“Clothes make the man” never meant more than in the 1933 German musical comedy VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA, now on Blu-Ray from the folks at Kino Classics (in conjunction with Murnau Stiftung and the FFA Filmforderungssanstalt).
Yes, you read right – this is the original version of the universally acclaimed Blake Edwards 1982 screen blockbuster (and later Broadway hit). And while not hitting the gay subtext as heavily (the Robert Preston character is straight), it is (obviously) there in other areas and makes up for this absence with way more charm than its cinematic grandchild (I say grandchild, since there was another German version, filmed in 1957).
The movie is a merry, frothy and daring look at life in the diminishing years of the Weimar Republic – with the theatrical profession reflecting its American Depression counterpart.
Viktor Hempel, a ham actor of the highest order, has played everything from Shakespeare to Schnitzler…and all badly. His only regular source of income is as a female impersonator at a popular local dive. During another embarrassing audition, he runs into fellow suffering artist Suzanne Lohr, who obviously is not a fellow (and, unlike Hempel, is extremely talented). She, too, is desperate for work. While dining at a nearby automat, Hempel comes up with an inspired idea. Why not have Suzanne do his act – as Viktoria, a “man” pretending to be a woman, who then is revealed as a man (haircut, butch clothes and breasts strapped down). What seems like an impossible and certainly crazed plan nevertheless infects the young singer, who eventually (albeit reluctantly) agrees. And he/she/he becomes an overnight sensation!
If you ever pondered what a pre-Code movie might look like from another country, VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA is it. The pic truly has it all. Risqué situations and repartee, fast paced action, romance, and music – all against a tapestry of wall-to-wall hilarity. The cast is tremendous, led by the amazing Renate Muller, who is concurrently, lovely, riotous, seductive and generally all-out brilliant. She is more than ably supported by Hermann Thimg as her mentor. Not far behind are Fritz Odermar as a confused+ fan, Adolf Wohlbruck (later Anton Walbrook) as an at-first-infatuated-then-shocked-then (once he discovers her secret) relieved audience member (and out to turn the tables on the beauty). Of special note is the wonderful Hilde Hildebrand, companion to both men – likewise outraged, then delighted; try as she does, Elinor (Hildebrand’s character) still cannot figure out this strange artist, but is willing to try in the bedroom.
VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA was the brainchild of the vastly underrated Reinhold Schunzel, who wrote AND directed this classic farce. Seamlessly utilizing multi-leveled narrative fibers woven by contemporaries Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, Schunzel had a long career in German theater and cinema as an actor, comedian, writer and director. His inventive use of Konstantin Irmen-Tschet’s and Werner Bohne’s moving camera not only is ingenious, but becomes part of the visual gags (particularly in the opening scenes at a theatrical agency). Hand-in-hand with the clever imagery is the thoroughly innovative lilting dialog, often delivered as rhyming couplets (similar to Mamoulian’s 1932 Love Me Tonight, which probably had not yet played in Germany when Schunzel began production). The movie’s conclusion more than suggests that this pic heavily influenced Preston Sturges.
VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA was a mammoth hit in Germany, and ensured Schunzel’s employment with a series of subsequent box-office smashes. Schunzel, being Jewish, caused him to be called before the heinous Joseph Goebbels, who whisked the “problem” away with an Honorary Aryan certificate (Oy!). The director responded by whisking himself away, landing in Hollywood in the late 1930s, where he was immediately signed by MGM. Metro, who had no idea what to do with him, assigned the director to Ice Follies of 1939, infamously known as the Anti-Christ Title of that “magical year.” Hailed as the worst movie Joan Crawford ever made at her studio, Ice Follies soon relegated Schunzel back to treading the boards – which he did brilliantly, as one of the top Nazis in Hitchcock’s 1946 masterpiece Notorious. Returning to Germany, but unable to get a foothold back in the industry, he died of a heart attack in 1954.
The spectacular Muller suffered even more. Vying for Queen of Weimar Berlin with Marlene Dietrich, she seemed to ace the tag once Dietrich left for Hollywood in 1929. Proficient in English (she made two movies in the UK), Muller was actively courted by both Goebbels and Hitler, offering her the mantle of Aryan Goddess of the Cinema (she even had a private meeting mit der Fuhrer). At first, accepting the title, she quickly became disillusioned with the fascist way of life, refusing scripts and speaking out against the regime. The revealing of her romantic relationship with a Jewish man sealed the deal. In late September 1937, she was checked into a hospital, ostensibly to undergo minor knee surgery. On October 1, Muller “fell” out of her room’s hi-rise window. The Nazi propaganda machine went into full swing, leaking that Muller’s hospital stay was in reality for drug addiction, which caused the dazed-and-confused woman to plummet to her death. Other reasonable sources have two likelier theories: 1) severe depression, caused in part by her eschewing of Germany’s repugnant politics drove the actress to suicide. The most popular and probable answer, however, is that Muller’s refusal to embrace Nazism and the taking of a Jewish lover was the last straw – so she was murdered. Renate Muller was 31.
The new Blu-Ray of VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA looks wonderful (I had only seen clips before, and they were always washed out); some slight grain aside, the 35MM quality often dazzles as much as the stars on-screen. The audio, featuring a delightful score by Franz Doelle and Bruno Balz, is clean and crackle-free. NOTE: the movie reached American shores, post-Code, in 1935, where it was shorn of nearly two reels; this is the complete 99 minute version.
Recommended 100%, VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA, may have you re-evaluating the Blake Edwards version; it will absolutely have you longing for more Renate Muller!
VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA. Black and white. Full frame [1.20:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA [German w/English subtitles]. Kino Classics/F.W. Murnau Stiftung/FFA. CAT # K24761. SRP: $29.95.
A smooth, fun and funny entertainment, 1949’s MY DREAM IS YOURS,directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Doris Day, alights on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive Collection.
Doris Day was one of those Hollywood rarities. Like contemporary star Danny Kaye, she never climbed the celluloid ladder rung-by-rung to stardom (Kaye worked in the Borscht Belt before hitting Broadway, Day was a band singer, notably for Bob Hope). Each was immediately starred in a splashy Technicolor confection (Day for Warners, Kaye for Goldwyn), and hit the ground running. Day (born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff), with her engaging personality, good looks and excellent singing voice became an instant smash in 1948’s Romance on the High Seas, also directed by Curtiz and, like DREAM, costarring Jack Carson. The fact that she was a really good dramatic actress (Storm Warning, Love Me or Leave Me, The Man Who Knew Too Much) was a bonus that would shortly surface, much to the elation of studio moguls ever on the lookout for that “complete package.” Day also achieved an almost unbelievable record for a post-WWII actress – remaining a top box-office draw for twenty years!
MY DREAM IS YOURS, as written by Harry Kurnitz and Dane Lussier (adaptation by Allen Rivkin and Laura Kerr, from the original story, Hot Air, by Paul Finder Moss and famed producer Jerry Wald), is a far more fetching vehicle than Seas. For one thing, it tackled at least a thread of a (then) real-life situation. Day’s Martha Gibson is a war widow with a young son, striving to make it as a singer. She works for a live DJ company – an outfit of phone-in juke boxes that to this day I’ll never believe actually existed (you’d plop in your nickel, and request a song from an attached voicebox).
The frame around this narrative is fast-talking likeable Doug Blake (Carson), an agent with Adolphe Menjou’s (aka Thomas Hutchins) talent agency. Carson, along with his equally likeable fast-talking, Viv (the great Eve Arden), is hell bent to re-sign their biggest star, conceited swooner-crooner Gary Mitchell (an extra sleazy dose of Lee Bowman, so slimy that even his usual lounge lizard mustache opted to not appear). Mitchell is a bit sadistic, too, and delights in torturing Blake before revealing he’s ditching the folks who made him a household name for a better deal.
This puts everyone in a tizzy until Carson’s frazzled character takes a deep breath, and goes out to find a new singer to be groomed for (hopefully) bigger stardom. Cue up, “Hello, my name is Doris.”
The shenanigans that this bunch goes through (countless auditions, nitery dives, and basic survival) is trademark self-deprecating Warners cynicism – a middle-class specialty for the studio. In Curtiz’s more than capable hands, it’s often hilarious, with nevertheless some genuine pangs of pathos on the side. This is all superbly adorned by a supporting cast of comic and iconic pros, who don’t disappoint: S.Z Sakall, Franklin Pangborn, Edgar Kennedy (his final role, released posthumously), Sheldon Leonard, Frankie Carle, Ada Leonard, Selena Royle, Iris Adrian, Chester Clute, Marion Martin, Tris Coffin, James Flavin, Sandra Gould, Hank Mann, and Leo White.
Like Seas, DREAM is lavishly produced and photographed in ebullient Technicolor by two masters of the craft, Ernest Haller and Wilfrid Cline. The fact that Day’s son (Duncan Richardson) is a Bugs Bunny addict (who isn’t?) gets an added perk via a Friz Freleng-directed sequence of the beloved character (vocals, natch, by Mel Blanc) interacting with Day and Carson (a la Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh).
What’s fascinating about MY DREAM IS YOURS is the movie’s historical context. Sure, it’s wonderful to see shots of Los Angeles in 1949 Technicolor, but it’s the spritz of reality on the music industry walls that offers a telling sidebar: the steady demise of the Big Band Era (and, yes, Bowman deservedly gets his just desserts; apropos, his swanky apartment was culled from leftovers constructed the previous year for Hitchcock’s Rope; WB never wasted nuthin’!). For Warners, DREAM likewise represented their current state: the bombastic studio head Jack, having caused two extraordinary suits to split (first Darryl Zanuck, then Hal Wallis), forced many a “yes-man” to simply re-channel old product into modern projects; MY DREAM IS YOURS is, in part, constructed from bits lifted from 1934’s 20 Million Sweethearts. For Day, the movie always held a soft spot in her heart, as it mirrored the artist’s touring dates that often resulted in leaving her real-life adolescent son, Terry, behind.
The new Blu-Ray of MY DREAM IS YOURS is terrific, finally approaching a genuine rendition of the 1949 Technicolor visuals (when shown in color throughout the 1970s-1990s, it too often looked pale, as in pallor). The mono audio is standard Warners, which means dynamic and buoyant, with an array of tuneful songs by (mostly) Ralph Blaine, including the title track, plus “Someone Like You,” Love Finds a Way,” “I’ll String Along with You,” and “Canadian Capers.” Two thoroughly bizarre entries reflecting the times are “Tic, Tic, Tic,” a merry ode to the feelings of love and A-bomb radiation poisoning, and, the equally similarly jaw-dropping “Nagasaki,” which is self-explanatory.
But there’s way more. The Warner Archive Collection has truly stacked the deck, essentially creating a complete 1949 night at the movies that includes two shorts by director Richard Bare: one a riotous Joe McDoakes comedy So You Want to be an Actor and a totally strange item entitled The Grass is Always Greener (the latter nominated for an Oscar); an added cherry on top is A Ham in a Role, a great Robert McKimson Technicolor WB cartoon featuring the Goofy Gophers.
For those who harbor a jones for nostalgic, musical comedy (with a sprinkling of snarkasm), you can’t go wrong with MY DREAM IS YOURS. Besides, how often do you get to see Franklin Pangborn AND Edgar Kennedy in Technicolor?
MY DREAM IS YOURS. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment/Turner Entertainment Co. CAT # 1000797618. SRP: $21.99.
While often likened to cinematic twins, Leo McCarey and Frank Capra (to me) are light years apart. Capra, who by his own admission, created what he dubbed “CapraCorn,” is too often bogged down by treacle; McCarey’s stuff smacks of life lessons in hypocrisy. True, both began in silent comedy, but Capra, as his star rose, seemed to forget everything visual, while McCarey could zap an inventive sight gag into a sophisticated story line with a snap of his fingers. And, yeah, they were both right wing nut jobs (with, McCarey responsible for two of the most embarrassing entries in ANY auteur canon, My Son John and Satan NeverSleeps), but, when in full bloom, Leo shined. Nothing proves my point more than the recent Blu-Ray release of his shamefully ignored 1948 comedy GOOD SAM, now available through Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.
GOOD SAM, for those acquainted with it, is frequently (and unfairly unfavorably) matched with Capra’s (in my opinion) overrated It’s a Wonderful Life (Oy, here comes the hate mail!). Each flick concerns the downfall (by no fault of his own) of an upstanding do-gooder, whose one character flaw is his very philanthropic nature. For Capra, this is tinged with whimsy; for McCarey, reality.
The comparisons continue. McCarey copped one of Capra’s favorite leading men, Gary Cooper, to play the lead, and even cast Wonderful Life’s Todd Karns to play a key supporting role. But, narratively speaking, that’s where the similarities end. Cooper’s wife is, like SAM itself, the vastly underrated actress Ann Sheridan – a snarky, perfect companion, and a far cry from goody-goody Donna Reed (don’t get me wrong, I love Donna Reed).
Sam, the man – one Sam Clayton – is literally a good Sam, as in “Samaritan,” a tag that the populace of his town can eagerly verify, since they take advantage of him at every opportunity. He and his spouse, Lu, live an ideal (supposedly) middle class-plus life, along with their two young children Lulu and Butch. Sam is one of the heads of sales at the berg’s big department store, and can never stop helping people. His disgruntled boss, H.C., ever on the verge of a heart attack, can’t berate him, as Sam’s innate goodness always seems to pay off (spending an inordinate amount of time with an elderly lady looking for knitting needles turns into a windfall for the store when Sam’s patience is reciprocated by her later furnishing an entire home from the store’s appliance and furniture departments as a wedding present for her marriageable sprout).
Sam is so benevolent that his family is inadvertently placed on the back-burner when someone in need requires assistance (money loans, shelter, transport, etc.). A horrible next door family takes his car when theirs won’t start, and practically wrecks it (Sam graciously repairs both vehicles); a slut-shamed coworker is given room and board in the Clayton home when her married lover ditches her. A no-account brother-in-law that even his sister (Sheridan) can’t stand turns a brief stay into a seemingly permanent residence. Perfect strangers, too, get the Sam treatment: citizens running to catch a rush hour bus turn out to be heading toward a store before it closes, but not before Clayton practically lies down in the street to stop the vehicle.
And so it goes.
Sam, however, is no Capra doofus. He’s a smart, dude who knows exactly what he’s doing. In a beautifully written, acted and directed sequence, Cooper quietly and with dignity, tells Sheridan that he understands that some folks might consider him an easy touch, but, while many have traditional hobbies and extra-curricular interests, helping people is what he enjoys. It’s his jones. In an unexpected bolt of modernity, the local pastor, during a Sunday sermon, chides the majority of “fake Christians” as opposed to the slim array of those rare individuals who really care.
Like Wonderful Life, Sam’s world comes crashing down during a snow-blitzed Christmas. He’s about to lose the dream home his wife has wanted, likely his marriage…and, as for all those friends and neighbors he’s helped throughout the years…well, “better you, than me.” Sam’s recourse is to drown his sorrows at the local bar, attempting to become a mean drunk – but even this fails, as he gives his clothes to a homeless alcoholic. No angels’ shoulders to cry on here, just unappreciative disgruntled post-war Americans.
McCarey truly delivers the goods in GOOD SAM, a worthy (and, in my opinion, superior) follow-up to his mammoth back-to-back blockbusters Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s. A final side-by-side to Capra, like Wonderful Life, GOOD SAM was an independent production, released and distributed through RKO. It probably did better than Life (due to the participation of Cooper and Sheridan; Jimmy Stewart was post-war box office poison until 1950), but then was promptly forgotten. I first encountered it, in a truncated re-issue form, on TV in the mid-1960s, and, by accident (I thought it was the small-screen debut of the 1964 Jack Lemmon comedy Good Neighbor Sam, a TV Guide misprint listing). The cut version was pretty much the only game in town, until a subsequent cinematic excavation restored the pic to its full 114-minute running time (which this edition is).
This dialog and situations (by credited screenwriter Ken Enlund, from a story by McCarey and John D. Klorer) are sharp and hilarious. “Are you an idiot?,” asks one of Sam’s precocious urchins of their wastrel uncle. A later scene of Mr. Nelson, an obnoxious repair man ogling Sam’s beautiful wife (after inviting himself to dinner), is equal parts painful and riotous (Nelson’s gross impression of his battleaxe better half’s constant asthma would be an awful moment, if not in McCarey’s deft hands). The supporting cast is brilliant, and features Edmund Lowe, William Frawley, Clinton Sundberg, Dick Ross, Minerva Urecal, Ray Collins, Bobby Dolan, Jr., Lora Lee Michael, Joan Lorring, Louise Beavers, Matt Moore, Irving Bacon, Ida Moore, Almira Sessions, Dick Wessel, and an early appearance by Ruth Roman.
GOOD SAM was photographed by the excellent d.p. George Barnes, mostly heralded for his Technicolor work (The Spanish Main, Samson and Delilah, War of the Worlds), but primarily known for his exemplary black-and-white cinematography on Hitchcock’s Rebecca. While this 1080p Blu-Ray looks and sounds pretty good, it certainly could benefit from a full-scale restoration (an improbability, considering its current stature). An appropriate score by Robert Emmett Dolan (borrowed from Paramount) appends the visuals.
One of Cooper’s and Sheridan’s best performances, GOOD SAM is, for me, the perfect Christmas flick to be duly trotted out every Yuletide, and with a way more practical mantra than Capra’s: every time a (door) bell rings, run like hell!
GOOD SAM. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. CAT # OF804. SRP: $29.95.
Hey, this is gonna kill ya – I’m now a big-time movie reviewer. Let me tell you how this event came about. This bum, Mel What-his-name found out I’m still kickin’ and that some crazy outfit called Twilight Time is bringing out the story of my life – you know, that classic 1957 flick, PAL JOEY…Anyways, knowing that the whole megillah was based on my buddy John O’Hara’s book, which was, in turn, simply a collection of my letters to you…Well, he thought that I could do a better job than he could by handing over our recent exchanges… “You got emails?” he asked me. “Email-schmee-mail!” I don’t go in for that. I like sending postcards. Glad you saved ’em…So here we are in print. And he gets the credit – and I don’t get a dime! Whatta bum! Since this is the case – could you possibly spare a c-note? Just to tide me over. As you know, I’m always having cash flow problems. As ever,
Let me tell you something that you might have been unaware of. Billy Wilder – yeah THAT Billy Wilder was the guy who wanted to bring my story – Joey Evans unvarnished – to da screen. He had just had an altercation with Paramount studios, whom (sic) wanted him to soften the German release prints of Stalag 17! Since Wilder’s folks met their end in the holocaust, this didn’t seem kosher (and I don’t blame him!), so he left rather acrimoniously (how’s that for an $8 college word? I’m comin’ up in the world). Wilder further gives them the ice pick in the puss by freelancing at Fox, resulting in a little panache called The 7-Year Itch. Oh, brother, remember that? Marilyn Monroe and that dress in the subway grating? Wowie–wow-wow-wow!
So he ventures to Columbia and Harry Cohn, who naturally welcomes him with open arms. Then the fireworks began. As you know, I’m a hoofer by trade, but Billy had other notions. Gene Kelly became a star because of me – when the whole shebang exploded on Broadway in 1940. But he wasn’t part of Wilder’s picture – at least the moving picture. “Who then?” asks Cohn. “Marlon Brando!” exclaims Billy. Cohn looks like he’s about to have a fit. Me – I’m ecstatic. BRANDO doin’ yours truly. Hell, the guy pulled off Julius Seezer (sic), so why not Joey Evans? Cohn admits that Marlon can line ’em up proper, so he grits his teeth and relents. “But Brando can’t dance” he tells Wilder. Wilder replies, “Not to worry – we’re making him a night club comic.” Cohn wonders how Marlon will play op Rita Hayworth, who has a couple of pictures left on her contract – and whom he’s more than dyin’ to get rid of. “Doesn’t matter” sez Billy. Hayworth is out. “Who then?” asks Harry. “Mae West,” sez Wilder.
Now let me tell ya something quickly. Harry Cohn is what the carriage trade refers to as “uncouth.” He proudly tells everyone that he can pick a winner by scratching his rear end. It’s true – when his behind gets an itch – he knows he’s got a box office hit. Some writer once said that the world’s problems could be solved by simply wiring the planet to Harry Cohn’s ass! Is that a killer or what? Well, Harry’s feeling something in his keester, but it ain’t an itch.
“MAE WEST!” he shouts. She’s like a 1000! And she made a picture here years ago that almost ruined me!” “That’s because it was a piece of crap!” sez Billy. Harry calms down ’cause he knows this a genuine fact. Now everyone’s still agog by singin’ and dancin’ Brando from Guys and Dolls, but Harry ain’t convinced. “Can he sing dem songs?” he asks Wilder. “Doesn’t matter – we’re throwing them all out. They’ll only be heard as background music!” Throwing out Rodgers and Hart tunes? A musical without music! Jeez, now even I’m pissed! Forget about throwing out the R & H stuff – Cohn throws out Wilder. Columbia remained the only major joint he never worked at. Ain’t that a kick in the head?
Wait till ya hear the latest. They’ve brought in George Sidney – who’s done quite a few hot musicals at MGM…And here’s the topper. Guess who’s playin’ me? SINATRA! That’s right, Frank Sinatra! Sidney had done Anchors Aweigh with Francis (and Gene Kelly, the original me) at Metro – resulting in one of Frankie’s biggest early movie hits. So they get along. Frank and Sidney are co-producing with Columbia. Harry Cohn’s already expecting the worst. Frank’s still hurtin’ from not getting On the Waterfront, which coincidentally starred Brando; he’s also seein’ red from being downgraded to Marlon’s wing man in the aforementioned Guys and Dolls – where Brando got the big songs, and Frank, basically got bupkis! So beatin’ out Brando kinda makes Frankie happy. Therefore all is quiet on the western front. Frank not only insists that Hayworth stay in – but gets top billing (“She IS Columbia Pictures!”). And yours truly is now a saloon singer (which, considering Frank’s participation, is rather apt, don’t you think?). Dancer-comic-singer. Who knew I was so multi-talented? Because of this, the R & H score remains intact; in fact, they’re adding some more tunes. And Frank approves of Kim Novak as the younger mouse. Who wouldn’t – I mean, have you seen her? They got along in The Man With the Golden Arm – that was a corker, wasn’t it? “Confidently, I’m stacked!” she tells him. She ain’t kiddin’! Va-va-vroom!
I know you’re probably thinking that because of all this action that I’m rolling in dough. Not so – it’s all in what they call transit. So I still could use that century. If you’ve already sent it, terrific! If not, please remit same, as my hotel tab is rapidly reflecting the lifestyle to which I have become accustomed.
Maybe it’s me, but something in the screenplay irks me…They kept a lot of the original dialogue and I feel a bit sad about one recurring line of which Hayworth refers to Frankie. She keeps callin’ him “Beauty.” Now, don’t get me wrong – I think he’s a decent enough looking specimen…maybe average-plus. But BEAUTY? Is it my imagination or does it sound like sort of a snipe? Couldn’t they have replaced it with, “Hey, blue eyes?” I know it’s a minor point, but I sorta feel bad for Frank. Then again, it could all be a swell-head deal. I mean, he’s not only starring, but co-producing. So I guess they can call him anything he wants. Hell, they could call Rondo Hatton “beauty” if he was starrin’ and co-producing.
The supporting cast is aces. One of my favorite broads, Barbara Nichols is in it an’ she’s beyond fantastic. All the babes are something to write home about. One of Frankie’s pals, Hank Henry plays the owner of the club movie-Joey sings at. Their relationship is very much what I perceive the Sinatra-Cohn splice to be like. When Frankie dedicates “The Lady is a Tramp” to Hayworth, Henry bops his noggin in the wall. What a hoot!
The lines are mostly million buck zingers. Some rough stuff. “Can I offer you any aid?” asks some old dame to Frankie upon his lighting in Frisco. “What kind of aid do you have in mind?” he replies definitely referring to the bedroom variety. I’m also not sure if movie-Joey ain’t getting it on with his landlady…some ancient twist named Elizabeth Patterson. You’d know her if you saw her. Been in pictures forever…Even before pictures…when they just had cave paintings. I’m glad we don’t know fer sure, as this is one case where things are best left to the imagination.
The words movie-Joey speaks are yours truly to a “T.” Fits Frankie like a glove too. This, and correct me if I’m wrong, is like the perfect Frankie Sinatra vehicle. It’s like the first Rat Pack picture – but without the Rat Pack! Do you get what I’m saying? Script is credited to Dorothy Kingsley – a broad! Can this be? Ya think maybe it’s some guy fronting with a mouse name? Let me know, as I value your opinion – also your rubles, of which I still have not received any of same.
The picture’s a pip! Breaking all records. Snobs and bums love it! They’re linin’ up! Kim Novak is driving me crazy! She an’ Frankie are great together. Kim seems to always bat one outta the ballpark when making a picture in San Francisco – although, speaking from experience, I think the ending in this show may be worse for her in the long run than the one in Vertigo. Take a gander and give me your take. I’m wondering if you sent me that lifesaver in cash – which could explain why I never got it. You should never do that. Also a check is likewise a no-no, as my current status at the local vault is of the persona-non-grata variety. A money order is the best way to go to save…
Have you ever seen a Blu-Ray? Again, in the words of my movie counterpart: Wowie-wow-wow-wow! And with a few extra WOWS to boot! It’s so clear and sharp – I’ve never seen a picture like it! You can almost reach out and touch the cast of characters – and with so much prime female pulchritude on display, there’s plenty you wanna touch! It was shot by this guy, Harold Lipstein, a very nice fella of the Jewish persuasion who never quite got his due (although he’s been around for years). From being on-location with the company, I know first-hand how hard this shoot was – what in Technicolor an’ all. To say nothing of the nighttime stuff, which looks sensational as well. Trust me, that ain’t easy to achieve.
I don’t know who these Twilight Time characters are, but I think that they may be giving the paying public too much. They’ve included the PAL JOEY trailer, which, in and of itself, is almost worth the price of admission. It’s like a little extra movie – what we moguls call a featurette. It has Sinatra talking to the audience – giving them a lesson on how to be hip, via a chalkboard and pointer lowdown on what they call Joeyisms…all based on moi! Didn’t know I could talk French, did ya?
If that’s not enough, they’ve got a fairly-recent (2010) ten minute short, entitled Backstage and at Home with Kim Novak. I’D like to be backstage and at home with Kim, if you know what I mean! Man that broad is talented. Makes her clothes, lives with these artists, loves horses and dogs and painted these crazy murals on her walls. I once painted my old man’s garage, and, let me tell ya, it’s no walk in the park!
But there’s more! They got the sound available in either standard stereo or 5.1 surround. I’m not sure what that means, but both come off great. They’ve also got another thing called IST. Personally, I prefer a BLT, but you know how I can always eat. IST means that you can listen to just the music by George Duning with arrangements by Nelson Riddle. And that includes the vocals! I don’t have to tell ya that this ain’t chopped liver! It’s like getting the movie and a separate soundtrack album for one price! I don’t think that’s fair. Shouldn’t they be charging more – and shouldn’t I be getting a nice slice of this swag? I’m sure you agree with me. Know any cheap lawyers? Ha, ha.
Oh, an’ I gotta mention this – PAL JOEY is a limited run of 3000. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. Don’t know about 3000, but my run’ll be limited to 2021 – if ya don’t come across with that hundred, which I desperately need now more than ever.
PAL JOEY. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 or 2.0 DTS HD-MA.
Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment/Columbia Pictures Industries. SRP: $34.95
It’s about time! Throughout the home video evolution encompassing laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-Rays, one major human attraction has been notably absent. Bernard Schwartz, a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx, with a love for the Movies, its gods (particularly Cary Grant) and all the riches and fame cinema celeb brought with it; fact, Bernie knew from his adolescence that he had to be a star. Not aspired to, not wanted to. HAD to. And, so it came to pass. After the war (where he served in Guam, after lying about his age), Schwartz (with a plethora of Big Apple trial-by-fire casting calls under his belt) hopped it to Hollywood; didn’t hurt that he was tall, really good looking with crystal-clear blue eyes. His first part was a bit in the great 1949 noir Criss Cross. He danced with Yvonne De Carlo in a nightclub, his face not even seen. Yet, there was “something.” Enough of a something that Universal-International was besieged by thousands of letters from hot and bothered females demanding who that boy was dancing with De Carlo.
So, Mr. Schwartz, now Anthony Curtis, was signed to a standard contract, and, within two years, was a featured player and teen heart throb.
The thing about 1950’s Curtis (now simply Tony) was his enthusiasm. You can see it on the screen. He was having a blast living the dream. He also knew that most of the U-I vehicles were routine; yet, his sense of humor prevailed; he winked at the audience, who got it. Typically, the in-your-face truth that the young star was a fine actor didn’t become apparent until Universal loaned him out to rival companies. The UA titles specifically brought that point home (Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones, Some Like it Hot). Curtis, now offered a renewal with Universal, had grown from a teen fave, to a key player. He was calling the shots, aka script/director approval, plus a percentage of the points to be shared via his own production companies (Curt-Leigh, a combi with then-wife Janet Leigh, and, later, Curtis Enterprises).
A new box set from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics, one of their terrific on-going Blu-Ray collections of Universal pics, concentrates on the later Curtis titles – the superstar Tony pics, consisting of THE PERFECT FURLOUGH, THE GREAT IMPOSTOR, and 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE. They’re a fun and varied lot (with the middle offering being perhaps his finest work at Universal); I would, at some short time down the road, love to see an early Curtis box set, too (although an iconic title, 1952’s Son of Ali Baba is already available as a single, and 1955’s Six Bridges to Cross is part of a Noir Box).
All three pics have been remastered in 1080p and look and sound wonderful. It’s a cool intro to a sadly neglected star who nevertheless helped define the immense fun of movie-going in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The Tony and Janet fanzine craze was in full bloom when 1958’s THE PERFECT FURLOUGH was released (the pair had already previously starred in two very successful movies, Houdini and The Black Sheild of Falworth, the latter being Universal-International’s first CinemaScope production; that same year as FURLOUGH, they would be paired in another mammoth hit, The Vikings). Indeed by 1958, Curtis’ value to Universal-International was beyond top contract player; he had morphed into an A-list star. His loanouts to UA for Sweet Smell of Success and The Defiant Ones gained him scores of new followers, critics among them…and an Oscar nod (for the latter). Curtis, at U-I, was now comfortably in the driver’s seat. He and Leigh would share the profits with Universal-International (via their Curt-Leigh company), and the selection of projects would be of his choosing.
In the mid-Fifties, the young power couple was great friends with rising writer/director Blake Edwards and his first wife, actress Patricia Walker. Edwards, who would achieve great success with his TV series Peter Gunn, still hadn’t been able rise beyond the B-picture director ladder rung on the big screen circuit. Tony took care of that. THE PERFECTFURLOUGH, a risqué (for the 1950s) comedy about a lecherous soldier awarded the title fantasy holiday with a luscious movie star (the very luscious Linda Cristal) was written by Stanley Shapiro (it was to prove to be a run-through for his next assignment, the phenomenal smash Pillow Talk which changed American romcom as we inched toward the 1960s). Most importantly, the flick would be directed by Edwards, who proved his worth in droves. Inventive use of CinemaScope and wry sight gag compositions meld beautifully with Shapiro’s clever double entendre dialog and situations.
Already all the Shapiro pat formula jokes are firmly in place: the appealing but womanizing lead, the uptight virginal adversary, and the personification of female carnality oozing with sex. All surrounded by an expert Greek chorus of wise-cracking supporting thesps.
The plot concerns a group of Arctic-stationed soldiers, deprived of opposite sex companionship for months and months…and months. With morale low, the top brass becomes concerned until bright-light officer Lt. Vicki Loren (Leigh) devises a lottery where one lucky dude will win a furlough in Paris with Hollywood sexpot du jour Sandra Roca (naturally, chaperoned). The horny losers will live vicariously through the shenanigans of the sole horny winner.
What could go wrong?
Curtis plays the conniver, Corporal Paul Hodges, to a “T,” in the tailor-made role, and Leigh, who, of course, is repulsed by his debauched persona, eventually…well, you know. Cristal is gorgeous window dressing, and also quite funny herself, as is/are her suffering agent, the military chiefs, and Hodges’ fellow needy snow-bound compadres. Of particular note in the large and terrific cast are the following scene stealers, Keenan Wynn, Marcel Dalio, Les Tremayne, Jay Novello, King Donovan, Gordon Jones, Alvy Moore, Dick Crockett (soon to become a member of the Edwards stock company), Curtis pal Nicky Blair, Frankie Darro, silent screen comic Snub Pollard, and an early appearance by Troy Donahue; a special mention must be accorded to Elaine Stritch as Leigh’s Space Age sidekick equivalent of Eve Arden.
The movie is lavishly photographed in Eastmancolor (nicely restored, from the beet red scope prints I recall from my misspent youth) by the masterful Philip Lathrop (later to shoot Edwards’ shamefully obscure Gunn). A typical U-I score, supervised by the ubiquitous Joseph Gershenson and credited to Frank Skinner, appends the proceedings. Extras include audio commentary by David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner.
Like with Shapiro, THE PERFECT FURLOUGH was a run-through test for Edwards as well; the previous year, the director and star had made the wonderful, unfairly ignored comedy-drama Mister Corey. FURLOUGH, which turned a tidy profit, gave way to the next Curtis-Edwards collaboration OperationPetticoat, which broke all box-office records for both Universal-International and Radio City Music Hall.
1960’s THE GREAT IMPOSTOR is not only a great movie, it’s, as indicated above, arguably the best movie Tony Curtis ever made during his tenure at Universal-International. It’s a light-hearted (with nonetheless a sprinkling of serious dramatic overtones) look at one of the most fascinating human beings of the twentieth century, Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. It’s one of those “if ya made it up, no one would believe you” true-life stories.
Demara, born poor, and growing up during the Great Depression, survived by imagination and fantasizing through his father’s profession (when there was work); his dad was a projectionist at a movie theater, and the young boy lost himself in the illusion of the Movies (you can see why I love this pic, or, for that matter, did Curtis). The lad did abysmally in school – often thought to be mentally challenged; the opposite was true. Demara, a genius savant, was simply bored. A subsequent stint in the army proved to be like a slap in the face. He aced all the competition at Officer’s Training School, but without the proper qualifications (he dropped out of high school after a little more than two years), was relegated to no rank above private. So, he decided to improvise – forging papers, stealing identities and excelling (post-U.S.military life) at a number of professions, careers, and goals, including Trappist monk, prison psychologist (revolutionizing the treatment of disturbed inmates), Canadian Navy surgeon (successfully performing scores of operations, and founding a children’s hospital in war-torn China), elementary school teacher (where he consistently topped the lists of “educator of the year”), and more.
And, yes, with a few liberties (methinks that the slew of gorgeous women were likely more attracted to Tony than Ferdy), THE GREAT IMPOSTOR sticks to the facts. Custom-designed for its likeable star (by scripter Liam O’Brien, and based upon Robert Crichton’s Demara biography), the pic is directed with verve and humor by Robert Mulligan – one of his first big-screen efforts (and released a year before his acclaimed breakout Universal-International entry, To Kill a Mockingbird). I not only rate IMPOSTOR as one of Curtis’ finest movies, but one of Mulligan’s as well; furthermore, it appears that both director and star had a ball making it (an inside joke has a character named “Mrs. Pakula,” a nod to his oft professional collaborator Alan J. Pakula). The beautiful black and white widescreen photography is by the brilliant Robert Burks, and a bouncy score by Henry Mancini perfectly matches the scenario. A fantastic supporting cast compliments its charismatic lead, and comprises Karl Malden, Edmond O’Brien, Joan Blackman, Arthur O’Connell, Gary Merrill, Raymond Massey, Robert Middleton, Jeanette Nolan, Sue Ane Langdon, Larry Gates, Mike Kellin, Frank Gorshin, Harry Carey, Jr., Dick Sargent, Doodles Weaver, Ward Ramsey, Herbert Rudley, Jerry Paris, and Bob Hastings. Supplements feature the trailer and audio commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger.
The world first became aware of Ferdinand Demara, Jr. in 1959 when his biography appeared, and immediately became a bestseller. In the 1970s, I used to end each evening watching reruns of YouBet YourLife on WNEW-TV, here in New York. Imagine my shock when, one night, one of the pair of contestants was Ferdinand Demara, Jr. Looking nothing like Tony Curtis (a more faithful physical cinematic rendering would today be Zack Galifianakis), Demara was nevertheless genuinely engaging, and briefly discussed his extraordinary life with Groucho (probably appearing on the show as a tie-in to the book). Demara died in 1982 at age 61.
1962’s 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE is an adult story geared for the kiddies. Yeah, I know. A gossamer vanity project produced by its star (Curtis Enterprises), 40 POUNDS is a 1960’s glitz Vegas-era update of Damon Runyon’s perennial Little Miss Marker. Curtis is Steve McCluskey, the amiable borderline mob owner of a successful ultra-mod casino, who is also on the constant alimony run from his ex-wife and her shyster lawyer. One of the plungers in hock (Gregg Palmer) leaves his grade-school-age daughter (Claire Wilcox) as security while he attempts to come up with some debt coin; then, he has a fatal heart attack, and Curtis’ character is stuck with the kid. The gags practically write themselves (and no stone in that direction is left unturned). Innuendo, via embarrassing children’s questions and loopy situations with McCluskey’s business cohorts, bevies of hot Vegas showgirl-friends, etc. abound. Romantic grist to the cinematic mill is thrown into the mix when a gangster’s supposed babe, gets a casino singing gig (costar Suzanne Pleshette). It all ends up via a famous lengthy chase finale through Disneyland (which had every sprout who saw the trailer/TV spots demanding to be taken to this movie; kudos to Curtis Enterprises).
An ideal 1960s afternoon fluff entertainment, 40POUNDS rises above it all due mostly to the two leads, for whom, naturally, the movie was specifically showcased. Nothing says that more than a lavishly shot sequence where Curtis and Pleshette spend a weekend in gorgeous, serene surroundings doing nothing but wearing flash Sixties fashion and simply being beautiful people looking beautiful (bet they got to keep the threads and shades). Curtis pulled no punches, and made sure that the supporting cast numbered friends and familiar character actor associates that folks like me and millions of others always looked forward to seeing. So be prepared to enjoy the always welcome histrionics of Larry Storch (TC’s off-camera BFF), Mary Murphy, Nicky Blair, Howard Morris, Kevin McCarthy, Edward Andrews, Karen Steele, Stubby Kaye, Warren Stevens, Tom Reese, Ford Rainey, Sharon Farrell, Jim Bannon, Helen Kleeb, Jack LaRue, Allyn Ann McLerie, Richard Mulligan, and, in an early role, Diane Ladd. Phil Silvers turns up in an elongated guest appearance as a New York gangster, obviously more Bilko than Corleone.
The movie was scripted by the celebrated humorist/writer Marion Hargrove (immortalized in two 1940s MGM comedies, See Here, Private Hargrove and What Next, Corporal Hargrove?), and was shot in (restored) Eastmancolor and Panavision by the legendary Joe MacDonald. The professional direction is by Norman Jewison, nearing the end of his work-for-hire days, and about to be upgraded to the A-list pantheon deck (TheRussians are Coming, In the Heat of the Night). The perky Mort Lindsey score is indicative of what defined “wacky” during America’s Camelot, and, all in all, is a pleasant nostalgia trip for all who lived through that period and patronized the cinema with great regularity.
The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray probably looks better than the original Easmancolor release prints did; extras again include the trailer and audio commentary by Kat Ellinger (who, apparently, is as big a Curtis fan as I am).
A logical entry for a Curtis box set, 40POUNDSOF TROUBLE is an excellent reminder of what a star vehicle was during the waning days of the Hollywood studio system.
THE TONY CURTIS COLLECTION.
THE PERFECT FURLOUGH
40 POUND OF TROUBLE
Both color and widescreen [2.35:1]
THEGREATIMPOSTOR Black and white. Widescreen [2.00:1]
All 1080p High Definition. 2.0 DTS-HD MA.
Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. SRP: $49.95.
An insidiously addictive suspense drama, 2019’s top-notch British mini-series GOLD DIGGER, comes to DVD, via the folks at Acorn/RLJ Entertainment/itv Studios/Mainstream Pictures, Ltd.
The six-episode program, spread over two discs, chronicles the not-so-lovely lifestyle of the mega-rich Day family. Divorced and feeling useless (and with her 60th birthday approaching), talented matriarch Julia (a once-promising career professional/artist), now virtually abandoned by her grown children (who nevertheless still prey on her), enjoys taking trips to the city and losing herself in museums, curiosity shops and small cafes. It’s at one of these outings that she runs into the thirtyish Ben, whose humor, intelligence, and (admittedly) sexuality rivals hers. And what may at first seem like a mature woman and a boy toy quickly evolves into a full-blossomed romance.
End of story? Hell, no. The seas are choppy, to say the least. And full of sharks.
While these days we love to see scumbag rich dudes and their worthless spawn get theirs – here it’s not so cut and dried. Della, Julia’s daughter, isn’t quite the bitch one initially supposes. And at least one of the two risible sons has married a loving, sensitive (and sensible) level-headed person who may or may not be aware of his serial cheating.
Of course, there’s Ted, the ex-husband – a total slime-ball, now living with Marsha, Julia’s former best friend! Turns out, he not only fooled around, but used to beat his spouse, once requiring an EMS response.
Not that Ben is any angel either. He has a dubious history, and an even more fragile connection to Kieran, a horrible sibling (who, naturally, turns up). The prerequisite “he only wants you for your money” talk early on rears its ugly head, and is quasi-forgiven, but the chance discovery of a mysterious death in Ben’s and Kieran’s past can’t be sloughed off.
These and many more secrets are intertwined with lies and even truths throughout the course of the show, each installment being devoted to another character in Julia’s existence (Her Boy, Her Daughter, Her Rival, Her Husband, Her Baby, Her Love).
The writing (scripted by the show’s creator Marnie Dickens) and directing (Vanessa Caswill, David Evans) is first-rate, as is the widescreen photography (Jean-Philippe Gossart, Sergio Delagdo) of the Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon locales. An appropriate music score (Stuart Earl) appends the drama; however, it’s the extraordinary performances that make GOLD DIGGER a must-watch. Bravo to Ben Barnes (as Ben), Sebastian Armesto, Archie Renaux, Jemima Rooper (as the ungrateful, greedy brats), Alex Jennings (as the abusive spouse), Nikki Amuka-Bird (as the “with friends like her” ex-bestie), David Leon (as Ben’s creepy reptilian brother), Yasmine Akram (as the decent daughter-in-law), Karla-Simone Spence, Fleur Keith, Julie McKenszie, William Vassey, Indica Watson, Tylan Bayram and Kate Kennedy. A special nod to star Julia Ormond enacting the finest role of her career (to date); she is absolutely superb.
Acorn’s slipcovered DVD set of GOLD DIGGER beautifully visually and audibly captures the literal and emotional colors necessary to put the proceedings over the top (no Joshua Logan production this!). A 21-minute behind-the-scenes featurette is also included as an extra.
A cynical, dark modern romance steeped in mystery, GOLD DIGGER is the perfect way to spend an engrossing weekend afternoon.
The final great W.C. Fields classic, 1941’s NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK, comes to Blu-Ray, thanks to the wily carnies at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.
The follow-up work to 1940’s The Bank Dick (arguably one of the finest comedies of the sound era), NGaSaEB was likewise directed by the comedian’s pal (and former Keystone Kop) Eddie Cline, with his patented penchant for riotous slapstick precision still in full gear (Cline also helmed some of Buster Keaton’s classic silents). Fields, who (as in the previous flick) penned the story (under the nom de plume of Otis Criblecoblis; script by Prescott Chaplin and John T. Neville), tears down not only the fourth wall, but structures numbers one, two, and three as well.
There’s intentionally little, if any, cohesion or continuity to the pic (and, in this case, that ain’t a bad thing); ironically (or appropriately), it’s about the movie business, another plus in my check column. The scenario takes place in a quasi-real world. Fields plays Uncle Bill or, simply The Great Man (as he’s billed), avoided by all at Esoteric Studios (or Universal), even though his last movie, The Bank Dick, was a tremendous critical and box-office hit (truth). Uncle Bill eventually gets to take a meeting with manic studio head Franklin Pangborn (as Franklin Pangborn), who registers his trademark flustered response as readily as Edgar Kennedy (who’s NOT in the movie) did his slow burn.
With good reason, too.
The script Uncle Bill is pedaling is an unrelated, anarchic, anachronistic, live action cartoon of unstrung events (all depicted anecdotally) that would try the logic of a four-year-old. Yet, they’re hilariously funny. For example, a Mexican community adjacent to a Russian village surrounds the bottom of a mountain – the plateau top incorporating the manse of Mrs. Hemoglobin, a monstrous widow (and the wealthiest woman on the planet) who resides there with her hottie-tottie jive-bopping daughter, Ouilotta. It’s guarded by a loyal gorilla, and can only be reached via a crank-operated dirigible basket, or airplane (containing an open-air observation tail that Fields conveniently falls out of whilst lunging for a dropped flask).
Biding his time waiting for the said meeting and weighing his career options, Uncle Bill partakes the pleasures of a nearby studio diner and, later, an ice-cream parlor (originally, we learn, a bar, as he tells us in wink-wing/nudge-nudge fashion); Fields also has become guardian to a teenage songstress Gloria Jean (played by teenage songstress Gloria Jean).
The movie makes absolutely no sense, and I love every frame of its 71 minutes. Even sans Fields, the scenes of Pangborn trying to concentrate of several movies in production at once are spot-on uproarious (Nazis goose-stepping through a musical number, construction workers literally “hammering” out dialog on a soundstage, union workers demanding lunch). It’s all in the tradition of Hellzapoppin’, the Olsen and Johnson smash made at Universal the same year (and shamefully unavailable in this country). It’s also pure Fields, even though the comic was at odds with the front office. Usually, I side with the artists, but in at least one narrative element, the suits were probably right. A sequence where beauteous starlet Madame Gorgeous (played by beauteous starlet Anna Nagel), mother of the Gloria Jean character, is killed while performing a stunt, was excised (it led to Fields’ character becoming Gloria’s official guardian); all that remains is one short scene where Nagel kisses Jean goodbye and heads toward a soundstage with the dubious advice of minding “Uncle Bill.” Truth be told, Jean could have probably been removed altogether (of course, then the final cut might have been less than an hour).
Another dispute arose over the title. Universal was on a Fields roll, and wanted the pic to reflect his already iconic phrases, following the footsteps of 1939’s You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man and 1940’s My Little Chickadee. Fields wanted it to simply be called The Great Man, claiming that the proposed title would never fit on most theater marquees, and throughout the country would be heralded as Fields-Sucker.
Additionally, Universal insisted on replicating the outstanding chase finale of The Bank Dick, and did so with a scene where Fields volunteers to transport a woman to the local maternity ward (before the soon-to-be frenzied female can tell him that she’s not a patient, but a visitor). The resulting wacky and wild sight gag-laden melee that followed was so meticulously achieved (save for Fields, whose close-ups were done in the studio against rear screen) that the thrifty company would later remove and replace the comedian’s inserts with that of Abbott and Costello, and, essentially, drop the entire reel into the climax of the team’s 1944 hit In Society.
While not the flawless classic The Bank Dick was, SUCKER is a superb comedy nevertheless. The cast is impeccable, and supporting Fields and the aforementioned thesps are Leon Errol, Susan Miller, Mona Barrie, Charles Lang, Nell O’Day, Minerva Urecal, Richard Alexander, Claud Allister, Leon Belasco, Kay Deslys, Jean Porter, Victor Potel, Dave Willock, Emmett Vogan, (of course) Carlotta Monti, Bill Wolf and brat urchins Butch ‘N’ Buddy. It’s amazing that a scene between the comedian and the wonderful hard-boiled character actress Jody Gilbert remained censor-free; thank heaven for small miracles!
The new Blu-Ray Kino-Lorber/Universal 1080p transfer of NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is, hands down, the version to own. Some slight wear aside, the 35MM elements are excellent, doing d.p. Charles Van Enger justice. Better yet is the cleaned up mono audio – not only to fully appreciate the kwazy music of Frank Skinner and Charles Previn, the singing of Jean (Universal’s B-movie version of Deanna Durbin, who was their A-movie version of Judy Garland), but for the under-the-breath asides of the movie’s star. One, which I’ve never heard before, had me laughing long after the platter stopped spinning. It takes place in the earlier alluded to ice-cream parlor. Fields, watching soda jerk Irving Bacon swat a fly on the counter, remarks in a whisper (as only he can) “It’s killers like you that give the West a bad name.” I fell off the sofa.
There are some nifty extras as well, including audio commentary by Eddy von Mueller and, far more enticing, an episode on Fields from the mid-1960s summer replacement show, Wayne and Shuster Take an Affectionate Look At… It was a limited series wherein the Canadian team nicely paid homage to comedies in the Universal library. I had never seen this one (but do remember an episode devoted to Hope and Crosby), so it’s a treat to have it at one’s fingertips (hope they release more).
NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HA MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT# K24804. SRP: $24.95.
A plot devised by top D.C. leaders for armed homegrown insurrectionists take over Washington to reverse a presidency? Preposterous! Or is it? No, I’m not talking about an event from early 2021, I’m citing the narrative from the (even more now) spine-tingling political thriller SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, available on Blu-Ray from The Warner Archive Collection. Oh, yeah, this pic was made in 1964!
The movie, based on a bestselling novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, was early on bought for the movies by Kirk Douglas’s company, Joel Productions, Inc. He definitely saw the possibilities and only one director in his mind could do it justice: John Frankenheimer. Not surprising, since Frankenheimer had a mammoth critical and financial hit in 1962 with The Manchurian Candidate (also frighteningly realistic, and already pulled from release by 1964, due its subject matter of a planned presidential assassination). Frankenheimer agreed to sign on and coproduced the flick with Douglas.
The scenario, as capsulized above, is lip-biting sinister. Right wing General James Mattoon Scott sees the liberal presidency of Jordan Lyman as not merely weak, but “criminally weak.” He secretly recruits top military brass from the Joint Chiefs, along with key politicos to remove the sitting president via a coup. He will assume the role of Commander-in-Chief and rule the new America as an armed-to-the-teeth fortress, ready to do whatever is necessary to protect the country from the Russians or any other enemy – including liberal peacenik progressives from within.
Naturally assuming that any military person of note would agree, clues of the upcoming takeover are cryptically dropped past Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey, another rightwing officer, who, nevertheless believes in the Constitution and, much to General Scott’s chagrin, will always play by the book.
Suspense builds mightily in the flick’s time bomb pacing that incorporates murder, double-dealing, sexual politics (natch) and the ever-present sword of Damocles threat of nuclear retaliation. Long story short, this movie’s a humdinger!
Much of SEVEN DAYS‘ tense moments occurred off-screen as well. Originally, Douglas opted for the Scott role, with the “Jiggs” part was slated for Kirk’s occasional costar Burt Lancaster. This posed a problem, as Frankenheimer was on the outs with the 1960 Best Actor Oscar winner (Elmer Gantry). That same year, Lancaster had pegged Frankenheimer to direct his modern noir The Young Savages (released in 1961). It proved a modest success, and the two seemed to get along – enough so that the star hired the director to helm the upcoming and more elaborate Bird Man of Alcatraz. That shoot was a nightmare, with Burt often calling the shots in direct opposition to Frankenheimer (often resulting in physical altercations), who vowed he would never work with the actor again. Douglas soothed the wound, but only after the three agreed that Kirk and Burt should switch roles. During the filming, Lancaster (now merely an actor for hire) and Frankenheimer bonded again, and began plotting a reunion with The Train (1965, one of their best). But it was touch and go at first.
Kirk, who learned with Spartacus, to only hire the best, kept that mantra. The supporting cast of SEVEN DAYS IN MAY is extraordinary, and includes Fredric March, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien (Oscar-nominated), Martin Balsam, John Houseman, Andrew Duggan, Whit Bissell, Helen Kleeb, George Macready, Richard Anderson, Malcolm Atterbury, Jack Mullaney, Ron Rich, Rodolfo Hoyos, Jr., silent screen star Stuart Holmes, and Kent McCord. The behind-the-camera talent, too, was exemplary. No less than Rod Serling was hired to write the screenplay (a brilliant one), Jerry Goldsmith to compose the music score and Ellsworth Fredericks, a celebrated television d.p., to lens the TV news-look of the black-and-white imagery (he had also shot the big screen classics Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Friendly Persuation, and Sayonara). And it all comes off swell in this new 1080p High Definition widescreen transfer. As an enticing extra, there’s Frankenheimer himself offering vintage audio commentary.
Some of the dialog is so eerily 2020-2021 that it requires repeating. When Ava Gardner’s character (Eleanor Holbrook) corrals “Jiggs” at a typical D.C. gathering, she memorably coos “I’ll make you two promises: a very good steak, medium rare, and the truth, which is very rare! (some things never change!) Perhaps the most famous exchange is between Scott and Casey, when the latter refuses to participate in the insurrection. The General, seething, asks the Colonel if he knows who Judas was. Kirk’s reply is delivered with scalpel precision, “Yes, I know who Judas was. He was a man I worked for and admired until he disgraced the four stars on his uniform.”
I vividly recall when this movie came out, not long after the Kennedy assassination. My mom was a political junkie anyway, and involved in local politics. Already knowing my penchant for horror movies (I was ten then), she taunted me by dangling SEVEN DAYS over my head as being one of the scariest movies ever made. Of course, my interest was piqued. I was already aware of the title, as the book had long been in my parents’ library (and a kid doesn’t forget a name like “Fletcher Knebel” boldly printed on the spine of a shelved volume).
One mystery that haunts me to this day is the movie’s labyrinthine distribution. SEVEN DAYS was originally a Paramount Picture, and remained so at least through the 1980s (even the laserdisc was from Paramount Home Entertainment). I’ve often wondered how it ended up as a Warner Bros. title (although I suspect it has to do with Seven Arts’ involvement). Stuff like that intrigues me. Not that it matters; as indicated, transfer-wise, they did a great job on this recent Blu-Ray. What does bother me is false crediting. I never abide when one studio acquires another’s property, and then removes all the former’s logos and, worse (as is often the case with rival Universal) replaces them with their own (the otherwise marvelous restoration of One-Eyed Jacks, another Paramount title, is a perfect example). I mean, fair’s fair, guys. While they didn’t replace the Paramount mountain with the Warner shield (no logos at all), I do hope that they subsequently restore the correct I.D. (they could precede it with the Warners emblem, followed by ten seconds of black, or something along those lines; ditto, the tail end). Again, that’s my peeve. But don’t let that stop you from experiencing this nail-biter. Especially now.
SEVEN DAYS IN MAY. Black and white. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/ Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. CAT # 1000642629. SRP: $21.99.
Can’t deny that I won’t be sorry to kick this bitch of a year to the curb. I don’t have to go into the gory details, but, if anything, we survivors will be able to tell future generations what it was like to live through this nightmare!
That said, I retreat to my go-to adage for comfort: “Movies never let you down.” And it’s true. In the wake of these disastrous twelve months, there were a number of favorites to constantly revisit, plus, as evidenced here, an astounding array of newly released Blu-Rays and DVDs to help weather the plague and its despicable human counterparts.
For those of you unable to have enjoyed these titles, perhaps you can in the (gotta be) brighter New Year of 2021.
The choices cover all genres and studios (but mostly Kino-Lorber and The Warner Archive Collection); as I’ve long since stopped relegating the annual crop to a mere ten, I’m simply giving readers the links to the more extraordinary cinematic highs of 2020.
Olive Films’ library of classic Paramount titles on Blu-Ray certainly helped me get through a turbulent autumn filled with election jitters. And, there’s enough entertainment left over to make up for our quarantined holiday season.
To paraphrase Rod Serling, I submit for your approval a pair of Cold War spy comedies, made during the first half of that paranoid bullet-bustier-filled decade, known as the 1950s.
1951’s MY FAVORITE SPY was the finale in a continuing series of action-giggle fests starring Bob Hope (the others, My Favorite Blonde and My Favorite Brunette dealt respectively with Nazis on the home front and noirish private eyes). SPY, indeed could have been a WWII retread – retooled to the topical news events involving Reds, top secret plans and the fun and romance of international espionage, sans the Rosenbergs. Hope plays a third-rate vaudevillian named Peanuts White, who happens to be a dead ringer for ruthless enemy agent, Eric Augustine. I only mention this, as I love bringing up these characters’ names. I may mention them again. Rapid Robert’s reluctant recruitment into I-Was-Monty’s-Double territory has its perks – as he becomes hammock buddies with take-no-prisoners double agent Hedy Lamarr (Paramount’s then femme du jour, courtesy of Samson and Delilah). Lamarr, mostly known today as one of the team who came up with the theory for cell phone technology, and, the verbal gag regarding Harvey Korman’s name in Blazing Saddles, is at her most beauteous – which says plenty. The villainy, personified by Francis L. Sullivan, Arnold Moss, Marc Lawrence and Mike Mazurki, is spot on. Sight gags abound buttressed by some great one-liners; in short, it’s Bob Hope at his best (courtesy of Edmund Beloin and Lou Breslow’s story, Edmund Hartmann’s and Jack Sher’s screenplay, additional dialog by Hal Kanter, with inspired uncredited assist from Barney Dean) – and a welcome addition to the Blu-Ray universe. The sparkling 35MM B&W transfer (doing justice to d.p. Victor Milner) is pristine – the mono audio crisp and clear to faithfully replicate each memorable Hope aside (and the jaunty score by Victor Young). Norman Z. McLeod, director of Hope’s The Paleface and the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers, does his filmography proud.
One of Hope’s last black and white Paramounts, MY FAVORITE SPY delivers the zany goods in droves. Besides how can you go wrong with a movie which lets loose an incompetent real-life Republican to deal with the future of a dangerous atomic bomb-plagued planet? Uhhh, wait a minute…Hmmmm….Oh, yeah – and his dual characters’ names are Peanuts White and Eric Augustine (told you I’d say it again!)…
1954’s KNOCK ON WOOD, tailor-made for Danny Kaye in his initial outing as a Paramount star, is a bit more problematic. The reason I say this is because, in 1964, as an impressionable 10-year old, I thought this picture was one of the funniest movies I had ever seen. It played for an entire week on New York’s WOR-TV affiliate, Channel 9 as part of Million Dollar Movie. My friends thought so too – and for weeks we repeated the kooky malapropisms during school recess. Like MY FAVORITE SPY, KNOCK ON WOOD doesn’t mention the Reds per se – but all the evil types have Slavic eastern European/Russian names…so the proof is in the borscht.
In addition to the Hitchcockian intrigue, KNOCK ON WOOD aspires to modern times by making its lead character psychologically traumatized. He’s a ventriloquist, whose dummies start taking over whenever he becomes sexually aroused. Heady stuff for a wacky comedy (note I refrained from making an obvious Lamarr pun), but it’s really there.
Now any movie buff knows that this ventriloquist/dummy freak show is nothing new. Von Stroheim did it in 1929 with The Great Gabbo…Then there’s the chilling Michael Redgrave Dead of Night sequence, a Cliff Robertson Twilight Zone episode and Devil Doll, a sleazy Brit 60s guilty pleasure often confused with the non-woody 1936 Tod Browning flick.
KNOCK ON WOOD has a lot on its plate – and like many a smorgasbord – there’s way too much to digest. That said, the pic does start out promisingly with Kaye disrupting the existence of gorgeous co-star Mai Zetterling. In fact, for the first third or so – my claims to my wife that this is a hoot and a half seem to bear me out…At 103 minutes, the narrative quickly loses steam…For instance, while on the run from evil spies who have concealed crucial documents inside the heads of his dummies, Kaye, for no reason whatsoever, bursts into a schmaltzy love song, which (at least on its outset) seems to embarrass Zetterling almost as much as the viewers. Even more bizarre is that, Kaye, whose Goldwyn entries defined grand A-budget fare in the 1940s, looks ill at ease with the material. This is unusual – since KNOCK ON WOOD is nearly a hodge-podge remake of Wonder Man and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – two of his biggest Goldwyn hits. Blame/praise must, in big part, go to the movie’s triple threat producers/directors/writers Norman Panama and Melvin Frank.
Zetterling’s character, a detached psychiatrist, rightly repulsed by Kaye’s constant advances to her, demands that he see a male counterpart for treatment. What follows is the movie’s most eyebrow-raising turn: Kaye spends all of an hour boning up on Freud – and the next morning reads Mai the riot(ous) act – telling her that what she needs is a man (who could have seen THAT coming?). She slaps her head in professional angst, spouts outrageous “Of course – what could I have been thinking?!” rhetoric, and from there on, becomes Danny’s main squeeze. It could be the funniest sequence in the picture!
Strangely enough, KNOCK ON WOOD, for all its market research on what makes a Danny Kaye vehicle – neglects to incorporate a prime ingredient: Kaye playing multiple characters (save a brief sojourn in an Irish pub wherein the star dons a Lucky the Leprechaun brogue that puts Barry Fitzgerald to shame). In this respect, MY FAVORITE SPY is more of a Danny Kaye movie than KNOCK ON WOOD. Added to the padded running time, KNOCK ON WOOD – at least ten minutes too long – looks like a rough cut waiting to be trimmed. Sequences such as a malfunctioning sports car are cute for about a minute – but not a half reel. Flashbacks recounting his dysfunctional showbiz parents come off like discarded moribund sections from a Fox Dan Dailey musical (there’s even Michael Kidd choreography!). Furthermore, the aforementioned jumbling foreign name mishmash, which so delighted my adolescent mind, are sluggishly uttered – lacking the manic pep which earlier astounded the ears of the comedian’s legions of admirers. Finally, there’s the on-location second unit work. Zetterling is definitely there in London, but Kaye is so obviously absent – his stand-in being about a half foot taller and twenty years younger. It’s the worst double work since Columbia’s early Fifties Randolph Scott westerns. As an addendum, there’s Kaye’s character’s name, Jerry Morgan, which simply can’t compare to…ohhh, let’s say, Peanuts White or Eric Augustine (All right, all right – I’m stopping already!).
OK – so I don’t recommend KNOCK ON WOOD, right?…In the words of Zetterling’s cinema shrink contemporary, Psycho’s Simon Oakland , “Errrrr….not exactly.” While KNOCK ON WOOD isn’t in the league of the prime Goldwyns or The Court Jester, it is a fun movie to have on while you’re doing various household chores. As indicated, the opening scenes are genuinely witty. The supporting cast, including Torin Thatcher, Leon Askin, David Burns, Steven Geray, Abner Biberman and Henry Brandon is aces. The production values, lush with Technicolor reds, greens and purples are likewise top notch (albeit it looks like the matrices are about two ticks from restoration city; this is evident via the fades and dissolves and the occasional graininess and too garish flesh tones…but this is fleeting and doesn’t deter from the otherwise spectacular Daniel Fapp-lensed cinematography). Overall, the widescreen Blu-ray imagery is crystal clear (this was a rare 1950s Paramount release distributed in the new1.85 aspect ratio; later that year, the studio would premiere VistaVision via White Christmas, likewise featuring Kaye; the mono sound (with a score, again, by Victor Young), save for being too bass and a few instances of sibilance, is relatively distortion free .
In pure retro terms, KNOCK ON WOOD is absolutely fascinating, and certainly a must for Kaye fans, who have, no doubt, been lusting for this title since the advent of laserdiscs!
MY FAVORITE SPY: B&W; Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition;2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # OF698.
KNOCK ON WOOD:Color; Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DT-HD MA. CAT # OF697.