Wednesday, May 28, 2008

THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (Samuel Bronston 1964) Miriam/Genius

Produced by maverick film maker Samuel Bronston at a crippling cost of $28 million, Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is by far the most ambitious trek into antiquity ever undertaken. With its startlingly contemporary score by Dimitri Tiomkin and its impressive cast of international headlining stars, in every way the film has been designed to boggle the mind – and it does. The gargantuan Roman Forum set alone – designed by John Moore and Peter Colasanti - covers a staggering 1/3 of a mile; its 27 three dimensional structures – built as functional free standing buildings, complete with 350 statues utilizing over 33,000 gallons of paint - each meticulously crafted down to the last minute detail.

Initially the project had been brought to Bronston’s attention by Mann after the latter read Edward Gibbon’s lengthy historical account, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Bronston saw the film as a way of reuniting stars Sophia Loren and Charlton Heston. The two had yielded big box office for Bronston in El Cid (1961). Heston however, perceiving the project as too close in scope and subject matter to his own Ben-Hur (1959), declined the offer.

Furthermore, Heston’s working relationship with Sophia Loren on El Cid had yielded a mutual disdain that the actor chose wisely to avoid encountering again. Hence, Bronston cast Heston in 55 Days in Peking instead, handing over the part of Livius to Ben-Hur alumni Stephen Boyd. The rest of the cast reads like a who’s who with plum roles going to Alec Guinness, Christopher Plummer, James Mason, John Ireland, Omar Sharif, Mel Ferrer and Anthony Quayle.

It is evident, though nevertheless prudent to illustrate the point that the purpose of all historical epics is not to provide literal translations of the historical record. Rather, their primary purpose is to entertain, and on that score, The Fall of the Roman Empire is an overwhelming success. However, at the time of its general release most critics did not agree with this assessment. In fact, the film received near unanimously scathing reviews and was dismissed as an elephantine bore.

Whether its’ dark and intricately woven narrative by screen scenarists Ben Barzman, Basilio Franchina and Philip Yorden left the popcorn set stultified, or the fact that by 1964 toga spectacles were on their way out had anything to do with the critical failure of the film is difficult to assess.  One thing's for sure: 'Empire's' financial debacle can be squarely blamed on the mitigating circumstance of its runaway budget that in today’s dollars would make The Fall of the Roman Empire second only to James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) as the costly movie ever produced.

The plot begins in earnest on the last length of Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s (Alec Guinness) Germanic campaign. Aurelius’ ambitious plans for a Pax Romana, where all men will live free under an umbrella of brotherly peace is nearly complete. However, the barbarian hoards under Ballomar (John Ireland) prove a very powerful adversary. Aurelius’s daughter, Lucilla (Sophia Loren) believes in her father’s dream, as does her lover, warrior Livius (Stephen Boyd) and Aurelius’s most trusted adviser, Timonides (James Mason). All of this disinterests Aurelius’ son Commodus (Christopher Plummer), a sycophant worshipper of beauty whose greatest pleasure in life is his gladiator training with General Verulus (Anthony Quayle). Commodus openly tells his father that he would have done things differently, forcing Aurelius to choose Livius as his heir and successor to the throne.

Unfortunately, before Aurelius’ plans can be made law he is poisoned by the devious blind servant, Cleander (Mel Ferrer) who also seeks to manipulate the throne from within. Though Livius and Lucilla suspect murder and fraud, Livius accepts Commodus as the new Caesar to quell dissension within the realm. It is a choice Livius will live to regret.

Drunk on power, Commodus initiates a ruthless reign of terror, designed to undo all that his father has created. Rome ceases to be a benevolent center of the human world. Ballomar revolts, captures and tortures Timonides. However, Timonides loyalty to the state as he faces death and Livius’ benevolence toward Ballomar and his people convince the barbarians to live in enforced peace under Roman law.

Lucilla plots the overthrow of her brother, but is married off by Commodus to Sohamus (Omar Sharif) the King of Armenia. Meanwhile, against the strenuous objection of Commodus, Livius asks Timonides to plead his case for the barbarians to become Roman citizens, under the philosophical presumption that an empire only dies when the people living within its boundaries lose faith in its glory and power. The Roman Senate sides with Livius, sparking Commodus's psychotic rage. He exiles Livius and Lucilla to opposite ends of his empire. Deviously, Commodus woos Livius back into the fold after a revolt of the Eastern provinces under Sohamus fails.

The pax Romana is forever shattered when Commodus orders the prosperous barbarian village burned, killing Timonides in the process. Livius is commanded by Commodus to randomly crucify 5000 people from each of the regions that revolted under Sohamus as an abject lesson the state's authority over its peoples – an edict rejected by Livius who is thereafter captured and chained to a pillar in the public square where he will be burned at the stake along with the surviving barbarians.

Now for the shocker; Commodus learns that he is not Aurelius’s son but rather Verulus’s. To conceal this truth, Commodus murders Verulus while Lucilla looks on, forcing her to flee into the streets where she is capture and chained next to Livius.

To assert his divinity, Commodus frees Livius for a battle to the death in the public square. Livius is wounded, but Commodus is killed. The barbarians are burned to death. However, Livius manages to save Lucilla. He is offered the state as his victory by the Senate, rejecting it outright even as he recognizes that Rome’s supremacy as the master of the world’s domains has come to a most bitter and tragic end.

The Fall of the Roman Empire is a dark epic indeed – its finale void of the clichéd exaltations inherent in the human spirit or externalizing of eternal redemption a la the will of God that are so readily apparent themes in films like The Robe (1954) and Ben-Hur (1959). Undoubtedly, the story resonates more profoundly with our own brooding post-modern cynicism.

Reportedly, some 40 minutes of plot were excised to whittle the film to its girth 3 hour road show presentation. Lost in these cuts where scenes depicting Lucilla plotting to have Commodus killed, as well as Commodus’ bloody cry of “Father!” after murdering Verulus. 

Acting throughout is solid – but particularly from Plummer, Boyd, Mason and Guinness. Mann’s direction keeps the story’s pace swift and assured. We get both spectacle and substance – a rarity. In the final analysis, The Fall of the Roman Empire is superb, thought-provoking entertainment.

Miriam Entertainment and Genius Productions deliver a superb DVD transfer on three discs. Though flesh tones still have a tendency to appear slightly pasty – particularly during the first half of the film, on the whole color fidelity is robust and engaging. The reds in the Roman capes are blood red. Contrast levels are nicely realized. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are crisp and refined.

A considerable amount of fine detail is gleaned from the Ultra-Panavision negative for a beautiful visual presentation that will surely NOT disappoint. The audio is a 5.1 re-channeling of the original six track magnetic stereo masters and provides an enveloping sonic mix.

Extras include a running audio commentary throughout the film and a ‘making of’ documentary that is somewhat of a disappointment since it is largely comprised of clips excised from the documentary on Samuel Bronston already available as an extra on Miriam’s El Cid disc. (Aside: it would have been gratifying to have commentary provided by Christopher Plummer and Sophia Loren – the last two surviving cast members).

There’s also a Hollywood Vs. History documentary and another on Dimitri Tiomkin and his score that are informative – if brief. Disc Three includes several short films produced for Encyclopedia Britannica to provide historical record on the actual Roman Forum. There are also production stills and the film’s theatrical trailer to wade through.

It should be pointed out that there is no difference in the disc content regardless of whether you purchase the 3-disc edition or ‘deluxe box set’ (see cover art above). The only additional extras in the deluxe box are a reprint of the original press kit and some reproductions of lobby cards. Bottom line on either version: highly recommended!

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

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

THE THREE STOOGES COLLECTION: VOL. TWO (Columbia 1937-'39) Sony Home Entertainment

Mention The Three Stooges to any male old enough to walk and you’re likely to observe an instant pleasurable smile suddenly dart across his face. While it’s undeniably true that most women do not understand or even enjoy the Stooges brand of raucous slapstick, the ever-lasting appeal of Moe, Larry and Curly is firmly embedded in the testosterone driven collective cultural consciousness – arguably for all time.

A Vaudeville team cum the most unlikely of film stars, The Three Stooges never made a feature length movie until long after the original trio had disbanded. Nevertheless, their Columbia short subjects of the early 1930s to mid-1940s drew larger theater attendance in their day than the actual features they preempted. Today, the Stooges are revered and endlessly revived on cable and home video - an unforgettable part of America’s comedic cultural fabric.

When delving into Stooge lore one should perhaps pause a moment to reconsider just how dangerous their ultra-violent antics were to life and limb on the set. In the age of ‘do it live’, the boys became frequent physical martyrs to their creative art. “I remember once,” Moe Howard has written, “when the prop man concocted a smorgasbord of gook; chocolate, whipped cream, asbestos chips, linseed oil, ketchup and other unknown goodies…As luck would have it, I forgot to close my eyes. Curly had me buried under for about eight seconds…nostrils and eyes full of that brutal concoction. They needed the studio doctor…to bring me back to normal…something I haven’t been for years!”

The Three Stooges began professionally as Ted Healy and His Stooges with their feature film debut in MGM’s Dancing Lady (1933). The stooges however were better off as a solo act. So, with a change of venue to then ‘poverty row’ studio, Columbia – the newly inaugurated ‘Three Stooges’ embarked upon a prolific career,The Three Stooges Collection Vol. Two 1937-1939 provides us with yet another batch of goodies to bust a gut over: 24 shorts represented in a 2-disc collector’s pack. The laugh-Olympics begin on Disc One with Grips, Grunts and Groans (1937); Curly substitutes for pro-wrestler Buzz Saw after a freak accident.

Next is Dizzy Doctors; after being threatened with divorce, the boys try their hand at selling Brighto – a wonder tonic. Three Dumb Clucks has our trio break out of prison to stop the wedding of their father (also played by Curly) to a backstabbing gold digger who plans to do away with her rich hubby immediately after the ceremony. In Back To The Woods the boys from Britain are exiled to rustic America where they manage to start a minor Indian revolt, and in Goofs and Saddles, the stooges scout for cattle rustlers.

Cash and Carry is a bit of an anomaly; playing three prospectors who call the city dump their home – that is, until a crippled boy and his sweetheart sister move in. The boys raise money for the child’s operation by falling victim to a con and end up crashing the Federal Reserve. Playing the Ponies finds the stooges trading up their restaurant business to the same couple of cons for Thunderbolt – a would-be thoroughbred who jumps into action after being fed hot chili peppers.

The Sitter-Dowers finds the boys as newlyweds building a dream house from scratch. Termites of 1938 represents a case of mistaken identity for the stooges with a wealthy socialite hiring an escort but winding up with three exterminators instead. In Wee Wee Monsieur, the boys join the foreign legion to rescue Capt. Gorgonzola from a feisty Arab Prince. Yet another case of mistaken identity, Tassels In The Air has the same socialite hiring the boys as Omay and Associates; interior designers who are more into home demolition than decoration.

In Healthy, Wealthy and Dumb Curly wins $50,000 minus taxes on a radio contest, attracting the interest of three penniless gold diggers. Disc One’s goodies are rounded out by Violent is the Word for Curly, with the boys mistaken for three progressive European professors newly arrived at the all girl’s Mildew College.

On Disc Two we get Three Missing Links; the boys hightail it to Africa and come face to face with a gorilla. A foundling and a lot of strays are the focus of Mutts to You. In Flat Foot Stooges the boys are accused of impropriety after a fire truck salesman stiffs them. Spies come out of the woodwork in Three Little Sew and Sews (1939) after Curly dons an Admiral’s jacket to a social gathering.

We Want Our Mummy finds the boys in Cairo on the look out for a priceless Egyptian cadaver and its kidnapped professor, while A-Ducking They Will Go has the stooges inadvertently foiling a political debacle. The stooges are gold prospectors again in Yes We Have No Bonanza; in love with three waitresses. The boys escape the death penalty in Saved by the Belle – thanks to a noisy guard.

Cast as veterinarians in Calling All Curs, the stooges must rescue one of their furry charges from kidnappers. In Oily to Bed Oily to Rise, the stooges foil a con designed to kick their fiancée’s mother off her oil-rich land. And last, but not least is Three Sappy People; with Moe, Larry and Curly mistaken for a trio of psychiatrists bent on curing a crazy socialite’s bizarre behavior.

The best shorts in this latest retrospective of Stooge-opia reflect the versatility of the trio; their ability to plug n’ play into just about any situation while coming up with some truly hilarious and iconic nyuk-nyuks along the way. We get unhinged moments of utter insanity, inspired and delinquent of the moral and social codes of their times. So much for the line up. What about the transfers?

This big smoochy wet kiss goes out to all the good people at Sony Home Entertainment who, not only have given us another bumper crop of Stooge classics in chronological order, but have actually taken the time to remaster these hilarious classics for the digital format. Truly, The Three Stooges have never looked better, and, at a bargain basement price! Overall, the B&W picture elements are remarkably clean, smooth and solid with fine contrast levels and a minimum amount of grain and age related artifacts. Fine details are evident throughout. Blacks are generally deep. Whites are almost pristine.

Owing to limitations in film stock and technology, transitions between scenes (dissolves, fades) retain a strong patina of film grain. These lapses are brief and tolerable.The audio on all is Mono as originally recorded but presented at a very adequate listening level. The one exception to this rule is Cash and Carry; which sounds considerably more strident. I suppose I could scold Sony for no extra features but frankly, I am thrilled that The Three Stooges have finally been paid a part of their due with some quality DVD transfers. Looking forward already to Volume III! Highly recommended? ‘Why soit-ney!

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



Saturday, May 17, 2008

DOUBLE DYNAMITE (RKO 1951) Warner Home Video

Based on characters created by Mannie Manheim, Irving Cummings’ Double Dynamite (1951) is a slick, if modestly stylish, screwball caper that unites the formidable talents of Frank Sinatra, Jane Russell and Groucho Marx into one delightfully silly package of fun. The screenplay by Melville Shavelson is taut and rife with snappy one liners delivered to perfection by Groucho mostly, though Sinatra has his way with a few barbs. Two forgettable Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn songs; It’s Only Money, and, Kisses and Tears interrupt an otherwise memorable holiday bon-bon with lots of oomph and chuckles along the way.

Sinatra is meager bank teller, Johnny Dalton whose repeated attempts at procuring a raise from stingy boss, J.L. McKissack (Harry Hayden) prove fruitless much to the chagrin of Dalton’s girlfriend, Mildred Goodhue (Russell). The two frequently dine at Mr. Bagganucci’s (William Edmunds) restaurant where they share their dreams and problems with head waiter, Emile J. Keck (Groucho). Emile advises Johnny that he should throw caution to the wind and marry Russell on his $42.50 monthly salary – a sum that Mildred is more than willing to settle for, but not Johnny. He wants a stylish wedding.

All seems lost – especially after Mildred throws caution to the wind and her heart to bank V.P and heel, R.B. Pulsifer Jr. (Don McGuire) whose intentions are not honorable. Meanwhile, Johnny becomes embroiled in a gambling racket run by Hot Horse Harris (Nestor Paiva). After doing a good deed for Harris, the bookie gives Johnny $1,000; then turns it into a cool $60,000 on illegal betting. Hurrah! Johnny’s in the chips. Now he and Mildred can marry.

But wait; before any celebration can occur, McKissack discovers a coincidental $70,000 deficit in the bank’s records, forcing Johnny to rely on Emile’s discretion and open an account with Johnny’s money in Emile’s name at the bank. The rest of the screenplay takes great pleasure in mixing up these already confusing variables until they fizz and pop like sparkling champagne.

Cast against type as the sweet ingénue, Russell isn’t very convincing (she’s much better at playing the cynical vamp) though she manages to keep it together throughout the story. Sinatra is fairly appealing as the harried clerk who only wants to give his girl everything she desires, but cannot help but break a nervous sweat whenever money is mentioned. Groucho is at his brilliant self-deprecating best.

Cummings’ direction is slick and assured. In just under 80 minutes he gets great mileage from both the screenplay and his stars. In the final analysis, Double Dynamite may not represent the top echelon of screwball comedy. However, its extremely solid second tier.

On the whole, Warner Home Video’s DVD exhibits a thoroughly satisfying B&W image. With minor exceptions, the gray scale exhibits some solid tonality. In the final reel, contrast appears weaker during the night scenes, perhaps artificially bumped up, resulting in a sudden loss of fine details. The audio is mono but adequately represented. The disappointment herein is NO extras – not even a menu for ‘Chapter Stops.’ Boo-Hoo!

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



THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (Warner Bros. 1955) Warner Home Video

From its stark main title sequence, incorporating Saul Bass’s animated cut-out of a heroin addict’s arm, to Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy rift of a film score (a departure from the tradition of sweeping orchestral music), Otto Preminger’s The Man With The Golden Arm (1955) is a breakout motion picture so controversial that, at the time of its release, the MPAA refused to authorize its seal of approval.

Based on Nelson Algren’s novel as adapted by Walter Newman, Lewis Meltzer and Ben Hecht, The Man with the Golden Arm was a project close to Frank Sinatra’s heart and he campaigned loudly to play the lead, Frankie Machine – a prison parolee who returns to the life he knew with a new outlook that is tragically doomed to failure.

At first, Frankie’s assimilation back into society seems progressive and smooth. His old buddy, Sparrow (Arnold Stang) a conman selling homeless dogs, is actually a loyal friend who clings to Frankie like a brother. However, the devious card shark, Schwiefka (Robert Strauss) and Frankie’s former heroin supplier, Louie (Darrin McGavin) have ulterior motives for welcoming Frankie back into their fold.

Frankie’s life is further complicated by marriage to Zosh (Eleanor Parker) – presumably paralyzed from the waste down after a tragic wreck some years ago. Perhaps weary of the life her husband once led, Zosh is overprotective – stifling Frankie’s need to move on with auditions for a big band. Frankie runs into his old flame, Molly (Kim Novak). The two rekindle their spark of romance.

Broke and desperate to make a solid first impression on the band, Frankie asks Sparrow to lend him a new suit. To make good on the request, Sparrow steals the clothes and Frankie – now wearing them – is arrested for petty theft; tossed back into a cell. Schwiefka seizes upon this opportunity and bails Frankie out, but with the understanding that Frankie will work off his bail money dealing cards for him. This reluctant alliance begins Frankie’s downward spiral into all night card sharking and eventually, falling off the wagon.

Once more a heroin addict, Frankie resorts to violence to satisfy his fixes, then flubs his audition with the band – his one real chance to get out of ‘the life.’ Meanwhile, Louie discovers the truth about Zosh – that she has been faking her paralysis in order to keep Frankie at her side. When Louie threatens to tell Frankie the truth, Zosh pushes him down a flight of stairs to his death. Unfortunately for Frankie, the police are all too quick to perceive that as a junkie, Frankie has murdered his supplier in a drug-induced fit of rage.

Fleeing to the relative safety of Molly’s apartment, Frankie goes cold turkey in a haunting scene of drug withdrawal. He confesses to Zosh his intentions of leaving her for Molly. The jealous Zosh pretends she saw Frankie kill Louie and testifies to as much to keep Frankie and Molly apart.  In the heated exchange that follows, Zosh proves to Frankie that her paralysis is a lie, her shame forcing her to flee to a balcony where she falls to her death. Exonerated of the charges and free of Zosh’s possessive hold, Frankie and Molly depart into the sunlight for a truly ‘fresh’ start.

Given Sinatra’s filmic tenure as everyone’s congenial crooner, The Man With The Golden Arm is a stark departure; though perhaps not surprising when one considers it is preceded with his Oscar-winning ‘straight’ performance in From Here To Eternity two years earlier. Still, the actor’s uncanny knack for recognizing that musicals were, by 1955 on their way out, and that dramatic work in films would sustain his career for another two decades, represents a progressive foresight into looking ahead that few in Sinatra’s generation were able to successfully bridge.

The rest of the cast is superb, with Eleanor Parker being the standout. Preminger’s narrative tempo is engrossing; beginning with a slow lay of the land, then escalating into a fast slalom indicative of Frankie's growing malaise. In retrospect the film seems slightly heavy-handed in its sensationalizing anti-drug message, though it continues to pack quite a wallop.

Warner Home Video’s anamorphic DVD exhibits a fairly solid transfer. The B&W image is respectable. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are slightly gray. Contrast levels are slightly weaker than expected. Film grain is evident, as are age related artifacts, though nothing that will distract. The audio is mono but well represented. There are NO extras and NO menu for ‘Chapter Stops’!

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



HIGHER AND HIGHER (RKO 1943) Warner Home Video

Based on the Gladys Hurlbut/Joshua Logan stage play, Tim Whelan’s Higher And Higher (1943) is a colossal claptrap of oddities and misfires, beginning with the insertion of Frank Sinatra as himself. The screenplay by Jay Dratler and Ralph Spence is pretty abysmal. Clearly stultified by the material he’s been given, director Whelan stages the musical production numbers as though they were on the stage, with a one dimensional lack of cinematic exuberance and with a delayed break after each – presumably so that the audience can applaud without drowning out the rest of the narrative.

The story is that of alcoholic hoi polloi, Cyrus Drake (Leon Errol) who awakens after a bender with his valet, Mike O’Brien (Jack Haley) only to discover that his wealth has evaporated and his estate is in foreclosure in a mere 60 days. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and so Cyrus decides that he will cast one of his servants in the role of his estranged daughter, Pamela – marry her off to a wealthy suitor and thus ensure that this new heir assumes all responsibilities to his creditors.

The fortunate peon is Millie Pico (Michele Morgan), an utterly clueless – if congenial – would-be heiress who, unfortunately for all concerned, hasn’t the slightest idea of how to behave like a lady. Into this mix enters Frank Sinatra as himself – a next door neighbor who has been politely waving to Millie across the way and has finally decided to approach her socially to ask for a date.

Meanwhile, one of the real Pamela’s childhood playmates, Katharine Keating (Barbara Hale) is coming out at a debutante’s ball that Cyrus also uses as his springboard for Millie’s debut. The two women are modest rivals, though this plot entanglement is never entirely realized. Katharine’s date for this society event is Sir Victor Fitzroy Victor KBOB (Victor Borge) – a presumed wealthy pianist who is actually a scheming social climber and penniless protégé of conman, Mr. Green (Rex Evans).

Through a bizarre set of circumstances, Victor finds Millie enchanting. Assuming Victor is loaded, Drake approves the marriage – a deal thwarted by O’Brien who, after being locked in the basement to prevent him from stopping the ceremony – uses a furnace pipe to launch his objections. It seems that O’Brien has been in love with Millie all along and she with him. To ensure that the family will not be cast out into the street, O’Brien has stumbled upon a speakeasy hidden in the Drake’s cellar that is reopened for lucrative business shortly thereafter. Thus ends the narrative, with Sinatra warbling as Millie and O’Brien dance off into the clouds – a happy couple for all time.

The musical program is highlighted by two Sinatra standards; the torch ballad ‘I Couldn’t Sleep A Wink Last Night’ and poignant ‘A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening.’ The great tragedy of the film is that it becomes utterly stage bound from the word ‘Go’ and thereafter develops along the lines of a series of implausible vignettes loosely strung together and infrequently interrupted by largely forgettable songs when all else seems to fail.

There’s no continuity to the story and worse, no consistency to character development. As example, there’s really no reason why the character of Mike O’Brien should suddenly awaken to Millie’s obvious affections toward him and furthermore, no real reason why Millie should harbor such romantic ideals about him, especially since she has been flirting with Sinatra and even mentions him as her romantic ideal at the start of the film when it is proposed that she become the Drake family’s salvation by marrying rich. In the final analysis, Higher and Higher sinks lower and lower as the whole darn mess unravels to its inevitable conclusion. It’s passable entertainment – but so convoluted that it’s only appeal is to see Sinatra in his film debut.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is rather nicely rendered. The B&W image exhibits a nicely contrasted gray scale with solid blacks and very clean whites. Occasionally film grain and age related artifacts appear, though none are distracting. The image is generally crisp with fine detail evident throughout. The audio is mono as originally recorded. Like all other Sinatra titles in this latest spate of offerings, Warner Home Video has provided NO extras and NO menu for chapter stops (annoying!).

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



Friday, May 16, 2008

STEP LIVELY (RKO 1944) Warner Home Video

Arguably more manic than spry, Tim Whelan’s Step Lively (1944) is a rambunctious – largely successful – screwball comedy with some bright and buoyant Sammy Cahn/Jules Styne tunes thrown in for good measure.

Produced at RKO, the film is based on Allen Boretz/John Murray’s successful stage play, Room Service – miserably attempted as a film with the Marx Bros. in 1938. Gregarious to a fault, a lot of one liners and several lavishly mounted production numbers divert from a rather paper thin plot reconstituted by screenwriters Warren Duff and Peter Milne. Nevertheless, the claptrap clings together with an almost absurd amount of good cheer and great timing.

Gordon Miller (George Murphy) is a would be Broadway producer who’s two parts conman to one part Florenz Ziegfeld. Determined to put on a show, Miller’s managed to arrange rooms for his entire cast at a swank New York hotel with the penthouse reserved for himself, thanks in part to the fact that his brother-in-law, Joe Gribble (Walter Slezak) is the manager. However, the debts are mounting and with no break in Miller’s dreary fiscal drought it seems that both he and his actors will be out – both of work and the hotel if owner, Mr. Wagner (Adolph Menjou) has his way.

Gordon’s only hope is to land a big fat check to finance the whole project. His pigeon is Simon Jenkins (Eugene Palette); a banker dealing for Zachary Fisk – one of the wealthiest men in the world. Fisk’s interests in backing shows are purely mercenary. He has a yen for beautiful trophy gal, Miss Abbott (Anne Jeffreys) who aspires to play the lead.

Meanwhile, another fly in Gordon’s ointment materializes with the arrival of Glenn Russell (Frank Sinatra); a would-be playwright who sent Gordon his religious masterpiece to produce along with a check for $1500.00. The money’s gone but the play is a colossal dud – one that Gordon has no intention of producing. However, when Glenn proves he can carry a tune he wins not only Jenkins’ check for Gordon’s show but also the unwanted libidinous pursuits of Miss Abbott.

That’s about as far the plot goes. As with most screwball comedies, the audience is simply required to suspend disbelief and indulge in the crazy quilting of it all. There is, for example, no reason why Miss Abbott should pursue Glenn all around the lobby of the hotel, smothering him with kisses and then virtually disappear from both the film’s plot and the show-within-a-show finale – except in a very brief dance sequence.

Anne Jeffreys has an utterly thankless part in this film, consisting of one number and a brief pas deux with Murphy in the final reel. Casting on the whole is superb, though George Murphy delivers each line as though he were calling out the marines to combat. Sinatra is in fine voice and is ably assisted by Gloria DeHaven, cast as Miller’s gal pal and the show’s leading actress - Christine Marlowe.

The great curiosity of early Sinatra films like Step Lively is that although he’s arguably the star he never quite gets the girl in the final reel. The ending of Step Lively gives us an ambiguous romantic conclusion at best with Christine sandwiched between Miller and Russell as she walks out of the theater arm in arm. Earlier, Chris and Gordon had been involved. Then Glenn kissed Chris. Chris kissed him back…but…well…it’s best left opened ended, I suppose.

The Sammy Cahn/Jules Styne score yields a few gems including the meaningful ballad, ‘As Long As There’s Music,’ boisterous ‘Where Does Love Begin?’ and dreamy ‘Some Other Time’ – magnificently staged atop an art deco penthouse restaurant. Overall, Step Lively is neatly packaged, slick and stylish entertainment with a decided kick. Just don’t expect clarity or continuity from the story.

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is middle of the road. The source element used in minting the disc range from pristine to less than average. The B&W image can, at times, experience a very nicely refined grayscale with good tonality. There are, however, whole portions of the film which appear to be slightly faded with a decided loss of fine detail as a direct result. Screen flicker and a rather obvious patina of film grain and age related artifacts are also a problem. Hence, the image is at times rough looking, while at other times almost smooth and easy on the eyes.

The audio is mono as originally recorded. As with other Sinatra movies released in this latest spate, Warner gives us NO extras (not even a theatrical trailer) and NO menu for ‘chapter stops.’ For shame!

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



Thursday, May 15, 2008

IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN (MGM 1947) Warner Home Video

It has often been said that ‘true artistry never ages’ – a platitude confirmed upon viewing Richard Whorf’s It Happened In Brooklyn (1947); a minor MGM musical that nevertheless continues to warm the heart and enchant the spirit some 61 years after its original release. The screenplay by Isobel Lennart contains some minor inconsistencies in plot and character development that, thankfully, never create a major problem for the story’s protagonists.

The musical program interpolates a few pop standards – including ‘Time After Time’ penned by Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne, and, that became a Sinatra standard in the decades that followed, with some operatic arias; the best being La Ci Darem La Mano from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Already one of the most popular vocalists by the time this film came out, Frank Sinatra was well on his way to entering the second phase of his singing career – a decade with many gold records, yet increasingly fewer film parts that would have him sing.

In It Happened In Brooklyn, Sinatra is Daniel Webster Miller, a G.I. set to go home after the war. Danny is introverted and shy. His nurse (Gloria Grahame) even doubts that he’s from Brooklyn – where all the people are so outgoing and friendly, so we’re told. However, upon arriving in New York, Danny immediately has a cabbie take him to the Brooklyn Bridge (for once not a matte painting, but an actual location shot, where Sinatra warbles a loving melody, teeming with homespun sentiment for that particular structure).

In Brooklyn, Danny meets disheartened aspiring opera singer, Anne Fielding (Kathryn Grayson). At first, Anne finds Danny’s infectious optimism slightly annoying. She even accuses him of following her to her day job as music teacher at a local high school. There, Danny is reacquainted with the school’s janitor, Nick Lombardi (the loveable Jimmy Durante) who immediately takes Danny into his home and heart and helps arrange for an audition for him at Dawson’s Music Shop.

Danny and Anne share a few barbs at the start of their romance before developing a mutual affection toward one another that is numbed to distraction with the arrival of Jamie Shellgrove (Peter Lawford). It seems that prior to departing England, Danny promised Jamie’s uncle that he could straighten out Jamie’s own awkwardness with the ladies. No help required; as Anne and Jamie soon spark a kindred passion that quietly smolders even as Danny, Anne and Jamie become involved in a subplot to bring the musical talents of one of Anne’s pupils, Leo Kardos (William Roy) to the attention of the Brooklyn Music Forum.

The script by Lennart moves along effortlessly enough, though in spots it illustrates the writer’s general weaknesses for story construction. As example; after firmly establishing Gloria Grahame’s nurse as an idyllic counterbalance to Danny’s shyness, the script jettisons her character entirely, leaving Danny alone, though optimistic at the end of our big city fable.

The songs by Cahn and Styne are modestly charming; the buoyant ‘I Believe’ and rambunctious ‘Song’s Gotta Come From The Heart’ delightful distractions that evaporate like cotton candy once heard. Grayson is at her winsome best when she reprises ‘Time After Time’. James Durante is a national treasure.

Hence, in recommending It Happened In Brooklyn to both Sinatra and musical film fans, I am reminded that during the very best years at MGM it was not so much plot that made these films iconic and memorable, but the studio’s very best personalities – stars that will continue to live on as long as there are audiences who remember and appreciate what truly great talent is all about.

Warner Home Video delivers a very clean DVD transfer. The B&W image has a consistently refined gray scale with deep solid blacks and generally clean whites. Age related artifacts are present, but tempered for an overall smooth and satisfying visual presentation. Occasionally, film grain is slightly heavier, but nothing that will distract. 

The audio is mono, as originally recorded, but retaining a wonderfully vibrant sonic characteristic – albeit with acoustic limitations for a soundtrack from this vintage. My one complaint again is that Warner has been short-shrift with extras; none – not even a trailer or short subjects, or even a menu for ‘chapter stops’!

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



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)



Tuesday, May 6, 2008

TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME (MGM 1949) Warner Home Video

Given Busby Berkeley’s supremacy at Warner Bros. throughout the 1930s, the choreographer/director's tenure at MGM was decidedly a let down to both fans of his work and to Berkeley himself, who increasingly met with more temperament and power struggles that clashed with his authoritarian rule. Berkeley came to MGM via the good graces of producer Arthur Freed - who loved and respected the caustic Berkeley. But the move was made after a particularly nasty split from his alma mater, further complicated by severe and chronic alcoholism and a near fatal car crash. 

At MGM Berkeley was given every opportunity to helm big budget movie musicals. But the projects weren't always his to command alone and the studio's 'art by committee' approach to getting the job done did not bode well with Berkeley's need for absolute autonomy. Thus, when his tyrannical demands on Judy Garland midway through the filming of Girl Crazy (1943) resulted in the star suffering a complete mental collapse it was Berkeley, not Garland, who was replaced on the project.

In truth, Berkeley’s alcoholism was getting the better of him by the time he agreed to direct Take Me Out to The Ball Game (1949) – the second teaming of Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Producer Arthur Freed had initially green lit a radically different concept written by Kelly and his co-collaborator, Stanley Donen that developed the character of K.C. Higgins (a part that eventually went to Esther Williams) as a chanteuse – not one of William’s strong suits.

In the Kelly/Donen synopsis was meant to be an inspired reunion for Kelly, Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson, who had triumphed together in Anchors Aweigh. Grayson was busy elsewhere, and Judy Garland - Donen's second choice, was unable to commit to the project for obvious health reasons. Reluctantly, the part was rewritten and recast with Esther Williams, necessitating the excision of any songs afforded her character, and, the insertion of an utterly needless swimming pool sequence to satisfy fans.

Nine songs were written by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Roger Edens with the only memorable one being the 1908 title song written by Harry Van Tilzer and Jack Norworth. Berkeley, who had been hired to direct the film in totem relinquished his responsibilities on staging the musical sequences to Kelly and Donen – who conceived some brilliant, and some mediocre production numbers to fill the run time.

The plot eventually revamped by screenwriters Harry Tugend and George Wells follows Dennis Ryan (Frank Sinatra) and Edward O’Brien (Gene Kelly); a pair of turn-of-the-century ballplayers on hiatus from their jobs and enjoying a lucrative second career as Vaudevillian song and dance men. Though Ryan truly loves his baseball career, O’Brien prefers the female adoration and celebrity afforded him as a stage performer. Reunited at basic training with short stop, Nat Goldberg (Jules Munshin) the boys are informed by their General Manager, Michael Gilhuly (Richard Lane) that the new owner of the team, K.C. Higgins (Williams) will be coming down to supervise their exercises.

Assuming that K.C. Higgins is a man, coach Slappy Burke (Tom Dugan) misses her at the train depot, resulting in a rather awkward first ‘cute’ meet between O’Brien and Higgins who take an innate and immediate dislike to each another. Ryan, on the other hand, is smitten. While Higgins realizes that Ryan’s affections are genuine, her love/hate relationship with the egotistical O’Brien has her flustered and confused. Meanwhile, baseball groupie, Shirley Delwyn (Betty Garrett) has developed her own possessive love interests towards Ryan. These eventually blossom into an awkward, though mutual romance.

A wrinkle for the team’s pending season develops when mob boss, Joe Lorgan (Edward Arnold) attempts to buy off Ryan, the team’s star player. Either Ryan deliberately throws his games to satisfy a bet against the team or Lorgan will go to the baseball commission and demand Ryan’s disbarment from the sport for breaking curfew. Eventually, this double life weighs heavily on Ryan’s stamina and his game begins to suffer. Higgins, assuming that Ryan has, in fact, been working for Lorgan to ruin their season, suspends him from the team.

Presumably because this plot development has painted all of the characters into a very awkward narrative corner, the film ends on a distinctly convenient and very sour musical note. The characters step out of character and sing an implausible summation; “Sinatra gets Garrett, Kelly gets Williams, for that’s the plot the author wrote…” 

Despite its rather clumsy conclusion, Take Me Out to the Ball Game proved a winner with audiences, grossing $4,344,000.00 on its initial release. There is a lot to admire in this decidedly minor offering immediately following Kelly and Sinatra's gargantuan debut together in Anchors Aweigh. Yet, in every way, Take Me Out to the Ball Game is a poor cousin to that movie. Sinatra and Kelly do a fine tap routine to the title tune with Sinatra's dancing having immensely improved since Anchors Aweigh. He doesn't stare at his feet as he and Kelly trip the light fantastic. So too does Esther Williams - though not a first choice - fit in rather nicely with the boys, her comic timing keeping many a tired old gag afloat in the Tugend/Wells script. 

Sinatra's MGM persona, the antithesis of Kelly's exuberant all-American masculinity, seems strained herein at best, his confrontations with the libidinous Betty Garrett making for some real silly badinage and frisk-less foreplay. But adding Jules Munshin into this mix just seems too much; his third wheel buffoonery gilding the lily and becoming more ridiculous than funny before the final fade out.   

Warner Home Video’s DVD reissue is identical to the 1997 disc release. Colors are reasonably refined though not quite as punchy as one would expect. Flesh tones are at times a pasty pink. Fine detail is evident as is an occasionally distracting amount of film grain.

* It should be noted that 3-strip Technicolor was a grain reducing process registering silky smooth images with remarkable color fidelity and clarity. So, the grittiness to some of the scenes in Take Me Out to the Ball Game doesn't seem to me to be in keeping with what's on the original film stock but rather a post production flaw in the DVD mastering process. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include the film's theatrical trailer and a musical outtake - 'Baby Doll' sung by Kelly and mimed by Williams. It's an uninspired sequence that thankfully never made it into the final cut.

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



ON THE TOWN (MGM 1949) Warner Home Video

During the 1940s, producer Arthur Freed began an ambitious slate of Broadway to Hollywood musical acquisitions that resulted in some very impressive big screen incarnations like Babes in Arms, For Me And My Gal, Cabin in the Sky and Best Foot Forward. Occasionally, however, Freed set his sights a tad too high – or that is to say, perhaps they became slightly out of focus – especially after buying up a known Broadway smash only to toss out virtually most of its plot and nearly all of its score.

It may be sacrilege on my part, but I actually appreciate the original Broadway cast album to On the Town in place of the movie revamp. In hindsight, what the film score seems to lack is sophistication. It keeps the bright and breezy fluff stuff but leaves the introspective love ballads on the cutting room floor. That's a mistake, in my opinion, one that the film never entirely recovers from. Worse, most of the movie is shot on the MGM backlot, a very poor substitute for the isle of Manhattan where the story is supposed to be taking place. 

On The Town (1949) is co-directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly. But the old Donen/Kelly magic is strained herein, perhaps because newly appointed V.P in Charge of Production Dore Schary had a complete and utter disregard for making movie musicals that he felt were costly and extravagant. Schary afforded the pair just two weeks in New York City to lens a few preliminary shots of the city, to film process plates, and to stage the iconic opening number 'New York, New York' in various easily identifiable cultural landmarks including the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Plaza and the Empire State Building.

But the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green quickly realized that with Gene Kelly as the film's star, the original show’s premise, that of three hapless sailors on shore leave, would have to be revamped to accommodate and focus on one - and not three - sailor's experiences in the Big Apple. Arthur Freed agreed, chucking most of the Leonard Bernstein songs in favor of some new material written by Comden, Green and Roger Edens - none measuring up to Bernstein's originals.

Roger Edens has claimed that the project was a happy experience for all. But these rose-colored reflections ignore Sinatra's begrudging involvement on the project. He had never cared for the Bernstein lyrics and liked the film's revamped repertoire even less as prerecording began. He was also rather obviously fed up with having to play second fiddle opposite Gene Kelly again, cast as yet another variation of the neurotic wallflower he had played in Anchors Aweigh and Take Me Out to the Ball Game

Following a rather formulaic outline first developed in Anchors Aweigh (1945), On the Town opens with three sailors; Gabey (Kelly), Chip (Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) on 24 hr. shore leave in the Big Apple. While riding the subway, Gabey inexplicably becomes obsessed with a photograph of Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen) who has been voted Miss Turn-styles by the New York Transit Authority. Believing Ivy to be a celebrity - when all she really is, is a pin-up girl whose popularity will expire by the end of the week - Gabey sets out to find Ivy with the aid of his pals.

In the process, the boys pick up a libidinous female cabbie, Brunhilde Estherhazy (Betty Garrett) – who takes an immediate interest in Chip – and amateur anthropological historian, Claire Huddensen (Ann Miller). Though Claire and Brunhilde - both native New Yorkers - know Ivy is not a V.I.P. they go along with the charade to make Gabey happy.  Ivy reluctantly agrees to fulfill Gabey’s ‘star’ fantasy but eventually, Gabey learn the truth about Ivy from Madam Dilyovska (Florence Bates); an unscrupulous harridan whom Ivy is beholding to pay for her dancing/singing lessons. But by then it really doesn't matter; Gabey and Ivy are in love. As the boy's return to their ship and sail away, their girls stand by with hopeful smiles that they'll see one another again someday.

On The Town grossed $4,400,000.00 upon its initial release - a hit by any standards. But critical opinion of the film today doesn't quite rank it among the very best movie musicals ever made.  Personally, I've always enjoyed either Anchors Aweigh (1945) or MGM's subsequent Hit the Deck (1955) more - despite the fact that the latter was not a money-maker for MGM.

Certainly, On The Town has its merits. The opening sequence where Kelly, Sinatra and Munshin make a cook’s tour of the city – walking in and out of real New York cultural and historic landmarks – remains a showstopper. But on the whole the film is trying too hard to live up to its own expectations. We get clever ballets - both dream sequences - and a few truly funny bits of comedy that hold up remarkably well, but the film lacks a consistent rhythm and tempo. In hindsight the cracks in the artifice show up with increasing regularity rather than hiding behind its camouflage. The scenes shot on sound stages back in Culver City look it and belie the fact that the story is supposed to be taking place from the Bronx to the Battery.  

The Comden/Green/Edens score is weak at best, conflicting with the remnant pang of brilliance still retained in Bernstein’s very ‘New York’ musical styling. The script becomes a series of spry vignettes, not a cohesive narrative, with its over simplification of the Ivy/Gabey romance leading to a very predictable conclusion. With this film, MGM's commitment to the movie musical has decidedly crossed over to the other side, becoming somewhat formulaic and more contrived than is permissible. 

Apart from the location shoot - a first for any musical back then and for MGM in particular - there's really nothing new or exciting to write home about herein. In the final analysis, On the Town is not a great movie musical. It may even rank as the worst Broadway to Hollywood hybrid, given that most of what stage audiences saw never translated into the movie version. Still, there are worse examples of musicals in general out there. And no movie with Kelly and Sinatra doing what they do best is a total wash out. But On The Town lacks that intangible staying power we've come to expect from MGM's finest. It's diverting enough while its on the screen, yet easily forgotten once the houselights have come up.

Warner Home Video’s reissued DVD does not contain the much needed upgrade On The Town requires. Colors are generally muddy and less refined than one might expect. Contrast levels seem weak at best. Flesh tones are pasty. Film grain is prevalent and at times distracting. Age related artifacts are present but do not distract. The audio is mono as originally recorded. Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer.

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