As MIDSOMER MURDERS, based on the novels by Caroline Graham, enters its (yikes!) twentieth season, one must ponder on how such a thing is possible. By that, I mean, while changing cast members like Menudo and still remaining so goddamn entertaining. Some of those queries are now available for your assessment via the recent Acorn/RLJ Entertainment Blu-Ray releases of MIDSOMER MURDERS, SERIES 18 and 19.
The classic definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. In America, that’s called Hollywood; regarding myself, I guess it’s MIDSOMER MURDERS. For over two decades, no matter how lethal that pastoral hamlet is, I still want to visit there!
SERIES 18, is a perfect example of, “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” What I’m saying is that none of six feature-length mysteries, spread over the set’s three platters, are likely to cause armchair Sherlocks to lose much (if any) sleep. All are respectable thrillers, with the show’s trademark lush production values and high entertainment factor. But there’s a definite ring of familiarity to them. This isn’t necessarily a bad happenstance, as there are some guaranteed perks. First off, I really like the new Barnaby’s new assistant, Charlie Nelson (Gwilym Lee). Nelson’s/Lee’s no-nonsense approach, while seemingly a sore-thumb pariah stance, actually works. That the actor is thoroughly likeable and has a great chemistry with star Neil Dudgeon is a big thumbs-up testament to his thespian abilities.
The Barnabys (Dudgeon and Fiona Dolman) themselves have much to rejoice for – celebrating their late parenthood by way of Baby Betty (Abbie and Georgia Mukleen, introduced at the end of Series 16).
The sextet of cases are fetching, if not wholly original, and cover such nasty goings-on as serial bodysnatching (Habeas Corpus), possible UFO abductions (Incident at Cooper Hill), murderous bike-race enthusiasts (Breaking the Chain), a psychopathic artist who enjoys doing human tableaus (A Dying Art), archeologists joining their long-dead discoveries (Saints and Sinners) and death by horse trampling and equine tranquilizers (Harvest of Souls).
Of course, all of this is made remarkably palatable by the fantastic guest supporting casts, including Diana Quick, Julia Sawalha, Cherie Lunghi and Malcolm Sinclair. The professional direction (Alex Pillai, Renny Rye, Rob Evans, Matt Carter, Nick Laughland), many from MIDSOMER veterans, and writing (Rachel Cuperman, Sally Griffiths, Paul Logue, Chris Murray, Jeff Povey, Lisa Holdsworth, Caleb Ranson) are exorbitantly helped by the superb cinematography (James Moss, Chris Preston, Andy Hollis).
SERIES 19 has a sprinkling of yet more changes, mostly for the good. The Babies Mulkeen appear to be on some kind of hormone treatment, as Betty is shooting up (in a good way) at a seemingly alarming rate; perhaps it’s the Causton air. The biggest switch is (here we go) another replacement for the chief inspector’s assistant. Damn, and I was so enjoying the contrast between Dudgeon and Lee. Well, he’s gone, and in his place is the less assured Jamie Winter (Nick Hendrix). Must say, the character works quite well, smoothly fitting in with both the human and countrified surroundings. His awkwardness outside of work is accentuated by the detective’s adoration of M.E. Kam Karimore (Manjinder Virk), stemming from an earlier liaison. This offers Mrs. B the chance to play matchmaker, and Barnaby himself to play the curmudgeon card, or Dudgeon-curmudgeon (which he does exquisitely). Sadly, canine regular Spikes has sought out that big fire hydrant in the sky (mercifully, he wasn’t murdered, but expired due to natural causes, which is the most UNNATURAL death one can have in Midsomer); fortunately, he has been quickly replaced by rescued crime-scene pooch Paddy.
Another check in the plus column is that the writing (with Julia Gilbert joining the SERIES 18 crew) is greatly improved from the previous season, trading a less comfortable slippers fit for a suspenseful, adventurous “be on your toes” romp. There’s a trace of suspicion as to why Acorn packaged the six new episodes on two separate sets, rather than the usual one (4 and 2). I can’t for the life of me imagine why. Can you? (INSERT snarkasm HERE). In any event, the higher quality of these half-dozen feature television movies are so good that one might want to overlook this antic. MIDSOMER addicts undoubtedly shall, so WTF.
SERIES 19, PART ONE really gets the ball rolling as it chronicles the nefarious activities that comprise the rebirth of a ghost village (The Village that Rose from the Dead), the butchering of a butcher (Crime and Punishment), evil amongst the cricket crowd that really isn’t at all, well…cricket (Last Man Out), and the most lethal rabbits since Night of the Lepus (Red in Tooth & Claw). The guests are wonderful, and include Anthony Calf, Susan Hampshire, Susan Jameson, and, returning under an alias, the show’s iconic DS Ben Jones (Jason Hughes).
SERIES 19, PART TWO concludes the latest Blu-Ray casebook with Victorian vengeance, as a Jane Austen weekend sanguinely serves up penny-dreadful results (Death by Persuasion) and a prestigious string orchestral scholarship reveals deceit, blackmail, the pre-cyber version of identity theft (liquidation) and, ultimately death by violins (The Curse of the Ninth). Both entries are made most diverting by guest suspects/victims Claire Skinner, James Fleet and Simon Callow. A nice sidebar is Sarah Barnaby’s deciding to pen a historical Austenesque novel, which, like the event she attends for research, transforms into a murder mystery.
In the MIDSOMER tradition, the direction (with Steve Hughes joining the SERIES 18 bunch) and camerawork (with Moss dividing the visuals with Andrew Johnson) is top-notch, as are their presentation (in 1.78 High Definiton and 5.1 surround) on the Acorn discs.
MIDSOMER MURDERS, SERIES 18 & 19. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/all3 media. CAT #s AMP-2516 (18), AMP-2571 (19, PART ONE), AMP-2607 (PART TWO). SRP: $49.99 (18), $34.99 (19, PART ONE), $29.99 (19, PART TWO).
Animation fans can end the year on a high that’s guaranteed to carry them into 2018 and beyond. And, for that, y’all can thank the gang at the Warner Archive Collection for their outstanding 5-disc DVD-R made-to-order collection, PORKY PIG 101.
The clever title reveals that there are indeed 101 vintage Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, spanning the crucial years 1933-1943. But that’s only half of the charm of their moniker. As the title implies, there is great educational worth in the 101 collection. It’s a mini-history of Golden Age Hollywood animation, as realized by some of its greatest practitioners and masters.
Porky was the WB cartoon unit’s first bona fide star. And it wasn’t an overnight success. The character went through many changes, ages, physical appearances and personality quirks before they arrived at the iconic pig we all know and love.
The 101 set is in chronological order, and every one of the cartoons featured is a rarity. All are in the original black and white, with two exceptions, 1933’s pre-Code two-tone Technicolor I Haven’t Got a Hat and the 1939 clouds-of-war rousing Old Glory. The reason is that, prior to early 1943, the Warners Merrie Melodies were Technicolored, while the Looney Tunes were monochrome. This differentiation became obsolete when, by 1943, any black and white cartoon was considered bigger box-office poison than an El Brendel-starring comedy.
The Looney Tunes were essentially a no-holds-barred experimental lab for talented writers, animators and directors to hone their crafts. Indeed, for me 101 is a major release, as it shows not only the evolution of a key WB “star,” but, more importantly, chronicles the advancement of the artistry of animation geniuses Robert Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, each of whom cut their teeth on Porky’s development. Many attributes were combined to create the character – and all of that is evident in these riotous and, admittedly, occasionally offensive one-reelers. Clampett tended to go literally hog-wild with his input; early Jones went for a Disney approach; Tashlin liked a more corpulent Porky; Avery, a farm-boy yoot, rather than an adult; Freleng, a happy-go-lucky pig ‘n’ a whistle. All this stuff would eventually culminate in the stuttering everypig specimen of middle-class Americana that millions have come to know and love.
At first, the character was billed with as “Porky ‘n’ Beans,” in a series of schoolroom romps that attempted to introduce a roster of stars in the Roach Our Gang tradition. Certain animals were continuously presented, refined and (mostly) dropped by the mid-1930s. While Porky remained, it was generally agreed early-on that he was best when teamed with another more ballistic half. Lulu, a goofy ostrich, was an embryonic start to the eventual concoction (and sex change) known as Daffy Duck (Porky’s Pet). The pair would be teamed throughout the WB toon heyday, shining best when Jones became the Warners maven of sophistication, via PP’s sly takes and asides to the camera (darewesay “ham on wry”?) during Daffy’s out-of-control histrionics. But that would be decades from the 7-minute gems contained in this set.
Each platter is forworded by a disclaimer explaining the racist content of many of the shorts. And it’s well-founded. These cartoons (often the reason that I have never seen most of them, as, even in the 1960s, New York TV stations refused to run them) do tend to shamelessly stereotype blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans; on the flip side, they also do the same for politicians, contemporary movie stars, bullies, business executives, pompous religious leaders, salesmen and educators. It must be said that the Warners toon unit was among the first in tinsel Town to kick Hitler in the ass (What Price, Porky?), years before the studio’s feature productions attempted the same. Our hero even proves himself a champion animal activist, going after non-oinking swine fur trappers in Tashlin’s Porky in the North Woods. Of course, this doesn’t justify any of the PI content, but, as the disclaimer states, they are products of their time (Disney never had that kind of gutsy home-video mojo; they simply edited what they perceived to be offensive out, making the censored celluloid historically inaccurate).
The only way I could see many of the titles in this collection was in the late 1960s-early 1970s when a UA subsidiary (United Artists then owned the pre-Warners output) colorized a slew of their black-and-whites. These embryonic computerized atrocities looked awful and tended to compromise movement. I used to turn the color off, but, even then the dull, smeary black and white looked weird, as if the images were transferred with Silly Putty.
Happy to state that the 101 cartoons are, for the most part, in remarkably excellent shape. Certainly, some are only very good, but many are pristine (and virtually all from 35mm) and, best of all, at last in trueblack-and-white.
Since Robert Clampett is one of my favorite directors (live action or animation), it’s sensational to have such a treasure trove of his work. I was lucky enough to have met him in the 1970s, and we became pals. He told me tons of great stuff about the Warners days, all of it proved valid by these awesome Porky adventures. For example, he told me that they were so tight with a dollar that after a cartoon was shot, they would wipe clean (the best they could) all the cells, and re-use them. This actually shows up in these shorts via digs, draw-lines, squiggles, obviously left over from a previous endeavor. He also was known as the Termite Terrace (the nickname for the animation department) scavenger, and, fortunately, was able to sneak out surviving cells, storyboards and props – many of which are showcased here as supplements. This is extremely valuable, since when one examines the specific cartoon, viewers will be stunned to notice gags that didn’t make it to the final cut, and even characters that were excised or changed (Porky’s Party, Porky’s Poor Fish). Several of these cartoons also have commentary, which buffs may find interesting (Porky’s Poultry Plant, The Case of the Stuttering Pig, Porky at the Crocadero, Porky’s Party, Unholy Smoke, You Ought to be in Pictures, Porky’s Review, etc.). Hey, this collection has Clampett’s Porky in Wackyland, perhaps my favorite all-time cartoon. To own that in mint condition alone (for me) is worth the entire collection (which, BTW, comes down to less than 48 cents per title!).
Bob told me that “Tash [Frank Tashlin] found a rundown theater that showed only silent comedies. He would go there almost every night after work. The next day, he would enthrall us with what he saw – stuff that matched the craziest gags we could come up with. He drove us nuts, trying to get us to go with him. We chided Frank for it, but, obviously he had the last laugh.” Tashlin’s Porky masterpiece (Porky’s Pig Feat) is the final official entry in the set (the last segment of film is the notorious Porky’s Breakdowns – the cursing pig’s year-end gift to the Warners staff at their annual Christmas party. “Sonofa b-b-b-b-b-bitch!”), a perfect way to start any tribute to prologue any of his Bob Hope, Jayne Mansfield or Jerry Lewis live-action feature-length cartoons.
There are other animators whose Porky antics are on view, but tend to not have been as fondly remembered, some for good reason. By the slick early 1940s, when Clampett, Tashlin, Avery, Jones and Freleng were really getting into the groove, these guys were still stuck in the Depression-era early 1930s. Side-by-side compare Porky and Teasbiscuit with The Daffy Doc, and you’ll see what I mean.
A lot of these toons tend to end abruptly, don’t satisfactorily resolve a viable conclusion, have gags that fall flat (or repeat themselves subsequently, sometimes over years, until they work), but that’s part of the fascination of this package. Sometimes entire cartoons were remade in Technicolor (Clampett’s Scalp Trouble became Freleng’s Slightly Daffy; Freleng’s Notes to You became his Back Alley Oproar).Ben Hardaway had Porky (before there was an Elmer Fudd) hunting a rabbit (Porky’s Hare Hunt). The lepus was abrasive and obnoxious, and not at all likeable. Clampett, Avery and Tashlin took respective cracks at the character until they came up with a workable composite, christening their result after its originator (Hardaway’s nickname was “Bugs,” and so was dubbed the wascally wabbit). Clampett told me that they derived a lot of their characters’ attributes from The Movies. “Bugs is really Groucho Marx, and [as indicated above] the first Porkys were the Hal Roach Our Gang kids.”
Of course, a turning point in the series comes with the arrival of Mel Blanc (who does not get any credit for his work in these shorts) and the brilliant musical director Carl W. Stallings (who does get a credit). It’s the last topping on what would from then on be a nearly flawless barrage of hilarious animated masterpieces. PORKY PIG 101 is classic collection essential; to miss it is to deprive yourself and your friends an awesome viewing experience. Whether you choose to precede a feature with one or two of these, or program an entire evening of milestone animation (some not seen properly in over seventy years), PORKY PIG 101 is a Warner Archive jewel in their crown and will undoubtedly be likewise in your library.
PORKY PIG 101. Black-and-white (and two color selections). Full frame [1.33:1]; 2.0 mono audio. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video. CAT # 100064529. SRP: $47.99.
Sad that the American screen comedies of Bob Hope have gotten a bit tarnished as of late, as they remain an integral part of 20th-century laff cinema. Hope’s movies pretty much defined the 1940s and essentially changed the direction of Hollywood comedy. The comedian’s rapid-fire retorts, often directed at the audience as much as the characters on the screen, his anachronistic asides in the period pieces that so delighted and influenced Woody Allen (and a slew of others who followed his clown-sized footsteps), the often surreal involvement of talking animals and inanimate objects – all of that had been so expertly injected into the funnyman’s oeuvre (that’s not what you think it is – and wash your mind out with soap!) that it passed into core Americana without nearly anyone noticing (the great critic/writer James Agee being a major exception to the rule). To be sure, when Hope threatened his Bijou villains (“You wouldn’t say that if my writers were here”), it was a welcome self-deprecating jab at his not-so-secret reliance on specially prepared ad libs for all occasions. Prime to Hope’s (and Crosby’s) gift of the sharp retort was the generally unheralded input from a bona fide comedy genius, Barney Dean. Dean essentially created the Hope persona, and, in doing so, revolutionized movie comedy writing to a delirious and inspired level that contemporaries still steal…ummm, pay homage to. If I were more ambitious, I would embark on a book-length bio of Dean – a noble but futile quest, as his anonymity guarantees a readership of nil.
It’s been so long that the Hope pics have gotten regular play (a TV staple throughout the 1960s-70s) that they’re almost a whole new sub-genre.
Bob Hope, who when not rolling ’em in the aisles on radio, television, in pictures and live on hot battlefield stations across the globe, was a shrewd businessman. This is important to mention, as by the mid-1940s, he re-negotiated his deal with Paramount to allow him to produce his own popcorn-friendly products that would be released under the Zukor firm’s arm. These titles would eventually totally revert back to the comedian, giving him sole re-issue/TV rights. On-screen cohort Bing Crosby likewise followed suit (they co-produced the Road pics after the 1946 blockbuster Road to Utopia under the dual auspices of Hope Enterprises and Bing Crosby Enterprises).
And there lay the rub. Someone at the comic’s legal firm was asleep at the wheel, and several of the titles went “gray,” or pseudo-public domain, while one went full-blown p.d. That outing, MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE, one of Hope’s finest, became a notorious renegade entry due to decades of lousy bootlegs that flooded the home-video market via negligible VHS tapes, laserdiscs and DVDs.
Thanks to Kino-Lorber/Fremantle Media, Ltd., there’s a breath of fresh air in movie-platter heaven, as collectors can now safely rediscover these frequently riotous gems in excellent-to-stunning Blu-Ray evocations, mastered from the best surviving 35MM materials reportedly gleaned from the entertainer’s estate.
While this sextet comprises the crème de la crème of the Hope-produced bunch, they strangely do not cover the complete set. The authentically awful 1969 How to Commit Marriage isn’t missed that much, save as a supreme example of dated 1960s culture shock: youth misinterpreted by the establishment at its embarrassing worst (and, thus, nostalgically collectible). Then there’s The Private Navy of Sergeant O’Farrell, a 1968 service comedy that appears to have been in the comedian’s joke closet since Guadalcanal. While marginally better than Marriage, O’Farrell is primarily of note as being the final work of the brilliant Frank Tashlin, and notably contains several (but not enough) of the writer/director’s trademark loony compositions.
The two remaining absent titles from the Kino/Fremantle Hope cache are more problematic. 1949’s The Great Lover is quite possibly the most underrated Hope title, a rollicking mystery-comedy with woman-crazy Hope as a scoutmaster escorting a troop of pimply adolescents on a culture tour of Paris.
1955’s The Seven Little Foys desperately needs a re-master, especially on Blu-Ray, where a proper widescreen VistaVision and Technicolor transfer would be enormously appreciated by the movie and star’s many fans.
That said, we’re left with an excellent Hope sampler, two Roads (RIO and BALI), the aforementioned BRUNETTE, THE LEMON DROP KID (a genuine Christmas classic, so ideal for this time of the year), SON OF PALEFACE, arguably the superstar’s finest celluloid moment, and the truly deranged PARIS HOLIDAY. So grab your zoot suit and I’ll meet ‘cha on the babe side of the corner across from the drugstore diner by the Brooklyn Paramount…
1947’s MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE is an extraordinary movie on so many levels. For one thing, it is probably the most perfect film noir spoof of all time. What makes it even more remarkable is that it sparklingly parodied a genre while it was happening and flourishing!
The writers (Edmund Beloin, Jack Rose, and uncredited assist from the aforementioned Barney Dean and Hope himself) outdid themselves, bullseye-targeting all the quirks, foibles and trademark characteristics of the mean-streets scenario: the mysterious mansions, the exotic Americana locales, the slick, wet, nocturnal pavements and, best of all (for Hope fans), the hard-hitting, sarcastic voice-over narration: “I had a lump on my head the size of my head,” monotones Hope’s character – Ronnie Jackson, a baby photographer who yearns to be a private eye like his heroes Alan Ladd, Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell. Being that this is a Paramount Picture, the real detective in Ronnie’s office building (Sam McCloud) is none-other THAN Ladd, in a hilarious cameo bit. Of course, the femme fatale (Lamour, always underrated and thoroughly zeroing in on the dangerous female role, mistakes Jackson for McCloud and, thus begins a merry adventure that effortlessly incorporates Raymond Chandler into a Looney Tune world of intrigue, gunsels, thugs and mugs. The main sinister plotline is so incredibly close to that of Goldwyn’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty (released the same year) that it’s astounding lawsuits weren’t flung around with as much panache as the deadly daggers thrown by Peter Lorre in this pic. Aside from Lorre, the cast is a Who’s Who of noir, and includes Lon Chaney, Jr., Charles Dingle, Jack LaRue, John Hoyt, Anthony Caruso and Ray Teal.
It’s futile to quote the reams of memorable laff lines, as BRUNETTE is chock full of ’em, but one never fails to slay me. Hope, on a midnight run for his life from the evil pursuers, dodges into an apartment building and immediately begins ringing all the doorbells, crying out, “It’s Joe,” figuring SOMEONE knows a Joe. The response is outrageous – a cacophony of horny women, moaning “Come in, Joe,” as all the buzzers sound. Hope’s response and delivery, “I must remember this address,” is priceless.
The ending, where Hope’s character walks his last mile to the electric chair is another pip, and features a final riotous guest star.
MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE is unquestionably a favorite for Hope fans (easily the apex of the “My Favorite” series – the other entries being Blonde Madeleine Carroll and Spy Hedy Lamarr). It’s no surprise that noir buffs love this movie, since, as indicated, it hits all the right bases and ultimately scores a comic home run.
The direction beautifully mixes suspense with guffaws, a credit to Elliott Nugent, who had previously guided Hope through two box-office smashes, The Cat and the Canary (1939) and Nothing but the Truth (1941).
For years BRUNETTE was a thorn in movie collectors’ sides, being that this title was only accessible in wretched, duped editions. This 35MM transfer, while a bit grainy, is nevertheless a revelation, at last doing justice to Lionel Lindon’s silky monochrome photography. The music by Robert Emmett Dolan captures the feel of the real deal, and even includes a suitable torch song, “Beside You” (by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans), ably warbled by Lamour.
It’s a damn shame that the Road pictures aren’t well remembered today, since, at their peak in the mid-1940s, they virtually defined the culture and mores of the mainstream (or Main Street, if you prefer) America. And side-splittingly so.
Progressing from the mere casting of three popular Paramount stars (in Singapore), by the second outing (Zanzibar, in 1941), the sequels had ascended to veritable movie events, with the three leads cemented in the public eye as a team. Aside from gags and songs, Hope, Crosby and Lamour provided a litany of pungent asides regarding current events, Hollywood gossip, trendy fads, politics and self-deprecating puns that made one seem that he/she was being personally let in on a joke, a la wink-wink/nudge-nudge. It also amazed millions of weekly moviegoers of how sharp these entertainers were, as the wisecracks seemed to be made up while the cameras were rolling (once again, Barney Dean!).
Other studios took note of the bonanza box office the Road shows took in, and tried, in vain, to copy the template. But, alas, Bob and Bing were unique; just check out Warners’ lame Two Guys series, teaming Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan in cookie-cutter (or cut-rate) Road missteps. Physically, it may have looked good on paper, but on-screen the magic just wasn’t there. Ditto the choices for locales. Paramount’s selection of Singapore, Morocco, Rio and Bali were a lot more enticing than Warners’ Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Texas. Oy vey!
By 1946, the Roads were guaranteed ka-ching utopia (in fact, Utopia was the last title – a Bob, Bing and Dotty excursion to the frozen north). The movie was one of the highest-grossing pics of the year, and listed as one of Ten Best on the prestigious New York Times annual list.
Hope and Crosby saw the profitable writing on the walls, and informed Paramount that from hereon in they would be co-producing the series. Sadly, always left at the misogynist altar was Lamour, who was never offered a piece of the action (while she was pissed at her costars, she also was a good enough sport to not bow out, especially since the actress/singer was as much a part of the gift-horse franchise as her male counterparts).
The first cash-cow entry was 1947’s ROAD TO RIO, the lengthiest of all the cinematic trips (100 minutes). Directed by comedy expert Norman Z. McCleod (best known for the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers), the veteran director charted the trio through a labored, but nevertheless totally watchable opus that begins in a tawdry Midwest sideshow (that the boys burn down) and ends with them both romancing a dotty Dotty (the victim of a hypnotizing crazed aunt – the great Gale Sondergaard). The conclusion is a bizarre demonstration of sexual manipulation passing for a happy ending (perhaps a smack at Bing for the uproarious finale of Utopia).
The Wiere Brothers are genuine scene-stealers as a wacked Brazilian troop of troubadours, and the songs by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Husen are most pleasing (scoring some big hits on radio and vinyl album books). The highlight of the movie is Bing’s number with the Andrews Sisters, who turn up south of the border in a terrific guest cameo (their last big-screen appearance). For me, the focus point is the arrival of Jerry Colonna, leading a gaucho cavalry for a last reel rescue (“Exciting, wasn’t it?”).
RIO’s rather noirish photography befits the nefarious on-screen shenanigans, and comes from the gifted eyes of Ernest Laszlo. The movie was an unprecedented smash (even with its one-sheet that made Hope look like a maniac).
1952’s ROAD TO BALI was a long-awaited reunion between the Paramount trio, and, in my modest opinion, a big improvement over RIO. The main difference was that this was the first Road to be shot in Technicolor, and, damn, does it look good (aside from some slight grain, this transfer is the berries, a nice Blu-Ray nod to d.p. George Barnes); there are even some gags relying upon the hues and tones of the imbibition process (it’s also the first color glimpse of Martin & Lewis, who, along with several other stars, make a wacky guest appearance). The songs by Burke and Van Husen are addictive, and the script (by Hal Kanter, Frank Butler, William Morrow, and of course Barney Dean, from Harry Tugend’s story) is crammed with topical (if not tropical) one-liners. A healthy portion of the self-deprecating humor centers around the leads’ ages and their socked-away millions. That said, nothing beats Hope being carried away by a lovesick female gorilla, screaming “Kill one of us!” I suspect that Hope also got his new buddy Frank Tashlin to do some uncredited work, as some of the visual jokes smack of the animator-turned-writer/director (including a finale with Jane Russell). BALI’s official directorial chores fall to Hal Walker, who guided H,C & L through the phenomenal Utopia, and its well-paced and zippy, helped greatly by a game supporting cast, including Murvyn Vye, Leon Askin, Peter Coe, Michael Ansara, Harry Cording, Carolyn Jones and (ooo-la-la) Sylvia Lewis. It even features the squid from Reap the Wild Wind!
1951’s THE LEMON DROP KID is Hope’s official Christmas classic. If Bing had “White Christmas,” Bob had “Silver Bells,” the Jay Evans/Ray Livingston ditty which made its debut in this jolly, wacky pic.
Hope had done amazingly well with Damon Runyon – his 1949 remake of Little Miss Marker, Sorrowful Jones, scoring big at the box office (that said, I’d love to see the first 1934 Kid, featuring Lee Tracy as the character). Another Runyon work was a natural – and a Yuletide-flavored comedy for holiday moviegoers made it an even better prospect.
The comedian plays the title character, an unscrupulous but likeable Florida race track tout, who accidentally cheats the moll of a vicious gangster out of a sure thing. He has until December 25 to make good, so he hightails it back to his New York turf to try and raise the dough. His dubious plan: to crash the Santa-on-the-corner racket and open a bogus rest home for “old dolls.”
Hope’s costar, the luminous Marilyn Maxwell, like most of Bob’s female leads (Katharine Hepburn, the notable, horrific sore point), has a wonderful chemistry with the star (accentuated by their off-screen pairing as well). The supporting cast is superb with the Kid’s crew, including William Frawley, Tor Johnson, Sid Melton and Jay C. Flippen leading the pack. The ladies in gray are valiantly enacted by Jane Darwell, Ida Moore and a slew of other former “dolls” from before the screen learned to talk. The gangland villains, Lloyd Nolan and Fred Clark, wisely play it straight, and, thus, are way more menacing. Nolan, in particular, is downright psychopathic – affectionate and thoughtful to Maxwell one minute and physically threatening the next.
The Blu-Ray looks great, with Daniel L. Fapp’s (appropriately) silvery monochrome photography, shimmering with luminescent imagery and clarity. The movie’s director was Sidney Lanfield, a genial traffic cop picture supervisor, who could do no wrong, but really sunk if he ever got in above his head.
The Paramount suits and Hope nodded approvingly as the rushes unfolded in the screening room, but admitted that it was nothing to get excited about. Hope realized the picture needed some added pep, and asked his trusted newbie gag writer Frank Tashlin (who cowrote the narrative with Ed Beloin, Edmund L. Hartmann, Robert O’Brien, Irving Elinson, and, natch, Barney Dean) for advice. Tashlin, whose vivid imagination was culled from his years as one of Warners’ top Looney Tunes animators, suggested some cartoony sequences that piqued Hope’s interest (he credited the scribe for contributing the best gags to his mammoth 1948 smash The Paleface). Then, Hope did something unprecedented; he removed Lanfield from the picture and put Tashlin in charge. This was a sage-like move, as the rushes now resulted in bellows of hearty laughter reverberating down the Paramount corridors. And the proof was in the Christmas pudding; KID became a Hope sensation with audiences and critics alike (hailed as the comic’s best picture in years). Because of a DGA rule, Lanfield gets full directorial credit, but, make no mistake about it, THE LEMON DROP KID is virtually all Frank Tashlin, an winning artistic debt that Hope wouldn’t forget.
Bob Hope’s payback to Frank Tashlin was 1952’s SON OF PALEFACE, one of my favorite comedies, (in my opinion) Hope’s best movie, and arguably the greatest Western parody ever to mosey across the screen. Tashlin at last got to be the kid locked in the toy store, writing the script (with Joseph Quillan and coproducer Robert L. Welch, who makes a funny guest appearance) and directing the show without any interference and with full credit.
A continuation to the comedian’s 1948 Technicolor mother lode, SON picks up decades later when unscrupulous Harvard graduate Paleface, Jr. journeys out West to cop his rapscallion pop’s ill-gotten gains. One of Sr.’s notable victims is the luscious Mike (Jane Russell), who avenges her fate by doubling as the nighttime Torch bandit, robbing the rich – and keeping it.
Special Agents Roy Rogers and Trigger arrive to stop the hold-ups, and the result is a screwball mixup of inventive sight gags, zingy verbal barbs, and great songs, all lavishly packaged in Technicolor to die for. If it indeed sounds like a cartoon – well, it is. The greatest live-action cartoon ever cranked out at 24 fps.
Not surprisingly, SON OF PALEFACE was a tremendous hit – both with critics and audiences – and big boost to Tashlin, who went on to carve his name in movie comedy history. Tashlin himself looked at the picture in retrospect (in 1957) as the work of an eager newbie, desperate to please. His critique was that, while he liked the movie a lot, it was too full yuks for his taste. Tash (as he was often called) felt he had overdone it with the wall-to-wall jokes. The writer/director claimed that there were about 100 visual gags in the picture – way more than needed. To underline his point, he discussed his (then) latest work, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, which contained around 20 solid comic highlights – a far more workable and less gasping-for-air entry, and, thus, infinitely more enjoyable. One can definitely take sides (I love them both), but there’s one indisputable fact: SON OF PALEFACE is a 24-karat laff classic, a must for all Hope/comedy collectors.
The Kino Blu-Ray is wonderful, expertly duplicating the vivid Technicolor hues and tones of Harry J. Wild’s camera. The mono audio is crisp and clean, perfect for relishing each aside and zippy song lyric (by Livingston, Evans, Jack Brooks, Lyle Moraine and even one by Jack Hope, Bob’s bro).
Russell comes across with one of her sexiest and funniest screen performances, and Rogers (and Trigger) are good sports as their squeaky clean images are skewered by wisecracking Paleface, Jr. Other members of the phenomenal cast include Bill Williams, Douglass Dumbrille, Lloyd Corrigan, Jonathan Hale, Chester Conklin, Harry Von Zell, Wee Willie Davis, Iron Eyes Cody, and Cecil B. DeMille (as himself).
Easily the strangest movie Hope ever made, 1958’s PARIS HOLIDAY marked the comedian’s debut at UA, now that his Paramount contract had expired. Of course, this didn’t stop Rapid Robert (as he was called) from snatching the best Paramount crew to man the new United Artists ship. Nevertheless, PARIS HOLIDAY remains an amazing curio – a gorgeous train-wreck of a movie (shot entirely on-location in France, and in Technicolor and Technirama by Roger Hubert).
The plot, written by one Robert Hope (who also produced) seems like a retread (or extension, your choice) of his popular My Favorite thriller-comedy series; in fact, one sequence, set in a rural French insane asylum, is partially lifted right out of MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE. It also has the best line in the picture, and it’s not Hope’s (a Gallic inmate hands Hope a flock of balloons, and confesses, “The man with the pin is after me.”).
The plot has international movie star Hope schlepping to France to meet with a Parisian screenwriter about a new script. On-board the luxury liner, the luminary is immediately thrown into a Hitchcockian plot involving secret codes, assassinations, etc. That the 55-year-old comic plays a total babe magnet, causing 20-something hotties Martha Hyer and Anita Ekberg to instantly fall in love with him (did we mention who wrote the original story?) is as far-fetched as the once-cool dude, trying to appeal to the ever-increasing teen audience by talking up Elvis, and incorporating hep-cat period slang like “go, man, go,” “cool cat,” “real gone,” “out for kicks,” “Daddy-O,” and “the living end.” In the 1940s, his zootie-suit-suit lingo worked fine, but, in the late 1950s, becoming a part of the establishment that his target audience was just beginning to rebel against…not so much. Hope is stumbling as much here, as he would in 1980s TV sketches, where he played Brooke Shields’ boyfriend, or 1990s talk show appearances where he’s still cracking Dean Martin drunk jokes.
To sweeten the pot, Hope aligned himself with the “French Bob Hope,” Fernandel. It may have added to the franc box-office, but didn’t quite gel here in the States. Furthermore, the oddity of Hope in an action Cold War comedy is sore-thumb underlined by his choice for director and coscreenwriter. Director Gerd Oswald was best known for A Kiss Before Dying, Crime of Passion and Brainwashed; former child-actor-turned-scribe Dean Riesner (who shared the HOLIDAY scribbling with Ed Beloin) would gain fame as the scripter of Dirty Harry, Play Misty for Me, Charley Varrick and Blue Thunder (alas, Barney Dean had passed on in 1954).
There’s IS a wonderful moment in PARIS HOLIDAY when Hope finally connects with the author he’s seeking, his former Paramount alumnus, writer/director Preston Sturges, in his last celluloid effort. Sturges, replete with French accent, is quite good as the wily writer harboring top secret information.
There’s also some marvelous stunt work (to make up for the lousy rear-screen projection – a problem Euro filmmakers could never solve) in a final chase (this one, lifted from My Favorite Spy), including one gag I’ll bet my life was contributed by Tashlin (a crash through a billboard). The Kino Blu-Ray, in 1080p High Definition widescreen, does Technirama proud. The mono audio is excellent, and features a title song by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. Since I’m a sucker for Technirama (or any early anamorphic process), I, to quote the PARIS HOLIDAY‘s lead protagonist Bob Hunter, really dug it, man! You might too. It’s not a bad movie, just a WTF batshit crazy one. And that ain’t the worst way to spend an afternoon at the cinema.
Thanks for the memories.
MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE. Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition] 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K21600.
ROAD TO RIO. Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K21602.
ROAD TO BALI. Color. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K21609.
THE LEMON DROP KID. Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K21605.
SON OF PALEFACE. Color. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K21607.
PARIS HOLIDAY. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K22769.
All titles released through Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Fremantle Media, Ltd. SRP: $24.95@
It was such a pleasant surprise to learn that VCI, in association with Blair and Associates, Ltd., had acquired the Blu-Ray rights to the Hal Roach feature collection. And while, true, the library does NOT contain any Laurel & Hardy or Our Gang or Thelma Todd & ZaSu Pitts or any of the master comedy producer’s many other terrific iconic funsters, there’s still a veritable gold mine of yuks to be savored and treasured in this stash.
To prove my point, let us examine their first release, 1937’s blockbuster TOPPER (insert sigh of relief that concurrently underlines collector’s gasps of “Finally!” along with, “Oh, yeah, there is a lot of good stuff sans Stan-and-Ollie”).
TOPPER was a topper in 1937, when Roach was winding down his partnership with MGM, and gearing up to move over to UA. The book was a natural for the sight-gag-dedicated director as it told the humorous tale of a couple of swinging swells who turn a staid banker’s life around after they enter the hereafter, due to an automobile accident. The possibilities of ghosts having fun at humans’ expense was just too good a prospect to pass up. Furthermore, George and Marion Kerby, the hot-looking ectoplasmic corpses, could additionally take Roach where he wanted his studio to go: to more mainstream, sophisticated, romantic fare – while remaining in the wacky, visual groove.
As the outwardly humorless “big shot banker from Wall Street” Cosmo Topper, Roach scored a coup by securing the services of Roland Young, who actually made the character sympathetic (and received an Oscar nomination for his efforts). For his flighty, upwardly mobile spouse, Clara, the producer insisted upon Billie Burke. The homerun casting, however, was lassoing a major A-list star for the role of Marion – the screwball, flirtatious eternally partying dead girl – the glamorous Constance Bennett, who although slipping a bit at the box office, was still popular enough to be top-billed. What ultimately gave TOPPER its revival/TV rerun legs for over seventy years was pairing Bennett with Cary Grant, giving the five-year movie veteran at last a chance to do full-blown comedy. For Grant, 1937 would be his breakout year; even TOPPER‘s bravura performance around the free-world globe would pale next to his other ’37 release, Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth. It instantly propelled Mae West’s former toyboy to major superstar. From here on in, there was no looking back.
MGM proudly highlighted TOPPER in its 1937 Exhibitor’s Promotion Reel, and gave Grant, on loan from Paramount, a special boost (it was part of his two-picture Metro deal, the other being 1936’s Suzy, opposite Jean Harlow and Franchot Tone). In TOPPER, for the first time, Grant is able to be physically funny (steering the fatal convertible with his feet), as well as verbally proficient in tossing off one-liners.
To be sure, the Kerbys’ deaths comprise the plethora of the movie’s barrage of priceless antics, starting with the pic’s key conundrum; upon realizing that they’re deceased, the couple is doomed to remain eternally Earthbound unless they perform a good deed for once in their essentially up-till-then one-per-center (aka, idle rich) useless lives. In their own way of thinking, that can only mean one thing: to turn their source of amusement, the stodgy Cosmo T, into a party animal. But even being confined to planet Earth isn’t that bad a deal, since their territory is New York City, to say nothing of the fact that torturing mortals is genuinely fun. And you can still drink (both are practically alcoholics, but, not in that spoilsport Ray Milland sense).
Even being horribly killed never fully deters the marrieds from their extravagant lifestyle (Marion’s initial shock response is “I got a run in my stocking!”). Suffice to say, the subsequent transformation of Cosmo from stuffed shirt to whoopee cushion is, as one might suspect, a slow-burn-to-dynamite-stick exercise in hilarity.
There are so many geniuses responsible for the above metamorphosis (aside from those already mentioned) that one barely knows where to begin. I guess a good start would be with the director, comedy ace Norman Z. McLeod (who guided the Marx Bros. through Horse Feathers), followed by the script (cowritten by Eric Hatch and Eddie Moran, in collaboration with Roach gagman Jack Jevne, who had just completed work on Way Out West). The Thorne Smith novel sale proved to be a gift-that-kept-on-giving bonanza for Roach, who wisely optioned the author’s other works, resulting in two more Topper movies, as well as the extraordinary 1941 Turnabout, where John Hubbard and Carole Landis exchange bodies and sexuality (how Roach missed out on I Married a Witch is an honest-to-goodness head-scratcher). The groundbreaking Oscar-worthy (but non-nom) special effects (causing mucho hilarity in cars, elevators, hotel lobbies and ballroom dance floors) were orchestrated by Roy Seawright, and superbly photographed by Norbert Brodine. And the music, featuring many legendary Roach riffs and melodies, is by the great Marvin Hatley (as much responsible for the Roach post-silent style as any prime player on the lot). Elmer Raguse’s nifty sound and sound FX (encompassing disembodied objects seemingly taking on a life of their own), like Young, received the second of the picture’s two Oscar noms.
TOPPER’s amazing large-scale cast, handpicked by the producer, is what caps this supernatural misadventure, accurately advertised as “96 Roaring Minutes of Laughter.” Featuring Roach stock company thesps (Dorothy Christy, Anita Garvin), brilliant character actors (Arthur Lake, Eugene Pallette, J. Farrell MacDonald, Si Jenks, Irving Bacon, Doodles Weaver, Clem Bevans, Lionel Belmore, Eddy Chandler, Theodore van Eltz, Syd Saylor, Ward Bond), former silent-screen stars (Claire Windsor, Kenneth Harlan, Jack Mulhall, Betty Blythe) and up-and-coming newbies (Lana Turner), the roster also includes Six Hits and a Miss, Hoagy Carmichael (introducing “Old Man Moon”), and, best of all, as the Topper’s flustered, but steadfast loyal butler, Alan Mowbray (his response to employer Burke’s chide of “After all these years, are you trying to be funny?” is, alone, worth the purchase).
The 35MM transfer of TOPPER is an excellent one. The silky monochrome camerawork looks just groovy, whether gliding across the mammoth MGM sets, or dodging in and around Marion’s runaway panties. The original theatrical trailer is also included in the package.
Can hardly wait to see what’s further down the pike.
TOPPER. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. VCI/Blair and Associates, Ltd./MVD Visual. CAT # VCI9031. SRP: $29.95.
As the holidays encroach upon us, we 3-D fans have an extra reason to rejoice, via the recent stereoscopic release of Raoul Walsh’s 1953 western classic GUN FURY, now available in a limited-edition Blu-Ray from the galoots at Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.
What makes GUN FURY a key 3-D item is not only the high-octane cast (of then one-rung-short-of-major-stardom players Rock Hudson and Donna Reed), but the behind-the-scenes frame-composing and depth-defying talents of auteur director Raoul Walsh (in his only 3-D outing).
GUN FURY flat is a serviceable, action-packed oater with some stinging dialog and typical Walsh double-entendre lust (both versions are included). In 3-D, it’s a prime late work – all the more remarkable, as the director (like fellow 3-D master Andre DeToth) had only one eye (losing a peeper during the In Old Arizona shoot in 1928), and could never see the amazing in-your-face effects of his labors. Yet, he gets it right (and left), doing things with objects, foreground and background, that had (at the time) never before been attempted. And boy, does it work! The framing shots of the spooky, arid Arizona landscapes are a given (but even more so with cactus and tumbleweeds doing double duty, creating a visual three-dimensional sandwich tableau); however, Walsh peaks the process with tracking camera shots of stagecoach drivers cracking their whip at the camera – which he then TOPS by doing a reverse angle of the coach team of horses galloping into the lenses (and, seemingly, toward viewers). Later POV shots of a steep incline trail are sure to give you that This is Cinerama rollercoaster feeling. And, for good measure, Walsh tosses furniture, arrows, and rocks (but not Rock) at you as well.
The plot of GUN FURY, as intimated above, is pure Walsh. Scripted by Roy Huggins (later TV icon of Maverick, The Fugitive, Baretta, and The Rockford Files fame) and (of all people) Irving Wallace, (author of The Chapman Report, The Prize, The Word, The Man and scores of other 1960s bestsellers), the narrative is based upon a gritty novel by the Grangers (Kathleen, George and Robert) with the amazing title Ten Against Caesar (in this movie, it’s three, then four, like the dimensions plus one, so I imagine the book was envisioned on a grander scale). Here goes: the Arizona territory is being ravaged by post-Civil War renegades (translation: psychopaths) led by the notorious Confederate officer Frank Slayton (a dashing and dangerously charming Phil Carey). His band of ex-Rebs strongly adhere to a take-no-prisoners policy a la Quantrill, but there’s an additional kink to Slayton’s raids. Frank, you see, is a sexual predator, who can’t complete an offense without raping (and often killing) some poor unfortunate female. On the plus side, he’s an equal opportunity scumbag, and his victims comprise a veritable rainbow coalition of abused women. This is most alarming to his capo, Jess Burgess (Leo Gordon), who increasing tries to curb his leader’s dementia prey-cocks – and eventually is staked in the blistering Sedona heat to die for his trouble.
When (uh-oh) gorgeous Caucasian Jennifer Ballard (Reed) happens upon their stage en route to meet her peacenik rancher fiancé Ben Warren (Hudson), Carey’s chest starts to heave before she even gets a chance to cross her legs. Regardless of the plans for their next and biggest heist, Slayton has already decided to kill Warren and ravage Jennifer.
This seems to work in his favor, except that Ben isn’t killed, and stumbles across a barely-breathing Jess, whom he nurses back to health. They are later joined by Johash (Pat Hogan), a disgruntled Native American, out to likewise terminate Slayton, due to the rapist having defiled and murdered the brave’s sister.
Meanwhile, Frank enters his secret safe haven, where he is greeted by his love slave Estella (the hot and feisty Roberta Haynes); Slayton had previously taken the senorita (in every sense of the word) and was pleasantly shocked to discover that she liked it. Soon, Haynes realizes that she’s now been relegated to pre-Reed warm-up girl appetizer and rebels against the rebel. His solution: exterminate her. In one of the movie’s Walsh-iest scenes, Carey instructs henchman Lee Marvin (with the WTF moniker of “Blinky,” the name usually reserved for characters played by Phil Silvers) to open fire upon the vengeful, sweaty Haynes, who is following the gang on an equally frothing mount. “You want me to shoot her or the horse, or what?” inquires a perplexed Blinky. “Suit yourself,” sneers slimeball Slayton.
Eventually, the outlaws end up at Mel Welles Mexican whorehouse, where the “girls” are instructed to wash down a dust-covered Reed for her initiation, aka the Carey treatment.
Hudson, Gordon and Hogan do track them down, but not before a libidinous Carey has had his way with Rock’s betrothed. The climax is chock full of guts, flying fists, thundering hooves and six-shooter justice. Which is apt, because, like we said, it’s 3-D to die for.
GUN FURY has long been on 3-D collectors’ want lists, and it was well worth the wait. It’s every bit as great as we three dimension fans suspected it was.
The gorgeous new transfer (in the then new widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1) is stunning (popping out Lester White’s Technicolor visuals, in both its clarity and hue-and-tone resolution. The 3-D is pert’ near 100% perfect, with only slight registration problems minutely evident in some background mesas and some portraits hanging in a boarding house way station. In fact, it’s possibly the best-looking vintage 3-D title Twilight Time has ever put out. The extras are sparse, but worth a mention. The usual TT IST is an option, but why one would want to have that Mischa Bakaleinikoff/Arthur Morton Columbia stock music as a separate keepsake is a riddle for the sands (that said, one strain of a guitar theme for the lovers is quite nice, and, I suspect might be the uncredited efforts of George Duning, who was coming into his own as a composer for the Harry Cohn company).
What’s really cool is the original theatrical trailer, also in 3-D, with the hysterical hyperbole narration concerning rising star Reed (“surpassing her role in From Here to Eternity!”). The performances in general are raw and natural. Hudson’s perennially pained expressions are perfect for his character, and, sadly, had little to do with acting. He felt ill during most of the shoot, finally collapsing on the last day of production with acute appendicitis. Carey and Gordon are just swell, as are thug cohorts Marvin (in one of his THREE 3-D appearances) and Neville Brand. Hudson, by the way, had been a Walsh discovery; the director caught sight of the good-looking extra in his 1948 military drama Fighter Squadron. He put the eager 23-year-old under personal contract, an amiable working partnership that lasted into the early 1960s. After GUN FURY (and a stay in the hospital) Hudson returned to his home studio, Universal-International, to begin work on his second and final 3-D movie, the vastly underrated Taza, Son of Cochise, directed by (wait for it) Douglas Sirk!
GUN FURY is one of my favorite Blu-Rays of the year, a claim that, no doubt, will be heartily “HEAR, HEAR!”-ed (or “SEE, SEE”) by any 3-D buffs within your local vicinity (Can DeToth’s Randolph Scott 3-D Columbia hit The Stranger Wore a Gun be in the works? Me hopes so).