Saturday, August 20, 2011

THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (MGM 1939) Warner Archive Collection


Mark Twain's much beloved adventure tales have been film fodder for practically as long as film itself has been around. There is a vivacious quality to Twain’s writing that translates well to movies with frank honesty and a sense of the times he lived in without becoming bound to them. His work remains a timeless slice of Americana. That MGM sought to do justice to one of his most beloved fictional characters - Huckleberry Finn - was in keeping with the studio's commitment to literary classics. That Mickey Rooney should be the very embodiment of this wily urchin was perhaps not so clear at the time of the film's release. However, there's no denying Rooney his greatness in the role. He is Huck Finn.
Hence director Richard Thorpe's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939) remains the benchmark by which all other versions of the story have long since been judged and fallen short. The screenplay by Hugo Butler and Walter Salt manages the minor coup of condensing Twain's beloved literary masterpiece into a workable 96 minutes that captures all the flavor of the original story. And Rooney is remarkably un-Rooney-esque in the film; setting aside his usual hammy improvisation to deliver a thoroughly heartfelt and sympathetic portrait of Twain’s beloved minor reprobate.
Huckleberry Finn (Rooney) is first seen lazily wasting his time by the Mississippi water's edge. He has been delinquent from school and will not be allowed to graduate with his classmates. His benefactors, the widow Douglas (Elisabeth Risdon) and Miss Watson (Clara Blandick) do not know this yet. Douglas is particularly kind to Huck. She sees the good in him despite his father (Victor Kilian); a drunken reprobate who is certain his son will come to no good.
Huck is particularly close to the dowager's man servant, Jim (Rex Ingram); a slave who has dreams of raising enough money to buy his bond to return to his wife and child who are up north and living free. In the middle of the night, Pap Finn kidnaps Huck to his secluded cabin near the river. Huck escapes and Pap is later murdered. Jim, who has chosen to run away without paying his bond is suspected of the crime but Huck knows better.
Together he and Jim trudge up the Mississippi where they run into a pair of con artists, The King (Walter Connelly) and The Duke (William Frawley). They convince Huck to help them swindle a pair of unsuspecting young women, Mary Jane (Lynn Carver) and Susan (Jo Ann Sawyers) out of their life's inheritance. Captain Brandy (Minor Watson) encourages prudence but is ignored by the girls who give all their money to the con artists.
After learning the truth Huck steals the money back for them and The King and The Duke are tarred and feathered by the locals before being forcibly carried out of town. The law catches up to Jim however and Huck, who has been injured and is convalescing has Captain Brandy help him across the state lines by riverboat after it is proven he did not kill Pap Finn. Jim goes home to his wife and child and the widow Douglas makes Huck promise to stop smoking, start wearing shoes and go back to school. Huck agrees, but we see a pipe sticking out of his back pocket just before the screen fades to black.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is poetic storytelling in all sorts of unexpected ways. Franz Waxman's score is simple and understated as is John Seitz' cinematography. In an era of affectation, MGM creates an iconic rural landscape that truly feels like the land of Mark Twain. It's homey when it needs to be and stark as it should be. Mickey Rooney delves deeply into his character. His performance is flawless. So is Rex Ingram's Jim. The rest of the cast are equally understated and effective. It's no wonder this film has sustained its appeal throughout the years as the definitive retelling of Twain's classic tale.
Regrettably, no one at Warner Home Video thinks as much. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a Warner Archive release and so utterly flawed by aliasing and edge enhancement that the image is altogether unwatchable. The gray scale is softly focused for a rather blurry presentation throughout. Chroma bleeding is also in evidence. Truly, there's nothing to recommend this transfer and such a colossal shame too. This film deserves so much better. The audio is mono but represented at an adequate listening level. Like most titles in the archive this one comes with NO extras. Not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5
VIDEO/AUDIO
0
EXTRAS
0

THE STUDENT PRINCE (MGM 1954) Warner Archive Collection



Chief audience interest in Richard Thorpe/Curtis Bernhardt's The Student Prince (1954) lay in singing sensation Mario Lanza (who wasn't in it). Lanza had pre-recorded all of the memorable Sigmund Romberg/Dorothy Donnelly score before a contractual dispute effectively terminated his association with MGM. Although the tenor's screen persona could be amiable and engaging, behind closed doors he proved something of a prima donna. In MGM's heyday the powers that be might have tolerated such outbursts and worked them into the production schedule. But this was the cost-cutting 1950s under the auspices of Dore Schary and no such nonsense would be tolerated. In the wake of Lanza's exit MGM cast Edmund Purdon, an attractive leading man with definite screen appeal to lip sync the vocals. And it is saying much of Purdon's prowess and charisma that despite their differences in girth one can almost accept Lanza's supreme voice emanating from Purdon's diminutive body.
Like Rose Marie, The Student Prince is a stage bound operetta from another time. Unlike Rose Marie, however, The Student Prince has held up remarkably well, even under the breathtaking vistas of Cinemascope and AnscoColor. Kudos for the film's success chiefly go to director Richard Thorpe, hired to replace Curtis Bernhardt and doing a fine job of it too, taking the schmaltz out of the beer garden badinage. The screenplay from Sonya Levien and William Ludwig retains the very best elements from the stage show. Director Thorpe, together with producer Joe Pasternak deliver a wholly cinematic experience, incorporating just about every European back lot set and prop that MGM's illustrious art department had on tap for decades.
The story concerns Prince Karl Franz, a martinet schooled by the military who lacks a romantic streak or even diplomacy towards others for that matter. His father, King Ferdinand of Karlsberg (Louis Calhern) has betrothed the Prince to Princess Johanna (Betta St. John) from a neighbouring kingdom with a lot more money. Although Johanna's mother, Queen Mathilda (Evelyn Varden) approves of the marriage, the Princess sees through Karl quite clearly. Theirs is to be a marriage of state rather than love. To improve the boy's prospects with the Princess the King decides to send Karl along with his tutor, Professor Jutner (Edmund Gwenn) and valet, Lutz (John Williams) on a little holiday to Heidelberg where it is hoped the Prince will acquire a more lax attitude toward friendship, love and life by mingling with the commoners.
Masquerading as just another student, Karl soon meets barmaid Kathie Ruder (Ann Blyth). Kathie's uncle, Joseph (S.Z. Sakall) is the owner of the bar and inn that Karl is staying at. And although both know that Karl is really a prince his identity is kept a secret from his fellow students. Karl pledges to the lower class fraternity and comes in conflict with the upper class men's captain, Count Von Asterburg (John Ericson). The men duel and Karl wounds the Count but gains his respect.
Karl attempts a romance with Kathie. She flees her uncle's inn but he pursues her and eventually wins her heart. In love for the very first time Karl vows to run away with Kathie after the artist's ball. Regrettably, Prime Minister Von Mark (John Hoyt) arrives with news that the King is dying. Karl must return immediately to the capital. After the King's death Karl prepares for his marriage. But his heart is drawn to Heidelberg. He orders his royal train to make an unscheduled stop and briefly reunites with Kathie. They renew their love and vow that it will endure even as they are bound by duty and go their separate ways.
Professor Jutner, who has made the journey with Karl, encourages him to remember the 'glorious times' they've share and Karl reluctantly rides away from Heidelberg into an uncertain future as the new monarch of the realm. This unrequited love and bittersweet ending of The Student Prince make it palpably relevant under today's scrutiny. Edmund Purdon may not have Mario Lanza's voice, but his lip sync is convincing enough and his acting ability more than to sustain the role. He and Ann Blyth have genuine chemistry. The supporting cast is top drawer. S.Z. Sakall is one of the true gems in this production. He and John Williams have great good fun verbally sparing.
Randall Duell's art direction is superb down to the last detail. The company may not have left Culver City to shoot this film but the sets resurrect that quaintly European flavor so essential to sustain the production - shot mostly indoors on sound stages. Helen Rose and Walter Plunkett's costumes are also gorgeous. And last but certainly not least is the score. With such immortal songs as 'Drink Drink Drink', 'Serenade', 'Golden Days', 'I'll Walk With God' and 'Beloved' The Student Prince is a cornucopia of treasured musical memories ably assisted by the melodic voices of Mario Lanza and Ann Blyth - doing her own singing, thank you very much! I'm not a big fan of screen operetta but must admit that this one tugged at my heart and sustained my attentions. Fondly remembered for many years to come and sincerely recommended to you and yours for a joyous MGM musical experience. The Student Prince is a keeper!
Regrettably, The Student Prince is also a Warner Archive release. Although advertised as 'remastered' the film suffers from all the shortcomings of Cinemascope and AnscoColor. Transitions between scenes are grainy. A few reels are already suffering from severe vinegar syndrome, resulting in a ruddy palette of orangey brown. Age related artifacts have not been cleaned up but on the whole do not distract – although they are particularly thick during the main title sequence. The audio is stereo surround. Given that the film was Lanza's last important screen effort it would have been gracious of Warner to produce a new 5.1 audio mix. The only extra is the film's theatrical trailer. I really do wish Warner had taken the time to give this movie a restored and properly minted DVD release. It deserves one. Otherwise, The Student Prince comes highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
3
EXTRAS
0

ROSE MARIE (MGM 1954) Warner Archive Collection


Screen operettas were big business in the 1930s. Despite having already acquired a reputation as being maudlin and trite by the time Hollywood got their hands on these stage properties, the resulting films from that decade sparkled with good music and indelible voices. Not so much the case when MGM tried to resurrect the genre mid-decade during the ultra-conservative 1950s. While some fared better than others, for the most part one had to concede that the postwar era of AnscoColor and Cinemascope was an ill fit for the more intimate ruminations of star-crossed lovers that usually populated such drivel.
Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald had prevailed victorious in Rose Marie (1936), a 1924 chestnut with songs by Rudolf Friml and Herbert Stothart that ripened as blossoms on the bow into a memorable screen entertainment. But the remake co-starring Howard Keel and Ann Blyth can only be considered 'moving' if one counts the amount of bathroom breaks necessary to wade through its heavy treacle.
MGM billed the remake as 'the first great musical in Cinemascope' - a grotesque overstatement that in no way compensates for the utter claptrap unraveling after Leo's roar. Ronald Millar and George Froeschel's screenplay veers wildly away from the homespun quaintness of the original story for an even more banal outing. Howard Keel is cast as Capt. Mike Malone, a Canadian Mountie entrusted by a close friend to look after his daughter, Rose Marie (Ann Blyth); a tomboy in a coonskin cap with an atrociously bad French accent.
Rose Marie does not want to go back with Mike to the Mountie outpost but is forced to after several painful attempts at escape. But then - who'd a guessed? - she takes to the butch lifestyle like salmon to spawning. That is, until Mike's superior, Insp. Appleby (Ray Collins) realizes that she is really...well... a 'she'. Appleby instructs Mike to place his charge in the care of Lady Jane Dunstock (Marjorie Main) who is herself attempting to procure a romance with Mike's partner, bumbling Barney McCorkle (Bert Lahr).
On their way through the Rockies Mike and Rose Marie come in contact with James Severn Duvall (Fernando Lamas); a furrier who also moonlights as a bandit. Mike suspects that James is once again up to no good. But Rose Marie has taken an instant liking to him, one that does not diminish after she finds him robbing one of Lady Jane's charitable dances. Meanwhile, Indian chief Black Eagle's (Chief Yowelachie) daughter, Wanda (Joan Taylor) is also madly in love with James. Her father threatens her with exile and even beats her to discourage the romance. In fact, James is not in love with Wanda either. He has fallen hopelessly for Rose Marie.
Mike writes Ottawa for a dispensation to marry Rose Marie. But she turns him down. James takes Rose Marie to a ceremonial Indian dance and Wanda, seeing their affections for each other, decides to murder him. At the last possible moment she fails and rushes back to her father's tent to cry instead. Assuming that his daughter has been with James, Black Eagle beats her again. But Wanda still has the knife and murders Black Eagle in cold blood. The rest of the tribe suspects James of the crime and is about to burn him at the stake when Mike intervenes. At the courthouse Mike learns that it is Wanda who is guilty of the crime. He also realizes that James and Rose Marie are made for each other and decides to escort her to the outskirts of the forest where the lovers are reunited.
Rose Marie is so bad it's not even good. Paul Vogel's occasionally breathtaking cinematography of the Canadian Rockies aside, there's nothing to recommend the film. Director Mervyn LeRoy frequently interrupts the dated songs with bits of dialogue and other nonsense that really waters down what little musical appeal the film might have had. Busby Berkeley stages a Tom-Tom dance against some studio-bound paper mache cliffs. But the sequence has obviously been truncated in the editing process.
Howard Keel is in fine voice, but his acting is as wooden as the pines that surround him. Ann Blyth is a caricature of the pioneer woman - a sort of Frenchie Calamity Jane who bursts into song to escape the real chore of acting. Marjorie Main and Bert Lahr are both gifted comedians, but are given so precious little to do that one wonders why they are in the film at all. In the final analysis Rose Marie is an exemplar of why MGM slipped in its supremacy at the box office throughout the 1950s. It's a lousy attempt to look back at a more fondly embraced period in their history, but with none of the majesty that exemplified the good ol' Thalberg days on the backlot.
Rose Marie is a Warner Archive release and despite being advertised as 'remastered' the transfer leaves much to be desired. The image throughout is riddled with age related dirt and scratches. These imperfections are, for the most part, forgivable. What is unforgiveable is the AnscoColor image that is often faded and suffering severely from vinegar syndrome deterioration. Whole portions of this film have degraded in their color fidelity to a ruddy orange mess, robbing us of the visual splendor in Paul Vogel's cinematography. The audio is stereo surround and adequate for this presentation. Warner Home Video has also included the original theatrical trailer and a deleted musical number 'Love and Kisses' as extra features. Neither have been anamorphically enhanced! Bottom line: Not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
0
VIDEO/AUDIO
2
EXTRAS
1

Sunday, August 14, 2011

YOUNG BESS (MGM 1953) Warner Archive Collection



Historical epics have always been fodder for the Hollywood grist mill. Despite wild inaccuracies and artistic license, many know what little they do of history from watching such films. During the golden period of movie making (1930-1960) Hollywood's love affair with 'period costume melodrama' went through several cycles, cresting about mid-way through the 1950s with a sumptuous renaissance photographed in glorious Technicolor. MGM, the purveyors of all things done in good taste in those days embraced the public's fascination for such spectacles. The results are magnificently on display in director George Sidney's Young Bess (1953); a radiant chronicle of the bitter, often harrowing childhood of Elizabeth I (Jean Simmons). The screenplay from Jan Lustig and Arthur Wimperis is based on the novel by Margaret Irwin and covers one of the most turbulent periods in English history.
Following the execution of her mother Anne Boleyn (Elaine Stewart), young 'Bess (Noreen Corcoran) is exiled with her governess Mrs. Ashley (Kay Walsh) to Hatfield House and declared illegitimate by her father King Henry VIII (Charles Laughton). The girl grows up quickly and defiantly. Although repeatedly and ever so briefly recalled to court, Bess (now played by Jean Simmons) is a willful thorn in the King's side. She displeases him and disapproves of his multiple wives. So the King favors the boy, Prince Edward (Rex Thompson) to succeed him on the throne.
But when Henry marries Catherine Parr (Deborah Kerr) Bess realizes she has a strong ally. Gradually, Henry comes to admire Bess for her stubborn fortitude. And although he plots to behead Catherine like he did all the others before her, illness claims his own life first. On his deathbed Henry appoints Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour (Stewart Granger) to watch over his kingdom jointly with his brother, Ned (Guy Rolfe). Unfortunately, Ned schemes and takes over as Lord Protector and guardian of Prince Edward VI (now, the King). He further secures his place with the high council by frequently sending Thomas off to fight the French at sea even though England's armada is a measly twenty-five tall ships to France's three hundred. Nevertheless, Thomas is successful at thwarting several attacks and invasions. His heroics earn him the respect of the people but also the contempt of his brother and his brother's wife, Ann (Kathleen Byron).
Meanwhile Bess confesses her love to Thomas leaving Catherine no choice but to confront her. The wounds inflicted by this betrayal never fully heal and Bess retreats to Hatfield House once again. There she learns that Catherine is dying. Ned recalls Bess to speak of her illicit love before the high council. Instead, she admonishes Ned and the council as treasonous. Shortly thereafter Bess learns that Ned has imprisoned Thomas in the Tower of London where he awaits execution. Bess races to King Edward's side, encouraging him to write a letter of clemency. But before the letter is finished Thomas is beheaded, leaving Bess seemingly in great peril.
The last act of this magnificent melodrama is rather haphazardly slapped together. We learn from Mrs. Ashley that King Edward has died and that Bess' elder sister Mary is also on her deathbed. Bess, now regally rechristened Elizabeth I appears in the doorway and proudly marches out to the balcony to greet her kingdom. Historical inaccuracies aside, Young Bess is a sumptuously mounted melodrama. Miklos Rozsa's impeccable score punctuates the imperishable exquisiteness and perilous tumult of the Tudor dynasty with appropriate pomp and flourish. Charles Rosher's cinematography manages to evoke both the grandeur and moodiness of the period. Cedric Gibbons and Urie McCleary's art direction is grand beyond all expectation. Ditto for Walter Plunkett's magnificent costume design.
During this period in his career Stewart Granger was frequently typecast as the romantic suitor from England's distant past and for good reason. Like Errol Flynn and the swashbuckler, Granger's demeanor is a perfect fit for the period costume epic. There is a gentle regal quality to the man that is impossible to fake. Despite the fact that the film belongs to Jean Simmons, Granger proves the linchpin that makes everything else in the narrative work. Simmons is perhaps too pert, too brittle and too tart to be appreciated without Granger's counterbalance. The rest of the cast is inspired as well, particularly Charles Laughton's maniacal Henry and Deborah Kerr's saintly Catherine. Guy Rolfe delivers the first intelligent reading of Ned - neither sneering nor civil but a strangely conflicted amalgam of these two polar opposites. Kathleen Byron is terrifying as the cold blooded wife with an assassin's tongue.
The screenplay can get a tad wordy at times. I'm a critic who prefers exposition to action. I like character development with my crossed swords. There's plenty of the former but curiously none of the latter in Young Bess. In fact, director Sidney seems to cut away whenever action is called for. As example; a declaration of war from a fleet of French tall ships on the horizon and sailing for Lord Thomas' vessel almost immediately dissolves into a shot of his triumphant return - presumably after defeating his enemies on the high seas. Oh well, as pure entertainment Young Bess is more than a cut above the rest. It's a detailed and intelligent historical melodrama with much to offer.
The same is true of Warner Brother's MOD DVD. Young Bess is regrettably part of the Warner Archive Collection. I say 'regrettably' because by now it should be clear to those shopping the archive that these titles lack the higher bit rate of a standard DVD. Save a handful of 'remastered editions' most of the movies in this collection have been slapped to disc without anything being done to their digital transfers. Hence, quality is spotty at best and frequently disappointing. Nevertheless, Young Bess has weathered the years quite well. Its transfer is relatively clean and free of age related artifacts. Its palette retains the bold allure of vintage Technicolor, showing off the costumes and scenery to their full effect. Contrast levels are bang on. The audio is mono as originally recorded and represented at an adequate listening level. Like all other titles in the archive, this one comes with only a theatrical trailer as an extra feature. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS
0

THAT FORSYTE WOMAN (MGM 1949) Warner Archive Collection


Based on John Galsworthy's first novel in the Forysyte Saga, entitled 'A Man of Property', director Compton Bennett's That Forsyte Woman (1949) is a rather stodgy romantic melodrama with plenty of solid performances and some truly stunning costume design to recommend it. The screenplay by Jan Lustig, Ivan Tors, James B. Williams and Arthur Wimperis has the monumental task of condensing the novel's sprawling narrative into a 93 minute movie. For the most part the exercise is successful.
Far less convincing is the ensemble of stars MGM has gathered for the outing, many who refuse to adopt or even attempt to retrieve a British flare for the material, thereby Americanizing the flavor of the piece - occasionally to its own detriment. The film is essentially a lover's triangle concerning impoverished piano teacher Irene (Greer Garson) who is besought by one marriage proposal after another from wealthy English gentleman, Soames Forsyte (Errol Flynn). Irene does not love Soames and informs him of this lacking repeatedly.
But it does her no good. Soames is a man of property whose insatiable desire to possess Irene is really all that matters to him. Eventually, Soames wears Irene's resolve down and she agrees to marry him. He makes her a comfortable home and affords her all the luxuries of a lady. But he is often cruel in his chastisements and makes Irene ever aware that the family has reluctantly accepted her as one of them. Initially, Soames' infatuation was condemned by the rest of the Forsyte clan - all except aged Uncle Jolyon (Harry Davenport). Meanwhile, in another part of London the family's prodigal son, Jolyon Jr. (Walter Pigeon) is making his living as a struggling artist after being ostracized by the family. Jolyon Jr.'s wife was also judged as unsuitable by the clan. But their daughter, June (Janet Leigh) has been accepted into the fold for some time.
It is June's friendship with Irene that will eventually tear the family apart. But not yet. Right now June has become involved with a struggling architect, Philip Bossinney (Robert Young) who is openly critical of the hoi polloi. He sees the Foryte family and its wealth as a cancer on the aristocracy. Unhappy chance that in introducing Philip to Irene the two fall madly in love just as Soames' marriage to Irene is crumbling. Soames is a cruel man, heartless in his pretensions. Although he professes to love Irene he really is only obsessed with her and seeks to keep her a prisoner in his own home. At June's insistence Soames commissions Philip to build him and Irene a country estate. But as Irene's feelings for Philip become more obvious June begins to suspect that she is losing the only man she ever really loved.
After discovering the truth about Irene and Philip, June sends Soames a letter exposing the lovers. Feeling guilty, June reunites with her estranged father to confess her wickedness. Philip rushes to Irene's aid but is struck and killed by a carriage while crossing the foggy streets of London. Soames returns to beg for reconciliation with Irene. But she has already decided to divorce him and marry Joylon Jr. instead. The story ends in a gallery in Paris where Soames is admiring a portrait painted by Joylon of Irene. Still obsessed with Irene, Soames offers the gallery owner to buy it, whatever the cost but is told that the painting is not for sale. After some disagreement, Irene quietly instructs the gallery owner to send the painting to Soames, telling Joylon "He has so very little and we have so much."
That Forsyte Woman is a fine literary adaptation brought to the big screen with most of its harrowing plot points intact. Regrettably, the film is shot entirely on the MGM back lot and even more regrettably, on sound stages masquerading as exterior locations. Soames and Irene's trek into the country to oversee the location where their new home is to be built is so obvious in all its paper mache and cardboard cut outs that the uncanny effect is very much like observing a moving tableau of waxworks. Daniel B. Cathcart and Cedric Gibbons art direction is otherwise quite superb at typifying the claustrophobic bric a brac of turn of the century England. If only the actors in front of it had put half as much effort in pretending to be British the film might have retained a more traditional flavor.
Errol Flynn, more mature and looking every bit embittered and obsessive is remarkably good as Soames. His performance is the standout. Greer Garson is almost as good. The enduring on screen chemistry she has with co-star Walter Pigeon from their other MGM outings makes the resolution of her running away with Joylon believable. The last notable performance in the film belongs to 77 year old Harry Davenport - a stalwart of his profession who died that same year.
Most problematic are Robert Young and Janet Leigh, neither adopting a British accent nor seemingly any depth at all in their respective roles. They are wholly unbelievable in their performances. One wonders why Irene would prefer Philip to Soames. Her husband may be heartless, but he is infinitely more interesting in his behavior and far less wooden in his mannerisms. As with most vintage MGM melodramas, the good outweighs the bad. That Forsyte Woman is no exception. Compton Bennett's direction is fairly solid, if occasionally stilted. Bronislau Kaper's musical underscoring is first rate, as is Joseph Ruttenberg's lush cinematography. If the film is remembered today, then it is for these virtues rather than its vices. That Forsyte Woman is definitely worth a second look.
This is another Warner Archive MOD DVD offering and one deserving of a better transfer hopefully in the near future. The 3 strip Technicolor has retained a remarkable amount of its original brilliance. But the image is suffering from the first obvious signs of vinegar syndrome. The entire transfer has adopted a slightly reddish/orange hue. This is not as bad as it sounds but, from a preservationist's perspective - it's hardly a good thing either!
Nevertheless, colors are mostly accurate if a tad too warm. The other shortcoming in this transfer is its barrage of age related artifacts. These are prevalent throughout and occasionally quite distracting. There's a lot of grit and dirt present. At times contrast levels appear ever so slightly boosted. The audio is mono as originally recorded but invariably suffers from hiss and pop. Otherwise it isn't too much of a strain on the ears. Like most of the early Warner Archive titles this one comes with NO extras!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5
EXTRAS
0

THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE (MGM/Avon 1958) Warner Archive Collection


The joyously nonsensical goings on and foibles of the degenerate rich have often served as amusing fodder for the stage and screen, perhaps never more adroitly than in director Vincente Minnelli's The Reluctant Debutante (1958) a supremely elegant puff pastry of an English farce. At the start of production MGM envisioned the film as an upper crust society romp a la the spark and comedic flavor of their Father Of The Bride (1951). That the resulting film became too recherché for the middle classes proved to be both its advantage and its detriment. In America it did only moderate business, but acquired a fairly solid following in Europe.
Based on William Douglas-Home's 1955 smash London play, MGM purchased the rights to the property for a cool $150,000 with the understanding that they would incur the costs to produce it on Broadway before translating it into a movie. So far, so good - except that the Broadway incarnation was an unqualified disaster, playing only 134 performances and to barely tepid reviews. Undaunted, MGM pressed on, signing Rex Harrison and his then wife, Kay Kendall to play the esteemed banker Jimmy Broadbent and his wife, Lady Sheila. Further bolstering the film's pedigree is Joseph L. Ruttenberg's lush and lovely cinematography and Vincente Minnelli's swift and assured direction. Minnelli shot the film in just 7 weeks - a minor marvel considering the logistics nightmare of assembling cast and crew abroad.
Because of Britain's tax laws, Rex Harrison (a Swiss citizen) could not do the film in England where the action is set. The production was moved to France to accommodate the actor. Minnelli would have preferred to shoot everything live as he had done with most of Gigi (1958) eighteen months earlier. Instead he was forced to patch together his visuals from a series of beautifully constructed sets and process plate photography. The results aren't terrible, but they do tend to reveal themselves in all their artificiality. MGM also encouraged Minnelli to diffuse the tart British wit in Homes' original dialogue by casting Americans in the supporting cast.
Hence, Jimmy Broadbent's daughter, Jane (Sandra Dee) became a child from a previous marriage who has been living abroad in America with her mother. The boy she meets and falls in love with is now David Parkson (Jon Saxon); an Italian-American currently living in Europe who returns to Italy and becomes a Duke after his favourite uncle dies. Douglas-Homes (with an assist from Julius Epstein) agreed to these minor changes - none really hurting the overall charm of the original play.
Behind the scenes two great tragedies unfolded. The first is that the resulting effort put forth by all concerned failed to find its audience at the box office. Despite a superb opening weekend at New York's Radio City, where the film racked up the second highest gross for an MGM picture ever to play there, the overall box office fell decidedly short of expectations. But the greater calamity was more personal than artistic. Kay Kendall began the movie while 'recovering from a malady' that had been assessed as gastroenteritis. Only Harrison and Kendall's doctor knew the truth. The 32 year old actress had cancer. She would die of it 18 months later, robbing movie audiences of a truly one-of-a-kind and very luminous talent.
The Reluctant Debutante concerns itself with the irony and chaos from that gay social ritual of debutante balls in London England where daughters from wealthy families are paraded in front of young men for the sole prospect of landing a husband. Sheila Broadbent is determined that Jimmy's American daughter from a previous marriage will partake in the advantages of this 'meat market'. But Jane is a progressive girl with progressive ideas. She valiantly endures the rigorous round of cotillions and parties but is dispassionate about virtually all the boys she meets.
In another corner Sheila's fair-weather friend, Mabel Claremont (Angela Lansbury) is desperately trying to push her daughter Clarissa (Diane Clare) into the arms of David Fenner (Peter Myers); a real drip with a penchant for taking advantage of girls after they've been made a wee bit tipsy by him. Something of a wallflower, Clarissa is mad about Fenner. But Sheila is determined that he will be Jane's beau. Fenner has no problem with this arrangement. Jane most certainly does. She has already fallen madly in love with bongo-drummer David Parkson.
Mabel inadvertently adds fuel to this fire when she gives Sheila Parkson's phone number. Mistaking Parkson for Fenner over the telephone Sheila invites him to dine with the family. Meanwhile Parkson's ailing uncle dies in Italy. He bequeaths his entire estate (more like a small principality) to his nephew. Suspecting that Parkson was responsible for a scandalous encounter with a drunken girl one year ago, Sheila does everything she can to split Jane and David up. The truth is that Fenner was the real culprit of that scandal - not Parkson!
Under anyone else's direction The Reluctant Debutante would be just another light romantic comedy. But its frothy dialogue and expert interplay between Kendall and Harrison elevate the film from mere confection. Vincente Minnelli brings an impeccable elegance to the visual style of the piece. One can argue that occasionally his artist's camera eye goes astray but always in visually interesting ways. He transforms the montage of debutante balls into an almost nightmarish exercise for Jimmy who frequently soaks himself in champagne at the bar. But Minnelli's real gift is his staging. He knows how to move his actors - and more importantly, his camera - around a scene, maneuvering the audience in and out of the fray.
The film's one sour note is arguably its musical score, accredited to Eddie Warner but strictly speaking - a patchwork hand-me-down from other MGM films. The main title is a direct import from Minnelli's light comedy masterpiece, Designing Woman (1957). The background orchestrations span the gamut of memorable MGM music from films like Rosalie, Born To Dance and Rose Marie. Listening to these instantly identifiable American tunes in the background one wishes for a more lush British sound to go along with the sharp drawing room witticisms played in front of the camera. Perhaps MGM was merely pinching pennies where it counted most. After the play colossally fizzled on Broadway they were probably determined to keep costs on the film to a minimum. Despite its shortcomings, in the final analysis The Reluctant Debutante is a fresh and funny farce.
This is a Warner Archive MOD DVD. The film elements must have been in fairly bad shape. Despite being advertised as a 'remastered edition' The Reluctant Debutante's transfer is marred by a considerable amount of dirt, scratches and other age related anomalies. The image also suffers from all the inherent shortcomings of Cinemascope photography- a warping of vertical lines that get too close to the peripheries of the film frame and a horizontal stretching of actor's faces in semi-close up. There's also several grainy cutaways that look as though the original film elements have merely been blown up and then re-framed afterward.
Overall color fidelity isn't quite as bad as other widescreen movies I've seen from this vintage, but the spectrum does tend to adopt a rather reddish hue throughout. Film grain is present, occasionally excessively between transitions, fade ins and outs. The image is quite sharp without appearing to have had any digital manipulations. Overall, this is just a middle of the road visual presentation. Despite its six track origins, the stereo audio is rather bland and somewhat strident too. Dialogue is never natural sounding and occasionally background distortions make dialogue inaudible. On the whole this disc won't win any accolades but it isn't all that awful either. The only extra is a theatrical trailer - presented in non-anamorphic widescreen.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
3
EXTRAS
0