Thursday, August 23, 2012

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN: Blu-ray (Universal International 1948) Universal Home Video

In the history of great comedy teams few can hold a candle to Bud Abbott and Lou Costello; two of the most prolific comedians the entertainment industry has ever seen. They began in Vaudeville, made the seamless transition to radio, graduated to movies and then went on to have their own week television comedy sketch series for years. Each has three stars on the Hollywood ‘Walk of Fame’ – one each for their contributions to film, radio and TV. But the teaming of Bud and Lou that, in retrospect, seems like such a foregone conclusion was not immediately apparent to either comedian at the start of their professional relationship. Afterward, the association was anything but smooth. The boys feuded and bickered constantly, but inevitably always came together for the sake of the act and remained ‘friends’ until a row split their friendship for good in 1956.
But in 1948, things were riding high for Bud and Lou. In fact, they were Universal’s biggest and most consistent box office draw, eclipsing Deanna Durbin and the monster serials in popularity. Throughout the forties, Universal saturated the market with A&C movies. During the war the team was consistently ranked as the #1 box office draw in America for four years. But with fame came increasing headaches and Bud and Lou’s desire to not simply repeat themselves in like-minded and low budget regurgitations of their stage work. Universal did attempt to honour the team with solid scripts and ever more lavish production values.
Originally titled ‘The Brain of Frankenstein’, and often described as ‘Transylvania burlesque’, by fans and critics alike, Charles Barton’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) was a movie that neither Abbott nor Costello wanted to make. “Are you kidding?” Lou reportedly told producer Robert Arthur after reading the script, “My daughter can write better crap than this!”
Costello had a point. The original draft submitted to A&C for consideration concerned Doctor Felt, a venomous surgeon who has discovered the secrets of life and death by reading Dr. Frankenstein’s original manuscripts. The good doctor unfortunately misplaces the document while sailing home to America. Aboard ship are two stewards played by Bud and Lou who inadvertently learn that salt, vinegar and baked beans can revive Dracula, the wolf man and the Frankenstein monster. Accidentally spilling this food on all of their bodies, the monsters are predictably revived and wreak havoc on the boys until Dr. Frankenstein arrives with a potion that shrinks the monsters to four inches in height. The film was to have ended with A&C deciding to make a quick buck by displaying these pint size nemeses as a freak show on Broadway.
Throughout the late 1930s and early 40s Universal had been fuelled by Carl Lemmle Jr.’s absolute fascination with tales of the macabre. But by 1945 virtually all of the truly great monsters had been interminably mined of all potential to shock value. The approaching atomic age would strike a final blow for the likes of Dracula, the wolf man, the mummy and Frankenstein with their own particular fascination for giant bugs and space age creatures and aliens. But Universal decided to take one last stab at resurrecting these vintage scares.
A lot was riding on the success of this film, especially after the studio was sold to William Goetz. Primarily known as the son-in-law of L.B. Mayer, Goetz’s personal aesthetic tastes helped to build one of the finest private art collections in the world. Unfortunately, his desire to transform Universal into a prestige studio en par with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had all but forced the company into receivership by 1948. At the start of production on A&C Meet Frankenstein, Goetz told Barton, “Good luck…and God bless you.”
Robert Lees, Fredric I. Rinaldo and John Grant’s final script was a marked improvement over the aforementioned draft. In it, Bud and Lou are Chick Young and Wilbur Gray, an unprepossessing pair of baggage clerks working in a Florida railway station. They receive a long distance call from Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) who forewarns that two crates scheduled for McDougal’s House of Horrors must not reach their destination until he, Talbot, arrives in town. Unfortunately, before Talbot can conclude his conversation with Wilbur he is transformed into his alter ego, the wolf man, and proceeds to tear up his hotel room.
Wilbur is dating Doctor Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert); a sultry vamp whose bizarre fascination with Wilbur’s brain baffles Chick. In the meantime, the easily perturbed Mr. McDougal (Frank Ferguson) arrives to collect his crates. He orders Bud and Lou to deliver them to his wax museum that evening. Predictably, all does not go according to plan. A perilous thunderstorm knocks out the power inside McDougal’s House of Horrors, leaving Wilbur in the dark while Chick goes in search of the electrical box.
Wilbur unearths the contents of each crate; one containing Dracula (Bela Lugosi) in his coffin, the other, housing the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange). After hypnotizing Wilbur, Dracula revives the weakened monster and the two hide behind a curtain inside the waxworks. McDougal arrives with his insurance adjuster and is appalled to find both crates empty. He accuses Chick and Wilbur of theft and promptly has them arrested.
But another insurance adjuster, Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph) has a better idea. She bails the boys out of jail and pursues a romantic attachment with Wilbur, convinced that he will eventually lead her to the missing ‘exhibits’. Wilbur invites Joan to the same masquerade ball he has agreed to go with Sandra. Talbot arrives in town and orders Wilbur and Chick to lock him in his hotel room at night so that no harm will come to them. Wilbur obeys, but then realizes that Talbot has left his luggage in their room. By the time he has returned to Talbot’s suite the man has once again morphed into a wolf. But Wilbur’s own stupidity and good timing ensures his safety.
The next evening Chick, Wilbur and Joan arrive at Sandra’s isolated island castle to collect her for the masquerade. They are introduced to Dr. Stevens (Charles Bradstreet) and Dr. Laos (nee Dracula in disguise) who assures them that they must make the most of life while it lasts. Sandra takes Joan upstairs to freshen up, leaving Wilbur and Chick to explore the castle. Wilbur finds a secret passage where Dracula has hidden the monster and a chase ensues. But attempts to show Chick what he has found repeatedly – and cleverly – fail. In the meantime, Sandra snoops through Joan’s purse and learns her true identity. She alerts Dracula and refuses to go through with their plan to transplant Wilbur’s brain into the monster’s body.
Dracula hypnotizes and then bites Sandra, thereby transforming her into his vampire bride. Joan, Chick and Wilbur arrive at the masquerade first and are met by Talbot once more, and also Mr. McDougal who attempts to bully Wilbur into divulging the whereabouts of his exhibits. Previously determined to fake a headache to get out of attending the masquerade, the boys are surprised when a more complacent Sandra arrives on the arm of Dr. Laos, dressed as Dracula. Sandra encourages Wilbur to go for a stroll with her in the woods while Dr. Laos takes Joan for a spin around the dance floor.
Meanwhile Talbot is once more transformed into a wolf. He accosts Mr. McDougal and nearly severs his jugular. McDougal accuses Wilbur of attempted murder, forcing him to flee into the wood with Chick close behind. Wilbur finds Joan under Dracula’s spell. He is sedated by Dracula’s hypnotic stare and the two are taken back to Sandra’s castle. Early the next day Chick alerts Talbot what has happened and the men charter a boat to the island to rescue Wilbur and Joan. Talbot finds Wilbur first, strapped to a gurney in preparation for the removal of his brain. However, before Talbot can free Wilbur he is transformed into a wolf for the third and last time. The wolf man and Dracula do battle and cause a short in the circuitry in the lab as Chick arrives on the scene.
The monster frees himself from his gurney but is briefly thwarted in his attack on Chick and Wilbur by Sandra who attempts to subdue him with Dracula’s commands. The monster rebels, however, and throws Sandra out the window. Chick and Wilbur race around the castle, hiding in bedrooms and attempting to barricade themselves from the monster’s terror, but to no avail.
They run out the front door, pursued by the monster.  Dracula transforms himself into a bat but is captured by the wolf man, the two toppling from a balcony into the raging waters below. Joan awakens from her hypnosis and is rescued by Dr. Stevens who also sets fire to the pier where the monster is bidding to sink Wilbur and Chick’s boat by tossing barrels of gasoline at it. The monster is consumed in the flames and Wilbur and Chick are saved. Relieved, Wilbur declares there is no one left to haunt them. A cigarette suddenly lights from behind them however and a voice (actually that of Vincent Prince) introduces himself to the boys as the invisible man.
Depending on one’s point of view Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein either provided Universal’s cavalcade of monsters one final bow or made an utter mockery of their prowess to shock and terrorize an audience. Both points of view were expressed in critiques of the film when it had its premiere. But most who saw it, absolutely loved it and for good reason. Lou Costello’s ability to make ‘fear’ funny had been well mined in two previous A&C comedies, 1941’s Hold That Ghost and 1942’s Who Done It?
Viewing the film today, it is a miracle that Lou Costello made it. Before shooting, Lou was stricken with a particularly virulent bout of rheumatic fever that forced him to take an entire year off. He nearly died. Upon his return, first to radio, Lou suffered an even more tragic loss when he was informed that his only son, Lou Jr. had drowned in their backyard pool. The child was not even a year old. Ever the trooper, Lou dove into his work, even dedicating his radio program to his late son and later, establishing a trust fund in his memory.
Meanwhile, Bud Abbott’s epilepsy was gradually worsening. Throughout the shooting schedule Bud knocked off after five p.m. each day over concerns about his condition. He suffered several heartbreaking attacks on the set, each time brought out of his uncontrollable thrashing by Lou punching him in the stomach.
Miraculously, none of this backstage tragedy manifested itself in the film. In fact, Bud and Lou are in rare form. There is a vitality to their sparring, a joyfulness to the excursion as a whole as the boys run like hell from their worst nightmares, only to be repeatedly thrust in their midst with riotous results. A few interesting side notes to consider: first, Lenore Aubert almost didn’t make it into this film. She had begun as a ‘Goldwyn girl’. But her career was nearly ruined after she refused to become Sam Goldwyn’s mistress.
Bela Lugosi had only played Dracula once before co-starring in this movie and was in desperate need of cash. He was not the first actor considered for the role, primarily because in the intervening years Dracula had been played by several other actors in the Dracula sequels.  Eventually, he won the part by default. Boris Karloff had been asked to reprise his role as the Frankenstein monster but staunchly refused, saying that “Abbott and Costello ruined horror movies,” leaving Lon Chaney Jr. as the only actor to consistently play the wolf man through three movie sequels, as well as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Chaney, son of ‘the man of a thousand faces’ was suffering from his own alcoholism and inner demons, reportedly brought on by a lifetime of abuse from his father. Finally, Jane Randolph – who had made a mark for herself in two Val Lewton horror classics, Cat People (1942), and Curse of the Cat People (1944), retired from movies after finishing Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, content to marry well and live a life of privilege apart from Hollywood.
Viewed today, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is one of the enduring masterpieces in Bud and Lou’s canon of classic comedies. Arguably, it is their best work, certainly the one film for which the team are most readily identified and appreciated by their fans. In 1956, after an absolutely crippling financial debacle with the IRS, Abbott and Costello dissolved their partnership for good and on a decidedly sour note. When Lou died just three years later, Bud openly wept, saying that he never knew his old partner was so sick.
Today, Abbott and Costello are as popular as ever. Their films endure not so much for their overwhelming production values, their stellar plots or even their regurgitation of perennially amusing Vaudeville routines ever so slightly refreshed for the movies, but because the boys are obviously having a very good time with one another. Despite their professional and private disagreements, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were never far removed in their mutual admiration and respect for what each brought to their teaming. While critics have often adored them for their perfect comedic timing, audiences continue to love them simply because they are.
Universal Home Video’s Blu-ray is a marked improvement over their previous DVD incarnations. The 1080p B&W image takes a considerable leap forward in extolling all of the gothic charm in Charles Van Enger’s cinematography. Contrast is bang on, with blacks appearing darker and whites much more crisp. The image is quite clean too, although it doesn’t appear to have suffered from undue DNR. Grain is present, if slightly tempered, and age related marks and scratches are infrequent. Overall, this is a very impressive transfer that will surely not disappoint.
The audio remains mono but improves in its crispness. Dialogue sounds more refined. The memorable Frank Skinner score sounds better too. Extras are confined to those that were included on Universal’s DVD. Thankfully, these include some good production notes and an absolutely marvellous audio commentary by historian and author Greg Mank whom I could listen to all day.  Great stuff and highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)



Tuesday, August 21, 2012

THE RESCUERS/RESCUERS DOWN UNDER: Blu-ray (Disney 1977, 1990) Disney Home Entertainment

In retrospect, Disney’s The Rescuers (1977) is an important film, particularly following, as it did, on the heels of the disastrous public response to Pete’s Dragon. As early as the mid-1960s Disney’s once assured supremacy as the purveyors of quality family entertainment had dramatically tapered, especially after Haley Mills departed the back lot. By 1970, the company’s profits were in a very bad way, with feature production down to one or two big budgeted gambles produced per annum. Yet these rarely paid off and occasionally even lost money on their initial run.
Unfortunately, feature animation – the company’s main staple – had not had a flourish of financial success since The Jungle Book (1967). Worse, the original ‘nine old men’ were all reaching the age of retirement. The quiet buzz outside the studio was that the new breed following in their footsteps had very large shoes to fill, but had yet to live up to the Disney legacy. As a result, The Rescuers became something of a watershed feature for the company; a transitional movie in which the creative reigns, pencils as well as paint brushes, were very distinctly being passed on to this next generation of craftsmen.
Based on Margery Sharp’s children’s series, the screenplay patched together by Larry Clemmon, Frank Thomas and Ken Anderson (all Disney alumni) begins on an evocatively foreboding note. A young girl emerges in half shadow from a dilapidated Louisiana riverboat moored in Devil’s Bayou and tosses a bottle from its balcony into the muddy waters below with a hand written plea for help tucked inside.
From here the film moves into its moody main title sequence. The camera pans and zooms in and/or across a series of still backgrounds beneath the plain type credits, sumptuously sketched in very stormy hues of deep navy and dark, murky green. The decision to use still images rather than animate this sequence full out was probably a cost cutting measure. But the integrity of the film’s contemporary setting, the setup of danger and adventure, are not diminished. At the end of the titles, an animated tugboat sails past a hazy backdrop of New York City and we see a few bar harbour mice discovering the bottle that has run aground beneath a dock.
The next day is clear and bright, and as delegates from the United Nations gather for their daily assembly another, very different, congregation is taking place in the building’s basement. Mice delegates of the Rescue Aid Society have been alerted to the bottled message. After the chairman (Bernard Fox) calls upon volunteers, the Hungarian representative, Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor) offers to get to the bottom of things. She also chooses the R.A.S’s janitor, Mr. Bernard (Bob Newhart) to partake in her fact-finding expedition.
After some trepidation, a sense of chivalry overcomes the rather timid Bernard and he and Miss Bianca set out to learn the origins of the letter. Their investigation leads first to the Morningside Orphanage where housecat, Rufus (John McIntire) explains that one of their wards, Penny (Michelle Stacy) has run away after being repeatedly disillusioned about the prospect of ever being adopted by a loving family. In reality however, Penny has been abducted by the unscrupulous Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page); owner of a seedy pawn shop with her bumbling cohort, Mr. Snoops (Joe Flynn).
It seems that Penny has the perfect proportions to fit down a tiny crack inside a dilapidated mine shaft to search for The Devil’s Eye – a fabulous jewel hidden by pirates long ago that Medusa hopes to possess for her own. Bernard and Bianca hire Orville (Jim Jordan) the albatross to fly them from New York to the bayou. They are befriended by swamp rat, Ellie Mae (Jeanette Nolan) and her moonshine drinking husband, Luke (Pat Buttram) who loan Bernard and Bianca the use of Evinrude (James McDonald); a dragonfly using a leaf to ferry them across the waters to Medusa’s derelict riverboat.
Unfortunately, after several failed escape attempts, Penny is forced down into the mine. Bernard and Bianca stowaway in her pocket and together this threesome narrowly managed to escape drowning while prying loose The Devil’s Eye from its skull rock resting place. Medusa double-crosses Snoops, holding Penny and him at gunpoint. But Ellie Mae has rounded up the neighbours; rip-roaring Cajun folk who have been waiting a lifetime to inflict their playful revenge on the old gargoyle. In the ensuing chase, Medusa forfeits the Devil’s Eye and is left stranded on a stump in the swamp to watch as her riverboat sinks into its muddy waters. A short while later, Bernard and Bianca tune into a local TV broadcast and learn that Penny has been adopted by a loving family. The Devil’s Eye is now in the Smithsonian.
The Rescuers is a highly enjoyable film and one I fondly recall watching for the first time from the backseat of my parent’s car at the drive-in. More than that, it proved to be the sure-fire smashing success that the Disney organization desperately needed. Viewed today, it must be pointed out that the animation in The Rescuers is decidedly second rate. The drawing style is more akin to Saturday morning cartoon fodder of the day than comparable to the enduring masterworks from the golden – or even the silver – age of Disney animation. Yet, there is great heart infused throughout the piece and this intangible, affecting quality more than compensates for any artistic shortcomings.
Produced on a very tight budget, The Rescuers is briskly packaged with not a lot of room for the sort of exposition and musical niceties we’ve come to expect from the traditional Disney animated feature. That said, the film moves like gangbusters with a lilt and charm all its own. Though lagging in the musical tradition, two songs ‘The Journey’ and ‘Someone’s Waiting For You’, both written by Sammy Fain, Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins and sung with a faraway winsome loneliness by Shelby Flint, are well placed and evoke the distinct melancholy, yet tender hopefulness of our heroine.
For years afterward, audiences hoped for a sequel to The Rescuers. Indeed, in the intervening decade Disney was once again to lapse into an artistic fallow period, mercilessly brought to a close by the unbelievable and long overdue success of The Little Mermaid (1989). So, in 1990 Disney debuted The Rescuers Down Under. The story is set mostly in the Australian outback, a vastness as great as the imagination of Cody (Adam Ryen) the young adventurer of our story. Co-directed by Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel, the narrative is almost as ambitious as the visuals; though in retrospect neither manages to eclipse our enduring collective fondness for the original film.
Cody discovers a rare golden eagle, Marahute brutally tied down to a towering stone buttress in the wilderness. Marahute does not speak as other Disney animals frequently do, but is nevertheless sympathetic to Cody’s inquisitive mind and fascination to explore the outback. After Cody frees the bird, she takes him on an exhilarating roller coaster ride through the air, swooping down into the wilds before returning to her nest of eggs high atop a stone cave.
After spending several hours together, Marahute returns Cody to ground level where he promptly falls into one of the animal traps set by vial poacher, Percival C. McLeach (George C. Scott) after freeing a baited mouse from one of McLeach’s hooks. McLeach is a wanted man who employs the ravenous iguana, Joanna (Frank Welker) to do his hunting for him. After spying a single golden feather in Cody’s backpack, McLeach is convinced the boy can lead him to the whereabouts of the great bird.
The freed mouse escapes McCleach’s clutches and through a complicated series of telegraph signals manages to contact Bernard and Bianca in New York. Bernard is nervous about proposing marriage to Bianca, and his feeble attempts are put on hold when the pair is recalled to the Rescue Aid Society to go in search of Cody.  Travelling an all too familiar path from the first movie, Bernard and Bianca employ Orville’s cousin, Wilbur (John Candy) to fly them to the outback. He does and promptly throws his back out, forcing his premature recuperation in hospital.
Bianca and Bernard are taken on safari by Jake (Tristan Rogers), a kangaroo mouse who has eyes for Bianca much to Bernard’s chagrin.  Meanwhile, Cody is introduced to McLeach’s menagerie of captured animals. McLeach tricks Cody into believing that someone else has already killed Marahute and Cody flees the cabin to return to the nest and save Marahute’s eggs with McLeach sneakily following close behind. Thankfully, Bernard has found the nest first and replaced the eggs with stones that not even Joanna can swallow.
A reinvigorated Wilbur arrives at the nest and Bernard convinces him to sit on the real eggs while he goes off to save Cody. McLeach binds and dangles the boy over a river infested with crocodiles, threatening to dunk him. Bernard arrives and tricks Joanna into smashing into McLeach, the two toppling into the raging surf below. McLeach wards off the crocs but is unable to stop himself from tumbling to his death over a great waterfall. The cord of rope suspending Cody breaks, dropping him into the raging rapids and Bernard valiantly dives in to save them both from going over the same falls. In the final moments Bernard proposes to Bianca, who ecstatically accepts his engagement ring.
The Rescuers Down Under is at once a breathtakingly beautiful, yet tragically flawed counterpart to the original film. Visually, it is on very solid ground. Using CAPS – a then new computerized process, the animation cells and backgrounds are digitally coloured, rather than hand painted. This certainly adds a layer of polish to the traditional, and still hand drawn, animation. The film is undeniably imbued with some utterly spectacular sequences. Cody’s initial discover of Marahute and their journey through the clouds showcases some truly complex and innovative motion effects not possible before. The footage is remarkably lifelike and suspenseful. Throughout, The Rescuers Down Under departs from its narrative to provide a showcase of such visual prowess.
But visuals alone do not a good story make, and The Rescuers Down Under is a movie with an utterly flawed narrative. For one thing, the script by Jim Cox, Karey Kirkpatrick, Byron Simpson and Joe Ranft takes much too long to get off the ground. It is a full sixteen minutes before we even see Bernard or Bianca, arguably the stars of our show. Yet, after a few fleeting sequences the two are once again jettisoned in favour of refocusing the story on Cody’s confrontations with McLeach.
Once the pair makes it to the Australian outback more unnecessary complications ensue; Jake’s romantic intensions toward Bianca, Wilbur’s frenzied desire to escape the hospital, Joanna’s frequent mucking up of McLeach’s dark plan. In and of themselves, none of these threads is awful or even sloppily executed. However, none of them ever comes together to drive the plot forward. They are merely vignettes, charming but disjointed nevertheless.
It’s difficult to root for Bernard and Bianca as a couple in this sequel because they are rarely given those private, tender moments to cherish alone. In the original film the pair was represented as two unlikely drifters against the world. They were infrequently separated on the screen and always united in their purpose to rescue Penny. In The Rescuers Down Under Bernard has an almost secondary role in the plot while Bianca is often misplaced in the extreme background. The film also commits one of the great sins any Disney animated feature can – eschewing any sort of musical program in favour of a straight forward action/adventure yarn. In the original film, the two songs greatly set the mood and tone of the story. In place of these, the sequel frequently soars into grandiose orchestral pieces by Bruce Broughton, more at home a la John Williams’ work in the Indiana Jones franchise and completely robbing the narrative of that intimacy desperately needed to make Bernard and Bianca’s world real to us.
Finally, the film unbalances the Disney heritage of having a female antagonist as the villain of the piece. For some reason, male villains rarely measure up and Percival McLeach is no exception. Though George C. Scott amply sneers and grits his teeth, the character is more thuggish than terrifying, somehow less of a villain and much more of a bully. It doesn’t work, because the pint size Cody never entirely fears McLeach as a threat to his own life and therefore, as the audience, neither do we.
In the final analysis, The Rescuers Down Under fails to recapture the magic of the original movie, not because it lacks any genuine qualities of its own, but because it fails to grasp which qualities are best suited for its pint sized characters. The film evokes the stark landscape of the outback, but never quite makes it a fascinating, or even believable place where we might find and willingly accept two mice on a knight’s errand to save a young boy’s life.
Disney Entertainment has squeezed both films onto a single Blu-ray – hardly stretching the storage capacity of the hi-def format. But the results aren’t entirely satisfying either. The Rescuers looks the better of the two with vibrant colours, a sumptuous amount of fine detail evident in background drawing and solidly rendered contrast. Unfortunately, we also get hints of edge enhancement cropping up infrequently throughout this presentation. The same was true for the DVD minting.
There is little to suggest that the studio has meticulously gone back into its own archives to remaster the film from the ground up with newly created elements. They have even left the old reissue ‘Walt Disney’ graphic design ‘castle’ credit on its blue background, not part of the original release but definitely part of reissues and seen on both DVD incarnations from some years back. This logo is still attached at the start of the Blu-ray presentation. But the graphic castle design has long since been replaced by the more regal, computerized representation of Walt Disney World’s Cinderella castle with its digital moat and lake spreading across the foreground.
By direct comparison, The Rescuers Down Under looks less vibrant than the original film; its computer painted landscape appearing washed out and slightly faded. Colours just don’t pop and fine detail frequently seems more video based than film-like. Again, I suspect older video elements were used in the creation of this new 1080p rendering and that’s unfortunate, given the many ample advancements in technology since that might have improved upon this presentation.
Both films have had their audio upgraded to 5.1 DTS, and while this remastering has greatly benefited The Rescuers orchestral and SFX tracks, the Shelby Flint songs still seem to lack in clarity, occasionally experiencing a distracting reverb. Not surprisingly, the sequel’s newer recordings provide more spatial separation.
Extras are also a bit of a disappointment. Virtually everything that’s here was part of the original DVD releases. We get no commentaries, no picture-in-picture feature and only the briefest of self-congratulatory making of featurettes for the sequel; nothing for the original movie. Disney Inc. has padded out the extras with a few vintage short subjects from their True Life Adventures and Silly Symphony cartoons. Overall, there’s nothing to write home about.
One minor complaint related to disc navigation:  the main menu retains exclusive access to the original film only. To access the sequel one must go to the scene menu, after which clicking it brings up a listing for either The Rescuers or The Rescuers Down Under.  Bottom line: recommended – though slightly below par for Disney’s usual commitment to its vintage classics.          
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
The Rescuers 4
The Rescuers Down Under 3

The Rescuers 4
The Rescuers Down Under 3.5


THE ARISTOCATS: Blu-ray (Buena Vista 1970) Walt Disney Home Video

The first animated feature produced and released after Walt Disney’s death was The Aristocats (1970); a minor charmer that managed to capture the essence of that old Disney magic, though it arguably lacks the fundamental stylistic elements to rank amongst the studio’s very best. On the basis of some very early preliminary sketches done by writer Ken Anderson, Walt had green lit the project as early as 1964.  Bad timing, Walt’s failing health and more prescient financial matters facing the studio prevented the story from going beyond its initial phase until nearly a year after Walt’s untimely passing.
It isn’t an overstatement to suggest that after Walt died in December of 1966 the studio went into a state of shock from which its filmic output greatly suffered. The animators, Disney’s so called ‘nine old men’ who had been responsible for virtually all of the masterful accomplishments and visual masterworks made since the beginning, were nearing the age of retirement. After the release of Sleeping Beauty (1959) the art of animation – always laborious and expensive – was considerably streamlined by the Xerox process that effectively eliminated the need for the studio’s hand tracing ink and paint departments. What the studio gained in economy it regrettably lost in the fluidity of that hand drawn line. Still, this ‘new’ more graphic style had complimented the more contemporary backdrop of One Hundred and One Dalmatians; one of the most successful animated features ever made by Disney.
Despite being set in 1910 Paris, The Artistocats is a very contemporary movie in tone, creating a slight disconnect between its historical period and the film’s visual style. Viewed today it feels like a movie made in the 1960s, its curious amalgam of stately duchesses, British born geese and San Franciscan hippie jazz alley cats very much a cultural time capsule from that period rather than remaining timeless in its appeal.
Based on a story by Tom McGowan and Tom Rowe, The Aristocats opens with an appropriately Parisian fanfare sung by no less an authority on French culture than Maurice Chevalier, beneath which the audience is treated to rough pencil test animation seen elsewhere in the film modestly cleaned up and, of course, in color. During the opening titles these transparent images are photographed against lurid backgrounds. Like the main titles to One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Aristocats monochromatic palette eventually dissolves into a fully saturated backdrop, this time of Paris.
We are introduced to Madame Adelaide Bonfamilie (Hermione Baddeley); a dowager heiress living in her fashionable atelier with four cultured felines. All are readily attended to by Adelaide’s doting English butler, Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby). Adelaide has invited her aged attorney, Georges Hautcourt (Charles Lane) to discuss the particulars of her Last Will and Testament. Edgar eavesdrops on this conversation by lending his ear to a heating pipe and quickly realizes he is not the intended beneficiary of Adelaide’s considerable estate.   
Instead, Adelaide has decided to leave everything to her cats; Duchess (Eva Gabor) and her three artistically inclined protégé kittens; Marie (Liz English), Toulouse (Gary Dubin) and Berlioz (Dean Clark). Enraged at having been snubbed after decades of loyal service, Edgar hatches a diabolical plot. He will drug Duchess and her offspring and steal away with them into the night. However, his plan to drown them in a country lake is foiled by two caustic watch dogs, Napoleon Pat Buttram) and Lafayette (George Lindsey).
After a harrowing night chase around an abandoned farm, the basket containing the unconscious cats is tossed from the sidecar of Edgar’s motorcycle down a steep ravine. It comes to rest beneath a bridge, a clasp of thunder alerting everyone to the fact that they are no longer within the creature comforts of their own home.
In yet another scene reminiscent from One Hundred and One Dalmatians, the next morning Adelaide comes to the horrible realization that her treasured pets are gone at approximately the same moment that Duchess’ friend, house mouse, Roquefort (Sterling Holloway) and carriage horse, Frou-Frou (Nancy Kulp) learn that Edgar is behind their kidnapping. Meanwhile Duchess and her brood are awakened by the smooth singing of alley cat extraordinaire, Thomas G. O’Malley (Phil Harris) who takes an immediate shine to them.
The group are met by Abigail (Monica Evans) and Amelia Gabble (Carole Shelley); a dotty pair of British geese on a walking tour of France that will culminate with a visit to their Uncle Waldo (Bill Thompson) in Paris. However, once arriving in town the girls discover that Waldo is quite inebriated. They are forced to separate from the group and take him home.
Lost, alone and tired, O’Malley decides to introduce Duchess and the kittens to Scat Cat (Scatman Crothers) and his jazz musicians (Lord Tim Hudson, Paul Winchell and Vito Scotti). After scaling the rooftops by moonlight, Duchess, O’Malley and the rest of the pack retire to an upstairs Bohemian flat where the kittens are introduced to the swingin’ melodies of the band and where Duchess and O’Malley fall in love. O’Malley offers to marry Duchess and make a home for her and the kittens; a proposal flatly refused, though mostly out of Duchess’ loyalty to Adelaide.
Meanwhile Edgar has decided that he must return to the farm to collect the umbrella he lost during his confrontation with Napoleon and Lafayette. When he sees Duchess and the kittens approaching the front walk Edgar seizes the opportunity to lock them in a trunk he plans to ship to Africa. The kittens send Roquefort to find O’Malley, who then returns with Scat Cat and the rest of the band to confront Edgar before his devious plan can be carried out. In the ensuing struggle Edgar is dumped into the open trunk instead and shipped to the Dark Continent. A relieved Adelaide revises her Will to exclude Edgar and include O’Malley. In the final homage to One Hundred and One Dalmatians Adelaide inaugurates a home for Paris strays and Scat Cat and his boys mark the event with a reprise of their jazzy solo.
The Aristocats is delightful on several levels – mostly in its seamless melding of character to voice actor – but it is also rather clumsily executed.  Scripted by Ken Anderson, Larry Clemmons, Eric Cleworth, Vance Garry, Tom McGowan, Tom Rowe, Julius Svendsen, Frank Thomas and Ralph Wright, the film seems to suffer from the old adage of ‘too many cooks in the broth’ or in this case, too many scenarios unceremoniously thrust together.
As example, we are introduced to the characters of Roquefort and Frou-Frou early on; who are then discarded until near the end of the film. Upon repeat viewing the geese, Abigail and Amelia, seem more like transitional creations – merely inserted as a narrative bridge between vignettes without actually becoming integrated into the story.  Earlier drafts were to have expanded the character of Adelaide with two deleted songs to reflect the reasons why she loves cats. Since these inclusions never appeared in the finished film, the audience is left to grapple with a rather one dimensional character who does not drive the narrative.
Worse, the musical program lacks cohesion. After the main title, the Sherman Brothers score jettisons any attempt to adopt a Parisian, or even vintage, flavour. The songs are briefly executed, hardly memorable and structured with a very sixties flair that completely belies the visuals. The score would have made much more sense had the movie been set in then contemporary San Francisco or even New York. But it seems woefully out of place in Paris circa 1910.
Indeed The Aristocats departs with Disney tradition on another level too; having a male figure as its villain. Virtually all animated features in the Disney canon up to that time had relied on a deliciously vial female antagonist to fuel the narrative. In her absence we are given Edgar, a rather bumbling and not terribly prepossessing evil. He desperately wants to be bad but cannot rid himself of some featherweight homey touches that make his character strangely sad and yet curiously loveable. After all, he cannot even pitch a basket of drugged cats into a stream to drown them so how frightening can he be?
Disney animated features have a longstanding appreciation for voice talent. But after The Jungle Book the studio began to rely more heavily on creating character through the strength of vocalization alone. As example, when we hear Eva Gabor we see the actress in Duchess’ mannerisms. It appeals in a timely sort of way, but in hindsight tends to hamper the animators from exploring other facets in the character’s development.
Consider that one of Disney’s most popular vocal artists, Verna Felton had a career as diverse in Disney films as playing Cinderella’s benevolent Fairy Godmother, the maniacal Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, Aunt Sarah in Lady and the Tramp and the good fairy, Flora in Sleeping Beauty. This luxury does not exist when a ‘name’ talent is hired because that talent eclipses the character.
The same is true for Phil Harris and Scatman Crothers; both distinctive voices in their own right who immeasurably flesh out their feline characters, yet perhaps also imbue them with a little too much of their earthly presence to be fully thought of as cats. Still, The Aristocats would be absolutely nothing without their unique and charming vocalizations.
The Aristocats was a box office hit when it was released in 1970. But today it doesn’t quite have that same changeless staying power that the best of the best in Disney’s canon do. Don’t get me wrong. The Aristocats is good wholesome family fun. It’s light hearted and carefree and does what it’s supposed to – entertain us. But in the final analysis it doesn’t quite reach for the top echelons of the Disney legacy and remains a middling to slightly better than average effort at best.
The Walt Disney Company’s stellar commitment to Blu-ray endures on The Artistocats. The 1080p image sparkles with superior clarity and colour fidelity. This is a gorgeous hi-def presentation, showing off the minute brush strokes in hand drawn backgrounds and animation: just wonderful. Age related artefacts are gone for a very smooth and film like presentation. The audio has been remastered in 5.1 DTS with superior clarity that is head and shoulders above previous DVD incarnations.
Extras new to Blu-ray include ‘the lost opening sequence’ and a music video, ‘Oui Oui Marie.’ We also get all of the extras previously made available on DVD. These include the deleted song, ‘She Never Felt Alone’, a featurette with the Sherman Brothers, an excerpt from ‘The Great Cat Family’, the short subject, ‘Bath Day’ and isolated chapter stops for the songs in the film. It would have been nice to have either an audio commentary or picture-in-picture feature as has been done on other animated features. But given The Artistocats status as a minor work in the Disney catalogue I can understand why these weren’t included here. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Saturday, August 18, 2012

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS: Blu-ray (Allied Artists 1956) Olive Films

Shot on a shoestring budget of approximately $350,000, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) has since become one of the most successful independent movies ever made. The film’s enduring legacy is largely due to its perfectly timed initial release; coming as it did at the height of the Joseph McCarthy witch hunts and Red Scare and, better still, at the crux of America’s burgeoning atomic age fascination with fanciful tales about cosmic terrors from outer space. Many postmodern critics and political historians have reinterpret Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay as an indictment of declining individualism in America, linking the mysterious consumption of human beings by cloned pod people to the perceived communist threat gripping the nation.
According to Don Siegel, nothing could have been further from the truth. At the time the film went into production its producer Walter Wanger was persona non grata in Hollywood, following a private incident involving his wife, actress Joan Bennett and her lover, Jennings Lang into whose crotch Wanger had attempted to pump a bullet. Released from prison after a four month stay for his crime of passion, Wanger quickly realized that his professional cache accrued before his incarceration was gone. No longer thought of as an A-list producer, Wanger turned his energies into making quality B-movies with an edgy underbelly instead.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an adaptation of Jack Finney’s 1954 novel, simply titled ‘The Body Snatchers’. Allied Artists, the studio distributing the film, thought the title too close to the 1945 Val Lewton horror classic, ‘The Body Snatcher’ and asked Wanger and Siegel to come up with alternatives. None of their suggestions proved satisfactory however, and eventually the studio simply added ‘Invasion of’ ahead of the novel’s original title for the film.
Wanger had wanted to shoot the film in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco.  As this proved too costly, the film’s fictional town of Santa Mira was cobbled together from location work done in Sierra Madre, Chatsworth, Glendale, Los Feliz, Bronson and Beachwood Canyons, as well as incorporating some studio back lot magic. After a pair of disastrous sneak previews Allied Artists ordered all of the more light-hearted material cut from the film.
They also decided that a pro- and epilogue were needed to preface and close the story on a more optimistic note. Wanger tried like hell to convince Orson Welles to do it and failed. He also had desperately wanted Gig Young or Joseph Cotten as his star. In the end, Wanger settled on relative unknown Kevin McCarthy instead – paving the way for one of the truly iconic sci-fi performances in film history.
In hindsight the pro- and epilogues, as well as the voiceover narrations that bookend the film do alter the impact of the story; arguably to its own detriment. They diffuse the immediacy of the narrative to that of a tale told in retrospect and with a seemingly open ended resolution that nevertheless implies the imminent danger to mankind has been narrowly averted.
Our story opens in the emergency ward where Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) is called in to treat a hysteric brought in by the police. The man in custody is also a doctor, Mile Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), who has just been through a harrowing and fantastical ordeal in his hometown of Santa Mira. It seems that Bennell has witnessed the takeover of his quiet town by an alien race; pod people who are identical to the humans they have consumed, but lacking in any sort of emotional response.
Understandably, Dr. Hill is a sceptic. But he asks Bennell to relay his story for the record anyway, and so, both Hill and the audience regress into the extended flashback from Bennell’s memory that began at the start of the weekend just ended. We see Bennell, a kindly local physician returning from a medical conference to find his former flame, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) concerned over her cousin, Wilma Lentz’s (Virginia Christine) sudden paranoia. Wilma claims that their Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) is not who he claims to be – or more to the point, that he has somehow ‘changed’ from his usual self.
Wilma’s fears are not so easily quelled or dismissed by Bennell, especially after he experiences multiple cases of the same strange behaviour cropping up in some of his regular patients. Psychiatrist and close personal friend Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates) assures Bennell that the cases are merely some odd passing hallucination, possibly infectious, but from which the sufferers will ultimately awaken just as easily after their fleeting anxiousness.
Bennell and Becky attempt to rekindle their romance. But that same evening Bennell’s good friend, Jack Belicec (King Donovan) implores him to come to his house. Arriving at the private residence, Bennell and Becky are shown a body discovered by Jack that has begun to vaguely take on the contents of his own physical form. Jack’s wife, Teddy (Carolyn Jones) is understandably terrified. Bennell takes Becky home. Later he telephones her, but becomes alarmed when she does not answer his call. Bennell then rushes to her home where he finds a likeness of her being grown from a pod in the cellar. Awaking the real Becky from her slumber, Bennell takes her to the Belicecs to telephone Kauffman. But by the time the doctor has returned both corpses have vanished.
Kauffman encourages everyone to get some rest and suggests that perhaps Bennell has become infected with the same paranoia as his patients. But throughout the next day Bennell begins to sense that the town he has known and loved all his life has changed. People seem distant and unlike themselves. That evening Bennell, Becky, Jack and Teddy discover giant pods growing in the Belicec’s greenhouse. They conclude that the town has been overrun with copies of the men and women who used to live there. Unable to call for help, Bennell tells the Belicec’s to make a break for the outskirts of town, to drive all night if they have to and warn the outside world of what has happened to Santa Mira.
In the meantime, Bennell and Becky hide out in Bennell’s office to escape being found out by the rest of the town’s people. The next morning the pair witness the entire town square transformed into an epicenter for the transportation of more pods to neighbouring communities. Kauffman and Jack arrive at the office. At first, Bennell is relieved. But then he realizes both men are pod people who have come to claim him and Becky. After a struggle, Bennell and Becky manage to flee, are pursued by the town’s people – all pods – but make their way across the barren landscape on the outskirts to an abandoned mine where they narrowly avert being discovered by hiding under some loose floor boards.
Becky collapses from exhaustion and in her weakened, sleepy condition is transformed into a pod person. Forced to leave her clone behind Bennell takes off on foot for the main highway. He finds the road crammed with unsuspecting tourists headed back into the city…or have they already become pod people spreading their extraterrestrial demon seed to the unsuspecting neighbourhood communities? “They’re here!” Bennell insists, “You’re next!”
The film should have ended here. Instead, this scene dissolves back to the emergency ward. Dr. Hill remains as unconvinced as ever by Bennell’s fantastical narrative. Alerted to a highway accident by his nurse where the hospitalized ‘victim’ had been driving a truckload of pods, Dr. Hill suddenly realizes that Bennell is not crazy, reaches for the telephone and demands to speak to the FBI in order to put the surrounding communities on high alert.  
This will probably sound like sacrilege to most, but personally I prefer the 1978 Philip Kaufman remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers starring Donald Sutherland. Siegel’s original is artfully shot, with solid performances. I really cannot fault the film on most levels. But it doesn’t seem to send that unsettling chill down my spine the way the ’78 version continues to do. I don’t believe my reaction to the remake has anything to do with its superior SFX either. In the original, the pods were made mostly out of paper and their ooze was little more than an air compressor making bubbles and suds beneath the surface, luminously photographed for maximum effect by cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks.
But the prototype ‘50s sexual politics seems very wrong, or at the very least, woefully strained throughout the film. All of the women are treated with a kind word and a pat on the head as though they already belong to some infantilized pod set of brainless sex kittens and pathetic wallflowers that need their husbands, casual mates or dates to guide them through this apocalyptic labyrinth.
Dana Wynter and Kevin McCarthy have a strange on screen chemistry. She seems infinitely more interested in him than he does in her – even on a purely platonic level. Frankly, I’ve never found Kevin McCarthy convincing as a romantic lead or otherwise on the screen and in this, arguably his defining moment in movies his glassy-eyed hysterics that cap off the show are less believable with each renewed viewing of the film. I can certainly appreciate Invasion of the Body Snatchers as the cultural artefact that introduced the iconography of ‘pod culture’ into our movie pop culture. But beyond that, this version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers really doesn’t do it for me: advanced apologies to pod aficionados all over the world.
Olive Film’s Blu-ray is an improvement over the various DVD incarnations, but it’s not perfect. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was shot in 1:85.1 aspect ratio and then reformatted during post production to ‘Superscope’ 2:00 screen proportions. When Wanger first saw this down-conversion of the image he was horrified by what he deemed as a softening and loss of fine detail. In truth I detected no such softening from my home viewing experience in Superscope. In fact, Invasion of the Body Snatchers looks quite sharp. Occasionally, some slight edge enhancement intrudes. On the whole it isn’t distracting but it is there.
Also, the telecine seems to have adopted a slightly greenish hue. But Olive has resisted the urge to tinker with the original elements, the result being a very film-like presentation without any digital manipulations. Grain looks like grain and age related artefacts have been lovingly preserved. Overall, image clarity takes a quantum leap forward. Contrast seems bang on too although black levels occasionally look a tad hazy. The audio is original mono in DTS and nicely cleaned up for a smooth acoustic presentation. No extras – not even a commentary, and that’s a genuine shame.   
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

RIO GRANDE: Blu-ray (Republic 1950) Olive Films

The last film in John Ford’s ‘cavalry trilogy’ proved to be an afterthought rather than a planned event. For nearly a year Ford had shopped around his script idea for The Quiet Man. But even with his illustrious track record and cache as a proven money maker, and with John Wayne already signed on as part of the package, the caustic Ford could not find a studio to back his latest project. At RKO the director had made Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949); both wildly successful. But RKO was in steep decline and not particularly interested in shooting a melodrama on location. So they too balked at Ford’s offer to direct The Quiet Man.
Ford eventually found a kindred spirit in Republic Pictures president, Herbert Yates…well, sort of. Yates had zero interest in The Quiet Man as a viable property. But he did have immeasurable faith in John Ford as a film maker. If the two could agree on Ford to direct another western for his studio first, then Yates would agree to fund The Quiet Man. This was Yates hedging his bets. Republic, a ‘poverty row’ studio always on the edge of financial receivership, needed a sure fire box office winner to keep their bottom line in the black and what better assurance than a John Ford western? They always made money.
Ford willingly agreed to these terms, then set out to make one of the most memorable western movies in his body of work. In one of Hollywood’s ironies, The Quiet Man would eventually become the highest grossing movie Republic Pictures ever made.
Viewed today, Rio Grande (1950) stands as an iconic example of just how far John Ford had matured the western mystique beyond its early days of cowboys vs. Indians. There is a patina of human frailty that follows the film’s characters throughout the story. Ford re-envisions heroism in no less heroic terms. But it’s not the gallant stride of a bigger than life western legend astride his noble steed that greets our eyes, rather a world weary traveller estranged from his family after being forced to choose between the love of a good woman and his sworn duty to defend his country.
These are just some of the tough choices made by John Wayne’s character Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke and both Wayne and Ford are determined to show us the human cost of that strained relationship. Kirby carries with him the noblest sense of personal pride. But he also realizes what his profession has cost him and it is perhaps much more than he originally intended to give. That’s a very sobering and frankly unglamorous perspective on the oft romanticized life in the saddle and it is for this stark realism that Rio Grande is as highly regarded and fondly remembered today.
Rio Grande (initially titled Rio Bravo) was scripted by James Kevin McGuinness from a short story ‘Mission With No Record’ by James Warner Bellah. We open, not at the beginning of a hero’s journey but at the end of a very solemn campaign against the marauding Apaches that has cost the regiment several of its finest officers. In these initial scenes John Ford fills the frame with a magnificent pageantry of fighting men on horseback. But their backs are arched, their shoulders slumped and they are trudging through a mesmerizing cloud of Texas frontier dust; the careworn faces of their women lingering like a chain of pale ghost flowers along the sparse parameter of windswept trees that barely shade from the intense heat.
Understaffed in his ambitious assignment to maintain peace, Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (Wayne) strives to civilize this barren landscape. But the strain of battle has begun to show. Its 1879 and Kirby’s not a young man anymore. He’s a warrior whose battle scars are not immediately apparent to the naked eye. But scarred he is. Wayne and Ford play upon Kirby’s inner void and marry it to the beginning of a great man’s physical decline. Even if we don’t realize it yet, Kirby already knows that his days as an officer are numbered. He will either die in battle or be forced into retirement by the ravages of time.
Kirby’s past catches up to him sooner than anticipated with the arrival of Trooper Jefferson Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.), the son he hasn’t seen in fifteen years. Jeff’ is one of eighteen new recruits sent as backup to the fort. His arrival is both a joy and a disappointment to Kirby who initially deals with the boy more harshly to quash any hint of favouritism that might be rumoured among the rest of the men. Although he’s come to honour his country, in effect following in his father’s footsteps, Trooper Yorke is also a West Point drop out. Still, the boy possesses certain qualities that endear him not only to his father but the rest of the men in his troop.
In the meantime, Kirby’s estranged wife, Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara) arrives to have Jeff released from the army by special decree from a commander. But Jeff refuses to go, reminding his mother that he must also sign off on the decree in order for it to become a legal discharge. Thwarted in her efforts, Kathleen chooses to remain at the outpost to be near Jeff. Reluctantly, she becomes reacquainted with Kirby in his tent. Although brittle toward each other, it is nevertheless obvious that Kirby and Kathleen are still very much in love. Kathleen resents the decision Kirby had to make earlier, to torch her ancestral home of ‘Bridesdale’ in the Shenandoah Valley. She holds Kirby’s right hand man, Sgt. Maj. Timothy Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) equally responsible for obeying Kirby’s orders then, but here too Kathleen’s heart has not entirely hardened.   
Quincannon oversees a skirmish between Jeff and Trooper Heinze (Fred Kennedy), after Heinze accuses Jeff of being given special treatment, but also refers to him as the pet of a dumb ‘Mick’ sergeant. When the brawl is broken up by Kirby, Jeff respectfully declines to tell his father the reasons for it in the first place. Told by Quincannon that it is a soldier’s fight, Kirby steps aside. But Heinze has reconsidered Jeff’s fidelity to the regiment. The two shake hands and are friendly toward each other. Jeff retires to his tent to treat his wounds. But Quincannon has not forgotten Heinze’s slight against him and knocks Heinze unconscious as retribution.
The next day Jeff is afforded a period of recovery and allowed to sleep in. He awakens to find his fellow recruits, Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) and Daniel ‘Sandy’ Boone (Harry Carey Jr.) at his side. Travis is on the run from the law for having killed a man in self-defence.  The U.S. Deputy Marshall (Grant Withers) arrives to take Travis into custody. But men loyal to Travis help him escape into the hills.
In the meantime, Kirby is visited by his former Civil War commander, Philip Sheridan (J. Carrol Naish) who orders him to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico and engage the Apaches. The move is a bold and gutsy one in that it violates Mexico’s sovereignty and will likely lead to Kirby’s court-martial. Sheridan buffers Kirby’s decision by reinforcing for him that the members of the court will be comprised of the same soldiers who rode with them into battle down the Shenandoah, thereby affording Kirby some marked leeway if and when he is likely to plead his case. Kirby agrees to these terms and sets out to face the Apache threat.
But his mission is compromised when he learns that the wagon train of children being taken to Fort Bliss for protection has been ambushed by the Apaches in their absence.  Assigning Jeff, Boone and Travis (who has joined the officers after having hid out in the hills from the law) to take the remote town where the Apache are hold up with the children, Kirby takes his cavalry forces into a full scale battle against the Indians that ends with his being wounded. Victorious perhaps, but infinitely wiser about the more precious intangibles of life, Kirby is dragged back to the fort on a travois.
John Ford recreates the film’s opening sequence, the long weary cavalcade of men on horseback returning to the fort after their triumph. Only this time we see Kathleen among the emotionally scarred and anxiety ridden. In a moment of beautifully understated reflection, Kathleen eyes Kirby on his travois and reaches for his hand. “Our boy did well,” he tells her as the two go off, engulfed by a dusty cloud raised from the battalion’s horses.
Rio Grande is a perennially satisfying western classic. It manages to capture that mythological essence and grandeur of the old west without its clichés. John Ford, who arguably never felt more at home than in the western milieu, herein extols the vices as well as the virtues of human sacrifice, ascribing no personal or moral weight to the exercise, while nevertheless instilling his audience with a definite sense of propriety about his central character.
It has already been stated many times in the annals of film history, but bears reiteration herein, that the world will never again see the likes of a hero as robust or satisfying as John Wayne. Before Wayne there were expert stuntmen and real life cowboys who made their mark in the western movie. But their staying power was eclipsed once Wayne came onto the scene. Perhaps it isn’t Wayne’s larger than life filmic persona, of even his private views as a public figure that we best remember today.  
It is the essence of the man – some strange and elusive quality that defies logic or even identification, except to say that once seen on the screen he can never be forgotten. That is star power in its purest form, and a veritable elixir in today’s vapid celebrity culture awash with cheap imitations that cannot hold a candle to Wayne’s cultural legacy. John Wayne is at the very heart of what we think of when we utter the word ‘America’: the two sharing in a symbiotic union of their overriding visions and promise for a more hopeful and prosperous future carved from the roughhewn wilds of that everlastingly fictionalized west.
It must also be stated that Maureen O’Hara is the idyllic contemporary to Wayne’s celebrated masculinity. In every way she represents something of that proudly defiant, yet unerringly compassionate complement; forever striving, struggling, living and loving with a heart as big as the canyons her western martyrs have frequently inhabited. It also helps matters that off camera, O’Hara has remained the epitome of a very great lady.
John Ford greatly admired her as an actress and viewing Rio Grande today it’s easy to see why. She brings to the character of Kathleen all of the conflicted disillusionment of a woman scorned, but who refuses to succumb to mere bitterness in order to survive. The restrained depth in O’Hara’s performance is staggering to behold and fleshes out her character in all sorts of fascinating ways without the luxury of many spoken lines.
Rio Grande may not be John Ford’s most memorable or even his best movie; but it is one of his most poignant, largely because of the chemistry between Wayne and O’Hara. The film would be nothing without either star, although in hindsight it’s safe to say that neither would have endured today without the caustic guidance and appreciation of John Ford.
Olive Film’s Blu-ray is an improvement on the tiresome and problematic DVD from Artisan released two decades ago. The gray scale is much improved, slightly darker as it should be, and shows much more fine detail to its best advantage. By my eye a few of the sequences in the film still look slightly soft, although I am unable to deduce whether this softness is part of the source material or something that occurred during the 1080p mastering process. 
Also, film grain occasionally looks slightly digitized. Again, this oversight is not monumentally distracting. In fact, on monitors less than 65 inches it probably won’t even be noticed. A slight hint of edge enhancement persists but is also unobtrusive. The audio has been remastered in mono and is very pleasing. The only extra is a ‘making of’ featurette hosted by Leonard Maltin that is at least fifteen years old and looks about twice as bad in 480i. Bottom line: recommended.         
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)