Canuckie Doodle Dandy


Warner Bros. at their peak is ebulliently on display in 1942’s CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS, directed by Michael Curtiz, and now available in a dazzling High Definition Blu-Ray from those piloting the Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Certainly not the premiere IB effort from the director, who had been noodling with Technicolor in various forms since the silent days, CAPTAINS is a first for its charismatic star and the sensational locations.

Yep, after more than a decade in the Biz, James Cagney finally made his Technicolor debut. It’s weird it took so long to feature the reddish-blonde-haired actor in three (or two) strip hues and tones, but that’s Hollywood…Or Warner Bros. Okay, truth be told, he was originally pegged to star in a very different version of Adventures of Robin Hood before some Warners sage queried J.L. with the truism, “Wait, isn’t Errol Flynn under contract to us?” Suffice to say, the delay was worth it: Jimmy looks swell in IB.

The other first champions the process’s immense capabilities by being Hollywood’s initial full-scale filming of a feature film in Canada. Designed for Technicolor, the production’s Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Alberta locations are awesome.

That leaves us with the plot. True to the studio, notorious for cannibalizing past triumphs – whole and in part – to “new” projects, CAPTAINS has a bit of The Crowd Roars, some of Ceiling Zero, a tad of They Drive by Night, and a smidgeon of Dive Bomber. The fast and furious cut-‘n’-paste concoction, in fact, looks as if it may have been at some point a Raoul Walsh picture, but the upping the stakes to Technicolor practically guaranteed it to Curtiz (as noted, a veteran of the process).

What is hodge-podged together in Arthur T. Horman’s, Richard Macaulay’s and Norman Reilly Raine’s script (from a story by Horman and Roland Gillett) is a tribute to Canada’s bush pilots – those daring sorta-young men who risk their lives flying accident victims, and delivering medicine and other essential goods to inhabitants in the wilderness (of which there is pul-lenty). Cagney, in a part he could play in his sleep, portrays Brian MacLean – a cocky and even ruthless member of the profession – who puts the kibosh on the considerable opposition by slashing flight prices, and mapping detour routes that ensure shorter flying times. Natch, his competitors are pissed, and plan revenge. And, also, natch, since this a Warner Bros. picture, they’re portrayed by lovable rogues Alan Hale, George Tobias, Reginald Gardiner, and rising WB talent Dennis Morgan. But MacLean is an ace bush pilot in other ways, too – by horning in on the available (and spoken for) local hotties. Prime is Emily Foster, a boonies lass with hormones that won’t quit.

Em’s the half-and-half fiancee of Morgan’s Johnny Dutton, but Jimmy sees through her promiscuity, and his (now) respect for his air cohorts (and vice versa) prompts him to do what every bro-code-inclined BFF does: seducing the woman and marrying her so that the decent lad won’t ruin his life. What a pal!

This naturally causes dissension among the ranks, and a peeved Johnny quits the gang by joining the RCAF. Cagney, who ditches Emily the night after the wedding can’t understand Dutton’s anger – which is all pushed aside when Adolf declares war. After listening to Churchill’s iconic “we shall fight them on the beaches…” speech, the middle-aged boys all decide to join up as well, and beat them Nazis to a pulp (hey, where are these gallant gents today?). Unable to conform to the rigid guidelines of the military (their impressive flying prowess termed as nil), half the team swallows their pride and begins from scratch, the other half is washed out/up, turning to drink. Eventually, patriotism shines through, and they all take on the Heinies for an epic (and surprisingly graphic) climactic air battle.

The fact that the stirring stuff doesn’t happen until more than halfway through the pic would likely sink any movie. But Curtiz’s lightning handling, and Cagney’s usual bravura performance (as well as the game supporting cast) shove all that narrative construction nonsense to the side. Indeed, there’s not a dull moment in the piece; we even meet up with Emily again, now a high-priced “hostess,” apparently dishing out STDs like war bonds. And, as all skanky hoes do, her brief return offers a wrath of patriotic prose, including a good luck wish to former squeeze Johnny, and a take-care hug to the ex who set her on the official road to whoredom. What a gal!

As for those supporting Jimmy, it’s, as indicated, the usual Burbank crew, plus an additional array of top-notch thesps, including Paul Cavanagh, Clem Bevans, J.M. Kerrigan, J. Farrell MacDonald, Frederick Worlock, Benny Baker, Hardie Albright, Charles Halton, Louis Jean Heydt, Willie Fung, James Craven, Don Dillaway, Tom Dugan, Miles Mander, Reginald Denny, Gavin Muir, Charles Smith, Frank Wilcox, Emmett Vogan, and, in an early appearance, Gig Young. Brenda Marshall, we should mention, is quite memorable as Emily – the usually refined actress getting down and dirty with panache. Marshall’s Lucy-goosie character was a part originally slated for Ida Lupino, who eagerly risked suspension, rather than accepting the role; Cagney, himself, wasn’t even first choice – with Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, George Brent, and even Raymond Massey (a genuine Canadian) bandied about Hal Wallis’s office before cooler heads prevailed, maybe even that Robin Hood one.

Of course, the BIG star is Technicolor. The landscapes look gorgeous, as do the uniforms, and those fantastic (and colorful) bush pilot planes. Technicolor scores, too, with the aforementioned graphic content. Much blood is spurted throughout, and must have caused quite a commotion in theaters across the country. As I stated in the previous column, as late as the early 1960s, blood in color resulted in many a gasp. I can only imagine how the gushers in this flick affected the audience.

Even before the Nazis strike, there’s an early sequence where MacLean, showing off for Emily, backs up too far causing his head to split open by a still-rotating propeller. It’s double-take worthy now; can’t imagine what happened in the 1942 Bijous.

As with most Warner Archive titles, CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS looks and sounds tremendous – the Technicolor visuals being beautifully realized by Wilfrid Cline and Sol Polito (Oscar nominated), with special flying camera teams encompassing the stuntwork and special direction of Paul Mantz. Max Steiner does his standard expert job of providing bombastic, memorable music in a score that also comprises the title song, composed by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer.

Since Warners never let anything go, the song/theme will be instantly recognizable to WB cartoon fans, having been often utilized by the brilliant arranger Carl Stalling. Should also mention that two great Bugs Bunny cartoons from the period are included as extras, Hold that Lion, Please(1942, Chuck Jones), and What’s Cookin’ Doc? (1944, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng).

Other extras are a mixed bag. Positive is a specifically filmed war bond theater promo film starring Cagney (which I had never seen), and, sadly, a terrible short (also from the same year as CLOUDS) Rocky Mountain Big Game, shot in 16MM Kodachrome and blown up to 35MM Technicolor. The quality of the imagery is very good, it’s the subject matter that is risible. The short follows asshole husband-wife “zoologists” Michael and Helen Lerner on a trek to hunt rare long horned sheep – the hunt being promised to be strictly with a camera. But once these morons find their prey, they can’t resist killing a pair for their trophy room (if only it had been the other way around). Watching this made me sick. Avoid like the plague.

So, yeah, you’ve seen it all before, but likely not ever so pretty, so give CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS a gander.

CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment. SRP: $21.99.

This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

Wizard of Ozark


A monumental cinematic moment for action and western fans, the 1941 version of Harold Bell Wright’s famed novel, SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS, remains iconic for being the Technicolor debut of John Wayne. And there’s no better way to enjoy this bucolic, often poetic classic, than in the new 1080p High Definition Blu-Ray, now available from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.

Not new to Forties celluloid, Wright’s 1907 book was filmed twice as a silent, in 1919 and 1928 (the former directed by the author himself) before 1940’s Paramount suits deemed it ideal redux material…this time in the still-infrequently used perfected three-strip process. Wayne, in the biz for over a decade, had, of course, in 1939, become an “overnight sensation” with John Ford’s Stagecoach, and was now in top demand by all the majors. His appearance in IB was a natural, and he would soon follow it up with a costarring role in Reap the Wild Wind, and numerous other color pics – practically competing with Henry Fonda for the process’s male poster child.

SHEPHERD is, admittedly, a difficult pic to glom onto today, as it’s a simple story of mountain folk invaded by a kindly, gentle stranger who changes their lives forever. The fact that these yokels are essentially backward adult children hillbillies doesn’t help; the narrative perk that they’re mostly mean, nasty specimens (with guns!) due a comeuppance does salve the experience. Although often promoted as such, this movie isn’t a western per se, but, an unusual motion-picture exercise in lyricism that ably checks off all the Hollywood boxes: action, adventure, romance, mystery…and even witchcraft. And in mind-blowing TECHNICOLOR! You gotta give it a peek, right? Yep.

Daniel Howitt is the aging stranger who arrives in a tiny Ozark hamlet, looking to settle down – specifically in a forbidden area known as Moanin’ Meadow. The land is owned by the greedy, evil Matthews family, run by near-demonic Aunt Mollie. Her brood, indeed, seems like a gaggle of feudin’ inbreds, prone to violence, stealing, and lying – their main source of income being moonshining. The savior of the clan is young Matt, top “shiner” and occasional hothead with a mission – to kill the man who left his ailing mom pregnant (she died giving birth to him).

Matt is in love with comely Sammy Lane, the beauteous country gamin of the forest (and vice versa). They bicker, fight, smooch, and engage in good lovin’ that will (hopefully) end up at the altar.

This is kinda weird in and of itself, as everyone seems to be related to everyone else anyway. Sammy, who can read a bit, is the most educated and (since they’re no streets), trail smart. Until the arrival of the mysterious stranger. Of course, even an idjit can soon grasp that this city dude is the pater Matt is so anxious to kill. But only Sammy guesses it; it becomes a secret between the two. The violent climactic showdown inevitably demonstrates that the docile elder is/was as much of a loose cannon as his son.

SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS was an A+ undertaking from Paramount, and they did Wright right by assigning the project to the great and underrated Henry Hathaway. Hathaway had previously helmed the studio’s huge 1936 hit, Trail of the Lonesome Pine – the first outdoor movie to be lensed in three-strip. While there are similarities – including the San Bernardino, CA locations (although SHEPHERD veered off to include segments filmed in Branson, MO) – Pine was a royally entertaining “ooh-and-ahh” exercise, while SHEPHERD is a modern morality fable, sprinkled with bumpkin biblical parables. The Technicolor (as photographed by Charles Lang and W. Howard Greene), while occasionally dazzling, doesn’t distract from the many sidebar storylines; nevertheless, it becomes as much a character in the piece as the large and impressive cast (as the nocturnal, haunting moonlit visuals admirably prove).

Supporting Wayne is an unfairly ignored movie presence, Betty Field. Field, like Sylvia Sidney in Pine, was a city-born (in her case, Boston) New York-trained actress with her feet firmly planted on Broadway. Married to playwright Elmer Rice, Field may have seemed (initially, like Sidney) an unusual choice for the intuitive country lass, but she threw herself into the part – literally feet first (Field insisted that she play the entire movie barefoot). More realism was added to her performance by her refusal to wear traditional female undergarments. Harry Carey, a brilliant choice for the stranger, is terrific as Howitt. The chemistry between him and Wayne is undeniable (doesn’t hurt that Wayne idolized Carey’s silent westerns as a child).

Further thesp juice is realized by Beulah Bondi (as Mollie), James Barton, Samuel S. Hinds, Ward, Bond, John Qualen, Fuzzy Knight, Tom Fadden, Olin Howard, Dorothy Adams, Fern Emmett, Henry Brandon, and Charles Middleton. It should be noted that two hard-boiled curmudgeonly members of the acting profession – Marjorie Main and Marc Lawrence – play against type sympathetic sensitive characters, perhaps (especially for Lawrence) for the only times in their careers; they’re both dandy, too, further proof of their emoting chops.

Hathaway, likewise, deserves some high-five kudos for his moody, deliberate but oft fast-paced direction. Many of his trademarks would resurface in later works (the empty rocking chair in Sons of Katie Elder, the fight in a corral of livestock in Nevada Smith). The huge profits and critical thumbs up SHEPHERD received put Hathaway on the platinum star list. From here on, Wayne (like Gary Cooper) decreed that any project involving the director required no script up front – merely a contract waiting to be signed (Hathaway eventually guided the star’s Oscar-winning turn in 1969’s True Grit).

Despite the vehicle’s credentials and (mostly) straight-forward scenario, SHEPHERD ran into a censorship problem with the Production Code. In a scene where Matt gives Sammy a lace collar for her dress, the excited girl-woman rushes behind a curtain and disrobes to try it on. Her bare back in Technicolor made the church-goin’ scissor militia go ballistic. Hathaway, Field, and Wayne, anticipating such idiocy, personally visited the Code offices and swore that the cut to the woman’s back was actually that of a boy they found on the Paramount lot. Consoled, the Board breathed a sigh of relief, and let it slide – while the director and stars snickered their way back to the studio. Years later, Field would tease fans by stating that the new (late-1960s) screen permissiveness had nothing on her; she did the first nude scene in a major color movie.

The Technicolor itself got some primo notices (and deservedly so); an early sequence where a shot moonshiner is tracked by red droplets spattering the mountain greenery drew gasps from the audiences. Hey, I can remember in the Sixties when blood in color was still a shocker. It was, nevertheless, even in 1941, a Paramount tried-and-true (or hue) standard. In their 1924 two-strip pic, Wanderer of the Wasteland, the first all-color western (now sadly, lost), a similar effect was used. Reportedly, it resulted in screams from the audience, and, possibly, a few faintings.

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS (from 35MM elements) is generally quite wonderful, very sharp with often realistic, colors throughout. It intentionally discards the “musical” look, but just the same, remains stunning and natural. Extras include a related trailer gallery, and audio commentary by author Simon Abrams.

In closing, I must relate a personal connection to the picture. Back in 2003, my wife and I spent a week in Santa Barbara visiting our pals, Harry Carey, Jr. and his lovely spouse Marilyn. In 1941, we were told, to highlight SHEPHERD and to honor Carey, Sr.’s 35th year in the movies, Paramount threw him a huge gala. A mammoth tapestry was laid out that everyone who was anyone in the industry (both in front of and behind the cameras) signed. Carey (aka Dobe) asked me if I noticed anything unusual. I was, frankly, too much in awe to comment. He showed me John Wayne’s name on one side of the parchment…then John Wayne’s name on the opposite end. He laughingly explained, “Duke and [John] Ford arrived late, and drunk out of their minds. When he heard about the tapestry, Wayne roared, ‘Let me sign it! I gotta sign it,’ which he did before stumbling off to party. Later in the evening, he returned demanding, ‘Where’s this thing to sign? Let me sign it!’ Rather than reminding him that he already did so (and probably making a scene), my very wise dad said, ‘Sure, Duke, right over here.’ So John Wayne got to sign the memento twice.”

Seems like Duke must have been guzzling some of Matt’s brew.

THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K25131. SRP: $24.95.

Yellow/Cyan/Magenta is the New Black


Leave it to Fritz Lang to take Technicolor to a foreboding new level with his imbibition hue-and-tone debut, 1940’s THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES, a limited edition Twilight Time Blu-Ray, released in conjunction with 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

On the surface, a formulaic sequel to the enormously popular 1938 Technicolor Fox western, Jesse James, starring Tyrone Power (Power’s final moments are seen in the opening), this continuation, as scripted by Sam Hellman, moves from contradictory lavish B-movie to unnerving, sinister, creepy suspense thriller, thanks to the project’s Teutonic director. Truth be told, there’s more M and Fury in this piece than Western Union and Rancho Notorious (two subsequent Technicolor Lang westerns). The movie, while covering the post-Civil War era, racism in the South, corrupt corporate 1%-ters, and even women’s rights is nevertheless as historically accurate as One Million B.C.‘s depictions of cavefolks vs. dinosaurs. The title character is Tom Joad sixty years earlier – decent, hard-working ex-outlaw, now trying to eke out a living as a farmer, under an assumed name. He shares his land with Clem a hothead orphan of the Northfield Raid, and Pinky (no relation to Jeanne Crain) a “Negro,” whose hardest task is forgetting to NOT call James “Missa Frank.”

When the Ford boys, killers of Jesse, are apprehended, Frank is satisfied that justice will be served. But, the devious sibs, in concert with the railroad, are given a bought judge, and though found guilty are not only pardoned, but gifted 10K in reward money the bigwigs put up for Jesse’s dead-or-dead capture.

Like Clint Eastwood more than a half century later in Unforgiven, Frank leaves the farm and quietly seeks out revenge. Trouble’s afoot, however, when loose cannon Clem follows and poor Pinky is arrested by the loco locomotive suits as bait – with a lynching date set for the ex-slave.

Further complications arise with the introduction of aspiring journalist Eleanor Stone, not only a (merciful heavens!) woman, but a gorgeous one. She inadvertently creates a literary firestorm, resulting in a nationwide manhunt, trial and sensational outbursts of “good Christian people” violence.

Again, truth be told, virtually nothing in the scenario is authentic, except Frank James and Bob and Charlie Ford were real humans. Frank never sought personal vengeance upon the unscrupulous brothers for Jesse’s death. He soberly retired to private life; the Ford’s karma didn’t need him (Charlie committed suicide in 1884, Bob was murdered in 1892).

But who’d see that?

Lang champed at the bit to be set loose in Technicolor. He loved the western genre, using it as a plotline as far back as his 1919 German epic The Spiders. He even was a cavalry officer (albeit in Deutschland, and when that was still a thing). Indeed, Lang’s westerns are all fantastic, including this one – his most underrated entry. To tell his dark, sordid tale, the director instructed d.p. George Barnes to ignore the rules put forth by the Kalmus company, and show audiences the nightmarish possibilities color could offer. Much of the movie takes place at night, other sequences are in darkened freight offices, barns, and craggy cavernous surroundings. Even the daylight scenes have a muted quality – although a superbly lit and photographed one.

Lang took his western fixation one step further; with his new mistress, actress Virginia Huston (the future Mrs. Yul Brynner, and the star of Fritz’s 1941 Western Union), the director began wearing chaps, a Stetson, and cowboy boots – taking his lover to line dancing lessons (all the while still sporting his monocle; some traditions just can’t go by the wayside). It should also be mentioned that Lang’s later oaters look Technicolor gorgeous, probably at the insistence of the studio heads, and the Technicolor company (no more FRANK JAMES meshugas).

When we spoke of a Tom Joad connection earlier, we weren’t kidding. Frank James, as in the original 1938 pic, is portrayed by Henry Fonda. The lanky actor, unlike Lang, was no stranger to the three-strip process; in fact, he was practically their good luck charm. Fonda had costarred in the first three-strip movie to be shot outdoors, 1936’s Trail of the Lonesome Pine, then journeyed to the UK to appear in their first Technicolor drama, Wings of the Morning (1937). He followed these up with the aforementioned Jesse James, then 1939’s Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford’s first three-strip pic), and, the same year as FRANK JAMES, filmed Chad Hanna – the latter four all for Fox. Fonda, BTW, hated the idea of doing this sequel – mostly because of the director. They had previously worked on You Only Live Once, where Fonda certainly wasn’t fond-a of the demanding, frequently tyrannic director (Hank wasn’t crazy about Ford either).

RETURN OF FRANK JAMES was also the screen debut of Gene Tierney, who’s quite good as crusading reporter E. Stone; she, too, would help to define the process – with later turns in Belle Starr, Thunder Birds, and, most prominently, Heaven Can Wait and Leave Her to Heaven.

The supporting cast in the piece uses as many survivors of the original Jesse James saga as possible, including J. Edward Bromberg, Henry Hull, Donald Meek, John Carradine and Charles Tannen (as the Fords), Ernest Whitman (as Pinky), and George Chandler. New to the James fold was Jackie Cooper as Clem; interestingly, Cooper gets a reunion scene with former Our Gang alumnus Matthew “Stymie” Beard (Beard, it should be noted, appeared in the 1930 two-strip pic Mamba).

Other notables in the piece include George Barbier, Russell Hicks, Lloyd Corrigan, Irving Bacon, Victor Kilian, Barbara Pepper, William Pawley, Frank Sully, Milton Kibbee, and Kermit Maynard.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES looks pretty good. Those expecting a visual feast along the lines of Dodge City should probably search elsewhere. This is, as indicated, a deliberately moody, shadowy movie. Audio-wise, the mono soundtrack features a memorable score by the unfairly neglected David Buttolph.

A definite curiosity item, THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES, is certainly worth a peek – if not for the director and cast – but for the unusual, edgy use of its color palette.

THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES. Color. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. SRP $29.95.

Davis Rules


Leave us cut to the chase. Bette Davis made her Technicolor debut in the vastly underrated all-star 1939 bio-drama-adventure-romance THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, now on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive monarchy.

Lavish to the max, E&E was far from director Michael Curtiz’s or costars Errol Flynn’s and Olivia de Havilland’s launches into the three-strip hue-and-tone arena. In fact, by 1939, all of them were veterans. Curtiz had been experimenting with color since the two-strip days (notably Dr. X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, but even earlier – in part or whole – with Bright Lights, Under the Texas Moon, and Mammy). DeHavilland made her initial rainbow appearance in 1938’s Gold is Where You Find It (also directed by Curtiz). Flynn and deHavilland had recently triumphed in Adventures of Robin Hood (also, 1938, and likewise, a Curtiz pic); the trio would do the process right again in ’39 with Dodge City.

Davis’s participation was a Technicolor test in many ways. The famed queen of England was noted for her red wig (covering a loss of hair due to a rare side-effect of smallpox). To compliment the crimson tresses, the star (upon whom this vehicle was built around) intentionally had her face whitened to further accentuate the symptoms. It certainly sticks out like a sore thumb in lieu of the remaining cast’s perfect three-strip complexions – but, yet, nicely doesn’t frighten or horrify (kudos to Perc Westmore).

The script by Norman Reilly Raine and Aenas MacKenzie was based upon the celebrated Theatre Guild, Inc. play Elizabeth the Queen by Maxwell Anderson . The “Private Lives…Essex” addition was added as a nod to the enormously successful 1933 salacious pre-Code import The Private Life of Henry VIII, which made Charles Laughton an international star. While there’s nothing as witty or raunchy as its predecessor, there are a number of interesting – if not fascinating – aspects in this mammoth production.

The romance between the Royal and her toy boy Essex is off again/on again with such impossible chemistry that it’s a wonder Essex didn’t lose his head before the main credits. While much leeway is given to facts, it’s more than compensated by the pic’s gangbusters entertainment factor.

True enough, in 1596, things were hard (politically – what WERE you thinking!?) for any ruler, let alone a woman. Chastised as being too emotional for the job (with her “crazed” addiction to Essex used a sounding board, when not chided as a “King in petticoats”), Elizabeth’s personal prob was likely what we now term bipolar, the extreme mood swings being classic. Historically, though, she was often on the money – the flip-flopping being the result of a treacherous court (here embodied by no less that Henry Daniell, Vincent Price, Leo G. Carroll, etc. – also in their Technicolor christenings). Infiltrating decrees and changing them, conspiring to overthrow her reign, and rife with traitors itching for assassination, it’s a wonder Elizabeth didn’t go all Harley Quinn from puberty. But her personal and local political lives aside, she had way more on her plate. An Irish rebellion was afoot, with couriers to the front being given false information by the aforementioned evil creeps (including such popinjays as usually heralded as Sir Walter Raleigh).

Then there’s the jealousy factor – nastily embellished by the beauteous palace maidens, specifically Lady Penelope Gray, de Havilland’s character. Penny even torments the Queen with a heinous song snidely demeaning the powerful leader’s physical appearance. In the era known as the Elizabethan Period, Lady Gray is nothing less than an Elizabethan Mean Girl – with abused reluctant cohort Mistress Margaret Raadcliffe
(a ridiculously young 18-year-old Nanette Fabray, billed as “Nanette Fabares”) as a frightened, intimidated member of her “squad.”

The rest of the cast is just as fetching and…well, Warners. Alan Hale is terrific as the sly but ferocious Earl of Tyrone of Ireland. Plus, there’s Donald Crisp, Ralph Forbes, Robert Warwick, Forrester Harvey, Holmes Herbert, John Sutton, I. Stanford Jolley, and Maris Wrixon; and those Warners star-gazers always confusing Henry Stephenson and James Stephenson needn’t worry – they’re both here.

It would be an understatement to note that the on-screen histrionics between E & E spilled over to the off-screen battles between Davis and Flynn (garnering a plethora of delicious pre-release gossip). The previous year, the pair had costarred in The Sisters; apparently, their penchant for vulgar snarky humor worked well – at least on that pic; a famous outtake features Davis apologizing for arriving late on-set due to her just having given birth in the ladies room – at which point Flynn collapses in raucous laughter. With the stakes way higher on this opulent effort – and, as indicated – created essentially as a Bette Davis picture, the goofing off was non-existent. Reportedly, Davis, when having to smack Flynn’s character for his insolence, used an authentic mail glove – nearly knocking him unconscious, and definitely putting him “out of it” for a good part of the day. Davis never hid her disdain for the swashbuckler, whom she pegged as mere eye candy (as late as the early 1970s, the actress claimed that she only survived the picture by blocking out Flynn, and pretending it was Olivier…a disastrous idea, as she would have blown him off the screen). Suffice to say, that a decade later, upon seeing this movie for the first time in years, the star reneged on her earlier assessment. “Damn, he was good,” she honestly admitted (sadly, Flynn was too long dead to appreciate the upgrade).

For me, the true star of ELIZABETH AND ESSEX is the gorgeous Technicolor photography. Mostly achieved by studio ace Sol Polito (with Technicolor associate W. Howard Greene on board), it remains a magnificent example of how great the process was. Polito, it should be mentioned, is usually relegated as the force behind scores of gritty B&W pre-Code WB vehicles. Seeing his expertise with Technicolor should elevate him to another level on the pantheon of top Hollywood cinematographers.

And this brings us to the new Blu-Ray restoration of this flick. For years, I had been bored by the awful Eastmancolor magenta-dominated visuals – insult to injury, being soft as well as faded. This disc made my jaw drop. It’s as good as Technicolor can get – rich ebullient flesh tones, reds, purples, yellow, greens, blues…the whole spectrum. And crystal clear. Quite frankly, this is one of the most amazing looking Technicolor pics I have ever seen. No fooling, folks, it (for me) steamrolls Robin Hood, Drums Along the Mohawk, and other IB classics from the late Thirties; when appended to the superb production design, art direction, costume and general lavish pageantry, it becomes a stunning motion-picture experience. And did we mention the glorious Erich Wolfgang Korngold score? Well, we’re doing it now! The movie itself, for all its lofty ambitions (many which it achieves) never quite got the credit it deserved, due to being obscured during “that golden year” – those twelve months encompassing 1939. Oh, BTW, I think the color likewise surpasses Gone with the Wind! Yep, it’s THAT good. Check it out for yourself. No previous copies – THIS Blu-Ray edition.

Speaking of this platter, there are a number of wonderful extras as well, including the Technicolor shorts Old Glory (a Warner Bros Merrie Melodies, directed by Chuck Jones) The Royal Rodeo, a musical drama costarring John Payne, Cliff Edwards, and Scotty Beckett, and a special featurette on E & E‘s tumultuous production.

History head-wrapped as an oil-and-water relationship warning, THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX is a Technicolor masterpiece that demands to share a space on any classic movie collector’s shelf.

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment. SRP: $13.45.

This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

Accelerated Asquith Acquiescence

Outside of the 1920’s mid-decade emergence of Alfred Hitchcock, most novice movie buffs place little – if any – importance to the influence of the British film industry during the silent era. Yes, it was mostly Hitchcock. But not all. This glaring error has been monumentally corrected with the restoration and release of two magnificent 1928 UK silents, SHOOTING STARS and UNDERGROUND, must-haves now available from Kino Classics/BFI.

Aside from the year of their debuts, both pics share two other connections. They are directed by Anthony Asquith (the early efforts of a long and distinguished career), and star Brian Aherne (likewise a veteran in the UK and US motion-picture universe for four decades).

That said, neither of these two pics bear any relation to how those familiar with these gentlemen view their resumes.

Asquith is essentially known for his straight-forward, aristocratic handling of many respectable (but generally uncinematic) British A-titles (The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, Court-Martial, The Doctor’s Dilemma); must say, as a kid, I loved The Yellow Rolls-Royce, his last project, and, until seeing these silents, my choice for his most visually ambitious work. Asquith’s main talent seemed to be (I thought) his excellent handling of famed actors and actresses – not really being concerned with striking imagery. Again, boy was I wrong!

Aherne is generally remembered as a reliable character actor, who, in his later years, specialized in portraying lecherous employers, stuffy barristers, and other upper class snobs, snits, and snots; he often seemed to support Rosalind Russell in movies spanning the 1940s-1960s (Hired Wife, My Sister Eileen, What a Woman!, Rosie!) Oh, yeah, he was also Joan Fontaine’s first husband, and a quite a witty, and an acclaimed author; his delightful bio of his BFF, George Sanders (A Dreadful Man) is definitely worth checking out. Seeing him in his twenties as a heroic working class romantic lead is gobsmack-worthy, to say the least. And he’s damn good at it.

But it’s not merely young movie mavericks let loose in 1920’s England, it’s what they accomplished and how they achieved it. SHOOTING STARS and UNDERGROUND are extremely fluid, cinematic gems – rife with inventive camera movements, compositions, snark, and “modern” messaging on (then) contemporary life, specifically relationships and the ever-changing workplace. While Asquith’s later movies seemed tailor-made for the Downton Abbey crowd, his actual Abbey-era pics give the toffs the royal finger. Likewise, 1920’s Aherne would absolutely punch 1950’s Aherne out! I can’t get enough of them.

Indeed, it’s often a given that the British silent era is basically comprised of two components: Alfred Hitchcock (as indicated above) and Piccadilly (the 1929 triumph by emigre E.A. Dupont). While the former and latter can’t be ignored and are certainly relevant, there is much to be gleaned and admired from other sources (an easy-to-say statement, as sadly, many of these pics are unable to be fully appreciated due to poor print quality or, worse, total nitrate disintegration). Fortunately, the BFI is working overtime to make pre-talkie fans/historians euphorically happy. And key to this goal is unquestionably 1928’s SHOOTING STARS. The movie, while credited to A.V. Bramble, is really the bravura debut of Asquith – definitely a hunk of celluloid to be proud of (while Bramble gets full director’s credit, Asquith gets the “by” on the main title card; scenarist John Orton is given script acknowledgment, although the 26-year-old budding filmmaker authored the lion’s share of the original story and screenplay).

The clever double-meaning title mostly revolves around the UK film industry. A fascinating glimpse into its workings and results allows us to enter the lives of several of its prime denizens. Taking place at the beginning of the decade in which it was filmed, STARS introduces us to the beauteous (and dangerously flirtatious and even promiscuous) May Feather, promoted as The Sunshine Girl – a Pickford/Swanson “innocent,” who yearns to be anything but. Her steady (as far as the press and British fandom are concerned) is popular Julian Gordon (he’s also the woman’s faithful husband).

While they do harbor a considerable attraction toward one another, their real lust is what practically everyone in The Biz drools after: a Hollywood contract. Every project they undertake is a nod to the Americans; in fact, the current movie May and Julian are working on is a cowboy epic. The remainder of the studio roster largely consists of hordes of rip-off funnymen – from the Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard, and Harry Landon wannabee copycat bin. The most prominent is the beloved Turpin/Chaplinesque Andy Wilks. Wilks mirrors Chaplin in other ways too; off camera, he’s is a womanizing scumbag – a notorious sexual predator who has set his sights on May (and she’s not exactly rebuffing him; in fact, she’s his female counterpart). And, of course, “riotous” Andy is the one bad apple who gets the green light from Tinsel Town, hoping to follow in the footsteps of The Little Tramp, Stan Laurel, and other expat Brits.

The two conspire to skidaddle across the Atlantic, with May trying to finagle an American movie deal, while concurrently trying to beat the new strict morals clause, enforced after the William Desmond Taylor, Fatty Arkbuckle, and Wally Reid scandals. Wouldn’t it be interesting if Julian were no longer…in the picture? Can’t shame a widow for moving on?

Cut to the western set, where Feather plots to replace blanks with real bullets, and, thus, the ulterior motive of the movie’s title becomes murderously clear.

Biting satire, adult situations, and a glorious look at the 1920’s flicker industry from across the pond, SHOOTING STARS remains an extraordinary example of terrific late silent ingenuity. Asquith, like Hitchcock and so many others, took the baton from the Germans, and composes his cinematic frame with Expressionistic lighting, camera movement, and inventive angles. The snarky script’s on-camera slapstick and off-camera lust resembles Vidor’s Show People, if that pic had been written and directed by Billy Wilder (with additional sequences by William Wellman and Erich von Stroheim).

The cast is wonderful, with Annette Benson and Donald Calthrop excelling as May and Andy, but with a specific bow to Aherne as Julian. Seeing the 26-year-old (another link to the director) subsequently renowed urbane thesp in full cowboy regalia is jaw-dropping, as he is a near-clone for Gary Cooper.

This stunning BFI restoration is pristine 35MM, and looks and sounds (via a newly written score by John Altman, accessible in either 5.1 or 2.0 stereo) sensational. A lovely still gallery is likewise included as a supplement.

An absolute prerequisite for any classic collector.

Shooting UNDERGROUND, 1928

1928’s UNDERGROUND is actually a step up from the above – an extremely progressive movie about lethal passion amongst the masses.

Obviously inspired by the works coming out of Germany and Russia, (now) fully credited director (and writer) Asquith raises the bar for UK movie-making (there are also bold nods to a pair of Vons – Stroheim and Sternberg).

UNDERGROUND tells the tale of two frenemies employed and semi-employed by the title transportation service, who become obsessed with Nell, a gorgeous commuter. Bill is a conductor/porter, Bert is an electrician consumed by lust for comely Nell that soon derails into a seriously alarming human trainwreck. Bert is what we today peg as a stalker, ferociously obsessed with a woman whose life he makes a hellish nightmare.

While this may not seem earth-shattering in a surface narrative sense, the technique and cast (plus, natch, the direction) transform everyday people and their emotions (warranted and unrealistic) into top-flight, riveting entertainment. Brian Aherne once more stars as Bill, and is supported by Cyril McLaglen (Victor’s younger brother in a terrific performance) as the brooding Bert. Stunning actress Elissa Landi (mostly remembered as the too-beautiful-to-not-be-ravished Christian lass in DeMille’s Sign of the Cross) believably realizes the role of Nell, the woman in question. A fourth lead, Norah Baring, registers as Kate – an abused ex-lover of Bert’s who is coerced into accusing Bill of sexual assault.

Much of the movie was authentically shot in and around the London underground system and the actual adjoining neighborhoods, so it’s an an extra thrill to see the city as it was nearly a hundred years ago (it’s interesting to note that morning commuting woes have not changed in nearly a century).

The camerawork by Stanley Rodwell is outstanding, and the finale – where tainted desire takes hold to the point of endangering the lives of thousands of daily travelers is genuinely exciting. Again, it’s important to note that McLaglen is especially disturbing – the personification of libidinous hunger, madness and revenge – with Baring not far behind (in fact, the actress’s character seems like a run through for Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus).

The resulting homicidal endgame, threatening to sabotage the ultra futuristic-looking power station mechanics of the railway (and the city), turns this frenzied drama into a psychotic fantasy that can only be described as The Crowd meets Sunrise meets Metropolis (with additional sequences by Tod Browning).

As with SHOOTING STARS, the BFI 35MM transfer of UNDERGROUND looks amazing (although a picnic segment displays some very early signs of decomposition; the reconstruction commenced in the nick of time), and is accessible via two recently composed musical scores – one by Chris Watson, another by Neil Brand, both in either 5.1 or 2.0 stereo. The Watson music is so good it becomes an integral part of the scenario – the underlining of how important proper music was to a silent motion picture. There is also a nine minute featurette on the pic’s restoration.

Long story short, check out UNDERGROUND, and prepare to have your mind blown.



Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 or 5.1 stereo surround DTS-HD MA [silent with musical scores]. Kino Classics/BFI. SRP: $29.95@.

Did You Say “Booty”?

Another ultra-rare Paramount pre-Code eyebrow-raiser, 1934’s SEARCH FOR BEAUTY writhes on Blu-Ray from the procurers at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.

An excuse to display as much buffed male and female flesh as possible, the pic’s multiple writers (screenplay by Frank Butler and Claude Binyon, from story by David Boehm and Maurine Dallas Watkins, with dialogue by Sam Hellman; based on the play Love Your Body by Schuyler E. Gray and Paul Milton), under Erle C. Kenton’s direction, frame their wink-wink/nudge-nudge tale (tail) via the machinations of three slippery crooks.

Larry Williams, released from prison the same day as his occasional lover Jean Strange, quickly needs a new hook to accumulate some desired shekels. Teaming with their third wheel cohort – the slimy, but dense Dan Healy (but not dense enough to have let them take the rap) – they come up with a foolproof plan. And they’re just the fools who can prove it.

Taking over offices and property of a 19th century body builder’s estate, they plan to revive his goals…in the most lascivious way. His health publication, retitled Health and Exercise, will be a beard for lowdown illustrated sex stories, featuring hotties of both genders.

To gain respectability, the trio engages two Olympian winners – Don Jackson and Barbara Hilton – to serve as suitable fronts.

But Don and Babs ain’t stupid, and quickly realize what these flesh mongers are up to. Before they can legitimatize the outfit, they’re dispatched (well, Jackson is) to gather the thirty best-looking men and women athletes from the English-speaking world to act as additional figureheads. Getting an S.O.S. from now-squeeze Hilton, Don returns to get even worse news. The owners are opening a “health resort” to supposedly promote vim and vigor, but, will in reality serve as a high-priced brothel where affluent horny men and women can hook-up with the globally gathered smoking hot “instructors.”

It really doesn’t get more pre-Code than this, and director Kenton, who suggested mating a human male with a genetically changed female in the previous year’s Island of Lost Souls, is all on it.

The dialogue is wondrously lurid, with frustrated women gazing at male crotches, and middle-aged, pot-bellied CEOS licking their chops at curvy female teen-twentysomethings’s butts (“So hot you can fry an egg on it!”). It doesn’t hurt that Jean, the smartest of the crooks, becomes obsessed with Don.

There’s lots of palaver of skinnydipping, “riding,” midnight sex parties, rub downs – you get it – before it all comes gloriously crashing down (There’s even a musical number: “I’m a Seeker of Beauty” by Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston). No wonder the pic never made it into the standard 1960’s MCA TV packages. Indeed, even in this 2K scan of the existing 35MM fine grain, some visuals are blown up from private collection bootleg prints. And we’re talking shots of butt-naked males on view running through the shower rooms, and visible cameltoe on the women’s skin-tight micro-shorts.

It’s all sorta like a pre-Code primer for an early 1970’s Carry On movie with star Robert Armstrong (as Williams) assuming the Sid James role, assisted by Gertrude Michael and James Gleason as Strange and Healy.

The “hotties” genuinely are from the U.S., England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, and Canada – part of an on-going contest Paramount ran during pre-production (talk about life imitating…art). The two youth leads were newbie contractees Buster Crabbe and, fresh off the boat, Ida Lupino (blonde, and with a very noticeable British accent). Further thesp support comes via Roscoe Karns, Bradley Page, Frank McGlynn, Sr., Nora Cecil, Virginia Hammond, Eddie Gribbon, Maurice Costello, Dell Henderson, Verna Hillie, Joyzelle Joyner (that crazy lust-freak from DeMille’s Sign of the Cross), Bert Roach, Colin Tapley, Dave O’Brien, and Leo White. Adding spice are recently signed starlets Ann Sheridan and Lynn Bari, both very visible (and leggy). Co-star Toby Wing deserves special mention, as she’s one of the babes not outraged at being pimped to rich dudes (in fact, she rather likes it), and does a strip dare dance at a private suite party (likely the role assigned to Sally Rand, before she was removed from the early casting roster), eventually whittling down to a precursor Victoria’s Secret rig.

The movie was photographed by Paramount house talent Harry Fischbeck; considering the negligence bestowed upon the elements (after the Code, even edited prints couldn’t pass the rigid new restrictions), the new 1080p transfer looks pretty decent. A music score by John Leipold is mostly culled from existing library music (the end credits use the final theme from 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!).

Extras on the High Def Blu-Ray include a trailer gallery and audio commentary by film historians Lee Gambin and Emma Westwood.

Getting in just months before the Code (it was released on Groundhog Day, 1934; the infamous censorship guide was put into effect in mid-June), SEARCH FOR BEAUTY is sure-to-please and gobsmack viewers for your forbidden Hollywood movie night.

SEARCH FOR BEAUTY. Black and White. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K26219. SRP: $24.95.

Denny for Your Thoughts

Wait, there’s ANOTHER Reginald Denny – I mean, besides the famed character actor? Nope. Same guy. And, yep, he was a big romantic comedy star during the mid-late silent era. To be honest, when I first heard about this (over fifty years ago!), I was a bit stunned. What triggered my fascinated interest was wrapped around the plot for one of his features, then rediscovered and being screened at a museum. In One Hysterical Night (1929), Denny is the good-natured heir to a fortune, hated and chastised by greedy relatives. Deciding to make amends, they invite him to a posh costume party, dress him as Napoleon, and drop him off in front of an insane asylum. After reading that description, I couldn’t stop laughing. I needed to see a Denny star vehicle. But, alas, they seemed to have mostly gone the way of all flesh (or nitrate); and\or, worse, no one seemed to care. That’s been somewhat alleviated (well, more than somewhat) with the wonderful new Blu-Ray, THE REGINALD DENNY COLLECTION, a two-platter slipcover-housed trio of his comedies, all in newly restored 4K transfers from (primarily) 35MM elements. Thank you Kino Classics and Universal Studios.

While not including the aforementioned gem, the three pics enclosed are just dandy: The Reckless Age (1924), Skinner’s Dress Suit (1925), and What Happened to Jones? (1926); hey. we can always hope for a follow-up collection.

Denny’s life itself reads like a rough-and-tumble romp. A prize amateur boxer, also blessed with good looks to match his athletic abilities, Denny was signed by Universal in 1922 to make a series of pugilistic two-reelers entitled The Leather Pushers. When it became apparent that the star also possessed comedic timing, the studio cast him in the 1924 feature Sporting Youth. That “clicked,” and the rest was, as they say, history. The comedies themselves are smooth, romantic endeavors with an abundance of Doug Fairbanks acrobatics; in fact, they seem like logical successors of the early, charming Fairbanks comedies from the Teens, before Doug became the super-swashbuckling star. Not to argue with success, Universal didn’t completely eschew the action stuff; Denny’s cinematic deck was stacked with a sampling of straight adventure dramas, though less and less once the star’s “laff” skills shone through. The leading ladies, we should add, are all swell as well, and it’s easy to see why these flicks proved so popular throughout the Jazz Age. While Britisher Denny’s fine aristocratic verbal delivery matched his body language, he didn’t quite make it to the lead position, once the talkies came in. Like so many of his characters, he shrugged it off, and embarked on a second career as top-notch character actor, specializing in suave, toffy-nosed business types, stuffy paters, and silky villains. He worked constantly until his death in 1967 (one of his last appearances being in Cat Ballou as Sir Harry Percival, the nefarious head of the railroad).

So let the fun begin!

In 1924’s THE RECKLESS AGE, based upon a novel, Love Insurance, by Charlie Chan author Earl Derr Biggers (scenario by Rex Taylor), Denny plays Dick Minot, a crack trouble shooter for Floyd’s of London. An upper crust specimen, Lord Harrowby, about to be married to wealthy American heiress Cynthia Meyrick, wants to guarantee his future, so he takes out a $100K (nearly 2M today!) policy that his wedded union won’t fail – a super win situation (the “swell” is impoverished, and the lady is not only rich, but beautiful). A smugly confident Harrowby journeys to Florida for the betrothal (with Minot riding shotgun), and it seems to be a done deal – until Dick and Cynthia accidentally “meet cute,” with the insurance agent falling head over heels in love.

Will Dick give in to his heart, or guarantee HIS fortune via his sneaky brain. But, wait, folks, there’s more. An imposter Lord H. is out to snare the lass, while a mercenary chorine is out to collect via her fate-worse-than-death claim against the real Harrowby. Oy! The plot (and pot) thickens!

As directed by Harry Pollard (later to achieve greater success at Universal with The Cohens and the Kellys, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the first version of Show Boat), THE RECKLESS AGE is 76 minutes of Twenties fast and furious rom-com shenanigans (which means lots of slapstick sandwiched between the love stuff), amiably enacted by Denny, and supported by Ruth Dwyer (as Cynthia), William Austin (as Harrowby), plus John Steppling, May Wallace, Tom McGuire, Fred Malatesta, W.E. Lawrence, and Dorothy Revier (as the skanky Harrowby ex). Only Heinie Conklin in blackface (as a “taxy” driver) sours the deal, with a cringe-worthy performance.

The movie was a Universal Jewel, that is to say, one of the company’s top attractions for 1924 (Jewels were studio’s supreme entries, with Bluebirds being mainstream, and Red Feathers being low budget programmers). The print is in excellent condition, and contains the original tints. It’s photographed by William Fildew, and includes a new score by Jake Monaco. Extras comprise audio commentary by renowned cinema scholar Anthony Slide.

1926’s SKINNER’S DRESS SUIT, based on Henry Irving Dodge’s famed story, seems – dare I say it? – tailor-made for Denny (Rex Taylor, again, giving us a tight, funny scenario with Walter Anthony serving up some truly hilarious title cards).

A wink-wink homage to the saying “clothes make the man,” the movie concerns the young, attractive Skinners. Wife Honey (yep, that’s her name) thinks it’s time for hubby to ask for a raise. So the poor sap goes for it during a monumental coincidence of bad timing (his firm is about to lose a top client). Embarrassed to tell Honey he not only didn’t get a raise, but lost his job, Skinner is gobsmacked by wifey’s jumping the gun. Honey anticipated the best and goes out and buys him a dress suit and a new frock for herself (that extra $10 a week sure went a long way in 1926), and then refurnishes their entire home. They party on in their fly new duds, becoming the talk of the Smart Set; but it gets worse for Skinner, with creditors now literally at his door day and night.

The wacky ending (truly a “saved by the belle” moment) is the perfect capper to 76 minutes of pure post-Horatio Alger era hilarity. Denny is terrific as the sophisticated version of a Harold Lloyd character, ably supported by a ravishing Laura La Plante as his likeable but social climbing wife. More excellent support is offered up by Hedda Hopper, Ben Henricks, Jr., E.J. Ratcliffe, Lionel Brahm, Fiona Hall, William H. Strauss (in a Max Davidson role as Skinner’s tailor), a teenaged Arthur Lake (as a wiseacre office boy), Lucille Ward, and (as party guests), Minta Durfee, Grady Sutton, and Janet Gaynor. Special mention must be given to Betty Morrissey as the office flapper, who gives Skinner a crash course in the Savannah Shuffle, a wild dance he then teaches to Honey over the telephone (and with which they later wow a society gathering with a full-fledged demo, resulting in an all-out high brow low down). The entire shebang is deftly handled by the underrated William A. Seiter (who, if he had no other credit than Sons of the Desert, would still be on the first tier of my comedy director’s pantheon).

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of SKINNER’S DRESS SUIT is quite good, and nicely showcases the photography of Arthur L. Todd. Only some slight emulsion scratches invade the imagery, which, while mostly from 35MM elements, does have some 16MM sections (the latter obviously softer). Leo Birenberg provides a delightful newly-composed score, while Anthony Slide, once again, gives us some incisive audio commentary.

1926’s WHAT HAPPENED TO JONES? is yet another Denny gem expertly helmed by William A. Seiter.

Tom Jones (perfectly named) is a happy-go-lucky mofo – not only well off, but about to be married to the woman of his dreams; furthermore, he’s a genuinely nice guy.

But things are about to get crazy…on steroids.

Jones’s pad has been taken over by his posh friends for a sort of stag party/all-night poker tournament with henpecked middle-aged bud, Ebeneezer, a prime participant. The bash is raided by the police, causing Tom and Eb to flee to the nearest shelter – a ladies Turkish bath.

Turbaned and eventually in drag, the pair “barely” escape after much hilarity (Denny’s facial expressions are side-splitting; ditto the witty titles accompanying Melville Brown’s script/adaptation, based upon George Broadhurst’s 1897 farce). A particularly riotous bit occurs when the pair, assumed to be unescorted women roaming the city in the middle of the night, are approached by cops who surmise (via brilliant silent screen implication) that they’re either ladies of the evening, or, worse, a couple!

From here, the queeny duo sneak into Eb’s home. Jones, who needs to get back to his digs and prepare for his big day, dons the garb of Eb’s bro, a bishop…who then shows up – to officiate at the nupitals.

Won’t reveal the ending, but it’s 71 minutes of out loud laughs, proving, once again, that Seiter’s charting the classic Stan and Ollie feature (in my opinion, one of the greatest comedies ever filmed) was no accident.

The supporting cast is top-notch, and includes Marion Nixon (as Denny’s squeeze), Otis Harlan (as Eb), Margaret Quimby, William Austin, Nina Romano, Melbourne MacDowell, Frances Raymond, and Emily Fitzroy. Of special interest, is ZaSu Pitts as an uncharacteristic blackmailing maid, who, not surprisingly, makes out like a bandit.

Add the A-1 cinematography (graced with the original tints and tones) by Arthur L. Todd, and a score composed by Anthony Willis, and you have the makings of one fun night at the Movies (a third excellent Anthony Slide commentary offers scholarly but entertaining tidbits).

LSS, this is the kind of stuff classic Blu-Ray collecting was made for. More, please.


The Reckless Age

Skinner’s Dress Suit

What Happened to Jones?

All black-and-white (some with color tints and tones); full-frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 stereo-surround DTS-HD MA (silent with music scores). CAT # K24949. SRP: $49.95.

The Love Moat

Pre-Code to the max docks on Blu-Ray, via the deliriously trashy 1933 all-star Paramount “classic” WHITE WOMAN (INSERT salacious wink to Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios HERE).

A 68-minute sordid, lurid, but totally addictive poison bonbon, WHITE WOMAN has more twists and turns than its fetching title lead – gorgeous Carole Lombard, still a few years away from reinventing herself as a movie comedienne of the first order.

Lombard plays Judith Denning, a sinfully delicious hoochie-coochie dancer (accent on the coochie) in a Southeast Asian dive, reputed to have murdered her ex-husband (SPOILER ALERT: she probably done it).

Deported from Bali, Judith is about to get bounced again (the upper crust locals don’t want her skanking up their stomping grounds, at least not in broad daylight) – except this time she has nowhere to go. Enter self-made millionaire Horace H. Prin, a lower-class rubber merchant, who has, like scum, risen to the top. Prin seems to have educated himself, and, because of his riches, he is respected by the hypocrites who run the village. Horace is attracted to Judith (for obvious reasons), and comforts the entertainer by flaunting her charms in front of the low echelon high society aristocrats – and, more importantly, their wives. Prin sympathizes with Judith’s plight, treats her well, and continually shames the shamers – earning the downtrodden woman’s respect. So, hey, why not sex him up? Horace H. seems to get her.

Get her he does. We next see the couple arriving at his jungle s(t)inkhole, and moving into Master Prin’s reconverted riverboat posh digs. Turns out, the previously benevolent Horace was putting on act. He’s really not the kind, sensitive understanding dude she thought him to be. Just the opposite, he’s a sadistic, rape-inclined, brutal monster who rules his “kingdom” with a whip, a rifle and the threat of horrible death, should his “slaves” attempt to leave. These poor workers, BTW, are disgraced whites – some escaped convicts, others alcoholic/drug-addicted dregs. Those who try to run are hunted down, and either killed/eaten by the surrounding wildlife (crocodiles, pythons, tigers) or by the cannibals (some also in Prin’s employ).

Judith quickly realizes this marriage thingy wasn’t such a good idea, and before you can say “help me get out of here, and I’ll fuck your brains out,” she succumbs to overt libidinousness with handsome, intelligent David von Elst.

Von Elst’s fatal “jones” is his fear of being apprehended, having gone AWOL when his squad was attacked by bloodthirsty natives. What particularly rubbed him the wrong way was his comrades’s severed heads being tossed at him like coconuts (a jungle strategy which is repeated in the final reels).

It gets worse with the arrival of Ballister, a womanizing psychopath, who plans to ravage Mrs. P. when the proper moment arises.

All this proves rather stressful for Horace, too, who insults the local human flesh eating contingent, prompting an all-out sanguinary climatic battle (as indicated, more Frisbee-ed heads on the way).

It’s easy to see the charms of this rarely-shown epic, especially when one gasps at Ms. Lombard’s costars. Prin is portrayed (and brilliantly) by Charles Laughton (a definite bottom rung run-through for his more famous Paramount appearance as Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls, released the same year). A ridiculously young Charles Bickford plays sexual predator Ballister, and rising contractee Kent Taylor enacts von Elst. Other thesps include James Bell, Charles Middleton, Ethel Griffies, Claude King, Marc Lawrence, Tetsu Komai, and, in his motion-picture debut, Percy Kilbride.

Following a very similar narrative to 1930’s Mamba, WHITE WOMAN, like its predecessor, delivers all the goods – sex and violence – in spades. I suspect that in 1940 – when Lombard and Laughton were now major stars, and costarring in They Knew What They Wanted –much downtime kidding was made of their earlier teaming.

That said, the script and sourcework comes via some highbrow talent, notably Samuel Hoffenstein (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Laura, Cluny Brown) and Gladys Lehman (from the play Hangman’s Whip by Norman Reilly Raine and Frank Butler), and the direction is by Stuart Walker, who would score big post-Code at Universal with 1934’s flawed but entertaining Great Expectations, and 1935’s Werewolf of London. The excellent photography is by Paramount’s reliable Harry Fischbeck, with decent, but sparse music contributed by Karl Hajos and John Leipold. There’s even a raunchy song, “Yes, My Dear,” by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel.

The new 2K master of WHITE WOMAN looks pretty decent (which is more than you can say of the piece’s characters), considering its decades of essentially being kicked under the table in a brown paper wrapper. Some shots, obviously cut from censored States/TV stations, look a bit rougher than the rest of the pic. But it’s all good, and seems fully complete and uncut.

Extras include audio commentaries by director/producer Allan Arkush (Rock ‘N’ roll High School, Hollywood Boulevard, TV’s Moonlighting)
and film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer, plus a trailer gallery of related titles, either by subject matter or stars.

One of those you-can’t-believe-what-you’re-watching-even-while-you’re-watching-it movies, WHITE WOMAN is a hoot, sure to beguile and possibly even outrage your home theater audience. In other words, it’s a keeper!

WHITE WOMAN. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K26178. SRP: $24.95.

Boarder Incident


The term “noirista” takes on an additional meaning in the gritty, sweaty lust-driven 1950 drama THE CAPTURE, now on restored Blu-Ray from the cartel at The Film Detective.

An obscure title that likely few have heard of, this diamond-in-the-rough indy (distributed by RKO, who did the same with several of the concurrent Ida Lupino-directed flicks) was a Niven Busch production (he produced and scripted the piece, based on his novel). Mostly renowned as an author of hard-boiled thrillers, Busch took the mogul plunge in stride and delivered an engrossing tale of murder, crime, desire, and vengeance.

Set in 1937 Mexico, THE CAPTURE is that most interesting genre offshoot known as “western noir,” or, more specifically, a modern western noir.

Decent, hard-working Lin Vanner manages an oil rig for a fat cat company. A pillar of the community, Vanner’s key to success is not getting involved. When a train carrying the outfit’s payroll is robbed, and guards killed, Lin is goaded by his horse ranching lover, Luana, to participate in the takedown of the culprit(s). Coming late to the game, he goes it solo, and corners a suspicious lone gringo, Sam Tevlin. Tevlin’s refusal to raise his hands leads Vanner to believe that the dude is the thief/killer, and he shoots him. Turns out the man was wounded, and couldn’t do the prerequisite “hands up.” As circumstantial evidence accumulates, it looks like Lin made the right decision. But he’s not sure. He turns down a hefty reward (causing his girlfriend to ditch him), quits the company, and wanders off – plagued by a myriad of questions and self-imposed guilt.

As fate (that oft-costar of noir) would have it, the train he’s traveling on contains the corpse of the man he killed. As the deceased arrives at its midnight destination, Vanner notices the gorgeous widow claiming the coffin. He immediately becomes obsessed, leaves the train and follows the woman to her home. It’s a middling-sized spread, now in need of a foreman. He applies for the position, falling in deeper and deeper – haunted by the terrible secret he can’t tell her.

But the widow, Ellen, has some secrets of her own. She discovers the truth, hates him with a simmering passion that finally explodes into the carnal kind. The now-lovers become marrieds. Having time to reflect, Vanner pieces together various clues that didn’t add up. He soon becomes convinced that the real killer is still at large. Taking leave of his recently acquired family, the novice detective begins his hunt that leads to a shocking finale, and more killing.

This 91-minute gem sure packs a punch, and benefits from excellence on both sides of the camera. Busch’s script is tight and suspenseful with superb direction from newbie John Sturges (it’s a fine companion piece to the director’s Mystery Street and Bad Day at Black Rock, each containing similar narrative elements). The stark, frequent nocturnal photography is by Edward Cronjager (mostly known for his outstanding Technicolor pics, but also for his monochrome work on Fritz Lang’s House by the River) using an effective and elaborate amount of zoom shots, then a rarity in movies, and, a foreboding score is provided by Daniele Amfitheatrof.

Best of all is the cast. Lew Ayres gives one of his best performances as the conflicted Vanner. Teresa Wright (Busch’s wife) is terrific as well in her shaded, duplicitous enactment of Ellen, the not-so-grieving widow. Jimmy Hunt, that kid from the original Invaders from Mars, is quite admirable, too, as Wright’s son Mike; he’s the perfect noir tyke. When Vanner is first “interviewed” for the new foreman job, Mike asks if he’s going to be living here. When Lin happily replies that it’s likely, the urchin snaps back “Then I’m running away from home!” The supporting players are likewise A-1, and include Victor Jory, William Bakewell, Jacqueline White (as Luana), Duncan Renaldo, Barry Kelley, Milton Parsons, Alex Gerry, Chuck Roberson, Vito Scotti, and Edwin Rand (as Tevlin).

As with so much of noir, THE CAPTURE is told in flashback, via Vanner’s narration to a mission priest. In an interesting (and Hitchcockian) transference of guilt, Lin has been wounded, and, like his victim, can not raise his arms, should he have to surrender.

For a small company like The Film Detective, their Blu-Ray restoration of THE CAPTIVE is to be commended. It looks and sounds pretty damn good, and comes with a nice cache of extras, including a ten page illustrated booklet, audio commentary by writer/scripter C. Courtney Joyner and mini documentaries on Wright and Sturges.

The western noir, while unusual, was not unique (in fact, one of the finest entries was the 1947 Raoul Walsh thriller Pursued, also written by Busch and costarring Wright); in fact, it remains one of the most intriguing sidebars of the genre. To those not acquainted with this mean street alternative, THE CAPTURE provides an excellent route to begin your cinematic detour.

THE CAPTURE. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Film Detective. CAT # FB1017. SRP: $24.95.

The Rust of Trust


Another in the wonderful on-going series of film noir boxed sets from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics, FILM NOIR: THE DARK SIDE OF CINEMA, VOLUME VI duly delivers the goods with three rather rare all-star offerings from the peak years 1947-1951.

Aside from making worthy obscurities available in pristine 35MM new 2K transfers, Kino tosses in narrative themes for each set. In this sixth volume (housed in the prerequisite cool slipcover), culled from the archives of Universal-International, the tag is “false identities,” that noirish go-to of “people aren’t always who they seem.” Now, you noiristas out there are probably shrugging, “So what? That sidebar’s practically in EVERY noir!” True enough, but in this particular set, comprising SINGAPORE, JOHNNY STOOL PIGEON, and THE RAGING TIDE, it’s done with a vengeance.

Read on, and see what I mean.

I guess you can’t imagine a less likely romantic screen couple than Fred MacMurray and Ava Gardner…and, yet, here we are.

Truth be told, in early 1947, MacMurray, flexing his marquee muscles out from under his Paramount contract, decided to go to the freelance-friendly major-minor Universal-International. One must remember that MacMurray was then considered a tough guy (Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Texas Rangers, Forest Rangers, Double Indemnity) who could do hunky romcoms (The Bride Comes Home, Remember the Night, No Time for Love). In them pre-Disney/My 3 Sons days, virtually every top female star either wanted to or was happily paired with the 6′ 3” star who famed French writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville credited for inventing natural screen acting (think we’re kidding, check out The Gilded Lily, Take a Letter Darling, Above Suspicion, The Lady is Willing, Murder, He Says, or the pics with Carole Lombard). Gardner, not yet an MGM superstar, was still basking in the sensation of her Bacall-esque appearance in the 1946 U-I smash The Killers. So, like I said, here we are.

In SINGAPORE, MacMurray plays Matt Gordon, a noir lead of dubious character (ain’t they all?): a former (supposed) war hero expat-turned-profiteer, who escaped when the always-dangerous title locale became particularly lethal. His one regret (aside from losing a fortune; real-life cheapskate MacMurray was especially good at making this emotion felt) was not grabbing his smoking hot lover Linda Grahame (Gardner) – and taking her with him. Linda, he happily learns, survived; not so happily is that she’s now wed to an unscrupulous human reptile. Even worse, she suffers from irreparable amnesia (Is she faking it? Is there even such a thing?). The black market underbelly of the seamy, steamy post-war Asian country gets white hot for Mac and Ava, as the predators slither closer – surrounding them in an explosive finale of greed, jealousy, lust and violence.

The entertaining pic was scripted by Seton I. Miller and Robert Thoeren (from a story by Miller), and ably directed by John Brahm (whose expertise at atmosphere was a triumph of style over substance). House d.p. Maury Gertsman does a first-rate job in the cinematography department, while Daniele Amfitheatrof’s music fills in the soundtrack not occupied by gunfire. The excellent supporting cast includes Roland Culver, Richard Haydn, Spring Byington, Thomas Gomez, Porter Hall, Holmes Herbert, Edith Evanson, Frederick Worlock, Curt Conway, Philip Ahn, George Lloyd, and the exotic Maylia. As Ava departed for Metro, Fred stayed on at U-I for a series of romcoms, more noirs, and westerns lasting into the late 1950s. His reteaming with oft-Paramount costar Claudette Colbert, resulted in 1947’s The Egg and I, a mammoth hit for him, her, and the studio.

1949’s JOHNNY STOOL PIGEON gets away with a surprising amount of Production Code no-nos, much of it by using hep coded language for forbidden fruit.

George Morton is a treasury agent (T-Men really made one helluva impact) assigned to take down a mammoth and murderous drug cartel. To achieve this goal, the Feds spring a convicted thug Johnny Evans to prove Morton’s legitimacy, and to get him into the mob. Evans, a good-bad guy, has ulterior motives – his wife died of a drug overdose. But there are other roadblocks – one physical, namely Terry Stewart, the hot, occasionally battered dame in with the crooks.

William Castle, who prior to his gimmicky horror shows, proved an expert B+/A- director of noirs (and westerns and adventures), moves the sordid narrative along quickly, expressly a breathless road trip to Nogales, Mexico – HQ for the meet-ups (and, likely, meat hooks). Top-billed Howard Duff proves a likeable, but no-nonsense lead, as does female costar Shelley Winters. It’s Dan Duryea, however, who steals the show (what a shock) as the conflicted Johnny Evans.

The supporting cast is B-movie gold, and comprises John McIntire, Gar Moore, Leif Erickson, Barry Kelley, Charles Drake, and Robert Foulk. Most notable in the second tier thesp group is young Tony Curtis (still billed as Anthony Curtis); a silent bit in Criss Cross, where he danced with Yvonne De Carlo in a night club, drew so much female panting (and letter-writing), that Universal put him under contract. The heavy Bronx accent, however, must have at least temporarily put a crimp in their plans (it would prove a boon later on); in this movie, he’s a deaf mute gunsel.

The script by Robert L. Richards (from a story by Henry Jordan) tackles some dicey subjects, but (as indicated above) gets away with it (an obvious jack-of-all-trades pimp is snarkily referred to as a “fur merchant”); in many ways, the pic shares close ties with Trapped (released the same year, and reviewed in the previous column). Once again, studio workhorse Maury Gertsman supplies some excellent monochrome camerawork (much of it location footage in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tucson, AZ and Sonora, Mexico – impressive out-of-backlot filming that was still a rarity then). A standard studio-culled score (lifting themes from the aforementioned Criss Cross) fills in the background, when Curtis isn’t grunting. Extras include a trailer gallery, and audio commentary by film scholar Professor Jason A. Ney.

1951’s THE RAGING TIDE is certainly the most interesting, if not fascinating, of the trio. And, why not? First time scripter Ernest K. Gann’s screenplay is based on his best-selling novel (Fiddler’s Green). It also benefits from a terrific lead, giving one of his finest screen performances (of which, BTW, there were many). Yep, Richard Conte scores big as Bruno Felkin, a savvy career criminal who tries to alibi his way out of a murder he (and everyone with two functioning brain cells) knows he’s committed. Wily homicide lieutenant Kelsey (wily character actor Stephen McNally) ain’t having none of it. So, Felkin takes a powder finding work (and anonymity) aboard a small father and son fishing schooner. As Bruno bides his time, he uses his manipulative people skills to weasel in on the kindly but tough patriarch Hamil Linder, who soon looks upon the seemingly decent newbie as another son. And with good reason; his own spawn, Carl, is a class-conscious snob/playa who detests sea life and his pater. Felkin, playing Iago, does his job too well – grooming the youth as a replacement of himself, and successfully sending him out to his dirty work. Soon, Carl’s previously dormant sinister persona asserts itself, and he moves in on Felkin’s turf – and his woman Connie (who else but Shelley Winters?).

In this Shakespearan noir, with a sidebar of Shaw’s The Devil’s Desciple, the disturbed, paradoxical Bruno constantly finds himself weighing the pluses and minuses of a decent life blocked by his still sociopathic tendencies in full bloom. Like I said, it’s a great performance.

The rest of the cast does well, too – specifically Alex Nicol as Carl, Charles Bickford (for once, as a believable sympathetic character), and John McIntire, Tito Vuolo, Minerva Urecal, Chubby Johnson, and Syd Saylor.

It’s heavy, but engrossing stuff for a direct-to-the-nabe U-I pic, but director George Sherman does a nice balancing act, making this drama excellent popcorn fare (although I do wonder what Jacques Tourneur, Joseph H. Lewis, Anthony Mann or Douglas Sirk could have done with this material). The photography (some of it on-location in San Francisco) is gorgeous, courtesy of Russell Metty. The Frank Skinner music is innocuous enough to not get in the way of the lofty proceedings. Extras include trailers, and audio commentary by flick historian David Del Valle and producer Mike Hunter.




All black-and-white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics. CAT # K25785. SRP: $49.95.

Movie & TV stuff by Mel Neuhaus