Mike’s Picks: ‘Wagon Master’ and ‘Pittsburgh’

Wagon Master

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Western, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey, Jr., Ward Bond.
1950.
For a Western that’s in all ways modest (quality excepted), Wagon Master is rated extraordinarily high in the John Ford canon by people who know or knew.
Extras: Harry Carey Jr. joins Peter Bogdanovich on an invaluable voiceover commentary carried over on this Blu-ray from the original DVD.
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Pittsburgh

Street 9/10/19
Kino Lorber, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Frank Craven.
1942.
For me, there’s at least semi-irresistible symmetry this week in pairing a John Ford movie not starring John Wayne with a John Wayne movie not directed by John Ford, but let’s not go too overboard about it. Pittsburgh, directed by Lewis Seiler, is a trashy wartime potboiler through and through.
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Pittsburgh

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street 9/10/19;
Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Frank Craven.

Pittsburgh, directed by Lewis Seiler, is a trashy wartime potboiler through and through — though as with a lot of predominantly ‘B’ filmmakers who managed to hold on by his fingertips in the industry for four decades, Seiler does keep this calculated follow-up to The Spoilers moving lickety-split whenever a droning voiceover narration that saddles poor supporting player Frank Craven can ever get a breather.

By The Spoilers, I mean the fourth and all but certainly best of the five screen versions taken from author Rex Beach’s “Alaskan” — given that I have seen the almost never shown 1930 version with Gary Cooper and (on its initial release, to boot) the 1955 Technicolor job in which Jeff Chandler and Rory Calhoun must have blown the studio’s annual mud budget for an entire year. What’s more, it’s tough to imagine the preceding 1914 and 1923 table-setters matching the star power of the 1942’s Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott and John Wayne unless there’s, say, a Tom Santschi cult out there that I don’t know about. So, it’s no small deal that we get the same casting triumvirate here, which was a calculated move. The Spoilers, which has also just come out on a Kino Classics Blu-ray, was a June-’42 release, and Universal had Pittsburgh in theaters shortly before Christmas.

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As before, Wayne only gets third billing here, even though Pittsburgh is his character’s name — or at least nickname since people probably didn’t really christen male children with that moniker until maybe the advent of Steelers fans. And speaking of “attitude,” Wayne’s miner-turned-magnate has plenty: forging a signature to get a crucial loan for his start-up business; good-naturedly (for awhile) conning partner Scott in every conceivable situation as if he were Bing Crosby and Scott were Bob Hope; failing to follow through on raises and hospitalization for his employed coal miners whose reasonable union rep (Thomas Gomez) has exhaused his patience; treating his main squeeze (Marlene Dietrich) shabbily if you can imagine anyone doing that; and even shafting (to keep with the mining motif) his father-in-law after marrying “up” to a decent-enough society princess (Louise Albritton).

So Wayne is a villain here, you say? Well, at this point, he was trying to carve out his exact screen image, which resulted in him taking on a couple roles as “troubled” males. (See also Cecil D. Mille’s Reap the Wild Wind, also just out from Kino Classics in all its gorgeousness, and a huge personal favorite I’d be reviewing here had I not done the same a few months ago via the all-Region French release that preceded it). Wayne smiles and jokes a lot here, so he’s not exactly hateful nor even sinister. What’s interesting about the Spoilers/Pittsburgh marquee choices is the fact that someone had to come off as a heavy or something like it, and neither Wayne nor Scott ever did this very much. Thus, matters were equitably handled, with Scott as pretty much an all-out bad guy in The Spoilers and Wayne a milder version of that here.

One thing was certain: Pittsburgh was going to have an elaborate brawl between the two because that’s what all five versions of The Spoilers were renowned for — not the greatest ones in screen history, necessarily, but possibly the most Wagnerian. The one here takes place in a coal mine with both Wayne and Scott in street clothes, which precipitates a heavily script-contrived injury to Dietrich (IMDb.com lists seven writing credits here) when she rushes to stop it. The third and last of the Dietrich-Wayne pairings (not counting their famous offscreen romance), the picture never knows quite what to do with her character: a glamour-puss who comes from a mining background herself. To my eye, the actress looks a lot better in the final scenes when she’s less painted up like a doll and suggests a real human being in perhaps her 40s. (Dietrich is “aged” slightly less than her male co-stars, whose hair gets the salt-and-pepper makeup treatment.)

The story is told in flashback against a still relatively recent World War II backdrop, with the virtues of coal and coal mining pounded home in about every other scene. (Well, time marches on.) Craven, a great character actor I just saw as a standout in John Huston’s low-side-of-spotty In This Our Life, is forced to tell us everything that happens in the movie before we see it ourselves. This leaves it to director Seiler to at least keep things moving, which I have to say he does.

At USA Today, I worked next to Andy Seiler (No Relation), and we had plural jawbones trying to determine if Louis had ever made a good movie. The answer is probably something close to “nearly no” — though in fairness, his most famous one and some say best (Guadalcanal Diary) is one I’ve never gotten around to seeing. I do have some pleasant memories of The Great K&A Train Robbery (one of Tom Mix’s career highlights) and his Dead End Kids romps (Crime School and Hell’s Kitchen, whose casting of Ronald Reagan made it closer to Heck’s Kitchen).

And for camp, or at least outlandish, value, there were also three films with Perry Como; Women’s Prison (a poor man’s Caged with duplicated Jan Sterling’s casting, which I think was federal law for distaff Slammer Cinema at the time); and the notorious The Winning Team, with Reagan as baseball pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. (Personally, I always thought the ad campaign for that one should have blared: “Frank Lovejoy IS Rogers Hornsby.”) As for the Como’s, I once, back in my AFI days, programmed a double bill of Seiler’s If I’m Lucky (Como runs for governor) with Daniel Mann’s Ada (Dean Martin runs for governor). I thought it was inspired, but on audience-indifference level, it rated with the time Cool As Ice with Vanilla Ice placed (I believe) 17th nationally at the box office on its opening weekend.

But I digress. The Blu-ray, as with cinematographer Robert De Grasse’s original labors. has to go from mining scenes to shadowy Dietrich glamour stuff to expensive, well-lit parties thrown by Wayne’s not-for-long rich wife — all of which this release captures capably. The score by Frank Skinner, who was seemingly at Universal as long as The Mummy was, makes overly heavy use of “A Garden in the Rain,” an oldie even then that was later revived into half of a huge two-sided hit with “Tell Me Why” in early ’52 by The Four Aces, who at times sang with such intensity that they could have been called The Four Hernias. One real ringer here is the casting of Shemp Howard early in the film (and he’s quite funny) as Wayne’s haberdasher. I don’t think I’ll lose sleep if I eschew research and simply state that this must have been the only time the two of them ever worked together. Though Howard wouldn’t have been out of place as anyone else if someone had found a role for him in The Conqueror.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Wagon Master’ and ‘Pittsburgh’

Paramount Has Western, War, Classic and Action Titles for Father’s Day

Paramount Home Entertainment has announced gift ideas for Father’s Day, June 16.

For the Western fan, the studio has True Grit, starring John Wayne in his only Oscar-winning performance. The film, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, is available on digital. Also for the Western fan is the Ultimate Classic Western Collection, with nine classics, True Grit (1969), The Shootist, Shane, Hud, Chuka, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Will Penny, Johnny Reno and Posse, available on DVD.

For war buffs is Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, available on 4K Ultra HD, as well as 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, available on 4K Ultra HD June 11.

For the classic film lover is Best Picture Academy Award winner Forrest Gump, celebrating its 25 anniversary this year, available in a newly remastered two-disc Blu-ray and on 4K Ultra HD. Also, due on Blu-ray June 11 is The Godfather Trilogy: Corleone Legacy, a collection of director Francis Ford Coppola’s epic masterpieces packaged with new collectibles, including a Corleone family tree. Another classic collection available now on DVD is the Paul Newman 6-Movie Collection, with Road to Perdition, Fat Man and Little Boy, Nobody’s Fool, A New Kind of Love and Twilight.

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Available now on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray for action fans is the Mission: Impossible 6-Movie Collection. Also available now on Blu-ray in the action genre is the Bumblebee & Transformers Collection, a six-movie collection that includes all five “Transformers” films plus the latest entry in the franchise, Bumblebee. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan Season One, the first season in the new series that is a contemporary take on Clancy’s character, will be available on Blu-ray and DVD June 4.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Heroes of Telemark’ and ‘Reap the Wild Wind’

The Heroes of Telemark

Sony Pictures, Drama, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris, Ulla Jacobsson, Michael Redgrave.
1966.
This movie about resistance fighters in Norway plotting to destroy the Nazi program to develop heavy water for an atomic bomb plays out in ways that one pretty well expects, and the result is a respectable (but that’s all) finale to Anthony Mann’s career that’s ultimately less distinguished than its great skiing scenes.
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Reap the Wild Wind (Les Naufrageurs des mers du sud)

All-Region Import
Elephant Films, Adventure, $45 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ray Milland, John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, Raymond Massey, Susan Hayward, Robert Preston.
1942.
A seafaring blockbuster with an occasional julep twist, Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind has a fabulous cast delivering in the goods via (in some cases) admittedly 19th-century theatrical acting styles — and this is before we even get to the best giant squid the studio could cough up for the industry’s No. 1 cash-cow director.
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Reap the Wild Wind (Les Naufrageurs des mers du sud)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

All-Region Import;
Elephant Films;
Adventure;
$45 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ray Milland, John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, Raymond Massey, Susan Hayward, Robert Preston.

My most educated guess is that Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind may have been Paramount’s third-highest grosser of Hollywood’s entire World War II era, given that the starry mountain’s productions of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and Going My Way (1944) were close to the top performers released by any studio in those two respective years (with a nod to Warner’s This Is the Army). But with more assurance, I can tell you that for pushing 60 years now, Reap has been my favorite DeMille movie except for his The Ten Commandments swan song — which, after all, does boasts Edward G. Robinson’s gonzo Dathan and the chance to see hot couple John Derek and Debra Paget falling under the Golden Calf’s pernicious influence and upping their boogie quotient. Plus, one must concede, the artful constipation Charlton Heston brought to every role he played, and in this case, beneficially.

On the other hand, 1942’s Reap has a fabulous cast delivering in the goods via (in some cases) admittedly 19th-century theatrical acting styles — and this is before we even get to the best giant squid the studio could cough up for the industry’s No. 1 cash-cow director. I do wish that this seafaring blockbuster with an occasional julep twist didn’t overextend the footage allotted to an un-blamable Louise Beavers in another of those “wasn’t slavery fun?” roles — but this was an inevitable by-product of the 1840’s Dixie setting (by way of the Florida Keys) and Paramount’s desire to fashion Reap as its answer to the Margaret Mitchell/Selznick/MGM Gone With the Wind. At least Beavers, a la Wind’s Hattie McDaniel, gets to make with the sass while futilely trying to turn the sometimes tomboy-ish babe of the house (here, it’s Paulette Godard, who’d been a finalist for the Scarlett O’Hara role) into a lady. And for that matter, you know going in (or should) that DeMille wasn’t, just on general principles, the most racially sensitive filmmaker who ever lived, though I have always dug the showmanship chutzpah he exhibited by casting Boris Karloff as a Seneca chief in Unconquered.

You also know (or should surmise) that John Wayne had to be hitting the top of the Big-Time when the movies’ most successful director (DeMille’s name on a marquee was more potent than that of most stars) in one of his most lavish productions just three years after the Duke’s breakthrough in Stagecoach. As it turned out, the picture gave Wayne one of the most interesting roles of his career (though maybe not as interesting as his Genghis Khan camp-fest turn in The Conqueror) in that it was the closest time that he ever came to playing a villain. In the truth, the picture kind of splits the difference: Though Wayne plays a wronged sea captain successfully tempted by circumstances to perform a dastardly act, he remains a sympathetic figure and certainly a co-equal to dandy lawyer Ray Milland for the hand of Goddard, who impetuously plays one against the other with a level of guile that’s never totally clear (which makes it interesting).

We open in the Keys with Wayne knocked cold under the orchestration of his first mate — a covert lackey, turns out, of Raymond Massey’s crooked lawyer (think a more WASP-ish version of Roy Cohn in the pre-Civil War South) who’s gotten financially fat from a ship-salvaging business whose services include wrecking the vessels in the first place. The busted-up ship currently in question is owned by Goddard, who’s inherited the business and immediately falls hard for Wayne after rescuing him amid his on-board stupor and protestations that he hasn’t a clue what happened. This is all true enough, and Wayne’s perfidy comes later — but not until after he gets embroiled in said love triangle after Goddard subsequently visits her aunt in Charleston and meets company attorney Milland, whom she initially despises because he’s understandably casting a wary eye at Wayne’s sailing prowess. The two men have some history.

The movie positions Milland as the lace-favoring type who’s good at tony social affairs where sopranos entertain but is actually a pretty accessible guy. In fact, when he throws the movie’s first punch (of many), he actually decks Wayne. The two make fairly civil adversaries, and it’s fun to watch them, as is enjoying a remarkable supporting cast (Lynne Overman in whiskers, not long before his death?), round out the package. In one of those remarkable casting breaks that can add to a movie’s currency with passing years, two of the key subordinate roles go to actors who later became very big stars: Susan Hayward and Robert Preston. This packaging of this All-Region disc, which is among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen of a vintage Technicolor movie, reflects the changing fortunes of its actors, billing Wayne, Hayward, Milland and Goddard in that order. It’s the same order they appeared in when Reap was re-issued in (pretty sure) 1954, and I marveled at the ads in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, when I would have been 6 or an early 7. This is a movie I wanted to see very early on, and it did not let me down (even in black-and-white) when I saw its local TV premiere on a late, late show in 1960.

The climactic squid mayhem probably ensured the smash box office, though if ’54 was indeed the re-issue year, I wonder how Walt Disney felt about its impact on that coming Christmas’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — whether, that is, it would diminish the newer picture’s key selling point or whet audiences appetites to see additional name actors battling those tentacles. Like Jaws the shark, DeMille’s creature looks mechanical yet cool all the same — and, in fact, Reap was kind of the Jaws of its day. Though even before this “money” climax, there’s a long and outlandish late-movie trial scene which, by comparison, makes the jurisprudence in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance look as dignified and legally stable as, say, the white-wig stuff in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case or Robert Donat in The Winslow Boy.

As mentioned, this is one beautiful print, and I say this as one who saw UCLA’s 35mm archival copy of Reap maybe three times as programmer for the AFI Theater and a couple times via a collector’ friend’s 16mm IB holding. At long last, though not yet in the U.S, some of these Universal-controlled DeMille Paramounts are making their way to Blu-ray, albeit just in time for most of the director’s biggest fans to be dead. Reap distributor Elephant Films has itself recently brought out the uncut Sign of the Cross and Technicolor Unconquered, the latter featuring the sight of Goddard tumbling down a monster waterfall in a canoe with Gary Cooper. A Big Drink tumble, a squid, the Golden Calf, a lion’s lunch of Nero-offending Christians: in his day — which I concede isn’t always to-day — DeMille knew what audiences craved even more than their Milk Duds and the theater’s free air-conditioning.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Heroes of Telemark’ and ‘Reap the Wild Wind’

A Lady Takes a Chance

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Jean Arthur, John Wayne, Charles Winninger.

Maybe it’s not the rollicking pairing that John Wayne and somewhat sassier Ginger Rogers might have been had screen-teaming history played out in a different casting universe, but John Wayne and Jean Arthur will do just fine, thank you. She agreeably melts Wayne in 1943’s moderately obscure but easy-to-take A Lady Takes a Chance, as was, of course, her style.

Sometimes your eyes can glaze over when racing through IMDb.com credit listings or the monthly TCM schedule and synergetic “possibilities” glide by without burning into the brain. So in this case, then, you might not slow down enough to stop and think, “Wayne and Arthur?” (though it was really “Arthur and Wayne” because she was still the bigger name in the early ’40s) before the light bulb going off over the head serves up a reminder that we didn’t get this everyday. This is why I decided to take my first look in a long time at this wartime romantic comedy against a 1938 setting, though the fact that Kino’s Blu-ray is advertised as a 4K scan of the nitrate original negative and “fine grain” was certainly another factor. And the presentation here is, indeed, sharp and detailed — so much so that we can see that Arthur (about 42 here) is wearing a lot of makeup and that Wayne (about 35) is almost too old for his role. No sweat.

This is also the only movie you’ll ever see where Wayne and Grady Sutton are romantic rivals for Arthur (or anyone else, I would think) — or one where Sutton and a playing-it-straight Hans Conried are competitive for her as well, at least in their own minds. Even Phil Silvers, amid his bus company meet-and-greet role on the tour that Arthur is taking, gives her the eyeball. Not exactly a night with the Chippendales crew.

At this point, Wayne was about four years beyond Stagecoach but not yet the superstar that Red River made him. Still, he was on the heavy upswing and working all over the place: Republic, Paramount, Universal and even at MGM for Reunion in France with Joan Crawford and future Blacklistee Jules Dassin (what the hell was that about?). Lady was an independent release produced by Arthur’s husband, Frank Ross, for United Artists release — and as in a lot of indies of the day, the trappings are minimal: a bus interior, saloon, a rodeo venue (or as Wayne says here, “ro-DAY-o”); Duke digs that make Elvis’s first rented room after he gets out of the slammer in Jailhouse Rock look lavish; and an outdoor set where both stars, sidekick Charles Winninger (in jeans, no less) and a horse can sleep under the stars.

Curiously, the three top-billed actors here all had connections to John Ford (maybe the horse did, too). Wayne’s link is obvious, but Arthur’s first screen appearance had been in Ford’s 1923 Cameo Kirby. And quite a bit later, her semi-breakthrough movie (as opposed to her major one in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town when she was already in her mid-30s) was in Ford’s The Whole Town’s Talking. Even Winninger landed one of the best roles of his career for the director when Ford cast him in 1953’s The Sun Shines Bright, the remake of the director’s own Judge Priest with Will Rogers. This movie isn’t on the same level of cinematic interest, but despite all the programmers he got stuck in during a long career, Lady’s William A. Seiter was admired by some for his comic dexterity, and anyone who directed Laurel & Hardy in Sons of the Desert will never get the full diss from me.

Basically, Lady is almost all actor charm taking us from the leads’ dramatic meet-up to the point where even Laurel & Hardy would have been brainy enough to figure out where Arthur and Wayne are predestined to land. It’s interesting to watch Wayne underplaying and not once blowing his romantic stack to great degree, even when he’s forced out of the room he’s taken Arthur up to for surprisingly up-front intentions (given those Hays Office times). As mentioned, it’s not much of a room, and a realist wouldn’t give this relationship much of that chance its lady is taking. This is because the still-handsome Wayne is well past his Big Trail youthful look, and time isn’t on your side in the rodeo profession. There’s no heed taken here for that black-and-blue Junior Bonner syndrome, and Wayne looks pretty free of scars, healed bone-breakage or the psychological toll it has to have taken when you’ve been sleeping for too many years next to a campfire and Charles Winninger. And yet: Romantic fantasy or not, Wayne represents one a woman might want to indulge in when the alternative is waking up in some Niagara Falls honeymoon suite with Grady Sutton and an empty bottle of Thunderbird.

As it turned out, the seriously camera-shy Arthur had only three features and a short-lived TV series to go in her screen career — and this over a long period. Wayne, meanwhile, spent a lot of the next couple years going the full World War II route (on screen, at least) with The Fighting Seabees, Back to Bataan and They Were Expendable, which did a lot for his popularity. Thus, this good-natured little comedy (coming right off an Arthur big one: The More the Merrier) does capture a moment, just as its story tries to do. Ever mindful of 1943 world events, a statement in its opening credits makes a big deal of the story’s 1938 backdrop — a time when there’d been no gas or tire rationing and a courting couple or anyone could drive all over the Western rodeo circuit.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Cleopatra’ (1934) and ‘A Lady Takes a Chance’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Cleopatra’ (1934) and ‘A Lady Takes a Chance’

Cleopatra (1934)

Universal, Drama, $19.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Henry Wilcoxon, Joseph Schildkraut, C. Aubrey Smith.
1934. Universal’s new Blu-ray of the Cecil B. DeMille’s take on the legend, with Claudette Colbert in the title role, is one of the most immaculate presentations of a vintage black-and-white movie that I’ve ever seen.
Extras: Includes a good commentary by writer/historian/F.X. Sweeney.
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A Lady Takes a Chance

Kino Lorber, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Jean Arthur, John Wayne, Charles Winninger.
1943. A Lady Takes a Chance is almost all actor charm taking us from the leads’ dramatic meet-up to he point where it’s easy enough to figure out where Jean Arthur and John Wayne are predestined to land.
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