Germaniacs

WARNING: for those who’ve never seen Robert Wiene’s 1919 expressionistic horror classic THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, this review has more spoilers than a Rex Beach filmography.

Many people for many more years, decades really, have engaged in friendly arguments over this post-Great War masterpiece. Whether it was the first horror flick (it wasn’t, but it definitely laid the narrative groundwork still “homaged” today), the first expressionistic motion picture (nope, but certainly the most influential) or the first horror feature (honestly, I’m not sure). One thing every fan/collector can agree upon: this new Kino-Lorber Blu-ray IS the definitive edition of this classic – a must for every cinema history buff, horror enthusiast or would-be serial killer.

The credits alone on this version read like a Who’s Who in international preservation. I mean, EVERYBODY seems to have had a hand in assuring that the most perfect rendition to date of CALIGARI survives in its most pristine form. The majority of this outstanding 4K restoration was taken from the remarkably surviving original camera negative, housed at the GFFA (German Federal Film Archive). The rest was garnered from points east, west, north and south.

What a kick it is to see this psychological thriller with (mostly) crystal-clarity, embodying such detail that one can discern unsightly pockmarks through the less gruesome death pallor makeup (CALIGARI‘s influence has spanned the history of the horror genre, A, B and Z-productions notwithstanding. I’m talkin’ James Whale to Tod Browning to Val Lewton to Terence Fisher to Mario Bava, George Romero and Dario Argento. And, yes, Herk Harvey (the stark zombie-tized faces in CALIGARI are an obvious inspiration for the look of his 1962 indy shocker Carnival of Souls).

The plot is intriguing enough: Francis, a strange young man (Friedrich Feher) tells an older companion (Hans Lanser-Rudolf) of “the horrors my fiancée and I have been through,” suggesting that evil spirits played a part. As he recounts his plight, a beautiful woman (Lil Dagover) drifts by, void of any emotion and seemingly in a trance (or what we today call Fashion Week).

Flashbacks reveal a happy little Bavarian village wherein Francis, the woman (billed as “Jane”) and his best friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) cavort like lambs about to be led to the slaughter. Everyone’s excited about the arrival of a traveling carnival, particularly its most notorious attraction, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his living dead specimen Cesare (Conrad Veidt, in the role that would shoot him to worldwide acclaim). That Francis and Alan (a red flag character, if, for no other reason, his unholy resemblance to Klaus Kinski) both compete for Jane’s attention proves secondary to the sudden outbreak of violent murders. It hits home when one of the victims is Alan. It’s all traced back to the local Hall of Records elected official, whose death is a shoo-in once he refuses to grant a permit (Kim Davis, beware).  A false arrest, Caligari’s apparent air-tight alibi and the sexual obsession of the doctor and Cesare toward Jane set the stage for the supposed concluding act – a surreal abduction and chase through the jutting and perspective-screwy askew expressionist sets – images that have haunted horror pics for nearly 100 years.

This all leads to the twist on the twist finale: Twist 1: when not touring small towns, trolling for victims, Caligari is the head of the local insane asylum; Cesare a comatose patient. And Twist 2: the giveaway on the weird nightmarish backdrops and sets – Francis is the asylum’s craziest psychotic, and Jane a fellow patient whom he’s obsessed with.

Pretty revolutionary for 1919 (or 1920, depending upon which film history books you subscribe to). The movie indeed caused a global sensation – a big move toward the unmistakable concept that the flickers were indeed “growing up” (No less than Carl Sandburg was a big fan and CALIGARI supporter).  Sam Goldwyn took a flyer on the import and obtained the rights for American release, where he scored a blockbuster hit in early 1921. 1920-21 itself was a doctor-horror breakout year, with CALIGARI competing with John Barrymore’s take on Jekyll and Hyde.

The direction of Wiene is reportage with benefits (nothing after CALIGARI ever brought him comparable kudos). Prior to production, Fritz Lang was bandied about as a possible director, but Lang was instead assigned to The Spiders, a delirious, incredibly addictive serial fantasy. Still, one ponders what a Langian CALIGARI would have revealed, perhaps even rivaling the director’s personal life (although I doubt it).  Nevertheless both Lang and Wiene claimed credit for the framing story.  The d.p. on CALIGARI was Willy Hameister; this new monochrome triumph (with the 1920 reconstructed color tints) can now at last stop his undoubtedly frustrated corpse from turning over in his grave. The screenplay was cowritten by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, with uncredited assist from the works of Freud. It stemmed from Janowitz’s spying a horrific lurking figure at a local carnival, prior to a young girl’s murder.  How expressionistic.  Mayer’s raison d’etre was to assure a starring role for his lover (before Dagover got the part). How sexpressionistic.  Like the amazing sets and exhibition posters (designed by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig, key leaders of the expressionist movement then inhabiting the world’s foremost artist and sin colony, aka Berlin), the title cards (in the original German with optional English translations) are visual feasts in perfect unison with the jagged, freakish imagery.  Fun fact #1: the iconic paper-constructed sets cost less than $800.

The CALIGARI weirdness has never truly worn off – it still (at least at some level) creeps out even some contemporary gore-mongers. For over forty years after its release, Hollywood tried to fashion a remake, but just couldn’t match the bizarre ambiance that made it initially such a smash. After Psycho, it was thought that author Robert Bloch might give it a shot, as insane, kwazy folk had become his cottage industry. In 1962, Bloch’s scripted version of CALIGARI finally made a brief appearance with a suitably oddball cast including Glynis Johns, Dan O’Herlihy, Constance Ford and Estelle Winwood.  But it couldn’t hold an electro-shock prod to the original and quickly disappeared. I know it bears little relation to its 1919 namesake, but I would like to see it (tried once on late-night TV, but fell asleep after ten minutes).  To this day, the likes of Tim Burton and Rob Zombie threaten another remake.  It may be inevitable; (sigh) at least one can be grateful that the unnecessary do-over won’t come from Baz Luhrmann!

As indicated earlier, it’s a wondrous to see a gorgeous print of this title. In fact, it’s wondrous to see it at all – the reward of over a half-century of unwatchable, washed-out, dupey copies, projected at the wrong speed (generally clocking in at 60-minutes when the correct running time is closer to Kino’s 77-minute presentation), missing key sequences and with rotten musical tracks (if any at all).

Collectors have two musical options: an appropriate composition by the Studio for Film Music at the University of Music, Freiberg 1. BR./Coproduction with 2Eleven Contemporary Music Projects/The New Music Institute at the University of Music, Freiberg 1. BR. (take a deep breath, folks, you earned it) or an additional score by Paul D. Miller (who, I should warn you, also goes by the name of DJ Spooky). I opted for the former, on the grounds that I would never have to recite it.

Natch, the idea of a madman hypnotizing Germany into a land of murderous horror did not go unnoticed by film historians after 1933, the chief scribe being Sigfried Kracaur who, if you didn’t need any further noggin-nudging, entitled his 1947 landmark book From Caligari to Hitler (a still-in-print bible for all cinephiles).  Fun Fact #2:  Der Fuhrer banned the movie, as it intimated that authority was insane.

But let’s not ruin Halloween with any talk of socio-economical, geo-political analogies. At least not till next November. For now, let’s focus on the cinematic pleasures of unabashed skin-crawling. Imagine yourself braving a cold and stormy autumn night in your living room with Kino’s CALIGARI. I promise you, like Francis’s fate, it’s a keeper.

THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI.  Black and white with color tints.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; Stereo 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino Classics.  CAT # K1515.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Bear-Raising

“18 Feet of Gut-Crunching, Man-Eating Terror!” shouted the trailer and ad heralds in 1976 for GRIZZLY, a fast-and-furry-ous and immensely entertaining Jaws rip-off, now on DVD from Kino-Lorber/Scorpion Releasing.

I loved the ads then, as well as the brazen “homage” to the unstoppable Spielberg money-making tribute to a voracious dorsalized Mark Spitz.  I love it even more now, as it represents grindhouse fodder at its very best. I had, during the picture’s initial run, begun a letter-writing campaign to all the major studios, insisting that every movie from here on in use that headline herald; later on, I specifically relegated it to Meryl Streep titles. And still later on, I expanded the ballyhoo to include all political ads, prior to elections.

Great exploitation aside, what separates GRIZZLY from competitive sleaze is that the key folks involved took it seriously enough to give it their best shot. I mean, obviously one is not going to enter a theater showing GRIZZLY with the aspirations of mingling with the Last Year at Marienbad crowd (and thank God for that). One is going with the hopes of being royally thrilled in high amusement-park fashion. And, I am proud to say, he or she will not be disappointed.

The amazing thing about GRIZZLY is how it so fervently decided early-on to follow the near-identical paws-for-jaws narrative on land, if not by sea. The New York summer beach resort has been handily replaced by the natural beauty of a premier American national park. The skeevy Murray Hamilton scumbag politico who wants to cover up the shark attacks is a virtual doppelganger of a wanker intent upon bringing in that all-important last gasp post-season summer cash. There’s even a memorable rant, a la Robert Shaw’s WWII shark tale, elevated to an ancient Native American legend. GRIZZLY even goes one better by having the initial beauteous teenaged victim multiplied to a double order of supersized girly grizzly burgers (and look close, folks, as, later on, one of the female vics is, in a lip-smacking in-joke, none other than Jaws‘ infamous appetizer Susan Backlinie).

While the picture was produced and distributed by the notorious Edward L. Montoro (Platinum Pussy Cat, Don’t Go Near the House, Mortuary, and, my favorite, Cardiac Arrest), the fact remained that something genuinely presentable was going to be shoved down the drive-in/Times Square patrons’ throats whether they liked it or not. The reviewers at the time were dumbfoundedly confused, many not knowing what to make of this gory story – and eventually sighing that it, for what it was, it ain’t half bad.  Of course, that also means it ain’t half good, but why quibble?

A lion’s…umm bear’s share of kudos is due not so much to the screenplay by coproducers Harvey Flaxman and David Sheldon and (uncredited) costar Andrew Prine (who specifically authored the Native American stuff), but to the authentically professional and often inventive direction by William Girdler. Girdler relied greatly upon classic cinema history to tell his garish low-budget tales, and superbly was able to make them look as if they were filmed on a way grander scale.  This feat of flicker legerdemain was achieved via some frequently commendable widescreen compositions, plus an admirable amount of suspense overshadowed by a generous supply of Karo Syrup.

To help achieve these lofty ambitions, Girdler bonded with some extremely talented camerafolk, here by the unfortunately named William Asman (who makes the 2.40:1 imagery pop, almost unfathomable for something processed by MovieLab). Of course, Girdler’s ace card (or cards) was his casts, here beautifully realized by a handful of recognizable thesps, including the aforementioned Prine, who supports the always-excellent top-billed Christopher George and Richard Jaeckel. The babes are…well, babe-licious, and, obviously, tasty, as any monstrous bruin will attest to.

The special effects are likewise to be praised, and, for their money constraints, admirably orchestrated. Stalking scenes are nearly all POV – a wise choice (the opposite downside that John Frankenheimer painfully learned to his chagrin with his goofy 1979 ecological horror fable Prophesy; although I have to say, I like that movie too). Once the munchin’ and a-crunchin’ starts to kick in and the ravaged body parts strewn helter skelter like Chris Christie at a Fourth of July picnic, nothing is left to the imagination. And isn’t that what America is all about?

Which brings us to the carnage itself – and it couldn’t happen to more deserving human vittles:  slobs ignoring warning signs, kumbaya-singing Christian Mingle-sired families (heavy on the white meat), liddle kiddie tater tots becoming a gooey helping of baby-back ribs with a side order of mommy. It’s glorious!

There are some curious head-scratching moments. The buxom forest ranger, who, prior to returning to safety, announces (with the proverbial target on her back), that she wants to cool her tootsies in the nearby secluded stream. Why she insists upon doing this topless is never explained, nor have there been (to my knowledge) any complaints voiced in the four decades since the original release.

On the minus side is Prine, who is not likeable in any way, shape or form, prone to spouting far too many sexist comments – even for a ‘70s grindhouse opus. And poor Chris George smokes enough coffin nails to single-handedly keep a local cancer ward operational 24/7.

Nods to other horror pics notwithstanding, Girdler even manages to throw in a Godfather horse’s noggin. His brief subsequent work would elaborate on this technique even more. The director’s 1978 exorcisim frightfest The Manitou, starring an even greater all-star cast (Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Stella Stevens, Ann Sothern, Burgess Meredith) showed further honing of his craft and promised a bright future. In something out of one of his scenarios, Girdler’s shocking demise occurred on January 21, 1978, when, while checking Philippine locations, he was killed in a helicopter accident.

GRIZZLY was shot in a (big surprise) right-to-work state (Georgia), and took full advantage of the spectacular scenery that illustrates the picturesque vicinity known as Clayton.

Some horrific shenanigans were actually going on behind the scenes too. Girdler, Flaxman and Sheldon were, in true movieland fashion, screwed out of their salaries and profits by Montoro and the Film Ventures Group. A lawsuit finally settled this kerfuffle as GRIZZLY towered about the competition, grossing an impressive $39 million 1976 dollars. It became the most financially successful independent movie of the year, a record broken two years later by Halloween. In spite of his underhanded mishegas, Montoro proudly boasted that GRIZZLY was the best picture his company ever made (no argument).

Sequels were bandied about for years, but with the impending lawsuits, nothing concrete ever really officially could be termed a continuation.

Kino-Lorber is to be congratulated for giving us such a lovely platter to revisit our popcorned nightmares.  The picture quality served up by this new HD anamorphic DVD transfer is sharp as hell and boasts a palette of colors that I suspect were probably never evident when the movie debuted. The mono audio is excellent as well, and contains a score by one Robert O. Ragland.

There are also numerous extras and some hilariously grotesque trailers from other Scorpion DVDs.

“It’s a butcher shop out there,” cleverly remarks a GRIZZLY participant.  And so it is. In a world bulging with the likes of imitators (Tentacles, Tintorera, Day of the Animals, Dogs, Killer Fish, etc.), don’t be fooled (not even by the lame Jaws 2): Accept no substitutes: GRIZZLY is the real fake!

GRIZZLY.  Color.  Widescreen [2.40:1 16 x 9 anamorphic]; Mono audio. Kino-Lorber/Scorpion Releasing.  CAT # SCORP1095.  SRP:  $19.95.

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Immoral Support

I can’t suppress the unbridled joy that exudes with a vengeance from my wild side (yeah, I have one) every time the Warner Archive Collection announces a new FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD set of DVD-Rs. Well, oh boy, here comes VOLUME 8, containing a quartet of naughty valentines sure to keep y’all panting (and likely de-panting).

While these four items contain some of the more obscure titles cranked out by the studios between 1929 and mid-1934, they are all corkers. Natch, the primo items are from the premiere pre-Code alma mater Warner Bros., but one comes from the “I can be as dirty as you, but on a larger scale” shallowed halls of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Hen’s teeth recognition aside, all entries feature prominent usual suspect players in the pushin’-cushion olympics, including Jimmy Cagney, Joan Blondell, Edward G. Robinson, Glenda Farrell, Paul Muni, Norma Shearer, Bob Montgomery and others. Major character backup is admirably handled by such pre-Code faves as Noel Francis, Robert Barrat, Hobart Cavanagh, Ned Sparks, Neil Hamilton, Douglass Dumbrille, Berton Churchill, Gregory Westcott and newcomer Raymond Milland (superb as a slimeball). Direction is by pre-Code notables Alfred E. Green, Mervyn LeRoy, Roy Del Ruth and lofty George Fitzmaurice.

If the mere thought of some silky, slinky gum-chewing babe in a skin-tight dress with hand eternally on swinging hip who begins every sentence with the word “Say,” gets your juices a-flowing, you’ve come to the right place. Let the shames begin!

The set kicks off with 1931’s fast and furious BLONDE CRAZY. And what a kick-off!  Kubec Glasmon and John Bright concoct a machine-gun paced modern naughty fable of a fresh, unscrupulous bellhop who finds that sniveling for tips ain’t as profitable as blackmailing high-profile guests. This rather disgraceful behavior propels him into the upper echelon “sting” territory, where the predatory player finally gets played…and then risks life and limb to extract a sweet revenge. Indeed, this is the kind of movie pre-Code fans will be shedding tears of joy for practically all of this pip’s 79-minute duration. Oh, yes, the bellhop is none other than Jimmy Cagney; his towel-girl/main squeeze/confederate is Joan Blondell and the remaining cast of shills, johns, plungers, creeps and skanks comprise a veritable Who’s Who of the genre: Noel Francis, Louis Calhern, Guy Kibbee (as the randy Mr. Johnson), the magnificent Polly Walters, Maude Eburne, Nat Pendleton, Ward Bond, Russell Hopton, Charles Lane, Richard Cramer and, as a wide-eyed Wall Street investment banker, Ray (billed as Raymond) Milland, a wolf in sheep’s clothing – who turns out to be the biggest crook of ’em all! The lightning-in-a-bottle direction is by the underrated Roy Del Ruth and the slick, crisp black-and-white photography is shared by two of the great Warners cameramen, Ernest Haller and Sid Hickox.

As with most pre-Code triumphs, BLONDE CRAZY contains some double-take worthy visuals, specifically a risque-plus bathtub sequence with the buxom Blondell. Combustible verbal pun aside, her chemistry with Cagney is highly combustible. This is often brought out via the inspired snarky dialogue that underlines their love/hate relationship. Her induction into Con Gaming 101 is dubbed The Age of Chiselry (the detailed depictions of the stings are nothing short of brilliant). And her revulsion at some of her paramours’ techniques explodes in an argument where Cagney honestly and icily announces “If I can’t have you, I’ll get someone else.” Blondell’s bitch-slap talk with Francis is top-drawer – the highlight being her trouncing the trollop with the moniker of “bleached-out bag.” This is the kind of movie where coitus is jubilantly brought home by lingerie-clad cuties whistling “Happy Days are Here Again.” Bon mot du jour for me is Cagney’s grinning, snarling put-down of the slimy Milland – a beautifully delivered and apropos rendition of “ya smack-off.” And, yes, smack-off was guttural 1930s slang for…ummm, yeah.

1931’s STRANGERS MAY KISS was a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer potboiler (the only MGM title in the batch), and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. ‘Cause that pot be a simmering with enough sexual heat to rival climate change. Like earlier MGM illicit dramas, STRANGERS is about rich folks who cheat, or, simply rich folks. They don’t really work, or do anything other than wear great clothes, take vacations and complain about the 99%. These swanky wankers dare to call south of the border the land of “lazy people.” Hmmm…nice to know nothing’s changed in over eighty years! But fun’s fun – and let’s get to the meat of the scenario. Norma Shearer, a modern in every sense of the word (translation: lots of sex, but no marriage), has two prime chumps on her tail (literally): strait-laced (or borderline boring) Robert Montgomery who worships the ground she stalks on, and rake Neil Hamilton, who has more ways to pleasure a woman than Erich von Stroheim could even dream of. Natch, she’s kneelin’ for Neil, and off they go to South America, where he finally reveals a little secret: namely, a wife in Paris. And here Hamilton and Shearer both learn a significant point about physically and figuratively screwing each other: there’s quite a chasm between keeping a secret from a friend, and a keeping a secret from a friend with benefits. It’s immaterial, as Hamilton was going to dump Shearer anyway and move on to greener (and likely purer) pastures. This leaves Norma in the lurch, so, being the “new woman” she is, Shearer goes with the flow: taking on the male populace of South America and Europe with a vengeance. STDs aside, this rather extreme reaction provides a boost in her popularity, as she administers her carnal knowledge to novices and veterans with enough expertise to guarantee her the Nobel Piece Prize. Of course, party pooper Montgomery turns up still pining for his lady, causing some of the pic’s most quotable dialog. When a smirking Shearer asks the boob if he’s shocked by what he’s heard, he honestly replies, “Well, the first six or seven hundred times…”

STRANGERS MAY KISS was quite a problem child at Metro, what today is called an Alan Smithee production (not unlike their 1934 all-star Hollywood Party). No director is credited (although most of it was shot by George Fitzmaurice). It is a bit of a mish-mash, and there are some massive continuity gaps. But it’s still a jaw-dropping, worthy experience. Shearer, like Jeanette MacDonald, was always a great practitioner of the raunchy before the Code effectively bound their respective legs together. When it comes to delivering double entendres with bedroom eyes and lip-biting lust, Shearer rules. The script (based on Ursula Parrott’s steamy novel) by pre-Code master John Lee Mahin crackles in true passion fashion. And the luminous black-and-white photography by the brilliant William Daniels is gorgeous whether capturing its lead character either vertically or horizontally. The supporting cast features such familiar pans as Irene Rich, Karen Morley, Henry Armetta, Marjorie Rambeau and the ubiquious Ray(mond) Milland.  After all, where else in pre-Code-ville could a wanton character such as Shearer’s Lisbeth defiantly get away with happily shouting “I’m in an orgy, wallowing – and I LOVE IT!”

1934’s HI, NELLIE, a just-under-the-wire pre-Coder, doesn’t scrimp with excess ballast, cramming an entire Sunday deluxe edition of risky business into its 75-minute running time. Mervyn LeRoy, still able to move at quicksilver speed (before MGM siphoned off his moxie), packs enough jack into this tabloid saga to keep the rumors going that in Hollywood, Warner Bros. was indeed the “front page” studio.

Reteaming Paul Muni and Glenda Farrell as competing reporters/and repeating lovers works well, as by this time their chemistry (honed during I am a Fugitive) was as smooth as velvet.

Post-Code viewers, used to Muni’s lugubrious Warners bio-pics (Louis Pasteur, Juarez, Emile Zola) might be a bit stunned to see him masterfully wise-cracking in high Cagney/O’Brien/Lee Tracy style. Only goes to show that as the WB ballyhoo machine frequently cranked out, the former Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund of the Yiddish theater can do anything. And, apparently, any woman (as NELLIE lasciviously suggests).

Muni is one of them ace news jockeys who screws up big time, relegating him to the worst-of-the-worst in journalism purgatory: being assigned to the lonely hearts column, under the nom de plume of Nellie Nelson. The joke of the paper, Muni – nose-fer-news maestro that he is – nevertheless smells a rodent in his stack of daily sob-sister weepies and uncovers a plot deep in political corruption, sexual shenanigans, and even grave-robbing. He not only solves a murder, but turns the Nellie gig into a national success. Muni has terrific support with the likes of Edward Ellis, Donald Meek, George Meeker and Harold Huber to back him up. And Sol Politio’s gritty B&W photography practically reeks of ink – the kind that never fully rubs off; ditto, the rat-tat-tat script by Abem Finkel and Sid Sutherland (from Roy Chanslor’s story) that barely leaves one a moment to catch a breath. Deco nightclub sequences picturesquely display some nifty background ditties, dutifully arranged by Ray Heindorf and Louis F. Forbstein and some bodacious babes decked out in togs by Orry-Kelly.  An almost inconceivable hybrid of Hecht and MacArthur with Nathaniel West, HI, NELLIE is funny, raucous, rude and lewd – the likes of which would be an impossibility to duplicate only a few scant months after this picture’s release.

Another last gasp pre-Code, DARK HAZARD, released in early 1934, is kinda fascinating insofar that the background stories outweigh the main crux of the narrative. For this, we can thank the cynical pen of W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar, Scarface, High Sierra, The Asphalt Jungle) who wrote the novel, and writers Ralph Block and Brown Holmes, who pounded out the screenplay. The title refers to a super-duper greyhound (an actual canine, not a bus), but also perfectly describes star Edward G. Robinson’s miserable home life. The swift direction is by the always reliable Alfred E. Green and the cinematography by the even more reliable Sol Polito.

First seen as happy-go-lucky gambler with his own crew winning and losing fortunes on the horses, Robinson’s Jim “Buck” Turner ably takes his medicine on “the” race that bankrupts him. He moves into a small-town boarding house run by a socially mobile battle-axe and her equally snooty but gorgeous daughter (Emma Dunn and Genevieve Tobin). Buck goes ga-ga for Tobin and she sees potential in the aggressive sharpie. Refusing to allow him to pursue his penchant for quick-money dreams, Tobin dictates that the now-married and harried couple end up living rent-free in a second-class hotel, where Robinson’s character toils as a desk clerk. His volatile behavior (wanting to bash unruly guests in the puss like the Warners trouper he is) gets him in hot water, but endears him to a rather abusive tough guy resident and his smooth shill (Sidney Toler and Gordon Westcott). This leads to a gig out in L.A. working at a new type of track – dogs, not ponies. And Eddie takes to it like a duck to water, reuniting with old buddies, seeing his personality come alive again, and making some real dough.

Key here is his collision with former lover Valerie, a hottie-as-hell performance by Glenda Farrell, who wants to pick up where they left off.

No gold-digger, Farrell is a cool, good-natured lass who sees her old pal suffering from a lousy marriage…and she’s got just the pep he needs. In one of the best scenes in the movie, she brings him up to her hotel room for a quickie, but, much to their chagrin, he can’t perform. “Sorry to disappoint you,” he says shamefully. Farrell bemoans the fact that he’s gone “decent on me,” and in a glorious post-script moment demands someone send up a porter to fill her needs. Once aroused, she’s got to have it!

Tobin, meanwhile, is treating Robinson like dirt (though taking the cash) and, baby in tow, leaves the poor schlub, heading back home to start an affair with local rich stuffed shirt Pres (George Meeker). It’s a mutual union of convenience, as money-bags is a closeted gay dude, a fact brought out in a subsequent exchange between Tobin and Robinson. When relating her new devotee’s finer points, she indicates that he has skin like a daisy. “Ya got the wrong flower!” retorts Robinson, as only he can.

But Buck’s return to his old lifestyle isn’t just embracing Val, it’s his affection for the title character (portrayed by War Cry, who actually gets big billing in the credits and trailer). Acquiring the pooch and Farrell, Robinson peaks-and-valleys with great aplomb, leaving us pre-Code addicts with the moral of the story: you don’t need a wife ‘n’ kid if it ain’t fun – and especially if you got Glenda Farrell and a party-on existence in the wings. Of course, once again, this would be totally unacceptable by the end of the year, as it (mostly) would in real life. Or maybe the hell not!

FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD, VOLUME 8.  Black and White [full frame; 1.37:1].  Mono audio.  CAT # 12946318; UPC # 888574122799.  SRP: $47.99.

 

Available exclusively through The Warner Archive Collection:  www.warnerarchive.com

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Oh No, They Didn’t!…: ‘Say Girls’ and Other Perks of Pre-Code Cinema

Between the dawn of the talkie era and June of 1934, Hollywood enjoyed a delirious moral laxity on-screen that almost equaled what was happening off-screen. Natch, the party-poopers (religious groups and politicos) couldn’t allow grown-ups to act like grown-ups, so they pulled the plug via the Production Code, enforcing phony family values upon an industry that lasted (with diminishing power) well into the 1960s. This brief but glorious preceding unbridled period has become affectionately tagged Pre-Code Hollywood – and has, in recent history, become probably the most revived and lovingly embraced half decade in American cinema. I worship these movies celebrating ranting disreputable citizenry: cheating slimeballs, loudmouth chorines, sexually depraved socialites, drug-addicted officials and the rest, and thereby salute Warner Archives for their continuing collection of pre-Code classics in their FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD series, of which Volumes Four and Five are must-have standouts. These eight movies are indispensable to collectors who revel at the sight of rolled-up stockings, raunchy dialogue and early appearances by superstars, who began their long careers as the reigning pre-Code kings and queens (James CagneyBarbara StanwyckKay FrancisWilliam PowellLoretta YoungJoan Blondell). FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD likewise gives viewers a terrific op to enjoy the thespian treats (and tricks) of many leading players who have since faded from the limelight, but who nonetheless deserve a peek (Warren WilliamGeorge BrentUna MerkelLyle Talbot, Helen Vinson).

Pre-Code movies are almost always populated by a species I catalogue as “Say Girls.” Say Girls are carnal-experienced broads, sorceresses of the saucy, who tend to precede every barb with the word, “Say.” In 2012, my good pal, writer Eve Golden, penned a fascinating read (part of her terrific Queen of the Dead series for The Daily Mirror) that delves into Say Girl extraordinaire Marjorie White (http://ladailymirror.com/2012/11/06/eve-golden-queen-of-the-dead-marjorie-white/). Say Girls have seen it all…and done it all. While Stanwyck may be the Say Girl Goddess, largely based on the cult status of 1932’s Baby Face, she has mucho competition. “Say, what are ya doin’ with my underwear?!” is a typical line, but there are far more colorful examples, some of which I can’t even print here. For example, novices to pre-Code pics are astounded at Ginger Rogers in 42nd Street (1933) being dubbed Anytime Annie (“Say,…she only said ‘no’ once and THEN she didn’t hear the question!”), or Joan Blondell verbally bitch-slapping Claire Dodd in ’33’s Footlight Parade  (Say, “…as long as they’ve got sidewalks YOU’VE got a job!”) They double-take at my personal fave, Ann Dvorak, wondering if she really did mouth that line to Lee Tracy (one of the unsung masters) about swallowing in 1932’s The Strange Love of Molly Louvain). Or how ‘bout Marlene Dietrich chiding a fellow showgirl, nicknamed Taxi, in 1932’s Blonde Venus (“Do you charge by the mile?”)?  The guys are no slouches either. Cagney jokes in Jimmy the Gent (1934) when he is told that a rival called him a prince (“Are you sure he said ‘prince’?”) And give Jack La Rue points in Virtue (1932) for revealing his joy of “dunking the doughnut.” Then there are the plotlines and situations themselves: pedophiles checking out L.A.’s Union Depot (1932) in the flick of the same name (likewise, Ward Bond raping an underage runaway in 1933’s Wild Boys of the Road); high-class heiress Frances Dee liking it rough in 1933’s Blood Money; ditto the appropriately-named Constance Cummings in ‘32’s Night After Night – practically having an orgasm at the thought of George Raft belting her around. 1934’s Fog Over Frisco opens with nightclub mobster Irving Pichel giving a sexy patron cunnilingus in his office; the same flick has middle-aged Douglass Dumbrille ravishing barely-legal Bette Davis (Dumbrille’s also the lucky dude getting a Men’s Room BJ from Stanwyck in Baby Face). And so it goes.

While Warner Bros. generally gets the kudos for pre-Code antics, all of the studios mounted the partying bandwagon. Legend has it that the last straw was jerked off with the 1933 release of Warner’s Convention City, a movie considered so nasty that (supposedly) all prints and negatives had to be destroyed (naturally, it’s become the pre-Code Holy Grail). But it wasn’t one title that did it – nor this one studio. Convention City’s notoriety aside, it was the lofty MGM’s atypical output that helped – often with the participation of Jean Harlow in Red Dust, Red-Headed Woman, red ANYTHING.  She also blow-torched the males in The Secret Six and Beast of the City. Metro also depicted vigorous jungle humping and bona-fide nudity in their first two Tarzan pictures, a castration in the now-lost cut of Freaks and a defiantly different look at generally squeaky-clean Anita Page in the way underrated Night Court (1932). Even Laurel & Hardy (whose Hal Roach shorts were distributed by MGM) offered some jaw-dropping exchanges in 1932’s Their First Mistake. When Oliver’s wife, Mae Busch, sues Stan for “…the alienation of Mr. Hardy’s affections,” Ollie explains, “…she thinks I think more of you than I do of her.” Laurel’s adamant response of  “Well, you DO, don’t you?” is followed by a sober “Well, we won’t get into that!” Concurrent was Fox’s triumphant return of Clara Bow to temporary box office eminence in Call Her Savage (1932), wherein the former It Girl cruises gay bars in the Village for laughs. More than Convention City or MGM, it was the sophisticated Paramount that helped seal pre-Code’s fate with two releases, I’m No Angel (or, more precisely, the emergence of Mae West) and The Story of Temple Drake, the first adaptation of William Faulkner‘s Sanctuary. In the former, an unscrupulous lion wrangler assures carny boss Edward Arnold that West is safer in his lion’s mouth than in her own bed, to which Arnold retorts, “I don’t doubt it!” In the latter, a kidnapped Southern belle is repeatedly violated by moonshining gangsters; imprisoned in a ramshackle hovel, she asks the only other woman why she locks her crying baby in a box. “Keeps the rats out.” she logically answers.  My addiction to these movies and the folks in them transcends pushing the edge; remember, I’m the guy who would love nothing more than invading post-1934 MGM and machine-gunning the entire Hardy family.

The eight titles in the two new pre-Code offerings may not be of the caliber of Baby Face or Blessed Event (another 1932 honey), but they do pack a wallop, are loaded with great stars and absolutely deserve a place in any serious classic library.

Volume Four is essentially a William Dieterle homage, as he directs three out of the quartet of naughty escapades, all of which were made in 1932. JEWEL ROBBERY reteams the stars of an earlier ’32 smash, One Way Passage, William Powell and Kay Francis. Francis and pal Helen Vinson are two adulterous members of Vienna aristocracy. “I’d deceive my husband with pleasure” is the movie’s mantra. Francis, who relishes her spouse’s lavish gifts, sparks “He’s giving it to me tonight” at the thought of treasured family jewels. Enter superior thief/lover Powell, who makes his unique escapes by having his victims smoke marijuana, thus disabling any pursuit. With a script by Erwin S. Gelsey and Bertram Bloch (based on a story by the great Ladislas Fodor), sparkling camerawork by Robert Kurrle and smooth direction (William Keighley was A.D.), JEWEL ROBBERY makes for some Lubitstch-inspired fun indeed. There’s also the added guilty pleasure of watching Francis wrestle with the dialogue purposely planted by the rude WB writing department (they nicknamed her “Wavishing Kay Fwancis” due to a speech impediment causing the actress to replace ‘r’s with ‘w’s). Some plums are “I can hear the gwavel cwunching,” whispered at the arrival of Powell, followed by “Are you weely going to steal my wing?” Finally, after a consensual seduction (under the wide-opened legs of female statuette), Francis huffs at her suspicious cuckolded husband, “You also think I wet the wobber go fwee?!” In short, it’s a wiot.

Dieterle, Kurrele and Powell return in LAWYER MAN, a tough, sleazy tale of a brilliant tenement shyster, whose rise to the top is hampered by his sex addiction, ultimately forcing him to become a mob mouthpiece (“If they want rats, I’ll be a rat – the daddy of all rats!”). Representing “dirty political fat-heads,” and defending corrupt health insurance companies ends up disgusting long-dedicated secretary Joan Blondell, but can true love win over a woman-obsessed p-hound? Justice literally is blinded in one sequence where a reformed and determined Powell is immediately deterred by a tight close-up pan of a passing woman’s ass. Waspy Powell’s speaking Yiddish almost trumps Cagney doing the same in Taxi (also 1932), except, unbelievably, it is implied that his character is supposed to be Jewish, underlined by his decision to go “back to my people.” Why Warners didn’t toss this to either Edward G. Robinson or Paul Muni (both under contract) remains a goyim conundrum.  “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” plays constantly on the soundtrack, providing a perfect audio allegory to the narrative. Cool to see the ever-suave Powell blackmailing violent gunsels Izzy and Spike (Allen Jenkins and Jack La Rue) into becoming his bodyguards!

Dieterle diwects Kay Francis once more in MAN WANTED, where she plays a mega-successful but sexually frustrated head of a fashion magazine. Although her approval of an open marriage with her cheating, sponging husband has its perks (the occasional nooner in the conference room), Francis realizes what she has been missing when she hires hunk David Manners as her personal assistant. Their meeting occurs when he demonstrates an exercise “woe-ing machine” in her office. A telling sequence begins with Manners’ boasting “I’ll show you what I can do,” causing hubby’s framed photo to be accidentally smashed which is followed by a montage of his rapidly rising paychecks. With a Robert Lord script and Gregg Toland photography, MAN WANTED is loaded with sneering and leering in substantial doses. An included trailer informs us that this is a picture about High-Jinks in High Society…that She Loved Her Husband…but a MAN was WANTED. Besides, how can one resist a movie where Manners’ best friend (and sloppy seconds recipient) Andy Devine is the voice of reason?

Manners negates his name in the final entry, THEY CALL IT SIN, based on a novel by Alberta Stedman Eagan (screenplay by Lillie Hayward and Howard J. Greene); as a womanizing exec, engaged to the daughter of his firm’s president, he’s pushin’ the cushion with small-town hottie Loretta Young (Manners’ shameful behavior is a probable WTF culture-shock reality check for classic movie fans who tend to know him only from his heroic turns in Universal horror vehicles, Dracula and The Mummy). Admittedly, Loretta Young is an acquired taste; the fact that she started as a 14-year-old starlet in the silents (emoting opposite the likes of middle-aged Lon Chaney) and was still playing romantic roles into the 1950s is a testament to her longevity. No doubt, she was a knockout, but never so much as in her Warners pre-Code movies; her ludicrous off-camera morality hypocritically clashed with the fact that she swung enough to have an out-of-wedlock baby with Clark Gable.  Insult to injury, Young would annoyingly walk around sets with a Cursing Jar, stalking and forcing cast and crew to cough up penalty money every time they uttered four-letter epithets.  The star’s precious replacement phrases irritated coworkers for decades; while Young’s cringing “Go fudge yourself,” happily takes on a meaning all its own, it was character actress Doris Singleton (Carolyn Appleby on the I Love Lucy series) who delivered the ultimate precision-sharpened skewer.  Citing Young as one of the few negative aspects of her career, a fed up Singleton finally confronted the Oscar-winner toward the end of a shoot and, in front of the whole company, announced, “Here’s a twenty, Loretta, go fuck yourself!”

Ah, but leave us blissfully return to SIN. Ravishing in Orry-Kelly garb, Young is a frantic Sunday church-going patron, furiously pumping the house organ. Revealed to be “illegitimate trash,” she flees to New York for a reunion with her married lover, eventually becoming the mistress of scumbag Broadway producer Louis Calhern and the roommate of breezy leg-spreading showgirl Una Merkel (with the enticing moniker of Dixie Dare!). “I’ll keep the wires hot, honey,” she promises…all the while being eyed by physician George Brent. Directed by Thornton Freeland and with camerawork by James Van Trees, SIN, as if one needs any further explanation, is a wink/wink, nudge/nudge hoot!

Volume Five rules on star power alone. “Don’t get your pants in an uproar!” is the credo of HARD TO HANDLE, a 1933 pip starring James Cagney as a dubious “promoter” in Depression America. First seen shilling a West Coast Marathon Dance contest (“There must be someone honest somewhere?!” is countered with “Not in Southern California!”), he invents a bogus reducing-cream diet plan after he heads toward New York (where else?) to crash the PR agency racket (“The public’s like a cow bellowing to be milked!” he exclaims). The point that Cagney doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb is due to part that everyone in this movie is corrupt. “What does it take for someone to drop dead?” is a question raised early-on and very nearly answered via a barrage of shady business deals, sexual shenanigans and a general fleece fest of playing the players. It’s swiftly directed by Mervyn LeRoy before he went to MGM and promptly forgot everything Warners taught him. A peppy trailer in included, utilizing alternate takes.

A Say Girl extravaganza, 1933’s LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT, directed by William Keighley, features slick con artist Barbara Stanwyck having the grotesque misfortune of being smitten with grating righteous do-gooder Preston Foster, who ends up tossing her into San Quentin. This is where the movie really takes off, as Stany becomes the stir’s toughest cookie alongside cellmate Lillian Roth (who croons “If I Could Be With You” to a photo of Joe E. Brown!). Her assimilation into prison life is a heave-“ho” delight, as fish Roth introduces her to the former Madame of a “beauty and manicure parlor,” (hand jobs a specialty!), a psycho skank obsessed with Foster (Dorothy Burgess) and the local lesbian contingent (“Hmmmm, HMMMMM!” offers Stanwyck, shaking her head at the sight of a butch cigar-chomping con). And only at Warners could a prisoner address a letter simply to “Lefty,” and have it astonishingly find its way to his mitts. “St. Louis Blues” dominates the soundtrack, as the desperate women bemoan Roth’s lament: the “two things you want most: freedom and MEN!” Stanwyck’s disgust with reformer Foster (infected with a case of “too much deaconing!”) is supplanted by her stupendous snap at a relentless detective, her own American Javert: “For a dumb dick, you got the memory of an elephant!”

A sleazier run-through for Nightmare Alley (if one can even imagine such a thing!), 1933’s THE MIND READER, directed by Roy Del Ruth and starring Warren William as the most slippery of con men, is a startling peeper-protractor, to say the least.

With his dedicated crew (the ubiquitous Allen Jenkins and a decidedly modern slick Clarence Muse), William abandons his penny-ante existence to enter the big-time world of swami mystic fortune telling. Bilking rubes left and right sans remorse (with murder and suicide the results) makes William super-rich, eventually enabling him invade the Park Avenue crowd, where he specializes in blackmailing adulterous members of the 400 (“…relieving the Depression for divorce lawyers”). His seduction of an underaged girl can’t be helped, as she has “…curves like the Third Avenue El!” That this ultimately becomes the most positive aspect of his character is a nod to William’s “I don’t know – why don’t I HATE this guy!” likeability. His rise and fall…and rise…and fall makes for some engrossing yo-yo cinema, nicely appended by oodles of atmospheric Sol Polito photography.

Cashing in on the early 1930s horror craze, 1932’s MISS PINKERTON, based on a Mary Roberts Rinehart novel, delivers da goods in spades – effortlessly mixing old-dark-house thrills with snappy Warners banter. This is due to star Joan Blondell as a nurse who agrees to go undercover for detective George Brent in a manse filled with wealthy victims, suspects, phantoms and more twists than a corkscrew (an early script-writing gig for Niven Busch who shares the duties with veteran Lillie Hayward). A rogue’s gallery of creepy faces (including C. Henry Gordon and Elizabeth Patterson) beautifully compliment the liberal helpings of raised goose flesh, salty wisecracks, tied-up loose ends, looser babes (Mary DoranRuth Hall), sliding doors and slamming shutters. Furthermore, Barney McGill’s Expressionistic cinematography visually matches Blondell’s Frankenstein references, which are doubly played up in the supplemental trailer.

All eight titles in these two sets (each selection in on its own separate disc) hail from the original 35mm black and white elements; they are the best surviving materials on these pictures and, thankfully, are in pretty good to excellent condition. “Say, stop gabbin’ and start grabbin’!”

FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD: VOLUMES 4 AND 5: Black and White; Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio; DVD-R; dual layer.

Available on http://www.warnerarchive.com
Warner Home Video. SRP each 4-disc set:  $47.99

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Opposites Attract

Granted, Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr Crusoe-ing it on a Pacific atoll sounds like an SNL sketch stretched to the limits of credibility. That said, 1957’s HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON (now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment), directed by John Huston, unspools a beautifully-realized drama of two folks finding compassion and trust as they battle the elements (and the Japanese) during the final lap of WWII.

The above, in a nutshell, basically comprises the entire plot of the picture. How it came together is just as entertaining, and definitely far more unbelievable. Watching ALLISON today, the CinemaScope adventure-drama looks like a slam-dunk. Bummy Mitchum, sole survivor of a torpedoed destroyer, washes ashore on a supposedly deserted island. There he meets nun Kerr whose superior died, leaving her the only human inhabitant. This oil and (holy) water mix eventually blends nicely and, buttressed by some laffs, seems like this pair could likely sit out the war in ham…errr harmonious comfort. Until those pesky Japanese arrive to build a camp. As the pair elude, take advantage of and even help defeat this armed-to-the-buck-teeth battalion, ALLISON moves from intimate two-character piece to incendiary action suspense pic. Indeed, the wind-up comprises a large-scale pyrotechnic tour de force, worthy of the space CinemaScope was hyped and designed for – and it truly doesn’t disappoint.

Natch, this African Queen combo couldn’t have suited Huston more; yet, he was among the last to be tossed the project.

In the wake of Huston’s 1951 smash Bogart-Hepburn hit, Hollywood moguls paced their cells like the predatory animals they are in an effort to replicate Queen’s success. The publication of the ALLISON novel by Charles Shaw set off a feeding frenzy. John Wayne and his Batjac Production company was the first to bite, then William Wyler took a flyer, seeing it as a vehicle for his Detective Story star Kirk Douglas. The most interesting of the what-could-have-beens was when the picture was announced as a Clark Gable title, to be directed by Anthony Mann.

Finally, Fox’s foxy Buddy Adler threw his hands up in a “WTF-were-we-thinking?” display of shameless lightning-strikes-twice promotion and Frisbee-ed the concept to Huston, whom they should have approached in the first place anyway.

John Huston, who didn’t want to repeat himself, was nonplussed by the idea, to say the least. Nothing about HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON appealed to him except the paycheck. Huston, by this time, had relocated to Ireland, where he lived a Lord of the Manor lifestyle in his own castle. This didn’t come cheap, and, reluctantly, the writer-director signed a multi-picture deal with Fox, which he regretted before the ink was dry. He considered all three completed Fox pics disasters, and, yes, each was beset by horrific problems of logistics and personality clashes – although the triad kept him out of Hollywood (which was a prime incentive aside from the moolah, as it was the land that bastardized his Red Badge of Courage), taking him to Tahiti (ALLISON), Japan (The Barbarian and the Geisha) and Africa (The Roots of Heaven). Actually, I like all of these movies; in fact, I love the latter two. Barbarian was long-considered the worst experience ever endured by either Huston or star John Wayne. Roots had multiple scheduling mishaps, resulting in the loss of a major star lead.

Why ALLISON was so frowned upon by Huston can only be attributed to the repeat performance/African Queen analogy, as it was the only one of the Fox pictures to garner critical and audience approval.

With great trepidation, Huston jettisoned the original treatment and took off for San Francisco with cowriter John Lee Mahin in an attempt to fashion a suitable screenplay. The arrival of a fellow Huston cohort (aka, drinking buddy) turned the tide, as the assignment quickly devolved into a drunken orgy – the kind “dreams are made of.” So much so, that Huston barely remembered how he got home one night – a minor detail when later told that he paraded naked through the lobby of one of Frisco’s premier hotels. Things were looking up.

Finally convinced he had a shootable script, Huston prepared to nail down the Tobago and Tahiti locations, after securing an appropriate cast. Deborah Kerr as Sister Angela was a given, possibly because Huston bought in to the theory that post-Black Narcissus, she came with her own nun’s habit (he would parody her prim and proper screen persona in the loopy 1967 Casino Royale, where her nun character is revealed to be a sexually deviant spy).

Mitchum was another matter entirely. Having just finished four months in Tobago (filming Fire Down Below with Rita Hayworth, which should have been the complete title), he was instructed to repack his Bermuda shorts and for a return trip. This was okie-dokie for Bob, as he enjoyed himself immensely traipsing amongst the islands, immersing himself in the culture with such fervor that he would record an LP entitled Calypso – Is Like So. He was also pleased to be working with Huston, which soured slightly when the actor discovered that the director had secretly campaigned for Marlon Brando, who was unavailable.

The director had heard that Mitchum was a problem, and didn’t warm to the idea of being a wet-nurse to a belligerent loudmouth bastard (generally assumed to be Huston’s sole domain).

But Robert Mitchum was an unusual animal – a man of many masks. The Robert Mitchum on an Otto Preminger or Henry Hathaway picture was not the Robert Mitchum on a Nick Ray or Vincente Minnelli show. Huston, at least on the outset, was somewhere in-between. The director was absolutely awed and thrilled by the star’s work, particularly following an especially grueling sequence where Mitchum had to belly-crawl shirtless through a marsh (a specialty, later reprised in Cape Fear). Not satisfied with takes one, two and three, (“a little bit more, Bob – a little bit more…”) Huston commanded a fourth run (or slither) and nearly fainted at the conclusion, when, after his approval, noticed that his leading man was drenched in blood, having been sliced and diced by wreaths of nettles. “Difficult, my ass!”, shouted Huston, who, thereafter, couldn’t sing his praises high enough. Mitchum’s response was his typical shrugged assessment of his profession, “It sure beats working.”

Yet, Mitchum, too, had his reservations about the picture, primarily his costar Kerr. Buying into her screen hype, Mitchum wasn’t looking forward to walking on eggshells for a couple of months around some puritan bluenose. This ended memorably after a rather torturous scene, where Kerr went off on Huston, spewing epithets that even Mitchum had never heard. Doubled up with laughter, he fell backwards into the surf. The two stars bonded admirably after that, becoming lifelong friends and costarring in three more movies (and one TV-movie).

Huston likewise formed friendships with both leads, noting Kerr’s “nettles” moment in a swamp. Having to remain motionless in a mound of mud and ooze, and, to quote Huston “full of snakes and queer little animals” unnerved her to the point of passing out.  Kerr said nothing and performed like the trouper she was. Only years later, on Night of the Iguana, did she tell Huston that the experience gave her nightmares, some recurring to that day.

One of the other foibles that occurred during HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON was the wily natives’ insistence that the movie people try their local cuisine, specifically a local delicacy known as long pig. Long pig, it turned out, was island slang for human flesh, and, in the case of the ALLISON company, rumored to categorically be relegated to white meat. Decades later, in 1983, when Huston received his AFI Life Achievement Award, he recounted this anecdote – disturbingly underlined by a cut to Mitchum in the audience, silently mouthing the words “lonnnggg pig” with way too much uncomfortable lip-smacking amusement (the idea of cannibal Robert Mitchum is far too frightening to contemplate).

Another more lethal aspect of HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON came from the negligence of Huston & Co. themselves. In the aforementioned action sequence, special effects and detonation crew members heinously miscalculated the numerous explosions and fireworks (due, in part, to wires soaked during a previous night rainstorm). As Huston recounted in his posthumously published 1994 autobiography “(T)he whole damned thing went up, all at once. Not bang! bang! bang! like a string of bombs, but a great explosion that blinded and deafened us all.  The blast rocked our platform so violently that we were almost thrown off.  The camera was chained down, but it tore loose.  Rocks and debris showered all around us.  By some miracle, none of us were hurt, and the ‘troops’ had run clear of the blast area.”  Huston being Huston, he waited for the ground to dry, and demanded a retake, which “went off without a hitch.”

As the picture was a huge success, one wondered why it stuck like a craw in Huston’s side. When pressed for an answer, he couldn’t really say (after all, it was a box-office winner and forged long-lasting friendships with his two leads). Lamely, he at last admitted that the denial of pursuing a more adult approach to the situation hindered the narrative. Had he been able to make the picture twenty years later, it would have been a more rewarding endeavor; of course, Huston is referring to sexual shenanigans, therefore we must offer divine thanks he didn’t make it twenty years later! Nevertheless, once the production was announced – with Sister Kerr on a male-dominated location with revelers Huston and Mitchum – Fox immediately dispatched a censor to keep tabs on the goings-on (and offs). At least according to one account, it was the censor who ended up needing a censor.

The stunning cinematography in HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON is due to the bravura work of the great Oswald Morris (who had previous teamed with Huston on the landmark color productions of Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick). Despite the hardships of the protagonists (including the Japanese occupation), the movie looks like a vacation picture, awash in picture-postcard blue skies and waters and green, swaying palm trees (especially when compared to the horrors of the Ceylon shoot, concurrently inflicted by David Lean on River Kwai). Theatrical prints of ALLISON tended to fade rather quickly, the result of the awful and unstable DeLuxe Color. Film collectors fared better; DeLuxe wasn’t equipped to do 16mm work until mid-1957, so all scope prints were bussed over to Technicolor. These (now rare) copies always looked terrific, and much of that luster was effectively rendered onto the 35mm-transfer DVDs Fox mastered in the early 2000s. Suffice to say that the Twilight Time Blu-Ray obviously enhances the clarity to 1080p High Definition, popping the ebullient colors even more. The audio is nicely replicated as well, and contains a fine Georges Auric score (available as an isolated music and effects track). The movie was a US/UK co-production and Auric was a ubiquitous staple to 1950s British/French/Italian film music.

As Huston penned his memoirs, he apparently had a change of heart. Today, he stated, the movie “…is seldom referred to, but I think it was one of the best things I ever made.” HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON finally beat the devil.

HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  CAT# 903RJ0046HK; UPC # 851789003948.  SRP: $29.95.

Limited edition of 3000.  Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment:  www.screenarchives.com

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The Elephant in the Room

First off, let me state unequivocally that I love 1958’s THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN.  It is, along with The Asphalt Jungle and The Kremlin Letter, one of my favorite John Huston movies.   That it was chosen to become a Blu-Ray release in the wonderful limited edition Twilight Time series was like a dream come true for this rabid collector.

So what is THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN?  If it’s so great, why have most folks never heard of it?  Let’s reflect upon why this big-budget flop remains one of cinema’s greatest obscure treasures.  One – it’s a major motion picture starring Trevor Howard in the lead (which is good enough for me, but, in 1958, hardly a reason to line up at a reserved-seat picture palace).  Second – it’s an extremely progressive flick about animal rights, the environment and mankind’s shameless laissez-faire attitude toward its future.  Another non-starter in a year which also unfurled Nick Ray’s conservation disaster, Wind Across the Everglades.  But that was the Fifties; this is 2012 and the availability of THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN on Blu-Ray is what makes contemporary conservation (of the classic movie kind) so addictive and (for junkies like myself) so important.

In a nutshell, THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN chronicles a lunatic Frenchman (i.e., liberal) and his attempts to stop the senseless killing of elephants in French Equatorial Africa.  It’s an extremely political fight that pits him against the 1% super-rich defilers of the Earth – and starts a pro-mastodon movement that can only be termed as Occupy Ubangi.

How did such a movie get to the screen in 1958?  Simple – it was a John Huston project from the period where he could essentially do no wrong (his last Fox entry, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, racked up huge grosses).  Based on a best-selling novel by Romain Gary, the narrative was, if one believes the hype, one very close to the director’s soul.  Rather confusing when one considers that his previous adventures on the dark continent during the lensing of 1951’s The African Queen resulted in Peter Viertel’s scathing indictment White Hunter Black Heart – in which the obvious Huston-modeled character salivates at the prospect of bagging one of these magnificently noble tusk-bearing creatures.  Perhaps this outrage had a profound effect on the filmmaker who magically went all Schindler on the subject and suddenly became an out-and-out champion for animal rights, ecology and land preservation.

Huston nevertheless saw THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN as an opportunity to film a grand epic on-location, which delighted producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who blessed the project by deeming it a personal production – one that would carry his own DFZ logo brand.  This extended to his lead actress, the amazing Juliette Greco – then the latest in a series of Zanuck’s foxy Fox thesps, whom the powerful little letch vigorously groomed for stardom.  Greco, it should be happily underlined, was easily the crème de la crème of the group, a battle-weary quartet which comprised Bella DarviIrina Demick and Genevieve Gilles.

Even Huston’s most ardent supporters realized that for a picture of this magnitude Trevor Howard (superb as he is) in the lead would be a hard sell; his casting was one of the first of THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN’s many fascinating behind-the-scenes tales.

The entire package – animal rights, African locations, the saving of the planet – seemed almost tailor-made for passionate ecologist William Holden, then one of the industry’s hottest commodities.  So where was he?  Why wasn’t he offered this role?  Well, folks, he not was first-choice, but couldn’t wait to dust off his pith helmet.  The problem wasn’t merely his busy schedule but a conflicting arrangement with Paramount Pictures, to whom he still owed one picture.  Holden, who hadn’t worked for Paramount since 1954’s Sabrina, had spent an inordinately long time on-location in Ceylon filming The Bridge on the River Kwai; he then jetted to the UK, where he appeared in the Carol Reed drama The Key – opposite Howard and Sophia Loren.  When Paramount heard that he was hyped to shoot for months in Africa – they balked.  Under no circumstances was he to be off American shores for an extended period of time.  They offered him two upcoming scripts, The Jayhawkers, a western, and The Trap, a modern crime flick – both of which he turned down (eventually filmed with Jeff Chandler and Richard Widmark, respectively).  Holden was also already slated to appear with John Wayne in John Ford’s Civil War extravaganza The Horse Soldiers.  Paramount’s decree:  no more pictures till you do one for us.  So, dejected and depressed, Holden very reluctantly withdrew from THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN.  He wouldn’t appear in a Paramount Picture until 1960’s The World of Suzie Wong, which he followed with The Counterfeit Traitor, both sizable hits.

It’s likely that during the shooting of The Key, co-star Trevor Howard got wind of the Huston project; while many actors would renege on a long and arduous shoot, Howard was a game fellow who relished a dare…often because, like Holden, he was generally three sheets to the wind.

With Howard signed, the Fox publicity machine went into full-gear upping supporting star Errol Flynn to top-billing and relegating Howard to character status under Greco.  Flynn, whose role is limited but juicy, considered this, his last appearance in an A-picture, one of his finest performances.  He wasn’t wrong; as a drunken guilt-ridden soldier of fortune, the swashbuckler is pretty friggin’ great.  His subtle transformation to sobriety during the course of events is a textbook masterpiece, a veritable Acting for Rummies manual of arms.

Greco, the object of everyone’s affections, is another big plus.  Essentially the “beautiful woman” in the picture’s thankless girl role, the singer-actress takes Minna (her character) to another dimension via her sensual curiosity and ultimate dedication to the “save the planet” cause.  Minna’s bitterness as a former Nazi sex slave in a Reichstag doll house, we learn, wasn’t helped during her subsequent “liberation” by the Russians, French and Americans…sort of a UN Crackerjack pass-around pack.  It’s astounding that she can walk – let alone march in protest.

And then there’s Orson Welles, as hotshot safari-ravenous TV honcho Cy Sedgewick.  How he morphs from conservative to conservationist constitutes perhaps THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN‘s most memorable moment.  In an extraordinary sequence, Welles, or rather Welles’ formidable ass, redefines the potential of CinemaScope, as Huston and d.p. Oswald Morris fill the rectangular screen with the actor’s humongous derriere seconds before it gets pummeled with buckshot.

Indeed, years later, when the picture premiered on NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies, my parents wandered by the TV as the opening scene faded in.  “Oh, that’s the picture where Orson Welles gets shot in the ass!” they exclaimed with apparent sadistic glee.  Someone at the station must have had a sense of humor, as I believe the preceding pic was Rear Window.

What makes THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN additionally inviting is the outstanding supporting cast.  Eddie Albert as a Robert Capa-esque photographer who joins the group is excellent, as are Herbert Lom and Gregoire Aslan as slimy kill-crazy capitalists.  Then there’s Paul Lukas, always good, as a mediator who likewise signs up for pachyderm justice.  Most remarkable is Edric Connor as a publicity-hungry black nationalist opportunist who aligns his bogus Free Africa Movement with Howard’s band as a violent means to achieve fame and power.

The fact that all the characters rave on about their inherent beliefs ratchets up the loon factor.  Howard valiantly announces that he’d “…like to BE an elephant.” while Lukas heralds the theory that he is to be reincarnated as a tree.  What’s there NOT to love?

The location filming in the Belgian Congo proved to be extremely torturous; virtually everyone in the cast and crew developed a myriad of Olympian malaise that encompassed everything from hurling to full-blown 100-yard dash dysentery.  As similar problems befell his African Queen company, Huston eagerly resorted to previous tactics.  Only he and star Humphrey Bogart survived the ordeal by negating any beverage other than Scotch.  This routine once again rescued the director, as well as notorious imbibers Howard and Flynn.  Everyone else had to fend for themselves.

On another quasi-tragic note, Zanuck, even before the ink on the contracts was dry, realized that he had made a grievous error by consigning his newest girlfriend to a months-long shoot in a faraway locale; gasping at the thought of Greco, alone in the wilds with such infamous p-hounds as Huston, Flynn, Howard and Albert culminated in his last minute announcement that the production was one of such importance…that he would personally accompany the unit to Africa, where he would remain throughout the duration of the filming.  This particularly confounded Flynn, who couldn’t have cared less – having negotiated to bring his latest squeeze, 15-year-old Beverly Aadland, along for the ride.  Aadland’s 1988 reminiscences of the odyssey not surprisingly circle around her getting “…dysentery the second week.” Flynn attempted to buffer her discomfort by presenting “…me [with] a baby mongoose” and the promise of adapting Nabokov’s Lolita as a movie in which the she and the cradle-rocker would co-star.  This intriguing Tracy-Hepburn pairing was eventually diluted to 1959’s far-less lofty Cuban Rebel Girls, spearheaded by the pro-Castro actor eight months before his demise at the age of 50.

The release of THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN upon the confused 1958 populace had the Fox suits in a panic.  While the reviews were mixed, the movie-goers weren’t:  they stayed away in droves.  This was an especially devastating negative one-two punch for Huston, whose other 1958 Fox title, the much-anticipated John Wayne period piece The Barbarian and the Geisha likewise tanked big time – the only post-war Duke pic to barely break even.  As far as the powers-that-be were concerned, it would take nothing less than an act of God to bring Huston back to Fox; and so it came to pass when eight years later he begat The Bible.  The director’s prospective future dream of “I’d like to take another crack at THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN” had all of California running for the hills.

The studio’s publicity machine immediately swung into action – generating reams of copy featuring Flynn in full great white hunter regalia…and even re-writing the scenario to highlight a non-existent lust-and-sex orgy aspect.  Drastically-revised ads displayed a groveling Flynn pawing at a near-naked Greco under the deceptive ROOTS OF HEAVEN headline.  As the book’s title referred to the eventual polluting of our planet and not Juliette Greco, this alternative campaign, to say the least, didn’t sit well with author Gary.

Perhaps the most amusing tie-in was the release of a photo, under the caption:  Producer Zanuck and director Huston enjoy the wonders of the African location.  The picture in question showed Huston cavorting with a topless native woman (only if one looked close could they spy Zanuck, standing in the background chomping on his omnipresent cigar).

As one might expect, the Twilight Time Blu-Ray of THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN looks terrific.  Of course, all those old pan-and-scan grainy TV prints were and are totally useless.  And for years the only scope print I had ever seen was beet red.  Recently the movie surfaced in widescreen on The Fox Movie Channel – and it looked good, but, need I even have to say, that this disc blows it away.  The clarity brings out every craggy gray wrinkle of the targeted beasts – but enough about Howard and Flynn, I mean the elephants too.  The colors are vibrant and spectacular.  Images of Howard majestically walking amongst the elephants (no rear screen, folks) are awesomely incredible.

The audio brings up an interesting matter.  The specs state that the sound is mono; yet Malcolm Arnold’s score seems to bellow from the left and right speakers with the dialogue coming from the center channel (I know the picture was released in stereo).  The score is typical of the professionalism of Arnold, who basically was the sound of British cinema during this period.  His striking Minna’s Theme is eminently both lovely and haunting; like all Twilight Time titles, the music is accessible as an IST (Isolated Score Track).

Please note that, as indicated above, THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN is a limited edition of 3000; so grab a copy now before, like Howard’s beloved elephants, they threaten to become extinct.

THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN.  Color.  Letterboxed [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition].

Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com].  SRP: $29.95.

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Effing Scott Fitzgerald

Nothing says “I love you” more than concocting a rose-colored version of an abusive relationship with a drunken (albeit brilliant) lout. So, if waking up in a puddle of your partner’s feces and vomit translates to “warm and fuzzy,” swoon ethereally to the SAE website and pick up your limited edition Blu-Ray of 1959’s BELOVED INFIDEL, now available through Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

This lush production of a lush protagonist was adapted by Sy Barlett from bogus British socialite-turned-Hollywood-gossip columnist Sheilah Graham‘s best-selling reminiscence, chronicling her dangerous liaison with famed author F. Scott Fitzgerald. The subject matter couldn’t have been better suited to the talents of “and with” co-writer Gerold Frank, who created a cottage industry for himself by assisting celebrated fragile, self-destructive women in their true-life shame-on-you tales; his other demi-credits include I’ll Cry Tomorrow (Lillian Roth) and Too Much, Too Soon (Diana Barrymore); his solo piece de resistance would literally be the last word on female peril, The Boston Strangler. Frank indeed lived up to his name – although more than half of his scoop-friendly findings were, in reality, scooper-friendly droppings. BELOVED INFIDEL is no exception.

Purporting to be the true story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest romances, BELOVED INFIDEL becomes one of 20th Century-Fox’s greatest fantasies, an unrealistic look at a horrid coupling that became a Hollywood legend simply because one participant was dead and the other made a living out of stretching the truth. The movie is nevertheless extremely entertaining, due to its lavish oversized CinemaScope production values and overpaid popcorn-selling stars. Admittedly, it all works; even as we viewers shake our heads in disbelief, we’re eating up every elegantly wrapped nugget of soap operatic schmaltz. The movie is nothing less than the anti-Christ template for Lifetime and Hallmark TV-feature bios (think the recent Liz and Dick debacle or such notorious Seventies big-screen pulp as Gable and Lombard and W.C. Fields and Me), except wayyy better made. For this, we must thank veteran director Henry King, known essentially for being Mr. Americana (Tol’able David; Ramona; In Old Chicago; Alexander’s Ragtime Band; Jesse James, Little Old New York; Maryland; Chad Hanna; Wilson), but who, on occasion, would lower the bar to collect sizable paychecks for smoothly-churned fertilizer.

In the world according to Graham, BELOVED INFIDEL is not simply pap – it’s a pap smear, managing to make her the valiant victim/heroine and Fitzgerald the unstable Jekyll/Hyde monster. It’s also a Hallowood (that’s the hybrid of Hollywood and Halloween) tour de farce; by that I mean it’s the type of faux biography where everyone, save the principles, has phony names as not to ignite libel lawsuits – a charade that encompasses non-existent studios and fake motion pictures– so much so that we’re amazed that they kept the original Fitzgerald titles (I was really expecting Scott to be cited as the pro-creator of such seminal works as This Side of Parasites and Tender is the Nut). The real-life Graham and Fitzgerald resembled character actors Brenda de Banzie and Roscoe Karns, but, unless you’re playing Lincoln or Hitler, that stuff don’t fly in Lotus Land, so we’re treated to the far more desirable makeovers of Deborah Kerr and Gregory Peck. It’s one of those extravagant recreations of the 1930s where only the automobiles got the memo; clothing, hair and everything else is pure Sputnik era.

This brings us to the rest of the cast. In spite of making the personification of the studio mogul Stan Harris a more appropriate wearer of the moniker “beloved infidel,” the ridiculousness of the articulate father confessor as portrayed by Herbert Rudley (a supposed composite of Louis B. Mayer, Sam Goldwyn and Darryl Zanuck) has the opposite effect. “Far be it for me to tell F. Scott Fitzgerald how to write,” exclaims Rudley to Peck before he “Rudley” bounces him out on his erudite ass. It doesn’t take even the least sophisticated audience member to immediately and correctly surmise, “What a schmuck!” While this sort of did happen, it is relevant to note that the movies Fitzgerald worked on at MGM (Red-Headed Woman; Three Comrades; A Yank at Oxford; The Women) were successful enough to not toss the screenwriter entirely out in the cold; it was the author’s uncontrollable alcoholism that certainly played a significant part in his being pegged as unreliable. Suffice to say, that in this scenario, it is Graham who not only strives to get Scott further gigs, but inspires him to pen The Last Tycoon. “They are us!” she squeals with delight upon reading galleys introducing Monroe Stahr and Kathleen Moore. Oy!

The most prominent supporting player in this piece is third wheel Robert Carter (in reality, humorist Robert Benchley), enacted with aplomb by Eddie Albert. Albert, who ends up being nursemaid to Peck’s Scott made a sidebar career of these parts – doing likewise for Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow and Frank Sinatra in The Joker is Wild. Patience was indeed a virtue for the actor, as his discernible expertise at handling bizarre screwballs handily served him well for future interacting with Lisa, Eb, Hank Kimball, Mr. Haney, Alf and Ralph and Arnold the Pig.

The last cog worth mentioning is Philip Ober as yet another beloved infidel, hotshot New York editor/publisher John Wheeler. That Ober becomes Kerr’s best friend and supporter is a tad frightening, as he was the heartless bastard/husband who turned her into a slut in From Here to Eternity (in real-life he was the heartless bastard/husband who regularly belted wife Vivian Vance into near-unconsciousness). In fact, in the Hollywood of BELOVED INFIDEL, everybody is supportive and everybody loves everyone…Just one big happy non-backstabbing family – and we all know how true that is!

The From Here to Eternity connection isn’t merely a merry accident. Possibly the decade’s most famous lusty image was of Kerr and Burt Lancaster foaming up the surf on the beaches of Hawaii. This visual did not elude the filmmakers of BELOVED INFIDEL. Happily, much of the action takes place on the sandy shores of California, and the producers were savvy enough to make the key poster art another ocean connubial rendering, comprising beach bunny Kerr and Peck (Kerr must have had a beach clause in her contract; two years earlier, she also ended up wet ‘n’ wild with Robert Mitchum in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison – this time in her other trademark garb, the Black Narcissus nun’s habit). Kerr’s eyebrow-raising emoting subsequently redefines “beach wear,” significantly when a hysterical, incoherent Graham zigzags amidst the tide like Baby Jane Hudson.

Peck generally plays Scott at his most reserved best. One can logically perceive that it’s a combination of various events which trigger his kwazy downward spiral into Pauley Shore territory…His termination as a screenwriter, his cloying pre-Facebook-like adulation by a groupie aboard an airplane…all good candidates…But, for me, the most probable culprit responsible for his doom is none other than Graham herself, or, more precisely her condescending treatment of this obviously tortured individual (it appears that the only bona fide euphoric happenstance in their relationship was a wild weekend in Tijuana, duly recreated, burro and all, and historically evidenced by vintage photographs). Now here readers are probably thinking, “Damn, it’s getting deep-dish serious…No more fun.” Au contraire! It’s exactly at this juncture that BELOVED INFIDEL ratchets up the fun-in-dysfunctional factor, where the movie underlines the la-la in La La Land in bold, delirious moronic strokes.

At first, for example, we’re ready to throw projectiles at the screen every time Scott refers to Graham as “She-lo,” a pet nickname that was their mating call. Once or twice – okay – but 90,000 utterances…HELP. This unintentionally becomes one of the movie’s strong points – specifically when She-lo realizes she’s dating LiLo. “Oh, Scott, what AM I going to do with you?” scolds a patronizing Kerr to a stumbling, drunken, word-slurring Peck after he demolishes Graham’s important business meeting. It’s as if she discovered that he just pooped on the rug like an untrained puppy (which, in all fairness, the real Scott may have actually done). Yet this is only the preamble to the picture’s severely hyped beach-bitch-slapping sequence, precipitated when She-lo demands to know why her lover has invited what appear to be two members of the Manson family to move in with them at their seaside hideaway. Once Peck starts looking like an ad for Spellbound, the picture takes off like a drone missile.

What causes Scott’s fatal demise is perhaps the most shocking portion of the movie. Apparently it was due to attending a sneak preview of That Night in Rio; the sight of Don Ameche – let alone two split-screen Don Ameches (or is it Amechi?) – instantly sends The Great Gatsby author into a screaming, agonizing semi-coma. It is the pic’s most believable moment.

BELOVED INFIDEL wasn’t quite the blockbuster smash everyone thought it would be. That said, it did well enough (due mostly to the popularity of the two stars) to garner a mild following throughout the fifty-plus years since its release. The confusing dual promotion may have had something to do with its lackluster performance in 1959; simultaneous advertising displayed a Ralph Waldo Emerson “To die for Beauty, than live for bread” lovers-on-the-beach-one-sheet in sharp contrast with the Ralph Waldo Kramden “BANG-ZOOM! You’re goin’ to the moon!” woman-thrashing-half-sheet.  Moreover, a year heralding more grownup-oriented fare like Anatomy of a Murder and Room at the Top undoubtedly helped put the lid on the coffin. The movie did a bit better overseas – where in some markets it was entitled Adorable Infidel, implying a wacky romantic comedy…which, depending how one chooses to look at it, isn’t really that far off base.

So what about the Blu-Ray? Not surprisingly, it looks darn good. The beauteous CinemaScope cinematography of Leon Shamroy likely is more impressive in this slightly muted transfer than in its original DeLuxe colored presentation (on the downside, there is a faint occasional bit of visual shaking whenever a character moves across the rectangular frame, as if the disc was mocking its d.t.-fueled male lead). Another genuinely commendable virtue of the B-D is the audio, particularly a sumptuous Franz Waxman score recorded in 4.0 stereo-surround (and, like all TT platters, accessible as an IST isolated score track).  A sappy accompanying song, with lyrics by the prolific Paul Francis Webster, plays like a Mel Brooks parody, and, thus, is in tune with the proceedings.

The bottom line is that if you’re seeking an accurate account of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last days, you are sternly advised to look elsewhere. After all, conjugal history aside, relying on Sheilah Graham to present a proper a depiction of the author’s life is not dissimilar to Anna Nicole Smith publishing A Geo-Political Guide to America’s Involvement in Viet Nam. If, on the other hand, its fast food Hollywood confection you crave, BELOVED INFIDEL makes for one fine slurpy.

BELOVED INFIDEL. Color. Letterboxed [2.35:1]; 1080p High Definition; 4.0 stereo-surround; DTS-HD MA.

Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  Limited Edition of 3000. Available exclusively at Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com]. SRP: $29.95

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Trinity Finds Andy Hardy

Personally, the idea of a movie about Mickey Rooney exposed to lethal doses of radiation is mouth-watering manna from heaven for me. Bonus points being that it’s played for laughs. But seriously, folks, that’s the premise for the zany 1954 Republic comedy THE ATOMIC KID, now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

In the post-war, post-nuclear, and, most importantly, post-Martin & Lewis wake known as the early 1950s, buddy comedies flourished. This was primarily the result of a chain reaction wherein virtually every studio from MGM to Monogram passed on Dean and Jerry – a mistake that Hal Wallis and Paramount cashed in on mightily, as the duo became the most financially successful movie twosome of all time.

In an effort to rectify this grievous error, Hollywood bent over backwards to scour the planet for M&L clones, occasionally literally doing so with lookalikes Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo.

Mickey Rooney, long past his sell-by date, had soured as a major cinema attraction and was eking out a living cranking out B-product for Columbia, Universal-International and his old alma mater Metro. With scant results. In 1953, MGM had paired him with Eddie Bracken, announcing a grand new team in the blandly entertaining A Slight Case of Larceny.

But Rooney had plans of his own. While knocking out a minor musical at Columbia (All Ashore), the Mick approached director Richard Quine and his buddy, screenwriter Blake Edwards, about latching on to a possible Martin & Lewis clone franchise. Quine stealthily sneaked off, but Edwards took the bait and fashioned the story (which evolved into the final script from John Fenton Murray and Benedict Freedman).

A modern update of the “hero by no fault of his own” scenario, THE ATOMIC KID (although at 34, hardly a kid) tread ground previously honed by Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. But sufficiently dumbed down (okay, fair’s fair – it IS a tiny tot picture). In it, Rooney plays bummy “Blix” Waterberry, who along with his equally slovenly pal Stan (Robert Strauss) fantasizes scoring as a uranium prospector. Little do they know that they have stumbled upon an army test site, and when Rooney retires to convenient empty house for the night, the schmuck has no idea that he’s in the designated target area. And it’s blown to smithereens. Inconceivably, he somehow survives, and is immediately whisked away to a military hospital for observation.

It’s here that the kind of stuff that usually happened to Huntz Hall manifests itself upon the scruffy ill-mannered lawn gnome. These changes cause Stan to go all Bud Abbott on him, exploiting his pal for fame and fortune – a super-duper plus when a visit to Vegas reveals that Rooney’s mere presence around slot machines causes them “to give.” Why Edwards avoided the obvious, FX-ing the star’s much-joked upon size by having him grow to amazing colossal man proportions remains one for the books, but is likely due to the budget (or lack of).

How Strauss and Rooney manage to elude the entire U.S. military is never logically explained, but, then again, this isn’t exactly The Best Years of Our Lives (literally or figuratively). Besides, they do return to the hospital for further examination. It’s significant to mention that many of the visual puns in the movie are pure Edwards, and often pop up in his subsequent Pink Panther forays. One gag, Rooney’s sexual arousal causing him to actually glow, is a G-rated embryonic precursor to the only yuk in Skin Deep. And this needs additional mentioning, as it involves the female lead, Elaine Davis – who also requires additional mentioning. Davis is a drop-dead gorgeous starlet, playing the nurse assigned to Rooney. For no explicable reason whatsoever, she immediately falls in love with him. While this insane response can be easily explained away by reminding viewers that this movie is science-fiction, it certainly wasn’t so with the diminutive actor and Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and every other actress passing through MGM gates with possible exceptions of Margaret Rutherford and Lassie. That Gardner ended up marrying the squirt is another jaw-dropping Ripley fact that has stunned movie buffs for generations. Suffice to say that Davis had, prior to production, become the newest Mrs. Rooney (#4 out of an eventual 9452). Uncharacteristically, it was one of Rooney’s lengthiest betrothals (six years), after which Davis changed her name to Devry, enjoying a fairly lucrative career in movies and TV throughout the 1960s (and achieving quasi-iconic status among horny teenage boys as Walter Matthau’s adulterous client in 1967’s A Guide for the Married Man).

Leaving no McCarthy era stone unturned, an additional subplot in THE ATOMIC KID has evil Commie spies out to snatch Rooney and cart the cretin back to the Kremlin. And this brings to mind another of THE ATOMIC KID‘s gloriously unrealized moments, as the Rooskies discuss Rooney’s inevitable vivisection. Ah, what could have been!

It’s probable that Rooney, tiny megalomaniac that he was, intentionally shopped the picture to Republic, as it would give him more of a chance to flex his muscles. From the opening credits, it’s made painfully clear the THE ATOMIC KID is a Mickey Rooney production starring Mickey Rooney, dominated by Mickey Rooney and ultimately infected by Mickey Rooney. Davis, who appeared in ads and promotions in nurse attire (but more of the Halloween slutty-nurse variety than RN standard) is also billed as Mrs. Mickey Rooney, a smarmy graphic leer that smirks a demeaning “look what I go home to every night, suckers!” objectification of the woman.

It must be stated that kiddies in 1954 ate this title up faster than their popcorn, and, indeed, THE ATOMIC KID later became a surefire Boomer TV programmer during the 1960s. I somehow missed it, but friends would regale me throughout my childhood of its many pleasures. Looking at it sans the eyes of an 8-year-old, it’s hard to appreciate the urchin delights, but I’m nonetheless fascinated by the fact that a juvenile comedy would have been made in ANY era concerning radioactive contamination (and, yeah, I know, that’s part of the plot to Living it Up, made the same year).

My flirtation with Mickey Rooney was indeed a brief one, lasting a mere four years. I truly liked him in Baby Face Nelson and The Big Operator, and rejoiced seeing him (again as part of a new team) with Buddy Hackett in Everything’s Ducky, a dubious joy repeated when the two were reteamed in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (it was also during this period that he provided one of the genuinely great ad-lib puns in show biz, the beautifully timed response to his appearance with Jayne Mansfield). But that pretty much ended it for me. That and an incident at NYU during the 1970s.

I was a film student then, and one day a former alumnus turned up to visit. He had just finished working on a low-budget pic featuring Rooney and dubbed it the experience from hell. “The guy is undirectable! He goes on about how he knows better, how he directed all his movies. How everyone from Disney to Olivier asks him for his advice. He listens to you, then does it his way – ’cause his way is better. During one exceptionally fine long take, he stopped in the middle, turned to the camera, threw up his hands, and yelled ‘Cut!’ I wanted to kill him!”  But, sadly he didn’t.

Coincidentally, this happened nearly simultaneously with another former NYU film maestro, who had worked as an assistant on a miniscule art house epic entitled The Noah.  Filmed in 1968, but only then (1975) getting minor distribution as a Midnight attraction at the Waverly (located just a few blocks away), The Noah starred Robert Strauss. I eagerly asked what it was like to work with Strauss, as I admired his performances in the Billy Wilder pics Stalag 17 (for which he was Oscar-nominated) and The Seven-Year Itch. The dude looked at me glumly, rolled his eyes and shook his head. “A big pain in the ass” was all he said, as he then slowly exited presumably to look for a gun.

So I imagine that this couldn’t have been that much of a fun shoot. That said, there are some nifty turns in THE ATOMIC KID by such welcome pans as Peter Leeds, Hal March, Whit Bissell (as Dr. Pangborn, no doubt an Edwards contribution) and Stanley Adams. The crisp black-and-white photography is by the wonderful John L. Russell, known primarily for his TV work, but soon to reach movie immortality as the d.p. of Psycho, which considering this project, is rather apt (the Blu-Ray is an excellent 35MM transfer, jarred only by the insertion of rather gritty and unpleasant documentary bomb footage).

The director, too, is a character generally known for his television efforts, the ubiquitous Leslie H. Martinson. Perhaps it was an ideal solution to fighting fire with fire, as Martinson was a true eccentric, taking to hiding under sheets to block upcoming shots, prone to throwing scripts around the sets like boomerangs and infamous for shouting incorrect logistics to actors and then berating them for following his instructions. I asked Will Hutchins, who worked often with Martinson on Sugarfoot, if they ever discussed this movie. As Will never disappoints, he replied that he does recall one exchange where he asked about working with Rooney. “The guy’s nuts!” replied Martinson adamantly (but with affection). No doubt a case of the pot calling the kettle wack!

THE ATOMIC KID.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition].  Mono audio [1.0 DTS-HD MA]. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. UPC: OF564. Cat #: 887090056403.  SRP:  $29.95 (DVD, $24.95).

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Jerry Noir

Many of the supreme delights of the ongoing Olive Films/Paramount Home Video series encompass the inclusion of the relatively erratic/oddball titles from the studio’s vault. While 1962’s IT’S ONLY MONEY isn’t the most unknown of the hen’s tooth batch, it certainly remains (up until now) the rarest of the 1960s Jerry Lewis output. It got a fairly discreet no-fanfare release in ’62 and was the least talked-about of the comedian’s post-Martin & Lewis works. For me, this was more than a slight because I love IT’S ONLY MONEY, and consider it not only one of Lewis’ best flicks – but one of the top four of the eight pictures he made with Frank Tashlin (for the record, this was the sixth – my other three faves being Artists and ModelsThe Geisha Boy and Who’s Minding the Store?).

The movie has been sloughed off by the masses due to both its scant screenings and the “so-what?” attitude that Lewis attached to the vehicle. It was a fairly cheap project – quickly thought out, and even quicker filmed in late 1961 – sandwiched between the showy extravagant Technicolored masterpieces The Ladies Man and The Nutty Professor. IT’S ONLY MONEY was lensed in black and white – the last monochrome movie Lewis would ever make; however, it is the sparse look and B&W photography that ironically pushes it to the top of the great Hollywood genre spoofs.

In a nutshell (with the industry’s then-prime cashew at the head), IT’S ONLY MONEY is a film noir parody pinpointing the plethora of private-eye sagas that flooded the big and small screens and pulp paperback racks throughout the decade following World War II. It’s a movie that’s perhaps is a bit too smart for its own good – complex in its seemingly simple construction as to rise way above the craniums of the average popcorn-muncher.

In Tashlin’s able mitts, IT’S ONLY MONEY’s multi-leveled cinematic architecture targets a number of subjects, scoring a bulls-eye in each one: 1) Tashlin’s animation roots; 2) classic noir; 3) 1960s noir; 4) modern-day technology. All of these intertwine like the non-disclosed tentacles of Citizens United.

Jerry portrays Lester March, an orphan who ekes out his existence as a TV repairman. Television is the paradigmatic theme, as the movie’s noir trappings specifically zero in on the country’s obsession with the detective tele-series, primarily Peter Gunn. Lester’s idol is Pete Flint, a suave babe-magnet gumshoe, hilariously enacted by the couldn’t-be-more-opposite Jesse White. Donning a trench coat and fedora and living out of his office of booze-filled file cabinets, Flint is sleazeball, who eventually gloms on to the fact that Lewis is heir to a mega-million dollar fortune left by the murdered “founder of TV.” It’s absolutely the greatest of White’s many memorable roles.

Jerry’s character is the most-animated of any of his movie portrayals (and think about that); IT’S ONLY MONEY is, succinctly-put, Lewis at his most cartoonish. This beautifully connects to Tashlin’s origins as an illustrator and key director of the famed Warner Bros. Looney Tunes division. Indeed, there are many references to some of Tash’s and Termite Terrace roomie Chuck Jones’ prime WB efforts, prominently the forays into the gadget-laden House of Tomorrow entries which surfaced in such classics as Jones’ Dog Gone Modern (1939), Tex Avery’s 1949 MGM short, appropriately entitled The House of Tomorrow, and, later, in the live-action Tashlin-scripted prop-posterous finales of the Red Skelton and Lucille Ball comedies The Fuller Brush Man and The Fuller Brush Girl (1948 and 1950).

Additional cartoon connections come from the cast: as Lewis’ poor-little-rich girl niece Mae Questel, the screen’s immortal voice of Betty Boop, is outstanding, especially when attempting yoga exercises to slim down for her wedding to slimy lawyer-villain Zachary Scott. Scott, in his final performance, provides a casting tour de farce, magnificently satirizing his legendary sinister stints from 1944’s The Mask of Dimitrios and 1945’s  Mildred Pierce (tossing this gig to a comic specialist like Harvey Korman probably would have worked, but nowhere near as effectively). Scott’s participation was a stroke of genius; it sadly also demonstrates how Hollywood did the actor dirt by not giving him more comedy to do. LST, he’s pretty damn funny! Scott’s moron henchman is Jack Weston, a self-proclaimed charter member of the Peter Lorre Fan Club, who revels in terrorizing a roast with an icepick. The violence and killings are particularly shocking for a supposedly kids-oriented movie, but, then again, this was a done-on-the-cheap knock-off – so Paramount haphazardly looked the other way; for them (as with its creators), IT’S ONLY MONEY was part of a Jerry Lewis quota needed (as with their Elvis Presley pics) to fill the studio’s annual schedule.

The va-va-vroom factor is ably filled by the sleek-bodied Joan O’Brien as the luscious mysterious nurse who soon suspects foul play and may (or may not) be falling in love with Lewis. Even her name, Wanda Paxton, is quintessential femme fatale noir. Tashlin directs her entrances via askew comic book panel angles, pulling back from her amazing legs running down steps and high heels clicking off wet pavement mean streets.

An early sequence wherein Lewis pretends to be White is hilariously sabotaged by the arrival of client/man-eater Pat Dahl, who concurrently terrifies/arouses Jerry into freak-out mode. Her maneuvering him into a corner is nothing less than a dry hump, rubbing the frightened impersonator up against a water cooler, which starts to steam boil to furious crescendo – visually far more sexually explicit than anything in Stanley Kubrick’Lolita, released the same year.

Similarly, Jerry’s near-death encounters are as funny as they are cruel, often involving some fantastic screen denizens like Barbara Pepper as a butch fisherwoman who inadvertently saves Lester’s life and whose livelihood Lewis all but ruins. Another noir nod is the appearance of famed heavy Ted de Corsia as an investigating cop.

Lewis’ clash with technological innovations culminates in the Merrie Melodie climax where, pursued by man-eating lawnmowers, he triumphs in a Tashlinesque victory that surely would have delighted Jacques Tati (or any other Frenchman). The comedian’s obsession with outlandish high-tech wizardry isn’t that far-out today, as IT’S ONLY MONEY hovers around such crazy gadgets as large widescreen interactive TVs and iPhone-like visual communication devices.

Of course, with the possible exception of Ross Perot, what affluent one-per-center would ever hire Jerry Lewis to fix their television? This riddle for the ages is brutally answered by the aforementioned White, who painfully is the pic’s receiving end of a barrage of sight gags – the zenith (no pun) being the astronaut helmet crowning with a portable TV unit.

While much of the credit for IT’S ONLY MONEY’s success belongs to screenwriter John Fenton Murray (who would go on to pen the underrated Howard Hawks comedy Man’s Favorite Sport?), the lion’s share of the verbal laughs are the obvious contributions of the director and the star. Some of Jerry’s greatest malapropisms abound during the course of the picture. Lewis’ Mickey Spillane/TV detective slang is bitch-slapped out of him by an irritated White, who demands that he stop with “…the idiot television talk.” Jerry admittedly can’t help himself, proclaiming that “I’m a TV thing.” When threatened by Scott’s and Weston’s Smith and Wessons, Lewis pleads, “I’m too tall to hurt!” Lester’s referring to would-be paramour Wanda’s profession as “…a sick pill or medicine betters” is enough to bring tears to Shakespeare’s eyes (or any other semi-literate). Furthermore, his stunning declaration of “You made my living life no death” is pure gold (well,…maybe Goldwyn), delivered with the assuredness of Barrymore at his peak (John Drew, that is). Astoundingly, Lewis’ discussion of his love of cats with girlfriend O’Brien (resulting in being nicknamed Lester “Pussy” March) made it by the censors.

Scenes of Jerry immersed in a giant fish head or sticking a soldering iron up his nose constitute vintage Lewis, the stuff we’d love to have seen the likes of Warren Beatty or Robert Redford do on-camera and secretly suspect Mel Gibson does do off-camera. These outrageous Jerry-rigged moments are sledge hammer-subtly appended by brick-wall product placement exteriors featuring one-sheets of the comedian’s previous cinematic outings, such as The Geisha Boy and The Errand Boy.

The slick score by Walter Scharf is another plus, perfectly Henry Mancini-ing it to the gills with jazzy Peter Gunn consonance (although the frugal 83-minute running time may explain the Bobby Van-credited musical numbers – of which there are none).

The B&W W. Wallace Kelly photography is aces, admirably providing the necessary hard-boiled look (although the occasional faux close-ups of originally-shot blown-up two shots really show through on Blu-Ray). In general, the Olive Films Blu-Ray is excellent: a near pristine 35mm crystal-clear transfer, which the mono audio ideally compliments.

As earlier indicated, despite its obscurity, this movie is one of the consummate achievements in the Jerry Lewis-Frank Tashlin canon; it’s also one of the Lewis titles that the comic’s legions of non-fans begrudgingly admit to liking. So open up your wallets and take a chance…after all, it’s only… (no, I can’t bear to even say it)…

IT’S ONLY MONEY. Black and White. Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]
UPC# 887090036009; CAT# OF360. SRP: $29.95.

Also available on DVD:
UPC# 887090035903; CAT# OF359. SRP: $24.95.

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Japanese Chaplinese

Tash would constantly be at us to check out these silent one and two-reelers playing at some rundown theater in L.A.”  This reminiscence was told to me by the brilliant animator Bob Clampett about his days and nights at Warner Bros. Termite Terrace back in the 1930s and ‘40s.  “After a long – and I mean LONG – day’s work, the last thing we wanted to do was to watch twenty-year-old movies into the early morning hours.  Back then, it was the only outlet for seeing these pictures.  Frank would remind us that it wasn’t just Chaplin and Keaton – but scores of other fantastic then-forgotten comedians…All that second-tier Mack Sennett and Hal Roach stuff…I guess he had the last laugh.”

To be sure, there are many laughs to be had with the Olive Films/Paramount Blu-Ray release of 1958’s THE GEISHA BOY, one of the director’s finest (of eight) collaborations with frequent star Jerry Lewis.

Frank Tashlin, whose Looney Tunes are among the funniest cartoons ever made, dreamt of breaking into live-action comedy – a goal realized by his contributing inventive visuals for the Marx Bros. and, more prominently, Bob Hope.  Tashlin’s work on A Night in Casablanca encompasses its most memorable gag.  A cop approaches Harpo, who is leaning against a brick structure.  “What are ya doin’, holding up that building?” he asks the mute funnyman, who ecstatically nods.  Need I divulge the punch line?

Ben Hecht wrote that one of his more pleasurable Hollywood writing sojourns occurred when shacked up with Harpo and Tashlin in Marx’s abode hammering out a 1949 silent feature to star the clown sans his siblings.  Once the sleazy producers sold the project to UA as a Marx Bros. comedy, both Hecht and Tashlin (with Harpo’s blessings) left the now-unhappy former labor-of-love project, which ironically became known as Love Happy.

Tashlin’s ideas for Hope translated into mucho critical and audience acclaim via his cartoonish bits for The Paleface.  When The Lemon Drop Kid started to drag in the rushes, Hope asked Tash to step in and pep it up without credit.  The picture was huge, and Hope rewarded the former animator with Son of Paleface; the rest be history (Clampett told me that at Tashlin’s 1972 funeral only three members of the show business community were present: himself, Hope and Ray Walston).

That Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis should collide like two locomotives hellbent for mischief was a near-given; how unsurprising is it that this former Merrie Melodies master would be best remembered for his big screen efforts starring either Lewis or Jayne Mansfield – the movies’ closest evocation to live-action cartoons.

Tashlin’s first Jerry adventure had been the 1955 Martin & Lewis Technicolor riot Artists and Models, arguably the team’s best movie (with a plotline concerning the effects of comic books on America’s deteriorating youth).  Now working as a single, Lewis chose Tashlin to helm 1958’s Rock-A-Baby, a strange re-working of Preston Sturges’ Miracle at Morgan’s Creek.  Lewis, who increasingly disliked his position in the Hollywoodland pecking order as what he termed “…a second-class citizen.” was due to the fact that his vehicles were often remakes of earlier movie triumphs – with the comedian’s roles having been previously enacted by African-Americans or women (Scared Stiff, Living it Up, You’re Never Too Young).

By 1958, Jerry had risen to the position of one of the top entertainers in the world – and here his desire to emulate the great Chaplin surfaced with a vengeance.  Tashlin thus concocted a story wherein Lewis – an inept magician, known only in the picture as The Great Wooley – finagles a USO tour of Japan.  His numerous faux pas, mostly regarding lewd sexual confrontations with a buxom Hollywood starlet, bring unprecedented joy to an orphaned Japanese boy – thereby setting up the narrative.

One might think this poignant twosome betwixt the big kid and small one would be lip-bitingly cloying, but they amazingly work.  The scenes involving Lewis and the child actor Robert Hirano make the fast and furious sight gags ring louder than the bells of Notre Dame.

And dames there are plenty.  The child’s aunt is the ridiculously beautiful Nobu Atsumi McCarthy, who instantly becomes devoted to Lewis.  Ditto the female sergeant assigned to the tour – Suzanne Pleshette in her screen debut (who looks like she’s all of 15 years old).  Finally, there’s the literal butt of all the pic’s jokes – the mercifully good sport Marie McDonald, who was saddled with the moniker “The Body” throughout her Tinsel Town tenure (comedy fans might best remember her as one of Abbott & Costello’s island objects of affection in 1942’s Pardon My Sarong).

As reel after reel unspools, McDonald, thanks to Jerry, is embarrassed in a bathhouse, has her clothes repeatedly torn off, gets Barton MacLane shoved into her business and is booty-bounced down an airplane gangplank – much to the giggling delight of the up-till-now solemn tiny tot Mitsuo Watanabe (Hirano), whom Lewis hilariously name-mangles as Mitzvah Wet-Nebble.

As with most Tashlin pics, the underlying sexual material is as eyebrow-raising as it is obvious.  This is immediately evidenced via the lush main titles, which are akin to the director’s attempt to do a color video promo for Naruse’s subsequent When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Tashlin’s credit is plastered over a gorgeous geisha’s bare breasts).

Pleshette, who already has mastered the disbelieving Oliver Hardy double take (which she would further hone on The Bob Newhart Show), gets some big yuks in an essentially thankless role.  Her seriously disturbed “ewww” looks at Lewis whilst he tosses a salad (in the most extreme clean slapstick sense of the word) skillfully underlines the joke.  Ditto her deadpan response to Lewis’ fears of being captured and brainwashed by the communists (“I don’t think there’s much chance of that.”).  Less so is her Fifties feminine politicizing once she realizes that Lewis and Kimi (McCarthy) are becoming an item.  Eschewing all that “women’s emancipation” jazz, Pleshette vows to be submissive to the next man she meets…like all the Japanese girls.  She really needs to see a Meiko Kaji/Lady Snowblood movie.

The hysterical head-on meets with Kimi’s behemoth boyfriend, the pituitary Great Ichiyama (Ryuzo Demura) represents Tashlin and Lewis in high gear.  It also punctuates the fact that THE GEISHA BOY is an incredibly smart movie for 1958.

The American obsession with the Japanese post-war culture that began specifically with two Brando pics Teahouse of the August Moon and Sayonara is continuously stated via the color scheme and set design.  Suburban homes were regularly hanging multi-hued paper lanterns over their patios, and becoming kimono-obsessed.  Furthermore, the influx of the Kurosawa imports on Yankee shores were reaping hefty profits.  That Ichiyama is a Japanese baseball player and, in the course of events, gets pitted against the recently-transplanted Los Angeles Dodgers (who guest star) is another shrewd marketing move.

The supreme coup is the casting of former silent screen star Sessue Hayakawa as Kimi’s stern father.  His efforts to cheer up his grandson result in the picture’s biggest single laugh:  his using slave labor to construct a mini bridge on the River Kwai in their backyard.  Hayakawa, dressed in the identical military uniform that he had worn a year earlier in the David Lean WWII epic, had them falling out of the aisles in 1958.  A friend of mine once told me that he and his mom were passing by a theater playing THE GEISHA BOY and you could hear the laughs out on the street.  The manager told his parent, “It’s the bridge scene.  This is a very funny movie.”

In contrast, Lewis’ devastating treatment of Mitsuo – even when prefaced by his “I hate to do this” twinge of conscience does grate on one’s nerves, bringing to mind the occasionally leaked episodes of the comedian’s dark side.  The adoring idolizing child is crushed as Lewis all-too-realistically delivers the ultimate snap:  “I don’t like you anymore.  I don’t want you anymore.  You’re not my son.  I don’t love you!”  Little Mitsuo’s pained reaction suggests he’s a tick away from committing hara-kiri – or, perhaps more appropriate in his case – hara-kiri, jr.

The last but not least facet of THE GEISHA BOY’s success is the connection between Tashlin and his Warner Bros. roots – the astounding non-human sidekick, Harry Hare (whose “introducing” card in the credits gets larger billing than Pleshette’s).

Per capita, Harry probably ratchets up more chuckles than Lewis and the cast combined.  In a series of impossible visuals, Harry Hare proves himself a master of comic timing.  Reportedly when an adolescent once asked Lewis about the rabbit, the comedian replied, “What do you mean ‘rabbit’?”  He then went on to terrify the youth by disclosing that there were multiple bunnies utilized for the picture – since the hot lights and hours had them dropping like flies.  Whether he was being sarcastic, bluntly honest or simply Jerry, he set the stage that undoubtedly culminated in years of therapy for the inquisitive sprout.  If indeed true (and we hope it isn’t), our hats are off to Harry and all the other Harrys who, unbeknownst, gave their lives for their art.

The final denouement comes when Lewis discovers that Mistuo has stowed away and is ensconced with Harry in the rabbit’s carry-on traveler.  Strapped on top of a fast-moving taxi, this simultaneously becomes both a harrowing Mitsuo and Mitt Romney moment.  Oh, yeah, and speaking of taxis, we can’t sign off without mentioning Sid Melton as a wise-cracking cabbie – a plus if ever there was one!

Like Rock-A-Baby, Olive Films’ 1080p anamorphic transfer of THE GEISHA BOY is A-1 from the get-go.  Haskell Boggs’ VistaVision cinematography is so sharp and detailed that it borders on the outrageous (and revealing, as in the one teeth-grinding occasion where viewers can clearly see wires stringing up Harry for a gag).  The Technicolor pops with rich comic strip swatches, especially in Lewis’ Great Wooley red carry-on, the deep blue skies and nighttime Japanese lanterns adorning the Hayakawa’s pond.  Walter Scharf’s mono score sounds terrific with its buoyant riffs and Asian motifs.

All said, THE GEISHA BOY is a Jerry Lewis vehicle that even his non-fans will find hard to resist – although I’m sure they’ll try.

THE GEISHA BOY.  Color.  Letterboxed [1080p High Definition].  UPC# 887090034906; CAT # OF349.  SRP:  $29.95.

ALSO AVAILABLE ON DVD:  UPC#887090034907; CAT# OF348; SRP: $24.95.

Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

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