Monday, August 4, 2014

FOREVER FEMALE: Blu-ray (Paramount 1953) Olive Media

What is it about aging women find so offensive? Director Irving Rapper attempts to explain in Forever Female (1953) – a fairly tepid romantic comedy costarring Ginger Rogers, William Holden, Paul Douglas and Pat Crowley – the latter billed as ‘a future Paramount star’.  Forever Female is based on J.M. Barrie’s 1912 play, Rosalind. Alas, any resemblance to Barrie’s ephemeral and youth-stricken actress, Beatrice Page and the one in Rapper’s convoluted tragi-drama is mostly coincidental; Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein re-authoring Barrie’s astute observations about female vanity brought into the uber-chichi world of a Broadway without its stage door Johnnies. Our Beatrice Page is fairly mercenary in all her pretend; especially after the houselights have come up; a forty-something diva who ought to know better, but instead masquerades as an actress in her mid-thirties, desiring to play twenty-nine, even though the role calls for a nineteen year old ingénue. 
There isn’t much subterfuge to this plot and that’s part of the problem; Pat Crowley’s Clara Mootz, repeatedly adopting, then shedding her chameleon’s skin as easily as she changes her wardrobe; first as Sally Carver, then Peggy Pruitt, Claudia Souvain and finally, Clara Mootz; a fairly daft aspiring starlet who’s learned one thing – it doesn’t pay to get old in front of an audience. “I’m not lying for now,” she tells bewildered playwright, Stanley Krown (William Holden), “I’m lying for fifteen years from now when I’ll be thirty-eight and wanting everyone to think I’m still thirty-two.” It’s difficult to argue with Clara’s logic – however misguided. The girl just wants her place in the sun – also, in lights on a marquee. Stanley’s play ‘Unhappy Holiday’ is just perfect for her, or rather, would be if only Beatrice Page (Ginger Rogers) didn’t already think so too – for a woman of twenty-nine, instead of a girl of nineteen. Bea was once married to playwright, E. Harry Philips (Paul Douglas), who controls virtually every aspect of her career and can still intervene on her behalf in virtually all her private affairs. And there have been many. But Stanley Krown is different – or rather, professes to be.
He certainly doesn’t start out like some of the milksops Bea’s known; a writer whose day job is selling market produce; who has no compunction about criticizing Harry’s latest play starring Bea – which proves to be a dog, indeed – and who claims a writer should be arrogant, while an actress ought to have humility. It isn’t too much to suggest Stanley has a big chip on his shoulders; one about to be knocked off twice – first, by Bea and Harry’s mismanagement of the play and the part he has so obviously written for a much younger actress; then again by Clara, who cries, begs, cajoles, and finally, steals his original draft to star in at an out-of-the-way Connecticut playhouse where she brilliantly illustrates the virtues of casting to type. Stanley is his own worst enemy, or so it would seem; becoming engaged to Bea when it’s really Clara he wants – or rather, ought to have.  Forever Female is a convolution of such narrative threads; the Epstein’s usual sterling construction somehow badly mangling this backstage brouhaha into a series of implausible vignettes.
We distill them thus: Bea loves Stanley – or thinks she does. Stanley loves Bea – well…not really. Clara loves Stanley – desperately. Harry loves Bea – even more desperately.  Stanley realizes he loves Clara back. Bea actually loves Harry, but still wants him to pay her back alimony. Oh, bother! Forever Female is supposed to be about an actress’ fading beauty and the havoc it wreaks on her career until she comes to terms with the merit in acting her age rather than her shoe size. Regrettably, Epstein’s screenplay degenerates into a sort of lover’s foursome – each player trapped by their inability to recognize real love at a glance; pursued by the specter of time running out on youth and caught in a race for the most superficial pursuit of them all – fame. Stanley wants success so badly he can taste it. With Beatrice Page as his star it might happened. Only Bea has come to this party too late – her own fame on the wane after a string of flops written by her ex-husband. Still, she manages the glamorous bon who holds court in her fashionable Manhattan apartment; attended by her ever-devoted maid, Emma (Maidie Norman).
When first we meet this grand dame of the theater she’s sequestered at the most prominently featured table in Sardi’s, awaiting the critic’s reviews of her latest debut; flanked by Harry and her latest casual lover, George Courtland (George Reeves). Enter agent, Eddie Woods (James Gleason) with a real find, Stanley Krown; a belligerent writer who sells produce at the market to make ends meet. Krown wastes no time telling Beatrice the play was pathetic and she was frankly straining for laughs in it. He chastises Harry for allowing Bea to play parts much too young for her age, and further suggests Bea ought to have more humility when addressing the audience. Remarkably, Bea remains composed – if barely tolerant of Stanley’s chutzpah.  The moment is intruded upon by Clara Mootz, presently pretending to be Sally Carver and distractedly pursuing Harry and Stanley with her fanciful daydreams of becoming the next great lady of the American theater.
Sally’s experience boils down to a few brief cameos in TV commercials. But she’s going places – or, at least, Sally is convinced of as much, if ever the right moment comes along. Alas, this doesn’t look like it. Both Harry and Stanley give her the brushoff. Truth told; with her pert and plucky mannerisms, her Minnie Mouse squeak and a chronical case of verbal diarrhea, Sally’s about as appealing as applying sandpaper to a hemorrhoid - and just as abrasive. She’ll never make a Broadway baby. Ah, but will Stanley? Bea seems to think so, as does Harry. The problem: Stanley’s written a humdinger of a play for a nineteen year old ingénue; a superbly crafted mother/daughter conflict that could be the next big hit of the season - if only Bea weren’t so hung up on playing the part of the girl. How will she ever pull it off? Makeup only goes so far. Besides, no one is that good of an actress, least of all Bea. The few brief moments we see of Bea on stage are painful; an old beef in desperate need of a little tenderization.
Remarkably, the critics are on Bea’s side; calling her ‘luminous’ while criticizing Harry’s play. Perhaps, Stanley’s right. She needs fresh material – his – to reinvigorate her career. Alas, in suggesting Stanley heavily rewrite the part to accommodate her, the impetus in its ‘coming of age’ narrative gets buried, bungled and bounced out of the theater during their Washington tryouts. In the meantime, Sally – having rechristened herself Peggy Pruitt – tries to convince Stanley all his play really needs is a girl the right age in the lead. Happily, she volunteers for the opportunity. Tragically, Stanley puts her to work typing his triplicates instead. She’s wounded but compliant. Before long, Stanley begins to see a more attractive side to this mousy Miss who only a few days before annoyed the hell out of him. 
Peggy is sure she’s going places. But Bea intervenes as only a jealous woman of culture and sophistication can; by showing Stanley the ropes and a very good time, inviting him into her fabulous lifestyle and inner circle of fair-weather friends. He meets the best people – or rather, the ones who shine up the most to Bea and can help his play ‘Unhappy Holiday’ get financed. Peggy walks out of Stanley’s life, only to resurface during out-of-town tryouts as Claudia Souvain. Not shy about sharing her thoughts on the dry run-through, Claudia embarrasses Stanley by rightfully expressing her indignation. His masterwork has been ruined by Bea and Harry’s revisions/updates to the part. Stanley has allowed himself to be swayed by everyone else’s opinions. It’s no longer his play as written and it debuts as a big flop.
Deeply wounded by the failure, Stanley is all set to throw in the towel. But Bea suggests, on the eve of their engagement party, Stanley take another crack at the rewrites while she takes a month off to go to Europe for some rest and recuperation. Things will look better, she promises. Besides, absence makes the heart grow fonder. When Bea returns, they’ll begin anew – tryouts, rehearsals, et al. Stanley really doesn’t want to try anymore. He’s tinkered with his brainchild enough and not to any positive effect. Alas, with Harry breathing down his neck and Claudia throwing herself at his head, Stanley finds no solace or even the time to recharge his batteries. A short while later, Harry informs Stanley ‘Unhappy Holiday’ is being performed at a supper club in Connecticut; Harry pretending he doesn’t already know how this amateur troop managed to get a copy of the original script. Stanley accompanies Harry to Connecticut to see the play – presumably, to close it down. Instead, Stanley is shocked to see Claudia – now, going by her own name – Clara Moots – in the lead and making the most of it. The play is a hit with this audience. Moreover, its’ exactly the play Stanley envisioned from the start: modest and unencumbered by Bea’s star power.
Stanley and Clara briefly rekindle their affections. He has suddenly figured out she is quite the girl. But Clara is wounded to discover Stanley still intends to marry Bea. Darting off into the crowd, Clara’s sudden departure leaves Stanley feeling like a heel. On the ride back to Manhattan, Harry suggests they drop in on Bea’s mother at an out of the way cottage. In fact, the house belongs to Bea, who is hiding out to escape her adoring fans and rethink her own position in their whirlwind engagement. When Stanley discovers this he understands what a fool he’s been. In the same instance, Harry pitches a new solution to all their problems: Bea – a woman in her late thirties can play ‘the mother’ in the play – a juicy part and Clara will take the lead.  Our story ends with another opening night – this one, infinitely more successful, with each woman appropriately cast.
Forever Female is the sort of romantic comedy one sincerely wishes Hollywood had done better; an interesting premise given short shrift by too many story elements being bunched together all at once. There’s no clarity to any of the intrigues; no character development either. Ginger Rogers’ grand dame of the theater is stiff and uninspired; Pat Crowley’s enterprising social climber, utterly grating on the nerves.  Aside: something ‘happened’ to Ginger Rogers in her forties; still undeniably attractive, but strangely losing her appeal – or rather, her verve for playing sassy creatures with a penchant for petty larceny. Forever Female might have benefited from a little more vim and/or vinegar from our leading lady, who regrettably drifts in and out of this scheming mélange – neither as menacing, conniving or enterprising as she ought to have been.
The menfolk of the piece have even precious less to do. William Holden spends a good deal of the story looking panged and/or forlorn; also, being needlessly rude to Clara, while courting Bea with passionless disdain, biding his time and hoping against providence his investment will pay off handsomely two ways. Paul Douglas’ purpose herein is even more perplexing; at once, supposedly still carrying the torch for Bea, but not above pimping his ex out to Holden’s stud, even if he bitterly opposes the obvious trajectory of their romance. Early on, Douglas’ Harry Philips wisely assessed Stanley Krown is different from the others Bea has toyed with since their divorce.
Yet in Harry and Bea we have a couple who really don’t want to be divorced; Bea, doting on Harry at every possibly opportunity – even seeing him off at the airport with a few pointers on how to smuggle a few choice carry-on’s so he won’t have to pay for the freight (it’s a long and laborious scene with virtually no comedic payoff). Meanwhile, Harry is deliciously plotting to expose Bea to Stanley as a much older woman; the wrong kind for anyone except him. It would be one thing if we could believe in these characters; quite another if the situations, at least, seemed plausible and marginally engaging. But Forever Female sets up and then almost immediately tears down one premise after another. Is this a story about a woman’s age wreaking havoc on her profession as an actress? Or is this a movie about young love triumphant over the prejudices of middle-age? Or, is a Leo McCarey-esque tale about a middle-aged couple who’ve since discovered they made a grave mistake in getting divorced in the first place and want each other back. The answer, of course, is that Forever Female is a little bit of all three – and regrettably, not enough of any to make it compelling - except in spots.  We can thank the Holden, Rogers and Douglas’ star power for keeping hope alive while the story unravels to its inevitable conclusion. Star power alone can sometimes salvage a bad picture. In Forever Female’s case, it isn’t nearly enough to make us want to revisit these characters once the houselights have come up.
Curtain going down, I’m afraid, on this Olive Films, single-layered Blu-ray transfer. I can’t get excited over middling efforts like this anymore. There are, of course, two schools of thought on this matter; the first grateful to have movies in any incarnation available in high def; the other never entirely satisfied with any catalog title released without a ‘from the ground up’ restoration effort. For lesser catalog titles like Forever Female my opinion differs from both these polar opposite viewpoints. While I can respect the prohibitive costs preventing ‘minor catalog’ titles from receiving the full Monty restoration, I dare say, a simple blue wash would have effectively alleviated the major age-related nicks, chips and scratches from this transfer. And that would have satisfied me.
The B&W elements herein are in fairly good shape overall. This 1080p transfer sports some nice detail – particularly in close-up – and fairly consistent contrast levels, though occasionally there is a slight hint of boosting. Harry Stradling Sr.’s cinematography looks marvelous overall. Ditto for Joseph McMillan Johnson and Hal Pereira’s production design – obscenely romanticized and overwrought with old-time infectious glamor. Even Stanley Krown’s bachelor apartment seems cozily chic on a rainy night, and, in all its’ bargain basement accoutrements no less. 
The downside: Paramount/Olive has done nothing to alleviate age-related artifacts. They’re everywhere and – at times – incredibly distracting. Occasionally, this otherwise crisp image becomes soft and murky, and film grain appears over-exaggerated and inconsistently rendered. The 1.0 audio is fairly competent, but suffers from some moments of exaggerated hiss during quiescent moments. Like most Olive catalog releases, this one gets NO extras. There are those who will argue Forever Female's 1080p release is a step above Olive's usual (cough) commitment to Blu-ray, and I must concur, this is the case. But that shouldn't be ANY barometer on what the technology can deliver or what the studios are capable of when time and money are spent correctly to assure quality will out. Bottom line: not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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