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Femme Fatalities

AUGUST IS CLAUDE CHABROL MONTH

One of many unfairly maligned Sixties Claude Chabrol cinematic excursions, 1963’s BLUEBEARD (Landru) arrives in a gorgeous-looking Blu-Ray from the folks at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Studio Canal.

A darkly comedic look at the real-life unsavory activities of one Henri Desire Landru, BLUEBEARD (his nickname in Grand Guignol history) follows the infamous serial killer of women throughout the France of the World War I era (1915-1917). Landru, however, is no drooling hiding-in-the-shadows giggling maniac. He’s a fairly successful (furniture dealer), respected family man, married to an unsuspecting (and, at least, in the movie) loving wife (who also happened to be his cousin, a point not covered in this depiction), and, blessed with four children he adores.

But Landru’s extra-curricular sojourns circle like sharks around his two-fold lust: females and their money. Selecting well-off single women, or wealthy widows (lots of both during The Great War), the benign-looking Parisian’s reign of terror claimed seven (that we know of) victims (although the body count has often raised to ten, depending upon which account one subscribes to). They were romanced, wined, dined, even wed (“it’s bigamy, too!,” as Chico Marx would famously state)…before they were drugged, disassembled, and smoked to ashes in a rented country estate’s (dubbed his “castle”) furnace.

You’ll have to pardon me for making light of this, as normally such odious events would certainly be no laughing matter…except, in this movie’s case, it sorta is. Chabrol’s sardonic, mostly factual jaw-dropping take presents a mordant look at Bluebeard, realistically bringing Chaplin’s 1947 Monsieur Verdoux (loosely based on Landru) to a new and snarky level.

And the talented director had great help.

Always looking for the female point-of-view, Chabrol allied himself with no less than author Francoise Sagan to pen the screenplay. Her narrative is cynical and often hilarious, as movie Landru tosses off such excuses for his “hobby” as “Genius is often labeled ‘monstrous’.” Then there’s a wonderful running gag encompassing a vacationing British couple, residing in a hotel adjacent to Landru’s homicidal domicile. Every time a new victim is disposed of, the middle-aged pair (the only part of the movie in English) frowns, and voice their disapproval concerning that strange, inappropriate smell (cross-cut with smoke rising from their neighbor’s furnace) – always threatening to complain, but then returning to their meal.

The look of BLUEBEARD was just as important as the script, and frequent collaborator Jean Rabier has outdone himself. The entire pic, shot in ebullient Eastmancolor looks like a Mucha French poster from 1910s, or an early Renoir. Noted composer Pierre Jansen appends the visuals with an excellent score to audibly accompany this unassuming heinous murderer.

But, as always, what does it matter with fab celluloid trappings if the cast isn’t up to snuff (or, in this case, at being snuffed). Here, again, Chabrol shines. Title lead Charles Denner, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Landru, is quite lip-biting terrific. The main hook for the movie is the fact that the victims are portrayed by celebrated European actresses; the superb, dazzling gallery of unfortunates comprise no less than Michele Morgan, Danielle Darrieux, Hildegarde Neff, Stephane Audran, Juliette Mayniel, Catherine Rouvel, Mary Marquet, and Denise Provence (a ploy that was utilized again in Edward Dmytryk’s abysmal 1968 movie of the same name). Other cast members include Francoise Lugagne (as Landru’s wife), Mario David, Pierre Vernier, Pierre Lafont, Raymond Queneau (as Clemenceau), and, best of all, famed director Jean-Pierre Melville as Georges Mandel.

Charles Denner as Chabrol’s Landru, compared to the real deal, photographed at his 1921 trial.

Sadly, timing is everything, and BLUEBEARD bellied up. This was especially true in America, a country still reeling from the grisly pursuits of Albert DeSalvo (aka, The Boston Strangler). In 1963, a comedy about killing women wasn’t all that funny in the States (even without DeSalvo, a red flag should have early been raised; the aforementioned Monsieur Verdoux nearly ended Chaplin’s career in the U.S.) It seems that only the Brits could get away with that sort of thing; then again, the likes of Kind Hearts and Coronets wasn’t based on a true story. It brings to mind what John Huston once said (essentially) about cinema: that it was often as bad to be ahead of your time as behind it.

As indicated, the new Blu-Ray of BLUEBEARD is sensational. Not only in restored picture and sound, but in actual length, including approximately five minutes, frequently missing from import prints.

A deftly foreboding quasi-true-life adventure, BLUEBEARD is one of the most fetching entries from his “disappointing wilderness period.” Artistically, any director on the planet would pray for period so disappointing…and yearn to be adrift in such wilderness.

BLUEBEARD. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA; French with English subtitles. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Studio Canal. CAT # K25538. SRP: $24.95.

Claude of the Lies

AUGUST IS CLAUDE CHABROL MONTH

Ric Menello would have turned 70 this month.

For those newcomers unfamiliar with Supervistaramacolorscope, the name “Ric Menello” may merely register as that of a talented director (debut videos for The Beastie Boys, Danzig, LL Cool J) and screenwriter (Two Lovers). For fans of this blog/column, I often speak of Ric, as, for over forty years (until his untimely passing), he was my best friend. He was also the greatest Claude Chabrol enthusiast I had ever met; indeed, until the great director’s death in 2010, Chabrol was Ric’s favorite living and working artist.

I, too, long admired Chabrol, respectful of his earliest work, wary but supportive of his middle period, and, while not as gung ho for the Seventies “renaissance” of his outre, I became the champion of his movies from the 1980s on – for me, his longest run of superior efforts. But that’s me, and I’m not through talking of Ric.

Menello lived, ate, and drank Chabrol from the first day we met at NYU, back in 1972. There was virtually nothing in print about the director in America or the UK, so Ric ordered books and magazines from France, along with several French/English dictionaries. He would laboriously spend months translating the text line-by-line – periodically waking me with late-night calls to inform me of some sublime quote or anecdote or behind-the-scene kerfuffle. It annoyed the Hell out of me. How I so miss those calls.

One of Ric’s biggest moments was when, after writing to all the distributors in France who handled Chabrol’s pictures, he received a letter from the man himself, after some nameless unsung hero/heroine employee finally forwarded several of Ric’s notes. From then on, the two corresponded sporadically, with the piece de resistance arriving around one of Menello’s birthdays: a package containing a recent script – Chabrol’s personal copy with his notes and annotations scribbled in the margins; suffice to say, it was one of Ric’s proudest possessions.

I need to recount one memorable day in 1988 to further embellish the mood for this month-long homage. It was a brisk New York autumn day, and Ric had previously informed me that MoMA was having a mini-Chabrol tribute, hosted by the director’s best producer, Marin Karmitz (finding a great producer is like finding a great doctor). “We’re going!,” he ordered, as if I would have complained. I arrived early, and was prowling through the museum gift shop, when Ric saw me and quickly ushered me into the screening room “We need the best seats!” Unarguably, Marin Karmitz proved to be a lovely man – witty, intelligent, and patient (answering some truly irritating questions). He presented two never-seen-in-the-States Chabrol works. “I have good news and bad news,” he stated. The bad news was that one of the prints, Masques, had no English subtitles. It really wasn’t necessary, as the frothy look at murders surrounding a celebrated TV chef was ‘as is’ engaging and frequently hilarious (did I mention that aside from writing and directing, Chabrol’s passion was being acknowledged as a gourmet chef?). The good news was that the second feature, was properly subtitled for its upcoming American release. It was The Story of Women, starring the marvelous Isabelle Huppert, one of the Chabrol’s favorite actresses (and mine). That movie, a true-life tale of the last person to be hanged in France (for performing abortions during the Nazi occupation – the results of Aryan rapes, lonely war widow affairs, etc.), had me riveted. It was unquestionably the finest movie I had seen that year. The pic, the director, and its star all should have won Oscars. None did.

After the screenings, still shattered by what we had seen, we walked to a nearby cafe for lunch. From there, we strolled up to Lincoln Center, for a 35MM screening of Chabrol’s 1962 classic Ophelia.

It was quite a day.

Ric Menello with actress Marisa Berenson. The BARRY LYNDON star loved the 2008 movie TWO LOVERS, for which Ric had written the screenplay (photo by Mel Neuhaus)

Prior to Ric’s death in 2013, there was damn little available of Chabrol on home video (what pitance there was often appeared in faded, edited prints); the then-recent titles, while sparse, did have perks – primarily second audio tracks by Menello himself (The Pleasure Party, Cry of the Owl). But we were Chabrol DVD/Blu-Ray starved.

Ric would have been beside himself with joy at the plethora of Chabrol titles recently released on Blu-Ray from various studios. And all restored, with tons of enticing extras. Together we would have pored over each platter lovingly and repeatedly. Key among these home vid gems is the first of two box sets of Chabrol movies from Arrow Video, in collaboration with M2K (Marin Karmitz productions): LIES AND DECEIT: FIVE FILMS BY CLAUDE CHABROL. The quintet (comprising COP AU VIN, INSPECTOR LAVARDIN, MADAME BOVARY, BETTY, and TORMENT) have never looked or sounded this good (and I saw several during their original release, so I can attest to this statement), and come with so many supplemental goodies – at least by my count a literal day’s worth – that it puts The Criterion Collection to shame. I’m talkin’ about new and vintage audio commentaries, interviews (some with Chabrol), documentaries, archival French and British TV specials, plus an 80-page illustrated book featuring the writings of Chabrol scholars.

Ric, profite bien, mon cher ami!

The first outing in the LIES AND DECEIT box set, 1985’s COP AU VIN (Poulet au vinaigre) couldn’t be more perfect, as, from frame one, EVERYONE is lying and being deceitful. Quickly unfolding in one of France’s wealthy suburbs, COP AU VIN treats us to a tale of blackmail, adultery, thievery, and outright passion, fashion, and trashin’.

Louis, young postman by day, would-be spy/blackmailer by night, gives his attractive single mom the village mail to steam open and read, gleam information from, and torment the rich before delivery. Mommy and son, living in a ramshackle eyesore home, obviously are a few francs short of correct postage. Louis’s office pal Henriette, is a stunning borderline nympho who is desperately trying to shag her coworker, a goal she will achieve with the benefit of becoming an accessory to his shenanigans.

These “games” take a rather nasty turn when a car prank becomes a death, one of several that increasingly plague the over-privileged denizens of the village. Did we say the self-appointed “clean-up” committee wants to the evict Louis and mom from their digs?

The lethal events eventually result in the arrival of Inspector Lavardin from the big city. Lavardin, on the surface, a famed figure in crime detection, too, brings much deceitful baggage to the case. Seemingly fair and balanced, he is anything but – often resorting to…lies and deceit…and violence. He is, as a recipe-dedicated Chabrol might concoct, three parts Maigret, one part Hank Quinlan.

There is so much to love in COP AU VIN, that I almost don’t know where to begin. Chabrol seems to be having a blast with this material, injecting the dark detours with snarky comedic set-pieces. Lavardin, questioning the proprietor/cook at a diner is classic Claude, as the no-nonsense sleuth gives him cooking tips, and actually takes over the culinary duties. The romantic/horny advances of Henriette are so frustrating since she’s so gorgeous that we practically cheer when she and Louis finally get it on. And the deceitful town lawyers, mistresses, (supposed) BFFs, doctors, butchers, philanderers, and murderer couldn’t be more naughtily delightful. Of course, aside from Chabrol’s expert direction and coscripting (along with Dominique Roulet, who wrote the novel sourcework, Une mort en trop), the cast is responsible for the lion’s share of the fun. Jean Poiret, Stephane Audran, Michel Bouquet, Jean Topert, Lucas Balvaux (as Louis), Pauline Lafont (as Henriette), Andre Tainsey, Jean-Claude Bouillard, Jacques Franz, Caroline Cellier, and Josephine Chaplin are all terrific, with special kudos for Audran as the borderline-crazed mom and the pithy Poiret as Lavardin.

Chabrol apparently did this as a labor of love, and was shocked by the response. COP AU VIN was a smash hit with critics and audiences, nominated for several awards (The Cesar Palme d’Or for Best Director, Best Picture at Mystfest, with Poiret winning Best Actor at the latter. It was also one of many family affairs with first wife Audran in the pivotal role of Madame Cuno, sons Thomas and Matthieu (in a supporting role and composer, respectively), and second wife Aurore as a script consultant. It’s also spectacular to look at with the lush Foreges-les-Eaux, Seine-Maritime locations awesomely rendered by the great Jean Rabier. Calling the new restoration of COP AU VIN extraordinary is an understatement; if the splendid quality isn’t enough, there are the phenomenal extras, including a vintage Swiss TV special featuring Chabrol, Poiret, and Audran, and an hour-long interview, Chabrol at the BFI.

Suspenseful, sexy, sardonic, sarcastic and masterfully entertaining, COP AU VIN is everything Knives Out (admittedly, a very engaging movie) should have been.

The surprise and enormous success (critically and financially) logically led to the old movie standby (in any country), the obligatory sequel. So, in 1986, director/writer Chabrol again teamed with Dominique Roulet to fashion the return of the laconic sleuth for more snarkastic, sordid adventures among the rich and infamous, INSPECTOR LAVARDIN.

The follow-up is even nastier than its predecessor. Lavardin is assigned to another small suburb (of undeserving French one-percenters) to investigate the murder of an ultra-religious right wing icon. Married to a younger, beautiful trophy wife is an eyebrow-raiser, but this hypocrite has more than pomposity and devout fraud up his sleeve. He’s generally hated by the entire community, including his wife, adopted, wild teenage daughter, and closeted brother-in-law. The big shock for the Inspector is that the not-so-grieving widow is his first (and likely only love) – a woman who mysteriously deserted him at the height of their youthful passion. This event so devastated young Lavardin that he devoted his life to trying to find her – failing, but nevertheless realizing he had a real knack for this sort of thing. His tragedy made him become a policeman, then an ace detective. Alas, it seems disappearing acts are a passed-down family trait – some deadly. And as for the deceased’s righteous demeanor – it, too, is another bundle of lies and deceit, as the victim in question, Raoul Mons, was crotch-deep in teen club brothels, blackmail, sadism, incest, drug dealing and more. Ew!

The reunion material between Lavardin and his beloved (the terrific Bernadette Lafont) is glorious; and the supporting cast is nothing short of c’est magnifique, encompassing Jean-Claude Brially, Jean-Luc Bideau, Jacques Dacqmine, Hermine Clair, Pierre-Francois Dumeniaud, Florent Gibassier, and Chantel Gressier. The movie looks fantastic, with resplendent cinematography by Rabier appending the score by the director’s son Matthieu. Key to the bevy of extras is archival scene commentary by Chabrol.

The bittersweet wrap-up is pure Claude/Lavardin, which is to say, brittle, cynical, and satisfying. Sadly, there would be no further big screen encounters between the director and the inspector (although Chabrol would helm four episodes of a 1988 Lavardin TV series, starring Poiret); that said, how much darker could you go?

1991’s MADAME BOVARY is one of my favorite Chabrol works. To me, it’s the ultimate screen adaptation of the oft-filmed (since the 1930s, in France, here, and the UK) scandalous 1856 Gustave Flaubert novel, an astoundingly hefty amount of remakes done for uncensored TV within the past twenty years. Perhaps the most famous movie version is the watered down 1949 Vincente Minnelli pic. True, it’s stylized, and excellently acted but, even post-Forever Amber, it couldn’t come close to what the author had in mind.

Chabrol fixed that. While on the surface, a Chabrol BOVARY might seem like an offshoot toward a new direction, it’s actually perfectly in tune with his themes and variants. In other words, rich folks – either being stupid, dull, or undeserving – ultimately manipulated by smarter, eviler lower-middle class denizens. LSS, ain’t life grand?

Emma is a lovely, simple country lass who bedevils hard-working, prosperous country doctor Charles Bovary. He falls in love with her and, with Emma’s mercenary family’s permission, weds the relatively unsophisticated girl.

But, remember, this is the LIES AND DECEIT box. While good Dr. B. is exactly what he says: wealthy, successful, but insipid, the new Madame Bovary is anything but. She quickly uses the wiles utilized to trap her husband (and trap she did) to advance her social standing, and quickly embrace capitalism – even if it costs her husband every sou and/or his reputation. Her inability for home satisfaction soon takes root via infidelity – lots of it (the reason the book was relegated to the banned section, along with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Therese Raquin, Frank Harris’s autobiography and scores of Victorian “underground” devil sex tomes).

Chabrol’s expert cast delivers the goods in spades, and his bravura direction brings the standout segments of the book (the ball, the riding excursions, the blackmailing town shopkeeper, a horrendous surgical decision goaded on by village aristocracy) to vivid life. Ditto, the feel of the period, both in décor (Jacques Mollon) and costuming (Corinne Jorry) – all lavishly captured by Rabier’s camera, and appended by son Matthieu’s score (the latter in concert with Jean-Michel Beranrd and Maurice Coignard). The screenplay, too (by Chabrol), is perfection with lip-biting dialog surgically-delivered throughout the swift-moving 140-minute running time (“It’s the most beautiful day of my life,” heaves Emily on her wedding day, already sizing up the material goodies – a verbal declaration that quickly degenerates to a gnashing “You’re getting on my nerves!”).

But to the cast.

Isabelle Huppert is sensational (as always), further cementing her position as Chabrol’s new muse, post-The Story of Women. As indicated earlier, I thought Women, Huppert and Chabrol all should have won Oscars in 1989. I repeated this desire in 1991, when I first laid eyes upon this fantastic movie. Huppert covers all the bases: she’s fetching, romantic, despicable, pitiful, sensuous, selfish, wonderful and horrible. In short, she IS Madame Bovary. The supporting thesps are equally impressive, particularly Jean-Francois Balmer (as her unfortunate spouse), Christophe Malavoy, Jean Yanne, Lucas Belvaux, Christine Minazzoli, Jean-Louis Maury, Florent Gibassier, Sabeline Campo, Henri Attal, and the director’s son Thomas.

Side Note #1 In shelves of 19th century literary works, we always read of the diseased-afflicted whose tongues turned black with pestilence. Never saw it in the movies, though. Claude fixed that. Not a big deal – but, it’s about damn time.

Side Note #2 Ric, during the period when he was regularly corresponding (pre-internet) with Charbrol, told me a story. Having mentioned to the director that we loved this movie, and, indeed thought it the best picture of the year, M. Chabrol revealed that when he first began to seriously consider doing a Bovary adaptation his prime concern was finding the proper actress to portray the multi-leveled part. He was having lunch with Huppert, a regular Chabrol visitor since Women, and he told her of his woes. She must be unassuming, but still fascinating, lovely – sinisterly smart behind her innocent, total country girl eyes. After a pause of several seconds, the Paris-born but rural-raised (Ville d’Avray) Huppert reached over, and slapped the director on the forehead. “IDIOT!,” she shouted. Chabrol, as if awakened from a trance, looked at her agape, and replied, “Of course! What was I thinking!?”

1992’s BETTY is one of the modern screen’s triumphant psychological thriller-dramas, and, like so many Chabrol works, an important addition to feminist cinema. The director has always aligned himself with female collaborators – not only comprising the extraordinary women cast in his works, but by teaming up with great coscripters; ironically here, however, he turns to one of France’s iconic mystery writers, Georges Simenon. So, how could the combination of Chabrol and Simenon fail? In an inspired nutshell: it can’t.

BETTY visually punctuates the adage, “one’s own worst enemy.” Betty isn’t necessarily a bad person, but a perennial victim, who manages to turn anyone she befriends into her victims. To use another cliché, beauty is a curse. Betty’s stunning looks allowed her, via marriage, to ingratiate herself into a wealthy family. She is basically there to satisfy her husband, and become the clan’s newest breeding animal. Her unhappiness causes a discovered infidelity, which gets the woman cast out (albeit with a huge payout), and threats of more already calamitous emotional abuse should she ever try to see her offspring (as such, the movie is a fascinating companion piece to 2019’s shamefully neglected Swallow, starring and coproduced by Haley Bennett).

Betty’s downward spiral never hits rock bottom because so many reasonably decent people take pity on her, and, worse, bring the woman into their lives – which, by no intentional fault of her own, she destroys (to paraphrase this live-action Jessica Rabbit: she’s just withdrawn that way).

Like so many Chabrol women, Betty is a human paradox – simultaneously endearing, vulnerable, addictive, selfish, treacherous, and fatal. She’s pathetically pathetic.

And as with other Chabrol “heroines” (Stephane Audran, Isabelle Huppert), star Marie Trintignant gives an outstanding nuanced performance – one of contemporary cinema’s distinguished examples of thespian art (of course, she and the movie were ignored at Oscar time). Chabrol’s direction and adaptation of Simenon’s novel is first-rate, as is the camerawork by Bernard Zitzermann, and the score by Matthieu Chabrol. The supporting cast, too, is superb, and features Stephane Audran, Jean-Francois Garreaud, Yves Lambrecht, Pierrre Vernier, Chrstiane Minazolli, Nathalie Kousnetzoff, Yves Verhoeven, Thomas Chabrol, Henri Attal, and Melanie Blatt .

I defy anyone NOT to fall in love with Betty. At their own peril.

1994’s superb psychological thriller TORMENT (L’Enfer) is perhaps the most Hitchcockian of the Chabrols in this set (or, for that matter, in his filmography). It was a troubled project, to say the least. TORMENT‘s embryonic beginnings were started by no less than Henri-Georges Clouzot – France’s other preeminent director often compared to the Master of Suspense. Clouzot’s script (cowritten with Jean Ferry and Jose-Andre Lacour) had been abandoned, and eventually discovered and retrieved by Chabrol (and fortuitously so). Recalling a number of Hitch’s illustrious achievements (The Manxman, Vertigo, Marnie), TORMENT is an engrossing examination of sexual obsession taken to its most fatal degree.

Paul Prieur, a youngish, flourishing hotelier, has got it all: a thriving resort in a pastoral setting, a neverending cache of inventive ideas, and, best of all, Nelly – a loving beautiful wife to share this life with.

But the honeymoon ends prematurely when Paul uncharacteristically finds himself hounding Nelly about her activities without him. It slowly and increasingly becomes worse. Soon, he is questioning her fidelity, following her to the point of stalking, and neglecting his business. The downward descent of his addiction to possess Nelly is worse than any drug could be. Mentally and physically, it takes its toll on the once-engaging Paul, who begins to insult (and lose) guests, blaming and ultimately abusing the innocent Nelly, whose own mental state now becomes progressively fragile.

The primo terminal relationship movie from Hell, TORMENT delivers its drama like a sledgehammer, both in front of and behind the camera. It’s Chabrol at his best, aided admirably by two fantastic leads: Emmanuelle Beart and Francois Cluzet as Nelly and Paul (with fine support from Nathalie Cardone, Andre Wilms, Marc Lavoine, Dora Doll, Christiane Minazolli, Mario David, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sophie Arthur, and Thomas Chabrol). The deceptive beauteous scenic Aude-lensed backdrop for this nightmarish detour is sumptuously captured by d.p. Bernard Zitzermann, in unison with an excellent score by Matthieu Chabrol.

Deservedly hailed as a masterpiece, TORMENT was often that for its director. The main reason for his displeasure with the picture was the participation of Beart. Chabrol always loved to surround himself with cast and crew who shared his sense of caustic satire – men and women he could constantly rely upon to build a personal stock company. To his shock, Charbol termed Beart as “humorless,” totally devoid of any snarkasm; this is almost impossible to fathom, as she is so terrific in this movie, ably displaying a fun-loving, laughter-prone side in the early sequences. Beart and Chabrol would never cross paths again.

The perfect title to conclude this must-have collection, TORMENT is a disturbing, emotional roller-coaster ride, presented in an exceptional manner that defines first-rate cinema.

LIES AND DECEIT: FIVE FILMS BY CLAUDE CHABROL. All Color. All Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; All 1.0 mono DTS-HD MA, with the exception of TORMENT [2.0 stereo DTS-HD MA]; All French w/English subtitles. Arrow Video/MVD Entertainment Group. CAT# AV362. SRP: $99.95.

“Oh, those midgets…”

JULY IS SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES MONTH

It’s always a treat to discover a movie once it’s released on Blu-Ray; that said, it’s likewise a kick to re-discover one when it debuts in the format. I offer as Exhibit A the 3000-limited Edition B-D of the 1963 musical-comedy BYE, BYE BIRDIE, available on the Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment label.

Adapted from the smash Broadway Michael Stewart (book)/Charles Strouse/Lee Adams (music and lyrics) hit, the show “made” star Dick Van Dyke. The movie, with a truly funny script by veteran scribe Irving Brecher (Meet Me in St. Louis, the Dobie Gillis TV series) and in the more-than-capable hands of George Sidney (who made such memorable entries as Anchors Aweigh, The Harvey Girls, Scaramouche, Show Boat, Kiss Me Kate, Pal Joey, Who Was That Lady?) fully grasps the filmic possibilities of the narrative, “opening up” the cinematic Panavisioned-framed door, via the virtuosity of d.p. Joseph Biroc (utilizing a myriad of movement, inventive angles and even animation). Whew, that was a lot to say!

With a first-rate cast, a songbook of show-stopping tunes and a can’t-miss plot, BIRDIE is a win/win proposition from the amazing fade-in of smoldering teen/woman Ann-Margret winking, pouting and gyrating herself into orgasmic frenzy (and all male viewers into jail-bait fantasy hell).

For young women, the moral compass of BYE BYE BIRDIE is a double-edged sword: A) rock ‘n’ roll will open up a new world of fun, freedom and endless good times; and B) you’ll probably become a prostitute.

Ann-Margret was an inspired choice to play the small-town cutie selected to kiss rock star Conrad Birdie on The Ed Sullivan Show; it’s all a publicist’s dream bon voyage stunt, chronicling Birdie’s temporary swan song to stardom, thanks to his induction into the military. Yup, it’s the Elvis Presley predicament spearheading this dilemma – one that had real-life 45 RPM mavens reaching for .45 caliber replacements. It’s a storyline so satire-ready that if it hadn’t actually happened, to quote the wags, “ya couldn’t have made it up!”

More than Van Dyke, celluloid BYE, BYE BIRDIE propelled Ann-Margret into the entertainment stratosphere. Prior to this movie, she was a demure singer (albeit it a fetching one), who made her show biz debut on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour. Shortly thereafter, she became the protégé of George Burns, appearing with him in Vegas, and turning up on pal Jack Benny’s classic TV series. A-M then played goody-two-shoes eye candy in Frank Capra’s 1961 remake of Lady for a Day, Pocketful of Miracles, as the proper (translation: boring) daughter of Bette Davis.

It took the sweaty palms of Sidney to ultimately unleash the carnal beast – a determined tigress who morphs from girl to woman in an early BIRDIE number “How Lucky to be a Woman,” (supposedly) dressing down tomboy style in her bedroom (it kinda reminded me of Nancy Kwan’s far more in-your-face rendition of “I Enjoy Being a Girl” in Flower Drum Song). Credulously, throughout the Sixties, I thought that this was what all females did to excite themselves: retreat to their boudoirs and sing about luring men to their doom whilst putting on/taking off underwear. Kwan, Ann-Margret and an array of Hammer actresses provided enough collateral damage to last me nearly a decade.

Don’t take my word for it, check out reports of director Sidney, who, as with Kim Novak (in Jeanne Eagels and Pal Joey) became perilously obsessed with Ann-Margret during the production. This might well-account for the movie’s (aforementioned) opening and closing bumpers, the unbridled sexuality released during A-M’s dry hump dancing exhibitions comprising a catalog of come-hither expressions and effortless seduction techniques that would make Marlene Dietrich and Gloria Grahame gasp in horror. Within two years, Ann-Margret would be starring in such sensational titles as Kitten with a Whip, Bus Riley’s Back in Town, The Swinger and The Cincinnati Kid (relegating blonde pretty poison costar Tuesday Weld to good-girl status, a near-impossible feat). Sidney, so enamored of his star, agreed to return to his alma mater, MGM, to cast her opposite the real Birdie, Elvis hisself, in 1964’s Viva Las Vegas, generally considered the best of the 1960s Presley Metro pics, and packed with more on-screen teen movie chemistry than the Manhattan Project. “That Go-Go Guy and That Bye Bye Girl in the Fun Capital of the World!” heralded the one-sheets, and, presumably, the bed sheets, as it was here a rejected Sidney sealed his fate, when, early on, the actress famously began an affair with the rock icon, clearly a case of art imitating art.

Whether it’s the extraordinary choreography of Onna White or her natural endorphins exploding before our very eyes, Ann-Margret’s dancing is one of BYE, BYE BIRDIE‘s many highlights; for the young star, it was a celebrity-defining moment. From that point on, she never gave up an op to display these moves (usually attired in her soon-to-become trademark pink hip-huggers and midriff-top), save the possible exception of Joseph Andrews.

The only way to briefly describe Ann-Margret’s apparent boundless musical energy is to suggest Bob Fosse’s version of The Chicken Dance. She twitches, flapping arms outstretched, head bouncing from one shoulder to another, legs spread as her ankles defy gravity, snapping to impossible 45-degree angles in a manner that would make Jerry Lewis envious. It’s what cinema’s all about.

Of course, we can’t deny Dick Van Dyke’s contributions either. With all the enthusiastic talent on view, his role is, under careful consideration, fairly thankless. Credit his comic capabilities to really give serious competition to his fellow cast members. There’s astounding confidence in his character, Albert Peterson – the offspring of a nightmarish domineering mother (a frightening but wacky Maureen Stapleton, in reality, the same age as her movie progeny) – a closet biochemist forced into writing rock ‘n’ roll ditties. For the actor-comedian, flush from success of his brilliant CBS series, and simultaneously filming Mary Poppins, ’63 can certainly be said to have been his year. When one thinks about it, Albert’s the pic’s most genuinely interesting character. He essentially invents a new amphetamine, which he has no problem testing on humans (well, okay, Russians). That he plans to team up with Ann-Margret’s father to market the product moves us further along this twisty road – the final stretch being the pimply-pimped teen girl’s kissing the sleazoid Birdie on national television, thereby completing the entire equation of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in one delirious package, or, what we conveniently term American Exceptionalism. In retrospect, sabotaging the Russians on a coast-to-coast broadcast in 1963 was probably not too well-thought out an idea. If Cuba and the Bay of Pigs almost caused a nuclear war, methinks doping the Soviet Union’s concert meister to the delight of 100 million enemy viewers wasn’t going to sit well with Nikita. Alas, my post-BYE, BYE BIRDIE take is to make it the unofficial fourth installment of the Columbia Pictures mid-Sixties doomsday series, placing it squarely alongside Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe and The Bedford Incident. But that’s just me.

Happily, no one ever listens to anything I have to say, so off we go to BYE, BYE BIRDIE‘s most intelligent denizen, Van Dyke’s girlfriend, personified by Janet Leigh (top-billed, since at the time of the picture’s release, she was the movie’s most viable box-office name). Interestingly enough, Leigh’s character, Rosie, underwent the most changes from Broadway to Hollywood. Chita Rivera played the part on The Great White Way when Rosie’s last name was Alvarez; for the movie, a white-bread version was thought more suitable for the masses, changing the surname to DeLeon (how soon the fickle industry forgot The Ricardos). Nevertheless Leigh was decked out in a black Rita Moreno wig, along with hoop earrings and enough eyeliner to gnash the teeth of Maria Felix. Telltale reminders of her actual heritage are further displayed on her desk in the form of various Frito Bandito-type figurines. Leigh’s singing and dancing talents, however, are not compromised and she’s really quite the trouper in “One Boy” and “Rosie.”

Aside from Dick Van Dyke, the only other key cast member of the Broadway production to make the Hollywood cut was Paul Lynde as Ann-Margret’s long-suffering pater. After nearly ten years in the business, Lynde at last struck paydirt with BYE, BYE BIRDIE; simply put, this movie (and more precisely, the song “Kids”) made his career. I vividly remember seeing this flick during the summer of 1963 at the Onteora Theatre in the Catskill resort of Fleischmann’s. Virtually every line Lynde said brought the house down. I can specifically recall the scene where Stapleton goes suicidal, sticking her head in Lynde’s family’s oven. Not to worry, offers Lynde, “…it’s electric.” The laughs on that line alone drowned out the next two minutes of the picture. It’s Lynde, by the way, who makes the midget comment that I used as the headline for this piece, a reference made regarding the little people’s degenerate lifestyle when, as a youth, his character ran away to join the circus.

The movie’s rockers – fictional and real – merit more than just a mention. Bobby Rydell, teen idol du jour, does manage to turn his one-dimensional part as Ann-Margret’s boyfriend into something a bit more substantial. His geeky wide-eyed delivery brings to mind a slightly cooler version of Rick Moranis in Little Shop of Horrors; in fact, the whole comedic rock ‘n’ roll aura makes me wonder if this show didn’t at least in part inspire (Alan) Menken and (Howard) Ashman.

This brings us to BYE BYE BIRDIE‘s most underrated participant, Jesse Pearson as its main protagonist. On Broadway, Birdie was portrayed by Dick Gautier, known to most TV fans as Hymie the robot on the Get Smart sitcom. Never having seen the original production, I can’t imagine Gautier being scummier than Pearson’s uncouth redneck SOB – every daughter’s parent’s worst fear. Pearson’s sneering expressions, his jubilant expertise at his seductive prowess, his hysterical spot-on parody of a dangerous rock ‘n’ roller warbling (“HURT ME!”) raise the proceedings to a magnificent snarky level. If anything, it’s unfair to his target Presley, who, by all accounts, was a courteous, decent dude. Pearson’s Birdie is more along the lines of a teenaged Lonesome Rhodes, that monstrous Andy Griffith bastard from A Face in the Crowd. Furthermore, Pearson’s Birdie powers are such that his effect on a small town is identical to the opening of Village of the Damned: instant mass female unconsciousness (whether this actually caused all the womenfolk to subsequently become pregnant is never explored).

The mini-bits are great too. Trudi Ames as Ursula was seemingly the go-to girl whenever a teen femme working for Columbia or Screen Gems (Columbia’s TV appendage) needed a best friend. Mary La Roche, as Ann-Margret’s mom and Lynde’s wife, went down a similar road in Gidget. Great character actor Frank Albertson is a scream as the town mayor with an insatiable wife (Beverly Yates), who even after passing out, still pumps her spread-legs up in the air (“Birdie, what ya doing?,” uttered while cradling his pulsating spouse, never fails to bowl me over). Leigh and Albertson had previously crossed paths in Psycho (he was the grungy millionaire whose 40K she absconds with). Robert Paige is an A.D. for the Sullivan show (“Hey, it’s the guy from Son of Dracula!” I shouted out loud in the theater before being told to shut up). Then there’s Ed Sullivan – whose personality defies any description, and heir to one of my favorite celebrity credits (So-and-so as…HIMSELF).

There are tons of reasons for purchasing this Blu-Ray, a few of which I will ecstatically praise. Primarily, one can never shout loud enough about how important a great print of a movie is to the overall presentation. BYE BYE BIRDIE was shot in unstable Eastmancolor. For years, one either had to suffer through blotchy-hued copies with peach-colored facial tones, or, out-and-out faded red versions; of course, on TV, these prints were pan-and-scanned, which automatically made them unwatchable. This new transfer was struck from the recent restoration, which premiered in conjunction with the 2011 Oscars (and was hosted by Ann-Margret and Rydell). Hey, folks, they’re actually accurate fleshtones, neon-enamaled reds, greens and blues and more. Joe Biroc is a terrific cameraman, and, as indicated earlier, his collaboration with director Sidney was a rewarding one (encompassing some nice second unit NYC, Washington, D.C. location work). The 2.35:1 compositions are fantastic; most notable is the framing and lighting during the “One Boy” duet between Ann-Margret and Leigh (Ann-Margret’s amorous bedroom-eyed desire to have “…one boy to joke with, have Coke with…” is an unintentional “connection” to Leigh’s aforementioned songwriting pill-pushing boyfriend). The imagery on the Blu-Ray is so sharp that one can actually make out the guest roster on Sullivan’s upcoming programs (nice to know that Nixon was somewhere between Kim Novak and Jerry Lewis). We can also enjoy the shameless Columbia product placement, as evidenced by the teens’ accumulation of various Hanna-Barbera toys and apparel (ditto the record store stock in the “Telephone Hour” number, as all the LPs are Colgems).

The audio is even better. Unless one saw BYE BYE BIRDIE first-run (Radio City Music Hall for us New Yorkers), they were denied the pleasure of hearing the likes of “Put on a Happy Face,” “I’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do,” and the rest in full-dimensional stereo. More than thirty years ago, Pioneer Special Editions released a letterboxed laserdisc with the original stereo elements – but, in a notorious example of QC FU, they switched the tracks to wrong sides of the screen. Since then, DVDs have corrected that problem, but, until this evocation, I have never had so much fun hearing the precise separations and surround effects that the movie had to offer. I can enthusiastically state that BYE BYE BIRDIE could be one of the best classic movie stereo B-Ds I’ve ever heard. Moreover, like all Twilight Time titles, BIRDIE has an IST (Isolated Sound Track) option (including the musical numbers).

A testament to Sidney’s Ann-Margret jones is the inclusion of a special BYE BYE BIRDIE teaser, which is, nothing more than a blatant love letter to the talents of the rising and writhing starlet; jeez, you’d never know that anyone else was in the picture. The official theatrical trailer is also thrown in the mix (noteworthy, as it uses an alternate take to “Kids”), but it’s nowhere near as much fun – nor embarrassing.

Talk about embarrassing, a friend reminded me that a sequel, Bring Back Birdie, debuted in 1981, basically utilizing the Callaway Went Thataway plot; it died a quick death. Then a TV revival movie was filmed in 1995 costarring Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams, clearly an anti-Christ artistic undertaking of flipping the BIRDIE; if nothing else, it provides an additional impetus for rushing out and buying the Twilight Time disc.

BYE BYE BIRDIE: Color. Letterboxed [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; Stereo-surround [5.1 DTS-HD MA]. Limited 3000-only pressing.

Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. SRP: $29.95.

Forget-Me-Nuts

JULY IS SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES MONTH

For physio-chemist executive David Stillwell, the 1965 blackout ain’t a patch on the one he’s personally experiencing in that year’s expert thriller MIRAGE, starring Gregory Peck and directed by Edward Dmytryk (now on Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios).

Peck’s Stillwell finds himself caught in a minor power outage plaguing the Fun City building he works in. He retreats to one of the lower levels, only to later discover…that the structure has no lower levels. Weary, he returns to his Manhattan apartment, where he is gleefully welcomed back by the doorman. He’s been gone for two years!

Soon, strangers, friends, and possibly even lovers are out to kill him. But why? Add a philanthropist’s suicide (likely to be a murder), and an insidious plot involving power, greed, lust, and sanguinary savagery – all further bewildering a protagonist wondering where he belongs in this never-ending nightmare.

MIRAGE encompassed one of those bizarre sub-genres that briefly flourished in the mid-Sixties: the amnesia thriller; it was one of at least three major motion pictures dealing with the subject (and probably the best), the others being Mister Buddwing (also taking place in New York City), starring James Garner, and The Third Day, featuring George Peppard. Star-coproducer Peck wisely enlisted screenwriter Peter Stone to adapt Howard Fast’s gripping novel; both had recent Universal movie hits – Stone, Charade, and Fast, Spartacus.

Director Edward Dmytryk was another inspired decision. Certainly his finest late work, Dmytryk was revered for Forties noir classics like Murder, My Sweet and Crossfire. While this noirish entry doesn’t quite match up to those earlier triumphs, it does come damn close. Dmytryk, who began as an editor, wanted to get around the censors to inject a bit of modern violence into the mix. Working with ace editor Ted Kent (a Universal craftsman since the 1920s, best-known for Bride of Frankenstein), they created a chilling moment. When describing to Stillwell the death of the aforementioned millionaire philanthropist, who fell from the top of a high-rise, the final moments of the head-first plummet downward is likened to a watermelon hitting the pavement. Later, as Stillwell experiences hallucinatory whirlpool flashbacks, a montage includes a body falling out of a window, followed by a melon splattering on the sidewalk. The result in the theater was screaming not unlike the audience reaction to the shower scene in Psycho. Another clever ploy was the use of marketing. MIRAGE was released at the height of Bondmania, and the trailer includes an exchange between Peck and the P.I. (Walter Matthau) he hires to help unravel the mystery of who his character is. “Pretend you’re James Bond, he always knows,” offers a snarky Peck to the snarkier clue-hunting Matthau. I kid you not, that bit in the coming attractions, provoked hearty laughter, and a generous round of applause (the trailer is included as an extra).

Another great aspect of MIRAGE was the Manhattan location filming (part of a deal Universal must have made with the NewYork City Film Commission as, during this period, a number of their biggest titles were shot in the city, including Blindfold, PJ, Madigan, What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?, and others), gorgeously served up in stark, striking black-and-white by the wonderful veteran d.p. Joseph MacDonald (one of his last projects). The elegant, jazzy music, too, is exceptional, scored by no less than Quincy Jones (his third feature). Best of all is the large and superb cast supporting Peck; aside from Matthau, there’s Diane Baker, Kevin McCarthy, Jack Weston, George Kennedy, Leif Erickson, Walter Abel, Robert H. Harris, Anne Seymour, House Jameson, Hari Rhodes, Franklin Cover, Ann Doran, Edith Fellows, Myron Healey, and Bill Quinn.

The 1080p High Def widescreen platter of MIRAGE looks and sounds terrific. Among the neat supplement of extras is a recent interview with costar/romantic lead Baker.

It’s always a joy when Gregory Peck is spellbound, and, thus, the MIRAGE Blu-ray gives mystery fans a delightful treat – the accessibility to this rarely-seen suspense gem via Kino-Lorber’s/Universal’s new fantastic transfer.

MIRAGE. Black and white. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K23960. SRP: $29.95.

Pop Shows the Weasels

JULY IS SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES MONTH

An unusually bold mainstream Sixties classic, 1965’s period piece SHENANDOAH, starring James Stewart and directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, comes to Blu-Ray, via Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.

Ostensibly, a tale of the Civil War, SHENANDOAH personifies the nightmarish conflict largely through the Anderson family – a brood of Virginian isolationists (some not by choice), ruled by strict patriarch/widower Charlie. The six sons, daughter and daughter-in-law nightly discuss the current news over dinner. With actual sounds of battle occasionally evident in the distance, the sibs argue about joining up, opposition to any service, or simply leaving things status quo. Charlie leans toward the latter two. “How many slaves you own?,” he asks his pro-Confederacy-minded son Jacob. “What about you, James? You ever think you might like to own a slave?” Embarrassment lowers the verbal ballast, and with the simmering palaver momentarily quelled, the family, grateful for what they’ve achieved (a beautiful, large, prosperous farm), uncomfortably resumes their meal. On a personal front, Anderson awaits his first grandchild, and a local successful officer-apparent courts the clan’s only female-born member. Charlie’s words of “It doesn’t concern us” seem to ring true.

Then, the unthinkable happens. A local gray battalion is practically wiped out on their land, and, worse, the youngest, (known only as “Boy” throughout the picture), wearing a Reb cap he found, is captured by Union troopers, and sent to a prisoner of war camp.

“Now it concerns us!” snarls Charlie (as only Jimmy Stewart can), and the family sets off to make things right.

SHENANDOAH, as penned by James Lee Barrett, is a moving, rousing action-packed drama that nevertheless doesn’t flinch for being a parable to the then-raging Vietnam War (slavery aside, many of the arguments the Andersons have were being held nightly at dinner tables across the country…although, at the time, none of this overtly clicked with me; then again, I was eleven). Remarkably, Andrew V. McLaglen doesn’t let the engrossing narrative become too marred by politics – just enough; it’s a clever directing gig. Star Jimmy Stewart’s stance is quite extraordinary, considering his hawkish position on Nam and the military in general (or, should we say Brigadier General, as that was his status in the Air Force). That said, Charlie Anderson’s opposition to the war is only negated by the very Republican decision that “now it concerns us.” For Anderson/Stewart, that turn-the-tide situation meant fighting at all costs (in February of the next year, the veteran star flew a special secret mission over Vietnam); mirroring the narrative, the actor’s stepson was killed near the demilitarized zone in 1969.

For McLaglen, SHENANDOAH was a dream come true. Movie royalty, the son of Victor McLaglen, Andrew grew up on John Ford sets – eventually becoming an unofficial a.d. on such iconic works as The Quiet Man. He soon stepped-up into full directing mode, managing a steady career until his screen retirement in 1991. McLaglen always claimed that SHENANDOAH was his best work. He could be right, although a number of late underrated entries should be considered, including North Sea Hijack and The Wild Geese, plus a slew of terrific television episodes on such famed series as Have Gun Will Travel, The Line-Up, Perry Mason, The Lieutenant, The Virginian, Rawhide, Gunsmoke, and Wagon Train.

SHENANDOAH was the movie McLaglen was most proud of, no doubt because it’s also his most Fordian. Stewart even gets to talk to his dead wife at her gravesite (a la John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon). He also wisely recruited the brilliant William Clothier (The Horse Soldiers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Donovan’s Reef, Cheyenne Autumn) to film the gorgeous visuals in rich, vivid Technicolor. Then, there’s the cast – many Ford veterans (also McLaglen personal buds), including Paul Fix, Harry Carey, Jr., Pat Wayne, Chuck Roberson…plus Doug McClure To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Phillip Alford (as Boy), Strother Martin, Denver Pyle, George Kennedy, Tim McIntire, James Best, Kevin Hagen, Dabbs Greer, Kelly Thordsen, Rayford Barnes, Lane Bradford, Edward Faulkner, Gregg Palmer, and, in bits, Gary Grimes and Warren Oates. The women in the pic are especially worth mentioning – a pair of newly signed Universal contractees (two of the studio’s last), Rosemary Forsyth and, more notably, Katharine Ross. Forsyth would appear in a number of other excellent Universal entries, such as The War Lord before segueing into MCA-TV series – while Ross would fare better in the unfairly ignored Games before becoming a major star in 1967’s The Graduate (which allowed her to eventually ease out of her Universal “bondage,” albeit gracefully, via Tell Them Willie Boy is Here).

The score by studio reliable Frank Skinner is suitable, elevated by a lovely main and end instrumental rendering of the famed title melody.

As produced by Robert Arthur, SHENANDOAH looks bigger than it is – an opening battle prologue from MGM’s vault, featuring an impressive montage from 1957’s Raintree County. The picture is also incredibly adult, and contains some pretty graphic violence, and a harrowing rape scene.

While critics were mixed, although mostly positive, audiences flocked to see the movie in the summer of 1965. Back then, if a movie recouped its cost, and then grossed four million or so – it was considered a big-time hit. SHENANDOAH grossed over eighteen million in the U.S. alone that July and August before going on to enjoy an equally profitable international run.

The new Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of SHENANDOAH looks sensational – like owning your own pristine 35MM Technicolor print. It’s as if I was sitting in the front row of the Onteora all over again.

FUN FACT: SHENANDOAH was retooled as a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical in 1974, starring John Cullum (replacing the original choice Robert Ryan, who had succumbed to lung cancer in July of 1973).

USELESS FUN FACT: SHENANDOAH was, to my knowledge, the last movie to use the classic traditional matte paper one-sheet posters. After this release, all one-sheets would go “glossy,” which is still used today.

A super nostalgic celluloid excursion, the SHENANDOAH Blu-Ray is the first time I’ve seen this movie in decades. Andrew V. would be happy to know that by the poignant fade-out, there were tears in my eyes. I truly can envision John Ford weepily uttering “Son of a bitch!” High praise indeed from ghostland!

SHENANDOAH. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K25433. SRP: $24.95.

The Meth in Method

JULY IS SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES MONTH

What started as one-off several years ago has become an annual Supervistaramacolorscope event: coverage of movies I remembered from their original summer release, when I was (mostly) happily ensconced in the New York Catskill Mountains Maisel-friendly resort town of Fleischmann’s.

We’re kicking off with a doozy. A picture I was hoping would be released on home video for decades – in fact, for so long that the many I told about it thought I was making the damn thing up: 1964’s BEDTIME STORY, now with fresh Blu-ray linen from the folks at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.

I first became aware of this movie (like most celluloid fans do) via the trailer, which unspooled amongst the unsuspecting audience in early July of ’64. The three-minute preview reminded us of the previous endeavors of the pic’s cowriter (and now also co-producer), Stanley Shapiro, who provided rollicking, double entendre laughs with Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back. Okay, we’re pumped. It was the wacky story of two very different con men preying on rich women (heiresses and widows) along the French Riviera. And with unusual results. The next shot featured one of the duo careening down a mountain trail in a runaway wheelchair screaming like Shemp. What made this unusual was that the buffoon in question was…Marlon Brando.

Remember, this was nearly thirty years before The Freshman…it was when Brando was considered the greatest American actor of the post-WWII era. I was laughing hysterically, soon virtually the only one, as a hush fell over the Onteora (my beloved vacay picture palace). I turned around. Everyone was frozen in shock – like the theater-goers’ reaction at “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers. This only started me laughing again…and harder. I HAD to see this movie.

Indeed, I wasn’t disappointed. European-deployed American G.I. Brando (aka Freddie Benson) butts heads with the more sophisticated David Niven (aka Lawrence Jameson), eventually battling each other to see who scores the biggest target yet – Yank moneybags Janet Walker (third lead Shirley Jones).

Hold on, folks. You say this sounds familiar? It should. It was remade in 1988 as the super-successful Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, with Michael Caine and Steve Martin. And then again, in 2019, for the gender-bender version, The Hustle, with Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson (the ’88 pic likely the legal reason why the 1964 version was on ice for nearly thirty-five years).

But this is the original, and the best – for no other reason than the narrative suits its simpler time…and that cast.

Niven, natch (or, more precisely, naturally, as in second nature), is wonderful as the urbane, sly, witty Jameson – in effect, doing a variation of his Sir Charles Lytton character from The Pink Panther. It’s Brando, however, who, not surprisingly reaped most of the press. Chewing more scenery than the dinos in the Jurassic Park series, Brando is truly hilarious when maneuvering comely frauleins/senoras/mademoiselles into the sack, bamboozling superior officers, verbally jousting with Niven, or, impersonating Jameson’s mentally-challenged idiot brother.

To this day, surviving fans of the picture can quote a plethora of the lines. “Fanny of Omaha” became a quip/greeting my buddies and I tossed around all throughout that summer (you’ll have to see the movie to know why).

Once the stunned popcorn munchers and critics got over America’s Stanley Kowalski appearing in this slapstick romcom, the wry Marlon topped it. To his dying day, he claimed (and even swore) that BEDTIME STORY was the favorite of all his movies. He loved making it, particularly because of David Niven, whose sharp asides during filming had him constantly bowled over, often ruining takes. He claimed Niven was the funniest dude he’d ever met. Watching the British star on a variety of talk shows, and having read his terrific anecdotal memoirs, such as Bring on the Empty Horses, it’s safe to assume that Brando was likely correct.

Funnily enough, Brando stepped into the picture at the last minute. The official story was that Shapiro scripted the movie (with Paul Henning) for Tony Curtis (which would have been plausible, he would have been great) and Gregory Peck (which wouldn’t be, he would have been awful) in an attempt to recapture their Captain Newman, M.D. chemistry. Don’t know what happened after that, but Brando obviously thought this would be a blast, and Universal wasn’t complaining. Curiously, four years later, another con artist on the loose romcom with a military background, went before the cameras at Universal City. The project (already dated by the late Sixties, and probably written at least a half-decade earlier) also seemed slated for Curtis. Paul Newman (doing a Tony/Bronx accent) ended up in it; mirroring Brando, Newman, too, claimed that The Secret War of Harry Frigg was his favorite movie.

But back to BEDTIME STORY, and the rest of its thesps…

While Jones is attractive eye candy, she doesn’t really get to do much but look fetching and act gullible (for some bizarre reason, Universal chose not to promote the movie as starring three Oscar winners…WTF?); that said, the remainder of the cast is in full gung-ho mode, and includes Dody Goodman, Aram Stephan, Parley Baer, Marie Windsor, Frances Robinson, Norman Alden, Cynthia Lynn, Francine York, John Banner, Barbara Bouchet, Gene Roth, Rolfe Sedan, Vitina Marcus, and the beauteous Borkowski twins (Brigitte and Helga). Tech credits are also top drawer starting with director Ralph Levy, a TV comedy veteran (I Love Lucy, The Jack Benny Show, Burns and Allen, The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction) making his big-screen debut, d.p. Clifford Stine (offering up beautifully realized Eastman color, not an easy task), and composer Hans J. Salter, who surrounds the proceedings with a lovely lilting theme lifted from an earlier work, 1961’s Elvis pic, Follow that Dream (hey, if you can’t steal from yourself, what good are you!?). Brando’s company, Pennebaker, coproduced with Shapiro’s Lankershim Productions.

Until this newly-restored High Definition 1080p platter, the only available copy of BEDTIME STORY was an overpriced British DVD. While an authentic release, the UK pressing looked awful, unfortunate purchasers relegating it to inferior bootleg quality. Not so here. This Kino-Lorber/Universal transfer is 35MM pristine gorgeous. Extras include audio commentary by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, teasers, and, best of all, that actual trailer that had me so convulsed with laughter in 1964!

BEDTIME STORY. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K25696. SRP: $24.95.

This is Kidorama

THE FOUR ASPECTS OF THE FILM (Widescreen)

Yet another Holy Grail title I long-wished would get a proper home vid release, 1962’s lavish Cinerama entertainment THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM finally gets the Blu-Ray edition it deserves, thanks to The Warner Archive Collection, and the Herculean efforts of the format’s #1 fanboy David Strohmaier.

Today, the word “Cinerama” tends to confuse most post-Boomers – movie buffs that they may be. But more than a half century ago, it was a really big deal. Literally.

It wasn’t simply widescreen, or 3-D, or even IMAX, and yet, the positive attributes of all these things apply. In a nutshell, Cinerama was a synchronous three-camera 70MM process that required a special stadium-esque theater to show the succeeding synchronous three-projection 70MM walls of cinema. The germ of the idea went back as far as the silents, most famously rendered in the triptych finale of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (although these screens didn’t fully “tell” one complete, continuous tapestry. More than a decade later, the grandiose concept proved a draw at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair – a freaky, dizzying attraction (called Vitarama by its exhibitor Fred Waller). World War II brought the idea further to fruition. Waller worked with the Army Air Force to create a lifelike rig situation to train pilots under simulated fire. This intrigued Merian C. Cooper, who, with travel impresario Lowell Thomas, approached unsung ‘Rama hero Hazard Reeves to possibly do a full-length feature, to be shot around the world in Technicolor with a new audio appendage called stereophonic sound (a big movie after all needed big sound). The result was 1952’s This is Cinerama, iconic for its opening roller-coaster sequence that immediately sent scores of stunned viewers into the rest room to hurl their partially masticated Goobers and popcorn. In other words, it was a massive hit.

Of course, the expense was tremendous – having to build special theaters, equipped with giant projectors, screens – and, natch, those 70MM prints x three. And the elaborate sound equipment. But it paid off. This is Cinerama played for years, with flagship Bijous in key states, and, soon in major European and Asian countries. Even Russia went Cinerama koo-koo. More feature travelogues followed, most of them successful, but there always was that dangling carrot of actually doing a narrative movie in the process (1958’s Windjammer came close, but still, it was essentially a glorified travel-docu pic).

After 1959, with the enormous success of Ben-Hur, MGM at last decided to take the plunge, and announced How the West Was Won in Cinerama; soon George Pal (then working out of Metro, and flush from the triumph of his 1960 classic The Time Machine) threw his hat into the format sweepstakes and unveiled his plans for a bio of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, aka The Brothers Grimm, with sidebar featurette depictions of some of their most beloved works. To achieve this magical, captivating odyssey, Pal hired writers Charles Beaumont and William Roberts (using Hermann Gerstmer’s biography, Die Bruder Grimm, as a sourcework).

Long story short, both movies were blockbusters – not only in their roadshow Cinerama runs, but in their subsequent standard 35MM release. Of course, the problem with the latter was not only the loss of immersion (most thrilling in POV sequences), but of actual quality. The three screens had to be optically stitched together in a lab – the painful outcome displaying two bold join lines separating the center from what had once been the left and right panels. This was basically the versions we Cinerama fans had to live with for more than a half a century!

But now, leave us to the movie in question.

GRIMM is anything but. It’s a fun-filled, children friendly adventure (but also suitable for grownups not wanting to spend the 140-minute running time as groanups). The crux of the movie is a framing story about the two sibs, how they slave away for a dullard one-percenter, copying text in a behemoth-sized library. Their creative escape comes via (primarily through Wilhelm) fashioning a voluminous amount of delightful tales of fantasy from local lore (even relying upon a self-proclaimed forest witch!) blended with a unique personal take. As usual, the children love them, the adults are perplexed. We also get to know the Grimm’s non-literary existence, via their romances, Wilhelm with his loving wife Dorothea; Jacob with a burgeoning relationship with carefree Greta. There’s absolutely something here for everyone: comedy, music, drama, action, thrills, love stuff – and even one of producer Pal’s famed Puppetoons, used to tell the tale of The Cobbler and the Elves.

It’s these vivid once-upon-a-time excursions that had kiddies lining up around the block multiple times to revel in the wonder of what they were not only seeing, but (thanks to Cinerama) experiencing. The other stories, by the way, are The Dancing Princess,

and, perhaps most famously (at least, it was for me), The Singing Bone because of the stop-motion dragon (encrusted with jewels to tone down the scare factor).

To fully capture the allure of such a lavish undertaking, Cinerama cameras traveled extensively to the Bavarian and German locations of the Grimms, finishing up at MGM studios in Culver City. Pal, who also supervised the Cobbler segment, ceded the lion’s share of the directing chores to Henry Levin, who had recently scored huge with Journey to the Center of the Earth.

And, like How the West Was Won, a game cast of celebrated thesps graced the three panel extravaganza, notably within the fairy tales: Terry-Thomas, Buddy Hackett, Otto Kruger, Clinton Sundberg (The Singing Bone), Laurence Harvey Walter Brooke, Robert Foulk (The Cobbler and the Elves), and Russ Tamblyn, Yvette Mimieux, Jim Backus, Beulah Bondi, Sandra Bettin (The Dancing Princess; Tamblyn, it should be noted, has the cool honor of being in both narrative Cinerama movies). The remaining members of the GRIMM company comprise Walter Slezak, Ian Wolfe, Oskar Homolka, Martita Hunt (as the witch), Betty Garde, Walter Rilla, Gene Roth, and, in guest appearances as the Brothers’ renowned characters (Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, etc.), such familiar movie and TV faces as Arnold Stang, Pamela Baird, Billy Barty, Peter Whitney, Diana Driscoll, and Angelo Rossitto.

Title stars Laurence Harvey and Carl Boehm were perhaps the most unusual choices for the pic, as they are probably the least likely duo to cast in a children’s movie. In essence, Pal is turning your kids over to the Manchurian Candidate and Peeping Tom. Hey, it works. That Harvey’s wife is Claire Bloom (then simultaneously appearing on-screen as the rough sex-addicted nympho in The Chapman Report) is another head-scratcher, although one I relish. Only Barbara Eden as Boehm’s love interest seems to be perv-free (Pal obviously thought so, too, and later cast her in The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao), and would soon become an iconic phantasmagorical figure herself in the long-running I Dream of Jeannie series.

The no doubt enormous budget and extreme showmanship required to properly present Cinerama titles likely put a halter on any further narrative efforts; indeed, the moniker would soon become just that – a name to attach to a big screen 70MM single strip “specials,” It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Circus World, The Hallelujah Trail, and 2001 being several examples. Despite the logos, they ain’t Cinerama.

Around ten years ago, we Cinerama fanatics had the thrill of seeing a fully-restored three-panel Blu-Ray of How the West Was Won. It looked gorgeous with, best of all, the join lines having been digitally removed. Immediately, we all champed at the bit for a similar release of GRIMM. Not so easy, as the West materials had been in fairly decent shape, but the GRIMM elements were partially in shambles. Deterioration, water damage, and intermittent matrices shrinkage on some of all of the panels. A mammoth overhaul job, and an exorbitant pricey one. Could the sales for the title justify the cost? Could the footage even be saved?

And here’s where the aforementioned David Strohmaier stepped in. As a labor of love, editor Strohmaier had worked on stress-inducing restorations of the original This is Cinerama and many of the followups. He was, likely, dying to get his talented mitts on GRIMM. And so it came to pass.

Part of the supplements included in this two-disc set (a standard version and, like West, a Cinerama-simulated SmileBox curved edition), comprise a terrific documentary on the restoration, featuring Strohmaier painstakingly at work with an amazing crew of digital artists. The results are breathtaking: 70MM quality, eye-popping Technicolor visuals (I swear the previous prints were fuzzy, faded copies) and nifty stereo sound (how stunning to be able to view the astounding cinematography of Paul Vogel in all its three-panel glory, beautifully appended by Leigh Harline’s score, encompassing songs by Bob Merrill and coscripter Beaumont). It’s a must that you view the Rescuing a Fantasy Classic piece. Other outstanding extras include the original coming attractions, the Cinerama announcement trailer, vintage radio interviews with Russ Tamblyn and Yvette Mimieux, documentaries on the movie and George Pal, plus much more.

Back in 1962, GRIMM seemed to play forever. I can still recall the opulent display in my nabe record shop for the LP; I swear it was in the window for my entire childhood!

SIDEBAR: I have to boast that a great pal of mine in Australia sent me the original souvenir book from the Oz roadshow release to add to my collection of Big Time Movie Tie-Ins. They used to be sold in the lobbies for around a buck (serious urchin money back then). It’s one of my most prized movie possessions.

If you’re a picture-show buff from my generation, THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM is an absolute add-on to your cinema collection (while it plays in any situation, those fortunate enough to have 60”-plus TVs, a projection system, or an actual basement theater will be especially dazzled and delighted). It takes a lot to make me happy these days. This Blu-ray made me happy.

THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM. Color. VERY Widescreen [2.89:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Cinerama, Inc./Warner Bros. Entertainment. CAT # B09R6VTNNV. SRP: $24.99.

This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold*

Nella tua faccia!

THE FOUR ASPECTS OF THE FILM (3-D)

While admittedly, 1983’s TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS (now on 3-D Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics, working with the terrif 3-D Film Archive folks) isn’t a monumental movie masterpiece, it nevertheless holds a place of quasi-relevance in cinema – especially for stereoscopic fans. And particularly because of those involved.

In 1981, with the spaghetti western long dead, Italian actor/writer (in reality, a West Virginia expat) of the dubious moniker Tony Anthony (aka, Tony Pettito, or Roger Pettito, or Frank Pettito – depending upon which bio you subscribe to) decided to revive it. After all, what fame he had was owed to the genre, having scored a hit back in 1967 (at the spag/wes height) with A Stranger in Town (and the sequel, The Stranger Returns). Anthony Anthony came up with a quirky carrot to get the green light. Shoot it in 3-D. Convincing director/scribe and college professor (!) Fernando Baldi of the possibilities, the pair (in cahoots with another thesp/writer pal, Lloyd Battista) then concocted a viable, salable, and sensational plot about Old West sex trafficking, and loaded the pic up with 3-D effects, some great – some lame (a newborn baby’s rump held out to the audience) – all in questionable taste. The result shocked even them. The movie was an international blockbuster, and jump-started the 1980’s 3-D craze (causing many big studio franchises to take the bait: Jaws, Friday the 13th, Amityville).

Without a doubt, there would have to be a follow-up, so checking what was hot, the duo-trio wisely hit upon Raiders of the Lost Ark. And, thus, TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS was born.

Once again, it would be in 3-D, only this time much-improved with knowledge learned from past mistakes; the process was dubbed Super-Vision 3-D, a single-strip over-and-under anamorphic process; not the ideal format, but very effective nonetheless (it was also known as 3-Depix and WonderVision, basically semantics for Comin’ at Ya’s Optimax III and DimensionScope). And, once again, a beautiful costar would help the narrative along (Anna Obregon replacing the previous effort’s Victoria Abril). Mostly, the hook would be an unbelievable, crazed plot about J.T. Striker, an Indiana Jones-looking mercenary, hired by a museum to retrieve the title ornaments, which, in the wrong hands, could destroy the world!

I suspect, and this is my personal opinion, that Double Anthony had this scenario tucked in his pocket since the mid-late Sixties Italian obsession (post-Tokapi) with the heist movie. The Raiders stuff was added to update and put the project over (Golan-Globus/Cannon ended up with a lion’s share of the distribution rights). This is mostly due to the seeking out of a crack team to help perform the thievery – wherein Striker recruits a number of nefarious, but colorful rogues, including the gorgeous Liz (a circus trapeze artist). Indeed, the four crowns are really three (either a victim of a budget cut or bad mathematics) – with one retrieved in the Lost Ark opening sequence (the key segment in the movie for 3-D fans). So, really (after the first act), two.

Compact Anthony, who couldn’t look less like Harrison Ford, more closely resembles a Mike Myers version of Indy, which adds to the goofy fun. In addition, the barrage of bad press TREASURE has had heaped upon its crown is mostly due to the escapade being grossly misunderstood. So, let’s say it now: this popcorn epic was never to be taken seriously, not for one frame; it’s a fun afternoon at The Movies, and, once one manages to comprehend this fact, the 101-minute running time doesn’t wear out its welcome.

As for the aforementioned opening, it, alone, is worth the purchase. Beautifully framed by d.p.s Marcello Masciocchi and Guiseppe Ruzzolini (with third dimension supervisor Stan Loth fully on-board), the 3-D establishing shots of the “haunted” tomb/crypt are wonderful – and the ensuing kitchen sink action of weaponry and demonic creatures shooting out toward the camera/audience is a non-stop vast improvement over Comin’ at Ya. There’s even a fireball parody of the Raiders boulder moment (plus snakes, no doubt to help promote the “homage”).

Aside from Anthony and Baldi seemingly having a blast, FOUR CROWNS offers a cool array of supporting actors, including company associate Gene Quintano, and cowriter Jerry Lazarus, Emiliano Redondo, Francisco Villena, Kate Levan, Lewis Gordon, and the wonderful Francisco Rabal. The writing (with uncredited Anthony generously ceding all the juice to Lloyd Battista, Lazarus, and Jim Bryce) is strictly Republic serial 101. Even better, music-savvy star-producer Tony Tony’s tones are scored by no less than Ennio Morricone!

The Kino-Lorber/3-D Film Archive Blu-Ray of TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS is generally excellent. The restored materials look fresh with some nice popping colors and good detail. The wee bit of bleeding (or crosstalk) is due to both the over-and-under process and the still-not-quite-getting-the-framing-right quotient. But these technical dings are brief and minor; thank God, Cannon had the elements in decent reanimatable (is there such a word?) shape.

I do understand the mediocre response the movie gets, as its usually contributed by folks who saw it in anaglyph (briefly playing TV in the 1980s – you had to get your own tie-in red and green glasses), or flat. Either of these options is really unacceptable. This is first and foremost a polarized 3-D movie, and should only be seen that way. Of course, not all home video collectors have the post-Avatar 3-D systems required, so Kino and the 3-D Film Archive offer all three versions (a pair of anaglyph glasses included). The sound is accessible in either 5.1 or 2.0 surround (it genuinely was originally presented in Dolby Stereo). There are also (typical of the 3-D Film Archive) some nifty audio extras, comprising an interview with Tony Anthony by Douglas Hosdale, and running commentary by Jason Pichonsky, as well as the trailer.

As you know, I’m a 3-D junkie, so, for me, seeing and owning this edition is a duck ‘n’ laff riot. If you’re a similar addict, be prepared to have a lot of fun. The rest of youse’ll probably be scratching your heads. So be it.

TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS. Color. Widescreen/3-D [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1/2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/The 3-D Film Archive/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. CAT # K25857. SRP: $29.95.

Green Hell (plus Magenta)

THE FOUR ASPECTS OF THE FILM (Color)

1930’s MAMBA is one of those motion-pictures that when you attempt to describe it to someone, they refuse to believe a word of it (and even might try and have you committed). Thankfully, we now have the movie to hold up as evidence, as for nearly 90 years it was thought to have been lost. In a demented nutshell, we’re delighted to announce that this pre-Code pip is at last available in a beautiful, new 1080p High Def Blu-Ray from Kino Classics, in cahoots with UCLA and The Film Foundation. And the efforts of movie lovers and collectors (as shall be explained below).

So, what is MAMBA? Well, it was the first all-talking Technicolor drama (usually, the two-color process had been used to highlight sequences in musicals or for full-length revues and outdoor pics). And WHAT a drama! MGM or Paramount or Warners or Fox would have been logically pegged as the studio responsible for a frank, adult look at sexual depravity that likewise encompassed The Great War and a native rebellion in Africa. But, no, the company that did it was Tiffany (no relation to the jewelers, the pop star, or Chucky’s spouse). Tiffany was a modest indie that nonetheless had lofty aspirations. While producing a plethora of low-budget programmers and shorts, they also managed to finagle the rights to R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, which became a profitable, respectable project for them; it also was the film debut of director James Whale and star Colin Clive, who shortly would make horror movie history at Universal.

This success only fueled Tiffany’s ambitions, and soon, with gung-ho (as in “who says we can’t!?”) director Albert S. Rogell, they came up with a whopper follow-up: a period epic, set in 1913 Africa.

As the pic fades in, we see the East Africa-stationed German and British military maintaining a friendly cohabitation – mostly bound by their absolute derision of wealthy lowlife August Bolte (aka Mamba), the richest man in the vicinity. And for good reason. Bolte has bullied, cheated and stolen everything that made him what he is today: a scumbag. Physically, a slob, he buys his way into the local society venues, but is rightly ostracized. No expat woman will touch him, so he sexually assaults the female natives, often leaving them with bastard children. Bolte’s servants fear and hate him, much to his delight; but these perks never suffice from his prime goal: acceptance among the upper class – the one thing he can’t buy.

Or can he?

Bolte receives an urgent letter from a titled, penniless countryman in Europe. The man is strapped for cash which he needs to restore his position. At first, Bolte scoffs, but then has second thoughts. The nobleman has a daughter. This would give him entrance to the upper class echelon he craves. And there’s another plus: she’s drop-dead gorgeous. Can he “trade” for her? Apparently, yes. Making the ultimate sacrifice, the woman in question, Helen von Linden, marries the monster, and journeys back to Africa with him, already the worse for wear, but seeing a glimmer of light after meeting Karl von Reiden, a handsome, sympathetic officer on-board the ship.

Frau Bolte’s life is coital Hell – events not helped by the awful climate, her growing adulterous veering toward von Reiden, and (not the least) the beginning of the Great War that turns the Germans against their former British compadres. Oh, yeah, and thanks in part to Bolte murdering the Black mother of his child, there is a native rebellion about to explode.

It all escalates into a thrilling, violent climax that excellently uses color to accentuate the blood.

MAMBA was a mammoth production that would have taxed any major studio. For Tiffany, it was beyond sink or swim. Period uniforms, battalions of charging horses, large-scale action sequences, and top flight stars meant the movie would have to recoup a mint. The three leads, we should mention were borrowed from no less than MGM (even Stymie from the Our Gang comedies, distributed by Metro, turns in an appearance). Jean Hersholt, the evil Marcus from von Stroheim’s Greed, tops his former performance with a supreme personification of repugnance. Stunning Eleanor Boardman (Bardelys the Magnificent, The Crowd) looks swell in two-color Technicolor; with popular Ralph Forbes (Trail of ’98, Mr. Wu), also an A-lister then, completing the romantic triangle. Remaining cast members include Hazel Jones, Edward Martindel, Noble Johnson, Torben Meyer, Arthur Stone, Claude Fleming, Wilhelm von Brincken, and Will Stanton.

The Hersholt/von Stroheim connection couldn’t be clearer. Erich might have made this movie himself (of course, it would still be filming); in fact, parts of the narrative, as scripted by John Reinhardt and Ferdinand Schumann-Heink (with dialog by Tom Miranda) mirror portions of von’s Queen Kelly and his unfilmed African opus and original novel Poto Poto. Hersholt soon would totally reverse his screen persona, becoming one of the most beloved character actors in Hollywood – on and off the screen. The Academy still occasionally doles out a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

Other praiseworthy tech credits include the impressive Technicolor photography (Charles P. Boyle) and the score (James C. Bradford, Adolph Tandler).

Indeed, the movie WAS a huge hit with critics and audiences, with the terrific use of color a key viewing incentive (director Rogell would continue a career for almost another thirty years, mostly working on lightning-paced B-pictures and in television; his 1933 adventure Below the Sea for Columbia, too, would use color (MultiColor, see last week’s column) – but only for underwater segments, now sadly lost. Nevertheless MAMBA couldn’t quite make the profit it hoped for, and, with the Great Depression becoming worse, Tiffany soon folded up.

Which brings us to the sad part of this tale.

Rumored to have provided the “timber” for the famous burning of Atlanta scenes in Gone with the Wind, the Tiffany library literally went up in smoke sometime in 1938. While a handful of the studio’s titles survived (mostly due to collectors), one – the most desirable in the bunch – eluded the archives. Yep, MAMBA. For decades, we had the stills, lobbies, pressbooks, reviews…and dreams. MAMBA became one of the most sought after titles in cinema history (ironically, up there with von Stroheim’s complete Greed and Devil’s Passkey). But there seemed to be no hope of ever seeing this classic. The fact that it was two-color Technicolor made it harder to imagine a magical rediscovery, as print runs from the company at the, time were often limited to under 100 copies (MAMBA being a special deluxe item had a slightly more generous print run of 160, but still…).

Then the impossibility happened. Thanks to the work of archivist/producer Paul Brennan, a near-complete 35MM nitrate print surfaced in Adelaide, AU. The owners were the retired, movie-loving couple Murray (a former projectionist) and Pat Matthews (see the sidebar). Brennan, working with Swedish archivist Jonas Nordin, the UCLA Library, Ron Hutchinson’s Vitaphone Project, and others, eventually resulted in a full-stage collaborative restoration, and today, MAMBA is saved for all to see, enjoy and be gobsmacked. In gore-rious Technicolor. And virtually pristine.

The story of the discovery and restoration is practically as jaw-dropping (obviously, for different reasons) as the movie’s incredulous scenario, and one that I largely leave to Mr. Brennan’s own words (again, see below).

The new Blu-Ray of MAMBA looks and sounds simply grand. It perfectly resembles the copy I viewed at MoMA, back in 2017. Some fine extras are included as well, comprising audio commentary by Brian Trenchard-Smith, an interview with Paul Brennan, excerpted from the documentary Splice Here: A Projected Odyssey, Theatre of Dreams, Mr. Brennan’s documentary on Murray and Pat Matthews, a photo gallery, and more.

Pre-Code at its most ferocious (and stunningly inventive), MAMBA is a must for all classic collectors. It gives us hope of what other long-lost cinema treasures might still be out there.

The following dialog has been culled from several meetings (primarily, an introduction at a 2017 MAMBA-MoMA screening) with producer/director/film archivist/writer/exhibitor Paul Brennan (obviously, a man of many hats), and the major force behind the discovery and restoration of MAMBA.

PAUL BRENNAN ON MAMBA:

“Australia is a big place, in case you don’t know. I mean, really big. I say that to preface the story of the rediscovery of this amazing, sooooo pre-Code 1930 classic.

“So, here we go. For me, an ardent fan of early Technicolor, finding a long-considered-lost print of MAMBA was nothing short of a Holy Grail quest. It haunted me for years. I actually fantasized about it. I had seen posters, lobbycards, stills and read reviews. How extraordinary it would be to find a Technicolor copy of the first all-color dramatic talkie. Like with the complete Greed, rumors of its existence abounded for decades. Several years ago, one in particular kept resurfacing. I kinda sloughed it off because it couldn’t be that easy. It came from my country’s hinterlands. And from a thoroughly reliable elderly couple, Murray and Pat Matthews, who lived in Adelaide – closer to the South Pole than to the equator, the edge of the mid-Australian desert! Of course, if true, I would drop everything and fly out there. Murray was a projectionist in the Fifties and after TV shattered attendances in 1957, mass closures and dumpings of prints occurred. He and Pat then rescued what they physically could and took it to storage at home. I contacted them, thinking that the treasure they spoke of was probably Mambo, the black and white 1954 Italian-American coproduction starring Shelley Winters, Vittoria Gassman, Michael Rennie, and Silvana Mangano. “No, no,” Murray assured me, “it’s in color.”

“Okay, my attention was grabbed by the throat, and my enthusiasm piqued to fever pitch. I decided to make the flight. Upon arrival, I was told by the Matthews that there was a good news-bad news situation. “Oh, no – here it comes! What happened, the nitrate dissolved into dust yesterday morning?” “No, no, the print is fine, but it was from a sound-on-disc release, and the platters are long gone. We have the print, but it’s mostly silent (MAMBA was released in three versions: silent, sound-on-disc, and sound-on-film) We do have three of the sound discs.” Too much to hope for that it would have been sound-on-film, but I’ll take it, as long as the quality is watchable. What I saw blew me away. Not only watchable, but near-pristine. How could a two-color Technicolor nitrate movie survive for decades in a garage through the Australian heat while carefully vault-preserved films had turned to dust? Hey, I wasn’t complaining. I shouted that we must preserve this classic, and make it available to the millions of buffs who thought it lost forever. The Matthews, who likely thought I was bonkers, quietly replied, “whatever you have to do.”

“First, was the sound problem. The NFS Archive Of Australia looking for lost films, scanned the print onto a Betamax tape in 1988 and sent the 35mm print back to Murray. In 2008, I had that tape copied to a DVD. We matched Murray’s three discs to partially restore the synch. Jonas Nordin, a gramophone sound pal in Stockholm, who runs the wonderful TALKIEKING Sweden, did this.

“I then flew to NYC met with an ecstatic Ron Hutchinson [who, in 1991, began the wonderful Vitaphone Project – an organization that tracked down surviving sound-on-disc platters and matched them to existing silent prints] who burst with jubilant awe when hearing the specifics of the tale. He then contacted UCLA.

“UCLA had all the discs, and via Ron H, they made a CD of them. I sent both DVD/CD to Jonas. Jonas then matched the dialogue, and his splendid synch job saved $100,000 in eventual restoration costs. It synched perfectly. Even better, the sound quality was quite excellent! The only problem was that a brief sequence had been trimmed in 1930 by Australian censors; not serious, we freeze-framed the beginning of the cut, and let the audio play out. It’s a honeymoon trip aboard a ocean liner taking the unfortunate Eleanor Boardman to Jean Hersholt’s Africa. He rapes her, but then promises to agree to allow her to padlock the bedroom door to their mansion…with the villainous caveat of Hersholt telling Boardman that when the need arises, no lock will keep him out. It was only a couple of minutes of screen time, so it was no terrible loss, especially considering all that we had found.”

“Jonas and I went to Syracuse, NY in 2012 and played the new completed synched DVD to a disbelieving audience who screamed in shock. Jonas and I, I should add, were never paid a dollar. We also had to fly across the planet multiple times at our own expense!

“In 2016, I made the short film Theatre of Dreams [included as an extra on this magnificent Blu-Ray], celebrating and recording Murray and Pat. We also made the MAMBA calendar which we had to give away because nobody would buy it [a shame, since it’s wonderful; I still have mine].

“My two regrets are that UCLA won’t sell us one of the three 35MM prints they now have of MAMBA, but, more poignantly, that Murray and Pat didn’t live to see the ultimate result of their love of cinema – the now-fully preserved and forever protected MAMBA. The Matthews, sadly, both passed in 2022, just months from one another.”

I first met Mr. Brennan at the October 23, 2017 MoMa screening (he had been traveling the globe with the MAMBA restoration, to great acclaim). It was a thrill to meet him afterward, and to discover that we had mutual friends in Australia (it’s a big place, as he says, but a small world; we would meet again the next year in Telegraph Point at their wedding). Also at this screening was The Vitaphone Project’s Ron Hutchinson, another personal hero of mine; we had several discussions about early sound from the time when I was still on Facebook (his sudden passing in 2019 was a shock to movie lovers across the globe). It was wonderful to finally meet him in-person.

Paul Brennan with Ron Hutchinson at the MoMA screening of MAMBA, October 23, 2017. (photo by Mel Neuhaus)

MAMBA Color. Full-frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino Classics/The UCLA Library/The Film Foundation. CAT # K25878. SRP: $29.95.

All Stalking! All Singing! All Dancing!

THE FOUR ASPECTS OF THE FILM (SOUND)

For those who knew me back in the 1980s, my constant platitudes about a book called The Four Aspects of the Film were thought to be a self-induced fantasy. A book solely about sound, color, 3-D, and widescreen!? I MUST have made it up. Indeed, James L. Linbacher’s 1968 tome became (and still is) my movie Bible. In contemporary times (aka, the 2010s and 20s), Supervistaramacolorscope readers have been forced to constantly put up with my love of early talkies, Technicolor, 3-D and various aspect ratios. The beat, as they say, goes on.

Amazingly, a couple of studios have recently decided to give us collectors a treat, and present movie tech fans with excellent examples of all four. I, therefore, happily begin this month-long salute to Mr. Limbacher’s book (and my Jones) with…sound. And nothing could better underline that than the new superb 2K restoration of the astounding 1929 talkie THE GREAT GABBO, now on Blu-Ray from Kino Classics, utilizing the digitally-cleansed 35MM materials from the Library of Congress.

For most classic movie fans, THE GREAT GABBO is noteworthy not merely as an early talkie, but for the sound debut of Erich von Stroheim, who plays the title role. But there’s way more here than meets the eye…or ear. The movie is incredibly advanced for a 1929 talker. It uses multiple tracks, inventive (albeit primitive) audio mixing, and noise-free recording. It also doesn’t seem to be confined to those first sound “refrigerator” cameras (and is often quite beautifully shot by Ira H. Morgan). There are many angles, and cutaways; plus, possibly (on the audio side), the first large-scale use of dubbing.

And then there’s the plot.

Let’s face it, if anyone could have introduced the now-beloved insane ventriloquist scenario, it would HAVE to have been Erich von Stroheim. And, he’s all in it. Like any von Stroheim vehicle, the picture is quite frank about lust, sexuality, with dark detours into bondage and the maniacal results of rejection.

On their second wedding anniversary, fair-to-middling successful ventriloquist Gabbo, his dummy Otto, and his beautiful assistant/wife (and former singer/dancer) Mary begin one of their usual rows. But this time, the psychological verbal abuse is accompanied by physical violence. Otto, Mary correctly shrieks, is the only one [of you two] “with a soul,” all the while as Gabbo taunts, insults, and assaults her. Otto, smiling contentedly, creepily appears to agree. Mary leaves him, as Gabbo snarls a seething “good riddance, you are nothing without me!” adieu.

Time passes, and Gabbo, unlike what audiences would expect (aka, the without the love of a good woman chestnut…did we say this was a von Stroheim picture?), becomes an enormous success, playing the best houses, and reaping riches beyond his dreams. Mary hasn’t been idle, either. She has gone back to musical comedy, and has, along with her new lover, Frank, achieved stardom as well. And, now Mary and Gabbo are both headlining a lavish Ziegfeld-esque revue.

Gabbo, who has lengthy conversations with Otto, is convinced that Mary has come back to him. Otto, however, warns him about counting his chickens (the psychological effects of Otto’s mouth moving from across the room in these “talks” reflects and puts the audience smack dab inside Gabbo’s mania, and works perfectly). Mary, happy her ex is doing well, and still having some love for him, offers the madman gregarious companionship. Gabbo believes this will explode into a friends-with-benefits relationship, then a remarriage. But Mary has some secrets of her own – to say nothing of the fact that the ever-cautious Otto is, after all, a better judge of the human condition than Gabbo.

From just these narrative snippets, one can see that THE GREAT GABBO is no ordinary entertainment. Bizarrely, it was filmed by a small indie company, Sono-Art Worldwide, yet looks and plays wayyyy better than most ‘A’ talkies from the competitive majors. As indicated, it’s very fluent, both in dialog and technique (in pure technology terms, it wipes the floor with another doomed showbiz “von [Sternberg]” picture from the same year, The Blue Angel).

GABBO‘s greenlight and opulent financing, came via its director James Cruze. Like von Stroheim, Cruze began as an actor in the early Teens, then progressed to directing. Unlike von Stroheim, Cruze was nowhere near as talented (in either department), yet enormously prosperous (not a von Stroheim specialty either). His 1923 epic, The Covered Wagon broke all box-office records, and opened the door for the Super-Western (better illustrated via Ford’s The Iron Horse, Walsh’s The Big Trail, etc., both which owe their existence to Cruze). Cruze had no handle on cinematic human relations. His mantra: just make it BIG. As late as 1937, his Wells Fargo oater for Paramount defined his abilities: it’s basically a feature-length trailer.

The question then remains how, in essence, an uninspired second-unit director became so knowledgeable about interrelationships, sexuality, mental illness, and spousal abuse? The short answer: he didn’t.

Anyone familiar with von Stroheim’s work, and, who has seen THE GREAT GABBO immediately comes to the conclusion that the brilliant movie-maker not only had a hand in the story and screenplay, but in the directing. That’s putting it mildly. In a nutshell, James Cruze never made anything this good before or after GABBO. One cannot downplay von Stroheim’s penchant for the aforementioned psychological aspects of his/this work. Visually, he gets away with as much as he can, but his genius for implication was/is unsurpassed. We can actually feel Gabbo’s battling lust, desire and pain – surrounded by the constant array of gorgeous, scantily-clad showgirls in the revue. He doesn’t physically pursue them, but he is consumed by them (he even managed to convey a sense of smell/scent, which definitely would have been von Stroheim’s fifth aspect of the film).

The use of sound, too, is spectacular. Von Stroheim didn’t actually “do” Otto; that was done off-camera by George Grandee. Yet, they seem so believably connected, that the better part of Gabbo’s personality is never questioned (and anyone who’s seen Singin’ in the Rain knows that dubbing or directional recording in 1929 wasn’t a given…or, realistically, as easy as Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor make it seem). Von Stroheim didn’t get directorial credit because, as a director, he was poison – known for going above and beyond the realm of logic, spending money like an out of control flood, and jettisoning (what was considered) good taste into the abyss. Long story short: Cruze is essentially von’s beard. Prove me wrong. The scenario is soooo von Stroheim, being aided in the the story department by the ubiquitous Ben Hecht, with some dialog credited to comic actor Hugh Herbert (“woo-woo” indeed). Von Stroheim likewise worked his rapacious magic on some of the songs in the tuneful score by the appropriately-named King Zany, along with Donald McNamee, Lynn Cowan, and the no doubt childhood-taunted Paul Titsworth. One, in particular, is worth repeating: “Icky (The Lollipop Song).” As sung by Otto, the ditty, on the surface about candy confection, recounts the messiness of sexual discharge (“I’d rather suck a lemon drop because a lollipop gets all over icky”). Another ballad “Laughing” becomes the theme of the movie.

While von Stroheim is obviously the whole show, THE GREAT GABBO nevertheless includes a game cast of supporting players, most prominently costar Betty Compson (a very big star at the time, and the female lead in von Sternberg’s 1928 masterpiece Docks of New York). Also on-hand are Donald Douglas (as Frank), Bo Peep Karlin, Harry Ross, Eddy Waller, Earl Burtnett and the Biltmore Orchestra, and, as a dancer, Rosina Lawrence.

The background ambiance and atmosphere of THE GREAT GABBO is equally impressive – well-staged and choreographed (Maurice L. Kussell) musical numbers, including several sung by Babe Kane (unQuestelably, the real Betty Boop). They, sadly, were filmed in MultiColor, a Technicolor rival, and none of this material currently exists; fortunately, we can at least see these sequences here in black-and-white (although one number, “The Gaga Bird” has been lost), but we can’t help but wonder what it truly looked like; MultiColor, like 1920s Technicolor, was a two-color process, but blue and yellow (rather than magenta and yellow), so it must have looked odd. What is intriguing about the process was, that, unlike Technicolor, MultiColor didn’t require special cameras; its bipack magazines could be loaded into a standard 35MM rig (MultiColor went out of business in 1933, later to re-emerge, with refinements, as CineColor). Fingers crossed, maybe one day footage will surface. It should be noted that an elaborate spider number, featuring half-naked females trapped in a giant web backfired, once the picture went into roadshow release. Premiering at the prestigious Selwyn Theater in New York, Cruze’s publicist thought it a great idea to recreate this number by building a living billboard. The result: a block-wide rooftop spider web with writhing, live (practically) nude women stopped traffic dead in its tracks. The entire construction had to be dismantled after a couple of days.

Like so many indie movies, THE GREAT GABBO fell into public domain, the results ranging from barely watchable to atrocious. It’s stunning to see a near-pristine 35MM print in 1080p High Definition (only slight black patches of decomposition twice briefly invade the otherwise crystal-clear surroundings). The audio is absolutely distortion-free and quite dynamic (the movie was available in both sound-on-film and disc version; this 1.33 presentation hails from the latter).

There’s a terrific supplement on this Blu-Ray as well: second audio commentary by motion-picture scholar Richard Barrios, author of A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, one of the best (if not THE best) book on the transition to sound period.

An engrossing, freakish schizophrenic nightmare, THE GREAT GABBO is a must for collectors of the macabre and fans of talkies, pre-Code, von Stroheim, and 1920s cinema.

THE GREAT GABBO. Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino Classics/The Library of Congress. CAT # K25509. SRP: $29.95.