Wednesday, November 29, 2017

THE SISSI COLLECTION: Blu-ray (Herzog-Filmverleih/ Paramount 1954-62) Film Movement Classics

Elisabeth of Bavaria (born Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie in Munich on Christmas Eve, 1837) was a rapturous and fascinating historical figure with enough melodrama to fill twelve movies dedicated to her life story. Nicknamed ‘Sisi’, she was born to a royal house – Wittelsbach – and wed to Austria’s Emperor Franz Joseph I by the age of sixteen. As the less than congenial intrigues of court life at Habsburg deadened her resolve, not to mention her mounting and chronic fatigue over the furies with mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophie on the rearing of two daughters (one to die in infancy) and a male heir, Rudolf (mysteriously rumored, either to have been murdered or committed suicide along with his mistress, Mary Vetsera), Elisabeth would eventually distance herself from both her critics and husband – despite the latter’s blind devotion. For clarity and to regain her sanity, Sisi retreated to Hungary, a nation for whom her natural affinity helped foster the Austro-Hungarian alliance of 1867. Emotionally fragile yet incorrigible, Sisi would die at the hands of Italian anarchist, Luigi Lucheni, cutting short her 44 years reign as a beloved monarch.
Those who know something of the Empress’ rocky history will be able to recognize a good deal of truth in director, Ernst Marischka’s ‘SissiTrilogy. All three movies essentially promote our fairy tale fascination with royalty. Marischka’s approach has taken the facts of Sissi’s life story and polished them into a sweetly orchestrated fable, rather than creating fanciful substitutes through artistic license. This isn’t history, folks. That said, it’s also a lot of fun. Within these movies, we meet all of the principles who, in fact, played their part in the fateful and fitful life of our much-adored royal. Sissi is played by an utterly luminous 17 yr. old Romy Schneider with far more wherewithal and intuition than befits her youth. Sissi’s parents, the whimsical Duke Maximilian Joseph (a jovial Gustav Knuth) and more level-headed Princess Ludovika (Magda Schneider – yes, Schneider’s real-life mother) are ebullient figures. Emperor Franz Joseph (Karlheinz Böhm) – herein reconstituted as ‘the great love’ of Sissi’s life and his mother, the domineering and destructively influential Princess Sophie (a viperous Vilma Degischer) serve their purpose. For counterbalanced bouts into periodic comedic relief and grave tragedy we also get noted bon vivant, Joseph Meinrad as the bumbling, but ever-devoted Gendarmerie-Major Böckl, and, the stunningly beautiful Uta Franz as Sissi’s elder sister, Princess Helene (nicknamed Nené) whom Sophie has hoped to push into a marriage of state with her son.
As fortune would have it, the arrangement was not to be, much to Sophie’s dismay and Néné’s chagrin. Franz preferred ‘Sissi’. And so, the Emperor wed Sissi eight months later in Vienna on April 24, 1854. The union was hardly ‘joy galore’; Sissi’s introverted nature and rather informal education immediately clashing with the rigid protocols and strict etiquette ascribed her new station in life. Director, Marischka eschews the more unpleasant aspects of Sissi’s great unhappiness here; her weakened health and fits of anxiety. For the most part, Franz and Sissi enjoy an idyllic union, intermittently intruded upon by Sophie’s criticisms. In the movies, as in life, Sissi gives birth to a daughter, unceremoniously whisked away by her mother-in-law, who not only names the child after herself without the couple’s permission but, at least in the movies, attempts to prevent Sissi from partaking in any part of child-rearing. In life, this cruelty was repeated when Sissi gave birth to a second daughter, Gisela, one year later.
The movies make no mention of this child, nor of the constant badgering Sissi received from Sophie to ‘produce’ a male heir, nor even acknowledge she eventually did give birth to a son, Rudolph. Director Marischka also avoids delving into the psychological complexities that plagued the Empress in times of personal crisis; her slavish devotion to regimented exercise to maintain an obscenely petite sixteen-inch waist through the barbaric practice of ‘tight-lacing’. The real Empress had to be hand-sewn into her clothes. And while some may consider her as a style forerunner and progressive – preferring simple, form-fitted fashions to the then wildly popular cage-crinoline hoop skirts, bypassing waistbands, creases, and wrinkles to exaggerate her wasp waist, equipping every castle with a gymnasium, and, adding to her grueling personal hygiene, steam baths to shed a few more pounds and 2 hours plus daily to braid and arrange her hair, these aberrations are, in fact, far more closely aligned to the disease of anorexia, more readily understood today. Mercifully, we get none of this in the Sissi Trilogy. Marischka also omits the grave tragedy that befell Sissi; the death of 2 yr. old Sophie, likely due to typhus.
But the movies do touch upon the Empress’ political influence to have impacted her husband’s dealings with rival nations; a trip to Italy, as example, where she coaxed Franz to remain tolerant toward several political prisoners is chronicled in the last movie: Sissi: The Fateful Years of An Empress (1957), and, also Sissi’s ever-increasing dedication to an alliance of equals with Hungary’s Count Andrássy (Walter Reyer) – once a great skeptic of the Emperor’s influence. Sissi’s trip to Hungary in 1857 is well-documented in Marischka’s second movie, Sissi: The Young Empress (1955); her first acquaintance with the aristocrats, scorned by Sophie as ‘rebels’, leading to Austria’s recognition of the Hungarians as a proud, steadfast people. In this understanding, Franz was to realize his wife as a powerful tool for smoothing over hostile relations between Austria and Hungary while, in her own elevated appreciation of the people, the Hungarians simply adored Sissi in return.
Would the director have addressed any of the other fascinating realities of Sissi’s later years? We will never know, as actress Romy Schneider absolutely refused to take up the part again after the 1957 release. In hindsight, the actress’ decision probably had a lot more to do with concerns over being typecast than any lingering animosity split between Romy and Magda (who enjoyed renewed popularity and steady employment as Sissi’s fictional mama, not only in the Sissi movies, but also Romy’s breakout performance in Victoria in Dover (made in 1954, the year before her ‘official’ and star-making turn in the first, Sissi). Magda’s career had, in fact, been derailed in the post-war years by the family’s warm pre-war friendship with Adolf Hitler. Indeed, the Schneiders were frequent guests at the Führer’s holiday retreat, Obersalzberg. While the public ostensibly forgave Romy this ‘indiscretion’ (she was, after all a mere child then) the pall clung to Magda’s professional reputation. She was rumored to have been Hitler’s favorite actress. Romy, who embraced the reoccurring role as Sissi would shun it after 1957, and repeatedly deflate and poke fun at its lasting appeal with audiences thereafter. But her indelible creation of this enigmatic and forthrightly mature monarch radiates near mythical luminosity well beyond Schneider’s obvious beauty. In short, she personifies a lithe and engaging charm that is outwardly graceful and stimulating.  
Schneider, born in 1938 as Rosemarie Magdalena Albach in Vienna, heralded from a long lineage of actors. Yet, despite her heritage and inauspicious debut in 1953’s When the White Lilacs Bloom it was for her role as the young Queen Victoria that proved the ideal test run for the Sissi films. Marischka’s movies were not the first attempt to immortalize Empress Elizabeth on celluloid. Indeed, a 1921 silent production, Kaiserin Elisabeth von Österreich, was to kick off the Sissi craze, followed a decade later by Adolf Trotz’s Elisabeth of Austria (1931), and then, in America, The King Steps Out (1936), directed by Josef von Sternberg and loosely based on the operetta, ‘Sissi’, sandwiched between these two movies, and, dubiously credited with the misspelling of the Empress’ nickname. She had always been known as ‘Sisi’ – not ‘Sissi’. Nevertheless, this incorrect spelling since, has been trademarked and endures as the ‘official’ facsimile in lieu of the truth). During the post-war years French director, Jean Cocteau made his attempt at immortalizing Sissi on celluloid with 1948’s The Eagle with Two Heads (an adaptation of his own play, remade in 1981 by Michelangelo Antonioni as The Mystery of Oberwald. And while all of these incarnations have added something to the miraculous mixture of fact and fiction, Marischka’s Sissi Trilogy (Sissi 1955, Sissi: The Young Empress 1956, and finally, Sissi: The Fateful Years of An Empress 1957) has remained the ensconced ‘definitive’. Indeed, perennially all three movies reappear on television in Germany and Austria as a beloved reminder of two bygone eras; one, relegated to ancient history, the other, to that equally as departed epoch in motion picture-making when dream-like opulence trumped reality in spades.
The first film in the anthology, Sissi (1955), is loosely based on Sissy’s Brautfahrt (Sissy's Bridal Journey) by Ernst Décsey and Gustav Holm; the narrative charting Elisabeth’s rather idyllic childhood and marriage to the Emperor. The second eldest daughter of Duke Maximilian Joseph and his wife, Princess Ludovika of Bavaria, Sissi is the apple of her fanciful father’s eye but something of a minor disappointment to her mother. Ludovika instead dotes on their eldest, Helene who is amiable, accomplished and statuesque. By contrast, Sissi is impulsive, earthy and carefree. The girls, along with seven other siblings, reside in Possenhofen Castle on the shores of Lake Starnberg. Rumors abound of an arranged marriage between Helene and the Emperor Franz Joseph I. Indeed, Franz’s mother, Archduchess Sophie would welcome such an alliance and does everything except force Franz to acquiesce to the marriage. Franz is receptive to the idea…at first. Indeed, Helene’s virtue is beyond reproach and her beauty far beyond compare. Alas, fate intervenes. To quell Max’s suspicions for their planned ‘trip’ to the capital, Ludovika takes Sissi along, never planning to include her in any of the pre-arranged festivities. Left to her own accord, the girl escapes her locked bedroom and sets out with her fishing rod to a nearby lake. Inadvertently, Sissi casts her line and hooks the Emperor’s heart instead. Franz is immediately enraptured.
Meanwhile, Gendarmerie-Major Böckl mistakes Sissi for an anarchist threatening the monarchy. His feeble attempts to intervene are comical diversions from the otherwise serious plot. Archduke Carl-Ludwig (Peter Weck), who is an old friend of the family has harbored affections for Sissi ever since they were children – unrequited and pure. Alas, Franz and Sissi go off into the woods on a hunting expedition. She provides him with a false name, knowing he is to wed her sister. He does not clearly recall her from his youth and so, when later introduced to Sissi at a ball given in his honor, Franz becomes more determined to make his intentions known to all, including Helene and his own mother. Unable to see how deeply he has wounded Helene, Franz refuses to accept anyone but Sissi for his new bride. He makes the announcement for all to hear. Sophie is mortified; Ludovicka, chagrined. But Sissi and Franz are deeply in love. In Possenhofen, wedding preparations are dampened by Helene’s departure on an extended ‘vacation’. Sissi is certain her sister will never forgive her. But after a rather clumsy attempt to end her engagement, Sissi is enthralled when Helene comes home with a new suitor, Maximilian Anton, Hereditary Prince of Thurn and Taxis. Helene bares no ill will and gives her blessing to Sissi for the marriage. A steamer carrying Franz and Sissi along the Danube is met by throngs waving in adoration, the movie concluding with the couple’s nuptials in Augustinian Church on April 24, 1854.
Sissi, and its subsequent sequels were authentically filmed wherever possible in locations the real Empress had visited, including the magnificent Schönbrunn Palace and the Kaiservilla in Bad Ischl. Substituting for Possenhofen Castle on Lake Starnberg is Fuschl Castle on Fuschlsee in the Salzkammergut region, with St. Michael’s in Vienna, standing in for Augustinian Church. As the rights to Sissy’s Brautfahrt had already been acquired by Columbia Pictures, Ernst Marischka bought and based his movies on Maria Blank-Eisman’s novel, Sissi. All three pictures, magnificently photographed by cinematographer, Bruno Mondi in the hyper-real pastel hues of Agfacolor (Ansco in the U.S.), belong to a certain vein of German cinema known as Heimat – literally, homeland escapism, thematically extolling the virtues of a resplendent natural beauty and gemutlich charm. As nearly 25 million people flocked to theaters to bask in the afterglow of Fritz Juptner-Jonstorff’s ravishing production design, with lavishly appointed costuming by Leo Bei, Gerdago and Franz Szivats, Sissi: The Young Empress was almost immediately green lit, debuting less than a year later.
This second movie charts Sissi’s slow acceptance of court life. At almost every turn the young newlyweds’ happiness is sabotaged by Archduchess Sophie, still reeling from the snub of having her choice of bride overlooked for the coveted title of Empress. Sophie intends that Sissi’s free-spirited good nature be brought to heel to the court’s rigid protocol and etiquette.  Furthermore, almost immediately after the birth of the couple’s first child – a daughter, named after the Archduchess – Sophie quietly convinces Franz the best thing is to remove the baby from Sissi’s care. Dutifully, and rather idiotically, Franz concurs with his mother’s assessment and is bewildered when Sissi rebels; first, by retreating to her ancestral home to confide in Max, then later, leaving Austria altogether for an extended respite in Hungary. Almost immediately, Sophie senses a scandal brewing; especially when Sissi turns her efforts toward Count Gyula Andrássy, a staunch crusader for Hungary’s independence, but whose political allies are decided no friends of the monarchy. Alas, Sissi intimately relates to the plight of Hungarians to be considered equals of the Empire. And Franz, having seen the error of his decision, elects to follow the Empress in Hungary to plead for forgiveness. Predictably, Sissi has also had a change of heart and packs for the journey home. The two travelers meet ‘cute’ at an inn on the open road. Each of them vows never again to let anything or anyone stand in the way of their happiness.  Andrassy, smitten with Sissi, watches as she is crowned Queen of the Hungarians in Budapest. In reality, this coronation did not occur until 1867; the movie using it to cap off Sissi’s newfound status, every bit Franz’s equal, despite her lack of formal diplomacy.
Sissi: The Young Empress is every bit as visually accomplished as its predecessor. And yet, somehow it lacks the impetus of the first picture to propel its narrative clearly and concisely. Instead, Marischka wallows in the particulars of Sissi’s daily conflicts with Sophie. Perhaps to keep the mood lighter, there is more comic bumbling with Gendarmerie-Major Böckl, who dutifully serves the royal household, but whimsically confesses he is deeply in love with the Empress. To divert Böckl’s affections, Marischka introduces a new – and easily forgotten character; Gräfin Esterhazy (Helene Lauterböck), as Böckl’s passionately temperamental Hungarian playmate and love interest. Their scenes go absolutely nowhere as Böckl is chronically distracted by both his sense of duty and pining affections for Sissi. As wildly popular with audiences as its predecessor, Marischka and company immediately began crafting yet another sequel: Sissi: The Fateful Years of An Empress – in retrospect, a penultimate installment to a fairy tale, cut short by Romy Schneider’s decision not to partake of any plans for subsequent installments in the anthology.
This last movie is as opulent, but unevenly paced.  Having won over Andrássy, the Empress has secured an invaluable ally to the crown. Alas, Andrássy makes an incalculable error in judgment when he confesses his passion for Sissi to her. She is wounded by the inference she might have misrepresented their ‘friendship’. At Andrássy’s house party, Sissi falters during a dance and is taken aside to ascertain her weakness. She makes light of this sudden transient episode but nevertheless plans to her return home post haste. Sissi and Franz take a much-needed vacation to Bad Ischl. And although the return to nature does Sissi a world of good, while picking flowers on the mountainside, she once again falls ill: this time, rushed to the doctor and diagnosed with fatal tuberculosis. Aside: the word ‘tuberculosis’ is never uttered, but its inference is clear.  On Dr. Seeburger’s (Hans Ziegler) advice Franz orders his beloved to take immediate bed rest. Still, her condition worsens. Now, a cablegram arrives to alert Max and Ludovika of their daughter’s illness. Meanwhile, Sophie mercilessly suggests Franz should begin considering amiable second choices for ‘the next Empress’ in the event of Sissi’s death.
For once, Franz defends Sissi’s honor. Mama has overstepped not only her bounds, but also those of sincerity, good taste and common decency. Franz makes it quite clear. He will never remarry should Sissi die. Deprived of the company of her husband and child, Sissi’s resolve weakens. Ludovika arrives to rescue Sissi from her isolation, the two vacationing in Corfu where the climate is more conducive to her recovery. Yet again, Oberst Böckl’s clumsy admiration strikes the right comedic chord. Under her mother’s auspices, Sissi is restored to health. She returns to Austria to rejoin her husband on an official tour of Milan and Venice; both possessions of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Alas, nationalists have prepared a hostile welcome for the Habsburg sovereigns. The Milanese nobility send their servants, dressed in castoff formal attire, to a royal command performance at La Scala, where they sing it protest against Austrian rule. Refusing to accept this rebuke, except with humility, the Emperor and Sissi receive the servants at a formal reception thereafter.  When the aristocrats learn of this, they fret incessantly at the notion the Emperor has mistaken the lower class for them. In Venice, the reception toward Franz and Sissi is frostier still; the Venetians closing their shutters and barring their doors, unfurling nationalist flags as the royal barge sails down the Grand Canal. But the Italian standoff softens when Sissi is reunited with her child, Sophie at St Mark's Square; the crowds wildly cheering in support of motherhood.
Although not an official part of the Sissi Trilogy, Film Movement Classics has elected to include two additional films with this new-to-Blu release: the first, Marischka’s Victoria in Dover (1954); itself, a remake of Erich Engel’s similarly titled 1936 movie, loosely based on a 1932 play by Sil-Vara. Victoria in Dover is set in a fanciful London, circa 1837. Victoria’s mum pens a letter to her brother, Leopold, the King of Belgium (Fred Liewehr) to take charge of her daughter’s tutelage. The young queen is bored with her studies. Indeed, her only real friend is German lady-in-waiting, Baroness Lehzen (Magda Schneider). Ah, but now Leopold arrives with terrible news; England’s King is dying. Victoria will be the next sovereign of England.  Overjoyed, Victoria asks that she be allowed one hour a day unbothered by others. But her mother perceives this as a criticism of herself. Furthermore, Victoria’s mother’s judgement is clouded by her artful romantic alliance with the enterprising Sir John Conroy (Stefan Skodler) who advises her to convince Victoria to dismiss the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Karl Ludwig Diehl), thereby leaving the new queen vulnerable, and presumably susceptible to advice from Conroy in his stead.
Shrewdly perceiving this treachery, and more over knowing her own mind, Victoria orders Conroy from her court and realigns her loyalties to Melbourne who, having already read his letter of dismissal drafted by Conroy, is very pleased with this unexpected turn of events. Melbourne is devoted to Victoria. Together with Baroness Lehzen, the two confidants represent a united front with only the Queen’s best interests at heart. With the announcement of the King’s death, Melbourne quickly bones up on court protocol for Victoria’s pending coronation. Afterward, focus shifts to lining up a husband for the newly ensconced monarch. Victoria also orders Lords Melbourne, Palmerston and Russell to draft a decree in Parliament to address the concerns of the poor.  Still determined she should quietly be the woman behind the throne, Victoria’s mother plots to inveigle her with Prince Henry of Orange (Peter Weck), while Uncle Leopold puts forth Archduke Alexander of Russia (Rudolf Lenz) as his candidate for Victoria’s hand in marriage. Mercifully, Melbourne has a candidate too: Prince Albert of Sachsen-Coburg (Adrian Hoven); by far the most handsome, forthright and sincere of these viable suitors. To sweeten the deal, Melbourne informs the Queen that Parliament has since approved reforms for a welfare system.
Daunted by the ploy to marry, Victoria plots an escape/vacation, instructing her servant, George (Rudolf Vogel) to make the horses and carriage ready. But on the road, presumably to Windsor – but actually, Dover – she inadvertently meets Prince Albert at a country inn. The two become immediately and mutually smitten without first realizing the identity of the other. Albert is travelling with his tutor, Professor Landmann (Paul Hörbiger) who is both precious and coaxing. Believing Albert to be the innkeeper’s son, Victoria orders him to start a fire in the fireplace. Clumsily, Albert complies. Again, misdirection ensues; Victoria asking ‘the stranger’ if Prince Albert was aboard the boat on which he was traveling. Albert replies “yes” without actually revealing his identity. He then suggests in the third person, Albert will never marry Victoria as it is rumored she is too slight for his liking. Insulted, Victoria orders Albert to leave her room. Still, neither knows who the other truly is. A short while later, Victoria attends dinner in the inn’s great hall and is introduced to composer, Johann Strauss (Eduard Strauss Jr.) and his musicians, headed to London for Queen Victoria’s birthday.  Strauss performs one of his newly composed waltzes and Albert invites Victoria to partake of the dance.  As she has never danced before, Albert willingly offers to teach her. 
As the night dwindles to a close, Albert – a little worse for the wine – attempts to woo Victoria by yonder balcony. She is not impressed and sends him away. Undaunted, Albert informs Landmann “I will marry this girl!” Unruffled by this declaration, the Professor nervously labors over how he will break the news to the Queen. Determined to save face, Landmann retreats to Victoria’s room where he divulges Albert’s identity, imploring Victoria to reconsider the young man’s reputation. Amused, and satisfied she has selected the right man to jointly rule by her side, Victoria plays along, accepting Landmann’s payoff of 30 pounds to leave the inn and disappear forever from Albert’s life. Now, Victoria attends her birthday gala, introduced to Princes Henry and Alexander; neither of whom strike her fancy. Albert and Landmann arrive late to this soiree; Albert, overjoyed to learn the girl he passionately adores is, in fact, the woman already preordained to be his wife. Engaging Victoria in a waltz, Landmann directs the Prince not to hold his beloved so tight.
Inadvertently, Victoria takes this as a sign Albert’s affections toward her have cooled. She withdraws from the ball in a huff, leaving all three suitors confused and spurned. Once more, the benevolent Lord Melbourne intervenes, assuring Victoria of Albert’s affections. Hope renewed, Victoria decides to make Melbourne a Knight of the Order of the Garter.  Recognizing its significance, Melbourne magnanimously refuses the title, opting instead for retirement. Victoria reluctantly agrees. He has earned his place in the sun. Melbourne withdraws and Prince Albert returns. Both bashful and stumbling for something meaningful to discuss, Albert and Victoria rekindle their romance as George looks on. At last, Albert comes to his truer self and affinity for the Queen. She reciprocates in kind and the two mark their future alliance with a passionate kiss. George is stunned, then pleasantly pleased as he quietly steps back and closes the door to allow the royals their privacy.
Victoria in Dover is pure hokum, but so winningly put across with oodles of charm that it is easy to overlook its historical inaccuracies and simply bask in the sumptuousness of its regal appointments in set decoration, costume design and, of course, romance. Like the Sissi Trilogy, Victoria in Dover is a fairy tale, not historical epic; its strengths – Marischka’s lissome screenplay, that effortlessly moves from one palace intrigue to the next, and Romy Schneider’s luminous turn as the heartfelt ingenue about to become England’s longest reigning monarch. The other film to be included in this collection is, in fact, not a movie at all, but an amalgam of all three Sissi movies, re-issued in a poorly dubbed English version, distributed by Paramount Pictures. Forever My Love (1962) is 147 min. of badly re-edited storytelling with a rather syrupy title tune composed by Burt Bacharach.  Once you have seen the Sissi Trilogy as it was originally intended, there really is no comparison. And, in fact, none made by Film Movement Classics, who did not even think enough of Forever My Love to properly remaster it in hi-def. No, we get only a badly worn and thoroughly faded print, transferred with a lot of edge enhancement to standard DVD.
Now, for the very good news. All three of the Sissi movies have been digitally restored and remastered in 2K. The results are impressive to say the least. Film Movement has not only given us some gorgeous looking discs here, but they have even elected to feature each Sissi movie in two aspect ratios: the original 1.33:1 for purists, and a re-composed 1.78:1 image to satisfy those who prefer not to have ‘black bars’ to the left and right of the image when displayed on their flat widescreen TVs. Naturally, the 1.33:1 framing is preferred, showing far more information on the top and bottom of the image. In either format, all three of the Sissi movies positively glow with vibrant hues. Reds are the most dramatically rendered; greens too and the occasional splash of royal blue. Fine detail abounds. We get to see intricate patterns gone into the fabric of Leo Bei, Gerdago and Franz Szivats’ exquisite costuming, and bask in the afterglow of Bruno Mondi’s breathtaking cinematography. In short, there is nothing to complain about visually. Were we could say as much for the audio. Sissi and her sequels were originally recorded and released in mono – usually, not a problem. But the DTS is quite strident and crackles in spots. Mercifully, these discs also contain a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix that minimizes, but does not alleviate all of these anomalies. The first Sissi movie is the most egregious offender here, with improvements made regarding the last two films in the trilogy.
Now, about Victoria in Dover. Although Film Movement has obviously made an effort to restore and remaster this movie in 1080p, its color balance is far less dramatic, and in some regards, quite anemic. We get marginal fading scattered throughout; color fluctuation from scene to scene, and in certain instances, from shot to shot. Flesh tones are very thin. Could Victoria in Dover have looked better? Arguably, yes. It’s the lushness of color that seems to be lacking here; also, fainter than anticipated contrast. Everything falls into a sort of mid-register tonality without the anticipated pop and pizzazz. Again, Film Movement gives us the option to view Victoria in Dover either in its original 1.33:1 or 1.78:1 aspect ratios. Choose the former and be glad that you did. The audio, again, in either DTS or Dolby Digital won’t win any awards. But it has been competently rendered. Finally, there are the extras to consider – or rather, bypass. From Romy to Sissi is a vintage featurette; Romy Schneider briefly discusses her involvement while making the original movie. Sissi’s Great Grandson at the Movies is a bizarrely truncated snippet from the documentary, Elisabeth: Enigma of an Empress. It begins abruptly and ends unceremoniously right in the middle of the grandson’s recollections. Dumb, wasted opportunity to include the whole documentary.
Bottom line: The Sissi Trilogy is beloved and for very good reason. Romy Schneider is magnificent and the films, while light on reality, are nevertheless glorious escapist outings into that never-never land of magical film-making we are unlikely to ever see again. Film Movement Classics’ remastered Blu-rays do each movie justice, with minor caveats already addressed. Personally, I would have preferred Victoria in Dover be given as much care and released separately to Blu-ray (as it is not a part of the Sissi canon), with far more attention paid to Forever My Love (it looks atrocious herein). But rest assured, if you are buying this set for the original trilogy, you are in for one hell of a treat. Prepare to be dazzled. Such unfettered opulence has rarely made it to the screen. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Sissi – 5
Sissi: The Young Empress – 4
Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress – 3.5


Victoria in Dover – 3.5
Sissi – 4
Sissi: The Young Empress – 4.5
Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress – 4.5



Wednesday, November 22, 2017

NOW, VOYAGER (Warner Bros. 1942) Warner Home Video

In 1925, brought on by the inconsolable loss of her daughter, noted novelist, Olive Higgins Prouty suffered a complete emotional breakdown. Retreating to a sanitarium for convalescence, and encouraged by her psychiatrist to redouble her efforts to write – the catharsis of which would produce two enduring masterworks – Conflict (1927) and Now, Voyager (1941); Prouty emerged from her grief as one of the most prolific and successful authors of her generation. While her previous effort, 1923’s Stella Dallas, had been a runaway best seller, Now, Voyager – although successful in its own right – did not live up to her publisher’s expectations; Warner Bros. agreeing to pay the authoress $50,000 for the rights to produce it, but only if the novel sold more than 50,000 copies by May, 1941. It did not and the figure eventually settled upon was closer to $40,000. While Prouty derived inspiration from real life for the trials and tribulations of her fictional heroine, Charlotte Vale, she all but lifted the novel’s title from a Walt Whitman’s two-line poem ‘The Untold Want’ which read, “The untold want by life and land ne’er granted, Now voyager, sail forth to seek and find.”
There are moments in Now, Voyager as great as any sonnet composed by Shakespeare or Shelley, as any overture to grand amour conducted under the auspices of Keats or Browning; Bette Davis as one of the unsurpassed grand dames of selfless altruism, superbly accompanied by her worldly – if platonic – paramour, Paul Henreid; the highs, lows and intricate orchestrations of their drama, pathos, simple joys and melancholia, wrapped in the enigma of Freudian psychoanalysis. If it all sounds rather over the top at a glance - it is; splendidly brought to fruition in all the fine trappings an A-list studio like Warner Bros. could lend to the cause during its heyday: Robert M. Haas’ superb art direction, Sol Polito’s glossy and luxuriating B&W cinematography, Orry-Kelly’s exquisite costuming, and Max Steiner’s superior scoring sessions. Now, Voyager raises the bar in so many ways, the finished product all but suggests its destiny as one of the all-time classic weepies. 
And yet, in Hollywood, the prospect of transposing Prouty’s latest ‘hit’ into an even bigger one for the silver screen proved somewhat elusive – at least, at first; what with imminent producer, Hal B. Wallis’ heart set on Ginger Rogers as the Bostonian recluse who emerges, as butterfly from under the stifling cocoon of her overbearing and spiteful mother. Director, Edmund Goulding preferred Irene Dunne – in hindsight, a more likely choice to do the part justice. Of course, neither suited the likes of Bette Davis who, by 1942 had garnered enough clout at Warner Bros. to write her own ticket. Still, it must have sent Davis into a fury to read a squib in Louella Parson’s Herald-Examiner column, touting Dunne as the frontrunner. Mercifully, fate intervened; Goulding becoming suddenly ill and forced to withdraw from the project; replaced by caustic Hungarian genius, Michael Curtiz, who weighed his options between Rogers or Norma Shearer. A formidable force of nature – not unlike Davis – Curtiz usually got his way; just not this time.
Bette Davis campaigned with a tidal wave of rigor and passion that only complete acquiescence to her demands could quell. Curtiz withdrew from the fray rather than face down ‘the fifth Warner brother’ (Davis’ nickname on the backlot); some have suggested, also, because his previous encounters with Davis on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), had so completely soured him on working with the formidable star ever again. His replacement, Irving Rapper, a disciple of Curtiz, was also willing to fall into line with Davis’ edicts and temperament, but elected to cast the rest of the picture without her counsel. To this end, Rapper hired Claude Rains to play the empathetic Dr. Jacquith; also, Gladys Cooper to portray the matriarchal gargoyle of the piece. For Charlotte’s lover, Rapper made an unlikely decision in Paul von Henreid (foreshortened on the marquee to Paul Henreid). The Austrian-born Henreid was fast being shaped by the studio into an intercontinental lover via Charles Boyer; curiously publicized in Warner’s PR as a cross between two of their most popular leading men, George Brent and Leslie Howard, to which the congenial and suave Henreid bore no earthly resemblance. 
It almost didn’t happen. Henreid’s initial test for the part of architect Jerry Durrance was all but ruined by the studio’s hair and makeup department; heavily pancaked, mascaraed, and, with enough pomade to slather a mountain goat.  “He looks ghastly,” Davis shouted at Wallis, “Like a floorwalker in a department store!”  It was perhaps kismet Henreid equally abhorred ‘the Lothario look’ assigned to him, and thus, an instant and lifelong friendship was born between Henreid and Davis. The two would work together again as director and star on 1964’s Dead Ringer.
In a career chocked full of unimpeachable artistic highlights, Now, Voyager (1942) remains the quintessential Bette Davis picture; a weepie par excellence, equally drawing on Prouty’s tear-stained novel as Davis’ towering realization of Charlotte Vale; this uni-browed spinster cum accomplished lady heir to the manor born. Davis is magnificent beyond all expectation in this – the most popular movie role of her entire career and the most profitable picture she would ever make at Warner Bros. What could have so easily devolved into maudlin treacle at a glance, acquires far more subtext, thanks to Casey Robinson; once so astutely described as “the master of the art – or craft – of adaptation.” According the source, Davis, Casey Robinson or Paul Henreid is responsible for the iconic – and unscripted – moment where Henreid’s Jerry lights two cigarettes nestled between his lips, giving one to an emotional Charlotte, who acknowledges the gesture with tears and gratitude of an old maid. 
Decades later, Robinson still clearly resented the implication anyone had a hand in reshaping this material. “…there was never – never – one word changed in any of the scripts I wrote for her – by Miss Davis, by a director, by anybody – and that is a flat statement, a true statement…and final!”  By 1942, Davis had, in fact, profited handsomely from Robinson’s slick prose; her meteoric upswing at the studio in a series of well-chosen projects, casting her as everything from a fiery southern belle to a haughty blue-blood socialite stricken by crippling blindness and death.
Initially, Jack Warner clashed with Davis over her choice of roles. At the outset, Jack saw Davis as a platinum dolly – his answer to MGM’s Jean Harlow. Davis, alas, had come to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a serious actress. She was mortified to play the slinky sex bomb in pictures like 1933’s Ex-Lady; flush with embarrassment when overhearing director, Edmund Goulding mutter to a grip, “What do you think of these broads who think they can get anywhere by showing their legs and their chests?” Indeed, Davis’ virtues were not to be found in her physical assets, except ostensibly in those hard-boiled orbs that bulged, flashed and radiated volumes of kilowatt rage, temptation, sadness and that elusive spark of movie-land originality in tandem.  Neither Warner nor Davis was willing to budge in the way they saw her career, and thus the line was drawn in the proverbial sand, culminating with an inevitable rift in 1936 when Davis attempted to wrangle herself free, walking out on her studio contract. Jack Warner sued for breach of contract. Davis did not win on appeal. 
But she did garner more than a modicum of instant respect from Jack, who was not readily known for such magnanimity. From here on in, Jack would allow Davis unprecedented autonomy; perhaps, assuming that with enough creative freedom she would eventually hamstring her future and fall back under his scrutiny and control. Happy chance for both Davis and Warner the projects she chose, not only proved to be surefire box office – despite occasionally deriving from the most unlikely premises – they were as artistically sound; elevating Davis’ prestige at the studio and the studio’s reputation for quality with female audiences throughout the war years. 
Now, Voyager is an atypical story of ‘ugly duckling’ transformation; Prouty’s own psychological liberation transplanted into the character of Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) - a beleaguered Bostonian blue-blood whose overbearing mother (Gladys Cooper) has all but devastated her self-worth. Unafraid to play dowdy, Davis is made over as one of the most awesomely repugnant frumps, given clunky ‘sensible’ orthopedic shoes, a furry uni-brow, schoolmarm’s haircut and floral-printed house dresses, filled out with cotton-batting to give her a boxy figure. Davis plays these early moments for all their pitiable strength; her heartrending fragility scoffed at by her imperious mum, and casually made the brunt of jokes by a callously cruel niece, June (Bonita Granville). Only Lisa (Ilka Chase), an empathetic sister-in-law, knows how severely close to the edge of a complete mental breakdown Charlotte is; her plan, to whisk Charlotte off to Cascade, a pastoral convalescence home for the mentally ill, overseen by the benevolent Dr. Jacquith, exactly what is needed to rejuvenate and restore the girl back to health – and beyond. The sanitarium, managed by the elegant and as kind, Miss Trask (Katherine Alexander) is quite unlike anything modern psychiatry might have imagined. Certainly, psychoanalysis was then, all the rage; its probative methods in the treatment of delusions of the mind, the subject of many a Hollywood classic, from Selznick’s Spellbound (1945) to Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit (1948) and later, The Three Faces of Eve (1957).
To its credit and its storytelling strengths, Now, Voyager is not about the art and craft of psychoanalysis; nor, about investigating the inner workings of the human psyche, but a personalized tale of one woman’s navigation through its labyrinth with only marginal outside guidance and the power of her own self-reliance. After imposing his company for a brief tête-à-tête with Charlotte (she nervously reveals her mother’s overbearing presence throughout her impressionable youth not only ruined a burgeoning shipboard romance but also has since made her a veritable prisoner in her own home – isolated in her compulsive hand-carving ivory and hiding cigarettes behind the bookcases), Jacquith astutely surmises Charlotte is on the brink of total emotional collapse. He confronts Mrs. Vale in the library, unapologetically puncturing holes in the balloons of her hypocrisies about a daughter’s place – a child’s place. Twaddle! A person has rights – the most fundamental, to pursue happiness on her own terms with a mother’s unconditional love, without her meddling, but moreover, without fear of reprisals. While vehemently disagreeing with him, Mrs. Vale bitterly allows Jacquith to usher Charlotte away to Cascade, though merely to spare herself the embarrassment of having to face Charlotte’s malady. After an undisclosed period of rest, Jacquith allows Lisa to bestow a lavish respite aboard a luxury liner, far away from both the sanitarium and her mother’s detrimental influences.
Almost immediately, the cruise leaves a more lasting impression; the ship’s organizer, Mr. Thompson (Franklin Pangborn), pairing the mysterious Renee Beauchamp with the only other tourist travelling alone, Jeramiah Duveaux Durrance – Jerry, for short.  At first, Charlotte is quite uncomfortable with this arrangement. But Jerry is so utterly forgiving of her early resistances to even his most basic kindness; so completely willing to accept her on whatever limited terms she may permit, that she cannot help but gracefully fall for his charms. He confesses to being married and having two daughters; Tina (Janis Wilson), the younger, unloved by her mother just as Charlotte has been overlooked by her own, thus setting up an immediate kinship with this girl she has never met. Determined to take Dr. Jacquith’s advice, to be interested in everything and everyone, partake and contribute, Charlotte embarks upon a friendship with Jerry, bolstered by the confidences of his good friends, Frank (James Rennie) and Deb McIntyre (Lee Patrick). Deb confides in Charlotte the real unhappiness of Jerry’s marriage to Isobel; her martyrdom holding the noble man true to his vows, even as there is precious little else to keep them together.
Jerry and Charlotte spend a few days in Brazil; she taking the clipper from Buenos Aires after each agrees to never meet again, thus preserving their passion and memories of this brief and perfectly flawed rendezvous. Regrettably, Jerry is the first to break these terms, sending Charlotte a corsage of camellias to mark her arrival in Boston. Earlier, a bottle of Jolie Fleur perfume stirred Charlotte’s heart to inner warmth she thought quite unattainable. Now, the camellias strengthen her resolve to withstand the unabated cruelties of her mother, who has already decided Charlotte’s ‘transformation’ is a disaster. In readiness for her return home, Mrs. Vale has had Charlotte’s things moved downstairs to the room opposite her own, presumably to be closer and look after her needs. In reality, Mrs. Vale is desperate to keep a watchful eye on her daughter’s development – or rather, regression back to her former self. Having summoned the family for a social gathering this very evening, Mrs. Vale further informs her daughter she is to have her hair and makeup redone in the style befitting her former self, having already taken the liberty of hiring a seamstress to alter all of Charlotte’s unsightly old frocks to fit her trimmer figure. Miraculously, Charlotte playfully resists both requests and her own fragile temptation to succumb to the past; declaring a newfound independence by informing her mother she has no intension of retreating into her former self.
Deliberately falling down a flight of stairs to inflict maternal guilt upon this ‘ungrateful’ offspring, Mrs. Vale is defeated in her insidious plan; confined with a sprained ankle via Dora Pickford’s (Mary Wickes) street savvy nurse’s care. The rest of the family are agog at Charlotte’s transformation, but most willing to ‘accept’ her now as one of their own instead of ostracizing her as a social outcast. In the interim, Charlotte begins a blossoming romance with affluent divorcee, Elliot Livingston (John Loder, the ever-popular second string leading man who rarely got the girl in the movies). Elliot is smitten with Charlotte, but strangely unable to embrace her terms for a passionate affair. He makes engagement plans but is actually taken aback when she suggests an exotic vacation together where he can ‘make violent love to her’. The would-be romance cools, before being irrevocably dismantled when Jerry inadvertently resurfaces at the house party of a mutual friend.
Believing Charlotte is engaged to Elliot, Jerry nobly bows out, hurrying to the train depot. But Charlotte has broken off the engagement, hurrying to Jerry’s side to beg for his understanding. This given, only a short while later, Charlotte incurs her mother’s disgust. “I should think you’d be ashamed to spend the rest of your days as Charlotte Vale…Miss Charlotte Vale!” Things reach a fevered pitch as Charlotte unleashes her own long-overdue contempt for her mother, explaining “Dr. Jasquith says that tyranny is sometimes expression of the maternal instinct. If that's a mother's love, I want no part of it”, concluding with bitter remorse, “I didn't want to be born. You didn't want me to be born. It's been a calamity on both sides.” The truth sets Charlotte free – for just a moment; but it also causes Mrs. Vale to suffer a fatal heart attack.
Blaming herself, and believing she might suffer a relapse and another breakdown, Charlotte retreats to Cascade, where she discovers Tina is already a patient. However, Dr. Jacquith and Miss Trask’s methods seem to be failing the neurotic child and Charlotte quietly elects to become Tina’s guardian. Needy and craving a mother’s love, Tina is lulled into Charlotte’s cure by her sincere kindness. Charlotte makes Tina promise to keep their friendship a secret from her father. But Jerry soon discovers the truth, and, fearing Tina will ruin Charlotte’s chances to procure a happy life apart from her responsibilities to the girl, soon is determined to separate the pair. But by now, Charlotte has already decided upon her latterday purpose in life. She will transform her mother’s estate into a respite for needy children like Tina and serve in the capacity as a board member to help Cascade grow and prosper under Dr. Jacquith’s inspiration. Jacquith is both bewildered and impressed by Charlotte’s total transformation. 
But Jerry confronts Charlotte, hoping to learn the real reason for her devotion to Tina, suspecting she is merely clinging onto the girl to maintain a toehold in his life. The mood in this penultimate scene effortlessly shifts from dismay to confrontation, finally elevated by the sudden appearance of Tina, looking happier and healthier than ever. Jerry realizes Charlotte’s love for Tina is real. Moreover, she will not ask him to abandon Isobel or his other daughter for her, but rather, remain contented in the knowledge Tina will always remain a link between them. Asked if she can ever be truly happy with only this, Charlotte willing confesses, “Oh Jerry, let’s not ask for the moon…we have the stars.”
Buoyed by Max Steiner’s quixotic underscore, one of his finest in a peerless career, Now, Voyager is the quintessential ‘woman’s picture’; a shameless tearjerker that retains its ability to moisten the eye, even as it perennially warms the heart. Director, Irving Rapper illustrates a deft eloquence in Bette Davis’ ‘big reveals’; the first, as the grotesquely unattractive Aunt Charlotte, and the second, Charlotte, as re-imagined in haute couture a la a bona fide movie star; Davis playing it straight as the emotionally fragile heir-apparent, masquerading under an assumed name: Camille Beauchamp; the accomplished – and marginally guarded – woman of the world to whom Jerry will briefly devote himself. Owing to a convention of the time, Charlotte and Jerry are never seen sharing anything beyond a chaste kiss and those now famously lit cigarettes, presumably smoked without any afterthought for a freshly unearthed sexual liaison. But the clues are there for the audience to infer. Jerry, although caught in a loveless marriage to Isobel, is nevertheless devoted to their daughter, Tina in whom Charlotte can sense elements of her own sad childhood. Casey Robinson’s screenplay is neither particularly concerned with Charlotte’s rehabilitation, nor the specific path by which Charlotte and Tina establish their bond, only after a preamble of night terrors and crying fits has subsided. 
At its core, Now, Voyager is undeniably, and unabashedly melodramatic, so purposefully understated and supremely executed by the entire cast, it never fails to elicit more than a few moist handkerchiefs brought out to dab away well-intended tears. “Let us not ask for the moon…” Charlotte’s quiet ‘moon/stars’ declaration is perhaps, the ultimate expression of self-sacrifice brought forth from her particular ilk of complicated screen heroines.  Produced under a then ‘new agreement’ between producer, Hal B. Wallis and Warner Bros., Now, Voyager became one of the biggest money makers of 1942, and, in retrospect, the highest-grossing movie in Bette Davis’ long and illustrious canon of films. Somewhere along the way director, Irving Rapper quickly realized only one person was truly in charge of this production. Decidedly, it was not him.
Although Davis was cordial to Rapper, their artistic differences occasionally boiled over to delay the shoot, effectively leaving Rapper with nothing to do but acquiesce to his star's 'suggestions' in order to get the film in the can. He could have done worse, as Davis’ uncanny ability to make martyred females of classicist chic the epitome of classless and very classy self-pity, never becomes maudlin. Davis built her popularity on being attractive to both women and men. This ranks her as a very rare party of one – effectively playing upon the audiences’ empathy for these ‘sad tears’ of ‘an old maid’ if never in a harsh, unflattering or manipulative way. Thus, Charlotte Vale emerges as a very rare butterfly from her psychoanalytic cocoon; one to whom the prospect of an enduring unrequited affair de Coeur is not simply ‘the best she can hope for’ but rather an exalted place of worship where such blessed virginal atonement for the past may be considered on its own merit of forgiveness.
In all regards, Now, Voyager remains a superior entertainment - overtly sentimental, though never schmaltzy - and superbly played. Davis delivers one of her most memorable performances with an uncharacteristic quiet, tender grace. Paul Henreid shows why, for a time, he was considered the most elegant of the intercontinental lovers. Claude Rains is charming, suave and uber-witty as always.  Like most films from this vintage at Warner Bros., Now, Voyager comes on strong and never lets up. Casey Robinson's screenplay is a miracle of concision. In a little under two hours he manages an intricate balancing act between narrative threads of self-discovery, self-sacrifice and vainglorious flawed romance. Max Steiner's score is complimented by Sol Polito's sumptuous cinematography. 
It is amazing how many times we have seen the same staircase featured in the Vale family home in countless other Warner Bros. product (The Big Sleep, Mr. Skeffington, Humoresque, just three examples that immediately come to mind) and yet, looking remarkably fresh and inviting. Like all studios then, the Warner assembly line was masterful at changing up these variables just enough to make us believe in the magic behind its’ craftsmanship, as well as our own suspension in disbelief for the proverbial ‘happy ending’. Many years have passed, but Now, Voyager lives on as only the truly great romances of celluloid can. It doesn’t get any better than this, folks. It is highly unlikely that it ever will.
Another glaring omission from our hi-def catalogs, Now, Voyager ought to have made the leap to Blu-ray long ago. Warner Home Video’s DVD is almost reference quality. The benefactor of a complete digital restoration, it continues to hold up (mostly) under very close scrutiny, the gray scale herein is perfectly contrasted. Whites are clean and vibrant. Blacks are deep and rich. Fine detail is evident throughout. The image is crisp and free of age-related artifacts. Film grain is perhaps a tad smoother than anticipated, but nevertheless indigenous to its source. Not so good: there is a rather obvious amount of edge enhancement during several key sequences – particularly in the plaids, florals and spotted prints of Charlotte’s dresses. The Warner Archive (WAC) hinted in 2014 that Now, Voyager might be coming to Blu-ray very soon. It’s four years later and no disc. Pity that!  The audio has also been nicely cleaned up with one curious exception. The main title music appears to suffer from a slight muffled characteristic. Extras include an isolated score (something Warner Home Video no longer does on its releases but should…a genuine pity) and the original theatrical trailer. One wishes Warner had committed to at least an audio commentary on this deep catalog title, but there it is. None forthcoming. As the film's 1948 reissue tag fittingly proclaims, “…for now, for always; Now Voyager!” Very highly recommended. But a Blu-ray would be a nice surprise.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


CAMILLE (MGM 1936) Warner Home Video

When I watch a Greta Garbo movie I am distinctly aware of two great tragedies; the one unfolding on the screen by design; the other, more prolific and devastating, made by this elusive creature who would never again appear before the cameras after 1940 – retired at the age of thirty-six. For me, this latter realization of the resolute goddess denying us her presence, herself denied the luxury of appearing in anything beyond a little known and even more rarely seen screen test made for producer, Walter Wanger in 1949 – ten years after her self-imposed exile; this, is the Garbo of near mythical proportions and epic loss. The unicorn, the sphinx: an enigma bottled in a time capsule of her own youth, yet relegated to another lifetime entirely, to be forever misinterpreted and so completely misunderstood. For the record, Garbo never said she wanted to be alone…at least, not in real life. That famed quotation, like everything else we know or believe to be true about Garbo was, in fact, an invention of Hollywood; a line first uttered in rehearsed despair in Grand Hotel (1932) and since substituted as the leitmotif in Garbo’s own life.  But the reality is Garbo only wished to be ‘left alone’ – a fine line of distinction, perhaps, but applying equally to the press (who relentlessly dogged her every footstep for years) and to her fans (who continued to quietly stalk her around Manhattan while she shopped for antiques). Instead, Garbo chose to remain perennially loyal and available to those she trusted most – a very select group, indeed – but to whom she was quite simply a person of flesh and blood, perishable and sincerely alive: something she arguably never was on the screen.
For although there are few among her contemporaries (and virtually none in today’s batch of aspiring starlets) who can so readily ignite the screen with a mere flicker of sadness caught in her eye, Garbo on camera remains an adored mannequin, more prized than flesh, yet somehow less genuine and accessible. Personally, I adore this creature of light and shadow, realizing that in my adoration of the myth I am precisely the sort Garbo would have shied away from in life, to whom she would have drawn the curtains or shut the door in my face before I could be so bold as to utter “I love you.”  So perhaps, like that elixir of elusive femininity she plays in Camille (1936) it is best – at least for me – that she exists as an untrue memory in my heart where her intangible perfection can remain locked away; the guarded unhappy secret of this daydreamer obsessing over an apparition. Garbo is in the full flourish of her hypnotic faculties in George Cukor’s Camille; arguably, the film for which she remains revered, cherished and most fondly remembered as the great actress she so obviously was. In playing the doomed courtesan, desired by the impossibly handsome, Armand (Robert Taylor), a much younger love-struck optimist, Garbo positively glows. That she found queer strength in this character’s ailing is perhaps no great surprise. For Garbo knew something of heartache; better still, of the destructive nature of Hollywood sycophants who had once praised, then condemned her one-time lover, matinee idol, John Gilbert, into an early grave.
Marguerite Gautier is first introduced to us as the lady of the camellias, a rapturous courtesan with a naughty twinkle in her eye, selling herself for the luxuries that only money can buy; pretty flowers and exquisite clothes to lure even more prospective suitors to buy her things while she spends her time and energies elsewhere instead of on them. Yet behind the smile there lurks a timidity untainted by these decadent hours wasted in the mercantile trade of flesh; a commodity picked apart and readily exploited by Marguerite’s fair-weather friend; the saucy dressmaker, Prudence Duvernoy (Laura Hope Cruise) who forewarns Marguerite she will not be young and desirable forever. Far from looking out for Marguerite’s well-being, Prudence is a straggler, all too eager to exploit her friends’ extravagances for money; living high on the parties she attends, populated by a motley band of disreputable users, devoted to nothing better or even as lasting as the gaiety of the moment.
Into this den of iniquity comes Armand Duval (Robert Taylor); a reveler as yet not made fully corrupt by these wily good times of his school chum, Gaston (Red O’Malley) and who freely falls almost instantly - passionately - in love with Marguerite. She thwarts his advances with playful abandonment, ignoring the truth in his sentiment as generic lust, and even more obtusely setting aside his genuine concern for the ailment that has already begun to erode her lungs. Armand cannot bear to watch as Marguerite struggles to breathe, whirling about the dance floor with wild abandonment, all but ignored in her obvious distress by these wicked indulgers, too self-involved in their own benign pleasures. Later, in Marguerite’s atelier, Armand throws himself at her head. He is so vital and so sincere that she momentarily surrenders the accoutrements of a jaded voluptuary, promising to be completely his if he will encourage her friends to leave. Marguerite informs her loyal servant, Nanine (Jessie Ralph) of this admirer’s return – a romantic pas deux cruelly denied when her most wealthy client, the barbarous Baron De Varville (Henry Daniell) unexpectedly returns early from a trip abroad.
The Baron is a deceiver, ruthless in his unquenchable thirst to possess Marguerite, not out of love, but to inflict and satisfy his own sadomasochistic fantasies. Thus, when Armand returns to Marguerite’s apartment, the way is barred. He leaves unfulfilled, though hardly bitter or saddened. Regrettably, there is time enough for these more destructive emotions to brutalize, torment and harden his heart. At a horse sale the next afternoon, Armand is reunited with Marguerite. She half-heartedly apologizes for their delayed reunion and he accepting whatever superficial favors of kindness she is willing to parcel off to him. Armand introduces Marguerite to his friends, Gaston and Nichette (Elizabeth Allen); Gaston’s bride to be. Their innocence is infectious, leaving Marguerite to reexamine her own life’s pursuits, only to discover how precious little time remains to make amends for all the wickedness she has chosen to live by.
When the Baron announces another trip abroad, Marguerite decides to spend her holidays with Armand at his ancestral home. There, she witnesses the vows of Gaston and Nichette and dreams in vain of the day when she will marry Armand. He is all too willing to make Marguerite his beloved wife. But Armand’s father (Lionel Barrymore), knowing what scandal such a union will bring and sure to impugn Armand’s future prospects as a solicitor, begs mercifully for Marguerite to go away without ever explaining her reasons to his son. Realizing that in making such a request, Monsieur Duval has only his son’s future prosperity in mind, something Marguerite perhaps has not fully considered in light of her own, she reluctantly concurs, that to marry Armand would only drag him down to her level. She must therefore sacrifice her own happiness for the sake and longevity of his – alas, out of true love. 
When Armand returns, he finds Marguerite gone back to Paris, his discovery made all the more bitter after finding her on the arm of the Baron inside one of Paris’ more fashionable gambling houses. Certain her return to the Baron has been motivated by greed alone, Armand wins a considerable amount of money at the tables, confronting Marguerite before the whole of the establishment and angrily casting his winnings in her face.
She can buy her own grave as far as he is concerned. Little does he realize the prophetic nature of these remarks. For only a few days later, word arrives that Marguerite has been publicly spurned by the Baron – her reputation, even as a courtesan, in tatters. Moreover, she is now quite obviously dying and confined to her bed chamber. Learning of the severity of her condition and also of the self-sacrifice made on his behalf, Armand rushes to Marguerite’s bedside. He professes his love again; love that had never truly cooled, but rather was blunted, then masked, by wounded jealousy. Armand begs Marguerite’s forgiveness and pledges his life to hers, only to have her quietly die in his arms; the dream of their life together ended by this last cruel twist of fate.
Camille is superb melodrama. There is something of a bitter resentment in this lady of the camellias, Marguerite Gautier, dashing herself to pieces as a wave upon the shore; resigned to spare the man who must never know how deeply her still waters run. She, however, is incapable of existing without his love – a central theme in many a Garbo classic (Grand Hotel, Anna Christie, Anna Karenina, Queen Christina). For fans morbidly yearning to bear witness to such spectacular altruism, Camille is our drug of choice and Garbo the quintessential figure of martyrdom. It is a tale directed with the inimitable light touch only George Cukor intuitively understood, and in which the grandiosity of deepening depression bows our heroine’s spirit, fairly shattering the fickler devotions of her counterpart male beauty. And it all comes with an added kicker: the specter of death lurking about to claim this merciful angel back into the ether from whence she first deigned to emerge; fully formed and stepping into the satin light of William H. Daniels and Karl Freund’s sublime cinematography – the ultimate romanticized figure of feminine suffrage.
Exactly how much of Marguerite Gautier is in Garbo – or vice versa – is left to the ages and historians to ponder and discuss. Apart from being the consummate pro, Garbo is also the visual manifestation of this lyrical epistolary; the conjurer of her own illusive magic. Was she ever as real or just a figment of the imagination, taunting and tantalizing with her dumb show – laughing at us all as in Ninotchka (1939) or infrequently, through more bitter tears, as she does from the peripheries at Armand in Camille; one moment, deliciously pleased and reveling in her artfulness; the next, granite-faced and lethally stern, perversely to deny him genuine intimacy, yet perhaps compassionate and/or fearful to singe this mere mortal in the afterglow of her megawatt stardom.
Garbo is a luminous star in the cinema firmament; an untouchable apart and remote, so perhaps it should not have come as any surprise – profound or otherwise – that she chose a life apart from the rest after her all too brief tenure in Hollywood. In doing so she did we daydreamers a great favor, denying us Garbo – the illusion, perfectly preserved in the mind’s eye – while Garbo the woman continued to live and age among us. How could any reality removed from the one concocted by MGM hope to compete? And yet, just now, I would have preferred that Garbo much more to this splendid sybarite, blossoming like a ghost flower in Camille – much preferred to have basked in the friendship of such a relaxed raconteur, who deliberately spoiled any photographic attempts to immortalize her in later years with a finger brought up against her chin or hat casually raised in front of her face.
It must have been a very brave creature indeed, to have made the journey from her native Stockholm to Hollywood – more defiantly real to have faced those devouring flashbulbs from the paparazzi after Hollywood was through with her, or she with it – or both. Garbo today invokes a universal unfettered by the hourglass of time. The granules of sand slipping away for the rest of us somehow do not apply to her. She lives because of film – because of this film in particular – and because of all those hours concentrating on her carefully crafted persona in front of the camera – arguably, Garbo’s one enduring love affair. But she is never more alive than in Camille, revealing just enough about this bittersweet tart while never quite satisfying our insatiable need to truly understand the woman playing her. Or does she? Is Marguerite Gautier the Garbo of Camille or the Garbo from this mythology, of legend or of a more primal reality; one desperate to be recognized? Perhaps we shall never know. Then again…as mere mortals, perhaps we were never meant to.
Warner Home Video has done a competent job preserving Camille on DVD. But it is positively obscene that, at the cusp of 2018, there remains no tangible sign of this perennial three-hankie tear-jerker making its way to hi-def. I would sincerely champion the Warner Archive (WAC) to fast track this one to be remastered for Blu-ray. Garbo, like Gable, Lana Turner, Mickey Rooney and Garland, to say nothing of Esther Williams, Mario Lanza, Kathryn Grayson, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Joan Crawford, Heddy Lamarr, Elizabeth Taylor – has been woefully neglected on Blu-ray. Every time I see WAC green-light some C-grade clunker like The Green Slime or It Came From Hell to the front of the line – ahead of these aforementioned immortals – I sincerely want to throw up! But I digress.  
The B&W DVD image on Camille is relatively clean and stable for the most part. Age-related artifacts are present but do not distract. Contrast is solid. This is about as good as Camille has ever looked on home video, although, I will assume not nearly as good as it might look in 1080p. As it is quite obvious Warner Home Video has done at least some preliminary work on Camille to ready it for standard-def home video, I would really like to see them more aggressively pursue a campaign to bring it to Blu-ray. The DVD is not a perfect presentation, and indeed, with all the digital wizardry currently at their disposal it is high time Warner went back for a new scan of these surviving elements so that we can witness, at long last, the spectacle of Garbo in all her glory. The original mono audio has been cleaned up and is well represented. Extras include a very badly worn print of the 1921 silent version starring Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino, a radio broadcast of Camille and the trailer for the 1936 version. Bottom line: highly recommended... for now.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, November 20, 2017

MAYTIME (MGM 1937) Warner Archive

The Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald operetta craze reached its apex in supreme exaltation with Robert Z. Leonard’s Maytime (1937) a gloriously elephantine ode to love, superficially based on Sigmund Romberg’s smash hit Broadway show. Maytime – the movie – ought to have been an entirely different experience; its’ production schedule interrupted by the sudden untimely death of MGM’s wunderkind producer, Irving Thalberg on Sept. 14, 1936. Thalberg had envisioned Maytime as MGM’s first all-Technicolor spectacle and had even brought in the then 50 yrs. young Romberg to write four new tunes for this celluloid update of his much-beloved showstopper. Thalberg had also handpicked Edmund Goulding to direct the picture. Goulding’s reputation for wit and sophistication already possessed the mark of chic good taste Thalberg perceived as the perfect compliment to this very classy affair du Coeur. Alas, the results proved disastrous. After spending nearly $800,000 Thalberg and assistant director, Joe Newman concurred: the footage thus far assembled was a catastrophe. In a gutsy move, Thalberg resolved to reboot Maytime with a new director at its helm. But then Thalberg died, placing the project in indefinite turnaround. 
In the interim Jeanette MacDonald heavily campaigned to make San Francisco (1936) with Clark Gable. Although the co-stars were anything but kosher toward one another between takes, the film became yet another feather in MacDonald’s cap and she approached Maytime with renewed resolve to renegotiate her MGM contract, while garnering a newfound appreciation for co-star, Nelson Eddy’s good nature. Dubbed by the critics as ‘the singing capon’ to MacDonald’s ‘iron butterfly’, Eddy knew that apart from his undeniable presence as a baritone he was, at best invisible, and at worst, something of a minor disappointment as an actor. A capon is a castrated chicken and, while the inference to Eddy - as a man - seems more than a tad cruel (in point of fact, it is), as a performer it fits his acting rather succinctly. There is no hint of masculine passion or even a modest twinge of virility to his performances in either Naughty Marietta or Rose Marie and period costumes only amplify this shortcoming.  Indeed, Eddy was very self-conscious and this translates into a queer asexuality on the screen. Although undeniably handsome, there is something oddly waxen about Eddy as a performer – more mannequin than man.
From the vantage and pall of this unflattering assessment then, Nelson Eddy’s performance in Maytime comes off as a revelation, especially when directly compared to his two previous outings. There is verve to him in Maytime that is excitingly alive. Perhaps the delays in the production gave the singer time to rethink his approach to the material. Or maybe he had finally begun to mature as an actor. Either way, Eddy’s new level of confidence in front of the camera gave fans of the duo their first real taste of the MacDonald/Eddy chemistry, and a genuine reason to celebrate. From start to finish, Maytime was re-conceived and rewritten in just six weeks – a masterful feat of the studio system with all its pistons impressively firing in unison. Even if Noel Langley, Claudine West and Rida Johnson Young’s screenplay owed much more to Noel Coward’s Bittersweet than Romberg’s original Broadway show, the results were to prove a real winner with movie audiences the world over. In fact, the film adaptation retains only one song ‘Will You Remember?’ from the Romberg original stage score.
Cedric Gibbons’ art direction and resident Metro couturier, Adrian’s plushly designed fashions, particularly MacDonald’s flounce and frilly gowns, are lavish accoutrements in the vein of Thalberg’s genius for creating lush and lovely screen spectacles. Given Mayer’s natural distaste for such absurd spending it is a minor wonder the picture was made at all. Mayer’s one denial in the post-Thalberg redressing of Maytime was Technicolor – then, still highly experimental, very costly, and proving not altogether successful at the box office. So, Maytime emerged, looking supremely ravishing in glorious B&W; Oliver T. Marsh’s cinematography affording the eye plenty of sublime vignettes, capped off by the ground-swelling romanticism of an immaculately bedecked Eddy and MacDonald, warbling ‘Will You Remember?’ amid an orchard of honeysuckle, its bowers casting a shower of soft and glistening white petals all around. To minimize costs, Mayer encouraged Gibbons to reuse as much of the interior glamor from Thalberg’s other spendthrift indulgences on Marie Antoinette (begun under Thalberg’s auspices, though yet to be released by the studio); a similar fate imparted on the studio’s production of the Garbo weepie, Conquest (made and released the same year as Maytime). Given the run of Metro’s extraordinary studio-bound sets, props and free-standing back lot forests, lakes and sets, Maytime is a thoroughly striking amalgam of Euro-sophistication meets California glam-bam. It oozes worldly charm.  
Our story begins on the kindly counsel of an aged Miss Morrison (Jeanette MacDonald) bestowed upon Barbara Roberts (Lynne Carver) – a passionate ingenue whose head is stuffed with the cotton, hay and rags to riches daydreams of becoming a great opera singer in New York. Predictably, Barbara’s rather Teutonic fiancée Kip Stuart (Tom Brown) does not want her to go. The couple quarrels. After Kip leaves Miss Morrison confides in Barbara she used to be Marcia Mornay – the world-famous opera diva who sacrificed true love for her art. Although we are yet quite unaware, as Barbara is, what real sacrifice looks like, MacDonald’s fragrantly wistful sense of longing infers the tale that is to follow will not be all hearts and flowers. Thus, we regress in flashback to the time of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Marcia and her impresario, Nicolai Nazaroff (John Barrymore) are invited to the French court to perform for Louie Napoleon (Guy Bates Post). Afterward, Nicolai tricks renown composer, Trentini (Paul Porcasi) into writing an opera exclusively for Marcia. Later that same evening Nicolai proposes to his protégé. Although she does not love him – and Nicolai knows this – Marcia agrees to wed out of a sense of loyalty for all Nicolai has done to help establish and build up her career. Overjoyed with the prospect of becoming a great operatic star (even if she has to sell her soul to get what she wants), and quite unable to sleep from all the giddy excitement, Marcia sneaks away for a midnight carriage ride after Nicolai has gone to bed. As fate would have it, the carriage breaks down in front of a tavern. While the driver begins his repairs, Marcia is drawn inside by the superb voice of Paul Allison (Nelson Eddy) a rather devil-may-care sort who lives in a nearby squalid one-room apartment with his music teacher, August Archipenko (Herman Bing).
Marcia is amused by Paul. He is nothing less than enchanted with her. Even so, August admonishes Paul for coming home so late, but is told that tomorrow Marcia Mornay has agreed to join them for lunch. She fulfills this promise, reminiscing with Paul and August about her home in Virginia. Paul steals a pair of opera tickets belonging to his friend, Fanchon (Sig Rumann) and attends Mornay’s last performance in France. However, at the opera Nicolai nervously spies Paul from beyond the footlights. Although he suspects Marcia and Paul’s friendship has developed deeper roots of affection, Nicolai is unable to justify these suspicions.  After the performance, Paul and Nicolai bump into each other in the hallway just outside of Marcia’s dressing room. She pretends Paul came backstage merely to congratulate her. But Nicolai is no fool. Moreover, he is the jealous sort. Paul is his competition for Marcia’s heart and he damn well knows it.
The next afternoon Paul and Marcia go ‘maying’ at the county fair; a golden afternoon of indulgences capped off by a romantic rendezvous in the pastoral hills outside of town where Marcia reluctantly admits she is on the cusp of fulfilling her promise of marriage to Nicolai. Paul desperately wants Marcia for his own. But she denies him their mutual love, marries Nicolai and departs Europe for a whirlwind tour of America. In the meantime, the forlorn Paul focuses his ambitions on his own singing career. Arriving in America to establish his own career with the New York Opera Company, Paul quickly rises through the ranks. Hence, when the company hires Marcia for their production of Traviata, Nicolai demands their choice of play be changed to the dourer Czaritza instead; less ‘artistic’ opportunity for Paul to rekindle his romantic passion for Marcia. Nevertheless, as the performances unfold in front of a live audience on opening night, the characters Marcia and Paul play are drawn into a spiraling passionate embrace that transcends art. Paul tells Marcia he will never let her go and Marcia agrees. She can no longer deny the love she feels. After the performance, Marcia fakes exhaustion to go home with Nicolai. But there she solemnly informs him she has decided to run away with Paul. Acknowledging Paul’s memory between them these past seven years of their married life, Nicolai – wounded and bitter – retires to his room, retrieves his pistol and trudges through the snowy streets to Paul’s brownstone.
Realizing too late where her husband has gone, Marcia runs after him. Nicolai arrives at the brownstone first. He tells Paul he has decided to give Marcia her freedom tomorrow, but he is giving Paul ‘his’ tonight. With this cryptic message Nicolai murders Paul. Marcia burst into the room and rushes to her lover’s side. He dies in her arms and the scene dissolves back to the present. A tearful Barbara thanks Miss Morrison for her advice. Kip returns and the two are reconciled with Barbara deciding to give up her career and become Kip’s wife. Drained of the strain of this lifelong secret, Miss Morrison quietly dies in her chair. She is revived as a youthful spirit and reunited with the perennially handsome Paul. The two walk away, hand in glove beneath the bowers of cascading honeysuckle; presumably destined to forever spend their eternity together.
Maytime is a marvelous movie; full of the sort of rank sentimentalism that warmed L.B. Mayer’s heart. And in viewing the film today one has to concur with its initial critical reception; Bosley Crowther declaring that, as a popular screen team Eddy and MacDonald had never been more ‘natural’ together. While Jeanette MacDonald’s performance in Maytime is consistent with others in her repertoire, Nelson Eddy’s is remarkably relaxed. He is convincing as both the loveable scamp when first introduced in the tavern, then as the more mature suitor who vows to rescue Marcia from her duty-bound wedlock to Nicolai. MacDonald effortlessly runs the gamut of emotions and ages, from precocious flirt to world-weary matron. John Barrymore lends a diabolical credibility to Nicolai Nazaroff, a man barely able to restrain his possessive jealousies. Herman Bing is a supremely satisfying bumbler; utterly charming in all his frustrated buffoonery.
Purging all but one of Romberg’s songs from his score composer, Herbert Stothart composed a twelve-minute aria inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony for Czaritza, then proceeded to repopulate the rest with songs from dead musicians whose work had fallen into public domain. Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots became a pivotal backdrop for the scene where Nicolai suspects a romantic entanglement between his wife and Paul. Other arias were borrowed from Donizetti, Verdi, Gounod and Wagner to fill in the musical gaps. At Napoleon’s embassy ball MacDonald trills the flirtatious Les Filles de Cadiz and the rousing Le Regiment de Sambre et Meuse. Purely from a musical perspective, Maytime is MacDonald’s show. The only time Eddy gets to sing alone is at the tavern when Paul is first introduced to Marcia and the audience. Otherwise, virtually all his songs are duets with MacDonald. Yet, Eddy becomes every bit MacDonald’s equal in the dramatic scenes – unusual and absolutely thrilling for fans only able to identify him as the usually wooden accompanist and/or appendage to MacDonald’s long lineage of robust and hearty chanteuses.
When Maytime had its premiere in March of 1937 it was all but universally revered by the critics as a seamless fusion of the high ideals of classical opera meets the pop culture at the movies. Audiences flocked to see it. In fact, Maytime’s box office even outranked San Francisco that, until Maytime’s release, had been MGM’s top money maker of the year.  Today, Maytime still ranks among the best movie musicals of its vintage. Unequivocally, it remains the very best operetta/movie musical Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy ever made together. The picture is full of that champagne and caviar schmaltz, hearts n’ flowers lilting melodies that raise our spirits high, reaffirming – at least in the uber-glamorous realm of musical fantasy – that perhaps some of the hardships in life can be rectified in the hereafter.
We could us a bit of rectifying on Warner Home Video’s MOD DVD transfer. Maytime is a film that deserves to have its original negative (if one still exists) re-scanned and cleaned up. It also deserves a Blu-ray release. The film, as it currently exists, is decidedly grainier than usual or what is even acceptable by today’s mastering standards.  Grain structure is an inherent part of photographic film. But Maytime’s grain on DVD looks a tad digitized rather than natural. The gray scale appears to have had its contrast levels slightly bumped too, creating a harsher than expected visual characteristic with the mid-register tonality blown out and overall, quite unflattering. Age-related artifacts persist and are intermittently distracting. The audio is mono and quite strident in spots with some minor hiss and pop, as when MacDonald hits the high ‘C’ during Le Regiment de Sambre et Meuse. As with other films in the Warner Archive Collection, all we get with this offering is a theatrical trailer that – oddly enough – looks very clean and solid. Recommended for content – not quality of transfer. Bottom line: we need Maytime restored and reissued from WAC on Blu-ray – sooner rather than later!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)