Mike’s Picks: ‘Glorifying the American Girl’ and ‘Great Day in the Morning’

Glorifying the American Girl

Kino Lorber, Musical, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Mary Eaton, Eddie Cantor, Helen Morgan, Rudy Vallee.
1929.
The Stock Market crash further jinxed a movie whose production woes and revolving scripts-of-the week were known by those even beyond industry insiders and junkies — at a time when backstage musicals had flooded the market. Yet the picture — seen here via UCLA’s Film & Television Archives’s 35mm — is a somewhat surprising mix of the inevitably clunky and, yes, innovative.
Extras: The Blu-ray has a slow, halting but rather effective commentary by Richard Barrios, a short featurette giving us a brief outdoor glance at movie star homes, a Hearst Metrotone News excerpt of impresario Flo Ziegfeld in rehearsal, and 1934’s Oscar-winning short La Cucuracha.
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Great Day in the Morning

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Western, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Virginia Mayo, Robert Stack, Ruth Roman, Raymond Burr, Alex Nicol.
1956. As an assignment for director Jacques Tourneur, who rarely was given break-the-bank budgets, this pre-Civil War love triangle merits the “mid sleeper” accolade if you can get over the once de rigueur Indian shoot-out that opens the action and then a Confederate point of view.
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Great Day in the Morning

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive
Warner;
Western;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not Rated.
Stars Virginia Mayo, Robert Stack, Ruth Roman, Raymond Burr, Alex Nicol.

By the year Great Day in the Morning was released, owner Howard Hughes had finished ruining RKO Pictures to the point where he now could sell it — thus enabling him to pursue worthier pursuits like, say, seeking out the right size of Kleenex-Box loafers that folklore says that he would sport in his lair from time to time. The new 1955 purchasers had been the General Tire and Rubber Company, which wasn’t quite the final word in Dream Factory glamour, so I suppose it was something of a miracle that a movie as respectable as 1956’s Great Day in the Morning made it into theaters during this final period before almost immediate studio extinction.

As its year’s Westerns go, this pre-Civil War love triangle is hardly The Searchers (which opened 10 days later) or 7 Men from Now; it’s not even an impressive second-tier achievement like Delmer Daves’s Jubal, which still remains formidable enough to have rated Criterion treatment. But as an assignment for director Jacques Tourneur, who rarely was given break-the-bank budgets, it merits the “mid sleeper” accolade if you can get over the once de rigueur Indian shoot-out that opens the action and then a Confederate point of view. We’re basically talking something the Tourneur level of, say, Anne of the Indies, Circle of Danger and Wichita — all of them movies I like to a relaxing degree yet ones that wouldn’t get anyone to say, “Let’s go the mat defending them.”

Still, if you like electric color schemes photographed for the wide screen — here the process was the initially short-lived Superscope, which much later evolved into todays’ Super 35 — prepare to indulge. This opportunity doesn’t arrive, though, until after some exposition that finds a Confederate loner (Robert Stack) smelling the aroma of elusive gold in 1861 Colorado. Until some angry Native Americans interrupt the journey, he’s working his way toward what turns out to be Denver, though a Denver strikingly humble in appearance. One cannot conceivably imagine the John Elway of merely a century-plus later lobbing forward-pass bombs — and in a stadium where beers probably cost even more than what Morning’s shifty saloon owner (Raymond Burr, once again corpulent  enough to earn his character’s name: “Jumbo”) is charging to thirsty prospectors.

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Stack is rescued unexpectedly by a blonde looker (Virginia Mayo) traveling with protective males, his life saved thanks to a shot fired by Leo Gordon (in glorified cretin mode) who immediately regrets his act upon learning that the apolitical Stack nonetheless harkens from North Carolina. Gordon is a “former” sergeant in the Union army, and one can only imagine just how transgression turned him into the past tense, though the other bodyguard (Alex Nicol, smitten with Mayo) is more agreeable. Her goal in Denver, by the way, is to open a women’s store full of intimate wear to service the two women in town who wouldn’t be mistaken for Marjorie Main or Minerva Urecal.

Actually, the only other obvious town looker besides Mayo herself is saloon associate Ruth Roman — she of an amazing turquoise dress that is so dramatic a visage that some fan of this Warner Archive Blu-ray posted a representative still (and in the correct aspect ratio) on my Facebook newsfeed page. Roman takes one look at Bob’s bare chest, determines that boss Burr isn’t the way to go and rigs a poker game to enable Stack to take over the joint. Burr was at the tail end of a villainous tenure that served him (and the movies) so well from about 1947-56 — about a year-and-a-half away from premiering in somewhat slimmed-down fashion as TV’s “Perry Mason.” You can effortlessly envision the CBS purchase order to whatever the Costco of the day was, ordering him 800,000 water pills.

Colorado, thus far noncommittal, is full of both Yankees and Rebels, but the situation won’t last long, and Stack needs to get what he can get from a ton of now-dead claims before more Northern military arrives and makes away with all territorial spoils this side of Mayo’s lingerie. The last situation plays out in ways that result in perhaps predictable fatalities, especially when Stack finds life in one of the deceased mines; as a result, the original burned-out prospector, working side-by-side, balks at paying Stack an agreed-to 50% share for having received a grubstake for a second try. This all makes it tough on the local priest (Regis Toomey), who has to maintain peace between factions — kind of like the way that that clergyman did between invading aliens and earthlings in George Pal’s version of The War of the Worlds. Of course, you may recall that he ends up being melted by death rays.

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Adapted from a Robert Hardy Andrews novel that had been kicking around a few years, the screenplay by Lesser Samuels (hey, I thought he was blacklisted in the ’50s) has some pretty fair dialogue (occasional zingers included) for a borderline A-picture from the era. Morning is a type of picture that has always interested me: One where the parties involved tried to go an extra half-mile when one cared or was looking (certainly not General Tire and Rubber). Of course, this one had more resources than others in its situation had: Tourneur, who had cult favorites Nightfall and Curse of the Demon coming up next; Colorado locations around Silverton; 2:1 framing for theaters that wished to show it that way; Technicolor (not the discontinued three-strip kind but at least with stable IB printing, which was more than Warner Bros. could boast at the time, The Searchers aside); and that Ruth Roman dress, of which I can’t say enough or more, other than to add that Roman is pretty good in the role.

To use his oft-employed highly expressive Trump adjective, I wasn’t “nice” to Roman recently by taking a mild swipe. I still think she leaned toward the overwrought, and Hitchcock himself is said to have been perturbed that Warner forced her on him for Strangers on a Train. Here, though, she’s less icy than usual while co-offering an undeniable workable contrast in personality against the more outgoing Mayo. The movie’s key problem is that a key character gets killed off a little too early (no spoilers), and we’re forced to root when Stack locates his inner Confederate for the big action conclusion. The last probably plays better with regions where even fast-food joints serve juleps than it does with a lot of 2019-ers, myself included.

Still, it’s gratifying that Warner Archive has elected to give a picture this relatively obscure the full treatment, including four much earlier Tourneur MGM short subjects as well. However, it’s worth mentioning that at the time, Morning was popular enough to get held over for a second week at one of my hometown’s downtown theaters (co-feature was Bill Williams in Wire Tapper, which couldn’t have done much for the gate). This wasn’t all that common at the time unless the picture was a commercial blockbuster — which leads me to note that two of the other competing theaters weren’t running Bowery Boys movies but the Burt-Tony-Gina Trapeze and some minor piece of change called The King and I. This all correctly indicates that audiences really used to love their Westerns once they veered away from the coasts.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Glorifying the American Girl’ and ‘Great Day in the Morning’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ and ‘Charley Varrick’

Days of Wine and Roses 

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Jack Lemmon, Lee Remick, Charles Bickford, Jack Klugman.
1962.
In terms of his overall career, this harrowing warning shot about how alcohol can destroy lives, livelihoods and families seems to have been a highly unusual project for Blake Edwards, and there are a couple set pieces in the second half that give you a Lemmon that audiences hadn’t previously seen and really didn’t again.
Extras: The unusually vintage Edwards commentary may put off some, but I found it fascinating.
Read the Full Review

Charley Varrick

Kino Lorber, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker, Andy Robinson, Felicia Farr.
1973.
Don Siegel’s much-deserved newfound glory as a full-fledged ‘A’ director was put to use in a slightly eccentric way for his first picture after Dirty Harry turned into a worldwide phenomenon. Though it’s as mean, lean and pepperishly cast as Siegel’s previous pictures, Charley Varrick has always seemed a little off-center, serving up what was always the closest we ever got to “Walter Matthau — Action Hero.”
Extras: Film historian Toby Roan provides a voiceover commentary, and there’s a 72-minute production documentary, which has a lot of stuff on the movie’s standout stunt work.
Read the Full Review

 

 

Days of Wine and Roses

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars 
Jack Lemmon, Lee Remick, Charles Bickford, Jack Klugman.

When I finally got around to seeing it for the first time maybe 25 years ago, the toughness of Days of Wine and Roses in its original “Playhouse 90” TV incarnation from 1958 really surprised me. And so much so that the Warner Bros. feature version, made four years later and new on Blu-ray, had tended to recede from my mind. My generally misplaced assumption was that despite having the same writer on both (J.P. Miller), the refashioning, on a fresh viewing, would prove to be too slick for the material. For one thing, there was that indelible but rather luxuriant Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer title tune, which everyone but Walter Brennan seemed to have recorded at the time.

Yet within the confines of a December major studio release that was definitely not designed to lose an old and cranky Jack Warner too much money by depressing moviegoers, I can see from the Days-’62 Blu-ray that this isn’t really true — or that, to the extent that it is, in ways beneficial to its set-up. In terms of his overall career, this harrowing warning shot about how alcohol can destroy lives, livelihoods and families seems to have been a highly unusual project for Blake Edwards — substituting here for the TV original’s John Frankenheimer, who had directed Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie to great acclaim. But even Edwards’ participation — within two years, Hollywood’s most original comic director of his era this side of Auteur Jerry Lewis would be launching the Inspector Clouseau series — turned out to make more sense than it seemed.

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For this big-screen version, Edwards had Jack Lemmon (a longtime buddy from their Columbia Pictures’ apprenticeships) and Lee Remick — both eventually delivering performances that were successfully positioned for Oscar nominations they deserved by the movie’s limited L.A. release at year’s end. My 14-year-old self got on a downtown bus to see it during my own city’s first-run engagement the following spring, which shows you what a cultural farm my Al Roker neck of the woods was in those days. By that time, the Oscars had either taken place or were about to, and the award that many thought might have gone to Lemmon went to Gregory Peck’s can’t-fight-city-hall turn in To Kill a Mockingbird. Of course, nominated as well were Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, which has probably outlived all three voter choices, and Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz, which I always thought pretty close to Burt’s career performance, or at least until Atlantic City. You can get a sense of why critic/historian Danny Peary, in his typically wonderful Alternate Oscars book, says that1962 was second only to 1967 for producing the volume of films that remain most beloved from that decade of mass change.

Set in and around San Francisco, the movie Days gives us a version of what Lemmon’s character in The Apartment might have become had he gone all to hell over his seamy work/romance situation in that Billy Wilder Oscar winner or had he had he inherited less booze-resistant genes. Working and occasionally even reluctantly pimping for clients in his public relations post, he’s a willing participant in the heavy drinking that went with that territory more than ever in those “Mad Men” days. When Lemmon meets and, at first, stormily courts a fresh-faced secretary (Remick) for one of the execs, he’s surprised to learn that she doesn’t drink. She’s a sucker, though, for chocolate, and he becomes the devil on her shoulder when he slips her a chocolate drink. Remick is really good in these early scenes because she projects a subtle dose of hard-to-read edginess that suggests she isn’t completely the Scandinavian straight-shooter/innocent raised by a gruff widowed father we kind of take her to be. Dad, by the way is Charles Bickford, expertly riffing on his prototypical screen self, the kind of no-nonsense studio head he played so well in the Garland-Mason A Star Is Born.

One thing leads to another, and the movie is especially good at showing how post-marriage boozing on both parties’ parts incrementally deep-sixes Lemmon’s work situation and (by extension) the quality of their living digs. The actor indulges his familiar gestures in the early part of the movie, but there are a couple set pieces in the second half that give you a Lemmon that audiences hadn’t previously seen and really didn’t again. Emmy-nominated Piper Laurie had an advantage in the TV version because she more naturally conveyed dissipation (think of The Hustler, not Son of Ali Baba); even late in the game when almost everything goes to hell, Edwards’ can’t fully camouflage that Remick is one of the most stunning actresses ever. But hers is quite some performance, and if you freeze the frame when the character hits her lowest point, the stuporous human wreckage it conveys is chilling.

Edwards almost never worked in black-and-white, but earlier in the same year, had used it when teaming with Remick for Experiment in Terror, a standout FBI-vs.-psych thriller that still holds up well. He worked a little more frequently in non-amamorphic processes throughout his career, including (noting films made around the same time) the humungous box office smash Operation Petticoat and the truly iconographic Breakfast at Tiffany’s — even though we think of him as a widescreen filmmaker, obviously aside from his TV work, Edwards shot Days in 1.85:1 and in black-and-white, which makes it close to unique in his career, permitting intimacy but also giving him room to block a horizontal image in a way close to approximating his familiar widescreen visual style. His talents as a comic director — and especially one behaves himself here, which he didn’t always do — serve him well here because without the light comic touch in the early going, two hours of solid tragedy might have been too much.

The unusually vintage Edwards commentary may put off some, but I found it fascinating. It begins weakly with long gaps of nothing, a personal admission that he’s not good at these kind of look-backs and that he’s seeing the film for the first time in years. But as it progresses, you can feel that Edwards is finding himself moved by the picture in ways that surprise him. Edwards tries making a case that his old “Richard Diamond” radio show and classic “Peter Gunn” TV shows were dramas, too — but they hardly dealt with material of this sort. What does hit is Edwards’s admission that he, too, was an alcoholic at one point before basically quitting cold turkey without too much help from Alcoholics Anonymous, though the portrayal here of AA seems at least “feels” authentic to my layman’s eye, with the performance by Jack Klugman as an AA sponsor memorably sympathetic.

Edwards opines that Days was a really good film for him to do on the heels of Tiffany’s (actually, Terror was in the middle), and certainly this lightning-in-a-bottle combo suggests an alternate direction his career might have taken. But he loved expensive pie fights, Herbert Lom meltdowns and World War I planes as big-screen playthings, and that was that. He was a complicated guy and one of my favorites, and yet without question, the source “Playhouse 90” (which was the live-drama series of all time, imho) demands a look as well. It’s on the Criterion DVD box devoted to Golden Age TV.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ and ‘Charley Varrick’

Warner Archive Releasing Complete ‘Teen Titans’ Animated Series on Blu-ray Dec. 3

Warner Archive Collection will release the Teen Titans: The Complete Series on Blu-ray Disc Dec. 3.

The animated “Teen Titans” ran for five seasons from 2003 to 2006. All 65 episodes are include on the six-disc Blu-ray, as well as the spinoff film Teen Titans: Trouble in Tokyo.

Extras include “The Lost Episode” bonus episode, and the featurettes “Finding Their Voices,” “Comic Creations: From Comic Book to Cartoon”, “Puffy AmiYumi,” “Catching Up With … Teen Titans,” “Teen Titans: Know Your Foes” and “Teen Titans: Friends and Foes.”

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All the seasons and the movie will also be available individually on Blu-ray. Previously, only the first season had been released on Blu-ray.

Developed by producer Glen Murakami and executive producer Sam Register, and based on DC Comics’ young super hero team, “Teen Titans” features the voices of Greg Cipes as Beast Boy, Scott Menville as Robin, Khary Payton as Cyborg, Tara Strong as Raven, Hynden Walch as Starfire, Kevin Michael Richardson as Trigon/Hexagon, Ron Perlman as Slade, Ashley Johnson as Terra, Lauren Tom as Gizmo, Wil Wheaton as Aqualad, Dee Bradley Baker as Cinderblock, T’Keyeh Crystal Keymah as Bumblebee, Keith David as Atlas, John DiMaggio as Brother Blood, Michael Rosenbaum as Kid Flash, Malcolm McDowell as Mad Mod, Henry Rollins as Johnny Rancid, Clancy Brown as Trident, Judge Reinhold as Negative Man, Dave Coulier as Tramm, Billie Hayes as Mother Mae-Eye, Virginia Madsen as Arella, Thomas Haden Church as Killer Moth, and Michael Clarke Duncan as Krall.

 

Mike’s Picks: ‘David Crosby: Remember My Name’ and ‘My Favorite Year’

David Crosby: Remember My Name

Sony Pictures, Documentary, $25.99 DVD, $24.99 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for language, drug material and brief nudity.
Featuring David Crosby, Cameron Crowe, Roger McGuinn, Jackson Browne.
2019.
Filmmaker A.J. Eaton had apparently been working with Crosby for a while fashioning what came to be a combo confessional, irresistible rock-memories clip show and something of an L.A. tourist road movie that veers off into footage of its subject on the road trying to survive the grind of touring to small venues while in his late 70s. Then rock-journalist-turned-auteur filmmaker Cameron Crowe entered the picture to sign on as one of the producers and also as off-camera interviewer. The result displays the savviness toward its subject and milieu that we’d naturally expect from someone of Crowe’s origins.
Extras: In addition to deleted and expanded scenes, there’s a half-hour Q&A with Crowe joining Crosby on stage for questions after a pre-release showing of the film.
Read the Full Review

My Favorite Year

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $21.99 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Peter O’Toole, Mark Linn-Baker, Jessica Harper, Joseph Bologna.
1982.
Richard Benjamin struck gold as a director in a way he never would again in 1982’s My Favorite Year, a modest but transcendently sweeter-than-ever comedy.
Extras: The Warner Archive Blu-ray includes a commentary from Benjamin carried over from the old DVD.
Read the Full Review

My Favorite Year

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Comedy;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Peter O’Toole, Mark Linn-Baker, Jessica Harper, Joseph Bologna.

Richard Benjamin struck gold as a director in a way he never would again in 1982’s My Favorite Year, a modest but transcendently sweeter-than-ever comedy inspired by the same “Sid Caesar Experience” that long ago entered the realm of folklore from the likes of surviving raconteurs Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Think about what Caesar demanded of his colleagues: a weekly 90-minute comedy revue (eventually shortened to an hour under various marquee titles) that aired on NBC for 39 Saturday nights a year. And these were packed with lengthy skits that never played down to their audience, though it helped that Caesar fans were among the sharpest of all TV viewers.

This is the background, but there’s also a foreground, and despite the picture’s bulls-eye casting all the way down the line, it’s dominated by Peter O’Toole, who got his seventh of eight Oscar nominations here (a run that got him no wins, though he did eventually get a special career award). If I had to pick one movie to explain why O’Toole was so beloved by so many for so many screen decades, Year would have to be on the short list of contenders and quite possibly in the top spot. He had the natural tools to pull off playing an old-style movie swashbuckler hero, and there weren’t many actors after the collapse of the studio system who could do that. But O’Toole also gave us a flawed fading superstar now in a perpetually pickled state, a condition that never obscured a protagonist that the character had surprising residues of depth despite masking his insecurities with bravado.

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The year we’re talking is 1954, and when the movie’s opening gives us two minor musical anachronisms and a mild movie one within a couple minutes, its artistic future is far from assured. Yet all three of these not-quites are in the emotional spirit of the times as delineated by a keen Norman Steinberg-Dennis Palumbo script. So when there’s suddenly a shot of Radio City Music Hall advertising its current showing of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, all is forgiven. This last is as “1954” as “Sh-Boom” and Willie Mays’s catch off Vic Wertz in the coming fall’s World Series (though we’ll leave Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn out of the discussion because Year is conceived as a happy movie where even its heavy is on the far side of lovable.

In a stroke of good fortune, Benjamin found Mark Linn-Baker (the first young actor he interviewed) to play “Benjy” Stone, a staff assistant who’s assigned to keep an eye on O’Toole’s Alan Swann character during the lead-up to the show. Swann is conceived as a takeoff on Errol Flynn, who actually did guest on one of the Caesar shows without incident but was otherwise famous for offscreen drinking and scandals with women, some of them on the young (and even too-young) side. Benji’s instructions are to keep Swann in his presence at all times, as if this onetime screen legend is a bag carrying nuclear codes, which in a way he is.

Another casting jewel is Joseph Bologna as the bigger-than-life character inspired by Caesar (here called “King Kaiser”); if there were an Oscar category for best shoulder pads, Bologna would have won it here in a runaway. These accouterments are part of the show’s continuing routine that’s been spoofing (and infuriating) a Hoffa-like combination of well-dressed labor leader and hood (Cameron Mitchell) — stuffing that makes the already large Kaiser look even bigger than he is. This is in keeping with reality: Though you wouldn’t know it from the way he permanently slimmed down from the late ’60s on, stories of Caesar’s onetime physical strength (lifting tables, lifting cars, etc.) are legion. My favorite, told by either Reiner or Brooks (who were, respectively, Caesar’s TV foil and writing staffer) involved a driver who stole a parking place that Caesar wanted and then just sat there in the driver’s seat with the window cranked down enough to leave a little open space at the top. Whereupon an enraged Caesar confronted the guy and asked him if he were anxious to relive the circumstances of his birth.

There are other subplots or at least plot tributaries, all of them good to one degree or another. The standout of these involves Benji taking Swann to dinner at his parents’ apartment in exotic Brooklyn — a set piece that some no doubt criticized for hitting every Jewish stereotype in the book, except that Benjamin (delivering a supremely enjoyable commentary from the old DVD) is adamant that everything here is vastly toned down from reality. Which they no doubt are. (Not to equate the two, but I was always struck by how the original source books that were adapted by Martin Scorsese into Casino and Wolf of Wall Street had episodes or at least references that were more anti-social or even sociopathic than anything in the movie versions.)

The character-rich script has so much old-school comedy going for it, but modest in scale or not, this is definitely a picture that’s directed; gags are set up (sometimes multiple scenes in advance), and Benjamin proved to be an actor’s director with his feature debut, though it always helps when you’re in sync with a simpatico cast of like comic minds. Adolph Green, Bill Macy, Selma Diamond, and Lou Jacobi are just some who have privileged moments, while Jessica Harper is comely-plus as an assistant with looks — as Benjamin points out in his commentary — that’s very true to the period. I’ll never be able to figure out why so many of Benjamin’s subsequent projects were bombs because there’s no indication here that his contribution was any fluke.

Caesar’s stable of writers had such a deep bench that it also included Neil Simon and (later in the run) Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen — with Lucille Kallen living what had to have been a really interesting existence as the only woman, though Selma Diamond joined after the original “Your Show of Shows” morphed into “Caesar’s Hour.” All this may be tough to follow, so the best solution might be to watch this movie and then one of the many Caesar collections that have been issued on DVD over the years in good-quality kinescopes.

His pairings with Imogene Coca and later Nanette Fabray remain indelible, but forced to choose, my favorites (both as a child and still) are Caesar, Reiner, Howard Morris and wigs not to be believed in their rock-spoof routines featuring “The Haircuts” — sometimes known as “The Three Haircuts.” I even have their 1955 RCA-Victor rendition of “You Are So Rare to Me” on my iPhone, a recording that came out around the same time as “Rock Around the Clock” but failed to knock it off the charts. Sometimes, timing is everything.

Mike’s Picks: ‘David Crosby: Remember My Name’ and ‘My Favorite Year’

 

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

The Major and the Minor

MVD/Arrow, Comedy, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland, Rita Johnson, Diana Lynn, Robert Benchley.
1942.
In the first Hollywood directorial outing from Billy Wilder, 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.
Extras: Includes a taut and nicely crafted voiceover commentary from film scholar Adrian Martin; a half-hour interview with British critic and academic Neil Sinyard; and a 30-minute Ray Milland interview.
Read the Full Review

The Set-Up

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias, Alan Baxter.
1949.
To some extent overlooked when it came out the same year as Kirk Douglas’s star-making rival boxing drama Champion, Director Robert Wise’s The Set-Up finally attained the rep it deserves after many years.
Extras: The Blu-ray includes separate commentaries from Wise and Martin Scorsese.
Read the Full Review

 

The Set-Up

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias, Alan Baxter.

To some extent overlooked when it came out the same year (1949) as Kirk Douglas’s star-making rival boxing drama Champion, Robert Wise’s The Set-Up finally attained the rep it deserves after many years. Even Raging Bull’s director (you know who, and he’s not an Irishman) says he was struck by how good it is when he belatedly got to see it on a 35mm print. We’re dealing here, of course, with a Blu-ray taken off a 35 — but it’s a Blu-ray with the usual high Warner Archive standards, and Milton Krasner’s photography captures every drop of the picture’s sweaty locker room squalor. How did cinematographer Milton Krasner so easily transition from small-screen black-and-white (say, All About Eve and this) to CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color (Three Coins in the Fountain, The Seven-Year Itch, An Affair To Remember)? Write it down as a subject for another day.

The day in The Set-Up is actually a night — and one shot in what’s pretty close to real time. The great Robert Ryan, who was a successful real-life boxer at Dartmouth, is here a tank-town puncher at the end of what career he’s had — age 35 (around the time a boxer had better look around for other employment) and relegated to a bout to take place after the evening’s Main Event has already taken place but with still more beer and popcorn to unload to the crowd of predominantly slugs who’ve been watching. Just across the street on one of the most expressive “outdoor” movie sets I can ever recall seeing is the spartan room Ryan’s “Stoker” character shares with a wife (Audrey Totter) in the ill-named “Hotel Cozy.” (The size of it probably does mandate intimacy.) She’s finally had it — not with him (on the contrary) but with using the free ticket provided by the event’s so-called management. Even that price isn’t right to watch her husband getting pummeled.

Two other subplots dominate a very tight screenplay (from a Joseph Moncure March poem about a black boxer) by Art Cohn, the Mike Todd biographer who was killed in the same New Mexico plane crash that also took that producer’s life when he was married to Elizabeth Taylor. One deals with the overall locker room retinue of attending physician, all-round nurse/cut-man (played by one of my favorite character actors, Wallace Ford) and an array of dubious boxing hopefuls and never-were punch-drunks who are awaiting their own bouts to begin. The remaining co-narrative deals with a despicably cruel act of duplicity: Stoker/Ryan’s manager (George Tobias) has sold him out to take a fall because a low-end mobster wants to groom Stoker’s opponent for better things (which likely means a few quick-money bouts before this rookie lunk, who’s unlikely ever to see any of the cash, gets discarded as well). This is bad enough, but no one in Stoker’s corner has told him about the fix, so sure are they that he can lose the fight all by himself.

There’s something close to another subplot as well, and this one involves the so-called fans, who are even more bloodthirsty than the grandmothers in tennis shoes who filled the stands during the local fixed wrestling matches in my hometown — televised on Saturday afternoons and sponsored by a Chevy dealer. There’s one guy played by Herbert Anderson, later the father on TV’s “Dennis the Menace,” whose approach to the role too directly hits the nail on the head in cornball fashion and thus always takes me out of the film.

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But the others are pretty colorful, including a woman fan who looks a little like a worn or stressed-out version of “Father Knows Best” star Jane Wyatt might have had husband Robert Young (who played an insurance salesman on that enormously popular Emmy magnet) just admitted at the family dinner table that he’s just a double-indemnity “unusual death” life insurance policy to a Bond villain. There’s also a blind guy whose companion describes the ring carnage to him and a double-dipper who listens to a baseball game on a portable radio. Director Wise, who shares separate, unintegrated commentaries by Martin Scorsese (lotta Oscars in that combo) notes that a lot of this fan material came from what he personally observed in the pre-filming research he did. Wise was such a stickler for prep that he even watched an execution before he made I Want to Live!).

This is an impressive amount of material to cover in a short running time (72 minutes) as the main narrative time bomb ticks: What’s the wronged fighter, who, for starters, is suddenly feeling his oats in the ring, going to do when he learns that he’s supposed to take a dive? The fight scenes here are rough and convincing; not only had actor Ryan boxed at Dartmouth, but so had the actor playing his opponent: Hal Fieberling, who not long after changed his screen name to Hal Baylor. (He later had an elaborate screen brawl with John Wayne in the climax of the HUAC camp-fest Big Jim McLain.) The stalwarts still remaining in the stands after the main event get more than they could have anticipated — major if monetary crowd thrills that pay the guys in the ring so little that only dreams of some future “big score” (fortunes controlled, of course, by hoods) that might bring them fame, hot women and, in the dreams of one self-deluder here, a Hollywood contract. If Humphrey Bogart’s swan song The Harder They Fall is still perhaps the toughest screen indictment of boxing’s underbelly, The Set-Up probably ranks second.

Ryan, who so often played malevolent sociopaths in this period at RKO, is here not just a sympathetic character but one with something close to dignity when he gently chastises the crass behaviors of other fighters as they await their turn in the arena. Totter is his match, and their scenes together are heartfelt as she looks at her husband’s whopper of a cauliflower ear. This is another Warner Archive release where the classic black-and-white cinematography leaps off the screen in all its crispness and depth of field. In an aside on this long ago, carried-over commentary (Wise died in 2005), the director bemoans the inability of today’s young audiences to appreciate black-and-white. He does this without being churlish about it because he was one of the all-time nice guys — and besides, on this subject, I can easily be churlish enough for the both of us.

If anything, Scorsese is on the Blu-ray commentary even more than Wise is, and what better choice than the director of Raging Bull — who, in an admission I recall from other interviews, had no interest in boxing when he took on the project that couldn’t quite make Jake LaMotta a matinee idol. (Scorsese adds, however, that his father and uncles were huge fight fans and passed along lore.)

As it turns out, though, the younger director was a huge Wise fan, which given Scorsese’s love for the editing room, isn’t any knock-you-down surprise when you remember that Wise was the editor of Citizen Kane before he began directing. Marty goes on a lot about Wise’s career in general, noting, for instance, that neither The Set-Up nor Executive Suite (a different milieu entirely) has a musical score, which turned out in both cases to be an effective artistic decision. Scorsese even has not unfavorable things here to say about Wise’s late-career The Hindenburg and Audrey Rose (which I believe Andrew Sarris picked as worst movie of its year), which makes him the friend that every movie needs. There’s no question, though, that The Set-Up is a minor classic that was Wise’s personal favorite of his early RKO period — which also included The Body Snatcher, the deliciously nasty Born to Kill and the underrated Blood in the Moon.

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

Mike’s Picks: ‘Wagon Master’ and ‘Pittsburgh’

Wagon Master

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Western, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey, Jr., Ward Bond.
1950.
For a Western that’s in all ways modest (quality excepted), Wagon Master is rated extraordinarily high in the John Ford canon by people who know or knew.
Extras: Harry Carey Jr. joins Peter Bogdanovich on an invaluable voiceover commentary carried over on this Blu-ray from the original DVD.
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Pittsburgh

Street 9/10/19
Kino Lorber, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Frank Craven.
1942.
For me, there’s at least semi-irresistible symmetry this week in pairing a John Ford movie not starring John Wayne with a John Wayne movie not directed by John Ford, but let’s not go too overboard about it. Pittsburgh, directed by Lewis Seiler, is a trashy wartime potboiler through and through.
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