Mike’s Picks: ‘I, Jane Doe’ and ‘Black Peter’

I, Jane Doe

Kino Lorber, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $24.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ruth Hussey, John Carroll, Vera Ralston, John How.
1948. Even by the standards of shaky ‘A’-picture melodramas, Republic Pictures’ I, Jane Doe is a whopper packed with wall-to-wall coincidences and improbabilities right up to its final courtroom histrionics.
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Black Peter

All-Region British Import;
Second Run, Comedy, $34.99 Blu-ray, NR.
In Czech with English subtitles.
Stars Ladislav Jakim, Pavla Martinkova, Vladimir Pucholt, Pavel Sedláček.
1964. Black Peter, which was done on a very low budget even for the Czech film industry at the time, is very much a shaggy-dog effort, though its observational instincts are spot-on, and director Milos Forman’s skill with actors (which would include the non-professionals who make up most of the cast) is remarkable.
Extras: In addition to a 20-page essay booklet (Jonathan Owen) and commentary by film historian Michael Brooke, the Blu-ray boasts an interview featurette with now 70-year-old actress Pavla Martinkova.
Read the Full Review

 

I, Jane Doe

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$19.95 DVD, $24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ruth Hussey, John Carroll, Vera Ralston, John Howard.

Even by the standards of shaky ‘A’-picture melodramas, Republic Pictures’ I, Jane Doe is a whopper packed with wall-to-wall coincidences and improbabilities right up to its final courtroom histrionics — though I’m happy, of course, that that imposing eagle Republic employed as its studio logo from the mid-1940s on is finally getting some respect. Or at least more of it than was paid to Donald Trump by the creature’s flapping grandson (well, a guy can hope) in that now famous ambush/attack that was videotaped near Trump’s office desk. As gifts go, it keeps on giving as much as the early “money” scene in The Vikings that featured Kirk, Tony and a falcon who knew how to take direction.

What’s more, this is respect isn’t limited to Kino Classics’ recent physically spiffed-up versions — 1948’s Jane gets a 4K scan here — of selections from a library so unusual that there was a time when Orson Welles (with Macbeth) and Republic regular Rod Cameron were probably on the lot at around the same time. There’s also a two-part series programmed at MoMA this year: Martin Scorsese Presents Republic Rediscovered: New Restorations from Paramount Pictures. That’s the kind of imprimatur that can take your mind off the fact that you’re still watching Vera Ralston, be it in black-and-white Jane or even the Trucolor and Naturama of Accused of Murder. (Both films made the MoMA cut.)

So just to clarify — because I want to work in a cheap, campy radio aside — Vera has Jane’s title role, but Rod isn’t even in this particular picture. This said, the two did hang on long enough to costar in non-MoMA picks Spoilers of the Forest and The Man Who Died Twice not long before Republic went under in the late ’50s due to TV competition but also from what you have to believe was a major assist from marital nepotism. The latter had to do with studio chief Herbert Yates’ incessant casting of Ralston, the onetime Czech ice skater he eventually married, in movie after movie that failed to ignite any fires — and certainly none like the one on the poster art for Spoilers of the Forest. As for Cameron, the studio’s now past-tense resident hunk was soon doing audio airwaves spots for four-way cold tablets where, if memory serves, some movie-set kid with a clapboard is suffering from 1948-Berlin-type roadblocks all through his sinus cavities, until Rod — or “Mr. Cameron” — sends him to the right shelf at the drugstore.

But let’s get back to Jane. If lots of awful things happen here not just to Ralston but to Ruth Hussey (who plays her lawyer), we’re at least looking at a product of happier career times. Ralston may have aged fast in real life, but she’s quite pretty here, and there several times when Jane director John H. Auer has her staring silently out the window or at something else, which means that her heavy accent doesn’t keep killing the mood, which was usually her standard day at the office. Scorsese has said in the past that he’s a fan of Auer, and certainly 1953’s City That Never Sleeps (in MoMA’s series and a past Olive Films Blu-ray) is one its era’s oddest balls. I also like how Auer managed to shoehorn Phil Harris into performing his No. 1 Billboard novelty hit of “The Thing” into a military hospital scene during the Ralston-Wendell Corey starrer The Wild Biue Yonder.

That bit required a straight face, which Auer employs here as well in service of a screenplay by frequent collaborator Lawrence Kimble that presents a minefield of spoilers (and not of the forest). So, let’s see: How much can I divulge? Well, we open with Jane/Ralston fatally shooting a mustached philanderer (the worst kind) played by John Carroll, an actor who had a few gigs at MGM while Clark Gable was in the war but never quite caught on as a substitute, though he was passably agreeable. When arrested, Ralston won’t give her name (hence, the movie’s title), which makes you wonder about the quality of the local metropolitan press when no one can uncover the answer to this for at least a third of the picture. Defending her in court, which requires coming out of retirement, is the victim’s widow (Hussey) — a situation that I would think might raise ethical issues, but never you mind. This is, after all, the kind of movie where, when its creators have to come up with a way to delay a prison execution, a hospital gets hit with some sort of plague.

Given that Carroll gets plugged immediately despite being second-billed, it’s a fair guess that flashbacks are going to be employed. So for a long subsequent stretch, we’re looking at a demographics-happy hybrid: the smooshing of a kind of dollar-store Warner Bros. “woman’s picture” (say, The Great Lie) with a long overseas wartime romance involving Carroll — complete with Nazis, a farm house hideout and the sight of an enemy pilot taking a barrage of hot lead in the face (a stock shot, I’m reasonably sure, from the John Wayne/Republic Flying Tigers, a movie that arguably and coincidentally gave Carroll his career role as well). Matters maintain escalating wildness right up to the end, and in ways that have us marveling at how much can be stocked in one kitchen sink. Gene Lockhart, a frequent specialist in playing grumps, frequently voices these very sentiments in court as the dyspeptic opposing attorney, and it’s hard not cheering him on, even though our sentiments are supposed to be elsewhere.

Jane isn’t the first movie I’d put in a legal brief extolling Republic, but the ‘B’-studio that sometimes had surprisingly lofty ambitions was loved by many for members of a large stock company that showed up like old buds in countless releases, outstanding special effects (the Lydecker brothers) and frequent Victor Young scores. It’s true that a lot of the studio’s most ambitious projects— Johnny Guitar, The Red Pony and a ton of John Waynes, including The Quiet Man and Sands of Iwo Jima — have already been creamed off for Blu-ray distribution by Olive Films. But getting into long ignored nooks and crannies, Kino Classics has recently done well with really handsome renderings of a couple end-of-the-trail Roy Rogers Westerns, and were it not for the almost lush Trucolor transfer of Twilight in the Sierras, I don’t think I’d have noticed that there was a cigarette machine in one cantina sequence.

I’m happy to see that Kino has A Man Alone (from the MoMA series; starring and directed by Ray Milland) in the kitty for future release because it’s a taut well-cast Western (Mary Murphy, Ward Bond, Raymond Burr) that I always watched whenever it showed on TV when I was a kid. So far un-announced but also in the MoMA lineup are a couple more with which I also have long histories: Fair Wind to Java, which Ralston thought her best picture — and I guess it was — plus the rural family drama Come Next Spring, which is not just one of the all-time sleepers but good enough to get Criterion consideration, as Frank Borzage’s Republic Moonrise recently did. Actually, I think Spring is the better picture.

Getting back to the Republic story, the studio’s last theatrical release was 1959’s Plunderer of Painted Flats … with John Carroll. Also Corinne Calvet. Also Bea Benadaret, later of TV’s “Petticoat Junction.” Also Joe Besser, for that patented Joe Besser Western action. And getting back to Jane, I was tickled by one scene with an amusingly tarted-up Adele Mara, an actress I always thought was cute and one with an interesting resumé. She sang and danced at 15 with Xavier Cugat, which presumably taught her how to sprint. She supposedly taught John Wayne how to jitterbug for Republic’s The Fighting Seabees (a scene I’ve always remembered because you just don’t get that everyday). And she eventually married Roy Huggins, who was a major player with smash TV series from “Cheyenne” to “Maverick” to “The Virginian” to “The Fugitive,” which presumably provided her with a household stipend larger than a lot of Republic budgets.

Mike’s Picks: ‘I, Jane Doe’ and ‘Black Peter’

 

Black Peter

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

All-Region British Import;
Second Run;
Comedy;
$34.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
In Czech with English subtitles.
Stars Ladislav Jakim, Pavla Martinkova, Vladimir Pucholt, Pavel Sedláček. 

It’s only occasionally that celebrity deaths hit me really hard, but the passing of Jonathan Demme and then Milos Forman in successive years really did a bullseye number on where my movie self lives. I was lucky enough to interview both filmmakers (Forman twice), but this was only a contributing factor. There’s only been roughly a handful of times in my adult life where, after spending a mere three to four minutes with a contemporary filmmaker’s work — that is, for the very first time — I knew he had it: Altman with MASH, Scorsese with Mean Streets, Paul Thomas Anderson with Hard Eight and, long before PTA, Forman with Taking Off. (With Demme, it took a smidgen longer because his style is kind of elusive, but it didn’t take me long to get with the program.)

For someone who lost his mother and stepfather to the Nazis and then had to live through Soviet oppression (and certainly Soviet hackery) in his formative years, Forman and most of his movies (including his three Czech features) had twinkles in their eyes. The latter trio also has the fresh, youthful spirit of rock-and-roll animals, though I’m talking about pets of gentle demeanor, not pitbulls. Having recently re-seen Loves of a Blonde on the old Criterion DVD and now its immediately preceding Black Peter on Second Run’s new multi-region release, I was struck at how both have long dance-hall sequences at social mixers during the Twist era. Assuming somebody even managed to slip him a print of either, one wonders what Khrushchev thought of such Western decadence coming out of Russian satellite cinema. Then again, maybe when he pounded his shoe at the U.N., it was secretly to a Chubby Checker beat.

Loves, which is much more sculpted, is still an absolute home run — an international hit at the time and still one of the best movies of 1965. The previous year’s Peter, which was done on a very low budget even for the Czech film industry at the time, is more of a shaggy-dog effort, though its observational instincts are spot-on, and Forman’s skill with actors (which would include the non-professionals who make up most of the cast) is still remarkable. His casting instincts were always sharp, even when they weren’t obvious (I, for sure, would not have thought of Tom Hulce for Amadeus). In this case, the looks and manner of Ladislav Jakim as lead Petr (the second “e” was for international audiences) are ideal for one so shy, bumbling and ground down by his parents (an overbearing dad and smothering mother). As a result, he’s pretty well bumbling the follow-through on his job as a grocery store spotter trainee who’s supposed to be keeping his eye out for petty shoplifters — yet just can’t bring himself to initiate altercations with even obviously guilty parties.

Not surprisingly, this shyness extends to amorous pursuits, making Petr oblivious to the possibility that the girl he likes (Pavla Martinkova) might reciprocate more than he thinks. But she’s pretty comely and also somewhere between low-key and impenetrable, so we wonder just how far two are going to get with more confident wolves on the prowl. One or two who look as if they might be such creatures begin talking trash as Petr and Pavla (her character name as well) are out for a boat ride. The brains of this outfit (which is a charitable assessment) is played by the film’s one professional actor who had a major role: Vladimir Pucholt, in a nuanced performance for one playing something of a dolt. But in an early example of how Forman’s movies often marched to their own tunes, he doesn’t turn out to be the threat that one would initially predict, and his sympathetic inclusion in the film’s final scene is a surprise.

Black Peter, which didn’t make it to U.S. cinemas until 1971, was previously available only on an import DVD said to be very rocky, but this print is from a 4K restoration done by National Film Archive, and it’s a nice job given the presumed limitations of the source material. In addition to a 20-page essay booklet (Jonathan Owen) and commentary by film historian Michael Brooke, the Blu-ray boasts an interview featurette with now 70-year-old Martinkova — shot at the same ice rink where the movie’s extended dance sequence was shot under extreme time pressures. Included as well is the germane section of a longer talking-head interview doc with Forman (Life As It Is) that concentrates on the in some ways lucky breaks he had early in his career. These got him rolling when some of his Czech filmmaking colleagues weren’t so fortunate internationally (though no one will ever be able to take Cutter’s Way away from Ivan Passer).

Nothing about this interview is elaborate, just as it wasn’t for Volker Schlonforff’s one-on-one doc with Billy Wilder or that unforgettably cantankerous interview with John Ford (very late in the game) that’s included on the Criterion release of Stagecoach. It’s just Forman behind his office desk spouting remembrances with great enthusiasm and colorful details that show a basic understanding of people. This is another of those cases — another is a talking-head portrait of Elia Kazan — where, without any knowledge of the work at hand, you can see instantly that this guy just had to be a great director by the way he could communicate and the rapport one senses he could establish.

I’m hoping to work my way through re-seeing all the Formans chronologically, and The Fireman’s Ball (for which I have very fond memories — and certainly fonder than those of Czech political authorities at the time) comes next. I thought I had the waterfront covered by owning all of the director’s features with most of them on Blu-ray — though Ragtime, for one, is still only on DVD (more ball-dropping by Paramount Home Entertainment). And I do, starting with Black Peter, which was Forman’s full-length debut.

But I now also see that Audition (also 1964 but earlier) is also available on a fairly pricey used DVD import — though by virtue of its 50-minute running time, one can’t call it a feature. I’ve never seen it but would love to because its subject matter — a talent competition involving enthusiastic but (affectionately) untalented participants — would seem to put it smack in Forman’s wheelhouse. In fact, it sounds a lot like one of the best scenes from Forman’s first U.S. release, Taking Off, a beguilingly non-judgmental comedy about teen runaways in Greenwich Village, plagued by a music rights problem that has limited its availability for years (though there’s a Region ‘B’ Blu-ray that carries controlling Universal’s logo).

By Forman’s own account, Off grossed about 14 cents at the time (I saw it at a drive-in with snow on the ground), and he didn’t work for four more years. Thus, one is compelled to assert that producer Michael Douglas has never done anything greater in his career than gambling on Forman to direct One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — though, in retrospect, it made perfect sense. The Czech government had been the filmmaker’s own Nurse Ratched — and they probably wouldn’t have allowed him to make Hair or biopics on Andy Kaufman and Larry Flynt.

Mike’s Picks: ‘I, Jane Doe’ and ‘Black Peter’

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’

A Matter of Life and Death

Criterion, Fantasy, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey.
1946. You can watch Matter multiple times and always see something new or be affected by a shot or minor detail that didn’t make a direct hit previously.
Extras: In addition to Stephanie Zacharek’s infectiously enthusiastic essay and a carried-over 2009 commentary from film scholar Ian Christie, the extras here are almost a primer in what and how to go out and get germane supplements — a Martin Scorsese from 2008, a featurette about cinematographer Jack Cardiff, co-director Michael Powell on one of the best episodes of Britain’s “South Bank Show.”
Read the Full Review

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Kino Lorber, Adventure, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Tommy Kelly, Ann Gillis, May Robson, Walter Brennan.
1938. Produced by David O. Selznick in the still young three-strip Technicolor process and sparked by a memorable “cave” designed by the immortal William Cameron Menzies, the capable if never really stirring The Adventures of Tom Sawyer gives a good sense of the famed producer’s deep pockets when it came to cosmetics.
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A Matter of Life and Death

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Fantasy;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey.

You say it’s the Criterion banner hanging over Sony’s ace restorer Grover Crisp and his colleagues — after they’ve put their all into one of the end-all-be-all’s of three-strip-Technicolor achievements? If so (and it is), you’re probably safe even plundering your 401k for the emergency funds to bet a stash that we’re talking a visual banquet you don’t get everyday or, in some cases, even every year.

Speaking pigmentarily (did I just make up a word?), you can usually tell at once — from the intensity of flame on RAF squadron leader David Niven’s downed bomber — how good any print of the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger A Matter of Life and Death is going to be. In this case, the red is right, and it’s easy to see why so many film folk have, be they Elvis fans or otherwise, such burnin’ love for this picture. Powell himself, in fact, rated it the personal favorite of the multiple all-timers he did with Pressburger — who was primarily the duo’s writer, though they always shared an unusual joint on-screen credit.

Actually, there are several Powells (whether filmed with his longtime partner or not) that my own self prefers, from The Thief of Bagdad through Peeping Tom. But that’s mostly a matter of favored subject matter, and I will say this: You can watch 1946’s Matter multiple times and always see something new or (this is quite true in my case) be affected by a shot or minor detail that didn’t make a direct hit previously. P&P’s celestially-bent fantasy is a marvel of invention, starting with the fact that Heaven is in black-and-white and the earthbound scenes are in electric three-strip — though, as Stephanie Zacharek points out in the accompanying Criterion essay, the former is never referred to as Heaven per se (something that had eluded me). This said, the film’s U.S. release title did end up being changed to Stairway to Heaven because “death” was perceived to be even less of a marquee magnet than it’s always been, what with wartime losses so burned into recent memory.

The deal is this. Niven is preordained to die in the crash but miraculously survives due to a transportation hangup by an upstairs emissary of death (Marius Goring going full French-dandy route and looking as if he belongs in one of stage productions from Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise, which began hitting U.S. theaters about a month before Matter/Heaven did). In the meantime, Niven has fallen instantly in love with (first) the voice and (soon thereafter) the full human form of a Boston-bred air communicator (Kim Hunter) who had “talked him down” to what both assumed would be as soothing a journey as possible to his unambiguously imminent death. A logical reaction to a) Niven’s survival; and b) the appearance of Goring would be that the former needs some kind of doctor — a need soon fulfilled by a Hunter buddy (the great Powell-Pressburger veteran Roger Livesey), who turns out to have great deal of knowledge about neuroscience for one who buzzes around the countryside on his motorbike. (I got a feeling that David Lean must have remembered some of these scenes when shooting the great opening to Lawrence of Arabia.)

So this is one of the beauties of the movie. You can look at the story clinically — as in that the idea that Goring’s pressure from upstairs superiors to whisk Niven away as planned is all in the latter’s overactive mind and thus justification for brain surgery. Or you take everything here at face value and believe the fantasy — which is easy to do because cinematographer Jack Cardiff and the production designer were working at the peak of their powers and are constantly putting something scintillatingly fresh into the frame. Even the title card is unlike anything from 1946; it’s more in ’50s Invaders From Mars mold.

This is true even though Matter was Cardiff’s first film as chief cameraman — as well as the fact that it was actually the same production crew’s next film (Black Narcissus, my favorite movie from the year of my birth) that ended up getting both of them their Oscars. Just the heavenly waiting room where the dead check into and await their fates is a marvel of detail — and these scenes aren’t even in color. Niven’s own fate is to face trial (a full tribunal is more like it) over whether his Brit self will be able to enjoy a mortal’s life with a love who’s Yankee-bred — an amorous match-up that particularly offends Niven’s Brit-hating prosecutor (Raymond Massey, in the kind of uptight hard-ass role he used to own).

In addition to Zacharek’s infectiously enthusiastic essay and a carried-over 2009 commentary from film scholar/P&P biographer Ian Christie, the extras here are almost a primer in what and how to go out and get germane supplements. There’s Martin Scorsese’s bouncy intro (about 10 minutes) from 2008 — he a Powell fan/disciple and then a personal friend whose longtime editor (Thelma Schoonmaker) eventually married the then elderly filmmaker. What’s more, we get Schoonmaker herself, whose observations sometimes touch upon the P&P movies’ editing — a subject about which she knows plenty (Oscars for Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed).

Cardiff was the greatest color cinematographer ever — period — so there’s a short featurette specifically on Matter labors from Craig McCall, who directed 2010’s masterful Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff. Visual effects pro Craig Barron — his credits merely include The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — is here for discussion of the design and matte work, as is Harrison Ellenshaw; they first met Powell as youngsters when working on The Empire Strikes Back. And then there’s Powell himself for an hour from one of the best episodes of Britain’s “South Bank Show” that I’ve seen — an elaborately produced affair (I’d almost bet that Powell called some of the shots himself) that was done when he published the first volume of his memoirs. I remember my old film prof William K. Everson, who almost never gave ‘A’ grades, calling that volume either one of the five best film books or the best director bio he’d ever read. (Can’t remember which one it was, so this might help explain why I was always praying a ‘B’)

Even though it’s much maligned today, I’ll always have significant affection for Michael Todd’s once overpraised Around the World in 80 Days — due in large part to Niven’s turn as Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg, who burned into my childhood mind that one should be prompt and always on time. This said, I have to concede that Matter boasts the most charming performance the actor ever gave, and later in life, Niven told Powell that Matter’s was the favorite role of his career. This one charms as well, which isn’t easy to do when the subject is death. But, in fact, the real subject here is the all-dominant power of love, which I suspect is he reason that Matter still gets to a lot of people emotionally and was even commercially successful in U.S. theaters at the time amid a banner year for movies that positively humiliates what I see polluting my nearby multiplex as we speak.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Adventure;
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Tommy Kelly, Ann Gillis, May Robson, Walter Brennan.

The story’s familiar to you, right? I figured.

Produced by David O. Selznick in the still young three-strip Technicolor process and sparked by a memorable “cave” designed by the immortal William Cameron Menzies, the capable if never really stirring The Adventures of Tom Sawyer gives a good sense of the famed producer’s deep pockets when it came to cosmetics. James Wong Howe shot it (his first color film), and judging from the quality of threads Tom sports when he’s slumming around (nearly all the time), there must have been a Sy Devore outlet store in the fictional town standing in here for Hannibal, Mo. All the better when it comes to getting them muddy, which happens maybe two or three times a reel.

In CliffsNotes fashion but with few substantial changes — for one, “Jim” is now a wide-eyed youthful foil, not an adult — this almost immediate Selznick precursor to Gone With the Wind packs many of Mark Twain’s key events into 91 minutes, though Kino Classics has also included a 77-minute re-issue version from the 1950s that’s purely academic. Huck Finn is kind of a nondescript glorified walk-on, and one can argue that there’s too much time devoted to the hot love triangle between Tom, Amy Lawrence and that new redhead in town, Becky Thatcher. But generally speaking, this classy 1938 production with only a handful-plus of non-cave sets has fairly engaging fun with the episodes and characters most folks remember: whitewashing the fence, dastardly “Injun Joe” committing murder that’s hung on another and young Tom’s daily dustups with Aunt Polly and especially half-brother Sid.

As much as for publicity purposes as anything else, Selznick mounted a publicity campaign for someone to play the lead role, and the more or less one-hit-wonder-Tommy Kelly got the part. He was an attractive kid, but, in general, the child acting is directed here a few beats too broadly for my taste — by Norman Taurog (much later of Jerry Lewis and Elvis pictures), who’d already taken one of those suspect early directing Oscars for doing a good job with Jackie Cooper in Skippy the same year the academy totally skunked Chaplin’s City Lights. Uh-huh.

This said, I do like David Holt’s very broad performance as unctuous Sid, the kind of pie target and worse that one imagines Stephen Miller was when he was of single-digit age — though in Miller’s case, it would have been more satisfying to douse him not with pies or tomatoes but maybe some of those killer red aunts that attacked Chuck Heston in The Naked Jungle. Interestingly, from his IMDb.com bio, Holt was apparently a good kid in real life, and through circumstances, got Max Baer Sr. to teach him how to fight so he could pop a few would-be oppressors on the playground. You never know.

To give the young actors protection, if not exactly sex appeal, Selznick surrounded them with an array of solid character actors: May Robson, Walter Brennan, Victor Jory, Donald Meek and more. And though she only has a very small worried-mom role and maybe one decent close-up, this is somehow a movie that you just know Margaret Hamilton is going to be in, though her hallmark role as the Wicked Witch of the West was still a year away. Say, why do all the authoritarians in these period Hollywood movies, most of whom are parental figures, look as if they last had sex when some social mixer at Plymouth Rock got out of hand after someone broke out the hard cider?

As early Technicolor Selznicks go, I prefer the print here to what I’ve seen in my lifetime of Nothing Sacred and the ’37 A Star Is Born, titles that have always made me wonder just what kind of shape the Selznick archival holdings are in (and one reason, perhaps, why I’ve never been crazy about either movie). There are flashes of bad registration here, but the worst examples only last a few seconds at a time, some early muted pigments give way to some striking colors on some of the costuming. According to the late Ronald Haver’s all-timer oversized volume (David O. Selznick’s Hollywood, a treasured present to me from my ex-wife), the movie was actually designed to be in black-and-white before a Technicolor camera suddenly became available. Per usual, Selznick managed to shuffle personnel with Clive Owen Croupier finesse, which is how Taurog took over from original director H.C. Potter and (per Haver) George Cukor ended up directing a few scenes, including what was likely a crowd-pleasing capper.

The long climactic cave sequence — was Menzies the best, or what? — turns the total rendering into something of a net plus, as Tom (for once) turns fully responsible attempting to finesse his escape with also-trapped Becky from Native American Joe’s (as he’ll someday probably be called) hideout. It’s genuinely gripping and well-staged by a filmmaker who usually had no personality — though, given that it’s at least tangentially on subject — I have to say that I do prefer Taurog’s Nothing Sacred remake, Living It Up, to the original by a healthy margin.

According to Haver, the picture didn’t cover its substantial cost too well; these were not punk artisans Selznick employed. But Tom Sawyer is the kind of endeavor one can milk for a number of years, and sometime in my earliest teens (I’ve read 1959, though I remember it more as ’60), it got a national or nationally syndicated TV showing that the movie’s Becky Thatcher — the by then adult Ann Gillis — emceed. (I’m guessing it was probably the 77-minute version in a 90-minute slot because I remember a lot of commercials for some kind of bread product being included.)

This is interesting because according to her IMDb.com quote section, Gillis didn’t like Taurog and got totally sick of the picture after watching it “hundreds of times” during the original promotional tour. In general, it appears, Gillis wasn’t shy about voicing her opinion, given what she said of her last screen appearance — as Gary Lockwood’s mother in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Kubrick was a real jerk,” she said. “It shows you what can happen when a director is given a blank check.”

Well, that’s one way of looking at it, though her scene of hysterics in the cave still convinces. Poor thing: If it isn’t those damned stalactites, it’s being in a dark place with Victor Jory.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’

Mike’s Picks: ‘I Walk Alone’ and ‘If I Had a Million’

I Walk Alone

Street 7/24/18
Kino Lorber, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $24.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Lizabeth Scott, Wendell Corey.
1947. The first Burt Lancaster-Kirk Douglas teaming, I Walk Alone captures a special moment in marquee-name time and is thus worth a look by those for whom modest fun is enough.
Extras: Includes a commentary by Troy Howarth.
Read the Full Review

If I Had a Million (Si j’avasts un million)

All-Region French Blu-ray
Elephant, Comedy, $39.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper, George Raft, Charles Ruggles.
1933. The multipart If I Had a Million, whose W.C. Fields episode is one of the high points does a stellar job of (without making a big deal of it) portraying a period of economic neediness.
Read the Full Review

I Walk Alone

BLU-RAY REVIEW;

Street Date 7/24/18;
Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$19.95 DVD, $24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Lizabeth Scott, Wendell Corey.

The first Burt Lancaster-Kirk Douglas teaming occurred in 1947 almost a full decade before same-producer Hal Wallis’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral finally paired them again for an even truer launchpad for what then quickly became one of the screen’s most durable male duos. Much earlier on, the moody if overheated I Walk Alone had been only the fourth film for both actors — with Douglas rating only fourth billing (under Wendell Corey, who plays an accountant). But the narrative centerpiece here is definitely a Burt-Kirk duel; Douglas has one of Walk’s two dominant roles playing more residue of slick slime from the same early-carer mold as his then recent role in Out of the Past.

Because neither of these alpha males were yet the superstars they would become, this unintended slice of screen history can’t help but give those inclined a mildly, if automatically, seductive time at the movies — just as nearly every postwar Wallis Paramount still does at the very least. Yet due to the rights and/or distribution foibles of certain Wallis titles over the years, Walk never even rated a VHS, Laserdisc or DVD release before this new Kino Classics issue in separate formats. I’m not certain how this picture fell through the home market cracks, and even its first TV showing came much, much later than you’d expect. But remember that NBC-TV, of all possibilities, ended up owning the Wallis-Elvis Loving You for a while — and its Blu-ray release is by now a generation overdue, for all its wish-list currency. Interestingly, Corey and Walk’s second-billed Lizabeth Scott showed up in that one, too, wrapping up their Wallis contracts.

This one isn’t that. Walk is dirty noir in which no one will ever sing “Teddy Bear,” even if it is the product of a more refined time when guys used to make a haberdasher stop-off just to hit Hiyaleah. We open with Lancaster getting out of the slammer after getting 14 years for, as we see in flashback, a bootlegging gig with Douglas that went way south. Each had vowed to help out the other and go 50-50 if either got caught, but spared Douglas basically pulled a “One-Eyed Jacks” and never even paid Lancaster a visit on prison visiting days — becoming so successful in the posh nightclub racket that he’s now making the newspaper society pages and (in our first view of him) wearing jodhpurs. The last alone is enough to bring on a double-take, when it comes to Kirk’s standard screen image. Try even imagining Jean Simmons (as Varinia) saying, “Spartacus, I think the beige get-up would flatter your lower regions more than the powder blue.”

So. Our just-sprung con, who does seem to have an adequate stipend of walking-around money, wants his 50%, but browbeaten Corey has cooked the club’s books to concoct a slew of legal but sneaky-plus side corporations that each owns a percentage of the assets. There’s one for, say, the restaurant chairs, one for the champagne that club chanteuse Scott likes to lap up during the joint’s private candlelit dinners, and maybe even one for the jodhpurs. When Corey tallies the figures, Lancaster’s share of two grand and change might buy him a ’47 Nash if the salesman is already having a good month in terms of his quota, but that isn’t much of a return for 14 years.

The rest is an over-the-top revenge pic with the usual expressive Paramount production design trappings, these photographed by Leo Tover not long before he got the Oscar for shooting William Wyler’s The Heiress. Lancaster all but bursts out of his tight-fitting suit taking on thugs employed by Douglas, who’s one of those guys with a hidden button under his office desk to signal doorman Mike Mazurki to come in and employ a headlock if need be. In keeping with this, Burt takes an unusually brutal gang beating here into some alley garbage cans — a familiar scene made more convincing than usual, notes Blu-ray bonus section commentator Troy Howarth, by the natural athleticism that went back to the actor’s days as a circus performer. Meanwhile, Scott gets two or three musical numbers here dubbed by another singer, despite the fact that the actress waxed an LP for real about a decade later for Vik Records, former recording home of Gisele Mackenzie and Mickey & Sylvia (now, there’s a playbill).

The nominal director is Byron Haskin, who had an unusual career: cinematographer and director in the silent era, then a special effects specialist for a lot of the cream projects at Warner, and then a return to directing (with Walk) that lasted 20 more years. He wasn’t much of a stylist nor much to write home about when it came to actors, yet a lot of his films looked good or moved along at a decent clip: Too Late for Tears, the Disney Treasure Island, The War of the Worlds, The Naked Jungle, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, some “Outer Limits” episodes and a trio of Technicolor Paramount Westerns from the early ’50s that I’ve always enjoyed in a kids’ matinee kind of way.

Douglas quit playing heels after 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful after basically owning that market for half-a-decade, while Lancaster began his escape from noir-ish screen beginnings around the time he and Nick Cravat enjoyed their first color romp in The Flame and the Arrow. As a result, I Walk Alone captures a special moment in marquee-name time and is thus worth a look by those for whom modest fun is enough. Nearly 30 years later, the two kingpins would still be at it with Tough Guys, a movie that took its own curious time getting to Blu-ray, though eventually it did.

Mike’s Picks: ‘I Walk Alone’ and ‘If I Had a Million’

If I Had a Million (Si j’avasts un million)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

All-Region French Import;
Elephant;
Comedy;
$39.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper, George Raft, Charles Ruggles.

Paramount was always my favorite Hollywood studio up until its last two or three decades of predominant artistic futility, and this would, of course, include the 1930s. No one could come close to touching it in terms of elegance (see Ernst Lubitsch or Criterion’s current Dietrich-Sternberg box), but, at times, it could also “do” the Depression, though obviously not to Warner Bros. standards.

A case in the latter point would be some of the W.C. Fields Paramounts — which, in addition to still being rollickingly funny, also do a stellar job of (without making a big deal of it) portraying a period of economic neediness. So does the multipart If I Had a Million, whose Fields episode is one of the high points — though in others of these episodes, the characters’ desperation is all the way in our faces (to say nothing of theirs). And especially so in the final one, which challenges the Fields romp as the movie’s best for a net result that’s securely on the high side of spotty.

I can never figure out how France’s Elephant Films chooses which ’30s Paramounts to bring out on Blu-ray, but Million is a pleasant surprise because it’s not as well known as other potential choices, and its storyline definitely does capture an era amid a current time when a lot of people haven’t been invited to the econo-party. This isn’t to say that eight episodes plus a prologue/epilogue are likely to be of uniform quality — and, for that matter, the directors here (Lubitsch’s very brief contribution aside) aren’t anyone’s cream of the crop, though, yes, some respected comedy specialists are included. But the narrative capably fits together more often than not after an arguably too-protracted setup, and you come out more or less convinced that most people who received a million dollars out of the blue probably would blow it on follies or at least their warped idea of the good life.

That’s the premise — and one borrowed in the ’50s for TV’s “The Millionaire,” in which a mysterious moneybags who was either altruistic or eccentric gave a million bucks each week to random regular people who were living in, relatively speaking, Eisenhower prosperity. In Million’s case, the donor isn’t mysterious but a well-known tycoon who’s sick of leeches and sycophants (Richard Bennett) — albeit one apparently still obscure enough to the common man and woman that some of the rewarded refuse to believe their good fortune despite the “name” signature on the cashier’s check. Though I see that he also played the major in Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, actor Bennett was mostly a stage personality generally unknown to me — but he’s fully up to the cantankerous needs of the role.

In addition to directors William A. Seiter, Norman Z. McLeod, Norman Taurog and more, the many writers here include Joseph L. Mankiewicz and future blacklistees Sidney Buchman and Lester Cole. And though there’s no shortage of squalor (flophouses, a prison death row, a combo saloon/den of prostitution), the comedy is so broad in the Seiter-McLeod-Taurog fashion that the picture still feels like some sort of cousin to a Paramount Fields or Marx Brothers vehicle of the same period (Seiter also directed the best Laurel and Hardy feature, Sons of the Desert, for Roach/MGM).

The two funniest episodes are the post-prologue opener (“China Shop”), in which Charles Ruggles plays a store’s mild-mannered hauler of dinnerware who keeps getting his pay docked for breakage — plus the Fields-Alison Skipworth howler (“Road Hogs”) about some strategic revenge taken against the title assailants. I noticed in both cases that these protagonists aren’t so wretchedly off that it prevents them from having their own homes, which may explain why they’re so willing to spend their chance booty so frivolously (which must have been a legitimate Depression dream for some at the time). The Fields episode doesn’t match Laurel & Hardy’s Two Tars in either quality or level of retribution, but it’s very funny and recalls a real-life anecdote involving an acquaintance of my father. Furious at being cut off in his lane by a city bus in his lane each day on the way to work, he bought a clunker for $25 or $50 (back when you could still do that) and plowed right into the driver one morning as the latter pulled away from a stop.

The staged crashes here really look real — and this being farce, no one thinks about the bodily harm that naturally ensues in those days before mandatory seat belts. Which is OK in this context. Much more wince-worthy is a scene where cops chase forger George Raft on foot and one of them shoots a gun at him in flight — missing but breaking the balloon that a little kid is holding and setting him off into a crying jag. One of the greatest things about watching old movies is the window they open to attitudes that once were — as in when my own kids watched a DVD I had of old war toys from the ’50s (full of since-banned flying projectiles that would have kept an eye-transplant surgeon in business). Their rapturous response, “God, dad, you really lived in a cool time” (a reaction not replicated when I played them some Eddie Fisher).

For all the farce — and this includes the delightful Lubitsch-Charles Laughton vignette — the final pre-epilogue segment sends out the movie on an unexpectedly high note. Fully serious until it wraps with a sentimental but credibly satisfying wrap (at least in this context), it deals with a “home” for Depression widows run by a patronizing crone — marvelously showcasing the great May Robson about a year before she had the role of her screen career: as the original Apple Annie in Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day. As a side note, I’m looking forward to seeing Robson as Aunt Polly in the newly arrived Kino Classics Blu-ray of David O. Selznick’s Technicolor The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I last saw looking decent (the old Image Laserdisc looked dreadful) in a 35mm print at the AFI theater give-or-take around 1976.

Million’s Robson contribution is called “Grandma,” and whoever chose the defeated faces for the resident’s indigent inhabitants did a yeoman job, whether it was director Stephen Roberts or someone else. Before his career was cut short by death at 40, Roberts did The Story of Temple Drake, a famed instigator of 1934’s toughened-up Production Code and the movie that has forever made me unable to look at a haystack without thinking of Miriam Hopkins. As with Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow and some of the other episodes here, it makes one unable to even think about an American society without Social Security.

The print quality is very good, though not up to the Paramount/Universals I’ve seen from Elephant nor, say, Criterion’s release of Lubitsch’s splendid Design for Living if we’re limiting discussion to Universal-owned Paramounts. Again, I’m curious as to the factors that are inspiring Elephant to release this title over that one but am glad they’re getting a bit into the nooks and crannies. A concurrent early ’30s Paramount of theirs is Lubitsch’s World War I Broken Lullaby — which is curio-worthy but no one’s idea of a laff riot or a roll in the hay (or in that dusty flat from Design for Living) with Miriam Hopkins.

Mike’s Picks: ‘I Walk Alone’ and ‘If I Had a Million’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Let’s Make Love’ and ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’

Let’s Make Love

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR. 
Stars Marilyn Monroe, Yves Montand, Tony Randall.
1960. Five months before her final film The Misfits’ release, Marilyn Monroe starred in Let’s Make Love, the last completed pure MM “vehicle.” Basically a rack on which to hang a full array of hats, the script concerns an Old Money French billionaire secretly posing as an actor to lampoon himself in an off-Broadway satirical revue whose personnel isn’t aware that it has the real thing in its midst.
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The Colossus of Rhodes

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Rory Calhoun, Lea Massari.
1961. Aside from some oddball casting amusements, this amusing sprawler’s other claim to fame is its status as the debut of Sergio Leone as a credited director — though from an autuerist angle, there isn’t a whole lot of future trademark stuff to be gleaned.
Extras: A bonus commentary by (Leone biographer) Christopher Frayling hits just the right balance between film/historical scholarship and droll humor.
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