Thursday, May 31, 2012

ROSE MARIE (MGM 1935) Warner Archive Collection

After the unexpected whirlwind of critical accolades and financial success that accompanied Naughty Marietta’s big screen debut, L.B. Mayer set about handcrafting a handsome string of screen operettas for Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. Each film became incrementally more lavish. Yet Mayer knew that the public wasn’t coming to these movies to see gargantuan production numbers, but to hear his two stars sing. In the brief interim between Naughty Marietta and the team’s next project – Rose Marie (1935) – rumours began to fly in the press that Eddy and MacDonald were lovers off screen. At first, MGM did nothing to either confirm or deny these allegations.
It was, after all, good publicity. Neither co-star cared for this intrusion into their private lives, however – perhaps Eddy least of all. Although MGM tried to finagle a romance of celluloid between Eddy and Cecilia Parker, then with Alice Faye, Eddy played his romantic intentions close to his vest. Some speculated he was gay – an accusation the extended family denied, although Eddy’s sister would later suggest that a childhood accident had left her brother impotent. Whatever the case, MacDonald attempted her own damage control, quashing rumours by pursuing a romance with actor Gene Raymond, whom she would later marry.
In the meantime, Mayer bought Rudolf Friml’s Rose Marie for MacDonald and Eddy’s next big show. The stars spent one month in the Sierra Nevadas, an unheard of luxury in those days, capturing the isolated rural beauty of the high mountains and glistening streams, accompanied by an entourage of pack mules lugging cameras, reflectors, sound equipment, makeup huts and portable toilets to some fairly remote locations. The constant threat of a mid-September blizzard forced director W.S. Van Dyke to drive his actors and crew at a breakneck speed. Four weeks later, everyone came back to the relative safety of Culver City. But Van Dyke’s patience was twice tested by inclement weather and a bout of queasiness after MacDonald spent nearly six hours in a canoe with Eddy, shooting the title song.
Throughout the location shoot MacDonald wooed two suitors from afar; Gene Raymond and Bob Ritchie. On set, Eddy teased his co-star about her enterprising love life – but in the most congenial way. Each night co-star Jimmy Stewart entertained the group with an accordion at the lodge they were all sharing. Stewart was infinitely more at ease off camera than on, his knees shaking so badly during scenes he shared with MacDonald that it forced Van Dyke to shoot the pair from the waist up.
Rose Marie is another well-worn chestnut from the stage operetta’s glory days. Yet Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s screenplay veers wildly from the play’s more conventional origins. In their version, Marie de Flor (Jeanette MacDonald) is a Canadian soprano currently wowing New York audiences in Romeo and Juliette. After another peerless performance, Marie retires to her dressing room. She is pursued by an ineffectual suitor, Teddy (David Niven) and prodded by her manager, Myerson (Reginald Owen) into accepting a dinner invitation from the Premier of Quebec (Alan Mowbray) and his family. At first, the temperamental diva stamps her feet and refuses to comply. But then Marie’s maid, Roderick (Una O’Connor) gives her a letter about her brother John Flowers (James Stewart) who is currently serving time inside a Quebec prison. Jack’s most recent application for a parole has been denied.
Reasoning that perhaps the Premier can encourage the legal process in her favour, Marie entertains him at her apartment. Suspecting that the diva wants something in return, the Premier tells her he will respectfully listen to her request. But the night’s festivities are interrupted by a curious stranger, Boniface (George Regas) who brings unexpected news to Marie. John has broken out of prison and, in the process, murdered a Mountie. He is now a fugitive with a price on his head.
Distraught, and hardly thinking clearly, Marie commands Myerson to indefinitely postpone her operatic engagements. She packs a bag and dresses in casual clothing, embarking on journey with Boniface through the untamed Canadian Rockies. Arriving at an outpost near Lake Chibougam, Boniface steals all of Marie’s money and then disappears, forcing her to seek refuge inside the local inn. The bawdy saloon serves as a pit stop for roughnecks and Mounties alike, who come to cheer hooch dancer, Belle (Gilda Gray). Marie attempts an audition but is woefully upstaged by Belle who knows too well that all the customers really want is some shimmy and shake for their money.
Sergeant Bruce (Nelson Eddy) takes pity on Marie. After filling out the necessary paperwork for her stolen property he arranges for the Mounted Police to put her up for the night inside the inn, and furthermore offers to escort her through the hazardous mountain terrain in search of her thieving guide. At first Marie resists. The last thing she needs is a Mountie tailing her to her wounded brother’s hideaway. But Bruce is persistent. Moreover, he has wisely deduced that de Flor and Flower are the same name and that Marie and John are obviously related. Hence, sticking close to her will lead to the recapture of John.          
After Marie and Bruce observe an ancient Indian ceremony together, Marie skulks off with Boniface who reluctantly agrees to fulfill his obligation and take her to John. Bruce pursues the pair from a distance, but is forced to intervene in a rescue after Marie is nearly drowned while attempting to cross a deep stream on horseback. Unable to find another guide until Hayman’s Landing, Marie agrees to allow Bruce to be her escort. The two begin their trek across the wilderness as strangers, but finish it hopelessly in love. 
Bruce suggests that Marie will only think of him as a policeman once back in the city and the two presumably part company forever. Marie finds John wounded inside a remote cabin. She provides him with enough money to start over abroad. The plan is foolproof. If only Bruce had not followed her obvious trail straight to the cabin’s door. Bruce reappears with gun drawn, apprehending John in handcuffs and carting him back to the Mountie outpost. Marie begs for John’s release, but Bruce is unmoved by her tears.      
With no legal recourse to appeal John’s conviction, Marie bitterly returns to her stage career. But she is no longer the spoiled operatic diva with an iron-cast heart. Now, she is haunted by memories of Bruce and the brief love affair they shared in the Rockies. Eventually, these persistent reminiscences drive Marie into a mental breakdown. Retreating to the snow-capped sanctuary of a Canadian sanatorium Marie remains tearful and confused. Myerson hopes that his star – and frankly, his meal ticket – will return to the stage in six months. Inexplicably, Bruce arrives to sing a few bars of the romantic ballad ‘Indian Love Call Song’ that they once sang together in the woods. His voice stirs Marie from her catatonic grief and the two are reunited in the genuine sorrow of their love.  
Rose Marie is an oddity indeed. Setting aside the clumsy way the opening snippets from the Romeo and Juliet opera are staged – supposedly as live theater but actually achieved using some truly awful rear projection and sincerely laughable dissolves – the rest of the story is evenly scripted and nicely packaged for maximum effect; taking full advantage of the stunning Sierra Nevada locations. Yet there is a sincere and rather disturbing fatalism to the love story. Marie’s obsessive loyalty to her murderous brother is rivalled by her passion for Sergeant Bruce – the one man capable of destroying the object of her devotion. Even more unsettling; we are never entirely convinced that Bruce’s romantic intentions toward the woman he pretends to know as ‘Rose Marie’ is – for all intent and purposes – honourable, so much as he is exploiting her misguided allegiances to snuff out a murderer and thus fulfill the Mounties edict of “we always get our man.”
Rose Marie has disturbing psychological ramifications not found in Friml’s original stage work. Marie’s nervous breakdown and subsequent self-imposed exile suggest more deeply repressed emotional insecurities and unfulfilled erotic longings that need to be exorcised.  Yet these are never resolved in the film, even as MacDonald and Eddy embrace for their final close up before the fade out, leaving audiences with a devious emotional cliff hanger to resolve in their own minds. Does Sergeant Bruce get the girl as well as ‘his man’ or are the lovers destined to be forever parted in this bizarre chasm of intoxicating fidelities horribly gone awry? While many critics have often flubbed off MacDonald and Eddy as lightweight musical fluff, faintly smelling of formaldehyde and mothballs, Rose Marie presents us with a more probing constellation of quandaries than who simply gets the girl in the final reel.
Warner’s MOD DVD is a tad disappointing, considering how exemplary their mastering efforts were on Naughty Marietta. On Rose Marie the B&W image appears uniformly thicker and less refined. Grain is heavy and rather distracting. Overall, the image is sharp, but contrast levels appear slightly bumped in some scenes, while rather weak in others. Age related artefacts are everywhere and frequently intrude on our enjoyment of the film. 
The image is inconsistently rendered. The opera house sequences – with their dupe/rear projection trick photography - suffer the most from a dense and thoroughly unimpressive amount of distracting grain that registers as digitized grit. The Totem Tom Tom Indian processional – shot day for night – is very grainy with very low contrast levels that obscure almost all of the fine detail. On the whole this is a middling effort with predictably par for the course results, given Warner’s rather slapdash way of offering deep catalogue titles as part of the burn on demand Archive.
The audio is mono as originally recorded, with obvious hiss and pop throughout. Like other titles featured in the Archive, the only extra herein in a theatrical trailer in even worse shape than the feature. Not what I expected. Certainly, not what this film deserves.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

NAUGHTY MARIETTA (MGM 1933) Warner Archive Collection

Screen operettas were considered hopelessly passé by the time MGM acquired Jeanette MacDonald’s contract from Paramount in the mid-1930s. This subgenre in the American theater is a curious one; its stories usually set in some vague Tyrolean landscape where the inhabitants speak and sing in English, their librettos inspired by the likes of Toscanini and Verdi, yet remaining firmly rooted in the more pleasurable ‘pop’ tunes of the turn of the century. As such, the operetta is a hybrid: not quite an opera, but loftier in its aspirations than Tin Pan Alley, pretending to be high art even as it is obviously geared to pleasing the masses.
The initial cycle of operettas was European by design with compositions by Strauss, Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan. With the advent of motion pictures, the operetta moved more distinctly away from these European roots and settings. But this migration proved somewhat awkward and occasionally detrimental to its popularity. On stage the operetta was an extension – or perhaps more accurately, distillation – of the high theatrics of grand opera. But on screen its artifice often became more artificial than artsy; the rehearsed mannerisms and grand gesturing of its fussy divas and preening tenors stiff and too highbrow for the popcorn set, unaccustomed to having their heroes in cod piece and heroines donning heavy wigs.  
But L.B. Mayer was a rank sentimentalist at heart who loved operettas with a passion. And anything that Mayer loved that much he could usually make the general public love too. The trick was in how to achieve the balancing act between what the public considered highbrow and what they had embraced as their popular entertainment. Part of Mayer’s quandary was resolved when he acquired Jeanette MacDonald’s contract. Mayer didn’t have to introduce her to the public. The superstructure was in place. Yet, her popularity had crested in only a few years.
However this downswing in MacDonald’s career did not dissuade Mayer, perhaps because he had her in mind as a co-star for Nelson Eddy, the somewhat wooden tenor Mayer had signed in 1933. Eddy had been given a plum song in Joan Crawford’s Dancing Lady woefully illustrating that his forte was decidedly not singing pop tunes. The tenor had come to Mayer’s attention after a lengthy and semi-prosperous career as a ‘legitimate’ singer with the Philadelphia Civic Opera Company.  MacDonald always had great aspirations to perform on stage. But these were denied her, while Eddy was a veteran of more than 28 operas by the time he was brought in to co-star in Naughty Marietta (1933).
The film, loosely based on Victor Herbert’s stage hit was, by all accounts, a very risky venture: an operetta with one slightly faded star and another virtually unknown to film audiences. Eddy, who had heard the rumours that MacDonald could be quite difficult to work with, approached the part with some trepidation. This apprehension, coupled with Eddy’s own self-consciousness proved crippling at the start of the shoot. Still, the timbre in his baritone was a counterbalance to MacDonald’s occasionally shrill soprano. Better still, the two got on famously after the first day’s shoot, setting Eddy’s mind at ease.
Naughty Marietta is the story of a beautiful princess who masquerades as a casquette girl in order to avoid marriage to an elderly Spanish duke; standard operetta fodder. The screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, John Lee Mahin and Rida Johnson Young, opens on the frivolous Marietta (MacDonald): a beloved benefactress to her people. She delights in the prosperity of simple folk, frequents a pet shop and then the home of her old music instructor before returning to the palace to indulge some wild birds inside a gloriously absurd glass conservatory. Marietta is betrothed to Don Carlos de Braganza (Walter Kingsford) by her uncle, Prince de Namours de la Bonfain (Douglas Dumbrille). To escape this looming fate, Marietta stows away aboard a ship-full of amiable young girls bound for New Orleans. The women, as it turns out, are being imported for the express purposes of marrying the local planters, farmers and soldiers.
The ship is taken by pirates, but the women are spared their fate when Marietta seizes one of the lit torches and runs toward the sound of an approaching band of mercenaries, screaming for help. After a heroic rescue, the captain of the guard, Richard Warrington (Nelson Eddy) serenades Marietta. But she solemnly declares she does not intend to marry. An understandable friction develops as a result of this obstinate defiance, yet mutual attraction to one another. But Warrington is a gentleman. He and his men escort Marietta and the rest of the girls safely to New Orleans where they are met by the anxious Governor Gaspar d’Annard (Frank Morgan) and his jealous wife (Elsa Lanchester).
D’Annard is certain that he has seen Marietta in Paris before, but cannot place her. To deflect his memories from the truth, Marietta pretends to be a courtesan and is exiled to a private house away from the other girls. Marietta tries everything to get Warrington to leave her alone. It’s no use. She intrigues him in more ways than one. But their romance is repeatedly thwarted, first by the arrival of a theatrical group, and later by three ‘would-be lovers’ who come to call on the elegant courtesan with brazen overtures that mildly insult her. While Warrington gets rid of these midnight suitors Marietta seizes the opportunity to escape her safe house.
The following afternoon, Warrington finds Marietta working at the Marionette Theater. He follows her to lunch where the two become better acquainted. Regrettably, their chance for flirtation is interrupted yet again, this time by soldiers in search of the Princess. Warrington hides Marietta from view and aids in her escape through some rough jungle terrain en route to his headquarters. Unfortunately, the pair is ambushed by French soldiers and Marietta’s true identity is revealed to Warrington.
The Governor shows Marietta the King’s mandate for her pending marriage to Don Carlos who has just arrived in New Orleans. A ball is given to mark their engagement. But Julie (Cecilia Parker) one of the girls Marietta befriended on the boat earlier in her misadventures has arrived to forewarn her that Warrington has decided to attend the ball also, despite being threatened by the Governor with arrest for treason. Warrington arrives in full military regalia and is ordered to leave at once. However, as Marietta begins to serenade the governor’s guests, Warrington joins in. The audacity of their public display of affections shocks the guests and Warrington is placed under arrest. However, the guards who apprehend him are actually men loyal to Warrington – not the governor. These men help Warrington and Marietta escape to a safe passage along the Western frontier where, presumably, they will live happily ever after.
Naughty Marietta is a glossy spectacle, ably diffused from becoming just another weighty bore by its melodic score that includes the rambunctious ‘Tramp Tramp Tramp’, trilling ‘Italian Street Song’ and capped off by the luscious romantic pas deux, ‘Ah Sweet Mystery of Life’. Viewed today, Naughty Marietta’s mistaken identity scenario is not terribly prepossessing. The screenplay is episodic at best. Ironically, the second best thing about the film – after MacDonald and Eddy’s duets – is W.S. Van Dyke’s ‘get on with it’ approach to the directing. It keeps the narrative moving even when the plot stubbornly refuses to come to life.
Van Dyke’s no nonsense approach also gives immediacy to MacDonald’s performance while masking the fact that Eddy is woefully uncomfortable in his period duds. Better still, MacDonald and Eddy seem to bring out unique qualities in each other that neither had when working apart.  Shot in half the time and half the budget of MGM’s The Merry Widow, Naughty Marietta was a massive hit for the studio, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and outranking such heavy hitters in popular polls as Mutiny on the Bounty and Top Hat to become an unqualified hit.
Warner Home Video’s MOD DVD is fairly clean, with a strong gray scale and very solid contrast levels. The B&W image is crisp with strong tonality that yields a myriad of fine details. Age related artefacts are still present but will not distract. Film grain is accurately represented. Digital artefacts are expertly concealed. This is a nice effort from Warner. The audio is mono and represented at an adequate listening level. Like other titles in the Warner Archive, this one comes with only a theatrical trailer. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

JOHNNY EAGER (MGM 1941) Warner Archive Collection

A not so reformed racketeer; a pair of stool pigeons; a good girl turned bad, and a devoted father desperate to spare his daughter a life sentence. What do they all have in common?  Mervyn LeRoy’s Johnny Eager (1941) – an irreproachable B-noir given the A-list treatment by MGM. John Lee Mahin and James Edward Grant’s screenplay marked the studio’s spectacular foray into the seedy underwork of gangsters, graft and good old fashion murder for hire; an intoxicating blend where the good and the bad mingle at cross purposes, each tainting the other in unexpected ways. MGM – the most starlit and moneyed of the Hollywood studios took a cue from Warner Bros. (the studio that practically invented the gripping gangster genre) and did them one better with megawatt sweater girl Lana Turner and pretty boy Robert Taylor doing some of the best acting of their respective careers. 
It’s hard to imagine MGM, a studio known for its frothy musicals and fun-filled family entertainment pulling off such a dark and sinister tale. But Mervyn LeRoy’s direction is peerless – utilizing all of the studio’s formidable resources to deliver a hard-hitting melodrama that grabs our attention almost from the start and then never lets go. If anything Johnny Eager not only meets our expectations, but surpasses them for a diabolically delicious time.
We’re introduced to the title character, Johnny Eager (Robert Taylor), recently paroled from state prison and driving a taxi as part of his probationary rehabilitation. Johnny checks in with his parole officer, A.J. Verne (Henry O’Neill), a fairly gullible sort whose private secretary, Miss Mines (Leona Maricle) is actually on the take, keeping the truth about Johnny’s reform a secret from her boss while quietly alerting Johnny whenever Verne is about to make one of his ‘random’ checks on his current living conditions.
It just so happens that Verne has decided to pay a call on Johnny’s ‘place of residence’ today; a tiny apartment owned by Peg Fowler (Connie Gilchrist) – who is masquerading as Johnny’s aunt, and her adult daughter, Matty (Robin Raymond) who does a fairly impressive job of faking sweet adolescence. Johnny is introduced to ‘Lisbeth Bard (Lana Turner) – a socialite tagging along with best friend, Judy Sanford (Diana Lewis) who is doing sociological research on criminal behaviour. The rather naïve Judy is slightly intimidated by Johnny, even though he is most congenial and forthright in answering all her prying questions. Though no one else clues in, sparks have already begun to fly between Johnny and Liz. It’s pure animal magnetism.
After Verne’s visit, Johnny hightails it to his real home – a swank suite in back of the snazzy clubhouse facing a dog racetrack that he’s about to open under the name ‘Marco Enterprises’. Actually, A. Frasier Marco (Charles Dingle) is just a silent partner and front man for the operation, along with lowbrow hit men, Benjy (Lou Lubin) and Julio (Paul Stewart), and hoodlum muscle, Lew Rankin (Barry Nelson). Lou’s frustrated with his current lack of prosperity. Moreover, he’s tired of being Johnny’s right hand, despite having grown up on the wrong side of the same tracks. Johnny pretends to sympathize with Lou’s quandary; then quietly tells Marco to put a tail on him to see what he does with his free time.    
Johnny suspects that restaurateur Tony Luce (Nestor Paiva) is double-crossing him and bursts into his establishment to collect what he’s owed, only to discover Liz already there. It seems her escort, Floyd Markham (Cliff Danielson) had a tad too much to drink and went home in a taxi, effectively leaving her to pay their dinner bill without any money. Liz promises to say nothing to Verne and Johnny, squares her bill with Tony, then offers to drive her home as gratitude.
In the meantime, Liz’s fiancée, Jimmy Courtney (Rod Sterling) is being chastised by her father, District Attorney John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold) for not keeping a closer watch on his daughter. It’s late and no one has seen Liz since she left Tony’s restaurant hours ago. Unhappy chance both men are home when Liz arrives dewy-eyed and smitten on Johnny’s arm. Jimmy realizes he’s lost Liz to Johnny. But Farrell isn’t about to let the con he sent to prison steal the one thing in his life that matters most. The next day, Johnny is summoned to Farrell’s office where the D.A. makes short shrift of his intentions toward him. If Farrell can’t buy off Johnny then he’s perfectly willing and able to frame him for a crime he didn’t commit, simply to keep the two apart.
Tossing a hundred dollar bill at Johnny, Farrell orders him out of his office. And although it looks as though Johnny will comply with Farrell’s request, very shortly he and Liz become a hot item at all the nightclubs. For Liz, their attachment is predicated on real love. But Johnny doesn’t know what that is. Furthermore, he’s about as unscrupulous and cold towards women as he is about life in general. Johnny’s only friend is Jeff Hartnett (Van Heflin); a drunken wit – the poet laureate of the gangster set and straggler on, who sees life and love more clearly from the bottom of a bottle than Johnny can sober.   
Johnny desperately needs to open his dog track in order to stay financially afloat. But Farrell is standing in his way. So Johnny concocts a brutally selfish plan. Realizing how strong Liz’s love is for him, Johnny has Julio break in on their romantic night together with a drawn gun. Johnny and Julio struggle and Johnny – presumably about to lose the fight – shouts for Liz to shoot Julio. She does, not realizing that the gun is loaded with blanks. Julio pretends to die and Johnny suggests that Liz should lie low for the next little while, giving Johnny time to bury the body and come up with an alibi.
Liz returns home shell shocked. For the next week she doesn’t speak to anyone – even her father – and barely eats a thing, becoming a recluse in her bedroom. Farrell sends for Johnny who tells him that Liz killed Julio to save his life. Johnny further informs Farrell that unless he immediately agrees to lift the sanctions against his dog track he’ll go to the press and expose Liz as a cold-blooded murderer. Unable to see his way clear of this blackmail, Farrell reluctantly agrees.
The track is a success, even attracting Verne to the races. Johnny also meets old flame, Maye Blythe Agridowski (Glenda Farrell) an aging gun moll who has since given up the life to marry a dedicated cop, Joe (Byron Shore). But the couple are struggling to make ends meet. Maye hopes that Johnny can help out. Unfortunately, Joe’s badge number is ‘711’. Johnny recognizes it as the officer who arrested him way back when. Although he spares Maye this knowledge, he refuses to help her just the same. Now Johnny turns his attentions to Lou Rankin, whom he discovers is working for rival hood, Bill Halligan (Cy Kendell), who has since wooed Julio away from Johnny’s employ too.
Johnny and Jeff pay a call on Bill’s private poker game. Johnny fakes getting drunk so that he can go lay down in the next room. Actually, he sneaks out the back way and down the fire escape to confront Lou whom he murders by driving his car over a bridge into an oncoming train. Afterward, Johnny returns to the poker game as though nothing has happened, waiting to gauge the other’s reactions after news of Lou’s death reach them.
The next day Jimmy Courtney pays Johnny a call at the race track. He proposes that Johnny get out of town. In fact, Jimmy will even pay for the privilege with his own inheritance. At first Johnny thinks Jimmy a sucker, who wants him out of Liz’s life. Actually, Jimmy wants Johnny to take Liz with him. You see, Jimmy has always loved Liz. He only has her best interests at heart. More recently, he’s become alarmed over Liz’s inability to function. The thought that she could have killed someone has destroyed her.
Johnny decides to tell Liz the truth about Julio. But she doesn’t believe him, and furthermore tells Johnny that once his parole is up and the law can no longer touch him she is going to turn herself in for Julio’s murder. Johnny decides that the only way he can prove to Liz that she’s innocent is to produce Julio in the flesh. So Johnny tells Jimmy to bring Liz to Halligan’s hideaway. But Halligan wisely assesses that once Julio has revealed himself to Liz he’s outlived his usefulness as far as Johnny’s concerned.
Johnny forces Julio at gunpoint to Jimmy’s waiting car. Finally realizing that she hasn’t killed anyone, Liz believes that she and Johnny can live happily ever after. But Johnny – who has finally come to his own understanding as to what true love is all about – knocks Liz out cold. He, dumps her in Jimmy’s backseat and instructs him to take her away. Jimmy agrees and drives off, leaving Johnny to facedown Halligan and Julio in a hailstorm of bullets. A police officer arrives on the scene and mortally wounds Johnny. In the final moments of his life, Johnny is cradled by a remorseful Jeff. In a curious twist of fate, it is revealed that the cop who killed Johnny is Mae’s husband.  
Johnny Eager is a fast paced, intricately plotted, exhilarating entertainment. Turner and Taylor are perfectly matched in this midnight story of backstabbing corruption. Edward Arnold is brilliant as the doting father who would sacrifice even his own respectability to protect the daughter he worships. The film is immeasurably blessed with MGM’s usual zeal for posh settings. Cedric Gibbon’s art direction and Edwin Willis’ set decoration give us a sort of Manhattan revised - a societal cross section that runs the gamut from flashy jetsetters to the lower east side without ever leaving the Culver City backlot. Harold Rossen’s cinematography goes more for the glam than the grit. It’s all so impeccably stylish, with a surface sheen that make even underworld betting seem like a night at the opera. Bronislau Kaper’s score is way too melodramatic, but thankfully doesn’t get much playtime in between the opening and closing credits. In the final analysis, Johnny Eager is a classy film about déclassé people.
Warner Home Video’s MOD DVD is hugely disappointing. Frankly, I am sick and tired of a studio as big as WB slapping out lousy VHS quality transfers onto disc, simply to make them available to the public and snag a quick buck. Johnny Eager’s video elements are seriously flawed. For a moment let’s overlook – though not forgive – the age related artefacts that are prevalent throughout and frequently distracting. And let’s set aside the fact that the contrast levels have been artificially bumped up. But isn’t it about time Warner corrected the horrendous video noise that gives us rainbow like strobes of colour washing across these B&W images? And isn’t it high time they eradicated edge enhancement from their DVD mastering practises?
Johnny Eager’s image painfully suffers from both these shortcomings.  The visuals also jerk from side to side and up and down as though the original film element sprockets have been misaligned while running through the telecine machine. These are unacceptable oversights. Because Warner isn’t offering us their Archive titles for $2.99 which is about all transfers like this one (because of its packaging) are worth. No, they’re charging upwards of $20.00 on sale (the same as for a professionally minted and properly mastered DVD). In Canada, Archive titles retail for the paltry sum of $34.99.  Johnny Eager’s current video quality isn’t even worth the cost of the disc it’s been burned on (probably around four cents). No, Warner has gone the quick and dirty route and fans ought to be outraged over their short-sightedness. It stinks!
The audio is mono as originally recorded and holding its own with minimal hiss and pop. As with other titles in the Archive Collection we only get a theatrical trailer.  Bottom line: NOT recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

PANAMA HATTIE (MGM 1942) Warner Archive Collection

1942’s big splashy musical offering at MGM was Panama Hattie; a hapless mishmash of Cole Porter’s titanic 1940 Broadway smash hit. Producer Arthur Freed threw everything he could at the screen to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear but nothing stuck for too long. Despite fine performances scattered throughout, some enjoyable bits of slapstick and the debut of sultry Lena Horne, the film remains an episodic series of comedic and musical vignettes clumsily edited together with a total disregard for continuity or remaining faithful to the origins of the Broadway show.
Cast as the title character is Ann Sothern, a fabulous comedian and singer whose MGM career never went beyond the preliminary stages in some genuinely second rate fluff like this film. A retrospective of Sothern’s career yields morose disappointment because under MGM’s aegis she never quite became the glittery musical star to rival Judy Garland or even June Allyson. Undeniably, she had the ability but never the opportunity to showcase the full range of her talents.
Viewed today, Panama Hattie is an abysmal miscalculation on Arthur Freed’s part; what with his decision to considerably restructure the story to fit into the timely WWII propaganda motif while jettisoning all but a trifle offering of the urbane Cole Porter score in favour of some watered down pop tunes by E.Y. Harlan, Burton Lane and Roger Edens. As with the film’s musical program, its narrative is strangely off kilter, the claptrap screenplay patched together by Jack McGowan and Wilkie Mahoney, that stumbles through a strained series of vignettes that become more obtuse and disjointed the further along the film unravels to its apparent conclusion.
There are so many misfires along the way that it’s often difficult to appreciate the treasures haphazardly strewn about but lavishly photographed by George Folsey. Of these; Lena Horne’s brief interlude ‘It Was Just One of Those Things’ is a standout. Not in the original show, it’s a scintillating ode to love gone cold and warbled with Horne’s inimitable brand of smoldering sensuality. Today it’s easy to forget how ground-breaking this debut was, presented at a time when black actors were considered little more than mere comedic background or cast in roles as simpleton domestics. But Horne’s nightclub singer is a contemporary, not a suppliant, even if the studio tried to soften the shock for white audiences by lightening her skin with a special makeup (Light Egyptian). Yet, as Horne’s debut broke the mould it also regrettably set the standard for the rest of her MGM career as a ‘specialty act’ – usually playing herself and inserted into other star’s musicals so that her numbers could be easily excised when the movies were shown in the south.    
It’s rather telling that this Panama Hattie opens with three comedians; Red (Red Skelton), Rags (Rags Ragland) and Rowdy (Ben Blue) - cast as a trio of foppish sailors – who dominate the screen time for the next 79 min. After a bit of lovable nonsense and a musical number that has absolutely nothing to do with anything, Panama Hattie (Ann Sothern) makes her debut, singing ‘I’ve Still Got My Health’. In the meantime, the boys are treated to the shoot-from-the-hip deadpan delivery of Virginia O’Brien as cigarette girl, Flo Foster. Getting absolutely nowhere with Flo, Red, Rags and Rowdy make a few feeble attempts at comforting Hattie who is anxious about meeting her lover, Dick Bulliard’s (Dan Dailey) daughter, Gerry (Jackie Horner).
The boys don’t care much for Dick – not because he’s a bad egg, but rather because he’s obviously Hattie’s romantic ideal. Unhappy chance for Hattie that her first meeting with the precocious girl ends badly after Gerry innocently reveals she finds Hattie’s flashy wardrobe quite silly. Hattie storms out and retires to her room in nervous sobs. The next afternoon she attempts another introduction only to have Gerry suggest that her new ensemble is equally as ridiculous. The girl has fashion sense, however, and Hattie allows her to snip off some garish oversized ribbons from the gown with a pair of scissors, revealing a plainer, though more elegant side to her wardrobe. Hattie and Dick come to a parting of the ways over the Admiral’s daughter, Lelia Tree (Marsha Hunt) who obviously knew Dick from way back when and continues to harbour romantic feelings towards him much to Hattie’s chagrin. After Lelia basically tells Hattie that she does not and never will belong to Dick’s social class, a tearful Hattie makes plans to leave Panama for good and return to New York.
The romantic angle of the plot painted into an impossible corner, our story shifts to Red, Rags and Rowdy who have inadvertently uncovered a spy ring after Red’s note of amorous seduction to Lelia gets exchanged with a cryptic message written by Nazi spy Hans (Lucien Privel). The boys follow the note’s instructions to meet up at an abandoned house on the outskirts of town and discover an arsenal of bomb-making equipment inside. In the drawn out scene of slapstick that follows, Red, Rags and Rowdy take on the colouring of The Three Stooges as they haplessly attempt to escape their locked room while dodging bullets being fired through the windows by unseen spies who obviously want their property back. The boys narrowly escape their fate, and a moat full of crocodiles before the derelict house is blown to bits by an inexplicable combustion of the bomb-making materials.  
Red, Rags and Rowdy attend a party in town where they are heralded as heroes. The sequence proves merely an excuse to feather in another specialty number, The Sping, featuring Lena Horne and The Berry Brothers. Hattie announces to Lelia that she has just married Dick and together everyone belts out the flag-waving ‘The Son of A Gun Who Picks on Uncle Sam’. Thus ends Panama Hattie on a particularly obtuse note.
Director Norman Z. Leonard never warmed up to Ann Sothern and the two did not get along on the set. Perhaps this explains why Sothern’s Hattie is given so precious little to do in the final cut. On stage, Hattie had been a sounding board for Ethel Merman and then Betty Hutton. Regrettably, Merman’s personality was deemed ‘too big’ for the movies, while MGM had already missed the boat on Hutton who had signed a contract over at Paramount. During preliminary stages, Freed wanted George Murphy and Shirley Temple to play Dick and Gerry, but these casting choices never went beyond the ‘wish list’ stage. Dan Dailey – who would eventually find fame over at Fox – is underserved, as is the love story between Dick and Hattie that was the narrative crux of the stage play.
Arthur Freed’s sneak preview of Panama Hattie was a disaster, prompting MGM to go back and insert more songs – though regrettably none from the original Cole Porter score. Sothern pre-recorded ‘Did I Get Stinkin’ At The Savoy’ only to have the song reassigned to Virginia O’Brien who made the most of it. MGM also had Frank Hull tighten up Blanche Sewell’s editing. Curiously, when Panama Hattie had its premiere eleven months later it quickly became a whopping $3 million dollar hit for the studio.
On one hand, I find the film’s enduring popularity baffling. Panama Hattie isn’t a movie per say so much as it unfurls like a night in Vaudeville; a compendium of sketches that never come together as a story but represent some very fine junkets of comedy and song disjointedly thrust together with all the glitter and flash MGM could muster. On that score, I suppose the film works – superficially, at least – but without any staying power to make it truly memorable. Red Skelton, Ben Blue and Rags Ragland are obviously having a good time, and their comedic timing and rhythm is rather infectious. But the film isn’t supposed to be about them and that’s where this critic has the biggest issue. Correct me if I’m wrong but the movie’s title is Panama Hattie – not ‘Three Sailors’ – and as such I expected to see and hear a lot more of Ann Sothern. For a title character, Sothern is woefully undernourished in this film and all the more readily missed when one sees the flashes of brilliance she is allowed to offer us ever so briefly with the limited material she’s been given. In the final analysis, this Panama Hattie is a dud, illustrating rather painfully that not everything that makes money is art.
Warner’s MOD DVD is advertised as remastered and certainly looks that way. The B&W image is sharp and mostly free of age related artefacts. Clearly, some efforts have been made somewhere along the way in both restoration and preservation of the original elements. The gray scale exhibits superior tonality, really showing off George Folsey’s high key cinematography in all its lush glamour. The audio has also been cleaned up and is rather impressively clear and powerful, especially for a film that’s 72 years old. As with most other tiles in the Warner Archive the only extra is a theatrical trailer that shows us a brief – though extremely lavish sequence taking place aboard a battleship that we never get to see in the finished film. 
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

THE BARBARIAN AND THE GEISHA: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1958) Fox Home Video

John Huston’s The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) comes at a particularly perilous juncture in the history of 20th Century-Fox; two years after the departure of studio president Darryl F. Zanuck (or two years into the reign of his successor Spyros P. Skouras). Either way, the creative genius that Zanuck brought to the forefront during his tenure as head is wholly lacking from this lugubrious outing. The Barbarian and the Geisha remains a blemish on the careers of both its director, and its star John Wayne. To Skouras, casting Wayne in anything must have seemed like box office pay dirt. He was, after all, the biggest name in showbiz then and his films always made money. But Skouras was an exhibitor, not a film maker, and merely looking at ways to fill theater seats and studio coffers. Therefore, John Wayne seemed as smart a bet as any.
Regrettably, Ellis St. Joseph and Charles Grayson’s screenplay gave even Huston and Wayne a run for their money. The narrative is lumbering at best, rarely extending beyond the episodic and without any dramatic arch to secure the audience’s attentions for more than few brief moments at a time. Clearly, Huston thought the exotic Far East locations would supply their own intoxicating sense of the miraculous. However, as photographed by Charles G. Clarke they are plain rather than paradise. Despite advertised as being shot entirely in Japan, the use of sets for most of the interiors is rather painfully obvious in Jack Martin Smith and Lyle Wheeler’s Production Design.
The story is set in 1856 in the isolationist town of Shimoda, Japan. U.S. Consul-General Townsend Harris (John Wayne) and his translator-secretary, Henry Huesken (Sam Jaffe) have just arrived via a tall ship to establish an American consulate as per an international treaty agreement between former Consul-Gen. Perry and the Emperor. However, Shimoda’s governor Tamura’s (So Tamamura) interpretation of this treaty varies from Townsend’s. Unable to reach a polite agreement as to whose is correct Tamura denies Townsend any official status and orders him to go home. Townsend refuses. Tamura’s next attempt to rid his village of this ‘barbarian’ - or foreign devil – is to makes Townsend’s stay in Shimoda as unpleasant as possible. To this end, he orders a dilapidated farmhouse isolated from the rest of the community and near the cemetery as the Consul-General’s new home. However, even there Townsend is not permitted to fly the American flag.
Japan is a country riddled in ancient – and mostly unfounded – superstitions. The populace believes that foreigners are responsible for natural disasters. Tamura uses this overwhelming distrust to his advantage, encouraging his people not to sell Townsend and Henry anything in their market square, including food. He also forbids Townsend to travel to their capital, Edo. Townsend does his absolute best to comply with the governor’s rules. But his compliance is even more unsettling to Tamura who had hoped to chase Townsend back to America within a few weeks.
Several months pass. Tamura invites Townsend to a lavish banquet at his home where he gets both the Consul-General and Henry drunk on sakki. The tone of the evening suggests that perhaps Tamura’s opinion of Townsend has somewhat softened, but afterward the governor plants a geisha named Okichi (Eiko Ando) in Townsend’s home to serve as his spy. Townsend accepts his ‘gift’ of Okichi, affording her every courtesy and treating her with the utmost respect, something the girl had not expected. As such, Okichi’s suspicions of this foreigner are replaced with a growing admiration for the man. Their friendship suggests an intimacy never explored in a sexual way, though it is clear that Okichi has fallen in love with Townsend.
After a cholera epidemic forces Townsend to torch Shimoda in order to kill the plague and save many lives, Tamura orders him to sail back to the U.S. immediately. However, the grateful survivors rally to Townsend’s aid, declaring him their saviour and forcing Tamura to reconsider his decision. To fulfill his indebtedness to Townsend, Tamura agrees to escort him and Henry to Edo where he will have the opportunity to convince the Shogun (Hiroshi Yamato) to open up Japan to more international trading opportunities. Okichi accompanies this lavish processional to the Shogun’s palace but for a most diabolical purpose. Tamura has decided to assassinate Townsend before a decision on the treaty can be made. After everyone has gone to bed, Okichi ties a red silk scarf to the door of the bedchamber where Townsend has presumably retired. Tamura creeps into the room in full Samurai regalia to kill Townsend but discovers that Okichi has hidden herself beneath the blankets in his stead; her love for Townsend stronger than her devotion to the governor.
Humiliated by her betrayal, Tamura takes his own life. For her complicity in his death, Okichi is forced into exile. The next day the Shogun passes Townsend’s treaty. As Townsend and Henry head back to Shimoda in triumph, Okichi observes with tear-stained regret for their love that can never be, concealing her shame beneath a black shroud.
From start to finish, The Barbarian and the Geisha is a really dower experience. Even before the film had its debut it was denounced by John Huston after the studio chose to heavily re-edit his 142 minute rough cut down to just barely 105 minutes without his input or approval. In pacing and narration Huston had aimed to make a distinctly Japanese movie.  But 20th Century-Fox elected for a more straight forward ‘Americanized’ approach to the material: the result – a terrible mishmash of both aspirations with Eiko Ando’s fractured voice over narration barely linking the passages together where a great deal of film footage is obviously missing.   
The other problem with the film is that it is based on a rumour about an alleged affair Townsend had with a 17 year old geisha who eventually committed suicide. In Japan, this folktale is widely known, though equally speculated. In America, however, it remains virtually unknown, leaving audiences both past and present perhaps wondering what all the fuss is about. What we are left with then is a tale of political intrigues set at the crux of the Meiji Restoration. Yet, the screenplay cannot decide which path it ought to pursue; the political or the tragically flawed romance between Townsend and Okichi. As such, we get a little of both – a dabbling in too many narrative pies without any of them emerging from the creative oven fully baked to our satisfaction.
Huston’s desire for authenticity is commendable. But many, if not all, of his Japanese actors can barely speak English, adding even more strain to the casual viewer’s engagement with the story. We have to concentrate on deciphering dialogue first.  The edits made after Huston’s removal from the project create a lopsided structure with clumsy dissolves and fades to black, sometimes in what appears to be the middle of a much longer scene. John Wayne and Sam Jaffe do their best in the buddy/buddy moments of the story – but don’t really generate any on screen chemistry that might have at least made their male bonding and friendship a diverting subplot.
The biggest oversight, however, is the romance. It’s just not there. Okichi’s motivations, her transition of loyalties from Tamura to Townsend is never fleshed out. Eiko Ando may be a fine actress, but one simply cannot tell behind the Kabuki makeup with its frozen porcelain façade denying us access to Okichi’s true emotions. Is she genuinely in love with Townsend, or concealing her duty to Tamura from him? Even the final shot, an extreme close up of Okichi’s supposedly panged expression is cryptic at best. John Wayne’s Townsend represents the actor at his most understated and disengaged. He seems to be sleepwalking through his performance, and looks utterly silly in the traditional and period dress he’s given for his audience with the Shogun.  Bottom line: there are infinitely better John Wayne movies (Red River, The Quiet Man, Hatari!, McLintock) out there that have yet to see their hi-def debut. The Barbarian and the Geisha is a particularly poor choice.
I am not entirely certain that the predominantly bluish tint in this Blu-ray transfer is as originally intended by Charles G. Clarke’s cinematography. There’s something off about the colour in general, a lack of vibrancy to any other color except that all pervasive robin egg blue. Flesh tones are pasty orange and reds register as more orange than red. Contrast levels are very weak. Blacks appear as dull gray rather than velvety deep and enveloping. Quite often the overall image quality exhibits a very muddy characteristic with slightly faded colours.
I’m fairly certain Fox hasn’t done a rescan in 1080p for this release. Despite the image appearing smooth and tight, with some examples of fine detail solidly represented, when I directly compared the image of the Blu-ray to the DVD copy Fox has also included in this set, I found little to no discernable differences on my 65inch viewing monitor. Really, color fidelity and fine details looked about the same. Only grain structure marginally improved on the Blu-ray as it should from Blu-ray’s higher bit rate, but not enough to suggest a true hi-def master was involved in the minting of this disc. Frankly, I’m not impressed!
The audio is 4.0 DTS stereo, recapturing the vintage audio of Cinemascope with impressive clarity heard in Hugo W. Friedhofer’s lush – though hardly authentic – score. Fox has slapped together a few vintage excerpts from its Movietone Newsreels and the original theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

THE BIG TRAIL: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1930) Fox Home Video

Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) straddles a fascinating chasm in the history of not only film, but of Hollywood. On the one hand, it represents the foresight, courage and blind faith of William Fox – a film pioneer and entrepreneurial maverick in the industry. During Hollywood’s early gestations, Fox became a force to be reckoned with, building a monopoly that included not only an amalgam of lucrative independent studios (cumulatively melding them into 20th Century-Fox) but also owning his own theater chain and laboratories for processing film; all the while acquiring Loews Incorporated, the corporate entity that had put rival studio – MGM – on the map.
Fox was a creative visionary with a forward thinking plan for the future. He developed the first 70mm widescreen film process – Grandeur – owning it outright, and was determined to make it the next big technology that the other studios would be scrambling to catch up. To this end, Fox commissioned one of his top directors, Raoul Walsh to craft a gargantuan western – one that would break new ground in every aspect of the film making process. Unfortunately for William Fox, this costly venture also broke his bank. With the fallout of the Great Depression conspiring against him, the disastrous debacle that became The Big Trail forced Fox to divest his assets, effectively ousting himself from the company that continues to bear his name.
On the other hand, and in hindsight, The Big Trail is a landmark. Arguably, nothing like it has been attempted since. Staggering were the figures trumpeted by Fox’s publicity department: 20,000 extras, 1400 horses, 725 Native peoples belonging to 5 tribes, 500 head of buffalo, a production staff of 200, 93 principle speaking parts and 22 cameramen. This travelling caravan made their way through Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and California, lugging a cargo of 123 baggage trains over an arduous 4 month shoot. To complicate matters further, The Big Trail would be photographed six individual times; twice for the English speaking version – once in Grandeur and then on standard 35mm film stock, then once more for each of the French, German, Spanish and Italian versions to be distributed in Europe with an entirely separate cast for each foreign version. Given the logistics nightmare of this undertaking, it’s a small wonder that The Big Trail came in on a budget of $2 million.
Even more impressive is the documentarian quality Walsh and his ensemble achieved. The Big Trail is a fictional story, scripted by Hal G. Evarts, Mary Boyle, Jack Peabody, Florence Postal and Fred Sersen, and yet it looks more like a living snapshot ripped from pages of American history. The screenplay articulates the manifest destiny mythology; extolling the morality of the puritan settler who braved the wilds and slaughtered savages to civilize the American west. This grand narrative has since fallen out of favour for obvious reasons, in that it illustrates a rather reckless disregard for the sanctity of Native Americans who occupied the land long before the white European settler. As such, when viewed today The Big Trail represents two histories simultaneously; the one on the screen circa the late 1800s, and an unassuming, yet pervasive racial inequity behind the scenes that permeated our early 20th century social morays and attitudes.
Our story concerns a massive caravan of settlers making an arduous trek from Missouri to the Pacific Northwest. Trapper Breck Coleman (John Wayne) has just returned from a sojourn along the Santa Fe. He fills the apprehensive locals with fantastic stories of his journey. But his optimism is tarnished by the death of an old friend the previous winter. Suspecting murder at the hands of unscrupulous Red Flack (Tyrone Power Sr.) and his henchman, Lopez (Charles Stevens – who was Geronimo’s grandson in real life) Breck reluctantly agrees to scout the settler’s caravan west after learning that Flack and Lopez are heading along the Oregon Trail.
Intent on avenging his friend by murdering Flack and Lopez once they reach their destination, Breck falls in love with Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill), who denies her obvious attraction to him after an accidental first kiss, and thereafter pursues, Bill Thorpe (Ian Keith), a rather notorious Louisiana gambler who is also an acquaintance of Flack. At every possible turn, Flack plots Breck’s demise. After all, the wilderness is unforgiving. It would be so easy to make Flack’s murder look like an accident. Indeed, the caravan endures some harrowing terrain, scaling steep ravines, defending against violent Indian attacks, and crossing strong currents in open waters that wash away several of the ox-drawn Conestoga wagons.
Breck is not so easily defeated. Moreover, the various attempts on his life convince him that he has found the killers of his former partner. Breck confronts Flack, Thorpe and Lopez, forcing this motley crew to depart the wagon train and steal away into the night. During a brutal winter Breck is determined to see the settler’s through to their promised land. After establishing an outpost, Breck takes off after Flack. Ruth, who cannot deny her feelings for Breck any longer, worries that she has lost him forever.
Flack abandons an injured Lopez in the snowy woods where he freezes to death He is stalked and confronted by Breck who kills Flack with his knife. The following Spring Ruth is forlorn. Breck’s loyal sidekick, Zeke (Tully Marshall) tells her that he has decided to leave the valley because he prefers the wide open spaces to living within the settler’s community. Actually, he’s just as distraught over Breck’s failure to return. But then Zeke catches sight of his old friend approaching the outpost from the woods. He encourages Ruth to go in search of ‘a surprise’ he’s hidden for her near the first tree in the forest. She willingly follows his suggestion and is reunited with Breck amidst the towering redwoods.
This fairly pedestrian narrative aside, The Big Trail is a monumental achievement. Its visual compositions are very contemporary, utilizing all of Grandeur’s expansive film frame to its best advantage. Even so, The Big Trail cannot help but feel like a silent movie, its awkward insertion of title cards to advance the story, and its problematic ‘live’ audio recording in vast outdoor spaces without the benefit of post-synced dialogue and effects, inhibit the movie from truly coming to life as it should. And then, there is the acting to consider.
Virtually all of the principles except John Wayne herald from the New York stage with its particular grand style of pronounced gesturing and overly exaggerated speech.  Wayne’s lack of stage experience seems more naturalistic herein. But this isn’t the John Wayne we know from countless other westerns made after The Big Trail. The actor is still feeling his oats – awkwardly so. Although undeniably good to look at – and looking every inch the rugged adventurer – he doesn’t make much of a splash, leaving the film without a strong hero that the audience can cheer.
These shortcomings alone are enough to have sunk The Big Trail at the time of its release. But perhaps what really did the film in was bad timing. The Great Depression making it cost prohibitive to retool theaters with the necessary projection equipment to showcase the Grandeur process, most people only saw The Big Trail in its standard 1:33:1 aspect ratio – restaged and re-shot with less enthusiasm for its pictorial value. Viewed in standard, The Big Trail is a subpar western with woefully undernourished performances. It lacks originality and the breadth of that larger than life canvas that was, is and will always remain the film’s greatest – and arguably, its only – selling feature. At best, then, The Big Trail is a supremely impressive failure.
Fox Home Video has made The Big Trail available on Blu-ray as a Wal-mart exclusive. Oh boy, here we go again! You have to order the disc and then have it delivered to a retail location in the U.S. only. Wal-marts in the U.S. aren’t stocking it on their shelves. Wal-Marts in Canada can’t even get it! So a film that already has a niche market audience gets an even more miniscule opportunity to make breakout in hi-def consumer marketplace thanks to this painfully limited distribution. Dumb! Really dumb!
There’s better news about the transfer, however. While I’m not entirely convinced that this is a complete 1080p rescan – as opposed to a bumped up transfer from older digital files, the elements used are very strong and very solid, the gray scale exhibiting impressive tonality. Fine details are strikingly realized. Despite an impressive restoration, age related artefacts are everywhere. For a film that is over 80 years old these shortcomings are just par for the course and actually, not terribly distracting, although very obvious. 
The Grandeur version is the preferred version, but Fox has also included the standard Academy ratio edition for our consideration. Its image is not nearly as sharp or detailed for obvious reasons; its 35mm to Grandeur’s infinitely superior 70mm. Take my advice. Bypass the full frame version entirely. The audio on both exhibits a woeful amount of hiss and pop. Again, it’s not the fault of the mastering, but simply a faithful representation of the inadequacies of early sound recording.  
Extras include everything that was available on Fox’s lavish 2 disc DVD set from 2008; truncated featurettes on John Wayne, Raoul Walsh, the making of the film and the Grandeur process with some fairly informative commentary by historians and film makers alike. Good stuff. Fox pads out this offering with a DVD copy of the Grandeur version only. Bottom line: recommended for the diehard film historian.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Friday, May 18, 2012

THE BIG HEAT: Blu-ray (Columbia 1953) Twilight Time

The noir detective thriller doesn’t get much grittier than Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953); an unrelentingly bleak urban landscape populated by a rogue’s gallery of despicable hypocrites. Even our hero, Sergeant Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) succumbs to the dark side, becoming an ignominious crusader whose ‘win at all costs’ mentality becomes a destructive force of nature to all the adult women with whom he crosses paths.  The one untarnished love in Bannion’s life therefore remains his daughter Joyce (Linda Bennett).  It is through their brief scenes together that we occasionally share her glimpse of this otherwise cruel, self-destructive man as an ever-faithful father figure. Bannion’s not bad. He’s just surrounded by an all pervasive and consuming evil that has begun to leave its impression on his emotional psyche.  
Directors of film noir often treat the underbelly of high-powered criminal activity at the crux of their stories with an affinity for uber-glamour that curiously aligns sin and corruption with bare human sexuality. This equates to self-destruction. But Lang’s vision isn’t that at all. It’s just frank and unusually very sinister – perhaps truer to the reality of its subject matter rather than guided by the Hollywood conventions of the genre. Sidney Boehm’s screenplay stays relatively close to William P. McGivern’s source material, first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post.
With only a scant 89min. to unravel its yarn, we open on a close up of a gun, and moments later, a suicide.  Officer Tom Duncan has just blow his brains out. His widow, Bertha (Jeanette Nolan) rushes to his side moments after the fatal shot. But she is immediately more interested in the sealed letter addressed to the district attorney that Tom has left behind. Inside the envelope is a confession and a complete dossier of files that could send local mob boss, Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) to prison for life. 
Bertha telephones Mike with the evidence she now holds in her hand, taking precautions to ensure that the information will be sent to the press should anything happen to her. But the unscrupulous widow also uses her late husband’s dossier to blackmail Lagana into affording her a very plush lifestyle. Unable to see his way around her, Mike reluctantly agrees to Bertha’s demands.
Sgt. Det. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is called in to investigate the suicide. And although he concurs with the facts – that Tom took his own life – he is perhaps a bit more apprehensive about dismissing the tear-stained widow’s statement, that her husband killed himself due to ill health, as the ironclad motive.
Dave returns to his wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando – yes, Marlon’s elder sister) and that idyllic depiction of middle-class America where the traditional white picket fence and neatly trimmed lawn suggests sublime domesticity as the perfect picture of a happy home. Only Katie’s not exactly the little women, even if she is all aproned up and cooking up a storm inside the kitchen. No, she’s also a smart cookie with a shoot-from-the-hip approach to life and a keen mind. She doesn’t mind sharing a drag of her husband’s cigarette or a swig from the same glass of beer.
However, the Bannions dinner plans are interrupted by a cryptic phone call from one Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green), an over the hill B-girl who tells Dave to meet her at ‘The Retreat’ – a swinger’s spot in the city. Reluctantly, Dave agrees.  Arriving at the club, Dave asks the proprietor, Tierney (Peter Whitney) to point him in the right direction. Unbeknownst to Bannion he is being spied on by Larry Gordon (Adam Williams); a two bit stoolie working for Lagana, and his plaything, Doris (Carolyn Jones) who enjoys playing poker with loaded dice.
Lucy reveals to Dave that she was Tom’s mistress. She further debunks Bertha’s claim that Tom was in ill health and demands that Dave look into the matter further. But Dave sees no reason to reopen the investigation – none, that is, until Lucy Chapman is found face down on a lonely road with cigarette burns studding her severely tortured body.
Dave returns to The Retreat for a little Q&A with Tierney, who blows a lot of smoke to divert his suspicions, before telephoning Lagana with the news that Bannion’s back on the case.  Dave shows up at Lagana’s home – a palatial estate with an above board surface sheen that only money can buy. 
He confronts the mob kingpin with the specifics of Tom’s case and even goes so far as to accuse Lagana of some involvement in Lucy Chapman’s murder, though he has zero evidence – apart from a very vague hunch. Lagana orders Police Commissioner Higgins (Howard Wendell) to handle the situation and Higgins does just that by asking for Dave’s resignation from the force.
Now Lagana turns to his number one assassin, Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), a cold killing machine who treats all humanity – even his gun moll, Debbie Marsh (Gloria Grahame) - as if they were disposable garbage. Lagana tells Vince to ‘take care’ of Bannion.  But Vince pawns off this assignment on Larry who plants a bomb in Dave’s car. Unhappy chance, that Katie decides to take it for a spin first. The car blows up, killing Katie and leaving Dave with a score he becomes obsessively driven to settle.
After witnessing Vince maim Doris with a cigarette for dealing loaded dice at The Retreat, Dave becomes convinced that Vince is also responsible for Lucy Chapman’s murder. Calmly, he tells Vince to get lost, and Vince – hoping to simply walk away from the heat – does just that, leaving Debbie behind, who follows Dave back to his rented apartment. But she is entirely unaware that her actions are being observed by Larry Gordon. Dave tells Debbie that he finds the thought of possessing anyone who belongs to Vince Stone repulsive.
So Debbie goes home to the penthouse where Higgins, Larry and Vince are all engaged in a friendly game of poker. Having learned of Debbie’s whereabouts from Larry, Vince casually inquires where she has been all this time. But she lies to him, incurring his sadistic wrath. Vince scalds Debbie with a boiling pot of coffee; then orders Higgins to drive her to the hospital. Lagana tells Vince to get rid of Debbie. But she escapes from the hospital, returning to Dave’s room in the middle of the night to beg for his protection.
The next day Dave investigates a used car lot known as a front for Vince’s operations. The new proprietor, Baldy (Rick Roman) tells Dave that the old owner met with an untimely end, but that he knows nothing of the lot’s reputation as a hub for organized crime. Later, however, the lot’s crippled secretary, Selma Parker (Edith Evanson) tells Dave that she remembers Larry Gordon frequenting the lot and later identifies Larry for Dave at his hotel suite. 
Dave bursts in on Larry and threatens him with strangulation unless he talks. Gutless and terrified, Larry spills the beans on Vince and Lagana, but Dave – who had intended to kill Larry afterward – restrains himself at the last possible moment. Instead, he spreads the word around town that Larry is a snitch forcing Lagana to have Larry killed.
Meanwhile, Dave opens up to Debbie back at his apartment, explaining to her that he has reached an impasse in his investigation that can only be resolved if Bertha Duncan dies. Debbie takes this revelation to heart, and after Dave has gone out, steals his gun and goes over to Bertha’s home where she savagely shoots the devious dowager dead. Returning to Vince’s penthouse to settle another score, Debbie avenges her disfigurement by dousing Vince with a pot of boiling hot water. 
She reveals her own scar to Vince before he shoots her. Dave bursts in on the scene, confronting Vince in a shootout that ends with Vince’s arrest. Tom’s letter goes public and Lagana and Commissioner Higgins are indicted for fraud, murder and racketeering. The film ends with Dave, his fragile faith in humanity restored, assuming his old job once more and heading out to investigate another unsolved homicide.
The Big Heat is hard hitting entertainment, but with a morally ambiguous center that occasionally proves problematic. The equivocal ethics of our hero unbalance our overall expectations for the inevitable conclusion. Even though Bannion’s righteousness triumphs in the end, the means by which he has brought about this positive result is very Machiavellian and therefore somewhat blunts our satisfaction of the achievement on its own merit. Perhaps imperfect worlds by their very design demand imperfect justice, but they do not absolve our cinematic heroes from defying the conventional and time honoured wisdom of their genre’s construction and clichés.  
The film’s standout performance belongs to Lee Marvin, and it is a bizarre and telling bit of Fritz Lang’s exposition that, as the audience, we tend to find this diabolical and unrepentant thug more interesting – and perhaps, even more sympathetic – than our flawed hero. Vince Stone is all bad all the time. Yet, reduced to Debbie and Dave’s fatality - two avenging angels who arguably have lost both their halos and their wings – Vince becomes the tragic figure of the final act, caught in a web of their brutal retribution. 
That is an unsettling predicament for the audience to digest: the killer as victim. We don’t get the same sort of ‘crime must pay’ gloss over that accompanies so many like-minded film noirs; rather a sort of vacuous denouement that does not appeal to our ethical satisfaction so much as it reluctantly provides for the obligatory finale. As filmic art, The Big Heat undoubtedly works – just not as one might expect.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray justifies many a sin from the abysmal DVD incarnation minted all the way back in 1999. The full frame image has undergone considerable clean up and some restoration to eradicate age related artefacts. The visuals take a quantum leap forward in both sharpness and exposing fine details. Film grain looks very natural.
Still, there are certain scenes that appear to suffer from slightly blown out contrast levels and a soft haze that obscures details, particularly in faces that are photographed in medium long shot. Perhaps the original film elements are simply beyond repair here, because I see no other evidence to suggest that Twilight Time has been remiss in doing the absolute best with the source materials at their disposal. The audio is mono and very well represented. The only extras are a theatrical trailer and isolated score. Bottom line: recommended. 
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)