Thursday, May 15, 2008

THE KISSING BANDIT (MGM 1948) Warner Home Video

Not quite the certifiable fiasco as labeled by so many critics, the third and final teaming of Frank Sinatra with MGM's lyrical soprano, Kathryn Grayson in Laszlo Benedek’s The Kissing Bandit (1948) certainly proved to be the biggest misfire of Sinatra’s career. Like MGM’s The Pirate (also released in ’48), The Kissing Bandit is a somewhat gimmicky musical spoof, this one of all the marauding swashbucklers a la the ilk of an Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power.

In retrospect, the most lethal aspect of the production is its awkward scenario concocted by writers John Briard Harding and Isobel Lennart that affords too much screen time to its supporting cast – particularly J. Carrol Naish – at the expense of its principles. Waffling in subplots and bits of Vaudevillian humor, the film also suffers from a rather bland musical repertoire; it’s one hit tune ‘Love Is Where You Find It’ borrowed from A Date With Judy (also in ’48).

The plot concerns Ricardo (Sinatra), the scrawny milquetoast heir to a patriarchal legacy of pillage and plundering. Apparently, Ricardo’s father was ‘The Kissing Bandit’; a Robin Hood-esque desperado who conquered the hearts of every eligible maiden while he looted the Californian countryside. This back story is unbeknownst to Ricardo, who has been studying hotel management in Boston.

Ricardo returns to aid his father’s old friend – and partner in crime - Chico (J. Carrol Naish) when he learns that the inn he has been operating is losing money. One problem: the inn is actually a front for Chico and a band of men loyal to Ricardo’s late father, who naturally assume that Ricardo will help them resume their activities as bandits.

The troop’s first holdup involves ransacking a coach with Teresa (Kathryn Grayson), the daughter of Governor Don Jose (Mikhail Rusumny) inside. Sparks immediately fly between Teresa and the shy Ricardo who – in a moment of bashful repose, does not kiss the perplexed girl, leaving her flustered and dismayed. Back at the Governor’s estate Don Jose assigns his foppish Captain of the Guard, Colonel Gomez (Clinton Sunberg) the task of hunting down and hanging the Kissing Bandit. So far so good.

But then Harding and Lennart introduce a convoluted complication into the plot. Chico’s inn is visited by Count Ricardo Belmonte (Carleton G. Young) and his oafish guardsman, Gen. Felipe Toro (Billy Gilbert); sent by the King of Spain to collect back taxes for the region from the Governor. These taxes the Governor has already lavishly spent on himself and his family and cannot afford to pay. Owing to Belmonte’s large chest of gold coins, Chico attempts a botched robbery that ends with Chico and Ricardo tying up Belmonte and Toro and assuming their identities so that Ricardo can court Teresa.

As scripted by Harding and Lennart, The Kissing Bandit owes much more to ‘30s classic screwball comedy than ‘40s vintage MGM musical. Despite its shortcomings, the film does have its merits – most notably, stellar production values captured in some truly gorgeous Technicolor photography. Unfortunately, Grayson and particularly Sinatra don’t often get the opportunity to show off their most glorious assets: their voices – a kiss of death for movie musicals!

In hindsight, the standout musical moment in the film is ‘Dance of the Furies,’ a specialty performed by Ann Miller, Ricardo Montelban and Cyd Charisse, choreographed by Stanley Donen months after production wrapped and simply cut into the already finished film. Benedek’s direction is fairly stagnant. He clearly enjoys the light humor of his bit players more than the central narrative involving his protagonists. In the final analysis, The Kissing Bandit is an expensive experiment – a movie of great visual splendor that is not terrible engaging otherwise.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is near reference quality. The vintage Technicolor positively glows from the screen; vibrant, rich and sumptuous. With the exception of several extremely brief examples of slight mis-registration in the original negative, the overall image is razor sharp with an incredible amount of fine detail evident, even during dark scenes. Contrast levels are superbly realized. Whites are pristine. Blacks are deep and solid. Age related artifacts are rare, though present. The audio is mono as originally recorded.

Warner has gone the way of Universal Home Video, removing ‘chapter menus’ from this DVD release (annoying!) and not even including the film’s original theatrical trailer as an extra! For shame!

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



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