Lore and Order

At 3:00 PM on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, in the delightfully named hamlet of Tombstone, AZ, occurred one of the most famous incidents of beloved violence in American history. An altercation between the local warring factions culminated in an approximately half-minute display of gunplay that forever defined the Old West. The scene of bloodshed at a dung-heaped corner of the town, known as the O.K. Corral, quickly became hallowed ground. The famous shoot-out soon was being reported across the entire country – and even abroad in Europe and down South America way. To this day, millions are familiar with the legend of gunfight at the O.K. corral (it still remains a major AZ tourist attraction); it weekly filled the pages of penny dreadfuls and was re-enacted by scores of traveling tent shows. It made icons of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, and it forever made the name “Clanton” synonymous with dastardly villainy. The advent of cinema was a natural for the sanguine fable, and no less than hundreds of filmic depictions unspooled in nickelodeons before becoming a B-western staple and, later, the respectable outlet for occasional top-line drama, most prominently John Ford’s 1946’s masterwork My Darling Clementine. Most of these re-tellings were sourced from the largely dubious work Frontier Marshal by Stuart N. Lake (reportedly told to him by Earp himself). All were fugitives from the fact – what Ford’s Liberty Valance would sardonically (and correctly) dub as the “print the legend” alternative.

The biggest, loudest, most colorful and fact-free of all these narratives was 1957’s blockbuster action epic GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, a must for all western fans, now available in a definitive Blu-Ray edition from Warner Home Video and Paramount Home Entertainment.

The background of both the story and the movie are fascinating parallels and thus deserve mentioning. The plot of the picture, after all, is basically described by the not-so-subtle title. Suffice to say that it delivers.

The legend of Tombstone and the O.K. Corral has become the benchmark for white hats vs. black hats – the ultimate fight for truth, justice and the American way. Not quite so. What prompted the Earps and the Clantons was nothing less than the authentic cornerstones of U.S. gumption: money and sex. While lawmen, to be sure, the Earps were businessmen first, always having a cold-steel eye on the almighty buck. Marshaling never paid the amounts the Earps had become accustomed to, and they made up the difference by running a string of brothels across the frontier. The west was a haven for investors with a fast-gun reputation, and when Wyatt smelled a sure thing, his sibs would start turning up for their piece of the pie with great rapidity. By 1881, Tombstone was undergoing a veritable Earpies outbreak. The Clantons, far from the redneck peckerwoods often chronicled on the screen and in the pulps, were likewise ruthless financiers whose fortunes were made in the flourishing cattle industry.

Since the truth was perhaps a bit too sordid for movie-goers (even into the late 1950s), the icy facts were never really told; too bad, they’re so much more intriguing than any of the pap emanating from the clichéd minds of screenwriters.

This can be boiled down to the personal life of Wyatt – a family man in the traditional sense…until he met Josephine Sarah Marcus. A gorgeous showgirl (and possible part-time prostitute), she took the lawman’s breath away. He left his wife and shacked up with Josie; they remained devoted to each other for the next forty-seven years until the celebrated marshal’s death in 1929. Josephine, it should be noted was, prior to the O.K. Corral kerfuffle, the “property” of Johnny Behan, an ally of the Clantons. This, no doubt, led to further friction between the adversaries. Josephine was also Jewish, brought up in an upper middle class home in San Francisco. The revealing of her religion at last ended a decades-long mystery of why Earp’s remains lay buried in a Colma, CA, Jewish cemetery. Wyatt and Josephine made and lost numerous fortunes, investing in houses of ill-repute, prospecting for gold in Alaska, etc. He ended up selling ideas to Hollywood in the late teens into the early 1920s before the aforementioned Lake brokered the publication deal.

Then there was the “heroic” Doc Holliday. A raging psychopath, the hot-tempered, quick-on-the-trigger southerner trained as a dentist, but soon found increasing fame by drilling people in other ways. It’s curious as to the relationship that actually existed between Earp and Holliday – and, again I’m referring to the almost never-mentioned presence of Josie, as Doc was a rabid racist and anti-Semite. His contracting consumption caused his self-banishment to the cleaner air environs offered by the west.

The most accurate Earp movie is by GUNFIGHT‘s John Sturges, 1967’s Hour of the Gun, featuring a humorless James Garner as Wyatt and Robert Ryan as Clanton. It takes place AFTER the famed shoot-out. It was the first to relate the details of Earp’s post-O.K. Corral vengeance ride, wherein he methodically hunted down surviving participants involved in the lethal proceedings. Whether or not Earp legally had the right to do so (even extracting revenge across the border) was never brought to light. Not that it would have mattered to Earp anyway. That’s about as close to the truth as you’re gonna get (and, once more, no mention of Josephine), and, as far a movie entertainment goes, who the hell cares? It’s likely that surviving Earps would have prevented the real stuff from the damaging the reel versions anyway. And by 1957, thanks to the advent of the super Western (first ignited by High Noon, then from the likes of The Searchers and others), this was going to be the biggest adventure (and lie) of ’em all. And it was, gloriously so.

Producer Hal Wallis early-on wanted to pull out all the stops in telling this oft-told tale. He had been putting this project together for years – when he still had Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas under personal contract (Wallis was known as a starmaker, not only signing the above pair, but also Martin & Lewis and Elvis Presley to exclusive non-exclusive servitude). GUNFIGHT had taken so long to put together that both Lancaster’s and Douglas’ tenure with Wallis had expired. Both were now independent, producing their own movies. Wallis had designed GUNFIGHT for the two stars, and couldn’t see anyone else playing the roles. He approached them, asking if they’d agree to do it. Each acquiesced, but at a ga-zillion times the price they were making when under the producer’s thumb (Lancaster initially stated that he’d only consider Wyatt if Wallis gave him Starbuck in The Rainmaker; even then, Burt demanded that he be able to re-write his dialog; Kirk likewise wanted artistic control). Wallis freaked, but paid; he needn’t have worried. The picture was a smash from Day One, rivaling such other 1957 champs as Bridge on the River Kwai and Sayonara.

“Super” was the preferred word when putting together GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, and that meant every aspect of the production. Wallis obtained the services of John Sturges (a top A-lister ever since 1954’s critically acclaimed Bad Day at Black Rock) and hot author Leon Uris (whose novel and subsequent movie adaptation Battle Cry had gone through the roof) to pen the screenplay (suggested by an article by George Scullin). Sturges stages the bravura action sequences spectacularly, thereby elevating the Republic Pictures plotline into full throttle sub-genre filmmaking, then dubbed the Adult Western. The cast, the music, the photography would all be ultra-plush – the last word in Hollywood extravagance. There is virtually no scene in the movie that doesn’t contain a plethora of incredible performers. It’s star-gazing at its zenith; aside from the against-type appearance of Jo Van Fleet (as Doc’s live-in whore, Kate Fisher), there are such genre favorites as John Ireland, Lyle Bettger, DeForrest Kelley, Martin Milner, Olive Carey, Frank Faylen, Lee Van Cleef, George Mathews, Whit Bissell, Earl Holliman, Kenneth Tobey, Jack Elam, Ted de Corsia, and, in his first of many oater turns as the weakling son/brother of the baddies, Dennis Hopper.

For all of Uris’ renowned realism, the script is pretty much twaddle – a barrage of made-up clichés that even undemanding sagebrush supporters are apt to gawk at. The worst offender in the scenario is the 110% fictitious creation of Laura Denbow, the WASPy white girl love interest for the stalwart goody-goody Earp. Denbow is enacted by the beauteous Rhonda Fleming; she’s a lady gambler, arrested by the marshal for apparently no other reason save her sex. As unreal as the interior exterior sets they ride onto (during romantic interplay), Fleming is the typical wait-at-the-fort human decoration. A testament to the popularity of this picture is what Howard Hawks did with this identical situation two years later in Rio Bravo (a splendid and emotional redux in the personages of John Wayne and Angie Dickinson).

The lust in the dust byplay between Douglas and Van Fleet is a bit livelier, but, on its own level, equally grating. Wanna learn how to play Doc Holliday, announced Douglas to an interviewer? “Get a good cough.” This Douglas adhered to with overdone enthusiasm, enough to justifiably prompt violent outbursts from the audience. Obviously never hearing of the phrase “less is more,” the actor practically prefaces every line of dialog with enough phlegm to suspect that he’s a shill for the Smith Brothers. By the time Van Fleet graduates from throwing crockery at him to an attempted knifing, it comes off as a perfectly understandable solution. Truly, had Dietrich played Camille instead of Garbo, I would dutifully expect her to pop up and shout, “Enough aweddy with that Goddamn coughing!”

On-location, Douglas and Lancaster often were at odds with one another. While Burt termed the picture as “crock of shit,” and spoke his vapid lines with his eyes on a huge paycheck, Kirk felt obligated to show off his twirling fast draw ability at the drop of a Stetson (a feat he learned from his appearance in King Vidor’s wonderful 1955 western Man Without a Star). After the umpteenth time, in front of gaping autograph seekers, Lancaster curtailed his costar with a brisk snub about his height – at which point Douglas halted and skulked away. Seemingly following Lancaster’s footsteps as a producer/star, journalists inquired if Douglas’ goal was to become Burt Lancaster. “I have enough trouble trying to be Kirk Douglas,” wryly replied the actor born Issur Danielovitch Demsky.

The music, like everything else in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, is larger than life. And by that I mean a boisterous, rousing score by Dimitri Tiomkin – with on-going balladeer crooning by the formidable pipes of Frankie Laine. By this time, it was almost a prerequisite to have Laine warble the title tune to a major studio western. His previous endeavors (Saddle Tramp, Blowing Wild, Man Without a Star, 3:10 to Yuma) helped fill dream factory coffers to their brim, as soundtrack albums/singles increasingly became an ancillary necessity to a movie’s success. Mel Brooks saw the connection brilliantly, and, in 1974’s Blazing Saddles, had Laine do a superb satire of big-budget western movie singing. I mention this because for sheer parody not even Brooks’ lyrics can compare to some of those in GUNFIGHT (written by the prolific Ned Washington). This is specifically notable during a segment when Earp and Holliday ride past a graveyard. “Boot Hill, Boot Hill,” begins Laine. “So cold,” he continues as a fawning chorus chimes in “mighty cold, mighty cold.” “So still,” the singer finishes as the accompaniment whispers “mighty still, mighty still.” It’s hilarious…and fantastic.

Following Wallis’ kitchen sink memo, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL’s look is of behemoth proportions. The mammoth “feel” of the picture is due to the amazing artistry of the terrific d.p. Charles Lang. His Technicolor work in this movie may be the best of his career (and that’s saying a mouthful).

Lang’s achievements here are partnered by his association with Paramount’s VistaVision, my bid for the best process of all time. In very layman’s terms, what VistaVision was able to do was to accentuate detail to the nth degree – focus as never before possible. This was done by having the film run through the camera horizontally rather than vertically (what became known in the industry as the “lazy 8” system). Unlike CinemaScope, VistaVision’s claim to fame wasn’t shape, but sheer size. By exposing twice the amount of space normally allotted to a 35MM frame, the near-surreal you-are-there result was mind-boggling when witnessed in one of the handful of VistaVision theatres across the country. This wasn’t to slight the regular unfurling in standard nabes and drive-ins (where most folks saw these extraordinary pics); one was essentially seeing 70MM quality in each 35MM frame. The genius cameraman William Daniels once remarked that he mourned the day they discontinued VistaVision.

In many ways, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL may be the finest example of VistaVision ever lensed. Every landscape composition is there to awe its viewers. Every speck of sand in the desert is clear as crystal. Every prick (both of the cacti and outlaw variety) is in your face. Even the pockmarks on Lancaster’s punim are severely evident. It can be stated here that Blu-Ray is the best friend VistaVision can ever hope for (and vice versa). Every pic ever shot in this process should be re-mastered in 1080p and released in the B-D format.  A re-mixed 5.1 stereo track is a nifty compliment (the original release was in Perspecta, an embryonic forerunner of Dolby)

Back in the 1980s, I was first in line to grab the then-high-end home entertainment laserdisc of GUNFIGHT. It was, to say the least, one of the biggest disappointments of my movie collecting life, being the worst of all worlds. Full-frame, soft, time-compressed and with awful color – I watched the platter once, then stored it away to never be seen again. The 2003 DVD remedied some of the problems, restoring the correct aspect ratio, and, to some extent, the color. Like the earlier LV, it has now been consigned to home vid boot hill.

This is all irrelevant now, as the upgrade Warner/Paramount Blu-Ray takes the format and this movie to a stunning new level. The vivid Technicolor, the immaculate detail, nearing 3-D proportions, is outstanding. Long story short, I always liked GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL; in Blu-Ray, I love it!

GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL.  Color.  Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition].  5.1 DTS-HD MA.  CAT # 1000408412. Warner Home Entertainment and Paramount Pictures. SRP:  $7.47

Available online while supplies last through Amazon and Amazon Prime.

gunfightOK_COVER

 

Advertisements

Slimeball’s Crime Ball

A mobster into kinky sex, a gay hit team, an articulate socialite who likes “doing the nasty”(the nastier the better), and a self-loathing cop who falls for the dame in spite of her preference for bad boys.  No, it’s not the latest Tarantino epic, or a violent NR-17 Asian import.  It’s a movie from…wait for it…1955, a brilliant film noir classic entitled THE BIG COMBO, and it’s available for the first time in a terrific Blu-Ray widescreen platter from Olive Films, in conjunction with UCLA Film Archive, The Film Foundation and Ignite Films.

The movie has long been on an enfant terrible list for physical and narrative reasons.  The latter is obvious from the opening statement; the former because of the god-awful copies flooding the home-vid market, due to the picture’s original distributors, Allied Artists, negligently allowing it to fall into public domain.  More on that later.

THE BIG COMBO is a gold-standard noir from frame one, its credentials beaming from in front of and behind the cameras.  Helming the pic is the great Joseph H. Lewis, who wowed the genre’s fans with his extraordinary 1950 masterpiece Gun CrazyCOMBO is every bit as good, and way dirtier.  The script was written by Philip Yordan, the era’s iconic “front,” who only bearded for the best.  The pic smacks of Abraham Polonsky, but who knows?  Maybe Yordan actually did write some/all of it (he claims he did author many works).  The structure is superb, the dialog blistering (and infinitely quotable) and the pacing non-stop: sensational writing at every level that dares to venture way beyond 1955 accepted borders.  The photography is by noir’s most heralded painter, John Alton.  The movie, long story short, looks fantastic, now more than ever.  Finally, the score is by the wonderful David Raksin, whose jazzy music adds immensely to the medium-sized budget’s production values (although certainly “A” list for Allied Artists).

Ultimately, for the masses, it’s the cast that finally puts it over – custom-picked thesps sliding and slithering into their roles and film noir history.

THE BIG COMBO concerns the evil rise and reign of sadistic mobster “Mr. Brown” (Richard Conte in perhaps his finest role).  Brown began as a brilliant accountant for gang leader Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), a ruthless scumbag with ties to politics.  Brains over brawn rules (as Brown soon discovers) and he quickly eclipses his employer (who now cowers beneath him, pathetically doing the psycho-sadist’s bidding).  By hiding accounts, currency laundering and dummy LLC holdings, Brown makes it hard to follow the money (which he knows is key to survival in post-War America); the only thing he hides better are the bodies (and there are plenty of them), specifically the disappearance of his equally parasitic wife Alicia (Helen Walker).  But aside from money and power, Brown has another jones:  S&M and B&D (and they ain’t railroads!).  He’s a sexual predator, who literally gets off by rough coital coupling (again, not trains) – a monster whose lust redefines the term “dangerous liaisons.”  Prime target is the beauteous Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), a rich, well-read member of the elite with a love of art, music, good books and philanthropy.  Susan’s meeting with Brown causes an instant revulsion, not because who he is, but what he is.  He brings out the worst in her, and, to quote the song, the girl can’t help it.  Susan becomes his willing love slave, unable to resist his brutal bedroom demands, no matter how low.

Trying to make sense of all of this is strait-laced detective Leonard Diamond (star-coproducer Cornel Wilde), who can’t fathom Susan’s attraction to Brown, especially since he craves her himself.  This leads one of the movie’s many magnificent good-evil confrontations, as a snickering Brown challenges by-the-book Diamond for Lowell’s favors.  Diamond only knows the law, so already Brown is in control, and he smacks down the detective in a barrage of words that have had audiences screaming “Oh, SNAP!” for over sixty years.  He ferociously outlines the differences between the two men, savagely explaining to the square-jawed dick why the female trophy will always choose boss over cop.  It’s not just the money, it’s something far more addictive:  “PER-SON-ALITY!”  He sends a whipped (not so) Wilde running, simmering with revenge.  Sadly, Conte (or, rather, his character) is (at least momentarily) correct in his assessment.  Professionally speaking, Diamond wisely follows Brown’s game plan, and methodically chases the trail of money and sex, leading to an eye-opening and genuinely shocking (dare we say?) climax.

When Brown does resort to violence, which becomes increasingly necessary, he employs his two faithful bodyguards/hitmen, a gay couple, Mingo and Fante (often pronounced “Fanny”), bizarrely believably portrayed by Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef.  Mingo and Fante are thoroughly devoted to one another, and that’s a good thing – ‘cause they know their boss will throw them under the bus at a the drop of a gat.

As for the ineffectual former kingpin McClure, he (like Diamond) too harbors a molten grudge against Brown, and when it explodes, woo-boy!  And explode it does, beginning with an attempt to win over Mingo and Fante.  In a scathing exchange, he tells the boys, “I’m gonna show you two guys how to be MEN!”

Donlevy’s character is one of noir’s top villains and victims.  He’s afflicted with deafness, so must constantly adjust his hearing aid (used by Conte in one excruciating scene as a torture device).  McClure’s malady provides Lewis, Alton and the sound crew with one of the most innovative uses of audio-video in cinema, a startling nocturnal airport sequence that we won’t further divulge.  Suffice to say, it’s the stuff noir dreams are made of.

Supporting the terrific aforementioned leads is one of the genre’s strongest rosters of mugs and thugs ever.  Weaving in and out of the flick’s mean streets are Robert Middleton, Ted de Corsia, Jay Adler, Michael Mark, Whit Bissell, Philip Van Zandt and John Hoyt.

Surprisingly, THE BIG COMBO was released uncensored in 1955, proof that the Production Code was losing its bite.  Or maybe they just didn’t get what was really going on.  Producer Wilde did.  He wasn’t too pleased with a sequence where his wife Wallace was obviously being serviced via cunilingus-hungry Conte.  He protested to Lewis, imploring him to omit or soften the scene, but perhaps, in reference to Donlevy’s character, it fell upon deaf ears.  How very fortunate, as it’s something of the likes not seen in American cinema since the days of pre-Code (it brings to mind the Frances Dee character in Rowland Brown’s outstanding 1933 pip Blood Money).

The Olive Films Blu-Ray of THE BIG COMBO is one of the must-haves for any film noir library, for reasons as indicated above.  After decades of inferior tapes and DVDs, it at last does John Alton the celluloid justice he and the pic deserve.  Restored from 35MM elements, and for the first time in its original aspect ratio, this disc is a joy to behold.  To paraphrase Mr. Brown, it’s worth going down for.

THE BIG COMBO.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.78: 1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Ignite Films/UCLA Archive/The Film Foundation.  CAT # OF714.  SRP:  $29.95.

bigcombo_COVER

 

Dee-nage Trauma

I approached the new Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries limited edition Blu-Ray of the 1959 fave GIDGET with some trepidation.  First off, I hadn’t seen the picture in decades, always avoiding the CinemaScope show’s pan-and-scan TV presentations, and I didn’t know if I could handle the diabetic repercussion side effects.

Well, no need to worry on either front.  GIDGET turned out to be quite a surprise.  Is it a youth-defining classic along the lines of Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause or even Minnelli’s Home from the Hill?   Admittedly, no.  But neither is it the harmless fluff I expected.  Adding the scenario’s built-in “the summer-beckoning” appeal didn’t hurt either, so let’s catch some rays.

The movie is an amusing coming-of-age picture that carries some of the genuine true-life frightening changes every teen experiences.  Frances Lawrence (nicknamed Gidget, due in part to her diminutive size – a hybrid of girl and midget) is (as she tells us in the opening narration) in her sixteenth year.  And it’s summer.  She is a late bloomer, and doesn’t quite comprehend the changes in her BFFs.  They all seem boy-crazy, up to borderline slutty shenanigans apparently rivaled only by Amsterdam hookers.  Worse, they’re starting to shun Francie, favoring staking out their territory, jiggling, giggling and wiggling in bikinis, overthrowing volleyballs in the general direction of testosterone, slathering on makeup and trash-talkin’.  The boys, some already crossing over into the adult male category, are fairly beguiled by the nubile lasses, but would rather check out the older, experienced versions – that is, when not obsessing on their other and predominant July-August fantasy:  surfing.

Everyone seems to ignore Francie, who has only her parents and best BF, Betty-Louise (who, in a rather eyebrow-raising twist for a 1959 teen dramedy, might be gay) to confide in.  Pop is a bit thick (but not as much as I originally thought – it’s amazing how, as I get older, dumbass parents become magically more reasonable).  Therefore, it’s mom who lays the groundwork for the hormonal change that could attack at any moment, and thus changes the teen’s opinion of boys and rivalry.

It’s then Frances discovers the pleasures of the board – not trodding it, as in acting, but riding it, as it chasing waves.  An A-student and accomplished cellist (items eschewed from the later installments), Ms. Lawrence gives 110% to her new number-one pastime, and soon becomes the guys’ mascot (ergo the Gidget moniker), much to the concern of her former girlfriends, whose jealousy rears its ugly head en masse.

Key in the group of grunting Neanderthals is Moondoggie, who helps show her the surfing ropes, and later saves her from a near-drowning mishap.  Before you can say “Catcher in the Rye,” them hormones kick in like an erupting volcano.

GIDGET was based upon a novel by Frederick Kohner, who reportedly used his daughter in part as inspiration (his other movie works included Deanna Durbin and Jane Powell vehicles).   It therefore warrants comparison to another enormously popular teen movie culled from a literary source, Glendon Swarthout’s Where the Boys Are, released in theaters a year later.  Boys, truly more in the fluff slot than GIDGET (albeit entertainingly so), was watered down to the max for its movie morphing.  The book was extremely dark and hovered around sexual predators.  GIDGET, perceived as lightweight screen fare, cleverly hides its baptism-through-fire message, but amazingly also carries a rapey sidebar.  In the movie, Gidget is offered “special” surfing lessons by a take-no-prisoners surfer, appropriately named Lover Boy.  Later, another thoroughly creepy subplot surrounding an overaged beach bum (dubbed The Big Kahoona) maneuvers the underaged girl into his lair, and almost exposes her to that age-old fate-worse-than-death.  The script by Gabrielle Upton neatly handles this volatile situation (and one that could have had the pic banned in several states), by having the pure intelligence and curiosity of its female protagonist give the Kahoona a revealing look at himself, mercifully before his swim-trunk string is loosened.  The Kahoona’s salvation through Gidget is like a personified acne version of Dean Martin’s character’s regeneration in Rio Bravo (the latter’s, via a bottle of rejected booze); interestingly, both movies were released the same year.

GIDGET‘s success is due not only to the elements indicated above, but to the human forces that propelled them, the cast and the director.  GIDGET‘s director is the underrated Paul Wendkos, who first attracted Columbia’s attention with his superb 1957 indie noir The Burglar.  One would think that he was mammothly unsuited for a beach-bunny movie, but his masterful handling of its insidious adult themes (especially when viewed through my now aged adult peepers) vindicates his participation admirably.  Wendkos, in fact, ended up helming every Gidget big-screen pic, which, I guess, pegged him as a Hollywood adolescent expert.  But one cannot forget his noir routes.  Wendkos’ 1985 TV remake of The Bad Seed freaked me out.

Certainly, each succeeding Gidget lowered the bar from ever being taken seriously.  Like Menudo, all Gidgets and Gidget parents changed from sequel to sequel.  Only Moondoggie’s thesp remained unchanged.  While to many, Gidget conjures up the syrupy 1965 TV series that “made” Sally Field, the name itself instantly laser focuses movie fans to the image of Sandra Dee, the first (and for millions of Gidget fans) and only Frances Lawrence.

Dee, born Alexandria Zuck, is quite terrific in her impersonation as a naïve teen who gets that first nudge of womanhood.  Her wonder and subsequent excitement are expertly played.  For Dee, 1959 was her year.  No less than three blockbuster movies featuring the blonde starlet hit the hardtop and drive-in screens: this pic, Imitation of Life and A Summer Place.  She became an overnight superstar headlining youth flicks well into the mid-1960s.  She would never get another project like any of these three, and lived off 1959 until the descent into AIP horror shockingly revealed a topless Dee in 1969’s The Dunwich Horror.  It wasn’t until Grease‘s homage in song that her name became once more iconic.  She is now forever Gidget, Lana Turner’s daughter and the unwed teen drifting through a Technicolored world dominated by a Percy Faith pimply pop tune.

Supporting Dee is the strongest Gidget cast ever.  James Darren plays Moondoggie, the college drop-out who aspires to be Mini-Kahoona.  Dare we say, he owns the role, as much as Dee owns hers.  His even sings the bubble-gum sticky title tune that cements their connection although the real Dee’s affection went to another singing Darin.  The aforementioned Kahoona is aced by a rather disturbing appearance by Cliff Robertson.  Gidget’s parents are Arthur O’Connell and Mary LaRoche.  Her girlfriends are Yvonne Craig, Jo Morrow, and Sue George (as her aforementioned thoroughly butch bestie);  the horndog beach bums include Joby Baker, Doug McClure and Tom Laughlin.

GIDGET was filmed in washed-out Eastman Color by Pathe (then hyped as ColumbiaColor) by the wonderful d.p. Burnett Guffey.  As mentioned earlier, the inventive CinemaScope compositions were lost on millions of Boomer TV viewers by the awful pan-and-scan prints that dominated the airwaves for nearly thirty years.  An atrocious Columbia Gidget DVD Box in the early 2000s missed the correct aspect ratio memo, and released the set full-frame.

The terrific Twilight Time Blu-Ray of GIDGET corrects all these aberrations. It’s in letter-perfect, crystal-clear 2.35:1, and boasts a beautiful color palette.  Interior lighting is especially ominously atmospheric, particularly in the sequence where Robertson contemplates deflowering the gullible Dee.  A tantalizing trailer covers all bases, comparing the blossoming nymphet to her more grown-up Euro counterparts (“Gidget rhymes with Brigitte”), and offers up a wacky play on words that take their cue from the less frothy culture sources as Kerouac and The Blackboard Jungle (heralding the movie as being about The Beach Generation and announcing “a teenager can be juvenile without being delinquent”).

The music score, like all Twilight Time titles, is accessible as an IST, and features a number of standard Columbia stock riffs, as boom-boomed by Morris Stoloff, but also embryonic orchestrations by John Williams.  The Four Preps’ rock ‘n’ roll/folk vibe, alas, is laughable.  They come off like a Republican barbershop quartet at an EMILY’s List rally.  That said, this is sort of apt, considering the overall charm/point of this “where do I fit in?” sweet curio of the horrors of growing up.

GIDGET.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.  CAT # TWILIGHT-305 BR.  SRP: $29.95.

Limited Blu-Ray edition of 3000.  Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment www.screenarchives.com and Twilight Time www.twilighttimemovies.com.

gidget_COVER

 

Lean Streets 2: Driving Forces

No doubt about it, vest-pocket noirs are gaining in popularity.  Of course, this adjunct has long been made respectable by the ever-increasing reputation of Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945), but, as we learned in Lean Streets, Part One, the studios, particularly the poverty-row ones, leaped aboard the noir bandwagon, due to the modest means (literally, as in limited lighting) required to create the dark universe that emboldens the rain-drenched nocturnal world that we’ve all come to love and admire.

That said, the major studios also realized that low-budget versions of their big-budget thrillers provided an ideal cofeature (and, later, in the 1950s, a direct-to-nabe outing).  RKO, in a weird reverse, even took the same property, Farewell, My Lovely, and did it as an “A” (Murder, My Sweet) and a “B” (The Falcon Takes Over), with the “B” version produced first.

Warner Bros., however, took it a step further by providing distribution for indie producers with the added incentive of giving them access to their contracted TV stars on summer hiatus.  It was a win/win deal, as evidenced by a pair notable cheap pickups, 1951’s ROAD BLOCK and 1958’s VIOLENT ROAD, now on made-to-order DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection

 

A 73-minute smackeroo, ROADBLOCK, from RKO, is an underrated gem of textbook noir.

Since it’s a movie starring Charles McGraw, I’m already a fan before the main credits finish rolling.  McGraw is Joe Peters, an incorruptible insurance detective who, upon a chance meeting with gorgeous Jean Dixon in an airport lounge, becomes corruptible.  Of course, the panting lust is reciprocal, but Dixon’s Diane is first and foremost an aberrant chiseler with ties to crime.  McGraw, brilliant as ever, tries with all his might to stop thinking with body parts other than his brain…and fails.

The dialog in George Bricker’s and noir veteran Steve Fisher’s script (from a story by Daniel Mainwaring and Richard H. Landau) is quotable to the max.  McGraw’s honesty is methodically chipped away, as the unstable, irresistible Dixon chides him for being a bush leaguer (in every way):  “You’re not in my league.  I’m aiming for the World Series.”

But can’t love conquer all?  Dixon lays it (no pun) brutally on the line. Her “Someday you’re gonna want something nice and expensive…that you can’t afford on a detective’s salary…” rings true, even though Joe admits he still “has to look at himself in the mirror.”  Ultimately, bewitched Joe admits to the seductress that he wants “you so bad, I can’t think straight.  You’re what I want for Christmas, the day after the Fourth of July, Saturday nights…all the days there are.”  Holy moly, that’s enough to have even a pro like Diane walking wobbly.  Alas, before you can say “the flesh is weak,” McGraw is meeting with top mob kingpin Kendall Webb (Lowell Gilmore) and plotting a foolproof train robbery.  Can Louis Jean-Heydt, McGraw’s even more incorruptible partner (and in a rare good-guy role) set the score straight?  I think we all know the answer to that.  This is film noir, baby, and nothing ends well for anybody, save the audience.

I genuinely love this tense “B,” one of the many great mini-noirs McGraw made for RKO (the trim budget omits the robbery altogether, a necessary decision that actually works toward the movie’s pacing and success).  Nevertheless, there are some excellent locations, particularly that great visual backdrop, the L.A. River concrete spillways (used so memorably in both THEM! and Point Blank).  The picture quality (superbly photographed by the studio’s overworked artist Nick Mursuaca), from 35MM sources, is excellent; the mono audio veers a bit on the bass side, but not a problem (although there is a slight hum on during the final third of the pic, again, no big deal).

Swiftly directed by Harold Daniels (Sword of Venus, Port Sinister, My World Dies Screaming), and undoubtedly his finest work, ROADBLOCK should have genre fans crashing through all barriers to add it to their collections.

 

Laughing death in the face while hauling horrific cargo is truly a noir natural.  Within the confines of the taut scenarios, all the aspects of the genre are there:  wise-cracking tough guys, greedy dispatchers with ties to gangsterism, roadside whores, cheap diners, lots of smoking, drinking, fighting and (ominous music swells up) murder.

What jump-started the influx of truck pics in the 1950s can be tied to one movie in particular – and an import at that.  I guess you know what I’m talking about – 1952’s French classic The Wages of Fear by director Henri-Georges Clouzot.  The narrative about down-and-outs risking their lives for high pay by transporting nitro over hazardous terrain filled international box-office coffers.  In short, it rocked.  The unshaven, pit-stained losers who populated this lowlife paradise made stars out of Yves Montand and Charles Vanel.  It also enabled the talented Clouzot to thrill us again with such subsequent suspense pics like Diabolique.  It’s very likely, however, that Clouzot and coscripter Jerome Geronimi (to say nothing of author Georges Arnaud) got their inspiration from Hollywood – and its unsung hero of movie trucker lore (or lorry, if you’re British), Greek-American writer A.I. Bezzerides.

Bezzerides mined the potential of the underbelly of the hauling business with the spectacular 1940 Raoul Walsh masterpiece They Drive by Night (based on his1938  novel The Long Haul).  This landmark five-star/six-wheeler triumph costarred George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino; if EVER there was noir cast, this is it.  Bezzerides, also known for penning the script to Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, followed it up with his first script Juke Girl (1942, also with Sheridan) and the underrated 1949 Jules Dassin classic Thieves’ Highway, featuring Richard Conte and Lee J. Cobb.

These movies dealt primarily with the greed and mob element that we must assume genuinely fueled the actual industries.  While the only peril regarding the cargo was time (perishable fruits and vegetables), I still imagine that these flicks largely did influence Clouzot.  Ironically, even before Bezzerides, there was a remarkable little RKO “B” that DID involve the high pay/adrenaline rush of transporting nitro – the rarely seen 1937 programmer Border Cafe, costarring Harry Carey and John Beal.  Worth checking out, even if only for historical context.

By the time Wages of Fear hit the English-speaking countries on both sides of the pond scum, the gas was pumping hi-octane.  1957 saw no less than three B&W truck dramas.  Least was Allied Artists’ Death in Small Doses, which tackled the still headline-heavy dilemma of drug-addicted truckers, doping up to keep awake.  Best was the UK unsurpassed celebration of high-testosterone, Hell Drivers – one of toughest pics ever.  Written and directed by Cy Endfield, this relentless depiction of psychopathic machismo costarred no less that Stanley Baker, Patrick McGoohan and Sean Connery (with Herbert Lom, David McCallum and Sid James in support).  Peggy Cummins, the maniac from Gun Crazy (and later the heroine of Tourneur’s Night of the Demon) was the human prize coveted by the otherwise male cast – whether she liked it or not.  It’s a fucking great movie (in VistaVision too).  The other movie was an extraordinary Fox RegalScope noir entitled Plunder Road.

Mutha-trucker history lesson over.  Here’s where I was going:

 

1958’s VIOLENT ROAD shamelessly rips off Wages of Fear, but gets by due to the excellent cast and professional Warner Bros. tech crew.

Directed by Howard W. Koch and produced by Aubrey Schenck, the picture was indeed a couple of rungs up the ladder from their previous UA deal, where the pair conceived a slew of low-budget crime, horror, western and rock ‘n’ pics under the Belair banner.

In VIOLENT ROAD, ROADBLOCK author/script writer Richard Landau (adapting Don Martin’s story) took Clouzot’s work to a far more dangerous (and contemporary) level.  No mere nitro in this haul, but rather way more lethal (as in radioactive) and volatile rocket fuel.  This stuff is so deadly that the small towns dotting the route have sent out armed militias to block the three monster trucks from even coming close to their burgs.

Driving the rigs are tough guys with pasts and the best credentials their unions can offer.  And by that, we don’t mean truckers, but rather Central Casting and SAG.  Every cliché imaginable has been thrown into the mix.  Star Brian Keith is the rebellious, womanizing loose cannon hired to spearhead the trek – getting that much-needed juice to the nearest launch site.  Keith’s character is really like old-school Warner Bros., taking bit of Jimmy Cagney here, a pinch of John Garfield there…you get it.  The other grand hotel roster three-paired/six man crew comprise the sleazy gambler down on his luck (Arthur Batanidis), the fresh kid (Sean Garrison) living in the shadow of his once-idolized, now drunken older brother, the minority dude striving to earn enough to get to college (Perry Lopez), the burned-out cashiered military officer hoping to go out in a blaze of glory (Dick Foran), and the self-loathing nuclear scientist haunted by a horrific miscalculation (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.).  It’s the latter two who are the most interesting – if only for their Mad magazine personal histories.  Foran is part of Foran & Doran, not a vaudeville team, but a mismatched spousal nightmare that has him hitched to the verbally abusive Ann Doran:  “[You] get the free drinks, I get the hangover,” she spits out as he stumbles home from a late night bender.

Zimbalist, however, wins the Carol Burnett movie parody prize hands down.  Why would a revered nuclear physicist be reduced to hauling the stuff he helped create?  Penance, my friends.  You see, Efrem mistakenly chartered a live warhead missile into a local hamlet.  Worse – ground zero ended up being the town’s elementary school.  And just as the kiddies were being picked up by their parents – including his wife (Merry Anders, decked out like Kim Novak) and daughter.  Yup, he toasted them all.  It’s here that VIOLENT ROAD detours slightly off its Wages of Fear course and onto the perilous Zero Hour runway (the laughable air-disaster movie from the year before, and the source of 1980’s Airplane!).

There’s lots of action packed into the 86-minute package, highlighted by desert location work and some gut-wrenching suspense.  To give you a taste – there are runaway rigs, twisted body part mutilations (aka Lopez getting his arm snapped by an unforgiving gearshift), and, as if Zero Hour needed any more competition, there’s even an out-of-control school bus headed smack-dab for a stalled tanker.  VIOLENT  ROAD is fun (and funny) and, while certainly no Wages of Fear, it’s also never not royally entertaining.

What keeps it moving on an even keel is that the actors (who all seem to know this is unbelievable even for a B-movie) play it absolutely straight.  While we mentioned a couple of the females sprinkled throughout (and heavily hyped in the trailers and ads), we gotta mention the babes who gather around Keith like he’s the fornicatin’ king of an adult 50s version of Leave it to Beaver.  Prime among these prime-mates is Joanna Barnes, who slings it around as if she’s that skanky third face of Eve, but dirtier.  Of course, we instantly worship her – and her snarky bon mots, which she drops with great bimbardier expertise; dismissing Keith after a highway encounter in the backseat, she magnificently reveals him to be nothing but another love deposit, easily removed “…under a hot shower [that] wash[es] away…the dirt I picked up.”

The last image of Keith has him jumping into a Thunderbird convertible, driven by a huffing-and-puffing accommodating babe of the Mamie Van Doren/Elaine Stewart variety.  And that’s some variety!

The crisp widescreen camerawork by Carl Guthrie is WB pro all the way, as is the churning score by Leith Stevens.

I might suggest pairing VIOLENT ROAD with the aforementioned Zero Hour for a riotous Fifties Nightmare Night.  To quote Slim Pickens (who has nothing to do with ANY of these pics), it’s “a hoot an’ a holler.”  In reverence to more metropolitan viewers, the movie, like Joanna Barnes, will honk your horn.

ROADBLOCK.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio.  CAT # 1000477791.  SRP:  $21.99

VIOLENT ROAD. Black and white.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; Mono audio.  CAT # 1000500722.  SRP: $17.99.

Both are made-to-order DVD-Rs from The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

LEANSTREETS_LOGOleanstreets2_ROADBLOCK_COVERleanstreets2_VIOLENTROAD_COVER

 

Reel Find

An extraordinary adventure, 2016’s acclaimed feature documentary DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME, now on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber/Hypnotic Pictures/Picture Palace Pictures (in association with Arte-La Lucarne and The Museum of Modern Art), is all the more personally thrilling and engrossing since it’s about my favorite topic, The Movies.  This is the kind of pic that sends goosebumps (the good kind) up and down your spine, proving that sometimes nothing is impossible.

And here’s why.

Dawson City is a Yukon-based town, one of the myriad of gold rush burgs honeycombed throughout the frozen north.  These havens for thievery, prostitution, pestilence and other meshugas flourished with the discovery of Au 79 in the mid-late 1890s.  Recently, I wrote a review/article on the excellent Irish western series Dominion Creek.  Small world. Dominion resided right next to Dawson City, and this documentary even chronicles the exploits of some of the former’s characters (Chief Issac, Indian Kate, Snookum Jim).

But DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME is not about the gold rush.  It’s about what happened after the boom town fizzled.  The small hamlets that remained strove to prosper, to become respectable.  And Dawson City admirably refused to give it up, succeeding (even after burning down on an average of once a year), constantly re-building with many of its original citizenry surviving well beyond the first quarter of the twentieth century.  The founders raised their families, and opened recreation centers out of the old brothels and saloons.  The town leaders encouraged sports, and built Olympic-sized indoor pools.

And then came the movies.  While traveling stock companies promised live entertainment, it was often difficult to secure acting companies to trek into the Far North (many never making it).  The new flicker fad eradicated this, and only had shipping cans of film to contend with (although this could also pose a problem).  The moving picture phenomenon grabbed the populace tight, and spread like wildfire throughout the various neighboring communities.  The problem was that Dawson City was the last stop on Hollywood’s distribution route, and the studios didn’t want to pay exorbitant fees to have the played-out movies shipped back.  Instead, they installed an overseer in the DC bank to ensure that illegal screenings weren’t cheating the moguls out of their coin.  Talkies, the Depression and general progress moved the sleepy town into the post-flapper age, and Dawson City’s past became a tourist attraction.  But the thousands of cans of film, spanning the 1910s-late 1920s took up way too much space.  So the locals junked it by the cartload, unloading much of it into the Yukon River.  Other dump spots included deserted lots – a makeshift kiddie playground. Here, the urchins would frequently delight each other by ripping strips of highly inflammable 35MM nitrate stock and playing “magic fire” fizzies.

As the town grew and settled into the 1960s, rumors of mountains of old movies would occasionally filter into the mainstream of American big cities.

Then, while face-lifting the building housing the largest of the aforementioned swimming pools, workers were shocked to uncover that it had been a prime pic dumpster of choice.  533 cans of 35MM film (encompassing 372 shorts and features) were jammed into the drained concrete cavity, weathering the climate (and enduring because of the 50-below winter temps) for nearly three quarters of a century.  Cinema archeologists were called in and took on the Herculean task of identifying each reel, sadly, discovering that (upon opening tens of dozens of cans) some of the volatile celluloid had already advanced to full-blown deterioration and apple-jelly/dust hell.

Years of work paid off, and the remaining movie booty (some being the only extant materials on long-lost works) was meticulously restored, preserved and catalogued.

I love this movie!  I love the dedicated people who made it possible.  I love sharing it with friends.  It makes me deliriously goofy.

So much praise must be distributed among the makers of DAWSON CITY, first and foremost supreme documentarian/director/writer/editor Bill Morrison.  Morrison creates a mosaic comprised of vintage photographs, newsreels, Dawson residents’ home movies, recent interviews, and, best of all, clips from the excavated nuggets, far more desirable to me than any gold ever mined in the vicinity.

DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME deservedly has won a plethora of awards, and Kino, who has magnificently brought this gem to collectors’ libraries, too, should be given a lion’s share of the kudos.  The 35MM transfer is top-notch, and features an excellent musical score by Alex Somers.  They also haven’t scrimped when it comes to supplements, and the superb extras include a booklet by non-fiction author Lawrence Weschler and Alberto Zambenedtti, an interview with Bill Morrison, the trailer and more.  For me, however, the greatest addendum to this miraculous story is the inclusion of actual reels of rescued film.  In it, I have found what could likely be, along with Broken Blossoms, my second favorite D.W. Griffith movie, a startling 1912 drama entitled Brutality.  It is beautifully acted and (grimly) shows us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  The picture is about spousal abuse, and, for the most part, unspools in a shocking style so modern that a remake couldn’t do it justice.  Mae Marsh (in a spectacular performance) and Walter Miller (now zooming to the top of my silent screen actor pantheon) are a handsome young couple in love.  While courting, a stranger bumps into the suitor; he responds by beating the innocent to a near pulp, much to the horrified chagrin of his mate.  Seeing her reaction, he chillingly strokes her, as an unnerving title card announces, “But I would never hurt you, dear.”  The not-shape-of-things-to-come.  Her marriage is torture, rife with beatings, rape and threats of worse.  His accelerated drinking doesn’t help matters, and the remaining footage concludes as the couple takes a night out at the theater, attending a production of Oliver Twist.  The look of terror on Marsh’s face as she watches Bill Sikes assault Nancy isn’t lost on the battered wife; her husband, meanwhile, takes it in his stride incapable of making the connection.  I repeat, this movie was made and shipped to Dawson in 1912.

DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME is an essential disc for any movie-fan, especially cynics like myself, who spend way too much time bemoaning about pictures presumed lost forever.  This sensational entry provides a definite glimmer of hope.

DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME.  Color/Black and White.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA.  Kino Lorber/ Hypnotic Pictures/Picture Palace Pictures (in association with Arte-La Lucarne and The Museum of Modern Art). Region A. CAT# K22547.  SRP: $34.95.

dawsoncity_COVER

 

Cut to the Chase

Recently, I had been musing to myself about how wonderful it would be if someone would release a collection of Charley Chase sound shorts, a comedian whom I feel has been greatly underrated.  Whether there’s a DVD God or not is a matter best left to folks of clergy, but, not long after my wish, up popped a two-disc collection from The Sprocket Vault that delivered my request beyond my wildest dreams, CHARLEY CHASE AT HAL ROACH: THE TALKIES, VOLUME ONE.  The dual platters include eighteen pre-Code Chase gems (all 1930 and 1931 releases), most of which I had never seen!

But who was Charley Chase?  To those only fleetingly familiar with the lanky, mustachioed comic, he’s the loudmouth, annoying dude irritating Laurel & Hardy at their Sons of the Desert convention.  Few realize that he was an immensely popular attraction in his own right, both as a silent funnyman and a vastly successful talker transistioner.

Born Charles Parrott, he changed his name to Chase, and began working in comedies in 1912.  By the early 1920s, he was firmly entrenched at the Hal Roach Studio, having proven himself as a writer/director of the Our Gang shorts.  Soon, he and Leo McCarey were upgraded to supervising the entire Roach output, with the exception of the Harold Lloyd productions.  Chase’s younger brother, James Parrott, was an extremely talented director, too, and helmed many of his sib’s productions, as well as some of the best Roach two and three-reelers, including those of Stan and Ollie.

With the departure of Lloyd, Chase was moved up to his own series, where he remained a top draw (my pal Will Hutchins once remarked that the head-of-the-family Chase pics were like, “Harold Lloyd after he got the girl.”) until dismissed by Roach 1936, due to the mogul’s gradual switchover to a “features only” policy.  Chase, already suffering from depression and an overabundance to the grape, drifted into an inferior block of two-reelers at Columbia.  Devastated by his brother’s death to drug addiction in 1939, and his own increasing alcoholism, Chase gave up the ghost in 1940, and quickly drifted into obscurity.

The funny thing (funny, as in strange) about Chase is that his silents frequently presented him as a harried family man, dealing with bothersome children, in-laws, etc.  When sound came in, Chase reversed his status to pre-wedded mess…umm, bliss.  He was now the bon vivant man-about-town playboy, or the middle-class working stiff out to win the girl next door.  This revisionist strategy fit him like a glove.  In regards to the sound boom, Charley Chase was like a dream come true.  Not only did his fast-talking ability perfectly suit the new format, but audiences happily discovered that Chase was an accomplished musician, proficient on a number of instruments and the possessor of a fine singing voice.  The fact that these early Roach sound efforts were pre-Code added considerably to the comic’s appeal; this is especially true today, where pre-Code, like noir, has become the all-purpose selection for classic pic novices on Movie Night.  The titles themselves are pre-Code nuggets to be savored and repeated.  Who doesn’t want to see risqué shorts with the fetching monikers of What a Bozo!, Looser than Loose, Whispering Whoopee, Girl Shock and Skip the Maloo!?

Chase, as The Sprocket Vault connoisseurs are quick to point out, had the best of the Roach staff, in front of and behind the camera.  On the former, this is highlighted by the gorgeous comedienne Thelma Todd, who appears with him in nine of the delightful offerings.  I’ve always loved Todd, as a supporting player in features, or as a headliner in her own Roach series (teamed with either ZaSu Pitts or Patsy Kelly).  I must state, though, that she never had looked more beautiful than in the Chase pics.  And, say, I’ll go one better:  she’s never been funnier.  Her brilliance at the reaction, the delivery and the use of body language is textbook worthy in Looser than Loose, one of the highlights in this set.

The eighteen shorts themselves are all good, with more than a handful being masterful.  The pre-Code stamp alone makes them the ideal appetizer for Baby Face, Red-Headed Woman, Blonde Crazy, etc.  The plots are wild, free-wheeling and downright naughty (relying on dialog and double entendre than the usual Roach slapstick, although they are sprinkled with a hefty dash of sight gag physical).  No foolin’, the storyline of Whispering Whoopee concerns business exec Chase pimping “party girls” (aw, hell, they’re hookers!) to would-be clients.

It’s likewise extremely interesting to watch the evolution of Chase as he becomes more assured as a talkie star.  The earliest of these shorts, The Real McCoy, was filmed in 1929, and released at the beginning of the 1930 season.  It’s a bit rough, but wacky enough to get by.  Chase and Roach thought enough of the basic idea (city slicker in hostile rube territory) to hone and refine the scenario, and eventually do a superior partial remake the following year (One of the Smiths, also included here).

Todd aside, the shorts additionally feature a bevy of stunning comediennes, including the kewpie doll Gay Seabrook, Anita Garvin, Carmen Guerrero, Dorothy Granger, etc.  There are also the Roach icons, always welcome, no matter how brief their appearances.  Edgar Kennedy, Jimmy Finlayson, Billy Gilbert, Kay Deslys, Charlie Hall, Eddie Dunn and Dell Henderson (who scared the hell out of me when I first saw him in The Laurel & Hardy Murder Case) all make memorable Chase cameos.  Kennedy even directs a couple (All Teed Up, Fifty Million Husbands), and his style is particularly worth mentioning, since his cast reacts to aggravated woe as he consistently would – with that slow burn expression, topped by the hand over the face.

Finlayson, aside from his “DOH!” verbal frustration (yeah, he’s the inspiration for Homer Simpson’s trademark response), goes way against type as a fun-loving supporter of Chase’s shenanigans, portraying the father of Charley’s sweetheart (Seabrook) in the rollicking Hasty Marriage.  Still others in this group (High C’s, Rough Seas) are out-and-out min-musicals, assembled to take advantage of Chase’s musical expertise.

Roach was always ahead of the curve when it came to innovation, and his jump into sound provides a sensational example.  The use of audio (as effects, music and dialog) usually beat the features they supported to the punch.  He even dismisses main titles entirely on a handful of the pics, relying upon stunning blonde twin starlets Betty Mae and Beverly Crane to announce all the credits to the audience.  His magnificent group of cameramen (including George Stevens, who shot The Real McCoy and The Panic is On), sound technicians (Elmer Raguse) and gag/title card/dialog writers (H.M. Walker) and especially composer Leroy Shield are true unsung heroes of early sound cinema.

The Sprocket Vault has gone the distance in presenting these unique, oft long-forgotten entertainments to movie buffs.  Their apologetic waiver at the head of each disc (indicating that time has not been thoroughly kind to several of the elements) was, I felt, unnecessary.  While they all don’t look like the recent prints from the Chaplin negatives, they are all way above acceptable, some being the best I’ve ever seen on these titles.  And, as I mentioned at the start, many of these I’ve never seen.  So, on rarity alone, they deserve a place on every classic collector’s shelf.

The titles in this set comprise the following:

The Real McCoy, Whispering Whoopee, All Teed Up, Fifty Million Husbands, Fast Work, Girl Struck, Dollar Dizzy, Looser than Loose, High C’s, Thundering Tenors, The Pip from Pittsburgh, Rough Seas, One of the Smiths, The Panic is On, Skip the Maloo!, What a Bozo! and Hasty Marriage.

The eighteenth is more of a bonus, an extremely scarce Spanish version of The Pip from Pittsburgh (here entitled, La Senorita de Chicago); before dubbing, phonetic sound versions of shorts and features were shot with different supporting casts, but obviously retaining the stars, who spoke French/German/Spanish phonetically.  I’ve seen some Laurel & Hardy international versions, but never a Chase.  Another treat for comedy fans.  Other bonuses include audio commentary by film historian Richard M. Roberts and a stills and poster gallery.

To use the lingo of his day, I recommend taking a flyer on CHARLEY CHASE AT HAL ROACH: THE TALKIES, VOLUME ONE.  It’s the berries!

CHARLEY CHASE AT HAL ROACH:  THE TALKIES, VOLUME ONE.  Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1]. Mono audio.  All Region DVD.  The Sprocket Vault/Sonar Distribution, LLC.  CAT# 35061.  SRP:  $34.95.

charleychase_COVER

 

Gold’s Fools

Grim, uncompromising, yet full of color, action and adventure, the complete two-season (2015, 2017) Irish mini-series DOMINION CREEK (aka An Klondike) is now available in a pair of four-episode, two-disc DVD sets from Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment (in conjunction with Content Media/abu/TG4 and BAI).

The story in itself is nothing new, the effect of the 1890s gold rush on American and foreign entrepreneurs/prospectors/gamblers/thrill seekers/pioneers/pathfinders, but rather in the way this version is told, via the personification of three transplanted brothers of the auld sod.  It would have had Erich von Stroheim and Frank Norris dancing with joy (perhaps, with each other).

The Connolly clan (Dara Devaney, Owen McDonnell, Sean T. O’Meallaigh), recently come from to the U.S. from Ireland, are killing themselves in the coal mines of America.  Why do that when they can kill themselves in the gold fields of the Klondike?  Plenty of fresh air and gold dust that practically jumps into your saddlebags.  Right?  The impractical theory gets impetus when an aged friend of their ailing father (Brendan Conroy) gives the family a map of a surefire claim. And, sure and begorrah, before you can say, “See ya, suckers!,” Sean (Devaney) the youngest and most disreputable of the brood, absconds with the parchment and is off to the Yukon.  When his remaining sibs, a ruthless near-thug Tom (McDonnell) and the reasonably well-read Padraig (O’Meallaigh) discover his treachery, they set off in search of him – never imagining the odyssey ahead.

Canada, bordering on Alaska, was a no-man’s land, untouched and gorgeous – until, as usual, humans mucked it up.  And, man, are they a bunch of muckers!  The contrast between the natural terrain and the hastily-built Dominon Creek is startling and painful.  The beauteous green mountains, clear lakes and rich soil are heaven compared to the town, an already-rotting hamlet, filled with get-rich-quick scum, con artists, whores, thieves and worse.

The Connolly’s arrival causes an upheaval of sorts, since they are “take no prisoners” lads, staking out their claim and with a vengeance, seconded only by their reaction to anyone who tries to interfere in family business.  Tom is the alpha leader, and his grueling work and overseer attitude toward workers pays off.  Gold is found, and he becomes rich.  His wise strategy for survival: stay out of the actual town of Dominion.  The brothers think differently.  Sean is drawn to the excitement of big money and sex that the town offers.  His liaison with a wonderful whore, Kate Mulryan (Siobhan O’Kelly), thought to be the woman of Sam Steele (Steve Wall), the local ruling Mountie, results in a child.  Steele, a by-the-book lawman to a fault, treats the town like he treats Kate, and suffers because of it.  He is considered a complicit joke.  And, during a trek to a neighboring post (to secure legal documentation), an evil faction (comprised of two psychopathic killers, Timothy V. Murphy and Duane Howard) kills two politicians, takes their place, enters Dominion and decree fascist regime, much to the delight of the incarcerated “Irish Pat” Galvin (Ned Dennehy).  Galvin is perhaps the vilest individual I’ve ever come across in an Acorn drama/mystery (and that says plenty!).  His former friendship with the fake judge guarantees his freedom – and revenge upon those who put him there.

It is the women of Dominion who are, not surprisingly, the most victimized.  Innocents from abroad, who arrive in the wilderness for an advertised position, they are quickly raped, thrown into prostitution and indentured to the vicious Hopkins clan (Ian Toner, Robert O’Mahoney), who control the majority of the town’s brothels.  The fate of these females is generally a) a diseased whore; or b) a VERY diseased whore, the latter used as payback for clients they disapprove of.  Of course, the local doctor and clergy are stressed out to the max, and ultimately collapse under the weight of corruption and greed.  Here, Padraig picks up the baton, and attempts to bring decency to Dominion.  This is in direct opposition to the roguish Sean, who has bought into a brothel himself, and collects big bucks for the burg’s only bathhouse.  Hovering over the proceedings is Soapy Smith (Michael Glenn Murphy), an insect-like leech of a snake-oil salesman whose best bud, a renowned French count (Donncha Crowley) is (what a shock) revealed to be just another shanty Irishman on the run.  Mici Ban (Tim Creed), a distant relative of the Connollys, pops up unexpectedly and proves too detrimental to the boys’ success so, under duress, they choose the most extreme option to rid themselves of him.  Not really a big a deal, as Sean himself is conned into killing Tom, but, luckily fails – only crippling him.  Ah, da good ole days.

The aforementioned women, when not whoring or managing whores, are actually the most commendable characters in the piece.  As chronicled in Lael Morgan’s excellent 1998 book, Good Time Girls, whores made (no pun) the Yukon.  Their trade brought in enough capital to eventually transform these dumps into thriving metropolises. The few who saved their money created their own mining operations – the only fair outfits in the vicinity.  Others escaped back to the old country, forever wealthy.  The two most remarkable women in DOMINION CREEK are Estella Hopkins (Megan Riordan) and El Soo (Chloe Ewart).  The former is the mercenary wife of JJ Hopkins (Toner), son of the town’s richest and evilest landowner Jacob (O’Mahoney).  The Sr. Hopkins, who covets his son’s wife for himself, is nonplussed when his under-the-bus-throwable spawn is killed.  This gives him the edge to move in on the woman.  Haunted by the sheer evil of the place, Estella is gradually reformed in a stunning regeneration (and performance).  The latter is a Native American, and the only one able to tame bull-in-a-china-shop Tom, which she does slowly but surely.

Of course, all of the filth in DOMINION CREEK, literal and human, subsequently takes its toll, as an outbreak of cholera nearly eviscerates the entire community (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

The fascinating nugget about DOMINION CREEK is that most of the events in the narrative are based upon true incidents.  Indeed, the plethora of disreputable crooks and scum did almost destroy the magnificent land.  Many of the characters in the piece are authentic, or based upon avaricious flesh mongers (one of the territory’s most infamous pimps was Frederick Trump, grandfather of, well, you know who).  Chief Issac (Glen Gould), daughter El Soo (aka Indian Kate) and son Snookum Jim (Julian Black Antelope) were all real folks.  While some liberties are taken with their fates (some of which I found unnecessary), the atmosphere, ambience and general history depicted in DOMINION is fairly authentic.  The volatile conclusion and promise of a long-deserved civilized society, is also due to a woman’s skills (here, as a tracker) and satisfies as much as it disturbs.

The acting by all is wonderful, with top honors going to the three brothers (who genuinely look like they could be related).  Others worth a salutatory nod, include Dennehy as Galvin, O’Kelly as Kate and Murphy as Smith.

The look of DOMINON CREEK is fantastic.  The series was entirely shot in Connemara, Ireland, believably passing for the Yukon.  The grungy title town is a true hellhole of a place, faithfully copied from 19th century photographs.  And, as indicated, the surrounding vistas are gloriously stunning.  Kudos to d.p.s Cathal Walters and Colm Hogan.

The script is tough with some harsh dialog to match the violence on the screen.  Much of the exchanges are in Irish Gaelic and Native American Tlingit (with English subtitles) to add that extra bit of credibility to the piece. Credit Marcus Fleming for his scenario, based upon an idea from Dathai Keane, who also did a fine job directing.  Must also mention the excellent score by Steve Lynch, who incorporates vintage Irish ballads (many sung by the whores) into the mix.

The Acorn widescreen discs look great in 1.78:1 and sounds even better in stereo-surround.

A rare western epic from the land of John Ford’s ancestors.  Kinda apt.

DOMINION CREEK, SERIES 1.  CAT# AMP-2467.

 DOMINION CREEK, SERIES 2.  CAT# AMP-2552.

Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo-surround. Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/CONTENT/abu/TG4/BAI. SRP: $39.99@.