Saturday, March 26, 2016

HOW THE WEST WAS WON: Blu-ray (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1962) Warner Home Video

As big as all creation and twice as inspiring in its original curved Cinerama presentation, at 164 minutes, How The West Was Won (1962) remains a fascinating anomaly; one of only two plot-driven films expressly designed to encompass the vast expanses of Cinerama’s cumbersome – and unintentionally obvious – three camera setup. At the time, it seemed only MGM, a studio that, in its heyday went for broke on nearly every new challenge, had the audacity to take one of the most speculative and unwieldy technologies and endeavor to tell no less an ambitious saga with it than the vast American migration westward-ho; hiring four high-profile directors (at least in their day) to helm a staggering array of 24 stars. Perhaps, only in hindsight does the endeavor creak a little too ominously like the rickety horse-drawn buggies and covered wagons crossing these great plains, directed at intervals in How The West Was Won by the legendary John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall and Richard Thorpe; all solid, stalwarts, alas, unaccustomed to the demands of this new medium. How The West Was Won is really two-parts, star-studded faux history to one-part picturesque travelogue; only the latter pursuit ideally suited to Cinerama’s strengths. 
In hindsight, it is the awkwardness of the process that remains at the forefront of this monumental and often breathtaking excursion – Cinerama’s inability to satisfy the audience’s need for an occasional close-up of its glittering roster of talent, the warping of vertical objects to the extreme left and right of center, and, the incalculable vastness of these wide-open spaces, dramatically put on display ‘measure for measure’ to satisfy the human periphery of natural sight, cause for a handful of less than dramatically satisfying moments. Mercifully, James R. Webb’s screenplay – based on his own series of LIFE magazine articles – interpolates the hysterical dramatics and multiple romantic threads intertwined throughout, with more than a fair share of exhilarating action sequences, for which Cinerama is chiefly adept; a superbly staged battle between George Peppard’s Zeb Rawlings and a gaggle of desperadoes aboard a runaway train, and better still, an earth – and ear-shattering buffalo stampede, lensed via a series of heart-pounding long shots, all show off the Cinerama process to its best advantage while keeping the sporadically stagnant plot moving in a forward direction.   
How The West Was Won is never a bad movie. On occasion, it aspires to become rather a good one. But on the whole it remains episodic and utterly devoted to extolling the virtues of Cinerama; the stars cleverly arranged in center frame, or artificially fitted across a static tableau as animated waxworks trapped inside a copy of an original by Frederick Remington; halcyon sunsets, Gatlin guns, ten gallons, and garters all appropriately glistening in the early morning dew or lightly battered in a dusky, if respectable layer of well-traveled dust. As How The West Was Won is a byproduct of Hollywood’s then expiring studio system, its’ visions about the ‘civilizing’ of the American west are highly sanitized and remarkably pristine. The good guys all sport a sort of unfettered Roy Rogers’ cleanliness, despite enduring wild animal and Indian attacks, a harrowing trek down some truly vicious white-water rapids, an assault by some lusty river pirates, and, the staggeringly bleak nomadic journey from outpost to outpost in search of their own piece of the manifest destiny.
The first half of How The West Was Won follows the ill-witted migration of the Prescott family; God-fearing Quaker, Zebulon (Karl Malden), his pert wife, Rebecca (Agnes Moorehead) and their three children; eldest, book-read daughter, Eve (Carol Baker), feisty, Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) and their youngest, nondescript son, Sam (Kim Charney). Along the road they befriend an unusually cultured fur trapper, Linus Rawlings (Jimmy Stewart – just a wee too long in the tooth to play the amiable love interest). Fate deals a brutal hand to the Prescott clan; Zeb and Rebecca lost after the family’s raft is hellishly destroyed in some wicked white water rapids. While Eve vows to plant her roots in this cold, but fertile land where her parents’ remains have only just been buried, later establishing a semi-prosperous homestead; Lilith strikes out on an ambitious trek across the wilderness to discover and test the depth, strength and merits of her own mettle. On this journey she befriends an aged spinster, Agetha Clegg (the irrepressible, but woefully underused Thelma Ritter) and garners more than passing interests from two men; Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck), a no-account riverboat dandy and notorious gambler; the other, wagon-train master, Roger Morgan (Robert Preston), who perhaps has Lilith’s better intentions at heart. It really doesn’t matter because Peck is the bigger star herein, and since the second act of this sprawling epic is already shaping up to belong to Debbie Reynolds, Peck’s card shark – newly reformed, no less – inevitably gets the girl.
It all might have turned out rather swell, except the producers of this grandiloquent odyssey cannot resist the urge to depart from these established characters, interceding with bits of unnecessary ‘history’ that is neither true to history itself, but has the audacity to pretend in its place, merely to offer a few more familiar faces their momentary glimpse in this passing parade. In Acts II and III, How The West Was Won begins to take on the vagrant flavoring of Michael Todd’s Around The World In Eighty Days (1956), though minus Todd’s showmanship to pull it off. Hence, Raymond Massey peaks his head into the camera for the obligatory non-verbal debut of Abraham Lincoln; John Wayne too, as the marginally better served Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman; the affairs of a burgeoning union in these United States intermittently narrated by an off-camera Spencer Tracy, who sounds more as though he has only just opened to Chapter One of any number of high school history text books rewritten with the pontificating prose of a James Hilton.  For added star cache, though given precious little to do, we also discover Henry Fonda astride a steed as Jethro Stuart, a careworn negotiator between the white man and the Cheyenne natives, and, Richard Widmark, doing his best to be the baddie as the caustic railroad overseer, Mike King. While the first half of How The West Was Won plays very much like an intimate familial drama headed somewhere, the picture’s second act stumbles through a very episodic patchwork of clumsily stitched together history, picking up mere remnants of the Prescott family saga with varying degrees of success.
It is, as example, more than a little disheartening to lose two of the pictures’ biggest stars, James Stewart and Gregory Peck in this second half – and off camera, no less. We learn from Eve, now appropriately aged and withered with time, how Linus went off to partake in the Civil War and fell in battle. Life on the ole homestead has been rough and lonely ever since. But only a few scenes later, Carol Baker’s Eve is given the same short shrift when, after a period of some months her eldest son, Zeb (George Peppard) returns from war, only to learn from his younger sibling, Jerimiah (Claude Johnson) their mother has since died, presumably, of a broken heart. The narrative shifts now to Zeb and his family, and the threat of annihilation from a lusty desperado, Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach). I suspect the genuine motivation in these latter-day episodes is to illustrate how the west really wasn’t ‘won’, but rather, belabored over through a varied and devastating series of generational heartaches and unforgivable losses that can wear any man down; smoothing off the rougher edges as sure as pebbles caught in a stream. Surviving a perilous confrontation with Gant, Zeb takes his wife, Julie (Carolyn Jones) and their two young sons, Zeke (Bryan Russell) and Prescott (Stanley Livingston), to meet their dowager Aunt Lilith, who has agreed to come live with them after Cleve’s death and the auctioning off of their San Franciscan estate and holdings. It seems, in the interim, Cleve managed to make Lilith a very rich woman.
Unable to resist showing off the advantages of Cinerama one last time, How The West Was Won concludes not with the dramatic pullback, as the carriage with Zeb, his family and Aunt Lilith drives off into Monument Valley toward an uncertain future - the family bound by the imperishable generational bond of genuine love - but a series of dramatic overhead shots depicting then modern-day California; the promises made in the ‘go west, young man’ mantra presumably fulfilled in this dizzying array of omnipotent flybys over the Los Angeles freeway, sailing over rooftops in a congested San Franciscan skyline, zipping past irrigated orange groves, or effortlessly looming over the precipice of the Hoover Dam. It all makes for a lovely travelogue, set to composer, Alfred Newman’s penetrating reprise of the Main Title, now, complete with choral accompaniment, and, recorded in Cinerama’s staggeringly life-like 7-track Westrex stereo; its’ aural fidelity – at least, to my mind – never topped in the movies, even by today’s Dolby DTS.    
If anything, How The West Was Won unintentionally illustrates the reasons why Cinerama never had much of a future as a viable widescreen process for telling narrative stories; its forte – the globe-trotting travelogue – doomed to a short shelf life; ditto for the specially built, ‘state-of-the-art’ theaters to accommodate its unique presentation requirements: the louvered and curved movie screens. How The West Was Won is a lot of fun to watch, but mostly as an anomaly and homage to this bygone format, rather than a compelling, plot-driven drama/actioner. The roster of talent assembled for this spectacle is uniformly solid, expertly cast and generally giving it their all. The best moments arguably belong to Debbie Reynolds and Carol Baker; the Prescott sisters, carrying most of the weight of the plot until late in the second act when each is inexplicably tossed aside to favor young Zeb and his burgeoning familial woes. The production values afforded art directors George W. Davis, William Ferrari, and, Addison Hehr are decidedly first-rate; cast and crew crossing the wide Missouri several times - and then some - as production migrated from California, to Arizona, Kentucky, South Dakota, Oregon, Colorado and Utah; all of it lensed in Technicolor resplendence, and, with miraculous continuity by cinematographers, William H. Daniels, Milton R. Krasner, Charles Lang, and, Joseph LaShelle.
World-renown newsman/adventurer, Lowell Thomas – who had not only served as MC on the very first Cinerama feature: This is Cinerama (1952) (the headily anticipated experimental foray into this ‘new’ form of exhibition that would briefly spawn a movie-going renaissance) and also held controlling stock in the brain trust behind it, even in 1952, correctly pegged Cinerama as a ‘gimmick’; like 3D, just another ploy to counterbalance and/or stave off the insidious panic-stricken animosity inculcated inside the front offices of Hollywood’s movie-making empires by TV – that new-fangled gadget effectively cutting theater attendance by nearly half in just three short years; from 90 million paid admissions in 1949 to barely 56 million in 1952.  Placed in its proper context, Cinerama can rightly be judged as the forerunner in the widescreen war that would overtake the industry the following year with Darryl F. Zanuck’s inauguration of Cinemascope; an infinitely more manageable single-lens anamorphic process. But by 1962, Cinerama’s initial impact had inevitably cooled, enough to suggest it had no lasting future. So, why did MGM, already foundering badly by the early sixties, think Cinerama as their best salvation?
Lest we forget neither Cinerama nor Cinemascope were ‘new’ to the 1950’s. No, that honor goes to French director, Abel Gance, who beat producer, Merian C. Cooper and Fred Waller’s invention by nearly twenty years with the premiere of Napoleon (1927); a silent epic that, in its penultimate battle sequence, breathtakingly expanded the conventional 1.33:1 movie image into a three camera projection for the epically staged deluge at Waterloo. For those unwilling to concede as much, we can neither dismiss nor ignore American impresario, William Fox’s even more ambitious Grandeur widescreen process, first launched with 1930’s The Big Trail - a 70mm precursor some thirty years ahead of its time that equally failed to catch on. So Cinerama did not embark on a quantum evolutionary step into the unknown. Nor was it to attain the longevity of newer/arguably, better widescreen wonders already looming large on the horizon: Cinemascope, Todd A-O, VistaVision, Technirama, Dimension-150 and, Super Panavision-70; all better suited than Cinerama to tell a compelling drama like How The West Was Won.
Besides, the Cinerama system had serious drawbacks, not the least of which was its frequent inability to properly align all three projected panels, thereby making the seams between the center and side panels more obvious. Also, if one of the reels should suffer a break, corresponding frames needed to be cut from the other two reels to preserve synchronization. Cinerama also tested the patience of both How The West Was Won’s stars and directors; co-star, Stanley Livingston recalling “…to get anything that even resembled a close-up meant you were no more than two feet away from the camera, which is bizarre. It needed to be right in your face to get a close-up.”  In close-up another anomaly emerged; a noticeable bending-in of any horizontal information too close to the seams, resulting in some oddly twisted tree branches in more than a handful of outdoor scene, and, curtains on a window that appear to meet in the middle directly behind Debbie Reynolds as she performs one of her songs. Reynolds would later recall, “Any conversation I had with my co-stars was purely coincidental; the camera was always between you and the other person. Half the time you had to stare at this mark they placed just out of camera range and pretend it was the other person. You had to act like the camera wasn’t there, but it was sometimes the only thing you saw.” Also, zoom lenses were impossible. But perhaps the greatest limitation was something later referenced as Cinerama’s ‘sweet spot’, a sort of midrange-long shot from which all action viewed through the three bug-eyed lenses appeared as accurately represented. Deviating even slightly from this optimal setup or placing foreground action caused portions of the image to suddenly appear distorted; perhaps nowhere more egregiously on display in How The West Was Won, than during the stampede, where buffalo appear to be running into one another as they slip past the seams that link the side panels to the center image.
The impact a theatrical exhibition of Cinerama had on audiences in its heyday cannot be overstated, and, viewed in its proper mode of projection inside an equipped movie palace, I have no doubt as to why reviews of the day hailed How The West Was Won as a landmark achievement, not the least for its ability to overcome a good deal of the aforementioned shortcomings while simultaneously managing – against great technological disadvantages – to offer audiences conventional storytelling utilizing a highly unconventional format. Alas, there is no way to replicate this Cinerama experience in all its 360 degree enveloping splendor in the privacy of one’s living room. Flattening the image into three perfectly aligned panels creates a very thin ‘letterboxed’ image best viewed on TV screens 85 inches or greater. But it also severely distorts the geometry of the original presentation; actors walking from left to right, now appearing to unnecessarily approach the camera at a discombobulating or even equilibrium-altering angle, only to move away at the same angle as the process is repeated on the other side of the screen.
To be fair, Cinerama did introduce various innovations to the movie-going experience that truly made it unique among its rivals; Cinerama’s louvered screen, as example, comprised of horizontal chords meticulously angled and greatly improving the overall luminosity and clarity of the image being projected onto them. So too did Cinerama give audiences their first real taste of eight-track directionalized stereophonic sound.  Walt Disney had toyed with the concept of true stereo, all the way back to 1940’s Fantasia. But it was Cinerama that fulfilled the prophecy of true stereo with an uncanny and superior richness in overall fidelity, unheard in movies before its inauguration and arguably, never again with such razor-sharp vibrancy.  Even so, How The West Was Won emerges as an even more perplexed anomaly to the footnote of Cinerama – coming, as it did, an entire decade after the initial hype of This is Cinerama had ostensibly cooled. Billed as an ‘epic western’ by MGM’s marketing department, How The West Was Won would go on to become the highest grossing movie of 1963; no small feat as it inevitably played in fewer venues equipped to handle Cinerama, and, more proof positive Cinerama’s novelty had not entirely faded away with the ticket-paying public.
For years, all home video versions of How The West Was Won were little more than a glaring reminder of Cinerama’s more prominent shortcomings: mis-registration of the three-camera negatives and obvious fading between the various film stocks, grotesquely exaggerated by the separation seams between left, middle and right panels. However, in 1997, the Library of Congress declared How The West Was Won a culturally, historically and aesthetically significant film worthy of preservation. And now, after decades of neglect, and two thoroughly lackluster incarnations on DVD, Warner Home Video seems to have concurred with this assessment, resurrecting How The West Was Won in a definitive – and very expensive reboot/nee, approximation of how the movie must have appeared to audiences in 1962. This Blu-ray release is decidedly cause for celebration on a number of levels. First, it offers two viewing options: either in a standard reassembly of the three panels, projected flat across the screen, with all the dirt, debris, scratches, and yes – even the seams between each panel – digitally removed, thus creating a superior visual presentation for the very first time – or, in the rechristened ‘Smilebox’ format; the image artificially bent from left to right to recreate the curvature of the Cinerama screen within the conventional framing of a flat TV screen. I confess, seated more closely to my TV screen and in a completely darkened room, the ‘Smilebox’ rendering of How The West Was Won gave me a fairly accurate approximation of the Cinerama experience. Now, having seen How The West Was Won back in the mid-1990’s in a real Cinerama venue, I should point out, for anyone else who has had this good fortune, prepare to be both disappointed, and yet very pleasantly surprised by how good this faux recreation looks.  
The pluses on this Blu-ray are worth noting: exceptional color reproduction and a level of clarity unseen since How The West Was Won had its world premiere. The image is robust, with eye-popping hues and copious amounts of fine detail burgeoning from all corners of the newly expanded and restore frame. Warner Home Video has done a thoroughly outstanding job on resurrecting the Cinerama experience for home theater viewing. Again, it is still an approximation with no real counterpart to an actual Cinerama screening; but with the added bonuses of having the wobble and jitter of real Cinerama completely removed and the seams between the center and side panels ostensibly expunged.  Contrast is superb. Film grain is accurately represented. The image is crisp without appearing to have sustained any undue artificial sharpening.  Better still; the newly remastered 5.1 DTS audio recreates much of the exhilaration of the original 7-track stereo. If you have never experienced Cinerama audio before, this disc will thoroughly satisfy and surprise you. Extras include a superb audio commentary stitched together from new and vintage interviews with surviving cast and crew. We also get the comprehensive documentary, Cinerama Adventure; a fond look at those early heady days of this widescreen wonderment, and easily worth the price of admission by itself. A point to consider: the commentary is only available on the standard version. The ‘Smilebox’ version is barebones – only chapter stops. Bottom line: How The West Was Won may not be superior in its storytelling, but in its present-day reincarnation on home video, it remains an elegant, overblown and infectiously alluring ‘gimmick’ not to be missed. This one belongs on everyone’s top shelf!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

STAR! (2oth Century-Fox 1968) Fox Home Video

Sixteen years after the death of Broadway's beloved Gertrude Lawrence, 2oth Century-Fox afforded the ‘late great’ a lavish biopic from the award-winning team responsible for catapulting Julie Andrews to super-stardom in The Sound of Music (1965). Billed as “the love affair of the century - between a woman, and the world”, Robert Wise’s Star! (1968) is flashy, often engrossing, and impeccably crafted. It was never meant to be a literal chronology of the life and times of Gertrude Lawrence. That it came at the end of the sixties verve for big and oft’ bloated road shows, and failed to catch even the tail fires of this popular zeitgeist, is a miscalculation in timing only, and yet one from which the film’s reputation continues to suffer. Star! was a colossal flop for Fox at a particular epoch when the studio could scarcely afford another. In a good many books written about the history of the Hollywood musical, Star! is often cruelly cited as one of the reasons why musicals in general fell out of favor with audiences; the other two being Doctor Doolittle and Hello Dolly! (1969). Ironically, all three came from Fox, still riding high on the ether of The Sound of Music.  And yet, none of the aforementioned is quite the disaster – artistically speaking. In fact, Dolly!, Doolittle and Star! are built like tanks; given over to the sort of unadulterated showmanship and razzamatazz all truly great musicals possess in spades, and, with individual merits long since searing their stature in the public’s estimation as ‘classics’ from a bygone vintage we are unlikely to experience again.
After it became quite clear box office was not forthcoming on Star!, a panicked brain trust at Fox withdrew it from circulation, unceremoniously hacking into Wise’s careful construction without his consent or input, leaving nearly 26 minutes on the cutting room floor, and, reissuing the picture under a different title; ‘Those Were The Happy Days’. Clearly, they were not.  Retrospectively speaking, one can see the forest for the trees. Star! is a great musical – undoubtedly ill-timed, but supremely satisfying as a free-flowing travelogue through the finer points that effectively make up Gertrude Lawrence’s saucy backstage badinage. Until Star!, the Teflon-coated persona of Gertie Lawrence had been preserved in two positively gushing and highly sanitized accolades; the first, penned by Lawrence herself in 1945; the other, a postmortem love-in written by her second husband, Max Lamb. In reading either, I suspect Robert Wise was dumbstruck – and more than a little dismayed by the one-dimensional illusion of Lawrence; a reminder, perhaps of Winston Churchill’s rather glib retort to a reporter who once asked if the pugnacious diplomat worried how he would be judged by history in years yet to follow. Churchill’s reply, “Fairly, for I intend to write it.”
Gertrude Lawrence was and remains a formidable talent of the stage; 1941’s Lady in the Dark still regarded by many as the epitome of chic sophistication for which Lawrence was hailed as “a goddess” in the New York Times. But she was also a creation of flesh and blood; as such, mortally flawed by certain inalienable human foibles that, far from debasing her professional reputation, only add compelling back story to the intangible appeal of her magical stage presence. “I talked with a lot of people who knew her,” producer, Saul Chaplin reflected, “…and invariably they all had the same thing to say about her. She couldn’t act, sing or dance…but she was marvelous!”  Wise, Chaplin and their troop of researchers have certainly done their homework on Gertie Lawrence. Star! is neither a hatchet job on the woman nor a gallivanting TripTik through her musical career, though occasionally it veers toward this later pursuit. There are no less than 18 musical numbers interpolated throughout the road show of Star! Julie Andrews warbles all but two of these songs, ably abetted by her co-star, the seemingly effortless and undeniably brilliant, Daniel Massey – playing his godfather, Noel Coward. Coward, then still very much alive, and with a reputation equally as Teflon-coated as Lawrence’s, thought Star! a splendid way to celebrate Lawrence – as well as resurrect many of the shows he had co-written and costarred in with the grand dame. Without hesitation, Coward granted producers the rights to his likeness and back catalog of shows. One down. One to go. Saul Chaplin had also hoped to convince Beatrice Lillie, arguably Lawrence’s best friend (with whom she is rumored to have had a lesbian relationship) to partake of this exercise. Alas, Lillie became exacting and impractical in her demands – idiotically desiring to play herself in the movie. Unable to convince her otherwise, Chaplin’s decision was instead to write her out of the show entirely. Star! gets a lot of criticism for amending Gertie’s personal history. Indeed, Star! all but avoids the last act of her life. And yet, one can sincerely forgive screenwriter, William Fairchild these artistic licenses; especially since, in a good many cases, only ‘names’ have been changed (to protect the…um… ‘innocent’); Fairchild also telescoping Gertie’s many love affairs into an amalgamation with fictional counterparts to satisfy the constraints of time. After all, real life is often messy. Movies strive for a tidier account of ‘the truth’. In hindsight, Fairchild’s achievement is both large-scale and all-encompassing. He gets the big picture right, even if the details are occasionally muddled beyond recognition.  
The painstaking research performed by Robert Wise and his associates in the preparation of Star! goes above and beyond this bottom line; culled from information gleaned in numerous interviews with people who knew Gertie Lawrence through her less than flattering moments. From these eyewitness accounts it became rather apparent there were at least two sides to Lawrence for which literature – either out of genuine reverence or an even greater anxiety to avoid a defamation of character lawsuit - had quietly swept under the rug. Initially, Wise and producer, Saul Chaplin planned to shoot an animated sequence to express the dualities of Gertie’s life and times, counterbalanced by a running commentary provided by Julie Andrews. Thankfully, this approach was abandoned early on; Fairchild substituting a black-and-white newsreel prologue to serve as a bridge between ‘history’, ‘truth’ and fiction, but also to span the passage of years. For concision, as well as for legal reasons, Fairchild's screenplay rechristened, combined and/or excluded some of the real people who had constituted Lawrence’s sphere of influences and circle of friends. To fill in for Beatrice Lillie’s glaring omission, Fairchild concocted, Billie Carleton (Lynley Laurence).  Fairchild also made Lawrence’s first husband, dance director, Francis Gordon-Howley – renamed Jack Roper (John Collin) roughly the same age as Gertie, when in reality he was a solid twenty years her senior. Lawrence’s affair with Capt. Philip Astley was reworked too; the character now renamed Sir Anthony Spencer (Michael Craig), while Gertie’s engagement to Wall Street banker, Bert Taylor was entirely overlooked. In the movie, Gertie briefly procures a burgeoning romance with the fictional Wall Street stockbroker, Ben Mitchell (Anthony Eisley) before moving on to playhouse producer, Richard Aldrich (Richard Crenna).
Even before a single frame had been exposed, Star! was shaping up to be an extravaganza; what with Boris Leven’s meticulous recreations of London’s West End and Donald Brooks’ ravishing array of vintage costumes; 3,040 in all, some 125 changes for Andrews alone. As these exquisite outfits were subsidized by the Western Costume Co. they officially became their property after production wrapped; loaned out for many years on a rental basis before finally being auctioned off in the late 1970s. To choreograph, Wise and Chaplin turned to veteran, Michael Kidd who elected to ‘push’ Julie Andrews beyond her comfort zone; their collaborative efforts producing two irrefutable stand outs: ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’ and the mammoth finale, built around ‘The Saga of Jenny’; that oft resurrected and much admired Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin song from Lady in the Dark. ‘Burlington Bertie’ marks Gertie’s breakout in a show for famed impresario, André Charlot (Alan Oppenheimer); her nearly three month pregnancy camouflaged in hobo’s drag. Andrews is caustically magnificent as the snobbish vagrant who, with noblesse oblige, refuses to ‘have a banana with Lady Diana’ and has the effrontery to ‘swank it’ using Rothchild’s ‘mail for a blanket’; all the while thinking the hoi poloi damn fools. It is an enchanting bit of music hall nostalgia, excised with Andrews’ inimitable aplomb and transparent affinity for those early and, even by 1968, all but forgotten golden years.
By contrast, ‘The Saga of Jenny’ is an epically mounted super-number, perhaps owing a tad too much to vintage sixties glitz than the glam-bam decadence of the original Lawrence show; Andrews descending from on high on a whirling swing in her navy blue and silver sequined pants suit, thereafter cavorting with an assortment of colorfully attired circus performers; acrobats, jugglers, midgets and clowns. Bounced from buttocks to pelvis, Andrews saucy delivery of the lyrics evokes a deliciously stylized cynicism as she points to the foibles of this fictional bon vivant who, among her other social misfires, lit the candles, but tossed the taper away, only to become an orphan on Christmas Day; got herself all dolled up in satin and furs to land a husband that was not hers; whose searing white hot memoirs inspired wives to shoot their husbands in some thirty-three states, and finally, succumbed to too much gin and rum and destiny at the age of seventy-six.  The Saga of Jenny is a phenomenon unto itself, a musical sequence quite apart from everything else that has gone before it, chiefly due to Wise’s decision to move his camera beyond the proscenium; inviting his audience to partake of its spectacle in close-up. Virtually all of the other numbers are deliberately photographed at a distance to mark their distinction as products of the stage. It is to Wise’s credit, and moreover, a hallmark of his decades of expertise, none of these stage-bound vignettes ever wind up becoming static or dull. Some, like ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ are expertly used as bridges to intercut and/or skip over whole passages of time, while others, ‘Physician’ and ‘Dear Little Boy’ foreshadow more of the plot, as yet to unfold. 
Absurdly budgeted at six million, Star! likely seemed to guarantee its own box office. How could it miss? In retrospect, far too easily. For starters, the movie musical had already passed its prime by 1968; thanks, in part to a slew of ill-conceived and heavy-handed produced clunkers that had soured the public on the genre. But audiences were also increasingly looking for realism in their movies. What had sold tickets a scant four years earlier, now drew jeers if, in fact, the audience was listening at all. Worse, critics had become increasingly jaded by this era of over-budgeted/over-produced fluff; the treacle, too sticky; the staging, fairly weighty and familiar, failing to impress. Finally, unlike some of the more profitable efforts put forth throughout the decade (West Side Story, 1960; The Music Man, 1962, and, My Fair Lady, 1964, among them), Star! was not a Broadway-to-Hollywood hybrid. As such, it had no pre-sold title that could be trumpeted by the marketing department; no precedence either, except among the aging demographic still able to recall Gertie Lawrence in her prime. The trick in the exercise therefore fell to Julie Andrews’ ability to do ‘this star’ justice. Gertrude Lawrence had been a bona fide – if caustic – legend in her own time. Perhaps owing to that daunting iconography, Andrews had, in fact, turned down previous offers to portray Lawrence in the movies. But now, she too was ‘a star’ - her pert and plucky, ‘practically perfect’ and squeaky clean nun/nanny in both The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins (1964) diametrically at odds with Lawrence’s razor-backed ‘uber-wit’ and ultra-chic sophistication.
Yet, in Robert Wise, Andrews felt secure. Moreover, a mutual admiration had been built up between Wise, Chaplin and Andrews during their collaboration on The Sound of Music, ensuring integrity, class and tact as the order of the day on Star!; an ‘A-list’ production to adorn and compliment two great ladies. Besides, Andrews still owed Fox a movie. While Richard Zanuck remained mildly concerned about the declining popularity of big-budgeted Hollywood musicals, he nevertheless felt certain that with Andrews at its helm Star! could be an even greater triumph for the studio. Tragically, it proved the rule rather than the exception, a titanic backfire eviscerated by the critics and all but ignored by audiences. Removed from all its hype and properly placed, Star! today clearly has more virtues than vices to recommend it.  At 120 minutes Star! is a forgivable hodgepodge. At 150 min. it begins to acquire a moody magnificence with glimmered signs of becoming something far greater than the sum of its parts, particularly since Wise never allows the musical program to become arbitrarily episodic. However, reinstated at 170 min. Star! is unequivocally a masterpiece – perhaps, not on the same level as Wise’s The Sound of Music, but equally teeming with intrigued creativity and copious amounts of richly satisfying music.
Julie Andrews and Daniel Massey are sublime casting, the Ying and Yang of the piece as Gertie and Noel respectively. Andrews wisely interprets Gertrude Lawrence on her own terms rather than attempting a caricature of the star’s well-documented behaviors and mannerisms. And Andrews is undeniably in very fine voice – much finer, in fact, than Lawrence ever was in life.  Massey, on the other hand, is an exquisite Noël Coward; uncannily comfortable in the effete playwright's skin, perhaps in no small way because he was meticulously coached in his performance by his godfather - Noël Coward. To listen to Massey warble the incandescent and slightly sordid, ‘Forbidden Fruit’ (a ditty about man’s perilous desire to possess that which, quite frankly, he should not, whether it be peaches atop the highest bow or the adoration of an already married Mrs. Brown) is to give the erudite Coward his considerable due. And the chemistry between Massey and Andrews during the dramatic and comedy bits feathered into William Fairchild’s screenplay, are a veritable feast, occasionally playing fast and loose with the specifics of Gertie’s life and lovers. While no one could – or rather, should – confuse Fairchild’s reflections as the definitive ‘last’ word on Gertrude Lawrence, his narrative retains just enough verisimilitude to be believed as a big and bouncy biopic. With all of its excised footage reinstated Star! eloquently moves through its period recreations, intelligently scripted and impeccably acted.
It is impossible not to find at least something to amuse, and quite often more than a mere something to stand up and cheer about. Star! sings its way into our hearts as only Julie Andrews in her prime could. Perhaps, one of the reasons it so completely failed to be discovered in 1968 has to do with Wise’s deliberate studio-bound approach to the material. By 1968, most movie genres, including musicals, had left the confines of the back lot; the ‘opening up’ of traditional stage works lending an air of quaintness and, perhaps, formaldehyde to musicals made only a decade earlier. In this regard, Star! very much plays like a movie musical conceived for the 1940's; its sets obvious; its numbers staged almost exclusively as works taking place on the stage – framed by walls, a painted backdrop and a curtain, thus adhering to its nostalgic music hall revue tableau.  Because of this, the truth of the piece and invariably its own time period are exquisitely preserved. Still, Star! is undeniably a throwback, and regrettably not what audiences wanted to see in 1968. A shame too, because the story as crafted by Fairchild is a very rich tapestry, imbued with an almost lyrical fondness, and, more than able to poke fun at the foibles of then contemporary society, both upper-class snobbery and lowborn slum prudery, equally with a modicum of tongue-in-cheek waggishness and spellbinding professionalism.
Wise’s film begins in earnest with a faux ‘main title’ sequence shot in B&W, framed in the traditional Academy aspect ratio of 1:33:1. Wise had to get permission from 2oth Century-Fox to use their pre-Cinemascope logo, the ‘credits’ paying homage to Gertrude Lawrence with vintage photographs of the star as a baby and little girl. These snapshots segue into a montage of vintage newsreels cobbled together with new footage shot for the film but appropriately distressed to provide a seamless backdrop of Gertie's childhood and early teenage years. When the newsreel introduces Gertie’s father, Arthur (Bruce Forsyth) we hear a note of protest off camera and are startled by the suddenly glamorous appearance of Gertrude Lawrence (Julie Andrews) rising from her chair in sumptuous color by DeLuxe, the screen expanded to its large gauge aspect ratio. We are in a projection room; Gertie, with movie shorts producer, Jerry Paul (Damian London), about to set the record straight. It wasn’t all hearts and flowers, Gertie explains; her dad, a bumbling old rapscallion and something of a lady’s man who left her mum when Gertie was still a child, and whose portly paramour, Rose (Beryl Reid) is costarring in their latest of many forgettable music halls engagements in London.
Gertie, now a teen, salvages their busker routine with a brash intervention, winning the audience’s respect after Arthur is pelted with tomatoes. Backstage, Arthur is incensed – perhaps, more wounded pride than anything else – even as he announces he and Rose are leaving for a tour of South Africa in the morning. Once again, Gertrude is left to fend for herself. Landing a minor part in an ensemble all-girl's act, Gertie attempts to distinguish herself – at first quite by accident, but later by grandstanding – her decision to upstage the act, infuriating the others. Gertie's next stab at stardom is as flawed. She falls through a stage trap door imbedding a mattress coil in her backside while crashing the auditions for London impresario, Andre Charlot. Her accidental 'entrance' reunites Gertie with childhood pal, Noel Coward and also convinces Charlot to cast her in the chorus.
Gertie, however, fancies herself a star. So, during a performance by matinee idol, Jack Buchanan (Garrett Lewis) she upstages the other chorines - a move that utterly infuriates Charlot, who reiterates he “does not employ unprofessional amateurs!”  Gertie, who never holds anything back, is about to reply in kind, but is encouraged by stage manager, Jack Roper to hold her tongue. Over drinks at a local pub, Roper promises Gertie her moment in the spotlight when all he really wants is a way into her bed. Flattery can get him almost anywhere – and in short order. The two are married. But Roper's plan to hasten Gertie's retirement by getting her pregnant creates a rift in their marriage; along with Roper’s alcoholic binges and the birth of their daughter, Pamela (Jenny Agutter). So, Gertie and Jack divorce. Meanwhile, Noel initiates an awkward ‘cute meet’ between Gertie and dashing guardsman, Sir Anthony Spencer (Michael Craig). While Tony is quite smitten with Gertie from the beginning, it takes some time for her to warm to him. But Spencer is the patient sort, and arguably the right man for our temperamental star. The two eventually become lovers.  Regrettably, Tony’s debut of Gertie in polite society is an ill fit.  While she aspires to these finer fashions and ideals, Gertie is undeniably a very rough diamond. After learning she has skipped out on a performance for a date with Tony, Charlot sacks Gertie from his new musical revue. To make ends meet during this fallow period, Gertie becomes a fashion model, painfully bored by the work. Once again, Noel - whose star has been steadily on the ascendance - comes to Gertie's rescue, coaxing Charlot to take her back for his new show.
At this juncture, the movie’s narrative becomes slightly jumbled; skipping through a series of vignettes covering six years in a mere four and a half minutes. Charlot takes his revue to America where it is a big hit and Gertie an even bigger one. In New York, she meets Wall Street banker, Ben Mitchell (Anthony Eisley) and then Charles Fraser (Robert Reed), a somewhat pretentious madcap. Both men relentlessly pursue her. Temporarily smitten, Gertie has a tryst with each. But these passing fancies grow dim, especially after Tony arrives at Gertie’s ultra-chic New York penthouse on the eve of a lavish Roman toga party at which Gertie elects to stand out from the crowd by going as Madame de Pompadour instead. Despite the fact she obviously prefers Tony to either of the new men in her life Gertie sends all of them away in the end. Forlorn after everyone except Noel has gone home, Gertie is encouraged to send for Tony. He will come back if only she asks him. But it’s no use. Gertie is already married…as Noel pointed out earlier – to her career. The reason for Gertie’s bittersweet rejection of Tony is never entirely explained. Herein, Wise inserts an intermission instead, after which we move into the next phase of Gertie’s life; her very strained mother/daughter relationship with Pamela - now a teenager. Gertie has elected to take Pamela on her summer holidays off the coast of France, along with her social secretary, Dorothy (Mathilda Calnan). Although a mutual longing within persists for these two to become closer, neither Gertie nor Pamela is capable of making the necessary move to reach out. Pamela instead goes home to England to finish her schooling. Sensing how unfulfilled and lonely Gertie is once again, Noel encourages her return to the stage in Charlot's new revue. Nothing has changed. Gertie is an even bigger hit. However, almost immediately, she is charged with tax evasion - a gross mismanagement of her assets by the ill-equipped Dorothy, leaving Gertie horrendously in debt. To repay what she owes, Gertie plunges headstrong into a breakneck workload; performing on the stage, appearing in nightclubs, newsreels, and, dance halls until she suffers a complete physical breakdown.
Hospitalized and disheartened, Gertie takes Noel's suggestion to go to America for an extended respite. While performing in Noel’s Private Lives, Gertie meets producer, Richard Aldrich (Richard Crenna) who operates a small playhouse on Long Island. The romance between them is tempestuous at best; fueled by a mutual disdain that ironically grows into hot-blooded lust. Aldrich produces 'Lady In The Dark' - Gertie's most enduring stage success up to this point in her career. He also manages to win Gertie’s heart at long last. Curiously, Star! never ventures beyond this moment – omitting what is arguably Lawrence’s most celebrated stagecraft - as Anna Leonowens in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. Instead, after performing The Saga of Jenny from Lady in the Dark, we end with another flashback – or rather, flash-forward, to the projection room where our story began. Gertie reminisces “Well, that’s the way it was,” the inference, of course, being her relationship with Aldrich has not survived. Presumably, to satisfy the conventions of the traditional ‘all’s well that ends well’ in Hollywood musicals, Wise does not end his movie here. Instead, we regress to the day of Gertie’s wedding to Aldrich; the couple inundated by well-wishers pitching rice. Aldrich and Gertie hurry into the backseat of a waiting chauffeur-driven car. She utters the identical – and prophetic - words once said to Jack Roper, “I shouldn’t have married you.” However, unlike Roper – who fluffed off this confession with laughter, Aldrich casually tells Gertie if she would prefer they can drive straight to the courthouse and have their marriage annulled. This, of course, incurs Gertie’s ire. She flies into one of her trademark tirades, leaving Aldrich mildly amused – the couple’s car driving off into the countryside for a ‘life together’ that we already know is doomed to fail.
In this penultimate moment of farewell Star! defines itself as a very elaborate undertaking; its imperfect subject matter brilliantly reconstituted as the big and glossy Hollywood musical. Fairchild’s exposition and Wise’s direction have conspired on a first-rate entertainment.  For the most part, Star! is a genuine treat, sustained by its delicate balance of intelligence, humor and sentiment; slickly packaged and handsomely mounted. Julie Andrews achieves the stature of another great lady without devolving into lampoon or rank mimicry.  Her Gertie Lawrence is nothing short of a revelation; the tartness of this diva somehow reconciled with Andrews more plucky onscreen personality.  Star! plays far better minus audiences expectations for Robert Wise to deliver another ‘Sound of Music’. It really is an ‘apples to pomegranates’ comparison; Star! a far more introspective and subtler critique of the garrulous Gertie. Right at the start, Andrews’ mordant maven orders producer, Jerry Paul not to analyze her too closely; perhaps, a bit of foreshadowing on Wise’s part as to where the rest of the film is headed. For Star! is as much a critique of the intangible variables that made Gertrude Lawrence uniquely a star as it typifies a certain derivative of highly stylized movie-making in general – and, of course, making movies musicals in particular.   
Star! plays like a beloved snapshot of this bygone era; perhaps the only ‘living’ record to remind us of its’ musical hall vintage. Star! also comes with an interesting footnote. In 1971, a fire inside the Fox’s film vaults was thought to have destroyed the only surviving elements of the complete roadshow.  For decades, Star! was thought to be a lost film; referenced only as a flop. Time, however, does very strange things to art – both real and ‘reel’ – and in 1994, the full 175 minute cut miraculously resurfaced in Britain – the elements virtually preserved by having lain dormant in storage all these years. After considerable coaxing from Saul Chaplin and Robert Wise, Fox agreed to a limited theatrical reissue of Star! in North America where it suddenly garnered notoriety and much praise from the critics – some of who had poo-pooed it as a disastrous misfire back in 1968. Released to home video on LaserDisc later that same year, the roadshow edition of Star! proved to be a very popular seller, one resurrected on DVD in 1999. Since then, it is a genuine pity Star! has not found its way to Blu-ray.
Star! originally contained an overture, intermission/entr'acte and exit music. Regrettably, only the overture survives on Fox’s DVD. The LaserDisc of Star! also properly framed the Panavision image in its original 2:20 aspect ratio. The DVD exhibits a slightly cropped image; albeit one superior in its rendering of colors, with far better contrast levels. One other bit of controversy dogs the DVD. The newsreel footage interpolated throughout the movie was originally photographed in B&W and framed in 1.33.1. While the DVD retains the proper aspect ratio for these segments, it has inexplicably tinted these monochromatic inserts to sepia – an oversight hopefully corrected if Fox ever gets around to remastering Star! on Blu-ray. I should point out that overall, these are very minor complaints. In fact, on the whole, I am quite impressed with how well this standard def release holds up when up-converted. Colors on the DVD are impressively vibrant, allowing Ernest Laszlo's cinematography to shine. Regrettably, age-related artifacts are present and, at times the image seems to suffer from slightly boosted contrast with intermittent edge enhancement. Star!'s original six track stereo has also been distilled into a remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital. The main benefit is, of course, we get to hear Julie Andrews' sing most of her songs in stereo for the first time since the movie's debut. But Star! also deliberately incorporates several mono recordings to appropriately date the supposed vintage flashbacks. These have been faithfully reproduced in mono.  Back in 2000, Fox licensed the complete score to Star! on a 2-disc CD set – all of the tracks remastered in stereo, though regrettably, due to a rights issue, some only existing in the truncated ‘album cut’. That CD is regrettably out of print today. The hope is that if Star! does come to Blu-ray, its soundtrack will be remastered to include as an isolated stereo score for everyone’s listening enjoyment.
Star! on DVD is a flipper disc. Side A contains the 175 minute cut of the film with a very insightful audio commentary from Robert Wise. On Side B, we get an original 1968 featurette and a vintage short from 1994 entitled ‘Silver Star’ shot for the reissue reunion party and featuring principles, Robert Wise, Saul Chaplin, Julie Andrews and Richard Crenna. There is also a ‘stills’ galleries, but this is regrettably a hodgepodge of overlapping images – some so unflattering, Julie Andrews ought to have insisted the originals be burned. There are also extensive liner notes on the making of the film to toggle through with your remote control. Personally, I would have preferred a comprehensive documentary on the making of this great movie instead – but there it is. Bottom line: Star! is a great musical – period! It may not be what audiences expected to see in 1968, but today it can most assuredly take its rightful place as a bona fide classic.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Monday, March 21, 2016

ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS: Blu-ray (Columbia 1939) Criterion Collection

The third highest grossing film of 1939 was Only Angels Have Wings (1939); director, Howard Hawks aviation adventure yarn about a motley crew of rough and ready fly boys, living and dying for their ‘by the seat of their pants’ creed in the all but forgotten and fictional tropical backwater of Barranca. The picture is exceptional; chiefly for its searing tension that runs like the attenuated thread of fate throughout Jules Furthman’s screenplay; also, for Cary Grant’s uncharacteristically dark and brooding performance as the emotionally detached bastard/stud, and, for an early appearance by Rita Hayworth, who positively sizzles as the sinfully sexy girl who knew him when – and would like to get to know him again, despite having married in the interim. Last, but certainly not least, we tip our hats to the proverbial ‘nice girl’ (every movie should have one), herein played with coquettish sincerity by the thirties favorite innocent – Jean Arthur. Only Angels Have Wings reeks of Howard Hawk’s trademarked rough-n-ready panache; a characteristic he shares with the likes of directors, William Wellman and Victor Fleming. Hawks is never afraid to let the pain show as he puts this heroic sect through the unapologetic, frank – if highly romanticized – exhibitions of life and death; the Victor Frankenstein of this high-flying entourage. Hawks also keeps a lot inside, bottled up in male-bonding machismo.  Not bad for a movie whose competition of the day was David O. Selznick’s sprawling southern saga, Gone With the Wind and Victor Fleming’s mercurial fantasy for all ages, The Wizard of Oz; iconic monuments from this golden epoch that out-performed ‘Angels’ at the box office: even more remarkable when considering 1939’s other contenders - Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Of Mice and Men, Gunga Din, The Women, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Ninotchka, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Rains Came (to name but a handful of the praiseworthy) came after it. While box office alone should never be considered the barometer of greatness (revenue generated is often based on nothing better than the fickle ‘star gazing’ of sycophants), in the case of Only Angels Have Wings, it is, at least, a very impressive factor to what is essentially a very good show.
Decidedly that, in hindsight, Only Angels Have Wings is an extraordinary achievement. An intensely gritty, gutsy, brutally dark (figuratively and literally speaking) passionate and rain-soaked melodrama, it manages to rivet the audience’s attention from the start and almost exclusively on its star performances given by a celebrated triage of performers: Cary Grant, never better or more cynical (outside of a Hitchcock movie) as Geoff Carter, the owner/operator of a small mail delivery airline, making daily trips through a narrow and weather-plagued slit in the Andes Mountains; Jean Arthur, taming her usual giddy, cockeyed sarcasm as the bittersweet Bonnie Lee, and, Thomas Mitchell who, astonishingly, appeared in no less than five major classics produced in this single year; the aforementioned GWTW and Mr. Smith, John Ford’s trend-setting western, Stagecoach, and, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Now that is some pedigree! Mitchell’s chameleon skin is further tested in Only Angels Have Wings, as Kid Dabb, the steely-eyed aging flyer with an ax to grind, grounded by Geoff after it is discovered the Kid’s eyesight is failing.
Howard Hawks, who had been utterly impressed by the stoic aviation personnel he encountered while in Mexico scouting locations for Viva Villa! (1934) began the odyssey of bringing Only Angels Have Wings to the screen by hiring Anne Wigton to write a screenplay. Alas, Hawks disliked Wigton’s treatment, entitled ‘Plane No. 4’, so much, he eventually re-wrote the entire scenario himself, basing the new concept on his own 1938 published short story, ‘Plane from Barranca’. Even so, Hawks was discontented with the results, chronically reworking his scenarios and dialogue even as his shooting schedule progressed, with collaborator, Jules Furthman close at hand, and some minor assists by Eleanore Griffin and William Rankin. Hawks’ spur of the moment tinkering may have created an atmosphere of immediacy on the set, but it damn well frustrated Jean Arthur, already well known for being a temperamental star.  On the set, Arthur and Hawks frequently quarreled. But there was never any lingering animosity, and, in hindsight, their heated exchanges seem only to have enriched Arthur’s performance.
Only Angels Have Wings is immeasurably blessed by its incredible assortment of ‘bit players’, each offered an indelible moment or two: the sadly forgotten silent matinee idol, Richard Barthelmess playing Bat McPherson (superb, as an emotionally tortured flyer who previously bailed on a plane that claimed the life of the Kid’s younger brother and has since been branded a bad lot and high risk), Rita Hayworth, pre-super-stardom and vetted as Geoff’s empathetic ex-flame, Judy - the present Mrs. McPherson: Sig Ruman – joyous as the easily flustered saloon keeper, Dutchy, Geoff’s business partner and owner of Barranca’s most colorful nightspot (where most of the film’s action takes place): Victor Kilian, as ‘Sparks’, the ham radio operator: John Carroll, a suave fly boy, Gent Shelton, and, Noah Beery Jr., as the ill-fated novice, Joe Souther. Only Angels Have Wings would not be half as memorable without these great faces.
Hawks handpicked his roster of talent, starting with Cary Grant, with whom he had worked the year before on Bringing Up Baby (1938); rightly considered a classic today, but then a major flop for RKO. Even then, Grant was one of Hollywood’s most enigmatic stars; a free agent at a time when few - if any - existed, who could effortlessly yield as the romantic lead or comedic fop as propriety demanded. But in Only Angels Have Wings, Grant reveals a much more brooding – even unflattering – side to his Teflon-coated persona, the corrosively abrupt loner. Geoff Carter is hardly a lady’s man. In fact, he really is something of a cad; rumored to use women like Kleenex. He’s hard too, emotionally barren and morally ambiguous. Hence, when the innocent, Joe Souther wins a playful coin toss to court new arrival/specialty act, Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), Geoff’s first inclination is to wreck their evening together by sending Joe back in the air, then teasing Bonnie with the prospect of spending her time with him instead before effectively thwarting this too with a deliberate tease. When Joe is unable to land his plane successfully through a dense fog and is killed as a result, Geoff casually tosses off his death by choosing to eat the steak Dutchy had prepared for Joe’s return; the one he ought to have shared with Bonnie. Bonnie’s brittle sadness over Joe’s loss leads to an even more callous moment: Geoff’s rather cruel and decidedly unsympathetic admonishment of her tears.
Geoff is the most infuriatingly unromantic of romantics; the love affair eventually blossoming between Bonnie and Geoff as unlikely as it remains wholly – and perplexedly – convincing. Only Cary Grant could play such a brute with such enigmatic and overriding charm. Given Geoff’s stern and dictatorial command of the air service and its workforce, his steamrolling over anyone who gets in the way of his edicts, and, his inability to connect with anybody – even the Kid – on an emotional level, what is there to attract Bonnie to Geoff? Well, the obvious answer is that it’s Cary Grant with whom Bonnie Lee (and the audience) has become enamored. Grant’s persona – or rather that which he meticulously crafted for himself out of the scrawny and insecure, acrobatic Britton known as Archibald Leach – is what is on display in this film; a presence so magnetic not even the imperious nature of the film’s alter ego can stand in its’ way. Cary Grant can make any woman’s heart flutter. Nevertheless, Grant does everything he can to avoid the clichés as the atypical hunk du jour in Only Angels Have Wings, utterly beguiling as this deceptively unscrupulous man of ulterior motives.
And then, of course, there is Grant’s chemistry with Jean Arthur to reconsider. Like Grant, Arthur’s screen appeal is not so easily definable. Mostly, it emanates from an intangible slyness that unexpectedly creeps to the surface from within. Although attractive, Arthur’s looks could hardly be considered conventional beauty. And Arthur’s Bonnie Lee is hardly hot to trot for Geoff Carter – at least, not at first. Even when she succumbs to Grant’s glycerin good looks and piercing stare near the end, Arthur does so on her own terms. Bonnie elects to stay behind in Barranca even when Geoff would have preferred she sailed with the next ship for America. Arthur’s sexy innocent is not above turning up uninvited on a rain-soaked eve in Geoff’s bedroom shower, playfully refusing to leave in nothing more modest than his oversized bathrobe after Mrs. McPherson deliberately arrives to ‘thank Geoff’ for setting her straight; the implication, of course, being an old flame has come to rekindle the embers anew.
That, in the last act, Arthur is forced to submit to a few tearful episodes, pleading at the point of a pistol for her prospective lover not to fly a suicide mission during a heavy storm (in a scene so obviously plagiarized from Victor Fleming’s 1932 classic, Red Dust, Bonnie wounds Geoff in the shoulder by accident, thus ruining his chances for takeoff) is mildly lamentable. Arthur’s strengths are impressively aligned with the classic screwball heroine, herein represented as the proverbial fish out of water.  And yet, and again, not unlike Cary Grant, she delivers the good with a sense of pride and air of stubborn determinism, her Bonnie Lee both flavorful and enriching in unanticipated ways. Only Angels Have Wings slightly falters when Hawks forces this winning team into bits of camp comedy; as in the aforementioned bedroom scene where Grant mugs for the camera as he repeatedly burns his fingers on a hot coffee pot, much to the usually stoic and often brutal Geoff’s chagrin and Bonnie’s – or is it Arthur’s? – mild amusement.
Only Angels Have Wings opens with an impressive sound stage recreation of the tropical port of Barranca; steamy, sweat-soaked and fog-laden as a medium-sized freighter coasts into port. The ship is met by Joe and Gent, who are mildly amused when Rafael (Rafael Storm), the purser inadvertently reveals his badly blackened eye and bruised cheek. While excuses abound, the pair already know the cause of the wound and are immediately introduced to it in the form of forthright, Bonnie Lee; a no-nonsense looker, smartly attired in plaid as she disembarks to explore this temporary port of call. Gent and Joe casually stalk Bonnie as she absorbs the local nightlife, including a Latin Apache performed inside a muggy and smoke-filled nightclub. Becoming aware of her male pursuers, Bonnie is relieved to discover they are Americans, far from home and in the employ of Geoff Carter as hotshot pilots. Joe and Gent flip a coin to see who will squire Bonnie to dinner. Joe wins the toss but loses to Geoff, who callously assigns both men tedious duties in order to have Bonnie to himself. When she shows little interest in being traded like a bag of meal, Geoff does Bonnie one better by dumping her. She can eat dinner alone. All the better, as far as the hotel’s owner, Dutchy is concerned. He knows Geoff much too well; his modus operandi for exploiting women with never a thought for the future.
Dutchy is the worrisome type – a real mother hen without a nest egg. He does not want Joe to fly the mail out in this pea soup. Besides, a storm is coming. But Geoff will hear none of Dutchy’s womanly nattering. Joe takes off without a glitch but is unable to breach the fog. After getting a report from the mountain lookout about nastier weather ahead, Geoff orders Joe to return to the landing strip at once. Unhappy circumstance, Joe’s mind is on Bonnie instead of his flying. He clips a tree on his descend, exploding into a hellish fireball on the runway. Bonnie’s shock and sadness at his immediate death quickly turns to disdain for Geoff after he elects, along with the Kid, Gent and some of the other flyers, to throw a seemingly celebratory wake. Geoff tells Bonnie she needs to get wise to herself. Weeping a million tears will never bring Joe back. It also does nothing for the rest of the men’s morale. Bonnie takes Geoff’s advice to heart, returning to the saloon to find him badly mangling a piano rendition of ‘Some of These Days You’re Gonna Miss Me Honey’. Instructing Geoff to move over, Bonnie proves she can rock the house like a pro; her stiff upper lip and fast fingers pounding the ivories, ingratiating her to Geoff. 
Geoff and Bonnie share a drink at the bar, the implication - they’ll never see one another again. Bonnie is bound for America, the steamer leaving at midnight. Instead, on nothing more than a romantic whim Bonnie elects to remain behind in Barranca; incurring Geoff’s ire but also the Kid’s empathy. He tells her it’s no good; Geoff is not a noble guy but a loner who will not allow himself to be tied down. Bonnie rethinks her strategy and re-doubles her efforts. In the meantime, a new flyboy arrives in town; McPherson and his newlywed wife, Judy. The pair makes an impressive entrance. But soon, Geoff learns McPherson is travelling incognito to conceal his infamous reputation, rumored to have bailed on a previous mission, resulting in the death of the Kid’s younger brother. The Kid is understandably adversarial toward McPherson, informing him that if he had come to Baranca any sooner he – the Kid – would have surely shot him dead. As it stands, the Kid will thank McPherson to keep out of his way – or else.
Sometime later, Geoff learns the Kid has macular degeneration. He’s nearly blind and of no use in the air. So Geoff retires his best friend from active duty, putting a real strain on the fleet. The company is now two shy of the prerequisite to get the mail out on time and keep the business afloat. The Kid is hardly bitter, handling all repairs to the planes on the ground. Geoff takes his stress out on McPherson, ordering him on every mission where the element of danger is anted up; including a perilous assignment to deliver a crate of highly volatile nitroglycerin to an oil field on the other side of the mountains. McPherson never once shies away from Geoff’s insane itinerary. His chutzpah and professionalism gradually win McPherson the respect of his peers, including Geoff and the Kid. Thus, when Bonnie accidentally shoots Geoff in the shoulder – preventing him from flying another hazardous errand – the Kid offers to copilot the plane with McPherson. 
The two encounter some patchy fog and then a flock of albatross. The birds fly into the cockpit and engines, knocking the Kid unconscious and starting a fire that severely burns McPherson’s hands. Nevertheless, McPherson manages to land his crippled aircraft safely. He and the Kid are rescued by Geoff, but not long thereafter the Kid dies from his wounds; alas, not before he manages to sing McPherson’s praises. As a result, McPherson’s reputation is restored and he is embraced by the flyers as one of them. Meanwhile, the time is drawing nearer for Bonnie to leave Barranca aboard the next freighter. Geoff refuses to give her any good reason to stay, instead tossing her a coin from the Kid’s belongings. He tells her to flip it, calling heads prematurely. “I’m hard to get, Geoff”, Bonnie informs him, “…all you have to do is ask me.” Believing she means no more to Geoff than the coin, Bonnie is elated to discover both sides are labeled ‘heads’. Bonnie and Geoff are reconciled, the two well on their way to becoming more than casual lovers.
Only Angels Have Wings is perhaps the quintessential example of Howard Hawks’ elemental comraderies between men of action; a company of staunchly committed, stoic men, bent in their communal pursuit to perform daring dos that test their chest-thumping machismo. Hawks adored such exercises in male bonding; Hawks seemingly at home amidst guys who know the score and aren’t afraid to lay everything on the line. But the film also has Jean Arthur as the prototypical Hawksian heroine; hard-nosed and sassy on the outside, but with a softer than expected core; in short, the perfect mate for the solitary guy she has already chosen for her mate. Viewing Arthur’s effortless performance today, it is much too easy to forget how unpleasant things were between her and Hawks on the set.  Frequently, Arthur clashed with her director over the reading of even a single line. Years later, after observing Lauren Bacall uttering the famous line “I’m hard to get…” in Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944), Arthur offered Hawks an apology, at last, understanding what he had expected of her in this film.
While Arthur is certainly no Bacall, she definitely holds her own with an air of comedic class and distinction. Arthur is subtler in her sly scorn/yet simultaneous attraction to men who think they don’t need women in their lives; brassier in her wit and broader in interpreting a gal under the auto-piloted influence of love for a deliciously unlovable bastard. It all comes together so neatly in Only Angels Have Wings one can sincerely forget just how byzantine this character study is; the movie too: expertly paced and perfectly timed right down to the loaded pauses between peppered dialogue, magnificently interspersed and parceled off with harrowing action sequences. In hindsight, the special effects do not hold up nearly as well; the obvious models adding to the artifice, if not the believability of the story. It doesn’t matter, because Hawks’ is an imperious perfectionist when it comes to staging drama.
It is in the interplay between these characters that Only Angels Have Wings continues to sparkle like diamonds. There is an intuition – nee, aliveness – to the story; an arrogance too; Hawks almost as ballsy as his proto-masculine hell raiser; a mirror-image for the sort of guy’s guy Hawks believes himself to be. The screenplay is so perfectly pitched to the strengths of its cast that whoever is immediately in front of the camera becomes the star of the moment; Hawks never allowing our attention span to lapse for a second. He hits all the dramatic high points and even gets the occasional spontaneous laugh. Only Angels Have Wings hails 1939 as a year unparalleled in its movie-making prowess, still the exemplar by which the definition of Hollywood’s greatest achievements gone after it must take their cue.
Okay, Criterion’s release of Only Angels Have Wings appears to be culled from the same 4K transfer previously available from TCM as part of their short-lived and now very much defunct Blu-ray ‘exclusives’ line. TCM’s mismanagement of their ‘Vault Series’ is Criterion’s gain; also, a plus for fans who missed out on their first bite at the proverbial apple. Criterion already bests the TCM release by adding chapter stops. TCM’s bare-bones affair had none; rather, an arbitrary index accessible only by hitting the ‘advance’ button on one’s remote control, jumping ahead at ten minute intervals. Dumb! Really dumb!!! I am going to depart a moment to vocalize my own two cents about Criterion’s recent acquisition of a number of Sony/Columbia/Tri-Star releases coming soon – or rather – again in 1080p. While I cannot rightly disapprove of these re-issues, I can honestly wish Criterion had pursued ‘other’ deep catalog titles from Sony yet to see the light of day in hi-def once; Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, George Cukor’s Holiday, George Steven’s The Talk of the Town, among them; particularly since Sony has made titles like Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider (both getting reissues via Criterion) already available. I hate double-dipping; a pet peeve of mine. But I digress.
Only Angels Have Wings looks great on Blu-ray from Criterion – no surprise given the retired TCM transfer was flawless too. The formidable efforts of Grover Crisp at Sony are responsible for yet another pristine hi-def classic come to Blu-ray. Joseph Walker’s stunning cinematography is luminously represented herein. Blacks are deep and fully saturated; whites, crisp though never blooming. The early sequences shot with heavy diffusion filters to mimic this steamy tropical backwater look stifling hot, sweaty and gorgeous. Film grain is naturally represented and fine detail is revealed with a startling amount of clarity throughout. Also, age-related artifacts are practically nonexistent for a smooth and highly pleasing transfer. For the most part, this image is crisp, solid and expertly contrasted. So was the TCM’s Blu-ray. So, while everything looks fantastic, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Criterion’s release contains a PCM mono audio. The TCM was advertised as 2.0 Dolby Digital. Honestly, I really cannot tell the difference between the two. Unlike the TCM release, Criterion’s reissue is region ‘A’ locked. Good news for North America. Not so good for everybody else.
Criterion’s big bonus? Extras!!!  For starters, we get almost 20 min. of audio from a 1972 conversation between filmmakers, Howard Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich. Critic, David Thomson waxes affectionately for 18 additional minutes. Thomson really needs to be given the opportunity to do feature-length commentaries for Criterion. He is a fascinating orator with copious knowledge to impart. These ‘puff pieces’ from Criterion are nice, but they barely scratch the surface of his vast storehouse of information. Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies is another 20 min. puff piece, featuring film scholars, Craig Barron and Ben Burtt – actually a carryover from the TCM release. I confess, I have never listened to any of the Lux Radio Theatre adaptations that Criterion loves to include with these deep catalog releases. Finally, Criterion whips out a careworn trailer in 1080i and a great essay by critic, Michael Sragow, featured in the liner notes. Sure as hell beats the ole TCM Blu-ray that referred to ‘posters’ and ‘lobby cards’ as ‘extras’. Why not ‘full color artwork on disc’ like Disney used to do? Let’s cut to the chase. Bottom line: it’s the quality of the transfer you should care about and on this score, Criterion’s reissue of Only Angels Have Wings is a winner through and through. You are going to love this disc. It’s that simple. For those who never bothered to pick up the retired TCM release – this one comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, March 18, 2016

DINNER AT EIGHT (MGM 1933) Warner Home Video

MGM, the studio with "more stars than there are in heaven", recently proven by putting six of its top talents in a single picture (producer, Irving Thalberg’s audaciously lavish, Grand Hotel, 1932 and directed by Edmund Goulding) were off and running with a new formula for making pictures. Conventional wisdom up until Grand Hotel had dictated the parceling off of stars – one or maybe two per picture. But in his ingenious mania of creativity, and, to celebrate Metro’s formidable assets, Thalberg had thrown everything he had into Grand Hotel; the gamble paying off handsomely. Thalberg and his boss, Louis B. Mayer differed on how to make pictures; Mayer desiring a quota of 52 movies per annum, while Thalberg suggested more heavy investments on fewer projects, imbued with exceptional scope and quality – pictures so good and so far above the status quo that audiences would be compelled to see them. For a while, Mayer remained bitterly silent, secretly hoping Thalberg would fall flat on his face, thus proving Mayer’s point of view and giving him carte blanche to reign in Thalberg’s extravagances. However, Thalberg possessed a rather uncanny knack for picking winners. Within a relative short period he had built a reputation within the industry as an untouchable force of nature – odd, too, since, in life, Thalberg was quiet, introspective and physically, unprepossessing; the antithesis of what author and playwright, Vicki Baum had once dubbed him, as ‘the little dynamo’
A clean sweep at the Oscars, in hindsight, Grand Hotel is the film that launched a new kind of opulence; imitators, mostly, with the exception of producer, David O. Selznick’s Dinner At Eight (1933), directed by George Cukor. Interestingly, both movies are producer, rather than director, driven, designed to show off the studio’s preeminence in the art of star-making; L.B. Mayer’s edict to his talent scouts – “find me a personality…I can make a star” – a testament to this sort of manufactured glamour, never again to be rivaled. David Selznick had come to MGM after stints at RKO and Paramount, the very last stop on his way to becoming Hollywood’s first independent producer. In truth, Selznick never quite fit ‘the system’. Despite having wed Mayer’s daughter, Irene – a marriage paving the way for the barb ‘the son-in-law also rises’, Selznick’s greatest ambition apart from Mayer was to sit in his chair, calling the shots and making the sorts of pictures he wanted to without any outside intervention. Selznick had guts and greatness coursing through his veins, repeatedly proving he could do marketable pictures; Dinner at Eight being a prime example. In some ways, Selznick was out to prove it wasn’t only Thalberg who could helm a six-star smash hit; the proof in Selznick’s personal investment to reshape this George S. Kaufman/Edna Ferber stage hit into another star-studded showcase, devoted mostly to his own peerless level of showmanship.
In retrospect, Dinner at Eight is exactly the right movie for the right moment – an elegantly mounted cliché of the hoi poloi, rife to be made absurd as they dine on their fine Finnan Haddie, but especially at the height of the Great Depression – already perceived as the oxymoron(s) of their generation; proof positive for the impoverished masses, the country was going to the dogs, mismanaged by this silly sect of saucy and slick simpletons, made soft in body, mind and spirit by luxuries as gauche at best to a nation struggling to keep body and soul together. And Dinner at Eight does not disappoint on this score; culling together five of Metro’s most distinguished names, and, fattening out the roster with at least eight more heavy weights who promised, though never quite achieve the same level of ‘star status’. Of the heavy hitters, the picture belongs mostly to Jean Harlow; that sassy platinum Venus, then barely twenty-two and tragically, with only another four years left to live. By 1933, Harlow had made a career of playing déclassé dames and bawdy broads with a stinger of innocence muffled under her bee-stung lips and arched, penciled-in brows; her persona soon to be reshaped – or rather, refrained – at the insistence of Hollywood’s self-governing code of censorship. Had she lived, Harlow would have inevitably been forced to endure a ‘cooling’ off of her white hot and searing public persona as the tart. In life, Harlow was hardly that; a self-professed ‘homebody’ who enjoyed sitting on the lap of her father in-between takes, and whose most risqué behavior then is rumored to have slept in the raw – alone. Herein, Harlow is cast as Kitty Packard, a barroom floozy, since latched onto boorish sugar daddy, Dan (Wallace Beery).
Sporting an immaculate and frilly ensemble of elegant gowns and nighties, created with adoring perfection by Metro’s resident couturier, Adrian, Harlow is enigmatic as the lowborn Kitty, matching her husband’s brutish verbosity tit for tat, calling him out on his weakness for hard-working women he can exploit, but having a soft spot – alas, in the back of his head (as Dan lacks any understanding he might possess a real human heart) for flashy young things like Kitty whom he can bounce on his knee. Kitty was once starry-eyed and fresh-faced. Now, she’s steely-eyed and quite simply fresh, not above telling her man what’s what with her charming lack of culture; yet, reserving her most amusing lines for retired Broadway legend, Carlotta Vance (the wickedly funny, Marie Dressler), “I was reading a book the other day…a nutty kind of a book. Do you know the man in it says machinery is going to take the place of every profession today?” Harlow’s Kitty innocently explains, to which Dressler’s piss-elegant old beef astutely eyes her up and down, casually replying, “Oh my dear, that’s one thing you need never worry about!”  
The moment, captured in a medium travelling shot, is arguably the highlight of the picture; the result of Selznick’s last minute tinkering and conviction his movie needed a lighter moment to cap off what is essentially a very dark and disturbing prediction for the future. It should be pointed out that virtually all of the protagonists in Dinner at Eight are cynical sad sacks of one sort or another; drunk on power, disillusioned by life, challenged by fate, embittered through time, and, sorely lacking in virtually any scruples beyond the best that money can buy. The most resourceful of this enterprising lot is Kitty Packard, perhaps because Harlow – like her character – straddles this chasm between frivolous wealth and no-nonsense ferocity. Relying on screenwriter, Donald Ogden Stewart; Marie Dressler remains the perfect counterpoint to Harlow’s naïvely rancid vixen. In life, Dressler, a one-time Vaudevillian, reduced to cleaning houses for a living when MGM’s Irving Thalberg elected to give her a second career, would tower over almost all of Metro’s most marketable assets – on par with the likes of such luminous creations as Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. Audiences were immediately drawn to her weather-beaten charm and careworn views on life in general – and, at least in Dinner at Eight, society expressly; Dressler’s ability to morph from highborn matrons to dowdy drunkards, and everything in between, earning her a top place amongst MGM’s most cherished and fondly recalled icons from the 1930’s.
As Thalberg had done in Grand Hotel, Selznick could not resist the urge to cast Lionel and John Barrymore in Dinner at Eight; the Barrymores, Hollywood royalty and legends of the theater besides. Lionel is shipping magnet, Oliver Jordan; suffering the slings and arrows of a declining economy and likely to lose control of the once-prosperous business built by his late father from scratch. Oliver and Carlotta are old friends, each confessing how hard their seemingly Teflon-coated lives have been hit by the Depression; both, unlikely to survive the crippling deluge yet to follow. After all, neither is a spring chicken. But Oliver’s life is complicated further by his marriage to daffy society matron, Millicent (Billie Burke), narrow-mindedly immersed in her fastidious plans to pull off an elegant soirée, and, whose greatest concern is that the aspic will melt before dinner is over. Also in attendance are the aging has-been actor, Larry Renault (John Barrymore), Kitty and Dan, Carlotta, Oliver’s personal physician, Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe) and his wife, Lucy (Karen Morley). The wrinkle, soon to be exposed, is that some of these seemingly unrelated party guests already know one another much too well; Wayne realizing Oliver is gravely ill; Kitty, having an extramarital affair with Wayne, and Larry, caught in a May/December romance, desperately pursued by the Jordan’s impetuous daughter, Paula (Madge Evans).  Larry thinks he can make it work, if only he can regain something of the reputation he once had as a distinguished star of stage and screen.
Alas, Larry’s own worst enemy is his ego – topped only by the malicious pride of his one-time agent, Max Kane (Lee Tracy), who instructs him to take a good hard look in the mirror at what he has become. “You sag like an old woman!” In some ways, Dinner at Eight is rather cruel to John Barrymore’s reputation; once considered, ‘the great profile’ but largely taken on by MGM for the cache of his name alone; succumbing to fits of depression, teeter-tottered with bouts of hellish alcoholism that did much to wreck his good looks and reputation as a leading man. Barrymore isn’t quite so far gone to seed in Dinner at Eight, and yet his reincarnation as Larry Renault invites parallels between art and life; particularly in the moment where he performs a most un-glamorous middle-aged and self-pitying sprawl, tripping on a stool in his fashionable penthouse before turning on the gas jets in his fireplace to commit suicide. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Unlike his alter ego, Barrymore would continue to stagger through life and the movies for another seven years; his subsequent roles elevating this self-parody. Only in hindsight does he veer into grotesqueness and caricature; painful revelations of a more self-destructive nature. In Dinner at Eight, Barrymore gives us a terribly tragic glimpse into his own future forecast; Renault, blowing every opportunity to regain a bit of his own back professionally, but nobly sacrificing his last great chance at ever-lasting happiness by giving up the woman who adores him; freed in death from the tyranny of his own appalling downward spiral.
From top to bottom, Dinner at Eight is an A-list production – a Selznick picture, despite being made at MGM and by no less an éminence grise than George Cukor. The picture is imbued with Metro’s superficial sheen and verve for surface glamour audiences of the thirties simply could not resist. But it also retains an air of distinct sophistication; a hallmark of Cukor’s urbane early masterpieces, and apart from Selznick’s chronic tinkering. “I did Dinner at Eight in twenty-eight days,” Cukor would later muse, “It’s haunted me my entire career. People say, ‘Well…if you can do all that so quickly…’ I suppose it all went so smoothly because of all those expert actors. George Kaufman was quite an astringent writer…not terribly profound, but with the saving grace of being very funny…and Harlow…was suddenly marvelous in comedy; tough and yet feminine – like Mae West, wise-crackers, but vulnerable. It made them attractive. There was something quite soft about Harlow’s toughness. (Dressler) was the biggest star of her time in low comedy…she knew how to make an entrance with great aplomb – great effect. And Jack…although he was playing a second-rate actor, he had absolutely no vanity as such and even put things in to make himself hammier, more ignorant. I’ve always found that if first-rate actors respect you, they’ll try anything.
During filming, cast and crew were treated to a much publicized visit by noted playwright, George Bernard Shaw – who remained mildly amused and equally as fascinated by the craft of film-making; a ploy to promote Dinner at Eight, orchestrated to perfection by MGM publicity man, Barrett Kiesling. Another of Kiesling’s coups was in securing a now famous endorsement, showing the entire cast, decked out in their finery, together with George Cukor, enjoying Coca-Cola in between takes; a means, not only to sell the picture, but advance Coke’s stature as the beverage of choice among the moneyed sect as “a way to snap back to normal and be alert.” With an unusually short shooting schedule (Cukor had the whole affair wrapped up and in the can in only 28 days), Dinner at Eight was one of MGM’s cheapest all-star movies to make; coming in at barely $387,000. At the picture’s August premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Selznick could barely contain his enthusiasm as he gloated, “We have, I think, achieved the ideal of Cavalcade, one of the finest pictures ever made…in that Dinner at Eight is adult, intelligent, and, at the same time, has an extremely wide mass and down to earth appeal!”  Indeed, audiences and critics were almost unanimous in their praise, embracing Selznick’s three course meal as a soap-opera-ish feast of lavishly appointed escapism. $3 million dollars later, and Mayer was adjusting himself to the fact he now had two great producers under his wing; Thalberg, already his VP in Charge of Production, and Selznick, who would not be as contented to merely remain a subsidiary unit under Thalberg’s scrutiny within the studio’s hierarchy.
Interestingly, Thalberg, who had been convalescing from a mild heart attack, bore Selznick no earthly malice upon his return to the studio – unlike a good many of Mayer’s other – lesser –producers, who had allowed their loyalty to Thalberg to muddle their thinking. Viewed from their vantage as Thalberg’s ‘replacement’, Selznick entered the lion’s den with a burgeoning animosity directed squarely at him; baited by this brain trust with incessant criticisms and a general contempt for what was then perceived as Mayer’s rather transparent nepotism. In truth, the executives had more of a beef with Mayer than Selznick – although, they likely took their cue from the old adage about never biting the hand that feeds. Nevertheless, Selznick was viewed as the interloper at MGM; a very low opinion that would remain subliminally steadfast and weigh heavily upon Selznick’s confidence until the premiere of Dinner at Eight.  The picture’s irrefutable success added stature to Selznick’s reputation on the back lot, now begrudgingly viewed with an uneasy respect. Selznick, like Thalberg, seemed to have his finger on the pulse of the public. Aware what Selznick had gone through in his absence, Thalberg now arranged a quiet ‘social’ meeting in his office – a chance for the two to get to know one another – after which Thalberg went out of his way to promote and stand behind Selznick’s other pending projects; a professional courtesy backed by Thalberg’s genuine empathy and appreciation for Selznick’s creative talents.
Immediately following a positively ‘delicious’ main title sequence, in which each of the leading players is given their moment, reflected in an elegant place setting, we meet the Jordans; slightly careworn and exhausted Oliver and his addlepated and nattering wife, Millicent, who has decided to give an elegant party in honor of visiting dignitaries, Lord and Lady Ferncliff. Oliver finds such social gatherings a bore. But his mood is considerably improved when Millicent informs him that against her better judgement she has decided to invite Carlotta Vance to the party; a relic of the stage, well past her prime. Oliver is slightly concerned over his daughter, Paula’s mildly despondent behavior, all but ignored by her mother.  The news is even more grim at the office; Oliver, informing his ever-devoted secretary, Miss Copeland (Elizabeth Patterson) and his managing accountant, Mr. Stengel (Jean Hersholt) the steamer, Castilian has not enough cargo aboard it to make the transatlantic crossing viable. This direness is diluted by an unexpected visit from Carlotta; a breath of fresh air from the Delmonico period both she and Oliver remember all too well, or perhaps continue to admire through rose-colored glasses. Oliver quickly discovers Carlotta has fallen on hard times; asked to explain her six fur coats to U.S. Customs and struggling to gain control over her liquid assets; oil, railroads, cotton, etc. But beyond these, she is all but penniless and miserable, thanks to an extravagant lifestyle that has bankrupted her.  
Miss Copeland attempts to ingratiate herself to Carlotta, but instead ruffles the old bird’s feathers by suggesting she was only a little girl when she first saw Carlotta on the stage. “How extraordinary,” Carlotta replies with a stern glare, “You and I must have a talk someday…about the Civil War!” To ease her financial burdens, Carlotta proposes to Oliver she sell her Jordan stock back to him; a move he wishes she would not consider just now, particularly as something is in the wind – perhaps, even a hostile corporate takeover.  To stave off the sharks already smelling blood in the water, Oliver has invited Dan Packard for a little businessmen’s tête-à-tête. Dan has parlayed a miner’s pay into one of the most successful strikes in the nation and long since diversified his business holdings as one of the richest men in America. Alas, money has been unable to wipe clean the palette of uncouth, boorish and bullying tactics Dan has used to get along in the world, acquiring people and places like things to be bent in service to his beckoned call.  Presumably to help Oliver out, Dan instructs him to get together a portfolio of the company’s assets to present to his board with the possible caveat of extending the Jordan line a line of credit to temporarily see them through the Depression. Meanwhile, Millicent keeps her cousin, Hattie Loomis (Louise Closser Hale) and her husband, Ed (Grant Mitchell) at bay; poor relations she has little use for; a mutual feeling to be sure.
Millicent begins to telephone her invitations; starting with the most unpleasant of the lot – Kitty Packard; Dan’s second trophy wife, grown impatient of the good life besides. Kitty feigns culture; a raucous mix of piss-elegance and Brooklyn spank that leaves even her bad-mannered and cigarette smoking lady’s maid, Tina (Hilda Vaughn) stifled. Kitty cannot wait to attend Millicent’s dinner party. At first, Dan resists. After all, his intentions toward Oliver are nothing less than dishonorable – plotting to take over the Jordan line by buying up controlling stock using a bunch of dummy corporations to keep his name out of it until Oliver has sunk everything and lost the shirt off his back. But when Kitty explains the party is being given in Lord and Lady Ferncliff’s honor, Dan jumps at the opportunity. After all, he has been trying to meet the richest man in England for nearly two years, but to no avail. Departing for Washington with renewed vigor, Dan remains unaware Kitty is having an affair with her physician, Dr. Wayne Talbot, who pays a house call after Kitty fakes illness. Even before he has entered the room, Talbot is regretting this visit. After all, he cannot help but see how this extramarital affair has cost him plenty – a personal sacrifice, to start, as his own wife Lucy is, as ever, utterly devoted to him. Kitty’s overtures of love are overheard by Tina who, afterward, successfully bribes Kitty with keeping her secret for the price of a diamond bracelet – arguably, only the first bauble to fall prey to Tina’s greed.
Returning to his office, Dr. Talbot is forced to take another ‘emergency’ phone call from Kitty. Believing he is in the comfort of his private office, Wayne speaks plainly to Kitty as lovers do, suddenly becoming aware his own wife, Lucy, has slipped into the room unnoticed. He attempts to do damage control but it’s no use. Lucy quietly confides she has been aware of his raging infidelities for quite some time; having kept secret the first affair that nearly tore her to pieces inside, Lucy has since found it less painful to suffer through Wayne’s various indiscretions, including Kitty, whom she regards as just another passing fancy. Karen Morely’s acting in this moment is quite remarkable; something deeply heartfelt and caught in the faraway ‘lost’ look she gives the camera; a woman scorned, yet quite unable to purge herself of the love barrier still very much chaining her emotional happiness to this man who would deign step upon her good graces at every possible chance, idiotically believing he has gotten away with anything and everything to satisfy his own shameless sexual appetites. She sincerely wounds him without perhaps even knowing how much; his embarrassment translated into a sort of apropos contrition, doomed not to last.
Not long thereafter, Dr. Talbot informs Oliver Jordan he is gravely ill and will likely die. The news is not nearly as devastating as Talbot had supposed; Oliver intuitively knowing the end is near. Nevertheless, he is staunchly determined to keep his undisclosed illness a secret from his wife – as though, in her present micromanagement of the dinner party she would even presume to care what is happening to her husband. In the meantime, we meet Larry Renault – a has-been one-time big Broadway star attempting his great comeback with the help of agent, Max Kane. Kane tries to soften the latest blow; the backers who planned to star Larry in a theatrical show have since taken their money elsewhere. Kane informs Larry it isn’t the end. After all, he has managed to get Larry an interview with two new backers. But this opportunity Larry badly bungles when he learns how small the part is, incurring Kane’s rage. Kane is cruel in his admonishments, realistically telling his client, “You sag like an old women. Just wait till you start peddling yourself around to office boys who’ve never even heard of you. You’re a corpse and you don’t even know it. Go and get yourself buried.” Earlier, Larry had accepted Millicent’s invitation to dine; the family unknowing Paula has been carrying on a notorious affair with Larry, despite the fact she is engaged to a nice boy, Ernest (whom we never see) and flying in the face of all decency as Larry is still married to his third wife, whom he has cheated on numerous times. But now, Larry cannot help but see the end of his days and lifestyle fast approaching. Without Kane he will never make a comeback. It’s over. And without Paula’s love he can never be a real man. Alas, Paula is too good for him and this even Larry recognizes – to his own detriment as he prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice to preserve her dignity and put a period to all his self-loathing and degradations.
Not surprisingly, Cukor has based his cinematic oeuvre on the rigidly structured Broadway show; things reaching a fevered crescendo in act three as, after having established all of his main characters and their perplexed lives, Cukor now tightens the yoke on at least some of these meandering variables to bring about the penultimate tragedy – Larry’s suicide. Carlotta spies Paula leaving Larry Renault’s suite and puts two and two together. Promising to meet Paula at her parents for dinner at eight, Larry instead satisfies his yen for stiff drink, dons his best robe and prepares to end his life by igniting the gas jets in his fireplace. At the last possible moment, he takes a tumble on a misplaced stool, crawling with whimpering despair to a nearby easy chair into which he pathetically slumps, succumbing to the fumes at last. News of his death reaches Paula as the party guests begins to assemble. Millicent is unresponsive, but Paula is understandably inconsolable. Only Carlotta sees through her pain, pulling Paula aside to learn the true depth of her lost affections for Larry Renault; encouraging Paula to keep these closely guarded. She must forget Larry, as confessing their affair now would only wound her mother and father and create a desperate family scandal. Best to reconsider the pain, and instead focus on the young man who otherwise might have squired her heart – Ernest, whom Millicent and Oliver expect Paula to marry anyway.
Alas, Millicent’s grand party coup is all for not – the Ferncliffs having elected to go to Florida instead – a social snub for which the frantic Millicent almost suffers a nervous breakdown. At the Packard homestead, Dan discovers Kitty has been unfaithful to him. Although he has yet to learn the identity of her seducer, Dan vows to divorce Kitty at once. But now Kitty plays her trump card; threatening Dan with exposure of his dishonorable business practices; his sly corporate flimflams that have made him a very rich man but subsequently destroyed the lives of some honest businessmen along the way. Divorce Kitty? Not without burning his own carefully constructed bridges into the political arena. No, Dan will have to endure Kitty a while long – perhaps indefinitely – if he so desires to step up his game in Washington as the President’s most trusted advisor. As a last ditch replacement couple for the party, Millicent invites Hattie and Ed as substitutes for the Ferncliffs, thereby foiling Dan Packard’s whole purpose for attending. While preparing for dinner, Oliver suffers yet another collapse. Dr. Talbot informs Millicent of her husband’s serious condition and, at last, she is shaken from her insular complacency, taking charge of more prescient matters and placing Oliver’s care at the forefront as her only concern. Oliver agrees to carry on with the party. Dan Packard lies to him about one of his colleagues, Baldridge, having made a sneaky stab to take over the Jordan line. As per Kitty’s conditions for keeping her mouth shut about her husband’s spurious business practices, Dan promises to save Oliver’s company, rather than buy it up lock, stock and barrel. As the guests file into the dining room, Kitty confides in Carlotta the business about machinery taking the place of every profession today, allowing Carlotta the very last word, “My dear, that’s one thing you need never worry about!”
Dinner at Eight is a tautly scripted, slightly wordy tragi-comedy with A-list production values and an even more absorbing cast of Metro’s best players to pull it off without a hitch. Cukor’s direction is mostly satisfying; although his periodic usage of split screen dissolves to illustrate action taking place simultaneously in two different locations seems strained at best. The central performances still hold up remarkably well – particularly, Jean Harlow, Lionel and John Barrymore, and, Marie Dressler. To a lesser extent, Billie Burke proves her mettle, especially in the final reels as she suffers through a miraculous transformation from scatterbrained socialite, arguably, the movie’s whacky figure of fun, into a suddenly – and equally as convincing – spouse, devoted to her ailing husband’s care. In retrospect, one can see why Madge Evans and Edmund Lowe were quick to disappear from Metro’s top-tier roster shortly after the release of Dinner at Eight. Alas, Lee Tracy’s fall from grace had more to do with his ego than his talent. But Lowe and Evans really are a second rate coupling, compared to the aforementioned glitterati. They never rise above a sort of homogenized mediocrity for which no amount of studio training or glamour can cure.  At its most delightfully obtuse and/or heartrending moments, Dinner at Eight remains an effervescent bauble from Hollywood’s golden age; a blistering example of the sort of highly polished and expertly executed glam-bam the dream factories made en masse, and, seemingly without even an afterthought, though undeniably, with a great deal of effort put forth by all involved. In hindsight, L.B. Mayer’s insistence on finding ‘personalities’ he could mold into rarefied creations of the silver screen was a very sound logic. Mayer’s MGM set an industry standard for many good years yet to follow.
No one can ‘make’ a star today – the process by which a diamond in the rough ascends beyond and into the surreal bonds of a life apart from we mere mortals to become a ‘presence’ and yes, even a legend in their own time, impossible to achieve in our present age and our ravenous thirst for instant – if pre-processed – celebrities; infinitely more famous (and, in some cases, infamous) for their private lives than any piece of acting committed to the screen.  Dinner at Eight reminds us of that other time and otherworldly realm devoted to the bona fide movie star – a creation not to be discovered in nature, but carefully crafted and exploited for the sole purpose of bringing joy and beauty into the world. In some ways, I would have this time again. It says a great deal about film - any film - as art that movies like Dinner at Eight continue to resonate and appeal to audiences, despite changing tastes and times. Nostalgia is one thing. But Dinner at Eight is not about reliving or reviving an era as much as it manages to cling, linger and reincarnate a timeless passion for movies as art – commercially viable, slickly packaged and marvelously cast – but ultimately, more art than commerce and likely to remain untainted in perpetuity as all great works of art do – both timely and timeless.
Were that the denizens at Warner Home Video had come around to giving us a Blu-ray of Dinner at Eight by now. But no – we are still behind the times and the eight ball with this tepid DVD. It’s passable as far as DVD mastering goes – at least, to a point – lacking more solid contrast and a general dismissal of indigenous film grain, looking slightly homogenized and therefore, depriving us of the vibrant and satiny sheen of the silver screen image.  I am sincerely going to petition the Warner Archive to get busy on a Blu-ray of this golden oldie. It certainly needs and deserves no less consideration. Ah, but what’s here? Well, a B&W image with a competently rendered, though unremarkable grey scale; a lot of it falling somewhere into mid-register tonality. Age-related artifacts are present but have been mostly cleaned up. If Dinner at Eight ever makes the leap to hi-def I cannot imagine a lot of restoration work required to spiffy it up in 1080p. The Dolby Digital mono audio has been cleaned up but continues to exhibit a fairly noticeable background hiss. Oh well, there is only so much to be done within the limitations of original Westrex sound recording. Extras include a bio on Harlow hosted Sharon Stone. It’s frankly brief and not terribly inspiring, more of a travelogue through Harlow’s career without any real depth or substance about the woman herself. We also get a short subject: Come to Dinner and the original trailer. Bottom line: until a Blu-ray comes along, this one gets recommended for content mostly. The transfer is okay but would greatly benefit from a new hi-def scan. We’ll see.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)