Sunday, December 20, 2015

THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (MGM-Seven Arts 1964) Warner Home Video

Leave it to director, John Huston to hatch a bit of mayhem to launch the shoot of The Night of the Iguana (1964); his exquisitely tawdry big screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ scathing exploration, devoted to original sin and the three women from varied backgrounds who will draw one man closer to his truest self and destiny. The play, a sizable smash on Broadway, running 316 performances, added to William’s already formidable reputation by casting screen legend, Bette Davis as the uninhibited Maxine Faulk.  Davis had hoped – against hope – to be considered to reprise the role for the film; a part sought by virtually every other actress in Hollywood.  But Huston had his own notions about casting – intuitive and, as it turned out, right on the money. In hindsight, Huston was picking not only from the very best Hollywood had to offer, but according to type. Determined to create a potent ice-breaker to divert attention away from the recent Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton contratante in Rome that had crippled two marriages (Taylor’s to Eddie Fisher and Burton’s to his long-suffering Sybil), and all but laid waste to the reputation of Joseph L. Mankewicz’s costly epic, Cleopatra (1963); also, to unruffle the press, still swirling about Taylor’s behind-the-scenes  presence as though it alone might generate another mega-kilowatt public scandal, Huston had gold-plated Derringer revolvers made and bullets engraved with each cast member’s name. These were handed out at the cast party to kick off the location shoot in Puerto Vallarta; then, a sleepy and remote little hamlet, ideally suited to Huston’s need to be secretive.  
Evidently, the cast got a kick out of Huston’s gesture; the guns mercifully never used; the mood immediately turning jovial and remaining in high spirits throughout; essentially, anything but fraught with the sort of insidious and grating friction evoked by the characters in the play. There were a few moments to illustrate otherwise; Burton, apparently unaware a bodyguard had been hired to keep the press at bay, having a minor tantrum aboard the tiny plane carrying them to this remote retreat after discovering a burly Mexican seated across from him, carrying a gun. But Elizabeth Taylor’s presence was mostly welcomed by cast and crew, despite being initially frowned upon by Burton, who knew all too well from their prior working relationship in Rome what a ‘distraction’ she could be. Still, the filming of The Night of the Iguana ignited considerable controversy; the local newspaper, Siempre, declaring “Our children are being introduced to sex, booze, drugs, vice, and carnal bestiality by the garbage from the United States: gangsters, nymphomaniacs, heroin-taking blondes.” A nearby Catholic convent weighed in, protesting Taylor's presence, as neither she nor Burton were yet divorced from their respective spouses and thus, by all religious conventions, ‘living in sin’ while threatening to contaminate the social mores of the locals by their behavior. 
Point blank: The Night of the Iguana is a masterpiece; made at a time when the barriers in screen censorship were steadily being tested and eroded by more ambitious filmmakers, eager to show audiences the uglier side of humanity. Indeed, the timing could not have been better for Tennessee Williams, whose Southern Gothic stagecraft frequently reveled in the delusional and self-destructive nature of humanity at large and the desecration of carefully plotted public reputations. Williams actually based his 1961 dramatization on a short story written in 1948, along the way fleshing out two tertiary characters – Hannah Jelkes and her grandfather – and creating an entire subplot to carry his third act.  But the real inspiration for the short story had come from a fortuitous vacation Williams had taken in 1940 to Acapulco. Perhaps it was the heat – frequently blamed by Williams for the inertia guests showed toward virtually all world events taking place outside their sweaty little enclave, but Williams became utterly fascinated by their ennui; even more compelled to write about this peripatetic toxicity, already begun to poison the blood of an entire generation. Aside: I often wonder, if he had lived, what Tennessee Williams would have made of our present-day, navel-gazing cohort.
John Huston had admired the play, The Night of the Iguana, approaching Seven Arts as an independent to fund a movie version for him to direct and quite unaware producer, Ray Stark was already firmly committed to hiring Huston to do just that. As Huston’s plans to shoot on location too shape in rather dense and remote jungle vegetation, necessitating virtually all of Maxine’s mountaintop retreat be built from scratch and to spec, Huston’s ace in the hole in getting the project green lit, and then, achieving unprecedented and tamper-free autonomy, was MGM’s own sad implosion. Repeatedly rocked by corporate drama in the boardroom, Metro’s ‘close-knit’ control over independents like Huston had taken a backseat to ever-increasing clashes between executives vying for power to steady an already badly foundering ship. Metro’s track record throughout the 1960’s was spotty at best. Unhinged by the loss of founding father, L.B. Mayer, and furthermore reeling from the government’s decision to splinter their kingdom, MGM proved too vast and unwieldy an empire to command from the position of mere bean-counting. Worse – they seemed incapable of making a truly ‘big picture’ without forcing some of the most respected names in the industry to fall into line and abide by their rules. Some, like directors, Stanley Kubrick and David Lean resisted such interference; the undiluted purity of their resultant masterworks made under Metro’s banner (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968 and Doctor Zhivago, 1965 respectively) reflecting their personal commitments, even under the yoke and duress of potentially damaging internal influences.  
To some extent Huston took full advantage of Metro’s lapse in keeping close tabs; rigorously rehearsing his actors and technicians behind the camera to capture his vision on celluloid while still remaining within the studio’s allotted time frame and budget. In viewing The Night of the Iguana today, one is immediately awestruck by Huston’s incredible telescopic focus and discipline. He seems particularly engaged herein; the drama, both swift and assured, moving at a breakneck pace with plenty of raw and uninhibited emotion to boot, yet miraculously, never rushed, clumsy or wanting for riveting high-stakes tension. Better still, Huston handpicked his cast from a superb assortment of heavy hitters; some, decidedly going – or even, slightly gone – to seed; others on the upswing and extremely eager to chomp at the bit to do their best work for him.  “It was a mystery then, you see,” Huston would later comment while reminiscing about Puerto Vallarta and Banderas Bay, “Just someplace barely on the map and not looking to be discovered by anyone anytime soon.  When we came we had to build everything from scratch. I set up camp like a general going into battle. But none of what we needed was there. Dirt roads: every time it rained you didn’t dare drive a truckload of equipment up there or get stuck in the mud trying. Damn hot too. But unspoiled – innocent. That’s what I liked most. You could get lost up there. People need places to get lost sometimes. The boys from the press came along and with their flashbulbs turned it into a goddamn Disneyland. Makes me sad and wanting for the way it was before we came.”
John Huston could take some comfort in that his arrival meant a boost to the local economy; the subsequent ‘fall out’ from transforming such a remote location into a world-class destination, generating a boom that continues to keep the area prosperous with tourist trade. Huston had been in love with Mexico ever since 1929, when he navigated his private yacht up the Pacific Coast. In the interim, virtually nothing about Mexico had changed; Huston’s love affair with the place and its indigenous peoples only growing riper with the passage of time. Indeed, one of Huston’s stipulations in making the film was Mismaloya; a tropical oasis with nooks and crannies virtually untouched by human hands. For some time, Huston had tired of the North American lifestyle; the artifice to making movies too. “You can’t create paradise lost on a sound stage,” he mused, “Much less on a back lot. There’s no uncertainty to it. No danger. No spark of life, which is what Tennessee’s plays are always about. You can’t fake that. You have to feel your way through it, stumbling, going with your gut reaction to being there – and location helps actors do this better than any manufactured prop or painted sky.”
From the onset, Puerto Vallarta appealed to Huston – also, to Elizabeth Taylor – precisely because of its uncharted rugged exoticism and remoteness. Half-way around the world, Huston’s carousal into experimentation, not having to worry about an impromptu visit from the money men, generated a genuine sense of living in the moment that remains highly palpable in the finished film. As for Taylor; few in town – apart from the press – knew, or cared, who she was. This suited Taylor just fine. But it was really Huston who remained in his ‘element’ throughout this shoot. Tennessee Williams had set his short story in Acapulco, circa 1940. And if Huston harbored the intensity of a creative genius already having fallen in love with Mexico, his friendship with producer, Ray Stark – who immediately considered Huston the eminence gris in all things Mexican – could also appreciate Huston’s alliance with Guillermo Wulff; an engineer from Mexico City, whose list of influential contacts in the government included even the country’s President, Adolfo López Mateos; thus affording Huston unprecedented access to virtually any areas and assets he so desired.  Huston was well respected by the locals, having shot a good deal of his 1948 classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in Durango and Tampico; one of the first location shoots to take full advantage of this starkly rugged countryside.
Either way, Huston would have given his right arm to direct The Night of the Iguana, simply to experience Mexico again. “It’s one of the countries I like best in the world,” he confided, “Besides, location is just like an actor. It gives something to a picture, you know, envelops it in an atmosphere.” Huston held both Stark and Williams in very high regard; particularly Tennessee, whom he considered the foremost living playwright of his generation.  In adapting Williams for the screen, Huston, together with screenwriter, Anthony Vellier, was careful not to tamper (much) with Williams’ explosive and sexually-charged dialogue; only the overall construction of the piece, and even then, simply for the purposes of ‘opening up’ the stage-bound material to accommodate the infinitely more vast expanses of the movie screen. Meanwhile, Wulff set about convincing Huston Mismaloya, a beach south of Puerto Vallarta, would be ideal to make the picture; ‘ideal’, being a relative term. For although Mismaloya satisfied virtually all of Huston’s criteria in terms of capturing the isolation and slightly careworn seediness integral to the plot, it was also a virtually untapped oasis with zero luxuries to offer a visiting film crew; not even electricity or indoor plumbing!
In retrospect, the creative symbiosis between Tennessee Williams and John Huston seems preordained. Both men were ardent, though clear-eyed cynics scarred by life; able to clear-cut past human foibles that often seem too great, or perhaps, merely too obvious to be challenged and exposed for what they are in articulate and meaningful ways. Succinctly, both Williams and Huston shared an affinity for the morally downtrodden having so spectacularly fallen from grace; usually men, nearly consumed by self-pity and stifling guilt; dreamers, actually, raked over the coals by a reality threatening on all sides, purposely meant as the plague to scour their palettes once and for all, even as they teeter on the brink of self-destruction with seemingly no means of escape. Such is the case for the recently defrocked Episcopal cleric, Reverend Lawrence T. Shannon (played with a miraculous semi-tragic self-reproach by Richard Burton); driven half-mad by an indiscretion with a female parishioner, but more recently made to feel unclean about his antiseptic friendship with a precocious – if slightly spoiled – rich girl (Sue Lyons, fresh from playing the debaucherously delicious Lolita for Stanley Kubrick in 1962; her variation herein, as the ironically named, Charlotte Goodall, creating general havoc for both Shannon and Charlotte’s stern chaperone; the closeted lesbian, Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall).
Huston could, perhaps, recognize a bit of himself in Shannon; moreover, in Burton’s emotionally raped portrait of this fictional counterpart; God’s lonely, tortured soul, yearning for purity and simplicity in his life, yet ever doomed to fall back on his more puerile and primal-driven urges to seduce, and willingly allow himself to be seduced by a pretty face. The irony is, of course, Shannon is no more physically attracted to Charlotte, whom he rightly views as a child, than he is tempted to betray her malicious custodian, increasingly hell-bent on destroying his reputation with his most recent employer, ‘Blake’s Tours’. Periodically, the eccentric Huston had known such malice and isolation in his own life; frailty as a child due to physical ailments. He stubbornly dared – and mostly succeeded – in his triumph over adversity, marrying too young and growing bored with his early life decisions and career; running through booze and broads and, at a particularly low point, becoming a penniless beggar with little interest in laying down more permanent roots. Huston’s enigmatic personality and creative genius won him many friends amongst Hollywood’s hoi poloi – eager to go slumming, on occasion; but his reputation as a macho bad boy earned him just as many detractors in the executive hierarchy for whom he frequently thumbed his nose.     
We meet the Reverend Shannon after MGM’s iconic Leo roars; a prologue in which Shannon attempts to administer the gospel to his flock, already diligently aware of his affair with a very young Virginian Sunday school teacher and mere come to gawk and silently admonish him with their accusatory stares. Unable to continue, Shannon suffers a horrendous breakdown, ostracizing his congregation and forcing them out of the chapel into the pouring rain. We dissolve to a moody main title; various close-ups of the famed lizard of the title, set against Benjamin Frankel’s unsettling score. Two years have passed during this brief interim; Shannon, now a frustrated guide for Blake’s Tours, escorting a group of middle-aged Baptist school teachers by bus around the various sites to be seen in Puerto Vallarta. Like Hitchcock, both Tennessee Williams and Huston treat these matronly denizens with broadsided mockery; presented as mindless, sexless and frumpy gargoyles, fronted by the exceptionally brittle Judith, whose seventeen year old niece, the sultry Charlotte, is the antithesis and an affront to all their suppressed sexuality. Shannon is cordial toward Charlotte; perhaps, even unknowing at the start that his kindnesses are considered a bit of a tease. But Charlotte has become smitten with Shannon, whom she refers to with unsettling familiarity as ‘Larry’. Thus, when Shannon attempts to escape the women in his tour group and disappear for an impromptu swim while bus driver, Hank Prosner (Skip Ward) changes a flat on the side of the road, Charlotte pursues Shannon into the ocean. Believing Shannon is up to no good, Judith finds plenty to fault; threatening to expose his prior peccadilloes to the rest of the travel group unless he refrains from interacting with her ward for the duration of their trip. However, when Charlotte sneaks off in the middle of the night and is later discovered in Shannon’s hotel room, the resultant scandal is enough for Judith to make good on her threats to have Shannon fired from his job.
Desperate to salvage even this pathetic career Shannon shanghaies the bus, driving it past the prearranged next stop on their itinerary to prevent Judith from telephoning his employer.  Instead, he suggests a refreshing change of pace at the remote Costa Verde hotel in Mismaloya, overseen by his old pal, Fred and his wife, the uninhibited and bawdy Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner in, arguably, the best role of her career). Removing the distributor cap to prevent Hank from driving the ladies back into town, Shannon encourages his hostages to take refuge inside the Costa Verde. Although initially pleased to see Shannon, Maxine is decidedly unwelcoming toward this congregation of women at first. After all, the hotel is closed for the season. Her cook, Chang (C.G. Kim) is a marijuana addict, too perpetually stoned to cook for the guests. Shannon quickly discovers Fred, considerably older than Maxine, has recently died of a heart attack, perhaps knowing all along of his wife’s various paramours, including Shannon.
To his everlasting regret, Shannon is also informed by Maxine the Costa Verde now has telephone access. Judith wastes no time putting in a call to Blake’s Tours and, after a thwarted first attempt to get through, she is successful at exposing Shannon’s perceived infidelities with Charlotte to his employer. Maxine is not fooled by Judith’s ravenous desire to so completely enervate Shannon’s already dangerously low ebb of self-preservation as a man. But Shannon has already figured out Judith’s truer nature; her venom towards him both a shield and a mask to cloak her closeted homosexuality. Preserving his last ounce of dignity, Shannon suggests, “Miss Fellowes is a highly moral person. If she ever recognized the truth about herself it would destroy her.” Despite his genuine disinterest in Charlotte, later to rupture her school girl’s crush in a hateful tirade and other self-destructive ways, Shannon is promptly relieved of his command of the tour. While Shannon sorts through this latest disgrace, still struggling to keep the aggressive Charlotte at arm’s length and reconcile his truer feelings towards Maxine; Hank, in a misguided notion of chivalry, engages in a fist fight with Maxine’s cabana boys; Pepe (Fidelmar Durán) and Pedro (Roberto Leyva), whom Charlotte has endeavored to seduce on the beach, and for whom Maxine has readily exploited to satisfy her own frustrations even while Fred was still alive.
In the meantime, the hotel is visited by Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr), a wayfaring con artist from Nantucket, peddling her amateur skills as a sketch artist in trade for room and board, along with her decrepit grandfather, Nonno (Cyril Delevanti); whose claim to fame is recitations of his poems. Reportedly, Nonno is working on his greatest composition yet.  Alas, the old man is very close to death. Indeed, he will not outlive the next few days as Hannah shores up and reconciles her sobering naiveté to reflect upon the crumbling central relationship between Shannon and Maxine. Over the course of one stormy night, Shannon suffers another breakdown, forcibly bound in a hammock by Pepe and Pedro on Maxine’s say-so after he threatens suicide; compelled to face his demons – both flesh and the bottle. Nonno dies after completing his poem, an astute observation on man’s folly as he is driven to confront the specter of death. If The Night of the Iguana does have a moment of sobering epiphany, it is Nonno’s dying recitation, eloquently evolved by Delevanti’s superb oration, his voice threateningly frail and parched, quivering yet punctuating the appropriate syllables. “How calmly does the orange branch observe without a cry, without a prayer, with no betrayal of despair. Sometime while night obscures the tree, the Zenith of its life will be gone past forever, and from thence, a second history will commence. A chronicle no longer old. A bargaining with mist and mold. And finally the broken stem plummeting to earth; and then, an intercourse not well designed, for beings of a golden kind, whose native green must arch above the earth's obscene, corrupting love. And still the ripe fruit and the branch observe the sky begin to blanch, without a cry, without a prayer, with no betrayal of despair. Oh courage could you not as well select a second place to dwell? Not only in that golden tree, but in the frightened heart of me?”
Hannah administers a home remedy of poppy-seed tea to tranquilize Shannon’s anxiety. But only after the storm clouds have broken, both literally and figuratively, is Shannon truly liberated from this temporary psychosis and dominating despair. Suspecting Shannon may have designs on Hannah, Maxine threatens a moonlit frolic with Pepe and Pedro in the roaring surf. But her mind is distracted by her own desires to be with Shannon.  By dawn’s early light the previous night’s indiscretions appear far less frightening to all. Shannon realizes his place is with Maxine. After some initial friction, the two jointly electing to run the Costa Verde together and likely pick up where their previous affair left off some time ago.  Maxine, who initially thought to ward Hannah off her property out of jealousy, now, instead, takes pity on her. But Hannah has rather wisely decided the time has come to move on. Without Nonno, she becomes the film’s singularly tragic figure; electing to merely drift along life’s road; a very inconsolable and unfamiliar path toward an even more unstable, and quite possibly, despairing future; the transference of her clear-eyed hope and promise into Shannon, perhaps having deprived her of any chance for the same.     
The Night of the Iguana is not as readily considered a part of John Huston’s top-tiered entertainments. Perhaps, not – for it lacks something in Huston’s ability to keep the story moving along, despite shifting locales and Gabriel Figueroa’s luxuriating B&W cinematography. Infrequently, the platitudes espoused by Richard Burton and Deborah Kerr linger just a tad too long as remnants of the stagecraft, never lacking either in fire or music of their expertly crafted delivery, yet queerly better suited for the stage than a movie. Interestingly, Huston and producer, Ray Stark clashed on Huston’s decision to shoot the film in black and white; Stark hoping for a lush photographic travelogue to augment the drama, while Huston firmly believed color would detract from the human story. Years later, Huston conceded if he could do it all over again, he would have shot the movie in color to underscore the yearnings and temptations depicted in the story. Unquestionably, the various vignettes Huston has derived from Tennessee Williams’ compelling stagecraft are all brilliantly realized in the film; the acting from all concerned of the absolute highest order. Yet, the heart of the piece belongs to Ava Gardner’s whisky-voiced and unapologetically earthy Maxine; a performance likely cutting too close to the bone of Ava Gardner’s personality.  “I wish to live to be a hundred and fifty,” Gardner (who died at the age of 68) once said, “…but the day I die I wish it to be with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other.”  Indeed, Gardner’s reputation as a Hollywood bad girl was legendary; bringing these well-traveled exploits to her characterization of this gutsy gal, teetering on the verge of an almost irredeemably volatile disposition.
Unwilling to allow Judith Fellowes her victories over Shannon, Gardner brings an unprecedentedly sobering conviction to her double entendre inquiry, “What subject do you teach back in that college of yours, honey?” When Judith curtly admits “Voice... if that's got anything to do with it”, Gardner’s Maxine follows up with the even more loaded, “Well geography is my specialty. Did you know that if it wasn't for the dikes the plains of Texas would be engulfed by the gulf?” Gardner, married and divorced three times already by the time she made The Night of the Iguana, wields an even more sobering conviction over her reading of the line, “Even I know the difference between lovin' somebody, and just goin' to bed with them. Even I know that”; her clear-eyed sadness married to an even more sustaining avuncular threshold for all wounded creatures. “The truth…”, Gardner would later commit to paper in her scalding memoir, “…is that the only time I'm happy is when I'm doing absolutely nothing. I don't understand people who like to work and talk about it like it was some sort of goddamn duty. Doing nothing feel like floating on warm water to me. Delightful, perfect.”
Indeed, Gardner shared something of Huston’s scorn for the power structure that had made them both famous. “Being a film star is still a big damn bore,” she repeatedly pointed out, “Apparently, I'm what’s known as a 'glamour girl.' Now that's a phrase which means luxury, leisure, excitement, and all things lush. No one associates a six A.M. alarm, a thirteen-hour workday, several more hours of study, housework, and business appointments with glamour. That, however, is what glamour means in Hollywood. But being a movie star in America is the loneliest life in the world. In Europe they respect your privacy. At least I'm one Hollywood star who hasn't tried to slash her wrists, take sleeping pills, or kick a cop in the shins. That's something of an accomplishment these days. But take my advice, honey. Hollywood is just a dreary, quiet suburb of Los Angeles, with droopy palm trees, washed-out buildings, cheap dime stores, and garish theaters; a far cry from the razzle-dazzle of New York, or even the rural beauty of North Carolina.”
One senses Gardner’s distaste for the superficialities of the system that made her legend, rechanneled into her characterization of Maxine Faulk; something about the way she gives the impression not to give a hoot about how she looks – a sort of glamour girl gone to seed, with disheveled hair, her baggy, wrinkled shirt perpetually untucked; generally lacking the anticipated poise of that romanticized statuesque celluloid beauty as she slithers, saunters and playfully trips about the landscape with an infectiously erotic liquidity; fairly smelling of sex as she playfully threatens to knock Judith Fellowes teeth out, or taking rich pleasure in Shannon’s debacle to rid himself of the overenthusiastic Charlotte.  “It's very serious,” Shannon tries to explain, “The child is emotionally precocious.” “Well, bully for her!” Maxine declares.
The Night of the Iguana would go on to earn 4 Oscar-nominations, its singular statuette to Dorothy Jeakins for costume design. Respectable, if not mind-boggling, box office aside; the movie has steadily earned a reputation as a great movie, despite Tennessee Williams’ reflections made to Huston some six years later, “I still don’t like the finish, John.” Nevertheless, the making of the movie would leave an indelible impression on Huston who, after years of renting a home in Puerto Vallarta, became a respected member of the Chacala Indian community, south of Boca de Tomatlan; leasing the land for ten years, with an additional ten year option, after which time it was returned to the Chacalas. For a time, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would also reside in the vicinity, in a decidedly plush nine bedroom villa dubbed Gringo Gulch; contented to be left alone by the locals who respectfully afforded them some semblance of a ‘normal life’.  Of all their various residences around the world, Taylor would often profess to Mexico where she felt the most at home. After their marriage ended, Burton would return to Mexico with his new wife, Susan Hunt, who maintained lasting friendships in Puerto Vallarta long after Burton’s death. To mark the 25th anniversary of the making of the movie, a bronze statue of Huston was erected on the River Cuale in 1989.
The Night of the Iguana could use a new transfer. I will be among the first to champion the Warner Archive to get a hold of new elements for a 1080p Blu-ray release. Overall, the current DVD is not terrible. And yet, it remains a far cry from what it ought to be or might have been with just a little more due diligence applied. The 1.75:1 aspect ratio image exhibits mostly solid contrast during daytime photography and a fairly accurate and balanced grayscale; although there remain a few shots looking slightly washed out and softly focused. Age-related artifacts, while not egregiously represented, do sporadically distract; dirt, nicks, chips and a few scratches. There is also some minor gate weave in a few scenes. Blacks suffer more so during sequences shot at night; looking velvety gray, instead of jet black. Fine detail overall is not wanting. Alas, we have considerable edge enhancement throughout, with film grain periodically looking more like digitized grit. No real complaints, but again, not perfect and indeed a shame for a movie boasting so many exquisite performances. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequate for this primarily dialogue-driven movie. Warner Home Video has not given us much to go on via extras: a tired featurette ‘Huston’s Gamble’, made during filming to promote the movie gives us a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the director at work – and, in color – crafting his masterpiece. Bottom line: The Night of the Iguana is another meticulously crafted movie from John Huston; one yet to be given full credit for the formidable artistry exhibited throughout.  Recommended – until a Blu-ray comes along!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

THE X FILES: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox/Ten Thirteen Productions 1993-2002) Fox Home Video

In 1947, a United States Air Force surveillance balloon crash landed on a farm house near Roswell, New Mexico, almost immediately prompting conspiracy theorists of their day to suggest the earth had been visited by an extraterrestrial spaceship. We are still living in the aftermath and shadow of these ‘speculations’; mankind’s fervent need to believe in the existence of life – other than our own – inhabiting the outer limits of our solar system, spawning myths, legends and an entire cottage industry devoted to the chase/race to unearth definitive proof that ‘they’ are already here. Are they? Personally, I remain contented in not knowing. But in 1993, director/writer, Chris Carter introduced television audiences to an utterly addictive, often terrifying and very paranoiac drug of choice for conspiracy theorists and alien abduction aficionados alike. With its bizarre blend of horror, sci-fi and comedy, borrowing elemental tidbits from urban mythology and ancient folklore – occasionally, not above pilfering from the classics of John Carpenter for ‘inspiration’, The X-Files (1993-2002) would go on to captivate, enthrall and seismically shift the focus of mainstream television programming to its increasing predilection for supernatural oddities. The X-Files has spun off innumerable imitators since; virtually none achieving its’ level of intellectual depth and creativity. In hindsight, Chris Carter’s aspirations for this series remain more intriguingly high-minded. On a relatively miniscule budget, and with little to zero faith invested in him by the networks for a passable first season, much less the mega-hit The X-Files would instantaneously become, the show’s trump card was its singularly compelling, if sparsely populated central cast, front-lined by virtual unknowns, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. The X-Files would make both actors a household name and add formidable cache to their future career choices.
In one of those Hollywood ironies, Chris Carter did not think much of David Duchovny’s audition, later suggesting to his casting director, Melanie Greene, Duchovny lacked any ‘particular intelligence’ to satisfy the requirements of the part. Even after being goaded into accepting him by Green, Carter openly chided Duchovny with ‘please…try and imagine yourself as an FBI agent for future episodes’.  Oh, how wrong one artist can be about another. Duchovny’s laid-back congenial nature was exactly what the part required; in hindsight, a perfect counterpoint to the more direct, no-nonsense, and, ever so slightly more rigid, Dana Scully. Intermittently, each star would take turns becoming implacable martyrs in their disparate devotions to myth and science. Interchangeably, both fictional characters would have their faiths tested and shaken; always building their resolve and expanding their mindset. From the outset, Gillian Anderson won Carter’s approval. But Mitch Pileggi, eventually cast in the reoccurring role of Walter Skinner, first endured numerous rejections while auditioning for other parts. Pileggi would later muse his initial inability to ‘impress’ Carter for any of these cameos was kismet; the parts exclusive to single episodes, while the role of Walter Skinner would not only endure the run of the show, but infrequently become the focus of various episodes.
It has been thirteen years since The X-Files went off the air – a lifetime in TV history. And yet, its impact on pop culture has remained unabated and as insidiously ‘with us’ as the black ooze first infecting the franchise during its third season, and thereafter becoming a pivotal plot point in many episodes to follow. Concurrently, Chris Carter toggled the show’s narrative threads between those devoted to a series of FBI investigations into the unexplainable – usually bordering on the horrific (parasitic amoebas, human mutants with murderous predispositions, unearthed biological contagions, and, deviant forms of artificial intelligence) and episodes aimed to expose an on-going government conspiracy to conceal the truth about extra-terrestrial life, already come to colonize the earth. The cohesiveness in the franchise was therefore centralized on the growing chemistry between Special Agents Fox Mulder (Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Anderson); the latter, an agnostic medical professional who increasingly comes to suspect Mulder’s theories on otherworldly lifeforms is not so much science fiction as it is science fact.
Brilliantly scripted, intensely researched, and moodily photographed to illicit maximum shock, while revealing relatively little, The X-Files formula for success relied heavily on nearly every sci-fi and horror cliché from antiquity, tweaked, reshaped and finally reconstituted into an eclectic tapestry of mishaps, chiefly hampered by Mulder’s driven and obsessive need to uncover whatever became of his sister, Samantha (Megan Leitch) presumably taken from their family home via an alien abduction when Mulder was just a boy. Early on, the network sincerely hoped Carter would stir in a romantic entanglement to whip up the obvious spark of chemistry between Mulder and Scully. However, wisely deducing such an entanglement would do more to undo, rather than heighten, the more subliminal frictions, Carter kept his agents on a taut platonic understanding; an almost brotherly/sisterly regard steadily blossoming, though never to be consummated.  I suspect, at some point the level of mutual respect Mulder and Scully shared as intellectual equals became far more tantalizing and integral to the franchise than the ‘will they or won’t they?’ circumstances of their ‘relationship’.
The first seven seasons of The X-Files were shot in British Columbia, taking full advantage of its perpetually damp and rainy rural exoticism; its small towns and urban city centers convincingly substituting for a myriad of locations throughout the U.S. and even, around the world. But then, the decision was made to move the venue to Los Angeles; decidedly the first death knell for the series, as it changed the visual style completely; the other misfire, the departure of Duchovny, who, after seven years, had tired of his reoccurring role, leaving Gillian Anderson to carry the load as ‘the believer’; acquiring a new partner, John Doggett (Robert Patrick). Alas, the symbiosis between Scully and Doggett never gelled, and neither did the increasingly tepid storylines, chronically devoted to discovering what had become of Mulder. Interestingly, the series had not suffered from the somewhat prolonged ‘loss’ of Scully at the beginning of Season Two; taken hostage by alien abductee, Duane Barry (Steve Railsback) and ‘traded’ in a subsequent exchange; just one way Carter and his team of brilliant writers managed to maneuver around, conceal and accommodate Gillian Anderson’s real life pregnancy.
Suspending Scully in a coma for a few more episodes, then re-introducing her behind billowy lab coats, large desks, decidedly healthy potted plants, etc., and, only photographing her from the chest up near the tail end of her nine months, proved mostly successful at masking the obvious, although Anderson’s facial features are visibly bloated throughout a good deal of Season Two. To offset Anderson’s disappearance, Carter beefed up the involvement of Mitch Pileggi’s FBI Assistant Deputy Director, Walter Skinner, and the reoccurring threat to Mulder’s investigations, a rogue element in the government fronted by the very guarded ‘Smoking Man’ (William B. Davis). Carter would also introduce audiences to a new and reoccurring arch nemesis; Nicholas Lea’s Alex Kryceck; at first, built into a sort of naïve field agent reassigned to Mulder, but steadily proved to be working for the Smoking Man, and later, becoming a double agent for the Russians, only to suffer the fate of the black ooze.  Season Two also became noteworthy for establishing the two-part mid-season cliffhanger; episodes ‘Colony’ and ‘End Game’ piggy-backing off of each other to advance the ‘alien abduction/government conspiracy’ milieu.
During the first few years, The X Files was equally noted for its’ superb cameos; Doug Hutchison’s mutant serial killer, Victor Eugene Tooms – who extracts victims’ livers with his bare hands to survive a period of prolonged hibernation – one of the early standouts. Season One’s, ‘Squeeze’ first introduced the character of Tooms, cited as the episode that ‘sold’ audiences on The X Files. It had a troubled incubation, thanks to creative differences on the set – its director, Harry Longstreet, eventually replaced by Michael Katleman, who would go on to direct only one more episode; the bone-chilling, ‘Shadows’ – featuring a never seen psychokinetic spirit, avenging the murder of CEO Howard Graves, while keeping vigilant watch over his secretary, Lauren Kyte as her guardian angel. Other notable cameos were filled by character actors, David Sanderson (as a delusional paranoiac), Tony Shaloub (a defrocked medical practitioner), Timothy Carhart (a bizarre flesh-stripping sexual sadist), and, Luke Wilson (a town sheriff investigating a bizarre series of vampire murders).  By Season Six, The X Files had developed a reputation as one of the most consistently produced and compelling ‘must see’ anthology franchises ever made for television, thanks mostly to Chris Carter’s enduring vision, and persistent high standards: multi-episode directors, Rob Bowman and Kim Manners maintaining a visual continuity (along with others) to leave audiences gasping and tuning in for more. 
Now, some thirteen years after its last episode aired, one can acknowledge The X Files as a bona fide achievement in TV history. If, as is often the case, the finale to the franchise left much to be desired; the journey to this penultimate letdown was well worth our time.  Make no mistake – ‘the truth is (still) out there’. However, in 1993, The X-Files bore no earthly resemblance to virtually every other series it rivaled then. In truth, it had very few predecessors as worthy. Over the decades, others tried to do anthology-styled science fiction; the most enduring counterpoint, undeniably, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-64). Yet, mainstream networks were quite unwilling to take a gamble on primetime sci-fi, ever since Shadow Chasers; a fairly expensive hour long fictional ‘ghost hunter’ series, produced for ABC in 1985 that, regrettably, sank like a stone in the Nielsen Ratings and was quietly taken off the air after only one season. With its focus on alien life forms and autopsies, unexplained phenomena of every shape and size, and, a cavalcade of human and subhuman freaks, The X Files promised to be yet another very expensive series. Indeed, in later years it would evolve into just that, boasting an impressive array of special effects. Curiously, the more technologically sophisticated these became, the less popular the series proved with audiences.
Chris Carter’s initial pitch to Fox executives was almost immediately shot down. Undaunted, Carter reworked the concept and pitched it again only a few weeks later – a ballsy move to say the least. This time, he was met with open skepticism, although the powers that be nevertheless green-lit a pilot. Determined to add a kernel of verisimilitude to this debut, Carter consulted NYPD Blue producer, Daniel Sackheim; the pair drawing stylistic inventiveness from The Thin Blue Line (1988) and the British TV series, Prime Suspect. Carter also retained tidbits of comedy to counterbalance the series’ unsettling momentum; a holdover from his days as a director/writer for Disney Inc.  Sometime after The X-Files became a hit, Carter would confess his real muse for the series had been Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75), a one season wonder about the unexplained that, today, has developed a cult following. Carter also appreciated the ominous and pervading darkness David Lynch had achieved in his all too brief series, Twin Peaks (1990-91). As The X-Files would outlast virtually all of these predecessors by eight years and transcend its own cult status to become one of the most widely watched and acclaimed series on TV, it was inevitable Carter and his cohorts would begin to draw more heavily on other source materials to concoct each episode. In retrospect, the more transparent insights derive from political thrillers like Three Days of the Condor (1975) and All the President's Men (1976), suspense and horror classics (everything from Hitchcock’s Rope - 1948, to Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist -1982, and Carpenter’s ‘82 remake of The Thing).
At the end of Season Five, The X-Files did the unthinkable; making the successful leap from TV to full-fledged Hollywood blockbuster with The X-Files: Fight The Future (1998); also, directed by series’ regular, Rob Bowman. The peculiarity of this classy big-screen sci-fi adventure was it appealed to both enthusiasts and neophytes alike; Bowman and Carter somehow managing to weave into their narrative, threads to linked up to plot points developed at the end of Season Five and eventually carry them over into Season Six. Even so, these could ostensibly be considered inconsequential or, at the very least, undisruptive to the overall viewing enjoyment of someone who had never seen a single X-Files episode. It was all very good, right until the end of Season Seven, when David Duchovny suddenly elected to sue 2oth Century- Fox, claiming they had undersold the rights to the series to their own affiliates, thereby costing him huge sums of money.
The old adage ‘never biting the hand that feeds you’ seems to succinctly apply here; Fox’s attorneys eventually settling out of court for a reported $20 million. Fox held firm to the prospect they would not renew either Chris Carter or Duchovny’s contracts should The X-Files return for an eighth season – a ludicrous notion. Thus, as time wore on, somewhat cooler heads prevailed, with Fox renegotiating the terms of each player’s contracts. Duchovny only half complied, electing to appear in just twelve of the planned twenty-four episodes; Carter quickly figuring out a way to ease Mulder from the series while introducing a new set of characters to buttress Gillian Anderson’s scientific inquisitor. A series is usually in trouble when one of its perceived ‘stars’ bows out; The X-Files being no exception to this rule. Despite auditioning some heavy hitters to fill Mulder’s shoes, the introduction of Special Agent John Doggett (a part briefly considered for either Lou Diamond Phillips or Bruce Campbell – but eventually going to Robert Patrick) did not go over well with the diehard viewership. Carter did his best to shore up the damage, elevating Mitch Pileggi’s involvement to co-star status and also casting Annabeth Gish as Agent Monica Reyes – a possible ‘replacement’ for Gillian Anderson, whose Dana Scully was left in imminent peril at the end of Season Eight. By Season Nine, The X-Files had fallen out of the Top 25 in the Nielsen’s. If anyone was still watching, Carter’s commitment to the franchise remained impressively high; the narratives tautly scripted and the storylines as compelling as ever. Alas, The X-Files had incurred too many changes along the way. These had severely altered the show’s DNA; the last two seasons possessing a radically different flavor that seemed to betray everything gone before it.
As of the writing of this review, The X-Files is set to return to the small screen for a mini-series event; this, after the disastrous second feature film: The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008) failed to wrap up dangling plot points left unresolved when the series went off the air in 1998. Initially, Chris Carter had planned the second film to immediately follow the TV show’s swan song. Alas, six years of delays forced Carter to abandon his original plan to conclude the arc of mythology about alien colonization, as it was thought no one would remember what had occurred at the end of Season Nine, ten years earlier. So, instead, the movie became a standalone horror story, more attuned to the ‘monster-themed’ episodes for which the series was equally and justly as famous.  Alas, audience response to this ‘departure’ did not warrant any subsequent installments to be commissioned – either theatrically, or on TV. Time, however, does strange things. It also heals old wounds and very often – at least, in Hollywood – makes for some very strange bedfellows a second time around. As it stands, Fox has commissioned a six part miniseries to debut in 2016 with virtually all of the principles returning to reprise their roles. Will it be a hit? Well, ‘the truth’ remains to be seen. Despite a decade’s time lapse, changing cultural mores and tastes, as well as the natural aging process taking its toll on all the alumni, the resurrection of The X-Files may indeed prove a winner. Trust no one who says otherwise.  Carter and Ten Thirteen Productions undoubtedly have a few handsome tricks and more than a few good scares up their sleeves.
The X-Files was one of the first TV shows to make the leap to DVD back in 1997; Fox Home Video falling all over itself to hurry up three past seasons to disc format, even as Season Four was airing then ‘new’ episodes. The original 1.33:1 aspect ratio of the first three seasons was preserved on DVD; with subsequent seasons adopting the more contemporarily friendly 1.75:1 aspect ratio, anticipating the flat screen/widescreen home-viewing revolution. We are now some years beyond that evolution; Fox Home Video going back to ‘reinvent’ the wheel – just a bit, and with Chris Carter’s complicity, retro-fitting the first three seasons to conform to the 1.75:1 aspect ratio. To their credit, no one who did not watch The X-Files on its first time around, either airing on the Fox Network, or having owned the tired old DVD releases, would ever know these episodes were not shot with that ‘now’ standard ratio in mind. The studio has taken the utmost care in re-formatting the image to conform. There are no undue ‘chopped off’ heads or instances where the new aspect ratio looks forced.  So, good news here!
Better still, Fox has gone back to the drawing board to create some fairly stellar hi-def transfers. With minor caveats, the transfer quality across the board is uniformly excellent. I will discuss the caveats in a moment. First off, the pluses: beginning with superb color reproduction, pitch-perfect flesh tones and very solid contrast levels. The X-Files is an exceptionally dark series, and the richness and depth of the night sequences (of which there are many) is reproduced with a remarkable amount of fine detail evident with razor-sharp clarity to boot. Very impressive! The old DVDs were pathetically weak in all regards, particularly marred by severe edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. For the most part, these digital anomalies have been eradicated. Remember…I said ‘mostly’. Now, for the caveats.
I am perplexed and, frankly, troubled, by the momentary lapses in this otherwise pristine image quality that inexplicably surface, not from episode to episode, but from shot to shot.  Many establishing shots, as well as a goodly number of SFX shots, presumably photographed by a second unit, look as though they were lensed using a digital source rather than film-based elements; suffering from a lot of edge effects, a residual softness, loss of color density and general image distortion, with intense chroma bleeding. I could almost overlook these oversights, especially since the series is not known for extensive ‘establishing shots’. But it’s the queer ‘on again/off again’ sporadic cropping up of all of the aforementioned shortcomings – from shot to shot within the body of single episodes – that really has me stumped. Take Season Two’s Duane Barry episode as a prime example. When Mulder is called in to negotiate a hostage crisis he meets Agent Lucy Kazdin (CCH Pounder) to discuss the terms. Nearly every reverse shot of Kazdin is sourced from something ‘other’ than film-based materials. We toggle from razor-sharp close-ups of Mulder, to extremely soft and muddied cutaways of Pounder with a barrage of edge effects and chroma-bleeding factored in. It’s odd to say the least, and inexcusable to say the most…unless, of course, no other source materials exist from which to cull and piece together this episode. The aforementioned anomaly is by no means exclusive to this one episode and/or season, but a chronic condition that intermittently plagues all episodes in this set.
The audio on all episodes has been remastered to 5.1 DTS with a noticeable improvement in virtually all regards: clean, crisp-sounding dialogue, married to aggressive bass tonality; Mark Snow’s memorable theme sounding more eerily unsettling than ever before. Extras are jam-packed throughout; many episodes including an in-depth audio commentary from Carter and occasionally other collaborators. We also get Carter discussing each season in brief, a litany of deleted scenes, lots of press and promotional junkets, promos, etc. to whet the appetite. It should be pointed out NONE of these are new to collectors of the old DVDs but directly ported over. The quality of these extras remains in 720i, so don’t look for perfection and you won’t be disappointed.  Bottom line: The X-Files is X-ceptional entertainment. X does indeed mark the spot for a ‘spooky’ good time. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Season One 4
Season Two 4.5
Season Three 4.5
Season Four 4.5
Season Five 3.5
Season Six 3
Season Seven 2.5
Season Eight 2
Season Nine 1

Overall quality – 3.5


Saturday, December 12, 2015

YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU: Blu-ray (Columbia 1938) Sony Home Entertainment

Director, Frank Capra topped off a decade’s worth of exploring threads for the common man with You Can’t Take It With You (1938); his revisionist take on a 1936 Broadway dazzler, co-written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The play, an instant smash hit, would continue to 838 performances, running concurrently with the movie; a decidedly different experience altogether. Alas, the movie’s premiere had been preceded by a modicum of bad blood between Capra and Columbia Studio president, Harry Cohn; a genuine pity too, since Capra’s association with the studio had elevated Columbia’s status from B-grade poverty row to A-list minor competitor to rival the likes of MGM, Warner Bros. and 2oth Century-Fox. While these other leviathans flooded the market with their myriad of treasures from a seemingly bottomless wellspring of homegrown talent, Columbia’s good fortunes teetered - almost precariously – on the fate of the next Capra picture. Cohn undeniably knew the strength of Capra’s drawing power at the box office; enough to pilfer and slap his name onto the press and promotion of other Columbia pictures marketed abroad; pictures Capra had absolutely no part in making. Tantamount to fraud, Cohn might have sneaked off without incident, if only Capra had not taken his family on vacation to Britain in the fall of 1936, immediately following the lackluster box office returns on Lost Horizon (1936) his one departure from what had, by 1938, become something of a formula, affectionately labeled ‘Capra-corn’, his recipe for success.
But in Britain, Capra was informed by one of the distributors that his ‘latest’ picture – If You Could Only Cook (1935) was proving something of a disappointment. As Capra knew nothing of the picture (actually directed by William A. Seiter), he immediately telephoned Harry Cohn to make his inquiries and voice his displeasure.  Capra had endured much under Cohn’s tyranny, but this was the proverbial straw to break the camel’s back. To say Lost Horizon had drained virtually every ounce of Capra’s creative energy is a bit much. Yet, there is little to deny the making of Columbia’s most ambitious and costly picture to date had been more than trying on Capra’s patience, generating considerable friction and animosity between him and Cohn. While Lost Horizon remains an irrefutable masterpiece, it was decidedly ahead of its own time; its formidable scale-tipping budget, coupled with Cohn’s chronic meddling on Capra’s final edit, resulted in a very unpleasant work experience all around. And the picture’s inability to recoup its outlay had not sweetened Cohn on the prospects of green-lighting Capra’s other pet project: a bio-pic about Frédéric Chopin.  Repeatedly stalling Capra’s ambitions to pursue the project, Cohn would eventually put his foot down and cancel it outright. Still, Cohn’s faith in Capra remained unshaken. Here was an artist who could seemingly turn lead into gold. Capra’s impressive string of successes throughout the 1930’s had afforded him unprecedented autonomy. And Capra, having already been to the theater and fallen under the spell of You Can’t Take It With You, was as eager to direct a movie version of it. But now, the rift over Cohn’s exploitation of Capra’s name on other movies released in the foreign markets, simply to sell them to distributors under a false pretext, had incredibly soured Capra on ever trusting Harry Cohn again. In fact, Capra could not stand for it. He immediately demanded a release from his Columbia contract.
In these days of indentured servitude, breaking a studio contract was virtually impossible. Each man believing the law was on his side, neither Cohn nor Capra budged on the matter; Cohn insisting Capra would finish out the terms of his contract with two more pictures. But Cohn had underestimated Capra’s resolve. Capra sued Columbia for breach of contract; Cohn and his high-priced attorneys successfully delaying the inevitable by getting a judge to change the venue no less than three times; first, from Hollywood to New York; then, from New York to London, England. Although frustrated by this stalemate, and unable to work anywhere else in Hollywood while the details were being ironed out, Capra nevertheless held steadfast to his principles. Eventually, the inevitable could be delayed no more. Capra was right. What Cohn had perpetuated was fraud. The only way out was to get Capra to drop his lawsuit. Arriving at Capra’s home in what Frank Capra Jr. would later describe as ‘the longest limousine you’ve ever seen’, Cohn first employed intimidation tactics to get Capra to back down. When these failed to be persuasive, Cohn reverted to tearful repentance, throwing himself at Capra’s mercy, and appealing to the director’s sense of fair play. After all, in as much as Capra had made Columbia a lot of money and elevated its prestige within the industry, none of it would have been possible without Cohn’s support and belief in his talents. Exactly how much of Capra’s stubbornness in withstanding Cohn was Capra’s own positioning to gain even greater autonomy at Columbia remains open for debate. What is for certain is Capra made only two more pictures for Columbia after dropping his lawsuit; the two necessary to round out his contract, before leaving Cohn and Columbia for good to pursue other avenues and dreams.
The first of this two picture commitment was You Can’t Take It With You – an infinitely smoother 58 day shoot, firmly establishing James Stewart as a star of the first magnitude and leading to a life-long friendship between Stewart and Capra, resulting in two more memorable screen outings; 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, and 1946’s It’s A Wonderful Life.  It is interesting to note one of the familiar threads running through Capra’s body of work is his overriding contempt for wealthy authority figures – always depicted as miserly, corrupt and a threat to the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And although Capra’s compassion for the common man would be misinterpreted as favoring a communist slant, he was never indicted by HUAC for these predilections. Toiling with his favorite screenwriter, Robert Riskin (regrettably, the last of their collaborations) the cinematic incarnation of You Can’t Take It With You allows Capra his greatest latitude to rail against America’s particular brand of classicism; pitting the shy and retiring ‘every man’, about to be stomped upon by millionaire ‘fat cats’ for the sake of pure profit. 
The play’s focus is unquestioningly the romantic folly between Tony Kirby, heir apparent to his father’s industrial fortune, and Alice Sycamore, a congenial worker bee, heralding from a house of lovable screwballs that, oddly enough, neither work for a living, nor are supported by any form of governmental assistance to get by and pursue their dreams. Capra’s film is more directly and telescopically zeroed in on the classically inspired David vs. Goliath triumph. Indeed, the third act to his filmic adaptation bears no earthly resemblance to its Broadway origins. And yet, Capra and Riskin’s revisions neither hamper nor obstruct the play’s overall impact. Harry Cohn may have bristled over Capra’s cheek at ‘reinventing the wheel’; but this time the fiery mogul kept his thoughts to himself - mostly. Besides, apart from Lost Horizon’s box office disappointment, Capra had an unimpeachable record at Columbia. Four of his last five pictures not only made a ton of money for the studio – along the way earning a whopping 21 Oscar-nominations (and winning eight) – they had also elevated Columbia’s prestige within the industry.
With its Pulitzer Prize-winning pedigree, You Can’t Take It With You is thematically right up Capra’s alley, returning him to his favorite milieu: the downtrodden and struggling middle class during the Great Depression.  However, the picture’s third act is something of a reprieve for ruthless capitalism; a notion much to do with Capra’s own immigrant experience.  Indeed, Capra’s rise to prominence at Columbia, while swift and seemingly assured, in retrospect had been preceded by a dark and fallow period in which he struggled to find gainful employment – even a steady job – at times, almost crippled by his own emasculating self-doubt for nearly ten long years. Now, at the top of the proverbial food chain, Capra was humbled by how far he had come, and even more willing to emphatically point out how nearly impossible his attainment of the American dream was for many others still slogging it in the daily grind. Incontrovertibly, Capra’s commiserations are with this common man, precisely because he had been one. Even after his successes, he never quite forgot from whence he had cometh. Capra’s message and timing could not have been more perfect. His pictures struck a chord with Depression-challenged audiences; his morality and homespun ideals, perfectly in sync with the paying public’s appetite to see depictions of life as they knew it on the screen; albeit, with Capra’s inimitable ability to effortlessly move between the relative severity of the drama and lithe comedy to provide for the axiomatic ‘happy ending’.
The characters who inhabit most any Capra movie are usually a cross between the hoity-toity rich – generally played as misguided figures of fun or growling villains; either way, in need of a good head-shake (and getting it, as well as their just deserts in the penultimate showdown) – and ever-so-slight variations on an archetypal solid, hard-working American dreamer; usually depicted as a bucolic bumpkin, come to the big city as the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ destined to have his heart and head matured, but his spirit and blind-eyed optimism never broken and, in fact, affirmed; Capra always illustrating the infallibility of a stout-heart, keen mind, and, starry-eyed outlook on life. “Maybe there never was an America,” director, John Cassavetes once pondered, “Maybe it was all Frank Capra.”  Indeed, Capra’s notions of what America was – and could become with the solidarity of its citizens – had, by 1938, shaped a generation’s faith in itself.  The ‘Capra-esque’ quality retrofitted to most interpretations of his body of work, speaks to three principles: faith in humanity at large, conviction in one’s self-reliance, and uncompromising belief in a brighter future, usually perceived under a guise of flag-waving patriotism.    
Interestingly, and quite unlike the play, the hero in You Can’t Take It With You is not leading man – James Stewart’s Tony Kirby, who cannot even get off his lump to defend the honor of the woman he supposedly loves until the eleventh hour when others – including the lady in question – have already spoken up in their own defense. Marginally heroic is Lionel Barrymore’s Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, whose clear-eyed – if bromidic – philosophies of living simply often take center stage, both in the comedic and dramatic portions of the story. Yet, Capra makes an even more unorthodox decision here; to transform Tony’s boorish industrialist/banker father, Anthony P. Kirby (magnificently realized by Edward Arnold) from villain to the hero of the piece in the third act. Confronted thrice with the realization he has sacrificed familial happiness strictly to acquire more affluence (first by Grandpa, then by a dying industrialist, Ramsey, played by H.B. Warner, and finally, his own son’s decision to leave the company to marry the girl he loves) – Anthony’s purpose in life is shaken to its very core; Capra resolving that in having given his family everything, Anthony has reduced them all to nothing beyond their misperceived monetary value.
Edward Arnold is today sadly underrated among movie legends; a portly, jowl-faced actor with a face like a tree-full of owls, boosted to overnight stardom via his role as Jim Brady in 1935’s Diamond Jim (later reprised for the movie, Lillian Russell, 1940).  Arnold’s undeniable specialty was playing complex rogues and authority figures. Despite being branded ‘box office poison’ in a scathing article published in Variety in 1938, Arnold worked steadily throughout his lengthy career – often on two pictures at once – appearing in more than 150 movies throughout his distinguished career. He was a favorite of Capra’s, who affords Arnold the best of both worlds in You Can’t Take It With You; his Anthony Kirby, begun as a self-appointed popinjay of Wall Street, greedy, plotting and thumbing his nose at even the remotest consideration homespun sentimentality might outweigh his stern and enterprising prospects; his galvanized resolve shattered by Grandpa Vanderhof’s prophetic condemnation of his methods and later, Ramsey’s impassioned declaration about the road to riches also leading a man to ruin. It is Arnold’s infallible intelligence that allows us past both his imposing girth and this outward Teutonic tyranny; something behind the eye, a glint of sadness or even remorse, perhaps, mingling with a more intuitive understanding seeping into his subconscious. The best moments in Arnold’s performance are arguably unearthed in his quiet, gradual, though steady and probative reactions to this humiliation heaped upon his Teflon-coated character by Grandpa during the courtroom scene, or even better still, as his Anthony steadily thaws out from his implacably Vathek need to consume everything in his midst, merely to prove his bullish status as master of all he surveys.
Capra gives us some hint as to where the accent of this denouement is headed: You Can’t Take It With You opening with Anthony Kirby’s arrival at his financial institution flanked by sycophantic ‘yes men’ fawning and preening in his presence as the undisputed wolf of Wall Street.  Indeed, Kirby can afford to gloat. His trip to Washington has resulted in a grant to pursue a government-sanctioned munitions monopoly, guaranteed to quadruple his already sizable wealth. To this end, Kirby intends on buying up a twelve-block radius around his competitor, Ramsey’s factory, thus thwarting his plans for expansion and squeeze him out of the business altogether. One holdout to his plan is Grandpa Vanderhof; contented to remain in the old neighborhood. Grandpa’s resolve gives the other residents sincere hope they too can withstand the bullying from Kirby’s shifty-eyed real estate broker, John Blakely (Clarence Wilson), who has offered each and every one of them a sizable payout to decamp their premises at once. Herein, Capra reiterates another inherent difference between the rich and middle class; Kirby’s ‘loner’ quality pitted against the communal e pluribus unum of the masses.
Unbeknownst to Anthony, his son, Tony (James Stewart), whom he has newly appointed VP, has fallen madly in love with his stenographer, Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur); Vanderhof’s granddaughter. In one of too few romantic interludes featured in the picture, Tony and Alice coo and moon at one another across a desk in Alice’s office; Meriam Kirby (Mary Forbes) stumbling upon her son’s flirtations, which she immediately finds distasteful. Tony assures Alice there is nothing he cannot have if he screams loud enough; a defensive mechanism he learned as a child. To illustrate this power, Kirby screams at an unsuspecting page, frightening the poor young man half out of his wits. Meanwhile, in another part of the Kirby building we meet Grandpa Vanderhof. Almost immediately, he takes an interest in Mr. Poppins (Donald Meeks), an unprepossessing bean counter. Poppins is the nervous sort, but fascinated by Vanderhof’s open invitation to set up shop in his home’s basement to pursue his passion for making wind-up novelties for children. 
We meet the rest of Vanderhof clan; the effervescent, but scatterbrained Penelope ‘Penny’ Sycamore (Spring Byington), who took up playwriting simply because a typewriter was accidentally delivered to the house by the U.S. mail service; stern ballet master, Potap Kolenkhov (Misha Auer) and his atrociously bad pupil, Essie Carmichael (Ann Miller) and her husband, Ed (Dub Taylor), and, fireworks inventors, DePinna (Halliwell Hobbes) and Grandpa’s son, Paul (Samuel S. Hind). Also in the mix are devoted domestics, Donald (Eddie Rochester Anderson) and Reba (Lillian Yarbo). As Grandpa has repeatedly refused offers to buy up his property, Anthony Kirby sends IRS agent, Wilbur G. Henderson (Charles Lane) to investigate the fact no one living at that address seems to have paid any personal income tax in a very long while. Confronting Grandpa on the matter, Henderson is startled when Grandpa defiantly refuses to support the government in their squandering of his money to indulge in their programs he neither supports nor even considers charitable works. “Not with my money!” Grandpa emphatically declares.
Meanwhile, the youthful romance between Tony and Alice is met with blind-eyed acceptance by the Sycamores, though decidedly frowned upon by the very snobbish Mrs. Kirby, who orders her husband to take immediate action against the pending nuptials. In the meantime, Capra indulges in a bit of playfulness; Tony and Alice caught unawares by a small group of street-savvy children offering swing lessons for a quarter in Central Park. Impetuously, Alice accepts the wager and proves a quick study; Tony, following her cue before a police officer arrives to break up their party. Alice suggests she can never entertain his impromptu proposal unless they have the full support of both families. To improve these prospects, Alice suggests Tony bring his mum and dad over for dinner.  Alas, this plan turns rancid when Tony deliberately brings Anthony and Meriam to the house on the wrong day; the Sycamores, caught entirely off-guard with the house in total disarray. Penny attempts to do damage control, as does Alice. But when Anthony suggests in casual discussion he was a fairly good wrestler in his youth, Potap decides to take him up – and pick him up - literally, hoisting and spinning Anthony on his shoulders, before dropping him to the ground as the rest of the family looks on in horror. Unharmed, though nevertheless disorientated, Mr. Kirby urges his wife and son to leave the Sycamores to their particular brand of lunacy; further threatening to disown Tony should he not forget about marrying into such a family at once. As far as Anthony is concerned, the Sycamores are crazy. Unhappy circumstance, this gathering of the clan is interrupted by the police, who have come to arrest Grandpa for tax evasion; a night’s stay in the drunk tank is kicked off by DePinna and Paul’s accidental ignition of a whole box of fireworks, their fire power sending the clan frantically scattering into the street.
While debating the finer points of Grandpa’s life philosophy in jail, Kirby makes it known he thinks himself the better man, largely due to his wealth. Grandpa angrily points out that only a fool would take solace in embracing pile upon pile of soulless money. “You can’t take it with you, Mr. Kirby,” Grandpa points out, “So what good is it to you? As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends.” To illustrate this point, Capra and Riskin have concocted a scene not in the play; the kindly Night Court Judge (Harry Davenport), willing to pass on the erroneous ‘disturbing the peace’ charge, quite unable to see his way past the secondary charge; possessing illegal explosives, and thus fining Grandpa $100 – a sizable sum in 1938. Modestly ashamed of his behavior, Anthony Kirby instructs his high-handed mouthpiece to pay the fine; Grandpa turning the offer down flat as his neighborhood friends rally to get up a collection and pay off the fine themselves as the Judge amusedly looks on with sincere admiration.
Alice confronts Tony in front of the court; declaring she would not marry a man who cannot stand up and defend her honor – even as it has not been impugned by anything more than the Kirbys’ prudery. This creates a major tabloid scandal; the newspaper boys running with the story and inflating it to laughable proportions. Forced to flee the city in her shame Alice remains absent for some time, casting a pall on the Sycamores usually happy home. Grandpa elects to negotiate the sale of his house. The family will move to Connecticut to be nearer to Alice. Tony arrives to make his apologies. But Penny explains his intentions are too little too late and asks him to go. The neighborhood observes as movers begin stripping the Sycamore home of its belongings. Meanwhile, across town, Anthony prepares to meet with his board of directors and finalize the merger between his company and the competition, thus creating a mega-monopoly. However, he is confronted in his board room by Ramsey, the man he ousted by buying up property surrounding his factory. Passionately, Ramsey pleads – not for himself, but for Kirby to reconsider where unbridled greed has taken him; to the brink of self-destruction. Nearly collapsing after his entreaty, Ramsey leaves the room a dignified man, too late unencumbered by the hypocrisies of wealth and dying of a massive heart attack off camera a short while later.
It has all been for not, it seems, as Tony arrives to inform his father of his resignation from the company. He has decided his love for Alice means more to him than his seat as Vice President; a post he neither values nor feels he justly contribute to, as he does not respect his father’s business practices. Distraught and suddenly realizing Grandpa was right – he has no friends – Anthony Kirby arrives at the Vanderhof household as they are preparing to depart. Grandpa takes pity on Anthony, handing him a harmonica and explaining that whenever times are bleak, a verse and chorus of ‘Polly-Wolly Doodle’ seems to set the world right. Although disbelieving in Grandpa’s naiveté, Anthony has reached the end of his rope and elects to join Grandpa in this duet. Tony arrives to discover Alice has returned to her family home to have a final look around the place. The two are reconciled and Anthony informs everyone he does not intend to evict them from their homes. The scene dissolve to a tender moment around the dining room table; Grandpa giving the benediction and thanks, having ‘reached’ the Kirbys and made them ‘see the light’. They will become one big happy family from this moment forward.
Harry Cohn had great faith in Capra’s ability to direct You Can’t Take It With You, buying the rights to produce it for a whopping $200,000 (equivalent to $3,292,000 today). And Capra, despite his misgivings about remaining under Cohn’s thumb for much longer, nevertheless, dropped his lawsuit to make two of his most highly prized pictures for Columbia. In later years, Capra would grow somewhat more philosophical about his approach to making pictures, suggesting “A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something. I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries. And scriptwriting is the toughest part of the whole racket…the least understood and the least noticed. But film is one of the three universal languages, the other two: mathematics and music.” You Can’t Take It With You is perfectly cast with a stellar ensemble of time-honored players and up and comers, of which James Stewart is arguably the freshest face in the crowd. Stewart was already a veteran of 18 pictures at MGM. Yet, none had offered the actor his break out to popular appeal as anything better than the male ingénue. But Stewart’s heartrending role in Navy Blue and Gold (1935) had captivated Capra, elevating his belief he had found his ideal ‘everyman’ in Stewart; an unerring confidence proven one year later when director and star collaborated on Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
Over the years, speculation has arisen over what caused Lionel Barrymore’s confinement to a wheelchair. After 1940, the actor never walked again, although he periodically could stand in place for short intervals of time. Barrymore only hobbles in You Can’t Take It With You, assisted by a pair of crutches; his infirmity referenced casually in the movie as having sprained an ankle after losing a wager to slide down the banister at home. What is known for certain is Barrymore suffered from congenital arthritis already afflicting him in his youth. By his mid-thirties, this condition had severely worsened to the point where Barrymore became addicted to morphine and other pain killers simply to get by. An accident in 1936 fractured Barrymore’s hip. He would reinjure it again only one year later, never to heal properly. In retrospect, it is intriguing to reconsider what the rest of Barrymore’s acting career might have been without this invalidism, although, equally in retrospect, there remain few actors able to so completely command a room from their wheelchair.  
When You Can’t Take It With You premiered, the reviews were unanimous, labeling it “a grand picture” with its emphasis “wisely placed on the human rather than on the farcical (yet) without sacrificing any of the comedy angles.” In the intervening decades Hollywood, and indeed the world, have gone through seismic shifts in tastes, talents and technological advancements and, in lieu of at least some of these changes – and others undiscussed herein, the more featherweight and almost pie-eyed optimism spread thickly throughout You Can’t Take It With You is perhaps a tad more challenging to get into at the start; the sight of a gawky Ann Miller (later, to be known as ‘tops in taps’ at MGM), deliberately pirouetting badly about the Vanderhof home, or Misha Auer glowering with his inimitable brand of lampoon for foreign accents, appearing far more stiltedly theatrical than it probably did in 1938. What saves the picture and makes it relevant to today’s audiences is Robert Riskin’s deft screenwriting; his ability to morph the popular vernacular of the stage – prone to intermittently long and prosaic pontifications – into palpable, and plot advancing points of interest. These keep the story afloat and moving forward in a compelling way. As Riskin’s third act has squarely shifted the focus of the play to increasing confrontations between Edward Arnold’s caustic titan and Lionel Barrymore’s impassioned humanist, the darkness that momentarily intrudes on all of their lives and permeates this otherwise delightfully whacky screwball comedy very much playing into our tragically contemporary thirst for the demise of innocence; the penultimate resolution, with its vivaciously ‘happy ending’, restoring a promise made to us in the movies from long ago: that even the worst of situations can be worked out to the satisfaction conclusion of all. God bless that notion, sorely in short supply these days.
You Can’t Take It With You has undergone a Herculean restoration to resurrect it for this Blu-ray release. In one of those Hollywood ironies that never ceases to amaze the vintage collector and movie lover; Columbia’s storage of such immortal screen art over the intervening decades was anything but stellar. By the early 1980’s virtually all of Frank Capra’s contributions were in an extremely delicate state of disrepair; some, like Lost Horizon, only existing in severely truncated versions, edited down for general re-release. Arguably, You Can’t Take It With You has been one of the most challenging restorations undertaken by Grover Crisp at Sony Pictures, the current custodians of the Frank Capra library (among many other treasures). And Mr. Crisp has once more shown an epic devotion, not only in maintaining this formidable back catalog, but applying whatever necessary expenses and digital tools presently available to the studio to resurrect these careworn elements from near oblivion to a state that – if not perfect – nevertheless, mark a progressive leap forward from previous efforts to keep this screen history available for today’s audiences to admire and study.
When Frank Capra died in 1991 he bequeathed part of his beloved Fallbrook Ranch to Caltech, his one-time alma mater. Unbeknownst to anyone, the ranch contained a stable with a padlocked room. As no one had the key – and apparently suffered from a deplorable lack of curiosity to discover what was inside it – this mysterious room would remain untouched for nearly another decade. When it was finally ‘broken into’, the discovery of Capra’s own private stockpile of nitrate 35mm prints, miraculously in good physical condition, provided Caltech with the most comprehensive collection of the director’s body of work. Alas, the negatives used to make these prints in 1940 were hardly perfect, due to the common practice of ‘over printing’. The preservation of You Can’t Take It With You would borrow whole portions from these newly unearthed archives, reinstated into Sony’s existing archived elements to ‘restore’ the audio and video to optimal condition for this new 4K hi-def release. But be forewarned, despite these formidable concerted efforts, You Can’t Take It With You is still not going to yield a ‘perfect’ presentation. Time has been very cruel. Even the best of intentions cannot recreate the opening night splendor audiences thrilled to back in 1938.
That said; the results achieved on this Blu-ray are nothing short of miraculous. Virtually all of the built-in dirt, scratches and other age-related mold and water damage that once plagued this image have been eradicated. The incredible amounts of density fluctuation and built-in flicker have been tempered to a degree where either no longer distracts, though both anomalies are still present and sporadically noticed. This latest restoration has also done much to reduce the over-contrasted grayscale that, on previous home video incarnations, deprived viewers of the finer details. The grain structure herein is often very thick. But again, Sony has done everything in their power to homogenize and stabilize its consistency. Restoring a classic movie is, in general, a challenging, labor-intensive, and, time – and money – consuming process. You Can’t Take It With You has made the Cook’s Tour to virtually all of the premiere facilities leading the charge in film preservation: from Sony’s own homegrown Colorworks to Cineric in New York, MTI Film and finally Chace Audio.  
The results achieved are impressive to say the least and should become a cause célèbre for all studios to reinvest in their aging back catalogs. Sony has proven time and again to be the only studio consistently applying this fundamental philosophy to ensure its history does not quietly fade into the annals of time without a fight and for this reason they are to be sincerely commended and wholeheartedly supported in their efforts. Buy this disc! Well past its 75th anniversary, You Can’t Take It With You looks every bit to be pushing eighty. The point herein, is that it looks far better than it ever has before and, in fact, has been preserved in a manner that makes it highly watchable, if in no way living up to Blu-ray’s moniker of ‘perfect picture and theater quality sound’.  Personally, I say ‘bravo’, thank you, and, bring on the rest – Lost Horizon, getting my personal vote for the next great Frank Capra release to hi-def. You Can’t Take It With You has no new extra features added this time around. We get Frank Capra Jr. reminiscing about the making of the picture; also his comprehensive audio commentary, along with author/historian, Catherine Kellison, plus the original theatrical trailer. Frankly, it is enough to have the film given back to us after so long and great an absence, restored and remastered in hi-def and in 4K no less. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4 (considering the source materials, though without such consideration, more like 3)