The Bad and the Beautiful

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Dick Powell, Gloria Grahame, Walter Pidgeon.

For an actor who immortalized Spartacus not just for the movie masses but Billy Crystal’s joke bank as well, Kirk Douglas took his initial steps toward superstardom playing the lowest kind of heels — and did so as early as his memorable third screen role in Out of the Past. Then, over the subsequent five years, he earned his first two (of career three) Oscar nominations for Champion and The Bad and the Beautiful, which means that, all too typically, Academy voters ignored his all-transcendent sociopathic achievement: Playing ruthless reporter Charles Tatum in Billy Wilder’s commercial disaster turned masterpiece Ace in the Hole. But 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, a critical/commercial hit in its day, is nonetheless tops of its kind if you’re into Vincente Minnelli’s specialized approach to sometimes gasket-blowing melodrama.

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A dissection of Hollywood’s underbelly all dressed up in MGM slickness, the relatively calm-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: continuing fears of hugely competitive TV; the flood of new independent productions shot frequently out of the studio and on outdoor California locations; and at very least rumblings about imminent widescreen pictures. The type of movies it portrays as being major hits belong to previous eras, and barely even to the postwar ’40s — productions more like Louis B. Mayer sanctioned concoctions than Dore Schary’s, even if Schary, more seriously minded stiff, was in charge of Metro when B&B got made. Though come to think, you can make a case that Minnelli’s treatment represents a hybrid of the two regimes’ approach to screen entertainment, given that Mayer likely wouldn’t have been that crazy about the boozing and adultery that makes up a lot of Charles Schnee’s Oscar-winning script.

Though Douglas is the story’s motivating force, the movie is effectively broken into thirds, giving each segment’s new central character an absorbing story of his/her own. Their unifying thread is the degree to which the producer and eventual studio head Douglas plays so thoroughly shafted them — personally and professionally — that they’ve vowed never to work with him again. As a producer in the middle (Walter Pidgeon) makes the case that it might be to their advantage to do so despite even Douglas’s de facto current banishment from the biz due to the loss of his box office touch. We see their stories in flashback, with the lineup breaking down into a director who began his career with Douglas (Barry Sullivan) and eventually came to wonder where his half of the so-called partnership went; an alcoholic bit player (on a good day) that Douglas molded into a major star (Lana Turner); and a pipe-smoking Pulitzer winner (Dick Powell) who was unwillingly enticed to out of Virginia and into the Hollywood jungle to adapt his novel. Meanwhile, the Southern piece of work he’s married to is played by Gloria Grahame, who took the supporting Oscar here for one of the shortest awarded screen roles ever.

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That’s quite a cast, and we haven’t even gotten to Gilbert Roland as “Gaucho” — a Latin lover who has as many women in his stable as a ’60s secret agent as the other male characters here are shown to be toiling hard at their craft. (Though in a nice touch, we see Roland turn deadly serious and all business when asked to read a script for consideration.) Despite this treatment’s built-in struggle between a fanciful and realistic portrayal of industry machinations, Minnelli hit the directorial bullseye when it came to mining this contradiction into a lump-less vision, which is one mark of an auteur. He and the great Robert Surtees (another Oscar winner from the movie’s awarded five) also go to town with the latter’s camera, which is almost as peripatetic with boom shots as anything in the director’s career-dominant musicals.

In some ways, this is an insiders’ movie, though one in which paying customers went with the flow the way they don’t always with Hollywood sagas. Turner’s character is the daughter of a deceased acting great with spellbinding vocal deliveries, a set-up that suggests Diana Barrymore (who’d rate her own tawdry screen biopic, based on her best-selling autobiography) only a few years later. Earlier, Douglas and Sullivan get handed a no-budget quickie about cat men complete with tired actors wearing cat suits with zippers — until they come up with the brainstorm never to show the cat (Val Lewton, anyone?). Maybe Tom Hooper should have gone this route with Cats, though I suspect this might have been deemed audience-unfriendly.

All this plays out against David Raksin’s score, which for years has graced many best lists devoted to movie scoring; Rhino gave it a CD release many years ago, and much of it once graced a Raskin-conducted RCA Victor LP that also featured his classics for Laura and Forever Amber. In terms of performances, there are some jewels here: I had forgotten how amusingly prickly Powell’s characterization is here, while Grahame, for all her role’s brevity (though this should have been Jean Hagen’s Oscar year for Singin’ in the Rain), suggests a character who isn’t totally the dizzy mate I had read her as being in long-ago previous viewings.

In some ways, the big surprise is Lana Turner (though I always thought her underrated, anyway) — at a time when her career was in a rough spot following a couple years of inactivity followed by three box office flops in a row, notwithstanding that A Life of Her Own (1950) looks pretty good today. For B&B, Turner ended up getting outstanding reviews for only the second time in her career as a star (The Postman Always Rings Twice was the other instance), and the Minnelli film was the only really decent one she did until being cut loose by MGM in the mid-1950s before going freelance with more success (at least for a while) than a lot of her peers.

A lot of this material is covered in 2001’s Lana Turner … A Daughter’s Memoir, a bonus TCM documentary that centers on the star’s daughter Cheryl. She, as every attentive Boomer will recall, became a center of attention herself when she stabbed her mother’s mobbed-up lover Johnny Stompanato to death — a case of justifiable homicide, it was ultimately ruled, because he was threatening Turner during a knockdown/drag-out in the latter’s home. I’m not kidding about how big this story was; my oldest friend Jim Foreman and I used to reenact our vision of the Stompanato killing during lunch breaks in fifth grade, using a ruler as the weapon.

The doc has some historical re-creations that I mostly could have done without, though it does portray enough of the house’s physical layout to give us a better idea of events that culminated in Stompanato walking right into a kitchen knife. In addition to taking time to deal with Turner big-screen bombs like Mr. Imperium and the color remake of The Merry Widow (way to green-light, Dore), Story also provides welcome annotation of a loving but woefully inattentive seven marriages plus her long relationship with Tyrone Power. One of these marriages was to Lex (RKO Tarzan) Barker, a grown-up conservative rich-kid whose personal taboo on drinking a) failed to sync with the Lana lifestyle; b) added to the shock value when the word came out that he repeatedly sexually abused Cheryl as a teen. As presented on camera here, Cheryl seems unpredictably well-and and certainly well-composed, though (again) the pic is almost 20 years old.

The Blu-ray’s main event is another visual winner from Warner Archive, though it doesn’t hurt to have won the black-and-white cinematography Oscar for starters. A decade later, much of the same creative team would reunite for Two Weeks in Another Town, another movie industry melodrama from Minnelli that’s as delirious as Kirk Douglas’s driving in its most unforgettable scene — a censor-compromised box office flop that really did go over the top. I blow hot and cold on Minnelli melodramas, but the later ones in his career are usually more than I can take, for all of their perverse entertainment value (reassessments may be in order).   

Town, though, has already gotten its own Warner Archive Blu-ray treatment, making it undeniably ideal double-feature material with B&B for anyone so inclined. It even includes a scene where Douglas views a clip from the earlier picture in a projection room and lauding it as great filmmaking, which isn’t that easy to top when it comes to self-referential cinema. This didn’t exactly hurt it in Europe (which was Weeks’s backdrop), where they take this kind of “movie universe” thing very seriously. In America, it’s more like, “Turner really looked hot in those pajamas.”

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

Christmas in July

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 11/26/2019;
Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dick Powell, Ellen Drew, William Demarest, Raymond Walburn.

As the funniest, and likely only screen treatment of a familiar premise to exhibit a little depth on the side as well, Preston Sturges’ 1940 Christmas in July is widely regarded as that revered comic comet’s most underrated writing-directing achievement — a point reiterated here on a Blu-ray commentary by sharp and thoughtful film historian Samm Deighton (her speaking voice is easy on the ear as well).

This farce with a heart could hardly be otherwise given its short running time (67 minutes) and a Sturges cast that doesn’t include the likes of Henry Fonda or Barbara Stanwyck or Joel McCrea or Claudette Colbert. Its lead is Dick Powell, who, make no mistake, is way up there in my personal pantheon of all-time favorite actors — but only after Murder, My Sweet turned him into a recipient of crushing Mike Mazurki strangleholds to launch him as one of the most bedrock film noir figures ever. In July’s case, Powell was here amid his Paramount tenure during that strange period bookended by his days as a fading Warner Bros. tenor and a reinvented specialist of shadowy intrigue at several studios (with an occasional comedy thrown in). His fairly obscure Paramount output (including a couple Technicolor musicals) is so ill-revived that it’s tough to make ultimate judgments, but there’s no question July was his standout achievement there unless you want to count his vocal introduction (with Mary Martin and the Golden Gate Quartette) of the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer Hit the Road to Dreamland in Star Spangled Rhythm.

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Based on an unproduced (until 1988) play by Sturges himself that already had gathered dust for years, the movie casts Powell as a New York tenement dweller someone who’s both realistic and a dreamer at the same time. That is, he’s hard-nosed enough to think he can’t afford to marry his girlfriend (Ellen Drew) until his fortunes improve — and yet somehow remains convinced he’s going to win the radio jingle contest held by a coffee company that’s a rival to the one that employs him (nice touch there). The plot turns — actually, it’s more like a huge semi that jackknifes on a mountain road — when three pranksters in his office (one of them played by future Republic Pictures mainstay Rod Cameron) send Powell a fake telegram informing him to come on down and get a check for 25 grand, which is about half-a-million in today’s currency.

That this ruse gets is far as it does is a partial product of all the in-house mayhem at the contest-sponsoring Maxford Coffee Company, which is populated by all those Sturges stock company cranks and crackpots with their magnificent comic faces: Raymond Walburn, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Al Bridge, Jimmy Conlin and so on. Walburn is the boss, forever complaining that the executive subordinates he can never locate never tell him what’s going on in the company, though let it be said his bulb is dim when it’s not flickering. As Walburn hands the money over to Powell without knowing any better, his “team” is in 12 Angry Men-style deliberations to determine the real winner, with Demarest the immovable holdout in what would be an otherwise unanimous decision.

Once Powell starts negotiating the check he holds but hasn’t yet deposited into material goods, any plot recitation approaches spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that instead of blowing the stash on trips to Vegas or cartons of champagne, he instead purchases very specific gifts for practically the entire block — while simultaneously seeming to glean as much satisfaction from his improved job prospects at work as the contest win that, alas, isn’t. The raucous scene where his generous handouts occur is the picture’s visual standout — and this from a writer who could additionally direct for the eye as well as showcase actors (a triple threat, in other words). There’s a bit where Powell gifts a handicapped child, probably with polio, with a doll; the moment is warm and not maudlinly calculated because Sturges knew exactly when to turn off the spigot. It’s a quality that served him so well in Hail the Conquering Hero, which will always be my favorite Sturges film (of course, it doesn’t hurt it be the son of a World War II Marine).

Deighton’s commentary is much less interested in conveying biographies of cast and crew here than in examining the ways in which July and the other Sturges classics fit into the most complicated worldview of a filmmaker who had a go-get-em capitalist for a father and a mother who was such an artistic free spirit that her best friend was Isadora Duncan. His upbringing whiplashed Sturges into a complicated admiring/ridiculing view of capitalism and (having lived internationally as a child) an unambiguously ridiculing view of American politicians. The Maxford executives may be business execs, but (thanks in no small part to the supporting cast), they don’t exactly surprise of us by coming off as the equivalents of the ward heelers in Sturges’ immediately preceding directional career-maker The Great McGinty.

Simply by default, July probably is the least of the Paramount Sturges brief run, not counting that puzzling dramatic misfire The Great Moment, which muddied the waters for him at Paramount and significantly led to his departure — a whopper of a mistake for both parties. But it’s still the real deal and instantly identifiable as a Sturges picture and a somewhat better one than I remembered. The transfer isn’t any 4K job, but the result even looks better than I expected from a comedy that’s not minor but was low-budget. The following year, though, would bring both The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels, which was and is about as big-time as movies got in the early 1940s.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and ‘Christmas in July’

Footlight Parade

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Musical;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell. 

Footlight Parade was 1933’s third Busby Berkeley extravaganza released by Warner Bros. in a seven-month period, but this one had a surprise. Of all people, given his screen-gangster resumé, here was James Cagney headlining a cast of Berkeley musical regulars — and not faking it.

Cagney actually had a chorus-boy background, but it’s doubtful that many moviegoers knew this. Nor is that exactly common knowledge today, given the unexpected delight his appearance here still holds for some viewers — something it might do to even a larger degree were it not for the following decade’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, where his footwork is all over the place. As one of the interviewees says on a Blu-ray supplemental featurette carried over from the old Footlight DVD, it’s likely that the George M. Cohan biopic wouldn’t even have gone to Cagney had it not been for the earlier picture’s success (apparently, Fred Astaire was initially No. 1 on the studio YDD wish list).

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The Footlight story hook deals with “prologues” — or those short live stage productions that once preceded movie presentations but only in the largest cities (I doubt that any character in God’s Little Acre ever saw one). They were before my time, but I assume they were precursors to the Rocketettes et. al. at Radio City. In any event, Cagney plays a director of Broadway musicals who’s struggling his way toward unemployment because the public is no longer buying Broadway musicals — a drought/reality that also took down the movie musical for a while early in the Depression until Berkeley’s 42nd Street revitalized them (1933 was also the year of Astaire’s first screen appearance with Ginger Rogers).

Of course, this being Berkeley, the net result — in a bang-bang-bang finale of three consecutive classic numbers — couldn’t possibly be presented on stage because the theater audiences watching them wouldn’t benefit from or even be privy to the quick cutting, panning shots and the overhead photography synonymous with the famed dance director’s name. I can also just see sweaty crew members (and, by the way, who could pay that many bodies, stagehand labor union demands or not?), hauling the water tank in “By a Waterfall” from theater to theater on a tight time deadline. They’d have filed a grievance the very first day, Depression or not.

Other than as an amusing footnote, none of this matters in the least because we’re hardly dealing in reality here (Warner saved that in ’33 for Heroes for Sale and Wild Boys of the Road). Nor would anyone wish this of a musical, especially one with a predominantly Al Dubin-Harry Warren score. Still, there’s an undercurrent of financial Bad Times that pervades the Berkeley/Warners cycle — though less here because the emphasis is on other things. Among them: Cagney’s relationship with his shady producers (somehow, you now that Guy Kibbee is going to be one of them); a romantic tug-o-war involving him, a faithful assistant (Joan Blondell) and sexy snake (Claire Dodd); some pre-Code risqueness involving a dopey house censor (Hugh Herbert); and a typically antiseptic romance between Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler (though there’s indication that Powell’s character has been a kept man in his previous life). Naturally, Keeler wears glasses in the early scenes so that we can later have the obligatory scene where she removes them to instantly up her cutie quotient.

Lloyd Bacon was an even more anonymous director than Mervyn LeRoy, who at least did several good-or-better pictures before his quality output went to hell after World War II through his career swan-song in 1966. (That was with Moment by Moment, and I remember Ed Sullivan touting it on his show by asking LeRoy to stand up in the audience, whereupon Ed told the nation the movie was “just great”). He did the first two (Golddiggers of 1933 was the other one) and Bacon did Parade of the ’33 “Berkeley’s” — which is how everybody terms them.

This is because the trio’s non-musical portions are high-end water-treading that live or die on pacing and energy, which admittedly all three pictures do get — though the casts (all the way down to the smaller roles) have a lot to with this. But it’s kind of like the night I saw the Flying Karamazov Brothers open for Frank Sinatra: You’re kind of waiting for the Main Event, no matter how impressive it is to see guys juggling flaming sticks.

The three-number finale here almost looks as if it sets out to have one number top the last, and maybe this was even true. As director John Landis says in the featurette, the table-setting “Honeymoon Hotel” number is “playful” as opposed to salacious, though I personally wouldn’t care to know what Billy Barty (who shows up out of left field in the number wearing a mischievous grin and not a whole lot else) is actually doing in such a no-tell establishment. Playful or not, I wonder if the number would have gotten by even a year later after the Production Code got its teeth just a year later. After that, Andy Hardy couldn’t even find a gas station restroom in which to buy a damned condom so he could have sex in his Honeymoon Jalopy.

“By a Waterfall” is one visual marvel after another, including the overhead shot that turns chorines into an undulating snake (the bit kind of creeps me out, to tell you the truth). I don’t know if the studio had to build a tank or if there was one left over from the studio’s 1930 Moby Dick or something, but the number looks as if it cost a fortune whose green-lit expenditure must have gotten by the Brothers/bean counters thanks to the box office success of Footlight’s two predecessors. Then comes climactic “Shanghai Lil,” which is the film’s (and Cagney’s) big finale — though I like how Bacon and Berkeley initially keep us in suspense so that we’re not quite certain at first who will spearhead the number. This is after the sap hired to do so tries warming up his cold feet backstage with too much booze.

The opening panning shot down what must be one of the world’s longest saloon bars features a variety of ethnicities, though it should be said that these are not exactly Nobel Laureates. Keeler, in all three numbers, is decked out in Chinese makeup as Lil, and you just have to go with the flow. Beyond not inconsiderable camp considerations, hers is a stardom I never really understood, though you can’t say she wasn’t a trooper. In keeping with her casting here, which is no longer politically correct, the disc’s bonus section provides context by including an array of early Warner Bros. cartoons from the era that no longer appeal to anyone but those with wickedly freewheeling senses of humor (though there are still a few million of those).

The Blu-ray is so sharp that I eyeballed its later scenes thinking that both Powell and Keeler must have been to some Southern California beach shortly before Bacon rolled the camera unless Jack Warner’s shallow pockets (water ballets apparently aside) found a way to spring for a sunlamp. One of the continuing movie marvels for me is how Powell evolved from being a sappy tenor to one of my favorite actors of all time — after, that is, he toughened up to became a film noir titan beginning with his gutsy casting as Philip Marlowe in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet, where he had to concern himself with being bench-pressed by Mike Mazurki. I think it was the greatest comeback or image switcheroo in Hollywood history, more impressive even than Sinatra’s. But whenever his singing mouth opens here, I just can’t suppress a giggle — though it’s a testimony to the charm of these films that it’s an affectionate one.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Footlight Parade’ and ‘Wild in the Country’