Saturday, September 30, 2017

THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?: Blu-ray (ABC Films 1967) Kino Lorber

From its unflinching portrayal of Depression-era malcontents, each suffering from an absurd level of validated desperation, to its insidious depiction of shameless profiteering by promoter/emcee, Rocky (Gig Young, unshaven, beady-eyed and perversely cynical, in a part he was born to play), Sidney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) is darkly involving. Faithfully adapted by screenwriters, Robert E. Thompson and James Poe, from the 1935 novel by Horace McCoy, the picture is a snapshot of the American dance marathon ‘craze’ that swept the nation in its bleakest hour with starry-eyed dreams of victory, fame and prize money. McCoy’s book was far more successful in Europe, its lyrical brutality off-putting to Americans suffering through the Depression, yet counterbalanced by the author’s precise and individualized reflections on the modus operandi of this motley ensemble of partakers. Perhaps because its’ brooding existentialism cut far too close to the bone it would be some thirty-four years before the novel reached the screen. The book is unapologetic in its steely-eyed deconstruction of this microcosm of American culture and society – the social issues witnessed with immediacy through the puffy-eyed naïve, Robert Syverton (played with afflicting sincerity by Michael Sarrazin) and thin-lipped viper, Gloria Beatty (Jane Fonda, superbly embittered, heartless and cruel). 
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is such a tour de force for these stars, and for Pollack, directing his first real movie of stature, its imperfections are easily – almost forgivably – overlooked. For here is an epic of fatigue and futility; almost Shakespearean in its connotations as the La Monica ballroom, fairly reeking of sweat, cigarettes and backroom sex, rumbles underfoot with the tinny echoes of botched ‘big bands’, raising a lot of ‘sound and fury…signifying nothing.’ Pollack’s balancing act is completely engrossing because he has such co-stars as Red Buttons (as Harry, an over-the-hill sailor), Susannah York (woefully star-struck Alice; a Jean Harlow knock-off defrocked of her glamor by Rocky to the point of a nervous breakdown), and finally, Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia (as James and Ruby; hick boyfriend and knocked-up gal pal respectively). Like Fonda’s wraith-thin harpy and Sarrazin’s starving-eyed scarecrow, these supporting players seem so painfully wrought in the elemental labors of mere survival, even under the most inhospitable conditions, they amplify the immensity and obliteration of this passing parade (never addressed in movies made throughout the 1930’s) when humanity came dangerously close to becoming anarchically cheap, disposable, pointless and wan without the color of money.
The legendary Fonda, herein roiling with a spiteful venom against the world, and virtually unknown Sarrazin, unable to bring himself anywhere near this brink of such unadulterated hatred for human kind, are a very potent combo; her unvarnished jadedness, the perfect counterbalance to his self-sacrificing innocence. Robert takes pity on Gloria. His assassination of her at the finale remains the poster child for mercy killings. Stripped of every last vestige of dignity, the girl truly has nothing to live for; all dreams, tranquilized/all hope evaporated. Robert’s motivation for pulling the trigger simply because he is asked to comply is a little sketchier, as surely he must know that without the victim’s corroboration of his confession – “she asked me to” - he will surely be hanged for the crime of cold-blooded murder. Pollack’s focus isn’t all that concerned with the denouement beyond its obvious shock value. And make no mistake – the end of the movie is about as saturnine and cathartic as movie experiences get. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a condemnation – not just of dance marathons, but of this nation of navel-gazers stricken with the poisonous ailment of miscalculating what it means to be popular.    
As early as 1950, actors Norman Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin contemplated collaborating on a cinematic adaptation of McCoy’s novel; Lloyd buying the rights for a meager $3000 and Chaplin enterprisingly plotting to star his son, Sydney, as well as a then fledgling Marilyn Monroe as his leads. Briefly, the project was a go. But then, two years passed uneventfully; too long for Chaplin to have his crack at the movie version. Attending the London premiere for his latest picture – Limelight – Chaplin learned Sen. Joseph McCarthy had branded him a Communist sympathizer back in the United States. J. Edgar Hoover, in cahoots with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, promptly revoked Chaplin’s re-entry permit; a devastating ban to last until 1972 when Chaplin was granted an absurd 72 hr. pass to collect his honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement. Into this turmoil, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? fell by the proverbial waste side. Sixteen years later, McCoy died; the rights to his novel reverting to his heirs who absolutely refused to renew the contract with Lloyd (still eager to pursue it) as nothing had come of his original plans.
Flash ahead to 1969 and Sydney Pollack’s verve to direct this film. Pollack greatly admired Jane Fonda. Nevertheless, Fonda was unimpressed by the merits of the project – or what she had misperceived as a lack thereof, and turned Pollack down sight unseen until her ‘then’ husband, Roger Vadim recognized its strain of French existentialism at play and encouraged his wife to reconsider her hasty decision. Reportedly Fonda was both humble and pleased during her first meeting with Pollack; the director, asking for her input and listening intently to suggestions on how to improve her part and the movie as a whole. “He really listened,” Fonda would later reiterate, her admiration for Pollack only continuing to ferment as production got underway. It is fairly safe to suggest no movie studio today would dare green light They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?; despite American cinema’s all-encompassing morbidity. What must have played as more apple-polishing vinegar than cider at the time has since, especially in our present age of reality TV, taken on more than a patina of truth, its metaphorical commentary reflected as just another life-competing game of truth or dare where the stakes are not only high, but lethal for some.
The trick of it is Pollack’s picture manages to tread very lightly between unremitting nihilism and a weirdly clenched — even principled stance that is as impenitent as certain that life in general, and these lives in particular, are just not worth living: life - inescapably sordid, cutthroat, monumentally soulless and discouraging. This vainness is magnified by the miserly recompense offered contestants who dare partake of this ‘winner-take-all’ marathon. All it takes is $1500.00 to be mercilessly pummeled for sport; forced to perform as trained seals in this foot-bleeding/sweat-soaked derby of crushed bodies and even more devastatingly massacred dreams. Succumbing to illness, malnutrition, and the abject humiliation of chronic dizzy spells, competitors who remain are not just gluttons for punishment but sacrificial lambs being led to their own slaughter; slaves to their own greed and shortsightedness.
No one better than Gloria knows this contest is a grotesque charade. And yet even this slick cookie elects to vie in it anyway, increasingly degraded by her pitiless self-loathing. Top marks to Jane Fonda then, who audaciously incites our empathy for this deeply flawed, scornful and monstrously repellant creature of habit. Gloria doesn’t trust anyone and yet, beneath her reactive suspicion she restlessly hopes to be proved wrong. Alas, both she and Robert quickly discover they have been sold into a sort of mixed couples’ bondage; days rolling into a month, forcing the contest’s promoter, Rocky to resort to sadism to keep his spectators engaged and thus, the money rolling. Rocky deliberately ruins Alice’s silken dress, her only prized possession, reducing the Hollywood hopeful into a nerve-jangling wretch. He pitches shameless plaudits to entrants willing to prostitute themselves for the audience and devises special ‘derbies’ (torturous speed-walking competitions) where the last three underperforming couples are immediately ejected. The rules are simple and simply barbaric: dance till you drop with barely ten minute respites afforded every two hours.  Contestants even learn how to sleep – or rather, pass out – while on their feet. The last couple to endure this inquisition wins the cash prize. Alas, the game is rigged; Rocky siphoning off the pot to pay for expenses – food and the minor entourage of doctors and nurses to care for those depleted to the point of exhaustion; plus, the rental of the Santa Monica dance hall. The longer the competition drags on, the less prize money remains in the kitty for the contestants to actually win.
Almost from the beginning Gloria’s aspirations to partake are placed in jeopardy when her original partner is disqualified for a respiratory infection. Rocky pairs the girl with the grifter, Robert. Soon, the pair attracts the attention of a dotty dowager, Mrs. Laydon (Madge Kennedy), who persuades a local ironmonger to act as their sponsor in exchange for wearing sweatshirts advertising their business. Gloria is spiteful, showing undue contempt for Ruby; chastising the expectant mother for keeping her unborn child as it will enter this world in squalor and suffrage (arguably, a life Gloria knows all too well). She also chides Ruby’s grungy beau, James for having the audacity to have knocked her up at a time like this. It does not take Gloria very long to become inexplicably jealous of the attention Robert gives Alice. In reply, Gloria agrees to ‘service’ Rocky in his dressing room, witnessed by Robert from the shadows. Shortly thereafter, Gloria changes partners with Alice out of spite. Alas, this backfires on Gloria when her new partner, Joel (Robert Fields) receives a job offer, leaving her high and dry.  However, the resourceful Gloria now pairs off with Harry whose own partner has collapsed under the strain.
Rocky cruelly exploits the dancers’ various vulnerabilities; periodically introducing ‘derbies’ to hasten the thinning out of the herd. During one such derby, Harry suffers a fatal heart attack; Gloria dragging his lifeless body across the finish line before realizing he is dead. Harry’s body slumps into Alice’s arms. This finally pushes her fragileness over the edge. Alice withdraws screaming from the competition. Now, Gloria reunites with Robert. Rocky launches into his most shameless bit of promotion. Robert and Gloria will marry on the dance floor – a stunt guaranteed to earn them modest gifts from their sponsors. Gloria is repulsed. She vows to win the marathon on her own merits.  But Rocky reveals to Robert and Gloria no one will actually win as expenses have been deducted from each contestant along the way; this subtraction already eaten away virtually all allocated winnings. Wounded by this revelation, Gloria and Robert withdraw from the competition.
Experiencing their first real taste of the salty sea air in weeks, Gloria and Robert gaze from the pier upon the quietly rolling surf under moonlight. Robert comments he once loved the sea but now the very sound of it almost makes him ill. In his youth, Robert witnessed his grandfather put one of the family’s horses, suffered two broken legs, out of its misery with his double-barrel shotgun. Gloria’s confession is more devastating. Nothing she has wanted out of this life has come to pass. Overcome by her physical/emotional exhaustion, Gloria confides in Robert her death wish, removing a revolver from her handbag. Alas, her conscience will not allow her to commit suicide. “Help me?” she whimpers. Recognizing her pain as partly his, Robert takes the gun from Gloria and fires a single shot point blank into her right temple. When the police arrive, Robert dubiously confesses to the murder. Asked to explain his motive, Robert blankly stares beyond, to some invisibly fixed point on the horizon as he quietly suggests, “They shoot horses…don’t they?” As Robert is carted off in a paddy wagon we return to the ballroom, the few remaining couples, including James and Ruby, still weakly clinging to one another and still quite unaware their determination will never pay off.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was popular with critics and audiences alike. Nominated for a whopping nine Oscars it regrettably won only a single statuette for Gig Young’s scathing portrait of this shameless charlatan. The movie reinvigorated Jane Fonda’s career as a ‘serious actress’. Until this movie, she had been widely regarded as something of a featherweight in the industry, despite her father’s pedigree as a consummate pro; appearing in such engaging fluff as Sunday in New York (1963), Barefoot in the Park (1967) and the notoriously campy sci-fi classic, Barbarella (1968). Fonda’s casting in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? belies Horace McCoy’s literary description of Gloria as “too blonde, too small and look(ing) too old.” Yet, otherwise Fonda doesn’t miss a trick, embodying the rank world-weariness of a woman about to call it quits on the biggest gamble of them all – life. Screenwriters Poe and Thompson have made other concessions; chiefly inventing the characters of Alice and Harry who do not appear in McCoy’s novel. Equally, they elected to excise the moment when Mrs. Laydon is killed by a stray bullet after a ballroom brawl turns deadly. The book ends with the dance competition shut down due to this violent act. As no such outburst occurs in the movie, the dancers simply go on. Finally, McCoy’s narrative structure situates almost the entire story as one flashback, whereas the movie is decidedly a flash forward – taking place on a linear plain that culminates with Gloria’s murder.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? may not be the sort of movie to revisit over and over again. In point of fact, it’s disheartening to say the least. But Fonda, Sarrazin and Young make it oddly compelling ‘must see’ entertainment. Sydney Pollack is one of my favorite directors and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? can easily be considered an early crown jewel in his illustrious career as one of Hollywood’s premiere picture-makers during the latter half of the 20th century. I sincerely miss Pollack, who died much too soon at the age of 73 from stomach cancer in 2008. Here was a true artist, as unpretentious a man as a storyteller. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a penetrating appraisal of America’s insidious fascination with becoming a ‘somebody’. Setting aside its critique of social injustice, the figures of fame and fortune are depicted as not only the bane of salvageable humanity, but also exposed as shallow and worthless endeavors. Pollack lets the pain show in virtually every frame. Even McCoy, who knew the dance-marathon circuit by heart while working as a bouncer at the Santa Monica pier, is moderately more forgiving of his assessments. But Pollack, perhaps even better than McCoy, sees the competition for what it truly is: a sickening debasement of souls for the almighty profit.
“Yowza! Yowza! Yowza!” Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is, in a word, gorgeous, easily besting the horrendous 2004 DVD release from MGM/Fox.  Produced by ABC Films, the newly mastered 1080p image is a quality affair from top to bottom with very minor caveats. Earthy tones with immaculate pops of color and very pleasing flesh tones greet the eye; ditto for a light smattering of film grain (more amplified in the intermittent flashbacks scattered throughout this movie), and some stunning examples of fine detail in skin, hair and clothing fibers. Some minor speckling can be seen during the opticals in the main title sequence. But these are forgivable. Contrast seems just a tad wan in spots; no true blacks, but some very deep greys and browns. You’ll like what you see – mostly – especially if you don’t look too hard for these minor oversights.  The audio is 2.0 DTS; effective without ever rating as remarkable, well-mixed and with zero distortion.
In the mid-1990s, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? sported a fairly impressive limited edition LaserDisc release via CBS/Fox Home Video, complete with an autograph from Sydney Pollack and an abundance of extras. Only three of these have made it to Blu-ray: two audio commentaries – the preferred of the two, and far more comprehensive from Pollack, who indulges us with virtually everything one could want to know about the making of this movie. The other track has actually been assembled from a series of audio interviews with Fonda, Sarrazin, Bedelia and Buttons, producers, Irwin Winkler and Martin Baum and hairstylist, Sydney Guilaroff. Finally, also from the LD is a short ‘making of’ featurette chocked full of on-set/backstage footage. Absent, the LD’s extensive gallery of stills. Finally, we get trailers for this and other Kino Lorber product. Bottom line: a competently rendered hi-def presentation of a great movie that deserves to be a part of your Blu-ray collection. Buy today, treasure forever!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

MAURICE: Blu-ray (Merchant/Ivory, 1987) Cohen Media Group

Maurice (1987) is the bittersweet tale of a man desperate to reconcile the ferocity of his love for another man with the hypocrisies (and hypocrites) of his time. It is also, I think, more than a smarting poke at the stalwart pretense of the English to deny even the existence of ‘the unspeakable act’. Lest we forget several important factors regarding Merchant/Ivory’s endeavor to bring E.M. Forster’s novel to the screen.  The novel, first conceived in 1913, was posthumously published after Forster’s death in 1970 to protect him from the stigma of authoring it and only a scant three years after homosexuality itself had been decriminalized in England by an Act of Parliament. The buggery law first cast in stone in 1533, making sodomy a criminal offense punishable by death, would remain on the books in England until 1861. But its ‘woe betide’ humiliation even after the threat of execution had been lifted (too late to save Oscar Wilde) would remain in effect long into the latter half of the 20th century. Interestingly, Forster’s innate contempt for private school herein seems to be pitched at the cloistered halls of higher academia, when in fact his genuine disdain was more centralized on preparatory learning that he once described as creating “well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds and undeveloped hearts”.  Indeed, the years Forster spent at King’s College proved among his most fondly recalled, writing in 1897, “...they taught the perky boy he was not everything and the limp boy that he might be something.”  Even so, Forster – a closeted homosexual – was to keep his opinions and his more explorative written critiques on the subject to himself; partly in fear of reprisals.
One could scarcely classify the 1980’s as the more laissez faire decade that embraced homosexuality as commonplace. The stigma by then had shifted from the act itself to its apparently viable byproduct – AIDS – branded ‘the gay disease’ by the close-minded and fear-mongering, at least until a good many non-practicing heterosexuals (women and children) began acquiring and dying from the dreaded auto-immune affliction. Thus, when director James Ivory approached King’s College, the custodians of Forster’s manuscripts, with an eagerness to make a movie of Maurice, he was politely ‘encouraged’ to reconsider another property from the author’s cannon in its stead – any property, except Maurice. Steadfastly, Ivory plied the college with promises of making a tasteful adaptation. While Merchant/Ivory had already illustrated their formidable talent for handcrafting movie art of the highest order on a shoestring budget, Ivory was on even more secure ground with King’s herein; having released his first Forster adaptation, A Room With A View (1985) to monumental review and effect on both sides of the Atlantic.
Not surprisingly, Maurice would prove hardly as popular, if generally as profitable; the picture’s subject matter alone suggesting imminent backlash from puritanical audiences and critics. Determined to do justice to Forster’s gentle construction and hopeful denouement, Ivory resisted hiring cameraman, Tony Pierce-Roberts who had achieved wondrous results for him on A Room With A View. He also eschewed the company’s usual zest for screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala in favor of his own tag team efforts with screenwriter, Kit-Hesketh-Harvey. As his cinematographer, Ivory approached Pierre Lhomme on the assumption a Frenchman would be worldly, even accepting of the content, and thus less inclined to make something overtly romantic, overly sentimental or perhaps even stoically restrained from it. What emerges is another visual masterpiece to be sure, employing stunning usage of its various locations. Regrettably, the excursion is not entirely successful and on occasion quite antiseptic, even remote in its storytelling.
The performances in the picture are uniformly quite wonderful; from Simon Callow’s prudently silly ‘educator’, Mr. Ducie (crudely sketching a man’s ‘membrum wirrilis’ and woman’s ‘waggeena’ in the sand with a subliminally Freudian stiff bit of kindling to illustrate for the impressionable eponymous character ‘the sacred mystery of sex’) to Ben Kingsley’s hypnotist/quack, Lasker-Jones (reporting to possess ‘a cure’ for Maurice’s ‘bad feelings’), to Denholm Elliott’s Doctor Barry (incredulously inspecting Maurice with his monocle for a venereal disease), there is not a false note among the supporting roster, and certainly none to be had in the trifecta of male lovers on whom the central plot pivots; Maurice Hall (superbly realized by James Wilby as sensitive, charming and insecure), Clive Durham (played with a particularly affecting arrogance by Hugh Grant) and finally, Alec Scudder (perfectly pitched into the fray with a ruthless abandonment by Rupert Graves). For Grant, Maurice proved a breakout; the actor – yet on the cusp of international fame in 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, having appeared in only one student film and actually began his professional career as a stand-up comedian. As Grant and Wilby had worked together before, and actually become good friends, their amorous thwarted flagrante delicto in the movie took on a fascinating – if frenetic – passion. As director James Ivory would later recall, “They just went for it without hesitation.” In hindsight, it is the discernment of the English that Ivory and his entourage have captured so well in Maurice; the intentionally stymieing vapors of a fish-eyed dowager (Judy Parfitt as Mrs. Durham), interested only in the gossip value of a burgeoning scandal, or the less enterprising, though equally as destructive ardor of a naïve, yet clingy newlywed (Phoebe Nicholls as Clive’s beloved, Anne), as yet unaware she is ‘the beard’ to stave off suspicions about her husband.
Although Forster conceived of Maurice in 1913 he continued to revise his manuscript until 1932; resurrecting the property again in 1959 to work on it for one full year. Written as ‘traditional bildungsroman’ (a novel of character formation), Maurice’s archetypes are, in fact, based on real people. Nevertheless, Forster was devoted to his protagonist coming to a ‘good end’ by ‘the end’ of his story. Respectful of his mother, Forster only shared his manuscript with a few friends he knew could be trusted to keep it a secret. Due to public and legal attitudes regarding homosexuality, Maurice would remain an unfulfilled part of Forster’s literary canon in his own lifetime, until 1971. Either directly or indirectly owing to its subject matter, the novel’s consideration remains as a ‘minor’ work when directly compared to Forster’s irrefutable masterpieces, Howards End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924). In re-conceiving the novel for the screen, director, James Ivory would insist on a level of authenticity both relevant to Forster, but equally as in tune with the ‘turmoil’ of the present age; his own passion distinctly heartfelt toward people who have “decided for themselves how they want to live and what their true feelings are and whether they’re going to live honestly with them or deny them.” As Ivory would later punctuate for his critics, “That’s no different. Nothing’s any easier for young people. I felt it was quite relevant.”
King's College has denied their initial apprehensions to allow Ivory his tackle of the book were predicated on any sort of malignant or lingering prejudice, but on their assessment of Maurice as an inferior work in Forster's authorship and fearing, perhaps, no movie would be able to ‘enhance’ it as 'great literature'. Herein, the college was likely unprepared for producer, Ismail Merchant’s persuasiveness – both legendary and affecting. As co-collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was embroiled in putting the finishing touches on her novel, Three Continents, another Merchant/Ivory alumni, Kit Hesketh-Harvey was seconded to the cause through his sister, journalist and author, Sarah Sands, the wife of Julian Sands; A Room With A View’s leading man and, in fact, Ivory’s first choice to play the titular title character in Maurice.  For whatever reason, Sands balked at the offer after having first accepted it; his departure followed by John Malkovich, originally slated to play the quack/hypnotist, Lasker-Jones. Respecting Jhabvala’s craftsmanship, Hesketh-Harvey’s final draft was given her once over, Jhabvala suggesting the arrest and imprisonment of a university colleague, the surreptitious Lord Risley (Mark Tandy), serve as the impetus for Clive Durham’s startling conversion  to heterosexuality. Also omitted in the rewrite, Maurice’s childhood affinity for another schoolboy, Dickie. Jhabvala amplified the influence of Lord Risley as an Oscar Wildean counterpoint sentenced, at least in the movie, to six months hard labor. In the novel Risley is not imprisoned for his homosexual conduct. Finally, despite his diminished status as something of a charlatan, Lasker-Jones is the only person in the movie empathetic to Maurice’s psychological and social situation.
As with virtually all Merchant/Ivory fare gone before it, Maurice was made on a very tight budget - $2.6 million when the average cost of making a movie hovered between $15 and $25 million. Achieving extraordinary visuals on such limited funds, Maurice’s shoot was complicated by inclement weather, stretching the schedule to 54 days, even with Ivory working his cast and crew at 6-day weeks to complete it. A good deal of the picture’s opulence hails from the ivy-covered halls and quadrangles of King's College; also, the stately manor and grounds at Wilbury Park, a Palladian house in Wiltshire doubling for Clive’s ancestral home, Pendersleigh. Debuting at the Venice Film Festival, Maurice won several prominent awards, including a Silver Lion for James Ivory and twin ‘Best Actor’ statuettes, jointly given to James Wilby and Hugh Grant. It would go on to receive near unanimous praise from the critics for its handsome and painterly production values; also, its intelligent script and superb acting, and finally, for its uniquely dignified, yet candid portrayal of gay culture. Despite these accolades, Maurice would not become another cross-continental smash for the company, arguably undervalued and unseen by the masses, yet steadily acquiring its reputation for quality ever since. Regrettably, at the time it was quietly filed away for being ‘too gay’.
Maurice begins on a windswept beach in Brighton, the eleven year old and fatherless Maurice Hall (played with supreme intelligence by Orlando Wells) given his first tutorial by a rather giddy Mr. Ducie on ‘the sacred mysteries of sex’. Ducie crudely renders a penis and vagina in the wet sand with his walking stick, explaining even more humorously the act of procreation to his prepubescent charge. Intently listening, Maurice reasons he shall never marry, to which Ducie breathes a sigh of strange relief, predicting that, in ten years’ time he shall have Maurice and his new bride to dine with him and his wife. We flash ahead to 1909, Maurice’s college years at Cambridge, along with the haughty and aristocratic Lord Risley and the uber-wealthy intellectual, Clive Durham. Durham is passionate for his friend, his confession awakening Maurice’s suppressed, but mutual feelings. The two embark on a daring love affair under the watchful eye of Dean Cornwallis (Barry Foster). Clive insists the ‘relationship’ remain platonic as to carry it any further would ‘diminish’ them both. In reality Clive is rightfully concerned for his future. As a member of the upper class, he will inherit his father’s estate and likely pursue a promising career in politics. Disobeying Cornwallis one too many times, Maurice is expelled from Cambridge. A close friend of the family, Doctor Barry chides Maurice for inflicting unnecessary scandal and pain on his mother. But shortly thereafter, Maurice begins anew as a stockbroker in London. Meanwhile, his affair with Clive continues; the two paying weekend visits to each other’s ancestral homes under the watchful eye of Clive’s games keeper, Alec Scudder, and his personal manservant, Simcox, whose veiled inference he knows what Clive is up to is quickly admonished and cut to size with a threat of dismissal by the master of the house.
All seems, if not right, than adequate between Clive and Maurice until Lord Risley is arrested for attempting to seduce a guardsman (Breffni McKenna) at the local pub. Risley is convicted but shown clemency by the presiding magistrate who sentences him to six months hard labor. Divesting himself of his association with Risley, Clive departs for an extended holiday in Greece. Alas, upon his return home he suffers a minor nervous breakdown following Risley's suicide and fears a similar fate. He breaks off his friendship with Maurice. Under pressure from his widowed mother to marry, Clive takes to wife Anne, a thoroughly naïve creature of stature and breeding and invests himself in establishing a ‘normal life’ nestled in Pendersleigh's rural domesticity. Utterly distraught, Maurice seeks Dr. Barry’s counsel. Barry dismisses Maurice’s confession as pure ‘rubbish’, encouraging him similarly to take a girl of his choosing to bed to prove he is a man. Instead, Maurice turns to Dr. Lasker-Jones, a charlatan peddling a cure via hypnosis for homosexuality.  As though to rub salt in an old wound, Clive invites Maurice to stay with him and Anne at Pendersleigh. Maurice attends and is quietly observed by Scudder who is due to immigrate to Argentina later in the year. Scudder is secure in his observations and boldly scales a ladder to the open second story window of the bedroom where Maurice is restlessly lying awake. Scudder confides in Maurice and the men indulge their sexual impulses. The next day, Simcox discovers dried mud on the bedroom carpet and hints he knows Scudder and Maurice have since become lovers.
Now, Maurice receives a rather cryptic letter from Scudder proposing they meet at the Pendersleigh boathouse. Believing Scudder to be a blackmailer Maurice hastily departs for another session of treatments with Lasker-Jones who warns him England “has always been disinclined to accept human nature”. The quack/physician also advises Maurice consider immigrating to a country where homosexuality is no longer a crime. Meanwhile, Scudder travels to London, meeting up with Maurice at the British Museum where the blackmail misunderstanding is resolved. Scudder is in love with Maurice and vice versa. The men spend another night together in a hotel with Scudder suggesting his departure to Argentina is now imminent. Maurice arrives at port with a parting gift, only to realize Scudder has missed the sailing. Forlorn, Maurice returns to Pendersleigh to confide in Clive his genuine love for Alec. On the surface, Clive is repulsed by this confession. Secretly however, he is morbidly jealous of Maurice’s decision to remain true to himself. Maurice returns to the boathouse, hoping to discover Scudder there. To his great surprise, Scudder is there, having forsaken his family’s ambitious plans to relocate him abroad. “Now we shan’t never be parted,” Scudder whispers. As Pendersleigh prepares itself for nightfall, a regretful Clive stares blankly from his bedroom window, imagining Maurice from his college days, blissfully waving to him. Anne approaches from behind, still obtusely unaware of her husband’s predilection. The shutters are drawn and we realize Clive’s decision to remain ‘in the closet’ has doomed him to the eternity of an unhappily ever after. Conversely, Maurice has been liberated from the guilt of loving another man.
Maurice is a ground-breaking endeavor in the pedagogy of what has since been lumped together and labeled as ‘queer cinema’. That it lacked its truest respect and reputation as this watershed in 1987 is hardly surprising, given the socio-political climate of the eighties and American movies’ frequent indulgences to portray gay characters as absurdly flamboyant clowns, set apart from the rest of society, or transiently intervening in the mainstream social fabric of society, primarily propped up for their comic amusement.  Maurice treats homosexuals with the same reverence as its heterosexual counterparts; indeed, more so, as its entire modus operandi is to peel back the veil of ‘fearful mystery’ about genuine love between men and place it on par with the amour shared between a man and a woman. For whatever reason, the emotional content of gay relationships in movies has always had a subservient connotation and correlation to the sexual act share in moments of heated passion. Unlike movies that concentrate on heterosexual romance – the art of the seduction, the ‘cute’ meeting of minds, hearts, souls and eventually – bodies – the cinema’s fascination with gay culture has frequently zeroed in on the mechanics of cheap and tawdry sexual release in lieu of genuinely felt affairs of the heart. Maurice is therefore, decidedly unique. Moreover, it remains intelligent, forthright and unvarnished about the consequences gay men face – not only under the stringency of Edwardian society, but still, as ‘tolerated’ rather than ‘accepted’ members of contemporary society.  It seeks neither to gratuitously expose young love among men as salacious, sinful, sexless or silly, but to investigate and align the precepts of love between two people as a universal neither sex-obsessed nor exclusive to heterosexual couples.
Cohen Media Group has released Maurice to Blu-ray, reportedly remastered in 1080p from restored 4K elements supervised by James Ivory and cinematographer, Pierre Lhomme.  Hmmm. Like the company’s reissue of another Merchant/Ivory classic, Howards End, Maurice is not quite the home run I was anticipating.  The pluses: a reinvigorated transfer minus virtually all age-related dirt, scratches, etc. and, with the added bonus of appearing to have no untoward digital tinkering applied to artificially sharpen the image. Bravo! Lhomme’ s naturally lit interiors are softly focused; his exteriors, full of the natural splendor of England’s lush countryside. So, kudos to Cohen for getting it right thus far. Grain structure? It’s definitely there, and thicker than I would have hoped. Natural? Well, never having seen Maurice theatrically I have no personal barometer to compare this transfer. But I can honestly say I do not think the intermittent bouts of residual softness scattered throughout this transfer are the result of Lhomme’ s diffused focus. Consider the moment after Maurice’s first hypnotism session; the image suddenly – inexplicably – murky, dull and out of focus…grainy too, as though a dupe has been inserted. There is also some odd variation in tonality during darkly lit scenes. This teeters dangerously close to black level ‘crush’ without ever actually going over the edge. The final curiosity here is color balance; the tint throughout leans to a dated sepia/jaundice yellow; the visuals looking occasionally blanched as well.
Maurice's DTS 5.1 audio is impressive, if subdued. Dialogue is crisp and subtly nuanced with solid spatial separation of the sustained SFX; a light rustling breeze, as example, with distant seagulls crying. Cohen has also afforded us the original LPCM 2.0 and a Dolby Digital 5.1. Preferences? None. They all sound good. Extras: hmmm again. There is a lot of overlap in the content…too much for my taste. We get new interviews with James Ivory and Pierre Lhomme, totaling 15 min., a Q&A session with both men which basically covers the exact same ground at 22 min. and another rather truncated ‘conversation’ with Ivory, including vintage clips of the late Ismael Merchant and Richard Robbins; at 12 min. The very best is The Story of Maurice; a half hours’ worth of sound bites from virtually all the key participants, including screenwriter, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, James Wilby and Hugh Grant. The last piece, A Director’s Perspective tips the scales at 40 min. and, predictably, offers little new or revealing once you have watched the rest of the extras herein. At just under 40 min. we get a slew of outtakes and deleted scenes hosted by James Ivory. Finally, two theatrical trailers and a handsomely produced (and very Criterion-esque) essay booklet round out the fun. Cohen has housed virtually all these extras on a second Blu-ray. We are grateful for their consolidation. Bottom line: Maurice is a picture deserving of respect. The transfer here is not exactly what I would call ‘reference quality’ but it is superior to anything yet seen on home video. Bottom line: recommended for content. Caveats on the transfer.   
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

BRIGADOON: Blu-ray (MGM 1954) Warner Archive

Ah me, “once in the highlands…the highlands of Scotland”…or a reasonable facsimile. Director, Vincente Minnelli marked his 10th year anniversary as MGM producer Arthur Freed’s point man in movie musicals with Brigadoon (1954); an escapist fantasy, photographed in the then relatively new-fangled expanses of Cinemascope (and regrettably, ANSCO-Color). Based on the Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe Broadway smash, Brigadoon was a project begun with high hopes on Minnelli’s part and even higher expectations from the new studio brass. It quickly devolved into a headache for all concerned.  Co-collaborator and star, Gene Kelly desperately wanted to shoot Brigadoon amidst the authentic mists and heather on a hill in Scotland. Denied such luxury, Minnelli was perfectly contented to give Brigadoon its due on locations somewhere in California. In the end, neither had his way; MGM’s newly appointed President, Dore Schary slashing both budget and schedule, forcing the entire production onto sound stages. Interestingly, we can see the merits (as well as the vices) to both sides of this argument; the artifice, while transparent, nevertheless expertly crafted by MGM’s art department to fill the cavernous interiors on Stage 15 with a breathtaking 360 degree cyclorama, its forced perspective of papier-mâché hills bedecked in miles of sumac (dressed as heather) and an assortment of quaint thatched roof cottages, neatly arranged along winding country paths.
To the untrained eye, it all looks rather moodily magnificent – fake, yet thoroughly in keeping within the confines and precepts of creating ‘Hollywood-styled’ musical movie-land magic of the highest order. As for Schary; his only concern was the budget. Never mind Scotland’s chronically inclement climate, certain to cause delays if cast and crew were to traipse off to Europe. By 1954, Schary had become acutely aware he had inherited not only MGM’s mantle of prestige from the prematurely ousted Louis B. Mayer on approval from Loew’s Incorporated President, Nicholas Schenk, but also the anticipated authority to turn the studio’s steadily declining fortunes around. Only in hindsight would Schary’s executive appointment to Metro, first as its VP in Charge of Production in 1948, then, after Mayer’s unceremonious heave-ho, set atop its lumbering edifice as overseer (though never monarch), prove an unwise business decision. Schary, who had thrived at RKO, reveling in the ‘smallness’ and ‘experimentation’ derived from being his own boss and making his beloved ‘message pictures’, had been courted to join Metro; given carte blanche at the biggest and then most profitable ‘dream factory’ in all of Hollywood. Yet, almost from the outset he seemed destined never to fit in; unappreciative of MGM’s star system (he would increasingly regard stars as ‘top heavy’ liabilities rather than assets) and Metro’s designation as the leader of the musical as a viable genre. Nevertheless, even Schary could see Metro had had a long, distinguished – and most of all – profitable track record with the Hollywood musical under Arthur Freed and Joseph Pasternak’s auspices.
During Mayer’s dominion Freed in particular had enjoyed unprecedented autonomy to pursue most any project he desired. Like Mayer, Freed loved musicals and made his twice yearly pilgrimage to New York to acquire new properties. Perhaps realizing he knew just enough to know he did not know everything, Schary allowed Freed to carry on as he might have after Mayer’s exit.  However, by the mid-1950’s it was increasingly obvious to Freed this new exec was something of a wily ‘yes man’ for the New York front offices; also, a number cruncher who made sense of the movies through spread sheets and stock holder dividends. Schary had artistic ambitions too. But they conflicted with MGM’s motto of ‘ars gratia artis’ (art for art’s sake); a tug-o-war steadily creeping into the mix as Schary, testing his new authority, repeatedly trimmed Freed’s projected budgets, sometimes even while the Freed Unit was in the middle of shooting a movie, funneling this extra cash into his own passion projects (minor programmers with dark themes, usually lacking the star power associated with the usual glittery Metro product). The irony, of course, is that precisely at this juncture when the movies were getting ‘bigger’ (at least in their ever-expanding canvas of visual presentation – Cinemascope, Cinerama, VistaVision et al.) the industry, on the whole, was suffering from a sort of ‘loose stool’ chaos and its first real financial entrenchment since the early 1930s.
Once, in a long while, Schary would permit Freed his extravagances. Yet, more often than not, these were frowned upon as simply that – ‘extravagances’ Metro could not, or perhaps ‘should not’ afford. By the mid-fifties, Hollywood in general, and MGM in particular was fighting a two-fisted losing battle on the home front against television. With belt-tightening came the bitter acknowledgement the studio era as that all-pervasive national drug of choice in popular entertainments had suddenly and seemingly inexplicably come to an end. Mayer’s misguided logic had mirrored Hollywood’s initial reaction on a whole; pretend it’s not happening and it will eventually go away. But by 1954 it was impossible to ignore that ‘little black box’ in everyone’s living room. Local theater attendance had dried up; the once opulent movie palaces shuttered and/or converted to some other usage for which they were never originally intended. Schary’s approach was somewhat different; to challenge the audience with what he deemed as ‘more adult’ stories; leaving MGM’s expansive roster of musical talent to cool their heels. After all, why spend moneys to erect a Technicolored artifice for the musical/comedy star when one could get all this high-priced talent for free, warbling tunes or performing skits on any of the tube’s weekly variety shows?  Oh sure, an Elvis musical could still draw in the crowds. And Bing Crosby too…maybe. But on the whole TV had killed the intimate movie musical, MGM’s bread-n’-butter throughout the 1940’s. Seen in this light, and additionally, with production costs skyrocketing, and furthermore, from a perspective of longevity rather than legacy, Schary’s re-imagining of Metro’s fortunes appeared, at least on the surface, to be all about sound economics: a trimming of the unnecessary fat meant to ensure the goose could continue to lay its golden eggs. In the long run however, Schary’s edicts would have a devastating effect on MGM, splintering the loyalties of its alumni as well as badly needed studio’s profits, and, ultimately be revealed as a matter of conflicting personal tastes; Schary hoping to reinvent Metro as merely a larger version of the studio he had left behind.
And into this grave uncertainty came Arthur Freed, Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly to pitch Brigadoon to Schary; exactly the sort of lavishly appointed ‘on location’ big budget musical extravaganza he deplored. Oh, what Brigadoon might have been if these three musketeers had their way. If only Mayer had stuck around to see the day.  And yet, in acquiring the property wholesale, Freed had gone against even the grain of his own precepts. MGM’s outpouring of musical hits throughout the 1940’s owed very little to Broadway; Hollywood far more interested in putting on homegrown product to rival the ‘legitimate’ theater and, in many ways, even better its stagecraft. Alas, by 1950 the trims at MGM had cut so deep into its creative stock company of behind-the-scenes personnel it was easier for Freed to buy up a Broadway show than commission something original. The problem here too was money. Freed, basically afforded unprecedented autonomy by Mayer to buy whatever he wanted, now had to get approval from Schary to make his bid stick. While the haggling between Freed and Schary persisted other producers at other studios came along with deeper pockets to satisfy. Thus, Freed was to lose out on two huge deals from the decade; the first, to indie-producer, Samuel Goldwyn (ousted from partaking in the newly amalgamated MGM all the way back in 1927), buying the rights to Broadway’s zeitgeist, Guys and Dolls and making a colossally successful movie version in 1955. The second misfire involved 2oth Century-Fox and Michael Todd’s Magna Corp.; again, beating Freed to the finish line, acquiring the rights to co-produce the Rodgers and Hammerstein mega hits, Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and later, The King and I and Carousel. If Mayer had been in charge there is little doubt these shows would have come to MGM via Arthur Freed. Now, all Freed could do was stand by as the competition repeatedly took advantage of the artistic malaise increasingly enveloping Metro’s backlot.
In the shadow of these missed opportunities was Brigadoon; Lerner and Loewe’s melodic masterpiece; good for 581 stage performances along the Great White Way and another 685 at London’s West End during the 1946-47 seasons; no slouch in good press or solid box office – if correctly handled. And Freed, whose personal esteem for Lerner had made MGM’s acquisition of Brigadoon practically a foregone conclusion, equally neglected to pursue Finian’s Rainbow – the other big hit caught in this Celtic crossfire. On stage, Brigadoon had been an affecting bit of the blarney about a Scottish village materializing out of the highland mists once every hundred years; a curse or salvation (depending on one’s point of view) foisted upon its small community by a priest’s pact with God to spare his village from outside influences. Forevermore to afflict the inhabitants, who remain ageless in their suspended animation and thus impervious to the ever-advancing social ills of the world at large, the spell is challenged some 200 year into the future with the arrival of a pair of malcontents from the big city or, as the Lerner/Loewe score more eloquently puts it, just “two weary travelers who have lost their way” – both literally and figuratively. The culture clash is immediate and fraught with devastating consequences on both sides as jaded ad man, Johnny Albright (played in the movie by then forty-two year old Gene Kelly) and his even more jaundiced best friend, Jeff Douglas (deliciously cynical Van Johnson) stumble upon this ‘one in ninety-nine years’ fantasy land; the former becoming smitten and amiably pursuing an impossible romance with the luscious Fiona Campbell (Cyd Charisse); the latter, comically pursued by the boy-crazy Scots-tart, Meg Brockie (Dodie Heath). Fiona’s father, Andrew (Albert Sharpe) is about to marry off his youngest, Jean (Virginia Bosler) to the handsome and strapping Charles Chisholm Dalrymple (Jimmy Thompson) in a ceremony planned for later that day. Alas, the serenity of Jean and Charles’ vows – and, in fact – the very certainty of the village of Brigadoon is threatened when spurned suitor, Harry Beaton (Hugh Laing) resolves to flee beyond the ascribed boundaries of the ‘blessing’; thus, ending the village’s dreamlike state, presumably, with catastrophic repercussions for all. 
Inspired by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and Carousel, Lerner and Loewe undertook to create a musical with a dramatic love story at its core. Almost immediately Lerner’s inspiration was brought into question when the New York Times politely suggested he had ‘borrowed’ the idea for his modern fairy tale from an ancient story by German author, Friedrich Gerstäcker, later translated into English by Charles Brandon Schaeffer. Incensed, Lerner publicly denied ever having any prior knowledge of the aforementioned literary work and subsequently stuck to his guns, suggesting any similarities between the two were pure ‘unconscious coincidence’.  In reexamining the Gerstäcker text, obvious similarities are present. Nevertheless, Lerner managed to avoid a suit for copyright infringement. After all, it is possible for two geniuses to come up with similarly themed narratives. Lerner may have ‘invented’ the name Brigadoon as a riff on the well-known Scottish landmark Brig o' Doon, a.k.a. Bridge of Doon (the movie, in fact, opens with a shot of the dawn cresting over a modestly cobble-stoned footbridge, complete with babbling brook beneath it), or he might have been inspired by the Celtic derivative; ‘briga’ (meaning ‘town’) and Gaelic dùn (or ‘fort’). 
Whatever the case, on stage, Brigadoon had followed the tried and true trajectory perfected by Rodger and Hammerstein; focusing on librettists to carry its pop-score and backed by an entourage of classically trained dancers to express its more balletic sentiments while the principles retired off stage to a quick change in preparation for the next scene. This structure proved problematic for the film version, primarily because Freed had cast Gene Kelly and (eventually) Cyd Charisse as his leads; par excellence dancers with limited vocal capabilities. While Freed and Kelly were conspiring to either shoot Brigadoon in Scotland or near California’s Big Sur, the initial contract Arthur Freed ironed out with Metro’s soprano, Kathryn Grayson elapsed. In her stead, Freed fought like hell to get ballet dancer, Moira Shearer to be his Fiona. Since her debut in Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 escapist fantasy/drama, The Red Shoes the red-headed Scot was in very high demand. However, the Sadler Wells Ballet Co. to which her contract belonged, fearing a lengthy movie shoot to interrupt its own pending season of live performances, absolutely refused to allow Shearer to partake of this exercise.
For prestige, Freed added the esteemed premiere danseur, Hugh Laing to the cast; a move to stick in Gene Kelly’s craw, as he was increasingly opposed to sharing the screen with male competition. Kelly’s clout would prove devastating to Laing’s performance; virtually emasculated, consigned to all but a handful of cutaways: Laing’s Harry Beaton dashing in and out of the penultimate and dramatically executed ‘chase’. Others in Freed’s hand-picked roster included Albert Sharpe (who had appeared in 1951’s Royal Wedding), and Finian’s own Welsh-born Barry Jones, as Brigadoon’s prolific sage, Mr. Lundie. While Freed mostly had his way with this ‘front of house’ talent, the backstage was largely entrusted to Minnelli’s forte – albeit, with Freed’s presiding approval; Irene Sharaff for the costumes, and, Preston Ames and George Gibson to visualize the sets. Even as their collaborative efforts pleased his own artistic sensibilities, what irked Minnelli considerably were the technological restrictions placed on the production beyond Freed’s control. Like it or not – and Minnelli decidedly did not – Brigadoon would be photographed in Cinemascope; the elongated 2.35:1 proportions of the screen reasoned by its director as only suitable for exhibiting funeral processions and snakes.
Worse for Minnelli’s creative spontaneity, he was required to shoot Brigadoon twice; in a process MGM dubbed ‘Wide Screen’ (roughly 1.75:1) to accommodate theaters that had yet to retool for the unique projection requirements of Cinemascope. It should be noted shooting in these competing formats could not be resolved simply by aligning both camera setups side by side to photograph the same scene at the same time. Rather, each scene had to be methodically laid out and uniquely staged to fill the vast expanses of Cinemascope; then, reconfigured to accommodate the other camera setup, achieved under alternate lighting conditions; the actors composited to fit within the decidedly more square parameters of the ‘Wide Screen’ format. At one point during this tedious back and forth co-star, Van Johnson reasoned he was making ‘two’ movies for the price of one and marched into Dore Schary’s office to protest his single salary for what amounted to twice his usual workload. Schary’s reply, “That’s right, Van. You’re making two movies and you’re getting one salary…and be very glad that you are,” sent Johnson away chagrined, never again to question this executive logic.
Two – or rather, three other misgivings evolved to quietly knock the wind out of Minnelli’s enthusiasm; first, the studio’s decision to shoot Brigadoon in the less expensive Ansco Color, producing muddier tones than Technicolor, mostly offset by cinematographer extraordinaire, Joseph Ruttenberg, who proved adaptable to the challenges, counteracting some with more extreme concentrations of light to illuminate the set and thus provide the visual richness one expects from an MGM musical. Brigadoon would also mark Minnelli’s debut in true stereophonic sound; not so much a hindrance as it added to the cost of the production, forcing Minnelli to cut corners elsewhere. For time constraints, two numbers already shot by Minnelli – both ballads – were eventually dropped from the final cut. The first, ‘There But For You Go I’ is a rather unprepossessing poem, suffering from Gene Kelly’s thin vocalization; Kelly, obviously straining to hit the high notes. But the second, ‘Come to Me, Bend to Me’ is a distinct loss; Jimmy Thompson, convincingly lip-syncing to John Gustefson’s immaculate countertenor as Charles Dalrymple pleads with his betrothed to allow him entry to her bridal chamber before the wedding; a permission repeatedly denied.  Prior to these cuts, Minnelli and Freed had already made the decision to pare down the musical program, thus consolidating a two and a half hour stagecraft into a 108 minute movie. To some extent, the choices made were preordained by Hollywood’s self-governing body of censorship, disavowing two songs, ‘The Love of My Life’ and ‘My Mother’s Wedding Day’ (both sung by Meg Brockie – a character barely glimpsed in the movie) on the grounds the lyrics were ‘too provocative’. Furthering these trims was Minnelli’s decision to pass on ‘From This Day On’ (another ballad, its’ sentiments already expressed in the retained ‘The Heather on the Hill’) and finally, ‘The Sword Dance’ – a lengthier ensemble piece immediately to have followed the arrival of the clans. It too fell on the cutting room floor.
But the genuine disappointment for Minnelli on Brigadoon was Gene Kelly; intractable and virtually ignoring all of his subtler suggestions. Minnelli and Kelly had worked with such creative symbiosis on the Oscar-winning An American In Paris (1951) it never dawned on Minnelli anything but smooth sailing lay ahead of them this time out. Alas, in the interim, Kelly had ostensibly grown as an artiste – or rather, his ego had. Apart from making demands to pare down Hugh Laing’s performance (mostly to keep it from competing with his own) Kelly increasingly viewed Brigadoon as an off kilter hybrid of his performance in An American in Paris and something of a highland western in dance. Interestingly, there are moments in the picture to mimic this earlier success; most transparently in Kelly’s solo ‘Almost Like Being in Love’ staged almost verbatim to Paris‘S’wonderful’. Minnelli preferred to think of Brigadoon as a Flemish fantasia, more visually understated and lyrical. However, as he quickly deduced he had lost his ability to influence Kelly to try things his way, within weeks into the shoot Minnelli simply gave up even trying to be persuasive; concentrating his efforts on performers more receptive to his ideas. The net result: Kelly’s Tommy Albright emerges from Brigadoon as a spurned sourpuss; Tommy’s inner innocence never revived, except perhaps in Kelly’s immaculate pas deux with the leggy Cyd Charisse. Not surprisingly, the two best sequences in Brigadoon – the village’s reawakening and the arrival of the clans – have absolutely nothing to do with Tommy and Fiona. Each of these numbers is an undiluted tour de force exalted to a distinct level as abstract tableaux by Minnelli’s keen camera eye.
Despite such moments, the elusive spark of true and intangible cinema magic eludes Brigadoon on the whole; the characters as fake as the backdrops; George Gibson’s dioramas cluttered and static instead of moodily magnificent with a few light and dewy touches lingering for effect. Hence, when the artificial ‘sun’ peers through the filtering mists, instead of reaching to the back of the house with its haunted, penetrating invitation meant to beckon the audience into this abyss unknown, striking instead against transparently cardboard facades; exposing the petrified trees and stiffening long grasses as carefully laid out as an anthropological exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History.  And the tone of the piece is further hampered by Minnelli’s placement of his actors to fill every inch of the Cinemascope frame for fear of the dreaded ‘dead space’ on either side of his principals. Occasionally, this ‘congestion’ of extras is effective; as in ‘I’ll Go Home With Bonnie Jean’; as Kelly and Johnson’s strangers in this highly stylized and very strange land are caught up in the ebullience of Jimmy Thompson’s declaration of love; locking arms with the locals as they toggle from right to left, back and forth across the screen. But the effect is stifling elsewhere. As example: Cyd Charisse (lip-syncing to India Adams for ‘Waiting For My Dearie’) sashays about the relative confinement of her quaint family cottage, forced to flit in and out of the furnishings as a female chorine artfully scurries to get out of her way.  
To some extent, Brigadoon’s lithe spirit is as obscured by Vincente Minnelli’s incapacity to warm to the ‘mail slot’ proportions of the Cinemascope frame. For decades prior to its introduction, the movies had achieved what no stage show could; drawing their audiences into the screen with punctuated close-ups; the effect meant to be shared as a proletariat’s ‘front and center’ experience; the audience absorbed into their make-believe. Yet herein, Minnelli and Cinemascope conspire to accomplish the exact opposite; Brigadoon’s massive panoramas dwarfing the principals on every occasion while pushing the audience away from its spectacle. We never get to see the faces of our stars in anything more distinct than a medium two shot; the edges of the frame cramped in interesting bric-a-brac to draw our attention more to the milieu than the moment. This effect is only amplified by composer/conductor, Johnny Green’s bombastic six track stereo orchestrations of the vibrant Lerner and Loewe score, sweeping choral arrangements pouring in on all sides without ever achieving musicalized intimacy. In an effort to reassert Cinemascope’s claim the movies are bigger and better than ever, the effect herein is not so much complimentary as it frequently seems terribly at odds, particularly with the subtler material. Thanks to Joseph Ruttenberg we get exquisitely lit compositions. Alas, Minnelli has become too enraptured in his quest to evoke the Flemish masters. While Brigadoon frequently bears the hallmarks of a vintage Rembrandt, it lacks the cinematic precision of an iconic Minnellian fantasy, more reminiscent of Minnelli’s own Yolanda and the Thief (1945); another misfire for which more style than substance had been applied. 
Beyond these artistic shortcomings, there remains something distinctly off-putting about Brigadoon’s fantastical suspension in disbelief. As with Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, here too our protagonists are presented with a terrible contemplation: surrendering every last vestige of life as it is known in their own time for an uncertainty with few – if any - short-term redeemable virtues. Tommy’s love for Fiona affords him two unique opportunities to remain within Brigadoon’s boundaries forever – should he choose. He does, but is talked out of the first of these impromptu decisions at the last possible moment by Jeff, who angrily orders his usually level-headed friend to shake the daydreams and wishing wells from his reckless euphoria. To enter Brigadoon as a citizen is to abandon everything for perhaps only a chance. It behooves us to reconsider the inhabitants of Brigadoon have not been given eternal life in this magical pact with God; merely the natural progression of the aging process prolonged over centuries of time. However, since this suspension of time is spent mostly in slumber and thus imperceptible to those under its spell, not even the trajectory of time itself can be enjoyed; unlike the mythic boundaries of Shangri-La in Lost Horizon, that at least deliver on a promise of fossilization in the aging process, allowing inhabitants to live well beyond several hundred years in their otherwise natural allotment of earthly time. Conversely, to become a resident of Brigadoon is to purchase a one-way ticket to ‘forever’, as Jeff points out, in the longest running ‘forever’ on record. Once having crossed this threshold there can be no place for Tommy Albright in whatever world awaits to collide with Brigadoon’s one hundred year anniversary the next time.
In retrospect, a goodly number of fantasy films from the 1930s right on through the late 1950s are imbued with this undercurrent of ‘be careful what you wish for’ moralization. Consider that we really do not know what the future holds for Tommy Albright after he has consigned himself to the enveloping highland mystique of Brigadoon. Perhaps he has found nirvana on earth – or perhaps not. But he will not and cannot return from whatever state of consciousness has afflicted him once he leaves the only real world he has ever known far behind. Fantasy films of this particular vintage, from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to Lost Horizon, right on through to Brigadoon challenge their protagonists’ notions about the proverbial ‘grass’ being ‘greener on ‘the other side’ of their misaligned somewhere over the rainbows. Ultimately, in each of these ‘cautionary’ scenarios the decision is made, either a return to normalcy as per that life previously escaped (as in, say Kansas over Oz), nevertheless, now made sweetly familiar and edifying by the friendships cultivated along the way, or, contrariwise, to seek out the illusory catnip of these fantastical holidays into Pan’s purgatory, hoping for something better on the other side. This latter endeavor, it should be pointed out, is merely a ‘hope’ not a ‘promise’; particularly for the participant who knows too well the discrepancies between the world he/she has left behind without fully to comprehend the ramifications involved in the one about to become the newly adopted home.
If, as the old cliché suggests, ‘change is good’, can it also be of mutual benefit to the new arrival and to the indigenous peoples with whom daily interaction is now inevitable?  Lastly, what if Tommy should change his mind a hundred years from now? Could he, without breaking the spell for all? Since Tommy Albright was not part of Mr. Forsythe’s master plan is he afforded a way out denied the others, and, to leave it for what, as most assuredly the fundamentals of that life he once knew have been vastly altered, neither to reflect his core values nor suit even his casual tastes. This pondering over eternity and fate is not immediately apparent when viewing Brigadoon for the first time. And yet, they linger, eventually to become unearthed in the mind later on, leaving the first-time viewer uniquely unsettled, perhaps more than those contemplations made at the end of Lost Horizon: Capra’s mythical Himalayan hybrid and sojourn into Shangri-La, as Brigadoon proper, currently God’s protectorate (or Eden without end) comes with the ramifications of defying His enlightenment its due course, quite possibly resulting in catastrophic returns.
The premise for Brigadoon’s salvation teeters on the absurd, but maintains an even more disquieting creepiness, steadily to pervade, misalign and finally severe Johnny and Jeff’s life-long friendship. Brigadoon is under a spell; an incantation yielding to an even more frail logic and maxims imposed upon all. For this, the kindly cleric, Mr. Forsythe (never seen for obvious reasons) sacrificed his own life. Yet, in his ‘benevolence’, having achieved this pact with God, Forsythe has doomed his congregation into a perpetual zombie-like stupor from which none can escape, in some ways, playing to the strengths of sci-fi and horror much more than lithe musical comedy. It also brings into question the conformity in faith. There is no ‘free will’ in Brigadoon; as exhibited in the scene where Fiona becomes paralyzed with trepidation when, during her euphoric gathering of fresh heather for her sister’s bridal bouquet, Tommy suddenly directs her attention to a more luscious outcropping of the prized blossoms on a nearby hill beyond these artificially spellbound boundaries.  Again, one is immediately reminded of the moment in Capra’s Lost Horizon as the character of Maria (Margo), having disobeyed the High Lama and ventured beyond the relative safety of Shangri-La, is suddenly withered from her youthful bloom into a mummified corpse 200 plus years advanced in its decomposition. Might a similar fate befall the lovely Fiona?
Brigadoon opens with the village’s reawakening from its hundred-year slumber; a series of Flemish inspired tableaux; Minnelli’s use of light, shadow and color, a superb evocation of the old masters. We are introduced to Tommy Albright and Jeff Douglas, two weary travelers who have lost their way amidst the flora and fauna of the misty Scottish highlands. Tommy is a realist. But Jeff is a cynic, believing only in what he can touch, smell, and taste. Faith, either ethereal or in his fellow man, is an intangible Jeff has absolutely no use for if, indeed, it exists at all. Much to their great salvation and surprise, the pair notice a village not far off that somehow each has overlooked only the moment earlier; a place, curiously, not on their map and populated by an interesting assortment of tartan and kilt-wearing locals, queerly out of step with the present – and, for good reason as Tommy and Jeff are soon to discover. Along the road they also meet Fiona Campbell who directs them into McConnachy Square – the hub of Brigadoon. Tommy offers to pay for food and drink with a few pieces of silver. But the inhabitants are dumbstruck by the date on the coins. Only Charles Dalrymple is forthcoming with immediate friendship; offering to buy these visitors some heather ale to celebrate his pending marriage. A bit of confusion over which Campbell sister is to be wed leads Tommy to regret his inexplicable stirrings of love at first sight for Fiona, though he entertains them with an impromptu trip to her cottage, and later, in a complete abandonment, falls madly for her while gathering heather for Jean’s wedding.
‘The Heather on the Hill’ is, in fact, one of the rare instances in Brigadoon where the screen wondrously comes alive; Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse pirouetting about the artificial landscape as though imbued with Hermes wing-footed stealth. Kelly and Charisse are magnificent together, her balletic gestures perfectly offset by his robust athleticism. The dancers race up and down these papier-mâché embankments, zig-zagging between plywood trees; suggestively, almost to collide – yet never – to completely embrace; the towering Charisse, in toe-shoe flats, raised up in Kelly’s strong arms to offset their difference in height. Nowhere else in Brigadoon do we get such a moment of passionate release; not in Kelly’s posthumous declaration of ‘Almost Like Being in Love’ nor in Charisse’s coy ‘Waiting for My Dearie’; each, a delayed reaction to an emotion neither completely understands; ‘The Heather on the Hill’ an exuberant release of these pent-up temptations.
Yet, this moment of elation is brutally cut short when Tommy suggests more abundant ripe heather is growing on a nearby hill beyond Brigadoon’s invisible boundaries. Fiona is stricken with a look of sheer fright, begging Tommy not to move beyond his present position either. Having already unearthed several unsettling anomalies about the village – as example, the date of Jean’s birth in the family Bible is listed as 1732 – Tommy reverts to his realist roots, abruptly shaken from his euphoria and demanding answers. Unable to provide them, Fiona directs his inquiries to the sage, Mr. Lundie. Accompanied by Fiona, Tommy and Jeff learn of the spell cast upon Brigadoon; a blessing to all except the sullen Harry Beaton who planned to go away to university in Edenborough and pursue Jean as his wife; both ambitions denied him now and seemingly for all time. As the sun sets, the various clans gather for Jean and Charles’ wedding; another tour de force for Minnelli, who uses the artifice of a cathedral’s ruins to create a stunning, yet moody torch-lit procession. But the couple’s terpsichorean bliss is intruded upon by Harry Beaton who first tries to take advantage of the bride; then, threatens Charles with his dagger. Harry is subdued by various clansmen before escaping to the top of one of the turrets, declaring he intends to leave Brigadoon immediately; henceforth dooming the entire village to a fate worse than the purgatory thus far endured.
The clan begins its manhunt for Harry Beaton; Tommy stirred to partake by the prospect of losing Fiona forever. Given the relatively limited parameters of the village, and the enormity of the army set to apprehend Harry, it is more than a little ironic no one except Tommy is able to unearth his secret hiding locations in the underbrush. The men spar for a moment or two on the footbridge before Tommy is beaten unconscious by Harry, who now climbs into a nearby tree to avoid capture. Jeff, who has been indulging in strong drink all afternoon, and pursuing wild grouse with his rifle, fires the accidentally fatal shot into the branches. Harry’s body plummets to the earth, recovered by his grieving father and carried back to the village by several clansmen. The murder, however unintentional, instantly sobers Jeff. Unaware, Tommy confesses to Jeff he loves Fiona and will not be leaving Brigadoon. Full of venom and contempt, Jeff orders Tommy to give his head a good shake. Brigadoon is an anomaly rather than a way of life. It was fun while it lasted. But now the midnight hour is drawing near and with it, the village’s exile into the highland fog for another hundred years; plenty of time for Tommy to forget Fiona Campbell and return to the snowy streets of Manhattan. Conflicted, Tommy retreats. Fiona and Brigadoon are vanquished in the encroaching mists and Tommy returns to Jane Ashton (Elaine Stewart) the horridly superficial fiancé he left behind in New York.
Knowing nothing of his experiences abroad, and frankly, disinterested in anything but herself, Jane begins to outline the details of their future together. Unbeknownst to Jane, her plans are constantly intruded upon by Tommy’s daydreams of Fiona. Breaking off his engagement, Tommy orders Jeff to accompany him back to Scotland. He has to see for himself if Brigadoon is still there waiting for him. Alas, no – the pair quietly poised near the same precipice from which they first observed the small gathering of thatched roof cottages, now replaced by a lonely wilderness of trees. Disillusioned and full of despair, Tommy prepares to leave when he suddenly hears the faint reprise of Lerner and Lowe’s melodic title tune; the mist suddenly lifted to reveal the sleepy village beneath its veil. Jeff is thoroughly haunted by the illusion, but Tommy is rapidly drawn into its sway. Awakened from their slumber, Fiona and Mr. Lundie hurry to McConnachy Square, startled to discover Tommy waiting there, reaffirming a rather appallingly simple-minded edict put forth by Mr. Lundie earlier; that when one is in love “anything is possible.” Thus, Brigadoon’s spell has claimed its first inhabitant from the outside world.
While Brigadoon’s cinematic debut was met with considerable indifference, an irrefutable asset of the production is its surviving score; one of Lerner and Loewe’s most melodic, dramatic and varied. Indeed, the cast album in true stereo is a sumptuous aural feast. If only the pleasantly concocted plaid-clad visuals had managed to triumph on equal footing, Brigadoon might have readily achieved its dreamlike suspension of disbelief. Periodically it does precisely this, the staginess set aside, the fairy-tale-esque quality of love eternal sustained, though never entirely without Minnelli’s puppet-like plying of the strings; gingerly tugging at a moment of realization here or a bit of deliciously cynical dialogue over there. The most enjoyable performance in the picture is owed to Van Johnson whose rank cynicism is cause for some razor-bitten romantic comedy opposite the exuberant Dodie Heath as Meg Brockie, overtly woos Jeff as “a right winning lad” and can feel “wee tadpoles leapin’ in her spine” at the mere sight of him; a metaphor Jeff finds thoroughly repulsive, inquiring why a stranger in a strange land might ever be even remotely attracted to “a mighty strange woman” like Meg. In paring down the plot of the stage show Alan Jay Lerner relegates Heath’s performance to this one exuberantly funny exchange of dialogue; a genuine loss of a throughout charming secondary character that might have counterpoised Brigadoon’s steadily advancing ennui. Alas, the magic here is muted to grievously gloomy levels.
In the end, Brigadoon’s worldwide gross of $3,275,000 narrowly recovered its hefty $2,352,625 investment; proof positive for Dore Schary of two things; first, Arthur Freed’s autonomy at MGM would have to be reevaluated, and second, that musicals in general were no longer the robust profit center they had once been for the studio a decade earlier. Schary might have first considered how his own insistence to confine an outdoorsy musical to the claustrophobic interiors of artificially lit sound stages had impacted the production. And yet, Schary could also point to MGM’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, considered a relatively ‘minor’ musical put into production on an even more restrictive schedule and budget, at roughly the same interval, and released to unanimous critical claim and respectable box office the same year as Brigadoon. Despite his meddling, ‘Brides’ managed to succeed under similar circumstances where Brigadoon had ostensibly failed. But then Schary would have had to admit the Hollywood musical was not yet ready to fade completely into obscurity. And Schary, despite his thorough disinterest in the genre, was nevertheless a bean counter at heart, trying to make sense of the vast assortment of Metro’s physical assets over which he now presided by juggling the figures. Seven Brides balanced the books against Brigadoon’s more costly outlay and tepid returns. So, the MGM musical would live on – alas, with more restrictions imposed, and only the occasional triumph to be had; High Society (1956), Silk Stockings (1957) and Gigi (1958), the silver-star winners of what was, in retrospect, the very sad decline of Metro’s unimpeachable reign as Hollywood’s ‘king of features’.   
The Warner Archive (WAC) has at long last resurrected Brigadoon on Blu-ray. Were that we could also have them work a little magic on High Society and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Warner Home Video’s DVD was a middling effort. The Blu-ray is decidedly a cause for celebration, looking far more vibrant and subtly nuanced than vintage Ansco Color as a right to.  Top to bottom then, Brigadoon has been given the TLC it deserves. We are still denied the ‘wide screen’ version of this movie. What’s here is, of course, the Cinemascope edition, in 2.35:1 and lovingly preserved. Despite its shortcomings, the Ansco Color hues are vibrant. Reds, while lacking the true and velvety blood red quality of a movie shot in Technicolor, are nevertheless intense if slightly leaning towards an orange bias. Flesh tones are very natural looking. The image favors earthy browns, beige and cornflower yellows. Check out the lemon shawl Cyd Charisse wears. Wow! Contrast is markedly improved over the DVD. There is absolutely nothing to complain about. The 5.1 remastered DTS audio is gorgeous.  Extras have been ported over from the DVD and include a brief featurette hosted by Cyd Charisse, musical outtakes and the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Brigadoon in 1080p is wonderful. A blind purchase, if you ask me.  Now, can we please get WAC to give us the rest of MGM’s musical gems: Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, High Society, The Student Prince, Holiday in Mexico, Cabin in the Sky, For Me and My Gal, Royal Wedding, That Midnight Kiss, Showboat, Nancy Goes to Rio, The Toast of New Orleans, The Great Caruso, Million Dollar Mermaid, Bathing Beauty, Easy to Love, etc. et al. Too many great movie musicals still MIA. 
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)