Kino Lorber Sets Jan. 4 Disc Dates for Trio of 1940s Classics

Kino Lorber has added three classics from the 1940s to its Jan. 4 release slate. China, Golden Earrings and All My Sons will be released on Blu-ray Disc only under the Kino Lorber Studio Classics line.

China is a 1943 wartime drama from director John Farrow that stars Alan Ladd as an American gasoline salesman in 1941 China who supplies his wares to the highest bidder — in this case, the enemy Japanese. His unbiased business philosophy is tested on a trip to Shanghai when he meets an American schoolteacher (Loretta Young) and her Chinese students, who tell him of Japanese cruelty. In a surprise show of allegiance, he joins a band of Chinese guerrillas on a daring heist. The film set a Hollywood record of using 70 pounds of precious, rationed gunpowder.

Bonus features include a new audio commentary by film historian Eddy Von Mueller.
 
Golden Earrings (1947) is an adventure film in which Marlene Dietrich plays a lusty gypsy. Escaping from the Nazis, British colonel Ralph Denistoun (Ray Milland) and his partner arrange to meet in Stuttgart to steal Hitler’s poison gas formula. On the journey, Denistoun meets Lydia (Dietrich), who keeps him out of harm’s way. Only with the help of the extraordinary gypsy woman can he finish the mission that will make him a hero in this tale of espionage and intrigue from Hollywood ace Mitchell Leisen, the director of Death Takes a Holiday, Hands Across the Table, Easy Living, Midnight, Arise, My Love and No Time for Love.

Bonus features include a new audio commentary by film historian David Del Valle.

All My Sons (1948) is a drama based on the work of acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller and stars Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster. The film is a wartime tragedy of a family torn apart and forced to come to terms with their inner demons. Chris Keller (Lancaster) returns home from war with news of his impending engagement to Ann Deever (Louisa Horton), the fiancée of his missing-in-action and presumed-dead brother. As the ghosts of the past creep back into the Keller home, Chris’s father (Robinson) makes a stunning and painful revelation that will change the family forever. Directed by Irving Reis and shot by Russell Metty (Touch of Evil, Spartacus), the film has been hailed as unforgettable tale of moral dilemmas.

Bonus features include a new 2K master and a new audio commentary by film historians Kat Ellinger and Lee Gambin.

The Whole Town’s Talking

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

 Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Comedy;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Edward G. Robinson, Jean Arthur.

Released during one of John Ford’s typically hectic ’30s years where he also directed Steamboat Round the Bend at Fox and The Informer at RKO, 1935’s The Whole Town’s Talking (from Columbia) is more obscure than it ought to be because it is so full of … well, talking points. For starters — and in addition to being a rare Ford comedy against a backdrop contemporary to its filming — it’s a Ford mistaken-identity comedy movie that plays like a Frank Capra vehicle, and there are reasons for that.

The screenwriters here were Jo Swerling (It’s a Wonderful Life) and Robert Riskin (10 Capra’s, including most of the big ones spanning The Miracle Worker to Meet John Doe), working at Capra’s home studio for Harry Cohn, a bully it would have been fun to see in the same room with future Rear Adm. Ford. The female lead, charged with playing opposite two Edward G. Robinsons, is Jean Arthur, in the role that finally put her over with critics and audiences at age 34, though she had made her Cameo Kirby screen debut way back in 1923 (for, as symmetry would have it, Ford). And Arthur would soon become the actress most identified with Capra, what with the soon-to-follow Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (the first two with Riskin screenplays). Are you putting this all together? Take a cleansing breath.

The other talking point is the picture’s employment of trick photography in what then must have been pretty close to a state-of-the-art rendering because it’s still pretty effective, even in a Talking print that’s not exactly immaculate but cleaner by far than any I’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of techno-storytelling that Ford usually eschewed, possibly because there’d come a time in the filmmaking process where, by definition, he might have something less than total control once the lab guys took over. So this is definitely an oddity, though one not likely to be viewed as such by the great unwashed who prefer just to view a movie as a movie and enjoy being tickled by its gimmick.

Which is: That lowly advertising clerk Arthur Ferguson Jones (Robinson I) bears an uncanny physical resemblance to escaped con “Killer” Manion, whose every move rates banner headlines in the local papers, the way they always do in vintage gangster pics. Jones is meek, though with a very occasional devilish streak — living alone in a modest apartment with a cat, caged bird and an on-the-wall glossy of Wilhemina (“Bill”) Clark (Arthur), devilishly stolen from the office. Manion is just about what you’d assume and what audiences of the day wanted: the “do it my way, see” Robinson who wouldn’t surprise anyone — censors aside — if he referred to the Virgin Mary as a “mug.”

Arthur is finally her prototypical self on screen, and I’d be curious to know if, after a long apprenticeship, this sudden but permanent locking-in of what became her screen persona had anything to do with Ford directing. Here, she’s the one woman in a less than glamorous office of guys (note Ford’s opening shot of the lousy working ambience) and also one of the guys — though least one co-worker pest is hitting on her and there’s the unrequited crush that Jones/Robinson has (hence the stolen picture). Arthur’s character is a wisecracker all the way and cares little if she’s late to work, even in an office run by martinets when it comes to punctuality. Friendly enough toward Jones, the meek clerk is still not anyone who’s particularly on her mind. Meanwhile, and as befitting the “Killer” moniker, this alternative Eddie G. doesn’t have a whole lot of redeeming qualities, though Julie Kirgo does a good job in the Twilight Time liner notes noting certain similarities between these two male principals without forcing the issue (and, in fact, they hadn’t occurred to me).

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According to Kirgo and other sources, Robinson was in a career slump when the Warners lent him out for this project, a slide this film’s popularity abated. By 1935, he had branched out a lot since his career-launching Little Caesar days, even at one point donning Chinese makeup for The Hatchet Man. But it’s also true that ’35 was the first full year that the Production Code had teeth (or yellowed dentures, if you prefer), and it also found James Cagney himself moving to the right side of the law as the lead in Warner’s scrappy G-Men and a new tendency to treat gangsters as comical subjects. Audiences for Talking got satisfied both ways with  the sweet Robinson they couldn’t often enjoy (think, say, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes for another example) and the prototypical “do it my, way, see” kind of tough guy that Robinson was even spoofing in the ’60s on his Maxwell House Coffee commercials. He was such a subtly versatile actor that there were a couple of personas left that don’t show up here: the no-nonsense ball of competence (that would be Double Indemnity) and whatever it is that he’s doing in The Ten Commandments (a performance I love because I go into convulsions from the time he first shows up in VistaVision).

So though I find Talking more on the mild side than a lot of its enthusiasts do (I prefer Steamboat and the fallen-from-grace The Informer, to be honest), there’s no question that Ford has a lot of fun with this yarn — whose plot contrivances at various points force the meek Robinson to pretend that he’s the malevolent one and vice versa. The supporting cast is filled with several familiar faces as cops or other spoofable figures of authority (Arthur Hohl, James Donlan, Paul Harvey), while Stagecoach’s Donald Meek has a very funny bit as a pest who keeps trying to collect a reward for having spurred the police to arrest the wrong man.

For those who like to follow the trajectories of actor-director teamings, we get Edward Brophy working for Ford as the two-timing minor hood that Manion wants to rub out above all else; two decades later, Brophy ended his big screen career with the best role he ever had in Ford’s adaptation of Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah (it, too, a recent Twilight Time release). According to Kirgo, Robinson and Ford (the latter a near-sociopathic needler) got along during the making of the picture, which certainly puts Robinson in an exclusive club. By all accounts, the actor was one of the nicest guys around, and this would seem to ice the assertion.

Mike’s Picks: ‘At the Drive-In’ and ‘The Whole Town’s Talking’

2 Weeks in Another Town

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Kirk Douglas, Edward G. Robinson, Cyd Charisse, George Hamilton.

Adapted from a novel by Irwin Shaw, whose before-and-after work fared better on screens both big and small, 1962’s 2 Weeks in Another Town is somewhat more fascinating than it seemed at the time, though only in a few instances for the right reasons. An inside-the-movie-biz yarn full of big-ticket talent and overhead-eating locations, it’s a structural mess with compensations for stripes-earned movie junkies — not the smoke-blowers who claim to be (while on the way to catch the latest Dwayne Johnson). You can see why Town is a cult movie, why some French critics loved it and why I’m always tickled to take a fresh look. Though Peter Bogdanovich allegedly preferring it to La Dolce Vita is a loaf of cheese bread too far.

This is, after all, Vincente Minnelli and cinematographer Milton Krasner feasting on a few CinemaScope/Metrocolor morsels left over from the black-and-white Fellini masterpiece — a hybrid of old-school MGM and the already emerged European cinema of jet-set orgies, the kind of potboiler best appreciated by those who feel tears welling up at the word “Cinecitta.” It opens with lead Kirk Douglas studying the nuances of his sanitarium’s shuffleboard court after experiencing a crack-up somewhat similar to the one he’d have in seven years later in Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement — another over-the-top melodrama but a pretty true one if you’ve read Kazan’s autobiography (which you should, anyway).

Douglas plays a long washed-up actor between assignments, shall we say, but he gets emergency beckoning from Rome to aid a director and longtime associate (Edward G. Robinson) he simultaneously loves and hates. Formerly industry royalty who’s now hanging on in Italy and reduced to working for a no-talent who could be a Roman cousin of the crude producer Warren Stevens plays in The Barefoot Contessa, Robinson is laboring futilely on a love story (bring on the gondola) that actually would be more profitable were it not released and written off as a tax loss. He says he needs Douglas for a small acting role, but the real reason soon involves more of an artistic (if that’s the word) assist than that. So the sanitarium springs him.

Naturally, there are women, including a temperamental actress played by Rossana Schiaffino, another of those Italian starlets movie guys of my generation grew up with (see also Giovanna Ralli, Luciana Paluzzi and so on). Robinson’s spouse is even more trouble with whiplashing mood swings his own behavior has engendered, but al least that’s his (not Douglas’) problem. The casting in this role of Claire Trevor, an actress I always liked, rekindles some of the tension from John Huston’s Key Largo, when hood Eddie G.’s badgering of Trevor’s boozy chanteuse to sing Moanin’ Low to a captive half-dozen and her abject humiliation got the actress a supporting Oscar. Douglas’s angst-buster from most of this is a too-good-to-believe male fantasy played by Jewish Daliah Lavi (say, how’d she get here?), but he has serious competition from a hotheaded young actor with self-destructive tendencies (George Hamilton, and let’s not even go there — though the actor had shown definite promise in what was already seeing like a long two years ago in Minnelli’s Home from the Hill).

So, why, exactly, does Douglas need to be saved from shuffleboard and a whole lot more? Well, there’s an ex-wife played by Cyd Charisse — as always, a stunner of a chill pill here — but she doesn’t get to do much but scream during one of Minnelli’s oft-described “bizarre sequences” (this one in a car) or languish on a bed like one of the models from the opening credits of the director’s underrated Bells Are Ringing in the kind of pricey nightwear that Scott Pruitt would have probably expensed. Then again, what did Charisse have to work with? I’m as put off as much as any one by the kind of Neo-feminist film criticism that, say, criticizes The Great Escape or Two Years Before the Mast for not having enough women characters, but the ones here are underwritten enough to put off even the Rat Pack.

It’s tough to figure out if these problems were already in the screenplay by then personally troubled Charles Schnee or by mandated butchering of Leo the Lion dolce vita by the still existent and anti-sex Production Code at a time when its death rattle was still less thunderous than it deserved to be (and would soon become). What the Code didn’t do, Margaret Booth’s overly revered editing department likely did by imposing MGM’s patented “directorial vision flattener” (it’s been said that Peckinpah had a lot of problems with Booth around the same time when he was cutting Ride the High Country).

All this said, I do have a kind of soft spot (or maybe soft head) for these goings-on: the highly stylized decor and widescreen blocking (much less so, the performances) do offer a look-back at a time when movie co-productions and overseas dollars first became significant industry factors. If Douglas is only routinely commanding, Robinson is flawless (when was he not?), and there’s one remarkable scene between him and Trevor where a brutal argument of Edward Albee Virginia Woolf intensity later dissolves into a teary about-face (for a while) that does offers insight into a really twisted marriage. There should have been more of this.

Town has picked up a lot of eye rolls for bravely but perhaps foolishly including a clip from 1952’s much more successful The Bad and the Beautiful during a Rome screening-room scene — one presented here as a past Douglas-Robinson success when they’re hungry to “recall” their salad days. This has to be one of the cheekier examples of self-referential cinema on record — though the two movies do kind of bookend each other in ways that make it fun to see them in tandem. One is about old-style Hollywood, the other about the emerging new, and both share Minnelli, Douglas, Schnee, producer John Houseman and composer David Raksin.

But whereas B&B is a trash classic, it’s a trash classic that won five Oscars out of six nominations. Town isn’t a classic of any kind, other than maybe one of red ink — and this was at a time when this was the last thing waning Minnelli and MGM needed after the truly coffers-busting needless revamp of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (nothing like being in touch with your era’s zeitgeist). This said, Town is a beautiful-looking movie to watch on a big-screen TV, re-establishing that Warner Archive will always go the extra mile to show off the standout virtue that a mass of gloss like this does have.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Curse of the Cat People’ and ‘2 Weeks in Another Town’

The Woman in the Window

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street 6/19/18;
Kino Lorber;
Mystery;
$19.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated
.
Stars Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Raymond Massey.

As with a lot of fellow nitpickers whose starting position should be that we’re still talking about a very good movie, Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window from 1944 has always been problematic because it has one of the shakier wrap-ups of the big-screen ’40s — though hardly the shake-i-est because there’s always Robert Siodmak’s The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry from the following year. Let’s continue hoping that all the yahoos who instigated creaky censorship boards of the day have been moaning in pain half-a-century or more Waaaaaay Down South where the fires burn, watching the hundred most impoverished PRC releases on a loop.

Fritz Lang directed Window from a Nunnally Johnson script to launch that period in the mid-’40s when the former briefly enjoyed commercial success after immediate follow-ups Ministry of Fear and Scarlet Street also proved popular. (And before The Secret Beyond the Door — also with Window/Street’s Joan Bennett — materialized in 1947 to turn any money-related magic touch back into a pumpkin. In one of his greatest career years (1944), Window also gave the now freelancing Edward G. Robinson (post-Warner) a role worthy of capping his memorably dynamic insurance sleuth in Double Indemnity from a few months earlier. In contrast, the married assistant professor Robinson plays here isn’t dynamic at all but notably meek — albeit one who turns uncharacteristically daring once his life turns messy after meeting the title subject on the street (she’s been the model in a conspicuous storefront painting that has captured his imagination).

Though what really makes Bennett tick is one of the movie’s more intriguing questions, she definitely isn’t a dangerous femme fatale in the usual noir sense (that would be Scarlet Street). And as for what she and Robinson are doing before an out-of-the-blue violent act that substantially alters the film’s direction … well, it’s kind of foolhardy for a man in Robinson’s situation to be on the scene at all but necessarily over the line.

This “situation” includes a wife and two children who are away on a trip, an absence that brings to mind a more serious take on this hook, courtesy of The 7-Year Itch. Before you go “uh, huh,” one should note that this family unit is reasonably harmonious in an un-stimulating way — and that the wife is by no means the disagreeable sort who’d automatically destroy anyone’s quality of life by walking into the room. For one of those, see the crone Charles Laughton is married to in Siodmak’s splendid The Suspect from the same year.

Window is full of potential spoiler minefields, though I gotta say that it was a movie that had been substantially written about even when I was a kid. So let’s merely set the table by noting that Bennett turns out to be a lonely and insecure kept woman with fleeting flashes of confidence; that Robinson gets in deep; and that one of Robinson’s men’s club cronies is a well-cast Raymond Massey as a snooping D.A. who, for fun, is taking Robinson on his investigations to help solve a crime the former knows all too well about.

There’s also Dan Duryea’s terrific show-up late in the picture to make such a strong impression that I (all well as bonus-commentary contributor Imogen Sara Smith) am always surprised to be reminded that his part isn’t bigger. Though Duryea had been quite memorable recreating his stage role three years earlier in the Goldwyn-Wyler film version of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, this in reality was his breakthrough screen role, paving the way for the Lang-Robinson-Bennett-Duryea reunion in Scarlet Street, a movie I like even more.

Historian Smith’s voiceover is tight and well thought-out, offering the expected bios of the key actors and personnel but also giving weight to alternative interpretations of key events in ways that soften the negative impact of the weak wrap-up. Among other things, they make us wonder if the movie can’t be just as easily seen as an exploration of what makes men’s roving minds tick when they’re jawboning at a men’s club (who the hell would want to go to a men’s club, anyway?) — though, OK, tons-o-fun relationships between senior marrieds likely didn’t offer that many socially normalized alternatives at the time this movie was set. Robison wasn’t likely to be asking the Mrs. to go running with him.

Whatever the interpretation, events are all photographed and constricted in superb Lang style, though aside from some newsreel satire and one bullseye replication in one scene of what old radio commercials sounded like, Lang was never going to be mistaken for Henny Youngman or Rodney Dangerfield. I remember Jonathan Demme once telling me in an interview that it was actually Brian De Palma who came up with the idea to open Married to the Mob with Rosemary Clooney’s recording of Mambo Italiano — quickly noting that one didn’t usually go to De Palma for comical music advice. Not dissimilarly, you don’t watch Lang movies for knee-slapping fun (though the last particular bonus always gave Hitchcock an extra boost), but he could really immerse you in a sinister world.

In keeping with this, Smith offers up some of the stories about Lang’s tyrannical moods and mistreatment of actors (especially minor ones); though Bennett and others would continue working with him, these were not “loose” sets. Maybe this explains how it came to be that Sylvia Sidney wrapped her long career by working with Tim Burton, the second time against a Slim Whitman soundtrack.

Kino’s Blu-ray isn’t up to the impossibly high standards of the French release of Siodmak’s Criss Cross, but neither does it suggest the difference between Grace Kelly and Maria Ouspenskaya in terms of cosmetics and, in this case, delineation of shadow and light. It’s certainly the best presentation of this independent production (originally distributed by RKO) that I’ve ever seen and another example of Blu-ray turning me into a Milton Krasner fan when I didn’t know I was. With me, he’s almost getting to be another Joe MacDonald when it comes to consolidating credits that I didn’t realize were all his — as in, he “shot that, and that … and THAT?!!!”

Mike’s Picks: ‘Up in Smoke’ and ‘The Woman in the Window’