THE GOLDEN HEAD: Blu-ray (Hungaro Film, 1964) Flicker Alley
Shot in single-strip Super Technirama for the Cinerama screen, director, Richard Thorpe’s The Golden Head (1964) is a film with an inauspicious pedigree. A Hungarian-British co-production, it was basically cobbled together with grants from both countries under the auspices of producer, Alexander Paal who owned the rights to an even more obscure crime novel, ‘Nepomuk of the River’ by Roger Pilkington. Hiring Brit-born scenarist, Stanley Goulder to write a screenplay, Paal somehow managed to convince MGM president, Robert O’Brien, and, Cinerama chairman, Nicholas Reisin, to partake of his folly, tentatively titled, ‘Milly Goes to Budapest’. Even today, O’Brien’s connection seems peculiar to downright mystifying, as Cinerama was known as a format for, decidedly, ‘the big pictures.’ Besides, what would eventually evolve into The Golden Head would be coming on the heels of the only two movies MGM would ever make in true 3-panel Cinerama; the gargantuan How the West Was Won, and, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (both released in 1962). In hindsight, Cinerama’s cumbersome camera set-up, along with the many drawbacks of the format itself, led to its being passed over for anything better than a series of memorable travelogues made throughout the mid to late 1950’s and early 60’s. And while its wide gauge replacement – 70mm – seemed to point the way to more ultra-widescreen spectacles shot more economically, the release of such costly turkeys as The Big Fisherman (1959), and The Great Waltz (1972) were among the gauche and gaudy to downright awful screen spectacles that prematurely sank the era. Sandwiched right in the middle is The Golden Head, a movie of such dubious artistic distinction it barely screened in its native Hungary, was yanked from screenings in London after only 8-weeks, and, never made the transatlantic crossing to premiere anywhere in the United States – not even, in 35mm reduction prints.
In the interim, The Golden Head all but vanished from view and, for some decades thereafter, was thought to be among that rare unicorn breed, questioningly labeled as ‘lost films’. Ironically, this status only heightened its reputation as a forgotten and/or buried treasure. When a movie is this hard to come by, there are usually only three good reasons: (1) no viable archival prints have survived the ravages of time, (2) copyright on the title has elapsed, or (3) the picture is so bad it really is not deserving of any such revival. So, which is it for The Golden Head? A little of all three, I am afraid. The more modestly titled ‘Milly Goes to Budapest’ ought to have starred Hayley Mills – then, at the height of her ‘tween’ popularity, and, the beloved Lionel Jeffries. In its preliminary stages, producers set their caps rather ambitiously for director, James Hill, who had only just won an Oscar for Best Short Film and would go on to stir audiences with the emotionally satisfying Born Free in 1966. That The Golden Head fast became a hodge-podge of artistic sacrifices, attests to its rather chaotic gestation, and ultimately, its sloppily executed artistic failure. Hill began shooting The Golden Head in 3-camera Cinerama at MGM’s British Borehamwood Studios in 1963, with a cameo from Otto Preminger, as the irascible butler. If this raw footage exists today, it would be interesting to compare to the movie as rebooted by Thorpe and Metro, after both Paal and the studio powers that be kyboshed Hill’s early effort. Lost in the shuffle, both Mills and Jeffries to other commitments.
A mutual ‘executive’ decision’ was then made to hire Richard Thorpe, whose eclecticism behind the camera had already been proven. Throughout the mid-fifties, Thorpe hit his stride, directing reboots, remakes and retooled swashbucklers starring Stewart Granger and Robert Taylor. His style had progressed with the times. Moreover, the congenial Thorpe could work with virtually anyone, and, turn out seemingly any project under schedule and, usually, well under budget – a real plus to this cash-strapped production. Thorpe’s workmanlike precision made him an obvious choice to helm The Golden Head – as producers could scarcely afford costly delays. Recasting the picture, the role of Milly, now played by the as forgettable Lorraine Power, and, hiring of cinema’s supreme cad, George Sanders – far more enduring, if not as endearing as Lionel Jeffries, left the production in a minor tizzy, as Sanders’ agent insisted, he receive top-billing. Agreeing to these terms, production began anew on location in Budapest, with interiors relocated to Shepperton Studios. Rounding out the cast, comedian Buddy Hackett, direct from his supporting work on The Music Man (1962), Robert Coote, Douglas Wilmer, and, English juvenile, Jess Conrad; then being marketed as an amiable ‘heartthrob’, whose fan following remains questionable, since he somehow managed a fairly lucrative tenure in pictures, and, as a tepid recording artist, despite an absurdly opaque lack of talent.
As it was theatrically, The Golden Head on Blu-ray is paired with John Fernhout’s Fortress of Peace, an absolutely stunning MCS-70 Superpanorama spectacle, its pacifist’s slant belied by an ear-shattering 6-track magnetic stereo bombardment of every conceivable artillery sound effect in the stock catalog, and, for this Blu-ray release, wed to A Tale of Old Whiff – a 70mm animated short about a dog in search of dinosaur bones, originally enhanced by Smell-O-Vision (don’t ask!). A Tale of Old Whiff had had its debut in 1960 as a prelude to Michael Todd’s Scent of a Mystery (later, reissued in a truncated form, without Smell-O-Vision, as Holiday in Spain). Aside: either way, Todd’s travelogue is a dud. Fernhout’s short, however, is breathtaking. The cartoon is merely cute. So, arguably, The Golden Head had nowhere to go but down…and it does, rather spectacularly, as one of the silliest, if most slickly put together travelogues, mercilessly pretending to pass itself off as something else – a mystery caper. Plot wise, The Golden Head is a sort of Nancy Drew-styled clunker. The precocious Milly (Lorraine Power) is in Budapest while her father, Detective Inspector Stevenson (Douglas Wilmer) is attending an international crime conference. Also, along for the ride is Millie’s elder brother, Michael (Jesse Conrad), and her more contemporary sibling, Harold (Denis Gilmore). The children are shown a priceless artifact, the solid gold bust of onetime Hungarian King St. Laszlo by a priest (Sándor Pécsi); a relic from the cathedral of Gyor. Alas, the sculpture has also caught the attention of a pair of cons, the unscrupulous, Basil Palmer (George Sanders) and his buffoonish consort, Lionel Pack (Buddy Hackett). Naturally, the local authorities are powerless to solve the crime after the bust goes missing. Ah, but just leave everything to Millie, and Michael, and, Anne (Cecília Esztergályos) – the teen moppet and aspiring prima ballerina who helps pieces the clues together with a child-like clairvoyance for telling the truth.
The Golden Head is more screwball than caper, what with its affable felons and cool-headed kiddies, and, Jesse Conrad warbling the title tune, and, as disposable love ballad, ‘Things I’d Like to Say’ to the starry-eyed Anne. Aside: someone ought to have informed Esztergalyos that untamed underarm bush has absolutely no threshold of tolerance on the gargantuan Cinerama screen. It looks like she is growing a brown/beige air fern under there. Yuck! And, even if the story, cobbled together by Iván Boldizsár, Stanley Goulder and Roger Windle Pilkington is slight (and, it is), with Thorpe’s glacial direction depriving us of any great moments of suspense (especially for a mystery/caper) what is most distressing about The Golden Head is its under-use of the expansive ultra-clarity of 70mm. Here is a movie that, at virtually every major interval, painfully reveals the cost-cutting sparsity in Béla Zeichan’s production design; István Hildebrand’s cinematography, never able to recapture the lushness in its exotic European locales (despite some needless departures into travelogue territory, with folk dancers and the Hungarian Opera/Ballet company), woefully hampered by cheap-jack sets that look as though they were a veritable ‘pick and save’ of Shepperton’s bargain bin leftovers and castoffs.
At 115 min., The Golden Head is a fairly pedestrian affair. Worse, its target audience is unclear. Given the mostly youthful ensemble and source material, one might expect producers to take dead aim at the kiddie matinee. Except that the plot, non-essential and threadbare, is a mystery/caper that, like the movie’s exotic travelogue footage, is being marketed to a more discerning mid-to-late twenty-something crowd. No doubt, Jesse Conrad’s appearance, as the summer stock Fabian knock-off, is meant to send adolescent hearts aflutter. And then, of course, there is George Sanders, whose reputation as the cad of culture, along with inserts devoted to ballet and folk dancing, are in it strictly to entice the socially affluent for their highbrow fix. In the end, none of these marketing ploys add up, director, Thorpe wallowing in too little of a lot of rumored-to-be ‘good things.’ The whole thing plays like a coming attraction for a movie we never get to see. Its camp humor is frankly drab. Its suspense is tepid. Its songs are mediocre, and its plot, a rudimentary ‘connect-the-dots’. And Hungary, despite its rich ancestral heritage, gets underutilized, or, is hardly as exotic as, say, the far east, south pacific, or teeming Tyrolean charm of those green and rolling hills in Austria. What we do get of Hungarian culture, like the ballet sequence, is watered down, if vaguely reminiscent of the La Scala sequence from 1952’s This Is Cinerama. For all intent and purpose, this moment in the picture might just as well have been plucked from any other travelogue and inserted herein for all the relevancy – or lack thereof – it has to the rest of our story. Somewhere along the way, and much too late to save the picture, Thorpe suddenly realizes he is expected to deliver a 70mm spectacle, despite a C-grade narrative and D-listed acting.
The tragedy here is that The Golden Head has its appeal – in spots - and can hold to a certain claim for having been expertly assembled in the editing room by Frank Clarke. What the picture lacks, and cannot be entirely sustained without, is narrative impetus and star power. A big name above the title might have drawn in the audience. But George Sanders?!? Sure, he is a noteworthy – even commendable cad. But the baddie is not the headliner! For a mystery, there are no ‘shocking’ moments of revelation, only rose-colored ‘then what?’ respites where Thorpe manages to insert another piece to the puzzle without first baiting the audience with more clues than carrots to keep our interest alive. As a comedy, the jokes are a yawn - not a yowl. And finally, the movie’s epilogue, inferred to be taking place at Buckingham Palace, is so woefully undernourished and tacky, with Sander’s masquerade in heavy makeup quite ridiculous, that The Golden Head lands with a solid thud like the spoilt plum-pudding-headed claptrap that it is. Rather infamously, The Golden Head was ‘a bust’ (pun intended) almost from the moment the curtains parted at its premiere, yanked from distribution and quickly replaced by Flying Clipper (a.k.a. Mediterranean Holiday) after only an 8-week run in London. It never resurfaced after that…until now.
Part of the appeal of these ‘bigger than life’ 70mm spectacles is the luxury of seeing them projected on an immense and curved screen inside a cavernous movie palace expressly designed for their visual aggrandizement. Deprived of even this, despite Flicker Alley’s ‘recreated’ curvature in anamorphic widescreen on Blu-ray, The Golden Head is even more the clunky cultural artifact from that bygone era in picture-making. What is true enough about this Blu-ray release, is that Flicker Alley has afforded The Golden Head far more priority, time and care than a turkey is usually warranted, and, the results, in spite of the movie, are monumentally impressive. Color fidelity is extraordinary; the palette favoring rich, bold and fully saturated hues that pop off the screen. Fine detail abounds, especially in close-ups…or rather, what pass for close-ups in this travelogue. We never get closer than a mid-distance two shot with lots of extemporaneous background filler to clutter the peripheries of the expansive 70mm film frame. Hundreds of instances of age-related dirt and debris have been dust busted and/or otherwise digitally corrected for an image that will surely not disappoint. As with all the Cinerama spectacles, the sound quality achieved herein is nothing short of miraculous; 6-track magnetic stereo, heard in remastered 5.1 DTS, abounding in resplendent clarity unheard since the movie’s premiere.
A Tale of Old Whiff, charmingly conceived in the sparse UPA style of animation, was considered a lost animated short for nearly 50 years, before a badly faded archival element was unearthed in the Academy archives. Employing Fotokem for the digital scan, and Endpoint Audio Labs for the restoration of its soundtrack, resurrecting A Tale of Old Whiff is perhaps an even more Herculean effort than the one exported on The Golden Head. Although presented to audiences in 70mm in 1960, ‘Old Whiff’ was likely shot in standard Cinemascope and then optically printed onto 70mm. For details on how both this cartoon and the feature were brought back from the edge of oblivion, I will sincerely differ to the two featurettes included on this release; each, having already made the rounds on the internet and detailing the process in considerable depth. This Blu-ray release of The Golden Head also includes the aforementioned, Fortress of Peace, looking light years better than it ever has. It is still the best reason to own this disc. Flicker Alley rounds out the goodies with an image gallery full of original stills, plus a trailer gallery, touting the fine work done on this and other Cinerama titles already available to own. Finally, we get a facsimile of the original program booklet that once accompanied the theatrical release of The Golden Head. We owe Cinerama Inc. film restorationist/preservationist, David Strohmaier an eternal debt of gratitude here. Not only has he been the chief proponent of reissuing these ultra-widescreen spectacles in limited theatrical engagements, but he remains the driving force behind all the Cinerama and 70mm restorations having since found their way to our home video archives. For his efforts, and those of his production team, all of whom quite obviously consider this chapter in American movie-making history of paramount importance, and a shared passion, we deeply commend the efforts. The results speak for themselves: great work achieved, and, on a shoestring budget that would have discouraged most anyone else from pursuing the venture. Bravo and kudos. Bottom line: for 70mm aficionados only. All others can safely pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)