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’

 

The Last Hunt

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Western;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Lloyd Nolan, Debra Paget, Russ Tamblyn.

To Western lovers, 1956 is synonymous with The Searchers, but there was a pretty fair bumper crop from all directions. Budd Boetticher’s 7 Men from Now comes immediately to mind, I’ve always been partial to Donna Reed’s cool cowgirl duds in Backlash (especially the hat), and there were a couple underrated Delmer Daves achievements (The Last Wagon and Jubal, though the latter did rate a Criterion treatment five years ago). For embracers of the “big tent” theory, we had the definitive screen “Texan” with Giant, and those with a taste for the outrageous could go with Martin & Lewis in Pardners, Elvis in Love Me Tender (a Civil War aftermath pic, but the future King was riding a horse) and Guy Madison bringing a dinosaur to the chuckwagon in The Beast From Hollow Mountain. I even once had a poster for Tony Martin in the same year’s Quincannon, Frontier Scout hanging on my office wall, but I will not go there. (Though if Tony could later record for Motown, why not?; it was good enough for Albert Finney.)

Into this mix and adapted from a highly regarded novel by Milton Lott came MGM’s The Last Hunt — respectable, engrossing and a movie that didn’t deserve to be another of production chief Dore Schary’s box office disappointments, particularly given what the crew but especially the cast had to go through (because they were in winter apparel). An epic about the decimation of buffalo that combines on-location CinemaScope panoramas with disfiguringly obvious outdoor sets, a lot of it took place during what the script claimed were frigid temperatures but were actually the toughest 110-degree weather that South Dakota could provide. Co-lead Stewart Granger endangered his health with the heat, and I’m almost surprised that Robert Taylor didn’t have what certainly looks like hair dye running down his forehead.

This is no knock on the somewhat underrated Taylor, who gets top-billing with his very atypical villain’s role as a guy who, in addition to hating Indians and slaughtering buffalo, isn’t too bright and is sometimes challenged by grammar. He also treats women badly, drinks too much and thinks little of shooting people at will. Equally well cast as Taylor’s partner/adversary is Granger, who reluctantly gets back into buffalo-hunting after his hopes of becoming a cattleman are dashed by his dead cattle (which will do it) Rounding out the principals are an unlikely Debra Paget as a Native American with child (a high-profile year for the actress, with Love Me Tender and The Ten Commandments still to come); Russ Tamblyn as an even more unlikely half-Indian who’s trying to assimilate (though, as ever, Tamblyn remains an appealing screen presence); and Lloyd Nolan as an affable, one-legged old coot of a jug-swigging buffalo skinner. After a long period on the road rolling steel balls on stage as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, this was Nolan’s first feature in three years. He is terrific and, as ever, malleable; compare him here to his performance as town-conscience Doc Swain in the movie of Peyton Place the very next year.

Schary got Richard Brooks to adapt and write after the latter skyrocketed MGM into the rock-and-roll era with Blackboard Jungle, a movie that still gives me the willies whenever I flash on the fate of Richard Kiley’s 78 collection. We even see them together in one of two Blu-ray excerpts from the old “MGM Parade” show that George Murphy hosted during my TV youth, a vehicle designed to promote the pictures the studio was about to put in theaters (Tamblyn shows up in the other included segment). This was an ambitious picture that didn’t quite live up to turnstile hopes because, in part, Taylor’s box office potency was fading — though he’d last longer at MGM than even Gable and Tracy and go out on a lurid favorite of mine: Party Girl. Meanwhile, Granger never quite caught on in America the way he deserved (when I asked Martin Scorsese in an interview which old-school actors he most would have liked to have directed, he said James Mason and Granger, and may even have listed Granger first).

Still, The Last Hunt is a fast-mover with Russell (Red River, Hatari!) cinematography of real buffalo being “thinned out” — a process that was all on the up-and-up because the filmmakers were allowed to capture an official government reduction of herds, which had to be done periodically. The climax is capped by a chilling shot that even got to me when I saw the picture (for the first time) on NBC’s old “Saturday Night at the Movies” weekly viewing ritual, albeit in a presentation that hardly approached the one here. The Blu-ray’s stereo track has some punch, though even with a magnifying glass, I couldn’t read the damned specs on the back of the disc jacket (a bad layout habit that too many distributors have picked up). The image also has a lot less of the mud we’ve all seen in other mid-’50s Eastman Color MGMs, maybe due to all that bright sunlight from those impossible South Dakota location temperatures. I only wish the Warner Archive Blu-ray of my much beloved but Eastman-plagued It’s Always Fair Weather looked as satisfactory.

Mike’s Picks: ‘My Man Godfrey’ and ‘The Last Hunt’