Destry Rides Again

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Western;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Brian Donlevy, Jack Carson, Irene Hervey, Charles Winninger.

Partly by default and partly because it’s true, 1939’s Destry Rides Again is, as the great Imogen Sara Smith says in her interview on Criterion’s new release of what’s likely the most respected film from director George Marshall, also the best comic Western of all time. To really cut it, any contender has to work as a comedy and a Western, and Destry is pretty close to being able to stand alone in this specialist genre’s latter component. In fact, to my taste, there’s a little too much comedy and certainly music here, but it’s the musical numbers that have given the film its place in history, so what are you going to do?

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Marlene Dietrich is the one of the actresses that exhibitors had listed as “box office poison,” and she was just coming off Ernst Lubitsch’s flop-at-the-time Angel, which is now a major revisionist cause that Kino just brought out in a new Blu-ray that I haven’t seen despite commentary by major leaguer Joseph McBride, a Lubitsch biographer. (I was also struck that Andrew Sarris rated it very highly decades ago in his landmark The American Cinema.) Of all people, Dietrich “creator” and overall guru Josef von Sternberg encouraged her to take on Destry, with was a major face lift to her screen image.

She plays the in-house entertainment and fleecing assistant at the Last Chance Saloon, which is also the best chance around in which to lose your home and often your life in crooked poker games run by the joint’s proprietor (Brian Donlevy, naturally). As “Frenchy,” Dietrich provides gambling distractions but also performs several songs, including one of her signatures: “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have,” one of several light moments to camouflage the fact that the town law has mysteriously vanished off the face of the Earth. To take his place, the town’s crooked judge who’s under Donlevy’s thumb (Samuel S. Hinds) appoints the saloon’s resident sot (Charles Winninger) as the replacement law. In rare moments of sobriety, the last knows he’s in over his head, so he imports Tom Destry Jr. (James Stewart) as his deputy — son of a famed lawman and himself an individual of reputation in other places. Fun fact: Hinds later played Stewart’s father in It’s a Wonderful Life — talk about another image facelift).

Well … the first the town sees him, he’s helping a “good girl” (Irene Hervey) off the stage and in the process aiding her by holding some of her garb in his hands. Then it turns out that he doesn’t carry a gun. This is all good for guffaws on the street, and Donlevy is delighted once he gets over his sheer double-take bewilderment (no actor did this better than he did), though Winninger is, of course, mortified. Another fun fact: Hervey was married to singer Allan Jones in real life, whose big hit was “The Donkey Serenade” from the same year. Together, they parented singer Jack Jones, and I think I recall from an old “This Is Your Life” episode that he recorded it the same night Jack was born.

Stewart, though, turns out to have his own effective style at defusing trouble, and he develops something of a perverse relationship with Dietrich that includes lots of physical mayhem in the saloon and in her living quarters. Even with this, though, the big fight is between Dietrich and Uni Merkel as a local wife who will tolerate no nonsense. And speaking of violence, calming Hervey has a hothead brother played by Jack Carson in a role much meaner than he usually did. Donlevy, who really does own everything, wants to change Carson for moving his cattle over Donlevy land, and Carson just knocks down a fence and plus on through.

Eventually, Stewart employs a few surprises in his style and finally proves he has the stuff, as he additionally pursues whatever happened to the missing Winninger predecessor. Another ‘A’-teamer (Farran Nehme) wrote the Criterion essay, and she notes how, for all its glory, Destry was actually fairly far down on the year’s list of the renowned 1939’s biggest hits, such was the competition.

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Bowing again to Gary Tooze on his DVD Beaver site, I totally agree to unexpectedly striking degree that the All-Region Koch Blu-ray from Germany several years ago has far crisper visuals despite Criterion getting a 4K treatment here. But Criterion’s extras are very cool, including Marshall talking about working during Hollywood’s formative years (he’s right out of the unmatched Kevin Brownlow Hollywood documentary from the early 1930s). And the insights from Donald Dewey, author of James Stewart — A Biography, so impressed me that I tried to get the book for my Kindle, but it isn’t available. All in all this is a strong package, but boy, that Koch version looks good.

Mike’s Picks: ‘King Creole’ and ‘Destry Rides Again’

Mike’s Picks: ‘King Creole’ and ‘Destry Rides Again’

King Creole

Paramount, Musical, $29.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Elvis Presley, Carolyn Jones,Walter Matthau, Dolores Hart, Dean Jagger.
1958.
King Creole was, like most of Elvis’ pre-army screen outings, shot in black-and-white. But there was nothing stingy about the production, and the New Orleans locales that producer Hal Wallis sprung for add immeasurably to the ambience right from the opening, synching beautifully with the studio-shot material that makes up the bulk of the drama.
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Destry Rides Again

Criterion; Western; $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray; NR.
Stars Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Brian Donlevy, Jack Carson, Irene Hervey, Charles Winninger.
1939.
Destry Rides Again is likely the most respected film from director George Marshall, and also the best comic Western of all time.
Extras: Criterion’s extras are very cool, including Marshall talking about working during Hollywood’s formative years. And the insights from Donald Dewey, author of James Stewart — A Biography, are impressive.
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Salesman

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Documentary;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.

Salesman was the documentary feature debut that put the Maysles Brothers (David and Albert) on the map along with Charlotte Zwerin, whose subtle editing choices here are, with good reason, the kind often termed as “invisible,” though we subliminally sense that they’re there. The team’s real breakthrough, if you’re talking about audience magnets, came a couple years later with Gimme Shelter, aka the Rolling Stones/Altamont train-wreck-on-film — which every hip person of a certain age just had to see at the time (its shelf life has been robust, too). But Salesman, which the Brothers had to go out and sell all by themselves, did garner a lot of ink and outstanding reviews from its very opening.

The result is a highly specialized real-life portrayal that personally hit me between the eyes the first time I saw it — and still does. More on this later, but the salient point here is that we end up following four Irish-Catholic door-to-door salesmen of middle age and pet nicknames — charged with unloading deluxe doorstop Bibles full of elaborate illustrative paintings to customers who haven’t the money to make the monthly payments. There are tough ways to attempt a living, but making cold calls on straight commission as far as six U.S. states away from home is right up there. And then you drive somewhere else the following week.

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The 1969 documentary was lucky in a sense because it found a star in the making with soul-of-a-poet main protagonist Paul Brennan, the colorfully blarney-spouting member of the sales quartet (when it suits his needs or fancy) who, by coincidence, became the focus here because he is losing his touch. The old bag-of-tricks formulas that riff on a largely canned presentation aren’t working lately, and he’s starting to press — which then has a way of feeding on itself to make things worse. The other salesmen, who’ve been doing fairly well lately against equally tough odds, are sympathetic — but can’t get too close to Paul (nicknamed “The Badger”) or his escalating woes because they might rub off and poison their own well. But segregation isn’t easy to pull off when they’re all looming in close quarters at this week’s anonymous motel.

At this point, I should probably mention that during that flailing period after grad school when I was awaiting my Big Break (which did eventually come), I went on the road myself under the tutelage of my local Encyclopedia Brittanica rep/manager selling Great Books of the Western World on college campuses from Buffalo to Denton, Texas. It was a much younger crew than the one we see in Salesman, working a classy product (Ptolemy, anyone?) to a sharper clientele. But the documentary’s portrayal of the day-to-day lifestyle (a generous term) is chillingly on the mark, unearthing memories I was happy to relegate to eternal slumber miles beneath the earth’s core.

First, it was the long drives to the selling destination, which meant you began your work day at night when you were already whipped. You shared a motel room with someone who was a decent guy as long as you kept the conversation to the two male basics — sports and women — but with whom you otherwise had nothing in common, starting with the fact that, ironically, they never read books during the job’s rare down time). If motel fluorescent lighting could kill you, I wouldn’t have lived to see The Godfather Part II. And then there were the motivational tapes (something we don’t see the Salesman crew have to endure) that we were strongly motivated to buy; I think my manager (someone I liked but one slick Willie), had a piece of that action. In any event, the recorded motivator talked of nothing but attaining material goods and how you could now arrange your schedule to play a lot of golf (really deep stuff here). Negative thoughts were frowned upon, and here I was in the final chapters of the great Warren G. Harding bio The Shadow of Burning Grove, at a time when the administration’s suicides were beginning (“That’s positive,” said my boss, sardonically). When I finally decided to quit mid-week on the road — and I’d had some boffo sales weeks, though they were strongly front-loaded — he had me on a long bus ride back home in a blink, and I never saw any of the crew again. I would have infected the operation, which I understood and accepted.

One thing these two situations had in common were these impromptu customers’ inability to pay once the vendor got in the door (in Salesman, the crew members say they’re “with the church,” which is at best true only on a whopper of a technicality). The Maysles did their filming — and they found that most customers liked, and soon got used to, being on camera — in 1966 or early ’67. One offshoot of this is that everyone here smokes (“Sure, come right into my home and light up”), and truth to tell, this is equally so of the housewives-in-curlers who have to listen to the pitch, occasionally bite and then get read the riot act when their husbands get home that night to see that the family budget has been ambushed. By this time, it’s impossible to cancel the order, though laws were later enacted by the time of my own employment to provide a short “remorse” window.

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The Maysles divide their shooting time between miserably snowy Massachusetts not far from Boston and Miami, with the latter a seeming respite except for the fact that the neighborhood streets where Paul is assigned are such a byzantine tackle box that he can’t locate the household on which he has a lead, however shaky. Adding narrative rhythm to all this are the crew’s bull sessions back in their motel rooms (lots of low-stakes poker gets played for a quality-of-life bonus) and also the large national group meeting that’s intended to provide both motivation and a little ass-kicking. The sales manager isn’t exactly ogre-ish Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, but he makes it clear that they’d better produce — while the publisher rep, spiritual dimension quickly dispensed with, concedes they are basically pushing “product.” Paul and one other guy on his specific crew are thin and bony, but practically everyone else here is overweight, middle-aged and a figure of sympathy unless he happens to be on a sales roll.

The accompanying essay by critic Michael Chaiken and a 1969 Maysles TV interview by onetime Newsweek film critic Jack Kroll are up to Criterion standards and the original DVD’s commentary by Albert Mayles and Zwerin has been carried over. But the high point is unquestionably the full-length inclusion of a spoof from the “Documentary Now!” cable series, in which Bill Hader and Fred Armisen expertly have their way in Globesman, a precisely detailed replication about guys trudging through the same snow and the like to peddle globes. Hader also provides a separate appreciation for the original film. As he has proven before, Hader is no movie dilettante, but a funny man who also truly knows and loves film history. He is a treasure.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Little Romance’ and ‘Salesman’

Four Netflix Films Join Criterion Collection

Four Netflix films — Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory and Mati Diop’s Atlantics — will join the Criterion Collection in 2020.

These four films will join Alfonso Cuaron’s three-time Academy Award winning Roma, which was previously announced as the first Netflix film to receive a home video debut via the Criterion Collection. Roma will be available on Criterion DVD and Blu-ray on Feb. 11.

The Irishman, a mob film starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, has received five Golden Globe nominations, 10 BAFTA nominations, and 10 Academy Award nominations, in addition to being named Best Film of the Year by the National Board of Review and NY Film Critics Circle. With his ninth directing nomination, Martin Scorsese is the most-nominated living director in Academy history.

Marriage Story, a drama starring Scarlet Johansson and Adam Driver, won Best Film at the Gotham Awards and received six Golden Globe nominations, the most of any film, with Laura Dern winning the Golden Globe and the SAG Award for Best Supporting Actress. This was followed by six Academy Award nominations. It has received multiple SAG, BAFTA and PGA nominations.

American Factory premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival where directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert won the Directing Award for U.S. Documentary. Produced with Participant Media, American Factory is the first title presented by President and Mrs. Obama’s Higher Ground Productions. Since its August release, the film has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary as well as the Best Documentary BAFTA award. For Reichert, American Factory marks her fourth Oscar nomination.

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Atlantics premiered in competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where it was awarded the Grand Prix. The film is Diop’s feature directorial debut and she is the first black woman to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The film went on to play the Toronto Film Festival, where Diop was awarded the inaugural Mary Pickford Award, recognizing emerging female talent. Atlantics was on the Academy shortlist for the Best International Feature Film Oscar and Diop received a DGA Nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement of a First-Time Feature Film Director.

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Each Criterion Collection release will include exclusive behind-the-scenes content, special features and a filmmaker-supervised master.

The Roma Criterion release will include Road to Roma, a new documentary about the making of the film, featuring behind-the-scenes footage and an interview with Cuarón, as well as many other special features.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Holiday’ and ‘Trapped’

Holiday

Criterion, Comedy, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Lew Ayres, Doris Nolan, Edward Everett Horton.
1938.
Adapted from a play Philip Barry wrote well before he concocted The Philadelphia Story, this comic portrait of the unapologetic rich featured one of the four pairings of Katharine Hebburn and Cary Grant. Hepburn is as full of herself as ever, but this time in charming ways against a story that makes one fully empathize with her character. And Grant, so soon after The Awful Truth “made” him, gets another chance to deliver on his burgeoning screen charm but against a less farcical backdrop.
Extras: The Blu-ray includes the 1930 version of the story. Also included are an often funny back-and-forth from critics Michael Sragow and Michael Schlesinger; excerpts from 1970-72 AFI interviews of director George Cukor; a costume photo tribute; and a welcome essay by Slate critic Dana Stevens.
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Trapped

Flicker Alley, Drama, $34.99 Blu-ray/DVD, NR.
Stars Lloyd Bridges, Barbara Payton, John Hoyt.
1949.
For a tawdry, if seductively so, minor melodrama that director Richard Fleischer apparently didn’t even mention in his memoirs despite early-career finesse with noir, Trapped is full of what genre enthusiasts, at least, would count as curio compensations.
Extras: The esteemed Alan Rode and the luminous Julie Kirgo offer a Blu-ray commentary.
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Holiday

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Comedy;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Lew Ayres, Doris Nolan, Edward Everett Horton.

Given a formidable screen team made up of two household names until the day each of them died, it can be surprising to note that the four pairings of Katharine Hebburn and Cary Grant were only restricted to a five-year period: Sylvia Scarlett (1935; box office flop at the time); Bringing Up Baby (1938; ditto); Holiday (1938; middling performance, I surmise); and The Philadelphia Story (1940; smash). The motto of this, I guess, is to keep plugging away, but Holiday has been my clear favorite of the quartet for virtually all of my life, from the first time I saw it as a very young teenager in 1960 or so. Hepburn is as full of herself as ever, but this time in charming ways against a story that makes one fully empathize with her character. And Grant, so soon after The Awful Truth “made” him, gets another chance to deliver on his burgeoning screen charm but against a less farcical backdrop.

Adapted from a play Philip Barry wrote well before he concocted The Philadelphia Story, this earlier comic portrait of the unapologetic rich had been previously filmed in 1930, and one of the things that makes this Criterion release so exceptional is the earlier picture’s bonus inclusion here — that is, the entire movie — in a pristine print. More on this later, but the earlier Holiday plays surprisingly well considering its filming so shortly after the transition to sound, though it’s no match for the subtle fluidity director George Cukor brings to the disc’s main-event second version. (Of the Hepburn-Grant quartet, Cukor directed all but Howard Hawks’s Baby). His creativity extends to taking advantage of Grant’s well-known early history as a circus acrobat even down to a wonderful capper at the end, and — in the “who knew?” department — the ability of a memorably featured player Lew Ayres, who plays Hepburn’s alcoholic brother, to play the harmonica. I don’t know if Ayres got the credit he deserved at the time — he did get a National Board of Review acting citation for 1938 — but it’s a much revered performance today by movie journalists who know what’s-what and what’s-not.

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In a premise that may have played better in 1930 than ’38 because it took a while for the effects of the Depression to hit the so-called common man to hit with full effect, this period alternative to Wild Boys of the Road centers on a New York family residing in a block-long apartment that advertises conspicuous consumption accrued cash at all costs, though only two of its four members really go along with the program. One is the banker patriarch played by Henry Kolker in a keenly nuanced tightrope performance that conveys rigidity but not inhumanity, and the other is his younger daughter (Doris Nolan), who has always lapped the same Kool-Aid. The movie’s one flaw for me is that down-to-earth Grant could meet Nolan on a skiing trip and regard her as something akin to the ends of the earth, while at the same time, Hepburn keeps touting how wonderful her younger sis is and how close the two have been all of their lives. Instead, Nolan’s is a real chill-pill performance; this is one element where the ’30 version (directed by Edward H. Griffith) has it over the Cukor, thanks to what Mary Astor brings to the later Nolan role (the former’s pre-Code lingerie isn’t exactly a deterrent).

Grant shows up at family digs and begins by knocking and entering at the kitchen, where his schmoozes with the staff immediately peg him as an unpretentious good guy, even if he does labor (as a novice) in the same world of high finance that engendered the wealth for his future in-laws, to say nothing of  their Old Money ancestors. What he finds is an apartment elevator that goes up to the fourth-or-wherever floor and and at least one room that, in today’s terms, could all but hold the Kennedy Center Honors. From a film lover’s point of view, the joint is another tribute to Columbia Pictures longtime art director Stephen Goosen, who had just won an Oscar for Lost Horizon (he’d get another nomination here) and later did the hall of mirrors sequence to conclude The Lady From Shanghai. In terms of the plotting (Daniel Ogden Stewart screen-adapted, as he later would with Philadelphia), all this only serves to intimidate Grant — until he’s invited to an immaculately kept-up playroom (and favorite room of the siblings’ late mother) that emerges as the one civilized respite. The fact that Hepburn basically lives there exclusively during the day is probably an instant tip-off that Grant is likely courting the wrong sister.

Even so, Hepburn wants to throw an intimate (like, five or so people) engagement party, which kind of becomes a supremely delightful extended set piece when the figure increases maybe 50-fold, which allows the story’s elements to come together. One extreme is represented by Grant’s best buds — an academic couple (Edward Everett Horton, Jean Dixon) who don’t fit in with the rest, and good for them; I have never forgotten the bit from that first young-teenaged viewing of Horton handing his galoshes to one of the servants when making his entrance to the party (I also remember my mother, with whom I was watching it, laughing hard at this). The other extreme is Henry Daniel and Binnie Barnes — he from the same family cloth and begrudgingly willing to set Grant up with all the right people that any character named Seton Cram — could any fictional moniker be better? — would value. (Have you ever seen a movie in which Daniel walked into a scene, and you were instantly assured?)

As another peppy bonus extra, a pair of Michael’s who turn me into a glut on the market — critic Sragow and Schlesinger — do an often funny back-and-forth for about half-an-hour, a format I always enjoy when Criterion elects to do it. They’re arguably a bit hard on the original film’s staginess and Oscar-nominated Ann Harding’s “stagey” performance, but within the confines of the drawing-room genre and when the film was made, it’s one of the more absorbing early talkies I’ve seen recently. Edward Everett Horton has the same role, so it’s fun to note some subtle differences — and though I’d never even begin to rate Harding’s performance over Hepburn’s, she is much more “my type” when it comes to life’s basics (but that’s just me).  The day-and-night difference between both versions is Grant vs. Robert Ames, who reads his dialogue sympathetically enough but is one of those ubiquitous early-’30s actors who’s too old for his role and then compounds this problem by looking older than he even was during filming (40 or 41). In keeping with this, he died in 1931 of delirium tremens, which I didn’t even know was something that could kill you (as opposed to, say, cirrhosis). Amazingly, he had 13 features and one short subjects in release between 1930-32, though I wouldn’t have wanted to be the poor guy assigned to go to the trailer and say, “Five minutes, Mr. Ames.”

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Other extras include excerpts from 1970-72 AFI interviews of the great Cukor back when he still had all his marbles (when I met him at the AFI in the ’80s, he didn’t), where he talks a lot Hepburn and writer Stewart, both of whom he worked with frequently. There’s also a costume photo tribute and a welcome essay by Slate critic Dana Stevens, who terms the film was a box office dud — in contrast to the Sragow-Schlesinger riff, which characterizes its performance as “all right.” In any event, I love hearing the two Mikes  really sticking up for what is my favorite Hollywood movie from 1938 after The Adventures of Robin Hood (The Lady Vanishes is, of course, British, and Bringing Up Baby has always put me off, though I suppose that one last re-evaluation before I enter that great multiplex in the sky is inevitable). Holiday is Criterion in 4K, so it’s almost definitely inevitable that I’ve never seen it looking as good in my life.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Holiday’ and ‘Trapped’

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ and ‘The Story of Temple Drake’

The Bad and the Beautiful

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Dick Powell, Gloria Grahame, Walter Pidgeon.
1952.
The Bad and the Beautiful, a critical/commercial hit in its day, is tops of its kind if you’re into Vincente Minnelli’s specialized approach to sometimes gasket-blowing melodrama. A dissection of Hollywood’s underbelly all dressed up in MGM slickness, the relativelycalm-side B&B is both savvy and the next thing to over-the-top, without much attention paid to what was really going on in the industry at the time.
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The Story of Temple Drake

Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Miriam Hopkins, William Garage, Jack La Rue, Florence Eldredge.
1933.
Paramount’s The Story of Temple Drake remains one of the more obscure Hollywood releases to the masses when it comes to making a list of the ones that caused a scandal in their day.
Extras: The always persuasive Imogen Smith makes a thoughtful feminist case about Miriam Hopkins’ title character, while acknowledging certain ambiguities. Film critic Mick LaSalle also is a bonus interviewee. Rounding out the bonuses are cinematographer/Motion Picture Academy president John Bailey — who joins Matt Severson (head of that organization’s Margaret Herrick Library) to look at the original storyboards, which (again) suggest a horror movie.
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The Story of Temple Drake

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Drama;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Miriam Hopkins, William Garage, Jack La Rue, Florence Eldredge.

For a movie that came out in 1933, the same year as Larry King and Roman Polanski were born (not to equate those individuals), Paramount’s The Story of Temple Drake remains one of the more obscure Hollywood releases to the masses when it comes to making a list of the ones that caused a scandal in their day. But it was always somewhere in my mind from a very young age because a sizable still photo from it was included in The Movies by Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer, the only big-item coffee table book on film history I knew of at the time aside from Deems Taylor’s 1943 A Pictorial History of the Movies. My 10-year-old self got the beautiful Griffith-Mayer volume for Christmas right after it was published in late 1957 (I still have a copy in my living room) and Simon & Schuster priced it at $16, which, if you compare then-and-now currency rates, was a lot of money. Thanks, mom and dad.

The photo, which takes up most of a page, pictures Miriam Hopkins (and, already, I liked blondes) looking threatened and compromised clutching bed covering to her scantily-clad self as an imposing duo loomed over her. You could tell from the male member’s appearance, without knowing anything else, that he (Jack La Rue) was not someday going to be asked to be backup host for Jimmie Dodd on “The Mickey Mouse Club.” The movie’s significance in terms of a Griffith-Mayer mention was its role in substantially toughening up Hollywood Production Code (of which I knew nothing of at the time) — one of a handful of movies, I later learned, that did the same: think Warner’s Convention City and the entire Mae West oeuvre. Scandal-wise, it couldn’t have helped that Story was the dampened but not totally watered-down screen version of William Faulkner’s already notorious novel Sanctuary, which proper society had both recoiled at and bought in about equal number.

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Hopkins’ version of Temple is the granddaughter of a prosperous judge in what the movies used to like calling “an unnamed Southern town.” He’s one of those hypocrites who supposedly lives by a moral code but pours himself what might still be Prohibition hooch in his judge’s quarters — apparently passable rotgut, it seems, that, for all we know, might have been provided by rural bootleggers who don’t live that far out of town. Much of the client base for their liquid contraband are the college-boy lushes who’d like to get enough booze into Temple to negate her reputation as the town tease. One of these jokers is drinking and driving in an open convertible with her when the all but inevitable road mishap occurs somewhere roundabouts a backwoods Deliverance-ville, with both somehow surviving with minor injuries at worst. The bootleggers take her in, find some convenient hole in which to stash the boyfriend, and the worst ensues in a movie rife with well-delineated class resentment.

This is the famous rape, albeit one far more famous in the book, perpetrated by La Rue’s “Trigger” character, a somewhat more worldly figure than the more sympathetic characters whose ramshackle house he resides in when not operating out of a comparably urban brothel in a near-enough town. In the book’s rape of Temple, the character (named “Popeye”) uses a corncob as a hedge against his impotency. Thus, in the movie, director Stephen Roberts makes certain that the barn’s hay-or-straw mattress in which Temple sleeps is surrounded by corncobs, a sly brainstorm aimed at in-the-know audiences. Roberts showed talent here and in other movies I’ve seen — Geoffrey O’Brien gives a good example of his actor orchestration in Criterion’s accompanying essay — but he died three years later at age 40, so it’s tough to get a bead on him. But there’s no ambiguity about Karl Struss’s cinematography, which suggests something out of a horror classic like the Fredric March Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which he’d already shot. I’ll never be able to figure out how Struss (whom I got to meet very late in his life) spent a lot of his late career shooting the likes of Lex Barker Tarzan movies and his penultimate The Alligator People.

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The overriding question here is the degree to which Hopkins’ Temple willingly assimilates into this tawdry life, but in any event, she becomes the girlfriend of La Rue’s Trigger and is at his side in the brothel when an up-and-coming lawyer in her town (and a kind of protegé of her grandfather’s) tracks her down and tries to rescue her. Eventually, the movie finds itself on more traditional moral ground, but Hopkins is so good (her characterization suggests one with at least some intelligence atop her naiveté and hopeless judgment) that we’re not really sure what her true feelings are.

In Tony Richardson’s really awful 1961 screen version, titled Sanctuary and adapted from the novel and a Ruth Ford play that was kind of a sequel written with friend Faulkner’s permission, the normally beyond-criticism Lee Remick makes Temple such a ditz that her rather obvious preference for an alternative life doesn’t carry much dramatic weight one way or the other. She might as well be the Dixie airhead Pamela Tiffin plays so supremely for laughs (one of the most underrated performances ever) in Billy Wilder’s same-year One Two Three.

Hopkins, though, makes Temple interesting. On the one hand, life in her hometown does come off as stultifyingly dull for any woman with a little imagination. As for the aforementioned lawyer who’d like to marry, he’s kind of dull, too (William Gargan’s casting doesn’t help), and one can see that she might enjoy rebelling against all this. On the other hand, the always persuasive Imogen Smith is included as well in this Criterion release’s typically imaginative bonus features, and she makes a thoughtful feminist case while acknowledging certain ambiguities. Look at Hopkins in a convertible not long after the act, and you see she appears to be delirious — and it’s not the good kind of delirium. Smith also notes that were Temple to toss all those “tease” accusations to the winds and fully act on possible impulses, she’d be marked forever in a town whose 10-to-a-square-yard biddies already enjoy gossiping about her.

Faulkner’s novel, which I recall as being much more sordid, pulls far fewer punches when it comes to the life Temple chooses to live (it’s been decades since I’ve read it, so I think a fresh leap into the void is a major candidate for my agenda). Even so — and this is The Movies book speaking —“women’s groups” were outraged that Paramount had even made the movie, and, as we know, the industry’s hypocrisy meant that we’d soon be on our way to a Production Code with teeth and a long period of Andy Hardy and his ilk sipping sodas out of their straws (while Mickey Rooney and contemporaries of both sex sexes tallied 876 real-life marriages).

OK, that’s an exaggeration but not that much of one. San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle, whose published works include Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, is also a bonus interviewee here, and he advances a theory I like claiming the screen-history anomaly in all this was not pre-Code movies but the rather antiseptic life view the industry put forth that followed for too long a while (notwithstanding all the great films that nonetheless emerged). Rounding out the bonuses are cinematographer/Motion Picture Academy president John Bailey — who joins Matt Severson (head of that organization’s Margaret Herrick Library) to look at the original storyboards, which (again) suggest a horror movie. Bailey, a bonafide student of film history in addition to master of his chosen field is properly amazed. To view these, both he and Severson wear forensic gloves, which suggests the holiness of the moment.

The young Richard Zanuck bought the rights to the novel and this earlier screen version when he took on what became the Lee Remick fiasco (it’s not as if 20th Century-Fox hadn’t been artistically burned by their version of The Sound and the Fury in then recent history). The timing of this purchase was so close to when Paramount sold its 1929-49 library to MCA that just I don’t know if Story would have been withheld in any event from that still astonishing film package for the same raunchy reasons The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was (which is why Creek is the only Sturges Paramount not controlled today by Universal, who absorbed MCA in 1962). Whatever the reason, both versions were soon pulled out of circulation for many years and never televised until recent times — existing, as they say in A Thousand Clowns, mostly by rumor.

Nonetheless, I (who, again, always had the movie on my mind) was lucky. When I was the black sheep of NYU’s graduate Cinema Studies department, the greatest perk was getting to see movies at the late Prof. William K. Everson’s cavernous West Side apartment, and one night he announced that The Story of Temple Drake was on the evening’s agenda (I think I swallowed my entire top row of teeth). Later, when I was programming and eventually in charge of the AFI Theater, I saw it again each time we managed to clear the rights — perhaps Zanuck himself even signed off on it, can’t recall — for us to run a safety 35mm print the UCLA Film & Television Archive had (thanks again to Bob Rosen, Bob Gitt or anyone else who had a hand). Finally, the film showed up on Turner Classic Movies sometime into this century and at least one of the TCM festivals.

This tally still doesn’t represent a lot of people, so I hope this release will give Faulkner fans the nudge to take a look. Criterion’s gorgeous rendering basically trumpets all those early ’30s Paramount production design/set design/lighting cosmetics that made and make their films incalculably more interesting viewing than their MGM counterparts from the time. There’ve been more good movies made from Faulkner works than many think, with Intruder in the DustThe Tarnished AngelsTomorrow and, I’d submit, at least The Long, Hot Summer’s sassy Newman-Woodward bandying as worthwhile endeavors or more). Temple Drake is closer to being in their class than not, snake bitten to be sure by exhibition roadblocks.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ and ‘The Story of Temple Drake’

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Heiress’ and ‘This Gun for Hire’

The Heiress

Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins.
1949.
Adapted from the 1947 Ruth and Augustus Goetz play whose springboard was Henry James’s source novel Washington Square, the William Wyler-directed The Heiress allows Olivia de Havilland to undergo a subtly eerie transformation before our very eyes in a spellbinding example of refined worm-turning.
Extras: The Criterion essay is by Brit critic and historian Pamela Hutchinson. There’s also a conversation between film essayist Farran Smith Nehme and Jay Cocks; a featurette about Edith Head’s costumes; 1981 footage of Ralph Richardson that was shot for Catherine Wyler’s documentary on her father; an anecdotal interview of de Havilland; a Merv Griffin tribute to Wyler; and Wyler’s brief acceptance speech for the AFI Life Achievement Award.
Read the Full Review

This Gun for Hire

Shout! Factory, Drama, $29.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Veronica Lake, Robert Preston, Laird Cregar, Alan Ladd.
1942. The best of the Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake quartet was also the duo’s first teaming. In this adaptation of a Graham Greene novel, Ladd plays a twisted hired killer contracted for a scheme that tangentially involves a nightclub where Lake performs as a singing magician.
Extras: Historian/biographer Alan Rode and producer/filmmaker Stephen Mitchell make a compatible team discussing Ladd’s insecurities and Lake’s temperamental personality/personal problems.
Read the Full Review

The Heiress

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Drama;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins.

Leaving aside Marie Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc — a performance as unique as the film it serves — I can’t think of another actress showcase that gets to me more than Olivia de Havilland’s in 1949’s The Heiress, as long as we (getting down to basics) leave the schoolboy crushes of a 72-year-old male out of rival considerations.

Adapted from the 1947 Ruth and Augustus Goetz play whose springboard was Henry James’s source novel Washington Square, my favorite William Wyler film after The Best Years of Our Lives (with something like a dozen close runners-up) allows de Havilland to undergo a subtly eerie transformation before our very eyes in a spellbinding example of refined worm-turning.

Actually, she undergoes a transformation as well in To Each Her Own, which three years earlier had earned de Havilland her first of two deserved Oscars for an underseen grade-A soaper that may be the best movie Mitchell Leisen ever directed (it’s less arguably the best drama, though Hold Back the Dawn would get some votes). TEHO, however, takes place over a full generation, so the actress’s transformation from rural American beauty to crusty Londoner conveys the normal aging process. In The Heiress (Oscar No. 2 — and with The Snake Pit coming in the middle, talk about a run), the metamorphosis is more attitudinal. We can’t imagine the Catherine Sloper character seen early in the film displaying a cruel streak. Later, she does — because, as she says, she’s been “taught by experts” (a brutally delivered line of dialogue).

Ralph Richardson is de Havilland’s acting equal here as Catherine’s doctor father, a widower who has never forgiven her for being plain and socially maladroit when his idealized late wife was anything but. The two reside in the Washington Square neighborhood with the doctor’s sister (Miriam Hopkins) an often extended houseguest in a world of polite society, which is something to think about the next time you see somebody strumming a guitar adjacent to that neighborhood Arch down NYU way. The latter — and it’s a good role for Hopkins — is a not unsavvy flibbertigibbet, which, when combined with a romantic streak, makes her prone to cheerlead a courtship by the young Montgomery Clift’s Morris Townsend, whose dashing good looks and world travels camouflage the fact that he’s also something of a bounder.

Not taken in, though, is the doctor himself, who thinks he knows a fortune-hunter when he sees one — though Clift is such an appealing presence that the movie is probably more effective than its antecedents (I’ve read James’s wonderful novel, but it was many years ago) in making us entertain the possibility that he’s sincere in his affections. This is a tough sell for Dr. Sloper because his daughter’s social graces are so (sympathetically) clunky he just can’t bring himself to love her. There’s only so much that even a Wyler can do to turn an actress as beautiful as de Havilland into someone plain. But the character’s inability to make conversation or even to put a drink down before she steps onto the dance floor — usually with some aged poster child for gout — provide all the winces that any viewer needs.

At this point, we’re veering close to spoiler territory, so let’s see how Wyler dressed his movie up. Well, there was the Oscar win for scoring by Aaron Copland himself (no Vic Mizzy he); another for the costumes by Edith Head (subject of a featurette in the Criterion bonus section); and another for production designer Harry Horner. Though he didn’t always get the productions he deserved (stop directing the whack-job-ish camp fest Red Planet Mars — you don’t have to go much further in gauging Horner’s talent than to note that the challenger to The Heiress as his career achievement is the design he did on that incredible arena and dance floor in Sydney Pollack’s film of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (I also like the way he set up the spatial relationship between the restaurant seating and the principal actors in Separate Tables, a movie I still think is better than its now diminished critical reputation would indicate).

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The Criterion essay is by Brit critic and historian Pamela Hutchinson, who’s also known as an expert on G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (now, there’s a contrast for the ages when it comes to female protagonists). She hits all the key points, and there are many to hit dating back to James — though one of the most interesting is how de Havilland initiated the project and hand-picked Wyler probably knowing what was going to be in store: take after take and (in one case) walking up steep stairs 30 or so times with a suitcase until she looked exhausted enough to convey Catherine’s defeat. But as noted earlier, the worm eventually turns here, and I have to think this is a movie any feminist will love.

Quite the brainstorm here was the decision to put the wonderful film essayist Farran Smith Nehme with Jay Cocks, who was not only Time’s film critic when the magazine was still in its prime but the screenwriter for Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, which I love as much as The Heiress. I wish Criterion did more of these back-and-forth pairings as supplements because at least the ones I’ve seen have always worked. There’s also 1981 footage of Richardson that was shot for Catherine Wyler’s documentary on her father (the senior Wyler’s footage was completed just before his sudden death), and Sir Ralph recalls an initial clash that was soon cleared up. I wonder if his warm feelings were further influenced by Richardson’s old colleague Laurence Olivier crediting Wyler with teaching him how to act for the movies, by virtue of Wuthering Heights and the Carrie that would be Stephen Crane’s Carrie and not Brian De Palma in the girls’ locker room). The Goetz’s penned the Carrie screenplay (as they did for The Heiress), and I think it’s almost as good, sparked by what many think (myself included) is Olivier’s greatest work on screen.

We also get a two-part interview of de Havilland by Paul Ryan, in which she’s enthusiastically anecdotal — a high point being the story of how Errol Flynn once left a long dead snake wrapped up in her fresh underwear. She also joins Bette Davis (a Warner Bros. treat just by itself) on a Merv Griffin tribute to Wyler, flanked by Walter Pidgeon (lighting cigarettes galore and tossing in what-me-worry-ish asides) and The Collector’s Samantha Eggar. That gorgeous redhead’s verbal contribution isn’t included in the excerpt, though unambiguously conveyed as same universal language in her looks that goosed me into seeing that movie three or four times during its original release. It’s good to see Eggar sharing a hug-ish greeting with Wyler when he makes his entrance because there was real tension on the set of what was inherently a difficult project.

Finally, there’s Wyler’s relatively brief (maybe five minutes) acceptance speech getting the AFI Life Achievement Award back when that meant a lot more than today. It’s very funny, though obscures the fact that were massive technical problems during the taping, necessitating reshoots that I seem to recall lasted for hours. Talk about a primer in irony, given Wyler’s five-decade rep as master craftsman second to none. Case in point: I think I may be more impressed by his 12 nominations than the three Oscar wins — and that was with no best director nomination for Funny Girl, which would have happened more years than not back then).

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Heiress’ and ‘This Gun for Hire’