The Elephant in the Room

First off, let me state unequivocally that I love 1958’s THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN.  It is, along with The Asphalt Jungle and The Kremlin Letter, one of my favorite John Huston movies.   That it was chosen to become a Blu-Ray release in the wonderful limited edition Twilight Time series was like a dream come true for this rabid collector.

So what is THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN?  If it’s so great, why have most folks never heard of it?  Let’s reflect upon why this big-budget flop remains one of cinema’s greatest obscure treasures.  One – it’s a major motion picture starring Trevor Howard in the lead (which is good enough for me, but, in 1958, hardly a reason to line up at a reserved-seat picture palace).  Second – it’s an extremely progressive flick about animal rights, the environment and mankind’s shameless laissez-faire attitude toward its future.  Another non-starter in a year which also unfurled Nick Ray’s conservation disaster, Wind Across the Everglades.  But that was the Fifties; this is 2012 and the availability of THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN on Blu-Ray is what makes contemporary conservation (of the classic movie kind) so addictive and (for junkies like myself) so important.

In a nutshell, THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN chronicles a lunatic Frenchman (i.e., liberal) and his attempts to stop the senseless killing of elephants in French Equatorial Africa.  It’s an extremely political fight that pits him against the 1% super-rich defilers of the Earth – and starts a pro-mastodon movement that can only be termed as Occupy Ubangi.

How did such a movie get to the screen in 1958?  Simple – it was a John Huston project from the period where he could essentially do no wrong (his last Fox entry, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, racked up huge grosses).  Based on a best-selling novel by Romain Gary, the narrative was, if one believes the hype, one very close to the director’s soul.  Rather confusing when one considers that his previous adventures on the dark continent during the lensing of 1951’s The African Queen resulted in Peter Viertel’s scathing indictment White Hunter Black Heart – in which the obvious Huston-modeled character salivates at the prospect of bagging one of these magnificently noble tusk-bearing creatures.  Perhaps this outrage had a profound effect on the filmmaker who magically went all Schindler on the subject and suddenly became an out-and-out champion for animal rights, ecology and land preservation.

Huston nevertheless saw THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN as an opportunity to film a grand epic on-location, which delighted producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who blessed the project by deeming it a personal production – one that would carry his own DFZ logo brand.  This extended to his lead actress, the amazing Juliette Greco – then the latest in a series of Zanuck’s foxy Fox thesps, whom the powerful little letch vigorously groomed for stardom.  Greco, it should be happily underlined, was easily the crème de la crème of the group, a battle-weary quartet which comprised Bella DarviIrina Demick and Genevieve Gilles.

Even Huston’s most ardent supporters realized that for a picture of this magnitude Trevor Howard (superb as he is) in the lead would be a hard sell; his casting was one of the first of THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN’s many fascinating behind-the-scenes tales.

The entire package – animal rights, African locations, the saving of the planet – seemed almost tailor-made for passionate ecologist William Holden, then one of the industry’s hottest commodities.  So where was he?  Why wasn’t he offered this role?  Well, folks, he not was first-choice, but couldn’t wait to dust off his pith helmet.  The problem wasn’t merely his busy schedule but a conflicting arrangement with Paramount Pictures, to whom he still owed one picture.  Holden, who hadn’t worked for Paramount since 1954’s Sabrina, had spent an inordinately long time on-location in Ceylon filming The Bridge on the River Kwai; he then jetted to the UK, where he appeared in the Carol Reed drama The Key – opposite Howard and Sophia Loren.  When Paramount heard that he was hyped to shoot for months in Africa – they balked.  Under no circumstances was he to be off American shores for an extended period of time.  They offered him two upcoming scripts, The Jayhawkers, a western, and The Trap, a modern crime flick – both of which he turned down (eventually filmed with Jeff Chandler and Richard Widmark, respectively).  Holden was also already slated to appear with John Wayne in John Ford’s Civil War extravaganza The Horse Soldiers.  Paramount’s decree:  no more pictures till you do one for us.  So, dejected and depressed, Holden very reluctantly withdrew from THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN.  He wouldn’t appear in a Paramount Picture until 1960’s The World of Suzie Wong, which he followed with The Counterfeit Traitor, both sizable hits.

It’s likely that during the shooting of The Key, co-star Trevor Howard got wind of the Huston project; while many actors would renege on a long and arduous shoot, Howard was a game fellow who relished a dare…often because, like Holden, he was generally three sheets to the wind.

With Howard signed, the Fox publicity machine went into full-gear upping supporting star Errol Flynn to top-billing and relegating Howard to character status under Greco.  Flynn, whose role is limited but juicy, considered this, his last appearance in an A-picture, one of his finest performances.  He wasn’t wrong; as a drunken guilt-ridden soldier of fortune, the swashbuckler is pretty friggin’ great.  His subtle transformation to sobriety during the course of events is a textbook masterpiece, a veritable Acting for Rummies manual of arms.

Greco, the object of everyone’s affections, is another big plus.  Essentially the “beautiful woman” in the picture’s thankless girl role, the singer-actress takes Minna (her character) to another dimension via her sensual curiosity and ultimate dedication to the “save the planet” cause.  Minna’s bitterness as a former Nazi sex slave in a Reichstag doll house, we learn, wasn’t helped during her subsequent “liberation” by the Russians, French and Americans…sort of a UN Crackerjack pass-around pack.  It’s astounding that she can walk – let alone march in protest.

And then there’s Orson Welles, as hotshot safari-ravenous TV honcho Cy Sedgewick.  How he morphs from conservative to conservationist constitutes perhaps THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN‘s most memorable moment.  In an extraordinary sequence, Welles, or rather Welles’ formidable ass, redefines the potential of CinemaScope, as Huston and d.p. Oswald Morris fill the rectangular screen with the actor’s humongous derriere seconds before it gets pummeled with buckshot.

Indeed, years later, when the picture premiered on NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies, my parents wandered by the TV as the opening scene faded in.  “Oh, that’s the picture where Orson Welles gets shot in the ass!” they exclaimed with apparent sadistic glee.  Someone at the station must have had a sense of humor, as I believe the preceding pic was Rear Window.

What makes THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN additionally inviting is the outstanding supporting cast.  Eddie Albert as a Robert Capa-esque photographer who joins the group is excellent, as are Herbert Lom and Gregoire Aslan as slimy kill-crazy capitalists.  Then there’s Paul Lukas, always good, as a mediator who likewise signs up for pachyderm justice.  Most remarkable is Edric Connor as a publicity-hungry black nationalist opportunist who aligns his bogus Free Africa Movement with Howard’s band as a violent means to achieve fame and power.

The fact that all the characters rave on about their inherent beliefs ratchets up the loon factor.  Howard valiantly announces that he’d “…like to BE an elephant.” while Lukas heralds the theory that he is to be reincarnated as a tree.  What’s there NOT to love?

The location filming in the Belgian Congo proved to be extremely torturous; virtually everyone in the cast and crew developed a myriad of Olympian malaise that encompassed everything from hurling to full-blown 100-yard dash dysentery.  As similar problems befell his African Queen company, Huston eagerly resorted to previous tactics.  Only he and star Humphrey Bogart survived the ordeal by negating any beverage other than Scotch.  This routine once again rescued the director, as well as notorious imbibers Howard and Flynn.  Everyone else had to fend for themselves.

On another quasi-tragic note, Zanuck, even before the ink on the contracts was dry, realized that he had made a grievous error by consigning his newest girlfriend to a months-long shoot in a faraway locale; gasping at the thought of Greco, alone in the wilds with such infamous p-hounds as Huston, Flynn, Howard and Albert culminated in his last minute announcement that the production was one of such importance…that he would personally accompany the unit to Africa, where he would remain throughout the duration of the filming.  This particularly confounded Flynn, who couldn’t have cared less – having negotiated to bring his latest squeeze, 15-year-old Beverly Aadland, along for the ride.  Aadland’s 1988 reminiscences of the odyssey not surprisingly circle around her getting “…dysentery the second week.” Flynn attempted to buffer her discomfort by presenting “…me [with] a baby mongoose” and the promise of adapting Nabokov’s Lolita as a movie in which the she and the cradle-rocker would co-star.  This intriguing Tracy-Hepburn pairing was eventually diluted to 1959’s far-less lofty Cuban Rebel Girls, spearheaded by the pro-Castro actor eight months before his demise at the age of 50.

The release of THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN upon the confused 1958 populace had the Fox suits in a panic.  While the reviews were mixed, the movie-goers weren’t:  they stayed away in droves.  This was an especially devastating negative one-two punch for Huston, whose other 1958 Fox title, the much-anticipated John Wayne period piece The Barbarian and the Geisha likewise tanked big time – the only post-war Duke pic to barely break even.  As far as the powers-that-be were concerned, it would take nothing less than an act of God to bring Huston back to Fox; and so it came to pass when eight years later he begat The Bible.  The director’s prospective future dream of “I’d like to take another crack at THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN” had all of California running for the hills.

The studio’s publicity machine immediately swung into action – generating reams of copy featuring Flynn in full great white hunter regalia…and even re-writing the scenario to highlight a non-existent lust-and-sex orgy aspect.  Drastically-revised ads displayed a groveling Flynn pawing at a near-naked Greco under the deceptive ROOTS OF HEAVEN headline.  As the book’s title referred to the eventual polluting of our planet and not Juliette Greco, this alternative campaign, to say the least, didn’t sit well with author Gary.

Perhaps the most amusing tie-in was the release of a photo, under the caption:  Producer Zanuck and director Huston enjoy the wonders of the African location.  The picture in question showed Huston cavorting with a topless native woman (only if one looked close could they spy Zanuck, standing in the background chomping on his omnipresent cigar).

As one might expect, the Twilight Time Blu-Ray of THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN looks terrific.  Of course, all those old pan-and-scan grainy TV prints were and are totally useless.  And for years the only scope print I had ever seen was beet red.  Recently the movie surfaced in widescreen on The Fox Movie Channel – and it looked good, but, need I even have to say, that this disc blows it away.  The clarity brings out every craggy gray wrinkle of the targeted beasts – but enough about Howard and Flynn, I mean the elephants too.  The colors are vibrant and spectacular.  Images of Howard majestically walking amongst the elephants (no rear screen, folks) are awesomely incredible.

The audio brings up an interesting matter.  The specs state that the sound is mono; yet Malcolm Arnold’s score seems to bellow from the left and right speakers with the dialogue coming from the center channel (I know the picture was released in stereo).  The score is typical of the professionalism of Arnold, who basically was the sound of British cinema during this period.  His striking Minna’s Theme is eminently both lovely and haunting; like all Twilight Time titles, the music is accessible as an IST (Isolated Score Track).

Please note that, as indicated above, THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN is a limited edition of 3000; so grab a copy now before, like Howard’s beloved elephants, they threaten to become extinct.

THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN.  Color.  Letterboxed [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition].

Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com].  SRP: $29.95.

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Effing Scott Fitzgerald

Nothing says “I love you” more than concocting a rose-colored version of an abusive relationship with a drunken (albeit brilliant) lout. So, if waking up in a puddle of your partner’s feces and vomit translates to “warm and fuzzy,” swoon ethereally to the SAE website and pick up your limited edition Blu-Ray of 1959’s BELOVED INFIDEL, now available through Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

This lush production of a lush protagonist was adapted by Sy Barlett from bogus British socialite-turned-Hollywood-gossip columnist Sheilah Graham‘s best-selling reminiscence, chronicling her dangerous liaison with famed author F. Scott Fitzgerald. The subject matter couldn’t have been better suited to the talents of “and with” co-writer Gerold Frank, who created a cottage industry for himself by assisting celebrated fragile, self-destructive women in their true-life shame-on-you tales; his other demi-credits include I’ll Cry Tomorrow (Lillian Roth) and Too Much, Too Soon (Diana Barrymore); his solo piece de resistance would literally be the last word on female peril, The Boston Strangler. Frank indeed lived up to his name – although more than half of his scoop-friendly findings were, in reality, scooper-friendly droppings. BELOVED INFIDEL is no exception.

Purporting to be the true story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest romances, BELOVED INFIDEL becomes one of 20th Century-Fox’s greatest fantasies, an unrealistic look at a horrid coupling that became a Hollywood legend simply because one participant was dead and the other made a living out of stretching the truth. The movie is nevertheless extremely entertaining, due to its lavish oversized CinemaScope production values and overpaid popcorn-selling stars. Admittedly, it all works; even as we viewers shake our heads in disbelief, we’re eating up every elegantly wrapped nugget of soap operatic schmaltz. The movie is nothing less than the anti-Christ template for Lifetime and Hallmark TV-feature bios (think the recent Liz and Dick debacle or such notorious Seventies big-screen pulp as Gable and Lombard and W.C. Fields and Me), except wayyy better made. For this, we must thank veteran director Henry King, known essentially for being Mr. Americana (Tol’able David; Ramona; In Old Chicago; Alexander’s Ragtime Band; Jesse James, Little Old New York; Maryland; Chad Hanna; Wilson), but who, on occasion, would lower the bar to collect sizable paychecks for smoothly-churned fertilizer.

In the world according to Graham, BELOVED INFIDEL is not simply pap – it’s a pap smear, managing to make her the valiant victim/heroine and Fitzgerald the unstable Jekyll/Hyde monster. It’s also a Hallowood (that’s the hybrid of Hollywood and Halloween) tour de farce; by that I mean it’s the type of faux biography where everyone, save the principles, has phony names as not to ignite libel lawsuits – a charade that encompasses non-existent studios and fake motion pictures– so much so that we’re amazed that they kept the original Fitzgerald titles (I was really expecting Scott to be cited as the pro-creator of such seminal works as This Side of Parasites and Tender is the Nut). The real-life Graham and Fitzgerald resembled character actors Brenda de Banzie and Roscoe Karns, but, unless you’re playing Lincoln or Hitler, that stuff don’t fly in Lotus Land, so we’re treated to the far more desirable makeovers of Deborah Kerr and Gregory Peck. It’s one of those extravagant recreations of the 1930s where only the automobiles got the memo; clothing, hair and everything else is pure Sputnik era.

This brings us to the rest of the cast. In spite of making the personification of the studio mogul Stan Harris a more appropriate wearer of the moniker “beloved infidel,” the ridiculousness of the articulate father confessor as portrayed by Herbert Rudley (a supposed composite of Louis B. Mayer, Sam Goldwyn and Darryl Zanuck) has the opposite effect. “Far be it for me to tell F. Scott Fitzgerald how to write,” exclaims Rudley to Peck before he “Rudley” bounces him out on his erudite ass. It doesn’t take even the least sophisticated audience member to immediately and correctly surmise, “What a schmuck!” While this sort of did happen, it is relevant to note that the movies Fitzgerald worked on at MGM (Red-Headed Woman; Three Comrades; A Yank at Oxford; The Women) were successful enough to not toss the screenwriter entirely out in the cold; it was the author’s uncontrollable alcoholism that certainly played a significant part in his being pegged as unreliable. Suffice to say, that in this scenario, it is Graham who not only strives to get Scott further gigs, but inspires him to pen The Last Tycoon. “They are us!” she squeals with delight upon reading galleys introducing Monroe Stahr and Kathleen Moore. Oy!

The most prominent supporting player in this piece is third wheel Robert Carter (in reality, humorist Robert Benchley), enacted with aplomb by Eddie Albert. Albert, who ends up being nursemaid to Peck’s Scott made a sidebar career of these parts – doing likewise for Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow and Frank Sinatra in The Joker is Wild. Patience was indeed a virtue for the actor, as his discernible expertise at handling bizarre screwballs handily served him well for future interacting with Lisa, Eb, Hank Kimball, Mr. Haney, Alf and Ralph and Arnold the Pig.

The last cog worth mentioning is Philip Ober as yet another beloved infidel, hotshot New York editor/publisher John Wheeler. That Ober becomes Kerr’s best friend and supporter is a tad frightening, as he was the heartless bastard/husband who turned her into a slut in From Here to Eternity (in real-life he was the heartless bastard/husband who regularly belted wife Vivian Vance into near-unconsciousness). In fact, in the Hollywood of BELOVED INFIDEL, everybody is supportive and everybody loves everyone…Just one big happy non-backstabbing family – and we all know how true that is!

The From Here to Eternity connection isn’t merely a merry accident. Possibly the decade’s most famous lusty image was of Kerr and Burt Lancaster foaming up the surf on the beaches of Hawaii. This visual did not elude the filmmakers of BELOVED INFIDEL. Happily, much of the action takes place on the sandy shores of California, and the producers were savvy enough to make the key poster art another ocean connubial rendering, comprising beach bunny Kerr and Peck (Kerr must have had a beach clause in her contract; two years earlier, she also ended up wet ‘n’ wild with Robert Mitchum in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison – this time in her other trademark garb, the Black Narcissus nun’s habit). Kerr’s eyebrow-raising emoting subsequently redefines “beach wear,” significantly when a hysterical, incoherent Graham zigzags amidst the tide like Baby Jane Hudson.

Peck generally plays Scott at his most reserved best. One can logically perceive that it’s a combination of various events which trigger his kwazy downward spiral into Pauley Shore territory…His termination as a screenwriter, his cloying pre-Facebook-like adulation by a groupie aboard an airplane…all good candidates…But, for me, the most probable culprit responsible for his doom is none other than Graham herself, or, more precisely her condescending treatment of this obviously tortured individual (it appears that the only bona fide euphoric happenstance in their relationship was a wild weekend in Tijuana, duly recreated, burro and all, and historically evidenced by vintage photographs). Now here readers are probably thinking, “Damn, it’s getting deep-dish serious…No more fun.” Au contraire! It’s exactly at this juncture that BELOVED INFIDEL ratchets up the fun-in-dysfunctional factor, where the movie underlines the la-la in La La Land in bold, delirious moronic strokes.

At first, for example, we’re ready to throw projectiles at the screen every time Scott refers to Graham as “She-lo,” a pet nickname that was their mating call. Once or twice – okay – but 90,000 utterances…HELP. This unintentionally becomes one of the movie’s strong points – specifically when She-lo realizes she’s dating LiLo. “Oh, Scott, what AM I going to do with you?” scolds a patronizing Kerr to a stumbling, drunken, word-slurring Peck after he demolishes Graham’s important business meeting. It’s as if she discovered that he just pooped on the rug like an untrained puppy (which, in all fairness, the real Scott may have actually done). Yet this is only the preamble to the picture’s severely hyped beach-bitch-slapping sequence, precipitated when She-lo demands to know why her lover has invited what appear to be two members of the Manson family to move in with them at their seaside hideaway. Once Peck starts looking like an ad for Spellbound, the picture takes off like a drone missile.

What causes Scott’s fatal demise is perhaps the most shocking portion of the movie. Apparently it was due to attending a sneak preview of That Night in Rio; the sight of Don Ameche – let alone two split-screen Don Ameches (or is it Amechi?) – instantly sends The Great Gatsby author into a screaming, agonizing semi-coma. It is the pic’s most believable moment.

BELOVED INFIDEL wasn’t quite the blockbuster smash everyone thought it would be. That said, it did well enough (due mostly to the popularity of the two stars) to garner a mild following throughout the fifty-plus years since its release. The confusing dual promotion may have had something to do with its lackluster performance in 1959; simultaneous advertising displayed a Ralph Waldo Emerson “To die for Beauty, than live for bread” lovers-on-the-beach-one-sheet in sharp contrast with the Ralph Waldo Kramden “BANG-ZOOM! You’re goin’ to the moon!” woman-thrashing-half-sheet.  Moreover, a year heralding more grownup-oriented fare like Anatomy of a Murder and Room at the Top undoubtedly helped put the lid on the coffin. The movie did a bit better overseas – where in some markets it was entitled Adorable Infidel, implying a wacky romantic comedy…which, depending how one chooses to look at it, isn’t really that far off base.

So what about the Blu-Ray? Not surprisingly, it looks darn good. The beauteous CinemaScope cinematography of Leon Shamroy likely is more impressive in this slightly muted transfer than in its original DeLuxe colored presentation (on the downside, there is a faint occasional bit of visual shaking whenever a character moves across the rectangular frame, as if the disc was mocking its d.t.-fueled male lead). Another genuinely commendable virtue of the B-D is the audio, particularly a sumptuous Franz Waxman score recorded in 4.0 stereo-surround (and, like all TT platters, accessible as an IST isolated score track).  A sappy accompanying song, with lyrics by the prolific Paul Francis Webster, plays like a Mel Brooks parody, and, thus, is in tune with the proceedings.

The bottom line is that if you’re seeking an accurate account of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last days, you are sternly advised to look elsewhere. After all, conjugal history aside, relying on Sheilah Graham to present a proper a depiction of the author’s life is not dissimilar to Anna Nicole Smith publishing A Geo-Political Guide to America’s Involvement in Viet Nam. If, on the other hand, its fast food Hollywood confection you crave, BELOVED INFIDEL makes for one fine slurpy.

BELOVED INFIDEL. Color. Letterboxed [2.35:1]; 1080p High Definition; 4.0 stereo-surround; DTS-HD MA.

Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  Limited Edition of 3000. Available exclusively at Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com]. SRP: $29.95

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Trinity Finds Andy Hardy

Personally, the idea of a movie about Mickey Rooney exposed to lethal doses of radiation is mouth-watering manna from heaven for me. Bonus points being that it’s played for laughs. But seriously, folks, that’s the premise for the zany 1954 Republic comedy THE ATOMIC KID, now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

In the post-war, post-nuclear, and, most importantly, post-Martin & Lewis wake known as the early 1950s, buddy comedies flourished. This was primarily the result of a chain reaction wherein virtually every studio from MGM to Monogram passed on Dean and Jerry – a mistake that Hal Wallis and Paramount cashed in on mightily, as the duo became the most financially successful movie twosome of all time.

In an effort to rectify this grievous error, Hollywood bent over backwards to scour the planet for M&L clones, occasionally literally doing so with lookalikes Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo.

Mickey Rooney, long past his sell-by date, had soured as a major cinema attraction and was eking out a living cranking out B-product for Columbia, Universal-International and his old alma mater Metro. With scant results. In 1953, MGM had paired him with Eddie Bracken, announcing a grand new team in the blandly entertaining A Slight Case of Larceny.

But Rooney had plans of his own. While knocking out a minor musical at Columbia (All Ashore), the Mick approached director Richard Quine and his buddy, screenwriter Blake Edwards, about latching on to a possible Martin & Lewis clone franchise. Quine stealthily sneaked off, but Edwards took the bait and fashioned the story (which evolved into the final script from John Fenton Murray and Benedict Freedman).

A modern update of the “hero by no fault of his own” scenario, THE ATOMIC KID (although at 34, hardly a kid) tread ground previously honed by Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. But sufficiently dumbed down (okay, fair’s fair – it IS a tiny tot picture). In it, Rooney plays bummy “Blix” Waterberry, who along with his equally slovenly pal Stan (Robert Strauss) fantasizes scoring as a uranium prospector. Little do they know that they have stumbled upon an army test site, and when Rooney retires to convenient empty house for the night, the schmuck has no idea that he’s in the designated target area. And it’s blown to smithereens. Inconceivably, he somehow survives, and is immediately whisked away to a military hospital for observation.

It’s here that the kind of stuff that usually happened to Huntz Hall manifests itself upon the scruffy ill-mannered lawn gnome. These changes cause Stan to go all Bud Abbott on him, exploiting his pal for fame and fortune – a super-duper plus when a visit to Vegas reveals that Rooney’s mere presence around slot machines causes them “to give.” Why Edwards avoided the obvious, FX-ing the star’s much-joked upon size by having him grow to amazing colossal man proportions remains one for the books, but is likely due to the budget (or lack of).

How Strauss and Rooney manage to elude the entire U.S. military is never logically explained, but, then again, this isn’t exactly The Best Years of Our Lives (literally or figuratively). Besides, they do return to the hospital for further examination. It’s significant to mention that many of the visual puns in the movie are pure Edwards, and often pop up in his subsequent Pink Panther forays. One gag, Rooney’s sexual arousal causing him to actually glow, is a G-rated embryonic precursor to the only yuk in Skin Deep. And this needs additional mentioning, as it involves the female lead, Elaine Davis – who also requires additional mentioning. Davis is a drop-dead gorgeous starlet, playing the nurse assigned to Rooney. For no explicable reason whatsoever, she immediately falls in love with him. While this insane response can be easily explained away by reminding viewers that this movie is science-fiction, it certainly wasn’t so with the diminutive actor and Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and every other actress passing through MGM gates with possible exceptions of Margaret Rutherford and Lassie. That Gardner ended up marrying the squirt is another jaw-dropping Ripley fact that has stunned movie buffs for generations. Suffice to say that Davis had, prior to production, become the newest Mrs. Rooney (#4 out of an eventual 9452). Uncharacteristically, it was one of Rooney’s lengthiest betrothals (six years), after which Davis changed her name to Devry, enjoying a fairly lucrative career in movies and TV throughout the 1960s (and achieving quasi-iconic status among horny teenage boys as Walter Matthau’s adulterous client in 1967’s A Guide for the Married Man).

Leaving no McCarthy era stone unturned, an additional subplot in THE ATOMIC KID has evil Commie spies out to snatch Rooney and cart the cretin back to the Kremlin. And this brings to mind another of THE ATOMIC KID‘s gloriously unrealized moments, as the Rooskies discuss Rooney’s inevitable vivisection. Ah, what could have been!

It’s probable that Rooney, tiny megalomaniac that he was, intentionally shopped the picture to Republic, as it would give him more of a chance to flex his muscles. From the opening credits, it’s made painfully clear the THE ATOMIC KID is a Mickey Rooney production starring Mickey Rooney, dominated by Mickey Rooney and ultimately infected by Mickey Rooney. Davis, who appeared in ads and promotions in nurse attire (but more of the Halloween slutty-nurse variety than RN standard) is also billed as Mrs. Mickey Rooney, a smarmy graphic leer that smirks a demeaning “look what I go home to every night, suckers!” objectification of the woman.

It must be stated that kiddies in 1954 ate this title up faster than their popcorn, and, indeed, THE ATOMIC KID later became a surefire Boomer TV programmer during the 1960s. I somehow missed it, but friends would regale me throughout my childhood of its many pleasures. Looking at it sans the eyes of an 8-year-old, it’s hard to appreciate the urchin delights, but I’m nonetheless fascinated by the fact that a juvenile comedy would have been made in ANY era concerning radioactive contamination (and, yeah, I know, that’s part of the plot to Living it Up, made the same year).

My flirtation with Mickey Rooney was indeed a brief one, lasting a mere four years. I truly liked him in Baby Face Nelson and The Big Operator, and rejoiced seeing him (again as part of a new team) with Buddy Hackett in Everything’s Ducky, a dubious joy repeated when the two were reteamed in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (it was also during this period that he provided one of the genuinely great ad-lib puns in show biz, the beautifully timed response to his appearance with Jayne Mansfield). But that pretty much ended it for me. That and an incident at NYU during the 1970s.

I was a film student then, and one day a former alumnus turned up to visit. He had just finished working on a low-budget pic featuring Rooney and dubbed it the experience from hell. “The guy is undirectable! He goes on about how he knows better, how he directed all his movies. How everyone from Disney to Olivier asks him for his advice. He listens to you, then does it his way – ’cause his way is better. During one exceptionally fine long take, he stopped in the middle, turned to the camera, threw up his hands, and yelled ‘Cut!’ I wanted to kill him!”  But, sadly he didn’t.

Coincidentally, this happened nearly simultaneously with another former NYU film maestro, who had worked as an assistant on a miniscule art house epic entitled The Noah.  Filmed in 1968, but only then (1975) getting minor distribution as a Midnight attraction at the Waverly (located just a few blocks away), The Noah starred Robert Strauss. I eagerly asked what it was like to work with Strauss, as I admired his performances in the Billy Wilder pics Stalag 17 (for which he was Oscar-nominated) and The Seven-Year Itch. The dude looked at me glumly, rolled his eyes and shook his head. “A big pain in the ass” was all he said, as he then slowly exited presumably to look for a gun.

So I imagine that this couldn’t have been that much of a fun shoot. That said, there are some nifty turns in THE ATOMIC KID by such welcome pans as Peter Leeds, Hal March, Whit Bissell (as Dr. Pangborn, no doubt an Edwards contribution) and Stanley Adams. The crisp black-and-white photography is by the wonderful John L. Russell, known primarily for his TV work, but soon to reach movie immortality as the d.p. of Psycho, which considering this project, is rather apt (the Blu-Ray is an excellent 35MM transfer, jarred only by the insertion of rather gritty and unpleasant documentary bomb footage).

The director, too, is a character generally known for his television efforts, the ubiquitous Leslie H. Martinson. Perhaps it was an ideal solution to fighting fire with fire, as Martinson was a true eccentric, taking to hiding under sheets to block upcoming shots, prone to throwing scripts around the sets like boomerangs and infamous for shouting incorrect logistics to actors and then berating them for following his instructions. I asked Will Hutchins, who worked often with Martinson on Sugarfoot, if they ever discussed this movie. As Will never disappoints, he replied that he does recall one exchange where he asked about working with Rooney. “The guy’s nuts!” replied Martinson adamantly (but with affection). No doubt a case of the pot calling the kettle wack!

THE ATOMIC KID.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition].  Mono audio [1.0 DTS-HD MA]. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. UPC: OF564. Cat #: 887090056403.  SRP:  $29.95 (DVD, $24.95).

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Jerry Noir

Many of the supreme delights of the ongoing Olive Films/Paramount Home Video series encompass the inclusion of the relatively erratic/oddball titles from the studio’s vault. While 1962’s IT’S ONLY MONEY isn’t the most unknown of the hen’s tooth batch, it certainly remains (up until now) the rarest of the 1960s Jerry Lewis output. It got a fairly discreet no-fanfare release in ’62 and was the least talked-about of the comedian’s post-Martin & Lewis works. For me, this was more than a slight because I love IT’S ONLY MONEY, and consider it not only one of Lewis’ best flicks – but one of the top four of the eight pictures he made with Frank Tashlin (for the record, this was the sixth – my other three faves being Artists and ModelsThe Geisha Boy and Who’s Minding the Store?).

The movie has been sloughed off by the masses due to both its scant screenings and the “so-what?” attitude that Lewis attached to the vehicle. It was a fairly cheap project – quickly thought out, and even quicker filmed in late 1961 – sandwiched between the showy extravagant Technicolored masterpieces The Ladies Man and The Nutty Professor. IT’S ONLY MONEY was lensed in black and white – the last monochrome movie Lewis would ever make; however, it is the sparse look and B&W photography that ironically pushes it to the top of the great Hollywood genre spoofs.

In a nutshell (with the industry’s then-prime cashew at the head), IT’S ONLY MONEY is a film noir parody pinpointing the plethora of private-eye sagas that flooded the big and small screens and pulp paperback racks throughout the decade following World War II. It’s a movie that’s perhaps is a bit too smart for its own good – complex in its seemingly simple construction as to rise way above the craniums of the average popcorn-muncher.

In Tashlin’s able mitts, IT’S ONLY MONEY’s multi-leveled cinematic architecture targets a number of subjects, scoring a bulls-eye in each one: 1) Tashlin’s animation roots; 2) classic noir; 3) 1960s noir; 4) modern-day technology. All of these intertwine like the non-disclosed tentacles of Citizens United.

Jerry portrays Lester March, an orphan who ekes out his existence as a TV repairman. Television is the paradigmatic theme, as the movie’s noir trappings specifically zero in on the country’s obsession with the detective tele-series, primarily Peter Gunn. Lester’s idol is Pete Flint, a suave babe-magnet gumshoe, hilariously enacted by the couldn’t-be-more-opposite Jesse White. Donning a trench coat and fedora and living out of his office of booze-filled file cabinets, Flint is sleazeball, who eventually gloms on to the fact that Lewis is heir to a mega-million dollar fortune left by the murdered “founder of TV.” It’s absolutely the greatest of White’s many memorable roles.

Jerry’s character is the most-animated of any of his movie portrayals (and think about that); IT’S ONLY MONEY is, succinctly-put, Lewis at his most cartoonish. This beautifully connects to Tashlin’s origins as an illustrator and key director of the famed Warner Bros. Looney Tunes division. Indeed, there are many references to some of Tash’s and Termite Terrace roomie Chuck Jones’ prime WB efforts, prominently the forays into the gadget-laden House of Tomorrow entries which surfaced in such classics as Jones’ Dog Gone Modern (1939), Tex Avery’s 1949 MGM short, appropriately entitled The House of Tomorrow, and, later, in the live-action Tashlin-scripted prop-posterous finales of the Red Skelton and Lucille Ball comedies The Fuller Brush Man and The Fuller Brush Girl (1948 and 1950).

Additional cartoon connections come from the cast: as Lewis’ poor-little-rich girl niece Mae Questel, the screen’s immortal voice of Betty Boop, is outstanding, especially when attempting yoga exercises to slim down for her wedding to slimy lawyer-villain Zachary Scott. Scott, in his final performance, provides a casting tour de farce, magnificently satirizing his legendary sinister stints from 1944’s The Mask of Dimitrios and 1945’s  Mildred Pierce (tossing this gig to a comic specialist like Harvey Korman probably would have worked, but nowhere near as effectively). Scott’s participation was a stroke of genius; it sadly also demonstrates how Hollywood did the actor dirt by not giving him more comedy to do. LST, he’s pretty damn funny! Scott’s moron henchman is Jack Weston, a self-proclaimed charter member of the Peter Lorre Fan Club, who revels in terrorizing a roast with an icepick. The violence and killings are particularly shocking for a supposedly kids-oriented movie, but, then again, this was a done-on-the-cheap knock-off – so Paramount haphazardly looked the other way; for them (as with its creators), IT’S ONLY MONEY was part of a Jerry Lewis quota needed (as with their Elvis Presley pics) to fill the studio’s annual schedule.

The va-va-vroom factor is ably filled by the sleek-bodied Joan O’Brien as the luscious mysterious nurse who soon suspects foul play and may (or may not) be falling in love with Lewis. Even her name, Wanda Paxton, is quintessential femme fatale noir. Tashlin directs her entrances via askew comic book panel angles, pulling back from her amazing legs running down steps and high heels clicking off wet pavement mean streets.

An early sequence wherein Lewis pretends to be White is hilariously sabotaged by the arrival of client/man-eater Pat Dahl, who concurrently terrifies/arouses Jerry into freak-out mode. Her maneuvering him into a corner is nothing less than a dry hump, rubbing the frightened impersonator up against a water cooler, which starts to steam boil to furious crescendo – visually far more sexually explicit than anything in Stanley Kubrick’Lolita, released the same year.

Similarly, Jerry’s near-death encounters are as funny as they are cruel, often involving some fantastic screen denizens like Barbara Pepper as a butch fisherwoman who inadvertently saves Lester’s life and whose livelihood Lewis all but ruins. Another noir nod is the appearance of famed heavy Ted de Corsia as an investigating cop.

Lewis’ clash with technological innovations culminates in the Merrie Melodie climax where, pursued by man-eating lawnmowers, he triumphs in a Tashlinesque victory that surely would have delighted Jacques Tati (or any other Frenchman). The comedian’s obsession with outlandish high-tech wizardry isn’t that far-out today, as IT’S ONLY MONEY hovers around such crazy gadgets as large widescreen interactive TVs and iPhone-like visual communication devices.

Of course, with the possible exception of Ross Perot, what affluent one-per-center would ever hire Jerry Lewis to fix their television? This riddle for the ages is brutally answered by the aforementioned White, who painfully is the pic’s receiving end of a barrage of sight gags – the zenith (no pun) being the astronaut helmet crowning with a portable TV unit.

While much of the credit for IT’S ONLY MONEY’s success belongs to screenwriter John Fenton Murray (who would go on to pen the underrated Howard Hawks comedy Man’s Favorite Sport?), the lion’s share of the verbal laughs are the obvious contributions of the director and the star. Some of Jerry’s greatest malapropisms abound during the course of the picture. Lewis’ Mickey Spillane/TV detective slang is bitch-slapped out of him by an irritated White, who demands that he stop with “…the idiot television talk.” Jerry admittedly can’t help himself, proclaiming that “I’m a TV thing.” When threatened by Scott’s and Weston’s Smith and Wessons, Lewis pleads, “I’m too tall to hurt!” Lester’s referring to would-be paramour Wanda’s profession as “…a sick pill or medicine betters” is enough to bring tears to Shakespeare’s eyes (or any other semi-literate). Furthermore, his stunning declaration of “You made my living life no death” is pure gold (well,…maybe Goldwyn), delivered with the assuredness of Barrymore at his peak (John Drew, that is). Astoundingly, Lewis’ discussion of his love of cats with girlfriend O’Brien (resulting in being nicknamed Lester “Pussy” March) made it by the censors.

Scenes of Jerry immersed in a giant fish head or sticking a soldering iron up his nose constitute vintage Lewis, the stuff we’d love to have seen the likes of Warren Beatty or Robert Redford do on-camera and secretly suspect Mel Gibson does do off-camera. These outrageous Jerry-rigged moments are sledge hammer-subtly appended by brick-wall product placement exteriors featuring one-sheets of the comedian’s previous cinematic outings, such as The Geisha Boy and The Errand Boy.

The slick score by Walter Scharf is another plus, perfectly Henry Mancini-ing it to the gills with jazzy Peter Gunn consonance (although the frugal 83-minute running time may explain the Bobby Van-credited musical numbers – of which there are none).

The B&W W. Wallace Kelly photography is aces, admirably providing the necessary hard-boiled look (although the occasional faux close-ups of originally-shot blown-up two shots really show through on Blu-Ray). In general, the Olive Films Blu-Ray is excellent: a near pristine 35mm crystal-clear transfer, which the mono audio ideally compliments.

As earlier indicated, despite its obscurity, this movie is one of the consummate achievements in the Jerry Lewis-Frank Tashlin canon; it’s also one of the Lewis titles that the comic’s legions of non-fans begrudgingly admit to liking. So open up your wallets and take a chance…after all, it’s only… (no, I can’t bear to even say it)…

IT’S ONLY MONEY. Black and White. Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]
UPC# 887090036009; CAT# OF360. SRP: $29.95.

Also available on DVD:
UPC# 887090035903; CAT# OF359. SRP: $24.95.

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Japanese Chaplinese

Tash would constantly be at us to check out these silent one and two-reelers playing at some rundown theater in L.A.”  This reminiscence was told to me by the brilliant animator Bob Clampett about his days and nights at Warner Bros. Termite Terrace back in the 1930s and ‘40s.  “After a long – and I mean LONG – day’s work, the last thing we wanted to do was to watch twenty-year-old movies into the early morning hours.  Back then, it was the only outlet for seeing these pictures.  Frank would remind us that it wasn’t just Chaplin and Keaton – but scores of other fantastic then-forgotten comedians…All that second-tier Mack Sennett and Hal Roach stuff…I guess he had the last laugh.”

To be sure, there are many laughs to be had with the Olive Films/Paramount Blu-Ray release of 1958’s THE GEISHA BOY, one of the director’s finest (of eight) collaborations with frequent star Jerry Lewis.

Frank Tashlin, whose Looney Tunes are among the funniest cartoons ever made, dreamt of breaking into live-action comedy – a goal realized by his contributing inventive visuals for the Marx Bros. and, more prominently, Bob Hope.  Tashlin’s work on A Night in Casablanca encompasses its most memorable gag.  A cop approaches Harpo, who is leaning against a brick structure.  “What are ya doin’, holding up that building?” he asks the mute funnyman, who ecstatically nods.  Need I divulge the punch line?

Ben Hecht wrote that one of his more pleasurable Hollywood writing sojourns occurred when shacked up with Harpo and Tashlin in Marx’s abode hammering out a 1949 silent feature to star the clown sans his siblings.  Once the sleazy producers sold the project to UA as a Marx Bros. comedy, both Hecht and Tashlin (with Harpo’s blessings) left the now-unhappy former labor-of-love project, which ironically became known as Love Happy.

Tashlin’s ideas for Hope translated into mucho critical and audience acclaim via his cartoonish bits for The Paleface.  When The Lemon Drop Kid started to drag in the rushes, Hope asked Tash to step in and pep it up without credit.  The picture was huge, and Hope rewarded the former animator with Son of Paleface; the rest be history (Clampett told me that at Tashlin’s 1972 funeral only three members of the show business community were present: himself, Hope and Ray Walston).

That Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis should collide like two locomotives hellbent for mischief was a near-given; how unsurprising is it that this former Merrie Melodies master would be best remembered for his big screen efforts starring either Lewis or Jayne Mansfield – the movies’ closest evocation to live-action cartoons.

Tashlin’s first Jerry adventure had been the 1955 Martin & Lewis Technicolor riot Artists and Models, arguably the team’s best movie (with a plotline concerning the effects of comic books on America’s deteriorating youth).  Now working as a single, Lewis chose Tashlin to helm 1958’s Rock-A-Baby, a strange re-working of Preston Sturges’ Miracle at Morgan’s Creek.  Lewis, who increasingly disliked his position in the Hollywoodland pecking order as what he termed “…a second-class citizen.” was due to the fact that his vehicles were often remakes of earlier movie triumphs – with the comedian’s roles having been previously enacted by African-Americans or women (Scared Stiff, Living it Up, You’re Never Too Young).

By 1958, Jerry had risen to the position of one of the top entertainers in the world – and here his desire to emulate the great Chaplin surfaced with a vengeance.  Tashlin thus concocted a story wherein Lewis – an inept magician, known only in the picture as The Great Wooley – finagles a USO tour of Japan.  His numerous faux pas, mostly regarding lewd sexual confrontations with a buxom Hollywood starlet, bring unprecedented joy to an orphaned Japanese boy – thereby setting up the narrative.

One might think this poignant twosome betwixt the big kid and small one would be lip-bitingly cloying, but they amazingly work.  The scenes involving Lewis and the child actor Robert Hirano make the fast and furious sight gags ring louder than the bells of Notre Dame.

And dames there are plenty.  The child’s aunt is the ridiculously beautiful Nobu Atsumi McCarthy, who instantly becomes devoted to Lewis.  Ditto the female sergeant assigned to the tour – Suzanne Pleshette in her screen debut (who looks like she’s all of 15 years old).  Finally, there’s the literal butt of all the pic’s jokes – the mercifully good sport Marie McDonald, who was saddled with the moniker “The Body” throughout her Tinsel Town tenure (comedy fans might best remember her as one of Abbott & Costello’s island objects of affection in 1942’s Pardon My Sarong).

As reel after reel unspools, McDonald, thanks to Jerry, is embarrassed in a bathhouse, has her clothes repeatedly torn off, gets Barton MacLane shoved into her business and is booty-bounced down an airplane gangplank – much to the giggling delight of the up-till-now solemn tiny tot Mitsuo Watanabe (Hirano), whom Lewis hilariously name-mangles as Mitzvah Wet-Nebble.

As with most Tashlin pics, the underlying sexual material is as eyebrow-raising as it is obvious.  This is immediately evidenced via the lush main titles, which are akin to the director’s attempt to do a color video promo for Naruse’s subsequent When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Tashlin’s credit is plastered over a gorgeous geisha’s bare breasts).

Pleshette, who already has mastered the disbelieving Oliver Hardy double take (which she would further hone on The Bob Newhart Show), gets some big yuks in an essentially thankless role.  Her seriously disturbed “ewww” looks at Lewis whilst he tosses a salad (in the most extreme clean slapstick sense of the word) skillfully underlines the joke.  Ditto her deadpan response to Lewis’ fears of being captured and brainwashed by the communists (“I don’t think there’s much chance of that.”).  Less so is her Fifties feminine politicizing once she realizes that Lewis and Kimi (McCarthy) are becoming an item.  Eschewing all that “women’s emancipation” jazz, Pleshette vows to be submissive to the next man she meets…like all the Japanese girls.  She really needs to see a Meiko Kaji/Lady Snowblood movie.

The hysterical head-on meets with Kimi’s behemoth boyfriend, the pituitary Great Ichiyama (Ryuzo Demura) represents Tashlin and Lewis in high gear.  It also punctuates the fact that THE GEISHA BOY is an incredibly smart movie for 1958.

The American obsession with the Japanese post-war culture that began specifically with two Brando pics Teahouse of the August Moon and Sayonara is continuously stated via the color scheme and set design.  Suburban homes were regularly hanging multi-hued paper lanterns over their patios, and becoming kimono-obsessed.  Furthermore, the influx of the Kurosawa imports on Yankee shores were reaping hefty profits.  That Ichiyama is a Japanese baseball player and, in the course of events, gets pitted against the recently-transplanted Los Angeles Dodgers (who guest star) is another shrewd marketing move.

The supreme coup is the casting of former silent screen star Sessue Hayakawa as Kimi’s stern father.  His efforts to cheer up his grandson result in the picture’s biggest single laugh:  his using slave labor to construct a mini bridge on the River Kwai in their backyard.  Hayakawa, dressed in the identical military uniform that he had worn a year earlier in the David Lean WWII epic, had them falling out of the aisles in 1958.  A friend of mine once told me that he and his mom were passing by a theater playing THE GEISHA BOY and you could hear the laughs out on the street.  The manager told his parent, “It’s the bridge scene.  This is a very funny movie.”

In contrast, Lewis’ devastating treatment of Mitsuo – even when prefaced by his “I hate to do this” twinge of conscience does grate on one’s nerves, bringing to mind the occasionally leaked episodes of the comedian’s dark side.  The adoring idolizing child is crushed as Lewis all-too-realistically delivers the ultimate snap:  “I don’t like you anymore.  I don’t want you anymore.  You’re not my son.  I don’t love you!”  Little Mitsuo’s pained reaction suggests he’s a tick away from committing hara-kiri – or, perhaps more appropriate in his case – hara-kiri, jr.

The last but not least facet of THE GEISHA BOY’s success is the connection between Tashlin and his Warner Bros. roots – the astounding non-human sidekick, Harry Hare (whose “introducing” card in the credits gets larger billing than Pleshette’s).

Per capita, Harry probably ratchets up more chuckles than Lewis and the cast combined.  In a series of impossible visuals, Harry Hare proves himself a master of comic timing.  Reportedly when an adolescent once asked Lewis about the rabbit, the comedian replied, “What do you mean ‘rabbit’?”  He then went on to terrify the youth by disclosing that there were multiple bunnies utilized for the picture – since the hot lights and hours had them dropping like flies.  Whether he was being sarcastic, bluntly honest or simply Jerry, he set the stage that undoubtedly culminated in years of therapy for the inquisitive sprout.  If indeed true (and we hope it isn’t), our hats are off to Harry and all the other Harrys who, unbeknownst, gave their lives for their art.

The final denouement comes when Lewis discovers that Mistuo has stowed away and is ensconced with Harry in the rabbit’s carry-on traveler.  Strapped on top of a fast-moving taxi, this simultaneously becomes both a harrowing Mitsuo and Mitt Romney moment.  Oh, yeah, and speaking of taxis, we can’t sign off without mentioning Sid Melton as a wise-cracking cabbie – a plus if ever there was one!

Like Rock-A-Baby, Olive Films’ 1080p anamorphic transfer of THE GEISHA BOY is A-1 from the get-go.  Haskell Boggs’ VistaVision cinematography is so sharp and detailed that it borders on the outrageous (and revealing, as in the one teeth-grinding occasion where viewers can clearly see wires stringing up Harry for a gag).  The Technicolor pops with rich comic strip swatches, especially in Lewis’ Great Wooley red carry-on, the deep blue skies and nighttime Japanese lanterns adorning the Hayakawa’s pond.  Walter Scharf’s mono score sounds terrific with its buoyant riffs and Asian motifs.

All said, THE GEISHA BOY is a Jerry Lewis vehicle that even his non-fans will find hard to resist – although I’m sure they’ll try.

THE GEISHA BOY.  Color.  Letterboxed [1080p High Definition].  UPC# 887090034906; CAT # OF349.  SRP:  $29.95.

ALSO AVAILABLE ON DVD:  UPC#887090034907; CAT# OF348; SRP: $24.95.

Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

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Wilde in the Country

It’s a testament to the DVD/Blu-Ray format to be able to rediscover an obscurity from those late-night TV daze of yore, and realize that you love it. Faint memories of strong scenes swirled around my so-called fertile mind for decades before I connected the dots that formed the rarely seen 1955 film noir STORM FEAR, now on Blu-Ray from Kino-Classics/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

The movie is a claustrophobic, bold undertaking for triple threat star/producer/director Cornel Wilde (his first directorial effort, btw), bold as it contains no adult characters worth championing. It underlines von Stroheim’s belief that “life is a sewer,” which is also a grand name for a musical.

During a treacherous December winter, in the rural wilderness of Idaho, the bleak Blake family ekes out their existence as fairly unsuccessful farmers.  As handyman/childish gun nut Dennis Weaver goofs off with his employer’s son (aka, teaching him how to shoot to kill) in a rising snow bank, the sprout’s mom (Jean Wallace) spurs his hired-help ass toward town for supplies before an upcoming storm does its worst.

Wallace and the child (David Stollery) endure the most minimal definition of the human condition, due to husband Dan Duryea’s near-terminal tubercular condition (until effectively cured, he must reside in a high-altitude, clear-air environ). Duryea is also a struggling author, who, aside from t.b., is battling a fatal case of writer’s block. Duryea’s moodiness is concurrently repellent and justifiable – a remarkable achievement for an equally remarkable actor.  Despite his acrimony, he truly loves his family.  It’s the world he hates, and curses the fact that his young wife is becoming dowdy before her time (well, as dowdy as Hollywood allows beauties of the Jean Wallace caliber to depreciate, which is somewhere between 1970s Lois Nettleton and Lola Albright). Damn, things just couldn’t get any worse!

And then they do.

From out of the snowy Currier and Ives landscape bursts an ungainly trio of urban dwellers: Wilde, Lee Grant and Steven Hill (in his screen debut). Wilde is Duryea’s estranged kid brother, Charley; he’s also the leader of a band of killers who have just stolen eighty-five thousand dollars after murdering anyone who had the temerity to get in their way.

This is an indeed complex congregation of losers. Wilde is a charming, lying sociopath (so good that the stories/arguments he tells to win over the gullible and vulnerable Blakes are never quite proven to be true or not). Grant is a goofy, likeable (but obviously potentially lethal) ditz who apparently shops at Victoria’s Floozie. Hill is a dyed-in-the-wool psychotic, itching to kill anything that moves, yet terrified of Wilde, who has the additional impediment of having been wounded.

So far, STORM FEAR comes off as a strange combination of The Desperate Hours meets The Country Girl meets Key Largo.  Which isn’t a bad thing.  But as all intimate relationships tend to be:  it’s complicated.

At first Duryea’s increasingly seething hatred of his brother seems like a Bizarro World version of sibling rivalry, but there’s reason for it. Son David’s (yeah, that’s his character’s name too) beloved pet dog, a gift from Wilde, was shot dead by Duryea. This extreme reaction becomes a bit clearer when the canine reminder of his bro’s influence is further sketched out to reveal that Wilde is actually the father of the child. No love, pure lust. And it looks as if tingly Wallace is about to once again cave to nature’s call of the Wilde. Unlike Grace Kelly in her Oscar-winning role, all Wallace has to do is swath her pan with a swatch of lipstick, shake her hair loose, and VOILA!: instant goddess. Her aching loins are quickly sated as Wilde’s initial rebuff turns to rape, both halted by interruptions from one or all of the other inhabitants. Wallace is genuinely quite effective in her “WTF was I thinking?”moment.  David, meanwhile, is confused by the origin of his late pet, due to Duryea’s cryptic and wicked “your father sent it” poisoned bon mots.

News of the killers’ bloody trail is revealed on the radio along with reports of a record-setting nor’easter about to descend upon the community. Sickly Duryea, who is repeatedly punched in the gut by the sadistic Hill (whenever Wilde isn’t around), doesn’t respond with as much anguish as when he gets his publisher’s latest rejection letter. This is truly one of the cruelest moments in the movie, as it’s likely the nastiest FU correspondence a writer has ever received (and I speak from experience).  That said, there’s a particularly harrowing scene where Wallace removes the bullet from Wilde’s injured leg (mercifully, not with her teeth) that underlines her fading concern with a perverse, vengeful bravado.

And, yet, there are some amazing lighter moments in STORM FEAR, most prominently when Stollery attempts to have Hill commune with nature (a forced lifestyle the boy has come to cherish). He hands the thug a sprig of pine, asking him to take a whiff and appreciate its total beauty. Hill complies, retorting with a perplexed “Smells like a tree!” Of course, this is pure Wilde, a hardcore environmentalist, who further expanded on his ecological bent with his subsequent pics, No Blade of Grass and his authentic classic The Naked Prey. Another hoot is Grant’s offer to help out in the cabin as long as it doesn’t ruin her nails.

And thus, we’re prepared for the final act of this suspenseful, violent adventure – a grueling foray through the remnants of the hazardous blizzard (Wilde has duped the boy into leading himself, Grant and Hill through a short-cut escape route over a mountain to the main highway). And, trust me, anytime you expose three New York Jews to the elements without any chance of a nearby noshery, you’re asking for trouble!

Cornel Wilde is truly to be commended for his backpack overload of work on STORM FEAR. While Tony Mann, Nick Ray or Joseph H. Lewis (who the same year helmed the brilliant noir The Big Combo, also with Wilde and Wallace) might have fleshed out the nuances of the characters a bit finer, the actor-turned-filmmaker delivers a most admirable debut. Personally, I found the unabashed grittiness and noirish hopelessness of the movie kin to the directorial efforts of Ida Lupino.  And that may not be an accident. Wilde and Lupino, both liberal progressives, bonded during the filming of Road House in 1948. It’s quite possible that Wilde may have discussed this project his with former costar before filming commenced (there are visual similarities to On Dangerous Ground, which Nick Ray confided to me was partially directed by Lupino when he fell ill). To Wilde’s credit, he has chosen some incredible talent on both sides of the camera to enact their craft. Both Grant and Hill are terrific (although top thesp kudos definitely go to Duryea), as is the thundering score by Elmer Bernstein (which includes a haunting harmonica suite). The stark but luxurious widescreen black-and-white location photography by the great Joseph La Shelle is aces. Ditto the tight take-no-prisoners screenplay by future To Kill a Mockingbird-scripter, Horton Foote (from Clinton Seeley’s novel). The insidious persona of Wilde’s character can never be thoroughly analyzed, as we never know if what he says can be trusted (a horrible tale of abuse by corrupt cops told to Stollery may be absolute bullshit). And you really do want to believe his sorrowful kidnapping adieu to Wallace regarding her son: “We don’t want to do this, but we can’t help it.” Likely, though, as Wallace surmises, the boy is just another example of Wilde’s panache for using people. It’s these spine-tingling traits that easily add the character to the big and little screen’s foreboding catalog of frightening Uncle Charleys, firmly sandwiched between Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt and William Demarest in My 3 Sons.

One could not ask for a better edition of STORM FEAR than the one served up by Kino-Classics. The razor-clarity of the pristine 35mm transfer is one of the best I’ve ever seen from the company (and certainly the finest ever bestowed upon this title). The images are so precise that the depth is almost three-dimensional.

A quirky noir well-worth exploring, STORM FEAR lives up to its moniker.  And then some.

STORM FEAR.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition].  2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics.  CAT # K1750.  SRP:  $29.95.

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In-C’est La Vie

Possibly the only New Wave movie made by a major Hollywood studio (and by one its greatest filmmakers), Otto Preminger‘s 1958 adaptation of Francoise Sagan‘s bestselling novel BONJOUR TRISTESSE (now on limited Blu-Ray release from Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) remains one of the decade’s seminal works, in addition to being the producer-director’s underrated masterpiece.

Perfectly cast, scripted, shot and scored, the movie – a cinematic bonbon with a poisonous center – was deceptively marketed as a romantic vacation movie, lensed in Technicolor and CinemaScope in the south of France. It is, in effect, a modern horror picture populated by characters more despicable than in the previous year’s Sweet Smell of Success. In the latter, the lower depths are the seedy after-hours gritty B&W streets of New York City, inhabited by sinister noirish ugly opportunists. In TRISTESSE, the monsters are beautiful, the locales joyous. It’s the biggest freak show since Tod Browning discovered the circus!

The story, briefly, revolves around single parent Raymond (David Niven) and his gorgeous child-woman teenage daughter Cecile (Jean Seberg). Niven devours young girls with an insatiable sexual fervor, much to the delight of willing accomplice Seberg. She adores her father – in fact, way too much; she chauffeurs her pater and latest twentysomething mistresses to various sumptuous assignation points, parties with them, sympathizes with the women when they are dumped and gleefully looks forward to daddy’s next conquest. During the between times, Niven and Seberg are more like lovers themselves. “You’re my girl,” Raymond emphasizes to Cecile, to which she dreamily replies, “Yes, I’m your girl!”

It is during one of these threesomes, encompassing Raymond, Cecile and scoop du jour Mylene Demongeot, that Niven encounters Anne (Deborah Kerr, who, with pinned-back hair, creepily resembles an older Seberg) – a beautiful mature grown-up he had known by way of Cecile’s mother. Raymond’s apparent decision to start acting his age explodes into a whirlwind courtship, culminating in an engagement. This sends Cecile into a demonic rage, as she considers the woman – the first serious contender for her father’s affections – deadly competition. Aligning herself with new lover Philippe (Geoffrey Horne) and Demongenot, Cecile, who sees this as a game, plots to destroy the relationship…with fatal results.  The spectacular orbit of Seberg’s nuanced performance can be measured by the disintegration of her relationship with Kerr’s character – running the body language gamut from “Wow, she’s so cool!” to “I wanna kill that bitch!”

This is in sharp contrast to Cecile/Seberg’s “sisterhood” bonding with Demongeot’s Elsa (whose penchant for ludicrous outfits and nonsensical “brilliant” observations) have a refreshing reel/real effect wherein the actress is simultaneously laughing both at and with her “competitor.”

BONJOUR TRISTESSE is Greek Tragedy 101, superbly served up by Preminger. The movie is dominated by Seberg, whose look and attitude are so incredibly contemporary that you want to throttle director and rabid anti-Semite Jean-Luc Godard for taking any “reinventing” credit when he cast the soon-to-be expat in Breathless the following year. Seberg, who essentially turned her Saint Joan do into a fashion statement, rules BONJOUR TRISTESSE in spite of the otherwise plethora of excellent acting from her formidable costars. The framing bump is especially sardonic, showing that both she and her father have degenerated ever further than before, Niven being particularly evil, displaying not an iota of remorse. But it’s Seberg, trapping two potential lovers in a nightclub, causing them to become violent, that unmasks her and her parent as sexual vampires – no more so evident as when, doomed conquest realized, she uncaringly excuses herself to examine herself in the looking glass of an underground grotto Ladies Room.  This is nothing short of supernatural extraordinary since, by this point, one is surprised that she’s even capable of casting a reflection.

Of course, there’s more here than simply a strange story of horrific obsessive love; it’s a relationship that mirrored the off-screen partnership between actress and director.

Otto Preminger’s legendary discovery of Seberg, an Iowan teen, to head his all-star version of Shaw’s Saint Joan, is the anti-Christ version of Selznick’s search for Scarlett O’Hara. Once he put the vulnerable girl under contract, he treated her like property – berating her in private, humiliating her in front of fellow cast members and practically holding her hostage in the lush Parisian hotel where the company was holed up. Here, after all, was an inexperienced teenager suddenly surrounded by the likes of John Gielgud, Anton Walbrook, Richard Widmark, Richard Todd, Harry Andrews, Felix Aylmer and Barry Jones. From morning till night, she was yelled at by the shrieking, beet-faced Preminger…how he made a mistake, how she’s an inadequate loser…Nicknamed Svengali, Preminger corrected his critics with a bellowing, “I try to teach her to think.  Surely that is the opposite of Svengali!  His trick was to insure that his victims didn’t think!  I can’t get out of Miss Seberg what isn’t there!” At least he had the honesty to use the word “victim.”  Widmark, who like so many before and after him, vowed to never work with Preminger again, citing his servitude on Saint Joan as the worst experience of his career recalled, “The way he treated Jean Seberg was indescribable.  He criticized her constantly.  He yelled at her, he insulted her, without ever letting up…We all asked him to leave her alone.  Nothing did any good.  Maybe it was a test of toughness.  But, to me, it was sadism.”

This was an acknowledged truism of Preminger and anyone put under personal contract. Subsequent contractee Tom Tryon was so bullied under the director that he virtually fled from the industry, luckily finding fame as an author (for which, some reported, Preminger took partial credit). It got so bad for Tryon on In Harm’s Way that Kirk Douglas threatened the director if he didn’t lay off the trembling young actor. Worse, after a test screening, lead John Wayne told critics that he was pretty satisfied with result, except maybe some of the battleship model work…to which he quickly corrected himself, “But don’t tell Otto I said so.” If John Wayne was shaking in his boots, what chance did Jean Seberg have?

On BONJOUR TRISTESSE, Preminger didn’t stop with Seberg. It was his first picture under his new contract with Columbia – a dream deal if ever there was one. Columbia would put up money and handle distribution, but would have NO SAY regarding any decision, budgetary or artistic. Before the company dropped anchor on the Riviera, Otto was screaming at the studio suits, sending them running off into the night. He didn’t stop there; he rejected the first script, done by S.N. Behrman; out he went. Arthur Laurents, his replacement, would too feel the tyrant’s wrath; ditto composer Georges Auric (who, upon completion of the production, snarled “Vous etes insupportable!” to Herr Director, a verbal “Oh, snap!” if ever there was one) and cinematographer Georges Perinal, all masters of their crafts – and all of whom did exemplary work on TRISTESSE. Even easy-going, never-lose-his-temper David Niven felt the brunt of crazy Otto. Niven, who had worked with Preminger on another equally censorious project, the notorious 1953 pic The Moon is Blue (which also had a heinous father-daughter relationship, except, in this case, Niven played pimp to progeny Dawn Addams), became the human target of a lengthy tirade after leaving the location to attend a party in Deauville. Niven, when he could get a word in edgewise, reminded Preminger that he returned way before his morning call – not costing the company a second of delay time. “THAT’S BESIDE THE POINT!” screamed Otto, who felt he had to control everything (including people) on and off his shoot. By the end of production, the amiable beloved star, according to Demongeot, wanted to strangle Preminger.

Laurents, who correctly pegged the Sagan sourcework “…as a very slight, ironic story…” was worried about bucking Preminger’s aversion to subtlety.  He was, chided the writer, “…a heavy-handed Austrian, and he tried to make it so melodramatic.”  Laurents was therefore pleasantly surprised when Otto basically left him alone and, ultimately turned Sagan’s ultra-serious approach to relationships into a biting sarcastic one, thus making the characters way more dangerous.

During viewing of the rushes, Otto would halt the scenes – taking time to vent on everyone in the screening room, including cast, crew, projectionist and, possibly, the janitorial staff…often storming out in a rage. Only on one occasion, involving Perinal, was this justified. The movie astutely blends black and white and color by presenting the grim current footage in monochrome and the flashbacks in Technicolor. Certain filters required for the B&W scenes to be processed properly on the final imbibition release prints had been mistakenly omitted by the d.p. One can only imagine what transpired between the two men, but it’s safe to assume that it wasn’t pretty (the stress being put upon the cameraman by his director being generally cited as the cause of Perinal’s faux pas). Perinal was no slouch at arguing himself – his prime victim being mother nature. The waters of the Riviera were such that they changed colors constantly. This wreaked havoc with lighting and setups, causing the virtuoso to shout at the sky – a contagious malady which soon afflicted Preminger; if nothing else, this entertained the crew watching the duo holler epithets in at least three languages toward the spectacular azure-pigmented heavens.

The lovely French actress/comedienne Mylene Demongeot was early-on pegged as prime Preminger meat, tenderly-ripe for his ravings. The young woman, however, was of a different temperament entirely; unlike, let’s say, Faye Dunaway, who unabashedly told Preminger (at the first sign of flare-up), to go fuck himself. Demongeout actually liked Otto; more so, she respected the director as an artist and felt privileged to be working for him. It was just a matter of waiting for the trigger to be pulled, and she did that herself on one magnificently sun-drenched morning. “Mr. Preminger, I think…” she begun before being instantly cut off.  “Demongeot!  Don’t think!  Act!” directly violating his Seberg instructions. Otto grunted, Otto seethed, Otto growled, each layer of anger adding a richer tone of crimson to his bald-pated cranium. By the time he reached cherry-red, Demongenot, who had been biting her lip to suppress the laughter, couldn’t hold it in anymore. She collapsed on the ground in hysterics, giggling so hard tears ran down her face. This, along with an occasional deadpan faux concern that he might get a heart attack, would become her response to any further Preminger confrontations.

Which brings us back to Seberg. Kerr vividly recalled consoling the young star; Saint Joan participant Gielgud had done likewise, ending with his lambasting Preminger for his treatment of the actress, whom he noted “…didn’t have an unkind bone in her body.”

But the Jean Seberg of Saint Joan was not the Jean Seberg of BONJOUR TRISTESSE. She was learning…and maturing. She wrote to a friend that, while she saw the artist in Otto Preminger, she also harbored a desire to kill him. She defiantly stated to editor Helga Cranston that “I wish he would fall in love with me.  I would give him such hell!”  It was during TRISTESSE that she embarked on an affair of her own, which bolstered her resistance to her boss’ puppet-master control. One memorable incident occurred when Preminger ripped into her delivery of a particular Laurents speech. “THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT!,” he shrieked after which Seberg responded in perfect imitation – right down to Otto’s thick Austrian accent, resulting in the entire company to burst into laughter and applause.

Of course, like with all bullies, once Preminger was defied, he backed off. After TRISTESSE, he brutally made public his assessment of Seberg, announcing that she had been a mistake; he followed this by selling off her contract to Columbia with the option of having the right to use her for at least one more picture (which he never exercised). “He used me like a Kleenex…” recounted Seberg in deservedly bitter retrospect.  Years later, while on-location in Europe during the production of The Cardinal, Columbia and Preminger held a publicity junket after-hours party. There newbie persecution victim Tom Tryon found solace in the company of now-international star/free agent Seberg. Throughout the evening the pair chatted engagingly at the bar, laughing and having a good time…while in the background, out of the corner of his eye, Preminger watched cautiously. Finally, nearing the witching hour, the director approached the two, and in an accusatory voice, announced, “I KNOW YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT ME!” The old misery-loves-company/comparing battle scars tactics, utilized by shell-shocked warriors throughout the centuries, proved victorious. Tryon and Seberg glanced at each other, then at Preminger, and simultaneously erupted into more raucous laughter. While Seberg was now exempt from Otto’s terrorism, Tryon was another story, unquestionably to be dealt with when back before the cameras that morning. The actor would spend many years in therapy.

Music plays a crucial part in BONJOUR TRISTESSE, and Auric’s wonderful score celebrates false happiness. The jubilant cha-cha parade at night is like a merry conga line to hell. Singer-actress Juliette Greco appears as the house singer in a nightclub, expertly espousing the movie’s themes in the title tune’s lyrics (bonjour tristesse translates to hello sadness): “I’m faithful to my lover,” as Seberg coolly stares at Niven.

In one way or another all the characters in BONJOUR TRISTESSE end up as toast (and French toast at that!). It’s a shamefully perverse confection where the off-screen antics perfectly matched the on-screen histrionics…and it shows. Maybe that was part of Preminger’s genius? Who knows, who cares? All that matters is that it’s a freakin’ great movie, and one that couldn’t have gotten a better transfer than the one Twilight Time has provided. I waited for decades to see a proper CinemaScope print, and was thus delighted when, in 2003, Sony put out an anamorphic DVD, which, to be honest, was quite nice. That said, it should come as no surprise that this Blu-Ray blows the previous disc away. Crystal clear 1080p imagery provides a stunning showcase for the (literally) to-die-for the lush Technicolor Perinal visuals. The full-bodied DTS-HD MA mono audio (accessible as an IST, Isolated Score Track) adds a realistic natural element to the Orpheus carnivale atmosphere.

The B-D contains the special 1958 US theatrical trailer, which not only includes scenes from the movie, but a special mini-interview between Drew Pearson and author Sagan (it was also on the old DVD). It’s a hoot with dour Pearson, through the magic of “modern technology” (i.e. Edward R. Murrow Person-to-Person tele-interviewing) asking snarky Sagan (who was, at the time enjoying huge American acclaim; her other novel, A Certain Smile, was then in preparation by Fox) how she explains her success. “Ah dunt explain it!,” she impassively responds, failing only to add the “so fuck you!”

During the time I briefly knew Otto Preminger in 1977, I asked him about Jean Seberg, whom I adored (and still do). “What can you tell me about her?” I asked with my heart perilously dangling from my sleeve. His unexpected response was “I don’t know her,” spoken with the implied sadness of a parent who had lost all contact and understanding of a grown child who has long-left (or, in her case, escaped) the fold.

On August 30, 1979 Jean Seberg (like fellow Preminger alumnus Dorothy Dandridge before her) committed suicide. No doubt troubled for years (if not decades), her demise had many fingers pointed at Preminger for at least partial blame. Preminger was told the news while in post for would be his final movie, ironically entitled The Human Factor. It is said that all color momentarily left his face; he gasped, and muttered something about “…so full of life.” Then a small tear welled up out of the side of his right eye. This is also the final image of BONJOUR TRISTESSE.

BONJOUR TRISTESSE. Color. Letterboxed [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; Mono audio [DTS-HD MA]. Limited Edition of 3000.  Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. SRP: $29.95.

Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com].

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