Thursday, March 28, 2013

THE SONG OF BERNADETTE: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1943) Twilight Time Limited Edition


Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette (1943) begins with a premonition to its everlasting appeal; “To those who believe in God no explanation is necessary…to those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.” The true innocence of Bernadette Soubirous – later canonized as a saint - never claimed to having seen the Virgin Mary in her grotto, but rather a ‘beautiful lady’ of ‘immaculate conception’ beckoning her to bear witness to the miraculous healing properties of its waters in the most unlikely – and seemingly unworthy - of places; a city dump. But then, isn’t that what miracles are all about; discovering the extraordinary in the everyday?
Author Franz Werfel had been inspired to write his novel after experiencing his own spiritual epiphany in the French town of Lourdes. But the book, a runaway best seller, represented a challenge to filmmakers eager to capitalize on its overnight success in that it never succumbs to such time-honored clichés as stirrings of religious fervor, but instead bears an intellectualism no less striking in its convictions and authority than the Holy Bible. Our heroine, a curiously obtuse girl, sickly and simple of mind, heart and spirit – or so it seems - is a human transmitter to God through her visions of the ‘beautiful lady’ – a blessing initially revealed as almost its antithesis but more deftly exposed later on as a true blessing in disguise.
Yet, despite the many clues that Bernadette has born witness to the divine her most ardent skeptics are those to whom religious faith is a way of life (Father Peyramale - portrayed with tenderly stoic mysticism by Charles Bickford and the monolithically cynical Sister Marie Therese - given to bone-chilling menace by Gladys Cooper). How could these beacons of the church, already preconditioned by their chosen profession to acknowledge the possibility of divine intervention, be so utterly incapable of accepting Bernadette’s claim without proof?
Throughout the 1940s films of faith had become increasingly popular with wartime audiences, perhaps because there seemed to be so little faith on display elsewhere at home or abroad. Most movies about religion,(Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s and The Miracle of the Bells) dealt with the exaltation of the Catholic clergy as benevolent emissaries disseminating God’s law here on earth. Clever and occasionally cloying, such films generated a warm, fuzzy feel good for the precepts of the church but remarkably kept any deeper discussions about faith and God gingerly to themselves.
The Song of Bernadette takes no such precautions. In fact, it shrewdly seeks not only to assess but also to question those precepts as well as those who believe in them and those who do not, pointing its finger of doubt at those least likely to trespass against the rule of God. “Why not me?” Sister Therese asks Bernadette during the last act of the film. The old crone has dedicated her entire life to the sisterhood. Her fingers have bled. Her eyes have stung with bitter tears and sweat. Her body has been racked with the pain of hard work. Yet she is unworthy of seeing visions. Sister Therese’s proof is, of course, revealed to her by way of a malignant tumor on Bernadette’s knee, the most awful sacrifice yet to come, that of Bernadette’s young life. In effect, this finale reinforces the film’s entire reexamination of the strength of faith when all else in the world points us to abject misery and self-destruction. How blindly do we follow the will of God if we cannot understand it, and, what is the remuneration for our devotion to this lifelong suffrage?  
In translating the novel to film Twentieth Century-Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck made several fortuitous casting choices, heavily influenced by Monsignor Vincent Sheehan. Although Zanuck considered Loretta Young for the much sought after lead, and later toyed with casting Teresa Wright, Ann Baxter and even Linda Darnell (Zanuck’s love interest at the time), in the end the plum role went to a virtual unknown – Jennifer Jones – already a mother of two and whose marriage to Robert Walker had derailed thanks to a high profile liaison with producer (and mentor) David O. Selznick. Jones had previously appeared in one film for RKO under her real name, Phyllis Isley; a minor creative effort that Zanuck expunged by buying up the negative so that he could officially launch the actress’ career in the credits as ‘introducing Jennifer Jones’.  
Meanwhile, George Seaton, who would later reaffirm for audiences a belief of an entirely different sort in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street, began to write his screenplay, again with influences from the church, but achieving near sublime perfection. We open on a dark rainy morn in Lourdes. François Soubirous (Roman Bohnen), an impoverished and unemployed miller lives at the city jail with his wife, Louise (Anne Revere), two sons, Jean (Merrill Rodin),Justin (Nino Pipitone Jr.) and two daughters, Marie (Ermadean Walters) and Bernadette (Jennifer Jones). Each morning he begins his struggles anew to find work, eventually securing the temporary position to haul infectious hospital trash to a dump on the town’s outskirts.
Bernadette is a sickly girl. Worse for Sister Vauzous (Gladys Cooper), she seems to suffer from a complete lack of concentration or perhaps even the basic intellect to apply herself in her studies. Vauzous is an ardent task master who conducts her classroom like a prison. The students fear her, but are granted a perverse autonomy to taunt Bernadette for her ignorance. When the school’s Abbé Dominique Peyramale (Charles Bickford) arrives to award his pupils holy cards, Vauzous informs him that Bernadette is unworthy of the gift.  Stern, though encouraging, Peyramale tells Bernadette that she must try harder.
Later that same afternoon Marie and a mutual friend Jeanne (Mary Anderson) wade through the river to collect firewood on the outskirts of town. But Bernadette, who suffers from bouts of severe asthma, is ordered to stay behind. Attempting to cross anyway, Bernadette is distracted by a shimmering light and queer stirring of the air from the Massabielle caves near the grotto. There, Bernadette discovers the ‘beautiful lady’ (Linda Darnell); a radiant vision in flowing white robes, clutching her pearl rosary.  Afterward, Bernadette confides her discovery to Marie and Jeanne, swearing them to secrecy. Regrettably, the tale is told – repeatedly throughout the town, garnering curiosity and dissention. Bernadette is a liar. No, she is merely a seeking fame. No, she is lonely and telling stories to occupy her free time. Few consider that Bernadette might be telling the truth.  
François and Louise are initially skeptical, then utterly ashamed of the notoriety Bernadette’s ‘tall tale’ has garnered in the village. One who is utterly convinced of the girl’s sincerity is Bernadette’s wealthy Aunt Bernarde Casterot (Blanche Yurka). Fearing that Lourdes will become a laughing stock to the outside world the town’s mayor, Lacade (Aubrey Mather) , police officer Jacomet (Charles Dingle) and Prosecutor Vital Dutour (Vincent Price) repeatedly question Bernadette’s story – each time with more obvious threats of prosecution. Bernadette, however, will not be swayed from her recollections and continues to defy authorities by returning to the grotto to pray.
The ‘beautiful lady’ instructs Bernadette to wash in a spring that does not exist. Ever vigilant, Bernadette scratches at the ground, applying the moist earth and mud to her skin as the bewildered town’s folk look on. Many laugh and shrug off the incident as that of a simpleton girl having become confused. But no one laughs when the spot where Bernadette has scratched the ground begins to fill with water containing miraculous healing properties. At this point the ‘beautiful lady’ positively identifies herself to Bernadette as ‘the Immaculate Conception’ – a confidence that lands Bernadette in hot water with the civil authorities who try and have her declared legally insane. Abbé Peyramale rallies to Bernadette’s defense. But before anything can be done the grotto is closed by Dutour; the Bishop of Tarbes (Charles Waldron) declaring that unless the Emperor Louis Napoleon III (Jerome Cowan) orders it reopened there will be no investigation by the church.
A short while later the Emperor’s infant son falls ill with a fever that the court physicians seem unable to break. Having heard of the grotto’s reputation the Empress Eugenie (Patricia Morrison) sends the child’s nanny, Croisine Bouhouhorts (Edith Barrett) to collect a sample of the Holy water for her son to drink. This act having been forbidden by Dutour, Jacomet arrests Croisine, who appears in court and reveals her true identity. Paying her fine and returning to the palace with the water, Croisine gives it to the Empress who makes her son drink of it. The child’s recovers almost immediately and the Empress implores her husband to order the grotto reopened, thereby forcing the church to launch into its own investigation of Bernadette’s claim.
More interrogations follow, but Bernadette remains steadfast and true to her story. The years pass. Dutour develops tuberculosis and goes to the grotto, still disbelieving, but desperately seeking a cure. The church reaches its conclusion that Bernadette has been telling the truth. However, her canonization comes at a terrible price. Peyramale explains that she can no longer hide in a corner of the world – something Bernadette also insists she does not want to do. Therefore she must forsake her family and Antoine Nicolau (William Eythe) – the man she once thought to marry – in order to enter the convent of the Sisters of Nevers where her extraordinary gifts may best serve the will of God.  
Bernadette is placed in the care of Sister Vauzous, still bitter and not believing in Bernadette’s fantastic story. Bernadette is subjected to menial work – scrubbing floors on her hands and knees and cleaning soiled laundry and dishes – all in Vauzous attempt to break Bernadette of her faith. But this she cannot do. Thus, in a moment of frustration Vauzous confronts Bernadette with her doubts, demanding that she show her ‘a sign’ that she has truly been chosen by heaven. Unable to provide Vauzous with her proof, Bernadette instead reveals to the nun the growth of a large tumor on her knee. The doctor’s diagnosis is certain and ominous: tuberculosis of the bone – long standing and that ought to have caused Bernadette intense pain.
Realizing the error of her judgment, Vauzous races to the chapel to pray for forgiveness from God. In turn she pledges her earthly service to care for Bernadette. Knowing that she will die soon Bernadette sends for Peyramale, confiding her feelings of unworthiness and her fear that she will never see her ‘beautiful lady’ again. Instead the lady appears to Bernadette, beckoning her with extended arms. Faintly whispering “I love you! I love you! Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me”, Bernadette dies, leaving Peyramale to utter a final prayer, “You are now in Heaven and on earth. Your life begins, O Bernadette.”
The Song of Bernadette is an emotional movie. Indeed, I don’t mind admitting that it is quite impossible for me to get through it without shedding at least a few tears. Jennifer Jones tender performance is startlingly free of ‘acting’. She exudes a strange ethereal quality so essential to sell the story as the Gospel. We believe her implicitly as the innocent besought by Holy visions and wait with baited breath to experience the next act in her progression from ridiculed waif to canonized saint. The rest of the cast is equally superb, particularly Charles Bickford, Gladys Cooper and Blanche Yurka – the latter all but forgotten by today’s audiences, but an actress who frequently appeared as imposing matriarchs or terrifying gargoyles. She is a force to be reckoned with.    
A super production, The Song of Bernadette’s visual design by James Basevi and William Darling is all the more impressive when one considers its extended streets and byways were built at the height of wartime rationing of building materials. An entire village has risen on the Fox back lot, complete with cobblestone courtyards and quaint turreted homes and shops, a candlelit grotto and footbridge. In the years to follow Fox would utilize this spectacular series of buildings over and over again, arguably never to better effect than herein. George Seaton's screenplay exercises the utmost reverence. But it must be stated that The Song of Bernadette’s greatest blessing is unequivocally Jennifer Jones; mesmerizing as the innocent whose faith in visions belies everyone else’s need for more concrete proof of the divine. This exceptional – and Oscar-winning - ‘debut’ remains a marvel to behold; restrained and affecting in the most life-affirming way.  
Even more astonishing is the penultimate moment of exaltation gifted to audiences in light of the film’s more concrete tragedy at having lost our heroine. Yes, Bernadette Soubirous dies. But as Peyramale astutely concurs, her journey has just begun.  In reality, Peyramale died two years before Bernadette, so the film has fudged its timeline for the sake of preserving a grander artistic sentiment within its own continuity.  But artistic license aside, The Song of Bernadette endures as an extraordinary entertainment. For those who do not believe in its precepts, the film plays as pure and most satisfying entertainment – an ecclesiastical fantasy concocted by the faithful. But to those who do believe, The Song of Bernadette remains quite simply the most hopeful, awe-inspiring and influential religious experience that the motion picture has ever deigned to create. It is a perfect movie and an extraordinary treasure perennially renewed for audiences, particularly on this pending Easter weekend.
I regret to inform that the limited edition Blu-ray mastered by Fox Home Video and released exclusively through Screen Archives Twilight Time could have been better. Personally, I had been expecting the sort of immaculate mastering effort Fox lavished on John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. Instead, we get a 1080p offering to which minimal cleanup has been applied. Age related artifacts persist throughout this transfer, including a hair caught in the gate of the projector and dangling dead center throughout the opening credits. Nothing has been done to stabilize the image. A slight but persistent flicker, with film grain appearing heavier than normal at times while occasionally vanishing altogether during other scenes is what the viewer is in store for. Mercifully, we do not have to entertain undue DNR. Fine detail is accurately reproduced. Arthur C. Miller’s deep focus cinematography also occasionally suffers from boosted contrast levels. Infrequently then we lose the mid-register of tonality in the gray scale – particularly in scenes shot outdoors.
The DTS audio exhibits a marked improvement, considerably noticed during Alfred Newman’s lush and evocative underscoring. Extras are a curiosity. Twilight Time has restored the film’s overture and presented the entire underscore as an isolated audio track – much appreciated. We also get the rather meandering audio commentary from historians Jon Burlingame, Edward Z Epstein and Donald Spoto that was part of Fox’s DVD release as a studio classics title back in 2004. But we lose the Biography Special on Jennifer Jones and stills gallery that came with the DVD – a genuine pity. Bottom line: there are marked improvements in this1080 transfer over the DVD; the image tightens up and fine details are more obviously realized. But there are still major shortcomings that ought to have been corrected but regrettably have not. I’m going to recommend a repurchase anyway, though I would strongly advise that those who already own the DVD hang onto it for the Jones’ biography.  Enough said. Enjoy and a very Happy Easter to all!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS
2

EDWARD MY SON: remastered (MGM 1949) Warner Archive Collection


An unsettling study in the accumulation of wealth and how such desires to possess more can ruin a man, director George Cukor’s Edward My Son (1949) provides Spencer Tracy with the opportunity to play a self-destructive heel; a man so brutally maimed by his own flawed logic to give his only son every advantage that money can buy, he willingly and systematically annihilates his own happiness. Based on Robert Morley and Noel Langley Broadway play the screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart strictly adheres to the elements that made the stage show a smash hit. The tale is basically one of ‘spare the rod/spoil the child.’ ‘Edward’ is never seen on the screen, but through the eyes of his maniacally adoring father, Arnold Boult (Tracy). Exactly what turns this seemingly proud papa into a despicable demigod who terrorizes and eventually turns his meek wife into an appalling harridan and drunkard is never quite explained. But Tracy’s performance reveals a remote figure of eccentric obsessions that presumably began as mere possessive influences inexplicably grown more toxic as time wears on.
Edward My Son is one of MGM’s first joint Anglo-American alliances made in England after the war. The British locations give the movie an air of sophistication but also, at least in hindsight, seem oddly out of sync with Spencer Tracy’s character, rechristened a Canadian so the actor wouldn’t have to contend with a British accent. Cukor had initially intended the film to be yet another reunion for Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. But the pair balked at working together too often on film, fearful that the association would bar them from working apart on other projects they wished to pursue independently. So Cukor cast Deborah Kerr in the role of Evelyn Boult instead. Kerr, who had risen through the ranks in British film before being signed by MGM proves a formidable presence in the film – much more than her character had been in the play – particularly during the last third when Evelyn’s spiral into alcoholic despair is complete, having been transformed from the youthful promise of a young bride into a bitter, careworn and utterly distraught wreck by her husband’s manipulations.
Our story begins in 1919 with the buoyant return of Arnold Boult (Tracy) to the modest flat he shares with his wife Evelyn (Kerr) on the bank of the Thames. Arnold has just bought a shiny new pram to celebrate the first birthday of their son Edward. Arnold’s heart is swollen with pride as he tells Evelyn how he has quit his insurance job and begun to make plans for a new alliance with a former acquaintance, Harry Simpkin (Mervyn Johns), fresh out of prison after having served time for fraud. In short order Harry arrives to bless the house and child with a gift, as does another close friend and physician Larry Woodhope (Ian Hunter). In turn the men go upstairs to view the boy who is fast asleep in his crib, before returning to the modest front room to toast Edward’s future.
Five uneventful years pass. But then Edward is diagnosed with a serious illness requiring costly surgery on his hip to prevent him from walking with a limp. Woodhope consults a specialist who concurs that without the operation Edward will never walk properly. However, there is only one clinic performing the surgery in Switzerland. Owing to the couple’s limited finances the specialist suggests Woodhope not share this information with them. Instead, Woodhope confides his findings to Arnold who tells him to arrange for the operation with all speed. Arnold will get the money to pay for it somehow. Unfortunately, with his retail credit business doing poorly there’s only one option – to torch the building for its fire insurance and then collect on the policy. Harry implores Arnold to reconsider. He doesn’t want to go back to prison. But Arnold assures him that his plan is foolproof. And so it seems.
Through wily – some might suggest ‘slightly crooked’ commercial deals as a financier Arnold makes his family very rich in a very short time.  He sends Edward to the best prep school that money can buy, and quietly buys up its mortgage when the principal Mr. Hanray (Felix Aylmer) threatens the boy with expulsion. Evelyn can see what is becoming of their son. He is lazy, devil-may-care and spendthrift with a sense of entitlement that has been inculcated in him by his father. But Arnold insists that the boy is merely strong-willed, free-spirited and interested in exploring a fulfilling life.  
Since the dissolution of their retail credit business the years have been unkind to Harry who, hard up and penniless, comes to Arnold to ask for a job. Denied by his onetime friend, a distraught Harry leaps to his death from the roof of the Boult Building. When the police begin to make inquiries about the suicide, Arnold and his secretary, Eileen Perrin (Leueen MacGrath) both lie that Harry never came to see them beforehand. The rouse is sufficient to ward off any undue suspicion, but shortly thereafter Eileen and Arnold become lovers.  Another year passes uneventfully.
Woodhope confides in Evelyn that he loves her dearly – news that she will not entertain, though she obviously feels for him too. One evening Eileen takes notice of a detective, Summers (Julian D’Albie), hired by Evelyn’s attorney to observe her apartment while Arnold is visiting.  The pair confront Summers and Arnold recklessly threatens before kicking him out. Thereafter he comes to another decision however, that he must end his affair with Eileen. Unable to accept the breakup Eileen commits suicide with a bottle of pills and Arnold departs for Switzerland to visit Evelyn and Edward. Bitter and determined to spare herself further humiliation, Evelyn threatens to tell their son what kind of a man his father truly is. Arnold, bitter and demanding, chides that he will do everything in his power to wreck Woodhope’s career unless she remains silent.
Determined to spare the man she truly loves from her husband’s wrath Evelyn acquiesces. But her decision leads to great bitterness that eventually causes Evelyn to chronically seek her solace at the bottom of a bottle.  Like mother like son? Well, Edward has also become an alcoholic. In fact, without constant intervention from his father to clean up after his messes Edward’s life has spiraled out of control; engaged to socialite Phyllis Mayden (Harriette Johns) while having fathered an illegitimate child with Betty Foxley (Tilsa Page) who firmly believes Edward is about to propose to her.  Arnold slyly commands Woodhope to help with an abortion, but he refuses and thereafter incurs the financial burden of Betty’s medical bills.
The narrative leaps ahead to 1939. We learn that Edward, who had been serving in the RAF has died in a plane crash and that Evelyn has also died – presumably from alcoholism. Living in his interminable Arctic isolation, Arnold begs Woodhope to learn of the whereabouts of Betty and her child – his grandchild. Knowing too well what a destructive influence Arnold has been in his own family, Woodhope absolutely refuses to provide Arnold with this information.  His life in tatters, for the police have finally assessed that he committed arson so many years before, and with the prospect of prison time looming large on the horizon, the ever-obsessed Arnold addresses the audience directly, vowing that he will never give up his search for Edward’s lost child.
There are some fascinating moments of introspection and suffrage peppered throughout Edward My Son, though on the whole the story seems maudlin and more than slightly outdated. It goes without saying that Spencer Tracy is a fine actor – arguably, the finest Hollywood has ever produced. His portrait of this maniacal and soulless potentate is more than a tad unsettling. But it doesn’t quite get under our skin. At times it’s even rather difficult to swallow: how, having begun with the promise and overjoy of becoming a father, Arnold Boult so completely degenerates into a manipulative bastard; a sort of paternal Dorian Gray – utterly lacking in any sort of humility, morality or even humanity, but who seems to derive great pleasure from the ruination of just about everyone in order to maintain that pedestaled deification of his only child.
Deborah Kerr is the impressive standout in the film; wholly believable as the new mother with a sparkle of optimistic love for both her man and her child; terrifyingly affecting and effective as the hardened cynic wallowing in self-pity and driven to self-destruct.  Kerr’s transformation – unlike Tracy’s – seems natural (in all its unnatural and unhealthy state of physical decay). Ian Hunter, a sadly forgotten name and face in today’s movie culture, provides very solid support herein. Hunter was exceptionally deft at extolling the virtues of the English gentleman in many movies from the golden age; his best probably being his Dr. Lanyon in 1941’s remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (also starring Spencer Tracy).
George Cukor’s career is predicated on two fundamentals; first, the taming of temperamental beauties. Indeed, Cukor was first and foremost known as a ‘woman’s director’. Every actress in Hollywood adored and wanted to work with him. But Cukor is also known for his exquisite use of interiors; the way he cleverly manipulates space to evoke superb drawing room dramatics that, in any other director’s hands, often became stilted and stultifying.  Edward My Son takes place mostly in a series of rooms – some grand, most modestly mid-sized to downright small. Yet the action never seems cramped or wanting to break out into more wide open spaces. Regrettably, the film – at least in spots – is a rather numbing experience to wade through.
The fault is not Cukor’s but strangely in the material; wordily scripted by Donald Ogden Stewart deferring whole portions to Morley and Langley’s original. That faithfulness to the material is commendable – but only to a point, and in reviewing the movie one simply wishes Stewart had taken the time to shorten certain scenes and/or perhaps prolong others. The first person address to the audience from Arnold Boult that bookends the film also grounds the action in a sort of moving tableau of the stagecraft instead of evoking a genuine cinematic experience.  For the next two hours we are made aware that what we are seeing is one gigantic flashback told from the perspective of one man. In essence, the audience is denied the experience of that mutli-varied omnipotent perspective – the camera as judge - because Arnold Boult is recounting his flawed history to us. We have no choice but to see it through his eyes. But as a flashback device it doesn’t quite work and this is a shame, because Edward My Son is competently played and expertly told.
The Warner Archive has advertised this transfer as ‘remastered’. Perhaps, but the results are hardly exemplary. Age related artifacts persist throughout. The image exhibits higher than usual levels of film grain and contrast that seems slightly boosted, blowing out the mid-range of tonality that is not in keeping with Freddie Young’s cinematography. Fine detail is nicely realized in spots, but there are also moments when the image is softly focused. We also have to contend with severe water damage (which manifests itself in the form of spots) and the occasional obvious horizontal tear. I can’t say I’m a fan of the way the image tends to wobble from side to side about 20 minutes into the movie and continues to do so until roughly 40 minutes before the final fade out. Such imperfections are perhaps inevitable with the ravages of time and improper preservation, but again, these oversights need to be corrected – particularly when advertising the transfer as ‘remastered’. The audio is mono as originally recorded. Occasionally dialogue is inaudible. I found I had difficulty discerning some of Spencer Tracy’s early conversations with Kerr – he seemed to be mumbling and no amount of audio adjustment – either volume or bass/treble enhancing seemed to help. Like most other titles in the Warner Archive this one comes with NO extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5
EXTRAS
0   

THE GORGEOUS HUSSY (MGM 1936) Warner Archive Collection


Clarence Brown’s The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) is a rather anemic misfire. It makes a valiant, though ultimately half-hearted attempt to be a gushing period romance; pretends – mostly through contrived falsehoods – to be a bio pic about President Andrew Jackson, and utterly implodes in its miscasting of Joan Crawford to play the title character. Brown, a sadly forgotten figure from Hollywood’s golden age, was one of the busiest directors at MGM throughout the 1930s and 40s, coaching temperamental beauties like Greta Garbo (Anna Christie), yet seemingly adept at telling all kinds of stories with a light intimate touch; from homespun bucolic family films (National Velvet 1944, The Yearling 1946) to witty cosmopolitan romances (Wife Vs. Secretary 1935, Idiot’s Delight 1939) and large scale period pictures (Conquest 1937, The Rains Came 1939). Yet on The Gorgeous Hussy Brown is at a genuine loss to gain control over the Stephen Morehouse Avery/Ainsworth Morgan screenplay, an afflicted claptrap of oddities and snippets seemingly excised from the historical record, yet incongruously regurgitated with the promise of a better film coming than the one actually delivered through little more than a series of vignettes.
A lot of the film’s failure rests squarely on Joan Crawford who, despite giving it her obvious and absolute all (for Crawford arguably never gave anything less), cannot belie the fact that Park Avenue is more her forte than colonial turn of the century Americana. Crawford became ensconced at MGM as a regal glamour queen through the 1930s. But her talents are dwarfed in period costumes by Adrian. Crawford looks the part of an elegant clothes horse but never emerges from beneath her laced bodice. The other problem with this film is advertising it as a Joan Crawford/Robert Taylor picture. It is not; what, with killing off Taylor’s enigmatically suave and impossibly handsome sailor only forty-eight minutes into the story, leaving Crawford at the mercy of the interminably leaden Melvyn Douglas or in the shadow of Lionel Barrymore’s Plebian muckraker, or worse – to be mooned over by tepid Franchot Tone (whom Crawford was then married to in real life but herein shares zero on screen chemistry) The Gorgeous Hussy founders under the weight of too many would-be romantic suitors poking their noses into this convoluted romantic milieu.
The year is 1823. Widower Major O'Neal (Gene Lockhart) runs an inn just outside of Washington D.C. frequented by politicians. His daughter Margaret ‘Peggy’ O’Neal (Crawford) is a headstrong, forthright, and occasionally willful girl whose beauty is equaled by her smarts. She has strong political convictions that frequently pit her judgment against those of Daniel Webster (Sidney Toler), Virginia Senator John Randoph (Melvyn Douglas) and even her Uncle Andy – better known as Andrew Jackson (Lionel Barrymore). But before any of these narrative threads are developed, Clarence Brown opens with a prelude to the political deceptions that will come to dominate the latter half of our story.
Peggy is pursued by the rather foppish Rowdy Dow (James Stewart) whom she does not care for except in platonic friendship. Instead, Peggy harbors a desperate school girl’s crush on the elder Randolph – a fiery politico threatening succession if the U.S. government attempts to intervene in Virginia’s sovereignty. In the middle of the night, after the rest of the guests have gone to bed, Peggy sneaks upstairs to Randolph’s room. She finds him wide awake in his dressing gown in deep contemplation. After throwing herself at Randolph’s head and being rebuked for her efforts, Peggy storms off peevish and bitter.
Lucky circumstance for her that the inn’s latest resident, a dashing sailor named Bow Timberlake (Taylor) adores her. Previously, Bow had referred to Peggy as a mere ‘tavern girl’,  slapped in the face by Randolph who defends her honor but later apologized for his actions after realizing Bow meant no disrespect. Bow lustily pursues Peggy. Although she is smitten, Peggy asks Randolph if there is any reason why she should not marry Bow. Unable to admit his love for her, Randolph pretends that nothing between them has changed. Fed up with Randolph’s dishonest Peggy decides to marry Bow instead.
The two elope in the middle of the night, returning to the inn much later as man and wife, startling Uncle Andy and his beloved Rachel (Beulah Bondi). After some initial apprehensions and confusion over the marriage license (Bow lost it at the parson’s), Bow and Peggy are left to their one passionate night together. For it seems Bow has been called back to his ship, the USS Constitution for a three month tour of duty. This first act is exceptionally well paced by Brown, the narrative – while hardly cohesive – at the very least pinned together in a manner that suggests continuity. But from here on in the story becomes stiflingly episodic. Even Brown’s direction seems more pedestrian than purposeful.
We flash ahead to the end of the three months. Peggy climbs aboard the Constitution only to be told that Bow has died and was buried at sea. The year is now 1828. Peggy aligns her loyalties with Uncle Andy whose bid for the presidency is threatened by callous mud slingers that attempt to belittle and humiliate Rachel as a backward back woods hick. Jackson assaults one of the naysayers in the street with Rowdy, Randolph and another supporter John Eaton (Franchot Tone) rushing to his defense. Eaton will eventually become Jackson’s Secretary of War after Jackson wins the presidency of the United States. Regrettably, Rachel falls ill and dies before the inaugural, leaving Peggy as the president’s official hostess. Unhappily, she is also forced to endure the brunt of venomous gossip from both members of the president’s cabinet and their busybody wives who thrive on dismantling her reputation.
Five years later, at a ball given in Jackson’s honor, Peggy is delighted to see Randolph once again. However, when Rowdy – who has had too much to drink – challenges Southern senator John C. Calhoun (Frank Conroy) to a fight after overhearing a disparaging remark made about Peggy, she intervenes to distract Rowdy with a dance. Randolph leaves the ball in a frustrated huff but is later pursued by Peggy at his home where he finally admits his love for her. Realizing what marriage to Randolph would do to his political career, Peggy says goodbye to him instead.
A short time later John Eaton proposes. President Jackson encourages the match, telling Peggy that only marriage to a respectable gentleman will help quell the unfounded suspicions that have dogged her reputation. So Peggy marries Eaton. However, the gossips are hardly willing to issue her a reprieve. If anything, the marriage only brings even more salacious rumors to the forefront. Meanwhile, Randolph is confronted at his home by Sunderland (Louis Calhern) who believes he will lead a rebellion against the nation for the independence of the south. Denied by Randolph, Sunderland shoot him in the back, then attempts to hitch a carriage ride back to Washington with Peggy and Rowdy, who instead throws Sunderland out. Randolph dies after telling Peggy that he has always loved her.
Jackson's cabinet members and their wives demand that Peggy be cast out from Washington. This loosely parallels an actual historic event known as ‘the petticoat affair’. Jackson angrily defends Peggy’s honor, accusing the cabinet and their wives of having ruined his late wife’s reputation with their slanderous gossip. He furthermore contends that Peggy and Eaton are pillars of the community far above them all and thereafter demands the resignation of every cabinet member except Eaton, whom he appoints as a special envoy to Spain. It is assumed that Peggy will remain behind as the President’s hostess. Instead, Peggy confides privately to her uncle that the time has come to move on. Saddened by the news Jackson asks Peggy if she thinks Rachel is proud of him and Peggy insists that she would have emphatically approved of his gutsy decision.  In the final moments, Peggy and Eaton are seen sailing for Spain, she casting a bittersweet glance back toward America and whispering goodbye to Randolph.   
The Gorgeous Hussy is, frankly, a mess; its patchwork of historical inaccuracies and downright fabrications accentuating the seriously flawed love story at its center. There’s absolutely zero romantic chemistry between Crawford and her triage of romantic suitors. She’s undeniably at her best opposite Robert Taylor’s playfully swarthy rogue. Taylor’s absence from the last two thirds of the story illustrates what a mistake it was to cast him as the sailor who prematurely dies. In fact, The Gorgeous Hussy might have functioned more succinctly as a plausible romance, or at least and had more guts had Taylor played Randolph instead. Melvyn Douglas – a raconteur with hint of petty larceny best exemplified opposite Garbo in Ninotchka (1939) herein plays against type. As Randolph he’s bitter, pouty, stoic and purposeless – in short; the kiss of death for any woman, but especially one as lustily driven as Crawford’s Peggy. James Stewart and Franchot Tone are relegated to cameos; neither making an impact or even a modest dent in the story. But in the end The Gorgeous Hussy implodes because of its meandering, episodic screenplay. Writers Stephen Morehouse Avery and Ainsworth Morgan cannot make up their minds whether this is serious political biography, a romantic melodrama/tragedy or a farcical comedy played out in period britches. Regrettably, the finished film is none of the above, but a little of each and, as such, comes across as nothing better or braver than an artistic mongrel – haphazardly stitched and easily forgotten.
That seems to be the sentiment behind this Warner Archive release. The Gorgeous Hussy’s original film elements are in very bad shape. The B&W image is riddled with excessive age-related dirt and damage. Vertical scratches and horizontal tears, water damage, nicks, chips and other imperfections are everywhere and quite distracting. The visuals also suffer from lower than anticipated contrast levels that leave most every scene mired in a very muddy mid-register. Everything is grayish black. Whites are rarely bright and never clean. Film grain is curiously absent as are fine details. The image has a very soft characteristic that is problematic to say the least. The audio is mono and suffers from frequent hiss and pops. I can’t say that The Gorgeous Hussy is a work of art. But if it deserves a DVD-R pressing it most certainly deserves better than this! As with most other Archive titles there are NO extras included. Bottom line: not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
1
VIDEO/AUDIO
1.5
EXTRAS
0 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

THE CHOCOLATE SOLDIER (MGM 1941) Warner Archive Collection


Roy Del Ruth’s The Chocolate Soldier (1941) is a real head-scratcher; for it bears no earthly resemblance to the famed Oscar Strauss operetta (itself based on Shaw’s Arms of the Man) as its title suggested, and only a passing likeness to Fernec molnar’s The Guardsman, from whence more directly it derives its rather contrived plot. For one reason or another Hollywood frequently acquired hot stage properties only to gut the artistic accoutrements that made them successful in the first place, even though the results from this tinkering were readily lackluster and infrequent unmitigated flops that paled by direct comparison to the charm of their originals.
Mercifully, The Chocolate Solider isn’t quite the disaster it might have been. In fact, Rise Stevens, the sophisticated soprano of New York’s Metropolitan Opera - newly borrowed by MGM - proved to be the most enigmatic costar Nelson Eddy had had in years. Her arrogant sparkle and flashing eyes appear to have rubbed off on Eddy too. For, although he lacks the charisma to pull off the comedy in his own skin, once transformed by makeup into the lusty Cossack, Vassily Vassilievitch (for the plot within the plot) Eddy positively glows with a ripened sense for comedy and an irrefutable passion for mimicry. Thankfully for the film and the audience, there is more masquerade than mirth in The Chocolate Soldier – enough to sustain and divert attentions away from Eddy’s other shortcomings.  
Nelson Eddy’s career at MGM and elsewhere post-Jeanette MacDonald was very rough going indeed.  Despite being pitched to the public in some very high profile musicals like Balalaika made two years before The Chocolate Soldier, and Universal’s absurdly lavish remake of The Phantom of the Opera (made two years later), the tenor could not shake his reputation as a wooden leading man. There is some truth to this assessment of his talents. To accentuate the obvious strengths of its two stars The Guardsman’s narrative is further revised so that instead of actors the two principals are now a pair of feuding operetta singers, co-starring in a revival of Strauss’ The Chocolate Soldier, thus allowing the film to retain several of the original play’s more memorable tunes, including ‘My Hero’ and ‘The Flower Presentation’.  
Leonard Lee and Keith Winter’s screenplay picks up the story in Vienna, backstage after another thrilling performance. Newlywed Karl Lang (Eddy) is disturbed by his wife, Maria Lanyi’s (Stevens) lack of fidelity in their marriage – or that is to say, what he jealously misperceives to be her lack thereof. Maria enjoys flirting with officers; sly grins and a modest glint in her eye that is reciprocated from the cheap seats in the balcony. What can I say? Maria’s a prima donna, heartily drinking from the cup of success. But Karl is unable to see her flirtations for what they really are – harmless and playful. Instead, he suspects that Maria is planning to leave him for a career in legitimate opera. Maria’s lady in waiting, Madame Helene (Florence Bates) wholly supports that decision – if a decision is to be made; caustically reminding Karl that Maria gave up a promising career in grand opera to marry him.
After another round of blissful bickering Karl retreats to his dressing room, distraught. He confides in mutual friend, Bernard Fischer (Nigel Bruce) his fears about Maria and is comforted. Bernard, a charming bungler, recommends to Karl that he act like the romantic figure in Tannhäuser to woo his bride to her senses. But Karl’s execution of this plan backfires when he finds Maria singing grand opera in her bedroom. The following evening Karl escorts Maria and Bernard to his favorite restaurant, a Russian bistro in what promises to be an intimate dinner for three. Soon, however, Karl receives a telegram informing him that an old friend has become embroiled in a scam that has subsequently landed him in jail. The telegram asks for Karl’s help.
Rushing off, presumably to his friend’s aid, Karl has actually sent the cable to himself, then bribed the club’s owner Klementov (Charles Judels) into masquerading as Vassily Vasillievitch – a bearded Cossack turned nightclub performer – the epitome of just the sort of scandalous rogue Karl is certain Maria will find very attractive. True to his suspicions, after Vassily’s performance at the café Karl approaches Maria’s table in disguise where she flirts with him. Unaware that it is Karl beneath the whiskers Bernard tells the Cossack to go away, informing him that at any moment the lady’s husband will return. A few moments thereafter Karl comes back to their table as himself, pretending to care little about Maria’s first impressions of Vassily. The next afternoon Karl sends Maria long stemmed roses with a card asking her to stand at her window every afternoon at five so that he – Vassily - may be permitted to worship her beauty from afar. Maria conceals the card from Karl who outright accuses her of loving another man because she has openly lied to him about no card being included with the delivery.
Having been brought in on the rouse by Karl, Bernard is startled when Maria also confides in him that she suspects Vassily is Karl. To confirm this theory Maria has sketched a beard and moustache over one of Karl’s photographs. Nevertheless, the next afternoon Maria decides to wait in the window for Vassily. Karl, who must lie about attending a charity function in order to leave his home early, returns just before five as Vassily to woo Maria. She, in turn, beckons him up to the apartment by tossing him the key and is modestly amused when Karl’s disguise does not even fool their dog who sets about affectionately licking Vassily’s hands and face. Attempting his seduction, Karl is delighted when Maria slaps Vassily’s face, but equally as disturbed when she suggests that he should return later on when her husband is certain not to be at home.
Karl leaves the apartment utterly distraught, returning as himself and pretending that he has missed his train. Later on he goes out again, changing back into Vassily to serenade Maria from her balcony window. Bernard, who has been hiding in the bushes all along, encourages Karl to confront Maria with his suspicions about her seeing another man and in doing so is told by Maria that alas her heart has drifted away from him. She is in love with Vassily.  Depressed, Karl decides to reveal himself to Maria the next evening by appearing as Vassily in The Chocolate Soldier. Maria flirts with Vassily throughout the performance but backstage reveals to Karl that she has known it was him all along because no man’s kisses have ever satisfied her the way his can. Overjoyed to hear this news, Karl escorts his wife on stage for their final bows, his own sense of masculine prowess secure until Maria suddenly winks at an officer seated in one of the nearby balconies.
The Chocolate Soldier is a modest musical comedy, full of that Ruritanian charm and schmaltz so affecting with audiences throughout the late 1930s and early 40s. Eddy and Stevens have wonderfully antagonistic chemistry, particularly during the latter half of the film when Eddy – as Karl – voices his frantic concerns, only to be placated and then condemned by Maria for suspecting the worse about her. Nigel Bruce, frequently typecast as a simpleton, and better known to movie audiences for his iconic buffoonery as Dr. Watson in the Basil Rathbone/Sherlock Holmes series, is a delightful fop herein, while Florence Bates offers us yet another variation on the lovably stuffy harridan that endeared her to audiences.
Other songs from Strauss’ play in this Victor Saville produced production include ‘Thank the Lord the War is Over’, Tra-la-la-la’ and ‘Seek the Spy’. To this was added ‘While My Lady Sleeps’ a tune written by Bronislau Kaper (who also conducted the orchestral score), Mussorgsky’s Mephistopheles’ Song of the Flea, and Saint-Saen’s ‘Mon Coeur S’Ouvre A Tu Voix’ from Samson and Delilah.  Cedric Gibbons’ flawless art direction and Edwin B. Willis’ sets – a fascinating amalgam of props corralled from MGM’s vast storehouse, though previous built for and used in Romeo & Juliet, Ninotchka, Anna Karenina and Marie Antoinette evoke a romanticized ersatz European landscape where even such chestnut fantasies as The Chocolate Soldier seem plausible and real. The Chocolate Soldier isn’t a great musical, but it is a very competent one, lushly photographed by Karl Freund, Ray June and Harold Rosson to provide an evening of effortless fluff – tuneful, gorgeous and a lot of fun to watch.
I wish I could say the same for this Warner Archive edition. The Chocolate Soldier’s film elements are in remarkably good shape with minimal age related damage. But the transfer is weak, both in its contrast and exhibiting an overly soft quality that generally wrecks our appreciation for the finer details in the cinematography. Close ups look great, but long shots are fuzzy and flat. Blacks are more velvety gray and whites rarely as bright as they ought to be. Once again, I’ll make the point that any movie worthy of going to disc – even MOD DVD-R – is worth a basic clean up and remastering effort to get things looking better than this. The audio is mono but remarkably clear and free of age related hiss and pop. Clearly the original elements must have been in very good shape because it is quite obvious little to nothing was done to improve on whatever existed in Warner’s libraries before this movie made it to disc. Like most titles in the Archive this one gets zippo in the extra department. Bottom line: recommended, but with reservations.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5
EXTRAS
0   

THREE DARING DAUGHTERS (MGM 1948) Warner Archive Collection


Producer Joe Pasternak dusted off his own 1937 Deanna Durbin musical – Three Smart Girls – for Three Daring Daughters (1948); a lavishly produced Technicolor extravaganza in which the focus of the film was not so much the children, played sympathetically herein by Ann Todd, Mary Eleanor Donahue and winsome Jane Powell, but Jeanette MacDonald in her penultimate movie for MGM. On this outing the iron butterfly – as MacDonald had been known for her caustic temperament back in the day on her amiable pairings with tenor Nelson Eddy – plays Louis Rayton Morgan; a retired opera star turned book editor and divorcee who has begun to show signs of mental and physical exhaustion.
Nearly missing her eldest daughter, Tess’s (Jane Powell) graduation after fainting dead away in her boss, Howie Howard’s (Thurston Hall) office, Louise is instructed by kindly Dr. Cannon (Harry Davenport) to take a cruise away from family and work responsibilities. Knowing well enough that Louise had intended to take her daughters, Tess, Ilka (Ann Todd) and Alix (Mary Eleanor Donahue) with her on vacation Dr. Cannon has a fatherly talk with the children who immediately see the medicinal value in having their mother go off without them. On the day of the launch, Dr. Cannon meets Louise on board and tells her that she has done a very fine job raising the girls, but that if the opportunity presents itself for a shipboard romance she ought not feel guilty about it. Having sacrificed as a single mother she is entitled to a little bit of recreation on her own time.
The prospect of love does not present itself – at least, not on the first day out at sea. But things begin to look up for Louise after she is seated at the same table as dithering socialite, Mrs. Smith (Moyna Macgill); a meddlesome gargoyle who recognizes famed pianist and conductor José Iturbi (playing himself) from across a crowded dining room. Having attended one of Iturbi’s concerts in New Port, and foolishly believing that out of the literally thousands of attendees he will have remembered her, Mrs. Smith scribbles down a request on a piece of paper and asks the waiter to deliver it to Iturbi’s table. José is traveling with his manager, Michael Pemberton (Tom Helmore) who encourages him to throw away the shameless invitation. But Iturbi, mistakenly assuming that Louise is Mrs. Smith, instead decides to play for her, wowing the audience and enthralling the real Mrs. Smith, who thereafter makes a play for him.
Meanwhile, back home Tess, Ilka and Alix have come to a fateful decision regarding their mother’s wellbeing. Assuming that she is obviously pining for their father, Charlie, a despicable reprobate who left Louise high and dry many years ago, but whom Louise has long since deified for the sake of the children – who do not remember him – the girls decide to contact Charlie’s employer, Robert Nelson (Edward Arnold); a millionaire, to bring Charlie back from his foreign correspondence work in China. Having charmed Nelson’s private secretary, Mr. Hollow (Dick Simmons), Tess, Ilka and Alix also ingratiate themselves to Mr. Nelson who promises to do what he can to find and bring their father home as a surprise for Louise.
Back on the ship the casual acquaintance between Louise and Iturbi gradually warms into a friendship, and finally a very awkward romance. José tells Louise that he is in love, but she staves off her own feelings toward him, fearing first that he will not want to be with a woman who has children, then later, because she worries what her daughters will think of their mother falling in love with another man. Their affections having sincerely blossomed into an understanding, Louise decides to throw caution to the wind and marry Iturbi – determined that the girls will come around. Regrettably, Tess and Ilka are hardly receptive to the idea. In fact, they’re initial reaction is one of downright resentment and anger. They do everything they can to wound their mother’s romance and alienate José, who frankly, has the patience of Job when dealing with the girls belligerences.
At first pretending to have been asked by Louise to hear Tess sing – presumably for an audition – then attempting to ingratiate with presents and kindness, Iturbi eventually comes to a decision; that the girls will never accept him as their new father. Only Alix is swayed toward sympathy for José, especially after he quietly tells Louise that he believes they have made a mistake in their marriage and must part. José goes to Nelson who tells him he should not be so hasty in throwing away such a fine woman and the opportunity to be happy. Later, Nelson takes it upon himself to admonish Tess and Ilka for their selfishness. He points out that in denying Iturbi access to their family they have also betrayed their mother’s happiness that she has so readily lavished on all of their lives for so many years at the expense of her own. Tess, Ilka and Alix attempt to woo Iturbi back to the family fold, but only after some consternation do they succeed in being reunited – in Nelson’s living room, no less – as a family.
Three Daring Daughters is a sweetheart of a movie, the kind of grandly implausible family entertainment that was MGM’s bread and butter throughout the 1940s.  The Albert Mannheimer, Frederick Kohner, Sonya Levien and John Meehan screenplay is a tad creaky at times, but Pasternak and director Fred M. Wilcox have padded out the saccharine with a deft mixture of light pop tunes and weighty classical music to move the story along. Given Jane Powell’s breakout stardom in Holiday in Mexico (1946) it’s rather disconcerting that she isn’t given all that much to do in Three Daring Daughters. Powell gets a solo, Fleurette, and contributes to Alma Mater, Route 66, The Dickey Bird Song – the one original song written for the movie – and Springtide, this latter offering a sentimental tearjerker accompanied by MacDonald. Otherwise, Powell is generally relegated into the backdrop of the movie, especially once the singing stops.
José Itrubi is given the plum musical program; piano solos on Delibes’ Passespied, El Amor Brujo’s Ritual Fire Dance, Listz’s Hungarian Fantasy, and his Liebestraum, Saint-Saens’ Allegro Appassionato Opus 10 and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, Piano Sonata No 11, infrequently accompanied by his sister, Amparo. With the MGM orchestra and an explosive harmonica solo by Larry Adler, Iturbi also dazzles us with Enesco’s Rumanian Rhapsody in A. Opus 11. Jeanette MacDonald rounds out the musical program warbling a few bars of You Made Me Love You, but sings more spectacularly while pretending to be Iturbi’s new soloist, Where There’s Love – a revisionist pop song recreated from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.  
Three Daring Daughters won’t win any awards for high art, but it is warm-hearted and at times a very flashy Technicolor entertainment. There is a lot to admire and enjoy throughout this decidedly minor offering from MGM – utilizing all of their Latin American sets created for Holiday in Mexico, ever so slightly redressed and sumptuously lit to evoke a fiery elegance as photographed by cinematographer Ray June. The entire cast gives it their all. Iturbi, usually given short shrift in MGM musicals as a novelty act, herein proves he can hold his own in the acting department too – at least in this musical dram-ady. One can believe Todd, Donahue and Powell as sisters, despite their having virtually no physical resemblance to one another. Donahue is particularly memorable in a sequence where, having been sent by Tess and Ilka to spy on Iturbi she instead is found out when the gaudy red plumage on her cap protrudes from the cement column she is hiding behind. The last act in Jeanette MacDonald’s career was hardly memorable, but at least in Three Daring Daughters she manages to bid a fond farewell to the movies while illustrating for longtime fans that time has been relatively powerless to deprive her of that gift for song.  
I’m feeling very much deprived by this Warner Archive release; unceremoniously slapped to disc in a fairly deplorable state. The Technicolor has faded – badly. Worse, age related and mold damage is everywhere and, at times, quite distracting. Contrast is very weak. The image is also plagued by color bleeding and, in the last third, by a horrendous mis-registration of the blue record, resulting in severe green halos that completely wreck one’s ability to enjoy the film. Badly done! The audio is strident and thin, at times hanging on by a thread as it crackles and pops with an obvious amount of background hiss. I’ve gone on record before, and will do it herein again, to say that there really is NO point in releasing movies to disc, even in the less than perfect burn-on-demand DVD-R format, if what’s going to be offered to the public is little more than badly worn ‘public domain’ styled transfers that aren’t even a shade up from VHS quality. This disc is such an incompetent effort I really don’t know how a big outfit like Warner Brothers has the guts to stand behind it – especially at an average retail price of $19.99! Not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
0
EXTRAS
0

Sunday, March 24, 2013

OUT OF AFRICA: Blu-ray (Mirage/Universal 1985) Universal Home Video


By the time Karen Blixen undertook to write her most romanticized and personal recollection of the time she had spent in Africa she was already a fading bird of paradise; her exoticism usurped by a re-occurrence of syphilis acquired from her husband so many years before, staved off and later still, gone into remission, only to return in the twilight of her elder years. Blixen, who wrote under the non de plume, Isak Dinesen, had given her all to this story and in the end it took what little spark of her youth remained as its remuneration. Indeed, her life would have been nothing at all without this one great adventure – a genuine pity and even greater tragedy for Blixen herself, who would come to regret, yet long for that moment in time when all of her most daring exploits still lay ahead. She had grown up in a time and a culture where the repression of women’s dreams and fantasies – sexual or otherwise – were the norm, and had defied the conventions of this epoch by remaining a single ‘free’ woman dedicated mostly to the fulfillment of her own life’s destiny.
She knew two men in her youth – one her lover, the other her friend, who would marry her for her dowry, then whisk the free-spirited girl to the uncharted territories of Kenya. That Blixen should have come to know love – real love – with a man other than her husband is itself an extraordinary achievement. That she would also discover her purpose in life, as well as come to terms with herself as a woman unlike those she had known and never wished to emulate within herself, is an even more startling revelation; one readily explored with breathtaking clarity and introspection in Sydney Pollack’s lush and romantic epic, Out of Africa (1985).
I miss Sydney Pollack, a film maker who deftly understood, and probably felt the poignancy of Blixen’s unbridled tale in his own soul, but who was also able to speak in the authoress’ words, bridging the chasm between the literary and cinematic worlds by using the distinct language of the movies to tell what is, arguably, Blixen’s story as she would have wanted it told. Karen Blixen had a genuine love of Africa – a continent and a culture she regarded with far greater reverence and affection than her own. But Sydney Pollack has done more than simply fall in love with the authoress or her printed pages. He has wrought a sublime movie epic in the first person sense that so completely encapsulates Blixen’s free spirited heroism, her high ideals for the promise and untouched splendor of this world apart and unlike any other she had ever known, that to view the film is to be magically teleported to that other time and place – to experience and generously live out the euphoric saga that became the middle chapter of Karen Blixen’s own life and afterward, never truly left her soul.
Out of Africa is, or rather ought to be, a paradigm for all Hollywood film makers aspiring to tell a true to life story in the visual medium. The absolute symbiosis between Pollack’s visuals, John Barry’s sentimentalized underscore, and the peerless performances from its central cast exhibit a quality far beyond good storytelling. They endure as a tangible record of a near intangible pursuit – to relay with honest affection an emotional experience that quite simply is as stirring, lyrical and uncompromisingly profound as any ever put on the screen.  Out of Africa is an elegant old-fashioned Hollywood love story in the very best tradition; robust and full blooded, with all the vista-sweeping arrogance of a David Lean epic. Dinesen's book covers a seventeen year sojourn from Mombassa to the Ngong Hills where she and her husband initially intended to set up a dairy.
First published in 1937, the novel was one of the first lyrically vivid snapshots of the Dark Continent. It captivated an international audience. Even today, Dinesen's frank writing style and astute perceptions of colonization continue to resonate with a profound wonderment for Africa's visceral beauty and its’ even more poetic way of life. The film's screenplay by Kurt Luedtke incorporates as much of Blixen's own voice, her tale told as one gigantic flashback that begins as an aged Karen (Meryl Streep) has a nightmare in Denmark. We briefly glimpse the silhouette of a great white hunter on safari; hear the distant roar of a lion and Mozart playing on an old gramophone.
From these first hypnotic and lyrical sights and sounds we are immediately plunged into the midst of a very cordial shooting party in Denmark - Africa's unspoiled beauty juxtaposed against the strained European glamor of this stately gathering.  It is here that we are first introduced to the youthful Karen who has just learned that her aristocrat lover, Hans Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) has been unfaithful. Hans has no intention to marry, or rather, no intention of marrying Karen, whom he has exploited purely for his own pleasure and at the expense of her already precariously perched reputation. At 26 Karen is a spinster and likely to remain so in this claustrophobic atmosphere of stuff elegance and refinement.
Bitter, though hardly surprised, Karen recoups her losses by bribing Han's twin, Bror (Brandauer again) to marry her instead. The arrangement is as follows: Karen gets Bror and Bror gets Karen's money. At first Bror balks at Karen’s forthright proposal. “I have to marry a virgin…” he teases her, “I can’t stand criticism.” However, the offer of a considerable dowry is quite simply too good to pass up. For Baron Blixen, despite his charm, is penniless and off seducing servant girls on the strength of his title. So, Bror goes on ahead to establish a dairy in Kenya. It is not until after Karen’s arrival in Mombassa, immediately swept into their marriage of convenience, with the rest of the colonialists in observance, that she realizes Bror has changed their plans to establish a coffee plantation instead, exploiting workers from the nearby Kikuyu tribe to man the farm. When Karen protests, Bror simply tells her that he has changed his mind. “The next time you change your mind,” she vehemently replies, “You do it with your money!”
After installing Karen on the plantation, Bror bolts for the open freedom and adventure of the African countryside, leaving Karen to struggle as best she can to acquaint herself with the reluctant natives who work her land. She soon gains their confidences, as well as the respect of Farah (Malick Bowens) her most trusted man servant. While Bror is away, Karen rekindles a relationship with Denys Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford); an ivory hunter she first met only briefly on the train to Mombassa, but with whom she will eventually fall in love. Denys' untainted view of the natives is in direct contrast to how the rest of the colonials perceive African society. Karen and Denys realize that they are kindred spirits cut from the same cloth, a union that is placed in danger when Bror unintentionally infects Karen with syphilis, thus forcing her to retreat to Denmark for lengthy and perilous arsenic treatments. After much rest, Karen returns to her farm but soon discovers that her fortunes have been squandered.
Political unrest threatens to shatter the tenuous peace Karen has found with Denys. Despite his obvious and genuine attraction to her Denys resists Karen's repeated attempts to tie him down. Their romance continues to evolve, but increasingly with bouts of melancholy and mutual dissatisfaction at hand. Denys is more frequently away, establishing himself as a tour guide of sorts, using a biplane to chauffeur clients high above the dramatic plains and valleys that are ever-changing with the advancement of mankind - and not necessarily for the better. The farm's coffee processing mill is mysteriously torched and burns to the ground and Denys dies in a plane crash. At his funeral, Karen symbolically takes a handful of the earth near Denys’ casket and runs it through her hair rather than throw it upon his grave: the African way for paying homage to the dead. The film ends with Karen's return to Denmark where she begins to write her memoirs.
In every way Out of Africa remains a superior entertainment. As the lovers, Redford and Streep strike just the right chord – driving the narrative with an enduring sense of romantic friction behind closed doors. Much has been made - elsewhere - of the fact that Redford’s Denys has no English accent (playing an Englishman) while Streep's attempt at the great Dane is too pronounced. For my tastes neither 'shortcoming' has ever detracted from the performance or distracted me in my enjoyment of it, because Redford and Streep are 'stars' in the classical sense. One can forgive a star almost anything. And Redford and Streep are so solid and sure of themselves that together they make the heart of this passionate couple throb with a smoldering, moody and occasionally, genuinely erotic magnificence.
Luedtke's screenplay has been criticized as lumbering. It is hardly that, but rather a methodically detailed account of Blixen's life, concise and moving in all the right places. We are invited to celebrate Karen's joys and share in her sorrows, shedding more than a few tears along the way but mostly through bittersweet smiles. In the years since Out of Africa there have been too few 'would be' epics that have lived up to such high expectations. Yet Out of Africa does and we are forever richer for experiencing the film. Superficially, the film is grandly mounted and spectacular in its visual presentation. But there is so much frankness and warmth emanating from within that one need only look a bit closer to find a more sublime craftsmanship at work. The beauty of Sydney Pollack’s film is undeniably captured in David Watkins’ cinematography. But its strength of character and sentiment lie elsewhere; evoked and evolved throughout – though never distilled – from the passionate testament of Karen herself.  
Pollack's direction captures the majesty of this landscape, yet somehow makes the vast expanses seems intimate and revealing. We're never concretely tied down to the earth but experience Africa as through a novice's eyes – Karen’s eyes – with bright-eyed wonderment and an even greater exhilaration. John Barry's sweeping score augments this stark, fragrant beauty with a resoundingly full bodied orchestral sound that continues to haunt long after the houselights have come up. This is not Africa as it is - or probably even was, but Africa as a forgotten, romanticized fable or dream has made it, a la the literary styling of a Rudyard Kipling – or much more to the point, a Karen Blixen: a revisionist lay of the land that is all to the good and serves the story and its characters with impressive maturity. In the final analysis Out of Africa remains an epic love story. Yet like all great art, meant to be experienced rather than simply observed, in the case of Out of Africa, one journey through the hours is never enough.
Universal's newly remastered 100th Anniversary Blu-ray rectifies a bounty of sins committed on their first Blu-Ray/DVD release from two years ago. For starters, the Blu-ray and the DVD do not share the same 'flipper disc' - thank heaven! And although Universal has retained the identical menus from the aforementioned combo disc, almost everything else we experience is brand new! WOW! What a difference! Where the first Blu-ray's colors were pallid and 'off' with an exaggerated leaning toward cool tones and oddly pink flesh, this new Blu-ray exhibits a lush and vibrant palette that will surely blow your mind. Colors are appropriately warm. We get accuracy times ten, a superb rendering of natural flesh tones and vibrant greens that are super saturated. Fine detail is very satisfying throughout. Contrast is bang on. But the image is occasionally softly focused. However, I do believe this is in keeping with David Watkins' diffused cinematography, to add that certain romantic 'glow'.
The DTS audio has also been improved, with John Barry's score even more evocative and gushing from every channel. Universal adds nothing new to the extras - all direct imports from the Collector's Edition, including the poignant documentary ‘Song of Africa’ that comments on the real Karen Blixen, as well as the making of the film, with vintage cast and crew interviews and a lot of behind the scenes footage. Regrettably, none of the extras are presented in hi-def. But Universal has also given us a very nice booklet brimming with biographical information and other nice tidbits. I don't usually recommend repurchases because I find that studios like to 'pad out' movies we already own with plush filler just to get us to double dip. But in Out of Africa's case, with a brand new 1080p transfer that is 'night and day' ahead of its predecessor, plus the booklet, I have to pause and say "By God, yes! Get it today! You won't be disappointed!" Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
5+
EXTRAS
3