Beau Brummell

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Stewart Granger, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Ustinov, Robert Morley.

To my very pleasant surprise, Warner Archive has given 1954’s Beau Brummell the full treatment with a 4K scan off the original negative for a payoff of such vivid reds and dark blues on its British military uniforms and more that you’d swear the same costumer designed Roy Rogers’ shirts. Because this Eastman Color release has always carried a “print by Technicolor” credit as well, I suspect that the film was always inherently superior to pure Eastman Color MGM titles from the same era (one of my favorite movies of all time — It’s Always Fair Weather — will forever be an eyesore in spots because of cost-cutting Eastman). But even the Brummell print I once recorded off MGM-friendly Turner Classic Movies was, to be generous, no great shakes.

A flop at the time (apparently lead Stewart Granger didn’t even like it), this superbly cast costumer, I’m told, has picked up a cult, which pleases me because I’ve always liked the picture despite its substantial liberties taken with history (don’t they all, or at least most of them?). Granger’s title protagonist, previously played in the silent era by John Barrymore, was and is here a 19th-century army captain of humble background despite his advanced education; he dresses like a fop but is, in fact, so direct and uncompromising in his opinions on virtually every subject that he accrues a lifetime of enemies who further regard him as an opportunist. BB opens the picture by publicly knocking his regimen’s new uniforms — a cheeky move, given that they were designed by a power figure (sort of) who incidentally, really is a fop: Peter Ustinov as George IV, aka the Prince of Wales and frustrated heir to the throne held by his bonkers father George III (Robert Morley). Think of the play or movie of The Madness of King George — and George III’s real-life importance to our own Revolution’s history. In this telling, Brummell’s insubordination nearly gets him busted by IV, but the two then develop an odd and unlikely friendship that’s on-and-off testy, but when all is said and done, lastingly affectionate.

The selling point here for the masses is probably the second-billed participation of Elizabeth Taylor as a “Lady Patricia” — supposedly betrothed to George III’s top political advisor (James Donald as Lord Edwin Mercer) in another one of those instances in which a highly eligible woman opts for dull security over a life of creditors that a reckless spendthrift like Beau will guarantee. This is an issue because although Patricia tries to fight it, the attraction is also there on her part. This is an uncommon Taylor screen experience because she spends the first half of the picture in a silver wig before eventually reverting to the brunette state with which we’re familiar.

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Liz notwithstanding, Beau Brummell is foremost a love story between two men, and Ustinov, who’s just spectacularly good here, has notably more screen time than Taylor, even though he’s billed third in a large in-name-only supporting role. Adding to his narrative importance is the fact that he and Beau Granger share something of an empathetic link, in that No. IV longs to wed the widowed Roman Catholic he loves (Rosemary Harris). It’s a union No. III expressly forbids, even though his son openly flaunts the relationship at banquets that seem to be an everyday occurrence (these people know how to live). In real life, IV did get to marry her, but the union wasn’t recognized by the Church. I probably won’t make any friends by saying this, but in A Man for All Seasons (though I love the movie), I always root for Henry VIII over Sir Thomas More because consenting adults of age who want to wed should be allowed to. In other words, butt out.

Of course, in this telling, there’s still III to deal with, and he’s so deranged that he claims his son is an imposter. Morley is as great here as Ustinov even if he does just have a single scene — which he totally nails. Everyone knows III is mad, but his vested-interest colleagues have successfully hushed it up (kind of like Woodrow Wilson times-12). The male acting principals are all memorable here, including the very underrated Granger (when I asked Martin Scorsese in an interview which old-school actors he most regretted not having been able to work with, I believe he listed Granger No. 2 after James Mason and mentioned that he and Granger had had dinner the previous night). BB’s box office underachievement didn’t do his career any good after his rich decade of outdoor adventures and costume dramas (these were falling out of favor). Scaramouche, for one, is a marvelous romp and possibly director George Sidney’s best film, even though I’m also exceptionally fond of The Harvey Girls. I have to think it would be a major Warner Archive candidate.

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Beau Brummell ultimately turns morose, which is perhaps inevitable given the army of creditors who show up daily at the door to demand payment for one or another ornate purchase. This probably didn’t help the box office, either, but even here, there are a couple powerful climactic scenes of reconciliation that reveal the men’s true feelings. And it’s really a revelation to see the movie looking this vital and pristine — I guess for the first time since 1954, when MGM couldn’t buy a hit outside of the surprise smash-dom of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Beau Brummell’ and ‘Canyon Passage’

 

Beat the Devil

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley.

As one of screen history’s most ticklish of  answers to that oft-asked question, “What did you do on your vacation?”, John Huston’s artfully ramshackle Beat the Devil is propelled by one its era’s most memorable displays of loopy ensemble acting. Which is somewhat surprising given that its top-billed actor was Humphrey Bogart, a superstar of (still) nearly singular status who, by the way, seems really relaxed here. Of course, at this point, the grosses were a long way from coming in.

A flop that became one of the all-time cult movies in about the time, say, it takes to complete a sports season, Devil was the final of six collaborations between Bogart and director John Huston, the previous of which had won Bogart his Oscar (The African Queen) in one of history’s most competitive best-actor years. Devil did not win Oscars, and, in fact, wasn’t even shown that much during its brief March 1954 U.S. run following engagements in London and Italy near the end of ’53. Bogart himself was no fan of it, and I once read a quote where he supposedly said, “Only the phonies like it.” Of course, he had a lot of his own money in the picture, which one has to speculate may have affected his love quotient.

Devil is sometimes called the first spoof of macho adventure movies, but it really doesn’t feel like a spoof of anything — and what’s more, 1951’s His Kind of Woman had already completed the assignment in far more direct fashion. Nor does it really take The Maltese Falcon (which had been a dual Huston-Bogart breakthrough a dozen years earlier) and turn it on its ear. Though this said, Falcon-like echoes can’t help but carry at least some volume here, what with the casting of (a blond) Peter Lorre and the fact that once again, we have nefarious ragtags (plus, in this case, a couple pseudo-polished types) who get embroiled in a shifty scheme they hope will make them rich, as good-guy Bogart tries to figure out how to clean up the mess or, failing that, look out for himself.

Not that he’s any Sam Spade here. A onetime rolling-in-dough type with a voluptuous young wife (Gina Lollobrigida speaking at times phonetically in her first English-language film) — Bogart is now just trying to pay his hotel bill in a no-future, if gorgeous, Italian total town (location site Ravello, photographed by the great Oswald Morris, before tourists took it over). To this end, he’s become a wary associate of physically ill-matched Lorre, scene-stealing Ivor Bernard, Marco Tulli and Robert Morley — the last an actor who, if we’re in a comedy) merely has to walk into a room before I start to guffaw.

This was the ’50s, and even the Bowery Boys (see 1955’s Dig That Uranium) were after you-know-what. So to this mix — all awaiting ship’s passage to British East Africa and some (hopefully) rich deposits — we add an almost aggressively strange couple with severe delusions of grandeur: he a proper Englishman who can’t quite camouflage his modest roots (Edward Underdown); and she a dizzy blonde who gives the impression that the combined label text on her prescription bottles might equal that of any three James Michener novels. Totally nailing this role is Jennifer Jones, an actress became difficult to cast after the 1940s and often seemed too old or otherwise less than ideal for her choice of projects.

But in this case, Jones gives us a thoroughly entertaining nut job who unloads more lies than Donald Trump, though in a way that makes you want to pat her on her head. Until I can finally get around to giving a second viewing to her star-making The Song of Bernadette and its seemingly 87-hour running time for the first time since the early ’60s, I’d have to say that Devil has my favorite Jones performance, along with her Since You Went Away, Love Letters, Portrait of Jennie and maybe (after I see the coming Kino Classics Blu-ray) Gone to Earth, which executive producer Selznick took from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and basically destroyed in the editing for U.S. audiences.

Devil, too, has always been editorially mangled — but before we get to that, remember the creative team in a production so “loose” that Stephen Sondheim (all but young enough to have been wearing swaddling clothes) was operating the clapper board. James Helvick was the walking pseudonym who wrote the source novel but was actually Claud Coburn, a Lefty Brit journalist who so needed the movie sale that he apparently left copies of the book all over his residence when Huston came to visit; it’s one of the stories repeated in a Twilight Time interview featurette with the late Alexander Cockburn, who ended up being cut from the same political/professional cloth as his father. Huston “usual suspects” Anthony Veiller and Peter Viertel took a crack at the screenplay, but it ultimately got credited to Huston and, of all people, Truman Capote, who (as folklore has it) fought Bogart to a draw in hand-wresting challenges on the set. I also once read — somewhere — that there were touch football games between set-ups (though with this movie, it might have been during) on the set. Though I take this assertion with a grain, the image of “Go out for a long one, Truman” or “Can you manage a flea flicker, Bob?” has always stayed with me.

The version of Devil that almost everyone has seen up to now was cut by about five minutes; scenes were slightly shuffled and a voiceover added, all to Huston’s disdain. All the dreadful public domain-level releases on the home market have been of this standard issue, but Twilight Time’s release is of the recent restoration in which many archives had a hand. It gets the running time back to normal, scuttles the voiceover and puts a crucial, narrative-improving scene up front where it belongs: burning in at once that the Jones character is a certain kind of two-syllable crazy, whose first syllable is “bat.” And because this is a crisp 4K mastering of a newly restored print, we can see (not that this is necessarily a plus), actor wig and hairpiece telltales as well as Bogart’s new bridgework that repaired severe damage after he knocked out several teeth in an auto mishap either just before or during shooting.

To me, Beat the Devil has always marked the beginning of Bogart’s astonishingly productive final period: eight high-profile features from late ’53 through mid-’56 plus NBC’s live 90-minute broadcast of him in The Petrified Forest in May 1955. He was probably sick through all of it, and by January 1957 he was gone. So I have to say that it’s poignant hearing bonus-section commentator and Twilight Time co-founder Nick Redman talking here of Bogart’s final days, given that Redman himself succumbed to cancer on Jan 17.

Joined on the commentary by wife Julie Kirgo, whose TT liner notes I love, and their longtime compadre Lem Dobbs, the great Nick (my son’s name, too) does sound fatigued — though every late photo I’ve seen of him still showed off that eye twinkle. An Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker who celebrated Sam Peckinpah and John Ford, plus a soundtrack producer as well, Redman began our strictly-by-correspondence relationship decades ago by calling me at USA Today out of the blue about something. It was an invigorating yak-fest, and after hanging up, I couldn’t figure out why he was so warm and gracious to me. Then, many years later, I found out that he was warm and gracious to everyone. So, I’ll miss you, man — and if I ever get a couple goldfish (about my speed these days), I promise to name them Lyle and Tector in your honor.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Sammy Davis, Jr. — I’ve Gotta Be Me’ and ‘Beat the Devil’