Shiny Abjects

An insidiously addictive suspense drama, 2019’s top-notch British mini-series GOLD DIGGER, comes to DVD, via the folks at Acorn/RLJ Entertainment/itv Studios/Mainstream Pictures, Ltd.

The six-episode program, spread over two discs, chronicles the not-so-lovely lifestyle of the mega-rich Day family.  Divorced and feeling useless (and with her 60th birthday approaching), talented matriarch Julia (a once-promising career professional/artist), now virtually abandoned by her grown children (who nevertheless still prey on her), enjoys taking trips to the city and losing herself in museums, curiosity shops and small cafes.  It’s at one of these outings that she runs into the thirtyish Ben, whose humor, intelligence, and (admittedly) sexuality rivals hers.  And what may at first seem like a mature woman and a boy toy quickly evolves into a full-blossomed romance.

End of story?  Hell, no.  The seas are choppy, to say the least.  And full of sharks.

While these days we love to see scumbag rich dudes and their worthless spawn get theirs – here it’s not so cut and dried.  Della, Julia’s daughter, isn’t quite the bitch one initially supposes.  And at least one of the two risible sons has married a loving, sensitive (and sensible) level-headed person who may or may not be aware of his serial cheating.

Of course, there’s Ted, the ex-husband – a total slime-ball, now living with Marsha, Julia’s former best friend!  Turns out, he not only fooled around, but used to beat his spouse, once requiring an EMS response.

Not that Ben is any angel either.  He has a dubious history, and an even more fragile connection to Kieran, a horrible sibling (who, naturally, turns up).  The prerequisite “he only wants you for your money” talk early on rears its ugly head, and is quasi-forgiven, but the chance discovery of a mysterious death in Ben’s and Kieran’s past can’t be sloughed off.

These and many more secrets are intertwined with lies and even truths throughout the course of the show, each installment being devoted to another character in Julia’s existence (Her Boy, Her Daughter, Her Rival, Her Husband, Her Baby, Her Love).

The writing (scripted by the show’s creator Marnie Dickens) and directing (Vanessa Caswill, David Evans) is first-rate, as is the widescreen photography (Jean-Philippe Gossart, Sergio Delagdo) of the Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon locales.  An appropriate music score (Stuart Earl) appends the drama; however, it’s the extraordinary performances that make GOLD DIGGER a must-watch.  Bravo to Ben Barnes (as Ben), Sebastian Armesto, Archie Renaux, Jemima Rooper (as the ungrateful, greedy brats), Alex Jennings (as the abusive spouse), Nikki Amuka-Bird (as the “with friends like her” ex-bestie), David Leon (as Ben’s creepy reptilian brother), Yasmine Akram (as the decent daughter-in-law), Karla-Simone Spence, Fleur Keith, Julie McKenszie, William Vassey, Indica Watson, Tylan Bayram and Kate Kennedy.  A special nod to star Julia Ormond enacting the finest role of her career (to date); she is absolutely superb.

Acorn’s slipcovered DVD set of GOLD DIGGER beautifully visually and audibly captures the literal and emotional colors necessary to put the proceedings over the top (no Joshua Logan production this!).  A 21-minute behind-the-scenes featurette is also included as an extra.

A cynical, dark modern romance steeped in mystery, GOLD DIGGER is the perfect way to spend an engrossing weekend afternoon.

GOLD DIGGER. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround.  Acorn/RLJ Entertainment/itv Studios/Mainstream Pictures, Ltd. CAT # AMP-2850.  SRP: $39.99.

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His Lasterpiece

The final great W.C. Fields classic, 1941’s NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK, comes to Blu-Ray, thanks to the wily carnies at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.

The follow-up work to 1940’s The Bank Dick (arguably one of the finest comedies of the sound era), NGaSaEB was likewise directed by the comedian’s pal (and former Keystone Kop) Eddie Cline, with his patented penchant for riotous slapstick precision still in full gear (Cline also helmed some of Buster Keaton’s classic silents).  Fields, who (as in the previous flick) penned the story (under the nom de plume of Otis Criblecoblis; script by Prescott Chaplin and John T. Neville), tears down not only the fourth wall, but structures numbers one, two, and three as well.

There’s intentionally little, if any, cohesion or continuity to the pic (and, in this case, that ain’t a bad thing); ironically (or appropriately), it’s about the movie business, another plus in my check column.  The scenario takes place in a quasi-real world.  Fields plays Uncle Bill or, simply The Great Man (as he’s billed), avoided by all at Esoteric Studios (or Universal), even though his last movie, The Bank Dick, was a tremendous critical and box-office hit (truth).  Uncle Bill eventually gets to take a meeting with manic studio head Franklin Pangborn (as Franklin Pangborn), who registers his trademark flustered response as readily as Edgar Kennedy (who’s NOT in the movie) did his slow burn.

With good reason, too.

The script Uncle Bill is pedaling is an unrelated, anarchic, anachronistic, live action cartoon of unstrung events (all depicted anecdotally) that would try the logic of a four-year-old.  Yet, they’re hilariously funny.  For example, a Mexican community adjacent to a Russian village surrounds the bottom of a mountain – the plateau top incorporating the manse of Mrs. Hemoglobin, a monstrous widow (and the wealthiest woman on the planet) who resides there with her hottie-tottie jive-bopping daughter, Ouilotta.  It’s guarded by a loyal gorilla, and can only be reached via a crank-operated dirigible basket, or airplane (containing an open-air observation tail that Fields conveniently falls out of whilst lunging for a dropped flask).

Biding his time waiting for the said meeting and weighing his career options, Uncle Bill partakes the pleasures of a nearby studio diner and, later, an ice-cream parlor (originally, we learn, a bar, as he tells us in wink-wing/nudge-nudge fashion); Fields also has become guardian to a teenage songstress Gloria Jean (played by teenage songstress Gloria Jean).

The movie makes absolutely no sense, and I love every frame of its 71 minutes.  Even sans Fields, the scenes of Pangborn trying to concentrate of several movies in production at once are spot-on uproarious (Nazis goose-stepping through a musical number, construction workers literally “hammering” out dialog on a soundstage, union workers demanding lunch).  It’s all in the tradition of Hellzapoppin’, the Olsen and Johnson smash made at Universal the same year (and shamefully unavailable in this country).  It’s also pure Fields, even though the comic was at odds with the front office.  Usually, I side with the artists, but in at least one narrative element, the suits were probably right.  A sequence where beauteous starlet Madame Gorgeous (played by beauteous starlet Anna Nagel), mother of the Gloria Jean character, is killed while performing a stunt, was excised (it led to Fields’ character becoming Gloria’s official guardian); all that remains is one short scene where Nagel kisses Jean goodbye and heads toward a soundstage with the dubious advice of minding “Uncle Bill.”  Truth be told, Jean could have probably been removed altogether (of course, then the final cut might have been less than an hour).

Another dispute arose over the title.  Universal was on a Fields roll, and wanted the pic to reflect his already iconic phrases, following the footsteps of 1939’s You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man and 1940’s My Little Chickadee.  Fields wanted it to simply be called The Great Man, claiming that the proposed title would never fit on most theater marquees, and throughout the country would be heralded as Fields-Sucker.

Additionally, Universal insisted on replicating the outstanding chase finale of The Bank Dick, and did so with a scene where Fields volunteers to transport a woman to the local maternity ward (before the soon-to-be frenzied female can tell him that she’s not a patient, but a visitor).  The resulting wacky and wild sight gag-laden melee that followed was so meticulously achieved (save for Fields, whose close-ups were done in the studio against rear screen) that the thrifty company would later remove and replace the comedian’s inserts with that of Abbott and Costello, and, essentially, drop the entire reel into the climax of the team’s 1944 hit In Society.

While not the flawless classic The Bank Dick was, SUCKER is a superb comedy nevertheless.  The cast is impeccable, and supporting Fields and the aforementioned thesps are Leon Errol, Susan Miller, Mona Barrie, Charles Lang, Nell O’Day, Minerva Urecal, Richard Alexander, Claud Allister, Leon Belasco, Kay Deslys, Jean Porter, Victor Potel, Dave Willock, Emmett Vogan, (of course) Carlotta Monti, Bill Wolf and brat urchins Butch ‘N’ Buddy.  It’s amazing that a scene between the comedian and the wonderful hard-boiled character actress Jody Gilbert remained censor-free; thank heaven for small miracles!

The new Blu-Ray Kino-Lorber/Universal 1080p transfer of NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is, hands down, the version to own.  Some slight wear aside, the 35MM elements are excellent, doing d.p. Charles Van Enger justice.  Better yet is the cleaned up mono audio – not only to fully appreciate the kwazy music of Frank Skinner and Charles Previn, the singing of Jean (Universal’s  B-movie version of Deanna Durbin, who was their A-movie version of Judy Garland), but for the under-the-breath asides of the movie’s star.  One, which I’ve never heard before, had me laughing long after the platter stopped spinning.  It takes place in the earlier alluded to ice-cream parlor.  Fields, watching soda jerk Irving Bacon swat a fly on the counter, remarks in a whisper (as only he can) “It’s killers like you that give the West a bad name.”  I  fell off the sofa.

There are some nifty extras as well, including audio commentary by Eddy von Mueller and, far more enticing, an episode on Fields from the mid-1960s summer replacement show, Wayne and Shuster Take an Affectionate Look At…  It was a limited series wherein the Canadian team nicely paid homage to comedies in the Universal library.  I had never seen this one (but do remember an episode devoted to Hope and Crosby), so it’s a treat to have it at one’s fingertips (hope they release more).

NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HA MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT# K24804. SRP: $24.95.

Or is it One Day in January?

A plot devised by top D.C. leaders for armed homegrown insurrectionists take over Washington to reverse a presidency?  Preposterous!  Or is it?  No, I’m not talking about an event from early 2021, I’m citing the narrative from the (even more now) spine-tingling political thriller SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, available on Blu-Ray from The Warner Archive Collection.  Oh, yeah, this pic was made in 1964!

The movie, based on a bestselling novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, was early on bought for the movies by Kirk Douglas’s company, Joel Productions, Inc.  He definitely saw the possibilities and only one director in his mind could do it justice:  John Frankenheimer.  Not surprising, since Frankenheimer had a mammoth critical and financial hit in 1962 with The Manchurian Candidate (also frighteningly realistic, and already pulled from release by 1964, due its subject matter of a planned presidential assassination).  Frankenheimer agreed to sign on and coproduced the flick with Douglas.

The scenario, as capsulized above, is lip-biting sinister.  Right wing General James Mattoon Scott sees the liberal presidency of Jordan Lyman as not merely weak, but “criminally weak.”  He secretly recruits top military brass from the Joint Chiefs, along with key politicos to remove the sitting president via a coup.  He will assume the role of Commander-in-Chief and rule the new America as an armed-to-the-teeth fortress, ready to do whatever is necessary to protect the country from the Russians or any other enemy – including liberal peacenik progressives from within.

Naturally assuming that any military person of note would agree, clues of the upcoming takeover are cryptically dropped past Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey, another rightwing officer, who, nevertheless believes in the Constitution and, much to General Scott’s chagrin, will always play by the book.

Suspense builds mightily in the flick’s time bomb pacing that incorporates murder, double-dealing, sexual politics (natch) and the ever-present sword of Damocles threat of nuclear retaliation.  Long story short, this movie’s a humdinger!

Much of SEVEN DAYS‘ tense moments occurred off-screen as well.  Originally, Douglas opted for the Scott role, with the “Jiggs” part was slated for Kirk’s occasional costar Burt Lancaster.  This posed a problem, as Frankenheimer was on the outs with the 1960 Best Actor Oscar winner (Elmer Gantry).  That same year, Lancaster had pegged Frankenheimer to direct his modern noir The Young Savages (released in 1961).  It proved a modest success, and the two seemed to get along – enough so that the star hired the director to helm the upcoming and more elaborate Bird Man of Alcatraz.  That shoot was a nightmare, with Burt often calling the shots in direct opposition to Frankenheimer (often resulting in physical altercations), who vowed he would never work with the actor again.  Douglas soothed the wound, but only after the three agreed that Kirk and Burt should switch roles.  During the filming, Lancaster (now merely an actor for hire) and Frankenheimer bonded again, and began plotting a reunion with The Train (1965, one of their best).  But it was touch and go at first.

Kirk, who learned with Spartacus, to only hire the best, kept that mantra.  The supporting cast of SEVEN DAYS IN MAY is extraordinary, and includes Fredric March, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien (Oscar-nominated), Martin Balsam, John Houseman, Andrew Duggan, Whit Bissell, Helen Kleeb, George Macready, Richard Anderson, Malcolm Atterbury, Jack Mullaney, Ron Rich, Rodolfo Hoyos, Jr., silent screen star Stuart Holmes, and Kent McCord.  The behind-the-camera talent, too, was exemplary.  No less than Rod Serling was hired to write the screenplay (a brilliant one), Jerry Goldsmith to compose the music score and Ellsworth Fredericks, a celebrated television d.p., to lens the TV news-look of the black-and-white imagery (he had also shot the big screen classics Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Friendly Persuation, and Sayonara).  And it all comes off swell in this new 1080p High Definition widescreen transfer.   As an enticing extra, there’s Frankenheimer himself offering vintage audio commentary.

Some of the dialog is so eerily 2020-2021 that it requires repeating.  When Ava Gardner’s character (Eleanor Holbrook) corrals “Jiggs” at a typical D.C. gathering, she memorably coos “I’ll make you two promises: a very good steak, medium rare, and the truth, which is very rare! (some things never change!)  Perhaps the most famous exchange is between Scott and Casey, when the latter refuses to participate in the insurrection.  The General, seething, asks the Colonel if he knows who Judas was. Kirk’s reply is delivered with scalpel precision, “Yes, I know who Judas was.  He was a man I worked for and admired until he disgraced the four stars on his uniform.”

I vividly recall when this movie came out, not long after the Kennedy assassination.  My mom was a political junkie anyway, and involved in local politics.  Already knowing my penchant for horror movies (I was ten then), she taunted me by dangling SEVEN DAYS over my head as being one of the scariest movies ever made.  Of course, my interest was piqued.  I was already aware of the title, as the book had long been in my parents’ library (and a kid doesn’t forget a name like “Fletcher Knebel” boldly printed on the spine of a shelved volume).

One mystery that haunts me to this day is the movie’s labyrinthine distribution.  SEVEN DAYS was originally a Paramount Picture, and remained so at least through the 1980s (even the laserdisc was from Paramount Home Entertainment).  I’ve often wondered how it ended up as a Warner Bros. title (although I suspect it has to do with Seven Arts’ involvement).  Stuff like that intrigues me.  Not that it matters; as indicated, transfer-wise, they did a great job on this recent Blu-Ray.  What does bother me is false crediting.  I never abide when one studio acquires another’s property, and then removes all the former’s logos and, worse (as is often the case with rival Universal) replaces them with their own (the otherwise marvelous restoration of One-Eyed Jacks, another Paramount title, is a perfect example).  I mean, fair’s fair, guys.  While they didn’t replace the Paramount mountain with the Warner shield (no logos at all), I do hope that they subsequently restore the correct I.D. (they could precede it with the Warners emblem, followed by ten seconds of black, or something along those lines; ditto, the tail end).  Again, that’s my peeve.  But don’t let that stop you from experiencing this nail-biter.  Especially now.

SEVEN DAYS IN MAY.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  The Warner Archive Collection/ Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. CAT # 1000642629. SRP: $21.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection: or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

Good Riddance, 2020!

Can’t deny that I won’t be sorry to kick this bitch of a year to the curb.  I don’t have to go into the gory details, but, if anything, we survivors will be able to tell future generations what it was like to live through this nightmare!

That said, I retreat to my go-to adage for comfort:  “Movies never let you down.”  And it’s true.  In the wake of these disastrous twelve months, there were a number of favorites to constantly revisit, plus, as evidenced here, an astounding array of newly released Blu-Rays and DVDs to help weather the plague and its despicable human counterparts.

For those of you unable to have enjoyed these titles, perhaps you can in the (gotta be) brighter New Year of 2021.

The choices cover all genres and studios (but mostly Kino-Lorber and The Warner Archive Collection); as I’ve long since stopped relegating the annual crop to a mere ten, I’m simply giving readers the links to the more extraordinary cinematic highs of 2020. 

Here’s to better times!

Of course, comedies play a big part in making any period of 2020 tolerable, and there was a plethora of grand laff fests to tickle every part of the funny bone, from the witty plateaus of Lubitsch (, Wilder (;, Stanley Donen faux Lubitsch (, and Ealing classics ( to the brilliant animation of Tex Avery (, the outstanding slapstick of Laurel & Hardy (my favorite release of the year, from Kit Parker Films/MVDvisual:, plus many other “routes” and variants along the way.  Behold the riotous platters of the monstrous funny Fearless Vampire Killers and The Witches   (;, The Whole Town’s Talking, from, of all people, John Ford (, and the Cold War slapstick smash The Russians are Coming ( .  On the TV front, Acorn offered us Seasons 8 & 9 of Doc Martin (, starring the wonderful Martin Clunes.  As a fade-out to this section, early sound and two-strip Technicolor got our attention in the 1929 dramedy Glorifying the American Girl (, now fully restored, and in dazzling shape!

On the opposite side of the cinematic pole are the stark nasties that occupy the world of film noir.  Some terrific mean street dramas graced us, including The Big Clock ( and Caught ( Neo-noir was magnificently served up by the great Anna Friel and company in the next installment of the British crime series Marcella (  Noir elements were also served up in the expert dramas, The Bad and the Beautiful ( and the WWII Fritz Lang spy thriller Cloak and Dagger (  Queer cinema, draped in noir, managed to grip us, via the remarkable 1950 French import, Olivia (, directed by Jacqueline Audry and released through Icarus Films.

World War II provided a terrific springboard for Twilight Time’s action-adventures, including Kings Go Forth, The Train, and Play Dirty (  The war also figured in the sordid 1950s CinemaScope entries The Revolt of Mamie Stover, Peyton Place and 10 North Frederick (

An ugly thriller, rife with heinous villainy, surfaced via MGM’s ultra-gritty The Moonshine War (, a 1970 exercise in the depths of humanity.  Unsung hero westerns got covered via the release of Jacques Tourneur’s unfairly obscure Great Day in the Morning (

Horror remains the Blu-Ray/DVD number one collectable, so no surprise that a number of phantasmagorical flicks made the “top” list, including the great Ealing sole foray into the genre, 1946’s Dead of Night (; then there was the stunning 2009 Korean vampiric rendition of Zola’s Therese Raquin, Thirst (, 1933’s pre-Code pip Supernatural (, starring Carole Lombard and the stunning newly restored two-strip Technicolor Blu-Ray of Michael Curtiz’ 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum (, starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.

Welcome to 2021, folks. 

No Edgar Bergen — But Many McCarthy Laffs!

Olive Films’ library of classic Paramount titles on Blu-Ray certainly helped me get through a turbulent autumn filled with election jitters.  And, there’s enough entertainment left over to make up for our quarantined holiday season.

To paraphrase Rod Serling, I submit for your approval a pair of Cold War spy comedies, made during the first half of that paranoid bullet-bustier-filled decade, known as the 1950s.

1951’s MY FAVORITE SPY was the finale in a continuing series of action-giggle fests starring Bob Hope (the others, My Favorite Blonde and My Favorite Brunette dealt respectively with Nazis on the home front and noirish private eyes).  SPY, indeed could have been a WWII retread – retooled to the topical news events involving Reds, top secret plans and the fun and romance of international espionage, sans the Rosenbergs.  Hope plays a third-rate vaudevillian named Peanuts White, who happens to be a dead ringer for ruthless enemy agent, Eric Augustine.  I only mention this, as I love bringing up these characters’ names.  I may mention them again.  Rapid Robert’s reluctant recruitment into I-Was-Monty’s-Double territory has its perks – as he becomes hammock buddies with take-no-prisoners double agent Hedy Lamarr (Paramount’s then femme du jour, courtesy of Samson and Delilah).  Lamarr, mostly known today as one of the team who came up with the theory for cell phone technology, and, the verbal gag regarding Harvey Korman’s name in Blazing Saddles, is at her most beauteous – which says plenty.  The villainy, personified by Francis L. Sullivan, Arnold Moss, Marc Lawrence and Mike Mazurki, is spot on.  Sight gags abound buttressed by some great one-liners; in short, it’s Bob Hope at his best (courtesy of Edmund Beloin and Lou Breslow’s story, Edmund Hartmann’s and Jack Sher’s screenplay, additional dialog by Hal Kanter, with inspired uncredited assist from Barney Dean) – and a welcome addition to the Blu-Ray universe.  The sparkling 35MM B&W transfer (doing justice to d.p. Victor Milner) is pristine – the mono audio crisp and clear to faithfully replicate each memorable Hope aside (and the jaunty score by Victor Young).  Norman Z. McLeod, director of Hope’s The Paleface and the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers, does his filmography proud.

One of Hope’s last black and white Paramounts, MY FAVORITE SPY delivers the zany goods in droves.  Besides how can you go wrong with a movie which lets loose an incompetent real-life Republican to deal with the future of a dangerous atomic bomb-plagued planet?   Uhhh, wait a minute…Hmmmm….Oh, yeah – and his dual characters’ names are Peanuts White and Eric Augustine (told you I’d say it again!)…

1954’s KNOCK ON WOOD, tailor-made for Danny Kaye in his initial outing as a Paramount star, is a bit more problematic.  The reason I say this is because, in 1964, as an impressionable 10-year old, I thought this picture was one of the funniest movies I had ever seen.  It played for an entire week on New York’s WOR-TV affiliate, Channel 9 as part of Million Dollar Movie.  My friends thought so too – and for weeks we repeated the kooky malapropisms during school recess.  Like MY FAVORITE SPY, KNOCK ON WOOD doesn’t mention the Reds per se – but all the evil types have Slavic eastern European/Russian names…so the proof is in the borscht.

In addition to the Hitchcockian intrigue, KNOCK ON WOOD aspires to modern times by making its lead character psychologically traumatized.  He’s a ventriloquist, whose dummies start taking over whenever he becomes sexually aroused.  Heady stuff for a wacky comedy (note I refrained from making an obvious Lamarr pun), but it’s really there.

Now any movie buff knows that this ventriloquist/dummy freak show is nothing new.  Von Stroheim did it in 1929 with The Great Gabbo…Then there’s the chilling Michael Redgrave Dead of Night sequence, a Cliff Robertson Twilight Zone episode and Devil Doll, a sleazy Brit 60s guilty pleasure often confused with the non-woody 1936 Tod Browning flick.

KNOCK ON WOOD has a lot on its plate – and like many a smorgasbord –  there’s way too much to digest.  That said, the pic does start out promisingly with Kaye disrupting the existence of gorgeous co-star Mai Zetterling.  In fact, for the first third or so – my claims to my wife that this is a hoot and a half seem to bear me out…At 103 minutes, the narrative quickly loses steam…For instance, while on the run from evil spies who have concealed crucial documents inside the heads of his dummies, Kaye, for no reason whatsoever, bursts into a schmaltzy love song, which (at least on its outset) seems to embarrass Zetterling almost as much as the viewers.  Even more bizarre is that, Kaye, whose Goldwyn entries defined grand A-budget fare in the 1940s, looks ill at ease with the material.  This is unusual – since KNOCK ON WOOD is nearly a hodge-podge remake of Wonder Man and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – two of his biggest Goldwyn hits.  Blame/praise must, in big part, go to the movie’s triple threat producers/directors/writers Norman Panama and Melvin Frank.

Zetterling’s character, a detached psychiatrist, rightly repulsed by Kaye’s constant advances to her, demands that he see a male counterpart for treatment.  What follows is the movie’s most eyebrow-raising turn:  Kaye spends all of an hour boning up on Freud – and the next morning reads Mai the riot(ous) act – telling her that what she needs is a man (who could have seen THAT coming?).  She slaps her head in professional angst, spouts outrageous “Of course – what could I have been thinking?!” rhetoric, and from there on, becomes Danny’s main squeeze.  It could be the funniest sequence in the picture!

Strangely enough, KNOCK ON WOOD, for all its market research on what makes a Danny Kaye vehicle – neglects to incorporate a prime ingredient:  Kaye playing multiple characters (save a brief sojourn in an Irish pub wherein the star dons a Lucky the Leprechaun brogue that puts Barry Fitzgerald to shame).  In this respect, MY FAVORITE SPY is more of a Danny Kaye movie than KNOCK ON WOOD.  Added to the padded running time, KNOCK ON WOOD – at least ten minutes too long – looks like a rough cut waiting to be trimmed.  Sequences such as a malfunctioning sports car are cute for about a minute – but not a half reel.  Flashbacks recounting his dysfunctional showbiz parents come off like discarded moribund sections from a Fox Dan Dailey musical (there’s even Michael Kidd choreography!).  Furthermore, the aforementioned jumbling foreign name mishmash, which so delighted my adolescent mind, are sluggishly uttered – lacking the manic pep which earlier astounded the ears of the comedian’s legions of admirers.  Finally, there’s the on-location second unit work.  Zetterling is definitely there in London, but Kaye is so obviously absent – his stand-in being about a half foot taller and twenty years younger.  It’s the worst double work since Columbia’s early Fifties Randolph Scott westerns.  As an addendum, there’s Kaye’s character’s name, Jerry Morgan, which simply can’t compare to…ohhh, let’s say, Peanuts White or Eric Augustine (All right, all right – I’m stopping already!).

OK – so I don’t recommend KNOCK ON WOOD, right?…In the words of Zetterling’s cinema shrink contemporary, Psycho’s Simon Oakland , “Errrrr….not exactly.”  While KNOCK ON WOOD isn’t in the league of the prime Goldwyns or The Court Jester, it is a fun movie to have on while you’re doing various household chores.  As indicated, the opening scenes are genuinely witty.  The supporting cast, including Torin Thatcher, Leon Askin, David Burns, Steven Geray, Abner Biberman and Henry Brandon is aces.  The production values, lush with Technicolor reds, greens and purples are likewise top notch (albeit it looks like the matrices are about two ticks from restoration city; this is evident via the fades and dissolves and the occasional graininess and too garish flesh tones…but this is fleeting and doesn’t deter from the otherwise spectacular Daniel Fapp-lensed cinematography).  Overall, the widescreen Blu-ray imagery is crystal clear (this was a rare 1950s Paramount release distributed in the new1.85 aspect ratio; later that year, the studio would premiere VistaVision via White Christmas, likewise featuring Kaye; the mono sound (with a score, again, by Victor Young), save for being too bass and a few instances of sibilance, is relatively distortion free .

In pure retro terms, KNOCK ON WOOD is absolutely fascinating, and certainly a must for Kaye fans, who have, no doubt, been lusting for this title since the advent of laserdiscs!

MY FAVORITE SPYB&W; Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition;2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # OF698.

KNOCK ON WOOD: Color; Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DT-HD MA. CAT # OF697.

Olive Films/Paramount Home Video.  SRP: $29.95@.

Amorous Stocking Stuffer

Nothing mirrors the joy of Christmas (and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa) for this cineaste more than that wonderful Jimmy Stewart movie.  No, not THAT one – the earlier, witty sensationally romantic 1940 Ernst Lubitsch masterpiece, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, now in a stunning Blu-Ray re-master from Santa’s helpers at the Warner Archive Collection.

A celebration of love, friendship, and authentic human foibles, SHOP takes place nearly entirely within the title establishment (aka Matuschek & Co.), a cozy cubbyhole on a fashionable street in Budapest.

The characters, courtesy of the famed director and his crackerjack frequent ace writer collaborator Samson Raphaelson (with uncredited assist from Ben Hecht, based on a play by Miklos Laszlo), are so thoroughly real, funny, and, poignantly endearing that you practically wanna hang with them (well, most of them).  Indeed, only Lubitsch could make an attempted suicide work in a comedy – to say nothing about getting major laughs out of a discourse on goose liver!

The plot is by now iconic.  Two coworkers’ animosity for one another is salved only by their dreamy written correspondence love affairs (P.O. Box 237) with unseen partners – who turn out to be…well…you know.

As indicated, the movie covers all aspects of relationships via the store’s staff:  courtship, sex, marriage, infidelity…the whole she(and he)bang.

The writing is divine, as are the performances.  Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as the battlers/lovers (a chemistry already honed in their previous teamings, 1936’s Next Time We Love and 1938’s The Shopworn Angel), Frank Morgan, Joseph Schildkraut, Sara Haden, William Tracy, Inez Courtney, Edwin Maxwell, Charles Halton, Charles Arnt, Mary Carr, Claire Du Brey and the great Felix Bressart (who only has to shut a door to bring down the house/home theater with laughter).

Lubitsch, who had experienced a semi-dry spell before leaving Paramount in 1938, had a mammoth hit at Metro in 1939.  Of course, we’re talking about the insta-classic Ninotchka, a celluloid bon-bon that did what legions of movie-goers believed to be the impossible – proving that “Garbo laughs!”

He could now do no wrong at MGM, and this follow-up magnificently demonstrated that the old Lubitsch – the hit-maker – was back in full stride.  He had able assist from the dazzling cinematography of William Daniels and delightful score by Werner Heymann.  The dialog is consistently risqué and delicious.  Stewart justifying his written “affair” to Bressart describes the relationship as love on a cultural level.  “What else can you do in a letter?,” logically replies his friend.  When discussing the proper gift for a woman, Stewart disses Sullavan’s choice of a purse (“I just don’t believe in mixing bags with pleasure.”).

The movie was deservedly a huge hit in those troubled times of 1940 – so much so that it was remade, once in 1949 as a pleasant period Technicolor musical starring Judy Garland (In the Good Old Summertime), and, again in 1998 as a modernized cyber version (You Got Mail) costarring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.  Suffice to say, nothing beats the original.

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray of THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER gets the treatment it truly warrants:  a pristine 35MM 1080p transfer – pinprick sharp (you can see every thread on the characters’ clothing) with gorgeous contrast.  The mono audio, too, is buoyant and dynamic (not always the case with MGM titles). Extras include a short (likely to have accompanied SHOP in its 1940 release), The Miracle of Sound, which is essentially less of a history of talkies than an ad for upcoming Metro releases, two radio renditions of the piece (1940’s Screen Guild Players and 1941’s Lux Radio Theater) and a marvelous theatrical trailer, hosted by Frank Morgan and featuring a snarky appearance by Lubitsch!

A terrific movie on every level, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER only improves with age.  That final verbal/visual capper between Stewart and Sullavan joyously, scandalously and hilariously underlines the physical, emotional and spiritual “clicking” of a more perfect union.  The Lubitsch touch was never as touching.

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Turner Entertainment/Warner Nros. Entertainment/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. CAT # 1000797497.  SRP: $21.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection: or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

Paramount Girl Power

Ever mindful of the lucrative kiddie market (especially around holiday time), Paramount Pictures occasionally designed “super productions” specifically for the small fry trade.  Famously, the Famous Players Lasky turned to no less than the literary classics of J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll for source-work.  Although produced for different reasons (as explained below), the greenlight for 1924’s PETER PAN and 1933’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND (now available in excellent Blu-Ray 1080p editions from Kino-Lorber, in collaboration with Paramount Home Entertainment/Entertainment and Universal Studios, respectively) remain standout examples of the Hollywood product at its peak, albeit spilling over into weirdness (and stretching into areas encompassing everything from phantasmagoria charm to scarifyin’ nightmarish, to uncomfortable fetishism, and, finally, to WTF were they thinking?).  Bizarrely, both movies – as mentioned, each a major mega-buck presentation – relied upon not only young girls to carry them, but unknown young actresses at that!

As indicated, 1924’s PETER PAN represents the pinnacle of the Hollywood Silent Era dream factory.  It’s an opulent enterprise, carefully geared toward the kiddie set, thus, a Yuletide natural (it was released during the latter part of December in 1924).  The Barrie work has become one of those beloved children’s tales that perennially terrifies the crap out of tykes (no wonder Disney made the most famous version, a trauma-tot special to be sinisterly leaned alongside his Bambi and Old Yeller).

PETER PAN, or, as I prefer to call it, The Spright Stuff, is about a rascally fairy who impishly transports a gaggle of human urchins to Never-Never Land (the naughty puns write themselves, so I won’t bother).  While a fantastic place on the surface, this world is rife with evil, via flesh-eating crocodiles, persecuted natives, homeless “lost boys,” and lastly, fiendish pirates – led by the malevolent Captain Hook (one of the most infamous villains in the annals of the arts).

Of course, finding a nimble lad to play the title role was a chore; let’s face it, we dudes are pretty clunky, and not so believable in the agile department.  Almost since the work’s inception (on stage and in cinema), it was a given that Peter be played by a female (adolescents, on the cusp of puberty, have always been conflicted by these live-action adaptations, and we have over a century of thousands of happy therapists to prove it).  Paramount wasn’t going to argue, and scoured the land for the ideal choice, coming up with a winner via 18-year-old New Jersey-born Betty Bronson.  With little experience (bits in a couple of minor pics), she aced the role, and helped the movie become the sensational triumph it was.  Bronson is ably supported by a cache of terrific supporting players, including Ernest Torrence (as Hook), Esther Ralston, Cyril Chadwick, Jack Murphy, Maurice Murphy, Mickey McBain, Mary Brian (as Wendy, soon to blossom into womanhood and her own Paramount contract), and the lovely Virginia Browne Faire (as Tinkerbelle). Most notable is the always stunning Anna May Wong as Tiger Lily, the feisty leader of the natives (it was her year for blockbuster fantasies, having also appeared in Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad, starring Douglas Fairbanks).

The special effects are 1924 state-of-the-art, and while tamed for children (flexible giant stuffed animals) are still rather disturbing looking.  I suppose the racism (“redskins”) can’t be judged too harshly being that this is nearly a hundred years ago, but the violence is borderline freakout (Peter happily stabs his detractors, and Hook’s name is due to Pan chopping off his hand and feeding it to the crocs; his deserved demise is likewise quite gruesome).

The movie was beautifully helmed by Herbert Brenon, a top director of the day, with a script by Willis Goldbeck (who had crafted works for Rex Ingram).  The photography by the brilliant James Wong Howe is fantastic (this new Blu-Ray has been mastered in 2K from 35mm elements, with the original tints).  A fine orchestral score by Philip C. Carli appends the imagery.  Extras include supplemental commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger and a vintage audio interview with costar Esther Ralston.

Sadly, Bronson’s timing wasn’t the best, as she was forever tagged with the Peter Pan moniker.  Excellent in other roles (Paramount’s Are Parents People?, Mary in the silent Ben-Hur), she kinda faded as the studio jumped on a the bandwagon for another signed young actress, the sexually WAYYYY opposite Clara Bow, who took Hollywood and the world by storm.  Ironically, Bronson’s two best remembered movies are this one and Sam Fuller’s expose of small town perversity, 1964’s The Naked Kiss, made exactly four decades later.

TRIVIAL TRIVIA SIDEBAR: Back in the 1980s, I asked a fellow film collector (himself, then in his seventies), who remembered the original release, what it was like in a kid-packed movie house in the 1920s.  Was there a lot of noise, due to everyone’s parents reading their children the title cards?  He honestly couldn’t answer.  “Jeez, that’s a good question.  I don’t know, there MUST have been, although I never recall any issues like that.  We just all loved the movies.”

1933’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND is a whole other kettle of fish.  Nearly a decade later, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression.
Paramount felt it; they were in receivership, and needed a mammoth hit.  To this end, some suit remembered the fantastic box-office of PETER PAN.  Why not create another elaborate children’s fantasy?  And, better yet, sweeten the pot by strategically casting it with every Paramount star on the lot?  That seemed to be beyond ultra-smart.  On paper.

First off, tilting a pic toward the kiddies immediately cancelled out any chance of using the studio’s female leading ladies, all queens of pre-Code sexuality.  So, no Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Miriam Hopkins, or Sylvia Sidney.  And definitely NOT Mae West (although that might have been a stroke of genius). The leading men weren’t too thrilled at the prospect, either – especially once it became known that all the characters would be heavily disguised.  Bing Crosby out-and-out refused, thinking the entire project a screwy idea and demeaning to his career.  Yet, Paramount prevailed, and rounded up a massive cartel of famed and beloved thesps for key roles, including Richard Arlen (Cheshire Cat), Roscoe Ates (Fish), William Austin (Gryphon), Edward Everett Horton (Mad Hatter), Leon Errol (Uncle Gilbert), Polly Moran (Dodo Bird), Mae Marsh (Sheep), Ford Sterling (White King), Louise Fazenda (White Queen), Edna May Oliver (Red Queen), May Robson (Queen of Hearts), Alec B. Francis (King of Hearts), Skeets Gallagher (Rabbit), Charlie Ruggles (March Hare), Raymond Hatton (Mouse), Sterling Holloway (Frog), Jackie Searl (Dormouse), Baby LeRoy (Joker), Alison Skipworth (Duchess), Ned Sparks (Caterpillar), Billy Barty (White Pawn), Billy Bevan (Two of Spades), Ethel Griffies (The Governess), and Roscoe Karns and Jack Oakie (as Tweedledee and Tweedledum). A major coup was Gary Cooper as The White Knight; a creepy backfire was Cary Grant as The Mock Turtle, perhaps one of the most unnerving characterizations in kiddie motion picture history.  What essentially amounted to the elephant in the room, and one that would hinder attendance was to improve upon the costumes and SFX of the 1924 PAN phenomenon.  The stars were SO disguised that no one recognized them.  Only W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty weathered the storm, as his voice was so iconic.

For Alice, the studio ignored wags insisting on well-known actresses and went for an unknown, signing 19-year-old Charlotte Henry for the role (she beat out Ida Lupino, Paulette Goddard, Anne Shirley and Betty Grable who all tested).  For the teen, it turned out to be one of the few plusses in the cast; she would be pegged the following year to star as Bo-Peep in Hal Roach’s lavish Laurel & Hardy feature rendition of Babes in Toyland (aka, The March of the Wooden Soldiers), and, thus reach holiday movie screen immortality.

Almost from the beginning, ALICE hit bumps going down the rabbit hole, testing only so-so in previews (two reels were excised before the general release, the current cut of 76 minutes).  More tampering seems evident, as occasionally actors have a “sunburned” look suggesting that perhaps color had been an early-on factor (which absolutely would have helped, but admittedly would have skyrocketed the budget).

The script went from faithful to infrequent bonkersville (a couple of anachronistic asides), not surprisingly, as it was penned by no less than Joseph L. Mankiewicz.  The remaining off-camera credits are impressive as well, and comprise director Norman Z. McCleod, set designer William Cameron Menzies, d.p.s Bert Glennon and Henry Sharpe, composer Dimitri Tiomkin and animation by Harman-Ising.

Indeed, the December 22 release of ALICE IN WONDERLAND proved a disappointment to Paramount, despite some positive reviews.  In the nearly 90 years since, it has achieved a well-deserved car wreck following.  It’s not a bad movie, in fact, it’s often fun – while concurrently a head-scratcher.

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray is excellent, looking very clean and pristine, and from 35MM elements.  A trailer, as bizarre as the main attraction, is also included (plus audio commentary by film scholar Lee Gambin).  To quote Mr. Spock, the results are “fascinating.” To possibly quote Dr. Spock add “Fascinating, but proceed with caution, and perhaps to your local child psychologist.”

PETER PAN. Black and white w/tints. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA [silent w/stereo score]; Kino Classics/Entertainment, Inc. CAT # K23859.  SRP: $29.95.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K24660. SRP: $29.95.

Power, Play

One of my favorite musical biographies, 1956’s THE EDDY DUCHIN STORY, directed by George Sidney and starring Tyrone Power, comes to Blu-Ray in a stunning Limited Edition from the folks at Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.

Sub-genre-wise, musical bios have had a long history, dating back to the early talkies.  As the decades (and technology) moved on, so did the narratives – usually from the facts (Night and Day, Words and Music, The Fabulous Dorseys, etc.).  By the 1950s, things had improved to the point that sugar-coating wasn’t only no longer necessary, but actually a deterrent; many of these talented song and dance/composing mofos had/led some rough lives.  When WB told a thinly disguised tale of Bix Beiderbecke (Young Man with a Horn), the floodgates of trauma and tragedy were opened.  Soon, cataclysmic musi-bios gutted the market delighting eager sadistic audiences who lapped up every death, injury, addiction, psychological breakdown and spousal abuse.  Fox gave us With a Song in My Heart, Warners The Helen Morgan Story, MGM Interrupted Melody, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Love Me or Leave Me, Universal-International The Glenn Miller Story, and Paramount The Five Pennies.  Columbia was no shrinking violet either, from low budget (The Gene Krupa Story), to the finely-tuned super-deluxe CinemaScope and Technicolor production of THE EDDY DUCHIN STORY.  And here we are.

If Duchin hadn’t suffered so much to bring his style and genius to the entertainment world, wags would think he was the creation of a cartel of soap opera scenarists.  The Eddy Duchin story was indeed a sad one of a sad man living the saddest of lives.  It’s amazing that this movie is so incredibly watchable and mesmerizingly addictive.

Duchin, born in 1909, was considered one of the brightest lights of sophisticated Manhattan 1930’s music (“[F]irst time they ever danced to just a piano” is how one character describes the Duchin nightclub phenomenon).  Just like Glenn Miller had his own “sound,” so did Duchin.  His versions of “Nocturne in E Flat,” “Brazil,” “Heart and Soul,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “September Song,” and “Moonlight and Shadows” have become benchmark standards.  A rendition of “Ol’ Man Mose” even caused a scandal.

But it wasn’t easy.  Duchin suffered the pain of being shunned and degraded by jealous people in the Biz who hated his talent (hardly an original tale there).  He eventually rose from a member of Leo Reisman’s orchestra to featured performer.  And then, went solo.

The term “behind every great man is a woman” was never truer in Duchin’s case (although that adage should be amended to “great woman”).  The love of his life, Marjorie Oelichs, helped him soar to new heights of musical elegance during the late Twenties-early Thirties.  This, too, was a climb rife with pitfalls.  Oelichs was a drop-dead gorgeous socialite who was condemned by her “people” for dating a Jew.  She was essentially disowned, which suited her fine. Mrs. Duchin was a free-spirit and, basically, told her family and members of the 400 to go fuck themselves.  And she and Eddy Duchin never looked back (a scene where Cafe Society assholes pitifully beg the now-famous Duchin to play at their affair is wonderful).  The couple had a son, Peter (who himself grew up to be a fine musician); but even this happiness was short-lived.  Oelichs died several days after Peter’s birth, due to complications, and Duchin broke down to the point where he couldn’t stand looking at their son, since it was an eternally painful reminder.

The long ascent back from darkness took no less than World War II.  Serving as a naval combat officer, Duchin, morose and suicidal in the Mediterranean and South Pacific, saw the positive effect his music held for the many orphaned children, and that helped to restore a reason to live and create.  Finding love again, Duchin strove to make amends to his formerly deserted friends, and, specifically, to his son.  And then he contracted acute myelogenous leukemia.

Fun story, eh?

The script to THE EDDY DUCHIN STORY, like the music, hits all the right notes (and is surprisingly mostly factual).  It’s a literate, engrossing screenplay superbly crafted by Samuel A. Taylor (author of two Billy Wilder projects, Sabrina, based on his play, and Avanti!).  George Sidney, fresh from MGM and now working from a liberating contract at Columbia, seamlessly matches the wonderful musical sequences with the heart-wrenching drama.

Then, there’s the cast.  Tyrone Power, no longer under servitude at Fox, and working as freelancer, gives one of his best performances (I really got that this Irishman was Jewish, not easy wool to pull over these kosher eyes).  Kim Novak, late of Picnic, the pic that propelled her into an A-lister, shines in her brief turn as Oelichs.  I truly believe that it was her work in this movie that convinced Hitchcock to give her Vertigo (also scripted by Taylor); she’s seductive, authentic and (obviously) beautiful.  Other cast members worth mentioning are James Whitmore, Rex Thompson and Mickey Maga (as various different ages of Peter), Shepperd Strudwick, Frieda Inescort, Gloria Holden, Larry Keating, John Mylong, Gregory Gaye, Jack Albertson, and, in her debut, Victoria Shaw.

The tech credits are equally impressive and important.  The on-location New York City Technicolor and CinemaScope photography of Harry Stradling, Sr. remains one of the most sumptuous evocations of Manhattan during the seasons.  The Central Park in the rain footage has never left me; it’s romantic moviemaking at its peak. The soundtrack (with Carmen Cavallaro subbing for Power’s Duchin) is sublime, and it’s a joy to hear “To Love Again, “Whispering,” “You’re My Everything,” “La Vie En Rose,” “Manhattan,” and others.

Twilight Time has done this unfairly near-forgotten title proud (it was a huge hit in 1956); the visuals look spectacular in 1080p, and the audio sounds sensational in 2.0 stereo.  As with all Twilight Time titles, the music is accessible as an IST.

“You produce happiness,” coos an enraptured Novak to Power.  So, amazingly, does this movie, despite the subject’s many physical and psychological obstacles.

THE EDDY DUCHIN STORY. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries. SRP: $29.95.

“The Exhausted Ruler”

For those of us not lucky enough to have experienced the 2004 mammoth 21-DVD United Kingdom box set, containing superb transfers of ALL the existing Laurel and Hardy Hal Roach-owned comedies, MVDvisual and Kit Parker Films (in cahoots with Jeff Joseph of SaBuCat/UCLA Film and Television Archive/The Film Foundation, The Library of Congress plus labor-of-love assist from Randy Skretvedt and Richard Bann) have come up with the perfect compromise, LAUREL & HARDY: THE DEFINITIVE RESTORATIONS.

This glorious 4-disc set, presenting the greatest comedy team ever for the first time in 1080p Blu-Ray quality (all titles remastered in 2K and 4K, from 35MM), only makes hope that this quartet is merely the first of a continuing series.  In the meantime, we will relish these magnificent shorts and features in optimum picture and sound quality making the holiday season (or any season) just so much brighter.

Cherry-picked and comprising 17 Roach shorts and two features (plus the best looking versions of nebulous items like That’s That, a Roach-culled compilation made as a 1937 birthday present to Stan and the 1943 color Tree in a Test Tube, featuring Pete Smith narration, produced for the war effort), this set is (mostly) the best of the best.  The two feature-length movies are 1933’s Sons of the Desert (my bid for one of the funniest comedies of all-time) and 1937’s Way Out West (another gem, superbly spoofing the Western genre).  I would have perhaps opted for 1938’s Blockheads, but, hey, that’s what subsequent volumes are there for.

The shorts (spanning 1927-1933) are terrific choices, too, and include Brats, Hog Wild, Come Clean, Me and My Pal, One Good Turn, Helpmates, The Music Box, The Chimp, County Hospital, Scram!, Their First Mistake, The Midnight Patrol, Busy Bodies, Towed in a Hole and Twice Two.  The crème de la crème of the collection aces out the aforementioned UK box via the spectacular virtually complete Blu-Ray debut of the once-thought lost classic, 1927’s Battle of the Century (only one brief segment is missing, and is covered by stills and intertitles).  This anarchic short is not only everything we’ve wanted it to be, but it looks friggin’ gorgeous in this new transfer (an excellent score by Donald Sosin accompanies the visuals).

What made Stan and Ollie great has been chronicled in a gazillion books, but basically is their chemistry; you just KNEW these guys loved each other, even when they were fighting.  They also represented the comedic force that begat chain reaction results from (supposedly) superior human specimens (pie fights, de-pant-ing, vehicular destruction…).  They were kings of the late silent era (amazingly, the duo was simply thrown together by Roach for a couple of shorts, but clicked so well and fast that the inspired writing was on the wall).  Their seamless drift into talkies further revealed that their Swiss watch timing wasn’t relegated to mere slapstick; the boys’ handling of dialog was just as good (and, treat above treat, occasionally graced us with Ollie’s fine singing voice).

Laurel and Hardy weren’t just a fantastic comedy team, they were comedy geniuses. Stan, often called the “brains of the pair” never failed to give his partner equal credit (“he could always make me laugh”).  Indeed, in 1913, Stan toured with the Fred Karno troupe (that also included Chaplin), and, like, contemporary Buster Keaton, eventually “lived, breathed, ate and drank film.”  But Hardy was no slouch either.  He began a successful career behind the camera, functioning as Howard Hawks’ first a.d.  Hawks often said that Hardy was the best assistant director he ever had, and often wished that the comedian had remained off-cam, as he would have evolved into a sensational director.  Proof of that is via Ollie’s lasting contribution to cinema:  the breaking of the fourth wall – that never-fails-to-crack-audiences-up reaction of staring into the camera.  This brilliant device is so much a part of the cinematic landscape now, but he came up with it.

Naturally, no mention of Laurel & Hardy is complete without citing the regal Roach stock company, those wonderful faces and performers that really helped put those pics across, so it’s also grand to see Charlie Hall, Mae Busch, Billy Gilbert, Anita Garvin, Tiny Sanford, Vivien Oakland and last (but definitely not least), the outstanding James Finlayson.  Have to likewise note that Leo McCarey wrote and directed many of these shorts – a hefty amount photographed by George Stevens.  And we can’t leave out those unforgettable jazzy scores by that pair of gifted maestros, Marvin Hatley and LeRoy Shield.

While all of this is enough to warrant a purchase not only for yourself, but as gifts to comedy collectors, there are additional reasons to immediately grab a copy of this Blu-Ray: almost nine hours of extras, including audio commentaries (incorporating vintage recollections by L&H crew members), trailers, posters and photo galleries.  Most interesting are the alternate versions of 1929’s Berth Marks and 1930’s Brats.  While visually, the pics are identical, the audio is slightly different.  In 1936, Roach and MGM remixed the soundtracks to feature more music (the versions that we grew up on).  The original release prints, although inventive examples of early sound, had less music and audio effects.  It’s fascinating to side-by-side them.  My favorite supplement, however, could be a Super 8 sound filmed interview with Anita Garvin, ca. 1981!

Easily one of the top Blu-Ray discs of the year, LAUREL & HARDY: THE DEFINITIVE RESTORATIONS truly lives up to its title.  So, what are you waiting for!?

LAUREL & HARDY: THE DEFINITIVE RESTORATIONS. Black and white. Full frame 1.32, 1.33, 1.37: 1 [1080p High Definition]; 2.0 LPCM. MVDvisual/Kit Parker Films/SaBu Cat/UCLA Film and Television Archive/The Film Foundation/The Library of Congress. CAT # MVD3582BR.  SRP: $59.99.

The Rolling (in the) Isles of England

So many times in past columns, I have invoked the name “Ealing” to the point that I practically have to pay them a royalty fee.  I use the moniker to underline a high water mark in cinema – specifically in the comedy genre.  Usually, this kudo has been doled out to praise such fantastic contemporary Brit laff-fests as Detectorists, or, in a retro American comparison, 1966’s The Russians are Coming.  To better understand what I’m getting at, one need search no further than two wonderful vintage Ealings:  1949’s PASSPORT TO PIMLICO and 1953’s THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT, now available in restored Blu-Rays from the smashing folk at Film Movement (working in concert with the endless array of cinema heroes at Studio Canal).

First off, leave us press home the fact that suburban living was never as delightful than in an Ealing environ.  Rural towns, villages and small cities of England were often primary targets for the studio (that nevertheless also worked its magic in other aspects of comedy, for instance, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Man in the White Suit, and other top-tier triumphs).

While Ealing had been in operation since 1902 (converting to sound in 1931), it was the post-war optimism that fueled their wise decision to hone their comedy skills. To this end, they hired directors, writers and casts often as eccentric as the whimsical characters who populated their scenarios.  Indeed, the studio “made” many careers in all those vocations; ditto, cinematography, editing, music and art and set design.

Ealing comedies provided an outlet rarely met in cinema, certainly never rivalled (although many tried).  The pictures were so twee, wry and brilliantly sparkling that they often debuted (in the States) at arthouse theatres.  Usually, a box-office non-starter, the Ealings transcended that tag, and sent receipts through the roof, eventually “opening wide” and proving themselves to (as they say) “have legs” across the country.  It seemed that everyone on planet Earth connected with these exquisite offerings – meticulously and strategically multilevel constructed narratives that were simultaneously snarkily witty and politically/culturally allegorical, all the while being outlandishly friggin’ hilarious.  Below are two magnificent reasons why.

1949’s PASSPORT TO PIMLICO is a comedy gem about red tape bureaucracy (and it’s gaggle of stiff-upper-lips) vs. the integrity of a defiant group of villagers who are determined to win at a game of geopolitics.

A (then) contemporary pic, taking place in the title town, the very real (and not funny at all) danger of an UXB (unexploded bomb) provides the pin pulled out of an actual AND metaphorical explosive device.  Kids playing in rubble find the little German gift, and quickly alert authorities.  But the UXB isn’t “U” for long, and explodes – revealing a treasure trove of artifacts and documents long buried under the soil.  The local historical committees are notified, and uncover an amazing parchment:  Pimlico is, in essence, an appendage of France’s Burgundy, thus divorced from the British crown.  This sets heads a-spinning, from the pub owners (no more duty on French booze), to the scores of “we don’t have to pay British taxes,” and so on and so on.  It all boils down to the revelation made by a (now) former citizen of the UK, “Blimey, I’m a foreigner.”

Of course, there’s a downside to this freedom as well, especially when the British Government cuts off all services, generally taken for granted by the populace.

The fact that it all makes sense (in a Bizarro World way) and manages to be concurrently hilarious is what made Ealing so great.  Credit the brilliant writer T.E.B. Clarke for the thoroughly original script, Henry Cornelius for the inspired direction (Cornelius directed one of my favorite comedies of all-time, Genevieve – an Ealing “knock-off”), and, the sensational cast, headed by Stanley Holloway, Betty Warren, Margaret Rutherford, John Slater, Jane Hylton, Raymond Huntley, Philip Stanton, Sydney Taffer, Hermione Badderley, Charles Hawtrey, James Hayter, Sam Kydd, Harry Locke, Michael Hordern, and Naughton Wayne and Basil Radford.

Cleverly concealing a very timely message to all those misinformed tribalism blockheads who yearn to secede from their “too much government” rulers, PASSPORT TO PIMLICO, in its sparse 84 minutes, beautifully displays the pros and cons of the animal politic; the movie even finds time for romance when the current titled Duke of Burgundy (Paul Dupuis) relocates to the formerly English vicinity, and collides with the daughter (Barbara Murray) of the pic’s head protagonist.  Of course, there’s much to be said about being anti-establishment if approached sanely (Ealing comedy revivals were particularly popular during the late 1960s-early 1970s), and nothing is more fun than watching the “old Brits” cheer on the “new French Brits” barricaded at the borders by conservative officials and reluctant bobbies.

The Film Movement Blu-Ray of PASSPORT TO PIMLICO is a marked improvement over all the previous home video incarnations.  Showing off Lionel Banes’ crisp black and white photography via a new 1080p restoration elevates this already terrific jewel to new heights; only some slight side flashing (likely due to nitrate deterioration) mars the otherwise flawless effect.  Georges Auric’s score is appropriately sprightly and adds immensely to the joyous experience of this cinema howl.  A number of fine extras make the purchase even more appealing:  an illustrated booklet by Ronald Bergan, a locations featurette, a restoration comparison, a stills archive and an interview with BFI curator Mark Duguid.

Bureaucratic fools get another kick in the bum, courtesy of the riotous 1953 delight THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT.  The movie warns how apathetic efficiency marketing twits can degrade living, breathing people into mere numbers to be merrily crunched.

Titfield is a picturesque, thriving suburban community with the oldest existing rail branch in service – the Titlfield to Mallingford run, a necessary commute that connects residents to the regular train line major hubs (mostly for work, but also for shopping, visiting and seasonal vacationers).  All this goes out the window when British Rail decides to cancel the transport in the name of modernization and economy.

Of course, this puts the townsfolks in the shit, so to speak, and they have no recourse but to attack.  When formal pleas prove useless, the aggressive Titfieldians decide to create their own railroad and give it to BR up the arse.  This gives the train organization monopoly one massive headache after another, involving unions, usage of a stretch of track needed to bypass the now redundant towns, etc., etc., etc. – and good for them!

THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT not only rips thoughtless corporations a new one, but provides a love letter to the Brits’ fascination with trains (embracing vintage locomotives as Genevieve would do the following year with embryonic automobiles).  The script by (again, by T.E.B. Clarke) is laugh-out-loud funny, ditto Charles Crichton’s direction.  As with all Ealing outings, it’s the cast of pixilated lunatics that makes the show, and includes an array of wonderful thesps, comprising John Gregson, Naughton Wayne, Hugh Griffith, Gabrielle Brune, Sid James, Reginald Beckwith, Jack MacGowran, Edie Martin and Sam Kydd.  Of special note is the town’s ancient vicar (George Relph), whose obsession with ancient trains makes him the ideal engineer (ultimately, the populace heists a locomotive from the local museum); also must give a nod to the ambitious company’s benefactor – the town’s richest member, a notorious tipler (top-billed Stanley Holloway), who happily supplies the needed start-up funds, once he’s assured they’ll be a special bar car in his honor.

A jaunty score by Georges Auric appends the hilarity with the pic’s two non-human stars being the titular Titfield title engine (a spectacular 1838 locomotive, dubbed the Lion, formerly of the Liverpool-Manchester line) and the sumptuous photography of Douglas Slocombe – extremely relevant as this was Ealing’s first color movie – and the Technicolor location work (Bath, Cam Brook valley, Freshford and Carlingcott) is outstanding.

The Film Movement Blu-Ray of THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT is a honey, and like PASSPORT TO PIMLICO comes with a cache of extras, comprising a “Making of” featurette, an illustrated booklet by Ronald Bergan, and locations mini-doc, an interview with Douglas Slocombe (including Slocombe’s home movies), and a separate tribute to the Lion.

Absolutely a must for comedy collections, these classics are available individually, or as part of a new box set, which additionally includes Whiskey Galore and The Maggie (both to be reviewed soon).

PASSPORT TO PIMLICO. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.

THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.

Film Movement/Studio Canal. SRP: $29.95@