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.
Read the Full Review

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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Singing Guns


Kino Lorber;
$19.95 DVD, $24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Vaughn Monroe, Ella Raines, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond. 

If Frankie Laine could show up for a guest shot on TV’s “Rawhide,” albeit much later, then why not Vaughn Monroe in a Republic Western called Singing Guns? Or, for that matter, even a Vaughn/Republic follow-up called The Toughest Man in Arizona, which the singer/bandleader did a couple years later for the same studio, even though the title portended a far more severe content stretch. Hell, even Bobby Darin managed to make a Western: Gunfight at Abilene, opposite Leslie Nielsen (I’ll just let that one sit there).

As the studio chief who was also doubled as executive in charge of red-inked actress/spouse Vera Ralston’s romper room, Republic’s Herbert Yates was never one to ignore pop culture exploitation. And there are stories of how fast his staff got a movie (any movie) called Pistol Packin’ Mama into 1943 theaters after the Bing Crosby/Andrews Sisters Decca version of that song gave new life to one of the biggest pop hits of the wartime years once sales finally flagged some on Al Dexter’s initial version for Okeh Records. (Both are still great recordings.) For Yates, who apparently could work fast enough to make Sam Katzman look like David Lean when there were pennies on the line, Singing Guns would give Monroe the chance to sing “Mule Train” on screen for a February 1950 release after the tune’s smash jukebox reception toward the end of ’49.

Trouble is, it was Frankie Laine who had the No. 1 hit of the tune with a couple million in sales, and a Crosby version — think of Bing cracking whips on a mule train — did substantially better than Monroe’s as well. What’s more, Gene Autry, who knew a bit about song-to-screen exploitation himself, did one of his own quickie Westerns that was actually called Mule Train, and according to IMDb.com, it beat Guns into theaters by six days. This was such a competitive business that Spike Jones even did a recording called “Chinese Mule Train” — which, like the Laine version, I have on my iPod — but we will not go there in these more culturally sensitive times, even if Spike did.

Fortunately, Guns has a few things going with it, few of which have to with a plot that asks us to believe that a wanted outlaw (just by virtue of having shaved his beard) could be hired in dim bulb fashion as lawman by the same community that’s pursuing him. This would be Monroe, who reached me as a kid via his Billboard No. 7 hit “They Were Doin’ the Mambo (But I Just Stood Around)” and his TV spokesperson gigs for RCA Victor. He even has a second place in my heart because a decade later, in my hometown, my best friend was lifeguarding at the same golf course where Jack Nicklaus had learned to play on a night when Monroe royally blew a number in entertainment room. After a dramatic orchestral overture, he fumbled on the two-yard line with an “I Left My Love … er, Heart … in San Francisco” as he launched his Tony Bennett cover. On screen here, he’s no acting disaster but his scrape-through is nonetheless dependent on assists from Walter Brennan (“I’ve got three Oscars, and I’m subordinate to Vaughn Monroe at Republic?”) and, as the outside Law pursuing Monroe, Ward Bond in what is unexpectedly one of the better-to-best performances of his career.

Spiffily adorned Ella Raines is Bond’s mistress — the picture is fairly upfront about this — and she has always been a favored ’40s actress of mine by virtue of Hail the Conquering Hero, Phantom Lady and Tall in the Saddle (where, after stand-alone Maureen O’Hara, I’d have to say that she ties with Gail Russell as my second favorite John Wayne leading lady). Also around is Jeff Corey, who was a little less than two years but a dozen movies (he, uh, worked a lot) from a decade of political blacklisting. This must have made for some colorful jawboning in the commissary (in which famously stingy Yates no doubt stocked with all the beef jerky you could eat) given notorious reactionaries Bond and Brennan on the set.

Kino has brought back Republic encyclopedia Toby Roan back for another commentary, and he substantially helps out with location primers and backgrounders on the technical specs — the latter helping to explain why so many of the studio’s higher profile releases looked a lot more polished than their budgets would suggest. Compounding a lesson I learned with Kino’s previous release of Roy Rogers’ Sunset in the West, I will never again take any cheap shots at Republic’s in-house process Trucolor, now that I’ve seen it in intended ideal fashion (Roan says Guns’ source was from 35mm nitrate material). For the first time, I noticed how blue Raines’s eyes really were — a quality that Roan says was hard to photograph. The entire palate here is most soothing, even though in this case, we don’t even have one of Roy’s thousand-decibel shirts to serve as a test pattern.

Yet coincidentally, Kino also has a new release of the Roy’s Trucolor Trigger Jr. (also 1950), which played the Museum of Modern Art in February as part of MoMA’s two-part Republic series that carries the imprimatur of Martin Scorsese and Dave Kehr (could there be one any better?) I intend to look at TJ ASAP, particularly given that Roan is back for the commentary, but if memory serves from a mid-’80s showing on TBS, it’s the one where Roy goes skinny-dipping. This would presumably make it his one and only nude scene — but I won’t go there any more than I would for “Chinese Mule Train.”

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Awful Truth’ and ‘Singing Guns’

Ruby Gentry


Street 4/24/18;
Kino Lorber;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Jennifer Jones, Charlton Heston, Karl Malden, Tom Tully. 

Preceded by Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead and Beyond the Forest during just the six years leading up to it, swampy Ruby Gentry capped the quartet of potboilers that formed what some later termed as “King Vidor’s hysterical period,” which I suppose puts the silent-to-talkie pioneer in a special club. Which is to ask, did Robert Bresson have a hysterical period? Did Fred Sears, even if you can probably argue that his entire career could be termed as one? The Vidor quartet is made up with movies for which one must have a special taste, or at least be in a special mood, which means that only auteurists more rigid than I will ever call them great. Though one does come out of them all wanting to yak after spending 90 minutes or more (and in Duel’s case, a lot more) on a trek into places where angels fear to tread.

Actually, Ruby clocks in at a suspicious 82, sloppily held together by its weakest feature: a clunky, spoon-fed narration by a newcomer Yankee doctor played by Bernard Phillips, a familiar-face actor who later became slightly better known as Barney (as in The Sand Pebbles). Yankees are held with suspicion in the movie’s “Carolina” setting — which, unless I missed it, isn’t specified as either North nor South, possibly because the coastal burg that backdrops Vidor’s wall-to-wall lurid heavy breathing isn’t the stuff of chamber of commerce brochures. The provincialism also extends more than even normally to the social-class snobbery toward the less pedigreed of its citizens, for which Ruby (Jennifer Jones) is the poster sex-bomb. Her prowess with a rifle would look good in NRA literature but not at the local country club’s Julep Hour, where she lack the essential cotillion gene. Unfortunately, Ruby’s longtime lust object Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston in just his fourth Hollywood feature) is part of this very set — which isn’t to imply that he’s against fooling around with her in his convertible (Cadillacs are practically supporting cast players here) or in secluded marshes far away from the 19th hole.

As with Duel, this is another movie in which Vidor — probably taking a cue from Jones’s real-life husband David O. Selznick, who gets one of those amorphous “presentation” credits here — tried to turn her in to a sex bomb. This was a marketing attempt that never really came off, even though the actress certainly had the looks to make one consider the possibility (maybe it was a slight lisp). Not un-alluringly photographed in Russell Harlan’s best nocturnal doorway shadows to resemble the cover art in the kind of certain trashy, down-and-dirty paperbacks I used to sneak-read as a kid, Jones-as-Ruby, turns out, is more natural as the hunter-shooter-boat-pilot she mostly is during daylight hours. He frustrating truth is that no one quite knew what to do with her in this period when David O. Svengali was probably telling her what brand of toothpaste to use — and who would have thought that her best role of this period would be in John Huston’s eccentric-plus Beat the Devil? But this said, Jones is, overall, a major plus here and probably the No. 1 thing Ruby has going for it — especially when the movie becomes something of a love triangle and, in particular, a revenge piece after the character’s social fortunes change.

It’s fun, at least mild fun, seeing Heston in those early roles where he played standard humans and not someone always hauling around Tablets. Heston was only four years younger than Jones in real life, which means there isn’t nearly the age differential I assumed. And if there really have to be movies where the main male character is named “Boake,” you have to say that Boakes were a lot more grounded in Chuck’s wheelhouse more than they would have been in, say, Clifton Webb’s.

Despite the moniker, Heston is kind of a normal character here (something of a crud, but normal) — which is more than you say for her brother, played by that specialist in twisted rural creeps: James Anderson. In real life, he was the brother of actress Mary Anderson, who played the cute nurse in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat before curtailing her career after marrying four-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Leon Shamroy (who shot both The Robe and The Girl Can’t Help It for a full career right there). James is best known for later playing the main heavy and Atticus Finch adversary in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’m pretty certain I recall Gregory Peck saying in a Mockingbird doc that Anderson didn’t like him personally. Uh, not like Gregory Peck? So if I’m recalling this right, Anderson must have come naturally to the posterior boil he has here — shouting the Gospel, strumming a guitar around the house, repressing homicidal thoughts and, to give him needed points, being right when he warns Ruby about trying to get above her social station.

Released in limited fashion as a so-called prestige project on Christmas Day of ’52 for apparent Oscar consideraton, Ruby was an independent project co-produced by Vidor and distributed by 20th Century-Fox, though I’ve never seen it shown (going back several decades) with a Fox logo. We’ve all seen too many prints of vintage indies that look as if the original negatives were stored in some Mojave-based UPS box — but except for some significant image specking on a light visual background (during a key scene, alas) that looks a little like microbes under a microscope, this is a cleaner and also sharper-looking copy than I expected to see.

Andrew Sarris suggested in The American Cinema that Vidor was a greater director of individual scenes than sustained movies, and there are redeeming bits here and there that transcend what is at heart an amusingly trashy time at the movies — one of them a honey where Boake’s convertible speeds along the beach and into the surf (in a floating manner that would worry me) so that the lovers can do what lovers do to relax Boake’s golf putting finesse on the club links. One major bonus here is the backdrop theme (“Ruby”), which became a significant harmonica hit for Richard Hayman in spring of ’53. Later, after lyrics were added, Ray Charles made it his own around Christmas of ’60 for one of his most indelible recordings.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Ruby Gentry’ and ‘Madigan’

Kino Lorber Appoints New PR Chief

David Ninh has joined arthouse film distributor Kino Lorber as director of press and publicity, the company announced April 17. He starts April 23. Ninh will report to Wendy Lidell, Kino Lorber’s SVP of theatrical and non-theatrical distribution and acquisitions, and CEO Richard Lorber (for corporate communications).

Ninh previously worked at Kickstarter as senior communications specialist overseeing press and publicity outreach for crowdfunding company’s Film and Arts & Culture categories (including Art, Performance, Publishing, Music, Food and LGBTQ communities). He also worked on company launches such Kickstarter’s DRIP funding subscription tool for creators and helped manage the company’s partnership with the Sundance Institute to collaborate with filmmakers on launching campaigns. As Kickstarter’s first film media relations executive he advised filmmakers, artists and creators on engaging and building community during the initial funding stages of many notable film and arts projects.

Before Kickstarter, Ninh spent four years at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as a member of the publicity team, promoting the organization’s year-round programming, theatrical new releases and repertory programming. He worked on the organization’s film festivals, including the New York Film Festival and New Directors/New Films, and led press initiatives for special retrospective film series such as “Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?” and “Foxy, the Complete Pam Grier.”

Prior to his tenure at Lincoln Center, Ninh was an account executive at PMK-BNC, working on major national media and corporate accounts. Earlier, he was an entertainment and style staff writer for The Dallas Morning News.

Kino Lorber recently opened Sophie Fiennes’s Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, Rüdiger Suchsland’s Hitler’s Hollywood, Bill Gunn’s restoration of Personal Problems, and Rachel Israel’s Keep the Change.

With a library of 2,000 titles, Kino Lorber has been a leader in independent art- house distribution for 35 years, releasing over 30 films per year theatrically under its Kino Lorber, Kino Classics, Zeitgeist and Alive Mind Cinema banners. In addition, the company brings more than 350 titles annually to the home entertainment and educational markets through disc and digital media releases. Kino Lorber handles releases in ancillary media for Zeitgeist Films, Carlotta USA, Adopt Films, Raro Video, and others, placing physical titles through all wholesale, retail, and direct-to-consumer channels as well as direct distribution to all major and many new VOD platforms.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Running Wild’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire!’

Running Wild

Kino Lorber, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars W.C. Fields, Marie Shotwell, Mary Brian, Barnett Raskin.
1927. Director Gregory La Cava’s silent-era crowd-pleaser is funnier than expected given that W.C. Fields is without his vocal deliveries, but he was such a physical performer, and La Cava such a deft viual director, that little is missed here.
Extras: Includes a commentary track by historian/author James L. Niebur (The W.C. Fields Films).
Read the Full Review

Great Balls of Fire!

Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG-13.’
Stars Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, Trey Wilson.
1989. Nearly two hours of sheer burlesque, this cartoonish Jerry Lee Lewis biopic is a pastiche of everything that was happening in the musical/pop culture scene in the 1950s. Curio seekers may want to be reminded that Alec Baldwin plays evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, the real-life cousin of rockdom’s self-ordained “Killer.” The high point here is probably Winona Ryder as Lewis’s 13-year-old first cousin (removed) Myra, whose marriage to him as wife No. 3 did not amount to a crackerjack career move in late 1957.
Read the Full Review

Running Wild (1927)


Kino Lorber;
$19.95 DVD; $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars W.C. Fields, Marie Shotwell, Mary Brian, Barnett Raskin. 

Getting a simultaneous release with Kino’s Blu-ray release of the W.C. Fields-Louis Brooks pairing It’s the Old Army Game from 1926 — which arrived too late to include here, though it’s long been a personal want-to-see — the following year’s Running Wild saw Fields working with Gregory La Cava, the director he is said to have most admired. A decade later, La Cava delivered one of the more potent consecutive 1-2 punches from any filmmaker in the 1930s: My Man Godfrey and Stage Door, which is not to suggest this one is like either of those. Nor, in the unlikely case you’re wondering, does it resemble Mamie Van Doren’s j.d. mammary melodrama Running Wild from 1955, though it absolutely follows the blueprint of some of the comedian’s Paramount talkies.

Or to put it another way, we get a slightly softer version of the standard harridan wife, a worthlessly doughy inherited stepson who’d like to outdo Jaws as an eating machine, an attractive daughter from a previous marriage who loves him, plus, as expected, headaches at work. The movie is very much like 1935’s The Man on the Flying Trapeze, a big favorite of mine from the middle chunk of its decade and probably my preferred Fields of all except for the incomparable It’s a Gift, which is a contender for my No. 1 guffaw-maker of all time.

Wild, as is noted on the bonus commentary track by historian/author James L. Niebur (The W.C. Fields Films), may be more familiar to some moviegoers than other Fields silents because Paramount Home Entertainment — in a rare acknowledgment it had had ever even heard of titles in its “deep archive” — included this title as one of the releases it issued to celebrate the studio’s 75th anniversary back in the VHS era. Even without comparing the Paramount reality to the heroically yeoman effort by Ted Turner and his colleagues in preserving and easily making available the MGM library, horrifically few Paramount silents even exist terms of numbers — a jinx forever exacerbated when some genius also sold the studio’s 1929-49 early-talkie library (the greatest single TV movie package of all time) to MCA in the late ’50s, which is how Universal eventually ended up owning them. But at least controlling Paramount has now leased some of these onetime VHS silents to Kino for Blu-ray distribution, which is how Army Game is also getting a fresh higher-def release and how 1923’s The Covered Wagon got one a few weeks ago. Were the latter Western milestone not such a certified stiff despite its onetime prodigious popularity, acclaim and impressive location atmospherics, I’d probably write about it here. After all, it was said to have been Warren G. Harding’s favorite movie — adjust the marquee for the blurb — though I notice that he died just a few months after seeing it.

But: La Cava’s crowd-pleaser is anything but a stiff and even funnier than I expected, given that Fields without his vocal deliveries would seem to be an ultimate in cramped style. And yet, he was such a physical performer — and, at his best, La Cava was a deft visual director even in cramped spaces — that surprising little is missed here. A big difference to fans of Fields talkies will be the caterpillar mustache he sports — and an overall appearance that doesn’t look young, exactly, yet subtly different. Like, say, Spencer Tracy, Fields was seemingly born on the senor side — and even were he 24, we’d look at Mary Brian, who plays his comely daughter and immediately wonder, “Uh, what did mom look like?”

The deal here is that Brian needs something than more than a housedress to wear to an upcoming rug-cutting event she’ll be attending with the son of her father’s boss, with Fields unable to come through with the payment because he hasn’t had a raise in 20 years from his novelty-wares employer. Wife No. 2 is no help, given her lack of sympathy for any daughter from a previous marriage — and she, in fact, laments her vanished past life by decorating the living room with a huge framed picture of her original spouse. The manner in which the worm turns for Fields is not just funny but sustained-funny, and a movie that’s amusing enough in the early going turns outright riotous in its second half. The catalyst here is a professional hypnotist who works his magic on Fields in front of a theatrical audience, the kind of mass entertainment that only a limited few can claim to have witnessed. (As late as 1960, I can recall one of my town’s mammoth movie houses presenting “The Amazing (Joseph) Dunninger” — a nationally known mentalist who made frequent TV appearances during my gleefully misspent ’50s childhood and got spoofed by a young pre-Carnac Johnny Carson on daytime TV as “The Amazing Dillinger.”)

The print here is in very good shape for its age, and Niebur’s commentary has the germane info about the supporting players one would hope for one these kind of backgrounders — including the fact that this is the only screen credit of Barnett Raskin, who plays the eating-machine stepson. He’s a standout here both in terms of physical perfection for the role and his own expressive abilities, and one would think he could have rated subsequent employment, at least in this kind of role (Grady Sutton would kind of take over this franchise in the talkie era). Teenaged Raskin is an even better foil for Fields than Marie Shotwell as the Mrs. (and she’s quite good), figuring in a satisfying adversarial wrap-up in which Donald Sosin’s piano accompaniment is at its jauntiest.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Running Wild’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire!’

Kino Lorber Announces March 2018 Classics Slate

Kino Lorber has announced the line-up for its March 2018 “Studio Classics” titles.

Due March 6 is Topaze (1933) on DVD ($19.95) and Blu-ray ($29.95), with audio commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger; and A Fistful of Dynamite (aka Duck, You Sucker!) (1971), with several audio commentaries and featurettes.

March 13 sees the Blu-ray release of 1968’s The Lion in Winter: 50th Anniversary Edition, with a new 4K restoration, commentary by director Anthony Harvey and an interview with sound recordist Simon Kaye.

Coming March 20 on Blu-ray and DVD are 1948’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish: 70th Anniversary Edition; 1954’s Highway Dragnet with a new HD master from a 4K scan; and 1934’s Stingaree with a new 2K restoration and audio commentary by William Wellman Jr.

March 27 sees the release of the remastered The Outer Limits: Season One (1963-64), featuring 32 episodes on Blu-ray ($99.95) and DVD ($79.95), with audio commentaries and a 40-page booklet essay by David J. Schow.

Also due March 27 are 1948’s Joan of Arc: 70th Anniversary Edition on Blu-ray and DVD with a new 2K restoration; and 1982’s The Soldier newly mastered for Blu-ray and DVD, with audio commentaries.

Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend


Street 2/13/18;
Kino Lorber;
$14.95 DVD, $24.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars William Katt, Sean Young, Patrick McGoohan, Julian Fellowes, Hugh Quarshie.

This 1985 adventure from the Disney studio plays a bit like Romancing the Stone if the central object everyone seeks was a dinosaur.

Sean Young and William Katt play a married couple on a research expedition in Africa, where they stumble upon evidence of a family of brontosauruses living in the jungle. It soon becomes a race against time to find the rare creatures, in order to protect them from other members of the expedition who want to exploit them for fame and glory.

Katt was coming off several seasons of the cult-classic superhero TV show “The Greatest American Hero,” and one of the main reasons he took the role in Baby, he admits in a new bonus interview included on the Blu-ray, was because he liked the idea of shooting in Africa. Sean Young, on the other hand, was on the rise after Blade Runner but still relatively early in her career; No Way Out was still two years in her future.

The film also boasts Patrick McGoohan as the lead scientist of the expedition who becomes a one-dimensional villain in his quest to find the dinosaurs and take all the credit for discovering them. And his sniveling sidekick is played by Julian Fellowes. Yes, that Julian Fellowes, years before he would be better known as the Oscar-winning writer of Gosford Park and creator of “Downton Abbey.”

The visual style of the film places it firmly at a crossroads between goofy creature features of the 1950s and 1960s, and the advanced visual effects techniques to come in the 1990s.

In his own retrospective interview on the Blu-ray, director Bill Norton points out that this was one of the last major live-action movies centered on dinosaurs that used practical effects, before Jurassic Park would come along (eight years later) and show everyone how to do it with computer graphics.

In the mid-1980s, however, CGI was still a nascent visual effects technology, best used for depicting holograms, video games and other things not meant to be perceived as “real” (not that The Last Starfighter didn’t try to do it just a year earlier). Young Sherlock Holmes, often cited as one of the early breakthroughs in depicting CGI creatures, wouldn’t hit theaters until nine months after Baby.

So, here the dinosaurs are essentially giant puppets. As a result, Norton laments, even as advanced as the craftsmanship of the 1980s had become, the old-school techniques weren’t quite up to snuff in generating the realism of the dinosaurs he was looking for, and one of his biggest challenges was figuring out how to shoot the film in such a way so as not to highlight the fakeness of it all.

What ends up on screen is just charming enough to accept for the story, but high-definition isn’t doing it any favors when the shots linger just long enough for viewers to focus on Baby’s obviously rubber skin and eerily unnatural eyes. The look of the dinosaurs is not unlike an animatronic one might expect to find at a Disney theme park had the movie been successful enough to inspire a ride based on it. (While Disney’s Animal Kingdom park in Florida does have a dinosaur-themed land, its attractions are based on other sources.)

The film’s title and the cutesy design of the baby dinosaur puppet suggest a family friendliness that is belied a bit by an unexpected level of sexual innuendo and violence. As Katt suggests in his retrospective, the film had a harder edge to it that the film’s marketing may not have properly translated to older audiences, while at the same time turning off parents looking for some appropriate entertainment for their kids.

With all this going on, Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend is certainly a minor curio for anyone interested in 1980s film history, but it’s of particular nostalgic interest to me since I remember seeing it in theaters when I was about 10 (and probably hadn’t seen it again until this Blu-ray, save for any TV airings shortly afterward). I don’t recall why I would have wanted to see it back then, aside from the fact that I liked dinosaurs as a kid (and still have an affinity for them). I also watched “The Greatest American Hero” fairly regularly, and maybe seeing that show’s hero on the big screen was a selling point. However, like most things remembered from childhood, the particulars of the plot didn’t stick with me as much as a general sense of what the movie was, which to me has always been “the one where Sean Young finds a baby dinosaur in the jungle.”

So, yeah, this was my first exposure to Sean Young, and don’t think that scenes of her clad in her underwear lying in bed in a humid African hut, or trying to get it on with her husband in the middle of the jungle while the curious young reptile keeps interrupting, don’t leave an impression on a young boy.

Of course, looking back it’s easy to laugh at how out-of-place any attempts by the characters to get frisky were given the situation, as it provides just the unlikely plot point needed to propel the film into its third act — the inevitable need to rescue the cute creature from the bad guys who want to exploit it. (In this case, when Baby is shooed away by the lovebirds who up to this point in the film have been doing everything they can to keep an eye on it. But, hey — nature calls, right?)

Mike’s Picks: ‘Gidget’ and ‘Junior Bonner’

Gidget (Blu-ray)

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Comedy, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson, James Darren, Arthur O’Connell.
1959. The retro beach-time confection of Sandra Dee’s career-maker just gets by as a time-killer if you missed your beach time this summer.
Read the Full Review

Junior Bonner

Kino Lorber, Drama, $19.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Steve McQueen, Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Ben Johnson, Joe Don Baker.
1972. A lot of people revere Junior Bonner, which features a lovingly constructed Jeb Rosebrook screenplay that director Sam Peckinpah fleshes out with a couple of show-stopping extended set pieces, but it could have used an ad campaign that sold its maker’s most gentle movie as a family drama and not another of the rodeo sagas that were flooding the market at that time.
Extras: Offering the commentary are definitive Peckinpah experts Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle, who long ago established themselves as the go-to crew on Sam-related voiceovers, no matter which distributor is behind the home release.
Read the Full Review

Junior Bonner


Kino Lorber;
$19.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Steve McQueen, Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Ben Johnson, Joe Don Baker.

To hear a welcome barrage of familiar Sam Peckinpah experts accurately tell it as part of Kino’s ample-plus Blu-ray bonus features, not many moviegoers were waiting for Junior Bonner in 1972 at a time when lead Steve McQueen (coming off his Le Mans debacle) needed a hit. I was an exception — and in one of the more folkloric stories in my personal movie-going history, drove 75 Ohio miles (each way) from Columbus to Dayton to see it in an early booking, only to discover that its too-brief engagement had wrapped the previous day. Something must have been in the water (or, given my peer group’s age at the time, firewater): Not long before or after this, a close friend of mine tried to impress a woman by driving the two of them from Columbus to Cleveland to see if they could score tickets for the day’s Browns-Giants game — rudely unaware that the Browns were playing in New York that day.

Both of us could have used the Internet, and Junior Bonner could have used an ad campaign that sold its maker’s most gentle movie as a family drama and not another of the rodeo sagas that were flooding the market at that time. McQueen, Robert Preston and Ida Lupino are three of my favorite screen performers ever, and here they are as a wayward son and his estranged parents, with Joe Don Baker (as the more responsible “Curly” Bonner) as a brother trying to make a go with a (so far) lucrative Prescott, Ariz., real estate development. What more could anyone want — and this at a time when The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Straw Dogs in quick succession had established Peckinpah as possibly the most dazzling U.S. director then going — though rebuttals were intelligently advanced by disciples of Robert Altman and also Mike Nichols, who’d come back big-time from his Catch-22 stumble with the oddly not-on-Blu-ray Carnal Knowledge).

For a movie that bombed at the box office during its release, a lot of people revere Junior Bonner — including Ali MacGraw (also a part of this Blu-ray’s bonus features), whose The Getaway with McQueen opened four months after JB to become what I am virtually certain was Peckinpah’s biggest commercial hit. (She also did Convoy, the director’s penultimate film.) MacGraw is one of many who’ve advanced, or at least implied, the sentiment that Peckinpah’s more characteristic big-screen bloodbaths only told half the story; in other words, where were all you clowns who put Sam the Man down as reprehensible when the still underseen Cable Hogue and then this unpretentious beauty were showing an entirely different side?

Uh, huh.

Via a lovingly constructed Jeb Rosebrook screenplay that Peckinpah fleshes out with a couple of show-stopping extended set pieces, Junior (McQueen) returns to his hometown to compete in a contest that necessitates his doing well in front of parents and old acquaintances, even though he’s been banged up from getting bucked and is otherwise no longer the competitor he used to be. Papa “Ace” (Preston) is an irresponsible mental child — albeit a onetime real-deal rodeo star as well, who keeps eating up Curly’s money-tree generosity in grand schemes that may probably will not extend to his latest: prospecting for minerals in Australia. Meanwhile, the siblings’ heard-it-all-before mom Lupino, who long ago fled the marital coop, is running the knick-knack register at one of Curly’s “shops” in a construction endeavor that earns him no little money but perhaps not a whole lot of respect. Junior matter-of-factly balks at the offer of a cushy job with the business, apparently preferring to nurse body bruises from unfriendly four-legged creatures.

The movie exudes an extraordinary sense of community, with added autobiographical touches here and there, including one McQueen-Preston gesture involving a hat that I’ve never forgotten over the years. Both virtues come through in Rosebrook’s authentic dialogue (sparked by actors who can really deliver it) — and the predominantly nonverbal flair of an elaborate barroom brawl and an earlier parade sequence that’s the best of its type I’ve ever seen on screen. These kinds of sequences are not easy to shoot (the brawl packs a few dozen participants into a cramped widescreen frame), but Peckinpah gave them lots of coverage, which at least one of his editors had always stressed was the way to go.

The project, which came together quickly, is one that McQueen especially coveted as one that would make certain audiences take him seriously as an actor when, in actuality, he had one of the most readably nuanced screen faces of anyone who ever stepped in front of the camera. This is one of his best jobs ever, but rodeo pics were inevitably a tough sell in taste-making geographical regions (I suspect that Nicholas Ray’s as extraordinary The Lusty Men had troubles of its own knocking down 1952 turnstiles). Peckinpah’s take on the genre is extraordinary as well but in quiet ways that camouflage its full virtues. This said, the included coming attraction and TV trailers make it look like a feature-length bundle of clichés and fail to emphasize the extraordinary cast Peckinpah had at his disposal.

Thus, it has always remained for revisionists for trumpet its considerable virtues, and, in fact, Junior Bonner was the very first movie I ever programmed upon launching nearly a decade of daily programming and almost as many whiplashing calendar changes at the AFI Theater in Washington, D.C. Offering the commentary are definitive Peckinpah experts Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle, who long ago established themselves as the go-to crew on Sam-related voiceovers, no matter which distributor is behind the home release. Rosebrook, who can easily spin an anecdote, rates a half-hour of his own, and another featurette of similar length features an array of actors (L.Q. Jones, Ernie Borgnine and the expected usual suspects) who worked with Peckinpah and lived (though perhaps at times without their livers) to tell about it. One Kris Kristofferson anecdote — about Bob Dylan’s reaction to Peckinpah’s creative response to some faulty lab work on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid — is by itself worth the price of admission.

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