Wagon Master

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Western;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey, Jr., Ward Bond.

For a Western that’s in all ways modest (quality excepted), 1950’s Wagon Master is rated extraordinarily high in the John Ford canon by people who know or knew. Joseph McBride, author of Searching for John Ford (the definitive bio, though there are multiple really good ones), says he currently rates They Were Expendable and Wagon Master as his two favorite Fords from a directorial career that merely spanned 1917 to 1966 (longer if you count his 47-minute, barely and posthumously released, Chesty Puller documentary). And when he was alive, my late NYU prof William K. Everson used to rate it close to the top of the entire genre, an extraordinary accolade given how many Westerns there’ve been, maybe half of which were in Everson’s apartment (an exaggeration, but sometimes I wondered).

In lieu of superstars like John Wayne or Henry Fonda, who usually had the leads in Ford’s output from the immediate postwar period, top billing here goes to Ben Johnson — who two decades later would win a supporting Oscar for Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show but at this point was basically an extraordinary horseman who proved to be a natural actor when Ford first put him in front of the camera. If Wagon Master proves nothing else, it’s that Johnson was probably the definitive actor in screen history when it came to saying “I reckon” with full precision and authority.

Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. play two young horse traders hired by a small group of Mormons to lead them out of a forced exit from town (read: prejudiced locals) to Utah’s San Juan Valley. Aside from comely Kathleen O’Malley as a forced trekker who catches Carey’s eye, the cast of Mormon principals is much less suggestive of a future Mitt Romney gene pool than it is of Ford regulars with lived-in faces: Ward Bond, Russell Simpson, Jane Darwell and Francis Ford (another case of Francis’s kid brother casting him as either a drunk or someone playing with a 32-card deck). Bond’s character is subordinate to, or at most a kind of co-equal of, the more geographically savvy Johnson, but he’s unquestionably an authoritative figure. Enough so, in fact, that it’s been noted that this picture later inspired NBC to launch TV’s “Wagon Train” in 1957 with Bond, an enormous success (even Ford himself directed one episode) that continued with John McIntire as lead when Bond died suddenly of a heart attack in the fall of 1960 (for trivia types, the same day as the deaths of Mack Sennett and singer Johnny Horton).

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For just short of half of its running time, the movie is mostly gentle Ford-ian good humor, good nature and good spirits, photographed to the max in Monument Valley and relatively near-about points by Bert Glennon, whose work for the director spanned The Prisoner of Shark Island to Sergeant Rutledge and included Stagecoach. But as we’ve seen during the film’s very opening scene, trouble looms thanks to a fatal bank robbery committed by a clan that’s even more idiosyncratic (and certainly more imbecilic) than Walter Brennan’s Clanton “family unit” in My Darling Clementine. This stickup is the only pre-credits sequence I can recall ever seeing in a Ford movie, and it serves the purpose of keeping us from getting too comfortable with Ford’s narrative deviations.

The key subplot here, which becomes a major one, deals with the Mormons’ on-the-trail meet-up with some affable grifters who operate a traveling medicine show — a small array led by Alan Mowbray as an amusingly effete type who appears to do as little work as possible and treats standing up as a strain. They, too, have been asked to leave town by so-called community leaders, which gives them an odd affinity with their unlikely new acquaintances. Joanne Dru, direct from Howard Hawks’s Red River and Ford’s own She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, supplies the troupe’s glamour but probably won’t for long if she keeps slurping the bottles of the so-called elixir that Mowbray pushes to gullible locals.

You’ll note that Ford almost always photographs Dru in interesting ways, slightly off angle or displaying unexpected body language. It’s less a case of sexual provocation in mind but merely in ways that never fail to surprise the eye — which kind of synchs up with what Carey Jr. tells Peter Bogdanovich on an invaluable voiceover commentary (punctuated by the latter’s old audio interview tapes with Ford) carried over on this Blu-ray from the vintage original DVD version. With outstanding recall, Carey talks about how Ford would frequently take the time to rearrange actors’ costuming (hats, in particular), and that messing with adjustments after Ford had the visual effect he was after was a great way to die.

The outlaw leader is played by Charles Kemper, an actor whose comic dimension might have made him a subsequent natural for Ford’s stock company were it not for his death in a road accident a couple months after Wagon Master’s release (Kemper is also memorable in his final film: Nicholas Ray’s incessantly haunting On Dangerous Ground). Compared to the fruit of his loins on full display here, Kemper’s characterization is almost urbane. The actors playing his sons include Hank Worden, later “Mose” in The Searchers, so you know right there that no one is going appoint him as Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Another is a pre-Thing James Arness in full contrast to the authority he later brought to Matt Dillon — in other words something of a vacant dunce who may not even have the intelligence of The Thing. There’s also one son who looks fairly normal and presentable. He’s a rapist.

Wagon Master was the last film Ford made under his Argosy Pictures production deal with RKO, though 1953’s equally personal The Sun Shines Bright would carry the Argosy banner over at Republic Pictures. Along with an occasional documentary and slightly more frequent TV work, Sun and The Rising of the Moon and Gideon of Scotland Yard would be the remaining times that Ford could go off and make a movies just for himself, and I’m not even certain that the last qualifies in this category given its status as a “surprise” project. The remainder were major productions with generally major stars, which makes Wagon Master something to be savored — an 86-minute low-budget effort that isn’t the obvious grabber other Fords are but which offers something hitherto obscured every time you see it. Career advice to any online movie journalists who can watch any bite of it for 10 seconds and not figure out the identity of its director: The carwash down the street can always use a few extra hands.

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

Mike’s Picks: ‘Footlight Parade’ and ‘Wild in the Country’

Footlight Parade

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Musical, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell
1933.
Footlight Parade was 1933’s third Busby Berkeley extravaganza released by Warner Bros. in a seven-month period, but this one had a surprise. Of all people, given his screen-gangster resumé, here was James Cagney headlining a cast of Berkeley musical regulars — and not faking it.
Extras: A featurette carries over from the old DVD.
Read the Full Review

Wild in the Country

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
 
Stars Elvis Presley, Hope Lange, Tuesday Weld, Millie Perkins.
1961.
A major crossroad in Elvis Presley’s movie career, Wild in the Country is kind of a mishmash that works (when it does) from a combination of Elvis earnestness and certain entertaining conventions we expect from an Elvis movie.
Read the Full Review

Footlight Parade

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Musical;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell. 

Footlight Parade was 1933’s third Busby Berkeley extravaganza released by Warner Bros. in a seven-month period, but this one had a surprise. Of all people, given his screen-gangster resumé, here was James Cagney headlining a cast of Berkeley musical regulars — and not faking it.

Cagney actually had a chorus-boy background, but it’s doubtful that many moviegoers knew this. Nor is that exactly common knowledge today, given the unexpected delight his appearance here still holds for some viewers — something it might do to even a larger degree were it not for the following decade’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, where his footwork is all over the place. As one of the interviewees says on a Blu-ray supplemental featurette carried over from the old Footlight DVD, it’s likely that the George M. Cohan biopic wouldn’t even have gone to Cagney had it not been for the earlier picture’s success (apparently, Fred Astaire was initially No. 1 on the studio YDD wish list).

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The Footlight story hook deals with “prologues” — or those short live stage productions that once preceded movie presentations but only in the largest cities (I doubt that any character in God’s Little Acre ever saw one). They were before my time, but I assume they were precursors to the Rocketettes et. al. at Radio City. In any event, Cagney plays a director of Broadway musicals who’s struggling his way toward unemployment because the public is no longer buying Broadway musicals — a drought/reality that also took down the movie musical for a while early in the Depression until Berkeley’s 42nd Street revitalized them (1933 was also the year of Astaire’s first screen appearance with Ginger Rogers).

Of course, this being Berkeley, the net result — in a bang-bang-bang finale of three consecutive classic numbers — couldn’t possibly be presented on stage because the theater audiences watching them wouldn’t benefit from or even be privy to the quick cutting, panning shots and the overhead photography synonymous with the famed dance director’s name. I can also just see sweaty crew members (and, by the way, who could pay that many bodies, stagehand labor union demands or not?), hauling the water tank in “By a Waterfall” from theater to theater on a tight time deadline. They’d have filed a grievance the very first day, Depression or not.

Other than as an amusing footnote, none of this matters in the least because we’re hardly dealing in reality here (Warner saved that in ’33 for Heroes for Sale and Wild Boys of the Road). Nor would anyone wish this of a musical, especially one with a predominantly Al Dubin-Harry Warren score. Still, there’s an undercurrent of financial Bad Times that pervades the Berkeley/Warners cycle — though less here because the emphasis is on other things. Among them: Cagney’s relationship with his shady producers (somehow, you now that Guy Kibbee is going to be one of them); a romantic tug-o-war involving him, a faithful assistant (Joan Blondell) and sexy snake (Claire Dodd); some pre-Code risqueness involving a dopey house censor (Hugh Herbert); and a typically antiseptic romance between Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler (though there’s indication that Powell’s character has been a kept man in his previous life). Naturally, Keeler wears glasses in the early scenes so that we can later have the obligatory scene where she removes them to instantly up her cutie quotient.

Lloyd Bacon was an even more anonymous director than Mervyn LeRoy, who at least did several good-or-better pictures before his quality output went to hell after World War II through his career swan-song in 1966. (That was with Moment by Moment, and I remember Ed Sullivan touting it on his show by asking LeRoy to stand up in the audience, whereupon Ed told the nation the movie was “just great”). He did the first two (Golddiggers of 1933 was the other one) and Bacon did Parade of the ’33 “Berkeley’s” — which is how everybody terms them.

This is because the trio’s non-musical portions are high-end water-treading that live or die on pacing and energy, which admittedly all three pictures do get — though the casts (all the way down to the smaller roles) have a lot to with this. But it’s kind of like the night I saw the Flying Karamazov Brothers open for Frank Sinatra: You’re kind of waiting for the Main Event, no matter how impressive it is to see guys juggling flaming sticks.

The three-number finale here almost looks as if it sets out to have one number top the last, and maybe this was even true. As director John Landis says in the featurette, the table-setting “Honeymoon Hotel” number is “playful” as opposed to salacious, though I personally wouldn’t care to know what Billy Barty (who shows up out of left field in the number wearing a mischievous grin and not a whole lot else) is actually doing in such a no-tell establishment. Playful or not, I wonder if the number would have gotten by even a year later after the Production Code got its teeth just a year later. After that, Andy Hardy couldn’t even find a gas station restroom in which to buy a damned condom so he could have sex in his Honeymoon Jalopy.

“By a Waterfall” is one visual marvel after another, including the overhead shot that turns chorines into an undulating snake (the bit kind of creeps me out, to tell you the truth). I don’t know if the studio had to build a tank or if there was one left over from the studio’s 1930 Moby Dick or something, but the number looks as if it cost a fortune whose green-lit expenditure must have gotten by the Brothers/bean counters thanks to the box office success of Footlight’s two predecessors. Then comes climactic “Shanghai Lil,” which is the film’s (and Cagney’s) big finale — though I like how Bacon and Berkeley initially keep us in suspense so that we’re not quite certain at first who will spearhead the number. This is after the sap hired to do so tries warming up his cold feet backstage with too much booze.

The opening panning shot down what must be one of the world’s longest saloon bars features a variety of ethnicities, though it should be said that these are not exactly Nobel Laureates. Keeler, in all three numbers, is decked out in Chinese makeup as Lil, and you just have to go with the flow. Beyond not inconsiderable camp considerations, hers is a stardom I never really understood, though you can’t say she wasn’t a trooper. In keeping with her casting here, which is no longer politically correct, the disc’s bonus section provides context by including an array of early Warner Bros. cartoons from the era that no longer appeal to anyone but those with wickedly freewheeling senses of humor (though there are still a few million of those).

The Blu-ray is so sharp that I eyeballed its later scenes thinking that both Powell and Keeler must have been to some Southern California beach shortly before Bacon rolled the camera unless Jack Warner’s shallow pockets (water ballets apparently aside) found a way to spring for a sunlamp. One of the continuing movie marvels for me is how Powell evolved from being a sappy tenor to one of my favorite actors of all time — after, that is, he toughened up to became a film noir titan beginning with his gutsy casting as Philip Marlowe in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet, where he had to concern himself with being bench-pressed by Mike Mazurki. I think it was the greatest comeback or image switcheroo in Hollywood history, more impressive even than Sinatra’s. But whenever his singing mouth opens here, I just can’t suppress a giggle — though it’s a testimony to the charm of these films that it’s an affectionate one.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Footlight Parade’ and ‘Wild in the Country’

Warner Archives’ Impending ‘V’ Blu-ray Inspires Reflections on Sci-Fi Miniseries’ Legacy

The 1983 miniseries V is fondly remembered as a landmark of science-fiction television.

Consisting of two 90-minute parts, V tells the story of aliens arriving on Earth offering technological advancement in exchange for help to create the chemicals they need to survive. The governments of Earth agree to the alliance, though as the aliens gain power and influence, a resistance emerges as the visitors’ motives are discovered to be more sinister, and that the aliens are in fact reptilian creatures who seek to steal Earth’s water and use mankind for food.

Creator Kenneth Johnson was inspired by Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, a satirical story about the rise of European-style fascism in the United States. To make his script more marketable for NBC, Johnson made it a sci-fi parable with seemingly friendly aliens as stand-ins for modern Nazis.

V is a timeless tale,” Johnson said. “It’s Spartacus and the revolt of the slaves. It’s the American Revolution, or the fight against apartheid, or the struggle wherever people are oppressed.”

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Actor Marc Singer, who plays journalist Mike Donovan, a key figure in discovering the true nature of the aliens, said V has resonated with audiences because it tells a classic story.

“There are a lot of things that conspired to make V relevant again over the generations,” Singer said. “But I think the basic reason is that it’s an adventure story of daring-do. Everyone loves to see a hero beating the bad guys. But more importantly, it draws together a community and celebrates the entire world we inhabit. There’s a lot of power in the message that we’re all in this together.”

Warner Archive will release V: The Original Miniseries on Blu-ray Aug. 27, and Singer and Johnson were on hand at San Diego Comic-Con International July 19 to reflect on the franchise’s legacy and future.

The miniseries will be presented on Blu-ray in a 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, instead of the 1980s-standard 4:3 television ratio. Johnson recalled his pilot for “The Incredible Hulk” in 1977 being released theatrically in foreign markets, so he said V was filmed with the idea of a potential theatrical release in mind. Edges of the frame were protected so as not to reveal microphones or other production equipment. This allowed the restoration team at Warner Archive to use the wider aspect ratio.

He also enjoyed getting a chance to give the miniseries a more robust home entertainment soundtrack.

“When they released it on DVD, it had mono sound because Warner wouldn’t let me mix it in stereo,” Johnson said. “I spent twice as much time doing the sound for this Blu-ray to get it right.”

Singer said V fulfilled the desire he had as a kid watching Westerns to be a television hero.

“When I first read the script, the immediate reaction was the writing was terrific and the story was terrific. It was almost as if it was meant to be for me to be in it.”

Singer said he was cast because Johnson had seen him perform a stage production of The Taming of the Shrew, as well as his starring role in the 1982 action-fantasy film The Beastmaster.

Singer said his background in Shakespeare offers a valuable lesson to storytellers.

“Every actor and every writer should start off with Shakespeare, period,” Singer said. “The architecture of his writing was almost legalistic. Every word is like a contract, defining who a character is, and they do not not step out of that identity.”

“Sci-fi applies some of the same architectural tenets to that,” Singer said.

Johnson was not involved in the 1984 sequel miniseries V: The Final Battle or the subsequent series that ran until 1985. He was also not involved with the 2009 rebooted version of the show.

“Where sequels tend to go wrong is they change too much of what works, and lose the connection with the audience,” Johnson said. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

Instead, Johnson is working on his own remake of V with a new movie.

Johnson said the original V was an ambitious project for its time considering the number of visual effects involved.

“When I came up with the idea of a woman swallowing a guinea pig, someone from the production team asked if I can get an actress to do that,” Johnson joked. “We were so hamstrung in those days. But a few weeks ago I was able to attend a retrospective on the visual effects of the original Star Wars, and how things had changed by the time of Rogue One. And I realized they were just as hamstrung on Star Wars the same way I was.”

Johnson said Star Wars actually had it easier than him because their spaceships mostly could be layered over the blackness of space without having to worry about the matte lines.

“It’s a lot different when you try to tae a spacecraft and put it in a sunny wide shot of L.A.,” Johnson said.

Johnson said today’s visual effects resources would be put to full use on the V remake.

“Now I can make the inside of the mothership look like gangbusters,” Johnson said.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Patch of Blue’ and ‘This Island Earth’

A Patch of Blue

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Sidney Poitier, Elizabeth Hartman, Shelley Winters, Wallace Ford.
1965.
A Patch of Blue is at once a star vehicle for Sidney Poitier plus a terrific ensemble piece, though its No. 1 takeaway is still Elizabeth Hartman’s knock-you-on-your-duff performance in what is actually Blue’s central role.
Extras: The late writer-director Guy Green provides a commentary carried over from the old DVD.
Read the Full Review

This Island Earth

Shout! Factory, Sci-fi, $26.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Rex Reason.
1955.
Scream Factory’s unexpectedly lavish new Blu-ray is still the definitive presentation of a ’50s sci-fi biggie that entranced a lot of kids at the time — not only because it was in Technicolor but because it had a larger than expected budget all around, though probably not one as large as it needed.
Extras: Includes a 47-minute documentary on the film’s production and reception, plus a long printed history of Perspecta Stereophonic Sound.
Read the Full Review

A Patch of Blue

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Sidney Poitier, Elizabeth Hartman, Shelley Winters, Wallace Ford.

Of all the “Super Sidney” screen showcases that Sidney Poitier headlined during the 1960s, A Patch of Blue remains my favorite — which isn’t to deny the lasting impact of In the Heat of the Night, an Oscar-winner for 1967 when Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate likely split that landmark movie year’s “New Hollywood” vote. As with Night, this earlier picture is at once a star vehicle for Poitier plus a terrific ensemble piece, though its No. 1 takeaway is still Elizabeth Hartman’s knock-you-on-your-duff performance in what is actually Blue’s central role.

In retrospect, it’s difficult to separate the Hartman character’s tough-luck plight from the actress’s own tragic real-life conclusion, but more on that later. What impresses about this fairly modest undertaking then and now is how, through pure gut conviction and filmmaking craft from everyone involved, it triumphs over what even its late writer-director Guy Green volunteers (on the old DVD’s carried-over bonus commentary) is perilously close to a cornball premise. Which is: That a blind 18-year-old from a racist background (her mom’s a real package) is befriended by a friendly stranger she eventually falls for without realizing he’s black. In other words, everyone had better be at the top of his or her game with that baby.

Before we get to the actors, there was quite the array of table-setters working on the margins here and then some, starting with the fact that Green’s direction probably guaranteed that the movie was going to look good, given that in his day he was a top cinematographer himself. In fact, I remember that in one of the multiple feature documentaries there’ve been that’d devoted themselves to the cinematographer’s art, Spike Lee’s onetime great cameraman Ernest Dickerson (he shot Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X) was inspired to pursue his calling after seeing a telecast of Green’s work on one of David Lean’s two great Charles Dickens adaptations (Great Expectations or Oliver Twist; I forget which one, but Green shot both).

The cinematographer that Green-the-director got here was merely Robert Burks, who (Psycho excepted) shot every Hitchcock film from Strangers in a Train through Marnie — plus House of Wax, The Spirit of St. Louis and The Music Man. Burks makes working in close quarters with multiple actors (at least half of the film takes place in small apartments) look easy while delivering a crisp image that makes this Warner Archive Blu-ray quite the black-and-white looker. And highly appreciated even at the time was Jerry Goldsmith’s soft-sell score, which has some of the emotional power of Elmer Bernstein’s for To Kill a Mockingbird, which is just about on every list you’ll see of the best movie music ever.

The producer who helped assemble the package was veteran Pandro S. Berman, whom Green credits with taking on the wearying conversations with the MGM money men who were somewhat resistant to this “little picture” when they had a movie ready for release around the same time (Doctor Zhivago) that could rescue what was starting to look like a teetering studio (Ben-Hur and 2001 were, in different years, poised as similar studio saviors, though the Kubrick turned out to be a surprise one). Of course, given that Berman had produced all but the first and last Astaire-Rogers pictures, plus Father of the Bride plus Blackboard Jungle plus Jailhouse Rock, he probably could fend off at least excessive guff, and Green praises him multiple times in his commentary.

Like most of the films Green directed, Blue pounds the nail head a little too directly for it to be in my natural wheelhouse in terms of personal preference, but it wasn’t the first time he surprised me by making an unlikely premise play better than it should (see also 1962’s Light in the Piazza, also from MGM). As Hartman’s blowsy-to-the-fifth-power mother whose carelessness was responsible for her daughter’s blindness in the first place, Shelley Winters got the year’s supporting actress Oscar (her second). It’s undeniable that she’s really broad here in multiple senses, but then again, her character is a obstreperous bigot whose career ambition is to quit punching the time clock to open a whorehouse with her girl friend — one that’ll presumably service equally dumpy men and include Hartman as part of the package. Given these specifics of the role, who you gonna call?

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I’m as dazzled by Poitier’s sheer star power as much as anyone else, but the two performances that get to me most here are Hartman’s and Wallace Ford’s. The latter’s career went back to the early ’30s; he was the nominal lead in Freaks and was also the informed-against Frankie in John Ford’s The Informer. His role here as Hartman’s sympathetic old sot of a grandfather was his last (Blue came out about six months before is death) and, I think, the best of his screen career. He’d been working fairly in TV for several years, but hadn’t made a feature since Warlock and John Ford’s The Last Hurrah — both characterizations in sharp contrast to what you see here (in the earlier films, he was respectively a loquacious judge and a savvy political pro).

 

As for Hartman, whose screen debut this was, Green was virtually certain when he tested her that he had lucked into The One — for a role he instinctively (and correctly) thought sensed needed to be played by a newcomer. Like the movie overall, the motivating Selina character has a sweet inner core, which doesn’t mean she can’t be tough. Generally shy, she can occasionally surprise you by being unambiguously direct in the questions she asks and the personal history she reveals. There’s a scene late in the film where Hartman/Selina, alone in her family’s rundown apartment, throws an A-team fit against everyone and everything in the world, Poitier excepted; for a movie about blindness — and a new chance friend trying to get her professional help — it is a real eye opener. Green says he was personally moved and stripped of his usual professional coolness while watching Hartman play out this amazing scene, which seemed to come out of nowhere.

The year was an extraordinary one for actress newcomers and relative newcomers; Julie Christie won the Oscar for Darling, and nominations went to The Collector’s Samantha Eggar and Hartman herself — all honors deserved. After that, however, Hartman’s career floundered (she’s one of The Group in The Group), and though anyone can see from her still photos that she could be a stunner when photographed the right way, she probably didn’t automatically come to casting directors’ minds as a conventional movie lead and additionally had a tough time adjusting to so much initial acclaim. In 1987, after a long history of depression, she jumped out of her Pittsburgh fifth-floor apartment to her death at 43.

Racially speaking, Green consciously walked a tightrope, and the movie is probably tamer than it would have to be even three years later. On the other hand, this is MGM in 1965, and here’s a white actress kissing a black actor on screen, however chastely — and this was three years before all hell broke out after a TV special’s sponsor (or, rather, its head of advertising) went ballistic when Petula Clark gave Harry Belafonte’s forearm an extended touch during a musical duet. For sponsor Plymouth’s part, it didn’t take long for the guy to start looking a little silly carrying his ass around under his arm, but it was a huge deal at the time. There’s also a scene here where Poitier’s more racially militant brother (Ivan Dixon, who’s also good here) refers to Selina’s family as “trash.” If there was a major studio movie up to this time where a black character described any white person as such, its title does not immediately come to mind.

In the end, MGM was able to give both Blue and Doctor Zhivago slow platform releases in December 1965, where they both did well at the box office (Zhivago was obviously in a different league) and at Oscar time. Fortunately, Winters (whose determination I always admired despite the jokes I’ve always made at her expense) went through the car wash or something and then the beauty salon before the ceremonies. She looked more than presentable when she won her award and specifically thanked Green, who rated Blue as his favorite picture as a director.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Patch of Blue’ and ‘This Island Earth’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Gaslight’ and ‘Mother Wore Tights’

Gaslight

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Mystery, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty.
1944. MGM’s superbly cast George Cukor remake of a 1940 British film is definitely a classic, a stylish mystery about a wastrel who marries a delicate woman for her inheritance, which is mostly wrapped up in the London house once owned by the latter’s aunt, who was victim of an unsolved murder a decade or so earlier.
Extras: Includes the 1940 British version, giving the Blu-ray the feel of a college-level course on how a big-screen mystery on the high side of adequate can be rethought into a classic.
Read the Full Review

Mother Wore Tights

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Musical, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Betty Grable, Dan Dailey, Mona Freeman, Connie Marshall.
1947. Mother Wore Tights is foremost a Betty Grable vehicle: the most popular movie she ever made; her own career favorite; and the top box office performer of its year.
Read the Full Review

Gaslight

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Mystery;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.

Stars Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty.

Though this couldn’t have been the intention unless some ornery jester inside the Warner Archive brain trust was plotting mild mischief, the new Blu-ray of Gaslight’s additional inclusion of the 1940 Brit original serves an added purpose beyond pouring gravy on a already delicious release. There are lots of reasons why the famed Hollywood follow-up is the version we remember — the result of every production salvo that MGM could lob at it just four years later. Thus, the combined package amounts to a college-level course on how a big-screen mystery on the high side of adequate can be rethought into a classic.

And Metro’s superbly cast George Cukor remake definitely is one, at least of its kind, even if it remains somewhat overshadowed by an astounding string of all-timers from the same year (1944): Double IndemnityMeet Me in St. LouisHail the Conquering HeroThe Miracle of Morgan’s CreekLaura; and maybe Murder, My Sweet. There was a deep bench, too (Christmas Holiday, anyone?). That old canard about 1939 being the best year for Golden Age movies remains, well … a canard (see also 1946). It also makes one think again about the current theatrical attendance that’s been down all year, enough that my neighborhood multiplex is probably checking this very minute to see if it has enough marquee numerals to handle Howard the Duck CMLXXVIII.

The MGM Gaslight is so stylish— it and Adam’s Rib are easily Cukor’s best films of the 1940s endless you like The Philadelphia Story better than I do — that I wonder if Louis B. Mayer somehow hated it, at least until he saw the grosses. Probably not, because it was steeped in a bedrock genre (historical murder mystery) and thus not one of those new-fangled problem pictures or twisted sisters that probably had L.B. reaching for the Preparation H (everything from Freaks through Intruder in the Dust and a couple John Huston pictures from the early ’50s). On the other hand, to get its ideal cast, the studio had to borrow two A-list leads from penurious David O. Selznick (not just eventual Ingrid Bergman but Joseph Cotten as well). Nor was top-billed Charles Boyer under contract to Leo the Lion.

Gaslight was originally a play by Patrick Hamilton, who also penned the original Rope (later filmed by Alfred Hitchcock — and definitely a movie he had to have hated) plus the eponymous novel that later led to John Brahm’s Hangover Square. The Boyer-Bergman take runs half-an-hour longer than its predecessor (which makes a lot of difference in its favor), and a lot of key details are changed, but the basics are pretty consistent in both versions. A wastrel (The Red Shoes’s Anton Walbrook in the original) marries a delicate woman (the Oscar-winning Cavalcade’s Diana Wynyard) for her inheritance, which is mostly wrapped up in the London house once owned by the latter’s aunt, who was victim of an unsolved murder a decade or so earlier.

The kicker, though, is that the old woman also left her extraordinary valuable jewels somewhere in the house, which the murderer is unable to locate. Thus, he resorts to a rather extreme Plan B, which involves marrying the niece (who was a child when the tragedy occurred) and moving back into the same house, which had remained unoccupied over the ensuing years. This really isn’t spoiler material because most of it is divulged fairly early on — and besides, this is much, much more of a psychological drama than mystery despite some subsequent sleuthing by the suspicious Law. And because “gaslight” used as a verb has so re-entered contemporary parlance — as in, “Someone has been trying to convince me that the most famous tabloid grifter of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s got elected president” — even the unknowing can easily surmise what the husband is trying to do here to his wife’s shaky emotional state. (A literal gaslight is a key factor in the plot as well.)

Whereas the British original tosses us right into all this without any context, the MGM opens with a happy Bergman in another country, which makes her mental and even physical dissolution so much more dramatic as the movie progresses. What’s more, the remake’s establishing scenes allow us to see Boyer briefly turn on the charm (which Walbrook is never allowed to do), which gives us a reason to accept that the about-to-be new victim would marry this guy in the first place. By turning both parties into respectively, a voice-lesson student and her accompanist, the couple’s obvious built-in musical appreciation adds power to a later scene (in both films) where the wife’s emotional state half-ruins a recital.

And though both versions feature an inspector who, from afar, senses something is badly awry, the original gives us a rumpled-Brit standard issue while the later version serves up a dapper Scotland Yard crime-sniffer played by Cotten. This last move adds some sexual tension to the later going, and though the movie isn’t heavy-handed enough to shoehorn in a romance,there’s definitely something in the air from both directions, and it gives the narrative a boost.

None of this is to knock — at least to any great degree — the decent-enough earlier picture, which, for its part, suffers right out of the gate here via an unrestored print (fans of the original with an all-Region player should note that in a previous Region B solo release from the BFI offers a standalone print that is). But the Cukor version is so beautifully rendered, especially in its performances and cosmetics, that there’s really no comparison, no matter how you cut it. The actors are so on point (the perpetually underrated Boyer more than included) that Cukor knows to let their faces carry the day, only moving the camera in those situations where it’s best served (there are a lot of interior nicknacks to play with here), which was his style. In fact, the cinematography is so lush that I temporarily convinced myself while watching it that Gaslight had to have gotten Joseph Ruttenberg one of his four cinematography Oscars, forgetting that the black-and-white award went to Laura that same year.

Watching Bergman fall to pieces in increments (often increments in the same scene) is an extraordinary acting feat that comes to Blu-ray just a few weeks after Criterion put out Olivia de Havilland’s showstopper in The Heiress; it’s almost too much to absorb. I wouldn’t have wanted to be an academy voter choosing between Bergman and Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity) in 1944 — though for me personally with Bergman, she’ll always be Sister Mary Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s, her next movie after Gaslight. And this is coming from a lapsed Presbyterian.

Another treat here is the teenaged Angela Lansbury as this very dysfunctional household’s servant — one who seems to have managed the tuition to go to tart school on the side. Remarkably, this was the same year Lansbury played Elizabeth Taylor’s sister in National Velvet (now, that would make a great Warner Archive Blu-ray), so it looks as of MGM must have figured out it the versatility it had on its hands fairly early (oh, if L.B. Mayer had lived to see The Manchurian Candidate). Lansbury, who just keeps plugging, offers some bonus section remembrances as well — but the MGM Gaslight is such a resplendent entertainment that Warner could have given it as a no-frills release, and it still would be a Blu-ray factor at year’s end.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Gaslight’ and ‘Mother Wore Tights’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Summer Stock’ and ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’

Summer Stock

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Musical, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Eddie Bracken, Gloria DeHaven.
1950.
Judy Garland’s last movie at the studio whose heyday she helped establish may be even more interesting to talk about than it is to see, but there are enough evenly sprinkled golden moments in it.
Extras: Little extras carried over from the 2006 DVD include a Tex Avery cartoon from around the same period, a Pete Smith short and a production history featurette.
Read the Full Review 

Three Coins in the Fountain

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Clifton Webb, Dorothy McGuire, Jean Peters, Louis Jourdan, Maggie McNamara.
1954.
This supremely shot confection with a pinch of socio-economic edginess is a 2.55:1 early CinemaScope movie to feast your eyes on if you want to see exactly what pop moviegoing, to say nothing of studio professionalism, was like in 1954.
Extras: The newly 4K-remastered Blu-ray includes a commentary from film historian Jeanine Basinger carried over from an old DVD.
Read the Full Review

Summer Stock

 BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Musical;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Eddie Bracken, Gloria DeHaven.

Judy Garland’s last movie at the studio whose heyday she helped establish may be even more interesting to talk about than it is to see, but there are enough evenly sprinkled golden moments in MGM’s Golden Age Summer Stock to make me think it’s a somewhat better movie than I recalled. The “let’s build us a barn and put on a show” musical has never been one of my favorites — and you’re speaking to one who’s even gone full-route enough to have once seen Rufe Davis (CBS’s future Floyd Smoot) in Republic’s Barnyard Follies from 1940 — which is probably more than you can say for any member of the Algonquin Round Table. But even beyond some standout numbers in 1950’s Stock, it’s worth footnoting that there are one or two where Garland looks pretty close to being a co-equal dancer with her jock-ish co-star, no kidding.

Kelly began his screen career with Garland in 1942’s For Me and My Gal, which instantly put him over in the movies (post-Pal Joey on Broadway) and even gave the two a couple of Billboard charters with Decca duets. Later, they co-starred in The Pirate, a Vincente Minnelli’s flop d’estime with cultists (I love it myself), and by the end of the ’40s, it was payback time. Kelly held Garland’s hand throughout Stock’s troubled production, filmed after her firing from Annie Get Your Gun, whose production stills and surviving footage show Garland to be gaunt and at the end of her tether. By Stock time, the weight had come back and then some, which can easily happen when you’re only about 4-foot-11. It was not unpleasing on her but certainly made for a striking contrast to her lithe appearance in, say, Presenting Lily Mars — almost like seeing a different person.

The plot here, such as it is, finds Garland trying to run an inherited farm by herself, aided near-exclusively by the longtime cook (Marjorie Main, as ever an invaluable supporting cast presence). To negate this, she is aided not at all by her flighty, coop-flown sister (Gloria DeHaven) who changes career aspirations every five minutes and now wants to be an actress. To this end, the latter brings in 20 or so of her closest work associates to use the old family barn as a musical revue stage, and you can just see DeHaven going up to Main and saying, “I know that the farm may soon go under, but see what you can do for two dozen extra mouths for all three meals, and indefinitely.” And this at a time when Garland is only trying to score a tractor for survival and cool down the advances of a local merchant’s son played by Eddie Bracken in a thanklessly whiny role as a sneezing doormat to his overbearing father. This is an unusual project in that two comic performers who on occasion could be exceptional — Bracken and Phil Silvers — are borderline unbearable here.

One of the invaders is, of course, the director (Kelly), who has hocked everything to bankroll this out-of town tryout and has nothing to his name but a station wagon and apparently some unknown angel on retainer to provide the costumes galore that materialize once the show gets off the ground. Meanwhile, the gifted tractor basically ends up suffering indignities not all that unkind to the title mule’s in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, while DeHaven elects to bolt the show (we said she was flighty. The latter move leaves it to sis Garland to take over the role, just as would happen, of course, in real life. But fortunately for the movie, if not credibility, Garland turns out to be a player.

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Right off the bat, Stock opens with a good Garland number (“If You Feel Like Singing, Sing”) followed quickly by a great one (“[Howdy Neighbor] Happy Harvest”), though at the end of it, someone might have told director Charles Walters that the overhead closeup of Garland’s mouth doing her concluding high notes had to go. As mentioned, the stars’ duets are felicitous, while Kelly’s solo shots include a newspaper dance that’s something of a classic and a good example of how a resourceful performer can get a lot out of the most minimal props if he has the stuff. There’s also a smile-inducer where Kelly dances on a long kitchen picnic table that seats just about everyone now on the farm, though you wonder how much the scuff marks will be appreciated the next time Main is spooning out parsnips or something. I’m always impressed by dance routines in confined or even claustrophobic settings, and here Kelly has not just the narrow table to navigate, but a slew of secondary players who barely have enough room to stay out of his way.

The Blu-ray is very easy on the eye, even though the chicken seed setting doesn’t offer too much in terms of natural beauty the way other MGM musicals do. Little extras carried over from the 2006 DVD include a Tex Avery cartoon from around the same period, a Pete Smith short (saw a lot of those in theaters as a kid) and a production history featurette where Garland archaeologist John Fricke (who would know) is among those who talk about how everyone had fingers crossed while sweating it out whether Garland would be able to finish the picture due to health and mental swings. Production shut down, and upon her return, as many know, she filmed the classic climactic “Get Happy” number, where she was maybe 20 pounds thinner.

The transition is jarring, but what a loss it would be if it didn’t exist — and besides, it excerpts well. Garland’s appearance in black (headgear included) accentuate her great legs, which is something my mother noted to be pretty early in life. This in part makes up for the studio excision of the “Mr. Monotony” number from Walters’ Easter Parade, where she wore the same outfit. To me, “Monotony” is far and away the best thing about Parade, which didn’t keep it from ending up on the cutting room floor. Meanwhile, Stock has a late-in-the-game number with Kelly and Silvers whose three or four minutes of torture is the stuff of fast-forward buttons, and it made Stock’s final release print. Maybe some day, someone can explain all this to me.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Summer Stock’ and ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’