The Rolling (in the) Isles of England

So many times in past columns, I have invoked the name “Ealing” to the point that I practically have to pay them a royalty fee.  I use the moniker to underline a high water mark in cinema – specifically in the comedy genre.  Usually, this kudo has been doled out to praise such fantastic contemporary Brit laff-fests as Detectorists, or, in a retro American comparison, 1966’s The Russians are Coming.  To better understand what I’m getting at, one need search no further than two wonderful vintage Ealings:  1949’s PASSPORT TO PIMLICO and 1953’s THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT, now available in restored Blu-Rays from the smashing folk at Film Movement (working in concert with the endless array of cinema heroes at Studio Canal).

First off, leave us press home the fact that suburban living was never as delightful than in an Ealing environ.  Rural towns, villages and small cities of England were often primary targets for the studio (that nevertheless also worked its magic in other aspects of comedy, for instance, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Man in the White Suit, and other top-tier triumphs).

While Ealing had been in operation since 1902 (converting to sound in 1931), it was the post-war optimism that fueled their wise decision to hone their comedy skills. To this end, they hired directors, writers and casts often as eccentric as the whimsical characters who populated their scenarios.  Indeed, the studio “made” many careers in all those vocations; ditto, cinematography, editing, music and art and set design.

Ealing comedies provided an outlet rarely met in cinema, certainly never rivalled (although many tried).  The pictures were so twee, wry and brilliantly sparkling that they often debuted (in the States) at arthouse theatres.  Usually, a box-office non-starter, the Ealings transcended that tag, and sent receipts through the roof, eventually “opening wide” and proving themselves to (as they say) “have legs” across the country.  It seemed that everyone on planet Earth connected with these exquisite offerings – meticulously and strategically multilevel constructed narratives that were simultaneously snarkily witty and politically/culturally allegorical, all the while being outlandishly friggin’ hilarious.  Below are two magnificent reasons why.

1949’s PASSPORT TO PIMLICO is a comedy gem about red tape bureaucracy (and it’s gaggle of stiff-upper-lips) vs. the integrity of a defiant group of villagers who are determined to win at a game of geopolitics.

A (then) contemporary pic, taking place in the title town, the very real (and not funny at all) danger of an UXB (unexploded bomb) provides the pin pulled out of an actual AND metaphorical explosive device.  Kids playing in rubble find the little German gift, and quickly alert authorities.  But the UXB isn’t “U” for long, and explodes – revealing a treasure trove of artifacts and documents long buried under the soil.  The local historical committees are notified, and uncover an amazing parchment:  Pimlico is, in essence, an appendage of France’s Burgundy, thus divorced from the British crown.  This sets heads a-spinning, from the pub owners (no more duty on French booze), to the scores of “we don’t have to pay British taxes,” and so on and so on.  It all boils down to the revelation made by a (now) former citizen of the UK, “Blimey, I’m a foreigner.”

Of course, there’s a downside to this freedom as well, especially when the British Government cuts off all services, generally taken for granted by the populace.

The fact that it all makes sense (in a Bizarro World way) and manages to be concurrently hilarious is what made Ealing so great.  Credit the brilliant writer T.E.B. Clarke for the thoroughly original script, Henry Cornelius for the inspired direction (Cornelius directed one of my favorite comedies of all-time, Genevieve – an Ealing “knock-off”), and, the sensational cast, headed by Stanley Holloway, Betty Warren, Margaret Rutherford, John Slater, Jane Hylton, Raymond Huntley, Philip Stanton, Sydney Taffer, Hermione Badderley, Charles Hawtrey, James Hayter, Sam Kydd, Harry Locke, Michael Hordern, and Naughton Wayne and Basil Radford.

Cleverly concealing a very timely message to all those misinformed tribalism blockheads who yearn to secede from their “too much government” rulers, PASSPORT TO PIMLICO, in its sparse 84 minutes, beautifully displays the pros and cons of the animal politic; the movie even finds time for romance when the current titled Duke of Burgundy (Paul Dupuis) relocates to the formerly English vicinity, and collides with the daughter (Barbara Murray) of the pic’s head protagonist.  Of course, there’s much to be said about being anti-establishment if approached sanely (Ealing comedy revivals were particularly popular during the late 1960s-early 1970s), and nothing is more fun than watching the “old Brits” cheer on the “new French Brits” barricaded at the borders by conservative officials and reluctant bobbies.

The Film Movement Blu-Ray of PASSPORT TO PIMLICO is a marked improvement over all the previous home video incarnations.  Showing off Lionel Banes’ crisp black and white photography via a new 1080p restoration elevates this already terrific jewel to new heights; only some slight side flashing (likely due to nitrate deterioration) mars the otherwise flawless effect.  Georges Auric’s score is appropriately sprightly and adds immensely to the joyous experience of this cinema howl.  A number of fine extras make the purchase even more appealing:  an illustrated booklet by Ronald Bergan, a locations featurette, a restoration comparison, a stills archive and an interview with BFI curator Mark Duguid.

Bureaucratic fools get another kick in the bum, courtesy of the riotous 1953 delight THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT.  The movie warns how apathetic efficiency marketing twits can degrade living, breathing people into mere numbers to be merrily crunched.

Titfield is a picturesque, thriving suburban community with the oldest existing rail branch in service – the Titlfield to Mallingford run, a necessary commute that connects residents to the regular train line major hubs (mostly for work, but also for shopping, visiting and seasonal vacationers).  All this goes out the window when British Rail decides to cancel the transport in the name of modernization and economy.

Of course, this puts the townsfolks in the shit, so to speak, and they have no recourse but to attack.  When formal pleas prove useless, the aggressive Titfieldians decide to create their own railroad and give it to BR up the arse.  This gives the train organization monopoly one massive headache after another, involving unions, usage of a stretch of track needed to bypass the now redundant towns, etc., etc., etc. – and good for them!

THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT not only rips thoughtless corporations a new one, but provides a love letter to the Brits’ fascination with trains (embracing vintage locomotives as Genevieve would do the following year with embryonic automobiles).  The script by (again, by T.E.B. Clarke) is laugh-out-loud funny, ditto Charles Crichton’s direction.  As with all Ealing outings, it’s the cast of pixilated lunatics that makes the show, and includes an array of wonderful thesps, comprising John Gregson, Naughton Wayne, Hugh Griffith, Gabrielle Brune, Sid James, Reginald Beckwith, Jack MacGowran, Edie Martin and Sam Kydd.  Of special note is the town’s ancient vicar (George Relph), whose obsession with ancient trains makes him the ideal engineer (ultimately, the populace heists a locomotive from the local museum); also must give a nod to the ambitious company’s benefactor – the town’s richest member, a notorious tipler (top-billed Stanley Holloway), who happily supplies the needed start-up funds, once he’s assured they’ll be a special bar car in his honor.

A jaunty score by Georges Auric appends the hilarity with the pic’s two non-human stars being the titular Titfield title engine (a spectacular 1838 locomotive, dubbed the Lion, formerly of the Liverpool-Manchester line) and the sumptuous photography of Douglas Slocombe – extremely relevant as this was Ealing’s first color movie – and the Technicolor location work (Bath, Cam Brook valley, Freshford and Carlingcott) is outstanding.

The Film Movement Blu-Ray of THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT is a honey, and like PASSPORT TO PIMLICO comes with a cache of extras, comprising a “Making of” featurette, an illustrated booklet by Ronald Bergan, and locations mini-doc, an interview with Douglas Slocombe (including Slocombe’s home movies), and a separate tribute to the Lion.

Absolutely a must for comedy collections, these classics are available individually, or as part of a new box set, which additionally includes Whiskey Galore and The Maggie (both to be reviewed soon).

PASSPORT TO PIMLICO. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.

THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.

Film Movement/Studio Canal. SRP: $29.95@

SPECIAL BOX SET: SRP: $69.95.

The Joy of Tex

As far as I’m concerned, all the animation and anime platters released on Blu-Ray this year can take a back seat to the Warner Archive release of TEX AVERY SCREWBALL CLASSICS, VOLUME 1.  It’s what I’ve been waiting for, and allows me to at last be able to give those laserdiscs a rest.

Tex, as you may or may not know, was one of the primo geniuses at the Warner Bros. Termite Terrace cartoon studio – right alongside Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, etc.  In 1941, yearning to see if he could stretch his creative wings, he took an offer from the upscale highbrow MGM (after a squabble with Looney Tunes boss Leon Schlesinger), a dubious decision – as they (as a studio) were never as anarchic or kwazy as the folks as Warners.  Surprise, he wasn’t hobbled; in fact, he was pretty much left alone, creating some of the greatest and funniest cartoons in the history of animation.  Here, in a single Blu-Ray disc, are 19 Technicolor gems, spanning 1943-1951, comprising many of his best works.

Tex, like Clampett and Tashlin, wasn’t making Disney pics for kids; his work was definitely adult-oriented – going places live action movies wouldn’t dare think of, even before the 1934 Production Code. Rampant sexuality, crazed violence, anatomical disasters, culture kicks in the butt, and more were packaged in exquisite groundbreaking animation style.  Tex delighted in smashing down that fourth wall with a sledgehammer – kidding knowing movie audiences with all the foibles of the technology – bad prints, splices, hairs caught in a film gate, torn sprockets, wonky color, lousy projection, etc.  Nothing like this had ever been seen or experienced in cinema – and savvy fans ate it up.  The fact that this was all done at Metro – the stodgy “family values” studio was even more amazing.  It certainly seemed like a dream gig at the Dream Factory.  Alas, it wasn’t always so.

While enjoying unabashed freedom from suits who didn’t understand why so much of what Avery was doing was funny (although they did know that his cartoons were the most popular in their stable (so they begrudgingly gave him space), they also knew that often a Tex toon, like a Laurel & Hardy short, brought comedy buffs in to see a main attraction that they might have just sloughed off; indeed, Tex’s stuff was infinitely funnier than the lion’s share of live-action MGM comedies they supported.  And, like Tashlin, Tex harbored a “jones” to enter the world of live-action slapstick.  At Metro, that meant Red Skelton – the studio’s then-top comedian, and a perfect human outlet for Tex’s antics. Decades ago, Clampett told me that Avery spent much of his free time devising sight gags and even full-length feature scripts for Skelton.  They were sent to his office at MGM, and never heard from again.  Flash forward several years later.  At a major Tinsel Town event, Skelton approached Avery like a ga-ga bobbysoxer drooling over Frank Sinatra.  “I can’t believe I got finally a chance to meet you.  You’re one of my heroes.  I love your work, it’s so much better than a lot of my pictures.”  And on and on the funnyman gushed.  Avery, totally confused, when able to get a word in edgewise, countered with, “Then why did you never acknowledge me with all the stuff I sent to your office?”  And Tex related his past failed attempts to engage a Red alert. Skelton was shocked, and honestly replied that he had never seen a page of it, and, that had he known, Avery would have been given carte blanche in his unit.  This proved problematic until a little detective work uncovered the skeevy answer.  All of Avery’s scripts and gags were intercepted by MGM cartoon division head Fred Quimby, who unceremoniously tossed them in the trash (Quimby realized that Tex and Hanna-Barbera were his meal tickets).  Quimby, unlike Warner’s Schlesinger, was an unfunny company man who disliked cartoons intensely (Leon, at least had a sense of humor).  Photos of him live up to his name:  a total Quimby – a bespectacled, dumpier sad sack Rod Rosenstein-looking mofo!

Even more sorrowful was Tex’s post-Metro fate.  With theatrical cartoon departments closing down in the late 1950s-early 1960s, Avery moved into television; unable to crack the thriving Saturday morning toon market, he ended up doing animation for Raid commercials, and, not surprisingly, suffered from bouts of depression.  An undeserved fate for a, to paraphrase Wile E. Coyote, “super genius,” except in Tex’s case, the tag was accurate.

Not to put a damper on this terrific collection, just thought I’d supply some basic background info.  That said, this set has everything you need to know about the cinematic Avery.  Included are his bona fide masterpieces, 1943’s Red Hot Riding Hood, one of the most unbridled depictions of volcanic sexuality and erotica ever, Who Killed Who? (also 1943), a hilarious parody of whodunits, with a bulldog police sleuth drawn to resemble character actor Fred Kelsey, who made a living playing those parts for over a quarter of a century, plus What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard? (1943), Batty Baseball (1944, featuring a team called The Draft Dodgers), The Hick Chick (1946), Bad Luck Blackie (1949), Garden Gopher (1950), The Peachy Cobbler (1950),and Symphony in Slang (1951).

Three separate sections are devoted to Avery MGM characters:  Screwy Squirrel (Screwball Squirrel, 1944; The Screwy Truant, 1945; Big Heel-watha, 1944; Lonesome Lenny, 1946 (set in a pet shop, under the heading “You Smell It, We Sell It”); George and Junior (based on Of Mice and Men’s George and Lenny): Hound Hunters, 1947; Red Hot Rangers, 1947), and Droopy (Dumb Hounded, 1943; Wags to Riches, 1949; The Chump Champ, 1950).  Screwy Squirrel is a bit of a hard sell for me, despite Avery’s oft-inspired participation.  Screwy was MGM’s attempt to have their own Bugs Bunny, a character Tex helped develop at Warners.  The gags are frequently similar (even identical to some WB situations), but, unlike Bugs – Screwy Squirrel isn’t likeable, and too many times the brilliantly executed visuals come off more mean spirited than outrageously riotous.  George and Junior had already made doppelganger incarnations at Warners (“Which way did he go, George? Which way did he go?”), so hardly groundbreaking.  Droopy fares better (again occasionally borrowing some Looney Tune scenarios to get his point across).  The scripts (with uncredited assist from Tex) are nicely constructed by Rich Hogan, Heck Allen and Jack Cosgriff, and Scott Bradley’s music scores ape the use of studio musical numbers for background ID, but can’t compete with Warners’ great Carl Stalling, who did likewise…and did it first).  Tex, too, participated in many of the voice characterizations, alongside Daws Butler, Don Messick, Dick Nelson, Bill Thompson, Wally Maher and even (in The Hick Chick), Stan Freberg. Call me bias, but WB’s Mel Blanc remains incomparable.

The 19 Technicolor cartoons in TASC, VOLUME 1, remastered in 1080p, look sensational.  The audio, too, is top-notch; of particular note are the latter toons, ca. 1950-1951, heralded as being in Perspecta Sound, an early stereophonic precursor to Dolby.  How cool would it have been to be able to have those original tracks.  But don’t let that be a deal-breaker.  This disc is a must!   LSS, I can’t wait for Volume 2!

TEX AVERY SCREWBALL CLASSICS, VOLUME 1. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Archive Collection/Turner Entertainment/Warner Bros. 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.

Pre-Code Poster Child

My late, great friend – writer/director Ric Menello – once dubbed the 1958 William Wyler western The Big Country as “un film de Jerome Moross.” The reason for this is because, while entertaining enough, the rambling epic is noteworthy throughout the globe for one reason:  an amazing soundtrack by the famed composer.  This, in and of itself, has nothing to do with my review, except for the reason that The Film Detective’s new Limited Edition Blu-Ray restoration of 1933’s THE SIN OF NORA MORAN, directed by Phil Goldstone, is, to apply the Menello Axiom, “un film de Alberto Vargas.”

The movie, a rare Poverty Row attempt (Tiffany) to go “legit,” checks off all the lurid pre-Code boxes:  adultery, blackmail, murder, political scandal and even “hot woman on death row.”  They even hyped a new, exciting process in which to tell their tale.  To achieve these lofty ends, producer-director Goldstone secured popular established and rising stars (not common for low budget histrionics), and got himself a decent cameraman (Ira Morgan), a racy, sizzling sourcework (Willis Maxwell Goodhue’s story Burnt Offering), and a talented composer (Heinz Roemheld).  Goldstone’s greatest score, however, was hiring the celebrated illustrator/painter Alberto Vargas to create the movie’s one-sheet.  It has become perhaps the most iconic Hollywood poster of the pre-Code era (certainly one of the most coveted and beloved and cherished pieces of promotional art in the annals of the entire industry).  When I first saw a repro of the ad, I gasped, “This is from a 1933 pic!!!???”  How could that be?  At first I thought (circa, 1970 or so, when I first spied the reprint ad) it was the greatest softcore poster I’d ever seen.  I figured the “1933” tag must have been a misprint.  But it wasn’t.  And, nor was NORA softcora.

I spent years trying to find this movie, especially when I discovered that the title character was enacted by Zita Johann, an early crush.  Rifling through pre-Code releases from the majors turned up nothing – and for good reason.  As indicated, the movie was a low-budget item from Tiffany.  True, if any Poverty Row outfit aspired to something greater, it WOULD be Tiffany.  They had, after all, made James Whale’s first success, 1930’s Journey’s End, and then, practically went bankrupt filming the first all-Technicolor sordid drama, the amazing and outstanding, Mamba (also 1930).

So what is THE SIN OF NORA MORAN?  Well, I’m not going to give away everything, but will provide readers an appetizing taste.

District Attorney John Grant (the great Alan Dinehart, already praised this year for his participation in Supernatural) is a political winner in virtually every sense of the word, except in perhaps choosing his relatives.  His slick, savvy brother-in-law Dick Crawford, a revered top-line attorney about to ascend to the city’s position of Governor, is also a cheating horndog.  Doom is, thus, practically spray-painted on Nora Moran’s torso when he first eyes the struggling buxom, sophisticated beauty, then seduces her (after removing his wedding ring).  He buys Nora an apartment, convinces her to give up any notions of a career – and vows that they shall eternally live for their love (the heaving interplay and lip-biting smiles on their faces reveal that they do have great sex, in a way that only pre-Code can deliver).  But the ugly truth about his being married to the sister of a powerful player eventually comes out. Nora may have had to give up her dreams, but not the aptly named Dick.  He ditches her without a second thought; nevertheless, the memories of their illicit carnality keeps bringing him back.  Until there’s a murder, placing Nora in the pokey.

Edith, Crawford’s jealous wife (who, as we noted, is Grant’s sister) finds out, and pressures Mr. D.A. sib to practically let her pull the switch on the electric chair.  But Grant has one last card up his sleeve. And that’s a secret he’s about to spill.

While NORA has all these delicious elements to make the movie a pre-Code classic, it lacks two major necessities (and one major-minor one):  a really good director and a really good script.  Had NORA been made at fast-paced Warners (the perfect studio for this kind of narrative), I imagine the project would have been handed over to the likes of Curtiz, LeRoy, Wellman, Alfred E. Green, Roy Del Ruth, Archie Mayo, etc.  I also surmise that the writing would have been top-notch, and overseen by no less than Darryl Zanuck.  Alas, this was not to be the case.  While certainly intriguing (and good looking – it truly doesn’t resemble a Poverty Row production), it misses the pantheon rung to have it spread-eagled alongside Baby Face, Red-Headed Woman, The Sin of Temple Drake, Blessed Event, and other key studio releases from that era (the lack of a major company’s involvement is the major-minor aspect I alluded to above).

The new process/processes THE SIN OF NORA MORAN ballyhooed, too, while unusual for a Poverty Row entry, was/were not all-that-new.  These comprised elaborate flashbacks, but mostly consisted of the use of stream of consciousness, a la Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude.  Truth be told, that device, used so effectively in the stage presentation of O’Neill’s play, WAS utilized in the MGM depiction, released a year before NORA.

This leaves us with the cast – and they’re dandy.  The aforementioned Dinehart never disappoints, ditto, bookend cads Paul Cavanaugh (as the adulterous lover) and John Miljan, an early employer who rapes and blackmails Nora (this brings to light an unintentional but psychologically fascinating aspect of the movie that should have been underlined, but wasn’t: that Miljan and Cavanaugh physically resemble each other, the latter being a highbrow version of the former, thereby suggesting that Nora is sexually drawn to a certain type of scumbag. Talk about missed opportunity!  Claire Du Bray also registers as the vengeful, scorned wife, but it is the underrated, super-gorgeous Zita Johann who seals the deal.  A ravishing beauty and excellent actress, Johann was the first wife of producer-writer-actor John Houseman (1929-1932); in fact, it was her accompanying Houseman to visit Howard Hawks for conferences regarding a script collaboration on Tiger Shark, that got Johann the female lead.  That same year (1932), she achieved horror immortality, costarring with Boris Karloff in her most famous work, The Mummy.  The casting coup of Johann for NORA upped the ante so much that Goldstone, generally a producer-only, decided to take over the directorial reins as well (it was soon all-too-obvious to those present that he had become obsessed with the actress during the filming – a scenario that would have made quite a movie by itself).

The Blu-Ray of THE SIN OF NORA MORAN is, for the most part, meritorious.  Who knew that 35MM even existed?  The restoration work, involving the Film Detective, Independent-International Pictures, and the UCLA Film and Restoration Archive deserves kudos.  Only intermittent cross-talk “webbing” (especially apparent during opticals) mars the pristine experience.

Some terrific extras append the release, comprising an illustrated booklet and an original documentary, The Mysterious Life of Zita Johann.  Bizarrely enough, much of the credit for NORA surviving belongs to infamous schlockmeister Sam Sherman.  He first saw the pic at a film collector’s house in the 1960s, and, became its number one fan.  Sherman even later connected with Johann, retired and living in New York (where the producer operated as well), and wore her down to the point where she appeared in his 1986 opus Raiders of the Living Dead!  All of this is covered in the aforementioned gobsmacking Mysterious Life supplement.

Of course, in true exploitation fashion, that Vargas poster had to be used as the Blu-Ray jacket.  For that alone, it deserves a spot in every pre-Code/classic movie collection.  But, remember, the Blu-Ray is a Limited Edition, with only 1500 copies available, so don’t leave the lady waiting!

THE SIN OF NORA MORAN.  Black and white; full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Film Detective/Independent International/UCLA Film and Restoration Archive. CAT # FB1007.  SRP:  $24.99.

Limited Edition of 1500.