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’

The Far Country

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Western;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars James Stewart, Ruth Roman, Corinne Calvet, Walter Brennan.

Though his infectious smile directed mostly at Walter Brennan goes a long way to defuse this perception, 1954’s The Far Country surprises a little by casting James Stewart as a real hard-ass with some unattractive traits, given that his character hasn’t been personally wronged the way he is in some of the other Stewart-Anthony Mann Westerns. To be sure, he has his cattle taken away from him by an unusually colorful John McIntire in what is more precisely a “Northern” as genres go; the setting here is Seattle-to-Alaska. But this fourth of five collaborations that co-starred horses isn’t exactly akin to, say, the team’s concluder The Man From Laramie, in which the heavies do something dreadful to Stewart’s hand that the camera flinches from showing in full (and I thank you).

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Decked out in a distinctive stovepipe hat but no Abe Lincoln, McIntire channels his inner Judge Roy Bean to riff on that real life judge, ironically played for real and to a supporting Oscar by Brennan himself 14 years earlier in William Wyler’s The Westerner. McIntire, finessing a fictional version, is also jury and even hangman of Alaskan stop-off Skagway — to say nothing of taking a hefty cut from the general store (no Costco bargains at this place) and the local saloon where owner Ruth Roman is around to provide some glamour as well. For reasons at least partly physical, Roman becomes a surprise protector of Stewart after authorities try arresting him in Seattle on someone else’s past charge — offering him concealment in her room on the boat journey up to Skagway (a scene, as one of the Blu-ray’s bonus-section commentators notes, echoes Eva Marie Saint’s future help-out to Cary Grant in North by Northwest).

She ends up on the trail with Stewart as they trek supplies to Dawson City, though he’s really interested in sneaking back to Skagway to take back his seized (by McIntire) cattle. As suggested earlier, Stewart focuses on whatever goal he has at the time to the exclusion of everything else. Breaking with parties also making the journey, he elects to take one path through snowy mountains while rejecting an alternative, not bothering to tell these settlers that taking other route is tantamount to courting an avalanche. When the others elect to follow their preferred destiny, the result is a wipe-out by boulders of snow while Stewart basically shrugs it off with a “life’s tough” attitude because it’s no icicle off his nose hairs. This is basically his approach to life on all matters.

And yet. There’s a subplot here about plans for Stewart and Brennan to have their own spread together someday, complete with a bell on a door to announce visitors who’ve wandered in 20 miles off the trail. Of the two, Brennan seems to be more of the instigator for this, though Stewart seems to go along with the scenario. But any event, this all seems in keeping with the premise of Mark Rappaport’s cheeky The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (1997), which found coded gay subtext in everyday genre situations (think of all the Westerns where the grizzled sidekick brews coffee for the hero when they awaken in the morning down by the river). Of course, Brennan was such a notorious real-life reactionary that anyone broaching this subject really would have been asking for it. There’s nothing like having your an eye put out by a heavy flying projectile that turns out to be dentures.

For whatever reason, though, Stewart can’t seem to get all that worked up even by Roman’s smoldering availability — and especially not by a smitten tomboy played by onetime starlet Corinne Calvet, a most atypical role for the underachieving onetime Hal Wallis glamour-puss whose autobiography (Has Corinne Been a Good Girl?) is said to be one of the most salacious howlers of its genre. Actually, Calvet is not inadequate here and lot more animated than Roman — an actress who engendered the most drama during her heyday by surviving the sinking of the Andrea Doria. (I’ll reserve the right to change my mind after I see her in Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray of Jacques Tourneur’s Great Day in the Morning, a Civil War Western for which I harbor a minor sweet spot from many years back.)

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Mann peppers Country with what looks like a high school reunion of instantly identifiable Western character actors who specialized in playing affable drunks, not so affable heavies and others who also could use fresh longjohns. These would include McIntire, Jay C. Flippen, Harry Morgan, Robert Wilke, Royal Dano, Jack Elam, Chubby Johnson, Chuck Roberson, Kathleen Freeman, Connie Gilchrist and probably a few more males I’ve missed that Judy Garland wouldn’t have wanted to be on her dance card in Meet Me in St. Louis. A few of these find themselves here on the high side of their careers, and I definitely don’t think I’ve ever seen McIntire this memorable before, even if his small role as the sheriff in Psycho certainly resonates.

Country got its U.S. release in early ’55 when Hollywood was still tinkering with trying to turn non-anamorphic films into something like widescreen releases by cropping the image. Universal-International sometimes liked going with a 2.00:1 aspect ratio in those days, and Arrow’s two-disc release offers both the film as it was shot and as it played many theaters, one version on each disc. I chose to view the 2.00:1 rendering in full but thought the image somewhat “in my face” and much preferred the 1.85:1 when I re-looked at several scenes in that format. This is good (for convenience’s sake) because the 1.85:1 presentation is on the same disc as the bonus extras, which include a substantive Philip Kemp essay (nice still photos, too); a commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; the always amusing Kim Newman on both the film and other Mann Westerns (he’s hip to the unconventionality of the Stewart-Brennan relationship); and another documentary on Mann and Universal with an A-team of Alan K. Rode, C. Courtney Joyner, Michael Preece, Rob Word and my fellow Buckeye Michael Schlesinger. Putting all these altogether, we get a pretty good explanation of the fissure over 1957’s Night Passage that destroyed the collaborative relationship forever (Stewart and Mann also did three other non-Westerns together).

Arrow seems to have gone all out here by showcasing a 4K makeover as well. The long shots look fuzzy, but the medium shots and close-ups are often striking, and fortunately, there are a lot of those. So with this release, MGM’s The Naked Spur is the only Stewart-Mann Western not yet released on Blu-ray, and I’m surprised Warner Archive hasn’t given it a go. Stewart is so good here in a role where he’s more disagreeable than he might have been that I realized that I had somewhat underrated Country, which a lot of people do. Blasphemous as its sounds, given its fan base, I’m rather amazed that I’d personally rate Bend of the River the least of the five, even though many good movie minds rate it as best of the bunch.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Far Country’ and ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s’

‘RoboCop,’ ‘Flowers in the Attic’ on November 2019 Disc Slate From Arrow and MVD

The 1980s sci-fi actioner RoboCop, Flowers in the Attic and a 1950s James Stewart classic western are among the five titles on the November Blu-ray slate from Arrow Video and MVD Entertainment Group.

Due Nov. 5 is the horror flick Apprentice to Murder. Chad Lowe, younger brother to Rob, stars as Billy, a young man who falls under the spell of folk magic healer Dr. Reese (Donald Sutherland). As the two begin to investigate a strange sickness infesting their community, the lines between good and evil start to blur. Bonus features include a video interview on religious horror with Kat Ellinger, author and editor-in-chief of Diabolique Magazine; new audio commentary by author and critic Bryan Reesman; a new video interview with cinematographer Kelvin Pike; a new video interview with makeup supervisor Robin Grantham; the theatrical trailer; and a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Haunt Love.

Nov. 12 comes Flowers in the Attic, based on VC Andrews’ novel, a Gothic tale about four siblings locked away in the attic by their evil grandmother (Louise Fletcher). Originally panned by critics, director Jeffrey Bloom’s adaptation has developed a cult following over the years. The new Arrow release comes loaded with special features including new interviews and the original, studio-vetoed ending.

Also due Nov. 12 is Anthony Mann’s Technicolor western The Far Country, in which James Stewart stars as an adventurer that bumps heads with a corrupt judge (John McIntire). Despite being filmed in Canada, The Far Country is one of the rare westerns to be set in Alaska. The two-disc limited edition release features the film in two aspect ratios with a new 4K restoration.

Irvin Berwick’s Hitchhike to Hell hits Blu-ray for the first time on Nov. 19. Inspired by the brutal crimes of the “Co-ed Killer” Edmund Kemper, Hitchhike to Hell is a classic slice of American exploitation. Extras include a newly filmed appreciation by Nightmare USA author Stephen Thrower; “Road to Nowhere: Hitchhiking Culture Goes to Hell,” a new video essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas exploring the dark side of hitchhiking in the real world and on the screen; a reversable sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by The Twins of Evil; and for the first pressing only, a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Heather Drain.

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Finally, Nov. 26 comes Paul Verhoeven’s action classic RoboCop. Set in the not-too-distant future, RoboCop is the story of officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) who is gunned down in the line of duty before being brought back to life as a half-man/half-machine crime-fighter. This new limited-edition release features the director’s cut and the original theatrical release, both presented with a 4K restoration approved by Verhoeven himself. Among the numerous extras are a limited edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Omar Ahmed, Christopher Griffiths and Henry Blyth, as well as a 1987 Fangoria interview with Rob Bottin and archive publicity materials (some contents exclusive to the limited edition); archive commentary by Verhoeven, executive producer Jon Davison and co-writer Ed Neumeier (originally recorded for the theatrical cut and re-edited in 2014 for the director’s cut); and new commentary by film historian Paul M. Sammon. RoboCop will be available in standard and steelbook editions.

Classic ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Coming to 4K UHD Blu-ray Oct. 29 From Paramount

Director Frank Capra’s holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life arrives on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray for the first time Oct. 29 from Paramount Home Entertainment.

The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a down-on-his-luck banker who learns to appreciate life after being visited by an angel.

The studio spent more than a year restoring the film, using the original nitrate negative along with two fine grain masters made in the 1940s. Each element was scanned using the latest technology to both preserve the delicate negative and create the best possible digital image, according the studio. Fortunately, 13 of the 14 reels of the original negative survived, but portions had begun to deteriorate so the best image was selected from one of the three original sources on a shot-by-shot basis, according to the studio.

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The 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack includes the black-and-white film in 4K UHD, as well as a colorized version on Blu-ray, along with three special features: “Restoring a Beloved Classic,” “Secrets from the Vault” and “It’s A Wonderful Wrap Party.” A two-Disc Blu-ray set will also be available that includes the newly remastered film in black-and-white, along with a colorized version and the three special features.

Bandolero!

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Western;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13.’
Stars James Stewart, Dean Martin, Raquel Welch, George Kennedy. 

Say, what did mom and dad look like? This is the unavoidable stumper posed by 1968’s Bandolero! when we’re handed the proposition of James Stewart and Dean Martin cast as brothers — this, apparently, after someone either shook or stirred the gene pool with a mighty big swizzle stick. Of course, these were the days when John Wayne and Michael Anderson Jr. (respectively 56 and 22 at time) had played bros as well just three years earlier in The Sons of Katie Elder, proving that these two siblings’ own folks did not want for protracted action on the range. But to argue the other side, did you want to see Stewart or Wayne in a ’60s Western or Alex Cord? And besides, if you went by Wayne and Stewart’s advanced ages alone when they made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance before seeing it, you’d never know it was a great movie.

Bandolero! isn’t anywhere close to great, but it is on the higher side of drive-in boilerplate adequate, and nothing could have kept me away from a Stewart-Martin pairing in 1968. And in what’ll likely be a surprise for many to hear (as it was to me), Larry McMurty himself must have liked this film a lot because he borrowed some of the character names and situations when he wrote Lonesome Dove. At a time when 20th Century-Fox was fast depleting a lot of its Sound of Music haul on a lot of big-budget projects that tanked, here were Jimmy and Dino offering (for them) unusual characterizations against the usual backdrop of the era’s Western character-actor pretty faces: Dub Taylor, Denver Pyle, Don “Red” Barry, Rudy Diaz and the like. And for a legitimate pretty face, there was also Raquel Welch, at a time when her One Million Years B.C. poster adorned more college dorm walls than post-party-time Thunderbird upchuck. That couldn’t have hurt the grosses — and in fact, Bandolero! proved to be solid small-town fare, though I seriously wonder if it did as well as the engagingly enthusiastic commentary by Tony Latino, Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo (film buff extraordinaires when it comes to  All Things Rat Pack) says on this new and extremely good-looking Blu-ray’s bonus feature.

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The major surprise here is that Martin plays his role as an habitual outlaw responsible for the bank robbery deaths of townsfolk deaths totally straight, and this was at a time when his Thursday night NBC variety hour highlighted him as the consummate tuxedoed jester. In fact, it was fairly unusual for him to play a villain of any kind, though this film was sandwiched between two late-career Westerns in which he did as well: Rough Night in Jericho (so reprehensible in this one that he gives Jean Simmons a tough time) and Showdown. A lesser surprise here but still a bit out of left field is a Stewart performance that’s alternately twinkle-eyed and dead serious, which somewhat reflects the picture’s uncertain tone, There are some funny early touches involving Stewart disguising himself as a hangman — before a grim final quarter where the body count piles up.

Tossed into this an unlikely Welch, cast as former prostitute who’s just been widowed by the richest fogey around and sitting on a lot money (which, interestingly, isn’t pursued as a plot point). After the post-bankjob Martin and his grungy gang escape the gallows with a major assist from Older Brother, Welch by fluke joins the getaway, where it’s inevitably rough on the Texas-to-Mexico desert trail. Even so, and after days of this, her hair looks great, face looks great and the great William Clothier’s ornery camera momentarily reveals that she’s wearing pantyhose in an attempted rape scene. No wonder Dino is smitten, as is a sheriff played by George Kennedy. Good luck on the latter yearning, though it shouldn’t be forgotten that Kennedy later did get to make out on screen with Bibi Andersson in The Concorde … Airport ’79. Kennedy and Andersson: It kind of reminds me of the time Sandra Bernhard was on Letterman and noted how much she wanted to see 1986’s Delta Force because  “Chuck Norris and Hanna Schygulla don’t work together that often.” (Geez, George Kennedy was in that one, too, as was Joey Bishop; I’d better pull the old DVD out of my jeans closet.)

Martin and Welch had some history. The bonus commentary trio mention the YouTube-available clip from the 1979 Oscarcast (honoring ’78 releases) when a slurring Dino got so gamey with his statuesque co-presenter that she got embarrassed and tried to move on. But there’d also been the classic “Hollywood Palace” show of 1964 — the same one where Martin dissed the Rolling Stones on their first U.S. TV appearance and introduced “Everybody Loves Somebody,” whose 45 had been in out in stores for such a short time that he said they “haven’t even punched the  holes in it yet.” At show’s end, a pre-stardom Welch came out (introduced as simply “Raquel”) with Donald O’Connor, and Martin spent the entire interlude looking down her dress. This was not exactly “Omnibus.”

Cinematographer Clothier was a constant enhancer of films with and by John Ford, John Wayne, Stewart and Bandolero! director Andrew V. McLaglen, and I was glad to hear Messrs. Latino, Pfeiffer and Scrabo note that even the intentionally drab Liberty Valance is actually superbly shot in terms of shadows and lighting (as when Wayne emerges from the alley in the climax). And if the movie by itself isn’t enough to offer a hint why Jerry Goldsmith was one of the real go-to composers of the day, someone in that trio rattles off Goldsmith’s stellar credits from this same general period, and you wonder how the guy even had time to shave in the morning.

Both the robbers and Kennedy’s unenthusiastic posse become predictable targets of the title’s gringo-hating Mexican Marauders, which likely would make Bandolero! a favorite in the White House viewing room were Trump not the first president since, like, Polk not to watch movies in the WH (whatever you want to say, Nixon was movie-crazy, and not just for Patton). Also doing their part to up the corpse quotient is the crew of lowlifes who make up Martin’s gang (to brother Stewart’s chagrin). These include Sean McClory, who looks as if he never left that Irish pub in Ford’s The Quiet Man, a cantankerous old slug played by Will Geer and the latter’s cretinous son, who should have been put down not long after his birth.

The movie isn’t distinguished, but in some ways it’s a mild curio, and this Twilight Time release can serve as a demonstration Blu-ray of how a Panavison DeLuxe Color Western of the late ’60s would have looked on its best pre-release mint-print day (say, in Fox’s old New York critics’ screening room that was on or around Tenth Avenue, the one where I saw Rex Reed make a dismissive gesture on the way out of Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). I appreciate that the commentators here love their red-meat cinema — the same trio is great on Twilight Time’s release of the Sinatra-in-Miami toughie Tony Rome — but let’s just say that every movie and every person would love to be as lauded with same vigor these enthusiasts throw Bandolero!’s way. This is all well and good, but even before we get to foreign releases or co-productions released earlier in other countries, 1968 was the source of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Petulia, Rosemary’s Baby, Madigan, Oliver!, Funny Girl, Faces, Bullitt, Night of the Living Dead, Pretty Poison and Monterey Pop. It’s hardly the biggest deal in the world, but let’s allow our historical dimensions to take a deep breath.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Wild Heart’ and ‘Bandolero!’

Bend of the River

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Western;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Julia Adams, Rock Hudson.

This second of the five revered James Stewart-Anthony Mann Westerns consistently gets high marks on rank-them-in-order lists, but leaving aside 1955’s perfectly respectable but unexceptional The Far Country (a ’54 release in England), you can shuffle your specific preferences in just about any order without anyone calling you crazy. I myself prefer Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur and The Man From Laramie — but on the other hand, ranking 1952’s Bend of the River fourth just doesn’t quite send the right signal. (For that matter, I could use an update viewing on Country if long-promised Blu-rays ever materialize.)

Certainly, River has the “elements”: two great lead actors playing characters who are alternately friendly and adversarial with each other; a supporting cast of young screen players who were getting early career breaks on the way to expanding their fan bases; older character actors (sub-category: Western) who are not anyone’s pretty faces; and excellent Technicolor locales once we get by a shoddy-looking set-bound exterior during some an early nocturnal combat between white settlers and Shoshones. The picture was largely filmed way, way up in the Mt. Hood area of Oregon, and it’s been said that Stewart regarded it as the most physically demanding role of his career.

For a star-director quintet that proved quite popular with the public yet was relegated to functional bread-and-butter status by critics, a lot of screen ink has been expended in subsequent years on the ways in which these movies toughened up Stewart’s screen image and played a little to that persona’s occasional neurotic dimension — as in what for me are the actor’s two greatest performances (earlier on in It’s a Wonderful Life and a bit later in Vertigo). In River, Stewart keeps his emotions remarkably in check amid all sorts of narrative mayhem but finally lets it out all out late in the game when co-star Arthur Kennedy (as Stewart’s erratic sidekick) reveals his true character, which we’ve seen hinted at from the beginning.

Which is to say that the two meet when Kennedy has a rope around his neck as one about to be lynched for horse thievery — a vigilante group-vs.-individual act to which Stewart responds negatively on general principles, resulting in the former’s unambiguous rescue. Subsequently riding together, the two soon become aware that they know each other by reputation — though this mutual rep is as former “raiders” from the Civil War era, which doesn’t go down too well in postwar society. As a result, the screenplay — by Red River’s Borden Chase from a Bill Gulick novel — somewhat enters future Budd Boetticher territory in that the good guy and the bad guy have more in common than they do with, in this case, wagon train settlers. Though Stewart is trying.

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As my favorite character actor ever, Kennedy predictably delivers the standout supporting performance, but the movie also gives pretty good indication of the young contract players Universal-International was “pushing” in those days. Julie Adams (here still billed as Juli-a) is the young settler who takes an arrow in her shoulder, a la Joanne Dru in Red River, and seems as confused in her choice of men as Hope Hicks. There’s also Adams’ fellow “Creature” lust object Lori Nelson, in her screen debut as the closest thing to a bobbysoxer that the wagon train has to offer — plus Rock Hudson is a gambler named “Trey Wilson.” This said, and by virtue of being played by Rock, the guy looks nothing like the prematurely deceased comic actor from Raising Arizona and Bull Durham — though it was an appealing early role for the actor in terms of his seemingly effortless (which it wasn’t) screen magnetism. Hudson is mostly on hand to show off his professional gambler’s garb and to lend a hand during fatal shoot-outs — some of which take place in the formerly civilized Portland, which goes all crazy when someone discovers gold.

Also around — and Blu-ray commentator Toby Roan bios them all practically down to the number of times they hit the men’s room each day — are familiar Western types like Chubby Johnson, Harry Morgan, Royal Dano, Jack Lambert and Howard Petrie. Not so familiar by 1952, due to the already wincingly retro nature of his act, was Stepin Fetchit, who was making his first appearance in a Hollywood film (as opposed to a so-called “race picture” of the era) in about 20 years; he plays the 40-year companion here to boat captain Johnson, which means, I guess, that the two have managed to work out their relationship. Also among the settlers eventually faced with potential starvation (and with winter approaching) is Frances Bavier. As Bing didn’t sing on his Decca recording, other than in my imagination, it’s looking like “Twilight on the Trail” for Aunt Bea. If that is, Stewart and Kennedy (who’s beginning to make it clear that he may be in it for just himself), can’t get their bought-and-paid-for supplies back from money-hungry Petrie.

Ultimately, River lacks that final “oomph” that pushes it out of the high side of decent into something more, an assessment that applies to the print here as well. The movie was shot in three-strip Technicolor, so its genes are obviously tops, but it looks as if an older master was used here, which is a crucial decision when it comes to this kind of outing. Predictably, it’s stronger in the closeups, though if you went on location in the mountains, you would instead be indulging in long shots, right? Fortunately, the inherent visual material gives River certain advantages, something that’s doubly or even triply so in its choice of protagonists. Kennedy’s character is posted as one who’s smiley, easygoing and wry most of the time (as well as generally dependable in the clutch), and no one was ever better at putting this conflicted demeanor over than the actor U-I chose for the role. Kennedy came through in a similar kind of role in The Man From Laramie, too, which (from Twilight Time and in contrast) is one of the best Blu-ray presentations of a movie from this era that I’ve ever seen.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Bend of the River’ and ‘Melvin and Howard’

The Glenn Miller Story

Director Anthony Mann’s The Glenn Miller Story stars James Stewart as famed bandleader whose plane disappeared over the English Channel during World War II. The biopic really gets going in the second half thanks Mann’s staging of the musical numbers and Stewart’s cooly commanding performance.

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Shout! Factory;
Drama;
$22.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘G.’
Stars James Stewart, June Allyson, Harry Morgan, Louis Armstrong.

Notwithstanding Thunder Bay (oil drilling) and Strategic Air Command (self-explanatory), the surprising outlier in the fruitful James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaboration (read: five highly-regarded Westerns as well) is The Glenn Miller Story. If that is, a movie as popular as the last was really can be an outlier — one that even managed to kick off something of a Miller boom nearly a decade after the famed bandleader’s airplane death over the English Channel during World War II. For all of its narrative goo — and hour one has as much as you’ll find in any musical biopic — GMS is one of those mid-’50s releases that transformed James Stewart from superstar into to something of an institution. The emblematic Miller glasses that the actor dons and his own controlled performance as the trombonist bandleader really transform him his image.

I was disappointed to miss the picture during its February 1954 release when I was 6, despite already having had Miller pretty well “covered” by all the 78s I inherited from my parents and my Aunt Carol, which I’d already played to death in my bedroom (had to change that damned needle every 10 plays) by the time I started kindergarten. Permanently burned in my brain are “In the Mood,” “American Patrol,” “A String of Pearls,” “I Know Why” (utilized magnificently in The Shape of Water), “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” a ‘B’-side I’ve always liked (“Sleep Song”) and so on a few times over. If I’ve come to appreciate Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw on a purely musical level, there’s something more elusive about the Miller classics that captures the World War II era zeitgeist better than anything.

As it turned out, I ended up seeing 1956’s The Benny Goodman Story first (I was immersed in BG, too) — it the only movie ever directed by Valentine Davies, who penned its Miller predecessor at Universal and was burdened by a leaden lead performance by Steve Allen. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for a few Davies screenplays, most notably Miracle on 34th Street and the baseball cutie It Happens Every Spring (which I’d be curious to see remade with more up-to-date special effects). But his two musical biopics ask a lot, and in GMS’s case, asking it as early as the opening pawnshop scene. It is here that Stewart/Miller notices a string of pearls in an establishment run by schmaltzy Sig Ruman, who really pours on the joviality here as your basic anti-Rod-Steiger kind of hock-it proprietor. Also coming early is the script’s planted seed to establish that Miller will spend the entire movie working on the right arrangement for “Little Brown Jug,” when actually, it was one of the first huge hits he enjoyed once his band started clicking big-time nationally in the late 1930s.

Add to this a lot of co-star June Allyson (better in small doses, the great Good News excepted), and you also begin to feel the much evident iron hand of widow Helen Miller on the production. With so much to dig out from, it’s quite the testimonial to director Mann and cinematographer William Daniels (Stroheim’s Greed, a slew of Garbo pics, Valley of the Dolls, Rat Pack larks; say, what have you done lately?) that the picture works as well as it does. In fact, once it gets going (there’s a serious shortage of music in the first, say, 45 minutes), we’re talking an unambiguous net plus. Almost all of this has to do with Mann’s staging of numbers once the picture gets around to it and to Stewart’s cooly commanding performance.

Of the first, the outdoor staging of two big numbers for soldiers positively soars with nostalgia, especially when welcome ringer Frances Langford joins The Modernaires for “Choo Choo” — though I do wonder about whatever inside-baseball stuff led to the exclusion of franchise singers Marian Hutton and Ray Eberle from the movie.  Meanwhile, Stewart is a marvel at suggesting Miller’s discipline and drive while still maintaining all kinds of traits “Jimmy.” (In reality, Miller was something of an authoritarian, and Gary Giddins notes in his recent Swinging on a Star Bing Crosby bio that he had an anti-Semitic streak, though he did regard Louis Armstrong as unmatched.)

Stewart himself turned curmudgeon-ish in later years when his hitherto camouflaged reactionary streak became more “out there” — something addressed a little by Blu-ray bonus commentator (and filmmaker) Jim Hemphill. The latter spends most of his voiceover talking about Stewart and Mann (solo and in tandem) while giving very little to Miller’s own career — a shortcoming he addresses late on by simply conceding it is beyond his field of expertise. This is OK, at least with me, because he’s quite illuminating on the filmmaking team, which busted up to such a degree in 1957 over Night Passage (a Western eventually directed by James Nelson and saved by splendid Technirama eye-massaging) that Stewart barely mentioned the collaboration in later years, despite Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur and The Man From Laramie, to name my three favorites of their dual output. Hemphill gave me an added appreciation for a director I sometimes take for granted in his discussion of Mann’s sometimes subtle camera placements.

The Blu-ray is in 1.85:1, and I’m not going to get into the purist nitpicking of whether it should be at a 2.0 aspect ratio, which was one of Universal-International’s ways to go in those early days when wider-screen movies (both anamorphic and non-) took over exhibition; I’m too old to fight yesterday’s battles and just want to enjoy these things (within limits, of course). I’ve noticed some tepid, though not really negative, chat room responses to the mastering and color quality here, but this release looks pleasing enough to my eye, especially in the performance sequences.

Also featured on this release is the 1985 reissue print that had stereo tracks for the musical numbers — recorded but not used in ’54 because not enough theaters yet had the right equipment. Since GMS won the Oscar for sound recording and the Decca soundtrack album went to No. 1, this is no small deal. The re-issue print is about four minutes shorter, but because the excisions are mostly June Allyson material, I’m glad to have the movie both ways, above and beyond the more robust sound. For her part, Allyson does have a much-admired final scene here.

After years of being able to get foreign-region Blu-rays of Universal product but relatively few from the U.S., it seems that the dam has broken, thanks to Shout! Factory and Kino Classics (just got the latter’s new one of 1955’s Foxfire, the Jeff Chandler-Jane Russell potboiler that became the last three-strip Technicolor feature). This could prove to be new life for Douglas Sirk (who’s already well-represented on All-Region reach imports) and certainly Audie Murphy. Even now, we can tell you to don on your track shoes because fast moving Tarantula! (in both senses) is coming from the former around tax time in what I hope is a more satisfactory rendering than the grainy Region ‘B’ release. Depending on how much the delayed fine print from the tax cut kicks in, it might provide an apropos opportunity to say, “Sic ’em.”

The Glenn Miller Story

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Atomic Cafe’ and ‘The Glenn Miller Story’