Saturday, December 17, 2016

WOMAN'S WORLD: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1954) Fox Cinema Archives

Buoyed by his troubled post-war assimilation into civilian life, at the tail end of 1953 2oth Century-Fox president, Darryl F. Zanuck gambled on a widescreen process, the template only established months earlier with the debut of This Is Cinerama (1952).  The William Fox Corp. had actually preempted Cinerama’s invention with a superior wide-gauge film process and had failed spectacularly besides with Raoul Walsh’s, The Big Trail (1930); shot in what Fox then christened Grandeur and would later reinvent as Dimension 150 for the release of Patton (1970). But in ’52, Zanuck, who was already leaning towards semi-retirement from managing the company he had helped to cofound, bargained on an invention pitched to him by Henri Chrétien. In 1933, Chrétien shopped around his concave/convex lens system to virtually every studio in Hollywood. Alas, depression-era politics and, later, war-time rationing prevented Chrétien from achieving his goal. Instead, his invention was rejected outright by an industry contented with their standardized format.  It stood to reason. Hollywood had retooled their dream factories twice already; first, to accommodate 2-strip, then 3-strip Technicolor, and then, to modernize for the advent of sound. Neither came cheaply and each had presented a series of setbacks the moguls were eager to avoid again at all costs. But the industry was not nearly as contented to rest on its laurels, and was even less secure in itself by 1949, the year television – long a novelty, condescendingly regarded as ‘that little black box’ – became a reality, and then, a genuine threat to theater attendance everywhere. Producer David Brown recalls, “…with Cinemascope we went for stories with width instead of depth.” And, in hindsight, there is much truth to this statement; a perfect specimen being director, Jean Negulesco’s Woman’s World (1954); only the third movie to be photographed in the expansive anamorphic process and about as grotesquely vacuous to the point of idiotic glamorousness as one might expect from a process basically designed to show off a lot of scenery at the sincere expense of the acting and narratives taking place within its elongated frame of composition.
Directors of stature decried Cinemascope; a process Rouben Mamoulian famoused described as ideal only for shooting snakes and funeral processions. The erroneous claim pitched by Zanuck then was that Cinemascope would actually cut down on rising expenses by allowing directors to stage their action in one long take; the actors moving in and out of the vast cinema spaces while the camera remained relatively stationary, expediting not only the shooting schedule, but also the editing process (less takes and cuts to consider). Early Cinemascope had its drawbacks, not the least a severe vertical warping to the left and right of dead center; the Bausch and Lomb lenses creating a queer curvature to the point of queasy unease. The other problem was all that ‘dead space’ to fill with something interesting. Set decoration became extremely important on a Cinemascope feature; the close-up (a main staple for establishing screen intimacy since the dawn of movies) suddenly denied, as getting too close to any face, spread the romanticized visage of its star like malleable pancake batter, stretched to the point of distraction and absurdity; the effect affectionately referenced as ‘the Cinemascope mumps’. Still, with its ‘cleverly adaptable’ system, utilizing standard 35mm film stock, instantly to make all preexisting camera and projector setups ‘widescreen’ at a minimal initial investment, Cinemascope was efficient, relatively cheap and far less cumbersome than Cinerama’s 3-projector set-up. In hindsight, it really did usher in a whole new era moviemakers have been grappling with ever since.
Woman’s World is the beneficiary of all of Cinemascope’s earliest virtues and vices; Zanuck stockpiling the picture’s featherweight plot with a titanic roster of the studio’s brightest and biggest stars. No less than five of Fox’s top writers – Claude Binyon, Mary Loos, Richard Sale, Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse – had their hand in crafting this (choke!) original story, centered on the business concerns of a corporate prig in search of fresh blood to fill the General Manager’s position after its previous occupant’s premature death from a heart attack. In the voice over narration swiftly to follow the opening credits (a rather sappy Sammy Cahn/Cyril J. Mockridge ballad sung by The Four Aces) we learn with considerable pride that the deceased was basically a company whore who sacrificed every last vestige of his own pleasure and family time to be had from the considerable profits derived from his handsome salary and lofty position with the Gifford Motor Co. for the potential of even more he would never live to enjoy. Ah me, the business acumen of fifties corporate America; how gauche and unflattering and very much in vogue in 1954; Hollywood telling tales of greed, corruption and high finance in the boardroom with far more accuracy and effectiveness in Executive Suite (made and released the same year as this creaky clunker) and later, with far more clear-eyed severity in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956) and a modicum of foreshadowing and playfulness in Desk Set (1957). The urbane pedant perched atop this urban jungle’s steel and concrete Manhattan edifice is Ernest Gifford (played with predictably glib austerity by Clifton Webb, who made a career from such glacial and unappealing caricatures, haughty and effetely cultured men with a pole firmly implanted up their butts, arrogantly looking down on the rest of us as inferiors to be toyed with and/or discarded solely for his pleasure).  
The unsuspecting dupes herein are Texas marrieds, Jerry Talbot (Van Heflin) – and his enterprising trophy wife, Carol (Arlene Dahl) – a good time, rumored to have been had by all; Kansas City’s top Gifford car salesman, Bill Baxter (Cornel Wilde) and his painfully mousy – if adoring - ‘little woman’, Katie (June Allyson), and Philadelphian blue-blood highbrows, Sid Burns (Fred MacMurray) and his resourceful wife, Elizabeth (Lauren Bacall).  Each of these couples has been brought to Manhattan on approval; spied from afar by Gifford while he encourages his nephew, Tony Andrews (Elliot Reed), and Tony’s mother, Evelyn (Margalo Gillmore) to indulge and ply his guests with trips and weekend respites to the country…or rather, country club, to see how everyone behaves in a socially relaxed environment. Katie copes by becoming a self-deprecating clumsy oaf, knocking back a few too many martinis to suit Gifford’s tastes and hiccuping her way through the rather elegant soiree. Carol wastes no time flattering Ernest; exercising his ego on plaudits and accolades. Meanwhile, Liz remains strangely aloof in public and undecided about what the future may hold. After all, she and Sid have already talked about divorce. It seems Liz is more concerned about Sid’s foundering health than even he is. The last guy to manage Gifford Motors left his plush corner office with a toe tag. And Liz knows Sid too well. Despite his superior marketing skills he could never wield absolute authority over the daily stratagems of this corporate leviathan. It would kill him.
The rest of Woman’s World is really just a trial and error launch for a game of cat and mouse as the men – all hungry for the chance to prove their mettle to Ernest – perform a bit of ritualistic male chest-thumping while their women are being communally squired about town by Tony. Asked by Gifford to quantify the elusive and highly desirable commodity a top-tier exec needs to succeed in the position all three are vying for, Jerry is quick to pounce with his theory of the ‘X-plus’ factor; an intangible spark of brilliance only someone possessing its uncanny ability themselves can distinctly spot in others. Bill is more certain of at least one quality he believes to be essential for the man assuming the helm; an unerring sense of morality and compassion for the employees who put their hearts and minds on the line every day to make Gifford the great global competitor in the marketplace in the first place. Sid remains cagey about offering as direct a reply, suggesting the right man for the job has to hit the ground running, unafraid of the obstacles surely to arise on a daily basis. Ernest is impressed by all of their answers but still quite unsure of his decision; the right man for the job having the wrong wife to help him succeed. Indeed, the wives are just as willfully being auditioned to fit the part of the corporation’s image of glamour and excitement. The wife of just such an executive must possess poise, honor, a woman’s heart and a genuine integrity befitting the stature of a great lady, neatly seated behind the throne.
Given the focus of its title, Woman’s World is remarkably sexist in its attitudes toward both a woman’s place (in the home, except when a good company PR junket commands a night on the town as appealing eye candy) and her virtues apart from her successful husband (she ought not have any grand illusions about wanting to become anything more than her man’s cheerleader). By these Betty Crocker-ish standards and Good Housekeeping seals of approval, put to the test by the Benzedrine-popping boardroom sect, what average gal in high heel shoes could hope to compete, much less excel in the part of a café society Suzie Cream Cheese with plenty of guts and glamour spread ever so thinly, with enough of each left over to spare? At one point in Woman's World, Lauren Bacall’s astute and accomplished wife and mother tries to explain to Arlene Dahl’s rather duplicitous and shallow mistress of the maison why it is a woman’s world after all; presumably, because in giving men children, they become the paramount focus of their husbands’ affections by proxy. Frankly, this whole ‘bartering sexual favors for marital stability’ is an argument that left me cold; the flip side of its ill-timed ‘buying and trading’ business acumen doing more than simply implying women have very little else to sell other than their sex appeal. I suspect the screenwriters here were going more for the sort of suave social commentary Bette Davis’ Broadway maven, Margo Channing espouses in Joseph L. Mankewicz’s All About Eve (1950); “Funny business, a woman's career - the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you'll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That's one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we've got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we've had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing's any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you're not a woman. You're something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings, but you're not a woman. Slow curtain, the end.”
Nothing nearly as revealing in the low rent district of Woman’s World although the implications are nevertheless there for the critiquing; generally bungled or mislaid beneath a patina of grotesque comic relief (most of it at dear ole June Allyson’s expense; her country bumpkin come to the big city, so overwrought and pathetic it is a wonder a young handsome upstart like Bill could find anything even remotely appealing to pursue both in and beyond the bedroom). The laughs are rather painfully endured and sporadically spread out, bookended by some moderately snappy dry wit and a few mounting moments oft transparent obsequiousness, meant to heighten the element of surprise, but actually doing little more than to cast a real wet blanket on these highly predictable – if intermittently as charged proceedings. As the 1950's in America were essentially an exercise in pseudo-Victorian button-down conservatism run amuck, Woman’s World’s ambitious paradox - about what one good woman – or even a bad one – can do to the fella who sits on the throne, is something less of a leitmotif than a heavy-handed motivation for every misshapen plot entanglement to follow it. Allyson’s appeal as ‘America’s most popular musical sweetheart’ – the good girl one takes home to mother – was liberally applied, yet enduring and endearing at MGM; the studio to have first discovered, then cultivated, and finally mined it for all its worth. Beyond those hallowed studio gates, and particularly in the impressions given off in Woman’s World, Allyson comes across as gloomy, self-deprecating and timid to the point of cowardice. I suppose the writers and director, Jean Negulesco probably conceived of Allyson’s Katie as a perfect purebred foil to Bacall’s slinky society gal, who wears the mantle with an air of inbred quality, though equally as intuitive appreciation for the luxuries it has afforded her, and, Dahl’s narcissistic bitch, who is just conceited enough to think the veneer of being called a ‘lady’ is enough to make it so; owed as remuneration for an ample bosom (sheathed in some of Charles Le Maire’s most rapturously flattering costumes) and selling herself in marriage to a man she merely tolerates, but can never love.
Immediately following Fox’s expanded logo, complete with Cinemascope fanfare, Woman’s World opens with a glittery and jewel-encrusted armillary sphere twirling on its axis as The Four Aces warble the title tune and the main titles begin. We are treated to a few miraculous aerial shots of lower Manhattan, its towering skyline of skyscrapers teetering back and forth in camera range. One of the screenplay’s most rewarding assets is that it does not wallow for too long on any of this superfluous nonsense. Clifton Webb’s pontificating old poop emerges from his limousine in front of a rather distracting matte process shot, entering Fox’s luxuriating sound stage recreations of the Gifford Motor Company’s showroom; Webb’s Ernest Gifford offering an unusually sadistic reflection on the purpose of all corporate enterprise – using his company’s latest convertible sports car as an example: an obscenely expensive vehicle designed to turn ‘your money into our dividends’. Gifford gives us the lay of the land, strolling confidently, walking stick in hand, past the offices of his deceased General Manager, pausing only a moment to extol his virtues before endeavoring to set his sneaky little plot for finding a replacement into motion. We meet our three couples in short order; Katie and Bill arriving via aeroplane (a few more fleeting stock shots of New York’s outskirts, this time looking drab in the steely grey brown of a late October), Carol and Jerry pulling into Grand Central by train (he tells her to let him handle the next few days in his own way), and Sid and Elizabeth (already on the brink of separation) driving across The George Washington Bridge; Liz dutifully agreeing to play the part of the doting wife and mother.
Actually, Liz has cooperated for far too long, unable to stand by any longer while her husband, grappling with an ulcer and other stress-related health issues from his rise to the top, plots to send himself into an early grave for her benefit and that of their two children. Liz wants Sid to be happy. Seemingly, he cannot be satisfied with just a wife and family without attaining the highest post in the company, even if it kills him. She would much prefer to still be married to the simple guy she met some ten years ago; desperately in love with her and eager to start their lives together. Meanwhile, in another suite at the hotel Carol confesses to Jerry she has fallen hopelessly in love; not with another man, but Manhattan itself. It is so right for them to be here now, to grasp at the brass ring with the ruthlessness of a ‘winner takes all’ approach to sidelining the competition; Bill and Sid, both acknowledged by Jerry, not only as valiant competitors, but equally honorable men anyone of whom would do Gifford Motors proud as its General Manager. This being the height of the Eisenhower ultra-conservative fifties, the screenplay drops the subtlest of hints about Carol’s efficiency with men on the side, later to prove almost a deal breaker for Gifford’s appointment of Jerry to the exalted position; much to Katie’s relief (she wants to go home to Kansas City) and Liz, who can have her husband back home on her terms (conditions now supposedly shared by a more contrite and reformed Sid, hoping to rekindle the waning sparks of love to save his marriage).
Before any of these life-altering decisions are brought to a head in the rather understated finale, we get the prerequisite ‘what if?’ scenarios played out in all three men’s minds. Bill does not have the guts to tell Katie he would relish the opportunity to helm the company, leading to all sorts of misinformed decisions as Katie repeatedly keeps putting both feet in her mouth. At a cocktail benefit given by Gifford to introduce his three respective candidates for the job to his company executives and stockholders, Katie gets inappropriately snozzled, hiccupping on cue to any and all courtly inquiries. Gifford is amused, in a sort of condescendingly chichi manner (shades of the murderously genteel Waldo Lydecker Webb played in Otto Preminger’s classic, Laura in 1944). Carol wastes no time arriving fashionably late to this soiree, then monopolizing Gifford’s time with spins around the dance floor as Jerry and Sid casually look on. Actually, Jerry is secure enough in their marriage to allow Carol her flagrant flirtations. Later, we come to learn he has known all along the kind of strumpet he married but intrepidly trudged on because he could still spoil her with enough dreams of riches yet to follow and believe she still loved him to keep her peccadilloes to a bare minimum. Apparently any wife, even one prone to flagrante delictos with multiple partners, is better than none…at least, when preserving the illusion of the perfect all-American couple, worthy of keys to the executive washroom.  
Afterward, Katie profusely apologizes to Bill for flubbing his first impressions at the cocktail party. He is forgiving to a fault of her giddy alcoholism but suggests she look up Elizabeth to go shopping for a new frock that will impress Gifford when next they meet aboard his yacht for the weekend. Katie is momentarily wounded by the insinuation she does not know a thing or two about clothes. Actually, she doesn’t – and later, with ginger-peachy kindness, coaxes Liz into taking her to a bargain basement ‘free for all’ where women ruthlessly compete to buy designer gowns at a fraction of the cost, simply because they have already been worn on the runway by super models and are therefore considered ‘used’. Liz even offers to do all the alterations to the frock they have chosen. Meanwhile, Gifford approaches his sister, Evelyn Andrews to host a private retreat at an exclusive country club; a chance for her to give the ladies a ‘once over’ inspection on Gifford’s behalf and make her own determinations about which has what it takes to be the wife of a ‘great man’. Gifford takes his three protégées to the company’s manufacturing plant and test track; a chance to see what Gifford Motors is all about. Afterward, Gifford tries to get each man’s ‘first impression’ about what the future might hold; impressed more with Jerry’s reply about an executive having to be much more than simply a company ‘yes man’ or someone who follows trends. The new guy will have to set trends as well as uphold a standard. Bill agrees, but adds he believes the right man for the job must have the heart, as well as the pulse of the company’s business acumen very close to his own.
Bill is too much of a maverick to suit Gifford’s tastes. It is rather obvious from almost the beginning his opportunity for advancement is slim to nil. As for Sid; he never quite manages to come out in front, overshadowed by his contemporaries and increasingly disillusioned about weighing what matters most in life with what he personally would wish for in his idea of a perfect world. Despondent after Liz charges out of their suite in a huff, Sid crosses the street to the established Italian bistro where he first proposed marriage long ago. To Sid’s surprise, Liz has had similar ideas; already seated at a table not too far off. She accepts his apology and allows him to dine at her table; Sid calling over Tomaso (Alan Reed), the waiter who attended their wedding night proposal those many years ago; now, the proprietor of the establishment who not only recognizes them almost immediately, but can also recall verbatim what they ordered back then. The meal is much too spicy for Sid’s ulcer but he does not care; inspired by Liz’s pseudo-reconciliation to turn back the clock and pretend like they are beginning their lives anew all over again. Alas, Sid’s stomach tells a different tale. In no time he is doubled over in pain. Liz tends to him with a glass of milk and compassion that is more motherly than wifely. Nevertheless, she has already decided to give their marriage another shot. Besides, Sid is not Gifford’s boy. Even Sid knows it by now.
Alas, this still needs to be spelled out for the audience. And so, we move into Woman’s World’s lumbering finale; an extended minuet of ‘scenes’ clipped from a Harper’s Bazaar magazine article about social etiquette trumping screwball comedy and presumably taking place at the exclusive country club (actually, another of Production Designer Lyle R. Wheeler’s impressive sets built at 2oth Century-Fox). Carol antes up her transparent machinations to woo Gifford into giving Jerry his big break. Unbeknownst to Jerry, Gifford has practically decided he is his man…if only… Things reach a critical mass between Jerry and Carol. He confesses he can no longer abide her disgusting displays of affection towards other men simply to get what she wants out of life. He can promise her much. But even he knows it will never be enough for a social-climbing viper. And so, Jerry orders Carol to pack her bags and get out of his life for good. Meanwhile, as Evelyn pays Katie a compliment about her dress, she lets it be known she bought it for a song; something a well-informed wife of a top-flight business executive would never do. Katie further informs Eveyln the General Manager’s position is not for Bill. He does not need the hassle. Eveyln can admire Katie for her honesty. It is a harrowing tightrope, Evelyn confides; a woman’s place in a man’s world. Later that same evening, Bill and Katie, Sid and Liz and Jerry – all by his lonesome – attend a private dinner party hosted by Evelyn and Gifford, with Tony also in attendance. Gifford makes it known to the gathering he intends to appoint Jerry to the exalted position, much to Jerry’s elation, and everyone else’s too. It seems the only thing holding Gifford back from making this decision sooner was the thought of a woman like Carol infecting their haughty and exclusive country club sect. While Bill and Sid magnanimously champion Jerry’s appointment, Gifford proposes a unique and confusing toast; suggesting it is a woman’s world…better for having men in it.
In hindsight, Woman’s World is the sort of melodramatic tripe one sincerely wishes had never been made; not entirely because it lacks virtues of any kind, but rather because it tends to take a lot of A-list talent both in front of and behind the camera, who have dazzled us with better work elsewhere, and unapologetically squanders their merits in favor of a gargantuan and glossy little nothing tricked out in the then new-fangled proportions of Zanuck’s widescreen zeitgeist. Cinemascope is the real star of Woman’s World – a pity too, because even its’ presentation value lacks the proper utilization under Jean Negulesco’s stilted direction and cinematographer, Joseph MacDonald’s keen, though arguably, as yet untrained eye (grappling with all that empty space) to yield the sort of visual riches one might anticipate from this widescreen wonderment. A lot of the action in Woman’s World takes place dead center within the frame (a big no-no); the peripheries of the elongated screen filled with background bric-a-brac; a lot of filler that never entirely distracts us from the fact there is too much space everywhere to truly create the sort of on-screen intimacy that might have helped make Woman’s World a more engaging – if still as modest – masterpiece.
We do not get to know any of these characters – not really; at a scant 94 minutes there is no time. Instead, we get cardboard cutouts and stereotypes; a lot of them serviceable, if only because the actors slotted into these spots possess the cache of having been utilized to far better effect in similar parts elsewhere within their respective careers, and, with a lot more ‘meat’ on the proverbial ‘bones’ than what is here to suckle and taste. Clifton Webb’s mellifluous fop is a smooth operator, more martinet than maverick and very much less of an industrialist than a sort doddering den mother, presiding over an executive decision he has neither the proficiency nor the temperament to achieve to everyone’s satisfaction without sinking his company. Miraculously, in the perfectly contrived world of Woman’s World, he succeeds in saving not only Gifford Motors from a rocky corporate transition but also Jerry from slipping into melancholia once he realizes he has given up a fashion plate for a gold name plate on the executive suite. If anything, Woman’s World suffers from the proverbial ‘happy ending’ tacked onto what should otherwise have been a knock-down/drag-out cat fight between three warring couples who suffer and sweat to climb to the top of this corporate ladder. It would have meant so much more if there was a little healthy, even unhealthy backstabbing to ignite this race. But no – everyone behaves; even going out of their way to ensure someone else’s success over their own; the only real loser - Carol; arguably, given her just desserts for having played the numbers game with her crotch one too many times and wound up with the dry, itchy regret of crabs instead of crumpets on her breakfast tray for life; a reminder that tarts had no place in fifties America – at least, not in fifties American cinema!
Fox Cinema Archives has gone the route of the Warner Archive with this deep catalog Blu-ray release…well, sort’a. Anyone anticipating Warner’s sterling commitment to deep catalog from Fox ought to give their head a shake. Lest we forget Fox Home Video dumping a whole slew of hi-def deep catalog to Blu (The King and I, The Blue Max, Desk Set, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, The Black Swan, The Best of Everything, The Garden of Evil) bathed in a grotesque teal/beige appearance with thoroughly washed out colors that in no way replicate the lushness of vintage color by DeLuxe and/or Technicolor: the studio, of more recent times, taken to even more unceremoniously dumping back catalog to Blu-ray via a third-party distribution deal with Kino Lorber without remastering ANYTHING to correct a slew of video mastering atrocities committed on transfers that are, in some cases, decades old; including edge enhancement, poor contrast, artificial sharpening and digitized grain; a studio, having inaugurated their own MOD burn-on-demand ‘archive on DVD, content merely to slap out Cinemascope movies, either in lopped pan-and-scan or non-anamorphic releases riddled in dirt, scratches and other age-related artifacts. So, it is saying something of the executive brain trust at Fox now, and in light of these various disastrous misadventures thus far, that this new to Blu release of Woman’s World not only rectifies the sins of the old DVD-R release with a properly minted Blu-ray, but also offers a rather impressive scan of vintage Cinemascope; albeit, without any digital enhancements (ergo, no restoration work completed besides to improve upon the overall image quality).
That stated, Woman’s World does not appear to have suffered too many ravages over time. While we do get the occasional speckle and some minor built-in flicker, also some occasionally faded colors, ever so slightly leaning towards a blue end bias (though hardly to such egregious levels as mentioned earlier); what is here is adequate if not miraculous, and frankly, a very pleasant surprise – considering Fox’s track record. Perhaps someone at Fox has finally awoken to the possibilities of releasing more vintage catalog to an archive, spending money correctly on the remastering process with minimal clean-up applied and concentrating on the burn-on-demand market with legitimately authored Blu-rays as Warner’s own archive has already provided the template for a successful business model and their own consideration. Well…it’s the promise and the dream, anyway. The audio is 2-channel DTS stereo – not the best, but again, like the image, a vast improvement over what was earlier offered. No extras except for a montage of production stills set to music. What? Are you surprised? No formally authored chapter stops either, although one can advance to scenes at 10 min. intervals throughout using the remote control function key. Overall, I have to admit I was marginally impressed to see Fox pay this disposable deep catalog title as much attention. Without a full-blown restoration nothing more could have been expected and frankly, given the throwaway reputation of the movie itself, perhaps nothing more should have even been tried. Again, in a perfect world every movie on Blu-ray would be given the utmost consideration. I am just not certain this one is a candidate for anything better. Bottom line: if you are a fan of Woman’s World – the Blu-ray comes recommended. You will like what you see if you do not ask for particulars or expect absolute perfection.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


No comments: