The fantastic, paradoxical world of Takeshi “Beat” Kitano has never been more eloquently (and cinematically) depicted than in his 1997 masterpiece HANA-BI (Fireworks), now in its long-anticipated American Blu-Ray debut from Film Movement Classics.
Kitano, a true auteur, wrote, directed, stars in and coedited this neo-noir epic of a quietly violent cop gone rogue, but for all the right reasons.
Beat is Yoshitaka Nishi, a top detective in an elite Japanese police squadron, whose specialty is cracking drug cases, hard cases and cold cases, with a sideline in felon’s heads (to quote his associates: “When Mr. Nishi lost it, he was even more frightening [than the Yakuza]”). His recent life has been a train wreck, as his loyal BFF partner Horibe (Ren Osugi) sympathetically bemoans. Nishi’s child died young, forever draining his positive emotional vent, left hanging by a thread due to his loving wife, Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto). Then, she is diagnosed with inoperable leukemia, and confined to a nightmarish ward in a local hospital.
Nishi leaves the force due to a detention incident gone horribly wrong, which at least allows him to spend as much time as he can with his mate, while Horibe carries on. The former partner considers himself the lucky one of the pair, happily wed to a healthy, adoring wife and father to a devoted family. Then a stakeout/bust goes south, and Horibe is paralyzed. Forced to care for her now-invalid husband, Mrs. H takes the only option she deems viable. She leaves the wretch to fend for himself, moving out with their children. Ain’t life a bitch? Horibe, now in as deep a depression as Nishi, contemplates suicide, but prolongs it just long enough to discover art, and begins painting a series of extraordinary canvasses.
Meanwhile, Nishi hasn’t been resting on his laurels. When his wife’s lead surgeon suggests that her final days might be more pleasant at home, the stoic detective takes the advice and plans to move his near-vegetative love from the sterile, depressing surroundings.
Nishi recalls the wonderful trips the family used to have; and from there appears the acorn from which mighty oaks grow. He plans a bank heist, in part to payback a loan he took from the Yakuza, hoping the robbery will be blamed on the local mob contingent, and using the leftover money to give his beloved wife the time of her life.
The subsequent onslaught is quite sanguine, but does succeed, and the Nishis drive off for their dream vacation. And the effects are startling. Mrs. Nishi begins to laugh again, the lethal symptoms temporarily replaced by genuine happiness. This changes Nishi’s demeanor too, and the couple enjoys what precious time they have together, carrying on like newlyweds. A key moment, ergo the title, comes when the Nishis view a fireworks display. The fireworks literally define the title, but also the explosions of emotions, color (from their formerly bleak existence) and job-related physical ferocity. Like the narrative, HANA-BI, in toto, carries a complex, multi-leveled meaning.
That the Yakuza, along with the police, eventually converge on the dirty cop and his unsuspecting wife brings yet more fireworks and a volatile, yet touching climax.
Suffice to say, HANA-BI is unlike any movie you have ever seen. It is a moving, spiritual drama, a sensitive love story and a savage crime pic all rolled into one. And the damn thing works. It’s as if Kitano has been channeling Kurosawa at various stage of the famed iconic director’s career. As such, HANA-BI is a seamless hybrid of Ikiru and High and Low (with a generous sprinkling of Throne of Blood). Even with its raging brutality, HANA-BI is truly one of the most beautiful movies of the past twenty-five years.
Aside from the terrific acting by the principals and directing, Kitano has stacked the deck with luxurious color cinematography that is almost Sirkian (kudos to Hideo Yamamoto). In addition, a major portion of the movie’s triumph is the brilliant score by Joe Hisaishi. Rather than go for the usual by-the-numbers churning crap that often passes for movie music these days, Hisaishi has embellished this celluloid poem with a melodious, lush composition reminiscent of a late-1950s work by Hugo Friedhofer or Franz Waxman or Alfred Newman. The music is gorgeous. I cannot finish this article without commenting on the superb editing of HANA-BI (as indicated, a task Beat shared with Yoshinori Ota). Even the solemn and serene, gentle moments contain a quivering sense of foreboding tension. I’ve rarely experienced anything like it.
A footnote: Kitano’s wearing of many hats took its toll several years ago when he suffered a near-fatal heart attack. While convalescing, Beat, like Horibe, took up painting. Many of the results are the remarkable tableaus that dot the backgrounds of HANA-BI. I’m tellin’ ya, this guy can do no wrong.
Film Movement’s Blu-Ray of HANA-BI is outstanding, crystal-clear ebullient rainbow imagery matched by a dynamic stereo-surround track (particularly the bass which will kickass-test your audio system like a muthafucka). If that’s not enough, there are some enticing extras, including audio commentary from Rolling Stone critic David Fear, a making-of featurette and a beautifully illustrated booklet. This one’s a keeper!
HANA-BI. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.0 DTS-HD MA (Japanese w/English subtitles). Film Movement Classics. SRP: $39.95.
The only thing more freakishly fun than a Tony Perkins psycho movie is a Tony Perkins psycho movie where there’s someone crazier than he is. Such is the glorious case with 1968’s cult classic PRETTY POISON, now available in a stunning limited edition Blu-Ray from the inmates at Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.
Perkins plays Dennis Pitt, a moderately (conservatively speaking) disturbed loner, who is released from an institution, where he has been incarcerated for setting a fire that (possibly, intentionally) caused fatalities. Mr. Azenauer, his weary, beleaguered case worker (the wonderful John Randolph) is a near-ninnyhammer himself, trying to help the obviously intelligent Pitt stay focused. Among other things, Dennis is a rabid conspiracy theorist; to this end, he has created a false identity for himself – that of a secret agent, out to save America, whether they want it or not. “Cut that out, Dennis!,” shouts Azenauer in a way only a Jack Benny fan could love.
The strangely bizarre thing about Pitt’s fixations is the fact that they comprise enemy foreign powers infiltrating our political and industrial systems. And that our country’s chemical companies, unless monitored, will pollute and contaminate our environment. How crazy is THAT?!
This isn’t salved by Randolph’s character getting Perkins a gig at a rural New England chemical plant, where Dennis Pitt’s alter ego goes into full swing mode.
But, alas, as we mentioned earlier, Tony Perkins is not the main loony here. Enter gorgeous teen queen Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld in the finest of her many fine cinematic moments). An impressionable high-school senior, Sue Ann instantly falls for Dennis’s line, comprising his mysterious habits, his kooky demeanor – and then, for Dennis himself. The feeling is mutual. She begs Dennis to be included in his latest surveillance mission – to save the planet from a myriad of enemies. Dennis’s constant warnings of danger only excite the pubescent female whose sexuality overlaps/blossoms into full-blown orgasmic (pretty) poison ivy. This culminates with the two lovers merrily skipping down the psychopath into the abyss of nightmarish fantasy, and, ultimately, murder.
You see, Dennis, is essentially a functioning member of society. When his spewing lunacy gets to the danger level, he levels off, like when they tell Robby the Robot to kill someone. Sue Ann, on the other hand, can’t stop the music and goes into zeal-n-squeal delirium when the going gets tough. Without hesitation, she kills a night watchman during the pair’s nocturnal stakeout of Pitt’s workplace. “He is sure is bleeding, isn’t he?,” she excitedly announces, barely suppressing a giggle . Dennis is a bit shocked. But to Sue Ann, it’s just one of life’s many “problems” to be dealt with, another being her strict single mom (an excellent supporting role for Beverly Garland). Which she does, point blank. In a quantum universe, Sue Ann Stepanek’s wallet didn’t have Rhoda Penmark’s picture in it; Rhoda Penmark had Sue Ann’s.
Dennis, by this juncture, truly can no longer define reality, half-heartedly telling his now-dominant girlfiend, “Boy, what a week. I met you on Monday, fell in love with you on Tuesday…Thursday, we killed a guy together. How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?” Newly orphaned Stepanek’s facing the world with eager lip-biting writhing anticipation remains one of cinema’s all-time unnerving endings.
PRETTY POISON was a runaway critical smash in 1968, earning deserved kudos for the cast and director Noel Black (the name whose irony should not be discounted). Released by 20th Century-Fox, it became the primo art-house sensation of the season during its brief run (today the $1.8M pic would undoubtedly have been handled via the studio’s Fox Searchlight indie arm). The picture racked up two nods from the New York Film Critics Circle, including a win for Lorenzo Semple, Jr.’s terrific screenplay (based on a story by Stephen Geller) and a Best Actress nom for Weld’s creepy, frightening evocation of Sue Ann.
Curiously, it’s Weld’s least favorite role. In fact, she despises the movie with a vengeance. (“My worst performance!”). This hatred stems mostly from her actual loathing for director Black. An acquaintance of mine once met Weld, and asked her about POISON, a movie he particularly was fond of. She shook her head, rolled her eyes, and responded, “Noel Black, there’s a guy who could simply say ‘Good morning.’ and fuck up my whole day!”
Coupled with Perkins’s penchant for being notoriously strange (Betsy Palmer once told me that during the location work for The Tin Star, she spied Perkins crawling under producers’ William Perlberg and George Seaton’s trailer. “What are you doing, Tony?” she inquired. Perkins shushed her, and replied, “If you get right to the center, you can hear everything they’re saying about you.” “But what if they’re NOT saying anything about you?” the actress countered. “THAT’S why you have to listen!”), it must have indeed been an interesting shoot.
I vividly recall a 1968 conversation with a classmate of mine, who had just seen the movie with his parents. “Does this guy ever do anything else BUT Psycho?” “Yeah, he does,” I said. “Check out some of his earlier movies.” He told me he would, indicating there was one airing that night on TV. Didn’t help. It was Fear Strikes Out.
The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of PRETTY POISON is a revelation. I say that for a good reason. In 1968 (and subsequently), every print of this movie I saw was gritty-looking, with the cast resembling human Bar-B-Que Chips amidst golf-ball-sized grainy compositions that redefined ugly cinematography (Pallor by DeLuxe).
The work of d.p. David L. Quaid has been beautifully vindicated in this fresh widescreen 1080p transfer. The colors are clean and clear, nicely showcasing the Great Barrington, MA, locations and with (for a change) realistic flesh tones.
Twilight Time has also gone the distance to make this the quintessential edition of PRETTY POISON, offering audio commentary with producer Lawrence Turman and film historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman, plus an archival supplementary track featuring Black, who died in 2014. There’s also a deleted scene script, the theatrical trailer, and, as with all Twilight titles, an isolated music option featuring Johnny Mandel’s score.
PRETTY POISON is a movie that improves with age, and remains a startling reminder of how damn good an actress Weld can be. A kind of Harley Quinn take on her Barbara Ann role in Lord Love a Duck (another 1960s Weld movie I worship), Tuesday’s Sue Ann Stepanek is that spoonful of sugar that helps the “problem solving” meds go down…forever.
Not too long ago, I used to agonize over the last couple of weeks of the year, trying to pick the ten titles I thought best represented the DVD and Blu-Ray formats.
Very quickly, this became a ludicrous endeavor, as there were so many great movies and programs becoming available; thus, I began to group my faves by format, genre, aspect ratio…you know the deal.
Bizarrely enough, with the industry scuttlebutt that the DVD and Blu-Ray platters are increasingly spinning toward the direction of laserdisc and VHS, the smaller, independent companies (with the notable superb contribution from The Warner Archive Collection) have stepped up, offering more desirable cinematic goodies than ever before. So, here are my top picks for 2017, a year where we should be grateful for ANY good news.
Kino-Lorber, with its apparently endless arms, reaching out to acquire more outfits under their banner, appropriately released a stunner called SPIDERS (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/?s=the+spider+who+loved+me). For those unfamiliar with this movie – a two-part odyssey running nearly three hours, it’s an early Fritz Lang masterpiece from 1919 that prefigures the James Bond movies and just about every other action franchise out there. Plus, the most amazing female villains this side of Fantomas!
It’s Kino again for ZAZA (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/zz-tops/), a beautifully restored 1923 Paramount starring Gloria Swanson and directed by Allan Dwan. Gloria’s simply swell as an ill-tempered hottie who uses her looks (and sex) to rise in the entertainment arena. The remarkable thing is Swanson’s nuanced performance as she ages, becoming more mature and nurturing friendships with former enemies. For 1920s depictions of female relationships, few can match this overlooked gem.
The Sprocket Vault/Kit Parker Films released a restored and fantastic DVD of the 1959 comedy compilation WHEN COMEDY WAS KING (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/youngson-at-heart/). This Robert Youngston marvel has never looked better and contains primo clips of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, plus, as a supplement, a variety of rarely-seen complete comedy shorts from the slapstick era.
For the transition into the Talkie boom, nothing fits the bill better than Warners’ outstanding restoration of THE MAN AND THE MOMENT (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/01/31/soaring-dove/), a 1929 hybrid – part-talker/part silent. Meticulously transferred from existing prints and collectors’ Vitaphone discs, this sexy pre-Code comedy/romance is a triumph for star Billie Dove (who’s gorgeous as a flappin’ aviatrix). Don’t miss it.
While one might mourn the passing of the Warner Archive Forbidden Hollywood series, there were still (and will be more) pre-Coders to be released as singles/re-masters. Key among these making their appearance in 2017 was 1930’s THE WIDOW FROM CHICAGO and 1931’s BROAD-MINDED (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/05/02/pre-code-sinema-four-play-1/). WIDOW stars the yummy Alice White opposite newbie Edward G. Robinson in a terrific run-through for Little Caesar (released later that year). Its thugs ‘n’ mugs at its most fun, with loads of risqué situations, Say Girls and WTF dialog. BROAD-MINDED, a Joe E. Brown sexy comedy that, to put it mildly, is a Depression-era exercise in youth debauchery. It’s a pip to see girl-crazy William Collier, Jr. being ordered by his Wall Street pop to be chaperoned by meek Ossie (Brown), not realizing that he’s Womanizing Chicken Inspector of the Year. The real highlight is a riotous turn by Bela Lugosi, who handles both dialog and sight gags with panache. And, then, there’s always Thelma Todd!
Kino swimmingly comes to the rescue with the long-thought-lost DELUGE (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/03/28/wet-n-riled/), a 1933 sci-fi disaster movie, featuring ignored climate change professors proved correct when massive tsunamis strike the Earth. The destruction of New York, which opens the picture was state-of-the-art then, and remains quite impressive today. The pre-Code factor, involving rape gangs and wholesale murder, add to the double-take experience.
A public domain disaster, 1932’s VAMPIRE BAT (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/06/13/roaming-atwill/), was a Poverty Row special, filmed on the Universal lot, and featuring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas and Dwight Frye. It’s a sick, creepy delight that now looks unbelievable, struck from near-mint 35MM elements, and brilliantly utilizing the Gustav Brock hand-colored effect for an atmospheric cavern chase. Bravo to The Film Detective for giving us the chance to own this horror flick the way it was meant to be seen.
The Warner Archive Collection has done masterful service to all animation fans with their incredible PORKY PIG 101 (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/stutterly-amazing/), a 101 cartoon 5-disc set that chronicles the evolution of the famed pig from 1933-1943. With a cache of extras, including, storyboards, audio commentary, discarded and replaced sequences, this hefty set is nothing less than a mini-symposium on the history of the American animated cartoon during Hollywood’s Golden Era. Featuring key works by Frank Tashlin, Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, PORKY 101 is sure to make you go hogwild.
Featuring Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino, John Garfield and a cargo hold of famed characters actors, this movie has never looked better, and, as good as it was before in its 80-minute rendition, the 100- minute version…blows it out of the water. A MUST-HAVE!
The 1950s were likewise well represented in 2017, via a slew of wonderful color epics and auteur favorites.
Early-on in ’17, we were treated to Olive Films’ fully-refurbished edition of 1956’s THE KING AND FOUR QUEENS (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/caught-rhett-handed/), a lusty Clark Gable western comedy, directed by Raoul Walsh. The by-play between the King and his four curvy stacked deck cards (Eleanor Parker, Sara Shane, Jean Willes, and particularly Barbara Nichols), plus no-bullshit mammagamma Jo Van Fleet, is what makes this underrated oater work. The new remaster, with gorgeous color replacing the previous faded visuals AND CinemaScope, is another major incentive.
Olive did the decade proud again with STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND, (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/05/16/wingman-in-the-sac/), a 1955 flag-waving homage to the Air Force, starring Jimmy Stewart, and directed by Anthony Mann. When watched now, the movie is a dark look at the period, with a rather sour take on patriotism seething under the rah-rah surface Technicolor visuals. The air stuff is glorious, never looking better than in this Blu-Ray prize, replicating the VistaVision imagery in a bravura fashion.
Kino concludes my Fifties Faves with their awesome Blu-Ray of THE VIKINGS (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/02/14/the-ragnars-son/) A 1958 ancient epic (notably dubbed a Norse Opera), this ravishing-looking Technirama tapestry uses the widescreen process and the Technicolor hues and tones as you’ve never seen them before. The lavish comic-book narrative, all shot on location, reinvented the genre, with game cast members Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Ernest Borgnine all delivering mighty screen appearances.
As any of you who have followed my columns even peripherally know, I’m a 3-D fanatic. I absolutely love the process, and always have. The 2010s massive revival, resulting in 3-D TV and 3-D Blu-Ray (that often came close to rivaling theater quality) was like manna from heaven. What I DON’T understand are the attitudes of industry bigwigs, both at the studios and at the hardware manufacturing companies. The growth of the format was continuously gaining acceptance, but apparently, not fast enough. So, what did they do? They bailed on it. Well, not entirely. Marvel, DC and Disney still support it, but the production of 3-D movies has been substantially pared down, and the release of major 3-D home-vid pics shamefully now doesn’t include every title (save overseas, particularly in Australia, China and Russia, where the format is still thriving).
That said, once again, the indie firms have stepped up to the bat, doing the process proud by making available classics and obscurities from the first Golden Age. To this, we bow down to the exemplary efforts of the folks at Twilight Time and the 3-D Film Archive (whose work is distributed though Kino). Not only did they populate the stereoscopic home-entertainment universe with a groovy sampling of flicks, but they promise even more throughout 2018. Yay! Will there ever be another surge, like the one ignited by Avatar? Who knows? The companies now want everyone to buy 4K Ultra equipment and discs. Of course, should someone of the ilk of a James Cameron release another 3-D blockbuster that brings in gazillions worldwide, we could see a massive return to the Third Dimension (albeit probably requiring yet another upgrade installation of 4K Ultra 3-D. Uuugghhh!).
Twilight Time has given many of us 3-D fans the equivalent of coming-at-ya nirvana with a wide variety of fun and fantastic releases. THE MAD MAGICIAN (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/07/11/3-3-dz-2-die-4/) is now one of my favorite discs; this loopy Columbia 1954 attempt to cash in on House of Wax is a total Vincent Price joy as he strangles, incinerates and chops up those who stand in his way. A superb supplement includes the two 3 Stooges 3-D shorts, SPOOKS and PARDON MY BACKFIRE. All looking spectacular.
Holy Grail 3-D titles also came our way in 2017, thanks to Twilight Time. The excellent 1953 suspense-survival thriller INFERNO, starring Robert Ryan and Rita Hayworth’s version of Rain, MISS SADIE THOMPSON, both arrived looking the berries. Twilight, still having a 3-D ace up their sleeve, closed the fall season with 1953’s GUN FURY (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/12/05/the-donna-pass/), an underrated Raoul Walsh western, costarring Rock Hudson and Donna Reed.
We earlier mentioned HOUSE OF WAX (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/?s=Halloween+Blitz+17%3A+Waximum+Exposure), the first major studio 3-D title that really got the 1950s craze going. It was with great elation that I revisited this sensational Warners release. Not only does HOUSE include the Vincent Price 1953 horror piece de resistance, but also a new Blu-Ray transfer of the 1933 two-strip Technicolor original, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, all packaged in a dynamite set with a lenticular slipcover.
We close out our 3-D homage with one final Twilight Time release, the recent internationally acclaimed Anime HARLOCK: SPACE PIRATE (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/04/05/anime-zing/). Already considered a modern classic, this 2013 blockbuster hit is one wild adrenaline ride popping with 3-D effects that’ll have you on the edge of your seat – and possibly even out of it.
Twilight Time celebrates the great widescreen movies of the 1960s with two 1967 releases that are guaranteed to be oft-repeat platter spinners. HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/05/23/corporations-are-people-tunes/) is one of my favorite musicals. The score by Frank Loesser is simply brilliant – and hilariously so (ditto, the book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert). The cast is terrific, too, especially leads Robert Morse, Michelle Lee, Maureen Arthur and Sammy Smith. And it’s finally in the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio, plus with primo stereo-surround.
THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/02/07/german-sleazles/) is a lavish WWII epic that is also a suspense thriller and murder mystery. There’s a high-ranking German officer, systematically going Jack the Ripper on a number of prostitutes throughout the eastern European theater. It might not be that big a secret who the culprit is, but getting there is gripping, flesh-crawling fun (thanks to director Anatole Litvak), especially with the big-name cast, including Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Donald Pleasence, Tom Courtenay, Harry Andrews, Coral Browne, Christopher Plummer, Joanna Petit, Juliette Greco and Gordon Jackson. The shot-on-location Technicolor and Panavision imagery is gorgeous, and the Maurice Jarre score another feather in his crowded melodious cap.
MHz, the eclectic DVD company that specializes in international TV crime dramas, came through with flying colors via an extraordinary 2017 release schedule, possibly their best ever.
I was stunned by the engrossing true story of CESARE MORI (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/04/18/black-shirt-white-hat/), the 2012 series, about an honest cop, who turned fascist to exterminate the Cosa Nostra. The series looks fantastic with a sumptuous score by Pino Donnagio, and performances by Vincent Perez, Anna Foglietta, Gabriella Pession, Maurizio Donadoni and Tano Cuccia. The opulent production values and cinematography will certainly remind one of Bertolucci.
Another true-life story is the exceptional 2015 Scandinavian series THE HEAVY WATER WAR (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/07/25/hell-frozen-over/), the race to beat the Nazis to the development of the atomic bomb. Can honestly say that this is some of the best television I’ve EVER seen. The foreboding atmosphere was so tense you could cut it with a knife. And the action sequences put many big-budget big-screen adventures to shame.
A final Scandinavian triumph was 2011’s THE BRIDGE (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/09/12/two-broken-girls/), a breathtaking thriller about the hunt for a serial killer operating between Denmark and Sweden. I absolutely love this show for so many reasons, prime among them being the splendid acting of lead Sophia Helin as the strange, intuitive genius sleuth Saga Noren.
And it’s always a pleasure to revisit the 2011 French mini-series ANTIGONE 34 (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/05/31/chick-flic/), a penetrating expose of crime and corruption in and out of a special police squad. The lynchpin to this marvelous show’s success is its star, the unique and stunning Anne Le Nen, whose allure combines formidable acting chops with eyebrow-raising athletic ability and sleek natural beauty. Not exaggerating by saying she gives her more well-known contemporaries Johansson, Beckensale, Jovovich and Theron a run for their francs.
Acorn Media never disappoints. The problem was picking their best of the best, as pretty much everything they release is of collectible value.
I’ve come up with a handful of titles that permanently reside in my replay section.
The neo-noir oh-so-dark (but often sardonically funny) detective series JACK TAYLOR, SETS 2 & 3 (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/06/06/grizzly-and-grisly/) just seem to get better with every episode. The haunting Irish locales perfectly set the stage for the sinister cases taken on (occasionally reluctantly) by the disgraced Garda title character. So perfectly played by the great Iain Glen, Taylor is a diamond-in-the-rough (very rough) rogue who never wears out his welcome.
A lighter, but just as snarky Glen pops up in the 2016 fantasy-comedy DELICIOUS (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/11/07/the-glen-jones-law/). Glen is the deceased (but ever-present narrator and occasional participant) entrepreneur of a five-star Cornwall restaurant/inn. The combination of food and sex has never been more enticing, or, as the title tells us, delicious. Helping Glen serve up the lip-smacking delights are Dawn French, Emilia Fox, and the smashing Tanya Reynolds.
Cornwall also plays a major role in the release of the next installment of one of the most beloved global series of the 21st-century, DOC MARTIN, SERIES 7 (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/04/11/doc-savaged/). The characters are as fetching as ever, with Port Wenn’s stock company in fine form, particularly Caroline Catz, John Marquez, Joe Absolom, Ian McNiece, and, of course, Martin Clunes. Series 8 is to be released in 2018, and we’re looking forward to it with more than a modicum of sadness, as it is to be the final season.
Comedies are an essential part of life at Casa Neuhaus (or Casa-New-Casa), and the Warner Archive Collection came through like gangbusters with the Blu-Ray remaster of the 1982 Steve Martin hoot THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/?s=Halloween+Blitz+17%3A+Killer+Comedies…that+kill). For the first time on home-video in its proper aspect ratio, this Carl Reiner-directed (and coscripted) laff riot is a quintessential Eighties addition to any comedy collection. A Martin epoch, with immense support from David Warner, (the voice of) Sissy Spacek, George Furth, and last but certainly not least, Kathleen Turner. “Into the mud, scum queen!”
Kino wraps up the Blu-Ray funny business with their package of Bob Hope entries, at last restored to look the way they should. The guffaw meter ratchets up big-time with my picks for the best in the lot, 1947’s noir parody MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE and Frank Tashlin’s 1952 Technicolor western knee-slapper SON OF PALEFACE (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2017/12/19/i-wanna-sell-ya/). Each takes on their respective target genres magnificently, seamless matching the verbal bon mots with inspired sight gags. I wanna tell ya!
Ahoy, mateys, Olive Films, in association with Paramount Home Entertainment, has christened the Signature Edition Blu-Ray of OPERATION PETTICOAT, Blake Edwards’ 1959 comedy classic costarring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis. Woo-hoo!
The two-hour pic is seamless merriment, lushly packaged in Eastman Color, concerning Captain Grant’s determination to raise and reconstruct his recently sunk new submarine, the S.S. Sea Tiger. I suspect though that World War II was probably not as much fun as this movie suggests (it almost rivals Up in Arms for seafaring laffs, gals, and hijinks).
It’s just a few days after Pearl Harbor and the skipper (aka Cary, aka Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Sherman) is short of men and time to get his wrecked sub afloat. Enter cosmetically designed, rakish social-climbing officer Nick Holden (guess who, oh – all right, it’s Curtis), known as a smooth operator, a scavenger of the highest (and often lowest) order: “Don’t let the manicure fool you. I grew up in a neighborhood called Noah’s Ark. If you didn’t travel in pairs, you just didn’t travel.” Curtis is essentially and deftly playing a wacky-in-khaki Kings Go Forth’s Britt Harris. The oil-and-water confrontations between the two (eventually melding into a perilous cocktail hybrid of borderline friendship) is what make the movie so beloved after nearly sixty years since its release.
But that’s just the beginning. Found deserted on a bombed-out atoll is a gaggle of nurses (mostly hotcha-cha types), who become reluctant members of the Tiger crew, proving once and again that women look great in men’s clothing.
That said, the one image that indelibly is etched in Boomer moviegoer’s noggins is the sight of a pink submarine (a color that must have been a good-luck charm for Edwards); it’s due to a wardrobe malfunction of the surplus kind, and becomes enough of a double-take sore thumb to even make Tokyo Rose take notice.
The supporting cast of OPERATION PETTICOAT is a 1950s Who’s Who of memorable faces ‘n’ races, including Gene Evans, Robert F. Simon, Dick Sargent, Gavin MacLeod, Robert Gist, Dick Crockett, Nicky Blair, Hal Baylor, Arthur O’Connell (whose bravura turn in Picnic gets him special billing) and, as the lovelies, Dina Merrill, Joan O’Brien, Madlyn Rhue, Marion Ross and their commanding officer, the wonderful Virginia Gregg.
Did I say that the movie was an unprecedented smash in 1959? Yep, a Radio City Music Hall special, if ever there was one (would love to know what the Rockettes’ tie-in show was). In an industry when major-minor player Universal was lucky to occasionally score a hit, let alone what would be comparable to a 100-million-dollar hit, U-I (it was Universal-International then) had THREE that year: PETTICOAT, Douglas Sirk’s remake of Imitation of Life and Pillow Talk. No surprise that two of this trio starred the studio’s top attractions (another first for the company, having TWO of the Ten World Box-Office Champs under contract), Curtis and (in Pillow Talk) Rock Hudson.
The record run of success for Universal in the mid-late 1950s allowed them to purchase the entire pre-1948 Paramount catalog through their MCA adjunct, and to make super-desirable deals with marquee Marquis actors, working on a percentage basis. Jimmy Stewart was one of the first, followed by Tyrone Power, Alan Ladd and Errol Flynn, with Grant being the most prominent of the group. His Granart Company would share the profits of PETTICOAT (and, subsequently, three more projects) before all rights would automatically revert back to the actor. His first production (through Warners), Indiscreet, was a slam-bang hit; in addition, the new (and far better) Universal deal helped make ’59 a grand Grant outing (his other picture that year was North by Northwest).
But it wasn’t merely Universal and Cary Grant who reaped the rewards of 1959. Perhaps more than both of them (including the factoring in of a personal satisfaction level), the year was Tony Curtis’ time. A contractee at U-I for over a decade, he had basically been wasted in a series of unremarkable albeit vastly entertaining tits ‘n’ sand epics, crime dramas and backlot medieval potboilers. Universal made mucho bucks by loaning him out to other concerns, specifically United Artists. And it was here that Curtis flourished, allowing him to stretch his dramatic acting chops and natural (and often inspired) comedic ability. Trapeze gave way to Sweet Smell of Success, which led to Kings Go Forth and The Vikings. 1958’s The Defiant Ones got him a deserved Oscar nomination, and, prior to coming back to his home turf as a major mover-and-shaker, he had wrapped up Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (another of his 1959 releases). Not bad.
Curtis was no longer assigned projects, he was asked what he would like to do. His dream was to work with Cary Grant (his idol, obvious when one sees the Wilder pic), preferably in a comedy. When the studio’s new fair-haired boys Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin (two maverick comic mavens who cut their teeth on Ray Bolger’s innovative 1953 musical TV sitcom Where’s Raymond? and authors of Pillow Talk) said they had a service comedy about a pink submarine, Curtis jumped, signing on before even reading the script. Not only was Grant the younger star’s favorite actor, it was the former Bernard Schwartz seeing the former Archie Leach in the 1943 submarine drama Destination Tokyo that prompted the teenager to join the Navy. For Tony Curtis, OPERATION PETTICOAT was beyond a fantasy come true. And it was reciprocal, Grant and Curtis bonded admirably (as one would expect in a naval picture), a friendship that lasted until the former’s passing in 1986.
The other made-out-like-a-bandit participant in OPERATION PETTICOAT was, of course, Blake Edwards. The writer/director had been working (usually under the auspices of Richard Quine) as a second-unit man (and eventual director) of medium-sized budgeted comedies, noirs and musicals; his forte seemed to be television, proving his worth with the huge ratings-getter Peter Gunn. His palling around with Curtis (Curtis, in his 2008 autobiography, American Prince, said he, wife Janet Leigh, Edwards and his then-spouse Patricia Walker were inseparable), led to Tony getting Blake a gig on his 1957 Universal entry, Mister Corey (one of the most underrated pics in either the star’s or the director’s filmographies). Curtis then used his juice to get Edwards the much-coveted PETTICOAT stint, and the 37-year-old-filmmaker didn’t disappoint. The direction is light, nimble, and inventive, with some beautifully composed imagery matching the slapstick with some often jarring action sequences. Curtis helping his buddy chart the course of OPERATION PETTICOAT is what (big-screen-wise) put Blake Edwards on the map.
All of this is wrapped up in the frequently hilarious Oscar-nominated screenplay by Shapiro and Richlin (from a story by Paul King). Like their other works (individually they were responsible for Lover Come Back, That Touch of Mink, Bedtime Story, much of the Pink Panther series), the lines are double-entendre risqué. A shot of short-shorts-wearing Merrill sliding down the sub pole, asking “Did I go down okay?” is wonderfully responded to by an agog Evans with a resounding “YES!” A later segment where klutzy O’Brien deep-sixes a torpedo attack on a Japanese vessel – causing the bomb to surface and destroy an enemy vehicular transport – is capped by Grant’s superb delivery of “We just sunk a truck!” I vividly recall (as five-year-old in a packed movie house with my folks) this retort resulting in howls of laughter from the audience. It still is a funny bit, and one I’m delighted to say one that all my friends remember from their childhood PETTICOAT experience.
Due to the unstable Eastman Color, I have lived through decades of unwatchable PETTICOAT prints, many being beet-red, which kinda puts the kibosh on the sub color scheme gags. The Olive Signature Edition has mastered a new1080p High Definition widescreen transfer from the original Granart elements, and, man, does it look good (a fine nod to the terrific d.p. Russell Harlan). While there is some slight grain (usually during the opticals), the colors are rich, and the clarity crystal-clear. This Blu-Ray honestly looks better than the first-run print I saw in 1959. If that’s not enough, Olive has stacked the decked with a plethora of fetching extras, including an illustrated booklet, audio commentary, THREE mini-documentaries (including reminiscences from surviving cast members Ross and MacLeod), plus U-I newsreels featuring the Radio City premiere with Grant.
OPERATION PETTICOAT. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. CAT# OS014. SRP: $39.95.
As MIDSOMER MURDERS, based on the novels by Caroline Graham, enters its (yikes!) twentieth season, one must ponder on how such a thing is possible. By that, I mean, while changing cast members like Menudo and still remaining so goddamn entertaining. Some of those queries are now available for your assessment via the recent Acorn/RLJ Entertainment Blu-Ray releases of MIDSOMER MURDERS, SERIES 18 and 19.
The classic definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. In America, that’s called Hollywood; regarding myself, I guess it’s MIDSOMER MURDERS. For over two decades, no matter how lethal that pastoral hamlet is, I still want to visit there!
SERIES 18, is a perfect example of, “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” What I’m saying is that none of six feature-length mysteries, spread over the set’s three platters, are likely to cause armchair Sherlocks to lose much (if any) sleep. All are respectable thrillers, with the show’s trademark lush production values and high entertainment factor. But there’s a definite ring of familiarity to them. This isn’t necessarily a bad happenstance, as there are some guaranteed perks. First off, I really like the new Barnaby’s new assistant, Charlie Nelson (Gwilym Lee). Nelson’s/Lee’s no-nonsense approach, while seemingly a sore-thumb pariah stance, actually works. That the actor is thoroughly likeable and has a great chemistry with star Neil Dudgeon is a big thumbs-up testament to his thespian abilities.
The Barnabys (Dudgeon and Fiona Dolman) themselves have much to rejoice for – celebrating their late parenthood by way of Baby Betty (Abbie and Georgia Mukleen, introduced at the end of Series 16).
The sextet of cases are fetching, if not wholly original, and cover such nasty goings-on as serial bodysnatching (Habeas Corpus), possible UFO abductions (Incident at Cooper Hill), murderous bike-race enthusiasts (Breaking the Chain), a psychopathic artist who enjoys doing human tableaus (A Dying Art), archeologists joining their long-dead discoveries (Saints and Sinners) and death by horse trampling and equine tranquilizers (Harvest of Souls).
Of course, all of this is made remarkably palatable by the fantastic guest supporting casts, including Diana Quick, Julia Sawalha, Cherie Lunghi and Malcolm Sinclair. The professional direction (Alex Pillai, Renny Rye, Rob Evans, Matt Carter, Nick Laughland), many from MIDSOMER veterans, and writing (Rachel Cuperman, Sally Griffiths, Paul Logue, Chris Murray, Jeff Povey, Lisa Holdsworth, Caleb Ranson) are exorbitantly helped by the superb cinematography (James Moss, Chris Preston, Andy Hollis).
SERIES 19 has a sprinkling of yet more changes, mostly for the good. The Babies Mulkeen appear to be on some kind of hormone treatment, as Betty is shooting up (in a good way) at a seemingly alarming rate; perhaps it’s the Causton air. The biggest switch is (here we go) another replacement for the chief inspector’s assistant. Damn, and I was so enjoying the contrast between Dudgeon and Lee. Well, he’s gone, and in his place is the less assured Jamie Winter (Nick Hendrix). Must say, the character works quite well, smoothly fitting in with both the human and countrified surroundings. His awkwardness outside of work is accentuated by the detective’s adoration of M.E. Kam Karimore (Manjinder Virk), stemming from an earlier liaison. This offers Mrs. B the chance to play matchmaker, and Barnaby himself to play the curmudgeon card, or Dudgeon-curmudgeon (which he does exquisitely). Sadly, canine regular Spikes has sought out that big fire hydrant in the sky (mercifully, he wasn’t murdered, but expired due to natural causes, which is the most UNNATURAL death one can have in Midsomer); fortunately, he has been quickly replaced by rescued crime-scene pooch Paddy.
Another check in the plus column is that the writing (with Julia Gilbert joining the SERIES 18 crew) is greatly improved from the previous season, trading a less comfortable slippers fit for a suspenseful, adventurous “be on your toes” romp. There’s a trace of suspicion as to why Acorn packaged the six new episodes on two separate sets, rather than the usual one (4 and 2). I can’t for the life of me imagine why. Can you? (INSERT snarkasm HERE). In any event, the higher quality of these half-dozen feature television movies are so good that one might want to overlook this antic. MIDSOMER addicts undoubtedly shall, so WTF.
SERIES 19, PART ONE really gets the ball rolling as it chronicles the nefarious activities that comprise the rebirth of a ghost village (The Village that Rose from the Dead), the butchering of a butcher (Crime and Punishment), evil amongst the cricket crowd that really isn’t at all, well…cricket (Last Man Out), and the most lethal rabbits since Night of the Lepus (Red in Tooth & Claw). The guests are wonderful, and include Anthony Calf, Susan Hampshire, Susan Jameson, and, returning under an alias, the show’s iconic DS Ben Jones (Jason Hughes).
SERIES 19, PART TWO concludes the latest Blu-Ray casebook with Victorian vengeance, as a Jane Austen weekend sanguinely serves up penny-dreadful results (Death by Persuasion) and a prestigious string orchestral scholarship reveals deceit, blackmail, the pre-cyber version of identity theft (liquidation) and, ultimately death by violins (The Curse of the Ninth). Both entries are made most diverting by guest suspects/victims Claire Skinner, James Fleet and Simon Callow. A nice sidebar is Sarah Barnaby’s deciding to pen a historical Austenesque novel, which, like the event she attends for research, transforms into a murder mystery.
In the MIDSOMER tradition, the direction (with Steve Hughes joining the SERIES 18 bunch) and camerawork (with Moss dividing the visuals with Andrew Johnson) is top-notch, as are their presentation (in 1.78 High Definiton and 5.1 surround) on the Acorn discs.
MIDSOMER MURDERS, SERIES 18 & 19. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/all3 media. CAT #s AMP-2516 (18), AMP-2571 (19, PART ONE), AMP-2607 (PART TWO). SRP: $49.99 (18), $34.99 (19, PART ONE), $29.99 (19, PART TWO).
Animation fans can end the year on a high that’s guaranteed to carry them into 2018 and beyond. And, for that, y’all can thank the gang at the Warner Archive Collection for their outstanding 5-disc DVD-R made-to-order collection, PORKY PIG 101.
The clever title reveals that there are indeed 101 vintage Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, spanning the crucial years 1933-1943. But that’s only half of the charm of their moniker. As the title implies, there is great educational worth in the 101 collection. It’s a mini-history of Golden Age Hollywood animation, as realized by some of its greatest practitioners and masters.
Porky was the WB cartoon unit’s first bona fide star. And it wasn’t an overnight success. The character went through many changes, ages, physical appearances and personality quirks before they arrived at the iconic pig we all know and love.
The 101 set is in chronological order, and every one of the cartoons featured is a rarity. All are in the original black and white, with two exceptions, 1933’s pre-Code two-tone Technicolor I Haven’t Got a Hat and the 1939 clouds-of-war rousing Old Glory. The reason is that, prior to early 1943, the Warners Merrie Melodies were Technicolored, while the Looney Tunes were monochrome. This differentiation became obsolete when, by 1943, any black and white cartoon was considered bigger box-office poison than an El Brendel-starring comedy.
The Looney Tunes were essentially a no-holds-barred experimental lab for talented writers, animators and directors to hone their crafts. Indeed, for me 101 is a major release, as it shows not only the evolution of a key WB “star,” but, more importantly, chronicles the advancement of the artistry of animation geniuses Robert Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, each of whom cut their teeth on Porky’s development. Many attributes were combined to create the character – and all of that is evident in these riotous and, admittedly, occasionally offensive one-reelers. Clampett tended to go literally hog-wild with his input; early Jones went for a Disney approach; Tashlin liked a more corpulent Porky; Avery, a farm-boy yoot, rather than an adult; Freleng, a happy-go-lucky pig ‘n’ a whistle. All this stuff would eventually culminate in the stuttering everypig specimen of middle-class Americana that millions have come to know and love.
At first, the character was billed with as “Porky ‘n’ Beans,” in a series of schoolroom romps that attempted to introduce a roster of stars in the Roach Our Gang tradition. Certain animals were continuously presented, refined and (mostly) dropped by the mid-1930s. While Porky remained, it was generally agreed early-on that he was best when teamed with another more ballistic half. Lulu, a goofy ostrich, was an embryonic start to the eventual concoction (and sex change) known as Daffy Duck (Porky’s Pet). The pair would be teamed throughout the WB toon heyday, shining best when Jones became the Warners maven of sophistication, via PP’s sly takes and asides to the camera (darewesay “ham on wry”?) during Daffy’s out-of-control histrionics. But that would be decades from the 7-minute gems contained in this set.
Each platter is forworded by a disclaimer explaining the racist content of many of the shorts. And it’s well-founded. These cartoons (often the reason that I have never seen most of them, as, even in the 1960s, New York TV stations refused to run them) do tend to shamelessly stereotype blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans; on the flip side, they also do the same for politicians, contemporary movie stars, bullies, business executives, pompous religious leaders, salesmen and educators. It must be said that the Warners toon unit was among the first in tinsel Town to kick Hitler in the ass (What Price, Porky?), years before the studio’s feature productions attempted the same. Our hero even proves himself a champion animal activist, going after non-oinking swine fur trappers in Tashlin’s Porky in the North Woods. Of course, this doesn’t justify any of the PI content, but, as the disclaimer states, they are products of their time (Disney never had that kind of gutsy home-video mojo; they simply edited what they perceived to be offensive out, making the censored celluloid historically inaccurate).
The only way I could see many of the titles in this collection was in the late 1960s-early 1970s when a UA subsidiary (United Artists then owned the pre-Warners output) colorized a slew of their black-and-whites. These embryonic computerized atrocities looked awful and tended to compromise movement. I used to turn the color off, but, even then the dull, smeary black and white looked weird, as if the images were transferred with Silly Putty.
Happy to state that the 101 cartoons are, for the most part, in remarkably excellent shape. Certainly, some are only very good, but many are pristine (and virtually all from 35mm) and, best of all, at last in trueblack-and-white.
Since Robert Clampett is one of my favorite directors (live action or animation), it’s sensational to have such a treasure trove of his work. I was lucky enough to have met him in the 1970s, and we became pals. He told me tons of great stuff about the Warners days, all of it proved valid by these awesome Porky adventures. For example, he told me that they were so tight with a dollar that after a cartoon was shot, they would wipe clean (the best they could) all the cells, and re-use them. This actually shows up in these shorts via digs, draw-lines, squiggles, obviously left over from a previous endeavor. He also was known as the Termite Terrace (the nickname for the animation department) scavenger, and, fortunately, was able to sneak out surviving cells, storyboards and props – many of which are showcased here as supplements. This is extremely valuable, since when one examines the specific cartoon, viewers will be stunned to notice gags that didn’t make it to the final cut, and even characters that were excised or changed (Porky’s Party, Porky’s Poor Fish). Several of these cartoons also have commentary, which buffs may find interesting (Porky’s Poultry Plant, The Case of the Stuttering Pig, Porky at the Crocadero, Porky’s Party, Unholy Smoke, You Ought to be in Pictures, Porky’s Review, etc.). Hey, this collection has Clampett’s Porky in Wackyland, perhaps my favorite all-time cartoon. To own that in mint condition alone (for me) is worth the entire collection (which, BTW, comes down to less than 48 cents per title!).
Bob told me that “Tash [Frank Tashlin] found a rundown theater that showed only silent comedies. He would go there almost every night after work. The next day, he would enthrall us with what he saw – stuff that matched the craziest gags we could come up with. He drove us nuts, trying to get us to go with him. We chided Frank for it, but, obviously he had the last laugh.” Tashlin’s Porky masterpiece (Porky’s Pig Feat) is the final official entry in the set (the last segment of film is the notorious Porky’s Breakdowns – the cursing pig’s year-end gift to the Warners staff at their annual Christmas party. “Sonofa b-b-b-b-b-bitch!”), a perfect way to start any tribute to prologue any of his Bob Hope, Jayne Mansfield or Jerry Lewis live-action feature-length cartoons.
There are other animators whose Porky antics are on view, but tend to not have been as fondly remembered, some for good reason. By the slick early 1940s, when Clampett, Tashlin, Avery, Jones and Freleng were really getting into the groove, these guys were still stuck in the Depression-era early 1930s. Side-by-side compare Porky and Teasbiscuit with The Daffy Doc, and you’ll see what I mean.
A lot of these toons tend to end abruptly, don’t satisfactorily resolve a viable conclusion, have gags that fall flat (or repeat themselves subsequently, sometimes over years, until they work), but that’s part of the fascination of this package. Sometimes entire cartoons were remade in Technicolor (Clampett’s Scalp Trouble became Freleng’s Slightly Daffy; Freleng’s Notes to You became his Back Alley Oproar).Ben Hardaway had Porky (before there was an Elmer Fudd) hunting a rabbit (Porky’s Hare Hunt). The lepus was abrasive and obnoxious, and not at all likeable. Clampett, Avery and Tashlin took respective cracks at the character until they came up with a workable composite, christening their result after its originator (Hardaway’s nickname was “Bugs,” and so was dubbed the wascally wabbit). Clampett told me that they derived a lot of their characters’ attributes from The Movies. “Bugs is really Groucho Marx, and [as indicated above] the first Porkys were the Hal Roach Our Gang kids.”
Of course, a turning point in the series comes with the arrival of Mel Blanc (who does not get any credit for his work in these shorts) and the brilliant musical director Carl W. Stallings (who does get a credit). It’s the last topping on what would from then on be a nearly flawless barrage of hilarious animated masterpieces. PORKY PIG 101 is classic collection essential; to miss it is to deprive yourself and your friends an awesome viewing experience. Whether you choose to precede a feature with one or two of these, or program an entire evening of milestone animation (some not seen properly in over seventy years), PORKY PIG 101 is a Warner Archive jewel in their crown and will undoubtedly be likewise in your library.
PORKY PIG 101. Black-and-white (and two color selections). Full frame [1.33:1]; 2.0 mono audio. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video. CAT # 100064529. SRP: $47.99.
Sad that the American screen comedies of Bob Hope have gotten a bit tarnished as of late, as they remain an integral part of 20th-century laff cinema. Hope’s movies pretty much defined the 1940s and essentially changed the direction of Hollywood comedy. The comedian’s rapid-fire retorts, often directed at the audience as much as the characters on the screen, his anachronistic asides in the period pieces that so delighted and influenced Woody Allen (and a slew of others who followed his clown-sized footsteps), the often surreal involvement of talking animals and inanimate objects – all of that had been so expertly injected into the funnyman’s oeuvre (that’s not what you think it is – and wash your mind out with soap!) that it passed into core Americana without nearly anyone noticing (the great critic/writer James Agee being a major exception to the rule). To be sure, when Hope threatened his Bijou villains (“You wouldn’t say that if my writers were here”), it was a welcome self-deprecating jab at his not-so-secret reliance on specially prepared ad libs for all occasions. Prime to Hope’s (and Crosby’s) gift of the sharp retort was the generally unheralded input from a bona fide comedy genius, Barney Dean. Dean essentially created the Hope persona, and, in doing so, revolutionized movie comedy writing to a delirious and inspired level that contemporaries still steal…ummm, pay homage to. If I were more ambitious, I would embark on a book-length bio of Dean – a noble but futile quest, as his anonymity guarantees a readership of nil.
It’s been so long that the Hope pics have gotten regular play (a TV staple throughout the 1960s-70s) that they’re almost a whole new sub-genre.
Bob Hope, who when not rolling ’em in the aisles on radio, television, in pictures and live on hot battlefield stations across the globe, was a shrewd businessman. This is important to mention, as by the mid-1940s, he re-negotiated his deal with Paramount to allow him to produce his own popcorn-friendly products that would be released under the Zukor firm’s arm. These titles would eventually totally revert back to the comedian, giving him sole re-issue/TV rights. On-screen cohort Bing Crosby likewise followed suit (they co-produced the Road pics after the 1946 blockbuster Road to Utopia under the dual auspices of Hope Enterprises and Bing Crosby Enterprises).
And there lay the rub. Someone at the comic’s legal firm was asleep at the wheel, and several of the titles went “gray,” or pseudo-public domain, while one went full-blown p.d. That outing, MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE, one of Hope’s finest, became a notorious renegade entry due to decades of lousy bootlegs that flooded the home-video market via negligible VHS tapes, laserdiscs and DVDs.
Thanks to Kino-Lorber/Fremantle Media, Ltd., there’s a breath of fresh air in movie-platter heaven, as collectors can now safely rediscover these frequently riotous gems in excellent-to-stunning Blu-Ray evocations, mastered from the best surviving 35MM materials reportedly gleaned from the entertainer’s estate.
While this sextet comprises the crème de la crème of the Hope-produced bunch, they strangely do not cover the complete set. The authentically awful 1969 How to Commit Marriage isn’t missed that much, save as a supreme example of dated 1960s culture shock: youth misinterpreted by the establishment at its embarrassing worst (and, thus, nostalgically collectible). Then there’s The Private Navy of Sergeant O’Farrell, a 1968 service comedy that appears to have been in the comedian’s joke closet since Guadalcanal. While marginally better than Marriage, O’Farrell is primarily of note as being the final work of the brilliant Frank Tashlin, and notably contains several (but not enough) of the writer/director’s trademark loony compositions.
The two remaining absent titles from the Kino/Fremantle Hope cache are more problematic. 1949’s The Great Lover is quite possibly the most underrated Hope title, a rollicking mystery-comedy with woman-crazy Hope as a scoutmaster escorting a troop of pimply adolescents on a culture tour of Paris.
1955’s The Seven Little Foys desperately needs a re-master, especially on Blu-Ray, where a proper widescreen VistaVision and Technicolor transfer would be enormously appreciated by the movie and star’s many fans.
That said, we’re left with an excellent Hope sampler, two Roads (RIO and BALI), the aforementioned BRUNETTE, THE LEMON DROP KID (a genuine Christmas classic, so ideal for this time of the year), SON OF PALEFACE, arguably the superstar’s finest celluloid moment, and the truly deranged PARIS HOLIDAY. So grab your zoot suit and I’ll meet ‘cha on the babe side of the corner across from the drugstore diner by the Brooklyn Paramount…
1947’s MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE is an extraordinary movie on so many levels. For one thing, it is probably the most perfect film noir spoof of all time. What makes it even more remarkable is that it sparklingly parodied a genre while it was happening and flourishing!
The writers (Edmund Beloin, Jack Rose, and uncredited assist from the aforementioned Barney Dean and Hope himself) outdid themselves, bullseye-targeting all the quirks, foibles and trademark characteristics of the mean-streets scenario: the mysterious mansions, the exotic Americana locales, the slick, wet, nocturnal pavements and, best of all (for Hope fans), the hard-hitting, sarcastic voice-over narration: “I had a lump on my head the size of my head,” monotones Hope’s character – Ronnie Jackson, a baby photographer who yearns to be a private eye like his heroes Alan Ladd, Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell. Being that this is a Paramount Picture, the real detective in Ronnie’s office building (Sam McCloud) is none-other THAN Ladd, in a hilarious cameo bit. Of course, the femme fatale (Lamour, always underrated and thoroughly zeroing in on the dangerous female role, mistakes Jackson for McCloud and, thus begins a merry adventure that effortlessly incorporates Raymond Chandler into a Looney Tune world of intrigue, gunsels, thugs and mugs. The main sinister plotline is so incredibly close to that of Goldwyn’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty (released the same year) that it’s astounding lawsuits weren’t flung around with as much panache as the deadly daggers thrown by Peter Lorre in this pic. Aside from Lorre, the cast is a Who’s Who of noir, and includes Lon Chaney, Jr., Charles Dingle, Jack LaRue, John Hoyt, Anthony Caruso and Ray Teal.
It’s futile to quote the reams of memorable laff lines, as BRUNETTE is chock full of ’em, but one never fails to slay me. Hope, on a midnight run for his life from the evil pursuers, dodges into an apartment building and immediately begins ringing all the doorbells, crying out, “It’s Joe,” figuring SOMEONE knows a Joe. The response is outrageous – a cacophony of horny women, moaning “Come in, Joe,” as all the buzzers sound. Hope’s response and delivery, “I must remember this address,” is priceless.
The ending, where Hope’s character walks his last mile to the electric chair is another pip, and features a final riotous guest star.
MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE is unquestionably a favorite for Hope fans (easily the apex of the “My Favorite” series – the other entries being Blonde Madeleine Carroll and Spy Hedy Lamarr). It’s no surprise that noir buffs love this movie, since, as indicated, it hits all the right bases and ultimately scores a comic home run.
The direction beautifully mixes suspense with guffaws, a credit to Elliott Nugent, who had previously guided Hope through two box-office smashes, The Cat and the Canary (1939) and Nothing but the Truth (1941).
For years BRUNETTE was a thorn in movie collectors’ sides, being that this title was only accessible in wretched, duped editions. This 35MM transfer, while a bit grainy, is nevertheless a revelation, at last doing justice to Lionel Lindon’s silky monochrome photography. The music by Robert Emmett Dolan captures the feel of the real deal, and even includes a suitable torch song, “Beside You” (by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans), ably warbled by Lamour.
It’s a damn shame that the Road pictures aren’t well remembered today, since, at their peak in the mid-1940s, they virtually defined the culture and mores of the mainstream (or Main Street, if you prefer) America. And side-splittingly so.
Progressing from the mere casting of three popular Paramount stars (in Singapore), by the second outing (Zanzibar, in 1941), the sequels had ascended to veritable movie events, with the three leads cemented in the public eye as a team. Aside from gags and songs, Hope, Crosby and Lamour provided a litany of pungent asides regarding current events, Hollywood gossip, trendy fads, politics and self-deprecating puns that made one seem that he/she was being personally let in on a joke, a la wink-wink/nudge-nudge. It also amazed millions of weekly moviegoers of how sharp these entertainers were, as the wisecracks seemed to be made up while the cameras were rolling (once again, Barney Dean!).
Other studios took note of the bonanza box office the Road shows took in, and tried, in vain, to copy the template. But, alas, Bob and Bing were unique; just check out Warners’ lame Two Guys series, teaming Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan in cookie-cutter (or cut-rate) Road missteps. Physically, it may have looked good on paper, but on-screen the magic just wasn’t there. Ditto the choices for locales. Paramount’s selection of Singapore, Morocco, Rio and Bali were a lot more enticing than Warners’ Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Texas. Oy vey!
By 1946, the Roads were guaranteed ka-ching utopia (in fact, Utopia was the last title – a Bob, Bing and Dotty excursion to the frozen north). The movie was one of the highest-grossing pics of the year, and listed as one of Ten Best on the prestigious New York Times annual list.
Hope and Crosby saw the profitable writing on the walls, and informed Paramount that from hereon in they would be co-producing the series. Sadly, always left at the misogynist altar was Lamour, who was never offered a piece of the action (while she was pissed at her costars, she also was a good enough sport to not bow out, especially since the actress/singer was as much a part of the gift-horse franchise as her male counterparts).
The first cash-cow entry was 1947’s ROAD TO RIO, the lengthiest of all the cinematic trips (100 minutes). Directed by comedy expert Norman Z. McCleod (best known for the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers), the veteran director charted the trio through a labored, but nevertheless totally watchable opus that begins in a tawdry Midwest sideshow (that the boys burn down) and ends with them both romancing a dotty Dotty (the victim of a hypnotizing crazed aunt – the great Gale Sondergaard). The conclusion is a bizarre demonstration of sexual manipulation passing for a happy ending (perhaps a smack at Bing for the uproarious finale of Utopia).
The Wiere Brothers are genuine scene-stealers as a wacked Brazilian troop of troubadours, and the songs by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Husen are most pleasing (scoring some big hits on radio and vinyl album books). The highlight of the movie is Bing’s number with the Andrews Sisters, who turn up south of the border in a terrific guest cameo (their last big-screen appearance). For me, the focus point is the arrival of Jerry Colonna, leading a gaucho cavalry for a last reel rescue (“Exciting, wasn’t it?”).
RIO’s rather noirish photography befits the nefarious on-screen shenanigans, and comes from the gifted eyes of Ernest Laszlo. The movie was an unprecedented smash (even with its one-sheet that made Hope look like a maniac).
1952’s ROAD TO BALI was a long-awaited reunion between the Paramount trio, and, in my modest opinion, a big improvement over RIO. The main difference was that this was the first Road to be shot in Technicolor, and, damn, does it look good (aside from some slight grain, this transfer is the berries, a nice Blu-Ray nod to d.p. George Barnes); there are even some gags relying upon the hues and tones of the imbibition process (it’s also the first color glimpse of Martin & Lewis, who, along with several other stars, make a wacky guest appearance). The songs by Burke and Van Husen are addictive, and the script (by Hal Kanter, Frank Butler, William Morrow, and of course Barney Dean, from Harry Tugend’s story) is crammed with topical (if not tropical) one-liners. A healthy portion of the self-deprecating humor centers around the leads’ ages and their socked-away millions. That said, nothing beats Hope being carried away by a lovesick female gorilla, screaming “Kill one of us!” I suspect that Hope also got his new buddy Frank Tashlin to do some uncredited work, as some of the visual jokes smack of the animator-turned-writer/director (including a finale with Jane Russell). BALI’s official directorial chores fall to Hal Walker, who guided H,C & L through the phenomenal Utopia, and its well-paced and zippy, helped greatly by a game supporting cast, including Murvyn Vye, Leon Askin, Peter Coe, Michael Ansara, Harry Cording, Carolyn Jones and (ooo-la-la) Sylvia Lewis. It even features the squid from Reap the Wild Wind!
1951’s THE LEMON DROP KID is Hope’s official Christmas classic. If Bing had “White Christmas,” Bob had “Silver Bells,” the Jay Evans/Ray Livingston ditty which made its debut in this jolly, wacky pic.
Hope had done amazingly well with Damon Runyon – his 1949 remake of Little Miss Marker, Sorrowful Jones, scoring big at the box office (that said, I’d love to see the first 1934 Kid, featuring Lee Tracy as the character). Another Runyon work was a natural – and a Yuletide-flavored comedy for holiday moviegoers made it an even better prospect.
The comedian plays the title character, an unscrupulous but likeable Florida race track tout, who accidentally cheats the moll of a vicious gangster out of a sure thing. He has until December 25 to make good, so he hightails it back to his New York turf to try and raise the dough. His dubious plan: to crash the Santa-on-the-corner racket and open a bogus rest home for “old dolls.”
Hope’s costar, the luminous Marilyn Maxwell, like most of Bob’s female leads (Katharine Hepburn, the notable, horrific sore point), has a wonderful chemistry with the star (accentuated by their off-screen pairing as well). The supporting cast is superb with the Kid’s crew, including William Frawley, Tor Johnson, Sid Melton and Jay C. Flippen leading the pack. The ladies in gray are valiantly enacted by Jane Darwell, Ida Moore and a slew of other former “dolls” from before the screen learned to talk. The gangland villains, Lloyd Nolan and Fred Clark, wisely play it straight, and, thus, are way more menacing. Nolan, in particular, is downright psychopathic – affectionate and thoughtful to Maxwell one minute and physically threatening the next.
The Blu-Ray looks great, with Daniel L. Fapp’s (appropriately) silvery monochrome photography, shimmering with luminescent imagery and clarity. The movie’s director was Sidney Lanfield, a genial traffic cop picture supervisor, who could do no wrong, but really sunk if he ever got in above his head.
The Paramount suits and Hope nodded approvingly as the rushes unfolded in the screening room, but admitted that it was nothing to get excited about. Hope realized the picture needed some added pep, and asked his trusted newbie gag writer Frank Tashlin (who cowrote the narrative with Ed Beloin, Edmund L. Hartmann, Robert O’Brien, Irving Elinson, and, natch, Barney Dean) for advice. Tashlin, whose vivid imagination was culled from his years as one of Warners’ top Looney Tunes animators, suggested some cartoony sequences that piqued Hope’s interest (he credited the scribe for contributing the best gags to his mammoth 1948 smash The Paleface). Then, Hope did something unprecedented; he removed Lanfield from the picture and put Tashlin in charge. This was a sage-like move, as the rushes now resulted in bellows of hearty laughter reverberating down the Paramount corridors. And the proof was in the Christmas pudding; KID became a Hope sensation with audiences and critics alike (hailed as the comic’s best picture in years). Because of a DGA rule, Lanfield gets full directorial credit, but, make no mistake about it, THE LEMON DROP KID is virtually all Frank Tashlin, an winning artistic debt that Hope wouldn’t forget.
Bob Hope’s payback to Frank Tashlin was 1952’s SON OF PALEFACE, one of my favorite comedies, (in my opinion) Hope’s best movie, and arguably the greatest Western parody ever to mosey across the screen. Tashlin at last got to be the kid locked in the toy store, writing the script (with Joseph Quillan and coproducer Robert L. Welch, who makes a funny guest appearance) and directing the show without any interference and with full credit.
A continuation to the comedian’s 1948 Technicolor mother lode, SON picks up decades later when unscrupulous Harvard graduate Paleface, Jr. journeys out West to cop his rapscallion pop’s ill-gotten gains. One of Sr.’s notable victims is the luscious Mike (Jane Russell), who avenges her fate by doubling as the nighttime Torch bandit, robbing the rich – and keeping it.
Special Agents Roy Rogers and Trigger arrive to stop the hold-ups, and the result is a screwball mixup of inventive sight gags, zingy verbal barbs, and great songs, all lavishly packaged in Technicolor to die for. If it indeed sounds like a cartoon – well, it is. The greatest live-action cartoon ever cranked out at 24 fps.
Not surprisingly, SON OF PALEFACE was a tremendous hit – both with critics and audiences – and big boost to Tashlin, who went on to carve his name in movie comedy history. Tashlin himself looked at the picture in retrospect (in 1957) as the work of an eager newbie, desperate to please. His critique was that, while he liked the movie a lot, it was too full yuks for his taste. Tash (as he was often called) felt he had overdone it with the wall-to-wall jokes. The writer/director claimed that there were about 100 visual gags in the picture – way more than needed. To underline his point, he discussed his (then) latest work, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, which contained around 20 solid comic highlights – a far more workable and less gasping-for-air entry, and, thus, infinitely more enjoyable. One can definitely take sides (I love them both), but there’s one indisputable fact: SON OF PALEFACE is a 24-karat laff classic, a must for all Hope/comedy collectors.
The Kino Blu-Ray is wonderful, expertly duplicating the vivid Technicolor hues and tones of Harry J. Wild’s camera. The mono audio is crisp and clean, perfect for relishing each aside and zippy song lyric (by Livingston, Evans, Jack Brooks, Lyle Moraine and even one by Jack Hope, Bob’s bro).
Russell comes across with one of her sexiest and funniest screen performances, and Rogers (and Trigger) are good sports as their squeaky clean images are skewered by wisecracking Paleface, Jr. Other members of the phenomenal cast include Bill Williams, Douglass Dumbrille, Lloyd Corrigan, Jonathan Hale, Chester Conklin, Harry Von Zell, Wee Willie Davis, Iron Eyes Cody, and Cecil B. DeMille (as himself).
Easily the strangest movie Hope ever made, 1958’s PARIS HOLIDAY marked the comedian’s debut at UA, now that his Paramount contract had expired. Of course, this didn’t stop Rapid Robert (as he was called) from snatching the best Paramount crew to man the new United Artists ship. Nevertheless, PARIS HOLIDAY remains an amazing curio – a gorgeous train-wreck of a movie (shot entirely on-location in France, and in Technicolor and Technirama by Roger Hubert).
The plot, written by one Robert Hope (who also produced) seems like a retread (or extension, your choice) of his popular My Favorite thriller-comedy series; in fact, one sequence, set in a rural French insane asylum, is partially lifted right out of MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE. It also has the best line in the picture, and it’s not Hope’s (a Gallic inmate hands Hope a flock of balloons, and confesses, “The man with the pin is after me.”).
The plot has international movie star Hope schlepping to France to meet with a Parisian screenwriter about a new script. On-board the luxury liner, the luminary is immediately thrown into a Hitchcockian plot involving secret codes, assassinations, etc. That the 55-year-old comic plays a total babe magnet, causing 20-something hotties Martha Hyer and Anita Ekberg to instantly fall in love with him (did we mention who wrote the original story?) is as far-fetched as the once-cool dude, trying to appeal to the ever-increasing teen audience by talking up Elvis, and incorporating hep-cat period slang like “go, man, go,” “cool cat,” “real gone,” “out for kicks,” “Daddy-O,” and “the living end.” In the 1940s, his zootie-suit-suit lingo worked fine, but, in the late 1950s, becoming a part of the establishment that his target audience was just beginning to rebel against…not so much. Hope is stumbling as much here, as he would in 1980s TV sketches, where he played Brooke Shields’ boyfriend, or 1990s talk show appearances where he’s still cracking Dean Martin drunk jokes.
To sweeten the pot, Hope aligned himself with the “French Bob Hope,” Fernandel. It may have added to the franc box-office, but didn’t quite gel here in the States. Furthermore, the oddity of Hope in an action Cold War comedy is sore-thumb underlined by his choice for director and coscreenwriter. Director Gerd Oswald was best known for A Kiss Before Dying, Crime of Passion and Brainwashed; former child-actor-turned-scribe Dean Riesner (who shared the HOLIDAY scribbling with Ed Beloin) would gain fame as the scripter of Dirty Harry, Play Misty for Me, Charley Varrick and Blue Thunder (alas, Barney Dean had passed on in 1954).
There’s IS a wonderful moment in PARIS HOLIDAY when Hope finally connects with the author he’s seeking, his former Paramount alumnus, writer/director Preston Sturges, in his last celluloid effort. Sturges, replete with French accent, is quite good as the wily writer harboring top secret information.
There’s also some marvelous stunt work (to make up for the lousy rear-screen projection – a problem Euro filmmakers could never solve) in a final chase (this one, lifted from My Favorite Spy), including one gag I’ll bet my life was contributed by Tashlin (a crash through a billboard). The Kino Blu-Ray, in 1080p High Definition widescreen, does Technirama proud. The mono audio is excellent, and features a title song by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. Since I’m a sucker for Technirama (or any early anamorphic process), I, to quote the PARIS HOLIDAY‘s lead protagonist Bob Hunter, really dug it, man! You might too. It’s not a bad movie, just a WTF batshit crazy one. And that ain’t the worst way to spend an afternoon at the cinema.
Thanks for the memories.
MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE. Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition] 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K21600.
ROAD TO RIO. Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K21602.
ROAD TO BALI. Color. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K21609.
THE LEMON DROP KID. Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K21605.
SON OF PALEFACE. Color. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K21607.
PARIS HOLIDAY. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K22769.
All titles released through Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Fremantle Media, Ltd. SRP: $24.95@