Stuck on Crazy

A cherished cinematic memory from my oft-discussed mostly unremarkable youth, 1964’s THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT, now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios, strikes a nostalgic chord pour moi on many levels.  It’s a favorite comedy, Peter Sellers flick, New York movie, and overall 1960s popcorn-friendly delight.  It’s probably the only George Roy Hill pic that I actually love.  I will try to back up all these claims via the following salty peppered words.

First and foremost, I’m a New Yorker, more so, a New YAWKER, so any movie about my town that hit me at an impressionable age gets mucho points.  To say nothing of the fact that key narrative of THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT is about being at an impressionable age.  Succinctly, the picture is the ultimate take on adolescent bonding, but done on an adult (and snarkily hilarious) scale.  How can one NOT adore it?

The picture opens rather gustily, with a raw example of East River wind; no, not a code word for Fun City (as it was called then) flatulence, but rather a cold blast of seasonal changing climate.  This rude natural force causes a daydreaming teen’s homework to scatter along the fashionable river front, thus causing a collision of sorts betwixt “Val” Boyd and “Gil” Gilbert.  Each one of these extraordinary young ladies is considered by the masses to be an outcast.  Why?  ‘Cause they’re creative, talented females (one an accredited high-IQ genius/musical prodigy); yet, they’re funny, kooky and, of course, inventive.  These attributes are well-documented by their outrageous fantasies involving local intrigue, celebrities, super-woman aspirations and much more.  Both go to a posh private school (don’t hold that against them, so did I), both are from well-to-do parents (with Boyd’s being Warren Buffet wealthy) and both are from broken homes, except Val’s doesn’t know it yet.  Gil resides with her divorced mom and her divorced bestie (a possible “two moms” situation that is hinted at, but not particularly important to the scenario, save that it’s a beautiful home life relationship).  Val is the byproduct of a mega-successful (though loving) never-there dad and his high-brow snobbish skank of a wife (who apparently has had more affairs than the State Department).

Val’s and Gil’s unassuming, non-superior demeanors underline the major attraction of HENRY ORIENT; otherwise, who the hell would care?  And we DO care.  When the pair, embarked on a Central Park espionage adventure, happen upon renowned avant-garde composer Henry Orient and his latest married conquest in mid-debauch, all crap breaks loose.  Orient, a certifiable neurotic, and Stella Dunnworthy (an equally paranoid lover) come to believe that the girls might be employed by Dunnworthy’s jealous spouse, out to catch the adulterers.  Orient’s recalling the bubblegum-blowing urchins with horror to his best friend/manager (John Fiedler) is one of the many great lines scattered throughout the picture (“And then, two small bladders came out of their mouth”).

Kismet rears its aged but melodious head when Gil’s moms take the girls to an Orient concert at Carnegie Hall.  He sees them from the stage and practically freaks out, ignoring his fellow musicians and the audience’s unanimous response that he’s a lousy phony.

But the die has been cast, and Val and Gil are now obsessed with Henry Orient in that first-love pang precursor to restraining order puberty.

How all of this intertwines becomes the crux of this thoroughly charming movie that, if anything, has gained in stature since its original release 52 years ago.

The cast is superb, from Sellers on down.  For the comedian, it was a continuing streak of amazing choices that began with Lolita and propelled him to international stardom with Dr. Strangelove, The Pink Panther and ORIENT, all within the space of two years – and all major critical/box-office smashes.  Orient’s past, a kid from Brooklyn, is constantly masked by the artist’s attempt to cover up his Flatbush dialect with a fake continental accent of no particular locale (which, natch, the star exSellers at); the actor later revealed that he based his voice characterization on Stanley Kubrick.  The supporting players are equally outstanding, from Phyllis Thaxter (my bid for one of the most underrated actresses of all time) as Gil’s biological mom, to Angela Lansbury (the shrewish upper-crust slutty mater), to Bibi Osterwald (as Gil’s other mom) and Tom Bosley (perhaps his finest performance) as Val’s caring but absent pop.  Can’t not mention Paula Prentiss, too riotous as the fidgety would-be cheating femme equivalent of Henry (they never actually get to do it).  Or the aforementioned Fiedler.  Or Al Lewis as a (what else?) frenzied neighborhood smoke-shop proprietor, convinced (by the goils) that Jayne Mansfield has been kidnapped.

But the movie’d be flatter than a pancake without the real stars of the piece, namely the teen actresses.  When folks hear tales of producer Jerome Hellman having gone through development purgatory with the cast, they’re naturally assuming he was referring to Sellers, who, as his star rose, so did his ego.  No so; the brilliant comic actor wasn’t the problem at all.  It was the negotiations for the teen protagonists, primarily Val.  Hellman spent over a year in meetings with Disney trying in vain to score Hayley Mills for the part.  But Walt was out to prove that Buena Vista wasn’t some easily manipulated Mickey Mouse outfit, and the lofty hook of Mills on the ORIENT express (a huge attraction back then) became an industry punchline to Never-Never Land.  Other girls (for both roles) were tested and bandied about (if, for no other reason, than Hollywood’s inclination to bandy about girls), including Patty Duke, Sue Lyon, Laurel Goodwin and Portland Mason.

Finally, some mastermind decided to go for unknowns, and mercifully found Tippy Walker (it was that rhapsodic trippy Tippy/Tippi era) and Merrie Spaeth, both magnificent.  I’d venture to say that because they were fresh faces constituted a big plus toward ORIENT‘s success; overpaid pimply thesps would have been inauthentic (to put it kindly).

The near-perfect script by Nora Johnson and her father Nunnally, based on the younger Johnson’s acclaimed novel, stemmed from truth.  Johnson, at that tweeny-teeny age, became hopelessly obsessed with world-famed neurotic Oscar Levant (“Levant” is French for “orient”).  The witty, urbane and frequently howl-out-loud screenplay is beautifully realized by Hill’s fine direction, again the only movie of his I unabashedly champion.

The (mostly) 100% Manhattan locations comprise a love letter to the city (insert “Yay!” here).  To me, the movie is a treasured reminiscence of how I remember Central Park in the autumn and winter.  The only other movie that comes close to that is 1955’s The Eddy Duchin Story, coincidentally also available from Twilight Time; ironically, Peter Duchin appears in ORIENT as one of Lansbury’s unscrupulous paramours.

The photography, in Panavision and DeLuxe Color, is lush, extravagant and picture-postcard sumptuous.  These visuals were achieved by a no doubt uneasy alliance between the great Boris Kaufman (whose sleek, slick rectangular compositions are gallery-quality striking) and the not-so-great Arthur Ornitz, my nomination for the worst cinematographer in the American A-picture universe.  When one looks at this Blu-Ray, one immediately can discern Kaufman’s contributions vs. Ornitz’s (fortunately, the former did the lion’s share of the shooting).  Ornitz, as is his trademark, offers up soft, fuzzy, grainy, available-light images more in line with a colorized version of Who Killed Teddy Bear? (which still looks better than anything Ornitiz ever shot).  That said, his “work” on ORIENT remains his best achievement.

On the Johnson’s/Hill/Kaufman side of the behind-the-camera ledger is the gorgeous score by Elmer Bernstein (a CD of which I’ve been playing repeatedly for almost twenty years).  No surprise that his music spectacularly captures the gist of the locale, the characters and storyline.  It’s one of my (here we go again) favorite Bernstein scores, and gained publicity at the time, being the composer’s official foray into comedy (well, if one doesn’t count Cat Women of the Moon.  Or The Ten Commandments).(*)  Many thought him an strange choice in 1964, but, when one considers the fantastic job he did on To Kill a Mockingbird, a masterpiece also about children at crucial crossroads in their lives, Bernstein seems not only qualified, but the only logical choice.  Truth be told, if one removed the Sellers character altogether and simply made a movie about two  friends growing up in 1960s New York, The World Sans Henry Orient would work just as well for me (yikes, here come the rude emails, and, no, I’m not saying Sellers isn’t necessary or terrific; he is).

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of HENRY ORIENT is quite nice (with the DeLuxe Color occasionally on the warm side), displaying many of the traits the format is revered for.  Curiously, the mono soundtrack seems a bit on the low side, especially when compared to the included trailer, but this is a minor prob, easily solved by, you know, turning up the volume.  Best of all, for those who haven’t access to the Bernstein/ORIENT CD, Twilight Time allows one to enjoy the glorious soundtrack as IST (that also features the wacky Henry Orient Concerto, composed and conducted by Ken Lauber).  For those whose interest is further piqued by this depiction of the city and the era through rose-colored lasses, there’s nifty audio commentary by Jeff Bond, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redmond.

 

(*) – actually, Bernstein scored two 1950s intentional comedies: Never Wave at a WAC and Miss Robin Crusoe.

THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT #: TWILIGHT 160-BR.  SRP:  $29.95.

Limited edition of 3000, available exclusively at www.screenarchives.com and www.twilighttimemovies.com

worldhenryorientcover

 

The Fisher Queen

Solving crimes has never been more fun for us armchair sleuths than by chugging along with the smartest, savviest, sexiest P.I. in contemporary media, Phyrne Fisher, aka Essie Davis, in the Australian smash hit series MISS FISHER MURDER MYSTERIES.  Since the show’s debut in 2012, these classy, stylish thrillers, based on the novels by Kerry Greenwood, and set in Oz during the late 1920s, have deservedly exploded in worldwide popularity.  And why not?  They’re so very cool, or, as they used to say back in Phyrne’s day, the cat’s pajamas.  Indeed, the Jazz Age has never been jazzier.  And what better time of the year to rejoice at the arrival of SERIES 3 on Blu-Ray from those crackerjack folks at Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment?

MISS FISHER, the show and the character, have evolved from a mere meticulous, delightful depiction of upscale Aussie 1920s lifestyle to an insightful look at some authentically charming people.  Happy to report that the third collection of eight episodes (spread over two platters) is particularly revealing, as Phyrine’s usually hidden inner human foibles (save her jubilant sexuality) come realistically to light.

The thing I always loved about the show was the relationship between Fisher and staid detective division head Jack Robinson (the under-appreciated Nathan Page).  He’s never deteriorated into one of those clichéd patronizing, sexist loudmouths begrudgingly accepting an over-privileged flapper (admittedly, whose initial interest in crime partially began as a sort of slumming hobby).   Nope, the Robinson/Fisher connection is one of genuine respect.  He is never condescending, but rather in awe of her intuitive (and often heroic) investigative skills.  He additionally takes pride in working with her, as she, like himself, is a staunch proponent of doing the right thing – breaking all racial, class strata and gender barriers.  And, oh, yeah, he’s also head over heels in love with her, something Phryne realizes (and toys with), but, is herself unaware of the full impact of their partnership – that, in fact, it’s totally reciprocal.  Apparently, it’s the one time in Miss Fisher’s life that the world at large (aka, the ever-growing Fisher viewership) has one up on her.

And, again, this is what makes SERIES 3 so great; she’s finally beginning to “get it.”  Her true surfacing emotions disturb her, as, for once, the lady is not in complete control of her formidable personality and sexual power.  Long story short, Phryne Fisher actually starts to get jealous.  And it’s a hoot.  Of course, this is mostly due to the terrific chemistry and thesp chops of Davis and Page.  This delightfully comes to a surprising head (for Phryne) in Episode 5, Death and Hysteria.  When a sexual pleasure device is discovered, Phryne decides to cue Jack in on what it’s for and how it operates.  Robinson politely interrupts her, explaining that he’s well aware of the function.  Fisher is stunned, and the chief detective continues to relate a former case wherein he went undercover in a bordello for a rather extended period of time.  Phryne’s jaw-dropping shock is replaced by the sadness that she won’t be able to ever be the one to introduce Jack to the joys of toys; then her sadness turns to mild anger, as she envisions Robinson with other women.  And it’s all done briefly and without dialog, a bow to Davis’ brilliant prowess as one of cinema’s/television’s top members of the acting profession.

But there are other plot points afoot in SERIES 3 that further display cracks in Phryne’s up-till-now impenetrable perfect persona.  Key is the arrival of Baron Henry Fisher (Pip Miller), her entrepreneurial father from the UK.  A rogue, with as voracious an appetite for sex as his daughter, he’s also a wily rapscallion in the business world,   which is a nice way of saying that many former associates are out to kill him.  Determined to keep her pater alive as well as preventing him from cheating on her London-based mum, Phryne and Jack have their work more than cut out for them.  Fusspot Aunt Prudence (Miriam Margolyes) doesn’t help matters, nor does the fact that straight-and-narrow Constable Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), recommended for promotion, must endure a training leave of absence.  This puts his squeeze, Dot Williams (Ashleigh Cumming), Phryne’s gal Friday, in a lonely state, not aided by the intrusion of Collins’ temporary replacement, slimy Snr. Constable Neville Martin (Henry Hammersla), whose goal is to chalk up the inexperienced Dot as his latest conquest.  And, of course, also back on-board are Phryne’s butler, Mr. Butler (Richard Bligh) and her BFF, Dr. Mac (Tammy Macintosh).

Cases involving homicidal family rivalries, severed heads during a magic show (“cut off in her prime”), landmark historical reconstructive facial surgery (from disfigured victims of the Great War), biological warfare, political intrigue, proponents of free love, multiple personality disorders, Nosferatu-looking plungers, nefarious pornographers, plus a plethora of ingenious murders by radium, arachnids, funky cigarettes and more comprise the remaining episodes (Death Defying Feats, Murder and the Maiden, Murder and Mozzarella, Blood and Money, Death at the Grand, Game, Set and Murder, Death Do Us Part).  And there ain’t a dud in the box.  Best of all is the capper, with Phryne, not trusting her dad to return home to his patient spouse without any “detours.”  She rents a two-seater biplane, and flies him back to England herself.  This is worth mentioning because FINALLY a goodbye from Jack on a misty, countryside airfield gives us FISHER fans the fade-out we’ve been waiting for!

As always, the new MISS FISHER adventures have been designed and constructed with much affection for their protagonist and her era (featuring intelligent references to as diverse a group as Isadora Duncan, D.H. Lawrence and Zane Grey).  The direction (by Tony Tilse, Peter Andrikidis, Mat King and Daina Reid), writing (supervised by Deb Cox, and individually scripted by Elizabeth Coleman, Ysabelle Dean, Chris Corbett, Belinda Chayko and Kris Wyld) and photography (Roger Lanser) is about as good as it gets.  Ditto the original music by Greg Walker.

Of course, we’re all panting for a Series 4, but that may never come to pass.  It isn’t that the writers have run out of ideas, but rather that Davis’ rising star (in such extraordinary tele-series and movies as The Slap and The Babadook) have propelled the wonderful actress into the international fame arena (culminating with a gig on the latest season of Game of Thrones).  Nor does the problem seem to be the money (the shows have always been extravagantly funded, with Davis herself donning an additional hat as associate producer).  It’s simply a matter of finding the time required in a swamped schedule to do justice to the subject.

In worst-case scenario land, an article recently surfaced that the FISHER production group has been contemplating the idea of filming a trio of feature-length big-screen Phryne movies, sharing the production costs with (wait for it, then gasp) Hollywood.  Can’t you see it now?  Miss Fisher’s roadster equipped with supersonic flying capabilities; or her new arsenal being a prototype of a 1920s precursor to atomic-powered assault weapons (causing Phryne to blow up the Great Barrier Reef).  How about a case so difficult that it calls for a quantum leap assist from her 21st century American great-great granddaughter (yes, it’s Twilight‘s Kristen Stewart in her most challenging role)?  It’s just awful enough to actually happen (think of previous Hollywood/overseas movies; think Bean; Think St. Trinian’s; think we’re screwed!).

Hopefully, not.

But leave us not put a damper on the main attraction here, the excellent SERIES 3, superbly mastered by Acorn with colorful, accurate re-creations of the 1920s look in design, costumes, music and technology.  Equaling the look is the audio, in fine stereo-surround.  And there’s even a 35-minute cluster of behind-the-scenes featurettes to complete the package.

Furthermore, for those novice FISHER buffs, Acorn had made this holiday season a little brighter with a Blu-Ray box containing ALL THREE SERIES.

MISS FISHER’S MURDER MYSTERIES, SERIES 3.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition); 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/all3media/Film Victoria.  CAT # AMP-2431.  SRP:  $49.99.

COMPLETE SERIES BLU-RAY:  CAT # AMP-2505.  SRP: $119.99

 

 

 

Welcome to 1934, or Censorship of Fools

It is with great sadness that I report yet ANOTHER tumultuous disappointment for 2016, the announcement that the newest in the terrific Warner Archive FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD box sets – VOLUME 10 – will be the final collection in the series.

Have to say, that the yearly press releases of upcoming FH collections was always a joyous cinematic occasion in my admittedly otherwise uninteresting life.  That said, there’s a bright side to everything – I’m just having trouble finding it.  Oh, no, here it is.  Warners, which controls the rights to not only their product, but that of MGM and RKO, still has hundreds of pre-Code offerings crouching around in musty vaults just waiting to spread their snarky, illicit sexuality, encompassing their plethora of wise-cracking “say girls” (and boys), plus coke sniffers, rum-runners and fun hummers.  And Warners does intend to keep on giving us pre-Code delights (but, like penicillin, in single doses).  So that’s something.  But we can’t carp; it’s been a good, long haul.  And we do have a NUMERO DIEZ to end 2016 with a Depression era bang.  So let the shames begin.

VOLUME 10, to be honest, ain’t the strongest batch in the series.  But it is pre-Code, which automatically elevates it among the throngs of many other more highly-regarded post-1934 titles.  And there are many pre-C favorites on view, including Barbara Stanwyck, Warren William, Kay Francis, Glenda Farrell, Aline MacMahon and others.  There are also some of our pet supporting players too, like Polly Walters, Ruth Donnelly, Frank Morgan, Polly Moran, William Bakewell, Guy Kibbee, Noel Francis, Jack LaRue, J. Carrol Naish, Stanley Fields, Claire Dodd…

Happy to report that V.10 is likewise a democratic brannigan, featuring selections from all three of the aforementioned studios.  So grab some protection (or not), and get ready to party like it’s 1933.

1931’s GUILTY HANDS is the jewel in VOLUME 10‘s crown, an MGM pre-Code lollapalooza!  Codirected by W.S. Van Dyke and male lead Lionel Barrymore, this sordid tale of sex and murder tells of the unscrupulous habits of rich bastard Alan Mowbray, a seducer extraordinaire of underaged and overaged babes – a monstrous testosterone locomotive that frequents the S&M and B&D line.  Barrymore, a high-priced attorney, is the mouthpiece who spends much his career (for want of a better term) getting him off.  Imagine Lionel’s shock when Mowbray announces that he’s marrying the barrister’s beauteous daughter (Madge Evans), a winsome lass he’s already had his way with.  Imagine the predatory female community’s response, personified by experienced lover Kay Francis (on loan from Warner Bros.).  No need to worry, says Mowbray to Francis, indicating that they’ll still get in on via secret assignations (accent on the ass).  Francis, whose sexual expertise is hinted at being the prize in a big box of Smackherjack, isn’t pleased.  Nor is Barrymore.  Evans, however, is tingling with excitement, as she rebuffs her former squeeze William Bakewell.   “I’m carried out of myself,” she pants to Billy, describing the amazing sex she has with Mowbray.  No surprise that Mowbray’s corpse is found shortly thereafter.  How it was done and who done it (won’t do spoilers here, folks) is ingenious, albeit nowhere near as nifty as the outrageous double-take ending.

Shot by Merritt B. Gerstad, scripted by Bayard Veiller (but wouldn’t be surprised if Erich von Stroheim had a hand in it somewhere along the trail), with Wm. Axt music and ladies togs by Hubert, GUILTY HANDS is a fairly unknown pre-C that definitely should be…well, known.  Key supporting players (not of the Mowbray kind) include C. Aubrey Smith, Forrester Harvey and Polly Moran.

 

1932’s THE MOUTHPIECE, codirected by James Flood and Elliott Nugent, spills the beans on a not-so-shy shyster (big surprise, Warren William), who, after doing the straight-and-narrow bit (and causing an innocent man to go to the chair for a heinous sex crime), quits being legit and becomes lawyer to the stars (well, the stars of the underworld).  Thus, before you can say “secret bank accounts,” William is rolling in the dough – and the hay, with a stable of society hotties, A-list models and svelte skanks.  Gal Friday Aline MacMahon masters her boss’s coded language, knowing that “consulting” with a client means, “afternooner delight.”  The arrival of  waifish innocent Sydney Fox, inept for secretarial duties, but quite the looker, further arouses the legal eagle’s beagle, and, although warned by true-blue Aline (“…jail-bait and dumb!”), proceeds to the horndog fixation level, thereby initiating his downfall.

William’s dastardly attitude toward the justice system via brazen courtroom histrionics is almost as much fun as his inappropriate behavior mit da vimmen; indeed, he seems to have a handle on it all – intimating that there are no heights that he can ascend by shamelessly adhering to a brand of “sensationalism, ballyhoo, Barnum and Bailey…!”  Talk about “so old, it’s new”!  And he ain’t just whistling “Dixie.”  William’s character was based on the real-life William Fallon, the notorious criminal defense attorney who got Arnold Rothstein off the hook for the infamous 1919 Black Sox “fix.”

Sadly, in pre-Code, it’s only when a scoundrel sees the light and does the right thing, that he/she cashes in his/her chips (sigh) – which is why we snarkies so adore this era.

Warners, never one to throw anything away, took the salvageable post-Code portions, and recycled them for their 1955 noir Illegal (making their mouthpiece, Edward G. Robinson, older, but not particularly wiser).

But it’s the 1932 original, with its nasty script by Joseph Jackson (with an adaptation and additional dialog by Earl Baldwin from Frank Collins’ play), that is the one to watch.  Literally, too; it’s as easy on peepers as the numerous babes on view, thanks to Barney McGill’s silky photography and the wonderful supporting cast, including Mae Madison, John Wray, Guy Kibbee, Ralph Ince, J. Carrol Naish, Stanley Fields, Noel Francis, Murray Kinnell, Berton Churchill, Willie Fung, Charles Lane, and, in a bit, Paulette Goddard.

 

Radio Pictures’ 1932 58-minute opus SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE (arguably, one of the best titles of all time!) packs a mini-series worth of narrative into its short duration.  Based on The American Weekly series by Ashton Wolfe (screenplay by Samuel Ornitz and Robert Tasker), the movie, smoothly directed by A. Edward Sutherland, was to be a showcase for Radio’s answer to Marlene Dietrich (all the studios wanted one, with a Garbo chaser), the sensually exotic Gwili Andre.  Andre does indeed have a Dietrich air about her, but that’s about it.  Which is the problem with carbon copies.  As much as she slinks, pants (with an accent) and drives men to agonized ecstasy, she’s still just Shanghai Gwili.  But that’s neither here nor there.

FRENCH POLICE, a David O. Selznick production, was additionally to be Radio’s foothold in the burgeoning horror genre (King Kong was still a year away).  To this, the movie relates a penny dreadful version of the Anastasia case, with Andre an innocent, lured, duped and hypnotized into impersonating the Russian heiress to millions.  The villain, Han Moloff, a rare evil turn for comic character actor (and later director) Gregory Ratoff, is genuinely one of the most loathsome screen devils you’ll ever encounter.  With “insanity a family trait,” this Rooskie/Chinese half-breed delights in stripping beautiful women naked and then draining their blood.  And this is 70 years before Craigslist!  He also likes to stuff cats as a sideline.  Residing in a French countryside castle (the interiors being leftovers from The Most Dangerous Game), Moloff murders, tortures and God only knows what to untold throngs before French police forensic genius Frank Morgan (utilizing some nifty pre-C era CSI techniques), bursts the maniac’s lead-pipe dream.  Helping him is Andre’s beau, a notorious thief (John Warburton; think of a C. Henry Gordon type, who gets the girl without having to resort to drugs).  Warburton’s character is a real sharpie, perfectly pegged as ne’er do well by Gwili’s papa (Christian Rub), who correctly assumes that his daughter will likely end up being pimped by the sleazy Raffles.

There’s some incredible futuristic Moloff-designed booby traps, key being a roadside big-screen 3D TV responsible for numerous auto fatalities.  Sutherland, mostly known for comedy, nevertheless directed one of my personal favorite early thirties horror, 1933’s Murders in the Zoo.

FRENCH POLICE was atmospherically shot by Alfred Gilks and contains music by Max Steiner.  Supporting victims, suspects and gendarmes include Rochelle Hudson, Murray Kinnell, Lucien Prival, Harry Cording, Vivien Oakland and Cyril Ring.

 

In yet another pre-Code true-life adventure, cinema’s beloved human definition of pond scum, Warren William returns for more chicanery in 1932’s THE MATCH KING.

Based on the story of one of the 20th century’s greatest charlatans, Ivar Kreuger, THE MATCH KING opens with American street cleaner William aspiring to greater things.  He uses his coworkers to rise (literally) up from the gutter, lies his way into European corporate politics, and soon becomes one of the most powerful men in the world.  And, yeah, it was with a matchstick company; William’s brilliant theory being that something so cheap that everyone can afford means more people can be manipulated.  To this end, he pimps gorgeous women to global leaders and blackmails them into various ancillary deals involving land, machinery, loans and media.  He is supposedly the one responsible for the WWI urban legend, “three on a match” (ironically, a movie of the same name that William appeared in earlier that year), the rationale being that if three people believed that superstition, they’d use more matches.  It worked; hordes of folks still believe that cliché to this day.  Kreuger is essentially also the originator of the pyramid scheme, a tactic he utilized on a vast level (“Never worry about anything ‘til it happens…” is his credo).

It was the multi-millionaire’s fascination with actress Greta Garbo that gained a lion’s share of his omnipresent publicity.  Warners, in fact, tried to borrow the Swedish star from Metro, but no way.  Instead, they did the next best thing:  taking contract player Lili Damita, lighting and coiffing the actress like GG (or Marta Molnar, as she’s known in the movie) and instructed her to “vant to be a clone.”

THE MATCH KING was based on a sensational novel by Einar Thorvaldson (the picture hitting the screen a mere nine months after Kreuger’s suicide), and crackles via a rapid-fire script by Houston Branch and Sidney Sutherland.  The crisp black and white photography is by Robert Kurrle with music by Bernhard Kaun and stunning set design and wardrobe by Anton Grot and Orry-Kelly, respectively.

The supercharged supporting cast comprises Glenda Farrell, Claire Dodd, Juliette Compton (as, the included trailer heralds, “his pliant playthings), plus Hardie Albright, Harold Huber, Alan Hale, Harry Beresford, John Wray, Spencer Charters and Edmund Breese as a variety pack of international suckers.

 

1933’s EVER IN MY HEART is one of the most unusual and rarest pre-Code pics ever in the heart of the Warners vaults.  In the last part of the first decade of the 20th century, third wheel Jeff (who else, but Ralph Bellamy) returns home to the U.S. after graduating from his a top European university.  With him is best friend, dashing, handsome, charming and brilliant Teutonic, Hugo Wilbrandt (Otto Kruger).  Bellamy was anticipating marrying his childhood sweetie (and distant relative, ewww), Mary (Barbara Stanwyck), but, once she lays eyes on the cultured, cosmopolitan Kruger, it’s bratwurst instead of hot dogs. Stanwyck and Kruger wed, have a child; he becomes a proud American citizen, and a big-time prof at the local college.  All is good.  Until that annoying Archduke Ferdinand gets shot.  Before he can gasp, “Ach du lieber!,” the xenophobes come out of this woodwork faster than you can say “hypocritical racist.” In rapid succession, baby dies, prof is dismissed for no apparent reason, scumbag children torture the family dachshund, and anything remaining of the Wilbrandts’ matrimonial bliss goes kaput.  Stany leaves the town in shame to live with rich relations, ex-hubby returns to Germany, where his genius is channeled into the Kaiser’s espionage program and fade-out.  Well, not exactly.  Babs joins the nursing expeditionary forces and travels to the front, administering aid to the troops and spies spy Kruger gathering information for the big push.

Since it’s pre-Code, she doesn’t report former spouse Hugo, who still gets her juices flowing; she corners him in a secret alcove for a reunion night of mind-blowing sex.  This naturally leads to a climax, perhaps not just the one you’re thinking, but an ending that only one year later would have been unheard of.  EVER IN MY HEART‘s tackling of obsession and bigotry is the prime reason it remained unavailable for such a long time (well, that and WWII).  The hormone-fueled script by Bertram Millhauser (from a story by Beulah Marie Dix) is quite literate; of course, the acting by all is aces, including excellent support from Ruth Donnelly, Laura Hope Crews, Clara Blandick, Willard Robertson, Harry Beresford, Nella Walker, Donald Meek, Elizabeth Patterson, Frank Reicher and Frank Albertson (particularly effective as Mary’s creepy brother).  Archie Mayo directed with enough of a grasp on emotion to suggest a Borzage movie.  And it’s all photographed beautifully by Arthur L. Todd, with music by Bernhard Kaun.

These varying offerings from the last FORBBIDEN HOLLYWOOD gathering, while all from 35MM elements, do have some quality issues.  The MGM and Warners titles are very good to excellent, but the RKO pic could use some restoration work (which it probably will never receive).  Please don’t let that stop you from completing your FH library.  All five titles are definitely worthwhile additions for the pre-C aficionado, and, I guarantee, unlike many protagonists in the flicks themselves, you won’t be sorry.

FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD, VOLUME 10.  Black and White.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio.  The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.  CAT # 1000596075.  SRP: $39.99.

Made-to-order DVD-R set, available exclusively from the Warner Archive Collection:  www.warnerarchive.com

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Joanie Express

My wild pitch pick for best Christmas Blu-Ray is this classic 1954 Nick Ray revisionist western, a longtime personal favorite.  What is it, you ask?  The name’s Guitar, friend, JOHNNY GUITAR, and it’s now a part of the new Olive Films Signature Series; and I must say, if this presentation is representative of what we have to expect on future Signature releases – Oh, boy!

A Republic western starring Joan Crawford sounds like something Bette Davis dreamed up, but, damn, if it ain’t all the berries.  The movie, based on a novel by Roy Chanslor, has had reams of backstage backstabbing stories told about it since its Bijou debut sixty-two years ago.  The main and most-repeated of these tales is nonsense:  Crawford’s career being in the dumps, so she HAD to do this B-western. I know for a fact, being one of Nick’s assistant editors on his last movie (the much-maligned We Can’t Go Home Again), that this “print the legend” tale is total bullshit, as we had mucho discussions on his work – with GUITAR a prime topic.

Truth be told, Crawford’s career was in pretty good shape.  A 1952 noir movie she coproduced, Sudden Fear, had become a huge hit (ironically costarring Gloria Grahame, Ray’s ex-wife).  Crawford, in fact, through shrewd wheeling and dealing (much of it orchestrated by Lew Wasserman, who repped the star, Chanslor, Ray and credited GUITAR screenwriter  Philip Yordan) obtained the movie rights to the novel, and sold them to Herbert Yates, head of Republic.  As Nick told me, “Joan was a very smart woman.  Westerns were all the rage then, almost none of them lost money.  It was a wise decision.  And choosing Republic, known for the genre was doubly smart.  She also knew that she’d have more leverage at an outfit like Republic, than at Fox, MGM or Paramount.”  It was also NOT a B-picture by any standards (Yordan claims the picture cost a then-staggering two-and-a-half million dollars).  It was likely one of Republic’s biggest undertakings, with a stellar cast, virtually filmed entirely on-location in Arizona.

On one abstract level, JOHNNY GUITAR is a camp fantasy; its surface gloss unfurls the standard good/bad guy vs. dastardly villain, except here the guys are women (Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge); the men, while interesting, are essentially ineffectual.  But it’s the political undertow of the narrative that has helped make GUITAR a world renowned classic.  The picture is a brass-knuckled punch in the face of McCarthyism.  GUITAR‘s Vienna, a self-made woman, runs a profitable gambling house.  Her refusal to conform piques the ire of the racist (and misogynist) townsfolk, supposedly led by rich, corrupt Ward Bond (“Did he know his fascist character was a take on his HUAC-loving self?,” I asked Ray.  “No, way, too dumb,” the directed replied), but really spearheaded by the psychopathic Emma, whose seething hatred against the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady) and Vienna actually masks her bisexual lust for both of them (“He makes her feel like a woman,” reveals Vienna, “and that frightens her”).  Indeed, both Vienna and Emma are butched up throughout most of the picture, making it almost out of place when Crawford dons a white gown.  Nick accurately pegged the underlying theme of the movie as a shocking example of “You always hurt the one you love.”  “In Emma’s case,” said Ray, “it was Vienna and The Kid.  For the idiot hypocrite witch-hunters, it’s democracy.”

I asked Nick if Crawford’s character was named Vienna as homage to Fritz Lang’s female western, Rancho Notorious.  Nick, with a twinkle in his eye (that’s singular, cause he was wearing his patch), replied, “You know too much.”  Women westerns were indeed a sub-genre in the 1950s.  Allan Dwan and even Roger Corman did ’em.  The three most notable, however, are Rancho Notorious, JOHNNY GUITAR and Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns.  Each featured strong leads (Marlene Dietrich, Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck), and I love them all, but GUITAR is probably my fave.

McCarthyism’s brand of justice points its ugly finger at the Kid and his shall-we-say eclectic bunch (Royal Dano, Ben Cooper and Ernest Borgnine), accusing them of crimes they haven’t committed, even forcing a weak link to falsely name names.  So, rather than be persecuted for doing something they haven’t, they turn to crime.  Hovering over this plotline is the arrival of musician Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), hired to entertain at Vienna’s.  Like everyone and everything (including sexuality) in the picture, he isn’t what he seems; he’s really Johnny Logan, infamous gunfighter and Vienna’s former lover.  Hayden’s and Brady’s verbal banter for Vienna’s favors is a GUITAR highlight, basically a “whose dick is bigger” contest, with Crawford the undeniable winner.  The Kid’s aforementioned gang is a hoot too, highlighted by sociopath Borgnine as Bart (“…you don’t drink, you don’t smoke, you’re mean to horses.  What do you like?,” chides The Kid.  “ME!,” snaps Borgnine, “I like ME!”).  Bart is also a personification of the festering political evil engulfing the community.  Like all good maniacs, he telegraphs his attention-getting intentions.  When he is scoffed at, he resorts to murder, “Some people just won’t listen!,” he reasonably concludes.

The ultra-modern look of Vienna’s saloon likewise gives the bland townsfolk a shock of the new (which they naturally rebel against).  Bringing Guitar/Logan back into her life involves an ulterior motive:  she’s out to make a mint via her knowledge that a railroad will be coming through her property.  Thus, her role as a mega-successful woman only manages to further outrage the bigoted yokels, most prominently Emma, who previously held the reins on local economy (she owns the bank).

The supporting cast is phenomenal, and, aside from those cool folks already listed, includes John Carradine, Paul Fix, Frank Ferguson, Rhys Williams, Ian MacDonald, Trevor Bardette, Clem Harvey, Robert Osterloh, Denver Pyle, Sheb Wooley and Will Wright.  The spectacular location photography (in TrueColor by Consolidated) is aced by Harry Stradling, Sr., and the terrific soundtrack is scored by Victor Young (with Peggy Lee singing the iconic title song, which she composed, in perfect crazy unison with everything else in the movie, over the END credits).

JOHNNY GUITAR was a smash for the studio, (and one of 1954’s biggest hits), second only to Republic’s earlier 1950s blockbuster, The Quiet Man.

The shooting of the movie, depending upon your definition of sadism, was either an epic catfight or never-ending nightmare.  Crawford really squeezed her considerable juice out of her powerful position, and Hayden, also known to be difficult, followed suit.  Long story short:  the two despised each other with Hayden unabashedly bellowing, “There is not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford.  And I like money!” (Nevertheless, as evidence of their professionalism, their characters exhibit a genuine affection and regard for one another.).  Nick came out of all of this smelling like a rose, reaping the best benefits of both worlds.  Hayden became one of his three best (actor) friends (the other two being Roberts Mitchum and Ryan) and Crawford became his off-screen lover.

As much as Hayden pissed off Crawford (and vice versa), it was a pat on the shoulder compared to the malice she exhibited toward McCambridge.  She terrified the younger actress and flew into a rage when after one long take of Emma venting her lunatic verbal venom, the cast and crew applauded the All the King’s Men Oscar-winner wildly.  Crawford, at first, played psychological games on McCambridge, sidling up to her, and whispering how much better Claire Trevor would have been as Emma (Crawford also vented her regret that her two original choices for the male leads were not cast:  Robert Mitchum and Paul Newman).  Later this manifested (or womanfested) itself physically when, prior to an early dawn call, Crawford had a pickup truck strew McCambridge’s clothes all over the desert roadway.  Nick had crew members retrieve the garments rather tire out the actress (earlier, some of McCambridge’s wardrobe was found slashed to bits).  Crawford also demanded that her close-ups be filmed back in Hollywood, where she had more control over lighting, makeup and hair.  Ray told me she would audibly shout that there should be at least ONE good-looking woman in the show.  Nick, proponent of the glass half full theory, admitted that their antagonistic animosity certainly added realism to the on-screen proceedings.  True that.

Even the horses were on-edge during the filming, which encompassed mining explosions and a secret hideout under a waterfall.  For a good deal of the shoot, they wore blinders.

Like the Kid and Guitar, the script was an alias, credited to the ubiquitous Yordan, who was actually fronting for blacklisted writer Ben Maddow; talk about life imitating art (or is it the other way around?).  The two split the contract fee down the middle.

Recently, rumors surfaced about JOHNNY GUITAR being geared up as Republic’s big entry into the 3D stakes.  It sorta makes sense, with its plethora of explosions, waterfalls, fiery infernos and mini-avalanche occurrences, but I can find no valid claim to these stories.  Don’t get me wrong, a Nick Ray 3D movie would be amazing (yet another eye-patched director making a formidable mark into the process).  Yet, I doubt it, as he never mentioned it to me, especially since we did discuss the movie’s proper aspect ratio.  1954 was the industry’s big changeover year into standard widescreen.  Ray told me he had seen the picture shown in old-school 1.33 and matted to 1.66.  He admitted that both looked okay, but that he personally preferred the 1.66:1 dimensions.  Well, hallelulah!  JOHNNY GUITAR, formerly ONLY available in 1.33, is now, thanks to the Olive Films/Paramount Home Video Signature Edition in 1.66 1080p High Definition.  In effect, it constitutes a Director Approved version.  And it looks just swell.  Admittedly, the earlier Olive Blu-Ray was a dandy, but this one, in a 4K restoration, blows it away.  The audio plays fine through a regular monitor, but, is enhanced by an authentic theater ambience when played through a decent sound system.

Furthermore, there’s a cache of new extras to supplement this package, including audio commentary by Geoff Andrews and no less than six GUITAR-oriented featurette documentaries:  A Western Like No Other; A Feminist Western?; The Hollywood Blacklist and Johnny Guitar; Herbert J. Yates and the Story of Republic Pictures; My Friend, the American Friend; The First Existential Western.

For fans of the genre, Nick, Crawford or even political dramas, JOHNNY GUITAR covers all the bases. Suffice to say, it’s the screen’s greatest shoot-femme-up!

JOHNNY GUITAR.  Color.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films Signature Edition/Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # OS004.  SRP: $39.95.

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The Happy One for the Holidays!

It’s always fun to revisit a movie you’ve liked, but, frankly, ignored for a number of years – then give it a (Blu-Ray-refurbished) spin, and discover that the pic is way better than you ever remembered.  Such is the case with Frank Capra’s 1961 retread POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, now in High Def from the gang at Kino Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.

The movie, a high-tech remake of the director’s 1933 triumph Lady for a Day, chronicles the Damon Runyon tale of a soft-hearted (yet frequently ruthless) New York mob boss who helps a waterfront hag realize her fantasy of reuniting with a long-lost daughter, shipped off to a European convent and about to wed into Spanish royalty.  Whew, that’s a lot of stuff!  The crone in question, one Apple Annie, has been lifting stationery from a high-brow Manhattan hotel for years, exaggerating her importance in Le Grand Apple society.  The lovable thug, Dave the Dude, can’t “do business” without one Annie’s “special” fruits, so he reluctantly foots the bill for an all-out lifestyle lie once Annie’s daughter and future in-laws plan a Christmas visit to New York.  Dave and his beloved moll, Queenie, pull out all the stops, and in a contradictory nasty-pixie world that only Capra could envision, floods the most joyous time of the year into a tsunami of multiple Kleenex-friendly moments that generally result in audiences screaming “Oscar!” for all concerned.

In the original pre-Code version, the Dude, Annie and Queenie (then monikered “Missouri”) were more-than-ably personified by Warren William, May Robson (who won the coveted Academy statuette) and Glenda Farrell.  In the 1961 super-deluxe edition, it’s associate producer Glenn Ford, Bette Davis and Hope Lange.  In true Hollywood double-standard gender politics, Davis is the weepie old wizened dame and Ford the handsome beloved rogue (even though they had played lovers a mere fifteen years earlier in A Stolen Life).  Never mind, it’s a celluloid fun fest for dedicated classic movie buffs, as Capra has gone beyond sweetening POCKETFUL‘s pot; he’s turned his self-named CapraCorn into Eye-candyCapraCorn, recruiting every surviving character actor from the 1930s-60s, and giving them all (some delivering their last hurrah) at least one more time to shine.

The Lady for a Day upgrade is virtually a scene-by-scene redux, but expanded to nearly two and a half hours (as opposed to the original’s 96 minutes) of DeLuxe-colored/Panavision compositions.  Everything about the 1961 epic is lavish, including the period décor (the 1930s Prohibition repeal theme is repeated), costumes, music, etc.

The script, laden with liberal doses of wisecracks and pathos, was coauthored by Hal Kanter and Harry Tugend (based upon Robert Riskin’s original screenplay, adapted from the Runyon story).  The director, himself, after being considered “washed-up” (resorting to having to do some fondly-remembered Bell Telephone educational films), had rebounded in style with 1959’s A Hole in the Head, a massive hit for co-producer/star Frank Sinatra and the United Artists.  Capra was A-list again, and spared nothing to bring this earlier smash back in 1960s opulence (with UA gleefully picking up much of the tab).  Problem was that A Hole in the Head smacked of modernity, beautifully meshing the Capra of yore with a savvy script by Arnold Schulman, loaded with beat culture, current sex mores, and post-WWII middle-class fantasy.  POCKETFUL, albeit vastly entertaining, was dated from frame one.  It was heavily touted as the move that “delights up the screen.”  Acclaimed scripter Ric Menello and I dubbed it “the happy one for the holidays,” our favorite nonsensical homage to cinema hyperbole.  Nevertheless POCKETFUL needed a miracle, and performed less than admirably, although has deservedly grown in reputation (and home vid revenue) in the past half-century-plus since its release.  One needs only look at the studio’s blockbuster 1961 titles to get the message:  West Side Story and Judgment at Nuremberg (or even their previous year’s smashes, Elmer Gantry, The Apartment, The Magnificent Seven).

POCKETFUL would be Capra’s last completed feature, and began a scary spiral downward into semi-madness.  The physical evidence is in the director’s flagrantly inaccurate 1971 autobiography, The Name Above the Title (a best-seller, and one of the first Golden Age Hollywood anecdotal reminiscences); you know, the one where he takes credit for teaching Sergei Eisenstein about montage.  In this tome, Capra blamed the failure on POCKETFUL squarely on the head of star Ford, and in rather mean-spirited accusatory terms (“Glenn Ford…made me lick his boots…[He] used [the]…film to make himself a big man with a young chick…”).  This proved to be a shock to all concerned, as many recall how smoothly the shoot had gone.  Most dumbfounded was Ford himself, who eagerly unwrapped his copy as soon as it rolled off the presses.  At first he was hurt, then angered (and justifiably so); Capra later recanted his j’accuse finger pointing, blaming his fragile mental state.  Ford gracefully accepted his apology, but it’s doubtful that they ever exchanged Christmas cards.  After all, the book is still available with no updated retraction.

But leave us focus on the picture itself, 1961’s best movie of 1934.  Admittedly, the 136-minute running time seems to whisk by in a flash.  Much of this is, naturally, due to Ford’s charm and Davis’ proficiency at being sincerely poignant.  Surprisingly, Hope Lange’s Queenie, a gamin turned Guinan, is terrific, and she got some of the finest reviews of her career.  But that ain’t where the magic of the pommes d’Annie rests.  The aforementioned supporting cast is stupendous – a veritable Yuletide gift to every serious classic movie buff on the planet.  I won’t go into details, but will simply list the players in question:  Thomas Mitchell, Arthur O’Connell, Edward Everett Horton, Sheldon Leonard, Jerome Cowan, David Brian, Ellen Corby, Mickey Shaughnessy, Barton MacLane, John Litel, Jay Novello, Frank Ferguson, Willis Bouchey, Fritz Feld, Benny Rubin, Jack Elam, Mike Mazurki, Hayden Rourke, Doodles Weaver, Betty Bronson, Jacqueline deWit, Byron Foulger, Amanda Randolph, Paul Newlan, Angelo Rossitto, Edgar Stehli, George E. Stone, Kermit Maynard, Snub Pollard, etc.,etc.

Rising above all of them (no small feat) is Peter Falk as Joyboy, essentially, the all-purpose Warren Hymer role (copping his second Best Supporting Actor nom in as many years), exchanging barbs with the crème de la crème of Tinsel Town scene-stealers (but specifically Edward Everett Horton).

1961 laughs (or laffs) come by the way of the director’s and writers’ belief that blowtorch-under-the-armpit torture is one hilarious imaginary visual.  That said, Capra knew that to get “the kids” in, he had to pony up some new blood, and he canceled himself out with his big-screen finds, famously, Ann-Margret and, infamously, Peter Mann (the latter being an example of the great Montgomery Pittman’s quote, “You might as well be playing against a life-sized cardboard standee”).

Even though the movie, released nationwide on December 18,  faded rather quickly, it did rack up a number of award nominations, including Edith Head’s and Walter Plunkett’s Best Costume Design for a Color Motion Picture and Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen for Best Original [Title] Song .

The Kino Studio Classics Blu-Ray is phenomenal.  The only time I saw this movie in scope was at a late 1970s screening, via a particularly unattractive soft, mahogany-tinged print.  Screw that!  This pristine 35MM transfer pops with gorgeous restored color and crystal-clarity (thus elevating d.p. Robert Bronner’s work to the level warranted).  The mono audio is loud, dynamic and buoyant (and kicks like crazy if you play it through a system with a subwoofer).

To make a sarcastic, old bastard like myself sniffle at its aorta-tugging finale is a testament to POCKETFUL‘s borderline deranged director.  It literally is a December party-platter, and, 55 years after its unveiling, actually lives up to Menello’s and my ballyhoo (which we have, incidentally, also used to describe Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Sophie’s Choice).

POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # K1486.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Breakfast with Dick and Debbie

A rollicking, risqué and unfairly underrated Frank Tashlin comedy, 1954’s SUSAN SLEPT HERE gets its long-awaited Blu-Ray wake-up call, courtesy of the folks at the Warner Archive Collection.

Based on a rather obscure play by Alex Gottlieb and Steve Fisher, SUSAN SLEPT HERE gets a movie make-over via coauthor Gottlieb and liberal uncredited assist from director Tashlin.  Make no mistake about it:  this is a 100% live-action Looney Tune from frame one.

Zeroing in on some of Tashlin’s favorite targets, SUSAN SLEPT HERE primarily takes on Hollywood, but also American pop culture in general, specifically the era’s much feared juvenile delinquent problem and the damaging effect of comic books (a topic covered more thoroughly the following year in Tash’s classic Artists and Models).  There’s also a nice swipe at teenagers and their psychiatrists, fast food, television and anatomical sex jokes (for a change, discussed and ribbed by the females rather than the locker room boy’s club) and much more.

Right off the bat you know it’s a Tashlin movie, as the picture is narrated by Oscar (not Levant, but an actual Academy Award); the trophy in question belongs to one Mark Christopher (Dick Powell), a past Academy-winning scenarist, deep in the throes of writer’s block.  Worrying on how to keep supporting his BFF/go’fer/former commanding naval officer (Alvy Moore) and his faithful spinsterish assistant (Glenda Farrell), Christopher’s problems become compounded when an L.A. detective sergeant (Herb Vigran) and his partner (Horace McMahon) turn up on Christmas Eve with an unusual Yuletide gift: Susan (Debbie Reynolds), a rebellious teenager without a pause.  It seems the flatfoot was a police consultant on a picture Christopher worked on, and remembers the scribe rhapsodizing about doing a j.d. drama.  Susan is human research (and a way to keep the rambunctious lass out of the lockup for the holidays).  It’s a whacky idea, since bachelor Powell is already imagining the tabloids reveling about the aging Hollywood wolf shacking up with a feisty, sexy 17-year-old teen (even though Susan proudly announces she’s on the cusp of being “legal”).

The real reason for Christopher’s writer’s block dilemma could be his toxic relationship with Isabella (a deliciously evil Anne Francis, in a rare comedic performance), a sexually voracious and ferocious man-eating, mean girl, rich bitch, determined to sink her claws into the famed author, forever conquering his rep as “not marriage material.”

Susan’s innocent telephone answering queries to a whipped-up Isabella provide a plethora of the pic’s double-entendre hilarity.  Soon Susan learns to purposely spike her responses – sending the vampish competition into green-eyed frenzy.  Meantime, a la Ray Milland in The Major and the Minor, Powell finds himself genuinely falling in love with the gamin (except, unlike the Wilder movie, this chick ain’t no full-grown woman in disguise).  As the romance blossoms and seasonal visions of sugar-plum jail-bait flash through the minds of Moore, Farrell and Powell’s attorney (Les Tremayne), Francis plots revenge whilst Powell plots…well, plots (Susan’s refreshing budding sexuality frees his writer’s block, and he’s off to a cabin with Farrell to flesh out a new script).

There’s so much great stuff in this movie that it’s hard to even begin to cite its merits.  Visually, it’s the ultimate Technicolor live cartoon, using popping, richly saturated colors (as envisioned by Tashlin and the terrific RKO d.p. Nicholas Musuraca).  There’s even a fantasy nightmare sequence of Susan and Mark stalked by the seductive Feuillade-esque Isabella (decked out in a skin-tight spider costume), again pre-figuring imagery from Artists and Models.

The spinster Farrell character also is a run-through for Joan Blondell’s wise-cracking Vi in Tashlin’s 1957 adaptation of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?  It must be noted that even though Farrell is playing the matronly veteran, she and Powell were both youngsters at pre-Code Warners in the early 1930s (and were actually the same age, 50 –  Farrell’s character plays it that way, while Powell’s is supposed to be 35); in fact, Farrell and Blondell often appeared as snarky teammates in Warners pre-Code comedies (leave us not also forget that Blondell was Powell’s first wife, whom he left for the “barely legal” June Allyson.  Who says art don’t imitate life?  Not I!).

There are other real-life/reel life comparisons.  Powell’s character’s early work consisted of writing Fred Astaire vehicles and other musicals (Dance, Girlie, Dance – a goof on RKO’s Dance, Girl, Dance) – projects he hoped would allow him to eventually spread his wings and move into writing tough noirish thrillers.  Powell’s diminishing candle-power in the early 1940s as a crooner was saved by his turn as Phillip Marlowe in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet, which propelled him into A-list territory.

There’s a wonderful sequence where Reynolds watches home movies of Powell and Francis at play, particularly when Francis mounts a horse and Reynolds responds by using her hands and arms to estimate (and exaggerate) the size of her formidable rear-end.  It’s a Tashlin trademark – verbally and physically reacting to inanimate objects (Susan’s initial inspiration for Mark’s regaining his scribbling prowess comes from another gag, using the Academy member’s Oscar to crack nuts).

And speaking of verbally, it’s amazing that some of the dialog got past the censors.  In a still eyebrow-raising moment, Susan ponders the authenticity of Isabella being a real blonde.  Christopher energetically responds that she’s “a natural blonde!”  Susan looks at him, suspiciously, and Powell adds “We’re very good friends.”  With increasing shock Susan stares at her temporary guardian who gets in deeper with a lame, “She told me.”

But it was the salacious title and ads (Reynolds joyously spread out in Powell’s bed adorned in his p.j.s) that got SUSAN SLEPT HERE a condemnation rating from the increasingly unimportant Catholic Legion of Decency.  Nevertheless the picture garnered a number of Academy Award nominations, including Best Sound Recording and Best Song and WGA’s Best Written American Comedy.  Most prominently, the ditty in question “Hold My Hand,” as majestically warbled by Don Cornell, became a Top Ten Hit, and remains an easy-listening standard to this day.

More relevantly to RKO, SUSAN SLEPT HERE, made rather modestly on the Radio backlot, became the studio’s most profitable movie of 1954, bringing incredibly impressive rentals nearing six million dollars (from a time where one million five was considered blockbuster for a fairly medium-budget entry).  It enabled the Howard Hughes-plagued company to linger on for another few years, and likely was part of a deal the billionaire made with Powell for him to direct one of their most opulent productions, The Conqueror  (SUSAN SLEPT HERE would be Powell’s last big-screen appearance).  Budget-wise, the picture was pared down from its lofty attempt to repeat Radio’s Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer box-office with the male lead offered to Cary Grant, who turned it down (with the Alvy Moore role tossed to Mickey Rooney, who, mercifully, did the same).  Unquestionably, some of the movie’s big success undoubtedly came from producer Harriet Parsons’ clout with her mom Louella to do a funny audio guest cameo (as well as heavily promoting SUSAN in print and on radio).

Reynolds and Francis, both on-loan from MGM, are sensational in this flick (it still remains one of Reynolds’ personal favorites; she would later appear in Tashlin’s lesser effort, 1959’s Say One for Me).  Surprisingly, this Christmas-themed title was (for reasons unknown) released on Bastille Day (July 14th), one of those freakish Hollywood instances where being in the wrong place at the right time works.  And woik it does; indeed, many of the situations and antics in SUSAN SLEPT HERE would resurface in Tashlin’s Bachelor Flat, a 1962 CinemaScope offering that I also consider to be an underrated gem.

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray of SUSAN SLEPT HERE is truly spectacular – crystal-clear, practically bubbling with ebullient Technicolor widescreen compositions that accurately resemble the original release prints.  Rumors persist that the picture was lensed in 3D, but I can find no evidence to substantiate that; this is a shame, as the stereo-optic process would have been a natural for Tashlin to simultaneously master and parody.

While I have nothing against the many versions of A Christmas Carol, the Capra’s ubiquitous seasonal It’s a Wonderful Life or the Bing Crosby annual roll-outs of Holiday Inn and White Christmas, I am determined to offer up as many alternative December must-see titles as possible.  To this goal, SUSAN SLEPT HERE, thus, joins my last year pick of The Wild Affair (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2015/12/07/mad-men-and-mod-women/).  Of course, one can take whatever I say with a grain of salt, as my late, great pal Ric Menello and I also pegged Night Train Murders as a ho-ho-ho essential.

SUSAN SLEPT HERE.  Color.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Warner Archive Collection.  CAT # 1000586557.  SRP: $21.99.

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

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Carmen’s Jones

A perfect way to spin some holiday cheer comes via this jammin’ platter of Busby Berkeley’s 1943 Technicolor swirlee THE GANG’S ALL HERE, available in a limited edition Blu-Ray from the folks at Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

It’s the Buzz’s first collision with the imbibition process, and he masters it in dazzling fashion, creating his trademark kaleidoscopic tableaus in mind-blowing Technicolor with help from the great cinematographer Edward Cronjager (Western Union, To the Shores of Tripoli, Heaven Can Wait, Canyon Passage).  Of all the wonderful 1940s musicals, this one stands especially out because of the rainbow Berkeley touch (think pictorially of the Lubitsch touch with music and more legs):  saucy, sexy imagery that baffles the imagination and (obviously) the censors.  It’s as if pre-Code snarkily sneaked back into the wartime home front – and without protection.

While the picture technically stars the lovely singer/actress Alice Faye, the movie (Berkeley show pieces aside) is stolen by the character actors and supporting star Carmen Miranda, who, as Dorita, rumbas, sambas and effortlessly takes your breath away with hotcha moves and hilarious language malfunctions.  It is her moment – the celluloid shrine that forever made her iconic in history (and Warner Bros. cartoons) with the crazy fruit-laden chapeaus, midriff frocks and Good Neighbor policy boogie-woogie-ing.

The movie, as is, even with a number of writers (a script by Walter Bullock, from a story by Nancy Wintner, George Root, Jr., and Tom Bridges) is lighter than a balsa-wood tongue depressor.  It’s fluff about a triangular romance between an up-and-coming singer and a pampered sergeant on leave (who’s otherwise engaged to a likewise rich socialite as shallow as he is).  Faye’s paramour is pushy, annoying James Ellison; her rival, Fox second-stringer Sheila Ryan.  Suffice to say, there’s about as much chemistry between Faye and Ellison as there is between a corpse and a body bag; they seem to go together, but once it’s zipped up – who cares?  Much more fun is to be had with costars Charlotte Greenwood and Phil Baker who perform a quasi-Apache dance from their former hot times in Paris during the 1920s.  Greenwood is now a sedate suburban society dame (married to legal beagle Edward Everett Horton) and Ryan’s mother.  When Baker’s show, along with Benny Goodman and his Orchestra, comes out to the posh ‘burbs to do a bond-raising drive among the 400, Greenwood literally gets to strut her stuff via her classic (and jaw-dropping) sidesplitting splits, (courtesy of the lady’s cartoon gams) gyrating with a teen jitterbugger, in a display that rivals Bette Davis’s turn in that same year’s Thank Your Lucky Stars.  Staid Horton, business partner of groovy albeit ever-grumbling Eugene Pallette, isn’t too pleased until Carmen does her best to Mirandize him, plying him with booze (“I don’t touch alcohol,” he proudly announces.  “Ya dunt touch it, ya drink it!” is the vixen’s logical reply).  And, thus, twee-man becomes he-man in a sequence way more jolly than anything Faye and Ellison can offer up.

The numbers are socko, doing audible justice to the psychedelic visuals, and include a brilliant opening cover of “Brazil,” and continue on to a barrage of now-standards, mostly by Harry Warren and Leo Robin (“Paducah,” “No Love, No Nothin’,” “Soft Winds,” “Minnie’s in the Money” and Faye’s signature tune, “A Journey to a Star,” etc.).  But, of course, the legend of THE GANG’S ALL HERE is Miranda and Berkeley’s evocation of “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat,” performed by the talented senorita and a bevy of scantily-clad beauties shoving giant six-foot bananas between their legs.  I venture that after the prerequisite Zanuck audition, this was probably a piece of cake.

Indeed, the movie opens like a firecracker, and keeps the momentum going for most of its 103-minute running time, only faltering when the key aforementioned triangle dominates the proceedings.  Berkeley must have been as bored by these on-going histrionics as well (ditto Cronjager), because the unthinkable occurs for a major “A” production, let alone a precision-designed Busby Berkeley extravaganza.  A little bit more than midway into the picture, a boom shadow mike dominates the left side of the frame for seemingly an eternity before it gets yanked away.  Other than that, the Technicolor work is extraordinary, with Cronjager’s camera ethereally gliding through a nightclub stage about the size of Siberia and under, over, around and through every chorus girl in sight.

Even with the schmaltzy lovey-dovey sag, THE GANG’S ALL HERE is NEVER dull.  And it peps up for the grand finale – comprising some more impossible compositions for the peepers to feast on, to say nothing of the spectacle of Pallette growling his way through a ditty that is likely to have musical fans consider post-GANG therapy.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray is, for the most part, a terrific catch.  While some parts exhibit a bit of grain and others looks a tad too contrasty, sufficient segments are right on the button and do represent the original Technicolor effect (I actually saw a 35MM IB print back in the 1970s; it remains one of that decade’s few unforgettable movie moments).  Furthermore, Twilight Time has loaded up the package with a generous amount of tantalizing extras, including two separate audio commentaries (one featuring my pal Glenn Kenny), a Berkeley documentary featurette; We Still Are!, Alice Faye’s last pic; the theatrical trailer and, best of all, a deleted scene from the movie entitled The $64 Question.  In keeping with Twilight Time tradition, the music/soundtrack is available as an IST.  So, what’s there NOT to love?

The picture was Twentieth Century-Fox’s Yuletide gift to wartime audiences (it was released Christmas Eve, 1943) now becomes the same for 2016 classic movie fans. It’s a double-dose of history repeating itself, as GANG was a sure-fire escapist cure from the horrors of fascism.  As it is now.

THE GANG’S ALL HERE.  Color.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  CAT # TWILIGHT225-BR.  SRP: $29.95.

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively through www.screenarchives.com and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

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