Friday, June 2, 2017

MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1958) Kino Lorber

Altering the ending of Herman Wouk’s best seller – arguably for the better – and updating the setting by a couple of decades, director, Irving Rapper’s Marjorie Morningstar (1958) is a relatively faithful (at least by Hollywood’s standards) adaptation of Wouk’s highly popular work of fiction, depicting the bittersweet May/December romance between a pair of mismatched lovers. The novel would suggest its vivacious title character, Marjorie Morningstar (a.k.a. Morgenstern and superbly realized by Natalie Wood) is doomed to settle in marriage to Sidney Schwartz (never depicted in the film), a man approved of by her rigid and match-making mother, Rose (Claire Trevor); Marjorie, surrendering the last vestige of her own identity (formidable and strong-willed throughout the rest of the story) to actually become a wan ghost flower of her own mother. If the novel left its female readership weeping upon publication in 1955 it was likely due to the fact this winsome, bright-eyed and intelligent ingénue in which all of their thoughts, ideals and daydreams had been embodied and doubly invested, suddenly appeared unapologetic and willing to sell out her dreams for the quiet life.
Relocating the novel’s premise from the 1930’s to the ‘more progressive’ fifties allows screenwriter, Everett Freeman to explore an alternative fate for our beloved heroine; coming to terms with her prolonged, if ill-fated case of puppy love, matured too in her outlook on life as she steps away from the past with renewed faith and promise in her own future; a brief glimpse of old friend and popular playwright, Wally Wronkin (Martin Milner) in the rearview mirror, meant to suggest a new chapter in Marjorie’s life, instead of closing the book on her aspirations (both figuratively and literally) forever. Marjorie Morningstar is an almost devotional recollection of a young girl’s impossible infatuation with an older man. Wouk’s prose coaxes a ginger empathy to the surface for this misled girl. If he fumbles the ball at the end, easing our winsome gal into the predictable ending – marriage (happy conceived or otherwise, settled) – Wouk nevertheless manages to generate a sense of compassion for Marjorie that keeps the embers of her recalled love affair brightly burning even under the heavy clouds of conventional acquiescence to the ‘part’ (or ‘a woman’s place’) she is expected to play.  
On the wane from his seemingly Teflon-coated career as a superlative musical/comedy star, Gene Kelly proves again he can carry a dramatic role with as much emotional intensity, understanding, frustrated dignity and polish, while his co-star, Natalie Wood equally illustrates what a very fine young actress she had blossomed into since her days as the astute child star of Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  It really is the first ‘adult’ part for Wood and she excels at it with an unanticipated dignity and wit. This wasn’t Kelly’s first stab at melodrama. He had played the son of a slain Italian lawyer in 1950’s blistering melodrama, The Black Hand, and exercised an air for the athletic and effervescent D’Artagnan in 1948’s lithe Technicolor adaptation of The Three Musketeers. Nevertheless, Kelly’s performance in Marjorie Morningstar as the unfulfilled and self-pitying Noel Airman (a.k.a. ‘Ehrman’) only ever to attain notoriety as the summer stock thespian/social director of the South Wind Playhouse, offers us a glimpse into Kelly’s alter ego, or, the perfectionist defeated, or rather again and still; ingeniously morphed into somebody else. I suppose it bodes well for Kelly that his first ‘serious’ part allows him the opportunity to hint at the embers of his former breezy self; the Kelly we expect to see – and do get in reserved fits and flashes - Noel, as dancer, choreographer, star and director; far too professional and accomplished for the modest theater company he keeps, even as he briefly hoofs, exercising his typically overt masculine bravura, and, even more pleasingly warbles the movie’s sensual anthem: the Oscar-nominated, ‘A Very Precious Love. ’
Critics of the day were quick to criticize Natalie Wood for remaining ‘competent’ in a ‘rarely glowing’ and ‘hardly complex’ part. Respectfully, I wholeheartedly disagree. While Marjorie’s misfired puppy love for Noel does begin to wear a tad thin by the end of this story, Wood’s heartfelt evocation of these deepest wellsprings of devotion, repeatedly shattered by her lover’s philandering and bouts with alcoholism, are finely brought to the core of this potent drama with a genuinely realized and sobering epiphany all her own. Marjorie Morningstar is a movie that, unlike others of its ilk and generation, has not dated all that much since, chiefly because of the intelligence both Kelly and Wood infuse into their performances. Each strikes at the iron of those perennially diverging chords of affection that can generate the necessary spark between two dissimilar, if impassioned people, though rarely – if ever – meant for matrimony or even any sort of lasting happiness. Noel and Marjorie belong to this ill-fated sect of lovers, able to sense the intensity of each other’s fiery appetite at a glance; drawn, as moths, to its eternal flicker, only to realize more third degree burns than warmth is probable from its smoldering intensity. True to movie-land cliché, Noel and Marjorie’s fervor is depicted as more of a disease than desirable; the antithesis of that fabled grand amour Marjorie’s doe-eyed green girl clings to for far too long with wounded disillusionment as these incremental misfires in her fairy tale mount into abject, even monumental unhappiness. 
It is fitting that the first character we are introduced to in the movie version is a genuine ‘character’ in his own right: the Morgenstern’s beloved Uncle Samson (Ed Wynn). Resisting the urge to play it ‘broad’ as was usually Wynn’s forte, herein the actor gives us a truer portrait of the avuncular and benevolent family member we all wish we had watching our backs; a sage, peppered in the wisdom of the ages and a thin treacle of good humor – blessed and beloved by all who come to know him. Samson’s arrival to the Morgenstern’s new and fashionable Manhattan apartment coincides with Marjorie’s maturation into a young woman of qualities desirably to many suitors. Most recently, it’s Sandy Lamm (Edward Byrnes); the son of a successful businessman. Rose believes Sandy is a fine match. But Marjorie has no spark of interest in pursuing him, much to her mother’s dismay. Instead, as a student of the prestigious Hunter College, Marjorie elects to follow her girlfriend, the somewhat boy-crazy, Marsha Zelenko (Carolyn Jones) to work at an all-girl’s summer camp in the Adirondacks; a means to ‘find herself’. Marjorie’s father, Arnold (Everett Sloane) is more forgiving of this idea.
By day, Marjorie and Marsha dutifully fulfill their commitments as camp mentors. But by night, they are lured to cross the lake by canoe to South Wind; a Borscht Belt resort for adults only, managed by Maxwell Greech (George Tobias). Marsha meets up with her much older beau at the resort’s dancehall, leaving Marjorie to befriend aspiring playwright, Wally Wronkin. Wally is smitten with Marjorie at a glance. But she is drawn to the resort’s much older social director, Noel Airman. Caught by Greech, Marjorie is rescued by Noel’s quick thinking. He lies to Greech about having invited Marjorie as his guest. In short order, Noel offers Marjorie a job painting sets and hanging posters; the beginning of an unrequited puppy love that quickly escalates into a full-blown affair. Noel is worldly, but cynical. He refers to Marjorie as a ‘Shirley’ – just one in a long line of easily made/and as easily laid seductions. But soon, Noel discovers how different Marjorie is from all the others. She has touched his heart. Ashamed of his own Jewish heritage (born Ehrman, not Airman), Noel rechristens his protégée, Marjorie ‘Morningstar’ and gives her a plum spot in his new ‘fiesta-styled’ show. Concerned for Marjorie’s welfare, Rose sends Uncle Samson to oversee this brewing romance. And while Samson does play the part of the chaperone rather well, he allows Marjorie and Noel their breathing space; a chance, perhaps, for her to discover the misguided nature of these affections for this middle-aged man in her own good time. 
Instead, Marjorie makes it known to her mother and father she intends to marry Noel as soon as he asks her. Neither Rose nor Arnold is particularly pleased; less so, when they witness first-hand Marjorie’s provocative dance during the fiesta as part of South Wind’s entertainment. Uncle Samson offers to smooth out the edges, but after a few spirited steps around the dance floor he excuses himself, looking frail and careworn. Noel intrudes and professes his true love for Marjorie. She accepts him with all her heart, but only moments later discovers a crowd, including the resort’s kindly, Dr. David Harris (Martin Balsam) huddled near Uncle Samson who has suffered a fatal heart attack. Perhaps believing her acceptance of Noel has indirectly contributed to Samson’s demise, Marjorie rejects Noel now and retreats back to college where she and Marsha graduate with honors. In the meantime, Wally has become a very successful playwright with a Broadway hit. His success breeds Noel’s envy. Despite having landed a successful career as a Madison Ave. ad man, Noel resents having sacrificed his own dreams of the theater to pursue Marjorie. After some pre-marital jitters, Marsha marries the much older, Lou Michaelson (Jesse White); one of the backers of Wally’s show.
When it comes to the theater, Wally is blessed with the Midas touch. But Noel has Marjorie as his muse. Encouraged by her, Noel proceeds to write ‘Princess Jones’ – an intellectual play where the emotional content of the romantic couple being depicted on stage is expressed entirely through the art of dance. The project has merit, or rather, prestige – a quality sure to make it either the surprise sleeper hit of the season or a total flop. Noel senses that Wally and Lou have been put up by Marsha and Marjorie to bring two additional backers to help fund his dream project. He resents the implication this is the only way he can succeed in life: propped up by someone else’s money and faith in the talent he already knows he possesses. After a brief admonishment of their motives, and a near outright rejection of his plan, Noel recants his disgust and begs for everyone’s indulgence and forgiveness. Seeing how fragile he is, Wally and Lou conspire to convince the backers to go on with the show. Their investment is mislaid when ‘Princess Jones’ bombs with the critics, who crucify its opening night.
Noel retreats into self-pity and drink, picking up a B-girl, Imogene Norman (Ruta Lee) at a jazz nightclub; Marjorie, discovering Imogene dressing the next morning in Noel’s apartment, leading directly to their breakup. Marjorie is pursued by David, whom she likes but does not love. Eventually, he marries another and Marjorie is briefly reunited with Noel.  Without much explanation, Noel retreats to Europe – presumably to find himself. Wally urges Marjorie not to follow him. But she still cannot believe their affair is at an end. So she trails Noel to Paris, only to discover he is not there. Instead, Wally resurfaces, explaining to Marjorie how Noel never left the country and has actually gone back to South Wind; the only place where he will ever be a success – even if it is only minor celebrity. Marjorie skulks off to South Wind, determined to win Noel back. But then a funny thing occurs; as she quietly observes Noel in rehearsals for a new show, Marjorie suddenly begins to realize she is not the same naïve girl. Greech appears, suggesting she has grown up quite a bit since the last time he saw her and, for the first time, Marjorie agrees. She has grown up; the puppy love, and desperation to be loved by Noel in return, all gone now. Marjorie leaves South Wind without ever talking to Noel; boarding the bus back to New York, only to discover Wally seated near the back, still hopeful Marjorie will come around to him as a potential mate. While no words are spoken between them, the bus pulling away from South Wind suggests for the first time Wally and Marjorie’s interests are finally headed in the same direction.
Marjorie Morningstar remains a poignant reflection on a young girl’s infatuation with an older man. Co-stars Gene Kelly and Natalie Wood strike indelible impressions in this bittersweet tale of love found, lost, briefly rekindled, but eventually surrendered to the passage of time. Irving Rapper’s direction is fairly uneven, if not in its pacing, then definitely in its narrative time line. Lest we forget, Rapper is the fellow who gave us Bette Davis’ most memorable three hanky weepie, Now Voyager (1942). And while Rapper is in ‘familiar territory’ with Marjorie Morningstar he seems incapable of linking its passages with anything more promising than a fade out. Whole excerpts from Wouk’s novel are omitted – as, arguably, they must be for time constraints. But Rapper’s direction lacks finesse as he arbitrarily moves the narrative along to the ‘next big scene’. In and of themselves these work splendidly because the acting in them is very good indeed. But the causal relationship between them is missing; suggesting more a vignette or Trip Tik through ‘the seasons’ of Marjorie’s turbulent love affair with Noel that lacks a satisfying emotional arc to their story.
We have Kelly and Wood to thank for whatever expressive wellsprings stir between these characters. Kelly’s Noel is a womanizing cad, but an empathetic one nonetheless. Wood’s Marjorie is a bit more difficult to decipher, since she continues to carry the torch for this mostly one-sided grand amour long after the audience already has recognized it is tragically hopeless to daydream it into existence. The real magic in Wood’s pining pirouette comes almost at the end; the way she manages to take all its wounded desire and suddenly, without the benefit of dialogue, translate it into the substance of a real ‘reel’ woman of quality; Marjorie’s awakening, both edifying and astute.  In the end, Marjorie Morningstar is a movie well worth revisiting because it continues to resonate with sobering sparks about the troubled affaire de coeur most of us can thoroughly relate to with genuine understanding. Marjorie and Noel are not to be. That makes them true to life; truer still to the precepts of all great romances where he said that he loved her. She said that she loved him. Then, they both decided to go their separate ways. Ah me, amour!
Kino Lorber’s newly minted Blu-ray is not quite as deserving of our breathless sighs.  First off, it is light years ahead of what this movie has ever looked like on home video for decades; produced by Warner Brothers but long-since in public domain and presently advertised on Kino’s back packaging as under a licensing agreement with Paramount Home Video. Odd. Whatever the case, this new to Blu master, and in 4K no less, appears to have been sourced from original separation masters; albeit, plagued by the muddy grain and inconsistently rendered hues of WarnerColor; arguably, one of the worst color processes introduced in the early fifties to (choke) challenge Technicolor’s supremacy. The fluctuations in color density are wholly the result of WarnerColor’s inferiority – not any flaw in this mastering effort. When the elements are properly aligned, most of Marjorie Morningstar looks as it should. Some of it looks very good indeed.
However, at about 38 minutes into this presentation we get some really ugly ghosting (misalignment). Spread throughout is a considerable amount of age-related wear and tear – dirt, scratches, tears, etc. that have been built into these elements over time. A digital clean-up would have likely corrected virtually all of these anomalies…except that no one took the time to care. Personally, I do not see the point in advertising this release (much less doing all of the scan work on it) in 4K if even basic digital restoration is not applied. As originally stated, what’s here is far superior to what Marjorie Morningstar has ever looked like on home video. But it is also light years behind the level of perfection currently possible with a little time, care and money properly spent. Disappointing to see such a half-ass job in 2017! We are not at the infancy of Blu-ray mastering, folks. High time we started expecting more from our distributors and their licensors.  The DTS mono audio is adequately reproduced for this presentation with no hiss or pop. Apart from a few trailers tacked on to advertise other Kino Lorber classics available, there are NO extras. Bottom line: Marjorie Morningstar is memorable. This Blu-ray is better than previous home video incarnations, but nowhere near the level of quality possible in high def. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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