Tuesday, August 2, 2016

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF: Blu-ray (MGM 1958) Warner Archive

In the mid-1950’s Hollywood turned hopefully, or perhaps – desperately – to the only commodity its arch nemesis, television, was incapable of revealing to its audience: sex. In point of fact, the movies were little more than one step ahead of their competition where sex was concerned; the Production Code of Censorship ensuring nothing of a gratuitous or shocking nature ever appeared on the screen. Kisses were timed down to three second pecks and even married couples were forced to sleep in separate beds. Ah me, the naiveté of the 1950’s. In some ways, I would have those times again. There is something to be said for the Victorian rigidity applied to movie culture then. It not only precluded what was once deemed as the ‘moral corruption’ of the average ticket goer to proliferate and feed off itself (as it so readily panders to the lowest common denominator on movie screens today). But it also forced filmmakers to be extremely devious – nee artistic – in the way they conceived to communicate such lasciviousness; the implication frequently more tantalizing when pushed through these boundaries with inferences made more provocative, and, by extension, more thought-provoking in their statements about life in general – love in particular – and sex, mostly as an afterthought. Thus, it is no small coincidence that at a time when television began to dissuade audiences from going to their local Bijou, the industry  became as entrenched in its battle for survival by exploiting the masterworks of certain playwrights and authors to whom such boundaries seemingly did not apply.
Unquestionably, the most popular of these was Tennessee Williams; an unassuming Southerner who possessed a particular yen for telling (and retelling) tales of his alma mater; not as fine fictions with their gallant cavaliers and ladies fair, but of the dry rot, wormwood and post-antebellum decay inflicted upon once proud families, since struggling to maintain their façade in the great tradition; their stolidity and solemnity intruded on by deliciously wicked family secrets, and – yes; even the specter of a strong belle, forced to trade her love-starved sanctity to achieve an end by whatever means her wily intellect could devise. To be sure, Williams’ particular brand of ‘southern Gothic’ was more tart cider than smooth mint julep, and, not easily or even immediately embraced by the public at large until the debut of The Glass Menagerie in 1944. Even then, with Menagerie’s overnight Broadway success, and the subsequent trailblazing efforts put forth in A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth, Hollywood, at first, paid little attention to Williams’ success until the mid-1950's. After all, given the tawdry subject matter, it must have seemed daring to downright foolhardy even to attempt any big screen translations without having to severely water down William’s prose, thus defeating the purpose in the exercise. However, at war’s end, the public’s appetite for realism in their popular entertainments began to tug at the reigning codes of censorship. Moreover, directors like Elia Kazan, Otto Preminger and Richard Brooks were bravely challenging the precepts of the Code, discovering more than a few cracks and loopholes they could take advantage of in order to tell more psychologically complex and adult stories on celluloid.    
“Maggie the cat is alive!” – so declared a sexually frustrated Elizabeth Taylor in Richard Brook’s all-star adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958); perhaps the cinema’s finest of any of the playwright’s stage works transposed to the screen. Alas, the morphing from one medium to the next was not without its artistic sacrifices; the irascible Brooks having a hell of a time fighting both Hollywood’s censorship and MGM to preserve most of the play’s incendiary critique of social mores, sexual ambiguity and unadulterated greed. To his credit, Brooks managed to imply a great deal of subtext without having his characters show or even overtly admit to anything. Richard Brooks holds a rather dubious distinction in Hollywood; namely, while virtually all who worked for him have recognized his innate gifts as a visual storyteller, none particularly cared for the man himself; an unabashedly brittle and caustic creative genius, who gave commands – rather than suggestions to his cast and crew – and damn-well expected each to be strictly observed. Brooks tolerated nothing on his set. He did, however, have to bite his tongue, even as he chafed at certain caveats imposed on him in preparing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for its big screen debut: first, MGM’s decision to cast Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in the leads. Brooks would have preferred Ben Gazarra, who originated the role of the closeted homosexual, Brick Pollitt on Broadway. Briefly, Metro toyed with the idea of recalling Lana Turner to her alma mater; the actress’ downward spiral in popularity reversed a year earlier with the release of Peyton Place and the salacious real-life drama played out to victory in the court of popular opinion after daughter, Cheryl stabbed Turner’s infamous lover, Mafioso Johnny Stompanato in her boudoir.  There are also inner office memos to suggest plans to entice Grace Kelly to do the part; Kelly having already departed Tinsel Town for Monaco and her new life as its regal princess.
Eventually, Elizabeth Taylor beat out the competition. For a while it looked as though the real sparks in Cat on A Hot Tin Roof would be behind closed doors. For Taylor could be just as reticent and entrenched in her ideas as Brooks. Alas, timing and the ill wind of fate conspired against this perfect storm; Taylor narrowly escaping death by contracting a virus, precluding her from accompanying husband/producer Michael Todd to New York.  When Todd’s plane crashed near Grants, New Mexico, killing everyone on board, Taylor’s personal life went into a very public tailspin, delaying production for nearly a month. Picking up the pieces of her life, Taylor was noticeably thinner and more contrite than confrontational on the set; Brooks, empathetic, guiding her with an uncharacteristic ginger touch. In fact, Taylor would later recall Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as ‘therapy’ for getting over Todd’s untimely passing. Brooks had less kind things to say about Paul Newman, despite Newman’s very fine performance. Newman’s great strengths during this early period were undeniably his drop-dead good looks and his meticulous method training at the Actor’s Studio. Alas, Newman was also prone to questioning everything from his character’s motivations to the positioning of the camera; perhaps, not out of vanity or any desire to challenge Brooks’ authority as the director, though ultimately the pair did not hit it off. Brooks also encountered minor protest from his cinematographer, William Daniels who informed his director of a chosen camera angle revealing too much of Elizabeth Taylor’s cleavage. Asked by Brooks what was wrong with that, Daniels reportedly replied “We don’t make movies like that at MGM!”
Brooks worked with co-writer, James Poe in a meticulously symbiosis on the necessary revisions in order to satisfy the Code; removing all references to Brick’s homosexual attraction to his best friend, Skipper. Henceforth, Brick’s sexual frigidity toward Maggie turned inward to suggest, though never clearly iterate, a psychological impotence caused by Brick’s misunderstanding Maggie and Skipper had had an affair. In viewing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof today, Brooks’ changes seem a tad strained; his inability to ‘explain’, in any concrete way, Brick’s refusal to bed a startlingly attractive and sinfully flirtatious wife, a very ‘queer’ curiosity indeed.  Brooks did attempt to maintain just enough of Tennessee William’s original intent, dropping hints to the audience that flew under the Code’s radar; as when Brick angrily informs a frantic Maggie, “You agreed to accept that ‘condition’!” Barring any outline of exactly what ‘that condition’ was, Brick’s antagonism and Maggie’s vexations would remain more an oddity of the southern Gothic style than an exploration of their ongoing dilemma.
Evidently, none of this baffled movie goers in 1958. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof went on to ring cash registers around the world. Brooks, whose reputation in Hollywood, and at Metro in particular, had been begrudgingly secured, now was elevated to the exalted status of an untouchable; classified as an auteur by the progressive French. Brooks took it all in stride. Indeed, he could afford to be magnanimous in the moment; basking in the picture’s worldwide popularity and success. In hindsight, and given the external stringency imposed on its production, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a miracle of taut and tenacious human sexuality; by far one of the most erotic melodramas to emerge from the straight-jacketed fifties. Despite the picture’s immediate reception as a bona fide classic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof incurred the ire of its original author – Tennessee Williams. The outspoken playwright made no attempt to censure his thoughts on the movie, claiming it set back the progressive cause against film censorship by fifty years.  Williams was also unimpressed by Brooks’ rewrite of nearly his entire third act: achieving reconciliation between Brick and his stubborn/ailing father, Big Daddy (Burl Ives in a career-altering role). The play had ended with Big Daddy’s imminent death from pancreatic cancer and no resolution to the acrimonious relationship between father and son; the movie, on a more light-hearted denouement of sexual reawakening between Brick and Maggie, after Brick discovers Maggie never cheated on him with Skipper.
One of the film’s necessary revisions was Big Daddy’s prior knowledge of Brick’s prediction for young men. Discovering his son’s proclivity forced the old patriarch’s hand to quickly shore up all looming suspicions by rushing Brick into a marriage of convenience to conceal his latent homoerotic tendencies. As a result, Brick’s resentment of Maggie had stemmed from his abject hatred of his own father’s meddling in his lifestyle; the lengthy debate over ‘mendacity’ and Brick’s unbridled disgust for all lies and liars, further blunted in the movie, since Big Daddy is oblivious there are even marital issues driving a wedge between Brick and Maggie. To his credit, director Brooks sets this confrontation in the basement of Big Daddy’s estate; the equivalent of the inner most part of one’s secret self; surrounding Newman and Ives with relics from the past; including an oversized poster of Brick in his prime as a college athlete, juxtaposed against his present condition as an emotionally and physically emasculated alcoholic; the general contempt boiling over into a series of ‘true’ confessions; the most devastating, Brick’s revelation Big Daddy is fatally stricken with not much time left to set his house in order.
On stage, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is basically a two room drama set in the decay of a once prominent southern clan gradually gone to seed. Alas, in Metro’s zeal to will an immaculate super colossus out of this intimate story, we get William A. Horning and Urie McCleary’s spectacular production design in its place. The Pollitt estate has gone from dingy backwater to Tara-esque moonlight and magnolia glamorous southern plantation; the garden alone, with its weeping bowers of angel-hair moss and plastic kudzu enough to make a Clayton County farmer rub his eyeballs in disbelief. Mercifully, the Metro’s gloss never overpowers the razor-back intensity in the drama. Nor does it outshine the central performances, mostly because Richard Brooks knows where to place his camera for maximum effect; Tennessee William’s dialogue always punctuated by expertly timed close-ups and two-shots that simply crackle with an even more caustic, if generally unspoken, naked electricity.
Our story begins inauspiciously on the high school track in the wee hours of morning; a drunken Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman) imagining the roar of adulation from the stands as he attempts to conquer the hurdles while heavily under the influence. It is a fool’s folly, and one for which fate has a more brutal and sobering reality in store. Brick snags and sprains his ankle on one of the hurdles, the cheers inside his head instantly vanquished as he clutches this painfully fresh wound. Fast track to the next afternoon; Brick still has not learned his lesson, pouring out his discontent at regular intervals from a fresh bottle of brandy; cause for concern as far as Big Momma (Judith Anderson) is concerned. Unfairly, she blames Brick’s wife, Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) for her son’s alcoholism; also for the fact they are childless after more than a year of marriage. Maggie attempts to goad her stubborn hubby into driving down to the airport to meet Big Daddy (Burl Ives) and Big Momma after a routine investigation of the old man’s health has seemingly turned up no cause for alarm. However, Brick will have none of it. He will not even sign the card or acknowledge the gift Maggie has bought for his father to kick off the surprise birthday party Brick’s elder brother, Gooper (Jack Carson) and – more directly, his odious baby-maker of a wife, Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) have concocted to broker favor with Big Daddy and hopefully sway his decision as to who will inherit the estate after he is gone. Big Daddy favors Brick, despite the fact Gooper has done everything his father has ever asked of him. Maggie can see right through Gooper and Mae. Truth to tell, Gooper is not altogether invested in the scheme either; contented in his lucrative law practice. As time passes we come to realize it is Mae, not Maggie, who is the real conniver in the family; producing one ungrateful child after the next to impress Big Daddy (who believes in large families).
At the airport, Big Momma proudly informs the gathered clan there is nothing wrong with Big Daddy, except his crusty temperament. Electing to ride back to his estate with Maggie, Big Daddy pauses a moment to oversee his vast holdings, renewed in his vigor and self-proclaimed superiority. Back at the house, Maggie attempts to teach Gooper’s eldest daughter, Dixie, whom she has un-affectionately nicknamed the ‘no-neck monster (and played with uncivilized belligerence by Patty Ann Gerrity), a little etiquette. The girl has her hands buried elbow deep in some fresh strawberry ice cream. Instead, Dixie flings gobs of the melting goo onto Maggie’s nyloned ankles. In retaliation, Maggie gleefully smears the child’s face in ice cream. A short while later, Maggie tries to force Brick to sign the birthday card she intends to include with ‘his’ gift she bought for Big Daddy. Brick is adamantly resolved not to attend the party or even face his father. Maggie next attempts to appeal to Brick’s desire, her transparent flirtations incurring his wrath. Brick seemingly prefers the stain of cold-hard liquor on his lips to Maggie’s desperate kisses. In a private moment, Maggie learns the truth from Dr. Baugh: Big Daddy’s prognosis is dire. He has months, maybe even weeks to live; his body riddled with cancer. The truth is being kept from everyone – even Big Daddy. Only Gooper, Mae and now Maggie know it. Maggie endeavors to make Brick understand the importance of reconciling with his father before it is too late, while equally as determined not to betray Dr. Baugh’s trust. However, being a Tennessee Williams’ play, the inevitable discovery of Big Daddy’s fate slowly begins to seep into the collective consciousness of the family; Big Momma, the only one utterly distraught by this revelation.
Big Daddy is left in the dark, forcing Brick to be the reluctant bearer of bad news. In the meantime, Maggie does battle with Mae and Gooper in the living room; the couple endeavoring to connive Big Momma into signing power of attorney to Gooper, thus making him the head of the family. This, however, flies in the face of Big Daddy’s wishes for Brick – his preferred heir apparent. In their harrowing confrontation below stairs, Brick reveals to Big Daddy the depth of his inner torment over a presumed affair Maggie has had with Skipper; a former high school buddy who has since committed suicide. Under duress, Brick also reveals to his father his real medical diagnosis. In the play, Brick assumes guilt over Skipper’s suicide because Skipper was unable to face his own homoerotic attraction to Brick, and quite possibly, over Skipper’s fear their clandestine flagrante delicto would eventually be uncovered. The movie cannot imply as much. So Richard Brooks has concocted a fairly thimble-headed scenario; Maggie’s part confession/part exoneration of Brick’s fears, reveals to the family and her husband no such affair between she and Skipper actually occurred. Skipper was a coward, afraid of life and perhaps unable to come to terms with his own implied homosexuality, unreciprocated in Brick’s friendship. He killed himself because he believed Brick had abandoned him. Discovering his wife’s marital fidelity intact cures Brick of his psychological impotence, as well as his animosity toward her and his father. Maggie lies she is pregnant with Brick’s child and Big Daddy, knowing the couple has forgiven one another and is about to consummate their marriage, thus likely to result in pregnancy, backs Maggie’s claim against Mae’s strenuous objections, by suggesting “that girl has life in her body!” The couple hurries upstairs where we may assume Brick will be only too eager and willing to sire the future heir apparent.
As a play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was Tennessee Williams’ personal favorite. Less enthusiastic about the film incarnation, Williams arguably never forgave Richard Brooks his meddling with the plot. Nevertheless, and despite code-induced hindrances encountered along the way, Brooks saw to it the devil was still in the details. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof may not strictly adhere to Williams’ exquisitely manufactured plot points. But it is an expertly constructed movie in which Brooks cleverly and carefully orchestrates and layers at least one finely crafted vignette where each character can shine. The movie is populated by richly satisfying character studies, retaining Williams’ juicy contempt, avarice and smoldering sexual repressions. Most of these sinful dalliances are implied with telling glances and highly suggestive body language the Production Code knew not how to classify and thus preclude from reaching the movie screen. The magnificent cast outshines these alterations; particularly Elizabeth Taylor, who embodies all of the incendiary immediacy and unashamedly physical wanting of Maggie ‘the cat’ Pollitt. Taylor’s performance was considered something of a ‘comeback’ after the disastrous Raintree County (1957); the costliest MGM movie ever made in America and one of the studio’s biggest blunders; Taylor’s antebellum belle succumbing to madness before the final reel. To cast Taylor in yet another incarnation of the southern vixen on the cusp of falling apart must have seemed artistic suicide. But time, experience and the loss of Michael Todd all conspired to will a more earthy, genuine and frightfully venomous performance from the star, one immediately catapulting Taylor back into the upper echelons of super stardom.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is equally accredited with ‘making’ Paul Newman a star; a bit of an exaggeration. For although Newman had been kicking around Hollywood since the early 1950’s, his credits amounted to little more than bit parts on television, and a disastrous big screen debut in The Silver Chalice (1954); miscasting Newman’s undeniably urban/contemporary young buck as a toga-clad Roman with decidedly effete and highly laughable results. Newman was to rebound from this staggering disappointment with Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956); superb as the Hell’s Kitchen prizefighter, Rocky Graziano. Although the picture confirmed for the studios that Newman could undeniably act, it did not immediately make him a household word. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof did precisely that; Newman’s reputation as the wily stud du jour compounded this same year with the release of The Long Hot Summer (1958).  Reviews of the day were virtually unanimous in their praise, but tended to overlook three enormous contributions to its supporting cast. Without them, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof quite simply does not exist. First, Dame Judith Anderson’s multifaceted characterization of Momma Pollitt: an emotionally scarred frump. Lest we forget Anderson’s forte was generally linked to her towering achievement as the murderous gargoyle of a housekeeper in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). Yet, herein she evokes Momma’s genuine insecurity lurking beneath her mask of faux boisterousness. Anderson’s devoted wife and mother is a wounded animal; Anderson reveling the depth of this well-kept despair in the moment where Big Daddy callously admonishes her doting concern for him. Here, Ives’ burly brute unearths some fairly unvarnished truths about how little their marriage has meant to him. In a moment’s twinkle, Anderson’s comforting adulation turns to stone-cold desolation; her haunted eyes reflecting the full breadth of innocence lost long ago, replaced with abject sorrow for the sacrificing of her youth, mirrored in the flickering embers from candles on Big Daddy’s birthday cake. It is a tour de force piece of acting; imbued with richly devastating full-blooded tragedy – a woman who realizes she has given up everything for nothing.
The second performance generally unnoticed is Jack Carson’s Gooper. Chronically relegated to playing ‘the heavy’ throughout the 1950’s, Carson is once more set up as the unflattering counterpoint to ‘the hero’ of the piece; his beefy black-haired and pie-faced ogre, the perfect contrast to Paul Newman’s fair-haired and fine-boned muscularity. But Carson’s performance reveals a far less sinister and intensely more fragile sad little boy lurking underneath this fairly robust façade. When Carson’s Gooper implores his mother to give him power of attorney over Big Daddy’s holdings he does so, not out of spite, jealousy or even any bitter resentment towards Brick, but with a soft, quavering voice and moist, suffering eyes, illustrating his entire life has been sacrificed to live up to Big Daddy’s reality; in effect, pleading for parental love and affection where, arguably, none has ever been given. Lastly, we tip our hats to Burl Ives, who transformed his timely public image as an ensconced grand old man and folksinger into this dark, ruthless and inconsolably boorish curmudgeon. Ives’ Big Daddy is not so much a paterfamilias as a demonstrative puppet master, placating his wife’s affections while having his fun on the side; calculating the whims and the destiny of one son – Gooper – yet despising him for his unquestioning compliance – while seemingly allowing Brick unprejudiced forgiveness, no matter his indiscretions. Big Daddy could sooner turn on Gooper – who has done everything asked of him (and then some) – than he would ever think to cast out Brick; perhaps, the child more clearly suited and leaning towards his own hardheartedness and tainted outlook on life.
This triumvirate sells Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as a high stakes, peerless melodrama.  This Cat sizzles as few movies of its vintage (or many since, for that matter) have. Tennessee Williams’ raw indictment of this southern clan remains somewhat at odds with MGM’s uber glamour and surface sheen sophistication. Yet, despite William’s strenuous objections to the changes made, this Cat on a Hot Tin Roof endures as the cornerstone to most peoples’ introduction of Tennessee Williams’ other masterworks. And there is something off-putting about seeing the ‘Cat’ revived on the stage with its more incendiary inferences left intact; almost gilding the lily than augmenting the truths Williams’ hoped to expose with more raw clarity. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was hugely successful. On a relatively modest $3 million budget, the picture grossed $17,570,324 in the U.S. alone, with another $25,472,824 taken in worldwide – an unqualified smash hit for MGM. Viewed today, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues to enthrall. Newman and Taylor have done some of their very best work here; their histrionics ingeniously balanced by Richard Brooks’ clever staging, his ability to generate ever-mounting dread and draw out Williams’ calculated fear and loathing, laying bear the self-destructive nature in these colliding and imploding family dynamics. The real backstage drama appears only to have augmented the urgency in everyone’s respective performances; the sensuality of the piece offset by a more insidious and palpable venom that permeates until the final reel when truer confessions deflate everyone’s hypocrisies and all ‘lies and liars’ are put to restCat on a Hot Tin Roof is a ‘must see’ entertainment.
The new Warner Archive (WAC) Blu-ray is a revelation. The old Warner Home Video SE DVD had a lot to recommend it, but Blu-ray’s superior resolution excels at bringing the subtlest nuances and gorgeously saturated hues and contrast to vivid life. It could have so easily gone the other way, ‘Cat’ having been filmed on problematic Eastman stock. But due diligence in preservation along the way and current tinkering with all the digital tools at their disposal has resulted unequivocally in a masterpiece renewed and proof positive that when it comes to preserving deep catalog titles in hi-def, the Warner Archive really is, quite simply, in a class apart from the rest. This is a reference quality 1080p transfer with some truly remarkable and, at times, absolutely stunning black levels. Film grain has been consistently rendered for a very film-like presentation of this one-of-a-kind seminal fifties melodrama and, indeed, one of the greatest screen dramas of all time. The DTS audio lags just a hair behind the visuals, mostly from inherent shortcomings in the original recording. But like the video, the audio has been given the necessary upgrade to make it sparkle as it should. You are going to love – LOVE – this disc. It’s that simple. Extras have been ported over from the DVD and include an informative audio commentary by film historian and Tennessee William’s biographer, Donald Spoto. There is also a short featurette on the making of the film. Bottom line: Maggie the cat is alive and comes very highly recommended on Blu-ray. WAC hits another one out of the proverbial park.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
5+
EXTRAS
2

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