Stirred, Not Shaken

JULY IS WARNER ARCHIVE MONTH

1959’s TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE, starring Gordon Scott, my top choice for the two greatest Ape Man movies ever made, swings onto Blu-Ray, thanks to the Bwani (is there such a thing?) at The Warner Archive Collection/Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. (the other fave is 1960’s Tarzan the Magnificent, also with Scott).

Prior to 1959, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ jungle man had fallen on hard times – his cine exploits relegated to rented indoor outdoor cheapo sets, duct taped together on an RKO soundstage.  He was Lex Barker then, and not too proud of it.  Johnny Weissmuller had since succumbed to pot-bellied middle-age and the even skimpier artistic offerings tossed at him by Columbia, where he braved stuffed animals and prop banyan trees as Jungle Jim.

Then, something happened.  Gordon Scott, more in line with what Burroughs had in mind physically, took to tree hopping like a fish to aqua, but it was still Hollywood and vine.  Then, it happened again.  Under the aegis of Saul Weintraub and Harvey Hayutin, the Tarzan franchise was moved to England.  Fresh blood was brought in to write, direct and tech the series up.  Color, for the first time, was added.  Then, after a rocky start, the proceedings were actually brought to East Africa for filming (specifically, Kenya).  And Scott & Co. began to take this stuff seriously.  It was time Tarzan reached adulthood.  And boy did he man up!

Out went the cutesy stilted comic byplay with a chimp.  Then, more relevantly (in tune with the novels) went the broken English.  This Tarzan was fairly well-read.  Also, more apt to rigorously abide by the law of the jungle: kill or be killed.  No taking the high road.  Oh, yeah, and humans are basically crap.  A thinking, hair-trigger assassin sounds more like James Bond than Tarzan the Ape Man – and that’s not necessarily a weird coincidence.  Virtually, every important person involved with the UK Scott pics went on to work on the Bond pictures (or 007 offshoots).

The direction and coscripting (with Berne Giler partnering in the writing department, basing their tale on an original story by Les Crutchfield) of GREATEST ADVENTURE was slickly and excitingly achieved by John Guillermin (The Blue Max, The Bridge at Remagen, The Towering Inferno).  The location color photography was lensed by revered d.p. Ted Scaife (The Third Man, The African Queen, Khartoum, The Dirty Dozen), with no less than Nicholas Roeg as his camera operator, and audibly appended by the music by Douglas Gamley.

The plot is more Bourne than Burroughs:  a band of psychopathic diamond hunters raid a series of villages (including a children’s hospital), killing most of the populace for supplies to mine their ill-gotten gains which their leader, a facially disfigured maniac named Slade, likely claim-jumped to begin with.  Aside from this giggling sadist, there’s O’Bannion, a hulking sociopath thug who’ll snuff anything in sight, Krieger the diamond cutter – a gross, perennially sweating ex-Nazi, claiming to be Dutch (even a moron like O’Bannion catches on, teasing him about his fellow Dutchmen: “Himmler and Goring”), Toni, a gorgeous prostitute with an S&M bent, and Dino, a lunatic mechanic suffering from arrested development and an Oedipus complex.  Like I said, this ain’t your ordinary Tarzan flick.

Add to the mix, the “Bond” girl, Angie, a super-luscious, smart, athletic aggressive international playboy’s pilot (shades of Pussy Galore!).  Joking about Tarzan semi-lustily, she follows him, via air, before crashing her rig, and forcing Scott to cart her along.  She proves to be the female equivalent of him – enough so that they end up “getting busy.” Yep, it’s a greatest adventure for both T and A in many ways.

Okay, so what could be better?  How ’bout the rest of the cast?  As the spectacular heroine, model-turned-actress Sara Shane comes across like gangbusters.  But it’s the baddies who warrant – dare I say? – a lion’s share of the praise.  As the maliciously evil Slade, Anthony Quayle gives out with one of celluloid’s most despicable villains, followed by the great Niall MacGinness as the ex-goose-stepping bastard.  Canadian Al Cliver, best known to Sixties movie buffs as a usual suspect of spaghetti westerns (mit them piercing eyes and chiseled face ideal for those extreme Leone close-ups) is concurrently scary and pathetic as Dino.  Super sexy Italian starlet Scilla Gabel (in her screen debut) smolders as the passionate, voluptuous/nefarious Toni.  And as the cruel dullard O’Bannion – Sean Connery.

The whole thing ends brilliantly atop a rock-strewn precipice in a thrilling confrontation between Slade and Tarzan that’s certainly Bond-worthy in any comparison.

The widescreen Warner Archive Blu-Ray of TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE is just plain out terrific, brimming with vibrant color and sharp 1080p High Def clarity.  An included U.S. trailer offers a molten kiss between Scott and Shane that isn’t in the movie, and reveals that the American prints are in Technicolor.  The excellent 35MM materials used for this home vid rendition hail from the UK, and credit Eastmancolor (no worries, the hues and tones have been restored and look just swell).

TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE is one of the few times in movie title ballyhoo where the moniker lives up to its claims (the movie got rave reviews upon its release in 1959, and the praise continues to grow to this day.  Philip K. Scheuer, acclaimed critic for the Los Angeles Times, called it “…a unique adult tale,” and added “I would single it out for its impact, even brilliance, as cinema-making.”).  Unusual, for a Tarzan flick, it was deemed “unsuitable for children” in many venues, a tag not attributed to the series since the first two pre-Codes in 1932 and 1934 – (and that’s a good thing), and presents 87 minutes of nonstop thrills that action fans won’t want to miss.

TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video/Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. CAT # 1000730512.  SRP: $21.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

TARZANSGREATESTADV_COVER

 

Crème de la Crime: Dark Blu-Ray

JULY IS WARNER ARCHIVE MONTH

Sure, I admit, it’s always great to see some obscurity or popular item get the Blu-Ray treatment; but when the entries are 100% bona fide classics, the results are 110% bona fide startling!  And when they’re from the world of noir – revealing the textures of dark, and layers of detail rarely seen (often, since the title’s original release) in optimum quality (aka, 1080p High Definition), the artistic rewards are immense.  I’m so thrilled to have been able to view a quartet of recently remastered Forties classics – three iconic A-pictures and one B-movie, the last so revered that it easily shares the pantheon with the genre’s Best of the Best.  We know the titles, we know the plots, we know the stars and directors, we quote the lines…Yet, seeing them on Blu-Ray is so refreshing and stunning that it’s tantamount to viewing them for the first time.   All hail from near-perfect 35MM materials, all contain extras worth exploring and all deserve a spot in any serious film noir (or classic movie library).  And below is why.  Yay, Warner Archive, for bringing us the definitive home video versions of MURDER, MY SWEET, POSSESSED, OUT OF THE PAST and GUN CRAZY.

 

One of the shining jewels in the crown from that banner noir year of 1944, when all the studios were rushing to compete with the newest nastiest art form (Double Indemnity, Phantom Lady, Laura, Strangers in the Night, etc.), MURDER, MY SWEET remains a great example of how perfect noir is done.

The first official Phillip Marlowe cine-venture (the unofficial one, a B-version, The Falcon Takes Over, released by the same studio, RKO — with characters’ names changed — beat it to the public by two years), MURDER didn’t scrimp for an instant with the festering evil in the modern metropolis shtick.  The story, which memorably begins with hulking brute Moose Malloy (hulking brute Mike Mazurki) using his “charm” to get bedraggled, rumpled detective Marlowe to search for his missing girl, opens up a labyrinth of sinister plotting, double-crossing, triple-crossing, and, that noir favorite pastime, knocking people off.  It leads down a path of sexual blackmail, drug den comas, and, as Marty Milner chides (about Burt Lancaster) in Sweet Smell of Success, “more twists than a barrel of pretzels.”

The tale of the pic’s making is as fascinating as the scenario.  The movie revitalized and reinvented the fizzling career of crooner Dick Powell.  The idea of casting him as a sour, violent, snarky tough guy was a BIG gamble on RKO’s part.  The Raymond Chandler novel was entitled, Farewell, My Lovely; but, with Powell, involved, RKO suits thought it wise to do a title change, lest moviegoers mistake it for another musical.  That said, MURDER, MY SWEET is almost as lyric-friendly, when one comes to think about it – or sing about it.

There’s nothing musical about MURDER (hey, what a good noir opening narration).  The dudes are not to be trusted, the women worse.  Templates for film noir males and females seem to emanate from MURDER, MY SWEET.  Aside from Powell, who ascended to A-list heaven, where he remained for the rest of his life (additionally playing sarcastic characters in comedies, and later becoming a producer and, even, a director – and a pretty good one at that), fellow musical star, John Payne, too, took Powell’s lead, and ditto had a very healthy noir movie lifespan, successfully transformed from a singer of tunes to slinger of goons.  As far as MURDER goes, Claire Trevor and Anne Shirley also notched up critical kudos for their femme fatales, as did oily Otto Kruger, Miles Mander, Douglas Walton, Dewey Robinson, Ralf Harolde, Esther Howard, Ernie Adams and John Indrisano.  Edward Dmytryk, the director, likewise soared to the top of the DGA, where he remained until the blacklist took hold.  Dmytryk, after a decade in B-movie land, didn’t want to look back, and named names that eventually returned him to blockbuster status (MURDER producer Adrian Scott also felt that sting of the blacklist, but held fast and refused to cooperate).  MURDER’s script (by John Paxton) is a beauty, bursting with Chandler-esque prose and rain-swept sidewalk poetry (“I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet.  I dived in.  It had no bottom. I felt pretty good – like an amputated leg.”).  The shimmering black-and-white photography of the great Harry J, Wild is another plus – never more effervescent than in this superb 1080p High Definition master; can’t ignore the menacing score by Roy Webb either.  With audio commentary by Alain Silver, the Warner Archive Blu-Ray of MURDER, MY SWEET is the only version to own.

 

Possibly the most haunting noir ever, 1947’s POSSESSED presents an engrossing, yet disturbing look at mental illness, much of it from the protagonist’s delusional point-of-view.  The picture is a tour de force for star Joan Crawford, one of her best, and certainly a role for which she should have won another Oscar (she was nominated; the award that year went to Loretta Young for The Farmer’s Daughter!!! Yeah, I know).

Stylistically using actual locations (blended with the studio-generated stuff), POSSESSED opens chillingly with a zombie-like Louise Howell (Crawford) walking through the deserted streets of downtown L.A. at dawn.  Soon, she is spotted and transported to the nearest hospital, where the sensitive attendants audibly demand she “be taken to ‘Psycho.’”  That pretty much describes Howell’s plight and prognosis – the story of a vital woman, whose stunning looks betray her to an insidious sexual predator.  This, in turn, sends her down the path to insanity.  And murder.

When Howell first meets David Sutton (Van Heflin), a brilliant nuclear scientist, the sparks immediately fly.  Louise does the walk of shame from the get-go, believing the platitudes of Sutton.  But the scientist’s promises are just that.  With Louise, now hopelessly in love, obsessed and possessed by the intelligent and admittedly charming seducer, she can’t and refuses to accept her role as merely his latest belt notch.  She stalks, cajoles and again is used for his pleasure.  Eventually, Louise becomes an obsession for Dean Graham (Raymond Massey), a millionaire entrepreneur involved with the then-dotcom-equivalent late-1940s industry of nuclear energy.  In a cruel, but Bizarro World logical move (remember, much of the narrative is from Howell’s perspective), the woman agrees to marry Graham, if only to be close to David, who is employed by her husband.  It’s not the usual nightmare liaison; Graham truly loves Howell, and she genuinely likes him.  It gets worse when Graham’s teenage daughter (Geraldine Brooks) from a previous marriage arrives on the scene.  At first, Louise and Carol hit it off; then David targets the younger Graham as his next joyride (and, likely a bride, thus connecting him to the Graham millions).  To use an oft-turned phrase:  this cannot end well.  Nor does it.

As remarkable as Crawford’s performance is, Heflin is just as good.  Adept at playing heroes or villains, he makes David Sutton, certainly despicable, but definitely oozing enough likeability to understand how smart women fall under his spell.  The other thesps, too, prove themselves admirably, especially Massey (another victim), Stanley Ridges, John Ridgely, Moroni Olsen, Douglas Kennedy and Don McGuire.  The sharp, absolutely spine-tingling script (with authentic psychiatric-approved depictions of paranoia and schizophrenia) by Silvia Richards and Ranald MacDougall (from a story by Rita Weiman) is landmark.  But it wasn’t a one-two punch. Crawford, unhappy with Richards’ work, demanded MacDougall, who scripted Mildred Pierce, be brought in.  Still dissatisfied, she insisted the Epstein brothers be hired immediately for another rewrite; while this did indeed become the case (uncredited), many suspensions flew over the cuckoo’s nest, aka Warner Bros. Loaded with great dialog and beautifully see-sawing between reality and self-deception (including a frightening sequence wherein loving stepmom Louise plots Carol’s murder), POSSESSED hits the cinematic bullseye with every twist and turn.

POSSESSED (the second time that title was used for a Crawford vehicle, the first being a 1931 classic from her Pre-Code Goddess days), is a fantastic movie on every level.  It’s a reasonable exploration of a perceptive, astute mind bent into mania.  Crawford and director Curtis Bernhardt (hands down, his greatest pic) spent time researching mental institutions and patients.  It had a negative effect.  An inmate from a California psychiatric ward later sued Warner Bros. for invasion of privacy, even going as far to claim Crawford totally based Louise Howell on her.  A back-handed albeit expensive compliment.  Professionally, it was a wondrous year for Crawford, who also excelled in the Fox loan-out noir Daisy Kenyon.  That said, initially, this movie failed to recoup its quarter of a million dollar budget, bringing in around $2M.  It did terrifically well outside the States, and ultimately moved from red to black on the Warners books.  Since then, it’s become one of their most revived Golden Age titles.

POSSESSED looks gorgeous in this new 1080p evocation, in fact, better than ever; the trance stroll through L.A. looks as if it were shot yesterday.  At last, Joseph Valentine’s exceptional monochrome cinematography (replacing house studio ace Sid Hickox) is done justice (after more than a half-century of gray, murky prints).  The score, which eerily apes Louise’s psychological deterioration is a Franz Waxman triumph; that said, there are nods to previous insane-strains as utilized by Miklos Rozsa (Spellbound and The Lost Weekend).

By the last half of the1940s, mental illness had become a movie cottage industry.  Psychotic female crazed fruit even more so.  Olivia de Havilland mined it twice in The Dark Mirror and The Snake Pit), once copping an Oscar nomination (for the latter).  Gene Tierney, Rosalind Russell, Bette Davis, Anne Baxter and others all dipped their pedicured toes into the quicksand pool.  Crawford, as the ultimate personification of dementia prey-cocks, dove in head first.

 

Many western buffs consider John Ford’s The Searchers to be the greatest western ever made; arguably, many noir fans consider Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 masterpiece OUT OF THE PAST to be the finest noir ever lensed.  And I don’t necessarily disagree.  All the elements that make great noir are here – in spades!  The duped hero, the deliciously evil femme fatale, the slimy head mobster, his sociopathic henchman…And all have never been better.

Based on the novel with the delectable title Build My Gallows High by Daniel Mainwaring (using the pseudonym of Geoffrey Holmes), OUT OF THE PAST benefits from a fantastic script by “Holmes,” with uncredited assist by Frank Fenton, and, most importantly, James M. Cain.  Undoubtedly, RKO was scouring the publishing world for a project that would rival Universal’s The Killers, and Mainwaring/Holmes’s venom-tempered tome handily fit the bill, right down to the plot-point of the lead protagonist, Jeff Bailey, hiding out in a small town.  Even Bailey’s new vocation is the same as The Swede in the Hemingway novel/adaptation:  gas station car mechanic (although, in this case, Bailey owns the joint).  But it’s his former gig as another type of mechanic that has brought a sinister human cloud to the picturesque tiny American community.  And, to quote the noir coat-of-arms, you can run, but you can’t hide. The dialog is sizzling, instantly quotable, and never fails to elicit snarky laughter from a theater full of the pic’s legions of admirers.

But first, the aforementioned cast.  As Jeff, a one-time respectable private eye turned rogue by the lust and love of an out-of-your-league woman, Robert Mitchum delivers one of his patented…well… Robert Mitchum performances.  His cynicism, violent streak, and accentuating lawlessness – all to the point of realizing (too late) that knowing you’re doing wrong while you’re doing it means damn nothing!  As the treacherous female who lures him (and all other males) into her luscious web, Jane Greer enters movie history.  Mitchum loved working with her, and, depending upon which interview you read, either considered her one of his favorite leading ladies, or, quite simply, his absolute favorite.  Their chemistry is intense, like an A-bomb ready to obliterate all around them.

The rest of the cast is equally impressive.  Kirk Douglas, adding to an array of detestable evil characters that dominated his early work (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, I Walk Alone), is aces as the smart, successful mobster, who nevertheless can’t shake the human wickedness he’s obsessed with (Greer).  As his intellectual, but reptilian bodyguard/personal equalizer, Paul Valentine excels in a remarkably modern impersonation.  Steve Brodie, as Mitchum’s creepy, crooked partner radiates scumbaggery; it’s almost a joy to see what happens to him.  Almost.  Dickie Moore, the child actor, now a teenager, is also great as The Kid, a mute that Mitchum’s Bailey hires and befriends.  There’s also the doomed Ann (Virginia Huston), the good girl Jeff finally meets, again, all too late.  Other noteworthy thesps include Rhonda Fleming (as a skank supreme), Richard Webb, Ken Niles (as a slippery character appropriately named “Eels”), Theresa Harris, Frank Wilcox and Mary Field.

The verbal exchanges, as indicated, rival the shocking outbursts of physical brutality.  Jeff, angrily confronting Kathie (his sexual addiction), explodes in one of the most memorable spoken bitchslaps in all of cinema.  It occurs when Greer tells him their grim, but inevitable future. “I don’t want to die,” worries the lady.  “Neither do I, baby,” responds Jeff, “but if I have to, I’m going to die last!” This is the line I spoke of earlier, that has had audiences roaring with sardonic laughter and applause for over seventy years.  Earlier, when Mitchum, pulling one of his many double-crosses, attempts to validate his actions, an underling cuts him off “I always say, ‘everybody’s right.’”  The “there’s no escape” Damoclean sword hovers over the entire pic.

OUT OF THE PAST was photographed, partially on-location (in California’s Silver Lake and June Lake Loop), by the awesome Nicholas Mursuraca.  It’s a superb example of monochrome camerawork.  For years, this was torpedoed by less-than-perfect copies (remember those lousy 16MM C & C TV prints?).  Not only can we now enjoy a pristine 35MM rendition, but we can additionally savor its shadowy elegance in 1080p High Definition.  Audio, too, reaps the Blu-Ray rewards, via a noise-free, crisp mono track, ideal for listening to the multitude of poison bon mots, appended by Roy Webb’s excellent score (featuring the haunting main theme).  I know I’ve said this often (and meant it each time), but this is the Blu-Ray I’ve been waiting for!

 

Were it any other genre, putting a “B” title in with the “A”s would be considered sacrilegious, but noir is an equal opportunity movie colony, where the pulpier the better is an attribute, so…

But let’s face it:  when discussing great “B” flicks of ANY genre, two titles inevitably always immediately hit the top tier:  Edgar Ulmer’s Detour and this 1949 triumph, Joseph H. Lewis’s incredibly scary, erotic, and prophetically (and freakishly) contemporary effort GUN CRAZY (both feature indelibly creepy women in the lead female roles).  How wonderful that GC and the Ulmer classic are now on Blu-Ray.  GUN CRAZY has an edge, however, possibly because it’s edgier – if for no other reason than to rip the guts out of America’s fascination with gun culture.  Truth be told, “B”s were able to get away with a lot more than “A”s, as frequently the censors weren’t that concerned about the one-week nabe, grindhouse and drive-in fare.  Thank God for their celluloid prejudice (nevertheless this movie WAS banned in several venues, and/or prints severely cut).

GUN CRAZY wasn’t merely sausage factory-ed out by The King Brothers.  It was a carefully calculated attempt to elevate bottom-of-the-bill fodder to Grade-A harvest.  And it succeeded.  The participation of Lewis alone (already hailed for his previous “B” works, My Name is Julia Ross and So Dark the Night) was a step up.  But the script was not by Poverty Row hacks; GUN CRAZY was penned by no less than the story’s author, MacKinlay Cantor, and, uncredited, Dalton Trumbo (with the blacklisted writer using Millard Kaufman as a front).  It was shot by the brilliant Russell Harlan and scored by Paramount’s music chieftain Victor Young.

And then there was the cast, led by John Dall (acclaimed for his cold-blooded performance in Hitchcock’s Rope) and Peggy Cummins, the beauteous waif-like Fox British import, looking to stretch her formidable gams in something a bit more adventurous (she had previously been resigned to portraying honey-haired ingénues in a series of Technicolor Lon McCallister horse dramas and/or perennial good girls in such higher profile titles as The Late George Apley.  She’d later star in the classic British 1957 Jacques Tourneur horror flick Night of the Demon.).  Supporting these two powerhouse thesps are Morris Carnovsky, Trevor Bardette, Virginia Farmer, Robert Osterloh, Joseph Crehan, Ross Elliott, silent screen star Franklyn Farnum, Ray Teal, and, as loathsome ever, slithery noir go-to guy Berry Kroeger.

GUN CRAZY depicts the story of Bart Tare and Annie Laurie Starr.  Bart’s an above average sprout (played in the opening sequences by Russ Tamblyn, billed as “Rusty”), adopted and loved by his foster family and the community.  He outshines the competition in school, baseball, you know…the whole all-American boy bit.  But he has a can’t-shake jones:  he’s fascinated by guns, even after freaking out in his first post-kill of a small woodland animal.  Tare’s growing addiction possesses him to break into a pawn shop to steal a weapon he’s dying to handle.  He’s caught, and sent to reform school.  Years later, now as Dall, Bart returns to the community, fully reformed.  His gun adoration still exists, but is under control.  He plans to seek employment at Remington, or another firearm manufacturer.  Best of all, he hooks up with his two childhood BFFs, one now a cop (Harry Lewis), the other a journalist (Nedrick Young).  Things look good, and they decide to celebrate by heading out for an evening of fun at a local, lurid traveling carny.  And there Bart meets the siren goddess of his dreams.  Adorned in sensual cowgirl togs, Cummins is billed as the new Annie Oakley – a girl who can outshoot any man.  And Packett, her sleazy promoter (the aforementioned Kroeger), is putting his money where his filthy mouth his – the old “who in the audience thinks they can best her in a shooting contest?”  Egged on by his pals, and already sexually aroused, Bart volunteers and, in a vigorous twofer showmanship, beats her.  But it’s a loss that Annie doesn’t mind, because she’s as turned on as he is.  Kroeger offers him a spot in the show, and, since he’s obsessed with the beauty anyhow, Tare agrees.  They pant, writhe and shoot their way across the small town circuit of Middle America, before yearning for more.  That comes when Annie reveals that she’s being blackmailed by Packett (possibly sexually) because he knows she killed someone.  They split from the show after going napalm on Kroeger.

Still planning to pursue his Remington dream, with his fantasy woman as his wife, Bart’s world is literally shot to hell when he discovers her “mania” (the word used by the law earlier to send him to the reformatory) for gunplay far outshines his.  With money running out, the pair needs to replenish their funds, and Annie uses her carnality to convince Bart to participate in a series of mom and pop robberies.  Bart’s caveat:  no killing, no shooting.  Naturally, Annie agrees, with her manicured fingers crossed.  While Bart harbors sociopathic tendencies that he can keep in check, his squeeze, he discovers too late, is a full-blown psychopath.  With the murder of innocents on their resumes, the post-war Bonnie and Clyde go on the run before the gruesome and unsettling climax in a fog-shrouded marsh.

GUN CRAZY is an exceptional movie no matter whether you love noir or not.  It transcends any tag of “A” or “B.”  It’s just one brilliantly insane cinematic journey.  Lewis’ spectacular use of real California locations (Reseda and Los Angeles), and his outstanding utilization of long takes (POV car) to chronicle a robbery is move-making at its epoch.

The only thing better than experiencing a theatrical screening of this lollapalooza is to be able to view it in this striking new Blu-Ray; furthermore, there are some enticing extras, including the documentary, Film Noir:  Bringing Darkness to Light and audio commentary by genre specialist Glenn Erickson.  As foreboding and downright terrifying now (if not more so than it was in 1949), GUN CRAZY (alternately entitled Deadly is the Female) is the perfect intro for noir novices looking to get their feet wet (that crimson stuff ain’t water) and cold-cocked into the greatest genre in the movie universe.

MURDER, MY SWEET.  CAT # 1000574978

POSSESSED. CAT # 1000505897

OUT OF THE PAST. CAT #  1000501605

GUN CRAZY. CAT # 1000714250

All black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Entertainment. SRP: $21.99@

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

 

 

Dino Might

JULY IS WARNER ARCHIVE MONTH

Growing up a half hour away from the Museum of Natural History was a game-changer for my fertile, juvenile mind.  I practically haunted the remnants of the prehistoric era, gazing in wonder at the enormous, monstrous fossils.  For a time, I wanted to be a paleontologist, until it finally dawned upon me that I’d probably never find live specimens to bring back to civilization that would then end up destroying a major metropolis.  Sigh.

For that, I had to partially rely upon literary works such as Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot, two paperbacks that quickly became dog-eared from multiple readings.  Then, I discovered TV’s Million Dollar Movie, and my world was forever transformed.  Dinosaurs leveling key cities became my favorite genre; couldn’t get enough of them.  The wonderful thing about Million Dollar Movie was that it paved the way for cheap programming by running one movie twice nightly for a week, and then all weekend long.  So, I got to memorize all the dialog from King Kong, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and, perhaps the creepiest dino-on-the-loose flick of all time, 1959’s shamefully underrated THE GIANT BEHEMOTH.  By the time 1969 rolled around, Warner Bros. sicced THE VALLEY OF GWANGI upon the by-then jaded public; nevertheless, I was, once again hooked.  I’m so delighted to announce that both these primo-dino epics are currently available in awesome price-friendly Blu-Ray editions from The Warner Archive Collection.  I am, once again, a kid in the candy store.

These movies are not simply vastly entertaining sci-fi extravaganzas (though they are that, in spades), but technical marvels showcasing the artistry of two of the finest SFX magicians in the field, Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen.  Indeed, Harryhausen had the good fortune to see O’Brien’s Kong in its original release.  It changed his life more than it did mine (obviously).  He was determined to devote his subsequent existence to creating similar phantasmagoria on his own turf (originally, in his parents’ garage).  Eventually, he met the great O’Brien (nicknamed Obie), who, after some gentle but valid criticism, hired him to assist on his latest project, John Ford’s production of Mighty Joe Young.  As it is so convenient to often quote, “the rest is history.”  As O’Brien’s star slightly faded, Harryhausen’s rose to new 1950s eye-popping heights (20,000 Fathoms, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, It Came from Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth and his first Technicolor blockbuster The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad).

Since it’s the dinosaurs that were my first and breathtaking movie love, nothing could give me greater pleasure than discussing and paying homage to these two men via the below praise for their labors and those of the savvy selection crew at Warner Archive.  So, here we go.

 

I first saw THE GIANT BEHEMOTH on the aforementioned Million Dollar Movie.  It’s no understatement that, cinematically, the pic was an integral part of my youth.  My dad watched it at least a couple of times with me (very unusual for him).  It was the middle portion of French director Eugene Lourie’s dino trilogy.  His first was Harryhausen’s 1952 Beast From 20,000 Fathoms; his last was 1961’s Gorgo.  The former was a grand scale Hollywood monster show, with the title creature simply doing what all prehistoric monsters do.  The latter was a modern fable.  That left BEHEMOTH – the one that had the most impact on me – the one that took a frightening documentary approach.  In graphic black-and-white, this British/U.S. coproduction presents a dire commentary on the penalty we’ll pay for destroying the environment.

At a London conference surrounding the pros and cons of nuclear exploration, American marine biologist Steve Karnes screens films of outbreak-suit-wearing scientists checking the shorelines for doses of radioactivity post-bomb testing.  Ostensibly, they conclude, the published accumulation of low levels pronounce it safe for humans to return to swimming, boating and fishing (while this was 1959, the movie is still wary enough to term these findings suspicious…and dangerous).  “These are ourselves!,” warns Karnes, who further scolds the committees with horrific tales of polluting the waters with waste.  You’re crazy to think that this won’t have an eventual effect on the global eco-structure.

And so it does.

Cornwall is first hit by thousands of dead fish washing up upon its beaches.  An elderly fisherman (Henri Vidon), securing his catch, is blinded by a throbbing light, and burnt to a crisp.  His final word: “Behemoth.”

Karnes and his British counterpart, a well-connected scientist/politico Professor Bickford (Andre Morell), immediately head for Cornwall, where the dead fish have now washed out on the tide.  Radioactivity levels are low, and there doesn’t seem to be anything terribly amiss.  Except for the locals exhibiting severe radiation burns on their limbs.

Natch, no one believes the potential environmental disaster that lies beneath.  Then a farming community is obliterated, with its human and livestock populace burned to cinders.  This time there is more evidence, a mammoth footprint the size of several police cars.

Dr. Sampson, the country’s leading paleontologist is called in (the wonderful Jack MacGowran); he sees the immediate nightmare that the creature brings, yet is eccentrically delighted (“You know, all my life I hoped this would happen. Ever since childhood I expected it. I knew these creatures were alive somewhere, but I had no proof, scientific proof, and I had to keep it to myself, or my colleagues would have all laughed at me.  See, no form of life ceases abruptly, and all those reports of sea serpents – well, what can they be?”).  He pegs the beast as a paleosaurus, a gargantuan amphibious creature.  Unlike the previously mentioned dinos, the paleosaurs (at least this one) is inherently evil.  And, as Sampson points out, “It’s electric, like an eel.”  But, of course, with something this size, its charge is tantamount to fifty times that of a ride in an electric chair.  Coupled with human negligence (exposure to radiation waste), this Jurassic predator is a true horror.

Tragedy after tragedy occurs before the monster rises and destroys a good deal of London.  And the task of killing it (before it dies from the massive toxic radioactive jolt it has been exposed to) becomes a tense game of monster and mouse.

This movie is nasty.  The gruesome deaths terrified me, and the sarcastic capper didn’t give anyone a sigh of relief (reports of dead fish washing up on Florida shores).  My dad snarkily laughed at that, uttering under his breath:  “The bastards are destroying our seas.”  I thought he meant monsters, not the polluters.  Didn’t understand the laugh either, and figured he just didn’t care for Florida (which was probably true).

Lourie, who barely spoke English, early-on worked as Jean Renoir’s production designer (Grand Illusion, Le Bete Humaine, Rules of the Game, etc.).  Renoir, given a private screening of 20,000 Fathoms at Warner Bros., exited with tears of joy.  “What a magnificent beast!,” he proclaimed to his friend.  I’d love to know what he would have thought of this rendering.  It’s amazing that with Lourie’s language difficulties, that he could write so chilling and literate a script.  Research has provided an answer.  The movie was mostly penned by Robert Abel and blacklisted scribe Allen Adler (story) with dialog by Daniel James (who, when credited, only worked under his pseudonym Danny Santiago).  Suddenly, it all makes sense.

The cast is realistically sublime.  Gene Evans is so believable as a nuclear scientist (effectively and correctly pronouncing and using terminology), that I still have trouble seeing him in the countless westerns he mostly appeared in (usually as henchmen, ranch hands, etc.).  Samuel Fuller gave the actor more credibility with turns in The Steel Helmet and Park Row (in fact, I always thought it was a nod to this movie that caused Fuller to cast Evans in Shock Corridor as an insane nuclear physicist).  The remainder of the cast is equally impressive, and includes Leonard Sachs, Alastair Hunter, Norman Rossington, and Derren Nesbitt.

The graphic docu-monochrome photography is by Ken Hodges (The Jokers, The Ruling Class and episodes of Secret Agent), and the genuinely goose-bump-raising score is by Edwin Astley.

Of course, it’s the SFX that deliver the mass goods, and they’re mostly achieved by the brilliant Willis O’Brien and his longtime assistant, Pete Peterson, an unsung stop-motion hero.  It’s not a stretch to say that the budget for this Allied Artists-released sci-fi was tight; in fact, tight would be an upgrade.  Astoundingly, much of the work was done in Peterson’s garage.  O’Brien had even copped a reel of audio from RKO, and the victims’ agonizing screams are the same as those heard 26 years earlier in King Kong.  Several paleos were created, one just a head and neck (used in a London ferry destruction sequence); on the incorrectly framed TV/16MM rental prints, the full square dimensions reveal a wood block at the creature’s neck.  Fortunately, this dazzling Blu-Ray is mastered in the accurate aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (although you can still see the tip of the block).

Three scenes that freak me out to this day don’t rely upon any of the excellent effects:  the already discussed opening sequence, a photo lab testing of radiation from local fishing communities, and a creepy excursion on a tug through a mist-filled sea (with just a touch of dragon-spiked neck ducking into the depths with emissions of steam and fire).

In Britain, the move was logically released as simply Behemoth – the Sea Monster (with codirecting credit to Douglas Hickox).  For the U.S. debut, AA surmised that Americans wouldn’t know what that meant, so they retitled it THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, kinda like calling it The Rich Millionaire.  Never mind.

The Warner Archive Collection has done us BEHEMOTH fans a great service with this Blu-Ray; aside from the excellent transfer, there are a couple of cool extras, including the trailer and audio commentary by contemporary SFX wizards Phil Tippet and Dennis Murren (the latter of whom is in possession of one the BEHEMOTH models!).  My dad would love this disc.  No better praise than that.

 

Considered by many to be Ray Harryhausen’s last great masterpiece, 1969’s THE VALLEY OF GWANGI is one wizard’s homage to another.  Willis O’Brien had a “cowboys vs. dinosaurs” project earmarked on his “to do” list as early as 1917.  It evolved into GWANGI during the first half of the 1940s, but the production was abandoned.  Abandoned, but never forgotten.  O’Brien regaled his new, young assistant (that’s Ray, folks) with his ideas, set pieces and dreams of GWANGI (a partial, budget-constrained 1956 O’Brien CinemaScope undertaking, The Beast of Hollow Mountain, only came alive during the last ten minutes or so).  And, so, in the mid-1960s, Harryhausen brought the story – updated with a completely revised and fleshed-out screenplay (by William Bast and, uncredited, Julian More) – to fruition.  The picture was shopped to Warner Bros. who approved the UK/U.S. coproduction, to be shot in Spain (covering for Mexico).  The time period remained the same as O’Brien’s original concept (1900), and revolves around a struggling but exciting Wild West Show, based just below the Texas border.

A tribe of gypsies, steeped in superstition, fear the wrath of Gwangi, a mythical creature supposedly guarding a forbidden valley.  Yet, when Carlos, one of the band (now working for the show), along with his brother discover a living, breathing eohippus (that’s tiny prehistoric horse to you), he and his employers plan to astound the world with a mini-rodeo.

So far this is more kiddie cute than anything else (and, indeed, the sequences with the eohippus are quite charming).  But then Carlos’ sib turns up clawed to death, coinciding with the return of Tuck, a former shady member of the show.   Tuck wants to pick up where he left off, and that includes romancing the gorgeous co-owner T.J.  An equally unscrupulous British paleontologist (in his way as shifty as Tuck), too, sets up shop – intending to use the tiny horse as bait to the valley’s entrance.  And, from then on, its SFX nirvana with some of the best Harryhausen dino-confrontations ever unleashed on the screen.  Of course, the humans, obsessed by greed (they never learn), decide to capture the fearsome Gwangi (actually, a perennially hungry Allosaurus), thereby, truly having the greatest show on Earth.  Uh-oh.  Naturally, this goes horribly wrong, causing much destruction, fatalities, Jurassic gnoshing and more.  The finale in a mammoth Spanish cathedral is one of the finest endings of any sci-fi monster show.

GWANGI, aside from the eohippus, Allosaurus, pterodactyls, triceratops and others had a fine homo sapien cast.  Leading the throng was James Franciscus, supported by Richard Carlson, Laurence Naismith, Freda Jackson, and Gustavo Rojo (as Carlos); must say that as much as I despise children in these kind of movies, Curtis Arden is actually pretty good and non-offensive.  As T.J., the romantic interest, Israeli model-turned-actress Gila Golan does an decent job, despite terrible Jay Ward-esque “Texas belle” dubbing (why they couldn’t have made the character part-Latina and let the woman speak with her accent is a head-scratcher, but, as I oft say, WTF do I know?).

GWANGI is directed in rousing fashion by Jim O’Connoly, and lavishly photographed in Technicolor by Erwin Hillier.   I should mention that the first time I met Ray Harryhausen, he told me that in the back of his mind was always the dream of having his effects accompanied by great movie music (he abhorred the cheap, stock Columbia themes Sam Katzman provided for Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and It Came from Beneath the Sea).  This finally came to pass in 1958’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, where Harryhausen began his remarkable association with Bernard Herrmann (the maestro composed four pics for Harryhausen, some among his best scores).  When Harryhausen & Co. could no longer afford Herrmann, they went with such musical luminaries as Laurie Johnson (First Men in the Moon) and Miklos Rozsa (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad).  For GWANGI, they were fortunate to secure the talents of Jerome Moross, whose superb soundtrack perfectly matches the thrills and magic on the screen.

For all of this good stuff, GWANGI had some bad luck when it came to release time.  Warner Bros., having been sold to Seven Arts and then being handled by The Kinney Company, absolutely hated the picture.  Furthermore, they brought in an army of accountants and efficiency experts to save what they perceived as the hemorrhaging distribution curse of movie-making.  They officially ended Warner double-features at nabe theaters, only sending out single pics, under the banner Warner Showcase, literally cutting many Americans’ weekend movie fun in half.  GWANGI, notwithstanding the generally positive reviews, like its title star, thus, quickly became extinct.  The pic briefly re-surfaced a couple of years later when Warners’ When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth hit various grindhouse circuits, before finally going to television, where, in full-framed compromised editions, it remained until a DVD resurrection.

There were some other caveats that hindered the initial (and later video) GWANGI rollout.  One, a backhanded compliment to Harryhausen, was outrage by animal rights activists when an elephant is abused during a battle with the Allosaurus (none of the shots in this sequence involved a real pachyderm).  Another, funnier blow came in 1995 when the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification Video Game Rating System) refused to give the movie a general “U” certificate due to one exchange between the two leads.  In the pic, Golan asks what Franciscus has been up to since he left the show.  Remember, his character’s name is Tuck.  “Just Tucking around,” he replies.  The line was misinterpreted by hard-of-hearing, disgusted film censors.

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray of THE VALLEY OF GWANGI is a stunner.  The locations look great in widescreen 1080p High Definition, as do many of the multiple Harryhausen SFX (only occasionally leaning a bit on the grainy side). The mono track, with that glorious Moross score, sounds just swell, as do the snapping jaws of them nasty meat-eating leviathans.  There are some incredibly cool extras as well, including Return to the Valley, a vintage documentary of the making of GWANGI, featuring Harryhausen.  Personally, I can’t think of a better way to Tuck around.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH.  Black and white. Widescreen [1.78:1 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  The Warner Archive Collection/Allied Artists/Warner Home Video.  CAT # 1000736911.  SRP: $21.99.

THE VALLEY OF GWANGI. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video.  CAT # 1000639564.  SRP: $21.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

 

Crime Study

JULY IS WARNER ARCHIVE MONTH

Of all the great literary and subsequent screen sleuths (Sherlock, Spade, Marlowe, Nick and Nora, etc.), none have been more shamefully ignored than the defiant, fiercely determined spinster school teacher Hildegarde Withers.  From 1931-1969, author Stuart Palmer fleshed out her ingenious deductive mind that should have had assured her the gig of running the NYC Detective Bureau, rather than an elementary school classroom.  But, considering the time of her debut, with women only recently been given the right to vote, practicing school marm is about the highest intellectual career activity that a normal American female could ascend to.

Of course, Hildegarde, once tasting the forbidden fruit of a crime scene, proved she was anything BUT normal.  Her intuition, grasping of logic, law and human behavior all converged to make her one of Depression Era New York’s most formidable crime solvers (when it wasn’t a school night, or, at the very least, after 3 PM, or on recess).

No less than David O. Selznick saw the screen potential of this powerhouse shamus, and obtained the movie rights from Palmer (for a one-off and possible series) in late 1931, to be produced and released through RKO.  It was another Selznick triumph.  The first entry, 1932’s The Penguin Pool Murder was a favorite with critics and audiences alike, and a sequel was soon in the works.  Ultimately, RKO produced five additional Withers pics of varying quality (spanning the years 1932-1937), but nevertheless all worth a peek.  The entire set, appropriately dubbed THE HILDEGARD WITHERS MYSTERY COLLECTION, is now available in an addictive two DVD-R made-to-order package from The Warner Archive Collection.  All six flicks look and sound better than ever in these excellent transfers, mostly from 35MM elements.

Gaunt, gangly, imposing Withers, whose wit was as sharp as her features, seemed tailor-made for Edna May Oliver, who, among the series’ fans, owns the role.  For the head-scratching, but ultimately fair NYC Chief of Detectives, slow-burn master James Gleason chalked up another win on his impressive array of beloved performances.

While Oliver had become synonymous with Withers, her skyrocketing popularity in Hollywood propelled the actress in another direction.  As the Withers series prospered at RKO, Oliver became the darling of the A-listers with her turns in Little Women, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and Romeo and Juliet.  By 1936, RKO couldn’t hold her back, and she left the franchise.  Chronologically, Helen Broderick and ZaSu Pitts took over the role (bringing their own differing takes and personalities to the table); the Hildergarde Withers pics, thus, became the Menudo of movie detective shows.  Remarkably, Gleason remained firmly entrenched as the much put upon Inspector Piper, and it is his amazing ability to create chemistry with virtually any costar that made him the iconic character actor he is deservedly remembered for.  So, without further adieu, leave us raise the curtain on Manhattan’s ultimate oil-and-water combination, and their enticing, hair-raising adventures.

 

1932’s The Penguin Pool Murder is, not surprisingly, my favorite of the bunch.  For one thing, it’s the only one of two pre-Codes in the series (with tons of innuendo and snarkery, courtesy of Willis Goldbeck’s wiseacre script).  It also has the fine A-picture polish of the Selznick touch.  Furthermore, it boasts the best cast in the lot (Robert Armstrong, Mae Clarke, Donald Cook, Edgar Kennedy, Guy Usher, Rochelle Hudson and Gustav von Seyffertitz as the curmudgeonly M.E.).  Finally, it’s a thoroughly New York movie, with much of the action taking place at Brooklyn’s famed New York Aquarium (utilizing actual second unit-filmed footage).

The plot is simple.  Public school teacher Hildegarde Withers is taking her class on a trip to the renowned site to explore and learn about the creatures of the sea.  What they don’t count on is finding a human body floating in the penguin pond.  As a witness, she is held, along with the rest of the visitors, until the cops arrive, led by Inspector Piper and his generally inept crew.  At once, our no-nonsense Marple takes over the investigation with her intelligent questions and intuitive sleuthing.  Soon, despite Piper’s carping, the spinster has become an unofficial member of the homicide squad.  Eventually, Piper and Withers begrudgingly respect one another – a relationship that blossoms into friendship and suggests, by the fade-out, possibly more (a liaison sadly never further explored as the series progressed).  “We should incorporate,” is uttered in a wink-wink fashion that underlines the best of pre-Code.

In the interim, there are additional murders, a modicum of suspense and hilarious one-liners.  In true pre-Code, style, there’s even a scene between Gleason, Oliver and Kennedy in the Men’s Room.  When evidence might encompass a hatpin of Withers, Piper barks, “What’s that on your chest?”  “None of your business!” snaps back the prim and proper educator.

As an adulterous affair becomes a centerpiece of the murders, the cops remark “Looks like another Snyder-Gray to me” bringing to mind the notorious 1927 woman-in-the-electric-chair case that served as the basis for James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity.

It’s also cool to see Withers’ class, a mini-rainbow coalition of ethnicity that likewise gets in a few laughs.  “Isadore,” Withers shouts at the Yiddish student (child actor turned writer-producer-director Sidney Miller) whispering to his classmate, “you’re not lending money?”

Skanky Mae Clarke, who was just getting over that grapefruit in the puss from Jimmy Cagney in the previous year’s Public Enemy, gets a nasty bitch-slap from Oliver.  A convenient concurrent description of the crime scene adds a verbal insult to injury describing a guilty victim “stained with fish slime.”  Gleason gets in a few zingers too, judging penguin-adoring Armstrong as “a case for the psychopathic ward.”

Henry Gerrard’s black-and-white photography is sharply chiseled and beautifully lit, and George Archainbaud’s direction hits every jab, both spoken and stabbing, for its optimum effect.

 

Coming in just under the wire of the Code (initiated in late June 1934, this movie was released on June 15), Murder on the Blackboard concerns our favorite teacher-detective employed by an institution of higher learning that seems to have been founded by 50 Shades of Grey author E.J. James.  There is a high shagging quotient, not confined to the students, that includes instructors, the lecherous principal (Tully Marshall) and an equally lecherous secretary (Gertrude Michael).  Withers and Piper tread ably on their Sherlock fetlocks as one killing becomes a preamble for an alarming rising murder rate.

The dialog (as scripted once again by Willis Goldbeck) is as pre-Code-y as ever (sadly, for the last time).  When a crabby cabby sneers at the tip Hildegarde bestows upon him, she quips “You’re a taxi driver, NOT a gigolo!”  And, BTW, how many schools have an ample supply of lethal poisons, female clientele who all pack rods and a labyrinth of secret passageways?  Once more, George Archainbaud carries the baton in the directing department, and does it quite well.  The camerawork by is worth noting (the studio’s great Nicholas Mursuraca), as is the fine supporting cast, that also includes Bruce Cabot, Regis Toomey, Edgar Kennedy, Jackie Searl and the return of crusty von Seyffertitz.  While you’ll probably be able to figure out who the culprit is, please be advised of the Madison Avenue travel slogan of “getting there is half the fun.”

 

Although post-Code 1935’s Murder on a Honeymoon is still chock full of pungent barbs, thanks to cowriter Robert Benchley (who penned the script with the always-reliable Seton I. Miller).

Hildegarde finally has squirreled away enough moolah to take a vacation to sun-drenched Catalina Isle (where much of the movie was actually shot).  But, as all movie and TV sleuths have suffered, whenever they take a sojourn, death books passage right along with them (in fact, the first killing takes place on the flight over to the resort).  Here, we have a new slew of unsavory characters, including the doomed newlyweds alluded to in the title, a slutty would-be actress, and, in a clever ploy to get Manhattan’s Piper on the scene, a key witness in a New York mob trial on the lam.

The cast, as usual, is impeccable, and features such welcome mugs as Lola Lane, Chick Chandler, Willie Best, Leo G. Carroll and Matt McHugh.  Bizarrely, this movie is a precursor to the great RKO noirs that would be turned out on a regular basis within the next two decades:  the plot and solution (which, for once, Piper figures out on his own), bears a resemblance to the capper of the studio’s 1952 classic The Narrow Margin (it’s even lensed by the same, d.p. Nick Musuraca, who gives Honeymoon an especially sinister look).

The movie, alas, the final appearance of Oliver as Withers (as indicated, her star was rising way about a B-plus movie series), ends with a bang.  Her correction of a character’s analogy of events to “King Tut’s mammy” is pure Hildegarde via Benchley gold, as is the following exchange between the canny schoolteacher and the island’s Chief of Police (“We’ve never had a murder here on the island,” he bemoans. “In fact, people don’t even die here very often.”  “Maybe they die, and you don’t know it,” is Hildy’s crisp retort.  Another later throwaway is equally wonderful:
“I’m gonna make one of these mugs talk if I have to work on ‘em with a rubber hose,” growls an impatient Piper. “A very original idea for a policeman,” snaps Withers).

The direction is by the dependable Lloyd Corrigan (better known as a likeable character actor in a gazillion movies and television episodes), and the pic features an original score by Alberto Columbo.

 

1936’s Murder on the Bridle Path explores lethal goings-on among New York’s horsey set.  The prime focus is Central Park’s famed stable, and while riding is an important plot-point, it ain’t equines they’re talking about.  The hoi polloi of Manhattan provides an ideal intro for the new Hildegarde Withers, the haughty Helen Broderick (mater of not-so-dainty Broderick Crawford).  While Edna May Oliver was an ideal choice for teaching the Big Apple public school system youth, Broderick is a bit too refined and we suspect she’s doing her pension work at a private center of learning.  James Gleason returns as Piper, and adapts his thesp prowess to comprise a nifty duo with Broderick.

Astoundingly, for a 1936 movie, Bridle Path has a number of double entendres worthy of pre-Code.  The narrative itself goes as far as it can go labelling victims as bitches, lousy lays and more.  Indeed, the scenario by Edmund H. North, Dorothy Yost, James Gow, and Thomas Lennon is chock full of enough upper crust hoes, gigolos and barn scum to raise both eyebrows.  That goes double for some of the dialog.  When confronted about her “connection” with Piper, Hildegarde replies “I have a great deal of influence with Inspector Piper. We roomed together at college.”

The photography is once more by Nick Musuraca, the music co-chaired by Roy Webb and Max Steiner, and the fast-moving direction by William Hamilton and Edward Killy.  Having a primo supporting cast like Louise Latimer, John Carroll, Owen Davis, Jr., Leslie Fenton, Sheila Terry, Frank Reicher and Murray Alper don’t hoit either.

A nice debut for Broderick (albeit her only appearance as Hildegarde), Bridle Path is a perfectly respectable mystery to saddle up on a rainy afternoon.  That’s English, of course.  NEVER Western.

 

1936’s The Plot Thickens marks the series’ first omission of the word “murder” in the title, and introduces the newest Withers to the fold:  ZaSu Pitts.  Now, I know what you’re thinking: THAT scatterbrain?!  Rest assured, while the actress retains many of her trademark attributes, she’s way less fluttery and “Oh, my!” featherheaded.  In fact, Pitts ain’t pitiful; she’s quite believable as a smart schoolteacher who’s heard it all.  The look of  “what a load of BS” that often smirks across her pan when listening to Gleason’s and his associates’ excuses or suspects’ alibis smacks of the old “dog ate my homework” response this Hildegarde has undoubtedly heard numerous times.

The plot of The Plot Thickens is an engaging one:  the theft of a Cellini goblet from a museum.  Of course, mere thievery doesn’t cut it in a mystery flick, so there are a couple murders, sex crimes (involving a wealthy womanizing fossil, offed in Van Cortlandt Park after forcing himself on a blonde), forgeries and a crypt of spooky museum artifacts and employees, including mummies, dummies and scummies.

While certainly a “B” flick, The Plot Thickens benefits from the usual first-rate supporting cast, comprising Owen Davis, Jr., Louise Latimer, Paul Fix, Oscar Apfel, Richard Tucker, Arthur Aylesworth and Mary Gordon.  The script by Clarence Upton Young and Jack Townley keeps the 69 minutes percolating at a brisk pace.  Ditto, the direction by Ben Holmes, and the camera expertise of Nick Mursuraca.  Interestingly, Davis and Latimer are apparently playing the same characters from Bridle Path (Hildegarde even acknowledges them), although they have different names.  No explanation.  Oh, well.

 

1937’s Forty Naughty Girls, the final Withers caper, leans more toward comedy than the previous entries, due to the pic’s director – former Keystone Kop turned movie-maker Eddie Cline (he would later helm the terrific W.C. Fields classic The Bank Dick).  Cline’s participation causes ZaSu’s Hildegarde to go further Pittsy, which one can either deem a plus or a minus, depending upon your love for the actress or Stuart Palmer character.

The plot, as scripted by John Grey, is quite fetching.  Hildegarde and Inspector Piper finally do a night on the town.  In this case, it’s utilizing a pair of Broadway ducats the police detective obtained.  Unfortunately for him, there’s murder backstage in the female lead’s dressing room and a shooting on-stage.  “He would have to get himself bumped off just when I wanted to see a show!,” complains an agitated Piper.  Hildegarde, however, is rather delighted by the diversion and throws herself into the impromptu investigation, at one point ending up accidentally trodding the boards in front of an aghast audience. “Didn’t know you had it in ya, sister,” offers a stagehand. “Well, I’m glad it’s out!” blurts Withers.  It’s that kind of a movie, “with a little sex,” to quote Preston Sturges’ fictional John J. Sullivan.  The cast is wonderful, with a particularly lovely and diverse array of actresses, including a ridiculously young Marjorie Lord, Joan Woodbury, Barbara Pepper, Ada Leonard and Elizabeth Russell.  The male support is equally impressive and features Tom Kennedy, Bud Jamison, Stephen Chase, Eddie Borden and George Shelley.  Of special note is the shimmering black-and-white photography by the brilliant Russell Metty and the up-to-standards score by RKO’s musical maestro Roy Webb.  A fun way to end the saga.  Interesting sidebar, and shades of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Woodbury’s character’s name is “Rita Marlowe.”  Makes one wonder if George Axelrod, certainly a movie buff, was a Withers fan.

THE HILDEGARDE WITHERS MYSTERY COLLECTION. Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; 2.0 mono audio.  The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video. CAT # 1000402733. . SRP: $24.95.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

HILDEGARDWITHERS_COVER

 

 

World Warners II

JULY IS WARNER ARCHIVE MONTH

There’s a reason that Jack L. Warner became known as Colonel Warner during the early 1940s.  It wasn’t entirely a nebulous title.  He and his gung ho studio entered the war with their usual panache – that is to say a lot of star power, hoopla, flag-waving and singing and dancing.  That’s not to say that they didn’t produce some splendid war dramas (Air Force, Objective Burma), but it’s the slam-bang musicals that had millions of cheering Americans lining up for repeated viewings and (often literally) humming the hit tunes en route to boot camp.  Two of their best superb rousing entertainments, the iconic Michael Curtiz 1942 classic YANKEE DOODLE DANDY and the lesser-known, but nevertheless equally addictive 1943 musical-comedy THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS are now available on Blu-Ray, loaded with terrific extras.  It’s the perfect way to celebrate Independence Day (or any day) and, since July is Warner Archive Month at Supervistaramacolorscope, well…  So let’s get a-crackin’.

1942’s YANKEE DOODLE DANDY is considered by many to be the greatest Hollywood musical ever made.  Those who feel otherwise still rate it among the best song-and-dance pics of all-time, and often group it on Favorite Movies Ever lists (as, for instance, John Travolta, who offers a Cagney salute on this Blu-Ray, one of the many exceptional supplements contained on the platter).

Certainly, YDD helped the war effort, as if any American needed a reason to wanna kick Germany’s and Japan’s respective asses in 1942.  My parents and grandparents, who barely escaped from Deutschland, worshipped this movie (it was one of my mom’s three favorite flicks – all Warners titles – the other two being Casablanca and Now Voyager).  By the time of the picture’s release, my dad, who early-on enlisted, had already been shipped back to the European theater, but my mother and her parents, due to their acquaintance with Paul Henreid and his wife, Lisle, obtained passes to the Denver premiere (we wuz Colorado-based back then).  But that’s another story.

The movie, ostensibly a biography of George M. Cohan, supposedly America’s greatest hoofer and composer, born on the Fourth of July (actually, 6/3/1878)…, was about as historically accurate as an episode of The Flintstones; however, the patriotism and exuberance exhibited throughout the musical’s fast-paced 128 minutes is 100% authentic, thanks to the Oscar-winning performance by Jimmy Cagney, under the expert direction of Michael Curtiz (Curtiz was certainly on a roll, following this after Angels with Dirty Faces, Four Daughters, Adventures of Robin Hood, Dodge City, The Sea Hawk, and with Casablanca and Mildred Pierce in the wings).

YANKEE DOODLE DANDY is crammed with Cohan standards (“You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Over There,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Harrrigan,” and, of course, the title song), opulently produced on a grand scale, booming with that dynamic Warners sound (ranked the best in the business, with Goldwyn the only serious competitor).  Supporting Cagney is a roster of wonderful performers, including Walter Huston (as his dad), Rosemary de Campe (as his mom, in actuality eleven years younger than Cagney), real-life sib Jeanne Cagney, plus George Tobias, George Barbier, Richard Whorf, Irene Manning, Walter Catlett, Frances Langford and Eddie Foy, Jr.  as his pop (Foy, Sr. and Cohan had a Benny-Allen-type feud that cinematically spilled over into Bob Hope’s Foy biopic thirteen years later when Cagney did a spectacular return cameo as Cohan in The Seven Little Foys).

Joan Leslie, then still a teenager, but incredibly mature, appeared as Mrs. Cohan – perhaps a Warners good luck charm, you know, young, beautiful actress playing opposite an old-enough-to-be-her father’s wife; she had previous played the spouse of Gary Cooper’s Alvin York in the studio’s 1941 smash Sergeant York.  As with Cagney, Cooper won that year’s Best Actor award.

But, as hinted above, the fun-loving Cohans on the screen weren’t that way in truth.  Mary (the Leslie character) wasn’t the only Mrs. C.  And, in fact, that affectionate, adamantly loyal George M. wasn’t exactly Mr. Wonderful (he infamously kicked his pregnant wife in the stomach during a violent argument).

In the movie, Cohan reflects on his life to none other than FDR, after the actor/singer/dancer is called to White House during his musical interpretation of Roosevelt in 1937’s Rodgers and Hart stage hit I’d Rather be Right.  On-screen, Cohan’s reluctance is fear that the President will take umbrage at his raucous impersonation.  Indeed, the real Cohan avoided the White House invite (to accept The Congressional Gold Medal) for as long as seemingly possible – four years – but for a completely different reason. Cohan, a virulent right-wing Republican, despised FDR with a passion, and only when it became absolutely un-American to be anti-Roosevelt, did he renege (and, BTW, the play was an out-of-town tryout of 1936’s The Return of the Vagabond, not the aforementioned I’d Rather be Right).  Cohan, was also appalled at the casting of Cagney, a staunch Democrat, but the “living legend” had already signed the contract with Warner Bros.  So call THAT macaroni!  In a humorous sidebar, Jack Benny signed with the studio for George Washington Slept Here on the promise by Jack Warner that he be given the lead in YANKEE DOODLE.  Shocked to learn that Cagney was signed, Warner soothed the funnyman’s wounded ego with a brilliant retort, “If it was George M. COHEN, you’d have gotten it!” Prior to Cagney, Fred Astaire was offered the role.

James Cagney, who gave 110% of everything he ever tried, thoroughly acted his dance moves.  Originally a hoofer in the 1920s (a key factor that finally won over the real Cohan), the Warners star threw Depression audiences for a loop when he danced up a storm in 1933’s Footlight Parade.  His “eccentric” technique, for which he is renowned in YANKEE DOODLE was, in fact, a performance in and of itself.  Cagney didn’t stiff hoof, as in the picture – that was Cohan’s method (the Warners star worked rigorously with Johnny Boyle, Cohan’s personal choreographer who had appeared alongside the Broadway luminary in The Cohan Revue of 1916), which the movie tough guy had also personally previously witnessed.  A by-the-book actor who hated ad-libs and “bits of business,” Cagney, in Angels with Dirty Faces, notoriously threatened Leo Gorcey for going off-script.  When he did it again (in a gym sequence), Cagney hit him in the head with a basketball (it remained in the picture).  Thus, Cagney and Curtiz clashed at the casting of S.Z. Sakall.  Jimmy the Gent couldn’t stand the superb character actor and comedian, and wanted him off the show.  Curtiz, who idolized Sakall (since his youth in the director’s and comic’s native Hungary), would hear none of it.  Jack Warner, too, loved the portly star and even gave him the nickname “Cuddles” Sakall (again I bring up my mom, who had studied dance in Germany, and was in a posh revue starring Sakall.  She told me that he and his wife were two of the loveliest people she had ever met, and was as cuckoo about him as Curtiz).

As with Joan Leslie, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY may have begun another Warners good-luck charm.  The original first draft script by Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph proved to be adequate, but on the dry side.  Reportedly, the cameras rolled as the unenthusiastic screenplay was tinkered with.  Enter the Epstein Brothers (Julius J. and Philip G.), who tweaked and pepped up the pages with inspired one-liners, character development and jokes that provided many of the movie’s hearty laughs.  It would be a repeat performance the next year for Casablanca.

The dazzling photography of YANKEE DOODLE DANDY is by the iconic James Wong Howe.  It’s gorgeous to behold in this new 1080p High Def Blu-Ray.  Previous 1960s 16MM TV prints lacked contrast and clarity.  No more.

Audio is as good as it gets for a mono movie, and the orchestrations by Ray Heindorf, Leo Forbstein and Heinz Roemheld never sounded better.  The ancillary bonuses on the Warners Archive Blu-Ray are enough to have YOU singing and dancing in the streets.  In addition to the Travolta intro, there’s a specially produced documentary, Let Freedom Sing!: The Story of Yankee Doodle Dandy, plus 1943’s You, John Jones (an MGM patriotic short, costarring Cagney, Margaret O’Brien and Ann Sothern), the wacky Friz Freleng Warners cartoon Yankee Doodle Daffy (also 1943), and an audio-only radio broadcast version of the movie, featuring outtakes and recording sessions (there’s also commentary by WB scholar Rudy Behlmer).  A Leonard Maltin-hosted Warners Night at the Movies is highly recommended; it presents an evening from 1942 that avid moviegoers might have genuinely experienced.  The program consists of a trailer (Casablanca), newsreels, a cartoon (Robert Clampett’s Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid) and a patriotic short (Beyond the Call of Duty).  Only wish we could omit Maltin’s hosting and cut to the chase.  Oh, well.  Small carp, no big deal.

Suffice to say that YDD was a smash in 1942 (scoring almost $12M during the original release); it was Warners’ number one box-office hit and second only to the year’s highest grossing movie, Mrs. Miniver.  Both succeeded admirably in “doing their bit,” although (in my humble opinion) the former holds up way better now.

Cohan, upon viewing the final cut, let whatever was left of his one-time rancor against Cagney subside, “What an act to follow!,” the delighted, ailing showman proudly announced.  It was likely one of his last happy moments, as he passed away five months later at age 64 on November 5, 1942.  Perhaps his daughter (big surprise, christened Georgette) said it best, gently skewering the Hollywood ballyhoo:  [YANKEE DOODLE DANDY’s] the kind of life Daddy would have liked to have lived!”

 

Similar to what transpired during the transition to talkies, all the major studios, with the outbreak of WWII, raided their considerable talent pools, and conceived opulent, epic revues; the former helped audiences accept the new sound medium, the latter, most significantly, aided the war effort (and made mints for the studios, when fans flocked to see their favorite stars in one show over and over again).  Of all the flag-waving bandwagon soirees, only two stand the test of time:  Paramount’s Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), and Warners’ THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (1943).  The reason for their success and longevity is the same.  Unlike MGM, UA, Fox, etc., which relied on treacle tried-and-true (and dull) subplots with young lovers separated by the war, blah-blah-blah, these pics made the romance part of the fun.  The couples are movie-crazed addicts, determined to crash the gates of their designated dream factory.  No drama here – merely pure hilarity.  Most relevantly, while an outfit like MGM refused to paint their stars in an unfavorable light, Paramount and Warners went whole hog in the self-deprecating department.  And, boy, did it work.  We can thank our lucky stars that the story and script came by way of numero uno comedy scribes as Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, James V. Kern and Arthur Schwartz, the latter who not only came up with the story (with Everett Freeman) but worked on many of the songs; he remains the pic’s true auteur.

LUCKY STARS, revolves around Sad Sack nudnik Joe Simpson – a talented, likeable dude who can’t get a break because he looks like Eddie Cantor.  Cantor, who channeled Jack Benny’s “stingy and vain” radio persona, mined his alter ego as an obnoxious loudmouth budinsky who, basically, ruins everything he touches with his me-me-me megalomania.

Simpson hooks up with two other hopefuls, Tommy and Pat (Dennis Morgan and the ubiquitous Joan Leslie), and takes them to a Hooverville camp exclusively for Hollywood wannabees – a happy sanctuary that factually existed in no time ever.  There, with fellow residents like Spike Jones and his City Slickers, they pass the nights of non-employment by swinging out with smash hits like “Ridin’ for a Fall” (instantly memorable to Boomers, due to their inclusion in an array Warner Bros. cartoons).

Meanwhile, two eccentric producers (an inspired teaming of S.Z. Sakall and Edward Everett Horton) plan the biggest war bond rally in American history.  There is a fly in the ointment.  The hottest star currently in the Biz is Dinah Shore, and she’s under exclusive contract to…Eddie Cantor.  Everyone wants Shore, no one wants Cantor – they correctly figure he’ll take over the show and destroy it.  It’s a bitter pill, but one the entrepreneurs swallow; they agree to make the unbearable entertainer an associate producer (two of the funniest bits in the pic occur during a stage rehearsal where Horton and Sakall are lost in a menagerie of Cantor-hired wild animals.  “This is the end!,” screams an exasperated Horton, as Sakall does an about-face into an elephant’s ass. “Yes, I can see that” is his sober retort; this laugh is only supplanted by Cuddles’ reaction to a zebra: “THIS, I don’t believe!”).

Of course, the improbable plot of having Gower Gulch B-western cowboys and Native Americans kidnap the egotist, and replace him with Simpson is as crazed as logic gets.  But it all works and the mistaken identity, hilarious sight gags, non-stop asides and verbal barbs provide the perfect framework for the actual numbers that grace the pic’s fluid 127 minutes.  Top among my faves is a “Niagara Falls”-esque musical number/sketch between Cantor and John Garfield (belting out a rendition of “Blues in the Night”).  Then there’s Jack Carson and Alan Hale doing a hoary vaudeville number, and Ann Sheridan giving sex-deprived wartime college damsels advice in the saucy ditty “Love Isn’t Born, It’s Made.”  A major highlight comprises Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland as gum-chewing Brooklynese babes giving out with a jive tune “The Dreamer” with their squeeze – a zoot-suited George Tobias.  Errol Flynn as a braggart BS artist in a bar becomes the receiving end of the patrons’ wrath in a rollicking tune entitled “That’s What You Jolly Well Get.”  The blockbuster of the pic, and the one that got the most publicity, was “There Either Too Young or Too Old,” a jitterbug number featuring Bette Davis and America’s jitter-champ Conrad Weidel.  The freewheeling, athletic, off-the-wall bouncing of the revered actress (as she’s swooped under Weidel’s legs and over his head and loop-de-looped) took an eternity of special training (Davis wanted to ensure audiences that it was actually her doing these stunts).  At the conclusion of the piece, when director David Butler called “Cut,” the cast and crew burst into applause.  Always the rake, Butler wryly asked for another take.  Davis reportedly responded with a bellowing “Go fuck yourself!” and retreated to her dressing room, to the delight of Butler & Co. who collapsed in laughter (dance director LeRoy Prinz called this movie “the hardest job of my career”).  And, if you think you’ve seen and heard the best of boogie-woogie, wait till you see Hattie McDaniel bringing the house down with “Ice Cold Katy.”  Gotta give Joan Leslie a thumbs-up for her side-splitting comedic impersonation of Ida Lupino in They Drive by Night.  There’s also Alexis Smith (going balletic with a spice of rumba), Humphrey Bogart (tossing off his appearance in a brief turn with Sakall, replete with 5 o’clock shadow and a scowl indicating that he really doesn’t want to be there) and, of course, Shore (in her screen debut) who rocks the joint with the title song, a “straight” version of “The Dreamer,” and “How Sweet You Are.”  It’s astounding to me that one Cantor number (“We’re Staying Home Tonight, My Baby and Me”) survived the censors, as it’s rife with risqué lyrics (“Her coffee could be sweeter, but I’m not in the dumps,
‘Cause ev’ry time she hugs me, it’s like two extra lumps”).  In addition to director Butler, legendary behind-the-scenes notables make cameos, including Ray Heindorf and producer Mark Hellinger. Jimmy Cagney, the studio’s star of the hour, notably DOESN’T appear in the show. This is likely to Yankee Doodle Dandy being his official last project under his Warners contract, and the participation of S.Z. Sakall in LUCKY STARS (see above).

Each star was paid $50K for their work in LUCKY STARS (all donated to the Hollywood Canteen, a recreational organization formed by Bette Davis and John Garfield that gave on-leave soldiers a chance to kibbutz with movie stars); furthermore, Davis also demanded that Jack Warner turn over all profits from the movie to war effort. The fantastic trailer (a mini-show in itself, and included among the platter’s extras) shamelessly hypes its predecessor (“It’s another DANDY from Warner Bros”).  Which brings us to the actual Blu-Ray.  The Warner Archive 1080p transfer is super-gorgeous, from excellent 35MM elements.  D.P. Arthur Edeson can enjoy his eternal rest knowing that justice has been done to his work (likewise, let’s give Heindorf, Frank Loesser, Leo Forbstein, Maurice De Packh and Schwartz, aka, a special LUCKY STARS conglomerate of the Warners Music Department, sizable applause as well for their wall-to-wall score that buttresses the movie’s musical set pieces). It’s, frankly, amazing to be able to see this movie in a complete version.  During the 1960s, because of the pic’s two-hour-plus length, LUCKY STARS rarely got a full-length TV screening (numbers are so easy to cut out); in fact, it rarely got a screening at all.  It was the perennial standby for canceled sports events (dubbed Rainout Theater), at least in New York.  So, yay again, to the Warner Archive Collection.  The disc’s fantastic extras include a Maltin-free early Forties program, featuring two Bugs Bunny classics, Bob Clampett’s Falling Hare and Friz Freleng’s Little Red Riding Rabbit, a patriotic short entitled Food and Magic, a pair of Warners music shorts (Three Cheers for the Girls and The United States Army Band), a vintage newsreel of the Hollywood Canteen’s first birthday, and the trailer to Watch on the Rhine. There’s even an audio-only 9/27/43 radio broadcast of LUCKY STARS for the then-popular Lady Esther Screen Guild Show. Whew!

Okay, I’ve worked myself up to such an extent writing about these cinematic confections that I think I need to watch them again. Now!

YANKEE DOODLE DANDY: CAT # 1000501454

THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS: CAT # 1000549568

Both Blu-Rays:  Black and white. Full frame: (1.37:1) 2.0 mono audio [DTS-HD MA].  Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video. SRP: $21.99@

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.