Bright Victory

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Arthur Kennedy, Peggy Dow, Julie Adams, James Edwards, Jim Backus, Richard Egan, Murray Hamilton, Larry Keating, Rock Hudson.

While sweeping for mines during the North African Campaign of 1943, a German sniper’s bullet pierced Sergeant Larry Nevins’ (Arthur Kennedy) steel helmet, destroying his optic nerve and causing permanent blindness. One year after Marlon Brando made his screen debut as a paralyzed vet in Fred Zinneman’s The Men, Universal-International swapped out one disability for another in Bright Victory, a grueling tale of rehabilitation that’s as uplifting as it is unsentimental. The bold, adult manner in which it is imparted brings an air of frank immediacy that remains potent to this day. The Hays Office frowned upon suicide as a plot device, but war had a way of softening the censor board’s thinking. An enlisted man walks past the bathroom just in time to stop Nevins from taking a razor to his wrist. Even Will Hays couldn’t deny a fraught soldier their right to contemplate taking their life as an alternative to sightlessness, particularly when it advanced the plot.

Remember the fallacious manner in which the “Dream Factory” dealt with the Depression? Chorines dressed as coinage attempted to mollify impoverished audiences by singing and tapping their way through “We’re in the Money.” There was a brief period following World War II where Hollywood appeared poised to follow a similar line of tranquilizing illusion, but audiences would have none of it. The war, and the news of Hitler’s inferno that came with it, brought audiences closer in touch with a darker side of reality, a shade heretofore hidden from view due in large part to the governing pedagogues at the PCA.

America’s sudden thirst for authenticity demanded a change in tone as well as locale. More and more, casts and crews left the relative comfort of the soundstage in favor of filming in more precarious actual locales. Whenever possible, director Mark Robson chose to film in practical locations and existing light. (Bright Victory was shot in and around Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.) That’s where matchless lensman William Daniels came in handy. He began his long and illustrious career riding focus for punctilious silent screen autocrat, Eric von Strohiem (Greed, The Merry Widow). Before the thirties rang out, MGM’s prize star-shooter had earned a reputation throughout Tinsel Town as, “Garbo’s favorite cinematographer.” The years prior to Bright Victory found Daniels leading the charge towards realism: Brute Force, The Naked City and Deported burst through studio gates, his deep focus lens aimed on a collision course with the struggles of the modern world. 

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From initial waves of hopelessness to breaking the news of his blindness to loved ones and learning how to navigate his cane as a “bumper,” not a “feeler,” screenwriter Robert Buckner, working from a novel by Bayard Kendrick, guides us through every intricate step of Nevin’s renewal. (The uninterrupted two-block trek through the grounds that deposits us at Nevins’ “obstacle perception” test was a standout.) As confidence grew, the sergeant soon became a vital part of the hospital’s ebb and flow. That includes venturing from the relatively safe confines and hopping the bus to downtown Phoenixville. It’s here that he meets the film’s main love interest, Judy Green (Peggy Dow). Dow had previously starred opposite James Stewart in Harvey. After a brief, but versatile three-year stint under contract to Universal-International, she quit the business to raise a family.

Upon his return home, the soldier was greeted with patronization and flat-out rejection. Locals bow and scrape to meet Nevins’ every need, but it soon becomes clear that he is not the only one having difficulty accepting his homecoming. His future in-laws are none too pleased at the thought of having their daughter marry a man who in their dim-sighted estimation will never be able to make his way through life without needing a shoulder to lean on. This was the film that made Arthur Kennedy a star. Whether cast as a western villain, an everyman doing his best to prop the weight of the world on his back, or oiling his way through Some Came Running as Sinatra’s greasy brother, Kennedy raised the bar for American character actors.

The movies generally painted a character with a handicap — particularly one incurred while serving their country — in shades of spotless angelic, but not so Nevins. He has a fiancée back home, Chris Paterson (Julie Adams), but that didn’t stop him from coming on hot and heavy to Judy. Their first dance together and already he’s putting on the moves, tightening his grip as would a prehensile osteopath, before praising her figure. A blind racist sees no color and Nevins’ intolerant side is on display as early as the flight to Valley Forge. No sooner did Nevins learn that the closest his plane-mate Joe Morgan (James Edwards) came to a country club was through the “colored only” servant’s entrance, than he cuts the conversation short, requesting to speak with a nurse. At the hospital, the two become fast friends until the day Nevins lets slip that he never knew they “let n*****s in the ward” to which Joe replies, “I’ve been here nearly seven months.” Nevins didn’t say “Negro” or “colored” but the full-blown epithet behind the asterisks. To this day it remains shocking to hear a character from the Golden Age, a war hero we’ve been encouraged to stand firmly behind no less, utter the slur.

According to Ellen Scott’s Regulating “N*****”: Racial Offense, African American Activists, and the MPPDA, (1928–1961), a provision to the PCA’s list of “don’t and be carefuls” stated that “willful offense to any nation, race, or creed … ended up on the cutting-room floor.” Scott concluded, “The PCA eventually passed the film with the blind veteran’s dramatically framed epithet intact. And (Code overlord Joseph) Breen said nothing about ‘darky’ in the song ‘Take Me Back to Old Virginny’ on the soundtrack.” It’s one thing had Nevins’ racist outburst been cut short with an apology and a fade out, never to be mentioned again. But the script won’t settle for anything less than having Nevins confront his demons. Hate begins at home and listening to his mother (Nana Bryant) express concern over “what the war has done to our Negroes” proves too much to tolerate. Rather than tell mom off, dad (Will Geer) deposits her at home and father and son head to the local watering hole to commiserate over boilermakers and unfiltered cigarettes.

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A good rule of thumb is one coincidence per picture, and hopefully it lands no later than the 10-minute mark. In this case, the coincidence sends us packing with a smile on our faces. But given the subject matter and the period, there was no better place to position it than right before the curtain shot.

Supplementary material includes audio commentary by film historian/screenwriter Gary Gerani and the theatrical trailer.

 

 

Paravision Dreams: The Golden Age 3D Films of Pine and Thomas

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
$49.95 Blu-ray 3D & 2D;
Not rated.

SANGAREE (1953)
Paramount; Historical Drama/Adventure;
Stars Fernando Lamas, Arlene Dahl, Patricia Medina, Francis L. Sullivan, Charles Korvin, Thomas Drake.

THOSE REDHEADS FROM SEATTLE (1953)
Paramount; Western/Musical;
Stars Gene Barry, Rhonda Fleming, Agnes Moorehead, Teresa Brewer, Guy Mitchell.

JIVARO (1954)
Paramount; Adventure/Romance/Thriller;
Stars Fernando Lamas, Arlene Dahl, Brian Keith, Lon Chaney, Jr., Richard Denning, Rita Moreno, Nestor Paiva.

Did the heading of this trio of 3D Blu-ray releases from Kino Lorber provoke a double-take? Don’t worry. It’s not a bad case of anamorphosis. We’re talking depth, not width.

Both the Paravision and Panavision process had been around in 1953, but it wasn’t until 1972 that the latter had supplanted CinemaScope as the industry standard in widescreen cinematography. The trades referred to Paravision as Paramount’s “newly developed process” when in truth it had been around for years.

The camera used to shoot Sangaree (1953) was designed by Paramount’s in-house special effects wizard, and rajah of rear screen projection, Farciot Eduoart. The design won Eduoart a technical Oscar in 1937, but Paramount board chairman Adolph Zukor initially chose not to put the process to use. At the time business was booming and there was no need for gimmickry to lure audiences.

Skip ahead 16 years when television posed a concrete threat to ticket sales and the time had finally arrived to dust off the stereoscopic cameras. No sooner did fledgling 3D productions Bwana Devil and House of Wax begin breaking box office records that Paramount stepped up and became the first major studio to develop its own in-house stereoscopic process, trade name: Paravision.

“I stated that three-dimensional pictures were the next big thing in the industry,” Zukor wrote in his autobiography, “The Public is Never Wrong.“ With 10 days of 2D filming already in the can, Zukor took to the Sangaree soundstage and proceeded to call “cut!” on director Edward Ludwig’s set. “Then we got an old stereo-camera,” he continued, “with which we had been experimenting 15 years ago up from the basement and shot the picture in 3D with Technicolor.” Alas, all of the dye-transfer Technicolor, stereoscopy and advance word combined couldn’t make a box office smash out of Sangaree.

With 73 features and an accumulated box office take of $100 million behind them, Paramount entrusted their 3D unit in the care of the highly productive production duo, William H. Pine and William C. Thomas. Pine, a former head of publicity at Paramount and associate producer under Cecil B. DeMille first teamed with former ‘B’ movie publicity director Thomas in 1940. The duo brought their pictures in on time and under budget. Their motto was, “We don’t want to make million-dollar pictures. We just want to make a million dollars.” Their unbroken string of box office successes prompted the synergetic nickname, the “Dollar Bills.”

Advance word pegged it the best thing to hit screens since Gone With the Wind when in fact another Selznick film comes to mind: Duel in the Swamp. Sangaree opens on a deathbed scene with Gen. Darby (Lester Matthews) bequeathing his titular estate to Dr. Carlos Morales (Fernando Lamas), a friend and the son of an indentured slave. Morales is reluctant to accept the deal, but as the general points out, he can’t entrust a fortune the size of his to his daughter Nancy (Arlene Dahl). After all, she is a girl! Pine-Thomas never got the pick of ‘A’-list players. Originally scripted with Clark Gable and Lana Turner in mind, pricier talent was generally overlooked in favor of more cost-effective contract players.

Dahl and Lamas’ torrid on-set love affair made for prime tabloid kindling. (The two were married to each other from 1954 to 1960.) As an actress, Dahl photographed well while Lamas was handsome to a fault, the fault being his acting process generally entailed removing his shirt. What’s the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of Fernando Lamas? “You look marvelous!” the catchphrase assigned by Billy Crystal for his riotous impression of the actor on “Saturday Night Live.” Enjoy the unintentional laugh when Morales greets Nancy with, “You look fabulous!”

The three movies in the set have been made available in both 2D and 3D versions. Committed to practicing full disclosure, I must confess to not owning a 3D television. Having seen more than my fair share of movies from behind Polarized specs, I feel capable of faking my way through a “flattie.” Set bound and curiously claustrophobic, the camerawork tends to favor lateral movement rather than plumbing the depth of the frame. At the time, the filmmakers did their best to limit the number of cheap “coming at you” effects, moments where tossed objects cause audience members to duck. But is that what the paying public really came to see? Or was it a team of horses bolting at the camera or a casque of wine hurtling towards your lap?

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The greatest find on the disc is the 3D coming attraction. Fake headlines flash across the screen ballyhooing cinema’s latest technological marvel. Back in the studio, a Technicolor red curtain parts so that our two leads, dressed for the prom, may greet us by throwing a heap of hype our way. Lamas’ idea of explaining depth perception involves forming an invisible hourglass with his hands while leering at Dahl’s decolletage. 

The good news is when viewed in chronological order, the films (and bonus features) improve with time. Of the 81 genre pictures Pine-Thomas produced between 1940 and 1957, Those Redheads From Seattle (1953) was their only musical. Set during the Gold Rush days, the 3D torching of the small-town newspaper that greets us is nothing short of spectacular. Gene Barry, a marked improvement over Lamas, stars as Johnny Kisco, the proprietor of Skagway’s bustling Klondike Club. Vance Edmonds (Frank Wilcox) was the town reformer whose threat to expose a criminal’s dark past left the publisher bullet-riddled and clinging to life. Not aware of his condition, his wife (Agnes Moorehead) packs their henna-locked daughters — Kathie (Rhonda Fleming), Pat (Teresa Brewer making her screen debut), Constance (Cynthia Bell) and Nellie (Kay Bell), the only towheaded sister in the bunch — and carts them to the Yukon just in time for Edmonds to die. To make matters worse, it was Kisco’s partner who triggered Edmonds. Kathy picks up where her father left off writing scathing articles about the Klondike Club. (For a sharper look at a woman-run newspaper picture from this era, check out Sam Fuller’s luminescent Park Row.)

With only five numbers, it barely qualifies as a musical. The tunes are forgettable; the only number that stands out finds Brewer singing before an armed curtain. Barry goes on a Hollywood Bender by mussing up his hair and not shaving for five days. A bartender sliding a beer at the audience in 3D is sublime. That’s more than can be said of the climactic foot chase set against the backdrop of a rear screen projector. What the film does have going for it is a concise, if not a tad overly-technical, audio commentary featuring Bob Furmanek and his merry band of historians over at the 3D Film Archive.

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Last, but certainly not least, there’s the faster-paced, bigger-budgeted entertainment of Jivaro. (That’s short for “Amazon headhunters.”) If the action doesn’t hold you, there’s another knockout audio commentary and an enlightening shot by shot “stereoscopic analysis” that’s bound to please even the most discerning viewer. Rhonda Fleming returns to play Alice Parker, a statuesque redhead who drives the pent-up locals loco when she travels deep into the Peruvian jungle in search of her fiancé Jerry Russell (Richard Denning), a career alcoholic on a treasure hunt. Or is he a plantation owner? Lamas, chest exposed, teeth gritted, oils his way into Alice’s heart as the jungle trader who withholds the truth about Jerry’s tippling. As the villain in the piece, the eternally underrated Brian Keith shows the rest of the cast what it means to give a performance. The ease and charm he brings to the lavish Technicolor production far exceeds anything in Lamas’ wheelhouse. It’s a performance that leaves one cheering for the bad guy. Edward Ludwig resumes the director’s chair and the Pine-Thomas reluctance that once eschewed gimmick shots this time hits the audience with everything from bolts of fabric to shrunken heads.

Thanks to the 3D Film Foundation, these films haven’t looked this good since their initial release. It’s a shame that we have to watch them on television.