The Road to Hong Kong

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Joan Collins, Dorothy Lamour, Robbery Morley, Walter Gotell, Felix Aylmer, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Jerry Colonna, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra.

By now, the formula behind Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “Road To” pictures called for the action to kick off on a vaudeville stage with the boys singing and hoofing their way through a contemptuously choreographed introductory tune — “Goodtime Charlie” opened Road to Utopia, “We’re on Our Way” intro’d Road to Rio, “Chicago Style” began Road to Bali. The Road to Hong Kong in 1962 was paved with Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn’s toe-tapping “Team Work.” It wouldn’t hurt to point out some of the similarities between this and the 007 series that would reach American screens the following spring. Designed as a revival for the overripe comedy team, the story of a madman plotting to gain world dominance shared uncanny overtones with Dr. No and many secret agent films to follow. In this instance, the fate of the world dangled by a screenplay so thin only Hope and Crosby could support it.

Credit visual designer Maurice Binder with the opening credit array of chopsticks, Chinese dragons, and fortune cookie fonts. The last of Hope and Crosby’s 7 “Road To” vehicles, and the only one to begin with “The,” the United Artists release, produced at London’s Shepperton’s Studio, was the sole installment not to come out of Paramount’s Bronson Gate. The studio was magnanimous enough to allow Binder use of the six previous titles for his intro. His subsequent contributions to the Bond pictures are legendary. Binder’s sophisticated title sequences began with Dr. No and continued to the time of his death in 1989 with Licence to Kill. Hope would follow this up two pictures later with Call Me Bwana. Produced by Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, it was the only non-Bond Eon Production of its period. And years before the world was introduced to Pussy Galore, Bob was being wooed by Poon Soon.

Were it up to Bing, “Road” staple Dorothy Lamour wouldn’t have made the trip. Crosby was pushing 60 at the time and wanted a young chippie to help make it feel realistic for his character. Joan Collins was half his age, but Bing and Bob were guaranteed plenty of exercise between takes by playing catch with the two footballs hidden in the actresses’ spacious bouffant wigging. It was Hope who remained loyal to their old co-star by insisting they include a lengthy bit and musical number for her. The picture takes a turn for the surreal the moment Lamour (as “Herself”) appears onscreen draped in a trademark sarong. It’s Lamour who gets the biggest laugh when a weasley Hope pleads for her help with, “You can’t forget all those pictures we made together.” “Neither can anyone else,” she fires back. “That’s why I’m working over here.” The dozens of live fish Bing previously dumped down Bob’s back reappear to delight during Lamour’s showstopper.

Written by Melvin Frank and directed by his frequent collaborator Norman Panama, it’s safe to say that as filmmakers, the duo were great gag writers endowed with a license to steal. The fast-motion gag with Bob and Bing being fed by a machine gone amuck was a direct lift from Chaplin’s Modern Times. And Bob’s sudden ability to memorize the formula for top secret rocket fuel at a rate that would make Evelyn Wood dizzy is a direct descendant of Malcolm Smith, Jerry Lewis’ character in Frank Tashlin’s Hollywood or Bust who inexplicably, and with no provocation, spouts military secrets in his sleep.

So why the need for a new Kino Lorber Studio Classics pressing when there’s already an Olive Blu-ray edition of similar quality and equally priced? Why else than the hilarious commentary track by historian Stan Taffel and the Dean of Film Distribution, Michael Schlesinger.

My Man Godfrey (1957)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 5/23/23;
Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars David Niven, June Allyson, Robert Keith, Jessie Royce Landis, Martha Hyer, Eva Gabor, Jay Robinson, Dabs Greer.

The con is on. While addressing the crowd at this year’s Cinemacon, Hollywood’s cloning of a comic book convention, Sony Pictures CEO Tom Rothman stressed, “Originality is always a risk, but to me, the bigger risk is boring the audience to death with sameness.” He then went on to hype such forthcoming paragons of invention as Bad Boys 4, Equalizer 3, more Spider-Man, and another installment of “Ghostbusters.”

Hollywood had begun recycling its own material decades before redemption centers became fixtures in supermarket parking lots across the land. Remakes are as old as cinema itself. Louis Lumière’s Playing Cards was released in 1896, and before the year was out Georges Méliès had ripped off his fellow countryman, title and all.

Not all remakes are bad. (Just most of them.) Hitchcock’s update of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much is not only an improvement, it contained the finest example of sustained suspense in the Master’s canon. (Hitchcock essentially directed the same movie 54 times.) Generally speaking, if you’re going to remake movies, remake bad movies. When it comes to screwball comedy, Gregory LaCava’s My Man Godfrey is untouchable. Sadly, quality never stopped the suits at Universal from bowdlerizing one of their own landmarks to turn a quick profit.

Made in 1936, the original My Man Godfrey was a product of the depression, a cynical screwball comedy in which homelessness was treated as a competitive sport among the filthy rich. The wealthy kicked in $100 to participate in a scavenger hunt, while the destitute earned $5 a head to act as pawns politely referred to by the sentimental sobriquet, “forgotten men.” (The term was appropriated from Remember My Forgotten Man, Warren and Dubin’s devastating curtain song from Gold Diggers of 1933.)

The 1957 My Man Godfrey remake was a product of producer Ross Hunter, a flamboyantly engaging glitz meister blessed with just enough good taste to hire Douglas Sirk to direct 10 “women’s pictures,” including the exemplar of the form, that rare instance where a remake surpassed its original, Imitation of Life (1959). Topicality bottom-lined the forgotten man angle to oblivion; William Powell’s Harvard grad was on the skids due to a bad relationship. David Niven is an Austrian blueblood living in America as an undocumented alien. Unlike Niven’s Godfrey, Powell’s butler refused to take handouts. Rather than waiting for Irene (Carole Lombard) to offer him employment, Powell, eager to work, came right out and asked for a job.

With few variations, most notably Eva Gabor replacing Alan Mowbray as the friend out of Godfrey’s past, the story remained faithful to Eric Hatch’s novel. It was photographed by Garbo’s favorite cameraman, William Daniels. Unfortunately, Garbo quit the business in 1941 and director Henry Koster’s genial use of the CinemaScope lens asked that Daniels alternate between teeter-totter and center scan compositions. It would be impossible to top the performances in the original. Niven was born to buttle, but he’s no match for Powell’s understated charm. On his first day, lusty Niven is quick to ask what room Irene sleeps in. Powell never inquired. Touches like this sapped enough screwball elements to transform it into a standard issue romcom. And as for proof that the Production Code still reigned supreme, when June Allyson and Niven occupy the same bed, they do so with both of the latter’s feet planted firmly on the floor.

Try as they might, the supporting cast (Jessie Royce Landis, Robert Keith, Jay Robinson, Martha Hyer, etc.) is no match for Franklin Pangborn as the auctioneer, Grady Sutton as spurned Irene’s Godfrey substitute, and, is an unsurpassed stroke of comic genius, Mischa Auer’s wall-hugging brooder possessed with an innate ability to ape a gorilla. In the lead, Allyson is a star incapable of shining.  Replacing Carole Lombard is tantamount to arriving at the concert hall only to learn Judy Garland fell ill, leaving Kathie Lee Gifford to fill in. And as much as I admire Jessie Royce Landis, Alice Brady’s scatterbrained matriarch is a comedic gem. If you didn’t know her, you’d swear she was born addlepated.

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There’s talk of another writer’s strike, but let’s face facts: Hollywood writers have essentially been on strike for decades, regurgitating the same formulaic mediocrity over and over again. What was once a vital dramatic medium has essentially morphed into television on a bigger screen, demanding little more of viewers hooked on relentless repetition than to return month in and month out to watch their favorite characters do and say the same yada, yada, yada. Archie Bunker calls Mike a “Meathead.” Ralph Kramden’s well intentioned schemes were doomed to failure. Would a collar be the same without McGarrett’s “Book him, Danno”? “Kiss my grits!” “Dy-No-Mite!” “Da plane! Da plane!” “May the Force be with you.” Although nowhere as insipid as Gus Van Sant’s tracing of Psycho, My Man Godfrey ranks high in the pantheon of unnecessary remakes. Note to Tom Rothman: I think I’ve found your next blockbuster!

Special features include audio commentary by film critic and author Simon Abrams ,and what would a Kino Lorber release be without a trailer remastered in 2K.

Trio of Comedies Starring Screen Greats Marlon Brando, Jack Lemmon and Others Due Dec. 14 From Kino Lorber

Three classic comedies starring such Hollywood heavyweights as Marlon Brando, Jack Lemmon, Tony Randall and David Niven will be released Dec. 14 on DVD and Blu-ray Disc under the Kino Lorber Studio Classics Line.

Bedtime Story is a 1964 comedy about two cunning conmen in which Brando shares top billing with Niven and Shirley Jones. Brando portrays the caddish Freddy Benson, who enjoys setting up elaborate ruses to seduce women. The suave Lawrence Jameson (Niven) likes to pose as a prince to swindle the wealthy. When the two men meet, each perceives the other as an interloper and a threat. Upon the arrival of vacationing soap heiress Janet Walker (Jones), the two sweet-talking scoundrels compete to trick her out of both her clothes and her fortune.

The film will be issued on both DVD and Blu-ray Disc from a new 2K master. Bonus features include a new audio commentary from film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson and newly restored theatrical trailers and teasers.

Two other comedies will be issued on Blu-ray Disc only.

The Brass Bottle is a 1964 comedy in which Randall portrays a modern man who accidentally acquires the friendship of a long-out-of-circulation genie. The film also stars Barbara Eden and Burl Ives and inspired the hit TV series that made Eden an icon, “I Dream of Jeannie.”

And Mass Appeal is a 1984 comedy-drama starring Lemmon as Father Tim Farley, a complacent priest in a wealthy suburban parish who drives a Mercedes and cracks jokes from the pulpit. When idealistic Mark Dolson (Željko Ivanek), a radical seminarian, accuses him of “song and dance theology,” the result is a head-on clash that teaches each man the true meaning of faith.

‘Guns of Navarone’ Shooting to 4K Ultra HD Nov. 2 for 60th Anniversary

The 1961 Oscar-lauded war film The Guns of Navarone will come out on 4K Ultra HD Nov. 2 from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment for its 60th anniversary.

In the film, Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn star as a team of Allied military specialists recruited for a dangerous but imperative mission: to infiltrate a Nazi-occupied fortress and disable two long-range field guns so that 2,000 trapped British soldiers may be rescued. Faced with an unforgiving sea voyage, hazardous terrain and the possibility of a traitor among them, the team must overcome the impossible without losing their own lives.

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Adapted by screenwriter Carl Foreman from Alistair MacLean’s best-selling novel, The Guns of Navarone was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and won for Best Special Effects (1961).

Update (9/10/21): Date changed from Oct. 12 to Nov. 2.

A Matter of Life and Death

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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