Ruby Gentry

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street 4/24/18;
Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Jennifer Jones, Charlton Heston, Karl Malden, Tom Tully. 

Preceded by Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead and Beyond the Forest during just the six years leading up to it, swampy Ruby Gentry capped the quartet of potboilers that formed what some later termed as “King Vidor’s hysterical period,” which I suppose puts the silent-to-talkie pioneer in a special club. Which is to ask, did Robert Bresson have a hysterical period? Did Fred Sears, even if you can probably argue that his entire career could be termed as one? The Vidor quartet is made up with movies for which one must have a special taste, or at least be in a special mood, which means that only auteurists more rigid than I will ever call them great. Though one does come out of them all wanting to yak after spending 90 minutes or more (and in Duel’s case, a lot more) on a trek into places where angels fear to tread.

Actually, Ruby clocks in at a suspicious 82, sloppily held together by its weakest feature: a clunky, spoon-fed narration by a newcomer Yankee doctor played by Bernard Phillips, a familiar-face actor who later became slightly better known as Barney (as in The Sand Pebbles). Yankees are held with suspicion in the movie’s “Carolina” setting — which, unless I missed it, isn’t specified as either North nor South, possibly because the coastal burg that backdrops Vidor’s wall-to-wall lurid heavy breathing isn’t the stuff of chamber of commerce brochures. The provincialism also extends more than even normally to the social-class snobbery toward the less pedigreed of its citizens, for which Ruby (Jennifer Jones) is the poster sex-bomb. Her prowess with a rifle would look good in NRA literature but not at the local country club’s Julep Hour, where she lack the essential cotillion gene. Unfortunately, Ruby’s longtime lust object Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston in just his fourth Hollywood feature) is part of this very set — which isn’t to imply that he’s against fooling around with her in his convertible (Cadillacs are practically supporting cast players here) or in secluded marshes far away from the 19th hole.

As with Duel, this is another movie in which Vidor — probably taking a cue from Jones’s real-life husband David O. Selznick, who gets one of those amorphous “presentation” credits here — tried to turn her in to a sex bomb. This was a marketing attempt that never really came off, even though the actress certainly had the looks to make one consider the possibility (maybe it was a slight lisp). Not un-alluringly photographed in Russell Harlan’s best nocturnal doorway shadows to resemble the cover art in the kind of certain trashy, down-and-dirty paperbacks I used to sneak-read as a kid, Jones-as-Ruby, turns out, is more natural as the hunter-shooter-boat-pilot she mostly is during daylight hours. He frustrating truth is that no one quite knew what to do with her in this period when David O. Svengali was probably telling her what brand of toothpaste to use — and who would have thought that her best role of this period would be in John Huston’s eccentric-plus Beat the Devil? But this said, Jones is, overall, a major plus here and probably the No. 1 thing Ruby has going for it — especially when the movie becomes something of a love triangle and, in particular, a revenge piece after the character’s social fortunes change.

It’s fun, at least mild fun, seeing Heston in those early roles where he played standard humans and not someone always hauling around Tablets. Heston was only four years younger than Jones in real life, which means there isn’t nearly the age differential I assumed. And if there really have to be movies where the main male character is named “Boake,” you have to say that Boakes were a lot more grounded in Chuck’s wheelhouse more than they would have been in, say, Clifton Webb’s.

Despite the moniker, Heston is kind of a normal character here (something of a crud, but normal) — which is more than you say for her brother, played by that specialist in twisted rural creeps: James Anderson. In real life, he was the brother of actress Mary Anderson, who played the cute nurse in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat before curtailing her career after marrying four-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Leon Shamroy (who shot both The Robe and The Girl Can’t Help It for a full career right there). James is best known for later playing the main heavy and Atticus Finch adversary in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’m pretty certain I recall Gregory Peck saying in a Mockingbird doc that Anderson didn’t like him personally. Uh, not like Gregory Peck? So if I’m recalling this right, Anderson must have come naturally to the posterior boil he has here — shouting the Gospel, strumming a guitar around the house, repressing homicidal thoughts and, to give him needed points, being right when he warns Ruby about trying to get above her social station.

Released in limited fashion as a so-called prestige project on Christmas Day of ’52 for apparent Oscar consideraton, Ruby was an independent project co-produced by Vidor and distributed by 20th Century-Fox, though I’ve never seen it shown (going back several decades) with a Fox logo. We’ve all seen too many prints of vintage indies that look as if the original negatives were stored in some Mojave-based UPS box — but except for some significant image specking on a light visual background (during a key scene, alas) that looks a little like microbes under a microscope, this is a cleaner and also sharper-looking copy than I expected to see.

Andrew Sarris suggested in The American Cinema that Vidor was a greater director of individual scenes than sustained movies, and there are redeeming bits here and there that transcend what is at heart an amusingly trashy time at the movies — one of them a honey where Boake’s convertible speeds along the beach and into the surf (in a floating manner that would worry me) so that the lovers can do what lovers do to relax Boake’s golf putting finesse on the club links. One major bonus here is the backdrop theme (“Ruby”), which became a significant harmonica hit for Richard Hayman in spring of ’53. Later, after lyrics were added, Ray Charles made it his own around Christmas of ’60 for one of his most indelible recordings.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Ruby Gentry’ and ‘Madigan’

Madigan

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Japanese Region A Import;
King Records;
Drama;
$48 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Inger Stevens, James Whitmore.

As a rare Universal Pictures standout from a roughly five-year era when the studio was primarily palming off glorified TV movies as theatrical features, Madigan is precisely the kind of cult classic (a stupidly overhyped term, but this is the real deal) that may or may not ever get a domestic Blu-ray release. As we wait perhaps futilely, here’s a fairly handsome but not-cheap Japanese alternative I just discovered (without extras, but this is a satisfying presentation) for a Techniscope cop-drama once revered by so many Don Siegel cultists. Among these, for a little personal nostalgia, were the band of about eight NYU graduate Cinemas Studies colleagues that I once joined on a dream 42nd Street grindhouse trek to see Madigan double-billed with Rio Bravo as a vendor occasionally came down the aisle hawing Eskimo pies (ambience, ambience but also nirvana, nirvana).

By this time, I had seen the picture in Ohio upon its first-run release two or so years previously — not expecting much, though I was already a huge Siegel fan by virtue of having already experienced The Big Steal, Riot in Cell Block 11, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the now very tough-to-see Baby Face Nelson, The Lineup, Hell Is for Heroes and The Killers — though with (just naming preferred ones here) The Duel at Silver River, Flaming Star, then imminent Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Beguiled, Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick, The Shootist and Escape from Alcatraz yet to go. Given that many or of these genre specialties were made just above or even below the radar over three decades, I always feel like having a cosmetic surgeon supply me with 50 new eyebrows so that I can raise them every time some young turk with two movies under his belt is touted as the latest Second Coming.

In any event, Madigan — which traces the botch of a routine Brooklyn police pickup into a tragic and unexpectedly moving finale — does have an unmistakable ’60s TV-movie feel — down to its sometimes risibly over-orchestrated Don Costa score that has you half-waiting for the next Right Guard commercial. On one level, the music arguably puts a ceiling on how much one can go to the mat praising the rest — and yet the pace is blistering (Andrew Sarris’s original review gave a huge huzzah to the editing), and there’s a lot of sharp dialogue in a script co-credited to Andrew Polonsky, who was finally returned from nearly two decades of political Blacklisting. As Sarris noted as well, there’s also Russell Meaty widescreen photography that expertly matches New York locations with studio shots, which leads to a side-issue question. Leaving aside the Hitchcocks and To Kill a Mockingbird, was there any Universal release of ambition in this era — not that there were many — that Metty didn’t shoot? I mean, we’re talking nine Douglas Sirks, Touch of Evil, Spartacus, The War Lord and Thoroughly Modern Millie just off the top of my head (though I did have to look up the number of Sirks, which spanned Magnificent Obsession to Imitation of Life).

Ultimately, the overriding boost here comes courtesy of the cast, led by Richard Widmark (as street detective Dan Madigan) and prickly police commissioner Henry Fonda — who, in De Niro-Pacino Heat fashion, don’t share any scenes until a payoff late in the narrative. Set during a Fri-Sat-Sun that coincides with a major policeman’s ball, Widmark/Madigan’s exhausting angst and certainly personal humiliation get launched when he and partner Harry Guardino attempt to arrest a lowlife (Steve Ihnat) in a fleabag apartment outside their jurisdiction. The first awful thing is that they let him get away with Widmark’s police gun after being distracted by this creep’s naked bedmate. The second is that Ihnat, turns out, is no presumed routine punk but a psychopath wanted for murder and almost as malevolent as the hood Widmark played (in a much lower key) in his Kiss of Death debut. Ihnat, by the way, is the actor-turned-director who died a few years later at 37 of a heart attack — probably best known for this movie and as the guy whose internal organs get turned into lasagna by Marlon Brando’s fists during the climactic scene of Arthur Penn’s The Chase.

Cold cookie Fonda (aping what his kids say he was like in real life) hasn’t any use of for department mavericks, nor for anything that doesn’t go by the book — aside from an adulterous affair he’s conducting that complicates his moderately pious pronouncements a bit. An usual feature here is the amount of time devoted to the politicking and PR finessing that’s inevitably part of any commissioner’s job, and the story classically cuts back and forth between Fonda calming civic waters and Widmark/Guardino interacting with a slew of comically shady characters while looking for leads.

The casting here is what reviewers used to call “reliable” — with supporting roles of cops, constituents, snitches and the like going to James Whitmore, Susan Clark, Michael Dunn, Forbidden Planet’s Warren Stevens, Don Stroud (someone I later saw, to my amazement, on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”); Sheree North (used memorably again by Siegel in Charley Varrick), Raymond St. Jacques, Invaders From Mars’s Bert Freed, Harry Bellaver, Frank Marth, Lloyd Gough (another onetime Blacklistee), Dragnet regular Virginia Gregg and Ramar of the Jungle’s Ray Montgomery — who, as a kid, always looked right to me in a pith helmet. What a treasure trove.

What makes the movie something special for a genre picture is its rather raw-for-the-day portrayal of Widmark’s domestic life with a physically attractive but tightly wired spouse (Inger Stevens) who has clearly had it with her husband’s chosen career and hates being stuck without many friends in the neighborhood where they live. With Stevens’ knockout blondeness, you can almost imagine her as a precursor to January Jones’s testy spouse Betty from “Mad Men” — except that Stevens is blue-collar-ish in what is clearly a them-versus-us movie, is more sympathetic (though her complaining may even be more incessant) and loves her husband without any non-job qualifications, which isn’t initially evident until the movie takes some very interesting byways in its final quarter. They’re also very grown-up byways treated with unusual honesty for the day.

Her overriding love is convincing because you always get the sense that Madigan is at heart a really good guy by the way other people (the commissioner excepted) regard him and by the way he treats his street contacts, which includes acts of charity (though he isn’t above accepting a free meal at a restaurant or a complimentary Christmas turkey). We’d probably get a stronger sense of his virtues were the character not under such heavy professional/domestic pressure and functioning with almost no sleep — but to me, this is still Widmark’s most likable performance and my favorite of his career. Which is heartening because at this point, the actor’s box office standing had, like Fonda’s to a lesser case, started to fade a bit — though never due to anything we saw on the screen given decent material. Nobody much beyond cop-pic junkies and the cultist hard core actually saw this picture at the time, but at least one network brainstormer at NBC must have been watching. The movie later led to a “Madigan” TV series with its star returning — very short-lived, though its ratings weren’t all that bad. I wish the episodes would make their way to DVD, at least.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Ruby Gentry’ and ‘Madigan’

Mike’s Picks: ‘King of Jazz’ and ‘Underworld U.S.A.’

King of Jazz

Criterion, Musical, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Paul Whiteman, John Boles, Laura La Plante, The Rhythm Boys (with Bing Crosby).
1930. King of Jazz isn’t anywhere near perfect, but it is perfectly amazing, and so, again, is one of those discs that justify the invention of Blu-rays.
Extras: Authors James Layton and David Pierce provide a history of this tangled Universal production in another of Criterion’s ultra-classy bonus sections that also includes Michael Feinstein interviewed for a musical backgrounder; a couple germane Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons; a Paul Whiteman performance short subject; deleted scenes; a jam-packed essay by the knowledgeable and verbally magnetic Farran Smith Nehme; and a voiceover commentary by Garry Giddins, critic Gene Seymour and musician/bandleader Vince Giordano — each of whom can fill in the others’ infrequent blanks.
Read the Full Review

Underworld U.S.A.

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Cliff Robertson, Dolores Dorn, Beatrice Kay.
1961. The movie loses a little steam after the first hour (of 98 minutes) once the table is set for where it’s inevitably going, but there is definitely pleasure here in watching director Samuel Fuller deal with the no-frills basics.
Extras: It’s perhaps instructional to watch the Martin Scorsese intro before Twilight Time’s crisp new Blu-ray of main event Underworld U.S.A. — the same brief featurette first seen on the old standard DVD Sony box set devoted to the filmmaker’s output at Columbia Pictures over an extended period.
Read the Full Review

King of Jazz

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Criterion;
Musical;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Paul Whiteman, John Boles, Laura La Plante, The Rhythm Boys (with Bing Crosby). 

Even if all of them currently existed, at all or in ideal form, you likely wouldn’t have to sit through many of the early-talkie screen musical revues to realize that King of Jazz is the standout specimen from a discredited litter. And such faint praise, gotta say, prodigiously underrates the most bug-eyed time with a movie I’ve had in a while, thanks to what Criterion has done with this color/design landmark’s costly, long-gestating and almost full-length 4K restoration, which had already dazzled friends of mine in public showings. There was already enough interest in the film’s unearthing to inspire a 2016 coffee table book by James Layton and David Pierce (King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue), who also offer a history of this tangled Universal production in another of Criterion’s ultra-classy bonus sections (did someone also say Garry Giddins and Michael Feinstein just for starters? — Lordy).

I remember Whiteman well from my days as an inveterate boomer-kid TV watcher, but the truth is that he was semi-forgotten even then and his status as a jazz figure (much less jazz royalty) was very much in decline to anyone who was embracing all things Miles or Thelonious. He was still, however, a formidable physical presence, what with an offbeat mustache that would have disfigured even Clark Gable and physical heft directly out of the Oliver Hardy laboratory that had at one time (per Giddins) engendered major news stories whenever he attempted a diet. This made him as unlikely a bet for movie stardom as Kate Smith and Liberace later turned to be, and all the frittering around to find a format that could adequately present him on screen (there was a kind of revolving door of directorial possibilities for the movie as well) forced delays on production that indirectly resulted in the picture’s severe underperformance at the box office.

So rather than make him a romantic lead or a Cupid to younger lovers, this peer-respected orchestra leader — who had helped spur the first performance of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and included the young Bing Crosby with the Rhythm Boys as part of his lineup — ring-mastered a performance revue whose delights genuine and demented included a “Rhapsody” reprise; Bing’s very first screen appearance; the Russell Markett Dancers (who soon evolved into the Rockettes); and the first cartoon in Technicolor (by Walter Lantz) in a manner that might later have reminded people of a far more elaborate “Ed Sullivan Show” had the picture remained in circulation. To this was added the much celebrated stage director John Murray Anderson to film it (this should not have been his only movie); art/costume direction by Herman Rosse, who soon figured in some of Universal’s biggest horror staples of the early ’30s; and even a huge crane that had been previously purchased by the studio and must have made Busby Berkeley’s mouth water.

None of this is to suggest that every number here is a winner, but even Jazz’s not infrequent wincers (or would-be wincers were it not for the harmonious components that combine for the presentation) are more riveting than not to watch because I’ve never seen any two-color Technicolor movie look this great. Even an otherwise leaden bridal number early on washes pleasantly over the viewer thanks to its cornucopia of visual cosmetics. And then, for a capper, we see this veil — which looks long enough to cover half the width of a small U.S. state and expensive enough by itself to have covered the cost of Lash La Rue’s total screen oeuvre.

Seeing Crosby with semi-rouged cheeks is an unusual sight, though when he and the “Boys” break into snippets of “Mississippi Mud” and “Happy Beat,” it’s so enthralling that these pink-ish cheeks recede to another part of the brain. Jazz was Crosby’s only color movie until Paramount’s Dixie in 1943 and one of the very few Bings from his home studio that controlling Universal hasn’t released in this country (there is an official Region 2 DVD). This is almost surely due to that biopic’s minstrel-show angle — and even despite its inclusion of “Sunday, Monday and Always,” one of his biggest hits the era. So seeing Jazz with Crosby in color here is a real gift that whets my appetite (not that any whetting could ever be needed) for the long awaited Vol. 2 of Giddins’ definitive Crosby biography, due in November.

When one of Bing’s many 20s benders (he later brought personal experience to The Country Girl) led to a car crash and a dress-down the judge in court, the singer probably dodged a career bullet when his intended big “gaucho” number went to John Boles — whose appearances for me are always complicated by Anita O’Day’s assertion in her autobiography that Boles raped her in her dressing room (she later backtracks or softens this a little, but still …). This splashy set piece is inevitably risible but is (again) put over by the color schemes, lighting and, well, total design. So the payoff is that when we really do have something to write home about content-wise — as with otherwise non-existent footage of violinist Joe Venuti and guitarist Eddie Lang playing up a storm together, or the finale that sends everyone home with a bang — this is a not inapt movie to be seeing just as 2001 celebrates its 50th anniversary because these scenes, at least, have a comparably hypnotic effect.

Unfortunately, there weren’t nearly enough patrons to go home with a bang or otherwise, because the delayed production landed Jazz at the end of an early-talkie-musical cycle that had already snapped viewer tolerance. This is a tragedy because, for all of its sporadic creakiness, this one’s incomparably better than MGM’s Hollywood Revue of 1929 (which is nowhere near as entertaining as its oft-excerpted two-color “Singin’ in the Rain” number might suggest) or Warner’s Show of Shows, which is instructional only as a primer in understanding just what it was that Show emcee and Bob Hope influence Frank Fay “had” (apparently, not much, said his onetime abused wife Barbara Stanwyck).

Jazz started to exist for modern-day audiences as something more than a rumor a few decades back, and Universal even released an official VHS in 1992 — a pre-restoration eyesore with inferior sound (I should have mentioned that the new Blu-ray is also easy on the ear) and a slightly shorter running time than the restoration print, which itself is missing relatively minor footage. And now for a story: A chuckling colleague of mine roaming the files during our AFI Theater days stumbled into a solid gold letter from MCA chief exec/CEO Lew Wasserman himself, whose chew-outs were legendary. Our then AFIT boss, possessed of certain genius but one for whom “right clearances” was not a middle name, had apparently run Jazz (this was before our time) when MCA-owned Universal had told him he couldn’t (God knows where he got the print). So here’s the Lew Wasserman letterhead across the top of a letter from possibly the most powerful person in Hollywood that begins: “Dear Mr. XXXX, I fail to understand … .” That’s an opening scarier than anything in a Universal horror movie from a guy that the late twinkle-eyed producer David Brown once speculated (in the 2005 documentary The Last Mogul) had had only one orgasm of his life reading the grosses on Jaws.

As for bonus goodies, we have Feinstein interviewed for a musical backgrounder; a couple germane Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons; a Whiteman performance short subject; deleted scenes; a jam-packed essay by the knowledgeable and verbally magnetic Farran Smith Nehme, who’s one of my favorite film writers of the impressive many who are 125 years younger than I; and a voiceover commentary by Giddins, critic Gene Seymour and (hold on) musician/bandleader Vince Giordano — each of whom can fill in the others’ infrequent blanks. This trio is full of all kinds of nuggets, including anecdotes about how blisteringly hot the Technicolor lights were when the entire Whiteman band had to play inside a way oversized piano — one out of the last reel of two from The Incredible Shrinking Man — in tuxes. And how big were the piano keys? About a foot long.

King of Jazz isn’t anywhere near perfect, but it is perfectly amazing, and so, again, is one of those discs that justify the invention of Blu-rays (don’t even think of talking to me of streaming, OK?). Along the way, Whiteman gets a little renewed overdue due. He didn’t really play jazz as we know it, but it wasn’t like what had come before amid a period of real pop-cultural flux. Next to the bridal number here, he really was out of a new century.

Mike’s Picks: ‘King of Jazz’ and ‘Underworld U.S.A.’

Underworld U.S.A.

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Cliff Robertson, Dolores Dorn, Beatrice Kay. 

I wish all the procrastinators who hold up movie lines over an eight-inch seating differential when making their picks on box office seating charts could find a way to work as fast as the late Samuel Fuller used to when he made his story points. For those not already attuned to the late writer-director’s specialized style, it’s perhaps instructional to watch the Martin Scorsese intro before Twilight Time’s crisp new Blu-ray of main event Underworld U.S.A. — the same brief featurette first seen on the old standard DVD Sony box set devoted to the filmmaker’s output at Columbia Pictures over an extended period. One can speculate on what the young Scorsese took from Fuller when learning his craft in the Eisenhower-and-Kennedy-era 42nd Street movie houses that often showed them. Bam, bam, BAM! — here was Fuller obviating the need to shoot three additional scenes by substituting a five-second transitional insert and some blistering editing.

In the annals of Pure Cinema, Fuller’s movies are as naturally clear as a swig from the old Coors Beer waterfall whose logo a onetime girlfriend gave me as a gift silkscreen made in her college art class. And yet, maybe there was a price to be paid for all this purity because only occasionally do I get any sustained emotional kick from them — and this despite my significant affection for (to name three) Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo and (here’s one that did “get” to me the last time I saw it) the late-career White Dog, which was shamefully shafted by a litany of myopics for being racist when it was anything but. Though a lesser achievement than any of these, Underworld is one of Fuller’s better-to-best movies. Filmed, like The Crimson Kimono, for Columbia when he no longer benefited from the more elaborate budgets that Darryl Zanuck had given him at Fox, it almost always obscures the suspicion that it must have been filmed on the cheap, what with its minimal sets and capable actors who weren’t “names.”

There was never a time when I was able to conjure up too much excitement for Cliff Robertson as a movie lead, though he has his moments here as a not overly bright seeker of revenge against his father’s brutal killers; the actor does the same thing with his mouth that he did in his Oscar-winning performance in Charly to convey someone who’s not too sure of himself. And like the rest of the cast — including love interest (if that’s the term) Dolores Dorn, who’s more blonde/ethereal here than you’d expect an emotionally battered Fuller moll to be — the actors are often photographed dramatically. Hal Mohr, whose career lasted well over a half-century, was cinematographer, and I’m struck by the huge percentage of his credits that were (as here) in black-and-white — even though the color work he did was almost always standout magnificent: the Claude Rains Phantom of the Opera (Oscared), its Susanna Foster follow-up The Climax and, matter of fact, King of Jazz.

The Robertson character is shaped as a teenager by witnessing, just feet away, his father’s brutal beating death in an alley, and maybe it could be worse: At least he doesn’t have to put up with Laura Ingraham ridicule on top of it. This said, the experience definitely warps him, not that any of the thugs involved change their ways over the years to end up being unjustly bumped off in subsequent reels. Some of these dispatchings are pretty nasty for the day in their methodology, with Fuller and Mohr doing a lot to suggest the pain quotient that some of these boys (now mob kingpins with silver hair) must be experiencing. I did note, however, that the purposeful killing of a young child by a young mob henchman doesn’t carry the all-out punch of a not dissimilar scene in Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story, which was filmed six years earlier. Truth to tell — and going back even to when I was a kid — I prefer the best of Karlson, who had previously directed Fuller’s script for the very good Scandal Sheet, to the best of Fuller. In fairness, however, Karlson’s filmography is littered a bit with what feel like impersonal “assignments,” whereas Fuller was never less than his own man 100% of the time.

As previously hinted, Dorn may be too beautiful as one whose sorry life experiences could turn a lot of people into blues singers, yet she gives more than expected as one whose head is screwed on fairly well for one who’s survived the squalor she’s seen and even been a part of first-hand. The movie’s anchor is Robertson’s been-around surrogate mother, who collects dolls as perhaps an antidote to the seaminess that’s been a part of her life for even longer and chides Robertson for being a clod for not treating Dorn any better. The role is familiar, if not quite a cliché, but Beatrice Kay is so right here that I can’t figure out why she didn’t get or take more big-screen work. She could have cornered the market on the ’60s equivalent of Jacki Weaver roles for a decade or more.

The movie loses a little steam for me after the first hour (of 98 minutes) once the table is set for where it’s inevitably going, but there is definitely pleasure here in watching Fuller deal with the no-frills basics. Columbia Pictures messed around with some really lousy color processes at this time — even John Ford had to do Two Rode Together in dribbly “Eastman Color by Pathe” after he’d either pushed for or lucked into VistaVision/Technicolor at Warners with The Searchers — but the black-and-white Columbia releases from the ’50s and ’60s always look pretty marvelous, even in DVD. This Blu-ray is no exception, and for such a clean-cut actor, we see Robertson sweating a lot in high-def, which helps by toughening up his performance.

Mike’s Picks: ‘King of Jazz’ and ‘Underworld U.S.A.’

While the City Sleeps

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, Ida Lupino, George Sanders, Vincent Price, John Barrymore Jr.

Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps was the first movie I ever saw by a director in Andrew Sarris’ Pantheon who wasn’t named John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock, though Lang was getting along by 1956, and in fact made only one subsequent American movie. That would be the same year’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, which Warner Archive is concurrently releasing on Blu-ray as well — though I’ve never liked it as much as Sleeps by a long shot, even if it’s much preferable to the somewhat refashioned Michael Douglas-Amber Tamblyn remake that deservedly went direct to video. Out of a cannon.

I first caught the Sleeps trailer right after I’d turned 9 and knew that this was a movie for me: A greasy serial killer (John Barrymore Jr.) strangles women in their New York apartments and leaves taunting clues after his crime, the most revealing of which is his writing of “Ask Mother” on the wall of the first victim we see. Because I was visiting my grandparents at the time, it was easier to feign it 400 Blows or Day for Night flashback style that I was running off to catch a kiddie matinee — when, in fact, the bill was Sleeps and a British RKO ‘B’ (The Brain Machine), which also looked and sounded essential formative years material.

Sleep was a new kind of movie for me, and after this, Disney kids’ stuff like, say, The Littlest Outlaw just wasn’t going to cut it. Lang’s wall-to-wall tawdriness also served as my first newspaper movie, pretty sure — and even more of one than it was a serial killer melodrama because there’s still 15 or so minutes of narrative to go after the killer is caught. As my first look at big-city journalism (aside from watching Walter Winchell bark on TV), I was impressed by how much everyone in the picture drank. There’s even a drunk scene here by real-life alcoholic lead Dana Andrews to compound the 80-proof ambience, though this is subtext I wouldn’t have appreciated at the time.

Even at a reasonable 99 minutes, Sleeps gets ground down by a clunky boilerplate romance between Pulitzer-winning print newshound/TV commentator Andrews and co-worker Sally Forrest — though it isn’t exactly without interest that he basically would end up using his pert girlfriend as bait for the killer. But at its best, this is a fitfully entertaining portrayal of corporate backstabbing in the kind of burgeoning media complex that gets bonus points for anticipating today’s conglomerates — one of multiple components that made Lang’s cheapie with name (sometimes fading-name) cast a little ahead of it time.

Another of these is the narrative’s prevailing luridness despite a screenplay by the normally tasteful Casey Robinson (here adapting a Charles Einstein novel) — with blatant adultery, imbibings and mildly graphic killings that would be far more common just a couple years later on screen yet here results in a surprisingly randy movie for 1956. Another is its grabber of an extended pre-credits sequence, which was something still fairly rare in the days when Robert Aldrich (whose early films almost always had them) had only a handful of big-screen credits to his name. There’s also a mild hint that broadcast news might be the division that inherited the Earth when it came to journalistic corporate bucks. And though it opened in May 1956 — in the same five-day period that also saw the launches of The Searchers and The Man Who Knew Too Much; you think movies are better today? — someone here was topically savvy enough to make Barrymore’s hood-ish killer resemble Elvis (though Gene Vincent would be an even closer comparison).

So here’s the deal. When the conglomerate’s aged founder dies — his makeshift hospital bed is actually in the office just yards from reporters’ typewriters and Andrews’ broadcast studio — his useless son (Vincent Price, perfect casting) has to take a few hours away from his polo ponies and actually try to run the joint. His solution is to create a new top-dog position and set up a cutthroat competition to get it; the candidates are an old-school print type played by Thomas Mitchell with more ink in his veins than even the internal booze that flowed through his tributaries in Stagecoach); wire service chief George Sanders; and photographer James Craig, who gets kind of sweaty every time he sees Rhonda Fleming (so did my dad). She plays Price’s wife, and it turns out the two are having an affair, even though Craig and Price are nominal buddies. It doesn’t on the face of it sound like a durable long-term strategy with which to land the gig.

Less of a factor here in these machinations is Andrews, who’s more preoccupied with catching the killer with the aid of an old cop buddy (Howard Duff) and also getting Forrest into the sack — the latter a tough order in ’50s Hollywood (the movie wasn’t that advanced). This situation is a point of consternation with Ida Lupino (she plays what newspaper pics used to call a “sob sister’), who comes off as not just enamored with Andrews but so man-hungry that you can almost imagine her taking up with Barrymore were he something more than a drugstore delivery boy who lives at home with … well, mother.

Too many of the scenes are flat, and the office settings are closer to Ed Wood than Trump Enterprises in their drabness, but every once in a while Lang comes up with a shot or full scene that crackles. The opening set-up is very punchy, and there’s a visual that I never forgot from my childhood: Fleming doing stretching exercises behind an opaque portable barrier that suggests a nude state — and then continuing the process while standing in a circle of sand that’s a) either supposed to give her bare feet the feel of the beach; or b) serve as a practice sand trap for Price’s indoor golf putting (you sense that out on the links, most of his Titleists likely end up in one).

The printing source here seems uneven, which means that Sleeps in high-def isn’t as snappy-looking as other Warner Archive Blu-rays, though it’s at minimum a cut above the old Image laserdisc, Warner DVD and even (if memory serves) a 35mm print I ran at the AFI Theater. To compound the casting amusements here, Barrymore’s not quite doddering mother (who dressed him as a girl during childhood) is played by D.W. Griffith star Mae Marsh, who had a long post-silent career in small roles for John Ford (a lot) and others. The segue from The Birth of a Nation to being cast as the mother of a psychopathic Elvis knockoff in the ’50s isn’t one I’d have predicted — but then, who would have anticipated Sylvia Sidney ending up with Tim Burton for Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks!, ack! ack!?

Mike’s Picks: ‘While the City Sleeps’ and ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’

Mike’s Picks: ‘While the City Sleeps’ and ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’

While the City Sleeps

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, Ida Lupino, George Sanders, Vincent Price, John Barrymore Jr.
1956. Even at a reasonable 99 minutes, Fritz Lang’s newspaper crime drama While the City Sleeps gets ground down by a clunky boilerplate romance between Pulitzer-winning print newshound/TV commentator Dana Andrews and co-worker Sally Forrest — though it isn’t exactly without interest that he basically would end up using his pert girlfriend as bait for a greasy serial killer who strangles women in their New York apartments.
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Don’t Bother to Knock

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Richard Widmark, Marilyn Monroe, Anne Bancroft, Elisa Cook Jr.
1952. Filmed on three or four simple sets and clocking in at just 76 minutes, Don’t Bother to Knock is an unusual movie for Marilyn Monroe to have made just as she was on the brink of superstardom.
Extras: Julie Kirgo provides another of her well-researched Twilight Time essays.
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Don’t Bother to Knock

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Richard Widmark, Marilyn Monroe, Anne Bancroft, Elisa Cook Jr. 

Filmed on three or four simple sets and clocking in at just 76 minutes, Don’t Bother to Knock is an unusual movie for Marilyn Monroe to have made just as she was on the brink of the Twentieth Century-Fox superstardom that was obviously on Darryl Zanuck’s mind (along with, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to hear, one of two other things). Though professionally speaking, Julie Kirgo notes in another of her well-researched Twilight Time essays, that he did make Monroe test for the part, a lesson that one wonders if he forgot when it came to Bella Darvi.

Knock was one five movies that marked Monroe’s 1952 output — along with two Fox comedies, a cameo in the opening segment of the studio’s all-star anthology O. Henry’s Full House and a loan-out to RKO for Clash by Night. Though the last was a drama, she didn’t have to carry large chunks of it, but in Knock, she has to bring off a case of frightening bonker-dom brought on by her lover’s death — an emotional condition that ends up threatening a child’s life.

It’s a somnambulant performance somewhere between effective and one she gets away with — though some will tell you that I’m underrating it, and possibly so. Call Monroe’s approach a second cousin, say, to Kim Novak’s deadpanned dialogue deliveries in Vertigo, though the passage of time has pretty well rendered Novak’s turn a complete success, no matter how she and Alfred Hitchcock got there. Monroe, of course, just got better as she aged, which more people should have told her at the time.

The surprise for me here (or at least something I’d forgotten) is how sympathetic lead Richard Widmark’s characterization is — as an edgy guy not exactly imaginable as, say, some neighbor’s backyard-barbecue invitee but one who ends up being sincerely moved by Monroe’s plight. This unlikely duo gets thrown together because her elevator-operator uncle (Elisha Cook Jr., getting a little extra something out of his role) has ill-advisedly elected to set her up as a one-shot babysitter in the hotel that employs him, not long after she’s been released (too soon) from an institution. After squabbling with his hotel chanteuse squeeze (Anne Bancroft in her feature debut, a component that’s not without interest itself) over his lack of commitment, Widmark sees Monroe through an adjacent hotel window and thinks her might get lucky with her as a one-night companion.

Well, she does have a bottle of booze plus some glasses in the room — but also a younger girl (Donna Corcoron, real-life sister of Kevin “Moochie” Corcoron and Noreen Corcoron of Bachelor Father), who is probably going to be traumatized by what happens or at least have some good material later in life if she ever decides to become a short-story author. The kid’s parents (Lurene Tuttle and Jim Backus in a tux) are no further away than downstairs for dad to get some kind of award involving his newspaper career, but the evening didn’t exhaust Tuttle’s in-room perfume supply, which means there’s some for Monroe to apply (so much of it that Widmark immediately notices). Alcohol, perfume … say, what else can Monroe make hers? Well, there’s always Tuttle’s negligee to put on for much of the movie’s running time — and with its owner just a few floors away, and you just know that no good is come of this. No one ever talks about this, but I think one of the most compelling angles of this story is poor Uncle Elisa learning that no good deed goes unpunished. You have to believe that this longtime employee with the corny jokes (he says his job has “its ups and downs”) is going to get canned after what eventually happens and that his resumé won’t have a very satisfactory answer to the question: “Reason for leaving last job.”

Fox was obviously trying to figure out what to do with Bancroft: She’s a singer here, then did a commercially DOA Sol Hurok biopic (Tonight We Sing), and then there was Gorilla at Large, whose lunacy was possibly a good warm-up for enjoying a happy real-life marriage with Mel Brooks. Despite her presence and that of a lot of welcomely familiar faces, this is Widmark, Monroe and Cook all the way.

Yet let it be said that the faces include the ever ubiquitous Willis Bouchey, who must have fought it out with rank Ferguson and Ray Teal for the “hardest-working white man in show business”; December Bride’s Verna Felton as an ancient biddie — and one who shares a frame with Monroe for contrasting views of womanhood; Joan Blondell’s real-life sister Gloria, who played “Honeybee” on TV’s The Life of Riley; and even the actor who played the police pathologist on the first go-round of “Dragnet” and eyeballed the gradations on the bullets dug out of the human versions of Joe Friday’s workday.

So as Kirgo notes, the result is “unexceptional if always entertaining.” Future Peckinpah right hand Lucian Ballard shot it (no Verna Felton in those collaborations), and the director was Roy Baker (aka Roy Ward Baker), whose later bragging rights over The One That Got Away, A Night to Remember and Quatermass and the Pit just by themselves made him more than a journeyman. And for a movie that’s relatively obscure, I’ve run into not a few people who harbor kind of toasty feelings for it and its sympathetic treatment of mental illness (and, of course, Monroe’s mother spent a lot of time I institutions).

This said, the reviews at the time were only fair, and in the capital city that would soon be my home turf, one of the downtown movie palaces bolstered the bill (or tried to) by adding Models, Inc., with Howard Duff (he’s back), Coleen Gray and — deep down in the cast — Joe E. Ross (hey, I think I’d like to see this). To bolster the Blu-ray, Twilight Time has also included the Richard Widmark “Biography” episode that they’ve issued before and another from that same Fox-associated TV series, this time devoted to Monroe. It gets into the actress’s marriages and, of course, her once famous battles with her home studio — though there’s not even a still photo from MGM’s The Asphalt Jungle to mark how important John Huston’s best movie was to the breakthrough part of her career.

Mike’s Picks: ‘While the City Sleeps’ and ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’

Great Balls of Fire!

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Olive;
Drama;
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13.’
Stars Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, Trey Wilson. 

Nobody pulled too many muscles remastering Orion Pictures’ cartoonish Jerry Lee Lewis biopic for Blu-ray release, but curio seekers may want to be reminded — because I had totally forgotten myself — that Alec Baldwin plays evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, the real-life cousin of rockdom’s self-ordained “Killer.” Actually, it’s another cousin who looms large in the Lewis saga (more on that in a minute), but let it be noted, also for the curious, that Baldwin doesn’t even attempt a characterization. We can almost hear the actor bellowing, “None of that Dennis Quaid peroxide mixed into in my hair, you don’t.”

It’s the similar lack of detail beyond the onetime standard tabloid boilerplate of the day that hurts the picture, which was positioned and certainly promoted to be a hit, what with Lewis’s cooperation and even his agreement to record improved-fidelity versions of his career-making Sun Records hits from his brief time at the highest rungs of the top. Since his wedding-related tumble, of course, Lewis has always been a formidable “name” at the very least, as well as an undeniable killer when it comes to showmanship. Boomers everywhere have long waited for him to co-author a health-tips volume with Keith Richards called How To Defy the Odds by Living Half-a-Century Longer Than Anyone Predicted.

Much like Richards’ Rolling Stones of the ’60s, at least when at least compared to the Beatles dressing like gentlemen on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” dangerous Lewis posed a threat to parental stress levels that Elvis didn’t fully replicate, or at least all the time. Elvis, after all, occasionally scored smash hits with ballads like “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” or “Love Me Tender” or “Don’t” — and even romanced Debra Paget tender-ly in his Tender screen debut. Judging just from his performing behavior — and you can get a short idea of how scary he was at the time via a brief clip in that mammoth six-part American Music: The Root of Country doc that Ted Turner aired in 1996 — Lewis on screen with Paget would likely have been more akin to what the actress (as “Lilia”) had to endure during the Golden Calf orgy scene in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.

All of this was exciting, of course, to us fourth and fifth graders at the time — a good topic of discussion during school detention, to be sure, after our near-daily adventures in Ohio classroom disrupting that anticipated everything in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. On the small screen, as opposed to concert appearances, Lewis was at his piano-pounding wildest on “The Steve Allen Show” and even named his son after the comic host — whose not-ever-to be-missed Sunday night variety show got programmed by NBC opposite Sullivan for a much hipper hour, though one not as big in the ratings (think Cavett vs. Carson in the counterculture early ’70s). This is kind of odd because like the equally uproarious Stan Freberg, Allen disdained “the new sounds” (I think both made rock critic Dave Marsh’s “Enemies of Rock and Roll” list). But he also appreciated outrageousness when he saw it, went with the flow, and his too brief appearance as himself in this movie is a minor high point.

The high point here is probably Winona Ryder as Lewis’s 13-year-old first cousin (removed) Myra, whose marriage to him as wife No. 3 did not amount to a crackerjack career move in late 1957 (just as the film’s title tune was soaring the charts around Christmas time after Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On had ripped up the previous summer). Ryder is fully credible playing someone very young (and, indeed, might even pass for 13), though this part of the movie’s chronology is completely screwed up here in terms of Lewis record releases. (The Dave “Baby” Cortez recording of “The Happy Organ” also shows up on the soundtrack about a year before it would have been possible to do so.) The Jerry-Myra union — which, for a long while, managed to survive a pompously negative British press of Uriah Heep types during a disastrous musical tour in early ’58 — didn’t keep that spring’s “Breathless” from being a top-10 hit (it’s a killer itself). But it likely did make a big dent in the potential sales of follow-up High School Confidential!, which sported one of the coolest 45 jackets ever in that it showcased not just Lewis, but the cast of actors who headlined that teen-junkie trash classic, including Russ Tamblyn and Mamie Van Doren. I had it (of course) and played it in my room after detentions.

After that, things went downhill for the singer pretty fast, and a final indignity came in 1959 when someone ghosted an article under (the original) Jerry Lewis’s name in Photoplay (with Elvis in army uniform on the cover) called, “I Am NOT Jerry Lee Lewis.” And even when Jerry Lee made one of the greatest live albums ever in the mid-’60s, its release was held up for years.

Even so, the movie ends on a happy note suggesting that Lewis and Myra ended up together for decades of walks into the sunset, but he ended up being as married almost as many times as Larry King (I can’t remember if they ever married each other). The director here is Jim McBride, who had directed Quaid in one of his most appealing efforts (The Big Easy) but in this case can’t keep his star from doing the truly impossible: fashioning a performance as Lewis that is, of all things, too broad — a trait it shares with the movie. Nearly two hours of sheer burlesque, Fire! tries to be (or, at least, is) such a pastiche of everything that was happening in the musical/pop culture scene at the time that nothing seems authentic. The minor compensation for this is the film’s accelerated pace and an occasionally hilarious response or reaction shot by Quaid, usually over some indignity. And though, as mentioned, the print could use a fresh, modern-day remastering, the production design is so sprightly under any circumstances that I’d even enjoy living with the wild two-toned carpet in the home the newlyweds look at, even if no one else I’ve ever known likely would.

Through it all, Baldwin’s Swaggart remains a moral compass who is many public years away from the phlegm-faced adulterer whose nationally broadcast-to-death mea culpa in 1988 inspired my then 21-month older son (now an anesthesiologist) to take a baby’s milk bottle out of his month and identify him, when asked on a lark, as the first George Bush. Thus, we do not get to see a Baldwin dramatization of quaking Swaggart crying, “I have sinned” on the airwaves three years and change before a subsequent arrest with a prostitute — but the way things are going with Donald Trump, maybe a newer version will eventually show up on “Saturday Night Live.”

Mike’s Picks: ‘Running Wild’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire!’

 

 

Mike’s Picks: ‘Running Wild’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire!’

Running Wild

Kino Lorber, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars W.C. Fields, Marie Shotwell, Mary Brian, Barnett Raskin.
1927. Director Gregory La Cava’s silent-era crowd-pleaser is funnier than expected given that W.C. Fields is without his vocal deliveries, but he was such a physical performer, and La Cava such a deft viual director, that little is missed here.
Extras: Includes a commentary track by historian/author James L. Niebur (The W.C. Fields Films).
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Great Balls of Fire!

Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG-13.’
Stars Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, Trey Wilson.
1989. Nearly two hours of sheer burlesque, this cartoonish Jerry Lee Lewis biopic is a pastiche of everything that was happening in the musical/pop culture scene in the 1950s. Curio seekers may want to be reminded that Alec Baldwin plays evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, the real-life cousin of rockdom’s self-ordained “Killer.” The high point here is probably Winona Ryder as Lewis’s 13-year-old first cousin (removed) Myra, whose marriage to him as wife No. 3 did not amount to a crackerjack career move in late 1957.
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