Platinum Blonde Gold Standard

I’m so delighted to see that Blu-Ray is “going Mamie” in a very big way.  Of course, I’m not referring to the 1950’s FLOTUS, but the 1950’s goddess, Mamie Van Doren.  Three of her best (if not her greatest) movies have now been spectacularly remastered in High Definition and the correct CinemaScope 2.35:1 aspect ratios.  I commend Olive Films and Paramount Home Entertainment for (at last) giving us the definitive editions of 1958’s HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, THE BIG OPERATOR, and THE BEAT GENERATION (the latter two both 1959). I think even those who haven’t yet joined the MVD fold might wanna give these a shot.  They’re not only terrific star vehicles, they’re damn good movies, one a cult classic, the others excellent noirs – with the last being a borderline genuinely great and controversial pic!

The late Fifties was indeed a busy time for Mamie, having been sprung from Universal-International (where she had been under contract), and then dividing her career between a series of UA flicks, Warner Bros. titles and these MGM classics.  In the interim, she managed to do a bit in Paramount’s Teacher’s Pet and giving birth to a son.  Quite a busy lass.

The MGMs, not only allowed her art to flourish in more extravagant epics (utilizing existing sets and props from bigger pictures), but had the benefit of being produced by the iconic Albert Zugsmith, also recently of U-I (where he and Mamie initially collided and would soon concoct the volatile celluloid results).  Zugsmith, unfairly crowned as an exploitation maven, was responsible for three of Universal’s greatest Fifties movies:  Written on the Wind, The Incredible Shrinking Man and Touch of Evil.  That ain’t no accident.  Mamie, who at U-I, generally portrayed the panting lady lust bucket impatiently waiting for her man to beat the baddies, was never truly given her potential for snarkiness, and, even more bizarrely, for hot, passionate sexiness.  That all changed with Zugsmith (and Howard Koch at Warners and UA).  These three Zug masterpieces (out of the seven they made together) define the woman as more than mere eye-candy.  She entertains, tosses off one-liners like a 30’s “say girl,” and proves herself as quite a good straight actress.  You’ll have to watch the flicks to get what I mean, but, perhaps, I can give y’all an example of what I’m talking about via my subsequent scribbling.  So, take a deep breath, and keep the ice in a wash cloth handy!

1958’s HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL has grown from a cult fave to an underground classic to an iconic Fifties must-see.  And with good reason.  It pushes the “restriction taboo” bar as far as 1958 would allow.  While it’s undeniably wacky, it’s also magnificently sleazy, sardonic and often laugh-out-loud hilarious (mostly, intentionally).  The pic, photographed in black-and-white and CinemaScope (one of my favorite combinations, a Zugsmith preference, too, it seems) is ably directed by sci-fi impresario Jack Arnold (It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon); the only thing missing is the 3-D (then, long fizzed out); too bad. 

The plot, takes its lead from the far more serious Blackboard Jungle, a 1955 blockbuster that MGM (Blackboard‘s and HIGH SCHOOL’s distributor) shamefully ballyhooed comparisons in the loopy trailer (included on the platter).

Tony Baker (Russ Tamblyn, just three years away from West Side Story) is the new local bad boy, heavily into kicks.  And, by that, we mean drugs and hot teen babes.  He lives with his Aunt Gwen – get ready – Mamie Van Doren, a lady horndog who’d really like to take her nephew to nirvana, via Kama Sutra.

School doesn’t make it any easier for Tony to keep it in his pants, as, aside from the curvy co-eds, there’s smokin’ teacher Miss Williams (Jan Sterling).  Vying to be the new cool kid is also rather tough, as that position is currently occupied by j.d. J.I. (John Drew Barrymore), a leather-jacketed leftover from Rebel without a Cause, who spouts insane mumbo-jumbo versions of Kerouac poetry, that runs the gamut from bad to verse.

Eventually, Tony achieves his goal, and is inducted into the drug cartel (including a well-paid gig as a pusher).  “This is the final test,” sneers smarmy kingpin Mr. A (Jackie Coogan), watching Tamblyn inject horse.  Tony’s secret, later revealed (but not by us), turns the tables upside down and inside out.

Add in rock ‘n’ roll, including the amazing opening with Jerry Lee Lewis pounding out a piano keyboard on the back of a pickup truck and you’ve got the makings of one helluva afternoon at your living room Grindhouse.  With a score by Albert Glasser and a supporting cast including Ray Anthony, Charles Chaplin, Jr., Diane Jergens, Michael Landon, Jody Fair, Lyle Talbot, William Wellman, Jr., Mel Welles, Florida Friebus, Norman “Woo-Woo” Grabowski, Helen Kleeb, and William Smith, HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL delivers and then some.

The recent remastered Blu-Ray (first time ever 1080p for this title) is terrific, giving viewers the full CinemaScope experience (previous widescreen editions were compromised, more like 1.85 than 2.35).  Auntie Van Doren, whose screen time is limited, nevertheless makes the most of her scenes.  If I haven’t said it before, I’m saying it now:  Mamie’s da bomb!

1959’s THE BIG OPERATOR is one of the most elusive of the Zugsmith sleaze-noirs – and one of the best.

Taking a lead from more mainstream acclaimed works like On the Waterfront, OPERATOR deals with the crooked unions and their crime family connections.

In this case, diligent workers Bill Gibson and Fred McAfee (Steve Cochran and Mel Torme), striving for fair union representation, come across psychopathic monster Little Joe Braun (Mickey Rooney, in one of his few performances I can tolerate).  Pure evil, this diminutive malignant lawn gnome rules by fear and violence.  Indeed, Braun thinks its dope to torture, and cherishes cruelty almost as much as his ill-gotten gains.  It’s so refreshing when he gets his ass kicked.

Cochran, married to (hardly) typical suburban housewife Mamie seems like a stretch on paper.  But they actually make a reasonable middle-class couple, with Van Doren toning down the HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL “auntie” kitsch, and being thoroughly believable as Mary, her tough, liberal husband’s spouse.  Although, that said, one scene, where she punishes son Timmy (TV’s Dennis the Menace, Jay North) gets a rise out of Cochran, for all the wrong reasons (a s-p-a-n-k-i-n-g).  The never dull marriage has a potent amount of chemistry, likely due to the actual sparks that the pair exhibited off-screen, much to the dismay of the actresss’ then real-life husband Ray Anthony (who also appears in the pic).  In fact, the entire cast of THE BIG OPERATOR needs mentioning, as it’s 1950s B-noir heaven: Ray Danton, Jim Backus, Billy Daniels, Maila Nurmi (aka, Vampira to you!), Lawrence Dobkin, Leo Gordon, Ziva Rodann, Don Barry, Ben Gage, Joey Forman and Peter Leeds (with return appearances by Zugsmith “regulars” Jackie Coogan, Charles Chaplin, Jr. and Woo-Woo Grabowski).

As indicated earlier, the violence is as red hot as Cochran and Van Doren, particularly one scene where the Velvet Fog gets smoked.  Literally.  Barely alive, covered in third degree burns and more bandages than Imhotep, Torme’s Fred McAfee makes a miraculous (if somewhat ludicrous) comeback in the final reels.

THE BIG OPERATOR was directed by Charles Haas, who did quite an admirable job.  He had an interesting no-nonsense occasionally surreal approach to his projects, and was another Universal-International alumnus Zugsmith brought along to MGM; check out his underrated Technicolor western Star in the Dust, featuring Mamie (the first Zug and Van Doren teaming) to see what I mean.

The script to the movie (based on a Cosmopolitan Magazine piece by no less than Paul Gallico) has a number of one-liner zingers that often blur the genuine corruption theme of the narrative.  Alan Rivkin and Robert Smith deserve a modicum of applause.

The black-and-white CinemaScope camerawork, too, merits praise – and I therefore tip my hat to Walter Castle.

The music credit is perhaps the most deserved of endless kudos – a remarkable jazzy score by Van Alexander.  Jazz maestros and aficionados have worshipped the movie’s main title instrumental for decades.  I’ve heard it covered in jazz clubs and on a myriad of artists’ LPs continuously since the 1970s.

The Olive Films Blu-Ray transfer of THE BIG OPERATOR is a joy to behold in all its 1080p glory.  What a treat to finally be able to see it again – and, at last, in its proper 2.35:1 aspect ratio (those Seventies full-frame TV prints blowed!).  To savor the rectangular imagery is not only especially pertinent but redefined in relation to the oft description of BIG‘s star:  a little Mickey Rooney goes a long way.

1959’s THE BEAT GENERATION is one of producer Zugsmith’s zenith pics.  It’s certainly Charles Haas’ finest moment, and, easily one of Mamie’s best (although she has a secondary, but potent role).

The movie, hyped as a cool, kookie look at the “way-out” world of the beatniks, is really a thrilling, but sordid controversial slap in the face of American culture and mores.  It’s a late film noir that, goofy elements aside, is a genuinely good (and, for its time, jaw-dropping) movie.  Richard Matheson’s and Lewis Meltzer’s piercing, realistic script tells two simultaneous stories that wrap around each other like a pair boa constrictors into B&D.  The first, the thread which ties all the elements together, concerns the Los Angeles police search for the Aspirin Killer, a psycho-sadist, who has raped a number of women – most perplexing, as these victims apparently willingly let their attacker into their homes.  The villain is none-other than smooth talking Stan Hess, a revered beatnik from a wealthy family who has dropped out to enjoy the youth movement before “the next mushroom cloud with radiation gumdrops, you dig?”  Eschewing the attention from a variety of beauteous beat girls, Hess denies their lust to purify his preaching of the words of Schopenhauer and others.  Others might well be Adolf Hitler and Jack the Ripper, as the fake 99-per-center is a virulent misogynist whose hated of women began at an early age (“I don’t need a mother – I’VE BEEN BORN!”).  Hess’s M.O. is to hitch rides with middle-class males, learning as much as he can, then tracking down their spouses while they’re at work.  He convinces the wives that he’s an old friend of their husband’s, then feigns a headache.  While the woman fetches an aspirin, he lays out his personal assault kit, and brutally takes his targeted marks to task.

Parallel to these gruesome going-ons, is the life of Detective Dave Culloran and his wife, Francee.  Culloran and his longtime partner, Jake Baron, have been assigned to the case, but Baron is concerned over his bud’s growing annoyance at these “so-called” casualties.  When Jake drops a verbal bomb on Dave that his psych profile matches the Aspirin’s, Culloran, at first angered, dissolves into despair; he knows it, too.  So does wife Francee; their marriage is corroding before their eyes, his outbursts of violence, his temper at her being barren – much of it due to the stress of the job, and this hellish case.

Then, one day, he picks up a genial hitchhiker and engages in conversation.  Of course, it’s Hess, who chalks up Francee as his latest prey.  The additional caveat; upon recovering, she learns she’s pregnant.  Is it her husband’s or the rapist’s?  Both go over the edge, as Francee confides in her BFF to help her find an abortionist.  Being the 1950’s, this was extremely illegal, and, being the 1950’s, her bestie sends her to the neighborhood priest, who listens to the woman’s disgust of what’s growing inside her, and casually replies, “Then do it.”  It is shocking reverse psychology that further takes up room in the troubled woman’s head.

In the interim, Culloran and Baron meet another victim, the tough-as-nails and hot-to-trot Georgia Altera (guess who?).  A strong woman, who can handle herself, she doesn’t seem to mind what happened – or almost happened.  The rape wasn’t completed, as the perp wasn’t the real Aspirin Killer, but part of a truly insidious plan by Hess to groom an army of copycats to throw suspicion off him.

The ending, while dealing with the main plot, leaves one open for a not-so-happy conclusion, reminiscent of the finale of De Toth’s brilliant 1948 noir Pitfall.

THE BEAT GENERATION is a movie that really deserves a revival:  not only for the amazing scenario, but also for the superb black-and-white CinemaScope photography of Walter Castle, Haas’ aforementioned direction and the wonderful performances from the cast.  Steve Cochran, as Culloran is absolutely terrific, as is Fay Spain as Francee.  The third lead, Ray Danton, as Hess is equally outstanding.  The large and diverse cast of notables also includes Jim Mitchum (Robert’s lookalike son) as the copycat, Margaret Hayes. Cathy Crosby, Ray Anthony, Irish McCalla, Dick Contino, Paul Cavangh, Sid Melton, Guy Stockwell, and the usual suspects Charles Chaplin Junior, Jackie Coogan (who also served as dialog coach on the Zug pics), Billy Daniels, Woo-Woo Grabowski, and Maila Nurmi.  I was always wondering about why Ray Anthony, as Van Doren’s volatile husband (a real-life mirror at the time; Van Doren referred to him as “Ray Agony”) was so damned angry in this picture.  A clue was given in Van Doren’s excellent autobiography, Playing the Field.  She and Cochran were off-and-on in a torrid love affair, and, one day, during shooting, Anthony entered his wife’s dressing room to find the two having upright sex on a chair.  I guess that’s a red flag.

I always loved this movie, and recommended it without reservation.  Indeed, most people have never heard of it.  With good reason, it rarely played anywhere after 1959, except on scant late night TV showings – and then in awful pan-and-scan full frame versions.  What a revelation to the see it at last in 35MM full aspect ratio CinemaScope High Definition.  The mono audio is just fine, and features a bizarre soundtrack of musical artists, most prominently Louis Armstrong, who does the fantastic opening title number.

One thing that bothered me when I first saw it was the integration of “wacky” beatnik kook stuff, mostly via Woo-Woo and aged beat schlump Maxie Rosenbloom.  Now, even that works – another example of how sociopath Hess uses the movement (even the benign, mild aspects of it) to live the master race life.

Upon reviewing the above copy, I had a few questions (well, more than a few); I yearned to include a “personal touch,” so I sent an SOS to the lady herself, who graciously agreed to give me a call.  Believe me, there are few greater joys (if any) for cult movie buffs than reminiscing with Mamie Van Doren.

As usual, Mamie was direct, informative, and riotously funny.

“The story about my first meeting with Albert Zugsmith is practically a comedy legend.  I was under contract to Universal, and sitting in the VIP area of the commissary one afternoon with Tony [Curtis] and Rock [Hudson].  In comes this smart-looking sandy-haired dude.  Tony and Rock both greeted him, “Hello, Mr. Zugsmith.”  I wasn’t sure I heard right.  All I got was the “Smith” part.  “Good afternoon, Mr. Smith,” I said with a smile.  He grinned at me, nodded and moved on.  Tony and Rock burst into laughter.  “MR. SMITH!?”  “I thought that was his name.”  “ZUGsmith!,” they both replied. “I thought that was like a nickname:  ‘Zug’ Smith.”  At this point, Tony was laughing so hard I thought he’d choke.  Rock almost fell off the chair on to the floor.  Great, I sighed, talk about keeping up the stereotype of the dumb airhead blonde!

“I guess it made some kind of an impression ’cause he cast me as the female lead in Star in the Dust.  After that, he wanted me for the sister in Written on the Wind (the part Dorothy Malone won an Oscar for), but the Black Tower nixed it cause I looked too young!  Later, when Zugsmith left Universal, I got a call from him (I was free now, due to my violation of the studio’s contractee morals clause; best thing that ever happened to me!).  “Hey, Mamie, I’m over at MGM, and I got a part for you.  You play an aunt.”  “ME – as someone’s aunt!?” “Yeah, Russ Tamblyn’s.”  Sounded intriguing, so…

“The movie [HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL] was a hoot.  John Drew Barrymore upheld the family tradition.  There were days when he was absent from the set, and MGM had to send out handlers to drag him back from his apartment (he being too totally fucked up to make it to the set on his own).  Russ, however, was a doll.  We hit it off real well, and even had one date.  He had just been drafted (right after HIGH SCHOOL wrapped), and I spent his last night of freedom out with him.  He wrote me from camp. “They’re treating me like crap, razzing me constantly about being in the movies.  They got me scrubbing the latrines!”

“MGM was quite pleased with my work in HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, and Zugsmith phoned to say they wanted for three more movies.  They were so much fun to do, much more of a relaxed situation at Metro than at Universal.  “Yeah, sign me up!”

[The other movies include the two listed here, and the as of yet, unreleased Girl’s Town].

HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL. CAT # OF798.

THE BIG OPERATOR. CAT # OF828.

THE BEAT GENERATION. CAT # OF968.

All black-and-white.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  SRP: $29.95@.

Sponsored Post Learn from the experts: Create a successful blog with our brand new courseThe WordPress.com Blog

WordPress.com is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.

Paget Pageantry

MARCH IS GERMAN CINEMA MONTH

Dream of dreams – the complete 203-minute edition of Fritz Lang’s legendary 1958 INDIAN EPIC has become available in a new dazzling two-disc Blu-Ray edition, thanks to the splendid gang at Film Movement Classics, in association with BETA.

The story of the movie’s history, like so much celluloid lore, is often as intriguing as the subject itself.

THE INDIAN EPIC began in the late 1950s when the iconic director, understandably pissed by the response and distribution of his final Hollywood effort (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, shunned then, but now acknowledged as a key film noir classic), decided to return to his native Germany – a land he had fled more than a quarter of a century before (and for obvious reasons).  The idea of filming a complete version of this sprawling tale would be a major undertaking from no less than two companies (CCC Film, Gloria Film) and three countries (Germany, France, and Italy).  It would be filmed on-location in India with a smattering of international (but mostly German) players – a necessary (then) pitch to guarantee worldwide distribution.  Expert finagling and expense would be intertwined to produce this ultra-adventure odyssey with bargaining/funding providing the necessary realistic décor, horses, elephants, camels, tigers, plus tons of human extras, costumes, and grizzly cliffhanging special effects.

Lang was a natural to helm this massive project, as he at one time was married to its author, the noted and often infamous Thea von Harbou.  Her novel, The Indian Tomb had already been filmed twice before in Germany, once as a silent (in 1921, with Conrad Veidt) and later as a Nazi propaganda tool (1938), akin to the Reichstag’s 1943 anti-Semitic version of Titanic.  Lang had long wanted to present his ex-lover’s tale on film, and now he had the chance.  And to do it his way.  As with his famed Die Niberlungen, in 1924, THE INDIAN EPIC would be unveiled in two feature-length parts: The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb.

The catalyst for the thrilling exploits of its hero would not be (as in, let’s say, Republic serials) a great treasure – but sex.  And what sex! Content and presentation combined, one can almost hear the ghost of von Stroheim weeping with joy,

On the surface, the movie resembles another earlier Lang effort, 1919’s The Spiders (also presented in two parts).  This had an adventurer doing his derring-do all over the world, and, most unusually for the period, doing it in a total 230-minute running time (from when most features, Griffith “specials” aside, ran about an hour).

THE INDIAN EPIC takes place around the time of The Spiders, perhaps a few years earlier, so unlike Lang’s original vision to do it as a contemporary adult adventure, it would now be a period piece.

The saga opens with dashing architect/engineer Harald Berger journeying from Germany to Eschnapur to help progressive young Maharajah Chandra build schools and hospitals for the nation’s populace.  Berger is immediately warned of a vicious tiger, who has been terrorizing villagers (indeed, within the first ten minutes, a child is eaten).  He is also informed that he will be accompanying the celebrated dancing beauty Seetha to the palace.  She had bewitched the recently widowed ruler, and he is now hopelessly in love with her.  This politically has ramifications, as the ruler’s psychotic former brother-in-law, Padhu, is insulted and conspires with Chandra’s evil sibling, Ramigani to steal the throne and ravish the woman.

En route, the caravan encounters the tiger, and Berger saves Seetha from the beast, falling head over heels in love with her himself; added dilemma, she now is enthralled with her savior.

Trying to “do the right thing” becomes a bit of a chore, and soon the newly treasured friendship between Berger and Chandra goes on the rocks, as does the Maharajah’s addiction to Seetha.  He orders the lovers tortured and executed, but they make their escape.

This is concurrent to the arrival of Berger’s drop-dead gorgeous sister Irene and her husband Walter, Harald’s business partner.  Chandra orders the wary Walter to create a spectacular tomb for Seetha, who will be killed when she is recaptured.

And that’s Part One, folks!

Part Two is even more frenetic and action-packed with wall-to-wall hairbreadth escapes, lethal encounters, mysticism, and erotic imagery.  Aside from aforementioned tiger attacks, there are high-tail flights on horseback, foreboding secret passageways, torture chambers, sacrificial altars, hidden crypts of insane homicidal lepers, crocodile infestations, super web-spinning spiders, poisonous monster snakes, flooded underground chambers, deathly trap doors, plus the usual prerequisite stabbings, gougings, and stranglings to dress up the relentless treachery, forbidden lust, murder and mayhem.

But none of the studio-created phantasmagoria can compare to the greatest special effect in the pic – the movie’s star, Hollywood import Debra Paget.  While Denver-born, the actress had a definite exotic vibe about her that often had the dancer/singer/starlet cast as Indians, island natives, and alluring swarthy females (yet, she could also do 100% white bread).  She’s perfect in this movie – perhaps her finest work.  Having been essentially tossed aside by her studio (20th Century-Fox), Paget was a spectacular victim of bad timing; mind-blowingly stunning in musicals, she arrived when the genre was winding down.  Her best year, 1956, had her cast opposite Elvis in his first movie (Love Me Tender) and as Lilia, the sacrificial bonbon in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.  No doubt, it was these two titles (specifically, the latter) that prompted Lang to offer her the lead.  Paget’s dancing prowess proved to be a prime asset, although her twisting, turning and gyrating is less of an authentic Indian ceremony than it is the type of performance that closed down most carnivals in small town America.  Truly, I have never seen anything like her cobra dance in this movie.  Paget, the holder of my occasionally dubbed herald:  “ridiculously beautiful” (as in, no one REALLY looks like that) is possibly in THE INDIAN EPIC (especially The Indian Tomb) one of the most seductive women ever photographed on film.  Practically naked, her endless twerking for once lives up to a movie’s hype about a tempting, luscious beauty that no man can resist.  No fooling, the earlier alluded to dance sequence alone could easily bankrupt any pharmaceutical house hawking viagra.  The actress’ outstanding physical presence prompted literally thousands of couples to christen their Boomer daughters after her – some of them  becoming famous, either as Debra (Winger) or Paget (Brewster). 

Truth be told, Lang’s celebration of Paget could be yet another (at least partial) success in fulfilling his desired directorial bucket list.  Back in 1922, he hired the darling of German Weimar decadence, the wickedly amoral Anita Berber to dance in his crime thriller Dr. Mabuse the Gambler.  His request that she perform totally nude was answered nonchalantly by the woman with the question: “Pubic hair, yes or no?”  The sequence was shot, and promptly edited to a couple of shots only seconds long. Berber’s AC/DC/anything-for-pleasure persona was hijacked by Marlene Dietrich, who idolized the entertainer.  The Deutsche siren couldn’t really object, as by 1928 she was, not surprisingly, dead, her short life silenced by an over-abundance of 24/7 partying.

A celebration of Weimar darling Anita Berber. Lang had always wanted to feature her in one of his movies, and THE INDIAN EPIC finally provided a chance (SEE INSERT of Paget in The Indian Tomb; bottom right).

THE INDIAN EPIC’s male lead is of less interest.  Wayyyyy less.  Paul Hubschmid had been around for nearly a decade, even attempting to crash Hollywood in the early Fifties as “Paul Christian,” where he was best known as the star of Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.  Despite speaking flawless English, this gig fizzled, and he returned to Germany, infrequently returning to Anglo roles in Funeral in Berlin (1967) and Skullduggery (1970).  According to all accounts, he wasn’t the nicest guy; certainly, there isn’t that much any incendiary chemistry between him and Paget.  She seems more comfortable with the second male lead, the hero/villain Chandra (Walther Reyer, who gives the best performance in the movie).  Other thesps worth mentioning include Sabine Bethmann (as Irene), Claus Holm (as Walter), Rene Deltgen (Ramigani), Jochen Brockmann (Padhu), Valery Inkijinoff, Richard Lauffen, Jochen Blume, and, as Seetha’s lovely servant, future Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi.

Lang gets marvelous help via the fantastic set designers and art directors (Helmut Nentwig, Willy Schatz), and scriptwriters Richard Eichberg and Werner Jorg Luddecke (with Lang himself making several uncredited additions) but, most notably, from the marvelous d.p. Richard Angst (who shot the lush, sensational color visuals in old school 1.37:1 – an homage to UFA-era Lang); another added perk, the European prints were in Technicolor.  A lovely but often thunderous score by Gerhard Becker is another plus.

I should mention that because of the movie’s length, no major Hollywood distributor would touch it.  Enter AIP, who cut the nearly three-and-a-half hour epic to 96 minutes, chopped the top and bottom of the frame off to hype the pic in “ColorScope,” had inferior Eastmancolor prints struck, dubbed it into English (with Paul Hubschmid once again becoming “Christian”), and released it into drive-ins and nabe hardtops in 1960 as Journey to the Lost City.  This butchery (up till now) has been the only version available to Anglo Lang enthusiasts.  Again, God bless Film Movement!

A number fantastic extras append this two-disc release, including audio commentaries by David Kalat, a wonderful booklet by my old professor Tom Gunning, and two documentaries, one on the flick itself, and another by Mark Rappaport, essentially a love letter to Paget (and who can blame him), featuring a plethora of excellent clips.

WARNING: don’t believe the bullshit about how this classic prefigures the Indiana Jones flicks.  This isn’t silly, kiddie serial mishegas.  I nonetheless accept the comparisons ONLY because they may have helped finance the restoration.  Trust me, this is first-rate thrilling, sexy movie-making by one of cinema’s all-time geniuses.

THE INDIAN EPIC: The Tiger of Eschnapur (101 minutes) and The Indian Tomb (102 minutes). Color. Full frame [1.37:1]; 1080p High Definition. 2.0 DTS-HD MA (German w/English subtitles). Film Movement Classics/BETA. SRP: $49.95.

Wagner the Dog

MARCH IS GERMAN CINEMA MONTH

A lavish extravaganza commissioned in part to celebrate the 25th anniversary of UFA, the opulent 1943 production, MUNCHAUSEN, comes to Blu-Ray via a superb 1080p restoration, thanks to the folks at Kino Classics/F.W. Murnau Stiftung/ARRI/Cinematheque Suisse/Goethe Institut.

Baron Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Munchausen and his preposterous escapades, as chronicled by Rudolf Erich Raspe in 1785, had long enraptured not only Teutonic audiences but readers across the globe.  The bragging owner of the moniker had become perhaps the most celebrated teller of tall tales – whoppers that always cast him as the world’s greatest soldier, explorer, adventurer and lover.  He was the pre-Bond fairy tale for adults, and has had filmed versions of his exploits hail from as diverse countries as France (1911, by Georges Melies, no less), Czechoslovakia (1962) and the UK (1988).  A popular American radio buffoon version helped the U.S. get through the Depression, even appearing in an MGM movie (1933’s Meet the Baron).

Munchausen, of course, is likely best-known to today’s masses as the basis for Munchausen Syndrome, a mental disorder defined by those who fake illness to gain attention.

Tall story short, MUNCHAUSEN, the movie, seemed the perfect Nazi propaganda tool for German audiences, especially in the ever-increasing darker days of 1943.  Goebbels knew that the Reich needed escapism, and here was his chance to do a pic that would rival The Wizard of Oz and Thief of Bagdad, two Technicolor epics he was particularly fond of.

Unlike its Anglo counterparts, this picture wouldn’t be geared toward young viewers, but for mature audiences – thus, there is a romance with “Cathy” (Catherine the Great), and, in fact, many a bedroom tryst accompanied by an occasional puff of the opium pipe.  Amazingly, there is a smattering of nudity throughout the pic’s 117-minute account of Munchausen’s odyssey, a debauched road trip that would take him from Germany to Russia to Greece to Italy, and, finally to the moon.  Oh, and, considering the project’s dubious country of origin, a plot for the invasion of Poland.  To finance this excursion, no expense was spared (6.5 million Reichmarks, or nearly $50M 2021 USD); that would translate to period décor, thousands of extras, armies of horses, state of the art phantasmagorical special effects…and, most importantly, color.

Agfa Color, the German alternative to the American three-strip system, would be pushed to the limit.  While not an imbibition process like Technicolor, the results could often be stunning.  Frequently coming very close to Hollywood hues and tones, Agfa could sometimes get a bit wonky, at worst resembling the abandoned two-strip Technicolor of old, dominated by greens and reds.  That said, the end result nevertheless constitutes an excellent job by d.p.s Werner Krien and Konstantin Irmen-Tschet (and ably apprended audibly by Georg Haentzschel’s whimsical score).

On the surface, MUNCHAUSEN is pure fantasy.  And an enchanting albeit saucy one.  But the movie, like its main character, is multi-leveled and complex.  The theme, as the pic’s obvious subversive anti-fascist creators in the studio envisioned, is never blurred:  this is a picture about deception.  And, as ethereally dreamlike and macho invincible as Munchausen’s dogma is, one can NEVER forget that he’s a liar – it’s all a sham.  You can only sugarcoat a lie until decay inevitably sets in, and, by 1943, the cracks were widening on a daily basis.  The Reich NEEDED a fanciful epic to quell the nerves of the populace, who either consciously or subconsciously saw the writing on the wall.  As such, MUNCHAUSEN was a wake-up call for the growing German resistance:  “You want to rule, I want to live!” – the logical choice being the latter – is hammered out to the audience via Erich Kustner’s screenplay, buttressed by Josef von Baky’s sly “read-between-the-lines” direction.  The cast was top-drawer for 1943 Deutschland, and featured superstar Hans Albers in the title role.  He is supported by an array of noted Aryan faces, including Hermann Speelmans, Ilse Werner, Ferdinand Marian, Kathe Haack, Marina von Ditmar, Walter Lieck, Michael Bohnen, Hubert von Meyerinck, Leo Slezak and perhaps the greatest name for a legit sexy cinema actress, Brigitte Horney (as Catherine the Great!).

The Kino Blu-Ray generally looks fantastic, and includes a number of wonderful extras, including audio commentary by Samm Deighan, a documentary on the production and restoration, Agfa Color test samples, the theatrical trailer, and more.

Even those detractors of anything filmed in Germany between 1933-1945 (including such insidious anti-Nazi-tinged fare as this) will nonetheless find it difficult NOT to be impressed by MUNCHAUSEN.

MUNCHAUSEN. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA (German w/English subtitles). Kino Classics/F.W. Murnau Stiftung/ARRI/Cinematheque Suisse/Goethe Institut. CAT # K24335. SRP: $29.95.

Hiss-tory Repeats Itself

MARCH IS GERMAN CINEMA MONTH

Perhaps the most subversive movie made during the Nazi Regime, 1943’s PARACELSUS, directed by the great G.W. Pabst, comes to Blu-Ray in beautifully restored edition, thanks to the archivists at Kino Classics and F.W. Murnau Stiftung/FFA Filmforderungsanstalt.

Devised to be a parable of the past in relation to the glories of the Third Reich, PARACELSUS, thanks to its gifted director, insidiously reversed the roles without giving the propaganda boys an inkling to what was actually going on – thereby pulling off a most amazing feat of motion picture prestidigitation right under the nose of Goebbels, Hitler and the entire Aryan film industry.

After the war, PARACELSUS didn’t get an American screening until the mid-1970s, where it was heralded as a magnificent work of grace under pressure.  True enough.  But the 20th century parable didn’t stop between the period this epic takes place (the 1500s) and the then current events of the 1930s and 40s.  It continues today – into the 21st century.  Think I’m kidding?  Here’s the plot.

In a fairly prosperous village, populated by greedy, self-serving science-deniers, arrives a chided and taunted philosopher, doctor, inventor, lay theologian, alchemist and general guru, known to all as Paracelsus.  That quacky-lackey physicians can perform fatal abominations upon their patients is due to essentially one person – the grotesque presiding head of the community, Herr Pfefferkorn.  Lying about his supposed untold wealth and holding a strange, creepy fascination for his daughter, Pfefferkorn grifts the populace, aided by his equally corrupt cartel of politicians, merchants and military.

Sound familiar?  Hold on to your hats.

Word arrives of an upcoming pandemic, spreading through Europe.  Pferrerkorn sloughs it off as a hoax, but nevertheless offers fake medicinal “snake oil” to combat it, thereby lining his pockets.  Paracelsus attempts to warn the village of the danger, and lays out a plan for social distancing, but is laughed at.  Pfefferkorn terms the plague as overblown, and maintains that the local economy will be damaged if precautions are taken.  Of course, the gates are opened, the infections go up, and death sweeps through the streets and homes with great rapidity (an extraordinary sequence of zombie-tized infected villagers, swaying to and fro in balletic formation is topped by the skeletal personification of the Plague, who grimaces a grateful thank you to all the idiots in charge.

Sufficiently gobsmacked?

Naturally, the point of this piece was to portray Paracelsus as the Super Messiah of White Supremacy, and oligarch Pfefferkorn and his minions as the thoroughly corrupt Jews and fools who deservedly should perish.  Thanks to Pabst, NONE of this is apparent; in fact, as indicated, the scenario conveys just the opposite.  The cruel, hypocritical tyranny of the town rulers reeks of Nazism; it is stunning that Goebbels or anyone in charge didn’t catch on.  That said, by 1943, things weren’t looking so hunky-dory anymore for the goosesteppers, and they had other problems to worry about.

Paracelsus was actually based on a real person, Theophrastus von Horhenheim (1493-1541).  Of course, it’s assumed he’s a German god; his nationality is never mentioned in Kurt Heuser’s script (the real Paracelsus was Swiss).

For Pabst, PARACELSUS was sweet revenge; he had been trying to escape Nazi Germany off and on for years, but was unable to flee due to moving a little too fast too late (he had earlier migrated to France, then briefly to Hollywood before returning home and realizing his mistake).  He was pretty much left alone in his artistic captivity, the Reischstag still basking in the triumphs of his past works The Joyless Street (1925), The Loves of Jeannie Ney (1927), White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929), The Three-Penny Opera (1931), and L’Atlantide (1932); post-Weimar, he was already considered the greatest director in German cinema, even though the Nazis had banned his 1930 triumph Westfront 1918).  Best known for transforming Louise Brooks into a cinematic icon, via Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl (both 1929), Pabst turned to another cinematic legend for PARACELSUS, the brilliant though controversial actor Werner Krauss, who became an eternal part of celluloid history due to his 1919 performance as the title character in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  Apparently, the willing collaborator, too, missed the detour Pabst’s vision took; Krauss excels as Paracelsus, as do Harry Langewisch as Pfefferkorn and Annelies Reinhold as the would-be monarch’s daughter.

Pabst, working closely with screenwriter Heuser to insert every flip dig in, also had a marvelous support from Bruno Stephan, who lavishly photographed this opulent epic.  A thunderous score by Herbert Windt expertly compliments the proceedings The Kino Blu-Ray looks and sounds tremendous.  Audio commentary by film scholar Samm Deighan is included, but you may just want to soak in the atmosphere and experience the chilling foreboding narrative without any assist.

PARACELSUS. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]. 2.0 DTS-HD MA [German w/English subtitles].  Kino Classics/F.W. Murnau Stiftung/FFA Filmforderungsanstalt. CAT # K24715. SRP: $29.95.

The Great Flicktator

MARCH IS CINEMA MONTH

The obvious appeal of cinema aside, film’s main purpose was to be the greatest tool for indoctrination.  So said Joseph Goebbels, head of the Third Reich’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda; also infamous historical scumbag.  Not to be outdone, his boss thoroughly agreed and approved.  The fact of the matter was that in addition to the medium’s untold value of visually being able to “repeat the lie enough times,” both Goebbels and Hitler were mega-movie fans.  These fascinating tidbits coupled with what they achieved are examined in two extraordinary feature-length German documentaries, 2014’s FORBIDDEN FILMS: THE HIDDEN LEGACY OF NAZI FILM and 2017’s HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD, now both available on DVD from Kino Lorber, in collaboration with Zeitgeist Films (the former) and Looks/2DF/Arte/Medienbord Berlin/Deutsche Filmforderfonds/Hessischen Filmforderlung/WideHouse/Farbfilm/German Films (the latter).

Goebbels and Hitler were obsessed with American film stars; they strove to have a Nazi Garbo (they attempted to coax Dietrich back from Hollywood, she spit in their faces; they then tried in vain to groom Ingrid Bergman).  Adolf spent untold hours watching Mickey Mouse cartoons, Goebbels ran and reran his personal prints of The Wizard of Oz and The Thief of Bagdad.

Truth be told, there were over 1200 movies made during the Nazi Regime; most were straight genre items: comedies, romantic dramas, action-adventure, epics, musicals – the primary goal to provide escapism, especially during the final years.  While all contained subliminal triumphs of the Reich and the glories of white supremacy, at least 100 were blatantly racist and notoriously anti-Semitic. The indoctrination theory Goebbels put forth certainly seemed to be working as late as 1941 – it is estimated that over ONE BILLION Germans and other Europeans saw Jud Suss and The Eternal Jew (both 1940), two vicious, disgusting examples of Nazi cinema in full-blown infection mode.  What’s worse is that these aren’t shabby Kroger-Babb crap-looking works.  These movies are (sadly) expertly made, often lavishly produced and extremely cinematic.  Indeed, with full support of the Regime, UFA pushed the level of filmmaking both artistically and technologically in terms of directing, writing, cinematography, music, editing, and, most remarkably in the support and progression of color.  It was Griffith and Birth of a Nation on steroids.

In FOBIDDEN FILMS, director Felix Moeller, who had previously made an entire feature chronicling a talented infamous director (Veit Harlan) and his equally infamous work (2008’s Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss), gives us a magnificent overview of the motion picture industry under Goebbels and Hitler (the movie opens with pro-film propaganda quote from the Ministry head).  We learn that 2000 reels of surviving Nazi film are stored in a special styled bunker (many in danger of being lost forever, never having been transferred to safety stock from highly inflammable nitrate), and asks the philosophical and time-sensitive question “Should they be saved?”  In fact, should they be shown?  And, if so, under what circumstances?  The answers are astounding, as Moeller takes a standard documentary approach and gives it a painful twist.  Aside from motion picture scholars and artists (Margarethe Von Trotta, Oskar Roehler, Moshe Zimmermann), he asks audience members exposed to these works in private screenings.  The results, culled from presentations in three countries (Germany, France, Israel) are quite jaw-dropping – although perhaps not so shocking in these post-Trump times.  One stinging response from someone who could only be today termed as a MAGAt is particularly disturbing; he sees now why these movies have been withheld, if not outright banned – because they tell the truth.  They have, in effect, opened his eyes.  Again, the above questions are asked, should these movies be shown, and, if so, under what conditions?

The 94-minute pic compartmentalizes the surviving works into various categories (Youth, Anti-Semitism, Stars, Force, Entertainment, De-Nazification, etc.), then examines each.  Of special note is 1933’s Hitler Youth Qeux, a movie where a young lad is abused by his union loving Bolshevik democracy-leaning father.  Until the kindly Nazis induct him into the protective and caring Hitler Youth.  It’s Boys Town gone Goys Town with hate substituting for love.  More insidious is 1941’s Ich klage an, a “poignant” tale of a couple torn apart by a debilitating disease.  A beautiful, loving wife (Heidemarie Hatheyer) is in the initial stages of MS, and begs her spouse to do her in.  Of course, he’s conflicted, but…While handling a similar narrative as the 1948 American drama An Act of Murder, the underlying theme here is markedly ugly:  there is no room in society for the physically or mentally disabled.  Goebbels, who especially commissioned the movie to help promote the abhorrent Aktion T4 euthanasia program, thought the Ich klage an to be the cornerstone of Reich cinema!

Moeller, by letting the clips and diverse talking heads tell a cautionary tale, serves up a modern nightmarish warning.  If you think this can’t happen again, you don’t know the Murdochs, or the Mercers.  Even if you’re vehemently anti-censorship, the power of these 80-year-old-plus celluloid reels may have you wondering about opening this Pandora’s Box.

Like Felix Moeller, Rudiger Suchland, writer/director of HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD, opens his excellent documentary with a quote – this time, from famed motion picture historian Siegfried Kracauer:  “Watching old movies is a way of watching one’s past.”  This is apt, as Suchland is also the director of the celebrated 2014 filmic depiction of Kracauer’s famed seminal 1947 work From Caligari to Hitler.

And the quote rings true to form.  The movies made under Hitler represent the rise and fall of the Third Reich, sometimes blatantly – other times cunningly.  There’s the early coming of the new order, the paradise of white Christianity living, the instilling of the killer instinct in Hitler Youth males and the Aryan breeding mandate for the females, the glorious victories, the purging of the inferiors, the nervousness of pretending to still be “winning,” and the messages inserted into the propaganda by courageous anti-Nazi directors and writers who, too, knew the power of cinema.

This is played out within the 1200 features that were filmed from 1933-1945.

As indicated in the earlier documentary, many of these movies were expertly made.  This is no accident.  It was work for artists, who were biding their time until they could escape (Douglas Sirk), or for those who didn’t want to (Leni Riefenstahl), and, the sad fates of those who never made it out (G.B. Pabst).  For Pabst, the premier result of his artistic imprisonment was the extraordinary Paracelsus (1942).  The narrative, which shall be further discussed in a subsequent piece, is beyond startling (especially in relation to current events); the movie is superbly made, and loaded with anti-fascist sentiments.  So, too, is the extremely beguiling and entertaining 1943 epic, Munchausen (also to be later commented on).  Goebbels, as mentioned beforehand, was obsessed with Hollywood fantasies, notably The Wizard of Oz and the partially British filmed Thief of Bagdad.  He wanted the Nazi versions.  That meant color.  Since Technicolor was off-limits to the Reich, the Regime was hard pressed to come up with their own process.  And they did.  AgfaColor was unveiled in 1933, but perfected in 1939.  While occasionally unstable, it often reaches the saturation and luster of Technicolor – frequently with stunning results.  Munchausen looks terrific, as do the many other color fantasies, lensed in Germany.  Clips from Nazi color musicals are virtually identical in quality to the movies they aped that were then being turned out by MGM and Fox.  More importantly, Germany utilized color for “everyday” pics, too.  Thus, romance, modern drama and comedies have an advanced look that Hollywood wouldn’t match until nearly a decade after the war. Nazi UFA was also the first to use color for newsreels, testing the hued waters as far back as 1933.  Color and black and white liberally recorded all genres for the German audience, except two.  Science-fiction was only given one title (1934’s Gold); and horror was avoided all together (can’t imagine why).  Of the many directors “trapped” in the Reichstag is the aforementioned Veit Harlan, the undeniably gifted filmmaker whose works are certainly worth re-evaluating (he and his surviving relatives claimed/claim he was forced to make Jud Suss).  And, indeed, the director’s later Nazi Era productions are crammed with anti-fascist messages.  Harlan’s movies are terrific extravaganzas, inventively made and thrillingly staged.  But even Harlan can’t hide the glazed zombie-tized expressions of young German men and women trying to keep the paradise lie going in 1942’s The Golden City; in fact, many Nazi movies filmed from 1944 on had to cease production at UFA, and be completed in Prague and elsewhere, due to the Allies stepping up the bombing raids.  Even the narratives have changed sides.  In the stunning color piece, Opfergang (1944), the usual Aryan goddess (Kristina Soderbaum) is considered second rate to the cold, rich capitalist woman (Irene von Meyendorff) the hero (Carl Raddatz) ends up with.  The former’s erotically-charged activities – riding half naked bareback on a white horse while brandishing her archery skills – look like  clips from the recent Wonder Woman movies, rather than a 77-year-old remnant of the Hitler Regime (like the 1000 Year Reich would soon be, she ends up dead in the movie).

HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD is one of the best documentaries on the war that I have ever seen, and explores these years with a cache of clips that are sure to stun any viewer. The movie is accessible in the original German (with director Suchland providing the narration), or the Anglo release, featuring English subtitles and an English translation narration track delivered by actor Udo Keir.

FORBIDDEN FILMS: THE HIDDEN LEGACY OF NAZI FILM. Black and white and color. Various aspect ratios [1.20-1.78; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround (mostly German w/English subtitles). Kino-Lorber/Zeitgeist Films. CAT # K23020.  SRP: $29.95.

HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD. Black and white and color. Various aspect ratios [1.20-1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic] 5.1 stereo-surround (German or German w/English subtitles); Kino-Lorber/Looks/2DF/Arte/Medienbord Berlin/Deutsche Filmforderfonds/Hessischen Filmforderlung/WideHouse/Farbfilm/German Films. CAT # K23246. SRP: $29.95.

Dress for Success

MARCH IS GERMAN CINEMA MONTH

“Clothes make the man” never meant more than in the 1933 German musical comedy VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA, now on Blu-Ray from the folks at Kino Classics (in conjunction with Murnau Stiftung and the FFA Filmforderungssanstalt).

Yes, you read right – this is the original version of the universally acclaimed Blake Edwards 1982 screen blockbuster (and later Broadway hit).  And while not hitting the gay subtext as heavily (the Robert Preston character is straight), it is (obviously) there in other areas and makes up for this absence with way more charm than its cinematic grandchild (I say grandchild, since there was another German version, filmed in 1957).

The movie is a merry, frothy and daring look at life in the diminishing years of the Weimar Republic – with the theatrical profession reflecting its American Depression counterpart.

Viktor Hempel, a ham actor of the highest order, has played everything from Shakespeare to Schnitzler…and all badly.  His only regular source of income is as a female impersonator at a popular local dive.  During another embarrassing audition, he runs into fellow suffering artist Suzanne Lohr, who obviously is not a fellow (and, unlike Hempel, is extremely talented).  She, too, is desperate for work.  While dining at a nearby automat, Hempel comes up with an inspired idea.  Why not have Suzanne do his act – as Viktoria, a “man” pretending to be a woman, who then is revealed as a man (haircut, butch clothes and breasts strapped down).  What seems like an impossible and certainly crazed plan nevertheless infects the young singer, who eventually (albeit reluctantly) agrees.  And he/she/he becomes an overnight sensation!

If you ever pondered what a pre-Code movie might look like from another country, VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA is it.  The pic truly has it all.  Risqué situations and repartee, fast paced action, romance, and music – all against a tapestry of wall-to-wall hilarity.  The cast is tremendous, led by the amazing Renate Muller, who is concurrently, lovely, riotous, seductive and generally all-out brilliant.  She is more than ably supported by Hermann Thimg as her mentor.  Not far behind are Fritz Odermar as a confused+ fan, Adolf Wohlbruck (later Anton Walbrook) as an at-first-infatuated-then-shocked-then (once he discovers her secret) relieved audience member (and out to turn the tables on the beauty).  Of special note is the wonderful Hilde Hildebrand, companion to both men – likewise outraged, then delighted; try as she does, Elinor (Hildebrand’s character) still cannot figure out this strange artist, but is willing to try in the bedroom.

VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA was the brainchild of the vastly underrated Reinhold Schunzel, who wrote AND directed this classic farce.  Seamlessly utilizing multi-leveled narrative fibers woven by contemporaries Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, Schunzel had a long career in German theater and cinema as an actor, comedian, writer and director.  His inventive use of Konstantin Irmen-Tschet’s and Werner Bohne’s moving camera not only is ingenious, but becomes part of the visual gags (particularly in the opening scenes at a theatrical agency).  Hand-in-hand with the clever imagery is the thoroughly innovative lilting dialog, often delivered as rhyming couplets (similar to Mamoulian’s 1932 Love Me Tonight, which probably had not yet played in Germany when Schunzel began production).  The movie’s conclusion more than suggests that this pic heavily influenced Preston Sturges.

VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA was a mammoth hit in Germany, and ensured Schunzel’s employment with a series of subsequent box-office smashes.  Schunzel, being Jewish, caused him to be called before the heinous Joseph Goebbels, who whisked the “problem” away with an Honorary Aryan certificate (Oy!).  The director responded by whisking himself away, landing in Hollywood in the late 1930s, where he was immediately signed by MGM.  Metro, who had no idea what to do with him, assigned the director to Ice Follies of 1939, infamously known as the Anti-Christ Title of that “magical year.”  Hailed as the worst movie Joan Crawford ever made at her studio, Ice Follies soon relegated Schunzel back to treading the boards – which he did brilliantly, as one of the top Nazis in Hitchcock’s 1946 masterpiece Notorious.  Returning to Germany, but unable to get a foothold back in the industry, he died of a heart attack in 1954.

The spectacular Muller suffered even more.  Vying for Queen of Weimar Berlin with Marlene Dietrich, she seemed to ace the tag once Dietrich left for Hollywood in 1929.  Proficient in English (she made two movies in the UK), Muller was actively courted by both Goebbels and Hitler, offering her the mantle of Aryan Goddess of the Cinema (she even had a private meeting mit der Fuhrer).  At first, accepting the title, she quickly became disillusioned with the fascist way of life, refusing scripts and speaking out against the regime.  The revealing of her romantic relationship with a Jewish man sealed the deal.  In late September 1937, she was checked into a hospital, ostensibly to undergo minor knee surgery.  On October 1, Muller “fell” out of her room’s hi-rise window.  The Nazi propaganda machine went into full swing, leaking that Muller’s hospital stay was in reality for drug addiction, which caused the dazed-and-confused woman to plummet to her death.  Other reasonable sources have two likelier theories:  1) severe depression, caused in part by her eschewing of Germany’s repugnant politics drove the actress to suicide.  The most popular and probable answer, however, is that Muller’s refusal to embrace Nazism and the taking of a Jewish lover was the last straw – so she was murdered.  Renate Muller was 31.

The new Blu-Ray of VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA looks wonderful (I had only seen clips before, and they were always washed out); some slight grain aside, the 35MM quality often dazzles as much as the stars on-screen.  The audio, featuring a delightful score by Franz Doelle and Bruno Balz, is clean and crackle-free.  NOTE:  the movie reached American shores, post-Code, in 1935, where it was shorn of nearly two reels; this is the complete 99 minute version.

Recommended 100%, VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA, may have you re-evaluating the Blake Edwards version; it will absolutely have you longing for more Renate Muller!

VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA. Black and white. Full frame [1.20:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA [German w/English subtitles]. Kino Classics/F.W. Murnau Stiftung/FFA.  CAT # K24761. SRP: $29.95.

Day Dream

A smooth, fun and funny entertainment, 1949’s MY DREAM IS YOURS,directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Doris Day, alights on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive Collection. 

Doris Day was one of those Hollywood rarities.  Like contemporary star Danny Kaye, she never climbed the celluloid ladder rung-by-rung to stardom (Kaye worked in the Borscht Belt before hitting Broadway, Day was a band singer, notably for Bob Hope).  Each was immediately starred in a splashy Technicolor confection (Day for Warners, Kaye for Goldwyn), and hit the ground running.  Day (born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff), with her engaging personality, good looks and excellent singing voice became an instant smash in 1948’s Romance on the High Seas, also directed by Curtiz and, like DREAM, costarring Jack Carson.  The fact that she was a really good dramatic actress (Storm Warning, Love Me or Leave Me, The Man Who Knew Too Much) was a bonus that would shortly surface, much to the elation of studio moguls ever on the lookout for that “complete package.”  Day also achieved an almost unbelievable record for a post-WWII actress – remaining a top box-office draw for twenty years!

MY DREAM IS YOURS, as written by Harry Kurnitz and Dane Lussier (adaptation by Allen Rivkin and Laura Kerr, from the original story, Hot Air, by Paul Finder Moss and famed producer Jerry Wald), is a far more fetching vehicle than Seas.  For one thing, it tackled at least a thread of a (then) real-life situation.  Day’s Martha Gibson is a war widow with a young son, striving to make it as a singer.  She works for a live DJ company – an outfit of phone-in juke boxes that to this day I’ll never believe actually existed (you’d plop in your nickel, and request a song from an attached voicebox).

The frame around this narrative is fast-talking likeable Doug Blake (Carson), an agent with Adolphe Menjou’s (aka Thomas Hutchins) talent agency.  Carson, along with his equally likeable fast-talking, Viv (the great Eve Arden), is hell bent to re-sign their biggest star, conceited swooner-crooner Gary Mitchell (an extra sleazy dose of Lee Bowman, so slimy that even his usual lounge lizard mustache opted to not appear).  Mitchell is a bit sadistic, too, and delights in torturing Blake before revealing he’s ditching the folks who made him a household name for a better deal.

This puts everyone in a tizzy until Carson’s frazzled character takes a deep breath, and goes out to find a new singer to be  groomed for (hopefully) bigger stardom.  Cue up, “Hello, my name is Doris.”

The shenanigans that this bunch goes through (countless auditions, nitery dives, and basic survival) is trademark self-deprecating Warners cynicism – a middle-class specialty for the studio.  In Curtiz’s more than capable hands, it’s often hilarious, with nevertheless some genuine pangs of pathos on the side.  This is all superbly adorned by a supporting cast of comic and iconic pros, who don’t disappoint:  S.Z Sakall, Franklin Pangborn, Edgar Kennedy (his final role, released posthumously), Sheldon Leonard, Frankie Carle, Ada Leonard, Selena Royle, Iris Adrian, Chester Clute, Marion Martin, Tris Coffin, James Flavin, Sandra Gould, Hank Mann, and Leo White.

Like Seas, DREAM is lavishly produced and photographed in ebullient Technicolor by two masters of the craft, Ernest Haller and Wilfrid Cline.  The fact that Day’s son (Duncan Richardson) is a Bugs Bunny addict (who isn’t?) gets an added perk via a Friz Freleng-directed sequence of the beloved character (vocals, natch, by Mel Blanc) interacting with Day and Carson (a la Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh).

What’s fascinating about MY DREAM IS YOURS is the movie’s historical context.  Sure, it’s wonderful to see shots of Los Angeles in 1949 Technicolor, but it’s the spritz of reality on the music industry walls that offers a telling sidebar:  the steady demise of the Big Band Era (and, yes, Bowman deservedly gets his just desserts; apropos, his swanky apartment was culled from leftovers constructed the previous year for Hitchcock’s Rope; WB never wasted nuthin’!). For Warners, DREAM likewise represented their current state:  the bombastic studio head Jack, having caused two extraordinary suits to split (first Darryl Zanuck, then Hal Wallis), forced many a “yes-man” to simply re-channel old product into modern projects; MY DREAM IS YOURS is, in part, constructed from bits lifted from 1934’s 20 Million Sweethearts.  For Day, the movie always held a soft spot in her heart, as it mirrored the artist’s touring dates that often resulted in leaving her real-life adolescent son, Terry, behind.

The new Blu-Ray of MY DREAM IS YOURS is terrific, finally approaching a genuine rendition of the 1949 Technicolor visuals (when shown in color throughout the 1970s-1990s, it too often looked pale, as in pallor).  The mono audio is standard Warners, which means dynamic and buoyant, with an array of tuneful songs by (mostly) Ralph Blaine, including the title track, plus “Someone Like You,”
Love Finds a Way,” “I’ll String Along with You,” and “Canadian Capers.” Two thoroughly bizarre entries reflecting the times are “Tic, Tic, Tic,” a merry ode to the feelings of love and A-bomb radiation poisoning, and, the equally similarly jaw-dropping “Nagasaki,” which is self-explanatory.

But there’s way more.  The Warner Archive Collection has truly stacked the deck, essentially creating a complete 1949 night at the movies that includes two shorts by director Richard Bare:  one a riotous Joe McDoakes comedy So You Want to be an Actor and a totally strange item entitled The Grass is Always Greener (the latter nominated for an Oscar); an added cherry on top is A Ham in a Role, a great Robert McKimson Technicolor WB cartoon featuring the Goofy Gophers.

For those who harbor a jones for nostalgic, musical comedy (with a sprinkling of snarkasm), you can’t go wrong with MY DREAM IS YOURS.  Besides, how often do you get to see Franklin Pangborn AND Edgar Kennedy in Technicolor?

MY DREAM IS YOURS. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment/Turner Entertainment Co. CAT # 1000797618.  SRP: $21.99.

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

Mister’s Deeds Go to Frown

While often likened to cinematic twins, Leo McCarey and Frank Capra (to me) are light years apart.  Capra, who by his own admission, created what he dubbed “CapraCorn,” is too often bogged down by treacle; McCarey’s stuff smacks of life lessons in hypocrisy.  True, both began in silent comedy, but Capra, as his star rose, seemed to forget everything visual, while McCarey could zap an inventive sight gag into a sophisticated story line with a snap of his fingers.  And, yeah, they were both right wing nut jobs (with, McCarey responsible for two of the most embarrassing entries in ANY auteur canon, My Son John and Satan Never Sleeps), but, when in full bloom, Leo shined.  Nothing proves my point more than the recent Blu-Ray release of his shamefully ignored 1948 comedy GOOD SAM, now available through Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

GOOD SAM, for those acquainted with it, is frequently (and unfairly unfavorably) matched with Capra’s (in my opinion) overrated It’s a Wonderful Life (Oy, here comes the hate mail!).  Each flick concerns the downfall (by no fault of his own) of an upstanding do-gooder, whose one character flaw is his very philanthropic nature.  For Capra, this is tinged with whimsy; for McCarey, reality.

The comparisons continue.  McCarey copped one of Capra’s favorite leading men, Gary Cooper, to play the lead, and even cast Wonderful Life’s Todd Karns to play a key supporting role.  But, narratively speaking, that’s where the similarities end.  Cooper’s wife is, like SAM itself, the vastly underrated actress Ann Sheridan – a snarky, perfect companion, and a far cry from goody-goody Donna Reed (don’t get me wrong, I love Donna Reed).

Sam, the man – one Sam Clayton – is literally a good Sam, as in “Samaritan,” a tag that the populace of his town can eagerly verify, since they take advantage of him at every opportunity.  He and his spouse, Lu, live an ideal (supposedly) middle class-plus life, along with their two young children Lulu and Butch.  Sam is one of the heads of sales at the berg’s big department store, and can never stop helping people.  His disgruntled boss, H.C., ever on the verge of a heart attack, can’t berate him, as Sam’s innate goodness always seems to pay off (spending an inordinate amount of time with an elderly lady looking for knitting needles turns into a windfall for the store when Sam’s patience is reciprocated by her later furnishing an entire home from the store’s appliance and furniture departments as a wedding present for her marriageable sprout).

Sam is so benevolent that his family is inadvertently placed on the back-burner when someone in need requires assistance (money loans, shelter, transport, etc.).  A horrible next door family takes his car when theirs won’t start, and practically wrecks it (Sam graciously repairs both vehicles); a slut-shamed coworker is given room and board in the Clayton home when her married lover ditches her.  A no-account brother-in-law that even his sister (Sheridan) can’t stand turns a brief stay into a seemingly permanent residence.  Perfect strangers, too, get the Sam treatment: citizens running to catch a rush hour bus turn out to be heading toward a store before it closes, but not before Clayton practically lies down in the street to stop the vehicle.

And so it goes.

Sam, however, is no Capra doofus.  He’s a smart, dude who knows exactly what he’s doing.  In a beautifully written, acted and directed sequence, Cooper quietly and with dignity, tells Sheridan that he understands that some folks might consider him an easy touch, but, while many have traditional hobbies and extra-curricular interests, helping people is what he enjoys.  It’s his jones.   In an unexpected bolt of modernity, the local pastor, during a Sunday sermon, chides the majority of “fake Christians” as opposed to the slim array of those rare individuals who really care.

Like Wonderful Life, Sam’s world comes crashing down during a snow-blitzed Christmas.  He’s about to lose the dream home his wife has wanted, likely his marriage…and, as for all those friends and neighbors he’s helped throughout the years…well, “better you, than me.”  Sam’s recourse is to drown his sorrows at the local bar, attempting to become a mean drunk – but even this fails, as he gives his clothes to a homeless alcoholic.  No angels’ shoulders to cry on here, just unappreciative disgruntled post-war Americans.

McCarey truly delivers the goods in GOOD SAM, a worthy (and, in my opinion, superior) follow-up to his mammoth back-to-back blockbusters Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s.  A final side-by-side to Capra, like Wonderful Life, GOOD SAM was an independent production, released and distributed through RKO.  It probably did better than Life (due to the participation of Cooper and Sheridan; Jimmy Stewart was post-war box office poison until 1950), but then was promptly forgotten.  I first encountered it, in a truncated re-issue form, on TV in the mid-1960s, and, by accident (I thought it was the small-screen debut of the 1964 Jack Lemmon comedy Good Neighbor Sam, a TV Guide misprint listing).  The cut version was pretty much the only game in town, until a subsequent cinematic excavation restored the pic to its full 114-minute running time (which this edition is).

This dialog and situations (by credited screenwriter Ken Enlund, from a story by McCarey and John D. Klorer) are sharp and hilarious.  “Are you an idiot?,” asks one of Sam’s precocious urchins of their wastrel uncle.  A later scene of Mr. Nelson, an obnoxious repair man ogling Sam’s beautiful wife (after inviting himself to dinner), is equal parts painful and riotous (Nelson’s gross impression of his battleaxe better half’s constant asthma would be an awful moment, if not in McCarey’s deft hands).  The supporting cast is brilliant, and features Edmund Lowe, William Frawley, Clinton Sundberg, Dick Ross, Minerva Urecal, Ray Collins, Bobby Dolan, Jr., Lora Lee Michael, Joan Lorring, Louise Beavers, Matt Moore, Irving Bacon, Ida Moore, Almira Sessions, Dick Wessel, and an early appearance by Ruth Roman.

GOOD SAM was photographed by the excellent d.p. George Barnes, mostly heralded for his Technicolor work (The Spanish Main, Samson and Delilah, War of the Worlds), but primarily known for his exemplary black-and-white cinematography on Hitchcock’s Rebecca.  While this 1080p Blu-Ray looks and sounds pretty good, it certainly could benefit from a full-scale restoration (an improbability, considering its current stature). An appropriate score by Robert Emmett Dolan (borrowed from Paramount) appends the visuals.

One of Cooper’s and Sheridan’s best performances, GOOD SAM is, for me, the perfect Christmas flick to be duly trotted out every Yuletide, and with a way more practical mantra than Capra’s:  every time a (door) bell rings, run like hell!

GOOD SAM.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # OF804.  SRP: $29.95.

Joey Evans Speaks

Hey, this is gonna kill ya – I’m now a big-time movie reviewer.  Let me tell you how this event came about.  This bum, Mel What-his-name found out I’m still kickin’ and that some crazy outfit called Twilight Time is bringing out the story of my life – you know, that classic 1957 flick, PAL JOEY…Anyways, knowing that the whole megillah was based on my buddy John O’Hara’s book, which was, in turn, simply a collection of my letters to you…Well, he thought that I could do a better job than he could by handing over our recent exchanges…  “You got emails?” he asked me.  “Email-schmee-mail!”  I don’t go in for that.  I like sending postcards.  Glad you saved ’em…So here we are in print.  And he gets the credit – and I don’t get a dime!  Whatta bum!  Since this is the case – could you possibly spare a c-note?  Just to tide me over.  As you know, I’m always having cash flow problems.  As ever,

Your pal,                                                           

Joey

Let me tell you something that you might have been unaware of.  Billy Wilder – yeah THAT Billy Wilder was the guy who wanted to bring my story – Joey Evans unvarnished – to da screen.  He had just had an altercation with Paramount studios, whom (sic) wanted him to soften the German release prints of Stalag 17!  Since Wilder’s folks met their end in the holocaust, this didn’t seem kosher (and I don’t blame him!), so he left rather acrimoniously (how’s that for an $8 college word?  I’m comin’ up in the world).  Wilder further gives them the ice pick in the puss by freelancing at Fox, resulting in a little panache called The 7-Year Itch.   Oh, brother, remember that?  Marilyn Monroe and that dress in the subway grating?  Wowie–wow-wow-wow!

So he ventures to Columbia and Harry Cohn, who naturally welcomes him with open arms.  Then the fireworks began.  As you know, I’m a hoofer by trade, but Billy had other notions.  Gene Kelly became a star because of me – when the whole shebang exploded on Broadway in 1940.  But he wasn’t part of Wilder’s picture – at least the moving picture.  “Who then?” asks Cohn.  “Marlon Brando!” exclaims Billy.  Cohn looks like he’s about to have a fit.  Me – I’m ecstatic.  BRANDO doin’ yours truly.  Hell, the guy pulled off Julius Seezer (sic), so why not Joey Evans?  Cohn admits that Marlon can line ’em up proper, so he grits his teeth and relents.  “But Brando can’t dance” he tells Wilder.  Wilder replies, “Not to worry – we’re making him a night club comic.”  Cohn wonders how Marlon will play op Rita Hayworth, who has a couple of pictures left on her contract – and whom he’s more than dyin’ to get rid of.  “Doesn’t matter” sez Billy.  Hayworth is out.  “Who then?” asks Harry.  “Mae West,” sez Wilder.

Now let me tell ya something quickly.  Harry Cohn is what the carriage trade refers to as “uncouth.”  He proudly tells everyone that he can pick a winner by scratching his rear end.  It’s true – when his behind gets an itch – he knows he’s got a box office hit.  Some writer once said that the world’s problems could be solved by simply wiring the planet to Harry Cohn’s ass!  Is that a killer or what?  Well, Harry’s feeling something in his keester, but it ain’t an itch.

“MAE WEST!” he shouts.  She’s like a 1000!  And she made a picture here years ago that almost ruined me!”  “That’s because it was a piece of crap!”  sez Billy.  Harry calms down ’cause he knows this a genuine fact.  Now everyone’s still agog by singin’ and dancin’ Brando from Guys and Dolls, but Harry ain’t convinced.  “Can he sing dem songs?” he asks Wilder.  “Doesn’t matter – we’re throwing them all out.  They’ll only be heard as background music!”  Throwing out Rodgers and Hart tunes?  A musical without music!  Jeez, now even I’m pissed!  Forget about throwing out the R & H stuff – Cohn throws out Wilder.  Columbia remained the only major joint he never worked at.  Ain’t that a kick in the head?

Your pal,

Joey

Wait till ya hear the latest.  They’ve brought in George Sidney – who’s done quite a few hot musicals at MGM…And here’s the topper.  Guess who’s playin’ me?  SINATRA!  That’s right, Frank Sinatra!  Sidney had done Anchors Aweigh with Francis (and Gene Kelly, the original me) at Metro – resulting in one of Frankie’s biggest early movie hits.  So they get along.  Frank and Sidney are co-producing with Columbia.  Harry Cohn’s already expecting the worst.  Frank’s still hurtin’ from not getting On the Waterfront, which coincidentally starred Brando; he’s also seein’ red from being downgraded to Marlon’s wing man in the aforementioned Guys and Dolls – where Brando got the big songs, and Frank, basically got bupkis!  So beatin’ out Brando kinda makes Frankie happy.  Therefore all is quiet on the western front.  Frank not only insists that Hayworth stay in – but gets top billing (“She IS Columbia Pictures!”).  And yours truly is now a saloon singer (which, considering Frank’s participation, is rather apt, don’t you think?).  Dancer-comic-singer.  Who knew I was so multi-talented?  Because of this, the R & H score remains intact; in fact, they’re adding some more tunes.  And Frank approves of Kim Novak as the younger mouse.  Who wouldn’t – I mean, have you seen her?  They got along in The Man With the Golden Arm – that was a corker, wasn’t it?  “Confidently, I’m stacked!” she tells him.  She ain’t kiddin’!  Va-va-vroom!

I know you’re probably thinking that because of all this action that I’m rolling in dough.  Not so – it’s all in what they call transit.  So I still could use that century.  If you’ve already sent it, terrific!  If not, please remit same, as my hotel tab is rapidly reflecting the lifestyle to which I have become accustomed.

Your pal,

Joey

Maybe it’s me, but something in the screenplay irks me…They kept a lot of the original dialogue and I feel a bit sad about one recurring line of which Hayworth refers to Frankie.  She keeps callin’ him “Beauty.”  Now, don’t get me wrong – I think he’s a decent enough looking specimen…maybe average-plus.  But BEAUTY?  Is it my imagination or does it sound like sort of a snipe?  Couldn’t they have replaced it with, “Hey, blue eyes?”  I know it’s a minor point, but I sorta feel bad for Frank.  Then again, it could all be a swell-head deal.  I mean, he’s not only starring, but co-producing.  So I guess they can call him anything he wants.  Hell, they could call Rondo Hatton “beauty” if he was starrin’ and co-producing.

Your pal,

Joey

The supporting cast is aces.  One of my favorite broads, Barbara Nichols is in it an’ she’s beyond fantastic.  All the babes are something to write home about.  One of Frankie’s pals, Hank Henry plays the owner of the club movie-Joey sings at.  Their relationship is very much what I perceive the Sinatra-Cohn splice to be like.  When Frankie dedicates “The Lady is a Tramp” to Hayworth, Henry bops his noggin in the wall.  What a hoot!

The lines are mostly million buck zingers.  Some rough stuff.  “Can I offer you any aid?” asks some old dame to Frankie upon his lighting in Frisco.  “What kind of aid do you have in mind?” he replies definitely referring to the bedroom variety.  I’m also not sure if movie-Joey ain’t getting it on with his landlady…some ancient twist named Elizabeth
Patterson.  You’d know her if you saw her.  Been in pictures forever…Even before pictures…when they just had cave paintings.  I’m glad we don’t know fer sure, as this is one case where things are best left to the imagination.

The words movie-Joey speaks are yours truly to a “T.”  Fits Frankie like a glove too.  This, and correct me if I’m wrong, is like the perfect Frankie Sinatra vehicle.  It’s like the first Rat Pack picture – but without the Rat Pack!  Do you get what I’m saying?  Script is credited to Dorothy Kingsley – a broad!  Can this be?  Ya think maybe it’s some guy fronting with a mouse name?  Let me know, as I value your opinion – also your rubles, of which I still have not received any of same.

Your pal,

Joey

The picture’s a pip!  Breaking all records.  Snobs and bums love it!  They’re linin’ up!  Kim Novak is driving me crazy!  She an’ Frankie are great together.  Kim seems to always bat one outta the ballpark when making a picture in San Francisco – although, speaking from experience, I think the ending in this show may be worse for her in the long run than the one in Vertigo.   Take a gander and give me your take.  I’m wondering if you sent me that lifesaver in cash – which could explain why I never got it.  You should never do that.  Also a check is likewise a no-no, as my current status at the local vault is of the persona-non-grata variety.  A money order is the best way to go to save…

…Your pal,

Joey

Have you ever seen a Blu-Ray?  Again, in the words of my movie counterpart:  Wowie-wow-wow-wow!  And with a few extra WOWS to boot!  It’s so clear and sharp – I’ve never seen a picture like it!  You can almost reach out and touch the cast of characters – and with so much prime female pulchritude on display, there’s plenty you wanna touch!  It was shot by this guy, Harold Lipstein, a very nice fella of the Jewish persuasion who never quite got his due (although he’s been around for years).  From being on-location with the company, I know first-hand how hard this shoot was – what in Technicolor an’ all.  To say nothing of the nighttime stuff, which looks sensational as well.  Trust me, that ain’t easy to achieve.

I don’t know who these Twilight Time characters are, but I think that they may be giving the paying public too much.  They’ve included the PAL JOEY trailer, which, in and of itself, is almost worth the price of admission.  It’s like a little extra movie – what we moguls call a featurette.  It has Sinatra talking to the audience – giving them a lesson on how to be hip, via a chalkboard and pointer lowdown on what they call Joeyisms…all based on moi!  Didn’t know I could talk French, did ya?

If that’s not enough, they’ve got a fairly-recent (2010) ten minute short, entitled Backstage and at Home with Kim NovakI’D like to be backstage and at home with Kim, if you know what I mean! Man that broad is talented.  Makes her clothes, lives with these artists, loves horses and dogs and painted these crazy murals on her walls.  I once painted my old man’s garage, and, let me tell ya, it’s no walk in the park!

But there’s more!  They got the sound available in either standard stereo or 5.1 surround.  I’m not sure what that means, but both come off great.  They’ve also got another thing called IST.  Personally, I prefer a BLT, but you know how I can always eat.  IST means that you can listen to just the music by George Duning with arrangements by Nelson Riddle.  And that includes the vocals!  I don’t have to tell ya that this ain’t chopped liver!  It’s like getting the movie and a separate soundtrack album for one price!  I don’t think that’s fair.  Shouldn’t they be charging more – and shouldn’t I be getting a nice slice of this swag?  I’m sure you agree with me.  Know any cheap lawyers?  Ha, ha.

Oh, an’ I gotta mention this – PAL JOEY is a limited run of 3000.  Once they’re gone, they’re gone.  Don’t know about 3000, but my run’ll be limited to 2021 – if ya don’t come across with that hundred, which I desperately need now more than ever.

As always,

Your pal,

Joey

PAL JOEY.  Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 or 2.0 DTS HD-MA.

Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment/Columbia Pictures Industries. SRP:  $34.95

Tony Curtis, Schwartz and All

It’s about time!  Throughout the home video evolution encompassing laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-Rays, one major human attraction has been notably absent.  Bernard Schwartz, a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx, with a love for the Movies, its gods (particularly Cary Grant) and all the riches and fame cinema celeb brought with it; fact, Bernie knew from his adolescence that he had to be a star.  Not aspired to, not wanted to.  HAD to.  And, so it came to pass.  After the war (where he served in Guam, after lying about his age), Schwartz (with a plethora of Big Apple trial-by-fire casting calls under his belt) hopped it to Hollywood; didn’t hurt that he was tall, really good looking with crystal-clear blue eyes.  His first part was a bit in the great 1949 noir Criss Cross.  He danced with Yvonne De Carlo in a nightclub, his face not even seen.  Yet, there was “something.” Enough of a something that Universal-International was besieged by thousands of letters from hot and bothered females demanding who that boy was dancing with De Carlo.

So, Mr. Schwartz, now Anthony Curtis, was signed to a standard contract, and, within two years, was a featured player and teen heart throb.

The thing about 1950’s Curtis (now simply Tony) was his enthusiasm.  You can see it on the screen.  He was having a blast living the dream.  He also knew that most of the U-I vehicles were routine; yet, his sense of humor prevailed; he winked at the audience, who got it.  Typically, the in-your-face truth that the young star was a fine actor didn’t become apparent until Universal loaned him out to rival companies.  The UA titles specifically brought that point home (Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones, Some Like it Hot).  Curtis, now offered a renewal with Universal, had grown from a teen fave, to a key player.  He was calling the shots, aka script/director approval, plus a percentage of the points to be shared via his own production companies (Curt-Leigh, a combi with then-wife Janet Leigh, and, later, Curtis Enterprises).

A new box set from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics, one of their terrific on-going Blu-Ray collections of Universal pics, concentrates on the later Curtis titles – the superstar Tony pics, consisting of THE PERFECT FURLOUGH, THE GREAT IMPOSTOR, and 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE.  They’re a fun and varied lot (with the middle offering being perhaps his finest work at Universal); I would, at some short time down the road, love to see an early Curtis box set, too (although an iconic title, 1952’s Son of Ali Baba is already available as a single, and 1955’s Six Bridges to Cross is part of a Noir Box).

All three pics have been remastered in 1080p and look and sound wonderful.  It’s a cool intro to a sadly neglected star who nevertheless helped define the immense fun of movie-going in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The Tony and Janet fanzine craze was in full bloom when 1958’s THE PERFECT FURLOUGH was released (the pair had already previously starred in two very successful movies, Houdini and The Black Sheild of Falworth, the latter being Universal-International’s first CinemaScope production; that same year as FURLOUGH, they would be paired in another mammoth hit, The Vikings).  Indeed by 1958, Curtis’ value to Universal-International was beyond top contract player; he had morphed into an A-list star.  His loanouts to UA for Sweet Smell of Success and The Defiant Ones gained him scores of new followers, critics among them…and an Oscar nod (for the latter).  Curtis, at U-I, was now comfortably in the driver’s seat.  He and Leigh would share the profits with Universal-International (via their Curt-Leigh company), and the selection of projects would be of his choosing.

In the mid-Fifties, the young power couple was great friends with rising writer/director Blake Edwards and his first wife, actress Patricia Walker.  Edwards, who would achieve great success with his TV series Peter Gunn, still hadn’t been able rise beyond the B-picture director ladder rung on the big screen circuit.  Tony took care of that.  THE PERFECT FURLOUGH, a risqué (for the 1950s) comedy about a lecherous soldier awarded the title fantasy holiday with a luscious movie star (the very luscious Linda Cristal) was written by Stanley Shapiro (it was to prove to be a run-through for his next assignment, the phenomenal smash Pillow Talk which changed American romcom as we inched toward the 1960s).  Most importantly, the flick would be directed by Edwards, who proved his worth in droves.  Inventive use of CinemaScope and wry sight gag compositions meld beautifully with Shapiro’s clever double entendre dialog and situations.

Already all the Shapiro pat formula jokes are firmly in place:  the appealing but womanizing lead, the uptight virginal adversary, and the personification of female carnality oozing with sex.  All surrounded by an expert Greek chorus of wise-cracking supporting thesps.

The plot concerns a group of Arctic-stationed soldiers, deprived of opposite sex companionship for months and months…and months.  With morale low, the top brass becomes concerned until bright-light officer Lt. Vicki Loren (Leigh) devises a lottery where one lucky dude will win a furlough in Paris with Hollywood sexpot du jour Sandra Roca (naturally, chaperoned).  The horny losers will live vicariously through the shenanigans of the sole horny winner.

What could go wrong?

Curtis plays the conniver, Corporal Paul Hodges, to a “T,” in the tailor-made role, and Leigh, who, of course, is repulsed by his debauched persona, eventually…well, you know.  Cristal is gorgeous window dressing, and also quite funny herself, as is/are her suffering agent, the military chiefs, and Hodges’ fellow needy snow-bound compadres.  Of particular note in the large and terrific cast are the following scene stealers, Keenan Wynn, Marcel Dalio, Les Tremayne, Jay Novello, King Donovan, Gordon Jones, Alvy Moore, Dick Crockett (soon to become a member of the Edwards stock company), Curtis pal Nicky Blair, Frankie Darro, silent screen comic Snub Pollard, and an early appearance by Troy Donahue; a special mention must be accorded to Elaine Stritch as Leigh’s Space Age sidekick equivalent of Eve Arden.

The movie is lavishly photographed in Eastmancolor (nicely restored, from the beet red scope prints I recall from my misspent youth) by the masterful Philip Lathrop (later to shoot Edwards’ shamefully obscure Gunn).  A typical U-I score, supervised by the ubiquitous Joseph Gershenson and credited to Frank Skinner, appends the proceedings. Extras include audio commentary by David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner.

Like with Shapiro, THE PERFECT FURLOUGH was a run-through test for Edwards as well; the previous year, the director and star had made the wonderful, unfairly ignored comedy-drama Mister CoreyFURLOUGH, which turned a tidy profit, gave way to the next Curtis-Edwards collaboration Operation Petticoat, which broke all box-office records for both Universal-International and Radio City Music Hall.

1960’s THE GREAT IMPOSTOR is not only a great movie, it’s, as indicated above, arguably the best movie Tony Curtis ever made during his tenure at Universal-International.  It’s a light-hearted (with nonetheless a sprinkling of serious dramatic overtones) look at one of the most fascinating human beings of the twentieth century, Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr.  It’s one of those “if ya made it up, no one would believe you” true-life stories.

Demara, born poor, and growing up during the Great Depression, survived by imagination and fantasizing through his father’s profession (when there was work); his dad was a projectionist at a movie theater, and the young boy lost himself in the illusion of the Movies (you can see why I love this pic, or, for that matter, did Curtis).  The lad did abysmally in school – often thought to be mentally challenged; the opposite was true.  Demara, a genius savant, was simply bored.  A subsequent stint in the army proved to be like a slap in the face.  He aced all the competition at Officer’s Training School, but without the proper qualifications (he dropped out of high school after a little more than two years), was relegated to no rank above private.  So, he decided to improvise – forging papers, stealing identities and excelling (post-U.S.military life) at a number of professions, careers, and goals, including Trappist monk, prison psychologist (revolutionizing the treatment of disturbed inmates), Canadian Navy surgeon (successfully performing scores of operations, and founding a children’s hospital in war-torn China), elementary school teacher (where he consistently topped the lists of “educator of the year”), and more.

And, yes, with a few liberties (methinks that the slew of gorgeous women were likely more attracted to Tony than Ferdy), THE GREAT IMPOSTOR sticks to the facts.  Custom-designed for its likeable star (by scripter Liam O’Brien, and based upon Robert Crichton’s Demara biography), the pic is directed with verve and humor by Robert Mulligan – one of his first big-screen efforts (and released a year before his acclaimed breakout Universal-International entry, To Kill a Mockingbird).  I not only rate IMPOSTOR as one of Curtis’ finest movies, but one of Mulligan’s as well; furthermore, it appears that both director and star had a ball making it (an inside joke has a character named “Mrs. Pakula,” a nod to his oft professional collaborator Alan J. Pakula).  The beautiful black and white widescreen photography is by the brilliant Robert Burks, and a bouncy score by Henry Mancini perfectly matches the scenario.  A fantastic supporting cast compliments its charismatic lead, and comprises Karl Malden, Edmond O’Brien, Joan Blackman, Arthur O’Connell, Gary Merrill, Raymond Massey, Robert Middleton, Jeanette Nolan, Sue Ane Langdon, Larry Gates, Mike Kellin, Frank Gorshin, Harry Carey, Jr., Dick Sargent, Doodles Weaver, Ward Ramsey, Herbert Rudley, Jerry Paris, and Bob Hastings.  Supplements feature the trailer and audio commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger.

The world first became aware of Ferdinand Demara, Jr. in 1959 when his biography appeared, and immediately became a bestseller.  In the 1970s, I used to end each evening watching reruns of You Bet Your Life on WNEW-TV, here in New York.  Imagine my shock when, one night, one of the pair of contestants was Ferdinand Demara, Jr.  Looking nothing like Tony Curtis (a more faithful physical cinematic rendering would today be Zack Galifianakis), Demara was nevertheless genuinely engaging, and briefly discussed his extraordinary life with Groucho (probably appearing on the show as a tie-in to the book).  Demara died in 1982 at age 61.

1962’s 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE is an adult story geared for the kiddies.  Yeah, I know. A gossamer vanity project produced by its star (Curtis Enterprises), 40 POUNDS is a 1960’s glitz Vegas-era update of Damon Runyon’s perennial Little Miss Marker.  Curtis is Steve McCluskey, the amiable borderline mob owner of a successful ultra-mod casino, who is also on the constant alimony run from his ex-wife and her shyster lawyer.  One of the plungers in hock (Gregg Palmer) leaves his grade-school-age daughter (Claire Wilcox) as security while he attempts to come up with some debt coin; then, he has a fatal heart attack, and Curtis’ character is stuck with the kid.  The gags practically write themselves (and no stone in that direction is left unturned).  Innuendo, via embarrassing children’s questions and loopy situations with McCluskey’s business cohorts, bevies of hot Vegas showgirl-friends, etc. abound.  Romantic grist to the cinematic mill is thrown into the mix when a gangster’s supposed babe, gets a casino singing gig (costar Suzanne Pleshette).  It all ends up via a famous lengthy chase finale through Disneyland (which had every sprout who saw the trailer/TV spots demanding to be taken to this movie; kudos to Curtis Enterprises).

An ideal 1960s afternoon fluff entertainment, 40 POUNDS rises above it all due mostly to the two leads, for whom, naturally, the movie was specifically showcased.  Nothing says that more than a lavishly shot sequence where Curtis and Pleshette spend a weekend in gorgeous, serene surroundings doing nothing but wearing flash Sixties fashion and simply being beautiful people looking beautiful (bet they got to keep the threads and shades).  Curtis pulled no punches, and made sure that the supporting cast numbered friends and familiar character actor associates that folks like me and millions of others always looked forward to seeing.  So be prepared to enjoy the always welcome histrionics of Larry Storch (TC’s off-camera BFF), Mary Murphy, Nicky Blair, Howard Morris, Kevin McCarthy, Edward Andrews, Karen Steele, Stubby Kaye, Warren Stevens, Tom Reese, Ford Rainey, Sharon Farrell, Jim Bannon, Helen Kleeb, Jack LaRue, Allyn Ann McLerie, Richard Mulligan, and, in an early role, Diane Ladd.  Phil Silvers turns up in an elongated guest appearance as a New York gangster, obviously more Bilko than Corleone.

The movie was scripted by the celebrated humorist/writer Marion Hargrove (immortalized in two 1940s MGM comedies, See Here, Private Hargrove and What Next, Corporal Hargrove?), and was shot in (restored) Eastmancolor and Panavision by the legendary Joe MacDonald.  The professional direction is by Norman Jewison, nearing the end of his work-for-hire days, and about to be upgraded to the A-list pantheon deck (The Russians are Coming, In the Heat of the Night).  The perky Mort Lindsey score is indicative of what defined “wacky” during America’s Camelot, and, all in all, is a pleasant nostalgia trip for all who lived through that period and patronized the cinema with great regularity.

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray probably looks better than the original Easmancolor release prints did; extras again include the trailer and audio commentary by Kat Ellinger (who, apparently, is as big a Curtis fan as I am).

A logical entry for a Curtis box set, 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE is an excellent reminder of what a star vehicle was during the waning days of the Hollywood studio system.

THE TONY CURTIS COLLECTION.

THE PERFECT FURLOUGH

40 POUND OF TROUBLE

Both color and widescreen [2.35:1]

THE GREAT IMPOSTOR Black and white. Widescreen [2.00:1]

All 1080p High Definition. 2.0 DTS-HD MA.

Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. SRP: $49.95.