Youngson at Heart

What a joy to be able to write about and celebrate the DVD release of the 1960 comedy riot WHEN COMEDY WAS KING, now available in a dynamite 35MM transfer from Kit Parker’s new company, The Sprocket Vault.

Robert Youngson, for those unfamiliar with the name, was a silent-movie aficionado who turned his love of early cinema into a career.  Producing/assembling a series of successful shorts at Warner Bros. (Magic Movie Moments, This was Yesterday, When the Talkies Were Young), he eventually graduated to features in 1957 with the release of his slapstick compilation The Golden Age of Comedy.  The feature, distributed by 20th Century-Fox, surprisingly (or maybe not, considering the wide appeal Laurel & Hardy, costars in the picture, were then having on TV) made several Year End Ten Best lists.  More importantly, industry-wise, the movie made a tidy profit, guaranteeing a further excursion into pre-talker laff-riots (Youngson and Fox continued their association until 1970).

The second installment, WHEN COMEDY WAS KING, wowed the crowds as much as the previous homage to the great silent comedians.

I can’t praise this collection of gags, guffaws and giggles enough.  It’s a super comedy, ideal for slapstick buffs, but, even more so, a perfect primer to introduce the silent era to novice curiosity-seekers.  Suffice to say, they will not be disappointed.

The 81 minutes fly by, nearly as fast as the ingeniously timed visual set-pieces.  Of course, the masters are all here:  Chaplin (The Masquerader, Kid Auto Races at Venice, His Trysting Place), Keaton (Cops), Arbuckle, Normand (Fatty & Mabel Adrift), and, natch, Laurel & Hardy (wisely saved for last, and beautifully paid tribute in their 1929 classic Big Business) – and each in their prime.  Even Harry Langdon, celebrated as one of the “greats,” but whose appeal I personally could never warm up to, makes an appearance in a short, 1924’s The First 100 Years (alarmingly, even in 1959, when the footage was researched for inclusion, the negative was rapidly succumbing to nitrate disintegration), that admittedly, made me laugh out loud, and frequently (the only instance where the comedian has been able to get that response from me).  My problem with Langdon is the man-baby character.  A grown-adult, looking and acting like a toddler, never was my cup of pablum.  That his character actively pursued women, worked dangerous jobs and parented children (with that Gerber label face), was…well, uncomfortable for me to watch, to say the least (glad to say, I wasn’t alone).  Langdon was enormously popular for a brief period, and, according to his “creator” (then gag writer) Frank Capra, he never quite understood his own persona.  This proved true when the comic branched out, wrote his own material, and flopped into oblivion (before posthumous rediscovery).  Don’t like man-babies on the screen, as coworkers or in politics.  So there!

Okay, demons wrestled – and that’s my one detour in this piece, I promise (but not a terrible one, since, as indicated above, I actually liked COMEDY‘s Langdon segment).

Other wonderful funnymen (and women) are beautifully showcased in this feature; some I worship, like Jimmy Finlayson and Edgar Kennedy.  There are also tributes to Hal Roach and Mack Sennett (featuring the Keystone Kops and the Sennett Bathing Beauties), the wacky debuts of Gloria Swanson (with then-hubby Wally Beery), Teddy the Dog (plus other jaw-dropping canine stars), Chester Conklin, Vernon Dent, Ben Turpin, Anita Garvin, Madeline Hurlock, Mack Swain, Al St. John, Charles Murray, Daphne Pollard, Bobby Vernon, Charlie Hall, Tiny Sandford, Andy Clyde, Alice Day, Chester Conklin and a ridiculously young Stuart Erwin.

WHEN COMEDY WAS KING also offers a generous sidebar to unsung heroes like Billy Bevan, and, specifically, Snub Pollard, highlighted in a remarkable 1923 Pee-Wee-esque short entitled It’s a Gift.

On the negative side, there are few complaints, but ones I feel merit mentioning.  While Youngson’s written commentary (voiced by Dwight Weist) is overall historically interesting, there’s a bit too much don’t-we-suck-now digs to spike the fun.  A lovely pastoral seaside sequence is marred by Weist’s reminding us that this beach is now littered with beer cans.

On the standout side is a sensational running-gag ice-cream cone bit from 1929’s A Pair of Tights, with comedienne Marion Byron, a valuable contribution that Weist/Youngson acknowledge, save the fact that they pronounce her name wrong, as “Brian.”  Surely, such a cineaste as Youngson should have caught this, but, never mind; it’s a minor carp, I suppose (unless you’re a Byron fan, which I am now, DRAT).

The picture quality of the WHEN COMEDY WAS KING DVD is generally excellent and razor-sharp, transferred from the 35MM negative.  There is a slight blister effect during some dark scenes, mostly notable during the opening credits with Charley Chase (from Movie Night).  It looks like a print with water damage, and may have been irreparably ruined during decades of neglect.  Again, it’s not that marring, but worth noting.  The mono audio, with some genuinely funny sound effects and suitable score by Ted Royal, is just fine and dandy.

The Sprocket Vault has further sweetened the silent comedy pot by including three full-length silent shorts (from the Richard M. Roberts collection) as supplements.  Quality-wise, these two-reelers sadly resemble what most people perceive silents to look like. They are a grim statement on how we take care of our filmic heritage.  Or don’t.  The shorts themselves are a varied bunch.  1920’s An Elephant on his Hands is more highway-accident addictive than falling-down hilarious.  And 1926’s Heavy Love, a Ton of Fun offering, produced by the dubious Joe Rock (a filmmaker with whom Stan Laurel deservedly had issues with during his tenure at the Rock studio) is often disturbing – unless seeing morbidly obese comedians fall through floors, painfully squeezing into small spaces and huffing, puffing and panting for twenty minutes is your thing.  Only the 1924 Lige Conley entry Fast and Furious, rings true with inventive gags (and a BFF African-American costar, comedian Spencer Bell); the fact that it was directed by the prolific and talented Norman Taurog (who kept on helming major comedies into the late 1960s) is a likely reason.

WHEN COMEDY WAS KING is that rare motion picture that truly lives up to its title.  While I try to avoid using erudite terms to underline my recommendations, this time I can’t resist.  To quote the great scholars of yore:  You’ll plotz!

WHEN COMEDY WAS KING.  Black and White.  Full frame [1.37:1]; 2.0 mono audio. The Sprocket Vault/Kit Parker Films. CAT # 35053.  SRP:  $19.99.

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Black Shirt, White Hat

One of those “if they made it up, you’d never believe it” true-life stories, CESARE MORI, a 2012 two-part Italian TV mini-series comes to American DVD, via the folks at MHz (as part of their superb International Mystery Collection) and RAI.

A genuine modern Italian semi-folk hero, Cesare Mori was a no-nonsense, incorruptible police chief (“If they kill one of my men, they kill part of me!”) in the city of Caltabellotta, ca. 1916.  Caltabellotta was a key Sicilian hub of the Mafia (then known as the Honored Society).  Mori, the Pavian real-life equivalent of John Wayne (or Gianni Wayne-a, as Ernie Kovacs might dub him) swore an allegiance to wipe the mobsters off the face of the Earth.  And he almost did it.

Mori and his beloved (but seriously infirmed) wife, Angelina (Vincent Perez, Anna Foglietta), are, on the surface, one of the most respected couples in the Sicilian province.  Underneath, it’s another story, as the duchy is honeycombed with mafioso (including the village priest).  The convenient seaside metro’s harbor provided a conduit for a myriad of nefarious activities, including drug shipments to America.

Mori and Angelina dream of having children, but her heart condition forbids it.  In a seemingly perfect act of God, Mori’s “elimination” of a Mafia bigwig leaves the gangster’s small son (Rocco Nigro) an orphan.  The Moris take him in, and a true love bond cements them (far different from the child’s parents’ overshoes-in-the-drink kind).

Mori’s success, however, is his downfall, and the powerful local factions triumphantly remove him from office and transfer the law enforcer to an ineffectual position in (no pun) Bologna.  As a final stab in the back, Saro, the boy they have come to love, is kidnapped by his biological father’s cronies.  The child escapes, yearning to be with the Moris, but misses their departure by mere minutes; his return to the new Mafia is rewarded by the boy growing up to be a numero uno assassin (Marco Mandara).  The Pirandellian irony will be challenged in a final confrontation that, again, is beyond belief.

Meanwhile, in Bologna, the years become a trial for the Moris.  The rise of fascism and Benito Mussolini take their toll.  Soon the Black Shirts target Mori and his wife with death threats.  Once again, the powers that be remove him from office.  In a fit of rage, Mori writes a scathing letter to Mussolini.  Surprisingly, Il Duce (Maurizio Donadoni), spurred by the honesty and courage of this upstart rapscallion, orders Mori to a private counsel and restores him to his former rank as Caltabellotta’s precinct of police.  Why?  Benito wants to take over the country, and not be associated with the likes of the thuggish Mafia (talk about the pot calling the kettle black shirts).  There also may have been an element of vanity involved, as photos of the actual Mori bear a striking resemblance to the Iron Prefect.  He gives the honorable crime fighter carte blanche; all Mori must do is to embrace fascism.

This Cesare Mori does, as he considers it a mere means to an end.  Names and politics mean nothing – his goal is to take the Mafia down, and, once again, he comes within a hairsbreadth of doing so.

Leaving Angelina in Bologna (where she is recovering from new, revolutionary cardiac surgery), Mori attacks his restored and empowered gig with ferocious vigor.  It is here that his fleeting relationship with the local Baroness Elena Chiaramonte (Gabriella Pession) strengthens (her titled husband was an early Mafia victim, done in by the Chiaramonte’s own “trusted” workers, led by rising psychopath Tano Cuccia).  The Baroness, snarky, gorgeous and often naked, literally throws her voluptuous body in Mori’s face (they both like Liszt, an important point as the woman comments that his music is, like themselves, the perfect combination of romance and violence).  That Mori, miles apart from his wife (and likely not carnal for years) turned this goddess down repeatedly seems (dare I say) hard to fathom, but, at least, according to this retelling of the Mori saga, actually did transpire; it’s the one false note in this otherwise magnificent series, excitingly scripted by Pietro Calderoni, Gualtiero Rossella and Nicola Rafele (from a story, based on fact, by Calderoni, Rossella and Antonio Domenici).

How Mori achieved his near obliteration of the Mafia was brilliant; he simply followed the template of the gallant knights of old – in this case, Spain’s legendary El Cid.  He cordoned off the village, banning shipments of food, water and, in a rare nod to the twentieth century, the transmission of that recent miracle of science, electricity.

The Arthurian knight theme is crucial to understanding Mori’s m.o.  Early-on, the police head’s first assistant (Adolfo Margiotta) inquires why he doesn’t embrace the new technology of cars and trucks to track criminals.  Mori’s refusal and total reliance on horse power is as simple as it is heroic.  A man or troop on horseback is far more imposing, foreboding and intimidating than driving up in an automobile.  Truth be told, this clinging to the past is in perfect tune with the Mori mythos; but, also remember that this is a period spanning the decade of 1916-26.  There was even still a wild west in parts of America.  Thus, the anachronism beautifully meshes with the Mori ideology, remarkably working until change indignantly kicks down the detective’s pre-Great War door, once and for all.

And the door-basher, in human form, is again, Benito Mussolini.  Within the reach of snuffing out the Mafia, Mori is summoned by the despot.  The Mafia’s connections have far exceeded the dictator’s original beliefs.  He now needs their money and power.  To this end, he tells the “decent” fascist that he only lives “by black and white.”  This is not realistic or acceptable, as the world is becoming ever-increasingly filled with grays.

Mori and his wife are reassigned to Rome, where he is installed as a senator, and where the couple remained till their deaths, both in 1942, and within days of each other.  We again reiterate that ancient chestnut about truth being stranger than fiction.

CESARE MORI is lavishly produced for the small-screen on a big-screen scale.  Its tapestry is spectacularly envisioned with accurate period detail, sensational photography and a tremendous music score.

But, of course, all of the above would be piffle, if it wasn’t for the acting.  A plethora of fine performances bring this bio-pic to life, leading with star Perez as Mori, and a number of other wonderful turns by the aforementioned Foglietta, Pession and Margiotta, plus Franco Trevisi, and Paolo Ricca as the frightening Tano Cuccia.

The direction by Gianni Lepre is terrific as well; the movie brings to mind the country’s classic 1960s-70s Italian dips into the fascist history pool – although leaning more toward Bertolucci than Visconti.  The widescreen photography by Gino Sgreva is stunning, as is the stereo-surround audio (in Italian, with nicely displayed English subtitles), highlighted by the bravura music by the great Pino Donnagio (with definite nods to Morricone).

The two-disc MHz DVD is a pleasure to view (especially on a big screen TV).  It’s very sharp, bristling with color, only coming up a bit short via some fleeting, grainy low light/night sequences.

This is not so much a mini-series, as it is an epic odyssey – the stuff Italians do so well.  A dazzling, sprawling historical cocktail that’s equal part Shakespearean and Greek tragedies, with a liberal dash of John Woo, CESARE MORI delivers the goods on a massive operatic level.

CESARE MORI.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16×9 anamorphic].  2.0 stereo-surround.  MHz Networks/RAI.  CAT # SKU-16810.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Doc Savaged

With the world seemingly spinning more out of control each and every day, it’s reassuring to know that folks who populate the beauteous seaside hamlet of Cornwall’s Port Wenn are well ahead of the curve.  This has never been more apparent than in the recently released, much-anticipated Acorn/RLJ Entertainment Blu-Ray of DOC MARTIN, SERIES 7.

The all-new 8-episode two-disc set admirably picks up where the last cliffhanger left off.  Louisa (Caroline Catz) has gone off to Spain to reside with her mum, whilst Martin, that cold, compassionate human contradiction of terms (aka Martin Clunes, hilariously glum as ever) faces the genuine agonies of loneliness, wondering if his beloved spouse will ever return.

Auntie Ruth, however, saves the day; in fact, Dr. Ruth Ellingham (Eileen Atkins) is the unsung savior of this delightful season of mishaps, insults and infamous examples of bad decision making.  Ruth convinces Martin to seek out a therapist, the local and fetching Dr. Rachel Timoney (Emily Bevan).  Amazingly, he agrees, as does the returning Louisa – not too thrilled about her visit to Spain, particularly the food (“…full of salt and fat and God knows what!”).

As the couple charge head-on into marriage counselling (“Happiness is overrated,” Dr. Ellingham tells Dr. Timoney early on), we viewers are gob-smacked by Martin’s taking to the advice of their specialist while Louisa has doubts (due partially to jealousy), as the two docs eventually seem to hit it off).

While the pair’s agreeing to spend more time together doesn’t exactly shake the classic poetic definition of romance, it does make it quiver in fear.  When Dr. Timoney suffers a head-trauma accident, she is shot off into Bonkersville, giving out bizarre guidance that could only placate the Addams family.  Coming down, the shrink apologizes, pleading with the logical Martin to excuse her freakish behavior as understandable.  “No.”  End of therapy (and, ironically enough, a new and hopeful beginning for the troubled marrieds).

With regard to physical illnesses and maladies, the prime concern focuses upon Ruth’s own battle with polymyalgia, which she plays down, but has her nephew on the lookout as the disease worsens.

The already-diagnosed lunatic/pharmacist Mrs. Tishell (Selena Cadell) appears to be almost normal in comparison with the crazies and craziness that propel the Port Wenn citizenry to…well, crazy.  Continuing the thread of over-medication, her spouse (Malcolm Storry), too, has returned home after a long absence (who can blame him?), and, wanting to sexually make up for lost time, raids his wife’s store supplies.  The result ain’t pretty.

And speaking of pretty, Constable Penhale (John Marquez) has fallen in love with a ravishing babysitter (Robyn Addison), who, sadly, is as good at her job as he is at his; she promptly locks Baby Ellingham (ably impersonated by four thespian tots:  Archer Ray Gilliard Langridge, Harry Rossi Collins, Maverick William Bentley and Olly John Malcolm Gard) up in an empty abode.

Ruth, meanwhile, saves the day for the Large family (Ian McNiece, Joe Absolom, as father Bert and son Al, respectively).  Having invested in Al’s B&B, she is distressed that it’s taking longer than anticipated to get off the ground.  That turns out to be the best thing, as, once the holiday respite officially opens, it’s a disaster – giving the first vacationing couple (Bruce Alexander, Melanie Walters) a weekend in hell (ending with a potential food poisoning episode at his father’s restaurant).

As for Bert’s eatery, it’s on wobbly legs (as are most of the diners).  The elder Large can’t make a go at it, the final nail in his business coffin being driven by the questionable choice of hiring the town mean girls as staff.  What could possibly go wrong there?

Out of work and wandering through the countryside in his ramshackle trailer/caravan, Bert lights on Ruth’s property, where he regresses to the Large family’s age-old expertise:  bootlegging whiskey.  This illegality threatens to toss both him and Ruth in the clink, and might well do so except for the doctor’s sneaking a taste of his brew and realizing that it’s brilliant.  She agrees to help him get a proper liquor license and, like son/like father, go into business with him.  The Larges might finally be living up to their name.

Martin’s troubles, however, aren’t merely domestic.  There’s coping with the ubiquitous pesky mutt, who adores him, and those always-annoying tourists (including yank Sigourney Weaver).  There’s also the case of a psychotic backwoods woman (The Duchess of Duke Street‘s great Gemma Jones) and her demented son (Richard Riddell), unhappy with the fatal diagnosis for her husband (Nicholas Lumley).  She kidnaps Martin at gunpoint and holds him prisoner until he examines and (supposedly and magically) deems her ailing partner well.

All of this certifiable, manic magnificence is beautifully directed by Nigel Cole, Charles Palmer and Ben Gregor, written by Jack Lothian, Richard Stoneman, Charlie Martin and Julian Unthank, and sumptuously photographed on-location in Port Issac by Simon Archer.  The 1080p crystal-clarity high definition is showroom-worthy; ditto the 5.1 surround audio, featuring the jaunty score by Colin Towns, and the realistic sound effects that envelope one’s media room with seagulls, harbor sounds and trees blowing in the wind.

The Acorn blu-ray is terrific, making one wish and feel they were in Cornwall, despite the populace (the episode titles themselves: Rescue Me, Shock of the New, It’s Good to Talk, Education, Education, Education, Control-Alt-Delete, Other People’s Children, Fasta Non Verba and The Doctor is Out, provide an excellent indication of the direction these exercises in comedic frenzy is headed). There is also over 70-minutes of behind-the-scenes extras that, unlike the food at Bert’s, are definitely worth sampling.

This quirky, absolutely addictive comedy just gets better and better, the best wrap-up of SERIES 7 being the announcement of a Series 8.  Can hardly wait!

DOC MARTIN, SERIES 7.  Color.  Widescreen [1.77:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/Buffalo Pictures Productions.  CAT # AMP-2416.  SRP:  $39.99.

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Anime-zing

For those hard-to-please sci-fi fans who additionally crave 3D to go with their fantasy cocktail, I heartily recommend the recent release of 2013’s HARLOCK:  SPACE PIRATE, now on limited-edition Blu-Ray from the gang at Twilight Time/Ketchup Entertainment/TOEI.

Admittedly, I’m not an anime expert, although I have often been agog at the exquisite artwork indigenous to the genre.  I do recall liking Vampire Hunter D immensely when first exposed to the animated re-animated Japanese lady back in the early 1990s.

A few years prior to that, whilst perusing the quarterly Japanese laserdisc catalogs, I spied the first home-video releases of Captain Harlock, (originally making his debut in a strip, or manga, by Leiji Matsumoto in 1977, the same year as Lucas’s you-know-what).  The color illustrations looked sensational; I was thoroughly awed by the imagery; but, being unable to understand the language (plus the then-1980s exorbitant yen/dollar exchange rate) stopped me from taking a chance.

Looking at this recent fantastic full-length feature proves my gut feeling was right.  This is truly outstanding stuff.  Harlock, the title dude, is a ruthless, seemingly invincible interplanetary warrior, marked as The Most Wanted by a traitorous cartel known as the Gaia Coalition.

Harlock is the ultimate anti-hero, fighting the centuries-old Homecoming War (the goal being to return victorious to a desolate, long-evacuated planet Earth) for nothing less than the future of humanity (it should be noted that he bears a striking resemblance, eyepatch and all, to actor Akihiko Hirata from the original 1954 classic Gojira, whose character also ended up securing the elongation of mankind).  It’s a kind of post-Trek intergalactic take on Captain Blood, but on a gargantuan scale.  Humanity, is after all, far more relevant than mere booty (no matter what your interpretation of that term is).

HARLOCK has it all: suspense, violence, treachery, adventure, a tincture of lust, drama up the wazoo and (literally) out-of-this-world special effects.  And it’s all inventively realized by director Shinji Aramaki , writer/creator Matsumoto, with screenplay assist from Harutoshi Fukui and Kiyoto Takeuchi and a veritable army of animators, dedicated 3D technicians, trained voice thesps (in both Japanese and English interpretations) and, as the hucksters love to say, MORE.  In fact, there’s barely a restful minute in either of the two versions presented on this double-disc set (the complete 115-minute Japanese cut w/English subtitles, and the 111-minute English language edition; each is available in either 3D or standard flat 2D).

If you’re one of the throngs of anime addicts, you’ve probably already added this to your collection.  If not, what are you waiting for?  Furthermore, if anime and/or even sci-fi isn’t your cup of sake, HARLOCK still delivers the goods. How so?  Because if you’re a 3D buff (like myself), this outer-space in-your-face odyssey becomes a must-have for your home theater.  The dizzying camerawork is roller-coaster gasp-worthy.  In 3D, it’s lightning on steroids (among the picture’s many award nods and noms was a well-deserved 2014 Lumiere Award Winner for Best International 3D Feature, Animated).

While there are plenty of coming-at-ya moments, two in particular merit mentioning.  Early in the picture, Logan, one of a group of young, green potential inductees, hoping to be recruited by Harlock’s band, perilously climbs to the top of a towering cliff (where the pirate’s spaceship is moored).  As the altruistic enlistee hangs on the crags and jagged edges of the mountain, the camera follows his grasping desperation; the resulting stereoscopic effect of depth and vertigo will have your stomach in what is technically referred to as GNNAAAAA-WHOA! mode.

Later on, a master shot of the space fleet in formation is so stunningly achieved that you’ll be engulfed by various-sized craft floating over your head, as well as around the room.  I playfully started grabbing at them, then thought better of this guaranteed strait-jacket reaction. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone.  I turned to my companion, and breathed a sigh of relief (she was reaching for them as well).

If the 3D wasn’t enough, HARLOCK contains a state-of-the-art 5.1 digital surround track (with the excellent Tetsuya Takahashi music score available as an IST) that perfectly appends the bravura third dimension visuals.

And if THAT wasn’t enough, Twilight Time has further sweetened the pot with some enticing extras, including interviews with Matsumoto, Aramaki and Fukui, a making-of documentary, Venice Film Festival World Premiere highlights, storyboard galleries and TV spots/trailers.

A word of caution.  Like all Twilight Time titles, HARLOCK is a limited edition of 3500.  LSS, once they’re gone, it’s sayonara.  I can’t imagine that these will be around too much longer (or what horrific amounts the out-of-print copies will fetch on eBay), so, if your interest is sufficiently piqued, you should probably zoom this entry to the top of your “to purchase” platter list.

HARLOCK: SPACE PIRATE.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition; 3D Blu-Ray and standard 2D Blu-Ray]; 5.1 DTS-HD M A (English dubbed and Japanese w/English subtitles).  Twilight Time/Ketchup EntertainmentTOEI.  CAT# TWILIGHT 187-BR; SRP:  $34.95.

Limited edition of 3500.

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

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