Friday, May 2, 2014

MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1962) Twilight Time

Billed as a featherweight family comedy, Henry Koster’s Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) is actually a transitional piece in American cinema; straddling the chasm between light-headed cornball silliness, typified by the all-American shag-carpeted conservatism of the Eisenhower generation, while foreshadowing the moribund mores in America’s soon to be moth-eaten social fabric. Had banker, Roger Hobbs (James Stewart) bothered to look in his rear view, he might have seen this bittersweet implosion fast approaching. Just so we’re clear: this isn’t Father of the Bride (1950); the tale of a turbulent – if, temporary – chaos, brought upon by a disruptive event: a wedding.
No - author, Edward Streeter, who wrote both novels on which each film is based, has more revealing subtleties in mind this time around. So do Academy Award-winning screenwriter, Nunnally Johnson and director Koster, who carefully balance Mr. Hobbs’ homespun charm with a more unvarnished critique – or rather, farewell to that quaint ‘Leave It To Beaver’/Father Knows Best’ epoch, slowly fading into obscurity. Unlike the Banks family in Father of the Bride, the Hobbs clan is suffering from an internal malaise; agitated by a generational gap of tug-o-war, with tinges of the so called sexual revolution peppered in for good measure.
In James Stewart, both Streeter and Koster have found their embodiment of Roger Hobbs: Stewart, having graduated the ranks of movie-land stardom; now, of a sufficient age to pull off this amiable curmudgeon, whose heart is in the right place, even if, presumably, the rest of him would rather be somewhere else.  And it’s quite a good show to sit back and watch Stewart’s harried husband – usually the calm and collected man of integrity and action, suddenly lose his cool; almost fantasizing he could take his pint-sized grandson, Peter (Peter Oliphant) - who keeps shouting “I hate Bompa!” – down to the woodshed for a good ole fashion thrashing; suddenly careworn and flippant, mouthing, “Aw…to hell with it!” when the cottage’s mechanical pump chronically dies on him; confused by the huffed exodus of the family’s beloved Swedish housekeeper, Brenda (Minerva Urecal), who riotously mistakes Roger’s invite to get some ‘sun on the beach’ as a personal insult; or deliciously allowing himself the thirty second ogle of the oversexed sun worshipper, Marika Carter (Valerie Varga).
Even before the show gets underway, we can sincerely empathize with Roger Hobbs, dictating a rather morbid letter to his secretary (Maida Severn), to be opened upon his death and presumably read aloud to his wife and unappreciative offspring; a final chastisement from beyond the grave and/or sweet revenge for having endured – and survived – this imposed family vacation, for which another, more private getaway seems rather heartfelt, necessary and justifiably in order. The embers of Stewart’s penchant for wily comedy (a skill honed during his early days as the male beauty) are still very much alive beneath his frosty mantle of graying hair. But to Hobbs, Stewart brings so much more; the sage and sobering wisdom of a man gone through the war; and even flashes of that spookier misanthrope given full flourish for the likes of directors Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann. Yes, Roger Hobbs is an uncannily well-rounded characterization; made skeptical and evasive, and just a tad chary about his own children, whom he unexpectedly comes to regard as complete strangers.
And yet, Stewart’s stalwart really has no one to blame but himself. In his zeal to provide all the monetary luxuries his family could possibly desire, Roger Hobbs has forsaken his paternal responsibilities to mold and guide the next generation. Even at the start of Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, the most Roger can hope for is parental damage control; his feeble attempts to stave off this self-inflicted dry rot (pretending to support one estranged son-in-law in order to delay his inevitable separation from eldest daughter, Susan while, planting the seeds of doubt in another son-in-law’s head about the buxom beach bunny with whom he’s contemplating a casual fling) are Band-Aid solutions at best to problems far more psychologically complex than anything allowed to proliferate within the context of the actual movie. Arguably, the ‘vacation’ Mr. Hobbs takes is the ‘quiet’ before the real storm, never entirely addressed herein. Indeed, rough times are ahead. But after all, Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation is meant to be charming – and it is: all about this benevolent family guy and his doting wife, Peggy (magnificently breathed life by the perennially elegant, Maureen O’Hara); byproducts from the ‘greatest generation’, not entirely willing or even ready to relinquish their ensconced ultra-buttoned down conservatism to this new ‘let it all hang out’ breed.
And a good thing too – at least, as far as Streeter’s own middle-class morality is concerned. For the movie, as well as the novel on which it is based, is not as pessimistic as all that about the future of the American family. The Hobbs household is not going the way of the dodo any time soon. Not so long as they are open to change – at least, in small increments. And change is coming – charging up the weather-beaten and prematurely-aged front stoop of their leased summer home along an isolated stretch of Laguna Beach; the Gothic manor guaranteed to make even the likes of Charles Addams blush; complete with creaky steps and a loose newel post knob; the latter a fairly obvious homage to the reoccurring sight gag played on Stewart’s George Bailey in Frank Capra’s beloved It’s A Wonderful Life (1946); arguably the turning point in Jimmy Stewart’s movie career.
For all his bungling as the head of this disconnected flock, Roger Hobbs, like his counterpoint, George Bailey in the aforementioned Capra classic, happens onto unlikely solutions to his familial problems; either from sheer desperation or, more often, by lucky coincidence. It is perhaps far more fascinating to critique Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation from the vantage of all the seismic shifts having shaken, eroded, and rebuilt our impressions of the American family since; the image of the strong, supportive male figure (a main staple in Hollywood, circa the 1930’s) already ground down into quaint hypocrisy in movies like Life With Father (1947) by the end of the 1940’s. Hollywood’s patriarchal impressions leading up to Mr. Hobbs are further marginalized by an increasing parade of lovably obtuse and mildly out of touch, crotchety old buggers, pulled back from the brink of making complete fools of themselves by the proverbial ‘good woman’ at their side. Roger Hobbs does indeed have a very good woman standing next to his. However, this being James Stewart, his alter ego asserts a fairly solid head on his shoulders from time to time. Point blank: Roger doesn’t need the ‘little wife’ to solve every crisis. She helps, but that’s about all.
Take the moment at the yacht club, as a perfect example; Hobbs determined to recast his youngest wallflower, Katey (Lauri Peters) from reluctant debutante to belle of the ball; paying prospective suitors five dollars a head to sashay her around the dance floor. It’s a temporary fix at best, designed to momentarily quell Katey’s adolescent insecurities about her unattractive braces. Yet, both the girl and her father are spared abject humiliation when one of the boys in the queue, Joe Carmady (played by the ever-affable teen heartthrob, Fabian) just happens to be the sort of upstanding citizen Hobbs would ideally wish for; returning the fiver and, thereafter, pursuing a very meaningful puppy love romance (complete with prerequisite serenade to Henry Mancini’s toss-away tune, ‘Cream Puff’).
Hobbs also has considerable success reconnecting with his pre-teen son, Danny (Michael Burns); an inveterate television junkie who cannot even carry on a conversation with Roger at the beginning of our story, but rediscovers what a great man his father used to be – or rather, still is – after a sailing expedition goes horribly awry. Learning of Roger’s days as a mate on a champion schooner, Danny – whose TV has died (those pesky vacuum tubes of yore) – encourages him to rent a sail boat, so they can witness the solar eclipse. However, it’s been a very long time since Roger’s handled a rudder. Despite a few near mishaps on the open waters, Danny is having the time of his life – that is, until a dense fog rolls in. Forced to concede they might be lost at sea, Roger feigns superior navigation skills, pretending to have the matter well in hand. Miraculously, his blind faith is rewarded when the fog lifts, revealing the shoreline very close by.
Roger is less successful at salvaging his daughters foundering marriages; eldest Susan’s (Natalie Trundy) already on the brink of a bitter divorce from her unemployed hubby, Stan Carver (Josh Peine), while middle child, Janie (Lili Gentle) is about to unintentionally push her stuffy college professor/husband, Byron Grant (John Saxon) into the arms of Marika Carter – a deliciously flirtatious octopus. Employing tricks rather than sound judgment, Roger manages to save the day. But in this war on love the likelihood of any serious or lasting détente between Stan and Sue/Janie and Byron, is sincere wish fulfillment on Hobb’s part.  
Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation opens with a riotous prologue; a glimpse of a rocket propelled into outer space, Hobb’s voice over suggesting that man’s grasp has exceeded his reach, if for no other reason, than to escape his own folly of mechanized transportation here on earth.  We see Hobbs in his car, sandwiched between four trucks on the Santa Monica freeway; the exhaust of the lumber hauler preceding him, suddenly obstructing his view and, inadvertently inhaled by the car’s fresh air exchange, causing him a bit of distress. As Hobbs drives through a tunnel, Henry Mancini’s jazzy rifts take over, complimented by some DeLuxe colorful credits that make no mistake we are about to be treated to a comedy or errors.
Returning to his place of work, Hobbs instructs his secretary to take a letter, his dictation growing increasingly acrimonious as he recalls the ruination of his summer holidays.  We regress, in flashback, to the Hobbs family home. Son, Danny is absorbed in a western TV serial, unable to even acknowledge his father, except to ask him to step out of the way so he can finish watching the predictable episode.  Upstairs, wife Peggy has a very unwelcome surprise. She’s been on the telephone to their adult children, orchestrating the particulars of a family reunion at a beach house rented by a mutual friend. Daughter Katey, away at a high-priced finishing school, thinks it positively silly. She’d much prefer a trip to Paris with her two housemates. So would Hobbs, who had collected a host of brochures for a European holiday he planned to take with Peggy – alone!
She reminds Hobbs of the importance of family; how this may be his last chance to bring the whole darn clan back together under one roof. Reluctantly, Hobbs gives in; packing up Katey, Danny, Peg and their housekeeper, Brenda into the ole station wagon. They’re off to Laguna Beach. But any hope for a serene holiday by the sea is immediately dashed upon the family’s first glimpse of the house; a brooding, weather-beaten Victorian nightmare that, as Hobbs puts it “was good enough for Edgar Allen Poe!” Look closely and you’ll see an artifact from another Fox spook story hanging in the front hall – Rex Harrison’s portrait as Capt. Gregg from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947).The house has no antenna for Danny’s TV. No running water, either, unless someone can figure out how to start the mechanical pump housed in a nearby shed.
Hobbs is introduced to sultry kitten, Marika. She asks him about his book, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and even runs out to buy her own copy so they will have something in common to talk about. Peg isn’t jealous –  not really…just mildly amused. Regrettably, there is nothing mild or amusing about the arrival of the family’s eldest child, Susan – already tear-stained as she exits the car; her husband, Stan even more cold and aloof; their two young children carrying on like a pair of wild Indians. Seems Stan and Sue don’t believe in disciplining their offspring; the sixties slant on child psychology rearing its ugly head and running counterintuitive to Hobbs own objections about their miserable behavior. The outlook for the family circle grows even less promising with the arrival of Janie and Byron. Hobbs attempts to offer a toast to their strength in numbers; a declaration repeatedly interrupted as each of the participants finds something else – though arguably, not something better – to do with their time. Katey refuses to leave the house, moping over her ugly braces. Meanwhile, Bryon and Marika hit it off. She isn’t so much interested in his mind as his sleek and rippled muscularity in a wet bathing suit.  
A reprieve of sorts materializes when Hobbs learns of a dance at the nearby yacht club; a well-heeled affair, chaperoned for the local young people to mix and mingle. Peggy befriends the commodore, Reggie (Reginald Gardiner) who, recalling Hobbs’ days as a champion mate in a regatta, encourages the prospect to rent him a sailboat. Alas, it seems none of the young men want to dance with Katey. After a few failed attempts, she asks to be taken back to the cottage. Instead, Hobbs sneaks off, hiring a small battalion of fresh-faced boys with a quick five bucks if they’ll pretend to like his girl. Happy chance for Hobbs one of them, Joe Carmody, actually takes a sincere shine to Katey. After spending the entire evening in Joe’s arms, Katey is smitten. Joe quietly returns the fiver to Hobbs, adding “not for her, sir” and thereafter pursues a wholesome romance at Pizza Heaven; the local teen hangout.
Hobbs, Peggy and Katey return home; Hobbs comforted by the fact that at least his youngest girl will have a memorable summer holiday. However, averting one crisis inevitably leads to another…actually two. First, Brenda leaves – following a disastrous confrontation with the water pump. Then, Stan announces his hasty departure; Susan’s tears and Stan’s “don’t forget daddy” farewell to his kids, suggesting it’s the end of the line for their marriage. Marika and Byron become something of an item as Janie helplessly looks on. Things begin to gel for Hobbs after Danny announces with great sadness that his beloved TV has died. A new vacuum tube will need to be ordered. In the meantime, Danny reveals his interest in a solar eclipse that can only be seen at sea; encouraged by Peggy’s stories of Hobb’s sailing days and coaxing dear ole dad to rent the sailboat from Reggie.
After some rough maneuvering, Hobbs gets his sea legs back, charting a course for the open waters where he and Danny enjoy a little father/son time together. Hobbs shares a few stories about baseball – another of Danny’s passions – and then a few more about sailing. Everything is going according to plan until an unexpected fog bank suddenly turns and engulfs the sail boat. In this dense pea soup it is impossible to know where shore is. The pair floats aimlessly for hours, Danny growing more frightened despite Hobb’s gentle, comforting way. But even he has concerns they might have drifted miles away from the coast. All this comes to not when the fog lifts, the coast suddenly materializing directly before them. Upon their return home, Danny invites his father to join him for TV once the new vacuum tube has arrived.
Sometime later, Stan phones to say he just might have a job prospect with an ultra-conservative research firm. Hobbs is rather infuriated Stan has stayed away for so long but, goaded by Peggy and encouraged by Susan’s hopefulness, he feigns excitement and even agrees to entertain Stan’s prospective boss, Martin Turner (John McGiver) and his wife, Emily (Marie Wilson), who will be passing through Laguna Beach. The mood turns from cool to suspicious when the Turners arrive; a pair of very stuffy teetotalers. While in the shower, Emily is overcome by the steam and shouts for help. Rushing to her aid, Hobbs becomes trapped inside the bathroom when the door knob falls off. Martin is enraged, assuming of course, that Hobbs and Emily are up to no good when left to their own accord. Hobbs, who has had just about enough of these two very odd people, attempts to explain to Martin, who instead engages Hobbs in a fist fight. Martin loses, Hobbs leaving his opponent bloody and indignant. In the morning, the Turners depart without even so much as a goodbye. Hobbs now worries that he has ruined Stan’s chances for advancement, and, by extension, Susan’s for marital happiness.
Not to worry, though. A short while later Stan arrives, informing the family the Turners were excited about his joining their firm and even speaking highly of their brief stay with the family. Stan has the job and Susan has her fella back where he belongs. Planting the idea in Byron’s head that Marika is psychologically disturbed – in effect, using reverse psychology on Byron to achieve his own ends – immediately puts him off of her for good, much to Janie’s relief. As Hobbs packs his family into their station wagon for the trip back home he suddenly breathes a sigh of relief – all except for Katey, who has been patiently waiting for Joe to say a proper farewell. Showing up a few moments too late, Joe drives his roadster at breakneck speed after the Hobbs, catching up to the car and promising Katey he will write her regularly. Can it be love? We return to the present, Hobbs instructing his secretary to tear up his letter of condemnation. After all, it wasn’t such a bad summer holiday after all. And consider this…he’s already agreed to take the same cottage, to repeat this exercise again next year!
Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation concludes on this note of extreme irony, as baffling and implausible as some of the vignettes populating its run time. And yet, nothing seems out of place or beyond our scope of acceptance. Such was the craftsmanship of golden age Hollywood, lingering beyond and arguably, throughout most of the 1960’s.  Frequently, I am reminded of the enormous chasm separating such classically trained stars as James Stewart and today’s roster of celebrities. Each time today’s talents attempt to resurrect a premise from this bygone era for a remake the results are almost uniformly disastrous. It can’t be these same scenarios just don’t work their magic on an audience anymore, because movies like Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation retain their effervescence and joie de vivre whenever and wherever they are shown. The fault must therefore lay in the artisan’s craft; our strange inability to will a simpler, happier time from the compost of our present-day and decidedly dower movie-going experiences.
Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation is hardly a stellar example of the old Hollywood machinery at work. Not all the pistons are firing. Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay has a tendency to get sloppy in spots, meandering from one screwball inspired vignette to the next with the most threadbare narrative linkage between them. And the show unequivocally belongs to James Stewart. Without him, there isn’t much going on; the supporting players all competent but marginalized in the screenplay. Of course, the real coup is having a heavyweight like Stewart in total command; his formidable strengths as an actor and as a star readily on display and instantly heartwarming. There’s palpable chemistry between Stewart and co-star, Maureen O’Hara too – not romantic, per say, but very much cut from that ilk that says married people don’t really have – or even desire a sexual relationship once they’ve had their children. It’s a myth, of course, but nicely adhered to without the added sanctimonious imposition by the Catholic League of Decency for separate single beds in the same room.  
Don’t let’s read too much into the back stories; they’re modestly compelling at best and begrudgingly serviceable at their worst. But they do move the story along without too much consternation about what the future might bring. Indeed, in a few short years such comedy offerings would become scarce to practically nonexistent on the big screen as the last gasps of the old Hollywood establishment moved on and into producing lavish road shows; television, ironically, picking up the slack with such family friendly sitcoms as The Dick Van Dyke Show and Hazel.  Viewed from this vantage, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation really is the last of its kind. It’s hardly a dinosaur; more like a beloved tome to another time and place in the American tapestry of life that ironically, seems to find perennial renewal with fans on home video, perhaps briefly wishing life itself could occasionally mirror the perfection witnessed on the screen.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray release via Twilight Time is mostly a winner with minor caveats.  Photographed in the studio’s expansive Cinemascope, this transfer reveals some minor fading – particularly during transitional dissolves and some slight speckles of dirt and other age-related artifacts. Scenes shot against a blue-screen reveal more severe color fading, flesh adopting a disturbingly ruddy orange or pasty pink hue. Now, for the good news.  Apart from the aforementioned anomalies, color is very robust throughout this presentation; ditto for spot on contrast and a light smattering of natural-looking film grain. Better still, the image is very crisp without appearing to have sustained any undue tinkering; no digitized ‘processed’ look to the visuals and virtually no compression artifacts for a very smooth and ultimately pleasing experience.
The Blu-ray DTS audio is mono. I’m not exactly certain of the original audio specs for this catalogue title. While a goodly number of Fox’s Cinemascope movies sported 6-track magnetic stereo (one of its big selling features), I’ve also seen Cinemascope titles originally shot in mono, presumably to cut costs. Also, when the former regime at Fox in the mid-1970’s went on their ‘junking spree’ – dumping, destroying or otherwise ditching many of their original archival masters (presumably because they could see no resale value in any of this hidden treasure) they might have deliberately disposed of a stereo soundtrack for this movie. Not sure, as I say. But what’s here sounds very good indeed; solid clarity – though, obviously, not much depth. Henry Mancini’s score is breezy and cheesy: in short, perfect.  Alas, apart from TT’s usual commitment to offering an isolated score – in stereo – and a badly worn theatrical trailer that, inexcusably, misrepresents the movie – we get NO extras. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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