Warner Archive Celebrates 10th Anniversary

The Warner Archive Collection, the manufacture-on-demand arm of Warner’s home video unit, last month celebrated its 10th anniversary — but its reach spans decades.

Since its first collection of 150 titles released in March of 2009, Warner Archive has navigated a host of changes in home entertainment business models and formats while releasing catalog titles on MOD from every decade and for every taste.

“Whether it’s Bogart and Bacall or whether its Hitchcock or Hammer horror films or Busby Berkeley films, we’re releasing something for everyone,” said George Feltenstein, SVP of theatrical catalog marketing at Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, who heads up the unit.

It’s also generated well in excess of $100 million in revenue for the studio over the years.

Manufacturing on demand is a process by which a disc is created when a consumer orders it, offering consumers access to titles that don’t have the kind of demand that supports a traditional pressing.

The kernel of the idea for its use in home video entertainment came from Warner’s Jim Wuthrich (currently president of worldwide home entertainment and games), Feltenstein recalled.

Feltenstein had been working on a joint venture with Rhino Records for soundtracks in 2002 and 2003 under a label called Handmade. “They would produce 2,500 units of albums that were aimed at collectors, and when they were sold out, they were sold out,” he said. “And it was a profitable way of getting niche content out to the consumer. You could only buy it online.

“So Jim saw the CDs in my hand and he asked me about them, and I explained the business model, and he said, ‘That’s fascinating. I have to figure out a way that we can get our deeper library titles out on DVD.’”

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MOD turned out to be the ticket, and several years later, with the help of Allied Vaughn, Warner Archive on March 23, 2009, released its first MOD collection.

“To my knowledge, [MOD] didn’t exist in our world, meaning the Hollywood studio world,” Feltenstein said. “We were the first studio to do this. Nobody had ever done it before.”

That first collection of 150 titles on DVD included some starring the legendary Debbie Reynolds, a “dear friend” of Feltenstein’s.

“On the morning of the 23rd, Debbie Reynolds was in New York on ‘The Today Show’ announcing the launch of the Warner Archive Collection,” Feltenstein said.

“She explained what it was and that some of her films were part of the initial offering. And then that night I did something that I used to do every year and had done for about 11 or 12 years at that time. We would have a yearly chat on the Home Theater Forum, which was and still is a fan site.”

During the chat, Feltenstein tried to allay any fears about the quality of the MOD discs. Warner Archive also had been careful to provide the proper aspect ratio (no pan-and-scan cutting out part of the picture).

“People were very excited, but to be fair there was also some trepidation,” he said. “There was concern about that fact that these were manufactured on demand, and people thought that DVD-Rs were not … they thought that manufactured on demand was similar to burning a disc on your computer, and it’s just not. It’s a fuller technology. The DVD-Rs and the process we went through was a much higher quality, so eventually — and it took a long time — eventually we gained consumer confidence, and now that it’s been 10 years, I’ve noticed people posting on the sites, ‘I have Warner Archive discs that are nine, 10 years old, and I’ve had no problems with them.’”

Those chats would soon lead to podcasts, all available on iTunes, and appearances at such fan confabs as Wondercon and Comic-con at which Feltenstein and staff would talk about upcoming releases and interview stars and directors from the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond.

Those first 150 releases included such classic features as Mr. Lucky with Cary Grant and Laraine Day, The Enchanted Cottage with Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire, Abe Lincoln in Illinois with Raymond Massey, Edison the Man with Spencer Tracy, and Private Lives with Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery, but also included more recent films such as Kaleidoscope with Warren Beatty, Oxford Blues with Rob Lowe and Wisdom with Emilio Estevez and Demi Moore.

The collection included “a lot of really good films that just hadn’t made their way to DVD and when you’re dealing with the wonderful incredible library that we’re so blessed to have, you know it’s an embarrassment of riches, and the response was tremendous,” Feltenstein said.

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As the catalog business waned at traditional retailers, Warner Archive was able to offer more and more classic titles via MOD — assisted by the technology to offer dual-sided discs and eventually Blu-ray Disc.

The kind of content expanded as well, beyond feature films.

“We have 3,250 releases on our docket as of now,” Feltenstein said. “We started with feature films only. We expanded into made for television movies, and we eventually were able to start adding television series.”

Warner Archive’s quest for more, deep library content also pushed preservation at the studio.

“Eventually we got to the point where we were confronted with the fact that masters on the shelf were starting to run out, that we would need to start creating new masters if we wanted to maintain our quality standard, and our standard of making sure we had original aspect ratio, and so forth,” Feltenstein noted.

Thus, a side product of Warner Archive was preservation of content that could have languished and deteriorated on the shelf.

“Our first remastered releases came out in June of 2010, basically 15 months after launch,” he said.

Eventually, most of the other studios caught on to MOD, but none had a unit like Warner Archive, Feltestein said.

“I like to refer to it as the boutique within the behemoth,” he said. “We have a very small dedicated staff, very engaged with consumers.”

Those consumers add up to a profitable business for Warner.

“It may be a smaller group of people, but there is still a rabid fan base out there for all sorts of content where people want to own things, and we’re trying to take advantage of that in a profitable way, listening to fans, watching sales,” Feltenstein said.

Duffy Reflects on ‘Man From Atlantis’

With Aquaman recently making a splash in theaters, the Warner Archive Collection March 30 reminded attendees at WonderCon in Anaheim, Calif., about another hero who once emerged from the ocean deep.

Patrick Duffy was on hand for a panel to discuss his experiences making “Man From Atlantis,” in which he played Mark Harris, an amnesiac with the ability to breathe underwater who agrees to help a government agency that conducts research in Earth’s oceans.

Duffy played the character in four TV movies in 1977 and a subsequent 13-episode series that ran until 1978. Warner Archive recently released the first Man From Atlantis TV movie on Blu-ray. The other telefilms and the complete series were previously released on DVD by Warner Archive.

The actor recalled how the show was filmed in tanks of water with practical visual effects and makeup, not green screens and computer-generated images. The process involved uncomfortable contact lenses to makes his eyes glow underwater, webbing between his fingers, and the need to inhale water into his sinuses to prevent bubbles from appearing while filming underwater scenes.

“Jason Momoa [has] nothing on me,” Duffy said.

Duffy said some of the stunts could be quite dangerous, recounting one that involved lifting him into the air while holding onto a handle attached to a cable.

“I’m really wet. This is really slippery. And I didn’t have a safety harness on because all I had on was my little yellow swimsuit,” Duffy said. “And I thought, this could end really badly.”

Another scene called for Mark to swim through a door before it closes.

“I had to have my lenses in,” Duffy said. “They roll the cameras and I push off and start swimming toward this wall, and I can’t see anything. And my timing was off. The wall closed before I got there. And Mark swims with his hands to his side. So I’m just stroking away trying to get to this opening that isn’t there, and I swim into the wall and I knock myself out underwater. Then I realized that anything could be dangerous.”

As a result, the actor took a more active role in assuring his own safety.

“The stunt coordinator came up to me and he said, you know Patrick, every time you do one of those stunts, you take a job away from one of my boys,” Duffy said. “And I thought, you’re right. Anybody could have done that. And I didn’t need to do it and I don’t need to do the more dangerous ones when I don’t have to because you’re not seeing my face. And these people get paid, they do it better than I do, they know how to be safe for themselves, and it’s their job.”

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Duffy joked about why he kept coming back for more “Man From Atlantis” movies and the TV series, alluding to the line at the end of the first movie that his character would stay with his new human friends because “I haven’t learned enough.”

“When I come back up, there’s a blip in the audio there,” Duffy quipped. “What I actually said was ‘I haven’t earned enough.’”

Duffy went on to play Bobby Ewing on “Dallas” opposite Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing through the 1980s. In the 1990s he starred on the sitcom “Step by Step,” episodes of which are also available on DVD from Warner Archive.

“Any actor who’s working is the luckiest actor in the world,” Duffy said. “And when you have a show for a while you just think, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you. And then ‘Man From Atlantis’ was canceled and then, most actors think they’ll never work again, and a lot of it’s true sometimes, unfortunately. Literally seven days after ‘Man From Atlantis’ was canceled, I signed my ‘Dallas’ contract. And then two weeks after ‘Dallas’ was canceled, I signed my ‘Step by Step’ contract. So I’m one of those rare, very fortunate actors.”

Duffy has since branched off into directing and writing.

In 2016 Duffy wrote a book exploring the culture of Atlantis and continuing the storylines from the show.

(L-R) Warner Archive’s D.W. Ferranti shows off the ‘Man From Atlantis’ book written by Patrick Duffy.

“Any job that’s your first job that leads to the rest of your career life is a memory that you just never let go of gratitude for. That’s one reason I love that character,” Duffy said. “I had the idea for the book from the time we did the pilot. I knew where he came from in my own mind, I knew who his mother and father were. And I knew that he had a love interest. And these are all just things that as I was intending to be this fictional person, it was so intriguing to me who this strange person was. So I figured all this stuff out. And the more I figured it out, once the show was canceled, the more I couldn’t let it go. And it became a series of notes. I wrote four or five pages that took me to the present day, where he would be now, and how could he go home.”

Duffy also reminisced about some of his “Man From Atlantis” co-stars, including the late Victor Buono, the heavy-set actor best known for playing King Tut on the 1960s “Batman” series who also played a villain in the first “Man From Atlantis” movie and on the series.

“Victor was a sweetheart,” Duffy said. “He brilliant, he was wonderful. He was the most intelligent person I think I’ve ever worked with. Sorry Hagman. He was a poet, a raconteur, he was cultured, he was everything, and he was one of the funniest people I’ve ever worked with.”

Mike’s Picks: ‘Year of the Dragon’ and ‘The Return of Frank James’

Year of the Dragon

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Mickey Rourke, John Lon, Ariane.
1985.
A handsome-plus howler whose saturated colors synch keenly with its Blu-ray presentation, the late Michael Cimino’s violent camp-fest Year of the Dragon remains an ideal culinary companion for the viewing demographic seeking just the right movie to go with its six-pack breakfast while waiting for the repo man to arrive.
Extras: Includes a Cimino commentary carried over from the earlier DVD release.
Read the Full Review

The Return of Frank James

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Jackie Cooper, John Carradine.
1940.
This sequel to 1939’s Jesse James is attractively slicked-up escapism that has the added historical benefit of featuring Gene Tierney’s screen debut in a fairly sizable role.
Read the Full Review

Year of the Dragon

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Mickey Rourke, John Lon, Ariane.

A handsome-plus howler whose saturated colors synch keenly with its Blu-ray presentation, the late Michael Cimino’s violent camp-fest Year of the Dragon remains an ideal culinary companion for the viewing demographic seeking just the right movie to go with its six-pack breakfast while waiting for the repo man to arrive. Of course, with at least one severed head showing up in Panavision atop an array of other yucky homicides, the movie may not wash down sans extra effort.

Still, this 1985 adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel wasn’t just any old project, given its collaborative scripting effort by Cimino and Oliver Stone — an unholy alliance of excess if there ever was one but a likely indicator that on-screen mayhem won’t be in short supply. With a dizzying array of hop-skip-jumping in its locale shooting (New York, Toronto, Bangkok, Wilmington, N.C., and more), most of the story is set in New York’s Chinatown, where hotheaded cop captain Mickey Rourke has just been assigned and organized heroin trade flourishes. More recently, though, “organized” has transitioned into “disarrayed” because a polished youngster (John Lone, always dressed to the hilt) is challenging an army of aged superiors and their prostates for command of the local Chinese triad societies.

Rourke’s own superiors (including the half-predictable lifelong friend “from the neighborhood”) don’t want many boats rocked, and they’re always barking out curbs on his perceived excesses against an office backdrop of their framed family photos and one of then New York Mayor Edward Koch. As a decorated Marine veteran, Rourke thinks all this skittishness over busting heads is akin to America having fought a war in Vietnam it didn’t want to win — a sentiment apparently shared by the late filmmaker himself on a Blu-ray commentary carried over from the old DVD.

Thrown into all this are a long-suffering Rourke wife (Caroline Kava in an impossible nag of a role) and an Asian TV reporter played by onetime model Ariane (aka Ariane Koizumi). The latter took the brunt of critical brickbats that led to Dragon’s nomination for five Razzie Awards — though in the year of Rambo: First Blood Part II, not that many other actors and filmmakers had to look over their shoulders. I will admit here to having seen few movies in my life where the critical tension between “she’s one of the worst actresses I’ve ever seen” and “man, is she hot” was so manifest, but it’s cringeworthy time every time she opens her mouth, and Ariane’s screen career was over with her debut movie, aside from a follow-up appearance in an Abel Ferrara effort. Which probably doesn’t count because even Jan Murray could claim that.

Second-billed Lone aside, nearly every principal’s line reading here sounds as if it could use another re-take, though it’s tough enough getting past what looks like some kind of sore at the bridge of Rourke’s nose, which must have looked great when the film was blown up to 70mm for what I can’t believe were many engagements. (In keeping with such tone-deaf loftiness, Leonard Maltin once gifted me with a souvenir roadshow ticket to one of showings from the L.A. engagement of Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate that never was — arguably a pop-culture equal to a photo I once saw of a ticket to the 1964 Yankees-Phillies World Series, printed before the Phillies’ late-season turned into Year of the Collapse and they lost the pennant to an NL team that had Bob Uecker.)

And yet. Dragon does have undeniable narrative drive, which explains why it picked up a cult after a disappointing theatrical run with the aforementioned six-packers who watched it blottoed on VHS — albeit in the same dreadful panning-and-scanning that Cimino bemoans in his voiceover. Over a 2&1/4-hour running time, Dragon is never truly absorbing, but neither is it dull — and even when minor components like writing, performances and smooth direction eluded him, Cimino always had his designer’s eye; the very opening outdoor procession scene has more decor per square inch than any competition coming immediately to mind. Now, I will say that I’m surprised to hear Cimino claim here that Stanley Kubrick himself was amazed at being told that these and other exteriors were shot on a set because (and I remember this from 1985), a set is exactly what it looks like. Not that you could expect New York City to shut down a daytime street for a sequence of this magnitude.

In terms of action to the exclusion of almost everything else, we have shootings, explosions, beheadings, sexual assaults, tourist killings, office fisticuffs and more showing up as if they were controlled by a metronome. My favorite bit — and this one always stuck with me as well from the same 1985 NYC critics’ screening — is a late-in-the-game one where Rourke endangers his life walking into a wall of flame after a car blows up so that he can drag the dead and now totally aflame driver/killer down the street. Now, this is a work ethic.

Though he falls for the Ariane character in one of the more bizarre matchups since Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman made their 45 days of marital hay that was likely more like gravel, Rourke is nothing if not promiscuous in his employment of verbal ethnic slurs here; these launched all kinds of official protests against the movie at the time and likely had an effect on the box office. Cimino, who despite his madman reputation is mostly reasoned and civilized on the disc commentary, convinces in his assertion that this isn’t where his own heart was — and he was still holding a grudge that the studio forced him to overdub what was supposed to be the last line of the picture (which definitely prompted cultural harmony) into a capper that makes no sense.

Apparently, studio execs thought Cimino’s single-liner would be politically incorrect, though a lot of second-graders could easily dispute the point. The real point is that suits will always be suits, and that for all its excesses, Dragon is still more worthy of discussion than Red Sonja, Gymkata, Code Name: Emerald, Fever Pitch, Martin’s Day and most of whatever else carried the MGM banner in 1985. These others sound more akin to bad LSD flashbacks, though I’m more from the generation that flashes back to bad polio shots. By contrast, Cimino’s picture was an ambitious Auteur Antics project with real production values that went off the track and over the cliff — and not, in his case, for the first time.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Year of the Dragon’ and ‘The Return of Frank James’

Mike’s Picks: ‘La Verite’ and ‘Men Must Fight’

La Verite (The Truth)

Street 2/12/19
Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Brigitte Bardot, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel, Sami Frey.
1960. A structurally lumpy yet intriguing 128-minute portrayal of murder-trial brutality spun off of tragic events we see played out in extensive flashbacks, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Verite is the movie that proved Brigitte Bardot had real acting chops and then some.
Extras: Clouzot projects a civilized demeanor and pipe-smoking urbanity in two of the three Criterion bonuses, with the third of these going to Bardot in an extraordinary 1982 documentary excerpt where she relives what she had to go through in terms of press scrutiny when her son was born and her second marriage was busting up.
Read the Full Review

 Men Must Fight

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Diana Wynyard, Lewis Stone, Phillips Holmes, Robert Young, May Robson.
1933. Men Must Fight all but anticipates World War II in terms of its eventual London Blitz-type attack on New York City.
Read the Full Review

 

Men Must Fight

DVD REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 DVD;
Not rated.
Stars Diana Wynyard, Lewis Stone, Phillips Holmes, Robert Young, May Robson.

So OK, here’s another political wild one originally released by MGM the same year as Gabriel Over the White House — or wild enough, anyway, to make one wonder if someone at the time was spiking L.B. Mayer’s drinking water when it came to bold screen concepts. Then again, 1933’s Men Must Fight — which all but anticipates World War II in terms of its eventual London Blitz-type attack on New York City — isn’t necessarily out of keeping with other pacifistic movies of that Hollywood era. When I was very young, I figured that All Quiet on the Western Front must have qualified as aberrant movie fare at the time due to its imploring of men not to fight. Only later did I learn from Frank Borzage’s No Greater Glory (1934) and 1933’s The Eagle and the Hawk (with its “money” cast of Fredric March, Cary Grant and Carole Lombard) that certain movies of the early 1930s were nothing like what audiences would ever have seen in the 1940s. Well, it would figure, wouldn’t it?

British stage actress Diana Wynyard didn’t make that many movies, but after appearing in ’32 with all three Barrymores in Rasputin and the Empress, 1933 was kind of a big year for her, what with the lead in Fox’s best picture Oscar winner (Cavalcade) and top billing here. Cast as a combat nurse who in those pre-Code movie days was allowed to have had sex without the Breen Office burning her at the stake in retribution, Wynyard watches her lover go off to a World War I pilot’s death after a three-day affair leaves her pregnant. In casting that adds to the curio value here, Robert Young plays the latter — decades before he began rolling in TV residuals after “Father Knows Best” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.” At this point, a major played by MGM’s future Judge Hardy, Lewis Stone (who looks not much older than the later scenes than he does at the beginning) steps in to, as used to be said, give the child a name. This adoptive dad eventually becomes U.S. Ambassador to “Eurasia” (we’re dealing in broad strokes here), which means that diplomatic sentiments are also part of day-to-day home life. And especially so when wife Wynyard has become an out-and-out pacifist and drums this mindset into the male child (Phillips Holmes).

If the movie weren’t unusual enough, we have the real-life irony that early enlister Holmes was killed in a 1942 crash while serving the Royal Canadian Air Force — this after his girlfriend (singer Libby Holman) married Holmes brother Ralph on the rebound before he joined the RCAF, where Ralph suffered so much emotional trauma that he committed suicide not long after his tour of duty. Also for the record, Holman much later committed suicide herself in one of its century’s more turbulent public lives, but we’re starting to complicate the issue here.

So just for actor recognition purposes, we’ll just note that a couple years pre-Men, Phillips had had what subsequently became the Montgomery Clift role in Josef von Sternberg’s not quite deservingly lambasted flop version of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (later remade as A Place in the Sun) — and that the earlier picture’s reception permanently harmed Holmes’ career. Also worth noting that father to the Holmes brothers was character actor Taylor Holmes — who was such a fixture in ’40s and ’50s potboilers from Republic Pictures (also the nutty sci-fi romp Tobor the Great) that I could sometime swear he had more credits there than Rex Allen. He may be most memorable, though, for his doozy of a crooked lawyer in the original Kiss of Death, a real oil deposit.

Those damned Eurasians, though, haven’t peace on their minds, which causes a political fissure in the household — kind of a George and Kellyane Conway deal — when, in a finger snap, elder Stone takes heed of the situation and becomes more militaristic than he’s been since the movie’s opening reel. This, in turn, puts young Holmes in the middle — a situation not helped by the additional red-meat attitude of his new wife (Ruth Selwyn, real-life Mrs. of Fight director Edgar) and her family. Adding to the bizarre mix — and we haven’t even gotten to the zeppelins — is that Holmes’s mother-in-law is played by dizzy real-life gossip columnist and occasionally dizzy actress Hedda Hopper.

I’ve seen four of the eight features Selwyn directed, and they’re all pretty zippy and/or intriguing without being Second Coming material. Specifically, he directed Helen Hayes to an Oscar with The Sin of Madelon Claudet (and gave Robert Young a huge career break as her son); anticipated Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life by a dozen years with Turn Back the Clock; and turned out one of the best “Warren-William-Is-An-Old-Lech” pre-Code forays into screen sin with Skyscraper Souls. That’s the one in which bank prez William lives perched atop the concern’s cloud-busting building, to which he invites sweet young things for penthouse fun — bringing to mind the coda that Frank Sinatra would later bring to the rendition of Fly Me to the Moon preserved on Sinatra at the Sands (“… and don’t tell your papa”). Put this all together, and it’s something more than a journeyman mix for a fairly obscure filmmaker.

Meanwhile, here comes the zeppelins (1933 was four years before the Hindenburg crash, though, of course, they’re still around, if rarely en masse, as here). So do bombing attacks on Manhattan, which are even worse, turns out, when you’re like Wynyard and in a cab, though certainly bombing the Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge are horrific enough. The movie presents a kind of tightrope challenge for print chroniclers: Any fear of employing spoilers has to be weighed against the unusual nature of the material when it comes to jawboning a project that the cast by itself can’t likely sell to a modern-day audience.

This is a barebones release that’ll never be mistaken for a 4K job (or half a “K” or a tenth of a “K” or so on). But for those who collect oddballs (either in their movie minds or as collected physical media), this is quite a footnote. Were I still film-programming for a living, I’d probably pair it with William Cameron Menzies’ Things To Come from three years later, though I’m sure that some good billing alternatives are out there.

Mike’s Picks: ‘La Verite’ and ‘Men Must Fight’

Brewster McCloud

Director Robert Altman’s oddball Brewster McCloud has attained something of a cult status for its darkly comic tale of a boy living in the Astrodome who plans to escape with a birdlike contraption as Houston is besieged by a series of weird murders.

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Comedy;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Shelley Duvall, Michael Murphy, William Windom.

Sandwiched between two of its era’s landmark screen achievements — MASH and McCabe and Mrs. Miller — Robert Altman’s Astrodome fantasy Brewster McCloud is an oddball even by his standards, which indeed could get mighty eccentric on occasion, though this was more of a factor from the late 1970s until 1992’s comeback with The Player.

One has to wonder what then MGM chief James “The Smiling Cobra” Aubrey — with his background in the enormously popular but predominantly mega-crappy hayseed programming from his eventually stormy CBS tenure — really thought when he was plunking counter-culture-ish Brewster into 1970’s year-end holiday season (I saw it opening night in New York City, just before Christmas). Not that signs were all bleak: At year’s beginning, in what I’m sure was anything but an isolated incident, I had seen MASH get perhaps the deepest belly-laughs from a Saturday-night packed house that I have ever seen in my life (seeing the climactic football scene in a raucous football town was an off-the-charts experience). And now here was either the critic for Time or Newsweek (I forget which) stoking hopes by proclaiming that with his first follow-up, Altman had just become the first person ever to hit one out of the Astrodome.

Well, hardly. But in its defense, the movie, whose remastered Panavision visuals are easily up to Warner Archive standards, has mellowed, probably forever, into a solid double until it more or less gets picked off in late innings. And even then, it’s partially saved by a delightful end credits extravaganza, capped by one of the most uproariously twisted final shots in screen history (assuming you’re twisted as well). For a while, few qualifications are needed because the first half or more is real-deal Altman despite his having to work a script by Doran William Cannon, who not long before had penned Otto Preminger’s … Skidoo. (I can just hear someone saying to Aubrey: “Jim Baby, we know you spent all those years pandering to the Cotton Mather demographic with ‘Petticoat Junction’ and all that, but we’re hitting in the Bigs now, and we’ve got the same screenwriter who set the table for your old network colleague Jackie Gleason to drop acid on screen.”)

Skidoo also serves up Carol Channing in her underwear — easily as mind-bending as watching Ralph Kramden see electric pictures — but let’s not go there. So getting back to Brewster, the premise is this: Bud Cort’s Brewster lives in the Astrodome as he prepares to fly out of it via a constructed contraption, all under the influence of Sally Kellerman’s borderline incestuous mother figure (who once may have been a bird herself) adamantly urging the lad not to compromise his goals by indulging in sex with willing young women. So let’s see: Did I leave anything out? Oh, yeah: Houston has just called in ace San Francisco detective Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) to crack a series of local murders whose corpses are all splattered with bird doody. What I wouldn’t give to see Jack Webb handling the interrogations.

Given all this, most people will have an idea from the description if Brewster is a movie for them, but thanks to a cast of familiar Altman casting collaborators — and this was Shelley Duvall’s screen debut — there are many chuckles along the way, most of them aimed at the idiots who populate its large cast of characters. One performer who was decidedly not an Altman stock company regular was Margaret Hamilton herself, cast as a wicked witch (in spirit, anyway) who shrieks the national anthem at Astros games while badgering the band whose uniforms she’s bankrolled. One can only imagine what she thought of her surrounding sound anarchy after having worked with Ray Bolger, but her Daphne Heap character is the first casualty here and thus isn’t around long, though the capper gag to her demise is one of the movie’s best and a must for Wizard of Oz completists.

An added high point is Murphy (another Altman regular) finessing a first-rate parody of Steve McQueen in Bullitt, down to the bluest eyes that Metrocolor can covey and a drawerful of high-end turtleneck sweaters in a wide array of pigments to make him look cool while burning rubber on the road. Another is MASH’s G. Wood (why didn’t he have a better career, and why didn’t Altman use him more?) as a cantankerous Houston police captain who resents Murphy and is generally as dyspeptic as Wood’s general in Altman’s greatest of all service comedies — a role he later repeated in the hit watered-down TV version, for which Altman had no use. Plus Bert Remsen as a cruelly loathsome wife-beating narc (even Wood hates him) whose young son’s skin problems appear to clear up overnight once dad joins the ca-ca’ed-corpse club. And Rene Auberjonois as a bird lecturer to whom the movie keeps returning, only to find him incrementally taking on the appearance of his subjects. Also Stacy Keach in a ton of latex makeup as a miser right out of Dickens; he gets his, too.

Altman fares less well with the women, aside from Kellerman’s casting perfection as the best-endowed ex-avian imaginable. Poor Jennifer Salt, in an impossible role, is a complete bust as a hot-for-Brewster apparent nympho who orgasms just by thinking of him, while the director hasn’t yet figured how to get the best out of Shelley Duvall (an actress I never “got,” though she has too many impressive credits for me not to give her her due). And, yeah — a big car chase in a Bullitt parody would have been de rigueur in 1970, but Altman can’t really figure out a way to do a novel one, and slow-motion to mickey-mousing music isn’t the answer). And yet: It has to be said that its capper gag is another one that arguably attains classic status, and that’s the thing: Just when you’re about to bail on the movie, something happens that is beyond the creative capability of normal, mundane minds.

Taking this further, I think a few minds might have gotten expanded during the filming of what ultimately had to settle for becoming a cult movie. Or to put it another way, per his well-known reputation, I don’t think it was oregano that Uncle Bob was smoking on the set when he shot this. Well, kids, it was a heady time. The same half-week, MGM also released Paul Mazursky’s hippy-dippy Alex in Wonderland, which was so “Fellini-esque” that Federico Fellini was actually in it. On balance, I think Alex comes closer to being a success (however qualified), due to Ellen Burstyn and its spot-on satire of Hollywood in the Vietnam era when no one had even a clue of what might cut it at the box office. Either way, Aubrey had to be thinking that there wasn’t as much to wrap his mind around when he was pushing The Lucy Show and Mayberry spin-offs. And though it’s just a guess, it’s unlikely Aunt Bea ever badgered some stagehand to score her a lid.

Brewster McCloud

Mike’s Picks: ‘Brewster McCloud’ and ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure’ and ‘The Ice Harvest’

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Gordon Scott, Sara Shane, Anthony Quayle, Sean Connery.
1959. Tarzan joins the hunt for some nefarious jewel thieves in this robustly spun yarn.
Read the Full Review

The Ice Harvest

Kino Lorber, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for violence, language and sexuality/nudity.
Stars John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Platt.
2005.
Even by noir standards, Harvest is uncommonly brutal in language, graphic bodily harm and, well, life attitude. Especially for a movie with recognizable stars and filmmakers.
Read the Full Review

 

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Gordon Scott, Sara Shane, Anthony Quayle, Sean Connery.

As the first of two unusually well-received Tarzan adventures released by Paramount Pictures in 1959 and 1960, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure opens with an outrageous visual that some might momentarily think is from an unaired episode from Megyn Kelly’s defunct NBC morning show. At a time when 007 was still three years away from the big screen, we are treated to, of all things, Sean Connery in blackface, though not for any racist reasons on the part of the script. In fact, if for no other reason than that the cast is almost totally Caucasian, this isn’t another Tarzan movie where some white savior saves the black locals from scummy invaders. And having just re-seen Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey via Criterion’s new Blu-ray, I can opine that movie natives are capable of doing pretty well for themselves, thank you.

So as it turns out in this robustly spun yarn, Connery’s character and his equally nefarious colleagues are posing as black Africans to facilitate their nocturnal heist of dynamite, which ends up with the death of a doctor and radio operator in the process. As a result, their pursuit becomes a big-league affair that demands a pro, even one who lives in a tree with a chimpanzee. So in comes Tarzan (Gordon Scott) — or, if you prefer, Robert Mueller on a grapevine. And as it turns out, the ringmaster baddie (Anthony Quayle) has some history with the jungle man, and when the latter gets word of who his new adversary is, this becomes perhaps the first movie I can recall where our Tarzan has a look cross his face that might called “world-weary.”

With our late-’50s emergence from the so-called Eisenhower years (which aren’t looking all bad these days), it was obvious even back then that “ungawa” was no longer going to cut it, either in Beat coffee shops or the Duluth car wash. So if Scott and whatever actor it was who played Cheetah aren’t exactly up in their tree reading Remembrance of Things Past, this Tarzan is on a comparably erudite side when compared with Johnny Weissmuller or Lex Barker. Or, at very least, he speaks in complete sentences, albeit ones with fewer clauses than, say, David Halberstam used to employ.

Quayle’s cruds need these explosives for blasting purposes in an as yet un-located mine that they hope and assume contains diamonds. Among the colleagues not played by Connery (who’s pretty nasty here, BTW) is a doughy mold-culture type with coke-bottle glasses — and, it is suggested, a former Nazi. There is also, obeying international law in movies like this, a babe girlfriend (Scilla Gabel) for Quayle. I grew up looking at old issues of Saga and Argosy in the barber shop — the ones whose jungle-motived covers featured buxom women in low-cut blouses, open midriffs, ammunition belts and a live python for the capper style touch. Gabel, though, is no such adventuress but just another looker who mostly sunbathes a lot on their boat. When she eventually meets her end in film spectacular fashion, you can almost hear her mother saying, “I told you that if you didn’t exhibit better taste in men, you’d end up in quicksand.”

What makes this Adventure a little different is the presence of an additional babe — the other one played by Sara Shane as something of what used to be called a “playgirl.” Cocky, traveling alone and seemingly self-sufficient, she nonetheless lands her Cessna in jungle muck the way Jim Backus, Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett might have in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. This means that she has to depend on Tarzan as the alternative to being stranded with crocodiles who haven’t flossed, though how she emerges unscathed from her honey of a crash is a mystery the movie doesn’t pursue.

Given that The 400 Blows, North by Northwest, Some Like It Hot, Rio Bravo and Anatomy of a Murder all came out in 1959 as well, this isn’t really a screen achievement to rate one of those aggressive old TV sales jobs of the Art Fern/Ginsu knife variety. But there isn’t any fat in the narrative, and even the mild suggestion of sexual attraction between the two principals seems natural enough and not a shoehorn job — though personally, I wouldn’t care to rub my hands through the hair of anyone who swims near the hippos. Eventually, in what must be a Tarzan-pic first, Shane is apprehended trying to steal some penicillin from the villains’ boat to cure the Big Guy, which suggests exciting new directions the series might have taken (think: Tarzan Gets a Dose). But no: The injury is suffered as part of everyday Tarzan labors — though, as we know, these can get mighty strenuous just by themselves.

John Guillerman directed, who mixed at least a couple movies I like among his bombs: Guns at Batasi and the “actor” portions of The Towering Inferno. He also did The Blue Max, of which I have no recent opinions, though I sure have rich memories of hearing the late radio evangelist Garner Ted Armstrong ranting on the airwaves about taking his young son to a movie about World War I planes and instead getting Ursula Andress with a towel slung over her nude upper torso (“Hey dad, maybe it’s God’s Plan”). Looking attractive enough on Blu-ray despite the muddy limitations of Eastman Color, Adventure was shot by Ted Scaife, who also worked with Jacques Tourneur, John Ford and Jack Cardiff (Young Cassidy), Robert Aldrich, Andre de Toth, John Huston and George Cukor.

But I couldn’t, by coincidence, watch this movie again the day after Nicolas Roeg’s death without being disproportionately struck by the fact that “Nick” (as billed) was one of the two camera operators here, which points up how long it can take to establish a career that additionally makes the leap from DP to director. As far as I know, Bernardo Bertolucci never worked on a Tarzan movie in any capacity — though, if he did, I’d really like to see it. Though given that monster arachnid in Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (a big one for me at a give-take kiddie matinee in 1953 or ’54), he might have done a bang-up job with a variation on The Spider’s Strategem.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure’ and ‘The Ice Harvest’

Warner Archive Releasing Classic ‘Popeye’ Cartoons

The Warner Archive Collection will release Popeye the Sailor: The 1940s Vol. 1 on DVD and Blu-ray Dec. 11. The single-disc set contains the first 14 theatrical shorts starring the iconic character remastered from 4K scans of the original nitrate Technicolor negatives.

“This is a landmark moment in Warner Bros. providing animation enthusiasts with the ability to own treasured animated classics from our library with the best possible quality, aimed directly at the adult animation collectors,” said George Feltenstein, SVP of theatrical catalog at Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. “Popeye is a beloved character whose popularity has endured for 90 years — starting as a comic strip, continuing as a headliner in motion pictures for almost 25 years, and cherished for decades on television.”

Many of the shorts have been unseen in their original form for more than 60 years and are making their home entertainment debut.

Popeye the Sailor: The 1940s Vol. 1 offers the 1943-44 and 1944-45 runs produced by Famous Studios, Paramount’s New York-based animation outlet at the time. The shorts start with “Her Honor The Mare” (originally released on Nov. 26, 1943) and continue with “The Marry-Go-Round,” “We’re On Our Way To Rio,” “The Anvil Chorus Girl,” “Spinach Packin’ Popeye,” “Puppet Love,” “Pitchin’ Woo At The Zoo,” “Moving Aweigh,” “She-Sick Sailors,” “Pop-Pie A La Mode,” “Tops In The Big Top,” “Shape Ahoy,” “For Better Or Nurse” and “Mess Production.”  All the cartoons are uncut and retain their original titles, which were removed for TV in the 1950s.

“The animators at this time, during the war years, were allowed to push the Popeye character forward, creating particularly zany plot lines and funny situations beyond the classic Popeye/Bluto rivalry for Olive Oyl,”  said  animation historian and author Jerry Beck. “I’m particularly tickled over the cartoon where Bluto becomes a pseudo-Superman (courtesy of a licensed tie-in with DC Comics) and another where Popeye and Bluto romance Olive as marionette puppets. This was the ‘Golden Age’ of animation — and these are particularly strong cartoons that have been long in demand by animation buffs.”

The home video release comes amid a merchandising blitz by brand owner King Features Syndicate celebrating the 90th anniversary of Popeye in 2019, with support in retail categories including apparel, accessories, collectibles, health and nutrition, and publishing.