Dino Might

JULY IS WARNER ARCHIVE MONTH

Growing up a half hour away from the Museum of Natural History was a game-changer for my fertile, juvenile mind.  I practically haunted the remnants of the prehistoric era, gazing in wonder at the enormous, monstrous fossils.  For a time, I wanted to be a paleontologist, until it finally dawned upon me that I’d probably never find live specimens to bring back to civilization that would then end up destroying a major metropolis.  Sigh.

For that, I had to partially rely upon literary works such as Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot, two paperbacks that quickly became dog-eared from multiple readings.  Then, I discovered TV’s Million Dollar Movie, and my world was forever transformed.  Dinosaurs leveling key cities became my favorite genre; couldn’t get enough of them.  The wonderful thing about Million Dollar Movie was that it paved the way for cheap programming by running one movie twice nightly for a week, and then all weekend long.  So, I got to memorize all the dialog from King Kong, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and, perhaps the creepiest dino-on-the-loose flick of all time, 1959’s shamefully underrated THE GIANT BEHEMOTH.  By the time 1969 rolled around, Warner Bros. sicced THE VALLEY OF GWANGI upon the by-then jaded public; nevertheless, I was, once again hooked.  I’m so delighted to announce that both these primo-dino epics are currently available in awesome price-friendly Blu-Ray editions from The Warner Archive Collection.  I am, once again, a kid in the candy store.

These movies are not simply vastly entertaining sci-fi extravaganzas (though they are that, in spades), but technical marvels showcasing the artistry of two of the finest SFX magicians in the field, Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen.  Indeed, Harryhausen had the good fortune to see O’Brien’s Kong in its original release.  It changed his life more than it did mine (obviously).  He was determined to devote his subsequent existence to creating similar phantasmagoria on his own turf (originally, in his parents’ garage).  Eventually, he met the great O’Brien (nicknamed Obie), who, after some gentle but valid criticism, hired him to assist on his latest project, John Ford’s production of Mighty Joe Young.  As it is so convenient to often quote, “the rest is history.”  As O’Brien’s star slightly faded, Harryhausen’s rose to new 1950s eye-popping heights (20,000 Fathoms, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, It Came from Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth and his first Technicolor blockbuster The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad).

Since it’s the dinosaurs that were my first and breathtaking movie love, nothing could give me greater pleasure than discussing and paying homage to these two men via the below praise for their labors and those of the savvy selection crew at Warner Archive.  So, here we go.

 

I first saw THE GIANT BEHEMOTH on the aforementioned Million Dollar Movie.  It’s no understatement that, cinematically, the pic was an integral part of my youth.  My dad watched it at least a couple of times with me (very unusual for him).  It was the middle portion of French director Eugene Lourie’s dino trilogy.  His first was Harryhausen’s 1952 Beast From 20,000 Fathoms; his last was 1961’s Gorgo.  The former was a grand scale Hollywood monster show, with the title creature simply doing what all prehistoric monsters do.  The latter was a modern fable.  That left BEHEMOTH – the one that had the most impact on me – the one that took a frightening documentary approach.  In graphic black-and-white, this British/U.S. coproduction presents a dire commentary on the penalty we’ll pay for destroying the environment.

At a London conference surrounding the pros and cons of nuclear exploration, American marine biologist Steve Karnes screens films of outbreak-suit-wearing scientists checking the shorelines for doses of radioactivity post-bomb testing.  Ostensibly, they conclude, the published accumulation of low levels pronounce it safe for humans to return to swimming, boating and fishing (while this was 1959, the movie is still wary enough to term these findings suspicious…and dangerous).  “These are ourselves!,” warns Karnes, who further scolds the committees with horrific tales of polluting the waters with waste.  You’re crazy to think that this won’t have an eventual effect on the global eco-structure.

And so it does.

Cornwall is first hit by thousands of dead fish washing up upon its beaches.  An elderly fisherman (Henri Vidon), securing his catch, is blinded by a throbbing light, and burnt to a crisp.  His final word: “Behemoth.”

Karnes and his British counterpart, a well-connected scientist/politico Professor Bickford (Andre Morell), immediately head for Cornwall, where the dead fish have now washed out on the tide.  Radioactivity levels are low, and there doesn’t seem to be anything terribly amiss.  Except for the locals exhibiting severe radiation burns on their limbs.

Natch, no one believes the potential environmental disaster that lies beneath.  Then a farming community is obliterated, with its human and livestock populace burned to cinders.  This time there is more evidence, a mammoth footprint the size of several police cars.

Dr. Sampson, the country’s leading paleontologist is called in (the wonderful Jack MacGowran); he sees the immediate nightmare that the creature brings, yet is eccentrically delighted (“You know, all my life I hoped this would happen. Ever since childhood I expected it. I knew these creatures were alive somewhere, but I had no proof, scientific proof, and I had to keep it to myself, or my colleagues would have all laughed at me.  See, no form of life ceases abruptly, and all those reports of sea serpents – well, what can they be?”).  He pegs the beast as a paleosaurus, a gargantuan amphibious creature.  Unlike the previously mentioned dinos, the paleosaurs (at least this one) is inherently evil.  And, as Sampson points out, “It’s electric, like an eel.”  But, of course, with something this size, its charge is tantamount to fifty times that of a ride in an electric chair.  Coupled with human negligence (exposure to radiation waste), this Jurassic predator is a true horror.

Tragedy after tragedy occurs before the monster rises and destroys a good deal of London.  And the task of killing it (before it dies from the massive toxic radioactive jolt it has been exposed to) becomes a tense game of monster and mouse.

This movie is nasty.  The gruesome deaths terrified me, and the sarcastic capper didn’t give anyone a sigh of relief (reports of dead fish washing up on Florida shores).  My dad snarkily laughed at that, uttering under his breath:  “The bastards are destroying our seas.”  I thought he meant monsters, not the polluters.  Didn’t understand the laugh either, and figured he just didn’t care for Florida (which was probably true).

Lourie, who barely spoke English, early-on worked as Jean Renoir’s production designer (Grand Illusion, Le Bete Humaine, Rules of the Game, etc.).  Renoir, given a private screening of 20,000 Fathoms at Warner Bros., exited with tears of joy.  “What a magnificent beast!,” he proclaimed to his friend.  I’d love to know what he would have thought of this rendering.  It’s amazing that with Lourie’s language difficulties, that he could write so chilling and literate a script.  Research has provided an answer.  The movie was mostly penned by Robert Abel and blacklisted scribe Allen Adler (story) with dialog by Daniel James (who, when credited, only worked under his pseudonym Danny Santiago).  Suddenly, it all makes sense.

The cast is realistically sublime.  Gene Evans is so believable as a nuclear scientist (effectively and correctly pronouncing and using terminology), that I still have trouble seeing him in the countless westerns he mostly appeared in (usually as henchmen, ranch hands, etc.).  Samuel Fuller gave the actor more credibility with turns in The Steel Helmet and Park Row (in fact, I always thought it was a nod to this movie that caused Fuller to cast Evans in Shock Corridor as an insane nuclear physicist).  The remainder of the cast is equally impressive, and includes Leonard Sachs, Alastair Hunter, Norman Rossington, and Derren Nesbitt.

The graphic docu-monochrome photography is by Ken Hodges (The Jokers, The Ruling Class and episodes of Secret Agent), and the genuinely goose-bump-raising score is by Edwin Astley.

Of course, it’s the SFX that deliver the mass goods, and they’re mostly achieved by the brilliant Willis O’Brien and his longtime assistant, Pete Peterson, an unsung stop-motion hero.  It’s not a stretch to say that the budget for this Allied Artists-released sci-fi was tight; in fact, tight would be an upgrade.  Astoundingly, much of the work was done in Peterson’s garage.  O’Brien had even copped a reel of audio from RKO, and the victims’ agonizing screams are the same as those heard 26 years earlier in King Kong.  Several paleos were created, one just a head and neck (used in a London ferry destruction sequence); on the incorrectly framed TV/16MM rental prints, the full square dimensions reveal a wood block at the creature’s neck.  Fortunately, this dazzling Blu-Ray is mastered in the accurate aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (although you can still see the tip of the block).

Three scenes that freak me out to this day don’t rely upon any of the excellent effects:  the already discussed opening sequence, a photo lab testing of radiation from local fishing communities, and a creepy excursion on a tug through a mist-filled sea (with just a touch of dragon-spiked neck ducking into the depths with emissions of steam and fire).

In Britain, the move was logically released as simply Behemoth – the Sea Monster (with codirecting credit to Douglas Hickox).  For the U.S. debut, AA surmised that Americans wouldn’t know what that meant, so they retitled it THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, kinda like calling it The Rich Millionaire.  Never mind.

The Warner Archive Collection has done us BEHEMOTH fans a great service with this Blu-Ray; aside from the excellent transfer, there are a couple of cool extras, including the trailer and audio commentary by contemporary SFX wizards Phil Tippet and Dennis Murren (the latter of whom is in possession of one the BEHEMOTH models!).  My dad would love this disc.  No better praise than that.

 

Considered by many to be Ray Harryhausen’s last great masterpiece, 1969’s THE VALLEY OF GWANGI is one wizard’s homage to another.  Willis O’Brien had a “cowboys vs. dinosaurs” project earmarked on his “to do” list as early as 1917.  It evolved into GWANGI during the first half of the 1940s, but the production was abandoned.  Abandoned, but never forgotten.  O’Brien regaled his new, young assistant (that’s Ray, folks) with his ideas, set pieces and dreams of GWANGI (a partial, budget-constrained 1956 O’Brien CinemaScope undertaking, The Beast of Hollow Mountain, only came alive during the last ten minutes or so).  And, so, in the mid-1960s, Harryhausen brought the story – updated with a completely revised and fleshed-out screenplay (by William Bast and, uncredited, Julian More) – to fruition.  The picture was shopped to Warner Bros. who approved the UK/U.S. coproduction, to be shot in Spain (covering for Mexico).  The time period remained the same as O’Brien’s original concept (1900), and revolves around a struggling but exciting Wild West Show, based just below the Texas border.

A tribe of gypsies, steeped in superstition, fear the wrath of Gwangi, a mythical creature supposedly guarding a forbidden valley.  Yet, when Carlos, one of the band (now working for the show), along with his brother discover a living, breathing eohippus (that’s tiny prehistoric horse to you), he and his employers plan to astound the world with a mini-rodeo.

So far this is more kiddie cute than anything else (and, indeed, the sequences with the eohippus are quite charming).  But then Carlos’ sib turns up clawed to death, coinciding with the return of Tuck, a former shady member of the show.   Tuck wants to pick up where he left off, and that includes romancing the gorgeous co-owner T.J.  An equally unscrupulous British paleontologist (in his way as shifty as Tuck), too, sets up shop – intending to use the tiny horse as bait to the valley’s entrance.  And, from then on, its SFX nirvana with some of the best Harryhausen dino-confrontations ever unleashed on the screen.  Of course, the humans, obsessed by greed (they never learn), decide to capture the fearsome Gwangi (actually, a perennially hungry Allosaurus), thereby, truly having the greatest show on Earth.  Uh-oh.  Naturally, this goes horribly wrong, causing much destruction, fatalities, Jurassic gnoshing and more.  The finale in a mammoth Spanish cathedral is one of the finest endings of any sci-fi monster show.

GWANGI, aside from the eohippus, Allosaurus, pterodactyls, triceratops and others had a fine homo sapien cast.  Leading the throng was James Franciscus, supported by Richard Carlson, Laurence Naismith, Freda Jackson, and Gustavo Rojo (as Carlos); must say that as much as I despise children in these kind of movies, Curtis Arden is actually pretty good and non-offensive.  As T.J., the romantic interest, Israeli model-turned-actress Gila Golan does an decent job, despite terrible Jay Ward-esque “Texas belle” dubbing (why they couldn’t have made the character part-Latina and let the woman speak with her accent is a head-scratcher, but, as I oft say, WTF do I know?).

GWANGI is directed in rousing fashion by Jim O’Connoly, and lavishly photographed in Technicolor by Erwin Hillier.   I should mention that the first time I met Ray Harryhausen, he told me that in the back of his mind was always the dream of having his effects accompanied by great movie music (he abhorred the cheap, stock Columbia themes Sam Katzman provided for Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and It Came from Beneath the Sea).  This finally came to pass in 1958’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, where Harryhausen began his remarkable association with Bernard Herrmann (the maestro composed four pics for Harryhausen, some among his best scores).  When Harryhausen & Co. could no longer afford Herrmann, they went with such musical luminaries as Laurie Johnson (First Men in the Moon) and Miklos Rozsa (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad).  For GWANGI, they were fortunate to secure the talents of Jerome Moross, whose superb soundtrack perfectly matches the thrills and magic on the screen.

For all of this good stuff, GWANGI had some bad luck when it came to release time.  Warner Bros., having been sold to Seven Arts and then being handled by The Kinney Company, absolutely hated the picture.  Furthermore, they brought in an army of accountants and efficiency experts to save what they perceived as the hemorrhaging distribution curse of movie-making.  They officially ended Warner double-features at nabe theaters, only sending out single pics, under the banner Warner Showcase, literally cutting many Americans’ weekend movie fun in half.  GWANGI, notwithstanding the generally positive reviews, like its title star, thus, quickly became extinct.  The pic briefly re-surfaced a couple of years later when Warners’ When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth hit various grindhouse circuits, before finally going to television, where, in full-framed compromised editions, it remained until a DVD resurrection.

There were some other caveats that hindered the initial (and later video) GWANGI rollout.  One, a backhanded compliment to Harryhausen, was outrage by animal rights activists when an elephant is abused during a battle with the Allosaurus (none of the shots in this sequence involved a real pachyderm).  Another, funnier blow came in 1995 when the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification Video Game Rating System) refused to give the movie a general “U” certificate due to one exchange between the two leads.  In the pic, Golan asks what Franciscus has been up to since he left the show.  Remember, his character’s name is Tuck.  “Just Tucking around,” he replies.  The line was misinterpreted by hard-of-hearing, disgusted film censors.

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray of THE VALLEY OF GWANGI is a stunner.  The locations look great in widescreen 1080p High Definition, as do many of the multiple Harryhausen SFX (only occasionally leaning a bit on the grainy side). The mono track, with that glorious Moross score, sounds just swell, as do the snapping jaws of them nasty meat-eating leviathans.  There are some incredibly cool extras as well, including Return to the Valley, a vintage documentary of the making of GWANGI, featuring Harryhausen.  Personally, I can’t think of a better way to Tuck around.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH.  Black and white. Widescreen [1.78:1 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  The Warner Archive Collection/Allied Artists/Warner Home Video.  CAT # 1000736911.  SRP: $21.99.

THE VALLEY OF GWANGI. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video.  CAT # 1000639564.  SRP: $21.99.

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

 

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Crime Study

JULY IS WARNER ARCHIVE MONTH

Of all the great literary and subsequent screen sleuths (Sherlock, Spade, Marlowe, Nick and Nora, etc.), none have been more shamefully ignored than the defiant, fiercely determined spinster school teacher Hildegarde Withers.  From 1931-1969, author Stuart Palmer fleshed out her ingenious deductive mind that should have had assured her the gig of running the NYC Detective Bureau, rather than an elementary school classroom.  But, considering the time of her debut, with women only recently been given the right to vote, practicing school marm is about the highest intellectual career activity that a normal American female could ascend to.

Of course, Hildegarde, once tasting the forbidden fruit of a crime scene, proved she was anything BUT normal.  Her intuition, grasping of logic, law and human behavior all converged to make her one of Depression Era New York’s most formidable crime solvers (when it wasn’t a school night, or, at the very least, after 3 PM, or on recess).

No less than David O. Selznick saw the screen potential of this powerhouse shamus, and obtained the movie rights from Palmer (for a one-off and possible series) in late 1931, to be produced and released through RKO.  It was another Selznick triumph.  The first entry, 1932’s The Penguin Pool Murder was a favorite with critics and audiences alike, and a sequel was soon in the works.  Ultimately, RKO produced five additional Withers pics of varying quality (spanning the years 1932-1937), but nevertheless all worth a peek.  The entire set, appropriately dubbed THE HILDEGARD WITHERS MYSTERY COLLECTION, is now available in an addictive two DVD-R made-to-order package from The Warner Archive Collection.  All six flicks look and sound better than ever in these excellent transfers, mostly from 35MM elements.

Gaunt, gangly, imposing Withers, whose wit was as sharp as her features, seemed tailor-made for Edna May Oliver, who, among the series’ fans, owns the role.  For the head-scratching, but ultimately fair NYC Chief of Detectives, slow-burn master James Gleason chalked up another win on his impressive array of beloved performances.

While Oliver had become synonymous with Withers, her skyrocketing popularity in Hollywood propelled the actress in another direction.  As the Withers series prospered at RKO, Oliver became the darling of the A-listers with her turns in Little Women, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and Romeo and Juliet.  By 1936, RKO couldn’t hold her back, and she left the franchise.  Chronologically, Helen Broderick and ZaSu Pitts took over the role (bringing their own differing takes and personalities to the table); the Hildergarde Withers pics, thus, became the Menudo of movie detective shows.  Remarkably, Gleason remained firmly entrenched as the much put upon Inspector Piper, and it is his amazing ability to create chemistry with virtually any costar that made him the iconic character actor he is deservedly remembered for.  So, without further adieu, leave us raise the curtain on Manhattan’s ultimate oil-and-water combination, and their enticing, hair-raising adventures.

 

1932’s The Penguin Pool Murder is, not surprisingly, my favorite of the bunch.  For one thing, it’s the only one of two pre-Codes in the series (with tons of innuendo and snarkery, courtesy of Willis Goldbeck’s wiseacre script).  It also has the fine A-picture polish of the Selznick touch.  Furthermore, it boasts the best cast in the lot (Robert Armstrong, Mae Clarke, Donald Cook, Edgar Kennedy, Guy Usher, Rochelle Hudson and Gustav von Seyffertitz as the curmudgeonly M.E.).  Finally, it’s a thoroughly New York movie, with much of the action taking place at Brooklyn’s famed New York Aquarium (utilizing actual second unit-filmed footage).

The plot is simple.  Public school teacher Hildegarde Withers is taking her class on a trip to the renowned site to explore and learn about the creatures of the sea.  What they don’t count on is finding a human body floating in the penguin pond.  As a witness, she is held, along with the rest of the visitors, until the cops arrive, led by Inspector Piper and his generally inept crew.  At once, our no-nonsense Marple takes over the investigation with her intelligent questions and intuitive sleuthing.  Soon, despite Piper’s carping, the spinster has become an unofficial member of the homicide squad.  Eventually, Piper and Withers begrudgingly respect one another – a relationship that blossoms into friendship and suggests, by the fade-out, possibly more (a liaison sadly never further explored as the series progressed).  “We should incorporate,” is uttered in a wink-wink fashion that underlines the best of pre-Code.

In the interim, there are additional murders, a modicum of suspense and hilarious one-liners.  In true pre-Code, style, there’s even a scene between Gleason, Oliver and Kennedy in the Men’s Room.  When evidence might encompass a hatpin of Withers, Piper barks, “What’s that on your chest?”  “None of your business!” snaps back the prim and proper educator.

As an adulterous affair becomes a centerpiece of the murders, the cops remark “Looks like another Snyder-Gray to me” bringing to mind the notorious 1927 woman-in-the-electric-chair case that served as the basis for James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity.

It’s also cool to see Withers’ class, a mini-rainbow coalition of ethnicity that likewise gets in a few laughs.  “Isadore,” Withers shouts at the Yiddish student (child actor turned writer-producer-director Sidney Miller) whispering to his classmate, “you’re not lending money?”

Skanky Mae Clarke, who was just getting over that grapefruit in the puss from Jimmy Cagney in the previous year’s Public Enemy, gets a nasty bitch-slap from Oliver.  A convenient concurrent description of the crime scene adds a verbal insult to injury describing a guilty victim “stained with fish slime.”  Gleason gets in a few zingers too, judging penguin-adoring Armstrong as “a case for the psychopathic ward.”

Henry Gerrard’s black-and-white photography is sharply chiseled and beautifully lit, and George Archainbaud’s direction hits every jab, both spoken and stabbing, for its optimum effect.

 

Coming in just under the wire of the Code (initiated in late June 1934, this movie was released on June 15), Murder on the Blackboard concerns our favorite teacher-detective employed by an institution of higher learning that seems to have been founded by 50 Shades of Grey author E.J. James.  There is a high shagging quotient, not confined to the students, that includes instructors, the lecherous principal (Tully Marshall) and an equally lecherous secretary (Gertrude Michael).  Withers and Piper tread ably on their Sherlock fetlocks as one killing becomes a preamble for an alarming rising murder rate.

The dialog (as scripted once again by Willis Goldbeck) is as pre-Code-y as ever (sadly, for the last time).  When a crabby cabby sneers at the tip Hildegarde bestows upon him, she quips “You’re a taxi driver, NOT a gigolo!”  And, BTW, how many schools have an ample supply of lethal poisons, female clientele who all pack rods and a labyrinth of secret passageways?  Once more, George Archainbaud carries the baton in the directing department, and does it quite well.  The camerawork by is worth noting (the studio’s great Nicholas Mursuraca), as is the fine supporting cast, that also includes Bruce Cabot, Regis Toomey, Edgar Kennedy, Jackie Searl and the return of crusty von Seyffertitz.  While you’ll probably be able to figure out who the culprit is, please be advised of the Madison Avenue travel slogan of “getting there is half the fun.”

 

Although post-Code 1935’s Murder on a Honeymoon is still chock full of pungent barbs, thanks to cowriter Robert Benchley (who penned the script with the always-reliable Seton I. Miller).

Hildegarde finally has squirreled away enough moolah to take a vacation to sun-drenched Catalina Isle (where much of the movie was actually shot).  But, as all movie and TV sleuths have suffered, whenever they take a sojourn, death books passage right along with them (in fact, the first killing takes place on the flight over to the resort).  Here, we have a new slew of unsavory characters, including the doomed newlyweds alluded to in the title, a slutty would-be actress, and, in a clever ploy to get Manhattan’s Piper on the scene, a key witness in a New York mob trial on the lam.

The cast, as usual, is impeccable, and features such welcome mugs as Lola Lane, Chick Chandler, Willie Best, Leo G. Carroll and Matt McHugh.  Bizarrely, this movie is a precursor to the great RKO noirs that would be turned out on a regular basis within the next two decades:  the plot and solution (which, for once, Piper figures out on his own), bears a resemblance to the capper of the studio’s 1952 classic The Narrow Margin (it’s even lensed by the same, d.p. Nick Musuraca, who gives Honeymoon an especially sinister look).

The movie, alas, the final appearance of Oliver as Withers (as indicated, her star was rising way about a B-plus movie series), ends with a bang.  Her correction of a character’s analogy of events to “King Tut’s mammy” is pure Hildegarde via Benchley gold, as is the following exchange between the canny schoolteacher and the island’s Chief of Police (“We’ve never had a murder here on the island,” he bemoans. “In fact, people don’t even die here very often.”  “Maybe they die, and you don’t know it,” is Hildy’s crisp retort.  Another later throwaway is equally wonderful:
“I’m gonna make one of these mugs talk if I have to work on ‘em with a rubber hose,” growls an impatient Piper. “A very original idea for a policeman,” snaps Withers).

The direction is by the dependable Lloyd Corrigan (better known as a likeable character actor in a gazillion movies and television episodes), and the pic features an original score by Alberto Columbo.

 

1936’s Murder on the Bridle Path explores lethal goings-on among New York’s horsey set.  The prime focus is Central Park’s famed stable, and while riding is an important plot-point, it ain’t equines they’re talking about.  The hoi polloi of Manhattan provides an ideal intro for the new Hildegarde Withers, the haughty Helen Broderick (mater of not-so-dainty Broderick Crawford).  While Edna May Oliver was an ideal choice for teaching the Big Apple public school system youth, Broderick is a bit too refined and we suspect she’s doing her pension work at a private center of learning.  James Gleason returns as Piper, and adapts his thesp prowess to comprise a nifty duo with Broderick.

Astoundingly, for a 1936 movie, Bridle Path has a number of double entendres worthy of pre-Code.  The narrative itself goes as far as it can go labelling victims as bitches, lousy lays and more.  Indeed, the scenario by Edmund H. North, Dorothy Yost, James Gow, and Thomas Lennon is chock full of enough upper crust hoes, gigolos and barn scum to raise both eyebrows.  That goes double for some of the dialog.  When confronted about her “connection” with Piper, Hildegarde replies “I have a great deal of influence with Inspector Piper. We roomed together at college.”

The photography is once more by Nick Musuraca, the music co-chaired by Roy Webb and Max Steiner, and the fast-moving direction by William Hamilton and Edward Killy.  Having a primo supporting cast like Louise Latimer, John Carroll, Owen Davis, Jr., Leslie Fenton, Sheila Terry, Frank Reicher and Murray Alper don’t hoit either.

A nice debut for Broderick (albeit her only appearance as Hildegarde), Bridle Path is a perfectly respectable mystery to saddle up on a rainy afternoon.  That’s English, of course.  NEVER Western.

 

1936’s The Plot Thickens marks the series’ first omission of the word “murder” in the title, and introduces the newest Withers to the fold:  ZaSu Pitts.  Now, I know what you’re thinking: THAT scatterbrain?!  Rest assured, while the actress retains many of her trademark attributes, she’s way less fluttery and “Oh, my!” featherheaded.  In fact, Pitts ain’t pitiful; she’s quite believable as a smart schoolteacher who’s heard it all.  The look of  “what a load of BS” that often smirks across her pan when listening to Gleason’s and his associates’ excuses or suspects’ alibis smacks of the old “dog ate my homework” response this Hildegarde has undoubtedly heard numerous times.

The plot of The Plot Thickens is an engaging one:  the theft of a Cellini goblet from a museum.  Of course, mere thievery doesn’t cut it in a mystery flick, so there are a couple murders, sex crimes (involving a wealthy womanizing fossil, offed in Van Cortlandt Park after forcing himself on a blonde), forgeries and a crypt of spooky museum artifacts and employees, including mummies, dummies and scummies.

While certainly a “B” flick, The Plot Thickens benefits from the usual first-rate supporting cast, comprising Owen Davis, Jr., Louise Latimer, Paul Fix, Oscar Apfel, Richard Tucker, Arthur Aylesworth and Mary Gordon.  The script by Clarence Upton Young and Jack Townley keeps the 69 minutes percolating at a brisk pace.  Ditto, the direction by Ben Holmes, and the camera expertise of Nick Mursuraca.  Interestingly, Davis and Latimer are apparently playing the same characters from Bridle Path (Hildegarde even acknowledges them), although they have different names.  No explanation.  Oh, well.

 

1937’s Forty Naughty Girls, the final Withers caper, leans more toward comedy than the previous entries, due to the pic’s director – former Keystone Kop turned movie-maker Eddie Cline (he would later helm the terrific W.C. Fields classic The Bank Dick).  Cline’s participation causes ZaSu’s Hildegarde to go further Pittsy, which one can either deem a plus or a minus, depending upon your love for the actress or Stuart Palmer character.

The plot, as scripted by John Grey, is quite fetching.  Hildegarde and Inspector Piper finally do a night on the town.  In this case, it’s utilizing a pair of Broadway ducats the police detective obtained.  Unfortunately for him, there’s murder backstage in the female lead’s dressing room and a shooting on-stage.  “He would have to get himself bumped off just when I wanted to see a show!,” complains an agitated Piper.  Hildegarde, however, is rather delighted by the diversion and throws herself into the impromptu investigation, at one point ending up accidentally trodding the boards in front of an aghast audience. “Didn’t know you had it in ya, sister,” offers a stagehand. “Well, I’m glad it’s out!” blurts Withers.  It’s that kind of a movie, “with a little sex,” to quote Preston Sturges’ fictional John J. Sullivan.  The cast is wonderful, with a particularly lovely and diverse array of actresses, including a ridiculously young Marjorie Lord, Joan Woodbury, Barbara Pepper, Ada Leonard and Elizabeth Russell.  The male support is equally impressive and features Tom Kennedy, Bud Jamison, Stephen Chase, Eddie Borden and George Shelley.  Of special note is the shimmering black-and-white photography by the brilliant Russell Metty and the up-to-standards score by RKO’s musical maestro Roy Webb.  A fun way to end the saga.  Interesting sidebar, and shades of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Woodbury’s character’s name is “Rita Marlowe.”  Makes one wonder if George Axelrod, certainly a movie buff, was a Withers fan.

THE HILDEGARDE WITHERS MYSTERY COLLECTION. Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; 2.0 mono audio.  The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video. CAT # 1000402733. . SRP: $24.95.

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

HILDEGARDWITHERS_COVER

 

 

World Warners II

JULY IS WARNER ARCHIVE MONTH

There’s a reason that Jack L. Warner became known as Colonel Warner during the early 1940s.  It wasn’t entirely a nebulous title.  He and his gung ho studio entered the war with their usual panache – that is to say a lot of star power, hoopla, flag-waving and singing and dancing.  That’s not to say that they didn’t produce some splendid war dramas (Air Force, Objective Burma), but it’s the slam-bang musicals that had millions of cheering Americans lining up for repeated viewings and (often literally) humming the hit tunes en route to boot camp.  Two of their best superb rousing entertainments, the iconic Michael Curtiz 1942 classic YANKEE DOODLE DANDY and the lesser-known, but nevertheless equally addictive 1943 musical-comedy THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS are now available on Blu-Ray, loaded with terrific extras.  It’s the perfect way to celebrate Independence Day (or any day) and, since July is Warner Archive Month at Supervistaramacolorscope, well…  So let’s get a-crackin’.

1942’s YANKEE DOODLE DANDY is considered by many to be the greatest Hollywood musical ever made.  Those who feel otherwise still rate it among the best song-and-dance pics of all-time, and often group it on Favorite Movies Ever lists (as, for instance, John Travolta, who offers a Cagney salute on this Blu-Ray, one of the many exceptional supplements contained on the platter).

Certainly, YDD helped the war effort, as if any American needed a reason to wanna kick Germany’s and Japan’s respective asses in 1942.  My parents and grandparents, who barely escaped from Deutschland, worshipped this movie (it was one of my mom’s three favorite flicks – all Warners titles – the other two being Casablanca and Now Voyager).  By the time of the picture’s release, my dad, who early-on enlisted, had already been shipped back to the European theater, but my mother and her parents, due to their acquaintance with Paul Henreid and his wife, Lisle, obtained passes to the Denver premiere (we wuz Colorado-based back then).  But that’s another story.

The movie, ostensibly a biography of George M. Cohan, supposedly America’s greatest hoofer and composer, born on the Fourth of July (actually, 6/3/1878)…, was about as historically accurate as an episode of The Flintstones; however, the patriotism and exuberance exhibited throughout the musical’s fast-paced 128 minutes is 100% authentic, thanks to the Oscar-winning performance by Jimmy Cagney, under the expert direction of Michael Curtiz (Curtiz was certainly on a roll, following this after Angels with Dirty Faces, Four Daughters, Adventures of Robin Hood, Dodge City, The Sea Hawk, and with Casablanca and Mildred Pierce in the wings).

YANKEE DOODLE DANDY is crammed with Cohan standards (“You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Over There,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Harrrigan,” and, of course, the title song), opulently produced on a grand scale, booming with that dynamic Warners sound (ranked the best in the business, with Goldwyn the only serious competitor).  Supporting Cagney is a roster of wonderful performers, including Walter Huston (as his dad), Rosemary de Campe (as his mom, in actuality eleven years younger than Cagney), real-life sib Jeanne Cagney, plus George Tobias, George Barbier, Richard Whorf, Irene Manning, Walter Catlett, Frances Langford and Eddie Foy, Jr.  as his pop (Foy, Sr. and Cohan had a Benny-Allen-type feud that cinematically spilled over into Bob Hope’s Foy biopic thirteen years later when Cagney did a spectacular return cameo as Cohan in The Seven Little Foys).

Joan Leslie, then still a teenager, but incredibly mature, appeared as Mrs. Cohan – perhaps a Warners good luck charm, you know, young, beautiful actress playing opposite an old-enough-to-be-her father’s wife; she had previous played the spouse of Gary Cooper’s Alvin York in the studio’s 1941 smash Sergeant York.  As with Cagney, Cooper won that year’s Best Actor award.

But, as hinted above, the fun-loving Cohans on the screen weren’t that way in truth.  Mary (the Leslie character) wasn’t the only Mrs. C.  And, in fact, that affectionate, adamantly loyal George M. wasn’t exactly Mr. Wonderful (he infamously kicked his pregnant wife in the stomach during a violent argument).

In the movie, Cohan reflects on his life to none other than FDR, after the actor/singer/dancer is called to White House during his musical interpretation of Roosevelt in 1937’s Rodgers and Hart stage hit I’d Rather be Right.  On-screen, Cohan’s reluctance is fear that the President will take umbrage at his raucous impersonation.  Indeed, the real Cohan avoided the White House invite (to accept The Congressional Gold Medal) for as long as seemingly possible – four years – but for a completely different reason. Cohan, a virulent right-wing Republican, despised FDR with a passion, and only when it became absolutely un-American to be anti-Roosevelt, did he renege (and, BTW, the play was an out-of-town tryout of 1936’s The Return of the Vagabond, not the aforementioned I’d Rather be Right).  Cohan, was also appalled at the casting of Cagney, a staunch Democrat, but the “living legend” had already signed the contract with Warner Bros.  So call THAT macaroni!  In a humorous sidebar, Jack Benny signed with the studio for George Washington Slept Here on the promise by Jack Warner that he be given the lead in YANKEE DOODLE.  Shocked to learn that Cagney was signed, Warner soothed the funnyman’s wounded ego with a brilliant retort, “If it was George M. COHEN, you’d have gotten it!” Prior to Cagney, Fred Astaire was offered the role.

James Cagney, who gave 110% of everything he ever tried, thoroughly acted his dance moves.  Originally a hoofer in the 1920s (a key factor that finally won over the real Cohan), the Warners star threw Depression audiences for a loop when he danced up a storm in 1933’s Footlight Parade.  His “eccentric” technique, for which he is renowned in YANKEE DOODLE was, in fact, a performance in and of itself.  Cagney didn’t stiff hoof, as in the picture – that was Cohan’s method (the Warners star worked rigorously with Johnny Boyle, Cohan’s personal choreographer who had appeared alongside the Broadway luminary in The Cohan Revue of 1916), which the movie tough guy had also personally previously witnessed.  A by-the-book actor who hated ad-libs and “bits of business,” Cagney, in Angels with Dirty Faces, notoriously threatened Leo Gorcey for going off-script.  When he did it again (in a gym sequence), Cagney hit him in the head with a basketball (it remained in the picture).  Thus, Cagney and Curtiz clashed at the casting of S.Z. Sakall.  Jimmy the Gent couldn’t stand the superb character actor and comedian, and wanted him off the show.  Curtiz, who idolized Sakall (since his youth in the director’s and comic’s native Hungary), would hear none of it.  Jack Warner, too, loved the portly star and even gave him the nickname “Cuddles” Sakall (again I bring up my mom, who had studied dance in Germany, and was in a posh revue starring Sakall.  She told me that he and his wife were two of the loveliest people she had ever met, and was as cuckoo about him as Curtiz).

As with Joan Leslie, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY may have begun another Warners good-luck charm.  The original first draft script by Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph proved to be adequate, but on the dry side.  Reportedly, the cameras rolled as the unenthusiastic screenplay was tinkered with.  Enter the Epstein Brothers (Julius J. and Philip G.), who tweaked and pepped up the pages with inspired one-liners, character development and jokes that provided many of the movie’s hearty laughs.  It would be a repeat performance the next year for Casablanca.

The dazzling photography of YANKEE DOODLE DANDY is by the iconic James Wong Howe.  It’s gorgeous to behold in this new 1080p High Def Blu-Ray.  Previous 1960s 16MM TV prints lacked contrast and clarity.  No more.

Audio is as good as it gets for a mono movie, and the orchestrations by Ray Heindorf, Leo Forbstein and Heinz Roemheld never sounded better.  The ancillary bonuses on the Warners Archive Blu-Ray are enough to have YOU singing and dancing in the streets.  In addition to the Travolta intro, there’s a specially produced documentary, Let Freedom Sing!: The Story of Yankee Doodle Dandy, plus 1943’s You, John Jones (an MGM patriotic short, costarring Cagney, Margaret O’Brien and Ann Sothern), the wacky Friz Freleng Warners cartoon Yankee Doodle Daffy (also 1943), and an audio-only radio broadcast version of the movie, featuring outtakes and recording sessions (there’s also commentary by WB scholar Rudy Behlmer).  A Leonard Maltin-hosted Warners Night at the Movies is highly recommended; it presents an evening from 1942 that avid moviegoers might have genuinely experienced.  The program consists of a trailer (Casablanca), newsreels, a cartoon (Robert Clampett’s Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid) and a patriotic short (Beyond the Call of Duty).  Only wish we could omit Maltin’s hosting and cut to the chase.  Oh, well.  Small carp, no big deal.

Suffice to say that YDD was a smash in 1942 (scoring almost $12M during the original release); it was Warners’ number one box-office hit and second only to the year’s highest grossing movie, Mrs. Miniver.  Both succeeded admirably in “doing their bit,” although (in my humble opinion) the former holds up way better now.

Cohan, upon viewing the final cut, let whatever was left of his one-time rancor against Cagney subside, “What an act to follow!,” the delighted, ailing showman proudly announced.  It was likely one of his last happy moments, as he passed away five months later at age 64 on November 5, 1942.  Perhaps his daughter (big surprise, christened Georgette) said it best, gently skewering the Hollywood ballyhoo:  [YANKEE DOODLE DANDY’s] the kind of life Daddy would have liked to have lived!”

 

Similar to what transpired during the transition to talkies, all the major studios, with the outbreak of WWII, raided their considerable talent pools, and conceived opulent, epic revues; the former helped audiences accept the new sound medium, the latter, most significantly, aided the war effort (and made mints for the studios, when fans flocked to see their favorite stars in one show over and over again).  Of all the flag-waving bandwagon soirees, only two stand the test of time:  Paramount’s Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), and Warners’ THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (1943).  The reason for their success and longevity is the same.  Unlike MGM, UA, Fox, etc., which relied on treacle tried-and-true (and dull) subplots with young lovers separated by the war, blah-blah-blah, these pics made the romance part of the fun.  The couples are movie-crazed addicts, determined to crash the gates of their designated dream factory.  No drama here – merely pure hilarity.  Most relevantly, while an outfit like MGM refused to paint their stars in an unfavorable light, Paramount and Warners went whole hog in the self-deprecating department.  And, boy, did it work.  We can thank our lucky stars that the story and script came by way of numero uno comedy scribes as Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, James V. Kern and Arthur Schwartz, the latter who not only came up with the story (with Everett Freeman) but worked on many of the songs; he remains the pic’s true auteur.

LUCKY STARS, revolves around Sad Sack nudnik Joe Simpson – a talented, likeable dude who can’t get a break because he looks like Eddie Cantor.  Cantor, who channeled Jack Benny’s “stingy and vain” radio persona, mined his alter ego as an obnoxious loudmouth budinsky who, basically, ruins everything he touches with his me-me-me megalomania.

Simpson hooks up with two other hopefuls, Tommy and Pat (Dennis Morgan and the ubiquitous Joan Leslie), and takes them to a Hooverville camp exclusively for Hollywood wannabees – a happy sanctuary that factually existed in no time ever.  There, with fellow residents like Spike Jones and his City Slickers, they pass the nights of non-employment by swinging out with smash hits like “Ridin’ for a Fall” (instantly memorable to Boomers, due to their inclusion in an array Warner Bros. cartoons).

Meanwhile, two eccentric producers (an inspired teaming of S.Z. Sakall and Edward Everett Horton) plan the biggest war bond rally in American history.  There is a fly in the ointment.  The hottest star currently in the Biz is Dinah Shore, and she’s under exclusive contract to…Eddie Cantor.  Everyone wants Shore, no one wants Cantor – they correctly figure he’ll take over the show and destroy it.  It’s a bitter pill, but one the entrepreneurs swallow; they agree to make the unbearable entertainer an associate producer (two of the funniest bits in the pic occur during a stage rehearsal where Horton and Sakall are lost in a menagerie of Cantor-hired wild animals.  “This is the end!,” screams an exasperated Horton, as Sakall does an about-face into an elephant’s ass. “Yes, I can see that” is his sober retort; this laugh is only supplanted by Cuddles’ reaction to a zebra: “THIS, I don’t believe!”).

Of course, the improbable plot of having Gower Gulch B-western cowboys and Native Americans kidnap the egotist, and replace him with Simpson is as crazed as logic gets.  But it all works and the mistaken identity, hilarious sight gags, non-stop asides and verbal barbs provide the perfect framework for the actual numbers that grace the pic’s fluid 127 minutes.  Top among my faves is a “Niagara Falls”-esque musical number/sketch between Cantor and John Garfield (belting out a rendition of “Blues in the Night”).  Then there’s Jack Carson and Alan Hale doing a hoary vaudeville number, and Ann Sheridan giving sex-deprived wartime college damsels advice in the saucy ditty “Love Isn’t Born, It’s Made.”  A major highlight comprises Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland as gum-chewing Brooklynese babes giving out with a jive tune “The Dreamer” with their squeeze – a zoot-suited George Tobias.  Errol Flynn as a braggart BS artist in a bar becomes the receiving end of the patrons’ wrath in a rollicking tune entitled “That’s What You Jolly Well Get.”  The blockbuster of the pic, and the one that got the most publicity, was “There Either Too Young or Too Old,” a jitterbug number featuring Bette Davis and America’s jitter-champ Conrad Weidel.  The freewheeling, athletic, off-the-wall bouncing of the revered actress (as she’s swooped under Weidel’s legs and over his head and loop-de-looped) took an eternity of special training (Davis wanted to ensure audiences that it was actually her doing these stunts).  At the conclusion of the piece, when director David Butler called “Cut,” the cast and crew burst into applause.  Always the rake, Butler wryly asked for another take.  Davis reportedly responded with a bellowing “Go fuck yourself!” and retreated to her dressing room, to the delight of Butler & Co. who collapsed in laughter (dance director LeRoy Prinz called this movie “the hardest job of my career”).  And, if you think you’ve seen and heard the best of boogie-woogie, wait till you see Hattie McDaniel bringing the house down with “Ice Cold Katy.”  Gotta give Joan Leslie a thumbs-up for her side-splitting comedic impersonation of Ida Lupino in They Drive by Night.  There’s also Alexis Smith (going balletic with a spice of rumba), Humphrey Bogart (tossing off his appearance in a brief turn with Sakall, replete with 5 o’clock shadow and a scowl indicating that he really doesn’t want to be there) and, of course, Shore (in her screen debut) who rocks the joint with the title song, a “straight” version of “The Dreamer,” and “How Sweet You Are.”  It’s astounding to me that one Cantor number (“We’re Staying Home Tonight, My Baby and Me”) survived the censors, as it’s rife with risqué lyrics (“Her coffee could be sweeter, but I’m not in the dumps,
‘Cause ev’ry time she hugs me, it’s like two extra lumps”).  In addition to director Butler, legendary behind-the-scenes notables make cameos, including Ray Heindorf and producer Mark Hellinger. Jimmy Cagney, the studio’s star of the hour, notably DOESN’T appear in the show. This is likely to Yankee Doodle Dandy being his official last project under his Warners contract, and the participation of S.Z. Sakall in LUCKY STARS (see above).

Each star was paid $50K for their work in LUCKY STARS (all donated to the Hollywood Canteen, a recreational organization formed by Bette Davis and John Garfield that gave on-leave soldiers a chance to kibbutz with movie stars); furthermore, Davis also demanded that Jack Warner turn over all profits from the movie to war effort. The fantastic trailer (a mini-show in itself, and included among the platter’s extras) shamelessly hypes its predecessor (“It’s another DANDY from Warner Bros”).  Which brings us to the actual Blu-Ray.  The Warner Archive 1080p transfer is super-gorgeous, from excellent 35MM elements.  D.P. Arthur Edeson can enjoy his eternal rest knowing that justice has been done to his work (likewise, let’s give Heindorf, Frank Loesser, Leo Forbstein, Maurice De Packh and Schwartz, aka, a special LUCKY STARS conglomerate of the Warners Music Department, sizable applause as well for their wall-to-wall score that buttresses the movie’s musical set pieces). It’s, frankly, amazing to be able to see this movie in a complete version.  During the 1960s, because of the pic’s two-hour-plus length, LUCKY STARS rarely got a full-length TV screening (numbers are so easy to cut out); in fact, it rarely got a screening at all.  It was the perennial standby for canceled sports events (dubbed Rainout Theater), at least in New York.  So, yay again, to the Warner Archive Collection.  The disc’s fantastic extras include a Maltin-free early Forties program, featuring two Bugs Bunny classics, Bob Clampett’s Falling Hare and Friz Freleng’s Little Red Riding Rabbit, a patriotic short entitled Food and Magic, a pair of Warners music shorts (Three Cheers for the Girls and The United States Army Band), a vintage newsreel of the Hollywood Canteen’s first birthday, and the trailer to Watch on the Rhine. There’s even an audio-only 9/27/43 radio broadcast of LUCKY STARS for the then-popular Lady Esther Screen Guild Show. Whew!

Okay, I’ve worked myself up to such an extent writing about these cinematic confections that I think I need to watch them again. Now!

YANKEE DOODLE DANDY: CAT # 1000501454

THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS: CAT # 1000549568

Both Blu-Rays:  Black and white. Full frame: (1.37:1) 2.0 mono audio [DTS-HD MA].  Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video. SRP: $21.99@

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

 

Arresting Ladies

Imagine French and Saunders, in collaboration with Miranda Hart, taking over the Dick Wolf Law and Order franchise, and you get a peripheral idea of what the British series NO OFFENCE (now available in its entire three series on DVD from Acorn/RLJ Entertainment/Fremantle/Abbott Vision LLP) is all about.

Yep, it’s a Manchester-based female-fueled police precinct, and one of the freshest (and I mean that in every sense of the word) takes on the TV crime genre that you’ll ever witness.  For one thing, the women on the show be real – not the phony-baloney L.A.’s Finest kinda crap we get here.  These ladies don’t use words like “poop” and “boobs” to show they’re street-tough; they say (with great frequency), “Get the fuck out of here!”    Of course, this has prompted much criticism (mostly from the conservative right) on how women, especially those on view for millions of impressionable girls, should act.  To which the show’s characters would undoubtedly reiterate, “Get the fuck out of here!”

So, yes, they’re funny (and filthy) as hell.  I love them all, and confess am partial to…But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The key four ladies who populate NO OFFENCE comprise DI Vivienne Deering, a no-nonsense, snarky alpha who, as the saying goes, gives as good as she gets.  Prone to a fault for speaking her mind (and fuck all if ya don’t like it), Deering is played with panache by Joanna Scanlan.  Second in command is DC Dinah Kowalska (Elaine Cassidy), a single-mom, family-oriented homebody whose loving demeanor is counterbalanced by her penchant for popping you in the mouth.  In contrast, there’s DS Joy Freers (Alexandra Roach), a demure up-and-comer whom Viv and Dinah are rigorously teaching the ropes (causing her to override Kowalska in her DS promotion; again, unlike most police shows, this doesn’t cause antagonism, as these femmes are all pals, and musketeers to the end).  Finally, there’s PC Tegan Thompson (Saira Choudhry), the lower rung in-the-field copper, who unabashedly enjoys a quick shag in the locker room to start the day.  This assuredly does get the juices flowing – and without the caffeine.  Okay, Dinah’s my fave, and Tegan’s a goddess.

The girls, when not solving crimes, love to talk trash; their conference room of choice (for personal and professional use) is the precinct Ladies WC, where much of the show (dare I say) unloads.  Of course, there are males on the force, and, once more (unlike their standard television cookie-cutter versions), they are not the usual suspects.  Randolph Miller (Paul Ritter) is a sardonic forensic expert (and recovering alcoholic work-in-progress) who adores his superiors as much as they cherish him (as one astute female implies, “he’s even bitchier than us.”).  DC Spike Tanner (Will Mellor), the macho dude who usually comprises the “I don’t take orders from women!” asshole, is a veteran detective who sees the women’s genius in their approach to criminology and sleuthing and is with them 110%, especially telling in one subplot where he goes undercover to dethrone a misogynist replacement DCI (Nigel Lindsay), straight out of the 1950s.

When stick-up-their-bum women do arrive to lead the charge, Deering does her damnedest to bend that rod, much in the same way she does to the law (“Just when I had her trained,” spouts Viv, when a newbie superior is transferred).

The series isn’t all fun and games (although it’s consistently terrific entertainment).  The three cases covered in this batch (one per series) are as shocking, violent, controversial and even horrific as anything else out there.

The brainchild behind NO OFFENCE is Paul Abbott, who created and cowrites the show (for his Abbott Vision production company).  Abbott is also the scribe responsible for such major UK hits as the original Shameless, Cracker, State of Play, Touching Evil and the previously reviewed Alibi: https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2019/03/12/logans-run/.  That he and Hans Rosenfeldt, creator/writer of Marcella (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2019/01/15/killer-cop/) and The Bridge, have dually given contemporary TV audiences the current best roles for actresses proves that some of us (meaning “guys”) do get women (it should be noted that their behind-the-scenes colleagues on individual episodes do comprise female scripters and directors).

Each one of the three series is excellent, and demands discussion.  In SERIES ONE (8 episodes on 3 discs), we are introduced to the team as they are faced with perhaps their most unsavory case.  A serial killer is targeting women with Down syndrome.  When one victim (Charlie May-Clark) is spared (not a Down sufferer, but someone simply perennially wasted), she is taken in by Dinah, and joins her quasi-dysfunctional family.  Viv, meanwhile, can’t figure out how the killer is always one step ahead, and takes refuge in the enjoyment of her “down” time with loving husband Laurie (Risteard Cooper), who moonlights as the head of a rock band, a hobby which seems to be getting some serious attention.  The conclusion is unlike anything you’re apt to see on TV or the big screen.  There’s nothing like it.  You’ll never see it coming.  SERIES ONE is the disturbing concoction of creator Abbott, Paul Tomalin, Jack Lothian, Jimmy Dowdall, Mark Greig, and codirected in macabre, yet cynical (bordering on hilarious) fashion by Catherine Morshead, David Kerr, Misha Manson-Smith, and Harry Bradbeer.

SERIES TWO has the squad battling rival mob factions:  an age-old scumbag contingent and a modern, more organized (but equally violent) organization, ruled by a black woman, Nora Attah (who seems to occasionally channel an evil version of Viv).  While ostensibly appearing to use her ill-gotten gains to do good for the community, Attah (played regally by Rakie Ayola) sees her faux philanthropy go to shit when it’s discovered that she’s behind a child trafficking cartel.  The ladies don’t like that.  This powerhouse installment (7 episodes on 2 discs) comes from the minds of Tomalin, Greig and Dowdall (working under the auspices of Abbott), and was co-helmed by Morshead, Sarah O’Gorman, Samira Radsi and Robert Quinn).

The final series (at least to date) demonstrates how world politics (meaning us with a side trip to France) has an effect on not only international negotiations, but on global mainstream broadcasting.  In this blistering (but nonetheless wickedly acerbic) series, Deering & Co. take on a rising politician (Lisa McGrillis) with ties to white supremacists.  That the head Mayoral candidate is a woman initially provides a kumbaya moment for the coppers – until her ulterior motives are revealed.  Then, the fun begins, as they concurrently plot her demise, along with the racists.  A breathless opening where a longtime regular becomes a victim will leave you gasping, and redefines the adage “hell hath no fury…” to additionally accommodate “like women lied to, vehemently fucked with and who were out to take you down with a vengeance anyway.”  The twists and turns here are so numerous, that multiple screenings is practically mandatory (although you’ll want to keep this series on your re-watch list anyway).  It says something that the most crazed character is not the skank politico, but a major force in the bigot brigade (Tamara Lawrance), who not only is a woman, but a woman of color.  This jaw-dropper (6 episodes on 2 discs) was conceived by Abbott, Tomalin, Tom Grieves, and Julie Rutterford and directed by Morshead, Manson-Smith and Quinn.

The Acorn Media DVDs are, as usual, top-notch, with the anamorphic widescreen presentations as sharp as the cast and with just as much color (superbly capturing the cold Manchester locations).  Big nod to David Marsh, Tony Coldwell, Jamie Cairney, Mark Garrett and Kieran McGuigan for their cinematography.  The music to NO OFFENCE is simply wonderful, utilizing a banjo-folk vibe and an exuberant main title theme. Kudos to Vince Pope.  Each set, BTW, comes nicely packaged in its own nifty slipcover.

Different, funny, thrilling and relentlessly addictive, NO OFFENCE ably demonstrates how real women approach home/workplace problems (admittedly, some, if not most, out of the norm), with authenticity, humor and determination and (ultimately and importantly) “get it done.”

NO OFFENCE:  All color and widescreen [1.78:1]; 5.0 stereo-surround. Acorn Media/RJL Entertainment/ Fremantle/Abbott Vision LLP. SRP: $49.99@

SERIES ONE: CAT # AMP-2671. 

SERIES TWO: CAT # AMP-2672.

SERIES THREE: CAT# AMP-2613.

 

Crossing the Line

I never thought that the forces behind the 2011 Scandinavian mini-series The Bridge could ever top the suspense and passion that pulsated throughout its ten riveting episodes.  In my humble opinion, the series is one of the greatest TV shows I’ve ever seen; furthermore, as far as thrillers go, it’s likewise one of the best I’ve ever viewed – and that encompasses the theatrical motion picture arena. I was, thus, skeptical when I heard a follow-up was being produced.  How could they top the first?  Even cautiously approaching the early episodes of THE BRIDGE, SERIES 2 (aka, Bron/Broen 2), now available in a 4-disc DVD set from MHz Networks/Filmlance International & Nimbus Film), I wasn’t convinced

Until it grabbed me by the throat and didn’t let up.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are aspects of SERIES 2 that lack the uniform brilliance of Series 1; this BRIDGE’s suspension does sag minimally at times; however, nothing is done in these shows that doesn’t belong.  Everything is crucial, everything is there for a reason.  It’s a monstrous, deranged filmic version of Clue, where generally nothing ends well.  Then again, I said “minimally.”

In Series 1, we were introduced to two opposites:  the extrovert Martin Rohde and the introvert Saga Noren.  One works for Danish police, the other for Sweden.  They are co-investigators in a heinous murder case that requires both their country’s input since the crime was committed dead smack in the middle of the massive Oresund Bridge that connects the two nations.

As engrossing as the crimes and the unraveling of info was, nothing could rival the psyches and bonding relationships between Martin and Saga.  I’ll go as far as to say that this pair comprises perhaps the finest sleuths in broadcast history.  Saga, alone, is one of fiction’s greatest characters.  Beautiful, damaged, brilliant, 100% analytical, void of any social skills or basic human emotion, Saga, with her slightly scarred twisted lip and prerequisite leather pants (as indigenous to her as Sherlock’s deerstalker cap) is the hero of the age.  And I’m not kidding; in SERIES 2, she virtually saves Mankind. Piqued?  Methinks you are.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  The show begins with a ship crashing into that now infamous title structure.  Aboard are a handful of young people:  drugged, sick, dying or dead.  It’s the beginning of an attack by eco-terrorists.  The doomed victims are the preamble to bio-chemical warfare upon Swedish and Danish normality.  The perps have created a new bubonic plague that they plan to unleash in retaliation of the constant polluting of the environment.  This is all the more horrific stuff, as the reason behind it is correct; the use of deadly violence and suffering and, potential Armageddon certainly ain’t.

It’s been a year since Martin and Saga have seen each other.  Since capturing the serial killer who murdered his son, Martin has understandably been in therapy.  He has moved out of his house, despite a deep yearning for his wife and surviving children.  Saga, meantime, has satiated a near-relentless pursuit of sex by finally hooking up with a lover whom she trusts enough to allow the appreciative male to move in with her.  In a switch of the usual sexual roles, Saga considers the hunky dude nothing but a fuck toy.  That she has admitted him into her space should be reward enough.

The two protagonists’ reunion to battle the animal skin-wearing bio-killers is just what each needs.  It should be mentioned that a key subplot tells us about Saga’s past (her sister’s suicide, her mother’s Munchausen disorder) – important info that helps to explain the stoic woman’s apathy.

As with Series 1, SERIES 2 seeds its nightmarish imagery and narrative with dark humor.  Saga’s inquisitive nature regarding irony, her inability to get a joke, her blatant, inappropriate sexual questions to coworkers and her boyfriend’s mother are highpoints – and hilarious ones.  Saga’s orgasmic masturbation as a reasonable response to her lover’s refusal to have sex with her (his mother is visiting and trying to sleep in the next room) gave me a much-needed laughable respite from the otherwise grim proceedings.

Martin’s world is way blacker.  The captured killer who forever destroyed his life is in his head.  The detective uses his authority to arrange prison visits to the human monster – trying to exorcise personal demons that might eventually enable him to return to his family.

The vast tapestry of characters (some held over from the previous series, others introduced…and, ultimately, murdered) almost requires a scorecard.  That the dominant personalities are female is a big plus.  That the outcome of the survival of Mother Nature rests with the women is (to me) a given.  The evil that permeates each and every episode emanates from the age-old bugaboos, greed and obsession…money and sex.  But as the Mother of 3 eco-terrorists announce in their frequent broadcasts/podcasts, you don’t compromise Earth.  And if you try, NO ONE deserves to live.

There’s so much going on within the series’ 580 minutes that it’s impossible to do it all justice.  Let me say that the intro of one police detective, Pernille, was inspired.  And that the final two episodes freaked me out.  I’m not kidding.  I’ve seen decades of wonderful, exciting, crazy-wild and thrilling mysteries, but I’ve never been exposed to something like THE BRIDGE, SERIES 2.  There were moments during the climactic twenty minutes where I couldn’t properly breathe.  I was shaking my head, biting my lip and buggin’ out.  It’s that great.

Of course, so much of this is due to the enormous contribution of the magnificent ensemble cast (standouts include Vicki Bak Laursen, Dag Malmberg, Sarah Boberg, Camilla Bendix, Sven Ahlstrom, Lars Simonsen, Puk Scharbau, Julia Ragnarsson, Lotte Munk, Lotte Andersen, Tova Magnusson, Henrik Lundstrom), but mostly to the outstanding leads Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia.  There really needs to be an International Bestest-Ever TV Award, and Helin and Bodnia need to each get one.  Why Helin isn’t being hounded by every major studio in the world is a mystery that rivals the scenario (unless it’s her personal choice).  Bodnia has fared better, being one of the principals in the smash UK/US series, Killing Eve.

Natch, the direction and writing deserve major thumbs-up, and so be it.  Mucho kudos to Henrik Georgsson, Morten Arnfred, KathrineWindfeld, who shared the former and Mans Marlind, Bjorn Stein, Camilla Ahlgren, Nikolaj Scherfig, and Maren Louise Kaehne who collaborated on the latter. Can’t omit a BIG nod to cinematographer Carl Sundberg, who embellishes the usually beauteous landscapes of Denmark and Sweden with a hellish pale, startling look (the MHz Networks DVD is quite excellent in both picture and sound, but, damn, I wish they’d go Blu-Ray).  Ditto, the powerful score by Patrik Andren, Uno Helmersson and Johan Soderqvist or that reprise of the haunting title tune Hollow Talk, performed by The Choir of Young Believers.

The supreme unsung hero of THE BRIDGE is producer/creator/head writer Hans Rosenfeldt.  The concept of lethal crimes that culture clash between what one incorrectly perceives to be similar countries is pure genius.  Rosenfeldt’s ability to create “real” people, and more pertinently provide extraordinary actresses with the roles of their lives cannot be heralded enough.  It’s no accident that Rosenfeldt is the driving force behind perhaps the best recent British crime drama, Marcella, starring the amazing Anna Friel.

The anti-climax of THE BRIDGE, SERIES 2 will knock you down again (if you haven’t recovered yet from what occurred directly before it; otherwise, it will simply knock you out).  And yes, there is a Series 3 and Series 4 that chronicles the two master detectives’ exploits and lives into 2018.  Stay tuned.

THE BRIDGE, SERIES 2.  Color. Widescreen. [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround [Swedish and Danish w/English subtitles]; MHz Networks/Filmlance International & Nimbus Film.  CAT # SKU-16898.  SRP: $39.95.

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The Apparent Trap

Imagine a former Disney star hooking up with a former Hammer star in an upscale British PBS version of Love, American Style, and you get a simplistic, but nonetheless tantalizing idea of 1970’s TAKE A GIRL LIKE YOU, now on limited edition Blu-Ray from the mods at Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.

The whole thing would be, as the Brits say, “bollocks,” if the leads weren’t so appealing; thankfully, they are.  As the winsome, savvy lass from the hinterlands, we get Hayley Mills, all decked out in stockings and mini-skirt.  As her relentless suitor, there’s former werewolf (as a different species of lupo) Oliver Reed.  They’re surrounded by a terrific cast of veterans, moving and shaking through late Sixties mod London in groovy clothes and dancing to flowery-powery psychedelic tunes.

London, in 1970, is a perilous snare for any girl set to take the city by storm.  Cue up Jenny Bunn (Mills), not a model, nor would-be actress/rock star or someone looking to “find herself,” but a newly gainfully employed teacher. Jenny is “smashing,” to use a term of the day, with the extra perk of being super smart and loads of fun.  Her one caveat, and it’s big one for the free love generation, is her strict rule that there be no sex until A) marriage or B) she’s ABSOLUTELY sure.  Patrick Standish (Reed), a fellow teacher, will have none of it.  No weddings for him.  And why bother?  It’s a period where every date means guaranteed sex.  The babes literally can’t get their Peter Maxx-manicured cuticles off him.  It’s all a game, but as Patrick and Jenny are slow to discover, who’s playing whom?

Jenny, obviously not an example of the endless bubbleheads Patrick’s bedded, at once becomes his prime objective.  The cool thing about this movie is that Jenny is amenable.  She likes to fool around – up to “that” point.  When, after a rigorous petting session in Patrick’s flat, she reveals her “condition (virgin),” Standish is aghast (truly, Reed’s reaction shot to Mill’s admission of being pure as the given snow should have won him the Oscar).  Standish, still stunned by her virginity, acquiesces to Jenny’s terms, and begins a courtship – well, a courtship Oliver Reed-style (translation:  other birds are ripe for the “plucking” until he wins her proper).

There is no reason on planet Earth why these two opposites should have any chemistry, but they do; they’re absolutely believable and even quite adorable together (my wife asked me if they were actually a couple).  Mills, in particular, is excellent, especially in the aforementioned foreplay segment; instead, of the usual “No, no – a thousand times NO!,” she’s totally getting into it, and loving it.  And, knowing when to stop (she breathlessly tells Ollie to cease his mission before her submission).

A subplot framing this pair is quite engaging as well.  Jenny lives in a lodging house, owned by a local, inept labor politician and lecher Dick Thompson (John Bird) and his weary, snarky wife Martha (Sheila Hancock).  Martha matter-of-factly informs Jenny during an initial tour of her digs, “If he makes a pass at you, just kick him in the crotch.”  Not surprisingly, the other boarder is another fetching young woman Anna (Geraldine Sherman), whom, BTW, Patrick has already conquered.

Young people, being all liberal, naturally are for labor, and, when Thompson runs for election, Jenny volunteers as a staffer.  An exquisitely fab moment occurs on Election Day when Bunn and her adversary’s Tory rep compare voter notes.  That the conservative lady is none other than the great Penelope Keith makes it all the more hilarious.

But, of course, every Garden of Eden must have a snake, and here its purple, velvet suit-wearing cad Julian (third lead Noel Harrision), essentially portraying the George Sanders role.  Harrison, rich and with even fewer morals than Reed, sees the adult version of Candyland that each are playing, so naturally wants in – and the only way he knows how, by cheating; the rake intends to ply Jenny with drink when the occasion arises, desperately determined to turn Pollyanna into a Dollyanna.  Living in his own private suburban sex castle (not making this up), a mammoth structure about to be demolished by the government (and the reason he enters the picture, to support Thompson’s election and stopping the razing of his gargantuan crib), Julian practically runs his own personal cab service to London (for the sullied lasses, of which there are a multitude).

The curious thing about this movie is that none of its populace comes off as revolting, annoying or disgusting as they sound (and most of them should be).  Again, this must be credited to the casting (that also includes Aimi MacDonald, Ronald Lacey, John Fortune, Pippa Steele, the truly scrumptious Imogen Hassall and George Woodbridge), but kudos are likewise in order regarding the direction and writing.

TAKE A GIRL LIKE YOU was the only theatrical motion picture directed by Jonathan Miller (theater/opera producer, director, writer and practicing physician; in the 1960s, he co-authored the decade’s seminal revue Beyond the Fringe, the comedy-musical that put Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore on the map).  The script, that often goes from deft to daft, is loaded with nifty lines and puns, courtesy of George Melly, from a novel by the celebrated Kingsley Amis (ranked ninth by The Times as one of the 50 greatest writers since World War II).  To add to the strangeness of the mix, it should be noted that TAKE A GIRL LIKE YOU was produced by American ex-pat (and former Dead End Kid) Hal E. Chester, best known as the co-producer/co-writer of the 1957 horror classic Night of the Demon (indeed, it looks like Harrison’s palatial residence comprises the same interiors as satanist Karswell’s). Miller and Chester clashed throughout the production, when the producer began doing unwelcome re-writes.  Miller predicted disaster, and, indeed, the movie, upon its release, was a critical and financial bomb.  It has, since then (perhaps nostalgically so), gained a growing fan base, even being remade for British television in 2000.

TaGLY was photographed in trippy Eastmancolor by the era’s perfectly-named d.p. Dick Bush, who always managed to bestow modest projects with a lavish brush (for example 1971’s Twins of Evil).  The peppy and so-Sixties music score is by Stanley Myers (available on this platter as an IST), and features a bubblegum pop title tune (that’ll haunt your cranium like an earwig!), as warbled by The Foundations (Harmony Grass, whose attempt at the former will have you praying for the latter, supplies another musical interlude).

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray is outstanding – so clear and detailed that you can see every scar on Reed’s face from a near-fatal 1960 pub brawl knife-slashing.  Maybe not the greatest recommendation, but a valid description on how good the quality is.  For all who find this comment offensive, pray it doesn’t go 4K.

Two deceptive trailers are included, where footage is speeded up like a wacky slapstick two-reeler (no such device is used in the actual movie).  I surmise this to have been Mr. Chester’s way to trap you cinematically concurrent to Patrick luring Jenny luring Patrick carnally and matrimonially.

TAKE A GIRL LIKE YOU. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.  CAT# TWILIGHT336-BR. SRP: $29.95.

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment www.screenarchives.com and www.twilighttimemovies.com

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Flapper Fantasy, Italian Style

The term “Latin lover” and the 1920’s girly swoonmoblile tag of “He’s SUCH a sheik!” wouldn’t have been possible without the celluloid appearance of one Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Gugliemi di Valentina d’Antonguella.   By the time he had been modified to “Rudolph Valentino,” the die had been cast. Even today the name is synonymous with “screen sex symbol.”   Valentino’s fame, via a succession of “hot” movies (Blood and Sand, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Sheik), mostly for his home studio (Paramount), had cash registers ringing throughout the globe.  His untimely death in 1926 was like the passing of a world leader.

It’s therefore damningly strange that such blatant negligence reigned supreme regarding the preservation (or lack) of his many motion pictures.  This is evidenced in two volumes (sold separately) of his work, now on Made-to-Order Blu-Ray from Flicker Alley, simply entitled THE RUDOLPH VALENTINO COLLECTION, VOLUMES 1 & 2.

The available materials are often incomplete and, even by heightened Blu-Ray quality, shoddy (bits and pieces culled from international sources, some from the libraries of private collectors).  The six pics presented on these discs represent the actor’s output from 1918-1922, in other words, from extra/bit player to swarthy, supporting villain to American superstar.  Because of the condition of the surviving material, is this a compartmentalized buy for Valentino fans and silent film historians?  Not necessarily.  These platters, especially VOLUME 1, are startling enough in thematic content, plus the visual evolution of an icon to warrant a spot in ANYONE’S serious movie archive.  Read on, and you’ll see what I mean.

 

Valentino plays a small, but pivotal role in 1919’s EYES OF YOUTH, a quite remarkable movie that almost demands to be seen by 2019 audiences.  The lead of the piece is Clara Kimball Young, a big star of her day.  She portrays Gina Ashling, a talented, ambitious woman faced with many decisions.  Should she pursue her dream of becoming an opera singer?  Or, perhaps, the more responsible (but way less high profile) vocation of a teacher?  A third possibility rears its ugly head when a reptilian (supposed) billionaire proposes to her; marry him, and you don’t have to do anything!

A free spirit, Gina has an encounter with a mystic Hindi, who reveals her fates with all three.  As a celebrity, she will be abused by the misogynistic powerful of show business.  As a teacher, she will essentially be ignored. As the wife of an important figure (the path taken), she may be able to use her position to help others.  That said, whatever direction Gina chooses to take ultimately stymies her independence.  Indeed, every choice a 1919 woman has to endure is apparently a bad one.  Her marriage proves intolerable, due greatly to her spouse’s constant cheating.  When she attempts to leave by citing his infidelities, he taints the situation by placing her in danger with a professional womanizing gigolo (guess who?).  She is told that if she proceeds to trial, he and his rich, privileged white friends will make her a tabloid whore.  But Gina risks all in an amazingly modern segment where, during her trial, she slams the anti-woman 1% (see title cards below).

 

EYES OF YOUTH, as directed by Albert Parker, who also wrote the script (from an adaptation by  Charles E. Whittaker of Max Marcin’s play)  obviously has much merit today, if, for no other reason than to demonstrate, that for all the progress made since 1919, little has still changed in 100 years of female emancipation.

The print is in suprisingly good shape, transferred from the only existing tinted materials (the movie was superbly photographed by the great Arthur Edeson).  A new score by Robert Israel accentuates the drama and WTF appeal.

 

A lot had happened in Rudolph Valentino’s career between 1919’s EYES OF YOUTH and 1922’s MORAN OF THE LADY LETTY.  For one thing, Valentino no longer was playing thugs and ne’re-do-wells.  He had now become a major attraction and the heart throb of millions of women.

No, he is not Moran of MORAN OF THE LADY LETTY, as Moran is the female lead, Dorothy Dalton.  There is, however, a bizarre relationship in the movie that has nothing to with Dalton.

Valentino plays Ramon Laredo, a yachtsman who is shanghaied (didn’t know they were still doing that in 1922) by a sadistic brute of a sea captain, played by screen villain extraordinaire Walter Long.  Forced to work in slave-like situations, Laredo asserts himself by proving not quite the milquetoast the captain thought him to be.  In fact, he gives back as good as he gets.  Soon, his ideas for more efficient seamanship are accepted by his now frenemy, who has practically made him a surrogate son.  He also has risen to the position of first mate.  Could this Jack London muthafucka not be the dastardly scumbag we thought him to be?

HA!  That all changes when Moran, a beauteous tomboy, is rescued from her father’s capsized ship The Lady Letty.  Captain Kitchell (the Long character) immediately begins thinking with alternative body parts, and Valentino’s Ramon protects the woman, who becomes increasingly attracted to him (the feeling is, as they say, mutual).  Laredo must prevent Moran from ever being alone on-board with Kitchell (nicknamed “Slippery”).  But that doesn’t exactly go to plan, resulting in an exciting and rather jaw-dropping violent climax.

MORAN OF THE LADY LETTY is a true find, having been mastered in 1080p from the only known 35MM print (obtained via the Cinematheque Royale de Belgique).  The direction by George Melford presents a meticulous eye for detail, and, when appropriate, is fast and furious; furthermore, the adaptation by Monte M. Katterjohn (from a novel by no less than Frank Norris) hits all the right dramatic notes, appended by excellent cinematography from William Marshall and Bert Glennon.  The ubiquitous Robert Israel provides another excellent score.

 

While VOLUME 1 can be enjoyed by most movie buffs, VOLUME 2 is definitely for serious archivists, as three of the four full-length comprising this Blu-Ray are in fragmentary form only, and of marginal quality.

1918’s A SOCIETY SENSATION offers up 25 minutes of what once was a 5-reel feature.  Valentino, still billed as Rodolpho De Valentina, plays Dick Bradley, the prerequisite rich playboy who falls hard for the beautiful daughter (Carmel Myers) of a fisherman.  When she is kidnapped, her father naturally seeks revenge upon Bradley – not realizing that the culprit is far closer to home.  Interesting for early appearances by ZaSu Pitts (billed as “Zazu”) as a local, longing lass and Fred Kelsey (about as young as you’ll ever see him), A SOCIETY SENSATION sadly looks like the way most folks think silent movies look.  Yet, that’s all there is.  The Universal picture was directed by Edmund Mortimer and (uncredited) Paul Powell, scripted by Powell and Hope Loring (from a story by Hapsburg Liebe) and photographed by William S. Cooper and Orestes A. Zangrilli (the latter pair, who are probably turning in their graves).  An organ score performed by Bob Mitchell makes the tattered visuals a bit more palatable.

1919’s VIRTUOUS SINNERS, directed by Emmett Flynn, is the highlight of the platter, and the most complete of the quartet.  An abused woman (Wanda Hawley) ends up in a homeless shelter, where she becomes a guiding light for the other residents.  A Raffles-eqsue crook (Norman Kerry) sees her, and starts laundering his ill-gains into resources for the mission, before his romantic intentions become honorable.  Valentino plays one of the unfortunates, and is quite good in his supporting role. SINNERS, made for the Pioneer Film Company, leaves us no records of any additional tech credits (shame, since it’s very well photographed) and includes a score by (you guessed it) Robert Israel.

1922’s STOLEN MOMENTS is a trick pic, but not in the way you think.  Made years earlier, and starring opera star-turned-silent-screen-heroine Marguerite Namara (yep, they did that back then, think DeMille’s early star, Geraldine Farrar), the movie revolved around Namara’s Vera being seduced by the lustful Jose Dalmarez (Valentino).  After an agonizing walk-of-shame moment (and the realization that her heartfelt love is a joke to the bastard), Vera, goes through innumerable shame-pains, eventually hooking up with a respectable attorney (Albert L. Barrett).  But sleazy Jose has other ideas, and intends to blackmail the lady with some scorching love letters.  Then, he’s found dead.

By 1922, with Valentino a major star (and Namara not so much), Lewis J. Selznick (that’s David O.’s pop) picked up the rights to the 1920 production, cut the six-reel feature down to 35 minutes and released it as a new Rudy drama; the removal of nearly half the footage gave the heart throb the majority of screen time.  That’s the only version (to date) currently in existence, and it’s presented here in a fairly decent copy.  STOLEN MOMENTS (the title does present an irony, considering the deceptive editing butchery) was directed by James Vincent, and scripted by Richard Hall (from a story by H. Thompson Rich).  As with the other above Pioneer production, the photographer remains unknown (the movie was shot in New York with the South American sequences filmed in Florida).  A score by Jon Mirsalis is included.  Billed as Rudolf Valentine (in the 1920 press materials), STOLEN MOMENTS would be his last turn as a cad.

1922’s THE YOUNG RAJAH is an authentic big “A” vehicle designed for the Paramount star that, sadly, remains only in truncated form (most of the movie is patched together with stills and a continuity script).  The pic promised to be interesting, to say the least. Amos Judd, a WASP New Englander, is actually an Indian member of a royal family.  His American success story (Harvard grad, engagement to a beautiful girl next door, etc.) is compromised when his “heritage” kicks in, giving him mystic visions of the future.  When an assassination attempt is made on his life, Judd faces his destiny: that he must return to India and weed out the very human demons who pushed him into exile.

Directed by Phil Rosen (the majority of whose surviving work comprises his later Poverty Row output, and not these elaborate Jazz Age epics), and written by the noted June Mathis (from a novel by John Ames Mitchell and a play by Alethea Luce), the 25 minutes available is a mere suggestion of what this drama likely was.  Photographed by James Van Trees (whose legacy is mostly represented by his television work in the 1950s and 60s), the remnants of this essentially lost movie contains another score by Jon Mirsalis.

Even in the versions available, the material in THE RUDOLPH VALENTINO COLLECTION, 1 & 2 provide a glimpse of early star power – when it REALLY meant something.

THE RUDOLPH VALENTINO COLLECTION, VOLS. 1 & 2. Black and white, with some tinting; Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA (music scores).  Flicker Alley/Library of Congress/ The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum/ROAM/CINEMATEK.  CAT#s FA-MD3 055 (VOLUME 1) and FA-MD3 056 (VOLUME 2).  SRP: $19.95 @