Tuesday, July 31, 2012

IRVING BERLIN'S THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS: Blu-ray (Fox 1954) Fox Home Video


By 1954 Marilyn Monroe’s overall popularity had sufficiently crested at Fox so that she could be considered for co-starring in Walter Lang’s lavishly mounted Irving Berlin’s There’s No Business Like Show Business; an elephantine extravaganza whose colossal production values basically mask a threadbare excuse to squeeze in as much talent and songs from the composer’s catalogue as run time and money will allow. There are really two conflicting plot elements at play in this super production – the first in Phoebe and Henry Ephron’s nimble minded screenplay is it’s attempting to tell the familial story about internal strife and struggle on relatively intimate terms. The second is that the story also has to function as a splashy/sexy musical for Marilyn Monroe who, questionably, is its star. The resultant movie isn’t entirely successful at sustaining this balancing act – although there is enough mind-blowing profligacy evenly spread throughout to anesthetise even the most ardent critic from finding too much fault along the way.
The film’s title, of course, derives from one of the most popular songs Irving Berlin ever wrote, first immortalized by Ethel Merman on the stage in Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. That Merman was overlooked to recap her iconic role in MGM’s film version seems an oversight Fox is hell-bent on rectifying in this film. And truth be told, There’s No Business Like Show Business is really much more Merman’s movie than it is Monroe’s.  We don’t meet Monroe’s character, Victoria Hoffmann until 25 minutes into the movie, and even then rarely get to see her except in a few well-placed frothy and escapist production numbers inserted to spruce up the rather lugubrious narrative.
Our story begins in 1919 with the Donahues, Terrance (Dan Dailey) and Molly (Ethel Merman) who are big time headliners on the Vaudeville circuit.  Ten year old Steven (Billy Chapin), six year old Tim (Donald Gamble) and four year old Katie (Mimi Gibson) are put in the care of kindly Father Dineen (Rhys Williams) while their folks are on the road. But after Tim masterminds a daring escape from the school that is foiled by Dineen, he encourages Terrance and Molly to take a more proactive stance in their rearing. One by one the children enter the act until the entire family is headlining at New York’s Hippodrome as The Five Donahues. Despite being very close knit, Molly senses that the children are slowly moving away from the family unit.
Tim (now played by Donald O’Connor) is a fairly wily womanizer whose latest fling with chorine Lillian Sawyer (Robin Raymond) is doomed after he falls head over heels for sultry chanteuse Victoria Hoffmann (Marilyn Monroe). Molly asks Terrance if he tried talking to Tim about girls yet, to which Terrance glibly replies “Yeah, but he wouldn’t give me any phone numbers. Are you kidding? That would be like me teaching Dempsey how to fight!”  In the meantime, the introspective Steve (now played by Johnnie Ray) has gone off for a long soul searching walk at night and Katie (now played by Mitzie Gaynor), having dumped her devious date (Alvy Moore), has also left to do the same. Steve and Katie return home well after midnight, incurring both Terrance and Molly’s concern. Katie requires six dollars to pay for her taxi, but Steve informs the family that he has decided to become a priest; a vocation he feels compelled to pursue. Terrance is outraged by what he perceives as Steve’s impromptu choice but Katie encourages prudence and a kind word, saying that Steve may someday become a cardinal.
In the meantime Tim stumbles in very drunk, having made a valiant attempt to woo Victoria that was rejected outright. Molly takes Tim upstairs and attempts to sober him up by repeatedly dunking his head in the sink and then putting him to bed. Days later, Terrance and Molly decide to throw Steve a farewell party as he prepares to enter the church. Publically they’re all smiles, but later share a good cry together – still believing that Steve is giving up his innate talents as an entertainer.
The Four Donahues leave for Florida to continue their winter bookings. There Tim is reunited with Victoria (rechristened Vicky Parker) who is scheduled to open their act. In the interim, Vicky has made remarkable progress in her career, thanks to the influence of producer Lew Harris (Richard Eastham). After Tim gets the family to change their act – because one of the numbers is a big part of Vicky’s opener – the two become social and then friendly, all the while with Tim wishing for more. But Vicky’s not about to blow her connections with Lew for Tim and this leads to some very unhealthy friction between the two.  Molly labels Vicky as the bad influence even though Tim is clearly the one who is investing too much of himself in their relationship. When Tim gets drunk yet again and wraps his car around a tree Terrance decides to go to the hospital and lower the boom.
Disillusioned and utterly ashamed of himself, Tim checks out of the hospital and all but disappears from the family. Molly initially blames Terrance for Tim’s departure; then comes to her husband’s aid as he sinks deeper into his own depression over having miscalculated his father/son relationship. Meanwhile, Katie has begun a romance with Charles Gibbs (Hugh O’Brien); the producer of the latest show she and Vicky are appearing in together. The show was to have also included Tim. In his absence, Molly enters the cast and makes a success of the part. Terrance leaves home in the dead of night, determined to locate his missing son and restore their fractured relationship. Steve, now a priest, comes to the family’s aid, searching every new lead in the hopes of finding Tim safe and sound.
At a benefit for the Hippodrome, Molly is forced to share a dressing room with Vicky whom she has come to bitterly despise and blame for Tim’s falling out with the family. However, Molly cannot bring herself to hate Vicky, particularly after she hears her side of the story. As they say, “the show must go on!” Molly takes to the stage alone to belt out a rousing rendition of ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ only to discover Tim waiting for her in the wings along with Steven and Katie. Having done a lot of growing up in their absence, Tim has enlisted in WWII as a soldier and will probably be sent overseas. Terrance arrives and the family, tearful but happy once more, are reunited on the stage to perform an impromptu version of their biggest hit, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ before breaking into the film’s title tune once again.
There’s No Business Like Show Business is a highly enjoyable bit of super kitsch despite its maudlin trappings, primarily because the cast are all pros at the top of their game. They sell this gaudy bunk like high art and, more often than not, manage to convince us of as much along the way. From a purely nostalgic perspective, we get to see and hear Ethel Merman belt out one of the most popular entertainment anthems of all time like nobody else really can. Dan Dailey and she are believable as the oft’ harried parents of this musical dynasty. And there is at least one moment (occasionally two) for each of the film’s stars to brilliantly shine in the extensive Irving Berlin repertoire.  Everyone appears in the title number and in Alexander’s Ragtime Band – the latter an utterly gargantuan number that takes us around the world. Merman and Dailey do a Germanic rendition; Mitzi Gaynor, with a sultry Parisian flair and Donald O’Connor excels in the campiest of Scottish lampoons. But the standout belongs to Johnnie Ray – who eschews the intercontinental theme to electrify us with a contemporary jazz version. Ray also gets a plum solo ‘If You Believe’ – a rousing spiritual straight from Tin Pan Alley.
In retrospect, it’s really Marilyn Monroe who is undernourished by the film’s musical program. She begins strong enough with the sassy ‘After You Get What You Want You Don’t Want It Anymore’, but then has a hard time living up to that opener. Her next appearance is in the ill-fated tropical themed ‘Heat Wave’ one of the most egregiously awful versions of that Berlin standard. Monroe then appears with O’Connor and Gaynor in ‘Lazy’ – shot as a rehearsal that simply fails to ignite. The unevenness of Monroe’s musical performances make There’s No Business Like Show Business an odd inclusion as part of Fox’s Forever Marilyn Blu-ray box set – especially with two other seminal works from Monroe (Niagara and Bus Stop) still absent from hi-def. Don’t get me wrong. I like There’s No Business Like Show Business. But I don’t quite see it as a Marilyn Monroe movie. It’s more a musical with Monroe on the side.
This film has always looked solid on home video, thanks primarily to its original limited theatrical engagement and preservation efforts along the way. But Fox’s Blu-ray reincarnation is a travesty. Why? Well, my best guess is that they’ve used the same tired digital source elements directly imported from the 1997 DVD release. There’s just no excuse for the image to be this weak – period. Not only is contrast lower than expected, colours that were robust before are now muddy and dull. Fine detail is virtually lost in every scene and grain is exponentially exaggerated to the point where it looks digitally gritty. There’s also video noise in fine background detail. This is awful – pure and simple. What a sham and a shame! The audio is DTS 5.1 and marginally improves from the Dolby tracks on the DVD. Extras – yep, you guessed it. None!  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5
EXTRAS
0

A SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: 

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's passing, renown U.K. author and columnist Julie Burchill delivers a fascinating revisionist's theory on the legend's final days at High 50. Click on this link to explore.  http://www.high50.com/archives/culture/marilyn-monroe-lives-50-years-on-julie-burchill-rewrites-history

HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE: Blu-ray (Fox 1953) Fox Home Video


The very first comedy to debut in Fox’s newly patented Cinemascope was Jean Negulesco’s How To Marry A Millionaire (1953); a breezy enough bonbon that brought together three of Fox’s most bankable stars for the first and only time. Immediately following Darryl F. Zanuck’s announcement that all subsequent Fox movies would be shot in Cinemascope the studio laid an ambitious track of projects to capitalize on the newly expanded proportions of their movie screen.
That girth didn’t necessarily translate into more substantive cinema. In point of fact, stories became simpler and camerawork more static, all in service of filling the 2:35.1 image with a lavishness befitting the expanded horizontal plain.  In this respect, How To Marry A Millionaire doesn’t seem to fair quite so badly as some other Fox comedies. The screenplay by Nunnally Johnson is a spritely concoction of merriment and mix ups too naïve, but serviceable nonetheless. Audiences get what Cinemascope promises; ‘more’ of everything stretching as far as the eye can see.
Early Cinemascope had its drawbacks to be sure. The concave lens tended to cause vertical objects to warp inward, especially if placed near the edge of the frame. Cinemascope also used colour by DeLuxe – vegetable based mono pack processing incapable of reproducing the vibrancy of Technicolor’s metal dyes. Also, because Cinemascope utilized standard 35mm film, the compressed image in the camera became less smooth with exaggerated grain when uncompressed on the elongated screen. Finally, early Cinemascope lens made close-ups virtually impossible, lest the actor getting too close to the camera suffering from ‘the mumps’ – a horizontal stretching that artificially flattened and fattened faces and figures. To Negulesco’s credit, most of these technical hindrances are kept at bay in How To Marry A Millionaire; the one exception being Cinemascope’s need to fill every inch of each shot with action, lest the image become static and dull.
One advantage of Cinemascope was its utilization of true stereophonic sound. How to Marry A Millionaire takes full advantage of this ‘new’ technology, particularly in Cyril Mockridge’s frothy score, winningly conducted by Alfred Newman. We open on a static master shot of the 2oth Century-Fox orchestra conducted by Newman in a full blown orchestral arrangement of his famous ‘A Street Scene’ (something of a studio anthem since 1931, inserted presumably to set the cosmopolitan mood of all the frenzied antics to follow) before dissolving into the film’s brassy main title sequence.
Betty Grable had been Fox’s reigning blonde throughout the 1940s and was rounding out her tenure by the time she was assigned the role of always hungry super model, Loco Dempsey. At first Negulesco worried that Grable might be resentful of Marilyn Monroe. But actually Grable was every bit the star and the lady, telling Monroe, “I’ve had mine. Now, go out and get yours.” To this mix was added Lauren Bacall, one of Warner Brother’s most identifiable leading ladies.
How To Marry A Millionaire is a film that could only have been made during the 1950s; the flighty escapades of its dippy heroines par for the course of that decade’s sexual stereotyping; ‘the little woman’ at odds with these three hapless schemers out on their seductive lark. Nunnully Johnson’s screenplay is cliché to a fault and begins with resourceful fashion model, Schatze Page (Lauren Bacall) arriving as the grand dame in furs to inspect a fashionable Sutton Place penthouse recently on the market.  
It’s Schatze who’s come up with the plan of renting the address and using it to snag a ‘rich’ husband. Loco (Betty Grable) can’t wait to get started and has invited fellow model, Pola Debevoise (Marilyn Monroe) to partake in the experiment. However, without her glasses Pola is as blind as a bat. This leads to all sorts of interesting screw ups along the way, especially since Pola is convinced that men don’t like women who wear glasses because it makes them look too intelligent.   
As the girls move in they are unaware that their present digs once belonged to Freddie Denmark (David Wayne), who has avoided the IRS by living in Europe, but infrequently makes house calls, skulking around while the girls are out in search of the evidence that will exonerate him of the charges of tax evasion and fraud. However, as autumn fades into winter money grows scarce. To keep up appearances, Schatze begins to liquidate the apartment’s expensive furnishing to a pawn broker. By the first few flakes of winter the girls are living off of a folding table and a few fold out chairs.
Loco brings home Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell) – a congenial enough sort who’s helped to carry her groceries, but whom Schatze quickly admonishes and sends away. From past marital experience she has already reasoned that Tom is nothing more than a penniless gas pump jockey and therefore entirely unsuitable. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Tom is actually heir to a vast, multi-million dollar holding company that owns half of Manhattan.
Tom pursues Schatze without telling her who he really is and even crashes a fashion show at Mr. Antoine’s (Maurice Marsac) design house where the three are working, under the pretext of looking to buy a gown for his mother. Although Schatze harbours a deep seeded desire for Tom she puts the breaks on at every turn, determined not to get involved. Besides, who needs Tom Brookman when there’s J.D. Hanley (William Powell), a recently widowed oil tycoon, much too old for Schatze, but infinitely capable of giving her the lifestyle she’s after. In the meantime, Pola – without her glasses – has mistaken Freddie for a friend of Schatze’s whom she infrequently flirts with while trying to get a little closer to J. Stewart Merill (Alex D’arcy), a one-eyed Arab prince who is actually a local con artist out to bilk rich women of their life savings.
Stewart tells Pola to take a plane and meet him in California where presumably they will be married. But she misreads the flight itinerary and books herself on a plane to Kansas City instead. Seated next to Freddie on the plane Pola strikes up a conversation. He thinks she’s ‘quite a strudel’ and encourages her to put her glasses back on. It’s love at first ‘clear’ sight.  Meanwhile, another budding romantic prospect is about to unravel when married banker, Waldo Brewster (Fred Clark) decides to take Loco up to his lodge for a fun weekend of skiing. The stuffy old philanderer contracts the measles instead, leaving him bedridden. Forest ranger Eben (Rory Calhoun) puts the moves on Loco. Although she resists at first, Loco can’t help herself.             
Tom and Schatze spend the weekend together. He wants Schatze to love him for himself and not his money. But she repeatedly tells him she never wants to see him again, even though she realizes it’s no use. The two are inseparable, and bad timing too, since Schatze has already accepted a proposal of marriage from J.D. Determined to go through with the marriage to Hanley, Schatze’s final rejection leaves Tom resentful and disappointed. Realizing she cannot marry Hanley, Schatze pulls out of their wedding moments before the vows are exchanged.
Afterward, Schatze and Tom join Pola and Freddie and Loco and Eben at a local greasy spoon where they laughingly joke over corn beef sandwiches and beers about how close they came to landing millionaires. However, when it comes time to pay the bill, Tom pulls out a wad of hundreds from his pocket, instructing the proprietor to ‘keep the change’. Schatze, Loco and Pola faint dead away. Ebon, Tom and Freddie propose a toast to their wives.
How to Marry A Millionaire is utterly obtuse, yet strangely intoxicating entertainment. At some point – and I’m not exactly sure where in the film that point is – the improbable campiness of the exercise becomes just too over the top to be scoffed at and thereafter translates into something ultimately satisfying.  It’s silly, but good antiseptic fun to watch Monroe’s dim-witted Pola and Grable’s clueless Loco flub their chances to marry rich while Bacall’s scheming Schatze – the most enterprising of them all – manages to unknowingly land the man of her dreams. 
The real star of the film, however, is Cinemascope. Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald exploits the horizontal plain to stellar advantage throughout, photographing his three females stars in interesting (albeit static) compositions or, occasionally finding ways to fill the entire screen with the extended limbs of one star exquisitely lying on a settee. This is Cinemascope at its most frivolously decorous, but it works for the story in unexpected ways.
If the women are mere window dressing, then the men are incidental necessities at best, inserted to make the narrative function – the most cardboard and one dimensional of the lovers being Rory Calhoun’s robust forest ranger. William Powell’s stately oil man – his last role – provides an elegant link to the bygone era of champagne screwball comedies, a quality otherwise lacking in the rest of the film. In the final analysis, How To Marry A Millionaire is more a movie of its time than a timeless movie. That said, it’s entertaining for the most part and sincerely played.
Fox’s hi-def debut is impressive, given all of the limitations of early Cinemascope. We get a bright and generally colourful transfer with some fairly solid detail throughout. Like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How To Marry A Millionaire underwent a photochemical restoration back in the late 1990s to resurrect its thoroughly faded and well-worn image. Don’t expect those ultra glossy, super vibrant images that vintage Technicolor yielded. How To Marry a Millionaire’s colour is monopack vegetable dye based by DeLuxe and that’s a problem. That said, this 1080p transfer accurately recreates the DeLuxe ‘look’. 
Colours don’t pop as much as they’re simply present and accounted for. Also, certain scenes, like the dream sequence, tend to favour a curious blue/beige tonal base. Fades and dissolves experience problematic graininess. Overall, film grain is accurately reproduced. It’s just heavier in between scene transitions. But again, this is vintage Cinemascope in all its…uh…glory. The audio is 5.1 DTS and really surprised me. The Cyril Mockridge score and Alfred Newman’s A Street Scene have acquired more acoustic ballast and were a joy to listen to. What’s not a joy is Fox’s squandering on the extras once again. Nothing except a brief Movietones Newsreel and trailers.    
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS
0

GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES: Blu-ray (Fox 1953) Fox Home Video


Marilyn Monroe: so much has been written about the woman, the star, the legend and her untimely death, and yet so much of her remains an enigma misunderstood to this day. Perhaps the biggest misperception is that she was somehow less of an actress and more of a sex symbol. While it is undeniably true that Monroe exuded a fragile, almost childlike sensuality on the screen throughout her brief reign in Hollywood, it is equally accurate to state that she was one hell of a wit, her blonde bauble-headed appeal so convincingly carried off that even today many consider it her persona rather than an act. Monroe was very clever about marketing herself as a packaged deal platinum goddess. Unfortunately, that branding did more than cling to its product – it enveloped and eventually suffocated any chance she had of breaking out of her own manufactured deception.
Howard Hawk’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) is the film most readily identified with Monroe: the star and the one most instantly conjured to mind, thanks primarily to her galvanic rendition of ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ – a defining and ultimately iconic moment in movie musicals.  Monroe is Lorelei Lee – a simple-minded gold digger with a penchant for rich men in general and diamonds in particular. Lorelei has hooked a big fish with moony Gus Esmond Jr. (Tom Noonan); a wealthy stock broker who absolutely swoons whenever she kisses him. The two have recently become engaged, leaving Lorelei to envision a future filled with unlimited expense accounts and moneyed trips abroad. To seal the deal, Gus has agreed to send the Lorelei and her best friend, Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) on a lavish cruise and Parisian holiday.
Behind the scenes, however, Esmond has hired private investigator Ernie Malone (Elliott Reid) to tail the girls and look for chinks in Lorelei’s fidelity. There are plenty of opportunities aboard ship, as the girls are sailing with the entire U.S. men’s Olympic team en route to France. By her own admission, Dorothy is into corpuscles and muscles. But Lorelei cannot see the benefits in a man without disposable income. “I want you to be happy,” Lorelei tells Dorothy, “…and stop having fun.” To this end, Lorelei compiles a top ten list of the wealthiest bachelors on board and then bribes the ship’s Captain of Waters (Alex Akimoff) to have them all seated at her table for dinner. The move, however, is purely philanthropic, as Lorelei is sincerely hoping to choose a suitable male companion for Dorothy – not herself.  One of the more interesting prospects – at least on paper – looks to be Henry Spofford III (George Winslow). Unfortunately, when Mr. Spofford arrives to table he is revealed as an eleven year old boy who, by his own hilarious admission, is “old enough to appreciate a good looking woman.”
Deflated in her matchmaking, Lorelei and Dorothy retire to the ship’s lounge where they meets Sir Francis Beekman (Charles Coburn); a wily old sod who is not above flirting with Lorelei and plying her with stories of his diamond mind in Africa. Francis is joined by his wife, Lady Beekman (Norma Varden) who shows Lorelei her diamond tiara. That’s all the encouragement Lorelei needs. She’s hooked and pursues a friendship with Francis that eventually turns flirtatious right under Ernie’s watchful eye. Lorelei convinces Francis to give her Lady Beekman’s tiara.
However, once in France Lady Beekman retaliates by making a formal charge of theft against Lorelei. Having learned from Ernie of the incident Gus cancels his line of credit to the girls, leaving them stranded and without a place to stay in the city of lights. Recouping their losses quickly, Lorelei and Dorothy headline Chez Louis; a Bohemian nightclub where they quickly become the toast of Paris. But Lady Beekman has not given up the chase just yet. She orders her attorney, Pritchard (Alex Fraser) to press formal charges and then instructs the Gendarme (Peter Camlin) to arrest Lorelei after her performance.
Realizing what a bind they’re in, Dorothy dons a blonde wig to impersonate Lorelei at the hearing while Lorelei skulks off in search of Francis to prove her innocence. In court, Dorothy does a wicked lampoon of her girlfriend that ruffles a lot of feathers including Ernie Malone’s – who recognizes the switch almost immediately. He remains silent however, having fallen in love with Dorothy and also having second thoughts about what has become of Lady Beekman’s diamond tiara. Hurrying to the airport, Ernie confronts Francis, who is about to flee the country, and upon searching his luggage finds Lady Beekman’s diamond headdress among his belongings. Francis and the jewels are brought before the Magistrate (Marcel Dalio) who instructs Lorelei (still played by Dorothy) to give them back to Francis, who then gives them to Lady Beekman.
Ernie attempts to patch up his relationship with Dorothy. But she spurns his advances even though she clearly has feelings for him. Meanwhile, Gus arrives with his father to confront Lorelei about her infidelity. “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty?” she tells Gus Sr. (Taylor Holmes), “You may not marry her just because she’s pretty, but my God, doesn’t it help?” Father and son have second thoughts about the engagement and Gus openly admits that he cannot live without Lorelei. The film ends with a double marriage aboard ship; Gus and Lorelei, and, Dorothy and Ernie.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an eye-popping, tune filled, light romantic (at times, slightly screwball) comedy. The film is notable for Charles Lederer’s sparkling screenplay, based on Joseph Fields and Anita Loos acidic stage play and also justly famous for its charming score, including the aforementioned ‘Diamonds are A Girl’s Best Friend’, ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love?’, Bye-bye, Baby’, ‘When Love Goes Wrong, Nothing Goes Right’ and Two Girls from Little Rock’. Howard Hawks directs his first and only musical like a veteran of the genre with a slick glossy veneer that is as intoxicating as it proves iconic.
There’s real onscreen chemistry between Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. It’s a genuine pity they were never reunited on another project. Russell’s inimitable brand of shoot from the hip sensuality is the perfect foil for Monroe’s cockeyed and thoroughly misguided optimism. Charles Coburn is a real gem – his blood shot eyes and bald pate quivering comedic brilliance throughout, as in the moment when Lorelei tells Sir Francis, upon first meeting him, that she thought he would be a lot older. “Oh my dear, my very dear,” schmoozes Coburn before suddenly reacting with indignation at the thought that he is being lied to, “Older than what?!?” to which Russell’s Dorothy replies, “The pyramids!”  
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is often criticized for having a weak third act, and I must admit that the double wedding that closes the show seems a tad rehearsed, and more of a last minute tack-on than a clever denouement. But overall the story continues to hold up with a freshness and vitality that few musicals have or have been able to sustain some seventy years after they were first made. Monroe and Russell are a winning pair and the songs continue to make our toes tap and our hearts sing. There is a lot to admire herein and I have no doubt that generations to come will continue to regard Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a high water mark in both the musical genre and the career of Marilyn Monroe.
That the film’s overwhelming success at the box office had the adverse effect of catapulting Monroe to super stardom, but solidifying her reputation as America’s favourite ditz and nothing more is, in retrospect, regrettably because Monroe proved she had more to offer us in films like Don’t Bother to Knock, The Asphalt Jungle, All About Eve and Niagara. But Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is also vintage Monroe – iconic and trend-defining – so much that even seventy years later artists as diverse as model Anna Nicole Smith, pop singer Madonna and actress Nicole Kidman have been inspired to channel the Monroe charisma – though never her incurable innocence - as part of their own iconography. Men may indeed ‘grow cold as girls grow old’, but the charm of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes will never lose its appeal.
This film has always looked stellar on home video thanks to some ambitious photochemical restoration along the way, so it’s no surprise that Fox’s new Blu-ray looks impressive to say the least. What is astounding is how much more refinement we get in colour detail overall. For example, I never before realized that Monroe’s elbow length gloves (worn in the Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend number) are two tone pink – violent fuchsia pink on the outside, muted powder puff pink on the palms.
Overall, the image is vibrant. We get flesh tones that look very natural as opposed to the slightly orange tones on the DVD. The wow factor is here too. Fine details abound. Contrast levels are smack dab where they ought to be. The occasional – very brief – scene can look somewhat soft, but overall this transfer perfectly preserves Harry J. Wild’s stunning cinematography. This is a reference quality offering from Fox. Bravo! The audio has been remastered to rechanneled stereo DTS. It’s solid, while preserving the inherent shortcomings in vintage audio recordings. The one colossal disappointment on this disc – NO extras! We get the same junket of trailers for this and other Monroe movies and a short Movietone Newsreel that marked Monroe and Russell placing their hands and feet in Grauman’s Chinese Theater cement. Bad move on Fox’s part, but I can’t fault the transfer. It’s dreamy!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
5
EXTRAS
0

Friday, July 27, 2012

THE MISFITS: Blu-ray (UA 1961) MGM/Fox Home Video


The last film that Marilyn Monroe fully completed also turned out to be Clark Gable’s swan song: John Huston’s The Misfits (1961). A troubled production expressly penned by Monroe’s husband, Arthur Miller for his wife, it began with high expectations that quickly degenerated into abject chaos. Monroe, who had greatly admired Gable as an actor, quickly incurred her idol’s wrath while testing his patience with her many delays and absences from the set. After Gable suffered his fatal heart attack there were those who quietly blamed the strain of working with Monroe as its cause. In hindsight, The Misfits seems a terrible idea – not from a narrative perspective – but from a casting standpoint. Monroe’s emotional state was imploding even before production began; her constant need for affirmation and chronic abuse of alcohol and sleeping pills adding toxicity to her already fragile ego. Montgomery Clift was battling his own demons exacerbated by a severe dependency on painkillers; his means of coping with the loss of his good looks after a near fatal car accident in 1956.
Daily, there were problems on the set, from Monroe’s frequent inability to coax herself out of her dressing room to Clift’s outbursts that materialized in the form of drug-induced temper tantrums. Gable was caught in the middle. A no nonsense guy committed to his work, he frequently relayed his mounting displeasure to Huston who had to agree that the project was fast becoming a frenzy he only hoped to survive. In the middle of the shoot, Huston effectively shut down production for two weeks to send Monroe to detox, resulting in a painful withdrawal that made her even more unmanageable upon her return. 
Everyone’s distemper was aggravated by the intense 108 degree heat in the Nevada desert. And Huston threw in his own lot into these disappointments when his mounting gambling debts forced United Artists to cover his tab. Worse, Huston and Miller severely clashed over the script that Huston eventually rewrote to his own liking much to Miller’s chagrin. The film effectively killed Monroe’s marriage to Miller and was box office flop when it premiered – a strange and sad pity, since The Misfits is a rather interesting and often underrated intense drama about flawed human beings. In this regard, The Misfits is most definitely appropriately cast.
We begin in Reno with the finalization of a divorce between Roslyn Tabour (Monroe) and her husband Raymond (Kevin McCarthy). Ros’ is rooming with feisty Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter); a devil-may-care matriarch who’s recently broken her arm. Guido (Eli Wallach), a garage mechanic with a roving eye, is first introduced to this Mutt and Jeff pair when he is called in for an appraisal on Ros’ new car, severely dented on the driver’s side. Guido takes an immediate, though unrequited, shine to Ros’. He also makes the big mistake of introducing Ros’ and Isabelle to his good buddy, Gay Langland (Clark Gable) – a rough around the edges middle-age cowboy who’s retained his buckin’ bronco good looks and still has an eye for the ladies.
Gay and Guido invite Ros’ and Isabelle to Guido’s house in the country; actually a shack set against a mostly barren landscape that has been left unfinished ever since Guido’s wife died in childbirth. The foursome throws a pity party with some heavy boozing. Gay decides to take Ros’ home to sleep it off. He confides in her that he has hardly been an exemplary father to his children from a previous marriage and she sympathizes with his desire to re-establish a bond with them. The next day Gay and Ros’ return to Guido’s shack and begin to fix it up. Ros’ is horrified when Gay kills a rabbit that’s been eating from their garden. When Isabelle and Guido show up, Gay suggests that they might raise some money by capturing wild mustangs to sell.
The job, however, will require an extra pair of hands belonging to Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift); a washed up, penniless would-be rodeo star and personal friend of Gay’s, who is desperate to compete once again. Gay pays for Perce’s registration in the rodeo, knowing that he has just thrown away his money. Perce is a broken man, his thirst for competition unequalled by his abilities. As if to reiterate the point, Perce rides a wild buck, but is thrown from his mount in a most unglamorous middle-age sprawl. Sympathetic, Ros’ urges Perce to go to hospital. Instead, he advances to the bullpen where he is thrown again, this time suffering a concussion.
Still playing the part of the he-man, Perce ignores his injuries. He takes Ros’ dancing at a rowdy nightclub with Gay, Isabelle and Guido, but passes out in her arms in a back alley. Terrified and saddened Ros’ weeps over his body. Her tears revive him and Perce confides a sad little truth about his own life; that no one ever loved him enough to genuinely feel his pain. He tells Ros’ that his mother betrayed his late father’s wishes to leave him their ranch after she remarried.
A slovenly and intoxicated Gay bursts in on the scene, dragging Ros’ inside the club to meet his adult children who just happen to be inside. However, upon returning to their table Gay finds that his children have already left – apparently embarrassed at having run into him. His pride wounded, Gay makes a public spectacle of himself inside the club. Ros’ leaves with Guido, Isabelle and Perce. Guido inquires whether she has broken off with Gay for good and even offers to take Gay’s place.  
Back at Guido’s house Perce awakens and begins to tear at his bandages. With great compassion, Ros’ convinces him to settle down before gingerly putting him to bed. Afterward, Gay – still very drunk but now rather contrite - confronts Ros’ with a sheepish apology. He asks if a woman like her would ever consider having a child with a man like him. Understandably surprised and confused, Ros’ skirts the issue and Gay, assuming her evasiveness to be outright rejection, decides to go to bed.
The next afternoon, Gay, Guido and Perce set out to catch some mustangs. The men’s brutal wrangling manages to corral a stud and four mares. Ros’s reluctance at observing their capture turns to horror when she learns that these vibrant animals are to be sold for dog food. She tells Gay she did not expect to fall for a killer and pleads with him to set them free. Gay refuses. Guido tells Ros’ he will do as she asks if she agrees to be his woman. Disgusted by the quid pro quo offer Ros’ rebukes Guido. Perce, who is genuinely compassionate, offers to release the horses. But Ros’ declines, afraid that his actions will result in a confrontation between him and Gay. Undaunted, Perce unties the horses. They waste no time in running wild. Gay pursues the stallion and manages to subdue him but then decides to let it go.
He tells Ros’ that he didn’t want anyone to make up his mind. But his actions have spoken louder than his words and Ros’ willingly takes her place alongside him in the cabin of his truck. As the two drive away under a starlit canopy, Ros’ reveals that she would have his child, so long as someone is around to ensure it grows up with a genuine sense of humanity.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see why The Misfits tanked at the box office. The film’s downtrodden themes of human corruption and betrayal, typified in the story’s climactic capture and release of the mustangs, seem grossly at odds with the moralizing tenor of the late 1950s. And while counterculture would come to dominate 60s cinema throughout the latter half of the decade, the complete annihilation of sweetness and light in American movies did not occur until well into the 1970s, ergo, The Misfits was a film perhaps ahead of its time and very much out of step with then current audience’s expectations.  
The Misfits also takes three of Hollywood’s biggest stars – Gable, Monroe and Clift – and turns their iconography asunder. Gable’s magnetically rakish persona is remade into a brutish, often socially repugnant antihero. And while Gable acquits himself quite nicely of this refurbishment, his star power isn’t enough to convince the audience that he’s only fooling around – that, somewhere beneath his disreputable Gay there still lurks the old Clark we’ve all come to know and love.
The same is true for Monroe and Clift.  Arguably, Clift’s greatest strength as an actor was always in being able to retain an air of masculinity while playing morally ambiguous and fundamentally flawed heroes like George Eastman in A Place in the Sun (1951) or Father Michael Logan in I Confess (1953). But these films had the benefit of Clift’s own inner confidence. This was destroyed along with his face in the 1956 auto accident. Without that inner glow of male bravado Clift’s performance in The Misfits becomes that of an utterly catastrophic, somewhat emasculated, lost and very haunted soul His lasting impression on the audience is more pathetic than sympathetic.
As for Monroe, she eschews all sense of glamour – the one immediately identifiable hallmark associated with her usual on screen charm. Worse, her years of alcohol and pill abuse are apparent in the way she looks on camera. Does this make her more ‘real’ in the part of Ros’? Arguably, yes. But she is still Marilyn Monroe - suddenly at odds with our expectations – the worst kind of conflict any actor can have and a real uphill climb for Monroe, who has to double her efforts to alter that perception for the film’s benefit. Monroe’s Ros’ never scales such heights. Instead, and perhaps even more so in hindsight, we see the glaring cracks in her own paper thin ego. She’s exposing too much of her inner demons in service of the character and it serves neither the actress nor her alter ego well.    
Don’t get me wrong – I genuinely enjoyed The Misfits. But in hindsight at least its unerringly bleak outlook on life in general seems a bitter brew of obvious reflections on Miller’s part, shaped by his divorce from Monroe. (Miller would marry staff photographer Inge Morath shortly after the film’s completion).  Knowing that Monroe would be dead within a year following The Misfits premiere undoubtedly also coloured my viewing of the film. Although she embarked upon the filming of a frothy screwball comedy, Something’s Gotta Give, this was never completed before than untimely end – and until recently, shelved and never seen in its fragmented form, leaving The Misfits as Monroe’s final cinematic legacy to the world.  It’s a dower note, and one that foreshadows the heartbreaking finale of a most unhappy life.
MGM/Fox Home Video offers us a mostly satisfactory 1080p transfer. There are instances where the B&W transfer seems slightly off – a hint of blurriness or out of focus quality that I’m fairly certain the original elements did not contain. Troublesome, but overall, it doesn’t last very long, so negligible at best. The image is at last properly framed in 1:66.1 and enhanced for widescreen monitors so good news there. Film grain is naturally reproduced and contrast seems solid. The audio is mono DTS but very accurately rendered. There are no extras, and that’s a shame.     
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS
0

Thursday, July 26, 2012

SOME LIKE IT HOT: Blu-ray (Mirisch 1959) Fox/MGM Home Video


If I had to pick only one film to define Marilyn Monroe’s movie career in totem it would probably have to be Billy Wilder’s sardonic farce, Some Like It Hot (1959); as cinematically poetic as a men-in-drag comedy caper ought to be, but with an adroit sense of humour about sexuality in general, and, an even more frank critique of the stringent sexual politics circa the button-down ultra conservative 1950s. As co-star Jack Lemmon once pointed out, a ‘sense of humour’ is not about being able to laugh at something that is funny, but rather an appreciation for finding humour in the everyday and then exposing its irony to a much larger audience.
Wilder’s film certainly does that, and has continued to enthral and inspire generations of film makers and movie goers alike. Naturally prone to acidic wit and scathingly risqué situations, Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond (who loosely based their screenplay on 1935’s French Fanfare d’Amour) charted new territory in Some Like It Hot. Upon its release the film quickly incurred the wrath of the Catholic League of Decency, who felt it was a salacious exposé celebrating lesbianism, homosexuality and transvestitisms – all rather ludicrous claims then, and all but incongruous by today’s laissez faire film standards.
Today, it is impossible to imagine anybody but Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in the film. But Tony Curtis was the only star etched in stone when Wilder went to the Mirisch Company to sell his idea. Wilder desperately wanted Jack Lemmon, then a fledgling in the industry. The Mirisch brothers told Wilder that Lemmon lacked box office cache, but that he could have Frank Sinatra and Mitzi Gaynor instead. However, Sinatra failed to show during the prearranged luncheon date, souring Wilder’s interests in working with the actor. When Monroe expressed her desire in working with Wilder again, Harold and Walter Mirisch agreed to the casting of Lemmon as the film’s third wheel, thereby affording him his breakout performance.
As Some Like It Hot is a period piece, the original concept for dressing Lemmon and Curtis in drag was to use actual vintage costumes some of Hollywood’s leading ladies had worn back in the 1920s. However, these quickly proved an ill fit and designer Orry-Kelly was hired to reproduce their vintage look with minor embellishments to accommodate Curtis and Lemmon’s more ample measurements. Reportedly, after stretching his tape measure across Marilyn’s bottom Orry-Kelly told the actress, “Tony has a better ass than yours,” to which Marilyn lifted up her top and replied, “But I’ll bet he doesn’t have tits like these!”
Even before production began, a critical backlash had begun to build. To many in the industry it seemed as though Wilder was stretching a four minute burlesque gag into a two hour movie. The Production Code office was leery over the overt sexuality and the gender bending aspect of the story. But Wilder resisted his naysayers. Even better, the entire cast had fallen in love with the screenplay, treating it as reverently as the Bible.
This attention to perfection did have its drawbacks, particularly with Marilyn’s performance. Prior to committing to the project the actress had suffered a miscarriage – the latest in a series of personal disappointments. Worse, despite her best intentions, her marriage to Arthur Miller was steadily crumbling. Already plagued by insecurities about her own talents, unabated by constant meddling from her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, Monroe grew anxious and often tearful, leaving Wilder feeling drained and more than a little worried that perhaps his greatest asset might not be able to finish the film.
His fears were hardly quelled when a reporter asked Tony Curtis what it was like to kiss Marilyn Monroe. Put off by the question, Curtis glibly replied, “It’s like kissing Hitler,” a comment that ruffled Strasberg’s feathers. It is unclear whether the remark ever made its way back to Monroe’s ear, but its sting continued to linger around the set. Decades later, Curtis suggested that his words were meant more to dissuade the reporter from asking other ‘stupid questions’ rather than as a direct indictment of Monroe as either a talent or co-star. However, it is common knowledge that Monroe’s frequent delays and/or absences from the set created some minor friction between her and Curtis.  Thankfully, none of this brewing animosity shows up on camera.  
Some Like It Hot opens with a bang – literally – when struggling musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) inadvertently witness 1929’s Valentine’s Day massacre orchestrated by Chicago gangster Spats Columbo (George Raft). Fleeing for their lives, the boy’s beg their agent for a gig that will get them out of town – fast – only to learn that the only audition currently available is for a bass and clarinet player in a travelling ‘all girl’s’ band. Joe gets an idea. The boy’s dress up and audition for Sweet Sue (Joan Shawlee). They land the job and board a train to Florida where the band is already booked to headline at the Seminole Ritz (actually the Hotel de Coronado near San Diego). Joe and Jerry – rechristened Josephine and Daphne – immediately fall for sultry ukulele player, Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe); a problematic lust indeed, since they must keep up the pretext of being girl’s themselves in order to stay in the band.
Sugar has a minor drinking problem that Sue is mindful of, even threatening to let Sugar go if she finds a hint of booze on her person. At the hotel another series of complications ensue when Shell oil millionaire, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) becomes infatuated with ‘Daphne’. During his time away from the band Joe adopts the persona of a flashy commodore, complete with a fractured Cary Grant accent. He passes himself off to Sugar as a wealthy patron of the arts, inviting Sugar to his yacht (actually Osgood’s) to go sailing in the moonlight, while Daphne entertains Osgood on the mainland.
Returning to the suite they share hours later Jerry informs Joe that Osgood has proposed and that he – as Daphne – has accepted. Joe tries to explain to Jerry why the marriage can never take place. Of course, the real conflict of interest comes by way of an even more immediate confrontation. It seems Spats and his cronies have decided to host a gangland convention at the hotel.
The boy’s attempt to disappear but are spotted by Spats. In their getaway, Joe confides to Sugar that he is not a millionaire. To his amazement he is told by her that it doesn’t matter. She loves him anyway. Jerry, still dressed as Daphne, hops into a boat with Osgood. En route to Osgood’s yacht Jerry attempts to offer various reasons why they can never be married. To any and all, Osgood dismisses each hindrance, forcing Jerry to reveal his true identity. “I’m a man!” Jerry declares. “Well,” replies Osgood, “Nobody’s perfect!”
This final line of dialogue was written on the fly by I.A.L. Diamond at the eleventh hour of production, under great duress to come up with a suitable ending for the film. Wilder loved it, but others – including Wilder’s wife – were certain it was too weak to sustain a laugh. Nevertheless, the line stayed in, its piquant reference to homoerotic proclivities on Osgood’s part miraculously overlooked by the censors.
Interestingly enough, the first preview at the Bay Theatre in Pacific Palisades was a disaster – perhaps because audiences were unprepared for Some Like It Hot’s raucous comedy. After some minor editing, Wilder held a second preview in Westwood that came off without a hitch. Audiences have been roaring with laughter ever since.
Viewed today, Some Like It Hot has lost none of its timeless allure. Because it was always a period film the premise for the story has never dated. Every frame undeniably belongs to Marilyn Monroe – whether shimmying against her fellow band members during the rehearsal ‘Running Wild’ or seductively cooing ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ to an adoring crowd inside the del Coronado’s ballroom, Monroe – poured into her translucent Orry-Kelly costumes that leave very little to the imagination - dominates each and every scene with a flashy, slightly trashy, allure. As a sexpot she’s just slightly passed her prime; gone enough to seed as it were to be believable as the knock about gal with a body for sin but a heart of pure gold.
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are inspired casting and genuinely affecting as their feminine alter egos with Lemmon’s twenty cent tart playing perfectly off of Curtis’ glacially cool glamour queen. A good portion of Curtis’ feminine’ vocals were dubbed by a character actor after it was decided that the pitch in Curtis’ own voice was still too masculine to be believed. Nevertheless, both actors are peerless. Some Like It Hot would not have retained its legendary status all these years without these two boys in drag.
MGM/Fox Home Video has reissued Some Like It Hot on Blu-ray with a 1080p image that is, at least for the most part, very beautiful. The opening titles reveal a heavier patina of grain than the rest of the film – leading me to deduce that a lot of the film’s visuals have been scrubbed with DNR to minimize grain elsewhere. The more curious anomaly is a general instability in the credit sequence. It bobs vertically, possibly from sprocket damage. Otherwise, we get a fairly impressive and very stable B&W hi-def presentation. The image is dark, but with exemplary contrast, really showing off Charles Lang’s sumptuous cinematography to its best advantage. By my eyes, the image looks just a tad too clean and less film-like than I would have preferred – but overall, this presentation will surely not disappoint.
The audio has been remixed to 5.1 DTS – a blessing for the Monroe songs, with effects and dialogue sounded naturally dated. Extras are all direct imports from MGM’s previously issued 2 disc SE DVD and include four featurettes with archival interviews; one on the making of the film, one on its lasting phenomenon, one where Tony Curtis waxes with Leonard Maltin at the Formosa café, and finally, a tribute to the Sweet Sue’s. We also get a very informative audio commentary and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS
3.5

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

RIVER OF NO RETURN: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1954) Fox Home Video


By 1954 Marilyn Monroe had officially entered her ‘difficult phase’. How much of Monroe’s struggles to remain professional were predicated on her own wilful stubbornness – and how many of her delays and absences from the set due to sudden illnesses and so on stemmed from the actress’s crippling inner demons and insecurities – is open for discussion. But by the time Otto Preminger agreed to direct River Of No Return, Monroe’s behaviour was the subject of much consternation. She did not make a move without advice from her acting coach, Natasha Lytess, who seemed hell bent on giving Monroe stage direction contrary to Preminger’s wishes, thereby irking the already irascible director to new extremes. The result – Preminger spent much of the early shoot doing damage control, and a good portion of the latter half absolutely despising and mismanaging Monroe’s already fragile ego.
River of No Return became a most unbearable experience for all concerned – a genuine shame since Preminger had approved of the casting of Monroe and co-star Robert Mitchum. But Preminger had not been the first choice to direct the film, and in truth, had very little interest in the project in the beginning. Gradually, he found something to inspire his artistic sentiment. But Mitchum came with his own caveat of vices – particularly his boozing, that occasionally got the better of him throughout the lengthy shoot.
It is one of Hollywood’s minor ironies that a movie supposedly set in the north western United States was mostly photographed inside Canada’s Banff and Jasper National Parks and Lake Louise. Location came with its own set of challenges – namely, inclement weather that delayed the shoot several times. Afterward, cast and crew were recalled to the Fox lot for interiors. Yet, despite all this turmoil, River of No Return emerges as a grand and mostly entertaining western frontier yarn. Frank Fenton’s screenplay moves the action along and keeps the narrative tight. Joseph LaShelle’s cinematography is truly stunning, particularly the ‘rapids’ sequence (a combination of location matte work and studio process tank SFX). And Cyril J. Mockridge evokes the haunted mystery of the rugged landscape with his introspective underscoring.
Our story begins among the ramshackle tents of a nomadic town circa 1875. This fragile existence is home for saloon singer, Kay (Marilyn Monroe) and her young charge, Mark Calder (Tommy Rettig). One afternoon Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) arrives in town; much to Kay’s surprise and a virtual stranger to his own son. Matt’s been serving time upstate for killing a man in self-defence – a crime he’s eager to keep hidden from young Mark. Befriending the boy, Matt tells Mark he is taking him back to his isolated cabin and farm deep in the wilderness. It’s a clean and honest life, and after some initial apprehensions Mark willingly leaves with Matt for parts unknown.
Meanwhile, Kay’s fiancée, disreputable gambler Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun) has returned to their tent with good news. It seems he’s managed to swindle a pair of dimwitted prospectors, Sam Benson (Douglas Spencer) and Dave Colby (Murvyn Vye) out of their claim in a poker game. But it is imperative that he reach Council City to file the deed to the mine before either Colby or Benson. Stealing off into the night, Kay and Harry make their way along the rugged terrain. Two unforeseen circumstances make their trek fortuitous; an attack by Indians and a brush with death in some vicious rapids. 
Harry is devious and greedy, but entirely unprepared for the call of the wild. When their raft is nearly wrecked in the rapids near the Calder farm, Matt and Mark rescue Harry and Kay, providing them with a safe haven for the night. Harry offers to buy Matt’s rifle for protection. Unable to part with it for the sake of his own safety, Matt refuses Harry’s offer. But Harry will not be deterred.  If Matt won’t sell him the rifle, he’ll unscrupulously take it just the same after everyone’s gone to bed, ditching Kay in the trade. After all, she’s slowing him down.
At dawn’s early light Matt awakens to the realization that he, Kay and Mark are at the mercy of the Indians. Making their escape down the escarpment to the river, Matt navigates the perilous rapids with Kay and Mark aboard. Kay attempts to discourage Matt from pursuing Harry, reasoning that their confrontation can only end in bloodshed. Matt questions Kay’s loyalty to a man who could leave her and a child utterly defenceless in the wilderness. But Kay challenges his accusations, saying that at least Harry is not a murderer. Mark overhears their conversation and becomes disillusioned about his father.
The spirit of their camaraderie broken, Matt grows remote and commanding toward Kay and Mark. Kay finds him boorish to say the least. However, after Matt narrowly rescues Kay from a wild mountain lion attack she reassesses both his bravery and his commitment in seeing them all safely to Council City. Gradually, the wounded bond between father and son begins to heal. But more important, Kay has begun to harbour genuine affections for Matt. Benson and Colby catch up to the group and another confrontation ensues. After yet another Indian attack, Matt, Kay and Mark arrive in Council City a little worse for the wear but in one piece nevertheless. Matt confronts Harry, who never expected to see any of them ever again. Cocky as ever, Harry casual shoots Matt in the street. Realizing why his father killed another man and went to prison, Mark takes up arms and guns down Harry to avenge his father.
Rushing to Matt’s aid, Mark discovers that the wound is superficial. Matt is patched up by the local doctor and taken to recover. A while later Matt arrives at the saloon in Council City where Kay has found work as a bawdy chanteuse. Realizing that he has fallen in love with her too, Matt interrupts her performance and carries her off, the two destined to return to Matt’s farm with Mark.
River of No Return is an effortless enough western ditty that is easy on the intellect as well as the eye. Does it live up to Otto Preminger’s pedigree as a film maker? Arguably, no: being just a tad too benign and simplistic in its narrative to be considered among the director’s more introspective masterworks. What the film is – is entertaining – and with the expansive vistas luminously photographed to their best advantage, and the voluminous Marilyn Monroe effortlessly cooing, cavorting and caressing the Cinemascope canvass, there’s much to ogle and appreciate even when the story becomes mired in its slightly maudlin romantic clichés. 
We won’t mention Rory Calhoun’s lugubrious turn as the villain, except to say that he’s no match for Robert Mitchum’s laconic tough guy charm. We tend to forget how much mileage Mitchum could get from that lumbering he-man persona. It never changes – much - whether he’s playing a flawed noir antihero (Out of the Past) or gallant G.I. gone to seed and utterly conflicted over his feelings toward a missionary nun (Heaven Knows Mr. Allison).  But it’s Mitchum – a pre-packaged entity as rough and tumble as a bucket of nails. Even silent, when he appears on the screen, it’s enough to have the other men in the frame take one step back while women instantly turn to fawning mush.
But Monroe’s Kay doesn’t quite go to pieces over Mitchum’s Matt Calder – at least not for a long while - and that’s a refreshing twist in their romance. He has to work hard to win her heart and it’s the effort in the exercise that steams up a few frames here and there. But the film isn’t really about Kay and Matt’s stormy and conflicted romantic sparring. It isn’t even about the unbreakable bond between father and son. In the final analysis, River of No Return is all about showcasing its assets – the lush scenery and Monroe, made ruggedly glamorous in her form-fitted blue jeans and low cut cotton blouse. If anything then, the film is an exercise in the relevancy of star power and how, at least during the golden age of Hollywood, it frequently managed to mask - even eclipse - the shortcomings of a very pedestrian tale.
Absolutely don’t care for Fox’s Blu-ray transfer. The image has been excessively scrubbed with DNR, resulting in a waxy look that has been artificially softened. We lose film grain in the process and a lot of fine detail. The night scenes suffer the most, because they’re dark and softly focused. Colours lean toward a blue/gray and brownish/orangey contrast that I am fairly certain was not a part of the original theatrical release. What happened here, I’m not sure – unless Fox has chosen the quick and dirty route once again; bumping up tired old 720p DVD digital elements to 1080p without a rescanning of the actual film elements (which, frankly, I wouldn’t put past Fox).  
I really felt cheated watching River of No Return this way. One digital anomaly we do lose from DVD to Blu-ray is the excessive edge effects that were glaringly obvious. Still, the visuals are unspectacular. The audio is a 5.1 DTS of the original 4.0 stems – much appreciated and fairly impressive given the limitations of audio recording back then. Fox gives us absolutely nothing in the way of extras, just like their old DVD. The more I think about it, the more I suspect this image has been harvested from tired old digital files. Bad idea, Fox. Time to go to the drawing board again!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5
EXTRAS
0

THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH: bluray (2oth Century-Fox 1955) Fox Home Video


Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) is a lightning rod in Marilyn Monroe’s movie career – a film that became synonymous with Monroe - the sexpot movie star, as it proved infamously detrimental to her brief marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. George Axelrod’s Broadway play had been moderately successful in titillating live audiences with minor comedic fiascos of a harried married businessman who finds himself utterly torn between fidelity to his commonplace spouse (currently vacationing with their young son in the country) and his obvious sexual attraction toward the luscious new single renting the Manhattan apartment directly above his own. That the film ultimately evolved into a starring vehicle for Monroe proved problematic; the comedy becoming slightly unbalanced.
The play had been all about the husband’s imaginary fantasies; his nocturnal and daydream musings over ‘the girl’ chronically interrupting his own moral conscience with cautionary voice over narrations provided by his vacationing wife in absentia. The film, heavily rewritten by Axelrod and Wilder, drew its inspiration from Monroe’s sultry iconography – already galvanized in the pop culture as a reigning goddess of the movie screen. Hence, the filmic Seven Year Itch became a tale of sweet naivety inadvertently taunting, rather than deliberately teasing, a married man to absolute distraction.
The movie opens with publishing executive Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) seeing his wife, Helen (Evelyn Keyes) and young son, Ricky (Butch Bernard) off from Grand Central Station. The two are going to spend a carefree summer in Maine. But Ricky has left his canoe paddle behind and this eventually becomes the catalyst to remind Richard that his current bachelorhood is temporary at best and no match against the longevity of his marriage.   
Back at the apartment, Richard meets up with wily, womanizing Mr. Kruhulik (Robert Strauss), his landlord who tempts him to partake in some wild carousing while their wives are away. Feeling secure – that he would never stoop to such disreputable and slovenly weakness – Richard cordially bows out of Kruhulik’s invitation. Instead, he retires to his apartment to proof a copy of Dr. Brubaker’s (Oscar Homolka) latest book on psychoanalysis that Richard’s firm is thinking of representing. Regrettably, Richard gets the surprise of his life when his new upstairs neighbour – the unnamed ‘girl’ (Marilyn Monroe) buzzes him to let her back into her apartment after forgetting her key. The innocent is oblivious to Richard’s immediate attraction to her.
She befriends Richard without question, tells him all about her modeling career and her inability to understand men who chase after pretty women simply because they can. As a pledge of good faith Richard invites the girl down to his apartment after learning that hers has no air conditioning but soon begins to question his motives. The girl arrives with potato chips and champagne. Richard plays Rachmaninoff’s second concerto, a mood piece for his grand seduction.
However, with absolutely no head for classical music, the girl is instead stimulated by the more simplistic Chopsticks. She takes her place next to Richard on the piano bench and proceeds to match him note for note. Still unaware of the powerful lust she has ignited in her host, the girl becomes bemused when Richard stops playing the piano. He attempts to satisfy his desire by taking her in his arms and kissing her. The two lose their footing and tumble to the floor, the jolt suddenly awakening Richard to his moral duty in Helen’s absence.
“This never happened to me before,” he sheepishly admits.
“Really?” the girl guilelessly replies, “Happens to me all the time.”
Stricken with an immediate nervousness, Richard escorts the girl to his front door with a sincere apology. But he lies awake all night imagining scenarios; some that have him and the girl passionately involved, and others more disconcerting where she uses her stint as ‘The Dazzle-Dent’ toothpaste spokeswoman to reveal to her audience that Richard Sherman is a devious and philandering cad.
To diffuse his anxieties, Richard makes several sincere inquiries to Dr. Brubaker before reluctantly agreeing to see the girl again, only this time in a public place. The two attend a screening of Creature From The Black Lagoon. Afterward, the girl hypothesizes that the monster in that film is severely misunderstood and just wants to be loved like everyone else. Richard finds her empathy refreshingly sweet, and is even more amused a few moments later when a strong updraft from the subway grate causes the girl’s billowy white skirt to dramatically rise above her knees.
Richard returns home to take a phone call from Helen who implores him to mail Ricky’s paddle to Maine. Richard agrees, but is somewhat put off to discover that Helen has been spending quite a bit of her free time with beefy Tom McKenzie (Sunny Tufts); their next door neighbour who just happens to be vacationing in Maine too. Imagining a lusty affair between Helen and Tom, Richard pursues ‘the girl’ – encouraging her to stay in his air conditioned apartment during the interminable heat wave.
Kruhulik returns from a night of boozing and accidentally catches a glimpse of the girl, bare legged and cooling herself in front of the window unit. Concerned that Kruhulik might misconstrue the moment as salacious, Richard attempts to diffuse his landlord’s interest in the girl. But afterward, feeling guilty as ever, Richard decides he must put an end to their largely imagined affair.
The next day, Tom McKenzie arrives to collect Ricky’s paddle. Having blown Tom’s influence over Helen all out of proportion, Richard assaults Tom in his living room before seizing the paddle and dashing down the street – presumably en route to save his marriage by spending the rest of the summer with Helen and Ricky in Maine. The girl, still in her terrycloth bathrobe and curlers, leans out of the Sherman’s front window, clutching Richard’s shoes and waving seductively goodbye.
The Seven Year Itch is delightfully obtuse in its premise; a real fifties time capsule of societal impressions about men/women, relationships, and love vs. lust. The revisions made to the source material – to accommodate Monroe’s presence and the production code - are still a little rough in spots and infrequently interrupt the narrative flow of the piece. But Wilder and Axelrod have done a lot of smoothing out to ensure that the audience won’t mind – much.
The infamous skirt blowing/subway scene – perhaps the most iconic of any in a Monroe movie - as it appears in the finished film is not as it was originally shot in downtown Manhattan. Wilder had to set up roadblocks to keep film fans away. But as Monroe’s husband, Joe DiMaggio looked on, the powerful klieg lights made the actress’s panties translucent, much to DiMaggio’s jealous chagrin. Worse, the scene had to be reshot several times, giving the crowd a real show.
Monroe took it all in stride. But when the censors saw the rough cut they demanded Wilder reshoot the scene from a higher angle, the billowy pleats obscuring all but a fleeting glimpse of Monroe’s ankles and calves. The Seven Year Itch’s poster art would use actual stills taken during the Manhattan shoot to create memorable poster and billboard art. But the actual film footage of the skirt-blowing sequence was reshot on the Fox back lot months later and heavily edited to reflect the sexual stringency of the Hayes Office.
The Seven Year Itch is something of an oddity in Marilyn Monroe’s body of work. She is its star and a magnetic presence while on the screen. But a lot of film’s run time is given to Tom Ewell and rightly so, since it’s really his story of sexual frustration the film makers are trying to tell. Ewell’s Richard Sherman is a sympathetic fop – obviously committed/occasionally self-righteous about marital fidelity, but always with his heart in the right place. His dalliances with ‘the girl’ generate a friction that disturbs the status quo, but ultimately convinces him that he is a happily married man.
As for Monroe; she is a marvel as the bubble-headed would-be vixen who cannot fathom why men frequently throw themselves at her head. It’s often been said that it takes genuine intellect to play someone as dumb as this and I have to agree. Every nuance in Monroe’s performance has been meticulously thought out and cleverly timed to maximize her sexual and comedic appeal. Yet, her performance is hardly mechanical even if it is utterly contrived. Monroe plays the audience, as her ‘girl’ does Richard Sherman – like the taut strings of a Stradivarius in desperate need of a very good pluck. In the final analysis, The Seven Year Itch may not be a remarkable comedy but it will give the casual viewer some very good reasons to scratch.
I’m not loving Fox’s new Blu-ray, even though I have to acknowledge its marginal improvements over previously issued DVDs. It is important to note for the record that early Cinemascope movies were plagued by some quality issues such as heavy grain and problematic dissolves and fade ins/outs – just par for the course of the format and exacerbated by some muddy colour processing by DeLuxe; unstable and susceptible to fading almost from the moment the original elements where put into mothballs.
In the late 1980s Fox did a photochemical restoration to correct the colour issues on this and a few other Monroe titles (most notably How to Marry a Millionaire and Bus Stop) that had greatly deteriorated. The results then were admirable. However, it doesn’t appear that much else has been done in the way of digital restoration since to improve the overall vibrancy of the image. The fading is most obvious in whites that continue to harbour a yellowish tint and flesh tones that are still a tad too ruddy for my tastes.
Also, this new Blu-ray seems just a little too softly focused, particularly in long shots where fine detail doesn’t pop as it should. Medium shots fair slightly better. Film grain is present throughout and lovingly preserved as grain – not digitized grit. Dissolves and fades are grain thick and colour faded, but again, more the fault of early Cinemascope than this 1080p transfer. Still, and overall, I was underwhelmed by the visuals. They’re average to just a shade above and nothing to write home about. The audio is a different matter entirely: crisp in 5.1 DTS and with moderate separation and a very strong ambiance throughout.
Fox loads us up with some solid extras. We get a very comprehensive audio commentary by Arthur Kevin Lally and an isolated score. There’s also a Picture in Picture feature on the Hayes Code, nearly a half hour featurette on Monroe and Wilder, 17min. of Tom Rothmann’s Fox Movie Channel waxing affectionately about the film, and the ancient ‘Backstory’ half hour that glosses over the making of the film, plus vintage newsreel footage shot during the New York premiere. Overall, I have to say it’s nice to see Fox Home Video getting back in the habit of revisiting their vintage catalogue on Blu-ray. Frankly, I was beginning to worry. Here’s hoping we get more vintage Fox titles in hi-def outside of the Monroe movie archives. Any bets on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, How Green Was My Valley, Laura, Hello Dolly!, The King and I, State Fair, Oklahoma! and Carousel? Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS
3