Mike’s Picks: ‘Sammy Davis, Jr. — I’ve Gotta Be Me’ and ‘Beat the Devil’

American Masters: Sammy Davis, Jr. — I’ve Gotta Be Me

Street Date 2/19/19
PBS, Documentary, $24.99 DVD, NR.
Featuring Kim Novak, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Norman Lear, Jerry Lewis.
2019.
Neatly dividing its subject’s life into chapters that reflected the dimensions of his career (singer, dancer, social progressive, social regressive, etc.), Sam Pollard’s documentary hits the expected bases we remember from past print biographies, press coverage and, in some cases, scandal sheets of the day.
Read the Full Review

Beat the Devil

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley.
1953. As one of screen history’s most ticklish of answers to that oft-asked question, “What did you do on your vacation?”, John Huston’s artfully ramshackle Beat the Devil is propelled by one its era’s most memorable displays of loopy ensemble acting.
Extras: It’s poignant hearing bonus-section commentator and Twilight Time co-founder Nick Redman talking here of Humphrey Bogart’s final days, given that Redman himself succumbed to cancer on Jan 17.
Read the Full Review

American Masters: Sammy Davis, Jr. — I’ve Gotta Be Me

DVD REVIEW:

Street Date 2/19/19;
PBS;
Documentary;
$24.99 DVD;
Not rated.
Featuring Kim Novak, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Norman Lear, Jerry Lewis.

Finding a bigger Rat Pack fan than I during that assemblage’s roughly 1960-64 heyday was no easy assignment, so Sammy Davis Jr., always got a pass from me despite my general lack of enthusiasm for performers who feel they had to wear jewelry stores to the car wash or the proctologist. Of course, prodigious talent helped, and Davis kept surprising me — per, just as one example, my fairly late discovery of his astonishing early tap dancing mastery in the 1933 short subject Rufus Jones for President, which featured him at age 7. How in the world does anyone manage to steal a piece of film from Rufus co-star Ethel Waters when even Julie Harris couldn’t quite do it herself?

On the other hand — and this is way before Davis’s embrace (both figuratively and literally) of Richard Nixon — Davis was also the epitome of that forced “professional show business” ethos that the early cast members of “Saturday Night Live” would later have so much fun putting down. Jerry Lewis and Bobby Darin were culprits as well on this count, but Davis was the worst, telling audiences that he would sing his next tune to them “with their kind permission.” So as early as early junior high, my waggish buds and I would always riff on this, telling each other that we were about to hit the men’s room “with your kind permission” or that we fantasized about placing a palm up some classmate’s cheerleader outfit “with her kind permission.”

This is all coming off harsher than intended, especially since we now have a standout entry in PBS’s reliably socko “American Masters” series to make the case that its subject earned the right to indulge in the kind of stylistic excesses that defined him, including enough jewelry to provide Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly with breakfasts forever. A black man through and through whose racial bullying and much worse in the army proved the point just by itself, Davis was an undeniable civil rights symbol who gained co-equal stature to share the Vegas stage — and also several larkish movies — with Frank, Dino, Joey and (for a while, Peter Lawford). Only later did it sink in that Davis was not always but too often the butt of the joke in ways the others were never quite.

Neatly dividing its subject’s life into chapters that reflected the dimensions of his career (singer, dancer, social progressive, social regressive, etc.), Sam Pollard’s documentary hits the expected bases we remember from past print biographies, press coverage and, in some cases, scandal sheets of the day including Confidential. These would include his show biz apprenticeship under “Uncle” Will Mastin (who was actually his godfather); the army experiences; the loss of his left eye in a 1954 auto accident; and his secret romance with Columbia Pictures’ top printer of money (Kim Novak), which sparked Columbia chief Harry Cohn to put a contract out on Davis if he didn’t marry a black woman — make that any black woman — within two days, which happened. I remember being so shocked at age 10 by the last when my grandmother told me that I didn’t believe it for years. Later, white co-star Paula Wayne talks about what she herself had to endure from kissing Davis in the 1964 stage production of Golden Boy.

Davis idolized Sinatra, and some say wanted to be Sinatra, and when Davis lost the eye, his idol spent one-on-one time with him trying to teach him how to pour water from a pot or decanter into a glass. Sinatra honored Davis by allowing him into the Rat Pack (though it’s tough even imagining that bunch without him) — yet at this height of his career Davis still had to reside off the Vegas Strip and in a boarding house on the dusty side of town, as all black performers did. Not covered here is the episode in which Davis said something in an interview that riled Frank, who then jettisoned him from playing what ultimately became the Steve McQueen role (big break there) in 1959’s Never So Few. Very much mentioned is the how Davis’s post-election late 1960 marriage to white actress May Britt resulted in his being bounced from performing at the JFK Inaugural gala that Sinatra produced. These were the times, and Republicans (already ready to make trouble over the election outcome) would have made hay, especially given that interracial marriage was still illegal in several states.

A key point of the doc is how Davis was color blind in how he treated people, which tended to make him tone deaf when it came to all the societal upheavals in the ’60s. Nixon seemed to be genuinely intrigued by Davis as a person but also cynically thought the performer could be used to attract a voting demographic that mostly loathed him. So, here we have footage of Davis entertaining the troops in South Vietnam and performing “The Candy Man” at a White House invitational before a bunch of ancient Republicans, the way Bob Hope used to do. Superfly this was not, and though there’s ample footage here to prove that Davis could totally charm audiences of all political persuasions prepared not to like him, Nixon fairly well dropped Davis when he realized the star was going out of fashion. The key shot at the White House show is an overhead one of tuxed-up white guys with their sea of bald domes photographed from the back and listening to “The Candy Man.”

Still, give me that voice, which has more power than I’ve ever heard coming out of someone that physically diminutive (a lot of people must have been envious at how completely Davis always kept the weight off). He was also, from the beginning, such a dancer that on a TV clip from very near the end of his life, Gregory Hines is able to pull him out of his audience seat for a duet when just a perfunctory tap or two would serve the situation and make us grateful he didn’t die on stage. Instead, we get something pretty close to the Full Sammy with no apologies needed as time momentarily stands still.

To this point, Davis was on TV a lot in the final couple decades of his career, so a lot of good and representative footage exists both of him and his time-capsule wardrobes. This really gives the doc a boost, though the interviews are good, too — and especially the ones with singer/actress Wayne, who got on the record for director Sam Pollard before his death just last November. Gotta writer Laurence Maison has a background in show biz docs, while Pollard has a heavy resumé in socially conscious race docs, including a couple for Spike Lee — a simpatico mix in theory. Pollard also directed the very fine “American Masters” on John Wayne and John Ford from 2006, so you can’t say he isn’t working from a diversified portfolio.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Sammy Davis, Jr. — I’ve Gotta Be Me’ and ‘Beat the Devil’

Beat the Devil

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley.

As one of screen history’s most ticklish of  answers to that oft-asked question, “What did you do on your vacation?”, John Huston’s artfully ramshackle Beat the Devil is propelled by one its era’s most memorable displays of loopy ensemble acting. Which is somewhat surprising given that its top-billed actor was Humphrey Bogart, a superstar of (still) nearly singular status who, by the way, seems really relaxed here. Of course, at this point, the grosses were a long way from coming in.

A flop that became one of the all-time cult movies in about the time, say, it takes to complete a sports season, Devil was the final of six collaborations between Bogart and director John Huston, the previous of which had won Bogart his Oscar (The African Queen) in one of history’s most competitive best-actor years. Devil did not win Oscars, and, in fact, wasn’t even shown that much during its brief March 1954 U.S. run following engagements in London and Italy near the end of ’53. Bogart himself was no fan of it, and I once read a quote where he supposedly said, “Only the phonies like it.” Of course, he had a lot of his own money in the picture, which one has to speculate may have affected his love quotient.

Devil is sometimes called the first spoof of macho adventure movies, but it really doesn’t feel like a spoof of anything — and what’s more, 1951’s His Kind of Woman had already completed the assignment in far more direct fashion. Nor does it really take The Maltese Falcon (which had been a dual Huston-Bogart breakthrough a dozen years earlier) and turn it on its ear. Though this said, Falcon-like echoes can’t help but carry at least some volume here, what with the casting of (a blond) Peter Lorre and the fact that once again, we have nefarious ragtags (plus, in this case, a couple pseudo-polished types) who get embroiled in a shifty scheme they hope will make them rich, as good-guy Bogart tries to figure out how to clean up the mess or, failing that, look out for himself.

Not that he’s any Sam Spade here. A onetime rolling-in-dough type with a voluptuous young wife (Gina Lollobrigida speaking at times phonetically in her first English-language film) — Bogart is now just trying to pay his hotel bill in a no-future, if gorgeous, Italian total town (location site Ravello, photographed by the great Oswald Morris, before tourists took it over). To this end, he’s become a wary associate of physically ill-matched Lorre, scene-stealing Ivor Bernard, Marco Tulli and Robert Morley — the last an actor who, if we’re in a comedy) merely has to walk into a room before I start to guffaw.

This was the ’50s, and even the Bowery Boys (see 1955’s Dig That Uranium) were after you-know-what. So to this mix — all awaiting ship’s passage to British East Africa and some (hopefully) rich deposits — we add an almost aggressively strange couple with severe delusions of grandeur: he a proper Englishman who can’t quite camouflage his modest roots (Edward Underdown); and she a dizzy blonde who gives the impression that the combined label text on her prescription bottles might equal that of any three James Michener novels. Totally nailing this role is Jennifer Jones, an actress became difficult to cast after the 1940s and often seemed too old or otherwise less than ideal for her choice of projects.

But in this case, Jones gives us a thoroughly entertaining nut job who unloads more lies than Donald Trump, though in a way that makes you want to pat her on her head. Until I can finally get around to giving a second viewing to her star-making The Song of Bernadette and its seemingly 87-hour running time for the first time since the early ’60s, I’d have to say that Devil has my favorite Jones performance, along with her Since You Went Away, Love Letters, Portrait of Jennie and maybe (after I see the coming Kino Classics Blu-ray) Gone to Earth, which executive producer Selznick took from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and basically destroyed in the editing for U.S. audiences.

Devil, too, has always been editorially mangled — but before we get to that, remember the creative team in a production so “loose” that Stephen Sondheim (all but young enough to have been wearing swaddling clothes) was operating the clapper board. James Helvick was the walking pseudonym who wrote the source novel but was actually Claud Coburn, a Lefty Brit journalist who so needed the movie sale that he apparently left copies of the book all over his residence when Huston came to visit; it’s one of the stories repeated in a Twilight Time interview featurette with the late Alexander Cockburn, who ended up being cut from the same political/professional cloth as his father. Huston “usual suspects” Anthony Veiller and Peter Viertel took a crack at the screenplay, but it ultimately got credited to Huston and, of all people, Truman Capote, who (as folklore has it) fought Bogart to a draw in hand-wresting challenges on the set. I also once read — somewhere — that there were touch football games between set-ups (though with this movie, it might have been during) on the set. Though I take this assertion with a grain, the image of “Go out for a long one, Truman” or “Can you manage a flea flicker, Bob?” has always stayed with me.

The version of Devil that almost everyone has seen up to now was cut by about five minutes; scenes were slightly shuffled and a voiceover added, all to Huston’s disdain. All the dreadful public domain-level releases on the home market have been of this standard issue, but Twilight Time’s release is of the recent restoration in which many archives had a hand. It gets the running time back to normal, scuttles the voiceover and puts a crucial, narrative-improving scene up front where it belongs: burning in at once that the Jones character is a certain kind of two-syllable crazy, whose first syllable is “bat.” And because this is a crisp 4K mastering of a newly restored print, we can see (not that this is necessarily a plus), actor wig and hairpiece telltales as well as Bogart’s new bridgework that repaired severe damage after he knocked out several teeth in an auto mishap either just before or during shooting.

To me, Beat the Devil has always marked the beginning of Bogart’s astonishingly productive final period: eight high-profile features from late ’53 through mid-’56 plus NBC’s live 90-minute broadcast of him in The Petrified Forest in May 1955. He was probably sick through all of it, and by January 1957 he was gone. So I have to say that it’s poignant hearing bonus-section commentator and Twilight Time co-founder Nick Redman talking here of Bogart’s final days, given that Redman himself succumbed to cancer on Jan 17.

Joined on the commentary by wife Julie Kirgo, whose TT liner notes I love, and their longtime compadre Lem Dobbs, the great Nick (my son’s name, too) does sound fatigued — though every late photo I’ve seen of him still showed off that eye twinkle. An Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker who celebrated Sam Peckinpah and John Ford, plus a soundtrack producer as well, Redman began our strictly-by-correspondence relationship decades ago by calling me at USA Today out of the blue about something. It was an invigorating yak-fest, and after hanging up, I couldn’t figure out why he was so warm and gracious to me. Then, many years later, I found out that he was warm and gracious to everyone. So, I’ll miss you, man — and if I ever get a couple goldfish (about my speed these days), I promise to name them Lyle and Tector in your honor.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Sammy Davis, Jr. — I’ve Gotta Be Me’ and ‘Beat the Devil’

Mike’s Picks: ‘La Verite’ and ‘Men Must Fight’

La Verite (The Truth)

Street 2/12/19
Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Brigitte Bardot, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel, Sami Frey.
1960. A structurally lumpy yet intriguing 128-minute portrayal of murder-trial brutality spun off of tragic events we see played out in extensive flashbacks, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Verite is the movie that proved Brigitte Bardot had real acting chops and then some.
Extras: Clouzot projects a civilized demeanor and pipe-smoking urbanity in two of the three Criterion bonuses, with the third of these going to Bardot in an extraordinary 1982 documentary excerpt where she relives what she had to go through in terms of press scrutiny when her son was born and her second marriage was busting up.
Read the Full Review

 Men Must Fight

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Diana Wynyard, Lewis Stone, Phillips Holmes, Robert Young, May Robson.
1933. Men Must Fight all but anticipates World War II in terms of its eventual London Blitz-type attack on New York City.
Read the Full Review

 

La Verite (The Truth)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 2/12/19
Criterion;
Drama;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Brigitte Bardot, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel, Sami Frey.

Understandably marketed as The Truth when, for obvious reasons, this Columbia Pictures pickup of a 1960 film got wider U.S. distribution in 1961 than most imports, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Verite is the movie that proved Brigitte Bardot had real acting chops and then some — a revelation that apparently had been at least hinted at in 1958’s Love Is My Profession. That Jean Gabin co-starrer is one I’ve yet to see, so I can offer no first-hand ammo, but La Verite’s reception at the time (it was eventually a foreign-language Oscar nominee) is news that even at the time got to my home state Ohio, where both BB’s tease-ish comedies and now this emotion-charged courtroom drama played theaters on the other side of town that were impossible for a young adolescent to reach without wheels. Sometimes we get to these treasures slowly.

A structurally lumpy yet intriguing 128-minute portrayal of murder-trial brutality spun off of tragic events we see played out in extensive flashbacks, La Verite also turned out to be the penultimate film completed by writer-director Clouzot, whose relatively tiny feature output over three-plus decades included Le Corbeau, The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques. Those combined credits alone deserve to get anybody into any exclusive “club” of important filmmakers, even if Francois Truffaut, for one, was pretty vocal about not caring for Clouzot’s style. Oh, well, time passes on, even for auteurists like me, and I’m too old for old arguments these days; pass the Maalox.

As London-based film scholar Ginette Vincendeau emphasizes in her Criterion liner notes, on-set tyrant Clouzot had four female screenwriters collaborating on the script (including his actress-wife Vera, who died at 46 about a month after La Verite opened in France). This has to help explain why the picture has a such a strong feminist bent, though Clouzot notes in one of Criteron’s bonus inclusions of archival interviews that his main purpose here was to note how difficult it is to discover “the truth” when passing judgment on another person. That point is in no ways blunted here, but I was also struck by — like, maybe every 30 seconds or less during the trial scenes — the overwhelming misogyny of nearly everyone involved, save Bardot’s defense attorneys.

She’s on trial for murdering her lover (a breakthrough performance in an emotionally demanding role by Sami Frey), who had previously been engaged to Bardot’s sister (Marie-Jose Nat). A French virgin (speaking of exclusive clubs, if we go solely by PR), the latter does everything by the book, is a dutiful daughter much favored by the two siblings’ parents and for a while, even provides shelter and food for her carefree sister, who can’t even get out of bed to shop for groceries. In other words, Bardot does herself no favors when it comes to any kind of societal support system. She’s sullen, flaunts her great looks to take advantage of men and is not a person one can count on … well, forget in a pinch, but in any situation. Some of this may be chalked up to immaturity; Bardot was 25 or maybe even 26 when she made La Verite, but I wonder if the character as written may have a little younger.

Aspiring symphony conductor Frey is treated sympathetically for much of the movie (he takes a lot of emotionally spent bullets before Bardot follows up by attempting to gas herself on the scene), but his own behavior doesn’t always bear scrutiny. Ambitious and dogged by rehearsals, he should likely stick with his more supportive fianceé (a musician herself) who can take it. Instead, it’s tough not to avoid the thought that he might be using Bardot sexually — and that there’s scant chance that he’s projecting a future where she sit in the balcony as an adoringly dutiful mate as he conducts a Bach concerto. On the other hand, Bardot does have a habit of knocking on his door at 3 a.m. to force him maybe halfway out of pajamaed sleep stupor — only to discover that the knocker is a woman who looks like … Brigitte Bardot. In keeping with the movie’s subtext of examining French jurisprudence, you be the judge.

Again, Clouzot indicated that his intention wasn’t to take on The System here, but even given that it is prosecutors’ roles to make the accused or unfriendly witnesses look as wretched a possible, these men (and they are men — and primarily older ones as well) really pour it in when it comes to the Bardot character’s sexual history. Of course, from all the morally offended clucking from women witnessing all this from the gallery, it appears as if, French or not, this public reaction may be simply reflecting the attitudes of the country’s society as a whole in ’59 and ’60.

In this vein, remember that Bardot’s own love life and the so-called scandals it engendered enabled a lot of fringe show biz journalists to pay their bar tabs at the time — so if we can momentarily substitute the film industry for justice, it all reminds me of Paul Schrader’s recent and very true remark that current movies will get better when audiences do. Atop all this, the film also reinforces the international truism that prosecutors and defenders are frequently friends when they’re out of court and amassing their own bar tabs. At the very end, the predominant opposing attorneys (played by familiar faces and outstanding actors Paul Meurisse and Charles Vanel) note that “next week” they’ll be on opposing sides in another case.

Both actors worked super-memorably with Clouzot before: Vanel as the suicide-mission colleague who gets flattened by Yves Montand’s water-submerged moving truck in Wages — and Meurise as the study in sheer nastiness from Les Diaboliques, which additionally gave Vera Clouzot her one great claim to screen fame in a very limited acting career. Apparently, her husband worked her to the bone when she had a serious real-life heart condition that eventually killed her, and there’s a famous story (reiterated a couple time in the bonus section) where the director slapped Bardot on set to get the right response  — apparently, this was part of his standard directorial repertoire — only to have her slap him back and stomp on his foot. Which apparently improved their relationship.

Still (akin to fellow tyrant Otto Preminger’s alternative self), Clouzot projects a civilized demeanor and pipe-smoking urbanity in two of the three Criterion bonuses, with the third of these going to Bardot in an extraordinary 1982 documentary excerpt where she relives what she had to go through in terms of press scrutiny when her son was born and her second marriage was busting up. The much longer of the two Clouzot profiles is a 2017 doc that covers a lot of early material — including the filmmaker’s temporary postwar banning from industry employment due to having worked for Nazi or Nazi-controlled authorities in making apolitical films during the war. Then he went out and made Le Corbeau, whose heavy criticism of anonymous accusations pleased the Occupational forces not one bit. Apparently, Clouzot liked to do things his own way, including taking on a project as insane as Wages was in the first place.

Addressed some, but not a lot, is Clouzot’s attempt to film L’Enfer (later realized by Claude Chabrol well after Clouzot’s death), which was curtailed after going disastrously over budget amidst a Clouzot heart attack, leaving a lot of tantalizing color footage with intended lead Romy Schneider. Thus, this release, above and beyond its being in 4K for a sterling presentation, makes a bittersweet companion piece to 2009’s Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno — which Arrow Academy released on Blu-ray exactly a year ago and which includes extensive footage from the boxes of shot footage that were eventually unearthed.

Mike’s Picks: ‘La Verite’ and ‘Men Must Fight’

Men Must Fight

DVD REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 DVD;
Not rated.
Stars Diana Wynyard, Lewis Stone, Phillips Holmes, Robert Young, May Robson.

So OK, here’s another political wild one originally released by MGM the same year as Gabriel Over the White House — or wild enough, anyway, to make one wonder if someone at the time was spiking L.B. Mayer’s drinking water when it came to bold screen concepts. Then again, 1933’s Men Must Fight — which all but anticipates World War II in terms of its eventual London Blitz-type attack on New York City — isn’t necessarily out of keeping with other pacifistic movies of that Hollywood era. When I was very young, I figured that All Quiet on the Western Front must have qualified as aberrant movie fare at the time due to its imploring of men not to fight. Only later did I learn from Frank Borzage’s No Greater Glory (1934) and 1933’s The Eagle and the Hawk (with its “money” cast of Fredric March, Cary Grant and Carole Lombard) that certain movies of the early 1930s were nothing like what audiences would ever have seen in the 1940s. Well, it would figure, wouldn’t it?

British stage actress Diana Wynyard didn’t make that many movies, but after appearing in ’32 with all three Barrymores in Rasputin and the Empress, 1933 was kind of a big year for her, what with the lead in Fox’s best picture Oscar winner (Cavalcade) and top billing here. Cast as a combat nurse who in those pre-Code movie days was allowed to have had sex without the Breen Office burning her at the stake in retribution, Wynyard watches her lover go off to a World War I pilot’s death after a three-day affair leaves her pregnant. In casting that adds to the curio value here, Robert Young plays the latter — decades before he began rolling in TV residuals after “Father Knows Best” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.” At this point, a major played by MGM’s future Judge Hardy, Lewis Stone (who looks not much older than the later scenes than he does at the beginning) steps in to, as used to be said, give the child a name. This adoptive dad eventually becomes U.S. Ambassador to “Eurasia” (we’re dealing in broad strokes here), which means that diplomatic sentiments are also part of day-to-day home life. And especially so when wife Wynyard has become an out-and-out pacifist and drums this mindset into the male child (Phillips Holmes).

If the movie weren’t unusual enough, we have the real-life irony that early enlister Holmes was killed in a 1942 crash while serving the Royal Canadian Air Force — this after his girlfriend (singer Libby Holman) married Holmes brother Ralph on the rebound before he joined the RCAF, where Ralph suffered so much emotional trauma that he committed suicide not long after his tour of duty. Also for the record, Holman much later committed suicide herself in one of its century’s more turbulent public lives, but we’re starting to complicate the issue here.

So just for actor recognition purposes, we’ll just note that a couple years pre-Men, Phillips had had what subsequently became the Montgomery Clift role in Josef von Sternberg’s not quite deservingly lambasted flop version of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (later remade as A Place in the Sun) — and that the earlier picture’s reception permanently harmed Holmes’ career. Also worth noting that father to the Holmes brothers was character actor Taylor Holmes — who was such a fixture in ’40s and ’50s potboilers from Republic Pictures (also the nutty sci-fi romp Tobor the Great) that I could sometime swear he had more credits there than Rex Allen. He may be most memorable, though, for his doozy of a crooked lawyer in the original Kiss of Death, a real oil deposit.

Those damned Eurasians, though, haven’t peace on their minds, which causes a political fissure in the household — kind of a George and Kellyane Conway deal — when, in a finger snap, elder Stone takes heed of the situation and becomes more militaristic than he’s been since the movie’s opening reel. This, in turn, puts young Holmes in the middle — a situation not helped by the additional red-meat attitude of his new wife (Ruth Selwyn, real-life Mrs. of Fight director Edgar) and her family. Adding to the bizarre mix — and we haven’t even gotten to the zeppelins — is that Holmes’s mother-in-law is played by dizzy real-life gossip columnist and occasionally dizzy actress Hedda Hopper.

I’ve seen four of the eight features Selwyn directed, and they’re all pretty zippy and/or intriguing without being Second Coming material. Specifically, he directed Helen Hayes to an Oscar with The Sin of Madelon Claudet (and gave Robert Young a huge career break as her son); anticipated Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life by a dozen years with Turn Back the Clock; and turned out one of the best “Warren-William-Is-An-Old-Lech” pre-Code forays into screen sin with Skyscraper Souls. That’s the one in which bank prez William lives perched atop the concern’s cloud-busting building, to which he invites sweet young things for penthouse fun — bringing to mind the coda that Frank Sinatra would later bring to the rendition of Fly Me to the Moon preserved on Sinatra at the Sands (“… and don’t tell your papa”). Put this all together, and it’s something more than a journeyman mix for a fairly obscure filmmaker.

Meanwhile, here comes the zeppelins (1933 was four years before the Hindenburg crash, though, of course, they’re still around, if rarely en masse, as here). So do bombing attacks on Manhattan, which are even worse, turns out, when you’re like Wynyard and in a cab, though certainly bombing the Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge are horrific enough. The movie presents a kind of tightrope challenge for print chroniclers: Any fear of employing spoilers has to be weighed against the unusual nature of the material when it comes to jawboning a project that the cast by itself can’t likely sell to a modern-day audience.

This is a barebones release that’ll never be mistaken for a 4K job (or half a “K” or a tenth of a “K” or so on). But for those who collect oddballs (either in their movie minds or as collected physical media), this is quite a footnote. Were I still film-programming for a living, I’d probably pair it with William Cameron Menzies’ Things To Come from three years later, though I’m sure that some good billing alternatives are out there.

Mike’s Picks: ‘La Verite’ and ‘Men Must Fight’

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Heroes of Telemark’ and ‘Reap the Wild Wind’

The Heroes of Telemark

Sony Pictures, Drama, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris, Ulla Jacobsson, Michael Redgrave.
1966.
This movie about resistance fighters in Norway plotting to destroy the Nazi program to develop heavy water for an atomic bomb plays out in ways that one pretty well expects, and the result is a respectable (but that’s all) finale to Anthony Mann’s career that’s ultimately less distinguished than its great skiing scenes.
Read the Full Review

Reap the Wild Wind (Les Naufrageurs des mers du sud)

All-Region Import
Elephant Films, Adventure, $45 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ray Milland, John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, Raymond Massey, Susan Hayward, Robert Preston.
1942.
A seafaring blockbuster with an occasional julep twist, Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind has a fabulous cast delivering in the goods via (in some cases) admittedly 19th-century theatrical acting styles — and this is before we even get to the best giant squid the studio could cough up for the industry’s No. 1 cash-cow director.
Read the Full Review

The Heroes of Telemark

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Sony Pictures;
Drama;
$24.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris, Ulla Jacobsson, Michael Redgrave.

There’s no accounting for what memory can preserve from a movie not seen in decades, and with 1966’s The Heroes Telemark (aside from its convincing portrayal of incessantly frigid temperatures), it’s always been the nifty sweaters Kirk Douglas and Ella Jacobson wear inside a cozy Norwegian home just made for lovin’. Or it would be, were the place not transformed by circumstances into a kind of mission central for fighting Nazis in early 1942.

In this case, memory has not played tricks. The sweaters really are nifty, though with perhaps just enough white in them that I’d be a lock to spill a glass of red wine in the wrong place were somebody to gift me with one. Still, you have to think that this isn’t the likely takeaway that director Anthony Mann had in mind for what turned out to be his final credit for a movie he lived to complete — though this fairly handsome production for its day did pretty fair business in Europe. Yet, in my Midwestern city, it failed to rate a downtown booking, and I caught its local opening engagement at a normally second-run campus movie house in a year when studio execs and marketers had less than a firm idea of what people wanted to see. Probably not Resistance fighting, or at least not in college towns when Blow-Up wasn’t that far away on the horizon.

Still, I’m guessing the picture worked well enough in drive-ins because it had a reliable veteran superstar (Douglas) teamed with an on-the-rise arthouse hunk (Richard Harris) — and this would be way before years of Demon Sauce gave Harris that Keith Richards look he sported in Randa Haines’s underrated Wrestling Ernest Hemingway. Before long, Harris would eschew the likes of Antonioni and Red Desert to find himself playing Cain in John Huston’s The Bible and King Arthur in Joshua Logan’s stillborn stab at Camelot — an entire career right there for a lot of actors. Here, though, he’s playing a character based on Knut Haukelid, who wrote a 1954 remembrance that served as one of two sources for the film — a book called Skiis Against the Atom, which pretty well sums up the 134 minutes we spend here.

Harris (name modified to called Knut Strand) is a resistance fighter in Telemark, Norway, where the Nazis are trying to produce the heavy water that’s needed to construct an atomic bomb amid Germany’s race against the Allies to do just that. Douglas, too, is Norwegian and a physics professor to boot, though from appearances, he also seems to have had time to work in some weight training. Then again, this is a country where all the men and probably lots of women automatically exercise by half-living on skis; even Michael Redgrave (as “Uncle” — who shares the house with Jacobsson) doesn’t look out of sorts, looking more spry than he did in The Browning Version a decade-plus earlier.

Nothing risible is meant by all this because Heroes’ skiing sequences are as memorable as the sweaters. Thus, I’m once again reminded of the remark someone once made to the effect that of you could find someone who shot exteriors like Mann and interiors like Nicholas Ray, you would have the perfect filmmaker. Or at least you would if the exteriors, as here, were shot by Robert Krasker, who was also behind the camera for Olivier’s Henry V, Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Visconti’s Senso, and (for Mann) El Cid.

Jacobbson is not only a honey here but Douglas’s ex-wife — a plot point I’ll just bet you wasn’t in Haulkelid’s book. For most of the going, “Selfless” isn’t exactly the middle name of Kirk’s character here (Rolf’s the name), which makes her less than willing to welcome him back into the sack when he and Harris end up using her place as headquarters in which to plot blowing up the nearby factory where the heavy water is being manufactured. This was during the Swedish actress’s lamentably short run as a Hollywood hopeful, well after she’d appeared partially nude in the internationally popular One Summer of Happiness (1951, though not till ’55 in the States). Even with its delayed release, its ‘PG’-level sexuality agitated a lot of wheezing political hacks into their daily round of agitation over life as it’s lived. Here, however, she mostly keeps the sweater on.

The major heavy here is bad old Anton Diffring (a kind of meaner-looking Peter Van Eyck), an actor immediately recognizable to any movie lover with a memory and a pulse; he probably played more Nazis on screen than Roy Rogers played characters in billion-decibel shirts who were named “Roy.” Diffring and the rest of the film play out in ways that one pretty well expects, and the result is a respectable (but that’s all) finale to Mann’s career that’s ultimately less distinguished than its great skiing scenes. Mann would begin one more picture — 1968’s A Dandy in Aspic — before succumbing to a heart attack in the middle of filming. Lead Laurence Harvey took over, though Columbia Pictures gave Mann full on-screen credit; I’ve never seen it, but Britain’s classy Indicator series has a release coming March ’18 that’ll probably be all-region.

      

Heroes on Blu-ray appears to be the product of a master with some mold on it, one that really gets (going from 1966 memory) all there is to be gotten out of Krasker’s visuals — a rap that has nothing to do with this Blu-ray’s status as an on-demand selection. Though the word “Choice” doesn’t appear (per usual) on the disc jacket, this release appears to be another of Sony’s manufactured-to-order high-def releases of predominantly Columbia Pictures product. The problem for on-demand naysayers (and Sony issues BD-Rs) is the large number (out of relatively few issued titles) of movies that I, at least, like, love or treasure as oddball curios: The Bitter Tea of General Yen, The Triplets of Belleville, Gideon of Scotland Yard, Real Genius, Spanglish, the Sofia Coppola Marie Antoinette and the Gillian Anderson Little Women.

The last, at least, is one you’d think might be worth a full-scale marketing job, what with a brand new sibling go-around scheduled for Christmas under the eye of director Greta Gerwig. But this is just an observational aside and nothing more because I’m adverse to plopping Anton Diffring and Louisa May Alcott into the same piece of writing.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Heroes of Telemark’ and ‘Reap the Wild Wind’

Reap the Wild Wind (Les Naufrageurs des mers du sud)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

All-Region Import;
Elephant Films;
Adventure;
$45 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ray Milland, John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, Raymond Massey, Susan Hayward, Robert Preston.

My most educated guess is that Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind may have been Paramount’s third-highest grosser of Hollywood’s entire World War II era, given that the starry mountain’s productions of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and Going My Way (1944) were close to the top performers released by any studio in those two respective years (with a nod to Warner’s This Is the Army). But with more assurance, I can tell you that for pushing 60 years now, Reap has been my favorite DeMille movie except for his The Ten Commandments swan song — which, after all, does boasts Edward G. Robinson’s gonzo Dathan and the chance to see hot couple John Derek and Debra Paget falling under the Golden Calf’s pernicious influence and upping their boogie quotient. Plus, one must concede, the artful constipation Charlton Heston brought to every role he played, and in this case, beneficially.

On the other hand, 1942’s Reap has a fabulous cast delivering in the goods via (in some cases) admittedly 19th-century theatrical acting styles — and this is before we even get to the best giant squid the studio could cough up for the industry’s No. 1 cash-cow director. I do wish that this seafaring blockbuster with an occasional julep twist didn’t overextend the footage allotted to an un-blamable Louise Beavers in another of those “wasn’t slavery fun?” roles — but this was an inevitable by-product of the 1840’s Dixie setting (by way of the Florida Keys) and Paramount’s desire to fashion Reap as its answer to the Margaret Mitchell/Selznick/MGM Gone With the Wind. At least Beavers, a la Wind’s Hattie McDaniel, gets to make with the sass while futilely trying to turn the sometimes tomboy-ish babe of the house (here, it’s Paulette Godard, who’d been a finalist for the Scarlett O’Hara role) into a lady. And for that matter, you know going in (or should) that DeMille wasn’t, just on general principles, the most racially sensitive filmmaker who ever lived, though I have always dug the showmanship chutzpah he exhibited by casting Boris Karloff as a Seneca chief in Unconquered.

You also know (or should surmise) that John Wayne had to be hitting the top of the Big-Time when the movies’ most successful director (DeMille’s name on a marquee was more potent than that of most stars) in one of his most lavish productions just three years after the Duke’s breakthrough in Stagecoach. As it turned out, the picture gave Wayne one of the most interesting roles of his career (though maybe not as interesting as his Genghis Khan camp-fest turn in The Conqueror) in that it was the closest time that he ever came to playing a villain. In the truth, the picture kind of splits the difference: Though Wayne plays a wronged sea captain successfully tempted by circumstances to perform a dastardly act, he remains a sympathetic figure and certainly a co-equal to dandy lawyer Ray Milland for the hand of Goddard, who impetuously plays one against the other with a level of guile that’s never totally clear (which makes it interesting).

We open in the Keys with Wayne knocked cold under the orchestration of his first mate — a covert lackey, turns out, of Raymond Massey’s crooked lawyer (think a more WASP-ish version of Roy Cohn in the pre-Civil War South) who’s gotten financially fat from a ship-salvaging business whose services include wrecking the vessels in the first place. The busted-up ship currently in question is owned by Goddard, who’s inherited the business and immediately falls hard for Wayne after rescuing him amid his on-board stupor and protestations that he hasn’t a clue what happened. This is all true enough, and Wayne’s perfidy comes later — but not until after he gets embroiled in said love triangle after Goddard subsequently visits her aunt in Charleston and meets company attorney Milland, whom she initially despises because he’s understandably casting a wary eye at Wayne’s sailing prowess. The two men have some history.

The movie positions Milland as the lace-favoring type who’s good at tony social affairs where sopranos entertain but is actually a pretty accessible guy. In fact, when he throws the movie’s first punch (of many), he actually decks Wayne. The two make fairly civil adversaries, and it’s fun to watch them, as is enjoying a remarkable supporting cast (Lynne Overman in whiskers, not long before his death?), round out the package. In one of those remarkable casting breaks that can add to a movie’s currency with passing years, two of the key subordinate roles go to actors who later became very big stars: Susan Hayward and Robert Preston. This packaging of this All-Region disc, which is among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen of a vintage Technicolor movie, reflects the changing fortunes of its actors, billing Wayne, Hayward, Milland and Goddard in that order. It’s the same order they appeared in when Reap was re-issued in (pretty sure) 1954, and I marveled at the ads in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, when I would have been 6 or an early 7. This is a movie I wanted to see very early on, and it did not let me down (even in black-and-white) when I saw its local TV premiere on a late, late show in 1960.

The climactic squid mayhem probably ensured the smash box office, though if ’54 was indeed the re-issue year, I wonder how Walt Disney felt about its impact on that coming Christmas’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — whether, that is, it would diminish the newer picture’s key selling point or whet audiences appetites to see additional name actors battling those tentacles. Like Jaws the shark, DeMille’s creature looks mechanical yet cool all the same — and, in fact, Reap was kind of the Jaws of its day. Though even before this “money” climax, there’s a long and outlandish late-movie trial scene which, by comparison, makes the jurisprudence in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance look as dignified and legally stable as, say, the white-wig stuff in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case or Robert Donat in The Winslow Boy.

As mentioned, this is one beautiful print, and I say this as one who saw UCLA’s 35mm archival copy of Reap maybe three times as programmer for the AFI Theater and a couple times via a collector’ friend’s 16mm IB holding. At long last, though not yet in the U.S, some of these Universal-controlled DeMille Paramounts are making their way to Blu-ray, albeit just in time for most of the director’s biggest fans to be dead. Reap distributor Elephant Films has itself recently brought out the uncut Sign of the Cross and Technicolor Unconquered, the latter featuring the sight of Goddard tumbling down a monster waterfall in a canoe with Gary Cooper. A Big Drink tumble, a squid, the Golden Calf, a lion’s lunch of Nero-offending Christians: in his day — which I concede isn’t always to-day — DeMille knew what audiences craved even more than their Milk Duds and the theater’s free air-conditioning.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Heroes of Telemark’ and ‘Reap the Wild Wind’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Forty Guns’ and ‘The Blue Dahlia’

Forty Guns

Criterion, Western, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, Gene Barry.
1957. Director Samuel Fuller’s action-packed Western features Barbara Stanwyck doing her own stunts as a ruthless landowner seeking to keep her drunken brother out of trouble when lawmen ride into town in search of a gunman under her employ.
Extras: Also included is the 2013 documentary A Fuller Life that daughter Samantha Fuller put together, several essays, a hour-hour discussion with Imogen Sara Smith about Fuller and Western genre conventions in general, and alternate audio featuring a 1969 appearance at London’s National Film Theatre by Fuller himself.
Read the Full Review

The Blue Dahlia

Shout! Factory, Drama, $22.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix, Howard da Silva.
1946.
Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake co-starring in Raymond Chandler’s only original screenplay sounds well nigh irresistible on paper, and The Blue Dahlia mostly satisfies the concept’s potential as well as intriguing additional considerations that go tangentially beyond sleuthing the murderer of boozy Mrs. Ladd (Doris Dowling).
Extras: Includes a commentary from film historian Alan Rode and filmmaker Steve Mitchell.
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