The Major and the Minor

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Comedy;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland, Rita Johnson, Diana Lynn, Robert Benchley.

Standard histories have it that Billy Wilder decided to become a director to “protect his screenplays” (which, at that time, were co-written with Charles Brackett) after he didn’t like what Mitchell Leisen did to 1941’s Hold Back the Dawn. The latter, which Arrow released on Blu-ray this past summer, is actually a fine picture, but Wilder was agitated enough to take the directorial plunge and thereby searched for the most surefire property gathering dust on the Paramount lot at a time when the studio expected him to fall on his face by attempting something arty.

Something, however, to think about is the fact that The Major and the Minor couldn’t have been all that surefire in 1942 due to its premise about a grown woman posing as a 12-year-old meets and gradually falls for a kindly and thoroughly aboveboard Army major — who probably isn’t even aware that he’s on the road to reciprocating her feelings. British critic and academic Neil Sinyard (a film history teacher I would have loved to have had) hits this point on a half-hour M&M interview included on Arrow’s new Blu-ray, noting that this was a decade or more before the publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Even momentarily leaving industry censors out of it here for the purposes of discussion, Wilder (who continued writing with Brackett through 1950’s Sunset Boulevard) would have to walk a fine line — something, turns out, that he did for almost the entirety of his directorial career.

It’s a feat he pulled off here without (to the eye, at least) a hitch, and M&M doesn’t look like any director’s first outing. Though, to clarify, Wilder had previously co-directed a 1934 French comedy with Danielle Darrieux about a hot car ring (Mauvaise graine) that I liked better than expected the only time I saw it. For Wilder’s Hollywood debut here, he and Brackett even managed to open with a long establishing scene that’s topically relevant today — one where we see the degree to which Ginger Rogers’ character has been pawed, pinched and otherwise sexually harassed during a year in New York after escaping the hinterlands. The latest transgressor is a married wolf (Robert Benchley) who hires her to massage his scalp, sparking one of the more famed lines of dialogue from a vintage Hollywood comedy: “Why don’t you get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini?”

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Having reached her rope’s end after the episode that follows, Rogers elects on a dime to return home for good with the exact train fare she’s saved in an envelope, only to discover that the cost has gone up during the year. Disguising herself as youngster (complete with a balloon) so that she can score a cheaper fare, Rogers ends up in the drawing room of the title major (Ray Milland), who has just been in Washington trying to wangle World War II combat service despite a tricky eye that helps make it at least a bit more credible that he could fail to see that she’s no burgeoning adolescent. As Sinyard notes, there’s also the fact that Milland somewhat specialized in playing mildly dim characters early in his career — before Wilder later won both of them Oscars for the alcoholism drama The Lost Weekend.

At this time, Milland is stuck at a military school supervising a lot of horny male pubescents — a gig his snooty fiancée (Rita Johnson) is secretly scheming with higher-ups for him to maintain. For reasons that make perfect sense yet are no less funny for that, Rogers ends up at the school herself for a long weekend where she’s sexually harassed all over again — this time by boys who are 40 or 50 years younger than Benchley.

These latter scenes are still laugh-out-loud funny, thanks in huge measure to the world-weary expressions on the face of Rogers when she’s out on dates with these cadets (one to an hour) and enduring supposedly foolproof seduction patter from guys who barely shave. There’s also a fun subplot involving her temporary roomie/wannabe future scientist played by Diana Lynn in her first significant role (Lynn was a real-life piano prodigy who turned out to have a distinctive speaking voice and screen personality). As Johnson’s sister, she’s such a non-admirer that she’s not above steaming open the older sibling’s letters if it’ll help Milland get his transfer.

Already, we see the familiar Wilder virtues and even some themes. For starters, the performances are all first-rate, with Milland an appealing foil and even Rogers’ real-life mother Lela in a cute cameo playing the same role on the screen, momentarily dispelling Lela’s much written about notoriety as one of Hollywood’s most motor-mouthed political reactionaries. What’s more, the story construction is flawless, and there’s a fair share of Wilder’s trademark topical humor, including a hysterical gag involving girls’ hairdos at the big school dance. We also have the disguise theme, to which would Wilder would return in Some Like It Hot (though I also appreciate Harvey Lembeck’s attempts to temporarily palm himself off as Betty Grable in Stalag 17). What’s different, though, is an overall sweetness that we wouldn’t see from Wilder many more times. In the taut and nicely crafted voiceover commentary here from film scholar Adrian Martin, we’re told that Brackett used the word “enchanting” — which the movie certainly is. And never more than in the final scene.

The other main bonus feature to go along with a decent transfer is a 30-minute Milland interview conducted by two youngsters or relative youngsters who don’t seem to know his career as well as they might. The actor is personable, though, and covers a lot of decades for such a compressed running time — from the actor’s unplanned entry into pictures (quite a story) and the pressures of both TV acting when you might be shooting three episodes of a series a week and the perils of directing modestly budgeted features when the money may run out. Milland made it clear more than once that directing was his true love as far as movies went, and at least two of the films he did (The Thief and A Man Alone) are skillfully put together. I’m leaving Panic in Year Zero off this list because it’s been so many decades since I’ve seen to that I’m not even positive that I have, despite the fact that a lot of revisionist types have good things to say about it. In 1962, I wasn’t all that in the habit of catching post-apocalyptic Frankie Avalon movies.

It’s probably worth noting that M&M was remade in 1955 as You’re Never Too Young, which is one of the few Martin & Lewis comedies to capture the team tension of their live appearances. Though containing a surprising number of the same situations, it obviously made some major alterations, starting with Jerry Lewis playing the Rogers role. It was after totally different game than M&M, and taken on that level (which most dim-bulb-ish 1955 film criticism didn’t), it was pretty funny despite the always marginal Norman Taurog direction. Rainer Werner Fassbinder even paid homage to its wildest musical number in In a Year of 13 Moons.

Definitely worth re-emphasizing is the greatness of Rogers’ performance when she has to play two major roles (her character’s real and fake self) and two or three more minor ones, including a climactic scene where she pretends to be her own mother. I always use Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth as my yardstick by which to gauge the perfection of Golden Age comic performances by attractive actresses, but this recent viewing made a persuasive case to me that Rogers just might come in second here. Brackett and Wilder give her a dream role (which doesn’t mean an easy one), and the movie has so much showmanship that it even finds a legitimate way for the character to break into a tap dance.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Major and the Minor’ and ‘The Set Up’

Easy Living

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, Ray Milland, Luis Alberni.

I’ve seen plenty of Easy Living title confusion in TV-listing screwups over the years, so let’s clarify. This version, here on a welcome new Blu-ray from Kino Classics, is Mitchell Leisen directing a great screwball cast in Preston Sturges’ first full-fledged comedy script; its title tune, heard here instrumentally, became a minor jazz standard when lyrics were added and was a big hit at the time for Billie Holiday. And then there was the alternative: 1949’s same-namer about professional football in which Jacques Tourneur directed Victor Mature and Sonny Tufts in jockstraps, though (the Production Code being what it was) this is not something we actually see. No Billie Holiday tie-in was forthcoming, though Moanin’ Low might have worked.

The 1937 Sturges-Leisen take is clearly superior (though the ’49 isn’t awful; Liz Scott, Lucille Ball and even Jack Paar are in it, too). But beyond the movie at hand’s madcap plot about a menial magazine employee whose life changes when a sable coat drops on her head, the earlier film has all the built-in art/set genius from the studio house pros who made Paramount films so much more interesting than their MGM counterparts in the black-and-white ’30s. And compounding this, we have Leisen, who was a standout production designer on his own before moving to directing (helping to achieve the “look” of the early Cecil DeMille pictures wasn’t a bad preliminary attention-getter on to have on your resumé).

Trouble is, some famous writer/director names — Sturges and, more famously, Billy Wilder — thought that was all he was, and it’s pretty well accepted history that Wilder was finally motivated to turn director over Leisen’s tinkering with the Wilder-Charles Brackett dialogue on 1941’s lovely Hold Back the Dawn (a recent Blu-ray from Arrow, and a long-coveted one). This hurt Leisen’s reputation in a trickle-down sort of way until revisionists later stepped in to even things out a bit.

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Personally, I’ve never seen what the fuss was all about. Leisen lacked the ultimate razor-sharpness and did too many clunkers to qualify as a Wilder or Sturges, but when your output includes Midnight, Remember the Night, Hold Back the Dawn, Frenchman’s Creek (you should see this in a 35mm three-strip nitrate, as I have), Kitty, To Each His Own, No Man of Her Own, The Mating Season and some other comedies I haven’t mentioned, naysayers would be better off casting their stones with the velocity of a knuckleball. Even 1949’s loopy Bride of Vengeance, which did its best to screech-halt more than one major career, gave me a better time than expected, while the Sweet Marijuana number from the barely pre-code Murder at the Vanities wasn’t just a singular moment in movie history but a role model for my generation.

There’s no cannabis in Living, nor is there even much drinking, though an automat figures in one full-scale melee (probably the picture’s most famous scene) that’s kind of a cross between the knockout physical humor we’d later see in the Sturges-directed farces and that longshot hilarity in Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria in which agitated restaurant patrons begin scratching bug itches in St. Vitus form. The automat employs the Ray Milland character, but he isn’t anything like the film’s focus, at least for a while. But his father (Edward Arnold) is a Wall Street titan, the third-biggest banker in New York. In a fit of pique generated by huge frivolous expenditures by both wife and son, he tosses the former’s plush coat out of their ritzy residence in-town residence, whereupon it floats down several floors and onto the head of an innocent played by Jean Arthur as she sits in an upstairs public bus seat.

In fallout that anticipates the remarkably prescient Garson Kanin-Ruth Gordon-George Cukor It Should Happen to You released 16 years later (leaving aside countless real-life examples from today), Arthur then becomes, as we say today, famous for being famous. In her defense, she’s plainly guileless over what happens to her, and even were she more aware, she’d be plainly mortified. Instead, Arthur is mystified that clothing concerns want to give her even more duds on credit, that car makers offer her gratis limos because they want her to be seen driving it and that a going-bankrupt upscale hotel proprietor (hysterically funny Luis Alberni, the movie’s secret weapon) wants to put her up in the suite that one might have reserved for, say, Clark Gable or Shirley Temple. It even has an ornate sunken bathtub in which Shirley could float models of The Good Ship Lollipop.

There is, of course, more to this, thanks to a series of confused assumptions that are part and parcel of screwball comedy — as is the insane behavior by most of the principal and subordinate characters, who additionally don’t seem to be affected too much by the Depression. In this case, the mistaken assumption is that Arthur must be Arnold’s mistress and that it might be a good idea to stay on her good side. The entire plot shebang is very much in keeping with what several of the later Sturges-directed masterpieces at Paramount would be, what with protagonists who could go from hero to bum, bum to hero and back again in a zip. Think The Great McGinty, Hail the Conquering Hero or Sullivan’s Travels, in which Joel McCrea becomes, if not a literal bum, a literal hobo. (When I was in my short-lived career as a Cub Scout — short-lived because I Pledged the Allegiance to Elvis Presley at a pack meeting — my assistant den mother once explained to me that there was a distinction that a hobo was more than willing to work if food and a place to sleep called for it.)

Film historian Kat Ellinger, who’s getting a lot of work lately, is in for the commentary, covering most of what’s been mentioned here and a lot more. Her speaking voice isn’t exactly the female answer to Ronald Colman’s, but her instincts are sharp and her film knowledge wide. I was curious to hear Ellinger speaking of the great friendship between Milland and Leisen, who was a married bisexual but later more openly gay; the two apparently even competed in two-person yachting waggers. The only reason this struck me is that I can swear hearing on some recent Blu-ray commentary that Milland was something of a homophobe and that it had some kind of adverse effect on one of his co-stars. Oh, well: the only thing that matters in the end are the pictures, and the two made several together. Oddly, the director’s career best were non-Milland’s, excepting Kitty (a period romp I’ve liked since I was a kid, with arguably Paulette Goddard’s best role and performance).

Kino’s release isn’t one of those 4K jobs of a ’30s movie like, say, Criterion’s My Man Godfrey or the Sony Frank Capra digital spiff-ups that are like tube-riding the tallest slide in the waterpark, but it’ll give young idea of the elegant gloss that was Paramount back in the day — and back in the day when a budding generation of enthusiasts grew up with them on TV from the late ’50s through the middle ’60s. Easy Living really does impress me as a movie Depression escapists would have loved for its portrayal of a humble working woman who suddenly has riches thrown into her lap, especially if the theater’s air conditioning were working to make it a really relaxing night out.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation’ and ‘Easy Living’

The Big Clock: Special Edition

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Drama;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, George Macready.

With a larkish approach to drinking straight out of The Thin Man plus several wacky asides in keeping with Elsa Lanchester’s chortle-bait presence in the supporting cast as a bohemian artist, the toned-down 1948 movie of Kenneth Fearing’s novel The Big Clock isn’t exactly “noir” yet would still be a tough one to leave off a comprehensive list of films that are. For one thing, Gilda’s George Macready is in it, looking as ever as if his bed likely has a built-in shelf under the mattress for a stash of whips. For another, one homoerotic scene with publisher Charles Laughton and his “fixer” (a relatively buff Harry Morgan) in a massage table milieu doesn’t exactly portend a Great Outdoors Technicolor musical set against a wagon train.

Fearing’s novel has enough of a rep to have rated inclusion in a Library of America volume, but there was no way 1948 Hollywood was capable of indulging its casual approach to adultery or one major character being a lesbian. There’s so much hustle-bustle going on here, though, that the absence of these narrative possibilities is barely missed. Either via the actor involved or fictional character from the written page, I’ve already alluded to four individuals in the narrative without even completing a second paragraph. And I haven’t even yet mentioned the main protagonist (Ray Milland), who edits Crimeways magazine for the Manhattan-based Laughton empire whose building lobby boasts an imposing giant clock that’s always correct down to the last sliver of a second.

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The picture is quite astute in having anticipated today’s media conglomerates, and though Roger Ailes was a No. 2 who still had to answer to Rupert Murdoch at Fox, Laughton does a great job that he obviously wasn’t aware of in portraying Ailes’s corpulence while cast here as the key corporate honcho. Armed with a revolting personality and power-wielding amorality, he at one point threatens to blackball Milland in the profession merely because the latter would like a vacation. He also plays around, which gets him into trouble when his current mistress ends up dead in brutal fashion; putting a memorable spin on the role is Rita Johnson, an actress whose career was largely curtailed when brain surgery largely failed to correct the aftereffects of a hair dryer freakishly falling on her just a few months after the movie premiered.

Complicating screen matters is the fact that Milland rather publicly had drinks with this once mercurial victim in nightspots (both trendy and un-) shortly before her ugly payoff. (Milland doesn’t serially cheat on his wife the way he does in the novel but will still always have a drink or 12 with a strange woman if asked). The story’s subsequent gimmick — and it’s a good one — is one of the few things that remained in the acknowledged yet all but unrecognizable 1987 remake, No Way Out, much of which is set in the Pentagon. And this is that the person in charge of the sleuthing (Laughton wants Crimeways and Milland to solve the case) finds all the evidence pointing in his direction. This takes a most tolerant wife, and the one here is played by Maureen O’Sullivan, who is adamant that she and Milland take a years-delayed love trip with their son to Wheeling. (Apparently, the conglomerate doesn’t own a travel-tips publication.)

But O’Sullivan turns out to be a valuable assistant to her husband, who otherwise has only an assortment of colorful barflies to watch his back when the increasingly malevolent Laughton becomes adversarial. Laughton’s own helpers are more threatening, the kind that power-mad sociopaths who work in buildings named after them can afford. Macready, his No. 2, is the polished, dominant one (though the way things are going, he’d better watch his back), and Morgan is around for rough stuff — never once speaking a word in the movie, preferring to let his actions do all his shouting. Without giving much away — note that the movie begins in flashback with our protagonist on the lam inside the corporate headquarters — the deeply-in-trouble Milland has to ankle it all over the skyscraper looking for hiding places, the clock among them.

The director is John Farrow, who was married to O’Sullivan in real life and fathered a sizable brood that included Mia. On an impressively thought-out Blu-ray commentary, scholar Adrian Martin tries making the case (and he’s not alone) that Farrow was badly underrated. Maybe, but he made a lot of clunkers, with this picture and John Wayne’s Hondo probably topping the list of his career achievements. (Other high-enders include Milland’s Alias Nick Beal, the intentional camp-fest His Kind of Woman, and a few solid entertainments like Two Years Before the Mast and A Bullet Is Waiting.) Along with a really good script by Jonathan Latimer, one has to concede that Farrow’s flair for movement here (note the all the scenes where multiple characters zip out of the frame and back) really carry the day over one of two things I could do without (the final bit is a little cutesy).

Another Adrian (Wootton) appears on camera to discuss Farrow and the movie’s origin as well, while the actor Simon Callow brings to his discussion of Laughton the historical and analytical ammo he attained writing an outstanding ‘90s bio of the actor, which I read not long after its publication. Callow makes a tough-to-refute case that 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame so burned out Laughton that the actor lost his edge until almost the end of his career — though this movie, Witness for the Prosecution and, of course, his direction of The Night of the Hunter were standout exceptions. Otherwise, what’s an Oscar-winning actor to do when, for whatever reason, he’s electing to do Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd.

The great John Seitz, who backed up Billy Wilder during the latter’s Paramount period, photographed The Big Clock, and I was a little surprised that the Blu-ray was somewhat on the rough grainy side the way the DVD was as well. (We could be talking the same old master.) The appearance is striking enough but hardly as luminous as Shout Select’s recent Blu-ray of This Gun for Hire, which Seitz also shot at that same studio. Better, though, that luminosity be saved for Hire’s Veronica Lake if a viewer has to choose; there’s so much mayhem going in Clock that the eye has less time to focus, anyway. This is a movie I saw for the first time at age 12 on a TV late show in 1960, and has continued to grab me through years that would include my programming days at the AFI Theater when we’d run the UCLA Film and Television Archive print ion the movie in 35mm.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Big Clock’ and ‘Baby the Rain Must Fall’

Spaghetti Western ‘The Grand Duel,’ Film Noir ‘The Big Clock’ Among May Blu-ray Releases From Arrow and MVD

A spaghetti Western, a film noir classic, a J-sploitation film and a gore actioner are among the new Blu-ray releases due in May from Arrow Video and MVD Entertainment Group.

Coming May 7 is Giancarlo Santi’s spaghetti Western The Grand Duel, starring Lee Van Cleef as a sheriff seeking justice for a man accused of murder. Special features include new interviews with cast and crew, including director Santi, and a new commentary with film historian Stephen Prince.

On May 14, Arrow brings two new releases.

Yakuza Law  is from director Teruo Ishii, the godfather of J-sploitation. It’s a tale of a yakuza lynching during the Edo, Taisho and Showa periods. Special features include a new commentary with film critic Jasper Sharp and an archival interview with Ishii.

Also due May 14 is the 1948 film noir The Big Clock. The film follows a magazine tycoon who commits a murder and then attempts to frame an innocent man. At the same time, the innocent man attempts to solve the case. The film is directed by Oscar winner John Farrow and features an all-star cast, including Ray Milland, Maureen O’Sullivan and Charles Laughton.

Due May 21 is She-Devils on Wheels, from godfather of gore Herschell Gordon Lewis. In a small Florida town, an all-girl motorcycle gang known as The Man-Eaters squares off with an all-male rival gang. Included in the special features is another feature-length film from Lewis, 1968’s Just for the Hell of It, also set in Florida, about a gang of punks leading a small town’s youth down a path of destruction and mayhem.

The River’s Edge

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ray Milland, Anthony Quinn, Debra Paget.

The River’s Edge (with a “The”) hasn’t anything to do with plain old River’s Edge (1986), whose sundry plot points centered on wayward teen slackers, a murder victim and an inflatable blowup doll that Dennis Hopper loves in one undesignated fashion or another. Instead, this earlier near-namesake has other things on mind, but in its own way managed to be nearly as tawdry by the tepid standards of 1957, when I first managed to see it at age 10 on a double bill with Pat Boone’s screen debut in Bernardine. This was the great thing about neighborhood theaters at the time: “It’s OK, mom, we’re going to see Pat Boone, and I know how much you dig ‘Love Letters in the Sand’” (true enough) but failing to add that the co-feature featured an adulterous love triangle and at least one exceptionally blood-soaked killing for its day.

Though it’s tempting to say that director Allan Dwan had been involved in visual communication since the days that people drew illustrations on the walls of caves, his career only went back to 1911, which was still just three years after D.W. Griffith began dabbling in moving images himself. That was a 46-year career up to this point with four more still to go, and though Dwan got mired in “B’s” after directing some higher-profile projects in the 1920s, he did bring enough storytelling distinction with what he was given to become an auteurist figure to ’70s film scholars. Dwan’s Silver Lode (1954), which was late in the game itself, is solid by any standards.

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The River’s Edge, filmed in CinemaScope and with a fairly electric dose of DeLuxe Color, is impressive in how Dwan and veteran production designer Van Nest Polglase made it look more expensive than it possibly could have been — something noted by ace film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini in a sometimes gently amusing commentary carried over from the old DVD. But they also point out continuity problems more likely than not are the result of the limited budget. One case in point are the da film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini in a somet film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini in a sometimes gently amusing commentary carried over from the old DVD imes gently amusing commentary carried over from the old DVD y-for-night photographic limitations in an otherwise well-shot outing from Harold Lipstein, whose credits included the absolutely gorgeous-looking Heller in Pink Tights for George Cukor three years later.

And yes, Edge at least has “elements” of noir — or so say these authors of one of the definitive noir books, even though the picture is in color and often takes place in the wide open spaces during daylight hours. Certain key elements are definitely here, though, including a heavy sexual undercurrent and stolen money that has put one of its principals (Ray Milland) on the lam. Plus a dissatisfied wife (Debra Paget) at the center of two competing males — though in this case she’s simply more dissatisfied than the usual all-out noir “Trouble.” Paget is, however, playing a redhead, which is always a good way to accrue noir-ish bonus points.

In a locale that just as easily could be known as South Hellhole, NM, we begin with what’s presumably this rural route’s only known pink Thunderbird — with its driver/stranger (Milland) asking for directions to find the area’s best known guide (a role played by Anthony Quinn, who had just won his second supporting Oscar in five years, though he took the money and ran here all the same). Living with Quinn on his spread, if that can possibly be the word, is parolee Paget — a marriage that kept her from going back to jail (say, how about a movie about the court system that so ruled?).

Still, despite legitimate feelings for Quinn, she’s had it: he’s nearly gotten badly gored just outside; the kitchen appliances blow up; a scorpion crawls into one of her high heels; and the shower rains mud all over her when she’s trying to look extra nice for her man’s birthday.

Quinn’s place is no efficiency but a trailer whose incredibly shifting dimensions amuse Ursini and Silver (and likely many viewers) to no end. From the outside, using a movie’s screen size as an analogy, it’s about the size of a nickelodeon peep show from around the time Dwan started directing. But if it’s an indoor shot, we (comparably speaking) find ourselves in an Imax frame; it’s like when the screen expands at the beginning of Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It. Be that as it may, Milland shows up carrying a cache of cash (stolen), and the divulgence of some past history emerges. Paget is his former lover and partner in crime (which got her sent to prison), and Milland would like to reclaim her, as well as get Quinn to guide him across the border into Mexico where he hopes to escape with his bounty. Through circumstances having to do with all the dead people who seem to materialize whenever they cross Milland’s path, regretful accessory (and, again, parolee) Paget joins them on the mountainous trek as well.

Milland is the same kind of corrupt smoothie he played in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and is effortlessly superb at it, while Quinn is atypically a nice-guy cuckold instead of his standard force of nature (read: Zorba the Anything). Paget is OK with a couple standout scenes, though she seems to have been foisted on Dwan due to her status as a 20th Century-Fox contract player (she’d been the center of another love triangle between brothers Richard Egan and Elvis Presley just half-a-year earlier in Love Me Tender). This is the kind of movie where you’re in danger of being killed merely by being in the supporting cast; those dispatched include not just a a cave-dwelling rattlesnake but a harmlessly grizzled Western “old-timer” played by Chubby Johnson, who’d previously sat atop the stagecoach with Doris Day during her great Deadwood Stage opening to Calamity Jane.

As if this weren’t exactly the kind of screen entertainment we 10-year-olds wanted to see, there’s also a heavy sexual undercurrent throughout the entire narrative, something that Dwan (per Ursini and Silver) loved injecting into his films — and at his age, no less. When he made Edge, Dwan had recently come off Slightly Scarlet, a tantalizingly lurid James M. Cain adaptation for Edge producer Benedict Borgeaus that featured another redheaded ex-con (Arlene Dahl) lounging around provocatively while sis Rhonda Fleming (redheads, redheads) tried to have Dahl’s back despite the latter’s abject looney-tune-ness. Two decades earlier, Dwan had directed the Shirley Temple version of Heidi, but now he had the kind of material where the big boys played. Oh, Allan, you devil.

Depending on how you feel about marginal The Restless Breed or how adequate or not Dwan swan song Most Dangerous Man Alive turns out to be (I recorded it maybe a year ago off Turner Classic but haven’t gotten to it yet), Edge was not too arguably his last smoothly finessed film, one that always comes up with compelling framing and actor blocking when there couldn’t have been much time or money to help. Interestingly, Dwan lived 20 more years after he retired in 1961, a remarkable achievement — though it’s not so much that he lived to be 96, as impressive as that is. It’s that he lived to be that age despite at one point having directed three Vera Ralston films in a row at Republic — the third a World War II drama where Phil Harris found a way to perform his No. 3 Billboard hit The Thing. Good genes, buddy.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Great Buster’ and ‘The River’s Edge’

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 Man Alone

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Western;
$19.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ray Milland, Mary Murphy, Ward Bond, Raymond Burr.

As the latest Kino Blu-ray of an under-appreciated sleeper shown at this year’s two MoMA Republic Pictures tributes under Martin Scorsese’s imprimatur, 1955’s A Man Alone is the movie that finally satisfied lead Ray Milland’s long-gestating desire to direct. It’s also a childhood and early adolescent favorite that I used to watch every time it aired on TV — though as recently as a year ago, I would have thought its chances of getting its own Blu-ray were as remote as a guy attempting to bump off his wife when she was played by Grace Kelly. Of course, the actor had done quite well with that impossible concept just a year before Alone’s original release when he had the lead in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

Milland was pretty polished in that one, but in Alone, his Western character eats so much sand that in one scene (the first, in fact), it really looks as if he’s spitting some out for real after his horse takes a fatal desert fall. Maybe this is what you’re willing to do when acting in your own picture, though I doubt if Republic’s famously parsimonious chief Herbert J. Yates (who managed to hack off Roy and Gene and John Wayne) gave him a piece of the gross. This said, bonus commentary historian Toby Roan quotes Milland as saying Yates’s word was ultimately solid once financial bandying was completed, and the actor returned to Republic just a year later to direct the also new-on-Blu-ray Lisbon — another movie I’ve always liked and one that felicitously traded in on Nelson Riddle’s possibly unexpected chart buster of Lisbon Antigua in early ’56 as counter-programming to the Elvis boom.

Though it would be a stretch to describe Alone as an attempt to fashion something of an art film out of a well-worn genre, the picture remains an intriguingly curious mix of backlot jawboning involving a lot of familiar-looking Western character actors and a shaky-‘A’ that largely pulls off an attempt to do something different starting with a long opening without any dialogue. Milland (speaking of “alone”) commands this section by himself, and it’s roughly 30 minutes in — or nearly a third of the running time — before there’s any conversation. Perhaps this was all laid out neatly in a script and story credited to John Tucker Battle and Mort Briskin, but it’s worth noting that just three years earlier, Milland had headlined Russell Rouse’s The Thief, an espionage drama that utilized sound effects and nothing more for its entire running time.

Working from a theme for which Henry King’s The Gunfighter is still the final word, the movie poses Milland as a weary ex-gunfighter who unknowingly rides into a dusty town (and I mean dusty town) to be immediately accused of past robberies and now the latest and most heinous: a stagecoach stickup in which a young girl known to all was slaughtered. Barely given enough time to utter “what the hell?” to himself, Milland takes cover in the first available basement — but not before finding himself just feet away from an opaque conversation that has a bad smell to it. As coincidence would have it — and there are a few of them here — it’s information that comes in handy down the road when he can attach names and faces to their community standing. Which is to say that a lot of the town heavyweights — and in Raymond Burr’s case, you can take this literally — have been up to no good.

Stuck in the basement with a cat, some peach preserves, and gritty pores, Milland is secretly situated well enough in to witness a young woman (Mary Murphy) coming down the stairs to interact … well, hopefully … with her hope chest. Maybe this is why Murphy remains surprisingly sanguine throughout at having a) a strange man and also b) accused killer, on the premises. This is one of those burgs where all the men are either over 50, younger hired-gun creeps or the world’s most ineffective sheriff’s deputy (“Gilligan’s Island” star Alan Hale Jr., and yes, you read that right). It’s also one of those familiar movie-Western towns where the women must be hiding out making peach preserves of their own: the only other female role of note goes to character actress and biddie specialist Minerva Urecal, who was just as aptly cast around this time in a TV version of Tugboat Annie that I used to watch as a kid. Well, it’s a way of controlling the population, though from all appearances, it could use a fresh influx.

Murphy not only doesn’t live alone, but her father is the town sheriff (Ward Bond) — though one helpfully out of commission because he’s quarantined upstairs in bed with a case of yellow fever, another coincidence. Even so, the narrative grips surprisingly tightly despite abundant dialogue, playing out a lot better than it should due to the conviction the leads bring to their roles; even the stock villain (Burr) gets brownie points because the role is so ideally cast. This was about two years before TV’s “Perry Mason” changed Burr’s image and forced him to drop significant weight (maybe Milland sent along a few cases of the fresh cactus juice his parched character is glad to have out in the desert during the film’s opening). Here, Burr looks as if he’s wearing about a 96-long playing the transparent phony his character is — transparent, that is, to everyone except the townsfolk who matter.

Commentator Roan, who seems less enthusiastic than I about the film, notes that reviewers at the time had a tough time accepting Murphy as a blonde, given that she was a natural brunette during her undeservedly short heyday on the screen (I love her as the negliged schemer in Phil Karlson’s VistaVision/Technicolor toughie Hell’s Island, last in the director’s fruitful noir trilogy with John Payne). It’s true that her makeup is distractingly heavy for one just hanging around the house caring for pop, and if the goldilocks look as if they’d had some “help” from the makeup department, they still look pretty good. Murphy also played the coffee-shop/bar counter-babe who reforms Brando’s hood in The Wild One and basically turns him into a “Whatever. You. Want. Comma. Honey” type, no matter what pigment she brandishes. Murphy’s Alone character is, by the way, no sweet-ums pushover but a attractive mix of tough analytical logic and vulnerability. Bond’s sheriff isn’t boilerplate, either; there’s something of a surprise in store.

Though it’s in some ways a psychological or “adult” Western — which, in Republic terms, means that there’s no shoehorned-in song break with Lee Van Cleef, who has a small part — the old-school fan base is rewarded with some gunplay when matters are on the line. There’s even a particularly brutal fistfight between Milland and Burr (stay down till the 9-count, Mr. Burr, you look a little winded breadbasket). During which, Milland (or his stunt double) flips Burr (or another stunt double) off his back. Hernia City.

As Variety used to say, technical credits are “pro” — though even with 4K scanning, cinematographer Lionel Lindon obviously doesn’t have as much to work with here as Jack Marta had shooting on-location Portugal locales in Lisbon (which was also shot in Republic’s in-house anamorphic process: Naturama). There’s also a very good score by workhouse Victor Young that illustrates the degree to which film artists must hop around and go where the work is. One year, it’s a Republic Western. The next it’s Lindon and Young laboring on the extravaganza that won them their Oscars: Around the World in 80 Days.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Man Alone’ and ‘The Last Hurrah’