They Drive By Night

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Warner Archive;
Drama;
$21.98 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart; Alan Hale, Gale Page, Roscoe Karns, John Litel, George Tobias, Eddie Acuff, Joyce Compton, Marie Blake.

The pace-setting studios of Warner Bros. developed a reputation for cranking out present day working-class melodramas, the realism of which set a black-ink standard that kept the studio financially solvent. Warner took a chance by casting George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, two actors best known for packing heat, as a pair of brothers who share a dream to be wildcat truckers. The script, adapted by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay from A. I. Bezzerides’ 1938 novel Long Haul, is a patchwork job that borrows its climax from Bordertown. Fortunately, the studio assigned 1940’s They Drive By Night to director Raoul Walsh, whose robust, matter-of-fact approach to the material was more than enough to compensate for the script’s minor failings.

With creditors beating a well-worn path to their door, Joe Fabrini (George Raft) wonders whether or not he and kid brother Paul (Humphtey Bogart) will ever make a successful living as independent truckers. Joe has a noggin for business and an ability to talk himself out of the stickiest of situations. Much to his disparagement, gas station jockey Pete (Paul Hurst) crafts a running gag out of Paul spending most of his night snoozing while a more responsible Joe does the driving. There appears to be a high mortality rate among truck drivers. Paul’s bride, Pearl (Gale Page), is a precursor to the cop’s wife who lives every day fearing it would be her husband’s last. With all the talk of being a trucker’s widow and Paul continually shown sawing wood in the passenger’s seat, it’s just a matter of time before someone’s going to have an accident. Chalk it up to clumsy foreshadowing on the part of the screenwriters; when sleepy Paul finally takes the wheel, the ensuing head-over-heels dive down the mountainside ejects Joe before claiming his brother’s right arm. Pearl takes an almost perverse delight in Paul’s amputation, thinking the loss of an arm a small price to pay for what could have been his life.

The first half of the picture is spent establishing the brothers’ inability to hold their own as entrepreneurs before climaxing with Paul’s accident. A fist fight over a parking space draws the attention of Joe’s pal (and trucking magnate) Ed Carlsen (Allen Hale) and his wife Lana (Ida Luipino). Sultry Lana’s lusted after Joe since first they met. But Joe and Ed go way back and Lana might just as well be dipped in typhus for all the chance she has at snaring her husband’s loyal friend. Lana spends most of her time belittling Ed or calling out his uncouth, albeit amusing behavior. Ed’s a drunken pig and the only way Lana’s going to get to Joe is by sending her husband to the slaughter and offering Joe a 50/50 cut of the corporation. Hollywood has always been on the cutting edge when it comes to incorporating new technologies as plot devices. The electric eye automatic door opener was invented in 1931 and featured the following year as part of an alarm system in William Dieterle’s Jewel Robbery. If the gag with Paul sleeping in the truck played out exactly as anticipated, an electric garage door opener as a murder weapon returns to haunt Lana in a sinisterly unexpected manner.

Bogart earned fourth billing and favorable reviews for putting aside his gangster tendencies long enough to play a married wage slave looking to spend less time on the road and more time with his ball-and-chain. Walsh and Bogart would follow this up with what amounted to a career-altering role for the actor. High Sierra was not only Bogart’s last gangster lead for Warner, it was the first script the studio threw his way that demanded a degree of depth of characterization. That was followed by The Maltese Falcon, the film that forever cemented Bogart’s tough-guy persona.

Promotional material of the day regularly hyped performance and production value, but few threw  “snappy dialogue” in with the bally. They weren’t kidding when the film’s pressbook promised, “the dialogue whips back and forth with the speed of a teletype machine.” The Fabrini Brothers are referred to as, “so tough they’ll part your hair with a monkey wrench.” As Cassie Hartley, Ann Sheridan lets just enough “oomph” out of the girl to play a fast-talking hash house servitress. When fledgling big rig potentate Joe ogles Cassie’s “classy chassis,” the resourceful redhead turns on her heels and shoots back, “And it’s all mine, too, which is more than you can say for your truck. I don’t owe any payments on it.” When the waitress asks Joe if there’s anything she can get him, he gives her the quick once-over and sighs, “Yeah, but it ain’t on the menu.”

Watching Lupino’s slide from tough-talking temptress to pale, raccoon-eyed psychotic, climaxing with a full mental meltdown on the witness stand (cackling laughter and all) is the film’s greatest reward. And how many times have we seen a mansion swimming pool that didn’t play home to one or more visitors? Kudos to Walsh’s remarkable restraint.

Among the bonus materials, Leonard Maltin, Robert Osborne and Bogart biographer Eric Lax provide backstory in the 10-minute featurette “Divided Highway: The Story of They Drive By Night.” Also included are the film’s original trailer and the 1938 musical short “Swingtime in the Movies” starring everyone’s favorite POPPING head waiter, Fritz Feld.

 

The Prince and the Pauper (1937)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Warner Archive;
Adventure;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Billy Mauch, Bobby Mauch, Errol Flynn, Claude Rains, Barton MacLane, Alan Hale, Henry Stephenson, Eric Portman, Halliwell Hobbs, Phyllis Barry, Montagu Love.

Starting in 1909 with a two-reeler (shot by Thomas Edison!), the story has undergone free interpretations by everyone from the brothers Warner and Mickey Mouse all the way up to Kid ‘n Play (Class Act) and the Olsen Twins (It Takes Two). (Wikipedia lists at least 20 variations on a theme.) Born in the pages of Mark Twain’s thrilling children’s fantasy, this rousing 1937 telling of The Prince and the Pauper is an exemplar of the studio system running on all cylinders to produce a seamless entertainment guaranteed to satisfy action aficionados as well as special effects mavens. If only one could convince them to sit through a two-hour black-and-white feature in which effects are indeed special, as in limited, not a constant barrage of mindless CG splatter. Take the opening shot for example: a traveling matte, both expensive and elaborate in its time, the effect is woven into the fabric of the narrative. Sol Polito’s camera surveyed the rooftops of London before resting on a gun tower with cannon primed and ready to blast. Rather than an enemy on the receiving end, this cannonball is aimed as a birth notice announcing the delivery of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.

One coincidence per story, that’s what I always say, and the sooner it’s attended to the better. Kudos to Twain for following my pronouncement to the letter! In the Autumn of 1537 two children were born. Having fulfilled her wifely duties, Lady Jane (Joan Valerie) died after presenting Henry VIII (Montagu Love) with his only male heir, the abovementioned Edward Tudor (Bobby Mauch). Same day, in another part of the kingdom and to a different set of parents, Tom (Billy Mauch) is born the son of petty crook John Canty (Barton MacLane). A sadistically reprehensible crud, Canty doesn’t think twice about parenting the old-fashioned way. With his fists. (Tom’s mother is of no importance other than mirroring the Queen by checking out almost immediately following the birth of her son.) MacLane’s performance delivers a scurvy gusto that puts his similarly reprobate gangster types of the period to shame. Canty regrets the boy hadn’t been born sickly to help make his life as a beggar as lucrative as it was inevitable. These two babes, fortuitously born on opposite sides of the moat, are destined to meet and, after marveling over their amazingly conspicuous alikeness, swap places and forever change the course of historical fiction. 

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The film is steeped in unpleasantry commencing with scenes of physical child abuse followed by a teenage Prince overcome by deep-seated anger issues that result in threatening to beat a servant for failing to choose a parlor game to the young master’s liking or promising to behead the Earl of Hertford (Claude Rains) the next time he addresses him as Edward, not your highness. So outlandish is the prospect of a commoner trading places with royalty that both lads’ sanities are called into question in harsh, degrading terms. Ultimately, time spent outside castle walls leads to a higher understanding of his subjects, but no one has a greater humbling effect on Edward than soldier of fortune Mike Hedron (Errol Flynn). It’s a strange role for the virile leading man who was at the time the studio’s star attraction. Patric Knowles was originally cast, but Jack Warner called an audible, replacing Knowles with a bigger draw. Flynn doesn’t appear until almost the halfway point. A notorious ladies man, rather than put sizzle before story, the script limited Flynn’s contact with the opposite sex to a brief hangout with a barmaid (Phyllis Barry). Stunning to behold, my only complaint would be the coronation sequence that caps the picture drags due in part to a running — and I do mean running — gag involving a search for a royal seal to corroborate Edward’s story.

When a severe flu bug knocked director William Keighley (The Match King, The Adventures of Robin Hood) out of commission, William Dierterle filled in. The latter’s contributions are seamless. After a lifetime spent watching actors and actresses twinning themselves with the help of split screen technology, it’s somewhat disconcerting watching twins move freely about the same space. According to IMDb, “Billy Mauch is regarded as a better actor than his twin brother, Robert J. Mauch.” Surrounded by Hollywood heavyweights, the Mauch Brothers’ delightfully unaffected performances outshine them all.  

This new 4K release was struck last year from the original camera negative. Also included are a trio of Warner Bros. cartoons (Plenty of Money and You, Streamlined Greta Green, Sunbonnet Blue) and the original theatrical trailer.

 

The Great Ziegfeld

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Warner Archive;
Musical;
$24.95 Blu-ray; 
Not rated.
Stars William Powell, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan, Myrna Loy, Reginald Owen, Fanny Brice, Virginia Bruce, Ray Bolger, Mickey Daniels.

It was one of my first histories of cinema, an amorphously named hardback (the title and author of which escape me) detailing what the writer reckoned “The 50 Greatest Films of All Time.” I was 9 and determined to see them all, none more than 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld, a three-hour MGM biopic of the legendary Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. Fresh off a pan-and-scan airing of Mister Roberts on “Monday Night at the Movies” and a local presentation of The Thin Man on WGN-TV’s Sunday night staple, “When Movies Were Movies,” I was equally determined to log every title in William Powell’s filmography. With 90% of Powell’s talkies under my belt, the unavailability of many of his silent pictures makes my quest for completism an impossibility.

Not only did the film take home a Best Picture Oscar — this was long before the worthlessness of art competing became blindingly obvious — it would mark my introduction to such vaunted showbiz nobility as Luise Rainer, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers. Or so I thought. A plane crash had claimed Rogers’ life eight months prior to the film’s release. His cameo was fulfilled by celebrity impersonator A.A. Trimble. And underneath the burnt cork was Cantor stand-in Buddy Doyle. Of the four, only Ms. Rainer would play a significant role. As the first Mrs. Ziegfeld, Anna Held, Rainer mounted the first of two back-to-back Oscar-winning performances. The Good Earth followed and Rainer looked to be well on the road to the second coming of Garbo. Found on IMDb, Rainer remembered, “When I got two Oscars, they thought ‘Oh, they can throw me into anything’. I was a machine, practically a tool in a big, big factory, and I could not do anything. And so I left. I just went away. I fled. Yes, I fled.” Legend has it she used one of her acting trophies as a doorstop. After a handful of performances, Rainer bid Hollywood an acrimonious farewell. To her credit, one of her few return performances was on the boarding list of “The Love Boat.”

The history book made much ado about Rainer’s teary-eyed, stiff upper lip phone call congratulating Flo on his second marriage to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy), claiming that scene alone earned her the Oscar. WGN’s fuzzy 16mm print combined with a rabbit ears presentation helped to cloud Rainer’s glycerine tears made obvious a few years later during a 35mm theatrical revival. Rather than scaling things down for the closeup lens, Rainer pitched her performance for the back row of a cavernous playhouse. The result was stilted, to say the least.

Ziegfeld’s name was synonymous with quality, opulence and extravagance. It’s only fitting that Hollywood’s maximum dream factory brings his life story, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, to the screen in what looks to be the studio’s great endeavor to outstrip the mighty showman. The major difference between Broadway Flo and the House that Leo Built was the latter’s high-minded talent for peddling pith. Wasn’t it MGM, under the guidance of Boy Wonder Irving Thalberg, who pitched The Marx Bros. A Night at the Opera as, “The most important comedy ever made!” I must have been too busy laughing to notice the tenor.

Trusty Metro contract director Robert Z (-z-z-z-). Leonard earned his reputation for bringing ’em in on time, under budget, and wrapt in efficient impersonality. To Powell, the role was a career-changer. According to biographer Roger Bryant, the actor said, “After seeing this film I can see that most of the characters I have played before were contrived.” A cutaway of Powell’s open-mouthed, eye-rolling reaction to Sandow the strongman (Nat Pendleton) being showered by an elephant is worthy of Spanky McFarland. He handles the dramatics well, but even he can’t carry the weight of the three-hour running time. His Thin Man co-star Myrna Loy received second billing even though she doesn’t appear until 135 minutes into the proceedings. One wonders how Loy’s performance might have changed had the film been released after The Wizard of Oz gave Burke her signature role (and instant recognizability) as Glinda the Good Witch. Perhaps it was wise of Loy not to attempt to mimic Burke’s singularly recognizable tickled tonality.

The film’s most acclaimed sequence, the “Wedding Cake” number, begins with Dennis Morgan standing before a curtain and mouthing Alan Jones’ rendition of “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” On the payroll, Jones had already laid down the vocal track and for whatever reason, the studio went with it. The camera assumes the role of spectator with 10th row center seats. The curtain lifts, the stage rotates, and the camera begins its vertical ascension of the 100-ton set on an eight-minute, two-take step-by-step history of romance as it traverses from the 18th century, through Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and all points in between. Where it’s impossible to conceive a Busby Berkeley showstopper actualized within the confines of a proscenium wall, with a tall enough ceiling, this lane cake would feel right at home on a theatre platform. The sets bleed glitzy prestige and the execution is akin to watching a bolt of silk unravel. Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic amazement told a story; Leonard’s rendering was a technical exercise. 

Viewers interested in a superficial history of the fabled Follies won’t leave hungry. That’s more than can be said for those in search of new special features. They’re the same documentary, newsreel, cartoon and trailer found on the film’s old DVD.

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The Life of Emile Zola

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Warner Archive;
Drama;
$22.49 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut, Gloria Holden, Donald Crisp, Erin O’Brien-Moore, John Litel, Henry O’Neill, Morris Carnovsky, Louis Calhern, Ralph Morgan, Robert Barrat, Vladimir Sokoloff, Grant Mitchell, Harry Davenport, Montagu Love, Lumsden Hare, Dickie Moore.

In days gone by, nightclubs and television variety shows granted decisive proving ground to the all but forgotten art of celebrity impersonation. In addition to once packing every “big room” on the Vegas strip, showbiz mimics Rich Little, Frank Gorshin, Marilyn Michaels, David Frye and others also occupied prime real estate on every talk show couch on the dial. Where are the copycats of today? They’ve been put out of business by Hollywood ‘A’-listers eager to take home an easy Oscar simply by tracing a performance. Is Renee Zellwegger’s work in Judy a genuine feat of artistry or an incredible simulation? Have we reached a point in our history, awash with gallons of fake news, that less-demanding observers couldn’t tell the forgers from the fleeced? There were volumes of literature to pour through when preparing for the title role in 1937’s The Life of Emile Zola, but without hundreds of hours of performance and/or interview footage to examine, how on Earth did Paul Muni know how the acclaimed author/activist/caviler moved and sounded? In a word, acting.

In an uncharacteristic display of honesty through ass-covering on the part of Warner Bros. Studio, an opening credit disclaimer freely acknowledges that screenwriters Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg chucked truth in the name of artistic license. The studio no sooner invented cream depilatory than it did the Hollywood biopic, but when it came to transforming biography into celluloid virtuosity, Warner was to life stories what MGM was to high-gloss literary adaptations. George Arliss helped usher in the craze with a series of creaky historical biographies in the early ’30s. Emile Zola was sandwiched between another pair of historical impersonations (The Story of Louis Pasteur and Juarez), but it was Muni’s simian turn as Al Capone in the United Artists release of Howard Hawks’ Scarface that endures.

When we first meet, Zola and Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) are a couple of starving artists sharing a flat together. When the author suggests the painter depicts Paris the way it really is, Cezanne parrots the disclaimer by suggesting that people don’t want to see the stark face of the truth. That means ruling out a fact-based adaptation of the Dreyfus case. Filmed at a moment in Hollywood history when the Catholic Legion of Decency insisted that a husband and wife were not allowed to be seen in bed together unless at least five toes were planted on the floor, there was zero chance the topic of antisemitism would be breached, especially by a studio that was owned and operated by Jews.

Of all the directors to work at Warner Brothers in the 1930s, only Raoul Walsh came close to William Dieterle’s visual involvement with his subject matter. Michael Curtiz received the lion’s share of the glory, but it was fellow German Dieterle, with his undeniable flair for ambitiously illustrative storytelling, who remains the least-lauded member of the studio’s directorial roster. In his essential Hollywood Directors, Jean-Pierre Coursodon argues that, “Like Curtiz, his imperfect command of the English language seems to have encouraged him to develop a predominantly visual style of direction.”

When entrusted with one of the studio’s biggest prestige pictures, Dieterle, the director who once relied on visuals to compensate for his clumsiness with the English language, had now become a slave to words. (You’ll need a shave by the time the long-winded trial draws to a close.) His direction is not without its flashes of brilliance. A cloudburst viewed from above — the tops of dozens of opened umbrellas enshroud the throng of onlookers — is more spectacular than anything taking place inside the courtroom. And when a free Dreyfus confronts an open padlock, he has to walk in and out of the cell two or three times as if testing to see if freedom works.

For over two decades, Anton Grot headed the Warner Bros. art department. This is as stunning an example of his artistry as his two Errol Flynn swashbucklers (The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood), the kaleidoscopically designed Busby Berkeley musicals (Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade) and the studio’s most celebrated film noir, Mildred Pierce. Come for the acting, stay for the immersive production design.

Special features: the Lux Radio Theatre and theatrical trailer are holdovers from the DVD. The shorts and the Tex Avery cartoon Ain’t We Got Fun have been swapped out for a Joe Palooka short and a one-reel big band performance by Mal Hallett and His Orchestra. I’m going to have to dig out my DVD to see if racist content was behind any of the substitutions.

Gay Purr-ee

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 9/5/22;
Warner Archive;
Animated;
$22.49 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Voices of Judy Garland, Robert Goulet, Red Buttons, Paul Frees, Hermione Gingold, Mel Blanc, Morey Amsterdam, Thurl Ravencroft.

Some things, like a mother’s faithless disregard to both son and cinema, leave an emotional scar the depths of which endure like a gash across the cheek left by a falcon’s talon. Dad used to joke that the first thing I learned to read was a marquee followed closely by the movie listings in the Friday morning edition of the Chicago Sun-Times. There were at least a dozen single screens the High Ridge YMCA day camp bus would pass while making its rounds picking up campers. Being second on the list, I got to see them all. The Uptown and Granada Theatres, Balaban & Katz northside picture palaces, were separated by a two-mile stretch of Broadway Ave. If lines snaking around the block were anticipated, as was the case with 1962’s Gay Purr-ee, the illustrious 3,000 seaters would play the same movie. The Uptown was in a “bad neighborhood,” a part of town Larry Marks didn’t want to expose his wife and son to. The Sunday matinee at the Granada awaited our arrival. Mom and I hopped a northbound bus, but the packed crowds never materialized, a good thing lest anyone in the audience bear witness to my suffering.

Having just turned 7, my knowledge of Lee de Forest, let alone sound-recording techniques for animation, was as developed as my appetite for szechuan shrimp. Before the house lights dimmed, I asked Babe, “Mom, how does Judy Garland talk like a cartoon cat at both the Granada and the Uptown? Is she on the phone?” “No honey,” she smiled, knowing full well she was lying through her Pall Mall-stained teeth, “After she finishes a show at the Uptown, she takes a cab to the Granada. She’s up in the projection room right now.”  What kind of imbecile did she think she was raising? The kind who spent a good portion of the movie looking over his shoulder everytime the former Mrs. Luft delivered a line hoping that he could catch a glimpse of her through the booth window. Red Buttons, too!

Judy Garland provided the singing and speaking voice of Mewsette, a coy white Angora who wasn’t born to be kept down on the farm. Demure to a fault, catgender Mewsette identifies as a feline whose pronouns are, according to the LGBTA Wiki, nya/nyan or “meow” in Japanese. Eavesdropping on her mistress blathering with her sister about big city living, the feline’s head is filled with tales of Paris. Bored with her rustic surroundings, Mewsette hops the Provence to Paris limited only to be followed by Jaune Tom (Robert Goulet), an incendiary dimwit whose greatest virtues are limited to his undying love for Mewsette, and his confrere Robspierre (Red Buttons), a pocket-sized pussycat who would rather spend his days having fun with Jaune Tom then watching his best buddy flirt with Mewsette. The action commences in 1845 France and between the three leads, there’s not an attempt at an accent in the bunch. Other than the singing, Garland, Goulet and Buttons’ atonally accented vocal contributions are about as French as a Burger King croissant. The closest we come to a Parisian dialect is Paul Frees’ sinister Meowrice, and even that owes more to Pepe LePew than it does the City of Lights.

Written by Dorothy and Chuck Jones — yes, that Chuck Jones — one can’t help but commend the author’s desire to appeal to animation fans of all ages. The film’s director, Abe Levitow, was part of Jones’ animation unit at Termite Terrace. As threadbare as the animation is, the character’s eyes bear the unmistakable stamp of Charles M. Jones. A contemporary animator’s idea of playing to both younger members of the audience and parents with kid’s cravings, would generally lead to fart jokes. Alas, the history of art discussion the Joneses hoped would spark between parents and children on the car ride home never materialized. The first fully-animated feature released by Warner Bros. was also the second and final feature for U.P.A., the stylishly innovative animation house that McBoing-Boing and Magoo built. It was also a commercial flop.

The hues are so intensely vibrant, if you were to run your fingers across your flatscreen the colors would smear. The abstract design aimed at engaging the adults in the crowd left kids cold. The character design was the stuff Saturday morning cartoons were made of, the motion stiff and frequently limited to one part of the body moving at a time.

For a clearer representation of what Jones and Levitow were capable of, I suggest you visit the supplementary features section and check out For Scent-imental Reasons, an early entry in the stinkin’ saga of Pepe LePew. The remastered pressing alone is worth the price of the disc.

 

 

The Broadway Melody

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 7/25/23;
Warner Archive;
Musical;
$24.49 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Charles King, Bessie Love, Anita Page, Eddie Kane, Jed Prouty, ​​Drew Demorest.

Its incorporation of sound and silent(s) technology landed The Jazz Singer smack dab in the middle of the fine line that straddled both sides of Vitaphone’s transition. Al Jolson’s breaking the sound barrier paved the way for Hollywood’s first All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! sound musical, The Broadway Melody in 1929. Occasional silent film title-cards, holdovers from another era, announced a shift in location, but other than that it’s a talkie through and through. More firsts: In addition to being the first sound film to take home a Best Picture Oscar, there was a two-strip Technicolor sequence that’s since been lost to the ages. (It’s included here in glorious black-and-white.) Director Harry Beaumont’s film was such a hit that MGM saw in it “radical new conceptions of profit possibilities.” Looking to strap a vacuum to the wallets and purses of American moviegoers hither and yon, the studio placed full-page ads in the trades announcing a silent version produced for jerkwater screens yet to make the transition to sound.

Contemporary audiences weaned on pixels and CGI storytelling probably won’t make it much past the MGM lion before fleeing to the comfort and familiarity of their gaming pad. We open in the bustling office of the Gleason Music Publishing Company, named after the film’s co-screenwriter and prolific character actor, James Gleason. That’s Gleason gathering an audience from the rehearsal rooms to hear the incurably enthusiastic Eddie Kearns (Charles King) belt out the first of three renditions of the tite tune penned by composer Nacio Herb Brown and lyricist Arthur Freed. Freed, the driving force behind many an MGM golden age musical and one-time personal hero, took an irreparable hit after reading a passage from Shirley Temple’s autobiography. I leave it for you to Google.

As if trying to compensate for all the years studios relied on pictures, not words, to tell a story, the newfound freedom manifested itself in one of the loudest introductory scenes ever committed to film, present pictures included. At any given moment the voices and instruments that fill the space mesh into an indistinguishable din. Camera movement was at best limited to brief spurts and only then as a means of trailing the action. Produced at a fleeting moment in cinema history when visual storytelling took a back seat to microphone placement and elocution, it was the boys from Western Electric, not the filmmakers, endowed with the power to call the shots. The slavish camera couldn’t have been more inert had its tripod been nailed to the floor.

Eddie turns down the advances of a pair of chorines to partner with him; the spot, and his heart, is spoken for by the Mahoney Sisters, girlfriend Hank (Bessie Love) and her younger sibling Queenie (Anita Page). Queenie and Eddie soon connect leaving Hank little to do but chew the scenery. The worsening relationship between the sisters trails off into familiar territory. All of the numbers appear to have been captured from the fourth row, center vantage point of a legitimate theatre. The zippy vernacular crossfire exchanged between the girls is far livelier than the static staging of musical numbers. It’s pre-code, so expect everything from ethnic and sexist stereotypes, a lisping, decidedly lavender costume designer (Drew Demorest), and a breed of audience-pleasing comic relief that only a stuttering uncle (Jed Prouty) can supply. Watch it for the historical importance or not at all.

Bonus features include Dogway Melody, a one-joke live-action speaking dog comedy, five Metro Movietone Review shorts, and a Metro Movietone act featuring Van and Schenck.

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I’ll Cry Tomorrow

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 3/7/23;
Warner Archive;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Stars Susan Hayward, Richard Conte, Jo Van Fleet, Eddie Albert, Don Taylor, Margo, Ray Danton, Tol Avery, Timothy Carey, Henry Kulky.

With the number of pedestrian celebrity biopics at an all-time high, and the Academy’s annual beauty contest about to be, what better time than the present for Warner Archive to release a Blu-ray jack up of Daniel Mann’s I’ll Cry Tomorrow, the Oscar-sanctioned 1955 adaptation of Lilian Roth’s same-titled autobiography? Susan Hayward took home a golden doorstop for her performance as the vaudeville, Hollywood and Broadway star who became a skid row rummy before turning her life around. Hollywood loves success stories almost as much as the Academy embraces actors who pretend to beat the bottle and live a life of virtue. Long before Nancy Reagan cautioned “Just say no!” Hollywood’s approach was flaunting vice and degradation for five reels before reel six capped the show with overstated lessons in temperance.

Two minutes in the presence of Katie Rubenstien (Jo Van Fleet), and the director who little Lillian first auditions for growls, “Stage mothers, they’re all alike!” Sadly, he’s right, which makes one question why Van Fleet’s formidable talent wasn’t relied upon for much more than putting on a Brooklyn accent and going through the fuggy paces of celluloid mothership. In the Stage Mothers Pantheon, monster mom Katie bridges the gap between Ethel Gumm (Judy Garland’s bulldozing mater) and Rose Hovick, who had a dream to live through her daughters Gypsy Rose Lee and “Baby” June Havoc. It’s borderline impossible to regain faith in a mother who, after her 8-year-old daughter fails an audition, literally knocks the kid to the curb while a crowd gathers. No matter how many times Katie whispers the titular bromide in her baby girl’s ear, having a mother as suffocating as she is justification enough for any child to seek salvation in a bottle.

The script by Helen Deutsch and Jay Richard Kennedy is riddled with hooey. By the time the curtain rang down in 1954, the real-life Roth was on hubby No. 6. According to the film, the closest she comes to walking down the aisle is with the fictional David Tredman, played by Ray Danton. Tredman is Roth’s childhood pal with whom she reunites years later, just in time for him to up and croak on her. Of Roth’s numerous beaus, Tredman is allotted the least amount of screen time. He spends more time chatting up Katie than he does Roth. Rather than doting on a pace-slackening nice guy, the filmmakers, knowing of the scene-stealing brutes, drunks and rapists that lie ahead, work past Tredman tout de suite.

After a bed check at the hospital confirms Tredman’s death, Roth hops a tramp steamer, setting sail down a sea of booze, steered by one drunk after another. First comes Wallie (Don Taylor), a soldier on leave who admirs Roth’s stage presence. (A booze-soaked debate over the merits of plywood is a low point.) Next up is Tony Bardeman (Richard Conte), a lush who can hold his liquor long enough to convince Roth he has an “off switch” to combat drinking. If Bardeman detests men who couldn’t hold their liquor, imagine how he feels about drunken women. When the subject of abstinence comes up, Roth is rewarded with a beating. Oddly enough, it isn’t a man on the make who pours our heroine her first 8 oz. tumbler, but Ellen (Virginia Gregg), a registered nurse. It’s the caretaker’s sole function in the script. After suggesting Roth take a few snorts before bed to help her sleep, Ellen is shown the door. 

In no time, Roth is Broadway’s youngest star: next stop Paramount Pictures. The last thing one expects to see in an MGM picture from this period is the appearance of Paramount’s illustrious Bronson Gate. By their very nature, studios abhorred promoting the competition. Roth was in fact a Paramount contract player in the early ’30s. (She’s prominently featured in the Marx Bros. second feature, Animal Crackers.) For a film that contains more mistruths than a George Santos campaign speech, this unexpected jolt of verisimilitude almost results in whiplash injuries.

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Roth did fall in love at an AA meeting, but her last husband, Burt McGuire (Eddie Albert) was a member, not a peer-leader as depicted in the film. This would be the only time Albert and his wife Margo worked together onscreen. It would also mark the first time Hayward sang in a picture. (Her previous musical performances had been dubbed.) A vocalist was hired to impersonate Hayward’s singing voice, but after listening to her rehearsal, the studio decided to let the actress do her own singing. Roth felt the job of lip-synching should have gone to her. An album of Roth singing her greatest hits was released the week the film opened.

In his entry on Anthony Mann in The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris reminds us that the director of such dynamic genre films as The Naked Spur and El Cid was, “not to be confused with dreary Daniel and Delbert Mann.” The direction belies the work of a frustrated traffic cop, doing his best to steer actors away from bumping into the furniture. From Roth’s performing at the height of her stardom to hitting rock bottom singing for drinks in a gin mill, Hayward’s intensity steals the show.

Bonus features include the trailer and newsreels as well as period interviews with Hayward from “The MGM Parade” TV series. For those not familiar with Roth’s work, there’s Short Story Conference, a delightful 20-minute musical Vitaphone Short. And if it’s laughter you’re after, don’t forget Animal Crackers.

Classic ‘Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm’ to Be Released on Blu-ray March 29 From Warner Archive

The classic 1962 film The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm will debut as a two-disc special edition Blu-ray on March 29 from the Warner Archive Collection.

The film is restored in 4K (3840 x 2160) master files from 6K files of original Cinerama Camera Negatives, with the most advanced technology available used by Cinerama Restorationists David Strohmaier and Tom H. March, to eliminate the “join lines” that plagued traditional release prints, and early video format releases. The Cinerama 7-channel sound has also been restored for a new 5.1 mix.
 
The release will include an eight-page booklet that is a partial replica of the original souvenir program sold in theaters during the film’s original theatrical roadshow engagements and will be available at $24.98 at the Warner Archive store on Amazon.com or at online retailers where Blu-ray discs are sold. 

The film tells the story behind the brothers who created the beloved fairy tales that bear their name, with reenactments of three of their fairy tale stories. It follows the brothers’ long struggle for recognition and the sacrifices they and their families made to achieve their goals. Between dreamer Wilhelm (Laurence Harvey) and practical Jacob (Karl Boehm), some marvelous fairy tales develop. In “The Dancing Princess,” a princess (Yvette Mimieux) falls in love with a charming woodsman (Russ Tamblyn). In “The Cobbler and the Elves,” a Christmas miracle of dedicated labor helps the cobbler out when he most needs it. And in the last story, a fire-breathing dragon threatens the kingdom until a lowly servant (Buddy Hackett) saves the day.

Shot on location in West Germany, the production features Puppetoons, a technique developed by Oscar-winning special effects expert George Pal.

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Viewers can watch the film either in a traditional letterbox format, or in the Smilebox format, which attempts to re-create the immersive Cinerama experience with a simulated curve to the screen. Both versions bring together the three original Cinerama panels with virtually no trace of the lines that joined them together when originally projected in theaters back in 1962.

Cinerama restorationists David Strohmaier and Tom March and Decurion Corp. (parent company of Cinerama Inc.) partnered with Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.to bring the project to fruition.

Special features include “Rescuing a Fantasy Classic-Documentary,” “The Epic Art of The Brothers Grimm,” “The Wonderful Career of George Pal” and trailers.

Warner Archive November Blu-ray Slate Includes ‘National Velvet’

Warner Archive’s slate for November 2021 includes Elizabeth Taylor’s star-making turn in National Velvet, as well as the fifth ‘Thin Man’ movie, and films starring Frank Sinatra and Doris Day.

National Velvet arrives on Blu-ray Nov. 16 with a new 4K scan from the original Technicolor negatives. The 1944 film stars a 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in her first major role as Velvet Brown, a wide-eyed adolescent who, assisted by her jockey pal (Mickey Rooney), trains Pie, a horse she won in a raffle, for the Grand National Steeplechase. She then poses as a boy to ride in the race. MGM was so impressed with their young new star’s work on the film that the studio gave the horse to Taylor after filming completed. Directed by Clarence Brown, National Velvet won two Oscars — Best Film Editing, and Best Supporting Actress for Anne Revere as Velvet’s mother. The cast also includes Donald Crisp and a young Angela Lansbury and veteran. The Blu-ray includes mono audio and the film’s theatrical trailer.

Arriving Nov. 23 on Blu-ray Disc is 1944’s The Thin Man Goes Home, the fifth of six films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as amateur sleuths Nick and Nora Charles. The latest sequel in the series of mystery comedies that began with 1934’s The Thin Man finds the couple visiting Nick’s parents (Harry Davenport and Lucile Watson) when confronted with the case of a murdered artist. The cast also includes Gloria De Haven and Anne Revere. The Blu-ray includes a new 4K scan, mono audio, the short “Why, Daddy?” from Robert Benchley, the Tex Avery cartoon “Screwball Squirrel,” and the original theatrical trailer.

Warner Archive Nov. 9 releases 1936’s Fury on Blu-ray with a new 4K scan. The film stars Spencer Tracy as Joe Wilson, a wrongly jailed man thought to have died in a blaze started by a bloodthirsty lynch mob. Having survived the fire, Joe aims to ensure his would-be executioners meet the fate he miraculously escaped. Sylvia Sidney plays his bride-to-be. In his first American film, German director Fritz Lang (Metropolis) combines a passion for justice and a sharp visual style into a landmark of social-conscience filmmaking with its searing indictment of mob justice and lynching. The Blu-ray includes mono audio, commentary by Peter Bogdanovich with archival interview comments from Lang, and a theatrical trailer.

Also due Nov. 9 on Blu-ray is 1973’s The Last of Sheila, starring James Coburn, Raquel Welch, Richard Benjamin, Joan Hackett, James Mason, Dyan Cannon and Ian McShane. Composer Stephen Sondheim and actor Anthony Perkins wrote this witty, complex thriller directed by Herbert Ross. A movie kingpin (Coburn), whose wife, Sheila, was killed by a hit-and-run driver a year before, hosts a cruise aboard his sleek yacht. His guests are all friends (and some lovers) who may know more about Sheila’s death than they’re letting on. An elaborate murder game with Mediterranean ports of call is the itinerary. The Blu-ray includes a new 4K scan from the original negative, a widescreen presentation, mono audio, the theatrical trailer, and commentary by Benjamin, Cannon and Welch.

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Another Nov. 9 Blu-ray release is 1933’s Ladies They Talk About, featuring a new 1080p master from a 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative. A prime example of the raw and racy films made before the enforcement of Hollywood’s repressive “production code,” this Warner Bros. title previously released in the “Forbidden Hollywood” series stars Barbara Stanwyck as Nan Taylor, a bank robber serving a prison sentence whose partners are killed in a jailbreak attempt. David Slade (Preston S. Foster) is the reformer who has fallen in love with her. Nan thinks David is the one responsible for tipping off the authorities, but she soon learns to trust in his love for her, eventually reciprocating and leaving her unsavory past behind. Co-directed by William Keighley and Howard Bretherton, and based on the play by Dorothy Mackaye and Carlton Miles, Ladies They Talk About also stars Lyle Talbot, Lillian Roth and Allen Jenkins. The Blu-ray includes mono audio, a theatrical trailer, the vintage 1933 WB cartoon I Like Mountain Music and the vintage 1933 WB short Pure Feud.

Arriving Nov. 16 on Blu-ray is 1958’s Some Came Running, featuring a new 4K scan of the original camera negative. After a round of partying he can’t remember, World War II veteran Dave Hirsh (Frank Sinatra) finds himself on a bus to his hometown of Parkman, Indiana, which he hasn’t visited in more than a decade. His arrival brings small-town hypocrisy to the unforgiving light of day in this character-driven tale directed by Vincente Minnelli and based on a novel by James Jones (whose From Here to Eternity led to Sinatra’s 1953 Oscar). In his first screen pairing with Sinatra, Dean Martin plays a sharp-witted card sharp. And Shirley MacLaine earned one of the movie’s five Academy Award nominations as the good-hearted floozy with a potentially fatal attraction to Hirsh. The Blu-ray includes a 2.35:1 letterbox presentation with mono audio, the film’s original theatrical trailer in HD, and the featurette “The Story of Some Came Running.”

Nov. 23 will see the release of the 1951 musical Lullaby of Broadway on Blu-ray with a new HD master in a 1.37:1 presentation with mono audio. Doris Day stars as a singer newly arrived in New York and destined for Great White Way fame in the capable company of costars Gene Nelson, S.Z. Sakall, Billy De Wolfe, Gladys George and Florence Bates. The film gave Day a chance to not just vocalize with her usual excellence, but to also show off her impressive dancing talents — a daunting prospect for the star, who was told that injuries suffered during a car accident in her youth would prevent her from becoming a dancer. Songs include the Oscar-winning title tune, Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” and “Somebody Loves Me.” The Blu-ray also includes the film’s theatrical trailer.

Available on Blu-ray Nov. 30 will be 1958’s Party Girl. When maverick director Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without a Cause) turns his talents to a gangster movie, a familiar genre becomes startling and new. Under the auspices of long-time MGM musical producer Joe Pasternak, and with the added gloss of the CinemaScope widescreen and Metrocolor, the auteur created a cult classic. Set in 1930s Chicago, Party Girl follows a bum-legged mouthpiece for the mob (Robert Taylor) and a gorgeous, wised-up vamp (Cyd Charisse) who fall in love, try to go straight, and head straight for trouble. The cast also includes Lee J. Cobb and John Ireland. The Blu-ray includes a 2.35:1 letterbox presentation with mono audio, plus the film’s theatrical trailer.

Warner Archive titles are available at its Amazon Store and other online retailers of Blu-ray Discs and DVDs.

 

 

Warner Archive Announces June 2021 Blu-rays

The Warner Archive Collection has announced its slate of catalog films heading for Blu-ray Disc in June 2021.

Due June 8 is 1970’s There Was a Crooked Man. Kirk Douglas plays a charming inmate scheming to recover $500K in stolen loot he has hidden away, while Henry Fonda looms as his new prison warden. Each man will find the tables turning in this boisterous yet blistering Western packed with brawls, shootouts and wry wit. The cast also includes Hume Cronyn, Burgess Meredith, Warren Oates and Lee Grant. The film was directed Joseph L. Mankiewicz from a script by David Newman and Robert Benton (Bonnie and Clyde).

Arriving June 15 is the 1945 musical Ziegfeld Follies. Following in the footsteps of dearly departed showman extraordinaire Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., Ziegfeld Follies is a who’s who of Golden Age Hollywood talent. The all-star revue offers Fred Astaire in four numbers, with Gene Kelly joining him in their first-ever screen pairing. Red Skelton reprises his funny Guzzler’s Gin skit. Esther Williams swims, Lena Horne sings, and Judy Garland spoofs snobbery.

Also due June 15 is 1968’s Guns for San Sebastian. Leon Alastray (Anthony Quinn), a rebel on the run from the Mexican Army, escapes to the remote village of San Sebastian, where locals believe he’s a holy man. Finding the area devastated by savage Yaqui attacks and the presence of a separate enemy — Teclo (Charles Bronson), a man with his own shocking secret — Leon reveals his true identity and leads the villagers against the deadly threat. As the people of San Sebastian prepare for an explosive fight, they must gather courage to reclaim their town.

Available June 22 will be the 1963 Elvis Presley musical It Happened at the World’s Fair. Set against the backdrop of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, Presley plays pilot-for-hire Mike, whose hope of starting his own flying business is grounded by the gambling of his copilot Danny (Gary Lockwood). The two hitch to Seattle, where Mike finds romance, Danny finds easy marks and both find problems prior to a “Happy Ending.” Keep an eye out for Kurt Russell as the child who wallops Mike in the shins.

Due June 22 is 1950’s Chain Lightning. Matt Brennan (Humphrey Bogart) plans to show the potential of the JA-3, an experimental jet — by flying it from Nome over the North Pole and into the Pentagon’s lap in Washington, D.C. The JA-3 has never been tested at this range and can’t provide enough pressurization at 80,000 feet. But Brennan has modifications in mind … and no shortage of courage. Eleanor Parker, as a former World War II flame, fuels the romance in this adventure that tapped into the era’s fascination with jet aviation.

Arriving June 29 is 1943’s Madame Curie. In an era when women were allowed to be ornaments, mothers or drudges, young Marie Sklodowska of Poland dreamed of something more. She defied convention to study physics and mathematics at the Sorbonne and — with Pierre Curie, the professor who became her husband — to make one of the greatest breakthroughs in 20th-century science. Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon reunite to portray the courageous couple who won the 1903 Nobel Prize for their discovery of radium.

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