Tuesday, August 24, 2010

THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER (MGM 1944) Warner Archive Collection

MGM marked its 20th anniversary in 1944 with Clarence Brown's elegant production of The White Cliffs of Dover; a sprawling generational family saga extolling the fortitude of human sacrifice in war. Based on Alice Duer Miller's popular poem, the screenplay by Claudine West, Jan Lustig and George Froeschel (with additional poetic passages inserted by Robert Nathan), manages to retain Miller's melodic and timely intercontinental charm while adding grand production values for which MGM in its heyday was justly famous.

Going outside its own gated community of stars, director Brown casts Irene Dunne as the film's winsome heroine, Susan Dunn. We first glimpse an aged Susan working as a Red Cross relief nurse in the emergency ward of a London hospital. Tired and careworn, Susan gazes lovingly at a portrait of her son and the story regresses in flashback to a happier, simpler time just before WWI.

Susan and her publisher father, Hirum Porter Dunn (Frank Morgan) have newly arrived in England on business. Staying at Mrs. Bland's (Norma Varden) boarding house, Susan and Hirum are introduced to retired Col. Walter Forsythe (C. Aubrey Smith) who invites Hirum to his room for a game of chess. The match, however, turns ugly when Hirum learns that they are playing on a vintage chess board stolen from The White House by the British during Madison's presidency.

Nevertheless, Forsythe invites Susan to a grand ball at the Duchess of Waverly's estate where she meets elegant playboy, Sir John Ashwood (Alan Marshal). Taken by her beauty, Ashwood courts Susan with slick panache. Susan informs John that she must return to America with her father in a few days. But Ashwood has other plans and his smooth charm and impeccable timing reluctantly convince Hirum to leave his daughter behind in England while he sails on the next boat.

John takes Susan to his ancestral estate presided over by his mother, Lady Jean Ashwood (Gladys Cooper). There, Susan also meets John's brother, Reginald (John Warburton), Lady Jean's sister, Mrs. Bancroft (Isobel Elsom) and Nannie (Dame May Whitty); the doting - and dotty - housemaid who raised Lady Jean's children. And although cordiality is the order of the day, the family's brittle comments about Susan behaving not at all like an American, coupled with Susan's own homesickness, eventually get the better of her.

Determined to sail on the next available boat, Susan's plans are once again thwarted by John who proposes marriage this time. Unable to deny her heart any longer, Susan sends a telegram to Hirum who sails on the next available voyage for their wedding. Hurt feelings reconciled, Susan and Lady Jean become great friends, but the blissful happiness of their wedding is blunted when war is declared.

John leaves to join his regiment, leaving Susan and Lady Jean with their careworn thoughts. After Reginald is killed, John is granted a furlough in Dieppe where he and Susan spend a glorious week in a quaint French villa overlooking the sea. At the end of their stay, Susan learns that America has decided to enter the war. She returns to England, carrying John's child.

Giving birth to John Ashwood II (Bunny Gordon), Susan proudly hails her son as 'part Yankee' to the Ashwoods and revels in America's involvement in the war. Regrettably, on the eve that Armistice is declared, we learn from Col. Forsythe that John has been killed in action.

From here the story fast tracks to the mid-1930s. John Jr. (now played by Roddy McDowell) is a respectful, introspective and intelligent youth whose compassion for the men and women working his father's land is both heartfelt and sincere. John Jr.'s attentions are mostly focused on the Kenney family whose daughter, Betsy (Elizabeth Taylor) is smitten with him.

Shades of a looming war once again creep onto this idyllic country estate after John invites two German brothers, Dietrich (Norbert Muller) and Gerhardt von Biesterberg (Steven Muller) to lunch. Seated at table with Hirum, Susan and Lady Jean, the brothers gradually begin to reveal their distaste for England and its people. Hirum bates the boys by telling them that he has recently been to Germany and witnessed their meteoric industrialization since the last war. Gerhardt hints that the factories are making implements for another conflict and Dietrich challenges Hirum with an ominous diatribe about what Germany will do 'next time' to ensure they do not remain, as Hirum has suggested, a defeated people.

Lady Jean, who has been in ill health for quite some time, quietly dies in her bed. Later, Hirum wisely suggests to Susan that she save her son from following in his father's footsteps by whisking the boy off to relative safety in America. However, after closing up the estate and giving Nannie her leave, on a train bound for their sailing ship, John informs his mother that his duty is first and foremost to England in her hour of need. Realizing that she cannot dissuade John from his destiny, Susan reluctantly agrees that they shall return to John's ancestral home and face whatever the future holds in store.

The narrative jumps forward once more with John (now played by Peter Lawford) saying his farewells to Betsy (now played by June Lockhart) in a taxi just before he is shipped off to battle. We find Susan, as in the beginning of the film, a nurse with the Red Cross, receiving a litany of wounded soldiers brought in on stretchers from the latest conflict. One of the them is John. As he is carried to his ward, John recalls in flashback the sad destruction of Dieppe for Susan. Fatally stricken, John's final hours are spent with his mother at his side as just outside his hospital window American troops march once more down the avenues of England with Susan hopeful that her fallen son's sacrifice has not been in vain.

The White Cliffs of Dover is a poignant and poetic masterpiece. Dunne, a sadly underrated actress today - but one of the most revered of her time - delivers a superb performance that ranks amongst her finest. She is precocious and inviting as a young woman and convincingly careworn as a matriarch. The usually befuddled Frank Morgan proves tenderly nuanced in his portrayal of a doting father as is Gladys Cooper as Lady Jean. In fact, even Alan Marshal (never considered more than a second string contract player) proves inspired and equal to the task of carrying the first half of the film as Susan's lover/husband.

Cedric Gibbon's impeccable art direction resurrects the elegant refinement of 'merry ol' England' from pre-WWI and then extols its sad decline during two wars with meticulous attention to ever last detail. George J. Folsey's glossy cinematography and Herbert Stothart's original score lend immeasurable support. This is one humdinger of a good show - a film that deserved renewed respect and viewing.

The White Cliffs of Dover is a Warner Archive burn-on-demand release. Like others in this cannon, this transfer has its faults. The gray scale is often nicely balanced, although certain scenes appear to have had contrast levels slightly boosted. Also, certain scenes appear softly focused. Occasionally, the image wobbles, drawing attention to the hanging matte work employed in long shots. There is also a considerable amount of grain in the early scenes, but thankfully minimal edge enhancement and NO chroma bleeding (a flaw in many other Archive releases). As such, the image's only real pitfall is a considerable amount of age related artefacts that have not been cleaned up.

It should be noted that there is a curious absence of picture for a brief few seconds during the transitional sequence where baby John becomes young John riding on horseback through the countryside. The audio - a voice over supplied by Irene Dunne - continues but the image suddenly blacks out - presumably missing a few frames. The audio is fairly well represented. This being an Archive title, there are NO extra features, save a brief theatrical trailer.

Again, while this reviewer applauds Warner Home Video's attempts to make titles such as this one available to consumers, I would equally encourage the studio to take a more proactive stance at doing modest restoration work on these films before releasing them to the Archive. The White Cliffs of Dover is a title in their current canon that most definitely deserves better than it has received!

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

4

VIDEO/AUDIO

3

EXTRAS

1

JOURNEY FOR MARGARET (MGM 1942) Warner Archive Collection

MGM's filmic output during WWII can effectively be classified into two categories: the big budget spectacle and the 'little gem' - the latter, an intimate and timely production made more for prestige than profit. W.S. Van Dyke's Journey for Margaret (1942) is of this latter ilk; an cosy 'slice of life' melodrama. Based on the serialized novel by William Lindsay White, the film follows the exploits of American journalist, John Davis (Robert Young) assigned as a foreign correspondent in London during the blitz. John's editor, Herbert V. Allison (Nigel Bruce) has a keen eye for exploiting John's talents as a writer. Only John's pregnant wife, Nora (Loraine Day) knows just how uninspired her husband is with his current assignment.

John and Nora take a room at a local hotel. With Hitler's bombing raids nightly forcing guests into the hotel's basement for safety, John decides to help the cause by becoming an air warden. While out on one of his nightly patrols, John learns that the hotel where they have been staying has been bombed and that Nora is among those injured in the blast. Rushing to her side at the hospital, John learns from the doctor that not only has Nora miscarried their baby, but her injuries were such that an emergency hysterectomy had to be performed.

John enters Nora's hospital room to discover that his wife's once eternally optimism has been irreversibly shattered. Upon recovering from her physical injuries, John and Nora separate and Nora goes home to America to more fully recuperate from her mental wounds.

Allison's next writing assignment for John involves doing a cover story on an orphanage run by kindly, Trudy Strauss (Fay Bainter). Given his current upsets at home, John is naturally reluctant to commit to the piece until he meets war orphans, Margaret White (Margaret O'Brien) and Peter Humphreys (William Severn). These two incorrigibles delight at wreaking havoc on John's low ebbing temperament but also serve to lighten his mood.

Trudy asks John to take Margaret and Peter to their new foster home. However, upon meeting Mr. and Mrs. Barrie (Halliwell Hobbes and Doris Lloyd) the children are so stricken with anxiety that John realizes what a mistake it would be to leave them in their care - despite the Barrie's overwhelming kindness. Before long, John discovers that he has become emotionally attached to both children himself and writes Nora with suggested plans of adoption.

Nora, however, does not immediately write John back and her reluctance is misperceived as her rejection of the idea. In truth, having suffered a relapse at her mother's estate, Nora has been incapacitated since John's letter arrived. After recovering from her spell, Nora writes John with her buoyant acceptance. John makes haste to adopt Margaret and Peter, only to learn that war rationing restricts him from carrying more than forty pounds of luggage on his flight back to America.

Determined that he should take both Margaret and Peter with him, John attempts to contact other passengers in the hopes that one of them will leave their luggage behind and take one of the children under their care for the flight. Regrettably, none of the passengers acquiesce and John is forced to leave one of the children behind. Unable to make that choice on his own, Trudy administers an intelligence test to both Margaret and Peter that Margaret wins - meaning that Peter must return to the Barrie's. *The scene where John attempts to explain to Peter why he must remain behind is heartbreakingly rendered, ending with Peter refusing to look at John as his car pulls away from the Barrie's home.

However, at the last moment fellow passenger, Mrs. Harris (Heather Thatcher) has a change of heart. She retrieves Peter from the Barrie's and takes him with her to the airport where he and John and Margaret are reunited. Upon arriving in America, Margaret and Peter embrace Nora as their new mother - the promise of a happy family for Mr. and Mrs. Davis at long last fulfilled.

As directed by Van Dyke with his usual screen economy, Journey for Margaret emerges as 82 minutes of tight writing with some superfluous scenes thrown in. Too much is made of John's growing affections for Margaret and Peter at the expense of reducing Nora to a mere cameo in the story. Clearly the film has been designed as a debut vehicle for little Margaret O'Brien - arguably the most promising and successful child star since Shirley Temple. O'Brien cries on cue convincingly enough and exudes genuine harp notes of fear as one of Hitler's bombing raids come close to the orphanage. Yet, in favouring her role so heavily, the screenplay by David Hertz and William Ludwig also transfers that favouritism to John choosing Margaret to accompany him on the plane to America. Hence, when he has to leave Peter with the Barrie's, as the audience we don't really feel as though any great sacrifice on John's part has been made - rather, that as far as John is concerned the right child won the coin toss.

Also, there is something quite criminal about the way Loraine Day's character is expunged from the middle of the story. Save a brief flashback clumsily inserted with a voice over narration provided by Day to explain her disappearance from the story, we barely see Nora after the first 20 minutes. This absence somewhat blunts the emotional impact of Nora's first meeting with Margaret and Peter at the end of the film.

Nevertheless, and as a timely piece of war time propaganda, Journey for Margaret is modestly compelling. Despite its narrative flaws the story holds up remarkably well - thanks to Robert Young's central and mostly charming performance.

Journey For Margaret is a Warner Archive Release. Some age related artefacts are scattered throughout, but most of the B&W image exhibits and impeccably mastered gray scale. Grain is more prevalent during night scenes, but on the whole this is a very stable and visually sound presentation. There is no chroma bleeding (a problem inherent in other WB Archive transfers) and only a minimal amount of edge enhancement for a video presentation that is generally smooth and easy on the eyes. Occasionally, the image becomes more softly focused, but overall there's really nothing to complain about.

The audio is represented at an adequate listening level. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.

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

3

VIDEO/AUDIO

3.5

EXTRAS

1

Sunday, August 22, 2010

SUSAN AND GOD (MGM 1940) Warner Archive Collection

Based on the smashing success of Rachel Crothers' stage play, director George Cukor's Susan and God (1940) is at once an elegant 'women's picture' and a rather glaring example of its star - Joan Crawford's limitations as an actress. For although Crawford acquits herself quite nicely of the superfluous gadabout bitch that is Susan Trexel at the start of the film, she seems utterly unconvincing as the martyred female who has a truly religious experience where her family is concerned.

By 1940, Crawford's star power at MGM had seriously slipped from public favour. Despite some well timed diversions like The Women (1939) and A Woman's Face (1941) Crawford had lost her A-list calling at the studio; a fate similarly suffered by Garbo and Crawford's arch rival - Norma Shearer (whom, incidentally, turned down the lead in this film). Still, for a brief while L.B. Mayer continued to search for top notch entertainment to put Crawford in.

As immortalized on the stage by larger than life Gertrude Lawrence, Susan and God was an intercontinental winner on every level. And although Cukor's pacing for the film retains the stage narrative's poignancy as re-scripted by Anita Loos, the film as a whole comes across as just another garden variety melodrama from its vintage rather than truly outstanding entertainment.

Crawford stars as Susan Trexel; a vapid socialite who has just returned from Europe after embracing the religious teachings of Lady Millicent Wigstaff (Constance Collier). But Susan's affinity for religion is just like all her other hobbies; mere affectation that she perceives with herself at the center of its universe.

Susan arrives at the country home of Irene Burroughs (Rose Hobart) to discover her friends including Hutchins Stubbs (Nigel Bruce) and his newlywed young wife, Leonora (Rita Hayworth) lounging about in elegant repose. Also in company are Irene's lover, Michael O'Hara (Bruce Cabot), Charlotte (Ruth Hussey) and struggling actor, Clyde Rochester (John Carroll). Leonora and Clyde are rehearsing for his new play, she having given up the stage to marry the much older Hutchins whom she really does not love.

Moments before Susan's arrival, this band of friends waxes rather condescendingly about Susan's lack of commitment to her own marriage. In fact, Susan's husband, Barrie (Fredric March) has been reduced to becoming an alcoholic to cope with his wife's absences, while their child, Blossom (Rita Quigley) is an intelligent, though utterly shy and introverted girl in desperate need of a mother's love and care.

Upon sobering up, Barrie takes Blossom to Irene's in search of his wife. He is lied to by Clyde while the others lay in wait for his departure. Eventually, Susan shares her newfound religious philosophies with her friends who find them quaintly charming at best. Nevertheless, Susan waste no time in sticking her opinions where they do not belong. She encourages Irene to dump Michael and prompts Leonora leave Hutchins to resume her career on Broadway. In essence, Susan is a destructive force to all who know her.

For his part, Barrie truly loves Susan. More importantly, he genuinely cares about what happens to their daughter. In a last ditch effort to save his marriage, Barrie pleads with Susan to give him one more chance. In exchange he will give up drinking for good. Certain that Barrie will not be able to keep this promise, Susan agrees to the terms, unaware that Charlotte has already fallen in love with her husband.

When Millicent Wigstaff arrives in town, she stirs Susan's religious fervour to new heights. Susan takes an interest in Blossom that is fuelled more by her own need to generate a Svengali-like conversion of Blossom from ugly duckling to elegant swan in order to win the affections of handsome Bob Kent (Richard Crane). Blossom's transformation does indeed earn Bob's respect and as a result, Blossom declares that her mother will host a costume-themed birthday party for Bob and all her friends in two weeks.

Unfortunately, Susan is more intent on going to Newport to be a part of Wigstaff's latest revival. Leaving Blossom on the eve of her party, Susan incurs Barrie's wrath. Driven to drink once again, Barrie arrives at Charlotte's home intoxicated and proposing marriage. Although nothing would give Charlotte greater pleasure than to accept Barrie for her own, she refuses at the last moment. Having at long last discovered the true meaning of religious forgiveness, a chaste and tearful Susan returns home from the train depot to find Barrie waiting for her at home. She confesses to Barrie what a fool she has been and begs God to not let her fall from grace ever again.

Only a star with an ego like Crawford would attempt such a conflicted and dramatic role. Only a studio like MGM at its zenith could film it. And only a director like George Cukor is up to the challenge. That the final outcome falls considerably short of expectations seems to be no one's fault. Crawford is in rare and fine form as Susan, although as already mentioned, her forte is intuitively suited for the shallow socialite that populates a goodly stretch of the film's running time. Fredric March is sympathetically charming. Ironically, his scenes with Rita Quigley dominate the first third of the narrative, reducing Crawford's scene stealing to near cameo status.

Cukor amiably adapts the material with a certain lush flair, but Anita Loos' adaptation blunts much of the dramatic power of the stage original, due, in part to the censorship laws from the period. As such, this Susan comes across as more static than shallow, her interventions into the lives of her friends taking on a faint air of mean-spiritedness. Hence, what ought to have been a character flaw becomes a chronic manipulation instead and our sympathies for Susan never recover. In the final analysis, Susan and God is modestly agreeable entertainment. It did nothing to halt the downturn in Crawford's career at MGM and was only a moderate success at the box office.

Susan and God is a Warner Archive Collection offering and one that regrettably needs more work to make this transfer worth the price of admission. The gray scale can be well balanced, although certain scenes appear to have had contrast levels slightly bumped. There is a considerable amount of grain that registers at digital grit and more than a hint of edge enhancement that breaks apart fine background details throughout. Chroma bleeding is also apparent, particularly in plaids and checker-print costuming. The last third of the film appears to have been sourced from less than original camera elements. Here, the image is quite clumpy and softly focused and there is a considerable loss of fine detail - even in close ups.

The audio is strident with considerable hiss and pop present. This being an Archive title, there are NO extra features, save a brief theatrical trailer.

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

3

VIDEO/AUDIO

2.5

EXTRAS

1

THE VALLEY OF DECISION (MGM 1945) Warner Archive Collection

A cordially engrossing melodrama with its backbone firmly rooted in social issues, Tay Garnett's The Valley of Decision (1945) is a compelling human saga set against the tempestuous backdrop of American enterprise; in this case, the sooty steel mills of Pittsburgh. Based on the sweeping novel by Marcia Davenport, the film stars Greer Garson as Mary Rafferty; a young Irish lass living in the slum shadows of the great mills with her crippled father, Pat (Lionel Barrymore) and widowed sister, Kate Shannon (Geraldine Wall).

Pat is a bitter old man, driven to hatred of William Scott (Donald Crisp); the wealthy mill owner, even though it is revealed early on that the accident that deprived Pat of the use of his legs was just that - an accident - that Scott dutifully continues to compensate him for with wages. Friend of the family, Jim Brennan (Preston Foster) is a stabilizing force for the family, particularly as mediator during the frequent heated disagreements Mary and her father have regarding the Scott family.

Learning of a job as a house maid in the Scott mansion, Mary applies for the position and is readily welcomed with open arms into their home. In fact, Mrs. Clarissa Scott (Gladys Cooper) is a warm-hearted matriarch who appreciates Mary for both her forthrightness and her honesty. The family tree also includes sons, Will Jr. (Dan Duryea), playboy Ted (Marshall Thompson), eldest Paul (Gregory Peck) and impetuous 'man crazy' daughter, Constance (Marsha Hunt). Mary meets everyone in short order, including Paul's girlfriend, Louise Kane (Jessica Tandy, and although she gets off to a firm but rough start with Constance, the two eventually become quite close.

For all their wealth, the Scotts are a respectful family who take Mary to their bosom as a trusted edition. After Mary thwarts what might have been a disastrous midnight rendezvous between Constance and one of her suitors, Mrs. Scott decides that she should accompany the family to Boston for Will Jr.'s wedding. On the boat, Paul - who has admired Mary from afar - makes romantic overtures. Despite Mary's obvious reciprocation of his affections, she denies herself the luxury of falling in love with him.

Upon returning to Pittsburgh, Constance elopes with Giles (John Warburton); an English Lord. Incurring the brief wrath of her father, Constance quickly gains the family's consent. Better still, Mrs. Scott makes Constance a present of Mary's services. Reluctantly, Mary accepts her new post as Constance's lady in waiting. They move to Giles' great castle in England where Paul writes to Mary most every week. Mary does not return Paul's letters, despite Constance's insistence that she should.

In the meantime, a strike looms large over the mills, instigated by Pat's vengeful campaign to spread distrust and bitterness amongst the workers and by Jim's insistence that William Scott recognize their need for a union. Will challenges Paul to marry Kate, whereupon Paul explains to his father that he cannot oblige since he is already in love with someone else. Mrs. Scott explains to her husband the great sacrifice that Mary has made for the sake of propriety and her continuing loyalty to the Scott family and Will, humbled by this revelation, sends for her immediately.

Mary returns to Pittsburgh to find the atmosphere of dissention at the mills growing. Paul's love for her, however, has not changed and after Will and Mrs. Scott give their approval, Mary and Paul become engaged. Their happiness is short lived.

A worker's strike forces Mr. Scott to consider Will Jr.'s proposal that he hire strike busters from Detroit to get the mills back up and running. Mr. Scott reluctantly agrees and tells his son to proceed with the plan. In the meantime, Mary intercedes on the family's behalf, encouraging Mr. Scott and Jim to meet each other half way in their demands. Both men agree to this truce and Mr. Scott sends Ted to the depot with a message to pay off the strike busters and send them back to Detroit. Unfortunately, Ted's drinking gets the better of him and he misses his rendezvous at the train depot. The strike busters arrive at the mill at precisely the moment Mr. Scott and his workers have agreed to recognize the union and go back to work.

Assuming that Mr. Scott has lied to them, Pat insights the workers to riot. In the resulting mayhem and violence, Pat murders Mr. Scott before he and Jim are gunned down by security guards. Mary decides that she and Paul can never be happy and calls off their engagement.

The years pass with painful regret. Mrs. Scott sets Mary up in her own dress maker's shop that she continues to frequent even though her health is in steep decline. Paul marries Louise and the two have a son, Paulie (Scotty Beckett). But the marriage is most unhappy, fuelled by Louise's contempt for the mill and its workers, whom she regards as unworthy rabble beneath her station in life.

After Mrs. Scott suffers a fatal heart attack, Mary learns that she is to inherit her share of the mill with instructions that it be kept intact, despite Will Jr.'s greedy desire to sell his father's legacy for pure profit. Barely a day after their mother's death, Will Jr. convenes a family meeting where he encourages the other's to sell their shares in the mill. Constance at first agrees, for she and Giles have run out of money thanks to her wanton spending. But Mary and Paul implore Constance to reconsider.

Louise tells Paul that if he refuses to sell his shares in the mill she will leave the house and take Paulie with her, whereupon Paul at last declares his undying love for Mary and informs Louise that she is to pack her bags and get out of his life for good. The film ends with Paul escorting Mary by carriage back home, presumably to collect her things so that they can go somewhere and be happy together.

The Valley of Decision is compelling melodrama of the highest order, expertly played with conviction and heart; essential qualities that carry the film to its satisfying conclusion. The screenplay by John Meehan and Sonya Levien does a superb job of condensing Davenport's sprawling narrative without losing the romantic essence of the piece. Garson and Peck are excellent as star-crossed victims of unrequited love. Their scenes crackle with a sexual tension that makes their separation until the final fade out all the more lush and gratifying. Lionel Barrymore is at his caustic best, seething with self-destructive venom and vinegar. Donald Crisp and Gladys Cooper are in fine form as the idyllic wealthy couple whose shared familial love supersedes a desire for more wealth.

The Valley of Decision is a Warner Archive release and like other titles in this motley collection of less than well preserved classics, the resulting image quality falls well below par for what ought to be expected from a major outfit like Warner Home Video. The image is excessively grainy. The B&W image seems quite muddy with weaker than expected contrast levels. The image is rarely crisp and quite often softly focused. Age related artefacts are prevalent throughout and frequently distracting. The audio is equally problematic, crackling with a considerable amount of hiss and pop. Dialogue often seems to have been recorded too low while music cues practically shatter the speakers with a sudden sonic surge. As with other titles in the Archive Collection, the only extra feature is a badly worn theatrical trailer.

While this reviewer applauds the fact that Warner Home Video continues to make rare classic titles like this one available for home viewing, I would also suggest that less is more when it comes to releasing classic titles on DVD. This critic, for one, would rather see fewer titles released through the archive on a monthly basis, but with at least some digital restoration work done to make them more presentable than this!

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

4

VIDEO/AUDIO

2.5

EXTRAS

1

Friday, August 20, 2010

CONQUEST (MGM 1937) Warner Archive Collection

Clarence Brown's production of Conquest (1937) has all the trappings of a star-studded spectacle. Yet, despite some visually resplendent sets supplied by Cedric Gibbons and William Horning, mesmerizingly captured in arresting black and white cinematography by Carl Freund, the film lacks that inimitable creative spark to set the screen ablaze. For the only time in her career, Greta Garbo (top billed) plays second fiddle to her male co-star, Charles Boyer - the two giving performances of depth and quality that quite often captivate and engage the audience.

This is a film of immense production value as only MGM in its heyday was capable of supplying. The sets are enormous and bafflingly beautiful. Regrettably, the action set before them leaves something to be desired. If only the screenplay by S.N. Behrman, Samuel Hoffenstein, Talbot Jennings, Helen Jerome and Salka Viertel was not such a claptrap of vignettes loosely strung together, the film itself might have been genuinely compelling entertainment.

Based on Waclaw Gasiorowski's sprawling novel, Conquest is the story of the Polish Countess Marie Walewska (Garbo). Or is it the story of Napoleon Bonaparte (Charles Boyer)? The narrative never seems to decide, although Boyer's is clearly the more compelling. We first meet Marie on the eve that the estate she shares with her elderly husband, Count Anastas (Henry Stephenson) is all but destroyed by galloping Russian invaders; herein represented as Cossack barbarians. Intent on pillaging the property - and possibly raping its women - their all out terrorization is thwarted by the arrival of the Royal Guard fronted by the Count's adult son from a previous marriage, Paul Lachinski (Leif Erickson).

Paul informs Marie and his father that Napoleon (Boyer) is stationed at a nearby camp as part of a goodwill tour through Poland. Marie, who has heard great things about the man, is determined that she should catch a glimpse of Napoleon after the others have gone to bed. Hiding behind a row of tall pines in the bitter cold, Marie does indeed see Napoleon as he walks the concourse of the military embankment. But she is discovered and forced to identify herself.

Napoleon is captivated by her beauty and moved by Marie's declaration of love for her country. After their brief audience, Marie returns home to find her husband concerned over Poland's future. She learns that while Napoleon is sympathetic to Poland's plight he has been noncommittal in offering any sort of military backing to help crush the Russian threat.

Several days later, the Count and Marie are invited to a grand ball at the Royal Palace in Warsaw by Senator Malachowski (George Zucco). There, Marie is formally introduced to Napoleon who keeps their first meeting a secret but mistakes the Count as Marie's father. Upon learning that Anastas is Marie's husband, Napoleon continues to pursue her romantically, writing letters that profess his undying love.

Although Marie never replies to these brazen overtures, Malachowski wisely assesses that if Poland is to secure Napoleon's defences against the Russians it will require the sacrifice of a good woman to help champion their cause. Anastas is understandably insulted by the suggestion, but Marie accepts her fate almost willingly. She and Anastas divorce and shortly thereafter Napoleon and Marie become lovers.

For the briefest of interludes they are supremely contented in their fiery passion for one another. However, when it is suggested that Napoleon marry Marie Louise, the Archduchess of Austria (Jean Fenwick) for political gain, Marie withdraws from Napoleon's side - never confessing to him that she is pregnant with his child.

From here, the film becomes severely episodic. Marie Louise marries Napoleon and bears him a son. The marriage is not a happy one. We witness Napoleon's first crushing defeat against the Russians done in almost montage with the briefest of scenes played out rather unconvincingly in rapid succession. But then comes the film's final act - teeming with emotional breadth and a palpable air of doomed tragedy, so overwhelming that it stifles the episodic grandeur gone before.

Dethroned, humiliated and exiled by the French to the island of Elba, Napoleon plots his vengeance with his loyal mother, Laetitia (Dame May Whitty) at his side. Daily, he longs for his estranged wife to come and visit him with their son but to no avail. Instead, Marie makes her journey to Elba with Alexandre (Scotty Beckett) and later, confesses to Napoleon that Alexandre is his son. Marie begs that Napoleon not venture a return to his native France but he will have none of it. Regrettably, upon learning that no one knows of Marie's arrival to Elba, Napoleon's thirst for conquest hatches a plot that results in Marie becoming complicit in delivering a declaration of war to the mainland.

The film ignores the fact that Napoleon was successful in regaining control over his armies for a period of one hundred days before his crushing defeat by Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. Instead, the film suggests that Napoleon's journey back to France was met with immediate resistance. The final scene is a bittersweet farewell. Napoleon places Alexandre in charge of looking after his mother. As Marie clutches Alexandre in her arms, a row boat carrying Napoleon to a British tall ship departs off the Port of Rochefort.

In reality, Napoleon was placed under house arrest by the British on the island of Saint Helena, relocated several times, until finally to Longwood House - a considerable estate - where he wrote his memoirs in relative obscurity. Upon his death in May 1821, Napoleon's remains were buried in an unmarked grave in the Valley of the Willows on Saint Helena until 1840 when France's King Louise Phillippe obtained permission from the British to relocate Napoleon's remains to his beloved Paris in a crypt that was not finished until 1861.

Conquest is convoluted entertainment, yet strangely compelling to watch. There is genuine chemistry between Boyer and Garbo and moments of eloquent romantic exchange between the two that seems heartfelt and sincere. Usually one for over dramatization, Garbo's performance seems quite naturalistic herein. Boyer is a superb Napoleon, in both deportment and performance. MGM's glittering art direction salvages the narrative to a point. There's always something incredibly beautiful to look at. But the narrative lacks in so many ways that it is hard to appreciate the enterprise as a whole. Conquest is therefore a film for die hard Garbo lovers only and that's a shame because there are extraordinary moments peppered throughout - just not enough to make this a worthy excursion.

This title is a burn-on-demand offering from The Warner Archive. The film's 70 plus age is working against it. Although the gray scale retains impressive contrast levels and a remarkable amount of fine detail, age related artefacts are prevalent throughout - sometimes severely so and distracting. Edge enhancement is minimal but also present in several scenes. The image is therefore not as smooth as it should be.

Also, the audio is hanging on by a thread - very strident and crackling at times. Music cues seem to have been artificially boosted while dialogue occasionally sounds quite muffled. As with other titles in the WB Archive, a theatrical trailer is the only extra feature. Warner Home Video - a company that used to lead by example where classic film output is concerned - needs to start doing right by their classic films starting with this one! On the whole, this presentation is a disappointment.

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

3

VIDEO/AUDIO

2.5

EXTRAS

1

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

HAMLET: Blu-Ray (Castlerock 1996) Warner Home Video


No one working in movies today can hold a candle to Kenneth Branagh for his eloquent revivals of Shakespeare on film. Blessed with the brilliant showmanship of a Michael Todd and the superb stagecraft and presence of John Gielgud, Branagh reigns supreme as movie-land's arbitrator of chic good taste.
Resurrecting the Bard of Stratford on Avon is not as easy as it looks. Over the decades, many have tried. Few have succeeded. Yet Branagh, for a brief span between 1985 and 1996 consistently proved he had the knack - nee bravado and good sense God gave a thespian - to breathe life into the eternal words of arguably the world's foremost playwright.
Unquestionably, Branagh's premiere contribution to that body of work remains his adaptation of Hamlet (1996). To date, his is the only cinematic version to embrace the bard’s complete masterwork – incorporating all scenes and dialogue from the first folio and second quarto; a gargantuan undertaking that Branagh would later admit became his obsession. Drawing on a wellspring of actors spanning just about every decade - from the classically trained to contemporary pop favorites - Branagh's cast features luminaries from both stage and screen; a potpourri varied, imaginative and impressive. Not that anyone at Castlerock Entertainment – the studio funding the film’s $18 million bottom line – shared in Branagh's verve for this assignment.

On the contrary, and despite the fact that Branagh's previous Shakespearean outings had consistently sent box office registers ringing around the world, executives at Castlerock were weary of Shakespeare and arguably, with good cause. Studio execs hoped against hope to convince Branagh to shoot an ‘abridged version’ that would be released simultaneously with the planned four hour epic; since the latter's lengthy run time all but guaranteed that Hamlet could not play in theatres during peak hours (7pm and 9pm respectively). 
In the end, Branagh won the creative argument but lost the ultimate battle. Castlerock gave in to the full version of Hamlet  but also gave the film a very limited theatrical engagement in select theatres where it garnered unanimous praise from the critics but was rarely seen by the general public. In the end, Hamlet  earned 4 Oscar nominations and won nothing!

Hamlet (Branagh) is the great Dane and rightful heir to the throne of Denmark. However, this paternal promise of succession has been usurped by Hamlet's Uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi) who has married Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude (Julie Christie), thereby becoming the new sovereign liege. But that isn’t what perplexes or haunts the very fibres of Hamlet’s being. Rather, he suspects foul play in the death of his own father – a suspicion made ruthlessly aware when his late father's ghost (Brian Blessed) reveals his poisoning in the garden at Claudius’ hands. How best to avenge a murder most foul? How, indeed?
While Hamlet skulks about Castle Elsinore plotting his revenge, his mother suspects he is suffering from some mental malady – a depression perhaps, capable of pushing him to the brink of insanity. Hamlet’s tender and loyal girlfriend, Ophelia (Kate Winslet) makes valiant attempts to rid her lover of his inner demons. But her own inability to conceive what Hamlet already knows, coupled with Hamlet’s growing paranoia that Ophelia’s father, Polonius (Richard Briers) – the prime minister, and therefore Claudius’ right hand – has corrupted Ophelia's will and is exploiting it to suit Claudius' purpose – sends the heir apparent into an emotional tailspin from which only the greatest of human tragedies seems possible.
Hamlet hatches a plot to test Claudius' will. He hires a vagabond troop fronted by the Player King (Charlton Heston) to enact a play that Hamlet has written; in fact, a thinly disguised version of Hamlet Sr.'s death. Claudius is incensed. He charges Hamlet's two boyhood friends, Rosencrantz (Timothy Spall) and Guildenstern (Reese Dinsdale) to spy on him and report what they learn. Meanwhile, Hamlet and his most trusted friend, Horatio (Nicholas Farrell) plot the necessary manoeuvres to expose Claudius' treachery to Gertrude.
Hamlet spurns Ophelia and later, in Gertrude's bed chamber, accidentally murders Polonius who has been eavesdropping on them from behind a curtain. The death of her father sends Ophelia into the depths of madness from which she will never return, thus forcing her brother, Laertes (Michael Maloney) to seek his revenge on Hamlet through a show of swordsmanship. Claudius arranges for a poisoned cup of wine for Hamlet to drink. However, as fate would have it, the cup is tasted first by Gertrude who swoons. Claudius' backup is to poison the tip of Laertes sword. In the resulting duel, Laertes wounds Hamlet but not before Hamlet fatally wounds Laertes.
Gertrude dies and Laertes confesses with his dying breath that Claudius has been behind the plot. Hamlet avenges his father, murders his Uncle and dies a hero's death; burned on a pyre by Fortinbras (Rufus Sewell) the new heir to Denmark's throne.

In retrospect, Hamlet is so obviously Kenneth Branagh's passion project. The director/star has poured so much of himself into this film. There is a satisfying richness to the excursion - not just in spectacle (although the film most certainly has that) but also in the pacing and translation of this elegant stagecraft that winningly functions within the cinematic space. Of all the various adaptations that have gone before it - and those that have attempted to follow Branagh's cue - only Branagh's version feels most immediately alive. 
Loosely situating the play's action somewhere during the latter half of the 19th century allows for a spectacular update and lavish locations, including Blenheim Palace for the exteriors and gargantuan sets built at Elsestree Studios in London. It also affords Branagh the opportunity to carry off the play’s most celebrated soliloquy ‘…to be or not to be’ in front of a double-sided mirror, presumably making his own exchange in private; all the while being cautiously observed on the other side by the scheming Claudius and obtusely innocent Polonius.

Hamlet is a veritable potpourri of stars, including Judi Dench as Hecuba; Robin Williams - Osric - and Billy Crystal, foppishly coy as the Grave Digger. True enough, Jack Lemmon’s Marcellus and Gerard Depardieu’s Reynaldo are mere flashes of dialogue – as in the play - and master talents like Sewell and John Mills, as Old Norway - are wasted in cameos.

Branagh however, has made a valuable study of the all star spectacles a la the cheek and girth of Michael Todd’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) – while borrowing from the bard’s own quill: ‘the play is the thing.’ What is therefore memorable about this Hamlet – in addition to its stellar role call, is how many big names and even bigger talents appear in brief support to utterly marvellous effect. This is a Hamlet to put all others to shame. Without a doubt, it is the grandest Shakespearean entertainment of a lifetime!

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray modestly bests its superb DVD release from 2005. The Blu-Ray's image tightens up. But Hamlet was originally photographed in 70mm as road show engagement. Colors ought to be so vibrant, rich and fully saturated that they leap from the screen. While the image is bright, it is hardly ideal. Branagh’s piercing blue eyes are blue. Claudius’ bridal attire is blood red. Fine details improve but not to a caliber we might expect. In fact, this transfer has been derived from the identical DVD elements bumped up to 1080p. The piglet pink flesh tones prove it. Close ups reveal minute lines and wrinkles on the actors' faces but the tint is so off the mark it distracts.

The DVD was spread across two discs interrupted at the intermission. The Blu-Ray compresses the lengthy presentation with Intermission onto one disc. The image does not appear to suffer from this compression, but it still would have been nice to have Warner spread the film across 2 discs with a re-scanned true hi-def image. The audio has been remastered to 5.1 DTS with exceptional clarity. Patrick Doyle’s music cues are the real benefactor, but dialogue too seems more robust and subtly nuanced.

Extras include an audio commentary from Branagh and noted Shakespearean historian Russell Jackson that is light, yet thorough. Vintage featurettes with interviews from some of the cast and crew and an anamorphic trailer for the film round out our viewing enjoyment. Hamlet is recommended on Blu-ray. Artistically, it is a spectacle NOT to be missed! The Blu-ray falls short of expectations however.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS
3

Saturday, August 14, 2010

SCARAMOUCHE (MGM 1952) Warner Home Video

Originally published in 1921, Raphael Sabatini's Scaramouche is one of the all time great classic romantic adventure novels. Born from the author's rich creative imagination, the novel ingeniously intertwines fictional characters into the real circumstances that brought about the French Revolution. Upon publication, the Sabatini's masterwork was a runaway success, leading to the publication of another enduring literary classic; Captain Blood the following year.

In Hollywood, Sabatini's lusty prose were rife for translation to the big screen. In fact, Scaramouche had been an overwhelming success as a silent movie starring Ramon Navaro in 1923. Today, however, it's George Sidney's lush and lovely 1952 Technicolor version that endures as an elegant swashbuckler. In retrospect, Scaramouche is the best film Stewart Granger ever made, capped off by one of the most harrowing, if lengthy, duels in cinema history.

In the novel, Andre Moreau is an educated lawyer; embittered, cynical and living with his godfather, M. de Kercadiou who seeks to keep from his young charge the true identity of his parentage. In the film, Moreau (Stewart Granger) is more or less on his own; a rather light-hearted scamp whose long-standing engagement to travelling stage performer, Lenore (Eleanor Parker) is an ongoing joke. Commitment shy to a fault, Moreau skilfully eludes any and all of Lenore's romantic traps. This, of course, leads to considerable friction in their relationship but never to deceptions bearing any ill will or mistrust.

As in the novel, Moreau has an idealist friend, Phillipe de Valmorin (Richard Anderson) who is as pure of spirit and filled with optimism as Moreau is a wily cynic. But their friendship is doomed to tragedy when Philippe challenges, but is defeated in a public duel against the sadistic Noel, Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer).

The Marquis is first cousin to Marie Antoinette (Nina Foch) and currently courting one of the Queen's young balletic protégés, Aline de Gavrillic (Janet Leigh) whom, through a set of misconceptions Moreau comes to believe is his first cousin - thus wounding his romantic affections toward her. De Valmorin's father, Georges (Lewis Stone) keeps a watchful eye on Moreau whom he now regards with the same affection as his late son. But Moreau's burning desire for revenge against Noel will not be quenched.

Several public speeches denouncing the Marquis as well as the French court brand Moreau a traitor to the crown, forcing him into exile. To conceal his identity from Noel and his guardsmen helmed by Chevallier de Chambrillaine (Henry Wilcoxon), Moreau disguises himself as Scaramouche - a travelling performer with the Commedia dell'Arte who is presumably so utterly hideous that he must perpetually wear a mask. Lenore keeps Moreau's secret, hoping that their now close working relationship will end in marriage. However, in his spare time away from performances at the theatre, Moreau attends daily training in the art of swordsmanship - honing his skills for the hour of confrontation against Noel.

The screenplay by Ronald Millar and George Froeschel considerably simplifies the novel's complex third act, instead choosing to focus on the ever-tightening romantic intrigues surrounding Leonore, Aline and Moreau. In fact, the novel's last third - detailing the deluge of the French Revolution is entirely discarded in the film.

Georges fears for Moreau's safety but Moreau is intent on carrying out his well laid plans to avenge Phillipe's murder. Lenore, who has good reason to be jealous of Aline - for she realizes that Aline is in love with Moreau - convinces Aline, who is engaged to Noel, to stay away from Moreau for his own safety. The rouse works and Aline finds excuses why Noel should remain at her side rather than attend Moreau's requests for a public duel. Noel sends his guardsmen in his place for these rendezvous. Time and again, however, Moreau proves that his skill is every bit up to the task of defeating Noel's men.

Exasperated, Noel declares that he will challenge Moreau on his own terms but Aline once more intervenes, begging her suitor to take them to the theatre as he has promised earlier, unaware that Scaramouche is performing there. Regrettably, Aline discovers too late from their box at the theatre that Scaramouche and Moreau are one in the same.

Moreau removes his mask, stopping the performance and openly challenging Noel to a duel to the death. In the resulting clash of swords, Moreau proves a formidable foe, wounding Noel in both shoulders before preparing to finish him off. Georges, who has also attended the theatre that evening stops Moreau from this public execution by revealing to him that Noel is, in fact, his brother. The truth of their parentage revealed, Moreau allows Noel to live, casting his sword to the floor before departing the stage.

Hours later, Lenore quietly confronts Moreau, dissolving their longstanding engagement and thereby freeing him to marry Aline. In the final moments of the film, Aline and Moreau are glimpsed aboard their wedding carriage. Lenore tosses Moreau a bouquet of flowers and Moreau draws them near to smell, only to have a small, though harmless, explosive device powder his face in black soot. Laughing off the insult as ultimately deserving, Moreau bids a fond farewell to Lenore who turns to her new suitor, Napoleon (Aram Katcher) with a flirtatious nod.

Like many other movies similarly set in the French court, Scaramouche benefits immensely from producer Irving Thalberg's massive consignment of sets, props and costumes first acquired for the film Marie Antoinette in 1936. In fact, Scaramouche affords audiences the opportunity to see these costumes and settings in ravishing Technicolor. Originally, Thalberg had planned to shoot Marie Antoinette (1938) in color, but with his untimely death those plans were scrapped.

On display herein, we get luminous glimpses of the former film's throne room, converted into a rehearsal hall for Antoinette's corps de ballet in Scaramouche. The theatre in which Moreau and Noel conduct their blistering final duel is an amalgam of other rooms from Marie Antoinette's palace sets, moderately redressed with towering ferns and flaming red drapes and carpets; the courtiers and courtesans in attendance all wearing costumes from the 1938 film. Keen eyes will also recognize that the black and white spandex costume that Moreau wears during that battle royale was first worn by Gene Kelly for the artist's ball sequence in An American In Paris (1950).

If all - or at least, most - of Scaramouche's trappings come to the film as borrowed hand-me-downs it matters not to the finished film; truly one of the best and brightest adventure yarns to ever be produced by MGM.

Outstanding performances dominate the film. The usually wooden Stewart Granger has never given a more compelling or fluid performance on film. He moves with the agility of a jungle cat through the athletically challenging swordplay - an aesthetic hard won in rehearsals after costar Mel Ferrer accidentally wounded the actor with his sword. As Lenore, Eleanor Parker is a vibrant temptress - a quality that regrettably she never exercised to such ravenous perfection elsewhere in her film career.

Director George Sidney, primarily known for his work on some of MGM’s best loved musicals, delivers a potent, adroit and eye-popping spectacle with few equals. No expense has been spared. Even more impressive, the stunt work during the final duel is done without the aid of doubles and with both Ferrer and Granger clinging desperately to the edges of third story balconies minus the luxury of a safety net. In all, then, Scaramouche is a film of immense execution. It breathes in the magnificence of a bygone era as though it were fine aged wine and expels the giddy excitement of a rollicking adventure story well beyond the footlights of the proscenium. This is one hell of a good show and it deserves our renewed viewing and admiration.

Warner Home Video has given us merely adequate DVD transfer. No attempt has been made clean up age related artefacts. Nevertheless, the steadfastness of the original Technicolor negative continues to deliver richly saturated hues. Black levels are velvety dark. Whites are, on the whole, clean.

Occasionally, shrinkage of the three strip color negative creates disturbing – though temporary – halos within the image. These ought to have been corrected because they are quite distracting. Thankfully, digital anomalies (pixelization, edge enhancement, aliasing and shimmering) are absent from this transfer for a very smooth visual presentation. The audio is mono but nicely balanced. Extras include Mel Ferrer’s brief recollections on the making of the film, an essay on swordplay and Scaramouche's original theatrical trailer. Recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
1

Thursday, August 12, 2010

THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (MGM 1936) Warner Home Video


Ad campaigns of its day prematurely proclaimed The Great Ziegfeld (1936) “the sensation of the century.” Perhaps not, but this mind-boggling pseudo-biographical film is at once both sumptuous and elephantine; a super-production by any measure that quite easily puts most other screen spectacles to shame. Such was the supremacy of MGM in the 1930s, presided over by the near mythological figure of L.B. Mayer and granted peerless production values along with a roster of star talent more comprehensive than virtually all the other studios combined. To say that The Great Ziegfeld had the best of all worlds is putting it mildly.


Ziegfeld's widow, Billie Burke was a contract player at the studio whose diligence and persuasion really launched the concept for this film based on her late husband's Broadway career. Although Mayer was enthusiastic about the prestige such a movie would bring MGM, he was not particularly excited by the amount of money producer Hunt Stromberg eventually ended up spending to make it as fine and as lavish as anything seen before it on the big screen.


And the project itself was not without its drawbacks, chiefly that Billie Burke had final edit over William Anthony McGuire's screenplay that played fast and loose with the specifics of their lives - most noticeably in the many affairs Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) had throughout his life with various chorines. In the final film, Ziegfeld only has one indiscretion and that occurs long before he even meets Billie (Myrna Loy).


As scripted with a lush embellishment slanted toward the man's benevolence, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., the man who ‘glorified the American girl’ begins his career as a not terribly successful carnival barker at the World's Fair. His main attraction is Sandow the Strongman (Nate Pendleton) but audiences are not lining up. All the better for Ziegfeld's rival showman, Jack Billings (Frank Morgan) whose 'Little Egypt' is a writhing belly dancer creating quite a stir on the midway.


Ziegfeld gets an idea, allowing female patrons to squeeze Sandow's biceps, thereby generating audience thrills through titillation. The rouse works until Ziegfeld plans a wrestling match between Sandow and a Lion to illustrate man's supremacy over beasts. One problem, the lion has been drugged and falls asleep in the ring. Ziegfeld is branded a charlatan and looses all the money he's made on Sandow thus far.


Returning to his father's music conservatory, Flo discovers that he has no interest in teaching music. Instead, he travels to Europe where Anna Held (Luise Rainer) is currently the toast of the British stage. Learning that Billings has also crossed the Atlantic in the hopes of signing Anna to an American engagement, Flo intercedes and convinces Anna to sign with him instead, even though he has no money as yet to produce a show around her. Flo further exacerbates Billings' patience when he convinces his valet, Sidney (Ernest Cossart) to quit Billings employ and become his personal groom.


The temperamental Anna at first finds Flo’ an utter nuisance. In one of the most comically satisfying bits in the film, she repeatedly orders Flo from her dressing room with haughty dispatch before recalling him to her side simply because his bouquet of flowers is more to her liking than Billings. Flo engages an English tutor and music instructor to assist in Anna's transformation, but it is his charm that wins her over. Before long, the two are married and Flo - true to his promise - makes Anna a great Americanized star. Regrettably, the king of Broadway, with his world famous follies packing the toast of New York in nightly at his theatre, is also prone to dalliances with his bevy of beauties.


He settles too long on Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce) an impatient social climbing chorus girl who is determined to destroy his marriage. After appearing to great success in his rooftop follies a drunken Audrey makes her affections toward Ziegfeld known to a packed house. True to Audrey's prophecy, their affair leads to Flo’s breakup with Anna, and although Anna believes that their separation will ultimately result in a mutual reconciliation, her heart is broken when Flo’ marries again, only this time to already established stage lovely, Billie Burke (Myrna Loy).


Another of Billings protégées, Burke first meets Flo at a costume ball where he deliberately has rigged a round robin dance to repeatedly pause so that he and Billie may share a few intimate moments together. Well aware of Flo's charm and flair for chorus girls, Burke thwarts his romantic advances, much to Billings delight. But then Flo confesses his undying love for her without his usual faux charm, declaring that he knows Burke can manage without him as she is already a Broadway success in her own right. "...and that's grand," he concludes. The only question remains can he survive without her.


Flo's second marriage to Burke is a success, threatened not by flirtations this time, but by the sinister bad timing of 1929's stock market crash that jeopardizes Flo's ability to maintain Billie and his family in a manner to which they have become accustom. While at the local barber, Flo overhears several men speak loosely about his imminent demise; his days as an impresario numbered. Instead, Flo is rallied to produce four hits on Broadway simultaneously.


The workload, however, wears him out and Flo collapses from the strain. Recuperating under Sidney's watchful eye while Billie is at work on the stage, Flo plots one final follies in his mind - his head filled with an ever rising set of stairs for which his shows have always been justly famous, and, populated by a parade of elegant ladies. Sidney observes as the rose Ziegfeld has been clutching in his hand drops to the floor, signifying that his life has come to a sudden end.


What sets The Great Ziegfeld apart from other soppy melodramas of its vintage are the performances given by William Powell and Myrna Loy. Even if the biographical material in William Anthony McGuire's script is less than sincere, neither performer ever is. By this time in their respective careers, Powell and Loy had been teamed in several films at the studio - most notably in The Thin Man (1933) that would ultimately spawn a lucrative series.


The on screen chemistry between Powell and Loy is genuine - never more so than in this film. When Billie tells Flo that as his wife she will expect half his hardship and all of his respect, we believe Loy implicitly. When Powell as Ziegfeld explains that there is nothing he can offer her but himself his words throb with a sad passion that suggests love without reprisals. In real life, each actor was happily married to somebody else but, like the teaming of Astaire and Rogers, fans of Powell and Loy always suspected that there was a mutual love - even if it was platonic - that transcended their working relationship.


The other impressive aspect of the film is undoubtedly its enormous production numbers; the most lavish; ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody’ built on a gargantuan revolving art deco platform with its sachet of glittering cat girls and dapper tuxedoed men whirling to a great Irving Berlin melody. Clearly with the genius of Busby Berkeley's tenure at Warner Brothers in mind, the kaleidoscopic dance routines staged by Karl Freund, Ray June and George Folsey may not be as geometrically creative, but they certainly sparkle with all the vintage kitsch that a showman like Ziegfeld himself would have been most pleased to experience.

Director Robert Z. Leonard was one of MGM's in house directors and his execution of the material is rather pedestrian - relying on the cinematography to grab the viewer's attention. As such the pacing and editing style lags - especially during the first half of the film. Nevertheless, as produced with every last cent of panache abundantly displayed on the screen The Great Ziegfeld is ambitiously star-studded film making at its best. It’s more an experience than a movie and great good fun to watch.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is a mixed blessing. The film’s lengthy running time is compressed onto one side of a single disc. While compression artefacts in the mastering process have been well concealed, the overall image is inconsistently rendered. The gray scale is nicely balanced, but age related damage is present throughout and one more than one occasion quite distracting.

The audio is mono and presented at an adequate listening level. Hiss and pop is noticeably present during quiescent moments. For the first time, the film’s original overture, intermission and exit music are included. We also get a very brief featurette: Ziegfeld on Film that glosses over the importance of the man and his memory, as well as theatrical trailers for this film and the two subsequent follow-ups MGM made that bear his name; Ziegfeld Girl (1941) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946). Recommended.


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


4


VIDEO/AUDIO


3


EXTRAS


1