Sunday, November 30, 2014

POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES: Blu-ray (UA 1961) Kino Lorber

Frank Capra dusted off an early classic, Lady for a Day (1933), tricked out with all the glittery star power, Panavision, Technicolor and stereophonic sound one could hope for in Pocketful of Miracles (1961). Alas, it proved too weighty a concoction for this light soufflé. Publicly, Capra professed to prefer the remake to his original. What else could he do? He had purchased the rights to produce it from Columbia president, Harry Cohn for a whopping $225,000, and deferred his usual salary for a meager $200,000, roughly $150,000 less than what his star, Glenn Ford was being paid to play Dave ‘the Dude’. In retrospect, Pocketful of Miracles is a picture of compromises; each concession contributing to the overall sense of ennui permeating its warhorse of a plot and occasionally anchoring it to the point of tiresome predictability. The best performance within, arguably, belongs to Peter Falk given the plum part of Dave’s right-hand stooge; the long suffering, and smack-talking Joy Boy. Falk’s one liners are all zingers and he effortlessly delivers them with his usual panache for playing the loveably befuddled thug.   
Capra, who had initially aspired to an entirely different tale, one more timely and set in the present – all about Korean War orphans and an apple farm in Oregon - eventually reverted back to the original’s Damon Runyon roots; a clever gangster-land milieu of enchanting obtuse and laughably lowbrow reprobates, bumbling and bungling their attempts to make one of their own – the street peddler, Apple Annie (Bette Davis) – queen for a day. While the original had been set within in the context of then contemporary ‘society’ – or lack thereof, if one so chose to regard it – the remake became a ‘period piece’ by default and seemingly out of step with the ‘then’ current strain of film-making: also, more importantly, with audiences’ shifting tastes. Perhaps, Capra was inspired by Billy Wilder’s monumental success with Some Like It Hot (1959); ironically, another flapper-clad comedy that managed to ring registers across the country.
But Pocketful of Miracles has the unhappy circumstance of being slightly miscast; Capra populating even his backdrop with easily identifiable faces, virtually all having seen better days (and better parts, for that matter) in their earlier careers: Thomas Mitchell as ‘Judge’ Henry G. Blake; Edward Everett Horton, as mildly adorable butler, Hudgens; David Brian, New York’s governor; Jerome Cowan, the city’s mayor, and, Arthur O’Connell, brutally miscast as Spanish Count Alfonso Romero. (Where the hell is Cesar Romero when you need him?!?) Capra was also somewhat forced into accepting Hope Lange as Dave’s nightclub gal pal, Queenie Martin. Lange, who had shown great promise in 1957’s Peyton Place – though precious little elsewhere – also happened to be Glenn Ford’s girlfriend du jour.
With deadlines drawing near, Glenn Ford was foisted upon Capra, who would have preferred Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, or even Jackie Gleason as his star. Capra had already forged a promising relationship with Sinatra, with whom he had recently made A Hole in the Head (1959). Sinatra was, in fact, hired for Pocketful of Miracles before the self-appointed ‘chairman of the board’ bowed out, citing his disapproval of the screenplay. About this: Capra had been unable to convince Abe Burrows or Garson Kanin to update the original’s plot. Frustrated by his reoccurring stalemates, Capra began work on the revamp himself, though sincerely struggling to find cohesion.  At this juncture, Harry Cohn lowered the boom – twice; first, insisting Capra take on a collaborator, then, by refusing to finance the picture outright after the working screenplay by Harry Tugend equally failed to fire up his interests.
Now it was Capra who switched horses in mid-stride, buying up the property outright and pitching it to United Artists. There was some interest there, though not enough to completely finance the picture; hence Glenn Ford’s lucrative proposal to produce the film under his own company; thus, rescuing Pocketful of Miracles from turnaround purgatory. Tragically, Ford had definite ideas about how to proceed, as did Bette Davis; the pair’s frequent bickering leaving Capra with chronic headaches and a strong desire simply to get the damn thing done. By comparison, Lady for A Day had featured mostly second tier contract players Capra could command at will; May Robson as ‘Apple Annie’ giving a tenderly warm-hearted performance that had helped to anchor Robert Riskin’s screenplay in a sort of middle-aged sentimentality. ‘Miracles’ unfortunately became a vehicle for Bette Davis by default; Capra first considering Shirley Booth, Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, and Jean Arthur. Pocketful of Miracles really ought to have been Booth’s picture; Paramount producer, Hal B. Wallis vying to remake it. Evidently, Harry Cohn felt the project would be better served by Capra; a move that caused Wallis to refuse his loan out of Booth – contractually committed to Paramount. But the other aforementioned actresses all turned Capra down flat, leaving the door open for Bette Davis, desperately in need of money during this fallow period in her career.
Alas, Davis is too grand a star for the empathetic Apple Annie; her gestures reeking of scene stealing in a way that almost completely belies her supposedly modest and downtrodden heroine. When first her Cinderella-esque transformation occurs - made complete by an army of beauticians and couturier specialists – Davis, approaching Dave the Dude - and looking resplendent, arms outstretched - to recreate the moment of gratitude from the original, alas, cannot help but pale to Robson’s more matronly frump.  Part of what made Lady for a Day click so well was May Robson’s unassuming presence; her ability to effortlessly morph from drunken hag to stately matron, seemingly from nothing greater than a puff of magic smoke and mirrors. By contrast, Bette Davis sheds her awkwardly dowdy garb to assume the mantle of quality we already know she is capable of achieving. There’s no surprise to this transformation. It’s expected and rather a relief to see Davis finally looking like the star she is, rather than the beleaguered and gin-soaked harridan she has pretended to be.  
Budgeted at $2.9 million, Pocketful of Miracles was rescued from the capital infused into its production by Glenn Ford’s company. Capra trudged on, enduring Davis’ frequent meddling along the way. But she and co-star Glenn Ford also did not get on. Capra was just as soured on Hope Lange, whom Ford had insisted be given the dressing room next to his – a top spot usually reserved for the ‘A’ list talent. Davis was perfectly willing to acquiesce to this request, adding “dressing rooms are never responsible for the success of a film”. But Capra had had enough of compromises and ensconced Davis in the dressing room adjacent Ford’s, causing a pettiness to stir between Ford and Davis. From that moment on, Ford treated Davis with a sort of menial contempt, even insisting in an interview that Davis’ casting had been his idea, artistic remuneration for his being cast in her 1946 smash hit, A Stolen Life, and meant to help Davis revive her ‘sagging career.’ Davis, who could overlook just about anything when she wanted to, never forgave or forgot this insult.
Owing one of its stars her due, Pocketful of Miracles opens with Bette Davis’ prophesizing street peddler, Apple Annie selling her wares to the hoi poloi on Broadway. When she deliberately plants a crisp apple into the open hand of a passerby, only to be given a plum nickel for her efforts, she proudly cocks her head to one side, shouting after him, “Thank you, Mr. Rockefeller!” Unlike May Robson’s benevolent beggar, Davis’ reincarnation is more belligerent than grateful, and devious than sly; contributing to a Salvation Army Santa’s kettle, but snapping at him to “Shut up!” when he benevolently acknowledges her contribution. From this inauspicious debut, Frank Capra has a little trouble getting into the meat of his story, segueing to the narration voiceover from Joy Boy, soon to be jettisoned as we enter an abandoned nightclub, its safe being cracked with some disastrous explosives as Dave the Dude and Joy Boy look on. The Dude has just paid for the burial of a well-known underworld racketeer who, curiously, died penniless and owing Dave $20,000.
Just how he is to collect what is owed him now remains a temporary mystery; that is, until the sudden and unexpected appearance of the deceased’s daughter, Queenie Martin, who promises to make good on her father’s losses. She even makes a modest down payment to prove her intentions. Dave is no fool. He can recognize this kid has definite assets worth exploiting. So, Dave decides to open a flashy bootlegger’s nightclub, making Queenie its proprietress and top-flight musical attraction. Two years pass and Queenie proves herself a success. Too bad with the end of prohibition Dave’s fortunes are set to dry up. Queenie becomes Dave’s long-suffering gal pal; he, seemingly stalling her repeated attempts to land him at a wedding chapel. Dave, alas, has bigger fish to fry; the biggest, in fact – his latest scheme to join Chicago kingpin, Steve Darcey’s (Sheldon Leonard) bigtime mafia.  Darcey is on the lam and Dave firmly believes he can control and roll this one-time fat cat for some quick cash; also, to get the gangster to play ball on his terms.
Dave never makes a move without consulting Annie for a ‘lucky apple’ first – a superstition that, so far, has worked wonders on his enterprising lifestyle. In the meantime, Annie has been sending her estranged daughter, Louise (Ann-Margaret) letters from a swank hotel with stationary pinched from its front register by the doorman, Herbie (Tom Fadden). It seems Annie sent Louise – an illegitimately born child – away to a convent in Spain to be raised by the nuns; having used practically every penny she’s earned in the interim to pay for Louise’s comfortable lifestyle abroad. Louise thinks her mother is the wealthy socialite, Mrs. E. Worthington Manville, who operates in New York’s circles of high society. It’s been a convincing ruse thus far, until Louise elects to return to America with her handsome fiancé, Carlos (Peter Mann) and his father, the wealthy Count Alfonso Romero (Arthur O’Connell – who couldn’t be a swarthy Latin Lothario on his best day). Naturally, the trio expects to find Mrs. Manville living in the lap of luxury.
Queenie encourages Dave to help Annie out. How? Why, by helping to perpetuate her lie for the brief forty-eight hours Louise, her husband to be and father-in-law are in town.  Under Queenie’s guidance Annie is transformed from drunken derelict into dashing dowager. Dave arranges for the cultured pool shark, Henry Blake to pose as Annie’s husband, installing Annie in his out-of-town friend’s hotel suite, complete with Hudgins, the butler, in tow. In the meantime, Darcey grows increasingly frustrated by Dave’s inability to commit to a meeting that will solidify their ‘business’ partnership. Dave wants more than Darcey is willing to give. But Dave has Darcey over a barrel. In fact, the Police Commissioner (Barton Maclane) has already made it clear that, as public enemy #1, if Darcey shows his face in New York he will be sent immediately to jail. To this end, the commissioner puts Police Inspector McCrary (John Litel) on the case; quietly tailing Dave’s every move and making it virtually impossible for him to contact Darcey.
Dave and Queenie have a knockdown/drag out brawl in his hotel suite; she demanding he forgo the arrangement with Darcey to start a ‘quiet life’ with her on a little farm in Connecticut she has already bought with her hard earned monies. Dave is marginally receptive to the idea. But now he’s embroiled in a panicked attempt to make over Annie and give the Count and Carlos a lavish reception. Gathering together a clan of his best mugs and their low class/low brow dames, Dave endeavors to have Blake teach them all how to behave like ladies and gentleman. He uses Queenie’s shuddered nightclub as ground zero for their makeovers and tutelage, drawing McCrary’s interest and surveillance.  McCrary is certain ‘the Dude’ is up to no good and decides to arrest the whole lot before they can hurry off to the hotel where Annie’s party is to take place. At the hotel, the Count and Carlos begin to grow suspicious. Where are the guests? And Annie too has become very nervous, pushed to the brink of making a bittersweet confession to everyone mere moments before Dave arrives with an entourage of New York’s ‘legitimate’ finest citizenry, including the police inspector, the mayor and the governor; all of whom carry on the ruse to Annie’s shock and amazement.
Providing the Count, Carlos and Louise with a police escort to the docks, Annie sees everyone off to Spain. The trio departs, Louise and Annie exchanging tear-stained, heartfelt goodbyes; presumably never again to meet; Annie, knowing she has secured the future happiness of her daughter.  The ending to Pocketful of Miracles, like Lady for a Day, doesn’t make much sense. After all, won’t Annie be invited to her own daughter’s wedding? And if so, how will she be able to attend? Fair enough, both movies set up the fact Annie’s alcoholism has ruined her kidneys, thus, her stake on life is tenuous at best. But what if she does live a few more years? Are we to fathom her own daughter, having been given such a lavish send off, will never desire to see her mother ever again? And what of the anticipated dowry, or – after Annie’s death – inheritance – that can never come to Louise? Perhaps, a Hitchcockian metaphor will suffice here: “It’s only a movie!” Yes, even Damon Runyon’s original story is a fairytale. Pocketful of Miracles is not to be taken seriously, but rather, merely at face value.
This, alas, is difficult to do. Whereas Lady for a Day retained the effervescent charm of Runyon’s original tale (also, a good portion of the author’s flair for backwardly phrased pig-English), Pocketful of Miracles attempts to streamline both the lure and the dialogue to pedestrian effect. Glenn Ford’s performance is manic at best; his Dave generally frantic, impatient and unable to deliver the rapid fire interchanges with Queenie without making them appear as scripted negotiations. And Bette Davis’ Annie is too caustic, too grating on the nerves in her beggary incarnation; too gentile and emotionally torn as the dowager of New York society. May Robson’s Annie relished this transformation, affording her some precious time with her daughter in which a maternal bond could evolve. Davis’ treatment is more panged, less genuine somehow, struggling to make inroads into this relationship with her own flesh and blood. She’s an observer at best; seemingly afraid to approach from the sidelines, even as she quietly observes the romance blossoming between Louise and Carlos on the hotel terrace. 
Somewhere along the way, director Frank Capra has rather insincerely mislaid the crux of the story – its heartwarming centerpiece unceremoniously discarded, or rather, replaced by frenetic dumb show comedy meant to buoy the piece to its inevitable conclusion. Part of the problem with Pocketful of Miracles is that it has been conceived long after the gifted technicians responsible for making expert ‘screwball comedies’ have departed the sound stages. Pocketful of Miracles is an obvious throwback to the heady, hearty and thoroughly unhinged comedy milieu of the 1930’s, but without the thirties verve for slick and stylish wit. In its place, Capra gives us some sharp-shooting repartee between the principles, but it never amounts to anything more, or better, than simply that; the actors involved in its delivery unfamiliar with the particulars of how to make the material click as it should. And then there is the cloying James Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn title song, briefly heard under the main titles and interpolated elsewhere; sung by a children’s choir and thoroughly grating on the nerves. In the end, Pocketful of Miracles is a wan ghost flower of its predecessor; cleverly dressed in elegant trappings, but miserably missing its mark on just about every occasion.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is, thankfully, not the disaster so many of their MGM/Fox acquisitions of more recent times have been. Right off the bat we get the revived Leo the Lion platinum gold trademark – usually the forbearer of better things. Sure enough, Pocketful of Miracles has been given consideration and some restoration efforts to ready it for this 1080p release. The visuals are fairly smooth with a modicum of film grain naturally represented. Overall, color fidelity is impressive; particularly the scenes taking place in Queenie’s nightclub, flooded with garishly rich and ultra-saturated tones. Flesh too looks very natural. Contrast is, at least in spots, a tad weaker than anticipated; blacks registering more tonal deep gray than black. And color too waffles from vibrant to slightly faded, perhaps even hinting at the first signs of vinegar syndrome during the movie’s last third. Transitions are mostly smooth except, again – and curiously – during these last reels when they tend to suffer from a momentary lapse in both refinement and clarity. Overall, the visual presentation will not disappoint. There is, in fact, quite a lot to recommend it. But Kino has encoded this disc with a disappointingly weak bit rate and this appears to have impacted both the overall softening of the image and coarsening of its grain structure. On smaller monitors, Pocketful of Miracles will likely impress. In projection it doesn’t quite live up to expectations and, in spots, falls apart. Minor compression noise is glaringly obvious.  Kino lossless DTS mono is competent, but unremarkable. There are no extras, save a badly worn theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Thursday, November 27, 2014

MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON - 75th Anniversary: Blu-ray (Columbia 1939) Sony Home Entertainment

American patriotism on film has been defined in many ways, though arguably none more rewarding than every man, James Stewart’s fervent belief in the present and wistful promise of the future in Frank Capra’s monumentally stirring Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). In a Depression-ridden America, people had rediscovered their faith in the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and his fireside chats, Capra aiming a decidedly malicious little arrow into the legitimacy of its Congress by pitting filmdom’s most winsome male ingénue against the morally corrupt political machinery of a dyed in the wool fraud, masterfully calculated by the superb Claude Rains. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is an unsurpassed gem in Capra’s crown; a movie, not unlike Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) in its biting social commentary, that Columbia studio boss, Harry Cohn was ‘encouraged’ not to make; Cohn hedging his bets on his star director and pushing the project through despite his own modest misgivings. Capra’s clout at Columbia cannot be underestimated. Within a few short years, he had risen through the ranks as few in his profession; gone from floundering would-be artist to expert technician in the cinema arts; surrounding himself with a superior roster of Columbia’s A-list talent that included screenwriter, Sidney Buchman, with an amiable – if uncredited – assist from Myles Connolly.
To bask in the afterglow of Jefferson Smith’s wholesome naiveté is to admire both Capra’s verve and his complicity for telling compassionate stories about the America he had embraced with all the impassioned charm and flavor of the immigrant experience. Like song writer, Irving Berlin, Capra’s view of America is one of boundless excitement, joy and unquantifiable dollops of national pride. There is both humility and a dignity to this exercise. Indeed, it remains a genuine shame Berlin and Capra never collaborated together. What art these two ardent romancers of ‘America the beautiful’ might have wrought. Nevertheless, their work apart attests to a level of optimism for their adopted homeland; certainly, in Mr. Smith’s case, to an unparalleled conviction in the country’s political machinery, to weed out its bad apples and endure as the last bastion for all the free peoples of the world. Not that Washington perceived the project as such. In fact, Columbia president, Harry Cohn was to experience some undue pressure; Mr. Smith misperceived as a condemnation of the democratic system at its worst, or rather, an insincere slight on government’s ability to procure the necessary and proper set of values without the intervention of a novice unceremoniously cast in their midst.   
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is undeniably anchored by James Stewart’s galvanic performance as the newcomer – Jefferson Smith; just a small town hick, unaccustomed to the fast-talking and even faster moving backroom machinations that make Washington click – or rather, operate spuriously right in the open. The other truly great performance in the film belongs to Jean Arthur, cast as the gutsy, but jaded object of Jefferson’s Smith’s affections - Clarissa Saunders.  Arthur’s career dates all the way back to the silent era. But it wasn’t until her appearance in Capra’s other memorable ‘everyman’ comedy – Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) that she truly came into her own as a bona fide star: the sharp, shoot-from the hip gal with a Teflon-coat protecting her very fragile heart. Cohn had purchased a short ‘unpublished’ story by author, Lewis R. Foster, variously titled, The Gentleman from Montana and then, The Gentleman from Wyoming. Initially, the plan had been to star Columbia contract player, Ralph Bellamy. Ultimately, Cohn was to minimize any misperceived aspersions cast upon either state by avoiding mention from whence our hero hails. Indeed, Cohn was to instruct Capra and his screenwriters to be vague on a good many points more definitely outlined in Foster’s story. For instance, bumbling governor, Hubert ‘Happy’ Hopper (Guy Kibbe) is never given a state; his politico hack/womanizer with few redeemable qualities left open to interpretation; a sort of global representative or textbook example of how ‘not to’ become involved in the political arena.
Cohn was also forced to concoct a fictional national boy’s club – the Boy Rangers – after the Boy Scouts of America refused to allow any representation of their organization in the film. Indeed, in January 1938, Hollywood’s governing board of censorship had attempted to put the kibosh on any film based on Foster’s short story; discouraging both Paramount and MGM from pursuing the project. The Hays’ Office, then presided over by Joseph Breen, specifically objected to the “generally unflattering portrayal” of America’s system of government. It sounds mildly absurd today, but the climate of another looming war in Europe might have inspired Breen in his zealous dissuasions; fearing any misrepresentation of America’s politicos as anything less than a sect of diligent, hard-working and upstanding citizens, tirelessly laboring in the best interest of the nation, would offer unnecessary fuel to the Axis Powers’ already dwindling respect for American might and morality. In refusing to kowtow under pressure, Harry Cohn would quickly discover he would have to fight for his proposed picture from then on; to have it made – and, more importantly, have it seen by the general public.
Yet, objections would not come from Joseph Breen after a copy of the screenplay had been submitted for his consideration.  In fact, Breen thought the scrip “a grand yarn” destined to do “a great deal of good for all those who see it”. Breen’s accolades for a picture yet to be made were the last bit of gushing and cooing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington would receive. Moreover, Cohn found himself being pressed by the omnipotent power structure in Washington. It is rumored the FBI started a file on Cohn; a quietly benign threat to keep Cohn and Columbia under a microscope for presumed ‘subversive activities.’  At some point, the original ending to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was distilled – or rather, rewritten. There remains some discrepancy as to whether the changes were enforced by Harry Cohn – presumably, to cut costs – or external forces; but the changes seem to have foreshortened the evolution of the burgeoning romance between Jefferson Smith and Clarissa Saunders. Production photos, as well as the original theatrical trailer, depict scenes of both characters returning in marital triumph to Smith’s hometown; also, Smith forgiving Senator Paine (Claude Rains) his deceptions. Arguably, such forgiveness might have inadvertently alluded to redemption for Paine – undeserved and unjustifiable in the golden age of Hollywood-ized morality.

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington might also have become a darker political drama in director, Rouben Mamoulian’s hands. But Capra had expressed interest in the project. With the meteoric success of Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) in his back pocket, Cohn could not deny his star director Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Capra initially saw the film as a sequel to Mr. Deeds, intending Gary Cooper to reprise his Longfellow Deeds role a second time. Alas, Coop’s commitments elsewhere precluded his involvement herein; Capra immediately turning to James Stewart as his alternative. “He looked like a country kid,” Capra would later recall of Stewart, “The idealist…it was very close to him.”  In the days when stars were indentured to slavish studio contracts, Stewart belonged to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. And so, the groveling between Harry Cohn and MGM’s raja, Louis B. Mayer began. Interestingly, the genuflecting was kept to a bare minimum; Mayer seemingly in a philanthropic mood, or perhaps conscious of the fact his writers had not yet figured out Stewart’s on screen personal. Following Stewart’s monumental success in Mr. Smith, Mayer would recall him to his own stable of stars and diligently work to build the lanky Pennsylvanian a homegrown career.

Frank Capra was granted limited access to a few choice locations in Washington D.C., including Union Station, the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol Building. But these appeared mostly as background plates in the film; leaving Capra’s art director, Lionel Banks to indulge in meticulous – and very costly – recreations of the Senate committee and cloak rooms, hotel suites as well as specific monuments. The sets rivaled anything in reality. Even the Press Club was reproduced down to the minutest detail; the recreated Senate Chamber, presided over by technical advisor, James D. Preston, a former superintendent of the Senate’s gallery. Preston would also be instrumental in advising on political protocol.  To minimize costs, virtually all of the exteriors of the city were shot on Warner Brothers’ freestanding ‘New York Street’ back lot, redressed and populated by a thousand extras to add flourish and movement.
Presumably, to hedge his bets and broker favor from the politicos who had already denounced the film before having seen it, Harry Cohn planned to debut Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in the cradle of liberty: D.C.’s Constitution Hall. Alas, his appeasement backfired. The National Press Club had already sharpened their poisoned pens, citing Mr. Smith as “silly and stupid”. Democrat majority leader, Alben W. Barkley went so far as to suggest it made the whole of Washington look like “a bunch of crooks” and further promoted an unflattering opinion that Capra had made a movie “as grotesque as anything ever seen!” America’s Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, also jumped on the bandwagon suggesting Mr. Smith’s release in Europe would wreck “America’s prestige.” Evidently, the press was more than willing to bolster this outrage, and insinuations both Capra and Cohn were anti-American and pro-Communist flourished. Journalist, Pete Harrison even proposed the Senate pass a bill banning any movie made “not in the best interest of our country”. In hindsight, Washington did one better – or worse (depending on one’s point of view), quietly qualifying the Neely Anti-Block Booking Bill. Eventually known as the Government Consent Decrees, this led to the breakup of studio-owned theater chains in the late 1940s; in effect, splintering Hollywood’s autonomy until the mid-1980’s.
Cohn had a lot of money riding on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. To pull the movie from distribution, not only would have admitted that, perhaps, some of the vitriol being heaped upon the picture was warranted, but also been tantamount to cutting his own throat, financially speaking. Instead, Cohn pitched a counter offensive; a PR junket bent on plumping up the film’s patriotic message in support of democracy; a push that achieved minor success and was publicized in various positive reviews. In Europe, Mr. Smith was immediately banned in Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia; Capra even learning of areas where the foreign dub had been made to conform to alternative political ideologies. Labeled the quintessential ‘whistle blower’, Mr. Smith’s reputation suffered at the box office. Capra, who had invested every last ounce of blood, sweat and tears in order to will his pet project to life, was demoralized by the critical backlash. In retrospect, Mr. Smith’s disquieting implosion left Capra to pursue a decade’s worth of infinitely darker movies, beginning with Meet John Doe (1941) and culminating with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Despite Capra’s initial disappointment, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has long since endured as one of his top-tiered entertainments. Fair enough, the only virtuous person in the picture is undeniably Stewart’s Jefferson Smith; untouched and unspoiled by the corruption and graft that surrounds him; his goodness eventually rubbing off on Clarissa, who becomes his most ardent supporter. Ostensibly, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington can be viewed as anti-American, although this was never Capra’s intent; the elder statesmen of its political machinery contented to remain silent while manipulative politico puppet master, James Taylor (Edward Arnold), cajoles, bribes, brutalizes or otherwise intimidates innocent people and stifles the jurisprudence of a nation into doing his own private bidding. But the ‘anti-American’ allegations only stick if one sets aside the film’s finale; Jefferson conducting a patriotic flag-waving filibuster until he collapses on the floor of the Senate, drawing out Paine’s empathy into a raw confession. It’s a delicious and perhaps even Christ-like notion – one optimist changing the course of a corrupt system from the inside.
Claude Rains devious complicit is the obvious villain in Capra’s piece; Taylor’s mouthpiece and go between. But Guy Kibbee’s ridiculous governor is, arguably, the more fascinating stooge. On the surface he is played strictly as the fop – a hallmark of Kibbee’s career; cast as reoccurring loveably obtuse and slightly inebriated cads. Yet, a closer look at his character reveals a decidedly more sinister purpose; the way he callously chooses a coin toss to make up his mind as to which candidate he should back; the coin landing on its edge but next to a newspaper detailing Smith’s accomplishments. And the governor’s decision is sealed by his own inability to conceive of a man’s virtue equating to anything more – or better – than rank naiveté; just a simpleton who can be easily swayed by a thin smile, a warm handshake and a kind – however facetiously conceived - word.
Immediately following Dimitri Tiomkin’s rousting main title underscore, we are introduced to the quandary as to who will fill the seat of newly deceased U.S. senator, Sam Foley. Eventually, the backroom connivers back junior senator, Jefferson Smith, believing he will be fairly easy to manage and manipulate to do their bidding once ensconced in Washington’s well-oiled – and oily - machinery. To ensure close watch is kept on Smith, James Taylor entrusts his quiet supervision to the publicly esteemed elder statesman, Sen. Joseph Paine (Claude Rains); a friend of Jefferson’s late father. Paine is actually Taylor’s mouthpiece and corrupted to his core. Smith is introduced to Paine’s daughter, Susan (Astrid Allwyn) with whom he immediately becomes quite sheepishly smitten.  But Smith’s cockeyed optimism proves a hindrance when the Washington press club decides to follow his every move, concocting bylines and promoting him as the all-American country bumpkin.
Smith is demoralized, feeling as though he has made a grave mistake in accepting the nomination. Recognizing how ill equipped he has been, Smith leans heavily on his secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) and, to a lesser extent, her pal, Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell) for advice. Saunders was an aid to Sam Foley, kicking around Washington for a long time. She’s hard and practically heartless, knowing too well how callous and cruel this town can be. When Jefferson asks to be taken to the various Washington monuments, including the Lincoln Memorial, Saunders laughs off the request as misguided and touristy. But Smith is the real deal; believing heart and soul in the high ideals of the country’s founding fathers. Sensing Jefferson’s waning interest in remaining in Washington, but also convinced Taylor has found the ideal stooge to manipulate, Paine quietly hints Smith propose a bill to help bolster and stem the tide of his ridiculed press coverage.
The idea has merit, Smith immediately latching onto a bill that will authorize a federal loan to appropriate a patch of wilderness for a national boys’ camp in his home state. The idea is the land will be paid back through donations from youngsters all across America. In a Depression strapped America, donations nevertheless begin to pour in from all corners of the country. Alas, the proposed campsite is already part of a dam-building graft scheme included in an appropriations bill, its chief architect, James Taylor and its most ardent supporter, Senator Paine. Unwilling to stain the reputation of an honorable man - at first - Paine informs Taylor of his decision to step down from the fray, whereupon Taylor insidiously reminds Paine his entire political career is built upon a lie; one Taylor has no quam to crush in an instant should Paine refuse his demands. Under pressure to save his own political face Paine takes to the senate floor, accusing Smith of already owning the land in question, producing fraudulent evidence to support his claim. Unable to quantify Paine’s betrayal, or defend himself from it, Smith skulks off with his own reputation in tatters.
Saunders, who thought less of Smith for his wholesomeness, has begun to quietly fall in love with him. Having seen the goodness as more than mere façade, Saunders seeks Smith out, imploring him to take a stand and vindicate his reputation with a good ole fashioned filibuster. If nothing else, it will postpone the appropriations bill and prevent his expulsion from the senate. Smith is moved by Saunders’ sudden faith in him and accepts this challenge, launching into a non-stop diatribe, begun passionately and, in fact, supported in his own home state. Determined he should not succeed, Taylor sends out his hired guns to intimidate and injure the Boy Rangers, who are spreading the word of Smith’s innocence. Director Capra’s optimistic view of this grassroots dissemination of the truth is a tad too idealistic; a handful of ardent young men canvassing their towns and cities with mimeographed pamphlets, even as Taylor’s army of back-pocket newspaper drones spread their vitriol against Smith in the mainstream press.
Taylor’s minions decimate Smith’s supporters, distorting the facts to suit their own impressions of ‘the truth’. Entering his twenty-fourth uninterrupted hour on the senate floor, a beleaguered and utterly exhausted Jefferson Smith is faced with a bin of letters and telegrams supposedly from his own state, though actually forged by Taylor, asking for his expulsion. Believing his own countrymen have lost all faith in his resolve, Smith is momentarily comforted by the kindly visage of the President of the Senate (Harry Carey), before collapsing on the floor as Saunders frantically looks on from the gallery. Overwrought with guilt, Senator Paine attempts suicide, is stopped by his cohorts, then bursts onto the floor to confess his complicity in the cover up and expose Taylor’s corruptions and his own. Exonerated, Smith is cheered to the rafters, with Saunders rushing to his side.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington remains the quintessence of that oft’ labeled ‘Capra-corn’ film formula Frank Capra perfected over at Columbia Pictures throughout the 1930’s. In everyman, James Stewart, Capra has the absolute perfect embodiment of the bright-eyed, big-hearted American to whom even the very concept of moral turpitude is foreign; much less its varying improbity transferred from theory into practice. James Stewart’s genial everyman unfurls a flurry of patriotic flag waving; the spectacle spared its schmaltz, not only from Stewart’s carefully nuanced performance, but also by Capra’s masterful direction. Interestingly, Capra took a break from his usual good luck charm, screenwriter, Robert Riskin; Sidney Buchman delivering the goods with great sincerity and gusto herein. His set pieces; Jefferson’s awe-inspiring first look at the Lincoln Memorial, and the rousing filibuster are not only memorable bits of sentimental showmanship, but have since gone on to become iconic representations, defining - for most what it means to truly be an American. 
Regardless of the critical muckraking that occurred upon the film’s premiere, Mr. Smith is Capra’s class ‘A’ affair, with only slight tinges of the political exposé to recommend it. Perhaps too many toiling and roiling in Washington then found more than a kernel of truth in its representations of backroom politics. The film also comes at the tail end of Capra's reign at Columbia Studios. With the advent of WWII, Capra's particular brand of Americana grew at odds with the more grim approaching storm clouds from the European conflict, particularly after America's involvement in the crisis. By 1940, light and frothy Capra-corn was out. Film noir was in; though no one had labeled the latter movement as such just yet.  
Sony Home Entertainment debuts Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as, presumably, their entrée to the ‘Capra Collection’ in a handsome embossed digi-pack with impressive liner notes. Problem: Sony has already farmed out Capra’s masterpiece, It Happened One Night (1934) to Criterion. So, just what other Capra gems are destined for this ‘collection’ remains open for discussion. One would sincerely hope for newly remastered and sparkling restorations of Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) and Lost Horizon (1937) among them. But I digress. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has been given a superb restoration under the aegis of Grover Crisp, who continues to lead the charge – and the way – in hi-def presentations of vintage catalog on Blu-ray. Bravo, Mr. Crisp, and thank you! Mr. Smith looks divine in 1080p, the benefactor of a ‘from the ground up’ digital restoration in 4K to mark its 75th anniversary. Prepare to be dazzled. Virtually all of the age-related damage that once plagued the old DVD’s is gone. The gray scale exhibits exceptional tonality and, apart from a handful of ‘soft’ inserts, most likely derived from less than stellar existing source materials, this transfer is a winner through and through. Contrast is richly satisfying; deep saturated blacks and near pristine whites. Film grain has been naturally replicated. Close-ups astound in their razor-sharp clarity and attention to minute details in skin, hair and fabric; the ‘wow’ factor in evidence throughout. The DTS-HD mono audio is capable; a real showcase for Dimitri Tiomkin’s underscore; dialogue and effects sounding solid and, occasionally, surprisingly nuanced.  
You’ll be disappointed by the extras. I know, I was. We get direct port overs of Frank Capra Jr.’s all too brief Frank Capra Jr. Remembers Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Conversations with Frank Capra Jr. - The Golden Years, and, Frank Capra Collaboration – by far, the best of the lot. Also present: Conversations with Frank Capra Jr. - A Family History and The Frank Capra I Knew, hosted by historian Jeanine Basinger. Kenneth Bowser’s 1997, Frank Capra’s American Dream is also here. But if you already own It Happened One Night from Criterion, then you already have this feature-length documentary hosted by Ron Howard.  This leaves the 28 page digi-pack as the only genuine ‘new’ extra included in this set; well worth the price of admission and featuring an essay by Jeremy Arnold. Bottom line: an immortal film, expertly represented in hi-def. Highly recommended! Very highly, in fact.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Monday, November 17, 2014

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY: Blu-ray (MGM 1945) Warner Archive

One of the most remarkable literary adaptations ever to emerge from MGM, Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) remains a startling tale of the supernatural, of course, based on the masterwork by Oscar Wilde. The film flies in the face of the studio’s motto ‘ars gratia artis’ – loosely translated as ‘art for art’s sake’ - its harsh critique of aestheticism based on Wilde’s own celebrated dabbling with its precepts. Aestheticism today is superficially translated as living one’s life solely for pleasure. But actually, in Wilde’s time there was an entire mantra that went with this scant definition; a wanton meandering through life as a reflection of nothing better than to mildly amuse. According these precepts, art should be beautiful and one should strive to emulate its beauty in the real world. There is no place for morality or even a social conscience in aestheticism. Achieving venal gratification is all that matters; a very Machiavellian approach to human existence and one which Wilde had begun to question and, in fact, was quite critical of at the time he wrote his one and only novel.
Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray is hardly the creature exposed to us in Lewin’s film; the stoic, glacially serene brunette male beauty as masterfully portrayed by Hurd Hatfield. Nor is Angela Lansbury’s Sybil Vane anywhere near the novel’s depiction of a worldly Shakespearean actress who manages to seduce Dorian, but then commits the carnal sin of aestheticism by forsaking her art for her lover, thereby rendering her importance in Dorian’s life utterly moot and disposable. No, Wilde’s incarnation of the ‘perfect’ male specimen and the girl whose love he tortures into premature death are far removed from Wilde’s original intent. And yet, the film functions as a superior re-telling of Wilde’s prose.  In the novel, Dorian Gray is a buff, blonde Adonis who exudes, rather than concealing, his emotions. In casting against type for the film, Lewin achieves a rather spectacularly spooky effect. It is said the director repeatedly forced Hurd Hatfield to keep his facial features virtually unchanged throughout the story. Hatfield, a skilled actor of considerable range (whose post-Dorian Gray career fell sadly at the mercy of maintaining the illusion of his alter ego), was literally straight-jacketed in his performance. The effect, however, is uncanny, foreshadowing the malignancy of the character’s wretched spiral into self-destruction.
As for Angela Lansbury’s Sybil Vane; she has been reshaped in Lewin’s screenplay into the most unassuming innocent from a lower strata of life; the celebrated chanteuse of The Two Turtles; a lowbrow nightclub in the heart of Limehouse – then considered England’s ‘red light’ district.  Lewin, who was a highly literate man, a huge fan of Oscar Wilde, and, a former University professor to boot, had no compunction about toying with Wilde’s original prose. Yet in translating the story to the screen there is an almost religious adherence to Wilde’s central themes – to keep the actual tawdriness and debaucheries consuming Dorian Gray’s core a secret from the audience. In the novel, Wilde commits only a few veiled lines to suggest the devilry his Dorian Gray might be up to, while in the movie Lewin briefly shows us his Dorian merely trolling the stark alleys and murky byways of Blue Gate Fields. The novel caused quite a scandal for Wilde when it was first published in 1890.  Despite its incendiary appeal, Wilde insisted that the sins of Dorian Gray were only present in the reader’s lurid imagination.
As in the novel, Dorian Gray is a man in love with himself – or, that is to say, with the image of his own physical attractiveness, captured for posterity within a startling portrait painted by his good friend, Basil Hollward (Lowell Gilmore). In the otherwise B&W movie, this portrait is revealed to the audience thrice, each time in blazing Technicolor. The portrait takes Lord Henry Wotten’s (George Sanders) breath away. In the novel, Wotten is something of a bi- or perhaps homo-erotic catalyst who contributes to Dorian’s downfall. In the movie however, Wotten’s contribution to Dorian’s fate is far more insidious. As played to perfection by George Sanders, eyes gleaming, cheeks proudly gloating beneath his Mephistophelian goatee, Wotten is a very cultured bon vivant, undeniably attracted to Dorian’s glacially masculine handsomeness. But he neither goads nor orchestrates the fate of our anti-heroic fop by plucking his strings as an overbearing puppet master; rather, he merely presides over Dorian’s misadventures by introducing aestheticism into the young man’s cultured mind. The only way to divert a temptation, Wotten suggests, is to yield to it - to give in and satisfy its urge. Having done so, the urge no longer teases the imagination because it has been revealed and/or tested in a very concrete way.
In a moment of weakness, Dorian concurs with Wotten’s theory and decides to make his own Faustian pact with the devil: that if only he could remain eternally youthful he is willing to sacrifice Basil’s art in place of his own bodily corruption. Basil’s portrait – the iconography of his outward beauty - will decay, revealing both the awfulness of Dorian’s actions and the ravages of time.  It is a fool’s pact, of course, one made by a young man who cannot imagine himself robbed of the great good fortune of his good looks. These have made him the envy of most men and a very desirable artifact to at least two women; Sybil Vane (Angela Lansbury) and Basil’s daughter, Gladys Hallward (played as a precocious child by Carol Diane Keppler, then, later as an adult by doe-eyed Donna Reed).
In critiques of the movie, George Sanders’ Henry Wotten is often misperceived as the devil incarnate. But if anything his Henry Wotten is the devil’s advocate, and perhaps not even that – Wotten’s renunciation of aestheticism upon the discovery of Dorian’s badly decomposed and tortured body, lying on the floor inside his upstairs attic playroom in the film’s penultimate moment, perfectly mirroring Wilde’s own harsh criticisms of aestheticism as a way of life, but also redeeming Sander’s Wotten of any wrong-doing he might have exercised.  Wilde’s details about the relationship between Wotten and Dorian remain sketchy at best, particularly since sodomy was then a crime punishable by imprisonment and certainly not a topic readily discussed in prominent literature of the day.
Morose at the prospect that his own life is slipping away, Dorian takes to the streets of Limehouse. He meets singer Sybil Vane at The Two Turtles, a seedy pub run by Malvolio Jones (Billy Bevan). Sybil’s love life is mismanaged by Jones and her mother (Lydia Bilbrook), each of whom exact a fee for Dorian’s romantic pursuit of the girl. Despite her station in life, and the wily machinations of the spurious adults who surround her, Sybil remains a girl pure of heart. She refuses Dorian’s stipend and pursues him with unfettered affections. He, in turn, is absolutely smitten with her, even going so far as to tell both Basil and Wotten of his discovery and encourages them to meet Sibyl at the Two Turtles some time later. Only Basil can see the true value of the girl. Wotten is merely amused, suggesting a cruel experiment to Dorian to test the fidelity of Sybil’s affections. Wotten tells Dorian that he should invite Sybil to his home that evening under an innocent pretext, but then make violent advances to seduce her. If she accepts these, then she is a creature no more favorable than a guttersnipe and is to be discarded by Dorian at once.
Basil is appalled by the spitefulness of the exercise. But Dorian elects to test Wotten’s theory. Unapologetically, and with no emotion, he orders Sybil to stay the night or lose his affections forever. The heartlessness of his invitation breaks Sybil’s young heart. Moreover, it shatters her idealisms about Dorian – a man whom she truly, painfully loves.  Her pride and sense of morality encourage her to walk out. But Dorian callously strikes up a Chopin prelude with great vigor. This he had previously played for Sybil with demure tenderness at The Two Turtles to illustrate his legitimate affections for her. But now the music rings ominous as it lures Sybil back to Dorian’s side with great and tragic reluctance; her advancing shadow approaching from behind as Dorian continues to play on.
Sometime later we learn that, having once taken advantage of the girl, Dorian has repeatedly lured Sibyl to his bedchamber, each time her love growing more resilient for him while his exponentially cools toward her until the moment of his outright dismissal arrives by messenger. Dorian consults his portrait, detecting a slight smirk in the face staring back at him. Is it real or imagined? Examining his own flawless features in the hall mirror, Dorian realizes that his pact has begun to take hold. He is ageless, the portrait reflecting his insincerities in his stead. Having surrendered to Dorian, Sybil is destroyed by this remote farewell. She vanishes from the movie – and presumably, from all polite society thereafter. We learn much later from Sybil’s devoted brother, the mariner James (Richard Fraser) that she has died, presumably by her own hand or at the very least, prematurely from a broken heart.
News of Sybil’s demise eventually reaches Dorian. He is perhaps wounded by this discovery, although his first recourse is hardly to mourn her loss, but rather to delve deeper into a self-indulgent litany of debaucheries that leads further to his own destruction. The portrait, hidden from our view, is infrequently consulted by Dorian – its eventual exile beneath a heavy cloak and hidden under lock and key in the upstairs attic playroom where other relics from Dorian’s forgotten youth now reside, suggests that its physical ravages are beyond casual concealment. The years pass. Gladys grows into maturity and is courted by David Stone (Peter Lawford); an amiable suitor whom she does not love. Dorian toys with Gladys affections. But his ageless human perfection has become a source of quiet gossip and the subject of much speculation amongst even his closest friends.
Intent on sparing his daughter the unpleasantness of learning the truth about Dorian Gray, Basil has long defended his old friend’s honor when questioned about these persistent rumors. But his curiosities and apprehensions continue to linger. Unable to dismiss them without prejudice, Basil confronts Dorian and insists that he be allowed to view the portrait. Dorian denies this request at first. But Basil presses on, informing Dorian that he will do everything within his power to spare Gladys any great unhappiness. Dorian reluctantly leads Basil to the attic. Horrified by the ravages depicted in his artistry, Basil realizes that the rumors about Dorian Gray are all true. So that Gladys should never know the truth, Dorian stabs Basil to death in the attic, the portrait’s hand beginning to bleed as a consequence of his actions.
The murder of Basil is perhaps the most startling sequence in the movie; Harry Stradling’s extraordinary and Oscar-winning B&W cinematography capturing Dorian’s unrepentant façade as a ceiling gas lamp teeters wildly back and forth, revealing in contrasting light and shadow Basil’s bloodied corpse slumped across the desk. This sequence is capped off by another moment of understated showmanship as Dorian uses an embroidered cloth from his youth to casually wipe his blood-stained hands. Immediately following this chilling sequence there is another, in which Dorian now orders another old friend, Allen Campbell (Douglas Watson) to dispose of Basil’s remains or face having his own sins exposed by Dorian to Campbell’s wife and family. Like the sins of Dorian Gray, Campbell’s are never fully fleshed out for the audience. Nevertheless, they must be fairly lurid. For Campbell, unable to bring himself to terms with his own demons, later commits suicide to spare himself the indignation of his own duplicity in Basil’s murder.
Dorian Gray is often referred to – incorrectly - as a sociopath. In the truest sense of the word, the aforementioned scenes do suggest as much. But then comes the fateful moment when Dorian is reunited with Sybil’s brother, the pair having just come from a brothel in Limehouse, and James determined to exact his pound of flesh from the man he rightfully blames for his sister’s untimely death. The confrontation, however, never entirely materializes perhaps because James can sense a parallel between their lives. But it does open an old wound in Dorian’s emotional psyche; one that will continue to fester for the rest of movie, infecting Dorian’s every thought and proving just as corrosive to his own conscience as his actions have been to the canvass that now truly illustrates his own sad self-destructive nature. 
Meanwhile, David is determined to reveal Dorian’s true self to Gladys. His inquiries to view the portrait locked in the attic in the presence of Wotten and Gladys are thwarted, but finally convince Dorian that he has come to the end of his decadences. Despite his best laid plans, he can no longer mask his true identity from the encroaching world or from the woman he sought to possess at all costs. Hurrying to the attic, Dorian uncovers his portrait for one last time; strangely appalled by its epic decay; the torture encapsulated within his soul – or at least, what is left of it – has at last taken hold. Ironically, Dorian uses the knife he murdered Basil with to stab at the heart of this mirrored image, the wound taking hold in his own breast. He falls to the floor just as Wotten, Gladys and David barge in; Basil’s portrait reverting to its former glory while the crust and filth of his own depravities has consumed the pathetically withered body now lying at their feet.
MGM knew it had a masterpiece on its hands. And yet, it wasn’t quite certain how to market the movie. The Picture of Dorian Gray was sold as everything from a macabre romance to grand guignol; a horror movie with some of the most bizarre and tepid taglines ever used to promote a major motion picture. Nevertheless, tempted by the prospect of seeing something truly imbued with a sense of the tragic and the supernatural, audiences flocked to see the movie and were startled and satisfied for their fascinations. Oscar Wilde’s novel has since been made and remade several times and by some very competent film makers. Yet the oeuvre of Oscar Wilde’s sly prose seems to elude all but this 1945 classic. Director, Albert Lewin has tweaked the novel just enough and in all the right places to punctuate Wilde’s double-edged absorption/disgust with aestheticism and the results yield to a cinematic work of genius with few – if any - equals; rich, dark and brooding with the symmetry of tenderly flawed romanticism.
Hurd Hatfield was forever typecast by Hollywood afterward. Although he steadily worked and committed to his craft some very fine performances, particularly on the stage, his entire life was spent commiserating with this chilling alter ego, giving autographs and interviews as the undisputed Dorian Gray. It must be said that despite Hatfield’s objections to remaining glacially reserved throughout the movie, here too Albert Lewin knew exactly what he was doing. Without so much as moving a muscle, Hatfield exudes a sort of paralytic wickedness through his mellifluous delivery of each line of dialogue. When Hatfield’s Dorian beckons Sybil to spend the night his words drip with a sinister stroke of genius, the unremarkable expression on his face strangely full of star-crossed innocence and diabolical temptation; hypnotic, compelling and yet strangely off-putting and repugnant all in the same instance. The moment of Basil’s murder is punctuated by Harry Stradling’s brilliant camerawork. And yet it is Dorian’s face that remains captivating; unchanging and yet imbued with a sense of the truly sublime – inspiring both our admiration and dread as he coldly stares down at his handy work.
Angela Lansbury had been brought to the attention of both Lewin and director George Cukor on the same afternoon by Michael Dyne; an actor much closer to Oscar Wilde’s vision of Dorian Gray than Hurd Hatfield, and who was testing for the coveted role. Lansbury, who had come to America with her mother to escape the war, was immediately snatched up for the part of Sibyl, and also for the role of Nancy, the saucy maid in 1944’s remake of Gaslight. In each case, Lansbury was Oscar-nominated for her performances and in each she lost the coveted statuette to another more established star.
Produced with impeccable panache and style by Pandro S. Berman, The Picture of Dorian Gray has long remained a favorite among audiences and critics. It was a commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic. It is even rumored that America’s merchant marines excised Lansbury’s performance of ‘Goodbye Little Yellow Bird’ (the song she briefly sings at The Two Turtles) from a copy of the film to play over and over again aboard their naval vessels while stationed at sea.  Viewed today, The Picture of Dorian Gray has lost none of its luster to thrill and shock. The film’s clever pacing, its meticulous attention to claustrophobic bric-a-brac in all its set dressings: the stellar performances by all the cast – these go beyond mere quality, transcending the boundaries of time and space.  As a movie, this Dorian Gray has indeed attained immortality of a very different kind. It is ageless.
Were that the same could be said of the transfer. Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray marginally bests its previous DVD. Alas, the B&W image occasionally lacks crispness, and intermittently suffers from the same edge enhancement as its standard predecessor. Improvements are, in fact, inevitable and abound. The brief Technicolor inserts of the portrait, as example, are far more stunningly realized on the Blu-ray. The DVD’s hinted at a slightly greenish/bluish tint with minor age-related artifacts present. The Blu-ray looks more natural here; flesh tone especially, looking appropriately pink rather than ruddy orange. The minor inconsistencies with film grain that also dogged the DVD have been eradicated herein.  Once again, my major quibbling is the overall softness in the image, particularly the last reel that continues to look blurry rather than photographed through gauze for effect. I also think Warner ought to have cleaned up and stabilized the two or three shots plagued by edge enhancement.
Overall, this is a very solid rendering; and no claim to the contrary is made herein. But it isn’t quite as perfect as other titles in the Warner Archive, and that’s a genuine pity.  The audio is mono as originally recorded and has been very nicely cleaned up. Extras are limited to an audio commentary from Steve Haberman with Angela Lansbury; the latter, a tad sketchy on certain details about the making of the film. We also get two short subjects and a trailer; all of it ported over from the DVD. Bottom line: The Picture of Dorian Gray is required viewing. Warner’s Blu-ray isn’t pristine, but it is more than passable. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, November 14, 2014

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT: Blu-ray (Columbia 1934) Criterion Collection

Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) has been called many things. Upon shooting her final scene, Claudette Colbert picked up the telephone to an old friend, mercilessly declaring in front of Capra, “I’ve just made the worst picture of my life!” Neither Colbert, nor co-star Clark Gable thought much of the project, each making it under duress. Colbert had, in fact, been strong-armed by Columbia Studio chief, Harry Cohn, who famously told his temperamental diva she would make It Happened One Nightor else. The ‘or else’ was left open to interpretation. But during the golden era in Hollywood, when stars were indentured to lengthy studio contracts without fail – or question, for that matter – it could have easily meant anything from lousy parts to a forced absence from the screen; allowing for the fatal cooling off of the public’s fascination with one’s career. Colbert was no fool. Neither was Cohn.  But her first picture with Capra (1927’s For the Love of Mike) had been such a disaster Colbert feared she was in for more of the same this time around. Hence, she came to It Happened One Night with an innate and festering prejudice that only seemed to exponentially grow. A tenuous détente was struck between Colbert and Cohn – anything to get Colbert off on her promised vacation to Sun Valley. But Colbert made Capra’s life a living hell for the duration of the shoot; insisting on close-ups shot from only her best side. Frequently they bickered about the way a scene should be played – Capra usually getting his way, though not without a struggle.
On the whole, Clark Gable proved more congenial, though even he had his moments. Gable wasn’t particularly keen on Colbert as his costar. He was used to the glamor gals at Metro. The feeling, it seems, was mutual; Colbert protesting the mild stench from Gable’s dentures during their kissing scenes. He treated her with fairly casual contempt. She dismissed his movie-land/he-man image outright. Over the years rumors have varied as to how Gable came to do It Happened One Night. One goes, Gable had refused a picture at his alma mater – MGM – inciting studio raja, Louis B. Mayer to a show of force. On a good day, Mayer would have not thought twice about the loan out of his numero uno box office stud. After all, Gable was king.  But Gable had caught L.B. on an off day – ripe for the disciplining and forcibly ‘rented’ to Columbia Pictures; then considered little better than a poverty row studio. To come from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; the Cartier in the industry – to Columbia (unquestionably, the equivalent of the five and dime) was a smack down for Gable. He took his lumps, but made the best of a bad situation.
There is another rumor to satisfy; namely, that Mayer was paying Gable a respectable salary of $2,000.00 a week – then, a princely sum – whether he worked at MGM or not. To maximize his profits, Mayer loaned Gable to Cohn for $25,000.00 per week, thereby making back $500 on his investment. Whatever the case, when It Happened One Night became the first motion picture to score Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay, both stars were left wondering what all the backstage feuding had been about. Colbert at least had the decency to offer something of a public apology to Capra, during her acceptance speech leaning into the podium, and with gold statuette proudly raised, declaring “I owe all of it to Frank Capra!”  Capra’s reputation at Columbia, already steadily on the ascendance prior to It Happened One Night, experienced a colossal boost immediately thereafter. Indeed, for the rest of the decade, Capra could do no wrong in Cohn’s eyes. He was afforded carte blanche on his pick of projects, the subsequent movies growing more lavish; culminating with a string of sublime super hits and one unfortunate miss: Lost Horizon (1937); today, rightfully viewed as a masterpiece, but so costly it served as a millstone, dragging Columbia’s bottom line back into the red.
It Happened One Night falls into the category of the ‘road picture’ – eloquently scripted by Capra’s long-time collaborator, Robert Riskin and based on Samuel Hopkins Adams minor success, ‘Night Bus’. The formal, in hindsight, seems deceptively simple. Take one pampered runaway heiress, a ‘brass tax’ news hound - out for the scoop of his career, a misguided dalliance in the middle of nowhere, and, the added screwball of both individuals starting out as virulent enemies (but winding up passionate lovers) and voila – you have, It Happened One Night. The film’s enduring success is predicated on a series of engaging mishaps, some occurring behind the scenes. Capra shot the picture in sequence in only 28 days, feverishly shooting, and playing ringmaster to his two tempestuous stars, improvising scenes along the way, and encouraging cinematographer, Joseph Walker not to invest too much time in creating the usual cinema glamor. All of this last minute brouhaha gave It Happened One Night buoyancy and a verisimilitude uncharacteristic of the usual Hollywood product.
The bedroom détente scene, played midway through the story (where Colbert’s stuffy Ellie Andrews reluctantly acquiesces to Gable’s Peter Warne’s refusal to sleep elsewhere; the two stringing a rope across the room with an oversized comforter slung over it to provide an imaginary wall), became iconically romantic; not the least for its suggestive exchange of dialogue. Ellie – who is heart sore and desperately longing for a real man’s touch and Gable’s forthright resistance of Ellie’s charms because, in fact, he has sincerely begun to fall for her, created the sort of elusive cinema magic and romantic electricity it required. The preceding scene, where the couple separately undresses for bed, was cause for minor controversy, however, when Gable revealed a bare torso beneath his outer shirt. Overnight, sales of men’s undershirts plummeted across the United States! Such was Gable’s star drawing power back then.
Because its pieces fit so succinctly together, It Happened One Night looks deceptively simple. Yet, others have long since tried to recapture – or at least, emulate – the ‘formula’ of this road picture and miserably, have failed. It is fairly safe to assume the casting of Gable and Colbert helped boost interest in the movie itself. But Frank Capra was cribbing from an exceptional screenplay too; Robert Riskin’s prose keeping the action lithe and spirited; his dialogue remaining true to the strengths of his stars. There is, in fact, an opportunity for both Gable and Colbert to do what they did best in It Happened One Night; their off screen mutual antagonism boding well for the troubled flirtations ripening throughout the story. Gable’s introduction to Colbert’s spoiled heiress on the night bus is impeccably crafted. Peter Warne informs Ellie Andrews with double entendre, “That upon which you sit is mine.” When she refuses to give up her seat, Gable inquires whether “these seats sit two”. Ward Bond’s caustic bus driver belligerently declares, “Well maybe they don’t and maybe they do!” Peter merely squeezes his way into the seat occupied by Ellie, muttering, “Move over. This is a ‘maybe they do’.”
Nevertheless, Gable’s cock of the walk is repeatedly tested in It Happened One Night. He isn’t this lady’s choice…not by a long shot. Nor, is Ellie without her talents to upstage her he-man. She proves the drawing power of her own sexuality after the two become stranded on the side of the road. Gable’s complex theory of the perfect technique to thumb a free ride falls flat in practice as he proves unable to procure a means of transportation; a series of speeding automobiles passing him by. Observing his chagrined debacle from the sidelines, Colbert’s Ellie declares, “I’ll get us a ride and I won’t use my thumb!” whereupon she merely raises the hem of her skirt, revealing a shapely nylon-stocking limb, and immediately secures a ride from the next available passerby. Gables response registers bewilderment, sheepish dismay, and finally, a genuine admiration for this gal with hidden talents. It’s a delicious moment of proto-feminism; Ellie having grown a woman’s heart in place of the vapid, angry void that caused her to flee her father, millionaire Alexander Andrews (Walter Connelly) yacht in the first place after he gave her a well-deserved slap on the cheek for being insulant.
It Happened One Night toys with the idea of ‘a woman’s place’ in society: Ellie – the haughty and exclusive princess of the manor born refuses to abide by her father’s wishes; that she not marry stuffed shirt and middle-aged bore, King Wesley (Jameson Thomas). He’s a penniless fortune hunter. But Ellie professes to love him. Actually, she’s rebelling against what she perceives as patriarchal intrusion on her private life. She wants to be her own woman; alas, without first actually fully grasping the concept. Nor is Ellie prepared for the various cads preying upon her relative innocence and inexperience in the outside world. What Ellie really needs is not a he-man protector, per say, but a guy’s guy to show her the ropes for getting along in a dishonest world. After all, she’s a fairly quick study. She sees through the insidious boar/travelling salesman, Oscar Shapeley (Roscoe Karns) and, too late, clues in to the modus operandi of the seemingly congenial driver, Danker (Alan Hale), who offers Ellie and Peter a lift, but actually manages to lift their luggage and drive off without them. Although she plays helpless, Ellie is really responsible for making up her own mind about things in general and Peter in particular; coming to her senses in the eleventh hour – while strolling down to the makeshift outdoor altar in her wedding dress, no less – before making a sprinted B-line for the nearest exit to be reunited with Peter. It’s unlikely theirs will be a true 50/50 relationship; but at least Peter is able to acknowledge the diamond his own heart has managed to pluck from the rough. Ellie may be a gem. But Pete is going to have his hands full!
It Happened One Night begins with Ellie’s daring escape from her father’s yacht. He attempts to lock her in a cabin below decks when she professes her undying love and desire to marry King Wesley. Father and daughter have words, her razor-sharp and biting diatribe forcing dear ole dad into a bit of paternal discipline. He wallops her across the cheek. It’s such a startle – for Ellie too – that she immediately pushes her way past Alexander and several of the boat’s crew, diving off the top deck and swimming ashore before Alexander can turn his boat around. In the meantime, a very inebriated Peter Warne is sitting inside a terminal waiting for the night bus; prodded by some fair-weather lushes to telephone his managing editor, Joe Gordon (Charles C. Wilson) and offer up a piece of his gin-soaked mind. The insults fly hard and heavy, Gordon hanging up the phone before Peter is finished. To save face, Peter goes on for a few moments more as his cronies listen in; afterwards declaring, “That’s tellin’ him!”
Before long Peter and Ellie have their cute meet on the bus. Ellie falls asleep on Peter’s shoulder, awakening a short while later, still full of her own independence. Peter, however, has recognized Ellie from the local newspaper headline about a runaway heiress, and quietly telephones Gordon to offer him the scoop of the century; an exclusive on what’s become of Ellie Andrews. The night bus makes several stops, one at a roadside outdoor diner where Ellie’s bag is pinched by a thief (Ernie Adams) without her even knowing it. Peter makes chase but is unsuccessful. Penniless and, for the first time, scared to boot, Ellie accepts Peter’s philanthropy. She is not terribly good at managing his money, however; squandering what he gives her on superficialities rather than necessities. When Pete finds out he’s furious.  
From here on in, It Happened One Night steadily evolves into a series of fairly plausible and thoroughly charming misadventures. The couple spends a night in a rented cabin, dividing the room with a clothes line they label ‘the walls of Jericho’. Soon, initial inhibitions and mutual disdain take a backseat to true confessions about the great unhappiness in each of their lives. Whether either chooses to acknowledge it or not, this moment will serve as the foundation to their romantic relationship. Lumping it on foot, Ellie and Peter spend their second evening together, snoozing near some hay stacks. In the morning, Ellie is paralyzed with fear at having been abandoned by Peter. Instead, he arrives with some hand-picked fruit and veggies for breakfast. Exhausted, Ellie demands Peter procure them a ride. His hitchhiker’s technique could use some work. So Ellie raises her skirt and lands them both their first big break. It turns out to be anything but as the driver, Danker, pretends to be their friend, but then drives off with their suitcases in tow.  A short while later Peter exacts his revenge on Danker, stealing his car.
On the last length of their journey, Ellie confesses her love for Peter. He is determined to marry her. But after depositing Ellie inside a cabin and hurrying off to inform Gordon he intends not to write the story about their escapades, Peter returns to the cabin to discover Ellie gone; having been found out by Alexander, rescued back to his estate where the wedding to King Wesley is to take place. Peter arrives at the Andrews’ estate on the afternoon of the wedding; Alexander offering him money in gratitude for Ellie’s safe return. He turns it down. But Ellie is insulted even at the insinuation Peter might have only been interested in her because of her wealth and family name. Peter storms off in a frustrated, masculine huff, leaving Alexander to escort his teary-eyed daughter down the aisle.  Alexander quietly whispers his approval of Peter’s motives and also of the man himself. He informs Ellie that Peter turned down flat his generous offer. It must be love. Armed with this understanding, Ellie breaks free of her father’s arm and scurries past the astonished guests with King Wesley in hot pursuit.
Unable to apprehend his bride, Wesley inquires what could possibly have made her change her mind about their marriage. Alexander plays dumb, but secretly is satisfied his daughter has made the right choice.  Capra cuts to the same cabin the couple shared earlier, the bemused proprietor of the Auto Camp (Harry Holman) informing his wife (Maidel Turner) Peter has requested a toy trumpet, some string and a heavy comforter; symbolic of the ‘walls of Jericho’ that barred the couple from consummating their relationship eariler. The trumpet sounds and the lights in the cabin go out. It’s every man – and every woman, for that matter – for themselves; the honeymoon begun; the show - fini.
It has often been noted that some of the greatest movies ever made were the product of blind chaos and great luck. This was, perhaps, never more astutely observed than in It Happened One Night; deceptively lighter than air. Yet, the paper thin plot and preposterous scenarios come off without a hitch. More than that – the love affair blossoming between Ellie and Peter is wholly believable. Ironically, It Happened One Night was the movie nobody – except Capra – wanted to make. Afterward, it became the movie everyone, including Capra, was trying to beat. Capra’s association at Columbia would prove immensely fruitful. Arguably, he did his best work here during the 1930’s, culminating with 1938’s Oscar-winning You Can’t Take It With You, and his superbly crafted social commentary on American politics; Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939); a clever indictment of graft in Washington’s back-slapping machinery, as seen through the eyes of its ultimate 'every man' and daydreamer, James Stewart. It Happened One Night has the more cynical Gable to recommend it in Stewart’s stead and Gable proves (as though any proof were needed) why he earned the moniker of Hollywood’s ‘king’. There’s an intangible animal magnetism to Gable that cannot be manufactured. He simply was a real man.
It Happened One Night is a movie that could only have been possible in the 1930’s; a decade brimming with wide-eyed optimism about most things; Hollywood thumbing its collective noses at the Great Depression and providing audiences with topflight, class ‘A’ entertainment. While many of the other studios, chiefly MGM, invested heavily in the escapist and otherworldly glamor of fanciful and well-appointed living, Columbia’s budget would not permit Capra such a luxury. It’s just as well. Capra’s yen for telling relatively real stories about the flaws in male/female relationships, struck a more genuine chord on a more restrained outlay of capital. And the profits Columbia and Harry Cohn were to derive from Capra’s ‘corn in totem throughout the 1930’s proved the studio’s salvation; a means by which Cohn built Columbia’s reputation in the industry for quality product, hiring A-list directors and free-agented talent on a picture by picture basis.
In retrospect, It Happened One Night is Capra’s earliest masterpiece in this tenure; blessed with his inimitable light touch and penchant for achieving a level of on-screen intimacy fairly hard to top. The relationship between Ellie and Peter just seems genuine; the morphing of their acrimonious relationship into one of mutual respect and finally, love, taking on a life of its own. Gable and Colbert may have thought they were committing career suicide with It Happened One Night, but time has proven the opposite to be true. While Gable will likely always be associated with Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939), Colbert’s regrettably dwindling repute has been buoyed over the generations almost exclusively by her appearance in this, Frank Capra’s classiest romance.  Arguably, Colbert ought to be remembered for much more; her performance in David O. Selznick’s superbly crafted wartime weepy, Since You Went Away (1944) arguably, her greatest. Gable’s repertoire too is a myriad of treasures yet to be unearthed in hi-def, or even competently given their due on standard DVD. In the final analysis, It Happened One Night represents the best from both actors, despite their misgivings. Arguably, each star would go on to do ‘better’ work elsewhere. But together in It Happened One Night, they’re dynamic, engaging and deliriously in sync with one another, achieving a level of quietly restless passion few stars of any vintage have been able to express with such professionalism, confidence and graceful charm.
Well, it’s about time! Criterion Home Video rectifies many a sin committed on this vintage catalog title over the years. First off, it should be noted that, like a good many Columbia titles from the 1930’s, no original nitrate elements survive. Over the decades, Columbia attempted to do right by what remained; their first attempt on DVD more marginally competent, followed by a disastrous reissue as part of a Frank Capra Collection in which contrast was so severely toggled down it yielded an oppressively dark and poorly contrasted image. Well, prepare to be exceptionally pleased with what’s on this Blu-ray. Not only has contrast been rectified to reveal new and revitalized minute details, but we also get the film’s indigenous grain looking gorgeously thick and natural. Truly, It Happened One Night has never looked this good on home video. The visuals have a subtly nuanced, filmic appearance; fine detail popping as it should; showcasing Joseph Walker’s soft lit, and softly focused cinematography to its best advantage. Better still, age-related dirt and scratches have been eradicated, thanks to a thorough clean-up. We can likely thank Sony Pictures VP Grover Crisp for that. There are still issues of modeling and streaking; unavoidable, given this is an 80 year old film that has suffered greatly over the decades since from improper preservation and storage. But honestly, It Happened One Night in hi-def will be a distinct revelation for most. Get ready for a quality effort put forth with very pleasing results!
Predictably, Criterion has gone the route of another PCM mono audio track, plagued by inherent weaknesses, lovingly preserved for posterity herein. Criterion pads out the extras, including: Screwball Comedy?; a 40 minute conversation between film scholars/critics, Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate. Much too short, though appreciated, is the11-minute interview with Frank Capra Jr., first recorded for the old Columbia Classics DVD release in 1999. We also get Capra’s very first movie, 1921’s Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House, with a new score composed and performed by Donald Sosin. The most comprehensive extras are Frank Capra’s American Dream; Ken Bower’s hour and a half long documentary, hosted by Ron Howard, from 1997, and the complete AFI tribute to Capra. The former features interviews with a litany of Capra collaborators as well as actors and directors from Capra’s vintage. The latter is a star-studded evening, hosted by James Stewart. A few portions of the original broadcast are MIA herein. Aside: I think it astonishing the AFI has never bothered to reissue any of their Lifetime Achievement broadcasts to home video in any sort of meaningful or comprehensive way.  Last, but not least, we get an original theatrical trailer and liner notes from critic, Farran Smith Nehme. Bottom line: It Happened One Night is an American classic. Criterion’s Blu-ray gives the film its due. Enjoy and buy with confidence. One of the best classic releases of 2014!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)