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 10, 2010

SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (Selznick International 1944) MGM Home Video


Director John Cromwell’s Since You Went Away (1944) was producer David O. Selznick’s attempt at transforming a simple war time drama into his version of a contemporary Gone With The Wind. Ever since Gone With The Wind, Selznick had viewed subsequent projects as valiant successors to his most profitable movie. In more recent months however, Selznick had also been moved by MGM's Mrs. Miniver (1942) and had hoped to find a uniquely American equivalent to rival that film's popularity and success.

The quest was not so easily waged with 270 synopses gracing Selznick's desk - all of them rejected for one reason or another. Then came 'Since You Went Away - Letters to a Solider from His Wife' - a serialized memoir written by Margaret Buell Wilder for The Ladies Home Journal that eventually became a novel. Selznick immediately gravitated to Wilder's warmth and insight, pronouncing the book a modern day 'Little Women' and purchased the rights for $30,000.

Running just under three-hours – and with enough tear-jerking moments to stock three films - this cry-fest extraordinaire follows Wilder's structure faithfully and was meant by Selznick as sincere tribute to all families who stayed behind while their sons and husbands went off to fight during World War II. Touching on virtually all the aspects of an America in crisis and transition, the screenplay eventually crafted by Selznick undoubtedly proved a showcase for his latest discovery - Jennifer Jones with whom Selznick had begun a rather torrid extra marital affair even though she was then married to co-star Robert Walker.

As in the novel, the film's central protagonist is Mrs. Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert), the dutiful wife and mother of two angelic daughters, Jane Deborah (Jennifer Jones) and Bridget (Shirley Temple – all grown up and not nearly as effective as during her childhood tenure at Fox). The narrative begins in the tearful aftermath of Anne driving her husband Tim to the train station. Jane and Brig' comfort their mother who very quickly realizes that she will not be able to sustain their household on her husband's meagre military salary.

To alleviate her financial woes, Anne finds a new household for their loyal maid, Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel), takes up work for the war effort inside a factory and also rents a room to curmudgeonly retired Colonel William G. Smollett (Monty Woolley) whose stalwart ways generate plenty of friction within the household. In her downtime, Anne is courted by Lieutenant Tony Willet (Joseph Cotten); a close friend of Tim's who has always carried a torch for her - though Anne considers their friendship strictly platonic.

Jane has a terrible school girl crush on her 'Uncle' Tony that is tempered after she contracts the mumps. Meanwhile, Anne's bitchy friend, Mrs. Emily Hawkins (Agnes Moorehead) invites herself into Anne's good graces repeatedly while attempting to spy and gossip on her and Tony whom she wrongfully suspects are having an affair.

The first hour or so of the film, charting the family's day-to-day life and struggles, wears a bit thin on the mind and heart. But then there is the eye – so decorously abused by Selznick’s zeal for lavish sets and staging – that one can almost as easily excuse the obvious plotting for what it is – sluggish melodrama. Architect William Pereira and Production Designer Ray Klune get high marks for their evocative, full size sets depicting the Hilton home and their small town surroundings with a genuine affinity for idyllic Americana - a la Hollywood style.

As for the Hiltons; they take their lumps with pride as is befitting the American spirit. At a serviceman's dance, Anne learns that the son of one of her neighbours has been killed in a plane crash while practising manoeuvres; Selznick's foreshadowing toward a more sinister darkness that will soon follow. Jane is introduced to the Colonel's grandson, Corporal William Smollett II (Robert Walker); a naive and awkward youth who is unremarkable in every way and a source of disappointment in all his mediocrity to the Colonel despite the fact that he has enlisted to do his part in the war effort.

Jane finds William Jr.'s gallantry rewarding, though she has grown up and decidedly away from her boy crazy fancies after becoming a war nurse for the Red Cross. Romance blossoms between Will Jr. and Jane and they are eventually married. Meanwhile, Anne learns that Tim is missing in action and suffers a mental collapse.

At this juncture in the story Selznick wisely inserts an Intermission, presumably to re-evaluate the trajectory of the story for the second half that grows more sombre in tone and mood. We return from this break to learn that Will Jr. has been killed in action; the realization softening the Colonel's gruff exterior and bringing him and Jane closer together as she diligently pursues her work with the Red Cross. These are the scenes at which Jennifer Jones most excels and is arguably best remembered for from the film.

Behind the scenes Selznick, who had championed Jones in the part, quickly realized what a mistake he had made for she was hardly happy on the set. Feeling as though her career had taken a quantum leap backward after her overwhelming success in The Song of Bernadette (1943), Jones was an emotional wreck throughout most of the shoot. Frequently, director Cromwell found he had to tenderly guide Jones out of a depression to get a performance from her. The shoot was also exacerbated by a bout of flu that flattened Jones, Colbert, Temple and McDaniel - causing production delays.

In the interim of his cast recovering, Selznick wrote an inspired declaration about the American perspective on life and liberty, coaxing retired film great Alla Nazimova to perform the cameo as immigrant Zofia Koslowska inside a lunch counter built on the Selznick back lot. As workers exit a factory from their shift, Zofia tells Anne what America means to those inspired by its promises of freedom from afar, receipting the inscription from the Statue of Liberty with such overwhelming and angelic pride that she easily steals the moment and makes it her own. The silent humility expressed by Anne as she listens to Zofia's words is an image not forgotten long after the rest of the film's perfunctory melodrama has come to an end.

As for the rest of the plot: Anne finally realizes what a destructive influence Emily is and discards their 'friendship'; turning her focus inward to support and quell Jane's overwhelming sadness at losing her husband. On Christmas Eve the family modestly rejoices with a quiet house party attended by Tony, Fidelia and the Colonel at the end of which Anne learns that Tim has been found safe and will be returning home shortly. Anne's ecstatic cries to Jane and Brig are concluded by the film's epitaph that reads "Be of Good Courage and He Shall Strengthen Your Heart. All Ye that Hope in the Lord."

Viewed today, Since You Went Away retains much of its homespun lustre and timely appeal - its script histrionics forgiven by superb performances that render most of Selznick's flair for flowery dialogue more naturalistic than it actually is. Colbert in particular is a major strength to the production, as is Cotten, never more winningly devil-may-care or genuine than here. Pictorially too, the film is on solid ground thanks to the stunningly evocative cinematography of Lee Garmes, Stanley Cortez, George Barnes and Robert Bruce; each bringing their own unique sense of dramatic style to the assignment. The last bit of kudos belongs to Max Steiner whose brilliant score is a poignant and melodic counterbalance to the story and whose central theme is arguably as memorable as his Tara's Theme from Gone With The Wind.

Despite, or perhaps because of its narrative shortcomings, Since You Went Away was a resounding box office success when it was released, grossing over $4,918,412. For the most part, the film succeeds in bringing promise, hope and a sense of American pride to the forefront of this oft idealized, occasionally maudlin melodrama; only briefly suffering from too much treacle and conventionality to be completely enjoyed.

Critical reception was largely negative, particularly over what some critics deemed a 'glossy' treatment of a very frank subject. Nevertheless, Since You Went Away was nominated for a truck-load of Oscars. Regrettably, the tide had begun to turn against Selznick films by this time. Since You Went Away took only one statuette for Max Steiner’s moody and hauntingly beautiful score. In the years that followed, Selznick would discover more indifference not only from the critics but audiences toward his product.

MGM Home Video bows Since You Went Away on DVD in a rather impressive transfer. For the first time we get to hear the film’s overture and exit music (absent from previously released laserdisc and VHS editions) but the Overture has no extra chapter stop so if you want to view the film's opening credits you have to listen to this music first.

The B&W elements are in fairly decent shape and exhibit a nicely balanced gray scale with smooth, solid blacks and very clean whites. Age related artefacts are present throughout but most do not distract. Some minor edge enhancement crops up but pixelization is kept to a bare minimum - no small feat given the lengthy running time and DVD's limited compression bit rate. Overall the picture will surely not disappoint, though at times it can suffer from a softness. The audio is mono but more than adequate for this presentation. Regrettably, for a film of such historical importance, there are no extra features on this disc. Nevertheless, recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
0

Monday, August 9, 2010

ROAD TO PERDITION: Blu-Ray (Dreamworks/20th Century Fox 2002) Paramount Home Video

For his follow up to American Beauty (1999), director Sam Mendes delves into the pages of Max Allen Collin's pulp graphic novel, Road to Perdition (2002); a dark, brooding and melodramatic exploration of Depression era America. The screenplay by David Self retains Collin's sparse use of dialogue while Conrad Hall's evocatively cinematography, in retrospect, seems the very essence of vintage chic - both contemporary yet eternally classic.

Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a skilled hit man for Irish mob boss, John Rooney (Paul Newman). On the surface, Rooney is a grand old man of philanthropy and good will. Michael's sons, Mike Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Aiken) adore him as the grandfather they never had. In truth, Michael was an orphan found by Rooney and nurtured like his second son to the point where he decided to join Rooney's men in enforcing John's law about the small town they reside in. Michael owes his entire existence to Rooney and cannot conceive of a time when his good fortune or loyalty to this man will end. Rooney's real son, Connor (Daniel Craig) is, by comparison, an utter disappointment: an unstable and murderous thug who delights in killing.

The story is told through Mike Jr.'s eyes after he accidentally witnesses Connor kill one of the thorns in Rooney side; Finn McGovern (Ciaran Hinds). Before Finn's execution, he eludes to the fact that it is Connor and not his late brother who has been skimming off the top of Rooney's money pile reserved for Al Capone. Michael swears his son to secrecy, but the next day the boy is mildly belligerent toward Rooney who decides then and there that he cannot be allowed to live. Sending Michael on a wild goose chase with presumably a message of collections for Calvino (David Spinuzza), the proprietor of a disreputable flop house, Michael quickly deduces that something is terribly wrong when he spies a loaded pistol loosely hiding just beneath some rumpled papers on Calvino's desk.

In the ensuing showdown, Calvino is killed and Michael reads the note intended for him declaring that if he, Calvino, kills Michael his debts to Rooney will be wiped clean. Realizing that Rooney intends to wipe out his entire family, Michael rushes home but is too late. His wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Peter have been assassinated in their upstairs bathroom with Mike Jr. having survived to tell his father that it was Connor who committed the murders.

Michael and his son flee to Chicago where he hopes to implore crime kingpin Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) to provide him with protection in exchange for his services as Nitti's new hit man. Frank is sympathetic to Michael's plea, at least to his face, but refuses the offer - instead, alerting Rooney and his men to Michael's plan and his location. In response, Rooney hires Harlen Maguire (Jude Law) to find Michael and his son and kill them. Maguire is a psychopath whose kinky fetish it is to photograph his victims for posterity.

Realizing that the only way to be free of Rooney once in for all is to have a bargaining chip worthy of keeping him alive, Michael trains his son how to drive a getaway car and together they begin to rob banks all over the Chicago area, stealing only the illegal stash the mob bosses have been collecting for Al Capone. Maguire sets a trap for Michael, using Rooney's accountant Alexander Rance (Dylan Baker) as bate. The rouse works in luring Michael to Rance's hotel room, but in the hailstorm of bullets that follows Rance is killed and Maguire's face horribly scarred by projectile glass from a shattering vase. Michael narrowly escapes the carnage but is wounded in the arm.

Frightened, Mike Jr. drives his father to a remote farmhouse where an elderly couple agree to look after them until the wound has healed. As a gesture of goodwill for their kindness, Michael leaves much of the money from the robberies behind for the couple to spend as they wish.

Michael now turns his attentions to Rooney, whom he confronts in church with the knowledge that Connor has been stealing from him all along. Rooney tells Michael that he has known this and Michael suddenly realizes that this vendetta will never end until Rooney, Connor and all his hit men are dead. That night, Michael leaves his son in their hotel room and stakes out Rooney and his bodyguards on a lonely street. Destroying Rooney's entourage with a submachine gun, Michael confronts Rooney for the last time. "I'm glad it's you," Rooney tells Michael before being gunned down in cold blood. Michael's final act of vengeance is reserved for Connor, whom he shoots - appropriately enough - while he is taking a bath, thus completing the circle of revenge begun with the murder of his own wife and child.

From here, Michael decides to take his son to the Lake Michigan seaside retreat of his wife's sister, Sarah (Diane Dorsey) where he has envisioned at long last they will be able to start anew. Alas, that dream is not to be as Maguire has already arrived at the home, murdered Sarah and is waiting to do the same to Michael and his son. Maguire succeeds in his assassination of Michael, but not before Michael manages to execute him with a single gunshot to the head. With nowhere to go, Mike Jr. takes Aunt Sarah's dog back to the farmhouse of the elderly couple who, in the film's epilogue, we are told reared him as their own into adulthood.

Road To Perdition is sobering entertainment, it's powerful message of a flawed father/son relationship poignantly realized in David Self's screenplay. Like Mendes' American Beauty, this film scours the archives of familial disarray in a vane search for redemption and understanding with Thomas Newman's score perfectly capturing that disjuncture between a child's blind faith in his parents and the staid reality when he suddenly realizes neither possess all the answers. Despite its moments of shocking, occasionally grotesque violence, the narrative's heart is remarkably subdued and focused on that emotional bond between father and son that remains intact to the bittersweet end.

Paramount Home Video assumes control of another Dreamworks release - this one originally co-produced by Dreamworks and 20th Century-Fox and originally released to DVD via Universal Home Video. While improving on the video and audio presentation of that previous release, Paramount's new Blu-ray is unremarkable in just about every category.

The image is not nearly as stark or razor sharp as one might expect and fine details are not as particularly punchy as anticipated. To be certain, the characteristics of Conrad Hall's cinematography are subtle and softly focused, but the image itself seems to lack in a richer color fidelity. The stylized flesh tones herein are not pronounced but merely present and accounted for. Details that ought to be apparent in close up, for example in hair and costume fabric, are just not there. A fair amount of film grain is present throughout the transfer - as it should be - and nicely reproduced herein. Again, for most who have only seen one or two films on Blu-Ray this presentation will not disappoint, though it does tend to fall considerably short of the high bar set by other Blu-Ray releases.

The audio is lossless DTS and starkly aggressive - particularly during gunfights when one's surround channels really get their workout. Paramount has imported all of the extra features that were included on the previously issued DVD, as well as two new reflections on the making of the film - one a tribute to Conrad Hall. There's also a new introduction by Sam Mendes and the original audio commentary to delve into - also from Mendes - and the film's theatrical trailer. Recommended.

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

4

VIDEO/AUDIO

3.5

EXTRAS

4

Sunday, August 8, 2010

THE RED SHOES: Blu-Ray (J. Arthur Rank/Archers 1948) Criterion Home Video

For many, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948) remains the high water mark in British cinema. Certainly, it is the film these two gifted impresarios are most readily identified with; an intimate, yet sprawling backstage drama set inside the remote and cloistered world of ballet. By 1948, Powell and Pressburger's 'Archers' production unit had elevated post war British film making to a standard on par, and even occasionally surpassing the efforts put forth by Hollywood's dream factories; thanks to a string of high profile films capped off by Black Narcissus the year before.

Under their distribution deal with J. Arthur Rank, Powell and Pressburger were given unprecedented autonomy to pursue projects that suited their artistic temperaments and tastes. That quest led directly to The Red Shoes - a project begun in earnest by Alexander Korda back in 1933 that was to have been loosely based on the life of Nijinsky. As originally conceived by Korda, his wife Merle Oberon would star and a double would perform for her during the ballet sequences. However, even with all his tyrannical clout and enthusiasm, Korda was unsuccessful at generating enough interest to launch this project. It would languish interminably until the end of WWII.

By then Korda was out and Powell and Pressburger were in. The concept was resurrected and changes were made. The first major difference was that Powell jettisoned Korda's biographical approach to the material in favour of crafting an original story based loosely on Hans Christian Anderson's fable of The Red Shoes. The second stroke of genius was in Powell's determination to cast real ballet dancers in the leads who would perform their own dances as well as act.

For clout and for press, Powell chose real life Russian ballet master Leonide Massine to play the ballet master of the fictional Lermontov company. One would never imagine from the brilliant performance rendered in the film that Massine had never acted in movies before. In the minor part of prima ballerina, Boronskaja, Powell cast retired legend Ludmilla Tcherina. Finally, for his doomed ingénue, Powell chose Moira Shearer - a promising young ballerina who was receptively cool to the idea of devoting herself to any film project. Quite content to remain in the theatre, initially, Shearer rejected Powell outright. It would take four more visits from the producer before she agreed to his demands.

Casting was rounded out by one popular and one curious choice: Marius Goring - an acting favourite of Powell and Pressburger - as aspiring composer, Julian Craster and Anton Walbrook as the haunted and manipulative ballet impresario, Boris Lermontov; a character loosely based on Ballets Russes' Sergei Diaghilev and, by Powell's own admission, Alexander Korda. Walbrook's real life closeted homosexuality probably added to the wicked undercurrent of destructive possessiveness his character exhibits toward Shearer's Victoria Page.

In the meantime, Powell made another well timed decision in hiring Jack Cardiff to lens his movie. Cardiff was an unpretentious artiste in his own right, a brilliant cinematographer who intuitively understood the secrets of painting with color and light. However, the project did not immediately grip his fancy. After sheepishly admitting to Powell that he had never seen a ballet in his life, Cardiff was instructed by Powell to gain season tickets and attend every performance as part of his education in preparation for the film. Cardiff reluctantly obliged but quickly learned to appreciate ballet as an art. His personal affinity for the subject matter is inherent in every last frame of film. Under Cardiff's guidance, The Red Shoes is not only a work of dramatic intensity but of artistic integrity as well.

The plot begins in earnest with Craster and fellow music students cramming into the free balcony seats to witness the Lermontov company's latest endeavour. But Craster is outraged when portions of his own composition that he showed to the company's conductor earlier, turn up unaccredited in the premiere. Outraged, Craster storms out of the music hall.

Meanwhile, after refusing to stay and watch an impromptu performance at a party given by Victoria's aunt, Lady Neston (Irene Browne), Lermontov further compounds his insult by flirting with Victoria at the buffet set up in the next room, declaring that he has been spared "a horror" to which Victoria politely reveals that she is, in fact, 'that horror.' As an apology is out of the question (for Lermontov considers himself a supreme being removed from mere mortals) he instead decides to quietly sneak into one of Victoria's public performances the next afternoon where he is quite impressed by her talents.

Signing Victoria to his company, Lermontov sets about crafting his next great artistic achievement; the ballet of The Red Shoes. For the next 20 minutes of pure exaltation, the ballet unfolds on the screen as the heart and soul of the film - an expression of the artist as absolute that also foreshadows the film's tragic last act. In the ballet, Victoria's overwhelming passion to dance leads her to a Shoemaker's shop where a diabolical craftsman (played by Massine) bequeaths her the gift of 'the red shoes' - a pair of blood red toe shoes that once worn will not come off until their owner has danced herself to death. The ballet - a colourful exploit of overwhelming and, at times, bizarre and perverse imagery - thoroughly captivates the audience and makes Victoria Page ballet's latest star.

Joining the orchestra is Craster whom Lermontov rightfully assesses early on to be a great artist. Craster and Victoria are introduced by Lermontov prior to the ballet but regard one another with generalized contempt. Sparks fly afterward however, and the two enjoy a love affair that is interrupted frequently by Craster's impatience and love of composition that directly conflicts with Victoria's passion for dance. Sensing that Victoria may abandon her career for the happiness that marriage to Craster would provide, Lermontov fires Craster, then threatens to excommunicate Victoria from the ballet as he has previously done with prima ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina who chose romance over art as her muse.

Craster and Victoria continue to see one another in private as she rehearses for a revival of The Red Shoes ballet. Eventually, Ljubov discovers their romantic treachery and makes it known to Lermontov who brings Craster to task and threatens Victoria with the implosion of her career. Unable to chose once and for all between love and art, Victoria commits suicide as her heroine from The Red Shoes had done and moments before she is set to take the stage in the revival ballet. The film ends with Ljubov as the mad shoemaker dancing a silent tribute to Victoria while clutching the red toe shoes in his hands.

To say that initial reaction by J. Arthur Rank and associates to their private screening of the film was less than optimistic is an understatement. As the screen faded to black, executives marched from the projection room, bypassing Powell and Pressburger on the way out without a single word of praise. Indeed, so little was their faith in the film that in England The Red Shoes general release was not even accompanied by a press and promotion campaign or even poster art for that matter.

However, in America the critical reaction was overwhelmingly positive. It is rumoured that Gene Kelly and Vincente Minnelli screened the film no less than 15 times before embarking on their plans for An American in Paris. Better still, audience reception in the U.S. was wildly enthusiastic, proving the merit of Powell and Pressburger's exercise by making The Red Shoes Britain's most successful movie of all time until then. In retrospect, The Red Shoes was a colossal - if unlikely - success, and although it did not inspire or spawn other like-minded films about the world of ballet it remains arguably the most intelligently scripted excursion into that private realm of artistic sacrifice.

By the time of its 2009 restoration, time had been most destructive to the original camera elements. The film suffered from a barrage of age related artefacts, compounded by severe color fading and mis-registration, and, was plagued by an infestation of mould that had begun to eat away at its three strip emulsion. In resurrecting The Red Shoes for this Blu-Ray release, the Film Foundation set about a two year project to digitally restore and realign all three records from the original nitrate Technicolor dye transfers. The results are, in a word, breathtaking.

The image on Criterion's Blu-Ray release is vivid beyond all expectation, with superbly rendered contrast levels and the removal of virtually all but a handful of brief age related anomalies. With remarkable clarity, The Red Shoes dazzles as never before. In close up the image is so razor sharp that actor's makeup applications can be detected. Jack Cardiff's lush Technicolor glows from the screen in richly saturated hues of flaming oranges and reds, stark cobalt blues and steely grays, vibrant purples and gleaming yellows.

Fine detail is so crisp that fabrics in costuming can be seen for the first time. On the briefest of occasions the image seems slightly softer, but this is a minor quibbling on an otherwise perfect mastering effort. The audio is mono as originally recorded, but represented with renewed splendour thanks to an ambitious clean up of hiss and pop, allowing Brian Easedale's score to captivate as it should.

Extras are plentiful, including a profile featurette on the film featuring interviews with Cardiff and Martin Scorsese (a passionate proponent of this film), as well as an informative audio commentary recorded some time before with interview reflections supplied by Moira Shearer and Cardiff.

There's also a featurette on Cardiff's exceptional camera work and a brief interview with Thelma Schooner Powell - the widow of Michael Powell and a justly famous editor in her own right. The interviewer, nameless, asks some of the most inarticulate questions and ramblings to which Schooner graciously offers sound reflections on her late husband's work, her own, the film and working with Martin Scorsese.

Finally, Jeremy Irons narrates The Red Shoes in an archival reading that was part of Criterion's initial DVD release of this film back in 1998. Bottom line: The Red Shoes is an exceptional classic of enduring and timeless merit. This Blu-Ray is a must have/must own blind purchase! Get it today!

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

4.5

VIDEO/AUDIO

4.5

EXTRAS

3.5