Marilyn at Fox: The Beginning and the End

JUNE IS TWILIGHT TIME MONTH

Arguably the greatest American female movie icon to come out of the Fifties, Marilyn Monroe was largely defined by the studio that re-invented Norma Jeane Mortenson (aka Baker), 20th Century-Fox.

They signed her in the late 1940s, and she instantly stood out from the other starlet eye candy.  Soon her “human prop” work inched up to walk-ons, then bits, and even lines.

Fox, realizing they had something potentially special here, worried if she could actually emote.  So they (uncharacteristically in the waning Big Studio days) gave her a full-length feature test, a 1952 B-plus noir DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK.  It didn’t get a whole lot of play, but what buzz it generated was enough.  And the smoking sex bomb became a star.

Her difficulties with users, pushers, and general Hollywood scum fucked her up royally throughout the decade, and yet she managed to make an array of truly great movies.  Striving for independence, yearning to stretch, she balked the system and enrolled in Manhattan’s Actor’s Studio; she also started her own production company, and turned down projects any other contract performer would have killed for.

The off and on love affair with Fox seesawed into the early 1960s.  The new decade began for Monroe with LET’S MAKE LOVE, a frothy musical comedy, helmed by famed women’s specialist George Cukor.  It would be her final completed Fox project.

Both of the above-mentioned titles, pivotal to the Marilyn Monroe legend, are now available in (very) limited edition Blu-Rays from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  Fans should swarm down with a vengeance, and grab ’em before they’re quickly gone, like their star.

 

The morality tale/warning of DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK is one that any noirista worth his/her salt can grasp blindfolded:  never hire any relative of Elisha Cook, Jr.  In the pic, Cook is a veteran bellboy at a posh big city hotel holding a mammoth convention.  One of the guests of honor needs a babysitter for his young daughter, so Cook (aka Eddie Forbes) volunteers Nell, his unemployed twentysomething niece.  All well and good, ‘cept she’s a dangerously unbalanced individual – a one-time picture of serenity, traumatized by the death of her fiancé in the Korean War.

As the couple hand over their child to the seemingly agreeable woman, other stories are unfolding in this kinda Grand Hotel of noir.  Downstairs, in the main ballroom, newly hired chanteuse Lyn Lesley is having her own problems.  Wowing the crowds and sopping up the acclaim has put a damper in her love life, even though Jed Towers, her smart but shiftless pilot paramour, has temporarily relocated to the metropolis.  Jed sees the relationship going nowhere, that Lyn is more concerned with her career (which she doesn’t totally deny), so it’s a kiss-off.

Getting ready to split, he notices the hottie blonde across the way.  Why not?  It’s over between him and Lyn.  The lady is – yep – Nell, just finishing terrorizing and torturing Bunny, the urchin she’s supposed to be caring for (the child is presently bound and gagged in the bedroom).  Towers, as indicated, is no fool and their liaison for a drink, immediately sets off alarm bells; he quickly discerns that there’s something terribly wrong.  Fortunately, Jed also has a decency streak, and soon he, Lyn, Eddie and others do an eggshell walk, locating the girl’s parents, the authorities and the adolescent herself – hopefully before it’s too late.

DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK is a tight 76-minute (stunningly photographed, by Lucien Ballard) film noir, expertly directed (by newly hired Brit import Roy Baker, later to be known as Roy Ward Baker) and superbly scripted (by From Here to Eternity’s Daniel Taradash, from a chilling short story by Charlotte Armstrong).  While the pic was greenlit to ignite Monroe, Fox still needed a name to get wider interest throughout their distribution network.  They asked A-lister Richard Widmark if he’d accept the role of Jed Towers.  He readily agreed, knowing what a break can mean for an up-and-comer (it worked for him in Kiss of Death); he had previously done the same favor two years earlier for Sidney Poitier and Ossie Davis in No Way Out, Poitier becoming a lifelong friend (I met Widmark once, and can honestly say that he was one of the nicest guys I ever had the pleasure to hang out with).  But the pic was a debut for another recently signed actress, Anne Bancroft, who makes the most of the secondary role of Lyn.  Other wonderful appearances in the movie are from Jim Backus and Lurene Tuttle (as the parents), Donna Corcoran (Bunny), and Jeanne Cagney, Verna Felton, Willis Bouchey, Emmett Vogan, Gloria Blondell, Robert Foulk, Olan Soule, Vic Perrin and the ubiquitous Bess Flowers.  A fine Fox medley score orchestrated by Earle Hagen, Lionel Newman and Bernard Mayers appends the piece, along with some nicely reprised Harry Warren/Mack Gordon songs (some by Bancroft’s character), all available as an IST.

The truly cool thing about DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK isn’t the expected take-her-down ending, but a rather poignant (and progressive) climax that intelligently and actually quite delicately deals with mental illness.  Monroe is extraordinarily good in the role of Nell; as often is the case, the wags who trash her performance as quasi-trance-like, simply do not get the point.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK looks and sounds swell; some nifty extras make this platter even more tempting: a pair of A&E Network Biography episodes, one on Monroe, the other on Widmark.

The fortuitous casting of Monroe, Widmark and Bancroft assured the KNOCK nearly non-stop TV play during the late 1960s-early 1970s.  In 1952, it did merely what it was supposed to do – underline the fact that Marilyn Monroe was more than just a bod.  Perhaps the most expensive screen-test ever, DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK subsequently paid off handsomely; the following year, Fox had a trifecta of Monroe blockbusters in theaters across the nation: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Niagara and How to Marry a Millionaire.  The legend, so quickly born, almost as quickly began to unravel.

 

I have to admit I’m flummoxed.  To this day, I don’t quite understand why so many responsible movie folk detest 1960’s LET’S MAKE LOVE.  I loved it when I was a kid (my late, great pal Ric Menello was a fan as well); in adulthood, I just went along with the rhubarb that it was a deadly misfire.  Then, I saw the new Twilight Time Blu-Ray, and scratched my head innumerable times.  I laughed out loud frequently (the script by Norman Krasna, with additional material by Hal Kanter, was nominated for a WGA), the use of scope by d.p. Daniel L. Fapp was excellent, as was George Cukor’s direction (his third of four musicals, following A Star is Born and Les Girls and preceding My Fair Lady; okay, granted, LOVE is the least of the quartet).  Have to say – and I hope I don’t lose any longtime movie compadres – I had a really good time.

The plot is very 1960 risqué, and commences with a brief prologue concerning the life and times of the mega-wealthy French Clement family.  A poor 18th-century farmer, the first rapscallion Clement discovered a pot of buried coins on his property; in the several hundred years since, the Clements, all womanizing entrepreneurs (many dying from “balloon accidents,” coded language for sex with buxom femme fatales), have parlayed that rusty pot into a nearly billion dollar empire.

CUT to 1960 Manhattan.  An off-Broadway revue (like the later National Lampoon Lemmings series) is doing a parody of current culture icons, including “horndog” Jean-Marc Clement (a smooth and likeable Yves Montand, imported from France).  Jean-Marc’s publicity man and business associate apprise him of this travesty, and beseech the playboy to shut the show down.  So he sneaks into a rehearsal.

Ever hear the story of Charlie Chaplin entering a Chaplin Look-a-like Contest, and losing?  It happened, and no doubt spurred the LET’S MAKE LOVE writing team.  Except this time, the real McCoy’s mistaken for an actor auditioning for the Clement role.  He’s about to smack ’em down when he spies what could be the greatest balloon accident in his family’s history: female lead Amanda Dell, doing a red-hot rendition of Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”  And from here on in, the movie is owned by Monroe, making perhaps the sexiest character debut in Hollywood history (donned in black tights, legs spread, she clingingly descends down what we today call a stripper pole – a CinemaScope close-up of her sliding crotch before the full-shot).  Clement (and most viewers) are dog-tongued on the floor; so, of course, he auditions for the part, and, unlike Chaplin, aces it.

Jean-Marc’s attempts to woo and seduce Amanda turn to genuine affection, and, to this aim, he uproariously attempts to win over the lady by hiring Milton Berle to teach him comedy, Bing Crosby to sing and Gene Kelly to dance (a trio of unbilled guest appearances).  Clement, we learn must compete with show star Tony Danton (who also doubles as Dell’s lover).  This unfortunate casting is another import, Britain’s Frankie Vaughan – a goofy, genial entertainer, displaying no chemistry whatsoever with Monroe (imagine a singing and dancing Bobby Cannavale or Brad Garrett).

You can figure out how it all ends up within the first half hour, but, as they say, getting there is half (if not all) the fun.  And it is fun.  Monroe (again, I was listening to years of the pic’s detractors) was criticized for phoning it in, for being so zonked on drugs that it often looked as if she didn’t know where she was.  Au contraire, in Cukor’s hands, she appears (and likely felt) relaxed and comfortable.  She’s also quite funny – and looks like she’s really enjoying herself.  And the scene between her and Montand in an elevator is super steamy (Cukor would be on-board to direct the next Fox/Monroe title, the uncompleted Something’s Got to Give).

LET’S MAKE LOVE is certainly the peak of the strange Fox deal Yves Montand signed on for (the tail end being Tony Richardson’s downright weird adaptation of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, with Montand as the villainous rapey Candyman).  A famed singer as well as actor, he and MM (unlike her and Vaughan) set off romantic spontaneous combustion; apparently, this spilled over off-screen, as the pair engaged in a torrid affair, much to the discern of Monroe’s then-spouse Arthur Miller (who contributed some uncredited script revisions) and Montand’s wife, actress Simone Signoret (who had initially friended and bonded with the Some Like it Hot star).

The supporting cast is great for Mad Men era fans, and includes Tony Randall, Wilfrid Hyde-White, David Burns, Dennis King, Jr., Mara Lynn, Michael David, Joe Besser, Joan Banks and Madge Kennedy; ditto, the movie’s songlist – with original ditties by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn (featuring the title tune and “Specialization,” which I, frankly, couldn’t stop humming; it’s all accessible as an IST).  Special note must be given to the other celeb parodies in the pic:  Maria Callas (Marian Manners), Van Cliburn (Richard Fowler) and Elvis Presley (the great Dick Dale).

The High Definition Blu-Ray of LET’S MAKE LOVE looks exactly like the better DeLuxe Color CinemaScope movies I remember from the early 1960s; the original stereo soundtrack is accessible in either 5.1 or 2.0 surround.  Is it a Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Seven Year Itch or Some Like It Hot?  No.  But is it worth visiting on an air-conditioned summer night?  Sure.

DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK.  Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition] 1.0 DTS-HD MA.

LET’S MAKE LOVE. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 or 2.0 DTS-HD MA.

Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. SRP: $29.95@

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment www.screenarchives.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Gore to Lore

JUNE IS TWILIGHT TIME MONTH

Anyone who’s been following this column for the past few years knows all too well that few studio movies get me more revved up than Hammer Films.  Yep, I grew up on those grand (guignol) Technicolor goths that sprinkled their expertly told tales of terror with a pinch of adult themes.

Well, Hammer didn’t just produce horror pics.  They made some really good noirs, post-Psycho thrillers (what Hammer cofounder James Carreras termed “mini Hitchcocks”), and historical action-adventure folk tales.  While these colorful, exciting forays into our past generally took a back seat to the supernatural stuff, they definitely need to be acknowledged for the top-notch entertainments that they are.  Many feature cross-over stars from the higher profile ghoulish flicks, up-and-coming newly signed talent (most prominently, Oliver Reed), Old Vic attractions on hiatus (Richard Pasco), plus the occasional participation of directors like Terence Fisher, who helped make Hammer an international success during these formative years (the late 1950s-early 1960s).  Twilight Time, in conjunction with Columbia Pictures, has chosen to release two excellent examples of this Hammer sidebar genre, 1960’s SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST and 1962’s PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER.  While these vest pocket epics usually supported the Dracula and Frankenstein movies, they nevertheless borrowed much of the mojo that put Hammer on the map:  beautiful photography, graphic violence and monstrous villains (albeit human ones).  So grab a flagon of ale, retreat to the library room, and journey back to the days of yore.

 

1960’s SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST cinematically defines a fun way to pass the time on a rainy weekend afternoon.  While it will never seriously give Errol Flynn anything to worry about, it tells its tale quickly (80 minutes), professionally and with enough popcorn thrills to make viewers merry men and women.  All the legend elements are here in Alan Hackney’s script, heightened by excellent color photography (in scope, too) by Ken Hodges (Eastmancolor in the States, Technicolour across the pond).

The movie stars Richard Greene as the fabled rogue, whose last name became lovingly adopted in the criminal world.  While Greene, by 1960, was a bit long in the tooth to play Robin, it was stroke of genius in other ways.  The actor had portrayed the bandit in a wildly successful internationally syndicated television series that ran between 1955-1959.  Bringing him back (reruns were still playing here when the movie was in theaters) in his most famous role was inspired (he coproduced the pic with Hammer and Sidney Cole).  The idea of seeing TV’s Robin on the big screen, and in color (still a big draw in 1960) was, for fans, too good to pass up.

But there are other reasons to enjoy this retelling.  The cast is pure Hammer, with costar Peter Cushing (as Nottingham) doing an increasingly rare return to villainy (I never thought his Frankenstein was truly evil).  Sarah Branch, so beguiling in the Hammer noir Hell is a City makes a pretty good Maid Marian (nicely athletic as well; she is definitely doing her own riding).  Old Vic star Richard Pasco is particularly slimy as the never-to-be-trusted Earl of Newark and other noted thesps (many who appeared on the Greene series, but in other roles) also elevate the proceedings, including Niall MacGinnis, Dennis Lotis, Jack Gwillim, Nigel Greene, Vanda Godsell, Desmond Llewelyn, and Derren Nesbitt.  A special nod must go to an unbilled Oliver Reed, just beginning his celebrated Hammer tenure, as a sinister French assassin.  Interesting sidenote:  Reed played his character (Lord Melton) as a lisping fop; once the rushes were screened, studio execs nixed the interpretation, but not enough to order retakes.  A voice actor was hired to redub Reed.  Best of all is the breezy direction by Terence Fisher, taking a brief respite from the goths (his renowned 1961 Stranglers of Bombay would be another foray into history’s violent past, and one of his non-horror triumphs).

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST looks just dandy in its 1080p evocation.  The mono audio, featuring Alun Hoddinott’s score, sounds fine, too.

 

A colony of ex-pat Huguenots, living on the secluded isle of Devon, becomes a sanguine-drenched battlefield in 1962’s spirited THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER.  The movie, a trim 87 minutes, hits the ground running – literally with a fleeing adulterous couple being chased to the shoreline of the title body of water.  The lady in question (Marie Devereux) is liquidated by gnashing jaws, as the pond is infested with piranha (giving Hammer the op to stack this adventure pic with elements from its best known genre).  The male lover, son of  stolid fanatical religious leader, is banished to fifteen years in swamp-bordered prison so horrendous that even a ninety-day sojourn is tantamount to a death sentence.  He escapes, is captured by pirates, and is given a ride home on the proviso that they allow the Huguenot sanctuary to double as their hideout.  Of course, there’s an ulterior motive: Captain LaRoche, the leader of the sea-faring bandits, is convinced a great treasure is hidden by the populace.  And, since this is a Hammer Film, there are always the bodacious women as an ancillary booty/booty incentive.  The captive, Jonothon Standing, quickly realizes his mistake, and with childhood friend Henry and his fiancée Bess (Jonothon’s sister), stage a rebellion that makes most actioners look like an Our Gang birthday party (of course, one doesn’t tip one’s hat to a piranha-filled lake early-on without returning to this delicious device, which helps write the climax).

THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER is “rousing” with a capital “Rrrrrrrrrrr.”  Many thanks are in order, firstly to the fantastic cast, led by Christopher Lee (as the nefarious LaRoche, his second Hammer pirate role), plus Kerwin Mathews and Glenn Corbett (unnecessary but welcome Yanks signed to cinch the American market, the former of 7th Voyage of Sinbad fame, the latter, late of William Castle’s Homicidal, both Columbia titles); the remainder of the thespians include such faves as Andrew Keir, Peter Arne, Marla Landi, Jack Stewart, David Lodge, Dennis Waterman (as a kiddie), Oliver Reed and Michael Ripper.  Quite an array.  The MegaScope (billed as HammerScope) color photography is top-notch as well, so additional kudos to Arthur Grant.  And John Gilling’s and John Hunter’s script (story by Jimmy Sangster) is fast-paced-proof to allow for no dull moments (piranha and prison gang life aside, there’s a blindfolded sword fight to sweeten the pot).

The lion’s share of credit, of course, must go to cowriter/director Gilling, an underrated craftsman, who helmed one of my favorite horror pics (Flesh and the Fiends) and a couple Hammer ghoul classics (Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile).  Gilling, it must be said, was sort of the UK version of Andre de Toth (as if one wasn’t enough); he, apparently took sadistic pleasure putting his actors in peril, as PIRATES ably proved. The lake used in the pic immediately tipped off the company of players that something wasn’t kosher from the foreboding pond scum surface and stench.  Sure enough, it was dangerously polluted – and the forced treading through the thick germ soup resulted in several post-shoot cases of eye and ear infections and other debilitating diseases, including a severe muscle disorder for star Lee, who claimed it was a full half-year before he could properly walk a flight of stairs (it did not endear the star to Gilling, as he spied the director laughing throughout the entire debacle; for a more detailed account, I suggest seeking out a copy of Wayne Kinsey’s excellent book, Hammer Films: The Bray Years. An interview with Michael Ripper on BLOOD RIVER is harrowing, to say the least).

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray is everything Hammer fans could ask for: crisp, colorful scope visuals and a buoyant mono soundtrack (featuring Alun Hoddinott’s me-hearties pirate-friendly score).  A funny note: when Sangster pitched the idea to studio head Michael Carreras, the mogul was instantly intrigued (no doubt, the piranha aspect), but warned the writer to not include a pirate ship (too much money); the shots of LaRoche’s vessel are all stock footage.

SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.

THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.

Both Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries. SRP: $29.95@.

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment www.screenarchives.com .

 

World War, Too

JUNE IS TWILIGHT TIME MONTH

In the military, nothing is worse than fighting the enemy, especially if he/she is in your own squad.  This is a theme covered (mostly) in this quartet of superb warrior epics all surrounding the years in the (mostly) European theater from 1941-45. UA, a thoroughly progressive studio, nevertheless (mostly) founded by ultra-right wingers, has given us some of the best (liberal and otherwise) war pictures ever made.  During the advent of talkies, Howard Hughes retained the company as a distributor for his 1930 odyssey Hell’s Angels, which became a blockbuster in the midst of The Great Depression (utilizing not only the new sound medium, but additionally featuring sequences in color and widescreen).  William Wellman’s 1945 classic The Story of G.I. Joe became one of the most beloved soldier pics of all-time (and made Robert Mitchum a star, with an Oscar nom to boot).  1949’s Home of the Brave tackled PTSD and racism.

Bizarre war flicks followed, like the Robert Parrish 1954 Korean conflict saga The Purple Plain, a vicious part of history likewise covered three years later in Anthony Mann’s splendid Men in War. We also virulently returned to the Great War via Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (also 1957).  Can’t leave out John Sturges’ 1963’s The Great Escape, one of the decade’s cinematic landmarks.  See where I’m going?

Sandwiched between the UA output of the 1950s and the 1960s are four extraordinary titles, all comprising jaw-dropping casts, fine directors, brutal confrontations (both physical and emotional), terrific camerawork (all on-location) and fantastic scores (accessible on these platters as ISTs).  The movies cover the personal hardships and escalating seething hatred that added that just one-more-piece-of-hell to the actual fighting.  They’re all in widescreen (albeit in varying aspect ratios), and, with the exception of one iconic 1960s title, are relatively unknown to the casual picture-goer.  As far as I’m concerned, each is a classic deserving a spot on any serious classic collector’s library shelf.

Up and at ’em!

 

A considerable hit in 1958, Delmer Daves’ KINGS GO FORTH, based on Joe David Brown’s scorching novel (screenplay by Merle Miller), has been almost forgotten today.  Shame, as it’s a terrific picture, and one of the director’s crowning achievements.  It certainly had the star power – and the liberal take on a once-taboo subject is perfect for today’s audiences.

The movie stars Frank Sinatra (then at his peak), Tony Curtis (a major movie from his major year), and Natalie Wood (in her second adult starring role, having scored twelve months earlier in Marjorie Morningstar in 1957).

Sinatra’s Sam Loggins is a New York tough self-made blue collar G.I. who has risen through the ranks as World War II draws to a close.  Stationed in the French Riviera sector of the European Theater (what the dogfaces termed “the Champagne Campaign”), proves to be a paradox of heaven and hell.  Incredibly insecure and lonely Sam meets Monique, a gorgeous French woman at a cafe during a weekend furlough.  His growing attraction toward her is derailed when her mom, an American ex-pat reveals that the girl’s father was black.  Loggins battles the Nazis and his racism, eventually overcoming the bigotry – but too late.  Monique has fallen for the charismatic pampered, handsome, jazz-playing Britt Harris, a rich kid playboy from a noted Jersey family, nicknamed the Pride of Newark (which should tell you something).  Sam tries to hate him, but Harris’ oozing charm and likeability makes it difficult.  Again, Loggins becomes emotionally twisted due to Britt’s being “born rich and handsome and I was born poor and not handsome.”
Loggins immediately tells Harris of Monique’s ethnicity, swearing that he’ll kill anyone who hurts the lost love of his life.  Britt’s response is surprisingly upbeat, brimming with pride and respect.  But Britt Harris is a sociopathic scumbag, and doing a black chick turns out to have been just “a kick.”  The Pride of Newarks’s blistering comment to Monique and her mother is one of cinema’s most vicious verbal smackdowns.  Loggins vows to kill Harris, and then gets his chance – when they both are recruited for a suicide mission.  The battles, the aftermath, and the epilogue are exciting and sublimely staged and acted.  Really, as indicated, this is one of Delmer Daves’ finest flicks.  The crisp monochrome location work by Daniel L. Fapp is as good as it gets, and displays all of the director’s trademark crane and moving camera tracking shots (thanks to Twilight Time’s sensational 35MM transfer, KINGS GO FORTH makes its Blu-Ray debut in its original aspect ratio, not seen since 1958.  The soundtrack is tops as well, with a wonderful score composed by Elmer Bernstein.   Wood truly showed she had what it took to be a grownup actress, and gives an enduring performance; Sinatra and Curtis, too, are fantastic, and have a smooth chemistry between them (Curtis immediately became an honorary member of the Rat Pack).  Frank had by this point more than proven himself as a superb actor, but it was Curtis, who excelled as the vile, cobra Harris – a continuing array of villainous bastards that began with Sweet Smell of Success in 1957, continued with his Oscar nom in The Defiant Ones and a heroic costarring lead in the smash The Vikings (the latter pair both released the same year as KINGS; 1958 was genuinely Curtis’ time).  A fine supporting cast appends the lead trio, and includes Leora Dana, Karl Swenson, Ann Codee, Eddie Ryder and jazz musicians Red Norvo and Red Wooten.  This movie really needs to be better known.

There’s an interesting sidebar story that Frank Sinatra, Jr. told — one that I heard shortly before his passing in 2016.  During the filming of KINGS GO FORTH, the Sinatras discovered that the Boris Karloffs were neighbors in their California community.  Sinatra, a devout movie fan, couldn’t have been more thrilled, and became close friends with Boris.  Particularly taken with the horror star’s speechless interpretation of the Frankenstein monster, Frank asked the veteran thesp for some tips.  KINGS GO FORTH was a flashback picture, and contained silent action over Sinatra’s/Loggins’ narration.  Karloff, indeed, worked with Sinatra, and “threatened” to ask for payback, should he ever attempt to professionally sing.  “Anytime,” was Frank’s response, and that was a promise returned royally nearly ten years later when Karloff asked Frank to help him “speak-sing” the lyrics to “It Was a Very Good Year.”  Sinatra happily worked with Boris on the song, and it became a Top Ten novelty hit.  Just a nice story I thought I’d share with you folks.

 

One of director John Frankenheimer’s and actor Burt Lancaster’s career triumphs, 1965’s THE TRAIN comes roaring into High Definition Blu-Ray with a vengeance.

Stunningly shot on-location in France in crisp, black-and-white by Jean Tournieur and Walter Wottitz, and beautifully scripted (from their screen story adaptation) by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis (with uncredited assist from Walter Bernstein, Nedrick Young, Howard Dimsdale and Albert Husson; from the novel Le Front De L’Art by Rose Valland), THE TRAIN offers a physical/spiritual parallel of wartime priorities:  what defines a country and patriotism vs. the price of humanity.  Relax, it’s ingeniously woven within the narrative as to not interfere with the grand suspense thriller it is.

Paul Labiche (Lancaster) runs the integral railroad station outside a suburb of Paris.  On the surface, he wants no complications and seemingly cooperates with the Nazi high command who dominate the town.  In reality, he’s the head of the local Resistance, using brute force, if necessary, to sabotage any faction of the Third Reich.

On the opposite end is erudite, sophisticated Nazi officer Colonel Franz Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield), who also will show no mercy when it comes to defending his turf.  As with Labiche, Von Waldheim has a wartime dual purpose – outwardly to protect great works of art from destruction, but, in reality, to greedily whisk them away to Germany, where they are likely to become his personal property.  Besieged by artists and museum librarians to save the paintings, Labiche initially scoffs at the idea of risking lives to save canvasses.  His gradual realization that these masterpieces represent the soul of France transforms this mission into an obsession.  The bulk of the picture, concerning the title transport machine pits these two strong-willed men against each other in perhaps the ultimate mainstream movie ever filmed about the Resistance and the war.  A confrontation line between Von Waldheim and Labiche is one of my favorite quotable bits of dialog:  “A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape.” Burt’s response is classic.

Supporting Lancaster and Scofield is a fantastic cast of European players, including Suzanne Flon, Wolfgang Preiss, Albert Remy, Charles Millot, Richard Munch, Jacques Marin, Howard Vernon and Donald O’Brien (of special note are two spectacular cameos from French icons, Jeanne Moreau and Michel Simon).  A churning, terrific score by Maurice Jarre accompanies the action (of which there is plenty).  It was certainly a good year for the composer; THE TRAIN’s music, in any other time a standout effort, was eclipsed by his work on DOCTOR ZHIVAGO.  It was also a major year for UA, who dominated the box-office.  THE TRAIN was a huge hit with critics and audiences, but paled to the studio’s other blockbusters Help!, What’s New, Pussycat? and Thunderball.

Frankeheimer’s and Lancaster’s working relationship hit a new zenith, but it was a slippery slope.  The actor originally hired the director (after seeing some of his television output) to helm the underrated 1961 drama The Young Savages.  This led to Birdman of Alcatraz the following year, a shoot so acrimonious that Frankenheimer vowed to never work with Lancaster again.  That changed when Kirk Douglas hired the director for Seven Days in May.  During this production, Lancaster and Frankenheimer buried the hatchet, bonded, and planned THE TRAIN (in my opinion, their greatest work); a final collaboration, The Gypsy Moths, would be released in 1969.

THE TRAIN is one of the scarce Twilight Time titles that sold out almost immediately and warranted a second printing.  Either version is worth tracking down.

A funny sidebar; after a super successful reception, a beaming Lancaster emerged announcing, “If I knew it was going to turn out this good, I’d have done it with an accent.”  To which Frankenheimer drolly replied, “Thank God he didn’t know!”

 

1968’s PLAY DIRTY lives up to its title – with the subtlety of a blowtorch.  Taking the key word from one of the 1960’s biggest movie hits, The Dirty Dozen, this brutal, gritty adventure relates a similar tale.  Captain Cyril Leech, a disgraced but brilliant soldier, who has a prosperous sideline as a mercenary, doesn’t believe in “bringing ’em back alive.”  We’re not talking prisoners, we mean his own men.  This doesn’t sit well with social-climbing sleazeball Colonel Masters, who has fashioned an impossible mission to dismantle Rommel’s hidden fuel supply in the African desert.  Since the odds are next to nil that anyone will survive, Masters saddles Leech with a horrific band of rogue Brit commandos, all POWs with convictions for drug-dealing, rape, sadism, etc.  To assist with the doomed task, an expert in munitions is needed; ninety-day-wonder Captain Douglas is chosen, with a paid voucher to Leech that, for publicity sake, he be brought back breathing.  Stuffed shirt Douglas is no angel either; he’s a former BP executive.  Masters’ paper soldier plan is quickly hijacked by superior officer Brigadier General Blore, who’s an even bigger scumbag than he is.  And so it goes.

The mission, as expected, is hazardous and hideous, with Douglas having to watch out for Nazis, throat-cutting Arabs and his own men.  Nevertheless he proves himself quite a killer himself, earning the respect from the creeps in his battalion, particularly Leech.  A change in plans causes Masters and Blore to squelch the operation without notifying Leech or Douglas.  They fix this problem by simply leaking their whereabouts to the Germans.  Nice guys, eh?

PLAY DIRTY, a rarely-seen actioner, has become something of a cult classic over the past couple of decades.  And so it should.  The expert cast, led by Michael Caine and Nigel Davenport (the latter, excelling in an atypical leading role), is ably backed up by Nigel Green, Harry Andrews, Patrick Jordan, Daniel Pilon, Bridget Espeet and Vivian Pickles.  The movie’s other credentials are equally impressive.  It was produced by the 007 group (who in 1968 could do no wrong at UA, or anywhere else), scripted by Melvyn Bragg and Lotte Colin (from a story by George Marton) and magnificently photographed in Spain (gruelingly and realistically standing in for the Sahara) by Ted Scaife (who likewise shot The Dirty Dozen).  A music score by Michel Legrand adds to the top-notch celluloid endeavors.  Of course, directing such an extravaganza requires a keen eye for this sort of thing, and they sure got it (well, the one that worked) with Andre de Toth (who, uncredited, did a rewrite), helming his final work – and one of his best.

The pic, not surprisingly, was beset by disasters and turmoil from Day One.  Originally, Leech was to be played by Richard Harris, who bolted early on, reportedly due to a dispute about his haircut.  More likely, it had something to do with de Toth, a notorious sadist on and off camera.  How de Toth got the gig is a classic movieland story in and of itself.  Needing an accomplished action director, Bond producer Harry Saltzman put out a query for suggestions.  “Get Bundy!” was an oft-received reply.  “Bundy” was a nickname for Andrew Marton, an ace action-man, who had codirected the 1950 classic King Solomon’s Mines.  Unfortunately, for Marton, de Toth, too, had a nickname:  “Bandi,” and that’s who they mistakenly got.  Never mind. It worked out swell (although the rigors and stress of the men under fire is frequently waaayyyyy too authentic, particularly a sequence where a man-controlled makeshift conveyor belt is utilized for pulling vehicles up a desert hill).  De Toth was rewarded for PLAY DIRTY by becoming Executive Producer on the next Caine/Salzman/UA  project, 1969’s Billion Dollar Brain, the third and final Harry Palmer spy thriller.  The Twilight Time Blu-Ray looks fantastic, and is sure to please any war flick fan.

 

Another great obscurity, 1969’s THE BRIDGE AT REMAGEN boasts a distinguished cast, a fantastic score, terrific action and a powerful message.

Based on a true incident (the taking/destruction of the Ludendorff bridge, housed between Remagen and Erpel, on March 7, 1945), this riveting, engrossing pic examines both sides of the coin – and each is vile.  Whether a blunder or for gain or just because one can, the results in war are always the same: dead is dead (it’s also a variation of the definition of insanity).  The Americans and the Germans seemingly are in a contest to see who can sadistically kill the most men and innocent civilians, lives being relegated to mere impressive statistics.  Leading the U.S. are the snarky, belligerent rebellious troops, headed by Lt. Hartman (George Segal), based on the real-life Karl Timmermann.  Also along for the ride are Ben Gazzara, Bo Hopkins, Robert Logan and Bradford Dillman.  Commanding the carnage is Brigadier General Shinner (E.G. Marshall), who delights in trapping the Germans, thereby hastening their deaths (a mere 75,000 men). The Germans, too, have no problem taking one of their illustrious own (Robert Vaughn in an excellent performance), and sacrificing him up for Der Fuhrer.  Truth is, the Nazis’ plan to blow the bridge is botched, so, too bad/that’s life/auf wiedersehen, boys.  The Americans decide to help matters by detonating the German explosives themselves, shrugging off the townsfolk as collateral damage.

THE BRIDGE AT REMAGEN is one unnerving war thriller, with dialog (script by Richard Yates and William Roberts; story by Roger Hirson) as sharp as a bayonet in the gut (“Come on, you can rob him later,” offers a soldier looting a dead boy’s body).  REMAGEN’s filming was an adventure worthy of its own movie.  It began shooting in Czechoslovakia (the first American movie shot behind the Iron Curtain), but increasing and dangerous political unrest forced the company to flee (the remainder of the flick was lensed in Italy).  The curious thing about the bridge that everyone (particularly the Germans) wants to destroy is that it was built BY the Kaiser’s troops during the Great War in order to quicken their connection to the two towns.  Irony transcends the Iron Cross.

REMAGEN was directed by John Guillermin, possibly the apex of his praiseworthy filmography.  It was shot in scope by the outstanding Stanley Cortez, and features one of my favorite Elmer Bernstein scores (and that’s saying a lot!); I still play my CD soundtrack constantly.  The Twilight Time Blu-Ray looks amazing, and the mono track really has a theater kick.

1969 was a strange time for a war movie, and REMAGEN, I recall, ended up going directly to the nabes (it played the grindhouse circuit constantly throughout the early-mid 1970s).  In the half-century-plus since its release, the picture has become a revered underground fave.  And for good reason.

KINGS GO FORTH. Black and white; widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.

THE TRAIN. Black and white; widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.

PLAY DIRTY. Color; widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.

THE BRIDGE AT REMAGEN. Color; widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA

Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  SRP: $29.95@.

 

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment www.screenarchives.com

 

 

Muti and the Beasts

JUNE IS TWILIGHT TIME MONTH

Can’t thank the folks enough at Twilight Time Blu-Ray (in conjunction with Rewind Film, S.r.l.) for presenting us foreign movie fans with  LA MOGUE PIU’ BELLA and APPASSIONATA, a pair of diverse Italian pics celebrating the multi-talented actress Ornella Muti.

Muti (born Francesca Romana Rivelli) was one of the 1970’s greatest cinemactress finds.  While many Americans might be unfamiliar with her large body of work (save for her best-known international turn in 1980’s campy Flash Gordon), in Europe the lady is a goddess.  That she started out so young (she was 14-years-old when BELLA began filming) is all the more remarkable for her range and cognizance of adult situations and emotions.  Post-BELLA, Muti, simultaneously blossoming into full-fledged womanhood and deserved stardom, was able to use her incredible beauty to joke about her sexuality.  Of course, they say “beauty is a curse,” and in Muti’s case, that often proved true.  Most picture-goers were gobsmacked by her looks that transcended mere movie-star gorgeous; the term I often use is “ridiculously beautiful,” translated to mean “Come on, no one really looks like that!”  But Ornella Muti did (and does).  Her “deal with it” attitude coupled with her outstanding thesp abilities (plus that all-important “star power”) has kept the actress in the Euro limelight for over fifty years.  And, as indicated, below are two reasons why.

 

In the amazing dramatic thriller, LA MORGLIE PIU’ BELLA (The Most Beautiful Wife), director and co-writer (with Enrico Ribulsi and Sofia Scandurra) Damiano Damiani manages to create a visceral, uncompromising world of 1970 rural Italy.  In a small Sicilian village, ruled by Mafia overlords, the reins are temporarily handed over to the young, impulsive and vicious psychopath Don Vito Juvara (the elder kingpins agree to jail sentences in a “clam up or sleep with the fishes” pact).  Juvara is immediately attracted to the young daughter of a poor farm family.  The woman, Francesca, isn’t your average country beauty – she’s a person with scruples, smarts and determination.  Half-agreeing to courting her very distant relative, this faux romance is kiboshed by Juvara who threatens to kill the suitor unless he “disappears.”  This allows Vito to move in on Francesca; admittedly, she’s turned on by his looks and bad boy demeanor – not realizing how bad this boy is.  Soon, she discovers the frightening truth, and rebels – backing off and out, shaming the thug into sociopathic rages (no one ever says “no” to him).  Vito retaliates, mostly out of lust and obsession – two points Francesca is wise enough to play in her favor.  Eventually, he breaks down, confesses his love and promises to change.  Francesca, wanting to believe his regeneration, agrees to see him again, but is quickly and horribly shown the extent of his lies and never-can-reform true colors.  After he rapes her, Francesca does the unthinkable – she brings criminal charges against the punk, much to the horror of the villagers, the clergy and the police (who refuse to believe the female has the balls to go through with her case).  But Francesca has more guts than anyone in the town, including her now vandalized family.  Even her loyal, loving kid brother turns against her.  But, as they say these days, “she persisted,” and her defiant vow to achieve justice is stirring, satisfying and occasionally terrifying.  LA MOGLIE, thanks to Damiani, pushes all the right buttons.  It’s exquisitely photographed on-location in scope by Franco di Giacomo, and features a (what else?) marvelous score by Ennio Morricone (accessible as an IST).  The Twilight Time 1080p transfer from original, restored 35MM camera elements is stunning.  The audio is offered in dual options:  the original Italian with English subtitles, or an English dialog version produced for Anglo audiences.

The performances are perfection itself, especially from Muti, who essays the role of a troubled, conflicted and tenacious woman that should be (but isn’t) way beyond her years; the novice actress, as stated earlier, was only fourteen when the pic began production.  What Muti manages with her eyes and body movement is screen acting magnificence.  One moment particularly stands out; Francesca, again hearing a begging Vito’s lies about how he’ll change, is met with a “fool me once” look, followed by her gazing at other mob wives – all once beautiful, hopeful women like herself, but now old-before-their-time hags, sitting in silence and fear.  Muti’s next expression is startling: pathos (for the women) mixed with “go fuck yourself” antagonism (for her assaulter).  This is cinematically paralleled by visuals of the priests shoo-ing away women with the same gusto reserved for pigs.

A later scene worth noting (and referenced above) circles around her once-loyal brother, now toadying to the demands of the town, and the mob (of which he hopes to get himself a position with).  Muti’s character doesn’t hold back on her disappointment; the brother’s response is even more jaw-dropping.  The sibling vows that he’ll not forget what had been done to her (rape), and will wait till he grows up:  “Then, I’ll kill him,” he calmly replies as if he were asking about dinner.

Oh, yeah, one last note:  LA MOGLIE PIU’ BELLA is entirely based on a true-life story, a 1965 kidnap and rape of Franca Viola.

 

About as “one extreme to the other” as you can get, 1974’s APPASSIONATA, directed and co-written by Gianluigi Calderone (with Alessandro Parenzo and Domenico Rafele) nevertheless covers the same basic theme: young women coming to terms with their burgeoning sexual power.  In BELLA, the force was used for protest – or good; in APPASSIONATA, it’s more like “because I can.” The story revolves around two girl-women who want to test the limits of their sensuality…partially because of its materialistic attraction, but mostly because of the potential devastating effect on essentially decent men.  In the case of this movie, the unfortunate prime target is the father of one of the teens, a successful dentist (the great Gabriele Ferzetti).

BFFs Eugenia and Nicola have been friends like since forever.  Now their girlhood innocence has bloomed into womanhood sin-nocence, taking over their bodies, minds and souls.  The fact that both females have early matured into gorgeous specimens of pulchritude has made their goals all the more lethal.

Nicola (Eleanora Giorgi) decides to take it to the max by seducing Nicola’s father in his office.  At first, he’s outraged, and mildly disgusted – but, ultimately (dick over brain) cannot refuse the determined female with a mission.  He abandons everything for her (to the steadfast nymph’s delight), including his longtime wife – a former virtuoso pianist, now suffering from the early stages of dementia (a brilliant and poignant performance by Valentina Cortese).

The spider-and-the-fly lifestyles of these femme fatales, of course, eventually has terrible repercussions, but not before giving audiences a sensational taste of the misuse of power, and its ripple effect victims.

The movie is beautifully photographed by Armando Nannuzzi (while some grain is present in this otherwise stunning Blu-Ray transfer, the bulk of  the movie looks quite nice, with candy pop colors and detail).  A wonderful score by Piero Piccioni accentuates the proceedings (like BELLA, it is accessible as an IST, and offers dialog in both Italian w/English subtitles, or an English dub version).

 

The movie American Beauty wishes it was, APPASSIONATA hits the ground running, a cinematic walk of shame for tweeners who think they’re immune – if only because they’re still way too young to fully grasp what they’re doing.  It is peak cautionary tale movie-making, and another triumph for Muti.

 

LA MOGLIE PIU’ BELLA.  Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.

APPASSIONATA. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.

 Twilight Time/Rewind Film, S.r.l. SRP: $29.95@.

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

 

 

Twentieth Century-Fox Presents a CinemaScope Picture

JUNE IS TWILIGHT TIME MONTH

A sad note before we begin this review/article – perhaps the saddest home video news of 2020.  Twilight Time, the great Blu-Ray friend to classic movie collectors, is closing their doors after a magnificent near-decade run.  Rather than moan and and weep platitudes, I want to partially post the email company co-founder Brian Jamieson sent to me and other reviewers.  It says it all.

“After nine years of successful operations in which 380 motion pictures from the 1930s to the 2010s have been released on DVD and Blu-Ray disc, the home video label Twilight Time…will not release any further titles and we will be winding down operations this summer.  A changing market, the rising costs of title acquisitions and the passing of longtime partner and company spokesman Nick Redman, are the key factors for the closure.

 “…TwilightTimeMovies.com will continue to sell titles while available through June 30th, at which time they and Twilight Time will cease operations.

“Remaining inventory will be acquired and distributed exclusively by Screen Archives Entertainment – effective July 1st 2020.”

 

To pay homage to Twilight Time, I will be devoting all of June to the company, choosing some of the most diverse titles I could think of, and from a handful of the many different distributors Twilight had the pleasure of working with.  Even though they will be no more, a smattering of their fine transfers will, undoubtedly, occasionally pop up from various collectors and dealers across the Net.  These rare gems should not be missed.  In addition, every so often, I will pick a Twilight Time title (as yet not covered by Supervistaramacolorscope) and give it a chance to breathe.  All are fine movies, and deserve coverage.  Who knows?  They may give you the impetus to seek and find.  Meantime, head toward Screen Archives Entertainment, and build your Twilight libraries en masse…while supplies last.

 

The above title of this piece represents a supplemental dissolve-logo card on almost every Fox title between 1953-1967.  To see those words on a rectangular screen, with Alfred Newman’s great appended 20th fanfare in accompaniment, always gave me a rush.  I love CinemaScope, particularly early anamorphic flicks.

To celebrate the words that had me skedaddling toward my local hardtops throughout those years, I’ve chosen a theme close to the hearts of Zanuck and the gang:  illicit sex in the burbs (already covered here a couple of years ago; see Shagging in the Crabgrass); while one stretches the real estate to cover hilltop Honolulu, the overall subject matter remains a lulu regardless.  The movies in question helped knock the censorship code to the ground, and then merrily proceeded to kick it in the gut.  Yay!  All four movies, of course, are in scope – three in color and stereophonic sound (with options to access the tracks in either 5.1 or 2.0).  Each represents grand (albeit risqué) 1950’s entertainment at its cinematic peak.  So, grab a handful of rubbers, and let’s go!

 

Jack Warner once infamously told director Raoul Walsh that his idea of a tender romance is when the local whorehouse burns down.  In Walsh’s 1956 sordid drama THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER, it doesn’t quite burn down, but is under attack during Pearl Harbor.  Close enough.

A sure thing for Fox, MAMIE, based on a bestselling novel by William Bradord Huie (screenplay by Sydney Boehm), tread familiar big box-office territory of the blockbuster From Here to Eternity.  Same time frame, same locale, same “hostess” cupcakes.  Yep, it’s a brothel, but Hollywood still went the gentleman’s club route, where you get to dance and talk to…“hostesses.”  Weird, as MAMIE arrived a year after Walsh’s Battle Cry, which made no such polite distinction; however, 1956 “adult” audiences were savvier than Gene Autry’s, of whom the B-movie cowboy brilliantly quipped, “My fans think the dance halls girls really dance!”  Strangely enough, even with the “clean-up,” the MAMIE managed to get banned in some U.S. cities.  Maybe it’s her aggressive nature…

As the pic opens, Mamie Stover is tossed out of Frisco on a morals charge, and shipped off to Honolulu.  It’s 1941, and the place is rife with American soldiers who flock to The Bungalow, a “specialty” club.  Mamie has a BBF grass skirt gal pal, Gladys, who’s like something left-over from the pre-Code days.  Gladys gets her a Bunglaow gig, Mamie dyes her hair red (creating the tag “Flaming Mamie”), and becomes the whore du jour.

Nevertheless, on the steamship from the mainland, she meets Jim Blair, a hunky good guy who offers to help the damsel in distress.  Jim-boy’s a famous writer, who just inked a deal with Hollywood – so he’s got plenty of dough.  This particularly gets a rise out of Ms. Stover, and, before you can say “Shiver me timbers,” the shipboard friendship turns into a “fire in the hold!,” much to each lover’s chagrin (she wants no commitments; he’s got a beautiful steady socialite girlfriend)

Mamie’s unscrupulous lust for money bests her lust for honey, and soon she’s using her ill-gotten gains to acquire real estate cheap, post-Pearl Harbor.  Stover’s greed even eclipses that of The Bungalow’s Madam (Agnes Moorehead) and Harry, the joint’s psycho henchman (Michael Pate), who, as a sideline, enjoys thrashing the women who misbehave.

Mamie, like George Amberson Minafer, soon gets her comeuppance, and, since it’s 1956 America, returns to San Fran a financially poorer but spiritually richer hooker (off to see Daddy in the Deep South).  Fer Sadie Thompson Christ sakes!

THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER is a fun, trashy opus, beautifully produced and lushly photographed partially on-location by Leo Tover.  Walsh, obviously having a blast, directs his cast, especially star Jane Russell (with whom he had a previous great working relationship a year earlier on The Tall Men, another Walsh/Fox/CinemaScope classic), with great aplomb.  Male lead Richard Egan does what he does best, grins his white bumper grill of approximately 238 teeth.  Frankly, the promoted robust pair make quite a couple.  And so do Russell and Egan.  Dick gets to remove his shirt, Jane cavorts in a skintight swimsuit, and eventually, they display geometrically what CinemaScope was made for.  The two thesps genuinely set off sparks, and had previously collided on John Sturges’ 1955 pic Underwater!  Russell, in later years, cooed that no one looked better than Richard Egan, indicating that the attraction on-view wasn’t just acting.

The supporting cast is wonderful, and features Joan Leslie (in her last feature pic), Alan Reed, Eddie Firestone, Jorja Cartwright, Margia Dean, Richard Coogan, Sally Todd and Hugh Beaumont.  The aforementioned cinematography is fantastic, nicely using the scope process and Hawaiian backdrops.  Thumbs up again to Leo Tover.  The score by maestro Hugo Friedhofer is one that had me humming more than the gals at The Bungalow (and, as with most Twilight Time titles, is available as an IST).  The crystal-clear ebullient colors really pop in this grand 1080p transfer (a far cry from a beet-red faded 35MM scope print I saw many moons ago).  Hey, Mamie, you go, girl!

 

In a pair of extremely adult-themed dramas, writer-turned-director Philip Dunne crafts an admirable look at suburban sirens and suburban siren calls with 1956’s HILDA CRANE and 1958’s TEN NORTH FREDERICK.

CRANE gives the underrated Jean Simmons one of her best starring roles, as a liberated Eisenhower Era femme fatale – in essence, a human contradiction of terms.  Escaping from her bigoted, hypocritical small town of Winona, Hilda heads for Sin City, aka Manhattan, where her exploits keep the frigid townsfolk back home a-percolating for years.  Hilda is a high IQ, sexually adventurous and business savvy curious woman, who had the misfortune to be born at the wrong time.  Her return to the fold, after two failed marriages, a succession of lovers and the rather rude caveat that she was asked not-so-politely to leave her last place of employment doesn’t bode well for the burg’s favorite notorious walk of shame lass.  This particularly affects her loving but ashamed mother, who practically freezes stalagmites every time Hilda brings up sex.  And sex is what Ms. Crane craves, much to the delight/shock of her supposed freethinking best friend couple (who ultimately fail on both counts).  Soon, Hilda’s cozying up to old boyfriend, beefcake Russell Burns (Guy Madison), a po’ boy made rich via his burgeoning construction company.  A nice guy, Burns’ prob isn’t just the fact that he’s a bore, but has a monstrous mother – a former hamburger flipper, who’s out to ruin Hilda any way she can.  That’s okay, ’cause canny Crane has a backup lover, her sleazy, but sophisticated ex-college professor, who has the extra lure of being French (Jean-Pierre Aumont).  Professor Jacques de Strappe (okay, De Lisle) is frantic for Hilda – as he can’t get their gyrating past lovemaking out of his soul (even after screwing all the subsequent coeds, none of who can ever take Hil’s place).

Knowing a cheater way too well, Hilda boots Professor Penis to the curve (he quits the Halls of Ivy and flees to New York to write a bestselling sex novel), and settles for comfortable Russell.  Rusty’s Mommy Vicious says over her deceased body – and backs up her threat by dropping dead on cue.  Shattered, Burns eschews the couple’s plans for a worldwide honeymoon, a co-designed dream house and any chance at happiness the duo anticipated.  They move into his digs, presided over by a hideous portrait of mother, which has the additional unappreciated effect of making Russ impotent.

Being a 1950’s movie, it does seem to cop out a bit at the end, but there’s enough disgraceful behavior to keep modern viewers interested.  Dunne does his Sirkiest to tell Hilda’s tale; he also scripted the movie, which is based on a play by Lubitsch’s favorite writer Samson Raphaelson (I haven’t read the original, but suspect it ends quite differently).  The lavish CinemaScope cinematography is fantastic, one of Joe MacDonald’s finest anamorphic efforts (with the rare Fox mid-Fifties credit, Print by Technicolor – it certainly looks it).  A nice music score by David Raksin adds the finishing touch to this drama that also features Judith Evelyn (as Hilda’s mom), Evelyn Varden (as Monster Mom), Peggy Knudsen, Gregg Palmer, Richard Garrick, Blossom Rock, and Herb Vigran.  Aside from the trailer, an A&E Biography on Simmons is also included as a supplement.

 

1958’s 10 NORTH FREDERICK, containing another script by director Dunne, is based on the John O’Hara novel – which should already have horndogs a-scratchin.’   It takes place in the author’s famed looks-are-deceiving town of Gibbsville, PA – a viper’s nest of hypocrisy and scumbaggery.

Stalwart middle-aged Joseph Chapin (Gary Cooper, in an excellent late career performance), despite being an attorney, strives to always do the right thing.  It’s tough what with his being married to Edith, an unfaithful social-climbing harpy (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who emasculates Joe whenever she can (and that’s 24/7).  She pushes the mook into politics, having him come into contact with sleazoid campaign managers, governors and other human anal warts who bleed him dry financially and then make a move on his integrity.  The bad marriage has also taken a toll on his two grown children, Jody (Ray Stricklyn) – an amateur jazz musician/professional drunk, who’s dream of attending Julliard is ruined by Edith and liberal hot-to-trot Ann, who is so radical she becomes pregnant by a married Big Band trumpet player (like MAMIE STOVER and PEYTON PLACE, much of the narrative takes place in 1941, damn, that was a rapacious year!).  Unfortunately, since this is a 1950’s movie, Ann has two choices:  lose the baby or die in some fall down a stairway/traffic accident/open manhole, etc.  Since its Diane Varsi, fresh from PEYTON PLACE, we want her to live – so, hurray, she has a miscarriage.

After being humiliated in politics (briefly flirting with a run for the WH), Joe decides to visit The Big Apple, where Ann now resides with a gorgeous roommate, Kate Drummond, the daughter of one of the elder Chapin’s old college classmates.  Before you can say “barely legal,” the pair are panting, grunting and coupling up like the caboose and the stock car in the B & O rail yard.

Unlike HILDA CRANE, 10 NORTH FREDERICK ends tragically for Chapin, and bittersweetly for Ann and Kate.  It does end well for viewers, who will be royally entertained by the proceedings, exquisitely shot in black-and-white CinemaScope (by Joe MacDonald) and with a wonderful soundtrack by Leigh Harline.  The supporting cast is A-1, and includes Stuart Whitman (as the defiler of Ann), Philip Ober, Tom Tully, John Emery, and last but not least, the always-marvy Barbara Nichols as the hypocrites, adulterers, skanks and alcoholics.

 

A Hallmark Card from hell, or, as a character correctly dubs the burg, a town where “everyone hides behind plain wrappers,” 1957’s PEYTON PLACE (yeah, we’re going back one year chronologically) is the blockbuster that seemed tailor-made for carnal-carnage-obsessed Fox (the pic would become a cottage industry for the studio, siring a sequel and a top-rated 1964 TV series).  Based on a fantastically successful bestseller by Grace Metalious, PEYTON PLACE was rivalled in box-office only by the ringing coffers whistling the “Colonel Bogey March” in Bridge on the River Kwai.  Truly, there was no reason why this scandalous rip-the-mask-off pic WOULDN’T do phenomenally.  It has it all:  whores, drunks, illegitimacy, conniving old money predators, petting parties, frigidity, sex ed, rape, incest, suicide and murder.  How could it miss?  It’s so America!

Peyton Place is a picturesque New England town that everyone wishes they lived in – until they actually live there.  The movie opens with Michael Rossi (Lee Philips) a progressive educator from the big city (Philadelphia) arriving to take over the high school.  His misogynistic appointment pushes out the beloved elderly spinster schoolteacher (Mildred Dunnock), who apparently taught George Washington the proper way to row a boat across the Delaware.  But Rossi’s sooooo into modern academia (aka, the dreaded sex education) that he immediately becomes popular.  This enrages single mom Constance MacKenzie, who worries her curious teen daughter Allison will go too far south below the border (and she ain’t talking about a trip to Mexico).  It’s merely a matter of reels before the two become lovers (Michael and Constance, not Constance and Allison).

Then, there’s that nasty skirmish called World War II that takes away the plethora of the hamlet’s men, many never to return.  Not to worry, none of this gets in the way of the doing-the-nasty prerequisite for becoming a local citizen.  This is especially true with main character Allison, an aspiring writer who has penned a tell-all novel about the large outbreak of cushion-pushin’, past and present. She thinks she’s okay, ’cause she changed the names.  What Allison discovers about mommy rocks even her world.

The movie, practically an epic, runs over two and a half hours.  Fret not, as it moves fairly quickly, thanks to the large and exceptional cast, led by Lana Turner, Lloyd Nolan, Arthur Kennedy, Betty Field, Barry Coe, Terry Moore, Russ Tamblyn, Leon Ames, David Nelson and Lorne Greene.  Diane Varsi, mentioned above, is really good in her debut, and Hope Lange surprised everyone with her portrayal as Allison’s BFF Selena Cross (after a less-than-impressive appearance in The True Story of Jesse James), even garnering an Oscar nomination (one of nine the pic received, including nods to Turner, Varsi, and Kennedy).  Turner reaped the most rewards from the movie.  Like Gary Cooper in 10 NORTH FREDERICK, the veteran actress defiantly played her age; having been dumped from her home studio (MGM) several years earlier, Ms. T made the comeback of all-time.  Her role in PEYTON PLACE permanently assured staying power in the industry, starring in A-pictures (usually glossy romances) throughout the 1960s.  It didn’t hurt that the Lana’s participation in this naughty pic coincided with the actress’s sopping soiled laundry being splashed across the tabloids when her real-life teenage daughter killed mummy’s lover – the added attraction being that the victim was Johnny Stompanato, an abusive mobster.  It was as if two subplots of PEYTON PLACE merged; indeed, the timing was almost too perfect, and prompted many wags to tip their hats to Fox’s great publicity department.

PEYTON PLACE has great credits behind-the-camera as well.  The gorgeous CinemaScope pic was shot by William C. Mellor, the instantly recognizable iconic score was composed by Franz Waxman, and the screenplay (that often seemed parodic in order to get the rawest parts across in Ozzie and Harriet speak) was written by John Michael Hayes, late of the Alfred Hitchcock screenwriting division (Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much).  The movie, aside from pouring money into cash registers globally, received a multitude of critical acclaim and awards (in addition to the aforementioned Oscar nods, the flick also received Academy noms for Hayes, Mellor, Tamblyn, director Mark Robson and producer Jerry Wald).

I really do have to hand it to the cast, especially the young ‘uns, as I never realized how very good they were until seeing this recent Blu-Ray.  Varsi, Lange, Tamblyn, Moore and Coe effectively pull off the New England accents without spilling into the lethal trap of a Pepperidge Farm commercial.  And further kudos to Ms. Varsi and director Robson, who forever quelled any doubt that Allison was Metalious in a scene where the jeans-and-flannel-shirt bohemian-garbed MacKenzie, pounds out her novel on a typewriter.  It essentially mirrors the famed back book jacket shot of the author that today would probably be her TL profile snap.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of PEYTON PLACE is the best rendition you’ll probably ever see.  It looks sensational in 1080p clarity and restored DeLuxe Color and with theatre sound stereo tracks.  A number of cool extras accompany the platter, and are worth noting.  They include audio commentary by film historian Willard Carroll, plus additional commentary by Terry Moore and Russ Tamblyn, a Hollywood Backstories episode on PEYTON PLACE, and a location documentary special.  If you’re into being ravished and/or scandalized, this is the perfect social distancing vacation spot for you!

All Blu-Rays in 2.35:1 1080p widescreen. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  SRP: $29.95@.

 THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER.  Color. 5.1 or 2.0 DTS-HA MA.

HILDA CRANE. Color. 5.1 or 2.0 DTS-HD MA.

10 NORTH FREDERICK. Black and White. 2.0 DTS-HD MA.

PEYTON PLACE. Color. 5.1 or 2.0 DTS-HD MA.

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