Saturday, May 30, 2015

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (Warner Bros. 1939) Warner Home Video

Bette Davis was well compensated for losing out on the most coveted role in screen history – Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind (1939) – with Michael Curtiz’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939); a lavishly appointed, masterfully executed faux epic of palace intrigues, based on Maxwell Anderson’s wordy, though never tedious, stagecraft – Elizabeth, the Queen. Only a year before, when asked by Davis why the part of Scarlett could not be hers, Selznick had rather condescendingly informed the actress, “…because I can’t imagine any man suffering for twenty-five years and winding up with you!” But many in 1939 could have at least fathomed the possibility. Davis had risen like cream to the top of her profession, starring in no less than four classic films in 1939 alone. Indeed, Davis was not the suffering type – although she had done enough of it at Warner Bros., mostly under the duress of a male-dominated studio system and studio mogul, Jack Warner who sought to remake her as something of a sassy platinum dolly en par with MGM’s Jean Harlow. But only after Davis stood her ground, walking out on her ironclad contract and becoming embroiled in a lawsuit, did her star ascend with the greatest of speed and accuracy.
Following their brief stalemate, Warner and Davis buried the hatchet, perhaps in each other’s backs; the caustic diva frequently charging into the front offices with a list of demands that were met rather than debated. It is rumored Jack Warner would dart into his private men’s room whenever he heard her coming down the hall, simply to avoid a conflict. Around the studio, Davis acquired something of ‘a reputation’; begrudgingly afforded the label ‘the fifth Warner brother’ while steadily improving her prospects and advancing her career. By 1939, it was clear to all, even if she had lost the court battle to wrangle herself free from this indentured servitude, she had most decidedly won the war.
1939 was a banner year – and not just for Davis, who starred in four major productions: Dark Victory, Juarez, The Old Maid and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex; the latter marked by a distinguished Broadway pedigree and sumptuous production values for which Warner Bros. was not readily known. Anderson’s play, Elizabeth, the Queen had been a showcase for Lynn Fontanne. But the film’s appeal was divided between Davis’ formidable ‘king in petticoats’ and the expanded role of Sir Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (played by Errol Flynn). Jack Warner’s decision to cast Flynn instantly soured Davis on the project. She had, in fact, heavily campaigned for Laurence Olivier as her costar, citing Olivier’s obvious charismatic appeal in 1937’s Fire Over England. But Olivier was not under contract to Warner, and Flynn had proven himself one of the studio’s handsomest leading men and a good actor besides; looking every bit the paragon of masculinity whether sheathed in modern garb, vintage American west riding chaps or period leggings and a codpiece.
Davis thought Flynn a notorious pretty boy at best, his work ethic substandard to her own. Her venom festered as shooting began and was frequently exerted, perhaps nowhere more obviously than in the scene where Davis, as Elizabeth, confronts her returning conqueror – and lover – Sir Robert (Flynn) with an admonishment of his decision to sacrifice a mission against the Spanish at England’s considerable expense. Evidently, Sir Robert does not see the situation in quite the same broad-brushed terms. He tells the Queen as much and flippantly so, before turning to exit the reception room. “You dare turn your back on Elizabeth? You dare?” The Queen then strikes Sir Robert full in the face with all her might and a jewel-encrusted ring that left a considerable welt on Flynn’s cheek.  The moment remains in the film, and Flynn’s immediate surprise, disgust and seething rage are readily apparent as Sir Robert declares, “I would not have taken that from your father – the king. Nor will I take it from a king in petticoats!” Between takes, Flynn and Davis parted like a pair of prize fighters, each returning to their corner and completely ignoring the other. Flynn had, in fact, costarred with Davis in The Sisters. Yet, the working relationship then had been fairly amicable. Alas, on the set of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex they barely tolerated one another.
Jack Warner had attempted to market Davis and Flynn as a package deal to Selznick for Gone With The Wind; his choices for Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler respectively. But Selznick, having gone his own way, had shamed the reputation of both his stars – at least, insofar as Warner was concerned, by groveling to L.B. Mayer for the loan out of Clark Gable instead, and siding with a virtual unknown – Vivien Leigh – for the most coveted role in all filmdom. And so Jack was determined to prove the marketing of Davis and Flynn as costars had merit. Warner also augmented Anderson’s play with an impeccable pedigree of character actors from his formidable stable. These included Donald Crisp (as Sir Francis Bacon), Olivia de Havilland (Lady Penelope Gray), Henry Daniell (Sir Robert Cecil), Henry Stephenson (Lord Burghley), Alan Hale (the Earl of Tyrone), Nannette Fabray (Mistress Margaret Radcliffe) and, borrowed from Fox, Vincent Price (Sir Walter Raleigh). Of these stellar performers, Crisp would prove to have the most prolific movie career, appearing in more than 400 movies throughout his lengthy career and becoming one of the richest men in Hollywood – thanks, in part to some very shrewd investments and land deals.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex also features a devastatingly beautiful score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold; its ambitious leitmotifs and bombastic main title sublime counterbalances to Sol Polito’s sumptuous Technicolor feast and Anton Grot’s gargantuan production design; part English Tudor/part Art Deco façade. But Elizabeth and Essex proved something of a battle royale both on screen and behind the scenes; the parallel love/hate relationship between Davis and Flynn perfectly translated as enterprising and spirited clashes between Davis’ towering embodiment of the Queen and Flynn’s ruthlessly romantic suitor/warrior, whose endeavor to conquer both the throne and this woman’s heart leads each aspiration into wanton ruin. To play Elizabeth, a role much older than the actress herself, Davis shaved her hairline and eyebrows and donned an unflattering red wig; her appearance quite uncanny. Davis was, in many ways, relentless in her emasculation of Flynn. Yet, this shredding of his machismo queerly translated into thrashing embers of desire on the screen. There is a genuine chemistry between Flynn and Davis; his absurdly tanned and exquisite ruggedness incongruously softening Davis’ death-white gargoyle’s visage.
The film is also notable for Olivia de Havilland’s appearance – not because the actress is prominently featured, but rather for her lack thereof; Jack Warner’s punishment for having been goaded by his wife to allow de Havilland to play the part of Melanie Hamilton in Gone With The Wind. Warner would have preferred she remain the romantic appendage to Flynn, and under his own thumb. But Melanie Hamilton unequivocally proved de Havilland a much finer actress than any of her frequent costarring roles opposite Flynn ever revealed. Under Jack Warner’s autocratic rule, De Havilland put in her time and why not? She was also in the midst of an impassioned love affair with Flynn; a storybook romance doomed to end badly when de Havilland asked Flynn what he most desired from life. His reply, ‘to be famous’ seemed very shallow by comparison to her own - ‘respect for a job well done’. When production wrapped, cast and crew moved on to do other things. And although Flynn and de Havilland would continue to costar, this too was the beginning of the end of their love match. Yet, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex had an interesting postscript.
Davis and de Havilland had not begun as friends on the Warner back lot, largely due to the fact Davis in her prime was virtually incapable of friendships with female costars who she readily – and rightly - regarded as her competition to be squashed before they could challenge and/or surpass her supremacy at the studio. However, as the years wore on, Davis came to admire de Havilland. The two actually became great friends, so much that when Joan Crawford bowed out of Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) a mere two weeks into production, Davis suggested de Havilland as her replacement.  In the mid-1960s, Davis and de Havilland were to have another ‘reunion’ of sorts when Davis asked de Havilland to join her for a private screening at Warner Bros. The film Davis selected was The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. According to de Havilland, Davis critically studied the screen virtually frame by frame. When the house lights came up at the end, Davis turned to de Havilland, saying about Flynn, “You know I was wrong about him. He is marvelous.”  High praise, indeed, regrettably afforded posthumously to Flynn who had died in 1959.
In viewing The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex today, one can still readily admire it as a production of impeccable tastes and craftsmanship with grand sets, gorgeous costumes and powerful performances from both Davis and Flynn. These have withstood the test of time.  The Norman Reilly Raine/Æneas MacKenzie screenplay has managed to ‘open up’ the cloistered melodrama of palace intrigues into a flowing and glossy spectacle, the pageantry never detracting from the literary quality of Maxwell Anderson’s prose. It is a talkative play and movie. But Anderson’s ability to write with an eloquence that never seems stultifying and Davis’ desire to breathe life into this rhapsodic dialogue and still make it appear as though it were mere conversation sprung from the top of her own head, translates the artifice into sublime melodrama. Flynn too matches Davis’ cultured dragon wit for wit, their magnificent sparing elevated into believable aberrations of love-strained animosity.
We begin with the gallant return of Sir Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn) to Elizabeth I’s (Bette Davis) court at Whitehall. The people are with Essex in heart and spirit, particularly Lady Penelope (Olivia de Havilland) whose own desires are to possess this earthly man rather than the god-like champion. But Essex’s blood is poisoned with a genuine thirst for his Queen. The romance that cannot be is further impeded by palace intrigues. Sir Robert Cecil (Henry Daniell) would sooner see Essex ‘tarnished’ than ascending to the throne – an aspiration that will be Essex’s own undoing.  Lord Burghley (Henry Stephenson) encourages prudence and patience. But Sir Walter Raleigh (Vincent Price) shares Cecil’s desire to usurp Essex's popularity with the masses while calling into question his loyalties to the crown.
In the meantime, Sir Francis Bacon (Donald Crisp) pleads with Elizabeth. She has already decided Essex’s return cannot be met with a flourish of praise or even genuine affection.  In fact, he must be brought to heel at her command.  Her reputation must supersede any private emotions. Besides Robert has lavishly spent tax monies afforded him by the crown for his campaign in Spain without yielding the anticipated tribute. His tactics must be brought into question since, despite the obviousness of his own triumph against Spain’s formidable armada, the purpose of his exploits was nevertheless to defeat the Spaniards and secure a bounty for England’s depleted treasury. Only half of this discharged duty has been fulfilled; the riches sunk by the Spanish fleet off the coast of Cadiz and therefore lost to both sides. Essex enters Elizabeth’s throne room with absolute confidence. But the mood quickly sours as the Queen makes a mockery of his valor and demands an explanation for his ‘failed campaign’.  In fact, she rewards all of Essex’s commanders without even a note of praise for him, something Essex’s ego will not tolerate.
Retreating in anger and shame to his family home, Essex is attended to by Sir Francis who forewarns that his desire to possess the Queen and jointly rule will destroy him. For there are other usurpers about the palace who would sooner see both Sir Robert and the Queen toppled than live happily ever after. In the meantime, Lady Penelope and Mistress Margaret Radcliffe (Nannette Fabray) attend the Queen. She is beside herself after Cecil has read a letter addressed to the court and presumably written in Essex’s hand, admonishing the crown. Lady Penelope adds fuel to these already brewing flames when she suggests a tournament of song as amusement for Elizabeth. Alas, this moment is transformed into a lyrical chastisement of the Queen’s affections for Essex; its May/December quality poked fun at until Elizabeth can stand no more. Smashing every mirror in the room, Elizabeth orders her entourage away. The ladies retreat; all except for Mistress Margaret who weeps and then confesses her love for a handsome young solider currently fighting in Ireland.  Recognizing the genuineness of Margaret’s loyalty, Elizabeth promises her his safe return – a guarantee doomed to remain unfulfilled when news reaches the kingdom Margaret’s lover has fallen in battle, hence, foreshadowing the outcome of our story.
For Hugh O’Neill, the 2nd Earl of Tyrone (Alan Hale) has declared war on Elizabeth’s forces in Ireland. All is not lost, however. In fact, Tyrone’s pronouncement affords Elizabeth a legitimate reason to recall Essex to her court where she intends to make him Master of the Ordinance. Instead, Cecil and Raleigh conspire to goad Essex into taking command of the army once more, this time sent to Ireland to quash the rebellion. In pursuit of Tyrone’s forces, Essex’s reserves are depleted. He writes the Queen both words of love, but also dispatches for badly needed reserves and supplies. These requests, however, go unanswered, intercepted by Lady Penelope at the behest of Cecil and Raleigh. Penelope is unaware she is being used and believes she is advancing her own cause by interceding in Essex’s romantic overtures. By the time she has discovered the true purpose of these correspondences it is too late. Essex forces have fallen to Tyrone and the Queen has grown bitter and reclusive, believing Essex has forsaken their love out of bitter spite and enterprising jealousy.
Essex returns to Whitehall beleaguered and angry. However, the people are with him and Elizabeth realizes Essex is in an enviable position to topple her throne. Still, she denies Cecil’s nervous pleas to fortify the palace with soldiers. Instead, Elizabeth allows Essex to storm the throne room with his men; the two quickly learning of another treason afoot which has kept their mutual letters a secret from one another. Elizabeth orders her court cleared of everyone except Essex, whom she confides in she loves more deeply than ever. However, when she asks of his intentions toward her, Elizabeth quickly discovers Essex’s heart and loyalties remain divided. Although he undeniably worships her, Essex will not give up his desire to rule England jointly. As Essex is now in a position to fulfill this dream with or without Elizabeth’s complicity she pretends to agree to his ultimatum if he will call off his reserves. Believing he has won both her heart and a place at her side, Essex orders his troops to stand down. Almost immediately, Elizabeth recalls her own royal guard, placing Essex under arrest.
Exiled to the Tower and condemned to death, Essex’s life is pleaded for by Lady Penelope who confesses to Elizabeth her inadvertent complicity in Cecil and Raleigh’s conspiracy to keep them apart. Penelope begs for mercy. Elizabeth prays Essex will return the ring she gave him, in effect forsaking his thirst for power in exchanged for a renewal of their love. This, however, he stubbornly refuses to do. On the day of execution, Elizabeth frantically summons Essex to her private chamber, hoping against hope he will sacrifice his own ambitions to spare his own life. Instead, Essex reasserts he cannot cleanse his desire to simultaneously possess both the woman and the throne. As such - alive he will always remain a danger to her. Although she screams after him a complete surrender of her powers as monarch to spare his life, Essex nobly marches to the executioner’s block where he is beheaded as Elizabeth remains desolate and tormented in all her regal isolation.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is a sumptuous entertainment.  No expense has been spared on the elephantine production.  Photographed in the lushness of 3-strip Technicolor, Orry-Kelly’s eye-popping Elizabethan costumes offer a spellbinding array of period recreations. Jack Warner had faith in Errol Flynn even if his costar had none; faith well-placed indeed. For in viewing the movie today one is acutely aware that although it is so clearly a vehicle for Bette Davis, Errol Flynn manages the minor coup of remaining a steadfast and integral part of our story – his understated Robert Devereux as purposeful and profound as Davis’ histrionic and queenly mannerisms.  To accommodate Flynn’s ever-rising stature as the studio’s numero uno he-man, Jack Warner briefly toyed with changing the title to ‘The Knight and the Lady’.  Davis’ authority quashed this compromise, although she eventually acquiesced to the revamped title: 'The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex' barely able to fit on most movie marquees. When the film had its premiere it was successful, but not overwhelmingly so. In fact, Dark Victory made on a much smaller budget easily out-grossed The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. As such, Jack Warner would take only one more gamble on a lavishly appointed entertainment starring Davis, 1940’s All This And Heaven Too, before encouraging a roster of finely crafted, though undeniably modestly budgeted melodramas for his biggest female star to appear in. By mid-decade, Jack Warner was in search of ways to keep Davis in line; his penultimate solution, hiring Joan Crawford for 1945’s Mildred Pierce which Davis had initially turned down. It must have stuck in Davis’ craw when Crawford – whom she had always regarded with a modicum of contempt - won an Oscar for it too.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex has received an abysmal transfer from Warner Home Video; one plagued by so much mis-registration of its original 3-strip Technicolor that at least half the movie is unwatchable; horribly marred by excessive shrinkage of its red record; the result, ringing halos around just about everything. At times the image is so blurry one cannot even make out faces. When the image snaps back into alignment we are treated to razor-sharpness that illustrates the obvious assets of the movie’s production design. Contrast is bang on, but age-related artifacts are everywhere and occasionally distract. It’s distressing to see such a fine film get such short shrift on home video. I love this movie, but even I had to muddle through this unrelentingly subpar home video presentation. There’s really no point releasing 3-strip Technicolor movies to DVD if such basic – but necessary – corrections are not to be made. The audio suffers too – Erich Korngold score rather strident in spots, particularly the main title. Warner has produced a junket on the making of the movie, including brief outtakes of sequences exhibiting far better refinement in color fidelity than anything seen in the actual movie – what a shame! We also get two vintage short subjects. I want to heavily petition the Warner Archive to get their mitts on this classy and classic melodrama. It deserves a hi-def digital restoration and Blu-ray release. Please, George Feltenstein…pretty please! Bottom line: not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, May 29, 2015

SWEET CHARITY (Universal International 1969) Universal Home Video

The sixties road show musical extravaganza reached its point of no return in 1969; hardly a banner year for the big, bloated Broadway-to-Hollywood hybrid of which Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity (1969) endures as the greatest of all albatrosses, unlikely destined for any sort of artistic reprieve.  Sweet Charity had begun life as Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957), before morphing into the Broadway play, directed and choreographed by Fosse, and finally, the movie – marking his big screen directorial debut. Alas, in transferring Fellini’s oeuvre from stage to screen all of its gusty, gaudy/bawdy electricity Fosse had poured into his stagecraft seemed to inexplicably evaporate.  Determined at considerable expense to duplicate the ‘show’s’ razzamatazz on a big Panavision screen, Fosse instead managed to violate the memory of his original; also, Fellini’s source material on which it was based, creating a glitzy glam-bam – all bounce and no substance - that suffered from too much of too little.
On stage, Sweet Charity slinked along on a vapor of almost cat-like prowess and delectable raunch; Fosse’s now trademarked choreography introducing an entirely new and much more adult flavor and showcasing some of his best footwork and stage illusions. With the eccentric Gwen Verdon as his star (and behind the scenes collaborator and lover), it mattered not the plot of a taxi dancer aspiring to greener pastures, though sadly – and chronically – winding up more than a bit short on ‘happily ever afters’, was threadbare at best. Fosse’s artistry had elevated this needle prick of a scenario into an erotically lush and evocative homage about those ‘ten cents a dance’ gals and the seedy little buggers who employ them. There were still sparks of brilliance to be had in the movie if one could patiently sit through the interminably long stretches of tedium bookending them. Although there was nothing to touch the stunningly imaginative ‘The Rich Man’s Frug’, as example, the movie seemed to settle into a horrible mishmash and mangling of stylistic elements. These utterly failed to come together in as much as pile up like a train wreck, Fosse throwing everything in his bag of tricks at the camera, leaving one stultified and drowning in gaudy excess.
Shirley MacLaine assumed the role of the romantically hamstrung, Charity Hope Valentine – so clueless in love she easily falls for small-time hood, Charlie (Dante D’Paulo) who shortly thereafter pushes her off a bridge in Central Park merely to steal her purse. MacLaine must have seemed a natural for the part; having already played joyful prostitutes in Cole Porter’s Can-Can (1960) and Billy Wilder’s Erma La Douce (1963). The problem was not in MacLaine’s believability to play the ebullient tart; rather, that she was not Gwen Verdon, and therefore considered the lesser in Verdon’s shadow; particularly by the New York critics who fondly lingered on the memory of Miss Verdon’s leggy kicks and larger-than-life cavorting on the stage. Try as she might, MacLaine could not eclipse Verdon’s reputation; nor, it seems, was she able to inspire Fosse to do anything more than merely experiment with new ways to diminish the formidable skill sets she brought to the table; Fosse’s staging of his own numbers different, arguably cinematic, yet, not nearly as inventive as his stagecraft.
The tragedy that befell Sweet Charity is it might have fared better without Fosse, or at least without Fosse’s ego challenging itself to outdo his own creativity on a project already firmly declared a masterpiece by the critics and even more permanently preserved as perfection itself in the hearts and minds of theater goers. Reviewing the film today, one is immediately drawn to the dynamism in its musical sequences. The stagecraft’s visuals had been impressionistic; Verdon, as example, resurrecting a marching band in her own head with shadowy figures dancing across a painted backdrop for ‘I’m A Brass Band’. Nailing down these lyrics to a more concrete visual interpretation in the movie ultimately deprives them of their intangibly imaginative quality. There’s no point to suggesting Charity’s blind-sided joy as she floats on a cloud of love; Fosse instead showing us MacLaine in full parade grand marshal regalia, accompanied by a thirty piece marching band; Fosse inexplicably using the moment to take us on a jaunty Cook’s tour of lower Manhattan. His introduction to our heroine is even more benign, utilizing freeze frames, slow motion and colored filters to express Charity’s various moods as she bounces in and out of foot traffic, peers into shop windows and deliriously spins about the reservoir en route to her Central Park rendezvous with Charlie.    
Sweet Charity ought to have worked, chiefly because Fosse had his way with the casting; hand-picking Paula Kelly and Chita Rivera as MacLaine’s taxi-dancing cohorts, and choosing Sammy Davis Jr. for the plum cameo, as psychedelic hippie cult leader, Big Daddy. Fosse also accepted Latin Lothario, Ricardo Montalban as his Vittorio; briefly Charity’s love interest until his main squeeze, Ursula (Barbara Bouchet) comes slinking back into his life. Interestingly, Peter Stone’s screenplay stuck very close to Neil Simon’s original, right down to his placement of the intermission break. Alas, at the last possible moment, Universal balked and requested Fosse re-shoot an alternative ending in which Charity and her latest lover, Oscar (John McMartin) are reunited. Ultimately, the studio agreed with Fosse; that the original – ‘hopeful’ ending – made more sense; though only after both versions had been shot and screened. At a staggering cost of $20 million, Sweet Charity’s epic implosion (it made back barely $8 million) speaks not only to the changing times and tastes (audiences having all but forsaken musicals) but also to the ineffectiveness of the art Fosse had wrought. It is a lousy picture, despite Fosse’s best intensions, and because of his meddling to improve upon his own greatness. The movie’s thud threatened to ruin Universal. Certainly, it ended Fosse’s aspirations to become a director of some stature in film musicals, although he would redeem himself with Cabaret (1972) and his semi-autobiographical, All That Jazz (1979). 
Arguably, Sweet Charity – the movie – neither required the girth of 70mm 6-track stereo Panavision, nor 2 ½ hours to tell its simply flawed love story. What had worked on the stage could not benefit the screen adaptation, forcing Fosse to rethink his artistry while remaining too close to his own work to re-conceptualize it effectively. Try as he might – and did – to will a spark of cohesive brilliance into the production, the narrative instead became a series of episodic vignettes with Shirley MacLaine’s diminutive trollop our master of ceremonies. After a lengthy overture, Sweet Charity opens with Charity Hope Valentine jubilantly perusing New York shop windows under the main credits; Fosse periodically freeze-framing the action, presumably, to punctuate her happiness – also, to allow audiences the opportunity to read the titles. She arrives at the footbridge a blushing/gushing woman in love, declaring to boyfriend, Charlie that today the whole of New York is ‘My Personal Property’. He placates her for as long as he can, before seizing Charity’s purse and tossing her into the lake.
Returning to her place of employment, a seedy dance hall run by the lovably frazzled, Herman (Stubby Kaye), Charity settles into the world-weariness of her two coworkers, Nickie (Chita Rivera) and Helene (Paula Kelly), each having seen the promise of true love die too many times; now, jaded and wary of even attempting the plunge, much less taking it. The trio take turns declaring ‘There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This’, sharing their daydreams and aspirations for a better life somewhere far removed from their present set of circumstances. Alas, duty calls, and the girls retreat to their places inside the dance hall, encouraging their latest clientele to put their money where their mouth is; coolly cooing, hey, ‘Big Spender’.  Determined to find love before it’s too late, Charity stumbles into director and womanizer extraordinaire, Vittorio Vidal (Ricardo Montalban). He is on the rebound from a temporary breakup with Ursula, taking Charity to one of Manhattan’s chicest nightclubs where she marvels at the heavily mascaraed and decidedly effete jet set, performing ‘The Rich Man’s Frug’; undeniably, the most vigorously overproduced production number in the movie; full of Fosse’s matchless choreographic gestures, impeccably performed by dancer, Suzanne Charny and an entourage of stiffly postured live mannequins. If only the rest of the film had lived up to this sensational moment, Sweet Charity would likely have been cemented for posterity as an innovative cinema classic.
Afterward, Vittorio takes Charity to his penthouse apartment for casual sex. Ducking into his boudoir to change out of his ruffled shirt and tuxedo, Charity is left to her own accord in lavish surroundings, declaring, her friends would never believe her, ‘If They Could See Me Now’. Fosse’s attempts to transform this introspective moment into a full-blown solo for MacLaine fall flat; chiefly because what worked on the stage (dramatic lighting effects to isolate the star and punctuate her direct address to the audience) is never as affecting on the screen. Afterward, Vittorio launches into a grand seduction; the moment interrupted when Ursula arrives for reconciliation. Instead of throwing her out, Vittorio tosses Charity into his closet while he and his paramour are reunited. Hours pass. But only after Vittorio and Ursula have consummated their love once more does he quietly let Charity out; quickly and quietly escorting her to the door with very shallow encouragement she will find someone new.
This blow to her conceit does not last for very long, as Charity next encounters on her way to apply for a secretarial job. Oscar panics after the lights go out, comforted by Charity, who takes pity on him, gradually coaxing Oscar out of his sweaty-palmed claustrophobia. In gratitude for the compassion she has shown Oscar pursues a romantic relationship with Charity that is doomed to failure as it is predicated on nothing more than remuneration for her kindness. The two become engaged and Charity takes Oscar to meet her guru, Big Daddy, a self-professed spiritual who operates The Rhythm of Life ‘church’ from an underground parking garage. Oscar is decidedly out of his element amongst Charity’s friends; a discovery made even more disturbingly apparent when he realizes what her profession is and who her real friends are. Meanwhile, Charity has come to the dance hall to announce her retirement from ‘the life’.
While picking out her trousseau, Charity’s naïve verve is stirred, enough for her to declare, ‘I’m a Brass Band’. Indeed, this time it really looks as though things will happen for her. Enthralled by the news, Herman elects to give the bride away with a gaudy engagement party at the dance hall; Charity’s friends and former clients gathering to celebrate, ‘I Love To Cry At Weddings’. But by now Oscar has unequivocally decided he cannot marry Charity. She isn’t the girl for him. His mother would never approve, despite the fact Charity has endeavored with every fiber in her being to remake herself as his demure ‘little woman’. Heart sore and distraught, Charity heads for Central Park, even contemplating suicide as she commiserates, ‘Where Am I Going?’ Embraced by a gaggle of flower children, who offer her sincerity and a message of hope and love, Charity elects to begin her life anew. She will not go back to taxi dancing. Will things be better for her this time around? Fosse seems to suggest as much, a title card reading, ‘…and she lived ‘hopefully’ ever after.’  
At intervals, Sweet Charity is very much imbued with flashes of Fosse’s inspired brilliance. In fact, Fosse gives us everything he has to offer – and yet, strangely, it comes across as never enough, or perhaps merely an exercise of a genius trying much too hard to impress. Whatever the reason, the movie is hardly perfect and this is its shame. While some musicals from the sixties have decidedly matured with age, Sweet Charity increasingly seems more a sterile relic from its own time. Fosse stumbles about his milieu as though discovering it for the very first time from a novice’s perspective. Occasionally, he reveals an absolute virtuosity of his craft. Sadly, there are all too few such moments in the picture to hold an audience captive. In the final analysis, Sweet Charity is heavy-handed, tiresome an overall deflating; at times, a highly frustrating experience to wade through.
Universal’s DVD is quite magnificent with handsomely refined colors. Contrast is near perfect. Blacks are deep, velvety and solid. Whites are pristine. The image is razor sharp and always appealing with a modicum of accurately represented grain to boot.  Minute age-related artifacts are present but sporadic and never distracting. Honestly, if only more movies could look this good on home video there would be very little to write and/or complain about. Arguably, the original film elements are in exceptionally fine condition, having been expertly archived and only occasionally brought out for a reissue in the intervening decades. But we really should tip our hats to Universal for doing right by this deep catalog title – even if the movie is less impressive than their efforts in bringing it to standard disc. Universal has also remastered the 6-track stereo in 4.0 Dolby Digital surround. Sweet Charity is remarkably aggressive during the musical sequences, but slightly strident sounding in its dialogue, completely lacking bass tonality. Perhaps owing to the movie’s limited following and appeal, Universal has added nothing by way of extras to augment this presentation. We’ll forgive them – just this once.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Thursday, May 28, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO (MGM 1936) Warner Home Video

MGM publicity of its day declared W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936) the picture Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald, teamed for the first – and only – time, were ‘born to fall in love’. I’ve often wondered about that; Gable’s rugged manliness pitted against the studio’s ensconced ‘iron butterfly’; MacDonald just a little too refined to give off smoldering sparks of sexuality to match or even triumph over her charismatic co-star. San Francisco is a resplendently superfluous bit of nonsense, masterfully sold as the epitome of chic good taste. Anita Loos’ screenplay moves like gangbusters through a fanciful yarn about a rough n’ tumble saloon keeper, Blackie Norton (Gable) falling madly for this regal chanteuse, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), who dreams of becoming a great opera star. He recognizes her class, but only insofar as it will lend an air of authenticity to his saloon, and, saves her from starvation, only to be repaid with a conflicted romance repeatedly stalled by Mary’s ambitions to rise above his station in life.
Above all else, San Francisco is a celebration of that lusty bygone mecca of pre-modern infamy where anything could be bought or sold; the hypothetical sin capital leveled to the ground by a devastating earthquake in 1906. Loos incorporates the quake as the divining moment in Blackie and Mary’s relationship; the feuding duo brought together by the realization each almost came to losing the other. Mary and Blackie’s reconciliation is smoothed over by a third cog in this spinning wheel; Spencer Tracy, as Catholic priest, Father Mullin. In years yet to follow, Tracy would be called upon again and again to play benevolent clergy, despising every moment of it.  But in San Francisco, he is a sublime deus ex machina for this bitterly star-crossed couple; so obviously right for one another if only she would let her tiara slip just a little and he could descend from his ego-driven soapbox, simply to admit man does not survive by bread alone.   
San Francisco is typical of the film fare Clark Gable’s career as the undisputed king of Hollywood was built upon, shot quick and dirty by director, W.S. Van Dyke, whose guerilla-style film-making – bringing his movies in on time and well under budget - was much in demand at MGM – particularly after the Thalberg era and L.B. Mayer was firmly in command. Thalberg believed it mattered not how much a picture cost to produce so long as every last penny showed up on the screen. Mayer preferred to keep tighter reins on his budgets. Ultimately, San Francisco emerges as a clash between these two mindsets, begun under Thalberg’s auspices before his untimely demise and begrudgingly afforded every luxury the studio had at its disposal by Mayer. Mayer could afford to be philanthropic where Gable was concerned. His numero uno male star had an unimpeachable track record for bringing in big box office.
Gable’s animal magnetism never fails to impress. He remains an extraordinary figure of golden age Hollywood, unique in the rawness of his physicality, the sheer breadth of his machismo, as well as his sadly underrated acting chops to carry off this uber He-man persona as par for the course of his genuine self. In reality, Mr. Gable was a more congenial and sociable lot; relatively shy and far more interested in chumming with the boys than playing the field with the ladies. While on screen he always managed to convey something of the untamable and unattainable young buck every woman swooned over, in private, Gable had married young to a much older woman who helped mold and shape his early career. On the sly, he sired a child with actress, Loretta Young and began a closeted affair with madcap comedian, Carole Lombard, who would eventually become the second Mrs. Gable during the shooting of Gone With The Wind (1939).
In retrospect, San Francisco does not seem at all the kind of picture Jeanette MacDonald would have preferred to add to her list of achievements.  MacDonald, so nicknamed ‘the iron butterfly’ because of her impenetrable resolve to do things ‘her way’ and almost as readily coming to temperamental conflicts with boss, L.B. Mayer, had reigned supreme in Mayer’s mid-decade resurrection of the musical operetta; having already come from a tenure as Paramount’s exotic bird of paradise, cast mostly for director, Ernest Lubtisch’s saucy European-themed musical adventures. Metro had attempted to maintain this inspired illusion of European sophistication, casting MacDonald opposite Maurice Chevalier in The Merry Widow (1933). But by mid-decade, Mayer had tapped MacDonald’s potential as half of a formidable operatic team; the other half belonging to the studio’s resident male tenor, Nelson Eddy (unflatteringly nicknamed, ‘the singing capon’ because he generally lacked sex appeal). Indeed, without MacDonald, Eddy is often a queerly emasculated figure on the screen. Yet, with her, he acquires an unusual and highly appealing sense of place – if not in the same league as Gable – then certainly capable of holding his own, particularly in their melodic duets. 
The bulwark between Gable’s earthy magnetism and MacDonald’s ‘to the manor born’ gentility is Spencer Tracy’s Father Mullin. In life, Tracy’s demeanor could hardly be considered saintly; a conflicted, often self-pitying and tortured artist, who drank to excess, eventually choosing an enduring affair with Katherine Hepburn over fidelity to his wife (whom he never divorced, being a ‘devout’ Catholic); at least on screen, Tracy is the soul of rectitude. I suppose this is why they call it acting. And Tracy, for all his humanly flaws, remains another of the finest actors ever to appear in American movies. His initial screen test had not ingratiated him to Mayer who promptly told Thalberg, “We don’t need another galoot. We already got Wallace Beery!” Indeed, Tracy’s foray into movies illustrates the awkwardness Mayer initially had in discovering the actor’s niche. But Tracy’s placement in the cinema firmament is unique in that he lacks the physical appeal as a leading man and yet still managed to become one, almost by default, owing to his on-screen chemistry with Hepburn in a series of popular ‘man vs. woman’ dramadies produced between 1940-1960. In between these lighter moments, Tracy also proved he could handle intense drama and stand alone as ‘the star’ of almost any genre. In San Francisco, Tracy is a figure of quiet fortitude and compassion – a buffer for the romantic sparing between the immovable Blackie and self-sacrificing Mary. She eventually forsakes her aspirations for high culture to perform the gregarious title song at Blackie’s saloon; bringing down the house – literally – with a little help from Mother Nature.  
Plot wise: San Francisco opens on New Year’s Eve, circa 1906. Loos’ screenplay concerns starving operatic singer, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) who auditions for scamp nightclub owner, Blackie Norton (Gable). Although Blackie embarrasses Mary by asking to see her legs, he quietly softens when she acquiesces to this request out of sheer desperation to land the job. Blackie hires Mary after she passes out at his feet…literally, from hunger. However, when socialites, Jack Burley (Jack Holt) and Maestro Baldini (William Ricciardi) hear Mary sing, they offer her a contract at the local opera house. Alas, Mary is bitterly forced to decline. Her contract with Blackie stipulates an exclusive two year run. Burley offers to buy up the contract. Blackie can name his price. But Blackie desires to turn Mary into a ‘dolly’ – chiefly against her will, and moreover, because he is in love with her. Mary goes along with Blackie’s ideas because she has already fallen for him. But Father Mullin recognizes a brewing toxicity in their relationship. He suggests Blackie loosen the yoke on their professional arrangement so Mary can pursue her dreams of becoming an opera star. At first, Blackie resists. But when the strain of their relationship overwhelms Mary, Blackie allows her a brief respite from his ironclad contract. 
Mary sings at Father Mullin’s mission church and later, under Burley’s guidance, she makes her operatic debut. In the balconies, Blackie quietly observes as Mary becomes an overnight sensation with the hoi poloi before his very eyes. Two things now become immediately apparent to Blackie: first, Mary has left his tutelage behind. She has outgrown him and can manage a career better than anything he could offer her. Second: Mary must make a decision where her future will reside – as Blackie’s romantic life partner, abiding by his rules, and held by rights under a slavish contract exclusively made to his saloon, or with Jack Burley – a man she does not love, but is willing to pursue in order to advance her legitimate career. When Blackie reminds Mary he has not terminated her contract, merely suspended its terms temporarily, she storms off. A short while later Mary elects to return to Blackie’s saloon. After all, had he not ‘discovered’ her, there would have been no Jack Burley – not even the chance to rise above her station and succeed as she has since. Blackie is proud and boastful. He wants no part of her charity. But Mary takes to the stage in a bawdy showgirl’s costume to belt out ‘San Francisco’ Bronislau Kaper, Walter Jurmann and Gus Kahn’s rambunctious anthem to the city. The packed audience, including Burley, is stirred to hysteria over Mary’s rousing rendition. But only seconds later, the earth beneath the city begins to tremble uncontrollably.
In the resultant chaos, the patrons panic and are trampled underfoot as an epic earthquake strikes, literally ripping apart the city and leveling its buildings to rubble. Douglas Shearer actually won an Oscar for Best Sound Editing, largely for this sequence; the deep bass rumble and writhing of the quake rumored to have terrified some theater patrons when the picture premiered in San Francisco. But it is James Basevi, Russell A. Cully and A. Arnold Gillespie’s special effects that remain a wonderment to behold; holding up even under today’s scrutiny; an ingenious amalgam of miniatures, full size sets, models and rear projection; Oliver T. Marsh’s gorgeous B&W cinematography and Tom Held’s superb editing all conspiring to produce six minutes of exhilarating disaster.
Immediately following the cataclysm, surviving citizens begin their rescue and recovery efforts. To prevent the collapse of more buildings and stop a three-alarm blaze from consuming the rest of the city, the fire department is ordered to dynamite all existing structures whose foundations have been irrevocably damaged. This includes the Knob Hill fortress of Mrs. Burley, who watches helplessly as the family home her own father built and in which she gave birth to Jack is leveled to the ground. Blackie finds Jack Burley’s remains buried beneath a pile of brick, still clutching a feather from Mary’s gown. Mercifully, Mary is not among the dead. Blackie begs Father Mullin to help him search for Mary. But only after Mullin realizes the disaster has finally humbled Blackie before God does he lead him to the outskirts of the city where Mary is administering to the wounded and dying. Blackie gets on his knees and gives thanks for Mary’s survival, vowing to be a different man. Witnessing Blackie’s conversion, Mary comes to his side; a reprise of the song, San Francisco yielding to a dissolve from its fire-ridden decay to the contemporary metropolis it had become by 1936.
The last act of San Francisco is a fairly religious experience. As in the days when America’s film industry was collectively managed by self-professed pious individuals, showmen and moguls who fervently believed in God, country and the ten commandments…even the ones they never obeyed, the finale to San Francisco relinquishes its zest for crass commercialism to the nation’s Judeo-Christian allegiances promised to a higher authority. Partly to mask the dominantly Jewish-held control of the entertainment industry, though chiefly to appease and prevent government intervention via censorship into their cloistered kingdoms, the moguls helped to create a vision of America indivisibly married to Roman Catholicism, embodied in the movie, San Francisco, by Spencer Tracy’s benevolent patriarch of the church. The film’s first and second acts are structured around the moral depravities of a city drowning in its own hedonism (highly sanitized and glamorized under Cedric Gibbons’ superb art direction).
The reformation that occurs in Blackie after the quake is indicative of the change in San Francisco itself; from Sodom and Gomorrah-esque den of iniquities to the thriving cosmopolitan center, presumably dedicated to more altruistic human pursuits.  Viewed today, San Francisco ranks among MGM’s finest efforts from the 1930’s and one of Clark Gable’s biggest hits to boot. Alas, Gable and Jeanette MacDonald would never again appear together in a picture; chiefly due to MacDonald’s discontent while shooting the picture. Perhaps wisely, she realized the movie really did not belong to her. It remains a Gable picture, as any picture starring Gable (save Gone With The Wind) has remained so. There is just too much he-man on the screen to suggest anyone else could carry their share of the load. And while Gable’s ascension to the throne in popular entertainment would continue throughout the early 1940’s, until Lombard’s death and Gable’s enlistment in the war deprived him of that devilish ‘little boy’ quality he so infectiously possessed as a grown man, MacDonald’s tenure as Metro’s grand diva would rapidly fizzle after 1939. She made only a few films in the early 40’s; retiring from the picture business to pursue aspirations on the stage and a lucrative recording and radio career.                 
Warner Home Video’s DVD is quite stunning. Most of the B&W image exhibits a refined gray scale with a very smooth visual characteristic that is quite satisfying. Age-related artifacts are present to varying degrees throughout this transfer, appearing a tad heavier during the earthquake sequence. Contrast is solid, although there is some fading around the edges of the early reels and weaker than anticipated black levels. There’s also some very minor built-in flicker to contend with and the occasionally water damage. I would implore the Warner Archive to get their mitts on this catalog classic; definitely worthy of a Blu-ray release. We’ll wait and hope for better things.  But what is remarkable about this DVD is how aggressive the bass tonality is during the earthquake sequence. Even in mono, the sound field suddenly comes alive with a thunderous ovation of crumbling brick, metal and glass; summoning nature’s wrath quite convincingly. 

*Please note: there are two competing versions of San Francisco currently available: the out of print (but widely available on Amazon) legitimately authored DVD and the Warner Archive reissue. The legitimately authored DVD contains an alternate ending, a few vintage featurettes and a rather clumsily produced 'documentary' on Gable's career. I believe the WAC edition has jettisoned all of these extras and is bare bones movie only. There are no extras. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



Fred Astaire entered the final phase of his career as dancer extraordinaire in the 1950’s after a self-imposed, semi-retirement in the late 1940’s and a change of venue – first, from RKO to Paramount, then to the venerable Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, purveyors of the grandest musical entertainments in cinema history. Alas, the results were unevenly spaced and of varying quality; Astaire endeavoring to impress his audience regardless of the material offered him and, more often than not, admirably succeeding. Early on in his career, an RKO talent scout had idiotically pegged Astaire as “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.”  Astaire’s estimation had fallen considerably since his debut on Broadway with sister, Adele. After Adele retired to start a family, Fred waffled as a solo before landing a minor role in MGM’s Dancing Lady (1933), costarring Joan Crawford. Mercifully, Astaire’s luck was about to change, teamed with Ginger Rogers for Flying Down to Rio (1933). As both movies were colossal hits, especially the latter, RKO elected to keep Astaire and Rogers together and busily churning out one lavish art deco escapist musical fantasy after the next.
But by the end of the 1930’s this cycle had run its course and the pair were dropped by the studio. While Ginger would go on to do other things, Astaire’s career seemed inextricably bound to the musical genre. Thankfully, there was still a considerable amount of steam to propel his solo career. Briefly, he was teamed with Bing Crosby, but mostly given an ever-revolving line of leading ladies, some of who could dance not a step. Ironically, Astaire ought never to have been inspired to embrace this third act in his film career. His first wife, Phyllis Potter, was ailing from the first stages of cancer that would eventually claim her in 1954. Historians have debated whether or not Astaire would have returned to the movies at all, if not for a lucky break – literally; Gene Kelly fracturing his ankle only weeks before Charles Walters’ Easter Parade (1948) was set to go before the cameras. Astaire’s return to pictures was a happy occasion. It also proved a springboard for his reemergence as ‘the grand ole man of the dance’; so lampooned in Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953).
Two years before this triumph, Astaire celebrated the occasion of England’s Princess Elizabeth’s marriage to Philip Mountbatten with Royal Wedding (1951), a film also marking Stanley Donen’s directorial debut and featuring, among its many other delights, two of Astaire’s most memorable solos; ‘Sunday Jumps’ (staged in a gymnasium; his partner, a weighted coat rack) and ‘You’re All The World To Me’ – an ingeniously conceived novelty; Astaire appearing weightless as he reels, glides and bounces with spellbinding precision from floor, to walls, to ceiling. This effect was achieved by building an entire room inside a gigantic drum, nailing down all the furniture inside it, including carpets and curtains, securing a camera man to a bolted rig and then rotating the entire enterprise 360 degrees over and over again; leaving Astaire to figure out intriguing ways of camouflaging the illusion with his dance routine. The uncanny effect of sheer weightlessness marked a turning point in Astaire’s tenure as a dancer.
Royal Wedding is really a second tier offering from MGM, occasionally elevated to top tier status by Astaire, along with co-star, Jane Powell (who have wonderful chemistry as brother/sister dance team, Tom and Ellen Bowen), the genius of Stanley Donen, and, a beautiful score by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner. The songs, particularly Powell’s solo ballads, ‘Too Late Now’ and ‘The Happiest Day of My Life’ (both amorously sung to love interest, Peter Lawford, cast as English Lord John Brindale) are of the old Metro magic ilk. Where the film falters ever so slightly is in its pas deux; Powell, not a trained dancer, but acquitting herself rather nicely of ‘Open Your Eyes’; the waltz duet with Astaire (taking place, presumably on a luxury liner, though actually, on a gimbal built to rock the set back and forth constructed on an MGM soundstage), their moment supreme deliberately ruined when the vessel encounters rough seas. Alas, none of the pair’s other routines are as eloquent or memorable.
Every Night At Seven’ casts Astaire as an aged Prince Charming, chasing after a scullery maid (Powell); narrowly averting a parade of royal guards. Thematically, at least, this puts the audience in the mood for the main plot. But the number is flawed, with frequent cutaways to the audience – something Astaire deplored. ‘I Left My Hat in Haiti’ finds Astaire and Powell in a stage-bound tropical island setting; colorful, but exceptionally frenetic and fragmented, Astaire affecting something of a loose-limbed samba, but mostly hopping about the painted scenery in search of his discarded fedora. Finally, there’s ‘How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life’. The song holds the rather dubious distinction of possessing the longest title ever registered with ASCAP; the Vaudevillian routine, a transparent stab to recapture or at least partially bottle the elusive magic of Astaire’s ‘Couple of Swells’ ragamuffin routine with Judy Garland from Easter Parade. Herein, the charm wears thin/the treacle rather heavy as Powell’s gun moll begs, cajoles; then, finally demands a good-for-nothing con artist (Astaire) take her back.
Yet, despite these drawbacks, Royal Wedding emerges as a fairly amiable little gem with a few unexpected surprises along the way; not the least, in the casting British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill’s daughter, Sarah as Astaire’s love interest, Anne Ashmond. Plum parts also go to Albert Sharpe (as Anne’s caustic and estranged father/barkeeper, James) and Keenan Wynn, playing both sides of the Atlantic as Tom and Ellen’s slang-talking American agent, Irving Klinger and his twin brother; cultured British booking agent, Edgar. Pip now! Royal Wedding doesn’t really strain the girth of any of these formidable talents. Nevertheless, it affords each the opportunity to charm us with familiar warmth most MGM musicals of this particular vintage possessed.
The Alan Jay Lerner screenplay opens in New York; the final performance of Tom and Ellen Bowen; the toast of Broadway for quite some time. As is something of a habit with Ellen, she has been courting two potential suitors at the same time (Francis Bethencourt and William Cabanne); neither of particularly amorous interest. Tom is hardly concerned, despite the fact Ellen frequently talks about giving up the stage to marry and live a quiet life (shades of Fred and Adele’s professional relationship at play). The couple boards a luxury liner for London where their new musical revue is set to begin rehearsals. Happily ensconced in a suite of rooms at the Ritz, Tom inadvertently sees Anne shopping. He pursues her with flirtatious intent, but is easily shot down before she realizes who he is. Alas, a short while later, Tom sneaks into the theater during rehearsals and quietly observes as Anne auditions for his show. At the most inopportune moment, he emerges from the shadows, startling Anne for a moment or two. She politely apologizes for her curtness earlier and elects to take Tom with her to James’ pub for a conciliatory drink to smooth things over, but also to collect money for her estranged mother, Linda (Kerry O’Day).
After some initial cynicism (James regarding all ‘Yanks’ with general contempt over an unpaid bar tab), Tom offers to smooth things over by settling this debt. James informs Anne that Tom is a much nicer ‘bloke’ than the American chap who left her high and dry after the war, but has repeatedly promised to send for her once he gets reestablished. Tom is bitterly disappointed to discover Anne is somewhat ‘engaged’ to this never-to-be-seen fellow. Still, he elects to pursue Anne in friendship, all the while more steadily becoming romantically attracted to her. In the meantime, Ellen has rekindled her friendship with Lord John Brindale, a man she met while still on board the luxury liner. John is quietly passionate about Ellen. She adores him. But something is holding her back; perhaps, knowing Tom would never approve of her forsaking their act – not even for true love. Tom and Ellen’s show opens and is a huge smash. However, as the royal wedding draws nearer, Tom begins to realize he has fallen deeply in love with Anne. He contacts Irving back in New York to do a little creative investigating about her long lost beau, discovering the man is, in fact, already married. Ellen and John quarrel and part company, though not for long. Eventually, Tom informs Ellen he cannot live without Anne and Ellen explains she feels the same way about John. Finding one another amidst the chaos of the royal nuptials, this reconciled foursome agrees to meet at Westminister Abbey at three o’clock after the reception; emerging from the chapel as men and wives; arms locked and stepping into the crowded streets.
Royal Wedding is a pleasant, innovative and effortless enough affair. Its standout musical moments are real showstoppers, somewhat diffused in their potency by the occasionally lackluster romantic machinations sandwiched in between. Sarah Churchill is an ill-fit as Astaire’s coryphée paramour, possessing little oomph and even less pizzazz as she cordially ingratiates herself to Astaire’s more laid back impresario. Jane Powell has better chemistry with co-star, Peter Lawford, whose one solo (a reprise of ‘Every Night At Seven’) was cut shortly before the first preview. Interestingly, both Powell and director, Stanley Donen were last minute replacements on the picture; Donen coming to the rescue when Charles Walters was assigned another project, and Powell replacing, first Judy Garland (who suffered a nervous breakdown and was eventually fired from the studio), then June Allyson (who became pregnant).
If Royal Wedding rarely strained Astaire’s talents, his next project, Charles Walter’s The Belle of New York (1952) proved a cakewalk of sorts; far too antiseptic a turn-of-the-century yarn and utterly lacking in that spark of essential creativity. The picture is based on a C.M.S. McLellan stage play, dating all the way back to 1940. Indeed, MGM had had plans to revive this stagecraft as a major motion picture as early as 1946. For one reason or another, the project never came about; the property repeatedly dusted off and re-launched. The tale of a randy playboy from New York’s upper crust masquerading as a downtrodden pauper in desperate need of deliverance from a Salvation Army worker favored shades of Damon Runyon’s Guys and Dolls. Alas, this is where all comparisons to that ‘other’ galvanic stage show end. The Belle of New York is a warhorse in the most traditional sense; its chief asset, the ebullient Harry Warren/Johnny Mercer score. Most of their songs are under-utilized in the Chester Erskine adaptation, scripted by Robert O'Brien and Irving Elinson. Too much whimsy and not nearly enough dancing to suit most critics’ tastes, The Belle of New York emerged as something of an oddity; particularly as it has Astaire and Vera-Ellen – two of the most accomplished dancers ever to grace the movie screen. Most of their choreography consisted of cloying moments and a rather rigid adherence to the time-honored dance steps circa the last century: Astaire and Ellen’s pas deux straightjacketed into subservience.
Worse, the film features several specialty numbers that turned out to be more gimmicky than graceful, beginning with ‘Seeing’s Believing’; Astaire’s notorious well-heeled pleasure seeker, Charlie Hill, floating into the stratosphere after meeting tambourine-toting social worker, Angela Bonfils (Vera-Ellen) for the first time. Astaire warbles this memorable tune with lyrical grace. But his subsequent dance is hampered by some rear projection and rotoscoping of the obvious trampolines used to suggest his ability to bounce and flutter like a bird about the nighttime skyline. The other unforgiveable mishap is A Bride’s Wedding Day Song, in which Angela and Charlie’s engagement plans come to life via a series of painted backdrops by noted photographers, Currier and Ives; seasonal transitions from summer to fall, and, winter to spring. Again, the dancing is compliant to the staging of these vignettes; the principles and extras jumping around without any sort of solid choreography. Given the obvious expense of this lavishly appointed number, the results are abysmally subpar for an Astaire musical – but especially one also featuring Vera-Ellen; whose leggy assets are barely glimpsed in the ‘Naughty But Nice’ number (in hindsight, a sort of prelude to Cyd Charisse’s similar striptease in the musical remake of 1939’s Ninotchka; Silk Stockings 1957, also starring Astaire) as she strips out of her drab Salvation Army garb and pours her sultry hourglass figure into a stunning black sequined ball gown with canary yellow crinolines.
The Belle of New York opens with Charlie’s bachelor party; flanked by a bevy of chorines, all of whom have serious doubts the groom will make it to the altar with his latest conquest; Coney Island trick shooter, Dixie 'Deadshot' McCoy (Gale Robbins). Indeed, Charles is commitment shy, toying with women’s hearts without ever following through. When his aunt, socialite, Mrs. Phineas Hill (the irrepressible and hilarious, Marjorie Main) discovers his engagement, she threatens to toy with his ‘little ole head’. No worries there, as Dixie arrives, having been jilted at the altar, and demanding a cash settlement from Mrs. Hill to remain silent. The check written, Mrs. Hill warns Charles she will cut him off without a cent if he persists in being so frivolous. Instead, Charles almost immediately falls for Angela, unaware she works for the settlement house where Mrs. Hill is a major contributor. Angela is unimpressed with Charles obvious romantic overtures. Her roommate, and fellow Salvation Army worker, Elsie Wilkins (Alice Pearce), however, thinks Charles a splendid rake.
Eventually, Charles wears down Angela’s resolve; especially after she quietly observes him making the genuine effort to take on various menial jobs to prove his worth to her. When Mrs. Hill discovers their romance she is pleased as punch. Angela is not like the other girls Charles has known. She is level-headed, intelligent and very hard working; just the sort of influence to mold Charles’ character. Alas, immediately upon proposing, Charles suffers from the onset of cold feet. He stands Angela up at the altar, returning several hours later to his hotel suite to discover her, still in her wedding gown, patiently awaiting his return. Angela attempts to rekindle the passion they once felt. But Charles resists and Angela is humiliated. She returns to the Salvation Army and Charles, now without his inheritance, takes a job as a waiter and part-time tap dancer in a Bowery saloon. With Elsie’s help, Angela decides to play the part of a ‘fallen woman’; the pair dressing in all their gaudy finery and crashing the saloon to incur Charles’ jealousy. Their ruse works – too well, in fact; a drunk makes a crude pass at them. This raises Charles’ dander and a bar room brawl ensues. Escaping unharmed, Charles and Angela storm off together, quite unaware their heated argument is taking place miles off the ground. It’s no use. They are in love. Charles takes Angela in his arms and the two waltz off into the stratosphere; some trick photography transforming their apparel into a tuxedo and wedding dress before the final fade out.
The Belle of New York is not a terrible movie, and yet it remains a terrific disappointment. If only to judge Astaire’s career on the basis of this movie, one would sincerely have to question why he retains the moniker of ‘world’s greatest dancer’. There is very little of the ole Astaire style in The Belle of New York; the show’s spectacle predicated on gimmicks, trick photography and specialties without the benefit of some solid dances feathered in for good measure. Vera-Ellen is simply wasted; accompanying Astaire as the couple reel in and out of an empty horse-drawn trolley for the ‘Oops’ routine; bouncing up and down from seat to seat, but only occasionally given the opportunity to truly exercise their limbs with terpsichorean grace. There’s even less dancing in their ‘Baby Doll’ routine; a spirited chase about the settlement house’s prayer room. Astaire is given two solos, the aforementioned, ‘Seeing’s Believing’ and ‘I Wanna Be A Dancin’ Man’ – the latter, a soft shoe shuffle at the saloon, performed with impeccable smoothness, but never suggesting Astaire is doing anything more than simply going through the motions.  In the final analysis, the best that can be said of The Belle of New York is that it neither offends the ear nor the eye; lavishly appointed and looking every bit the A-list MGM class act without ever rising to the occasion of proving its own self-worth.   
Warner Home Video has done a middling job on releasing this 2-disc DVD set. While Royal Wedding appears to have undergone a considerable restoration and clean-up, The Belle of New York looks rather tired and worn around the edges. Colors pop on Royal Wedding, but appear somewhat dull and slightly muddy on ‘Belle’. Both transfers are virtually free of edge enhancement and other digital anomalies. But ‘Belle’ occasionally suffers from some residual softness and a light amount of age-related speckling, dirt and scratches.  Contrast levels on Royal Wedding are bang on; slightly weaker on The Belle of New York which also tends to lack even a hint of indigenous film grain. These complaints are marginal as both transfers are highly watchable and fairly pleasing. Neither will win any awards, however, and one sincerely hopes to see at least Royal Wedding receive a spiffy Blu-ray transfer one of these days – a rather obvious choice for a Warner Archive hi-def release.
The audio is mono on both transfers, as original recorded, and adequately sounding. Extras on Royal Wedding include an informative – if brief – featurette on the making of the film, the outtake reprise of ‘Every Night At Seven’ sung by Peter Lawford, and Private Screenings with Robert Osborne featuring a truncated interview with the film’s director, Stanley Donen. Extras are a tad scant on The Belle of New York – an alternative take of Astaire’s ‘I Wanna Be A Dancing Man (previously featured on That’s Entertainment III – same routine, Astaire wearing a slightly different costume), and the film’s theatrical trailer. This 2-disc set gets my recommendation for Royal Wedding. You can skip The Belle of New York.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Royal Wedding 4
The Belle of New York 2


Royal Wedding 4
The Belle of New York 3.5
Royal Wedding 4

The Belle of New York 2

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

ORDINARY PEOPLE (Paramount 1980) Paramount Home Video

Mary Tyler Moore was to alter the public’s perception of her squeaky clean and congenial persona, honed for seven years on one of TV’s most popular sitcoms (Mary Tyler Moore 1970-77), and even before, as the fresh-faced spouse on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) in Robert Redford’s motion picture directorial debut, Ordinary People (1980); playing the emotionally absent and psychologically frigid wife and mother of the Jarrett family. For its time, Ordinary People was an extraordinary achievement; Redford assembling a stellar cast and working from a superb screenplay by Alvin Sargent. Based on the novel by Judith Guest, Ordinary People unravels a complex family dynamic in an affluent Chicago family; mom, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), dad, Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and younger son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton) all grappling with the unexpected death of their eldest; the fair-haired all-American college bound stud, Buck (Scott Doebler), drowned in a boating accident. Beth’s reaction is to become emotionally estranged from her family. Calvin is concerned for Conrad, who favors his temperament and sensitivity and who attempted suicide on the first year anniversary of Buck’s untimely demise, blaming himself for being unable to save his brother after their boat capsized in a gale.
Moore’s performance is startling, particularly when viewed within the frame of reference of her television work. Herein, she is positively bone-chilling; a woman so wounded by the loss of her favorite son she alienates the rest of her family from the possibility of resuming a normal life in order to spare her own sanity its inevitable implosion. Redford plays up the queerly unsettling Oedipal relationship between Beth and Buck – also hinted at in Guest’s novel. In flashback, Buck is more the amiable surrogate love interest for Beth – rather than her son – she, living vicariously through his overt machismo as he talks about girlfriends and touch football; Beth sprawled on the front lawn and playfully laughing like a foolish school girl. Indeed, Buck was the ray of light in all their lives; adored by Calvin – even as he secretly worried about his risk-taking, and absolutely worshipped by Conrad, the awkward and less physically attractive sibling. Arguably, Beth resents Conrad’s complacency; his willingness – even contentment – to merely exist in the shadow of Buck’s overwhelming popularity at school and with the ladies.
For Conrad, it seems the adult world, once enamored with Buck and promises for the future, now bitterly resents the fact the presumed lesser of the two Jarrett brothers has survived the accident. With the exception of Buck’s best friend, Joe (Fredric Lehne), who remains fairly empathetic toward Conrad until a rift in their friendship causes him to turn his back, the rest of Buck’s entourage are fairly cruel in their inability to grasp the epic reeling of sadness and envy taking place in Conrad’s mind; his hostile antipathy at having survived, yet unable to make his own mother understand she isn’t the only one who lost the earth, moon and sun (son) when Buck died.
On the outskirts is Calvin; seemingly stable and kind, insisting Conrad see a brilliant psychologist, Dr. Tyrone C. Berger (Judd Hirsch), to help work through his residual guilt. Conrad resists at first, perhaps understandably, given the layman’s opinion of modern psychiatry then as a ‘head shrinker’s game’ for the looney tune class. What is more alarming herein is Beth’s general unwillingness to support her son’s recovering mental health. She would prefer to forget Conrad altogether, or at least his needs for an outsider’s help; chronically resisting Calvin’s encouragement of the sessions with Dr. Berger, and even more detrimentally pursuing a plan to distance herself and Calvin from Conrad when, arguably, he needs them most. Instead, Beth urges her husband to take a vacation without their son. Eventually, Calvin begins to quietly surmise he really does not have much of a marriage.
Perhaps he never did. Beth’s entire existence was wrapped up in Buck; taking the place – at least in Beth’s mind – as the man around the house. Indeed, Buck’s outgoing nature seems to have favored the sort of woman Beth was before tragedy struck; a rather heartless creature around which the whole world revolved. It is therefore a blow to Beth’s conceit, particularly after Buck’s death, she suddenly realizes this balance of power has shifted beneath her feet. It is Conrad now who desperately needs love and support, commodities Beth managed for Buck, yet cannot bring herself to bear without a faint sickness and mild disgust for Conrad’s comparative weakness. A mother’s love denied is perhaps one of the meanest misfortunes inflicted upon a child; more so as a teenager, haunted by the inevitable insecurities of adolescence, herein compounded by heartbreak.
Ordinary People hails from an epoch in American film-making, fueled by low budget/character-driven drama. I would have those times again – Redford’s movie sustained not by the pomp and flash of handheld jittery camera movements or the more contemporary affliction for Ginsu-styled editing. When Redford cuts a scene or inserts a close-up it means something; punctuating the dramatic arc of a scene. Better still, he allows his stars to give a performance, knowing damn well they can and encouraging their spontaneity with as few cuts as possible; John Bailey’s photography capturing an unsettling essence of something remiss in this otherwise well-heeled neighborhood, laid out in resplendent autumn colors and the warm afterglow of late day sun sifted through dense foliage. It’s an interesting disconnect; this outward, seemingly innocuous ‘all is right’ appearance of suburbia contrasted with this powder keg of deeply felt, darker scars enveloping the Jarrett family.
Undeniably, the movie’s most engaging moments are fraught with bitter skirmishes; either between Beth and Conrad, or, better still, between Conrad and Dr. Berger, whose clinical sessions crackle with a spark of brilliance – not only in performance but also in the writing and understated visual execution. At one point, Conrad begrudgingly suggests, “Isn’t it your job to make me feel better?” to which Berger nonchalantly replies, “Not necessarily” and Conrad lashes out with “Well, then screw you!” Their tension is brilliantly diffused by Conrad’s sudden realization of his own absurdity. Whatever healing will come of their time spent together, it must happen from within; Berger, mercifully the diviner of Conrad’s coping with tumultuous flashbacks.  In point of fact, Berger is Conrad’s only lifeline. The rest of Conrad’s social interactions are untethered from a sense of belonging. Calvin is sympathetic, but unable to reach his son. Beth is a lost cause. And Buck’s friends would prefer to move on with their lives and pretend his death never happened, going about their daily lives as though he never existed at all.
Part of Conrad’s problem is, of course, he is desperately trying to fill the vacuum brought about by Buck’s passing; even trying out for Buck’s swim team, though he has no zest for it, and rather doggedly pursued by an arrogant coach (M. Emmet Walsh), who openly admits to Conrad he lacks his brother’s physical agility to be great; hitherto making the most inappropriate inquiries about the electro-shock therapy Conrad endured at the hospital after his failed suicide attempt. At Berger’s behest, Conrad makes awkward inroads into a relationship with Jeannine Pratt (Elizabeth McGovern); a girl he secretly admires from choir practice. He also clings to a friendship with Karen Aldrich (Dinah Manoff), a fragile girl he met while the two were in hospital – she too having tried to take her own life.  This latter ‘relationship’ is, of course, fatally flawed. How can one drowning individual save another drowning individual? Karen is less resilient than she lets on, wishing Conrad great success and even offering words of encouragement, all the while, her own life spiraling out of control. Perhaps Conrad’s love for Jeannine will eventually win out – although, the movie is highly circumspect about suggesting as much: no romance, as it were, though quite possibly a lasting bond of friendship.
Meanwhile, on the home front, Calvin is beginning to realize the woman he married is changed. Or is it that Buck’s loss has merely managed to expose Beth’s failings as a human being? Beth’s cruelty toward Conrad, denying him her love or at the very least kindness, understanding and allegiance when he desperately craves it, leads to an increasing rift in Calvin and Beth’s marriage. She cannot understand Calvin’s reticence to take a holiday, leaving Conrad in Dr. Berger’s care and under the watchful eye of her parents. However, Calvin is amazed Beth would even suggest a vacation at a time when their son is so vulnerable to a relapse. Begrudgingly, Calvin acquiesces to his wife’s demands. Perhaps, he reasons, the separation would do them all a modicum of good. As the Christmas holidays approach Beth suffers a crisis of conscience pivoting on a poignantly understated moment played in the garage of the Jarrett family home. Desperate to wrap his own mind around his son’s emotional breakdown, Calvin attends Dr. Berger and shares some of his own reminiscences about Buck. These are never exposed in the film, director Redford instead cutting to Calvin’s arrival home after his session, physically and emotionally drained and haunted by a reoccurring memory of Beth urging him to change his dress shirt and shoes on the day of Buck’s funeral. In sharing this recollection with his wife, Calvin also illustrates each of their mindsets; his, wildly reeling and unable to get through the day without an uncomfortable numbness overtaking; Beth investing herself in how it will all look to her friends and family presentation..
At first, Beth resists Calvin telling her about his memory. Increasingly, she will live to regret her behavior; gnawing away until she can barely function without an unbearable despondency. Later, Beth resents both her husband and son for bringing these buried feelings to the surface. But actually, these moments illustrate at least for the audience, if never for the character, Beth Jarrett does, indeed, possess a heart. She is as fragile as the men in her life; an ironic vulnerability exposed only after Beth has convinced Calvin to run off to Houston to visit her brother, Ward (Quinn Redeker) and his wife, Audrey (Mariclare Costello) without Conrad. Relaxing on the golf course, Calvin receives promising news from Conrad about a breakthrough with Dr. Berger, following news of Karen’s second and, regrettably successful, suicide attempt. Yet, even in sharing this with Beth she seems unwilling to be supportive, leading to a bitter confrontation at the country club; Ward, endeavoring to diffuse the situation by insisting all anyone expects of Beth is for their family to be happy once again. In reply, Beth finally lets down her hair and it is a terrifying experience to behold, as she admits, “Ward…you tell me the definition of happy. But first you better make sure your kids are good and safe; that no one’s fallen off a horse or been hit by a car or drowned in that swimming pool you’re so proud of; and then you come to me and tell me how to be happy!”     
Returning home, Calvin tells Beth she is ‘determined’ – an unflattering quality often mistaken for strength of character. Alas, she lacks the one essential – a woman’s heart – to be giving. “We would have been alright if there hadn’t been a mess,” Calvin insists, “You need everything neat and easy. When Buck died you buried all your love with him and I don’t understand that. Whatever it was…I don’t know what we’ve been playing at. So, I was crying. Because I don’t know if I love you anymore…and I don’t know what I’m going to do without that.” Unable to defend her reactions any longer, and perhaps not even feeling the need to justify them, Beth quietly retreats upstairs and packs. Their marriage is over. Awakening to the steely gray of dawn, Conrad discovers Calvin despondent on the back porch. Father and son share a heartfelt tête-à-tête and the natural order of at least their familial bond is re-cemented with great affection.
Ordinary People is an exceptional drama, expertly played and eloquently told by Redford, whose passion for the material is readily apparent. Moreover, Timothy Hutton’s pivotal turn as the shell-shocked youth, brought around to accepting his brother’s death, despite seemingly insurmountable, crippling self-doubt and pity, is a towering achievement; full of adolescent angst and wounded humility. In a performance that won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, Hutton manages to convey a genuine sense of loss well beyond tear-stained episodes and periodic emotional outbursts. Somehow, he has reached into a very dark pool of torment; dredging up nightmarish grand tragedy without ever going over the top or issuing a false note.  Ah well, I suppose that’s why they call it ‘acting’.  In his Oscar-nominated performance, Judd Hirsch excels as the crudely empathetic doctor, determined to shake his patient loose from his shame with equal portions of kindness and tough love. Ordinary People is a movie that ought to have endured a more lasting reputation than it currently holds; particularly in light of the fact it won the Best Picture Oscar in 1981. Awards are a fairly meaningless barometer of cinema excellence or enduring greatness. Yet, at the very least, they usually serve as a perennial cultural touchstone for renewed retrospectives and analyses. In Ordinary People’s case, its reputation has been allowed to quietly fade into relative obscurity.
Paramount, the film’s distributors, is perhaps partly to blame; releasing the movie only sporadically to home video. In the interim, Ordinary People has only occasionally resurfaced on TV, mostly as late night fodder and heavily censored of its more incendiary dialogue during Conrad’s potent sessions with Dr. Berger. Make no mistake: there is nothing ordinary about these people. The Alvin Sargent screenplay (with an uncredited assist by Nancy Dowd) is critical of these characters; exposing Calvin's inability to keep his family together, Beth's unrelenting determination to run away from her matriarchal responsibilities and find temporary, if dissatisfying distractions in superficial pursuits, even if these are damaging to the welfare of her family; Conrad's stubbornness to let go of the past and his outward resentment of his mother’s absence of affections. Director, Robert Redford allows all of these machinations to simmer, then stew, before effectively boiling over in the third act. Ordinary People is a finely orchestrated and fairly intense drama of familial strife. If the clothing, hairstyles and physical accoutrements in Phillip Bennett and J. Michael Riva’s art direction have dated (and, they have), thematically, the performances remain just as thought-provoking and perennially absorbing.   
Long ago, this Paramount catalog title ought to have found its way to hi-def. When Warner Home Video acquired its licensing agreement to distribute Paramount product, and particularly after WHV released Paramount’s other Oscar-winning familial dramedy from this period, Terms of Endearment (1983), I had harbored some hope for Ordinary People to receive the same consideration; a desire seemingly fallen on deaf ears. Paramount Home Video’s DVD is anamorphic widescreen but it’s fairly middle of the road and occasionally subpar; suffering from sporadic bouts of pixelization, edge enhancement and slight shimmering of fine details. At times, all of these digitally induced anomalies are distracting. Colors, on the whole, are slightly faded too. Fine details occasionally get lost in a softly focused and slightly grainy image that is, on the whole, unremarkable. The mono 1.0 audio seems slightly distorted. This is terribly bare bones effort from Paramount - one that ought to be rectified if Ordinary People ever comes to Blu-ray which it definitely should. Bottom line: recommended for content only.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)