Tony Curtis, Schwartz and All

It’s about time!  Throughout the home video evolution encompassing laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-Rays, one major human attraction has been notably absent.  Bernard Schwartz, a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx, with a love for the Movies, its gods (particularly Cary Grant) and all the riches and fame cinema celeb brought with it; fact, Bernie knew from his adolescence that he had to be a star.  Not aspired to, not wanted to.  HAD to.  And, so it came to pass.  After the war (where he served in Guam, after lying about his age), Schwartz (with a plethora of Big Apple trial-by-fire casting calls under his belt) hopped it to Hollywood; didn’t hurt that he was tall, really good looking with crystal-clear blue eyes.  His first part was a bit in the great 1949 noir Criss Cross.  He danced with Yvonne De Carlo in a nightclub, his face not even seen.  Yet, there was “something.” Enough of a something that Universal-International was besieged by thousands of letters from hot and bothered females demanding who that boy was dancing with De Carlo.

So, Mr. Schwartz, now Anthony Curtis, was signed to a standard contract, and, within two years, was a featured player and teen heart throb.

The thing about 1950’s Curtis (now simply Tony) was his enthusiasm.  You can see it on the screen.  He was having a blast living the dream.  He also knew that most of the U-I vehicles were routine; yet, his sense of humor prevailed; he winked at the audience, who got it.  Typically, the in-your-face truth that the young star was a fine actor didn’t become apparent until Universal loaned him out to rival companies.  The UA titles specifically brought that point home (Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones, Some Like it Hot).  Curtis, now offered a renewal with Universal, had grown from a teen fave, to a key player.  He was calling the shots, aka script/director approval, plus a percentage of the points to be shared via his own production companies (Curt-Leigh, a combi with then-wife Janet Leigh, and, later, Curtis Enterprises).

A new box set from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics, one of their terrific on-going Blu-Ray collections of Universal pics, concentrates on the later Curtis titles – the superstar Tony pics, consisting of THE PERFECT FURLOUGH, THE GREAT IMPOSTOR, and 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE.  They’re a fun and varied lot (with the middle offering being perhaps his finest work at Universal); I would, at some short time down the road, love to see an early Curtis box set, too (although an iconic title, 1952’s Son of Ali Baba is already available as a single, and 1955’s Six Bridges to Cross is part of a Noir Box).

All three pics have been remastered in 1080p and look and sound wonderful.  It’s a cool intro to a sadly neglected star who nevertheless helped define the immense fun of movie-going in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The Tony and Janet fanzine craze was in full bloom when 1958’s THE PERFECT FURLOUGH was released (the pair had already previously starred in two very successful movies, Houdini and The Black Sheild of Falworth, the latter being Universal-International’s first CinemaScope production; that same year as FURLOUGH, they would be paired in another mammoth hit, The Vikings).  Indeed by 1958, Curtis’ value to Universal-International was beyond top contract player; he had morphed into an A-list star.  His loanouts to UA for Sweet Smell of Success and The Defiant Ones gained him scores of new followers, critics among them…and an Oscar nod (for the latter).  Curtis, at U-I, was now comfortably in the driver’s seat.  He and Leigh would share the profits with Universal-International (via their Curt-Leigh company), and the selection of projects would be of his choosing.

In the mid-Fifties, the young power couple was great friends with rising writer/director Blake Edwards and his first wife, actress Patricia Walker.  Edwards, who would achieve great success with his TV series Peter Gunn, still hadn’t been able rise beyond the B-picture director ladder rung on the big screen circuit.  Tony took care of that.  THE PERFECT FURLOUGH, a risqué (for the 1950s) comedy about a lecherous soldier awarded the title fantasy holiday with a luscious movie star (the very luscious Linda Cristal) was written by Stanley Shapiro (it was to prove to be a run-through for his next assignment, the phenomenal smash Pillow Talk which changed American romcom as we inched toward the 1960s).  Most importantly, the flick would be directed by Edwards, who proved his worth in droves.  Inventive use of CinemaScope and wry sight gag compositions meld beautifully with Shapiro’s clever double entendre dialog and situations.

Already all the Shapiro pat formula jokes are firmly in place:  the appealing but womanizing lead, the uptight virginal adversary, and the personification of female carnality oozing with sex.  All surrounded by an expert Greek chorus of wise-cracking supporting thesps.

The plot concerns a group of Arctic-stationed soldiers, deprived of opposite sex companionship for months and months…and months.  With morale low, the top brass becomes concerned until bright-light officer Lt. Vicki Loren (Leigh) devises a lottery where one lucky dude will win a furlough in Paris with Hollywood sexpot du jour Sandra Roca (naturally, chaperoned).  The horny losers will live vicariously through the shenanigans of the sole horny winner.

What could go wrong?

Curtis plays the conniver, Corporal Paul Hodges, to a “T,” in the tailor-made role, and Leigh, who, of course, is repulsed by his debauched persona, eventually…well, you know.  Cristal is gorgeous window dressing, and also quite funny herself, as is/are her suffering agent, the military chiefs, and Hodges’ fellow needy snow-bound compadres.  Of particular note in the large and terrific cast are the following scene stealers, Keenan Wynn, Marcel Dalio, Les Tremayne, Jay Novello, King Donovan, Gordon Jones, Alvy Moore, Dick Crockett (soon to become a member of the Edwards stock company), Curtis pal Nicky Blair, Frankie Darro, silent screen comic Snub Pollard, and an early appearance by Troy Donahue; a special mention must be accorded to Elaine Stritch as Leigh’s Space Age sidekick equivalent of Eve Arden.

The movie is lavishly photographed in Eastmancolor (nicely restored, from the beet red scope prints I recall from my misspent youth) by the masterful Philip Lathrop (later to shoot Edwards’ shamefully obscure Gunn).  A typical U-I score, supervised by the ubiquitous Joseph Gershenson and credited to Frank Skinner, appends the proceedings. Extras include audio commentary by David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner.

Like with Shapiro, THE PERFECT FURLOUGH was a run-through test for Edwards as well; the previous year, the director and star had made the wonderful, unfairly ignored comedy-drama Mister CoreyFURLOUGH, which turned a tidy profit, gave way to the next Curtis-Edwards collaboration Operation Petticoat, which broke all box-office records for both Universal-International and Radio City Music Hall.

1960’s THE GREAT IMPOSTOR is not only a great movie, it’s, as indicated above, arguably the best movie Tony Curtis ever made during his tenure at Universal-International.  It’s a light-hearted (with nonetheless a sprinkling of serious dramatic overtones) look at one of the most fascinating human beings of the twentieth century, Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr.  It’s one of those “if ya made it up, no one would believe you” true-life stories.

Demara, born poor, and growing up during the Great Depression, survived by imagination and fantasizing through his father’s profession (when there was work); his dad was a projectionist at a movie theater, and the young boy lost himself in the illusion of the Movies (you can see why I love this pic, or, for that matter, did Curtis).  The lad did abysmally in school – often thought to be mentally challenged; the opposite was true.  Demara, a genius savant, was simply bored.  A subsequent stint in the army proved to be like a slap in the face.  He aced all the competition at Officer’s Training School, but without the proper qualifications (he dropped out of high school after a little more than two years), was relegated to no rank above private.  So, he decided to improvise – forging papers, stealing identities and excelling (post-U.S.military life) at a number of professions, careers, and goals, including Trappist monk, prison psychologist (revolutionizing the treatment of disturbed inmates), Canadian Navy surgeon (successfully performing scores of operations, and founding a children’s hospital in war-torn China), elementary school teacher (where he consistently topped the lists of “educator of the year”), and more.

And, yes, with a few liberties (methinks that the slew of gorgeous women were likely more attracted to Tony than Ferdy), THE GREAT IMPOSTOR sticks to the facts.  Custom-designed for its likeable star (by scripter Liam O’Brien, and based upon Robert Crichton’s Demara biography), the pic is directed with verve and humor by Robert Mulligan – one of his first big-screen efforts (and released a year before his acclaimed breakout Universal-International entry, To Kill a Mockingbird).  I not only rate IMPOSTOR as one of Curtis’ finest movies, but one of Mulligan’s as well; furthermore, it appears that both director and star had a ball making it (an inside joke has a character named “Mrs. Pakula,” a nod to his oft professional collaborator Alan J. Pakula).  The beautiful black and white widescreen photography is by the brilliant Robert Burks, and a bouncy score by Henry Mancini perfectly matches the scenario.  A fantastic supporting cast compliments its charismatic lead, and comprises Karl Malden, Edmond O’Brien, Joan Blackman, Arthur O’Connell, Gary Merrill, Raymond Massey, Robert Middleton, Jeanette Nolan, Sue Ane Langdon, Larry Gates, Mike Kellin, Frank Gorshin, Harry Carey, Jr., Dick Sargent, Doodles Weaver, Ward Ramsey, Herbert Rudley, Jerry Paris, and Bob Hastings.  Supplements feature the trailer and audio commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger.

The world first became aware of Ferdinand Demara, Jr. in 1959 when his biography appeared, and immediately became a bestseller.  In the 1970s, I used to end each evening watching reruns of You Bet Your Life on WNEW-TV, here in New York.  Imagine my shock when, one night, one of the pair of contestants was Ferdinand Demara, Jr.  Looking nothing like Tony Curtis (a more faithful physical cinematic rendering would today be Zack Galifianakis), Demara was nevertheless genuinely engaging, and briefly discussed his extraordinary life with Groucho (probably appearing on the show as a tie-in to the book).  Demara died in 1982 at age 61.

1962’s 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE is an adult story geared for the kiddies.  Yeah, I know. A gossamer vanity project produced by its star (Curtis Enterprises), 40 POUNDS is a 1960’s glitz Vegas-era update of Damon Runyon’s perennial Little Miss Marker.  Curtis is Steve McCluskey, the amiable borderline mob owner of a successful ultra-mod casino, who is also on the constant alimony run from his ex-wife and her shyster lawyer.  One of the plungers in hock (Gregg Palmer) leaves his grade-school-age daughter (Claire Wilcox) as security while he attempts to come up with some debt coin; then, he has a fatal heart attack, and Curtis’ character is stuck with the kid.  The gags practically write themselves (and no stone in that direction is left unturned).  Innuendo, via embarrassing children’s questions and loopy situations with McCluskey’s business cohorts, bevies of hot Vegas showgirl-friends, etc. abound.  Romantic grist to the cinematic mill is thrown into the mix when a gangster’s supposed babe, gets a casino singing gig (costar Suzanne Pleshette).  It all ends up via a famous lengthy chase finale through Disneyland (which had every sprout who saw the trailer/TV spots demanding to be taken to this movie; kudos to Curtis Enterprises).

An ideal 1960s afternoon fluff entertainment, 40 POUNDS rises above it all due mostly to the two leads, for whom, naturally, the movie was specifically showcased.  Nothing says that more than a lavishly shot sequence where Curtis and Pleshette spend a weekend in gorgeous, serene surroundings doing nothing but wearing flash Sixties fashion and simply being beautiful people looking beautiful (bet they got to keep the threads and shades).  Curtis pulled no punches, and made sure that the supporting cast numbered friends and familiar character actor associates that folks like me and millions of others always looked forward to seeing.  So be prepared to enjoy the always welcome histrionics of Larry Storch (TC’s off-camera BFF), Mary Murphy, Nicky Blair, Howard Morris, Kevin McCarthy, Edward Andrews, Karen Steele, Stubby Kaye, Warren Stevens, Tom Reese, Ford Rainey, Sharon Farrell, Jim Bannon, Helen Kleeb, Jack LaRue, Allyn Ann McLerie, Richard Mulligan, and, in an early role, Diane Ladd.  Phil Silvers turns up in an elongated guest appearance as a New York gangster, obviously more Bilko than Corleone.

The movie was scripted by the celebrated humorist/writer Marion Hargrove (immortalized in two 1940s MGM comedies, See Here, Private Hargrove and What Next, Corporal Hargrove?), and was shot in (restored) Eastmancolor and Panavision by the legendary Joe MacDonald.  The professional direction is by Norman Jewison, nearing the end of his work-for-hire days, and about to be upgraded to the A-list pantheon deck (The Russians are Coming, In the Heat of the Night).  The perky Mort Lindsey score is indicative of what defined “wacky” during America’s Camelot, and, all in all, is a pleasant nostalgia trip for all who lived through that period and patronized the cinema with great regularity.

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray probably looks better than the original Easmancolor release prints did; extras again include the trailer and audio commentary by Kat Ellinger (who, apparently, is as big a Curtis fan as I am).

A logical entry for a Curtis box set, 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE is an excellent reminder of what a star vehicle was during the waning days of the Hollywood studio system.

THE TONY CURTIS COLLECTION.

THE PERFECT FURLOUGH

40 POUND OF TROUBLE

Both color and widescreen [2.35:1]

THE GREAT IMPOSTOR Black and white. Widescreen [2.00:1]

All 1080p High Definition. 2.0 DTS-HD MA.

Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. SRP: $49.95.

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