4 Bad Boys + Purple Hays

Cheaters may never prosper, but audiences watching them do, and, as evidence, I offer the nifty ninth edition of the DVD-R made-to-order Warner Archive series FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD.

This recent 4-disc set features not only iconic pre-Code stars (Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Joan Blondell, Myrna Loy, Robert Montgomery, Ann Dvorak) and directors (Michael Curtiz, Mervyn LeRoy, Rowland Brown), but also samplings from three of the era’s most prolific studios (MGM, RKO and, natch, Warner Bros.).   There are some classic selections lovingly mixed in with some unfairly neglected pips, an unfairly-trounced sex drama tarnished by its lethargic 1940s remake and even a bonus post-Code (in almost name only).

So, guys, untie that dressing gown; goils, roll down your stockings, and let’s revel with the folks who specialize in verbal foreplay a la “Say, shove in yer clutch, big boy!”

 

1932’s BIG CITY BLUES is a textbook for quick ‘n’ sassy risqué entertainment.  Perennial pre-Code victim Eric Linden is a wide-eyed and innocent Indiana boy who dreams of living large in that metropolitan sin town known as Manhattan.  Although warned by the elderly locals (the joint was bought for “…$22 more than…[I would have] paid the Indians for the whole stinking island”), he throws caution to the wind and, armed with a meager inheritance, vows to take New York by storm.  First red flag is seeking out a nefarious relation (Walter Catlett), a sponging conman and pimp who immediately attempts to relieve the boob of his fortune.  Checking into a midtown hotel, Catlett arranges a soiree to meet the 400, in reality Depression-era showgirls, increasing their income as “party girls.”  One (Joan Blondell) takes pity on the mook, and he becomes instantly infatuated (“You don’t know Constance Bennett, do you?” he logically asks).  The fact that the rest of the in-crowd comprises bootleggers, womanizing playboys and assorted sociopaths is immaterial; Bud (Linden) is in love.  Unfortunately (or fortunately), BIG CITY BLUES violates Pre-Code Rule 101:  never invite Lyle Talbot and Humphrey Bogart (in his Warners debut) to the same party.  Spying a stoned babe ready for the “plucking,” Talbot and Bogie tear it up – with the result being murder, that’s pronounced “moider.”  This sort of puts a damper on the proceedings; even the drunken house dick (Guy Kibbee) is pissed off.  Blondell spirits Linden away to various speaks until the heat cools off.  Or he does (but, as indicated, Bud is in love).

In barely over an hour (63 minutes), BIG CITY BLUES packs a whole lot of narrative into its modest trappings.  The cast is loaded with pre-Code (and post-Code) faves, including Jobyna Howland, Ned Sparks, Thomas Jackson, Tom Dugan, Inez Courtney, Evalyn Knapp, Grant Mitchell, Sheila Terry, Josephine Dunn and J. Carrol Naish.  The tight and snappy direction is by then-house wunderkind Mervyn LeRoy, who, remarkably would soon ditch Warners for MGM, and seemingly overnight, unlearn every trick for making a lively, shipshape and inventive vehicle.  Oh, well.  The script by Lillie Hayward and Ward Morehouse (based the latter’s play, which apparently never had any performances) is crammed with naughty double entendres and cringe-worthy racism (Grant Mitchell calmly discusses “working in a chink laundry”).  The hottie (Dunn) who disrupts the bash is earlier seen, half-crocked and panting, nestled on a sofa reading Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall’s notorious 1928 lesbian novel.  The photography by James Van Trees is as crisp as the action, with music, courtesy of Ray Heindorf and Bernard Kaun, and art direction by the amazing Anton Grot.

The bittersweet ending would never have flown a few years later, indicative of the gazillions of reasons we snarky bastards worship movies like this.

 

1932’s HELL’S HIGHWAY is likely the most Warner Bros. pre-Code pic ever turned out by RKO (or Radio Pictures, as it was then known).  It’s a rough, tough often downright unpleasant expose of the Southern chain-gang situation that Warners shamed so well the same year with their more celebrated I am a Fugitive.  But don’t sell this entry short (even though it is, clocking in at 62 minutes); it’s a first-rate shocker that compares well with Fugitive.  Credit the always-interesting and very underrated director Rowland Brown (who also cowrote the script with Samuel Ornitz and Robert Tasker).  HIGHWAY wastes no time with a set-up; we’re right there in swampy purgatory from the get-go.  Savvy Alpha con Richard Dix aces his time by playing the system, and indeed thinks he knows it all – until his kid brother (Tom Brown) ends up in the same camp.  As is the hiring prerequisite, the gruesome place has more psychos running the joint than confined in it, most notably C. Henry Gordon as a sadistic violin-loving warden (sort of a precursor to Hume Cronyn in Brute Force).  But there are some memorable prisoners too, such as Charles Middleton as a soothsayer bigamist who “Iagos” a jealous screw into killing his adulterous wife.  There’s a plethora of racism (the African-Americans’ pecking order not only follows the whites, but the mules), masochism, torture (a “visit to the hospital” being coded language for sweat-box death) and even a gay cook (Eddie Hart) who likes the uniformed Gordon to whack his bottom.  The movie originally previewed with a thoroughly depressing ending (with Dix expiring).  After all the suffering and turmoil, it was decided by producer David Selznick to conclude the scenario on a semi-upbeat plain.  The striking visuals are the commendable work of master cinematographer Edward Cronjager.  FYI, another plus are the specially-written sardonic spirituals, warbled by the black inmates and composed by costar Clarence Muse.

 

“Ah’d kiss ya, but ah just washed mah hair.”  It’s the line from 1932’s CABIN IN THE COTTON that helped put costar Bette Davis on the map.  While it’s great for Bette fans (whenever I screen it, the whole room bursts into hoots and howls; yup, it’s a humdinger).  It’s a shame that her bon mot overshadows the memories of this gritty pre-Code gem.  The movie itself, based on the novel by Harry Harrison Knoll (and with a hard-nosed script by Paul Green, whose penchant for verbal barbs also encompasses dopers, pedophiles, inbred mongrels with rapey eyes and, gotta say it, Southern Republicans), is set in the “modern” south, where greedy landowners figure that if their sharecroppers work with dirt, they should be treated like dirt (keep ’em thinking it’s still 1850).  That is until sensitive, book-larned Marvin Blake (Richard Barthelmess) comes out of the fold and the upper crusters see an op to use his smarts to keep the peace at bargain prices.  Barthelmess’s promotion to bookkeeper (and book-cooker) arouses hate from his own faction who consider him a traitor, and smarmy superiority from his silver spoon-fed peers (save the trampy Davis, who quickly assesses his other “qualities”).  Since 1919’s Broken Blossoms, conflicted Barthelmess made a cottage industry subgenre out of playing the everyman for the struggling masses/minorities go-to dude (Heroes for Sale, Massacre).  It’s an honest, straightforward acting job, but, let’s face it, he doesn’t have Davis’s lines or the accompanying Orry-Kelly wardrobe.  Yet, Michael Curtiz, as usual, directs beautifuly – with admirable support from the always reliable d.p. Barney McGill (a chase through a swamp at dawn is incredibly stunning).  More notable credits include second-unit director William Keighley, music contributions by Ray Heindorf and a cast crammed full of po’ folk, victimized by rich white trash (Dorothy Jordan, Hardie Albright, David Landau, Russell Simpson, Edmund Breese, Harry Cording and Clarence Muse).

 

1933’s WHEN LADIES MEET is nothing short of a crisp pre-Code breath of fresh air – a much-needed tonic to rid the room of the musty ambience from the tepid 1941 god-awful remake (with the big budget all-star cast, including Joan Crawford, Greer Garson and Robert Taylor, nevertheless one of the most boring movies I have never been able to get through).

In the ’33 version (based on Rachel Crothers’ scandalous play and scripted by John Meehan and Leon Gordon), young, sensual (and generally savvy) author Myrna Loy is having it off with her publisher, womanizing Frank Morgan.  This is much to the chagrin of the journalist who truly loves her, silky-tongued Robert Montgomery.  It is at a Long Island weekend getaway that the worms turn when Montgomery conveniently shows up with Morgan’s wife, the sophisticated (and underrated) Ann Harding.  During this brief sojourn  Loy and Harding, two ravishing and intelligent people, face off…and actually end up liking each other (without realizing at first that they share the same lover).  What transpires is pre-Code at its most effervescent – an honest, frank, sensual discussion of female sexuality (warts and all: “Women can’t fool women about women,” as Harding informs Loy).  There are also more traditional “naughty” sexual shenanigans on display too, courtesy of Montgomery and ancillary costar Alice Brady (“You know better than I do how sticky you are,” he tells the perennially horny hostess).  Directors Harry Beaumont and an uncredited Robert Z. Leonard (who bludgeoned the ’41 remake) did their material proud, appended by Ray June’s stunning photography, William Axt’s sparse score and amazing frocks by Adrian.

 

In a departure from the norm, Warner Archive has tossed a fifth supplemental feature into VOLUME 9, 1934’s post-Code pre-Code wannabe I SELL ANYTHING.  Let alone the title, the plot (chiseling auctioneers), and the cast (Pat O’Brien, Ann Dvorak, Roscoe Karns, Claire Dodd, Russell Hopton) smacks of authentic FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD entries, and it’s probable that the project was greenlit before the Code fully went into effect.  Nevertheless the scenario’s neatly pink-ribbon wrap-up and release date (October) are telltale signs of “Cleanup in Aisle ’34!”  That said, it’s a fast-moving fun picture that still has some wink-wink punch, thanks to the swift pace of director Robert Florey and the script by Brown Holmes and Sidney Sutherland (from a story by Albert J. Cohen and Robert T. Shannon).  O’Brien (as Spot Cash Cutler) and his gang are truly big fish in a small pond, fleecing poor neighborhood sheep out of their last dimes – selling them junk.  Depression waif Ann Dvorak shows up, and, in a run-through for The Shop Around the Corner, begs the (crooked) establishment to let her sell the joint’s worn wares.  When O’Brien smoothly gyps slumming socialite Dodd out of some shekels for a beat-up buckle, the sharpie doesn’t realize that he’s a player who’s just been played (the svelte cutie knows quality stuff, and that hunk of metal is nothing less than a $5,000 Cellini masterpiece).  Still, she sees potential in the loudmouth diamond-in-the-rough and recruits him to work his tenement hyperbole on the Park Avenue swells, where the cheating reaps a bigger profit (and, if caught, the blame can be placed on O’Brien).  As much as I like the stunning Ms. Dodd (“Didja lamp those curves?” being a valid on-screen quote), I could never choose her over the great Dvorak.

The Sid Hickox photography,  M.K. Jerome music (with orchestrations by the ever-reliable Leo Forbstein) and Orry-Kelly rags only further serve to make us pre-Coders sigh at what might have been had the sanctimonious bastards let well enough alone.

FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD, VOLUME  9.  Black and White.  Full frame [1.37:1].  Mono audio. Warner Home Video.  CAT # 1000570218.  SRP:  $40.99.

Available exclusively through the Warner Archive Collection (www.warnerarchive.com).

forbiddenhollywood9_COVER

 

How the West Was Done

No movie buff worth their salt denies that John Ford is one of the greats.  It’s easy to roll-call a plethora of classic titles from the iconic director’s canon naming some all-time favorites and/or defining moments in Hollywood history.  That said, when adapting the “sick child demanding special care” theory to cinema, flicker aficionados couldn’t do better than to cite the aging maestro’s 1961 dark entry TWO RODE TOGETHER, now available in a stunning limited-edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.

I have to admit that I always had a soft spot for this Machiavellian version of The Searchers, even when (as a beardless yoot) I didn’t fully understand just how cynical and downright mean it was.

Ford, himself, emerged from World War II even more bitter than before he entered battle (which many who knew him considered an impossibility).  His rose-colored visions of the West became hardened, the magenta tinge of nostalgia being reinvented as one massive blood-spattered crime scene.  The west wasn’t won as much as it was bought, the people who pioneered it were nothing but grifters, outcasts, felons and worse – spurred by lust, greed and racism.  Creatively, this reached its peak with The Searchers, featuring John Wayne’s monumental performance as the bigoted Ethan Edwards.  It was the movie that Ford coworkers wished had ended the director’s career (on a high note), but he kept chugging on, perpetrating that sardonic view of his once beloved mythical playground.  TWO RODE TOGETHER might be the epoch of Ford’s Wild West hell at its most sinister.  The “hero,” corrupt Marshal Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart), makes Ethan Edwards look like a choir boy.  The movie itself was begun to capitalize on the 1956 Ford masterpiece, basically re-channeling the same story, but from a mercenary rather than emotional point of view.

McCabe serves only himself and the Madame who actually controls the town (a nifty turn by Annelle Hayes as whore supreme Belle Aragon).  She and McCabe split proceeds on every penny that ker-chunks into town, cautiously watching each other’s spidery fingers that dip into the hamlet’s various lucrative pies in order to maintain their comfort.  When old pal First Lieutenant Jim Gary rides in with his regiment, all that changes.  In one of the great fake-outs in American history, a huge charade on human suffering is in play – to give false hope to surviving family members about their loved ones, captured years earlier during Indian raids.  McCabe, conman extraordinaire, immediately sees right through the b.s., correctly christening it as a mission of madness – sort of how Ernest Borgnine dubbed the exercise in The Dirty Dozen.  McCabe is recruited because of his friendship with Quanah Parker (the real-life half-breed chief who ended up working the Wild West Show circuit along with Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Rains in the Face and other former warriors).  Parker (Henry Brandon) and McCabe perfectly understand each other, as they’re both depicted as avaricious scoundrels.  Gary must also perpetrate a lie, going along as a renegade scout (since riding as a representative of the US Cavalry violates a sanctioned treaty).  In an instance of poetic license, McCabe is essentially blackmailed into participating in this fool’s errand, but agrees by informing the Fort commandant (John McIntire) that he intends to fleece each of the suffering families for all they’re worth to return their sons/daughter/wives, etc.  To this end, he asks these pathetic farmers and small businessmen to provide detailed descriptions, as he will pass off any white who comes close to the physical requirements.

Ford genuinely detested this story (which originated from a Will Cook novel), but agreed to do it as a promise to an ailing Harry Cohn (who wanted a piece of that Searchers dough) along with a hefty quarter of a million up-front paycheck and a percentage.  An existing script was excised, and Ford brought in his old reliable scribe Frank Nugent to doctor it up, throw in some snazzy one-liners – anything to make the Stewart character more likeable (Stewart himself was unhappy with the picture, claiming McCabe was way too diabolical; this from a dude who denied his Anthony Mann portrayals were disturbed individuals).  Even with the throwaways, Ford publicly decreed the screenplay and final result as the “worst piece of crap I ever made” (and we’re assuming he meant cinematically).  The cast (Andy Devine, Harry Carey, Jr., Willis Bouchey, Olive Carey, Ken Curtis, John Qualen, Anna Lee, O.Z. Whitehead) was predominantly Fordian, and the pic was mostly shot in Brackettville, TX, at Fort Clark and in the Alamo Village, built several years earlier by John Wayne.  Wayne was initially considered for one of the leads, but was booked up until late 1961; former Ford thesp Henry Fonda was suggested by producer Stan Shpetner, to do a satanic version of his Wyatt Earp from My Darling Clementine, but that was out of the question, as Fonda and Ford now detested one another, due to their acrimonious working relationship during Mister Roberts.  Richard Widmark, in his first John Ford picture, was thrilled to be working for the director, but, too, thought himself inappropriate for the trappings, specifically that he was ten or fifteen years too old for the part.  Critics would later agree, further lambasting Jimmy Stewart (also in his initial Ford outing), who was more than twenty years too long in the tooth to play McCabe.

Ford’s hatred of the material gave rise to the movie’s most celebrated sequence (and one of my favorite in any Ford pic), the largely improvised long take between Stewart and Widmark resting by a river.  Their camaraderie is genuine, the chemistry of friendship perfectly achieved.  It’s natural, funny and otherwise thoroughly out of place with the nastier aspects of this story.  But it’s also fucking great.

Ford let everyone know that his two movie star leads wore toupees and had hearing problems (“Great, so this is what my career has come to – directing two deaf hairpieces!”).  Stewart, not to be outdone, stirred the simmering pot by harping on Ford’s own increasing deafness, whispering “That pretty much makes three of us,” to which a slightly paranoid Ford, yelled back “WHAT, what was that?”  Widmark recalled having the time of his life on this movie, and likely responded with his infamous Kiss of Death Tommy Udo snicker.

The supposed casting coup was Shirley Jones as the female lead, fresh from her Best Supporting Actress win in Elmer Gantry (a much-hyped piece of ballyhoo in TOGETHER‘s promo campaign).  For Jones it was a horrific experience that began early on what was generally a leisurely, pleasant shoot (always the death knell for a movie, according to director Henry Hathaway).  Jones innocently approached Ford, wanting to know if he could answer a question.  “Sure,” replied the director.  Jones then inquired how he wanted her to wear her hair.  Ford flew into a rage, releasing a barrage of epithets and chastising the actress for wasting his time.  “Hey, Oscar-winner, how the fuck should I know how a woman should wear her hair?!  It’s your character, figure it out – and don’t bother me with that kind of stupid shit for the rest of this picture!”  She didn’t, virtually not speaking or having any contact with Ford, other than when she was required to be before the cameras.  And it shows; it’s a pathetically uneven performance, wildly jumping from the sensible woman she played in Oklahoma! to a version of Debbie Reynolds’ Tammy persona on smack auditioning for the same show’s  Ado Annie.  What’s more troubling is Widmark’s attraction to her.

More dignified is Linda Cristal as Elena, a Mexican captive, freed by Stewart and Widmark.  It’s a quiet, sedate believable enactment of a fragile, damaged woman, perpetually terrified after years of sexual abuse.  The racism she experiences by the “good Christians” after her liberation is yet another example of Ford’s growing animosity with hypocrisy and so-called paragons of civilized society.  It even appalls the Stewart character.

On a cheerier note is the casting of the aforementioned Harry Carey, Jr., and Ken Curtis as the lowbrow Clegg brothers (a name retained from the villainous family in my favorite Ford movie, Wagonmaster).  “Dobe” Carey told me that Ford called him and Curtis almost before anyone else.  “I’ve got parts for two morons – so I know you’ll be perfect.”

The Linda Cristal episode (like Widmark, she was previously on-view in Wayne’s Alamo) is the most dastardly segment of the movie.  The ravishingly beautiful captive is the woman of Stone Calf (a ferocious, psychopathic Woody Strode).  Stone Calf is politically dangerous to Quanah Parker, and “giving” her to Stewart (who lusts after her upon first sight) guarantees the madman will follow to extract revenge, thus allowing McCabe to kill him in self-defense (using Cristal as bait).  It’s all planned, an out-and-out conspiracy – murder for lust and power that bests the Borgias.  And all the more prophetic for a 1961 motion picture that hails from a decade soon to be synonymous with political assassination (Strode’s arrival at a campfire, seemingly out of a wisp of smoke like some Manitou evil spirit, is goose-flesh frightening).

Additionally, it further tarnishes Stewart’s character, making him one of the most risible leads in any pre-ratings Hollywood offering.  Nevertheless, it is the blatant racism and derision Cristal/Elena is exposed to in white Texas that helps transform Stewart’s lust to respect and then love.

When back in his and Belle’s town after the disastrous odyssey (which culminates in more murder, lynchings and deceit), McCabe discovers that his simpleton deputy (Chet Douglas) has taken over as Aragon’s sex and one-horse-tank partner.  The Madame’s bigoted comments toward Cristal enrage Stewart and reveal the only sliver of decency in his DNA.  He joins the woman on her trek to California, as a stunned Belle gazes is disbelief.  “I guess old Guth finally found something he wanted more than ten percent of” offers a sneering Widmark to the whore, providing a snarky albeit apt closing line to a crazed journey that never could have ended well.

As one might expect, TWO RODE TOGETHER did not wow either critics or audiences (at least outside of France) upon its release.  It has since picked up some steam among western/Ford fans (and, as I said, I always kinda liked it).  The Twilight Time Blu-ray looks excellent, doing justice to cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr.’s, crystal-clear images and eye-popping colors (not usually not experienced from earlier incarnations of its Eastmancolor roots). The one consistently grand element of this picture is the excellent score by George Duning (available as an IST).

In retrospect, I believe TWO RODE TOGETHER deserves another chance, but I warn you, it ain’t a pretty picture.  I will, however, close this piece on a sorta “up” note, not that death is a positive thing, but rather to give readers a brief idea of what it was like on a Ford shoot.  Dobe Carey told me that production momentarily halted on November 5, 1960, when word came that Ward Bond had suddenly died.  Ford took it upon himself to organize the funeral arrangements.  As Dobe told it:  “Ford chartered a plane out of the nearest landing strip, and asked if any of us wanted to join him.  Me, Widmark and a handful of the cast and crew volunteered to go along.  It was weird, a real walking on eggshells kind of thing, as no one knew how this might affect him because, well, because that was Ford.  On the evening we returned, most of the company, in a show of solidarity, met us at the air field.  Ford was the last one to exit the plane.  No emotion on his stone face, behind his dark glasses.  He solemnly descended the gangplank stairs and slowly walked over to Andy Devine.  Then, very audibly, in front of the entire group, announced, ‘Now you’re the biggest horse’s ass I know!’”

TWO RODE TOGETHER.  Color.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.  CAT# 8-51789-00390-0.  SRP:  $29.95.

Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment (www.screenarchives.com) and Twilight Time (www.twilighttimemovies.com).

tworodetogetherCOVER

 

Anything You Can Do…

Although intrigued, I was also a bit wary of tackling the mid-1980s series MAPP & LUCIA: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION, now on DVD from Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/ITV Studios.  Suffice to say, all my fears of the genteel soon evaporated into an addiction that had me quoting lines, laughing out loud at antics and even humming the theme music while attending to the lackluster events of my generally mundane world.  Methinks you, too, will fall under the spell of these two memorable characters and their provincial universe as well.  So come on, buy a ticket and take a chance.

MAPP & LUCIA, based on the bestselling novels by E.F. Benson, tells of a pair of adversarial, dominant women in the small British seaside town of Tilling in the year 1930.  Elizabeth Mapp (the always welcome Prunella Scales) runs the vicinity like a friendly warden, collecting rents off of most of the residents, who either tolerate or outright despise her.  In pops Emmeline Lucas, aka Lucia (an outstanding Geraldine McEwan), and her “confirmed bachelor” BFF Georgie (the wunderbar Nigel Hawthorne), looking for a summery diversion to their boring home base.  Georgie, an artist of great potential (his words and thoughts), is hopelessly devoted to Lucia, a would-be sophisticate and accomplished musician (her words and thoughts).  They are also masters of the putdown, and, using themselves as role models, can spot a phony a mile away.  Thus, within an instant, Mapp and Lucia are at verbal odds with one another, grinning veiled insults while complimenting each other’s uninspired achievements with snarky disdain

Tilling responds in kind, championing the newbie who dares to buck their rent-obsessed landlord.  Since what doesn’t kill ya makes you stronger, Lucia and Georgie decide to leave their past behind, and permanently take up inhabitancy in the community.  This serves to further enrage Mapp; from now on, it’s all-out war.

Watching the first few minutes of this two-season show (first broadcast in 1985) had me extremely respectful, if nothing else.  And with good reason.  The writing was aces (by Gerald Savory, who won me over with his classic 1977 BBC adaptation of Count Dracula, the one starring Louis Jourdan), the direction (by Donald McWhinnie) top-notch, the period design and art direction flawless and the acting – c’est magnified, as Lucia and Georgie might say (among their various traits, this duo engage in gibberish French and Italian.  Their fond farewell of “au reservoir” soon has the entire populace of Tilling going continental, au reservoiring everyone all over the place).  Lucia’s staging of a historical pageant becomes a fete worse than death, and, by the end of the debut episode, I was thoroughly hooked and eager for more.

How can I best describe this show for those who still aren’t getting it?  Imagine a Masterpiece Theater version of I Love Lucy (well, Lucia), that is if Lucy and Ethel were mortal enemies (but still likely to end up in that chocolate factory).  Or, better yet, Downton Abbey meets Keeping Up Appearances with the former’s Dowager Countess Granny of Grantham in middle rather than old age.

The town characters are nearly as sublime as the leads, and comprise Godiva (Mary MacLeod, Mapp’s confidante and supposed pal), who pays her crony the rent blood money by transforming her flat into a gossipy tea room; Major Benjy Flint (Denis Lill), a besotted, thoroughly inept officer (Ret.) who ends up betrothed to Mapp; the nouveau riche Wyses (Geoffrey Chater, Marion Mathie) whose taste can be defined by Mrs. Wyse’s screaming demands to the local butcher (“One saddled venison, well hung!”), the thickly-brogued Reverent Bartlett (James Greene) and, my favorite, avant-garde lesbian artist Quaint Irene (Cecily Hobbs, who, natch, falls madly in love with Lucia), whose work leans toward Tilling historical tableaus featuring naked women with breasts hanging down to their toes.

As each of the ten episodes in this four-disc set progresses, so does the on-screen craziness.  There are marriages, fads (anything Lucia touches becomes an instant town phenomenon), art competitions, political races, stock market bull and bear purges (Mapp’s doing the opposite of Lucia’s buying causes her to go broke), rumors of pregnancies (it ends up being gas) and way more.

There are so many things to go ga-ga about in MAPP & LUCIA that space prohibits listing them all.  That said, the ones most tickling me fancy encompass Georgie’s brilliant subterfuge to put to rest his and Lucia’s dubious linguistic talents (Neapolitan forgery extraordinaire).  Then there’s the matter of Lucia’s prized lobster a la Riseholme, an epicurean delight that sets the stage for the first season finale.  Mapp breaks into Lucia’s home to steal the recipe, is caught by Lucia just as a tsunami floods the house, causing them both to drift out to sea atop a kitchen table.  Fearing them dead, Tilling erects a memorial, only to discover that the women were rescued by (and have been living on) an Italian trawler.  Lucia immediately plans to do a lecture tour (A Modern Odyssey) while a smug Mapp clutches the now-waterlogged scrumptious crustaceous recipe in her fist.

Guest stars are notable as well, including one of the last appearances by Irene Handl, as a dotty duchess and Anna Quayle, as Georgie’s old pal, vulgar Olga, a renowned opera diva, performing a sensational original epic called Mafia, highlighted by her Ode to the Tommygun.

I also can’t resist mentioning a sidesplitting exchange between Lucia and Georgie with an irate McEwan condemning those who condemn them for speaking foreign tongues incorrectly (“It is ridiculous that we have to break ourselves of the habit of doing something we can’t do!”).

Savory’s savory dialog is chock full of gems, and particularly shines when Lucia’s stock dividends help buy the church a new Wurlitzer (“Say a few words about my organ,” requests Lucia to the visiting Bishop).  Food prep is very important, and the mere mention of Mapp or Lucia can at once cause an indigestible response (“You pressured my poached egg!”).  Lucia’s endorsement of bicycling culminates in a plethora of accidents involving the town’s female populace (“Tilling is full of ditches”).  When looking for an excuse to avoid being unmasked for their non-existent foreign language abilities at an upcoming gala, Georgie suggests “…influenza – it’s very popular this year.”  Or the Wyses’ announcement of their chairing the prestigious Tilling Art Exhibition is highlighted by couple’s impressive boast that “we’re on the hanging committee.”  And on and on it goes.

MAPP & LUCIA is also very educational, divulging etiquette on skin disorders and afflictions.  For example, when one gets facial shingles, it is, we learn, recommended to grow a beard over the intrusive blemishes, provided said follicles are perfectly dyed to match one’s toupee.

This is wacky stuff on any level, and I venture to say you’ll have as much fun as the three leads are – and they seem to be having a blast.  Of course, we all are familiar with Scales, who made John Cleese’s life miserable on Fawlty Towers.  And there’s the diverse departure of the cynical Hawthorne we embraced on Yes, Minister (and Yes, Prime Minister).  But it’s McEwan who floored me.  Most of us PBS fans recognize her primarily as one of the later Miss Marples; you’ll be astounded by her elegant beauty, wit and downright deadly cynicism.  Gee, she’s swell (I should mention that the show was wildly popular in the UK during its initial run, and resulted in a 2014 remake, featuring Miranda Richardson and Anna Chancellor in the Scales and McEwan roles.  I would love to see this for comparison, but I daresay Richardson and Chancellor had their work cut out for them!).

Acorn has included a brief apology on the back M&L jacket and slipcover indicating that these shows were mastered from the best elements currently available.  Okay, so it isn’t widescreen, high-def, Downton quality; but, truth be told, it ain’t bad.  In fact, d.p. Lisle Middleditch’s work is quite exemplary; the 1930s era colors pop, the images are sharp.  What more can one ask?  Furthermore, the 1980s crisp mono audio allows one to relish every snap (and there are plenty).  As indicated, McWhinnie’s direction is spot-on and the score by Jim Parker (whose Midsomer Murders theme has become iconic) melds into the proceedings perfectly.

I would succinctly sub-tag MAPP & LUCIA as Queen Angst, or, more elaborately, two very funny women at the top of their game of thrones.  Either/or, it is not to be missed.

MAPP & LUCIA:  THE COMPLETE COLLECTION.  Color.  Full frame [1.33:1]; 1.0 mono audio.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/ITV Studios.  CAT # AMP-2233.  SRP:  $59.99.

mapp&luciaCOVER

 

Men Behaving Cadly

“This is the story of a scoundrel,” warns an opening disclaimer smack on the tail end of THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI’s main credits.  This is so you know it takes place in Paris, and that it better star George Sanders.  From there, the deliriously debauched proceedings unfold at a merry pace in Albert Lewin’s 1947 scandalous cinematic delight, now on Blu-Ray from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

I must say that I have been waiting to see this movie for decades, its elusiveness being a Sanders Holy Grail for me.  Long story short:  I couldn’t wait to get my mitts on this platter, and, long story shorter, I wasn’t disappointed.  Less concisely, BEL AMI could be director Albert “Style-Over-Substance” Lewin’s best movie; a bold claim when one considers his more high-profile titles, 1945’s  The Picture of Dorian Gray and 1951’s  Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.  But, what the hey, I’m a George Sanders fanatic, and this movie was tailor-made for the suave, urbane and rascally thespian.  BEL AMI is nothing less than a gift of love from Lewin, who practically worshiped the actor (Sanders had previously starred in the aforementioned Dorian Gray and the underrated 1942 eyebrow-raiser The Moon and Sixpence), as did virtually every director who had the privilege of employing him (quite a list too, including Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, Edgar G. Ulmer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, John Ford, etc., etc.).

As one might glean from the title, THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI is the story of self-professed “womanator,” or what we today call womanizer.  Yet, Georges Duroy, or, Bel Ami, (roughly translated as “beautiful lover,” so dubbed by the rogue’s favorite paramour) doesn’t merely love ’em and leave ’em.  He loves ’em, leaves ’em and has them begging for more.

The narrative, set in 19th-century France, opens with a downtrodden Duroy (sporting a lounge-lizardy, dare-I-say Tom Conway, mustache) sitting at an outdoor cafe as if he owns the world (FYI, he hasn’t the price for a night’s bedding).  Soon he captures the eyes of low-bar courtesan Rachel Michot (Marie Wilson) and her trampy pal.  In no time at all Wilson is willing to give it up for free (he responds to her request for a drink by pointing toward the direction of the nearest horse trough).  But smug Georges has other plans.  He notices an old ally, Charles Forestier (John Carradine, fortunately visible as he wasn’t turned sideways).  Carradine is a fairly successful journalist, employed by M. Walter, a brutish, Trumpian bore of a businessman (perfectly cast Hugo Haas) with many interests.  Walter buys class by the yard, including a well-bred wife (Katherine Emery).  His one regret is that their child is a girl, thus squelching his chances of enabling the Walter tradition of cheating unfortunates from entering the new century (Duroy, who sees life as a Punch and Judy parable, informs his close associates that the Punch stick was invented for beating idiots with money).

Carradine has a far more desirable matrimonial situation, being hitched to the hot-damn Ann Dvorak, who takes no prisoners.  They say “behind every great man is a woman.”  In the Carradine-Dvorak splice, it’s appended to read “a greater woman.”  Of course, Sanders must conquer all these ladies, including the gorgeous single mom Clothilde (a ravishing Angela Lansbury, another holdover from Dorian Gray).  It is, in fact, Carradine, who opens the Pandora’s Box with the suggestion that his flea-bitten friend use his successful way with women for more than mere pleasure.  And it works.  In nanoseconds, Duroy is making a name for himself as a newsman, pollinating more fair flowers than Luther Burbank.  His attraction to Dvorak is two-fold: first, he adores her ruthlessness, her lust for gold, her…oh, hell, she’s a female version of himself.  Secondly, Carradine’s irritating cough in 1800s Paris can only mean one thing:  TCD, or Terminal Camille Disease.  His expiration date opens the door for Georges, whose brashness amuses Dvorak and results in a superb marriage (it is Dvorak’s influence/support/partnership/sexual prowess that inspires Sanders to come up with the concept of the gossip column, thus elevating the supermarket checkout counter to cultural omnipotence).  Sidebar:  in pure Pirandello irony, this portion of the scenario plays like precursor to the Sanders-Benita Hume nuptials.  Within (seemingly) moments after Ronald Colman’s death (and the checking of the widow’s formidable holdings), middle-aged Sanders appeared at her door with a bouquet of posies and a box of chocolates.  Hume was outraged and snarkily chided her suitor to all her friends.  Suffice to say, they were wed shortly thereafter, a union that became the happiest of the actor’s many relationships, and one that lasted until Hume’s passing in 1967.

The plot, like the main character, is incredibly shocking and very adult (especially for an American movie made in 1947).  Natch, it’s what one would expect from a Guy de Maupassant sourcework (scripted by Lewin).  And the rich, quip-laden dialog is a major part of BEL AMI‘s repeat-viewing, staying-power charm.  Sanders’ philosophy is mouthed early on when asked by envious males how he can conquer so many fascinating and covetable women (“Women take to men who have the appearance of wickedness”).  And truth be told, the savvy ladies, while understanding this, cannot resist, as evidenced by one’s honest assessment, “Your cruelty to me is dearer than love from others.”  Of course, the Duroy bon mots are all the more satisfying (even the nastier ones) when purred by the pic’s star in his unique, sardonic delivery.  After seducing the mature wife of Haas, Georgie sneers with aplomb, “I have lighted a fire in an old soot-filled chimney.”

But it isn’t just the women who receive the brunt of his vicious tongue.  In a brilliant piece of what can only be called Cad Men casting, Sanders is pitted against rival Warren William.  The upshot is a verbal/physical bitch-slapping contest, with guess-who winning the honors.  Booting a dithering William out of the office in front of snickering coworkers, Sanders gets the last insult in with a superbly-timed “I’m sure you’ll think of a crushing reply in the cab.”

We also can’t deny BEL AMI’s outstanding women their moment in the sun.  The queen is, not surprisingly, the amazing Dvorak, who is one of the most modern femmes in classic cinema.  Before agreeing to Duroy’s proposal of marriage, Dvorak’s cool demeanor cuts to the chase:  “I must be an equal, an ally – not a submissive.”  Howz about them apples?

Perhaps the most incredible segment of BEL AMI doesn’t rely upon words at all.  At a Haas-thrown dinner, Sanders regales the guests with his natural raconteur abilities.  What he says is nebulous, but the effect isn’t.  All the women in the room are hanging on every syllable.  The piece de resistance comes when Suzanne (Susan Douglas Rubes), the now-adolescent daughter of Haas, quivers at the table, double-takes and joins her sisterhood – her first sexual awakening, rife with uncontrollable panting, and doe-eyed stares at her parents’ favored diner.  No question:  bad-boy Sanders is a babe magnet.

The supporting cast is just terrific, and, aside from those noted, there are memorable appearances from Frances Dee, Albert Bassermann, Richard Fraser, Lumsden Hare, Leonard Mudie, Judy Cook and Karolyn Grimes (as Lansbury’s daughter).  In a deceptive piece of advertising that Bel Ami would be rightly proud of, a 1953 re-release of the picture, under the moniker Women of Paris, co-billed Saners with Marie Wilson, who, due to the trifecta success of her radio/movie/TV series My Friend Irma, was now the most prominent female in the picture.

THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI is an all-out George Sanders festival.  Not only do we see him at his best, swindling, seducing and speaking salaciously, but we also get to hear him sing, and, in one jaw-dropping scene, do a 19th-century version of boogie-woogie dancing.  It is not to be missed!

The terrific look of BEL AMI is not all that astounding being Lewin’s penchant for the period and set design/art direction in general.  The movie was lushly shot in radiant black and white by Sirk’s favorite d.p., Russell Metty.  Like the Lewin predecessors Dorian Gray and SixpenceBEL AMI contains Technicolor art inserts (in this case, Max Ernst’s extraordinary The Temptation of St. Anthony).  The interesting music score is by the acclaimed French composer Darius Milhaud.

One of the reasons for BEL AMI‘s obscurity is due to the negligence of the owners of the negative.  Indeed, Olive Films has enclosed a disclaimer with each disc noting that it was “sourced from the highest quality picture and audio elements available and represents our best attempt to restore the film to its original glory…”  Honestly, it’s really a fine 35mm transfer – way better than I imagined it would be, and far superior to other non-disclaimed titles offered to collectors from various distributors.

THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI remains Golden Age Hollywood’s greatest depiction of a man devoted to pleasure.  As such it’s fitting that this celluloid confection offers the same to those fortunate enough screen it.

THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI.  Black and white w/Technicolor insert.  Full frame:  [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT#  OF12101.  SRP:  $29.95.

belamiCOVER

 

Election of the Body Snatchers

Directors Raoul Walsh and Robert Wise never fail to throw me for a loop (maybe it’s the “right/wrong” RW initials?).  Just when I think I’ve got them pegged, up pop nine gazillion celluloid obscurities that I’ve never heard of.  A perfect example is the latter’s superb 1952 docu-noir thriller THE CAPTIVE CITY, now on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.

A true story, THE CAPTIVE CITY is a genuinely frightening vest-pocket sleeper depicting the horrific events befalling journalist John Forsythe (in his big-screen debut) and wife/partner Joan Camden.  Forsythe, as newshound Jim Austin, seems to be leading the ideal life.  A no-nonsense reporter, he has taken an offer to edit (and co-run) his best friend’s newspaper in the small, quaint town of Kennington, (located just outside of Anywhere, USA).  It’s a picture-perfect quiet white (in every sense of the word) picket-fence life, peaceful, tranquil – ideal for raising a family and enjoying the 1950s post-war middle-class American dream.

Or so it seems.

Snarky, suspicious Forsythe is nonplussed when a down-on-his luck private eye (Hal K. Dawson) stumbles into his world with a wild tale of political corruption, murder and attempted assassination.  Forsythe initially tolerates the ravings of this loon, but is jarred when the man (who claimed this all stemmed from a divorce case) is found dead a short time later.  Forsythe decides to half-heartedly pursue the story, questioning the victim’s terrified widow (Geraldine Hall).  When the facts add up, Forsythe opts to blow the lid on the villainy within his township’s midst.  And then it starts.  He and his wife are harassed by the local cops, businessmen, and the general Kennington citizenry.

WTF is going on here?

Soon the sinister Chief of Police (the always oily Ray Teal) grins a “knock it off” flesh-crawling threat.  In rapid succession, the Austins’ world takes a sharp detour from Norman Rockwell to Norman Bates.  The hellish situation spirals downward when Forsythe discovers that his best pal (Harold J. Kennedy), who got him the gig, is also “in on it.”

But what is “it?”

In the wake of the Kefauver hearings, Kennington is revealed to be one of a myriad of idyllic little off-the-radar hamlets that factions of organized crime took over.  Mob kingpins poured big bucks into the local businesses, helped elect the officials and kept the populace comfortably solvent while they used the burgs as hide-in-plain-sight vicinities to perpetrate money laundering, drug and prostitution drop-off revenue points, and, for the icing on the cake, grab a piece of the action of the more successful legit concerns.  It’s a McCarthyism offshoot at its most heinous, or, as Teal refers to the embracing of conformity:  “…giving the people what they want.”

This is a real-life Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and, thus, all the more harrowing.  Coupled with violence and stark documentary style filming a la The Phenix City Story (but made a years before either), THE CAPTIVE CITY is a template for top-notch low-budget movie-making; in short, a pic that totally deserves to be discovered (I’d say rediscovered, but I don’t believe most folks have ever had the chance to find it in the first place).  This nail-biter is a twentieth-century shocker of the highest order, an effort that Wise’s former boss, Val Lewton, would have no doubt proudly approved of.  The non-phantasmagorical chills are not only Lewtonesque, but even prefigure the director’s 1963 explicit supernatural Grand Guignol masterpiece The Haunting.  The fact that this all happens in broad daylight, amongst smiling faces of “turned” neighbors, makes the proceedings all the more nasty.

One sequence of Forsythe being tailed by an ominous sedan is creep-out marvelous.  The slow-moving vehicle, stealthily stalking its prey, atmospherically undergoes a transformation from automobile into fearsome monster (its grillwork, appearing in full sardonic grimace, is almost reminiscent of a Paul Blaisdell creation).  As Camden begs her husband to justifiably flee the hellish community (“I don’t know if I want to live like this.  This is Kennington, not Chicago!”), Forsythe, in full agreement, plots their exit.  They’ve been targeted – change or die.  The couple’s escape (which serves as the framing story) is a paranoid’s dream, or nightmare.  Can they make it to the next town’s police department?  But, wait a minute.  What if that community has been corrupted too?  And the next town.  And the next.  How far has this malignant disease spread?  No less than Kefauver himself makes an appearance to verify the events in this movie as being 100% authentic, which makes it 110% scarifyin’.   Supposedly, the “Austins” did live to testify, and were spirited away into some sort of witness-protection-program where we hope they prospered and survived.

THE CAPTIVE CITY, while filmed on a shoestring, has formidable credentials.  Aside from Wise and the excellent script by Alvin M. Joseph, Jr. and Karl Kamb (based on a story by Joseph), CITY was photographed by the great Lee Garmes, and contains a wonderful score by Jerome Moross.  Aside from the aforementioned thesps, the terrific supporting cast includes Victor Sutherland (excelling in loathsome viciousness), Martin Milner, Marjorie Crossland, Ian Wolfe, Paul Newlan, Paul Brinegar and Gladys Hurlburt.  Wise was deservedly elated when the few people familiar with this movie would ask him about it.  He happily recounted that the entire pic was shot on-location (interiors and exteriors) in Reno, Nevada, without one studio insert, and in less than three weeks.

The Kino Lorber Blu-ray looks and sounds great, with crystal-clear monochrome imagery to match the wild sound audio.  I suggest double-billing it with Siegel’s 1956 classic, provided you screen the sci-fi version first (it makes the real thing, which I’m convinced that Body Snatchers writer Jack Finney must have seen, come off way freakier).

THE CAPTIVE CITY is one of Robert Wise’s finest movies. It’s a shameful example of a “fallen-through-the-cracks” project that, thanks to Kino Lorber Studio Classics, can now be deservedly excavated.

THE CAPTIVE CITY.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino Lorber/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT# K1942.  SRP:  $29.95.

captivecityCOVER