Mike’s Picks: ‘Cimarron’ and ‘Jungle Fever’

Cimarron

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Western, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Glenn Ford, Maria Schell, Anne Baxter, Arthur O’Connell, Russ Tamblyn.
1960.
MGM’s large-scale remake of the 1931 Best Picture Oscar winner looks so impressive on a big screen TV that I pleasurably breezed through its 2 hour, 38 minutes in one sitting, though without being truly stimulated.
Read the Full Review 

Jungle Fever

Kino Lorber, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for sensuality, strong language, drug content, and for violence.
Stars Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee.
1991.
Though Jungle Fever is a movie I really like and possibly more to the point, really enjoy, it’s a prime example of the tendency of director Spike Lee to overstuff his narratives to a degree that would altogether wreck a lot of pictures that lack most of his filmography’s redemptive drive, dependably provocative subject matter, imaginative smorgasbord-like casting and sheer filmmaking passion. Never has that been more true than here, where there are two distinctive storylines that Lee can’t find a way to mesh without large 1.85 seams showing — even if they do feature (but don’t always emphasize to equal degree) at least some of the same characters.
Read the Full Review

Cimarron (1960)

 BLU-RAY REVIEW:

 Available via Warner Archive;

Warner;
Western;
$21.99 Blu-ray; Not rated.
Stars Glenn Ford, Maria Schell, Anne Baxter, Arthur O’Connell, Russ Tamblyn.

MGM’s large-scale remake of screen history’s deadliest Best Picture Oscar winner looks so impressive on a big screen TV that I pleasurably breezed through its 2 hour, 38 minutes in one interrupted sitting, though without being truly stimulated. This basically replicates my original theatrical-run reaction to this Oklahoma-set soaper/epic, whose old-school cinematography by the perpetual class-act Robert Surtees washed over me at my favorite local downtown movie palace as the studio’s more-or-less pre-Christmas attraction (the national opening date was Dec. 5, 1960). But capital city didn’t get it — in a situation I’ll bet was replicated in many other markets — until mid-March of 1961 when The Absent-Minded Professor was just opening one block over (my 12-year-old self did a double-header that day).

So to some extent, MGM dumped what was obviously an expensive undertaking — and this was when no one knew or could have dreamed that the two “little” movies the studio served up was well that previous December  (Village of the Damned and Where the Boys Are) would end up seeing their stock rise so substantially with the passing years. Yet at the same time, remaking Cimarron may have seemed like a good bet, at least to the front-office hard arteries who didn’t realize that audience taste changed a lot in the later 1950s. Edna Ferber adaptions had enjoyed a remarkably successful run dating back to the Richard Dix-Irene Dunne original’s 1931 Oscar win. And just four years before the remake, Giant had become the most financially successful picture Warner Bros. had ever had up to that time. In fact, 1960 had begun with the release of the Ferber-originated Ice Palace, which my faint memories tell me isn’t even as good as Cimarron despite Richard Burton and Robert Ryan headlining its cast and the underrated Vincent Sherman directing.

This is the context. The story, or at least its basic structure, will be familiar to most or all Ferber followers: a decades-spanning chronicle involving young principals who wed, and not always happily, in an out-of-the-way but economically developing geographical setting — eventually living to see their children grow up and occasionally rebel as the family fortunes (and those of paupers mom and dad knew in their youth) improve. Other instant identifiers sometimes include unrequited love on someone’s part; a tendency on the part of at least one decent guy from the early part of the movie turning pompously ostentatious when he starts to smell the green; and fun times for the studio make-up artists who finally get to “age” principals who’ve remained youthful-looking on screen over the previous three or four decades.

My generalization here is an over-simplification — I don’t recall any of the above happening the last time I saw Ferber-stable standouts Dinner at Eight or Stage Door — but it’s true enough. What we have here is a young wife from a pampered upbringing (Maria Schell, whose high-profile Hollywood tenure was brief) wedding a well-traveled lawyer (Glenn Ford) — a “dreamer” as well who wants to take part in the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush and, though it’s against his character, allegedly settle down. Instead, and despite his near-overnight transformation into the ensuing local newspaper’s editor/publisher, Ford spends the entire picture running off for five years or more at a time on one or another of his witness-to-history sprees. This means, of course, that the long-suffering Mrs. is left holding some bags, namely the newspaper’s daily production grind and motherhood (the latter just once, possibly because Ford is rarely home). She suffers, but because bubbly Schell is playing her, she smiles a lot through it all until finally getting fed up. Schell even laughs in the scene where she’s delivering their son, but this is possibly because the neighbor acting as mid-wife gives her several snorts (one woman’s medically questionable approach to natural childbirth).

There are two ways to interpret Ford’s character, who is named, in colorful Ferber fashion, “Yancy Cravat.” One is that Yance is a bigger-than-life visionary of uncommon gravitas, kind of like what Rock Hudson’s towering version of Bick Benedict in Giant might have been had he had incurable wanderlust and not preferred to do what most guys would: stay home on that isolated Reata spread and make it with Liz Taylor. The other way to go look at Yancy is as an irresponsible flake — and though Ford’s performance got some critical drubs at the time, I think you can at least make the argument that the actor’s familiar fidgets and tics in his dialogue deliveries make him a credible choice for that take on the character. The picture definitely loses something when he’s not on screen.

In any event, Ford/Yancy is a crusader always on the side of right, especially when it comes to racist treatment of Native Americans (Charles McGraw plays the key heavy here, and who better?). This fairly extensive side issue conjures up more narrative interest than some of the other subplots, but truth to tell, the movie peaks early with a re-creation of the Land Rush that’s really something to see, as it must have been in real life. Wagons topple, axels break, a senior citizen gets trampled, and I especially liked the shot of one lone guy on a big-wheeled unicycle, trying to compete with galloping horses in the race to lay claim to the most choice land because the losers have to make do with barren dirt where crops won’t grow.

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As noted, the film was shot by the great senior Surtees (fellow cinematographer Bruce was his son), who was the go-to guy for a full Leo the Lion share of MGM biggies from a spectacle-heavy extended era: King Solomon’s Mines, Quo Vadis, Mogambo, Ben-Hur, Brando’s Mutiny on the Bounty and (on loan-out, wouldn’t you know) Oklahoma! Later, as proof he couldn’t be typed, he then tried around and photographed The Graduate, The Last Picture Show and the studio-shot scenes (Britain’s Robert Krasker did the rest) for William Wyler’s The Collector. And do you want even more class when it comes to Cimarron? Franz Waxman did the score.

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This is a movie where the techno credits are more exciting than the casting, and I could never figure out, even when I was a kid, why an actress with almost no sex appeal (Anne Baxter) ended up playing the town’s most glamorous prostitute — though, of course, her place of work is presented as some kind of social club for local males to purge their urges as the biddie demographic walks by the building and goes, “Tsk, tsk.” Still, and as noted, it’s all pretty watchable if you have a big screen, and certainly preferable to the ’31 Oscar version (a year when City Lights wasn’t even nominated), which is basically Richard Dix sporting 10 pounds of pancake makeup on a dusty street.

On paper, Cimarron-’60’s large budget would seem to make it a transitional film for director Anthony Mann. It was situated between the director’s series of five celebrated James Stewart Westerns plus Man of the West with Gary Cooper — and his very pricey entry into the Charlton Heston loincloth arena (though if you press me, I’ll concede doubts that anyone ever even claimed that Chuck wore one in Mann’s El Cid. We’re speaking symbolically here, folks.) Instead, I recently learned that despite receiving solo screen credit for Cimarron, Mann left the project early, leaving MGM mainstay and former outstanding dance director Charles Walters to complete a huge chunk of the film’s second half. Walters’ top directorial achievements included Good News, Lili, The Tender Trap, High Society and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, which also came out in 1960. All are crowd pleasers, but Walters was never much of a stylist, which suggests to me that producer Edmund Grainger kind of bailed on the project even during production. Mann, interestingly enough, then went into Spartacus before taking on El Cid, but left that project even more quickly. No wonder the guy ended up dying on the set of a heart attack mid-picture in 1967.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Cimarron’ and ‘Jungle Fever’

Jungle Fever

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
‘R’ for sensuality, strong language, drug content, and for violence.
Stars Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee.

A whole big bunch of things are much easier to accomplish than figuring out just what the genre of this ambitious 1991 Spike Lee potpourri is, which means that “Romantic Social Drama” will have to do for now. Though Jungle Fever is a movie I really like and possibly more to the point, really enjoy, I do wonder about the second feature Lee made after the outrageous failure of Do the Right Thing to win the Best Picture Oscar a couple years earlier. Yet if I overrated Fever in my original USA Today review, it still scintillates for me in a way that several best picture winners of the past 20 years have not (though, no, this wasn’t the case with Parasite). Yet, it’s on the messy side, as well as the first historical indication I had of a problem that has plagued the writer-director’s features throughout his career (though not, I would add, his great documentaries).

This is the tendency of Lee to overstuff his narratives (and the running times that usually go along with this) to a degree that would altogether wreck a lot of pictures that lack most of his filmography’s redemptive drive, dependably provocative subject matter, imaginative smorgasbord-like casting and sheer filmmaking passion. Never has that been more true than here, where there are two distinctive storylines that Lee can’t find a way to mesh without large 1.85 seams showing — even if they do feature (but don’t always emphasize to equal degree) at least some of the same characters. In fact, even within the same storyline, the movie sometimes stops to digress, as when a spurned light-skinned Harlem wife (Lonette McKee) and her women friends spend maybe 10 minutes bandying about the frequent tendency of black men to pursue white women in a way that complicates matters for everyone. It doesn’t quite stop the picture but just misses doing so.

Interracial “jungle” attraction is indeed Fever’s main thrust, as McKee’s otherwise sturdy architect husband (Wesley Snipes) shoots past the 98.6 standard with his new Italian temp/secretary (Annabella Sciorra), a Bensonhurst native whose hiring he initially resisted. This is all happening during a period of Snipes resentment toward his white superiors, who are going the namby-pamby route to foil his partnership aspirations despite the highly visible contributions he has made to the firm. Tim Robbins and a cleaned-up Brad Dourif have these roles, and can Robbins ever play this kind of smoothie in his sleep. Snipes ends up getting himself in what one would assume to be financial peril from the accumulation of these events, though this presumed cause-effect is curiously unaddressed.

What is addressed is the racist cretinism of Sciorra’s father and brother, Italian stereotypes of a certain sub-breed who unfortunately don’t come off as stereotypes here — or at least in the way that an unbridled Anthony Quinn (one of those Quinn performances where he risks a hernia reading his dialogue) does playing John Turturro’s oppressive father. Turturro, as the spurned Sciorra boyfriend who works the counter in the family neighborhood drug store, is the sole voice of reason despite getting no help from his own black-hating buddies, who include the Sciorra brothers. Turturro will have nothing of the latter vitriol and despite his pain over having been dumped, is toying with asking out a frequent black store customer who encourages his self-improvement regimen (the exceptionally attractive Tyra Ferrell).

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The movie’s in-name-only other half rates significantly less than 50% screen time but nonetheless provides Jungle with its one indisputably great claim to fame. Nowadays, Samuel L. Jackson is so ubiquitous that if you’re in bed having one of those surreal Melatonin dreams at night, he’s as likely as not to show up in it, even if the dream’s setting is, say, your boss’s toddler daughter’s birthday party. But there was a time when he wasn’t well known, and his performance as Snipes’ crackhead brother so ambushed critics and audiences that, to give one example, the Cannes Film Festival created its first supporting actor award just so that Jackson could be recognized. He’d been around in small roles — there’d even been an appearance in GoodFellas the year previously — but nothing like this. It was something akin to when a relatively obscure Morgan Freeman got cast as a pimp in 1987’s Street Smart from the more often than not ignominious Cannon Films and made such a striking surprise impression that he eventually got an Oscar nomination.

Compared to brother Snipes and, for that matter, nearly everyone else in the picture, Jackson is the bad seed — regularly putting the financial touch on his desperate but enabling mother (Ruby Dee) after his father (Ossie Davis) long ago forbade him even to enter their home. Sometimes, mom’s out of enough cookie-jar money, so dad’s color TV will have to do, whose theft will provide either solace or the funds to go up his nose in a street-side crack den in the company of his companion (Halle Berry — does this movie have a cast or what)? This leads to the movie’s most powerful set piece when Snipes, as a favor to mother Dee, pounds the pavement to find Jackson as Stevie Wonder’s timeless “Living for the City” provides the musical backdrop.

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I would have thought, by 1991 and with an entire Wonder score, the movie would have a stereo track, and matter of fact, there’s one listed at the end of the glorious end credits (more on these in a second). This Blu-ray doesn’t, nor is there any commentary nor much to speak of in terms of chapter stops, which I’m speculating is true as well with other Universal-released Lees that Kino has just issued and that I’m hot to re-see: Mo’ Better Blues; Crooklyn; and Clockers. Also not here is (and I think it would have been) is that great sweaty blacksmith coda — amusingly purloined from Jack Webb’s old Mark VII Productions — that signified one of Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks productions.

But in any rendering, Fever’s exit music is “Feeding Off the Love of the Land,” my favorite Stevie ballad ever and for some reason a song not on the original soundtrack CD, an omission that rated a zillion-decibel string of profanities from me in 1991 before it much later showed up on a couple of pricey Wonder sets. (Motown released it as a single, but I suspect it was without the strings that Spike’s musician father Bill Lee added for the movie’s version, which I personally think “makes” the finale.)  I also love the way its lyrics splash across the screen a line at the time, an effect I don’t think I’ve ever seen in any other movie. It’s a very powerful way to send audiences home (or wrap up a viewing-room evening) — even if, as frequently compelling as Jungle is, a viewer can be forgiven for wondering what exactly he or she has just seen.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Cimarron’ and ‘Jungle Fever’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Black Angel’ and ‘Kitten With a Whip’

Black Angel

MVD/Arrow, Mystery, $39.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre, Broderick Crawford.
1946.
The big takeaway from Angel, at least speaking personally, is just how much of a visual stylist director Roy William Neill apparently was.
Extras: Alan Rode provides a voiceover commentary, and there’s also an on-camera interview with British film historian Neil Sinyard.
Read the Full Review

Kitten With a Whip

Universal, Drama, $21.98 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ann-Margret, John Forsythe, Richard Anderson, Peter Brown, James Ward.
1964
Kitten With a Whip was kind of an unexpected and even strange choice for Ann-Margret to take on in the immediate aftermath of Bye Bye Birdie and Viva Las Vegas. As with its title, Kitten’s ad art was provocative, too — eschewing a literal whip but still suggesting that this might be the kind of girl you could take home to dad if dad were the Marquis de Sade.
Read the Full Review

 

Black Angel

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Mystery;
$39.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre, Broderick Crawford.

Was there something in the cinematic vapors during the late and immediately post-World War II years when it came to big-screen chippies getting murdered in their apartments, leaving their innocent husbands or lovers to be pursued by the cops? Universal’s Black Angel, adapted from a Cornell Woolrich story, has its own way with this premise, though in certain particulars it recalls Alan Ladd’s plight in the Raymond Chandler-scripted The Blue Dahlia, which Paramount had released just four months earlier. Not only is there an obvious kinship between their respective titles, but the murder victim in Dahlia is played by Doris Dowling — real-life sister of actress Constance, who has the counterpart role in Angel.

Beyond this, there had been Phantom Lady from a couple years earlier, in which Alan Curtis’s lesser half gets strangled with one of his own ties, and the parties who can supply a legitimate alibi aren’t cooperating. In this case, there’s more of a creative direct line with Angel because Lady, too, was taken from a Woolrich work and released by the same studio. If you’re still following this, you’re a) a better than man than I am, Gunga Din; and b) maybe getting a sense that Hollywood was going to this narrative trough to arguable excess around this time.

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The big takeaway from Angel, at least speaking personally, is just how much of a visual stylist director Roy William Neill apparently was (this was his final film before passing away later in 1946 under circumstances somewhat murky, albeit with no foul play involved or alleged). I haven’t seen much Neill beyond his Sherlock Holmes pictures — and those, with one exception, not lately — so it is was a revelation to let the often elaborate nature of Angel’s camera set-ups sink in during the movie’s many nightclub scenes (Paul Ivano was the cinematographer). I had seen the picture a couple times before but never looking as great as it does on this new Arrow Blu-ray — nor with A-Team bonus commentator Alan Rode on the voiceover, basically applying a prod that kept saying, “Mike, just look at that.”

Still. This is one of those pictures easy to admire for its sometimes surprising craftsmanship, and I’m impressed by how many admirers it has, even if Woolrich wasn’t among them. But just to keep our feet on the ground here, the film isn’t all that much on emotional resonance when you stop to think that 1946 (one of those movie years that cleans the plow of 1939, imo) was also the year of The Best Years of Our Lives, It’s a Wonderful Life, Notorious, My Darling Clementine, Beauty and the Beast, The Big Sleep, Great Expectations, Panique and, for that matter, Road to Utopia. Still, it keeps you going like bowls of salsa and chips, while offering the almost novel experience (at least for the 1940s) of seeing Dan Duryea in a sympathetic role, albeit as one seriously messed-up dude here. Musician Duryea’s not the one who stands accused of bumping off Dowling (Constance, that is, who was the knockout of the two real-life sisters), but he was once married to her, and her rejection has driven him to such drink that he has to have someone keep an eye on him in the more or less flophouse apartment where he lives.

The guy the cops are after is Dowling’s lover, who is married, trapped in someone’s blackmail scheme, and (oh, yeah, right) soon to be executed after a trial that’s gotten out of the way mighty quickly in screen terms (I think this happens as well in Phantom Lady, if I recall right). The role here goes to John Phillips, who, like Alan Curtis in Lady, is so nondescript that the film takes something of a hit. This is more debatable, but I’m also not too crazy about June Vincent, cast as Phillips’ rather remarkably devoted wife who teams up with Duryea to clear her husband (let it not be said that the unhealthy subtext here fails to provide a viewing alternative to the same movie year’s Courage of Lassie). Though adequate — original plans were to have a young Ava Gardner in the role as an MGM loan-out — Vincent reinforces the perception that Universal had a real problem cultivating conventional female leads with the charisma to catch on. Which is to say that, Deanna Durbin and Maria Montez were specialized personalities, to be sure; Marlene Dietrich was only there for about a five-year run that, yes, did include Destry Rides Again and The Spoilers, but she both made and strengthened her legacy elsewhere; and Ella Raines (a personal favorite), while amassing several credits there, found two of her career roles (in Hail the Conquering Hero and Tall in the Saddle) at other studios.

Fortunately, Duryea still doesn’t have to carry the charisma load all by himself. Peter Lorre has a key role as a shifty nightclub owner with surface charm, and watching him is like watching a friendly baseball batter get tossed a lollipop by a pitcher who wants to date the batter’s sister, so directly is the part even as written (by Roy Chanslor) in Lorre’s wheelhouse. Broderick Crawford plays the cop who seems to show up like the Cavalry at every perilous moment, and he, too, fits right in — though as Rode notes, this was before the actor commenced his gruff period when his All the Kings Men Oscar was followed quickly by Born Yesterday. This means he’s a more subdued Brod than he came to be — and certainly more so than on TV’s “Highway Patrol” (also referenced here on Rode’s voiceover) in which Crawford’s Dan Mathews character was likely the kind of guy who likely wouldn’t even have been able to order a BLT without bellowing for extra mayo. The great Wallace Ford, too, is a welcome presence — or as welcome as one can be when you’re part of the seedy male hit parade that resides in Duryea’s dump of an apartment.

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Angel floats somewhere in that amorphous region where it can be categorized of both an ‘A’ or ‘B’-movie, depending upon who’s talking. Universal didn’t ever have big bucks to spend, but it sprung for $600,000, which would have been a lot of haircuts for the Wolf Man, to keep in the studio vernacular. As suggested earlier, the atmosphere goodies of the nightclub sequences can hold their own with any screen rival’s of the period, and this was a rich period for nightclub sequences (Raoul Walsh’s wonderful The Man I Love, starring a woman I loved, Ida Lupino, came out the same year). Rode all but says as much on his commentary, though the movie still bothers me by the way the trial is glossed over and how one has to believe that eventual plot revelations as things progress would almost certainly have come out earlier via any halfway competent lawyer. On the other hand, this is how you keep a movie running a taut 80 minutes until a finale that’s not your everyday tidy-up.

As always, Rode comes heavily prepped from having studied studio production files, and he was also great friends with Duryea’s late son Richard. The latter point contributes to tidbits, which, among many others, inform us that the actor taught himself to play five numbers to make more convincing his performance as a piano player (the two key women here are vocalists) — and that in real life, the actor was a real homebody who enjoyed getting out of his Fritz Lang lapels and gardening in dumpy duds. (I’ve heard that one before, but it’s a tough image to avoid sharing.) There’s also an on-camera interview with British film historian Neil Sinyard, another favorite of mine and one who’s something that film folk almost never are: jovial. He and Rode both relate a great aside I’d never heard previously, which is that Crawford was such a practical joker (he also loved the sauce, but we won’t go there) that he ate Frank Sinatra’s toupee on the set of Not As a Stranger. Dooby Dooby puke, which is apparently close to what happened, for a Frank fate arguably more humiliating than even the then imminent Johnny Concho.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Black Angel’ and ‘Kitten With a Whip’

Kitten With a Whip

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Universal;
Drama;
$21.98 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ann-Margret, John Forsythe, Richard Anderson, Peter Brown, James Ward.

Either Ann-Margret’s agent was trying to pull off an image-inversion to prove the budding star’s versatility, which is what I think happened, or he simply ignored the risks of inking a brief deal with Universal Pictures, which, with just a couple name-actor exceptions, was tantamount to a death wish in 1964. In any event, Kitten With a Whip was kind of an unexpected and even strange choice for A-M to take on in the immediate aftermath of Bye Bye Birdie and Viva Las Vegas, a pair of enjoyably loud George Sidney musicals in which first a fictional Elvis and then the real-life Elvis were co-equal motivating forces. As with its title, Kitten’s ad art was provocative, too — eschewing a literal whip but still suggesting that this might be the kind of girl you could take home to dad if dad were the Marquis de Sade.

According to what I’ve read, Universal then ended up limiting the release of this junior delinquent melodrama to minor theaters and drive-ins, which might explain how I managed to miss it at a time when memories of the previous year’s Birdie remained indelible in my mind. Like every other straight guy my age at the time (15, almost 16), my eyes opened 5,000 f-stops when A-M came out of the literal big-screen blue to belt the title tune in that high school tune-fest’s no-foreplay opening. Sitting in my favorite spot at the Loew’s Ohio (my favorite 2,800-seater) just as summer vacation began, I probably levitated as well, even though before too long, the sexuality she projected became a little too obvious to appeal to me (I eventually tended to go for the unpretentious or smoldering ones). As for Kitten, only the most high-profile Universal releases of that era managed to rate downtown playdates in my Al Roker neck of the woods — almost certainly because until the Eastwood/Zanuck-Brown era gave the studio’s global logo some adrenaline (some might date the transition beginning with 1970’s Airport), Universal mostly made glorified TV movies, though very occasionally, one of them would have an edge. An example of the last was Don Siegel’s The Killers, which was supposed to be the first made-for-TV feature from the studio’s broadcast division until its brutality and climactic death count forced Universal to chicken out and release it to theaters mere months before Kitten’s release. This one isn’t as edgy by a long shot but for a movie that came out around the same time as Mary Poppins, it’s kind of a slick sickie.

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We begin with a pursued and running A-M in a nightgown (and there’s nothing wrong with that), futilely trying to hop a freight car. Failing, she opts to break into the San Diego home of political hopeful John Forsythe, who resides in a mighty high-rent neighborhood for one apparently so close to the railroad tracks. It’s at a time when local promoters have been grooming him as a public-office candidate from an unspecified political party, but judging from the white-bread types who surround them “at the club” — the fact that Richard Anderson plays the main one is about all you need to know — you can bet that these guys sit around all the time lamenting how Pat Brown beat that good-joe Richard Nixon for the governorship a couple years earlier. Thus, Forsythe probably has to avoid scandal even more than most candidates, especially given that his moderately estranged wife is already out of town “thinking things over” while he has the house to himself.

So here’s the deal. You come home one night and miss discovering until the next morning that Ann-Margret is in a nightie and sleeping with your daughter’s stuffed animals. Awakened, this surprise guest then relates an unfortunately familiar story (though not that much on 1964 screens) about an abusing stepfather father or mom boyfriend; it might even be true and a thus legitimate contributor to her mixed-up state. But though this so-called teenager’s initial excuse is credible enough for a not unsympathetic Forsythe to buy, she keeps changing her story and getting angry and defensive whenever the TV reports reporting on her flight from a detention center indicate behavior far more sociopathic. And then, she starts doing the same with Forsythe to such a degree that you almost wish that Hope Emerson’s sadistic prison matron from Caged would break the fourth wall and enter the frame to slap her around a little bit. Because before long, the kid (though A-M was 23 when she made this) is starting to try on the wife’s clothes and revel in the degree to which she’s compromised her host. Then it turns physical (no, not that way) when she rips off Forsythe’s shirt and gives him a scratch he won’t forget across at the chest. Funny: I never would have thought an Ann-Margret character and Freddy Krueger used the same manicurist.

Throughout all this, poor Forsythe has to put up with an entire suburban community of meddlesome female neighbors and friends who are always showing up to “check in”; one can easily imagine him making a mental note: “Build Moat.” To compound this, he can’t even go to a department store’s women’s section to buy A-M some clothes to facilitate her permanent exit (he hopes) without another pest coming up to not loudly that the selections are far too small for the Mrs. (naturally, the presumed recipient) as the sales clark stands there in doubt. I think writer-director Douglas Heyes (working from an H. William Miller novel) probably does this to vary the program a little, but truth is, the movie is never as interesting as when it focuses on interplay between the two central characters. Alas, their back-and-forth is further minimized in the movie’s second half when two remarkably clean-cut punk A-M acquaintances (Peter Brown and James Ward, when he was sometimes billed as “Skip”) show up with another young woman who soon fades from the action. Eventually, matters shift to a less whimsical version of Tijuana than the one with which the Kingston Trio had what is now politically incorrect fun, with Forsythe getting barraged with so many mishaps and humiliations that he doesn’t even have time to think about how he’s ever going to explain all this to his wife and backers.

It all gets to be pretty risible, especially since you can almost hear the person in charge of a canned score lifted from previous Universal films going, “Cue the bongos” each time something sinister is about to happen. In fact, I didn’t know until now that “Mystery Science Theater 3000” once took a crack at this movie, which strongly indicates Kitten’s Blu-ray marketing appeal for gay audiences, camp fanciers and those who take their home-viewing movie parties seriously. It’s never quite the howler that the title, premise and lead actress portend, but at least a little of its chuckle/snort potential is reached. Joseph Biroc was a good cinematographer; he’d recently done an effective shadows-and-light number on Robert Aldrich’s Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte and would soon embark on the same filmmaker’s unforgettable The Flight of the Phoenix. But Kitten is essentially, as suggested earlier, a glorified TV movie that was never going to be anyone’s Blu-ray techno showcase under nay circumstances. The disc is about as no-frills as they come, and the $21.98 list price is a little stiff.

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A-M’s performance is an odd hybrid. She’s definitely doing some sashaying Bye Bye Birdie stuff with the dress Forysthe buys her, almost as if she’s giving a dinner theater audience what they’ve paid to see in addition to the salad bar selection. But in a couple other scenes, she seems credibly off her rocker. In any event, working for Universal (she followed with Bus Riley’s Back in Town after a jump to Fox with The Pleasure Seekers) did her about as much good as it did Rock Hudson and George Peppard when they labored there at the same time far more extensively. When she made her Oscar-nominated comeback in Mike Nichols’ still potent-as-hell Carnal Knowledge in 1971, the films she made from 1964 on (see The Swinger — or maybe don’t) were what she was coming back from. Still, I’ll bet Kitten did satisfying business as drive-in fodder over the following winter (those in-car heaters really worked) and spring/summer of the next year, paired with, say, same-era Universals like The Killers or The Night Walker or The Naked Brigade. Of course, the crackhead who booked my town probably programmed it with Father Goose.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Black Angel’ and ‘Kitten With a Whip’

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Great McGinty’ and ‘Watergate’

The Great McGinty

Kino Lorber, Comedy, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Brian Donlevy, Muriel Angelus, Akim Tamiroff, William Demarest.
1940.
It’s a little surprising that it took Hollywood until 1940 to attack the subject of political corruption as directly head-on as in The Great McGinty. However comparably minor it might be compared to the enduring Preston Sturges masterpieces that were shortly to come, McGinty is nonetheless full-throttle instant auteurism and effortlessly identifiable as a Sturges concoction from just about any 30-second excerpt.
Extras: Includes a voiceover commentary by Samm Deighan.
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Watergate

Region 2 British Import
Dogwoof/History Channel, Documentary, $15 DVD.
2019. Charles Ferguson’s four-hour, 21-minute documentary on the scandal that brought down the Nixon administration overcomes, for the most part, its inclusion of mostly unfortunate live reenactments.
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The Great McGinty

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not Rated.
Stars Brian Donlevy, Muriel Angelus, Akim Tamiroff, William Demarest.

Few traditions are more eternal than political corruption no matter the country in question, and even as we speak, Americans are seeing it in Imax three-camera Cinerama with 96-track stereo sound, just to mix some exhibition metaphors. Thus, it’s a little surprising that it took Hollywood until 1940 to attack the subject as directly head-on as in The Great McGinty — though there had been, just thinking here, some satirical jabbing from The Dark Horse (1932, Warner Bros.). But that one’s release came less than half-a-year before FDR’s first election ushered in a period of the president-as-deity except in certain Alf Landon circles — leading to a subsequent period not conducive to all-out comical skewering, though, of course, played-for-laughs political grifters and grafters were often side-issue mainstays in the Golden Age.

However comparably minor it might be compared to the enduring Preston Sturges masterpieces that were shortly to come, McGinty is nonetheless full-throttle instant auteurism and effortlessly identifiable as a Sturges concoction from just about any 30-second excerpt. (Or if you write about film, and it’s not instantly identifiable, I hear there’s a job opening down the street at my car wash.) As in other Sturges comedies, the fortunes of the central character are inverted almost overnight by a chance or flash occurrence, and his staging of knockabout physical comedy is almost as pronounced as anything you’d see in the silent era. Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff brawling with each other (once in a moving car, no less) isn’t much different in life-attitude from the club-car slapstick mayhem in The Palm Beach Story or William Demarest landing on his behind when trying to kick someone in the pants in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

Anyway, the story behind McGinty, which voiceover commentator Samm Deighan reiterates on Kino Classics’ bonus commentary, is that Sturges, like Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, was in a “let’s bash Mitchell Leisen mood” at Paramount. Though a lot of today’s historians raise amazed eyebrows over this, these ace writers (who worked predominantly but not exclusively for that studio) supposedly hated what Leisen kept doing or not doing when it came to interpreting their scripts. In McGinty’s case, Sturges supposedly offered to sell Paramount his script for a measly sum (Deighan says $10, though I’ve also heard a buck) if they also allowed him to direct it as well for what would be his directorial debut. When the studio agreed, it was a big deal and not just for Sturges. Shortly thereafter John Huston and Billy Wilder joined him to usher in a new era of the writer-director.

Paramount didn’t have that much to lose. The cast was modest (Donlevy, Tamiroff, the now obscure Muriel Angelus), and so was the budget. Nor was this exactly Leisen’s historical extravaganza Frenchman’s Creek when it came to lush Paramount production design — though even at once, Sturges showed himself to have a camera eye, a definite way with actors and a certain deftness with crowd scenes (this you can also see already as well in the same year’s Christmas in July). Low expectations gave the burgeoning filmmaker the freedom to indulge his love-hate attitude toward American foibles with very little sentimentality, which (as Deighan notes) makes Sturges’ political films seem more contemporary today than Frank Capra’s.

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Told in flashback from the banana republic from which he now tends bar, McGinty relates what is arguably the vintage screen’s most telling comic portrayal of ward heeling (though, yes, John Ford’s movie of The Last Hurrah has its moments as well). In an unnamed city that has the “feel” of Chicago, local “boss” Tamiroff hires Donlevy/McGinty as one of many to cast a bogus vote for the local machine’s lackey choice of a mayoral candidate — for the princely sum of $2. Because soup kitchens qualify as his second home, McG overcomes his confusion (the guy is affably dim) and votes 37 times — good not only for $74 but also to show the bosses that he’s an out-of-the-ordinary guy who might fit into the operation. He starts out successfully as heavily pugnacious debt-collecting muscle, though from the example presented does charm at least some of the female victims with a more soft-soap approach.

With his improved fortunes come an upgrade of sorts from a wardrobe best described as “flophouse-traditional” — though at least one of his new-era suits is nearly as sartorially haphazard as anything Spike Jones ever wore, though I suppose it doesn’t quite have the decibel level of those floral prints that preyed on your pollen allergies whenever Roy Rogers donned them during his Trucolor period. Improved fortunes also result in a mostly harmonious arranged marriage to his secretary Catherine, played by Angelus — a London-bred actress who only made a handful of Hollywood films (this was her last before early retirement, not counting a few more years of Broadway appearances).

It’s all for image — women voters supposedly want married candidates — and both sides get something because the bride is a single mom with two young children (a fact she takes a suspiciously long time to divulge, imo). But it works out well because McGinty takes to the children and enjoys, in one amusing scene, reading them the funnies. Somehow, the onetime bum ascends to becoming governor of the state, at which point Catherine’s motherly reformer instincts take over, at which point the picture lingers toward conventionality though not to artistically perilous extremes. But as for McGinty, it becomes a no-good-deed-goes-unpunished situation, which is what you get when you do the right thing for the only time in your life. This is not, getting back to what I noted before, an attitude Capra ever would have voiced, though I can imagine Sturges and Wilder having lunch in the studio commissary and chuckling about how people always vote against their own interests.

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Commentator Deighan seems to have done her homework discussing Sturges’ salad days (as opposed his eventual suffering of a shockingly severe artistic and box office declines), but I winced when twice she noted that Tamiroff and Donlevy won Oscars for performances in other films when, in truth, they only received nominations. And speaking of Oscars, McGinty took one for best original screenplay when The Great Dictator and Foreign Correspondent were among the competition — an indicator of just how much this modest box office success (no more) was admired in the industry. Bigger budgets and bigger stars for Sturges would follow, though the actors — peppered with Demarest and a slew of other loony types who’d make up Sturges’ future stock company of regulars — can’t be faulted at all here.

This isn’t a movie with the visual tools to showcase its 4K mastering, but it made for a very satisfying view on my 75-inch screen. Thank you, again, Kino Classics for what you’re doing for the Universal-controlled Paramount library in general (they hold rights to the 1929-49 titles, with a couple exceptions). This library was the last, Goldwyn’s excepted, to sell its titles to TV back in the day (in my local market, it was fall of 1959). It held Holy Grail status for on-the-ball film fans then, and for a long time history was repeating itself until not long ago. Now, it’s an embarrassment of riches, with Kino having just announced Beau Geste, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and more for April 7 alone (I think Murder, He Says might be in there, too).

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Great McGinty’ and ‘Watergate’

Watergate

DVD REVIEW:

Region 2 British Import;
Dogwoof/History Channel;
Documentary;
$15 DVD.
 

For an alternative screen look at political corruption (and one, appropriately, less whimsically sanguine), here’s one I’ve just taken a flying leap at: the two-disc Brit release of Charles Ferguson’s four-hour, 21-minute documentary on what at least used to be the American Presidency’s most scandalous administration.

Originally broadcast last year on the History Channel, I regretfully elected to miss Watergate at the time because that network’s barrage of commercial interruptions makes long docs impossible to enjoy and arduous to record when you’re hitting the pause button every few minutes. But I outsmarted myself: Of all docs not to get an American release even on DVD, here’s one of the most dunderheaded recent insults — inexcusable, I’d say, unless there were some kind of rights or interviewee stipulations involved. To be sure, this six-part epic, which overcomes, for the most part, its inclusion of mostly unfortunate live reenactments, is currently available for viewing in segments on Amazon Prime. But even beyond physical media enthusiasts, I suspect that any true Watergate junkie wants to, in effect, “hold G. Gordon Liddy in his hand” (and preferably — assuming heavy rubber gloves and industrial strength disinfectant are donned — by the chimes).

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Most people these days know the story via Alan J. Pakula’s all-timer All the President’s Men — adapted from the monster bestseller whose springboard was the Washington Post reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. As with the book, that film’s narrative begins with the Jun 17, 1972, break-in of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in Washington D.C.’s Watergate office building, right next door to where I worked for many years. In wider truth — as, say, J. Anthony Lukas’s later volume Nightmare more fully chronicles the full horrors from their origins — the promiscuous lawbreaking of the Nixon Administration began much earlier with formation of the co-equally sinister and hapless “Plumbers Unit.” These cowboy break-in artists were given a green light in 1971 to plug “leaks” after Rand Corporation Employee Daniel Ellsberg gave The New York Times a copy of the massive Pentagon Papers, the official Department of Defense history that ended up exposing the lies and self-deceptions that got us into the Vietnam War.

Though this amusing morsel isn’t mentioned in the documentary, the first Times story appeared and shared the front page with the previous day’s White House wedding of first daughter Tricia Nixon. You can just imagine the president on Sunday morning in his bathrobe, tie shoes and opening minutes of his 5-o’clock shadow munching on leftover caviar and warmly popping open the paper to read happy news. Instead, what he saw almost made him need a Heimlich Maneuver once it was explained to him that no matter how bad the Papers made LBJ look (his initial gleeful impression) they would make the presidency look weak to foreign leaders. It was then apoplexy time — later, the secret White House tapes proved this — and the saga began for the public with the DNC caper, long before anyone but a very few knew that the Plumbers had previously rifled Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.

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In this kind of documentary, access is nearly everything, and Ferguson doesn’t miss filming too many germane parties of those still alive (a few have passed on since he had the good fortune to get to them). Henry Kissinger isn’t here, but his Nixon toady-ism is on full display thanks to the White House tapes, which, as is true in most Watergate docs, get the workout they deserve. From the reportorial point of view, Woodward and Bernstein (especially) are obviously the horses with the standout mouths, but we also have Dan Rather (who had major dust-ups with Nixon as well) Lesley Stahl and writer Richard Reeves.

From the White House, there’s former White House lawyer-turned- beans-spiller John Dean, who’s enjoyed a robust cottage industry contributing to Watergate literature — also Hugh Sloan (the Committee to Re-Elect the President treasurer played by Stephen Collins in the ATPM movie) and the ever-entertaining onetime speech scribe and even presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, whose reactionary comments and books many years later finally made him radioactive for TV broadcasts after a long career on Crossfire and The McLaughlin Group .

We also get Ellsberg and fellow WH snoop victim Morton Halperin; lawyers Richard Ben-Veniste and Jill-Wine Banks (she’s still ubiquitous today on MSNBC); the late William Ruckelshaus, a key player and even superstar in Nixon’s folkloric Saturday Night Massacre of the appointed special prosecutor’s staff; and straight-shooting former members of Congress Elizabeth Holzman (also a TV presence these Impeachment days), Pete McCloskey and Lowell Weicker (who later became Republican governor of Connecticut). For more than 40 years, my best friend and I have had a running gag centered on our crowning of Weicker as our all-time champ when it came to expressing rightful indignation, even against his own party. My favorite, which was captured on a series of four or five LP vinyls of the Hearings released at time (I of course bought them all), where Weicker sits there listening to counsel/presidential assistant John Ehrlichman smugly defending White House behavior and then beginning his response with a supremely hacked-off “Do you mean to tell me …?”

Of those deceased or unwilling to participate, the archives — and someone should really try to restore some semblance of color values back to this transcendent footage — hardly ignore other key principles: Ehrlichman; WH Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman; Liddy (who initially dreamed up schemes that proved to be too much for even the Nixon WH’s worst conspirators; fired Special Prosecutor I Archibald Cox; and Mark Felt — the last much later revealed before his death to have been Woodward and Bernstein’s “Deep Throat” human roadmap to the crimes and their cover-ups. Watergate doesn’t shy away from conceding that Felt’s motives were as much score-settlingly personal as altruistic; he was angry at having been passed over as the new FBI director in favor of L. Patrick Gray after J. Edgar Hoover’s sudden death after an FBI leadership that practically stretched back to the Crusades. Felt could not possibly have been a worse choice, given the well-known story of Gray burning Watergate evidence in his Connecticut home’s fireplace. (At the very end, the doc also takes a surprise dig at John Dean, whose rep these days is one of someone who, in general, redeemed his image.)

I mentioned the re-enactments, which are always a slippery slope to be avoided, though Alex Gibney did pull off the conceit with the redheaded actress (Wrenn Schmidt) who played the high-end call girl in Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, in which she delivered, verbatim, testimony she gave to prosecutors after that political reformer got busted. Similarly, the dialogue read by Watergate’s actors is taken right from the WH tapes (which helps), but the casting isn’t always spot-on. Crucially, the actor playing Nixon (Douglas Hodge) isn’t bad and even bears a passing physically resemblance — but the poor guy who plays Kissinger (off of mercy, I won’t even mention his name) isn’t even on the planet where the ballpark sits. Whatever you want to say about Kissinger, his image was fairly weighty, but this version here comes off as some little worm who just finished grad school. What the role needs is an actor who can credibly suggest a character who was always looking for someone else’s shapely 40-something knee to squeeze during those times when Jill St. John wasn’t seated next to him at some finger bowl fest in the White House.

Fortunately, most of the re-enacted material is concentrated in the first half, leaving part two to be mostly the same smooth sailing you’d expect from Ferguson, who won what was probably a slam-dunk Oscar in the feature documentary category for 2010’s financial meltdown exposé Inside Job. What’s more, this is atop the second Oscar he didn’t get but I thought he should have for 2007’s No End in Sight (Ferguson lost to another fabulous chronicle of a foreign-war debacle: Gibney’s Afghanistan torture tragedy Taxi to the Dark Side). Watergate isn’t quite on the level of these Ferguson career-makers that preceded but comes close enough. After watching the first segment in isolation (they’re all about 47 minutes, which the commercial-happy History Channel showed in a hour slot), I sat riveted when I resumed and watched the remaining five (about four hours total) in one fell swoop. That’s more than acing what used to be (and in knowledgeable circles, still is) the Harry Cohn “ass” test.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Great McGinty’ and ‘Watergate’

Mike’s Picks: “House by the River” and “Five Graves to Cairo”

House by the River

Kino Lorber, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Louis Hayward, Lee Bowman, Jane Wyatt, Dorothy Patrick.
1950.
When a gothic late 19th-century murder melodrama is titled House by the River, it can really get off on the wrong foot if the river itself doesn’t look very sinister when it predictably provides the backdrop to the opening credits.
Extras: Australian academic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas provides a commentary.
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Les cinq secrets du desert (Five Graves to Cairo)

All-Region French Import
Elephant, Drama, $29.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Erich von Stroheim, Akim Tamiroff.
1943.
Set in slight flashback for in the time it was made against what looks to be one of the most geographically granular parts of Egypt, Five Graves to Cairo was just the second Hollywood movie that Billy Wilder directed.
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