted. The best by far is Van Johnson and Esther William’s Bona Pixie – a Latin rumba that proves moderately infectious. For the rest, Easy to Wed is a standard musical with less than standard musical offerings.

On An Island with You (1948) is fluff to the ‘enth degree, immeasurably aided from succumbing to its own treacle by some truly glorious Florida everglade location footage (subbing in for Honolulu). The film stars Williams as a Rosalind Reynolds, a movie star in love with costar Ricardo Montez (Ricardo Montalban) – much to the great sadness of both supporting player, Yvonne Torro (Cyd Charisse) and Lt. Lawrence Kingslee (Peter Lawford), who has been hired as technical adviser on Rosalind's latest movie. 

To get Rosalind away from Ricardo, Lawrence decides to fly her to a remote isle – supposedly to scout locations. But his plan goes awry when their plane is damaged and grounded on the island. Once again, MGM packs the background with a lot of color to make us forget how contrived the plot is: Xavier Cugat is on hand, as is comedian Jimmy Durante, endearingly fracturing one of the best musical highlights in the film ‘I Can Live Without Broadway.’

The next film is Neptune’s Daughter (1949); an abysmally second rate offering from MGM – it’s one claim to fame being that it includes the Oscar winning song ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ sung by all the principles to either riotous or romantic effect. For the rest, the film stars Williams as Eve Barrett, the manufacturer of a trendy line of swim wear who finds herself staving off romantic advances from Latin playboy, Jose O’Rourke (Ricardo Montalbaun). In the meantime, love struck Jack Spratt (Red Skelton) finds himself in similar territory – beating off the ravenous libido of Eve’s sister, Betty (Betty Garrett). Short on its musical program, Neptune's Daughter lacks in almost every department. The plot is threadbare. The songs are few, far between and largely forgettable. The aquacade finale is pedestrian at best, with divers leaping from the stylized bow of a gaudy riverboat.

Finally, there’s Dangerous When Wet (1953) a sort of road show Million Dollar Mermaid. Esther is Katie Higgins – an all-around athlete in a health nut family, whose father (William Demarest) has gambled the family’s entire life savings on the prospect of Katie being able to swim the English Channel. To this end Katie is taken under the wing of Liquopep agent, Windy Weebe (Jack Carson), who wants to be more than Katie’s sponsor – only she seems to be developing grander amours for Parisian millionaire, Andre Lanet (Fernando Lamas) instead. Dangerous When Wet is charming enough, but not on par with Williams’ splashier aquacade spectaculars. In fact, apart from a rather dully animated sequence – Williams appears with MGM’s Tom & Jerry – the film does not contain any trademark swimming sequences.

So much for the films…what about the transfers? Well, those expecting quality or even consistency will be disappointed. Though On An Island with You and Dangerous When Wet both appear to have been the benefactors of some digital clean up and restoration somewhere along the way, the rest of the films in this collection vary greatly. The two aforementioned titles exhibit a sharp and nicely contrasted Technicolor image with deep solid blacks, clean whites and very bright colors. Age related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum. Flesh tones appear a bit too orange, but overall these transfers will NOT disappoint.

The worst of the bunch is easily Easy to Wed – it’s faded Technicolor marred with a very soft, grainy and age afflicted transfer that ought to have been cleaned up before being slapped onto disc. The overall experience is a real chore to get through. There is a considerable amount of age related artifacts and even a hint of edge enhancement. Not at all up to the caliber we've come to expect from Warner Home Video.

Working back in terms of overall improvements is Neptune’s Daughter. All the previous criteria apply, but to somewhat lesser degree on this title. Now, for the real slap in the face: Esther’s best film in this box – Bathing Beauty – has not been given a restoration of any kind since MGM/UA Home Video did a chemical Technicolor restoration back in 1995 to reissue the film on laserdisc. Unfortunately, someone was asleep at the controls then. Many scenes in Bathing Beauty continue to suffer from mis-registration of the original 3-strip elements and disturbing halo effects. Colors, on the whole, are slightly faded. Certain scenes appear to have been sourced from something other than an original camera negative with a considerable amount of gritty film grain, dirt and scratches evident. For shame!

The only extra of merit in this set is the inclusion of Private Screenings with TCM host, Robert Osbourne – a very concise but enjoyable interview with Esther Williams. The image quality on this interview is just fair – slightly faded and with a few choice film clips inserted. The rest of the extras boil down to several deleted songs, short subjects and cartoons and theatrical trailers for all the films in this box, as well as some that are presumably to be included as part of Esther Williams Vol. 2. 

None of these extras have been given consideration, clean up or restoration and all reflect a general state of disrepair. Overall, this is NOT the way I would have expected Warner Home Video to honor one of MGM’s biggest box office draws and one long overdue for her debut on DVD. It’s certainly NOT the way I choose to remember Ms. Williams work.

Not recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Bathing Beauty 5
Easy to Wed 3
On An Island With You 3
Neptune's Daughter 2.5
Dangerous When Wet 3

VIDEO/AUDIO
Bathing Beauty 3
Easy to Wed 1
On An Island With You 4
Neptune's Daughter 2.5
Dangerous When Wet 3.5

Extras
2.5

Monday, July 2, 2007

DU BARRY WAS A LADY (MGM 1943) Warner Home Video

On stage, Du Barry Was A Lady was a song and dance extravaganza; a veritable cavalcade for composer Cole Porter’s lyrical penchant for risqué double entendre. That Roy Del Ruth’s Du Barry Was A Lady (1943) failed to reach such meteoric heights for MGM on the screen remains something of a mystery. Despite having half its original score jettisoned in favor of a more antiseptic – if nevertheless melodic - series of musical offerings, the film remains an oddity; a would-be light-hearted confection trampled by a rather leaden screenplay and an utter waste of stellar talent.

The story is bizarre, but palpable within the confines of the musical genre. Hat check boy, Louis Blore (Red Skelton) has a colossal crush on nightclub vamp and chanteuse, May Daily (Lucille Ball). May is all about money – a commodity Louis lacks until he wins the Irish sweepstakes. Vying for May’s affection is Alec Howe (Gene Kelly, looking uncharacteristically elfin), a dancer at the club.

May’s heart is for Alec, but her conviction to be a lady of leisure results in a fleeting alliance with rich patron, Willie (Douglas Dumbrille). On the sidelines is Louis’ deadpan heartthrob, Ginny (Virginia O’Brien) – who patiently waits for the chips to predictably fall so that she can claim Louis for her own.

Now, here comes the wrinkle; Louis succumbs to the elixir of a spiked cocktail and dreams he is really King Louis XV with May predictably reincarnated as the infamous woman behind the throne, Madame Du Barry. This plot point allows MGM to utilize many of the sumptuous sets and costumes first designed for the lavish B&W melodrama, Marie Antoinette (1938). In that film, Du Barry (Gladys George) was an embittered hard-nosed shrew – indeed the ‘lady’ with feminine wiles and power lauded over her king.

But Ball’s Du Barry is a lazy fop in a wig; a flashy gal without much substance, who cavorts and primps; a superficial courtesan with her eye on the dashing rogue and libertarian, The Black Arrow (Gene Kelly). But this alliance is thwarted prematurely when Louis comes to his senses – awakens with May by his side only to recognize that Ginny is the only one for him: so much for plot.

Du Barry Was A Lady never comes to life. There are moments where one can see the old MGM charm spark to life, particularly during the many musical sequences that are gamely staged, bright and colorful. Red Skelton is delightfully wacky, maintaining a comedic presence even when the material he's been given is less on par with his talents. Lucille Ball, while undeniably ravishing in Technicolor, is uncharacteristically wooden. Her best number, the title track (obviously dubbed) is also regrettably truncated – the camera cutting to crowd inserts and conversations between Alec and his best friend, Rami (Zero Mostel) with only the briefest of moments to glimpse the elegant comedian in all her French finery.

On the whole, the musical sequences are statically staged – the camera remaining a safe distance from the actors, thus preserving the proscenium of the stage show. In fact, at varying intervals some of the principles address the camera directly – a device which further alienates the artificiality of the show. The most satisfying moment in the film remains Kelly’s bravado, Do I Love You – a tour de force in dance athleticism in which the soles of his shoes seem to be infused with hidden springs, as he effortlessly bounds, leaps and flies through the air, exercising his Terpsichorean grace.

Warner Home Video provides a rather impressive DVD transfer. With only slight and very brief minor mis-registration problems the vintage Technicolor is both lurid and blazing – capturing all the colors of the rainbow with delicious precision. When all three strips are in perfect alignment, the image is razor sharp with an incredible amount of fine detail and minimal film grain. Crop marks between actual sets and matte painted ceilings during the French court sequences are quite obvious and distracting. Contrast levels appear to be slightly bumped during several sequences and flesh tones – though utterly vibrant, are a tad too pink. The audio is mono but presented at an adequate listening level. Extras are limited to two vintage short subjects and the film’s original theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
1

THE BIG STREET (RKO 1942) Warner Home Video

Irving Reis’ tragic film noir, The Big Street (1942) is an engrossing character study in toxic relationships; a dark and brooding examination of a tragic woman who is evil in her intent, yet strangely sympathetic in her flawed understanding of human frailty and love.

The film stars Lucille Ball as Gloria Lyons – a hot-to-trot nightclub singer who is utterly adored by busboy, Augustus ‘Little Pinks’ Pinkerton (Henry Fonda – playing convincingly against type as the starry-eyed fop).

Gloria loves no one – not even herself. She uses her boyfriend, the thuggish Case Ables (Barton MacLane) until she sets her eyes on a more handsome prospect; playboy, Decatur Reed (William Orr). Unfortunately, for Gloria, Ables decides to teach her a lesson – slapping her down a flight of stairs. The resulting fall leads to irreversible and crippling paralysis.

Discarded and embittered, Gloria’s recovery is embraced and funded by ‘Pinks’ and his band of faithful well-wishers; fronted by restaurateur Violet Shumberg (Agnes Moorehead) and playful gambler, Professor B (Ray Collins). But Gloria cannot stand the lot of them. Her seething contempt for poverty and those who work to live conceal her deeper fear – that her own life is over and that, without the use of her legs, she will never be able to land the rich meal ticket she believes she deserves.

Based on the short story by Damon Runyon (who would later script the glorious Guys and Dolls), the screenplay by Leonard Spiegelgass adeptly moves the action from New York to Florida where Gloria continues to ridicule Pinks and the rest of those who seem to care more for her than even she does for herself. As Gloria, Ball is a revelation – a character so maniacal and oppressive in her discontent that she surely seems to be the most wicked and unflattering of all female leads.

Yet, Ball manages to infuse something of a ‘little girl lost’ into her performance, allowing us to see flashes of insecurity behind the sadism that will ultimately doom her to a tragic end. Gloria’s motto may indeed be that ‘a girl’s best friend is a dollar’ – but the infinite wisdom of the film is a more enlightened philosophy; selfless compassion is the admirable redeemer of fallen idols.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is fairly impressive. The B&W image is relatively grain free with a minimal amount of age related damage. Contrast levels appear slightly weak at times, but overall the gray scale exhibits a fine tonality with solid deep blacks and relatively clean whites. Occasionally, a slight hint of edge enhancement is detected, as well as pixelization in background details, but on the whole the image quality in this presentation will surely NOT disappoint. Extras are limited to two vintage short subjects and the film’s theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
1

LAND OF THE PHARAOHS (Warner Bros. 1955) Warner Home Video

Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs (1955) is an impressive anomaly in the director’s career. Under the creative aegis of making a ‘Cecile B. DeMille-type picture,’ Hawks aligned an impressive script by Harold Jack Bloom, William Faulkner and Harry Kurnitz with stellar leads and a cast of literally thousands. The film boasts one impressive spectacle after the next, not the least of which is Pharaoh Cheops Khu-Fu (Jack Hawkins) triumphant processional into Egypt.

Joan Collins, whose '50s film career often resonated with variations of the devious sex kitten, is in full blossom herein as Princess Nellifer; a slinky seductress whose outer lusciousness masks the pure vinegar racing through her veins. If Land of the Pharaohs does have lasting appeal, it is largely due to Collins sinfully manipulative performance and she sells self-destructive sex as no other actress of her vintage could.   

The story begins with Pharaoh’s triumphant return from battle – trailed by an entourage of captured peoples fronted by architect Vashtar (James Robertson Justice). Cheops orders Vashtar to build him an impregnable tomb where he will rest in luxury and want for nothing in his ‘second life.’ As construction begins, the spirit and hope of the people is high.

Soon, however, Pharaoh becomes consumed by the thought of death and the tone of his orders turns darker and more brooding. After discovering that Vashtar’s sight is failing – and that he has shared the secrets of Pharaoh’s tomb with his only son, Senta (then heartthrob, Dewey Martin), Pharaoh condemns both father and son to be buried alive in the tomb after his death.

If this first act seems inauspicious to Pharaoh's desires and ultimate plans for his own mortality then the next act in the William Faulkner, Harry Kurnitz and Harold Jack Bloom screenplay is even more bizarre. Always loyal to his adoring wife Nailla (Kerima), Pharaoh becomes inexplicably drawn to hell cat Princess Nellifer (Joan Collins), who first denies Pharaoh’s workers the grain and monetary aid to build his resting temple, spits at him and bites his wrist, then plots his murder with her hulking man servant. This plan however goes awry when Pharaoh’s loyal advisor, Hamar (Alex Minotis) discovers Nellifer’s treachery and devises a fitting end for her after Pharaoh’s death.

The Land of the Pharaohs is meticulously lavish, well crafted and mostly well acted, and yet it tends to lack that elusive quality to make either its spectacle or narrative memorable. It was not a success at the box office and really represents an inconsequential blip on Howard Hawks film career. 

The tale moves along effortlessly enough with much to admire from both its’ actors and the enormous and detailed sets that dwarf all human condition set before them. Director Hawks never cared much for the finished product, believing it to be a minor work among his favorites. Even so, Hawks cannot help himself in bringing something fresh and vital to an otherwise mostly pedestrian tale merely fleshed out with gargantuan production values. 

There is something genuinely engrossing about this sort of spectacle – more robust in its plotting and action than even DeMille’s own Ten Commandments, and far more character driven with subliminal underpinnings of sadism and revenge.  Land of the Pharaohs may not represent the penultimate antiquity on film, but at times it is thrilling entertainment of the sword and sandal variety.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is a tad disappointing. The anamorphic Cinemascope widescreen transfer was shot on Eastman Warner-Color film stock – a flawed format. The image, while occasionally sharp and detailed, is moreover marred by a distinct fading throughout, overly orange flesh tones and, at times, a considerable amount of obvious film grain and age related artifacts. There is also a hint of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details sporadically throughout this presentation. Occasionally, the image wobbles from left to right during dissolves and fades. Colors are flat and pasty for the most part.

The audio is Dolby Stereo Surround and recaptures much of the vintage ‘scope’ stereo sound – though occasionally the tracks are more strident than pure, with dialogue utterly manufactured. Extras are limited to the film’s theatrical trailer and a rather sparse audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich with inserts of Hawks from an interview conducted in the early 1970s.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

FILM/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
1

MAME (Warner Bros. 1974) Warner Home Video

In life Mame Dennis made a lasting impression on her nephew Patrick – so much, that in death he immortalized her into everyone’s favorite ‘Auntie Mame’ in a glowing novel that eventually became a hit Broadway show, then later, an equally impressive film extravaganza starring Rosalind Russell. That Gene Saks’ Mame (1974), based on the Broadway musical that followed the aforementioned film, failed to generate as much frenetic energy, excitement or even basic entertainment value on the whole remains a mystery – since the film was blessed with a solid – if overly theatrical – score, and a stellar cast, of which the galvanic Lucille Ball headlines.

Oddly enough, few of these pluses seemed to matter in the end; a weighty, costly and grossly under-nourished spectacle from which only the film’s title number survives relatively unscathed. Lucy – everyone’s favorite madcap on television – became utterly stifled by the material in the Robert E. Lee/Paul Zindel screenplay. While Russell’s Auntie Mame had been a buoyant, lovable and flighty dame about town, Ball’s Mame seems more adult and less able to assimilate into a child’s world – less likely to be beloved without her Mickey Finn and the occasional romp through a seedy burlesque or local speakeasy. In effect, she seems more like a corrosive influence than an endearing and compassionate matriarch. 

The plot – truncated to accommodate the musical offerings, and veering wildly away in many respects from Patrick Dennis’ original novel – has young Patrick (Kirby Furlong) arriving with (not Nora – his nanny) but Agnes Gooch (Jane Connell). This apprehensive duo is introduced to the wily Mame (Lucy) in the midst of one of her gloriously decadent parties at her fashionable terrace apartment. Mame tells Patrick that she is going to open doors for him; doors to possibilities he never even dreamed of – then, relegates him to a few sordid debaucheries peppered with gangsters, free love and bathtub gin.

In the original film, the gregarious Rosalind Russell was able to make these less than stellar experiences seem the epitome of light-hearted good taste and humorous chic. But Ball’s Mame, worldly and less optimistic on the whole – seems more like an aging pedophile who delights in corrupting tomorrow’s youth today.

Eventually, Patrick grows up and becomes engaged to Gloria Upson (Doria Cook) – a snobbish debutante whose parents believe in restrictive communities and anti-everything that does not fall under their limiting white bred world. Naturally, Mame won’t stand for much of this.

The roll of Mame would have been ideal for Lucy in her prime, as it had been for Russell in hers; but, by 1974, age had significantly withered both Ball’s appeal and physical strength for slapstick (always Lucy’s strength), enough for choreographer Onna White to excise Ball from the more strenuous musical numbers whenever and wherever possible. Though White’s rather mechanical choreography is an asset, Ball’s obviously hoarse vocal capabilities are decidedly the film’s unraveling.

Quite simply, she cannot sing – croaking three of the best songs, ‘It’s Today,’ ‘Open A New Window,’ and ‘We Need A Little Christmas’ until all one can think about is how glorious Broadway’s Mame (Angela Lansbury) had belted out each of these songs with aplomb and a genuine feel for the melody.

In the end, Mame – the movie - serves as a cautionary tale for aging actresses attempting to stretch themselves beyond their means, and, as a proponent against the Hollywood musical in general; especially one as expensive, flat-footed, tone deaf and utterly bloated as this one so tragically is.

Warner Home Video has done an excellent job transferring Mame to DVD. Though there had been some initial talk of remixing the film to Dolby 5.1, the DVD preserves the theatrical mono blend with satisfactory sonic characteristics. Philip Lathrop’s photography effectively blurs Ball’s aged façade in a soft lit glow that is complimentary.

Colors are rich, bold and vibrant on this DVD, though there is a decided reddish characteristic to flesh tones in general. The anamorphic elements are in good shape on the whole. Occasionally stock footage is blurry and faded, but most of the film exhibits a razor sharp and grain free quality with only minor aliasing effects in some fine details sporadically displayed in several scenes. Extras are limited to the rather disappointing ‘Lucky Mame’ vintage featurette and the film’s original theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
2

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
1

THE PRODIGAL (MGM 1955) Warner Home Video

Richard Thorpe’s The Prodigal (1955) is a ludicrous would-be Bible-fiction epic indicative of the artistic malaise gripping MGM during this fallow period in their illustrious studio history. With the motto of ‘bigger is better’ firmly intact, MGM lavished a great deal of money on this spectacular mishmash, even leveling some of their old backlot sets to build Joppa Square for this movie. Regrettably, the production values are spread more than a tad too thinly over an otherwise feeble and convoluted plot; this one involving the prodigal son.

Micah (Edmund Purdom) is the youngest of a wealthy Hebrew merchant who desires his inheritance prematurely to go and seek his own fortune in the city. However, once in town, Micah gets involved in all sorts of trouble. He liberates a condemned mute slave, Asham (James Mitchell) from the clutches of pagan high priest, Nahreeb (Louis Calhern – looking utterly ridiculous in his fanciful garb and headdress). However, rather than reveal his wrath and contempt from the start, the scheming Nahreeb decides on a more sublime revenge for Micah. He tempts him with the High Priestess Samarra (Lana Turner) a sultry vixen who lures Christians and Jews to their death as human sacrifices inside her lavish temple.

Micah is consumed by Samarra’s feminine wiles. She baits him like a fish, but then inexplicably begins to acquire a conscience and fall in love with him. After Micah is imprisoned and condemned to death, Samarra secretly plots his freedom. But the liberation backfires. The mob has turned restless and vengeful. They corner the high priestess in her temple and topple her into a pit of fire by pelting her with stones. A redemptive Micah returns to his father’s house – wiser, humbled and ready to ascribe to the religion that belongs to his people.

As vintage kitsch, The Prodigal is a rather obtuse study. The screenplay by Joseph Breen, Samuel James and Maurice Zimm is uninspired and archaic to say the least. Great length is spent on presenting an absurd amount of pageantry revolving around the leggy and luscious Lana Turner (then, on her way out as MGM’s reigning sex symbol), as the pagan love goddess. But the spectacle has zero substance in back of it.

Turner is a cardboard cutout – a figure head quite lovely, but absent of any quantifiable charm. As Micah, the dashing prodigal, Purdom is even more wooden and lifeless. What is most tragic of all, is The Prodigal’s production values – curtailed to all but one spectacularly stunning set – Samarra’s temple; a blazing torch lit cavern with silken drapes, mosaic tiled floors and spiral staircases leading to idol statues. In the end, The Prodigal is entertainment only for die hard Lana Turner fans or people who just enjoy a good ‘bad’ movie now and then. But as pure spectacle, or even bad history masquerading as such, The Prodigal is pure trash.

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is disappointing. The anamorphic Cinemascope image exhibits satisfying colors, though hardly robust and blazing. As with most vintage ‘scope’ productions, the overall image quality adopts its most predominant color to each scene. Certain scenes are very saturated in outdoor greenery, while set pieces often adopt an unnatural reddish tone. Flesh tones are a pasty orange throughout. Contrast levels are weak at best. Blacks are more deep gray. Whites adopt a bluish tint.

Most discouraging of all is the considerable amount of edge enhancement imported on this transfer. At this late stage in the art of DVD mastering there simply is NO GOOD REASON for digital effects of this nature to continue to occur. The audio is Dolby Surround and captures the essence of vintage ‘scope’ stereophonic recordings. Dialogue is directionalized. Music cues are given a robust and slightly overpowering characteristic that dwarfs the dialogue. Extras are confined to a rather sparse audio commentary and the film’s original theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
2.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
1