The Riled West

A little-seen but integral part of the Jacques Tourneur universe, 1956’s GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING, one of the weirdest westerns to come out of Hollywood, makes its Blu-Ray debut, courtesy of The Warner Archive Collection.

Filmed as RKO was accelerating its rapid demise (the studio would be smoldering in the Rosebud fire by the following year), GREAT DAY carries all of the director’s trademark themes:  ambivalent looks-are-deceiving “heroes,” the bridge between sexuality and death, the punishment of trust…; in short, the evil that men (and women) do.

Into a society of degenerates (aka, early Civil War Denver, Colorado), rides disgraced Southerner Owen Pentecost.  Saved from an Indian attack (probably provoked), the outcast son of Dixie is offered a safe passage into town by working as an additional bodyguard for tough merchant Ann Merry Alaine.  It’s not an easy trip, as her other protectors comprise a gang of lowlifes who despise all things Southern.

And here’s the rub.  Zeff, leader of the deviant loudmouths, is a character western fans know all too well.  He’s even played to the hilt by renowned heavy Leo Gordon.  Nevertheless the typical trademarks of such vermin – jealousy, pure sociopathic tendencies, greed – are replaced by an aversion to the South due to their persecution of African-Americans, their cracker vehement adhesion to slavery.  Zeff, in short, considers it an honor to spit on white trash that supports owning people they can’t afford to buy (to work land they don’t have) – shackled, suffering separated families who are better in every way than their persecutors.  Why is this thug saying these things?  We’re supposed to NOT like him.  His cohorts are no different.  Like Pentecost, the few other Southerners in Denver are, not surprisingly, shunned and bastardized as well.  But they’re no innocents either.  They harbor ambitions to steal gold for their cause – and kill anyone who stands in their way.

Pentecost, on the surface, appears conflicted, but he’s actually in his element – thriving in a corrupt, festering growing community where he can do what he does best, playing both sides.  His attraction to the beautiful Ann is one-sided; she’s practically frigid – thawed only by the thought of accumulating more power.  Adding to the toxicity is Kirby, a rock-jaw Union officer who is smitten by her, but can never dishonor himself enough to make a permanent impression.  Then there’s Gary, an orphaned teen, adopted by Pentecost – not out of affection, but because he secretly killed the boy’s father.  Secrets don’t stay buried long in GREAT DAY‘s Denver, their holders do.  Soon, the once-adoring Gary learns to hate Pentecost, and seek revenge.

All of this is overseen with glee by the town’s manipulative “boss,” the psychopathic Jumbo Means (his size complements his name, along with his penchant for collecting elephant art), who buys everything and everyone, and enjoys pitting factions against one another.  He sides with the Union, only because it seems the easier route to become a war profiteer.  Pentecost, meanwhile, leans toward the band of his “home boy” rebels (whom he plans to screw out of the gold smuggled to the Confederacy).

Indeed, the only reputable and admirable character in the show is Boston, the town’s leading whore.  The contradictory fact that the most obvious immoral person is also Denver’s most moral, takes its toll.  Even if this wasn’t a movie made in 1956, you can well imagine what fate awaits her.

Speaking of contradictory, a key word in Tourneur’s celluloid lexicon, GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING, with its cynical title, looks gorgeous in the Technicolor and SuperScope Silverton, Colorado location cinematography of William E. Snyder.  The script by Lesser Samuels (from Robert Hardy Andrews’ novel) is, as indicated, infuriating, as some of the pic’s highest verbal valiant patriotism comes from the mouths of human pigs.  A typical era score by Leith Stevens compliments the proceedings.

The cast, led by a recently A-list upgraded Robert Stack is aces.  Stack, who won praise for his role as pilot on the verge of a nervous breakdown in 1954’s The High and the Mighty, followed in 1955 with a great turn as a faux scumbag in Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo.  In GREAT DAY, he’s the real deal (and later that year he would give another outstanding performance in Sirk’s Written on the Wind).  Supporting Stack is female lead Virginia Mayo (Ann), Ruth Roman (Boston), Raymond Burr (Jumbo) Alex Nichol (Kirby), Donald MacDonald (Gary), plus Regis Toomey, Carleton Young, Peter Whitney, William Phipps, Burt Mustin, and such genre regulars as Lane Chandler, Pierce Lyden, Kermit Maynard, Frank Mills, Buddy Roosevelt, and Syd Saylor, .

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray of GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING is sumptuous to the max.  I mean, it looks spectacular in 1080p High Definition.  Furthermore, there’s the added supplemental perk of four Jacques Tourneur MGM shorts from his salad days (The Ship that Died, Strange Glory, The Face Behind the Mask and The Magic Alphabet).

Truly, a western that’s hard to place, but one that’s fun to try, GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING is a strange, but thoroughly engrossing journey into the darker side of humanity.

GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING. Color. Widescreen [2.0:1; 1080p High Definition] 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment.  CAT # 1000750095SRP: $21.95.

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Ziggy Stardust

Another hen’s tooth log on the “things I  never thought I’d ever see” celluloid pile, 1929’s GLORIFYING THE AMERICAN GIRL, an embryonic talkie, gets a dazzling 2K 35MM restoration from Kino-Lorber and the collaborative efforts of UCLA, the AFI, Universal Pictures and Paramount Pictures.

Now, many knowledgeable movie folk may be scratching their heads, wondering “WTF is wrong with this guy?”  GtAG is a public domain title that has been around forever.  True that, BUT it’s been edited and (often) culled from tenth generation 16MM dupes, making it unwatchable (if not, “bacon frying” inaudible), and thus, unceremoniously tossed into the surviving nitrate landfill of godawful early talkers (and, heaven knows, there are plenty of those).  But this ain’t one of ’em.

In a complete, restored, gorgeous 35MM print, AMERICAN GIRL works.  Easily categorized at first glance (the old chestnut about a beautiful young ingénue, hoping to be one of those bright lights on the Great White Way), GtAG is usually compared to and overshadowed by the phenomenally successful Broadway Melody, made the same year at MGM (and renowned for being the first musical to win an Oscar…for Best Picture yet!).  In actuality, Melody is more worthy of the creaky rep that pics like AMERICAN GIRL get; it’s frequently difficult to sit through, let alone imagine what Hollywood could have been thinking, giving the Metro flick an Oscar.  That said, in 1929, talking pictures were all the rage – and musical talkers were (at least for a short while) what we in the 1990’s called “da bomb.”

The cardboard characters and dialog of Melody pale next to GtAG’s script by J.P. McEvoy (from a story by Millard Webb) which is remarkably snarky and sporadically vicious – correctly targeting the predators who victimize the innocents in the show business (usually girls and women).  In fact, GLORIFYING THE AMERICAN GIRL is a lot closer to Rouben Mamoulian’s brilliant Applause (also made in 1929, by Paramount and, like AMERICAN GIRL, at the New York Astoria Studio) than to Broadway Melody.

Okay, as indicated, while the plot of GtAG is firmly etched in the familiar groove of the go-getting wannabe dancer/singer/actress, it veers off early-on into darker territories.  Gloria Hughes, happily involved with her high school sweetie Buddy and besties with Barbara, (another beauty, who nevertheless harbors no real footlight aspirations) believes she can manage it all.  The flip flapper quickly finds she can’t.  Talented, but naïve, she disses her dedicated paramour for the road – experiencing the creeps and awful conditions that go along with it.  Worse, unlike Broadway Melody, which focused upon two loving sisters trying to crash the Biz, Gloria is saddled with a classic mooching, monstrous show business mother from hell.  Practically pimped by her parent, Gloria is taken under the wing (in the worst possible way) by Miller, a minor name on the circuit, whom both daughter and mother see as a rung to the top.  As far as he’s concerned, it’s vice versa (accent on the “vice”).  A competent performer, Miller is unfazed when their act is caught by a scout for Ziggy (Florenz Ziegfeld to you), who wants Hughes but not Miller.  This is okay by him, as the seedy hoofer sees it as a way to glide by doing nothing but collecting a hefty paycheck; he previously connived a legal contract for Gloria (witnessed and signed by Mommy Dearest), entitling him to half of all they make (back when he was considered the bread winner).  It’s here that Gloria’s worm turns, revealing herself to be a quick study, perfectly amenable to making this leech’s life a living hell 24/7.  Formerly naïve, the hardened woman’s growing partner-hatred coupled with that eternal lust for fame embellishes her with a warehouse of “the smarts,” and, as the song says, “she knows how to use it.”

Meantime, Buddy and Barbara, following their pal’s rise with glee, have now become a couple, a relationship forged out of their being abandoned by Gloria’s selfishness and Barbara’s recovering from a near-fatal traffic accident. With Gloria’s backburner chances for physical and emotional happiness ruined, the picture concludes with “regular” folks Buddy and Barbara deliriously in love while the “glorified” American girl is forever doomed to the loneliness of success, and addicted to an industry swarming with vipers and users.

I guess at first glance, GtAG doesn’t sound like “the happy one for the holidays,” but it really is entertaining.  There are some excellent performances in the pic and some nicely paced comedy (bourgeois mom trying to manipulate a stubborn lorgnette).  The lead star, Mary Eaton, took me by shock; I mean that as a compliment.  The only other title I had ever seen the (mostly) stage-trained actress in was as one-half of the useless love interest in the Marx Brothers pic The Cocoanuts (yet another 1929 Paramount filmed at the Astoria facilities).  In AMERICAN GIRL, she really gets to dance, belt out some numbers and act up a storm.  Who knew?

GLORIFYING THE AMERICAN GIRL was directed by the story’s writer, Millard Webb, who deserves the proverbial tip of a hat.  Unlike most primitive talkies, this one moves way better than the competition (including the oft soggy Cocoanuts).  Webb completes a nifty behind-the-camera trio with Paramount’s East Coast producer Monta Bell and d.p. George Folsey (both of whom were likewise on the Marx Brothers show).  The supporting cast, too, is of note, and includes quite a roster: Edward Crandall (Buddy), Gloria Shea (Barbara), Sarah Edwards (Mom-from-Hell), Dan Healy (Miller), plus Bull Montana and Kay Renard.  Having merchandised Ziggy’s name, the iconic Broadway showman used his clout to throw the production some extra prizes:  the participation of Helen Morgan (who sings “What Would I Do for My Man?”), Rudy Vallee (giving us a taste of “Vagabond Lover”) and guest appearances by Billie Burke (aka, Mrs. Ziegfeld), Mayor Jimmy Walker, Charles Dillingham, Noah Beery, Irving Berlin, Texas Guinan, Otto Kahn, Tony Sansone, Ring Lardner, the Ted Shawn Ballet, Flo Ziegfeld, Jr., 75 Glorified Beauties, and a young swimming star named Johnny Weissmuller (Paramount head Adolph Zukor turns up on his own).  Best of all is a revue segment featuring Eddie Cantor and Louis Sorin (Abie the Fishman from the Marx Bros. Animal Crackers, another Paramount Picture that would be shot at Astoria the following year) as two Lower East Side tailors trying to snare a rube tourist into purchasing garbage garb.

As for the musical numbers, once again, GtAG beats out Broadway Melody.  Producer Bell (with Ziggy’s help) was able to snare John W. Harkrider to create Ziegfeld-esque tableau show-stoppers that were shot in two-strip Technicolor.  Here’s where the public domain prints failed – giving us B&W washed out copies, or missing these sequences entirely (not cool for a musical).  Long thought lost, ALL of the Technicolor footage has now been re-discovered and re-inserted back into the print.  To call these scenes exquisite would be an understatement.  They’re also bizarrely complex.  Rather than just unveil a reel or two in this process, the producers thought better to keep the on-stage stuff in color, but the audience cut-a-ways and response (including Buddy’s and Barbara’s approval) in standard monochrome (unlike, for example, the all-color finale in 1930’s Florodora Girl).

Kino has additionally appended the 95-minute feature with a number of terrific clips and shorts, including Hearst Newsreels of Ziegfeld rehearsing his dancers, and the 1934 three-strip Technicolor short, La Cucaracha. The plum supplement is audio commentary by Richard Barrios, author of A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, perhaps the finest book ever on the period and the genre.

As mentioned earlier, the 35MM presentation is outstanding in 1080p.  At last rescued from public domain purgatory, GtAG has transformed back to the 1929 jaw-dropper it was been meant to be.  As one astute viewer (pre-social distancing) at The Neuhaus Bijou noted, AMERICAN GIRL solemnly reveals that industry sexual rights and rites have not progressed much in nearly a century; indeed, the title itself is a cynical one. Here’s to better times.

GLORIFYING THE AMERICAN GIRL.  Black and white w/Technicolor sequences.  Full frame: 1.20:1; 1080p High Definition.  DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber/UCLA Film Archive/AFI/Universal Pictures/Paramount Pictures.  CAT # K24183. SRP: $29.95.

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Ko K.O.

The landmark 1984 Chinese adrenalin classic (released here in 1986) HEROES SHED NO TEARS, starring Eddy Po, arrives on Blu-Ray in a spectacular new 2K restoration, thanks to the chop-sockin’ team at Film Movement Classics and Fortune Star Media.

Produced by the legendary Raymond Chow for his Golden Harvest company, HEROES is actually the pic that began iconic director John Woo’s ascension up the international celluloid ladder.  The director, who until this point, had been mainly known for comedies, re-channeled and ratcheted up his outrageous energy in this sanguinary tale of mercenaries taking on the illicit drug trade.  Yep, it’s HEROES, an 89-minute exercise in balletic violence, that laid the groundwork for Woo’s later celebrated works, A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Hard Boiled, Bullet in the Head and Once a Thief; influencing many that followed, primarily Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, Woo, himself took the baton from the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Sergio Leone and, most notably Sam Peckinpah (down to the slo-mo sequences of carnage and destruction).  HEROES is, in short, a cinematic textbook of stuntwork coordination and unhygienic blood Bathory (as in Elizabeth) that had never (at least in Hong Kong grind epics) been achieved in quite such an artistic or technically impressive way – all the more startling for the modest budget.

The narrative concerns top commander Chan Chung (Ko) and his soldiers of fortune who accept a mission from several Thailand politicos to quell the flow of illegal drugs in the mountains, not fully anticipating the sophisticated operations the ruthless crimelords run via money, sadism and fear.  Added to the equation is the demand that they capture the Golden Triangle (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia) cartel’s leader General Samton.  Furthermore, the enemy is aided by the unexpected participation of a communist Vietnamese colonel (Lam Ching-ying), his troops and the superb village trackers who essentially function as the evil military’s slaves.

From fade-in to fade-out, there is barely one moment this isn’t filled with bone-crushing splatter and tension, thanks to Woo’s unflinching direction and the tight script by Woo, Peter Ho-Sun Chan and Leung-Chun Chiu.  Ko’s powerful presence fuels the proceedings, allowing for several subplots, featuring the relationship with his young son and pretty sister-in-law guardian and a reunion with an American buddy from Nam (Philppe Loeffredo), who now lives in the rugged terrain with a bevy of beauties/hookers (who also are trained for combat).  A stunning French reporter (Cecile Le Bailly), raped and tortured by the colonel’s brigade, is rescued and also joins the ragtag group in their mission that ends in a surprisingly moving way.  I suspect many Hollywood producers who helped Woo gain a foothold in the West Coast moviemaking community (Face/Off, Mission Impossible 2, etc.) likely missed this pic, as it certainly portrays a downbeat view of America.

It should be noted that Woo’s trademark techniques are already evident in this embryonic but key work: the poignant relationship between father and young son (the latter who defiantly displays his father’s stubborn attitude), women who take no shit from their male counterparts, dark lowbrow humor (a dice game and “cookout”) plus the aforementioned expertly composed bravura demonstrations of ferocity and savagery.

As indicated, HEROES SHED NO TEARS looks fantastic in this new widescreen 1080p transfer (giving fans a new appreciation of d.p. Kenichi Nakagawa’s excellent work), and sounds just as good in stereo-surround (either 5.1 or 2.0, your choice), available in Cantonese, Mandarin (each w/English subtitles) or an English dub.  A suitable score by Siu-Lam Tang caps the audio.

A wonderful recent interview with star Eddy Ko makes for a terrific supplement, revealing the veteran action star’s astute observations regarding the Asian film industry then and now, working with Woo, plus a treasure trove of other marvelous reminiscences.  FYI, the title is a cynical one, leaving audiences to ponder a choice since a) heroes DO shed tears or b) that there simply are no heroes.

HEROES SHED NO TEARS. Color. [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 or 2.0 DTS-HD MA [Cantonese or Mandarin w/English subtitles; English dub]; Film Movement Classics/Fortune Star Media, Ltd.  CAT # B-DHEROESSHEDNOTEARS.  SRP: $29.95.

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High, Wide and Then Some

With social distancing becoming a temporary mandatory norm for our fragile planet, it’s nice to know that some much-needed respite is available via two movies that were definitely NOT for the small crowd audience (unless you are referring to the kiddie contingent, for whom at least one of these pics was made).  I’m talking about the recent Flicker Alley releases of two 1960s Cinerama extravaganzas, 1962’s FLYING CLIPPER (aka Mediterranean Holiday) and the super-rare 1965 Disney-on-steroids opus THE GOLDEN HEAD, each now available in dazzling Blu-Ray restorations from Flicker Alley, in conjunction with The Busch Media Group (CLIPPER) and Cinerama, Incorporated (GOLDEN).  It should be enthusiastically noted that the former is also in 4K Ultra, an obvious incentive for “big screen”/Cinerama fans.

Since I grew up with a copy of The Four Aspects of Cinema under my pillow (sound, color, 3-D, widescreen), ANY Cinerama-hyped production piqued my interest.  Truth be told, that outside of This is Cinerama, in 1952, and some other feature-length travelogues that followed, most movies brandishing the process were actually 70MM releases (most notably It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World); yet, 70 worked just fine, when projected in the format and in the right venue.  Only TWO narrative pics were ever actually shot in the 3-panel process:  The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won (both looking spectacular).  The Hallelujah Trail, Custer of the West, Krakatoa – East of Java, Battle of the Bulge, 2001, etc. were all 70MM – and often not even available to enjoy in the giant film versions.  Indeed, by 1962, when FLYING CLIPPER debuted in Europe (we wouldn’t see it in the States until 1964), it, too, was 70MM only in a handful of “selected theatres.”  The charm and awe of the experience was, thus, lost upon many of its viewers who watched it in a standard 35MM hardtop.  This new 4K/Blu-Ray combo offers a compromise that big screen fans won’t be able to (and shouldn’t) pass up: it was mastered from 70MM elements.  So let the mammoth curtains part, hunker down and prepare to keep manually closing your bottom jaw.

 

To my knowledge, THE FLYING CLIPPER is the first High Definition Cinerama home video platter restoration NOT done by David Strohmaier and Cinerama, Inc.  The release comes to Flicker Alley via The Busch Media Group.  There are some notable differences.  While the red velvet curtain Overture (parting to begin the show) is retained, the use of SmileBox (that optically curves the image to assimilate the envelopment of the presentation) isn’t.  To me, that’s a major disappointment.  Of course, the pic IS in extreme widescreen, so, I suspect, most fans won’t complain.  The movie, a 1962 German production (codirected by Hermann Leitner and Rudolf Nussgruber), follows the narrative (written by Gerd Nickstadt, Arthur Elliott, and Hans Dieter Bove) of the earlier 1958 success Windjammer (also available from Flicker Alley): a group of young men are chosen to man a 19th century vessel.  Upgrades in equipment and technology helped make the production less of a burden, although it’s never easy to schlep 70MM cameras around a film shoot, let alone a 158-minute travelogue promising lots of action.  And action there is!  We climb the pyramids, get a driver’s seat to the Grand Prix, participate in various international festivals, and even go skiing in Damascus (who knew!!??).

The movie, released here as Mediterranean Holiday, was re-scripted (by William Lovelock) with a narration by Burl Ives (who also segues into several folk ballads during his on-going commentary).  I never saw it in the original release, but recall friends who had – and they loved it, and raved about the dizzying effects. Both the Ives track and the German audio are accessible; the disc also contains dubbing options in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Slovenian (oy!) and Japanese.

The movie was shot in Eastman Color, a (literal) red flag, that faded quickly (diminishing the work of a sextet of excellent d.p.s, Tony Braun, Siegfried Hold, Heinz Holscher, Heinrich Schafer, Klaus Kong and Bernhard Stebich).  Flicker Alley and Co. certainly must bow to the heroic efforts of the man who probably loves this pic more than anyone else, Herbert Born.  Born, a renowned 70MM fan/expert/collector (and owner of the famed Schauberg cinema in Karlsruhe, home of the annual 70MM Film Festival), personally tracked down the existing elements and initiated and oversaw the new restoration.  For the most part, CLIPPER looks pretty good, never quite achieving a Technicolor effect, but pleasing nonetheless.  The clarity, particularly on the daylight sequences, is just fine; the darker segments are a bit less defined, especially if you’re viewing the show in 4K Ultra.  That’s the 4K curse; yeah, it’s twice the definition of Blu-Ray, BUT, unless you’re really watching on a big screen and in pitch black surroundings, you’re gonna miss out.  The Blu-Ray might be the better way to go for the majority of collectors (as indicated, BOTH are included in the package).   The soundtrack, in whichever option you choose, is a surround delight.  You can play the movie in either 1962 stereo, or in a newly recorded edition in Dolby Atmos (I went with the latter).  A stellar audio booster is the wonderful score by Riz Ortolani (a popular Decca soundtrack LP in ’64).

Flicker Alley and Busch Media have packed the program with enticing, genuinely fascinating supplementary material, including a facsimile roadshow program booklet, several documentaries on the audio and visual restoration, interviews with Herbert Born, and a truly amazing session with Marcus Vetter, a projectionist specializing in 70MM presentations.  Adult Sixties kiddies will relish basking in the nostalgic glow, while contemporary sprouts will should find interest in witnessing exciting, fun global sights in High Definition and “living” stereo sound from a different world, and from a different time.

 

1965’s THE GOLDEN HEAD is yet another title I’d never thought I would see in anything close to its intended presentation.  Thanks to David Strohmaier and the Cinerama Incorporated team, I was once again (happily) proven wrong.

The movie, first and foremost, transcends the mere travelogue aspect of super widescreen fare, and offers a narrative alternative for the kiddie trade.  Yep, it’s a children’s mystery-thriller, much in the line of the live-action stuff Disney was producing at this period (The Moonspinners immediately comes to mind).  Ironically, Buena Vista had recently filmed a version of Emil and the Detectives (1964), which this living large ride resembles in several ways (it was based upon the novel Nepomuk of the River by Roger Pilkington, and features a screenplay by Stanley Goulder and Ivan Boldizsar).

That said, to me, the plot is more like a tiny tot’s version of the 1954 noir Witness to Murder, and even features the same villain, George Sanders.  GOLDEN revolves around the British Stevenson children (Jess Conrad, Lorraine Power, Denis Gilmore), who are excited to join their detective father (Douglas Wilmer) when he is transferred to Budapest. Harold, the youngest of the bunch (Gilmore)) happens across a seemingly kindly fellow countryman, Basil Palmer, who is actually a master criminal, working in cahoots with a bungling sidekick, Lionel (Buddy Hackett, possibly heir to the title of Mr. Cinerama, having already costarred in The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World).  When a series of “run through” robberies are committed with the juicy piece de resistance prize to be the golden bust of St. Laszlo, no one believes the urchin’s claims that respected businessman Palmer is the mastermind.  Save, of course, the villain himself, who continuously tries to paint the lad as a boy-who-cried-wolf liar.

Eventually, this all changes and the kids track the crooks across the landmarks and natural beauty of Hungary.  Sure, it’s all played for laughs (and lowbrow ones at that); nevertheless, while I wouldn’t have shown much interest in seeing the pic in a standard 35MM release, I would have eagerly lined up to view it in 70MM Technirama.  Sadly, it rarely played that way in the States (or anywhere else).  Insult to injury, the movie was pulled from playdates in 70MM, and replaced by…wait for it, Mediterranean Holiday (aka THE FLYING CLIPPER), now in a simultaneous home vid release (from a different company) with GOLDEN HEAD.  Small world for big pictures!

It’s certainly a treat to see George Sanders in Cinerama (or in anything), if not gobsmackingly bizarre to watch the consummate actor paired with Buddy Hackett.  While an unlikely duo on-screen, I suspect off-camera, the two got on rather well  (try and check out Hackett’s uncensored Vegas recordings and you’ll get what I mean).  It’s additionally a hoot to see the suave thesp cavorting across the Land of the Gabors, in places he no doubt had often heard about.

The movie was directed by veteran craftsman Richard Thorpe (Ivanhoe, Knights of the Round Table) and James Hill (who replaced Thorpe late in the production), and luxuriously photographed by Istvan Hildebrand.  The boundless vistas and POVs are often overwhelming (in the best definition of that term), and, all in all, THE GOLDEN HEAD is a lot of fun – certainly a diverting afternoon at the movies for the pre-school and elementary school crowd.

Unlike CLIPPER, THE GOLDEN HEAD gets the David Strohmaier SmileBox treatment, an automatic seals-the-deal B-D must!  The restoration of the Technicolor pic (from 65MM elements) is up to par with Strohmaier’s previous efforts, and detailed in a techno-documentary, included as an extra along with a number of cool assorted goodies.  Best of all is the original 22-minute Cinerama short that preceded GOLDEN HEAD, a thrilling Swiss Army propaganda short, Fortress of Peace.  This outstanding supplement alone makes it worth purchasing GOLDEN HEAD for one’s collection.  Furthermore, the gang has sweetened the pot by enclosing A Tale of the Old Whiff, a John Hubley 70MM cartoon that went out with Scent of Mystery (the Cinerama pic in Smell-O-Vision).  Finally, there’s gallery of Cinerama trailers containing other titles the company offers, another entertaining excursion in and of itself.  An appropriate score by Peter Fenyes fills the stereo-surround audio, alongside the “coming-at-you” sound effects.  In addition, there’s “The Golden Head” and “Things I’d Like to Say,” songs (composed by Mitch Murray) sung by adolescent lead Conrad, then being groomed as a pop star.  Conrad is even given a Hungarian girlfriend (Cecilia Esztergalyos) to bait the teen audience.

THE FLYING CLIPPER. Color. Widescreen [2.20:1; 1080p High Definition OR 2100p 4L Ultra]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA, Dolby Atmos. Flicker Alley/The Busch Media Group. CAT # FA0060. SRP: $39.95.

THE GOLDEN HEAD. Color. SmileBox Widescreen [2.20:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Flicker Alley/Cinerama, Inc. SRP: $39.95.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nice Lice Twice

There’s rarely been a more raucous, clever and satisfying post-Code 1930s comedy than 1935’s THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING, now available on limited edition Blu-Ray from those meritorious folks at Twilight Time (in conjunction with Columbia Pictures Industries).

The movie, featuring an outstanding Edward G. Robinson performance, and directed by (of all people) John Ford is a welcome addition to any classic collector’s library shelf.

TOWN was made during that momentous period when Columbia suddenly became the go-to studio for comedy (wacky, screwball, sophisticated or otherwise).  The reason was Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, released the previous year, and sweeping the Oscars, the box-office and propelling the candle power of the director and two already popular leads, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.

Columbia head Harry Cohn wasted no time – some of it unscrupulously, sending non-Capra titles to the studio’s overseas market with the director’s name pasted over the posters and main titles.  He needn’t have bothered with such chicanery, as every star, director, and writer worth their salt was soon knocking on the Gower Gulch doors.  Gary Cooper, Irene Dunne, John Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, Carole Lombard lined up alongside John Ford, Howard Hawks, Gregory LaCava, Leo McCarey and others for the privilege of making laff fests in the league of Capra’s 1934 gem.  And they all aced it.

Ford’s pic, scripted brilliantly by Jo Swerling and It Happened‘s Robert Riskin (from a story by W.R. Burnett, who wrote Robinson’s star-making vehicle Little Caesar), is one of the best – and likely the most obscure.  It cashes in on Robinson’s gangster persona with a vengeance, and the actor (borrowed from Warners) pulled out all the stops.

The plot revolves around the meek, harmless and extremely likeable milquetoast Arthur Ferguson Jones, who, for nearly a decade, has eked out a meager existence as an accountant at a very impersonal, yet bustling metropolitan concern.  Introvert Jones’ secret jones comprises reading about exotic places he yearns to visit, painting, caring for his pets (a bird and a cat, who, like the humans in Arthur’s life, manipulate him) and idolizing gorgeous, liberated extrovert coworker Wilhelmina Clark (the sensational Jean Arthur, in one of her finest roles).

A defective alarm clock causes Jones to be late for the first time ever, a conundrum since jerk company head “J.G.” (Paul Harvey) has decided to award the sheepish lemming a perfect attendance reward concurrent with his demand that the next tardy employee be fired as a warning.

It’s here that Wilhelmina happily takes one for the team (while constantly ignoring the rules, she has remained on-staff due to her savvy business acumen), but not before making a fascinating observation:  vicious psychopathic underworld kingpin, Killer Manion is in the headlines and is a ringer for mild-mannered Jones.  This causes much commotion in the office, to the consternation of company man(ager) Seaver (a wonderful turn by character actor Etienne Giradot).

Seaver chews out the whimpering Jones for creating a dilemma (being late and winning an on-time award), and the saddened accountant retreats to the local automat for lunch, while awaiting his “sentence.” In a wish list dream come true, he is joined by Wilhelmina, who is determined to cheer him up by essentially telling the drone “the hell with them all.”  Meantime, a reward-seeking diner (Donald Meek) thinks he’s “made” Manion, and phones the cops, who immediately arrest both Jones and Clark, figuring the latter for his babe.

And here the hilarity goes from charming to freewheeling alarming.  Individually questioned, Jones is near-tears, while Wilhelmina, in one of the funniest scenes EVER, goes all gang moll, and brazenly admits to every crime they ask her about.  With body language and a simple increasingly snarling response of “MANION!,” Jean Arthur beautifully gives us a crash course in minimalist comedic movie acting; it’s one of her best moments, easily making TOWN the first of three spectacular screen achievements (the other two being The More the Merrier and A Foreign Affair; Katharine Hepburn’s copycat mimicking three years later in Bringing Up Baby remains a pale imitation).

Meanwhile, a sobbing Jones is on the verge of admitting to everything when he is reprieved by the arrival of his office manager Seaver.  Given a D.A.-signed “passport” letter in case he’s picked up again, the shaken accountant, now a headline champ (thanks to a 1930’s prerequisite wisecracking reporter, aka Wallace Ford), becomes a reluctant hero with his boss and employees.

Unfortunately, this is all being monitored by the real top thug, who terrorizes Jones at his home, relieving him of the letter at night (to move freely and commit crimes), and returning it in the morning.

How this all wraps up into one consistently funny hunk of celluloid is movie comedy at its peak.  Robinson, who makes it all look so easy (along with some then state-of-the-art split/rear screen technology), is, not surprisingly, terrific in the dual roles of Jones and Manion; what is equally (if not more so) awesome is his doing Jones attempting to fool gunsels into thinking he’s Manion, so, basically a third identity, all with different ticks and timid brashness. It’s an incredible display of acting.

THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING was a huge hit with critics and audiences alike; it is the pic that deservedly made Arthur a star (after doing supporting roles and leads in vehicles going back to the late silent era).  I have no doubt that the movie, in part, heavily influenced Preston Sturges’ 1940 gem Christmas in July.

Back in the 1960’s, I vividly recall talking to a friend of my parents about movies they saw first-run in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties (a conversation I often engaged adults in dem days).  His three favorite movies were Shane, Stalag 17 and THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING.  I had never heard of the last one (which he saw as a kid), but the man swore it was the funniest picture he had ever seen.

It took me over thirty years to be able to catch up with the title (on TCM), and it indeed floored me, not only for Ford’s spot-on breezy direction, but for the fantastic lead efforts of Robinson and Arthur.  The supporting cast, too, is as good as it gets, and, in addition to those already mentioned, includes Arthur Hohl, James Donlan, Arthur Byron, Ed Brophy, Ernie Adams, Stanley Blystone, Francis Ford, Walter Long, J. Farrell MacDonald, Sherry Hall, Bud Jamison and, in a bit as bank teller, Lucille Ball.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING is everything you could ever want in a High Definition transfer of a classic movie.  The 35MM elements look pristine in 1080p (showcasing Joseph H. August’s crisp black-and-white photography) with a strong mono track (the music is pretty standard Columbia stock stuff, so no IST necessary).  As indicated, this is a limited edition, so pounce on this while supplies last.

THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING Black and White [full frame; 1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries. CAT # TTTHEWHOLETOWNSTALKING. SRP: $29.95.

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Apocalypse Then

A foreign bacteria that could possibly destroy the world in a matter of months?  Pshaw, those crazy sci-fi movie mavens, always trying to scare us.  They did a helluva good job in 1971 with THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, based on the 1969 Michael Crichton novel, and now available on Blu-Ray from Arrow Video/MVDvisual/Universal Home Entertainment.

But that was then, and this is…

Okay, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN isn’t exactly the mirror image of what’s currently going on globally, but what few similarities exist are kinda striking.

A downed satellite, landing in Piedmont, NM, mushrooms into a major crisis when the recovery goes disastrously awry.  Seemingly, everyone in the town is dead, infected by an unidentifiable contagion.  Worse, the military team assigned to bring back the capsule, too, develops symptoms and perish quickly.

Unlike some present-day factions who shall remain nameless, the 1971 government acts quickly and recruits a quartet of revered scientists and doctors to investigate this nightmare.  Wearing the proper protective clothing, they descend upon Piedmont and make an astounding discovery.  A local physician (immediately deceased) unleashed this germ by handling the craft, BUT two Piedmont citizens are still miraculously alive:  a drunken, ailing senior and a newborn.  How and why did they survive?  Is there something in their specific biological systems that can provide immunity?  The docs and the patients are swiftly transported to a super underground laboratory testing facility under the Southwestern desert, with a mere few days (the movie takes place over a 96 hour period) to identify the killer and work toward a cure.  The alternatives are too frightening to contemplate, particularly if this invader is airborne.

Yep, this isn’t some bug-eyed alien from outer space, but a pinprick-sized germ – at first incorrectly tagged a new virus before its mutating evolution is revealed to be a microbe.  It attacks humans and non-humans, crystallizing their blood supply (turning hemoglobin into powder).  The suspense ratchets up as time runs out, and the last twenty minutes of this nail-biter will give viewers non-microbe golf ball-sized goosebumps.

Superbly directed by Robert Wise, no stranger to science-fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still), and with a first-rate screenplay by Nelson Gidding (who authored many fine scripts for Wise, including the terrifying 1963 horror classic The Haunting), THE ANDROMED STRAIN certainly sends a somber message/warning to contemporary Earthlings nearly a half century after its release.  Improving upon the Crichton book, Wise and Gidding changed the all-male science crew to include a woman (the Dr. Leavitt character, snarkily enacted by Kate Reid), making the narrative more believable and modern (the ubiquitous use throughout of desktop computers and lasers, both then ultra-futuristic, add to the realism).  The remaining members of the team are excellent as well, and include Arthur Hill, David Wayne and James Olson.  Dr. Jeremy Stone, the Hill character is the most interesting as he’s the one moderate conservative in the bunch (the rest are liberals and progressive liberals).  Stone has had the most virulent battles with Congress and the President, having been humiliated and rebuffed when, after the 1969 moon landing, he proposed a program to examine all returning planetary/star spacecraft for viral germs and minute organisms that could potentially cause a worldwide pandemic.  The Congress and the White House are depicted as money-grubbing boobs – pooh-poohing his ideas as a waste of time and cash.  As in 2020 D.C., the 1971 versions (when Nixon was in office) stop laughing awful fast (some fine sneering turns by Eric Christmas, Walter Brooke, Glenn Langan and David McLean).

The Arrow Blu-Ray of THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN looks and sounds great, due to a new 4K transfer from the original 35MM Panavision elements (the flick was beautifully photographed in widescreen by Richard H. Kline, and contains a sparse but tingling score by jazz musician/composer Gil Melle).  The remaining supporting cast, too, is worth mentioning, especially Paula Kelley as Olson’s medical assistant, and also George Mitchell, Ramon Bieri, Richard O’Brien, Quinn Redeker, Peter Hobbs, Joe DiReda, and Susan Brown).  There are some fascinating extras, including a BD-ROM PDF of the 192-page collection of production diagrams, an image gallery, highlights from Giddings copy of the shooting script, two vintage 1971 mini-documentaries on Michael Crichton and the making of the pic, audio commentary by critic Bryan Reesman and a newly filmed featurette with critic Kim Newman.

I saw THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN with a buddy in its original release, at the (then) recently constructed, cavernous National Theater, located on Broadway in midtown Manhattan.  We both really liked the movie, but he, a genius student, eager to start pre-med in the fall, was sort of miffed by the “believability factor” of one specific scene.  In words I remember to this day, he shook his head and griped “What bonehead bunch of assholes would ignore a leading scientist’s request to not only continue funding a pandemic unit, but to deny a request to expand it?”  Like I said, golf ball goosebumps.

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition] LPCM mono audio; Arrow Video/MVDvisual/Universal Home Entertainment. CAT# AV203. SRP: $39.95.

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Fernando’s Hide…a-wayyy Too Much!

My “jones” for 3-D movies, 1950s cinema and Technicolor just got gobsmacked by the recent Kino-Lorber/Paramount Home Entertainment/3-D Archive Blu-Rays of 1953’s SANGAREE and 1954’s JIVARO, both starring the era’s (and process’s) undisputed King of the Bare-Chested Perspiration, Latin lover, Fernando Lamas.

The pics (and the pecs) were originally released through Paramount’s B-plus-budget subsidiary Pine-Thomas; however, by the early 1950’s, much of their product didn’t differ from the look of the ‘A’s, or from the similar stuff being churned out by Universal-International, Columbia and RKO.

Pine-Thomas extravaganzas often relied on the reboots of costumes, props and sets leftover from the likes of Cecil B. DeMille (both Bill Thomas and Bill Pine originally began apprenticing for C.B.).  Their early efforts were cheap, even by Monogram standards, but, by the time they discovered Technicolor (which became increasingly more affordable after WWII), things changed.  For one thing, they were able to lure nabe-fave-names into their lair (Lamas, Arlene Dahl, Rhonda Fleming, John Payne, Ronald Reagan) and, on occasion, even got major contract players and directors to participate (James Cagney, Charlton Heston, Jane Wyman, Nicholas Ray).  The supporting casts were always top-notch and the photography frequently superb.

With the advent and (sadly, brief) popularity of 3-D in the early Fifties, The Dollar Bills (as they were known in the industry) leaped into the fray with a vengeance, promising way more than they could deliver, and with Paramount going along for the ride (the latter, at an embryonic point, even announcing White Christmas in 3-D!)  The majority of the Paramount 3-Ds were Pine-Thomas; however, several other titles did eke by: Hal Wallis’ Cease Fire (a semi-documentary on the Korean War, also available from Kino-Lorber), Flight to Tangier (costarring Joan Fontaine and Jack Palance), and, most notably, Money from Home, with Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis.

The Bills’ efforts not only filled the coffers at box-offices across the country, but beat other studios to some Third Dimension firsts.  Those Redheads from Seattle (likewise available from Kino-Lorber) was the first released 3-D musical to cross the finish line, ahead of MGM’s Kiss Me, Kate and RKO’s The French Line.  It was also the first 3-D title to be shot and released in Technicolor, which, trust me, makes a BIG difference.

While Redheads appealed to the musical crowd, the diehard action fans anxiously salivated from the teasers announcing SANGAREE, a period piece oozing with sex and JIVARO, an up-the-Amazon sanguinary opus promising gory battles and shrunken heads galore.  Each pic would costar a redhead (not necessarily from Seattle, although one was), the studio’s lusty, busty answers to Maureen O’Hara:  Arlene Dahl and Rhonda Fleming.  Lamas, whose emoting with Dahl ended up spilling over off-camera (i.e., gossip column gold) was, according to Paramount ballyhoo, the result of a casting call that rivaled Scarlett O’Hara (bear in mind, “hooey” comes from ballyhoo).  The movies remain tremendous fun, look fantastic (in these splendid new 1080p restorations) and often show Golden Age 3-D at its in-your-face best.  So put on your glasses, and start the kernels a-poppin.’

 

“Indentured servants make good” serves as a suitable mini-review of 1953’s SANGAREE, a lush-looking torrid 3-D romance, based on a “scandalous” novel by Frank G. Slaughter (a sorta bedside companion to Kathleen Winsor’s shocking Forever Amber, as it’s a period piece about illicit love and even has a plague – because what 18th century immorality tales don’t?).  Of course, it’s easy to champion white slaves when they look like Fernando Lamas and Patricia Medina.  Lamas, aka Carlos Morales, is now DOCTOR Carlos Morales, thanks to kindly colonies nobleman General Victor Darby (Lester Matthews), who took the young servant under his wing.  Darby is dying and has bequeathed his land to the grateful Morales, rather than his own weakling son Roy (Tom Drake), also a G.P. (and, no doubt, a weak one). Giddy graduate Carlos trots (if not canters) back from his “up North” medical school to the plantation a full-fledged sawbones.  Since it’s hot in Dixie, Fernando must take off his shirt whenever possible.  Riding up the river on a barge to Savannah, and eager to start practice, Morales runs afoul of rumors surrounding an over-privileged she-witch, aka, Darby’s wild daughter, Nancy (Dahl); you know the type – as evil as she is beautiful.  Heaving and hoeing, Doc meets a beguiling fellow passenger, and before you can say “remove your clothes,” that shirt is off again, and the pair be a-clinchin’ an’ a messin’ without da benefit of clergy.  The lady ain’t no lady, as she likes her lovin’ rough, and bites Fernando square-on in the biceps (a much-publicized moment in the ads).  It takes Lamas longer to figure out what we-uns already know – this hellion is none other than Nancy herself (the cat-and-mouse carnal byplay between the Latin and the deceitful redhead kinda makes them a dirty Lucy and Desi)!  Of course, by the time the doc docks, she’s smitten as much as he is (as indicated, off-screen as well; Lamas and Dahl wed within a year of SANGAREE’s wrap).

Now there’s a lot of prejudice back at home, ’cause the 18th century 1% don’t be wantin’ some swarthy immigrant, ex-slave doctorin’ up their ailments.  And then there’s the aforementioned female version of Lamas, ex-indentured servant Martha (the amorous Medina), who, opted to marry Roy, but doesn’t let that get in the way of her goal to screw every eligible male in sight (truth be told, Nancy’s biting addiction aside, Martha is way hotter; of course, since it’s the 1950s, the adulterous latter ends up in a rather ugly way.

The (dare I say) climax comes after tons of fighting, killing, hard loving and racism – everything that made America grate.

A bit slow-paced for its reasonable 94-minute running time (pedestrian director Edward Ludwig, was never more than competent), SANGAREE is nonetheless vastly entertaining.  It’s also beautiful to look at, thanks largely to Lionel Lindon’s and W. Wallace Kelley’s impressive camera work.  The production is quite handsome, belying the typical Pine-Thomas budget; the standing backlot river sets (seen in millions of Paramount trop-pics) and leftover costumes and baubles from DeMille adventures such as Reap the Wild Wind and Unconquered give the show ultimate bang for its buck.  Natch, the 3-D is what makes SANGAREE, and there are some nice effects. The movie actually started filming in standard 2-D, but the possibilities of “depthy” eyebrow-raising optics prompted studio head Adolph Zuckor to choose the movie for Paramount’s first stereoscopic effort.  The “sex stuff” is, by today’s standards, tame enough to run on the Cartoon Network, but, that said, immensely amusing; indeed, draped boobs do occasionally swing out at the audience, and I’m not referring to supporting cast members Francis L. Sullivan, an uncharacteristically skeevy John Sutton, Charles Korvin, Willard Parker, Roy Gordon, Bill Walker, Voltaire Perkins, Don Megowan, Emile Meyer and Paul Newlan .  Warning: the screenplay by David Duncan and Frank L. Moss has some cringe-worthy moments, including rah-rah encouragement to “assault her.”

The Paramount publicity, coupled with the ancillary Pine-Thomas P.R. was a hoot.  Early-on, the Bills’ attempted Scarlett O’Hara search for the actor who would portray Carlos Morales took “stretching the truth” to levels never before thought possible.  While everyone worth their salt in Hollywood wanted the role, it was Cary Grant, according to Pine-Thomas, who was out in front.  The idea that Grant would be campaigning to be in a Pine-Thomas pic in 1953 is as outrageous as Lamas (likely signed before any “search” was made) being considered for His Girl Friday or North by Northwest.  Cary Grant was certainly aware of industry trends, and it is possible that the superstar expressed a fleeting interest in the 3-D process; but that’s probably as far as it went.  Lamas, briefly under contract to MGM, and on-loan to Pine-Thomas, never held on to anything resembling major star power; by 1960, he was a supporting player in the risible The Lost World remake (sharing billing with Frosty the poodle); soon, he drifted into TV, where he found a more lucrative career balancing diminishing on-camera appearances with directing (Arlene Dahl later claimed that Lamas personally directed SANGAREE’s love scenes).  Dahl, along with Rhonda Fleming, became Pine-Thomas babes, known primarily for their flaming red hair – an essential for Technicolor.  It should be noted that additionally two other MGM stars, Clark Gable and Lana Turner were bandied about as SANGAREE leads (was never gonna happen), then, Paramount’s own William Holden, who, after Sunset Boulevard and the (then) upcoming Stalag 17 would be another pipedream choice.

The 3-D rollout for SANGREE is textbook worthy.  “[L]ike peeking through a keyhole!” teased the ads showing a shirtless Lamas in the clinch with Dahl (of course, using one eye to “peep” such naughty things wouldn’t give you the 3-D depth, but, well…still great hype).  Lamas and Dahl, a hot couple by shooting’s end, went out on national tours to promote SANGAREE, the former particularly keen on the Third Dimension process.  A special 3-D trailer, featuring the pair, is included on the Blu-Ray, as is the standard release 2-D version (both SANGAREE and JIVARO contain the regular “flat” editions).

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Like all the other Kino-Lorber/Film Archive 3-D Blu-Rays, SANGAREE looks wunderbar; it sounds great, too (with a decent score by Lucien Cailliet).  Additional supplements include a 1955 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation with Lamas and Dahl, plus a 3-D before-and-after restoration demo.

SANGAREE is an iconic title from 3-D’s Golden Age, and one I never thought we’d see in Third Dimensions.  Thank you, Kino and 3-D Film Archive.

 

Overall, 1954’s JIVARO is a way better flick than SANGAREE, for the simple reason that it’s a way better 3-D movie.  Hollywood was sure learning fast how to use the process for peak effect; alas, the audience’s brief “shiny toy” fascination with Third Dimensions would be all but gone by year’s end.  JIVARO, mostly, had a “flat” release, often under alternate titles Lost Treasure of the Amazon and, later, Headhunters of the Amazon (unlike SANGAREE, you had to look hard in the ads to find the “3-D” tags).

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The picture, while having a romantic subplot, is pure action from start to finish; it practically comes with a strong aroma of popcorn from the jut-out opening credits (accompanied by Gregory Stone’s music score).  Director Ludwig is more in his element here while Lamas and his gasping perspiration ducts (enacting a near 92-minute topless Chippendale’s chicken dance) likewise seem to be having a better time up the Amazon than in 18th century Savannah.

The familiar Paramount backdrops and jungle scenery again nostalgically take us where Hope and Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, Dr. Cyclops and the studio’s various thesps appearing in renditions of Joseph Conrad’s Victory had long before trod (most recently, the banyan tree-friendly backlot was home to the cast and crew of The Naked Jungle); some second unit location work was lensed in Florida.

The plot, borderline similar to Bert I. Gordon’s later Cyclops! (with treasure and headhunters more realistically standing in for uranium and radioactive mutations) concerns the life and times of devil-may-care trader Rio Galdez.  While he may double-deal, he doesn’t appreciate it when karma boomerangs back to him – although he’s generally a good egg, or, more precisely, a Spanish omelet.  Leveling a trading post when brutish conman Pedro Martines screws him out of a commission, Rio reluctantly agrees to transport ga-ga gorgeous Alice Parker in a search for her missing hubby, Jerry (“Pipple dunt come here to make friends,” he warily warns the determined vixen).  Once “Chesty” Galdez removes his shirt, Ga-Ga starts feeling the heat, but remains true to her spouse until she discovers he’s a scumbag, out to cop a mythical treasure jealously guarded by cannibals and headhunters.  He’s also a drunk and Richard Denning – two strikes against you when you’re a supporting player and not the lead (a la Unknown Island).  Denning’s creepy cohorts, led by slimy Brian Keith, are tagging along – ready to kill the hottie couple, once the loot is discovered.  Keith, who thinks he’s God’s gift, intends to take Ga-Ga for his own, even though he refuses to remove his shirt.

Yeah, yeah – you’ve seen this before, but, folks, we ain’t kidding when we say JIVARO has ji-mojo!  It really moves.  And it looks sensational in Technicolor (thanks again to Lionel Lindon’s first-rate 3-D photography).  The 3-D effects are exactly what one expects and wants – and then some.  Lots of items thrown at the camera, plus some great foreground/center/background layering.  And, how could you NOT wanna see a movie where a shrunken head is shoved out of the screen in your puss?  The short answer:  you can’t.

Surprisingly, for 1954, David Duncan’s and Winston Miller’s script and Ludwig’s direction allows for some rather gory sequences.  Headhunters don’t mess around.  And Lamas and Fleming do sweat and pant a lot; truth be told, while genuine lust spurted off the screen in SANGAREE, Fleming is a superior lead over Dahl. She was always more game, and did many of her own stunts, so there’s that.  And she’s a 3-D queen (this movie, plus Those Redheads from Seattle and Inferno).  As further incentive, JIVARO gives viewers a chance to see Rita Moreno and DeMille’s Madam Satan, Kay Johnson, in 3-D (both as native women)!

Personally, for me, JIVARO holds a special part of my youth.  I vividly remember it being on New York City’s Million Dollar Movie for an entire week, and recall trying to watch every showing.  I was fascinated by the pic, trying to imagine what it looked like in Technicolor (we still roughed it with B&W TV in dem daze).  Turns out I was pretty close. I especially tried to come to terms with costar Lon Chaney, Jr. in color, which then seemed to my nine-year-old self to be an impossibility. When, several years later, I discovered that it was also in 3-D…WHOOSH (sound of my mind being blown).  I can also remember that this movie more than any other permanently (because of the violence and prolific pit stains) made the Amazon (and other jungles) an off-limits travel trip.

The Kino-Lorber/Paramount/3-D Archive Blu-Ray of JIVARO is one of the best stereoscopic releases ever (and, for the 3-D Archive, that’s saying quite a bit).  It looks and sounds terrific, and is Third Dimension fun from the get-go.  Extras include audio commentary by Mike Ballew, Hillary Hess, Greg Kintz and Jack Theakson, plus a shot-by-shot 3-D mini-analysis.  It makes me yearn for the remaining 3-D Paramounts:  Money from Home (which we’ll probably never see) and Flight to Tangier (that Technicolor rom-dram-thriller costarring Joan Fontaine and Jack Palance).  I’ve never seen the latter in any version, but, boy would a Kino-3-D Archive release make my day!

SANGAREE.  Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Paramount Home Entertainment/#-D Film Archive.  CAT# K22804.

JIVARO. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  CAT # K22806.

SRP: $34.95@

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bristle While You Kirk

The passing of Kirk Douglas earlier this year affected me more than I ever thought it would.  I guess it didn’t help that Spartacus gave up the ghost on the same day that the GOP sham trial gave up on democracy.  Indeed, Douglas spent much of his recent life fighting back at the current administration.  That’s because, Champion (the 1949 movie that made him a star) aside, Kirk was a fighter.  This often came across with a vengeance in his many performances.  Billy Wilder, with whom Kirk worked on the great Ace in the Hole, as usual, put it best.  “Even before you shout ‘Action,’ his chest is heaving.”

Truth be told, prior to Champion, Kirk Douglas seemed relegated to playing weaklings and oily mob kingpins in film noir faves (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Out of the Past, I Walk Alone).  The doors that opened with Champion, released the beast, so to speak, and furious – often freakish – turns followed in such hits as Detective Story, the aforementioned Wilder flick, Man without a Star, and others.

Douglas worked with a number of celebrated directors, but the one he is probably most closely associated with is Vincente Minnelli.  No, Kirk didn’t sing and dance on a Paris backlot or across a fake meadow in Brigadoon.  He was part of Minnelli’s alternate universe:  the stark and frequently disturbing dramas that (along with the brilliant musicals) propelled the director into the top pantheon of greats.

The Minnelli-Douglas collaboration that likely comes immediately to mind is the exquisite 1956 biopic Lust for Life. Weirdly enough, this title has yet to arrive on Blu-Ray; even more bizarre are the pair of pre-Once Upon a Time in Hollywood epics the two made, 1952’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL and TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN (a sorta followup-reunion, filmed a decade later), that have.  One is a bona fide classic; the other a much-maligned, underrated work that ironically defines “studio tampering,” a theme that plays through both pics.  Each is now available in beautifully restored Blu-Ray transfers from The Warner Archive Collection.  Okay, Kirk, start heaving.

 

It was, not surprisingly, the stinging dagger-sharp wit and skewering expertise of Billy Wilder who unleashed the “Hollywood-is-a-Hellhole” genre, a definite cinematic relative to film noir.  1950’s Sunset Boulevard was a critical and financial hit, thus opening up the floodgates for copycats.  Indies, for instance, like UA’s The Big Knife carried on the poison baton; even the “Bs” got into the act with Hollywood Story.  But, unquestionably the best of the Fifties post-Boulevard horror shows came from the who’d-a-thunk-it lofty gates of MGM, and, even more astoundingly, the director of Meet Me in St. Louis.  Yep, 1952’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is one of the most uncompromising, and brutal attacks on the picture industry ever made.  BatB is also a brilliant movie, deservedly lauded for its superb direction, acting (from an all-star Grand Hotel-esque cast), writing, production values, cinematography and music.

It’s also frighteningly honest.

Charles Schnee’s vicious screenplay thinly disguises real-life victims and ruthless players, making it one of Tinsel Town’s sinfully irresistible “name that goon” parlor games.  Non-Hollywood denizens, particularly the ardent picture-goers, picked up on it, too.  The fact that many of these folks were still alive and active was the acid in the cocktail.

Jonathan Shields pays mourners to attend his ex-mogul father’s funeral; no one would actually show up, as they’ve either forgotten him or hated his guts.  In regard to the latter (“he wasn’t a heel, he was the heel!”), Jonathan fully intends to follow in daddy’s footsteps; that way they’ll never forget him (“I’m gonna ram the name of ‘Shields’ down their throats!”)  Meeting up with aspiring writer-director Fred Amiel, Shields becomes an  extended part of the Amiel familia, gets a job alongside his new BFF in a “B” unit, and soon finagles himself and buddy Fred into producing, then directing Poverty Row quickies for tightwad production head Harry Pebbel.  An awful horror pic (Doom of the Cat Men) is re-imagined by the inventive pair who transform it into a sleeper-hit.  As is Shields’ wont, he then ditches Amiel, and steals his pal’s ideas and pet script – moving up the Hollywood social and food chain ladder.  He does the same sexually to gorgeous, self-abusing drunk/nymphomaniac Georgia Lorrison, living in the shadow of her famous father, another alcoholic.  Jonathan remolds Georgia into a superstar, then tosses her vulnerable lovesick self into his dustbin, and again moves on.  Shields’ next victim is professor-turned-novelist James Lee Barlow, who lives in a small college town with his adoring Southern belle/movie fanatic wife Rosemary.  Much to the writer’s chagrin (“I’m flattered you want me, and bitter you got me”), he brings Barlow out to the coast to adapt the author’s bestseller into a screenplay, but is hobbled by Rosemary’s irritating and constant curiosity and interruptions.  Shields “arranges” for the woman to be seduced by top screen attraction “Gaucho,” with horrific results.

The thing about Jonathan Shields is that he’s not intentionally evil; true, he’s a virulent sociopath, but his love for the Movies outweighs any human feelings he might have for those who trusted and/or were abandoned/destroyed by him.  This isn’t an easy thing to pull off, and Kirk Douglas really wallops every note perfectly.  Many in the Biz thought Shields’s creation was a Frankensteinian revenge ploy, as he was a composite of several folks.  Mostly, Jonathan Shields is an evocation of David O. Selznick.  Selznick’s father, Lewis J. Selznick, was a pioneering producer in the silent days, ruined by his contemporary moguls.  David (and brother Myron, who became the Industry’s first super-agent, sticking it to the suits where it hurt most) vowed to wreak vengeance, and certainly did for a long time.  An ancillary part of Shields’ persona is also that of Val Lewton (who began as Selznick’s story editor).  Lewton is the genius who helped turn RKO’s lame horror Grade-Z plot, Cat People into a blockbuster genre game-changer.  The Georgia Lorrison character is based on John Barrymore’s troubled daughter Diana; while she never did become the star Lorrison does, she did her level best to equal Daddy’s rep in the drinking and whoring departments.  It’s a terrific Lana Turner performance, one of her finest.  Other stellar names in the large and outstanding cast include Barry Sullivan (as Amiel), Walter Pidgeon (as Pebbel), Dick Powell (as Barlow), Gloria Grahame (as Rosemary), Gilbert Roland (as “Gaucho”), and Leo G. Carroll, Vanessa Brown, Paul Stewart, Elaine Stewart, Ivan Triesault, Ned Glass, Jay Adler, Barbara Billingsley, Madge Blake, Steve Forrest, Dabbs Greer, Kurt Kasznar, Kathleen Freeman, Kaaren Verne and former silent screen stars May McAvoy, Franklyn Farnum, Pat O’Malley, Stuart Holmes, and Francis X. Bushman. The Barrymore-esque voice of Georgia’s father (heard on a phonograph record) is Louis Calhern’s.

Minnelli’s direction is unflinching in its visualization of Schnee’s razor-sharp script (from a story by George Bradshaw).  His ability to seemingly glide the camera effortlessly between the real and the fake makes every dramatic target a triumph of spacial composition (directed as if each climactic scene moment were the crescendo of one of his sensational musical numbers; ya gotta see it to get my point).  We truly believe there is a real-life vastness beyond the close-ups and master shots; credit the marvelous d.p. Robert Surtees for helping to make this technique possible.  The production values are MGM-top-line, thanks to the tasteful work of producer John Houseman (yeah, that “we earn it!” dude).  Finally, the score by David Raksin is, in my opinion, one of the best post-war compositions of the 1950’s.  That main theme will be replaying in your head long after the fade-out.

The new Warner Archive Blu-Ray of THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is every bit up to its subject matter.  It looks stunning in crystal-clear 1080p.  There are also some enticing extras, including original scoring sessions audio and the acclaimed TCM documentary on top-billed lead Lana Turner:  A Daughter’s Memoir.

A fantastic movie on every level, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL Blu-Ray deserves a spot on every classic collector’s shelf.

 

Exactly ten years later, Minnelli, Douglas, producer Houseman, writer Schnee and composer Raksin reteamed at MGM to tell yet another nasty tale of The Biz.  A lot had happened in the Industry since BatB.  MGM, the studio known for spectacular musicals could no longer afford to make them (no one really could); it was controlled by corporate suits who thought that the sure way to a fat bank account was to follow the lead of their 1959 blockbuster Ben-Hur, and simply remake everything in sight.  Like their contemporary Hollywood dream factories, much of their production was divided between small-screen capitulation to television and big-screen re-location to Europe, where filming was cheaper and the lure of the wildly successful foreign market (personified by scantily attired Euro starlets/actresses) could keep the books in the black.  Sordid, thick bestsellers of the Harold Robbins type were grabbed up by moguls as censorship became more lax.  Thus was the case with TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN, based on a salacious (“you can’t film this HERE”) novel by Irwin Shaw.  While BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL comprised an acclaimed, revered near-perfect hunk of celluloid, TWO WEEKS was a flawed, thoroughly dissed reunion.  Like BatB, however, TWO WEEKS tells many truths about the changes in the business; for example, the secondary European producers, who had already made their investment back before one frame turned in the camera (and therefore couldn’t care less if the pic was any good or not), are honestly depicted in this movie for the flesh-peddling bastards they were.  The mirror image of their deeds in regard to what actually happened to TWO WEEKS in post also cannot be lost upon astute viewers. Succinctly put, TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN is flawed because it was tampered with.  Seriously.  The novel seemed to explode with perversion of every sort on each page.  MGM execs had an apoplexy when they viewed the rough cut.  Even what remained as the release print was enough to put a “Suggested for Mature Audiences” disclaimer in the ads.  And many “mature audiences” gave it a chance before word-of-mouth about the uneven “makes no sense” balance of the 107-minute duration snuffed it out.  Since I love “sick spawn” cinema of major directors, I championed this movie early-on.  I’ve never given up hope that a complete, restored version might be lying in wait at some point in the future.  Yet, I can revel in the fact that this current new Blu-Ray 1080p edition looks splendid, and will suffice if and when TWO WEEKS‘ resurrection ever occurs.

The movie wastes no time, burning rubber from the fade-in.  Jack Andrus (Douglas) is a former A-list star, confined to a mental institution after several attempted suicides.  Now, with years of therapy behind him, he is considered reasonably healthy to resume a “normal” life (whatever that is).  An additional carrot comes in the form of an acting offer from his mentor, legendary director Maurice Kruger, now resigned to making pictures in Europe.  This is the cure and this is the curse.  Andrus loves two people:  Kruger (professionally) and sultry super-gorgeous ex-wife Carlotta (carnally).  The fact that what sent him off the rails was Kruger’s and Carlotta’s having an affair is the litmus test for Andrus’s ability to function.  Carlotta, BTW, is also an S&M nymphomaniac, which rarely defines “connubial bliss.”

The production in Italy (where a good portion of TWO WEEKS was actually lensed) is a disaster.  Turns out Kruger doesn’t want Andrus to act, but to supervise the English post-dubbing (since he’s been denied access once filming has stopped).  Kruger, who’s a ferocious sociopath (reportedly his character was based in part on Fritz Lang, who, indeed did leave to U.S. after 1956 to work in Europe) is a demon who can’t be trusted.  His wife, Clara (possibly Lang’s last companion Lily Latte), another lunatic, is the director’s perfect match.  They violently battle and yet, despite Kruger’s serial cheating (including getting a handy in plain view at the couple’s anniversary bash) are addictively devoted to one another.

Andrus’s fragile grasp on sanity is salved by his meeting beautiful hanger-on Veronica, a ravishing young woman who hates the movies (a plus); she is the squeeze of imported American self-destructive “bad boy” Davie Drew, an antagonistic loser, impossible to work with and hooked on drugs and booze (the former is obvious, but never addressed, suggesting that scenes with Drew’s substance abuse were tossed out after the first cut).  Two incidents see-saw what’s left of Andrus’s increasing difficulty to cope:  Kruger having a massive heart-attack (forcing his one-time star to be convinced to take over direction) and the arrival of ex, Carlotta, now married to an Onassis-type millionaire, who’s “jones” is watching his wife have sex with other men.

All of the above culminates in a wild orgy that will either kill or cure what remains of the former superstar player.

You can see from my synopsis that, in 1962, TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN was going to be a hard sell for Main Street America.  MGM’s decision was to yank the picture away from Minnelli and remove sizable chunks of footage (from all reports as much as a half-hour ended up on the cutting room floor).  The “orgy” which sets Jack Andrus off again, remains a tame, virtually boring soiree, highlighted only by Leslie Uggams (in her debut) providing live singing entertainment.  Supposedly, shocking sequences, including those of Carlotta having multiple partners during the festivities were removed with the subtlety of a chainsaw.  There also seems to be some material between Kruger, Clara and Andrus that is missing, as their reactions and judgments to what currently exists doesn’t justify their severe responses.

Nonetheless, there is a veritas and dedication to peerless moviemaking that makes TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN a must-have Sixties platter.  Douglas is excellent, as is the international cast (Rosanna Schiaffino, George Hamilton, George Macready, Vito Scotti, Joanna Roos, James Gregory, Mino Doro, Stefan Schnabel, Steve Peck, and Erich von Stroheim, Jr., who definitely knew something about movies being tampered with, and additionally functioned as the pic’s assistant director).  Edward G. Robinson as Kruger and Claire Trevor as his venomous spouse, coupling up again after Key Largo, are terrific and thoroughly despicable.  Daliah Lavi, in possibly her loveliest performance, is genuinely sincere and sweet as Andrus’s romantic savior (the Israeli actress “passed” for Euro in a number of Italian pics, most notably Bava’s Whip and the Body; she did eventually arrive on U.S. shores sporting a formidable beehive that could pummel you into unconsciousness).

Minnelli’s direction is quite startling (an in-joke has the Europeans viewing a past Kruger masterpiece starring Andrus; it’s a clip from THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL); his brandishing a dynamic mastery of CinemaScope (Milton Krasner as d.p.) is fully evident in a quite crazed sequence of an out-of-control Andrus driving his car through the nighttime Italian countryside – perhaps the most hellish and surreal use of rear-screen ever!  Cyd Charisse is amazingly and uncharacteristically slutty (although it’s a shame that her role has been pared down to what is essentially an extended cameo).

As indicated earlier, the Warner Archive Blu-Ray looks wonderful, with restored “warm” MetroColor hues and tones now popping with vibrance.  The mono track sounds great, and contains another dandy main theme from maestro Raksin.

TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN is an ideal movie to show friends on a “Sixties Night,” as it’s one they probably have never heard of.  Of course, it’s also a natural companion to BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.  So, what cha waiting for?  AZIONE!

 

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL. Black and white; full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  CAT #  1000750097.

TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  CAT # 1000714252.

$21.99@ SRP.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

 

 

Harmed and Dangerous

I approached MARCELLA, SEASON TWO with, as they say in the law enforcement trade, extreme prejudice.  And why not?  How could anything (I surmised) top that freakish first season?  Indeed, I sat in front of my monitor for almost two full episodes, smirking, arms crossed, before I went as gung ho batshit crazy as the show’s outstanding lead.  Once again, I was proven wrong; once again, I was hooked.  You, my faithful readers, now have a chance to judge for yourselves with the Acorn/RLJ Entertainment/cineflix/Buccaneer/NETFLIX DVD release of the above.  Methinks you’ll agree mit yours truly.

Of course, they’re two reasons why a series about a demented police detective (and possible murderous psychopath) would emit sympathy pains from viewers – while simultaneously disturbing them.  That would be a superb lead.  And one couldn’t ask for any better than the great Anna Friel (who, BTW, won a Best Actress International Emmy for her Season One turn as Marcella Backland).  The other, not exactly a brain-twister either, is the writing.  MARCELLA’s brilliant cocreator (with Nicola Larder), Hans Rosenfeldt (who gave us the creepy, engrossing Scandinavian smash The Bridge – my favorite Nordic TV series ever!), wrote SEASON TWO (he’s also a co-Executive Producer).

In a brief recap, DS Marcella Backland is probably the best sleuth on the force, which is why she’s likely still employed – as the woman is mentally unhinged, prone to stress-related trances that spiral downward into violence.  She’s clearly a perpetrator – and worse, she may be a murderer.  Marcella can’t be sure, nor can we.  DS Backland’s so good at her job that she may just implicate herself; quite a dilemma, as the shamus must solve the case and potentially perpetuate a cover-up.  Insult to (fatal) injury, Marcella is more involved than a mere investigating detective; a slaughtered victim was her husband’s lover.

That the detective got through the events of Season One was a feat in and of itself.  Her one grounding post remains her children, whom she loves passionately and obsessively.

 

Which brings us to SEASON TWO.  A psycho killer is targeting children thought to be offspring of broken homes.  Their bodies are mutilated with the insertion of cultish wooden coins.  And the corpse rate is rising.

Marcella, now trying to cope with her estranged husband and his new girlfriend, nevertheless virtually preys on them with a “What cha gonna do – call the cops?” attitude.  Sane enough to realize this is bonkers stuff, the DS agrees to therapy, which uncovers a frightening clouded past, but also releases her savage side when the shrink refuses to tell her what she desires to hear.  Basically, “Cure it, or STFU!”

Marcella’s one salve is that, as this case unravels, she discovers that seemingly EVERYONE out there is a nut-job, as the suspect list grows to alarming proportions.  All goes to shit when the worst possible situation occurs:  her son is in the maniac’s radar.  When the scenario turns to psycho vs. psycho, things go beyond lunacy – its total purple craze!

If you thought Anna Friel was terrific in Series One, there’s nothing to prepare you for SEASON TWO.  Hold on to your seats, folks, she makes S1 Marcella look like Pollyanna the Glad Girl.  With her children at stake, the woman’s rage becomes horrifyingly (yet understandably) A-bomb ballistic. Friel better damn well win another award!  And I want to see Series Three!

Other pertinent variables propelling this show toward its mammoth success rate comprise the tense direction (Charles Martin, Charles Sturridge, Jim O’Hanlon), atmospheric photography (Kate Reid, Maja Zamojda, Adam Suschitzky), spine-tingling score (Lorne Balfe; creepy title cut by Inga Copeland) and, natch, the supporting cast (For Life’s Nicholas Pinnock (as hubby Backland), plus  Ray Panthaki, Jamie Bamber, Jack Doolan, Nina Sosanya, Charlie Covell, Sophie Brown, Vivienne Gibbs, Victoria Smurfit, Andrew Tieman, Yolanda Kettle and Michelle Terry).  All are at the top of their game.

The Acorn DVD set, containing eight widescreen episodes on two platters, looks great and is appended by the excellent 5.1 stereo-surround audio.

I guess it says about as much about me as it does anything else when I state that my three current favorite actresses are all Brits, and are as follows:  Anna Friel, Ruth Wilson, and Jodi Comer.  But, hey, that’s just who I am.

MARCELLA, SEASON TWO.  Color. Widescreen [2.00:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround.  Acorn/RLJ Entertainment/cineflix/Buccaneer/NETFLIX. CAT # AMP-2649.  SRP: $49.99.

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The Shape of Walter

FEBRUARY IS BILLY WILDER MONTH

Released a year after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Bill, Billy Wilder’s scathing 1966 classic THE FORTUNE COOKIE, skewering American class structure, race relations and the cultural “art of the steal” arrives in a dynamite limited edition Blu-Ray from the goniffs at Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Entertainment/MGM Studios.

This was a late watershed movie for Wilder and Co., reuniting the writer-director with arguably his favorite star, Jack Lemmon; it also introduced popular Walter Matthau (whose personal fortune cookie this comedy was) to the Billy Universe.  The pic also proved an admirable comeback from the lambasting Wilder had unfairly endured from his previous work, Kiss Me, Stupid; THE FORTUNE COOKIE was a critical and box-office success.

The story, in brief, concerns hapless, likeable middle-aged schlump Harry Hinkle (Lemmon), an (up-till-now) honest cameraman for CBS, who, during a televised football game, gets a milder version of what Jimmy Stewart got in Rear Window.  Instead of a race car ruining his shot and injuring the photog, Hinkle is tackled and flipped by Luther “Boom-Boom” Jackson, a lauded black athlete, whose guilt and concern for crippling the videographer slam dunks his rising star.

But Hinkle’s only dazed and confused, resting in a local hospital for the night – until visited by unscrupulous brother-in-law, shyster ambulance-chasing attorney “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich.  Gingrich, discovering that Hinkle has a permanent twist in his spine due to a childhood accident, parlays the painless disfigurement into a million dollar lawsuit against the football team, the stadium, and the television network.  Harry, a lovesick sad sack, still pining for his sleazy ex, Sandy (who ran off with a lowlife musician), is coerced into the scam after a renewal of their vows (she, too, sees the dollar signs, and knowing Gingrich is involved, dumps the dump she dumped Harry for) is dangled in his puss like catnip is…well, dangled to a puss.

How it all plays out is Wilder at his best, turning a rogue’s gallery of reprehensible characters into specimens we concurrently cheer and jeer.  Suffice to say, everyone gets what’s coming to them – sort of.

The situations and dialog (as constructed and composed by Billy and Iz Diamond) is like one of those Swiss watches you’ve always heard about.  The timing is impeccable; Matthau’s Gingrich slamming Lemmon’s reluctant Hinkle for not reaching for a silver platter (while extending a bedpan) will bowel you over.  Ditto, his roller-skating spawn, careening through the hospital corridors, asking Daddy to put some coins in a donation box (“Unwed Mothers,” reads Gingrich, “Well, I’m for that!”  He later pilfers the contents for change to make a telephone call).  Gingrich, who’s smarter than his 1% elite opposing lawyers, plays them like a fiddle, which also a joy to behold.

The cast is first-rate, one of Wilder’s greatest, and, aside from the two leads (in their initial teaming together), features Ron Rich (as the sympathetic quarterback), Les Treymayne, Kiss Me, Stupid’s Cliff Osmond (as a private eye determined to get the goods on Willie), Lurene Tuttle, Harry Holcombe, Noam Pitlik, Ann Shoemaker, Archie Moore, Howard McNear, Judy Pace, Robert DoQui, Helen Kleeb, the wonderful Sig Ruman (in his next-to-last role as a sadistic old-school surgeon yearning for the “snake pit” days), and John Anderson.  A special nod must be given to Judi West (in her big-screen debut) as Sandy; the actress’s interpretation of the harpy, money-grubbing spouse is the skankiest female ever to prowl WilderWorld since Jan Sterling in Ace in the Hole.  Billy also has the audacity to cast Herbie Faye AND Ned Glass in the same movie!  What chutzpah!

When I called this flick Walter Matthau’s fortune cookie, I wasn’t kidding.  On TV, in the movies, on stage and radio for over fifteen years, Matthau’s COOKIE turn allowed the reliable character actor to zoom to the top of the Hollywood A-list; he was suddenly a star (and more or less remained there until his passing on July 1, 2000).  Icing on the cake, his portrayal of “Whiplash Willie” won him his only Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor.

The best of all the Wilder-Lemmon-Matthau teamings, THE FORTUNE COOKIE is doubly astounding in its progressive approach to mid-twentieth century mores.  Often credited with directing every Lemmon-Matthau pic, Billy Wilder only actually helmed three (the other two being The Front Page and Buddy, Buddy).  He was offered The Odd Couple, which he wisely turned down, due to his penchant for revising scripts from other sources; FUN FACT:  many movie buffs still believe Wilder directed the 1968 Neil Simon screen adaptation (it was Gene Saks).

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of THE FORTUNE COOKIE is aces.  It looks just terrific, perfectly showcasing the beautiful black-and-white/Panavision photography of Joseph LaShelle.  An excellent score by Andre Previn is also accessible as an IST, which includes the song, “So Nice to Come Home To,” quite a sarcastic choice considering the narrative.  The only complaint, and it’s slight, is the audio, which I noticed occasionally goes minutely out of synch, but then pops back in perfect unison.  Again, this is so slight that I was the only one to catch it.  Don’t let it dissuade you from adding this Sixties gem to your collection (remember, it’s a limited edition, so, when it’s gone…that’s it, buddy!).

As indicated earlier, THE FORTUNE COOKIE canceled out the Kiss Me, Stupid debacle, and in many ways.  While the Wilder/Peter Sellers relationship was hate at first sight, the director’s bonding with Matthau was instant delight; yet, there was one tense similarity. Midway through the production, the veteran actor (as Sellers had on Stupid) suffered a massive heart-attack. This was getting to be a habit that Billy didn’t like.  The picture remained on-hold for several weeks until Matthau was given the green light to return to filming.  When Matthau returned, he was thirty pounds lighter, a visual contrast Wilder addressed by having the actor wear a heavy black overcoat for the rest of the shoot (this would be the first of three heart-attacks Matthau would endure, the final one being fatal); furthermore, a seemingly unending series of accidents and mishaps appeared to be periodically confined to Wilder productions.  In 1981, during the filming of Buddy, Buddy, Matthau took a calamitous fall down a flight of stairs, smashing his collar bone.  A frantic, concerned Lemmon ran to his friend, pillow in hand, placing it under his head until EMS arrived. “Are you comfortable?” he tearfully asked. Matthau stared mournfully at his costar and Wilder, shrugged and replied “I make a living.”  Billy beamed at this perfect response that thoroughly validated how fifteen years previous, on the set of THE FORTUNE COOKIE, an exclusive professional love affair with Lemmon expanded into a threesome.

THE FORTUNE COOKIE.  Black and white. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # TTFORTUNECOOKIE.  SRP: $29.95.

FORTUNECOOKIE_COVER