Sunday, November 30, 2008

IF I'M LUCKY (2oth Century-Fox 1946) Fox Home Video

Lewis Seiler’s If I’m Lucky (1946) is a rather perplexing musical comedy in that it occasionally forgets itself by infusing more than a hint of serious undertone to the otherwise lighthearted proceedings.

The first half of the George Bricker, Robert Ellis, Edwin Lanham, Helen Logan, Snag Werris screenplay plays like a screwball comedy. But the middle portion of the film shifts to a deadly serious story about political corruption. In the final reels, the fluff factor in musical entertainment returns, leaving the darker aspects of the tale unresolved before the final fade out.

The story begins in earnest with talent agent Wallingham ‘Wally’ Jones (Phil Silvers) wiring his dispersed band of musicians and singers back into the fold with the promise of a theatrical gig. Wally is sincere, but the promise turns sour almost from the moment his telegrams have been sent.

When the troop of entertainers, including band leader Earl Gordon (Harry James) and singers Linda Farrell (Vivian Blaine) and Michelle O’Toole (Carmen Miranda) arrive, they discover that they’ve all given up steady paying jobs for the benefit of being unemployed yet again. A reprieve, however, is not far off.

Crashing the campaign of political hack, Darius J. Magonnagle (Edgar Buchanan) for the price of a free weenie and soda, Wally and his troop decide to resurrect Darius’ chances of having his campaign speech heard by entertaining the other freeloaders who have simply come to eat Magonnagles’ food and bolt out the front door.

The rouse works. The freeloaders stay and Magonnagles becomes a hit with his constituents. One problem: Magonnagles is actually a no good rummy and a stooge for Marc Dwyer (Frank Fenton); a fat cat invisible puppet master whose only interest in seeing Magonnagles made state governor is to also see that his own graft keeps flowing under the radar of voters after the next election. Meanwhile, Magonnagles latches onto the idea of taking Wally and his troop on the road to spread his message through their entertainment.

The dividends pay off for all concerned. However, when Dwyer takes notice of a new find by the troop – winsome crooner, Allen Clark (Perry Como), he decides that Magonnagles is expendable. Dwyer shifts his clout from Magonnagles to Clark who accepts the invitation, believing that he has been chosen because his late father was a great man who did great things for the state.

However, when Allen realizes that he will be expected to bend to the will of Dwyer’s political machine or risk being run out of town along with the rest of Wally’s gang, Allen does the only thing he can to save both his face and their careers; he exposes Dwyer and his cohorts for the pack of frauds that they are.

With so much talent on tap it’s somewhat ironic that not all of it gets exploited to the fullest potential. Apart from one utterly spellbinding production number, ‘The Bacuda’, Carmen Miranda is utterly wasted on this outing. Furthermore, although the B&W photography is fine – even stunning at times – there is something to be said about Miranda being tailor made for the Technicolor screen. So too does comedian Phil Silvers get pushed aside after the first few reels in favor of shifting the film’s focus on an exposé and critique of American politics.

That would be fine and dandy if If I’m Lucky were a melodramatic offering about political posturing as, say ‘Mr. Smith Goes To Washington’, ‘All The King’s Men’ or ‘Advise and Consent.’ It's not! This is supposed to be a musical; one that all but forgets as much midway through, before returning to more lighthearted and tragically misguided fare for the final fade out.

Vivian Blaine and Perry Como make for a winning combination, but their musical repertoire is depressingly limited to rehashing the title song ‘If I’m Lucky’ until we, as the audience, come to believe we would be even luckier if someone had written more songs for them to sing. In the final analysis, If I’m Lucky is an anomaly to the careers of everyone involved in its production. It’s a musical – in part; a melodrama – in part; but a rather convoluted mess as a whole.

Fox Home Video’s DVD exhibits a rather stunning, if inconsistently rendered, image. The tonality throughout this B&W feast is superbly rendered. However, there are portions of the film which appear to have been sourced from less than the original camera negative. These portions are grainier than the rest of the film with more obvious age related artifacts present.

Worse, the image tends to wobble on occasion, inviting more than a hint of edge enhancement to disturb fine details. The audio is presented in both re-channeled stereo and original mono. Extras include an excerpt from ‘Sing With The Stars’ featuring Carmen Miranda, an isolated score track, stills gallery and the original theatrical trailer.

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



Saturday, November 29, 2008

ABBOTT & COSTELLO: The complete Universal Pictures Collection (Universal 1940-55) Universal Home Video

It has been suggested that the comedic styling of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello never left their roots in burlesque comedy. To some extent, that’s true. Early stage work as a comedy team paved the way for a successful radio career and then an even more highly popular series of films at Universal Studios that trademarked Abbott and Costello as a one of cinema’s all time classic comedy teams.

Abbott and Costello’s comedic timing is unmistakable; quick shot and snappy with elegant and refined play on words; most memorably displayed in their classic ‘Who’s on First?’ routine that Bud and Lou performed twice in two separate movies for their studio; One Night In The Tropics and The Naughty Nineties. In all, Bud and Lou were partnered together for a record 21 years, 460 radio broadcasts and 36 motion pictures; to say nothing of their numerous television and Broadway performances along the way.

Yet, behind the scenes all was not entirely as lighthearted as one might expect. Owing to an arrangement made by Abbott – that, a gifted straight man was much harder to come by - the split of profits on all of the team’s subsequent outings together was a 60/40 division that Costello eventually came to grudgingly hold against his partner in later years. Sometimes a tyrant, particularly when he regarded the material being offered as substandard, Costello frequently defied studio executives and directors with personal demands that held up production and eventually created a professional rift between both men.

Nevertheless, the body of their work together was so profitable that in 1941 alone, their 4 movies were responsible for 25% of Universal’s entire gross spread over 56 other releases from that same year. Throughout the war years, Bud and Lou remained in the Top Ten box office draws – in the top 3 for three years running.

In 1948, Universal tapped into an inspired occasion by teaming their most popular comedians with three of their most horrific stars; Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein kicked off yet another cycle in Bud and Lou’s popularity with audiences that would continue to full and final flourish with Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy in 1955.

As a testament to their reigning popularity that, arguably has never waned in the years since their last film together, Bud and Lou have 5 stars on the Hollywood ‘Walk of Fame’; one for each comedian separately and three together for their work in radio, films and television.

And now, Universal Home Video delivers what is sure to become a keepsake box set for fans of the A&C franchise: Abbott and Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection. The set includes all 28 movies made at the studio beginning with One Night In The Tropics (1941): a wacky entrée in which Bud and Lou play second fiddle to crooner Alan Jones, cast as a ‘love insurance’ salesman dodging would-be thugs sent to apprehend his wayward friend, millionaire Steve Harper (Robert Cummings).

A&C’s early cinematic tenure is a rapid succession of super hits; 1941 alone launches Buck Privates, In The Navy, Hold That Ghost and Keep ‘Em Flying. In Buck Privates, Bud and Lou are accidentally drafted into the army, with similar circumstances afforded in the service of the U.S. Navy, ‘In The Navy’ and air force (‘Keep ‘Em Flying’). The one exception to Bud and Lou’s patriotic lambaste is Hold That Ghost, a riotous murder mystery in which the team inherit a run down tavern from a deceased bootlegger. All of these movies also contain musical performances by The Andrews Sisters; a hot swing and jitterbug trio who complimented these movies with their own inimitable musical styling.

1942’s roster of A&C movies begins in earnest with Ride ‘Em Cowboy; a musical offering that has Bud and Lou on a dude ranch and showcases Ella Fitzgerald’s classic performance of ‘A Tisket, A Tasket’. The laughs continue with Pardon My Sarong; Bud and Lou stranded on a tropical island and at the mercy of native savages. Who Done It? is set in radio land and involves the murder of a U.S. patriot spying against the Nazis.

1943’s offerings include It Ain’t Hay – available for the first time anywhere after being resolved with a rights issue. Hit The Ice has Bud and Lou working as a pair of waiters at a Sun Valley Resort where they also uncover a nest of gangsters.

By the end of 1943, Bud and Lou needed a break; both from work and each other. In the next two years they would only make three movies; the first, In Society (1944) a rather loose distraction that has Bud and Lou mistaken for members of the social elite; the second, Here Come The Co-Eds (1944) set at Bixby – an all girl’s college where, as janitors, the boys attempt to save the school from foreclosure; third, The Naughty Nineties – a tired rehash of the team’s Vaudeville performances set on a river boat circa 1890.

By 1946 Bud and Lou were at each other’s throats. Not only were they dissatisfied with Universal’s marketing of their movies, they were increasingly becoming aware that the material in their last few movies had been substandard to their talents and meant strictly for the studio to capitalize on their status and popularity. Hence, in 1946, Universal compensated the team with two unusual properties; the first – Little Giant separated the team.

For the first time, Bud and Lou played characters unknown to one another. Based on a stage hit, the film version of Little Giant did not gel with the public and neither did Universal’s second attempt to keep Bud and Lou apart in The Time Of Their Lives. However, time has been kind to this latter movie that has Lou and Marjorie Reynolds as a pair of ghosts haunting the ancestor of Lou’s former nemesis, played by Bud.

1947 resurrected the army motif with Buck Privates Come Home; the boys attempting to adopt a war refugee. Their second outing of that same year; The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap was problematic on many levels and took a genuine toll on Lou’s health. Then came 1947’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein: an instant classic with audiences and critics and a film that remains on the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest comedies of all time.

The movie launched a franchise of A&C meeting practically every monster in the Universal cannon. Apart from 1948’s Mexican Hayride, the remainder of A&C’s careers at Universal would be spent combating ...The Killer: Boris Karloff (1949), ...The Invisible Man (1951), ...Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1953) and finally, ...The Mummy (1955). In between these classic comedy/horror movies, Universal feathered in some featherweight comedy films including; Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950), Lost In Alaska (1952), …Go To Mars (1953) and …Meet The Keystone Cops (1955).

By mid-decade Bud and Lou’s tenure at Universal had come to an end. They moved into television for the rest of the decade and later leant their voices to a cartoon series. In the mid-1970s A&C’s popularity was revitalized by a compilation film featuring memorable clips from all of their Universal movies: The World Of Abbott and Costello. In the mid-1990s, Jerry Seinfeld paid homage to the team. Universal Home Video also produced a junket celebrating Bud and Lou’s classic comedy/horror movies.

All of these movies are housed in Abbott and Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection. In the late 1990s, Universal packaged A&C in several chronological ‘Franchise Collections’ with abysmal ‘flipper disc’ transfers that were not compatible on all DVD players. This oversight has been corrected for this complete collection with only two (rather than four) movies being housed on one single-sided disc.

Better still, it appears as though several of the transfers in this collection have received significant upgrades for improved visual presentation. The B&W gray scale on all of the features housed in this set exhibit a relatively crisp visual quality with a modicum of film grain and a tempering of age related artifacts. The audio on all the films is mono, but nicely cleaned up.

Six of the movies in this collection also have been afforded expert audio commentary tracks; Buck Privates, Hold That Ghost, Who Done It?, The Time Of Their Lives, Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There’s also a nicely produced booklet of linear notes, charting the duos careers both together and separately, while providing a comprehensive chronology of all the A&C movies in this set. Bottom line: this is the definitive Abbott and Costello movie experience. It belongs on everyone’s top shelf of must haves. Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
The Collection 5+



GREENWICH VILLAGE (2oth Century-Fox 1944) Fox Home Video

Walter Lang’s Greenwich Village (1944) is a delightfully obtuse musical extravaganza, aided and abetted by a truly inspired performance from Carmen Miranda, garishly photographed in eye-popping Technicolor. If nothing else, the film proves a universal; that Miranda is one of those rare movie treasures whose sheer presence on celluloid is enough to make anyone sit up and take notice.

Set in New York’s famed hot spot for low brow entertainment circa 1922, the story concocted by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan is supposed to be a conventional lover’s triangle between nightclub proprietor Danny O’Mara (William Bendix), symphonic composer, Kenneth Harvey (Don Ameche) and aspiring pop chanteuse, Bonnie Watson (Vivian Blaine).

Instead, the film quite easily becomes a showcase for the Brazilian bombshell, cast as fortune teller Princess Querida. Miranda cavorts in some utterly outrageous musical sequences while chewing up the scenery elsewhere as she runs amuck with her usual fracturing of the English language.

When first we meet Kenneth, he is a struggling composer, easily horns-waggled out of his money by the conspiring Querida and O’Mara, who need his money to launch their theatrical show. Mistakenly, Querida assumes that Kenneth’s wallet full of tens and twenties means that he is a millionaire when, in fact, Kenneth is actually a former college professor who has cashed out his entire life savings to set himself up in the Bohemian enclave and become a true artist.

Meanwhile, Kenneth falls in love with nightclub singer, Bonnie Watson who just happens to be O’Mara’s girl. Not that she shares O’Mara’s affections. Although Bonnie is grateful to O’Mara for his interests in her as a singer, Bonnie’s heart quickly falls for Kenneth, especially when O’Mara promises Kenneth that he will secure an audition with the eminent composer, Kavosky (Emil Rameau). In truth, O’Mara needs Kenneth to write the score for his show and has no interest in helping him succeed as a serious composer.

However, when Kenneth is double-crossed by a struggling violinist, Hofer (Felix Bressart) – who takes his money and attempts to escape – O’Mara comes to Kenneth’s rescue, apprehending Hofer to save his show and, inadvertently getting Kavosky to hear Kenneth’s score for that show; actually, the high brow symphony Kenneth had been toiling on since he moved to Greenwich Village.

The songs in this lavishly appointed musical romp are the least memorable part of this story, but that doesn’t stop the bombastic Carmen Miranda from excelling at elevating the rather conventional material to new heights of bizarre and exotic bliss. Though Blaine gets the torch songs and ballads, it’s Miranda’s super production numbers that continue to click the most with audiences today.

Lang’s direction is slick and stylish. The plot – while conventional to a fault – moves effortlessly enough through 82 minutes of pure mishap and utterly wacky screwball comedy. In the final analysis, Greenwich Village is a musical worth seeing because the sum of its parts equals an experience that is jolly good, if largely forgettable fun.

Fox Home Video’s DVD transfer is sumptuous. The Technicolor is rich, vibrant and glowing. Restoration efforts have resurrected an almost grain free image with sharp resolution and superbly rendered contrast levels. Blacks are deep and velvety. Whites are bright and pristine. The audio is presented either in re-channeled stereo or the original mono. Extras are limited to a stills gallery. Recommended!

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



THE GANG'S ALL HERE (2oth Century-Fox 1943) Fox Home Video

Claptrap and calamity hinder Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943) from becoming more than a psychedelic footnote in the canon of truly great musical entertainments. The claptrap comes from the Walter Bullock screenplay, so full of inconsistencies that it is ever in danger of toppling into a messy heap of Technicolor mayhem. The calamity arises from the fusion of Busby Berkeley’s usual flare for musical numbers staged with military precision, clashing with the more robust gaudiness of Fox’s musicals from this vintage.

The story begins in earnest with Sergeant Andy Mason (James Ellison) arriving at New York’s hottest nightclub to sample a bit of the wild side of Broadway before being shipped off to war. Against the strenuous objections of his stogy father, Andrew (Eugene Palette), Andy gets involved with singer, Edie Allen (Alice Faye).

Meanwhile, Andrew’s friend, Peyton Potter (Edward Everett Horton) becomes entangled with the nightclub’s other knockout performer, Dorita (Carmen Miranda). Peyton is a stuffed shirt whose wife (Charlotte Greenwood) and daughter, Vivian (Sheila Ryan) think him respectable.

Anyway, Andy gets sent to the front lines during WWII, but returns a hero several years later and now inexplicably engaged to Vivian, leaving Edie with a broken heart. Dorita decides to help the confusion along by revealing Peyton’s flirtations with her at the café to Mrs. Potter who, in turn, demands to know what in the world is going on. All of this loveable nonsense doesn’t quite add up and it is made even more confusing by the fact that Berkeley frequently interrupts the romantic comedy to insert lavishly appointed production numbers that in no way fit into the story.

The most successful of Berkeley’s musical intrusions is undoubtedly ‘The Lady in the Tutti-Fruitti Hat’; a garish tropical routine with Carmen Miranda that ran into clashes with the censorship board (who thought that the sight of island girls hugging gigantic bananas suggested a phallic infatuation best left to the imagination). Miranda also kicks off the film with ‘You Discover You’re In New York’ – accompanied by Tony De Marco and her own Bando Da Lua. Alice Faye has the smash single with the romantic ballad ‘A Journey to A Star,’ first sung aboard a ship to Andy before he departs to the front lines. Benny Goodman and his orchestra contribute two of the better musical moments in the film; ‘Minnie’s in the Money’ and

Less promising on every level is the fractured amalgam of styles thrust into the film’s elephantine finale that begins with Faye’s sultry warbling of ‘The Polka-Dot Polka.’ Unfortunately, this promising intro dissolves into a flawed display of cat-like girls in spandex, clutching neon hula hoops, then giant wafers rotated overhead.

The final act of this misguided production number transforms Faye into a kaleidoscopic vision of rotating color, before a series of disembodied heads of all the principle cast join in the reprise of ‘A Journey to a Star’ against a glittery backdrop of greenish stars.

The Gang’s All Here is often sited as a stellar example of ‘luscious’ escapist entertainment. If ‘mindless’ is what you desire, then I suppose this musical fits that bill nicely.

It must be stated that James Ellison is an ineffectual leading man; handsome enough, though without the A-list sort of personality to make his looks count for anything more than window-dressing. Carmen Miranda rescues the plot momentarily in the brief moments she appears, but overall her purpose is to splash across the screen like a sunburst before disappearing into the backdrop once more. When all is said and done, The Gang’s All Here resonates as an exercise in gaudy excess rather than starlight and magic.

This is the second outing for The Gang’s All Here on DVD. The first was as part of the Alice Faye Vol. 1 box set. Fox Home Video outraged fans of this classic with a rather shoddy DVD transfer that did not live up to the high standards they set on other titles in that set. Hence, it was only a matter of time before the studio went back to the drawing board for a second release.

This newly remastered edition of The Gang’s All Here sports a superior transfer with marked improvements in color fidelity and contrast. The Technicolor is vibrant and pronounced. Reds are blood red. The bananas are sunshine yellow. Blacks are deep and velvety. Age related artifacts have been cleaned up for a visually smooth transfer. The audio is presented in re-channeled stereo and its’ original mono mix.

Extras include all of the features available on the previously released disc, including a featurette on the making of the film and a commentary by noted film historian and professor, Drew Casper; as well as Alice Faye’s promo ‘We Still Are!’ and excerpts from the Phil Harris/Alice Faye Show.

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



THE TENDER TRAP (MGM 1955) Warner Home Video

Based on the Max Schulman/Robert Paul Smith Broadway smash, director Charles Walters’ The Tender Trap (1955) is a rather poignant romantic comedy that manages to be as bright and buoyant as it is introspective and revealing about the prototypical relationship between a middle-aged man and younger woman. The sparkling screenplay by Julius J. Epstein delivers top notch support to this tale of a swinger whose days of bachelorhood are at an end.

Sinatra is cast as Charlie Y. Reader – a playboy with a revolving bevy of beauties at his beckon call. At present these include ‘professional dog walker’ Helen (Carolyn Jones) and virtuoso violinist, Sylvia Crewes (Celeste Holm). Meanwhile, Charlie is visited by his best friend, Joe McCall (David Wayne) who begins his sabbatical in Charlie’s den of iniquity with all the envy of a married man who considers himself anchored to his profession, his wife and their three children. Joe will end his stay with sober appreciation for the fact that his own days as a rover are gladly behind him.

Charlie doesn’t really see how womanizing has become a self destructive way of life until one evening when, while out with Sylvia and Joe, he accidentally runs into Julia Gillis (Debbie Reynolds); a fresh-faced kid with high moral ideals about the right man who will one day become her husband. Julia has her entire life mapped out – right down to the last detail.

At first, Julia’s precocious verve amuses Charlie. Gradually, however, Charlie comes to understand just how far removed from Julia’s optimism and jaded he has become. Worse, Charlie finds himself falling in love with her – a development that infuriates Joe who has already begun to have deeper affections for Sylvia. Charlie attempts to seduce Julia in his trademark swinger style. But with Julia the slick approach fails to catch on.

Meanwhile, Joe asks Sylvia why she tolerates Charlie’s philandering. Her reply is a resignation of all hope in ever finding ‘the right man’; she’s simply willing to settle for second best in the hopes that something good will come of the experiment.

At first, Sylvia’s hand seems to play itself out. Forced by Joe to admit that his life is a fraud, Charlie proposes marriage to Sylvia. She accepts and the trio proceed to throw a garishly out of control party to celebrate the occasion. This delirium comes to an end when Julia confesses her love to Charlie and he, in turn, suddenly realizes that he cannot resist her any longer. She’s the girl for him and he’s the right man for her.

The Tender Trap may start out as just another vintage romantic comedy from the 1950s, but it ends its’ stay on the screen as a very adult and 'tender' revelation about middle-aged insecurities and the very real prospect of being alone for the rest of one's life.

Frank Sinatra is in rare form. After a decade of playing foolish, malnourished fops at MGM, Sinatra defied L.B. Mayer to his own detriment. He was black-listed from virtually every studio in the early 1950s and all but lost his recording contracts at Columbia, Decca and RCA. Sinatra’s resurrection mid-decade was largely due to his seminal performance in From Here To Eternity. The Tender Trap benefits greatly from Sinatra's more mature acting style, revealing new depth to both the man and the character he plays.

Although The Tender Trap opens with a musical performance by Sinatra (singing the title tune) the rest of the film is void of his singing talents - a fairly gutsy move considering the sway Sinatra's singing chops had on a marquee. But Sinatra’s acting performance stands alone without the luxury of his trademark vocal abilities. So too does Debbie Reynolds radiate a sincere maturity beneath her usual plucky exterior. David Wayne has never been better served on the scree as the frustrated married man on the verge of throwing over his family for a dead-end tryst.

The second best performance in the movie, however, belongs to Celeste Holm; providing layers of subtext to Sylvia that reveal her as a woman young enough to long for the fragile blissfulness of a husband and home, yet mature enough to understand that happiness may be a relative term for the successful woman who has aged beyond her romantic expiration date.

The Tender Trap is a great and sadly underrated movie that deserves a second chance. Hopefully, this DVD will reintroduce audiences to the film’s sobering reflections on life and love for posterity.

Warner Home Video’s DVD presentation is just a tad below par. The original Eastman color stock is in a state of faded decomposition. Though colors can appear relatively bright and vibrant, flesh tones are frequently washed out. Actor’s faces sometimes have a ghostly white patina with a loss of fine detail.

Age related artifacts are most noticeable during fades, dissolves and splices. On the whole, the image will not disappoint. It is not, however, an ideal presentation. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital, recapturing much of the former glory of Cinemascope’s original 6 track stereo. Extras are limited to a rather engaging featurette on Sinatra’s 1950s film tenure with commentary from biographers and film historians. Recommended!

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



MARRIAGE ON THE ROCKS (MGM 1965) Warner Home Video

Jack Donohue’s Marriage on the Rocks (1965) finds Frank Sinatra playing second fiddle as a lovelorn hipster turned family man whose wife is decidedly beside herself when it comes to finding reasons to stay married to him. The Cy Howard screenplay is clever enough, though perhaps a tad too conventional to be considered anything better than an overblown two hour exursion of those anticeptic romantic/comedies that populated the small screen throughout the 1950s.

Dan (Sinatra) and Valerie Edwards (Deborah Kerr) have been married for nineteen years and the strain is beginning to show. Though Dan sees no cracks in the eternal bliss of his wedded days, his wife has grown restless with his stability in the business world that has managed to provide them with an elegant home and two children, Tracy (Nancy Sinatra) and David (Michael Petit) but has taken the fiery spark out of their spirited days as a young couple.

Valerie is constantly throwing Dan’s swinger business partner and long time friend, Ernie Brewer (Dean Martin) in Dan’s face. Ernie’s never grown up. He’s constantly cavorting with hot young girls and living the sort of exciting life Valerie thinks she wants. Predictably, the old adage of ‘be careful what you wish for’ holds true.

After Ernie encourages Dan to take his wife on a second honeymoon, the couple arrives in Mexico to discover themselves on the brink of divorce. In fact, the decree is granted most willingly by amiable Miguel Santos (Cesar Romero); a one man show in the small town Dan and Valerie are staying in. Santos is the town’s judge, attorney, hotel proprietor and party coordinator.

To rectify their divorce, Dan decides to let his business acumen lapse and remarry Val’ in a lavish Mexican ceremony. Unfortunately, Dan is called away on business at the last moment, leaving Ernie to explain the situation. Instead, Ernie arrives at the altar on the day of the wedding and is accidentally married to Val’ by a Mexican priest. Seeing his moment to teach Valerie a lesson she will never forget, Dan moves out of their home, allowing both Valerie and their children to see what life would be like if their ‘Uncle Ernie’ were, in fact, their stepfather.

The film abounds in clichés and ‘60s stereotypes of a woman’s place in the home. Valerie is represented as something of a frustrated scatterbrain who doesn’t know what she wants until she has the opportunity to sample both sides of the marital fence with less than stellar results.

After reinvigorating his career in the mid-1950s with some truly inspiring movie work, Sinatra is barely going through the motions here. He’s as bland as pabulum and relegated to the backburner during the second half of the film as the plot shifts to illustrate how ineffectual Ernie is at taking Dan’s place on the homestead. Of the three principals, only Kerr is giving it her all from start to finish; at least attempting to make something of this clattering mess of plot points. In the final analysis, Marriage on the Rocks is a film on the brink of becoming a dinosaur before its time.

Warner Home Video’s DVD delivers a fairly solid image. Colors are relatively vibrant. Contrast levels are nicely realized. The sets are obvious, but beautifully lit with rich tones lovingly reproduced herein. Minimal grain and age related artifacts yield a rather impressive and tight anamorphic transfer that will surely please. The audio is a 5.1 stereo reworking of the original six track Cinemascope elements with inherent shortcomings in audio fidelity. There are NO extras.

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



Monday, November 17, 2008

THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (Warner Bros. 1943) Warner Home Video

Warner publicity of its time described David Butler’s Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) as “a million shows in one and one show in a million.” Unhappy chance, that for posterity the finished film is more a compendium of outtakes and experiments than one cohesive ‘hey kids, let’s put on a show!’

The studio has lumped together a satchel full of its top notch talent, most of them utterly wasted in sound bytes and by a turgid screenplay from Norman Panama, Melvin Frank and James V. Kern that treads the tired lament of an unknown singer, desperate to make good and become famous.

The plot, such as it is, begins during a radio broadcast, where Eddie Cantor has to fend off a half serious/half punchy John Garfield lampooning one of his film noir tough guy characterizations. Afterward, Dinah Shore sings the film’s title track. In the audience, observing the program are theatrical producer, Farnsworth (Edward Everett Horton) and musical conductor Dr. Schlenna (S.Z. Sakall), who concur that Shore would be ideal for the debut of their ‘Cavalcade of Stars’ live show.

One problem; to get to Shore, the duo has to first engage Cantor who has her under an exclusive five year contract. Convincing Cantor to loan Dinah isn’t the problem. Convincing Cantor to butt out is. Soon, the bombastic Cantor is commanding the rehearsals and making impossible demands of the cast and crew, making changes and exacerbating the patience of both Farnsworth and Schlenna.

Meanwhile, in another part of Hollywood make-believe land, unknown song writer Pat Dixon (Joan Leslie) is desperately trying to pitch her new tune, ‘Moon Dust’ to unknown singer, Tommy Randolph (Dennis Morgan) and Joe, the tour bus driver (Cantor, again). She’s unsuccessful, but quickly relegates her own dreams of fame to embrace Tommy’s chances to perform in Cavalcade of Stars. Together, this trio concocts a plan to kidnap Cantor and replace him with Joe – a dead ringer. The ploy works and Tommy is a big hit in the show.

What is particularly distressing about that show – the film’s grand finale, as it were - is that it is supposed to be about seeing the stars doing what America loves to see them do best. Yet, the resulting compendium of moments showcases stars that, for the most part, are out of character and out of their element for that matter instead. Errol Flynn is the most successful of these experiments, singing ‘That’s What You Jolly Well Get’ as an obnoxious, booze hound cockney. Not only is Flynn in good voice, he also displays great fluidity in his dance. It’s a pity Warner Bros. never bothered to capitalize on these talents by offering him a big budget musical of his own as they did with tough guy James Cagney.

Tragically, a slew of the studio’s best known and most beloved contract players are simply not up to snuff on this outing. Bette Davis flounders in her rendition of ‘They’re Either Too Young or Too Old’ – a war time lament about the unavailability of attractive suitors. So too does Ann Sheridan flop while attempting something of a bad Mae West imitation with ‘Love Isn’t Born, It’s Made.’

Olivia DeHavilland and Ida Lupino, flanked by George Tobias, drown in a mercilessly bad jive routine. Jack Carson and Alan Hale are brutally corny in ‘Goin’ North.’ And then there’s Hattie McDaniel – shrieking ‘Ice Cold Katy’; a jive routine about a frosty Miss who refuses to marry a G.I. on leave.

Humphrey Bogart – top billed – has but six lines in the entire movie; appearing unshaven and suggestively down on his luck. He accosts Schlenna back stage and is quickly – and quite humorously – demolished by the portly impresario before turning to the camera to say “Gee, I hope my fans don’t find out about this”; a rather telling sentiment. For the last act of this bombastic claptrap features everyone sailing around on their bottoms, clinging to either planets or stars.

Not everything is terrible. Dennis Morgan has two memorable moments; the first, crooning ‘I’m Ridin’ For A Fall’ with Leslie; the second as part of a grand production number, singing ‘Good Night, Good Neighbor’ as Alexis Smith is frenetically tossed about the landscape by a pair of Latin lotharios. Morgan is in fine voice and makes a winning leading man. But he is hampered by Joan Leslie – too plucky and trying too hard to find reasons to want to see him succeed.

Eddie Cantor manages to insert every wise crack and low brow pithy retort in his repertoire; most of them holding up quite nicely. Dinah Shore’s stand out moment comes as a southern belle, twittering the melodic ‘How Sweet You Are’ –a grand production number that oozes the appropriate amount of stardust and romantic charm.

And then, of course, there is S.Z. Sakall – one of filmdom’s unique and endearing treasures. He’s marvelous as the harried conductor. After an uncooperative elephant turns his back to Schlenna and Farnsworth, the latter angrily declares, “This is the end!” to which the nonchalant Sakall glibly replies, “Yes, I can see that.”

In the final analysis, I suppose we should all ‘thank our lucky stars’ that this sort of thrown together entertainment is a thing of the past. The talent is there, but the material to make the most of the opportunity is quite simply not!

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is very solid. The B&W picture elements have been nicely cleaned up and restored. Contrast levels are superbly balanced. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are bright, though never blooming. The image is razor sharp, without the detriments of edge enhancement or pixelization to intrude. The audio is nicely balanced. Extras include the usual litany of short subjects and trailers to choose from.

*Please note: currently this disc has only been made available as part of the Warner Home Front Collection: a three disc set that also includes Hollywood Canteen and Irving Berlin’s This Is The Army.

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



Sunday, November 16, 2008

HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN (Warner Bros. 1944) Warner Home Video

Delmer Daves’ Hollywood Canteen (1944) is as much a beloved cornucopia of cherished and iconic bit performances from the Warner stock company as it remains a lovingly produced time capsule from a very special moment in the history of Hollywood.

The film is a sincere attempt to popularize and immortalize Tinsel Town’s contribution to the war effort; the private nightclub first established by Warner’s very own Bette Davis as an exclusive hot spot, where any enlisted solider could mingle with filmdom’s royalty and enjoy a potpourri of grand entertainments.

The sentiment on this occasion is manufactured. For Robert Hutton – who plays the luckiest G.I. in the company – Cpl. Ed ‘Slim’ Green is neither a solider nor an A-list celebrity. But at least in tone of reverence, Hutton manages to capture and bottle up a blithe essence of wonderment and naïveté as a man who has first fallen in love with an image and then, the real McCoy.

Warner’s grand dame Bette Davis – playing herself, as Canteen hostess – sheds her usual bank of bravado in this movie to reveal a meaningful tenderness throughout her performance. When she congratulates Slim on being the millionth man to enter the Canteen, saying “Wherever you go, our hearts go with you” her humility and sense of appreciation for all men serving in the U.S. Armed Forces resonates warmth, compassion and the milk of human kindness, utterly void of cliché or rank sentimentality.

Slim first hears about the Hollywood Canteen from a cook at a local greasy spoon in Los Angeles. After walking his feet off all day with visions of actress, Joan Leslie firmly dictating his heart’s desire, Slim finally arrives at the canteen. In rapid succession he is first greeted by Joe E. Brown and then Barbara Stanwyck. Confessing his puppy dog’s crush over actress Joan Leslie to Brown, Slim’s secret is next leaked to host John Garfield, who wastes no time to inform Bette Davis of this one soldier’s only wish for the evening; to meet Joan Leslie in person.

That wish granted and sealed with an innocent kiss; Leslie is immediately taken with Slim whom she later introduces to her family. Between the bookends of this implausibly romantic wish fulfillment, the film inserts sound bytes and musical performances from a healthy sampling of Warner’s stock company.

Joan Crawford dances. The Andrews Sisters get ‘Corns For Their Country.’ Resident menace-makers Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre intimidate an unruly cadet. S.Z. Sakall has his cheeks tweaked and Ida Lupino attempts to humor a forward pass in French sent to her by Slim’s pal, Sgt. Nowland (Dane Clark), who has absolutely no luck in convincing Alexis Smith of his ‘primeval’ intentions – first quantified in a brief conversation with Paul Henreid.

Sixty-two stars in all reign over a magical weekend of in-house performances at the canteen. Eddie Cantor serves sandwiches and performs the delightfully smarmy ‘We’re Having A Baby’, Roy Rogers sings ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ atop Trigger, Jimmy Dorsey knocks ‘em dead with the ‘King Porter Stomp’ and Joseph Szigeti enlightens everyone with a highbrow performance of ‘The Bee’ before lampooning a bit with comedian Jack Benny.

Other standout musical performances at the canteen come from Dennis Morgan and Joe E. Brown’s rousing and patriotic ‘You Can Always Tell A Yank’; Carmen Cavallaro’s haunting and exhilarating ‘Voodoo Moon’, some truly mesmerizing Flamenco footwork by Rosario and Antonio, and, last but not least; ‘The General Jumped At Dawn’; an impressively melodic swing tune, masterfully carried off by The Golden Gate Quartet.

With few exceptions, the action rarely leaves the canteen stage of floor; the one noteworthy exception being an absolutely riveting performance by Joan McCracken in ‘Ballet in Jive’ – supposedly part of the Warner studio tour won by Slim for being the canteen’s millionth man.

At the time of its release, Hollywood Canteen was the single most popular film of the year. Today, it remains a memorable excursion for the film connoisseur or anyone who simply enjoys witnessing stellar craftsmen and women delighting so regularly in their chosen profession. In short then, Hollywood Canteen is an inspiration.

The same can be said of Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer. Derived from restored elements, the film’s B&W image looks quite sharp and impressive for the most part. The gray scale exhibits exceptional tonality. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are bright, though never blooming.

There are several scenes that exhibit less than perfect image quality; softly focused, with more visible film grain and age related artifacts. However, these moments are few and far between. The audio has also been cleaned up and is represented at an adequate listening level.

This reviewer’s one genuine regret is that with all the ‘Warner Night At the Movies’ extras included on this disc, the studio hasn’t bothered to also include an audio commentary among them. Oh well, minor quibbling I suppose; particularly when there is so much else to admire. Highly recommended!

*Please note: currently this disc has only been made available as part of the Warner Home Front Collection: a three disc set that also includes Thank Your Lucky Stars and Irving Berlin’s This Is The Army.

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



Saturday, November 15, 2008

Irving Berlin's THIS IS THE ARMY (Warner Bros. 1943) Warner Home Video

Irving Berlin’s This Is The Army (1943) is perhaps the most patriotic grand salute to the American Armed Forces ever attempted on film. An adopted son, Irving Berlin never forgot that his overwhelming critical and financial success came at the behest of a compassionate nation. Until his dying day, he remained eternally grateful for the opportunities he had been afforded and consistently endeavored to express that personal love of the United States through his own innate God-given talents as a composer of popular music.

This Is The Army was a highly successful stage show long before it became a movie, and there is something genuinely endearing – rather than static – about the care that director Michael Curtiz has given to retaining both the look and feel of that original theatrical presentation, while adding minor cinematic touches to freshen up the action for the big screen.

The plot is superficial at best. During World War I, song and dance man Jerry Jones (George Murphy) stages a magnificent ‘all soldier’ Broadway revue called ‘Yip Yip Yaphank’, before being conscripted into service.

Wounded in body, though not in spirit on the battlefield, Jerry returns home to convalesce and become a successful Broadway impresario and music publishing mogul. Together with his partner, Maxie Twardofsky (George Tobias), the men decide that with the looming crisis in Europe, the time is ripe for another all out tribute to America’s valiant men in arms.

The film fast tracks to the advent of the Second World War, where Jerry’s son, Johnny (Ronald Reagan) has become something of a silent, though conscientious objector to the conflict. After Johnny is enlisted and decides to stage a grand revival, ‘This Is The Army’ in support of the war bond effort, along with his buddy Sgt. McGee (Alan Hale), he runs into ghosts from his past, including the loss of a brother in the air force. These memories impact Johnny’s current relationship with Red Cross nurse and fiancée, Eileen Dibble (Joan Leslie).

The show – an assemblage of genuine enlisted men from America’s Armed Forces - goes on the road, touring all the major U.S. cities. It is a resounding smash. However, as the threat of real combat looms precariously in the background, Johnny’s fear over possibly making a widow out of Eileen get the better of him. He postpones their engagement indefinitely.

There’s really not much more to the story than this. What sets This Is The Army apart from other war time musical entertainment is its exemplary collection of Irving Berlin tunes; a finer, more rousing and patriotic set of songs arguably does not exist! The film’s title track is a loving lampoon of the separation between civilian and military life for incoming recruits.

Other songs celebrate the American solider at war; the U.S.’s supremacy in the sky; ‘American Eagles’ and on the sea; ‘How About A Cheer For The Navy.’ Gertrude Nielsen’s rendition of ‘Your Country and My Country’ gets the musical program off to a rousing start, as does Richard Crane’s poignant ‘I Left My Heart At The Stage Door Canteen.'

The film ends on a magnificent proclamation of selfless servitude and commitment to peace with ‘This Time Is The Last Time’; a staggering display of military maneuvers set against the backdrop of an art deco Uncle Sam and American Eagle, with the flags of friendly nations lining the left and right of the stage.

But perhaps the two best remembered musical moments in the film belong to radio singer Kate Smith and composer Irving Berlin. Smith introduces ‘God Bless America’ in a moment excised from real life; her rich bravado raising the American call to arms to new heights through Berlin’s lyrics, even as the tone of underscoring hints at some remnant sadness and pending gloom of conflict.

The other great moment belongs to Berlin, reprising for the film as he did on the stage, a cameo performance as a soldier begrudgingly adverse to revelry at the crack of dawn, with ‘Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning.’ Berlin, who was hardly a singer in great voice, nevertheless manages to convey his own sense of undying passion for the nation that made him a success.

As a result, This Is The Army achieves a crescendo of old fashion patriotism run amuck, the likes of which has not been seen in some time on the big screen. The film is an experience and faithful adaptation of Berlin’s stage spectacular rather than an outright cinematic reworking of the material.

Naysay pundits will suggest that there’s too little subtext and far too much schmaltz to make the film a hit with contemporary audiences. This critic will simply reply, ‘What in the world is wrong with that?’

So long as there are soldiers at war and families at home desperately awaiting their safe return, love of country will always be fashionable. In the final analysis, Berlin’s music makes audiences proud to be American – even if you were not born one. How many new Hollywood movies can claim as much?

After decades of having to contend with the worst possible image quality made readily available to home viewing audiences with, in some cases, missing frames and jump cuts, Warner Home Video has at long last rescued This Is The Army from public domain hell to produce a definitive DVD transfer worthy of the film itself.

Color fidelity, while perhaps not quite as refined as one might expect, is light years ahead of anything consumers have seen in a long while. Flesh tones retain a tad pasty quality, but reds are blood red and blacks deep, rich and solid. Occasionally, the image can appear slightly clumpy with a loss of fine details. There are also moments where age related artifacts become quite obvious. On the whole, however, the film looks beautiful.

The mono audio is a tad strident but, owing to the quality of existing prints, has been cleaned up rather nicely. In addition to the inclusion of the film’s original road show’s overture and exit music (not heard since the original premiere); this disc contains a fairly comprehensive documentary on Warner Bros. war movies narrated by Steven Spielberg. There’s also the usual Warner Night at the Movies extras (shorts, cartoons and theatrical trailer) as well as a fascinating commentary that includes thoughts from Joan Leslie. Highly recommended!

*Please note: currently this disc has only been made available as part of the Warner Home Front Collection: a three disc set that also includes Thank Your Lucky Stars and Hollywood Canteen.

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