Monday, April 23, 2018

LES GIRLS: Blu-ray (MGM, 1957) Warner Archive

I suspect somewhere in the back of writer, John Patrick’s mind, the impetus for his screenplay to George Cukor’s Les Girls (1957) was a vision of Harry Van and Les Blondes, that gloriously fabricated act, featuring a rather randy, yet charismatic Clark Gable, warbling ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ and backed by a girlie chorus in the as enchanting comedy, Idiot’s Delight (1939). Alas, this hypnotic talisman of amusement is wholly absent from Les Girls. Ditto for Gable’s animal magnetism. In its place we get a somewhat sullen and thoroughly bossy Gene Kelly as the puppet master of a trio of would-be sexpots. The chief problem with Les Girls is that those waiting to see it were likely expecting a big and bloated fifties musical. With a score by Cole Porter (whose most recent contributions on the effervescent High Society, 1956 had hit the high-water mark in entertainment with a capital ‘E’) it’s easy to see why. But Porter was so ill by the time he agreed to partake of Les Girls he needed Saul Chaplin to assist. Still, not a bad second fiddle. Alas, all but 5 of Porter’s 12 contributions actually made it into the movie, and only one – ‘Ça c'est l'amour’ became a pop standard (although the bouncy title tune also has merit). For the rest, Les Girls is a perfunctory offering at best, bawdy – no less – but boring on the whole. In addition to being Porter’s last – and slightest – effort (he died in 1964 of kidney failure), Les Girls also put a period to star, Gene Kelly’s tenure at MGM and his full-blown in-front-of-the-camera participation in the genre he redefined for the post-war generation.
In hindsight, Les Girls is a terrible waste of a lot of good talent; starting with Kelly, reduced to playing a dazzlingly cruel and womanizing producer, Barry Nichols, the picture’s necessary deus ex machina to straighten out a bruhaha between the frivolous, Lady Sybil Wren (a luminous Kay Kendall), and, less-than-forthcoming Angèle Ducros (Taina Elg).  Both were once headliners in Nichols’ Parisian burlesque show, Les Girls, along with Joy Henderson (Mitzi Gaynor, utterly wasted). Now, the girls are at each other’s throats, thanks to a racy biography penned by Sybil in which she suggests Angèle once attempted a Sylvia Plath-styled suicide after her ill-fated affair with Barry. Countering the claim, Angèle swears it was Wren who tried to off herself with the gas – again, because of Nichols. Naturally, none of this sits well with each lady’s respective spouses, the painfully wooden Jacques Bergerac as Angèle’s trusting paramour, Pierre (he thinks she has been going to school to become a nurse), and, Leslie Philips, playing a real stick-in-the-mud, as the stiff-britches Brit, Sir Gerald Wren.
Cukor is obviously relishing the Parisian trappings – even if Les Girls was shot on backlot recreations, pilfered and redressed from An American in Paris (1951) and the ‘Limehouse’ sequences in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). But he is also aping his own style, better displayed in Warner’s monumental musical of 1954, A Star is Born. Virtually all of the theater sequences in Les Girls sport this same frenetic energy and backstage megalomania Cukor so lovingly imbued in ‘Star’ and knew how to effortlessly extol. There is even a ‘flashbulb’ sequence to kick off the London liable trial at the Old Vic, the paparazzi exposing enough celluloid to stock several volumes of ‘Hush-Hush’ Magazine. For all its homage and detail to period and sets (Cukor filling every inch of the Cinemascope frame with interesting bric-a-brac, Les Girls is one of those grotesque misfires, ostensibly to have hastened the death knell for the golden age of the MGM musical. Producer, Sol C. Siegel was hoping for another sparkling champagne cocktail. Alas, the dreadful flashback machinations spun by noted novelist, Vera Caspary, and badly bungled by John Patrick, get so mired in innuendo and misdirection it hardly seems worth the effort to further muddy the waters with four inconsequential production numbers, and one – a ripe parody of Marlon Brando’s 1953 motorcycling classic, The Wild One (reconstituted in Les Girls as Why Am I So Gone About the Gal?) that should have appeared in a musical more laudable of its ribald execution. Kelly’s deadpan spoof of Brando is bang on, arriving at a luridly impressionistic diner where he engages a prim waitress (danced by Mitzi Gaynor) in an electric pas deux of luscious satire.
Caspary would later quip she was Hollywood’s highest paid writer, receiving $80,000 for two words – Les Girls – since John Patrick’s screenplay bore no earthly resemblance to its source material. Perhaps it was pure panic on Siegel’s part to go ahead with what he had to work with as he was unsuccessful at luring Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse, Jean Simmons or Carol Haney onto the project. At least Caron or Charisse would have brought presence to their parts. But the trio ultimately settled upon, while accomplished performers apart, ironically failed to gel. None ever makes much of a splash in this picture. Kay Kendell is the most distinguished of the lot; her vivaciousness ever-so-slightly blunted by the leukemia that would claim her life just two years later at the age of 32. In 2006, critic Rhoda Koenig payed the actress a belated tribute, thus, “…in the wrong place at the wrong time”, the crime - a sheer waste of her formidable talents. “One of the most delightful of British actresses…a natural screwball heroine, Kendall was born too late for the 1930s comedies… and too soon for the naughtiness and absurdity of the 1960s…a true comedienne, unafraid to compromise her ladylike appearance with pratfalls, pop eyes and comic drunk scenes… without looking vulgar.”
Les Girls opens with a creative main title sequence conceived by Cukor’s long-time collaborator, Gene Allen and William A. Horning (the pair, also responsible for the picture’s art direction).  From here we regress to a rather dull opener at the Old Vic; Lady Sybil Wren called upon to take the stand and defend a chapter in her ‘tell-all’ biography, entitled ‘All for Love’. In it she suggests her one-time friend and fellow performer, Angèle Ducros tried suicide after being spurned by the only man she ever truly loved; the act’s manager/headliner, Barry Nichols. Wren’s allegation, that Angèle never loved Pierre Ducros (the wealthy man she ultimately wed) backfires when Angèle takes the witness stand to suggest it was Wren who turned on the gas in the apartment they shared, in an attempt to end the pain from a similar affair du Coeur with Nichols; a most disagreeable complication for Sybil’s stuffy hubby, Sir Gerald to swallow. Gerald would give his entire fortune to be rid of the trial’s notoriety, though not so much as a brass farthing to save the fractured fidelity in their marriage. Interpolated with these diametrically opposed testimonies, we retreat in flashback to happier times for all concerned; Sybil and fellow chorine, Joy Henderson called into Barry’s rehearsals for a ‘new girl’. Despite a pathetically weak audition, Barry hires Angèle on the spot, with Joy and Sybil agreeing to put her up in the cramped flat they already share.
Arriving with enough fashionable clothes and perfumes to stock a small couturier, we quickly learn our Angèle is hardly an angel, having played around with enough stage door Johnnies to write her own lurid memoir. In fact, Angèle is already engaged to Pierre, a handsome but naïve suitor whom she has been lying to about studying to become a nurse. Naturally, Pierre will never find out the truth. Or will he? After scoping out her fellow chorines as to their intentions, Angèle sets her cap for Barry; the two sharing a lazy afternoon punting along the Thames. Alas, Pierre arrives in search of his beloved – stalled in his inquiries by Joy and Sybil until Angèle’s late return from her outing with Barry. Once again, Angèle successfully eludes being found out by her fiancée. Alas, at the following night’s performance, Joe and Sybil both insist they have spotted Pierre in the audience. This leads to Angèle haplessly flubbing of the act. Humiliated, Barry fires her on the spot and a heartsore Angèle retreats in tears to the apartment to turn on the gas and end it all; spared certain death after discovered by Sybil.
It all seems rather cut and dry – very dry, indeed – until Angèle takes the stand in her own defense, the judge (Henry Daniell) cautioning her, she is under oath to tell the truth. Nevertheless, Angèle spins an alternative theory to the ordeal, painting Sybil as a raging alcoholic, constantly in threat of toppling their successful act because she has been spurned by Barry after a flawed/failed flagrante delicto. It seems Sybil is being pursued by Sir Gerald, who cannot wait much longer for wedding bells to peel madly. Refusing to accept that his potential wife prefers her career and Barry to him, a wrench is thrown into Sybil’s plans for grand amour with Barry when he elects to entertain Gerald’s invitation to open their act in a plush ‘legitimate’ theater with Gerald’s sponsorship – of course, without Sybil’s participation (and, with the understanding Sybil will be his wife). Being traded like a prized cow is not exactly what Sybil had in mind, and so she makes a rather clumsy attempt to thwart this arrangement by keeping Gerald and Barry apart during their planned rendezvous at a seedy and smoke-filled cabaret. Rather idiotically, her plans are foiled as Barry and Gerald clear the air and get into a barroom brawl that ends with a disgraced Sybil retreating to the apartment and turning on the gas; discovered at the last possible moment by none other than Angèle.
Unable to draw clarity from these polar opposite claims of romantic infamy, the judge calls upon a ‘surprise witness’; Barry Nichols, who arrives in typically suave fashion to set the record straight. It seems Barry was neither in love with Sybil nor Angèle, minimizing their interests in him as he spins yet another account of their collective past history. Barry was hot for Joy. She, alas, did not believe his intentions were honorable – at first. Hmmm. Perhaps, they weren’t! And thus, the affair to be was repeatedly delayed until the hour when neither could resist the other any longer. As neither Sybil nor Angèle were aware of Barry’s desire to wed Joy, and, according to Barry, neither was actually interested romantically in him, there was no reason for either to attempt suicide. According to Barry, neither did. In fact, Barry and Joy arrived at the apartment late to discover a faulty cup link on the gas main had ruptured, causing both Sybil and Angèle to become unconscious.
This latter summation of events really does not gel at all for several reasons: first, because the flat was not large and thus, Sybil and Angèle had to be aware of each other’s presence at home before fainting from the gas. Second, if neither was suicidal, why did they not attempt to shut off the gas sooner? Surely, if Barry and Joy could smell it from the outside Sybil and Angèle could also smell it from within. Hence, neither of their accounts, claiming to have discovered the other unconscious from ‘attempting suicide’ makes sense. Are both girls lying about everything else they witnessed leading up to the suicide? Sybil had not firsthand knowledge of an affair between Barry and Angèle or vice versa? Is Sybil’s bio a complete fiction as Angèle earlier claimed? Hmmm. Whatever ‘the truth’, Barry’s revised account of what ‘actually’ happened seems to satisfy the courts. The liable suit is dismissed. Sybil and Angèle are reconciled with their husbands, also settled in their long-estranged friendship. The girls embrace as Barry and Joy – who have married – look on from the back of a taxi cab. Joy suggests she does not believe a word of Barry’s testimony and thus, perhaps, intends to dissolve their partnership or, at the very least, make the coming days very uncomfortable for him. A disgusted Barry mutters, “Here we go again” as the taxi pulls away from the courthouse.  
From start to finish, Les Girls is a conflagration of misdirection and false starts. It barely comes alive during its more lighthearted musical sequences that, quite frankly, are incidental to a story having virtually no place for their showcase. Cukor and his cast would have been better served to concentrate either on straight melodrama or strict English farce. As John Patrick’s screenplay plays fast and loose with the conventions of both genres, periodically interrupted by the occasional song and/or dance, Les Girls emerges as an artistic gumbo of flailing/failed possibilities. Were that the casting had been more interesting too. Gene Kelly just seems to be going through the motions here. As the focus is not on his trademarked bright and breezy air of masculinity he appears out of place and rather cursorily inserted, merely for the box office cache his name above the title could then bring to a theater marquee. The ‘girls’ in Les Girls do their best to carry the show. But the heavy-handedness of the story conspires to submarine their camaraderie. In the final analysis, Les Girls amounts to a whole lot of nothin’ glossed up with some stellar production values and some gorgeous set design.  It all looks spell-bindingly attractive in Cinemascope. But it falls into mush of the lowest and most pointless order like a half-baked soufflé.
Not one of my fondest MGM musical memories, for sure, and a real head-scratcher for selection on Blu-ray via the Warner Archive (WAC). The executive logic behind a good many of WAC’s Blu-ray releases baffles me when so many stellar examples of MGM’s supremacy in the musical genre (Holiday in Mexico, Show Boat, Annie Get Your Gun, Good News, The Harvey Girls, High Society, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers…and on and on) remain MIA in hi-def.  Les Girls was shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer, Robert Surtees in problematic Eastmancolor that has since proven to suffer from a complete implosion of its ‘yellow layer’ – resulting in severe discoloring and fading. As no viable negative could be used in this remastering effort, WAC has turned to a relatively unencumbered interpositive made over thirty years ago with superior color stabilization.  This was scanned at 2K at Warner’s own imaging facility. Aside: I really do not see the point at this late stage in home video, performing anything less than a 4K scan on virtually all digital restorations being attempted in the present, since 4K mastering is fast becoming the new ‘norm’, thus leaving 2K work performed today virtually no ‘wiggle room’ for a legit upgrade to 4K in the future…if, indeed, this is Warner’s ambition. But I digress.
WAC has achieved miraculous color-correction on Les Girls while applying their routinely thorough cleanup to eliminate dirt, scratches and age-related damage. The result is a phenomenally pristine and razor-sharp 1080p transfer, its only limitations inherent in the era’s CinemaScope lenses (creating a slight vertical warp to the extreme left and right, as well as ever-so-slightly diffused clarity. Grain is amply on view and properly maintained for some truly impressive resolution and overall texture. The bland color that afflicted the 2003 DVD release of Les Girls has been replaced with sumptuous hues, interchangeably vibrant during the production numbers and more appropriately demure for the courtroom sequences. Blacks are solid, contrast is superb.  Optical dissolves, always suffering during the infancy of Cinemascope, herein maintain a consistent palette. Les Girls soundtrack was remastered in 2003 from original ‘scope’ mag-tracks to create a home video 5.1 presentation. Herein, it’s favored with an uptick to DTS 5.1 and predictably, the results are immersive, besting the DVD release.
Extras are limited to a charming Tex Avery cartoon ‘The Flea Circus’ regrettably, suffering from age-related dirt and dust, some aliasing and digital combing; plus, a careworn theatrical trailer missing its voice-over narration. Bottom line: while Les Girls is hardly an award-winning entertainment, this Blu-ray offers reference-quality mastering for a title, arguably, unworthy of the effort.  Now, can we convince someone at WAC to take an interest in some of their aforementioned ‘true musical gems’ in the Technicolor and Eastman back catalog, to say nothing of the myriad of non-musical ones still waiting in the wings (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Three Musketeers, National Velvet, Scaramouche, Ivanhoe among them – plus B&W treasures like The Great Ziegfeld, Rosalie, Random Harvest, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Red Dust, San Francisco, The Great Waltz, The Good Earth…and on and on and on and on. Bottom line: as an entertainment, pass on Les Girls and be very glad that you did. As an example of 1080p mastering (or a Gene Kelly completionist) – you’ll likely want to pick up this disc. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Saturday, April 21, 2018

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN: 4K Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 2017) Fox Home Video

Director Michael Gracey calls out the specter of a Baz Luhrmann musical in The Greatest Showman (2017) – a film that reports to be about the early life and times of P.T. Barnum. Ultimately, its more ‘show’ than ‘tell’ or even ‘history’ for that matter, and evolves into precisely the sort of gaudy, slightly bawdy, and rhythmically pulsating razzamatazz that could make even the likes of Florenz Ziegfeld blush. While the general consensus today has cleared Barnum’s reputation of the oft misquoted line, “There’s a sucker born every minute”, Gracey and his menagerie of oddities do their best – quite often, to succeed – at flimflamming the rest of us into believing in this colorful claptrap. The screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon is slight. But that’s okay, because The Greatest Showman is more about retaining an air of resplendent period, imbued with an ebullient message of toe-tapping hope (the trademarked ‘feel good’ all musicals should have), and, contemporized by its bass-pounding Benj Pasek/Justin Paul score, that includes the Oscar-nominated, ‘This is Me’ – an anthem to the most unique of humanity’s forgotten, brought into the spotlight by Barnum’s vision quest for ‘the greatest show on earth’…not yet – actually.
Two prejudices to set aside before embarking on the excursion: first, this isn’t the story of Barnum’s life, but a gorgeously lit and sumptuously photographed pop opera a la Andrew Lloyd Webber, and second, its only vague resemblance to history is to be found in Nathan Crowley’s spectacular production design. Do we really need to know there was no great love affair between Jenny Lind and P.T. Barnum (just one of the fanciful departures from truth in the movie), or that Charity, Barnum’s wife, was more careworn frump, raising three daughters (a fourth died tragically) largely on her own while P.T. was galivanting across the continent with his show of shows? Is it necessary to point out Barnum had about as much sex appeal as a nudie of Lyle Lovett or that Lind, mousy and plump, could nevertheless make grown men weep genuine tears solely on the power and emotion caught in her tender voice? Probably not. Artistic license in movies stands for something, as does suspension of disbelief. We used to go to the movies to escape reality, not to rediscover it, unattractive and festering, like a boil upon our collective psyche, never to be properly lanced. For the most part, movies today are the antithesis of escapism, rubbing our noses in the complexities and vile atrocities of humanity’s mad inhuman noise. Personally, I hate that, which is probably why I absolutely adored The Greatest Showman.
The picture also benefits immensely from the behind-the-scenes contributions of art director, Laura Ballinger, and, costumer Ellen Mirojnick, Seamus McGarvey’s beautifully composed cinematography and, last – though certainly not least, Ashley Wallen’s thoroughly inventive choreography, occasionally diluted by the verve in Gracey’s swirling camerawork, prone to artistically clever and frequent cutaways. Can we just get a director who understands a real dancer caught in his art can be photographed in full figure and still captivate the audience?!? But I digress. Personally, I don’t mind the parity between Luhrmann and Gracey, especially since The Greatest Showman’s Ashley Wallen also happened to be a dancer on Luhrmann’s best movie to date – Moulin Rouge (2001). The exuberance, athleticism and balletics featured in tandem in Wallen’s dance routines cannot be understated. The Aussie-born Wallen, whose resumé includes choreographic work for Kylie Minogue and Mariah Carey, a flash mob for Oprah, and, West End and Broadway productions of Ghost - the Musical, is precisely the sort of terpsichorean zeitgeist to helm such an elephantine ode to one of the most shameless self-promoters of all time. Imagine: a director of a contemporary Hollywood musical who actually thinks dance routines are important!
The Greatest Showman could have been better. That said, it’s still pretty good and fairly entertaining to boot; Gracey, convinced the old-fashioned-ness of the genre and his subject matter are best served by a lot of frenetic and bouncy tunes. One of the few artistic misfires The Greatest Showman makes is to ignore the basic structure of the traditional movie musical soundtrack. As such, there are no ‘slow songs’ in the picture – not even orchestral respites between the ballyhoo and hoopla of this three-ring circus within a circus. Even the one pseudo-love ballad, ‘A Million Dreams’ – a ‘traveling song’ - quickly takes off from its soulful introspection between the tender-hearted, Barnum (Ellis Rubin as a child/singing voice dubbed by Ziv Zaifman) and his prepubescent paramour, Charity (Skylar Dunn); the pair matured, in the blink of an eye, into Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams, thrust into a fanciful recreation of moonlit rooftops where even the pristine white sheets dangling from clothes lines are suddenly stirred in unison to compliment the choreography; Jackman tossing Williams about, saving her from aspired leaps over the edge, and finally, caught in a clinch, the camera pulling back to reveal Charity’s first pregnancy.
The concision with which Gracey jump-cuts from awkward and occasionally heart-breaking adolescence into the adult world of woe nevertheless retains its air of whimsy, and this is a good thing.  I have read far too many critical reviews about The Greatest Showman, damning its stylized ‘sweetness and light’ as a ‘showy and confused big hunk of nothing’ when in reality it is Gracey’s optimistic outlook that achieves the sort of big and splashy reminiscence of an old MGM musical, teeming with gloss and gigantism a la a producer like Arthur Freed or Joe Pasternak in their heyday. Perhaps too many of these self-appointed mandarins of film critique, having fallen all over themselves in their idiotic praise of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) – a movie painfully unworthy of the hype it received – were as rife now to pull out their axes and perform a hatchet job on Gracey’s grace note and homage to P.T. But at the very least, Hugh Jackman can carry a note. Ryan Gosling cannot. And Jackman, one of the most diverse talents of his generation, has infinitely more screen presence and talent suited to the Hollywood musical to recommend him. Sporting the testosterone-pulsating manliness of a Gene Kelly and the finesse of the ever-elegant, Fred Astaire, Jackman lends this incarnation of Barnum both his own sex appeal and class. Having seen pictures of the actual P.T. Barnum, let’s just be kind herein and state for the record, the guy was no oil painting!
The other noteworthy from the cast is Zac Efron, whose big break in 2006’s High School Musical ought to have instantly reserved him a place in the pantheon as any director’s A-list ‘for hot musical talent. Alas, in the interim we have seen far too little of Efron’s innate gifts as a truly blessed singer/dancer; relegated instead to an endless potpourri of syrupy and prepubescent tripe (Rodney St. Cloud, 2010), the fleeting ‘serious role’ (The Paperboy, 2012) and occasional, out and out flop: Baywatch (2017) – anyone?!? Nevertheless, it is gratifying to see Efron having migrated beyond that rather goony and effete ‘teen pretty boy’ persona cultivated in High School Musical and its two nauseating sequels. Muscling up and turning 30 helps. But The Greatest Showman really doesn’t give Efron, cast as wealthy playwright, Phillip Carlyle (a character very loosely based on James Anthony Bailey), a whole lot of screen time or the chance to show his stuff as a singer, although he acquits himself rather spectacularly of a competition-styled bar room dance with Jackman (swapping shots and a few taps to ‘The Other Side’) and a spirited bungee cord pas deux with the luscious Zendaya (as trapeze artist, Anne Wheeler).  
It is a little disheartening to see a star as gifted as Michelle Williams play third wheel to the Jackman/Efron bro-mantic chemistry that dominates most of this show, perhaps even blunting the impact P.T.’s affair with Euro-chanteuse, Jenny Lind and certainly diluting the racially complicated ardor between Carlyle and Wheeler. Of the oddities Barnum manages to bring together in record time, few are afforded enough screen time to distinguish themselves; Sam Humphrey’s midget, Charles Stratton – a.k.a. Gen. Tom Thumb, and Keala Settle’s bearded lady, Lettie Lutz about the brightest of the lot. Contemporary Hollywood’s underlying agenda to promote cultural diversity is again on full display. For once, however, it suits the story, even if the challenges of conquering social prejudices and racism are predictably met with reviled outcries from a rather hapless and homogenized mob of ‘white-faced’ ugly Americans, who cast penetrating glances and condescending catcalls from the alley ways and cheap seats. It is, in fact, one of The Greatest Showman’s painful revelation to discover P.T. among the grey fringe of these hypocrites, refusing his ‘freaks’ access to an elegant soiree where his latest find, Euro-singing sensation, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson/singing voice, Loren Allred) is holding court amidst some stuffy admirers. And this, after they have already met and thoroughly charmed Queen Victoria (played with ineffectual aplomb by Gayle Rankin).
The Greatest Showman inexplicably opens with a double-dip of the 2oth Century-Fox trademark: first, the 1950’s Cinemascope version to be immediately followed by its contemporary rendering, then, delayed opening credits interpolated with Jackman’s Barnum performing ‘The Greatest Show’ amidst a swirling menagerie of his oddities in accompaniment to the exuberant cheers of a captivated audience. Suddenly, the lights flicker, the applause dims and our ‘showman’ is swallowed up in darkness. We fade up on a prepubescent, Barnum peering through the window of a local tailor’s shop; his father, Philo (Will Swenson), nervously emerging with fabrics from which to make his latest clothes for uber-wealthy, Mr. Hallett (Frederic Lehne). Alas, the fitting does not go as planned when young Barnum makes Hallett’s daughter, Charity laugh, causing her to spill tea down the front of her dress. Attempting to discipline his child, Hallett turns his wrath upon P.T. after the boy confesses to the amusement, slapping Barnum hard across the face and warning for him to ‘stay away’ from his daughter.
A short while later, Charity finds her way to the beach where Barnum is convalescing. The two are obviously devoted to each other. We TripTik through Barnum’s unhappy childhood; suffering the devastating loss of his father, cast into the streets as one of the nameless urchins, attempting to steal a loaf of bread only to be restrained by the baker, but then, offered a solitary apple from a deformed peddler. Heeding the ‘go west’ call of the railway, Barnum grows into maturity while Charity is away at school. Upon earning enough money to offer her his hand in marriage, Charity’s acceptance is met by her father’s perversely bitter skepticism. ‘She’ll be back when the money runs out!’ Hallett promises Barnum.  But Hallett has underestimated his daughter’s resolve; also, her genuine love for P.T. Although the two are poor in funds, they remain richly devoted to each other. Charity gives birth to two daughters, Helen (Cameron Seely) and Caroline (Austyn Johnson). Barnum, a devoted husband and father is frequently ashamed he is unable to provide luxuries for his family, promising one day to fulfill all of their dreams. Inspired to succeed, he forges a document from his former place of employment and uses the bond as collateral to open his first museum in the heart of the city. Alas, the stuffed exhibits do not bring in the crowds as planned; Barnum’s daughters providing the spark of ingenuity by suggesting to their father he needs ‘live acts’ to make his venture a success.
Concurring with their assessment, Barnum decides to establish a museum devoted to living human oddities and begins placing ads everywhere to encourage ‘unique persons’ to apply for a job with his fledgling organization. This leads him to the discovery of the forlorn Tom Thumb, hiding in his room, and the ashamed Lettie Lutz, resigned behind a curtain to conceal her bearded visage as a washer woman. Again, we flip through a picture book of Barnum’s human acquisitions; conjoined twins, Chang (Yusaku Komori) and Eng (Danial Son); strong man (Timothy Hughes), the Human Cannonball (Kenneth Chan) and Dog Boy (Luciano Acuna Jr.) among the lot. Barnum also hires acrobats, W.D. Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his sister, Anne, whose only oddity appears to be they are black and talented. While Barnum’s reputation for putting on a ‘freak show’ like none other quickly captures the interest of the masses, it earns the scorn of noted journalist, James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks); his publications simultaneously heightening the public’s curiosity in the show, but also inciting mob protests at the stage door of Barnum’s theater. Desperate to earn ‘legitimate’ recognition as a showman par excellence, Barnum approaches successful playwright, Philip Carlyle at a social gathering. A playboy born to privilege with a penchant for mischief, Carlyle resists Barnum’s invitation to join his act; that is, until he meets and becomes instantly smitten with Anne. She is unimpressed by his ‘interest’, perceiving it as fleeting and predicated on a curiosity for the exoticism of bedding a black woman. Carlyle finagles an invitation for Barnum with Queen Victoria; the English court agog when the showman arrives at Buckingham Palace with his entire troupe of performers who nevertheless earn the Queen’s hearty respect after Tom Thumb breaks precedence by speaking to Her Majesty frankly.
At a post-reception, Barnum is introduced to singer, Jenny Lind. And although he has never heard her perform, Barnum allows Lind’s reputation to precede her. With great aplomb he offers to introduce her to New York society; Lind, becoming intrigued by his chutzpah and confidence. Lind agrees to cross the Atlantic. Barnum rents the opera theater and debuts his latest discovery. Lind is a sensation and Barnum finally gains the respect of New York’s upper crust. Alas, he badly flubs this advantage when Charity’s estranged parents (her mother played by Kathryn Meisle) arrive at Lind’s post-debut gala. Mr. Hallett attempts a half-hearted reconciliation with his son-in-law, but is chastised by Barnum, whom he then refers to as still ‘only a tailor’s son’. Barely able to contain his disgust for them, Barnum orders the Halletts to withdraw. They do, and Charity is marginally ashamed for her husband. After all he has achieved, he still craves acceptance from those who, ostensibly, matter the least. Charity remind P.T. that the most important love he can ever attain he already possesses in spades: hers and their daughters.
Sadly, it isn’t enough and Barnum, now more determined than ever to become a household name, revered for the ages, chooses to accompany Lind on a world tour, leaving his family behind and his ‘freak show’ – newly rechristened as ‘the circus’ – to be managed and M.C.’ed by Carlyle. The crowds continue to come and see the show. Carlyle professes his love to Anne who reluctantly falls under its spell. The lovers attend the opera. But their arrival is admonished by Carlyle’s parents (Byron Jennings and Betsy Aidem) who cannot understand why their son would wish to associate with ‘the other’, not of his race or class. Mr. Carlyle threatens to cut off his son’s inheritance to which Philip forewarns he will never back down in his love for Anne. She, however, is untrusting of its fidelity and withdraws from the affair. At the same instance, the mob of protestors breaks into the theater after the show, attacking the oddities and setting fire to all that Barnum has built on the very night P.T. is returning home prematurely from the tour - but without Lind. Earlier, Lind had laid all her cards on the table, professing love to Barnum – unrequited and thus, almost instantly turning her heart to stone. Giving reporters something scandalous to print, a picture of the two kissing on stage, Lind steps aside, allowing the fallout to inflict its casualties on Barnum’s marriage.
Reading of the ‘affair’ in the local paper, Charity leaves Barnum, taking their daughters back to her parent’s home. Dismayed by the loss of his theater and ruination of his marriage, Barnum is encouraged by his roster of oddities to rebuild his show. At first, stumped how to re-finance a new super-structure to house the act, Barnum eventually lights on the inspired idea of substituting a tent for the conventional brick and mortar location. A traveling show pays no taxes. All it needs is a vacant lot to turn on the magic. Imbued with renewed optimism, Barnum arrives at the Hallett’s mansion to collect his wife and daughters. Begging Charity’s forgiveness and vowing to spend more time with his family, Charity accepts and Barnum debuts his new ‘big top’ extravaganza, passing along the ring master’s responsibilities to Carlyle in the final moments. Carlyle, who almost died in the fire, but recovered to earn Anne renewed respect and love, now proudly leads the glittering and gaudy processional of oddities, acts and animals through a celebratory pantheon of color and lights.    
The Greatest Showman may have absolutely nothing – or very little – to do with history. In point of fact, those misguidedly seeking a biographical account of Barnum, the champion abolitionist with a political streak, much later to be fulfilled, should take their daily dose of truth elsewhere. The Greatest Showman isn’t interested in truth outside of a thumbnail sketch. Thus, it remains long on spectacle and the inherent goodness of one man who brought immense joy to the lives of so many through his visionary traveling circus.  Pundits poo-pooing the picture’s sentimentality as abysmal treacle, appealing only to the lowest common denominator, have sorely forgotten that man (and woman) cannot survive on intellectual stimulation alone. Reality is very depressing, folks. The movies are – or rather, should be – and used to be, about extolling the immensity of the human spirit, about discovering the strength in human folly and sacrifice, and, recognizing it via an artistic parable to puncture the balloons of hypocrisy and sham, elevating our souls and making us glad to be a part of life’s ever-evolving cavalcade. Forget about labeling The Greatest Showman as a biopic. It is a pleasure to watch any movie – though, this one in particular – that can call upon just enough of our intelligence to make us realize the pursuit of art for art’s sake has merit too, and possibly, for the betterment of our collective wellness as we exit the theater humming the songs, remembering the moments, and filling our hearts – as well as our minds – with the gladness that comes when we have been royally entertained for just an hour or two. If there is a sucker born every minute, The Greatest Showman likely suggests it is those among us, too-too loftily corrupted by their own intellect to identify the strength in sentiment, because its’ beauty is something they will never grasp. Poor, poor devils. 
Nothing poor or uninviting about The Greatest Showman in 4K – a miracle of Blu-ray mastering, in fact. Digitally photographed and finished in native 4K, this disc really shows off cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey’s…well…showy visuals to their best advantage, in a fully saturated, glossy/gaudy spectrum of colors, and, the interplay of almost chiaroscuro lighting contrasted in darker night scenes. Close-ups reveal so much about the actors, skin and dimpled imperfections, one wonders whether or not the precision of hi-def photography has perhaps gone a shay too far. I saw a pimple, albeit painted in heavy concealer, on Zac Efron’s chin. Everything about The Greatest Showman’s 4K transfer sparkles. Detail levels are uniformly excellent. CGI backgrounds stand in relief from the actual sets and occasionally look softer than the rest, I suspect, in an attempt to hide the seams where reality drops off and the clever matte work of a digital artist has kicked in. There is virtually nothing to complain about here, so we won’t. Moving on to the DTS 7.1 audio, it is as perfect as the picture, providing an immersive aural experience that will surely impress in its ample ambience, craftily spread throughout all channels, though ever so delicately nuanced in the sides and rears. It goes without saying, dialogue is crisp and clean while the score, sporting an impressive bass, thunders across the proscenium with all the energy of a raging tiger let loose from its cage.
Most of the extras are contained on the standard Blu-ray only (also included). We get a thorough audio commentary from Michael Gracey. At 1hr. 10min. The Songs is by far the most comprehensive examination of any film score I have ever witnessed for any home video release. We also get The Family Behind The Greatest Showman, 14 min. of interviews with cast and crew; a half-hour featurette on The Spectacle, extensive galleries containing copious art work and storyboards, a ‘Music Machine/Sing Along’ option. Finally, there are several theatrical trailers. Bottom line: While The Greatest Showman is grotesquely inaccurate to the truth of Barnum’s life, it remains a superb, if occasionally formulaic rags-to-riches love affair with the trappings of the circus. So, sit back and prepare to be dazzled – and yes, entertained: precepts and achievements P.T. himself would undoubtedly have approved. Yes – this is the greatest show!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

GREASE: 4K Blu-ray (Paramount, 1978) Paramount Home Video

Randal Kleiser’s Grease (1978) continues to find new legions of fans. That’s something I suppose, considering it is only a middling effort as a musical; albeit, with a killer score and the iconic star-making performance of John Travolta, still riding the crest of instant fame afforded him from the previous year’s Saturday Night Fever. Grease is, of course, the phenomenally successful film adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name, herein trapped in a curious time warp, the mores and manners of the 1970’s melded to its halcyon-inducing bits of nostalgia for the fabulous fifties. Most of the original Jim Jacobs/Warren Casey score has survived the transition from stage to screen with a few new songs written expressly for the screen.  Alas, unlike the idyllic world of, say, an Andy Hardy, the configuration here of muscle cars, malt shops and moonlit make-outs in the backseat at the drive-in just seem to retain an artifice untrue to its narrative time frame. Nostalgia for the fifties was big in ’78 thanks in part to an earlier kick start from George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973). Yet Grease doesn’t feel like the fifties; the actors – all of them – far too old to convince as teenagers. Lest we forget John Travolta was 24 in 1978; Olivia Newton-John – his senior at 30, and Annette Charles, as the raunchy/high-stepping Cha-Cha, also 30, but looking at least 10 years everyone else’s senior.
There is no doubt Grease solidified John Travolta’s fame as an international pop icon. It also brought spandex back in style and put Olivia Newton-John on U.S. pop charts – a love affair that was brief at best and all but killed off by her epic implosion in the musical misfire, Xanadu (1980). In retrospect, Grease moves like gangbusters with songs that are ‘electrifying’ and an energy that is…well, ‘greased lightnin’.  Yet, in comparing the film to other musical entertainments of its vintage – or even musicals in general – one finds very little to recommend it as an exemplar of the genre. Bronte Woodard’s screenplay Ginsus the romance between Aussie export, Sandy Olson and her greaser boy toy, Danny Zucco into truncated vignettes and failed flagrante delictos, clumsily strung together and book-ended by songs. When Kleiser paints these ‘boy meets girl’ cardboard cutouts into a narrative corner (and frequently, he does) the movie simply breaks them into song to divert attention away from the fact there is virtually zero substance to his picture-making style. Like all Hollywood musicals gone past the expiration date of the studio system, having crumbled to dust by the mid-1960’s, Grease suffers from a total dearth of precisely the sorts of behind-the-scenes stock company each studio kept in its heyday that would have lent stardust magic to its puff pastry of studio-bound pastiche. Patricia Birch’s choreography amounts to little more ambitious than a lot of hip-swiveling and highly sexualized gyrations, some mindless chaotic flailing, and, as equally un-balletic leaps from the cast off the furniture and occasionally, moving vehicles (the much-lauded Hand Jive is not a dance, folks).  
Grease is a revival – of sorts, tricked out in re-imagined costuming and a top-selling soundtrack. Alas, it all but embalms the fifties in a thick coat of 70’s fantastic plastic: a lot of sun, sex and slick to mask a one-note wonder. Unequivocally, Grease pleasantly passes the time. Nevertheless, it remains a vacuous and rather simplistic distillation of that buttoned-down and poodle-skirted epoch, immortalized in the annals of real – rather than ‘reel’ history as the age of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Bobby Rydell. That Grease has endured for so long is a testament, although I am not entirely certain as to what…good timing? Bad taste? Or our collective pop culture amnesia, chronically to set aside the past in favor of the proverbial ‘next best thing’ that, more oft’ than not, turns out to be half as good?  Grease lacks the finesse of a studio-bound movie musical. In its absence, we get John Travolta – clearly, one of the emerging stars of his generation who went on to do ‘other/better’ movies. What Travolta has cannot be taught: a presence that clicks with audiences. We will stop short of labeling it ‘animal magnetism’ because its hypnotic sway has proven to falter – on occasion, horrendously – when the mixture of elements surrounding him are not quite so. A real star can rise above his material. But Travolta (and I am venturing out on a limb here) is not a great actor. He possesses the chutzpah of a showman and the inherent sexiness of the blue-eyed boy next door no self-respecting girl could introduce to her mother. He relies heavily on body language and his undeniable good looks as subterfuge in lieu of any genuine acting ability. This too can go a long way. Cute sells. Sex too. Sex more, actually. And its ether has carried Travolta to heights that few of his limited range are able to scale and remain on top for so long.   
It may appear as though I am needlessly bashing both a beloved cultural touchstone and a ‘star’ who – let’s face it – was gutsy enough to put on a fat woman’s suit for Hairspray (2007). However (in)sincerely then, I admit to two things: first, like so many growing up in the 1970’s, I too fell under the spell of Grease’s song n’ dance silliness, and second, in the years since moving beyond the naïveté of my own youth, I really cannot quantify the reasons why Grease – despite its myriad of artistic flaws and faux pas - has nevertheless stayed with me as a fondly recollected memory. It remains a diverting pop-u-tainment – yes. But it never comes across as anything better than a frenetic explosion of crass commercialism where the seeming ‘life and death’ crises of oversexed teenagers are played strictly as camp. As big a star as Travolta became in the seventies because of this movie, were Grease truly a musical ‘from’ the 1950’s, his talents would register as merely good enough to play the guy on the side, in support of the real/reel ‘name above the title’.  The most interesting performance in the picture is, in fact, given by Stockard Channing (then, a sage 34 yrs.), as the devilish and sexually-liberated Rizzo. She suffers a pregnancy scare and evolves – almost magically – into the sadder but wiser young tart of this over-the-hill Hollywoodized hoodlum sect.
What remains renewably infectious about Grease then, is the energetic – if utterly naïve – way Kleiser and his cast sell its less-than-perfect claptrap to the audience with far less sincerity for the material. It is therefore one of Kleiser’s great inspirations to have populated the backdrop of his movie with a cavalcade of genuine icons from the 1950’s, old enough to remember them fondly and remind us of their glory, including Eve ‘Our Miss Brooks’ Arden as Principal McGee, Sid Caesar (Coach Calhoun), Ed ‘Kookie’ Byrnes (as hip-swiveler/radio jock, Vince Fontaine), Joan Blondell (malt shop waitress, Vi) and, as the fantasy ‘Teen Angel’ called upon by the most ‘mixed up non-delinquent’ and beauty school dropout, Frenchie (Didi Conn), none other than beach blanket fav, Frankie Avalon. Kleiser also gets a lot of mileage out of Sha Na Na; in retrospect, the as bizarrely trend-setting rock n’ roll ensemble whose act simultaneously revived and parodied the fab fifties in gaudy gold lamé, leather jackets, pomaded pompadours and greased up ducktail hairdos. A different time, I suppose, but Sha Na Na was wildly popular then, even hosting their own weekly variety show from 1977 to 1981. In Grease they are simply ‘the band’ – augmenting the ‘dance off’ competition with reworked renditions of such pop standards as ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Hound Dog’.  
Plot wise: it’s senior year at ‘rockin’ Rydell High School. Our story zeros in on Sandy Olsson (Newton-John) a goody-two-shoes bobbysoxer from Australia who is destined to be corrupted by greaser, Danny Zucco (Travolta). From the wrong side of the tracks, but with his heart in the right place, Danny is forced into an impossible confrontation with Sandy by his ex, Rizzo (Stockard Channing). Currently the girlfriend of Danny’s best pal, Kenickie (Jeff Conway), Rizzo knows Danny is genuinely in love with Sandy. She also acknowledges that our purebred Sandy is ‘hopeless devoted’ to Danny. To save face with his buddies, Danny alienates Sandy at a pep rally. Good for his image. Bad for his love life. Utterly humiliated, Sandy goes off with jock, Tom Chisum (a blond Lorenzo Lamas whose ‘brains are in his biceps’), leaving Danny to do just about anything he can to get her back. Eventually, true love prevails. After all, this is a musical. But the road to happiness is not without its potholes.
After Rydell is selected to star in a live televised ‘dance off’ competition hosted by dreamy D.J. Vince Fontaine, Rizzo plots yet again to wreck Danny’s chances with Sandy, reintroducing him to another former flame – Cha-Cha. She has brought her tough-as-nails boyfriend, Leo (Dennis Stewart) in for a piece of the action. It’s something of an ego-crushing heartbreak for Sandy to discover our Danny gets around like an alley cat in heat. Sensing his previous relationship with Cha-Cha may not be entirely finished (Cha-Cha steals Danny away from Sandy during the dance off and helps him win the competition), Sandy leaves the auditorium in tears. A short while later, she succumbs to the allure of a transformation from the girls, becoming precisely the sort of leather and spandex-clad vixen that appeals to Danny’s less than honorable intentions. At the year-end high school carnival, Danny gets reintroduced to this new ‘and improved’ Sandy, who sells her stiletto and sexpot image with great success. He better shape-up, however, because this Sandy needs a real man to keep her satisfied. I suppose we can forgive Sandy, sacrificing wholesome morals to turn herself inside out for a guy. After all, her head has yet to be twisted by sixties bra-burning feminism.
Grease may not be a stellar musical. Most assuredly, it bears no resemblance to high art. But it does effectively pass the time with a lot of inhuman noise set to a toe-tapping rhythm. Today, it is heralded as a fondly recalled time capsule more than a bona fide film classic. This is probably the best its enduring legacy can – or rather, should attain. That newer generations, not around in 1978, continue to re-discover it is more the mystery here. Grease has been endlessly reincarnated and lampooned as everything from an episode of TV’s popular series, Glee (2009-15) to a complete revival on the small screen in 2016, likely owed its Broadway roots more than this movie. And yet, it is the iconography of the ’78 picture that keeps coming back; the ‘one that we want’ over and over again, like the faint odor of sweaty gym socks left to ferment in the backseat of the family car on a sweltering hot summer afternoon after football practice. So, Grease is the word, is the word, is word…and likely to persist for as long as youth continues to catch the novelty full force and unearth something perennially appealing about it. Precisely what this intangible quality is remains open for discussion. I am certain I have neither the time nor the inclination to satisfy such a query.    
While Grease’s artistic integrity is up for grabs, no one ought to be disputing the remastered Grease in 4K. First up, thanks to a contractual dispute between Coke, Paramount Pictures and Pepsi, virtually all previous home video releases depicting scenes in the malt shop had their product placement digitally obscured; the result, a few extremely clumsy looking ‘mattes’ that created disturbing and thoroughly fuzzy halos around actors walking back and forth in front of them. Apparently, producer Allan Carr orchestrated a deal with Pepsi for product placement in the picture, only to learn Kleiser had already shot these scenes with vintage Coca-Cola ads plastered all over the set. It proved a double-edged sword, as no one had actually cleared the rights with Coke Inc. first. While the brouhaha was settled out of court, even as the picture hit theaters, Coke denied Paramount permission to reissue Grease on home video unless all product placement for their brand was removed. Until this 4K release, all reissues of Grease, both theatrical on home video, from VHS to LaserDisc to DVD, and finally, Blu-ray, suffered this indignation.
Well, prepare to be astonished, as they used to say, because for Grease’s 40th anniversary, Paramount has accessed an original camera negative, restored most of the Coke ads and altered only a handful. The crystal clarity of Grease in 4K will surely startle and impress. Viewing Grease in 4K is like experiencing the movie for the very first time – or perhaps, more astutely put – like never before. Without embellishment of any kind, this UHD transfer is a revelation. Colors are so rich and vibrant they make Paramount’s previous Blu-ray look chalky, wan and careworn. Contrast is equally impressive with deep, solid blacks. Film grain is velvety smooth and HDR has been sparingly applied. There really is no comparing Grease in any other home video format to this 4K release. It will blow your mind. The other epiphany…the DTS 5.1 audio derived, for the very first time, from restored original magnetic 70mm roadshow elements. Again, it’s like hearing Grease as never before; dialogue, ultra-crisp, the score pulsating with subtleties in its orchestral accompaniment absent all these years.  Extras are all ported over from the previous ‘Rockin’ Rydell’ Blu-ray and are included only on the standard Blu-ray disc included with this 4K release.  The extras include both vintage and featurettes produced for Grease’s 20th Anniversary, plus 11 deleted scenes, and interviews with cast and crew, and, a very brief ‘making of’ featurette. Bottom line: Grease is gorgeous in 4K. It’s still a flawed film, wildly entertaining to most and moderately disappointing for others like myself. While I continue to be amazed by its popularity there is no denying that in 4K, Grease will likely remain ‘the word’ for a very long time.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

CLEOPATRA: Blu-ray (Paramount 1934) Universal Home Video

“…and God said ‘Let there be light!’ It might just as well have been Cecil B. DeMille of whom it has oft been stated, “D.W. Griffith invented the close-up, but C.B. invented Hollywood.” Interestingly, DeMille’s legacy in Hollywood today can be distilled into three words – ‘The Ten Commandments’ which DeMille made twice, first as a silent in 1923, then again, as that perennially revived and thoroughly gaudy spectacle in VistaVision in 1956. Curiously, DeMille began his work in silents as a rather prolific director of contemporary melodramas and comedies
(not Bible/fiction epics), his foray into the Old/New and Hollywoodized versions of these biblical Testaments opening up an entirely new sub-genre during the early days of sound and for which ultimately DeMille’s reputation as a film pioneer today is best recalled. DeMille might have gone on indefinitely with the Bible-fiction cycle (lots of material there), except that in 1933 the long-delayed implementation of the industry’s self-governing Production Code took effect, thereupon blunting the effectiveness of his deliciously lurid storytelling. Only a year earlier, DeMille had scored the biggest hit of his entire career, up to that point, with The Sign of the Cross (1932) – a picture to feature, among its many tawdry delights, a lesbian seduction dance, and, the even more titillating exposure of an obviously naked Claudette Colbert, luxuriating in a bath of ass’s milk. Yeow!
Far from tempting fate, the audience or the Code – all of which could be narrowly skirted around by the inference DeMille had thoroughly researched antiquity first and was playing true to the amoral attitudes of ye ole Pagan times, DeMille was a highly virtuous man in his own right; weaned on stories from the Bible and history, and determined to bring to each, not only authenticity but his own set of criteria for what he suspected would click with the audience in cinematic terms.  In some ways, DeMille’s remake of The Ten Commandments truly discolored his bequest to movie lovers everywhere; those, who only recognize and associate his name with this static and slightly stodgy box office-breaking super-colossus. For DeMille could tell a story like no other film maker of his generation. Had he disembarked the train in Tucson to make The Squawman (1913) we might never have known a Hollywood, California today. For DeMille and Hollywood would soon become synonymous with each other. A partnership between DeMille, Jesse L. Lasky and Adolf Zukor led to the creation of Hollywood’s first movie-making empire; Famous Players, later to morph into Paramount Studios. And all of this lovable nonsense was, at least in 1934, to culminate in DeMille’s last hurrah: a bold and classy remake of Cleopatra (first brought to the screen by William Fox in 1917).
DeMille adored Claudette Colbert (born Emilie Claudette Chauchoin). Indeed, the actress was riding high in 1933, having starred in three blockbusters eventually to take on a life of their own: Cleopatra, Imitation of Life, and, her Oscar-winning turn in It Happened One Night – a picture she had not wanted to make. Only a few seasons before, Colbert had been mostly agreeable to DeMille’s barking chain of command. Now, she returned to the director’s side, but with newfound clout and a few idiosyncratic demands of her own; chiefly, to be photographed only from her left side – an insistence to create staging complications with the liquidity of DeMille’s constantly moving camera. Even without Colbert’s ultimatums, Cleopatra was a monumental undertaking; DeMille, forced to make concessions due to the Code and Colbert, but otherwise afforded every luxury Paramount could lavish upon it.
DeMille also surrounded himself with a seasoned troupe of performers, by 1933, something of his personal stock company. He ruled with an iron hand, usually clutching a riding crop. That, DeMille’s perfectionism and his affinity for orthopedic boots (in support of painfully weak ankles), helped to establish the perfect iconography we associate today with the classic Hollywood director; exacting, tyrannical and, above all else, driven by an artistry conceived in his own image and mind’s eye. DeMille’s enthusiasm for Biblical tales bode well with his passion for gargantuan spectacle; the name - ‘DeMille’ translating into a catch all for lavish escapism.  Although Fox and Theda Bara had been first to immortalize the Queen of the Nile in their silent classic, it was DeMille’s sound version that would serve as the template for Joseph L. Mankeiwicz’ bizarre and lengthy soap opera, costarring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1963.  Casting pop sensation of her time, Claudette Colbert as his serpentine conquoress was a no brainer for DeMille. But Colbert, a difficult personality behind the scenes, was frequently at odds with her director. This friction created genuine sparks of on-screen chemistry Colbert rechanneled towards her two male costars, Warren Williams (as Julius Caesar) and Henry Wilcoxon (a handsome and brooding Marc Antony). With the passage of time, each of these has sadly faded into obscurity in the collective consciousness. Only the most diehard fans will remember Williams today as originating the role of Sam Spade in the very first incarnation of The Maltese Falcon (1936’s Satan Met a Lady), or that Wilcoxon, in addition to being one of the hardest and longest working actors in the biz (his last film was in 1983, a year before his death), lived long enough to see his image as a DeMillian fav lampooned in 1980’s crass comedy, Caddy Shack (in which he appeared as a priest, brought to ecclesiastical epiphany before being rather unceremoniously struck down by lightning).
In Cleopatra, Colbert is the sultry siren who rules Egypt with authoritarian gusto. She is a clever, diabolical vixen who revels in pageantry and the seduction of many male suitors to occupy her free time. But Cleopatra has met her match in Julius Caesar, the ordained ruler of Rome. Caesar has chosen to form a political alliance with Egypt, hopefully to bring stability to Cleopatra’s fledgling empire. Indeed, at the cusp of our story, Cleopatra and her trusted man servant/adviser, Apollodorus (Irving Pichel) are taken prisoner, abandoned in the desert by their captors, under Pothinos’ (Leonard Mudie) edict. The Queen has other ideas, resurfacing a short while later in Caesar’s court, much to Pothinos’ chagrin. Caesar is much amused by Cleopatra’s flirtations. But perhaps the minx has overestimated her sexual allure? Only after she confronts Caesar at the point of a spear, used to put to death Pothinos (hiding behind a curtain in her bed chamber) does the Roman monarch fall completely under her spell. The two become lovers; the affair gradually made public to Caesar’s devoted wife, Calpurnia (Gertrude Michael) at a house party where conspirators, Brutus (Arthur Hohl), Casca (Edwin Maxwell) and Cassius (Ian MacLaren) are already plotting his infamous public murder. Upon the revelation this horrendous deed has been carried out, Apollodorus hastens Cleopatra’s retreat to Egypt.
Vowing vengeance for Caesar’s murder, Roman general Marc Antony arrives as Rome’s emissary in Egypt, only to discover the Queen full of bitterness and venom. Until Antony can bring about the execution of all Caesar’s conspirators she will have nothing to do with a Roman alliance – or at least, so it would seem. Instead, she toys with Antony’s affections as just another of her many sexual conquests. To their ever-lasting detriment, these two also become lovers, the tempestuousness afflicting their affair gradually transformed into carnal passion, destined to ensnare both in a maelstrom of haunted desire. In his absence, Antony’s reputation in Rome is debased. Indeed, and despite his valediction to Rome, he is now viewed as the conquered of this Egyptian harlot, the Roman forum voting to send another adversary to pick up the crusade. In the final act, Antony dies by his own hand and, as the newly appointed Emperor Octavian (Ian Keith) marches on the undefended city of Alexandria, Cleopatra chooses death rather than suffer the humiliation of becoming a Roman protectorate.
Cleopatra often gets chastised for its Americanized colloquial dialogue. In most cases where the ancient world is brought to the screen, I would sincerely agree. Miraculously, Cleopatra escapes such ridicule for this artistic liberty.  To be sure, Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw’s loftier interpretations of this historical tragedy are equally superb. But DeMille has wisely pegged their histories as luxuriant stagecraft. By contrast, DeMille’s pursuit here is to make a movie – an entertaining one no less – to appeal to the American masses on their own terms, yet without ever talking down to them. On every level, DeMille succeeds. Reportedly, Claudette Colbert was deathly afraid of snakes. To this end, she absolutely refused to do Cleopatra’s penultimate suicide scene with a live asp. To help the actress overcome her fear, DeMille rented the biggest python he could find from a local zoo, slinging it across his shoulders and approaching Colbert on the set. The terrified actress retreated into a corner, whereupon DeMille – keeping a respectable distance – produced a relatively minuscule snake from his pocket.  Colbert was so relieved she immediately seized the serpent to perform the death scene without further complaint.
In viewing Cleopatra today, what is even more remarkable than Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier’s lavish production design, immeasurably aided by Vicky Williams’ costuming and Victor Milner’s absorbing ‘sin in soft focus’ cinematography, is the picture’s blatant sexiness. Although DeMille could no longer get away with the bacchanals on display in The Sign of the Cross, he managed still to bypass many of the edicts outlined in the Production Code, beginning with the impressive ‘nude’ of a woman reporting to ‘be’ Cleopatra under the main title card. Aside: for decades, speculation has arisen whether or not Colbert modeled for this shot herself. The low angle of the camera, the severe tilt of the actress’ head, and finally, the softly lit proscenium, further diffused by smoldering fire and smoke pots, makes it virtually impossible (even in freeze frame) to know for certain. If it is not Colbert, it remains an extremely bold and voluptuous opener to the picture nonetheless. Nothing – not even the orgy aboard Cleopatra’s royal barge, in which Antony is seduced – (as spectacular as this sequence remains), comes anywhere close to such cinematic daring. DeMille had one advantage here: the iniquitous behaviors in formally researched B.C. antiquity ran true to form. In the days before the Code, to misquote Cole Porter “anything went” in Hollywood. Afterward, artists needed a damn good reason to circumvent its precepts. Therefore, aberrant sexuality could be, if not excused, at least parceled off in controlled flashes of flesh, provided the sinners paid dearly for their indiscretions in the final reel. 
Oddly, in Cleopatra, love-making between the Queen of the Nile and Caesar is more circumspect than with Antony, a passion lent its full throttle/open-mouthed tilt. I suspect DeMille was testing the censors here – like a good orgasm – building gradually, before unleashing his climax. Until then, Colbert exudes a highly suggestive, playful wantonness, barely concealed in form-fitted and/or flimsy beaded costumes, a strip of satiny fabric, lazily strewn to conceal a breast, or the positioning of arms and legs to lend a ‘come hither’ enticement that is even more suggestive than the act we never get to see, though surely to follow. In the last analysis, DeMille won the war on Cleopatra, a rather enthralling tableau, produced right on the edge of Hollywood’s collective loss of creative freedom, destined to leave most every sexual taboo on the cutting room floor for decades thereafter. Joseph L. Markiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963) may be lengthier and more resplendently tricked out in all the gaudiness its costlier 4-hour plus run time could provide, but DeMille’s far shorter ’34 version still remains the very best adaptation. It covers the same ground but with an economy of wit and style, easily to outclass all the soapy garishness that would follow it three decades later.   
Well, glory be! Has Universal Home Video turned another corner in their deep catalog mastering acumen? For some time now, I have lamented the studio’s decision to cut corners so severely that they went from creating lavishly appointed Blu-ray booklet ‘collector’s editions’ of some of their most treasured classics to releasing bare bones discs authored so crudely they could not even provide us with a main menu or chapter stops. And this, to say nothing of their willy-nilly ‘farming out’ of such high-profile titles as ‘Death Becomes Her’, ‘For Richer or Poorer’ and, ‘The Paper’ in horrendously authored 1080p offerings, cribbing from digital files at least two decades too old to keep up with modern expectations. But I digress. For its 75th anniversary, Cleopatra received a lavish restoration and clean-up. Alas, then, it was only made available on DVD. But now we have the Blu-ray. Has it been worth the wait?
In a word – yes! The higher resolution has produced an image that, while occasionally showing its age, has nevertheless been sourced directly from archival 35mm elements, digitally remastered and cleaned-up with noticeable improvements. All of the subtleties in Victor Milner’s spectacular use of diffusion filters are recaptured here, arguably for the very first time since the picture’s premiere. Where once we had to guess at the detail on tap under lower light conditions, the Blu-ray resolves both the picture’s grain and finer resolution into a finite science, revealing far more overall image clarity and, with minor exceptions, a lot of minute detail in background information. There are occasional hints of edge enhancement, particularly in the opening credits and sporadically scattered throughout the transfer thereafter. But these appearances are brief and never distract from the storytelling. Tonality in the grey scale is superb with bang-on contrast levels. 
The DTS 1.0 mono audio has been remastered for impressive clarity.  Extras are all hold-overs from the aforementioned ‘anniversary’ edition DVD and include a thoughtful audio commentary from F.X. Feeney as well as three featurettes: one on DeMille, another on Colbert, and, finally, a Coles Notes exploration of movies pre- and post the Production Code. None of these featurettes goes beyond the usual junket puff piece – disappointing, since there is so much good stuff yet to be unpacked. Bottom line: Universal has spent its money correctly – on Cleopatra’s 1080p remastering. The results are very impressive and will surely not disappoint. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


THE FORTUNE COOKIE: Blu-ray (Mirisch Co./UA 1966) Twilight Time

I adore Jack Lemmon. But the more I see of his earlier ‘magic time’ actor’s acumen, the more I have come to realize and respect a persona built almost entirely around one finely honed and utterly brilliant premise; that of the unprepossessing and proverbial ‘little guy’ – lovably shy, if slightly obtuse, begrudgingly malleable and usually, if only momentarily, swayed by the cynical world-at-large that does not abide by the inherent goodness and rules dictating the content of his own character, expecting him to fall in line. Nowhere is this personality better on display than in the films Lemmon did for director extraordinaire, Billy Wilder, and perhaps, none more richly rewarding or genuine than his ‘playing to type’ in Wilder’s farcical, The Fortune Cookie (1966): Lemmon’s pure-as-the-driven-snow, Harry Hinkle, pitted against his riotously perverse brother-in-law/attorney at law, William H. ‘Whiplash Willie’ Gingrich (Walter Matthau). The Fortune Cookie is the movie that sparked an inseparable 34-year friendship between Matthau and Lemmon, their chemistry, both on and off the screen, so genuine and disarming they would be frequently reunited for other projects thereafter, from 1968’s superb The Odd Couple to 1997’s Out to Sea (not one of their finer efforts).
Perhaps it was kismet these two should meet on the set of a Wilder picture; the director’s clear-eyed gemütlich wit wed to Lemmon and Matthau’s keen abilities, as polar opposites on Wilder’s compass of humanity, dissecting the follies and foibles of the human condition exposed by Wilder’s collaborative partnership with longtime writer/friend, I.A.L. Diamond.  The other component to the success of The Fortune Cookie is undeniably, Walter Matthau; a New York-trained actor, pursuing a dramatic career and virtual unknown to the métier of light comedy. It’s oft been said that it takes a truly intelligent actor to play an absolute loon. Consequently, Matthau brings a decade’s worth of his dramatic integrity and the skill set honed from it to the role of Willie Gingrich. So easily, Willie could have devolved into screwball simplicity but under Matthau’s tight control he emerges as a truly sinister and slimy, yet extremely funny ambulance chaser and con artist. Initially Wilder, who had worked with Jack Lemmon previously and adored him ever since, proposed either Frank Sinatra or Jackie Gleason for his co-star. It was Lemmon who insisted on Matthau in their stead; a decision, nearly to swamp the picture’s budget when Matthau – a 3-pack-a-day smoker and notorious gambler – suffered a monumental heart attack, causing a delay of nearly 5 months in the shooting schedule. Returning to the set full of vim and ‘vinegar’ – and thirty pounds lighter – Matthau’s overcoat had to be padded to conceal his weight loss.  
The Fortune Cookie is Matthau’s foray into comedy and he brilliantly rises to the occasion in the subtler art of irony, perhaps beyond even Wilder’s wildest expectations. It is the brutal sincerely with which Matthau attacks the role that really infuses the wooly Willie Gingrich with enough ballast – more, the heavy than the fop; Matthau, applying just enough wiggle room and jiggle to the juice to make us recognize and respect his performance – if not his alter ego’s unscrupulous nature as the proverbial ‘fox’ in this ‘hen house’ otherwise populated by a bunch of clucking capons. I prefer to regard Wilder and Matthau as kindred spirits, possessing a modicum of cantankerousness and eccentricity; each, a dark prankster and unregenerate moralist to the last.  If Jack Lemmon represents Wilder’s fainter loyalties to the dwindling hope and promise such ‘good guys’ can do more than merely survive in this backdraft of the ‘great’ American ‘society’, then Matthau is undeniably Wilder’s acknowledgement of a more unvarnished, prevalent and unremittingly vulgar creature who makes America tick, hungering no less for his piece of the proverbial pie, even as he renders his high stakes in the ‘game of life’ to the charm-free crass mania of a loaded bingo match. 
In many ways, The Fortune Cookie is the slightest of Wilder’s movies, the plot a one-note wonder, greatly enhanced by the aforementioned stars, and one as yet to be discussed; Ron Rich as the guilt-ridden fatalist footballer, Luther ‘Boom-Boom’ Jackson.  Rich, who all but vanished from movies barely two years later, is an effective third wheel here; an all-star quarterback with the Cleveland Browns, stricken with an acute case of conscience after his split-second timing causes ‘the accident’ that kicks our story into high gear. There is a genuine warmth to Rich’s honest performance, and, a far more brooding underlay of self-loathing, teetering on anxiety and fear, lurking from the peripheries of his meteoric success. It’s all come too fast to Boom-Boom; the fame, the money, a lifetime of adoration transformed into the mire of jeers from a fickle crowd after his ball-playing begins to falter, and, an even more debilitating crisis of conscience leads him to hit the bottle and become, for all intent and purposes, Hinkle’s breezy but emotionally scarred – and scared – man servant.
The other notable in the cast hails from as nondescript a career; Judi West as Harry’s gold-digging ex – Sandy. West is superb as the greedy and heartless chanteuse who almost manages to fake sincerity and convince Harry she still loves him. West acquits herself rather nicely too of the Cole Porter standard, ‘You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To’, interpolated orchestrally by composer/conductor, André Previn (whose melodic contributions elsewhere in the picture portend both the romantic folly and farce that is yet to follow). But West’s performance is extraordinary, if only for the simple fact we begin to believe in her as much as Harry.  It is, after all, a Billy Wilder comedy – deliciously impeded by the opacity of shady characters and their moody motivations at the start, but ultimately meant to conclude on a note of romantic reconciliation – right? Wrong! Wilder’s supreme gift to the movies was his ability to draw on a sense of realism. Life, unlike the movies, is not perfect. ‘Nobody’s is!’ This continues to speak to the realities of life, questioned rather than contradicted by cinema’s usual pie-eyed optimism, yet cleverly illustrated in a less than tragic light, ingeniously counterbalancing humor and pathos.  West brings virtually all of these qualities to her performance. Wilder’s introduction to Sandy Hinkle immediately reveals her machinations as a supreme mischief maker; sheathed in a slinky negligee and sprawled in close-up on a bed inside a modest apartment with the silhouette of a man taking a shower caught in the background. Yet, these visual signifiers are offset by West’s false notes of what at least appears to be genuine empathy for her ex-husband, perhaps, even tinged with a modicum of personal regret for having broken off their marriage in the first place.
West is arguably the least offense of the grotesques who populate this picture, including Lurene Tuttle as Hinkle’s chronically teary and manipulative mother; Marge Redmond as his sister, Charlotte Gingrich – an even more transparent gargoyle; Cliff Osmond, as oily insurance fraud investigator, Chester Purkey; Sig Ruman/Professor Winterhalter, a supposed ‘expert’ in spotting medical fakes; Robert P. Lieb, Martin Blaine and Ben Wright as a trio of nondescript ‘specialists’ too hastily to conclude the worst about their patient merely to secure their own remuneration, and finally, Ned Glass as Doc Schindler, a disgraced dentist Willy smuggles into the ward to give Harry several injections that will cause temporary paralysis so he can ‘pass’ the investigators’ probing inquisition. Wilder’s low opinion of the medical profession is on full view in The Fortune Cookie; whether, exposing the naïveté of Maryesther Denver’s battle-axe nurse or the insidious ambitions of these various ‘expert’ practitioners, who conduct their barrage of tests already with the foregone conclusion to find something inherently ‘wrong’ with him. 
Wilder divides the The Fortune Cookie into a series of vignettes, punctuated by numbered title cards, beginning with 1. The Accident: as CBS hand-held cameraman, Harry Hinkle is injured after a forward pass to Cleveland Browns quarterback, Luther ‘Boom-Boom’ Jackson goes horribly awry, sending Harry ass over tea kettle to the ground. Left unconscious and carried from the field on a stretcher, he awakens in the hospital hours later with his conniving brother-in-law William H. ‘Whiplash Willie’ Gingrich hovering over him. Willie has a plan. Although Harry’s injuries are slight, Willie intends to claim nerve damage, concussion and partial paralysis as grounds for a hefty lawsuit. Although Harry knows he is not this sick he reluctantly goes along with Willie’s scheme to an even more insidious purpose; to win back his ex-wife, Sandy. Despite the fact Sandy has left Harry for another man and a career as a singer in New York (this never panned out), Harry cannot see how unworthy she is of his enduring love, much to the weepy protestations of his own mother. Suffering a crisis of conscience, Boom-Boom attends Harry multiple times during his stay at the hospital, plying him with presents (flowers, a new wheel chair) and eventually becoming so invested in his rehabilitation he begins to cut practices, fumbles him games, and, wrecks his own seemingly Teflon-coated reputation with the fans who boo him off the field. Rather insidiously, Harry allows Boom-Boom’s spiral into oblivion to happen, despite harboring a genuine affinity for him as a player. This eventually blossoms into an even more unique friendship.
Meanwhile, the insurance company lawyers at O'Brien, Thompson and Kincaid (Harry Holcombe, Les Tremayne, and Lauren Gilbert) have begun to circle their wagons for an entrenched counteroffensive. They have good reason to suspect fraud. Willie’s track record is hardly that of an upstanding lawyer. In fact, he is a cold-hearted and not altogether successful con whose clientele are just as sleazy and/or misguided. Willie’s sharp shoot-from-the-hip philosophies play fast and loose with the art of the swindle. What he might have been if only he had channeled all of his energies and cleverness into a legitimate career. After getting Doc Schindler to inject Harry with a numbing agent, Willie allows the insurance company to subject his client to their own roster of ‘medical experts’ for another barrage of evasive tests. All but Professor Winterhalter concur on Harry’s legitimacy, citing a compressed vertebra as the likely culprit. But Hinkle has suffered from this condition since childhood. Miraculously, it has not worsened due to his most recent injury.
As Boom-Boom ratchets up his commitments to Harry’s recovery his own future with the Browns is thrown into jeopardy. Once their star player, Boom-Boom has since become the team’s number one liability, skipping practices, throwing games and losing the respect of his teammates, coaches and, worst of all, his most ardent fans. Despite having set his father – a recovering alcoholic – up as the manager of a lucrative bowling alley, Boom-Boom now follows in his footsteps by taking to the bottle to conceal his own anxieties and assuage his guilt. This culminates in a drunk and disorderly confrontation at the alley’s adjacent bar over Elvira (Judy Pace), a flirtatious peroxide blonde.  With no medical evidence to prove a fraud, O'Brien, Thompson and Kincaid hire private eye, Chester Purkey to keep Harry’s apartment under constant surveillance. However, Gingrich sees Purkey entering the apartment building across the street and lets Harry know they are being scrutinized and recorded.
Momentarily, Harry’s mood becomes euphoric after Sandy, learning of his injury, agrees to help nurse him back to health. Perhaps she really does love him after all. Curiously, Sandy’s return leads to a minor rift in Harry’s friendship with Boom-Boom, the latter ever more adrift from both his past and future plans. Willie informs Sandy the apartment is bugged and she agrees to do everything she can to carry on with the ruse to help Harry collect on the settlement sure to be coming his way. Willie presses O’Brien, Thompson and Kincaid for a manageable figure. Yet, even as the two sides continue to dicker over money, Willie, Charlotte and Harry’s mom have embarked upon spending the ill-gotten gains yet to materialize; Willie, buying a new Mustang, Charlotte – a fur coat, and mother Hinkle gets shipped off to a glorious Florida vacation. To expedite the payoff, Willie now orchestrates his most devious deception; a plan to make Harry a truly pathetic figure from coast-to-coast. He will appear at the Browns’ invitation, to give a speech at their season opener and make the announcement he plans to use all of the insurance money above and beyond his own ‘medical expenses’ to start a non-profit charity – the Harry Hinkle Foundation. Realistically, this too is just a scam – yet another way to high-pressure the insurance company to pay out sooner rather than later.
Alas, by now Harry has faced his own guilt over the effect his ‘fake illness’ has had on Boom-Boom; their bro-mantic chemistry superseding any chances he might have had to go on with the scam and aim for any reconciliation with Sandy. When Boom-Boom becomes incarcerated for engaging in the barroom brawl, Harry implores Willie to help him out. But Willie absolutely refuses to lift a finger. He is far too busy sewing up his enterprising negotiations with O'Brien, Thompson and Kincaid. Harry also unearths the real reason for Sandy’s return: to skim enough off the top, leaving again to kick start her non-existent singing career with an engagement at the high-fashioned Persian Room. Willie jauntily turns up at Harry’s apartment, shouting victory to Purkey and waving a check for $200,000 – a far cry from the million-dollar payout he was asking for, but infinitely more satisfying than the $10,000 kiss-off the insurance company initially offered him.
Purkey decides to play a vicious end game. Presumably, he arrives to debug Harry’s apartment. Instead, he makes casual racist remarks about Boom-Boom that stir Harry’s honorable intensions.  Without a thought for Purkey’s cohort, still be filming from across the street, Harry discards his medical corset and other paraphernalia and assaults Purkey in front of Sandy and Willie. To make certain the incident is caught on film, he pummels Purkey again, this time with relish, before embarking upon a jaunt about the apartment, performing tumbles on his bed and swinging from the rafters. Having lost a contact lens, Sandy scrounges on the floor for its recovery. Crushing the invisible lens, Harry abruptly pushes Sandy to the ground with his foot, adding “I don’t want to find you here when I get back!” To save face, Willie feigns ignorance and disgust for his client’s fake. Arriving at the football stadium hours after the game, Harry finds Boom-Boom already packed and ready to quit the team for good – perhaps, to embark upon a new career as a wrestler named ‘The Dark Angel’. Harry reveals the truth to Boom-Boom and helps to renew his faith in himself. The two engage in a spirited exchange of the pigskin as several of the stadium’s caretaking crew affectionately look on.
Although The Fortune Cookie concludes on this modest note of optimism, it is arguably Wilder’s darkest comedy. Immediately following its release, Wilder would take an almost four-year hiatus from picture-making, returning to form, but with decidedly disappointing reviews on The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). Today, this picture is justly regarded as one of the best Holmesian yarns of all time and a genuine Wilder masterpiece. Regrettably, at the time of its release it was all but demonized by the critics as a hopelessly old-fashioned throwback, untrue to Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary sleuth. Wilder would never again regain his popularity, either amongst his peers or with his fans; a tragedy indeed, since he still had at least three solid movies to make: 1972’s Avanti, 1974’s The Front Page (both with Jack Lemmon) and, 1978’s Fedora – perhaps the wickedest indictment of Hollywood’s self-destructing crass commercialism and the fallout it inflicts on those unwilling, and more directly, unable to escape the specter of perpetual youth the movie industry insidiously demand from its stars. Upon his death in 2002, Billy Wilder was interred at Westwood Village Memorial Park, his tombstone inscribed thus: “I’m a writer, but then, nobody’s perfect!”
Indeed, in his own time, Wilder increasingly met with criticism, his body of work endless re-evaluated as the creator of some brilliant movies and yet, some as equally pedestrian to outright flops. And yet the merit of his work, as well as the body of his legacy, has only continued to ripen with age. Like a fine Madeira, afforded its proper allotment of years to be aged to perfection, a goodly number of Wilder’s pictures – including The Fortune Cookie – have withstood the litmus test of changing times and tastes. After all, a good vintage is still a good vintage – whatever the hour of its uncorking. And Wilder’s cinematic legacy is truly that of a master storyteller and craftsman, unapologetic in his views and unafraid to be as outspoken in life as he was on the screen. As example, of the infamous Hollywood Ten – the blacklisted writers who suffered the slings and arrows of the McCarthy witch hunts, Wilder reported commented, “Of the ten, two had talent, and the rest were just unfriendly.” Oh, Billy – dear Billy…how I miss him today.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of The Fortune Cookie is another solid offering that will surely delight. It is gratifying to see MGM, the custodians of the Mirisch Bros. catalog, finally taking an interest in properly remastering at least some of it for hi-def. This 1080p B&W Panavision image reveals a startling amount of clarity, tonality and over-all fine details that sparkle with renewed luster. Age-related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum. Save the briefest of white speckles here and there, and one momentary instance of a hair caught in the upper right corner of the frame, this is wonderful looking transfer with much to recommend it. The image is razor sharp without appearing to have suffered any untoward DNR or other digital manipulations. There is no edge-enhancement either, allowing the purity of Joseph LaShelle’s gorgeous B&W cinematography to shine through. So, bravo, props and kudos to everyone responsible for this release. The 1.0 DTS mono is adequately rendered for this presentation with clean, crisp dialogue. TT affords us the opportunity to indulge in Andre Previn’s score on an isolated track. What a superb orchestral offering it is! The only other extra is a theatrical trailer and liner notes from Julie Kirgo – always much appreciated. Bottom line: The Fortune Cookie may not be a A-list Billy Wilder. Actually, more like A- or B+, but it remains highly enjoyable. This release is practically perfect. As Wilder astutely pointed out, “Nobody ever is…entirely.” Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)