Wednesday, November 15, 2017

GASLIGHT (MGM 1944/British National 1940) Warner Archive

Few movies enter the public consciousness as enduring fond memories; fewer still, as bona fide works of art. But how many are lucky enough to become a part of the common vernacular? To ‘gaslight’ someone is to systematically drive them to the brink of mental collapse; an insidious means of twisting the truth to suggestively force the victim to question his/her most basic perceptions and, in the final stages, their very sanity.  If not for Patrick Hamilton’s London play, Gas Light (known as Angel Street in the U.S.), and the subsequent 1940 British film, Gaslight, directed by Thorold Dickinson, made a scant two years after the play’s debut, with only 3½ years separating it from George Cukor’s exquisite reinvention for MGM in 1944, we might never have known this term. Cukor’s remake is one of those rare occasions where both the passage of time and the very fact his movie came to this mantel of quality thrice removed have not only enriched its purpose and style, but systematically eclipsed its source material as well as the earlier movie. Indeed, part of MGM’s decision to remake the picture was predicated on the wholesale purchase of the rights: a contract with British National Films stipulating the producers of the 1944 film agree to destroy all prints and the original camera negative of the 1940 version. Mercifully, this never happened. Even so, comparing the two movies today, one can clearly recognize the technical superiority of Cukor’s remake, rightfully considered one of the most imaginative and spooky melodramas ever conceived.
In reworking the play’s premise, conspiring screenwriters, John Van Druten, Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston did much to augment the suspense and thrill-soaked paranoia pervading the original tale; introducing a back story, only briefly touched upon in the play and virtually ignored in the 1940 movie; also, revamping all the main characters to add glamor and an air of intercontinental sophistication to the proceedings.  Hence, the play’s Bella Manningham, having become shrinking violet, Alice Barlow (played by Diana Wynyard) – the unsuspecting wife, moved into an upstairs flat once occupied by a wealthy dowager, brutally murdered within the first thirty-seconds of our story in the 1940 screen adaptation, in 1944 has morphed into Paula (embodied by the statuesque and formidable Swede, Ingrid Bergman); niece of a famed opera star, Alice Alquist (only depicted in portraits in the movie). Initially, Cukor had endeavored to evolve an even more detailed prologue; the actual murder taking place in silhouette, foiled by the sudden appearance of Paula (played as a child by Terry Moore), discovered by the killer, standing in the doorway; the murderer fleeing into the night before he could unearth the whereabouts of Alquist’s jewels.
Alas, it did not make much narrative sense that a killer would flee (when he might just as easily murder the young Paula too), or, for that matter, wait out a period of some years for the girl to mature into adulthood so he could marry her, and thus return to the scene of the crime to continue his search, while simultaneously driving his new bride insane. Some concision was required. Thus, Cukor opens Gaslight on a highly ambiguous note; a crowd gathered along the fog-laden corridors of Thornton Square (Pimlico Square in the 1940 film); their curiosity peaked by the emergence of a teenage Paula from the Alquist home (Bergman redressed in a little sailor’s hat and travelling cape to suggest the presupposition of youth, escorted by her kindly benefactor, Mr. Mufflin (Halliwell Hobbs). From this inauspicious beginning, our story immediately jumps ahead to Italy where Paula is studying music under Maestro Guardi (Emil Rameau); the noted impresario who once guided Alice into becoming a great star. Regrettably, Paula has not her aunt’s gift for song. She has, however, fallen madly in love with Guardi’s piano accompanist, Gregory Anton (the supremely suave, Charles Boyer). The lovers have kept their two-week affair de coeur a secret.  Gregory urges Paula to marry. And although she is undeniably head over heels in love, Paula first professes a need to go away on a mini-holiday alone to reconsider his proposal. Anton reluctantly complies with this simple request, but later, surprises Paula by arriving at her destination first. The two are married off camera and spend a few blissful honeymoon hours at the Hotel Del Lago. Prior to this subsequent rendezvous and marriage, Paula is introduced to the nosy, but otherwise kindly dowager, Miss Bessie Thwaites (Dame May Whitty) aboard a train. In revealing the plot to a novel she is presently reading Thwaites confides she lives in London, at No.11 Thornton Square, just two houses away from Paula’s late aunt.
It seems the past will not remain buried. Despite the inability of Scotland Yard to nail down either a motive or even suggest possible suspects in the homicide, Paula’s desire to put this sordid past behind her is thwarted when her new husband professes his dream to reside in a fashionable townhouse on a cozy square. Paula reveals to Gregory she holds the deed to Alice’s home. To please her husband, though perhaps equally to face her own demons, Paula agrees to return to No. 9 Thornton Square. In London, Paula is briefly reacquainted with Miss Thwaite before being ushered into the brooding and moodily lit inner sanctum of her not so distant past. George Cukor illustrates his masterful sense of pacing in this early sequence; the sets congested with all manner of Victoriana and cobweb-laden bric-a-brac. Characters in Cukor’s movies always move with a purposeful poise and yet, avoiding the obviousness of ‘hitting their marks’; the action, while meticulously plotted down to the subtlest nuance and camera angle, never giving the audience pause to think on it as either deliberate or unnaturally staged for the cameras.
Of course, neither Paula nor the audience is as yet aware Anton has been at the townhouse before; haunted by his own reminiscences of a botched jealous love affair with Alice Alquist; a letter written in his hand, but signed in his alias - Sergis Bauer, slipping from under a few choice pieces of sheet music nestled against the piano music stand.  Paula’s naïve reading of the love letter aloud causes Anton to go into a momentary – and seemingly inexplicable rage. Can Paula really be this green not to see Bauer and Anton are one in the same?  In retrospect, Ingrid Bergman’s casting is one of Gaslight’s great coups; her transitioning from love-struck child, to fragile woman, half-driven mad by her outwardly adoring – though categorically cruel and very wicked husband, only to rise like a phoenix from the brink and turn the tables on her deceiver, is the irrefutable acting highpoint of the picture. This is saying a great deal, considering the array of superb talents on display in Gaslight. At its core, Cukor’s Gaslight owes a great deal of its heritage to Hollywood’s then fascination with dark and menacing thrillers – mainly set in a perpetually foggy England: Fox’s remake of The Lodger (1944), and, Hangover Square (1945), MGM’s own remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945); the latter, released a full year after Gaslight but actually completed before it. The other casting achievement yet to be discussed is 18 yr. old Angela Lansbury who, in the pivotal role as the saucy tart, Nancy, fairly steals the show from under Boyer, Bergman and co-star, Joseph Cotten; the three established stars of the picture. Indeed, Lansbury, who celebrated her eighteenth birthday on the set of Gaslight, was Oscar-nominated; her appearance herein and as Sybil Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray leading directly to a long-term contract with MGM.
“This is a Cinderella story,” Cukor would later muse. Indeed, exactly how Angela Lansbury came to the attention of MGM is the stuff dreams are made of: one of many refugees belonging to the exodus from war-torn London, her Belfast-born actress/mother, Moyna Macgill (arguably sacrificed her own stardom so her daughter’s might flourish – though with some lingering professional jealousy thereafter), Lansbury was not only ‘fresh off the boat’ but relatively inexperienced to boot when Metro elected to cast her in Gaslight at Cukor’s behest; as much Lansbury’s ‘big break’ as it proved utterly daunting. “I was in very big company,” Lansbury would later muse, “But they treated me as though I was one of them. That gave me confidence.” Perhaps it was the Irish strain in Lansbury adding gumption from the sidelines to play the part, or likely, the reality she had known her share of hardships in youth: her beloved father, dead of stomach cancer when Angela was only nine – an event Lansbury would later describe as “the defining moment in my life. Nothing before or since has affected me so deeply”. Afterward, the young girl retreated into a land of her own make believe while Moyna pursued a career on the stage and in British cinema. Lansbury, a self-professed ‘complete movie maniac’; would continue to lap up the magic of the screen while briefly studying music and dance.
But the family’s move to North America was neither fortuitous nor immediately profitable; Macgill quickly realizes she had traded down her daydreams of becoming famous abroad for a nomadic life of hard work; Lansbury attending Feagin’s School of Drama and Radio as a latchkey kid, then lying about her age to land a job at the Samovar Club in Montreal to help support her two younger twin brothers, Bruce and Edgar. Returning to New York, Lansbury was to learn her mother had since gone ahead to Hollywood with even bigger dreams to fulfill. However, once ensconced in their modest bungalow in Laurel Canyon, things began to move quickly for Lansbury instead; a chance meeting at a party with screenwriter, John van Druten, leading to a casual suggestion made by Druten to Cukor he might have inadvertently met the ideal candidate to play the impertinent cockney housemaid, Nancy Oliver, in Gaslight; a part yet to be cast.
In the meantime, Louis B. Mayer was orchestrating the loan out of both Bergman and Joseph Cotten; their contracts held by producer, David O. Selznick. Throughout the 1940’s, Selznick found it more lucrative to ‘loan out’ his stars than produce homegrown projects; his undisclosed fee for Bergman’s services alone, rumored to have sent a grumbling Mayer back to Cukor to inquire whether any of Metro’s resident young female talent might equally do justice to the part. But Bergman was the star Cukor emphatically wanted, and, in hindsight, the one necessary to secure the picture’s everlasting reputation and success. In just a few short years, Bergman had blazed a trail from virtual unknown, cast as the ingénue in Selznick’s 1939 North American remake of her most popular European movie, Intermezzo: A Love Story, to become a much sought after A-list star of the first magnitude; thanks to high profile exposure as Ivy, the sexually humiliated and emotionally tortured bar maid in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) and her even more enigmatic turn as Ilsa Lund, the mysteriously beautiful woman torn between two passions in Casablanca (1942). And Bergman, apart from her peerless and translucent allure, is riveting in Gaslight; arguably the first part that requires the very utmost of her acting talents; her wild-eyed depiction of this woman systematically questioning her own sanity, cementing Bergman’s presence as an actress of equal talents as good looks.
Paula’s harrowing descent into madness begins innocuously with the gift of a broach from her husband, rumored to be a treasured family heirloom. As the clasp is defective, Anton urges his wife to slip it into her purse shortly before they endeavor to go out on the town. A tour of the Tower of London and the Royal Crown Jewels results in an inauspicious chance encounter with Scotland Yard Inspector, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten) who momentarily mistakes Paula for the spitting image of her late aunt. Later, Cameron confides to his superior, Gen. Huddleston (Edmund Breon) and curiosity about Alquist’s unsolved murder. Huddleston reluctantly divulges the particulars never made a part of the ‘official’ investigation; that Alquist was in possession of some famous foreign jewels, given to her but an admirer – an undisclosed ‘high-ranking’ personage. After Alquist’s murder, the disappearance of these jewels was marked as ‘classified’ and left quietly buried with the past. Alas, Cameron’s nagging interest with the new tenants at No. 9 Thornton Square remains unabated. Questioning Miss Thwaite, Cameron learns of a few oddities; Thwaite’s inability to glean any information about the couple from Nancy, who is as close-lipped as ever; though equally as flirtatious with the master of the house and fairly insolent toward Paula in tandem. The household’s cook, Elizabeth (Barbara Everest) is hard of hearing, though likely in possession of some slight observations about what has been going on behind these locked doors.
Cameron decides to appoint a bobby, Williams (Tom Stevenson) to patrol the neighborhood; also, to sidle up to Nancy in the hopes of coaxing more information from her. Meanwhile, Anton pursues his insidious campaign to drive Paula mad. He accuses her of being forgetful; of losing things, misplacing her thoughts and occasionally stealing and hiding pictures off the wall. Paula is unable to renounce his allegations outright; and yet, queerly, as ambiguous to explain who else in the household might have even the inclination to commit these perversions of trust. Each night, Anton leaves No. 9, presumably to work at his rented offices in town. In actuality, he has skulked around the neighborhood, discovering a back way into their townhouse, leading directly to the attic where all of Alice Alquist’s possessions are presently stored. Hearing the sound of footsteps on her bedroom ceiling, the dimming of gaslight brought on by Anton lighting jets in the attic while he conducts his meticulous search for the jewels, Paula cannot fathom anyone lurking about upstairs, much less her husband, since Anton has had the attic boarded up from the inside, presumably to prevent Paula’s bad memories about the murder from further plaguing her mind.
After some weeks of enfeebling her confidence, Anton decides to take Paula to a music recital hosted by Lady (Heather Thatcher) and Lord Dalroy (Lawrence Grossmith). The plush conservatory is full of polite society. Also in attendance is Inspector Cameron. Paula has been looking forward to this outing all week. But Anton has ensured his wife will suffer a very public nervous breakdown, having earlier hidden his pocket watch in her handbag, then implanting the idea Paula has taken it to satisfy her bizarre kleptomania. Unable to deny the discovery of the watch in her handbag, yet equally incapable of reasoning how it might have arrived in her possession, Paula tearfully loses control; her muffled whimpers interrupting the concert.  Anton apologizes for his wife’s outburst, quietly removing her from the salon. But once at home, he admonishes Paula as a malicious and vial mad woman, even suggesting her mother died in an asylum, likely from the same affliction presently torturing her mind. Meanwhile, Cameron learns from Williams of Anton’s nightly disappearances in the neighborhood. Having already decided Anton is guilty of something, Cameron pays a call on the household after Anton has already left for the evening, presenting Paula with the gift of a missing glove, one of her aunt’s most cherished possessions. It seems the glove was made a present to Cameron by the great lady when he was only a boyish admirer.
Cameron tenderly questions Paula. She gradually comes to trust his judgment, especially after he infers “you’re not going mad…you’re systematically being driven mad.” As to the dimming gaslight, the strange sounds emanating from upstairs, the incontrovertible evidence someone is in the house and playing tricks upon her mind, Cameron readily encourages Paula to reconsider Anton is responsible for all of these things – and quite possibly, a lot more.  Together, Cameron and Paula pry open the lock on Anton’s roll-top desk; discovering the hidden letter from Sergis Bauer. Cameron begins to piece together the clues; Bauer, Alquist’s piano accompanist from Prague, already married with a wife and child still living there.  Hurrying away before Anton’s return, Cameron takes Elizabeth into his confidence. In the meantime, Anton comes home; more frustrated than ever at not being able to locate the jewels. He goads Paula, drilling harder than ever into her still highly fragile psyche. Only now, Paula begins to question not only herself but her husband’s motives. Cameron returns, demanding justice and a confession from Anton. The two have a scuffle in the attic, Elizabeth calling for Williams to assist. Eventually, Anton is subdued and bound to a chair in the attic; Cameron hurrying to get help. Paula confronts her husband. He begs for her to free him. But instead she produces a knife, playing a startling game of cat and mouse as she repeatedly threatens his life. Is she serious, or has he truly driven her mad enough to kill?
In the end, Paula reveals to Anton she has not lost her mind despite his best efforts; that she has no intention of freeing him now; the discovery of the jewels sewn into Alquist’s costume a moot point, as Anton is going to prison for a very long time for Alice’s murder. An unrepentant Gregory Anton is led away without even a smidgen of remorse. Her nightmare at an end, Paula is comforted by Cameron; the pair standing together on a balcony in the attic. She poetically declares, “This night will be long” to which he quickly reframes her unhappy thoughts to suggest the fog – both figuratively and literally – is already lifting from her life; the night too shall pass, and, above all else, things will look very differently in the morning. Cameron vows to be of comfort to Paula. As they approach one another for an embrace, Paula and Cameron are spied by Miss Thwaite, who readily approves of this match from a distance as we fade into the end credits.
Gaslight is a formidable achievement. Indeed, Cukor could not have been more pleased with the final results; the picture winning Bergman her first Best Actress Oscar. Despite uneven critical reviews, Gaslight also was a financial success. For the most part, the production encountered no problems, marred only by one incident involving Angela Lansbury. Years later, in reflection, Cukor insisted, “On the first day of shooting, even though she (Lansbury) was only seventeen, and had no experience, she was immediately professional. Suddenly I was watching real movie acting. She became this rather disagreeable little housemaid – even her face seemed to change. I was delighted with her from the start.” But Lansbury recalls a slightly different scenario – one for which she has long since accepted full responsibility. It seems an assistant director came to Lansbury on set to inform her she could go to an early lunch as the sequence being filmed did not require her presence. Unaware she lacked the authority to do so, Lansbury promptly informed costar, Barbara Everest she too could leave so they might lunch together, when, in fact, Everest was needed for another take. After enjoying their lengthy luncheon, the pair was met on set by Cukor, who rarely fumed in public, but when he did, gave every indication of being a veritable Vesuvius. “Boy, did I get a dressing down that day!” Lansbury recalls, “But he was right and I was wrong.”
Interestingly, Gaslight is a film as sparsely populated in its underscore (a few choice cues and main title written by resident composer, Bronislau Kaper) as it remains cluttered from floor to ceiling in Cedric Gibbons’ art direction and Edwin B. Willis’s set decoration; an out-and-out pastiche of studio-bound Victoriana, with immaculate costuming supplied by designer, Irene. Its’ virtues – at least visually speaking – are readily the result of Metro’s formidable back catalog in props; a grand storehouse of virtually any and everything a film maker could desire to stage a movie; all of it meticulously cataloged in vast warehouses spread over the girth of the studio’s then extensive land holdings. More is the pity, then, virtually all of these gorgeous accoutrements became the subject of a snatch and grab sell-off in the mid-1970’s; the shortsightedness of Metro’s new management, quite unable to see how such a staggering array of artifacts – many of them undeniable museum pieces – could best be put to use, except to auction everything off, lock stock and barrel, to the highest bidder; and, in retrospect, for mere two-pence their innate value.
Gaslight endures on home video via the Warner Archive. Initially, Warner Home Video released a legitimately authored DVD version, including both the 1940 and ‘44 versions on a DVD-50 flipper disc, accompanied by a truncated ‘making of’ featurette hosted by Pia Lindstrom and featuring snippets and sound bites from Angela Lansbury. In either incarnation the results are slightly below par and it would behoove WAC to reconsider doing a complete remaster of this engrossing film for a new Blu-ray release in 2018. Aside: If Gaslight ever makes the leap to 1080p it, along with a good many other B&W MGM movies already transferred to home video on DVD needs its main titles stabilized. I am really tired of watching main titles with a barrage of edge effects (Criterion’s The Philadelphia Story still looks atrocious!). I don’t understand what is so gosh darn hard about eradicating edge enhancement (a digital anomaly) from a hi-def scan – especially one remastered from elements scanned in at 4K. Fix this, folks! Please, and a premature ‘thank you’! 

So, we will wait in the hope of better things. For now, the DVD of Gaslight is adequate – though, just – suffering from occasional and very distracting edge enhancement and some thicker than anticipated film grain, infrequently looking digitized instead of indigenous to its source. The B&W elements are in fairly solid shape, although certain scenes appear to suffer from less than perfectly balanced contrast; the image, a tad too dark, causing finer details to get lost in the mire. Overall, the quality won’t disappoint. But it doesn’t win any awards either, and singularly fails to impress; a shame, since Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography is another chief asset in this peerless production. The ’44 version fairs much better than its processor, which has low contrast and a host of age-related artifacts to contend with; beginning rather abruptly and suggesting some introductory screen credits have been unceremoniously lopped off. The audio for both versions is mono, as originally recorded and in fairly good standing; no hiss or pop and clear-sounding dialogue. Again, Gaslight on home video is hardly perfect. The movie is, however, and chiefly the reason this disc gets my wholehearted recommendation. Movies as finely crafted deserve far better on home video – and, if anyone at Warner Bros. is listening – on remastered Blu-ray…pretty please!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (MGM 1940) Warner Home Video

There have been many screen adaptations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, that perennial revived, oft sublime human comedy of errors examining the caste, mores and social politics of courtship some 200 plus years ago;’ rituals that, in one form or another continue to resonate with contemporary audiences for more than their relative quaintness. Arguably, none is more bountifully appointed or exquisitely pedigreed than Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1940 version; and this, in an era where such extravagances were almost an afterthought. Others have tried to bottle the elixir of Austen’s ageless characters; updating and/or changing the pastoral English setting, or even extending Austen’s prose into miniseries format. But MGM’s Pride and Prejudice has Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier; ideally bred as perspicacious Elizabeth Bennet and her haughtily handsome suitor, Mr. Darcy. Augmenting their formidable talent, Garson and Olivier have that intangible and elusive quality known as screen ‘presence’ and ‘chemistry’. There is also a great deal to be said for star power. It separates rarefied creatures from the status quo, thus making them instantly memorable at a glance. Olivier’s stiff-britches theatricality is the perfect foil for Garson’s lilting Irish wit – herein ever so slightly tweaked to mimic the appurtenances of the well-brought up British lass. The two are sheer magnetism on the screen; her slightly devious good nature tempting his honorable intentions while throwing the rigidity of his high-borne vanity and anointed self-importance right back in his face.
The movie would suffer if not for Olivier and Garson’s frequent and delicious sparring; the guy who thinks he can manage both his equals and, even more assuredly, his betters with the same offhanded scorn; she, recognizing almost immediately his mask of virtue is little more than pomposity made in pretend to shield and deflect from his own heart while keeping the rest of the world safely locked outside.  As is so often the case, though particularly with the works of Austen, it is the asserting female influence that breaks through these conventions of anticipated, though never entirely fulfilled romantic worship; Austen intently illustrating how one woman’s heart – just as breakable, if gently free-spirited – can nevertheless complete, rather than subtract from a man’s world, ever more becoming something greater than just his decorous appendage.  The screenplay by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin, already once removed from Austen and borrowing heavily from Helen Jerome’s successful stage dramatization of the novel, is fraught with memorable vignettes that play to the strengths of these two co-stars. In virtually every way, this Pride and Prejudice manages the minor coup of 'improving upon' Austen’s masterpiece to make it even more palpably satisfying as cinema art.
MGM’s Louis B. Mayer was undeniably the Tiffany of star makers. At its zenith, Metro boasted ‘more stars than there are in the heavens’ – forgivable hyperbole, given just how many A-list names above the title the studio had under contract for a time. True, both Garson and Olivier were established in their native Britain long before Mayer brought either of them to Hollywood; Garson, under an ironclad seven-year contract with a star-making turn in 1939’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Olivier, as the occasional freelancer, already signed by agent, Myron Selznick and having broken out to international acclaim in 1939’s Wuthering Heights, for Sam Goldwyn, and, 1940’s Rebecca for David O. Selznick. Interestingly, afterward Olivier’s mark on American movies would remain spotty; the actor dividing his time and energies between appearances on the screen and works committed to his first love - the stage. Under VP in Charge of Production, Irving Thalberg, MGM had excelled at period costume dramas throughout the 1930’s. But Thalberg’s untimely death in 1936 was not as earth-shattering an event for the studio as predicted in the trades, primarily because Mayer – whose foresight often preceded his tact – had installed his own entourage of producers, affectionately known around the lot as ‘the college of cardinals’. Although in time Mayer’s executive logic would prove top-heavy and detrimental to MGM’s profit margin, necessitating the installation of ‘another Thalberg’, at least throughout the 1940’s, Mayer’s meticulous planning in the event of Thalberg’s demise ensured MGM’s reign continue, the focus shifting away from costly period costume dramas to homespun, if as glossy, homespun dramas and musicals.
MGM may not have invented Jane Austen but it was certainly the studio most likely to have pleased the witty authoress, as much for its opulence as its backdoor machinations; a festive assortment of sinners and saints cavorting to the tune of Austen’s most celebrated central theme – looking for love in all the wrong (and occasionally right) places. Perhaps more than any other novel in Austen’s illustrious canon, Pride and Prejudice boasts excellent repartee between its romantically challenged couples; the conversations revealing the foibles, farce and folly in England’s chivalrously mismanaged courtships with nods to more pressing intrigues. Austen was, arguably, disinterested in the politics of romance, except to exploit it for the purposes of amusing her readership with reflections on the futility and superficiality of what was then considered contemporary ‘polite’ society.  The fact her writing has not only endured, but also so readily exalted is a testament to Austen’s universal appeal as a clairvoyant in observation of life in general and the ritualized mating game performed by its male and female players. For all intent and purposes, Jane Austen was probably the greatest ‘people watcher’ of all time and her meticulous crafting of traits and mannerisms for each character in Pride and Prejudice provides a sumptuous template for the most basic intricacies behind human understanding.  
MGM’s Pride and Prejudice is no less accomplished; given the full Monty in discriminating taste. Cedric Gibbons’ as usual impeccable art direction and Edwin B. Willis’ set decoration (cribbing extensively from MGM’s vast storehouse of props – many easily identifiable from Thalberg’s uber-lavish production of Marie Antoinette 1938; also using redressed free-standing back lot facades from the studio’s production of David Copperfield 1935) resurrects ‘period’ opulence; part authentic/part fanciful Hollywood re-interpretations for which MGM was genuinely noted and readily admired.  Attention to ‘period’ can only take you so far, and throughout the 1940’s Hollywood in general, and MGM in particular, was as much about detail as it exercised pure escapism. Gone are the true to ‘period’ empire waistlines, as example, replaced by some exceptional re-interpretations of the latest fashion by MGM’s in-house couturier, Gilbert Adrian – known simply as ‘Adrian’. Absent as well, are the sweeping hills and rolling landscapes easily recognizable to Britons; the war in Europe preventing MGM from even entertaining the notion to go abroad with a second unit and photograph some exterior plates for rear-projection. Like other studios from this vintage, MGM exercised tight control, shooting within the confines of their own opulent and copiously appointed playground. What they needed they built with the help of miniatures and mattes to extend the grandiosity beyond what mere painted plywood and plaster could imply. Herein, Pride and Prejudice immeasurably benefits from Metro’s illustrious past with just enough authenticity and originality to mark it as a class ‘A’ production.
Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier make for an eloquent pair of lovers; Garson’s spasmodically stubborn pertness, invigoratingly rich in poise and pragmatism, matched by Olivier’s rather droll and severe, often arrogant, yet perversely tortured man of means, driven to boredom by his summer holiday among the common folk. These regal sparring peacocks are surrounded by an utterly charming roster of MGM’s best contract players; Mary Boland as the scattershot matriarch, Mrs. Bennet; Edmund Gwenn (better known as everybody’s favorite Santa Claus from Miracle on 34th Street), herein, clean-shaven and subtly humorous as the kindly sage, Mr. Bennet; Maureen Sullivan (Tarzan’s Jane), herein cast as a different Jane entirely; Melville Cooper as the appropriately stuffy vicar, Mr. Collins; Edna May Oliver, the austere Lady Catherine de Bourgh - benefactress to half the county and virtually all of the town. With such a cast in place, it is near impossible to consider Pride and Prejudice as anything less than an exceptional portrait of rural 19th century social mores. From beginning to end, director, Robert Z. Leonard’s Pride and Prejudice champions and channels both Austen’s ‘sense’ and ‘sensibilities’ of a different kind, advancing the period ever so slightly to take advantage of Adrian’s more sumptuous costume, but maintaining fidelity to the straitjacketed social mores Austen herself had no compunction to playfully expose.
We begin in town with the buoyantly unfocused Mrs. Bennet (Mary Boland) and her two eldest daughters; demure, Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) and genteel, Elizabeth (Greer Garson) shopping for fabric for new dresses. Their excursion is not without its surprises. A stately cavalcade of carriages with two handsome young men in front passes through town. Through her gossipy connections, Mrs. Bennet quickly discovers their identities: Mr. Bingley (Bruce Lester) a bachelor who has just let the imposing Netherfield country estate for the summer, and, has an income of five thousand pounds a year, his sister, Caroline (Frieda Inescort) and their eligible friend, Mr. Darcy, rumored to be worth twice as much, thanks to his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Edna May Oliver). Mrs. Bennet collects the rest of her brood with haste; Kitty (Heather Angel) and Mary (Marsha Hunt), each indiscriminate in their playful romantic tastes for men in uniform, and, Lydia (Ann Rutherford), who prefers to have her head stuck in a book. However, before the Bennets can adjourn to their modest family home – Longborn – with Mrs. Bennet thus plotting a formal introduction of her girls to Messrs Bingley and Darcy, the family is confronted by the capricious Lady Lucas (Marjorie Wood), whose own daughter, Charlotte (Karen Morley) also happens to be Elizabeth’s best friend. Mrs. Bennet touts her knowledge of the amiable bachelors, sparking a friendly rivalry to see which family will be the first to goad Mr. Bingley into a forced invitation to Netherfield.
Upon returning home, Mrs. Bennet is beside herself when Mr. Bennet (Edmund Gwenn) appears noncommittal about obliging these concerns. How could he be so cruel, his wife wonders? They have five unmarried daughters without dowry and no prospects as yet. Mr. Bennet is a very cool customer indeed, already having made Mr. Bingley’s acquaintance – and furthermore, with prior knowledge on good authority, suspecting both he and Mr. Darcy will be attending the local ball. However, the mood at this social gathering is fraught with pensive electricity, particularly when the Bingleys and Mr. Darcy fail to show up as anticipated. Arriving late, Elizabeth is, at first, intrigued by the brooding Mr. Darcy; that is, until she overhears him discussing her in private with Mr. Bingley. It seems that while Mr. Bingley has become quite sincerely enchanted with Jane, Mr. Darcy can find absolutely nothing to recommend Elizabeth. Her pride ever so slightly wounded, Elizabeth’s impression of Mr. Darcy is further colored by a confession from would-be suitor/officer, George Wickham (Edward Ashley Cooper) who suggests that a ‘great wrong’ was done to him by Mr. Darcy; a denial of considerable inheritance since made Mr. Darcy a very rich man at his expense.
Elizabeth is genuinely shocked when Mr. Darcy – goaded by Mr. Bingley – asks her to dance. Clever girl that she is, Elizabeth uses this opportunity to ever so politely – though directly - refuse Darcy’s ignoble gesture; then, almost immediately accepts another invitation from Mr. Wickham in his place. A short while later Jane receives an invitation to Netherfield from Caroline Bingley. Having assessed the purpose of the visit, Mrs. Bennet elects to send Jane on horseback instead of by carriage. Her bedraggled arrival at Netherfield in the middle of a torrential downpour is compounded by an abominable head cold, forcing Jane to stay on under the Bingley’s care for several days. Eventually, Elizabeth comes to inquire about her sister’s health. Once more, she and Mr. Darcy butt heads, he becoming tenderly intrigued by her willful rejection of his modest kindnesses. Meanwhile, the Bennet’s cousin, Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper), who will one day inherit Longborn, arrives for a cordial visit. In search of a wife, Mr. Collins attempts to ingratiate himself with overbearing and rather obvious compliments. Mr. Bennet tolerates Mr. Collins. But he does not respect him. Mrs. Bennet, however, is gracious to a fault. But the girls – particularly Elizabeth and Jane - are merely amused by this fop in cleric’s collar. After Mr. Collins suggests he may wish to marry Jane, Mrs. Bennet dissuades him to reconsider Elizabeth instead; much to the latter’s chagrin. Mr. Bingley elects to give a grand party at Netherfield. Naturally, the Bennets attend. But Elizabeth is mortified when her family becomes the center of amusement for Caroline Bingley, who thinks the whole lot uncouth and ridiculous. Even worse, after attempting a détente, Mr. Darcy withdraws from Elizabeth upon overhearing Mrs. Bennet confiding to Mrs. Lucas she has orchestrated the whole affair between Jane and Mr. Bingley to ensure a love match.
Not long thereafter, the Bingleys and Mr. Darcy depart Netherfield and Mrs. Bennet becomes overwrought. Will Jane ever marry a man of good character, qualities and, of course, property? Mr. Collins seizes the opportunity of Mrs. Bennet’s distress to propose to Elizabeth. The match would ensure the family’s financial stability. But Elizabeth denies Mr. Collins, much to Mr. Bennet’s relief. Mr. Bennet would rather see them all thrown into the street than sell his most cherished possession – his daughter – in marriage to a man she did not love. Not long thereafter, Mr. Collins enters into an agreement with Charlotte Lucas instead. After they are married, Elizabeth pays a visit to Charlotte and Mr. Collins where she becomes reacquainted with Mr. Darcy and is introduced to his glowering aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Edna May Oliver). Darcy makes Elizabeth what he considers a very unaffected proposal of marriage. Though drawn to him, Elizabeth resists – partly due to Mr. Wickham’s story, but also because she suddenly realizes Darcy was responsible for Mr. Bingley’s separation from Jane.
Conflicted, Elizabeth returns to Longborn where she learns from her distraught mother that Lydia has eloped with Mr. Wickham. Mr. Darcy compounds the family’s displeasure when he insists Wickham will never marry Lydia. The silly girl has been disgraced and has, in turn, disgraced her family by running off with the man who tried to elope with Darcy’s 15yr. old sister, Georgiana. After Darcy departs Longborn, Elizabeth suddenly realizes the true depths of her feelings for him. Only what can she do about them now? The Bennets make ready to leave their ancestral home in shame. But Lydia and Wickham return mere hours before their decampment – Lydia with a band of gold about her ring finger. Wickham has made an honest woman of her. But how…and why? It seems Mr. Darcy has interceded on the family’s behalf, setting Mr. Wickham up with a handsome annuity in exchange for his marriage to Lydia. The family rejoices in their good fortune; momentarily at least, until Lady Catherine arrives to test Elizabeth’s fidelity to Mr. Darcy. Lady Catherine tells Elizabeth she could disown Mr. Darcy, thus leaving him penniless if he chooses to marry her. Elizabeth denies any such proposal has been made, but also suggests that if Mr. Darcy were to enter into an agreement she would not deny him – rich or poor. Her reply impresses Lady Catherine, who immediately confides in Darcy he has indeed met his match in Elizabeth Bennet. Her approval secured, Darcy rushes to Elizabeth’s side. She accepts his proposal and is overjoyed to see Mr. Bingley has also returned to make his honorable intentions known to Jane. From her window, Mrs. Bennet delights in the news, already plotting how to marry off the rest of her brood.
Pride and Prejudice is an affecting and joyous masterpiece, capturing the essential flavor of Jane Austen’s timeless authorship without slavish devotion to her every nuance and word. The studio’s devotion to quality has set the bar high for subsequent reinventions of this classic story, and, in many ways, forced competing versions to tip their own creative hats to MGM’s master craftsmen. Karl Freund’s lush cinematography adds glossy allure to the already luminous performances while Metro’s sadly/badly underrated and workaday composer, Herbert Stothart delivers yet another regal underscore, perfectly embodying the enterprising romantic silliness as lush and lovely orchestral subtext. Like Jane Austen herself, MGM’s Pride and Prejudice proves timeless; a superb evocation of the studio system functioning at the pinnacle of its powers. Austen would most certainly have approved.
Were it only true of Warner Home Video’s woeful DVD, marred by excessive gate weave and a barrage of age-related artifacts; also, a slight hint of edge enhancement.  The gray scale exhibits remarkable resilience and there appears to be no undue contrast boosting. When the image is solid, as it sporadically is, and dirt and scratches do not intrude – much – this visual presentation can actually look quite acceptable. Regrettably, the aforementioned shortcomings are persistent throughout and occasionally quite distracting. The audio is mono as originally recorded. It sounds quite clean – much more pristine than the visuals – with minimal hiss and only a few minor pops. Extras are limited to two unrelated short subjects and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Pride and Prejudice deserves more and better than this. I am going to champion the Warner Archive take command of this deep catalog title and give us a new Blu-ray. Now there’s a disc I’d sincerely recommend!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (MGM 1937) Warner Home Video

Based on Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated novel, Victor Fleming’s Captains Courageous (1937) is a life-affirming - if glossy - sea epic about the fabled travels of a young boy destined to grow up fast. After proving he cannot be trusted by fabricating a tall tale about his schoolmaster, spoiled rich kid, Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) is taken on a world cruise by his well-meaning father (Melvyn Douglas) as a way of procuring some quality father/son bonding time. Mr. Cheyne is a captain of industry; alas, also a single parent, feeling a genuine sense of guilt perhaps even more than duty, considering how much time he has spent away from Harvey. Unfortunately for father and son, half way across their ocean sojourn the ship encounters a gale. Young Harvey is thrown from the luxury liner but saved from drowning by Manuel Fidello (Spencer Tracy), a Portuguese fisherman who makes up songs with his concertina in between catching fish. Manuel takes Harvey back to his schooner, helmed by Capt. Disko (Lionel Barrymore) and populated by a formidable roster of Metro’s finest contract players: Charles Grapewin, as dotty, Uncle Salters, John Carradine (borrowed from Fox) as the forthright and stern, Long Jack, and, Mickey Rooney, far too mature for his age, as the cabin boy, Dan - a superb throwaway cameo.
Captains Courageous must rank among the finest achievements in cinema - period, and not just those made at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. That is saying quite a lot for a studio known in its heyday for such titanic efforts as The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Marie Antoinette (1938) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). It is virtually impossible to sit through Fleming’s incredibly heart-wrenching and meticulously orchestrated coming-of-age four hanky weepy without breaking out the Kleenex. While too few movies then or now have taken dead aim at the youth market to plum and prime children with credibility and virtually none are brave enough to be frank in their reflections that would greatly benefit and mature such impressionable and constricted psyches, far too many movies are slavishly devoted to the interminable masking of life’s harsher truths with unrealistic sugar-coated candy shells of bright-eyed idealism. Captains Courageous is a movie made by a guy’s guy; Victor Fleming not yet past his prime to have forgotten the potency and impact genuine loss can have on reshaping a young boy’s perspectives; the child becoming a man before our very eyes. Harvey’s burgeoning maturity is nurtured by the unlikeliest of friendships, carefully cultivated by one tough/compassionate surrogate in lieu of the patriarchal influence he otherwise genuinely lacks at home. Alas, this too is cruelly taken away by a twist of fate.
Captains Courageous is both sobering and uplifting, thanks to Freddie Bartholomew’s astute pivotal performance as the spoiled rich kid cum sage seeker of life. The conversion Bartholomew subjects his alter ego to, is a masterful display, put forth by a sadly forgotten child star, once considered a rival – if not a better – of Mickey Rooney. Time and Rooney’s own enduring cinematic legacy (making the successful transition from pint-size powerhouse to enigmatic teen idol, and later, the diminutive savant of such children’s classics as Pete’s Dragon and The Black Stallion) have unfairly eclipsed Bartholomew’s reputation. But lest we forget, here was a boy of rare qualities who could appear and decidedly hold his own opposite such luminaries as Garbo, Lionel Barrymore and Judy Garland, delving into an extraordinary wellspring of uncannily adult emotions in Anna Karenina, Little Lord Fauntleroy and David Copperfield (all three movies made and released in 1935). For a brief wrinkle in time, Bartholomew was easily MGM’s male counterpoint to Fox’s Shirley Temple; a prepubescent box office dynamo with a screen presence and the acting chops of a seasoned professional twice or three times his natural age. 
It remains one of Hollywood’s artistic tragedies to reconsider what Bartholomew’s career might have been if not for a crippling custody dispute between his birth parents. Both mismanaged his earning potential, causing a devoted aunt step in and take custody of Bartholomew in 1937. The aunt had her own agenda, petitioning L.B. Mayer for a higher salary, in part due to Bartholomew’s staggering success in Captains Courageous. Mayer, however, was no fool. Nor was he about to pay more for goods already acquired at the going rate: Bartholomew’s loss/Mickey Rooney’s gain. After Bartholomew’s aunt threatened to break Freddie’s contract, Mayer’s interest in the pint-sized actor dramatically cooled. A stalemate between the aunt and Mayer caused Bartholomew to be overlooked for two splashy productions - Rudyard Kipling's Kim, and Thoroughbreds Don't Cry.
Bartholomew’s appearance in either film likely would have catapulted him to even greater heights as a child star. By 1942, the damage incurred was irreversible. Bartholomew did not make another picture of note after his loan out in 1938 to 2oth Century-Fox for director, Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (Fox’s thinly disguised attempt to recapture the glory of Captains Courageous). More B-budget fodder followed; Bartholomew’s appeal further afflicted by the onset of puberty and his spiking to a height of nearly six feet – decidedly a child no more.  By the mid-1940’s, conscription put a period to Bartholomew’s film career. At the age of eighteen he entered military service, severely injuring his back while working in aircraft maintenance.  Seven months of painful rehabilitation led to his early discharge from active service in 1944.
As is the case with far too many child stars, never again was Bartholomew to scale such dizzying heights in popularity. The Town Went Wild, a 1944 B-comedy marked a seven-year hiatus for the actor, bookended by Bartholomew’s disastrous attempt to break into live theater and a near-fatal car accident that almost paralyzed him. He wed the first of three wives, Maely Daniele, in 1946 and spent the rest of the forties waffling in undistinguished movie cameos; forming a brief nightclub act with Maely, moderately successful in Australia. By 1949, Bartholomew had reinvented himself as a fledgling television performer and host; later, showing remarkable clairvoyance by producing such popular entertainments as The Andy Griffith Show, and the soap operas, As The World Turns, The Edge of Night and Search for Tomorrow for Benton & Bowles; a New York advertising agency he would eventually be made Vice President of in 1964.
Captains Courageous would be nothing at all without Bartholomew’s extraordinary performance as Harvey Cheyne. But the production also carefully surrounds Bartholomew with an impressive roll call of Metro’s finest thespians, beginning with Spencer Tracy. Tracy never considered Manuel Fidello among his finest performances – despite the fact it won him his first of two back-to-back Best Actor Academy Awards; perhaps, impacted by Joan Crawford’s rather glib assessment as she passed the makeup department while Tracy was having his hair tightly curled, muttering, “Good God, it’s Harpo Marx!”  I will admit, for a whole fifteen seconds after Tracy’s Portuguese fisherman first appears on the screen his affected accent – more Yiddish than Portuguese, and sporting unnaturally twirled ringlets left me momentarily befuddled. But then Tracy kicks in with some of his most understated and earnest acting; his soothing, but well-founded counseling taking on a quaintly brusque appeal; the ballast in Harvey’s burgeoning admiration for Manuel affecting anyone young enough to have fallen in love with an elderly mentor, or, old enough to recall a special someone who brought out clarity and perspective from their youthful angst and confusion during that critical juncture we all face in our early transition from child to adult.
Captains Courageous hits the audience on an emotional gut level. Manuel’s hellish demise, dragged to the bottom of the ocean by collapsed rigging during a powerful storm at sea, even as Harvey desperately tries to keep his best friend’s head afloat; Bartholomew’s wounded, frayed and tearful disbelief, and later, his angelic solemnity in prayer inside a chapel, reunited with his father, who has only just begun to comprehend what their friendship meant to the boy, are indelibly etched vignettes, as truthful and emotionally satisfying as anything ever achieved at the movies. After Tracy won his Oscar, he was circumspect about the honor, “Well, I got away with it. Want to know why? …because of Freddie. Because of that kid’s performance; because he sold it ninety-eight percent. The kid had to believe in Manuel, or Manuel wasn’t worth a quarter. The way he would look at me, believe every word I said, made me believe in it myself. I've never said this before, and I’ll never say it again. Freddie Bartholomew’s acting is so fine and so simple and so true that it’s way over people’s heads. It’ll only be by thinking back two or three years from now that they'll realize how great it was.” 
Captains Courageous opens with a brief scene to illustrate Harvey’s deviousness; blaming an innocent headmaster for his expulsion from school; his father’s unquestioning faith in his son’s accusations, leading Mr. Cheyne to embark upon an extended cruise with Harvey in tow. Mr. Cheyne is a captain of industry; wealthy but distracted by matters of business and entrusting Harvey’s upbringing so far to a private school and the various staff who populate his lavishly appointed manor. Nevertheless, Harvey has grown up wild, or rather, bratty and undisciplined, believing he is entitled to this life of privilege in lieu of a strong patriarchal influence to show him what it means to really be a man. In Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Harvey has both a father and a mother; the issue of parental neglect, perhaps, more glaring. But in the movie, Mr. Cheyne is a widower; kindly, invested and empathetic, but just too busy building a legacy for his son to inherit without first realizing the child needs a solid base to be worthy of the honor. Father and son set sail for Europe. But Harvey, playing a deceitful game of ‘hide and seek’, inadvertently slips from the ship’s deck and topples overboard into rough seas; his frantic cries to be saved are drowned out by the sound of crashing waves and the thunderous call of the ship’s whistles.
A short while later Harvey is picked up by Manuel in a rowboat. Ever stubborn, and now wet, cold and angry, Harvey orders Manuel to take him to his father. Alas, the two are in the middle of nowhere; the luxury liner having sailed away without so much as a second thought to return in search of him. And Manuel is but a sailor on a nearby schooner traversing the waters in search of fish. Their journey will take many months. Upon returning to the schooner, Capt. Disko makes it emphatically clear to Harvey he will not turn his vessel around and sacrifice the fishing season – ergo, their livelihood – merely to reunite Harvey with his father. The boy can stay on and become a member of the crew until the season is over. What? Manual labor? At first, Harvey is as belligerent as ever. He orders Disko to return him to his father’s ship. The gruff Disko slaps the boy down to teach him a lesson; a shock to Harvey, who likely has never been disciplined in his life. Harvey’s next move is to plan his escape in one of the small rowboats chained to the ship’s bow. This incurs Disko’s considerable wrath and does even less to ingratiate Harvey to the rest of the crew; first mate, Long Jacks, old salt, Uncle Salters and matter-of-fact cabin boy, Dan.
However, with a little friendly patience and understanding from Manuel, Harvey begins to change his tune. Mulishness gives way to personal satisfaction, Harvey investing himself in the daily chores and becoming an integral part of the crew. Gradually, he gains their respect of these hard-working men through his deeds and learns what it means to be one in a company of brave sea-faring men. Manuel is the father Harvey has never known; an adult male figure intensely interested in his welfare and upbringing. As such, Harvey falls under a child’s spell of worshipping his mentor. As time wears on, he also begins to entertain ideas about joining Disko’s crew on a permanent basis; something Disko sincerely promises to consider once they make port. Tragedy strikes when the schooner is mortally wounded during a perilous storm at sea. In a desperate attempt to free the ship from its capsized mast, threatening to overturn and drag the ship to the bottom of the sea, Manuel becomes entangled in its heavy rigging. Harvey climbs atop the fallen mast and grasps at the soaked lapels of Manuel’s coat, feverishly trying to keep his fallen friend’s head afloat. Disko wagers Manuel’s legs have already been severely dislocated and on Manuel’s orders, Disko cuts the rigging free from the mast, knowing it will drag Manuel to his death beneath the waves.
The loss is devastating to all, but particularly to Harvey who looks on in stung disbelief as the only real friend he has ever known slips beneath the water. Later, after the vessel is secure, Disko and Dan try to comfort Harvey, alas, to no avail. Far from belligerently rejecting their kindnesses, Harvey merely confesses to simply wishing to be left alone. Disko makes for port, realizing the only thing that may snap the boy from his grief is a reunion with his real father. Mr. Cheyne is overjoyed to learn his son did not drown at sea and rushes to be reunited with him, only to discover Harvey has been changed by his experiences at sea. He is ever more the man now; prematurely aged in his outlook on life and death; Mr. Cheyne comforting his son inside a church while caught in thoughtful prayer, still mourning Manuel. After some awkward consternation, Mr. Cheyne elects to respect Harvey’s friendship; also, assuming his responsibility for having failed the boy He vows to never again make the same mistake. Harvey has returned to him – a second chance by the gracious whim of fate and God’s good graces. The boy still needs guidance. But even more invaluable, he requires his love and compassion – in short: he needs a father. As Mr. Cheyne prepares to take Harvey home, the two regard one another as equals; Manuel’s memory lingering in our hearts as the screen fades to black.
It is impossible to watch Captains Courageous without succumbing to the emotionally satisfying groundswell of its life-teaching precepts. Despite changing times and tastes, John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly and Dale Van Every’s screenplay is so supremely invested in the universals of life, the picture retains its perspective as a heartrendingly relevant melodrama, once seen, never to be entirely expunged. Victor Fleming, who primarily cut his teeth on a series of Clark Gable movies, is a masterful understudy of this particular brand of male-bonding. With Captains Courageous, Fleming – either consciously or subliminally – has given us another Clark Gable movie without Gable. In absence of Hollywood’s then reigning ‘king’, Captains Courageous is immeasurably blessed to have Freddie Bartholomew. As fine as the rest of the cast is, they pale to the uncanny command Bartholomew illustrates throughout; his subtle conversion from scheming brat to sincere contrition is a spellbinding piece of screen acting. Kipling is right up Fleming’s alley and he employs his own inimitable stroke of genius on this memorable excursion – the tale infused with great heart and, of course, superbly staged action sequences for which all Fleming films are duly noted. Captains Courageous is quite possibly the greatest coming-of-age story ever committed to celluloid. Easily, it remains among the high-water marks in Metro’s studio-bound/movie-land magic; a compelling/life-enriching tale about the brotherhood of the sea and a must see/must own experience to be forever treasured by the young and young in heart.
Captains Courageous ought to be green-lit for Blu-ray in 2018. Honestly, it should have already made its way down the pike at the Warner Archive (along with such immortal children’s classics as National Velvet, Little Women and Lassie Come Home). For now, Warner Home Video’s DVD remains an unexpected delight. Considering the elements are well over seventy years old, this DVD holds up spectacularly; the gray scale, impeccably rendered with deep solid blacks and subtle tonality throughout. Whites are generally clean. Age-related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum. Certain scenes appear ever so slightly softly focused – and there are several instances (mostly during rear projection and/or stock shots) marginally suffering from heavier than usual grain. I suspect this is as it should be, although I am equally as certain contemporary video stabilization techniques could do something to make the transitions between stock footage and studio-bound process work more seamless without sacrificing the indigenous integrity of the image. For now, at least, this standard DVD transfer will surely not disappoint. The Dolby Digital mono audio has been cleaned up and is well-represented at an adequate listening level. Extras are the real disappointment. We get two unrelated short subjects and the original theatrical trailer. What? No audio commentary?  Poo-poo, that! Otherwise, Captains Courageous is one of the all-time greats. Very highly recommended, indeed!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


REVERSAL OF FORTUNE (Warner Bros. 1990) Warner Home Video

What is it about ‘murder’ we continue to find so fascinating? Mercifully, most of us lack the impetus to commit one. I will also venture an educated guess none of us would want to play the part of the victim either. Yet, splashed across the tabloids, reconstituted as fiction for novels, made into serialized TV dramas and/or movie ‘thrillers’ – murder most foul is undeniably something we instinctively love to watch. I suspect crime in general appeals to our inner Sherlock Holmes or Jessica Fletcher; figuring out who done it, how they did it and what in the hell they did it for; the endless pursuit of possibilities, firing our collective powers of deduction. That is one explanation anyway. Except the logic behind our unsettling admiration for the perfect murder gets complicated in Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune (1990) primarily because its subject matter is Claus Von Bulow; arguably, one of the 20th century’s most misunderstood and charismatic villains. The genius of Schroeder’s exposé resides equally with Nicholas Kazan’s elegant screenplay and Jeremy Iron’s as magnetic incarnation of Von Bulow; contagiously aberrant, yet rakishly appealing, with the late – great – Ron Silver engaging this self-professed ‘prince of perversion’ in an intellectual battle royale.  
Born Claus Cecil Borberg, of German/Danish extraction, handsome and suave to a fault, but later accused of injecting wife, Martha Sharp Crawford (nee von Auersperg from a first failed marriage, and, better known to the world as ‘Sunny’ Von Bulow) with a lethal dose of insulin: there is a lot more to Claus than first meets the eye. He was a man who seemingly perverted the legalities of the criminal justice system on two continents as well as the time-honored precept, ’crime must pay’; having lived with the decaying corpse of his own mother in their London flat for nearly a week before her death was even reported to the local authorities. The morbidity of Claus’ crime against Sunny (if, in fact, under the legalese of devil’s advocacy, one had been committed) is only matched by our insidious desire to know all we can about this rather aloof scion. He practiced law; then, married rich in 1966.  He had affairs with prominent socialites, but favored prostitutes. He flaunted the obviousness of his deception in the face of public decency and moral outrage through not one, but two highly publicized murder trials – the first, marred by imperfect ‘tampered’ evidence and ending in a hasty conviction of 30 years. This was later overturned on appeal in what many continue to regard as a gross miscarriage of justice.
The wealthy really do live and die by a different set of rules.  In preparing his movie, based on Alan Dershowitz’s infamous ‘tell all’ about Claus Von Bulow’s second trial, Reversal of Fortune steadily evolves into a diabolically delicious melodrama. At one point an exacerbated Dershowitz (played to perfection by the late Ron Silver - who died of esophageal cancer in 2009) glowers with intellectually frustrated resolve. “You’re a very strange man,” he tells Claus, who (played with chilling brilliance by Jeremy Irons) slyly suggests, “You have no idea.” The curious – oft’ wickedly barbed camaraderie festering between these two men, neither trusting of the other, and adversarial to a fault, fuels Nicholas Kazan’s narrative with an acidic tension; infectious, vivid and thoroughly satisfying. Reversal of Fortune isn’t a ‘whodunit’ per say, despite the fact we really do not know if Claus is guilty of the crime of murder as charged. True enough, as trial #2 commences, Sunny Von Bulow (Glenn Close) lays demure and unknowing of the media tsunami her drug-induced coma has caused; oblivious to public outcries for justice on her behalf. Sunny eventually died, some 28 years after slipping into her persistent vegetative state, never to share her version of the ambiguous events that led to her demise.
But what really happened inside the impossibly lavish Newport, Rhode Island estate that served as the couple’s unhappy home from 1966 to 1988 remains largely a mystery between Sunny, Claus and their God – or a reasonable facsimile. While speculations have run rampant in the interim, the reality is neither Sunny nor Claus was without their flaws; some greatly exaggerated by jealous, disdained ex-lovers on both sides, and, pure conjecture put forth in the tabloids, expounded upon as popular opinion, and, given the credence of ‘reasonable doubt’ by an ambitious Rhode Island prosecuting attorney. It all makes for a nice, dirty little scandal, n’est pas?  And at some level it seems to fit the public’s appetite for seeking revenge on Claus – a man of means largely acquired through marriage, who could easily be made the scapegoat to satisfy our collective vitriol in believing the worst about people we secretly envy.  This film review is not a treatise, exoneration, nor defense of Claus Von Bulow. In point of fact, he is probably guilty of something: if not the fatal injection, then other despicable behaviors that likely prompted an emotionally distraught and knowingly unloved spouse to punish herself with unhealthy indulgences contributing to her untimely predicament.
Kazan’s screenplay assumes no moral judgment on the matter, probably to escape a liable suit. Frankly, his is a fairly clinical approach to the facts; putting forth several alternative theories to the crime as bloodless and contradictory as the actual case formulated by the Rhode Island D.A. What remains utterly fascinating about Reversal of Fortune is its performances; particularly the combative and threadbare détente of necessity between Ron Silver and Jeremy Irons, and to a lesser degree – Glenn Close, whose present-day paralysis is counterbalanced with a more vibrant turn as the omnipotent narrator of what amounts to a series of titillating flashbacks. Some replay the moment of coma over and over again to hammer home the particulars of the case. Others illustrate how a seemingly perfect marriage – or perhaps, bittersweet affaire de coeur – could turn so utterly desolate, then tragic within a few short decades. There are other players to consider; Annabella Sciorra’s sassy Sarah – Dershowitz’s former attachment and student; square-jawed, Jack Gilpin as Peter MacIntosh, lead investigator on the case, who ultimately assumes the position of Dershowitz’s co-council at trial; Fisher Stevens – as delectable slime ball, David Marriott (a sort of precursor to Kato Kaelin); Christine Baranski as Andrea Reynolds; Claus’ latest flame and utterly bigoted gal pal (“Get the Jew, I said.”); and veteran actress, Uta Hagen, as Sunny’s devoted maid, Maria. The aforementioned do not necessarily get a lot of playtime in this movie, but each distinguishes his/her self with memorable moments of introspection that stand out in relief.
We begin with a truly outstanding aerial shot, flying over Newport, lensed by cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli; the helicopter track smooth as silk as it sails past sunlit waterfront properties of the ultra-wealthy, lawns perfectly manicured. However, as we are soon to learn, something is decidedly remiss behind these stately facades. Mark Isham’s sinister score punctuates the main titles with minor chords as we descend from heaven into the corridor of a nearby hospital where the catatonic Sunny Von Bulow lays, breathing from a ventilator, with other sundry medical apparatuses monitoring her blood pressure, urine flow, heart rate and so on. We hear Sunny’s voice from beyond; smarmy, seemingly enjoying this vicarious ogling of her well-preserved and lingering corpse. In short order, we are given a recap of Claus’ first trial and conviction on the charges of first degree murder; a conviction all too likely not to stand on appeal. But lest we forget – as though Sunny will let us – that gin, too many sweets, insulin and destiny play funny tricks.
We regress to a modest wooden two-story; home of Harvard law professor and practicing attorney, Alan Dershowitz. Alan’s basketball practice is interrupted by a phone call he was not expecting. Two of his clients, whom he knows to be innocent, have just been sentenced to die in the electric chair.  Smashing his cordless telephone against the pavement, Dershowitz is beside himself until his son, Elon (Stephen Mailer) informs his father someone named Claus Von Bulow is on the other line. Believing the call to be a crank, Alan takes matters into his own hands and is visibly stunned when he realizes the voice at the other end really is Von Bulow asking him to take his case. It dawns on Dershowitz that in accepting the challenge to free Claus he could use the fee to file a litany of appeals in defense of his other clients.  And so, the initial meeting between Claus and Alan commences with Dershowitz’s skepticism firmly in place; unabated after meeting his client’s latest plaything, Andrea Reynolds - a waspish doyen, too arrogant to realize she is revealing bigoted contempt for the Jewish people.
To break the ice, Claus suggests he and Alan have lunch at Twenty-One; Alan frankly revealing to Claus his case holds very little interest for him, but that there remains one benefit to his otherwise disadvantaged odds of winning on appeal. “Everyone hates you,” Alan explains. “Well, that’s a start,” Claus concurs. Alan’s students are initially appalled by their mentor’s consideration to defend Claus; Alan explaining that if lawyers only defended innocent people there would be virtually no employment in his profession for this aspiring brood. Conceding that, as an exercise alone, the case has its intrigues – if not its merits – one by one the students rally around the cause; congregating at Dershowitz’s home and taking over several rooms on the upper level to launch their private investigation into the facts. Alan’s former lover, Sarah is at first disgusted by Claus, who makes light of the public’s vitriol with devil-may-care jest that seems unscrupulous and callous at best; even telling jokes about his supposed attempt on Sunny’s life; referring to a fear of insulin as ‘Claus-trophobia’.
As Dershowitz’s defense of Claus kicks into high gear, we are treated to various flashbacks that superficially explain the first act of the Von Bulow’s life together, as well as Sunny’s first and second comas. However, the picture being painted herein is hardly flattering. It seems Sunny would have preferred Claus to remain her kept man; his insistence on working as a trade-advising attorney on Wall Street incurring her formidable ire. “You’re the prince of perversion,” she hisses, her insinuation taking on double meaning as we learn that during their marriage, Claus was heatedly involved with soap opera star, Alexandra Isles (Julie Hagerty), as well as indulging more immediate lusts on a steady stream of high-priced prostitutes.  We also catch glimpses of the Von Bulow’s attorney, Robert Brillhoffer (Thomas Dorff) and Claus’ stepson, Alexander (Jad Mager). Together with devoted housekeeper, Maria, this team is responsible for locating Sunny’s medical bag filled with prescription drugs and encrusted needles of insulin, later used at trial to ‘frame’ Claus in Sunny’s attempted murder.
In his impassioned appeal, Dershowitz argues any and all of this evidence could have been either easily manufactured or tampered with after the fact. Moreover, tests conducted by several independent labs indicate false positive matches for insulin even when no insulin was present. Armed with this new evidence, Dershowitz prepares to go to trial. Regrettably, Alan’s previous interviews with one, David Marriott – a known drug dealer and pimp, swearing he supplied both Sunny and Claus’ stepson with illegal drugs – has tape-recorded all of their conversations; then doctored the tapes to imply Alan was paying him for fabricated evidence to win his case at any and all costs. Threatened with the very real possibility of not only losing the case but disbarment, Dershowitz fights back, discrediting Marriott to clear his name before proceeding to trial. The movie concludes with Claus’ exoneration. We return to Sunny’s bedside where her voiceover muses with devilish satisfaction, “This is all you can ever know”; an evasive comment suggesting there is so much more to tell. We see Claus enter a local convenience store/pharmacy, buying a pack of cigarettes from the congenial clerk (Constance Shulman) whose blood runs cold after she suddenly recognizes Claus from his picture splashed across the tabloids on a nearby magazine rack. “Will there be anything else?” she nervously asks. “A vial of insulin,” Claus replies with a sinister grin and a wink, “Just kidding.”
Reversal of Fortune is a movie that relies heavily on performance. Indeed, it evolves more along the lines of a stage play than a motion picture; its’ three-act structure fairly transparent, if never uninspiring. What is exceptional about the movie is its dialogue; direct, concise, full of revelations about its characters, and, potently emoted by its three galvanic stars. Jeremy Irons is the more varied of the lot and it won him a justly deserved Best Actor Academy Award. Here is an elegant, if bone-chilling Venus fly trap of a bon vivant, drawing his prey with the fragrant whiff of moneyed treats. Irons, who I continue to admire and quite simply wish would do more (he can read the telephone book for all I care), is a supreme thespian slotted into the ‘untouchable’ category with few contemporaries. But Ron Silver’s Dershowitz is not so easily played by Claus; nor is he seduced into thinking his overturning the original verdict necessarily equates to a triumph. “Legally, this was an important victory,” Silver’s Dershowitz sternly reminds Claus before leaving him to his own accord, “Morally…you're on your own.”
And hence, so is the audience – left, as it were – to mull over the facts, impressions, misrepresentations, and the machinations in this salacious game of judicial Tiddlywinks; splitting hairs with manufactured and re-evaluated evidence of a ‘possible’ crime that may or may not conclude with Claus’ innocence or guilt. In retrospect, Claus’ deviant nature and sense of entitlement made him his own worst enemy. Yes, he was a philanderer. Or no - his was an open marriage to Sunny; his so-called affairs, mutually agreed upon beforehand. A philanderer and cad do not necessarily a murderer make. And for what purpose would Claus murder his wife. For money? He already had plenty. For greed? Possibly, though there is little to suggest Sunny Von Bulow denied her husband anything throughout their stormy alliance. To get on with another of his more intimate playmates? The last time I checked, divorce was still preferable to murder. Alas, the public is always ready to condemn the accused and deify the victim – particularly one who cannot speak for herself. Permit us the suggestion that Sunny Von Bulow was hardly a saint. She was, in fact, prone to fits of violence and bouts of extreme depression. How much of this was brought on by her genuine unhappiness in the marriage? Ah, now therein lies the truer crux in this investigation; a hidden place within spousal privilege the public never saw at trial and is likely never to unearth to draw further clarity.
We have Claus’ side and that is all. But even as the old adage goes, about there being three sides to every situation – his, hers and ‘the truth’Reversal of Fortune is exceedingly clever at playing both sides (his/hers) off the middle (the truth…or at the very least, reality as perceived by Nicholas Kazan). And Kazan has done a rather exemplary job of distilling Dershowitz’s book about the trial into a thoroughly fascinating character study that gets to the heart of the matter without artistic license making wild allegations to further cloud the public’s perceptions about these two people we only ‘think’ we know. In the final analysis, Reversal of Fortune is an engrossing drama about an utterly charming devil.  Claus Von Bulow – unrepentant, slick and stylish, left to enjoy life and Sunny Von Bulow’s money; a pariah in the minds of many or wrongly accused to satisfy our collective jealousy about the idle rich? It is very likely we will never know.  Perhaps, it’s best we don’t.
I would sincerely like to see the Warner Archive tackle a Blu-ray release of Reversal of Fortune for 2018. It’s high time we get something better than Warner Home Video’s DVD, which is very disappointing. First, it is sourced from a print rather than an original camera negative, and, with rather obvious damage and vertical scratches running down the screen just left of center during the entire opening credit sequence. Second, there is a considerable amount of edge enhancement that crops up in vertical and horizontal detail throughout the wainscoting inside the Von Bulow’s mausoleum-like mansion. Third, contrast appears to have been ever so slightly boosted. Color is fairly accurate and grain – if not entirely pleasing – is nevertheless not digitized. Fine detail waffles between mid-grade and less than. The audio is 2.0 stereo. This is primarily a dialogue-driven movie shot on location with various overdubs – some quite obvious. The limitations in sonic fidelity are tolerable however. Dialogue sounds mostly natural but effects – such as they are – seem rather tinny and flat. The unforgivable sin herein is extras. We get an audio commentary from director, Barbet Schroeder and the movie’s original theatrical trailer. We ought to have at least a featurette – if not a full-blown documentary – on the making of the movie; also, the back story behind the real Claus and Sunny Von Bulow. Bottom line: Reversal of Fortune on DVD is weak but not outright terrible. The movie is exceptional. I would sincerely attempt cartwheels if the Warner Archive ever gets around to remastering this one for Blu-ray! Film at eleven.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)