Tuesday, October 31, 2017

HELL ON FRISCO BAY: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1955) Warner Archive

A lot of hogwash, a little Edward G. Robinson and a moon-faced Alan Ladd don’t go a long way in director, Frank Tuttle’s Hell on Frisco Bay (1955), a rather turgidly scripted and sappy love story wrapped in the enigma of a mob boss crime caper. Alan Ladd is just one of those megastars from the 1940’s who did not age particularly well afterward. Okay, so it’s cruel to suggest Ladd has lost his edge. But actually, the irony is compounded by the fact that just two years earlier Ladd seemed to be at the pinnacle of his masculine prowess as the titular hero in George Stevens’ seminal western, Shane (1953). Hard living likely hastened Ladd’s spiraling appeal as a leading man. Truly, he went from boyish handsomeness to bloated puffin, virtually skipping the intermediary phase in the ‘natural’ aging process. Increasingly throughout Hell on Frisco Bay it gets harder and harder to think of many – if any – reasons why the scissor-legged and perpetually coiffeured Joanne Dru, repeatedly spurned – kicked in the teeth by Ladd’s razor-backed criticisms of how she spent her time while he was serving his inside San Quentin – would want to stand by her man when she has looks, brains and a burgeoning career as a nightclub chanteuse to recommend her to virtually any amiable suitor with far less of the proverbial chip on his shoulders.
If only for Ladd’s shortcomings, Hell on Frisco Bay might have, as yet, survived as an engaging piece of crime-doesn't-pay cinema. But there is less hell and a lot more ennui settling in on these still waters that ultimately do not run very deep. Based on William McGivern’s page-turning novel, The Darkest Hour, the screenplay by Martin Rackin is heavily laden with drawn out passages devoted to the marital strife tearing at ex-cop, Steve (Ladd) and Marcia Rollins (Dru). Neither is willing to admit their mistakes. Each wants the other back. Oh, just get a room, why don’t yah? Instead, the couple goes twelve rounds, rehashing past peccadillos, carrying the torch for each other, but with their respective grudges tugging in opposite directions as the world around them slowly begins to implode. Steve is unwilling to give up on unearthing the truth. After all, it was a total lie that sent him to prison. Now, Steve is out for blood. Like all honest cops with the proverbial heart of gold he spends a lot more time in Hamlet-esque contemplation than reacting to volatile situations with a show of fists. If only Hell on Frisco Bay lived up to ‘the hell’. But no. Instead, we get a lot of tricked out location photography, oft reincarnated as transparently obvious rear projection, looking muddy and soft in Cinemascope and the ever-dreaded Warnercolor (one of the worst color processes to ever compete with Technicolor).
Into this mix we also get Edward G. Robinson, doing nine minutes of his Little Caesar (1931) for the kiddies and folks old enough to recall him in his glory days. Robinson gets what little mileage is to be had from Hell on Frisco Bay, piloting on the sheer chutzpah of that inculcated and trademarked beady-eyed delivery of his lines. Robinson was so adept at reincarnating evil on the screen it remains difficult – if not impossible – to remember that beyond the camera he was one of Hollywood’s wittiest and most accomplished gentlemen; an art lover who amassed a sizable collection and could speak intelligently on most any subject of one’s choosing at the drop of a hat; a decided disconnect from the Edward G. we get in Hell on Frisco Bay: shifty, blunt, thuggish and enterprising. After all, this is the Eddie Robinson we have paid to see and he never disappoints. At some level you simply have to run with a guy who would double-cross his own mother for a penny and take a hit on his nephew, simply for screwing up a few ‘minor details’ with the police. Don’t mess with Eddie, folks. You’ll get it in the neck or in the back of the head, gangland-style.
Hell on Frisco Bay really does not need Cinemascope. It’s a gritty crime picture, artificially inflated by this anamorphic process and further distilled in taking virtually all of its film noir trappings and lighting them as though the entire plot were taking place on a sunlit beach in Spain. The necessary mood is entirely lacking in John F. Seitz’s cinematography. No fog-laden streets or moonlit wharf. Everything is flatly, if colorfully, shot in the high key lighting style of an MGM musical. This approach all but evaporates any would-be atmospheric tension in the plot. Think of what might have been if Hell on Frisco Bay were lensed by a master craftsman like Greg Tolland in glorious deep-focus B&W. Instead, we are subjected to ‘pretty’ pictures of some very ugly people attempting to do very disreputable things to one another. Alas, visually, it’s the cues of such seediness that are lacking herein. Also, the absence of quality in both Ladd and Dru’s careworn lamentations. Ladd utters his lines in a low sustained voice as though he has only just stirred from a deep slumber or a fitful fear of slipping into a coma from boredom. Dru trudges through her bittersweet regrets without actually feeling sorry for anyone. There is no chemistry between these two wounded hearts. We can no more picture them in happier times than accept them now, wallowing in the fallout from an extramarital affair with an undisclosed young buck who drank too much and gambled even more.
Hell on Frisco Bay was co-funded by Ladd’s own production company, Jaguar and distributed via Warner Bros. Perhaps the only noteworthy aspect of its production is an early break for Aussie hunk, Rod Taylor as John Brodie Evans, one of Mafia kingpin, Victor Amato’s (Robinson) hired ruffians. It’s a brief, though nevertheless rewarding bit, especially written for Taylor by Martin Rackin who admired the actor from their work together on Long John Silver (1954). Taylor’s wounded belligerence is a crackling ember in this otherwise wet mat of kindling never to start a fire, but for a brief moment or two. The other notable performance herein goes to Paul Stewart as Amato’s right-hand man, Joe Lye; his face scarred by some previous skirmish, his ego stricken, save for the love of a good woman – washed-up Hollywood has-been, Kay Stanley (Fay Wray – yes, King Kong’s gal pal). The picture is also remembered today for a terrible accident: stuntman, Louis Tomei (doubling for Robinson during the climactic fisticuffs aboard a careening motorboat) hurled against a metal fitting to sustain a fatal head injury. He died in hospital later that same evening. All this is backstory of a kind. But virtually none of it helps to elevate Hell on Frisco Bay from a middling programmer gussied up with all the important trappings of an A-list star-vehicle for Alan Ladd. If only it were more intelligently scripted. If only Ladd was the young buck from Paramount days just a few short years before (think The Glass Key or This Gun for Hire 1942, or The Blue Dahlia 1946…all noble examples of Ladd in his prime). If only…if only.
Hell on Frisco Bay opens with an uncharacteristically jovial main title by Max Steiner. I adore Steiner as a composer. Lest we forget, here is man who contributed to the mood and flavor of such immortal screen gems as King Kong (1933), A Star is Born (1937), Jezebel (1938), Gone with the Wind, Dark Victory (both in 1939) Now, Voyager, Casablanca (in 1942), Since You Went Away (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Big Sleep (1946), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Adventures of Don Juan, Key Largo (in 1948), The Caine Mutiny (1956), and, A Summer Place (1959) to name but a handful of truly classy classics that bear his hallmark of excellence. Yet, Steiner’s contributions to Hell on Frisco Bay just seem off; neither moody nor magnificent but actually, in a lot of ways, merely adequate and, at times woefully pedestrian. There is not a cue among the lot to distinguish this as a score by Max Steiner, particularly the bouncy main titles.  Following the fanfare, we arrive at San Quentin. It’s been five years since former policeman, Steve Rollins (Ladd) has seen the outside of these walls. Steve was framed for manslaughter. Now, he’s out for the truth and revenge…not necessarily in that order.
Steve is met at the gates by a close friend on the force, Dan Bianco (William Demarest) and his estranged wife, Marcia, whom he immediately shuns after having learnt of an infidelity that occurred while he was in prison. Actually, Steve wanted Marcia to get a divorce. She refused. He insisted. She dug in her heels and stood by her man…well, sort of. We never do get the real low down of that tryst that has so fractured Steve’s ego he can barely look at Marcia without wanting to either cry, throw up or just punch her in the kisser, remembering the good ole days before he was an ex-con. In search of clues, Steve trolls the Frisco waterfront for any news about a fisherman named Rogani, the one man who can hit the reset on his reputation and clear his good name. Too bad for Steve, Rogani is already pushing up daisies, thanks to an unfortunate ‘accident’. The docks are controlled by racketeer, Victor Amato who has since forced out the ailing dock leader, Louis Flaschetti (Nestor Paiva). Steve tries to squeeze Lou for answers but it’s no use. Lou would rather forget the past and keep breathing. He knows what Amato is but is much too scared to talk. Meanwhile, two of Amato’s men, Lye and Hammy (Stanley Adams) – just think of them as the Abbott and Costello of this plot – attempt to talk some sense into Steve. He served his time and dodged a life sentence. He should leave well enough alone…or else.
We diverge from this supposedly gripping central plot to indulge in the first of far too many failed ‘explanation’ scenes between Marcia and Steve. She wants him to understand how lonely she was while he was in prison. He gets it. But honestly, is that the best excuse any woman should have for cheating on her man – “I needed sex and you weren’t there”?!? It’s also more than a little challenging to think of the slinky Dru succumbing to her earthly urges only ‘once’, before walking away from a bit of rough-house badinage with some lumbering stud who fired up her dishonorable intentions in the first place. Once…right. And I have a deed to the Golden Gate with your name on it, honey. The Rackin screenplay becomes increasingly mired in these sparring matches between Steve and Marcia; also, a few idiotic departures: Steve mooning after his sort-of-ex from a seat at the bar of a local watering hole where Marcia is the star attraction. We get to hear Dru sing – about as inspiring as her acting throughout Hell on Frisco Bay, which is really not saying much. I suspect she is going for the sort of whisky-voiced knock-off of Ida Lupino from 1948’s Road House; a far better performance in a superior thriller on all accounts. But Dru is just too accomplished for her surroundings; not a hair out of place that Central Casting did not freeze hold with a thousand cans of Sudden Beauty; her wardrobe too-too immaculately tailored for someone earning at least thrice the salary any second-rate singer should without polishing more than the brass for her boss after hours.
While Steve and Marcia are ironing out the kinks in their relationship Flaschetti winds up dead. Steve tries to tap a few of Amato’s goons for the goods: beginning with exiled Sebastian Pasmonick (Anthony Caruso), then Amato’s wet-behind-the-ears nephew, Mario (Perry Lopez) who Steve dunks several times head first into a clogged bathroom sink to hammer the point home he isn’t playing around. Amato doesn’t like to be goaded. So, he has Lye summon Steve for a little one on one. It doesn’t bode well for either party and Amato realizes he has to put a period to Steve’s search for the truth. Ah, but never leave a goon to do a real Mafioso’s work. Waiting outside Steve’s apartment to do the hit, Hammy is instead shot dead by Bianco who has been observing him all along. Amato has spies everywhere, including Police Detective Connors (Peter Hansen). But after this failed assassination, and Hammy’s dying confession, Bianco gets straight arrow, Police Lt. Paul Neville (Willis Bouchey) to play hardball with Mario and, via his fumbled confession, John Brodie Evans – another of Amato’s thug muscle. Upon his release from interrogation Brodie announces to Amato he has had enough, suggesting that if he really wants to do damage control from within he needs to take care of Mario first. Amato agrees, and when Aunt Anna (Renata Vanni) is not looking, Amato sends Lye to perform a hit on his nephew, tailor-made to look like a suicide.
Meanwhile, Amato puts the squeeze on Lye’s woman, one-time Hollywood actress, Kay Stanley. She is repulsed by his oily ‘charm’. Amato now vows to destroy their romance. Besides, it’s getting too close to the crunch: time for Amato to thin out his herd before the disloyal among them break their silence and begin to testify against him. Lye is incensed to learn while he was out doing his boss’ dirty work, Amato was trying to make love to Kay. Her subsequent rejection led to a good slap. Lye is done with Amato and vice versa. Too bad for Lye, Amato is a better shot. He murders Lye in cold blood near his offices on the docks. Meanwhile Anna, having sort-of figured out her husband had Mario whacked now reveals Amato’s whereabouts to Steve. He arrives too late to save Lye from a fatal gunshot, but just in time for a daring dive off the pier as Amato pulls away in a motor boat. As Marcia and Bianco look on, Steve and Amato go mano a mano, the motor boat careening in and out of heavy bay traffic as Steve pummels his arch nemesis to the point of senselessness. The bloodied pair are thrown into the drink only moments before their boat is dashed to pieces against a cement pylon protruding from the water. Fished out by a police cruiser, Amato and Steve are brought back to shore; Amato, to be taken away, presumably to stand trial, and Steve, to fall into the loving arms of the wife he always knew he had waiting for him on the outside. It’s a new day for Steve and Marcia, and Bianco – ever-devoted to them both – is very glad of it too.
Hell on Frisco Bay is turgidly scripted. For a would-be crime caper it lacks virtually any tension throughout to sell the affair as legit. While Edward G. Robinson can certainly carry the load when he is on the screen, the bulk of the plot revolves around Alan Ladd’s doughy and dull, self-righteous man of personal integrity. But being noble gets old real fast. On this outing Ladd lacks both the stature and the charisma of a leading man. He is a shell of his former self. The rest of the cast all fall into a middling grey area in their performances; some, for lack of good material to buoy their best efforts, others, merely from a dearth in that all-important and elusive star power. It’s a shame too, because Paul Stewart and Rod Taylor are better than their parts. We know it. They know it. Cinemascope is the enemy here, or rather cinematographer, John Seitz’s inability to fill its elongated frame in any sort of meaningful way. Hell on Frisco Bay is full of two shots; two characters either positioned close together or standing at opposite ends of the screen with a lot of dead space between them as they deliver their dialogue. Seitz is incapable of creating depth of field here. There is no foreground, middle ground or background to his compositions or the way characters move within and around these static tableau, save John Beckman’s unimpressive Art Direction. In the end, Hell on Frisco Bay settles on an unprepossessing bond of reunion between man and wife; a foregone conclusion almost from the moment the main titles have faded. This isn’t a great movie. I would argue, not even a salvageable one.
Better news ahead. Warner Archive (WAC) has once again done their utmost to bring another deep catalog title from their formidable archives to the forefront of Blu-ray remastering. The results are as good as one can expect, given the extreme constraints of vintage Cinemascope and, worst of all, the unforgiving softness and muddy quality inherent in vintage Warnercolor. Aside: I despise Warnercolor. Ditto for Ansco. This image leans to very warm hues; flesh looking reddish to pink and occasionally too-too orange. This is in keeping with the limitations of Warnercolor, not the fault of any untoward tinkering in the remastering process. Hell on Frisco Bay looks about average for a Warnercolor feature. I’ve seen better. I’ve seen a lot worse. When the surviving elements snap together, we get a lot of texture and fine details looking marvelous in 1080p. The image has also been cleaned up. No age-related artifacts. Contrast is solid. Black levels are rarely deep, but again, more a flaw of the vintage original camera negative than Blu-ray remastering. While WAC’s release won’t win any awards for ‘Best in Show 2017’ it is very competent at recreating that vintage ‘scope’/Warnercolor look. The audio survives as DTS mono – adequate for this presentation.  Dialogue, the score and SFX are well represented without distortion. WAC has limited extras to a badly worn theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Hell on Frisco Bay is unexceptional. However, if you are a fan of this movie, and undoubtedly, some are, then you will want to snatch up this Blu-ray. It looks great.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, October 30, 2017

TOPPER: Blu-ray (MGM/Hal Roach 1937) VCI Entertainment

Billed as 96 ‘roaring minutes of laughter’, director, Norman Z. McLeod’s Topper (1937) feathers in some joyously obtuse screwball comedy infectiously mixed with ribald sexual innuendo and the inimitable charm of two up-and-coming stars about to burst like a pair of bombshells into the cinema firmament: Constance Bennett (then, considered the more popular) and Cary Grant (at the height of his male sex appeal, and teetering on the cusp of super stardom). From top to bottom, Topper is a sterling comedy; its vignettes strung together by the feeblest of scenarios written by Jack Jevne, Eric Hatch and Eddie Moran, cribbing from Thorne Smith’s 1926 semi-risqué novel, The Jovial Ghosts. For producer, Hal Roach, Topper was decidedly a step up and, in retrospect, his fleeting foray into ‘the big time’. Partnered with MGM, then the greatest studio in the land, Roach was afforded all the lavishness Metro could muster up. Indeed, in viewing Topper today, it bears the hallmarks of MGM’s typical studio gloss; the art deco sets and elegant ensemble tricked out in some gorgeous costumes by Samuel Lange and an un-credited Irene.
We pause a moment here to pay tribute and homage to Hal Roach; one of Hollywood’s nearly forgotten renaissance men. In the late 1920’s and early thirties, Roach’s indie studio was home to the hallowed likes of Harold Lloyd, Will Rogers, the Our Gang kids, and, most famously, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The profitability of his two-reel comedies, and, a 1927 deal secured with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer ensured Roach a steady stream of employment. By 1931, he had made the leap to full-fledged features with Laurel and Hardy’s ‘Pardon Us’. A scant five years later, Roach phased out all but his ‘Our Gang’ serial shorts. Roach ought to have been on the fast track to becoming another David O. Selznick. Alas, inveigled in a partnership with Vittorio Mussolini (Benito’s son), Roach was quite naively unaware of his conflict of interests: MGM intervening and forcing Roach’s hand to pay his way out of this venture. The pall of this misstep, coupled with the under-performance of Roach’s feature films released under MGM’s banner (save Laurel and Hardy and Topper) resulted in L.B. Mayer dissolving their partnership in 1938 with a complete sell-off of Roach’s rights to his former catalog.  
Topper is undeniably a good show. Invariably, audiences agreed, flocking to see its’ lithe concoction of supernatural merrymaking. Interestingly, while the focus is on Cary Grant’s bon vivant, George Kerby and his sultry Mrs. – Marion (Constance Bennett) the title refers to one Cosmo Topper (Roland Young as the utterly henpecked and befuddled Wall St. banker whose life is turned upside down by the return of his late stockholder). Topper also benefits from the inclusion of Billie Burke, as Clara – Mrs. Topper, and, Alan Mowbray’s sublimely stuffy butler, Wilkins. In planning his production, Hal Roach had already decided on Cary Grant. Indeed, Grant had been in the movies for nearly a decade, appearing in product of questionable artistic merit, yet always with an impossibly devilish verve that leant his drop-dead good looks an edge of uncertainty and dangerousness. Roach admired this quality in Grant. Even so, he had some serious convincing to do to get Grant to sign on the dotted line. Assured by Roach the resultant script would play to Grant’s strengths as a comedian, and offering the actor $50,000 for his services, convinced him to partake.  Roach had also aspired to cast MGM’s resident sexpot, Jean Harlow opposite Grant. Alas, unbeknownst to anyone, the actress was fatally stricken with uremia; her death at the age of 26 sending shockwaves throughout the industry. Reaching out to Constance Bennett, Roach managed a minor coup, getting the actress to accept less than her usual fee – and, in fact, $10,000 less than her co-star to headline this movie. But Roach was bitter about his inability to woo W.C. Fields to play the part of Cosmo; in hindsight, a bit of luck, as it is virtually impossible to imagine anyone except Roland Young bringing both genuine silliness and sincerity to the part.
Topper is set within the tastefully whimsical elegance of movie-land’s impressions of the hoi poloi; a white-gloved world of gleaming manor houses, stately banks, lavishly appointed penthouses and hotels, populated by a flock of devil-may-care aristocrats to whom the Great Depression has seemingly not even made a dent. I adore this never-land from Hollywood’s golden thirties. It reeks of style, sophistication and smarmy sex appeal. Cobbled together mostly from sets built at Roach’s Culver City Studios, with a few brief inserts lensed in and around town (Bullock’s Dept. Store on Wilshire, and, Pasadena’s Seabreeze Hotel), the picture’s one irrefutable flight into fancy is George and Marion’s sporty roadster. As no car in mass production of its time would suffice for this farfetched and fatal vehicle, Bohman & Schwartz built a custom-made hybrid between a Cord and a Duesenberg on the chassis of a 1936 Buick Roadmaster. Two identical models were built for the movie; one sustaining damage in the wreck that claims George and Marion early on (later reused to almost kill Cosmo as he overshoots the same hairpin corner), and another identical model left in near pristine condition for the remainder of the shoot. Afterward, this second vehicle was sold to the Gilmore Oil Co., used for many years as part of their promotional ads before being updated in 1954 with a Chrysler Imperial chassis and drive train.
Topper opens with a madcap fanfare by Marvin Hatley under the main titles; Hatley, just another of those work-a-day studio-hired ‘grunt’ composers, whose workhorse output and awe-inspiring precision have been set aside with the passage of time, but nevertheless deserve honorable mention in any review of at least this movie. Hatley’s contributions are matched by Hoagy Carmichael’s charming ditty, ‘Old Man Moon’, intermittently sung by Carmichael, Constance Bennett, Cary Grant and, in a medley, by the Three Hits and a Miss. Neither Carmichael nor Hatley received any credit for their contributions on Topper, although both elevate the mood of the piece; particularly Carmichael, whose inimitable ‘charm’ has oft escaped me, though herein seems quite endearing as – what else? – a saloon piano player. We are introduced to the Kerbys – George and Marion, careening in their convertible roadster down a moonlit country road. Typical of the bon vivant, George is sitting atop the back of his seat, steering the car with his feet. In short order, George elects to take his wife on a jaunty nightclub binge, eventually ending up at a cozy little Italian restaurant where he, Marion and Hoagy – the piano player, indulge in a few verses of ‘Old Man Moon’. George is due at Cosmo Topper’s bank for their annual Board of Directors meeting. To date, George – the bank’s largest stock holder – has not made a single appointment. But this time, he has faithfully promised.
We cut to a brief vignette in the life of Cosmo Topper; wealthy and yet deprived, even of the frolicking luxury of an invigorating shower, cut short by his fastidious butler, Wilkins. “It’s eight-thirty…we dress now!” Cosmo’s life is so straightjacketed it has become positively insufferable. What’s more, his own wife, Clara has quietly settled into this forced march existence. Cosmo begs Clara’s indulgence. After all, neither is a spring chicken. And despite their affluence they get so very little out of life. Of course, Clara doesn’t know what in the world her husband is talking about. We flash ahead to Cosmo’s arrival at the bank; as ordered as his home life, save the mild flirtations of his private secretary and spinster, Miss Johnson (Virginia Sale) who asks the outer office secretary (Elaine Shepard) to borrow a lipstick to freshen up for the boss. Meanwhile, George and Marion have fallen asleep in their roadster outside the bank, gathering a crowd of onlookers and one very annoyed policeman who is quite unable to reach either of them until George suddenly realizes he is a few minutes late for his meeting already. Bursting in on the accounting details already in progress, George makes a mockery of Topper’s fastidious bean-counting while Marion goes into Topper’s private office to continue her nap. A frustrated Cosmo enters, ranting about George’s ignorance before realizing Marion is in the room. Back-peddling with embarrassment, Cosmo is surprised when Marion concurs with his assessment of George – though not of life itself. Life is to be enjoyed. And poor Topper just isn’t having any fun.
As our story is about to reveal, too much fun can also be very detrimental to one’s health. On their return trip home George, speeding well beyond the limit, misses a hairpin turn and plows the roadster into a nearby tree. After a few bewildering moments, the couple stirs to discover they are ghostly apparitions, quietly observing their own bodies strewn amidst the wreckage. For the first time in her life, Marion fears perhaps neither she nor George has done enough good deeds in life to warrant their invitation into the kingdom of heaven.  To ensure their place beyond these pearly gates, the Kerbys hatch a plot – to liberate Topper from his regimented existence. We return to the bank. A month has passed since the Kerbys’ fatal accident. On a whim, Topper has bought their refurbished roadster as an anniversary present for Clara, still unable to fathom George and Marion’s untimely passing. He is even more shocked to discover their spirits returned to create a little bit of mischief on his behalf. Marion takes Topper under her wing, urging him to stop at a lady’s fashion shop so she can try on the latest in soft silken undergarments. The trick turns sour when the invisible Marion scares half the female patrons out of their wits. Topper confiscates the lace panties, stuffing them into his coat pocket where they are later discovered by Clara. She immediately suspects her husband of infidelity. Wilkins tried to calm his tearful employer after Topper indignantly storms out of the house. But even he tires of the whiny Clara.
Unable to reach his wife, Cosmo moves out of the house, determined to go on a bender to reclaim his youth. Clara believes Cosmo’s recent spate of erratic behavior has disgraced the household. She is quietly stunned when the denizens of high society, fronted by their grand dame, Mrs. Grace Stuyvesant (Hedda Hopper) pay her a social call and invite the Toppers to their annual soiree. Clara has dreamed of this day, but never thought it possible. Now, it seems Cosmo’s wicked ways have made them both quite ‘respectable’. Still wounded by Clara’s rejection, Cosmo drives out to the Seabreeze Hotel – a saucy hideaway where he hopes to tear up the scenery and live the life of debauchery he has already been accused of partaking. Marion has joined Cosmo on this little sojourn. Alas, so has George, the pair now plotting how best to get Topper to come to his senses. Meanwhile, the hotel’s house detective, Casey (Eugene Pallette) is bewildered to hear multiple voices coming from Cosmo’s suite. After all, he checked in alone. Suspecting the obvious – that Topper has a girl in his room – Casey convinces his employer to summon the police. Too bad, by the time the cops arrive George and Marion have created a scene to shock and surprise everyone; tossing papers at the hotel register into the air, and smashing lightbulbs from a perch on high to startle everyone. Amidst this hullabaloo, George and Marion smuggle Topper out of the hotel. Alas, George still hasn’t mastered the bend in the road. Another smash-up and it appears as though Cosmo too is now headed in the direction of Gabriel’s horn. Instead, the Kerbys force Topper’s soul back into his unconscious body. He awakens in his own bed some hours later, a reformed Clara by his side and vowing to indulge whatever future whims her husband may choose to explore upon being restored to good health.
Topper was such a massive hit with audiences it virtually rewrote the careers of Cary Grant and Constance Bennett. In time, Bennett’s reputation and popularity would be allowed to fade into obscurity. But Grant’s has remained perennially appealing to audiences ever since. It’s very easy to see why. In Cary Grant we have the epitome of manly grace turned slightly askew by the actor’s ability to laugh at himself. There is nothing sexier to women than a guy who knows he is good looking but refuses to take those ‘good looks’ quite so seriously. Grant is charming throughout Topper. The picture, in fact, comes right in the middle of Grant’s uninterrupted spate of great screwball comedies that include Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938), and George Cukor’s Holiday (1938). However, it is important to remember the latter two comedies were considered unmitigated flops when they premiered. Since then, each has been properly revered as a great work. Constance Bennett is Grant’s perfect foil – a smart and sassy platinum blonde would-be vixen, in love with her own figure of flesh as she cavorts in a series of form-fitted shimmering gowns. There is a wonderful antagonistic sex-chemistry at play throughout Topper, mostly because Grant and Bennett play their lines with more severity than comedic finesse. They are not trying to be funny and, as a result, cannot help but be even more so when calamity hits and the razor-sharp barbs begin to fly.
Interestingly, Bennett was to receive better notices for Topper than Cary Grant; enough for Hal Roach to attempt to launch her as a ‘great star’, reunited with director, McLeod and screenwriters, Jevne and Moran, Billie Burke and Alan Mowbray – for 1938's less than stellar, Merrily We Live. As for Topper: it needed a sequel. It’s really too bad the two that followed it were hardly worthy of the decision to ‘make more’: 1938’s Topper Takes a Trip and 1941’s Topper Returns, very weak-kneed inclusions into this franchise. In the first, Cosmo and Clara decide to take a vacation, one repeatedly intruded upon by Marion’s ghost. In the latter, only Young returned, co-starring this time with Joan Blondell doing thirty-minutes of ‘Blithe Spirit’ as a slain woman in desperate need of Cosmo’s help to solve the crime of her own murder.  In 1953, Topper was resurrected once more – this time as a television show running for two seasons, starring Leo G. Carroll, Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys. The movie and its spin-offs were then lain dormant until 1973 when yet another television pilot was attempted, starring Roddy McDowall, Stefanie Powers and John Fink. No such spark of magic was rekindled. In 1979, Topper was remade yet again for TV, this time starring Kate Jackson, Jack Warden and Andrew Stevens. One year later, Monty Python’s Eric Idle tried his hand at ‘Nearly Departed’, a short-lived American knock-off based on the same premise. The original 1938 classic holds another dubious distinction: the first B&W classic to suffer the indignation of colorization for its home video incarnation in 1985.
Since then, Topper has looked pretty darn awful on various home video formats. I have been unable to track down the reasons Roach’s classy comedy, whose rights were bought outright from him by MGM in 1941, should have long since fallen into public domain, allowing virtually every third-party distributor their crack at a home video release when actually Warner Home Video, the present-day custodians of the ole Metro library should have rescued Topper from oblivion with a stellar DVD and, by now, Blu-ray release long ago. In lieu of such wishful thinking, we get VCI Home Video’s 1080p remastering efforts; and, while not quite the travesty others have been referring to, it is very far from perfect and yet another lost opportunity for Topper to emerge on home video in a quality befitting its stellar performances and direction. VCI’s disc is a huge disappointment.
For starters, someone at the company needs to rethink the inarticulate marketing disclaimer that precedes a good deal of its releases: “This disc has been restored to its present condition”…whatever that means! There is much to suggest someone has been tinkering at the controls here. But the results are thoroughly lacking. The image has been over-processed. What we have here is an artificially waxen, and even more artificially sharpened, at times grotesquely digitized video presentation that does not look anything like it once derived from ‘film-based’ content. Artifacting, edge enhancement, tiling and film grain registering as grit all meet the eye. At times, one can almost excuse the bulk of these shortcomings as they are intermittently amplified, then calmed throughout this presentation. But on the whole, Topper looks about as ugly and unappealing as Blu-rays can when the proper attention to detail and quality control are not diligently applied. The audio is mono and adequate, though again, without being exemplary in any way. No extras either, save a badly worn theatrical trailer. I really was looking forward to Topper on Blu-ray. The results, while head and shoulders above all those aforementioned crummy ‘standard def’ releases, are nowhere near the art of film preservation being celebrated elsewhere in the industry today. This disc is a complete fail in my opinion. Now, can someone at Warner Home Video please look into reclaiming the rights to this lost classic – ditto for Meet John Doe, and, Till the Clouds Roll By. Bottom line: pass and be glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Irving Berlin's HOLIDAY INN: 75th Anniversary: Blu-ray re-issue (Paramount 1942) Universal Home Video

Everyone is fond of quoting composer, Jerome Kern’s assessment of his contemporary, Irving Berlin. When asked by a reporter to quantify Berlin’s place in American music, Kern astutely replied, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music…he is American music.” Indeed, for several generations yet to follow, Berlin’s pop tunes would continue to resonate with an unbridled sentiment and patriotism few – if any – of his ilk or generation, toiling in the mid-20th century possessed. Berlin’s innate love of America is distinctively celebrated in his vast canon of compositions; most ebulliently declared in the WWI stage extravaganza, ‘This is the Army’; later, resurrected as a WWII Technicolor movie musical in 1943. But Berlin’s success as a songwriter, producer of Broadway shows, and preeminent contributor to Hollywood’s golden age goes well beyond the myriad of musical treasures he left behind. These endure and continue to lull us into daydreams with the promise of an America that, at least for Berlin – was – arguably, for the rest of us – could be, and might become again; his triumph over impoverished beginnings inside New York’s tenement district (once described by noted author, Rudyard Kipling as more squalid than a brothel in Bombay), a lack of formal education, and no formal training as either a composer or musician, represent nothing less than the indomitable spirit of Berlin’s nationality and generation, again, inspiringly praised by Kipling for its will “to survive and thrive against all odds and flags.”
While working in a seedy saloon, Berlin began to recognize the type of songs that had vast appeal for the audience, “expressing simple sentiments.” And Berlin, a very sentimental fellow, seemed uniquely positioned and qualified to plumb this archetype for all its untapped worth.  Never learning to play in more than one key, from 1921 onward, Berlin utilized two special pianos made by the Weser Brothers to arrange all his compositions. Effectively, it was a register most anyone – from novice to professional alike – could sing and make sound competent to downright pleasing. After a few attempts at being clever, Berlin committed himself to writing ‘plain’ lyrics for the rest of his career; distinctly rhyming in the American vernacular: uncomplicated, yet direct in expressing basic human sentiments. Soon his tunes were not only hit parade favorites, but gracing big Broadway extravaganzas like The Ziegfeld Follies.  By 1930, Hollywood could no longer resist Berlin’s infectious rhythms and he came to town to write tunes expressly for the movies.  Narrowly a decade later, he would pen what has since become the most standardized and time-honored smash hit of his legendary career. The song, ‘White Christmas’ is so straightforwardly written and palpably understood at a glance, it scarcely seems to have strained Berlin’s talents. Indeed, Berlin thought less of it than another ballad, written in tandem ‘Be Careful, It’s My Heart’ – which he considered more melodious and ‘catchy’ by far.
With everything written about the immortal holiday tune, ‘White Christmas’, many forget this million-copy seller by 1954 was actually composed for Holiday Inn (1942), a picture project initially proposed by Berlin, and later, directed with an immaculately light touch by Mark Sandrich. The premise for the movie is, at once, elementary yet enticing; two sometimes friendly song and dance men part company over a spoiled romance (one, has stolen the other’s girl). The jilted lover’s decision to break up the act and establish a Connecticut retreat open holidays only is met with quaint indifference. But fate intervenes in the stolen love affair; the fickle girl running off with another man, leaving the second forlorn suitor to visit his old partner’s bucolic sanctuary for a little sound advice, only to instantly fall in love with his new girlfriend instead. Berlin’s brainchild would go on to become a runaway smash; its influence inspiring a hotel franchise named in its honor. Yet, Holiday Inn’s otherwise remarkable pedigree was begun with the simplest of stories, fleshed out by screenwriter, Claude Binyon. To this scant, but very high concept, Berlin contributed one of his best loved and most memorable scores, drawing on an already well-established back-catalog stretching all the way to hits penned in the early teens and twenties. In should be noted, Irving Berlin was a master at marketing himself. Indeed, the forties represent a cornucopia of regurgitated pop tunes culled from the Berlin catalog – songs heard over and over again in movie musicals made at MGM, Fox, Warner Bros. and Paramount. But, for this movie, Berlin also agreed to contribute several new songs.
Of this new material, the composer had pinned his hopes for a smash single: 'Be Careful It's My Heart' - a melodious ballad written for the Valentine's Day sequence and meant to cement the romantic rivalry between these two old friends vying for the affections of the same girl. In fact, ‘Be Careful It’s My Heart’ is given one of the most lavish treatment in Holiday Inn, staged for maximum effect as Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds whirl about the dance floor to Bing Crosby’s lyrical serenade, overseen by cameos and cupids draped in elegant silk bunting, and, art deco hearts back lit as a quiet snowfall dreamily sifts from the heavens in the background. As fate would have it, it was Berlin’s ‘other ditty’, less punctuated by such obvious theatrics and more simply staged, that would go on to capture the public's fascination almost instantly.  Berlin had written a verse preceding the chorus of ‘White Christmas’ - firmly establishing the locale as Los Angeles - not Connecticut, and speaking to the anomaly of celebrating Christmas without the luxury of snow. Indeed, Berlin wrote this perennial treasure while lounging poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel, feverishly toiling on the score so he could rejoin his family back east in New York. His longing to go home inspired Berlin to uncharacteristic poignancy. Like all of his best-loved melodies, the strength of sentiment in ‘White Christmas’ derives from an almost transparent yearning for the comforts of kith and kin; Berlin’s homesickness miraculously re-channeled into a universally experienced pang of separation between loved ones during WWII, though particularly amplified around the pending holidays. With its opening verse removed - a suggestion reportedly made to Berlin by Fred Astaire – White Christmas took on more prescient meaning in Holiday Inn; wholeheartedly embraced by G.I.’s fighting overseas, and, their mothers, wives, sweethearts and children left behind in America. And with Bing Crosby seated at the piano, periodically accompanied by Marjorie Reynolds – the pair cozily backlit by a roaring Connecticut fireplace on a frosty winter’s eve – White Christmas perfectly embodies the sort of sad, yet hopeful resolve of an America at war.
Mark Sandrich, who had cut his teeth on a series of musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at RKO made the move to Paramount expressly for Holiday Inn. A skilled technician with an eye like a camera, Sandrich understood movie musicals as a very intimate art form unlike any other. Viewing Holiday Inn today, one can see just how far the Hollywood musical had matured by 1942. The elephantiasis of 30’s musicals is gone, largely due to wartime rationing that prevented such extravagances, but also, replaced by a more centrally focused screen intimacy dedicated to individual performance, something Astaire had almost solely championed throughout the 1930’s, but was only partially successful in achieving in his RKO tenure with Ginger Rogers. In retrospect, it is not at all surprising the only time Holiday Inn opens its creative floodgates for a true spectacle is during its’ 4th of July sequence – Berlin’s favorite holiday, furnished with two ditties sung by Crosby (Let’s Say It With Firecrackers and The Song of Freedom), capped off by an electrifying dance solo for Astaire, tripping the light fantastic amid a myriad of pyrotechnic explosions triggered beneath the floor. For this flag-waving fête, the Russian-born Berlin, having adopted America for his own as one of her most ardent and sincere patriots, delivers a one/two musical knockout punch of flag-waving/star-spangled brilliance; Astaire’s solo in particular, an incredible display of footwork and special effects; Astaire, quite unable to control his exuberance at its finish as the floor around him ignites in a spectacular array of sparks and puffed smoke.
One of Holiday Inn’s true joys is undeniably its score. Another is its sublime teaming of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire as this pair of unapologetic hams. By 1942, each star was at the top of his game; Crosby, as Paramount’s undisputed big box office moneymaker and an enduring presence, well on his way to becoming a legendary personage on the radio; and Astaire, having assuaged the initial assessment made by an idiotic RKO talent scout, who suggested in 1932, “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little,” to become one of the most highly regarded performers working in Hollywood musicals. Indeed, both Berlin and George Gershwin regarded Astaire as the preeminent purveyor of their song catalog. Modest to a fault, though equally a perfectionist when it came to his dancing, Astaire remained humble and, arguably, above all the sycophantism that would continue to dog his career. In Holiday Inn, Crosby and Astaire are fair-weather friends: song and dance men, Jim Hardy and Ted Hanover respectively. The team headline an act inside one of Manhattan’s more fashionable nightclubs with their female partner, Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) who has recently become engaged to Jim. One problem: Lila does not love Jim and begins to realize it after he has already bought a Connecticut farm for them to retire on after the wedding. In the meantime, Ted has seduced Jim’s girl with promises of an exciting life and bigger, brighter career. Appealing to her greed, “think of diamonds, rubies, sable coats” Ted tells Lila she owes the world her talent “…the two of us, dedicating our lives to making people happy with our feet.”
Resigned to his simpler pleasures Jim now realizes Lila wants absolutely no part, he still quits the act and moves to his farm where he fast discovers greener pasture require a lot of grueling dedication. Suffering a temporary mental breakdown after a year of trying to make a go of his ‘quiet life’, Jim rebounds with an idea, so simple it cannot miss. He will turn his rustic home into a swank out of town nightclub, open holidays only. The concept marginally appeals to Ted, whose relationship with Lila has been on the fritz in the interim. Enter Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds); a girl working nights at a flower shop, but who really wants the opportunity to sing and dance. After being given the polite brush off by Ted’s oily agent, Danny Reed (Walter Abel) Linda becomes ‘queen of Holiday Inn’ and Jim’s new romantic love interest. Unfortunately, Lila has left Ted for a Texas millionaire. Having consumed scotch and soda (a bottle of each) to drown his sorrows, Ted arrives at the inn on New Year’s Eve, decidedly snookered. He performs a drunken dance routine with Linda before passing out. Unable to recall what Linda looked like, Ted informs Danny he is resigned to return to the inn for each subsequent holiday - convinced his future career and romantic prospects are tied to this mystery girl. Of course, neither Ted nor Danny has any idea Linda is actually working at the inn. But Jim is determined not to let history repeat itself. Besides, he is sincerely in love with Linda. So, for Lincoln's birthday Jim forces Linda to perform their routine in blackface. The ruse is successful. But when Ted and Danny arrive early for Valentine's Day they discover Jim serenading Linda with an engagement present: 'Be Careful It's My Heart'. Ted hijacks the orchestral portion of Jim's song to do a graceful pas deux, declaring at the end of the number he has decided to work each subsequent show at the inn to remain closer to his 'old' friend.
All does not run according to plan however, as Jim - no fool and no stranger to Ted’s wily seductions, proposes to sabotage Ted and Linda’s number for Washington's Birthday, interpolating jazzy riffs with graceful waltz strains, leaving the two perplexedly frazzled on the dance floor. Afterward Linda tells Ted she is engaged to Jim. Her declaration hardly sways him from his deliberate plotting to break them apart. Thus, for the 4th of July, Jim launches into his own bit of deception and damage control to stave off the inevitable; orchestrating a surprise reunion for Ted with Lila. He also pays his hired man, Gus (Irving Bacon) to fake car failure after picking Linda up at the train station, thus preventing her from working at the inn, but also sabotaging a rare opportunity to secretly audition for a pair of eager beaver Hollywood agents Danny has smuggled in for the occasion. Too late, Linda learns of Jim's deception. Nevertheless, she also manages to sabotage Lila's arrival at the inn, using Jim’s underhanded tactics to her own advantage. The absence of both women from the planned festivities forces Ted to perform a solo dance to ‘Let’s Say It With Firecrackers’; an explosive (both literally and figuratively) routine to bring down the house.
And although the Hollywood agents are mildly impressed by Ted’s solo, they have unexpectedly fallen madly in love with the concept of doing a movie based on 'Holiday Inn'. Jim reluctantly sells the idea to the studio, with Ted and Linda as part of its package deal. The couple is promptly whisked away to the magical mecca of filmdom where they embark on a whirlwind career and romance closely followed in the movie mags by Jim who remains back in Connecticut. During this brief interlude, Ted and Linda become engaged and Jim - having completed the final song for his score – sulks at the inn on Thanksgiving. Jim is tended by his devoted housekeeper, Mamie (Louise Beavers) who encourages him to stand up for himself and re-claim Linda's heart. Arriving in Hollywood on the eve Ted and Linda are bound for their quickie nuptials in Yuma, Jim sneaks onto the set - an exact replica of his inn - to quietly observe as a very unhappy Linda reprises 'White Christmas' for the camera; her feelings for Jim rekindled. Jim begins to accompany her in the song, thus ruining the take. But Linda suddenly realizes what a mistake it would be to marry Ted. She really does love Jim. We return to the ‘real’ inn for New Year’s Eve; Ted, reunited with Lila, whom he devilishly refers to as “Miss Hit and Run”.
A lot of Holiday Inn’s enduring appeal must go to Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier’s alluring set design. The inn is so rustically cozy it easily becomes a major character in the picture - almost by accident - or as Jim puts it "A simple little layout where we could do the best with the work we know without having any delusions of grandeur." From the moment we arrive at this fabled Connecticut oasis, actually constructed inside one of Paramount’s cavernous sound stages, it immediately fulfills virtually every expectation as a fantasy destination for pure musical escapism; a place most anyone would want to either own or at least visit for a weekend respite from the cares of the world; the infectiousness of its faux reality, perfectly realized and embraced by the audience. Thus, even when the film’s plot exposes the inn as nothing more than a three-dimensional plywood cutout, built on a sound stage with artificial gypsum particles cascading from the cleverly engineered ‘snow machines’; its fakery seems inconceivable.
As a matter of record, Holiday Inn contains two interesting anomalies; the first, regrettably not having weathered with changing times and tastes. ‘Blackface’ has become a bone of contention in more recent times. Viewed from our current cultural vantage, ‘blackface’ is widely regarded as racist; the homage to President Lincoln in Holiday Inn marred by the sight of Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds doused in greasepaint and delivering decidedly overblown non-Caucasian caricatures. Yet, it is important to place 'blackface' into its proper context; considered a legitimate art form from roughly 1830 to 1945, though perpetuating the stereotype of the simple-minded, happy-go-lucky 'darky’. ‘Blackface’ remained a main staple of travelling minstrel shows and the Vaudeville circuit well into the 1920’s. As a natural extension of its popularity on stage, movie musicals from the early to mid-1930's embraced ‘blackface’ routines as part of their repertoire, with Holiday Inn being one of the last examples documented on film. Aside: as an interesting footnote: Joan Crawford would do a ‘brown-face’ routine in blazing Technicolor for her MGM comeback, Torch Song (1953); a movie musical well beyond the ‘acceptable’ period and one in which Crawford’s makeup is more garish and frightful than entertaining or even mildly amusing.  At the time of Holiday Inn’s premiere no one thought any better or worse of its ‘Abraham’ number. But if Holiday Inn does have a flaw, it remains this moment. If not acceptable - then at least, it remains illustrative of a well-documented period in musical theater and film history; also, just how far race relations in the United States have evolved since.
The second anomaly in Holiday Inn offers no offense, though it remains no less of an oddity; having to do with then President Franklin Roosevelt's desire to expand the Christmas shopping season by petitioning Congress to bump the Thanksgiving holiday back by a week. Each segment of Holiday Inn begins with a stylized calendar and the holiday about to be celebrated clearly marked.  The November Thanksgiving calendar features a very confused turkey, frustratingly left to wander back and forth between two dates proposed for the 'new' Thanksgiving. Today, it is often the audience, more than the turkey, that is perplexed by this reference. In the end, Roosevelt lost his bid and American Thanksgiving's permanent date stayed Nov. 26th. Holiday Inn was an enormous critical and financial success when it premiered. Today, it endures as a cherished Christmas classic, perennially resurrected on TV over a hot cup of cocoa and as lovingly embraced family time around an open hearth. Astaire and Crosby are so perfect together – so in sync and comfortable with each other’s clever hamming – one can easily buy their act as fair-weather friends feuding over the same women. And both stars have the added cache of being legends in their own time; easily recognizable at a glance. The iconography of Astaire and Crosby’s star power is arguably what sold the show then and continues to keep its’ spirit bright today; neither playing to character, per say, but rather doing variations on themselves or, at the very least, the ensconced public persona hand-crafted for each of them by clever studio PR.
The women in Holiday Inn are less definable, particularly Virginia Dale’s greedy gold digger, who all but vanishes after contributing two mediocre duets with Astaire on the dance floor. Marjorie Reynolds is more well-defined; a very pretty face, her vocals dubbed, her cherub-cheeked discipline genuine. She is no match for the eloquent Ginger, Astaire’s most fondly recalled dance partner, though she nevertheless moves with a terpsichorean finesse complimentary to Astaire’s relaxed grace.  In retrospect, Holiday Inn is not so much an Astaire musical, or a Crosby one, as it remains thoroughly a Berlin spectacular. Indeed, due to a clause in his contract, the film’s full title is ‘Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn’; creating no confusion as to the real star of our show. And despite only ever appearing before the cameras once (warbling with frail affectation ‘Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning’ in Warner Bros. This is The Army) Berlin had both a name and a following then, arguably, as big as either Astaire or Crosby. Regardless, the picture is a sheer joy to revisit over and over again. Because it runs the gamut of holidays, it is even possible to enjoy Holiday Inn as a mid-summer programmer, though undeniably, most will resurrect it as a perennial musical treasure to highlight the Christmas season and likely to remain so for many a good year yet to come.
Universal Home Video’s re-issue of Holiday Inn on Blu-ray sports the same ‘special edition’ 1080p transfer. We get both the original B&W and colorized editions of the movie. For the purposes of this review, only the B&W will be critiqued. As a film purist, I maintain the opinion colorization has NO place in the marketing of classic movies. Like the misguided attempt to ‘pan and scan’ movies shot in Cinemascope, colorization is an abomination of the film maker’s original intent – period! Ah, but there is very good news for fans of this perennial classic. The B&W visuals tighten up considerably. Contrast is solid and the image is remarkably free of age-related damage. Better still, film grain at last looks indigenous to its source. Bottom line: a great effort worthy of the film. Interesting, the B&W image looks just a tad horizontally stretched compared to the colorized version; faces appearing ever so slightly plumper in B&W than in color. It’s a negligible distinction, but worth noting. The audio remains in DTS mono.
Universal has fatted the calf here with an extra disc of the Broadway reincarnation of Holiday Inn that premiered in 2014. The live theater version jettisons a few songs from the movie, grabbing a handful elsewhere from the Berlin catalog (including showstoppers like ‘Shakin’ the Blues Away’, 'Heat Wave', 'It's A Lovely Day Today' and ‘Blue Skies’) and jam-packs virtually every second of screen time with the sort of garish razz-a-matazz that could only work on a stage. Viewing Holiday Inn – the ‘new’ Irving Berlin show is a little disheartening. For all its attributes and efforts poured into it, especially by cast members Bryce Pinkham (as Jim) and Lora Lee Gayer (Linda), the production lacks that all-important intimacy one generally associates with the movie version. For the rest, Universal has merely ported over all the extras from their previously issued ‘Collector’s Edition’ DVD. These include an audio commentary by Ken Burnes with pre-recorded excerpts from Crosby and Astaire reminiscing about their participation on the film. We also get two fairly dull featurettes: ‘A Couple of Song and Dance Men’ and ‘All Singing, All Dancing Before and After’
The first is a poorly edited and contrived bit of scripted nonsense featuring Ava Astaire (Fred’s daughter) and Burnes waxing about information readily expressed in the audio commentary. The second makes short shrift of the history of the Hollywood musical with still images and bootlegged clips from several films Universal does not own the rights to (most notably, ‘Top Hat’). It would have meant so much more if Universal had actually taken the time to give us a ‘making of’ documentary with archival footage. Bottom line: it is impossible to deny Berlin his infectious score or Astaire and Crosby’s professionalism as perfection itself. Holiday Inn on Blu-ray comes very highly recommended. It captured my heart…singing.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, October 28, 2017

APOLLO 13: 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray (Universal, 1995) Universal Home Video

Few endeavors define American exceptionalism as succinctly as the space race. Imbued by President John F. Kennedy’s optimistic challenge to the Soviet Union, not only to explore, but conquer the farthest reaches of our solar system; the commitment only solidified with the untimely assassination in 1963 of its most ardent proponent, and framed by one of the nation’s most turbulent decades of socio-political upheaval; the prospect of putting a man on the moon seemingly the sci-fi stuff of Carl Sagan and Stanley Kubrick; by 1969, America had beat out the competition, landing Apollo 11 on the moon. In that momentous instance of ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ America created the template for standardized exploration of outer space; and this, in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds and a hellish ‘test flight’ command module gone horribly wrong, incinerating Apollo I astronauts, Virgil I. ‘Gus’ Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee.
Today, we have mostly mislaid our excitement for interplanetary exploration; regrettably, also our blind admiration for this particular brand of gutsy human resolve – nee, heroism – required to assail the future into the present: mankind’s meager grasp at the infinite. With NASA’s shuttle program in mothballs and America’s dedication to the stars presumably an ambition from our ‘quaintly’ modern past, the prospect of telling legitimate stories on film about those heady early years of gestation veer between mildly ironic and grotesquely archaic.  How does one turn back the clock?  Perhaps, by illustrating the point; that despite all cinematic evidence to the contrary and Hollywood’s verve to homogenize this supremely ‘human’ endeavor and accomplishment as mere dramatic fantasias (everything from Star Wars, 1977 to Interstellar 2014) there is, decidedly, nothing ‘routine’ about catapulting into the farthest regions of the galaxy. Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995) attains a level of legitimacy primarily because it eschews the histrionics of cheaply sentimental melodrama, despite its bombastic James Horner score (abounding in orchestral swells of flag-waving patriotism); also, because it extol the virtues rather than the vices of an aborted lunar mission; an odyssey that became an ordeal so easily misconstrued as failure, yet, ultimately one of the most triumphant moments in American ingenuity.
In hindsight, Apollo 13 is so clearly infused with a directorial passion for those early years. Ron Howard’s fortitude was always, not simply to recreate and/or document this grand misshapen experiment, but also will into existence a living testament of that epoch in space exploration, typifying an inimitable spirit of uniquely American blind-eyed courageousness that brought forth victory from the chaos. Initially inspired by ‘Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13’, a chronicle co-authored by astronaut, Jim Lovell and award-winning Time Magazine writer, Jeffrey Kluger; Howard’s original concept, and indeed, that of his screenwriter, William Broyles, had been to tell the story of this fateful mission exclusively from the perspective of the three men who experienced it firsthand. A fact-finding visit to Lovell’s home, accompanied by actor, Tom Hanks, would expand on this premise; Howard and Hanks gaining new insight from Jim wife, Marilyn; Howard electing in the final draft to tell three connecting stories as one: the human tragedy unfolding in space, the familial saga rocking the Lovell home, and the race-against-time facing mission control to devise a safe return for their beleaguered aeronautic crew. Along the way, screenwriter, Al Reinert was brought in to refine the particulars. From the outset, Howard had sought Tom Hanks as his ‘star’ – an unlikely choice given Hanks’ early career had consisted of small screen light fluff, fantastic and goofy romantic comedies. Indeed, Lovell had expressed casual interests to be immortalized by the likes of Kevin Costner instead whom he felt ‘looked’ more the part. In retrospect, however, Hanks proved the right choice; capable of carrying off the mission with the appropriate merits – expressing nervous intrepidness in the face of staggering odds.
Howard handpicked the rest of his cast from a stellar assemblage of formidable stars: Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon as Lovell’s mission-bound compatriots, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert respectively; Gary Sinise as the aborted third member of Apollo 13’s crew, Ken Mattingly - denied his opportunity to partake after being exposed to the measles virus; and Ed Harris, as Gene Kranz, NASA’s stalwart flight director who, when the chips were down, offered his own peerless brand of stern valor, declaring “America has never lost a man in space and it sure as hell isn’t going to on my watch. Failure is not an option.”  With so much butch testosterone on tap, Ron Howard’s movie easily could have degenerated into yet another tired tale of America’s yahoo glory days as space cowboys. And yet, in hindsight, the movie’s linchpin is Kathleen Quinlan’s Marilyn Lovell; the actress highly regarded by the lady who lived through the experience; Quinlan anchoring the drama to a sort of intimate all-American family crisis and immediacy, humanizing the sense of interstellar peril as a wife and mother, powerless to reach out to her husband in his hour of need, yet ever-present and determined to see the fate of their mission through – whatever the outcome.
Apollo 13 is immeasurably fortunate to have attained the blessings of Jim and Marilyn Lovell; the couple in awe of Ron Howard’s attention to detail, right down to building an exact replica of Mission Control on the Universal back lot; also, electing to shoot a considerable amount of the interior ‘weightless scenes’ inside a KC-135 ‘reduced gravity’ military aircraft. In all, director, stars and cinematographer, Dean Cundey, would spend a staggering one hundred hours aboard this plane, the actual pilot performing perilous parabola dives, in order to simulate weightlessness while shooting progressed inside the aircraft’s cavernous cargo hold, redressed to resemble the inner cabin of Apollo 13’s Saturn V rocket. Later, close-ups would be photographed back at Universal, the actors slightly bobbing and weaving within frame to seamlessly maintain the illusion of zero gravity under less fanciful conditions. Even as verisimilitude proved the order of the day, early on Ron Howard made the executive decision not to use any of NASA’s stock footage of the actual blast off; electing to recreate this moment digitally, using models, early CGI effects and composited matte process photography instead. While the sequence ultimately remains one of the movie’s most iconic and gripping, placing the omnipotent camera at impossible angles to capture the sheer scope of the launch, Howard was also quick to embrace a selection of iconic images originally captured photographically by NASA for posterity, replicating these digitally and interpolating them with his re-envisioned bits. Evidently, the CGI was convincing enough to fool even mission control experts hired as consultants on the picture; Howard asked about the ‘vault footage’, later to confess not a single shot had come from NASA’s archives.
NASA’s complicity in the making of Apollo 13 extended to a very gracious offer for Ron Howard to use Mission Control Center, housed on the 2nd and 3rd floors of Building 30 at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. Instead, Howard elected to build his own exact replica from scratch, affording him greater latitude with camera angles, employing a mechanically operated boom to maneuver in and out of the complex ‘crowd’ shots.  However, Howard took advantage of at least one luxury offered by the military: as the USS Iwo Jima had been scrapped some years before, he employed her sister ship, the USS New Orleans, as the recovery vessel for the splash-landed module. Meanwhile, spacecraft interiors were constructed to exacting specifications by the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center’s Space Works, who had been integral in the restoration of the real Apollo 13’s Command Module. Two individual lunar modules and two command modules were re-built for the movie; each, an exact replica. Co-star, Kevin Bacon would later admit the claustrophobic atmosphere on board, compounded by being physically restrained in air-tight suits and helmets, left him with a queasy sense of unease, mastered only after some personal decompression of his anxieties. It also gave the actor newfound respect for the men who had actually undergone this trial by fire.
Apollo 13 opens with a jubilant aura of celebration as Apollo 11’s lunar landing takes place on July 20, 1969; Ron Howard incorporating a new voice over narration from no less a cultural mandarin than former CBS anchor, Walter Cronkite to summarize the events leading up to this defining moment in American history; a much younger Cronkite, unable to contain his ebullience glimpsed in stock footage heralding Neil Armstrong’s historic imprint on the face of the moon. At the Lovell home, a house party is in full swing. There is, to be sure, reason for optimism. Jim Lovell has been slated for a pending mission to the moon, along with cohorts, Fred Haise and Ken Mattingly. These are heady times, capturing the essence of J.F.K.’s promise to the nation, perhaps, almost lost after Kennedy’s assassination, though now having surpassed even his aspirations. After the party, a slightly inebriated Lovell informs his wife, Marilyn of his unquenchable desire to walk on the moon’s surface. The wait will not be quite so long. For on October 30, 1969, Lovell is quietly informed by his superior, Deke Slayton (Chris Ellis) their mission has been bumped up.
Marilyn is mildly superstitious. It is, after all, Apollo ‘13’ – the historic ‘unluckiness’ of that digit in the back of her mind; an anxiety compounded when her wedding ring slips off in the shower and is lost down the drain; a true incident that both the real Marilyn Lovell and her surrogate in the film prophetically regard as a very bad omen. Indeed, as the days dwindle down to the launch, fate seems to be having its way; Ken Mattingly is denied permission to partake after it is revealed he was inadvertently exposed to the measles. It is a bitter pill to swallow. His replacement, Jack Swigert, lacks Mattingly’s hours in the training module cockpit; a deficit not lost on Lovell, who begrudgingly is forced by Slayton to accept the fact, Ken will not be a part of their mission. Marilyn’s anxieties manifest themselves in a nightmare. Initially, she had elected not to be present for the blast off. But now, she hurries to her husband’s side at Cape Kennedy in a show of support the night before the fateful launch.
On April 15, 1970, Apollo 13 heads for the stars. However, as it climbs toward the outer stratosphere one of its engines prematurely cuts out. Nevertheless, the rocket reaches its orbital objective, charting its third trajectory toward the moon. All systems are go, the crew settling in for an unremarkable three day journey, broadcasting good wishes and images from space, presumably to be broadcast on national television. Lovell and his crew are unaware none of their transmissions are actually being broadcast to the world; NASA publicity man, Henry Hunt (Xander Berkeley) explaining to Marilyn the fickle and blasé nature of network programming. Presumably, the public’s appetite for outer space has cooled to the point where everyone considers such marvels of man-made engineering nothing more than routine.  All evidence to the contrary, as Swigert, ordered by Mission Control to stir Apollo 13’s oxygen tanks as part of their ‘housekeeping’ procedures, inadvertently causes one of the tanks to rupture, creating massive damage. ‘Houston…we have a problem!’
Lovell takes notice; Apollo 13 is venting their oxygen supply into outer space. Mission Control aborts the moon landing, ordering the crew to power up their ‘escape craft’ - the Aquarius - for the return home. At Mission Control, Flight Director Gene Kranz aggressively rallies his team of engineers and scientists to come up with a plan. ‘Failure is not an option!’ Controller, John Aaron (Loren Dean) makes a fortuitous decision to bring Mattingly into the process. After all, no one has spent more hours prepping for this mission; such dedication and attention to detail could – and will – prove invaluable in helping to bring everyone home safely. In space, Lovell quietly laments his lost chance to touch the surface of the moon, his regrets turning to genuine concern as Aquarius is running on auxiliary power; the crew subjected to the extreme cold of space. Swigert suspects Mission Control is withholding the cruel fact they are doomed to perish. Animosity mounts as Haise blames Swigert’s inexperience for the incident. But Lovell quashes their heated debate. Now is not the time to be pulled apart but to stand united and tall in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity.
As carbon dioxide levels rise to near lethal levels, NASA’s engineering team devises a way to adapt the command module's square filters in the lunar module's round receptacles. As Aquarius’s guidance systems are shut down, Lovell does some quick calculations, making a difficult but vital alteration to their flight plan. It will prove their salvation, manually igniting the lunar module’s engines. Mattingly and Aaron transmit their solution to the problems facing Apollo 13’s crew. Swigert transfers Aquarius’ auxiliary power to the command module; the service module jettisoned to reveal the true extent of the damage. Will Apollo 13 be able to reenter the earth’s atmosphere without bursting into flames? Debatable. Momentarily losing radio contact, everyone at Mission Control holds their breath; Marilyn nervously observing from the visitor’s gallery as tensions in the command center mount with each excruciating second of silence; the vacuum broken when Lovell is heard over the airwaves, transmitting their successful splash down in the Pacific Ocean; the craft retrieved by the USS Iwo Jima.  While Lovell and his team are given their justly due hero’s welcome, Walter Cronkite narrates the events that would follow, including an investigation into the explosion, and, a brief summary of each man’s subsequent career, concluding with Lovell’s careworn, yet clear-eyed and, as yet unfulfilled prospects for man’s return to the moon.
As Gene Roddenberry so eloquently put it, space - ‘final frontier’Apollo 13 resonates as a lovingly assembled snapshot of Americana, torn from a particularly turbulent decade buffeted by socio/political upheavals; a sort of ‘cap’ on President Kennedy’s optimistic promise to explore the uncharted reaches of the baffling infinite. Of course, the space program would continue for some years afterwards; the shuttle program, with its myriad of triumphs and two unexpected disasters – Challenger (1981) and Columbia (2003) – officially mothballing NASA’s plans for future manned space exploration. Director, Ron Howard has quite obviously invested himself – body, soul and creative energies in totem – to will Apollo 13’s authenticity into existence. While the NASA footage of the actual incident was an obvious ‘starting point’ for his research, Howard’s movie, with its expertly advised and multifaceted viewpoints, manages to fill in the gaps, effectively blurring the lines between fact and fiction.
For some time now our pop culture and American cinema particularly have been the leading arbitrators of a sort of false-front running a parallel course with history to fulfill its requirements for artistic license, dramatic arcs and personal/political agendas; reality left far, far behind in favor of a good yarn. Those who regard movies as their window onto the world – both past and present – are fed a steady diet of pure pulp masquerading as fact. The saga of Apollo 13 requires no such embellishments and, as such, is afforded very little by Ron Howard. He hasn’t made a documentary, per say, so much as a living document of the events as they actually occurred; relying on Broyles and Reinhert’s expertly written screenplay – with just enough technical jargon to excite the space aficionado, though never bore the popcorn-munching novice – and, the camaraderie of Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton to carry the load; also Gary Sinise and Kathleen Quinlan’s separate narrative threads, capably intertwined with the unraveling chronicle in space. It’s a winning combination with never a false chord struck for the purposes of dramatic irony, tension, or forced pathos. The situations are real and the cast plays them ‘straight’, or rather, right down the middle. Indeed, after pre-screening Apollo 13 for the men and women who had lived through its ordeal, Ron Howard was told by Gene Kranz that in years yet to follow, whenever someone sought to research this particular era in space exploration they could readily turn to Apollo 13 with confidence, knowing the truth had been nobly illustrated: very high praise, indeed.
Shot on film, Apollo 13 definitely benefits from the upgrade to Ultra Hi-def 4K Blu-ray. For its 20th anniversary, Universal Home Video (UHV) gave us a superb 1080p Blu-ray (included in this packaging as well). The 4K incarnation predictably advances in image and audio quality, as it should. UHV’s approach to 4K releases has been refreshingly invested when directly compared to the rather lackluster way they have all but thrown regular Blu-ray under the proverbial bus with bare-bones and inconsistently remastering discs begrudgingly, and miserly parceled off, mostly through to third party distributors. Honestly, Death Becomes Her and Into The Night are pathetic efforts – if effort was ever considered, much less applied. But I digress. Apollo 13 on both UHD and 1080p Blu-ray looks fantastic.  Where the 4K bests its competition is, of course, in the refinements and minute details oft overlooked, but much reinvigorated as our appreciation for Dean Cundey’s cinematography: skin textures look uncannily lifelike. Overall definition advances. It’s a subtler upgrade, but it’s there.  The HDR color grading has accentuated Cundey’s use of ambient lighting; also, the period tones – oranges and greens - with flesh advancing towards a rosier (natural) pink, the stark black infinity of space offering exceptional contrast and depth. The DTS:X audio is a minor revelation too.
Aside: a word to those as yet unfamiliar with DTS:X audio. It’s basically Dolby Atmos’ competition. Who will win this latest format war is anybody’s guess. In format wars of yore it’s always been the consumer left confused and investing in equipment doomed to end up as a glorified door stop. Is DTS:X the next dinosaur? It has height channels - speakers projecting sound upwards. It’s all in service to object-based surround imaging. What? Okay, speakers – either mounted to the ceiling or bouncing sound off it to create a ‘sound bubble’ - that ‘all-encompassing’ listening experience. Unlike Atmos, DTS:X favors dedicated ceiling speakers for its atmospheric SFX. Because most aural experiences in the cinema are subject to something called the ‘X-curve’ movie soundtracks reproduced for the home theater experience must be re-engineered at considerable expense for their home video release. During Blu-ray’s infancy uncompressed soundtracks (PCM, or pulse-code modulation) became something of the standard in this ‘standard-less’ industry, later to be joined by Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD. Alas, more complex audio mixes increasingly were at the mercy of higher resolution mastered video - 3D, 4K and ‘deep color’ - gobbling up valuable disc space. DTS:X is a response, or rather, a return to uncompressed audio. Dolby, long the industry standard bearer may have its work cut out in this format war, as DTS claims it takes far less time and money to master a DTS:X home theater mix than Atmos.  But the best news here is whoever wins this tortoise vs. hare race consumers are no longer the losers as most any sound system today will decode both options. Yippee!
The 4K rendering of Apollo 13 does not include any of the bonus features that came with the Blu-ray. But the Blu-ray does come with this repackaged affair. So, yes - you still have all the extras as before. And Universal has jam-packed their 20th anniversary edition with an insightful roster of goodies, beginning with Apollo 13: Twenty Years Later: A Conversation with Director Ron Howard and Producer Brian Grazer. We also get all of the previously released junkets; comprehensive documentaries on the making of the film and the space program: Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13, and Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond: also, Lucky 13: The Astronauts’ Story, as well as two independently produced audio commentaries, one featuring Ron Howard, the other co-starring Jim and Marilyn Lovell. Bottom line: I cannot think of a better way to mark the promise and pride of the America that once was – and remains a grand experiment, than with a renewed screening of Apollo 13. The 4K disc is absolutely the best way to experience this modern-age classic. An unqualified must have/must see experience!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)