Stars of 1984’s ‘Supergirl’ Reflect on Film Ahead of Warner Archive Blu-ray Release

Cast members of 1984’s Supergirl were on hand at the 2018 San Diego Comic-Con International July 19 to promote the July 24 Blu-ray release of the film from Warner Archive.

The two-disc set includes the film’s 125-minute international cut remastered for Blu-ray, with commentary from director Jeannot Szwarc, a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette, plus a copy of the rare 139-minute director’s cut on DVD.

Helen Slater, who was an unknown actress when she was cast as the title character, said it was a bit intimidating to appear in a cast that included Peter O’Toole, Mia Farrow and Faye Dunaway as the main villain.

“It’s definitely intimidating, especially since those actors were crazy talented and Academy Award=winning;  and Lawrence of Arabia for goodness’ sake,” Slater said. “I think part of the advantage of being 18 and turning 19 is that you don’t really know to be totally freaked out because you’re just so young. Like now if it happened I’d be more nervous.”

Slater later returned to the DC Comics realm by playing Superman’s mother on “Smallville,” and Supergirl’s adopted mother on the current “Supergirl” TV series starring Melissa Benoist.

Marc McClure played Jimmy Olsen in the film, reprising his role from the “Superman” films that starred Christopher Reeve, who was meant to have a cameo in the film.

“I think the producers just wanted to tie it in,” McClure said. “I think the plan was that Chris was supposed to be in the film, and then he was doing something else, and it was good for Jimmy to get the nod. And I had a great time.”

Instead, Reeve appears on a poster seen by Supergirl as his theme music plays.

Slater said they tried many versions of the costume, and that she had the same trainer as Reeve to prepare her for the physicality of the role.

“When I got the part I was probably 20 pounds underweight from where they needed me to be,” she said.

But the effects of the training paid off when she put on the costume.

“I was bulked up so there was a feeling of being powerful,” she said.

Slater said that she was a brunette when she was cast and dyed her hair blond for the role.

“One of the losses when they dyed my hair blond was that I couldn’t swim,” Slater said. “I went swimming three times a week for my training, and [they said] you can’t go back into the water now that your hair’s blond. They were just too worried it was going to go green.”

On top of that, they gave her a brunette wig to play Supergirl’s alter ego, Linda Lee.

“They should have done it the other way,” Slater joked.

McClure, who later appeared in the “Back to the Future” films and Apollo 13, said he’s been fortunate in his career to work with great directors and act in iconic films.

“To be able to be involved in one film that has legs, you’re a lucky actor, let alone some of the films I’ve been involved in,” McClure said.

Slater said she hasn’t had a chance to watch the new Blu-ray yet, but said it has been a while since she’s seen even part of the film.

“All the years my daughter was in our house [she and my husband] would make these birthday movies, and for my 40th birthday she was obsessed with Harry Potter and he had her, since he’s a wiz with filmmaking, use a greenscreen and had her on a broomstick flying through different movies,” Slater said. “And at the end he has her fly into Supergirl, where I’m flying, she’s on her broomstick, and she says ‘Hey Mom … See you in 20 years! Don’t forget to name me Hannah!”

Mike’s Picks: ‘Let’s Make Love’ and ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’

Let’s Make Love

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR. 
Stars Marilyn Monroe, Yves Montand, Tony Randall.
1960. Five months before her final film The Misfits’ release, Marilyn Monroe starred in Let’s Make Love, the last completed pure MM “vehicle.” Basically a rack on which to hang a full array of hats, the script concerns an Old Money French billionaire secretly posing as an actor to lampoon himself in an off-Broadway satirical revue whose personnel isn’t aware that it has the real thing in its midst.
Read the Full Review

The Colossus of Rhodes

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Rory Calhoun, Lea Massari.
1961. Aside from some oddball casting amusements, this amusing sprawler’s other claim to fame is its status as the debut of Sergio Leone as a credited director — though from an autuerist angle, there isn’t a whole lot of future trademark stuff to be gleaned.
Extras: A bonus commentary by (Leone biographer) Christopher Frayling hits just the right balance between film/historical scholarship and droll humor.
Read the Full Review

The Colossus of Rhodes

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Rory Calhoun, Lea Massari.

OK, so you’re Lea Massari, and it’s obvious to see that you’d look mighty nice in a tunic, toga or $2.98 “street dress” I recently saw advertised in an ancient newspaper ad for Murphy’s Department Store. But you’ve just worked with Michelangelo Antonioni himself in L’Avventura, which is worth a lot of prestige currency. And now someone wants you to take the female lead in a Totalscope sword-and-sandals epic called The Colossus of Rhodes — script by the chief scenarist of the Steve Reeves “Hercules” pics (along with five cohorts) and opposite John Derek — except that there’s been a falling-out, and the new star is an in-the-area Rory Calhoun.

So what’s the story on Rory, Massari might have asked — given her likely lack of familiarity with Westerns like Red Sundown, or Utah Blaine or The Saga of Hemp Brown. Nor had she likely heard Calhoun’s MGM Records single (same label as Hank Williams and Sheb Wooley) of the theme tune for 1957’s Flight to Hong — which a friend of mine used to own (I once held it in my hands, as if it were a cache of gold dust). This same friend, I might add, saw Calhoun in Delmer Daves’s The Red House in 1947 and was so intrigued that he was later inspired to give his firstborn “Rory” as a middle name.

But I digress. All oddball casting amusements aside, this amusing 1961 sprawler’s other claim to fame is its status as the first directing credit of Sergio Leone (he had already served as a replacement director on the earlier Last Days of Pompeii)  — though from an autuerist angle, there isn’t a whole lot of future trademark stuff to be gleaned, other than lots of detail in the 2.35:1 image, decent actor blocking and no reticence to let the running time hit 128 minutes. In other words, there’s not much of that crazy Leone framing where something is happening on both the upper left and bottom right of the frame simultaneously, which in the early days of broadcast or VHS made pan-and-scanners seek medical help (preferably a doctor who specialized in bleeding patients).

The plot? — oh, yeah, the plot. We’re in Rhodes, 280 BC, as Jack Webb might have said in an opening voiceover. Greek war hero Calhoun (call me Darios) is visiting his uncle during a dedication of a humungous Apollo statue — the movie’s most impressive feature and in the ballpark of memorability with that towering Talos in Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts, which would hit theaters a couple years later. The structure has nooks within, scads of steps so that the hearty can reach the top (though even some of the male specimens here might get winded negotiating them) and such little extras as a device that shoots hot lead on enemy soldiers who are trying to scale it. Some of these doused assailants in the later battle scenes react as if they’ve just been hit with asteroids.

Such fortification is needed for the king (Serse) because he’s taking it from everybody, and like all those doughy despots from the sword-sandals genre (think of both Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov playing Nero), he suggests the kid in Bad Santa after he grew up. A key subordinate would like to take over the crown, and as if this weren’t enough, the island’s slaves are none too happy that this Apollo was built with the expendable labor of cheap talent, much as the slaves also put forth for the constructing that giant Pyramid in Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharoahs (a much maligned blockbuster that, like Martin Scorsese, I like a whole big bunch). In Vegas, the Sands announcer always introduced Dean Martin as appearing “direct from the bar,” but the entire male supporting cast here must have been “direct from the weight room.” These guys look as if Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds are going to show up any minute from Athena to feel their muscles (and that at least some of them likely won’t care one way or another).

If you wait long enough through the runny Eastman Color with which Warner Archive has wrestled, lots of buildings and structures made with painted styrofoam (or whatever they used) take a tumble during what I assume to be God’s Wrath. To get there — and, again, the movie is never less than a ticklish time-killer — there’s more time than usual watching Rory/Dalios trying to get under the pristine white garb of Lea (as Diala), though it isn’t always easy to read her mind. It’s good to see that Rory’s rascal-ish nature as an actor (can his intentions be entirely trusted?) was pliable enough to serve even a day at the gym like this one. Thanks to a bonus commentary by (Leone biographer) Christopher Frayling that hits just the right balance between film/historical scholarship and droll humor, we learn that Calhoun’s rather odd way of standing here was an attempt to cover up the tattoos he’d gotten back in his pre-Hollywood days when he served serious some time for some wayward-youthy hot-car follies. This obfuscation was no small deal because the deluxe gatefold Decca LP of the soundtrack to Spartacus had contained a serious art study of Kirk Douglas’s vaccination scar.

The friend who loved The Red House Calhoun in The Red House was taken by that very good melodrama’s nominal punk character who was still easy to like on screen. I myself became a fan after catching a late 1954 first-run screening of an easily above-average Universal Western, Four Guns to the Border, directed by an actor (Richard Carlson) who just months before had been moonlighting on screen battling the Creature from the Black Lagoon (who’ll rate a Blu-ray boxed set late next month, BTW). With its Region 2 DVD release to remind me, I still remember Rory and Colleen Miller out in Border’s lantern-lit barn getting sweaty during a rainstorm against a backdrop of hay — doing what folks do until they’re interrupted by her irate father (Walter Brennan), who’s not there to sing “Hello, Young Lovers” or to see if this is where he’d earlier dropped his store-bought teeth.

Calhoun’s following fell off after the preponderance of TV Westerns killed the market for at least the more modest of their big-screen counterparts, and after his CBS series (“The Texan”) ended its run — though apparently at the actor’s own request — he must have figured it was time to don the Greek Look. The actor’s greatest public moment of the ’60s was unquestionably his divorce from actress Lita Baron, who sued him on the grounds of adultery with 79 different women (a figure he said was low-balled). In addition to solidifying my fandom forever, this then topical episode captured the imagination of staffers at the hometown CBS affiliate where I worked during high school and college. One 60-ish guy on the floor crew who’d seen it all was also full of admiration. “If I were old Rory,” he noted to me as part of his mentoring role, I’d walk up to the bench and say, “Judge — I’m guilty as hell.”

Mike’s Picks: ‘Let’s Make Love’ and ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’

2 Weeks in Another Town

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Kirk Douglas, Edward G. Robinson, Cyd Charisse, George Hamilton.

Adapted from a novel by Irwin Shaw, whose before-and-after work fared better on screens both big and small, 1962’s 2 Weeks in Another Town is somewhat more fascinating than it seemed at the time, though only in a few instances for the right reasons. An inside-the-movie-biz yarn full of big-ticket talent and overhead-eating locations, it’s a structural mess with compensations for stripes-earned movie junkies — not the smoke-blowers who claim to be (while on the way to catch the latest Dwayne Johnson). You can see why Town is a cult movie, why some French critics loved it and why I’m always tickled to take a fresh look. Though Peter Bogdanovich allegedly preferring it to La Dolce Vita is a loaf of cheese bread too far.

This is, after all, Vincente Minnelli and cinematographer Milton Krasner feasting on a few CinemaScope/Metrocolor morsels left over from the black-and-white Fellini masterpiece — a hybrid of old-school MGM and the already emerged European cinema of jet-set orgies, the kind of potboiler best appreciated by those who feel tears welling up at the word “Cinecitta.” It opens with lead Kirk Douglas studying the nuances of his sanitarium’s shuffleboard court after experiencing a crack-up somewhat similar to the one he’d have in seven years later in Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement — another over-the-top melodrama but a pretty true one if you’ve read Kazan’s autobiography (which you should, anyway).

Douglas plays a long washed-up actor between assignments, shall we say, but he gets emergency beckoning from Rome to aid a director and longtime associate (Edward G. Robinson) he simultaneously loves and hates. Formerly industry royalty who’s now hanging on in Italy and reduced to working for a no-talent who could be a Roman cousin of the crude producer Warren Stevens plays in The Barefoot Contessa, Robinson is laboring futilely on a love story (bring on the gondola) that actually would be more profitable were it not released and written off as a tax loss. He says he needs Douglas for a small acting role, but the real reason soon involves more of an artistic (if that’s the word) assist than that. So the sanitarium springs him.

Naturally, there are women, including a temperamental actress played by Rossana Schiaffino, another of those Italian starlets movie guys of my generation grew up with (see also Giovanna Ralli, Luciana Paluzzi and so on). Robinson’s spouse is even more trouble with whiplashing mood swings his own behavior has engendered, but al least that’s his (not Douglas’) problem. The casting in this role of Claire Trevor, an actress I always liked, rekindles some of the tension from John Huston’s Key Largo, when hood Eddie G.’s badgering of Trevor’s boozy chanteuse to sing Moanin’ Low to a captive half-dozen and her abject humiliation got the actress a supporting Oscar. Douglas’s angst-buster from most of this is a too-good-to-believe male fantasy played by Jewish Daliah Lavi (say, how’d she get here?), but he has serious competition from a hotheaded young actor with self-destructive tendencies (George Hamilton, and let’s not even go there — though the actor had shown definite promise in what was already seeing like a long two years ago in Minnelli’s Home from the Hill).

So, why, exactly, does Douglas need to be saved from shuffleboard and a whole lot more? Well, there’s an ex-wife played by Cyd Charisse — as always, a stunner of a chill pill here — but she doesn’t get to do much but scream during one of Minnelli’s oft-described “bizarre sequences” (this one in a car) or languish on a bed like one of the models from the opening credits of the director’s underrated Bells Are Ringing in the kind of pricey nightwear that Scott Pruitt would have probably expensed. Then again, what did Charisse have to work with? I’m as put off as much as any one by the kind of Neo-feminist film criticism that, say, criticizes The Great Escape or Two Years Before the Mast for not having enough women characters, but the ones here are underwritten enough to put off even the Rat Pack.

It’s tough to figure out if these problems were already in the screenplay by then personally troubled Charles Schnee or by mandated butchering of Leo the Lion dolce vita by the still existent and anti-sex Production Code at a time when its death rattle was still less thunderous than it deserved to be (and would soon become). What the Code didn’t do, Margaret Booth’s overly revered editing department likely did by imposing MGM’s patented “directorial vision flattener” (it’s been said that Peckinpah had a lot of problems with Booth around the same time when he was cutting Ride the High Country).

All this said, I do have a kind of soft spot (or maybe soft head) for these goings-on: the highly stylized decor and widescreen blocking (much less so, the performances) do offer a look-back at a time when movie co-productions and overseas dollars first became significant industry factors. If Douglas is only routinely commanding, Robinson is flawless (when was he not?), and there’s one remarkable scene between him and Trevor where a brutal argument of Edward Albee Virginia Woolf intensity later dissolves into a teary about-face (for a while) that does offers insight into a really twisted marriage. There should have been more of this.

Town has picked up a lot of eye rolls for bravely but perhaps foolishly including a clip from 1952’s much more successful The Bad and the Beautiful during a Rome screening-room scene — one presented here as a past Douglas-Robinson success when they’re hungry to “recall” their salad days. This has to be one of the cheekier examples of self-referential cinema on record — though the two movies do kind of bookend each other in ways that make it fun to see them in tandem. One is about old-style Hollywood, the other about the emerging new, and both share Minnelli, Douglas, Schnee, producer John Houseman and composer David Raksin.

But whereas B&B is a trash classic, it’s a trash classic that won five Oscars out of six nominations. Town isn’t a classic of any kind, other than maybe one of red ink — and this was at a time when this was the last thing waning Minnelli and MGM needed after the truly coffers-busting needless revamp of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (nothing like being in touch with your era’s zeitgeist). This said, Town is a beautiful-looking movie to watch on a big-screen TV, re-establishing that Warner Archive will always go the extra mile to show off the standout virtue that a mass of gloss like this does have.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Curse of the Cat People’ and ‘2 Weeks in Another Town’

Gun Crazy

 BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars John Dall, Peggy Cummins.

Paul Schrader, who should know, wrote an essay decades ago listing 10 or so titles that defined film noir, and the ‘B’-with-better-than-‘B’ talent initially known as Deadly Is the Female ended up making the cut. Yet even on the modest grindhouse level, the ultimately retitled Gun Crazy didn’t perpetuate the turning of many box office turnstiles, which is kind of surprising given how punchy and innovative so much of it is.

It doesn’t take much clairvoyance to speculate that this is a movie likely admired by author James Ellroy — who, most appropriately, leads off an hour-plus “what is noir?” doc that’s included on this pristine Blu-ray edition and carried over from a great previously released Warner Entertainment DVD box set devoted to the genre. L.A. Confidential’s source author has his own definition of noir, which is a little more brass-tacks basic than Schrader’s. It has to do with those women who give you the best sex of your life and then end up {insert the predictable Ellroy verb} in the other way as well. Think of the fatalistic Detour syndrome, even if it’s kind of tough to imagine Ann Savage’s character in that dime store classic offering much in a filmy negligee. Spiked heels, maybe.

As one of two married Midwest stickup practitioners whose prolific work habits eventually clog up the region’s APB transmissions, Brit blonde Peggy Cummins plays Crazy’s deadly female half, though she seems more mentally unbalanced than all-out evil. Or at least she does until later in the game, when her self-proclaimed perpetual “nervousness” when pulling off jobs unleashes a previously submerged violent streak — to say nothing of her willingness to use a child as a shield against pursuing authorities while on the lam with her husband. As “DVD Savant” Glenn Erickson notes on the commentary, their official vow-taking was obviously mandated by film censors of the day because living in sin was worse than bumping off victims during armed robberies.

Cummins’ better half (and he is) is played as a child by Russ Tamblyn when he was still billed as Rusty and then by John Dall. The latter is best known these days as the half of the murdering duo in Hitchcock’s Rope who isn’t Farley Granger — though you can also see also see him being smarmy-and-a-half as Laurence Olivier’s guest in the pricey seats (the kind the Steinbrenner family would have at Yankees games) to watch Kirk Douglas battle Woody Strode to the death in the Spartacus arena. Despite this screen history, Dall is a rather sweet guy here: irresistibly drawn to guns but exclusively for their tactile features and not out of any any desire to harm people. Thus, when he meets Cummins as part of her target-shooting job in a carnival, he likely figures that her own attraction to “heat” must be purely recreational as well.

As miscalculations go — though make no mistake, these two really love each other, which may be all he more twisted — this lapse of judgment has to rank with convincing yourself that you’ll be set for life after one last job, despite the fact that you splurge for furs and hit the nightclubs every time you pull a big score. A lot of Gun Crazy’s reputation rests on the superb point-of-view feel to a couple robbery scenes in particular: its influences on Bonnie and Clyde that were even noted in the late ’60s by in-the-knows. I was surprised to learn on Erickson’s commentary that director Joseph H. Lewis had a 30-day shooting schedule — not the kind of time, to be sure, that gave David Lean his countless hours to “wait for the light” but maybe enough for a resourceful ‘B’ director like Lewis to give far more shots than not a novel angle.

Like the breakthrough Dillinger, which to this day gets a surprising number of comely women to “go” for the real life Lawrence (Rap Sheet) Tierney, Gun Crazy was produced by the King Brothers — who were so penny-pinching that I even heard the late humorist Art Buchwald (who was once a friendly  acquaintance) make an out-of-the-blue wisecrack about them. But the Kings weren’t above hiring Blacklisted writers at a fraction of their cost, which is how the non-existent Robert Rich (“fronting” for Dalton Trumbo) later got a writing Oscar for The Brave One, which ended up becoming a preliminary step in breaking HUAC’s hold on the industry.

In Crazy’s case, it’s Millard Kaufman fronting for Trumbo (sharing credit with MacKinlay Kantor, who wrote the source short story) to further class up a melodrama that already had Victor Young score and Russell Harlan behind the camera. I’m always amazed how a lot of the great cinematographers often hopscotched between big productions and small ones (Harlan, a Howard Hawks favorite, had shot Red River just two years earlier). And also that he later pulled off Oscar nominations for black-and-white and color work in the same year, 1962: To Kill a Mockingbird and Hatari!

The Blu-ray is quite a showcase for Harlan’s abilities on a tight budget, and I’m not just talking about camera movements. We don’t often see a ‘B’-movie — or, if you like here, “shaky ‘A’” — getting major-scale high-def treatment, and there are shots here of rain puddles during a nightclub chase scene and of a listening brook that almost made me blink with their clarity and element of surprise. It really makes me wonder what the new 4K version of Detour can possibly look like — a joint effort of worldwide archives way beyond the imagination of the ’40s Hollywood establishment for a movie that probably hasn’t looked all that good since the time I was spitting up on my crib bumpers.

Like a lot of talented working directors who didn’t have their projects handed to them on a platter, Lewis had a spotty career. A lot of people love My Name Is Julia Ross from 1945 and some of his other postwar Columbia’s, though my No. 1 choice has to be 1955’s The Big Combo, complete with its gay henchmen and what Jonathan Demme once volunteered as having the “first cunnilingus scene in American movies” when I expressed my love of the film after spotting a VHS copy in his office. (I suspect this is technically true, unless there are some ancient Stroheim outtakes floating around the MGM archives).

Despite a marked disparity between its best scenes (many) and clunky or merely functional ones (just a few), Gun Crazy would be a clear No. 2 on my Lewis list — one of the achievements that does indeed define film noir, as well as a presumed show-up on just about anyone’s standout movies from 1950 (and it was a very fine year). Great job, Warner.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Gun Crazy’ and ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’

While the City Sleeps

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, Ida Lupino, George Sanders, Vincent Price, John Barrymore Jr.

Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps was the first movie I ever saw by a director in Andrew Sarris’ Pantheon who wasn’t named John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock, though Lang was getting along by 1956, and in fact made only one subsequent American movie. That would be the same year’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, which Warner Archive is concurrently releasing on Blu-ray as well — though I’ve never liked it as much as Sleeps by a long shot, even if it’s much preferable to the somewhat refashioned Michael Douglas-Amber Tamblyn remake that deservedly went direct to video. Out of a cannon.

I first caught the Sleeps trailer right after I’d turned 9 and knew that this was a movie for me: A greasy serial killer (John Barrymore Jr.) strangles women in their New York apartments and leaves taunting clues after his crime, the most revealing of which is his writing of “Ask Mother” on the wall of the first victim we see. Because I was visiting my grandparents at the time, it was easier to feign it 400 Blows or Day for Night flashback style that I was running off to catch a kiddie matinee — when, in fact, the bill was Sleeps and a British RKO ‘B’ (The Brain Machine), which also looked and sounded essential formative years material.

Sleep was a new kind of movie for me, and after this, Disney kids’ stuff like, say, The Littlest Outlaw just wasn’t going to cut it. Lang’s wall-to-wall tawdriness also served as my first newspaper movie, pretty sure — and even more of one than it was a serial killer melodrama because there’s still 15 or so minutes of narrative to go after the killer is caught. As my first look at big-city journalism (aside from watching Walter Winchell bark on TV), I was impressed by how much everyone in the picture drank. There’s even a drunk scene here by real-life alcoholic lead Dana Andrews to compound the 80-proof ambience, though this is subtext I wouldn’t have appreciated at the time.

Even at a reasonable 99 minutes, Sleeps gets ground down by a clunky boilerplate romance between Pulitzer-winning print newshound/TV commentator Andrews and co-worker Sally Forrest — though it isn’t exactly without interest that he basically would end up using his pert girlfriend as bait for the killer. But at its best, this is a fitfully entertaining portrayal of corporate backstabbing in the kind of burgeoning media complex that gets bonus points for anticipating today’s conglomerates — one of multiple components that made Lang’s cheapie with name (sometimes fading-name) cast a little ahead of it time.

Another of these is the narrative’s prevailing luridness despite a screenplay by the normally tasteful Casey Robinson (here adapting a Charles Einstein novel) — with blatant adultery, imbibings and mildly graphic killings that would be far more common just a couple years later on screen yet here results in a surprisingly randy movie for 1956. Another is its grabber of an extended pre-credits sequence, which was something still fairly rare in the days when Robert Aldrich (whose early films almost always had them) had only a handful of big-screen credits to his name. There’s also a mild hint that broadcast news might be the division that inherited the Earth when it came to journalistic corporate bucks. And though it opened in May 1956 — in the same five-day period that also saw the launches of The Searchers and The Man Who Knew Too Much; you think movies are better today? — someone here was topically savvy enough to make Barrymore’s hood-ish killer resemble Elvis (though Gene Vincent would be an even closer comparison).

So here’s the deal. When the conglomerate’s aged founder dies — his makeshift hospital bed is actually in the office just yards from reporters’ typewriters and Andrews’ broadcast studio — his useless son (Vincent Price, perfect casting) has to take a few hours away from his polo ponies and actually try to run the joint. His solution is to create a new top-dog position and set up a cutthroat competition to get it; the candidates are an old-school print type played by Thomas Mitchell with more ink in his veins than even the internal booze that flowed through his tributaries in Stagecoach); wire service chief George Sanders; and photographer James Craig, who gets kind of sweaty every time he sees Rhonda Fleming (so did my dad). She plays Price’s wife, and it turns out the two are having an affair, even though Craig and Price are nominal buddies. It doesn’t on the face of it sound like a durable long-term strategy with which to land the gig.

Less of a factor here in these machinations is Andrews, who’s more preoccupied with catching the killer with the aid of an old cop buddy (Howard Duff) and also getting Forrest into the sack — the latter a tough order in ’50s Hollywood (the movie wasn’t that advanced). This situation is a point of consternation with Ida Lupino (she plays what newspaper pics used to call a “sob sister’), who comes off as not just enamored with Andrews but so man-hungry that you can almost imagine her taking up with Barrymore were he something more than a drugstore delivery boy who lives at home with … well, mother.

Too many of the scenes are flat, and the office settings are closer to Ed Wood than Trump Enterprises in their drabness, but every once in a while Lang comes up with a shot or full scene that crackles. The opening set-up is very punchy, and there’s a visual that I never forgot from my childhood: Fleming doing stretching exercises behind an opaque portable barrier that suggests a nude state — and then continuing the process while standing in a circle of sand that’s a) either supposed to give her bare feet the feel of the beach; or b) serve as a practice sand trap for Price’s indoor golf putting (you sense that out on the links, most of his Titleists likely end up in one).

The printing source here seems uneven, which means that Sleeps in high-def isn’t as snappy-looking as other Warner Archive Blu-rays, though it’s at minimum a cut above the old Image laserdisc, Warner DVD and even (if memory serves) a 35mm print I ran at the AFI Theater. To compound the casting amusements here, Barrymore’s not quite doddering mother (who dressed him as a girl during childhood) is played by D.W. Griffith star Mae Marsh, who had a long post-silent career in small roles for John Ford (a lot) and others. The segue from The Birth of a Nation to being cast as the mother of a psychopathic Elvis knockoff in the ’50s isn’t one I’d have predicted — but then, who would have anticipated Sylvia Sidney ending up with Tim Burton for Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks!, ack! ack!?

Mike’s Picks: ‘While the City Sleeps’ and ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’

Mike’s Picks: ‘While the City Sleeps’ and ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’

While the City Sleeps

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, Ida Lupino, George Sanders, Vincent Price, John Barrymore Jr.
1956. Even at a reasonable 99 minutes, Fritz Lang’s newspaper crime drama While the City Sleeps gets ground down by a clunky boilerplate romance between Pulitzer-winning print newshound/TV commentator Dana Andrews and co-worker Sally Forrest — though it isn’t exactly without interest that he basically would end up using his pert girlfriend as bait for a greasy serial killer who strangles women in their New York apartments.
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Don’t Bother to Knock

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Richard Widmark, Marilyn Monroe, Anne Bancroft, Elisa Cook Jr.
1952. Filmed on three or four simple sets and clocking in at just 76 minutes, Don’t Bother to Knock is an unusual movie for Marilyn Monroe to have made just as she was on the brink of superstardom.
Extras: Julie Kirgo provides another of her well-researched Twilight Time essays.
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The Hanging Tree

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Western;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Ben Piazza, Karl Malden, George C. Scott. 

Gary Cooper made three more movies after The Hanging Tree before his death in the spring of 1961, but due to varied limitations in terms of conception and/or execution, none of them seem like the “real” Gary Cooper movie that this oddball 1959 Western (filmed in Yakima, Wash., but set in Cooper’s real-life home state of Montana) absolutely does. For some strange reason known only to my sometimes equally oddball-ish thought processes, I thought of this movie while watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — for no obvious reason. Other than the fact, that is, that the tones of both couldn’t care less about adhering to any established norms of their respective genres on the way to establishing tones of their own, which are highly eccentric. In other words, each is borderline unique.

Though based on a novel by Dorothy M. Johnson, who wrote the short story on which The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was based, Tree also brings to mind a second Ford-Wayne masterpiece: The Searchers. Not in quality, to be sure — but due to the fact that this is another Technicolor superstar Warner Bros. Western from roughly the same movie era where nearly everyone in it ranges from being a little “tetched” to downright crazy. Notably, this off-center lineup doesn’t include Cooper’s character himself, who is stalwart and above it all; in fact, if you ever want to see what totally commanding superstardom was, here’s as good a place to begin as any. This said, the poker-loving physician Cooper plays has a rumored deep, dark secret in his past: something involving a not unintentional house fire that killed a man and woman — an event not explained at all until the end and even then with a key detail or two missing. One senses that it was traumatic enough to knock any involved survivor of it permanently off kilter, but Cooper is doing his best to stay above it all.

Meanwhile, there’s George C. Scott playing a phony frontier religious fanatic (think about it) in his big screen debut. There’s also Karl Malden, in a performance that’s broad even for him in those times when his directors let go of the reins, as a salacious creep whose underwear probably hasn’t been changed since the Crusades — which must make it pretty tough on Doc Cooper when he has to lance a boil on Malden’s behind (think: A Streetcar Named Retch). Cast as a near-lynching victim who’s blackmailed into indentured servitude after Cooper saves him, Ben Piazza (who was mostly relegated to TV after his movie debut here as well) has an acting style that seems more out of a subsequent century — though he still halfway fits in, given this crazy company. And co-lead Maria Schell, who always seemed fairly normal on screen other than her tendency to turn on her sunbeam smile too much, plays a character whose demons are built-in by the script. She’s been left badly sunburned and blinded (for a while, anyway) after barely escaping from a stagecoach robbery in which every other passenger was killed. Malden takes advantage by sneaking looks at her in stages of undress, which suggests Donald Trump’s braggadocio over walking in on Miss Teen USA contestants during costume changes. (Trump, you have to believe, probably has at least two boils.)

Cooper tries to take the high road by treating Schell’s burns and laboring to restore her sight, but the town crone (Jack Webb/“Dragnet” favorite Virginia Gregg) assumes the worst about the village newcomer’s necessary residence in the doctor’s shack — a rather strange target, given the fair abundance of gold-town prostitutes around who aren’t exactly trying to disguise their trade. And indeed, this makeshift burg does have gold fever, which is driving the supporting cast as loopy as the principals — enough, even, to make Scott’s preacher smell money, though one never gets the sense that he’s ever undergone any valid spiritual calling at any point in his life. Today, he’d be on some Sunday morning cable show hawking his new DVD for the temporary low price of $2,495, throwing in a 4-by-6 black-and-white of Charlton Heston (from The Pigeon That Took Rome because he got a bulk deal from the retailer) if you order now.

Tree was last in a cycle of really good Delmer Daves Westerns from the middle and late ’50s, and a wonderful live June 8, 1958, edition of Dave Garroway’s “Wide Wide World” (which aired in NBC’s Sunday afternoon TV ghetto; I saw it at the time) shows him directing Cooper out and around the doctor’s shack in a location that’s somewhere between hilly and mountainous. (Findable on DVD if you’re wearing a miner’s cap, the show also featured Wayne, Ford, Gene Autry, Walter Brennan and more — even The Great Train Robbery’s real-life tenderfoot Broncho Billy Anderson, who’d been a long time between gigs but had just gotten a special Oscar a couple months earlier.) The somewhat underrated Daves, at least until the very end, was about to undergo a massive career switch following the coming Christmas’s smash hit of A Summer Place, launching a series of soapers that half-promoted teenaged sex as long as it was with Troy Donahue.

Cooper’s man-in-black look here is one of the coolest I’ve seen, and it points up how much costuming that we don’t even think about can have such a potent effect on character and drama. The actor was probably sick by this time (cancer), but it doesn’t show to my eye, and I love that we have both this film and the even better Man of The West from so close to the end of his line. Even penny-pinching Jack Warner (see Alan K. Rode’s massive but panther-paced new Michael Curtiz bio for countless examples) had bailed on dribbly Warner Color by this time, so Tree was Technicolor (and on the higher side of that). The cinematographer was Ted McCord, who never seems to have gotten the due he deserves, though he shot Johnny Belinda, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, East of Eden and The Sound of Music.

For extra cosmetics, Marty Robbins gets the movie off to a great start by singing the Oscar-nominated title tune over the credits (it only got to Billboard No. 38 but deserved better). It’s also featured on the classic Hell Bent for Leather LP (I bought it in 1961, upon release), whose front jacket features Frankie Laine in a gun-belt. Truth to tell, Frankie was as much of a tenderfoot as Broncho Billy, but he looked the part and even once appeared in a “Rawhide” episode that I saw at the time. Though judging from how Clint Eastwood talked to the trees in Paint Your Wagon, Laine must not have given the show’s co-star any successful tips on how to song-belt.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Hanging Tree’ and ‘Steve McQueen: American Icon’

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Hanging Tree’ and ‘Steve McQueen: American Icon’

The Hanging Tree 

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Western, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Ben Piazza, Karl Malden, George C. Scott.
1959.
Gary Cooper made three more movies after The Hanging Tree before his death in the spring of 1961, but due to varied limitations in terms of conception and/or execution, none of them seem like the “real” Gary Cooper movie that this oddball 1959 Western absolutely does.
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Steve McQueen: American Icon

Universal, Documentary, B.O. $1.23 million, $19.98 DVD, NR.
2017. A significant part of this feature-length limited theatrical release deals with a key part of Steve McQueen’s life that never gets a whole lot of attention: his conversion to active Christianity at the very end of his days during his final rejection of the Hollywood rat race.
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