The Mystery of the Wax Museum

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Horror;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, Frank McHugh.

Forced to choose, I’d say this above-and-beyond restoration by combined heavyweights UCLA Film and Television Archive, the Film Foundation, Warner Entertainment and the George Lucas Family Foundation (pant pant) is even more impressive for licking the salvage job that had to be done as opposed to the movie’s visual content.

Let me qualify this. There’s nothing wrong with the last here; on the contrary, it fully captures the lighting subtleties of Ray Rennahan’s cinematography working in the pioneer but primitive two-color Technicolor process, which, when done right as here, can be surprisingly pleasing to the eye, much as some of the really good Blu-rays of Republic’s oft-derided Trucolor have been. It’s just that The Mystery of the Wax Museum is by nature on the dark side (morgue scenes abound), which puts it at a distinct disadvantage, demonstration-wise to, say, the bright sprightly colors of Universal’s two-color King of Jazz, which Criterion previously released.

All of this is academic nitpicking on my part because the two films could hardly be more different in their content and intentions. What we have here is the first version of director Andre de Toth’s 1953 remake House of Wax with Vincent Price, which means there will be no Charles (pre-Bronson) Buchinsky as “Igor,” nor that paddle-attached ball shooting out into the audience in 3-D and threatening guys where they live. But Lionel Atwill is spot on as a wronged and disfigured wax museum proprietor bent on exacting revenge, which carries at least double the normal intimidating factor because he’s certifiable.

Well, you would be, too, if your former business partner burned down your London establishment, started a fire and so badly burned you that you have to encase your face in wax just like your exhibits (I don’t think I’m giving too much away here). We then cut to a dozen years later in 1933 New York, where Atwill’s Ivan Igor (there’s that name again) is about to relaunch, aided by a beyond motley crew of deviants, imbeciles, druggies and grave robbers whose fortune is not their faces.

At this point, Warner Bros., which never missed many bets in that era, solders one of its ’30s newspaper melodramas onto the proceedings. Fay Wray (same year as King Kong) is kind of the selling point, but the main femme focus is really on the then ubiquitous Glenda Farrell as her reporter roomie who has a hunch that something really off-kilter is happening at Mr. Igor’s. Though Farrell’s fledgling scoops are consistently shot down by her know-it-all editor (Frank McHugh), she doesn’t know the half of it. Atwill/Igor is abducting real live human beings on which to slather wax to become the base of his sculpture exhibits, and he thinks that Wray could serve as his ideal Marie Antoinette. Oblivious to it all is Wray’s fiancé (Allen Vincent), who even works for Atwill but is beyond ineffectual.

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The restoration here is so impressive that I need to get to it, though not before noting that the final scene, back in the newsroom, is so ridiculous in relation to what has proceeded it that it doesn’t even work on fanciful movie terms. Be that as it may, the before-and-after restoration featurette, narrated by UCLA’s head of restoration Scott MacQueen, is considerably longer than what we usually see and is something of a whopper.

Warner Bros. did have a reference nitrate studio print, but it was full of splices and scratches and divots — in other words, a difficult bet even for hardened film pros used to seeing all sorts of atrocious copies but absolutely out of the question for mass consumption or something that any professional archivist would dare put his or her name on. To the rescue came a French work print from which UCLA was able to fill in the blanks before the scanners worked their magic.

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Museum wouldn’t be a vintage Michael Curtiz picture on a recent Blu-ray if it didn’t serve up Curtiz biographer Alan Rode to offer a backgrounder, and he really has to fight the clock to fit his standard pro job into the tight 78-minute running time. To my surprise, MacQueen’s separate commentary doesn’t talk about the restoration but offers its own take on the movie’s content and history. You won’t often hear me concede that Hollywood really did feel a need to toughen up the Production Code into a one-size-fits-all cookie cutter, but it’s mid-boggling and even fascinating to learn what individual states found objectionable about Museum and demanded be cut by their local censors. It’s all over the place, with an occasional state not finding anything objectionable at all.

This would all be enough for most discs, but there’s also a sweet tribute to Fay Wray, which includes not only Wray in archival interviews but Victoria Raskin, her daughter with screenwriter Robert Riskin and author of a recent book on her parents that I hope to read and, far as I’ve seen, has reaped unanimous praise. So as you can see, Warner Archives has pulled out all the stops on this release, and it displays their total commitment, which is only fitting. after UCLA did the same.

Destry Rides Again

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Western;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Stars Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Brian Donlevy, Jack Carson, Irene Hervey, Charles Winninger.

Partly by default and partly because it’s true, 1939’s Destry Rides Again is, as the great Imogen Sara Smith says in her interview on Criterion’s new release of what’s likely the most respected film from director George Marshall, also the best comic Western of all time. To really cut it, any contender has to work as a comedy and a Western, and Destry is pretty close to being able to stand alone in this specialist genre’s latter component. In fact, to my taste, there’s a little too much comedy and certainly music here, but it’s the musical numbers that have given the film its place in history, so what are you going to do?

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Marlene Dietrich is the one of the actresses that exhibitors had listed as “box office poison,” and she was just coming off Ernst Lubitsch’s flop-at-the-time Angel, which is now a major revisionist cause that Kino just brought out in a new Blu-ray that I haven’t seen despite commentary by major leaguer Joseph McBride, a Lubitsch biographer. (I was also struck that Andrew Sarris rated it very highly decades ago in his landmark The American Cinema.) Of all people, Dietrich “creator” and overall guru Josef von Sternberg encouraged her to take on Destry, with was a major face lift to her screen image.

She plays the in-house entertainment and fleecing assistant at the Last Chance Saloon, which is also the best chance around in which to lose your home and often your life in crooked poker games run by the joint’s proprietor (Brian Donlevy, naturally). As “Frenchy,” Dietrich provides gambling distractions but also performs several songs, including one of her signatures: “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have,” one of several light moments to camouflage the fact that the town law has mysteriously vanished off the face of the Earth. To take his place, the town’s crooked judge who’s under Donlevy’s thumb (Samuel S. Hinds) appoints the saloon’s resident sot (Charles Winninger) as the replacement law. In rare moments of sobriety, the last knows he’s in over his head, so he imports Tom Destry Jr. (James Stewart) as his deputy — son of a famed lawman and himself an individual of reputation in other places. Fun fact: Hinds later played Stewart’s father in It’s a Wonderful Life — talk about another image facelift).

Well … the first the town sees him, he’s helping a “good girl” (Irene Hervey) off the stage and in the process aiding her by holding some of her garb in his hands. Then it turns out that he doesn’t carry a gun. This is all good for guffaws on the street, and Donlevy is delighted once he gets over his sheer double-take bewilderment (no actor did this better than he did), though Winninger is, of course, mortified. Another fun fact: Hervey was married to singer Allan Jones in real life, whose big hit was “The Donkey Serenade” from the same year. Together, they parented singer Jack Jones, and I think I recall from an old “This Is Your Life” episode that he recorded it the same night Jack was born.

Stewart, though, turns out to have his own effective style at defusing trouble, and he develops something of a perverse relationship with Dietrich that includes lots of physical mayhem in the saloon and in her living quarters. Even with this, though, the big fight is between Dietrich and Uni Merkel as a local wife who will tolerate no nonsense. And speaking of violence, calming Hervey has a hothead brother played by Jack Carson in a role much meaner than he usually did. Donlevy, who really does own everything, wants to change Carson for moving his cattle over Donlevy land, and Carson just knocks down a fence and plus on through.

Eventually, Stewart employs a few surprises in his style and finally proves he has the stuff, as he additionally pursues whatever happened to the missing Winninger predecessor. Another ‘A’-teamer (Farran Nehme) wrote the Criterion essay, and she notes how, for all its glory, Destry was actually fairly far down on the year’s list of the renowned 1939’s biggest hits, such was the competition.

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Bowing again to Gary Tooze on his DVD Beaver site, I totally agree to unexpectedly striking degree that the All-Region Koch Blu-ray from Germany several years ago has far crisper visuals despite Criterion getting a 4K treatment here. But Criterion’s extras are very cool, including Marshall talking about working during Hollywood’s formative years (he’s right out of the unmatched Kevin Brownlow Hollywood documentary from the early 1930s). And the insights from Donald Dewey, author of James Stewart — A Biography, so impressed me that I tried to get the book for my Kindle, but it isn’t available. All in all this is a strong package, but boy, that Koch version looks good.

Mike’s Picks: ‘King Creole’ and ‘Destry Rides Again’

Mike’s Picks: ‘King Creole’ and ‘Destry Rides Again’

King Creole

Paramount, Musical, $29.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Elvis Presley, Carolyn Jones,Walter Matthau, Dolores Hart, Dean Jagger.
1958.
King Creole was, like most of Elvis’ pre-army screen outings, shot in black-and-white. But there was nothing stingy about the production, and the New Orleans locales that producer Hal Wallis sprung for add immeasurably to the ambience right from the opening, synching beautifully with the studio-shot material that makes up the bulk of the drama.
Read the Full Review

Destry Rides Again

Criterion; Western; $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray; NR.
Stars Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Brian Donlevy, Jack Carson, Irene Hervey, Charles Winninger.
1939.
Destry Rides Again is likely the most respected film from director George Marshall, and also the best comic Western of all time.
Extras: Criterion’s extras are very cool, including Marshall talking about working during Hollywood’s formative years. And the insights from Donald Dewey, author of James Stewart — A Biography, are impressive.
Read the Full Review

 

King Creole

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Paramount;
Drama;
$29.99 Blu-ray:
Not rated.
Stars Elvis Presley, Carolyn Jones,Walter Matthau, Dolores Hart, Dean Jagger.  

Well known to even cursory fans as Elvis Presley’s fourth and final film before Uncle Sam got him — and also, in the opinion of many, his best film — 1958’s King Creole was, like three of his four pre-army screen outings, shot in black-and-white. But there was nothing stingy about the production, and the New Orleans locales that producer Hal Wallis sprung for add immeasurably to the ambience right from the opening, synching beautifully with the studio-shot material that makes up the bulk of the drama. A lot of writers claim that KC is in VistaVision as you’d expect a Paramount realease of that time to be, but neither posters nor the on-screen credits say this, nor does it look like VistaVision to my eyes. It does, though, boast a first-rate cinematographer, Russell Harlan (Red River and To Kill a Mockingbird are two of many shot by him).

One of several seemingly endless projects intended for James Dean and taken over by other actors upon his death, Elvis’s character was changed to a busboy-turned-nightclub-singer caught between competing owners and two very different women. Of the latter, Carolyn Jones — heavily into that “kookie” phase that defined her entire career — is a bag of neuroses as mistress to the drunken nasty one of the two club rivals (Walter Matthau in one of the best of his early movie roles). The other woman is a dreamboat “nice girl” played by Dolores Hart, still my absolute favorite of that era’s newcomers, lover of porcelain beauty that I am. Working the counter at a local five-and-dime, she seems surprisingly OK with wanting to date Elvis, even though she’s the one employee who picks up on the fact that his singing-troubadour stroll through the store for the customer’s enjoyment is in reality an planned distraction so that his so-called colleagues ran rifle the joint.

Ahhhhhh, Sister Dolores, who is what Hart became after leaving Hollywood to become a nun in the early ’60s, but that’s for another time. Other than to note that this was the second time she’d performed heart-melting labors in an Elvis pic, following the previous year’s Loving You (which, by the way, is in VistaVision and badly needs a restoration.)

Elvis has, as they used to say, “fallen in with a bad lot” — partly in response to his proclivity for being forbidden from graduating from high school (this time, he pops a guy on school grounds before the very last day of classes). And partly in response to the lifelong wimp-dom of his pharmacist father (Dean Jagger), which was exacerbated by the death of the Elvis character’s mother, which led to the loss of the old man’s pharmacy and his worsening life reality of taking the worst kind of guff from everyone. (Including his new boss, something that Elvis covertly witnesses. This is after dad preaches unyielding adherence to the idea of graduation from school in lieu of the much bigger bucks his son can make headlining as a singer. Elvis sees how far that got him.

Of course, he’s hardly a headliner right off the bat and has to take patronizing guff himself of the kind busboys sometimes endure — until, in standard showbiz movie fashion, Matthau tries to humiliate him by asking him to sing for the customers, whereupon he’s a smash. At this point, what has been a straight drama becomes a drama with lots of music — too much for my taste, given that the score has its share of clunkers. Oddly, the tune that RCA Victor elected to release as an RCA Victor single — “Hard Headed Woman” (b/w “Don’t Leave Me Now”) is totally thrown away, though it went to No. 1, as did the soundtrack LP. Of course, this isn’t to say that winners don’t abound as well, including the title tune, also “Trouble” (which he reprised to kick off his 1968 comeback TV special), and “As Long As I Have You,” one his best ballads ever, which contributes to one of the most emotionally satisfying movie wrap-ups I know.

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Man, no wonder this is Elvis’ longest picture because his sister is falling for Matthau’s owner rival (Paul Stewart) despite a 20-year age difference (I love it that no one in those days, morals police or otherwise, gave a damn). To say nothing of mistress Jones going off the rails increasingly by minute, Matthau now trying to pimp her out, a needless production number by Liliane Montevecci, whose big-screen appeal I never got, and Elvis’s punk buddies (led by a very young-looking Vic Morrow) back in the alley with weaponized broken bottles trying to reengage him in crime. Maybe this is an argument for staying in school, but the money is suddenly good.

Directing this is veteran onetime superstar Michael Curtiz, whose career kind of fell apart after the collapse of the studio system, but he did manage White Christmas, this semi-ringer and my very soft spot for swan song The Comancheros, but by that time Curtiz was dying, and star John Wayne reportedly took over as director. Elvis responded with enthusiasm to having a name filmmaker, and both the star’s smirkily amused reactions to Jones’s machinations and reciprocated affection are credible. As natural as Elvis’s raw talent was, I doubt if frequent director and career-long albatross Norman Taurog could have gotten nearly as much out of him.

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For the launch of “Paramount Presents,” its sparse so-called Blu-ray “line,” Paramount has employed my old bud Leonard Maltin to give about a seven-minute overview — a pro job, obviously, but hardly an example of hoopla. He opines himself that this is Elvis’ best movie, but by a sliver-and-a-half, I think I’ll go with the second movie he made back from the army (Don Siegel’s Flaming Star), which was a commercial flop but tighter.

King Creole was Elvis’s only predominantly serious drama to catch on and sent him off to the army with great screen promise that Colonel Parker ultimately wouldn’t let him fulfill upon his return.

Mike’s Picks: ‘King Creole’ and ‘Destry Rides Again’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Tin Cup’ and ‘The General Died at Dawn’

Tin Cup

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $21.99 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for language and brief nudity.
Stars Kevin Costner, Rene Russo, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson.
1996. A golf-backdropped romantic comedy directed and co-written by Ron Shelton, Tin Cup was about as popular at the box office as the filmmaker’s breakthrough Bull Durham, yet it isn’t talked about as much these days — perhaps due to Durham’s extraordinarily sustained shelf life as a movie that really caught on in the home market.
Read the Full Review

The General Died at Dawn

Kino Lorber, Thriller, $24.95 Blu-ray, Not rated.
Stars Gary Cooper, Madeleine Carroll, Akim Tamiroff, Porter Hall, William Frawley.
1936.
As a standout film or close in the borderline screen career of Lewis Milestone that additionally features the first screenplay of playwright Clifford Odets’ career, The General Died at Dawn has more going for it than the cosmetic magnitude of its two impossible-looking lead actors captured here in a new 4K mastering that shows how great ’30s Paramounts used to look.
Extras: Historians Lee Gambin and Rutanya Alda share the Blu-ray commentary.
Read the Full Review

 

 

Tin Cup

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Comedy;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for language and brief nudity.
Stars Kevin Costner, Rene Russo, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson.

A kind of shaggy dog or shaggy bogey or shaggy something golf backdropped romantic comedy directed and co-written by Ron Shelton, 1996’s Tin Cup was about as popular at the box office as the filmmaker’s breakthrough Bull Durham, yet it isn’t talked about as much these days — perhaps due to Durham’s extraordinarily sustained shelf life as a movie that really caught on in the home market. It’s long and a little lumpy, but it’s my favorite golf film out of a limited pool, despite my decades of boundless affection for Martin & Lewis in The Caddy, which is the picture from which I caught the movie bug in 1953.

For one thing, it has one of the greatest premises for a romantic comedy that I’ve ever seen, as a practitioner of the No. 1 head game in sports (Kevin Costner) falls for a clinical psychologist (Rene Russo). I see that one of those cretins you sometimes see posting on IMDb.com said he didn’t like the picture because Russo didn’t act anything like real people in the profession do, but one of the key points here is that the latter has knocked around in sales and other professions before getting her certification and is hardly to the profession born. What’s more, if she weren’t in her own way as flakey as Costner, their relationship could never get past the opening tee shot, which it barely does, anyway.

The setting is a West Texas driving rage that Costner operates and lives in sub-meagerly. I won’t say it’s out in the middle of nowhere, but you somehow know it isn’t a good sign when the logo on his establishment’s sign is an armadillo. Once a promising college golfer at the University of Houston, Costner has gone to professional seed over his habit of playing recklessly and his congenital refusal to follow the advice even of his caddy and all but live-in friend (Cheech Marin, in the best screen role he’s ever had aside from maybe parts in the earliest Cheech & Chong vehicles). Meanwhile, Costner’s chief college rival (a never-better Don Johnson) has become a name pro on the circuit. Those two are not dissimilar physical types, but I can’t tell if Shelton is trying to construct an alter ego thing or not.

Russo, who has a history of “following boyfriends” to wherever they are geographically, shows up at the range for golf lessons — and though this isn’t divulged right away, her current squeeze is a golfer who happens to be … well, guess. She can barely hit the ball when teeing off, so Costner has a lot of work to do, including polishing his faltering romantic patter. His familiar formulas aren’t working, partly because Russo sees right through him. She’s also too slow in picking up on the fact, which Costner fully knows from their long history, that super-slick Johnson is about as sincere as, say, Jim Bakker.

This is all an entertaining setup for what happens when Costner elects to attempt entry to the U.S. Open, which literally is “open” to any golfer who can qualify for entry — which, among other things, means not playing like a highly talented madman. This would encompass not intentionally snapping clubs like wishbones, using a 7-iron when it’s an eccentric choice for the shot and insulting your longtime caddy to the point where he walks off the course. Still, aside from the caddy part, Costner makes it work for him up to a point, though his behavior keeps adding strokes to a score and blowing what ought to be a cushion after he’s hit a hot streak.

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The wide open settings of the movie’s second half are a photogenic contrast to the first, which spends a lot of time in and around the mold culture where Costner lives, works and has even had surprising success with women in the past, though none of them with Russo’s at least relative polish. There are at least a couple standout set pieces, the first being an incredible bet that Costner sets up in a bar on the tour, which involves a long drive through a narrow doorway and over a body of water to attempt an odds-defying feat.

The other one is simply terrific — a scene I’ve never forgotten and one I was highly anxious to see again. It involves Costner’s death-wish attempt to reach the green over (again) a body of water, and it isn’t pretty, yet ultimately, it’s jammed with grandeur — the kind sports fans will talk about for decades when the actual winner of the tournament will be a fuzzy memory except for those who qualify as the hard core.

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All four leads really deliver in form-fitting roles, and though he wasn’t awarded top spot, Costner was one of three more to win a citation as best actor for 1996 from the New York Film Critics circle. He apparently had to be coached heavily to look like a competitive golfer, but he is such a good athlete in general (and a heavily skilled baseball player) that to my eye, at least, he looks convincing.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Tin Cup’ and ‘The General Died at Dawn’

The General Died at Dawn

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Thriller;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Gary Cooper, Madeleine Carroll, Akim Tamiroff, Porter Hall, William Frawley.

As a standout film or close in the borderline screen career of Lewis Milestone that additionally features the first screenplay of playwright Clifford Odets’ career, 1936’s The General Died at Dawn has more going for it than the cosmetic magnitude of its two impossible-looking lead actors captured here in a new 4K mastering that shows how great ’30s Paramounts used to look. But let’s face it: most people who see this prime example of the kind of adventure film that used to be called “crackling” will exit marveling the rarely paralleled looks of its co-stars.

We have 30-year superstar Gary Cooper, who as a woman friend said to me multiple times: “He was a great-looking young man and a great-looking old one.” Opposite him is Madeleine Carroll, whose career was cut short for personal rather than professional reasons, but for frame of reference, this was her first Hollywood movie since scoring a huge international success the year before with Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. In other words, we are on the level here of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, and Alain Delon and Roxy Schneider in anything. Add to this Akim Tamiroff’s not underserving Oscar-nominated supporting performance from the first year the Academy ever awarded them, and you’ve something — though Tamiroff is under so much Chinese warlord makeup that it could be Ronald Colman under there.

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Not to equate it with one of my favorite movies of all time, but Dawn’s portrayal of an American caught up in exotic Chinese locales captures my imagination a bit like Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles does. One huge difference, though, is that Steve McQueen’s character in Pebbles (his greatest performance) is a green forced Navy enlistee who’s in way over his head when it comes to political machinations he doesn’t understand. Cooper, by contrast, is older, savvier and knows what’s going on with warlords’ exploitation of peasants all too well. It would be wrong to call him merely a mercenary because he believes strongly in the peasants’ cause and really wants to stick it Tamiroff (as “General Yang”). And he knows where the money is necessary to plot an insurrection.

One place is in his possession, the peasants having scraped together everything they have (a la Seven Sumurai or The Magnificent Seven) to fight Yang in their own modest way and placed in Cooper’s possession. Unfortunately, too many others (not the most savory bunch) know Cooper has it somewhere and are trying to get their grubby hands on it. One of these is a gunrunner and middle-man played by, of all people, William Frawley, prepped to take the money by arrangement with Cooper and instructed to sell to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, he is a hopeless drunk: Fred Mertz practically in the gutter.

Another is an American with not long to live and played Porter Hall in one of his prototypical wormy roles. Though a couple years before he died, Hall did deliver one of best performances (thanks in part to Billy Wilder’s flawless casting instincts) in a highly sympathetic role as the Albuquerque newspaper editor who makes the bad decision to hire reporter Kirk Douglas (and is it ever) in the Wilder masterpiece Ace in the Hole). Hall is traveling with daughter Carroll — though there were one or two stray lines of dialogue that made me wonder if this were true (I may have missed, or misinterpreted, something).

Naturally, Carroll’s instantaneous good vibrations with Cooper complicates things, which initially leads to no small amount of intrigue on a train. A curiosity here is the surprise appearance, as a reporter, of John O’Hara — a novelist who’s out fashion these days other than his short stories, though I still like him. In any event, his appearance here was close enough in proximity to his first and best novel Appointment in Samarra (1934), which even his detractors give him, so this would have been a fun casting coup for the year. Eventually, Cooper (whose character name is also named “O’Hara”) ends up on Yang’s ship, which is impressively shot by an Oscar-nominated Victor Milner. The two key antagonists here don’t have any perversely tortured liking for each other, but Cooper/O’Hara knows how to press Tamiroff/Yang’s buttons, while Yang at least thinks he knows how to press O’Hara’s.

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Historians Lee Gambin and Rutanya Alda share the Blu-ray commentary, and one thing they touch upon is Odets “going Hollywood” over the purity of the theater, or so said detractors who preferred to grouse on the sidelines instead of accepting work during tough times. This kind of thing plagued Odets throughout his career, but fairly late in the game he became the dominant writer of Sweet Smell of Success — and, say, what have you done lately? The director here was Lewis Milestone, who though he never topped the still very powerful All Quiet on the Western Front, did have other successes or near-misses of interest throughout the 1930s, through, say, 1949’s The Red Pony. His direction is creative, and even the opening credits are novel for their day. My mother told me Dawn was one of the favorite movies of her early adolescence, and I remember watching it with her in the early 1960s on the late show.

In the ’50s, Milestone’s career completely went to hell, a possible exception being Pork Chop Hill, but it’s been too many decades since I last saw it to say for sure. In terms of features, he ended up trying to direct the Rat Pack and then Marlon Brando at his most career-killing (for a long while) impossible — not a fate I’d recommend for those easygoing twilight years.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Tin Cup’ and ‘The General Died at Dawn’

Mike’s Picks: “Murder, He Says” and “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project”

Murder, He Says

Street Date 4/7/20
Kino Lorber, Comedy, $24.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Fred MacMurray, Helen Walker, Marjorie Main, Jean Heather, Porter Hall.
1945.
Fred MacMurray gives what may be the top comic performance of his long and still underrated career in Murder, He Says, a twisted Hollywood comedy that gets a 4K spiff-up for Blu-ray.
Extras: Includes a voiceover commentary by producer/writer Michael Schlesinger and film archivist Stan Taffel.
Read the Full Review

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

Kino/Zeitgeist, Documentary, B.O. $0.06 million, $29.95 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray, NR.
2019. There’s almost certainly a link between a certain kind of genius and a certain kind of madness, which is one of the themes of Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project — director Matt Wolf’s graphically sophisticated documentary about a most unusual woman who was on a mission.
Extras: The Blu-ray includes a commentary by Wolf, interviews, and episodes of a public access talk show hosted by Marion Stokes.
Read the Full Review

Murder, He Says

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 4/7/20;
Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Fred MacMurray, Helen Walker, Marjorie Main, Jean Heather, Porter Hall.

Other than 1948’s Miss Tatlock’s Millions, which falls just short of being a brother-sister incest farce while getting all jocular about mental illness, Murder, He Says is the most twisted Hollywood comedy I know from the 1940s. This raises an interesting question of why almost all the funniest ’40s comedies I know — both of the above, the Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder libraries, the “Roads” to Morocco, Utopia and Rio — were all from Paramount, but that’s a question for another day. (The Lubitsch’s at other studios would be an exception, though they’re less gut-busting than charming on historical levels.)

Very little about 1945’s Murder, or at least its characters, has been to charm school — starting with the murder of an innocent party that’s played for laughs when it’s not being simply shoved under the narrative rug. There’s also a near-psychopath matriarch who frequently and brutally takes a whip to her imbecilic twin sons; the promiscuous use of firearms in an indoor setting by half the cast; and the played-for-laughs radioactive poisoning that makes as many of them glow, developed by the latest husband of the whip-wielding mom. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t all take place on an Ivy League campus but in backwoods Arkansas, where a rep from a national poll studying rural living makes the mistake of riding his bike onto the property of this inbred-acting array.

Fred MacMurray plays this poor sap in what I’d rate as the top comic performance of his long and still underrated career (The Apartment is, of course, a masterpiece, but he’s mostly a no-joke total heel in that one). His timing is flawless when he has to react about once a second to the mayhem going on around him. The supporting cast, which includes Marjorie Main as “Ma,” is in the same class, including one major acting surprise. And voiceover bonus commentary by producer/writer Michael Schlesinger and film archivist Stan Taffel speculate that Main’s work here might have encouraged MacMurray to get her cast a couple years later in The Egg and I, a huge hit for Universal-International and the movie that launched the Ma & Pa Kettle series (I remember when it was theatrically issued in the summer of 1954, which only the biggest box office wave-makers were in those days).

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Getting back to Murder, which gets a 4K spiff-up here, MacMurray shows up at the sub-ramshackle house as part of his job — and to see if he can figure out what happened to the work colleague who preceded him and was not heard from again (good luck on that one). Instead, he’s accosted on the way by one of the twins; they’re Mert and Bert, and Peter Whitney nails both roles, abetted by some of the best matte work of the era. All the blood relations here seem to be products of Ma Barker’s gene pool, and the source of constant conflict here is the whereabouts of 70 grand from some long-ago family crime spree that’s supposedly hidden somewhere in the house. Grandma (Mabel Paige) knows the elusive location, but she’s on her death bed — and even in her better days was always “tetched.” The only hint is a few musical notes that result in nothing when they’re hummed and a few accompanying lyrics of gibberish that make about as much sense.

Nobody in the family trusts any other member, and this extends to poor MacMurray, who would have been better off lobbying his superiors to handle the Death Valley polling territory. Matters get more complicated when the family member who pulled off the robbery escapes from jail and shows up to mount her own money search. The tragic Helen Walker has this role, and it’s obvious before very long that she’s an imposter with her own agenda, and like very few other people here, is “normal.

Two Hollywood hopefuls in the cast all but had their careers ended by auto mishaps. Jean Heather, who, despite noteworthy appearances in both Going My Way and Double Indemnity, basically came out of career nowhere here to go all the way thoroughly “nailing” the family’s one likable character, who, alas, may be even more tetched than grandma. In real life, beautiful Heather got thrown from a car and disfigured, and made her final screen appearance in a 1949 ‘B’ Western.

The decline of Walker, who’d scored in a high-profile co-lead in her first picture, was more protracted but possibly more of a nightmare. She picked up three soldier hitchhikers on New Year’s Eve of 1946, and when she flipped the car, one of them was killed and the other two badly injured. The survivors charged drunkenness, and the messy trial that resulted cleared her criminally but resulted in career-wrecking publicity. She worked intermittently after that, but after good supporting roles in a couple well-regarded 20th Century-Fox noirs, it was a steep toboggan ride for her. Commentators Schlesinger and Taffel may be too gentlemanly to mention it, but at least at some point, alcohol was indeed a debilitating problem with her. In her final big-screen appearance (The Big Combo), it clearly shows on her face.

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The director here was George Marshall, who spent a 56-year career mixing bombs, god-awfuls, nonentities and several indisputably enjoyable “entertainments” without ever making a really great movie or major factor in any title’s applicable movie year, other than Destry Rides Again (coming soon from Criterion). Schlesinger and Taffel are quite enamored of him in their appropriately breezy mix of the jocular and informative, though one of them claims that Marshall directed three of the five episodes in “How the West Was Won” when it was Henry Hathaway who did (Marshall only directed “The Railroads,” which is the weakest of the quintet). The actors’ dexterity here is so keen throughout that one has to assume that Marshall definitely deserves his share of the praise, especially with the younger players. But even at 94 minutes, the action gets a little labored in the final going before it’s yanked with vigor back into the plus side by a terrifically clever barn-set finale. The script, but the way, is co-written by Lou Breslow, who also penned a comedy that I’ve  coincidentally been watching as we speak, It was 1950’s Never a Dull Moment, in which MacMurray weds and drags the incomparable Irene Dunne to his struggling farm, and this city-dweller begins living a kind of Green Acres existence,

Ultimately, the standout takeaway is that I can’t immediately think of another comedy that’s anything like it — and certainly not from the 1940s — though the commentary notes its warped link with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I suspect Paramount is the only studio that would have attempted it at the time because they really had a flair for off-center farces. I can just see a horrified Louis B. Mayer seeing it at an industry screening and immediately putting out a directive for MGM to speed up development on Love Laughs at Andy Hardy.

Mike’s Picks: “Murder, He Says” and “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project”

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino/Zeitgeist;
Documentary;
Box Office: $0.06 million;
$29.95 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.

There’s almost certainly a link between a certain kind of genius and a certain kind of madness, which is one of the themes of Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project — director Matt Wolf’s graphically sophisticated documentary about a most unusual woman who was on a mission. Though at times, even Stokes herself might have wondered what it was, exactly, despite lucking out posthumously in ways that now invite cautious reverence, at least from researchers and chroniclers of relatively recent lost history. The last involves the period between the mid/late 1970s and the Sandy Hook massacre, which occurred on the day she died.

African-American Stokes came from enough Philadelphia money to stoke her undertaking — and then her ground-floor purchase of Apple stock (Steve Jobs was one of her eclectic but intense passions) set her up for about 50 lives’ worth of funds. This abetted her recording of everything off the air with the first of countless VCRs —  though initially, she  began more modestly, with sitcoms like “All in the Family” and especially the original TV incarnation of “Star Trek,” whose melting-pot crew and its relative communal status appealed to her extreme Left-ish political beliefs. Actually, she was a full-fledged member of the Communist Party, so despite her arguable genius, she had her limitations — serving both as a key player in the post-Revolution “Fair Play for Cuba” Committee (now there’s a blast from the past) and an unsuccessful attempt to move with her first husband to Cuba.

The turning point was the Iran Crisis and the launching of ABC-TV’s “Nightline” with Ted Koppel, whose surprising success against Johnny Carson and other fun-oriented late-nights anticipated 24-hour news stations — as well as the blurring between straight reportage and the ratings benefits accrued from turning political events into a kind of sophisticated daily mini-series. Stokes was extremely savvy on this kind of thing, which included the “coloring” of the news. She not incorrectly sensed, from what she was recording and watching, that the seized hostages in the Iran affair almost certainly had to include CIA personnel. What bothers me some about this is that all governments have agendas and always have — the way that most humans do unless they’re a little on the simple side. This is definitely dog-bites-man material.

Earlier, Stokes herself had hosted a Philadelphia political talk show that looks like public access but may have had a network-affiliate public service connection. A couple of those episodes are included as a Blu-ray bonus via what, like the Stokes archival project itself, is a miracle of preservation taken from long outdated technology. In it, she shows herself to be a good listener to guests invited on for their diverse points of view — a trait she didn’t display toward anyone in her family. An exception to this may or may not have been John Stokes, the professional partner and co-host of her show who became husband No. 2. A white patrician who later benefitted as well from that early Apple stock purchase, he left his wife (for good) and daughters (mostly for good) to devote his now-reclusive entire life to Marion. He’s the kind of guy of whom my Marine D.I. father like to describe as “for someone his age, he’s not wired together right.” But, hey: We live in a pluralistic society.

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Good listening wasn’t a trait that extended to Stokes’s family life, and she made things miserable for her ultimately devoted chauffeur and personal assistant (both interviewed here) whose main job was to record — all the time. She made life impossible for her son from marriage No. 1 (Michael Metelis), even though he was a really good kid and smart as hell in ways that were too conventional for her (she owned somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000  books and read them). She had husband Stokes so cowed that when one of his daughters stalked him into having a brief conversation in the park, he implored her not to tell Marion.

Ultimately, she amassed 140,000 VHS tapes and was wealthy enough that she could store them in her apartments, leaving more room to pack-rat other possessions. Someone here makes the interesting and credible observation that hoarders keep what no one else wants, while collectors stockpile rare treasures that somebody somewhere would likely covet. In terms of her recordings, at least, she was in the latter category, and her collection of national and local coverage of racially motivated police brutality can almost stand alone. But in terms of “mission,’’ she was working with outdated technology on its way to becoming all but permanently unavailable, which meant time wasn’t on her side.

After her death, her son very eventually found the Internet Archive, which was probably the only place capable of copying this trove. Director Wolf comes up with some exceptionally impressive visuals that capture the true scope of Marion’s combined holdings when boxed up, to say nothing of lifting a full clip history of Stokes’s chronicled era, which even includes sporting events and the kind of oddballs who used to appear daily on Phil Donahue’s show. My favorite one splits the screen into four sections to show us simultaneous real-time footage of how quickly NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox were to interrupt the usual morning-show business to cut to the first plane hitting the first WTC tower on 9/11.

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Director Wolf caught a major break when son Michael turned out to be so smart, articulate, philosophical and finally loving of his mother after a very difficult upbringing that many people wouldn’t have survived. That he can relate the personal-story part of the documentary with such objective clarity frees up Wolf’s very fine commentary to concentrate not exclusively but primarily on the technical and labor-intensive efforts by Stokes, himself and the Internet Archive to make the material a reality — and into a viable format.

On a work-obsession level, Project reminds me a little of Finding Vivian Maier, the doc about the American street photographer whose holdings proved to be amazing after she died. As a portrait of an exceptional talent incurring misery on her family while fighting her own demons, it reminds me a little of Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone?, the Oscar-nominated and exceptionally great portrait of its “Miss” (Nina Simone). But due to the specialized achievement of its subject, Project kind if stands alone, even though Stokes had one of those personalities that no one will be fully able to read.

Mike’s Picks: “Murder, He Says” and “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project”